In celebration of reaching my 50th follower yesterday, I’ve decided to post the full first chapter of my novel for your Friday reading pleasure! It makes this a long, but hopefully entertaining, post. You’ll find it after my next Oscars-style paragraph…
Now, 50 followers may not seem that many to some, but for me it’s a landmark. When I started this little blogging endeavour I genuinely didn’t expect even one person to actually read it. So my chest puffs out with near-Olympian pride at the achievement. And, most importantly, with gratitude to each and every wonderful interweb denizen who’s hit that little ‘follow’ button. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!
And now for the terrifying bit. The Prologue and Chapter 1 – I hope you enjoy and please feel free to leave comments and feedback.
(I managed not to weep there, so that’s good eh?)
Edward Stretton somehow knew that neither he, nor anyone else, would ever see his wife again.
He replaced the bottle-green handset in its cradle and ran his hand once again over the empty space on the sideboard. A hazy rectangle of dark walnut stood out feather-edged against the sun-lightened surface surrounding it, the only indication of what no longer stood there. A light residue of polish coated his fingertips as they stroked rhythmically back and forth across the absence, as if he were stroking the hair of a child recently woken from a nightmare. He paused and inspected the powdery coating for a second, his mind a thousand miles away, before wiping it on the sleeve of his suit jacket and picking up the receiver once more.
With a slender forefinger, he turned the clear plastic dial until it stopped against the metal fingerpiece, then listened to the clicking as it ratcheted back to its starting position. Repeating the exercise, he dialled a further two digits, then abruptly changed his mind. The receiver rattled back down in the cradle once more. For a full minute he stood motionless, save for the renewed to-and-fro sweep of his hand across the dark patch on the gleaming surface.
The first call had come shortly after three-thirty that afternoon. A single square of light illuminated in the two thin rows of buttons adorning the black plastic console in front of him on the desk. Settling back into the padded leather of the chair, his back to the windows facing out over the rumble and bustle of Piccadilly Circus, he had answered in his customary jocular manner, prepared to field what would undoubtedly reveal itself be yet another pitch from yet another ambitious young advertising executive starting out on the path to his future. The same overly-familiar tone of address, the same routine patter honed over innumerable previous pitches, the same keenness to succeed that they all shared; despite the frequency with which Edward received such calls, he couldn’t help but admire these youngsters. They reminded him, inevitably, of a younger version of himself. Lifting the receiver, he smiled a smile which coalesced gradually into a thin hard line as he listened to the sombre inflections of the voice at the other end of the crackling line. The russet touch of a fortnight recently spent constructing sandcastles on the South Coast leached from his face as the voice delivered its unexpected and unwelcome message. At the conclusion of the call barely five minutes later, he snatched his coat and hat from behind the door and walked briskly from the office and out through the vestibule without a word. Emerging into the low golden light of a late autumn afternoon, the air heavy with exhaust fumes from the snarling traffic, his composure finally gave and he broke into a run toward the nearest tube station.
Now, two hours later, beside another telephone, still without answers and no closer to any form of explanation, he gradually let his fingers come to rest in the space where, for the past eleven years, a wedding photograph had stood. With the sombre inevitability of a condemned man approaching the gallows, he turned from the aborted phone call to face the living room. From the far corner, an over-sized television in a matching walnut cabinet flickered mute images, the volume knob turned down to zero. On the screen, a small bear in a blue duffel-coat clambered with difficulty into the back of a taxi with his newly-found cardboard cut-out family, en-route to a life of benignly catastrophic adventures. He watched in silence for several seconds, his glazed eyes registering little beyond the jerky movements as the bear manhandled a battered suitcase into the back seat.
Some unanticipated neural connection snapped him from his stupor and, with a renewed sense of purpose, he strode across the living room and yanked open the door to the hallway. Kettle drum footfalls resounded up the stairs two at a time, reverberating through the wafer-thin walls and filling the house with distant thunder. In seven strides he reached the landing, his heart pounding with exertion and foreboding. He crossed the bedroom at a jog and threw back the sliding door to the wardrobe. Casters rattled in their warped metal runners and the door hit the end-board with enough force to dislodge it from its fixings.
