As promised, here are a few more chapters from NORTHMAN (bottom of the page), in which we meet our protagonists. Thank you to my blog followers who made comments on the previous chapters. It all helps.
As I prepare to launch the book, I’m struck by how much I dislike marketing. It almost amounts to hatred, which is an unfamiliar emotion to me.
I’m in awe of folks like David Gaughran, who seem to combine an encyclopaedic knowledge of the inner workings of Amazon with a magnificent talent for literary writing and in awe of accomplished marketeers like Joe Konrath and John Locke .
It’s beyond me. I remember a thousand sessions pitching ideas or scripts to corporate, advertising and tv company executives, with absolute loathing. The idea of soliciting reviews, book blog tours, local radio/press interviews, talks to book clubs, the WI, ceaseless Twittering, You Tube trailers and all the physical paraphernalia associated with launching a book as an Indie fills me with a sense of horror far more visceral than anything I can produce on paper.
But it’s necessary.
Being a modern author is no longer about buggering off to the South of France for six months to write the epic, then throwing it at your awfully nice publisher via your awfully nice agent, waiting for the galleys to appear for correction, turning up for warm Sauternes and odd tasting hors d’oevres at the press launch, sweet-talking members of the press to write kind words and scribbling your name on hardback copies of the Next Great Novel at Waterstones or Barnes & Noble, before returning, in one’s Porsche, to one’s mews flat in Knightsbridge for yet another champagne supper with one’s Vogue model partner.
Now, it’s about hard work.
It cannot be avoided.
If you want people to read your book.
If you want people to even find your book.
But I’m not looking forward to it for another reason. I’m writing my next novel. All the time I spend marketing is time lost doing the thing that gives me most pleasure in this life.
No, not that.
So, writers like me (and possibly you) have a decision to make. Marketing madly or welcoming obscurity as the price of peace. I’m old enough now to know that fame is a illusion best avoided for the sake of sanity. Fortune? Money is a good thing to have, but no amount of it will make up for arriving at the end of life and looking back with regret.
I hope a lot of people read Northman. I enjoyed writing it and it’s a good story, I think. I love the book in all sorts of ways. Hopefully, my new story is also good. However, the feeling persists that marketing is not good for the creative process. Charles Dickens – an exemplary writer and marketeer – said something similar, but I can’t remember in what context and it didn’t seem to affect his creativity.
But I’m not Charles Dickens, except when over-heavy on the single malt, so I think I’ll compromise, do a little half-hearted marketing and simultaneously get on with the new novel. My priority will be the latter.
For the good of my soul.
Here’s a bit more of NORTHMAN. You might like to re-read the last bit of the first part again to pick up the thread. As always, comments are welcome!
“I can’t go on like this, Colin…”
“It won’t be long now, Natalie, soon she’ll be dead.”
“I can’t wait for that… let’s make love now, here… on the floor.”
“We can’t… the children …”
“I want you Colin… I want you now.”
“Cut.” The director’s voice rang out. “Set up for close-ups. Ten minutes.”
“Thank God for that! I thought I might actually have to do it with that geriatric sodomite.” Sophie Carmody, ten watts and fading soap star, strode from the set of ‘Footfall’ to her trailer with a smile of engaging violence towards the director.
The director waited for the expected whine from leading man Burt Brannigan with resignation.
“I can’t work with that woman, Michael, she’s… well, she’s just bloody impossible… did you see the way she handled my best feed? Sounded about as involved as a block of wood…” Burt paused woodenly, looking for reaction. The director, Michael McLaren, was silent, examining the shotlist for the following day with unusual diligence.
Burt changed tack. “It’s not in my contract that I have to submit myself to working with amateurs you know – you’ll have to do something about her – my agent’s incensed and I am truly pissed.” With a flounce that belied his fifty-six years Burt Brannigan turned on a sixpence and exited.
Michael sighed: the sound of a man who half understood the meaning of life and knew it was the wrong half.
Jack Pointer, the lighting cameraman, slid down from the stubby Titan crane and joined him. “A right pair there, Mike, ‘Fatal Attraction’ without the rumpy. Or the talent.”
Michael grunted. “Par for the course, Jack. Box-office casting. They’re both hot to trot in the eyes of our beloved public.”
“Coupla sour-faced bastards if you ask me.” Jack grinned. “Hey, she tried it on yet, lived up to the rep?”
“He has.” Michael smiled back.
“Take him up?”
“Eff off, you sorry excuse for a professional… and the lens cap on the Angenieux’s off.”
