The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins is a brutal and beautiful novel set during the English winter of 1962. It begins when seventeen-year-old Radford is sent to Goodwin Manor, a home for boys who have been ‘found by trouble.’ Drawn immediately to the charismatic West, Radford soon discovers that each one of the boys has something to hide.
It is a haunting debut novel about growing up, growing wild and what it takes to survive.
The Everlasting Sunday by Robert Lukins
There are things more miraculous than love. Given the right motivation common water may, for instance, turn itself to solid ice. In the first hours of a Boxing Day this wonder of the sky was spoiling the blanket of sleeping Britain while a boy and his uncle left a London home.
The uncle at his steering wheel, the boy attending to the windscreen’s fog with his rag, they found a cautious route out of the dark city. Darting flakes and the road’s new white were caught by headlights without commentary. The uncle kept at his wheel, the boy at his rag, and slowed by the greasy tarmac they arrived at the motorway just as daylight began to prove the magic of all that common water having become ice.
The uncle gave the boy a grim smile as their eye-lines crossed, the man’s chin decorated with squares of bloodied toilet paper from his pre-dawn shave. The boy turned at the noise of his suitcase sliding about the back seat: through the rear window he saw the city effecting a cowardly retreat.
If this all had to happen, he thought, let it do so without delay. A consoling strategy formed, that it would be wonderfully childish if he were able to endure the full journey without speaking a word.
‘Will be slow-going,’ the uncle said, squinting as he drove them towards the climbing sun.
It was two o’clock when an advertisement painted against a brick wall broke the news that they’d crossed a county line into Shropshire. It was then an hour of constricting slush roads before they made the beginnings of a small village, where the uncle abandoned his map. He discarded it to the boy, who made no greater sense of its yellow and black veins and lonely red-penned cross.
The uncle pointed – ‘Here’ – and mimed for the window to be lowered.
They jerked to a halt by a black church in whose shadow a woman pulled a trolley along the roadside. Her coat collar and headscarf conspired into a woven helmet and it took three impassioned excuse mes from the uncle to earn her attention. When she looked up at last to locate the source of her walk’s interruption she revealed a face that was not nearly as aged as the boy had expected. Its apparent youth did not belong to a body making that kind of nasty angle with the ground. She stepped into the road and peered through the passenger window.
‘Hello, excuse me,’ the uncle said, craning forward. ‘Sorry to trouble you.’
‘No trouble,’ she said with surprising brutality.
‘Do you know Goodwin Manor? Could you direct us? Our instructions have left us short. And what with this weather. Quite remarkable. All this … well, snow.’
The woman narrowed with a new curiosity. ‘The Manor?’ She tilted closer and the boy sank deeper into his shoulders.
‘That’s right.’ The uncle nodded his enthusiasm and a pink flake of tissue came unstuck from his upper lip. ‘I hope we haven’t strayed far.’
As if suddenly aware of the cold the woman drew herself into a hug. The youth that the boy had imagined in her disappeared into the vortex of her collapsing lips. ‘For the house are you, lad?’
The uncle gently backhanded the boy, who kept his eyes to his lap and nodded.
‘Are we within hope?’ the uncle tried.
‘Fabulous. Great news.’
The boy grew aware of the woman’s dauntless gaze at his temple.
‘Go here.’ She exhaled and indicated ahead to where the road broke off to the left. ‘You shan’t need to turn again. Up through the hills and you’ll find it soon enough. Seven or eight miles, if that many. It keeps a distance from town. Not as far as it could, mind.’
The uncle offered a wave but it addressed only a fresh rush of snow, the woman having turned smartly back to her journey. Her serpentine shape had already returned to shadow as the boy wound up his window with what he considered to be admirably contained rage.
‘Seven or eight miles,’ the uncle said, taking the car into the mouth of the side road. ‘Keep your eyes out.’
They ground on, the machine fighting the incline of rising land. Grazing fields on either side supported the occasional farmhouse or shed. Hills presented like frozen sea swells spotted with huddled animals.
He had heard of these beasts they called stock. Seemed an unnecessary joke, to call them stock while alive, then slaughter them, dry them, grind and cube them, only to call them stock again. He had also heard of sheep sitting and finding themselves stuck with ice to the ground. They had to be found and freed lest they never stood again. Did they fleece the unfortunate ones? Almost certainly. Did they wait for them to thaw? Perhaps not. Either way they completed that short round trip back to stock.
‘Keep your eyes out,’ the uncle would repeat each time they might have travelled a mile.
They were reduced to a slither as the road’s edges vanished into banks of dirt. The uncle began to whistle a tune that was without melody or mercy while hedges ran close alongside, their barbed limbs slapping the paintwork.
The boy worked his rag at the windshield as vicious nature closed in. A horse reared and scattered a clump of pitch-nosed sheep. The car centred in its funnel until at once the bramble broke away and the road became a course of bends. Tyres skidded and the engine rose to a high whiz each time the uncle wrenched his wheel to change course. As he was thrown against the passenger door with reassuring violence, the boy’s thoughts drifted to his dog in its warm city kennel. With each collision he overdrew this picture with a shade of envy. The dog’s name was Barley, though the boy realised this mattered less and less with each conquered mile.
