Read an Extract from The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Read an Extract from The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend by Katarina Bivald

Books 1: Life 0

The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous. A thin, plain figure dressed in an autumn coat much too grey and warm for the time of year, a rucksack lying on the ground by her feet, an enormous suitcase resting against one of her legs. Those who happened to witness her arrival couldn’t help feeling it was inconsiderate for someone to care so little about their appearance. As though this woman was not the slightest bit interested in making a good impression on them.

‘Seems like you’ve been abandoned here, honey.’ The woman looked expectantly at Sara. ‘Go on, call her.’

Her hair was a nondescript shade of brown, held back with a carelessly placed hair clip which didn’t stop it flowing down over her shoulders in a tangle of curls. Where her face should have been, there was a copy of Louisa May Alcott’s An Old-Fashioned Girl.

She didn’t seem to care at all that she was in Hope. It was as if she had just landed there, book and luggage and uncombed hair in tow, and might just as well have been in any other town in the world. She was standing on one of the most beautiful streets in Cedar County, maybe even the prettiest in the whole of southern Iowa, but the only thing she had eyes for was her book.

But then again, she couldn’t be entirely uninterested. Every now and again a pair of big grey eyes peeped up over the edge of the book, like a prairie dog sticking its head up to check whether the coast was clear. She would lower the book further and look sharply to the left, then swing her gaze as far to the right as she could without moving her head. Then she would raise the book and sink back into the story again.

In actual fact, Sara had taken in almost every detail of the street. She would have been able to describe how the last of the afternoon sun was gleaming on the polished SUVs, how even the treetops seemed neat and well organised, and how the hair salon fifty metres away had a sign made from laminated plastic in patriotic red, white and blue stripes. The scent of freshly baked apple pie filled the air. It was coming from the cafe behind her, where a couple of middle-aged women were sitting outside and watching her with clear distaste. That was how it looked to Sara, at least. Every time she glanced up from her book, they frowned and shook their heads slightly, as though she was breaking some unwritten rule of etiquette by reading on the street.

She took out her phone and redialled. It rang nine times before she hung up.

So Amy Harris was a bit late. Surely there would be a perfectly reasonable explanation. A flat tyre maybe. Out of petrol. It was easy to be – she checked her phone again – two hours and thirtyseven minutes late.

She wasn’t worried, not yet. Amy Harris wrote proper letters, on real, old-fashioned writing paper; thick and creamy. There wasn’t a chance in the world that someone who wrote on proper, cream-coloured writing paper would abandon a friend in a strange town or turn out to be a psychopathic serial killer with sadomasochistic tendencies, regardless of what Sara’s mother said.

‘Excuse me, honey.’

A woman had stopped beside her. She gave Sara an artificially patient look.

‘Can I help you with anything?’ the woman asked. A brown paper bag full of food was resting on her hip, a can of Campbell’s tomato soup teetering perilously close to the edge.

‘No, thank you,’ said Sara. ‘I’m waiting for someone.’

‘Sure.’ The woman’s tone was amused and indulgent. The women sitting outside the cafe were following the whole conversation with interest. ‘First time in Hope?’

‘I’m on my way to Broken Wheel.’

Maybe it was just Sara’s imagination, but the woman didn’t seem at all satisfied with that answer.

The can of soup wobbled dangerously. After a moment, the woman said: ‘It’s not much of a town, I’m afraid, Broken Wheel. Do you know someone there?’

‘I’m going to stay with Amy Harris.’

Silence.

‘I’m sure she’s on her way,’ said Sara.

‘Seems like you’ve been abandoned here, honey.’ The woman looked expectantly at Sara. ‘Go on, call her.’

Sara clasped her hands on top of her book and tried to look relaxed. The car smelled of cheap aftershave and coffee.

Sara reluctantly pulled her phone out again. When the strange woman pressed up against Sara’s ear to listen to the ringing tone, she had to stop herself from shrinking back.

‘Doesn’t seem to me like she’s going to answer.’ Sara put the phone back in her pocket and the woman moved away a little. ‘What’re you planning on doing there?’

‘Have a holiday. I’m going to rent a room.’

