As I continue to write short stories for a second collection, there are two so far in that next book from The Unfinished Literary Agency. It’s a theme which pops up in other stories, but the agency itself has published four stories so far. This was the first, and it’s in my first anthology…
The Unfinished Literary Agency
The Unfinished literary agency was like no other that I’d worked for. In all my years of writing, I’d simply not heard of them. The first I’d ever heard of them was when I received a letter on headed paper. It was a rather fine letterhead: an off-white recycled stock, with the agency’s details die-stamped in blue ink. Intriguingly, the telephone number was prefixed “01”: an old, old London number. The letter said that they had some unfinished work which they would like me to complete: I had been summonsed by – or from – the past. I had neither the time nor the inclination to visit them in person, although I did some research and found that the agency was above Hotblack Desiato’s office in Islington.
It was a hot summer afternoon when my friends found the diaries. Just in time too, as it had begun to rain and the smell of wet dust filled the air as water hit arid pavements. The diaries were in a battered green skip, outside a building which was being demolished.
There were 126 volumes in all. Some were faux leather-bound journals, some A5 refill pads and even a few school exercise books. Most were stuffed into boxes; one once filled with Xerox toner cartridges. Other books were thrown in amongst the bricks and debris from the building. They weren’t numbered or dated, so I had no way of arranging them into chronological order. They simply sat in boxes in the order they’d been retrieved from the skip by Jasper and Mole.
One journal almost audibly begged to be read, with its lurid New York taxi yellow cover. As I picked it up, it felt like I held a life in my hand, or at least a part of one. In bold, black letters on the front cover was the legend: “I hope these are found when I’m gone. Within these covers, a heart once beat.” There was no hint as to who the author might have been: The writer was simply “I”. “I” had seemingly lived and died there, in Upper Street N1, then been thrown into a skip.
I was working on another project at the time, ghost writing an autobiography. I was a blogger by trade and I surely didn’t have time to read through 126 volumes of someone else’s life. What was I to do? Hand the books into the police and be laughed at? After a period of time, the diaries would be destroyed if no-one had claimed them, or returned to me. Would I really miss the tatty old boxes cluttering up my studio? That life in the skip had already passed. What were my friends to have done if they’d not pulled the journals from the skip though? To leave them there would surely have been criminal. So I kept them, as they’d been dumped in my studio. Jasper suggested I might like to write about the anonymous life found in a skip. As a fiction writer, I could be a biographer who didn’t have a clue about who their subject was. I’d get around to them eventually.
Two terrible things happened in the month that followed: Mole, ironically, was diagnosed with malignant melanoma and began an intensive course of chemotherapy; Jasper was killed, suddenly and for no apparent reason. Everything can change in a moment, without warning and forever. For several weeks afterwards, I looked at the journals in their boxes and wondered how I’d feel as I read them. They represented a time when all was well, when Mole and Jasper had found them. Perhaps I ought to leave things that way.
The journals languished in their boxes for a year before I finally started to read them. I’d resisted before because I knew that my inquisitive nature would turn the books into a personal mission: who wrote them? Who was “I”? Eventually curiosity got the better of me and I began to read. The journals provided a link to Mole and Jasper. To be honest, I needed an escape into someone else’s life.
It wasn’t the yellow taxi volume I picked up first. The one I started to read was an anonymous black book, much like most of the others, and chosen at random. It started in the middle of a sentence: “…I’m bleeding. I’ve been stabbed. My blood is everywhere…”
I didn’t know who I was reading about and that anonymity meant that each sentence was a story in itself: Who was this? Why was he bleeding? What on earth had happened? Despite the fact that he was bleeding, the writer continued with sufficient clarity as to maintain a tidy style of handwriting: the individual letters were scribed with care; grammar and punctuation were perfect. He just carried on. Occasionally there were dates: days and months but not years. Sometimes the writing referred to events which I could attach approximate dates to – mentions of news events and programmes on TV – but still, there were 125 more volumes to comb through.
Eventually I pieced sufficient volumes together to work out that the stabbing incident had occurred when “I” was 14. But when was this? How had a 14-year-old boy been stabbed and what were the consequences? With no means of knowing which journal to read next, I was drawn into the story: I may have to read all of the volumes to fit things together. There is no recording of the time of day that the stabbing happened. The volume I was reading could even be the last: “I” could have died aged 14.
The text in that particular volume became gradually more rushed. Words clashed with the edges of pages as they hit. The author was trying to fit as much in as possible before the pages – or time – ran out. I was just skimming; hoping to find out. Maybe I should hand these diaries in to the police after all? But “I” hadn’t. It were as though he’d entrusted all of this information to the journals and my job now seemed to be one of unravelling, in private.
