Exclusive extract: Heat

1

The first time she saw her old lover again was at a bookshop, up in Rockville.

Rockville was a nightmare area to the north of Washington DC, a suburban wasteland of low-lying carpet shops, pizza parlours and bed shops, all of which transmogrified into something else even as one watched. Everything was temporary there. Susan speeded up, turning up the radio. And there it was: Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, one of the tracks she used to listen to years ago.

As a teenager, she had no particular feelings about the past.

All she’d wanted was future; life was by and large a serial process. The door slammed on the last minute as soon as it was over. Life had been like living in Rockville, somewhere without a memory, where nothing remained for long, where adults could return to the streets of their childhood and find absolutely nothing the same; not a shop, not a church, not a tree.

But now life had a novelistic structure, a shape and some themes and some interweaving characters who made appearances at various stages of her life and theirs. The chief characters had been refined down to just a few, mostly people who’d turned up early in the novel of her life.

There was a new supermarket; there was a baby shop which wouldn’t last long; there was a shop selling ski things. Making a left, her car drew up outside the bookshop with its friendly green front.

She had first lived in America for a few months, at UCLA in California when she was twenty-four, and it had always been to her a place of sanctuary from England, where she was born. Her husband, Jim Stewart, was American.

She sniffed and grimaced. Their car had recently been valeted and smelt pungently of wet dog.

She kicked off her driving shoes and put on a pair of high heels, wondering why she was bothering.

As she walked into the shop, she felt a little nervous, as though sensing what brought her here, for these ties of ours are far stronger than we think, and draw men and women over oceans, round corners, through doorways.

She walked to the biography section past the psychology section which always attracted a group of cross-legged women reading tomes on ‘How to get love back in your life’ or ‘Make him love you forever’. It was too embarrassing to buy such a book, and even more embarrassing to keep a copy on a bookshelf. Thus they were mostly read in snatches by women nervous that the object of their affections, or just a friend, might catch them at it.

Even more difficult to manage was the trick of browsing nonchalantly through the sex books full of incomprehensible instructions and horrible drawings more suitable for a mortician’s manual.

Bookshops were a great solace. When she thought of dying, it was leaving behind books which upset her most of all, particularly a battered copy of John Donne’s poems, with ‘The Good Morrow’ underlined in places. At least the relations with those she loved would continue, in that they would continue to love her, while her death would terminate all relationship with these books.

A man in a wheelchair watched a squat lady in shorts balancing a pile of books in her arms. Close by, an overweight man chewed at an unlit cigar as he examined New Age titles.

Susan began to flip through the biography section and read something about Freud’s cocaine habit, and about how Elizabeth I had been pregnant with Robert Dudley’s child, and also she flipped through a biography of Lewis Carroll arranged in thirty seven fragments, then moved over towards her area of study, the natural history section.

It was then that she saw Phillip over in fiction, an appropriate place.

He met her eyes, then glanced down as though he hadn’t seen her.

She spun round and marched out of the bookshop, nearly knocking over an elderly lady. Outside, under the glare of the hot skies, she tried to find her car.

She’d spent thirteen years avoiding him, checking out every room and every party before entering it.

Whole continents had been eradicated from her world picture because of Phillip. India had become a no-go area. Africa (he had written a piece from there) had been eliminated. The former Soviet Union was somewhere he had said he wanted to visit so she couldn’t go there. Although, even on visits to London, she had never bumped into him, she had been doubtful about the eastern half of the globe, as though he might pop up in a temple, head shaven, as a monk, or be the beggar her group gave money to, or be a businessman at a Hong Kong hotel.

She stood in the car park twisting her silver bracelet round and round.

She focused on her car, and hurried to it, fumbling for the keys.

 

2

Of course, this is the age for old lovers, once people have settled in the pattern of their lives. It happens to most people. Those you have thought never to see again appear at parties, in the street, at dinner parties, and while you discuss your child’s homework you recall his taking you down on the floor of a concrete office room, and you blink and ask if he understands equations and how old is his son now and which school is he at. And all the while the comedy is there, at the corner of his eyes and yours.

