Writing Heroes – Ernest Hemingway

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I have a strange relationship with Ernest Hemingway. I read The Old Man and the Sea when I was very young, and loved it. I was completely caught up in the story of the Cuban fisherman who caught a giant marlin while way out to sea and…well I won’t spoil the story for those who may want to read it. Then I didn’t read anything else by Hemingway for 30 years, picking him up again when I first visited Cuba.

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Probably as much has been written about Hemingway as any other writer. As with many writers, even Nobel prize winners, the critics at first loved him, perhaps over praised him, and then turned against him, sometimes with justification. But the critics turn against almost everyone eventually and: Who are they but people who can’t write, people who can’t tell stories?

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I haven’t even read all his books, but he did change the way many people write, so he’s endlessly interesting, his incredible life apart. When I returned to Hemingway I read his short stories and turned first to Big Two Hearted River, which I’d heard was special. It was. By this time I thought much more about writing; I couldn’t be pulled along by a narrative as I had been by the Old Man and the Sea, and had not been much impressed by any new writing. The story hit home. I understood Hemingway and what he did and what he meant to people. When Samuel Putnam asked Hemingway what his aims were in the twenties, his answer was:

Put down what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way I can tell it.

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Well, he did that in 1925 with Big Two Hearted River. I found some of the writing moved me (a rare experience); it sounds corny but reading it was like being there. You felt it. I don’t know if it will have the same effect here, in isolation, but here goes. Nick has just set up camp, alone, by the river:

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It smelled pleasantly of canvas. Already there was something mysterious and homelike. Nick was happy as he crawled inside the tent. He had not been unhappy all day. This was different though. Now things were done. There had been this to do. Now it was done. It had been a hard trip. He was very tired. That was done. He had made his camp. He was settled. Nothing could touch him. It was a good place to camp. He was there, in a good place. He was in his home where he had made it. Now he was hungry.

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This passage reminded me immediately of my hitch hiking days in Europe. After a day on the road, find a site, pitch your tent and you were done for the day. But it didn’t just remind me – it made me feel it. Hemingway has captured that sense of achievement, of creating your home, being comfortable and being all set for the evening, perfectly. It is a wonderful, simple piece of writing. It looks easy – anybody could write that – but they couldn’t. I liked most of the other short stories too.

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I also read Hemingway’s first novel, The Sun Also Rises. I enjoyed it but not so much. Already his macho tendencies were creeping in. Later I disliked A Farewell to Arms. It seemed to me thoroughly sentimental, not really an experience of war but a man imagining the part he would like to play in it. Hemingway was intensely competitive: the great white hunter, the fearless war correspondent, the champion fisherman, the boxer, the drinker. I felt it tainted most of his writing after the short stories.

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I liked For Whom the Bell Tolls and Across the River and Into the Trees; I didn’t like Islands in the Stream. A Moveable Feast is an entertaining, but not entirely true account of Hemingway’s early days in Paris. The Garden of Eden is very strange, an erotic ménage a trois, again based on his early days in France. But with success came obsessions: to hunt, to own a boat and catch the biggest fish, to be present, though not necessarily involved in, war. Ultimately it felt that Hemingway was in constant competition with everybody, even poor Scott Fitzgerald, whose fragile psyche he messed with.

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The story that did for me occurred long after he had lost a lot of friends because of his behaviour. He was on his boat, Pilar, in Cuban waters with a good and old friend, Mike Strater. Strater had hooked a really big fish, the biggest he’d ever caught and bigger than anything Hemingway had ever caught. He was slowly reeling it in to the boat. It was being followed by sharks but they only really go for blood; he would have got it on board. Hemingway grabbed his machine gun (he loved shooting sharks) and sprayed the water. Strater’s fish was attacked. By the time they landed it the bottom half had been eaten away. It weighed in at 500 pounds, but would have weighed double that whole. It was pure jealousy, stopping a friend from beating him. He then lied about the event in an article for Esquire. Friends don’t do that.

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Of course his whole life was tragic. There were five suicides in his family. It is thought his father had the genetic disease hemochromatosis, where the inability to metabolize iron culminates in mental and physical deterioration. Hemingway’s hemochromatosis had been diagnosed in early 1961. Hemingway’s father, siblings Ursula and Leicester and granddaughter Margaux all died by their own hand. Hemingway’s youngest son, Gregory, died in 2001 as a transsexual named Gloria. Several books could be written on Hemingway’s life, but here I’m just concentrating on the writing.

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I returned to The Old Man and the Sea a few years back and didn’t like it much. Was that just the result of me becoming older and more cynical? Partly, but not wholly. Although it showed flashes of the old Hemingway, I thought it was overly sentimental and contrived.

In Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost (2012), Paul Hendrickson spends over 700 pages trying to rescue Hemingway’s reputation. I don’t think he does it. In many ways he was an awful man. His writing remains though, and many of his early observations have stayed with me. Carlos Baker:

Hemingway always wrote slowly and revised carefully, cutting, eliding, substituting, experimenting with syntax to see what a sentence could most economically carry, and then throwing out all the words that could be spared.

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The actual, he wrote in 1949, is ‘made of knowledge, experience, wine, bread, oil, salt, vinegar, bed, early mornings, nights, days, the sea, men, women, dogs, beloved motor cars, bicycles, hills and valleys, the appearance and disappearance of trains on straight and curved tracks…cock grouse drumming on a basswood log, the smell of sweetgrass and fresh-smoked leather and Sicily.’

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Perhaps not so awful.

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Happy Idleness

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Idleness is a word that encompasses a great deal of human activity. I suppose in today’s society it is a dirty word. We’re all supposed to be rushing around being proactive, inspiring change, making things happen – why we should do that is rarely questioned. Idleness is associated with those on benefits, people who don’t want to work, loafers, scroungers, drains on society.

But I don’t think of idleness as meaning that. Idleness can merely mean stopping to think. How many people actually stop to think about anything, free from the distractions of TV, the Internet, their phones, games – the constant babble of civilisation?

 

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the essay An Apology For Idlers in 1876. He could not imagine the ways one can be idle today; just the welfare state and technology would have been unimaginable to him. But his points remain as true today as they were then; many, many things have changed, some things remain the same.

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Idleness so called, which does not consist in doing nothing, but in doing a great deal not recognised in the dogmatic formalities of the ruling class, has as good a right to state its position as industry itself. It is admitted that the presence of people who refuse to enter in the great handicap race for sixpenny pieces, is at once an insult and a disenchantment for those who do.

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Ah, the mad pursuit of money for its own sake. I read today that Tony Blair insists that he is ONLY worth twenty million, not the one hundred million that some claim. Why does he want that much? What will he do with it? Apart from other obvious acts of his, isn’t it a little disturbing that a man who chases after money with such enthusiasm ran the country for ten years? Do the people who run after more and more money all their lives ever stop to think: What did I do with my life? Well, Tony Blair is a ‘Middle East peace envoy’. But that’s a joke, isn’t it?

Stevenson again:

Many make a large fortune, who remain underbred and pathetically stupid to the last.

He continues:

While others (at school) are filling their memory with a lumber of words, one-half of which they will forget before the week is out, your truant may learn some really useful art: to play the fiddle, to know a good cigar, or so to speak with ease and opportunity to all varieties of men.

I learnt very little at school. My education began while I was playing truant, but mostly after I left. I chose what I needed to learn. I don’t think anybody does learn much at school, apart from perhaps how to read and write, if they didn’t know how already. Most real learning comes from life. An uneducated person can be very wise, an educated person very stupid. But there is no place for the wise today.

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I suppose the best universities and some private schools provide something better for people. But our government was, and is, full of these people: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Nick Clegg et al – born privileged, they seem to be magnificently ignorant, have worked nowhere, apart from perhaps PR or the Law, have never fought, have never had to worry about paying a bill. No knowledge of history (unimportant), can’t do simple multiplication, completely out-of-touch with ordinary people – hardly a good advertisement for the education which produced them.

Stevenson continues:

Might not the student afford some Hebrew roots, and the businessman some of his half-crowns, for a share of the idler’s knowledge of life at large, and Art of Living? Nay, and the idler has another and more important quality than these. I mean wisdom. He will have a great and cool allowance for all sorts of people and opinions. If he finds no out-of-the-way truths, he identifies himself with no very burning falsehood.

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Politicians, leaders generally (not all), never stop to think; they are too busy. As are many in the mad rush for money, the only true gauge of worth today:

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Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity. There is a sort of dead-alive, hackneyed people about, who are scarcely conscious of living except in the exercise of some conventional occupation.

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They have no curiosity; they cannot give themselves over to random provocations; they do not take pleasure in the exercise of their faculties for its own sake; and unless Necessity lays about them with a stick, they will even stand still. It is no good speaking to such folk: they cannot be idle, their nature is not generous enough; and they pass those hours in a sort of coma, which are not dedicated to furious moiling in the gold-mill.

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Stevenson’s essay reminds me of my travels. The sheer happiness and joy of living one often witnesses in poor countries. I can vouch for the happiness of children in Cuba, India, Indonesia and parts of Africa. I have read about the amazing resilience of the untouchables in Bangladesh and Bhopal. I am not suggesting that we should copy their economies and become poor, but we have lost something here. Something is very wrong with our lives.

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There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy. The other day, a ragged, barefoot boy ran down the street after a marble, with so jolly an air that he set everyone he passed into a good humour. A happy man or woman is a better thing to find than five-pound note. He or she is a radiating focus of goodwill; and their entrance into a room is as though another candle had been lighted. We need not care whether they could prove the forty-seventh proposition; they do a better thing than that, they practically demonstrate the great Theorem of the Liveableness of Life.

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I’ll remember this on my next trip to Cuba, a poor country that has much wrong with it. But one of those wrongs is not the happiness of the children (or most of the adults, come to that). I have heard young Cubans crying very few times in years of visiting and staying (they laugh all the time). It is impossible in England to visit a supermarket or a cafe without hearing some spoilt child screaming its head off, its parents having no idea what to do with it, apart from perhaps buy it something else. The children have no shame; they don’t care who they disturb or who sees them. I would never have cried in front of other people when I was a child. I rarely cried at all. Today there are dozens of them, every day, everywhere.

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But back to idling and a last warning from Stevenson:

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They have dwarfed and narrowed their souls by a life of all work and no play; until here they are at forty, with a listless attention, a mind vacant of all material amusement, and not one thought to rub together with another, while they wait for the train. This does not appeal to me as being Success in Life.

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A marvellous essay, as true now as when it was written, 138 years ago.

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Still Reading in Bed…

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Below are two paragraphs from my December blog, Reading in Bed. I return, reluctantly, to it now.

Julian Barnes’ Booker winning novel is a beautiful object; I read it over a few nights, entirely from a prone, on my back, position. And it is not a practical object. For a very simple and infuriating reason: its inner margins are too narrow. The book requires an uncomfortable and impractical two hands to be able to see the whole of the text; in other words, without forcing the book wide open with two hands the inner text on both pages will disappear into the fold of the book; one is constantly tilting the book this way and that to read the end of the sentences on the left-hand page and their beginning on the right hand page. This is unusual with hardback books, but this is a small book.

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Although this fault is most noticeable in bed – I suppose publishers will protest that books are not designed to be read in bed (if not, they should be) – it is almost as annoying when reading anywhere in any way. If, like me, you love books as ‘physical’ objects then you will resent having to practically break their backs to read the central text. Apart from the discomfort and the detraction of pleasure, you are damaging the book, shortening its life – the act of doing this, bending the two halves of a paperback hard against its spine makes me angry; apart from the inconvenience which has been added to what should be a pleasure (depending on the book), I resent having to treat a book this way. It should never be necessary.

