by Mike Fox
The passage between houses led, via a dogleg, from Blondin Avenue to Chandos Road. At the dogleg it branched left and right to become an alleyway, separating the back gardens of those peaceful, if nondescript, suburban streets. It might once have been used for delivering coal and suchlike. Now, deprived of obvious purpose, for the most part it simply existed, with untrampled weeds grown to shin height. It seemed to me, as I suppose it would to most people, an improbable workplace.
I should explain that I couldn’t help noticing. My desk stood by the rear window of my first floor maisonette. So when ideas deserted me, which was often, I peered out at the oblong strips of lawn and hedging, demarcated by fences high enough to obscure neighbours, and hoped for inspiration.
That, then, is how it started, with me not looking for anything in particular, or thinking of anything definite. And, to be fair, prurience is pretty much a survival mechanism for a writer of social realism.
At first I only saw her head and shoulders as she approached, and that from a distance of about thirty metres. Then these would disappear behind the fencing and shrubbery, as would those of her various companions, who accompanied her one at a time. These were always male, though otherwise they were an assorted bunch, varied in age, height and what I could see of their dress sense. They never stayed long—at one point I began to time them—the most just over twelve minutes. And they always left first, Rowena—eventually I learned her real name—taking the alternative exit shortly after.
Once begun, this pattern repeated itself at varied intervals, punctuating my day. For some reason it confined itself to Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, though I can’t say this with complete certainty: during weekends I was rarely at my desk.
The writer of fiction is a permeable creature, in many ways at the mercy of his or her immediate environment. Things, even the smallest occurrences, are observed and then ingested in a largely involuntary process. The writer’s brain becomes a filing system, although in my case a poor one, with files changing order, losing themselves, or opening and closing of their own accord. So basically I found myself possessed by a small but insistent poltergeist, the visual equivalent of an earworm, hurling image after image across my synapses. Before long I did the only thing a writer can do: I abandoned my work in progress and, seeking exorcism, began a new one.
Not knowing her name, or expecting that I ever would, I called the alley woman Becky. It seemed to fit the brief incomplete glimpses our respective positions allowed me. Her hair was chaotic in a way that could suggest an artistic temperament.
She often wore what looked like a purple cagoule, which I could easily imagine splattered with a rainbow mix of oil paints. Her manner was not furtive. Instead my sense was of someone purposeful and matter-of-fact, undaunted by her surroundings or the clandestine nature of what she appeared to treat as a form of cottage industry.
Rising out of these impressions, the Becky in my story proceeded to make herself known. She started to exhibit a feisty side, a nuanced appreciation of opportunity, a Zen-like ability to respond to circumstances as they presented. A broken marriage behind her, she was funding herself through art school as a mature student, belatedly realising the promise she’d shown as a schoolgirl, and ripping up whole archives of small-town inhibition in the process. She had just reached the stage of completing her first triumphant portfolio when the email arrived.
You should turn email off when you’re writing, but I don’t. Frankly I more or less beg for distraction, whatever form it takes. Even so, it was not possible to welcome this particular example wholeheartedly.
It’s worth mentioning that, in the presence of an audience, I become a mumbling wreck. This happens irrespective of the size or make-up of the group involved, or indeed the context in which I find myself meeting them. I realise that someone who purports to earn a living from writing should not be cowed by an invitation from a small, local book club. However, I was.
‘You’ll have to do this sort of thing,’ I was told, early on. ‘People expect it, and it sells books.’
I could see the reasoning. So my default position, in the main, was to submit to the misery and say yes. And this particular request came from a group who met only a few streets away. I would probably have seen most of them in the local Tesco. They had opted to discuss one of my stories. Could I come and talk about it and perhaps give a brief reading?
In short, I agreed.
Perhaps it was a compensation mechanism, but Becky, like her real-life counterpart I suppose, was not inhibited by anything you might call social phobia. In my mind her cagoule had become a smock, worn flamboyantly on public occasions, a sort of calling card to the media and rich, gormless patrons. Embracing success, she had no further need to self-fund her muse in an alley. I began to consider setting her up in a spacious disused warehouse in Moorgate, or would that be premature?
In the meantime her alter-ego continued to appear at intervals towards the latter end of the week. For the benefit of my story I had tried to project my imagination into that narrow strip of weed-ridden space, separated from the banality of suburbia only by rotting fences and untended vegetation. Unfortunately I found this difficult. Fiction, I believe, cannot allow itself to respect privacy, but there was something about the situation that brought out my inner censor. Or perhaps that’s the wrong term—I just felt I shouldn’t ‘look’ more closely for reasons I struggled to access, but feared might be complex.
