WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant & Forever
On our island, everyone – human and alpaca alike – wants to be a writer. The standard greeting is not ‘How are you?’ but ‘What are you working on?’
On our island, everyone knows everyone. If you sneeze, ten people offer you a tissue, one prays for your soul, six laugh as though they’ve never sneezed in their lives, five secretly hope it’s the sign of a serious, perhaps fatal, ailment and thirteen people know it’s a cold and who you caught it from. A small island is a sad, safe, familiar, nurturing place. I grew up wanting to murder everyone with loving-kindness.
On our island, the air always tastes of salt, as though a person, you, has just stopped crying. The wind hurls rain showers around and it hasn’t snowed here for years.
You can’t survive life on a small island if you don’t have friends. Mine are Macy and Archie.
Macy Starfield works alongside me, scrubbing scummy plates and charcoaled pans in a rancid hotel kitchen.
Archie is an alpaca.
One night we were in the Lucky Golden Eel (‘Don’t go to other restaurants to be poisoned or cheated come HERE’), eating MSG with some food stuck to it. The Lucky Golden Ee,
as we call it for short, is the third best of the island’s three Chinese restaurants, but we’re tired of the others, or they’re tired of us, who can remember.
Archie swallowed some crispy calamari with grass sauce, made a face. ‘Ugh. I wish they’d just serve grass with a grass sauce like I asked for. Why’d they need to fancy it up?’ He’s the greatest author alpacahood has ever had, which is a big deal for someone from such an oppressed species.
Archie wiped his mouth with a grass-stained napkin and smiled, though in fact through a quirk of jaw genetics he always looks like he’s smiling. ‘This week I’m going to start a new catchphrase. Get it trending.’
‘How,’ I said, ‘do you make it popular – the catchphrase, I mean?’ but at the same time as I asked that, Macy said, still chewing, ‘What’s the catchphrase?’ and I’m one of those people in life who is always overridden in simultaneous conversation so Archie cleared his throat and said, ‘It’s like a jazz thing you don’t get.’
Macy and I exchanged looks. ‘That’ll never catch on,’ said Macy.
Archie shook his head and offered Macy some rice. ‘You’re wrong. It’s got the cool jazz thing – jazz itself has two Zs, the grooviest letter in the alphabet. And plus it’s versatile. Listen.’ He started acting out scenarios while Macy and I chowed down on some juicy prince prawns and pilau rice. ‘“Hey, I read Ulysses. It’s so boring I gave up.” “No, man. Ulysses is genius – it’s just a jazz thing you don’t get.” “Dude, I’m totally going to marry a supermodel.” “Nuh-uh. A supermodel’s a jazz thing you don’t get.” “I watched a Family Guy episode and didn’t laugh once.” “Only cos it’s a jazz thing you don’t get.”’
‘Ain’t gonna work,’ I said, and took a huge drink of iced water because my mouth tasted like the seafloor but not in a good way. Archie’s eyes looked sad though his mouth was grinning and there’s nothing like a crestfallen alpaca so I added, ‘But, hey, good on you. Give it a red-hot go. It’s a dodo egg’s age since I heard a new catchphrase. I’ll drop it into conversation this week, if, y’know, I have any conversations.’
‘I appreciate that, man,’ said Archie. We fist/hoof bumped.
‘Even though I do get jazz,’ I added. It was the wrong thing to say because it gloomed out Archie again and because it isn’t true. I like jazz – Dave Brubeck, Lady Day, Gary Burton – but I don’t get it. Jazz sends vivid colours streaming through my ears, is all, and that’s enough.
‘Who’s your money on for the Brilliant & Forever?’ asked Archie.
Everyone bristled at the mention. We all loved each other – hugs, support, doing things you don’t like doing for the sake of your friends’ happiness – but we were all undeniably involved, implicated, in the Brilliant & Forever.
The B&F is an annual literary competition by which reputations are made and writers unmade. It takes place on the Castle Green, a gentle verdant slope in front of the island’s castle, and is the cultural highlight of the year.
• Kevin MacNeil is an award-winning writer from the Outer Hebrides now living in London. His third novel, The Brilliant & Forever, is published next week by Polygon, price £9.99