It's coming up to a year since I published No Number Nine, so to celebrate, here's the first chapter of the book for you to read, as a taster:
Warning! Content suitable for over 18s only.
No Number Nine
by F. J. Campbell
This book is set mostly in Munich, with a mix of characters from Germany and all over the world. Most of them speak, to some degree or other, German and English.
For the purposes of not annoying the crap out of the reader, it’s assumed that, unless otherwise indicated, everyone involved in every conversation understands the language being spoken, whether that’s German or English.
Munich, September 1999
Philippa Mitchell was eighteen years old when she left England. She left behind her bedroom, that cocoon of misery in which she’d imprisoned herself; her parents, with their forced, hollow cheerfulness; and the pieces of her heart, smashed to smithereens two years ago with a phone call that came in the middle of the night.
Without a backwards glance, Pip was gone. She’d spent most of the last two years in her bedroom, venturing out only to go to school. Now she was escaping from her bedroom, her house, her town, her country.
As she sat in the train speeding south from Munich airport towards the suburbs, she reread her instructions from Mr von Feldstein. She’d spoken to him on the phone and he’d written this letter, detailing her childcare duties and apologising for not being able to collect her from the airport. The letter was polite and businesslike. In it he’d written, Mrs von Feldstein is currently living elsewhere.
In other words, she’d left him.
There might be a million fascinating reasons why Mrs von Feldstein was Elsewhere, but Pip didn’t much care about any of them. What she cared about was this job, which she needed, and which she would lose if Mrs von Feldstein took it upon herself to return from Elsewhere.
At Solln station, Pip stepped off the train, slinging her rucksack onto her shoulders. It wasn’t heavy – she didn’t own many clothes and she’d ditched everything else. Letters, books, photos, CDs. Too many reminders.
She walked along the quiet, tree-lined road away from the station, and within a few minutes found Number Three, Emil-von-Feldstein-Weg. It hadn’t clicked before, but it now it did: the family she’d come to work for was ever-so-slightly loaded. Number Three wasn’t a house, it was a mansion. And the street was named after someone in their family. Who has a whole street named after them?
She stood opposite the house, gawping at it. It was set back off the road, with high hedges surrounding it. Through the gates she saw a gravel driveway which swept around to stone steps leading up to an arched front doorway. She craned her head around the bars of the gate, up past two storeys to the roof, which was covered with four dormer windows of different shapes and sizes. The garden went on for miles. And was that a swimming pool? Bloody hell.
‘Hello, are you Philippa?’
A voice behind her made her jump. She turned to see a middle-aged lady with grey-streaked hair smiling at her. Pip gulped. Surely this couldn’t be…?
She stammered, ‘I prefer Pip. Are you… Mrs von Feldstein?’
The woman nodded and held out her hand. Pip shook it despondently. So she’s come back, has she? Oh, great. Pip would have to go home again. ‘I wasn’t expecting… I thought you…’
Mrs von Feldstein waited, not understanding.
Pip searched for the phrase from the letter. ‘I thought you were… currently living elsewhere.’
‘Me? No. Oh… I’m not that Mrs von Feldstein. I’m Rosa. I’m the sister.’ She peered in a kind way at Pip, who hadn’t quite caught up yet. ‘You’re thinking of Dominic’s wife, Elisabeth. I live—’
‘Next door. Of course, yes, Mr von Feldstein mentioned you in his letter.’ My wife’s sister Rosa lives next door with her family.She thought, Thank Christ for that, and said, ‘Sorry.’
‘Nothing to be sorry about.’ Rosa pushed open the gate. ‘Come on in. So you know about the family situation, from Dominic’s letter? He told you about everyone? The boys, too?’
Pip nodded as they crunched along the drive. The boys. We have two sons at home, Maximilian (10) and Ferdinand (8). They go to the International School, a fifteen-minute walk away, where you’ll take them and pick them up every day except Friday – on Fridays I like to do it myself.‘I know all about them.’
Rosa said over her shoulder, ‘You won’t know what’s hit you. Come next door to my house if you ever need a break from the testosterone.’ She pointed to a wooden gate tucked into the hedge. ‘We have two girls, Isabella and Anna. You’re always welcome. I hope you know what you’re letting yourself in for.’
Pip reckoned she could handle two little boys, whatever Rosa might think.
‘So, Dominic will be back tomorrow evening with Max and Ferdi. They’re away at the lake house tonight. Until then you can settle yourself in.’
She unlocked the front door and they stepped into a large hallway. Pip took it all in: a grand staircase of dark, highly polished wood ahead of them, and doors leading off the hallway to the left, right and either side of the stairs. Rosa opened them in turn and motioned for Pip to follow.
‘Living room, dining room, kitchen on this floor. That door,’ she pointed to the left of the staircase, ‘goes down into the cellar, where your room is. Leave your bag there – good gracious, is that all you have? I’ll show you upstairs first.’
At the top of the stairs, Rosa pushed open the two doors to the left, which were covered with stickers and postcards. ‘Max here, Ferdi there, or maybe the other way round, I can never remember. You’ll need to get these boys in hand – I’ve never seen such chaos.’
It was true – in both boys’ rooms, it was impossible to see the colour of the carpets. There were Lego models and train tracks, comics and bean bags, clothes, towels and shoes strewn over every surface. Pip liked the chaos; it made her smile to think that these two small worlds of disorder had been created. She thought – she hoped – that Max and Ferdi were going to be fun to look after.
Rosa sighed and closed the doors again, as if by doing so it would make the mess go away all by itself. ‘Bathroom’s there.’ She pointed to the doors on the other side. ‘You don’t need to worry about those two.’ And then she did the strangest thing. She winked at Pip.
Wrong-footed, Pip guessed the doors must lead to Mr and Mrs von Feldstein’s room and maybe a guest room. Rosa was looking at her like she expected a reply, so she tried to smile. ‘They’re not fans of Lego?’ It seemed like she’d said the right thing – Rosa chuckled and turned to go downstairs.
Pip, remembering the dormer windows, pointed to another door they hadn’t been through. ‘Where does that go? To the attic?’
‘Yes, that’s Dom and… well, Dom’s room. Also his bathroom and office. You won’t ever need to go up there; he likes to have his own private space. I can show you, if you like?’
‘No, not if it’s private.’ Pip followed Rosa downstairs, where Rosa scooped up her rucksack and opened the door to the cellar.
‘Essentially, this is all yours. Although as you’ll see, there are other storage and laundry rooms down here. Martina – that’s the cleaner – comes twice a week. She cleans the house and does the laundry. Your bathroom is here.’ Rosa moved along the dark corridor, flicking on light switches. ‘Door to the garden.’ She ran her hand along a row of four closed cupboards. ‘In here are winter clothes, spare bedding et cetera. The boys store their spare sports stuff here sometimes. It gets a bit smelly, as you can imagine.’
Pip couldn’t imagine. What stuff? How smelly could two small boys be?
Rosa continued, ‘Of course, they have lockers at the club, but they have so much kit, some of it inevitably ends up here.’
Kit? Club? What was Rosa going on about?Pip couldn’t remember reading about clubs in the letter. Must be tennis or golf, something posh. She pictured a country club with gym-toned socialites wafting around in pristine tennis whites and jewellery, drinking G&Ts. Elisabeth would no doubt be captain of the ladies’ tennis team, highly competitive on the court and prone to cheat on line calls if she ever found herself at thirty-forty down.Pip, not wanting Rosa to think she was obtuse or inattentive, didn’t ask – she wanted to read the letter again, make sure she hadn’t missed something obvious. Her German was good, or so she’d thought, but there was obviously something she hadn’t understood properly.
