Saturday, 17 May 2014

ridging spuds, the poetry of tractor driving, l'étranger, instituto cervantes, aclaiir blog, new novella, icarus, chapters 1-3



















Up to the allotment early to ridge the spuds.

A job that reminds me of a time many years ago, when I'd left school and was working on a farm in Shropshire for nine months. For weeks, I drove up and down the huge fields on my Massey Ferguson tractor with the ridger. Sometimes it took nearly half an hour to drive from the top of the field to the bottom. You'd start work early and finish at dusk, concentrating all the while in case you got out of line and knocked the spuds from their rows.

It could a poetic experience, though, potato ridging. At dusk, say, driving past the remains of an iron parkland fence and a hunting gate with curls either side like treble clefs; fading light on an old dew pond; the sun setting beyond the Welsh hills. And a lot of the time, I told myself stories to make the day go quicker. Or think through the scenes of the film I would one day make of Albert Camus' L'Étranger.

Well my film remains a dream, although the story-telling continues - see the opening chapters of my new novella, Icarus, below.

Went to London on Thursday for the ACLAIIR committee meeting (Advisory Council on Latin American and Iberian Information Resources), which this time was held at the Instituto Cervantes in Eaton Square. What a location! It was lovely to see fellow members of the committee again and to look at the new library, which was opened by Queen Sofia of Spain the day after she visited Oxford a couple of weeks ago. A colleague from the Taylor has co-written a great piece for the ACLAIIR blog, which she also edits, that covers both events and more.

For some of the week I've been reviewing a new online course that's in development for the Oxford University Department for Continuing Education.

I've also been working on my novella (isn't that a perfect form for the internet age?), which has the working title, Icarus. I've decided to post the first eight chapters of the story here in three instalments. The first appears below. Icarus is set in the early 1960s and the late 1980s. It's about a young film maker who is researching a political scandal that happened nearly twenty years earlier and who is interviewing the people that were involved. The title doesn't refer to just one character but to nearly all the main ones, who each has certain Icarus-like sides to them.

So, here are the first three chapters. [The piece is a work in progress and surnames are represented by initial letters only, pending standard libel checks.]


I
Icarus soars then, right wing inclined, wheels in the air. Below him, far, far below, lie the parched shapes of the Ancient World and the blue of the sea.

His father, the only movement in the apparently still air, flaps uneasily and ungracefully like some ancient, scrawny, bird of prey. The old man tries to raise his head, fails, tries again, succeeding briefly, mouthing something to his child.

Above him the sun, below him the earth, Icarus soars and tilts, plucking up courage, each tilt bringing him fractionally closer until, almost without meaning to, he hurls himself into the corkscrew. Sun and earth and water mix, blur and lose meaning. His muscles scream and the flimsy frame that sustains him creaks and buckles but with a sudden surge of power he breaks free. Heart exploding, fear in his limbs, he gulps the air. He is almost on top of his rapt father who, with all his might, arches his neck, his face scowling.

Icarus swoops down and away from the old man, the fool, as a voice cries out laughingly in his head. The boy regains his composure and begins another ascent, passing on his way a single golden feather see-sawing downwards. A brief inspection of his plumage shows it to be intact. It was a very small feather, he muses.

The air is warmer. He cannot see the speck that was his father. He is alone. Like a god he surveys the world. For a moment he achieves wisdom. As the globe turns he perceives the shape of the earth. He sees that the distinctive shape of his own land, which had formed itself as he rose, is but a fragment. As he marvels he is lifted by the air until his thoughts are pierced by searing pain. His skin blisters and smoulders. Vainly, he fights to aim himself into a dive but the inexorable column of air carries him, votive and diminishingly hubristic, ever upwards. Vainly he remembers his father’s scowl. Vainly he recalls how he had sneered inwardly. He can feel his face contorting in a grimace of death. Wax melts. The burning feathers choke him. The sun licks the moisture from his body. He screams and beats frenziedly with his puny arms.


II
Coughing and spluttering, not knowing where he is, or what is happening, Josh pushes himself up and bumps heavily against Sheelagh who, waking, screams and slaps his shoulder.

The room in the light from the streetlamp is unfamiliar yet familiar. A room Josh knows, but only recently. The duvet is on fire. The corner on his side is glowing and there is black smoke.

‘Shit!’ he shouts at the top of his voice and feels Sheelagh pushing away.

