What was I Still Miss Someone…

P1100999

Once I had a wonderful agent, and the agent sent out my earlier novel The Dangerous Edge of Things, or, as it was known then, I Still Miss Someone. Here’s the email she sent out with the book, and some of the responses:

Dear Y (various publishers),

As promised, I am delighted to send you  I Still Miss Someone, James Ferron Anderson’s powerful first novel.
I Still Miss Someone is about Turlough Barr, a young Protestant man growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles, who escapes to England where he finds that the fear and violence of his past pursue him still.
I Still Miss Someone is a novel that has a great deal to say about the effects of growing up in a world filled with terrorism in all its forms – hatred, bigotry, ignorance, fear and violence – but it is also a story about the need and search for love, and the enduring effects of having experienced it at least for a little while, as Turlough Barr does with his loving but ineffectual Uncle Billy.
I am enormously impressed by James’s writing, and I think his first novel is full of a generous understanding of our flawed humanity. I hope you will want to be his UK publisher. Rights on offer are UK and Commonwealth (excluding Canada). This is a multiple submission and I look forward to hearing from you no later than Wednesday the 11th of July.

The agent got back:

Dear X (my agent),

Thank you for this. This is beautifully written as you say – and I loved the idiomatic dialogue — but I’m afraid I didn’t fall for the book as a whole. I’m sorry.

Clara Farmer, Editorial Director,

Chatto & Windus, The Random House Group Ltd

20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London  SW1V 2SA

 

And again: Dear X,

Many thanks for this. I thought it a highly thoughtful and powerful novel and was impressed by it as a debut, but I also had a number of reservations about it – about the actual writing, sometimes the dialogue and the way in which the book tends so much to be told from outside Turlough/John Lee’s head – and on balance, after some indecision, I have, I’m afraid, decided to pass.
I am sorry not to feel able to respond more positively.
All best.
Ravi Mirchandani, Grove Atlantic

And again: Dear X,

I wanted to get back to you about your great young Irish hope, James Anderson.

I found his writing was incredibly memorable and intense. The dialogue was an especial treat and reminded me at times of Maria Hyland’s Eire-set Carry Me Down. What I liked less about it was the confusion as to where the narrative present was. The disjointedness is perhaps one if its charms but I must admit that I wasn’t completely swept away by the story, and on that basis I think it is not one for us to try and acquire.

As ever, such a matter of personal taste. Ain’t it always!

I was so pleased to see this come in and I love reading this sort of brave new voice. Thanks for sending and good luck finding the right editor.

All best,

Francis Bickmore, Senior Editor, Fiction, Canongate Books

I can’t remember whose feedback was: “Unrelentingly depressing.” But there was plenty in that vein.

It’s been more than renamed. It’s been rewritten. And, I’d guess, I hope, still unrelentingly depressing. You can buy it on Amazon. Go break a leg.

James Ferron Anderson

 

 

The power of Eurovision

Vicky_Leandros

My finger hovers over the V. I have never typed this name before. Nor written it, nor said it. I press the V. But this name has flitted through my mind for years. A small i. It was around somewhere as I grew into adolescence. Small c. Had my first jobs, packed eggs and loaded lorries. Small k. When my father died, when my mother died. I press the y. The name went with me when I moved from Northern Ireland to England.

 L. Partners coming and going. A child born. Another child. The e. I don’t know where it came from. Or where the partners, the children went to. I don’t know why I haven’t looked it up long ago, and I don’t know why I’m doing this now. A lot of fuss over a foreign-sounding name. And I’m very sober this dry, dry evening. The a. Not sure of the spelling, and thinking. The n, then d, r, o, s, quickly.

 It’s typed. I look at the screen.

 Vicky Leandros.

 I click ‘search’.

 There are many videos of her. One is of the Eurovision Song Contest, March 25th, 1972, Edinburgh, and a song called Après Toi. I have never watched the Eurovision Song Contest, but I’m less surprised at seeing this than I think I should be. 1972. So many years. God. It is in black and white. I click, and click again, and it fills the screen.

