As a directionless 19-year-old in 1986, I wrote a drunken letter to my hero John Cleese after watching a South Bank Show special about him. From what I can make out of my scribbled “plan” for the letter (I still have it), my rambling missive contained the suggestion we co-write a film about an over-the-hill comic (yes, I said that) and a young man going out with his daughter. I suggested a title of Waves. No amount of alcohol or inexperience can excuse this idea. And yet, I got a reply and an invitation to visit in the spring, when he returned from America. In his letter, he declined the offer to co-write with me and was generous about the drivel I had sent him: “I always like people who take a bit of a risk when they write to me by drifting outside the guidelines of ordinary communication.”
He met me at his office and walked me over to his house. He sat with the trademark long legs slung across the arm of his chair. With a kind, but razor-sharp smile he asked me searching questions about my direction in life. I had never been engaged in this way by anybody. We talked for some hours in his living room. His wife brought in a tray of tea and sat with us for a while. He seemed in no hurry to get rid of me, which amazed me. He was funny. He was tough. He was generous with his time and with his thoughts. He took me seriously and was inspirational.
Later he walked me back to Holland Park tube, upright yet languid, with a smile for those we passed, exuding a level of philosophical engagement with the world around him and inside him that was impressive to me. He said I talked visually, observed life in pictures and that I should consider studying film or working in it. And on that balmy, golden May evening he sat me down on a low brick wall to finish the conversation. He placed his index finger on my forehead (I didn’t wash for weeks) and said: “Think about studying something you really are interested in.” He wrote down the names of two films (I still have the scrap of paper): Un Chien Andalou and L’Age d’Or. Watch these, he said, and if they fascinate you, consider studying films and books.
He pointed me in the direction of a life I would never have considered. But it was more than that. He gave a shy, sport-obsessed, academically poor country boy with no cosmopolitan culture a glimpse of the idea that anything can happen.
If the funniest, most interesting man in the world can invite you for tea, then anything is possible. My day with JC ended with me wearing a pair of comedy Y-fronts outside my trousers while riding pillion on my girlfriend’s Puch Maxi moped through the terraced streets of Wincheap in Canterbury, celebrating treasured hours with a serious funny man and the suspicion that life would never be the same again.
Something about the prospect of turning 50 in March this year had been niggling me for some time, despite the fact that I’ve never taken much notice of birthdays. I was content to celebrate or not, was feeling somewhat blessed by the love and friendship and professional stimulation in my life, yet beneath it all something was troubling me. I began to realise it was sadness at the fact that soon after my 50th birthday I would become older than my big brother; my beloved, late, big brother. And that felt like an abomination.
Pip died in January 2011 and just as I spent much of 2010 fantasising that I could save his life or take his place, I have spent a fair part of the last few months imagining being given an hour with him as a 50th birthday present.
Until now, I haven’t had a clear sense of what I would say to him, apart from the most important and fundamental thing of telling him about his children, how they have grown up into good-hearted, funny, interesting young adults, true to those things he asked them to be, and telling him all the details of their loveliness that it is not my business to write about publicly.
I would tell him how dearly I miss him, but would I admit how dark it got without him? How I searched for him everywhere and found him only out on the water, on the waves. That it was windsurfing that kept me together in the year after he died; that it was only out at sea that I felt able to call his name (which I missed using so much). That I would go out beyond the pack and rest on my board there, arms folded across it, body weightless in the water, staring at the horizon, watching the swell of the sea beneath slate skies, staying out late into the darkness, feeling connected to him only there.
My brother took me under his wing when I was 15 and he was 22. He took me to the pub, answered my questions about girls (which were still current when he died, and have been piling up without him), stood on the North Bank at Highbury with me when I wasn’t allowed to go on my own, rid my life of a bullying element close to home, enjoyed a second studenthood for himself when I went to the same university he had, and brought me into the bosom of his family when he married and had children.
Throughout our 20s, 30s and 40s, our time together was marked by stupidity and happiness. We “got” each other and liked the same blend of silly and serious. We began every conversation with a David Jacobs “Hello there”, talked to each other about everything, and never once let each other down. And perhaps it’s that fact that makes it hard to know what I would want to say to him if I could have that hour.
Once upon a time, on a bad day, I would have told him how furious I was with him for rendering this life never quite as good as it would be with him here. I might have waved in front of him the postcard he sent me from a dream holiday (when he was fit and well) in his beloved Australia with his family, the card that said: “Before we die, you and I are going to sit here [he was in a pub overlooking Sydney harbour] and drink a pint of Coopers pale ale together …”
There is still a part of me that thinks we’ll have that drink one day, that finds it easier to believe that than the ridiculous notion that I will never, ever get to see my brother again. Pip, you owe me that pint in Sydney.
We knew each other so well that, if we had an hour, perhaps we would just reminisce – about Saturday morning bacon butties in his flat in Camberwell, south London, which we’d eat in his double bed a la Morecambe and Wise, or writing off our mum’s Citroën on the farm track to the Shipwright’s Arms at Oare Creek in Kent. Would we go for a drive and replay the “over-excited” game where, at traffic lights, we would overreact in apocalyptic proportion to a red light, screaming “Oh noooo, red liiiiiiight, I can’t take it any more, goddddddd NO!” and then erupt with joy when the lights went green? (You’ll presume this was a game dating from our childhood, but in fact we invented it in our 40s, when we were stuck at lights outside Mortons the Padlock, the ironmonger, on the A23.)
