The novel starts like this:
Freya Seward sat at the kitchen table, fingers nudging the screen of her mobile, texting her friend Yasmine to say she “nearly died” this morning when she opened the BBC News app and saw the story about the baggage handlers’ strike and all flights to Marseilles being cancelled. She didn’t mention the letter from the bank that now lay spread-eagled on the pine table alongside her coffee cup, cereal bowl and laptop. The computer screen displayed a steady pulse of travel news, Twitter stream, Facebook updates with click bait links to fattest celebrities and secrets of star infidelities. Freya stared out of the window. The radiant morning shone brilliant blue, the garden golden with strewn leaves from last night’s storm, but all she saw was red.
From the hall came the sound of a key in the lock. “Hello?” Nothing. “Who’s there?” No sound except the thud of her heartbeat and the ping of a notification. The handle of the kitchen door twitched, began to turn, creaked slowly open. “Hello?” Silence. Through that crack her every terror prepared to pour.
A small felt woman in superhero garb poked its head round the door, mouth opening and closing as a voice called out: “It’s… Wonderdaughter!”
Freya stifled a gasp as Pippa, tall and skinny in blue jeans and black leather jacket, walked in, bowed theatrically, pulling the glove puppet carefully off her arm. Freya slammed both hands down on the letter.
“Pip! Bloody hell!”
“Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Bloody hell. Give me a hug.” Freya reached out her arms and Pip leant down to be embraced. “That’s better. Can you stay for a coffee?
“Not now, I’m afraid. Need to get my alter ego to rehearsals. Mind if I leave the van outside?”
“Superpower: free parking. That’s ok, but leave the keys. Your dad’s away.” She proffered her cheek, which Pippa kissed lightly. “Off walking with Martin.”
“Walking? You’re joking me.” Pippa carefully folded the puppet into her backpack, zipped it up, hoiked it onto her shoulder, dropped the car keys on the table and headed for the front door.
“See you later, honey.”
“I may have to pick up the car and just go to be honest. Sophe’s invited the writer round tonight. See you, mum.”
A few seconds later and the door slammed. Freya sighed, looked back at her phone, heart still thudding. She could do with a superhero right now to save her from ruin, but Pip might not be the best person to confide in about that.
Yasmine, on the other hand: she’d been a confidante ever since the days of The Rainbow Garden. They’d stayed in touch through the decades, after Freya and Jamie bought the place and it reverted to being plain 10 Rayner Gdns. Then Yas moved back to France to find work. Freya missed her like mad, needed so badly to share her woes with someone she trusted. A few weeks ago she’d fixed a weekend to visit Marseille, booked a plane ticket and a cheap hotel near Yasmine’s tiny bedsit, downloaded a Lonely Planet Guide – and now this bloody strike, which of course she supported but wasn’t half a drag, and this letter from the bank too, and everything was screwed. Ok, she was skint, her business teetering closer to the brink than she’d told Jamie yet – or realised herself really, until this letter and its fierce red demands – but dammit, she wasn’t going to let the bastard bankers rob her of all life’s pleasures. And anyway, the new website was finally ready, almost. Zane still hadn’t got back to her re. the launch day, nor acknowledged final payment. Freya prodded the screen to put in a password and log onto her account online. Yes, she was still just as broke.
With bag packed and husband already bundled off for his walking weekend, she’d seize the time. While Yas was texting back a row of sobbing French emoticons, Freya was emailing the organizers of that conference on Futurising Social Media which Zane had recommended so highly during their last coaching session at Webberations. A few seconds later the phone pinged with a reply to say, what a coincidence, they’d had a cancellation from a French academic, so Freya could pay a reduced fee and go in her place, back into what was her comfort zone these days: digital seminars and workshops and edgy conversations with competitive collaborators over warm white wine and crudités with hummus and yoghurt dips. Even the discounted conference fees were still expensive, but hey, this one was bound to generate business. It bloody well had to. And she’d catch up with Zane.
