Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
Not yet I’m afraid, but I was runner up in this week’s Faber Academy Quickfic competition. Very pleased. You can read Islands here.
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
Not yet I’m afraid, but I was runner up in this week’s Faber Academy Quickfic competition. Very pleased. You can read Islands here.
At the end of last year I did a flash fiction workshop at the wonderful Chocolate Factory in Wood Green. We were invited to wander round the galleries and write a piece inspired by one of the artworks.
I fell for Kielle Rutland‘s portrait called Happy Days and managed to turn it into a sad little tale called…
I had plenty of other offers, mind. Albert down the bookies. Tom at the coal yard. But I’d told Sam I’d wait. So when he came back and I saw him get off the boat down the docks and my body turned to run away I told it not to.
His mother said she’d do the cake. That clinched it, really. Her icing was known all over Cardiff. She had a secret sugar supply and I had a very sweet tooth.
After he came home Sam didn’t say a lot. Except I love you. He said that. And he said sorry, which didn’t make sense till the day before the wedding when they came and told me he was in the canal, frozen white to his fingers.
Funny thing, I couldn’t look at cake after that. I put my sugar in my tea instead.
Oh it’s alright, you weren’t to know. Pass it round them in the TV lounge, will you? Highlight of their day, that’ll be. All they can remember of the last 75 years is their weddings.
No love, I never did find anyone else. Turns out he must’ve been the one after all.
My short story Stepping Stones is now up on The Londonist.
I know it isn’t, but it might as well be. The leaves. The light. The bite at the day’s extremities.
September has good songs though. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U8Prg0dIQx0
And my novel, Tidings, opens in September. My agent will be looking for an empathetic publisher as soon as everyone’s back at their desks – so maybe the end of summer will be the start of other wonderfulness.
In the meantime here’s Chapter One to put you in a September state of mind.
I spend my evenings surrounded by books and coffins and lost souls.
Under Waterloo Bridge, in a gap between the giant black boxes full of leftovers from the book market, there’s a low cupboard that does as my armchair. From here I watch them all – the confused, the unfaithful, the frightened, the guilty… all coming and going with the river. Some stop and stay for a bit, sensing a kindred spirit. Some spill everything, telling all till they’re dry.
But they get nothing from me.
My skin is as thick as a whale shark. To make me feel you have to spear me in the eye.
The coffins are padlocked, but I have a key for one next to my cubby. Inside I keep three velvet cushions that spare my bones on all-nighters, and my favourite costumes – the ones I forgot to give back to the wardrobe department. The capes come in handy when it’s chill. Tucked away at the back I hide my Talisker and a couple of crystal glasses. Whisky tastes better out of cut glass. Ted on the bookstall laughs at my airs and graces but never says no to sharing.
Waterloo isn’t the prettiest bridge, but I like how the low arches belly flop from one side to the other. I like that however much lighting gets put up, there’s always plenty of darkness. Though it’s never too dark for me to see.
My flat is over the river, on the Strand. It’s good for sleeping in, doing the washing, shooting the breeze with Marcia. But it’s not where I belong. You can’t hear the slap of the water from the Strand. You can’t see how the river mesmerizes. You can’t watch as people gallop towards it. The lovers. The loners. They can’t help themselves. Happy people. People in trouble. People who can’t tell the difference.
I did start to wonder if my long hours here were all about avoiding sleep, avoiding dreams. But then I realised I’d got that from some cod-psychology off the non-fiction end of the book table, had another sniff of whisky and a lungful of Thames air and sent my mind off downriver. It likes to travel even if I don’t. I won’t get on a boat. Too much under the surface.
On this particular September day the Thames rose over twenty feet – the highest tide of the year by a long way. Stood still anywhere along the South Bank you could see it coming, lapping and slapping like a long-time drunk, staggering sideways but always, inch by inch, heading onwards. It crept onto the pavement, licking at the stones. Like it wasn’t satisfied with what was already in its belly. The river was still hungry. It wanted to empty the fridge.
By half past midnight the water had dropped way back and through the misty rain you could see what it had been devouring. Arrowheads and goblets and bottle-tops and bones. Bits of people, and bits of things people had made. And things people had lost, or dropped, or stolen. The damp was getting solid, sticking to walls and lamp-posts and bridges. The air was turning to water. What happened earlier on the bridge kept coming back to me. I tried to push the pictures in my head away with whisky, with a bit of singing, but I was too restless to settle. My eyes were swimmy with the wetness and my legs were all rheumatic. I felt like making a nuisance till someone took me home in a nice warm police car, but I was desperate for a pee.