The empty hangers retained the ghosts of the clothes so recently removed from them. His face fell as hope dissipated, a numb fear seeping in to fill the vacuum it left in its wake. More absences which served to make the former presence all the more apparent. He rushed to the dresser and pulled open drawer after drawer with trembling hands. They revealed only further emptiness. Even the books were gone, dark spaces in-between his own books still standing on the shelves showing where their spines had been. Futility drained the sudden injection of energy from Edward’s body and he sank down heavily on the bed. He surveyed the forlorn scene once more, then hauled himself with unbearable weariness to his feet and trudged from the bedroom. Crossing the threshold, one hand absently brushed the space on the back of the door where a dressing gown should have hung.
He passed through the silent living room, head bowed, eyes fixed to the pattern of amber and green swirls on the carpet. Linoleum tiles took the place of shag pile. A clatter echoed in the silence as he retrieved a still-damp tumbler from amongst the crockery stacked in a haphazard pile on the draining board beside the sink. In a cupboard beside the gas cooker he found a bottle of cheap brandy; cooking quality but it would do. He half-filled the tumbler, pulled one of four ladder-backed chairs from around the family-sized kitchen table and lowered himself down onto it, palms pressed against the tabletop for support. Draining half the tumbler in one draught, he laid his head on his arms and, for the first time in many years, wept. His shoulders convulsed spastically as sobs sputtered out of him; hot salty tears made tracks through the dark hair of his forearms and pooled on the scratched tabletop.
From the cushioned depths of a velour armchair opposite the television an eight-year-old girl clutched a stuffed rabbit to her face, pale green eyes peering from between the comfort of its ears as she watched her father through the open doorway. The rabbit’s head grew damp as her own tears soaked into its synthetic fur in time with her father’s laments.
Why am I writing this? An excellent question. Maybe to try and make sense of the events of the past few months by putting them in some kind of order. Maybe to diminish the fear and confusion by sharing them with someone else. Or maybe just to convince myself that there is still a real, mundane world out there somewhere, by picturing you, my friends, sitting with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine on a comforting sofa, calmly and rationally reading this account. By the way, I hope you’ll allow me the indulgence of calling you friends. Because, right at the moment, I need all the friends I can get.
Another question: Where did this start? How did this start? OK, two questions. Before we’re through, there will be a whole lot more, believe me. This is probably where I should opt for the classic opening territory of “Once upon a time…” or “In a land far far way…” If only both of those were true, then my situation would be a lot easier to deal with. Knowing how it all ends would also put me far more at ease. But it isn’t once upon a time, it’s not far away and it certainly hasn’t ended yet. So I’ll go back to where it did begin and ask you to stick with me through this. Welcome. It’s going to be one hell of a ride.
It started in earnest on the morning that I saw myself on the Underground.
Sitting on the Tube, my whole body vibrating queasily from that vaguely-buzzing feeling brought on by a combination of lack of sleep and a drink-thick head, I felt myself starting to drift. A not wholly unpleasant sensation, allowing me to tune out the incessant screech of the wheels against the tracks and inure myself to the sharply-invasive floral scent wafting off the woman to my right. A jolt of the train on a bend brought me brutally back to the carriage and straight into a nauseatingly claustrophobic bout of déjà-vu. Sure enough, I’d been on the same journey many times – every working day for four years, to be exact – but this time everything felt different by virtue of being exactly the same.
Every word, every phrase, every nod of the head or tut of disapproval had played themselves out before, in this exact same carriage, in this exact same seat. Complaints about colleagues and workloads, tales of distant relatives and their ailments, inane chatter about the minutiae of daily life all spooled through the compact space of the train, exact replicas of their previous selves. Most unsettling was that I had no sense of how long this would last, at what point the conversations would cease to be echoes of themselves, or indeed, if the experience were destined to carry on endlessly and the rest of my life be one long repeat. Attempting to shake off the disorientating sensation, I blinked rapidly a couple of times, snapped my head up sharply and turned to look down the carriage. Where, with a chilling flash of recognition, I saw myself.
From my seat at one end of the crowded carriage, as the throng of bodies swayed, parted, then re-formed, I clearly saw myself sitting halfway along the train, immersed in a paperback. I was wearing a different jacket, olive-green corduroy, somewhat faded, of a style I knew I had never owned. My hair was longer and fashionably unkempt, artfully sculpted into casual untidiness through the studied application of some kind of gel or wax. The jeans were black, rather than my customary, standard-issue, blending-in blue. But it was undoubtedly, categorically me. The same rectangular face, the same square chin, the same crook in the long thin nose imparted by an errant tackle in a schoolboy rugby match. He turned the pages carfeully with slender fingers; piano-player’s fingers as my grandmother used to call them.
