From my own slush pile – Easy Living

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I’ve self-published two novels so far, and a short story. There are loads more in the pipeline. When you start publishing your work, whether independently or traditionally, people are apt to think the first book ‘out there’ is the first thing you ever wrote. For most of us that’s just not the case. I have mountains of ‘preliminary’ books in various states of composition – some are finished, some are halfway or even three quarters of the way to being finished, and some fizzled away in the early stages. Some writers I know agonize over their manuscripts, feeling that there’s no point in writing a book if it’s not going to see the light of day, or that it’s got to be perfect. I know a writer who has spent twenty years polishing one novel. That makes me really sad. I’ve always felt personally that an abandoned novel or two in a drawer is not a disaster. But if you never write anything else – that is a disaster! Writing is a learning process, and your preliminary works are not ‘useless’ or a ‘waste of time’ they are your apprenticeship. They are where you learned to write. I feel that the worst thing anyone can do with a bad novel they’ve written, is to make it the only novel they’ve written. So if you’ve got a drawerful, join the club!

I have worked and reworked several novels that are still on my own slush pile, and a couple of them aren’t too bad – so I’m thinking of giving them another go – I feel the basic story is pretty good, and I have learned so much over the last ten, fifteen, twenty years that I could maybe do my original ideas justice. Every time I sit down and write a book, I learn something new – usually about myself.

This is a short extract from a book I called Easy Living. It hasn’t been published, but it may well be int he next year or two. I began it in 1997, taking a break at the mid-point when we moved from Aldershot in Hampshire, England to Brisbane, Australia. My half-novel was packed up with the rest of our belongings and sent by boat – I had three months to kill whilst I waited, and during that time I wrote another book, Dolly, also still in a drawer. Also still a basically good story in need of a face-lift. And maybe a transplant or two. Sometimes you just can’t hurry this stuff. I remember when I got the boxes delivered to the new house, I was so relieved at being reunited with my baby – and so excited to start work on Easy Living. It’s kind of like my first born, even though I finished a novel and numerous short stories long before then.

Anyway, here it is, I hope you like it.

Easy Living – Chapter 1

I was still lying there, enjoying the coolness of the crisp hospital sheets.  So smooth.  Ours at home were rather bobbly and old.  ‘Pilling’ they call it in the textiles trade apparently.   These hospital sheets were luxury itself.

Next to me the machines hummed softly, familiarly and beeped out my heartbeat, gasped for me as they forced the air in and out of my lungs for me.  The one monitoring my brain activity was a flat line as always.  Brain dead.  That’s what they called it and I always thought it sounded more like an insult than a medical diagnosis.  Away by the door to my private room I could hear several hushed voices.  I recognised one immediately.  Simon.  Simon was here!

In the background my favourite Billie Holiday CD was playing.  My parents had brought it in for me ages ago.  The nurses put music on for me most days – I never tired of Billie, Nina, or Ella.  Billie was just finishing That Ole Devil Called Love, and knowing the order of the CD by heart, I knew that at any moment she’d start singing Easy Living which is my all-time favourite song, by her or anyone else.  As soon as the first bar of the piano’s part trickled through the air, I felt that same wave of pleasure wash over me that I always experienced.

Another day, I thought, just like any other.  How long had it been now?  Four months?  Five?  That’s a long time to just lie in bed and do nothing.  Although there had been rainy Monday mornings in the past when I longed to do exactly that.  I felt Simon take my hand in his warm one.  His hand seemed so warm, so big, it seemed to swallow mine up inside it and I felt safe, protected.  I could feel the roughness of the dried-on blobs of paint on his fingers and there was a definite aroma of turps.  He’d been decorating again.  Other husbands have to be nagged into DIY but Simon had been using it as therapy to help him cope since my accident.  He’s such a sweetie.  I reckoned he must have done pretty much the whole of our little house by now.  But I didn’t want to think about our little house – it made me feel so homesick.  You had to curb your emotions a bit in here; after all it still might be months before I could go home.

It was amazing really – Simon doing painting and decorating at home – he came from a very wealthy family, but he had never wanted to use his family’s wealth to make his way in the world – so he had started at the bottom of his father’s firm and it had taken him years of hard work to make his way up the ladder.  Our house was small and modest, everything in it we had to work hard for, and we were justifiably proud of what we had achieved together – building our life together from almost nothing.  We had never had much money but we had each other, and that was the way we liked it.

