The bride is dying,
blood on that satin bodice.
Black at her silk shoes
a magpie, both wings broken.
Two birds flying, who knows where.
The bride is dying,
blood on that satin bodice.
Black at her silk shoes
a magpie, both wings broken.
Two birds flying, who knows where.
Words are a life form and, just like flesh-and-blood life forms, they change over time. They spring into life; their meanings undergo a long, subtle process of mutation and usually, eventually, they either go extinct or exist only in fusty, dust-gathering dictionaries on library shelves; in fusty, dust-gathering corners of the internet and in the little grey cells of a few fusty, dust-gathering academics.
I was thinking about ‘flaky’ recently. This is not a word I grew up with, but one that seems to have blossomed in the last five to ten years. I got a general sense of what flaky (or flakey) meant from the context of the various TV programmes and websites it cropped up in, but also spotted a contradiction. To some people it seemed to mean bizarre, outlandish, freakish, eccentric or off-the-wall in one’s behaviour. To others it meant unreliable, careless, lazy, dishonest – somebody who was all things to all people, liable to ditch their friends or not turn up to appointments. There obviously is a link here – if you are eccentric you may also be – thought not necessarily – unpredictable, and from unpredictable it’s a short(ish) hop to unreliable – but nonetheless these are two different meanings. This is the process of mutation.
Looking even further back to the origin of the ‘flaky’ you get something different again. Somewhere around the 1050s, apparently, the drug coke was referred to as flake. Flakey became baseball slang for the bizarre or unpredictable way in which a coke addict might act. Every word has its day. Some – like flaky – will have their fifteen minutes/days/years of fame and sink into obscurity, but others will be here for ever, or almost.
‘Forever’ words tend to be words for the most basic things that have relevance to human beings – love, hate, food, sex, hope, fear. In English we would refer to these as Anglo-Saxon words. Even in a language polluted – or enriched, depending on how you look at it – by Latin and Norman French – the old words remain, in parallel use with their Latin or French equivalents, but with ultra-subtle differences of meaning. It is this richness, these subtleties, that makes English a difficult language to master (even for the English) but a great one for writing poetry.
But, insults are fun; they are wild and colourful in a way that other words are not and this more than makes up for their ephemerality. So let us celebrate the insult:
Oinker – a fat person.
Stumblebum – blundering and inept.
Dweeb – a person regarded as socially inept or foolish, often on account of being overly studious.
Still in use, to a greater or lesser degree
Snake in the grass – a treacherous or deceitful person.
Machiavellian – a scheming, devious, political-type person.
Vulgar – conspicuously and tastelessly indecent; also the sort of thing someone of a lower social class than yourself might be expected to say, do or be.
Shiftless – vintage version of (some aspects of) flaky.
Bespawler – someone who spits and slobbers when he talks.
Dew-Beater – a clumsy person (someone with particularly large shoes)
Fustylugs – a gross, corpulent woman (fusty = something that’s gone off or gone stale).
Gnashgab – someone who only ever seems to complain.
Klazomaniac – someone who only seems to be able to speak by shouting.
Quisby – a shirker, someone who just lazes around.
Saddle-Goose – to saddle a goose is pointless, so a Saddle-Goose is someone who wastes their time doing something pointless. A bit like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.
Smell-Feast – someone who gatecrashes a meal or a party in the hope of being fed.
Whiffle-Whaffle – similar to Shilly-Shallyer – someone who can’t make up their mind and dithers about.
Microphallus – self-explanatory if you think about it.
Ninnyhammer – a stupid person. Similar to Dummkopf in Geman.
Cacafuego (“shit fire” in Spanish) – a braggart and a boaster.
Strictly time again! Once more the glitter and the sequins, the sharp moves and the even sharper comments. Every year I promise myself not to bother to watch it. Every year I do. My sister is staying with me this week, so we watch the first two programes at either end of the saggy sofa, like big old bookends, with cats in the middle instead of books. Cats love Strictly. They get to enjoy proper long-lasting laps instead of being dislodged at ten minute intervals for coffee-making, washing-up, drying-up, washing-machine-loading, sudden frenzied bouts carpet-sweeping, dirt-box-emptying, curtain-drawing, window-closing, knitting-wool-fetching, back-door-locking and all the other things female humans seem to find to do rather than staying put and being a lap. Unfortunately for the cats, sister goes away for four days tomorrow, so a return to the inadequate single-lap situation.
I only wish my own bouts of ballroom dancing had been anything like Strictly Come Dancing. Strictly is the apotheosis of all that is glamorous and televisually glitzy. My own experiences were more of a…nadir.