I managed to find the volume which followed the book of the bloodshed. I realised that the easiest way to achieve this was to look at just the first page of each notebook: I was simply looking for a sentence which began part way through, because the last page of the bloodshed book ended mid-sentence, with I “…bleeding from my insides, spilling my guts for all to see. How am I to explain something which I don’t understand but which has nonetheless happened? I feel light headed, like the blood is draining from my brain and pouring from the same exit wound…”
And that’s where it ended. He’d bled through a whole volume. An exit wound? Had he been shot? Is this why he couldn’t go to the police? Was this the last chapter? I longed for “I” to take me further. I don’t recall how many first pages I read but the one that stopped me was the one which began, “…and all because of my sex.” Was he homosexual? It mattered not a jot but it was the only thing I could think of.
As I read further, the river of blood slowed to a trickle and was eventually stemmed. Perhaps if I’d been less presumptuous, I’d have realised sooner that the poor young lad had been having his period. He was a girl.
Why wouldn’t I want to pry around a teenage girl’s intimate thoughts? The diaries became more than curios from then. No longer was it just a mystery thriller; now it was eroticism. I had metaphorically tasted virginal, vaginal teenage blood. Now I had an angry angel. I wanted to know who this young writer was, why she had died and been thrown away.
I continued to read the journals in the same random order: just as they’d ordered themselves when they were dumped, as though that was the way the writer had intended. Perhaps I was over romanticising. “I” described things in a way which made me wonder if she ever expected or wanted anyone else to hear about them. But it was manna to a voyeuristic fiction writer with an anonymous autobiography at my disposal.
Although “I” was now a girl, I still didn’t have a name. In a way, I preferred it like that: the anonymity gave the diaries a universality. They were impersonal, so as to reduce the voyeurism a little, and yet “I” wrote of intensely personal things. I figured it was okay to write about these things because she didn’t want her name to be known.
Nothing is certain. That’s the number one cancer cliche. 18 months after Mole’s first course of chemotherapy, the tumours returned. It was difficult to tell which was murdering him quicker: nature or medicine.
My focus now was to try to establish some kind of time line. If I committed to reading all of the journals in detail, I should be able to use the clues I’d previously identified to string things in some rough order. This became an obsession, as I read more and more intimate parts of this girl’s writing. I could almost hear her voice as her pen strokes betrayed her mood. She was always alternately angry and hurried when she wrote of her father. He taunted her regularly, verbally and physically assaulted her. I had to relive episodes with her over and over again, as I placed things in order.
It was her father who shattered one of the biggest illusions for me. Up to that point, I had no idea what “I” looked like but I had imagined her: She was of course small, slim, blonde and extraordinarily pretty. She wore her hair in a pony tail for school and let it down when she got home. She’d sit in front of a mirror and describe herself in her father’s words in her diary: “I’m fat and ugly. I’m useless at everything and never get anything right. I’m stupid and weak. I’ll never amount to anything in my life. When I die – which will hopefully be soon – my epitaph will read: ‘Here lies Vicky Francis, who did nothing, went nowhere and was loved by nobody.’”
I missed the nameless girl of my imaginings. I’d been robbed of my floating abstract, now squeezed into a finite thing. I’d liked this girl with no name, whose every feature was of my own design. I enjoyed her clumsiness, her irrational moments and her occasional desires for outbursts of violence. So what if she was called Vicky?
Vicky had been to many places. In the mid 1970s, she was living with her father in London. From social and current affairs of the time when she wrote, I worked out that she was in her early 20s by then. There seemed to be no-one besides her and the old man and he was drunk most of the time. Vicky paid the bills with cleaning jobs and bar work. The more I read, the more the story changed in itself and the expectations of the reader. It gained greater depth and breadth as first Vicky’s appearance was revealed, then her name. Now it took on some of the period piece, with the addition of a place and time in history: 1970s London, Soho in fact.
Vicky wrote of the seedy Soho of legend in salacious detail: encounters with pimps, prostitutes, punters, gangsters and drug dealers; Hostess bars and clip joints: she didn’t say if she worked in any of them but she wrote with an intimate familiarity, as though she worked around them. She had wild and ambitious plans and was in a hurry to record them in her diary. Some days and hours were dozens of pages long. Vicky would record one day in minute-by-minute detail, then say nothing for a week. I missed her when she was away and would search for the next entry in the journals.