I always went to the loo in the Festival Hall, before the revamp. You’d go down this narrow little stairwell and at the bottom was a tiny space with big mirrors framed with light bulbs. I liked pretending I was checking myself out before I went on the stage and for once, instead of everyone looking at my costumes, they’d all be looking at me.
I don’t like the new Ladies, too bland, and I’ve been thrown out a few times for causing a disturbance so I headed for a quick emergency squat on my bit of beach just east of the bridge.
It was quiet. Everyone seemed to have headed for home out of the dankness, the drizzle. I sang a bit more, Running out of time in a place time’s stood still, la la la, to break the silence. I’d just crouched down in the dark, humming, when I was drowned out by the noise of a boat coming up fast, followed by splashing and grunting. What looked like a huge lumpy seal was trying to get onto dry land. It moved slowly out of the water and when the light hit the lump it broke into three. Two shiny wetsuits tried to stand, but couldn’t because they were dragging someone else who was bent in all the wrong places. There was more grunting and scrabbling as they pulled their cargo up the dark sand. His trousers were half down but he still had his big coat on, all twisted and stuck to him so I couldn’t see where his pants were. One of his feet was bare and pale blue, and in the light of the street lamp I could see thin black veins spidering over it. The other foot was wearing a boot with shiny buckles. A cross between a dauphin’s and a miner’s. Marty’s favourite.
He was very white. His mouth was all down on one side, and his eyes were closed but in a screwed up kind of a way. Whatever he’d seen on the bridge must have been blindingly bright.
His beautiful hair was pasted to his head. He didn’t look like a rock star. He looked like a corpse.
They laid him down on the pebbles and rubbish. He was lucky the tide was so low. Or not very clever, depending on how you look at it. They bumped the back of his head and it made me think how close his skull was to the stones. And then there was some shouting, and a guy with a box appeared. They were trying to get him to breathe, and I saw water coming out of him and I thought about those cartoons where goldfish pop out as well, dancing on a fountain.
At last the guy with the box sat back and nodded at the other two and looked at me and that’s when I knew Marty wasn’t dead.
I’d had those whiskies and spirits can make me emotional, so the wet on my face might have been tears. I suppose that’s why they assumed we were together. I like to think they took me for his girlfriend. His mother, more likely.
There was blood in my mouth where I must have bitten my lip. I spat it onto the pebbles.
And then they picked him up and carried him. It took all three to manage his floppy toy body and his sopping coat and his boot and his bare blue foot. I looked up and there was an ambulance parked on the walkway in front of the National Theatre. I was right behind as he was posted in the back. A hand came down and pulled me in and I heard one of the divers say ‘If you hadn’t called us straight away he’d be done for already’ and I looked back and saw he was talking to me.
Marty was lying under a shiny tinfoil blanket. A machine turned his vital signs into tiny bleeps. One of the medics with a moustache and nice blue eyes asked if I was all right and I nodded, but I wasn’t really. I still hadn’t had that pee.
It only took us a few minutes to get to the hospital. They got him out of the ambulance and onto a trolley as gently as a baby. A long, skinny baby. I sprinted along the corridor, but after a couple of left and right turns I got stopped by a big schoolboy in a white coat with a label that said he was Doctor Allpowerful and he told me I couldn’t go any further, they’d come and get me when there was news.
So I found the Ladies which was a great relief, though the décor wasn’t up to much. Then I went and sat in the empty hospital café where a woman in a red vinyl apron was wiping down the tables with a cloth that smelled of old man’s pants. When I asked for tea, she made it like she was taking out an appendix for the first time.
I sat and waited. I hate waiting. But something always turns up and after half an hour she did.
From the doorway she looked about twelve. Dainty as a Victorian paper silhouette. Ghostly and gothic. The same fake leopard coat. The same coltish look. The same pixie face. But something was very different. It took me a moment to realise the light had been shorn from her along with her hair.
She looked around the empty café. Then she turned back to me. ‘I’m sorry…outside they said someone was waiting for Marty and…I imagined… I don’t know…’ Now the hair was gone she had to look down at her nails to hide her eyes. The purple tips were cracking.
‘Can’t know everything,’ I said to her with a smile. And then I caught sight of myself in the glass door, a fat spring roll with electrocuted hair and a too-tight coat with bulging pockets. No. She wouldn’t have imagined it was me.
She held out her hand. ‘I’m Geraldine. My friends call me GG.’