I was about fifteen when Lyndsay Barwell instructed me to go with her to Bassett’s School of Ballroom Dancing. Bassett’s wasn’t their real name, and Lyndsay Barwell wasn’t her real name. Since we were classmates she and I must be exactly the same age; I seem to be still alive, except occasionally at half past two in the morning, so maybe she is too, and may not want to be identified. Not that I am going to be nasty about her – in this post, anyway. Lyndsay made her debut in Imaginary Friends (1). Just click on Woolworths. Why Woolworths? All will become clear if you click.
I should also point out that when Lyndsay Barwell dragged me up the narrow, uncarpeted stairs to the dance hall above Burton’s the Tailor it was a very, very long time ago. We had met at her house, at tea time. She had backcombed my hair to look just like hers, parting it on the side, where it didn’t want to go. My hair never wanted to go anywhere apart from straight down, with a wobbly grey-white line in the middle.
Before that there had been the Borrowing of the Blouse. I had scarcely any clothes apart from my school uniform but Mum had a navy blue blouse with little white spots. It was made of some chiffon-substitute material and was therefore suitable for at least the top half an outfit for the Bassett School of Ballroom Dancing. My sister also coveted this blouse and there tended to be an outbreak of warfare-and-wheedling if we both needed to borrow it on the same night or if Mum had been remiss enough to wear it to work that day and put it in the wash. I never did get the bottom half of the outfit, having to make do with a home-made black skirt – home made by me, and therefore with a manky crooked zip and a hem that dipped at the back – and a pair of black school shoes.
If you were a proper dancer – the sort who sported a blonde bouffant with flick-ups, had pale pink nail varnish rather than bitten nails (I had a cousin like that, but she did get fatter later) and attended the silver or gold medal classes on a Saturday morning – you had peach high heels – kind of peach-textured as well as peach-coloured – dancing shoes, useful for nothing else. Dedicated shoes. I can taste those shoes, even now. The gold and silver medallists were supposed to dance with the no-hopers, such as Lyndsay and me, but they much preferred to dance with each other. They would gaze snootily over each other’s shoulders as they sashayed and whizzed around, perfect couples, their hands in that funny kind of edgewise hold, with the little finger lifted, as for tea-drinking from tiny, flowery cups.
But before any dancing could take place there was the rush to the ‘ladies’ to backcomb one’s hair and reapply one’s mascara. That was what we told ourselves we were doing – actually it was fright. Rather than looking around the dancehall, casually taking in the young Dockyard workers lounging around the orange-juice-only bar one side of the rectangle, and the already-backcombed and mascaraed young ladies arrayed in tense clumps on the plastic chairs lining the three other walls, we did a quick rightward shuffle with downcast eyes, and edged our way into the loos, where girls were jammed seven-deep before the low pink-lit mirrors, repairing and preparing their evening selves.
The whole experience was one of mixed terror and excitement. We were caught between a longing to be asked to dance by one of the spotty, slack-jawed young men lounging opposite, and fear in case we were asked, in case their unfamiliar arms should close around us and wrench us, manfully, into the Natural Turn or some kind of spin we hadn’t yet encountered. We longed to dance. We feared looking foolish. We longed for kisses and steamy romance, as portrayed in Jackie magazine, but feared these actual boys with their sprinkled spots, their unpredictable breath, their downward-sliding hands, their appalling chat up lines and even their occasional trembling and throat-clearing which, had we thought about it, would have revealed them to be at least as nervous as we were. We feared falling over, having our toes trodden on, treading on their toes or…sweating.
Horses sweat and men perspire, but ladies only glow.
In accordance with this saying, drummed into us from an early age by our mothers grandmothers, whilst boys were permitted to perspire in moderation, girls could only be seen to emanate the gentlest of glows; before leaving home we had shaved our armpits with father’s rusty razor and rolled on layer after layer of MUM. Had there been horses at the Bassett School of Ballroom Dancing, they would have been allowed to sweat.
One further and even greater humiliation existed – that your partner might walk away in the middle of a dance. This happened to me once, and I still remember the pain. He – whoever he was – I blanked every detail – came over and asked me for jive, but I had only got as far as the waltz and the quickstep in the mid-evening tutorial sessions. Instead of just explaining this I stood up and followed him onto the dance floor. I didn’t yet know how to explain anything, to anyone. I didn’t know how to say a simple no thank you.