My brother was born in 1960. He was always well and had no health problems. Then at the age of 49 a suspected kidney stone was diagnosed as a rare and inoperable cancer and he died 10 months later. He was a thoughtful man on matters weighty and trivial but laughed at himself, at me and at most situations. He had a myriad of answers when I asked him each day how he was feeling: Still quite cancer-y … Never better. And he and his wife took great pleasure reminding me that it was him on chemo and me losing the hair (his never budged). But we could always turn to each other with serious concerns and I took his counsel on every important episode in my life (there weren’t that many).
He talked to me late on in his illness of his strong sense of guilt at leaving his children, his wife, me. Given an hour, would I tell him about the inescapable feeling that I had failed him when it mattered by not being able to swap places and take on his illness so that he could remain with his family? Or would I ask, Pip, just how the hell are we meant to work that apple press of yours, which you showed me how to use when you were dying and I wasn’t concentrating?
What would you say if you had an hour, and no more, with someone you love and have lost? And, why don’t I have an answer? The reason is, I have already had my hour with my dead brother. I had it when he was still my brave, beautiful, dignified, dying brother.
Not long after his diagnosis, when I was staying in his spare room while looking for a flat to rent nearby, he came into the room late one night. He asked me how I was doing and I said I was OK. I asked him how he was doing and he said that he was doing well except for the dying bit. Then I buried my head in his neck and sobbed. We held each other for a long time. I told him that I loved him, with all my heart, and always had. He thanked me. He told me he loved me too. We sat with our arms around each other.
He asked me if I thought the children would be OK, and I replied, honestly, that I thought they would be. He talked about them, and he talked about why he wasn’t scared. He asked me to talk about how I felt, and I told him I desperately didn’t want him to go and couldn’t see beyond that, but that I’d be OK because what else is there? We spent a long time hugging each other and I felt his hand moving slowly on my neck, stroking it, and we told each other again that we loved each other and he said I couldn’t bear to watch you die. I told him he owed me nothing else, no words, no time, that what he had said to me that night would last me for ever, and to concentrate now on looking after his own family and our mother. At the door, just before he left the room, he said: “We got it right, we’ve been good brothers.”
And because there is nothing to add to what we shared and talked about that night, I think if I could have an hour with my brother that, after telling him about his family, I would just want to hold him, look at him, take a walk with him. I honestly have nothing more to say, even though if he were still here with me, we’d talk for the rest of our lives. I’d settle for telling him one more time that I love him (Rachel Green in Friends was right, people love to hear that), and he would take the mickey out of me for being older than him.
“I’m going to do that thing in the kitchen,” Stefano said, staring meaningfully at his wife as he left the room.
“He wants you to follow him out so you can talk about us,” Jack told Ann. Ann rose to her feet unsurely. Jack nodded reassuringly to her, to signal she should go. She obeyed.
“I reckon they think we’ve killed her,” Jack said.
Finn laughed under his breath. “I wouldn’t reckon our chances.”
A few minutes later, the Powell’s re-emerged and took their seats, with rehearsed smiles. “Look,” Stefano said to Finn, on a long out breath. “If you’ve had a bust up with my daughter just tell us. We’re her parents for Christ’s sake.”
“We were joking about killing her,” Jack said.
Finn buried his head in his hands.
“Oh my sweet Lord Jesus!” Ann whimpered, folding her hands in white knuckle prayer. Stefano’s chest filled and his face reddened. His hands became twitchy.
Finn slouched back on the sofa. “We have not murdered your daughter,” he said, wearily.
“You have wanted to though, at times, admit it,” Jack said.
We’ve all wanted to, Ann thought to herself.
Finn looked at Jack in disbelief. “SHUT. UP.”
“But the sex kept you in it, I’d imagine,” Jack reasoned, rising to his feet and ambling in to the kitchen for his cough medicine. Stefano watched him, wide eyed, the way he’d watch a talking squirrel or any other phenomenon.
Jack yelled out, “YOU SAID THE SEX WAS UNBELIEVEABLE, LIKE BEING BACK IN FULL-TIME EDUCATION.” He emerged and sat on an upholstered chair against the wall of the no man’s land between the dining area and the living area. It was the only chair in the house there was no good reason to sit on. “I don’t want to be rude,” he continued, pouring his medicine into the measuring cap and slugging it back. “But if I don’t eat a proper meal soon I’m going to collapse.”
“There’s places in town,” Stefano grumbled.
Jack said, “Am I detecting an atmosphere?”
