Another year of my life . . . wasted. All that work. All that time I’d devoted when I could have been doing something else. Something more productive.
Hell, I could probably have learned Mandarin by now.
I was at a literary festival once. Nick Hornby was speaking. He was promoting his latest novel and a middle-aged woman in the audience stood and asked, voice quaking, how one kept writing in the face of constant rejection. It was very brave of her, I remember thinking at the time. Nick cleared his throat and I’m pretty sure we all expected him to tell her that she must keep going, that persistence really was key, and that all the great novelists faced rejection at some point or other. We thought he’d say that the only difference between a published novelist and an unpublished novelist was that the former persevered for longer.
But he didn’t.
He asked how long the woman had been writing without success. Sheepishly, she replied, ‘Around ten years.’ And he told her that she might want to move on to other pursuits. Something less difficult, he said. Save yourself all the heartache and get back to enjoying life, he said.
There was a collective gasp from the audience. We were stunned.
Often these events are filled with would-be writers, hoping that the genius of the speaker will somehow oat through the air, above the heads of our fellow audience members, choosing to inhabit us. If only we work hard enough, concentrate for long enough, if only we want it so much more than the person in the next chair, it will happen. Yet here was Nick Hornby telling us that hard work and yearning were not always enough. at if it wasn’t happening then maybe we should give up.
That was ten years ago. At the time I’d been writing for a few months—short stories and whatnot; I felt certain I could be the next big thing. All I needed was an idea. An idea for a novel that could propel me through four hundred pages. Through one hundred thousand words. Through months of toil and frustration.
And in the end, one came. And then another. And another. I now had six unpublished novels on my computer, and it was looking as if no one was interested in novel number seven.
I had been rejected so many times that I had even developed a method of coping, a method to get through the hurt as quickly as possible, so that I might get straight back to work and begin the process of constructing a new novel all over again. The secret was to feel the pain. To give myself permission to cry as much as was needed and allow at least two full days of mourning when I didn’t try to look on the bright side of things. When I didn’t try to smile. Only then would the grief and humiliation begin to fade.Why did I want to be published so much? I had no idea. All I knew was that the hunger, the longing to be a published author, wouldn’t go away.
Why did I want to be published so much? I had no idea. All I knew was that the hunger, the longing to be a published author, wouldn’t go away. Even when I was presented with the evidence. Presented with evidence in the form of rejection after rejection, that I should, as Nick Hornby said, move on to other pursuits.
‘It’s the marketplace,’ Leon said. ‘It’s the weak pound. Brexit. Jane, you know all of this.’ Leon looked at me and could see I was upset. He softened his voice. ‘You know how hard it is to break into publishing right now,’ he said. ‘The small houses are almost bankrupt. They can’t take chances on new authors the way they used to. They can’t give them the time they need to develop a career. It’s not your fault they don’t want your work . . . but I don’t get why it has to hit you so hard every time.’
Leon was an author. A successful author. He wrote a series of gritty crime novels set in Liverpool featuring a tough-guy, vigilante detective named DS Clement. Think Dirty Harry, but black, and with a Scouse accent.
DS Clement liked to take the law into his own hands, acting as judge, jury and executioner. Though he always left a little room in his life for romance, as Leon’s readers were, as is generally the norm, mostly women.
Leon closed the email from the literary agent. ‘You need to take a break,’ he said. ‘A complete break. The whole thing’s making you unhappy. It’s all you think about . . . and besides,’ he said, gesturing to the kids, ‘they need you.’
‘They need you as well, Leon.’
Leon sighed. ‘They’re growing up with a mother who’s distracted.’ He tapped his temple twice with his index finger. ‘Your head is always elsewhere, baby. You imagine life would be so much better if only . . .’
‘Find me a mother who’s not like that, Leon,’ I snapped. ‘Find me a mother who doesn’t think her life would be better if only. That’s how mothers of small children get through their days.’
‘Yes,’ he said, beginning to lose patience now, ‘but probably for good reason. Either they’ve got six kids, or they’re bringing them up single-handedly. Or else they have a shitty job.’
I didn’t have a shitty job. I taught creative writing. For a few hours a week.
Leon sighed again. ‘Jane, you have none of those problems. Why can’t you just accept that this is—’
‘You don’t have any of those problems either, and yet I don’t exactly see you falling over yourself to “be present” with your children, Leon. Every time they need you, you’re slinking out of the room, hoping I won’t notice. Every time I ask you to do something you don’t hear me, or you give some vague response that I’m supposed to interpret as the writer of the house is thinking. What about me? What about my career?’
‘What about your career?’
‘Don’t do that,’ I warned.
‘Don’t do what?’‘Find me a mother who’s not like that, Leon,’ I snapped. ‘Find me a mother who doesn’t think her life would be better if only. That’s how mothers of small children get through their days.’
