Have you ever opened up a baby like it was a handbag, put both your stockinged feet inside, and hopped fifty yards up the road to your mother’s house, just knowing that she’ll have the bacon frying already when you get in the door? No, no you haven’t. And the chances are, you never will.
Writing is the most amazing thing you will ever do. Anyone telling you that ‘creating life’ is the ultimate achievement is a fat, lying wanker. Writers don’t create life; they create WORLDS. Can you create a world by sticking your half-chubby spunkthumb up some dizzy checkout girl without rubbering up first? Nope. All you can create is misery. Misery, and future Assistant Managers for KFC.
Plotting a new novel is all very well, but it’s that first page that really gets your toilet parts tingling. The first time you see your character on the screen, peeking out at you from behind the 12pt Times New Roman; the first words they speak, the first fears they have. That is the fucking Magic Juice. The rest of the writing experience is great, but it’s that first cherry-pop that makes it all worth it, and makes you want to do it all over again, after you’ve put the last one to bed.
I wrote my first few pages yesterday, and although I’m aware that when this book is finished, I might have junked that entire sequence or changed it beyond recognition, it doesn’t matter. It’s there now, it exists. It’s the metaphorical high board from which I get to dive into the rest, and I want you dive with me, and I want us to drown in it together. Enjoy.
GIRL AFRAID, by Ciarán West
Why would it be withheld? Only two numbers ever called this phone, and both of them showed up as- it rang again.
‘Hello?’ Nothing, then a man’s voice:
‘Are the police with you?’
‘What? Police? Am, who is this?’ Her brow furrowed; nobody had this number except Tom, or the people at the house.
‘It doesn’t matter who I am; answer the question. The police, are they with you? And don’t lie to me Alice, because I’ll know.’ She swallowed at the mention of her name; suddenly aware of her thirst. There was water somewhere.
‘I, I… I don’t know what you mean… why would there be police? Who is this, please?’ If this was someone’s idea of a joke, it wasn’t funny. She found the water; it was lukewarm but welcome. She could feel the beginning of a headache.
‘Jesus. You don’t even know yet, do you?’ There was nothing in his voice that rang a bell. It wasn’t Tom, or anyone she knew.
‘Know what? Look, I’m going to put the phone down now, okay? I think you have the wrong person…’ Her professional persona had started to kick in now that she was awake. She’d had training in dealing with the cranks, because of Tom’s job and the fame that it brought. You weren’t supposed to engage them.
‘I haven’t got the wrong person, Alice…’ Hearing it chilled her even more the second time. ‘… and putting the phone down will be the stupidest fucking thing you’ll ever do. Especially if you ever want to see Poppy again.’
If her name had sent a chill through her heart, the child’s had felt like a kick to the chest. She caught sight of the clock: it was almost three in the afternoon. She’d slept.
‘What have you done with her?’ She cradled the mobile between neck and shoulder and tapped her password into the onscreen box.
‘I wouldn’t do that. Leave the computer. You just talk to me, Alice. Understood?’
‘How did you…’ He must have heard her tap the keys.
‘I’m watching you. Nice t-shirt, by the way. Star Wars, I like.’ She retched, violated. Her eyes darted around the room for something, but she wouldn’t have known what to look for.
‘What do you want? Who are you? What have you done to her?’ Silence at the other end.
‘Answer me, you fucking… cunt.’ She screeched the last word, and felt a sense of guilt over having said it; a hangover from childhood. Her own hangover was building pace now too. A throbbing behind her eyes, coupled with an insane thirst. Finally he spoke.
‘You need to calm down, Alice. I’m not the enemy here. I need you to be calm. I need you to work with me.’ He didn’t have a voice like Movie Kidnappers had. It was quiet and soft. In other circumstances, she might have described it as non-threatening.
‘Who are you?’
‘I’m a friend.’
‘A… friend? What have you done with her? Please…’
‘I haven’t done anything with the girl, Alice. I don’t have her; I’m not the bad guy here. Like I said, I’m a friend.’
‘How… how did you get this number?’ Her mobile was beyond ex-directory- it was practically on its own network. Tom’s people had made a real song and dance about it at the time.