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When I wrote that I had also intended to include a survey of the books I owned: note the good ones and the bad ones, unmask the guilty publishers and provide some kind of guide. It proved too time-consuming and difficult and there was no consistency. The same publishers would provide both the readable and the unreadable. I was slightly disappointed that there was no pattern, nothing to complain about (except generally) to anyone.

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However I’ve recently bought two books that confirm absolutely the faults that I mention. So I’ll report on them. Perhaps others could do the same. Maybe a pattern will emerge.

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A while ago I purchased Far From The Tree from Amazon. Written by Andrew Solomon, it is about parents, children and the search for identity. The reviews were spectacular, far too many good reviews for them to have been an old-pals-act. It’s the sort of book I cannot resist, particularly as I believe there are very few decent books being published, or at least widely publicised.

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But when it arrived from Amazon, I first thought of returning it, then slotted it into my shelves, probably never to be read. It will be in a charity shop within the year. Why? 958 pages have been crammed into a too small paperback. The book measures 8.5” x 5.3” x 2” (215 x 135 x 50); its type is fairly small, but not quite too small with fairly narrow line spacing. But that is not the main problem. The problem is the inner margins and flexibility. The inner margins are never wider than a half inch and the book is not flexible enough to open flat, making it difficult at any time to view a whole page in comfort. In my view it would be impossible to read in bed; I won’t even try. As much type as possible has been squeezed into the smallest possible space. The book is published by Vintage; it is printed by Clays Ltd of St Ives, although I assume printers just follow instructions. I consider the book a useless object: Price – £11.99.

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Now, I know putting 958 pages into a readable paperback represents a challenge. I checked some of my books for a comparison. Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has 1114 pages. It is printed in a slightly smaller paperback and has smaller type. But it is flexible. The book opens flat at any point and is easy to read, in bed or otherwise. It was published in 2005 by Penguin Classics.

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An alternative is simply to print a larger paperback. Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, Volume 1 and 2, have 1360 pages and 1288 respectively. Wordsworth Editions (God praise them) have simply published the book at 9 x 6 x 2.25 (230 x 150 x 55). It is flexible at all points and has large inner and outer margins. Heavy to read in bed, perhaps, but no fault of the publisher. Incredibly, it is available, new, at £6.99 (£5.24 from Amazon). I think Wordsworth always produce readable volumes. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

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Just to prove inconsistency, I’ve just checked my version of Anna Karenina. It’s also published by Penguin (2001). It has narrow, inconsistently sized inner margins and is not flexible. To me it’s unreadable. Off to the charity shop with it. The Wordsworth edition is £1.99, I’ll buy that one.

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The other book I bought (today) was purchased in Waterstones: Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and all that Jazz, by Kevin Jackson. I looked through it and it seemed fine. On getting it home for a closer look it is not so good. It consists of diary type entries for the year 1922. The diary entries are set towards the middle of the page. That’s OK. But the inner margins are inconsistent, barely a quarter of an inch in places, making the entries hard to read. The book is fairly flexible and quite nicely produced, but why this inconsistency? On pages 250 and 251, for example, the type almost merges at the centre of the page. All through the book there are massive outer margins, just wasted space; I wouldn’t care at all if outer margins were narrow. Most of the book is fine (just), but tiny inner margins for no reason – it seems so careless The book is published by Windmill Books, part of The Random House group, at £9.99.

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According to the Amazon reviews the book may be badly or nonexistently edited too. That’s something I’ll return to another time. It seems that many publishers are only interested in rushing books out as quickly as possible, with little thought for quality.

That’s it. Rant over. Please let me know of other cases of thoughtless printing (and good printing too). I don’t suppose we can do anything about it, but we can try.

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Somebody Say Something

Graham Greene wrote that:

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The writer’s duty is to make trouble for any dominant power, forcing complacent authorities and submissive followers to confront difficult questions.’ They should be ‘grit in the state machinery.’ He says that disloyalty is essential against anything that is ‘part of the establishment – churches, universities, businesses, social and cultural groups, even great literary figures such as Shakespeare. If any of these institutions or people are deserving, they can survive the criticism directed at them. Otherwise, no one will suffer unduly except the pretentious, the humourless, the dogmatic, the corrupt.’

There is nothing contentious in this statement, it is just common sense. Any power should be able to tolerate and absorb criticism. Criticism is necessary for democracy, or at least a healthy society, to thrive. Yet I see very little criticism of authority today. Of course it is there, perhaps more than ever, but it is mostly hidden, confined to the Internet or minority, specialist outlets. In the mainstream there is little of any relevance.

V.S. Pritchett described Greene as ‘genially subversive’ and suggested an appropriate maxim for him and those like him:

The world is too complacent. Let us catch it out.’

Greene was a very good writer and an extraordinarily interesting man. There were many like him: George Orwell, John Steinbeck and, later, Norman Mailer to name just a few. Orwell wrote of Charles Dickens that he was:

Generously angry…a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.’

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Orwell wrote that in 1939 about a man who wrote in the previous century. What would he think of the standard of writing today? Who confronts our ‘smelly little orthodoxies?

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Orwell also wrote about ‘the emotional shallowness of people who live in a world of ideas and have little contact with physical reality.’  That describes almost everyone in authority in the Western world today, particularly where I live in England – public schoolboys and girls are everywhere, completely out-of-touch with reality, living in a strange cocooned world of privilege, but nevertheless possessed of a disturbing certainty that what they are doing is right, that there is no other way. It is much the same with TV, journalism, in fact the media as a whole.

Far too many people are only interested in trivia. Twitter, Facebook, computer games and porn are all escapes from reality, time spent on them provides an excuse not to think. Authority conspires in this, often unthinkingly, until we are all engulfed in nonsense. Meanwhile a significant minority goes on its merry way, leading the world to disaster. Here is not the place to discuss what that disaster or disasters may be, I am merely addressing the reporting of it, the writing about it, particularly in books, newspapers and magazines. Many people believe that print is a thing of the past. I don’t agree. Generally, most people do not absorb or remember what they see on their screens; they don’t really learn anything – it is just an escape from thinking.

So, who in print is addressing real problems? Where are the influential writers of today? Who is publishing them? Where can I buy their books or read their articles? I hope I’m wrong, but I know of very few, especially novelists. Is there anybody out there who isn’t just playing the game, just lining their own nest?

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Norman Mailer wrote of the American WASP that:

They were not here on earth to enjoy or even perhaps to love very much, they were here to serve, and serve they did in public functions and public charities (while recipients of their charity might vomit in rage and laugh in scorn).’

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Mailer wrote that in the sixties; he was still genially subversive in 2006, not long before his death at 85:

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‘Global capitalism does not speak of a free market but of a controlled globe. It is alien to the creative possibilities that have not yet been tapped in legions of people who’ve never had a chance to be creative, who work and die without creative moments in their lives. Their hopes have been buried. When talented people emerge from no apparent cultural background, I see them as the product of ten generations of frustrated people who wanted more than their lives gave them.’

Some fine writers have died recently, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Christopher Hitchens among them. Far from perfect human beings, but thinkers, writers, troublemakers – they always had interesting things to say. I find it hard to think of anybody now who is challenging today’s awful orthodoxies. Is there anyone?

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on television and on radio: so much that the production of opinion seems to be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most enjoy doing. Most of it isn’t bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written, if the sermonisers and pundits couldn’t speak in coherent sentences, if you routinely tuned in to hear people not making any sense, it would be much easier to dismiss. That though is not the problem with what passes for discussion in Britain. The problem isn’t that it’s low-grade: It is mostly fluent, clear, coherent and often vividly expressed. The problem is that it is almost entirely free of fresh ideas.

You can go whole weeks without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of media debate and encounter nothing new. The void is at its worst when there is a conspicuous attempt to fill it: the frowning politician pretending to think, as he mimes sincerity; the pouting celebrities spouting forth on the issues of the day, when their only motive is to draw attention to themselves. You witness these performances (and that is what they are – acting) and you think: I wish somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling I get about British life, a bizarre feeling given how much talk there is, but one which goes very deep: you get the feeling that nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the newspaper, and wait for somebody to say something…and wait…and wait…and wait…

John Lanchester wrote the above in the London Review of Books. He wrote it TEN years ago. We are so, so much worse off now.

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Smoking

At the beginning of the film Smoke (1994), one of my favourite films, William Hurt mentions that Walter Raleigh was a favourite at the Court of Queen Elisabeth I and that smoking (Raleigh had discovered tobacco) had caught on at the court. He said that Raleigh once made a bet with Elizabeth that he could measure the weight of smoke. Toldwalterraleigh it was impossible, like weighing someone’s soul, he took an unsmoked cigar and weighed it on a balance before lighting up and smoking it. He carefully tipped the ashes into the balance pan. When he was finished he put the butt alongside the ashes and weighed what was there. Then he subtracted that weight from the original weight of the unsmoked cigar. The difference was the weight of the smoke.

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Later in the same film Hurt tells Rashid the story of Bakhtin, caught in the Siege of Leningrad in 1942. He’s holed up in an apartment expecting to die any day. He has plenty of tobacco but no paper. Desperate, he took the pages of a manuscript he had been working on for ten years. He tore up his manuscript and rolled cigarettes from the pieces. Rashid asked if it was his only copy. Hurt says that it was and ‘You think you’re gonna die, what do you want? A good book or a good smoke?’ So he huffed and he puffed and little by little he smoked his book.

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I quit smoking in December. I’m really depressed about it. I love smoking, I love fire, I miss lighting cigarettes. I like the whole thing about it, to me it turns into the artist’s life, and now people like Bloomberg have made animals out of smokers, and they think that if they stop smoking everyone will live forever.

David Lynch

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I recently started smoking again after 3 years, the longest period I’ve managed to stop. I wasn’t even missing smoking at all, had got past all the withdrawal symptoms and thought of myself as a non-smoker for the rest of my life. A drink with an old friend, a cigarette, convincing myself I’d only have a couple and I was hooked again. Not only hooked but now I don’t want to stop; it’s too late – I enjoy smoking. If you’ve never been a smoker then I suppose it’s hard to understand, but the response of Bakhtin was the action of an addict – I am an addict. I started through boredom with my job at seventeen and now I’m stuck with it.

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He found a tree that had not been damaged by shellfire and sat down beneath it, lighting a cigarette and sucking in the smoke. Before the war he had never touched tobacco; now it was his greatest comfort.

Sebastian Faulks – Birdsong (1993)

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Although I am a smoker I never, when I had given up, looked down on those who smoked. I did reach a stage where I felt sorry for them, thought of the health damage and the expense, but I would never object to anybody smoking anywhere, even in my own house. In years to come we will probably look back and consider smoking insane, but for now it persists. I accept that people should not be subjected to other people’s smoke in restaurants and pubs, but to ban it everywhere is ridiculous; there should be smoker’s pubs and smoking rooms in non-smoking areas. The Health Police have gone too far.

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Whatever Aristotle and all the philosophers may say, there is nothing equal to tobacco. All good fellows like it, and he who lives without tobacco does not deserve to live.