‘Oh yes, that’s supposed to be a good school.’

‘And your children, how are they?’ he asks.

All your old loves come back, in the end, in dreams or in reality.

They dream of you now their lives are mapped out. Oh – that is the woman or man who could have taken me to another life. I could have been someone else. I remember her gaiety and the way she seemed to understand and the kisses, hot and fluid from the wide mouth. And to be unfaithful to my wife or husband – well, that doesn’t really matter. After all, I met my old lover first, when I was very young, when we were both young, how could it be wrong to do as we did in the past, when her nails dragged over my skin? Maybe my life would have been better if it had been with her.

Even now a father, who has just moved back to the area after many years away, is on a school zoo trip as an accompanying adult.

One of the mothers helping the teacher was his girlfriend years ago, when he was seventeen and he was tall and handsome. But now he has a fat stomach and a sadness around the parallel lines of his forehead. Whenever they look into a cage, the animals start making love feverishly. The father keeps nervously clearing his throat. The mother walks away from the cages and makes conversation about the school’s PTA, and he kicks at the path with his heels, thinking how beautifully her hair drapes her forehead, just as it used to when she was seventeen.

And when you look at each other, you see the old selves. Choose lovers carefully because you’ll have them forever.

It’s thirteen years since Susan and Phillip split up, but of course old lovers never go away, they crowd round, watching your every action, coming between you, stroking your thighs when you make love to your wife, laughing at you as you eat your suburban breakfast, help you to pull on your socks in the morning, with lowered amused eyes. They watch as you drive out from your well-kept house – oh, they whisper, and you had such hopes, they say.

For thirteen years she had kept away from Phillip.

Writing Implements

When I was thirteen I won £1000 in a competition. It was for naming the qualities that made a Sunsilk Supergirl. A man ran the doorbell at our family house in Wimbledon early one summer’s evening and asked for me. He needed to verify that I was a real person. The prize was £1000 or an open-topped Sunbeam Alpine. With a tiny proportion of the money I bought a grey Olivetti typewriter in a hard case. The prize convinced me anything was possible if you tried (not that listing the qualities was hard). But more importantly it bought me that typewriter.

          So, aged 13 I am dressed up in a white dress, clutching a lilac bag, and with sleek hair and white-rimmed shades going to to collect my winnings in London. Meanwhile my 13 year old alter ego Tessa, the anti-heroine of my novel Fire Child, is ruthlessly seducing patronising older men, also in Wimbledon, until her activities cause real trouble. It is she who is in command. I never liked novels or films where women are victims. Give me ‘Kill Bill’ over ‘Terminator’ any time. When I returned from receiving the prize (see pic – hmm, I don’t look that innocent, more Tessa than Sally) I poured my thoughts into my diary, as I have done all my life. I had decided I would become a writer. I would take control. After all, I had money to support me when the time came, and most importantly soon I would have a typewriter. It was the turning point for my life, that day when the man arrived at our door.

          At first I wrote my stories in long hand. I wrote stories of a girl whose father’s plane had crashed in the mountains and now she lived wild with animals and stole from the bourgeoisie in the village below. The girl was courageous and didn’t care about social conventions, none of my heroines did, though I was a good girl if you can call wanting to do terrible things being good. I sat writing late at night in my lilac bedroom, looking up sometimes to stare at my reflection in the dark window. I acted out the games sometimes, because what is story writing but a form of make believe? I liked watching my white hand move over the lined paper of the cheap exercise books I used to write in. My handwriting wasn’t good but still I liked, as I still like, seeing the emotion in the shape of the letters, how the handwriting sprawls when I am excited by what I am writing, how at other times it is neat, how sometimes it is in biro, sometimes fountain pen (which we had to use at school) and sometimes pencil. The physical drama of writing was part of the pleasure of writing. 

