* * *
I have a drawer full of manuscripts in various states of undress. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that you have to write a lot of rubbish in order to produce some good work. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, natural writers are about as successful as natural heart surgeons are likely to be. It’s a craft. For me, it’s like sculpting. Or creating a mosaic, shifting the pieces around till that gorgeous, fleeting moment of satisfaction.
My latest novel, The Greenhouse, is currently at the mosaic stage. I want to talk about it but I don't. You writers with work in progress will recognise this...
Here's how the opening page looks at the minute:
Sometimes when a mirror falls it doesn’t shatter into a thousand pieces. Sometimes the frame thuds and judders as it hits the ground, absorbing the shock, but holding on. On first inspection the mirror seems to have survived the whole incident.
When your heart rate has returned to normal after the shock, you are relieved. There is nothing sharp to walk on by accident. There is no risk of cutting, of bleeding, of spilling. You carefully prop it against a wall but your attention is taken by something else. When you return to the room to re-hang the mirror a while later – because everything seems to take a little longer these days – when you return and re-hang – not without effort because it is heavy – you find something has changed. Something isn’t right. Part of you appears in the mirror as normal. But part of you has been displaced. It’s a kind of night-blindness. Everything is there, just some of it is swimming, moving, changing places. Floaters you can’t see around. Are they in your eyes? Or in the mirror? Or somewhere else?
Tidings grew out of my Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck. It found a great agent, made a lot of major publishing friends and just missed the Cinnamon Press novel award 2013 final ten. But it's still in the (top) drawer. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned from this experience.
Under Waterloo Bridge, an imploding Welsh rock star meets a 60something woman with a story she hasn’t told anyone. Yet...
Here's the opening chapter:
I spend my evenings surrounded by books and coffins and lost souls.
Under Waterloo Bridge, in a gap between the giant black boxes full of leftovers from the book market, there’s a low cupboard that does as my armchair. From here I watch them all - the confused, the unfaithful, the frightened, the guilty… all coming and going with the river. Some stop and stay for a bit, sensing a kindred spirit. Some spill everything, telling all till they’re dry.
But they get nothing from me.
My skin is as thick as a whale shark. To make me feel you have to spear me in the eye.
The coffins are padlocked, but I have a key for one next to my cubby. Inside I keep three velvet cushions that spare my bones on all-nighters, and my favourite costumes - the ones I forgot to give back to the wardrobe department. The capes come in handy when it’s chill. Tucked away at the back I hide my Talisker and a couple of crystal glasses. Whisky tastes better out of cut glass. Ted on the bookstall laughs at my airs and graces but never says no to sharing.
Waterloo isn’t the prettiest bridge, but I like how the low arches belly flop from one side to the other. I like that however much lighting gets put up, there’s always plenty of darkness. Though it’s never too dark for me to see.
My flat is over the river, on the Strand. It’s good for sleeping in, doing the washing, shooting the breeze with Marcia. But it’s not where I belong. You can’t hear the slap of the water from the Strand. You can’t see how the river mesmerizes. You can’t watch as people gallop towards it. The lovers. The loners. They can’t help themselves. Happy people. People in trouble. People who can’t tell the difference.
I did start to wonder if my long hours here were all about avoiding sleep, avoiding dreams. But then I realised I’d got that from some cod-psychology off the non-fiction end of the book table, had another sniff of whisky and a lungful of Thames air and sent my mind off downriver. It likes to travel even if I don’t. I won’t get on a boat. Too much under the surface.
On this particular September day the Thames rose over twenty feet – the highest tide of the year by a long way. Stood still anywhere along the South Bank you could see it coming, lapping and slapping like a long-time drunk, staggering sideways but always, inch by inch, heading inwards. It crept onto the pavement, licking at the stones. Like it wasn’t satisfied with what was already in its belly. The river was still hungry. It wanted to empty the fridge.
By half past midnight the water had dropped way back down and through the misty rain you could see what it had been devouring. Arrowheads and goblets and bottle-tops and bones. Bits of people, and bits of things people had made. And things people had lost, or dropped, or stolen. The damp was getting solid, sticking to walls and lamp-posts and bridges. The air was turning to water. What happened earlier on the bridge kept coming back to me. I tried to push the pictures in my head away with whisky, with a bit of singing, but I was too restless to settle. My eyes were swimmy with the wetness and my legs were all rheumatic. I felt like making a nuisance till someone took me home in a nice warm police car, but I was desperate for a pee.