Rosa pushed open a door at the end of the corridor and switched on the light. ‘This is you.’
The room was large, with a double bed low to the floor, a squishy-looking sofa covered in bright cushions, a widescreen TV, a DVD player, a desk with a laptop on it, and a huge wooden wardrobe. She stood rooted to the spot in shock. This house, this room – it was insane. She thought of the tiny house she lived in with her parents. You could fit the whole of the ground floor into this one room.
‘This is all for me?’
‘You like it? I can’t tell.’
‘I love it,’ breathed Pip.
‘Wonderful. For a moment it looked like you couldn’t quite believe what sort of a place you’d landed in.’ She gave Pip two keys. ‘One for the front door, one for the back – that’s your own private entrance, should you need it.’ She looked at her watch. ‘Oh hell, I said I’d be back at the shop at two. Can I leave you? Take a look around, settle in, unpack… enjoy the peace and quiet before the multitudes descend tomorrow.’ She hurried to the door.
‘Wait! All this is mine? The TV, the laptop? Or is someone coming to pick it up?’
Rosa waved her hand around the room dismissively. ‘All yours to use while you’re here.’
Pip blinked and started to say thank you, but Rosa had already disappeared. The sound of her footsteps faded up the stairs and across the hallway, the door slammed, and Pip was alone in the silent house.
She roamed around the house, exploring each room again. Everywhere except for the attic, Mr von Feldstein’s private domain – she didn’t dare. The two mystery rooms on the first floor were definitely guest rooms. On the wall of each hung one painting, different perspectives of the same castle; the beds were neatly made with crisp white linen; and the wardrobes were bare except for a pair of spare pyjamas and a couple of shirts, probably Mr von Feldstein’s. In the boys’ rooms, she hung up damp towels and folded crumpled clothes. She took some cups and bowls downstairs and stacked them in the dishwasher. May as well make a good first impression.
The kitchen was – apart from her own – her favourite room. Like something out of a magazine. It had an island unit in the middle, and along one wall there stood an enormous wooden table with six seats on one side and a bench on the other. Above that, the wall was a blackboard covered with chalked messages. She’d come back to those later. French windows, through which streamed late-afternoon sunshine, led out to a patio. Beyond the patio was indeed a swimming pool, a long, thin one for doing lengths in. Shame she didn’t own a swimming costume. She’d grown out of her old one and never replaced it.
The house was light and modern inside, all floor-to-ceiling windows and stripped wooden floorboards. Everything looked understated but expensive. In the living room, there were shelves and shelves full of books and DVDs, which she felt like hugging, so she did. The walls were white and bare except for one single painting of the same castle as upstairs, with a lake in the foreground and a field of lavender in the background. Pip caught a faint whiff of fresh paint – maybe they’d redecorated recently. There was something missing. What was it? She couldn’t decide, and it bothered her.
Outside, she’d expected the lawn to be pristine, but it was dotted with patches of bare, scuffed earth, reminding her of the makeshift football goals in the park near her parents’ house. She found the back door, her own private entrance into the cellar, next to it an old stone bench covered in moss.
In her cellar corridor, where Rosa had said the spare ‘kit’ was, she opened a cupboard door to find winter coats and trousers, ski boots, skis and poles in different sizes. In the second cupboard, there were tennis racquets, golf clubs – aha – Frisbees, footballs and some oars. There was a bit of a sweaty odour to it, but nothing she couldn’t handle. When she opened the third cupboard, though, it nearly knocked her out – there were about twenty pairs of trainers and Rosa hadn’t been kidding about the pong. It was like something had died in there. It was sour and rancid, like decaying vegetables and rotten eggs. Pip recoiled, slammed the door and didn’t dare look in the fourth cupboard.
In the kitchen, joy of joys, there was a fancy-pants coffee machine. It looked like something you’d see in an Italian café – stainless steel, nozzles, buttons with pictures on, the works. Pip loved coffee. Was there anything better in the world than the smell of coffee? She peered at it, trying to locate the On button. Terrified of breaking the machine, her fingers hovered over a few buttons but her nerve failed her and she gave up.
The blackboard was a mess of scribbles and smudges. There were messages written by the children: Dun my homworkand Wear are my lukky sox. There were dates and places: Konstanz, Padua, Berlin, Amstelveen. 15 September – 1October, circled many times over. Why did those dates mean something to Pip? A section of the board was covered with random names: Pim, Shiver, JJ, Henry, Obermann, Rollo– some crossed out, others underlined. And there, in the corner, was her name. Someone had drawn a smiley face next to it. One of the boys, maybe, looking forward to her arrival? It startled her to see her name amongst these cryptic messages from strangers’ lives.
That night, Pip lay exhausted in bed, her senses bombarded by the newness of her life. The expectation of tomorrow hung over her like a thrilling promise. She fell asleep around eleven.
Next thing she knew, a banging sound woke her. Shit. What was that? The front door? Pip checked her watch – 2am. Who was coming into the house at this time? Rosa had said the family was arriving tomorrow evening. Were they back early? Pip didn’t know what to do. Should she go up and say hello, or pretend to sleep? What would a normal person do?The door had slammed pretty loudly, so they must have known it would wake her. She dragged herself up out of bed and found a baggy old sweatshirt to pull over her pyjamas.
Halfway up the cellar stairs, she heard another sound. A giggle. Murmuring and another giggle, louder this time. She frowned. Was that the kids? It didn’t sound like children. It sounded like a woman. She paused. Better go back to bed. It couldn’t be burglars, could it? Not laughing like that? She waited, listening to feet moving upstairs. Oh crap, if it was burglars, what was she supposed to do? Had her parents ever told her what to do in a situation like this? If they had, she hadn’t been listening properly.
She crept back to the second cupboard and opened it quietly. By feel only, she found a golf club and eased it out without dislodging anything else. Those giggling burglars were going to get it, if they tried any funny business with her.
Slowly, slowly, Pip pushed open the door to the hallway. It was dark and empty and absolutely silent; the kind of silence where no one is there. She heard noises from upstairs, a thump and a laugh, a man’s this time. She waited at the foot of the stairs, gripping the golf club, listening.
Before she knew what was happening she was at the top of the stairs, her heart thudding in her chest, edging swiftly and quietly towards the room.
A strip of light under and around the slightly-opened door. One foot in front of the other, closer and closer towards the room. Rustlings, a whisper and then nothing. With the tip of her finger, Pip nudged the door open, minuscule prods, just enough to see into the room. And when she saw it, she felt a great crashing in her ears, blood racing to her head as she gripped the door frame to stop herself from keeling over.
Lying naked on the bed, long blonde hair streaming over the pillow, was an unbelievably beautiful girl. Her eyes were closed, her hands pushed against the wall above her head, her hips slightly raised. Between her legs, a man’s head with short muddy-blond hair; clasping her breast, one of his hands. From the girl’s mouth issued a series of low moans, becoming ever louder, as she began to buck her hips and slam her head on the pillow.
Pip’s eyes burnt as she reversed on iron-heavy legs out of the room. They hadn’t seen her. They couldn’t have. Please please please let them not have seen her. All she had to do was make it downstairs without them hearing her. She tiptoed down each step in time with the moans, to cover any creaking noises she made.
