Either First Novel is a darkly funny examination of the relative attractions of creative writing courses and suburban dogging sites, or it's a twisted campus novel and possible murder mystery that's not afraid to blend fact with fiction in its exploration of the nature of identity. Paul Kinder, a novelist with one forgotten book to his name, teaches creative writing in a university in the north-west of England. Either he's researching his second, breakthrough novel, or he's killing time having sex in cars. Either eternal life exists, or it doesn't. Either you'll laugh, or you'll cry. Either you'll get it, or you won't.
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Nicholas RoyleVery Low-flying Aircraft
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for John Saddler
Very Low-flying Aircraft
‘The greatest hazard of all, losing oneself, can occur very quietly in the world, almost as if it were nothing at all.’
I AM SITTING, alone, in my shared office at the university. On the walls are flyers for readings and a large poster advertising a local literature festival. The bookcase behind me is filled with books — books that I have brought in from home and others that I have acquired from the second-hand bookstalls across the road and the Paramount Book Centre in Shude Hill. In addition to these are bound volumes of literary magazines — Antaeus, Transatlantic Review — and books that I have claimed out of unwanted stock from the university library. My eye runs along a shelf two-thirds of the way down the bookcase. Nineteen Seventy-Four by David Peace, Robinson by Christopher Petit, Berg by Ann Quin, Gwendoline Riley’s Cold Water. I skip along. Friction by Joe Stretch; Dreams of Green Base, Terry Wilson. First novels.
I take down a book from the shelf above: James Lasdun’s The Horned Man. I hold it to my nose ; and flick through the pages using the soft pad of my thumb. It has a woody smell. Trampled grass, funfairs. A hint of caramel? I put it back on the shelf.
I turn back to the desk. On it are a PC, switched off, and a pile of books. Between them, right in the middle lying flat on the desk, is a Kindle. My colleagues and I in the writing school have each been given a Kindle. I look at it. The screen is blank. My finger hovers above it, as if reluctant to touch it. The screen is cool, slippery. I press a random selection of buttons on the keyboard. Nothing happens. I have not plugged the device into a power source and charged it. I pick it up. Its weight is difficult to judge. The back is more tactile. It has a sort of rubberised feel to it. If I were to drag my fingernail across it, it would leave a mark.
I drag my fingernail across it. It leaves a mark.
I put the Kindle back down and study it. It looks impenetrable. There are no screws, or feet, no catch, just a seam that runs around the edge on the back of the Kindle. It’s too narrow to get a fingernail into.
To the right of my desk is a unit comprising three drawers. I open the top one and take out a small box made of transparent plastic containing six precision screwdrivers. I place the case on the desk and open it. I take out the smallest of the four flathead screwdrivers and insert its head into the seam on the back of the Kindle. There’s a little bit of give. I push the screwdriver outwards at the edge and manage to release one of a series of little plastic clips that hold the rear piece in place. Once one is free, it is easier to release the others. After a few moments I manage to pop off the back piece, which I put to one side. I place the device down on the desktop and take a good look at it. A large flat battery takes up a third of the space. Most of the rest is occupied by the motherboard, which is comprised of a green background and numerous tiny parts. There are four little protective shields with a finish like stainless steel. Using one of the bigger screwdrivers I undo two screws that hold the battery in place. I remove the battery, which has writing in English on one side and Chinese characters on the other. Revealed beneath where the battery had been is a portion of the back of the e-ink screen.
I lift the Kindle up off the desk and hold it to my nose. It doesn’t smell of anything.
I start removing tiny black screws from the motherboard. When I think I have removed all of them, I try to prise the motherboard free, but it won’t come and when I inspect more closely I see another little screw hidden towards the bottom. Once I have taken that out and disconnected the little red speaker cable, I pop out the L-shaped motherboard, which bristles with minuscule parts. Using the screwdriver, I lever off the stainless steel protective shields to find a number of computer chips whose various functions I would only be able to guess at. Putting the motherboard down next to the rear casing piece, I turn my attention to the last set of tiny screws that hold in place a final board made up of two interlocking sections, one shiny, the other matt. Beneath this I find the back of the screen. I can neither see nor figure out how the e-ink interfaces with the inside of the screen.
I place all the separate pieces next to each other on my desk, the screws and widgets that had held it all together sorted into piles according to size and type. I pick up the screwdriver and replace it in the transparent plastic box.
Either I would be able to put the Kindle back together, or I would not.
Pushing back my swivel chair I get up and walk around to the front of the desk. I pick up the waste-paper bin and return to my side of the desk. I hold the bin under the edge of the desk and use my other hand to sweep all the various parts and pieces of the Kindle into it. I take the bin and put it back where I got it from, then I come back around to my side of the desk and sit down.
My hand reaches out and takes a book from the top of the pile on the right-hand side of my desk. Jane Solomon’s Hotel 167. It is a Picador, a paperback original, dating from 1993, when Picador still gave all of their books a clean white spine with plain black lettering. I open the book and feel the slightly rough fabric-like texture of the yellowed pages under my fingertips. I lift the book to my nose and breathe in.
I turn up the volume as the front wheels make contact with the tarmac and the rear of the car leaves the driveway. The road is lit at regular intervals, neighbours’ houses standing in darkness. Speed bumps force me to stay in low gear until I reach the main road where I signal to go right. A bus drives past the stop on the other side of the road, empty but for a single passenger on the top deck. His silhouetted head narrows as he turns to look at the car nosing out of the side road.
I follow the bus, making no attempt to overtake. At the lights it goes straight on while I turn sharply to the left, sensing the pull of the car towards the front offside. The road surface is made up of flat blocks of orange broken up with lines of reflective white. The street lights are topped with misty coronas like dandelion clocks. The next set of lights changes to red as I approach and I knock the gearstick into neutral, allowing the car to coast. Another car sits at the adjacent stop line waiting to go, the driver’s face ghostly in the glow of the dash. The traffic lights change in his favour and he moves forward.
I go on through one more set of lights and turn left into Burton Road. The restaurants and bars that earn this district its reputation are all closed. I slow down as I approach Somerfield, indicate left and pull into the car park behind the shuttered supermarket.
There’s one car parked behind the store itself, another two at the other end by the recycling bins. I roll down towards them and back up into a space a few yards short, switching off the engine. The CD, Full on Night by Rachel’s, stops as I do so.
I peer into the darkness — the car park is unlit — and turn the key halfway in the ignition, then pull down the stalk to activate my right indicator. Its rhythmic clicking is the only sound to be heard apart from the hum of traffic on the Parkway, even at this hour. After a couple of minutes I start the engine and a dissonant guitar riff accompanies my rolling the car back out on to Burton Road, then turning right into Nell Lane and heading for the Parkway.
Traffic on the motorway is light. I take the exit for Cheadle Royal and the patient piano work of Rachel Grimes ticks off the lighting poles on the wide loop around the back of the former Barnes Hospital and nearby disused Cheadle Bleach Works. The frantically bowed viola towards the end of ‘Full on Night’ is a suitable accompaniment to the scratching of the treetops at the purply-orange sky.
I take the third exit off the roundabout at Cheadle Royal, skirting the miniature lake and heading deeper into the business park behind the sports and leisure centre. Behind an anonymous building of blond brick and green smoked glass I reverse into a parking space and sit and wait. The car park is divided by a line of low shrubs, beyond which two cars wait in darkness. In an hour or so, the bright lights of the day’s first flights will appear in the sky 1,500 feet above the Stockport Pyramid. Shortly after, they will rumble over Cheadle Royal, travelling at a speed of 150 knots just 700 feet above the roof of the car. For now, though, all is quiet.
I turn the interior light on and let it burn for less than half a minute before switching it off again.
Nothing happens. No lights are lit in the other parked vehicles. No one approaches the car on foot.
Either I stay a bit longer or I leave.
I twist the key in the ignition and turn the wheel to drive down the other avenue on the far side of the island on the way out of the car park. The two cars, expensive saloons parked three spaces apart, appear empty, but the shallow angle of the windscreens makes it impossible to be sure.
I negotiate the roundabouts and head south on the Wilmslow Road, turning right at the lights in the direction of Heald Green. A man in high-visibility clothing waits at a bus stop. A delivery van sits outside a convenience store, its rear doors folded back. I turn left into Styal Road and right into Ringway Road. The Moss Nook restaurant approaches on the right. I can either turn into the little car park or keep going. I allow the car park and restaurant to retreat in the wing mirror. Moments later, again on the right, there is a sudden break in the line of small, modest houses. On the other side of the road a bank of yellow-white approach lights marks the beginning of runway 24. I take the next road on the right and shortly afterwards another right turn into the Ringway Trading Estate. A light shines brightly on to the apron outside a depot on the left. I turn to the right and then go left in front of Air Freight Services. In the car park at the end, I turn around and back up to the chain-link fence.
I switch off the CD but keep the engine running and the lights on. Further down on the other side is a parked car. A dark shape is lodged in the driver’s seat.
I reach down to kill the engine and extinguish the headlamps, then raise my hand to switch on the interior light and turn towards the passenger seat.
I say something as they come towards me. I can’t remember what I say but they take exception to it. I ask them for money and they start to taunt me. One of them, maybe she feels bad for me, I don’t know, sticks her hand in her pocket and pulls out a fiver. As I go to take it, she pulls it away, so I snatch it and the others start pushing me and pulling me, trying to get the fiver back, but I’m not going to let go of it. I bury it deep in a pocket and back away from these idiots. I feel a push and suddenly I’m falling, falling, falling.
Thursday morning. I am running a workshop at the university. Just over half of the two dozen students who should be present have actually turned up. My eyes flick from face to face as I see who is there and try to work out who is not and whether they are persistent absentees who need to be sent a formal letter. Grace is there. I wonder if she has remembered what she wanted to ask me.
‘I’d like you to write a short scene,’ I say. ‘No more than a page. Pick something memorable that has happened to you in the past week involving at least two people and write about it from a point of view other than your own. It can be that of someone else present, but it doesn’t have to be. Be as imaginative as you like.’
‘What if,’ asks a boy called Iain with fixed braces and a glossy black fringe, ‘nothing memorable has happened to us in the past week?’
There is a ripple of laughter.
‘Then write about the most interesting dream you have had in the past week, and the rule remains the same. Switch the POV.’
Another student starts to ask a question, but I cut him off. ‘If nothing memorable has happened to you and you can’t remember any of your dreams or they weren’t interesting, just make something up. And change the POV from yours to that of someone — or something — else. You’ve got fifteen minutes. And please,’ I add, ‘don’t write your name on it.’
Amid much sucking of pens and scratching of heads, the students slowly settle into their own thinking space. At the end of fifteen minutes I ask them to finish the sentence they’re writing and I walk around and collect up the sheets. I shuffle them and redistribute them. If anyone ends up with their own piece back again, they don’t say so. I ask Iain to read out the piece he has in front of him. It’s about a confrontation in a nightclub in town. It’s not particularly interesting, but there’s nothing actually wrong with it. I ask Grace to read out what she has been dealt. She reads a piece about an argument with a ticket inspector on a train that turns into a river running between high, snow-capped mountains guarded by two-headed lions. Someone has taken me at my word.