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Smoking is supposed to aid writing; it certainly feels as though it does. I smoke loads as I write. When I didn’t smoke I continued to write. I look back and find stuff I wrote then and some of it is rather good. It just didn’t feel as though it was good. I am undecided. While I was a non-smoker I became a recluse; I didn’t go out and I didn’t travel because the temptation to smoke would have been too great. I think I have just been smoking for too long to stop. Who knows what I would have written if I hadn’t started. But I did.

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Dear Mr Eliot

I read in the current Time Magazine that you are ill. I just want you to know that I am rooting for your quick recovery. First because of your contribution to literature and, then, the fact that under the most trying conditions you never stopped smoking cigars.

Hurry up and get well.

Regards,

Groucho Marx

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It’s very hard to explain to non-smokers why you smoke. You smoke because you’re addicted and you enjoy being addicted. Look at any film before the eighties and everybody is smoking. The tobacco companies held sway then; they had convinced enough people that it did not damage your health and we wanted to believe them. There wasn’t a big movement against smoking then; too many people did it. Now the anti-smoking brigade hold sway; it’s mainly poor people that smoke, and the citizens of poorer countries where the tobacco companies can still influence young people. I suppose it’s crazy, a really stupid thing to do, but it has its attractions. The writer Iain Banks died last year. He was diagnosed with terminal gall bladder cancer and died very soon afterwards at the age of 59. I had enjoyed some of his books many years ago and remembered a passage from Complicity (1993).

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We tried another cigarette, and by then I’d – maybe instinctively – sussed how to handle it. I sucked that smoke in and made it part of me, joined mystically with the universe right at that point, said Yes to drugs forever just by the unique hit I got. It was a revelation, an epiphany… this was better than religion…I became a semi-junkie that day, that afternoon, that hour. It was that virginal rush of toxins to the brain…truth and revelation. What really works.

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Although the above is taken from a novel, I’ve no doubt those were Banks’ thoughts too. He met his sudden death with equanimity. I do not know how much he regretted it, how much longer he would have liked to live. Longer I’m sure. I remember a cartoon I saw somewhere: two decrepit old men sit in an old people’s home in wheelchairs.

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‘Just think’

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says one to the other

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‘if we hadn’t looked after ourselves we would have missed all this.’

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Of course that leaves out the often terrible deaths suffered by smokers. We all think it won’t happen to us.

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Although I don’t think I’ll attempt to give up again, I’d like to try electric cigarettes. I’ve bought some but haven’t got round to trying them yet in case they don’t work. The Health Police are banning the advertising of them and are trying to ban the cigarettes too; their reasoning being that they fear people will try them and then take up smoking, when it’s obvious that the opposite is happening – people are using them to try to stop smoking. I’m encouraged that a serial smoker like Martin Amis is using them. If they work for him…well, I’ll try them soon.

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On the wall was a sign bearing the saddest words Keith had ever read.

NO SMOKING.

Martin Amis – London Fields (1989)

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…Leaving(2)

Bonnie watched the film to the end, and was quite tired herself. She chose a bedroom upstairs. They were both neat and tidy, but she just chose by appearance, the one she liked most. She undressed and got into bed. It was too hot, too many layers. She folded a couple of sheets and got back in. She thought about Nancy and the house and what she was going to do. What am I doing? she thought. Well, I have somewhere to stay tonight, and I haven’t spent much money. That’s a success, I suppose. She began to think ahead and was asleep before she’d made any decisions.


After two days of watching daytime TV and feeling brain dead, Natalie went for a walk. Damn, she was confused. Everything had seemed so simple in the planning, but now that she was free, she felt bewildered. Only natural, she supposed; the reality is never quite what you expect it to be. It will just take time, that’s all. She wondered if she should move, go somewhere else. Would she feel any different? She ended up at the train station, looked at all the destinations, tried to figure out where she wanted to be, had no idea. She sat on a bench and watched the teeming crowds; they all knew where they were going; they had a purpose. As much as she had hated home, at least her days were set out for her, now she had to make decisions – and she wasn’t used to it.

She couldn’t make a decision. Eventually, feeling defeated, she walked back into the town, and back to the hotel. In her room she studied herself in the mirror; need to tidy the hair up a bit. She thought she still looked fifteen, but who was taking any notice? No one; as long as you had the money, they didn’t care. She freshened up, and then made an appointment to get her hair done; still half the day to go. Her life, even in the holidays, had been fairly regimented; she spent most of it avoiding her mother and brother, perhaps a few friends here and there, nobody was close, nobody. But even when there had been nothing to do, there had been something to do. Now, with the whole country at her mercy, money in her pocket, she felt a bit lost; what did people do? She didn’t like boys, yet. She liked reading but couldn’t concentrate. She wasn’t very interested in television. She hated technology apart from its obvious uses; she’d never gone on Face Book or Twitter – she understood it all, it came naturally; she’d whizzed through Adam’s stuff, gleaned his passwords, worked out what he was up to. But all the inane chatter, the manufactured emotion and outrage, the bullying, the sex; she didn’t want anything to do with all that, had just sidestepped it. Although now, it meant she had nothing to do, nobody to contact. Slow down, you’re expecting too much. You can do this. It will come to you.

She was hungry and went to a McDonalds to eat. She had a weakness for junk food, some kind of rebellion against her mother’s health fads. She looked around her as she ate. A lot of school kids, fatties and families – same as everywhere else. What was she going to do?


Bonnie woke early the next day. She hadn’t drawn the curtains and the brightness at five o’clock woke her; she tried to go back to sleep but it wouldn’t come. She lay for an hour thinking about it, and then got up. Nancy was still asleep or at least not stirring. There was no shower, so she had a quick bath. It was an old fashioned bathroom, but it had been modernised; there was a new boiler that heated the water at certain times of the day, and there was hot water now, plenty of it. The room had been recently painted, everything was ordered and neat. She found  a fresh towel, dressed and moved to the kitchen. She raided the fridge for breakfast, wondered if she should wait, but was very hungry. Perhaps it would be cheeky to make breakfast for Nancy; she made herself a small fry up, tea and explored the house.

Later she heard Nancy moving around upstairs. She was sure that Nancy would not remember her, so she made a pot of tea, not too strong, and sat at the kitchen table. Nancy came into the kitchen fully dressed; she wasn’t surprised to see Bonnie, merely said,
‘Good morning, Bonnie,’
and sat down, as though the situation was quite normal. Bonnie poured two cups and handed Nancy hers, sat down again. It was as though she’d slightly refreshed her memory through the night, absorbed what had happened and retained it. Bonnie wondered if, being sharper than she’d thought, Nancy would ask her to go, be more inquisitive, perhaps that would come. She sipped her tea. It was about eight o’clock, the sun was up, another lovely day; she was going to comment on it, but decided to wait.
‘Who are you, dear? I know your name is Bonnie, but who are you, what are you doing here?’
‘I’m just a girl on the move. I haven’t done anything wrong and I don’t mean you any harm; I don’t want to say much more than that.’
‘In that case, I’d rather you didn’t stay. I’m not completely gone, I have my moments of complete lucidity and I’m quite happy. I have good days and bad days. You can stay for a few days; perhaps you need to decide what to do. I let you stay last night because I had the feeling I could trust you, that you wouldn’t do anything horrible. Stay for a few days, my dear, I don’t really want to know why you’re here.’
‘A few days will be fine,’ said Bonnie. ‘Thank you.’
‘Lovely, let’s have some breakfast.’

Bonnie kept her word. She stayed for four days. She mowed the lawn, did the shopping, a few chores and generally made herself useful. Nancy didn’t say much. She had no interest in why Bonnie was there; they spoke here and there but only when really necessary, chatted a little bit about nothing much. Nancy was quite sharp in the mornings. She tired as the day went on, became a little confused; she was on the way, but had a way to go yet. On the fifth day Bonnie got up early and ate breakfast. She fixed some toast and tea for Nancy, who was regular in her habits. She packed the little she had and was ready to leave when Nancy came into the kitchen.

‘Well, goodbye,’ she said.
‘Goodbye, Bonnie. It was lovely to meet you. You were so useful I’m tempted to ask you to stay, but I think it’s better that you go.’
‘It was lovely to meet you too,’ said Bonnie.
‘Good luck, dear.’

Nancy didn’t come to the door and Bonnie didn’t look back. Perhaps it was time to spend a little money; she’d been lucky, but this was far too risky.


Natalie returned to McDonalds, partly for the sake of economy, partly because she had a weakness for junk food and partly because she was becoming a creature of habit – already. The restaurant was nearly full, the window seats were taken. The place was narrow, just one long aisle, leading to the counter. It must have been converted rather than a new build; the new ones were always much larger. She walked up the aisle until she found an empty table. She ordered a cheese burger and a coffee, was feeling depressed because she was still here, still no idea where to go and no idea what to do when she got there. She’d been away for seven days, extended her stay, and she was stuck. Stuck in Birmingham.

Across the aisle a girl sat alone. She had a burger and a coffee. She didn’t look at anybody, stared at her food or gazed into the middle-distance, over everyone’s heads. She wore jeans, clean, but seen better days, and what looked like a man’s white shirt done up to the neck; a tatty fleece hung on the back of her seat, old trainers that had been cleaned up. She seemed to possess a self-assurance though. She had a purpose about her even though she was doing nothing. Natalie wanted to talk to her, but the girl finished her meal and coffee quickly and left, without making eye contact with anyone. Shame. Perhaps she’d see her again.


There were youth hostels in Birmingham, but the main ones wanted credit card booking.
Bonnie was amazed that they wouldn’t accept cash; they wanted ID too, which she didn’t have. No credit card. No ID. She eventually found somewhere that accepted her story that she was waiting for ID due to losing her credit card. They accepted her cash and asked no questions. They offered dorms, quadruples, doubles and singles. A single was thirty pounds, more than she wanted to pay. She really did not want company. She’d never had much of it, never liked it and she didn’t want to speak to anybody. She decided on a double for a few days. It was twenty pounds, still more than she wanted to pay, but then she really didn’t want to spend anything.

The double room had nobody else in it yet. Perfect. She used the communal facilities and spoke to no one unless it was essential. She didn’t like it, didn’t like the company, didn’t like the jovial ‘let’s all be friends’ atmosphere. She stowed her things but soon got depressed with her surroundings. She bought a burger and a coffee at McDonalds, tried not to interact with anybody. She did notice a dark haired girl staring at her. She was alone, young, confident looking. Bonnie ignored her, finished her food, returned to the room, read the local paper and went to bed.

She slept late; there was nothing else to do. She needed to make a plan, find a job. She should have decided all that at Nancy’s, but she’d been enjoying herself. She went for a walk, browsed in some shops until she was hungry and returned to McDonalds, trying to think, but nothing would come.


Natalie woke early, had breakfast in the lobby and went for a walk. She browsed the clothes shops, book shops and charity shops, then went for a stroll in a park. It was a bright sunny day again; the park was full of families and school kids, young and older, normal people doing normal things. She found a dead tree near the edge of the park; she liked dead trees, nothing against live ones, but there was something about the dead ones: they still changed shape and they looked good against the sky. They stayed around for ages if left alone; she liked to draw them. She found a spot in the shade and leaned on the tree: it felt good, peaceful. She tried to read the book she had bought, but she couldn’t even get to the end of a paragraph. It wasn’t the book, it was her. All that planning. She had to get free. Well, here she was: free. And she had no idea what to do. She knew where she wanted to end up, abroad eventually, but the getting there: she just hadn’t thought about it. She thought freedom would be enough, but all it had brought was this blank mind. She didn’t know what to do.
book-001A boy tried to chat her up. He was very confident, didn’t expect to be refused and very persistent, good looking she supposed but she didn’t really know. She tried to ignore him and then several times, politely, she didn’t know any other way, told him she was not interested. She waited until about four and decided to try McDonalds again. She hoped to see the girl again. As she entered she saw her straight away. The place was almost empty and she sat by the window. Natalie took the next table, so she was facing her. She tried to make eye contact, but the girl looked everywhere but at her.