The Spider Truces
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Book of the Year — Financial Times
Shortlisted — Waverton Good Read Award
Longlisted — Desmond Elliott Prize
Shortlisted — Brit Writers Published Writer of the Year Award
Shortlisted — Writers’ Guild of Great Britain Award
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He hauled himself out of poverty and the town they were raised, and she fled with him. A few yards beyond the town sign they danced beside the car, pulling each other’s arms taut as they span. Her parents found circles in the long grass. On her twenty fifth birthday, he moved them into an apartment on McDougall Street, in the heart of the city, and that was the night she let go of it all, her father, the town, the sour factory faces that forbad living. Beyond the spat-out memory of those people, she found the explosion of desire she had read about in magazines. Quinn’s chest was pillow and ballast, his eyes Emerald green. She bought him a cat and told him she had called it Mighty and Quinn roared, and his eyes twinkled with the finesse of a strong man in love. It was the most precious year of her life and even then she seemed to know it. After his death, she woke every morning and crumpled beneath the blow. For eight consecutive days she visited the cubicle room that had space only for the coffin, a kneeler, and a kidney shaped table with a box of tissues on it. The coffin lid stood propped against a quivering partition wall, as if the tree it was made from had grown up with dreams of being a surfboard. It had taken ten months from the first ache in his ear to reach this room. When she left his body for the last time, she nodded resolutely at his stone face and whispered okay then. She drew a line, enrolled at college and never cried again. She gave Mighty away the first morning she woke with another man. She could look neither of them in the eye. It was the cessation of innocence, the end of the first of her lives, the one that had begun with birth and childhood, the one that had boasted it would never end. Every morning she felt that a part of her own body had been stolen as she slept, and every night the thieves returned.
The Man met her four years after all that. The Man didn’t know it was four years because he didn’t know all that had happened. He worked it out. She talked only of the apartment on McDougall Street and the cat called Mighty that lived with her there.
The Man had met her on an elevated platform. They made each other laugh and missed a train, swapped numbers at eye level to the bedrooms of improving Georgian townhouses, and watched their own determination for peace of heart sweep them through the doors of one such townhouse within a few months of meeting. In it, they made a lover’s palace of a small studio flat on the top floor and went to enough films and gigs to leave them no time to think. She finally liberated herself from the cloying sympathy of her girlfriends by telling them the sex was great, but did not challenge the purity of their image of grieving by letting on that, even in the immediate aftermath of losing Quinn, in those blurry, half-hearted, sometimes cold-hearted, skirmishes, pleasure had not eluded her.
Yes, the sex was good, and starting a family with the Man felt easy and calm, and quick. She was organised and they set aside a weekend. She bathed in the late afternoon as the Man shopped for food. He stopped on the front steps to watch a couple unpack a hire van and move in to the flat below. He spoke with them and received a hostile reception from a cat in a basket. I’m so sorry, he’s had a long journey. By the time the woman was sat on the side of the bath drying herself, the cat had found its way to the flat roof at the back of the building, from where it watched the woman hug a towel tight around her shoulders and stare distantly at the skirting boards. The cat leant towards the half open window and sniffed the scent of the steam, and went unnoticed by the woman, who brushed her teeth as she left the bathroom. She spat into the kitchen sink and put her mouth to the tap and dropped the toothbrush beside the oven and she sang herself a tune of melancholy beauty, without noticing it. Oh yes, the sex was good but when she heard the cat crying from the rooftop, she stopped abruptly and the Man felt her skin turn cool beneath his touch. He mistook her tears for happiness, because he felt it too, but she could not continue. The Man twisted beneath the duvet to watch her as she climbed out of the bed and walked to the kitchenette. She flicked on the gas and put on a sweatshirt. He watched her move along the kitchen worktop, pulling a mug off the hooks, dragging the jar towards her and scooping coffee in to the pot, and she peered closer at the kettle on the gas as if to will it on, and meanwhile a sideways glance to the half-flight of stairs, beyond which she saw the cat at the bathroom window, half-in and half-out. She made the kiss-kiss sound and called the cat Mighty, by mistake. She heard it, the drift of her own voice around the room, and looked for something to fill the silence, something other than looking at the Man. She fed the cat one of the Scallops the Man was to have cooked for her whilst his sperm voyaged forth towards her eggs for a rendezvous that would not now be made. Far too late, she said to the cat, or whatever your name is and forced a laugh.
She slept early and the man lifted the cat back on to the flat roof and shoo-ed it away, but kindly, apologetically, the same way he lived his life. He read a little and drank a little and watched the rise of her ribs against the silk slip he had bought her one time when he was feeling sure of himself. She dreamt vividly that night. In her dream, the cat from downstairs led her through the apartment and even though it wasn’t Quinn’s cat, she understood clearly that if she kept calling the cat Mighty then eventually the apartment, her life, the universe, would reconfigure themselves to how they had been when Mighty was alive. All she had to do was stay in the dream and keep calling, Mighty… Mighty… She walked in her sleep, confident of finding Quinn around the next corner. The Man shadowed her, careful not to startle her. At the fireplace she stopped and became confused. She cradled the Man’s head in her hands and peered at his face, as if looking for someone inside. Her eyes were all shadow. The Man remained still as her hands stroked his face, upwards towards the temples, and she rubbed the tips of his ears and whispered Mighty… then, her body slumped and allowed the man to guide it back to bed. She continued to sleep deeply and felt light and free as she stepped towards a precipice of joy. She allowed herself to step over the edge and woke abruptly as she fell. It was late morning and she could remember nothing other than the taste of joy, which troubled her all day.