At the bottom of the stairs, she heard a sound that she’d never heard before. It was like the girl was dying. A long, coarse shriek that made Pip think of endless pain. Was he killing her? Was that what sex sounded like? It wasn’t supposed to hurt, was it? She slipped through the cellar door, raced back along the underground corridor and dropped into her still-warm bed.
Oh God. What had she done? Who was that girl? Who was the man between her legs? She couldn’t expel the image of them together. The girl’s skin, her hair, her doll-like perfection, her eyes scrunched shut in absolute ecstasy. Was she real? Had Pip really seen it? It was outrageous, she felt sick, but why couldn’t she stop thinking about it? The sound of it more than anything – that girl had howled like an animal. Jesus. And who the hell was the man? Surely it couldn’t be Mr von Feldstein? For obvious reasons, she hadn’t managed to see his face. But surely… what was he doing? That girl was Pip’s age – no way was she the missing Mrs von Feldstein. He had a lover! Or was she a prostitute? Christ almighty, what kind of a place had she landed in here?
For hours, Pip lay trembling in bed, trying to calm down, forget about it and go to sleep. But racing through her head were the questions, the pictures, the utter mortification and panic if they’d seen her. She was dreading tomorrow – how could she meet Mr von Feldstein, how could she look him in the eye and take care of his children after what she’d seen?
When she woke up in the morning, her first thought was of the couple. What to do? Not hide in her room all day, that’s for sure. She’d promised herself that part of her life was over; she had to get up and face… whatever it was she had to face. She showered and dressed, took some deep breaths and walked upstairs.
There was no one in the hallway. She looked in the kitchen. Empty. The house was quiet. Outside she heard the faint whoosh of a car passing by on the road and some birds tweeting.
‘Hello?’ she tried. ‘Hello? Anyone there?’ Her German sounded like a made-up language – gobbledygook that a child might speak. It left her mouth and dissipated into the corners of the hallway.
No one answered. She looked out of the front door – no car in the driveway.
‘Hello?’ she said again, this time louder.
There was no reply from upstairs. No voices or strange, ethereal sex sounds. Nothing. Right, thought Pip, that’s it. I have to go and look. She stomped up the stairs, loudly and slowly, to give them time to get dressed or whatever.
‘It’s me, Pip. The new au pair. Is anyone there?’ Her heart was thumping as loudly as it had last night, but this morning she felt, more than anything else, angry that she had to act like this. Bloody sexers. Couldn’t a person come to a new job without having to see a live sex show within hours of arriving? What was the world coming to?
The spare-room door was wide open and when she looked in, there was no one. Last night – had she imagined it? Was it one of those dreams? A wet dream? But didn’t only boys have them? Wait – she hadn’t left the door open yesterday afternoon, when she’d been exploring. Or had she?
OK. Maybe she hadimagined it. Weird. She’d never had a dream like that before.
Hang on. No – the room didn’t look the same. She walked in and examined the bed: it was made, but not expertly. Yesterday, the white covers had been stretched over it and tucked in neatly. Today they were pulled in a more haphazard way over the bed. And there – aha! A blonde hair on the pillow. Bright, shiny, long – definitely the girl’s.
Pip’s mind was racing. Two people had been here, in Mr von Feldstein’s house, having noisy sex. They’d entered and exited secretly, thinking no one had noticed. It couldn’t have been Mr von Feldstein – why would he bring a girl back here and not use his extremely private bedroom in the attic? It must have been burglars. Sex burglars. Was that a thing? It was now.
Pip searched the house, examining every window catch, checking every lock. Outside, there were no ladders or footprints in the flower beds.
She couldn’t wrap her head around it, so she had some breakfast. Making no more headway with the coffee machine than yesterday, she had to be satisfied with a couple of deep sniffs. Then she decided a walk might be just the thing.
The sun was out, bathing everything in a mellow glow. Emil-von-Feldstein-Weg was a street of large houses, Rosa’s next door a match with Number Three, minus the attic windows. Pip wandered past the station, a bookshop, a bakery and – wonder of wonders – a small cinema. She peered in the window. It was one of those cool art house cinemas that showed interesting foreign films. There were posters in the window for films called Lola Renntand Todo Sobre Mi Madre, which was being shown with German subtitles.
After half an hour, she found the river. Sitting on a bench, she watched the water rush by. Despite the sunny day and the pretty view of the tree-lined River Isar, the contented dog-walkers and the chattering families cycling by, she couldn’t shift the feeling that this whole au pair idea was a colossal mistake. What was she doing here? This family, this house – even without what’d happened last night, she didn’t belong with them. But where did she belong? Would she ever be happy again? She’d forgotten what it felt like to be happy.
EXT. A BENCH, BY A RIVER – DAY
PIP MITCHELL, medium height, plain face, straight up-and-down body, mousy-brown hair – sits watching the river, fat tears rolling down her face.
I wish you were still here, Holly. I miss talking to you. I don’t have anyone to talk to.
HOLLY MITCHELL, 25 years old, beautiful, short dark hair, fit and tanned – sits next to her and puts her arm around her.
I’m here, kiddo. What d’you want to talk about?
I don’t know what I’m doing here. I’m lonely. I’m sad. I’m a pathetic loser. And I don’t know what those people were doing last night.
He was going down on her, kiddo. You should try it sometime. It’ll make your brain explode. But seriously, don’t give up on Munich yet. This is a good place to be. You’re not pathetic – you’re brave.
I can’t do this without you. It’s too hard. I want to see you again.
Not going to happen, sis. Even I can’t manage to come back from the dead.
You can. You have to. You’re my hero. You’re my big sister. I need you.
Pip sniffs and wipes the back of her hand under her nose. Holly hands her a tissue. She blows noisily into it.
Whatever you need me for, I’ll be here. Tissues, careers advice, Sex Ed, anything. Stick at this job, you’ll see, it’s going to be just what you need. No more moping about me, OK? Promise me?
And remember what I always say: if it doesn’t scare you shitless--
It’s probably not worth doing. Yeah. Thanks.
That’s what big sisters are for, kiddo. That and buying you booze when you’re underage.
Holly stands and walks towards the river, turns and waves at Pip. She walks into the water until it reaches the top of her head. She disappears.
Pip sat a while longer, hating the scooped-out feeling she always had after she’d been crying. Then her stomach rumbled. She walked away from the river, following the path back up towards the house. Along the way she passed a beer garden, full of people eating at wooden tables in the sunshine. Her mouth watered. She wished she had enough money to eat there, but she had to save every last penny this year. Every last Pfennig. There was bread and cheese at the house and that would have to do. She wasn’t allowed to eat out; she had to be careful or she’d never afford the flights to Australia for next year.
All afternoon, Pip jumped at the sound of cars on the road, scampering to the front door to check if it was the family arriving. She steeled herself to meet Mr von Feldstein. If he had the same hair as the man in the bed last night, she would have to put a brave face on. She couldn’t go back to England. She’d never find a job as well paid as this one, with free accommodation and food, so however strange the family was, she had to stick it out. Plus, she’d promised the fabricated ghost of her dead sister that she’d make a go of it.
At five o’clock, she was lying on the sofa with a book when she heard a car on the driveway, doors slamming and children’s voices. Brace yourself, Pip. Smile. Think of the money.
She was in the hallway when the front door burst open, two boys careering into the house, shouting and jostling each other. They were alike, with dark curly hair and brown eyes.
‘Dad! She’s here! Hello. Dad! Are you Pip? Why are you called that? How tall are you? Do you know Harry Potter? Why are you a girl? Where are you most ticklish?’
‘Umm. Yes. I don’t know. About five foot seven. Who’s Harry Potter? Because I am. None of your beeswax.’
