Published by graham on Sat, 12/29/2018 - 14:58
Curtain Call…the inside story…
Chick lit was never going to be my thing until I happened across Enora Andressen. It was summer last year, half past three in the morning. We were living in a remote French hamlet south of the Loire and I awoke with a single sentence fully formed. The neuro-surgeon has a fondness for metaphor. There it was, Nothing less, nothing more. Present tense. Slightly mysterious. A single beckoning finger.
Neuro-surgeon? Metaphor? These tiny gifts from the deep subconscious happen less often than you might imagine. A single novel might burn through 35,000 sentences but this one showed defininite promise. I got up, wrote it down, then went back to sleep again.
Next morning, the sentence lay beside our bed. It was Lin’s turn to make tea and I half-turned my head on the pillow, squinting against the slant of early morning sunlight through the nearby window. The neuro-surgeon has a fondness for metaphor. Who is he? Where is he? What, precisely, is the setting?
Medics, sadly, are often the bearers of bad news. Neuro-surgeons deal with the brain, the spinal column, and that tangle of nerve pathways on which we all rely. I imagine his office. The room is bare except for a wall clock, a whiteboard, and a child’s playful take on a summer picnic. He’s probably on his second marriage, with a new brood of young kids. At a moment like this, with the possibility of a whole book in the making, it’s hard not to smile. Already the narrative mix is beginning to thicken. This man has hinterland, as well as bad news to impart.
But who, exactly, is sitting across the desk? Male or female? Young or old? And where, exactly, is the seat of this affliction the man in the white coat is about to cloak in metaphor?
That morning we have breakfast en plein air, making the most of a longish spell of extraordinary weather. As sparrows feast on the last of the croissants, and Lin prepares to tackle yet another flower bed, I ponder the nuclear option. A tumour, probably malignant, somewhere deep in the brain. Giveaway symptoms? Dizziness, blurred vision, and blinding headaches. A condition like this might richly deserve to be softened by a figure of speech. But what if the neuro-surgeon’s choice of metaphor turns out to unexpectedly brutal? What if a bluff, well-intended gesture results in a spectacular backfire?
Already, I realise that I’m assuming a woman in the seat across the desk. Over the course of thirty published novels, I’ve used the first person female voice on three occasions – Thunder in the Blood, Nocturne and Permissible Limits - and this situation, albeit nascent, seems to require a woman’s sensibility if I’m to tease out every narrative possibility. Certain kinds of women, in my experience, are braver than men, more clear-sighted, more perceptive, and far less prone to the twin temptations of dismissal or denial. And so I start to think seriously about the two key questions which will shape this next fictional adventure. Who is this women? And why should anyone be bothered to share the next three hundred pages of her story?
The answer to the first question takes barely minutes to answer. Over the last decade or so, I’ve been lucky enough to conduct a love affair with France. In almost every essential – landscape, cuisine, conversation, comportement - it seems to me to be the perfect antidote to the Anglo-Saxon in me. I’ve also developed a fascination for the acting profession. Either on stage or on screen – or even on the radio – the business of becoming someone else is richly mysterious. Thanks to twenty years in TV, I know a little about the highs and lows of show biz. And so the figure in front of the neuro-surgeon becomes an Anglo-French actress, Enora Andresson. Enora because her mum is from Brittany (Enora is a Breton saint). And a Swedish surname because Chapter One will find her emerging from the wreckage of a seventeen year marriage to Scandi writer and director, Berndt Andresson.
So far, so good. The second question is far trickier. To put it crudely, what happens after this opening scene?
Here, it helps to have already penned a modest body of work. Decades ago, at the insistence of my publisher, I was obliged to venture into the world of crime fiction. This was something I did with enormous reluctance because I never had any affection for cri-fi but we had the good fortune to be living in Portsmouth, a city on intimate terms with all kinds of mischief, and as one book led to another I began to realise that in the shape of my lead cop – D/I Joe Faraday – I had the perfect opportunity to draw up a seat in the front stalls and watch the implosion of a society I thought I knew well. Pompey, as Portsmouth calls itself, was uncursed by money and ticked every box on the deprivation index. Crap education. Endemic levels of family breakdown. A thriving drug scene. And a great deal of recreational violence, much of it fuelled by booze.
Book by book, thanks to Faraday and some of the more complex plots, I began to chronicle this story and one of my favourite conversations towards the end of the series was with a good friend who happens to be a Pompey academic. “Whether you’ve realised it or not….”, he told me, “….these books will probably belong in the time capsule. Why? Because it tells us what it was like to spend the first decade of the new millenium in what’s left of the UK.”
