The First Book of Calamity Leek: A Novel

The First Book of Calamity Leek: A Novel

by Paula Lichtarowicz


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A beguiling, irresistibly immersive debut novel about sixteen sisters in a walled garden, and what happens to their carefully constructed world when one girl starts asking questions about life outside.

Fourteen-year-old Calamity Leek and her sisters spend their days tending white roses and memorizing the lessons in Aunty’s Appendix, a multi-volume compendium of show tunes, beauty regimens, and twisted creation myths. Calamity knows the Appendix front to back, and she is Aunty’s favorite, destined for particular greatness. But when her restless sister Truly Polperro gets too curious about life beyond their Wall of Safekeeping, she cracks Calamity’s world wide open. Calamity needs a new book. And she will have to write it herself.

With formidable imagination and brilliant strangeness, Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek draws on fairytales and doublespeak to tell a story both classic and keenly modern. Calamity, fearless and wrenching, leads us to question the stories we ourselves live by.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250087935
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,190,167
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Paula Lichtarowicz was born in Cheshire and studied English literature at Durham University and psychology at the University of London. When not writing, she makes television documentaries. She lives in Yorkshire. The First Book of Calamity Leek is her debut.

Read an Excerpt

The First Book of Calamity Leek

By Paula Lichtarowicz

Flatiron Books

Copyright © 2016 Paula Lichtarowicz
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-08793-5



It was plain-cooked perfect, the night Truly did it. There was a good stack of cloud cover above the Wall, and the first apples of autumn for supper. The Pontefracts were off in Nursery Cottage like usual, and we thirteen other sisters were cleansed and moisturized and shut up safe, with only seams to finish on cushions. I don't even remember much bothering from the pigs next door.

The light bulb went off like usual. The High Hut went dead above us. And along the row, thirteen bodies nestled down for beauty sleep. Safe as corpses, just like usual. Until we were woken in the night by a scream. Which was most unusual.

It went something like this —


"Oh?" A body sat up along from me, puffing out steam in the dark. Annie St. Albans, that was, scratching her bushy head. "Did I just hear something?"

But before I could answer, a crash landed far off.

"Truly?" Annie flashed green eyes up and down our row. "Truly Polperro?"

I sat up and patted about next to me. "There ain't nothing between us, Annie."

"Oh, Truly," Annie said.

"Her fur's gone," I said.

"Oh, Truly, you didn't, did you?" Annie said.

And Annie was answered by a far-off moan, "UUUUUUUUUUUUUUU."

Annie's green eyes turned black. And my own heart flipped over.

"I'm coming," Annie said. "Oh, Truly, I'm coming."

And while the rest of us were still shaking yawns from our throats, Annie was jumping up and buttoning up.

"No, Annie," I said, low and warning. "Don't, Annie."

She ran down the row and pulled a torch from the trunk. She snatched her headscarf from her hook, and went yanking at the door.

"Better not, Annie." I got up quick. "Out of Bounds at night and all."

But Annie didn't hear me, being busy staring into the night. "Oh, Truly, did you really do it?" Annie was shaking like a bag full of lice. "Please say you didn't."

And away, long and lonely as a sad cow's fart, it came again — "UUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU."

And Annie ran off into the yard.


Well, keeping safe under the eaves, I watched her go, chasing her torch puddle and leaping her feet over sleeping hens. Racing through the gate and into the Glamis Castles, without even checking the sky lid for safety once.

Oh Annie.

I looked quick about. The Garden was blanketed black, thank goodness, all over the yard and the roses, right up to our Wall of Safekeeping. The High Hut sat snug and protecting as a shell on a snail on top of us, and thankful, there weren't a bark to be heard. But when I checked the night above the Wall, well, my heart stopped jumping and all my breath died in me too. Because it was then I saw it — swollen and stinking and gobbling holes in the clouds — a full-grown Demonmoon.

I spun back inside. Except before I could slam the door and keep us rest in safe, every one of my ten sisters was racing down the row.

"Stop, sisters!" I said.

My sisters were buttoning furs and flinging on headscarves.

"This is foolsome, and deadly dangerous, sisters!" I said.

"Come back to bed, sisters," I said.

But, weren't no matter what I said, my sisters went turning on torches and bumping past me to go flapping their feet after Annie.


