ONCE UPON A THOUSAND HILLS

Here is the blurb of my latest novel, followed by a taster of the first few pages.

Naomi Lieberman is young, feisty, and desperately looking for meaning in life. Despite having a degree in forensic science, she works as a sales assistant at a sex shop in Soho. This is but one of the many guilty secrets that she hides from her Orthodox Jewish family in Liverpool, not to mention her childhood sweetheart, Ephraim. The fact that her old school rival is doing so well for herself doesn’t help matters …

John Paul Chambers is arrogant, aloof, and trying to free himself from the emotional curse of the genocide in Rwanda that orphaned him twenty years earlier. Despite his inauspicious beginnings, he has moved up in the world and now juggles the positions of Head of English at a private college, and Volunteer Manager of a London refugee centre – which happens to be in need of another volunteer.

When Naomi sees an advert for the position, she is convinced that this is just what she needs to fill in the missing part of her life. She applies for the job immediately.

But when John Paul interviews his flighty and irritating applicant, neither he nor Naomi has the slightest idea that their lives are about to change forever.

 

PROLOGUE

Kigali, Rwanda, April 1994

The boy couldn’t breathe. At first he thought it was a feverish dream. One of those dreams where you want to run but your legs have become lead, or you want to gasp for air but your lungs have turned liquid. And then he understood why he couldn’t breathe. Something was pressed against his mouth, preventing the passage of air. He tried to move the obstruction, but to do so he had to free his hands from other obstructions. Warm, slippery-soft obstructions that smelt peculiar. Salty.

It was an arm that was pressed against his mouth. His mother’s arm. And next to it, lots of other tangled bodies and parts of bodies and torn clothes and hair and sweat … and blood. So much blood, he wanted to retch.

It all came back to him. Better not to come back, but memory is a cruel automaton. So it came back to him, without mercy, just like them. And with the return of memory, an urgent desire to escape his bloodied, tangled hell, and breathe oxygen rather than blood.

He freed himself from his mother’s arm and several other still-warm limbs from school friends and relatives and neighbours who had been running and screaming and wailing in a helter-skelter of frenzied panic not so long ago. But now all was silence. All was death.

Except him. He wasn’t dreaming, and he wasn’t dead. He had to get out. He had to hold his breath, close his eyes, heave himself out of the pile of bodies and run for his life before they came back. Because they would come back. He knew that. They came back to check if there were any survivors and dispose of them.

He screwed up his eyes, raised his legs, and gave an almighty push forwards, freeing himself from the mound of death.

He was the only survivor. He could see that now, as he crouched on the floor beside the pile of corpses. His mother’s body was at the top, next to where he himself had lain. The gingham dress that his father had bought for her last birthday was pushed up to her waist, revealing shreds of bloodied underwear. There would no longer be any innocence.

He looked away, and then saw his father’s body. And his sister’s, and his two brothers.

He stood alone on the floor, next to the corpses, amid the grand, hallowed space of the school hall where they had thought themselves safe. Here they were, all dead, and here he was, the only survivor. He felt nothing. Just the blood on his face and head. He had been cut. That’s when he must have lost consciousness, and they thought him dead.

And then he heard them. Again. The distant voices, gaining in volume; the laughter, the shouting, the bursts into patriotic Hutu songs, and the whistle.

It was the whistle that did it. The whistle meant for them get to work, and for him, death by machete. Unless he acted fast. No time for fear, despair, panic … he had to act now, play the most skilful role of his life, far better than any childhood make-believe game he had ever taken part in. He had to climb back onto the pile of bodies, wrap his mother’s arm round his face once again, close his eyes, play dead.

His eyes darted from the door to the corpses as he heard the killers storm the school building, their leader still blowing his whistle.

*   *   *

Kigali, Rwanda, April 2014

Tweets

naomi lieberman @NaomiLieberman … 2s

@PaulKagame I urgently need to contact John Paul Chambers. I know he’s somewhere in Rwanda. Please, Your Excellency, help me find him!

 

NAOMI

Chapter One

Soho, London, one year earlier

It all began in a sex shop.

At six o’clock in the evening of Friday, 22nd February, I was just about to leave Sugar Lace and head back to Finchley to join the Blumenbergs for Shabbat dinner. And then Mr Hossein walked into the shop.

