5 May 2016. It gives me great pleasure to share a few extracts from the first few chapters of my novel-in-progress here on Mirrorlamp. These were featured in my recent reading with my wonderful mentor, Ros Barber (rosbarber.com) at the Espresso Library in Cambridge on 28 April 2016.
(This is from the beginning of the novel, and it is where we meet our main character and learn that our narrator is a ghost. The scene is set in Manchester, England.)
She is staying in a hotel on Princess Street, in a room with an avant-garde colour scheme – fuchsia and black – Chinese-themed decorative motifs, and a modernist four-poster bed. I watch her always now, with the love that goes beyond death…although all real love goes beyond death. What is not real disappears. This is not something you know for sure until you have died.
At the moment, she thinks I am still alive and simply that our relationship is over. It is midnight, and she is entertaining a clown, a jester who she met at the club across the street, and who has charmed his way into her room for a cup of tea. He is tall, lean and rangy, dark-haired and unkempt. But she finds his tall roughness attractive - a wild Northern poet, she thinks. The kettle has just boiled and clicked itself off, and she is making tea self-consciously as he talks about his work, stand-up poetry…the audiences in the States are just so open and willing to applaud and cheer, not like the cynical fuckers in this country…he pauses and gives an impression of a British person, clapping grudgingly (she looks over, smiling)…no, in the States, they properly stand up and give it some if they like you. He moves over to where she is standing at the counter of the room’s little kitchenette, and before she can turn around and hand him a cup of tea, says, you’re lovely, and bends down to kiss her neck, pressing her against the counter with his hips.
She closes her eyes while her mind flies around, measuring the situation, the time of night, and how she feels. And then she asks herself if this is a betrayal of me and answers to herself, sadly, no. And then the hunger of the jester floods into an emptiness inside her left by me, and she decides – and turns around and offers up her mouth.
I don’t hate him (I can feel hate as if it is one colour in a spectrum, but I am simply all of the colours at once now…), and for the next hour, I become him…and her. I am reminded of how the blood rushes into her lips and cheeks, and the startling contrast between her pinks and whites, and the metallic blonde of her hair – but discover how alive her nerves are, how she feels everything with the range and power of an orchestra. He senses that her sublimity is closer to the surface than most he’s met, because he is a poet; but he has fucked hundreds of women, and in his mind she is also merely ‘this one’: he thinks this one moves like a dancer and this one has lovely, rosy nipples. She thinks she is ready to have sex with him, but when his hands slide into her jeans, she feels like she is falling off a cliff edge, feels sick, and pulls his hands out. He keeps trying, his attitude pragmatic, and eventually she rolls away from him and says Sorry – I can’t. She is thinking Why should I feel sorry? Jesus.
After he leaves, she falls asleep and dreams that he – the poet – is calling out for her in a forest, but with all the wrong names… ‘Eve!’… ‘Poppy!’ … ‘Ruby!’ … She is wandering in the dark under the trees, and I realise for the first time that I can communicate to her through her dreams. I make myself appear as an image on the trees, as if cast there by our old film projector, with its broken pixels in the same place. And then I point to the sky, where the stars have clustered together to spell out her name: ‘S-T-E-L-L-A’.
She wakes and stares up at the ceiling. The thought that hits her first is that she means nothing to the poet, and she feels a spitting fury mixed with rejection. This dies down and leads her deeper into herself, where she finds the fat toad of pain that crouches in her stomach, because I have left her and because she thinks that I don’t love her.
She cries then, her face wrinkled and one hand clutching the white pillow and her body shaking with sobs. She is good at crying. She knows that it cleans away pain. It is what makes her heart so strong – much stronger than mine was. Her mind tries to measure the amount of tears she will need to cry over me, but at this point, it is too many, and she can’t see the end. She cries herself out while her memory plays, like short films, the little moments when I started to leave her – and then the time I walked away across the Sunday afternoon park and never came back. She finishes as dawn begins to light the edges of the room’s shutters, asks God to help her understand it, looks once at the clock, and then, exhausted, falls back asleep.