I suppose I hoped maybe the steps would come to me, magically, once the music started. They didn’t. He said not a word, but left me standing there, in the middle of what seemed to me at that moment the biggest dance-floor in the world, shocked, disorientated, fenced in by perfectly-dancing pairs. I had to elbow my way through them to get back to the edge of the room and reclaim my plastic chair. And then I had to sit, with the wallflower’s thousand yard stare – not crying at all – no, nowhere near crying – for another couple of hours until Lyndsay Barwell marched me back down the stairs and to the bus stop.
I was mostly not asked to dance in any case, but I did have one, single fan. His name was Lionel and he too worked in the Dockyard. He was much shorter than me. He had putty-coloured straight hair and glasses. He had wandering hands. But he had invented an electronic poodle as part of his Dockyard apprenticeship. At the time, I think, I failed to appreciate the merits of electronic poodles, or even why they should need to be invented, but he was obviously proud of himself. He told me about the electronic poodle every week. I suspect, even though I was twice his height and always wore the same blue spotty blouse he may not have remembered that he had danced with me before. He was quite short-sighted. Or maybe he just didn’t have an alternative conversational strategy.
And so it went on, week after week – pay to get in, dash to the ladies for mascara and back-coming, dash to the seats round the edges, spend much time staring into the middle distance as if you were merely there to observe, occasionally get asked to dance, occasionally get left on the dance floor, regularly get told about electronic poodles, a half-hour tuition session in the middle, a glass or two of Kia Ora, more staring into the middle distance trying not to tap one’s foot to the music, and then…Englebert Humperdinck and the Last Waltz.
This was the bit I almost enjoyed; most people got a partner of some sort for the Last Waltz. And it was always Englebert. They turned off the regular lights and turned on the ultra-violet. Everyone liked this – it added a touch of the exotic. Boys wearing suits would find the dandruff illuminated purply-blue on their shoulders, if they hadn’t remembered to brush it off first. A girl wearing a white skirt or blouse would find that illuminated too, but if she had been foolish enough to wear a white bra, whatever colour top she wore over it, she would find the bra illuminated through the top, much to the boys’ delight. They – we – were easily pleased in those days.
WE WERE fifty-something, Janet and I, and under no illusion. Our figures had migrated southwards and outwards and our morning faces surprised us, as if someone had slipped a Halloween mask over the top of them in the night. Rules are rules, however, and single and fifty-something equals no one to dance with. And so on Tuesday evenings at the Railway Club adjacent to Elmford Junction, we sat, or stood, at the side of the room, watching other people dance. Outside it was always black, and usually tipping it down. Even in here, just below the perfume and perspiration, there was a trace of the cold, dank oiliness of trains.
Proper ballroom dancers have silver shoes, with silver heels of a particular ballroom shape and straps that loop under the foot or up around the ankle. You can buy them on various websites, but they cost money. Neither Janet nor I had money so we waited, in our flat, black office shoes, twitching discreetly to Shania Twain singing ‘That don’ impressa me much.’
We secretly longed to be shimmering, whirling, gliding in and out of the light beneath the Christmas decorations that should have been taken down weeks ago, oh how we did; but we were careful to keep our faces blank, or faintly amused-looking. Nobody must know about this secret lust of ours. At most, if Shania became too much for us, we could practice the steps on our own, mirroring the couples.
‘Back left side close side. Forward right forward left side close side.’
I am short-sighted even with my glasses on, and so it wasn’t until week three that I could be sure that the print on the far wall as one of Joseph’s. Seven years older than me, my brother Joseph is an artist. He was popular in the late seventies and early eighties, especially with steam fans, because many of his pictures are of steam trains.
An old woman in black is walking towards the end of the platform of an otherwise deserted railway platform. She seems to carry with her an aura of coal steam, night mist, and the beginnings of frostfall. She appears to be shawled, or hooded, and as she disappears into the edge of the frame you cannot make out her face. Behind her, almost incidentally, stands a train in green and gold livery, half obscuring the station sign. You can almost hear that metal creature panting to be away, eager for more important places.
Janet and I did at least have Clive for the first couple of weeks. We shared him equally between us. Clive must have been forty-something. He always arrived on his own. He didn’t wear a ring but there clung to him shreds of that hangdog, domesticated aura married men never entirely manage to shake off. We decided the poor devil was divorced.
‘In ballroom, ladies,’ Robbie the Instructor informed us, ‘the gentleman still rules the roost. Your partner can insert a lockstep at any time and if he chooses to insert a lockstep you will do a lockstep.’ It was my turn to have him, so Clive and I laboured around the floor, from the Light End to the Dark End and back again, watching our feet with fierce concentration. Clive was also breathing hard and counting. Though he didn’t seem to have much personality he was a vigorous taker of corners, and each wrenching turn made me feel like a GroBag. I could see myself being dumped in the boot of someone’s car and the hatch slammed down on me.
