Language Paper 1 – This isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like you, 2012

Jon McGregor’s collection of short stories presents people whose lives take extraordinary and unexpected turns. In this extract from In Winter The Sky, George tries to get on with his life and his marriage but is constantly haunted by a shocking event in his past.

Jon-McGregor-007In the evenings he often spent time in the barn, fixing things. She would spend that time walking backwards and forwards from the house to the barn, offering to help, and having that help warmly but firmly rejected. He was unable to admit, even now, that she was better than he was at mechanical jobs: repair, maintenance, improvised alteration and the like. Her father had been a mechanic. It was natural that she would have an ability in that area. But still, he found it difficult to accept.


At the same time, he found it difficult to have sufficient patience with, or tolerance of, the writing she did. She had only ever called it writing: he was the one who used the word ‘poems’. But whenever he said it – ‘poems’ – it was with an affected air, as if the pretension was hers. So, for example, he might come crashing in from the barn late one afternoon, with his boots on, and say Would you just leave your bloody poems alone for one minute and help me get the seed-drill loaded up? There were five other places he could have put the bloody in that sentence, but he chose to put it there, next to ‘poems’. This is an example, she would tell him, if he was interested, of what placement could do.


hqdefaultOnce, he says, he saw a man metal-detecting in that field. He was driving past and saw a car parked on the verge, a faint line of footprints leading out across the soil. The light was clear and strong, and the man in the field was no more than a silhouette. He sat in his car, watching. Twice he saw the man stoop to the ground and dig with a small shovel. Twice he saw him stand and kick the earth back into place, and continue his steady sweeping with the metal detector. He wanted to go and tell him to stop, but there was no good reason for doing so. It wasn’t his land. The man would surely have asked permission, and anyway he was doing no damage so soon after harvest.


He wondered what the man thought he was going to find, he says. He had a sudden feeling of inevitability; that this would be the moment when the body was found, the moment when everything could be made right. He thought about going to fetch Joanna, so she could be there to see it as well.


this-isnt-the-sort-of-thing-that-happens-to-someone-like-youHe’d been living like this for years, it would seem, lurching between a trembling silence and a barely withheld confessional urge. When he thought about it later, he realised there was no reason why a man with a metal detector should find a body. But that kind of logical thought seemed to crumble in the face of these moments.


He got out of the car, and waited. The man in the field looked up at George, and George looked down at him. Ready. The man packed his tools into a bag and began hurrying back to his car, stumbling slightly across the low stubble.


Did you find anything? George asked.


No, the man said, nothing. And he got in his car and drove away.