When I was a little girl, in the 1960s in Tunbridge Wells, it was I think pretty normal for elderly close friends of the family to be referred to by children as Uncle and Auntie. I had a couple of Uncles and Aunties who weren’t really family but were friends. I have written quite a lot about Auntie Zonya, a unique soul and wonderful woman, an enigma.
But living in our grand old house in Tunbridge Wells, there were others. In the room next door there were two hairdressers, two men, who went ‘professionally’ by French names – deemed more ‘suitable’ for hairdressers. One called himself Rene (or Rennie as we used to say), I can’t remember what the other one called himself. They were very ‘artistic’. Of course now I look back and realise they were a gay couple, but in those days they were simply glamorous, artistic people, who lived together for convenience and to save money. None of us living in the house had much of that. It was a house full of similar people – no estate, no money, not much of anything. There was an artist who made me a cat mask. On the top floor was the elderly lady who owned the whole house, Miss Lilian, she had snow-white hair and almost never went out. I was a bit scared of her. We were a strange little community.
And in the room next door but one, on our floor, was an elderly man who lived alone. His English was good but heavily accented. He was from a exotic-sounding place I had never heard of – Yugoslavia – and he had come over during the second world war, and had never been able to return. He was all alone. Family left behind, unheard of, out of touch, maybe dead.
I don’t know what his name was really, but I called him Uncle Harry. Perhaps he really was called Harald something. I used to scamper into his room once or twice a week, sometimes with a story book, sometimes with paper and crayons. He used to tell me stories. He used to tell me about his little girl.
He always used to give me a little glass dish of tinned fruit with tinned cream poured on top, and he used to sprinkle sugar on the cream. He kept the tins for me, in his little cupboard. He used to tell me to run and ask my mum if it was okay for me to have it. She always said yes, and told me to say thank you. My mother could rarely afford such a treat. I didn’t get much pampering (neither of us did) and I hadn’t much experience of father figures.
But Uncle Harry was gentle and indulgent. He was softly spoken and kind. He never told me off. He let me chatter. He told me stories. He gave me pudding!
Whenever I have a dessert with cream, even now, 50 years later, I sneak a bit of sugar on top. And when I am sad, or worried or bored, sweet things are what I crave. Especially dairy products.
I remember sitting at his dining-table, my legs dangling, unable to reach the floor. I felt safe. I felt loved. I had an uncle-figure, an older man, wiser, who had weathered storms to make his home in a bedsit in Kent. He added hope to my life. I wish we hadn’t moved away, I would have liked to know him when I was older.
I’ve been spending the last week editing the second draft of my new novel Cross Check. I’d already done most of the donkey work, so this time around editing has been a walk in the park, but all the same I am so glad it’s almost over! All on course for publication the first week in February.
Someone once told me that if you are not sick of the sight of your story, you haven’t done enough work on it. I have to say I’m beginning to see what they meant. I’m not exactly sick of the sight of it, but I am beginning to feel pretty excited about writing something else and the prospect of spending some months later this year writing the third book in the Posh Hits trilogy is something I’m not yet ready to contemplate!
So I’m still thinking over what I want to say in my new story. Still clueless about a title, although I have a couple of alternatives to ponder. I’m drawn to old stuff, I’m drawn to the past. I’m thinking of all the Summer of Loveprotest songs, but no, too recent, go further back.
I’m thinking rural, villagey, fields, water, trees. I’m thinking of sorrow and haunting, of deeds never talked of. I’m thinking of shame and sacrifice, I’m humming old pastoral songs and rhymes, of Scarborough Fair, of the occasional duplicitous nature of the minstrel, wandering, legitimately planting one foot in each camp.
I’m thinking of myths and legends, hills cloaked in mist, an unseen bird calling in the gloom, of the soft insinuating sound of the wind. I’m thinking of that moment when you come home and you know someone else has been there, the house is guilty, complicit, hushed as if someone had been speaking and stopped when the door opened.