He grabs the duvet and dives forward, attempting to smother the glowing corner, simultaneously pulling the whole cover away from the bar fire.

There is someone coming through the open door. Sheelagh – but for a moment Josh wonders who it is.

Icy water splatters his tummy.

‘The fire!’ he beseeches. ‘The bloody electric fire!’

He yanks the plug from the socket with the snake-like flex, leaps up and manhandles Sheelagh through the doorway onto the landing. They lean against each other and gasp for breath.

‘You could have electrocuted us!’

Sheelagh begins to cry.

‘I’m sorry,’ breathes Josh, ‘I’m sorry.’ He places his palm against her belly.


III
Josh watches Samantha cross her drawing-room to the drinks trolley.

He sits in a green velvet armchair beside a carved fireplace. In the grate two large logs smoulder. He remembers the duvet and shudders when he thinks what could have happened. He is angry with himself but forces his gaze back to the room.

The sofa and four armchairs must create quite a cosy effect in some lights but today the sun streaming through the sash windows accentuates a vast emptiness – despite the beautiful paintings and pieces of furniture round the walls.

Samantha returns with two small glasses of sherry. Before sitting down, she looks into his eyes and raises her glass. He is about to say something – cheers, or sláinte. (Convent-school holidays in Ireland when her parents were fighting. Irish blood in the family.) She looks down on him as if he is a child she finds amusing.

Josh raises his glass, says nothing and drinks.

Samantha sits, angling herself towards him, her arm along the back of the sofa, her hand resting in her lap. She is poised yet gives the impression of being relaxed. Her clothes are smart - classic, she would say. Dark colours, blues and greens, only set off by the hard gleam of a string of pearls. Josh is still surprised that her hair is quite so dark. She has kept the style she had as a girl – swept back, shoulder length, held in place by a band - but what is now brown, streaked with grey, was once honey-blond.

In her photographs she looked so young and innocent: wide eyes, round smiling face and a turned up nose that he felt sure he would have liked to touch with his forefinger.

Curiously, though the rest of the face has tightened, the nose has kept its shape and softness, seeming out of place.

‘What I don’t understand,’ Samantha says, ‘is why you want to make a film about Peter. After all, who’s heard of Peter R nowadays?’ She puts up her hand, palm upwards, and shrugs her shoulders. Her eyes widen, looking youthful again for an instant.

Josh smiles.

She continues. ‘Far be it from me to tell you what to do but really, I should have thought that there were much more interesting subjects. Surely people want to be uplifted by films not presented with some sad little tale.’

When he spoke to her on the phone, he learnt nothing other than what is common knowledge. Can he draw her out?

He leans forward, feeling cool sherry splash onto his hand but managing to stop himself looking down. He frowns at her. ‘But surely your time with Peter R wasn’t sad? Well not all of it.’

Samantha’s gaze fixes on him. ‘I suppose what intrigues me is your motive for making the film. Is it sensationalism? If so, you’ll be disappointed.’

‘I’ve read the newspapers.’

‘A lot was made up. Sheer invention.’

‘A lot of facts there too – you know that.’

‘If you libelled me, I’d sue.’

‘You said. That’s why I’m here – to get things right.’

‘Such as?’

Josh breaths in, holds, takes aim and squeezes the trigger.

‘In an interview in ‘65 you said your affair with Peter ended not long before the Menton fracas.’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘This was slightly different to what you said in other interviews. I’ve started to wonder whether you broke up when you were snowed in at that cottage.’

--

The defences behind Samantha’s eyes shatter. The bullet ricochets down the tunnel of her memory. Her mouth twitches.

--

Josh senses he has hit the target. He smiles. ‘If we work together we can tell people the truth – about Peter.’

Samantha takes a sip of sherry and looks into the grate.

‘More logs?’ Josh says.

‘Why not.’

--

For a few moments she sees images different from the long-haired young man in black jeans and sneakers, crouching in front of the fire.

It has just started to snow. It is not late in the afternoon, although it is already dark. The snowflakes flurry into dotted lines in the car’s headlights but it is warm inside and the rushing sound of the hot air blower and the muffled thud of the wipers are strangely comforting.

He tells her that it’s not far to go now. They will arrive at the cottage in a quarter of an hour or so. Then they will be safe.

Peter puts his hand on her leg and gives a little squeeze. He turns and smiles at her. ‘No regrets?’