I ask a boy whose name I can’t remember if he will read out what he’s got. He reads out an account of an attack on a tramp, from the tramp’s point of view.
I realise I am going to have to check out the path down to the dismantled railway line, after all, and have a look for Overcoat Man.
Late afternoon. Wednesday. I am standing in my study at the top of the house looking out at the back gardens of my neighbours and the rear elevations of the houses in the next street. Behind me, my study, with its square hip or pyramid roof, the vaulted ceiling rising in four converging triangular planes to a single point. Built-in bookshelves cover two walls, floor to ceiling. Fiction, film, biography — each has a different section. Short-story anthologies, literary journals in magazine files. Books are ordered alphabetically, little magazines chronologically. Perched on the four-drawer filing cabinet looking down at my desk is a head-and-shoulders mannequin, female; standing in the corner close to the anthologies and magazines, a full-size tailor’s dummy. Curled up asleep on the armchair in the opposite corner, my black cat, Cleo. Above her, hanging on a nail on the wall, a stuffed fox’s head.
My desk is as tidy as that in my office at the university. Laptop, empty mug (on coaster), pile of scripts for marking, A4 wallet-style folder marked ‘Writers’ Rooms’. On the wall over the desk, a number of pictures of aeroplanes — some cut out of newspapers and magazines, others printed at home on photographic paper — pinned to a small corkboard. Against the fourth wall under the window is a long free-standing bookcase. On top of this at the left-hand end is a pile of books, first novels — Fermentation by Angelica Jacob, Pharricide by Vincent de Swarte, Glass People by Tom Darling. John Banville’s Nightspawn, Philip N. Pullman’s The Haunted Storm. Among others. At the right-hand end, a pile of six identical trade paperbacks. Orange spine, black type.
To the left of the rear gardens that I can see from the window, the main road climbs gently towards a humpback bridge over the trackbed of a dismantled railway line. I can see Overcoat Man making his way slowly up the incline. Overcoat Man is one of numerous instantly recognisable characters that I see around the village, such as Laundry Bag Man, Umbrella Lady, Polling Station Man and Dog Man. Overcoat Man wears several overcoats one on top of the other. All of them are filthy, his trousers likewise. His shoes are coming apart, which perhaps accounts for his shuffling gait and extremely slow progress. His features mostly hidden behind unkempt grey hair and a long reddish beard, he is inscrutable. Often he can be heard muttering to himself and occasionally he will ask passers-by for money or utter an offensive remark.
As he reaches the point towards the top of the humpback bridge where a path leads down to the trackbed of the former railway line, he turns to confront an approaching crowd of rowdy young people. Maybe he asks them for money or growls unintelligibly at them, but something prompts them to gather around him. I am unable for a few moments to see clearly what is happening, but soon I realise that he is being jostled. He seems to try to edge away from the group down the path to the old railway line and either loses his footing or is pushed and falls over. He rolls once or twice and then I can no longer see him.
In what resembles the protective gesture of a threatened organism, the group of young people closes in. They form a huddle, from which one and then two members abruptly break out, leaving the group. Others depart and soon there’s only one person standing at the head of the path, peering down into the undergrowth. After a moment, this person also leaves.
During the incident, which is over in less than a minute, no one else has crossed the bridge. A dog trots by off its lead, its owner nowhere to be seen.
I continue to watch the road and the humpback bridge, but there is no sign of Overcoat Man emerging from the bushes that border the path.
I look at the backs of the houses in the next street. A light has come on in one of the flats. A man fills a kettle at a sink in a first-floor kitchen.
I continue to stand at the window as the sky above the houses turns a deeper blue and the lights in the windows glow more brightly and the gardens below fall into deeper and deeper shadow.
Tuesday morning, just after eleven o’clock. I am sitting in my office at the university. None of my three colleagues is in. This is deliberate. We choose our office hours so that they do not overlap. It is not good to be talking to a student about his or her creative writing while a colleague sits listening — trying not to perhaps, but listening all the same — just the other side of the room-divider. It is not good from the student’s point of view, as writing can be a personal thing, and nor is it good from your own, since your colleagues might find it impossible not to judge your performance as a teacher.
On the desk in front of me is a PC, switched off. When I need a machine, I bring in my own. The PC is cumbersome, clunky, slow. I have moved the keyboard out of the way next to the printer, which is also redundant. These items of hardware occupy the left side of the desk. On the right-hand side are two books — Jane Solomon’s Hotel 167 and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both first novels, which I am intending to read in the next few days, the latter for the first time — and a small, neat pile of newspaper cuttings.
There is nothing else on the desk, no clutter.
The newspaper cuttings are all single pages from the review section of a national broadsheet. They are part of a series called Writers’ Rooms in which a half-page photograph of an author’s office, study or workroom is accompanied by a sidebar of copy written by the featured writer. I take the top one off the pile.
It is the turn of Scottish novelist Andrew O’Hagan. In the foreground is a comfortable-looking armchair, a newspaper draped over one arm. The position of the armchair traps an open door against the wall. Hanging on the door, on the side of the door that would be outside the room if the door were closed, is a blackboard. Both these details suggest the door is, in fact, never closed. Maybe any other members of the O’Hagan household are on instructions not to enter, since a comment — ‘The laptop is there for work but it’s not online because I hate the idea of some boring email popping up while I’m trying to fix a paragraph’ — suggests he does not like to be interrupted. On the blackboard is a chalked reminder: ‘Tuesday: Burns essays.’
I picture O’Hagan bent over a pile of manuscripts in a back garden somewhere in north London, striking a match.
There is a knock on the door — my door, the office door, not O’Hagan’s. I get up and walk around the desk, slip between two of the room-dividers and cross the office to open the door, which cannot be opened from the outside unless you know the code.
‘Hello,’ I say to the student who is standing there.
Her name is Grace, I think. I see a lot of students, hear a lot of names.
‘Hiya.’ Her voice is slightly uncertain and her eyes look everywhere but at mine. With her dyed black hair and pale skin, she has the androgynous look of an emo kid or a goth. ‘It’s Grace. I’m in your First Novels class.’
‘I know,’ I say. ‘I remember. Come in.’
We sit with my desk between us, and she still doesn’t look at me, until I briefly turn away and then I am peripherally aware of her gaze momentarily settling on me.
‘What did you want to see me about, Grace?’ I ask.
‘The… er… First Novels class.’
‘I’m having trouble finding copies of some of the books on the list.’
‘Maybe you weren’t at the introductory session,’ I say. ‘I explained then that a number of these titles are out of print but that in most cases second-hand copies are easily available from online booksellers or second-hand bookshops, where they still exist.’
‘Right,’ she says, looking at the two books on my desk. ‘I managed to find this actually,’ she adds, pointing to The Bell Jar. ‘But it looks different.’
‘This is an old copy,’ I tell her. ‘Second-hand. But The Bell Jar is in print. The Jane Solomon is not in print, but you can pick up copies online very cheaply.’
She nods, looking at the floor.
‘Was there anything else?’
‘I can’t remember,’ she says. ‘I mean, yes, there was, but I can’t remember what it was.’
‘Email me when you remember.’
‘My Internet connection is down. Can I call you?’
‘OK.’ I look at my Spartan desk. ‘I don’t have anything to write my number on.’
She rummages in her pockets and comes up empty-handed. From her bag she produces a dog-eared five-pound note and a pen. I dictate the number and she writes it on the banknote.
I see her to the door. The cutting I had been looking at is still sitting in the middle of my desk. I pick it up again.
O’Hagan’s desk is old, square, solid, four drawers either side, two in the middle. He claims it came from a Victorian lawyers’ office in Doughty Street, next door to Dickens’ house, and it may well have done but it looks identical to that of Antonia Fraser, previously featured in the same slot. Behind the desk is a bookcase with glazed doors full of volumes the uniformity of which suggests they are copies of O’Hagan’s own titles. Between the armchair and the desk is a small three-shelf bookcase of the type that tips books at an angle, but the spines are too far away to be legible. Closer to the camera, an urn sits on the floor next to the armchair. Three books sit on top of it in a neat little pile, clearly the books O’Hagan was last looking at as he sat relaxing, but they cannot quite be made out. All I can say with any certainty is that none is a trade paperback with an orange spine and black lettering.
After the workshop I head straight for home. I stand at the window of my study and look down across the back gardens of the houses in the next street towards the humpback bridge over the dismantled railway line. I think about the incident involving Overcoat Man and the crowd of young people. Is there any doubt in my mind that the piece read out in the workshop was a description of that actual event? Could it not have been an account of a similar incident, perhaps even an imagined one? Was it not simply a generic event easily called to mind or one that could have happened anywhere in the city in the last week? The local papers are full of accounts of happy-slapping incidents.
In the cupboard under the kitchen sink I find a box of lightweight rubber gloves that I bought off an unemployed teenager from Middlesbrough who came to the door with a bag of dusters, microfibre cloths, clothes brushes, tea towels and other poor-quality household items. You can close the door on them, but then how do you know they will not target your house when you are out? The simplest and safest way to make them go away is to buy something off them.
I leave the house. Didsbury is an affluent area of south Manchester, a village in the way that Highgate in north London is a village or Greenwich Village in New York. I walk around to the humpback bridge. I take the path that leads down to the dismantled railway line, which is overgrown, a haven for goldfinches, foxes and occasional junkies and alcoholics. I peer into the tangled vegetation on either side of the little path that runs down the slope. Nothing. At the bottom, the main path — the trackbed of the dismantled railway line — leads south past Didsbury Park, past the Tesco where TV presenter Richard Madeley once walked out with two bottles of wine for which he had forgotten to pay, and eventually to Parrs Wood, an area of East Didsbury bordered by the River Mersey and the A34 and known for its eponymous high school and extensive entertainment complex. The other way, a dead end, leads north towards the humpback bridge, but is blocked off before reaching it. There’s a thicket of trees and bushes and brambles, all of which will have to be cleared if they do ever extend the tram system out here. I pick my way through razor-sharp coils of raspberry and blackberry, taking care to minimise my trail. In the shadows at the heart of the thickest vegetation, lighter patches turn out to be sweet wrappers, fast-food cartons, a copy of the South Manchester Reporter. I am about to head back up to the road when I notice what looks like a discarded pile of light-coloured textiles towards the back of an extensive nettle bed by the fence that separates the path from the new block of flats on the south side of School Lane. I realise I can get around the back of the nettle bed by creeping along the narrow ridge between the fence and the nettles, using the chain-link fence for support. This means I do not disturb the nettles. I have to make a single footfall between the fence and the light-coloured material, which I can now see is the outermost of Overcoat Man’s many coats.
He is lying on his front with his face turned away from me. He is unmoving and makes no sound. There is a strong smell rising from his body, but then there always was. I take the gloves from my pocket and put them on.