(Stella works as a lighting designer for the theatre, and she is in Manchester working on The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter at the Royal Exchange Theatre. This next extract takes place two days after she has found out that Tom, our narrator-ghost, has died. It is opening night of the play.)
She rummages in her bag for her ticket, and queues at one of the stairways, fervently hoping nobody talks to her. The force of this thought surrounds her like a cloud, and it doesn’t happen. Inside the theatre, she finds her seat, one on the aisle, and sits down. The scene is already set on the round, central stage encircled by the audience’s seats – a humble, retro English living room. She listens to the murmuring crowd and breathes in the smell, a chemistry from the theatre’s ongoing creation of illusory worlds: fresh paint from the sets mixed with the must of old clothes and bric-a-brac for costumes and props, and raw wood, recently carpentered, and actors’ greasepaint and sweat – all of it stewed more intensely together by the warmth of her own beloved lanterns, floating above the stage, casting heat and light through precisely designed gels.
She automatically looks up at the lighting rigs, and from where she is sitting, they look correct, as she designed their placement, as she left them three days ago. At this thought, three days ago, a thought of the time before she found out I was dead, she is momentarily catapulted back into full pain, into the before and after-ness of it, and she stiffens, but she is held outwardly still by her situation – by the crowd around her, by her awareness of the woman in a long floral dress sitting on her left, by the theatre itself somehow, its red plush carpet in the aisle and the black painted circular stage – and it passes.
And then the house lights go down, the audience quiets, and this triggers an automatic response in Stella. When we were together, and I was alive, I always used to glance sideways at her in this moment, just as the lights went down, to catch the look on her face, and watch for the gentle spasm of happiness that would flash through her body. It was mostly internal, but sometimes it showed…and then only to someone who was looking very closely. And now I can feel the energy of habitual delight moving around inside her, mingled in with her grief, because I am there, inside, too. I can see and feel it all now.
There is much beauty and pleasure in being released from a body into this other state of being. The individual human consciousness may pipe in only relatively small channels of love, compared to all there actually is. It is wonderful to be released into pure seeing, and pure being. All humans are pulled moment by moment through their lives, via the consequences of their actions, to experience more and more of this truth. But in release, in transformation out of the body, what humans call ‘death’, the limitations fall away, and now I am as I truly am, a specific flowing current of love. I love her, and she both knows it and doesn’t know it. I am still here, loving her, my specific love loving specifically her, as she is, both human and spirit. Now the pain will pull her to knowledge. The pain is not what The Energies wish for us, but it is a tool to bring us light when we are dark.
Now the play begins, and Pinter’s words, laden with fertility, but abstract, buzz harmonically together, meaningful but meaningless, and melancholy – and Stella relaxes into it like it is music. In this state, and as the minutes flow by, her psyche begins to reconfigure her sense of loss, and endogenous compounds rush to her heart, which is stressed from the biochemical reactions of the past two days’ emotional pain, and begin repair work. She doesn’t know at all what is happening. Most alive people do not. She just knows she feels a little better for the first time since Matty’s phone call.
After two hours’ thoughtful yet thoughtless absorption in the brightly lit circle of the stage, she is tranquil, except for the small snag on her attention that the technicians missed one of the light cues in the second act. The play comes to an end, and the stage goes dark, and then all the stage and house lights come up as the actors join together in a line, holding hands. The applause is so loud it makes Stella jump, and her transition out of the dream world of the play back into reality takes much longer than usual. She shakes her head and blinks. She comes back better than she was before.
As she claps, she remembers that now she has to go speak to people backstage and act normal, and she makes her plan: a double vodka in…orange juice. Clean, but effective. And a quick talk with Sam – just hi and congratulations…and Antonio about that missed cue. And then back to the hotel. And then tomorrow: home.
She walks towards the backstage area via a brightly lit bar in the Great Hall, where she stops to order a drink. She downs her double vodka and orange juice in one long drink of several gulps, handing the glass straight back to the surprised barman. Outwardly, she looks elegant, like a serious grown-up theatregoer in her black cocktail dress, her blonde hair pulled up on top of her head.
