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Book extract: The Same Country by Carole Burns

24 Sep 2023 6 minute read
The Same Country by Carole Burns is published by Legend Press

We are pleased to publish an extract from Cardiff-based Carole Burns’ debut novel, The Same Country, in which three old friends find themselves back in their American hometown.

Carole Burns

On my first morning back in Newfield, I drove to Aggie’s old house again, drawn like a woman to her secret lover’s grave, as if this were the sole purpose of returning to live in my hometown. It was Joe who compelled me to go – not Aggie – Joe who appeared to me that morning as just a flash, my waking dream, his face wavering near mine as I stirred, closer to me than he ever was in life.

I heard him, next, as I made coffee alone, his voice rumbling into the still-empty rooms of my still-empty condo, disappearing into my gasp. Why had I thought Aggie might haunt me here? Aggie wasn’t dead. 

And now he was sitting next to me in my car and talking, talking as I drove down the leafy streets of Newfield, passing old haunts – the Palace movie theatre, the Friendly’s where we used to linger for hours – before turning to head toward Aggie’s.

The houses became smaller, older, closer to the road as we approached the Bridgeton city line, yet I barely noticed with Joe beside me, animated, though I couldn’t hear him this time, the same way I couldn’t remember what we all talked about twenty years ago at late-night diners, at our lockers, on Aggie’s back porch no matter the time or weather, night after night that I couldn’t remember.

And maybe that’s why his words weren’t coming through, just his lips moving, his head nodding and tilting, his quick smile between words, his swerving shoulders as he swivelled to glance at Aggie then back at me, though Aggie wasn’t there either. 

We were just a few blocks away from the house. So quick! This clutch of streets that led from our little town of Newfield to the more urban Bridgeton had seemed to me like an entrance to another world, back then.

I passed her road in hope of first finding the feminist bookstore and café where we’d sometimes browse the shelves and sip lattes like we were college students, or, across the street, the tiny gallery that once held an exhibition of portraits made from old radio parts – art, we learned.

I braced myself for this world – once so alluring, so sophisticated – to look small, dowdy. This was just Connecticut after all. I crossed the city line into Bridgeton. 

The neighborhood had changed drastically. Lawns were untended, houses had not been painted in years, the blinds and curtains in windows were tattered and faded. Here was the Connecticut divide, sharper than I’d remembered. The shell of a car lay strewn in rusting pieces in someone’s yard. At a light, I spotted the short block of shops where the Readers Feast used to be. It was now a pizza joint. The gallery? A “checks cashed” store.

A couple of teenage boys swaggered by in high tops and baseball caps worn backwards and looked my way as if I didn’t belong. Rich and poor, this divide. Also white and Black. I knew, of course, that Obama now being president wouldn’t alter this new/old reality. So why was I surprised? The light changed and I avoided the boys’ gaze as I pulled into the old gallery’s parking lot to turn around and head back to Aggie’s. “But I used to live here!” I said to no one, to Joe, though it wasn’t even true. 

And Joe had disappeared. 

I took a left at the next corner and parked outside Aggie’s old house. How many times as a teenager had I pulled in to pick her up, or drop her off, or stay for dinner with her magical parents in that once-magical world where, if there wasn’t school the next day, I’d spend the night and practically the entire weekend?

If I was expecting to find some clue about what happened that night more than twenty years ago, I would be disappointed. Nothing was the same. The stone steps that made a wiggly line from the street to the front door – Mr. Whitcombe’s doing, not his more conservative wife’s – were cracked and overrun with weeds.

The wraparound porch was empty of the wicker patio chairs where we used to sit playing rummy 500 and listening to REM or some indie band Aggie had discovered. Just the chair swing remained, its vinyl cushions ripped, the foam yellowed and mildewed. 

I stepped out of the car and stood at the edge of the yard, as if I was going to walk up the stone path and knock on the door as I had so often in high school that I couldn’t possibly count the times, and then again, in vain, on at least a dozen days in the weeks after Joe died, determined to gain admittance once more, to see Aggie. 

But I was shut out then, as I was shut out now. It looked like a place I’d never been – like I’d never opened its blue colonial door, never eaten at its table off the huge, ramshackle kitchen, never slept in its rooms with their wood floors and curtains thick as tapestries, never looked out its windows on to the street where I was now mutely standing, staring back at myself from twenty years ago.

Of course that world was gone – I’d known that for years – but no one else had taken our place. No other girls, white or Black, were flinging their schoolbooks on the porch so they could flop into the chair swing on the first warm day of spring.

To see it so abandoned almost implied that it had never existed at all, that the promise that we felt in our young lives, Aggie’s and Joe’s and Jess’s and mine, had been an empty promise, that such a world never could exist. That was worse than our lives being destroyed. 

As if Joe had died yet again. 

The Same Country by Carole Burns is published by Legend Press.  It is available from all good bookshops.

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