What a shame, though. She’d been poring over the guidebook and had such a clear image of strolling through the charming Vieux-Port, the main harbour and marina of the city guarded by two imposing forts (Fort St Nicolas and Fort Saint Jean), stopping for lunch where dozens of stylish cafés line the quayside area, much of which was rebuilt by the architect Fernand Pouillon after its destruction by the Nazis in 1943, then ambling pleasantly to the magnificent new Museum of the Mediterranean, opened as flagship of the city’s year as cultural capital, and visiting the Radiant City, Le Corbusier’s stunning modernist experiment in communal living recently damaged by fire, with its newly restored spacious corridors, rooftop playground and views over the turquoise sea.
The ping of another notification brought her back to the room and the screen and the To Do List of her woes. No more avoiding. Some days the bear can eat you. Today she bloody well had to start eating the bear.
OUT INTO THE WIND
He knackered from wayfaring,
frantic with worrying, round round the town centre,
come back back to the homestead.
The Mumma she sleep in her chair, daytimetelly babbling as ever,
but he feeling her fading,
skin dry as bark, slack jaw, breath rasping.
He push gently cushion more under her head
gatherup mugs and detritus.
In the kitchen he washup, open the cupboard,
lift down and unscrewing the Nearly Jar.
Time to open wide the window, whisper getbetterwellpleaseplease and
sprinkling the grindings out out into the wind
which blow em up
over the top of the Spar Mini Store opposite
“I nearly… learnt to tapdance but my grandfather died.”
“I was on my way to be interviewed for the job of my dreams – then my wife’s waters broke.”
“I nearly… filmed Roger Bannister run the four minute mile, but my friend and I bumped into some girls who asked us to tea so we went with them instead.”
Jamie tried not to gasp for breath as they clambered up to the top of the ridge and stopped to look down on the big, wide, beautiful gloom of grey sky, gritstone and dark evergreen forestry. A group of white haired women clattered past, fully kitted out in North Face branded fleeces, Ordinance Survey maps in plastic holders round their necks, chatting and clutching those ski pole things walkers used now, zipped into their waterproofs of khaki and mauve. And whereas Martin had stout walking boots and a large backpack, Jamie wore ordinary shoes and a raincoat, a stuffed and stained Playfest International tote bag over his shoulder, like he’d that minute strolled out of a city centre office for his lunch hour and found himself transported here by magic. This pleasant walk in the countryside was feeling like a very earnest undertaking, good for the health but a bit bloody joyless, chillier now the sun had gone in. Martin was ahead, Jamie talking to his shoulders about the central themes of the play strategy and plans for rationalising the workforce while remaining true to the Department’s core values.
Martin stopped, wiped his brow.
“I’m gagging for a pint.”
“Efficient. I think I’m getting a blister.”
“And a big bowl of chips.’
“Should’ve put talc in my socks.” Leaning against the moss-covered remains of an old dry-stone wall, Jamie felt the film of hot sweat between his tee-shirt and his body begin to cool. He peered over the edge at a huge expanse of landscape, birch trees, fields, rolling hills and valleys fading into the drizzle. Good to get away and look down from a height on things, to gain some perspective.
“But Jamie mate, don’t you think: what’s the sodding point?”
“Stops friction apparently.”
“Of helping the bosses make cuts.”
“It’s not simply about cuts.”
“Yeah, right. Dismantling local services, that’s what it’s about.”
Jamie opened his mouth, then closed it again. He considered himself to be fundamentally still just as much of a lefty as Martin, but felt oh so fed up with this constant negativity about how everything actually was in the messy, compromised world we all actually had to live and work and make decisions in.
“Come on, Comrade. The bitter beckons.” Martin’s mobile rang. He strode off, murmuring endearments to his lovely wife Connie, babbling at Stan, their cute little son. Martin walked with that bouncy strut of his which always made Jamie want to kick him hard up the arse. It took Jamie a moment longer to set off again. Puffed out and damp with sweat, trying to catch his breath, he stood as if surveying the dazzling sweep of nature’s grandeur.
“Definitely – a blister.”
Secretly Jamie relished the exercise of rethinking the Recreation Department for changing times. An opportunity to rejig roles, shift people about, weed out dead wood and help others to play to their strengths. It wasn’t such a different process from expanding the team actually, and more interesting than simply running things day to day. Martin was always so negative. Then again Jamie rather enjoyed Martin’s breezy, over the shoulder diatribe against Neo-Liberalism, Climate Change, The Parlous State of Contemporary Pop Music, Tory Education Cuts, The Twat Who Was Head of The School where Martin Worked Teaching A Level Art & Design.