When she returned from work, she opened the bathroom window. The evening dragged. She became irritable when the cat didn’t show, and she went to bed early. The Man found her knelt beside him in the dead of night, tugging his arm. Why is that there, darling? As he clawed himself awake, the Man saw that she was pointing at the wall between the bed and the living area. Why is that there? He watched her walk in little circuits around the studio flat as if it had many different rooms, and all the while she made the kiss-kiss sound and called for Mighty. She trailed her fingertips along the walls and stopped at a bare patch of brickwork and reset the minute hand of a Colin & Justin wall clock that had never been there. She peered through windows that did not exist. She stood between the sofa and the fireplace, and seemed disenchanted by the relationship of one to the other. She looked at the Man and pulled a face. This sofa isn’t right darling, she said, and seemed suddenly lost. The next morning the Man was woken by the sound of the coffee pot rattling on the flame and his eyes were the marble of sleeplessness and she smiled at him as she wiggled her hips at the stove and said you look worn out matey. Matey was her word for the man, not darling. She had never called him darling.
The man feigned illness and stayed home, and waved her off from the window, remaining there until he was certain she would not double back for a forgotten wallet, scarf, paperback, as she sometimes did. He viewed the realisation he had arrived at in the early hours of that morning as the sort which, though shocking, comes as no surprise. He found her old photos in a plastic box in the small attic above the stairwell. The albums mapped her childhood. Her adult life was accounted for, flimsily, by a few loose photos in envelopes, a few more on her laptop. The exception was a thin marbled leather album in which he found photos of her early times in the city and of the apartment on McDougal Street, and the empty spaces where photos had been removed, leaving yellowing rectangular six inch by four inch shadows of absence. The sofa in McDougal Street was at a right-angle to the fireplace, and covered by a crocheted blanket which the Man remembered she had thrown over his sofa the day they moved in here, only to remove it the next morning without explanation. He found it now in the last place he looked, not long before she returned from work, wrapped in a black bin liner in a cardboard box in the furthest, lowest, darkest nook of the attic. Beneath the blanket was a vessel which, the Man knew, as soon as he glimpsed it and slammed the box shut, contained the dead man’s ashes.
He waited until she was asleep before going to bed. When he woke with a start it was to the sound of a floorboard creaking somewhere within the inky darkness of the room. He sat up, unable to see her in the gloom. He thought he could hear breathing in the attic. The moonlight from the window receded into blackness and made the room seem a hundred yards long, but a couple of steps into the darkness revealed the entirety of what they lived in. She was on the sofa, which he had repositioned and covered with the crocheted blanket, after she had fallen asleep. She had found both to her liking. On her lap was a pillow, which she stroked from head to tail. She knew the Man was there but ignored him as politely as the candour of sleep-talking allowed. Her face seemed open and her eyes unnaturally bright for the time of night. She no longer looked real to the Man. She checked herself with little glances, and neatened her slip in anticipation, as if it were an evening dress and she was waiting on the periphery of a dance. In the moments of stillness, her hands sat neatly on her lap, loosely entwined, and she watched the fireplace as if it were alight. The Man stood watching her for a long time before he moved away and dressed. When he returned to her she had not moved. Do you need anything? he asked her, softly. She said, I’m happier to wait alone. He used his key to shut the door behind him quietly. He stepped out on to the street and wandered amongst those returning late and those beginning early. A bar was still open and a few, scattered, alcohol soaked friends clung to each other inside, and between him and the bar, there was birdsong and the first hints of colour in the sky above the rooftops. The drink felt good. No, it felt great. He was glad to be alone again. There was nothing much to the bar, and late, excessive drinking saddened him, but this morning the place felt like the brink of adventure, and to his surprise, he felt an uncharacteristic twinge of triumph as he thought of the two of them there, stuck with each other for ever, night in, night out, and he vowed to never look back and to shake the dust off his boots when he left with his things in the morning.
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The Shirt Off My Back
I knew from the scampering and thwacking on the laminate floor inside that it was my six year old nephew coming to let me in. That worked for me as I adore him and it was his birthday after all. It took him the usual little while to tackle the door handle and I took the opportunity to check my hair in the brass letter box and admire the new shirt I had bought, to look nice for my Mother and just in case my sister had invited Erica Pullman. This was no thirty quid shirt from G*p, this was one hundred and twenty pounds worth of Paul Smith from Selfridges that set me back eighty five pounds more than any other shirt I ever bought. But if you saw Erica Pullman you’d know it was money well spent, and I love my nephew and want to look good for the little man of course, but if you knew how unconfident with women I was and how easily rattled I get then you’d see it as a hundred and twenty pounds invested. The shirt was blue, different shades of blue, with pale lines and some swirls. It was soft to touch (take note Erica) and had marble blue buttons (for the undoing of, Erica). My nephew stared at my shirt and then he pointed at it and said; “Do you work at Tesco now?” I looked down at the blues, at the swirls, and I could see what he meant. I didn’t see it when Marco from Menswear Casuals was telling me how great I looked, but I saw it now. “No,” I said. “Its Paul Smith (you little bastard - which he is, technically, by the way). Did you know there’s no Father Christmas?”