The pockets of his outermost overcoat — a filthy mac — are empty. He has two further coats and a suit jacket underneath, but all I find in the pockets of these are a dry-cleaner’s ticket stub, a button, part of a page torn from a religious tract bearing a subhead in bold type, ‘The Way Forward’, and a playing card — the seven of diamonds. I have to move Overcoat Man’s body — a deadweight — to get at his trouser pockets, which contain two scrunched-up paper napkins, a few coppers and a door key on a split ring with a cheap plastic fob and the words ‘Side door’ written on the label in a spidery hand.
I leave everything where I found it and am about to retrace my single step to the chain-link fence when I realise I didn’t check to see if the suit jacket had a top pocket. I bend down again, joints creaking, and feel my way through the outer layers to the suit jacket — cut from once-fine wool-rich cloth, ‘hand-tailored by Howard Lever’, according to the label — and in the top pocket I find a crumpled five-pound note.
I uncrumple it and study it closely on both sides. Nothing has been written on it. No phone number, nothing.
I return the note to the jacket pocket and roll Overcoat Man’s body back into its original position before retreating to the chain-link fence and extricating myself carefully from the scene.
I climb back up the path to School Lane. As I reach the pavement by the side of the Scout hut, Umbrella Lady is making her way slowly past. She wears dark glasses, pink ankle socks and carries a plastic carrier bag in one hand and a small grey umbrella in the other. I wait for her to pass and then I cross the road.
It is half past eleven in the morning. I am sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of green tea and my laptop, answering emails. There’s one from AJ and Carol inviting me to a barbecue at their house. Either I will accept or I won’t.
There’s an email from the editor of a food and drink website asking me if I want to do another restaurant review.
And there’s an email from the latest editor to turn down my proposed article about Vincent de Swarte’s Pharricide.
Pharricide, Vincent de Swarte’s first novel, is the story of a young man, Geoffroy Lefayen, who becomes the lighthouse keeper at Cordouan, a tiny island in the Atlantic close to the mouth of the Gironde. To mark his appointment, Geoffroy catches and stuffs a conger eel. For Geoffroy, taxidermy is an art form, as well as a way of conferring immortality. ‘If you stuff a living creature, death is not the end, whether it’s a conger eel, a lion, even you or me,’ writes Geoffroy.
De Swarte died in 2006 at the age of forty-one. Shortly after, I started writing to literary editors, but few are interested in articles about untranslated foreign-language novels that are not set to become the latest publishing sensation, fewer still if the book in question is about a psychopathic loner with an interest in taxidermy.
I hear the snap of the cat flap in the cellar, which will be Cleo coming in from the garden. She will stop at her food bowls before coming upstairs. I wait a moment, listening, and then I hear her running up the wooden steps from the cellar. I wonder if she has brought anything. Lately she has started bringing birds into the house. Dead birds. Birds I’ve never seen alive. Goldcrests. A blackcap. I don’t know where she finds them, where in the garden they are hiding.
Cleo enters the kitchen and jumps up on to the table, sitting on her haunches next to my laptop. She is not an affectionate cat, but she is at least sociable. She has not brought any birds this time.
I look again at the email from AJ and Carol. Either or.
AJ and Carol’s house is a short walk from mine.
On the way, I take a detour down the path at the side of the humpback bridge. At the bottom, I turn right on to the path of the dismantled railway and pick my way carefully towards the nettle bed. I stop and peer through the overhanging foliage. I approach a little closer but I can already see that Overcoat Man’s body is no longer there. A telltale patch of damaged nettles shows where he lay, but I can see no clear evidence of which route he might have used to drag himself out of the nettle bed — or by which route his body was removed.
I search the rest of the area, but there is no sign of him.
At AJ and Carol’s I encounter Lewis. He has a shaved head, which he may think disguises his male-pattern baldness, and the few extra pounds he carries are noticeable despite the untucked stencilled shirt and baggy linen trousers. His moon-like face is given a certain definition by strategically trimmed facial hair. He’s standing a little apart from everyone else eating a greasy chicken leg.
‘Lewis,’ he says, licking grease off his fingers before holding out his hand. He laughs: ‘Ksssh-huh-huh.’
‘Hello,’ I say as I take Lewis’ hand, which turns out to be dry but has a soft grip as if made of rubber.
‘I’m helping AJ with the barbecue,’ Lewis says. ‘By eating it. Ksssh-huh-huh.’
‘Hey stranger,’ says AJ as he notices me for the first time. ‘Let me get you a drink.’
‘You carry on, AJ,’ I reply. ‘I’ll go and say hello to Carol.’
I see Carol some mornings, if neither of us is working, as she walks their children to school past my house.
‘Paul, darling,’ she greets me with mock affection, a hand on my shoulder and a kiss on each cheek. ‘What can I get you to drink?’
‘You’re not on duty now,’ I say, bending down to get myself a beer from the cooler.
Carol is a flight attendant, cabin crew. She has a wavy curtain of thick auburn hair that I’m more used to seeing tied back and she’s wearing a white linen dress cut daringly low. Although my eyes don’t leave hers, I am peripherally aware of the meringue-like swell of her breasts.
I sense she wants to introduce me to the Asian woman she had been talking to when I arrived.
‘Paul, this is AJ’s mother, Nina,’ she says. ‘Nina, this is Paul. He’s only recently moved to the area.’
‘How are you settling in?’ asks the older woman, who is wearing a bright turquoise sari.
I know what to say. ‘Your son and daughter-in-law have been very kind.’
As everyone sits down to eat, a shadow falls over the garden accompanied by a thunderous roar of an intensity that some of those present appear to find uncomfortable.
‘That was low,’ complains a thin, orange-skinned woman called Juliet, whose only contributions to the conversation so far have been sharp and vituperative. Her bad mood seems to stem from the fact that her husband, who is delayed due to the overrunning of a Sunday league football match, has still not turned up. She seems embarrassed, as if AJ and Carol might regard it as bad manners.
‘That wasn’t low,’ says Lewis with a distinct sneering tone to his voice. He has a chicken bone in one hand and a trickle of grease at the corner of his mouth. ‘That was, what, 1,500 feet? Ksssh-huh-huh. Low-flying is classified as 250 feet.’
He looks around, as if expecting most of those present to agree with him.
‘It depends,’ I say, looking at Carol, who flicks her hair behind her ear before raising her wine glass to her lips. The tiny pink tip of her tongue emerges to meet it. I cross my legs and dust away an imaginary mark, like a batsman prodding his wicket.
‘Paul’s a writer,’ AJ says, reaching for his own glass. AJ is one of those people, increasingly few in number, who think that because you are a writer you know something about the world. ‘Like Elizabeth,’ he says, as a petite woman with long silver-blonde hair enters the garden from the house. ‘Paul, this is Elizabeth Baines. Elizabeth, this is Paul Kinder.’
‘All these bloody writers!’ Lewis exclaims. ‘At least you’re not a pilot. Ksssh-huh-huh. I’ve never come across so many fucking pilots as I have since moving here. Excuse my French,’ he adds with a glance in Nina’s direction. ‘What is it with this place and pilots?’
‘What do you write?’ Nina enquires, ignoring Lewis.
‘I write for the papers,’ I say, smiling thinly and noticing the look that Juliet seems to be giving Lewis.
‘On what subject?’ asks Nina.
‘Food. Books. Art. I’m a bit of a jack of all trades.’
‘And master of none. Ksssh-huh-huh,’ splutters Lewis, emitting a fine spray of saliva as he falls into the trap I had decided to lay for him.
‘Actually, Paul’s a novelist,’ AJ adds.
‘I’m a journalist and I teach creative writing,’ I say hurriedly, mainly to head Lewis off, since I suddenly know with absolute certainty what his stock question would be on meeting any novelist: Would I have read anything you’ve written?
Instead, he asks the other question that people always ask: ‘Do you write under your own name?’
It occurs to me to answer No, I write under the name D. H. Lawrence, but I force my lips into a smile and change the subject: ‘You’re new to the area, then, Lewis?’
‘You are, too, I gather,’ he counters.
‘I lived in the south for twenty years,’ I say, ‘but I was brought up round here.’
He reclines expansively, extending his arm along the back of the wooden bench towards Carol who is sitting at the other end.
‘I lived in Chorlton,’ he says, ‘then spent some time in the Far East. Been back a couple of years now. Of course,’ he adds with a smile in Carol’s direction, ‘the upside of living around here is I’ve never met so many trolley dollies either.’
‘Trolley dollies,’ I say, also looking at Carol. ‘That’s a term you don’t hear so much these days.’
Carol gives a half-smile and looks away at AJ.
‘Surely, trolley dollies was a derogatory term for male cabin crew?’ Juliet remarks.
‘I wouldn’t know. I don’t do boys. Ksssh-huh-huh,’ he laughs, looking round for support and not finding any.
‘My husband is a pilot,’ Juliet says. ‘We can ask him when he gets here. If he ever gets here.’
‘Fucking hell. Ksssh-huh-huh. Here’s to trolley dollies anyway. Girls and boys,’ Lewis says, jerking his bottle of Beck’s and splashing beer on his shirt.
Lewis’ laugh is like the laugh of someone who has had to learn how to laugh as an adult.
AJ turns to Elizabeth Baines, and Nina adjusts her sari.
In the ensuing silence the doorbell can be heard.
‘Saved by the bell,’ I say, before Lewis can, as AJ leaves the garden.
‘Ksssh-huh-huh,’ Lewis responds on cue.
‘What have you got against pilots?’ I ask.
‘Unreliable. Untrustworthy.’ He screws his face up, tight little lines fanning out at the corners of his eyes.
‘One would hope not,’ I say. ‘Maybe the answer to your question—’
‘I wasn’t aware I’d asked a question,’ he interrupts, his eyes suddenly cold.
‘—is because the airport is only ten minutes away,’ I continue, ‘and this is the kind of neighbourhood pilots like to live in.’
‘And can afford to live in,’ he adds, the chill lifting.
‘What pilots get paid is an interesting subject,’ I say. ‘They don’t get paid as well as one might imagine,’ I say and immediately I see Juliet’s head snap around towards me.
‘Anything at all is too much,’ says Lewis.
‘I would have thought the better paid they are the safer we feel,’ I say, but it’s obvious from Juliet’s expression that it’s going to take more than that, despite the challenge I might represent to Lewis.
‘Oh look,’ says Nina, ‘what’s that?’
There’s a scurrying beneath the hedge.
‘Just a squirrel,’ I say.
‘Pests,’ snaps Juliet.
‘Like pilots,’ says Lewis.
‘Elizabeth and I are reading a very good novel in our book club at the moment,’ Carol cuts in, placing her hand momentarily on my arm. She names the latest must-read title and asks me if I have read it.
‘No,’ I say.
‘A bit mainstream for you, I suppose,’ she says.
