Monday, December 05, 2005

Chapter One

“Woke up this morning
Everything I had was gone.”

She couldn’t get the song out of her head.
Everything.
Gone.

And only a month ago, Alma was carefree. Not that she was skipping along through banks of daisies, singing a happy song. No. Not carefree in that conscious “Look at me, I haven’t a care in the world!” sort of a way. Just that she wasn’t consciously unhappy. She was stressed, yes. That was a natural state of affairs. She was bored, yes. Ticking over, yes. If you’d have asked her she wouldn’t have claimed to be happy. But then she hadn’t the slightest idea of what was in store, or that she had so much to lose.

If she’d known, she wouldn’t have fantasised as she did that evening, on her way to the theatre.

In the taxi with George and Lonnie, she gazed out the window at a wet Mancunian evening and pondered. It was called Love, apparently, this show they were about to see. Not “Love, Apparently.” Just “Love.” Apparently.

It was easy to forget about it. Because love wasn’t something you considered much in a long-term partnership. But now that she was thinking about it, she could remember how it felt. Not the slow-burning emotion you feel for a partner of nine years. Not the thing you don’t think about, don’t acknowledge, don’t even remember to feel, even though it’s there, day in and day out, a quietly-thrumming engine driving the paddles under the water of everyday domesticity.

No, the kind you fall into. The passion of a brand new relationship. The thing that keeps you awake at night, that carries you through the day, that has you facing glassy-eyed towards anything and everyone but the object of your desire.

She sighed. It was a while since she’d felt that. She missed it.

She wondered what would happen if she were to fall in love now, at the age of 34. Was it even possible? Did her body still contain the right chemicals? Would her habits allow her to break out into something so novel?

And if she did, could there really be anyone with a draw so strong that she’d abandon her husband and child? Surely nothing could tempt her away from her son, or encourage her to hurt him. But...

They arrived at the library and scurried through a downpour to arrive, dripping, at the doors to the basement auditorium. As the usherette tore their tickets, Alma peered through to get a glimpse of the stage. It contained nothing but a hard-backed kitchen chair, its back to the audience, and one man, sitting astride it. He was completely motionless.

She had heard a bit about this bloke. He was touring a one-man show. Written, directed, produced by and starring the man himself. She’d seen him do a stand-up routine on the television. He had a definite something.

What if she fell in love here tonight, with this actor? What if George, who was friends with his agent, took them backstage after the performance? What if she and Mr Pyre (as he called himself) parked themselves in a corner, held each other’s eyes and fell in love? What then?

As they took their seats, he caught her eye. And winked.

She was sure she could smell burning.

He had got through a few minutes of searing monologue, his lower half remaining still but his face, shoulders, eyes and hands the most expressive she had ever seen, enthused with passion and a strange unnerving focus, before people started to notice the smoke that was smouldering at the base of one of the chair legs.

Just as the audience were starting to shout with alarm, the whole chair was in flames. People rose in their seats and an alarm was sounded. A curtain caught fire and somebody screamed. The smoke was already making people cough, and there was confusion as they tried to decide between running away and attempting to help the flailing man on the stage, now aflame from head to foot and moving in eerie silence as he tried to dance his way out of combustion.

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Alma was already imagining herself dead and worrying about who would look after Selwyn. Would Lonnie’s mother have him, and badger him daily about the lack of a monster under his bed? Would she persist in her moaning that Selwyn had no imagination, that he was a creatively-backward child? Or maybe Mrs Lollipop, as he had christened his unofficial auntie from next door, would come out of her shell and admit that she desperately wanted a child; fight to be the one who would keep him safe?

What if he had to live in a home.

And then, as quick as it started, the fire was out. And Mr Pyre was once again sitting on a chair, looking out at them all, seeming slightly bewildered.

“Where’s the fire?” he said.

What a stunt.



George did take them backstage, and Alma’s head was so full of what an amazing performance it had been, that when she was introduced to the man himself all she could do was gaze longingly into his eyes.

The fantasy had developed during the course of the show. She’d imagined how they would talk and talk and talk, and everything else would fade away around them. She wouldn’t even notice Lonnie, standing only a few feet away. Her husband would be hurt, of course. That would be bad. She’d feel guilty about that. But maybe he wouldn’t notice, so secure was he in the confidence that nine years brings.

But now here they were. Here she was. Here he was. And she gazed into his eyes, and yearned for him.

Of course, this was all safe and fine and not really a problem at all. Because she was only playing. Just messing. It was like the time, as a child, she’d hung back in the town centre on a crowded Saturday afternoon. Allowing her parents to disappear ahead of her, secure in the knowledge that her grandparents were behind and would soon catch up. She wondered, that time, what it might feel like to get lost. But she didn’t think she would. It was only pretend.