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the cold light of day
There is a particular adventure in feeling that we have reached the edge of land, in the illusion that we have discovered uncharted territory, even when we do so close to home.
In north Kent, where the Thames transforms from river into estuary, the Cliffe Marshes on the Isle of Grain offer an alternative face to the Garden of England, equally as memorable as the oasthouses and orchards, and arguably more fascinating. It is a prairie-sky landscape that is beautiful and desolate, an otherworldly place within an hour of London.
I first went there 20 years ago, roaming without purpose across my home county with my friend Dave Turnbull, then a fellow cameraman, now a Dorset blacksmith. Driving towards the setting sun, we had been drawn into a flat unpopulated landscape and were oblivious to the fact that the Thames was nearby, snaking its way through the marshes we now crossed.
We drove to the end of an unmade road flanked by bullrushes, then continued on foot, tightrope walking across a pipe that bridged a drainage ditch and landed us in a maze of weather-ravaged corrugated-iron huts, animal pens and bird traps. On a fence were nailed a line of rabbit pelts and a dead jackdaw. Painted haphazardly on to a railway sleeper were the words "JACK RIPON LAND. STAY OUT". We looked back. The car was already a speck on the horizon.
We had strayed into trespass that evening, but if you keep to the footpaths on Cliffe Marshes you will feel welcome to enjoy this place of unlikely and peculiar beauty. Back on that first, enchanted evening, as we debated whether or not to hang around and find out who Jack Ripon might be, we heard a sound, a soft sound so low and directionless that it seemed the sky had begun to breathe. It came from nowhere but was everywhere. It had no discernable beginning or end, instead it inserted itself seamlessly into the air. "God blowing through a bottle," Dave murmured.
We found ourselves staring open-mouthed across the flatlands at the mirage of a pearl-white cruise ship gliding above the fields. The deep sound came again, from the ship's funnels, and this time the ground vibrated. We ran towards the ship and a low sea wall came into sight, a pencil-thin detail that had been hidden in the dusky contours of the landscape. We clambered up the wall and the Thames revealed itself, wide and calm, saturated by the colours of sunset and reflecting with mirror sharpness the gas burners of the refinery on the opposite bank.
Breathless from running and exuberant at stumbling upon the transformation point of river into sea, this place filled me with the same thrill that first setting foot on Manhattan had done. The comparison may seem strange but travel is, for me, about the renewal of wonder, the possibility of discovery. Whether exploring my home county of Kent or the other side of the world, a geographical landscape replenishes the landscape of one's own imagination. Many of the places that do this are close to home, tucked away off the beaten track, places that, should we encounter them on the other side of the planet, we would remember and tell everyone about them.
I return to the Cliffe Marshes in all seasons, most recently in June, starting at the RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools – a mixture of brackish lagoons, freshwater pools, and salt marsh offering protected habitat to wading birds and wildfowl, and rarities such as water voles, emerald damselfly and green hairstreak butterfly. It is also the gateway to a wide vista of blemished beauty, where the changing light repaints the mood, hour by hour.
In cinematic terms, this is the terrain and light of Terrence Malick's Badlands, the big skies of Days of Heaven. Those two films shaped my love of cinema and it is no coincidence that I return to this challenging, painterly landscape, which casts a similar spell as the widescreen poetry of those stunning cinematic depictions of rural America.
From the Pools, the Saxon Shore Way leads out into this beguiling landscape, most of it grazing land farmed by tenant farmers and owned by the the Port of London Authority. I walk parallel to the skeletal structures of a cement works conveyor belt and towards the distant twin chimneys of Tilbury power station. The birdsong is loud, musical and constant across acres of buttercups spread out in thick swathes. Butterflies flash white then disappear into thin air. A beef herd grazes in the long meadow grass and above them vast container ships glide soundlessly through the landscape on the hidden river.
Cliffe Fort and Cliffe Creek, ruined and deserted, hint at the marsh's historical role in defending the river from invasion and at the Victorian prosperity which the cement industry brought to the peninsula. (Portland, Roman and Medina cement, Portland stucco and plaster of Paris were shipped from the creek). At the creek, I leave the Saxon Shore Way and follow a footpath that hugs the river bank and pass a rusty abandoned pier hovering above the pale-green water. Here, at the north-west tip of the peninsula, the expanse of marsh is stunning to behold.
Wild grasses – sea barley and annual beard grass – sway to the hum of river traffic beneath an arching, fathomless blue sky. A dozen white horses run in circles among earth mounds that betray the position of an old munitions site. From one of the flooded explosion pools, an egret takes flight. Cliffe church sticks its head out above the trees, a reminder that though at the edge of the world, you remain part of it.
The Thames curves eastwards and widens as it readies itself to become open sea. The lush, green marshes and majestic river form an increasingly dramatic canvas with the graphic industrial lines of the Coryton refinery on the other side of the water. Arrive here, at Egypt Bay, at dusk, as I did by accident 20 years ago, and the view transforms before you, the sparkling lights and fluttering flames of Coryton assuming dominance in the darkening sky and the Thames turning inky black as if to oblige in reflecting the light show.