Flattered, I moved onto a series of historical thrillers set in the Second World War – a fictional challenge of an entirely different kind – but sitting in the Touraine sunshine, that single opening sentence on an otherwise empty note pad, I began to suspect that Enora Andressen might function a little like Joe Faraday, offering me the chance to look afresh at just where – as a nation – we find ourselves.
On the face of it, this sounds very ambitious indeed. A novel is first and foremost a story, a yarn, not an essay. But Faraday had taught me how character and plot can absorb the turbulance of our times and offer a thought or two about where we might be headed. Just now, we face the biggest challenge as a nation since the Second World War. Our prosperity, our sense of ourselves, indeed the very integrity of the UK is at stake. These are huge and important questions. Sadly, Joe Faraday is no longer in a position to bear witness. But might Enora Andressen step in and lend a narrative hand?
The answer, I hope, is yes. The second novel in the series – Sight Unseen - is written and awaits publication. Curtain Call will be appear in hardback on the 31st January.
So here’s how that first scene develops….
The neuro surgeon has a fondness for metaphor.
"The Reaper comes knocking at every door", he says. "I'm afraid yours might be one of them."
I'm staring at him. Pale face. Pale eyes behind the rimless glasses. Pale everything. Half-dead already, he could be an apprentice ghost. Another metaphor.
"Should I lock the door? Hide? Pretend I'm not in?"
"Any of the above." The eyes drift to the PC screen. "Next of kin? A husband maybe?"
"He's in Stockholm."
"He's about to re-marry. It might be the same thing."
"So am I. The last thing the poor woman needs is Berndt."
He reaches for his keyboard and taps a line I can't read. Is he making notes about some drug or other, some brave attempt to stay the Reaper at the corner of the street? Or is he having trouble spelling Berndt? I did once, so I wouldn't blame him.
With a tiny sigh he glances up, as if to check I'm still there. Then he half-turns to consult a calendar on the wall behind him. The calendar features a child's painting, stick figures in crayon, mainly red and yellow. There's a football, and birds, and a big whiskery sun. I rather like it.
"Do you have enough Percocet?"
"Good. No more than one tablet every six hours and lay off the booze. Before we make any decisions, I'm afraid I'll need to see you again." His finger has settled on the end of next week. "Would Friday be convenient?"
"Friday would be perfect", I manage a smile. "My place or yours?"
Crying in public is something I try to avoid, in this case without success. This is a bar I've never been to before. It helps that everyone is a stranger. Moist-eyed, I order a large vodka and stare at my own image in the mirror behind the optics. In truth I feel undone, a parcel ripped apart by unseen hands inside me, but that's a complicated thought to share with anyone and thankfully no one seems very interested.
Less than two weeks ago I went to the doctor with a persistent headache and a problem with the vision in my left eye. Now, it seems, I ought to be thinking hard about a hospice. Private medical insurance definitely has its blessings but no one tells you how to cope with news this sudden and this final.
The neuro-surgeon I've just left showed me the MRI scan they did on Thursday, tracing the outline of the tumour the way you might explain a new route home. I followed his thick forefinger as best I could, trying to imagine the cluttered spaces of my own throbbing head, but none of it made much sense. At the end, when I asked what next, he came up with the line about the Reaper. Now I leave my glass untouched and head for the street. Coping is something I've done all my life. Until now.
Home is a sixteen pound cab ride to Holland Park. I live on the fourth floor of a thirties block of flats with a sunny view south and the constant assurance from local estate agents that serious cash buyers are only a phone call away. The place is safe and beautifully maintained. I've spent the best years of my life here, even with Berndt, and until this morning it's never occurred to me that one day I might have to leave.
My immediate neighbour has lived here even longer than me. Her name is Evelyn. She's West Country, from a small village outside Okehampton. She's wise and kindly and Berndt always said she belonged in a homestead in frontier America with a rugged husband and an army of kids. Berndt was wrong about that because she's never married, probably never had a man, and maybe as a consequence she puts a great deal of thought into nurturing relationships she values. I flatter myself that I count as one of her friends.
Evelyn has sharp ears for the arrival of the lift but always waits until I've settled myself in before knocking lightly on the door. These calls are always for a purpose, another reason we get on so well. Since I've known her, she's worked as an editor for one of the smaller London publishing houses. People I know in the business tell me she's become a legend and I tend to believe them. She certainly knows that less is more, an editorial rule she applies unfailingly to her own life. She stands at the open door, a thick Jiffy bag in her arms. The pencil behind her ear is a signal that she's busy.
"I took this in", she says. "I think it's from your agent."
She gives me the Jiffy bag and then pauses before stepping back into the hall.
"Is everything alright, my lovely?"
"No, if you want the truth."
"Anything I can do?"