 For a couple of seconds there is a shot of an audience. Men with side burns. Comb-over hair. Bouffant-haired women. A man’s voice says her name: Vicky Leandros. He continues to speak in a foreign language. I’m watching more than listening and I don’t recognise the language. The framed face of a young woman, pretty enough, with long dark hair, is projected on a screen on stage. Her name is below. I accept it is her, but it could be any pretty young Mediterranean woman. It doesn’t explain anything. The man with the European language talks rapidly on and on. The only words I recognise are ‘Vienna’ and her name again, repeated, as if two pronunciations are possible: Leandros and Leandro.

 I am being shown part of the audience and part of the orchestra pit. Between the two is a hanging, twinkling curtain. The voice talks on. The words spill out over the shadowy people, the silly curtain. It all looks small scale, amateurish. The hanging twinkling curtain parts and a man with large glasses and long thick fair hair walks out between orchestra and audience. He steps up onto a little podium and bows to the audience. The rail of the podium shakes as he bows.

 The projection of the pretty girl on stage has been replaced with the words ‘Après Toi’. I wouldn’t have known what they meant in 1972. A man begins to dart across in front of the words, and then goes back. It all adds to the air of amateurishness.

 The camera pulls away and I can see the stage for the first time, and it is only just in time, for a slim young woman in a long dark dress is already walking out in front of the cameras and the audience. She walks quickly, confidently. Her right arm swings once, up and ahead of her. She stops. The spotlight has thrown an oval on the floor behind her, and her shadow, like her, slim and dark, stretches out across the oval.

 Vicky Leandros. Knowing her name and nothing else about her for forty years has alone given her mystique and gravitas.

 The commentator in his European language seems to say ‘rosy fingers’, but I doubt this, and then he stops talking. Immediately the orchestra pumps out music. Poomp poomp poom.

 I must have seen this before. This exact performance, minus the foreign commentary. Sitting, on what was surely a Saturday night, in front of a television with my parents in their house in Milltown Street, Dunmaddy, Northern Ireland.

 I’m shivering a little. All the why questions are running in my head. It’s like I have found an old diary, I’m reading about something that was once important to me, and I can’t understand why it was ever important, and why it was then forgotten.

 She seems a little hunched, but it is the raised shoulders of the dress. I am hearing her voice before I realise she is singing. She sings softly. Tu t’en vas. You are leaving. The camera is coming in closer. It could not come in close enough. She is beautiful. A serious, beautiful, face.

 The camera comes closer still. The voice is not strong, but the image and the sound fill me. I see her hand holding the microphone, the small pale fingers, a ring, like an engagement ring, on her middle finger. The long waving dark hair cascades, yes, about her face. Her eyes close, her mouth makes a bow shape, opens, and now her singing erupts: Qu’après toi…

 And I look at her, and my heart moves in me, as it surely must have done on that night in Dunmaddy, in my twelve year old self. Very little moves me, and this is moving me. It’s not comfortable. I watch the dark hair, the face, the little curve of the nose, the bow mouth that spills out wonder and tenderness and sadness: … je ne pourrai plus vivre, non plus vivre qu’en souvenir de toi. After you I cannot live, not live only in memory of you. Her right hand, the back to the audience, rises level with her face, and descends and the fingers ripple as the hand comes down. The fingers have twinkled, and there is nothing cheap about it. She continues to sing and I am not translating any more. The sound is, as it must have been then, sense enough. As her voice falls at the end of this verse her face breaks into a smile. She is making a beautiful thing and knows it and should smile.

 Was it at this moment on the sofa in Dunmaddy that her name, the only words I could understand, became so firmly hung on that peg in my head? My thoughts shoot away from the video and to Northern Ireland in 1972. What was happening then? But I have spent many years making sure those things haven’t stayed on any pegs.

 She is facing me now. Her right hand begins to ascend once more, slowly, to level with her face, the back of the hand to me. It hovers, then descends swiftly. I am fascinated.

 I would have known then, as I read on-line on the morning after this evening, that, up until this Saturday night ninety people had been murdered in Northern Ireland in 1972, thirty one of them in those first twenty five days of March alone.

 I would have known then that five days before this night a 200 pound car bomb had been detonated in Donegall Street in Belfast city centre, murdering seven people and injuring one hundred and fifty more. Two of the dead were policemen trying to evacuate the area. Three were binmen, blown off their bin lorry. Two were old age pensioners.