Charles Dickens described the north Kent marshes as "wilderness", and even at its most serenely beautiful there is a wildness to the clefts in the landscape that offers inspiration to the visitor. Head east from Grain towards the neighbouring Isle of Sheppey and, at the last point on the mainland, you will find Bedlam's Bottom, a creek on the Chetney marshes. Any place on the map with a name like that demands a visit and this inlet is a wonderful walking (and thinking) spot. It combines the prettiness of north Norfolk with the moodiness of a distant horizon incited to drama by Kingsnorth power station and the jetty cranes at Grain.
Muted olive-green farmland sits against unquenchably black mudflats. A decayed tanker lies on the low tide, draped in treacle-thick mud, among fissure-like inlets and saltings which have carved themselves graphically into the mud and fields. Ancient, gnarled hawthorn bushes lean steeply with the prevailing winds. (There's a reason they call it "windthorn" here.) The public footpath on Raspberry Hill Lane is your gateway to this deeply atmospheric place.
Even easier to find than Cliffe and Chetney are Nagden Marshes, between Faversham and Whitstable. A good way to access them is to park up at the renowned Sportsman pub and head west, parallel to the marching pylons, into a summer scene of viper's bugloss, black-headed gulls and bait diggers on a low tide. A cool, soft, salty breeze straddles these and the green fields and cherry orchards are fallow fields of orange, brown and rusty hues.
A gang of cherry pickers sit in the shade of a fierce sun, yet the inland sky behind them is a canvas of storm clouds, the gaps in which, look like petrified lightning. Cleve Marshes become Graveney Marshes and they, in turn, give way to Nagden Marshes as you approach Faversham Creek. Here, the sea defences have been let go and create graphic shapes on the beach. A lichen-covered sea wall teems with red ants and there is colour laced into every detail of the landscape.
In the mid-1980s, when I lived at Seasalter, this exposed marshland was the perfect cure for a student hangover in winter, such was the clean, icy quality of the winds. The pools, left by the receding tide reflected a silvery sky both painterly and bleak. It is timeless, an exposed place defined by the elements, by seasons, tides and moods, sometimes hostile, other times meditative, always fortifying.
This is a Wyeth landscape, redolent of the tones and themes and interplay with landscape that the great American painter, Andrew Wyeth, devoted his life's work to. Wyeth himself wrote: "I prefer winter and fall, when you feel the bone structure of the landscape. Something waits beneath it, the whole story doesn't show."
And this is the point of these Kentish nooks that lay a little off the beaten path. They are untamed, visceral and exposed, sometimes sharing their space with industrial sprawl. But the undeniable rawness of these places is part of the story. They are also astonishingly exquisite guardians of the most magical light, teeming with life and fertility and beauty, reflective and inspirational landscapes with an extraordinary sense of the huge sky above us and the vast space within.
Read the script
FOOTSTEPS APPROACH THE OPEN LIFT DOOR AS THE MAN WORKS AWAY.
9.STEVE: Oh. You fixing the lift?
LIFT DOOR CLOSES, DESCENDS.
11.STEVE: Welcome to paradise.
12.JOHN: Where you off to?
13.STEVE: Me…? (he laughs)
14.JOHN: What’s funny?
15.STEVE: Apart from my Mum on the phone once a month, no one ever asks me what I’m doing.
1.JOHN: So, what are you doing?
FX OF PAPER. HE’S WRITTEN THIS DOWN.
2.STEVE: Helen. 38. Year older than me. Likes rock climbing, power walking, baking, time spent with friends, impromptu suppers, Breaking Bad and Khaled Hosseini.
3.JOHN: Sounds good.
4.STEVE: I haven’t adopted a full disclosure policy about my hair loss and spare tyre.
Lift doors open.
5.JOHN: Hope it goes well.
6.STEVE: It won’t. (laughs to himself as he exits)
FADE OUT AS STEVE’S FOOTSTEPS ACROSS THE COLD, HOLLOW, COMMUNAL ENTRANCE, RECEDE.
FADE UP ON A NEW DAY, FEELS LIKE MORNING – THE SOUND OF THE MAN SINGING TO HIMSELF AS HE WORKS AND OF FOOTSTEPS CROSSING THE COLD, HOLLOW, ECHO-RIDDEN COMMUNAL ENTRANCE TO THE BUILDING. THE FOOTSTEPS ENTER THE LIFT.
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feature – in development, starring Toby Jones and Dominic Cooper
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Contact Rochelle Stevens for information.
see you next friday
Read an early extract
Out of the Depths
I don’t have any of my own but I’m pretty good around children. Today is close to perfect. Mary is hurtling across northern France towards The City of Light to celebrate her 40th. Her daughter is next to her, her son next to me. All this, courtesy of me… besotted me.
India, Mary’s thirteen year old daughter, is trying her first ever cup of coffee. “Café au Lait” is what she asked for, in a French accent practiced to perfection this past week. We’re in first class. I’m not trying to impress, I just wanted to see Mary’s face. And, yes, next week, when she tells them I’m moving in, she could always say, “The guy who took us first class to Paris for the weekend is moving in.”