"No", I force a smile. "But thanks."
She nods, says nothing. She'll be there if I need her, I know she will. But not now.
I put the kettle on and toy with making a cup of tea but give up, overwhelmed yet again by what's happened. I'm 39, shading 40. I'm in my prime. I jog three times a week round Kensington Gardens. My serious drinking days are long gone and I can't remember when I last had a cigarette. Only a week ago, a casting director swore he'd never seen me looking better. Now this.
Shit. Shit. Normally, I'm good at self-analysis. I can distinguish at once between a sulk and something more worthwhile but this ability to read myself appears to have gone. Is this anger I'm feeling? Or bewilderment? Or, God help me, simple fear? The fact that I don't know only makes things worse. Helpless is a word I've never had much time for. It smacks of giving up, of surrender, of weakness. And yet that's as close as I can get. Helpless? Me?
I open the Jiffy bag. Evelyn's right. It's from my agent. It's a French-Canadian script and she rates it highly. The producers are still looking for finance and despite everything it's good to know that my name attached might help them find the right kind of backer. So what do I do here? Do I lift the phone and tell my agent to hold all calls? Do I fess up and say I've joined the walking dead? Or do I just breeze on and hope that I can somehow make it through? In certain kinds of script we call that denial. Denial, under the current circumstances, sounds perfect. And so I pop another Percocet and curl up on the sofa.
My agent's right. Even with my mind still wandering up cul-de-sac after cul-de-sac, I give the script enough attention to know that it's very, very good. I play a French academic on a one-year sabbatical in Montreal. I fall in love with a handsome campus drunk who turns out to be already married. Life gets very difficult, and then impossible, but a clever plot gives me the chance in the final act to exact a little revenge.
The writing is serious and comic by turns, and the dialogue alone has won me over. By the time I've given the script a second read, I've already made that strange alchemical step into someone else's head. I am the woman on the page. I cut my bastard suitor far too much slack and I'm punished in subtle and inventive ways that bring a smile, albeit rueful, to my face. But fate, thanks to the Gods of the cinema, comes to my rescue. My jilted beau ends the movie on the very edge of Niagara Falls, contemplating a messy suicide, while I accept the applause of my peers for simply surviving. If only, I think.
Another knock on the door. It's Evelyn again, this time with a bottle in her hand. Very unusual.
"Good?" She's nodding at the script.
She's brought whiskey. I pour two measures, adding ice, aware of Evelyn monitoring my every move. On occasions, she can be very direct.
"So what's happened?" she asks.
I tell her everything. It doesn't take long. I'm sharing my brain space with a tumour. Soon it will kill me.
To my relief, she doesn't move. No arms around me, no whispered consolations, no invitation to share the pain. Just a simple question.
"And do you believe this man?"
"You think he's kidding me? Some kind of joke? You think the guy's a sadist?"
"I'm just asking exactly what he said."
I do my best to remember, word for word. Mention of the Reaper brings a scowl to her face.
"He said that?"
She nods. She clearly thinks it's unforgivably crass, even cruel, but she's also wondering whether he'd recognised me. I tell her my medical records are in my married name, Enora Andressen, but she doesn't think that's a factor. My last movie, a screen adaptation of a decent novel, has been doing good business in London art house cinemas.
"Men can be funny around fame", she says. "Especially Alpha males. I see it in the office sometimes. When we stoop to celebrity biogs, and the lady concerned pays us a visit, the Head of Sales always makes a fool of himself. It's primal behaviour. It belongs in the jungle. If I were you I'd ignore it."
"That's a hard thing to do when he tells me I'm going to die."
"He said might."
"He did. You're right."
"So hang on to that."
A silence settles between us. It feels companionable. Warm. I think I love this woman. When things got really tough with Berndt and he started throwing the furniture around she offered nothing but good sense. Change the locks. Get yourself another man. Preferably someone bigger. As it happens, I did neither but just now Evelyn is offering just a glimpse of something that might resemble hope.
"Did he talk about treatment at all?"
"No. I've got to see him again on Friday."
"No mention of an operation?"
Another silence. I gulp the whiskey, draining the glass. I haven't touched Scotch for years but I'm glad she's brought the bottle. The fierceness of the burn in my throat creeps slowly south. I'm alive. Everything's still working. Fuck the tumour.
"More?" She refills my glass, not waiting for an answer.
I nod. I'm gazing at her. My eyes are moist. I very badly don't want to cry. Not in front of Evelyn.
"And Malo?" She says softly. "You think you ought to tell him?"
I hold her gaze as long as I can and then I duck my head, holding myself tight, rocking on the sofa, letting the hot tears course down my face, howling with the pain of my grief.