My third novel...
I started writing my third novel June 2008, with eight pages of notes, and called it Catch a Falling Star, a title I later had to abandon when Jade Goody used it. How can I describe it? Not fantasy, like my other novels. It's like a cross between I Capture the Castle and an early Dick Francis, written in the first person. I'm pleased with how it's turned out.
These are the first two chapters:
Man with a dog
I didn’t see the man straight away.
The sun was shining, so I’d taken my breakfast toast and coffee out on the terrace. I strolled to the far corner to admire a view I never tire of: a London roofscape, a glimpse of trees in Hoxton Square two streets away, and the distant Gherkin gleaming in the early morning sun. Already the faint hum of traffic competed with the coo of a courting pigeon. My blackbird hopped towards me, bright eye cocked, waiting for his ration of sultanas. I put them in the dish, turned, and stopped dead.
There was a stranger asleep on my outdoor sofa – my new expensive sofa that I can’t really afford and shouldn’t have bought – a scruffy mongrel curled up beside him. The man wore jeans and a sweatshirt; below the old jacket draped over him, grubby fraying trainers stuck out, incongruous against the cream cushions.
My first impulse was to shake him awake, and tell him to get off my property, now. How the hell had he got up here? With a dog? My flat is on top of the building, immune to burglars, or so I’d thought. But on reflection, he might be dangerous…a schizophrenic, a drug addict – though a pretty fit one if he climbed up here – a psychopath… His face reminded me of someone I knew, but I couldn’t think who. It would come back to me. Older than I was, I’d say, probably late twenties; dark hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, unshaven, regular features smoothed in the innocence of sleep. Good cheekbones and jawline. The sort of face I might find interesting attached to someone who wasn’t a vagrant trespassing on my rooftop.
I backed away. My mobile was recharging by my bed. I would tiptoe across the terrace and through the French windows, slide them gently shut and ring the police.
The dog’s head lifted, bright brown eyes shining through fur sticking up in all directions. He hopped off the sofa, and trotted over, claws clicking on the tiled surface. He looked at the plate in my hand, then back at me, triangular ears pricked, expression optimistic; his tail wagged, and he made a small hopeful sound.
Hastily I crouched and handed him a piece of toast to silence him.
Too late. The man’s eyes opened. Sitting up, he ran a hand through hair as rough as the dog’s, and swung his worn trainers to the floor. He was nearer the door than I was. He looked at me. I was quite decent in my towelling robe, but I’d have felt happier dressed. I edged towards the safety of my flat. The man got lithely to his feet. He was six foot tall, lean and muscular under his shabby clothes, and a seedling of panic unfurled below my diaphragm. If we both went for the door, he’d get there first.
“I’d like you to leave. Now. Or I’m calling the police.” There was a noticeable tremor in my voice. Damn.
He picked up a threadbare backpack from the floor. “Right. No problem. We’re going. Come on, dog.” He sounded sane, at any rate, if curt. He walked over to the railings.
The dog, however, knew there was a second piece of toast. He gave a brief bark, then sat back on his haunches, begging, liquid eyes appealing.
The man said to the dog, “Now you’re just embarrassing me. Cut it out.”
I gave the dog the toast. He wolfed it down as fast as the first slice, then joined his owner. The man scooped up the dog and put him in the backpack. He slung the straps over his shoulders, rested one hand on the balcony railing, hesitated and turned.
“I don’t suppose you’d consider letting us out through the front door?” His voice had changed; it was warm and persuasive. A deep, attractive voice. “It’d save the climb. Up’s easier than down. And I’m bursting for a pee.”
For the first time, he smiled; a disarming, eye-crinkling smile with a big helping of charm. Though it did occur to me he might be doing it deliberately, entirely conscious of its effect, I’m only human. I no longer believed he might be clinically insane, drugged or dangerous. Still, I deliberated. I wished I was taller, more muscled, and a Ju-jitsu black belt. Then if after all he turned out to be a mad axe-man, I could deal with it.
I made up my mind. I live alone, I run my own small business and I’m used to making my own decisions. I reckon I’m a good judge of character, and I thought he was okay. Besides, if he climbed down, he might kill himself – and the dog – and I’d feel terrible. I imagined a scream, a thump, rushing downstairs… then living with the knowledge I could have prevented it.
I led him inside and showed him the bathroom door.
My flat is just about perfect; one big studio room with the staircase and a black glass and steel kitchen along one wall, and a bathroom and a utility room opening off the wall opposite. There’s a mezzanine for my bedroom. The architect I employed thought I was mad not to use the whole of the rooftop area for the flat. He said I could have two bedrooms, and it would put at least fifty thousand on the property. But I wanted a stretch of windows on to an open space where I could grow things, and wander out for breakfast among the honeysuckle, jasmine and bay on sunny days; or entertain friends under a summer moon on sultry nights. And that’s what I’ve got.