After a gruelling descent through drizzling rain, they checked in at The Nestlings B&B, a whitewashed cottage smelling of bleach and synthetic roses, took scalding power showers and creaked over to the pub across the road for a dinner of pie and peas and a pint or two.
“No wonder the kids are so bloody ignorant, bombarded with shit pop, online porn and cyber bullying. It’s enough to fuse anyone’s brain cells.”
“Is there nothing you can do to make an actual difference, Mart. Instead of ranting?”
“I’m not ranting, I’m opining, critiquing.”
“You used to want to change the world, not just moan about it.”
“Yeah yeah, ok. How’s the family?”
“Freya’s ok. We don’t see much of Pippa but she seems very happy with Sophie and all.”
“I know I’m supposed to be responsible for her moral development, but whenever we meet, Pip always ends up advising me. Great lass.” Martin was Pip’s unofficial, atheist godfather. “Stan’s fantastic, and Connie’s girls are a bit less angry with me now. Her ex is calming down too. Connie’s mum’s been staying – she’s almost civil these days.”
“O, lucky man.”
“Connie is the most amazing, beautiful woman I’ve ever known and I can’t believe she married me.”
“I agree, she’s lovely and neither can I.” Jamie took a final mouthful of locally sourced beef pie, pushed his knife and fork together and smiled up at his reassuringly annoying best friend. To Jamie’s surprise Martin looked genuinely miserable.
“But it’s mangled us, mate: her splitting with the twins’ dad, the horrible divorce, then us having Stanley. We don’t have time or patience for each other any more.”
“I can’t remember when we last had sex. Well – actually I can, vividly. But that was months ago. And like now, when Connie’s mother’s staying and gagging to do babysitting, she wants to get away from me.”
“Enjoyed your pies, gents? Care to look at the desserts menu?” The publican loomed wheezingly over them, waiting to clear their plates. One eye on the TV over the bar, he ran through his patter. “Go on – I’m sure you can handle a brownie and ice cream, two strapping young chaps like yourselves.” They were full already, but the challenge was irresistible. They ordered one portion with two spoons.
“So where is Connie then?”
“On a hen weekend. Not the wild sort. These days brides go for detox and saunas.”
“Well that sounds reviving, like this is for you I hope. Maybe when you get home…”
“Maybe.” He scruddled his hand through his hair and sighed. “Except she looks at me and sees the man who screwed up her dull but cosy marriage. I look at her and see a gorgeous romance that’s – turned to stone.”
Martin clammed up, muttered apologies for ‘going on’ about his problems. They were both too exhausted to talk much more and ate their shared brownie then finished off their pints in silent rumination, trying not to overhear the publican and two locals griping about a Polish family recently arrived in the village. Uttering deep and involuntary groans, the two men raised themselves up out of their chairs, plonked empties on the bar and went to bed.
Back in his tiny floral wallpapered, fake oak beamed guest room, Jamie couldn’t sleep. He switched on the lamp, sat up in the voluminous bed swallowing back the metallic taste of reflux and began drawing alternative staff structures in his Moleskine notebook, seeking SMART ways to deliver better for less. For over a decade Jamie had been the Council’s Co-ordinator of Play in the Recreation Services Department, with a team of five, a budget of, well, several thousands, a reassuringly quite senior position in a field which sounded like it was all about fun. “What a wonderful job that must be!” friends and relations enthused, picturing him running joyfully around playgrounds for a living, instead of writing funding bids at a cramped desk in the back of the Council House. When was the last time he’d come back from work babbling about some hilarious and touching comment a kid had made running breathlessly towards the ladder to a tree house? He still took pride in the mission of providing creative and fulfilling leisure possibilities to the citizens of tomorrow. But Martin wouldn’t be the only one howling once the cuts were announced. Jamie yawned, dropped his book and pen onto the floor, switched off the light and rolled over.
from THE LITTLE BOOK OF NEARLY
Close your eyes
Run on the spot as fast as possible for 20 seconds
Run on the spot as fast as possible for 20 seconds
Run on the spot as fast as possible for 20 seconds
In your mind carry on running.
Thus you may enter the Nearlyverse.
NOW READ ON…