I’m thinking of The Waste Land (all-time No. 1 for me) by T S Eliot, Snatches of it: “Speak to me. Why do you never speak?” “What are you thinking?” “What is that noise? The wind under the door.” “Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing?” “I remember/Those are pearls that were his eyes.”
I am thinking, staring at the falling leaves, driven across the grass by a pushing wind, and I am thinking of long ago, of people who may not have existed, but who may come into being in my imagination. I am thinking of a man at a window staring out, his mind working on things he cannot speak.
I’m thinking of a boy coming over the hill. Of grass, green, long, dewy. Of the sun, soft, golden, gentle as a mother’s hand, just touching his hair, his shoulder.
I remember. It was all long ago and afar away. I’ve said that a lot lately.
Gray’s Elegy “Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,/And all the air a solemn stillness holds.”
What is it about the Autumn that always bends my thoughts to things that go bump in the night? Is it the pumpkin-suit wearing tots that pound on the door demanding ‘trick or treat’? Is it the proliferation of black felt bats or witches costumes? Or maybe the prospect of fireworks and an effigy burnt on a pyre?
Whatever it is, when the evenings crowd in and I huddle indoors with books and comfort food, this is the way my thoughts turn. I gaze into space and hear the long-ago-and-far-away sound of a creaking stair or see a candle gutter and revive, and my mind is away, fashioning old gloomy houses with uneven floors and unreliable electricity.
Last November’s NaNoWriMo saw me writing not quite 60, 000 words under the title of The Silent Woman, a ghost story set in haunted converted buildings. I fully intended to revise and publish that story this year, but everything else got in the way, so maybe next year. It’ll do it good to ‘lie fallow’ for a year.
This year it looks as though I might do something similar. I have the germ of an idea floating just out of reach, just beyond my field of vision, i can almost glimpse it sometimes, but it is not yet ready to come into view. It began in the middle of my two-week temping job in mid-September. It was a job which required me to perform vast numbers of scans of old documents and maps. This was a job of the hands and the eyes. My brain was busy elsewhere …
I pictured a hospital room, an old man lay dying, a young woman sat with him, holding his hand in those last moments, his daughter/niece/granddaughter, I don’t know yet. He thinks she is his wife, when young, he forgets where he is. He says, “Whatever happened to the boy? I never told anyone, like you asked.” He sleeps for a few minutes then stirs again, still holding her hand and says, “remember when we were young? There was a photo – all of us – that spring. I still have it somewhere.” He points in the direction of the chest of drawers in his bedroom, he forgets he is in hospital. Later he dies, and she is left wondering.
This is an extract, the opening one and a half chapters of a novella I began last year then didn’t get round to finishing, I think because I did so much planning I lost the impetus of the story, but it’s still sort of nagging at me so I am puzzling over it again. It is called Thirty Days on the Fourth Floor
‘You have displayed a callous disregard for the well-being of others. This is your third appearance in my court within a single year and I therefore have no hesitation in sentencing you to thirty days incarceration in the hope that this time you will learn that there will be no tolerance of persistent law-breaking in this City.’
The gavel was tapped lightly down on the bench in front of Judge Givens and by the time the bailiff had led Jeremiah ‘Roxx’ Weston from the court, the Judge’s robes were billowing behind him as he went through the door marked ‘Private’ at the back of the court. Roxx didn’t care. Thirty lousy days playing pool and cards was nothing, it would go by like a flash, the perfect spring break.
Moments later he was entering a room where a number of others were waiting. There appeared to be a dispute between a clerk of the court and someone who was presumably in Roxx’s situation. This woman wanted to phone her kids, let them know she’d got thirty days this time and they should go and stay with her sister till she could figure out the best thing to do. The clerk of the court wasn’t allowing any calls. A police officer came over to encourage the outraged detainee to step back. Another, male, detainee came forward, angry and upset. The clerk was saying,
‘Ma’am, as I already told you, you will be allowed one phone call once you reach the detainment center, but not until then. I’m sorry, but I don’t make the rules. Sir, step back please, the same goes for you. You can call your secretary later.’