‘I won’t bore you with the details, Alice. Poppy doesn’t need us wasting her time like this…’
She took a breath. Professional. That’s what she needed to be now. That’s who she needed to be now. She was in the kitchen, running the cold tap into a tumbler. The Alka-Seltzers made a familiar plunk-fizz noise when she dropped them into the water.
‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I need you to get out of the house. Now.’
The room was pink. She liked pink. The walls had been painted pink, the quilt and the pillows were pink; the curtains were pink too. She’d gone over and opened them, but there wasn’t a real window there- just lots of bricks. That’s why she’d put the lamp on. The lampshade was pink too.
It was a nice room. Not as big as her room at home, but then hardly anyone had a bedroom that big. Alice always told her that she was very lucky. She told her that lots of little girls in the world would love to have a room as big as hers, and to have a toy box as full as hers, or to go on all the great trips and holidays that they went on. It was always Alice who came with her. Daddy was usually working; making a movie, and Mummy didn’t like most of the places she wanted to go. That’s why Alice was so great.
There was a toy box here too, in this room. It had some cool stuff in it, like My Little Pony and a Nintendo with lots of games. She wasn’t in the mood for playing though. The funny drink Magda had given her this morning had made her go to sleep, and when she woke up she felt a little poorly. Magda was gone now, which was bad, because she needed the toilet. She’d have to go out and find someone to show her where it was. She pushed the handle down, but the door didn’t move. She did it again, this time pushing out instead of pulling in. It didn’t move either. Poppy panicked a little now, because the wee was coming, and her bits felt a little bit sore.
Wait! There was another door, across the room. She half ran, half skipped; trying to think of stuff that wasn’t waterfalls or taps. The second door opened, but not into the hallway. It was the door to her own personal bathroom, with a shower and a bath and everything.
‘Are you outside?’
‘Where is Outside, Alice? What part of London?’
‘Erm, Hackney…’ Why didn’t he know where she lived? He could see her, couldn’t he? He’d put a camera in her flat. Had he? None of this seemed real.
‘Right. Okay, I want you to find a phone box, Alice. Can you do that?’
‘Am, yes. No. I mean, I don’t know.’
‘Try for me, Alice.’
‘Okay!’ She tried to picture where the nearest booth was. Nothing was coming to her. Who even used the bloody things any more? She got it, finally. She’d have to double back across the square; towards the bus stop.
‘Yes! Yes, I’ve got one. I mean, I’m heading towards one now.’
‘Good, good. Tell me when you’re inside.’
She took that as permission to take the phone away from her ear. She was running. It felt like some warped version of Treasure Hunt, and she was Anneka Rice. Oh, Poppy. Oh Jesus Christ. What was happening? Her head still thumped, but the painkillers were in the post. She got to the box. There was someone in there; a great big Nigerian woman, having the most animated of conversations. On top of the phone, there was a stack of prepaid cards- Lycamobile ones, for cheap, long distance calls. This old girl could be there for the duration. Fuck! Alice looked down at the mobile in her hand.
The bathroom was white, not pink. There was toilet roll on the holder; Alice taught her to always check first, especially if you are going to do a number two. She pulled down her jarmers. She didn’t remember putting those on today. Magda had put them in her bag this morning before they’d left for school. They hadn’t gone to school at all though. Magda said it was a special day, so they didn’t have to. They’d gone to the nice place for breakfast, instead of having cereal or jam and toast at home.
Magda was nice, but she didn’t always speak very good. She was from Poland. In the before days, Alice was the only one who took her to school. Now though, Magda did it on Mondays. So that Alice could go crazy on the weekend, Magda said. Alice wasn’t crazy whenever she was around Poppy, so maybe she kept it until Saturday or Sunday. Alice lived with them during the week, but she had a flat in East London too.
The wee came out of her; there was loads of it. Whenever she needed to wee, she always needed to wee straight away. If there was no toilet around she’d panic and hop on the spot and beg to be let go to the bathroom. Alice called it ‘Emergency: Code P’. She tried to be different, so they wouldn’t tease her, but it wasn’t any use. It’d be: nothing all day, and then: need a wee! Need a wee! Need a wee NOW! It was even worse when it happened in the night, but since she’d stopped drinking pop in the evening, she had hardly ever had an accident at all. Only a few times.