Full Dog Army

Being for the benefit of Mr internet

The Opening (My Birth)

1. Birth

Mère knew, as mothers do, that I was born a writer. Why else would she bear me so literarily? Jet clouds blossomed in the failing sky of the hesitant Kentish morning, forcing a premature midnight, and rolling something like black ink spilled on blotting paper. Although I am to be later labelled precocious, most notably by my tutor/mentor at St John’s and also within the Observer's astute review of my debut novel, And Thereby Hangs a Tail, on this, the occasion of my first being, frustratingly I am yet able to hear, deaf to the waves of sound passing through the pregnant air, shivering heavy with portent, penetrating my mother’s womb like post-IED dust through desert streets, to shiver my nascent, rubber-like ears, the ears of a doll and as pretty too.

Mother refused all analgesic, for what use is the numbing of physical pain, if the continued torture of my father’s absence can only be blunted by the grand anaesthetic of death’s suffocating nothingness?

(She later discovered that, during this auspicious time, Père had taken a beard and was working as a deckhand/ poet in situ for an industrialist wealthy enough to indulge a pretension towards verse, off the coast of Jamaica. Mère often jokes that she only wishes this had also been Père’s location during my conception. To this observation, my repeated laughter is that of a loyal, indulgent daughter, for, in truth I don’t comprehend how this might be possible, not least as my mother is infamously unable to cope with unsteady flooring. I remember, with no little shudder, that vomit-stained Turkish rug in the much-missed, ankle-troubling bedsit afflicted by Pisa-like subsidence in Stoke Newington. This sharp angle, due to London’s accursed clay, gave the building the appearance of a lovable drunk, but more of that later.)

Truly, my mother loved my father. And in that way that only those born in the shadow of the Second World War can. With the love of a book to a bookmark, an artillery shell to a cannon. If I were writing about her, rather than me, I might trouble Microsoft Word’s failing memory with a vain attempt at expressing, with mere words, this love, comparing it to a Song Thrush’s adoration of dawn, perhaps, if, indeed, Song Thrushes sing at dawn. They most certainly sing. And so did my mother.

Might Mère have feared the apocalypse? Or else the arrival of the demon child, much heralded by Hollywood’s dark, satanic thrills? The charcoal sky, its thunder sounding as if the gods of antiquity had finally bothered to rise from their dead-handed slumber, lightning walloping as if dearest Mother Earth twitched in her death throes, a final desperate effort to remove herself from the Sun’s orbit and so bring an end to the dreariness of it all. Bad weather, indeed. Brontëweather, as I call it. And, in a year marked not only the cinematic release of The Omen but also the growing geopolitical tension between the binary numbness of the US/USSR, countries sharing two letters but little else, if she didn’t fear my birth heralded End Times, she may well have expected me to be the last truly British woman likely born. Yes, it was the summer of 1979, Thatcher, that awesomely coiffured snake oil salesman of consumerism was PM and my mother was not and had never voted for Thatcher, would never vote for her, because, following Wilson’s first premiership, she had lost faith in a political system that promised to deliver the white heat of technological progress, but couldn’t even organise the dustbin collection. Consequently, she refused to sully her artist’s hands by drawing an X in any box. Indeed, she never wrote out the letter again, claiming the massed Xs of civilization to be a grand trumpet salute to King Nihilism.

The atmosphere of operatic portent was undercut by the eventual place of my birth. Dismissing the broken mattresses of the NHS, Mère had visualised a sacred congregation of water, piss, blood and baby formed in an antique paddling pool in the kitchen of our terraced, ex workman’s cottage, in Orpington. When push literally came to shove and Aunt Cordelia refused to answer my mother’s many and repeated telephone calls - it was later revealed that A.C. was being violently fucked in a privet bush by her part-time gardener, full-time lover - the sight of the paddling pool and the Pavlovian responses it summoned in my mother, namely childhood pissing within its plastic rings in an attempt to warm water her own father, a man as tightly faced as he was tightly miserly, refused to ever fill with even the most lukewarm of liquid because heat cost money, ask Neil Armstrong - she rushed, as a Zeppelin from a holding warehouse, into the street, a pregnant Blanche, throwing herself prostrate at the kindness of strangers’ feet and in particular the feet of strangers who might own motorcars and knew the way to Orpington Hospital.