‘Pleasure to meet you.’ I’d thought it was a stupid name the first time Marty spoke about her. Put me in mind of a horse. But now I disliked her less than I’d planned to. She looked like a storm had just swept her world away.
‘You know Marty, don’t you? I knew he had…a friend…someone he liked to talk to…’ Tears started making soup with her mascara. ‘It’s just…’
I had another look at me in the glass door. Some days I can pass for forty-nine, but this wasn’t one of them. I had no intention of telling her anything about me or anyone else. So I wiped the rim of my cup to be polite, poured the last of the tea into it, pushed it towards her and started to ramble.
‘You’ve got to squeeze the life out of the tea bags in here. It’s like somebody’s sucked them first. He’ll be alright. Come on, Lovely, have a good blow. He likes a drink, doesn’t he? Might’ve stopped him feeling the river.’
She sat up and wiped her nose. She didn’t say anything, but then she didn’t have to. We both knew Marty drank like there was a prize for the winner. He practised with shorts when he got too thin to soak up pints any more. Jack Daniels and Coke, mainly, though he and I had shared enough vodka in our time. He would produce a bottle of Jack from the inside pocket of his great big coat and sit it down next to him like a friend. Like all of us he drank for his own particular reason, to keep out his own particular kind of cold.
GG was as skinny as he was. They must’ve looked like a set of pipe-cleaners when they were out together, ready to blow over in the breeze. The tea perked her up though, and she got a bit chattier.
‘He is supposed to be packing. He is supposed to be on a plane to New York tomorrow. He disappears. He keeps turning up in strange places, scary places, talking to tramps and mad people…’
I thought I’d let the tramps and mad people reference go, in the circumstances.
‘I called my mother. She told me to phone round the hospitals. Which shows you what faith she’s got in him.’
‘So you phoned round the hospitals?’ I said, thinking smart woman, your mother, careful to keep my face serious.
She nodded as she made shapes in the spilled sugar with her finger. Then out of the blue she lifted up her head and those big black smudgy eyes tried to get mine to look straight into them.
‘It wasn’t you, was it? Who called me? Someone called me and said He’s throwing banknotes in the Thames. The voice was hard to hear. It sounded like the person was running. I thought it was a man, but it might have been a woman. It wasn’t you, was it?’
And then her phone rang and she had to root around in her enormous bag to find it. ‘Where have you been? I’m at the hospital…’
I half-closed my eyes. I saw her glance over to see if I was asleep, but it’s never a good idea to make assumptions. People passing my cubby make assumptions. They stare a little, then when you move a flicker they turn to look downwards like they’re interested in their feet all of a sudden, like they’re checking they’ve got enough shoe leather to out-race you if you do something unhinged.
She, on the other hand, wasn’t going anywhere fast in those heels. All that black velvet and lace made her look like a little earth-bound bat. While she thought I was snoozing I had a good look at her legs, one tangled round the other, fishnet tights like tarantula webs going up under her skirt. Sitting like that’ll play havoc with her veins when she’s older. I’ve worked with so many beautiful actresses, gorgeous when they’re dressed, legs like dropped knitting when the support tights are off.
As she put her phone away I opened my eyes wide. ‘So Marty’s your soul-mate is he, my lovely?’
Catty of me really, given what I knew, but something was pushing at my insides like my organs had been set alight and I couldn’t have that, so making her cry was the best alternative.
Her teacup started wobbling and all her black and silver rings started clinking the china and more black tears headed off down her cheeks. By the time they’d reached her chin they were grey. Then she huddled herself into her big fake fur and didn’t speak to me any more.
And so I sat and did some remembering, and there we were, Marty and me, one lazy afternoon in the silver sunshine on the terrace at the Festival Hall, his head resting in my lap and him asking for stories. He wanted something new. Something I hadn’t told him before.
‘Well, my love, you won’t know this one.’ We both wriggled a bit to get comfortable, so nothing got in the way of the telling. ‘A couple of centuries before us, they used to drag bodies out of the Thames and assume they were dead just because they weren’t moving. Who knows how many could’ve been saved? Eventually they set up a place over there on the north bank, to try and get people into lifesaving. It had a rest room and a nice bath to warm up the rescuers and the rescued. And they gave a big reward for bravery. But guess what?’ I broke off, not sure he was still awake. I looked down at his face. He turned his head up towards me and I saw he was chuckling quietly.
‘I bet everyone started rescuing their mates to get the money.’
And then the light went and his face changed.
‘Would you rescue me if there wasn’t any money, Lizzie?’
To make me feel anything you have to spear me in the eye. Then he turned up. And stabbed me nearly blind.
