Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Chapter One

Celia was kneeling in the courtyard behind Corpus Christi.  The winter afternoon was overcast yet slightly luminous.  With leather-gloved hands she placed a red rose beneath the stone cross, steeling herself, inhaling the crisp November. 
     Thirty-three years old, a dancer’s frame, dark hair almost black, but she had the face of a girl – a face much like mum’s had been.  Celia frowned and pulled off her gloves.  She ran her fingers through the grass on top of the grave.  Death was an unglamorous truth.  Loss was painfully erudite.  She lit a cigarette, reading the etched words again.  Alice Gray.  Artist.  Mother.  Friend.  Celia smiled, tracing the legends with her fingers. 
     “I saw the Rembrandt exhibit at the National, took the tube down to Charing Cross.  I loved it, the consistency of the light.  St Peter looked like he was glowing from the inside, you know?  Fuller than life.  Righteous, untouched.  Never seen so many virgins in one place.  Sorry, I’m just being mean.  I loved it, mum.  I know you loved it too.”
     Mum had adored painting.  Celia still remembered her profile at the window, the brush in her hand.  One day she hoped to be as elegant.  She pulled hard on the cigarette and tossed it into the bushes. 
     “Still a little rough around the edges, I guess.”  Celia put her hands on her knees.  “I’ve got class tonight.  I’m teaching a new bunch, twice a week.  Kind of excited.  Look in on me, ok?  I’ll dazzle them for you.” 
     She put on her gloves, kissed her mother’s name and climbed to her feet.  She didn’t look back as she walked away from the stone cross, winding through the courtyard.

She drove back thinking about the house that would always wait for her.  It had belonged to mum’s parents, a detatched Victorian with four bedrooms.  She remembered mum’s fierce love of the place.  For years after mum’s death she toyed with getting rid of the property, taking the money and moving to some quiet place in the country.  Instead she finally converted mum’s room into a spacious study, but it had taken nearly ten years to bring herself to do it. 
     Stained-glass designs still shone in some of the windows, eyes and leaves and flowers.  She’d lived her entire life in this house.  She had little doubt that she would die in this house, eventually.
     She threw her coat onto the armchair in the hallway, standing for a moment in the dark. 
     The silence, the precocious quiet. 
     She stared at the living-room’s high ceiling, the handsome mahogany panelling.  Too grand a home for one person.  She switched on the lamp, glancing at the large Degas reproduction hung on the wall.  A girl was topless, face averted, combing her hair.  Celia couldn’t remember the name.  The girl was still pretty.  Mum’s smaller painting hung above the fireplace.  Fourteen years old, finished only a few months before she died.  The Madonna and Child.  Dark and expressive with none of the suffered serenity of the Rembrandts she’d seen a few days ago.  Paint and brushstrokes had captured some of mum.  Celia could never change what hung on the walls.
     She sighed and picked up the remote, jabbing it at the television.  She wandered into the kitchen.  There was still some cold pasta from last night.  She warmed it up in the microwave, listening to the murmur of the television from the other room. 
     As she ate she clicked across the channels, skipping back and forth randomly.  Lights and fractured images flashed at her, like returning from a blackout.  It had been a long time.  The fear was only a memory now, but it had been terrifying.  Lost, adrift, here one moment and gone the next.
     After the meal she took a bath in the cast-bronze tub, lighting a few candles.  The bathroom’s dark green tiles soothed her.  She peered at the stained-glass leaf design in the window. 
     Elegant and focused, inspire them with your love of words…
     She dressed into a black Prada trouser-suit with a red Versace shirt, staring at herself in her mother’s old turning-mirror.  The tailored cut of the suit helped age her girlish face.  She checked the edges of her eyes for crows-feet but didn’t find any.  The only sign of her thirty-three years was a slight determination in the set of her mouth.  It was loss, tightening her lips just a touch.