‘And now you’ve been abandoned here. That’s a good start. I hope you didn’t pay in advance.’ The woman shifted the paper bag over to her other arm and clicked her fingers in the direction of the seats outside the cafe. ‘Hank,’ she said loudly to the only man sitting there, ‘give this girl here a ride to Broken Wheel, OK?’

‘I haven’t finished my coffee.’

‘So take it with you, then.’

The man grunted, but got obediently to his feet and disappeared into the cafe.

‘If I were you,’ the woman continued, ‘I wouldn’t hand over any money right away. I’d pay just before I went home. And I’d keep it well hidden until then.’ She nodded so violently that the can of tomato soup teetered worryingly again. ‘I’m not saying everyone in Broken Wheel is a thief,’ she added for safety’s sake, ‘but they’re not like us.’

Hank came back with his coffee in a paper cup, and Sara’s suitcase and rucksack were thrown onto the back seat of his car. Sara herself was guided carefully but firmly to the front seat.

‘Go on, give her a ride over, Hank,’ said the woman, hitting the roof of the car twice with her free hand. She leaned towards the open window. ‘You can always come back here if you change your mind.’

‘So, Broken Wheel,’ Hank said disinterestedly.

Sara clasped her hands on top of her book and tried to look relaxed. The car smelled of cheap aftershave and coffee.

‘What’re you going to do there?’

‘Read.’

He shook his head.

‘As a holiday,’ she explained.

‘We’ll see, I guess,’ Hank said ominously.

She watched the scenery outside the car window change. Lawns became fields, the glittering cars disappeared and the neat little houses were replaced by an enormous wall of corn looming up on either side of the road, which stretched straight out ahead for kilometres. Every now and then it was intersected by other roads, also perfectly straight, as though someone had, at some point, looked out over the enormous fields and drawn the roads in with a ruler. As good a method as any, Sara thought to herself. But as they drove on, the other roads became fewer and fewer until it felt as though the only thing around them was mile after mile of corn.

‘Can’t be much of a town left,’ said Hank. ‘A friend of mine grew up there. Sells insurance in Des Moines now.’

She didn’t know what she was meant to say to that. ‘That’s nice,’ she tried.

‘He likes it,’ the man agreed. ‘Much better than trying to run the family farm in Broken Wheel, that’s for sure.’

And that was that.

Sara craned to look out of the car window, searching for the town of Amy’s letters. She had heard so much about Broken Wheel she was almost expecting Miss Annie to come speeding past on her cargo moped at any moment, or Robert to be standing at the side of the road waving the latest edition of his magazine in the air. For a moment, she could practically see them before her, but then they grew faint and whirled away into the dust behind the car. Instead, a battered looking barn appeared, only to be immediately hidden from view once more by the corn, as though it had never been there in the first place. It was the only building she had seen in the last fifteen minutes.

Would the town look the way she had imagined it? Now that she was finally about to see it with her own eyes, Sara had even forgotten her anxiety about Amy not answering the phone.

But when they eventually arrived, she might have missed it entirely if Hank hadn’t pulled over. The main street was nothing more than a few buildings on either side of the road. Most of them seemed to be empty, grey and depressing. A few of the shops had boarded-up windows, but a diner still appeared to be open.

‘So what d’you want to do?’ Hank asked. ‘You want a ride back?’

She glanced around. The diner was definitely open. The word Diner was glowing faintly in red neon letters, and a lone man was sitting at the table closest to the window. She shook her head.

It’s all going to be fine, she said to herself. Everything will work out. This is not a catastrophe . . .

‘Whatever you want,’ he said in a tone that said ‘you’ll only have yourself to blame’.

She climbed out of the car and pulled her luggage out from the back seat, her paperback shoved under her arm. Hank drove off the moment she closed the door. He made a sharp U-turn at the only traffic light in town.

It was hanging from a cable in the middle of the street, and it was shining red.

Sara stood in front of the diner with the suitcase at her feet, her rucksack slung over one shoulder, firmly clutching her book.

It’s all going to be fine, she said to herself. Everything will work out. This is not a catastrophe . . . She backtracked: so long as she had books and money, nothing could be a catastrophe. She had enough money to check into a hostel if she needed to. Though she was fairly sure there wouldn’t be a hostel in Broken Wheel.