She finished her food and decided to try. She wasn’t frightened at all; she thought she’d recognised something; all the people she’d seen, they just floated by, they didn’t mean anything. She just had a feeling she might get on with this girl; it would be a first if she could. She went and sat opposite her table.
‘What are you up to?’

The girl ignored her, stared at a point above Natalie’s head or out of the window, completely blanked her. That takes a bit of nerve, thought Natalie.

‘I’m fifteen’, she said. ‘I’ve left home. I’m staying at the Hilton. I’m wondering what to do next. What are you up to?’

The girl finished her coffee, collected her stuff and left, all as though Natalie was not there. Unhurried. She didn’t look back. Natalie watched her as she disappeared along the street: the same clothes as yesterday, slim, quite tall, short hair, no particular style to it, an easy-going walk, confident, and, despite her scruffiness, very appealing, though she didn’t know why. Cool, thought Natalie. Very cool. I’ll try again. It gave her something to focus on.


 

When Bonnie returned she found someone had moved into the room, another girl, very friendly, very talkative. Bonnie didn’t want to talk, wasn’t interested in where the girl came from or where she was going. She tried not to be rude but the girl was thick skinned or stupid or both and no reaction or lack of it from Bonnie would dissuade her from talking. Bonnie decided she had to leave, but she wasn’t sure what to do, where to go. She didn’t want to spend much money before she found a job. But where? The north was depressed, it wasn’t much better elsewhere. Perhaps she could stay another night or two and work it out. Whatever job she took would be minimum wage; any difference between minimum wage here or in the south? Try London, maybe, she didn’t know.

She told the girl she wanted to sleep and turned away from her, face to the wall. She thought about the girl who had stared at her, and then spoke to her. She didn’t want any friends. She was full of life though, those big excited eyes, her own age, confident. And she was staying at the Hilton? How weird. Perhaps if she went back to McDonalds. What did she want? Why did she speak to me?


Natalie was in McDonalds again in the late afternoon. She figured the girl might come in at the same time every day. The restaurant was crowded. Natalie sat by the window, kept the opposite seat vacant. She was glad to see the place fill up. She saw the girl on the street, same clothes, same casual movement. She gave her a friendly wave through the window. Bonnie glared at her. She walked straight to the table and sat down without ordering.

‘What do you want?’
‘Just to talk.’
‘Why?’
‘I don’t know.’

Bonnie stared at her. She was well-spoken. A round and very pretty face, great big, wide lively eyes, blue or grey, she wasn’t sure, they changed.

‘I’m Natalie, who are you?’
‘Bonnie.’

Natalie held out her hand. Bonnie ignored it. She said

‘You said you’d left home.’
‘Yes. Over a week ago. I couldn’t stand it. I have a plan.’
‘A plan?’
‘Yes.’
‘What sort of plan?’
‘A bit vague.’

Bonnie continued staring. She couldn’t think of anything to say. Staring was easy so she stared. Natalie didn’t blink, she just smiled, a lovely smile, perfect teeth, strange lips, full and wide under a little slightly turned up nose.

‘You left home didn’t you?’ said Natalie.
‘What?’ said Bonnie, she’d lost herself, had no idea what to say.

Natalie said
‘OK. Let me tell you about myself. I’m fifteen. I was fed up with my family. I stole loads of money from my step dad and left. I’m not going back.’

‘Poor little rich girl.’
‘I can’t help what I am. I’m quite serious. I’m not messing about. I hated every minute in that house. I got myself free and I’m not going back. Tell me what you’re doing.’
‘My parents are dead,’ said Bonnie and then wondered why she’d said it.
‘I’m sorry.’
‘I’m not.’
‘You’re poor aren’t you?’

Bonnie stared, angry, nobody had ever said that to her. Then again, she’d never met any rich people.
‘I’m sorry. I’ve offended you. But you are, aren’t you? You’re poor.’
‘I’ve got a bit of money. I need to find a job, find somewhere to stay.’
‘I’ve got loads of money.’

Bonnie looked into her face. She wasn’t boasting. She was just stating a fact. You’re poor, I’m not. She didn’t seem snobby, just jumpy and excited, staring with those big, now blue, eyes and waiting for a reply. Her foot was tap, tap, tapping under the table.

‘So?’ said Bonnie.
‘Where are you staying?’
‘Youth Hostel.’
‘Come and stay with me. I have a room at the Hilton. You won’t have to worry about money.’
‘I don’t want your money.’
‘Okay, I’m not offering it. But Hilton, Youth Hostel, hmm, what would you prefer?’
Her tone, for the first time, had riled Bonnie.
‘Why would you offer that to me? If you have money and a plan, why would you offer help to a complete stranger?’

Natalie didn’t notice the change in tone. She forged ahead.

‘Because my plan was just getting myself free. I’ve done that and now I don’t know what to do. And there’s something about you. I just feel like I can trust you. You can’t do me any harm, can you? You’re not going to bang me over the head or anything. Why not work together? I really don’t know what to do. Perhaps we could work something out. What have you got to lose?’

Bonnie thought about it, or gave the appearance of thinking about it. Was there any choice? She was sure Natalie was playing, would go home when whatever money she had ran out, but everything was proving more difficult than she’d imagined. She didn’t really want to go back to her room. She didn’t want to deal with Miss Motormouth. Here was someone doing the same stuff, not really sure what she was doing. She didn’t really know what she was doing either, but no point in telling Natalie that, although she suspected Natalie wouldn’t care. Was there anything to lose?

‘What do you think?’ said Natalie.

Those big blue eyes. Or were they grey? They were dancing, sparkling. She was smiling nervously, afraid of the answer. Why did a girl like this leave home? Bonnie’s logical mind was a bit flustered. She was staring and not thinking any more. Natalie moved a hand over the table and laid it on Bonnie’s. It was an unconscious gesture and normally Bonnie would have flinched, but she didn’t.

‘What do you think?’ said Natalie again.
‘Okay.’

‘Let’s have a drink,’ said Natalie. ‘We’ll stop on the way. The hotel is a bit stuffy. I don’t normally drink, well, hardly had a chance, but I feel like it now. This is exciting.’
They stopped at a bar along the way, a wine bar, half full, where it was possible to sit and talk. Their age was not questioned and Natalie ordered a bottle of white wine, house white; they sat in a booth as far away from others as possible. It was still early and fairly quiet.
‘I didn’t really want to do this,’ said Bonnie.
‘Why not?’
‘I just didn’t. I wanted to do this on my own.  I got scared, and meeting you, it seemed too good to be true. But I don’t want your money. I’m not sure why I’m here.’
‘Oh, don’t worry about the money. I’ve got loads. This is fate, it must be. Two girls leave home at the same time and meet up like this, it’s got to be fate. Two heads are better than one. I’ve got money, you haven’t. So what? Now we can work out what to do.’
‘Let’s see how it goes.’
‘Right. Well, tell me about yourself. You’re on your own. How did you come to be here? What are you doing ? Where are you going?’
Bonnie was silent for a few seconds. Then she said,
‘My parents died. There’s nobody else. I left, a week ago. I’ve got a bit of money, not much. Since then I’ve just been wandering.’
‘But where are you from? How did your parents die?’
‘I’m from Bradford. They were junkies.’
‘Oh, I see. Well, okay, but what are your plans? What are you going to do next?
‘I really don’t know. I knew I had to get away. Now I’m away, I’m not sure what to do.’
Jesus, one glass of wine and she was telling Natalie everything. She tried to slow down.
‘I know exactly what you mean. I planned this for ages. I had everything worked out. I got free, got a hotel, sat down, and thought: What am I going to now? And you know what? I don’t know what to do.’
‘So, you stole some money?’
‘Yes. I took it from my step dad. My mum’s away, and my brother, Lard Boy. Adam plays the stock market, does loads of stuff on the Internet. I just watched him for a year and blackmailed him. He needs mum and he’s got women on the side. He’s into porn and kids. It was really quite easy. Mum’s away until school starts, it might change a bit then, but they won’t find me. I’m not going back, seriously.’
‘Are you sure? And the money, surely it won’t last forever. I don’t want to know how much you’ve got, but when it runs out: What do you do?’
‘It’s not running out for a long time. I know what you mean, you think I’m just playing. I’m not. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’ll do something, and I’m not going to worry about that yet. It’s a long, long way off.’


They finished off a bottle quickly. Neither of them was used to alcohol and they were really quite tipsy, but they ordered another.
‘So’ said Natalie, ‘what are your plans?’
‘Beyond getting free, I didn’t really have any. I had to find somewhere to stay, but everywhere is really expensive, and then find a job. What else can I do?’
‘Hmm, I see. You’re in a different position to me, much harder. I’ll help you. We’ll stick together and work something out.’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know? What else are you going to do?’
‘You’re dead keen now, but you might change tomorrow or next week. Maybe I should just stick to what I was doing.’
‘Which was what?’
‘I was doing alright. It’s quite weird to come across someone with lots of money who just wants to share it. Maybe I should stay as I am. I’m strong. I’ll get myself together and work this out.’
‘Right. I see what you mean. We’ve only known each other ten minutes. Well, you’re coming back to the hotel. We’ll sleep on it. We’ll go somewhere else tomorrow. If you don’t believe in me, you can leave, but let’s give it a week or two. You think I’m soft. Well, I’m not. Can’t expect you to realise that yet though. It’s early. Let’s see how it goes.’


Bonnie was befuddled, Natalie could see that. She’d hit her too hard with stuff, and made an offer that was very difficult to refuse. But she had to get it all out quickly to try and make her stay. Bonnie didn’t want it though. Natalie admired that. Bonnie was alone with not much going for her. There was loads going on behind the front, but she was still here. Such a severe face, no smile, not even a hint of it. That thin serious face, a permanent frown. Her skin was white, translucent almost; high cheekbones tapering to a thin pretty lips. She couldn’t hide the prettiness, not with the frown, not with anything. Her hair was dark and short, like maybe she’d cut it herself, a fringe combed right to left and hanging just above her eyebrows, the eyebrows trimmed but not sculpted; there was a gap in one of the eyebrows, a tiny bald piece of skin that was a scar on closer inspection, just on the right of the left eyebrow. The nose was straight and normal, if a nose could be normal, not turned up like hers. She hadn’t seen any teeth yet. The shirt buttoned to the neck, a medium bust, the old fleece, the scruffy hair. She’s be a mess if she wasn’t so…if she wasn’t so…

Bonnie thought about it. Very hard to argue with the logic. Everything she felt said one thing: get away, but Jesus, where was the harm in giving it a try? And it would solve her money problems for now, while she figured things out.

‘Okay,’ she said.
‘Splendid,’ said Natalie.

