I still have the book (of course) and have lost count of the number of times I have either re-read or referred to it. At the time I suppose I imagined Pamela to be around my Mum’s age, maybe a bit younger. It was only recently that I discovered she died of cancer on the 9th of June 1967, aged 59. She is buried in Hampstead Cemetery. I did the math: in June 1967 I was fifteen and a half years old and walking into Woolworths with Lyndsay. It could not have been the exact day she died, since the 9th of June fell on a Friday that year, but it might have been the day before. The day I walked into Woolworths, my friend Pamela was either dead or dying in London, 41 miles away.
Of course “my” Pamela had never been the real Pamela. She was an imaginary friend and, in that sense, it was unimportant how many days and years our lives had overlapped by, or indeed whether they had overlapped at all. And yet it seemed important. She was an imaginary friend, no different from Binny, my childhood companion. I can remember coming home from Sunday School and informing my startled, agnostic mother that Binny lived in the valley of the shadow of death. I think we must have been singing “The Lord’s My Shepherd”, or maybe someone read the 23rd Psalm – but I could see her there, the dark outline of a child, walking along in a narrow green valley on my left hand side. If I look hard enough, I can still see her. I am guessing that I understood more then than I do now about the nature of reality and the thin line that separates then from now, here from there, dead from alive and the writer from his or her creations. One step to the left, I always knew it. One small step to the left.
After that I read any number of writers’ notebooks, the best of which by a long chalk was Stephen King’s masterly On Writing. I even bought To Writers With Love by Mary Wibberley, attracted to it by the pretty cover, which featured, as far as I can remember, a girl in a sloppy mustard-coloured cardigan, at a big beautiful wooden desk, facing a splendid-looking green typewriter and surrounded by splendid-looking books in a pool of lamplight. Her back was to the camera and she had a long, thick blonde plait. How I coveted that luscious plait, that arty cardi, that green typewriter, that cosy evening light. One imagined closed velvet curtains, thick carpets, a few expensive miniatures on the wall, one or two well-behaved children taken care of by an au pair, and beyond the velvet curtains a hushed London square with one of those private parks with wrought-iron railings… How I wanted writing to be like rather than birds-nest hair, coffee-splattered teeshirts, chewed fingers, bitten nails, cricked necks, heaps of screwed up paper and a scattering of blunt pencils. How I longed for plait-girl’s life rather than my own.
Under the influence of Mary Wibberley I even tried my hand at a Mills & Boon. From this I learned that I was capable of completing a (shortish) full-length book, but also that I did not have what it took to write Mills & Boons. My book was set in Moscow. It was about an English ballerina who is summoned to Russia to join the Bolshoi Ballet and ended up having sex – or what the reader was supposed to be able to guess might be sex – with a gorgeous Russian Rudolf Nureyev-esque, be-tighted dancer on a pile of dusty curtains behind the stage – among other places. I posted it off to Mills & Boon – a stack of typescript pages in a typing-paper box, double spaced, wide-margined, enclosing brief covering lettter etc. They posted it back rather suddenly, though they did enclose a long list of Suggestions for Improvement, the first of which was that I should not attempt to re-write this particular book but, maybe, well, sort of, start again. I knew Mills & Boon’s Suggestions for Improvement were a step up from their bog standard rejection slip, and was grateful to them for that. I threw away the Russian romance and decided not to start again. I knew I had dredged my reservoir of erotic fantasy to the last foul-tasting, rusty drop and it was unlikely ever to refill.