And having said her piece, the clerk turned and left the room. The detainee continued to rant and swear, but more quietly and in a corner. It was now almost five o’clock, the court was closed for the day.
The bailiff cleared his throat to get everyone’s attention.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we will now be leaving the court complex. Please stay in line and follow me.’
He nodded to a nearby police officer who opened the door for them all to pass out and into the hall, hesitantly following after the bailiff. In case anyone got any ideas, there were a number of officers lining the corridor.
The woman with the children wasn’t giving up. She tried to catch the fast-walking bailiff up, calling out
‘Where are we going? We have a right to know? I’ve got children…’
‘Just keep moving, ma’am,’ advised a police officer, but she shook him off.
‘I want to know where …’
But now they were at the exit, surrounded by police officers, and the outer door was opening on a parking bay at the back of the court complex. A police van was waiting, engine purring. The rear doors stood open and the group was chivvied inside, and as they were put into their seats and safety belts were locked into place across them, a roll-call began and their names were ticked off by an officer as the bailiff disappeared round to the front of the vehicle.
Immediately the rear doors were locked and the vehicle swung out of the parking bay and onto the road. The woman with the children began a heated debate with the man with the secretary and a voice spoke next to Roxx. He turned to look at the scrawny white woman sitting next to him.
‘You get thirty days too?’ She asked. He nodded.
‘We all did.’ She said, ‘we were talking about it before you came. Every one of us – look, nine of us – we all got thirty days. Don’t you think that’s weird? What are they going to do to us? Where are they taking us?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Roxx told her, ‘don’t sweat it. What so we all got thirty days? We all do the same thing or something?’
‘You do drugs?’ She asked.
‘No. Drugs is a fool’s game. What even Mrs Mum over there, she got thirty days? What did she do?’
‘Speeding, I think she said. Not just once, just all the time, never paid her fines. I was the drugs. Selling. Third time. I just really needed the money. Why d’you get thirty days?
‘Red lights. I just like running through them. It’s nothing, it’s not like I hurt anyone, it’s just a laugh, a buzz. But they got this software catches your license-plate, so they caught me. Again. Thirty ain’t nothing, be out in fifteen on good behavior.’
‘That’s disgusting, that is, you should be ashamed of yourself. You could kill someone doing that.’ The Mum told him. He glared at her.
‘How’s it any worse than what you do? Speeding? That’s dangerous. You’re more likely to kill someone than I am. And you got kids, that’s irresponsible, Missus.’
‘I was always in control of the car,’ she began, but someone else disagreed with her.
And then it happened, they all started shouting at each other, and the row went on until the van pulled over and stopped, and the rear doors were unlocked.
A couple of officers started unlocking them and sending them out onto the pavement where they stood in a shifty-looking bunch surrounded by police and twitching curtains. They were outside an apartment block.
‘Where’s the prison?’ The Druggie asked no one in particular. They were herded into the front door of the building and corralled into the lift in twos.
Fifteen minutes later, Roxx was walking in the front door of an apartment on the fourth floor. He looked around him, puzzled.
‘I’m beginning to think this is a bit odd.’ He told the Druggie. ‘Maybe we been selected for special ops or something.’
‘Why are we here?’ The Druggie asked the bailiff, who ignored her.
‘Where are we? What the fuck is going on?’ The man with the secretary wanted to know. Everyone was edgy and tense. Where was the nice conventional prison?
‘Keep walking through to the sitting room. Sit down, shut up and listen, then we can get on with things a little quicker.’ The bailiff urged, and reluctantly, and with the encouragement of a couple of police officers, they complied. Roxx counted nine detainees, six men, three women, and besides the bailiff there were twelve officers. It was a squeeze.