But with the symbolism telling in the mother of a writer who has appeared on two Booker longlists before the competition was demeaned by the inclusion of Americans, with their dynastically-obsessed literature, and one once both under forty and ‘worth watching’, the only stranger outside, and not truly a stranger outside but a Glaswegian named Donald, with access to transport, was the milkman.

Milkmen are by necessity a sensitive lot. Each and every house at which they deposit their milk demands a different order of milk. Through intimate knowledge of an individual’s milk order, it is possible to understand not only their dietary preference but their very soul, that milk of human existence. That fateful morning, the morning of my entrance, he was quick to drop his ledger-book, push back his cap, and understand the beautiful, plump Kaftan-wearing woman who emerged wailing and gnashing her teeth from Number 9 had more on her mind than an extra bottle of semi-skimmed.

'Nae have to warry' he said, gripping my mother's porcelain wrists, taking hold of both the pregnant woman and the situation.

The Glaswegian accent has always struck me as forged by poetic industry.

Mother surrendered herself to fate and found fate to be a series of upturned milkcrates. Blue, they were, a false herald of a baby boy according to society’s fascistic sexual colour apartheid.

'Had we better not head to hospital?' asked my mother, nodding at the idling milk float, her propensity for alliterative speech not inhibited by the imminent birth of me.

'She cannae go fast,' said Donald, indicating the milk float's restricted speed. 'And aye can alreddy sae yon bairn's head.'

And so it fell to innocent, glorious Donald, now lost in the incarnadine sea of the myriad foot-soldiers of historic service folk, postmen, firemen, cable guys, all anonymous, penis-baring, and lost, in my mind’s eye, they share the same dead-eyed grin, but not skin colour, of Legomen - note the masculine suffix in common, to be the original seer of my virgin head.

Never one to push unnecessarily, my mother has me to slip from her loins into the (dairy) world much like a penguin diving into the pristine, ice-dusted waters of the Arctic.

'I hope she's a fool,' she managed to express, in between unplanned heaves of violent sobbing. Although she had attempted to remember FSF's plagiarised description of sad Daisy's daughter, the overwhelming ennui of being thrust into the motherhood had retarded her usually superlative memory.

'She's ne a boy, alright,' said Donald, now attempting to catch the afterbirth in a glass pint bottle. That he failed is one of mother's eternal regrets, and also caused her crying to cease. She had hoped to prepare placenta to be eaten, using the experience not only to make a symbolic point about the circularity of life but also to pitch a 1000-word article to the Guardian or Woman's Weekly at the very least. Instead the flesh, looking not unlike a discarded, undercooked, doner kebab was left kerbside for cats lucky enough to be marauding this way.

I am told that most babies scream upon their entry into the world of flesh. I think, perhaps, that this offers proof of reincarnation. I, however, was/am less obvious. I plough my own furrow, etc. As Donald leant over a crate of silver-topped pints, offering my pinkness to Mère as an Aztec presenting a virgin sacrifice to his Pagan gods, I, merely looked upon the sweat-broken brow of my mother and released a long, knowing sigh.

'What's ha nayme? asked Donald.

Mother made Donald repeat the question until she comprehended quite what was being asked. We were in Kent, after all, not Lanarkshire. When finally she understood, she wiped a splash of gore from my forehead, and replied -

'She is smaller than I visualised. I shall therefore call her Hermia.' Donald was nonplussed, being a milkman rather than an artist, although neither my mother nor I would ever deny the proud fidelity of the proletariat. 'From A Midsummer Night's Dream. Hermia is short.'

'Macbeth,' said Donald. 'Nae there's a play.'

God, should you exist, bless this milkman.

Donald was lost in reverie of the Scottish play as my mother muttered what she could remember of a Native American prayer over my face. It was at this point that I shed my first tears of being. From the off, I have possessed an intense dislike of the American cultural hegemony, be it ersatz Indian or Cormac McCarthy.

To this day, Mère claims to suffer the scarred indentations of the milk crates on her back. Especially when the weather is turning.

An Opening

1. 

How did Jonathan remember Anna and the bookshop, now that they were gone?

 

Both were small. 

The shop had been built to sell newspapers. In the 19th Century, a grand family named Fox established the town’s only newsagent. In 1982, a WH Smith’s opened in town and the less-grand great-great-great-grandson Fox tired of subsidising another loss-making business and sold up. Between 1982 and 1993 (when Jonathan’s father bought the place with inheritance money), the walls supported a flower shop, a coffee shop and a butcher’s shop. Jonathan imagined, especially in winter, he could smell dead meat. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell. Its sweetness was comforting, even though he was unsure of his nostrils.