I always went to the loo in the Festival Hall, before the revamp. You’d go down this narrow little stairwell and at the bottom was a tiny space with big mirrors framed with light bulbs. I liked pretending I was checking myself out before I went on the stage and for once, instead of everyone looking at my costumes, they’d all be looking at me.
I don’t like the new Ladies, too bland, and I’ve been thrown out a few times for causing a disturbance so I headed for a quick emergency squat on my bit of beach just east of the bridge.
It was quiet. Everyone seemed to have headed for home out of the dankness, the drizzle. I sang a bit more, Running out of time in a place time’s stood still, la la la, to break the silence. I’d just crouched down in the dark, humming, when I was drowned out by the noise of a boat coming up fast, followed by splashing and grunting. What looked like a huge lumpy seal was trying to get onto dry land. It moved slowly out of the water and when the light hit the lump it broke into three. Two shiny wetsuits tried to stand, but couldn’t because they were dragging someone else who was bent in all the wrong places. There was more grunting and scrabbling as they pulled their cargo up the dark sand. His trousers were half down but he still had his big coat on, all twisted and stuck to him so I couldn’t see where his pants were. One of his feet was bare and pale blue, and in the light of the street lamp I could see thin black veins spidering over it. The other foot was wearing a boot with shiny buckles. A cross between a dauphin’s and a miner’s. Marty’s favourite.
He was very white. His mouth was all down on one side, and his eyes were closed but in a screwed up kind of a way. Whatever he’d seen on the bridge must have been blindingly bright.
His beautiful hair was pasted to his head. He didn’t look like a rock star. He looked like a corpse.
They laid him down on the pebbles and rubbish. He was lucky the tide was so low. Or not very clever, depending on how you look at it. They bumped the back of his head and it made me think how close his skull was to the stones. And then there was some shouting, and a guy with a box appeared. They were trying to get him to breathe, and I saw water coming out of him and I thought about those cartoons where goldfish pop out as well, dancing on a fountain.
At last the guy with the box sat back and nodded at the other two and looked at me and that’s when I knew Marty wasn’t dead.
I’d had those whiskies and spirits can make me emotional, so the wet on my face might have been tears. I suppose that’s why they assumed we were together. I like to think they took me for his girlfriend. His mother, more likely.
There was blood in my mouth where I must have bitten my lip. I spat it onto the pebbles.
And then they picked him up and carried him. It took all three to manage his floppy toy body and his sopping coat and his boot and his bare blue foot. I looked up and there was an ambulance parked on the walkway in front of the National Theatre. I was right behind as he was posted in the back. A hand came down and pulled me in and I heard one of the divers say ‘If you hadn’t called us straight away he’d be done for already’ and I looked back and saw he was talking to me.
Marty was lying under a shiny tinfoil blanket. A machine turned his vital signs into tiny bleeps. One of the medics with a moustache and nice blue eyes asked if I was all right and I nodded, but I wasn’t really. I still hadn’t had that pee.
It only took us a few minutes to get to the hospital. They got him out of the ambulance and onto a trolley as gently as a baby. A long, skinny baby. I sprinted along the corridor, but after a couple of left and right turns I got stopped by a big schoolboy in a white coat with a label that said he was Doctor Allpowerful and he told me I couldn’t go any further, they’d come and get me when there was news.
So I found the Ladies which was a great relief, though the décor wasn’t up to much. Then I went and sat in the empty hospital café where a woman in a red vinyl apron was wiping down the tables with a cloth that smelled of old man’s pants. When I asked for tea, she made it like she was taking out an appendix for the first time.
I sat and waited. I hate waiting. But something always turns up and after half an hour she did.
From the doorway she looked about twelve. Dainty as a Victorian paper silhouette. Ghostly and gothic. The same fake leopard coat. The same coltish look. The same pixie face. But something was very different. It took me a moment to realise the light had been shorn from her along with her hair.
She looked around the empty café. Then she turned back to me. ‘I’m sorry…outside they said someone was waiting for Marty and…I imagined... I don’t know…’ Now the hair was gone she had to look down at her nails to hide her eyes. The purple tips were cracking.
‘Can’t know everything,’ I said to her with a smile. And then I caught sight of myself in the glass door, a fat spring roll with electrocuted hair and a too-tight coat with bulging pockets. No. She wouldn’t have imagined it was me.
She held out her hand. ‘I’m Geraldine. My friends call me GG.’
‘Pleasure to meet you.’ I’d thought it was a stupid name the first time Marty spoke about her. Put me in mind of a horse. But now I disliked her less than I’d planned to. She looked like a storm had just swept her world away.