‘Now,’ said the bailiff in a big loud voice, ‘I want everyone to take a seat at the table, and then I can explain the procedure.’
A couple of people half-heartedly protested, but everyone sat quickly enough.
‘That’s better.’ Said the bailiff, and Roxx felt like he was in nursery school again. ‘You will each get one phone call, you will get a hot meal, a shower, and a change of clothes. You will be wearing prison uniform for the next thirty days. You will remain in this apartment for the next thirty days. You will not leave until you have served your sentence as laid down by the ruling of the court. The front door is the only safe exit from the apartment and this will be kept locked. While you are here you will be rehabilitated and, hopefully while justice is done, you will learn to make wiser choices in the future.’
He paused and a slew of questions had to be dealt with before he could continue.
‘In case of emergency we will evacuate the apartment. There will be no – I repeat no – wardens, guards, police officers or any other official presence within the apartment for the entirety of the thirty days. However, the apartment will be under constant surveillance night and day, but any intervention will be in an emergency only. Just so you know, this is day one. I will return on day thirty if – I repeat if – all conditions are fulfilled and it is deemed by the court that rehabilitation has taken place and you are all fit to return to society. I will now hand out mobile phones and you may call whomever you wish, you have one call and five minutes only.’
There was a rush to snatch the phones form him and silence as people feverishly tapped in the numbers they wanted. And then a babble of voices as connections were made and information relayed. Mrs Mum was weeping at the end of her five minutes and claiming it wasn’t fair, and two other people claimed their human rights were being violated.
All this was ignored and a large cardboard packing case was dragged into the room. The bailiff ripped off the top and started handing out blue boiler suits and white cotton underwear to everyone. Then, one at a time, a police officer escorted one detainee into the bathroom for a shower and a change of clothes. Personal belongings and clothing was confiscated, placed into the plastic bags the boiler-suits came in, and stashed away in the same packing case. Airline-style hot food trays were handed around the table, and the nine, now already showing signs of resignation, ate in near silence.
At the end of the meal, they were shown into the dormitory which was where they would all sleep on narrow lumpy mattresses, the bailiff took his leave, and the police officers, the outer door slammed behind them and locked and the prisoners were there, and it was the end of day one.
Day two dawned brighter and earlier than most of them would have liked.
Roxx was the second one out of bed, the Druggie being the first – she’d been up most of the night in fact and was hunched by the window scratching agitatedly at herself when he came into the sitting room.
One by one they drifted out of their beds and came to sit around the table. One of the men, heavily tattooed and pierced, sat across the table from Mrs Mum who had already been weeping because she wanted to get out, wanted to be with her children, no one knew how she felt, a mother separated from her own flesh and blood and corralled here with a bunch of crazy people and lawless criminals. She started to weep again. The tattooed/pierced guy laughed. He looked around the room, but everyone avoided catching his eye. He rapped on the table and laughed loudly, frightening Mrs Mum into a fresh outburst of sobbing, and having achieved this, he linked his hands behind his head and leaned back in the seat to enjoy the spectacle of her misery.
The Druggie was shivering next to Roxx. Roxx, not able to do anything else for her, patted her on the knee. The two of them perched on the window sill and Roxx surveyed the room.
In the doorway, Secretary Man was jogging on the spot and flapping his arms up and down. Roxx shook his head impatiently. It hadn’t been more than 15 hours and the guy already was worrying he was getting flabby.
A bleary-eyed young man wandered in from the dormitory, squeezing past the panting Secretary Man.
‘What do we do about food?’ He asked. Everyone looked at him blankly. He looked round at them. ‘well, hello, there’s no kitchen, in case no one had noticed, so I’m assuming there’s no maid service, no chef, no restaurant, so how are we getting our meals for the next four weeks?’
There was an immediate rise in the tension, and they were all looking at each other. The kid was right.
There was the dormitory. And this room they were in now. And then there was the bathroom.
There were three other doors on one wall. Roxx strolled across and tried the first door. It was locked. He tried the next. Also locked.