India is not yet won over by me. With the boy – Sunny – I’m already home and hosed. He’s liked me ever since I came to his school play and heaped praise on his acting ability. He’s an uncomplicated chap. When Mary explained we were going to Paris and not Disneyland Paris, his meltdown lasted only ten minutes, so he’s cool in my book. And, I wasn’t just being nice. The boy can act.
With her Café au Lait, India is having a croissant. She said she wanted to eat something “elegant and French,” and she is doing so elegantly. The boy is having hot chocolate and haribos and explaining Minecraft to me. I catch his Mum looking at me. She mouths, “He likes you” and rubs her foot against my leg. It makes my heart melt that she wants me in her life. I have to stop myself wrapping the boy in my arms.
India is friendly and, when she chooses, talkative. But, she has a finely tuned sensor which tells her when I am feeling comfortable, at which point she heaps praise on her Dad. And I don’t blame her. I’m glad India loves her Dad and she has every right to big him up. Mary is more uncomfortable with this than I am because Mary is kind and wants me to feel welcome, so I often shoot her that brilliantly subtle facial expression and shake of the head which means, its fine… don’t worry about me…
I hope India’s Dad knows what a loyal daughter he has, and what great sex his wife and I have.
In private, Mary pretends that one day she’ll walk India through the work colleagues and tennis partners he bedded throughout their marriage, including when Mary was pregnant. What, Mary says, do you expect from a yoga teaching environmentalist who drives a Range Rover Vogue and owes his Mum sixty grand?
India is sipping her coffee, as if introducing a taste she doesn’t especially like but wants to get used to. “How come you’re coming to Sacre Couer with us if you don’t believe in God?” she says.
She often riffs on the theme of my atheism, knows I write about non-belief for certain journals and compares it to her Dad’s strong spirituality. Her Dad believes in all the Gods, Jesus and Ganesh in particular, I’m told. I presume he’s the God of eternal bachelorhood and infidelity.
“I wouldn’t go to McDonalds if I was a vegetarian,” India argues.
“Would you take a peek inside a McDonalds if it were a Romano-Byzantine masterpiece?” Mary asks.
“Is there McDonalds in Paris?” Sunny asks.
“Yes, and no, we can’t,” his Mum says.
He shrugs, not bothered.
“Its just a very beautiful building,” I reply. “And, the view is awesome.”
Awesome is a current word. Well done me for not saying cool.
India has not finished with me. “But, you told Mum that religious faith is as healthy as closed courts and churches can’t be disassociated from the delusions they promote.”
I’m a little shocked, because that is almost word for word what I did say to Mary one night when she was joking about my atheism. The conversation led to us agreeing we didn’t care about the differences in our beliefs, to laughter and to sex. I remember it.
I look at Mary. “Why would you tell her that?”
“I heard you talking in bed,” India says, coolly. “I hear everything in Mum and Dad’s bedroom from my room.”
“And take notes?” I joke.
“Sometimes, yes,” India says.
“Its not my and Dad’s bedroom, India. Its mine and Mike’s.”
I smile at Mary and mouth, “its fine.”
The boy asks if it means I won’t ever come to church with them and Mary says, “Mike won’t come to church and it doesn’t matter.”
“I know,” the boy shrugs, “it’d just be cool to show him off to my friends.”
I like that, and note its cool for Sunny to say cool but uncool for me to say cool.
“And it’d be super relaxing for me to have him and Dad in church twenty feet apart,” India says.
“Mike…” Mary says, “its Mike, its never ‘him’.”
I ask India what she means when she says she can hear everything. The boy starts giggling behind the Paris city guide, and his sister produces a shockingly life-like creaking bed-frame sound effect, from behind her vampire hunter novel. Mary shuts her eyes in mock horror but she’s smiling and I feel that surge of love for her that makes me understand that one’s heart skipping a beat is real and not poetic.
It’s a sunny October half-term day in Paris and I would love to take Mary for lunch at Terminus, but we are discussing it when Sunny asks me if I am “totally crazy”. I ask him to bring me up to speed with his train of thought and he obliges; anyone who delays going up the Eiffel Tower is crazy.
So, it’s the ninety-minute queue for the top of the Eiffel Tower for us, then omelet and chips in a café, where India and Mary’s conversation turns to an afternoon’s shopping at Gallerie Lafayette and Carrefour. The boy refuses to be any part of it and I see an opportunity. I ask him what he’d like to do and he slides the city guide over to me like a glass of beer on a saloon bar counter, and says that the Catacombs look awesome.
I have to admit its sweet, the way India and her baby brother hug each other when they say good-bye. She whispers something in his ear. Mary texts me that she is ready to pop with happiness as she watches Sunny and me walk away like two peas in a pod for our boys’ afternoon. Life is beautiful and so, strangely, are the heaped up human bones lining the tunnels and vaults twenty meters beneath the streets. Sunny is impressed. So am I, by the skulls and bones of six million people stacked in artistic fashion along dark, dank chambers. Somewhere amongst this is Robespierre, down these tunnels the Resistance operated.
“Pretty awesome,” my eight year old buddy mutters.
“Better than Harry Potter world?” (Whatshisface took them there a few weeks ago.)