 I hear the words ‘après toi’ again and again. There is a large brooch of leaves and berries on the high-necked dark dress. The dark hair falls and curls against her cheeks, the smooth skin pale against the dark of the hair and the dress.

 I would have known then, as I watched this before, that a little later on that same day as the car bomb a sniper fired a single shot and murdered a soldier.

 Now her head and the hand holding the microphone fill the screen. I can see her sad, serious, heavy-lidded eyes. The camera is pulling back. I try to think about this singer and song, what it has meant and what it means to me now, but the desire to watch and listen overwhelms the desire to understand.

  I would have known then that two days before that night the army shot and murdered a thirteen year old schoolboy in Belfast. A petrol bomb was found nearby but no evidence he had ever touched it.

 And the voice rises once more, and once more the right hand rises with it, the fingers ripple, the hand descends. Yes. And again, as surely I was on that Saturday night forty years before in Dunmaddy, I am full of both sadness and joy. It is hard and shocking. I inhale and forget to breath out, and then jolt back into sense.

 The murders on the day she sang were even more ridiculous and avoidable and banal. I imagine Vicky Leandros waking about seven a.m. to rehearse, to prepare herself, a long day ahead, in Edinburgh on the far side of the short strip of water that is the Irish Sea. About seven a.m. in Springhill Avenue in Belfast a man was accidentally shot by his friends, and trailed into a house. The woman who lived there came downstairs and found his body in her living room. He had been somehow accidentally shot by twenty-four bullets of three different calibres.

 Après toi je ne serai que l’ombre… the camera is pulling back… de ton ombre… The song is nearing its end. Even I, unmusical, know that. Her right hand is rising in a wide sweep, moving out, around… Après toi. The hand descends suddenly and her song is over. There is applause, much applause, and she is looking up. It is over for her, and beginning. Her head moves just a little to her left, then forward, and she bows. Then the audience, over-dressed, over-permed, stiff in their seats on what looks like a balcony, but applauding, a couple looking at each other, the stiff applauding going on and on.

 The other murder on that March 25th was in another part of Belfast, around the time Vicky Leandros sang. A man had gone to the Shankill Road UDA club and complained about the beating of a friend. Were the drinkers watching this on television too? The man who had done the beating shot him in the head.

 Not a thing of these incidents when Vicky Leandros sang in Edinburgh, or anything about the other four hundred and ninety six people murdered in Northern Ireland that year, has stayed with me. That might have been the year the IRA shot me in the arm. It was some year around then. I can’t remember. I have succeeded in not remembering, in making the petty, deadly, things nothing to me. But I have remembered this singer’s name.

 Sitting there after the song finishes I do remember some of the stratagems for survival in Northern Ireland in 1972. Draw the curtains before putting the house lights on. Keep the car interior light permanently off. Never stop walking if someone pulls up in a car to ask directions. Don’t open anything you might find. Never answer any knock at the door without first checking. I would have known many more then, yet never enough. That was life, as we walked and talked and went to school and work, and watched the petty, deadly things come up to our own door and then turn away, maybe this time, maybe not the next. And while we waited for that knock we watched light nonsense on television, and I saw Vicky Leandros make a little, important, bit of wonder in a hall in Edinburgh.

 I’ve timed the video. From the music starts until she stops singing is 2 minutes 48 seconds.

 Over the next hours of this evening I play Après Toi in English, where it is supposed to mean Come What May. The English words are happy and so wrong. I hear it sung in German, in Greek, in Spanish. I watch and hear a Vicky Leandros, recognisable, stranger, harder somehow, a performer, sing it in 1992 and 1995. I watch and hear her, over the years, always attractive, never magical, sing many other songs in a range of languages. I watch her with bobbed hair five years before that night in Edinburgh singing another entry in another Eurovision Song Contest, a song called Love is Blue. She looks full-cheeked and what she is, a very young woman with heavy makeup.

