Shameless I am . . .
But in celebration of the fact I've just had three short stories accepted for publication, here's a small ad for the first in my trilogy - now available on kindle and other readers:
A chapter featuring Peter, a violinist, living in a shared house that I had the misfortune to also live in back in the 80s
West Norwood 17 December 1996
Peter was halfway down the hill when he suddenly couldn't remember locking the door. He stood rigid at the bottom of the railway footbridge trying to re-live turning the key. He must have locked it. Why would he not have?
If the door wasn't secure, the others might come back to a ransacked mess — if they could tell the difference. He sighed deeply. The only thing he owned of any real importance was in the case in his hand. The rest of his stuff at Carla's could be put in a skip for all he cared.
Peter had taken a room in the shared house in desperation. Things between him and Carla had become unbearable. He never should have moved in with her. It had been a whim, based on . . . lust really.
She had taken a fancy to him during a private view in a swanky gallery in Cork Street. He had been playing a sonata; she walked up in her tight black dress and red heels and just collared him. She took him back to her minimalist steel and black flat in West London, and had him — a lot. It was like being on magic mushrooms for weeks, nothing was real except a twilight world of sex. Gradually it slowed down, his socks became offensive, his violin practice, an annoyance. It was clear she was after a different fix.
Having hastily given up his flat in Streatham, which had been too expensive anyway, Peter was stuck. As luck would have it, Carol at school was moving out of a shared house in West Norwood so Peter took the room.
Four other people lived in the house: William an eccentric animation student, Margo a depressed actress, who mainly worked at B&Q, and a tiresome couple. Peter rarely saw Anna and Phil, but always heard their rows and flamboyant making-up.
The house was a semi-detached 1920s crumbling mess: damp, with a loo that froze in winter, dry rot and an unkempt garden full of weeds. Peter was horrified to find himself back in student land, but it was incredibly cheap and quite near the train station. It would do while he figured out where he had gone wrong.
Swearing, he turned and trudged back up the hill against the gusting wind. Of course the door was locked. Should he check the gas was off? No. If that started he would be there all day. He locked and unlocked the door six times, his lucky number —no problem remembering now.
Brushing past the straggling ragwort, Peter closed the gate and retraced his steps. He had missed the 08.00. There was half an hour before the next train. He stood on the footbridge: a rusting metal construction with a snarl of barbed wire, presumably to stop sordid exits from the world. Standing in silent contemplation, Peter regarded the melancholic skyline of endless slate roofs under scudding clouds. He was always intrigued by what he privately called the sinister buildings: a group of jagged shapes — flats perhaps? somewhere in the direction of Peckham.
One day he would spend a day of psycho-geographic wandering in that area of London with maps, camera and sketchbooks, tracing the footsteps of chimney sweeps, horses' hooves, thin-wheeled carts, milk floats and buses.
That had been one of the problems with him and Carla. She called him a dreamer — a wanderer through life. She was black and white: smart, polished, click-clack shoes and new handbags. How had they ever got together? Sex. It was enough for a few months then it was boring and complicated. They were light-years apart. Books, food, travel, music — she liked Andrew Lloyd Webber for God's sake . . . it never should have even started.
Then he was running. Twenty minutes had dissolved into memories. The train would nearly be at the station. He arrived just in time, flashed his rail card, and was on the train with a hundred other passengers, reading papers, talking into mobiles or just staring with private thoughts behind tired eyes.
The school was a dingy, crouching animal of a building, Venetian blinds like half-shut eyelids, its hide torn and scratched. Peter felt a landslide of gloom whump onto him: a boring two-hour meeting about Year Three's timetables for the coming year and the oppressive cigarette fug in the head of music's room. Peter knocked on the door.
"Come," said the grating voice.
Mr Colesworth was not a happy man. A failed oboe player, intent on putting as many children off music for life as possible, he had stuck to his head's position as a tick to a dog. Seemingly no one was able to remove him. The room reflected Mr Colesworth's personality well; a dull greyness seemed to pervade everything. Cadaverous grey desk and bone-colourd walls, stained with odd patches where posters had gradually detached themselves. Little rolls of ancient Sellotape clung to the wall, each a miniature exhibition of dead flies and fluff.
Peter heard all of his own ideas squashed and trashed, one after another: no children's gospel choir, no early music group and no hip-hop club. Here is the plan for this coming year and you can fuck off and find another job if you don't like it . . . more or less.
Peter walked over to the staff room. He ate a limp cheese sandwich and talked to Simon Alderley, a dapper man in tweeds and bow tie. Simon had been teaching flute and piccolo for over a thousand years at the school and was working his way to retirement.