‘Dad, she doesn’t know Harry Potter. Da-ad. Can we send her back?’
Pip heard footsteps clomping up the stairs outside the front door and held her breath. Here we go.
Mr von Feldstein’s hair was curly, dark and greying. Definitely not him.Thank Christ for that.
He put down the suitcases and held out his hand to Pip.
‘Welcome and sorry about these two monsters. (No, we can’t send her back.) How was your journey? (Take your stuff upstairs and stop badgering her.) Did Rosa show you your room? (I don’t know whether she likes Star Wars.)’ He smiled wearily as the boys trooped upstairs. ‘I’m dying for a coffee. Would you like one?’
Hope you enjoyed that - comments below, please! If you liked it, I can post a second chapter, but after that if you want more, you'll have to buy a copy.
Hello - The Islanders is my new novel, and here's a snippet from the beginning of the book, so you can read it and see if it's for you.
by F.J. Campbell
Island (ˈaɪlənd), n.
1. A mass of land that is surrounded by water and is smaller than a continent.
2. Something resembling this: a traffic island.
3. Anatomy: a part, structure or group of cells distinct in constitution from its immediate surroundings.
4. A boarding school in the countryside of south-west England that’s so remote and cut off on all sides, its pupils have nicknamed it The Island.
Early morning, the earlier the better, was Milo’s favourite time of day by far. When he was walking alone to school he was something close to happy, despite everything. He blinked in the autumn sunshine as he stepped out of the woods, his eyes adjusting to the view that he knew so well. No need to stop and take it in; he’d seen it a thousand times before. His feet pounded the tarmac as he strode on, down the hill past the sports hall and the boarding houses towards school.
He was especially glad to be early that day, because it meant he saw her first. These things were crucial to his best mate Guy: Milo never would’ve heard the end of it, if Guy had seen her first. It was a matter of minutes, seconds even. If he’d stopped to tie his shoelaces or had an extra piece of toast for breakfast, it would have been a different story.
A car swooshed around the circle of grass in front of the main school building and he only caught a glimpse of the girl in the passenger seat, but it was enough, that glimpse, to make him stop and look again. It parked facing away from him. Inside the car he saw her arm reach up to the mirror, into which she stared for a longer time than necessary for someone so pretty. It was funny to see her staring like that, completely still, lost in herself. She didn’t even fiddle with her hair or put on make-up or anything. Milo thought he saw her eyes in the mirror and he looked away quickly. Had she seen him watching her? He turned to go, but heard the car door open and glanced back again.
Her legs unfolded, like in a film, and they were long and slim and he thought he might be dreaming them. Miniskirt, shabby red coat, dark, shiny hair falling over her shoulders, clear, pale skin, a smile on her red lips. She was breathtaking. Milo actually stopped breathing. He didn’t know that was a thing that happened. Admittedly, his basis for comparison was limited, but she had to be the most beautiful girl in the history of the world. Easily.
Next thing he knew, the car had driven away and she was at the main entrance, trying the big iron handles on the double doors.
‘Those doors aren’t usually open. Well, sometimes they are. But not… umm… today.’ Nice one, Milo. Very slick.
She turned and glared at him. For a long time. Her perfect mouth curled up, disbelief in her eyes. Disbelief at how anyone could be this much of a pathetic loser. ‘Any chance you’re going to tell me which doors areopen? Before I die of boredom.’
Her voice nearly brought him to his knees. It curled around his brain, squeezing any last vestige of sense out of him. It was all he could do to point in the vague direction of the side door. She gave him one more frightening glare and flounced away, leaving him standing alone.
That’s where Guy found him a few moments later.
‘Hey, big man, I’ve just met the girl of my dreams. Well, when I say, “met”, I mean I saw her. In the corridor. What a babe.’ Guy waved a hand in front of Milo’s dazed face and then stopped. ‘Oh, I know what this is. You saw her first. Didn’t you?’
Milo nodded twice.
‘That is just my bastard luck. Who is she? What did she say to you? I can’t believe you saw her before I did. I think I might love her.’
But Milo pulled himself together enough to remember how she’d stared at her reflection and that self-satisfied smile, and said, ‘Not quite as much as she loves herself.’
Milo slid into a seat at the back of the room, just as the headmaster started talking. He counted the other scholarship candidates: three boys, five girls. Including the girl with the red coat. Of course. He tried not to stare at her too much, in case she could feel it through the back of her head. Mr Toms’ usual speech about the school drifted over him. He’d heard it before.
‘Weatherbury Hall… fantastic opportunities… develop talent… give something back to the school… utmost dedication… Springer’s Scholarship.’
That made Milo switch back on.
‘Applicants for this scholarship must have been born and brought up in Wessex and will have to display excellence in a number of areas: academia, sport, art, drama or music. They will need to be motivated and enthusiastic. They will need to be good team members and leaders. This award is worth one hundred per cent of the sixth-form fees.’
That was the one for Milo; the only way he could stay at The Island after fifth form. His dad couldn’t afford the fees, even with his staff reduction, and Milo didn’t want to think about what he’d do if he had to leave. He’d been living here for all of his almost seventeen years, and in the next three days it would all be on the line. His shoulders tightened and a sensation spread through his stomach, fear mixed with doubt. No. Forget my nerves.Forget the girl. He shifted in his seat and planted his feet firmly on the ground, willing himself to concentrate.
After the speech, Milo returned to normal lessons while the other candidates had the school tour. He’d been excused due to the fact that he knew the place like the back of his hand. Still, he would’ve gladly gone too, if it meant he could have spoken to the girl again. In double maths he had to stop himself daydreaming about walking around the school grounds with her, showing her the woods, the river, the sports fields. He would have shown her all the places that meant something to him – the hill with the view of the sea where he’d had picnics with his mum, where his dad had taught him how to ride a bike, the rugby pitches, his cottage, the adjacent farmland his grandparents used to own. She would love it all as much as he did – how could she not?
The rest of the day was exams and interviews, one after another. By the evening, he was done in and ready to go home to the quiet cottage, to another silent evening with his dad. It was dark and way past curfew when he hurried up the hill towards the woods. The road was deserted and silent, except for the sound of muted voices and music coming from the boarding houses.
A sash window at the side of Norcombe House opened and a girl climbed out and sprang to the ground. Milo drew back into the shadows out of sight. He was pretty sure it was Olivia Rose’s room, but it wasn’t Livvy who had climbed out: this girl was taller than Livvy, athletic and graceful. She was wearing a sweatshirt with a hood, underneath which was a woollen hat. To a whisper from inside the room, the girl outside replied, ‘Trust me, I don’t need it.’
The window was closed from the inside and she turned from it and ran in the opposite direction from where Milo was standing, towards the sports hall. Now would have been a good time to forget all this, go home and get some rest. Milo wasn’t normally very adept at breaking rules and nobody could ever call him stealthy. And yet, he was curious; there were no teachers about and he told himself it was on his way home anyway. So he followed her.
Around Norcombe House, to the sports-hall doors. But she was nowhere to be seen. The doors were normally locked at this time of night (Milo knew full well, since his dad did the evening lock-up), but he tried one of them anyway and it opened. Huh.The surprise made him draw back and at this point, sense won over curiosity and he decided to go home. As he looked one last time through the doors, he saw the girl’s hat lying on the foyer floor. Before he knew it, he’d pushed open the door, grabbed it and stuffed it in his pocket. Right, that’s it – out of here. A quick look over his shoulder – still no teachers – and he skirted around the side of the swimming pool building towards the woods and home.