While this went on I was at pains to prepare for the book group. I had set certain boundaries: I would read—I am a hesitant and fallible reader—and answer questions. I would not give a talk. I have a particular dread of dialogue, not least because I can’t do accents. I selected a passage without any. I couldn’t hope to rise above an uninspiring monotone, but at least I would get through. So I told myself.
At eight o’clock on a damp Monday evening, the late-August sky already darkening, I made my way to the address I’d been given. The name of the road was vaguely familiar to me. I began to remember the particular aura of acrimony that can hover, like ectoplasm, around book clubs. With my marriage ending the way it did, most of the time I was glad to live alone. But moments like this could invoke old demons of abandonment.
Swincombe Avenue, when I reached it, sloped sharply down then up again, a well-groomed park skirting most of one side. It boasted faux-Victorian street lamps and a sign suggesting that somewhere in the vicinity stood a Christadelphian church. It was a notch up from the street where I lived. Like most of its neighbours number thirty-two, my destination, proved to be a thirties semi, the front door panelled with stained glass, the brickwork clean and in places mildly ornate. I stood, hesitated, then knocked.
A shadow appeared in the lighted hall, grew larger as it approached, then the door opened. A slender woman in a floral dress and Doc Martens stood before me. Her hair was scraped back, making her features rather austere. She removed her glasses, and for a moment I felt like a specimen under a microscope. Then she smiled.
‘Greg—hello! Please come in. I recognise you now from your website photo. I’m Penny.’
I could identify what I was feeling as I felt it: that very specific sense of exposure triggered by the moment you supersede your online presence.
‘Hello, Penny—thanks for inviting me.’
Penny waved this away.
‘It’s very kind of you to come. You’ve arrived at a good time. We’ve just been discussing your story. Things were getting quite animated. We’re through here.’
She turned and led me into a largish, high-ceilinged living room—the sort that in days past might have been kept for Sundays and special occasions. The group, consisting of only six people, were sitting round an oak drop-leafed table, which had been extended to form a circle. Wine glasses, bottles and high-end snacks were spread randomly in the middle.
‘We’ve put you here,’ Penny said, indicating a Queen Anne chair, dissimilar to the others and slightly throne-like in comparison. ‘We’ve got red and white open – which would you like?’
‘Just water for the moment please.’ I smiled apologetically. Only a fool repeats the same mistake in a similar context. I scanned the group, all smiling back at me, and as I did so thought I recognised the features of the woman sitting immediately to my left. Then I realised they belonged to Becky.
Penny placed a glass of water at my elbow. ‘Let me introduce you,’ she said. ‘I’ll go anti-clockwise.’
This meant she got to Becky last. By that point I had forgotten all the other names.
‘This is Rowena,’ Penny said.
The skin beneath Rowena’s eyelids creased pleasingly as she deepened her smile. She had a very frank gaze. My head nodded at her then I found myself turning to the refuge of my rucksack, to buy time rummaging for the well-thumbed anthology that contained my story.
When my nerve deserts me in this type of situation I have a tactic. I say: ‘Before I start perhaps you could give me a little background—what sort of writing interests you for instance.’
I said it now.
There is a danger in this strategy. There is something about me that impels others to talk, at length, about themselves, however reticent they might be in other circumstances. Now I had invited them. Proceeding anti-clockwise again it took half an hour before the conversation reached Rowena.
‘I’m writing a contemporary novel,’ she said, when her turn finally came. ‘I’m interested in liminal spaces, particularly liminal urban spaces.’ Again that steady gaze, and a smile I could almost call demure. I waited for her to elaborate but she didn’t.
‘Fascinating – a bit like psychogeography perhaps?’ I managed to suggest.
‘A bit, yes.’
‘Rowena’s just finishing a PhD in creative writing as well,’ Penny cut in, rather abruptly I thought. ‘But perhaps you’d like to read for us now, Greg?’ It was the first hint of friction, but by this stage I was grateful to get started.
I’d timed myself at home. Going steadily, the excerpt would take approximately eight and a half minutes to read. At a certain point I realised I was failing to make eye contact with the group. I looked up in what I hoped was an engaging manner and lost my place. After that I just ploughed on to the end. There was a silence, then a few nods and murmurs.