Back when the boy first learnt of where he was destined, he had imagined a world with a palette of only grasses – a sickly living green – but everything here was monochrome, divided between white and places in full mutiny against the sun. Despite the meadows with their low plants and creatures, this place had the comforting look of death.
Good grief, the boy thought, wondering if this kind of melodramatic reflection might become commonplace out here among the pastures.
In what could only have been pouting retaliation, signals of life came crowding into view as a final corner was turned and a slope’s crest was breached. The boy saw the peaked maroon roofs of buildings. Smoke rejoiced from chimneys. A copse of amber trees gave way to a long brick wall and the opening of a driveway between two piers. A tarnished green sign hung in storybook fashion against the stone: Goodwin Manor.
The boy felt the beginnings of the joy that follows a long-denied arrival but soon remembered the sulk he had established over the course of the day. He let his arms refold across his chest as the car came into the entranceway and brought them to a pause. Ahead stood the awkward face of a great old house and before that a drive and perhaps a dozen human figures diffused across the hidden pebbles and lawn.
They were boys, all of them.
The nearer, strolling ones had turned their heads at the sound of the engine but had as quickly returned to their business of walking. Three were attending to a tree stump with their shovels while one leant beside against the handle of an axe. The largest group remained ahead, sitting on chairs and boxes near the high arch of the front door. A silver cloud of cigarette smoke hung above, caught in the frigid air.
‘Right-oh,’ the uncle said finally and drove them on.
The group by the door dissipated, moving into the house or meandering off with abruptly found purpose. Only one remained by the time the car came to its stop. He stood tall and ascetic, drawing hard on his cigarette and fixing his eyes on the passenger seat. As the car doors were opened this lone attendee dropped his stare, stubbed out against the brickwork and went off across the lawn. The boy exchanged an indeterminate look with his uncle, who rubbed his hands together excessively and jogged the long way around.
‘Here,’ he said, ‘let’s have your things,’ and reached through to the back seat to retrieve the suitcase.
The snowfall had grown heavier and the boy watched shards piling up at his uncle’s shoulders, into the thick burgundy of his hair. All was silent but for the heaving and swearing of the boys still working on the tree stump fifty yards away. The uncle shuffled until his toes met the boy’s, motioned like it was the beginning of a hug, but baulked and gracelessly lowered the case to the ground. This action was the finishing of something, the boy realised. The completion of a transaction. The uncle inspected the grey sky, eyeing the source of all this cold and trouble.
‘Looking bad,’ he said.
The boy nodded.
‘If I’m to be back home any time soon, any day …’ He puffed out his cheeks and blew, a misplaced gesture of summer. ‘Worried about that motorway. If they can’t clear the ice it’s going to get itself closed. I’ve work on early.’
None of this was the fault of the uncle but the boy could not bring himself to ease the man’s anxiety. It would be too kind, too close to a surrender.
‘Seems like a decent place.’ His uncle experimented with a smile. ‘A good place for a while. The right place.’
They stood for five seconds more before the uncle reached some internal conclusion, squeezed the boy on his upper arm and skipped back to the driver’s side. The car started and was aimed around in a messy series of turns before wheezing away. It came level with the workers and their tree stump, where the one with the axe had now taken the weapon into action. The remaining three laughed and passed around a lit match as the plum-cheeked logger attacked the ground. The car vanished beyond the end of the drive and its walls, the
engine coughing somewhere on the other side.
Inside the house, he waited. Something would happen. Some sort of process would be enacted and a series of sensible actions would follow. He waited for what must have been fifteen minutes and not a thing transpired, not an innuendo of logic. Just a boy in a hallway with a suitcase and no clue what came next, so he began to explore.
Each room offered nothing more than indirect evidence of occupancy – dirtied plates, loaded ashtrays and the floor fresh with mud. Each time he heard the echo of a voice he would follow only to find it grow quiet and then silent, its owner burrowed somewhere deeper. He had circled back to the entrance and was considering how best to make his unease apparent when a head thrust itself around a corner.
This, and the rest that followed, belonged to a boy who filled the hall with a fair, nauseating energy. ‘Your name is Radford?’
The arrival – Radford – nodded, relieved that he would not be forced outside to ask an opinion of the ruddy axeboy, yet resentful of this undisciplined decency, this demon sprite who smiled too broadly and was running his hands through his hair in a manner that reeked of secret knowledge.
‘I’m West,’ it said and turned away towards a narrow staircase that led into only more darkness. ‘Come on, you’ll be wanted upstairs.’
At this he bounded off – and truly bounded, like a keen foxhound might – and was soon out of sight. Radford followed, having to hold his suitcase at a peculiar angle to avoid the close walls.
A slim rectangle of window gave light as they stood in an antechamber before a closed door. The ceiling was too near and left the boys facing each other with a subtle stoop, their foreheads drawing together. Radford had to work hard to avoid engaging with West, who responded by increasing the width and intensity of his smile and inclining ever closer.
‘West, as I said.’ He outstretched his palm.
Radford submitted to shaking hands but leached any expression from his face that could be construed as recognition of their mutual existences. He made a show of brushing plaster dust from a corner of his case as the door was yanked open.
