The first two paragraphs of an abandoned novel called Ways and Means

The heating gave off a stink of burnt rubber and piss – the kind of smell that makes you curl your toes and wonder if you looked before you sat down. For Miriam Means, on an empty number 43 bus one Sunday in the middle of October, it was the smell of another year sliding into winter. She peered through thick layers of etched graffiti and grime into streets of shuttered garment shops and fast-food outlets; cardboard boxes, newspapers and plastic bags stirred fitfully on the pavements under a dirty sky. Black veiled women in thin sandals with chains of small children in tow processed slowly amid the detritus behind tall thin men carrying blue-striped carrier bags. She wondered about them, and if they longed for the bright, arid landscapes they had left behind for this damp urban waste. A few minutes later the bus swung into Upper Street. Here, trendy politicians, newspaper columnists and media types were spilling out of the pubs and cafes to mingle under blue and green awnings with TV actors and comedians and celebrity gardeners as if they were patronising a village fete during Harvest Supper. Miri couldn’t decide which scene was worse: each was as alienating in its own way. She got off the bus and elbowed her way through the throng, silently thanking providence for the cultural mix of the Holloway Road. But when she negotiated Highbury Corner, the Holloway Road gaped as grey and windswept as the mouth of the Styx and about as cheerful. She was beginning to regret that she come out at all and would have turned around if she hadn’t felt that enduring the return trip would suck the very soul from her being.

It was already two o’clock and she was late. After spending half an hour that morning sitting in her new ‘home’ – a small room in a flat in Shoreditch owned by the original Odd Couple – she had phoned her friend and work colleague, Deborah, and invited herself to lunch. The family was waiting to eat when she arrived and she hovered, glass in hand, between Deborah’s exasperated busyness in the kitchen and her husband’s barely suppressed impatience in the lounge. The children of the house, sensing a slight depression in the atmosphere at the table, did their best to compensate through the employment of diversionary behaviour tactics. As in previous visits, Miri marvelled at how the well-honed brains of two highly educated adults could be so easily blunted by two small children flicking peas at one another over a tablecloth.


Opening para of chapter 3 of same abandoned novel:

Even in the dark, the broad expanse of the Clyde exerts a magnetic pull on Helensburgh. Long and shallow, the town slides gently down to the sea from rolling green hills, with only the transverse flow of Clyde Street, a few municipal flowerbeds and the Westbay Esplanade between it and the strand. The esplanade in turn lips over onto the banked gravel, and the land slips unimpeded into the waters of the loch. Standing with his face to the Firth, Alistair could feel the familiar pressure of the town between his shoulder blades.   Even as a child he preferred to walk down by the water’s edge rather than join his mother and sister window shopping above on the road. A few moments before, he had turned right out of the station, walked down into Sinclair Street, and crossed over to the shadowy waterside at the point where West Clyde Street meets Clyde Street East, an area of unlovely shops supporting the usual travesty of 1960s municipal planning: a squat bunker of a swimming pool and a vast car park blooming like a canker into the most beautiful estuary in Britain. He stood for a moment listening for the sound of the sea, but the tide was low and he could hear little apart from a cold hiss some way out and the ruffle on the water of some late sea bird. He breathed in deeply the old stink of the seaweed and turned towards Craigendoran to walk the few hundred yards to his mother’s house.


Earthquakes in Wareham

‘Did he just say there were earthquakes in Weybridge?’

‘No, of course he didn’t. He said there were earthquakes in Wareham. In Dorset. That’s where they are – the Any Questions team.’

‘Well, it don’t sound right to me…I’ve never heard of Dorset being surrounded by earthquakes. And what’s King Alfred got to do with it?’

Keith sighed and put down his paper. She normally saw the funny side of these exchanges, but it was a bit offish today.

‘Mum, it was just…David Dimbleby meant…’

‘Well, if David Dimbleby says so…’

Keith knew this was leading to a long diatribe against the ‘Dimbleby dynasty’, so he cut her off before she got up a head of steam. ‘He meant to say earthworks, Mum. Earthworks.’

Now she looked really huffy. ‘There’s no need to repeat everything twice. I’m not deaf or stupid – yet.’

She leaned over and switched off the radio with snappish gesture – hard to pull off for someone with advanced arthritis in their hands.

Keith sighed again. Annette and Jas noted a change in the air and began to pack up the card game they’d been playing at a table by the window.

Then he remembered. ‘You used to take us to Wareham,’ he said. I think we even had a run around the earthworks.’ He stressed the last word to emphasise that he wasn’t going to be drawn into her bad mood.

She looked at him directly, her eyes narrowed. ‘That was your father,’ she said. ‘He was always wanting to do that sort of thing.’

There was some note in her voice – bitterness or venom – that made Keith sit up. ‘What sort of thing?’

‘All those bleeding churches and historical walks.’ She had crossed her arms but with her hands clenched rather than tucked under, the big knuckles of standing up like a bare-fist boxer’s.

‘You used to enjoy them,’ he began to protest, ‘we all…’

‘Boring. Boring. Boring. That was your father.’

Annette gave a little nervous laugh, ‘Honestly, Clarrie. The things you…’

Clarrie ignored her daughter-in-law and continued to fix Keith with a look he’d not seen before. ‘And you’re just like him.’

The earth tilted.  Keith looked around the nursing home sitting room, his eyes swivelling in his head and his mouth suddenly dry. He wondered if any of the other visitors were listening. Annette laughed again, a little ‘ah hah’ laugh.

Something had shifted.  , he thought, how did we get here from Wareham?

‘Well, what did you want to do?’ he asked in spite of himself.

The answer was immediate, as if she’d been preparing for just this moment: ‘Something else, somewhere else, with someone else.’

Once she had said it, she relaxed, as if the effort had literally taken the stuffing out of her and left her looking like a rag doll.   She looked down at her hands and scraped her fingernail over a bit of dried food on her cardigan.

The she looked up and smiled: ‘Too late now, eh?’


Earthquakes in Wareham