Even writing by typewriter is much less interesting than writing by hand. In the days before computers, before the word processor, before typewriters, before even fountain pens, Dickens wrote his four million words with quill pens and used different inks and nibs, with different ink flows, to give handwriting variations. He did some pretty good work without a typewriter or a computer while Queen Victoria wrote millions of words in her letters and journals as well as ruling an empire. And how very much more interesting to write in that way, with cuttings out and notes in the margin, than homogenised by a word processor. As for scholars reading the words of these Victorian monoliths, the energy and dash is in the forms of their handwriting as well as their words. What will future scholars have to study? Some emails and some Times Roman manuscripts without any mistakes.

But times changed. To submit an article or a story it was necessary to type it out therefore I learnt to type, but badly. But I liked the magic typewriter I had won, ticket to another world. Looking back, I realise I especially liked making corrections with Tippex because of the high it supplied, a little like sniffing glue. As I was untidy and always making corrections, my work would be matted with Tippex and I would often be inspired. Typing was physical. When I wanted to reorganise pages I would cut with scissors the part I wanted to move and place it elsewhere, applying sellotape to attach the pieces. Sorted. Cut and paste, in the old days. There were no ink cartridges to buy, all you had to do was change the ribbons. I liked the noise too, the thumping. It connected you with the outside world whereas the world of computers is eerily quiet as you tap your words into the strange grey world that exists inside the screen. Everything comes out looking the same, so neat, no violet ink or blue ink splodges, no curly letters or dramatic slashes, no typing cutting into the page. When I edited a literary magazine, ‘Books and Bookmen’, a much-praised writer was the first to submit copy that had been word-processed. It didn’t read the same as the energetic, vital copy he used to submit. It was oddly flattened and ordinary as if inside the computer were little factory workers smashing down every verbal flourish or eccentricity.

Of course now I don’t know where I would buy a typewriter ribbon. I don’t know if I could bear to thump at a typewriter. But I do know I can buy fountain pens and I know I can buy inks of all kinds of hues. I began this with turquoise ink in a lined notebook then as it began to write itself I moved onto the computer.

So often through my life it has worked like that, the implements of writing helping the mind to take off, to race, to play. The smooth movement of the medium nib of a Cross fountain pen over lined paper, with no glare from an computer screen, there’s nothing quite like it. It connects you up to all the people who have written like this in the past, so long ago, in Egypt, in Victorian times, a man or woman and some paper, telling the story, watching the words take shape as the writer makes them take shape, up and over, down and down, swirling and twirling, choosing how many words on a line, without anything telling you what to do, how to spell, when to turn from one line to another. That’s freedom, dazzling stuff.

Fire Child, is published alongside Heat on 23 March 2017. You can pre-order them here

Exclusive extract: Fire Child

Tessa Armstrong

Northwood Road, Highbury, N5

Friday 1 September

I am very thin and find it hard to eat. Sometimes I think I’m starving myself to death because I’m tired of existing. I don’t like myself. Ever since I killed my father I have lost hope. That was five years ago. I was just fifteen.

Before that my only problem in life was to decide whether to be an actress, a journalist like my father, or a chat show hostess. But at the same time, I realize now, I was cold. The drawer of this desk where I sit is full of love letters. I used to read them out to my girlfriends at school, in particular to my best friend Nicola, who was prettier than the other girls and wickeder. They were children, while Nicola and I were born old. She was the daughter of a politician. I haven’t seen her for five years but we fell out long before that, one evening; an evening which caused quite a scandal.

I still like to read my old letters. I think I was made with a very large Tessa-shaped hole in my mind and heart. I also think I was very brave to manage without you all those years. I loved you so instantly, and it’s the same love I feel now, much stronger and deeper now, and growing so much all the time, but it’s the same love. It’s hard to see how it arrived like that, just suddenly and fully formed and without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. You were the one, you are the one, you always will be the one. Darling, if I didn’t know from experience that I will be more in love with you tomorrow than I am today and will be more in love with you still next week, I would say that I love you absolutely.

That one was written by a photographer I met in a park. He left the country when I grew bored and refused to see him. Even at the time my ability to inspire intense love rather surprised me. Especially as the love was always unreciprocated.