They woke next day with mild hangovers, but not enough to conceal their excitement, well, Natalie was excited. Bonnie was a little bit into herself. Natalie assumed that was normal and ignored it.
‘Where shall we go,’ said Natalie, ‘anywhere you like, in this country.’
‘I’m not sure I want to go anywhere.’
‘Oh, for God’s sake stop it. We’re giving this a try. I don’t want to know anything about you and just for now what’s mine is yours, or for now use your own money. I don’t care. Can we just get on with it?’
Bonnie stared and nodded, very slightly.
‘I don’t know, south I suppose. I’ve never been anywhere.’
‘What, nowhere?’
‘No. Leeds once, that’s it. I’m from a different world.’
‘Well, we’re in the same world now. South it is. How about London? We have money, it might be fun.’
‘I don’t want to go to London yet. I’m not sure why. Natalie, even though you’ve got plenty of money, you need to think about the future. Maybe you won’t always have it. How much is this place costing you?’
‘I know. But for now I’m not going to worry about it. Not for a few weeks. I’m free, you’re free. I want to enjoy it. Shall we make a plan or buy some clothes,’ said Natalie.
‘I don’t know.’
‘Well, you’re useless,’ said Natalie. ‘I know it’s different for you and all that, but here you are. We have money, you’re free. Wake up. Start enjoying yourself.’

They left the hotel and found a place to have breakfast.
‘So, tell me about you. You’re parents are gone, you’re from Bradford and you haven’t been anywhere. What else is there?’
‘Nothing,’ said Bonnie.
‘Of course there is. What do you want to do? Any boyfriends? What was it like when your parents were alive? Where did you go to school?’
‘There’s nothing to tell. Survive. No boyfriends. Horrible. School. I don’t talk much, unless I have something to say.’
‘Right. I can see we’re going to get along splendidly. You don’t have any opinions on anything? Nothing makes you angry, sad or miserable?’
‘Not really.’
‘Hmm, opposite personalities. Interesting.’
‘Opposite backgrounds, perhaps.’
Natalie was silent. She studied Bonnie carefully for a few seconds.
‘Maybe. Never mind. Things will work themselves out. Right, what shall we do?’
Bonnie was so used to being on her own, she couldn’t make decisions now, or she couldn’t make decisions for both of them. She shrugged.
‘Let’s have a wander, see what happens.’
‘The money,’ said Bonnie, ‘I don’t want to know how much you’ve got, but how do you know it will last? When will it run out, do you know what you will do then?’
‘Why on earth are you thinking about that now? Look, I’ve got plenty, even if it stopped tomorrow, I’ve got plenty. I am not going to think about that yet. We’ll start planning later. Let’s just enjoy ourselves for a while.’

They were both dressed in jeans and t-shirts, looking younger than eighteen, but nobody had worried them with that yet. They could both look older, but were also able to look younger, and today they did. Natalie was a dark haired blonde; Bonnie was dark anyway; their hair was short, they were both very good looking in different ways. They wandered to the town centre, browsed clothe stores, drank coffee. Natalie bought Bonnie a new bag, a couple of new t-shirts, jeans, a jacket, something warmer in case it got cooler. Neither of them had a phone or anything else technical; they left it that way. Towards evening they went back to the hotel, changed into smarter clothes and went out again. They were asked for ID for the first time in the first pub, but were alright in the second. They ordered a bottle of wine and sat in a quiet pub without a television, the sort of rare place now where people might just want to talk. It was early and would get busy later.

‘You’re really rather good-looking, you know,’ said Natalie.
‘I suppose.’
‘A good bone-structure, high cheek bones, you’re quite striking.’
‘So are you.’
‘I’m fairly ordinary. I have nightmares about ending up like my mother. She’s enormous, which is her own fault, but she’s no oil painting anyway. My real dad was okay, what I can remember of him. I just have to hope I take after him.’
‘You’re not ordinary.’
‘No, I’m not. I’m ordinary looking though, just reasonable. There are hundreds, thousands like me. I don’t have an ordinary personality. I very much grant you that.’
‘I don’t think there are many like you.’
‘Maybe. Was your mother eastern European? Those cheek bones.’
‘Not as far as I know, certainly not directly. I don’t know about her history.’
‘So, what do you know about your parents?’
‘They were junkies.’
‘That’s it?’
‘That’s it.’
‘Or you’re just not saying any more.’

Bonnie was silent.

‘What about you? You didn’t get on with your parents.’

A large crowd entered the bar. It looked like a party, young people, probably students. They were boisterous and happy, made a lot of noise taking two tables. They waited for them to settle down.

‘I hardly knew my dad. He left quite early when I was eight or nine. Step dad moved in four years ago. Mum thought he was rich, but he wasn’t, it wasn’t real money. But mum had some money, she was already wealthy and dad left her with more. Step dad, Adam, used that and he’s quite rich at the moment. Millions. It may not last, but it won’t end overnight. He’s slowed down a bit, he’s not going anywhere unless he finds a richer woman and that’s unlikely. After dad left and Adam arrived mum just ate and pretended to be busy with charities and stuff, but she doesn’t do anything but get fat. She must have put on three or four stone since Adam arrived. I suppose he does stuff to her, perhaps he likes it, I don’t know. My younger brother’s just a dickhead. He’s got every technological thing going: computer, I-phone, I-pad, everything, but he doesn’t know anything, he’s completely spoiled, mummy’s favourite. I hate him.’
‘And your mum’s away?’
‘Yes, till September. She probably doesn’t even know I’m gone. I’m sure she doesn’t. She’ll probably cause a fuss when she gets back. But she ignored me for fifteen years, I don’t see why she should. I’ll deal with that when it happens.’
‘Are you sure? She may have ignored you, probably took you for granted. But she’s still a mum, you’re her daughter, she’s expecting you to be around. Her feelings will change, and you’ll make her look bad. She can’t let it go. Even if she wanted to, she can’t. There are all sorts of pressures, school, the neighbours, she will make a fuss. She’ll get the police involved, and social services. Have you thought about that?’
Natalie shrugged. She had thought about it, but she’d underestimated it. And now she just wasn’t thinking about it at all.
‘You know, I had this vague idea that the whole world would be after me.’
‘Nobody cares,’ said Bonnie, ‘I was the media’s tragic story for two weeks. I bet not one of the people who read about me, felt concerned for me, even remembers my name. That’s just fine. But how will you deal with your mother?’
‘I’ll deal with that when it happens. You were a media story?’
Changing the subject.
‘I told you. My parents were junkies. They died. I was the tragic child for a time. Then they forgot.’
‘So nobody…’
‘Nobody cares.’
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’
‘I think they’ll care about you.’

They were still in Birmingham a few days later. Bonnie tried to get Natalie to move out of the Hilton, but she wouldn’t. There had been no sign of anyone looking for Natalie. Nobody would be looking for Bonnie.
‘We’ll slow down with the money soon, but I don’t want to, yet.’
‘How does your step dad make his money?’
‘I don’t really know. He plays the markets, perhaps he does other stuff, but he makes money. I just knew what he had, in his accounts, on his cards and I knew how to access his accounts and cards. How he actually made the money, I don’t know, I don’t understand it, but it really is millions.’

‘Look, I’m not asking how much you’ve got, but what have you got on him. How are you actually getting the money?’

‘I saved five thousand. I have all that. He’s got loads of debit and credit cards. I picked one that he’s never used. It’s a debit card and he has twenty five thousand in an account that he’s never touched, minus what I’ve spent. That’s what I’ve got. I’ve got his debit card. I’ve still got twenty and a bit thousand, plus my five.’
‘But you don’t have it.’
‘What?’
‘’You don’t have it, do you? You’ve got a thousand or so from where you cashed it in, and your five thousand, but the rest is still on the card, over twenty thousand, and he controls that. Anything could happen, your mother could come home early, Adam might panic, change his mind, the police or social services could get involved. If he’s dodgy, the police might investigate him, discover something. If any of that happened, well, that’s that. You’ve got your five, I have my three, but that wouldn’t last very long would it?’
‘Hmm, I hadn’t considered that.’
‘You don’t have the money until you’ve taken it off the card. It’s his money until then. You’ve got to empty that card.’
‘What do I do with it?’
Bonnie stared at her in disbelief.
‘Keep it for now, very carefully. You need to find a base, somewhere you can put in safety deposit boxes. You can’t put it in a bank. It’s too much and you’re too young.’
‘Right, I’ll start tomorrow.’
‘Start today. Draw to the limit and do the same tomorrow and the next day.’
‘Right, let’s go.’
‘No wait, we have until midnight. Look, I don’t care how much money you have, and I didn’t ask for this. Remember that.’
‘You know how much I have. Twenty plus thousand and my five thousand.’
‘Okay. You actually have five thousand but never mind. Hopefully soon that will be more. But if you’re going to do this, then it’s important that you do it properly.’
‘Yes.’
‘How much money does Adam have? Wait, hang on before you tell me. Look, this is advice for you. I don’t want your money. I’m just trying to help you.’
‘Listen. We’ve been together for a week. Already I couldn’t do without you. And you like me, I can tell. Shut up. It’s just my luck that I can get this money. I don’t even think of it as mine now. It’s ours. Ours. It’s me and you. Understand? I don’t want to hear anymore about not wanting my money. It’s our money. It’s us. Shut up. I really, really don’t want to hear any more of this separate stuff. It’s me and you. Here we are. Okay?’
Bonnie stared at her for a long time.
‘Okay.’
‘Good. I’m glad that’s cleared up. Adam has loads. I mean millions. I didn’t really keep up with everything he was doing. I spotted the debit card I wanted, kept an eye on that and monitored his women, the porn, stuff like that.’
‘Right. Your mum doesn’t get home for over a month. As far as we know, he’s going along with this. He hasn’t told anybody, he must just be sitting tight, waiting for your mum to get home.’
‘Yes.’
‘Phone him. Ask him for more. Before there’s a fuss. Ask him for more and get it in your hands. Don’t depend on the card. Draw out what you have left of the twenty five thousand, and get more, get as much as you can. You’re staying in top hotels. Even if you downgrade, this country is expensive, everywhere. That money won’t last you five minutes. It’ll be gone before you know it. It seemed a lot to you because you’ve never had money like that before. But you’ll be skint by Christmas, then what will you do? Get a job?
What would you do? Minimum wage, that’s the best you could do. Phone him. Get another card or two. Get some more money. As much as you can.’
Natalie stared back.
‘You’ve thought about this, haven’t you?’
‘And I worked out what I was going to do, ways I might be able to survive. You’ve planned this, but you haven’t thought it through. You had more options. You asked me to come along. I didn’t want to but I have. Here I am. If you really want to do this you have to get as much as you can. You’ve done it now. You can go home in six months, or you can do it properly. Look at the chance you have. Get more money. Phone him tomorrow.’
‘You’re right. You’re smart, aren’t you.’


IMG_2140

 

“The story had probably been percolating within me for a long time when it suddenly came to me whole.

 

I wrote the complete first draft in three months. I was interested in two girls who didn’t like the world they were in and decided to do something about it. They reject the surrounding world completely and create their own.

I am doing this, of course, to see if people like the story. I am very confident though, that it’s a good tale. I hope you like it.”


 Leaving will be published as a paperback and available in all e-reader formats from late Spring 2014.

 

 

 

 

Leaving…

 

Leaving is the story of two girls, Natalie and Bonnie, who leave home at more or less the same time. They are fifteen and from very different backgrounds. Too young to leave home (officially), they have both had enough of their respective home lives.

Natalie is highly intelligent, has no obvious reason to leave but senses there is something that she wants outside of her present existence. She is highly intelligent but also impulsive, in ways she doesn’t yet understand. Bonnie has hardly formed a personality. Circumstances force her away from home. She has only a determination to endure and knows little about herself – apart from the fact that she is a survivor.


