And for those who buy the lot, Kid Atomic is the one they talk about least.
The problem may be the beginning. The first two chapters possibly need rewriting. It's a very old fashioned book and it's a real slow burner, with a lot of character introductions and the establishment of the premise. Reading, two years on, I realised that you could get away with that in 1972. but in 2012, it's not something sage Indielit gurus recommend on their Novelwriting 101 blog articles.
Nowadays, it seems to be you have to start with the premise, introduce characters over the first fifty pages so as not to overcrowd the reader's imagination, and, of course, add some bloodshed, violent death, dirty sex and enough curses to make your grandma wince while you are at it. Hope you enjoy it.
Anyway, here's one of my favourite chapters. Kevin and Ricky, sent to London by the machiavellian Lance to bring back the crates for the upcoming demonstration, have found themselves in South London, at their destination. There, they meet Verna, the pungent, alluring, strangely attractive Euro-communist who is the link to the crates.
Here they were. Finally.
The Chadwick Estate.
Peckham in the afternoon.
‘Is this it, Ricky’? Kevin asked.
‘According to the satnav it is. In fact, I think our contact is up there.’ He pointed at a huge tower block and pulled out a folded and printed e-mail. ‘Wilmslow Tower. Flat 247. If that’s Wilmslow Tower, then job’s a good un. We’re nearly there, mate.’
They parked outside a children’s playground.
The entire area was empty. No children frolicked on the monkey climbers or the tiny seesaw horses. No women pushed buggies to the shops on Peckham High Street. No large, forbidding gangs of youths – the thing Ricky expected most – hanging around on BMX bikes in hoods. The area was eerily silent.
Ricky stepped out of the van, put on his hat and gloves. It was chilly, the beginnings of an evening frost in the air. That explained things. Maybe this was one of those areas where the locals come out at night, like vampires.
‘Kevin zipped up his coat and pulled up his hood. ‘This is a bit scary, Ricky.’
‘It’s no worse than that time we got lost and cycled into Bestwick.’
‘Thanks for reminding me. I really needed that.’
‘What’s up? We got out, didn’t we!’
‘Only just. We were only kids. I still have nightmares.’
‘Mate, there’s no one about, what’s up with you!’
‘They could be anywhere. I want to go home.’
Ricky jabbed Kevin in the shoulder. ‘If anyone comes near us, leave it to me. I’ll deal with it. If it gets nasty, then, do you see that…’ he pointed airily toward the area they had just travelled through. ‘That’s Peckham High Street. Run like the clappers and hide in a shop or something.’
‘I’m only kidding. I won’t leave you and anyway, we’re going to be fine. C’mon, let’s get moving.
The two young men walked through the children’s playground and into an alley bookended by blue tubular barriers.
Kevin had his fingers crossed. He saw shadows everywhere, moving shadows.
As they passed row after row of sixties Maisonettes, every doorway he saw contained a silhouetted bandit in a hood waiting to cut him to pieces. He heard footsteps behind him and continually looked round. The frigid air, descending gloom, and the eerie unnatural silence, occasionally punctuated by the barking of a frustrated dog, saw his paranoia reach fever pitch. He felt something loosen a little in his belly, but the sight of Ricky strolling about in front of him stopped it from releasing.
Ricky. His friend wandered about as if he owned the place, glancing at the crumpled e-mailed address as if he was Captain Morgan at the head of a band of buccaneers about to sack the Spanish port of Portobello, or better, as if he lived right next door and had traversed the alleys, ginnels and jittys of Peckham all his young life.
There was something about Ricky that gave him confidence.
Something indestructible about him.
But even so, Kevin thought. We’re in gangster country. Hoodies are scary enough in Nottingham, but here? The home of Hoodies.
They reached the entrance to the giant tower block that seemed to touch the sky. Kevin looked up and instantly felt sick. He sometimes suffered a form of reverse Vertigo, a condition where he is badly affected by mass, height and size, once fainting while standing underneath the Eiffel Tower looking upward.
‘Wil slow Towers.
‘Someone’s wabbed the M. Not far now, matey.’ Ricky said. ‘Let’s take the lift.’