I try to smile. ‘I’m a bit weary of this type of novel. The Something of Somewhere. The something is usually a humble occupation like a librarian or a cobbler, and the somewhere will be somewhere either tropical or topical. Sometimes both. Afghanistan, China, Iraq. I’m sure it’s my loss, Carol, but there are so many books and so little time. If only we had eternity to read them all in.’
‘What are you reading at the moment, then?’ Carol asks.
‘You mean apart from students’ work?’ I say, lightly grimacing. ‘I’m reading something called The Garden of Earthly Delights by Lawson Davies.’
‘I’ve not heard of that,’ says Carol brightly.
‘It came out a long time ago,’ I say. ‘I found it in Hay-on-Wye some years back. They had a whole shelf of them. First edition, too. In fact, I’m quite sure it was the only edition.’
‘What made you buy it? What made you want to read it?’
I think for a moment. ‘I met the author years ago at a party in London,’ I say, ‘and he told me he’d written a novel that was due to be published. I remember being impressed and promising myself not only that I would read it, but that one day I too would meet someone at a party and they would ask me what I did and I would say that I was a novelist.’
‘You should read Elizabeth’s book,’ Carol advises.
‘I intend to,’ I say.
AJ lopes into the garden followed by a short, dark man in sports gear.
‘Sorry I’m late, everyone,’ says the newcomer, looking straight at Juliet.
‘Don’t you think you should go and get changed?’ Juliet suggests.
The rest of Lewis’ laugh is drowned out by the roar of another 747 looming over the apex of the roof and dragging its shadow across the garden.
From a distance of thirty yards, Ray saw immediately what was happening. There was Flynn, in his new full uniform, which the two older men, in engineer’s overalls, would have insisted he wear. Ray stepped back behind the trunk of a palm tree, observing.
Several ginger-cream chickens pecked in the sand, looking for seed that the two engineers, whom Ray recognised as Henshaw and Royal, would have scattered there. Ray could see Henshaw talking to Flynn, explaining what he needed to do, Flynn looking unsure in spite of the new recruit’s desire to please. Henshaw was a big man with red hair cut severely short at the back and sides of his skull. Royal — the shorter of the two engineers, with a greased quiff — who had been bending down watching the chickens, stood up and took something from the pocket of his overalls, which he handed to Flynn.
Ray caught the flash of sunlight on the blade.
Henshaw mimed the action Flynn would need to copy.
Ray considered stepping in, stopping the ritual, for it was a ritual. He hadn’t had to suffer it on his arrival on the island, but only because he had been a little older than Flynn on joining up. Henshaw and Royal were younger than Ray, which would have been enough to discourage them.
But for the time being, he remained where he was.
Flynn, his golden hair falling over his forehead, took the knife in his left hand. With his right, he loosened his collar. He would have been very warm in his blue airman’s uniform and he clearly wasn’t looking forward to using the knife. His shoulders drooping, he made a last, half-hearted appeal to the two engineers. Henshaw made a dismissive gesture with his hands as if to say it wasn’t such a big deal. It was just something that had to be done. The squadron had to eat.
Flynn tried to catch one of the wary chickens, but found it difficult to do so and hang on to the knife at the same time. Henshaw swooped down, surprisingly quickly for such a big man, and grabbed a chicken. Flynn bent over beside him and switched the knife to his right hand, looking set to do the job while the bird was held still, but Henshaw indicated that Flynn needed to hold the chicken himself. He passed it over and swiftly withdrew. Royal took several steps back as well.
Flynn secured the chicken between his legs and encircled its neck with his left hand, then glanced over his shoulder for encouragement. Royal gave a vigorous nod and as Flynn turned back to the chicken the two older men exchanged broad smiles.
Ray knew this was the moment at which he ought to step in, but still he made no move from behind the tree.
To his credit, Flynn got through the neck of the struggling chicken with a single slice and then leapt back as a jet of blood spurted out. Liberated, the chicken’s body spun, spraying the airman with arterial blood until his uniform was soaked. The recruit dropped the severed head as if it were an obscene object.
The butchered bird ran around in ever decreasing circles still pumping out blood. At a safe distance the two engineers laughed. Ray glared at them as he approached. He put a protective arm around the shoulders of Flynn and muttered comforting words, but the young airman, not yet out of his teens, seemed traumatised.
‘Come on,’ said Ray. ‘They were just having a bit of fun.’ Though he didn’t know why he should excuse their behaviour.
Flynn wouldn’t move. The chicken’s body had given up and had slumped to the sand. But it was the bird’s head that transfixed Flynn. It twitched. The eye moved in its socket. A translucent film closed over the eyeball and then retracted again.
‘It can still see,’ Flynn whispered.
‘It’s just a nervous spasm,’ Ray said.
‘No, it’s still conscious,’ said the teenager. ‘Look.’
As they watched, the bird blinked one more time, then the eye glazed over and it finally took on the appearance of death.
Ray looked over his shoulder and saw that Henshaw and Royal were now a long way down the beach, their dark overalls shimmering in the heat haze, which caused their bodies to elongate and become thinner, while their heads became distended, like rugby balls hovering above their shoulders.
Three days after AJ’s barbecue I’m working in my own back garden, removing ivy from the crown of a hawthorn tree and stripping it off the remains of a fence that separates my garden from the one beyond. The hawthorn is a big tree and there may be a danger the ivy is going to make it unstable if I don’t deal with it. My approach is not very scientific. I begin by pulling bits of ivy off the fence, aware all the time of several thick stems sunk into the rockery. Clearly they are what feeds the profusion of shiny green leaves among the hawthorn branches. If I don’t attack the stems I won’t make any actual progress. But the fence part is easy to do and it’s quick to see an improvement. All I’m actually revealing, however, is the extent of the damage to the fence itself, which is rotting and giving way where it isn’t being penetrated and pulled apart by the ivy.
I’m thinking about the barbecue and remembering the tension that was in the air while Juliet’s husband, Kelvin, was off getting changed.
I had been wondering if Lewis was going to keep going with his pilots routine. An attempt was made to steer the conversation into safer areas, but the moment Kelvin reappeared, in a pale-blue polo shirt and chinos, another aircraft passed directly over the garden.
‘What’s with all these planes, Kelvin?’ AJ asked him. ‘I thought the flight path was down over Cheadle Royal.’
Kelvin had just lifted a bottle of Beck’s to his lips and I saw Lewis take in a deep breath and prepare to hold forth.
‘I see you need a beer, Lewis,’ I said to him, pointing to his empty bottle. ‘Let me get you another one. What would you like? Same again?’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘Sure. OK.’
As I returned from the coolbox I heard Kelvin beginning to answer AJ’s question. I handed Lewis his beer and sat down on his other side, encouraging him to turn his back on the others.
‘I imagine you’ve got your own answer to AJ’s question,’ I said to him.
‘The “extended runway centre line”… OK?’ He paused for acknowledgement of his having used an impressive piece of technical language, which he’d signalled by curling two sets of fingers in the air. I merely shrugged.
‘The extended runway centre line,’ Lewis repeated, dispensing with the air quotes, ‘runs back from the airport out towards the Peak District. It passes over the David Lloyd gym at Cheadle Royal and the Stockport Pyramid. In non-busy periods, pilots coming from the north are sometimes asked if they would like a “six-mile final”, allowing them to loop in over Didsbury and join the “extended runway centre line” at Stockport instead of the usual ten miles out. Ksssh-huh-huh.’
It sounded rehearsed, as if it was a speech he had given before. While he was giving it, in the gaps between the words, I was able to pick up bits of Kelvin’s explanation, enough to understand that all that was happening was that while planes normally landed and took off at Manchester towards the west, today, due to the wind having changed overnight, they were taking off (and landing) towards the east. These planes, which Lewis thought were coming in to land, had in fact just taken off and were turning left to head for destinations in the north and west.
‘I’m going to stretch me legs,’ Lewis said, getting to his feet and wandering off to the end of the garden where the children had established their own territory under the leadership of a nurturing eighteen-year-old, Samantha, and her excitable thirteen-year-old brother, Thomas — Carol’s children from an earlier marriage.
Kelvin, meanwhile, was talking to Elizabeth Baines, asking her if she lived locally and she said she lived a couple of minutes’ walk away on Victoria Avenue.
‘Where they filmed Cold Feet,’ AJ said.
‘Just a few doors down from there,’ she added.
From time to time, I could hear Lewis’ laugh over the cries and shrieks of the children.
When the doorbell intrudes on my thoughts, I decide not to answer it. I need to continue working on the ivy.
It goes again. And then a third time.
I leave my muddy boots at the back door and walk through the kitchen in my socks. I see the figure of a man through the stained glass. I open the front door. Cleo chooses that moment to run in from the front garden, flowing around our legs like a river of molten tar.
I don’t say anything for a moment. I don’t know what to say.
‘Lewis,’ I manage finally.
‘That gave me a fright,’ he says, pointing up at the mannequin positioned in the bedroom window. ‘Ksssh-huh-huh.’
When I don’t say anything, he digs his hands into his jeans pockets and looks at my front garden. I don’t intend to help him out. Instead I just wait.
‘Looks like you’re pretty busy,’ he says eventually, eyeing my gardening clothes.
‘Yes. I’m trying to get rid of some ivy.’
‘As long as it’s not Himalayan balsam,’ he says. ‘Still, it can be very persistent, ivy. Ksssh-huh-huh.’ He shakes his head. ‘Do you want an ’and?’
‘I’ve got it, thanks. I’m OK.’
He nods, pushes his hands deeper in his pockets.
I have no intention of giving in.
‘I could murder a brew,’ he says, plaintively.
I breathe in — and out.
‘Of course,’ I say.
I step back into the hallway and he clumps on to my carpet in dirty shoes.
‘You’ve also been gardening?’ I say, looking deliberately at his shoes.
‘Just tidying,’ he says, failing to pick up the hint.
I lead Lewis through the house into the back garden, because the prospect of standing with him in the kitchen for the length of time it will take the kettle to boil is not a good one.
He looks at the ivy and the fence and the rockery in turn.
‘Are you going to cut it off at ground level?’
‘Either that or try and get the roots out.’
‘Ksssh-huh-huh. That’s a big job. You’d be looking at taking the rockery out and you’ve got a skip’s worth of rockery there.’
‘Yes,’ I say, unconcerned whether my tone conveys irritation.
‘You’d need a wheelbarrow and everything.’
‘You’re welcome to borrow me wheelbarrow.’
‘Just let me know.’
He steps closer to the fence.
‘It’s made a right mess of your fence,’ he observes.
‘Yes, I’m going to have to replace it.’
He takes hold of a weak section and pulls at it. With a creak it bends and snaps off in his hand.
‘Ksssh-huh-huh. Yeah, you are.’ He peers through the jagged hole into the garden of the house beyond. ‘There’s your problem. They’ve let it go. Completely overgrown.’
‘The ivy’s mine, though. The roots are on this side of the fence.’
‘Yeah, but it’s grown up into their tree and all over the fence from their side.’
‘It’s a rented house. Flats,’ I say. ‘Apparently, the guy who used to own the house committed suicide. In one of the back bedrooms.’