She realises how wild, how incongruous she just acted, and she glances down and laughs a little to herself for the first time since she heard the news about me. That’s my girl. She has a strong heart, full of light. Her intuitive channel is bright, with clearly defined edges, and she has strong instincts against the untrue. However, right now Stella is poised at the fertile place where two paths diverge. I have no control over the future, although I can see the likeliness of patterns linked to people’s choices as they stretch forward into the dimension of time. Two tracks of possibility lay patterned ahead of her, one dark, one bright, and she will choose.
When I turned out of my body and into space, one of the things I learned about her was the number of times she has thought about killing herself: 1,604. Eight of those thoughts have occurred in the past two days. But her soul keeps urging to her to brightness. The Energies will bring her the stories and messages she needs, and when she hears them, the words will glow inside her.
As Stella stands at the bar, her chuckle at herself for her behaviour turns into a thought thread that leads her mind back to Tom is dead. Reality seems to ripple around her, and her knees go weak for a moment. She leans against the bar and concentrates on breathing. She only wants to look down at the ground. Her head is so heavy, it feels weighted with steel balls, and it seems to tip forward and to the side with a rolling lurch, as she tries to move it.
The Energies whisper chandelier inside her mind. At this thought, she turns herself around and looks up at the chandelier hanging above her here, in the Great Hall. She has asked around the building stewards to see if they know who made it, but nobody she has met knows, so she has been trying to unlock the secrets of its making by repeated, attentive observation. She chokes back a sob and bites the inside of her cheek, trying to keep her control. Its beauty distracts her, begins to soothe her, and after a few moments, her mind starts to play the game: It is Bohemian style, not Venetian, because the droplets are lead crystal, not Murano glass. It looks as if it was originally made for candles, then converted for electricity, which with its styling would make it 18th not 19th century, and therefore it must have been originally made for a different building. Where, though? Neoclassical, 5 tiers of concentric festoons, and roughly 6 feet across. It must weigh nearly a ton. Spectacular light refraction…some master crafter…the crystal drops have been ingeniously cut so the light explodes outwards. She takes a deep breath and decides to keep going with the night.
(At the opening night reception backstage, Stella sees her friend Rory, who is an actor playing the lead role of Stanley Webber in The Birthday Party, and they go out in Manchester afterwards, to a pub, a club, and then an underground arts festival in an abandoned mansion.)
After the cab driver drops them off, Rory and Stella head down the lane. They can hear the crowd before they see it. There is a wooden gate set into a tall, overgrown hedge, behind which are towering ancient plane trees. They go through the gate into a dirt courtyard sheltered under the leaves of the massive trees. There are marquees set up around the outer edge of the courtyard, and on the other side is the mansion, with a door at ground level, and a flight of steps leading up to another door a level above. Music is pouring out of the top door, and the sound of applause comes splashing out of one of the marquees on the side. People are milling around, some of them dressed fancifully, and most are holding drinks, and there are circles of smokers. Stella tips her head back to look up at the dark blue night sky filtered through the leaves. The sight of the strings of coloured bulbs threaded above them in the tree branches makes her happy. Their specific beauty, a small, sweet beauty, plays in Stella’s heart. It is like this – I found out when I died – that the beauty of the world may play in a human heart and as it does so, it lights up that person’s being in relative magnitudes. Although different people see different beauties, and define the edges of what they think is beautiful, and decide that what is outside their edges is not beautiful, is ugly. To The Energies, all is beautiful. Even dysfunction is beautiful. All is beautiful. To The Energies, even hate, murder, pain are beautiful, because they are the instruments of growth, and what grows is love out of those dark experiences.
Rory is looking busily around for anyone they might know. He suggests they check out what is going on inside. They walk up the stairs to the upper level where they can hear music, and make their way through a corridor lined with people into a foyer, which has doors leading off of it and a grand staircase with an ornate balustrade winding gracefully up several more storeys. Paint in exquisite antique colours, eggshell blue and pond green, is in interesting and elegant decay, peeling from the ceilings and walls, and debris – old dust covers, two legs from a long-gone piano, dried leaves and twigs – are scattered strangely around. They follow the sound of the music and eventually walk into an enormous room, with parquet flooring, the old ballroom, probably, which is dark and filled with a crowd listening to tiered, layered, faceted electronic music pouring out of speakers on either side of a small stage. The musician is dressed as a spaceman, in a silver fabric suit with a glass ball helmet, and he is surrounded by synthesizers, computers, power cables, and wires. People around the edges are standing and bouncing their heads with the music’s funk beat, but the centre of the floor is a roil of dancing.