Déjà-vu had never felt like this. I squinted through the gaps between the other occupants of the carriage at the not-quite mirror-image for a few seconds longer, and then shut my eyes, feeling the hangover buzz humming like a nest of hornets inside my skull, until reality began to re-assert its presence. The train slowed, the sideways pressure of applied brakes leaving my head and stomach a couple of seats to my left. As the doors hissed open and a tinny smell of hydraulics filled the carriage, I opened my eyes and ventured a swift leftward glance. My alter-ego was no longer in the seat. I was about to put the apparition down to the effects of the previous evening and resolve to get an early night when a voice I knew all too well rang out loudly from further down the carriage. “Excuse me! Mind your backs.” At the sound of my own voice, my spine froze again and I looked up to see him pushing through the crowd at the door, hand in hand with a woman whose dark hair curled softly to her shoulders. They elbowed their way through and stepped to the platform moments before the doors hissed shut. As the train began to pull away I jumped from my seat and craned to get a view through the grimy windows. I saw no-one but an elderly Romany woman in a grubby headscarf pushing a pram filled with carrier bags. The train accelerated and all was lost to the cavernous pitch-black maw of the tunnel.
For a long while I thought that was the moment when the subsequent chain of events had been set in motion. Knowing what I know now, I believe the true genesis was 36 hours earlier on that dismal Monday evening.
Rain. We’re British, we’re used to it, but this was something different. As I sat down in front of the PC that March Monday evening, the sound of the rain drumming against the window like thousands of small stubby fingers was so commonplace it had become background music. Persistently present, but only registering vaguely in the back of my mind, fading against the sound of the CD player, the radiators bubbling and the overriding whirring of the fan on the laptop. That had become an increasing annoyance in recent weeks; I guessed it needed cleaning or hoovering or whatever the tech geeks at the local computer superstore did to these things. If the rain ever stopped and I could find the time, I’d take it in and get it checked. But for now it was almost a welcome distraction from the sound of the rain.
For several days now, the deluge had neither stopped nor relented. This wasn’t the steady drizzle that so often marks the English spring, nor even the unexpected, torrential downpours of summer, where a cooling afternoon breeze violently and without warning brings with it raindrops so hard and large that they bounce from the pavements, drenching everything and everyone both from above and below and making you feel as though your skin is litmus paper. Then only to cease as abruptly as it began, giving way to a fresh cloudless sky, bringing an overwhelming scent of flowers, cut grass, new beginnings and that unique wet-dog smell of a rain-washed London street. None of that. This was rain of biblical proportions. Leaden skies leaking no light and only the unwavering, unvarying pattern of fat, grey drops following one another in their seemingly endless task of slickening pavements, driving the sensible scurrying under cover and imbuing the world with an air of utter desertion. Post-apocalyptic rain. Pre-apocalyptic in my case.
Bored and listless, I toyed with the idea of brushing off the battle-scarred cherry red Les Paul copy that sat gathering dust next to the stereo. I had bought it seventh-hand in a guitar shop off Wardour Street many years before with the proceeds from the first three student union gigs I had played with a motley bunch of friends in the guise of The Scoundrels. The first and last public performances The Scoundrels would ever subject the world to as it transpired. Our particular – some might say unique – brand of under-rehearsed, if energetic, punk covers had, to our amazement, failed to set the music world alight and we had disbanded amidst the pressures of final exams and terminal lack of talent.
I decided it was too late to amp up without annoying the neighbours and turned my attention instead to the PC. The comeback could wait for another decade.
With a sigh of resignation, I pulled the laptop closer and clicked the icon that would connect me to the big wide worldwide web. Alongside the incessant rain, this had also become something of a pattern in recent weeks. Countless lost evenings spent staring at the sickly blue glow of the screen, absenting myself from the mundanity of empty routine in anticipation of… what exactly? Now don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a sad loner, a gaming fanatic, chatroom addict or any of the other clichéd personas that image may imply. I had friends – real rather than virtual – and a social life, albeit lacking in lustre at that particular time. I also had a girlfriend of relatively long standing and irregular hours, working as she did, shifts involving far too many nights to really be conducive to a regular relationship. Some people can live with that, others find it difficult and I was one of the latter. The relationship wasn’t exactly on the rocks but, from my perspective at least, the lighthouse was in sight.