‘Don’t do what you always do when we have this argument. Belittle my attempts. Make out like what I do is some kind of charming hobby. Whereas your work, of course, takes precedence. Your work is so bloody important because it—’
‘Jane,’ he said levelly. ‘The reality is my work pays the bills. What exactly do you want me to do?’
‘Oh, fuck off.’ It was actually Leon’s birthday. We had to be at his mother’s house in half an hour for a special birthday lunch. ‘I’m forty-six years old,’ he’d said earlier that morning when we were lying in bed. ‘Why am I, a grown man, going to my mother’s house on my birthday?’
‘Because she wants to see the kids and she wants to make you something nice to eat.’
‘Surely by the time a person’s reached forty-six they’ve earned the right to do whatever they please on their birthday? Every year it seems we end up doing the exact thing I least want to do.’
‘Next year I’ll make an excuse. What would you like to do instead?’
‘Stay in bed,’ he’d said, shooting me a hopeful look. ‘Read. Watch TV. Open a bottle of wine. Have good afternoon sex with my wife. She might dress up a little. Something slutty. Any one of those things would make me a happy man. Just one of those things—’
‘The kids are four and a half and nearly three, Leon. You can say goodbye to that dream birthday of yours for at least another five years.’
‘Remind me why we had them again?’ he’d said, smiling.
‘Because our lives were empty and meaningless without children. Remember?’
‘No.’ He’d started to laugh. ‘I don’t remember ever feeling that way.’
We bundled the children into the back of the car. It was mid-August and Liverpool was hot as hell. We lived on the edge of the city, L17, close to Se on Park. The house was Victorian, three-storey, semi-detached, on a leafy street. Lark Lane was just around the corner with its independent grocers, decent takeaways, Keith’s Wine Bar. It was our dream house. Parking was a bit of an issue as the Victorians didn’t exactly plan these streets with two- and three-car households in mind, but other than that we were exactly where we wanted to be. We shared the street with Liverpool’s well-heeled: a barrister next door (Cilla Black’s nephew), retired headmaster opposite, the owners of a luxury car dealership diagonally across to the left. There was a student house a little further along the street, but now, at this time of year, it was empty.
We’d been in the house for eighteen months. It was bought with the advance for Leon’s fourth novel, back when he sold the rights to Germany. Germans read a lot, by the way. Making it big there can be akin to a recording artist breaking into America. Leon hadn’t made it big yet though. He was still what publishers referred to as a mid-list author. Still building his brand.
Those really big sellers? The authors you see on the Sunday Times Rich List? Forbes? Well you could fit those people into a small minibus. They’re freaks. Oddities. Phenomena.
The general public has the misconception that anyone who writes a book is automatically a multimillionaire, but the reality is, most novelists earn less than a thousand pounds per year for their trouble. Or in my case, nothing at all. The few hours I spent teaching creative writing was the closest I got to making any money from the craft.
We always argued when we went to see Leon’s mother. ere wasn’t anything particularly wrong with Gloria Campbell per se. As mothers-in-law went she was pretty standard issue; it was just that neither of us wanted to give up our afternoons to make the half-hour trip to Formby, when we could have been doing nothing instead. We didn’t voice this to each other though. Instead, we’d partake in a constant, low-level bickering, our dread at making the trip coming out as snide remarks to one another. Dread, too, at visiting the red squirrel sanctuary for the hundredth time, dread at wading through another mountain of curry goat, rice and peas, a batch of which Gloria always had on the go.
Leon’s father, Michael, had been born on Upper Parliament Street in the late forties to a Jamaican father. And here’s a fun fact: there are more Campbells per head in Jamaica than there are in Scotland.
I’d always assumed when I saw the Frasers, Campbells and Stewarts lining up at the start of the hundred metres, ready to represent the Jamaican athletics team, that the array of Scottish names was a legacy of slavery, when slaves had been issued with the same names as their owners. Not so. In fact, it was Oliver Cromwell who, in the 1600s, by banishing Scottish convicts to the West Indies, became responsible for the proliferation of the Campbell name.
Leon’s grandfather came over from Jamaica to Liverpool in 1948, encouraged by the British government to help ll the labour shortage caused by the war. He was put to work on the dock road. And that’s how I ended up with two kids, Jack and Martha, who had a curious, but beautiful, combination of features: skin the colour of butterscotch, red afro hair and pale blue eyes. My neighbour, Erica, said they belonged in a Benetton ad.
The hair and eyes were from me, of course. I’m your typical redhead. My white skin burns on a cloudy day on a north-facing slope, and you can see the blue blood of my veins through the skin of my neck. Sometimes, I think I would do better living beneath ground.
But recent research says we age better. So there.
‘Did you tell her we couldn’t stay long?’ asked Leon now. We were in the car. Leon turned the ignition. It was stifling hot but the air con took a while to kick in so we had the windows down.