It was dark outside now.  She drove listening to a Nirvana song, ‘Heart-shaped Box’, a guilty pleasure from her almost-youth.  There was a full moon in the sky. 
     Litchfield College was a centre for adult-learning and she had taken some courses here, before her manuscripts were published.  She smiled at Joseph on the way in and the handsome African security-guard winked back at her. 
     The room was large, with a lectern and white-board at the front.  She dumped her bag on the table and had a sly cigarette at the window while she waited.  The class eventually filled with faces, some eager, some pinched with nervousness.  Most of them looked considerably older than her.
     “Ok, good evening everyone.  My name’s Celia Anne Gray, I’m a writer, I used to teach English Lit at Chainley Secondary School.  Basically, this course consists of seminars designed to create a mutual writing-circle.  I’m hoping this’ll facilitate some juicy creativity, for all of us.”
     She watched people with nods and smiles, pens ready at blank pages.  She always got a thrill from doing these classes. 
     “Well…writing.  Language.  The literature of every culture on Earth consists of stories of some kind, and stories are the means through which all people develop. Socially, politically, mentally and spiritually.  We tell each other tales all the time.  So, what are stories?  What are they to us?  Anyone…?” 
     The class was momentarily silent and then an older man with steel-grey hair spoke up.  “Well, I guess stories are like signs?  Patterns?”
     Celia nodded.  “Yeah, that’s quite insightful…patterns, signs…what else?” 
     A black woman with braided hair raised her pen.  “Narrative?”
     Celia nodded again, taking a marker and writing the words on the white-board.  “A narrative is a pattern, a dynamic of sequential signs, which means any story, regardless of how it’s told, has some kind of interior logic.”
     A younger blonde woman spoke.  “Myth…I suppose stories contain myth?”
     Mythology, thought Celia, a thing that seemed to soften the hard, bright world of the real.  She wrote the word on the white-board and underlined it.  She loved this.  When she talked about stories she could almost convince herself that she was piercing some hidden truth.  At the very least she wanted the class to come away with that impression.  She wanted to inspire them.   
     “Stories contain all this and more.  As writers and as people, we want to imbue and derive meaning from the stories that touch us and those around us…because it’s this search for meaning that drives art…it drives life.”
     People were smiling and nodding, genuine interest flickering in their eyes.  Celia wondered if her mother was looking in on her right now.  She hoped so.

The car park was all but empty when she finally left.  Her black Ford was sitting at the furthest end.  She hurried across the tarmac and climbed into the driver seat.  Sitting very still, she spent a few minutes looking up at the full moon.  Eventually she lit a cigarette and rolled down the window. 
     Her mother had quit smoking when she was forty.  It hadn’t stopped a random car from running her off the lane and into the path of a lorry.  Celia laughed.  She didn’t think she could ever quit for good.  She would probably be smoking on and off her whole life.  An appreciation of life’s transience, like Ben Foster had told her on many past occasions.  She hadn’t been in therapy for six years.  Celia liked to think she wasn’t that girl anymore.  She grinned, dragged deeply on the cigarette and tossed it out of the window.

Celia drove, glancing occasionally at a place she knew too well.  Highgate was a very old area of London.  It had been an unrelentingly Christian town in the past, only now it was fractured, modernised.  Now its many churches were nestled amongst faceless buildings from the sixties and later.  The vast sprawling cemetery was hidden by high walls and only the least overgrown portion of it could be seen through the tall iron railings. 
     Resting place of Karl Marx; its only real claim to fame now.
     She couldn’t imagine living anywhere else though.  Highgate still possessed a subdued gothic charm, at least in her imagination.  Growing up here had been lonely, just she and mum.  And yet there was a comforting familiarity in that loneliness.  The churches, the quiet twilight minutes at day’s end, the winding roads, the angels, pyramids and obelisks, glimpsed through the cemetery gates on drives home from shopping.
     Alice Gray had adored the feel of it all, and Celia knew the imagery had sparked her imagination, inspiring her to paint.  Mum was a fan of religious iconography, and Celia would often find her thumbing through books of different artwork; Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu.  But she’d also believed completely in the Catholic doctrine – Celia less so.  Alice had never been cruel though, even as Celia grew from a girl into a young woman and began to reject the Church.  Mum’s faith was enough, in a quiet, humble way.  That was how Celia best remembered her; an odd but attractive mix of servant and queen. 
     I am the resurrection and the life.  He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live. 
     No, perhaps Alice could believe implicitly, but Celia couldn’t lie to herself like that.  She wouldn’t.

