Olivia Sudjic is the author of Sympathy, which was a finalist for the Salerno European Book Award and the Collyer Bristow Prize, and Exposure, a non-fiction work named an Irish Times, Evening Standard and White Review Book of the Year for 2018. Her second novel, Asylum Road, was published in 2021 and shortlisted for the Encore Award and the Gordon Bowker Volcano Prize. Her writing is carefully controlled, evoking the anxieties and pleasures of modern living.
Listen to an audio extract from ‘The Termite Queen’
‘The Termite Queen’
In the late afternoon, the wind picked up and drove the bank of cloud apart, letting midwinter sun surge through at last. It flared at the horizon, insistent as it died, and the road towards it shone, blinding the approaching taxi’s sole passenger. Further along the road, it illuminated the roof of her new home, still some miles away, where the sky became a more saturated blue above the waiting house. Pale smoke from its nearest neighbour floated over and quickly vanished on the breeze. At the back, the agave plant began to flail its arms beside the empty pool, one sawing anxiously against another, leaving fresh wounds among dried-out scars, and the whorl of its base littered with brown needles from the pines. In front, a chain-link curtain, recently installed, dragged against the open doorway as the local cleaning woman prepared to leave, removing rubber clogs, replacing them with outdoor pumps, donning a baseball cap and securing her loose red hair through the back as the wind grew stronger still.
It was the last house she had to clean. Just as well. She had reached that terminal point of the year when it seemed impossible to begin another job, or anything at all. Not a personal project, a new health regimen, nor even a conversation with someone she didn’t know. She was done. But the year had been marked by what seemed impossible and the mood among the townspeople remained vigilant. Squinting into the low glare as if tasting a tart apple, she shut the door, double-locked, then slid a key beneath a large, flat stone beside the disused water trough. Straightening up, she felt a cold breath at her neck as the sun disappeared and the sky turned grey once more. This darkening overhead made her feel as though she were descending to an underworld. The woman shivered, shouldered her large backpack, put headphones in and hurried off.
All day, all week, all year in fact, she, like the rest of them, had noticed it: the feeling of being watched. If they had felt it before, living in a small town, then the sensation had intensified as plague restrictions came. Even now that these had mostly lifted, stepping outside again, cautiously resuming their old routines, the town’s inhabitants were uneasy. They were more aware than usual of who might be observing them about their daily errands, or found themselves coming to their own balconies so as to investigate hushed conversations in the street. Gradually strangers had begun to appear, occupying the houses the mayor was offering via the scheme. As the town became populated with new faces, the existing fear, namely that some unwitting infraction could result in ostracism, had grown alongside them. Someone had taken it upon themselves to cut out a pair of cartoonish evil eyes and stick them to a boulder on the road the cleaning woman was now walking down, just as the taxi bearing the house’s new occupant approached from the opposite direction. When she heard the sound of its engine in the distance, she kept her eyes low beneath her baseball cap and continued walking.
Continue reading ‘The Termite Queen’ here. –
Explore more of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists.
Image © Alice Zoo