            The space remained as it had been originally designed - the ideal dimensions for selling papers. When full of bookshelves, it became oppressive and Dickensian. On the occasion that two customers passed between the shelves, they were forced to turn amused/awkward shoulders and decide the best combination of back/groin. Jonathan had witnessed relationships born as a result of such manoeuvring.

Most of the stock was new, but the trapped must of the browning second-hand pages could be overpowering for the casual browser. The smell was an alarming anachronism, a scented poltergeist. But not for Jonathan. It stayed his nerves and summoned images of lazy summers’ teenage reading. Nothing is as evocative as scent. (And nothing is as reassuring as the scent of a book.) During miserable morning shop openings, as he breathed the stuffy air, the pain of modern living melted. He forgot terrorism, flu epidemics, mass suicides, the economic downturn and Anna. He was 17 again, listening to Morrissey. Behind the counter, there could be nothing more urgent than ordering stock and paying rates. He owned a computer. It possessed an Internet connection, which was more likely to fail the greater Jonathan’s need. On a shelf above the cash register was a kettle. Stored in a tin shaped as an old-fashioned red phone box were tea bags. He wanted for little but space.

Anna had been five foot five. He’d once called her pocket-sized.

 

Jonathan once half-loved the shop, but grew to resent it.

            Similarly, the relationship Jonathan and his girlfriend was built on a mutual convenience rather than the profound spiritual connection found in his books. They were of matching age. Their ages matched. They had attended Wellington School at the same time, but had neither been friends nor pals. Anna had been sporty and pretty with blonde hair and netball skirts. Jonathan: not so much. When Jonathan returned to Somerset to manage the bookshop, she was one of the first customers. Providence, he once laughed, as she had little interest in fiction and fantasy.

Anna was a notable first customer as she was female and under thirty (although when naked she appeared as if constructed from iron painted the colour of skin).

‘You don’t have any Candace Bushnell,’ were her first words, veritably spat. Jonathan didn’t know whether hers was a question or a statement. She added: ‘Are you Jon Blake?’

‘Jonathan,’ said Jonathan and initially found Anna’s unnecessary aggression attractive.

But she was a woman and he didn’t meet many women. They arranged a drink to ‘catch up’ and so had sex. Theirs was no love-making, no soft-focus, no white sheet covering. Their sex was ruthless and hungry. Hyena sex. The sex of desperate lovers, conscious of their world’s impermanence. Anna would habitually eat fruit immediately afterwards.

He introduced her to friends. The embarrassing moments when she asked ‘what do you do?’ with such disdain grated (she carried her law degree with the subtlety of a Chelsea Pensioner’s medal collection), but the sex was some compensation. Jonathan had been resigned that, after university and London, his move to Somerset would mark a new chapter of chastity. He had been wrong. Happily wrong. In doubting moments, he thought of the sex and he smiled and he tried to dismiss the accompanying images of fruit.

There came a succession of dates. They walked on the Blackdown Hills with sweaty hands held and took alcoholic lunches in Taunton and didn’t speak as they ate. Anna drove them to Exeter to amble along the renovated docks. They ignored the stagnant water for each other’s eyes and lips. Places and moments. They acted like this because it was how the young couples of which Jonathan read acted. Soon, because there was little else to do, Anna moved into Jonathan’s pretty terraced, just-off-the-town-centre, cottage (bought by his father). From the exterior, you might imagine the house’s inhabitant as a scatty middle-aged woman taken to flower pressing, but on entering there was no mistaking the domain of a fading bachelor. Packed bookcases and discarded newspapers where vases and pretty sideboards should rightfully be. Vinyl LPs, scattered around the thick, black and ancient hi-fi unit.

What did Anna and Jonathan have in common? They enjoyed not being alone. They spoke of buying a Labrador.

What differences?

Shit loads (Anna abhorred swearing).

 

Both shop and Anna were attractive in a paint-peeling, seen-better-days, past-potential manner. 

