Common Ground is the debut novel by UEA alumna Naomi Ishiguro and is published by Tinder Press on 25 March 2021. This is an extract from the first chapter:
Goshawk Common, Newford, Surrey. Not the most remark- able expanse of open country, scrubby grass and tumbling hillside in the south of England, just as Newford probably wasn’t the most remarkable town. Still, the common had its charm, especially on those early autumn afternoons when the heathland came to life with crispness and with colour, and when rabbits dodged through tufts of grass while thrushes, robins and blackbirds sang in the trees beyond.
It was on an afternoon like this that thirteen-year-old Stanley Gower rode his bike down Aldershot Road and along Goshawk Road, before turning off the tarmac and on to the grass of the common. He was pedalling fast, now. Maybe faster even than he’d ever pedalled before. Onwards he careered, a dart veering straight into the heart of the quiet, rustling peace of the heath, the wheels of his Falcon Stealth thundering over the terrain in such a way that even if he’d been cycling with his eyes closed – like in that Roald Dahl story, for instance, about the man who could see without his eyes – he’d have been able to tell that his wheels were rattling over grass and stones now, that he was away from the town completely.
He was free here. A free man. Or a free bird, even, because really why should he have to be a man – a boy – a human at all? He’d much rather be a bird, then he could fly around all day. And how weird and cool the world must look from above. Although probably the birds were used to it and wouldn’t think of it as weird or cool at all. Probably they’d think the way we see things from down here as we walk and run and cycle around is weird and cool. But his eyes were watering again a little now, tears escaping in spite of himself, making his broken, sticky-tape-mended glasses slip down his nose. Probably it was the cold air doing it, or because he was moving so fast. Probably that was definitely it. He blinked the tears away, anyway, trying not to think about it all too much because that was all done for the day, wasn’t it? That was all over till tomorrow, now that he’d arrived finally in this place where there were huge skies, and woods, and already fallen autumn leaves – now that he was here on the common, where no one cared that his school uniform was second-hand and didn’t fit properly, where he could finally be left alone. And look! There was even a rabbit, there, hopping up ahead, along the path in front of the Falcon Stealth’s thick wheels. Be careful, little rabbit! This world is harsh and merciless and it’ll give you no warning at all, that’s for certain, and you won’t last long in it if you keep jumping out into the paths of zooming bikes.
On gentle, sloping ground now, Stanley coasted forward on his own momentum, steering round the rabbit – good luck, little guy! May you do a better job of looking after yourself than I have! – and then he was pedalling again, faster, switching back up the gears to give himself some resistance, something tangible to push against. And he was flying onward again now, over the grass and into the sunset- streaked sky up ahead, all the colours melting a bit since his eyes were running properly now in spite of his blinking, sending his glasses slipping down his nose again, the glasses he’d thought Mum would be so angry to see broken but which she hadn’t mentioned at all when she’d picked him up from school earlier – a not mentioning which somehow, instead of making things easier, had only made everything feel even worse.
And then there came an unhealthy clicking sound from the Falcon Stealth, and the feeling of something slipping out from under his feet, and suddenly the free-soaring falcon was faltering – his bike chain was slipping off, and his pedals were spinning and he was just a thirteen-year-old human boy again, wobbling on a stupid second-hand bike that couldn’t seem to make it more than ten minutes down the road without the stupid chain messing up.
Stanley braked, climbed off, laid the Falcon on its side in the grass and tried his best to force the chain back into place. Except bloody hell it was stiff and not going on like it usually would. He’d told Mum he’d sit quietly at home and read and eat the Hula Hoops she’d given him while she napped, and now there was bike oil all over his fingers and over his jeans where he’d wiped his stupid hands without thinking and now he would arrive back home in a mess with a broken bike – which she’d assume he’d broken today, seeing as he hadn’t told her the chain had been all messed up from the beginning. He wasn’t quite sure why he hadn’t told her. Just that the Falcon had been a birthday present from her, and some instinct had told him not to ruin everything by mentioning it at the time.
And of course he’d be late back, too, no doubt. She only ever slept for half an hour, forty minutes maximum if she was very tired, and she was working the night shift tonight, wasn’t she? So most likely she’d be awake in ten minutes from now at the latest, and home was more than ten minutes’ walk away, meaning that he’d have no time to get there and clean up and hide the stupid bike before she saw it. He’d have to turn up all covered in oil, having ruined his jeans probably, and now his fingers hurt too from trying and failing to fix it as well as the rest of him from all that in the playground earlier, and it really wasn’t his day, he wished he lived in Narnia, in Hogwarts, in anywhere but Newford – and then to top it all off here was another rabbit now, stopped still and staring at him. What is it you want, little guy? I’m kneeling, just kneeling here, in the grass. Is that allowed? Or is this your particular favourite patch of grass I’m kneeling on? Would you rather I moved?
But the rabbit’s head twitched, its eyes flicked to some- thing behind Stanley, and then it turned on its tail and bounded away, just as he became aware of the sound of another bike coming up behind him, a less rusty bike from the sounds of it, a much smoother ride – how could it be that his bike was simultaneously so oily and so rusty? And then Stanley turned to the sound of brakes and there was an older boy there, wearing a motorcycle jacket with all these patches and things. And he had sunglasses on too, this older boy, and greased-back hair and earphones in that Stanley could hear were blasting loud, tinny music, and Stanley couldn’t even identify what type of bike he had at all because it had been spray-painted black and green – probably by this older boy himself, judging by the messiness of the paintwork. But how much older was this boy really? He seemed eighteen, seventeen maybe . . . except that then he raised his sunglasses, pushing them back on the top of his head, and Stanley started to think he was maybe a little younger than that. The boy tugged out his earphones, reached into his jacket pocket, pulled out a shiny Discman, and paused his music.
‘You alright, mate?’ he said, stowing the Discman and earphones carefully away again and frowning at Stanley like he was some strange curiosity found lying by the side of the road – which in a way, he was. ‘You always talk to rabbits? What happened to your glasses?’
Of course – of course this older boy would laugh at him. That same old nasty prickling feeling started up behind Stanley’s eyes again, and as he opened his mouth to say something, he found he’d lost all ability to summon and to order words. It was all just like at school, and yet a feeling that was so alien to being out here on Goshawk Common, where he was used to being free, permitted to come and go unharmed, unpicked on.
‘Chill out, mate,’ said the older boy, jumping off his bike now, setting it down in the grass next to Stanley’s. ‘I was just asking.’
His accent wasn’t quite like other people’s round here, Stanley noticed then. There was something else in it that conjured somewhere different, far away, outside and far beyond the little world of Newford. Somewhere, maybe, that reminded him a little of Coronation Street.
‘I’m Charlie, by the way,’ said this older boy. ‘D’you need a hand?’