Clive had another drawback as far as I was concerned, which was that he hadn’t yet mastered the lockstep, and so was unable to exercise his masculine right to insert one. I, on the other hand, had mastered the lockstep in week one and would have loved to show it off.
This week Clive hadn’t turned up at all, and it seemed unlikely that he ever would again, which meant that Janet and I were likely to be wallflowers until Easter. Robbie the Instructor sashayed over to us once or twice to treat us to a twirl, but of course that didn’t count. Robbie wiggled an awful lot, like a professional, in fact. Narrow-hipped, clad all in black, he possessed an enormous set of perfectly white teeth. He loved to dance and he loved his teeth. Unfortunately, after you had been watching him for a while everything else about him seemed to fade. You were left with just those perfect teeth, jiving or waltzing or whatever.
‘Do you think they’re real?’
‘They must be. I mean, you wouldn’t actually set out to construct a set like that.’
‘Perhaps they’re his special Dancing Teeth?’
‘He’ll keep them in a box, tied with a red ribbon, and only bring them out for Tuesdays.’
Through the glass panel door you could see through into the Railway Club bar where silent off-duty railwaymen stared into their beer.
‘Do you think our Clive was a railwayman,’ Janet remarked. ‘I mean, he could have been sitting out there in the bar one evening, wondering about the froth.’
‘Whether it circles anti-clockwise in Australia?’
‘Yes. And then, maybe he glanced up, observed the couples going round and round in here and thought –’
‘That might be more fun than this!’
‘It isn’t, though, is it?’
The music started up again. They had decided to spring a jive on us. And that was when they finally condescended to get up, the couple I’d christened the Birds of Paradise.
They’d been here since the start of the evening but it seemed they felt themselves to be more ornamental than participatory. One, a dirty blonde with a somewhat doughy face, was tapping things into her mobile. Her face was lit by the yellow glow from the screen, and she was having to squint a bit because their table was at the Dark End. Her friend, of a similar basic shape but sleeker, with bigger breasts, was more effectively harnessed, wearing tight black trousers and the right sort of heels; she had silver highlights in her long, mousy hair, and a silver belt looped around her hips. Tacky, it was, but effective.
Neither girl smiled. Suspended in their formal embrace, one looking to the left and one to the right, they waited for the down-beat.
‘Do you think they, you know, are?’ asked Janet. Somehow I didn’t think they, you know, were. Usually you get some sort of atmosphere from lesbian ladies, just as you do from gay men; you might call it a plus-something from the women and a minus something from the men. Rather, they produced in me one of my visions, akin to the GroBag, boot-slamming one, but astonishingly detailed. I saw them together in some front room on Pittleigh Estate, sofas and chairs pushed aside, practising and practising their dance moves on Sunday afternoons.
It would be one of the semis, I thought, a Council house. There would be a CD-player sitting in the crook of a pushed-aside armchair, and the curtains would not have been drawn. Outside, dusk would be blanketing the overflowing wheelie-bins, the dog dirt smeared on the pavement, the fireweed forcing its way up through the cracks in the paving slabs.
The beat at last arrived, and they started to dance. The fat one failed to be elegant; she could hardly have been so, the shape she was, and in her supermarket jeans, but she was fast and accurate. At exactly the right moment her hand reached out to guide the other girl round or twirl her under. She danced without any apparent physical effort, wearing exactly the same expression as she’d been wearing for the yellow texting.
The sleek one, however: you couldn’t look away. She was transformed by the act dancing, translucent, transcendent. With movements sure and sharp, she flamed, she flickered, pointing and un-pointing her feet in their silver shoes. She made scrolls and curlicues with her arms; furling and unfurling her hands; she described a cat’s claw, a peacock’s fan, a cockatoo’s crest. How elegant and avian she was, how fiery and how cold.
These are odd words to use, but I can’t think of any others: she inspired me, somehow. She reminded me of the birds you see in those watercolours by long-extinct artists, faded hoopoes and pelicans, parrots, lyre birds and bower birds: stylised; birds and yet not birds, just as what this pair were doing was ballroom and yet not ballroom.
Around the room, conversations sputtered and died. The perambulating couples faltered, missed steps and quietly collided. At last the music stopped and the Birds of Paradise sat down. The fat one reached for her mobile to recommence her texting, the sleek one tossed her silver highlights over her shoulders and perched on the edge of her chair, straight-backed, like an automaton deactivated.