‘She’s made a cake.’
‘My mother always makes a cake. She likes making cakes. It’s her thing.’
I shrugged in a helpless way.
‘Shit, we’ve not shut the garage . . . Did she mention the squirrels?’ he asked.
‘Not this time,’ I lied.
The squirrels were Gloria’s preferred activity with the kids. Their sanctuary at Fresh Field was just over a mile from her home and she derived great pleasure from the small reds, instructing her grandchildren on their merits, while at the same time maligning their evil grey cousins: ‘Vermin! Imposters! No better than rats!’
‘I don’t want to get stuck there all day,’ Leon said. ‘Will you drive home later?’
I pulled a face. ‘What?’ he said. ‘I hate driving through town at teatime.’
‘That means I can’t have a drink.’
‘So, have a drink when you get home.’
‘I don’t want a drink when I get home,’ he said. ‘Fuck . . .if I’m stuck at my mother’s on my birthday, I’m definitely having a beer.’
‘You say this as though I arranged it. Like I called your mother up specifically and said, “Leon would like nothing more than to spend his entire birthday with you, Gloria.” And please stop swearing in front of the kids.’
‘They have their headphones in.’Those really big sellers? The authors you see on the Sunday Times Rich List? Forbes? Well you could fit those people into a small minibus. They’re freaks. Oddities. Phenomena.
‘They can still hear you.’ Leon turned in his seat. ‘Martha, d’you want to skip Nanna’s house and go straight to Disney?’ When Martha didn’t so much as lift her head, he said, ‘We could leave right now, call at McDonald’s, eat as much as you like. Eat till you explode. What about you, Jack?’ he said. ‘Disney, right this second. What do you say?’
Jack removed one of his earbuds. ‘What, Daddy? I can’t hear you.’
‘It’s pardon, son.’ Leon turned back to me, eyes shining, vindicated. He held my gaze as he began playing with the hem of my dress. ‘Your legs are looking good, baby . . . What about if we sacked going to my mother’s altogether? We could get the paddling pool out for the kids . . . lie in the back garden . . . I could get a grip of you in that bikini. The blue spotted one. The one that shows off the curves of your arse so nicely.’
He lifted my dress a little. ‘You know,’ he went on, ‘we could probably go at it right here and the kids wouldn’t even notice.’
Playfully, I slapped his hand away. ‘Sooner we get there, sooner we’ll be back.’
‘Jane,’ he said, his tone mock-serious. ‘I’m getting older. Every day I don’t get to make love to you is another day wasted.’ He leaned across and kissed me. He remained there, his mouth on mine, until, involuntarily, I reached for him.
I always reached for him. ‘I’m so in love with you, Jane Campbell,’ he whispered. When eventually we pulled apart, the heat inside the car forcing us to, Leon must have caught sight of something in the rearview mirror. He closed his eyes for an extended moment, as if in irritation.
‘Great,’ he said under his breath. Just as I became aware of a presence at the driver’s-side door.
It was Lawrence from the house opposite. ‘A word, if you don’t mind, Leon?’ Lawrence said. ‘Actually, we’re on our way out. It’s my birthday and my mother’s holding a party. We’re really keen to get going as fast as possible, Lawrence, because—’
‘Shan’t take a minute.’
Lawrence and Rose Williams were in their seventies, originally from Mold in North Wales, and had lived on the street for thirty years. He’d been the headmaster at an independent over the water in Birkenhead, and Rose had taught physics at the same establishment. They had one oddball son, were keen gardeners, and got very hot under the collar if people didn’t park in their proper places.
I turned to Lawrence and smiled. ‘Morning!’ I said cheerfully, too cheerfully perhaps, embarrassed he’d caught us in the midst of kissing, but Lawrence didn’t hear me. is happened often of late. He seemed to have something on his mind.
Last summer, we’d taken a cottage for two weeks on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. And it was so idyllic, the weather so kind to us, that we extended our stay by another week when the people renting the cottage after us pulled out. Atypically, Leon was on a writing roll, and when that happened he could work just about anywhere. Mornings, I’d get the kids out from under his feet, spending my time paddling in the sea with them, making things in the sand behind a striped windbreaker. Afternoons, we napped or took turns pushing Martha in the pram if she was being fractious. In the evenings, we cooked. And once the children were asleep, we drank, watched an arty lm, and got quite giddy in the bedroom. It was parenting perfection. The only time I could remember feeling absolutely at peace with my situation as the mother of two small people who had arrived in our lives and completely taken over.
We returned home tanned, healthy, and really rather pleased with ourselves. We’d managed to make a success out of our first proper holiday together and we felt bolstered. We were in love with each other and in love with our beautiful babies and we came back excitable and happy, ready to pick up our lives in Liverpool. What we found when we got there was a very angry Lawrence Williams, waiting for us.