Novel Extract – extract from Dream Girl
The first real adult book I remember reading – at around age 13 or 14 – was the highly unsuitable (in so, so many ways) Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys. Thank goodness for libraries! Actually I was bemused – to my teenage self it read like a Paris guide book. I know I read it again later, and I probably mulled it over at the time. What confused, and then intrigued, was the use of backstory.
Sasha returns to Paris, jaded and older if not wiser, and as she tours the bars and cafés, she recounts her story. I’d never really come across that idea, at least not to this degree and this consciously, in my reading of children’s fiction. Here was form as well as content, style as well as story. And some of it must have stuck.
Whilst my short novel Dream Girl is a set in another country, another century and I would never dare to set it against Good Morning, Midnight it does take a similar form, particularly in the first section. As Poppy walks the streets day and night, never sleeping (or so she says), she tells her tale.
Here, in this extract, Poppy describes her home life with her Gran, before Gran starts to unravel like an old piece of knitting, and her friendship with Lucy.
Nobody in my class at primary school lived with a grandparent. Lucy’s granddad lived with Lucy and her family, but that’s different. Totally different, as I found out. If I’d realised I might have pretended Gran lived with us, with me and Dad. But it just never occurred to me to lie about it, at least not at first. I live with my Gran, I said – simple.
You might be thinking what’s the difference then? Either her gran lives with her, or she lives with her gran. Not much in it you might say. Well there’s a whole world of difference – a world of flowery sofas and deep patterned carpets and cushions with fringes and fussy little tables dotted about between the chairs, with lacy cloths and spider plants spilling off their well-polished tops. A world of wipe your feet and put on your slippers and come and help with the dusting or the potatoes. Because there was always lots to do – bits and pieces of shopping to fetch, because of course there was no car. There would be a cake to make, runner beans to collect from the garden and ornaments to wipe clean. And then after we’d done the chores and had tea and washed up, Gran would sit in her favourite chair and knit and I’d lie on the rug and watch television until Dad came in for his supper and it was time for my bath and bed.
Not that I minded any of it. If I’d thought about it, I suppose I thought everyone lived like that. But I didn’t think about it – it was just my life.
Lucy came home for tea once, walking slowly back from school with Gran and me. It had been washing day so we helped Gran bring in the sheets and I showed Lucy how to shake them and fold them the way Gran had taught me. Then we played outside on the swing.
I used to love that swing – a birthday present from Dad and Gran together. I’d swing and swing, higher and higher, or at least that’s how it felt. At the top of each arc I could catch a glimpse of all the back gardens in the street, all the fences and lawns and sheds and lines of washing. I was swinging up over the whole street, and the next and the next and up over the whole town. I shut my eyes and swooped across the sky then safely back down again to my garden.
We were at the end of the road you see, the very end of the terrace. That’s why Gran had never moved – she’d been so lucky to get the end house with a strip of garden and a little gate at the side, as well as garden front and back. It meant you could keep your bins out the back and not have to bring them through the house once a week. We were the lucky ones. And I knew it was true because my gran said so and there was no one to sneer and tell me otherwise, at least not at first.
Gran had made a really special tea for Lucy – egg and cress sandwiches with her own home-grown tomatoes, followed by treacle sponge and custard, with fizzy orange to drink, although I was usually only allowed fizzy drinks at the weekend. After tea we played in my room – a game Lucy invented of jumping off the windowsill onto the bed – until her dad came to pick her up in his car. ‘Thanks for having me,’ she said and then waved out of the window all the way up the street.
I thought she’d had a nice time, didn’t doubt it. ‘My granddad’s a bit fussy too, like your gran,’ she said the next day at school. ‘Fussy and slow – likes things his way. You’ll see when you come round to my house. He complains about every one talking loudly and then he has the television in his room turned up really high. It drives Mum mad.’