Stella drops her bag and coat by the wall at the edge of the room and jumps in. She stops thinking. She is like a wire, with energy flowing from the music to her, through her body, and into the floor. Pain is shoved completely to the side, and her molecules are energetically rewriting, as they did during the play, although in a different way this time. Rory joins her, and then they dance together, the dance floor in almost pitch dark, the only light in the room reflected off the stage, and Stella feels safe in the dark, safe with Rory, safe inside the music. After five songs which Stella and the rest of the crowd deem to be excellent, the musician finishes to thunderous applause, whistles, shouts and pleas for encores. Stella and Rory whistle along with the rest, and clap their hands high over their heads. Then, sweaty and happy, they head back into the foyer, where amidst the jostling crowd Rory sees his friend Benjamin, a performance artist with wild brown hair and soulful dark eyes in a brown corduroy jacket.
[Then later, still at the festival...]
They take a break to smoke cigarettes in the tree and dirt courtyard outside, and Stella keeps looking up at the lights woven into the darkness of the tree leaves above them. They talk about performance theatre, and Benjamin asks Stella to light his next show, and she agrees and hopes she will remember tomorrow.
Three women performance artists dressed in black bodystockings, with gold-painted faces and wigs of wild colours are moving like human mercury around the outside crowd, exploring the space with a primal grace and luxurious tactility that captivates Stella. They trace the outlines of smoke rising from cigarettes with their fingers, curve their bodies sideways around the massive old tree trunks, and turn upside down to walk on their hands. They are deeply in their trance of expression and focused intently on the flow of energy that comes from the crack in the worlds that artistic creation opens up. The dancer in the dark purple wig has learned how to feel her way into the other planes of existence, where I am, and she can sense me around Stella like a loving cloud. She is standing still for just a moment now, watching Stella. Then she mimes pulling an arrow from a quiver on her back, grandly brings up a bow, and arcing backward, releases her arrow up into the sky. She catches an imaginary star that falls and reverently holding this shows the other two dancers. The three huddle, staring into the purple-haired dancer’s empty hands, and when they look up into her dark-lined eyes, she holds their gazes and then glances over at Stella.
They move towards Stella liquidly, like wild creatures. As they draw close, they link hands and encircle her completely, dance slowly around her like the Three Graces. Rory and Benjamin who are in a giddy flow of conversation about the rise of devised theatre and problems of commercialism, step back to give them room. Stella stands quietly in the centre of this turning circle of women, and then she notices that each dancer’s black-lined eyes are sweeping over her every angle with deep, long looks – their eyes sliding from the smooth, blonde crown of her head, to the curve of her ear, the arch of her eyebrow, the sharp corner her elbow makes as her hand comes up to touch her throat – the attentive, slow, adoring gazes of a mother, sister, aunt, or grandmother. She is shocked by the way this feels, raw as she is right now. Her head falls forward, and she looks down at the ground and takes a deep breath. She closes her eyes for a moment and quiets down, accepting it, and then feeling it, love, wash over her. Finally, they break hands, and one by one, embrace her. The last one, the purple dancer hugs her and says, ‘he is still here’. Stella’s eyes go wide, and this message flashes through every one of her molecules, lighting her up for a moment like a firework. Rory, overhearing, says, who? And then Stella says, Rory, can we go? And in the cab with Rory and Benjamin, she tells them I am dead, and Rory’s eyes and mouth gape, and he just says, Oh, Stella. Oh, Stella. Oh, Stella. And Benjamin silently passes her the whiskey bottle.
She wakes up late the next morning in her hotel room on Princess St, with Rory fully clothed and curled around her on the bed, snoring, and Benjamin asleep on the floor under the window, and she thinks, Today, home.