I thought Lewis would relish the detail, but he doesn’t react, just places his eye closer to the large hole he’s torn in my fence.
‘Who told you that?’ he says finally, with, it seems, a trace of scorn.
‘My neighbour,’ I say.
Lewis stares through the hole in the fence again and remains silent for a while.
‘So,’ he says, stepping back from the fence, ‘you’re a writer?’
‘Yes.’ I feel my head beginning to hurt.
‘What name do you write under?’
‘It must pay well,’ he says, taking in the garden and the house with a sweep of his hand.
‘No,’ I say, ‘it doesn’t pay well. I wouldn’t recommend it as a career.’
‘Have you written anything I might have heard of?’
My head throbs.
‘I doubt it. I wrote one novel several years ago. No one’s heard of it. I’ll just go and see to that brew.’
I leave the garden and while I’m in the kitchen, watching through the window as Lewis conducts a further examination of the ruined fence, I swallow 400 mg of ibuprofen and two co-codamol. Behind me on the table is a cutting from the weekend’s paper featuring another one in the series of writers’ rooms. This one is Adam Thirlwell’s. Thirlwell got on to the 2003 Granta Best of Young British Novelists list on the strength of his first novel, Politics. Although there’s an open laptop just off-centre, Thirlwell’s desk is dominated by a red Olivetti typewriter (he’s learning to touch-type); there’s also a pewter hip flask standing on a floral mouse mat. The hip flask is empty, according to Thirlwell. Under the desk, which looks like the kind of ash-and-chrome affair you might pick up for a few hundred pounds from one of the smarter furniture shops on Deansgate, but could just as easily be a self-assembly job from Ikea, is a line of books standing snug up against the skirting board. None of the titles or authors’ names can be clearly read, but one at least is the right colour and approximate thickness. It’s impossible to be certain either way, but on balance I’d have to say it’s unlikely.
When I go back outside with two mugs of tea, Lewis seems to have got the message: he asks no more questions about my writing. The conversation, such as it is, flags until Lewis ends up raising the subject of football, about which I have nothing to say, and as soon as he’s drained his mug, Lewis leaves.
I carry on with the ivy removal, but the further I get, the clearer it becomes that I am going to have to attack the root cause. Lewis would laugh his strange little laugh at that, perhaps. I am going to have to hire a skip and borrow the man’s wheelbarrow. He had written his address and phone number down on my kitchen calendar before leaving. That in itself seemed to me like a further trespass on my property, but what’s the point of keeping a blank calendar?
Insulated from the pain that had cut him off from England for ever, Raymond Cross prospered in the Royal Air Force, which had a small presence on Zanzibar. Prospered insofar as he seemed to find satisfying the narrow range of tasks assigned to him. He ticked boxes on checklists, got his hands dirty in the engines of the few planes that were maintained daily. They were taken up only once or twice a week, to overfly the island and to hop across to Mombasa to pick up supplies. Ray was allowed to accompany the tiny flight crew if he wasn’t busy: he could be made useful loading and unloading.
In his spare time in the barracks, Ray listened to jazz records on an old gramophone the base commander had picked up on a trip to the mainland. Milt Jackson and Thelonious Monk riffed until the needle was practically worn away. No one could say where the records had come from. Some nights he got out of his head on Kulmbacher lager they had flown over from Germany. It was dropped at night, illegally, in wooden crates that burst open on the beach, scattering the ghost crabs that rattled about on the foreshore. He drank steadily — sometimes with the other men, usually on his own — and spoke to none of his comrades about his reasons for joining the RAF.
When the conditions were right — and they usually were between June and March, outside the rainy season — and Squadron Leader William Dunstan was piloting the mission, they would take a small detour before heading for the airstrip. On returning from Mombasa or a tour of the island, Billy Dunstan would take the Hercules north to Uroa where he would swoop down over the beach and buzz the aircraftmen and flight lieutenants stationed there. Ray was soon organising his time around Dunstan’s schedule, so that when the flamboyant squadron leader was in charge, Ray was invariably waiting at the airstrip to go up with the crew. Dunstan ran a pretty relaxed ship.
The men at Uroa station would hear the Hercules’ grumbling approach rise above the constant susurration of the wind in the palms and run out on to the beach waving their arms. Dunstan would take the plane down as low as possible; on occasion he even lowered the landing gear and brushed the surface of the beach a few hundred yards before or after the line of men, raising huge ballooning clouds of fine white sand.
After his pass, the line of men on the beach applauding as they turned to watch, Dunstan would tilt to starboard over the ocean and climb to a few hundred feet before doubling back and flying down the coast to the base at Bwejuu. Every time, Ray would be standing hunched up in the cockpit behind Dunstan for the best view. The squadron leader enjoyed showing off; Ray’s pleasure lay in watching Dunstan’s reaction as he risked going lower and lower each time, but there was more to it than that. There was another element to it for which Ray had yet to find expression.
The next day, during a break from duties, Ray saw a lone figure standing by the shoreline. He wandered over, clearing his throat once he was within earshot, and came to a halt only when he had drawn alongside. The two men looked out at the horizon. Some 300 yards out, the reef attracted a flurry of seabirds. They hung in the air as if on elastic, a short distance above the water.
‘I’m sorry I didn’t get there sooner,’ Ray said. ‘In time to stop them, I mean.’
Flynn shrugged. ‘They’d have got me another time,’ he said.
‘Probably. No harm done, eh?’
‘I was scrubbing away at my uniform for at least an hour this morning,’ the younger man said.
Ray felt the breeze loosen his clothes and dry the sweat on his body.
‘I’ve heard stories,’ Flynn continued, ‘about beheadings in the Mau Mau Uprising. They used machetes. They’d cut someone’s head off and the eyes would still be blinking, still watching them. What must that be like? Still being able to see.’
They watched the horizon without speaking for a few moments. Ray broke the silence.
‘I’m not sure you should be left alone with your thoughts.’
They watched the rise and fall of the seabirds, at this distance like a cloud of midges.
‘Do you leave the base much?’ Ray asked.
‘I go to Stone Town…’
Ray turned to look at the young airman. He was wearing fatigues and a white vest. His eyes, which didn’t deviate from the view in front of him, were a startling blue. He didn’t seem to want to elaborate on what he got up to in Stone Town. Ray bent down and picked up a shell. He turned it over and ran his thumb over the ridges and grooves.
‘There you go,’ he said, handing it to Flynn. ‘Don’t say I never give you anything.’
‘Here. Pull in here,’ I said, pointing to the opening on the left.
Susan Ashton swung the wheel of her Golf GTI and we pulled into the car park by Hatton Cross Tube station.
‘I can give you a lift all the way back into London, you know,’ she said, leaning back in the driver’s seat, the upholstery sighing beneath her weight.
I smiled at her and shook my head. ‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘It’s out of your way.’ I looked out of the window. It was early evening, late autumn, getting dark. Enough artificial light to see her eyes glimmering. ‘I like this place. That’s why I asked you to drop me here. And it’s close to where you live. You’re not far from here, are you?’
Susan Ashton’s thick chestnut hair rocked forward whenever she moved, two acute angles sweeping towards her cheekbones. I looked at her right hand on the steering wheel. Her left on the edge of her seat, nearest to me. No rings. She and Tony didn’t even live together. She lived in Feltham; he was down the road in East Bedfont. Or the other way around. They were thinking about moving in together. Considering buying a place.
She wasn’t sure.
She wasn’t sure about it, she wasn’t sure about him.
I knew this because we had sat up in the hotel bar until four while she told me all about it. We’d been the only delegates on the staff development course who hadn’t gone up to bed when the bartender had told us he had a home to go to.
I couldn’t figure out if I’d ever looked at her twice before the course. Working in the same office for three years, I’d always found her pleasant, but maybe she was taken, and I definitely was, so it was never an issue.
Veronica and I had been together four years, both living in London but both from the north. The twins had been born two years after we got together — that’s two years before Susan Ashton steered her car, with me sitting in the passenger seat, into Hatton Cross Tube station car park — and Veronica and I had found it difficult adjusting to life as parents. There’s no point denying it. But still it was never an issue — me and Susan Ashton. Sometimes it just isn’t. And then you get thrown together on a staff development weekend, even though you have no interest in staff development. No real interest in the company you work for. The event was compulsory, a residential course in a Thames Valley hotel. I had watched her in the group sessions. Delighting in others’ company. Outgoing, fun, mildly flirtatious, yet clearly holding something back.
‘It’s just a couple of miles over there… Tony’s more…’ Susan Ashton waved vaguely to the south.
‘I know.’ I shifted around in my seat so I was looking directly at her. As I did so, the sky suddenly closed in around the car with a deafening roar, jet engines powering down. Flaps up, gear down, close enough to touch. Or so it seemed. We both swivelled in our seats to watch the aircraft descend further. The runway was only a few hundred yards away beyond the wire-mesh netting.
‘That was a big one,’ I said. ‘Jumbo. 747.’
She nodded. Her body still angled backwards, she rested her head on her arm and looked at me. She was wearing a white cotton blouse with three, maybe four buttons undone. No necklace or pendant. I gave up trying not to look.
‘It’ll be all right, Tony and that,’ I said, as if I cared. I imagined touching her face with my hand, stroking the backs of my fingers against her cheek.
Another plane overflew the car. It was smaller, a 737, but still the nearness of it was overwhelming. I was becoming an increasingly nervous flyer as the years went by, yet here I was, happy to sit underneath the flight path. I had recently read that statistically London was overdue for a major air disaster. That would be one for them to chew on, those poor bastards who took refuge in the comfort of statistics: it’s safer than crossing the road; you’re more likely to die in a car crash; hit by lightning. Those were the people who didn’t mind who hit the ground at ninety degrees and 500 miles an hour still strapped into their seat, as long as it wasn’t them.
And yet there I was sitting a few hundred feet beneath 250 tons of decelerating metal and flesh and I wasn’t bothered. Far from it.
‘Did you know,’ I said to Susan Ashton, ‘the engines on a 747 are designed to fall off in the event of excessive vibration? Designed to fall off. What kind of idea was that? Can you imagine coming out with that one on a Monday morning? You know, the design team sits down around the table to bash out a schedule for the week and you say, Hey, why don’t we design the engines so they fall off if it gets a bit rough? Save the whole wing coming off. Why do they put engines on a 747 in the first place? Because it’s a bit heavier than a fucking glider. That’s why.’
Susan Ashton was smiling. She hadn’t heard it all before. Unlike Veronica.
As a break from working in the garden, I walk into the village. On School Lane I pass Dog Man. Dog Man has a leaning-forwards gait so pronounced he would fall over if he stood still. He has a red face and five o’clock shadow even first thing in the morning. His dog, a chocolate-brown Labrador cross with stumpy legs, struggles to keep up at his side. I must have seen him fifty times and never once without his dog.