“Just interested. Academically.” Jack flipped the cap over the front element of the fourteen to one Angenieux zoom lens and patted the clapped-out Arriflex 35 camera body. “This old girl made ‘Dark Passage’ with Bogart in 1949 and was second unit on ‘The Third Man’ with Carol Reed directing. Even Kubrick had his hands on her in the ‘70s. Now look at her. Opening her gate for anybody and creaking through shit.”
Michael smiled. For the last eight years they’d worked together solidly on moving pictures: some good, some bad, and one so awful it had achieved box office success and received an Oscar nomination. This picture: ‘Footfall’, renamed Pratfall by the crew, fell into the middle category and was a low budget, soft romantic comedy masquerading as film noir with three car chases, fourteen mawkish but explicit sex scenes, and a crack-dealing, supposedly Teutonic antagonist, Gunther (all foreigners are evil), whose main lines were rendered in Stanislavsky grunts of indecipherable Brooklynesque nasality. Occasionally, Gunther emitted high-pitched theatrical laughs wherever the script said ‘Gunther is amused’. The picture was awful. It would make big bucks.
Now, the work was nearly over, only the editing and the hype remained. On the set there was a feeling of relief, or as Jack Pointer put it, “It’s a bit like puking your guts up after ten pints of Cobra and a Vindaloo – you don’t feel good, but you feel an awful lot better than you did.”
For Michael it was another 90K to be split equally between Celia, his estranged wife, school fees for Anna their 13 year-old daughter, and the Tax Office, the last of which was demanding money with menaces for the distant tax year of 2005. There’d just be enough left over to have the oak beams in the kitchen of his Derbyshire cottage – currently populated by a band of Napoleonic woodworm – done over by Rentokil before he was forced to do a TV commercial or flog a kidney to the needy. Then, six months ‘resting’ until the next ‘B’ flick – a moving story of sex and spina bifida – the same division of wealth and back to square one. He couldn’t wait.
Ex-Sergeant Mullins realised his mistake a fraction after the second of two phantom eighty-eight millimetre high explosive shells had fallen short of the target into a small copse of oak trees. Or so the computer said.
“What the hell was that, Mullins? My heads up is saying the laser rounds hit a wood and not our French friends.” The voice of Commander Blanshard crackled on the radio.
Quickly, Sergeant Mullins changed the elevation co-ordinates from a mistaken thirty-six degrees to a correct thirty-eight degrees and simultaneously switched on the laptop. “Coupla’ HESH, sir. Wrong ordnance, sir.” What am I saying, he thought. None of this is real and it’s an antique Tiger, not my lovely Challenger.
The Commander cursed. “High explosive squash heads? In a Tiger? Get your era right, chappie. It’s not a friggin’ Challenger or a Chieftain. Good job it was only a laser, eh?”
Sarcastic shite, Mullins thought amiably. “Bloody TZF9b, sir, sometimes does that.”
“There is nothing to go wrong with that gorgeous German binocular sight, Mullins. Apart from blind twattery on the part of the supposed gunner.”
The next two shots were perfectly on target, and would have removed the French command post with the first explosion, pulverised the shattered pieces of plywood with the second, but did not, the shots being laser rounds.
Commander Blanshard was pleased and recorded a direct hit in his log. Two shots fired. Two hits. There would be no trouble about the mistaken laser strikes. The Observer was a myopic old turniphead from Stockholm and the bogus Froggies were well known for erratic cock-ups. No flak there. Nor from the commanding officer: latterly a part-time teacher of Chinese Studies at nearby Repton Public School. The man was an Old Salopian after all.
The Tiger turned away from the mock battleground, ploughing across the hired field towards the edge of the small copse of trees and to the French command post beyond. The Sherman awaited, and its crew possessed the corned beef sandwiches, Cornish pasties and coffee.
Deep within the ground, at the northern end of the copse, the Satan bomb, undisturbed for over seventy years trembled as fourteen tons of the same Krupps steel of which it was made thundered overhead. As the squeal and clatter of tank treads receded, the Satan began a slow, almost imperceptible tick, as if a spring were slowly unwinding.
On the horizon, the T-26, pulled by Jacob Cottle’s tractor, crawled from the hill, drawing down the last shaft of sunlight, leaving the skyline empty, the valley cold.
Later, that evening in the hotel, as Michael sketched camera angles, lighting positions and spidery cartoons on his shooting script for the wrap day, there came a knock on his door.
