An excerpt from

The Broken Mirror

Jonathan Coe and Chiara Coccorese

One

Claire was eight years old when she found the mirror.

It was raining that day. Not heavy rain, but warm summer rain, with thick, occasional drops, falling from a dull, slate-grey sky. These were the last few days of the school holidays, and the weather had only just changed. They had been lucky this year: the sun had shone for almost the whole of their two weeks away. As usual, Claire and her parents had been to Wales for their holiday, staying in a small rented cottage a few miles from the sea. They had gone to the beach every day and for a short time Claire had forgotten her pervasive sense of loneliness. Towards the end of the holiday she had even made friends with another little girl, a nine-year-old called Lisa who was an only child, just like her. At the end of the holiday Lisa had asked Claire for her mobile number or email address but Claire had not been able to give them because she did not have either of these things.

It had been a happy time, but after only one day at home, everybody’s mood had changed. As soon as they returned, Claire’s father had sat down on the sofa with a pile of unread letters, and after he had finished reading them, he seemed angry with everyone and everything. Now her parents were talking earnestly in the kitchen about something to do with money, and Claire could think of nothing to do except wander out into the garden. It was a small garden, and it didn’t take her long to get bored, out there by herself. She would have played on the swing, but one of the ropes was broken. So instead, she walked down to the bottom of the garden, and slipped out through the hole in the fence, where one of the posts had rotted away.

From here it was only a short walk to the rubbish dump. You had to climb up the little hill which the houses all backed on to, and then push your way through a clump of dense, stubbly bushes. As soon as you came out on the other side of the bushes, the ground fell away at your feet into a sheer slope, like the edge of a cliff. But if you trod carefully, you could scramble down the slope – clutching for support onto the weeds which sprung out of the chalky soil – and that was how you got to the dump.

Claire didn’t come here often. This was only the third or fourth time. To be honest, it wasn’t a very nice place at all. It was full of big plastic bags with their contents spilling out, nasty sharp pieces of metal which might catch you in the leg if you weren’t looking out for them, and rotting items of food which people had thrown away and which had started to smell terrible. In fact the smell was the worst thing about it.

None the less, there was something about the dump that Claire liked. She felt somehow at home in the company of all these thrown-away things. And just occasionally, you might find something useful. Once she had found a radio here, which she had taken back to her bedroom, and although she had never been able to get it to work, it had looked nice, sitting on the table beside her bed, until her parents had eventually persuaded her to get rid of it and bought her a new one for her birthday. The other thing she wanted for her bedroom was an alarm clock so she wondered if today she might be lucky enough to find one.

Almost immediately, however, something quite different caught her eye. There was a flash of light from the top of one of the rubbish piles and when Claire went over to see what it was, she found a fragment of broken mirror, about the same size as the compact mirror that women carry around with them in their handbags, but with rough, jagged edges forming a shape like an irregular star. She bent down and picked it up – very gingerly, because she didn’t want to cut herself. As she took it in her hand, she was dazzled by the clear, pale blue of the sky reflected on the mirror’s surface, and the sudden play of sunlight flung back by the glass as she held it and turned it this way and that. The brightness of the light even hurt her eyes for a moment or two, so that she had to shield them with her arm as she looked down at the mirror.

Holding the mirror cautiously between finger and thumb, Claire scrambled back to the edge of the dump and found a spot to sit down. Then she held it flat in her palm and took a closer look at it. Leaning over, she could see the reflection of her own pale, freckly, enquiring face, and beyond that, the blueness of the sky which, the more she looked at it, seemed to be one of the purest and most beautiful colours she had ever seen. She was staring into the depths of the mirror, enjoying the richness of this colour in an almost dreamlike state, when a couple of raindrops fell onto the surface of the glass and startled her out of her daydream. She wiped them away with her sleeve and then looked up at the sky, frowning. How could raindrops be falling from such a blue sky? Except that – and here was the strange thing – now that she looked at it, the sky wasn’t blue at all. It was just as grey as it had been when she first left the house: and not just grey, in fact, but mottled over with shifting, fast-moving clouds that were as black as charcoal.

Claire looked again into the mirror lying in the palm of her hand. The same pale, freckly face looked back at her. And behind it was the same blue, cloudless sky. And then she saw something fly through the sky, directly behind her head. It was a huge bird – flying so close above her that she could see the soft texture of its feathers and the beady gleam of its fast, searching eye; so close above her that in an involuntary movement she ducked and covered her head with one arm, afraid that the bird was going to fly into her. But it made no sound; and when she looked up into the sky again a second later, there was nothing there.