‘Righty-oh?’ asked the man who appeared.
‘He has arrived,’ West answered and gave an exaggerated hand roll.
‘I see,’ said the man as he pressed forward and stared gravely for some time.
Radford was taken by the hand. It was an act that seemed irregular, but having taken place, and showing no sign of being withdrawn, was accepted as some malicious convention. The man led him into the room, pushing the door closed as he went, speaking over his shoulder to West, giving instruction for him to wait with the suitcase.
They wouldn’t be long.
The room was how a never-returned explorer’s might be enshrined. Each inch of wall was overrun by shelved books, their spines forming a discordant wallpaper. Small tables were scattered about, crowded with papers, photo frames, river stones, pyramids of rolled maps and other accidental formations of unlike objects. Radford scanned for shrunken heads. At a glance he could see three vases of dead flowers.
They navigated around an oak writing desk obscured beneath precarious book stacks to facing chairs beneath the room’s window. The man retained firm hold of him as they sat in the pillar of daylight. Snow pecked a faint noise against the glass while orbs of dust drifted between their two bodies. Radford examined the man’s shoes, which were polished but scarred, exposed beneath trouser hems that had grown thin. The man’s waistcoat was missing one button and the one that remained was broken, leaving just a half-moon to keep the fabric together. The jacket was pressed but shabby at the elbows and the knot of the man’s tie was grazed on its face.
Outside, West squeaked against floorboards. Inside, Radford tried to remember the last time his hand had been held. Now the man added a second palm to the act such that he held both of Radford’s. Having completed this ligature they resumed motionlessness.
Taking the tour of the man above the shirt collar he discovered a face that must have been fifty years old. Or sixty. This man, who maintained his stare, must be older than his uncle, which rendered him dangerously distant.
What part of this was test? Initiation. It could be the staring or equally the silence. This was where he was supposed to crack. The hand-holding was certainly part of the trial. Yes. How he broke this hold was to mark him a thug or a coward. So he would not break free and this faded turnkey could clutch him until kingdom came if he fancied.
Distantly, it seemed that West continued to find reason to scuff his shoes and, beyond that, music played. It could only be a taunt. Radford couldn’t hear the tune but something about its beat declared it as a challenge before it disappeared as if a door somewhere had been closed. He returned to the man’s face and they continued their duel of inaction.
Perhaps it was the shock of an older age in such proximity. Perhaps it was the meal he’d skipped. But all at once his seventeen years folded in on themselves and it was overwhelming. His breathing stuttered and he felt the man’s grip tighten. This should have felt oppressive and Radford could still not recall being held in this way. He looked to the man and saw new detail. Wrinkles like shallow wounds marked the cheeks and brow. The hair was grey but not yet silver and it was a good head of hair. The nose had seen a lot of sun and survived. The eyes could have belonged to the dog back home.
‘You’re terribly lonely,’ the man said, ‘aren’t you?’
Radford braced himself as his chest ceased its functions. The pair sat fully still for another minute that seemed to enclose a whole life and for all of it he did not breathe but began to tremble. The man did not move in blame or indulgence, merely allowing this and never relinquishing his grip. Radford could summon not a single sneering response. He thought, for that brief time, only of being exposed, of its companion terror, and of what it might be like to be safe.
Just as Radford caught hold of himself, the man gave a chummy pat on the wrist. ‘Well, no need for that, there are plenty of us here,’ he said and returned Radford’s hand. ‘You can stay if you like.’
This had been the first word he had spoken that day and yet he felt no pride in this demonstration of resistance. Rather, his throat was sore from the effort. The man was standing and waiting, his expression acknowledging nothing of their exchange. On how many occasions had he made this same diagnosis of a boy, and did this lessen its legitimacy or confirm it? Once again there was music: that same unidentifiable song with its rhythm of squeaking soles.
‘Yes, coming,’ Radford said, rubbing his shirt sleeve across his nose and rising, hurrying after the man, who had moved with haste to the door.
‘My name is Edward Wilson,’ the man said, ‘but the boys will insist on calling me Teddy. You call me whatever you like. Not sir, not Wilson.’
Radford gathered himself and the door was opened to expose West, first standing at attention then tossing his head to one side expectantly.
‘Find the boy a room, will you, he’ll be staying.’
‘He could pile in with Lewis,’ West said.
‘Oh no. Heaven, not that.’ Teddy raised his eyes to the ceiling. ‘Give him Rich’s quarters.’
Teddy made irritated motions for the pair to get away. ‘Move him to the chickens’ coop. He won’t be expecting that.’
West gave a performative salute as Teddy turned away and closed himself behind the door.
‘The others will be envious,’ West said, lifting the suitcase. ‘Rich’s room is a good one. Far from the toilet. View of the pond.’
Radford considered their earlier meeting and felt a flicker of embarrassment. ‘Hello,’ he said, striking out his hand in belated greeting if not reparation. ‘I’m Radford.’
‘Well, yes,’ West said and gripped the case hard to his chest as if it were a football. He launched downwards, whooping, and Radford – having retracted his hand from its pathetic error – ran after.