‘Hmm.’ He said to himself. Over his shoulder he could see everyone – seated and standing – was watching him. Unaccountably he felt a trickle of fear at the back of his boiler-suit collar. Reminding himself for future reference that red means stop, the thrill is just not worth the sentence, he tried a cocky grin at his audience.
‘Well, one of these had got to open. Hughie, I choose door number three.’ He quipped, going into a kind of exaggerated mime of someone preparing to open a door. It was odd they were all so tense, just watching him. he felt the handle of the door beneath his fingers. It was cold and the cold seemed to travel along his spine. He felt a pang of nausea. If no one had been watching him, he would have turned and gone back to his perch on the window sill. His heart beat fast, and he turned the handle, turning again to smile at the audience with his trade-mark grin, and saying, ‘here goes noth…’
But the phrase died on his lips.
At the threshold of the door was a little pile of rubble and ash. He tried to focus, tried to piece together the scene before him, through the door. It was something – else.
It was a street. Half of the buildings were gone, blackened ruins in heaps and piles and sagging roof timbers hanging down. It was like a movie set for a war film. There was a house nearby, just a few yards from the doorway. If Roxx took a step, or maybe two, if he put out a hand, he would be able to touch the brickwork.
He shook his head. His vision, never blurred, still showed him the same scene. He was aware that the people behind him were exclaiming, moving, rushing over, there were cries of disbelief and even fear, but Roxx couldn’t find anything to say. He looked into the room. He looked through the doorway and saw a whole new world, a world of destruction and chaos.
He took a step, and Mrs Mum screeched at him, clutching his arm.
‘Don’t! Don’t go in there!’
Confused he gaped at her. There were a couple of others, equally fearful, reaching out for him.
‘Shut the door. Shut it. Now. Quick. Shut the door.’
And the tattooed and pierced man was getting up from his chair, noisily chewing gum and nodding, delight all over his face.
‘Yeah! Man, I mean, wow! Yeah! Wow! People, like, I mean, wow!’
And he stepped right up to the doorway, elbowing a bewildered Roxx to one side, and then, glancing back over his shoulder, tattoo man laughed again.
‘This is a fucking amazing movie set! It’s wicked. Wicked or what? I’m asking you, people, like wow! Truly fucking, un-fucking-believable!’
And he stepped through the doorway and went into the rubble-strewn street, looking around, turning round as he went, looking at the scene around him.
‘Man! It’s fucking unbelievable! How the fuck did they do it? This is just like a real …’
And a chimney toppled from a roof and crushed him on the ground. His foot twitched and was still, no more of his body visible beneath the blackened brickwork.
Is it possible to gauge the influence our reading has on us over time? Think back to the first books you ever read as a child – can you still remember them? Have you read those same books as an adult and still found those same ideas and images grabbing you as they did that first time?
I can remember my mother reading The Wind in the Willows and The House at Pooh Corner to me when I was a very young child. I can remember that sometimes I was bored, sometimes I couldn’t find my way through the complex language to the story inside. But I always wanted to hear more, I always longed for the next chapter, begged her not to stop reading. I can remember thinking, when I’m older I can read and read and read and never stop. I can remember reading fairy stories from a huge colourful book, to the poor guy who came to mend the boiler, when I was no more than 5 or 6. I suppose I also loved having a captive audience!
I can remember being so inspired by the stories I read that I started writing my own stories – not usually more than a page long to begin with – and not usually very interesting.