In the man’s absence I fetched my mobile, keyed in 999 and put it ready to hand below the counter. I pulled on trousers and tee shirt, opened a tin of sardines for the dog, and gave him a bowl of water. I turned on the radio. Allegri’s Miserere, one of my favourites. I dropped some more bread in the toaster, and put the kettle on. My coffee had gone cold.
I was eating when he came out. His hair was tidier than before, and wet round the edges where he’d washed his face. I found this evidence of an attempt to keep up appearances reassuring.
“What’s the dog called?”
“He hasn’t got a name yet. He picked me up…last night.”
“What are you called?”
He paused for a moment, eyes expressionless, as though deciding whether to tell me or not. He had switched the charm off again, it seemed. “Joe.” His gaze went to the food on my plate.
“I’m Caz. Caz Tallis. D’you want some toast? Coffee?”
I pressed the toaster knob and spooned instant coffee into a mug (I prefer instant coffee to the real thing. James grumbles about it every time he comes here).
“How did you end up on my roof?”
“Hoxton’s too noisy to sleep, especially in the small hours of Sunday morning. A lot of people milling about, music, police sirens.” He put a spoonful of demerara into his coffee, looking down as he stirred it. His hands were nice. Strong-looking. Round his wrist was one of those chunky fake-designer watches with lots of dials, and numbers circling the edge. “So I climbed up to your flat roof. I thought it was a commercial building, no one around at the weekends.”
“You must be good at climbing.”
“Yup.” He did the smile again, a mega-kilowatt one this time, looking at me under his lashes. This guy had charisma in spades, and he could turn it on and off at will. The irritating thing was, even though I could see him doing it, it still worked. I couldn’t help smiling back.
“I really meant, why haven’t you got a home to go to? Why are you sleeping rough?”
“It’s a long story. Happens every day. Boring, too.” He spread two slices of toast thickly with butter and honey.
I wasn’t going to let him off that easily.
“So bore me with it.”
He was eating the toast as fast as the dog had. He shook his head. I couldn’t quite believe he was refusing to tell me anything, while sitting on my stool in my kitchen eating my food.
“Let me guess. You’re just out of jail, and you lost that big see-through plastic bag they give you with everything you own inside it.”
“Or you were a member of a fringe religion, gave them all your possessions, then lost your faith and had to leave.”
“Or you got hit over the head, lost your memory, and you’re wandering around waiting for it to come back.”
This seemed to amuse him. Without asking permission, he reached for the loaf of bread, and put two more slices in the toaster. He helped himself to an apple from the fruit bowl and bit into it. I got up and put my plate and cup in the dishwasher. It’s possible I did this with a hint of a flounce. I let the silence ride.
He spoke. “My wife kicked me out. Changed the locks, put my stuff in a skip. Drew all the money out of our joint account.”
I turned to look at him. “Why?”
“Usual reasons.” He smiled slightly. “Another woman. Women. So I went on a bender. Spent all my cash, lost my mobile. Ended up in Hoxton.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“Hitch to Maidenhead. I know someone there who’ll lend me money, maybe put me up till I sort myself out.”
“I’m delivering a horse to Bracknell today. I’ll give you a lift if you like, it’s in the same direction.”
“Thanks. Where d’you keep the horse? Downstairs?”
It was my turn to smile. “Yes. You’ll see in a minute.”
* * *
We went down the stairs, the dog pattering after us, and out of the door below. As I locked it behind me, I looked forward to seeing Joe’s reaction. I’m proud of my workshop, and secretly enjoy showing it off.
I restore rocking horses. There’s not much money in it, but I wouldn’t do anything else. I’m living my dream. That’s what my mother told me to do, two years ago when she knew she was going to die. I thought about it for a while, then gave up my job teaching Art, sold her house in Fulham, and spent the proceeds buying the decaying Hoxton house and transforming it. Unfortunately, I got it slightly wrong and ended up spending more than I got from Mum’s house; so now I’m penny-pinching to pay back the bank bit by bit. It was totally worth it, though, and in five years, with luck and hard work, I’ll be clear.
The whole of the floor below the flat I use for the final finishing stages, as the light’s terrific; gesso, painting, dappling, nailing on the manes and tails, making the saddles and bridles. I breathed in the familiar agreeable smell, a mixture of leather, acrylic paint, whiting and rabbit glue.
Joe looked about him. Half a dozen horses, all old, all different makes and sizes, stood around at various stages of refurbishment. I patted the nearest one, a G & J Lines bow rocker, and paused to allow him to express interest and admiration, should he want to. He didn’t.
“Maybe you should phone your wife,” I remarked, as we went down the next flight of stairs.
“Maybe,” he said.