It would never really happen, because even if she could fall in love, now again, after so many years and with so much wisdom stored... Mr Pyre was not likely to reciprocate. He probably got mooning married middle-aged mothers gazing hungrily at him wherever he went.

He must surely take it all in his stride.

Of course, when she was five she actually did get lost. She miscalculated. Her parents disappeared, and so did her grandparents. Half an hour later she was found sobbing at the edge of town, and taken to the local police station.

They gave her orange juice and doughnuts. That was rather nice.

And he...

He gazed right back. He pierced straight through to her core with black knowing eyes. All pupil and no iris.

She couldn’t even talk. It was as though his entire body were covered with tiny little elastic threads, like a spider’s web. Every one was anchored at each end by a tiny little piece of mirrored person. Her shoulder, his shoulder. Her knee, his knee. Her hip, his hip. Her...

When he moved, she moved too. She was trapped, ensnared, bewitched.

They talked. She made no sense. He smiled understandingly.

He offered to buy her a drink, and for the brief period that he was at the bar, the spell was broken. She started to panic. Her heart was over-beating. What was she doing? She should be thinking of her husband, her son, her nice stable life. Not drooling over an unlikely stranger with a bit of a way about him. She was getting carried away again. He probably didn’t even fancy her.

She turned to a random lovey, sipping drinks beside her. She made small talk. She practised breathing. Her pulse started the slow return to a sensible pace.

She sensed, rather than saw, when he returned carrying drinks. She rehearsed her reaction. A diffident “Oh, thank you,” as he handed her the drink. As though she had forgotten all about him. As though it was no big deal. She knew he was standing behind her. Because of the threads that bound them... no, that was ridiculous. So how did she know?

Because of the smell. She already knew his scent.

And maybe he hers. Or perhaps that was what he was trying to learn, because he paused behind her... and sniffed her hair, briefly. Her plait, which brushed lightly against the back of her neck under the pressure of his nose... and then he was gone. She was barely able to stand. He had stolen her bones. In that one small gesture, he had breathed in her very soul.

She managed to wait for half a breath, but she had to look. He was leaving the room, a glass in each hand. His shoulders were broad, relaxed and confident. They said, “You will follow.”

She did.



The sex they had in his dressing room was great. As it was the following night, and the one after that. The excuses became thinner and thinner, as first work and then friends were apparently disintegrating into chaos, and she explained yet again to Lonnie that there was an emergency; she had to go out.

During the day she alternated between joy, confusion, guilt and despair. She told herself she had never felt this way before. She had no choice. They were destined to be together. Never mind that she had only just met him, that he was prone to great loud bursts of rage and laughter, that he stated without subterfuge or shame that he had not the slightest interest in the character or wellbeing of her son.

When they were together, she felt as though everything below the skin were dissolving, like a tangerine injected with gin. They couldn’t stop talking, apart from when they couldn’t stop shagging. Sometimes they did both at once. They laughed a lot, and he told her his plans, his thoughts, his crazy ideas, and the more insane they sounded the more her neck bent as she curled herself into his aura.

He was her poison, and he burnt her throat as she drank him down, but the agony was laced with euphoria, and she didn’t care.

On the fifth night, she smuggled something out of the house and into his hotel room. It had its own velvet sack.

He opened the bag, regarded the inlaid box. His eyes were gleaming.
“I had to give you something,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking of you, and I needed to find some way... to make it solid. To prove what you mean to me. Something as beautiful as...”

He held out a hand for her to be quiet.

She shut up.

He opened the box, and was silent. He looked at her, inquiring. Was she serious?

“Why are you showing me this?”

“I’m not. I’m giving it to you. Call it a loan, if you like. Or security. A kind of connection.”

“It must be very valuable,” he said.

“It’s supposed to be worth half a million.”

He gave her another look, this time wary, suspicious.

“It belonged to Katharine the Great,” she said. “There’s a distant blood connection. An affair... an illegitimate child... it’s our dirty family secret. But it’s all about passion. So you have to have it. Keep it safe for me, and then...”

“What?”

“I’m going to leave Lonnie. You said to me, last night... that you wanted to be with me forever. Well, you’re right. And I do. I mean, so do I. And that’s my act of faith. Giving you that.”

“Half a million? Really?”

She shrugged. “I don’t keep track. It’s never made sense to me as money. I mean, look at it. It’s not money. It’s beauty. A thing to hold, not a thing to sell.”