I end up in Oxfam, but the selection of books has not altered much since my last visit a week ago. There’s an extensive fiction section, but the only white-spined Picadors are the ubiquitous Kathy Lettes and a couple of Julian Barnes novels that I already have (and almost certainly will never read), and Carlos Fuentes’ The Old Gringo, which I picked up recently elsewhere. In terms of A-format orange Penguins there’s a volume of Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography, but it’s a later edition than the ones I like to collect. It’s also Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography, and while I collect almost indiscriminately within my chosen parameters, there are limits. There are three John Wyndham novels, but I have them all. Under classics there’s Middlemarch and Gilbert White’s The Natural History of Selborne, both of which I already have.
They have started playing middle-of-the-road pop music in Oxfam. A Whitney Houston track finishes and is followed by Sting, the equivalent of adding insult to injury. The manageress smiles at me as I walk past the till on my way out. I draw my lips across my teeth in response.
I cut around the back of Marks & Spencer to Barlow Moor Road and the Art of Tea. I pass through the café to reach the second-hand bookseller — the Didsbury Bookshop — where I can easily lose an hour in the narrow aisles between the tightly packed stacks.
‘Hello, m’laddie,’ calls Bob, the proprietor. ‘Just having a look? Let me know if there’s anything I can help you find.’
I make a non-committal reply, knowing from experience that a conversation with Bob will inevitably come around to the subject of Europe, and Britain’s place in it. Bob holds strong views on this, but he keeps a good stock, which is all that is important to me.
There are no other customers. I can hear faint music coming from the picture framer’s workshop at the far end of the premises. On the right as you enter Bob’s domain is a section devoted to Penguins. My eyes move across the spines, looking for any new additions, checking first by author, then title. I slide out a copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Slave. The front cover is coming away and there is a stain in the bottom left corner, but I have a number of these white-spined editions and I am fairly certain that this is one I don’t have. I hold on to it while I check out the remaining shelves. I am never sure which Edna O’Briens I have and which I don’t, and I can’t remember whether I have started collecting the slim translated novels of Françoise Sagan or if I’m still saving her for another day. Bob has three, in uniform covers. I leave them for now and walk to the other end of the shop where he keeps the rest of the paperback fiction.
I am looking for the classic white spines of Picador, but for some weeks now I have been thinking that soon I will start collecting other white-spined books. Sceptre, Abacus, King Penguin. I spot a white-spined First Love, Last Rites, Ian McEwan’s first collection of short stories. My copy has a photographic cover that bleeds on to the spine. I have been keeping an eye out for a white-spined edition for years. I reach up for it and as I’m taking it down from the shelf I am aware out of the corner of my eye of someone entering the bookshop. Indistinct, dressed in black, the newcomer walks past Bob’s little table and is obscured by the stacks in the middle of the room. I hear Bob call out a greeting and make his usual offers of help, which are met with nothing more than a grunt.
I move to the left-hand wall, where there’s a small selection of crime and mystery fiction. Numerous grass-green Penguins, including several Simenons, but I can never remember which Simenons I have, so many of the titles being so similar. Maigret this, Maigret that. I crouch down to look at them, as I have looked at them on previous visits, to read the titles and try to remember whether I have seen them here, or in another shop, or on my shelf at home. I can’t be certain and so I decide that the two books I have found will do for today and when I stand up and turn I bump into the black-clad newcomer. I mutter an automatic apology and when she looks up I see that it is Grace, from the Year 1 workshop and First Novels course. There’s recognition in her eyes, but no obvious surprise.
‘I was just about to pay for these,’ I say.
She asks me what I have chosen and I show her. Her hair needs a wash, I see, as she flicks through First Love, Last Rites. It’s greasy and lank and there are some tiny flecks of dandruff on her scalp.
‘I’ve never read McEwan,’ she says. ‘Is he good?’
‘Very. The early stuff especially.’
‘You like early stuff, don’t you?’ she says. ‘First novels.’
‘The Cement Garden is very good. Nice and short, too.’
‘I was going to get a cup of tea,’ she says suddenly. ‘Do you want to get a cup of tea?’
I don’t answer.
‘I could do with a bit of help on the whole First Novels thing,’ she says. ‘If you don’t want to, that’s fine.’
‘No, no. Sure.’
It can be like a tutorial, only over a cup of tea. In a café. It’s not a problem.
I pay Bob for my books and we move back into the Art of Tea. Grace picks a little table on the lower level and we order herbal teas. She asks what cake they have and orders a piece of lemon drizzle cake.
‘For you?’ the boy asks.
‘I’ll have the same,’ I say.
There’s a moment’s silence. Grace picks up the Isaac Bashevis Singer and pretends to read the blurb on the back.
‘So, what were you looking for?’ I ask her. ‘In the bookshop.’
‘I’m still looking for most of those first novels,’ she says. ‘From your list.’
‘I don’t think you’ll find many of them here. Maybe the Jane Solomon, although I’d have noticed it if they’d had it. The Bell Jar, but you’ve already got that, I think.’
She casually pushes up the sleeves of her hooded top and my eyes are instantly drawn to the angry red marks on the insides of her forearms. I look away at the framed artworks on the wall.
‘Good stuff,’ I say.
She gives them a cursory glance.
‘So what is it about first novels you like so much?’ she asks. Is there a hint of a challenge in her question or is it just her manner? She has a slightly abrasive way of speaking that I imagine is the product of shyness, of low self-confidence. The marks on her arms back this up. She is rather plain-looking, square-jawed; her skin is dry and pale, her eyes an indeterminate colour. I wonder, as I often do with students, how she found her way on to the course. I did not interview her and know nothing about her, where she lives, where she’s from. It is possible she is local. I remember the piece that was read out in the workshop, which I assumed she had written, but the five-pound note could have been a coincidence. She might not have been among the group of young people on the humpback bridge that evening.
But someone in the workshop almost definitely was.
It could have been her.
The five-pound note I found on him might not have been the only one in his possession when he hit the ground.
‘It’s not just first novels,’ I say. ‘I’m interested in first novels that have been lost or suppressed or never followed up.’
I wonder if I have said too much. It is not usual for a lecturer to be forced to justify his choice of texts to an undergraduate.
The tea arrives, the slices of cake.
‘What do you mean?’ she asks.
I have a sip of tea.
‘Well, like John Banville’s Nightspawn. Every so often, when Banville brings out a new novel, his backlist gets reissued with new covers and so on. But you’ll never find his first novel, Nightspawn, included in these reissues.’
‘Jane Solomon and Angelica Jacob both wrote brilliant, or at least very promising, first novels and then never wrote anything else. Or nothing else ever appeared.’
I shake my head. ‘Solomon became a tango instructor. Jacob — I don’t know. She wrote art criticism. One or two short stories. But as far as I know she didn’t write another novel. I find this very interesting.’
Grace raises her eyebrows, seemingly encouraging me to go on.
‘It wouldn’t be interesting if the novels were no good,’ I say. ‘You’d think they got it out of their system and let’s just be thankful they don’t feel the need to foist another worthless novel on the world. It’s not like we’re short of books. But Hotel 167 and Fermentation were both good novels, so why no more? Why do we hear no more from these very talented writers while others, far less talented, continue to write book after book after book?’
With her fork, Grace divides her slice of cake into quarters. She places one of these into her mouth and chews it slowly, without any expression. She drinks some tea.
‘What about your first novel?’ she says.
‘What about it?’ I ask before I can stop myself.
‘Why don’t you put that on the list?’ Her mouth is twisted into an approximation of a smile. ‘I mean, is it any good? Why is it impossible to track down? Why haven’t you written a second novel?’
Now I smile, and take another sip of tea.
‘So many questions, Grace,’ I say.
She gives a little laugh to acknowledge my having avoided them.
‘I am writing a novel at the moment,’ I say.
‘Is it your first?’ she asks, a sly smile playing around the corners of her mouth.
‘It will be the first to appear under the name Paul Kinder.’
‘So, what, your first appeared under a pseudonym?’
‘This cake is very good,’ I say.
‘What about you?’ I ask. ‘Are you writing a novel?’
‘Should I be?’
‘As an undergraduate, you are not expected to.’
‘But what’s to stop me?’
We watch each other for a moment like two chess players between moves.
‘If I were writing a novel,’ she says, ‘even though there’s no expectation of me to do so for the course, would I be within my rights to ask one of the tutors to offer supervision?’
‘There would be no harm in asking,’ I say, choosing my words with the same level of care.
‘Maybe,’ she says, polishing off her last forkful of cake, ‘I should make an appointment to see you in your office.’
‘You’ve got my number.’
The following morning, I stand in the bay window of the bedroom, next to the mannequins, and watch as parents drop their children off at the school. I see Carol walk past on the opposite side of the road with her youngest — the two children she has with AJ. Her two older children, Samantha and Thomas, whom she must have had when very young, spend most of their time with their father — by amicable agreement, she once assured me — and attend school in Altrincham. Carol’s hair is tied back in a ponytail and she is dressed in a smart blue jacket and skirt and white blouse, clearly about to drive to the airport once she has dropped the children off.
Just when I think she has gone too far, she turns and looks at the house, her eyes scanning the downstairs windows before looking up. She lets go of a small hand to wave. I raise a hand in response. The children look up and point and laugh; they think the dummies are funny.
The dummies are not funny. Sylvia Plath did not find dummies funny. There’s a line in The Bell Jar: ‘The figures around me weren’t people, but shop dummies, painted to resemble people and propped up in attitudes counterfeiting life.’
Once Carol and the children have crossed the main road to gain entrance to the school, I turn away from the window. I am wearing my gardening clothes, but I am in no hurry to get started. On the landing outside the bedroom is a white bookcase. In it I keep Picador paperbacks from the 1970s, 80s and 90s. At some point in the 90s Picador abandoned the classic design of white spine and black lettering with uniform typography. They still occasionally publish some interesting books — Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, John Banville’s recent novels — but they don’t look the same and so I don’t collect them.
The way things look is important.
Dummies are all about look.
The first four shelves contain my collection, from Aragon’s Paris Peasant to B. Wongar’s The Track to Bralgu, and the last shelf and a half is where my wife Veronica’s Picadors reside. She didn’t collect them seriously, not like I did, but when we got together, I combined my Picador collection with those that she happened to have among her books, for she was a reader. Where her Picadors finish, halfway along the bottom shelf, eggshell-green Penguin Modern Classics fill up the rest of the space. As I buy more Picadors, from charity shops and the few second-hand booksellers that remain in business, the Penguins are edged out and shelved elsewhere.
I have read one or two of these books more than once. Perhaps half of them I have read once. The other half comprises books I intend to read one day and books I doubt I will ever read, either because I will run out of time or because I am not sufficiently interested, but they have the right look, so I buy them and keep them on the shelf.
The house sits silently on its foundations as I slide out my old copy of First Love, Last Rites and replace it with the one from the Didsbury Bookshop. I place the old one on top of the bookcase; I will take it up to my study when I am next going.