My writing process is messy. I generate a blizzard of notes, scenes and chapters over many months, then carry my stack of scribbles away somewhere quiet, listen to the birds and try to work out what it’s all about. I’m looking for those brave, instinctive written moments to flock into shape. And then, when the magic happens, begin to fly.
Sifting papers over the past few days I found this short piece, written a while ago after re-reading Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. It’s unrelated to the current work in progress but felt kind of timely about staying true.
Of all the prisoners I saw shot against the wall it was Mrs Grey Dress, in her dusty dignity, who affected me most. She stood like a storm-tilted tree, roots cracking, holding tight to the handles of her big yellow hand bag which rested on the ground at her feet. She wouldn’t let go of that bag, no matter how much the nasty piece of work in the over-designed head gear bawled at her to drop it – presumably he wanted it for his wife or his mistress as his own mother must surely have shot herself years ago.
Head Gear seemed to decide not to force it. Maybe even he was getting jaded. Two swift shots. Head and heart. She fell onto the bag, the yellow turning orange as she drained white.
The boss went off to drink whisky out of the hot blue heat and it was half an hour or so before Private Green & Homesick said:
I sent him to fetch it. I give the orders when Head Gear is killing time.
I could see Green didn’t want to.
He carried the bag towards me at arm’s length. It moved as though filled with heavy jelly.
‘Open it,’ I commanded.
His face was fearful. He had come to mistrust surprises.
The baby was tinged with orange, but otherwise unharmed.
Feeling extra-Welsh today so this seemed appropriate. Marty is heading back home…
I didn’t have the stomach for the drive, so I booked a cab to Paddington. It’s around three hours from there to Swansea. Then you change for Haverfordwest. After that, you’re on your own.
Getting off the train a blond, maybe Swedish, bloke came up.
‘I think perhaps I know you?’
There was nowhere to run. What the hell.
‘I sing with a band called The Rain.’
‘Yes! I was right. A Welsh friend of mine took me to see you at Brixton Academy.’ He reached for my hand and I shook it, praying this wasn’t going to happen right across west Wales.
‘I thought you were great, the whole set, it was truly inspiring…’
As he clearly knew what he was talking about, I stayed and chatted with him till the lift to his B&B turned up, then carried on as they gave me a ride as far as Fishguard. As I got out of the car I wanted to ask how long the feeling had lasted, if it had lasted, after the show. But. Well.
After twenty minutes slog along a wind-blasted B-road I spent another ten minutes trying to light a roll-up in the shelter of a hawthorn, horizontal from years of fighting the wind off the sea. I’d forgotten that you couldn’t win against the elements down here. I wished to god I’d left the cowboy boots in London.
At last I dropped down into my grandfather’s village, a handful of houses huddled in the lap of the landscape just before the screaming cliffs. The entrance to the farm was down a hidden lane. When we were kids in the back of the car the game was to see who could spot it first.
‘I win,’ I muttered, pushing open the gate and wrestling the rusting chain back on after me.
The unmade track to the farm was filled with icy puddles and pitch dark under heavy, overhanging branches even in the middle of the afternoon. I stopped before it opened into the farmyard, trying to make sure my old memories of the place didn’t get overwritten by the present.
I’d forgotten my father had been renovating the barn as a holiday let. It was a bit of a shock. He’d worked at it till it would’ve been at home on a lunar landing station, glowing with lime wash in the thin light. I closed my eyes, hanging on tight to the childhood pictures in my head.
Down in the dell my grandfather’s farmhouse stood belligerently grey, slate-roofed with teeth missing, unidentifiable pieces of things, maybe furniture, maybe boats, littering the yard. The sheep stared me out as I walked up to the barn on the brow, its double-glazed windows looking thoughtfully down on Fishguard Harbour, skimming over the broken cliffs a field away.
There was hammering in the barn. Before he saw me, I watched my father struggle with a door that wouldn’t fit into a frame. What looked like a peregrine falcon dipped overhead and as I followed its path I turned to see my grandfather watching me, standing in the middle of his yard among the debris, oilskins flapping off him like a sail in a storm.
We stood there, the three of us, in a strung-out line.
My grandfather’s stick figure that could have been one of the trees behind him. He was already part of the landscape.
My father, tools in hand, still with work to do, his face showing his tiredness.
And me, part of a world so far from this, where spotlights scorched down on my head.
The falcon checked all of us out and for a moment the wind dropped and you could hear the sea roaring below. The bird seemed to stall, like it wasn’t sure which of us it had come for.