The books that have shaped my life? I loved Treasure Island, Jane Eyre, the Famous Five, the Lone Pine Five, all the usual books that kids in the 1960s read. The Ann of Green Gables books by L M Montgomery are very special to me – because that was when I learned falling in love is not only about heart-pounding attraction, desperate emotional rollercoastering, but it can also be realising that your friend is the person you most want to keep in your life forever, without whom your life would be bleak and colourless. The Wind in the Willows taught me that children’s stories don’t have to be facile. Shakespeare’s plays taught me that I have a brain and I’m not afraid to use it. Enid Blyton‘s books showed me that being nosy is a sure way to get into trouble and end up tied up in a cellar (but oh the adventure!). Many, many books taught me to believe I could write, Agatha Christie, Tom Holt, Jasper Fforde and Patricia Wentworth taught me what I wanted to write and that you don’t have to be highbrow or obscure to be a good writer. Books made me take that leap of faith, try, experiment, and when things didn’t work out, I had somewhere to go to recover. If all else fails, they make a bloody big pile you can hide behind.
But over all of this, the books themselves, crowding about me like friends, took over my life to the detriment of all else – apart from my family of course 🙂 and I can honestly say that nine times out of ten, I’d sooner spend my money on a book than a bar of chocolate – and those who know me know that is reallysaying something.
It was his eyes that charmed her, she told me. He was older, educated, experienced. A devil with an irresistible smile and those Irish eyes. He stole her heart, she told me. They were married by license in the Church of the Holy Ghost in Nightingale Square, a Roman Catholic church in London on 1st September 1928. She was 20, he was 35.
Years later, he stole off to Soho to live with a young Chinese boy, proving that not everything is as it seems. She told me he worked for the government (yes, I discovered he was a Crown Agent, working for the Revenue Service overseas) and he took her to China, Hong Kong, Australia, and finally to Singapore. She said they were still there when the Japanese arrived in – was it 1939 or 1940? She said they lost everything, including their children. But were there really any children? I remember as a youngster I asked her their names. She told me it was too painful to talk about them, and maybe it was, but when I cajoled she said her daughter’s name was Melody. I thought that was a wonderful name, decided I would call my own daughter that (I didn’t). I believed her then, not sure I do now. As a child you don’t realise how complicated people are. Or life. You definitely don’t realise as a child how complicated life is.
She was fluent in Cantonese and she loved to cook Chinese food, loved all things oriental and her tiny bedsit was hung with painted and embroidered silks and carved wood and lacquered trays.
Everything she had was fascinating to me as a small child, but nothing was so valuable or so important I couldn’t touch it.
She had bamboo and jade and silver, wind-chimes and trays and pictures and jars, jewellery and scarves and shawls – precious and intricate and incredible things. She had a huge heavy seal ring, she had cushions and pillows and tea boxes, all crammed into her bedsit in an old house in 1960s Tunbridge Wells.
But for all that, she was alone, no Patrick, no smiling eyes.
Let me just say before we start, I am not now and never expect to be a poet. But there was something about the phrases I chose for the original prose version of this that made me want to try to write it in poem form, maybe it’s the rhythm or something. Anyway, In the 1920s, young women were not ‘fans’ as they are today. A girl who was a keen follower of Jazz bands and Jazz music was called a Jazz Baby. Auntie Zonya was one!
Jazz Baby sneaks out at night when the lights are out
The window is open, the house is quiet.
She’s supposed to be sleeping in modest chastity
But she yearns to go out and dance and be free.
She blackens her lashes with boot-polish smudges
Jewellery and perfume and low-cut blouses
Wet crimson tissue stains lips and cheek
She wears flimsy skirts that only come to her knees
She and the other girls dance half the night
Dancing too close with boys Mother dislikes.
She drinks and smokes and dances till three
She comes home through the window before anyone sees.
Listless and irritable, got no energy,
She seems so tired, mother tells the doctor
He prescribes a tonic to build and restore her
He recommends rest and taking it easy
Jazz Baby sniggers as he takes his leaves
She’s a bad girl, a rebel, dancing through life
The devil-may-care painted all over her face
In the Roaring 1920s, setting a new pace
She wants to live like a film-star
Away from the world of the shop and factory
Away from the drudge of everyday toil
She just wants to be free, have fun
She’ll henna her hair and wear skirts on the knee,
She‘ll smoke and drink and live a life that’s gay.