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Discovering Your Characters

The process of discovering your characters can be an odd thing. Sometimes it involves writing whole tracts that have no place in the novel that emerges. As so, I experienced  a strange sense of nostalgia when, this morning, I stumbled across a forgotten Word file. I wrote this text after visiting Waterstones, Piccadilly, in 2011, and getting the real sense of a person as I traced my fingers over a book cover. It was something tangible. If I had been at Avebury Stone Circle or the ruins of Fountains Abbey, I would have said that I had chills. The spine tingling sensation was so vivid that I had to get the words down before they became less than the idea in my head. The mother’s character isn’t even very like Alison, and the daughter doesn’t appear to have very much in common with six-year-old Belinda. But there are elements I recognise: Waterstones, Jermyn Street, St James’s Park, Pelicans. This was the start of AN UNCHOREOGRAPHED LIFE, and it started in a bookshop.

This is raw text, written in one sitting and completely unedited. I called it THE BOOK DIVINER.

My mother bought books she didn’t read.

Entering our local bookstore with the patience of a water diviner, she ignored the seduction of the tables, the lure of the three-for-the-price-of-two offers (she detested the sticky labels that she thought devalued the content). Slowly, she side-stepped the greeting cards and wrapping paper and expensive notebooks. One index finger would twitch and then, quite suddenly, she would branch off in the direction of a distant and neglected corner, with no apparent rationale other than “an inkling.”

There, her eyes narrowed as she scanned the upper shelves, her fingers tracing the spines of novels within her reach, travelling quickly over some, lingering at will. Of all her senses, it was touch she trusted the most. Touch would always guide her to the prize.

“How about a picnic in St James’s Park?” would always come with the silent caveat, “And we’ll just pop to Waterstones to use the facilities.” (‘The facilities’ was mouthed in silence. In avoiding the words my grandmother had branded distasteful and crude, my mother betrayed me by drawing attention to my weak bladder, known to go from empty to full after a small carton of orange juice.) I would be dragged away – often wailing – craning my neck for a final glimpse of Japanese tourists tormenting the pelicans with unsuitable offerings to food, in return expecting the bird to oblige by posing for their cameras with Buckingham Palace as a backdrop.

The chief facility that Waterstones (that steel-framed example of Modernism wedged between Gentlemen’s clothing stores dealing in curious essentials such as velvet monogrammed slippers and smoking jackets) offered was a choice of six storeys in which to lose my mother. Six storeys of secluded out-of-the-way corners. Hopping from foot to foot, I would plead. “Come with me.”

“Don’t be silly, you’re a big girl. I’ll wait for you at the bottom of the stairs.”

But the tingling of her fingers was enough to make her forget that she was mother to a small daughter. Even if I dried my hands on my skirt – avoiding the prospect of using the terrifying turbo-charged hand-dryers – my heart would sink as I skipped down the few steps. She was not there: she was never there. It was essential to move quickly in the knowledge that she might be in the lift – hands folded demurely and with saintly expression – while I was charging back up the stairs. The trick was to treat it as a game of hide and seek. Usually found in Fiction, she might eventually be located in History and Transport or Mind, Body and Spirit, crouching low behind a trolley.

“Have you been enjoying yourself?” she would glance up from the treasures of the bottom shelf, oblivious to my despair. “I’ve just tracked down this marvellous little book they were discussing on Women’s Hour,” or perhaps, “Can you believe it? The author shot himself before he finished writing this book.”

To her, bookshops were romantic places. While I was busily striding up Piccadilly, talking – as it transpired – to myself, she would have been lured inside by the hypnotic creek of the sign Booksellers or the window display inside the plate glass. Perhaps by some carefully placed poster advertising an author event. Before she knew it, her hand would alight on the curved rail of the banister, and she would be drawn deep down to the belly of the store. Entering Daunts in Marylebone, she stepped into a world where it was possible to imagine herself as Audrey Hepburn’s Jo in Funny Face (pre-Paris), or perhaps the woman who took it on herself to write to Ann Bancroft’s character in 84 Charing Cross Road to announce the proprietor’s death.

No trek across Wimbledon Common would ever be complete without a ‘quick nip inside’ Wimbledon Books and Music where she would flirt with the scholarly proprietor, testing his knowledge of classics and new releases based purely on the recent reviews she had read.