In those days, when my father was alive, we had a house in south London full of windows – bay windows, round windows, French windows – next door to three young boys and their parents.

When the eldest boy Philip was thirteen, he started to want to swap stamps with me. Before that, I had been good only as a snowball target. I caught him staring at me intently as I examined his lovely Chinese stamps covered in dragons and sputniks on the floor of my bedroom. I suggested he give them all to me in exchange for just one dull brown Norwegian stamp featuring a man with a small beard. He agreed, and for the first time I recognized my power. I remember the faint dark hairs above his lips and the furtive way he looked at me.

He never tried to touch me. Occasionally my arm would brush his, as if in error, and he would blush. He had big ears, short hair and an excellent stamp collection – until it was decimated by my unfair offers.

One day during an endless hot summer holiday I called round to swap stamps with Philip wearing a pretty backless dress, hoping to get better stamps that way. But Philip was out, playing cricket.

His two brothers and mother were out too.

His handsome father, however, was in.

He had been mowing the lawn in his shorts, and had sweat on his face and a beer in his hand. He invited me in for a Coca-Cola.

 ‘Your lawn looks very nice, Mr Brown,’ I said as I stood at the window of the breakfast room.

I felt his hands on my bare arms.

‘Yes it does, doesn’t it?’ he said in an ordinary voice as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. His hands on my arms gave me an agreeable sensation, somewhere between a shiver and a burn. He kissed the hot nape of my neck.

‘Where’s my Coca-Cola, Mr Brown?’ I asked softly.

He stopped kissing to reply: ‘It’s on the table behind you. Do you want a glass or a straw?’

‘No thank you very much. I’ll drink it from the can… in a minute.’

His hands were round my waist – big, tough, man’s hands. I liked the smell of his sweat. His hands moved upwards and pushed my breasts up. I closed my eyes in pleasure as Mr Brown kissed the back of my head and murmured into my hair. He turned me round and put his lips on mine.

It was not the first time I had been kissed but it was easily the best. The kisses of boys were inept: a slobbery blurring of lips.

Mr Brown gave complicated kisses. His tongue became one second like a small fish let loose in my mouth – it darted delightfully all over the place. The next second his tongue changed into a warm snake thrusting and pushing.

I stood limply and gave myself up to the pleasure.

His hand was undoing the buttons of my dress when the phone rang in the next room.

He started.

‘Don’t answer,’ I said.

He looked down at me with a dazed expression, as though he didn’t know who I was or how I’d got there.

‘Don’t answer it,’ I repeated firmly.

His forehead puckered.

‘Don’t frown at me like that,’ I said. ‘You don’t look quite so handsome when you frown.’

He continued to stare at me.

The phone seemed to be ringing louder and louder into the silence.

‘Tessa, tell me. How old are you?’

‘Nearly thirteen,’ I replied, with a hint of pride. I was fed up with being twelve and being treated like a child.

He took a step back, then swung away, out of the room.

A minute or two later he returned. His eyes were piercing and blue and sort of scared.

‘That was the boys saying they’ll be back soon.’

I crossed my arms. ‘I haven’t had my Coca-Cola yet.’

He handed me the can. I watched him as I drank. A little dribbled down my chin. I wiped it off with the back of my hand.

His face was flushed.

He looked past me, through the window, at his garden with its tree house and its swings.

‘They’ll be back soon,’ he repeated.

I put my arms around him, and looked up, big-eyed, sweet, very young.

His lips returned to mine.

We made love a few minutes later on the floor, before the boys returned home. It was my first time. I quite enjoyed it.

Afterwards, he dressed quickly and would not meet my eyes.

For the next few weekends I watched his house from my parents’ bedroom and when I was sure he was alone I’d call round asking for Philip. Always Philip’s father offered me Coca-Cola. Always he tried not to make love to me. Always he did make love to me, and always he dressed quickly afterwards and would not meet my eyes.

During those weeks he lost a lot of weight and by the end was rather haggard and not as attractive as at first, so I became less interested.

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