IMG_2140“The story had probably been percolating within me for a long time when it suddenly came to me whole. I wrote the complete first draft in three months. I was interested in two girls who didn’t like the world they were in and decided to do something about it. They reject the surrounding world completely and create their own.

I will send the novel to my agent and various other outlets shortly. Here are the first few chapters . I am doing this, of course, to see if people like the story. I am very confident though, that it’s a good tale. I hope you like it.”

 


 

Lard Boy sat eating and hitting keys on his computer. He rarely moved, except to reach for a cake and stuff it whole into his mouth. Perhaps he would swivel his chair from his iPad, to his Xbox, to his computer, to his TV, and sometime, who knew what time, he would fall into bed. He rarely spoke, just grunted, demanded food or, if nobody was around to serve him, he would raid the fridge. His fat buttocks hung over the edge of his stool. His lanky, greasy hair hung unevenly – mummy cut it, badly – otherwise he just wouldn’t bother. Natalie wondered if he had ever spoken to her; really spoken to her. He’d grunted, swore, repeated inane witticisms from the TV and the Internet, but never actually said anything. He’d never really spoken at all. He was thirteen years old and he’d never said anything; never had a thought about anything either. He was just a lump of lard.

She watched him from the door. He was quite unaware of her. She tried to summon up affectionate feelings for him, but they wouldn’t come. His bedroom was twice the size of hers with a mass of equipment; OK, she didn’t want all the gear that he had, but if she did, she’d have needed to ask for it. He was given everything, mummy’s boy. Would she miss him? Not for a second. He was going with his mother tomorrow. Her mother! Although she much preferred not to believe that – somewhere there had been a mistake, a terrible mistake. Somehow she’d been transplanted into this useless family – somewhere, there had been a terrible mistake.

Tomorrow, mother would take him to Greece, some island, where miraculously their fat would disappear. Fat mother would ‘find herself’ and Lard Boy would return wiry, toned and dynamic. They would go together because he needed constant supervision; he couldn’t take a dump without supervision. She said goodbye; he ignored her. She shouted another goodbye – he’d be leaving early – and he grunted. She knew that was it. She moved along the corridor to her mother’s room, knocked and put her head round the door. ‘Have fun in Greece,’ she said, a stupid cliché but nothing else would be understood. Her mother looked up briefly from her magazine, said ‘Thanks, darling’, and went back to her furniture or fashion or celebrities. Would she miss her mother? Not for a second.

She was fifteen, but she thought she could make herself look eighteen. She’d miss her piano.

She watched them leave in the morning. The taxi stood there for half-an-hour while they messed around, forgetting this and that, checking everything over and over, until finally, they were gone. Stage One.

Father, not really her father, sat at his computer making money. That’s what he did. He was very good at it. Well, she thought he made money. Money certainly became available through his efforts, though she was never really sure if it was real money, if he really had it, but he seemed to be getting away with it, for now, and that’s all that mattered. The two fat people were gone. She was to spend the next three months with him. She quite liked him, in a shallow sort of way, because he was shallow, but he was alright; in a shallow sort of way. And she knew she could manipulate him. She knew rather a lot about him. He had no idea, but he was about to find out.

He sat at his computer, two large screens with multi-coloured columns and figures, constantly changing; she understood none of it, she didn’t need to, she just understood the results. He had over four million in numerous accounts. His office was spacious; it was a spacious house, white carpeted, everything modern, stuff replaced as soon as something new appeared; her mother had money, tons of it, and he had used it to make more. He must be with her for the money, what else could he see in her? She couldn’t bear to think of them together. Ugh. But he seemed happy. She thought he would lose the money again, perhaps he didn’t even have it – who knew? – but millions passed through his little world every day. He sat in a corner, his back to the windows, the position where he believed he worked best. The rest of the room was determinedly minimalist; everything was done, dusted and recorded on those two screens.

She was never really sure what to call him; father wouldn’t do, but neither would Adam, his name, as far as they knew. So she had never called him anything. Quite surprising really; that you could talk to someone for so long, without actually referring to them in any way, but it had worked. You had to find a way into a conversation, but once it started – well, you were away. She didn’t have to use his name, and he didn’t seem to care, didn’t even notice.

‘How’s business today?’
‘One second, darling, while I finish this. One second.’

He called her darling. And ‘my lovely’ and ‘babe’ and ‘sweetness’ and ‘sugar babe’ – he had an inexhaustible supply of names for her. She wasn’t really sure if he had any idea who she was; she was quite sure he didn’t, but that was better anyway, and she responded to whatever he called her. Perhaps it was best to get straight to the point. She waited until he was finished.

‘I’m leaving tomorrow.’

He just stared for a few moments, not taking it in. She was fifteen. He probably knew that. She was part of the furniture. She’d be here until she went to university or whatever. She hadn’t even finished school.

‘You what, babe?’
‘I’m leaving tomorrow.’
‘Leaving.’
‘That’s right.’
‘What do you mean, leaving?’
‘I’m leaving. I hate it here. I’m not staying another day. I’m leaving. I’ll stay in touch, perhaps. You’re going to help me, in quite a big way.’

He smiled. He had a nice smile. She could see why mother had fallen for him, after father had gone. They hadn’t heard from him since. She understood that too.

This would take a bit of time. It was a shock. She understood that. Give him some leeway. Explain everything slowly, maybe more than once – she did have all day. But by the end he would understand. No reason at all why that shouldn’t be so. But, give him some time for this to sink in. She had been planning this for two years, since she was thirteen.

‘You can’t leave,’ he said.
‘I can and I am.’

He looked at her anew, seemed to be sensing something. She’d tied her hair back; tomorrow she’d shave most of it off and dye it. She was already beginning to play the part, and he sensed it. He was nowhere near there yet, but he wasn’t stupid, he would understand.

‘You can’t,’ he said.
‘But I will,’ she said. ‘Listen, you have over a dozen accounts, some of them in different names and countries. Perhaps you intend to leave some day, I wouldn’t blame you. I think I know all of them. I know your passwords, your secret codes and ways in. You have three passports to cover your identities. You have loads of credit and debit cards. I want a debit card. Credit will be unreliable. A debit card you’ve never used. There’s twenty five thousand in the account I want. You’ve never used it. I want it. You will give me the card.’

He stared at her. He doesn’t know what to say, she thought. I’ll continue.

‘You don’t have that many passwords. It was very easy to get them all. Not just for your financial stuff, but all the other stuff you’ve been up to. The women you keep on the side, the porn, you’ve even been into the underage sites; only looking of course. You only need to look nowadays for the police to be interested. And then you’re finished. Even if it was innocent, nobody will believe you. I don’t blame you for just looking, but you wouldn’t want anybody to know that, would you?’

His shoulders had slumped. He continued to stare.

‘But…’

Then nothing more came.

‘I know what I’m doing. You can tell mother I’m gone, or you can wait. You may as well let her enjoy her holiday. You can say I left just before she got back. We’ve just finished school, so you don’t have to worry about anything for seven weeks, just tell school that I’m with mother, or something. I don’t mind. You won’t find me. I’ll only come back if I want to, and I won’t. Mother will probably pretend that she cares. I suppose she’ll have to make a fuss, bring in the police and stuff. But you won’t find me. I hate it here. I can’t stand Lard Boy. My mother has never spoken to me, seriously, not once. I hate it all beyond belief. I know I’m young and I’m supposed to wait, do what everybody else does at the right time, but I don’t want to. I can’t wait. It’s too horrible. You’ve helped. With your little games and our little chats, but that was only a bit of relief. I’m much smarter than you. Sit and think for a while. Someday your racket will fall apart and you’re going to need mother’s money. That’s the only reason you’re here, really. She thought you were rich, but you weren’t. You’re rich now because you used her money. Maybe you’ll stay rich for a while. I hope so. But I won’t be here. I’ll be gone. You don’t care. Think what you can get up to in the time she’s away. No need to tell her until she gets back. There’ll be a bit of a fuss, a bit of a panic. There’s no chance you’ll ever find me. Before you know it, I’ll be eighteen, and nobody will have to worry. So give me that debit card. Leave the account alone. That’s all I want from you. Give it to me now.’
cards1


Bonnie stared at her parents. Well, her mother, she was pretty sure of that; the man, just another man, her father, whoever he was, was long gone. She sat at the kitchen bar. Sort of a bar: a stool and space for two people, three at a tight squeeze, the rest of the kitchen before her, not much: a small work top, fridge, cooker, sink, microwave and the floor. Not much space there either, enough for two or three people. And there they were, side by side, sort of poetic really, the way they lay, touching each other. And dead.

She wondered when she should call the police. It was five o’clock. She’d give it an hour.

The police sat her in another room with a female officer. She’d got up in the night and found them, exactly like that. The drugs were on the side, the work top, and the syringes and some blood. Obvious, really.

She knew they would put her in care. She knew where she’d go. She was quite prepared for it. She was fifteen. There was nobody else.


Natalie decided to take the train. She was sure that Adam would not do anything, but she had planned this meticulously, and would follow her own rules. As if the whole world was after her. She spent the first night at an empty house. She knew it would be empty because the house belonged to friends and they were on holiday. She’d had some keys cut several months before. The house was not overlooked by any others; she was quite safe. She took precautions anyway, keeping to two back rooms and the bathroom.

She cut off most of her hair, which had been below her shoulders when she let it down, blonde with a slight curl to it; it was lovely, she knew that. She cut it up to the ears, as neat as she could make it, and then dyed it black. And she practiced making up her face, whatever made her look older. That’s all she wanted to do, look older. Appearance didn’t matter for now. She knew she was beautiful, was very comfortable with it, and she was slim and would be beautiful for a long time and she didn’t think ahead anywhere near any stage that she might not be, there was no need.

She tried Adam’s debit card. She was confident he would go along with everything, but she wanted to be sure. She drew five hundred pounds with it. No problems. She had five thousand in cash anyway, but she needed that card if she was to fulfill all her plans. Beyond staying free, she didn’t have that much in the way of plans – that was the point – but the early days were very important. Times would become difficult again when her mother got home and when school started, but that was quite a way off – she wouldn’t worry about that yet. Unless Adam panicked and told her mother. She was sure he wouldn’t, but she was prepared either way.

The second morning she took a train to London. She sent Adam a text while on the train and left the phone wedged down the seat. She took the tube to Euston and caught a train to Birmingham, the most boring place she could think of; nobody would look for her there. The train was a nice way to see the country in the spring. She adjusted her hair, tested make-up combinations, ordered lunch, read her book, looked out of the window, slept and spoke occasionally to the people opposite her.


The verdict was misadventure. Bonnie was put into a home that suffered, like most places, from the cuts. Most of the men were gone, and those whom remained were hardly allowed near any of the ‘service users’. She behaved herself for a while, was gradually mostly ignored. She could have left at any time, but there had been some publicity about her; she had been a story for a while. She was very pretty. The evil parents, the lone child. But she didn’t want to talk to anybody and, very quickly, she wasn’t news.

One day they had a trip into town, Bradford; that’s where she lived. They were supervised, sort of, but it was easy to sneak back to the house, boarded up, desolate, grass and weeds three feet high. She walked to the back garden, just an overgrown tiny square with the remains of a shed in the corner and removed a paving stone behind the shed; she dug down about a foot and removed a plastic bag. Inside was three thousand pounds. She had been saving it for four years, stealing bits and pieces from her parents. The cash was all she had. She was leaving and it would have to last her until she found a job and beyond. She didn’t care; she wasn’t worried, anything was better than her life up to now.