I run my finger across the spines of the Ss. Saki’s short stories, a novel by Nicholas Shakespeare, Iain Sinclair’s poetry anthology. And on to the Ts. Emma Tennant’s Hotel de Dream: there are two copies of this novel. One on my shelves, one on Veronica’s. I take them both out and lay them side by side on the carpet.
I can’t work out what is more interesting, either their being virtually identical or that there are minor differences of appearance. One is creased at the top corner, the other slightly foxed along the bottom edge. I flick through both copies, one after the other. They smell exactly the same. They smell of second-hand bookshops, cardboard boxes, spilt tea. The faintest hint of cigarettes. Futility. Time.
I take out the five other books by Emma Tennant on Veronica’s shelf. The Bad Sister, Wild Nights, Alice Fell, Queen of Stones, Woman Beware Woman. I place them next to each other. I compare them in terms of smell, cover design, number of pages.
Cleo comes and brushes against my leg.
‘Hello, Cleo,’ I say. ‘What do you think? Either I mix Veronica’s books in with mine or move them elsewhere.’
I stroke her back, tickle her under the chin. She lifts her head up to encourage me.
‘You’re not much help,’ I say. ‘Are you? She’s been gone a long time.’
I collect the books up and put them back on Veronica’s shelf. I’m tempted to integrate them into my collection, but I’m not sure it would be the right thing to do. At what point will it be, I wonder? Will it ever?
I look again at the Ss on my shelves. Sinclair, Stevens. Something is missing. I picture my copy of Jane Solomon’s Hotel 167 on the corner of my desk at the university.
I follow Cleo down to the half-landing, where the Penguin shelves — wide and shallow, designed precisely to fit A-format paperbacks — are a mixture of orange and grass-green. I look at the Simenons, trying to commit to memory the titles that are there, but I know that as soon as I’m back in the bookshop, or any other bookshop, I’ll have forgotten.
There are occasional breaks among the orange and green for white-spined Penguins — Derek Marlowe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, D. M. Thomas’ The White Hotel — which I am increasingly finding an unwarranted distraction, at least in this context. On these shelves. Nevertheless, I slip the copy of The Slave between The Estate and A Friend of Kafka.
I walk to the bottom of the stairs and sit on the last step to pull on my gardening boots.
A few streets away, a 1930s semi bristles with scaffolding. Sheets of heavy-duty plastic shift listlessly in the light breeze. The bell is one of those that cannot be heard from the outside, perhaps even from the inside, so I knock on the door. After a few moments, heavy footsteps come bounding down the stairs and the door swings open.
‘Ksssh-huh-huh,’ he laughs. ‘That was quick.’
‘My skip was delivered first thing. You mentioned a wheelbarrow…’
‘Come in, come in.’
‘I’ll just take my shoes off,’ I say, pointedly, then follow him down the narrow hall.
‘It’s in the garage,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘We could have opened it from the outside — it’s not like I ever lock it — but there’s stuff in the way that needs moving.’ As he passes through the kitchen, he flicks the switch on the kettle. ‘Make yourself at home. I don’t tend to lock this either,’ he says as he opens a door that appears to connect the kitchen directly to the garage. ‘There’s no need.’
While he rummages in the garage and I hear the scrape of a wooden door on the gritty tarmac of his drive, the kettle continues to boil and I look around his kitchen. There’s a calendar from a local business with scribbled notes and ringed dates. Between it and the fridge is a large, cheaply framed collage of old snapshots featuring a vivacious-looking redhead and two little blonde girls at various ages. The woman’s hair is longer in some shots, shorter in others. One shows her and Lewis in evening wear, about to set off for a party. They have their arms around each other: she looks proud and happy. He’s smiling, but looks slightly tense or awkward, as if he knows something she doesn’t. He had more hair then.
Lewis re-enters the kitchen and I step back from studying the picture.
‘Being nosy,’ I say.
Lewis edges past me and fiddles with the kettle. He drops the lid of the teapot, which clatters on the floor, masking the splutter of his characteristic laugh.
‘Me family,’ he says. ‘Me ex-family.’
‘You split up?’
Lewis pours the water. He shakes his head.
‘There was an accident.’ His voice threatens to break on ‘accident’. He spills the milk. ‘Oops. No use crying. Ksssh-huh-huh.’
I don’t say anything, but watch Lewis’ shoulders as he stands hunched over the sink, perfectly still.
‘So, anyway,’ he asks finally, ‘how you settling in?’
‘You should come down the pub. Everyone’s there. Thursday, nine o’clock. It would be good for you to meet some more people. Come down tonight.’
I imagine a load of blokes desultorily disagreeing with refereeing decisions.
‘Everyone. All the lads. It’s not a piss-up. Very civilised.’
I drink my tea and make my excuses.
Ray had joined the RAF as a way of getting out of Britain in the early 1960s. His wife had died giving birth to their only child and it would have broken him if he hadn’t got out. Some say it did break him anyway. Others that it just changed him. The pinched-faced moralisers among his family said it had no effect on him: he’d always only ever been in it for himself. These are the people you might have expected to have got their heads together to decide who was best placed to offer the infant a home, until such time as his father tired of the tropics. But they didn’t exactly fight among themselves for that right.
Ray himself had been born into a community so tightly knit it cut off the circulation. His own domineering mother and subjugated father, all his uncles and aunts, were regular churchgoers. Some gritty, northern, unforgiving denomination, it would have been, where prayer cushions would have been considered a luxury.
It wouldn’t have mattered who Ray brought back to the house in Hyde as his intended, they weren’t going to like her. They’d have looked down on her whatever she was, princess or pauper. Not that they had any money of their own to speak of, they didn’t. But pride they had.
Perhaps Ray bore all of this in mind when he took the Levenshulme bingo caller to the Kardomah in St Anne’s Square. Victoria. Vic, Ray called her — his queen. She may have been only a bingo caller to the family, but Ray worshipped her. She turned up in the Cross household one blustery night in a new miniskirt. ‘Legs eleven,’ he blurted out, ill-advisedly. ‘Your father and I will be in here,’ his mother said, frowning in disapproval and pointing to the front room; Ray’s father shuffled obediently. ‘You can sit in t’ morning room,’ she said to Ray.
The morning room, an antechamber to the kitchen, was dim and soulless in the morning and didn’t get any lighter or warmer as the day wore on. Somehow it failed to benefit from its proximity to the kitchen. No one used it, not even his mother, despite her being temperamentally suited to its ambience.
Ray and Victoria’s options were few, if they had any at all, and sticking around wasn’t one of them. Ray got a job with the Post Office in Glossop, so they packed what little they had and moved out along the A57. He worked hard and earned more than enough for two, so that when the first signs of pregnancy appeared, they didn’t think twice. It didn’t matter that the baby hadn’t been planned; it was welcome.
After the birth, Ray held the tiny baby once, for no more than a few seconds. Victoria lost so much blood, the hospital ran out of supplies. She suffered terribly for the next twelve hours, during which time Ray stayed by her side. Twice the nurses asked him if they’d thought of a name for the baby. Each time he waved them away.
When the RAF asked Ray his reasons for wanting to join up, he said he liked the uniform and had no objection to travelling, the latter being an understatement. They sent him to the island of Zanzibar, thirty miles or so off the coast of Tanganyika in East Africa. A greater contrast with east Manchester must have been hard to imagine. The family declared him heartless and cruel, swanning off to a tropical island when he should have been mourning his wife and looking after his kid. Their hypocrisy galvanised him and he brought his departure date forward. He needed to put some distance between himself and his family in order to mourn. Five thousand miles wasn’t bad going.
Ray wasn’t surprised when Billy Dunstan invited the two girls to join them on a flight around the island. Joan and Frankie were English nurses working in a clinic in Zanzibar Town. Dunstan and one of his fellow officers, Flight Lieutenant Campbell, had met the pair one evening on the terrace of the Africa House Hotel where all the island’s expats went to enjoy a drink and to watch the sun go down in the Indian Ocean.
On the agreed afternoon, the nurses were brought to the base at Bwejuu by an RAF auxiliary. Ray looked up from polishing his boots and saw all the men stop what they were doing as the women entered the compound. Henshaw stepped forward with a confident smirk, wiping his hands on an oily rag. The other men watched, with the exception of Flynn, whose uniform still bore one or two of the more obstinate traces of the engineers’ ritual humiliation of him on the beach. The airman coloured up and looked away.
Dunstan appeared and made a swift assessment of the situation.
‘Henshaw,’ he said, ‘shouldn’t you be driving the supply truck up to Uroa? You’ll have it dark, lad. Take Flynn with you.’
Flight Lieutenant Campbell had been called away to deal with a discipline problem on Pemba Island, Dunstan explained to the two women. Because of the nurses’ schedule, there wouldn’t be another opportunity for a fortnight and Dunstan didn’t want them to go away disappointed. Ray watched him stride out across the landing strip to the Hercules, his white silk scarf, an affectation only he had the dashing glamour to carry off, and then possibly only in Ray’s opinion, flapping in the constant onshore breeze. Joan trotted behind him. Frankie stopped to fiddle with her heel and while doing so looked back at the men watching from the paved area outside the low huts. Ray, who was among those men, was struck for the first time by her resemblance to Victoria. When she smiled, it seemed directed straight at him. A nudge in the ribs from Henshaw confirmed this.
‘Didn’t you receive an order?’ muttered Ray.
‘Yes, Corporal,’ Henshaw replied sarcastically.
Ray looked away from Henshaw towards Flynn, who had also been watching the exchange of looks between Ray and Frankie with, it seemed to Ray, a look of hurt in his blue eyes.
‘Corporal Cross,’ came a cry from the airstrip. ‘Get your flying jacket.’
‘Now it’s your turn to be ordered about,’ said Henshaw. ‘Lucky bastard.’
As Ray left to join Dunstan and the two girls, he passed close to Flynn.
‘You’ll get your chance, son,’ he said quietly.
As they taxied to the beginning of the landing strip, Ray looked out of the cockpit to see the fair head of Flynn bobbing into the supply truck alongside Henshaw.
‘Hold tight, ladies,’ shouted Dunstan over the noise of the four engines as the plane started to rumble down the runway.
It takes a while to set up a protected route through the house for the wheelbarrow, but once I have, I make a start on removing the rockery. I soon realise it’s a bigger job than I had thought it would be. The rockery is about fifteen feet wide and climbs to three feet above the level of the lawn. There are rocks, obviously, and a lot of impacted soil, but that doesn’t go very deep, because a few inches below the surface the landfill starts: roof tiles, half-bricks, lengths of flex, old light fittings, bits of hard moulded red plastic and some unidentified cottony material that for some reason I find slightly sinister. The penny-pinching approach to upkeep of the former owners of the house has left me a wide range of problems to deal with, of which this is only the latest to emerge.
I kick down on the spade and receive a bone-jarring shock to hip and shoulder. Further, more careful shovelling reveals the ghostly white outline of an old Belfast sink. Inside the bowl is a collection of ash and burnt matter. I turn this over with the spade, but it’s impossible to tell what it once was. I wonder if I should have bought a decorator’s mask.