He heard a faint splash as he passed under a high window and stopped in his tracks. It had to be her. There was a steep grass bank, the top of which was level with the window, and he scrambled up it, but what he saw made him wish he hadn’t.
The girl was swimming in the water.
There were no lights on in the pool.
She was far away.
It was clear to Milo that she had no clothes on.
He had never seen a naked girl before. Her skin shimmered as she moved through the water and her long, dark hair fanned out behind her. That skin, that hair, he knew who she was – the girl in the red coat from that morning, except now she wasn’t wearing her red coat. Milo couldn’t help himself; he laughed out loud. Afraid that she’d heard him, he ducked and slid to the bottom of the bank. He ran, crashing and slipping through the dark woods, the picture of her burnt onto his eyes. All the way home, out of the school gates, along the overgrown path to the cottage. He opened the door, called to his dad, ‘I’m home, I’m going to bed’, ran two stairs at a time up to his room and collapsed onto his bed. He had to get a good night’s sleep.
After one of the worst night’s sleeps of his life, he woke with his alarm. He showered before his dad had even woken up and left a note to say he’d have breakfast at school. Milo thought it would probably be a relief for his dad to avoid the strained atmosphere between them, for once.
On the way to school, Milo was buzzing. If he saw her again, he might manage to say something less unbelievably boring – or at the very least a full sentence in coherent English. They were after all doing the same scholarship exams, so it wasn’t beyond the realms of imagination that they might be on the same intellectual level. He wasn’t thick, although he looked it – as Guy constantly reminded him – and he was a year older and about a head bigger than all the other fifth-formers, so that didn’t help. Farmer West, they called him, on account of his size and strength, the former occupation of his grandparents and the total lack of wit and originality of the typical boy at his school.
He didn’t mind, though: he wasn’t proud. He’d failed his GCSEs in the summer, might as well not have turned up, but the school had given him another chance, and that wasn’t something they did very often. ‘Exceptional circumstances’, they’d called it. He had gritted his teeth and sworn never to mess up like that again, no matter what happened.
There was an ache he had, when he thought about his mum, and he became very good at swallowing it, ignoring it. Milo never spoke about her, not even to his dad. Especially not to his dad. Every day, he took his place in class, he spoke when spoken to, he kept his head down. It worked, because it had to. It wasn’t like anyone noticed much of a difference in him anyway: he was hardly the world’s greatest talker, hardly the coolest kid in school. He was just the boy from The Island with no idea about music or clubs or parties.
But this girl, she wouldn’t care that he wasn’t cool. He would talk to her. Impress her. He could do that. There’s always a first time for everything. Hello, yes, nice to meet you, my name’s Milo West, and you are…?
Jesus, I sound like such a plank. He started to panic as he left the woods. He felt the hat in his pocket and for the life of him couldn’t remember how it had got there. As he turned the corner past the sports hall, there she was, alone; a miracle if ever he saw one.
‘I found a hat,’ he said, without any other greeting. Way to go, Milo.
‘You, again. That’s my hat.’ She reached out her hand towards it, her hand was right there, next to his, and then she paused. ‘Wait. Where did you find it?’
‘In the sports-hall foyer, last night.’ He registered, too late, the surprise on her face.
She looked at him through narrowed eyes. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Milo. West.’ He took his eyes off her face. Oh God, I hope she doesn’t think I’m a pervert.
‘Well, Milo West, what are you, some kind of pervert?’
‘No, I…’ He was looking at his dirty old boots; the laces were undone. He couldn’t meet her eyes. ‘I just wanted to…’ He glanced up finally and saw that she had walked away from him. He still didn’t know her name.
‘Elizabeth Atkinson,’ Guy whispered, triumphant but red-faced, glasses askew, shirt untucked, slamming his books down on the table next to Milo in the library and earning a hard stare from the teacher on duty. ‘She’s called Elizabeth Atkinson.’ He sat down and grinned from ear to ear.
‘Mmm? What’s that? Who?’
‘The girl, big man, the girl. Keep up, will you?’
‘Oh, right.’ Milo sighed and shrugged. ‘You mean the one that’s been ignoring me all day?’ Milo had decided not to tell Guy about the swimming pool, since he’d been gutted enough that Milo had seen her first, let alone seen her nakedfirst. And Elizabeth had blanked him at breakfast and again at lunch, but he couldn’t blame her for that – he’d not only been spying on her, which made him weird, but he’d also admitted to doing it, which made him gormless. All things considered, he would’ve thought less of her if she hadtaken any notice of him.
‘That’s the one. Now, listen, there’s no time to lose. You can’t get close to her with all these other soppy wazzocks hanging around her. You’ve got to get her alone. What’s your plan?’
‘Yes, haven’t you noticed? “Elizabeth, can I carry your bag for you? Elizabeth, can we sit together at lunch? Elizabeth, can I stare at your tits a bit more?” So, you’ve got to formulate a plan. You can’t mess this up, or you will profoundly regret it for the rest of your long, unhappy and lonely life.’
Milo shook his head wordlessly and turned back to his book.
That evening, after the second day of exams and sneaking furtive looks at Elizabeth Atkinson, Milo arrived home. He’d lost his key. He had forgotten to eat lunch, had a maths exam and the headmaster’s interview the following day, and now this. Where the hell was his dad?
He stomped round to the back of the cottage with a ladder, aiming to climb up to the bathroom window, which had a loose latch he thought he might be able to wrench open. As he reached up to the window, he heard a noise in the woods. His foot slipped off the top rung, plunging into only air, his other knee buckled and the ladder seemed to fall away from him. He made a desperate grab at it, grazing his hand against the rough wood, knocked his head on something hard and everything went black.
Milo opened his eyes and was sure he was still dreaming. The girl, Elizabeth, was right there, right above him, almost smiling as she peered down at him. He closed his eyes again. If this was a dream, he didn’t want it to end. But she wasn’t having any of that.
‘Milo? Wake up. Are you OK? Wake up, would you? Say something, or I’ll have to call an ambulance.’
‘Whatsappening is that you’ve fallen off a ladder, you brain donor. You could have broken your neck. What are you doing here anyway – are you trying to do over this house?’
‘Ah, I can help you there, Sleeping Beauty. I found this on the path in the woods.’ She held up the key in front of her, and when he reached out towards her hand, she dropped it into his. He closed his fingers around the warm metal. He didn’t want to move again; he was so comfortable, and it occurred to him that, for the very first time ever, she wasn’t angry with him. That was worth falling off a ladder for.
He watched her pull out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of her red coat. She tilted the pack towards him, but he shook his head.
‘Good boy. They’ll kill you. If you don’t manage it yourself first.’ She put one in her mouth – lucky, lucky cigarette– lit it and stayed next to him on the mossy grass, looking around her as she smoked. Taking a last drag, stubbing it out on the ground, she helped him sit up and peered at him.
‘Are you sure you’re going to be OK? You’re not bleeding, but you’ve got an impressive lump on your head. You should see a doctor.’
He raised his hand to his head and felt the lump, trying not to wince. ‘I’ll be fine. Thanks to you.’
‘Yes, well, it’s quite all right. It’s not like I saved your life or anything. Did you say you live here?’
‘Uh-huh. Would you… would you like to come in? For a cup of tea?’
She paused, looked at the cottage and then at him again. ‘You know what, another time maybe. I should get back to school.’
‘What if I black out again?’
‘Don’t milk it.’