 There is nothing to drink in the flat. I could go out for a bottle of something. But it’s late and I don’t want to walk the streets. Among these foreigners, I think. The English. Or go to bed and lie awake. Instead I go back and watch the black and white video again. As I watch I see things I missed first time around. I watch again as her face breaks into the smile after the first crescendo. I freeze the frame, and look at that face as the lips begin to close. Yes. She knows she has done this well. Does she know how well? I watch the gesture of the hands, the fingers rippling, the brow furrowing, the lips changing shape. Seeing the effects work over and over does nothing to lessen them. I expect them, I think I understand them and, on this created, crafted, constructed thing, they work again and again.

 Later, way into the night, I think: what happened to the long dark dress? Does she still keep it, in a wardrobe, the dress she wore when she broke through and became… whatever she became? Was there a man, a boyfriend, who asked for and got the dress and then maybe in a year, full of anger as she moved on, threw it away? And the brooch of leaves and berries?

 I think: in the morning shall I look up what was happening in Northern Ireland around March 25th 1972? Of course I do. It is the cold experience I anticipated. It is what I have told you.

 I think: if I was naive to find this song and this singer so beautiful all those years ago then, held up against the stupidity and bigotry and hatred and violence all around me, it was a small naivety, a small stupidity.

 I tell myself that on that Saturday night in 1972 I forgot to be fearful for all of 2 minutes 48 seconds, that for that time I was free, and that it was long enough, important enough, for me to carry the name, the one thing I understood, in my head for forty years.

 That is what I have told myself anyway. It may even be true.

 So I play the video again. I play it again, I play it again, and this I do know: each time as it ends the sadness of something lovely having been lost sweeps over me.

 

 

 

 

They Winged The Suit

index

THEY WINGED THE SUIT

On the Friday I bought a suit. It was a dark blue suit with a light stripe. I bought it in George Cuddy’s in the Market Square, Dungannon, where earlier an assistant had been gunned down. He hadn’t died. I bought a pale blue shirt and, I have no idea why, a white tie to go with it. I wore them for the first time on the Sunday night. We were going for drinks, my girlfriend and I. Way back then you couldn’t get a drink in bar on a Sunday in Northern Ireland. You had to go to an hotel. So I drove us the twelve miles to the Glenavon Hotel in Cookstown. I’d never been there before. I’ve never been there since.

I know what I had that night. I wasn’t the drinker I was later to become, and I had two glasses of vodka and orange. It’s what I drank then. A sticky thing I abandoned soon after. I can’t remember what my girlfriend had. Maybe a couple of gin and tonics. Now I think of it she drank neat whiskies. So we had our vodkas and our whiskies… I can picture the small bar at this hotel, the bar counter right in front of me, the barman in his white shirt leaning over talking to another customer. And then us getting up to leave. Going outside.

The two of us walking towards my car, a red Hillman Hunter, my first car. I destroyed that car eventually, how I drove it. Fast, screeching the tyres, running out of oil at one point and not noticing, doing stupid repairs that out of my ignorance and hamfistedness made things worse. I sold it eventually for £300 to a friend who knew about cars. He didn’t know about this one. But that night it was fine. It had taken us there. It would take us home again.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘It’s the Army.’ Four men in army battledress, two of them carrying something that looked like a small milk churn, were coming across the car park. There were about a half dozen cars in that car park. ‘No, it’s not. It’s the UDR.’ I knew what she meant. They weren’t smart and drilled and ordered enough to be the British Army. Then, ‘It’s not the UDR either.’ She was right. We both knew what they were. They were the IRA leaving a bomb.

One of them broke away and came towards us. He had a revolver in his hand. It was an old-fashioned thing, a big Webley. I knew they had been used in the British Army for years, from the Second World War at least and probably before. Stiff-upper-lipped guys likely went over the top waving those things. This was no top league hit squad. But he was waving it and coming towards us.

‘Hey. Come here.’ We stopped. He came on, saying no more. When he was a couple of feet away he said, ‘Over to the car.’ I had no idea what car. We went off anyway, towards were the others were waiting, still holding the small milk churn bomb, him behind us with the Webley. ‘Here.’ He was pointing behind them, to a pale Allegro.