Janet had felt it too. ‘I wanted to applaud,’ she sighed.
A brief silence hung between us as we separately considered, and rejected, the obvious solution to our problem. For the Birds of Paradise it had been a triumph but for Janet and me it would have been embarrassing, no more than sad.
Janet was my best friend and yet I could not have begun to tell her how I was grieving, having seen that display. Something had sprung to life in me as I watched those girls, and whatever that was, it was dying now.
Maybe it was hope. Maybe it was the dream everyone whips up for themselves when they are young, that great, glorious, wedding cake of a future they are going to have. Then the bits with the cream in get eaten by other people; one or two bits at the edges get knocked off and other bits go mouldy. In the end there’s nothing left on your plate but marzipan crumbs and a currant or two. I was never going to point my toes in silver shoes or furl and unfurl my fingernails, just so. I had missed my moment to sashay and shimmer, drawing all eyes to myself.
Joseph has never particularly rated that painting, though in fact it was one of his best, which was of course why it was turned into prints and continues to sell well even now. And he never would tell me who the old woman was on the platform, what exactly she meant. He has probably long since forgotten the actual painting of that painting. I suspect the mysterious old woman was just a happy accident, a stray blob of paint he sort of decided to turn into something. Joseph is such a practical man; never an Artist with a capital A, and never much into symbolism. He told me once that painting is as much a craft as an art.
I visited him only yesterday at the Florence Nightingale. So very, very clean it all was; all that laundered whiteness, all those tubes. Poor Joseph. In his dying I suspect he is pining for the last of the steam trains, for the grease and grime and chaos he sketched during every spare moment of his youth, and which he spent the remainder of his years translating into oils. How he must despise this interminable process of fading away in the Florence, an alien fallen to earth, a tattered old misogynist going Un-gently Into That Good Night.
In the briefest of pauses between Shania Twain and Englebert Humperdinck I imagined I heard across all those accidental, random, messed up, squandered and totally meaningless years of Joseph’s, Janet’s and mine, the high, weird voice of Joni Mitchell singing that song about Richard; Richard, who had once been a dreamer:
‘Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings and fly away.’
Maybe after all there would be some kind of a rising. If only that could be so. Then we might have them, all of us.
Our gorgeous wings.
‘You don’t have to finish it,’ said Anthony Adams. ‘Nobody’s holding a gun to your head.’
But I did, and had several more. The pub shimmered and glittered around us; people came and went, perching on stools, sliding off again, feeding coins into the square-in-the-wall jukebox, chattering. The Angel was a faded sort of place, with green flock wallpaper, torn leatherette benches and ceilings turned sepia by years of cigarette smoke. I liked it there.
There seemed no great hurry to get down to business. Anthony Adams was easy company, said little. Every so often he took out a little black book and pencilled in a name, or flipped back the pages, turned the pencil round and rubbed a name out. It had a title in gold lettering in some foreign script. I squinted sideways. Beautiful handwriting. Copperplate, maybe. Some of the names were ringed in black, and some had a kind of halo round them. Trick of the light, I thought.
‘Anthony Adams isn’t your real name, is it?’ I threw this in, conversationally.
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Alliteration. Too much alliteration, and too plain. Geoff Green, Peter Porter – same thing. You made that story up, didn’t you?’
‘Some of it. The bit about the wife and kids and the newspaper in the bath I did.’
‘And the bath-towel.’
‘That too,’ he agreed. “Can I get you another of those slimy yellow things?”
‘Snowball? Yes.’ It occurred to me that he might poison it on the way back, but no, I hadn’t given him the money yet. Tradesmen don’t work for nothing, and payment in advance would be essential for a job like this. He’d be getting cash in hand, of course. I wondered whether he would declare it to the taxman, and if so exactly what he would declare.
I hadn’t felt tipsy up to now, but this time the drink worked and I began to feel blurred and reckless, almost sexy. It made it possible for me to say what I had to say.
‘I want you to kill me, Anthony Adams: when I’m not expecting it but preferably this year.’
He sighed. ‘Yes.’
‘Yes, you will or – ?’
‘Yes, I know. You think I’m a contract killer and you have a thousand pounds in your handbag for me.’
He sounded more sad than I had ever heard anyone sound before. I looked him full in the face for the first time that evening and saw that he was deathly pale.
‘Are you feeling poorly again?’
‘Sick to death, my dear.’