In the little spare time she had, Vicky was working on a project: a biography in fact. She didn’t name her subject but I should like to learn more of him for the basis of a fictional character. The man was a monster: Some kind of tutor but he abused his students when they got things wrong. He was apparently in a permanent drunken state, unable to remember his abuse on the morning after the day before. Very little more is written of this man. Like with so much else with Vicky, once she gets her teeth into something, she disappears while she pursues it. Perhaps it would be dangerous for her to document the details.
In Vicky’s story, this older man was a full 30 years older than her main protagonist. Her character is also 14. The man has much in common with Vicky’s father but he doesn’t abuse her directly. The tutor allowed a young girl’s adulation to get out of hand. Vicky’s father demolished her confidence and ruined her ambitions, over a period of at least a decade. It was an intense and abusive period in her life.
After 1985, the story became vague. The content of the diaries grew gradually more sketchy, as though an outside influence was distracting Vicky, or indeed the character she was writing about: the stories had merged together.
Toward what now appeared to be the end, when Vicky was in her 30s, she was homeless. She was scavenging food from supermarket bins and using a single hob to cook. A typical meal was the one she cooked herself for her birthday that year: an out-of-date chicken madras microwave ready meal, which she over-cooked “to make it a bit safer.”
Mole was nearing the end of his time too. He implored me to step back a little, to stop reading the 126 books so intently and focus – as I was supposed to – on putting them into some sort of order; to form a backbone for the story, then add the bones and fill in the gaps. Maybe then it would take on life. I couldn’t ignore it any longer. I needed to see the whole of Vicky and not selected highlights of her eventful life. I suppose I’d resisted because so many of my assumptions about Vicky had been false. How many others were?
I hope I die as peacefully as Mole did. The sudden but not unexpected ending of one life shone a light into the gaps of the one I was writing about. Vicky revealed a secret so massive that I was momentarily thrown and yet she didn’t write a word about it. After plotting a timeline of the period of her life which I held, I realised what a small part it was. The late 1970s, the whole of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s were missing. Those stories from 1995 still seemed to be the end though.
I estimated that the 126 volumes I’d still only skimmed over, amounted to about 15,000 pages, or 5 million words. Using that as a benchmark for number of words per year and knowing roughly the period of Vicky’s life which I knew about, I calculated the size of the diaries including the missing years. Using this very crude method, I reckoned that there could be close to 1000 journals somewhere: 40 million words, waiting to be heard. Vicky was a very prolific diarist and it would be a lifetime’s work for a biographer to record her life. In which case, a partly remarkable life is lost. And so I had to continue.
But how would I find all of those missing years? Why were there only edited highlights in the skip? I couldn’t believe that Vicky would have stopped for those periods. She always found time to write, whatever she was doing otherwise. If she’d married or got a job, she’d have written about it. It wasn’t so much the sudden ending of the diaries which intrigued me as those big gaps in the narrative. A life which was missing the 80s was a tragedy. Vicky came back afterwards, so where had she been in that defining decade? As a fiction writer, I could fill in the gaps but there was too much of the real story holding me.
I simply couldn’t think where those missing years might be. I didn’t even know exactly where Jasper and Mole recovered the original diaries from because at the time, I’d been so wrapped up in my own world that I’d not bothered to collect them myself. I hadn’t even thought to fucking ask. I’d lost my two best friends, and the one who confided her diaries to me. So I returned to being a fiction writer.
I resolved to confront this man, these men, the people in general, who had made Vicky’s life, so many lives, intolerable. I’d written about many such people: Evil but charismatic; the antagonists in my stories sometimes, but more often than not, the narrators. People who charmed their way into lives, leaving indelible marks. Characters so calculating as to ensure those scars were only on the inside: no-one could see the real harm. Characters whom I’d made anti-heroes and whose appealing looks and personality disguised a black heart. Invisible people.
Just as it is impossible to find someone if you don’t know where they are, it’s easy if you know who you’re looking for. Not only did I know who he was but I knew exactly where to find him.
We had a very pleasant evening together and I was seated at this very writing desk as I poured our last drink. In fact, this very manuscript of Vicky’s and so many others’ unfinished stories, was protruding from the top of my typewriter as I looked through the open curtains in front of the desk, out into the night at the street lamps. A sheet of off-white paper, bearing an unfinished story, the end of which would be determined by me, as I pressed the keys and the individual letters embossed themselves on the sheet. One keystroke, a metallic hammer into a soft surface, changing the story forever.
I stared back at myself from the window as I typed and reflected on such a tragic life, like a rabbit in the headlights:
© Steve Laker, 2016
The Perpetuity of Memory is available now. My publishing schedule is on the book shelf page of this blog.