He sort of laughed, but because he was so nervous, it came out more like a cough. ‘Sorry. Thanks. Umm… see you tomorrow?’
‘Yes, no doubt you will.’ She stood up, brushed off her coat, and walked backwards to the cottage gate. ‘If the last few days are anything to go by.’
Milo wondered if he could’ve played that better. She might have been flirting with him, just a bit, but he wasn’t sure. He racked his brains about what every word and look had meant. She’d called him Sleeping Beauty. But also a brain donor. What he could remember most was a blurry feeling of being warm and close to her. He was no good at this. It was making his head ache. Or maybe that was the lump.
Anyway, she’d only be at school for one more day, and after that, if either of them didn’t get a scholarship, they’d never see each other again. He had one day, then.
First up on Friday he had the interview with Mr Toms, the headmaster. Candidates were supposed to talk about their future ambitions: Milo wanted to discuss applying to Bristol University to study veterinary science. But Mr Toms was a big rugby fan, so he rushed through that and all the other questions and they talked about rugby for the rest of the time. Mr Toms told Milo that Mr Shepherd, the coach, would appoint him 1st XV captain for next year, but to keep it quiet until the summer announcement. He praised Milo’s leadership qualities, and said he’d been impressed with how he’d coped with school this year. Actually, when Milo shook hands at the end of the interview, he had the feeling that Mr Toms had done most of the talking. Is that a good sign? Not sure.
As he was leaving, Mr Toms asked him to hand out tickets to the fifth-form party that night. And there he had it – one more chance to speak to Elizabeth alone. He distributed the tickets in the different houses, leaving Norcombe House until last. Rugby practice started in twenty minutes, so he changed into his kit and hoped it would impress her, show her that he could do something other than spy on her and fall off ladders. Clutching the tickets in his hot hand, rehearsing what he would say, he walked up the hill to Norcombe House after lunch, hoping she’d be in Livvy’s room.
She wasn’t, but Livvy was. She was lying on her bed, reading a letter on a large piece of paper, each line of which was written in a different coloured pen. The girls’ bedrooms in the school boarding houses were very similar to the boys’ – big enough for two beds, two desks and a wardrobe to share. Livvy had decorated hers with African printed scarves and photos of herself and her friends on beaches and ski slopes, and a large poster of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in bed. Milo liked Livvy, she was always friendly to him; mind you, she was friendly to everyone. She was that girl – every school has one – who knows everyone, and also what their parents do, especially the famous and the rich ones. Milo couldn’t remember stuff like that and wasn’t interested in it anyway, and despite her friendliness, he wouldn’t have trusted her to keep a secret – had he been interesting enough to have one.
When he walked into her room, she put down the letter and swung her legs over the side of the bed, turning to face him. He handed the tickets to her and sat down on her desk chair. He took a deep breath. She smiled at him, a knowing smile, and raised an eyebrow, waiting. Milo looked around the room and his eyes fastened on the other bed. He looked away again.
‘I just wanted to ask you, you know, do you—?’
‘About Beth Atkinson? What do you want to know? She’s fifteen, lives in Melchester with her aunt, likes films and books, very brainy, a virgin—’
‘Whoa. Stop. No, nothing like that. I just wanted to know… if anyone has asked her to the party yet. Do you know if she’s going with anyone?’
‘Ah, OK, that. I don’t know if she’s decided yet, but Nate asked her, also Sam, and Golo, and Matt—’
‘Big Matt or Little Matt?’
‘Both. But I don’t know who she said yes to yet. Or she might just be going alone, with me, you know.’
He stood up to go, regretting that he’d said anything to Livvy. It’d be round the school before the day was out and probably she and Elizabeth would have a good laugh about him. He muttered something about rugby and turned to the door. But as he opened it, there stood Elizabeth.
‘Hi. How’s your head?’
‘Fine. Thanks. Thanks again.’
‘You don’t have to keep saying thank you.’
‘Oh, right. OK.’
She gave him a questioning look. ‘Did you come to see me?’
‘What? Oh, yes – I mean no. Doesn’t matter. Got to go. Pugby ractice. Rugby. Um. Thanks. Sorry.’
She moved sideways, but stayed in the doorway so that when he stepped past her, no part of him touched her, but every part of him almost did. He couldn’t get out of there quickly enough. Down the steep path, through the trees towards the rugby pitches, and only one thought: Elizabeth. At least now he knew he had zero chance with her. She had the pick of the boys at school – why would she choose him?
Then he heard footsteps behind him. A small hand slapped him on the shoulder and he stopped. Elizabeth was panting, waving her hand while she caught her breath. She rushed out the words.
‘I’ve just heard from Livvy you came to ask me to some party or other and she thought it was a great joke because she told you loads of boys had already asked me. It’s not true. Nobody’s asked me.’ She stopped and the colour rose in her cheeks. Was it from running after him, or from embarrassment? He wondered. And waited.
‘It was a bit harsh of her. I don’t know why she did it, just to tease you I think, because you… I mean… Well.’ She shrugged.
Milo blushed and grinned at her. He didn’t know why he grinned, but perhaps he did stand a chance after all. According to Guy, Milo looked like a village idiot when he smiled; his mouth was too wide and his eyes crinkled up and his dimples took over everything. Guy’s theory was that boys should never smile at girls; they prefer the brooding bastard look anyway. But Milo couldn’t help it – that was the effect she had on him. He looked in her eyes and she was smiling right back at him.
‘So… if nobody else has asked you, would you, umm, like to go with me?’
The smile disappeared.
‘Oh. Um. Well, I didn’t mean that I want to go with you; I only meant to tell you that Livvy was teasing you. I’m not even going to the party, you see. I don’t… it’s not really my thing to go to parties with boys. I think you got the wrong idea.’
OK, so now he was really confused. Livvy’s stupid joke was one thing, but now Elizabeth was saying that she’d rather not go to the party at all than with him. Huh, he thought, she can’t stand me. Or perhaps this was part of the joke. Perhaps she would go back to her room and the two of them would snigger over it all. But that didn’t seem right; they wouldn’t be that cruel. Would they? There was no getting round it: Milo West knew nothing whatsoever about girls. He sat down on a tree stump next to the path and, before he knew what he was doing, he took her hand and pulled her down to sit next to him. Her hand was small and felt cool and smooth next to his.
He took a deep breath and rushed out the words before he could change his mind. ‘I don’t care about the party and whatever Livvy said. I just… ever since I saw you I can’t stop thinking about you. I mean, ever since I saw you on Wednesday morning, not in the pool, you know… sorry. I know I’m not good enough for you, but—’
She wriggled her hand out of his and interrupted, but her voice was kind.
‘Honestly, you don’t even know anything about me and if you did, you wouldn’t be saying all this stuff. It’s you who’s too good for me. Anyway, I’m not interested in boyfriends and that sort of thing. You’ve got to stop all this now, it’s absurd.’
She was so close to him and he could see her eyes, dark and clear. Her body was rigid, her hands clenched in white fists. She edged away from him.
‘OK,’ he answered dully. ‘I understand. It won’t happen again.’
And that was the last time he saw her before everything fell apart.
Book review of Beartown by Fredrik Backman
I love this book in so many ways, it’s hard to know where to start.
Beartown is a story about a small town on its knees and the people who live in it because they choose to or are forced to for various reasons; and what these people are trying to do to save the town they love and/or hate. It’s also a story about sport – in particular ice hockey - but the ice hockey could be replaced by any team sport and the book would still have the same impact. I’m a (field) hockey player and when Fredrick Backman referred to “hockey”, there were plenty of times I just imagined it as my kind of hockey.