I put my arms around him then, and he put his around me, right there in the pub. We were both out of practice at holding, all elbows, bumped noses and awkward pats on the back. His cheek against mine felt wet. Wet and rough. He smelt of soap and incense.
‘What is your real name?’ I asked as we separated. I wondered if my mascara had run. He told me his name was Azrael.
‘Azrael what?’ It sounded vaguely familiar.
‘Just Azrael. That’s the Arabic version of it. I’m also known as Izra’il, Rahab, Suriel, Mairya. I have many names in many different cultures, but basically I’m the Angel of Death.’
Somehow this worried me less than the idea that he might be a drink-drugger, bag-snatcher or serial rapist.
He told me a lot of things that night. What his job involved. It all sounded a bit archaic. When a soul’s time was up, he said, a leaf fell from a tree at the foot of the throne of God – a metaphorical leaf and a metaphorical tree of course. And then he, Azrael, had forty days in which to sever that person’s soul from his or her body and accompany it to heaven. Or the other place.
‘So there is another place?’
‘Yes. I can show you both places if you like, and me as I really am. I mean, obviously I have to appear in some sort of disguise. I make myself look expected, ordinary.’
I suppose it was some kind of vision. I was still there, in the Angel public house, but before me also in my mind’s eye, this scene. A gigantic creature, black-winged and fiery, a gothic version of the feathery, rosebud-mouthed angels you used to see in those little stick-on texts they used to hand out in Sunday School. It was standing on a bridge between two lands. One land, as far as I could make out, was all sunshine, green meadows and snow-capped mountains, and full of music. The other was very dark, more like Milton Keynes in November only stretching away into the distance for ever and ever. I knew that place. It was where I had been in my head ever since my babies died.
‘So my leaf has fallen?’ I asked, as the vision faded and the bell for ‘time’ and the sound of glasses being loaded into a dishwasher faded in.
‘Well no, actually, it’s still attached. Metaphorically. You see, I also come to those who long for me. And you were longing for me, weren’t you Dorothy?’
I shivered. How long since anyone had called me that? The girls at the shop where I worked invariably called me ‘Mrs Hodge’.
‘So many deaths,’ he said. ‘Oh Dorothy, I long for there to be no more deaths, for rest and sleep. I’m sick of the expressions on people’s faces. The fear, the shock, the pious acceptance, the – whatever. But Azrael will be the last to die. At the Second Trump. Judgment Day and all that.’
‘This dress is killing me,’ I said. ‘It’s far too tight and my stomach hurts from holding it in.’
‘Your place?’ he said.
And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed, waiting for morning. And how we came to be here, in Skegness, walking hand in hand along the front like an old married couple, thanks to my thousand pounds and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of angel dust. An unexpected break, or a permanent escape? Who knew? I knew I would never go back to the shoe shop and, temporarily at least, people had stopped dying; all over the world, in car crashes, hospitals and natural disasters. Sooner or later, of course, somebody would notice. I didn’t want to die right this minute. Somehow, knowing that I could, and that my dear Azrael would come to me whenever I longed for him, it no longer seemed so urgent.
We were looking out to sea one evening, leaning on the rail, as the sun drowned quietly and spectacularly in the drink. I imagined mermaids, fishes, the hissing and bubbling of the water as the sun slid into and under it. I suddenly remembered having been here before. In the early fifties, it must have been, with Mum and Dad and the dogs. Mum was happier then. She held the dogs on a lead, and Dad held my hand. A tall, dark man in a crumpled demob suit. I can’t make out his face against the sun, but I’ll be seeing him soon enough. And my precious babies.
I just had to get that phrase in, for Muriel.
My story, the one in which, to Muriel’s dismay, a lady gets laid by an Archangel – was written earlier this year. I happened to catch the repeat of one of the initial End of Story programmes on BBC2. Eight well-known authors, Ian Rankin, Sue Townsend, Fay Weldon, Marian Keyes, Joanna Harris, Shaun Hutson, Ed McBain and Alexei Sayle, had each contributed the first half of a short story. Amateur writers were being asked to get hold of a copy of the little orange and white EOS book – a kind of treasure hunt – or download the half-stories from the website, select one and send in an ending for it.
I must admit I didn’t read the small print, either on the website or in the orange and white book. Had I done so I might not have spent that warm Saturday afternoon out on my weedy little patio, scribbling, a mug of cooling tea beside me on the roof of the cat-kennel, my A4 paper and my pot of pencils (it’s a writer thing – buying pencils, and then more pencils, and then the pencils not being quite the right pencils because somehow they’re not new enough or sharp enough pencils – or maybe it’s just my private little fetish!) I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for. I couldn’t resist. A half-finished story is an abomination, like a cut without a plaster or a half-eaten bar of chocolate.