Well, I had to have a quick spit then. Nothing left in our dorm but empty straw.

Empty straw and a PAM PAM PAMing noise starting up.

PAM PAM PAM — which weren't none other than our lunatic sister, Maria Liphook, banging her head in her Hole below us, after joining the commotion.

Which was all I needed now, it really was.

PAM PAM PAM went Maria, so the pigs thought to start up next door, bashing their snouts about like they were keeping time — and wanting the High Hut waking too.

So, there really wasn't nothing for it now — I knotted my headscarf, and poked my head out low and careful into the yard. Past the gate, the rose crop acre spread peaceful and pale as a mighty cloud, and still nothing to be heard shifting in the High Hut. So then I did it, I did. I took out a torch and I raced round for the Hole door. And far off in the sleeping roses, somewhere beneath that stinking Demonmoon, Truly let out her moan.

"Come on, Maria," I whispered, sliding back the bolts and cracking open the best smile I could find. "Quiet as you can now. Hope your belly's set steady for what we're going to see."

* * *

We ran east, me and Maria, down the path between the rose rows, me gripping her big potato hand, Maria whirling her big potato feet. Our heads tucked in, our breath puffing ice clouds, the soil slipping cool and wormy beneath our running heels.

Out of the Glamis Castles and into the Silver Anniversaries we ran, the blooms shut up tight and white as shrouded mice, oozing out their perfect perfume against his Demon stink up there. Halfway along, I stopped and turned up an ear for sisterly commotion. But there was nothing to hear but that sorry UUUing.

Squeezing elbows between protecting thorns, we kept on down the rows, hunting Truly. Truly, who had been so busy at supper, pinch-measuring the holes in the sky lid and giggling into Annie's ear, that her soup turned cold. Truly and Annie, who wouldn't do nothing but giggle, "Tell you later," when I went and asked them why.

Out of the Silver Anniversaries, into the nosy Icebergs, the roseheads waking to nod and nudge behind us. I popped up for a breath and a look. Eleven yellow lights were grubbing about beneath the Eastern Wall. "They're only in the blessed Boules, Maria!"

We raced east into the Boules de Neige. And there, in the plumpest and palest, most Heaven-scented crops in all the Garden, in the black shadow of our Wall of Safekeeping, we found a circle of gorming faces, a fallen ladder, and flung on a bush like slapdash laundry — our sister, Truly Polperro.

"Oh, Truly," I said, and I dropped my hold on Maria and shoved in to get a proper look. Truly wasn't wearing her headscarf, nor her fur. Her dangled arms were milkskin in the torchlight. Her throat was pale as the sorry petals she'd crushed and killed. And her face was flopped back in broke-up thorns. Yes, Truly's face was exposed bare bone white beneath that Demonmoon.

Bare bone sick, that's how I felt at that.

"Mind out," Annie said, shoving me back, and throwing her own fur over Truly.

"Oh, Annie," I whispered, "she went and did it, didn't she?" And words came tumbling out of me all unstoppable, like they do sometimes, "She went up that ladder bare-faced and unprotected, didn't she? Oh, Annie, look at her face. She wasn't — she didn't — oh, Annie — what if she —"

But Annie wasn't saying nothing for shaking. And none of my other sisters were saying nothing. And Truly wasn't saying nothing either. Oh no. Dangled on that sorry bleeding bush, Truly wasn't bothered with nothing but moaning. "UUU," she moaned. "UUU."

And I am sorry to say it, but a punch landed on my ear then.

It was my sister, Nancy Nunhead, doing that. And you might as well know it here, Nancy was not the most well-mannered sister we ever had. Most probably on account of being too close a friend of pigs.

"Devil's pubes," Nancy said, her pig eyes shrunk to pus spots in the torchlight. "Like that's a clever idea." She pointed her torch where a shadow lump of Maria Liphook was off, bouncing potatoey through the Boule rows, crashing into perfect roseheads, and howling all senseless at their protecting thorns. "Like bringing the lunatic was about the cleverest idea there is."

"Shut up, Nancy," I said, and I thought about a spit at her. But we already had a sackful of trouble to shift tonight, and we didn't need no more. "Stay close, Maria," I called out. "Stay close."

Nancy snorted, "Like the mashhead can understand you."