“But what is it? I mean, what are you supposed to do with it?”

“Oh, you just have to love it,” she said.



The day came. She was leaving Lonnie. She would be back for Selwyn, she just needed to work a bit on Mr Pyre. He said he hated kids. Maybe, but Selwyn wasn’t just any old kid. Nobody could not love Selwyn.

It was all planned. She had driven him past her house the day before. There had been a spark in his eyes as he had asked her to slow down and watched it hungrily.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s where I live. With him. Lived. The next time I settle, it’ll be with you.”

“Timber frame?” he had asked.

“Yes, it’s very old.”

“Proper thatched roof?”

“Yes. It looks lovely, but it’s my prison now. It’s where my other life belongs, and the only thing it’s good for is keeping me from you. But you’ll be waiting for me, won’t you? Tomorrow evening? On the front lawn, like we said?”

“I’ll be there,” he said.



The time came. Her bag was packed. She’d written a little something, to explain. She drew the curtains back, to check. What she saw made her smile. He was such an overblown dramatic fool. He’d lit a bonfire on her front lawn! What a pyromaniac. He did tricks for her in his room late at night, pulling flames from behind her ear. He said as a child, the very first thing he was taught to do was strike a match safely. Before he could tie his shoes. And the only good thoughts he ever had came through when he stared at a blaze.

She looked at Lonnie, sitting quiet with his head in a book. She felt nothing.

“Got to go out,” she said, dropping the letter on the table as she left the room.

The hallway was full of smoke. The front door wouldn’t open.



They managed to get the child out through his bedroom window. Lonnie jumped down and Alma threw Selwyn out to him.

They stood in front of the house, blackened and coughing, Alma shaking, her arms around Selwyn, her beautiful child. It wasn’t until she was absolutely sure that he was safe and well that she even noticed the burns on her arms, neck and face. They hurt.

Lonnie had his arms around both of them as they watched the old house crumple and die, and listened to sirens approach.

And then she saw him. On the edge of the trees, watching.

She screamed his name, and Lonnie’s warm comfort stiffened into a tombstone overcoat.

“Don’t,” he said, but she was already away. When Lonnie spoke she turned and looked back. Her husband, face like a church. Her son, face wet, crying for his mummy.

She stared at the child, and didn’t move. Then she turned to look at her lover. He’d noticed her now. He was staring right at her, his face impassive. Then he shrugged, flicked a dead match into the undergrowth, and walked away.

She chased him.

She didn’t catch him.



Later that night, she listened to Lonnie as he told her what a bitch she was, what a shameless immoral rancid bitch.

She tried to defend Mr Pyre, explaining that he had a turbulent past, he was just a bit mixed up...

“He tried to kill you, you stupid cow.”



She woke up the following morning, and everything she had was gone.

They were only insured for accidental fire. The fire brigade were quite clear that it was arson. The heirloom - her inheritance - the one thing that might have rescued them... gone.

Lonnie had contacted George, to get a check on the price. George, who then refused to help once Alma explained where it was. George the art dealer, who was always asking her to sell it. Who had claimed to be her friend. Who had introduced her to her new love.

When Lonnie heard what she had given away, he got up and walked from the room. And now he was gone, and so was Selwyn, and all she had was a note explaining where they were. At the airport, catching a flight to his mother’s house in Vegas. The one place she swore she would never go.

He couldn’t just snatch her son away without even a chance to kiss him goodbye. She caught a taxi, tearful, head swimming, and suddenly she found herself wandering in a daze through Departures, struggling to focus on digital displays, not wanting to acknowledge that their flight was already gone.

And then she saw it. Mr Pyre’s suitcase. So distinctive, with its burning cross, painted by hand on the side.

It was lying on one of those conveyor belt things, behind a screen.
She had nothing. Her whole life had gone up in smoke. Her beautiful house, with all her precious things, all the pictures and papers and letters, every piece of her past hoarded so obsessively, every little thing that made her who she was, that anchored her, defined her, cushioned her... all ashes and dust. Her only child, her partner, everybody and everything. Lost. So why not?

She needed revenge. She wanted her Precious Thing back. And she had nothing to lose.

She ducked under the screen and jumped onto the belt, just as it entered a narrow tunnel. She tried his case first, but it didn’t take long to discover that what she searched for was not there. So she unzipped the case next to his. As she emptied out some stranger’s belongings and hurled them aside, she laughed out loud. Everything she’d ever worn was swirling about in the atmosphere or washing back down in the rain. Some bloke in a suit could live without his shirts and pants. She climbed in and zipped it back up, reading the airline tag as she went.

