Here’s the first chapter of a novel I’ve been writing for several millennia. Its working title is ‘Leuka’, which is the name of the main character – or MC as Nanowrimo folk call it. These people are scarily jargon-y, full of acronyms and abbreviations and expressions I can’t understand. What is a ‘plot bunny’, for example? I think we should be told. Anyway, here it is. Please read and comment:
Chapter 1 – Brown
There were 47 couples on the dance-floor that night. He had counted them all – or rather, not counted, exactly but ‘seen’ them in that way that autistic people do. Not that Leon was exactly autistic; he was far too connected; too engaged with other people, too emotional and simpatico. Leuka was watching him as he observed the dancers: in a moment he would notice her looking and would turn and mirror her smile, and perhaps they would dance. Twist. Or perhaps he would object that they would mess up the DNA of the dance floor and so they would have to wait for another couple to retire. Stick.
‘What’s the matter?’ He turned to her now, a look of concern on his face – but suddenly, it felt ridiculous to explain. ‘Shall we dance?’ she said, and instead of arguing, he took her hand and let her lead him onto the floor where she supposed they made 48 couples now.
Twist – and bust.
That night in bed she lay and thought about the spiral of DNA; how a baby grows from a little knot inside, a knot tied, as it were, between seed and egg and how the wobbly ladders of DNA start to form inside the cage, to twist and climb and twirl and expand until the imprint of that person is everywhere – on every lip, every finger, every toe, on the nose and eyeball and intestines and hairs and everything. And once the knot is tied, it all starts to grow: not just the arms and legs but the stomach and buttocks and ribs and eyeballs and vagina and everything! It grows not by fits and starts but slowly, stealthily; secretly in the darkness of the womb. The eyes! She blinked as the pages of her book were going out of focus and tried to imagine the eyes growing – the jelly and the eyelids and retina and wide-open pupils, open wide in wonder at its growing world. She blinked again; there was an eyelash in her eye and she rolled her finger inside the eyelid to get it out. There it was, tiny like – what was it the poet said? the spine of a tiny fragile animal. Imagine, if just one tiny part of that tiny body failed to grow – just think of the problems that would cause! She wondered if there were children whose eyes or stomachs or hearts refused to expand at the same rate as the rest of them, and what would happen.
She thought about Leon’s eyes. They were large and brown; she thought they were brown, though she rarely noticed the colour of people’s eyes; like Maria’s, which were green. Leon thought that odd, but she couldn’t account for it. Perhaps she was too aware of the soul? ‘Thy face in mine eye, thine in mine appears.’ That poem had been read out at their wedding. She thought about their wedding tree, the one they’d been given and had planted in the garden of that house where they’d been married, as they had no garden of their own. She wondered how much it had grown. One day they would have to go back and look, maybe take a cutting. Once they were settled. If they ever were, if they could ever stop wandering and find a place of their own.
Leuka’s first word was hernia, or so she liked to tell people; though in reality it was more likely her seventh or her tenth or her twenty-first. The news was on in that cold bare vicarage where they lodged with the vicar and his wife while Luke was a curate. It would have been the radio news, and out came the sentence: President Truman has had treatment for a hernia. And in all that welter of words Leuka Farrell picked out just one, held it to her lips, swallowed – and repeated it. Hernia. Hernia-hernia-hernia. Hernia-her-her-hernia. She repeated it over and over, and once she had digested it, she put it next to other words, piling them up, laying them end to end like bricks.
Hernia-book. Look-hernia-look-book. Look-a-book.
Look-a-book was her first phrase – probably. Leon always said it’s a matter of interpretation and the parents decide which of the child’s indigestible sounds is actually their first word. What is a word, after all? In later years Leuka was to bang her head against the study of morphology which asks precisely that – and, like most philosophies, gives no answers.
In the beginning was the word.
Then Luke got his first parish, in a different part of London. The church was at one end of the street, the school which was Leuka’s eventual destination, at the other. The vicarage was a huge dark house at the back of the church and down the path between the two, came and went the flapping, crow-black figure of her father.
Leuka was just three when May was born; this tiny reminder of what she herself had once been. Squat and square with a frown below a fringe, Leuka’s dark hair contrasted with her sister’s almost white-blonde wisps. Looking over the cradle at the tiny scrap within in a yellow cellular blanket, she could not believe she herself had ever been so small.
Later when Ivy was born she felt the same sense of exclamation at how tiny she was. And yet how much Ivy had grown just from a knot; a globule no bigger than a gob of spit, spiralling outwards in 47 different ways.
Books and their worlds, their languages. How these are reality to her, how the ‘real world is pale.
Leuka’s name was an oddity. She had been named for a Danish ancestor of Luke’s, but by some blunder the two vowels had been swapped round on the birth certificate. Luke and Jeanne, ever-timid in the face of authority, baulked at the idea of complaining and, rather than cause their child problems in later life, they adapted their spelling to the mistake. No-one in England knew any different, anyway. When she got older, Leuka tired of explaining it and developed a sort of telegraphic answer to questions: ‘Danish ancestry – name spelled wrong on birth certificate’, as though that were her telegram to the world. But she secretly enjoyed the frequent puns on her name and eventually came up with a few of her own, leukaemia being her favourite, at least until Grandma Trentham succumbed to that particular scourge.