I work on, filling the wheelbarrow, pushing it through the house, emptying it into the skip. I keep promising myself a break — after the next barrowful, once I’ve emptied five barrow-loads — but don’t take one. Every time I unearth another section of the ivy’s extensive root system, I down tools and try to tug it out. The results are mixed and I keep falling over on my backside. Every time this happens I get straight up and carry on, aware of pain radiating out from a small angry red knot of muscle, as I picture it, in the small of my back. Then one time I don’t get up, but allow myself to rest for a moment, sitting in the mud. The root I’ve been trying to free has snapped, leaving me holding a six-inch stub. In the hole I’ve dug to gain access to the root is a white name tag from some plant bought at a garden centre. I feel a sense of futility settle on the scene, born partly of my insignificant progress and partly of an odd, almost malevolent stillness in the early afternoon air. There’s a strange compressed quality to the light with a wall of slate-grey cloud building steadily in the west. The sun disappears behind the cloud. The sound of children’s laughter, of which I have hardly been aware, fades out and ceases altogether as the light changes. The colours become muted. Lewis’ face briefly enters my mind as I reach for the white tag in the hole. I see his face screw up as he laughs his spluttering laugh and turns away, then turns back, the laugh dissipating, to meet your gaze, almost challenging you to look away. At which moment, I suddenly realise, there’s always a strange look in his eyes. Either sadness, or an emptiness of some kind. An odd ambivalence, as if his emotions could suddenly swing dramatically in any direction. The laugh itself carries a suggestion of hysteria.
I pick up the tag. It names a plant that presumably once grew in the rockery: Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’. I allow myself a brief smirk at that. ‘Hardy perennial’ it says. It would have to be very hardy indeed to survive any length of time in this toxic dump. In the rockery since I’ve been living here, there’s been no sign of what the tag describes as the ‘flame-red flowers and sword-like foliage’ of the Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’. There’s been very little, in fact, apart from rosebay willow herb and various other weeds. I wonder how far back in time the name tag goes. I presume the previous owners put the rockery in. The previous owners — who increased the price of the house substantially after a figure had been agreed — I do not feel well disposed towards. The overgrown ivy, and the landfill rockery, don’t help.
The quality of the silence starts to alter. The sky — and somehow the silence itself — becomes darker, even more ominous and unsettling, until it becomes clear that what I can hear isn’t silence at all but the drone of an approaching plane. As I look up, it lurches over the roof of the house dragging an overwhelming downdraught of noise, in the same way that a thick black cloud might trail skirts of heavy rain. Despite the subdued light, I can see the aircraft’s lower parts, its undercarriage and the curved plates of its tubular fuselage, in the sort of shimmering, hallucinatory detail you see in certain surrealist paintings. I see individual rivets glowing like white-hot pinheads. As the bass roar of the engines causes my breastbone to vibrate, I think of the neckline of the dress Carol wore at the barbecue, which in turn prompts a memory of the dashboard of a car. Numbers, needles and dials picked out in glowing jazz-club blues and traffic-light reds.
My right hand was resting on the edge of my seat, my body turned so that I was facing Susan Ashton. Her left hand was placed over my right, her fingers very gently closing over mine. She leaned back in her seat. Her white blouse billowed forward in sympathy with the upholstery either side of her shoulders. Because I was sitting slightly forward and she had slumped down somewhat in her seat, I could see down the front of her blouse.
As I looked, she tightened her grip on my hand a fraction.
I could see the fine down on the tops of her breasts. The dark cleft between them. They rose and fell as her breathing grew louder. I didn’t want her to do anything more, neither to speak nor to unbutton the blouse further. She seemed to sense this.
When the next jet cast its enormous shadow over the car she watched our reflection in the windscreen as I unbuttoned her blouse, slipped her bra strap off her shoulder, peeled the cup away, caught her breast in my palm. I squeezed it gently, then more firmly, catching her nipple between my forefinger and thumb. I detected a slight wheeze in her increasingly loud breathing. I squeezed harder, heard her catch her breath, a slender moan beginning in her throat that matched precisely the whine of decelerating engines from the next airliner to pass over. With my right hand now I released the other bra strap. Still she sat facing forward as a procession of screaming jets came down low over the car. I made her lean forward far enough to allow me to unclip the bra, which I threw on to the back seat. She reclined again, shivering as my hands moved over her upper body. Cradling her breasts, stroking the back of her neck. Then, with her right hand, Susan Ashton leaned down to release the recline lever and kicked the seat back with her bare feet. The slightest opening of her legs and consequent upwards drift of her skirt constituted no more invitation than I needed. As I shifted across, she unbuckled my trouser belt and a moment later my knees were pressing into the forward edge of her seat. By now we were both breathing heavily and the Golf’s windows were misted over, but every time a plane overflew the car we felt its passage stirring the marrow in our bones. Roughly one plane in every six was a jumbo or equivalent, the noise from which would drown out any sound coming from inside the car. I couldn’t imagine that Susan Ashton was paying the same kind of attention to the air traffic as I was, but she timed her orgasm perfectly, climaxing with a great cry of release as the car shuddered under the sonic onslaught of a 747.
They flew across the island to Zanzibar Town. Dunstan pointed out the Arab Fort and the Anglican cathedral. Frankie spotted the clinic where she and Joan worked on the edge of Stone Town. Dunstan turned the plane gently over the harbour and flew back over the so-called New City in a south-easterly direction so that he was soon flying parallel with the irregular south-west coastline.
‘Uzi Island,’ shouted Dunstan as he pointed to the right. The two girls leaned over the back of his seat to get the best view. Ray watched the way their hips and bellies pressed into Dunstan’s shoulders. The squadron leader seemed to sit up straighter, flexing the muscles at the top of his back, as if maximising the contact between them, his hands maintaining a firm grip on the controls.
‘Where’s that?’ asked Joan, pointing to a tiny settlement in the distance.
‘Kizimkazi. Not much there. Hang on.’ So saying, he banked sharply to the left, unbalancing both girls, who toppled over then picked themselves up, giggling. Ray watched a twitch of pleasure in Dunstan’s cheek. Frankie smiled hopefully in Ray’s direction. He smiled back instinctively, but then looked away.
They crossed the southern end of the island, then kept going out to sea before turning left again and describing an arc that would eventually bring the plane back over land north of Chwaka Bay. The horizon — an indistinct line between two blocks of blue — had become a tensile bow, twisted this way and that in the hands of a skilled archer; the plane itself was Dunstan’s arrow. Ray watched the squadron leader’s hands on the controls, a shaft of sunlight edging through the left-side window and setting the furze of reddish hairs on his forearm ablaze.
The RAF station at Uroa came into view: a couple of low-lying buildings in a small compound, a handful of motorbikes, a Jeep and one truck that Ray surmised would be the supply vehicle driven there by Henshaw and Flynn. As the Hercules overflew the station, several men appeared from inside one of the huts, running out on to the beach waving their arms. Ray looked back as Dunstan took the plane into a steep left-hander and headed away from the island once more.
‘They’re moving the truck,’ Ray said. ‘They’re driving it on to the beach.’
‘They must want to play,’ said Dunstan with a grin as he maintained the angle of turn.
The nurses grabbed on to the back of the pilot’s seat.
‘This is like going round that roundabout,’ said Frankie to Joan, ‘on the back of your Arthur’s motorbike.’
Dunstan looked around.
‘My ex,’ Joan elucidated.
‘What we’re about to do,’ Dunstan yelled, ‘you can’t do on a motorbike, no matter who’s driving it. Hold on tight and don’t look away.’
Dunstan took the plane lower and lower. The beach was a mile away, the altitude dropping rapidly.
‘Five hundred feet,’ Dunstan shouted. ‘At five hundred feet you can make out cows’ legs.’
‘There aren’t any cows,’ Frankie shouted back.
‘That’s why I’m using this,’ said Dunstan, tapping the altimeter with his fingernail.
Ray watched the needle drop to 400, 350, 300.
‘Two hundred and fifty!’ Dunstan roared. ‘Sheep’s legs at two hundred and fifty. Not that there’s any sheep either. We are now officially low flying, and below two hundred and fifty,’ he shouted as he took the rattling hull down even lower, ‘is classified as very low flying.’
The ground looked a lot closer than 250 feet to Ray, who knew that the palm trees on this side of the island grew to a height of more than thirty feet. He watched their fronds shudder in the plane’s wake, then turned to face forward as the station appeared beneath them once more. The truck had been parked in the middle of the beach, the men standing in a ragged line either side of it, raising their hands, waving at the plane. From this distance — by now, free of the palm trees, no more than fifty feet — it was easy to recognise Henshaw, and Flynn, who was jumping up and down in boyish enthusiasm. The girls whooped as the Hercules buzzed the truck, leaving clearance of no more than thirty feet. Ray turned to watch the men raise their hands to cover their faces in the resulting sandstorm.
‘Fifty feet, ladies,’ Dunstan boasted, enjoying showing off. ‘We’re allowed to fly this low to make free drops.’
‘What are free drops when they’re at home?’ asked Joan.
‘When we want to drop stuff without parachutes. Boxes of supplies. Equipment. Whatever.’
Frankie had fallen silent and was looking back at the line of men.
‘What is it?’ Joan asked her.
‘That young one, the blond one, I’m sure I’ve seen him before.’
‘He’s been in the clinic, Frankie. I saw him in the waiting room. He must have been your patient, because he wasn’t mine. I’d have remembered him, if you know what I mean.’
Frankie put her hand up to her mouth as she did remember.
‘Oh God, yes,’ she said. ‘Such a nice boy. He was so embarrassed. I felt terribly sorry for him.’
Dunstan had already started to go around again. The blue out of the left-hand side of the plane was now exclusively that of the ocean, the sky having disappeared. Ray waited to see if Frankie would say more about Flynn. She saw him watching her and fell silent.
She was similar to Victoria, but when Ray looked at her he felt nothing. Victoria was gone and the feelings he had had for her were gone also. It didn’t mean they hadn’t existed. But they could not be reawakened. Something in Ray had changed, even if he didn’t understand the full nature of the change. He didn’t doubt that he was still grieving for Victoria, but living on the island, in the company of Dunstan and the other men, was altering him. He couldn’t have said what he did feel, only what he didn’t.
‘Can you take it any lower this time?’ Joan was asking Dunstan as she leaned over the back of his seat and the line of men grew bigger in the pilot’s windshield.
‘What’s that boy doing?’ Ray muttered, as Flynn clambered on top of the cab of the supply truck that was still parked on the beach.
‘Sometimes we fly as low as fifteen feet,’ Dunstan shouted, sweat standing out on his forehead as he clung to the controls and fought to keep the plane steady. He knew that one mistake would be fatal. If the right-hand wing tip caught the trunk of a palm tree, if the wake of the aircraft created an updraught that interfered with the rudder, control would be wrested from him in an instant, setting in motion a chain of events that would be as swift as it