Spotlight on: Mint by S.R. Wilsher
From the publisher: It’s the summer of 1976, and after nine years in prison, James Minter is home to bury his mother. A history of depression and a series of personal issues has seen her death ruled as suicide. His refusal to accept that conclusion means he must confront his violent stepfather, deal with the gangster who wants his mother’s shop and, of course, face the family of the boy he killed.
ARC provided by Rachel’s Random Resources
Excerpt from Mint
The shop is all so familiar. This place I should have called home, yet only ever thought of as a place to return to. The address where my mother and half-siblings lived. Never home, more an approximation. I’m not connected to it like I imagine others are theirs. I hadn’t been safe here, nor welcome. My mother had been too controlled by her husband, and Sam too in his thrall. Lara had kept me here. All the time, I’d felt like the small bird being pushed from the nest by the bullying interloper. While he’d called me the cuckoo.
I restock the fridge with some milk and butter from the nearby shop and put the bread and cereal on the worktop. I open a new jar of coffee and put the kettle on.
Outside, I hear the whine of heavy machinery starting up, and the contact of whirring metal on stone.
I leave the kitchen and go out into the back yard, through the gate and into the alleyway running along the back of the houses before entering the yard of the Mason’s next door.
Along one side, slabs of rough-cut granite lean against the high wall, while black marble and white marble are stocked horizontally, kept apart by thick wood battens. A corrugated plastic roof built off the garden wall opposite the stacked stone extends over the yard, shielding the work bench and tools and bench-saw from the elements.
White dust fills the air, billows fussily around the head of a man in a grubby blacksmith’s apron, safety goggles, and blue facemask, who’s guiding a huge slab of white stone along a bench and through a whirling rotary saw. Water sprays onto the slab and throws globules of wet white dust onto the floor. The saw reaches the end of the cut and, as the slab breaks free, he presses a red button on the wall and the machine shuts off.
The man notices me but doesn’t pause to invite me to speak, or offer to himself.
“I’m Abigail’s son,” I say, when the whine of the slowing blade ends. The dust has reached me and the air clears slowly with little breeze to disrupt it.
The man pulls the mask free. Dust has turned his thick black hair grey and clogged the deep lines of a weathered face. Years of wrangling stone slabs has built a powerful upper body with square shoulders, and large hands that hang at the end of strong forearms.
“I know who you are. I have to make the noise. Can’t work without it. That’s the last of the cutting,” he offers, as if there’s one purpose for my visit. “Your mother didn’t mind the noise, it soothed her.”
“I’m not here about the noise.”
“She liked the idea of hearing there were other people about.”
My mother had once admitted her weakness to me. ‘I don’t like being on my own, and I don’t like the company of women much. Which means I’m vulnerable to the attention of men. And women like her see only the baser reasons for that’. It had been her explanation for why Mrs Ayles had called her a harlot.
“Thought I should introduce myself, tell you I’ll be living in the shop while I’m here. In case you see the lights on.”
“None of my business.”
We face each other with our exhausted chitchat, whilst sensing there should be more.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” says the Mason, in the unpractised way of a man who doesn’t express emotion.
“I hear you found her?”
“How come it was you?”
The Mason frowns, as if the answer has a multiplicity of paths for him to choose and he’s afraid he might opt for one it will be impossible to find his way back from.
“You mother and I…” He stops, already regretting the path taken. There is no way back. “We were friends.”
“Since I arrived. More so after George moved out. Not before,” he adds, as if it might be important to me. “We were neighbours, so we’ve always talked. After George left, I used to go in and watch some TV with her in the evenings. She didn’t like being alone, certainly not since all you children have grown.” He stops talking abruptly, in the way of a man who’s aware he’s over explaining.
“Did George know?”
“He didn’t need to. Our relationship wasn’t improper. It was perfectly respectable.”
“I suspect George would see it differently.”
“I’m not afraid of him.” It’s a jarring boast, stuck into the conversation like a lone weed in a flowerbed. “We watched TV, that’s all.”
I don’t challenge his statement; can’t know if it’s truth or lie. It means little if it had amounted to more than his claim. My mother had been free to live the life she chose. But what had this reticent man talked to her about? Or had she talked and he simply listened. It struck me as the likely scenario of a relationship between them if sex wasn’t involved.
I catch movement in the right rear quarter of the image in front of me. A yellow flash through the doorway, and a slender woman wearing a sunny shirt tucked into jeans, bare ankles with flat shoes, and short brown hair hitched behind one ear, comes out.
“Dad, dinner’s ready,” she declares, before turning to me. “Hello,” she says shyly, and steps forward to offer her hand.
I’m struck by the contradiction of the diffidence set against the confidence of instigating a handshake. The skin is dry and the hand firm.
“Mint,” I say, and feel stupid, as if it’s a meaningless bark of a word. “Jimmy Minter,” I explain.
“Beth. Elizabeth Green.” She mimics my awkward delivery and smiles.
I’m not sure if she’s mocking me, or sympathising with me. I’ve spent nine years apart from women and I’m like a man who’s forgotten how to walk in a straight line. The need to leave overwhelms me, her presence making me feel unwelcome.
“Anyway, I’d better go. If your dinner’s ready.” I recall a long-forgotten line from the manual of social interaction. “It’s nice to meet you.”
Their eyes are on my back as I leave the way I came, and I’m in the shop before I remember my unasked questions. I want to return, need to get to the end of that particular conversation. I battle with the pull of curiosity and the contra-tug of my self-consciousness.
I’ll go back tomorrow, when my sudden retreat has faded from their minds.