She didn’t really care where she went, although it would have to be south, where the work was. She didn’t want to go to London, too easy to get dragged into the wrong stuff, so she chose Birmingham; she hoped to find work there. She deposited some of the money in her pockets and tucked the rest, in fifty pound notes, into her underwear. Then she went to the station and caught a train.


Natalie had no luggage at all. She needed some clothes. She bought a suit in John Lewis and some casual clothes. She had her hair tidied, adjusted her make-up. Did she look eighteen, or more? Not really. Confidence would have to do that. And honestly, who cared? She paid cash at the Hilton Metropole in the National Exhibition Centre; the receptionist didn’t even blink, took a top floor Junior Suite with a view, paid for a week in advance. It was £280 per night; she didn’t care. She would work everything else out from there.


Bonnie didn’t know what she would do in Birmingham. She had only the clothes she wore. Hungry, she walked into a supermarket, walking around and around, not sure what to buy. Her sense of freedom was exhilarating and a little bit frightening, but she was not overly concerned. She would have to find somewhere to stay, get some charity shop clothes. She noticed a few old ladies, alone and confused, taking forever to choose what they wanted. She bought a sandwich and a drink and went and sat outside, watched people going in and out. She watched the old ladies in particular. She followed one, who looked eighty or more, and carried a stick, into the supermarket. As the old lady dithered over some fruit, Bonnie offered to help, but the woman glared at her, seemed shocked and affronted to be approached. She wandered around for a while but found no one. She bought another drink, and sat outside, watching.

Near closing time, an old lady with white hair, perhaps seventy or more, Bonnie couldn’t tell, entered the supermarket pulling a trolley behind her. She had shortish white hair that looked as though it had just been ‘done’, a kind face – she smiled at everyone, but not many people smiled back. Bonnie watched her take forever in choosing what she wanted. When she came to choose some bread, she couldn’t reach what she wanted.

‘Let me get that for you’, she said.
‘Thank you, my dear, very kind.’

She stayed with the woman as she wandered around; picking things she couldn’t reach, making suggestions. The woman was all there in the moment, she had bright blue, intelligent eyes; she knew what she wanted, but seemed to forget very quickly, referring back to a list and going to buy some things that she already had. Bonnie took her list and told her what she had got and what she needed. She read the ingredients of a few things, made sure the lady got exactly what she wanted, asked her if she wanted anything else. When she was finished, Bonnie stayed with her at the checkout, watched her pay. She used a card, remembered the number, and paid for her stuff. Bonnie helped her transfer it all to her trolley and offered to pull it for her. The old lady looked into her face for quite a long time, thinking about it; she was quite short, Bonnie was five eight or nine, and the old lady looked into the sun slightly. She turned her around, looked into her face and said,

‘Thank you, my dear, that’s very kind of you.’


Natalie didn’t bother with a phone or anything else technical. She didn’t need anything. For now she merely relaxed in her great big room. No awful fat mother moaning about everything, nagging her, thinking she’d be there forever. Mother was jealous of course. Not even forty and built like a tank. And miserable. And stultifying. And boring. What did Adam see in her? Money. But nothing was worth life with her. He was lacking something too. He wasn’t bad looking; he was younger than her, of course he had the women on the side and the Internet stuff, but nothing could compensate for a life with her. And Lard Boy. God, she hated him. She didn’t just not love him, or not like him – she hated him. Hated his flab, his stupidity, his grunting, the way mother doted on him as though he was the hope of the family. Why?

But she was free. Now she was free. Not really used to it, but that was part of the pleasure. She was used to luxury; she’d stayed in many places like this with her family. She supposed she’d have to downgrade at some stage, but for now, she really didn’t care. Why should she wait until she was eighteen? Why did everybody do that? What was so special about eighteen? Well, she wasn’t going to wait. What use were they? Her fat mother, her fat brother and Adam. She should wait and do everything that was expected of an upper-middle-class girl, the same stuff that everybody did. It looked different but it wasn’t: university, year out, job, husband, kids, and living death – no thanks. No thank you. She’d got herself free. And she wasn’t going back. Ever.


Bonnie pulled the woman’s trolley. The old lady had walked to the supermarket; there was no bus to catch, perhaps a one-and-a-half to two-mile walk. It was a lovely sunny, spring day, so at six o’clock it was bright and the world seemed full of life. They passed children in playing grounds, football matches, and people in summer clothes. The lady didn’t look around much, concentrating on her path ahead. Bonnie spoke to her occasionally, just small talk. The lady would turn her head and look into her face for a few seconds, and then continue with the effort of walking. She stopped once, pretending to look around, as if unsure which way to go, getting her breath, Bonnie thought, and then continued.

Then they arrived at her house. It wasn’t an estate, just a road, rather large houses with small front gardens and, Bonnie guessed, much more at the back. The lady stopped by the front gate, getting her breath again. Bonnie didn’t make any move, didn’t offer the trolley; she just stood there. The old lady got her breath back and then looked at Bonnie’s face for what seemed like an age. Then she said,

‘Would you like a cup of tea, my dear?’
tea


 

Natalie was a little disappointed. After four days, she still felt the occasional exhilarating sense of freedom, but she was bored. She had bought some clothes, not many, because she did not want to be encumbered by luggage. She had been in Birmingham for four days; she had a smart suit and two sets of casual clothes; that would do for now. She had been to the new library, Repertory Theatre and visited the home of WH Auden, but she couldn’t really concentrate; she had tried to read but her mind was too active. She was a big reader; she loved books, but her mind would have to settle down first. Early days.

Here she was in her hotel room, with a marvelous view of the city, and she wasn’t sure what to do. She had planned her escape so meticulously, so that nothing could go wrong, and all she’d wanted was to be free. Well, she was free and she didn’t know what to do – move on perhaps? She went downstairs and ordered a drink from the bar; no reaction from the barman – there had been no reaction from anybody, not one person had given her more than a cursory glance. Strange, she’d sort of expected to be hunted, to be searched for, but nobody took any notice at all. She sipped her wine. Not a big drinker, not yet anyway, but it was quite a pleasant feeling, things were coming into perspective. She wore the suit, had an empty folder she occasionally referred to; the bar was almost empty, a man was playing with a phone and a laptop; he was middle-aged, totally absorbed in what he was doing.

At another table sat a woman, perhaps mid-twenties, dressed well; she rarely looked up from her phone. Foreign, thought Natalie, she’s waiting for someone. Dark hair, straight, good bone structure, shortish skirt, good shoes. It was about two o’clock. An older man came to her table, expensively dressed, everything was expensive here – her drink had cost eight pounds. He didn’t sit down, stood and said a few words, the woman smiled, a TV smile; the man waited. She rose, took his arm and they moved to the elevators. Gone. An escort? Interesting.

Natalie saw a map against the wall, near reception. She ordered another drink, one more, and wandered over to it. Where shall I go? What shall I do? You can do anything you want. Go anywhere you like. She studied the map: London? Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester? She didn’t know what to do.


The old lady handed Bonnie her tea and switched on the television. It was time for the news and she seemed immediately engrossed, sometimes tutting or shaking her head. It was quite a big house. Bonnie had seen the kitchen, old fashioned and large. She’d asked to use the bathroom and checked upstairs; there were three bedrooms, all neatly kept, and an empty room. The news finished and the old lady switched over to more news. She turned and looked at Bonnie, not quite sure why she was there, but offered more tea. Bonnie said she’d get it and made another. She wanted to discover her name; she didn’t want to ask.

The house was old fashioned but not ever so. There was some modern stuff, a couple of pictures looked fairly recent and some ornaments; the TV was newish too. The old lady went to the toilet. Bonnie checked the drawers for a bill; her name was Nancy. Nancy returned. She looked at Bonnie again, seemed about to say something, but just sat down, continued watching the television. There was a computer in the corner, not switched on; it wasn’t recent, but it wasn’t ancient either; she must have been sharp fairly recently, if she wasn’t now.

Bonnie made them something to eat. They sat and ate from trays, which Nancy seemed quite used to. She did stare at the food for a few seconds, as if it wasn’t quite what she’d expected, but then she ate and carried on watching the news. When the ITV news finished, she switched over to Channel 4 and watched some more.

They watched EastEnders, a documentary about fat people and started on a film, something about Dylan Thomas and the women in his life. Half-way through Nancy began to stir; she wanted to go to bed. She fussed around a little bit, looked in some drawers, tidied up though there was little to do; then she stopped and looked at Bonnie,

‘Who are you, my dear?’
‘I’m Bonnie.’
‘How long have you been here?’
‘Oh, I’ve just arrived. It’s OK, I’m just going to give you a little help when you need it. It’s not compulsory; you can change your mind any time you like.’

Nancy stared. She seemed to be trying to think; it was an effort, too much in the end – she wanted to go to bed. Eventually she said,

‘Very well, dear. I suppose I’ll see you tomorrow.’
‘My name’s Bonnie, call me Bonnie.’

She looked for a few more seconds. She knew something wasn’t quite right. Instinct was taking over; did she trust this girl? She seemed to decide that she did,

‘Good-night, Bonnie.’
‘Good-night, see you in the morning.’


(continue reading) chriscuba-001Leaving is Chris’s first full length fiction title and will be available for general release in 2014.

 

A very brief summary of the Oxfordians…

wsmontage-001It is hard to decide when the Oxfordians came to prominence. Before the Oxfordian renaissance there had also been claims for Christopher Marlowe and Roger Manners, the fifth Earl of Rutland, among many others. It is not entirely clear when Edward de Vere emerged from the pack; it was possibly when John Thomas Looney wrote “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford certainly became a popular candidate around that time.

The originator of Oxford’s claims (and author of the best book on the subject), John Thomas Looney, claimed great artists do not write for money and that Shakespeare ‘had an ‘acquisitive disposition’ and indulged in ‘habitual petty money transactions.’ But if this disqualified Shakespeare, does it somehow qualify Oxford who, according to the Dictionary of National Biography written by Alan Nelson, was

’notorious in his own time for his irregular life, and for squandering virtually his entire patrimony on personal extravagance.’

He was also

‘Eternally short of funds, he did not scruple to burden lesser men with his debts.’

Oxford stabbed a servant to death, but was exonerated when the authorities decided that the servant had deliberately impaled himself on Oxford’s knife, thereby committing suicide. Do Shakespeare’s plays give the impression that they were written by a very nasty piece of work – a cold blooded murderer?

It is also interesting that Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Henry VIII were all written after Oxford’s death. Looney believed that the plays were written before Oxford died and posthumously released or left incomplete and finished by other writers, which would also explain references to events that occurred after Oxford had died. This is rather clever because it naturally discounts any claim against it. If it is true. It isn’t, of course.

In 1921 Looney said that ‘circumstantial evidence cannot be accumulated for ever without at some point issuing in proof.’ Yet proof there has never been. There must also be a good reason why the murderer de Vere, the greatest poet of all time, would suppress his identity. The answer was that Oxford was the secret lover of Queen Elizabeth I, their affair producing a son: the Earl of Southampton. This theory was later modified. According to Oxfordians, de Vere was not only Elizabeth’s lover but her son as well: the lie that Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen led indirectly to the lie that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays. A continuous series of cover ups on the part of authority, the Tudor Court and hundreds of academics remained committed to protecting Oxford’s identity and denying him his rightful place. So desperate were the Oxfordians for proof that Percy Allen, President of the Shakespeare Fellowship, decided he would gain the necessary proof by conversing with the dead. He published Talks with Elizabethans, an account of his conversations with Oxford, Bacon and Shakespeare. Shakespeare later thanked him for his efforts.