Sam and I had met two years previously, a chance and not-altogether sober encounter at a house-warming in West London. She was a friend of my former housemate and one-time crush Charlotte from way back; they had gone to school together and, during their teenage years, had been comrades-in-arms in the obligatory rabble-rousing that is a rite of passage for kids from provincial towns the length and breadth of the country. Wearing their skirts too short over army boots, toying with self-piercings and smoking on the steps of the market cross. The piercing incident had left Charlotte with a raggedly healed-up hole in her left nostril and the smoking had left Sam with the occasional craving for a social cigarette. Sam had moved down to London to study medicine and Charlotte had followed not long after, getting a job rather than subject herself to the eternal trammels of a student loan. It was when she first landed in London that Charlotte and I had, for 6 months, shared a shabby flat with two other young would-be urban professionals. One was now a trainee barrister and the other, by all accounts, a crack dealer.
The first time I saw Sam, she was leaning against the fridge in Charlotte’s shabby-chic new flat, a bottle of lager in one hand and a Twiglet in the other. The first thing I noticed was that she was wearing heels and still only reached to the shoulder of the man she was talking to. Or more accurately, the man who was talking at her, if the look on her face was any indication. Clearly he was the type who doesn’t have the cut-off switch that detects when their victim has glazed over. I feared for his eyes if Sam took it upon herself to wield the twiglet in anger. The second thing I noticed was the blaze of copper ringlets framing her face, setting the blue of her eyes into stark contrast. That contrast as much as anything spurred me into action. Ever gallant, I strode over on the pretext of getting a beer from the fridge, to rescue her from the verbal onslaught. Now, two years later, I felt I may be on the verge of striding away again.
With a girlfriend who was invariably either at work, at the stables, or asleep during the week, my flat, colourless nights from Monday to Friday revolved mostly around keeping warm, trying to switch off from whichever latest insanity had been going on in the job which paid the heating bills and cooking something easy, lazy but healthy. I prided myself on being able to cook reasonably well, especially by the standards of a man living on his own, but was terminally unconcerned by food. Food was fuel. On social evenings I could admittedly whip up a storm in the kitchen when I put my mind to it, with recipes hard-learned from cookery books and repetition. But when it was just me and the cats, I simply couldn’t find the motivation. I did at least ensure that it was a balanced and nutritious lazy diet; no deep-fat fryers or microwaved burgers here; no late-night feasts of grilled Mars Bar on toast.
Over that long drab winter, into this little vignette of domestic lethargy was added the burgeoning social networking scene. That’s where I first found Kate. Or rather, was found by her. Many times in the intervening weeks and months I’ve asked myself how it happened, how something so random and unlikely could come about. And how I could have failed to see that if Providence delivers exactly what you’ve been searching for straight into your lap, she may have an ulterior motive. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself and introspecting. You need to hear this from the very beginning for it to make any kind of sense; but hold that thought, we’ll be coming back to it.
What was I looking for? Another good question. You’ll have noticed by now that there are a lot of questions which I was presumably asking myself at the time, but to which I didn’t really want to know the answers. Why else would I have left them half-asked and completely unanswered? So much easier just to let it all ride and see where the flow takes you, rather than asking what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and where you think it’s leading. If you do that, there’s a chance you may have to stop and, looking back, I didn’t want to stop. Even if I didn’t have any idea what I was starting.
So, what was I looking for? Diversion. That’s it in a word. I was bored, dissatisfied, sometimes lonely and desperately in need of… something. I couldn’t have put it any more succinctly than that. I did think about it often and asked myself why I spent so many hours in front of a screen playing games with and randomly nudging people I’d either had no contact with for years or saw almost every day. Or, more often than not, friends of friends or absolute strangers. I asked myself, but never followed through to an answer that would have meant admitting more to myself than I was prepared to. Diversion. Anything to make it feel that there were untold possibilities waiting out there somewhere; a world more exciting than the one I was mentally escaping from every evening.
The login screen fired up and I punched in my credentials. After a short hiatus the all-important home page appeared. This was where I could keep track of what my “buddies” were up to and let the world know what fascinating things had been going on in my life or my head since my last login. On that particular evening, I learned that Chinese Dave had arrived home in Beijing from a sightseeing tour of some outlying provinces and a chap we’d both worked with years before, who after a snap change of career had become an oceanographer, was on a boat in the middle of a typhoon. Mobile technology still amazes me, all these years after it has become second nature. The fact that someone can be in peril on the high seas in some far-flung corner of the world, yet still able to slap a quick update on the Internet to let the folks back home know that they’re potentially about to drown – and top it all off with an ironic and frankly irritating smiley – makes my head spin. I’m still trying to get to grips with how TV works, to be honest.