“No.” He says this like I’m a complete idiot. “What’s it for? Why’d they make it?”
“Well, they had to. All the graveyards in the city were full, the book says. Someone decided to dig up all the dead people and put them down here.”
He shoots me a filthy look. “Woah! Are these real dead people?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Oh my Go - ” He shivers and breaks in to a dirty ‘that’s gross’ snigger. “Was there, like, an earthquake?”
“No, they just died,” I shrug and smile. “We all die some day and this is… you know… people like us.”
The boy’s face changes. He looks right at me and in the most pathetic voice he says, “Mike… I’m gonna die?”
“I’m gonna die?” he repeats, his voice a thin reed.
“Um… What?” I say, and smile confidently.
He stares at a stack of human skulls and starts feeling the shape of his own eye sockets. His little chest heaves and I see the colour drain from his face as he puts two and two together.
“Shall… we… go-o-o… to…” My voice dries up.
“I’m gonna die?” he repeats, his eyes full of dread and staring at me.
Oh balls, oh balls, oh balls….
“Look, Sunny…” I wish he had a real name. “Shall we get a hot chocolate and cheer up?” My voice is riddled with doubt, and barely rises above the onset of Sunny’s hyperventilating.
A hot chocolate might not do it; he’s nearly fitting.
I consider playing the Eurodisney card, a total last resort. I’d almost rather he suffer.
“I DON’T WANT TO DIE!” he cries out, tears streaming across his cheeks, his body language on the cusp of a full-blown panic attack - his first ever, my half-term gift to him.
I don’t feel that a twelve foot pile of human bones is what he needs right now, so I take his hand and lead him away from Pol Pot’s car boot sale. At street level, amongst an instantly suspicious crowd, he is inconsolable. Wailing. And I bet you, I just bet you, I don’t look like someone’s who’s good with kids now.
“I don’t wanna die!”
And I am witnessing a hitherto untainted, carefree human child stumbling out of its cocoon of blissful ignorance into the life of knowing mortality that will never be escaped, until, ironically, death.
You can put that on my headstone. “Is this irony? No, its death.”
I am watching the existential dots join on his face. I’m holding the pen that joined the dots for him. This is an undoing that can never be made good, a revelatory back projection beaming visions of oblivion in to his big blue eyes for the first time and his young, forming brain marrying these images to his own existence. And it is all my doing. Yes, he’d find out one day, but he’s found out today, on my watch, on our dream weekend in Paris, the clincher weekend that enables Mary and I to make a home together with her daughter and the husk of a human being shriveling up in front of me that was once her son.
As was the case for Sunny and his own mortality, I never saw this coming.
“Sunny… Sunny…” I implore, but he’s recoiling from me, as if I’m the reaper himself.
“You’re not going to die! You’re not! Of course you’re not.”
I hear what I’ve said, but I don’t have a plan.
Still no plan.
He begins to regain his breath. “How come?”
“Because you’re not, that’s how come.”
“Why? You just said we all do.””
“How come they all died?” He gestures to the Catacombs.
I walk us away. “Just… because, is why.”
That’s not a plan.
“Because what?” he squeals. “I need to know so I don’t do it. Because what!”
The streets of Montparnasse fall silent. A least they seem to, as if the dust is settling around me. I notice a bird circling gently above us and the boy’s face ebbing towards a hoped for calm as he looks to me for an answer. I see Mary’s smile. Then, her thighs.
I smile at him and looking back at me is not the boy, the beautiful boy, but the great thinkers and writers born of this city or drawn to it, the brilliant non-believers from the distant and recent past I have studied and admired and felt the presence of here; Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault, Holbach, Bougle, Comte-Sponville.
The boy is shivering the way a cold puppy shivers. And he’s staring at me. Waiting.
“Because… of… God…” I say.
The thick, snotty tears that have run down his face cling to his lips as they part and his eyes brighten in hope.
“Because of… God…” I whisper.
He smiles, gratefully, then regards me carefully. “So… aren’t you going to heaven?”
“Me?” I swallow a bit more noticeably than I wanted to. “No. I guess not.”
“You just die and are a skeleton?”
“Er, yeah… would seem so.”
“That’s not good.”
He’s right. It’s a bummer. I’m kind of jealous of his little, grinning sweet cheeks.
He looks at me sympathetically. “Unlucky,” he says, and wraps his arms around me. He smells of Haribos and of his airless bedroom and it’s the best smell in the world and I feel his little fingers tapping against my skin and his breathing close up against my ears, like the pulse of life itself.
“Please believe in God so you can be in heaven with me and India and Mummy and Dad.”
“OK,” I whisper in his perfectly formed, gungey little ear.
I’ll go to a hypocrite’s hell for this, but I’m not going to Disneyland and, most importantly, Sunny is smiling and holding my hand when his Mother and his sister meet us. He gives me another big hug and presses his lovely little mouth against my ear, making me look so good with children.
“I know all about death,” he whispers, “we did it in year four. I was just joking.”
He skips over to his Mum, tells her the catacombs were awesome, and his sister hands a five Euro note.
Agent: Rochelle Stevens at Rochelle Stevens & Co.
0207 359 3900