The room below is where I do the woodwork. There are two workbenches, and as many big machines as I could fit in; a planer, band saw, circular saw, a lathe and a belt sander. Hardboard patterns hang on one wall, with hand tools on shelves. Planks of wood are stacked against the wall wherever there is room. It’s beautiful. I ran my hand through a pile of fresh sawdust. The smell here is even better, the resiny fragrance of pine. I glanced at Joe. Nothing. I led him to the next staircase.
“She probably feels she over-reacted. I expect she’d ring you if she could. She might be worrying about you.”
“I doubt it,” Joe said.
The ground floor is my office and showroom. It’s carpeted, with a desk and a leather sofa. Elegant. Two doors lead to a minuscule kitchen and compact loo and shower. I had them put in because I lived here while the builders built the flat on the roof, and it’s quite handy now if anyone wants to stay. I keep the finished horses here; the ones waiting for delivery or collection, and the unsold ones. Five of them are mine, brand new and made to my own pattern; based on traditional horses, but carved by me to my designs. Not sold yet. It’s difficult to sell modern rocking horses, unless they are mass-produced and cheap. I told Joe this. He grunted.
“You didn’t say whether you had any children.”
“No, I didn’t,” Joe said. “You’ve got sawdust on your nose.” He flicked it off, and suddenly grinned at me. “Cool horses. Cool set up.”
I’m a fool. I could feel a huge smile spreading across my face.
It was useful, Joe being there, because it meant he could help me lift the rocking horse to the van. The horse was a Collinson, dating from the 1970s, not very valuable, but it looked nice the way I’d restored it, and it was big. On my own I’d have had to take it off the stand.
The van was on the road outside – it’s double yellow lines all the way round Fox Hollow Yard where my workshop is. I reversed the van slowly between the brick walls of the archway and over the cobbles to my door. We loaded the horse and got in the cab. I turned the ignition key. The engine rumbled into life, gave an apologetic cough, and died. I took the key out again.
After thirty seconds, Joe said, “What are we waiting for?”
“It does this. You have to give it a few minutes, and try again.”
Joe fished an iPod out of his pocket, put the earphones into his ears, eased down in the seat and closed his eyes. The dog settled in his lap. I tried the key once more, and this time the van got its act together and set off gamely down the road.
“It’s a good van really, it’s just feeling its age,” I said. Joe didn’t answer.
* * *
Being Sunday morning, the roads were quiet as we cut across London to the M4. I like it when you get to the first sight of real countryside, with sheep and cows. Joe seemed to be asleep. I had hoped he’d tell me more about himself. We passed Slough and I wondered whether to wake him up for directions, or leave it a bit.
“It’s got to be junction seven or eight…” I muttered under my breath.
He opened his eyes and sat up.
A sudden suspicion entered my mind.
“You weren’t asleep,” I said accusingly. “And is that iPod even playing anything?” How could he have charged it, anyway?
“Nope. I got fed up with all the questions.”
I stopped the van where he told me to, keeping the engine running, outside an ordinary, quite pleasant detached house in a street off the main road. Joe undid his seatbelt and put his hand on the door catch, looking me in the eyes. His were brown like the dog’s, but a shade darker.
“Well, thanks. Good luck with the horses.”
I reached for my handbag, got out a twenty pound note and handed it to him.
“What’s this for?”
“You can’t wander around without any money. It’s just in case.”
He put it in his jeans pocket. “I’ll pay you back as soon as I can.”
“Keep it. It’s a gift.”
I didn’t want to be disappointed if he didn’t return it. I preferred to give it to him, even though twenty pounds is quite a lot of money to me. In spite of his grouchiness I liked him; I didn’t want to watch him walk off, him and the dog, with just what he stood up in and no money for a bus, or a cup of tea, or a phone call if his friend was out.
If he’d asked me for money there’s no way I’d have given him anything. Strangers are always coming up to me on the street and pitching me a tale about being robbed and needing the fare to get back home. I must have a kind face. I gave the first two what they asked for, then wised up. But Joe hadn’t asked for anything, except to use my bathroom.
He smiled, opened the door and got out, followed by the dog. I put the van into gear and drove off. I didn’t expect to see him again.
The Collinson’s new owners lived in an old rectory, surrounded by gardens. The horse was a present for their youngest daughter. They had selected it at the gesso stage in my workshop the month before, which meant they got to choose the finish: a blond mane and tail, chestnut tack and blue rosettes.
The father came out as I arrived, to carry one end. Between us we lugged it inside and up a broad curving flight of stairs, and paused at the top to get our breath. Rock music pounded out from the older daughter’s room; beyond a door bearing a skull and crossbones it was a typical frowsty teenage den, with curtains drawn against the sun, clothes tangled all over the floor, and its occupant hunched at a computer screen. She gave us a dark stare, and returned to Facebook.
Something caught my eye.