These exotic snapshots always made me feel that life was passing me by at the speed of a man with his hair on fire. But then followed the more mundane examples which made you realise that maybe your life wasn’t so uncommonly dull after all. Someone from the office apparently had a hangover, which explained the foul mood they’d been in all day. A former girlfriend had declared all men to be pointless wastes of oxygen, which I self-centredly – and with a touch of perverse masculine pride – took to include myself, even though we hadn’t seen each other for several years. And a friend’s brother, who had recently developed a neat line in adapting song lyrics to update the waiting masses, was apparently feeling like “a rat in a cage”.
If there is anyone still un-acquainted with the now-ubiquitous social networks – which can surely only apply to hermits and high court judges – they were designed expressly to stay in touch with people you knew, or had known in a previous life, without the awkwardness of short telephone conversations filled with long pauses. Without having to enter into the tedious detail of how glittering your career was, how beautiful your partner, or how Tristan and Euphemia were excelling at school. These so-called ‘buddies’ – a hideous term, betraying the transatlantic roots of the phenomenon, but one we had all long-since come to accept as a cultural norm – were, in many cases, complete strangers you’d encountered online through taking part in some time-passing strategy game or surreal application in which users were bought and sold like exhibits in a museum. It was a form of voyeurism offering the frisson of potentially encountering fascinating new souls, underpinned by the safety net of never having to meet them in person or even know them by anything other than their chosen username, if they so wished. It was acquaintance at a distance, much like finally smiling at the attractive waitress just as you’re leaving the restaurant, so there’s no harm done if she responds with a disgusted scowl.
I scanned the activity since my last immersion 24 hours ago, anticipating the usual smattering of requests to connect with people I’d spoken to once or twice in my life and maybe a contact from a relative stranger who had once tormented and bullied his peers at school and was now seeking absolution via the new divinity of the Internet. The notification panel blinking urgently at the right of the screen drew my eye. Highlighted in pale blue, it showcased the latest updates from those who’d been online whilst I was holding down a job and generally having what passed nominally for a real life.
Sitting there waiting was the announcement:
MagicRabbit has nudged you
‘Nudging’ was a way of saying hi to someone when there was nothing much else to say. I had close friends in distant places who I didn’t feel like calling at 11:30pm but nevertheless wanted them to know that, across the miles, I was thinking of them, wondering what they were up to. So you’d give a quick nudge, in the same matey way that, during a drunken night at the pub, you might grin inanely at your best friend with a look encompassing long years of shared experience, mischievous behaviour and companionable silences. A look wordlessly recalling the camaraderie of weddings attended, rugby matches watched on freezing February afternoons and extended lunches in pubs with log fires and piles of Sunday supplements. Inevitably, it was also a means of introducing yourself to someone who’d caught your eye as a friend of a friend in this twilight online world. Maybe you’d met them once, fleetingly, at a party, maybe not; oftentimes it was just the attitude of “any friend of my friend is a friend of mine” that prompted someone to give you a swift nudge and possibly kindle a new acquaintance that was unlikely ever to take place in the non-virtual flesh-and-blood world. As members of a social species, we’re all constantly trying to extend our spheres of popularity or influence for one purpose or another.
I knew no-one with the username MagicRabbit, so my curiosity was piqued. The panel blinked again, more urgently this time, commanding my attention. Beneath the link was a thumbnail image showing who had nudged you, allowing you to evaluate whether they were someone you wanted to accept into your circle. To say that the eyes were the first thing to catch my attention would be true in its strictest sense, but misleading. There were only the eyes. A tightly-cropped black-and-white image with long dark lashes curling towards the upper edge of the frame. In the same way that the eyes in particularly adept paintings are said to follow one around the room, these didn’t. They stayed fixed, focused on a point slightly out of frame, above and to the left of the viewer. From my viewpoint, they were transfixed by something over my left shoulder, above the top edge of the sofa. They gave the unsettling impression of seeing something I had no idea was there. They were intrigued and intriguing. The pale irises, subtly spotted with darker flecks, appeared to be witnessing scenes yet to unfold, yearning for unexplored horizons, posing questions prompting unknowable answers.
MagicRabbit has nudged you
Well, what would you have done? I clicked the link.