For many years after Allen’s revelations the Oxfordians seemed dead on their feet. In 1968 their newsletter reported that

‘the missionary or evangelical spirit of most of our members seems to be at a low ebb, dormant or non-existent.’

A biographer of Shakespeare, Samuel Schoenbaum, fed up with having to plod through so many questioning accounts said in 1974 that their

‘voluminousness was only matched by their intrinsic worthlessness. It was lunatic rubbish. The produce of mania.’

By the mid-1980s it had become the habit of the media to give both sides in any controversy an equal hearing. Any point of view, no matter how mad, demanded equal time with its opposite view. Oxfordians took their chance. Now, many years later, we have Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy Irons as supporters of the cause; children’s bookshops stock Oxfordian titles; magazines feature the Oxfordian cause; the New York Times runs sympathetic articles; Supreme Court justices declare themselves Oxfordians; supporters around the world are able to join discussion groups and Oxfordians have their own peer reviewed journals. The Oxfordians have come a long way. The Oxfordian case has the advantage of appealing to the sort of people who doubt the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death or Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain – Elvis still alive on the moon anyone?

Oxfordians needed to tone down their wilder conspiracy theories now that they were being taken seriously. Talk was shelved of sexual dalliance with Queen Elizabeth and the Tudor Prince. Peter Moore told fellow Oxfordians in 1996 to

‘Face reality on the Prince Tudor business, and submit it to proper historical scrutiny. If you can’t make or listen to the strongest arguments that can be made against your own theories, then you’d better keep them to yourself.’

Fairly intelligent use of Google and Wikipedia has gained the Oxfordians many more followers. So many people are keen to join any controversy and they now have the means: the Internet. A very silly film has been made. The Oxfordians have become a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

This has happened without one single piece of evidence to support Oxfordian claims.

This of course is a very brief summary of the Oxfordians. Their history is so bizarre and convoluted that any full and detailed account of their beliefs is impossible. There are many, many ways to counter Oxfordian claims; I will slowly go through them over the coming months. Here’s just one for now.

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The number of Shakespeare’s works that filled Elizabethan bookshops is relevant. Publishers usually restricted printings to 1500 copies. Fifty thousand copies of seventy different publications bearing Shakespeare’s name were circulating in his lifetime. He was an actor, sharer and playwright for the most popular company in the country and also very well known about town and in court. If, during the twenty five years that Shakespeare was acting and writing in London, he turned out to be an imposter, and not the writer whose plays the people had watched and purchased, I think somebody would have spotted it. Someone would have mentioned it.

Nobody did.

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A few more reasons why Shakespeare was the man from Stratford…

 

01v/11/arve/G2582/016It is often noted by anti-Stratfordians that Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare that he had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. This is often, out of context, taken to mean that Shakespeare had almost no classical knowledge and, by extension, was uneducated. The comment was actually an extended compliment to Shakespeare, where Jonson said that Shakespeare eclipsed not only his contemporaries but the ancients. He outshone Lyly, Kyd and Marlowe and though he ‘had small Latin and less Greek he stood alone in comparison for comedy and tragedy with all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.’ Anyway, most authors had small Latin and less Greek when compared with Jonson’s prodigious classical learning.

 

Shakespeare left school well equipped. By the time a grammar-school boy left his school he had as much classical education as a university student of Classics today. Of course education does not stop on leaving school. Shakespeare read medieval poetry (Chaucer, Gower), Italian fiction (Boccaccio, Cinthio), contemporary history (Holinshed), ancient history (Plutarch), contemporary romance (Philip Sydney, Robert Greene), Greek romance (Apollodorus), and contemporary philosophy (Montaigne).  Richard Field, a printer, was a contemporary of Shakespeare in Stratford and the printer of his first poems. It is remarkable that Field also printed many sources of Shakespeare’s plays: Ovid, Plutarch and Holinshed, three of Shakespeare’s favourite texts. It is clear that Shakespeare kept up with new ideas and literary discoveries as they reached the English market.

 

It is often alleged that the level of technical knowledge of certain areas of Shakespeare’s plays – such as the law or the court – is not compatible with that of a grammar-school boy. This strange assertion is often behind attempts to prove that Shakespeare was not the man from Stratford. Thus an argument is created that for legal knowledge the plays must have been written by a lawyer (Francis Bacon) or that for knowledge of the court the plays must have been written by an aristocrat (the Earl of Oxford). Similar arguments have been made for Shakespeare’s knowledge of birds, botany or seafaring. This is a very strange line of thought. It assumes that authors depend on their own professional experiences. Shakespeare did not need to be a lawyer to gain legal knowledge, especially in extremely litigious Elizabethan times; he was involved in at least six legal cases himself. Court life was familiar to Shakespeare, especially after the Chamberlain’s men were invited to perform there. To believe that only lawyers can make legal references or that only aristocrats know of the court, misses a crucial aspect of being a writer: imagination. Added to the undoubted research that Shakespeare indulged in, there is nothing in his plays that could not have come from close observation of the world around him; of human idiosyncrasy, hypocrisy, humanity, compassion, politics and paradoxes.

 

Shakespeare was intellectually proximate with Montaigne. Montaigne was a psychological philosopher, whereas Shakespeare was psychological dramatist. Gonzalo’s speech on the ideal commonwealth in The Tempest comes from Montaigne’s essay On Cannibals. Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare’s language is interesting. Montaigne’s Essays were introduced to the English speaking world in 1603. Shakespeare must have read it because after 1603 Coffin Taylor identified 750 parallels, words and phrases that were not in Shakespeare’s language before. All the examples are too numerous to mention, but there is ‘concupisible’ in Montaigne (translated)  and Measure for Measure; ‘harping’ and ‘pregnant wit’ in Montaigne and Hamlet and ‘chirurgions’ in Montaigne and The Tempest. Many, many new words and phrases appeared in tandem with Montaigne after 1603. The Earl of Oxford died in 1604.

 

Another strange question regarding Shakespeare involves travel. How did he gain knowledge of ancient Greece (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida), ancient Rome (Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Romeo and Juliet), Egypt (Cleopatra) and ancient Britain (King Lear, Cymbeline). Well, the answer is obvious: he didn’t go to these places; he read about them. Nothing in Shakespeare’s use of foreign locations requires more knowledge than might be gained easily from reading or gained from an existing story. Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet in Verona because that is where Arthur Brooke set the poem that is the play’s source. If he didn’t already have a story to adapt then there is nothing in the plays that could not be discovered from reading Plutarch or Ovid.

 

Anti-Stratfordians have often claimed that Shakespeare’s plays require direct knowledge of foreign locations and that, since there is evidence that Shakespeare never travelled, the plays must have been written by someone who travelled to Europe. This is a ridiculous argument. Edward de Vere travelled in Europe as a young man in the 1570s. This is often cited as one of the reasons why he, and not Shakespeare, wrote the plays and poems. Although the travel may open up the possibility of his being the author, his rather negligible poetic skill somewhat diminished his claims. Shakespeare’s career shows that it is possible to write great plays without actually visiting the places those plays are set in. Oxford shows us, very clearly, that travel does not necessarily lead to great writing.

 

To me, the fact that Oxford died in 1604 rather discounts him anyway, and, of course, he made no claims himself. To get around that fact we have all sorts of conspiracy theories from people desperate to believe that the plays were not the product of the ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’ from Stratford. Shakespeare was an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent. Some people find that hard to accept. Poor them.

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Blocked…

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I spent most of December in Cuba. Apart from the usual fun aspects, my intention was to read for a week, write a few blogs and get on with my novel. The first draft of the novel was complete. I had to go through it and tidy the whole thing up. I significantly changed the plot and finished the whole thing quite easily. I knew the end of the novel but couldn’t quite decide how to write it. With a few days left I decided to leave ending the novel until I got home.

 

Five weeks later I still haven’t finished it. I tinkered a little with the earlier chapters but have not even looked at the ending. For the first week, and then two, I thought it was just jet lag or being back at work, but work has been easy and jet lag only lasts a few days. It is very strange; I am forcing myself to write this, trying to get myself back in the mood, back in the writing mood. Writing is never easy, but sometimes it flows, and the writing I’ve done during the past year suddenly seems to have been very easy (it wasn’t), compared to now. How did I do it?

 

I have written one blog since Cuba, the one about an argument in the street and the heavy police response. It said something about crime in Havana, about crime in Cuba – I was pleased with it. Although it didn’t get much response, I thought it neatly summed up much about Cuba: the nature of their arguments, quickly over and forgotten, the temperament of the people and the fact that crime is almost non-existent. It was a short piece but I felt I could return to it in more detail, explain it more fully. But since then – nothing. Blocked.

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Blocked. It’s over two weeks since I wrote anything and I have not even looked at my novel for three weeks. At first you look for excuses, but now I must admit that blocked is what it is. Writing this is like swimming through treacle or going into work with the flu – I really don’t want to do it. Norman Mailer described the difficulties well:

Writing every day is a depressing activity. Sometimes after two hours of writing I feel as if I’ve done seven hours of manual labour.

Of course Norman Mailer is referring to the general difficulty of writing, not being blocked. He was an incredibly industrious writer and didn’t always find it so hard. Throughout his life though, despite enormous success, he had to keep working, mainly to pay for his five ex-wives and his numerous children.

 

Writing this does feel like seven hours of manual labour, but I feel that I must get back into it, and perhaps writing about being blocked is as good a way as any of removing the block. And as Norman Mailer put it:

One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honour decent professionals are entitled to wear.

I feel I have had too many bad days (in terms of writing) and must, if I want to be a writer, continue, even though it is the last thing I want to do. I still want to earn that ‘badge of honour’ that Mailer neatly applies to professionals – you simply must be willing to work on a bad day.

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Life is fine apart from the writing. Most things are going quite well. It is at times like this that one echoes Hemingway, when one would rather be anything but a writer, when any other occupation or pastime seems enormously attractive:

I would rather have a good life than be a bloody great writer.

There is a strong temptation to feel like this, that any occupation is better. Hemingway managed to make his life startlingly unhappy, but as he said about his friend F Scott Fitzgerald:

Scott took literature so seriously. He never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.

And Hemingway’s unhappiness was more to do with his personal life than his writing. He ruined his talent and lost his friends. Writing gave him the means to be happy; his character made him unhappy, and probably would have made him unhappy whatever he’d done.

I haven’t returned to my novel for a long time. I’m not sure why that is: if I think it isn’t good enough or if I think it is good but am nervous of the reaction – I really don’t know.

Writing was not always a chore for Norman Mailer. When he was working on a book his routine, which he kept to, was seven hours of writing a day, at least four days of the week. And it wasn’t all suffering; on some days he was:

…manic, alive, filled every day with the excitement and revelation of everything I see.

He apparently always had an aura ‘that projected a love of life’; one of his admirers said she was:

…amazed to see how jolly Mailer was; most of the writers she knew were anxious and unhappy.

I suppose I would like to follow the Mailer model, not exactly, but certainly in his love of life. Too many writers are miserable, see everything as an unpleasant task and write negatively about life. I may be blocked, but I’ve started again with this, poor as it may be. I will get to my novel again soon and finish it. Who knows what the response will be. I hope it’s good, but if it isn’t, well at least I will have completed it. And there’s plenty more where it came from. Well, there will be, just as soon as I rid myself of this writer’s block.

And ultimately I know there is only one way to do it. As GK Chesterton said:

 

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

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