They could see the lift up ahead, at the back of the graffiti-covered concourse. Mostly tags, some art. It looked like an open-air modern art gallery run by hyperactive ten year olds. The stench of urine was overpowering and there were several piles of multi-coloured dog excrement next to the staircase entrance. Some of it fresh. There was a defaced guide next to the lift that told Ricky that 247 was one below the top floor and he sighed. As he pressed the Call button, he hoped fervently that the stuff wasn’t heavy: It was going to be a devil to shift from here.
They exited the lift on the second top floor. Kevin realised that there was still no sign of anyone and, curiously, there was little sign of life in the flats, as if everyone had gone out for the day. No screaming rows. No naughty kids. No loud TVs. No loud music…all the politically motivated stereotypes of working class life that middle class BBC documentaries ejaculate nightly into living rooms around the country.
It was still silent – only the cold wind roared past the balconies, its ambience amplified by height and powered by the fading skies. He followed Ricky up the concourse. There wasn’t even a washing line to be seen, strapped between TV aerial and balcony barrier – though maybe it was too high here.
‘This is it…’ Ricky stood in front of a featureless blue door. Frosted, reinforced glass next to it, modesty unburdened by nets or curtains. Still, you couldn’t see through. A buzzer was mounted on the doorframe, a white button the size of a polo on a black base. ‘Here we go…’ Ricky pressed the button twice. In the distance, a buzzer sounded twice. ‘Let’s hope she’s in.’
They waited. And waited. And waited.
Ricky pressed the buzzer again. Still no reply.
‘We’ll have to call Lance.’ Kevin said. ‘We could be here all day.’
‘Let’s wait a bit. She might have gone out for a pint of milk and a paper.’
‘Lance said she’ll be in all day.’
‘That’s a figure of speech, Kev. She’s entitled to go out for a pint of milk and that.’
They waited a little longer, not talking. Kevin kicked distractedly at the lintel below the purple barrier. Then he heard something. The lift…
‘The lift’s coming.’
‘Might be her.’
‘Kevin…’ Ricky almost wagged his finger at his wavering, spooked friend. ‘Everything’s going to be okay. You’ve got this far.’
It seemed gloomier now.
Two silhouette figures exited the lift. It was difficult to see from this distance. They looked young and, to Kevin, gangsterish.
Blue hooded coats and jeans. They started walking towards them and Kevin tensed.
‘Ricky…’ he tugged on his friend’s jacket, nervously.
‘They probably live on here.’
‘Oh no…they’re staring at us…’
‘No they’re not…’
‘Look, they are.’
Even Ricky was getting nervous. They were about twenty metres away and just about to start trotting. The wind behind them seem to howl loudly and the cold didn’t stop his neck getting warm. ‘I’ll deal with it, get behind me…’
One of the hoodies reached into his pocket as he walked. The other, faster now, was speaking on a mobile phone. Ricky pulled Kevin back behind him quite roughly and clenched his fists. If they were going to get a kicking, he would take at least one of them with him and protect Kevin as much as possible. As they approached, he could see they were the same age as the two of them, but if they were tooled up, neither stood a chance…
‘Here we go, Kevin. Roll over and protect your head and balls…’
‘I told you we shouldn’t have done this…I told you… I told you…
The hoodies, ten metres away, were close enough for Ricky to see the whites of their eyes, but that’s all. Scarves covered up their mouths, close circuit TV camera-proof. He could see what one of them reached into his pocket for, a flash of silver in the fading gloom. Oh no, no, no, here we go, here we go..
The door opened, finally. A figure even more shadowy than the hoodies appeared, partially obscured by the light behind him. ‘Get IN. Quick. What are you waiting for…’
The two boys needed no further prompting. They jumped like triple jumpers into the flat and the door shut. On the walkway, the shuffling of feet, the breathless sighs of predators foiled, a weird, whispered cockney patois. Ricky’s heart raced and Kevin looked as if he was going to be sick.
She put her finger to his mouth and listened at the door. She whispered. ‘There are cameras out there. They won’t barge in here. I think they’re going anyway.’ She whispered in an Eastern European accent. Neither of them were sophisticated enough to know precisely which country. ‘When you leave, I’ll escort you. They’ll leave me alone. There are some real characters round here. Characters! Hah! Come…follow me.’