He strode across the dimly lit room and slapped one of our Ready-Made Massage Kits onto the counter. It’s a brilliant deal, this kit; a boxed set that includes lubes, gels, a mini-vibrator thrown in for fun, and a special candle that turns into scented oil as it melts, so that it can be poured straight onto one’s skin ready for the massage – and all for the unbeatable price of £19.99. He certainly wouldn’t find a better deal anywhere else in Soho!

“How can I help you, sir?” I asked cheerily, but he averted his eyes. He often does that, as though wrestling with the shameful prospect of making optical contact with a sex shop worker.

He stood still for a good five, maybe six seconds. The wall clock above the serving counter ticked away. For want of something to do while waiting for him to enlighten me, I started flicking through the pages of The Liverpool Jewish Chronicle that lay on the counter in front of me. Mum keeps sending me the damn thing, month after month. I haven’t got the heart to tell her that I’m simply not into all that Judaistic stuff anymore. Not since I swapped the home hearth of Liverpool for the bedazzling lights of London six and a half years ago. But there you are. There’s a soft heart for you. Always gets you in a pickle, prodding you to do dutiful things you don’t want to do, and not do naughty things you do want to do. But I do them anyway. The naughty things, I mean.

At last my reticent customer scratched his ear and announced, “I have a problem.”

“Oh?” I looked up at him, with a smile, as always. “Perhaps I can help?”

“I sincerely hope so.”

“Well, that’s what I’m here for, sir.” No matter what they say, keep smiling! That’s Fred’s motto.

“Good.” I should add that Mr Hossein is one of our regular customers. He comes in roughly once a month and stocks up on a large number of latex items which I assume can’t all be for his own use, so my guess is that he transports them to various corners of the earth where they are not readily available.

As he still did not deign to elaborate on his problem, I flicked some more through the Jewish rag. And then widened my eyes in alarm.

The sweet, heart-shaped face of Dinah Bloch gazed up at me from the glossy middle page.

I stared at her. I mean at the picture. What was she doing in a magazine? As in Dinah of the gooey brown eyes that made her look like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. (A phrase I’ve inherited from Mum.) I hadn’t thought about Dinah Bloch in years and years, and here she was, radiating that same, do-goody aura of unconditional obedience. The teachers at King David’s were always falling for her obsequious charm. They never fell for my charm, possibly on account of it never being obsequious. I just came out with whatever entered my head. And still do.

The rasp of Mr Hossein’s cough snapped me back to attention.

Drawing his oily-black brows together, he looked at me as though I were a naughty schoolgirl who ought to be chastised. (We offer a large selection of implements at Sugar Lace for such activities.)

“I bought ten sets of these Massage Kits last month,” he began, “and I have received a number of complaints. There is a problem with the … mini-vibrator.” At this point he lowered his angle of vision, thereby continuing his discourse with the counter that separated his world from mine. “The batteries do not last long enough.”

Well then maybe your users take too long! I wanted to shout at him, but merely said, “Oh, I see.” And then, unable to stop myself, I glanced back down at the article.

Dinah Bloch, former pupil of King David School, has kept herself busy since graduating in Theology from Manchester University. Unable to find a suitable job after receiving her MA two years ago, she decided to fill her time doing ‘things that make a difference’.

“So, unless this can be fixed, I should like a full refund.”

“Of course, sir.”

“When you graduate from university, you just assume that the next step in your life’s journey will be securing a job,” Dinah explained from the elegant living room of her newly built apartment overlooking Liverpool Docks. “No one prepares you for how hard it’ll be.”

“It just isn’t good enough. When you buy something from a shop, you don’t expect to have to deal with such irritating malfunctions.”

I nodded at him. “Absolutely. I couldn’t agree more.”

Soft-spoken Dinah went on to elaborate how she decided to try her hand at volunteer work rather than sitting at home trawling the job vacancies and getting more frustrated by the day. “It was the best thing I ever did,” she added with a modest smile. “Not just for the disadvantaged people I was helping, but also for myself. I’ve never looked back since.”

Excuse me, madam, but are you listening to anything I’m saying?”

I jumped back to my senses and slapped the offending pages closed. “Oh – yes, of course. Sorry. You said you have a problem.”

“I said unless the problem can be fixed, I’d like an immediate refund.”

“Right. Well, I shall have to speak to the manager about that. I’m afraid I can’t make such decisions by myself.”

Before he had the chance to respond, his mobile phone juddered from some invisible location upon his person. Frowning, he dug the sleek black contraption out of his pocket and mumbled, “Excuse me.”

While he proceeded to jabber away in cryptic vowels and syllables, I re-opened the magazine and skimmed forward to the last couple of paragraphs of the article.

