Authors: Conrad Williams
Also available from Conrad Williams and Titan Books
DUST AND DESIRE
HELL IS EMPTY (NOVEMBER 2016)
DEAD LETTERS: AN ANTHOLOGY
Sonata of the Dead
Print edition ISBN: 9781783295654
E-book edition ISBN: 9781783295661
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: July 2016
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Copyright © July, 2016 by Conrad Williams. All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
To the memory of Graham Joyce (1954–2014).
Brilliant writer, cherished friend.
“All I know is what the words know, and dead things, and that makes a handsome little sum, with a beginning and a middle and an end, as in the well-built phrase and the long sonata of the dead.”
Red sky. White thighs. OPen
mouth. You and me both. This night youll be too terrified to scream. But Ill make some noise for you, dont you worry. Wheres all your fury now? Wheres your cocky little grin and your smartarse backchat? No friends to back you up. No daddy dearest to shoo you into the car after youve effed and jeffed and blinded and kicked and spat. Just you and me and some tools. A soundproofed cellar. Dead space.
Clean page. White. Crisp. At this point, there is nothing separating me from the gods of literature. In this moment, I am on an equal footing. Me and Hemingway and Greene and Orwell. Me and King and Brown and Rowling. Empty page. The vacuum. The tease. Endless possibilities. I know the same words that the bestsellers use. The same words as the critically acclaimed. All I need to do is write about eighty thousand of those. Put them in that magic configuration that will tick all the boxes and open the doors to the room filled with milk and honey. It is in me. I can feel it. I almost know its odour, its flavour. The taste of failure is keen, but it hasnt yet dulled my appetite. I am fictions apostate. I guard that edge of hunger jealously. You need the hunger or the words wont come. I was born to this. It is my destiny. I wont be dissuaded. I wont be denied my birthright.
Years of practise have led me to this place. This is the coalface. Writing is mining. It is hard graft. It is in this place that I opened the seam. I work that black gold. I pick at it until the sweat is lashing off me. No windows here. A view is a distraction. A tree will take your mind away from where it needs to travel. The strict pattern in a brick wall will infect the plans youve made. Neutral colours. One wall is plastered with rejection slips. That’s my skin up there. Thickened. Toughened. No noise. I soundproofed this room. Only the clack of the Olympia as I plough through the ream. That’s right. A typewriter. I need that physical connection with the words. I need to feel that Im doing some work. The thought coalesces, the words form; I nail them to the paper. No winking cursor. No cut and paste. No Control-Z. It seems you are trying to write a novel. Would you like some help?
I am beyond help. Maybe not once. There were classes and courses and conventions. Feedback and encouragement. Endless platters of shit sandwiches. This is good, this is great… but this bit here… The arm around the shoulder. You must keep going. Dont ever stop. Dont let the bastards grind you down. Its a subjective industry.
Its not a rejection of you. Its not a rejection of you. Its not a rejection of you.
There are only so many writing exercises you can do. There is only so much shit youre prepared to eat.
Bare room. A single, nude, 100-watt bulb. No chair. A table elevated by breezeblocks. I stand to write. Like Ernest. This is work. This is craft. This is sculpture. It is the hew and hack of an axe. It is the whisper of a scalpel. I am pugilist and pacifist. I am a lover, a clown, a shadow at the door. I am a mummer, a mother, a murderer. Bare-chested. Hot in here. A furnace. A foundry. Ideas white in my mind. Soft, malleable, searing, desperate to find their shape. I am on fire.
The byline. The review. The signing. The guest appearance. The awards. The acclaim. The lucrative contract. I can feel it. I can feel it. And you realise, after a while, that you have to play the game. You realise it isnt just a solid plot or a jazzy name or a pretty face. You need backstory. You need history. You need heat. Get in bed with the market men. Whats the angle? Wheres the hook?
Yeah, well Im working on something that will have the bean-counters drooling. I’ve got something going down that will have every agent in London slapping their cocks on the table. Publish and be damned. Thisll be some page-turner.
Sometimes I hit these keys so hard I leave bloody prints behind.