‘Now for questions,’ Penny said in a determinedly cheerful voice.
Rather than asking questions, however, most of the group chose to offer comments, to which I did my best to respond, where necessary. I’ve learned that readers are usually more interested in the thoughts a story provokes than the text itself. My story had begun with a motif: a small, shallow fish pond set in the grounds of a hospital. The motif recurred throughout the narrative. It was intended to be an allegory for the restriction one of the characters felt while confined on a hospital ward. No-one got the allegory.
Rowena didn’t speak much, but on the odd occasion our eyes met she seemed to be looking at me rather sympathetically. I felt that had she chosen to offer more observations they would have been interesting, and probably supportive. After twenty-five minutes or so the discussion petered out and, lacking the courage to excavate the remaindered copies from my rucksack, I thanked the group and made to leave. Penny saw me to the door.
‘Thank you, Greg. Much food for thought.’ Her smile looked particularly taut in the harsher light of the hallway. The door had closed before I reached the end of the path.
I have the capacity to spend an hour deconstructing a comment like that, but there was more on my mind now: Becky, who had just become Rowena, to be precise. I tried to examine how I’d felt sitting next to her, knowing what I knew, or what I thought I knew. It had felt like balancing on a narrow ledge between two compartments of a life. Or even three—I had also to reconcile the person I’d met with the person I’d imagined.
As I began to ponder this, it occurred to me these were not entirely dissimilar. Rowena was a student after all, presumably mature, and like her counterpart studying an arts subject. And now, as I re-imagined her presence, I thought I could sense a quiet fearlessness. That would also more or less fit. Furthermore, from what she said she’d clearly been adopting an experiential approach to her research. Perhaps I could integrate that into my story?
I turned into my road and realised I hadn’t noticed the light rain that was falling. The sky was dark, the air cool, and another summer, I suddenly thought, had gone.
I slept rather badly that night, as I expected to. I am a slow assimilator of social events. The following day I was glad to return to my routine. I needed time to mull things over.
Aware that my brain wasn’t at its best, I pottered over a couple of old stories, changing a word here, a sentence structure there. Then, somewhere around lunchtime, an idea began to intrude. It was a Tuesday. Becky, aka Rowena, would not be coming today. Perhaps, after all, it would make sense to go and look at the alley? And surely I was due a break anyway? And wouldn’t this be my research – the valid exploration of a concept: ‘the liminal urban space’?
It probably took less than a minute to reach the alley from the time I left my desk. I waded through the weeds and what looked like decades of discarded matter, some of it so old it bordered on the archaeological.
The dogleg section, when I got to it, proved singularly dispiriting, unkempt and smelling mildly of decomposition. But it was also undeniably private, especially as the part Rowena frequented turned out to be a dead end. I stood there silently, trying to reconcile the person I’d met—not to mention her fictional self—with the person who, as far as I could tell, came here so imperturbably. Could the unifying factor be that steady gaze? I thought of the strange ways we encounter others in this world, each meeting a microcosm of some larger pattern that might never be fully revealed. I thought of my marriage, then put the thought away.
Eventually I turned and walked back to the street. As I did so I glanced up at the window of my writing room. It revealed nothing but an anonymous pane of glass, reflecting the bland sky. I paused to stare for a moment, and as I did so was forced to recognise something in myself: a certain invisibility, the elusive self-absorption of the writer, the person safely hidden behind the text.
I had lunch, then spent the afternoon doing admin and shuffling between stories again. Sometimes it’s exciting to have several narratives playing out together, sometimes it’s just confusing. Eventually, I told myself that really I’m a morning person, and finished early.
The following day I returned to the Becky story. I realised I couldn’t proceed without re-writing the script so far. Somehow it had become more complicated—the more you know the more uncertain it’s possible to be. And, it being Wednesday, there was another matter. I felt like someone who waits alone for a train on a remote station with no timetable. I read, I amended, and every now and again allowed myself to glance out. Eventually, just as I began to itch for coffee, I saw Rowena’s tousled head above her purple cagoule. I sat very still, knowing she would only be visible for a few seconds. And then it happened. She looked up in what seemed my direction, and I was left to wonder—I am still wondering—if that brief flutter of her fingers was aimed at me.
Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His stories Breath and Outliving the Muse (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story Voices (Ayaskala) was nominated for Best of Net 2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Connect at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.