She pushed open the doors – only to be confronted by a set of real saloon doors, how ridiculous – and went in. Other than the man by the window and a woman behind the counter, the diner was empty. The man was thin and wiry, his body practically begging forgiveness for his very existence. He didn’t even look up when she came in, just continued turning his coffee cup in his hands, slowly round and round.

The woman, on the other hand, immediately directed all her attention towards the door. She weighed at least 150 kilos, and her huge arms were resting on the high counter in front of her. It was made from dark wood and wouldn’t have looked out of place in a bar, but instead of beer mats, there were stainless-steel napkin holders and laminated menus with pictures of the various rubbery-looking types of food they served.

The woman lit a cigarette in one fluid movement.

‘You must be the tourist,’ she said. The smoke from her cigarette hit Sara in the face. It had been years since Sara had seen anyone in Sweden smoking in a restaurant. Clearly they did things differently here.

‘I’m Sara.’

‘You picked one hell of a day to come here.’

‘Do you know where Amy Harris lives?’

The woman nodded. ‘One hell of a day.’ A lump of ash dropped from her cigarette and landed on the counter. ‘I’m Grace,’ she said. ‘Or truth be told, my name’s Madeleine. But there’s no point calling me that.’

Sara hadn’t been planning on calling her anything at all.

‘And now you’re here.’

Sara had a definite feeling that Grace-who-wasn’t-really-called Grace was enjoying the moment, drawing it out. Grace nodded three times to herself, took a deep drag of her cigarette and let the smoke curl slowly upwards from one corner of her mouth. She leaned over the counter.

‘Amy’s dead,’ she said.

In Sara’s mind, Amy’s death would forever be associated with the glow of fluorescent strip lighting, cigarette smoke and the smell of fried food. It was surreal. Here she was, standing in a diner in a small American town, being told that a woman she had never met had died. The whole situation was much too dreamlike to be scary, much too odd to be a nightmare.

‘Dead?’ she repeated. An extraordinarily stupid question, even for her. She slumped onto a bar stool. She had no idea what to do now. Her thoughts drifted back to the woman in Hope and she wondered whether she should have gone back with Hank after all.

Amy can’t be dead, Sara thought. She was my friend. She liked books, for God’s sake.

It wasn’t quite grief that Sara was feeling, but she was struck by how fleeting life was, and the odd feeling grew. She had come to Iowa from Sweden to take a break from life – to get away from it, even – but not to meet death.

How had Amy died? One part of her wanted to ask, another didn’t want to know.

Grace continued before she had time to make up her mind: ‘The funeral’s probably in full swing. Not particularly festive things nowadays, funerals. Too much religious crap if you ask me. It was different when my grandma died.’ She glanced at the clock. ‘You should probably head over there now, though. I’m sure someone who knew her better’ll know what to do with you. I try to avoid getting drawn into this town’s problems, and you’re definitely one of them.’

She stubbed out her cigarette. ‘George, will you give Sara here a ride to Amy’s house?’

The man by the window looked up. For a moment, he looked as paralysed as Sara felt. Then he got to his feet and half carried, half dragged her bags to the car.

Suddenly, a woman materialised out of the crowd and cornered Sara, halfway between the living room and the kitchen.

Grace grabbed Sara’s elbow as she started off after him. ‘That’s Poor George,’ she said, nodding towards his back.

Amy Harris’s house was a little way out of town. It was big enough that the kitchen and living room seemed fairly spacious, but small enough that the little group which had congregated there after the funeral made it seem full. The table and kitchen worktops were covered with baking dishes full of food, and someone had prepared bowls of salad and bread, laid out cutlery and arranged napkins in drinking glasses.

Sara was given a paper plate of food and then left more or less to herself. George was still by her side and she was touched by that unexpected display of loyalty. He didn’t seem to be a particularly brave person at all, not even compared to her, but he had followed her in and now he was walking around just as hesitantly as she was.

In the dim hallway there was a dark chest of drawers on which someone had arranged a framed photograph of a woman she assumed must be Amy, and two worn-looking flags, the American and the Iowa state. Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain, the latter proclaimed in embroidered white letters, but the flag was faded and one of the edges was frayed.