Lucy’s house was big. You had to go up some steep steps outside and then down again to the huge room in the basement. All the rooms in my Gran’s house had names – the kitchen, the lounge – but this room was a bit of everything. It had a television and a big squashy sofa at one end, a huge bookcase and a table in the middle and a kitchen at the other end, with shiny black tiles and an enormous stainless steel cooker and lots of gadgets with enough flashing lights and beeps going off for a spaceship. Lucy’s mum drank a glass of wine while we ate tea with her big brother – pasta and green sauce and warm bread and corn on the cob. I’d never seen anyone drink in the house before. Dad went down the pub for that, and back then it was only on Fridays and Saturdays.
I had to watch what to do with everything, which bits of food to pick up with your fingers, where to put the sauce. It felt like visiting a foreign country, not that I ever had of course. ‘So you live with your Gran, do you?’ Lucy’s mum asked and I just nodded as if I wasn’t quite sure how to speak the language either. But I knew what she really meant. ‘Where’s your mum then?’ she wanted to say, but nobody ever said it, not just like that. I wanted to ask where they kept Lucy’s granddad, why he wasn’t eating with us, but of course I didn’t. He could have been out I suppose, but later when we were playing upstairs on Lucy’s computer I could hear a television coming from behind a closed door.
And then her dad came home, calling from the hall as Lucy ran down to greet him. He was a big balding man with a round stomach under his stripy shirt, blinking behind his glasses and smiling down at Lucy as she squeezed him like a giant teddy bear. He’s the one who makes the money for all this, I thought – the shiny kitchen and the paintings on the walls and the tall bookcase full of books. I couldn’t really believe it.
My dad was lean and quick like a greyhound, quick to smile a thin-lipped smile but quick to wipe it off his face again. Not unfriendly, but definitely not the sort of person you squeezed. And he was never out of work either in those days. Gran said we were lucky with that too. Dad did all sorts of jobs – drove a van, worked for a friend who was a builder.
But suddenly I wasn’t sure what luck was anymore. Gran’s sort of luck – finding a bargain at a boot sale or not having to water the tomatoes because it rained, living in the end house with my own swing – none of that seem to count in Lucy’s world.
Lucy and I stayed friends for a while after that, at least at school, although we never visited each other’s houses again. Nothing was said, apart from the bit about my gran being fussy, but we just sort of drifted apart in the end. And I suppose there was the thing with the birthday party. Lucy said she couldn’t have a sleepover after all because her granddad was ill and her brother had his Duke of Edinburgh camp that weekend and the upstairs bathroom was being done.
That’s the thing with lies – people don’t bother to do them properly. I might have believed her if she’d given me one excuse instead of three. I wonder what she thought I’d do at her precious sleepover. Let her down by wearing knitted pyjamas or not bringing an expensive present? Perhaps she thought I might give her one of Gran’s knitted dolls. At least that new girl had the guts to tell me straight. ‘Lucy says I’m having your invitation,’ she informed me.
So that was it. Not that it really bothered me – it was a relief really. Pretending to be friends, trying to be friends – it doesn’t work does it?
Actually I remember now what ended it properly for me – it wasn’t going to each other’s houses or even being left out of the sleepover. It was that time I saw her in the street with her dad. They were going into the new pizza place at the top of the High Street, Lucy and her dad on a Saturday afternoon. My gran could never get her head around the idea of eating a pizza in a restaurant. Meals out with Gran were either egg and chips and a cup of tea at the café, or a proper roast at the Station Hotel on her birthday, squashed round a table with her friends and everyone talking at once.
Anyway, there was Lucy in her designer jeans and a new jacket, out with her own dad. It wasn’t as if he didn’t live with them; it wasn’t a weekend visit or anything like that. He opened the door for her and she ducked under his huge protective arm and slipped inside as quickly as possible, pretending not to see me as I watched from the island in the middle of the road. I’d started crossing over to say hello, weaving between the slow-moving Saturday traffic. Probably had a silly smile on my face, a hand ready to wave, kind of forgetting I wasn’t her friend anymore.
But what really got to me wasn’t Lucy ignoring me; it was the fact it was Lucy and her dad. In all my life I’d never sat across a table from my dad in a café or restaurant, or any public place for that matter. A cup of coffee, a whole meal out together – I couldn’t begin to picture it. I mean, my own Dad.
M J Lewis ©2015