The JRB presents an excerpt from Exposure, the new novel from Louis Greenberg.
Read the excerpt:
The falling man appeared out of nowhere, in the middle of the air, right before Petra’s eyes.
Not for long, because then he was at her feet, crumpled on hands and knees. Time slowed, stilled. It was like a dream. She knew she should move—either leap back from this large shape that was about to send her sprawling to the cold, damp pavement; or, a moment later, when she realised it was a human man, and that he had finished hurtling, that she should reach down and help him up. But the instant stayed frozen for an uncounted time, lost to the world, as if her life was telling her to take note of this moment.
A loose black knitted beanie, the back of a honey-yellow jacket with a sheepskin lining at the neckline, dusty jeans and black work boots. A pair of old men had stopped across the road and were looking at them, and she imagined the scene through their eyes—a man supplicating, a woman staring down at him like some sort of pharaoh queen. On Brook Street at lunchtime on a cold, clear Tuesday in February.
‘Sorry. Are you okay?’ It was him talking, him apologising, when it should be her.
The man pushed himself up on his hands and knees, and finally Petra forced herself to move.
‘Jeez, are you alright? I’m just standing here like a …’ She squatted down and tentatively went for his waist to try and help him up, but her tote bag slipped from her shoulder and she didn’t know if she should touch him without his permission. A hesitance she’d picked up in England.
He had soft eyes in a gentle face, the skin of his forehead slightly care-weathered, Petra fancied; a trim beard with a bit of salt in it. He could be anything between thirty and late forties. Petra forced herself to snap out of her stare again—this wasn’t the way she normally behaved, but there was something about this man that spoke of deep things, like home, familiarity, and love, and acceptance. In his eyes, she felt she didn’t have to choose a pose. If he could just keep looking at her like that, with those kind and open eyes, then she’d know that she belonged. She spent a lot of time later trying to understand this sense. Some people might call it love at first sight.
By this time, he had stood up and was gingerly swivelling his neck, crackling his spine back into place. On his right knee his jeans were ripped, but she didn’t know whether they had been before the fall. Because that’s what it had been, she now realised, piecing together the evidence of the fully extended metal ladder propped against the wall beside them, leading up to an open sash window on the first floor. A large canvas sack, heavy with something angular, was swinging by one handle from the top of the ladder.
‘What happened? What were you doing?’
‘Stupid,’ he said, brushing himself off. ‘I thought it would be easier to lower the stuff out the window than go all the way round the stairs. I was leaning too far out the window and I was distracted. I thought I saw someone … The rope slipped and I couldn’t let go and …’
He stopped talking as he turned his attention to Petra. He scanned her down, then up again, frowning. ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’
‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘I would have …’ She tried to stuff the words back in her mouth but failed. ‘ …remembered.’ She was blushing, she was sure. It felt hot in her clothes. She lowered her eyes and saw blood drooling from the muddy graze at his knee. ‘Oh, God—you’re bleeding. You’d better sort that out.’
He followed her gaze and waved it off. ‘Ah, it’s nothing. I’ll wash it off inside.’
‘Can I help you?’
‘Uh, I’ll be alright.’ He smiled. ‘Thanks.’ He bent and picked up her bag and offered it to her.
‘Okay. If you’re sure.’
He nodded and disappeared through the house’s red front door.
Petra stood watching the closed red door for a minute, as if it was going to do something remarkable. It was an English door, like you see on TV—a heavy, panelled and bevelled townhouse door—but it was freshly lacquered in good-luck red. At first glance the knocker set in its middle was like the others on this gentrified terrace of Victorian solid-brick abodes, but Petra noticed that it wasn’t a stylised lion or bull holding the iron ring in its mouth, but a mean-looking goat-horned imp—Pan, maybe. It looked at her, grinning, and she looked back until a man hurried past along the pavement towards town and Petra started to move off, not wanting to look like she was loitering.
For a moment she’d forgotten where she was going. Oh, right—to the MyHealth to check in on her mother. But now, jolted off her path, the idea of a surprise visit to her mother before a scheduled routine day procedure seemed odd and invasive—much the same as a surprise drop-in to her changing room or gynae appointment.
Just after Petra had finished university here, her father had died, and they’d agreed that Helena should come to England to be closer to her only child ‘in case anything happened’. Rod, her father, had been an Englishman—a Staffordshire mining engineer deployed to the Witwatersrand goldfields in the seventies—and they had all the requisite documents. At first Petra worried about the effect Helena’s arrival would have on her social life, but she needn’t have. Helena had always been able to look after herself, and made friends easily. Helena didn’t seem to need Petra’s looking-after—in fact, she didn’t need much of anything from her.
There were only twenty-five minutes left of her lunch break. Suki wouldn’t care if she was late back, of course, but Petra would. Keeping her dignity and sticking to her contracted hours in that mercy job was akin to a depressive getting dressed every morning—proving she still had some purpose in the grander scheme of things. The problem was, reality often didn’t match her expectations. She was self-aware enough to know she tended to drift through everyday life with her mind in a soft fantasy of what things should be: work, love, duty, fairness, belonging. Her fancy was far more compelling than mundane reality—she liked to hope, she liked to feel worthwhile, she liked to feel needed; she liked to wait for inspiration, which didn’t hit her all that often. This tendency to impracticality, she knew, didn’t make her a prime candidate for a career in anything. Bless Suki—she’d saved Petra from post-arts-degree destitution, and Petra wasn’t going to abuse her kindness.
Twenty-five minutes, now twenty-four, may not be enough to visit her mother, but it was enough to do something impetuous. She spun on her heel and strode back to Brook Street. At the red door, she tried to lift the knocker, but it was welded down, ornamental. An electronic keypad on the left side of the frame spoke subtly of the modern world. Before thinking too much, Petra pressed the buzzer button at the bottom and heard it sound loudly in the hall. A few heavy clatters and a volley of hammering answered her. No footsteps.
Come to think of it, the falling man hadn’t keyed in as far as she could remember. On the replay, he had swept inside, away from her, without a pause. She pushed at the door—and it swung open.
- Louis Greenberg is a Johannesburg-bred author, editor, tutor and designer. He was a bookseller for several years, and has a Master’s degree in vampire fiction and a doctorate in post-religious apocalyptic fiction. His first novel was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and he’s also the author of Green Valley and Exposure. As SL Grey, he co-wrote occasionally bestselling horror fiction with Sarah Lotz, including The Mall and The Apartment, which has been translated into over fifteen languages. He is a fan of art, food, puzzles, games, music, photography and travel. He lives in the middle of England.
In an alternate Britain, an immersive theatre like no other unravels a mystery from beyond the grave. Perfect for fans of Black Mirror.
In a Britain akin to this one, Vincent Rice falls off a ladder, literally at Petra Orff’s feet. They introduce themselves, and immigrant Petra senses a kindred spirit in Vincent’s complex sense of home. He offers to take her to Metamuse, an alternative theatre experience like no other that he won tickets to in a competition he doesn’t remember entering.
The first show leaves them besotted with each other; the second is far more disturbing. Inexplicable occurrences pile on top of one another, all connected to the mysterious Metamuse. Only Petra can see the web of sinister coincidences surrounding them both and, with injustices both past and present weighing on her mind, she begins to wonder if Metamuse is more than just a show …