So then I did, I did shoot Nancy some spit.

So Nancy flung me a fist.

So Annie forgot to be all shaky and turned and stamped her foot. "Devil take a dump on the two of you, will you both just SHUT UP!"

But Truly was the one that did.

And right then was when it started. Yes, the ruination started right then, with Truly Polperro shutting up when she shouldn't, just after she'd gone climbing where she shouldn't, exposed like she shouldn't. So, really, ain't like it should have been a surprise that Truly would get ruined, was it?

But, see, the real surprise was, it wasn't just Truly who got ruined, but us all.

Yes, down in the Boules, all our Garden's ruination was about to start right then. And there weren't one thing a body could do to stop it. Not one thing at all.



Now, Truly Polperro didn't die right there and then. No. Just after her UUUs turned off, just when we were all shivering in our furs and shifting on our heels, and trying not to listen to our eldest, prettiest but most chicken-brained sister, Sandra, wailing out what was sneaking up on all our tongues — "Is that Truly done for? Is a demonmale going to jump over the Wall to take her down to Bowels?" — well, just then, Annie shone her torch on Truly's mouth and said, "Her lips are moving."

Course, we all gasped.

And course, Annie St. Albans was straight up then. Before anyone could stop her, Annie was throwing back her curls and sticking her ear to Truly's lips. So it weren't like anyone else heard what Truly said. And that needs remembering. On account of the ruin that happened after, it really does.

"Yes, Truly," Annie said. She stepped back and frowned, "Are you sure, Truly?"

"What is it, Annie?" I asked, stepping up quick. "Do you need me, Annie? Shall I ask her a question from the Appendix, shall I?"

But Annie was too busy bent over Truly's lips to hear from me.

Annie frowned and nodded, and frowned and nodded some more. And then halfway to a nod, she stopped and stared down at Truly's mouth.

"What is it, Annie?" I said.

Annie swallowed down a long old breath before she found some words. "No injuns, you say? But I don't understand you, Truly, I don't understand."

And all the air flew out of my throat and black fear flew in.

"Definitely no injuns?" Annie said. "None at all?"

And all my sisters cried out, and I did too, "Injuns? What's she saying about the injuns, Annie?"

And Annie went, "Tell me again, Truly. Tell me more about the injuns."

But Truly didn't.

No, I am sorry to say, her lips fell loose, and no matter how many times Annie went at her with, "Truly, it's Annie. Your Annie. You can talk to me." And no matter how Annie waggled her torch, or jiggled Truly's arms, it seemed that Truly Polperro, having spoken such terrible things, wasn't for bothering with talking to no one, no more.

Up on the Wall rim, an owl screeched watchful at the Demonmoon.

"We should take her down right now," someone said.

This was Dorothy Macclesfield, course, come grass-hopping up to the bush. "Dear, unfortunate Dorothy" was what our Aunty liked to call her, seeing as she had grown twitchy and twiggy and disappointing. "Abandon hope all who enter here," was what Aunty liked to say. Which was going to be sad for Dorothy when she went to War, but we never minded because she had a brain busy with good ideas. It was so busy it never stopped rattling. And right now, Dorothy's head was near rattling itself off her neck.

She lifted up Truly's wrist and watched it flop down on broken branches. "You know how in the Showreel, Marius gets stuck on the barricades and Aunty runs up and helps him onto a stretcher?" Dorothy said. "Well, we should make a stretcher from two fur coats and lay Truly on it like that, watching out for her neck." Dorothy looked out across the roses to the black clot of yard. "We should do it right now. We've been Out of Bounds far too long as it is."

Clever Dorothy, like I said.

"Eldest sisters, take up a corner of Truly with me, nice and gentle."

Except before even one of us had grabbed a leg, the Silver Anniversaries let off a scream. It went on loud and forever, like a pig being gutted chin to tail.

And all my bones turned to jellymeat. And two smacks stung my ears at once.

"Devil's pubes, Flap-ears, I said she'd be trouble. Didn't I say don't bring Maria the mashhead? Didn't I say that?"

"Not now, Nancy," Dorothy whispered. "Maybe Maria's just having herself a shout at the thorns, maybe it's just that."

But it wasn't. Because the scream started running toward us. And then we heard something coming after. Yapping. Chasing after Maria Liphook's scream came yap-yap-yapping, that meant only one thing on this terrible night.