His voice is utterly reassuring. She shivers happily. She leans against his shoulder and replies, ‘None. Oh absolutely no regrets.’

Did she say that? She can’t remember exactly. Her memory has supplied these words without her will – she supposes she must have said them, or at least something very similar.

--

Josh sets the poker on the hearth and resumes his seat.

He is about to ask Samantha another question but she speaks first. ‘Actually, that was a very happy weekend. I must have been misquoted – or maybe I was still in shock. It took years for me to get over everything. You’ve read David M’s book, I assume.’

Josh nods.

‘He says we split up the night Peter drove to Menton – and the “fracas”, as you put it. That’s the honest truth. Some unkind people said I was the reason it all happened, of course, but David set them straight. Peter was unstable then anyway – he always was a bit odd, poor boy. That’s why it was so sad.’

--

An image flashes through Samantha’s mind. Peter wears his neatly-cut dinner jacket. His skin smells deliciously of tobacco. ‘I have to go now,’ he whispers and kisses her forehead. She smiles submissively.

She snaps her memory shut like a battered suitcase.

--

‘More sherry?’

Before Josh has time to reply she is up and walking towards him, hand outstretched urgently.

Josh has only taken a few sips. He wants to keep a clear head. He feels she is trying to divert his attention, although he also thinks that he has made progress in establishing a rapport with her. He drains his glass.

Before Samantha returns, she begins to talk about being snowed in at the cottage in the West Country with Peter. She has regained her composure.

‘As I say, that weekend was bliss – one of the few times when we were truly happy with each other. It was quite thrilling, actually.’ She laughs. ‘You see I was hardly nineteen – past it these days, but then I was considered very daring by my friends—’

‘I can imagine.’

‘Yes. And thoroughly bad by my mother and father, although they didn’t know about it all, of course, until much later.’

‘Did they meet Peter?’

‘They’d met him socially a few times. In the fifties, I believe. My father thought Peter was a wicked man.’

‘This was before you and him?’

She looks over her shoulder. ‘Absolutely. A lot people didn’t like him.’

Is there a gleam of satisfaction in her eyes?

Josh notices that there are two decanters containing amber liquid on the drinks trolley. He thought he’d caught a whiff of strong alcohol when she had greeted him. Whisky maybe? Yet she doesn’t appear to be drunk. Topping up?

She hands him his glass and sits down.

Whisky. Definitely.

‘It was a lovely cottage,’ she says. ‘It looked so pretty in the snow, and we were warm and happy. Peter suggested we should get married and live there. He’d be in London for part of the week and I could have babies and look after lambs and chickens.’

‘Not very PC.’

Samantha laughs. ‘PC didn’t come into it. It was a romantic dream. Even I knew that...’

As she talks Josh picks up his notebook from the floor and begins to write – Samantha has forbidden the use of a tape recorder and he isn’t sure she will be happy with him taking notes, though she seems not to notice.

Occasionally he stops her and asks a question. Far from objecting to this, she seems glad to have the opportunity of explaining things.

Josh realises that the structure of his film will have to change. The cottage is still a good starting point but the opening will not now be tempestuous and violent but peaceful and pastoral. Of course, though, there will be a sense of unease.

‘...Then the snow melted,’ she says. ‘Almost overnight. We woke up and realised straight away – you know how the light in the room is so much sharper when there is snow outside? I realised that we would have to drive home.’

Josh notices how her eyes harden suddenly.

‘I suppose I knew deep down that it would come to an end, even then – so what you read in that article was right up to a point. Looking back, it was beastly of me to keep him on the hop, because I was moving up to London permanently and things were happening, and I was young, and bound to meet someone else, someone my own age etcetera.’

She puts the glass which she has been cupping with both hands onto a side-table. She sighs and smiles at Josh.

‘Any good?’ she says.

He realises that the interview has come to a close. Reluctantly he shuts his notebook.

He nods enthusiastically. He gets up, following her example, and grins encouragement. ‘Yes that gives me lots to work on – though obviously I’d love to have another meeting. So many questions. I do realise how harrowing this must be for you and really appreciate—’

Samantha waves her hand. ‘No, I’m sure I can cope. You can make the necessary arrangements with my secretary.’

Beside his car, they shake hands.

Her face seems much softer now. When she speaks her look is almost coy. ‘I trust you, you know. I think you’ll treat what I’ve said with respect. In a way I’m glad that the truth is going to come out.’

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