"Only another six years, Peter," he said, gleefully. His eyes misted over as he spoke of the voyages he would make in his camper van around Wales — the hissing kettle, the sound of birdsong — pastoral bliss after a lifetime in Streatham.
Peter got through the rest of the day. The meeting had taken away his last vestiges of enthusiasm for the job. He enjoyed the challenge of introducing the kids to new fields of music, but it was more and more paperwork and less money for anything interesting. Everyone sitting it out for the gold clock — or these days a crappy cake from Marks and Spencer's and a ragged gathering of one's fellow prison warders to say goodbye . . . must keep in touch . . .
At 5pm, Peter caught a train into central London to meet a friend and rehearse for the evening concert in Bloomsbury. This was a coup getting in with the arts centre. Perhaps things were taking a turn for the better at last. Harold had already arrived and was tuning the harpsichord. Peter greeted him and they ran through some of the pieces, the instruments sounding good in the space. Then it was time to change into stage attire, Harold opting for his dark grey suit and a blue silk bow tie, Peter, his beloved old Savile Row black suit and bare feet.
The audience was settled, the room quiet, an atmosphere of warm anticipation. The room was about half full, not too bad for a midweek gig. They played the first half; polite but appreciative clapping followed. Peter had become attuned to different types of applause — this was a good evening. They took a brief pause. On returning, Harold introduced the duo and Peter talked about the origins of the music.
The second half was better. The notes flowed easily, the violin sweet and poignant, the harpsichord, a delicate, textured layer of sound. Peter was full of the music, overflowing with new exaltation. Something good, the school receding: a different life beginning.
The applause was loud now. They played an encore and the audience left in a straggle, some hanging on to talk about the music. Peter was placing his instrument back in its velvet nest when somebody laid a hand on his shoulder.
He did not know her, but she was somehow familiar, deep down in his soul, a dream perhaps. There was an intensity of feeling unlike anything before. He took her hand.
"Peter, delighted . . ." it was electric. Harold was gawping. He dropped his tuning tool to the floor, the 'ping' echoing in the complete silence. An eternity passed. What to do, what to say next? Then his mobile rang. It was Carla, her voice strange, desperate.
"Peter, help! I'm at the flat and . . ." Then it went dead.
Peter, the nice guy unable to do otherwise, picked up his case and ran.
Up on the Tottenham Court Road, he hailed a cab, something he never did. Watching the meter was torture, only OK on someone else's expense account. "Where to, guv?" said the driver, a mountain of a man, possibly welded to his cab. Dark blue jacket, dark blue seat, it was impossible to see where man stopped and seat started. "Well?" he said, bored.
"Earls Court, No 26 Warwick Gardens — quick," said Peter as he got in. He sat down, then leant forward and asked in what he hoped was a nonchalant voice: "What d'you reckon the fare will be?"
"Now then," said the Cabbie happily. "Well you've got all the theatres chucking out, and then there's them lights out at Kensington . . . 'bout fifteen quid."
Peter's normal self pushed open the cab door and ran down the street. The 'keep calm, this is an emergency' self stayed put and stared out at the streets, rather than the meter. The taxi arrived: "Twenty guv," said the man, eyes hooded, dismally serious.
"But," began Peter, but there was no time. God knows what awaited him. He shoved the notes at the man, grabbed the violin and sprinted to Carla's door. He knocked loudly and stood, heart pounding, his breath steam in the wintry air. Nothing. He knocked again; visions of Carla hovered sickly in his mind. Carla bloodied, her elegant legs twisted beneath her after falling down the stairs . . . stabbed . . . a maniac's sinister laughter issuing from the bedroom. The door opened.
"Oh, hi," she said, eyes squinting behind a plume of cigarette smoke. "It's OK, it's sorted."
"What . . . is sorted?" said Peter, stupefied.
"Sorry, darling, I was trying to tell you. Your phone cut off. It was a leak, the upstairs neighbour's bath. It was all running into my wardrobe. My Prada powder blue shoes are quite ruined. Tragic." She paused, seeing Peter's expression of pure hatred. "I did try and call the plumber but he's in Florida."
"God, how I detest you," snarled Peter, caught in a rare moment of fury. "Your false bloody world, shoes, perfume, trade shows. Go to hell." He slammed the door very hard and walked in confusion before sitting down on a stubby garden wall. His tears dropped onto the violin case, leaving a trace in the old leather. The feeling of the unknown girl's hand was still imprinted in his own. All those sudden possibilities lost, because of a mobile phone call from a selfish woman that he no longer knew.