This suitcase, apparently, was bound for Portugal.

Portugal. That would do.



by Clare Sudbery - Boob Pencil
Illustration by Julie Oakley.

28 Comments:

Anonymous digger said...

crikey clare
what a brill starter!!

1:40 PM  
Blogger Martin said...

Love it!

I can see it's gonna be a hard thread to follow by the time you reach me at Chapter 15!

1:42 PM  
Blogger Mimisa said...

Love the name Alma. Just perfect. :-)

2:43 PM  
Anonymous Robin said...

Clare, WOW!, (see my comment on Vit's "never promise anything" post):0)

2:59 PM  
Blogger lucy pepper said...

stonkingly good, innit? she ain't a real proper novelist for nought this girl.

3:59 PM  
Blogger mike said...

Wow, way to go! That was terrific - and having Clare's blog, I reckon I've got a smidge of back-story as to what inspired it. And if you think I didn't notice the borrowed quote from Troubled Diva... cheeky mare! :-)

4:06 PM  
Blogger Clare said...

Mike darling, the quote was an homage, not a theft. It made me giggle when I thought of putting it there - I was guessing you'd like it too. ;o)

I find it impossible to get objectivity on stuff like this, but am dead chuffed you all like it. I like it too, in parts. But as somebody famous once said (I never remember stuff like this - ask Rob, he'll know who said it), nothing you write is ever really finished. You always want to edit some more.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Clair said...

this is going to be soooo much fun.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Aunty Marianne said...

Wow! Meteor streaks into atmosphere!

I can't wait to see how much trouble I'm in by the time it reaches my chapter!

5:55 PM  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

I'm breathless. It is brilliant. Clare, I'm sitting here in awe.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Dr F said...

Blimey!

10:05 PM  
Blogger Rob said...

'kin'ell, Clare. Am I imagining it, or are you getting better at this?

My only regret is that it won't be you finishing the story off (no disrespect intended to your illustrious co-writers).

11:17 PM  
Blogger Clare said...

Yes Rob, I am getting better and better. I'm going to keep improving until I win the Booker and the Orange and the Whitbread, and then I'm going to get bored and retire to Scotland to start a Wellington boot factory.

Well, a girl can dream...

11:45 AM  
Blogger Clare said...

(P.S. Rob, see comments box on your blog for more boring answer!)

11:46 AM  
Blogger TP said...

Brilliant start.

1:14 PM  
Blogger Julie Oakley said...

I haven't had a chance to say how much I like the start to the story Clare. It's just knowing that I'm a pitifully slow illustrator meant that I had to spend every spare moment thinking about and executing the illustration. Anyway great stuff and thank you for writing something that had so many opportunities for illustrations

2:01 AM  
Anonymous Karen Winters said...

What a bang up fabulous job. This is going to be great fun.

7:01 AM  
Blogger Clare said...

Oooh, I love the illustration!

He looks suitably evil / dashing.

I'm dying to know how he'll develop - I think I've left room for him to be any shade from Pure Villian to Misunderstood Stray. [Although let's face it you can't go wrong with a good villian].

11:12 AM  
Blogger Clair said...

Yep, smashing illustration. :D

(argh...I feel quite scared about making my illustrations look anywhere near as processional now)

12:06 PM  
Blogger cream said...

Julie, classy illustration!
I'll have to follow that!

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Wendy said...

Great illustration...and love the characterisation of Alma and My Pyre - lots to play with there...they can develop any way. Ooh this is gonna be fun.....

3:41 PM  
Blogger Linda said...

You guys -- this is amazing! Love the first chapter, love the illustration, love the imagination behind it all ... I'm hooked!

8:31 PM  
Blogger LDahl said...

Awesome begining! I usually have a hard time reading online... this was a page turner:)))
The illo dropped in there at just the right spot, and looked great!
*Clapping* bravo! to you both!

5:43 PM  
Blogger Guyana-Gyal said...

Julie, that was grrr-reat. Love the drama on stage, fire, fire.

10:46 AM  
Blogger Litegrl said...

WOW! Now that was a great start...you guys that are following better step up to that plate. If you can this is going to be SUCH a great story!!!

Consider creating a link to the next chapter, for flow.
Thanks for writing this.

5:16 PM  
Blogger lucy pepper said...

thanks litegrl, we're already at chapter 17... and have just podcast the first chapter...

5:24 PM  
Blogger Catnapping said...

OMG...f***ing excellent!

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Madhumitha said...

beautiful start. i really liked the narration style. illustration complemented the story beautifully.. hope the following chapters are up to expectations!

1:52 PM  

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