Sophie Carmody glided in exuding a cocktail of vodka and pheremones from her flawless skin. She wore a white, Versace silk dressing gown arranged over impossible curves in the same carefully provocative fashion that guaranteed bums on seats and the stiffening of erectile tissue in the weekend Chinos of a million call centre clerks.
Michael could detect traces of white powder around the fine hairs on the inside of her nostrils.
“May I come in?” It was less a question than a command. She spoke with the huskiness of a worn out Mack diesel truck, a timbre in her voice that rang bells in the inner, secret core of everyman; primitive, available sexuality that was the root of her appeal on screen as Joe and Jill Public imagined the contours of her naked body, the moistness of her entrances, the submission of her magnificence.
Michael nodded and opened the door to allow the passage of a queen, who without bourgeois coyness threw open the silken dressing gown and exposed the Body, the finest product of the surgeon’s knife, after which so many lusted.
Sophie was silent as the drama of the moment demanded.
“Lovely. Got one at home just like it. Drink?” Michael spoke lightly.
A trace of annoyance passed Sophie’s face, and as quickly disappeared. “I’ve wanted you from day one, Michael. I’ve dreamt about you. My body has cried out for yours. No shit.”
Michael lit a cigarette and gazed at her tiredly. ‘Shooting’s finito for today, love, no acting, eh?”
Breasts swinging synchronously, hips a joyous salutation to the art of computer assisted design, Sophie glided to him, took his hand and placed it on a perfect left breast in one practised movement. “I’ve never known a man like you Michael. So strong, yet so sensitive. I’ve worked with the greats, but you… I just need you so much… here.”
Michael removed his hand gently from the hard mound of silicone, and stepped back. Her fingers snaked out and ran up the inside of his thigh, coming to rest in the vee of his slacks. Embarrassed for her, he laughed and thought listlessly: whom the gods wish to destroy they first give beauty, then desperate hormones. But instead he said: “Touch that my love, and it’s a necrophilia charge” then thought, damn it, just be kind, that’s all she wants. Kindness.
She pulls away from him, and walks slowly across the room, her shoulders sagging. When she turns, a tear glistens in her eye. Her voice drops an octave. With a catch in her throat she shakes her head, golden hair catching the light, a shower of stardust – medium close up, dolly in to close up – as she turns, pathos in every subtle facial tic. Fade in Music under…
“I was wrong. You’re just too English. It’s so hard being a stranger in a strange land…”
Michael laughed again. He didn’t want to, it seemed churlish considering the offer, but Sophie was a Tinseltown hybrid actress/accountant – even a trial pack would cost – any way you cut it there would be a bill. And there was something dangerously mechanical about her, like a silent chainsaw.
“I understood you knew everybody, Sophie. Intimately,” he said and thought why now? Why me?
“Bastard.” Silken malevolence glittered from every golden pore. “You will make love to me. You will.”
“I think not,” said Michael stubbing the cigarette out, tiring of the game. “My wife Celia wouldn’t like it. She doesn’t like me jumping on old bones, unless they’re hers.” He regretted the ungallant and alien sentiment, but she was like a homing missile, needed deflecting and there was no gentle way.
“You will,” Sophie said, with finality. She moved to the bed and flopped on her back opening her legs wide, one china finger running through her grey-shot Brazilian like a minnow through weed. “I’m ready for you Michael.” Her finger ran downwards; she sighed but her eyes remained hard. “So ready. Fill me Michael, I need you inside of me…”
Despite himself, Michael felt a sudden rush of desire, and an inexplicable tenderness amounting to sympathy. So there it was, the portal to ecstasy, looking like a million other portals to ecstasy. Poor old trout. The woman was seriously desperate, or had an STD and was on a revenge trip. It was sad either way for beneath the mess was true and rare beauty.
Unable to dismiss the sympathy he turned away to the mini-bar, cracked open a Lamb’s Navy Rum – a drink he’d never liked – drained the tiny bottle, spun the cap on another, and tried to play the director. “Sophie darling, we’ve got a heavy day tomorrow…”
Sophie smiled at him. She had him and knew it. It was akin to watching a bloated scorpion with a mirror. “Tomorrow? There ain’t no tomorrow hon, unless you’re very kind to Sophie. Wrap day, all those close-ups and me not feeling very well. I think my malaise could last, oh, for several days, maybe longer… unless I start to feel better.”