‘You know Marty, don’t you? I knew he had…a friend…someone he liked to talk to…’ Tears started making soup with her mascara. ‘It’s just…’
I had another look at me in the glass door. Some days I can pass for forty-nine, but this wasn’t one of them. I had no intention of telling her anything about me or anyone else. So I wiped the rim of my cup to be polite, poured the last of the tea into it and pushed it towards her.
‘You’ve got to squeeze the life out of the tea bags in here. It’s like somebody’s sucked them first. He’ll be alright. Come on, Lovely, have a good blow. He likes a drink, doesn’t he? Might’ve stopped him feeling the river.’
She sat up and wiped her nose. She didn’t say anything, but then she didn’t have to. We both knew Marty drank like there was a prize for the winner. He practised with shorts when he got too thin to soak up pints any more. Jack Daniels and Coke, mainly, though he and I had shared enough vodka in our time. He would produce a bottle of Jack from the inside pocket of his great big coat and sit it down next to him like a friend. Like all of us he drank for his own particular reason, to keep out his own particular kind of cold.
GG was as skinny as he was. They must’ve looked like a set of pipe-cleaners when they were out together, ready to blow over in the breeze. The tea perked her up though, and she got a bit chattier.
‘He is supposed to be packing. He is supposed to be on a plane to New York tomorrow. He disappears. He keeps turning up in strange places, scary places, talking to tramps and mad people…’
I thought I’d let the tramps and mad people reference go, in the circumstances.
‘I called my mother. She told me to phone round the hospitals. Which shows you what faith she’s got in him.’
‘So you phoned round the hospitals?’ I said, thinking smart woman, your mother, careful to keep my face serious.
She nodded as she made shapes in the spilled sugar with her finger. Then out of the blue she lifted up her head and those black smudgy eyes tried to get mine to look straight into them.
‘It wasn’t you, was it? Who called me? Someone called me and said He’s throwing banknotes in the Thames. The voice was hard to hear. It sounded like the person was running. I thought it was a man, but it might have been a woman. It wasn’t you, was it?’
And then her phone rang and she had to root around in her enormous bag to find it. ‘Where have you been? I’m at the hospital…’
I half-closed my eyes. After a few moments I saw her glance over to see if I was asleep. It’s never a good idea to make assumptions. People passing my cubby make assumptions. They stare a little, then when you move a flicker they turn to look downwards like they’re interested in their feet all of a sudden, like they’re checking they’ve got enough shoe leather to out-race you if you do something unhinged.
She, on the other hand, wasn’t going anywhere fast in those heels. All that black velvet and lace made her look like a little earth-bound bat. While she thought I was snoozing I had a good look at her legs, one tangled round the other, fishnet tights like tarantula webs going up under her skirt. Sitting like that’ll play havoc with her veins when she’s older. I’ve worked with so many beautiful actresses, gorgeous when they’re dressed, legs like dropped knitting when the support tights are off.
As she put her phone away I opened my eyes wide. ‘So Marty’s your soulmate is he, my lovely?’
Catty of me really, given what I knew, but something was pushing at my insides like my organs had been set alight and I couldn’t have that, so making her cry was the best alternative. Her teacup started wobbling and all her black and silver rings started clinking the china and more black tears headed off down her cheeks. By the time they’d reached her chin they were grey. Then she huddled herself into her big fake fur and didn’t speak to me any more.
And so I sat and did some remembering and there we were, Marty and me, one lazy afternoon in the silver sunshine on the terrace at the Festival Hall, his head resting in my lap and him asking for stories. He wanted something new. Something I hadn’t told him before.
‘Well, my love, you won’t know this one.’ We both wriggled a bit to get comfortable, so nothing got in the way of the telling. ‘A couple of centuries before us, they used to drag bodies out of the Thames and assume they were dead just because they weren’t moving. Who knows how many could’ve been saved? Eventually they set up a place over there on the north bank, to try and get people into lifesaving. It had a rest room and a nice bath to warm up the rescuers and the rescued. And they gave a big reward for bravery. But guess what?’ I broke off, not sure he was still awake. I looked down at his face. He turned his head up towards me and I saw he was chuckling quietly.
‘I bet everyone started rescuing their mates to get the money.’
And then the light went and his face changed.
‘Would you rescue me if there wasn’t any money, Lizzie?’
To make me feel anything you have to spear me in the eye. Then he turned up. And stabbed me nearly blind.