Full of heart and humanity -
Supporting Cast by Kit de Waal
Supporting Cast is the new short story collection from Kit de Waal, author of My Name is Leon and The Trick to Time. Across these 22 stories you'll meet some the supporting cast of life, those sometimes on the fringes, not receiving the attention or consideration they deserve, as they handle their own small dramas.
Intimate, perceptive, with not a word wasted, these stories are equally uplifting and heartbreaking. Each is named for its lead character, and here you can read an extract taken from Byron Francis.
Byron Francis wears his own clothes again but after thirty-two months his shirt is too tight. He has muscles now, and the shoulders of a boxer. His jeans, too loose. He holds them up with one hand while his possessions are fed to him across the metal table. A watch. A plastic car. Four pounds seventy-two pence. He puts everything in a brown bag and rolls the top over.
He signs two pieces of paper and nods to the guard, who wishes him good luck. He stands at the gate with another man who whistles and sways from left to right, tapping an identical bag against his leg. Byron makes no noise because, since he’s been in Lincoln Prison, he doesn’t open his mouth if he doesn’t have to. The air in prison is not the same as the air outside. It is tainted, like the food and drinking water, like the soap in the showers, and the rain that falls in the exercise yard. Byron Francis will never come back.
He knows, as a final flex of their muscles, the guards like to make prisoners wait on their last day, so he keeps still and looks straight ahead. Byron Francis can tread time like some men tread water. Most people don’t know how to wait fifteen minutes, or seven hours, or thirty-two months. They don’t know what the clock can do to a man. They don’t know that there are cupboards and rooms, houses and gardens inside a man’s head, if he knows the paths to take.
So, Byron waits and looks at the wooden gate, thicker than the mattress on his bunk, higher than a bus and set deep into an arch of yellow stone. It reminds him of the church he went to with his mother and, as Byron waits, he treads time backwards to the feel of rice paper in his Bible and the sound of ‘Jesus Our Saviour’ and the swell of his chest and the unkept promises to be good. He thinks of the back doors of shops, of broken windows and the shelves he stole from, liquor, cigarettes, stupid things, drunken things.
The whistling man behind Byron kicks a stone that ricochets off the high, curving wall of Lincoln Prison. Byron turns and looks at him. The whistling man falls silent, lights a cigarette. Byron knows that the man worries, that he wants the guards to hurry up, that calendar mistakes are often made, that hope is cruel. But he has no comfort to offer so turns back to the gate and the curving wall, to the towers and turrets, the diamond patterns in the red-brick castle.
As he waits for the key to turn, he treads time, backwards again to the feel of his new baby and the lightness of the soft brown skull no bigger than the palm of his hand and the swell of his chest and the silent plans he made. It begins to drizzle. Byron Francis has no coat. It was summer when they put him away. He was lying on the sofa in his auntie’s house when the front door flattened in the hallway and they swarmed in like black beetles, some with guns. His aunt crouched down like a beggar and pleaded. Byron Francis was not a dangerous man then.
Suddenly the gate is open and Byron is out. He is free. His trousers catch on the muddying gravel in the street outside and he hikes them high. He sees Trooper leaning on a car bonnet with a newspaper, sees he has grown fatter still, scruffier still. Trooper has the paper up close and mouths the words he reads. Byron opens the passenger door and Trooper looks up and smiles.
The car smells of cigarettes and Trooper’s breath. Byron doesn’t want to be reminded of his cell, so he winds the window down and taps the side panel of the car with the flat of his hand. The rain is cold on his skin. Trooper passes him a sandwich.
‘Nice,’ Byron says and settles the food on his lap. Trooper reaches to the back seat and snags three cans of lager by a plastic ring. He holds them up like a lantern.
‘Yeah?’ he asks.
‘Nah,’ says Byron. ‘No more. I’m done with that.’
‘Right,’ says Trooper and starts the car.
It’s twenty minutes to the motorway, then Trooper will drive fast. Three hours and forty-five minutes to Roman Road. There are girls and women everywhere, in blouses that pull across their breasts, and jeans that strain against their hips, squeeze between their legs.
A pregnant girl crosses the road in front of Trooper’s car; Byron closes his eyes until he is sure she is gone. He won’t think about seeing Carol or what she’ll say and what words might come out of his mouth. He won’t think of Leon. He won’t think of the other child she has, the one that must be walking by now. Trooper is quiet, so Byron treads time.
The city thins out. Slack wires droop between grey pylons in fresh green fields. Here and there, patches of luminous yellow sing against the white-blue sky and, almost out of sight, he sees a far-off tractor in a far-off field. Byron Francis has never ploughed or even walked a country road, but he knows the smell of wet grass and turned earth, so he treads time across the acres and becomes a farmer. At the end of the day, he climbs down from the tractor cab and walks across a swept yard, opens the door and calls. He sits at the scrubbed table and eats the dinner she puts before him, while his boy plays with the toys they made together, a train, a truck, a pull-along dog. His woman chides him for his dirty hands and wet boots on her clean floor, and he smells her perfume over the smell of his food, and wants her, like she wants him, then Trooper speaks.
‘Listen, Byron, your auntie says to bring you straight home.’
‘Stop at the shop. I want to get something for Leon.’
‘She made me swear, Byron.’
Kit de Waal, born to an Irish mother and Caribbean father, was brought up among the Irish community of Birmingham in the 60's and 70's. Her debut novel My Name Is Leon was an international bestseller, shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize and won the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award for 2017. Her second novel, The Trick to Time, was longlisted for the Women's Prize and her young adult novel Becoming Dinah is shortlisted for the Carnegie CLIP Award 2020. She also crowdfunded and edited an anthology of working class memoir, Common People, which was published in 2018. Kit was named the FutureBook Person of the Year in 2019.