Michael groaned inwardly. There was no mistaking the tone of command in her voice. The production was already over budget and had to be completed the following day to avoid the penalty clause in his contract. Failure to complete on time meant a reduction of fifty percent in his fee. Several days increased that reduction on a catastrophic sliding scale. But how in hell did she know that? The money was spoken for. He felt a compromise coming on. Like so many times before when they handed him the usually inept script written by some brain dead cousin of the producer and tried to persuade him that it was ‘Casablanca’ with bigger balls, and as he read it all he could say was, “What’s my fee?” but wanted to tell them to shove it where the sun don’t shine. Not compromise. Bald capitulation. Like now.
Too many people depended on him. Of them all only Anna was truly important, he knew, but Celia needed his money and it was the only honest thing he could do for her now.
He threw the empty Lambs over his shoulder, rapidly wearying of the interplay. It was all a game, an illusion. Only Anna was real. He ached for his daughter, perhaps the only worthy thing he’d ever created. “What do you want?”
Sophie rolled onto her stomach and looked at him over her shoulder, with a leer. “Sensible boy… let’s play Nick and Doctor Beth from ‘Basic Instinct’, then I’ll think of something more amusing.” She raised her buttocks and moved her legs apart, her eyes never leaving his face.
“Order a pepperoni pizza, some Stolichnaya and a fly swat from room service. Then show me your dick.”
Against a grey sky, the battered red tractor chugged across the field towards the copse.
Jacob Cottle cursed as the wheels dropped into the deep tracks made by the tanks the previous weekend. He regretted letting the toy soldiers use his field, even though it had lain fallow for the last three years. Two hundred smackers was not to be sniffed at, he reasoned, but he would have to plough the field before winter turned the ruts to iron.
The copse would have to go. Jacob had kept it because Little Owls had lived there since he was a boy, and Jacob had a fondness for owls. This year the owls had gone, so the copse was just unused farmland.
As he trundled past the copse to the head of the field some half a mile away, he saw a figure sloping away, using the copse as a shield.
Must be Gabriel. Jacob laughed to himself. The poacher imagined he was getting one over when he thieved rabbits from the copse, but Jacob knew all about it and did not care. Rabbits were pests, unlike owls. He dropped the harrow and dug into the rich soil, his heart light.
If Jacob Cottle had known about the bomb it would have been cause for concern, but he did not. Karl Maier’s bomb had fallen straight as an arrow, its smooth body penetrating the soft soil with barely a memory of its passing.
Later that day as he skirted the north of the copse, Jacob felt the harrow hit something hard, with a clang. Seconds later his red tractor was flying through the air, and Jacob flew with it. He was dead before his charred body hit the earth.
As he flew, he had a vague memory of the drone of aeroplanes and the whistle of a bomb a long time ago, but all he could see was the blue sky and the Massey Ferguson suspended beside him, red paint blistered. More work, he grumbled, as he began to fall.
The bomb left a crater only seventy feet in diameter. Karl Maier was wrong yet again.
A soft drizzle fell through the shattered oaks of the copse. Where once was symmetry, now was chaos.
The Satan had exploded perfectly, as its makers intended, destroying the copse, uprooting the wiry beeches and throwing them some forty yards distant. The roots of the oaks still remained: pointed fingers of whitened wood standing to shocked attention, like the bones of a pterodactyl thrown as darts, from the fist of a giant. Of the mound, little remained, except brown earth, no longer rounded but scattered and crushed by that same fist.
The rain continued to fall turning the earth into mud, the mud into liquid and at intervals a brown bone poked through, becoming paler as the rain bled onto it.
The archaeologist, Doctor Weatherall, was wet but excited. He was an old man, near to retirement, but still enthused by his subject. A boyish smile hovered on his face as he hopped from bone to bone: a sprite in Arcadia.
His assistant, Kate, wished she were somewhere else. She had made a mistake, a serious error of judgement in becoming an archaeologist. But how were you supposed to know at eighteen? How could you plan your life, when you didn’t know what life was? Then it was too late. The labels were applied after Cambridge, after that sodding double first. Euphoria for two years, and then a gradual tightening of the noose of opportunity, the drawer labelled ‘archaeologist’ closing so slowly, but so definitely, so finally around her until only a chink of choice remained, that too, fading fast.
And now, at thirty-two, unmarried, unbedded for the last eighteen months and intellectually unfulfilled, she stood in the middle of a muddy field, with an archetypal mad professor, catching two miserable weeks of flu’ for the sake of a twelve-hundred year old Scandinavian hooligan.
She brushed a dark fringe of hair from her eyes and kicked one of the exposed bones. “Okay Sven, where to now?”
The doctor ran up with a muddy bone. “A scapula, Kate, a whole scapula.” Then he was gone, hopping from mud pile to mud pile, his excitement almost glowing in the fading light.