They lived in the church, or so the children at school thought; Leuka liked to indulge them with tales of sleeping in the pews and eating round the altar: washing in the font. It all hung together. From a young age Leuka was able to walk down the one-end street to school on her own, her mother’s waving figure growing smaller and the school gates growing larger with every step. At school she chatted to her friends in a dialect Jeanne couldn’t understand; at home she reverted to her native tongue; and in church she spoke an altogether more ancient language: the language of God. You couldn’t use the school tongue in church: once her Sunday School teacher Mrs Kimber who was about a hundred years old and wore a hat like a ripe tomato, told them they must never ever say Cor blimey because it meant God blind me and one day God might think you meant it. Leuka did not believe her.
The church and vicarage were built of the same Victorian red-brick – consubstantial, she might have called them, if she’d known the word. Luke had taken Holy Orders a few years earlier and this broken, cold relic of Victorian glory was his reward. As a child Leuka was obscurely aware of her parents’ struggles and tried with her childish strength to fill the gap, always aware of falling far short. On Sundays the church was dusty and cold and the organ piped a high-up, out-of-reach tune. The sparse congregation all sat in the same place and wore the same hats and coats every week. Old-style coats and hats. Leuka sang the hymns without looking at the book. She was very bored by church, especially evensong and Matins: she was beginning to chafe at having to go to church in a smart suit three times a day. In evensong she would ask during the Nunc Dimittis, ‘Why aren’t we going?’
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace…
At school the milk comes every day, a child-size bottle for each of them. They can hear the clinking in the corridor, and then the milkman comes in and puts the crate up on top of the cupboard to sit until break-time. Leuka doesn’t like cream on her milk but Jeanne smacks her lips whenever she has it. It’s to make up for the war, when they didn’t have any and the milk was like water. One wet Monday, when they would have to stay indoors for break, a boy bangs into the cupboard and rocks it. For a moment the whole class holds its breath, even the teacher – and before anyone can stop it, the milk crate comes crashing down from the top of the cupboard; the bottles smash and the milk leaps out of them and spreads everywhere like soft, white fire.
In assembly the headmaster is called Mr Harvey and he calls the reception class ‘the titches’. He is huge and has a big voice which travels all the way to the bottom of the hall and back again.
There are games at the end of the year. Leuka likes spontaneous games but is wary of organised ones, sensing that she will somehow fail. The games she likes best are the ones she is in charge of; but with these games the teachers are in charge.obscure rules everyone else seems to understand without being told
There is a race. Leuka finds herself entered for this, though she doesn’t understand why: she doesn’t know what a race is. She is standing in a field in front of some white lines: the lines are like a stave of music, and to either side of her are other girls of her own age. They all seem to know what to do and they are all looking determined. They all have shorts on, shorts which they knew where to find, and matching t-shirts and plimsolls and socks. Leuka stands looking into the distance; then she goes into a dream. Somewhere in the distance a whistle blows, but she pays it no attention, just weaves it somewhere into the story of her dream. When she comes to, all the other girls have run off into the distance, their heels like little grace-notes skipping between the lines – and now, like the sound ‘coming on’, she can hear the roar of the crowd cheering – and all of a sudden, the realisation clicks into place: you are in this too. And slowly, belatedly, she picks up her feet and starts to run. She gathers speed and runs between the lines as she has seen the other girls do, all the way to where the teachers are waiting in the distance – and when she gets there the tape is lying forgotten on the floor, all the other girls are being congratulated, and Leuka looks up at the faces. But no-one sees. Back in the classroom, they are all given prizes – red or blue balls. All except Leuka. She goes round the room asking each of them if they will share with her, but no-one will. she doesn’t et the prize
Soon they are going to move house. Leuka begs to be able to see the new place and is eventually allowed to ride in a parishioner’s black Humber, all the way round the terrible North Circular Road. She is warned over and over that she will be sick and so she is determined not to be, no matter how nauseous the exhaust-fumes make her. At first she examines the car, exclaiming at its little indicator lights which flip out like tiny aircraft wings, but after a while she grows bored and stares out of the window at the lorries and cars.
‘There’s our friend again,’ says her father.
‘Oh, do you know him?’ asks Leuka, surprised. She has long since learned that not all adults in the world know each other.
The men laugh. ‘No,’ says the man who is driving, ‘we just call him that because we keep overtaking each other.’
Though she doesn’t like them laughing at her, she is interested in them using words in that sideways smiling kind of way, not really meaning what they should.
When they get to the new house it is bare and cold but Leuka doesn’t mind because it is so empty and unused. She runs all over it, taking possession of its bare rooms, its echoing floors and its dusty attic. The attic is intriguing: their other house hasn’t got one, and Luke says it’s where the servants would have lived ‘in the old days.’ The garden is very big and overgrown but the man who let them in says they will ‘strip it’. Leuka thinks that would be a sad thing to do. There’s a garage as well, at the back, though Jeanne and Luke don’t have a car yet. She wants to know which room will be hers. Luke says they’ll have to see, though the room at the top of the stairs at the back will be his and Jeanne’s and it will be decorated ‘by the parish’ along with the hall and stairs and the front downstairs study.
On the journey back Leuka dozes and then wakes while the traffic jerks around the North Circular once more. She arrives home in triumph, having taken possession of the house ahead of her mother and sister.
It’s an age before they move, and when they do the house is still bare and empty though some parts have been decorated and there are carpets on the stairs and landing. Leuka shows May all over it and while the removal men bring in the furniture they play in the wild, overgrown garden. That night when they go to sleep they can see the planes coming in to land one by one through the bare windows.