On the open wardrobe door was an iconic rock poster, so ubiquitous that even I, who am not a fan, had seen it and knew the name of the rock star. It wasn’t posed; the photographer had got this atmospheric shot with luck and skill mid-performance. Ric Kealey stood against a smoky dark background, wearing low-slung jeans and nothing else, his back to the camera, showing some impressive muscles. His left hand caressed the neck of his guitar, his head turned so he could smoulder at me over his naked, glistening shoulder. You could see beads of sweat flying where he’d flung back his hair.
He looked a bit like Joe. Younger, and his hair was long, whereas Joe’s was quite short, but there was a definite resemblance. That must be why I’d thought he looked like someone I knew.
“One last heave?” said my customer. “Nearly there.”
We edged carefully through a doorway – I didn’t want to scrape the paint after all my hard work – and lowered the horse on to the middle of the carpet. This room was pinker than was good for it, and contained more soft toys than any rational child could require. (Someone once asked me to paint a rocking horse, a perfectly good Patterson Edwards, pink. I refused. I have my principles.) I wondered how long it would be before the bedroom turned into a teenage fortress, and whether the rocking horse would stay.
We stood and admired my handiwork for a few minutes, then he offered me a cup of coffee, and I thanked him and said I had to be off. Another satisfied customer. The van started first time, and I headed for home.
* * *
The journey back was slower, once I got to the outskirts of London. Round about the Cromwell Road I was hardly moving. I flicked through the station presets on my van’s ropey old radio; Abba, Mozart, weather and an advert telling me I could get rich playing the stock market. As if. I switched it off.
I started thinking about Ric Kealey. He’d become the biggest, most sensational rock star ever, back in the days when I was at art college. Not my sort of music, but you couldn’t help knowing about him. He was everywhere, and as far as the tabloids were concerned The Voices and their lead singer were the best thing since Princess Diana. Whatever they did made the front page. They were huge; they supplied the soundtrack to a whole generation’s yearning, exaltation and dreams.
I decided to look Ric Kealey up on the internet when I got home, and see if he really did look like Joe.
* * *
Since it was Sunday I grilled some bacon and treated myself to a BLT for lunch. I made a pot of tea (weird of me I know, since the Good Lord gave us teabags, but I think it tastes better). I took it on a tray out to the terrace, put it on the table, fetched my laptop and curled up in comfort on my new sofa under the big cream parasol. The sun shone, a gentle breeze blew, the blackbird sang. Perfect.
I googled Ric Kealey, and went to Wikipedia. The page went on forever. Only one picture, of him with a guitar while he was still at school, looking solemn, his face with the soft curves of adolescence, hair flopping over his eyes. He started the band when he was sixteen or so. In the photograph he didn’t look much like Joe. His mother was an actress, mainly on television – not a household name, but quite successful, in work most of the time. I realized she’d been in a sitcom I watched as a child called Better the Devil. His parents split up when he was small, he went to boarding school at seven, excelled at music from an early age…
I had a swig of tea, a mouthful of sandwich, and scrolled down, looking at the subtitles. The Voices In My Head (band), Early Fame, Musical Influences, Kealey/Orr songwriting partnership, Drugs and Alcohol, Conflict, Relationship with the Press… I stopped there and clicked on the link to The Voices In My Head. There were a couple of photos of the band members, one early one before they got Jeff Pike as their drummer, and a black and white poster with them all in dark glasses looking morose, as if earning squillions every year was no laughing matter. I returned to Google and clicked Images.
Loads of pictures; Ric Kealey in colour, in black and white, tiny at Wembley Stadium, close-up so his features filled the frame, fake Andy Warhol silk-screen multiples of his face, Ric playing his guitar, singing, smoking a cigarette, making a V-sign at the paparazzi, on stage with fans reaching for him, full face, profile…and all of them looking very like Joe. Very like Joe indeed.
It couldn’t be him, though.
I went to Youtube and typed Ric Kealey in the box, and selected the only song whose title I remembered. A grainy postcard-size rectangle showed The Voices on top of a tall building; London, since I could see the Eye in the background. A big flat space, with random bits of air conditioning systems, lifts, satellite masts and fire escapes sticking up here and there. The camera panned in close on the drummer. A heavy, throbbing drumbeat. Stirring. I turned up the sound. The camera moved to Ric Kealey as he struck the first, arrogant chord on his guitar. Every hair on my skin stood up. I suddenly understood why they were mega-successful. He began to sing into the microphone, intensely, as though he was alone, completely ignoring the camera crew filming him. I watched, transfixed, to the end of the song. Ric glanced across to the bass guitarist, and smiled.
I sat back, heart thumping. Youtube offered a replay, or another of The Voices’ hits. I didn’t need a replay. I knew now that Ric was Joe, beyond any doubt at all. Which was very odd, as Ric Kealey died three years ago.