"We're done for," Sandra wailed.

"Sure are," Nancy said.

We sure were, because chasing after screaming Maria Liphook, and that nasty yapping, came something else then — the only sound ever known to hatch instant maggots in a body's stomach —

I feel pretty, oh so pretty

Sandra gave a sob. Annie ran to cover Truly's face with fur. Nancy flung me a third thump. And all our youngest sisters started to wail.

"Quiet down!" Dorothy hissed. "Turn off your torches, we'll have to run." She spun about, and faced nothing but the Wall of Safekeeping.

And though I wanted to spit at Nancy, and shout it wasn't my fault that Maria Liphook had been woken by a herd of sisters with their brains in their chicken feet, Dorothy was right, there weren't no time at all, because over the crops that song was swelling —

I feel charming, oh so charming, it's alarming how charming I feel

There weren't time to do nothing but set my feet racing after my sisters into the only hiding place around — the mangy-petalled, good-for-nothing-but-prickling dog roses straggling up the bottom of our cold stone Wall.

Weren't two seconds later that our softbrained sister skidded into the Boules, that fleabag dog snapping at her ankles. Maria stopped and stared at Truly, like she'd never seen her in her whole sorry life before. Maria stood and stared like she was a sign saying "This way to Out of Bounds, nieces." Which was all we needed, it really was.

I poked my head out of prickles. "Maria, over here! Maria Liphook! The dog roses! Come on!"

I ran out and kicked the dog off Maria, and pulled her in with us. I slid down against the Wall and jammed a hand over her lunatic mouth. Thirteen fur lumps and twenty-six jelly eyeballs, shrunk down under weeds, plugging up ears and swallowing breath, as that song kept coming our way.

Soon enough we could hear the sound of thrashing in between words —

See the pretty girl in that mirror there? Thrash thrash.

I shrunk myself into my fur, quieter than a slug in buds. Or a worm. Better to be a worm, sneaking down to soil safety. Breathe all quiet under soil, worms do.

Such a pretty face, such a pretty dress, such a pretty smile

All sudden it stopped. It had arrived, that song, in the Boules de Neige, and we had nowhere to go.

I scrunched my eyes blind and tried to keep the shake out of my bones. I pressed Maria's mouth shut and groped my free hand out for a sister's warmth. It was Nancy's fatty paw I found next to me, worst luck. But never mind, I took it.

Up high on the Wall, the owl screeched. I could hear nothing else in my ears but my own smashing heart.

Course, that dog came snarling on up to the dog roses then, snarling and sniffing and snapping for toes. And for a few seconds there weren't nothing happening in the Garden but that owl screeching, that dog sniffing, and the sound of a bottle unscrewing. So I began to hope it was just a Constitutional being taken, and some medicine would be drunk and then the singing would turn around for the yard, and we could be back in our dorm faster than my sister Mary Bootle could say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. And I was turning to mouth this at Nancy, when a voice said, "How very curious, the Boules de Neige appear to have grown a lump."

And all my hopes of getting back safe died off.

A white light smashed into the dog roses and wobbled over us. "Toto! Toto-tots, get away from those dratted weeds, and come here at once!" the voice said.

Now, I don't mind saying right here, the voice, course, was our dear Aunty's own one, and like Ophelia Swindon Volume III: The Glory Years says it much better than me —

Never was a larynx more loved. As powerful as the Phantom's, as pitch-perfect as Poppins, its eviction from the theaters of the West Midlands left a vacuum as vast as a black hole, a situation as vacant as a womb, and a memory more mourned than a dodo on the dinner plates of the Indian Ocean.

"How very curious, I was saying, there appears to be something cancerous clogging up this Boule bush. See, Princess, bits of bone and fur and hair. Dear oh dear, how messy it looks. And do you know what, Princess, this is very sad news, because cancers are bad news. Cancers spread, see, and soon enough they are gobbling up every inch of an otherwise healthy organ. Before long, they are on the rampage, ruining years of TLC, not to mention best-laid plans for the future." The medicine bottle sloshed. "So, what on earth are we to do with this one?"


Excerpted from The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz. Copyright © 2016 Paula Lichtarowicz. Excerpted by permission of Flatiron Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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