Down the field Fishguard gave shape to the dusk, the harbour flinging its amber-lit arms open, safe haven for holidaymakers from Ireland and the Celts shuttling between the two coastlines. I wasn’t sure I could be here now and not afraid, without its artificial light.
As I turned back from the sea my father was behind me, reaching out his hand to touch my shoulder. We looked to the spot where my grandfather had stood. He had gone. I felt relief that I didn’t have to say goodbye. He’d already been spirited into the hills.
‘You’re honoured,’ my father said. “He’s gone to put the kettle on for you.’
As he took his hand from my shoulder I realised I was half a head taller. I must have grown in London. Didn’t realise bourbon was fertiliser. We walked together down the mud path studded with stones unmoved by farmer or sheep for centuries. A ghost of smoke came from the farmhouse chimney. My father indicated it with a nod and a wink. ‘He thinks you’ve gone all soft, living in London.’
The door was open. The creases in the first flagstone smiled a welcome and I saw again the faces and the giants and the clouds and the spirits in the rest of the floor that had terrified and mesmerised me as a kid, wrapped in a blanket in the rocker by the fire.
‘Will you have tea?’ It was graciously put, though you knew it wasn’t really a question.
The farmhouse kitchen was immaculate, austere, strong-shaped chairs, scrubbed table, wood-burner glowing in my honour.
And dark… I had forgotten how the light disappeared down to the sea by late afternoon, slipping through the valley like it had run out of visiting rights. There was silence, a clock ticking in the bedroom, the scrawny old cat rasping against a chair-leg.
My grandfather made tea meticulously, warming the pot with water, measuring out fresh leaves from a battered caddy, letting it settle. The cups had the same cracks I remembered. As I looked into the one he poured for me I saw my grandmother’s face. I made some sort of noise and the scene reanimated, the wind blew, a log fell in the burner. Several sheep rushed past the door.
‘So. You come to see if I’m dead yet?’
And he became an irritating, tyrannical git again, however old, however frail.
‘That’s right. Marty’s come to check on the inheritance.’
Not the wisest words, perhaps. But my father never seemed to know what to say to his. He swallowed the tea in a mouthful. I resented being cast as mediator, having just walked what felt like fifty miles for the privilege.
‘Dad’s doing a great job on the barn. You’ll be fleecing the English for a fortune next summer.’
With hindsight, also the wrong thing to say in so, so many ways.
‘Looks like a tart’s dressing room in there, all white, flouncy curtains. I’ll be dead before a bunch of lily-livered ponces comes tiptoeing over my land.’
‘Good you’re so appreciative.’ My father was rubbing a cut on his hand. He turned to me. ‘You know what gets to him most?’ And he smiled, and licked his lips, like he knew the next word would be the winner. But he savoured the moment a second too long and my grandfather robbed him of it yet again.
‘Bloody central heating!’ he spat, getting up to fling open a window. Outside the cold pink sun ignited the slice of sky above the harbour, casting a last shaft of rosy light onto the whitewashed barn.
Something about the colour softened the mood.
‘I’m glad to see you, boy,’ my grandfather said to me, quiet as if he was talking to the cat.
My father took the hint. ‘Just going to pack up the toolbox.’
We sat opposite each other in the gloom. And then came the moment that comes every night, after the sun has set, the moment of light that comes from nowhere, so swift most of us miss it, a little promise the daylight hasn’t gone forever.
‘I want you to do something for me.’
Christ. He wants me to kill him. In the same minute I knew that was crap. He was perfectly capable of walking off a cliff by himself if he wanted to.
‘I want to take you up to Pentre Ifan tomorrow. Important. Alright, boy?’ His words banged in my head like hooves on sand. And as I left for the barn where Dad and I would sit up and drink whisky and fall asleep in our chairs, my grandfather put a hand on my shoulder as imperceptibly as an owl picking a mouse from its hiding place and croaked out a word that might have been ‘honest’ and another that might have been ‘proud’.
When I was a little girl I had a picture book.
The kind with a gorgeous illustration on one side of the page and a black and white outline of the same picture opposite for you to colour in.
I had a bash at the yacht, and the zoo, and the children on the beach.
But the last page I didn’t touch.
The two Persian kittens were too beautiful, too perfect.
I knew very clearly that I would mess up my attempt.
I’ll save it; I’ll do it when I’m older, when I can colour perfectly. I put the book away somewhere safe.
And never found it again.
January 2014. Colouring in.
(The cloud words are all Joni Mitchell’s from Both Sides, Now; mine when I sing them in the shower. http://www.jonimitchell.com/)