            Neither shop nor Anna was stunning and both required a level of considered engagement before their esoteric charm might be uncovered. But it existed - definitely - in both cases. Problem and most people’s first, silent observation: Anna’s face appeared deflated. In six-month cycles, she grew rapidly in weight and then punished her indulgences with extreme exercise, ridiculous dumb-bells and all. As a consequence, her skin had adopted a Clingfilm malleability over the hard bone structure. Mind you, she was prettier than Jonathan. He had his father’s face.

The most attractive aspect to Anna, all secretly agreed, was her laugh. It sounded as high notes from a piano made of gold or stardust or poetry. Or a platinum harp. Thing was - she didn’t much laugh. Not in company, anyway. Not after moving in with Jonathan.

Consider one trip to London in the good old laughing days:

Rainclouds had been exiled and it was one of those London nights where all pubs displayed bright flowerboxes and those lucky people lining the pavement only wanted to smile and make new friends. At Fulham Broadway underground station, they met ‘planned engineering works’ and, leaving the carriage, Anna bitched about work and names that grew familiar and they looped arms, and she pulled Jonathan close because she’d seen a couple ahead do the same. Like boyfriend and girlfriend, they walked the platforms and London spread out around them.

Stepping from the top of the station’s escalator, Jonathan moved across to the descending set of stairs and turned to moonwalk for his new girlfriend as these silver steps forever continued downwards. He thought his actions funny (they’d drunk wine & he’d got silly) but his impatient shoelace flicked behind to catch in the descending steps. With one hand on the metallic alarm box at the top of the stairs, he strained ineffectual muscles as the force of the machinery tightened the runaway lace, foot and leg. His body formed a star shape. As his flesh grew tight with tension and his lace refused to snap, Anna pointed and laughed. She cupped her cruel hands over her mouth and bent her spine and nodded joyfully to passers-by who asked if Jonathan were OK. You could see by the taut muscles of his face that he was not, even though he enjoyed the fine-glass beauty of her laugh.

The lace broke. Jonathan collapsed to his knees, safe at Anna’s shoes.

            Their relationship would have failed regardless of The Factory test or Anna’s death. The bond had run its course. As Woody Allen says in Annie Hall, relationships are like sharks. They’ve got to keep moving or else they die.

Anna was a basking shark. A bastard iron basking shark.

            Although his father had offered money for the bookshop to be decorated, Jonathan hadn’t bothered. He half-enjoyed the routine (and solitude) of opening and closing the place each Monday to Friday, but possessed a vague hope Internet custom would eventually destroy the need to own any premises other than a stockroom. An artful woman remembered from university had created him an attractive website worth visiting in its own right. She’d done him a favour with the price. There were colours and swirls and text of such compulsion that, Jonathan was sure, a traffic report stated one in every ten clickers bought a book. As far as numbers go, this was an impressive statistic (if true).

His nebulous plan, considered every wine-dulled Sunday evening: shut the shop, move back to London, and do nothing but administer the website. No owning of an alarm clock. No suit. Tracksuit bottoms and t-shirts would be worn and orange juice drunk straight from the carton just like Anna hated. He would visit art house cinemas in the evening. Occasionally, he might take Anna to expensive restaurants.

            He never did tell her about the plan.

 

A final point of comparison:

Neither survived the year.

My gift to you, friends.

I like this.

Wise Beyond His Years

A few months ago, I posted a little-read blog piece in which I whined about the preponderance of precocious kids in literary fiction. Here’s the piece, should you losers be interested:

http://tommycm.tumblr.com/post/41444494222/an-essay-about-precocious-protagonists-that-was

I have just finished, and enjoyed, AM Homes’ May We Be Forgiven, the winner of this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction, but I was also relieved to be free of the character of Nate, a prepubescent boy who, when speaking of his father, says pubescent adult things like:

"Everyone hates him. There are posting about how he ruined the network, about what a bully he was at the office - especially to women. It says that there were numerous claims settled quietly with regard to harassment of female employees."

Nate has also established a village called Nateville in South Africa, to which he sends money, worrying about the villagers’ health and safety.

It’s funny, OK, and the American middle-classes are the bullseye at which Homes aims her satire-dart. Nate is clearly a comic character and I shouldn’t take the black comedy of literary fiction so seriously, but this fucker is the epitome of that archetype that moved me sufficiently to blog in the first place (see above), the very boy/girl-wonder monster that seems to rear its acne-riddled face in every ‘literary’ novel that falls into my lap.

Why do serious writers have the hots for genius kids? I want to know.