“It has a picture of a woman wearing a pale blue silk kimono on the cover.”

“And you can’t remember the title?”

“Mr Sippy, why would I need to remember titles when I have you?”

While I was looking the other way, she would slip into the cobbled side-alleys of Richmond seeking out reminders of her childhood in the Lion and the Unicorn Bookshop, delighting in Tenniel’s illustration of Alice peering up into a tree at a grinning Cheshire cat, or E H Shepherd’s Christopher Robin dragging Pooh Bear up the stairs to bed by one leg; sharing the same expression of wonder as Grahame’s Baker-Smiths wide-eyed boy in Leon and the Place in Between.

She had a passion for books that possession alone appeared to satisfy. Having devoured the artwork, the blurb, the title page, she would delight at dedications, wondering – almost begrudgingly – who ‘Sos’ was; what Dave Chen might have done to deserve such an accolade. Acknowledgements too were worthy of her attention.

“The research that has gone into this,” she marvelled. “Do you see, Sarah, do you see?”

And she was something of an expert on first paragraphs, with an instant recall for opening sentences that gave the impression of one who was particularly well-read. Any visitor to Church Street would be fooled, but creating an illusion was not my mother’s aim. There was security in books, solidity – neither of which had been granted to my mother in other areas of her life. They appealed to her desire for order.

She proved herself an excellent custodian, employing a master carpenter to install shelves in every recess our semi offered in order to cater for her ever-expanding library. I was not permitted to touch her treasures in case I should crease a spine, but she would hold them open for me, paraphrasing Churchill (whom she considered to be the greatest man ever to live): “Look at it, Sarah. It lies open like an angel’s wings.” She acted on his advice: “If they cannot be your friends, let them at any rate be your acquaintances.” Conveyed by carrier bag, they would be categorised, alphabeticised, given new homes. Weekly, their titles would be tickled with her feather duster. They would be taken down, fondled and set back on the shelves with her own hands.

It was impossible to get a straight answer as to why her love of books did not translate to a love of reading, why she did not want to step inside those other heads, those souls. I once heard talk of someone who had always wanted to visit Barcelona, and so when his cruise ship moored there overnight, he did not get off for fear of disappointment. I wondered if that was perhaps her reason.

Sebastian Faulks caused her the loss of several nights’ sleep after she discovered that her straining shelves did not contain some of the foundation stones of British Fiction. She’d had no idea that Martin Amis’s Money’s influence was such that it might be considered a classic. And so, towards the end, she had me set up an account for her on Amazon and she would issue precise instructions where the books that began to arrive in brown boxes were to be positioned. At a time when visiting her favourite bookstores was no longer an option, daily emails would taunt. We note that you recently you bought ABC. Perhaps XYZ might appeal. These seemingly harmless missives were like the blind man’s charity box. He would never be able to identify the person who had walked past, but the idea that there might be an ideal companion for a book she already owned… it couldn’t be ignored.

On my way to deliver my donation to the disorderly stockroom at the back of an Oxfam shop, I had to pass by the bookshelves. The sight of books, arranged haphazardly, with bent spines and dog-eared yellow pages caused me to pause. Books that had been packed in between folded blouses in suitcases and taken to exotic places, doused in coconut oil; companions on long train journeys, easing the daily commute; left behind on night buses. Novels that had been discussed by young mothers at book clubs – their only legitimate excuse for escape – over glasses of wine. Books that had been in constant circulation since they went to print. Whose pages carried the imprint of previous readers’ fingers and had been dampened by their tears.

“Can I take that from you, love?” a kindly soul dipped her eyes towards the bulging bag whose neck I was clutching.

“No, no,” I said, backing out of the shop. “I’m fine.”

The bin liner contained a dozen pairs of shoes that my mother had bought, but had never worn. She stacked them in their boxes in the bottom of her wardrobe. I was once reprimanded for trying them on: “Sarah! What do you think you’re doing?”

“But you never wear them -”

As if a catastrophe had been averted, she would polish their toes on material of skirt, shroud them in tissue paper and return them to their rightful places, all perfectly ordered. “That’s because they’re for best.”