I decided on the Sue Townsend story, The Angel, in which a rather sad shoe-shop manageress – in Sue’s story she doesn’t have a name, but I call her Dorothy – decides she’d rather not live to be sixty. It’s her fifty-ninth birthday and nobody knows or cares; she’s grey and fat, her husband has long since deserted her, her pension has been stolen by Robert Maxwell. That sort of stuff.
A man comes into her shop just before closing time and tries on a pair of shoes. He seems unwell; she only wants to get rid of him. But in the course of their conversation he mentions a contract killing he has witnessed, and how much such an execution would be likely to cost, for an unimportant person, in the provinces. Dorothy realises that she has the price of her own death. Not exactly a joyous beginning, but the only one I felt I could do something with.
There is a pub called The Angel in Sue’s part of the story but I decided that, rather than go for the obvious, the angel would in fact be the poor chap who bought the brogues from our heroine. Not a contract killer as she initially assumes, but Azrael, the Angel of Death, whom she has unwittingly summoned. After all, once an Archangel gets into the mix, the sky’s the limit!
If the above sounds ridiculous to you now, you should try explaining it to the unblinking eye of a TV camera, and then repeating it, take after take. By the seventh or eighth repetition it sounds like gibberish. Add to that the fact that the TV camera and other equipment is crammed into your tiny ‘galley-style’ kitchen, and crouched behind the camera are the lady director and a cameraman, their bottoms squashed against the gas cooker, instructing you to ‘include the question in your answer’ and ‘talk to the hand’ (yes, people really do say that). They dragged a blue potted hydrangea through the house to the front, where it was to lend a sort of country house air to my bijou mid-terrace. When they had gone I dragged it back again, hoovered up the trail of dirt and leaves and spent some time dismantling elaborate spirals of well-thumbed intellectual-looking paperbacks and returning them to the bookcase.
(I’m afraid that last bit was me – I just thought it’d look a bit more, you know, J K Rowling.)
I thought that was it, but no. Some weeks later I was whisked up to London in what seemed to me like a chauffeur-driven limousine – but then I can’t tell a Mini from a Mercedes. We, the six finalists, were about to be made up for the first time. As the afternoon progressed I became increasingly sweaty and beige as layer after layer of the stuff was trowelled on. My hair, so carefully tied up and smoothed, began to fall down. I looked like a bird’s nest – twigs all over the place.
The film crew were being mysterious about what was going to happen next. We tried nobbling a nice young research assistant. ‘Can’t say,’ she said, ‘more than my job’s worth.’ Eventually we were driven across London to a film studio. I imagined Hollywood, or at any rate Pebble Mill, but the studio turned out to be on an industrial estate. You might have mistaken it for a carpet warehouse, or something to do with plumbing. Inside it was black, all black. We marched in, single file, with numbers One to Six pinned to our chests. Of course I had to be number One, so whatever was going to happen would happen to me first.
The mystery was soon solved. We found ourselves being filmed, sitting in a semi-circle, in the dark, watching a film of the judges – a panel of celebrities. I regret to say that the only celebrity I actually recognised was Muriel Gray, who used to be a presenter on The Tube back in the eighties. They discussed our stories, one at a time. Mine first.
The camera people seemed to be doing close-ups on our faces. I was determined not to cry, whatever the judges said, and I didn’t. But they were so horrible – not just about my precious story but about everyone else’s in turn. And they laughed, they mocked, they crowed – or that’s how it seemed at the time. They were just so enjoying pulling our poor little efforts to pieces.
Of course, in the overall scheme of things it wasn’t important. ‘Only a game show.’ Constructive criticism, as they kept reminding us, is part of a professional author’s life. My reactions were strange, though. As the lights went up I seemed to have regressed. I was nine, or ten. I never asked to be a professional writer; I just finished a stupid story off one sunny afternoon. Why are they picking on me?
They seemed to keep harping on about one particular sentence. A fifty-nine year old woman, they said, would definitely not have said, as my heroine did:
‘And that’s how it happened, in a roundabout way, that I got laid by an Archangel, his new black brogues under the bed.’
This one sentence was to haunt me through the rest of the filming. It was pontificated on by the panel of experts in London (oh yes, there was even more excruciating stuff to come) and even disapproved of by Sue Townsend when we went to Leicester to meet her. Sue was nice; very funny and helpful in spite of not liking – well, you know.