The flat hadn’t been painted for years.
Grey finger marks and dents punctuated the magnolia surface of the corridor. Up ahead, lit by a single, un-shaded bulb, was the living room. Leaning against each wall a component of a beige three piece suite. It had seen better days.
‘Sit.’ She pointed to the two armchairs, while she lay down on the sofa. The TV was on, an old-fashioned box resting on a coffee table, rather than a wall mounted plasma screen. A horse race, ten or so brightly coloured jockeys sailing over huge steeplechase fences. ‘I’ve placed a wager in this race. On the grey horse. That one there, look. See! You British are a silly people, but I thank the stars you gave the world racing horses…’ she said, perhaps wistfully. ‘Let me finish and we shall converse.’
Ricky could see the woman was older then them. Older than Lance. She wore tight, ripped, faded black jeans and a black Greenpeace South Atlantic Mission 2007 tee shirt. Anti-Japanese whaling. A cause he believed in - well, a cause the world believed in except the Japs and the Icelanders. Short, her feet not reaching the far arm of the sofa. Wiry and taut, like an over-tuned guitar string, a military, short back and sides haircut dyed black, parchment grey cheekbones - a sallow complexion that hadn’t seen sun for some years.
Something smelled – Ricky speculated it might have been the Mizami training shoes underneath a bookshelf behind the sofa, or maybe her pink socks that looked inky and nobbly, as if they hadn’t seen the wet bit of a washing machine for a while.
Then, he realised in a fit of inspiration that the odour came from her.
The spectre of past cannabis fumes loitered along with the tangy smell of her uncompromised feminine body odour. No air freshener or doilies or anything artificial about. It was definitely her - the pungent emanation of natural woman seemed almost overpowering – and, he was surprised to discover – not unattractive.
Her horse hit a fence and started to fall away from the main body of the horses and she gasped. ‘Gah! Another five pounds wasted on these things!” She switched off the TV and sat up. The muscles connecting her neck to her shoulders seemed cabled and inflated. Her blue eyes shone. ‘If you want tea, make it yourself. In there.’
‘We’ll be alright, won’t we Kevin.’
‘I’m no-one’s bloody servant. How old are you two boys?’
‘Nineteen and twenty.’
‘I thought Lance would send men to do a man’s job, not boys.’
The lads shrugged and said nothing.
‘‘Never mind, you’re here now. I have things for you to take home. Where is your transport?’
‘Over by the children’s playground. Not that I’m complaining or anything, but weren’t we supposed to do the password and response thing?’
‘Hah! Lance playing at Revolutionaries. Who else would be calling unannounced on a winter Saturday afternoon in Peckham? I’ve been here a decade in this country and never been bothered by the Police at all. Now in Gdansk, where my father fought with Solidarnozj, I would never arrange to meet at my flat! I would meet you in a deep forest and even then, you would have to come recommended by family, not acquaintances I’ve met over the internet‘. She laughed. Her accent seemed to Ricky harsh and guttural, almost a growl, but her face was, on second glances, full of humour and gentle sarcasm. ‘I am Verna, by the way.’
The friends made their introductions.
‘I was just kidding about the tea. I have some Earl Grey that is good for your intestines. I’ll make a pot, seeing as you’re such young boys whose mothers do all the hard work.’
‘Less of the young, Verna.’ Ricky grinned, stood up with the intention of helping her, for the purposes of standing next to her. ‘We’re nearly twenty.’
‘You’re boys to me. Sit.”
The kitchen was behind a wall, with a huge hatch. They could see her as she busied and they could hear her as she talked, animatedly. As she made the tea, chatting away seemingly about nothing at all, Ricky noticed that Verna kept looking at Kevin, who, as was his wont, hadn’t noticed a thing.
He didn’t understand why.
She must have looked at Kevin seven or eight times.
She seemed to be perusing him.
There must have been a reason for it.
She wasn’t exactly hiding it either. It was just that Kevin was still shaking inside from his near-mugging experience.
As she stirred the liquid in the mugs, she looked at him one final time. Then she came back into the living room.