I thought: ‘If we get in that car… if they find out we are Protestants… they are willing to take lives… they probably have taken lives already… we won’t get out of the car again.’ It was all ridiculous. It was fear talking. We’d sit in the car with the big Webley on us until the bomb was placed, then they’d come back, turf us out, give us some warning about saying nothing, and drive away. It might have happened like that. Or they may have taken us away and interrogated us and shot us. I’ll never know.

I ran. I hoofed it towards the side of the hotel, towards a corner. It would be a diversion. They would leave the bomb down now where it was. They would let my girlfriend go. They would drive away. Was I thinking any of that? I know I was running for the corner, the suit jacket flapping, the trousers flapping. There was silence for six, seven, eight strides. Then,

‘Stop. Halt. Stop.’

Ten, twelve, strides. And bang. It’s not a bang, but bang will do. Nothing happened. Another bang. At the same time I felt a tap on my left elbow. I looked down at my arm as I ran and saw a hole in the forearm of the new dark blue suit. ‘Oh,’ I thought. I did. ‘Oh. The bullet has hit the masonry of the wall and a bit of the masonry has hit my arm.’ There was no pain to make me think anything different. I kept running. Bang. Bang again. Then I was around the corner and wondering what the hell I’d do now. But how lucky I was for all those shots to miss. Them and their oul Webley. Shite shots, the IRA. I went through a garden area and up a short slope and immediately into trees. I looked behind me for the first time. Nobody there. I went on through the trees. I was wondering what was happening. I was also thinking that bit of masonry had given my arm more of a wang than I’d thought. It was getting cold, and a bit heavy. It was hanging there, actually. In the darkness among the trees I put the other hand down and felt my fingers. They were covered in blood. I felt the sleeve of the suit. It was covered in blood, from the hole in the forearm on down. Shite, I thought. They’ve ruined the suit. There was still no pain, and I still wasn’t sure I’d been shot. And the shirt, I thought. The shirt won’t be in great shape either.

I came out of the trees onto the road. I went along the road back towards the hotel. I’d heard no police cars, but there was one there, and two RUC men out, one poking about at the front of the hotel, and the other keeping people back. My girlfriend was standing beside him. I went up to them. ‘Hello,’ I said to her. ‘Hello,’ she said. ‘I’ve been hit,’ I said to the back of the policeman. He turned round and looked at me as if he had better things to do.

‘Who hit you?’ he said.

‘The IRA,’ I said. ‘They hit me.’

‘Where?’ He was puzzled.

‘In the arm.’

‘What?’

‘They shot me.’

‘Well, wait over there.’

So I stood there for a bit, and he talked into his radio, and the arm got colder again and the blood ran off my fingers onto the ground.

‘Well, fuck this,’ I said to the girlfriend. ‘I’m getting the car.’

And while he talked into his radio, and the other was scampering back quick now from the hotel doorway, I walked around the side of him and across the car park to the Hillman Hunter. The other half dozen cars were still sitting there. But not the Allegro. I got in, and put the key in and started the engine. The left arm was hanging there, not doing well. I couldn’t change gear. I reached over with my right and put the car in gear. I pulled out into the car park, reached over again, changed gear once more. I stopped beside the policeman and my girlfriend. She got in. I drove off. If anybody yelled I didn’t hear them.

We went on up the road, back towards Cookstown.

‘I’d like to find a doctor,’ I said. ‘I suppose.’

‘We’ll go up here. There’ll be one about. Stop.’ There was a guy about our own age walking along the pavement. I stopped. She wound down the window. He didn’t hurry away, like I might have done. ‘Do you know where there’s a doctor?’ He told her something about up the street and turn here, or there. We went on.

After about ten yards: Heee hawww heee hawww. The police had discovered I wasn’t there any more. So the cop got us out of the car and into his and promised he’d take care of the Hillman Hunter, and drove me to a doctor. It was only when I took the jacket off for the doc that I found the other hole in the back of the sleeve, at the elbow joint. The bullet had gone right through the arm.

‘They’ve ruined the bloody suit,’ I said. The whole lower sleeve was stiffening with blood already. And there was the shirt sleeve underneath, also torn in two places and soaked in blood. ‘I can wash the shirt,’ I said. ‘But what can I do about the suit?’