It’s obvious that the author is a hockey fan, or player, or has done his research really, really well. He nails the excitement of the games, the punishing training, the sweat, blood and puking and what separates players like Kevin and Amat from the rest. He writes about vision: “what he sees on the ice seems to happen more slowly than what everyone else sees”. He talks about the “moments” that sport gives us – the thrill, the feeling of forgetting everything else, the togetherness of teams, the relentless grind over years when no one else is watching, the exultation of winning and the devastation of losing.
The ice hockey club in Beartown, its players, coaches, managers, sponsors, fans and their families are all connected to each other whether they want to be or not. Who wins in this complicated mess of connections is anybody’s guess – at times, it seems, no one does. The pressure on the young players, who are only children, is immense, but of all the characters, the children are the ones who bear it the best – they do what they have to do to win and contribute to the team they love. It’s the adults who suffer the most – throwing up from nerves before a game, sweating, not sleeping, feeling bitter or nostalgic about their own hockey careers.
On of the many things I loved about Beartown was the multiple POVs, tricky to pull off, but written with such skill by Backman that it didn’t bother me and rather added to the impression that everyone’s lives were intertwined. From the main characters – Kevin, Benji, Amat, David, Sune, Peter, Kira, Maya and Ana – to the characters so minor that they aren’t even named – the Saab driver, the bass player – they are all heard. Children, parents, teachers, coaches, siblings, friends – everyone is important. A novel about children with so many adults in it and vice versa gives the characters an extra dimension.
The author’s voice is strong, too. He asks questions throughout the book (“why does anyone care about hockey?”) and answers them (“because it tells stories”). He writes about loyalty, leadership, love and hate, fighting, words, friendship and secrets. He lets you know who he is and what he thinks (“all adults have days when we feel completely drained” and “there are two things that are particularly good at reminding us how old we are: children and sports”). You’re left in no doubt how he feels about the boorish, selfish sponsors and the men who run the club, who refer to the young players as “products” and “investments” and how Backman feels about money in sport. How he feels about money in general: the town consists of the rich Heights and the poor Hollow and you know where his sympathies lie. He judges the actions of the townspeople, before and after the crime is committed, and yet he’s compassionate too – characters who you think are bad through and through redeem themselves; the ones you think you ought to hate turn out to be heroes; and everyone – men and women – have flaws and can be forgiven. In particular, most of the parents doubt themselves and their imperfections are forgiven because, in the end, they love their families and that’s what’s important.
There are a lot of miserable people in Beartown – failed hockey players, people in pain, people who keep secrets. People who are bad at their jobs or who don’t have jobs at all. And yet the single fact that they know they have failed, or messed up or not done enough, gives us a glimmer of hope that things will improve for them soon.
Amongst the characters in Beartown are many ‘ticked boxes’ but it is never annoying because the well-developed characters are all more than their tropes. The mega-talented jock, the boy who’s gay but not out, the wannabe musician, the girl with body issues, the refugee, the overweight gamer, the mean girls, the children with drunken, abusive or absent parents, the rich kid whose parents work too hard, the over-protective mother, the bullies. The great thing about them is that they’re all humans who change their minds and are scared, loving, angry, unsure, ashamed, kind, desperate and brave and you never quite know what to expect of them.
I also like that, although there is a crime, there is no court case in Beartown. This took me by surprise, but in a good way. There is only 'trial by Beartown' as the forces of opinion gather behind the victim or the perpetrator. The crime itself is not described in detail – but we know it happened and it’s very clear who committed it and who is and isn’t at fault. There is no neat resolution at the end. Nobody gets what they want. It’s not a feel-good novel, and there are loose ends (for the sequel?), so it’s realistic and therefore all the more heart-breaking.
There are threads running through the book which I love and which will stay with me for a long time. The sound of the hockey puck echoing the sound of the shotgun – bang-bang-bang – and the foreshadowing that kept me wondering and turning the pages late into the night, long after I should have fallen asleep.
If you think this is a book about men and boys playing sport, it’s not – it’s about women and girls. If you’re in any doubt about that, picture the future girls’ hockey team and think about the strength and wisdom of the female characters like Ramona, Jeanette, Adri, Kira, Ana, Maya and Fatima. Also, read Ramona’s rant to Sune as well as Ana’s thoughts at the end of chapter 41. The women are the heroes of Beartown. The girls are the future of Beartown.
I can’t wait to read the follow up to Beartown (‘Us Against You’) – so much so that I don’t think I can read any other book until I’ve read it. I don’t think I could concentrate on another story.
For fans of:
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas
Gold by Chris Cleave
Double Fault by Lionel Shriver
You Against Me by Jenny Downham
Asking for It by Louise O’Neill
The Deviants by C.J. Skuse
Stripes of the Sidestep Wolf by Sonya Hartnett
Ho, ho, ho:
No Number Nine was featured in The Hockey Paper as part of its round up of Christmas sports books, specifically books about hockey. There aren't many out there (I know, I've been searching) but in 2018 everyone went hockey mad - there are autobiographies, non-fiction and fiction for children as well as adults here. Christmas for hockey lovers is sorted!
I love lists. They’re awesome. I could write a list of the ways in which lists are great. But I won’t. Instead, over the next few weeks & months I’ll be sharing my views on self-publishing and, be warned: there will be lists.
1: The Decision
So, let’s assume that you’ve written a book, and it’s the best book you could have written. It’s beautiful, it’s perfect; you love it like your own child.
You’ve done everything you need to in order to get it to where it is. You’ve given it to trusted friends to read and critique. You’ve made some changes. You’ve had a professional edit and made some more changes. You’ve left it for a while, done something else to clear your head and come back and made even more changes. You’ve had it proof-read again by a professional.
You’re good to go.
At this stage you might, like me, have carefully chosen a few (possibly ten – that seems like a good, round number to start with) literary agents and submitted to them, having looked at the guidelines on their websites. You might have had a few agents ask for the full manuscript and you might not have. Either way, if you’ve waited for about three months after submission and no agent has called you, begging, desperate, loving your book as much if not more than you do, then you find yourself at a crossroads and you need to make a decision.
You could try submitting to more agents. Go ahead – why not – you never know. It’s a very subjective business and it might be the eleventh, or the twenty-first, or the one-hundred-and-first agent who loves your book. You have nothing to lose but time.
You could abandon this novel, think of it as a practice novel, and start writing a new one. Also OK – think of it as honing your craft. Your first novel will always have a special place in your heart, but it might be your second novel that’s the belter. And you can always come back to it later and make it better.
You could self-publish your novel.
I would recommend this to anyone who:
Ask yourself the question: is self-publishing right for me?
Some useful links:
This is a company that will help you at almost every step of the way, from writing and editing courses to professional edits and proof-reading to an agency database.
I did the ‘Edit Your Novel’ course and it was amazing. I learnt so much and made some friends with who, I’m still in touch all these years later.
How to Write by Harry Bingham
Jericho Writers is owned by Harry Bingham, who is also a successful author. This book was invaluable and gave me loads of ideas about how to take my MS forward after the first few drafts and a professional edit.
Next blog: #2 More Decisions – How?
Why We Took the Car by Wolfgang Herrndorf
A road-trip YA novel with a difference
I read a lot of YA fiction because it's fun and light and easy to read. Occasionally, I come across a YA novel that's so good, I recommend it to everyone, no matter what age or sex they are and no matter what type of books they usually like to read. Tschick / Why We Took the Car is one of those books.