I argued for ‘get laid by an Archangel’ all the way through. I became obsessed, paranoid even. I liked that phrase. Was I going to reach a point soon when I could no longer think, or write, ‘laid by’? Was I going to become all homemade-scones-and-knitting-patterns?
But I capitulated in the end. Ground down, defeated and afraid of being seen on national TV as an arrogant spoilsport, unable to accept the constructive criticism that all professional writers must expect, etc, I finally conceded to Sue that ‘laid by’ had to be wrong, if so many people thought so. As it happened, I needn’t have worn myself out in defence of middle-aged ladies, gutter slang, archangels, Alice Cooper or whatever it was that I was wittering on about, because the whole lot disappeared in the edit.
I didn’t win. Fortunately there wasn’t a second and third place. ‘You’re all winners,’ they said, ‘for having got this far out of over 17,000 entries.’ Rubbish. I can tell you that not winning still feels exactly like losing, even if you are one of 6 in 17,000.
A few days BBC Scotland very kindly sent me a Writers & Artists Yearbook 2005 together with a copy of the original reader’s report by a lady called Paula Johnson – the report that got me onto the shortlist in the first place. And Paula Johnson – the lovely Paula Johnson – actually approved of ‘laid by an archangel’. She even quoted it to illustrate the fact that my heroine’s voice is ‘well established throughout’.
So yah-boo-sucks to you, Muriel Gray.
[An abridgement of an article about the writing of The Angel and what it was like to be a TV finalist, first published in the January/February 2005 issue of New Books Magazine. Competition entrants were asked to finish a story, the first half of which had been written by a famous author. I had chosen to write an ending to a first-half provided by the late Sue Townsend, of ‘Adrian Mole’ fame.
Only recently did I realise that, with a couple of minor adjustments, my half-story was in fact a short story in its own right. If you desperately want to read it, it’s called The Angel and it’s here. I might write it differently now, and it might be better. Then again, I probably wouldn’t, and it might not.]
The old inability-to-write-when-others-are-around problem has kicked in. My sister has been staying with me since Sunday, and I was feeling quite pleased with myself for having managed two brief posts since then. But now writer’s block is setting in, dully, vengefully, that dreary constipation of the soul. Why is it when the other person is downstairs, making a fuss of the cats and watching a repeat of Saints and Scroungers on TV whilst contemplating making a packet-mix lemon sponge, which would mean making a second trip to the village shop for eggs since there are inexplicably none in the fridge, that I still can’t write? Even shut away upstairs at my computer?
Yesterday, S and I drove to the town where I used to work. Whilst S was off exploring the shops I snuck back to the car clutching an illicit bar of chocolate, a new giant writing pad and a special tin of new pencils. These pencils are called Shadow Play. They are grey with black tips, and are really intended for sketching. There are six of them and they go from B up to 6B. I love B pencils, even 6B which are virtually pure smudge. Normally new pencils or new paper of any kind will magically set me writing.
But not this time.
So I sat in the car park, chocolate gobbled and the messy wrapper melting on the passenger seat shortly to be occupied by S; noting how the quality of sunlight changed as the day wore on; observing the frenzied activity on the Ring Road: school-kids flouncing home along the pavements; a starved-looking silver birch tree opposite, the breeze just starting to rattle it’s leaves – a sign of rain to come; a single sparrow diving into this single tree on some kind of kamikaze mission. Winding down the driver’s side window, I listened to the now-unfamiliar sound of rush-hour traffic and human voices. Hot air rushed out from inside, and back in from outside. Low-level, late-afternoon sun burned my right arm where the sleeve was rolled up.
In desperation I tried free-writing. I never normally need to resort to this amateurish writers’ group trick – it’s more a case of keeping a grip on all the bizarre the ideas churning around inside my head for long enough to get some of them down on paper, by which time sentences positively gush forth, often fully formed.
Not this time.
Failing that, new pencils or, if no new pencils, newly-sharpened pencils.
Not this time.
And then it occurred to me that these Shadow Play were the wrong new pencils. They needed to be those moss green ones, with the texture of crocodile skin. Artist’s pencils. German, most probably. German pencils are always of perfect quality, and inspiring, whereas Chinese pencils are always broken, randomly, all the way through, as if dropped from a great height. There is no point in even picking up a Chinese pencil. And never bother trying to write with a pencil with one of those silly eraser things on the end. The very presence of an eraser is enough to defeat the muse.
Fifteen minutes before I was due to meet sister outside the Post Office. Just time to detour to WH Smiths, to look for green, crocodile-textured, German, artist’s pencils.
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