Recently we had the double pleasure of interviewing Frank Owen. A.K.A. writing duo Diane Awerbuck and Alex Latimer. Read their #WriterWednesday interviews here and here.
Here's a taste of the what a creepy pleasure it is to read their new novel, South.
The place smelt like old milk. Had they been keeping animals here? Cows or goats, maybe? At the front of the church a group of people was collected – some sitting in the remaining pews, some standing at the windows, grateful to have some high ground they could look out from. Ester was sitting down – of course she was, thought Vida. Beside her in a row were three other women, and at first Dyce and Vida thought they were sisters. There was an uncanny paleness about them all, and they sat uncommonly still as the two travelers approached.
Not sisters, Vida decided. But with some weary sickness that was taking them the same way, like shaving a man’s head made anyone look like a criminal.
Across from the row of women was a family of three, two parents and a little boy of about five, Dyce guessed. The mother was thin as vapor, and all of them had the sweats. As they watched, she wiped the boy’s forehead with a green rag. She looked up and caught Dyce and Vida watching them, and tried to smile. You’re going to have to do better than that, lady, thought Dyce. You look nowhere near healthy enough to get into The Mouth. It was the look of an injured animal. When he and Garrett had seen that look on a bird or a rabbit, they ended up crushing its head with a stone, or whacking it with a stick behind the skull. There were some kinds of suffering that had to be brought to an end.
Dyce and Vida both tightened their masks, and the woman set her rag down. It was a raggedy T-shirt, Dyce saw. It looked like it had one of the Mister Men on it. He bet it would say MR HAPPY. The boy had not been able to travel without it, but now he was past caring. And he bet that when the boy gave up and died – and it was going to happen sooner rather than later – that mother would hold on to the rag even when it was making her sicker.
Dyce and Vida made their way to one of the last pews still bolted down, moving around a lone man sitting on the floor as they went. He was a white guy, middle aged, the grey creeping into his hair almost as they watched. He was quiet but he was rocking, gently, the way someone who had loved him long ago might have done in the night, and he was weeping.
‘Looks like he didn’t get the memo about traveling alone,’ said Vida.
‘No harm in trying your luck, right?’
It seemed weird to be talking in church. They sat down, keeping their masks in place, waiting in silence as though the service would begin and a holy man would appear to tell them to turn to page sixty-four and sing verses two and three of ‘Jerusalem’.
Ester was whispering to the women in her pew. Vida thought, I am keeping an eye on you, sister. She had looked into Ester’s face and seen only calculation, a single-minded meanness that made her more afraid than any spoken threat. It was the same look she had seen in the narrowed eyes of Tye Callahan.
The girl had made up her mind. She handed her cushion baby to the next girl over, and got up. Vida nudged Dyce. ‘Look who’s coming to visit with us.’
Ester sat down beside them. ‘Guess I owe you an apology.’
Vida shrugged. Dyce looked away. She could hear him breathing angrily through the cloth.
‘So I’m sorry about what I said outside,’ Ester was saying. God, she’s just a kid! Vida thought. ‘I was just trying to look after my own. Got to take care of the folks traveling with me, you know? No hard feelings, I hope.’
‘Rock-hard feelings,’ Dyce replied.
Vida looked at him, shocked. She hadn’t known mild-mannered Dyce to ever lash out; that was Garrett’s job. Ester had really got to him. Now the girl looked miserable. Vida felt herself feeling a little sorry for her.
‘Look, whether any of us make it into The Mouth or not – I’ve got something I want to show you. Something quite valuable if you’re interested.’
‘Kind of thing I’d trade for a gun if you have, or for a book, maybe – depending on the book.’
Up close her skin was dry and her breath stank, even through the mask – even in a world punctuated with diarrhea and vomit. There was something marine about it, a seaweedy tang that made him think of dead sailors, of the octopus pulsing in its lair. He shifted away.
‘What is it?’ asked Vida, intrigued. It might be some dumb-ass crystal, or some locket that a brain virus had convinced her could cure baldness, that kind of shit.
Ester reached inside her slack dress and brought out a small glass vial. She held it out to them so that the others couldn’t see. No one was paying them any attention, anyway.
The vial was filled with a yellow liquid, like pus. Vida pulled her hand back.
‘Hey now! What is that?’
‘Colostrum! And it’s fresh!’
Ester had their full attention.
Vida knew what it was. She just couldn’t believe it.
Dyce was unsure.
‘The first milk that a mother makes for a baby,’ Ester said. Her face was gathering color as she spoke: it was clearly an issue close to her shriveled heart. ‘It’s full of antibodies. They fight infection, you know. It can give you immunity against the viruses, even! It’s, it’s, the water of life!’
‘Ester. Where did you get that? Is it from a human?’
‘My sister, Julia. The one on the left.’
Dyce and Vida looked across the pews at the pale women. Julia was the one holding the cushion. Vida could see, now that she was looking carefully, that two of them were carrying: they had grapefruit-sized lumps in their guts.
But Julia’s stomach was flat, though her chest was stained with tell-tale leaks that had dried and stiffened. As they watched, a patch appeared over her left breast and spread, darkening the cloth. She jiggled the cushion and muttered something into its cloth ear.
Vida’s mind kept trying to connect the dots that appeared and disappeared like the little white lights you saw when you passed out.
This is the same girl who came to our house. The one who sent my ma to the armchair for a good long time.
Dyce was asking, ‘But where’s the baby? Did it die?’
Ester shook her head. ‘No baby. Not anymore.’
Vida held Dyce’s arm and squeezed.
‘She’s using them, Dyce. Like cows. She’s farming their colostrum.’
South is published by Corvus Books and is available at all good book shops.