Kate put the scapula into her bag, along with the other bones. I am a failure, she thought, without surprise. As if I expected to be from the start. I tried hard, didn’t I? But trying hard isn’t enough. My personal life is a mess, too. Part of the same problem. Trying too hard? Yes. That’s what they thought at school. Too fierce, too absorbed, old Mr Jennings said. Chemistry is only stinks and bangs, not a reason for living. He was kind and said it, but some of the other teachers drove me on, enthused by my passion, for their own reasons. My parents said it too, but I wouldn’t listen because I wanted them to be proud of me, wanted them to…
I miss mum and dad so much.
I loved them and they died. When I wasn’t ready. She grunted in disgust. Self-pity, more of it as I get older, but is there really anything to live for? They’re gone and Sam’s gone. Who else is there? Even to talk to.
The ground parted easily to her trowel. She saw her fingers wrapped around the handle and for a moment they were not part of her, but loathsome worms mindlessly moving through a pointless, programmed function.
“More bones, Kate.” The doctor’s face turned towards her, smiling in the distance. She smiled back, hating the appeasement reflex, and turned again to the earth.
She had disinterred several small bones when her trowel hit something a little larger. Carefully, she scraped away the mud from the object. It was about the size of a grapefruit and smooth. She lifted it from the ground, seeing the large black hole, feeling the jagged edges breaking the near perfect dome.
A skull. Tiny. No more than a (baby) child. Brushing away the mud encrusted around the eye sockets, she held it like a jewel, starting as the jawbone dropped away into her hands. Her fingers found the hole and probed inside, dislodging the mud, and for a moment it was as if she felt the soft skin of the infant under her hand, the downy hair a delight under her fingers, and saw the dark, liquid eyes of a young child look up at her from the empty skull.
Save him. Save my baby. Old thoughts flashed through and were gone like thistledown.
The sorrow came from nowhere catching her unawares.
She began to sob, holding the tiny skull in her arms, kneeling in the mud rocking backwards and forwards, the feeling of grief and loss so terrible, so all enveloping… then, it was as if a bird had flown and the emotion evaporated, replaced by an awful heaviness, and that was worse.
I’m sorry, Mum, sorry Sam. Sorry. Sorry. The words came like flies.
The doctor’s hand was on her shoulder, but it didn’t matter, nothing mattered.
Lost. Lost. My baby. It echoed through her emptiness, not her voice, or language, but she knew it well, that secret cry.
My baby. Mine and Sam’s. Not lost. Thrown away.
“Kate… Kate…” The doctor came down to her eye level and stared at her with a worried expression. “It’s all right, Kate.” He removed the skull from her hands and placed it on the ground.
She didn’t stop him. She was drained, the loss a dull weight pushing her into the earth. She would never rise, just sink into the mud to be with her baby, but the vision had faded and the skull was just an old piece of bone, in a field, in the rain.
Wiping away the tears from her face with a grimy hand she turned to the doctor with a tight smile that turned down. “It was real. I saw… I saw… a child…”
The doctor lifted her to her feet. “It’s late and,” he paused, looking at her closely, “you’re very tired. It’s my fault, I do get carried away, I’m afraid.”
“No, you don’t understand… the child, I saw…” But as she spoke even her voice was unreal and she couldn’t remember what it was she’d seen. Only the dreadful, aching sense of loss remained.
She breathed deeply, in control again. “I’m fine now Doctor, thank you, expect it was a dizzy spell or something.” She glanced down at the skull, “letting my imagination run away with me – foolish really.”
“Probably hormonal,” said Weatherall, patting her on the back with as much warmth as he felt proper. “Used to happen to a lady acquaintance of mine, swore that she could see through my body from time to time. I told her to lay off the Sanatogen and take a cold shower.” He laughed and held out his hand to the rain. “Preferably in a bathroom. I think a good, stiff, five star Napoleon and a hot beef pie would do us both good, so let’s repair to our hotel and begin anew in the morning. Equitable?”
Kate nodded and began to collect the implements, picking up the skull and placing it carefully in the bag. She stopped for a moment as they moved to the car and looked back. Momentarily a shudder passed through her body; the air seemed colder, clean but tainted with a faint smell of salt, a breath of the sea.
The copse was quiet, rain beating into the brown earth with the monotony of a heartbeat. It was simply imagination, of course, or the echo of heavy machinery from the Toyota factory across the nearby A38, but standing there it seemed as if she heard a sigh, a long reverberating exhalation that rolled along the ground gathering pace and volume, becoming distant laughter: the laughter of a madman.
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