I got out of hospital in four days. Four weeks later I found that suit hanging up in Cookstown police station. Holes in it, and the arm like a plank. Fuck suits.

THE END

 

Something To Do

dsc_8834_16[1]

The complete short story is now available in one section under Part One.

Part Six:
That is the way Harry remembers it anyway. Maybe it wasn’t like that but that is the way he remembers it. He has not been back once in the twenty years that have passed since that holiday. He and his daughter pace up and down the beach, chilled through under all their heavy clothes. His daughter looks for shells for a while, gives up. This place is so pure, wild and fresh, scoured by storms.
The men in wetsuits, carrying surf boards, looking determined, troop over the rise and down the beach and past them. They plough on into the sea, stroking their way out through the Atlantic waves, under the hard clear bright sky. Harry and his daughter watch them. The men stroke on, as if heading for the Skerries. They bob, appear, disappear. Harry is very quiet. His daughter puts her arm around him. He puts his arm around her.
He looks at the base of the White Rocks. No rug, no scattered Harp cans, no discarded Smirnoff bottle. No glasses with hunting scenes. No Benson and Hedges cigarettes. No parents. His parents are both long dead. No children dragging inner tubes one-handed to the sea, plastic beakers held aloft in the other. Where are his brothers and sisters now?
Maybe they are still out there. Maybe the men in wetsuits will find them. Angela, Thomas and Heather still bobbing in the inflated inner tubes, keeping cigarettes dry, sheltering beakers of eccentric cocktails from passing waves, while he himself perches up on a hill watching golfers on the links course, stealing sand rakes, stealing golf balls, sipping Harp from the can, all of them waiting for time to pass, all of them waiting for things to get better.
Harry and Laura turn away before the men in wetsuits can climb to their feet and surf back to shore. Father and daughter, their backs to the wind, backs to the Atlantic, they walk hand in hand, wade on up the sand like it’s deep snow. They descend the other side, into shelter. They go through tough grass, climb down over mounds of sand, step across the sagging strand of fence wire.
They unlock the hired car, get in, loosen clothing, open the shopping from Portrush. There are sandwiches, sausage rolls, quiche, pastries, ham, cheese, cheese triangles, oranges, apples, dates, grapes, bananas.
They eat. It is something to do.
The End

Something To Do

2499634698_abb82ac696_z[1]
Skerries, County Antrim

Part Five:
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June raise Angela from the surf and call the others ashore. They are as lean as rakes, their skin bronzed and peeling, hair bleached and tangled, what clothes they have filthy. Benson and Hedges dangle from their lips. Thomas and Heather hold carefully upright the plastic beakers of cocktails of choice which they have been enjoying whilst at sea. Angela says damn and fuck and shite and then finds a beer after all and pops it open. As Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June stand there wondering what to do, Harry comes back down from the sandhills where he has been watching golfers on the links beyond. He has an open can of Harp in one hand, his pockets bulge with golf balls, he trails three sand rakes behind him.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June wake up Cecil and Helen and make them take the children back to the caravan. Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June have no children of their own, but they are loud and talkative and full of authority. They say there will be no more children drifting about in rubber rings. Somebody starts to laugh. They say there will be no more children smoking. All the children are laughing. There will certainly be no more children drinking. Cecil and Helen are laughing as well. Heather laughs the most. She lights up a Benson and Hedge, sucks on her plastic beaker. That is the second and last time there is family laughter during the holiday.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June tell them they have to vacate the caravan. Their trust has been abused. They tell the tale of their arrival and the state of the caravan. They tell it several times. The laughter has long since died. Cecil walks away from them while they are still speaking, lies down on an unmade bed. In moments he is snoring. That is when Uncle Ronnie discovers the toilet door is off its hinges, the bedclothes full of cigarette burns.
Uncle Ronnie and Aunt June sit outside in the fading sunlight in a huff for twenty minutes and when nobody apologises (the children have forgotten about them by then and are experimentally mixing Babycham and Ribena in a milk jug) they go home.
During the family’s time in the caravan no-one proposes anything. No-one objects to anything. No-one annoys anyone. No-one falls out. There is nothing to be annoyed or fall out about. There is enough drink for all. At the end of the second week they put what is left of their things back in the Austin Maxi and drive away.