I read it in German first and, because I knew I loved it and my German isn't as good as my English, I bought a translation of it and read it in English, too.
In terms of genre, I don't really know how to describe it. It's about two 14/15 year old boys and is coming-of-age / Bildungsroman. But it's also about a road trip and I think, the way the scenery and the dreamlike sequences are written, it could also be described as literary fiction. But who cares about genres anyway?
Quick summary of plot: Maik and Tschick, two unpopular boys at school, drive in a stolen Lada through Eastern Germany, meeting many strange and kind and interesting characters along the way, getting themselves deeper and deeper into trouble as they go.
All to a soundtrack of Richard Clayderman piano music (because that's the only tape they have) and one-liners and put-downs that make the boys (and Isa, the hilariously foul-mouthed girl they meet at a rubbish dump of all places) so realistic as teenagers and so likeable.
Its always hard to pin down what you love about a book, especially when there are so many things. But I do love the friendships between Tschick, Maik and Isa, and of course how confusing those friendships are because Maik loves Isa and Tschick loves Maik (I think) and they all throw insults at each other which, in my world at least, shows how much they all love each other.
When I read this book (twice) I thought it was unfilmable, partly because so much about Maik that you like - his awkwardness, his lack of confidence, his belief that he is boring to the point of invisibility - is internal; also partly because the book is about the scenery and the landscape of their journey and how do you make that into a good film? But I watched the film in 2018 and it was amazing.
It's quite a unique book but I think that if you liked these books, you would like Tschick too:
Almost English - Charlotte Mendelson
The Perks of Being a Wallflower - Stephen Chbosky
The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence
Let's begin the important business of choosing what we're going to read this summer. Here are my choices (in no particular order):
THE POWER by NAOMI ALDERMAN
Teenage girls who can harm men with an electric shock... the world is turned upside down and inside out when this 'power' spreads to every female on the planet. We follow three women - Roxy, Allie and Margot - and one man - Tunde - as they learn to live in this new reality. The Power asks the question: what would the world look like if women had physical power over men? And the answer is not always good...
For fans of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood; Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel; The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey.
THINGS A BRIGHT GIRL CAN DO by SALLY NICHOLLS
Set in 1914-8, three women - Evelyn, May and Nell are involved with the campaign for women to get the vote. Sacrifice, violence, imprisonment, war and love are the ingredients of this wonderful book.
For fans of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith; I am Malala by Malala Yousafzai; To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.
THE WONDER DOWN UNDER by NINA BROCHMAN AND ELLEN STOKKEN DAHL
Written by two Norwegian medical students, The Wonder Down Under is a non-fiction book about the vagina - I know - right?! It covers everything: which holes are which, icky things like discharge and periods, pregnancy, contraception, sex, orgasms, masturbation, female health. This book is a right hoot: I laughed out loud several times at their no-nonsense, tell-it-like-it-is style. And the detail! Wow. They know they stuff - and now, so do I.
Everyone who has a vagina or who would like, at some stage in their life, to go near a vagina, should read this book. I can truly say that if I had read this book when I was in my teens, it would have changed my life for the better.
I first heard about this book through their Ted Talk.
For fans of A Book for Her by Bridget Christie; Sex and Lovers: A Practical Guide by Anne-Marlene Henning and Tina Bremmer-Olszewski.
#thewonderdownunder #ninabrochman #ellenstokkendahl
FORCE OF NATURE by JANE HARPER
The follow up to Jane Harper's excellent The Dry, which made me feel hot and thirsty and sunburnt all the way through. I like a good murder mystery every now and then - and this one was particularly well written.
For fans of Tana French and Robert Galbraith.
HOW TO BE FAMOUS by CAITLIN MORAN
I haven't even read this book yet but I loved How to Build a Girl (plus everything else that Caitlin Moran has written) and I know I'm going to love this - so it goes on the list.
By the way, a few years ago I lent someone my copy of How to Build a Girl and I never got it back. If I knew who you were, I'd never talk to you again.
NO NUMBER NINE by ME
Sorry, just couldn't resist...
So, if you like any of these books or you want to recommend other similar books, please post a comment below or go to Instagram or Twitter and leave a comment there - the more the merrier!
Q: What's with the initials, FJ?
A: I prefer to be anonymous because I want to keep my writing separate from the rest of my life. And if JK can do it, so can I.
Q: Is that your motto?
A: No, my motto is, "When being chased by a hungry lion, you do not have to be faster than the lion, you just have to be faster than the slowest person in your group."
Q: Nice motto. Remind me never to go on safari with you. Are you a man or a woman?
A: Who cares, these days?
Q: Tell us about your life.
A: That's not a question.
Q: Are you always this annoying?
Q: [sighs] What can you tell us about your life?
A: Not much to tell - I don't lead a very interesting life. I was born, I have parents and siblings, I moved around a lot, I like reading (duh). Are you asleep yet?
Q: [stifling a yawn] I'll ask the questions, thanks. By the way, nice question-dodge.
A: Thank you. Maybe if you asked me about my writing, we could get somewhere...
Q: OK. I give up. Any advice for aspiring authors?
A: Write the kind of book that you'd read yourself.
Q: How did you get started with writing?
A: I re-read 'Far from the Madding Crowd' with my book group (hello book group!) and thought "Wow, Bathsheba Everdene is a kick-arse feminist heroine and I want to write a modern-day story about her." I rattled off 'The Islanders' in a few months and then spent many more months editing it. After that, more and more ideas for stories pinged into my head, mostly on long boring car journeys.
Q: What are you planning to write next?
A: I have an idea for a follow-up to 'No Number Nine' - it's going to be from Nadine's point of view, so might be filthy. It will be set when Pip and Nadine are in their thirties, and there's going to be stuff about pregnancies - I'm provisionally calling it 'Just for Kicks'.
Q: What are your favourite books?
A: What, ever? Have you got all day? I love Caitlin Moran and have read every word she's written. I love Gold by Chris Cleave and I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Life After Life by Kate Atkinson and Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty and everything by Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy and Margaret Atwood.
Q: All right, all right. Is 'The Islanders' autobiographical?
A: A few things are familiar to me. I went to boarding school for a while. I directed a school play, badly. I've been to Cornwall on holiday. But the story is inspired by 'Far from the Madding Crowd' so it's definitely not about me.
Q: How about 'No Number Nine' - is that autobiographical?
A: Not really. I lived in Munich, I was an au pair, I was sacked from being an au pair, I went to the Sydney 2000 Olympics. All the rest is made up.
Q: Do you, like Pip, speak German?
Q: Any chance 'No Number Nine' will be translated into German soon?
A: Ja. Aber nicht von mir.
Q: Um. Right. Did the ending of 'No Number Nine' actually happen, or was it in Pip's imagination?
A: You get to decide that. Also if you read 'Just for Kicks' you'll find out, won't you?
Q: What about hockey? Do you play?
A: I used to and still have a stick, somewhere, that I dust off from time to time. I've played for lots of clubs: Canterbury, Manchester University, Freiburg University, Wimbledon, Battersea Wanderers, Richmond, Rot-Weiss Munich, Grasshoppers Zurich.
Q: Which team will you cheer on in the hockey World Cup 2018?
Q: Aha! So you're English then?
A: No shit, Sherlock.
Q: Do you think anyone's still reading this Q&A?
A: The chances are slim.
Q: What shall we do now?
FJ Campbell was born in the twentieth century in a seaside town and has moved around a lot, in Britain and Europe.