The woman in the photograph was perhaps twenty years old, with her hair pulled into two thin plaits and a standard-issue, stiff camera smile. She was a complete stranger. There might have been something in her eyes, a glimmer of laughter which showed she knew it was all a joke, that Sara could recognise from her letters. But that was all.

She wanted to reach out and touch the photograph but doing that felt much too forward. Instead, she stayed where she was in the dark hallway, carefully balancing her paper plate, her book still under her arm. Her bags had disappeared somewhere, but she didn’t have the energy to worry about it.

Three weeks earlier, she had felt so close to Amy that she had been prepared to stay with her for two months, but now it was as though every trace of their friendship had died along with her. She had never been someone who believed you needed to have met in person to be friends – many of her most rewarding relationships had been with people who didn’t even exist – but suddenly it all felt so false, disrespectful even, to cling to the idea that they had, in some way, meant something to one another.

All around her, people were moving slowly and cautiously through the rooms, as though they were wondering what on earth they were doing there, which was almost exactly what Sara was thinking too. Still, they didn’t seem shocked. They didn’t seem surprised. No one was crying.

Most of them were looking at Sara with curiosity, but something, perhaps respect for the significance of the event, was stopping them from approaching her. They circled around her instead, smiling whenever she accidentally caught their eye.

Suddenly, a woman materialised out of the crowd and cornered Sara, halfway between the living room and the kitchen.

‘Caroline Rohde.’

Her posture and handshake were military but she was much more beautiful than Sara had imagined. She had deep, almondshaped eyes, and features as pronounced as a statue’s. In the glow of the ceiling lamp, her skin was an almost shimmering white across her high cheekbones. Her hair was thick and streaked with grey strands. Around her neck, she wore a black scarf made from thin, cool silk which would have looked out of place on anyone else, even at a funeral, but on her it looked timeless – almost glamorous.

Others gathered around Caroline in a loose half-circle, facing Sara as though she were a travelling circus making a brief stop in town.

Her age was hard to guess but she had the air of someone who had never really been young. Sara had a strong sense that Caroline Rohde didn’t have much time for youth.

When Caroline started talking, everyone around her fell silent. Her voice matched her presence: determined, resolute, straight to the point. There was, perhaps, a hint of a welcoming smile in her voice, but it never made as far as her mouth.

‘Amy said you’d be coming,’ she said. ‘I won’t claim I thought it was a good idea, but it wasn’t my place to say anything.’ Then she added, almost as an afterthought: ‘You’ve got to agree that this isn’t the most . . . practical situation.’

‘Practical,’ Sara echoed. Though how Amy was meant to know she was going to die, she wasn’t sure.

Others gathered around Caroline in a loose half-circle, facing Sara as though she were a travelling circus making a brief stop in town.

‘We didn’t know how to contact you when Amy . . . passed away. And now you’re here,’ Caroline concluded. ‘Oh well, we’ll just have to see what we can do with you.’

‘I’m going to need somewhere to stay,’ said Sara. Everyone leaned forward to hear.

‘Stay?’ said Caroline. ‘You’ll stay here, of course! I mean, the house is empty, isn’t it?’

‘But . . .’

A man in a minister’s collar smiled warmly at Sara, adding: ‘Amy specifically told us to let you know that nothing would change in that regard.’

Nothing would change? She didn’t know who was madder – the minister or Amy or the whole of Broken Wheel.

‘There’s a guest room, of course,’ said Caroline. ‘Sleep there tonight, and then we’ll work out what we’re going to do with you.

The minister nodded and somehow it was decided: she would stay, alone, in dead Amy Harris’s empty house.

She was bustled upstairs. Caroline went first, like a commander at war, followed closely by Sara and then George, a supportive, silent shadow. Behind them, most of the other guests followed. Someone was carrying her bags, she didn’t know who, but when she reached the little guest room her rucksack and suitcase miraculously appeared.

‘We’ll make sure you’ve got everything you need,’ Caroline said from the doorway, not at all unkindly. Then she shooed the others away, giving Sara a brief wave before pulling the door closed behind her.

Sara sank onto the bed, suddenly alone again, the paper plate still in her hand and a lonely book lying abandoned on the bedspread next to her.

Oh hell, she thought.