Miss Bloch spent the next eighteen months working as a volunteer in nursing homes, orphanages and crisis centres across the North West of England. Her untiring efforts led to her winning the distinguished title of “Volunteer of the Year”. She was subsequently headhunted by the ‘Adelstein Centre for Challenge to Youth’, and now acts in an ambassadorial role which involves travelling across the country, giving speeches to people of all ages who feel the need to help others. To reiterate the remarkable young woman’s own words, she ‘has never looked back since.’

For several moments I stood in rigor mortis, stiff as a prick. (I thought that one up during a particularly boring English lesson with Mr Goldstein, way back in the halcyon days of school.)

Dinah Bloch … how could it be? How could she have deserved such success? I mean, come on, working as an ambassador? And here am I, working for Fred at the kind of place Dinah and her cronies would never dream of setting foot. It wasn’t fair! I did better than her in my exams – a fact which apparently still shocks the King David school community to this day. And yet there she is, working in … in whatever poncey place it is, having her two-page spread in the Liverpool Jewish Chronicle, winning Volunteer of the Year, when all she did was boring things like go to school pageants instead of discos, and swot instead of dance, and hand in essays instead of smuggle rude limericks under the desks …

Dinah Bloody Bloch.

As a matter of interest, the name Dinah means ‘judgement’ in old Hebrew. As in: Thou shalt be judged! The name Naomi, on the other hand, means ‘goodness on all levels’. So surely I should have been the one to reach such altruistic heights, not her?

With an explosive valediction, Mr Hossein stuffed his mobile back into his pocket and returned his intense gaze upon me. “So. When can you speak to him?”

“Sorry?”

“The manager. When can you speak to him?”

“Oh. Now, hopefully.” I glanced over my shoulder in the direction of Fred’s office, tucked into the murky nether-regions of the shop. Was he still there? Or had he nipped out via the back door to buy me a snack for my journey home, even though I keep telling him there’s barely room to breathe in the tube at six o’clock on a Friday evening, let alone eat?

“One moment, please.” I turned round and headed for the thick velvet curtain that hid the door to Fred’s hideaway.

“Please be quick. I assume this request will not be too mentally exhausting for you?”

I stopped. And turned back round. No longer smiling. How dare he stand there belittling me! Did he honestly think it was my childhood dream to endure eight hours a day within four walls that are crammed to belching point with vibrators, lubricants, rabbits, handcuffs, Tuxedo Bunny outfits, Bedside Nurses and lascivious lingerie?

“Sir,” I said tightly. “It might surprise you to know that I have a Master’s degree from University College London. The reason I happen to be in my current line of employment is because I spent half a year looking for a job in my field, to no avail. Not all sex shop assistants are brainless Barbie dolls, you know.”

He stared at me in horror.

And suddenly, Gran’s dear old face loomed in my mind’s eye. It was a face that had been etched by overlapping years of brutality, survival, release, a new world and, at last, love, when she met Grandad in the local Jewish community just after the Second World War. She had been a refugee, arriving in Merseyside at the age of fifteen without a word of English. I never asked her what that was like, being a stranger in a strange land. I’d always been more interested in the gory details of how she’d survived wartime Poland, rather than her arrival in England.

And now … thinking of all that Gran had gone through back then, and the bigoted attitude of this customer, and Dinah Bloch’s mega-sensational achievements – I mean, I’ve also helped people in need – there were times in my sixth form days when I’d give all my pocket money to that poor old homeless man who used to sit on the pavement outside Tesco’s, but I didn’t get any Caring for the Homeless award, did I, because no one even knew about it – yet now, thinking of how unfair life can be, I just sort of … I don’t know. I just crumpled deep inside.

And that was it.

That was the moment it occurred to me that my life was meaningless. That all my years of training as a forensic anthropologist – all my ambitions to work on a UN mission in some war-torn part of the world, helping to piece together and identify the bones of victims dug out of mass graves – had come to this: dealing with a dissatisfied customer in a Soho sex shop, and being overtaken by a former school rival in Liverpool. What about all that promise, right from birth? All those genes, all those clusters of chromosomes, those coils of DNA, all that pre-programmed intelligence and talent, when at the end of the day it amounted to nothing?

Without another word, I turned my back on my speechless customer and headed for Fred’s office.

My life had turned into a meaningless bowl of gruel, and unless I did something about it pretty quick, there wouldn’t be much point in continuing.

So I resolved to do something about it pretty quick.

 

 

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