I come down the wooden steps from the attic slow and heavy. Maximum creep. Hes still face down on a filthy mattress where I dropped him hours before, and there are cockroaches mating in his hair. I sing to him while I drag the blade this way and that across the tiles. I let him hear the heavy gritting steel: the clearing of some monstrous throat. I let him hear my words, my promise, turning wet in the saliva building up around my teeth.
Pulling out of Leighton Buzzard, the Gyuto Monks hitting the vinegar strokes: Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Mama Ah Yuh Pune Jana Putim Kuru Soha, I received a text from Lorraine Tokuzo.
make it crisp, white and expensive. Lxxx
I toyed with the idea of buying her a shirt from Turnbull & Asser, but beating the crap out of my wallet for the sake of a not-very-good gag was hardly worth it. And Tokuzo, when she’s got a jones for a decent glass of white wine, is not a woman to be dicked about with. I messaged her that I was on my way and settled back in my seat. It’s just a forty-five-minute clip down to Euston from this arse of the woods, but I needed a nap. I’d been up to Northampton to visit my younger brother, Adam. He plays bass guitar for a beat combo called Motel. There had been some kind of weekend ‘battle of the bands’ competition and he asked if I wanted to go. I think he felt a little guilty about not coming down to visit when I was in hospital. So I spent seventy-two hours with him and his mates, drinking in various bars while a cacophony of power chords reamed out my earholes, sleeping on badly sprung sofas and eating pizza, curry, burgers and chips for breakfast, lunch and dinner; beer at all times. It was a great laugh. He gave me a lift to the station in their touring van, an old Toyota Space Cruiser with a sound system that was probably worth three times the value of the vehicle. The interior smelled of spilled beer and stale smoke. Adam was wearing shorts and flip-flops and an oversized cream jumper peppered with dope burns.
‘I talked to Mum last week,’ he said. ‘Told her you were coming up.’
‘Oh right,’ I said. ‘What’d she say?’
‘She said “Joel who?”’
‘She said she never hears from you. No visits. No phone calls. No postcards. No homing pigeon. No smoke signals.’
‘She doesn’t know that. She misses Sarah too, you know. She was devastated after what happened.’
‘I didn’t want to burden her.’
‘She felt… I don’t know… underused.’
We parted on good terms and promised to spend more time with each other in future. He didn’t ask me about my scar and I didn’t tell him. Quite possibly I didn’t need to; the story had been all over the news.
I always thought a scar – you know, one of the visible ones – would work for me in my job, give me a head start, an edge over the monsters I would invariably come across. They might think twice, or at least for long enough that I might launch their nads into the troposphere before they worked out that I was about as substantial as a piece of granny piss. In the books, James Bond had one (a scar, not a piece of piss) and he divided his time between saving the world and reclining on mattresses that teemed with women. My Eagle Eyes Action Man had one (a scar, not a mattress teeming with women) and he was the epitome of cool when I was eight years old. What you have to remember though, is that for every scar there is a story. Which means there must also be an author too.
Four months previously I was slashed in the face by a seventeen-year-old meathead called Steven Blythe. He had a problem with me (you don’t say!) that went back to a time when his mother and I had been an item. It ended and he didn’t like that. He came after me, not because I treated her badly (I didn’t; many did) but because I broke it off (I wasn’t up to a proper, grown-up relationship… I was actually doing her a favour), but she thought I was The One. She committed suicide and he blamed me for it. Anyway, he tried to kill me and instead ended up ploughing through the roof of an intercity train at St Pancras. He got to stay young and beautiful. I ended up looking like Frankenstein’s practice corpse.
And now people tend to steer clear of me in public. And when I say ‘people’, we both know I really mean ‘women’. I was married, once, but she’s gone, thanks to another monster. My daughter left home on the heels of that and I haven’t seen her in the flesh for five years. She’s eighteen now. I bounce around from bar to bed to breakfasts in rancid cafés that smell of diesel and blood, trying to find her. But I don’t try too hard because I’m scared that when I do find her it won’t be the tearful, happy reunion I’ve rehearsed time and again. I worry she might not recognise me. I worry she might hate me. I’m always kind of looking for her, though. Just like I’m always kind of cruising for work. Work isn’t too bad at the moment. There are a lot of monsters in London.