When she got home she dumped her leather jacket on the armchair in the hallway.  She went straight to the refrigerator and stood in her dark kitchen, drinking large swallows of bottled cider.  Celia didn’t want to be alone tonight.  She thought of Louise.  She’d been pushing her away for far too long.  She pictured Lou’s face; eyes flickering with heart-breaking earnestness.  Louise didn’t deserve this half-life, especially when Celia didn’t possess courage enough to provide her anything else.  She knew that Lou adored her.  It made Celia feel solid, real, but also a little edgy. 
     As she nursed the cider bottle again she heard an odd sound and she froze.  Definite sounds.  They were coming from upstairs.  Her gaze shot to the ceiling.  Footsteps.  Celia’s breath caught in her throat. 
     Oh shit… 
     Someone was inside the house.  Louise didn’t have a key. 
     This isn’t happening…
     Celia instinctively snatched a knife from the sharpening-block on the counter.  She remembered the quickening in her chest; the spectre of losing control, like being nineteen.  The sounds came again, the careful footsteps of someone in her bedroom.  She quickly crossed the darkened living-room, into the hallway, to the foot of the staircase.  She held the knife in front of her with both hands.  This isn’t…
     A figure stepped into view at the top of the stairs.  She didn’t want to be afraid.  “Get the fuck out of my house!”
     “Where is it?”
     “I have a weapon!”  As the words left her lips she felt tears spill across her cheeks.
     “Where’s the diary…?” 
     Suddenly the figure was flooding down the staircase.  Celia was horribly immobilised at the sight.  A rising coldness in her throat.  She could only moan.  He slammed into her and she stumbled over the hallway chair.  He charged at her.  She slashed at him with the knife.  A fist was buried in her gut like a gunshot.  Breath raged from her lungs and she gagged, collapsing on the hallway floor, waves of light contracting her.  A leather boot kicked away the knife at her side.  This was terror, as it had been when she learned her mother was dead, like free-falling.  But then the figure stepped away from her, hurrying through the front door and slamming it behind him.  She lay on the cold hardwood, clutching her belly and sobbing in the dark.

Perched on the edge of the sofa, she was holding the kitchen knife.  She’d stopped shaking inside but it felt like she wasn’t breathing.  Blood on the edge of the knife blade – she’d cut him.  There were spots of blood out in the hallway too.  Celia’s hand hovered over the telephone.  She picked up the handset, dialling 999, then immediately slammed it back into its cradle.  Son of a bitch.  At least she cut him before he fled. 
     “Fucking coward,” she murmured.  She picked up the handset again, dialling Louise’s number.  She listened blankly to the ringing tone.
     “Hello?”
     “Lou, it’s me – something’s happened.”
     “What happened…babes, are you ok?”   
     “There was someone in my house.”
     Louise was silent for a moment, then: “Fuck…did someone hurt you?”
     “I couldn’t see his face, Lou, but I cut him.”
     Jesus,” muttered Louise, and Celia glanced at the Madonna and Child hanging above the fireplace.   
     “He punched me but I cut him, and…he ran off.”
     “Are you sure…wait, did you call the police?” 
     “I can’t stay here tonight, Lou.  I’m coming over.  Right now.”
     “Yeah, of course…”  Before Louise could say anything more Celia switched off the phone and put it back in its cradle.  Sitting on the edge of the sofa, she glanced at the faded adolescent scars on her wrists.  They were always foreign.  She could never read them.

***

He stood naked before the bathroom mirror, still wet from the shower.  He touched the cut on his side, just above his left hip.  It hadn’t been deep enough, little more than a scratch.
     He came and sat cross-legged on the bed, letting the air dry his skin.  He lit a cigarette from a pack on the bedside cabinet and snagged his ashtray from the drawer.  As he smoked he studied the black & white glossies fanned across the sheets.  In one of them a woman was descending the steps of Litchfield College.  She was lithe, her hair almost black, but she had the face of a girl.  The diary was still in the house.  He stubbed out the half-smoked cigarette and stretched out on the bed.  Later he would read some of his second-hand find, The Rising Rain.  He was a new fan to the woman’s bracing and sometimes brutal prose. 
     “Miss Gray…Celia Anne Gray.”
     He put his hand on his sleeping cock, wondering about her.  He stared at the ceiling and listened to the sound of his own butterfly-respiration.

He had dressed into jeans and a black hooded sweatshirt, wandering through the nightlife of Leicester Square.  His copy of The Rising Rain was tucked into his back pocket.  He watched the citizens, milling and laughing and talking, filing eagerly into clubs.  He loved and hated this city.       
     London was ancient, as old as the ideologies of the power-brokers who founded it.  Stone acolytes glanced down from atop their ledges and peaks in this city – angels, children, lions and centurions.  Most of these citizens had forgotten that the statues were there, or no longer cared, sentinels above them.  There had been those who once believed that London was Hell itself.
     In the window of a quiet shop he sat with a coffee.  He’d recently finished Leaving Her and liked it immensely.  Her prose was sharp like the knife she’d cut him with; stinging, lustful, unrepentant.  He pulled The Rising Rain from his back pocket.  The mark was two thirds in.  He opened at the page, sipped his coffee, and began to read.

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