His visits never seemed to be as frequent as I would have liked, so I looked forward to them, knowing he was working very hard and couldn’t always get in to see me.  When he did come in, he would sit and hold my hand and talk to me about his day, about work, about the petty squabbles between staff members or tell me about meetings.  Sometimes he’d read Minutes to me, or reports.  Poor Simon.  It wasn’t very interesting stuff but it was so good to hear his voice.  And at least I was able to feel that just by listening I was still able to make a positive contribution to our marriage.

But now, it dawned on me he was trying to tell me something and it seemed to be something important he needed me to know.  I was still half-listening to Billie in the background:

Living for you is Easy Living

          It’s easy to live when you’re in love

          I’m so in love, there’s nothing in life

          But You.

I was just dreaming along with the music, head full of dancers in speakeasies, swaying to the music amidst a fug of cigarette smoke and bootleg liquor.  Suddenly I felt a strong pressure on my hand as Simon squeezed it when he turned around to shout over his shoulder at someone, anyone.

‘For God’s sake, turn that racket off!’  His voice broke on the last words and there was a click and an abrupt silence.  I felt Simon turn back to me, and now I knew with a shock that he was crying!  That nurse came over to try and comfort him, but he shrugged her off.  A Jamaican woman, she always sounded so big and black and vibrant.  She always brought a rush of energy and life into the room with her.  She was my favourite.  She always had time to gossip and laugh, always made me feel like she knew me and cared about me.  Some of the things she told me you’d never believe!  Things about the other patients, or which nurse was sleeping with which doctor and of course I wasn’t going to tell anyone, was I?

Someone whose voice I didn’t recognise was on Simon’s other side, and there was another new man in the room too.  My favourite doctor, Dr Nadim was not there, which was strange.  Dr Nadim was another really nice person – so considerate – never treated you like a nameless lump of meat.  Even if there’s no one else in the room, it’s always, ‘Mrs Cooper, I’m just going to do this’, or ‘Good morning Mrs Cooper, how are you today?’  So kind.  So reassuring.  He must have known how frightened I was at first.  I’d never been in hospital before.

One of the other men told Simon that he was doing the right thing, no matter how hard it may seem.  What did that mean, I wondered.  I assumed I’d find out soon enough.

Everything had seemed so nice and normal, so everyday-ish so you can imagine how startled I was when I heard a couple of clicks and realised that the humming, beeping and gasping next to me had stopped as the machines that had been my constant companions for months were switched off.  The room seemed loud with the silence that followed.

At first I thought they were going to wake me up – I felt such a surge of excitement.  After all this time, it had finally happened!  They must have discovered I would be able to breath on my own now!  But Simon’s hand clutched mine even more tightly, his other hand snagged in the bedclothes and his sad, silent weeping became anguished sobbing, and it began to dawn on me that whatever it was, it wasn’t good.

Everyone else was there, gathered around him.  The nurse, the two men I didn’t know, and whom I assumed were doctors, and Simon’s parents.  They patted his shoulder and wondered aloud what they could do to help him.  I wondered that myself.  As I listened to him crying, I felt as if the lump in my throat would choke me.  I tried to will the tears to roll down my cheeks so they would all see that I was still there, still me.  But nothing happened.  I wanted so much to hug him, to tell him he would be fine, that I was okay and he was not to worry about me.  Tell him I wasn’t in pain, felt in fact rather detached from it all…

It was at this point I became fully aware, for the first time, that I was looking down on the room from above the bed.  I could see the slightly thinning patch on the crown of Simon’s head, and the much larger, bald shiny patch on his father’s.

‘God, I look awful!’  I exclaimed, shocked to see my thin little white face above the white sheet.  Which was the paler?

‘Hardly surprising, is it?’  A voice next to me startled me.  ‘After all, you are dead.  People don’t tend to look their best under those circumstances.  All that stuff about dying young and leaving a beautiful corpse behind – well, it’s all crap really.’

I turned, unable to see anyone nearby, apart from those by my bed.

‘Is someone there?’  I asked, not exactly scared, but kind of bewildered.  My body, beneath me on the bed was still and silent.  I was no longer a part of it.  A coolness washed over me.  I felt so strange.

‘I am.’  Said The Voice.

‘I can’t see you.’  I looked around, scanning the entire space between floor and ceiling.  I couldn’t have missed anything.  ‘I can’t even see me!’  I added, realising when I looked down I had no body – my body was down there – still in the bed, lifeless.  I was up here, away from it, apart, separate.  Now I was scared.

‘Don’t worry,’ the other person began.  Person?  How did I know?  But by now I was thoroughly upset.

‘Don’t worry?  DON’T WORRY?  I’m dead for GOD’s sake!’

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