Authors: Clare Chambers
When aspiring novelist Christopher Flinders drops out of university to write his literary masterpiece, his family is sceptical.
However, when he is taken up by London editor Owen Goddard and his charming wife Diana, it seems success is just around the corner. Christopher is captivated by his generous and cultured mentors ' but on the brink of realising his dream, he makes a desperate misjudgement which results in disaster for all involved. Shattered, he withdraws from London.
Twenty years on, Christopher has buried himself in rural Yorkshire, with a career and a private life marked by mediocrity. But then a young academic researching Owen Goddard seeks him out, and Christopher is forced to exhume his past, setting him on a path to a life-changing discovery.
Clare Chambers was born in Croydon in 1966 and read English at Oxford. She wrote her first novel,
, during a year in New Zealand, after which she worked as an editor for a London publisher. She is also the author of
In A Good Light, Back Trouble, A Dry Spell
Learning to Swim
, which won the 1999 Parker Romantic Novel of the Year award. She lives in Kent with her husband and three children.
Learning to Swim
A Dry Spell
In A Good Light
MY PARENTS' PHILOSOPHY
was always âaim low, keep your head down, don't make a fuss'. The worst of crimes, in their view, was âgetting above yourself'.
When my mother died, suddenly, three years ago, at the age of seventy, my father discovered amongst her belongings notebooks, ring binders, jotters and boxes of loose papers full of her poetry. Of course he knew that she wrote poems for pleasure: she would occasionally show him ones she was particularly proud of. But even he was astonished at the sheer quantity she had produced. There must have been thousands, going back decades, written in her distinctive looping script. To my father, for whom her death was a form of amputation from which he never recovered, this cache was precious beyond description. He
was at once overjoyed and comforted to be able to read her thoughts and insights, but at the same time mortified that her talent (as he saw it) had gone uncelebrated. He wasn't a literary man, but he spent the rest of the time that remained to him (less than two years, as it turned out) reading, sorting, dating and attempting to catalogue this vast body of material.
I remember the first time I read one of my mother's poems. It was the Christmas Eve after her death and I had driven down from Yorkshire to London, through hail and flood, to be with Dad.
Almost before I had reached the porch and shuffled my overcoat off, he pressed a leather-bound book into my hands. It was a desk diary for 1992. âRead that, son,' he urged me. âJust choose any page.'
I did as he directed. The book fell open at a poem called âPrimulas'. Tears sprang to my eyes as I read. It was awful, just as I'd feared. I turned over to the next entry, âThrush in Winter', conscious of Dad's gaze, and his ravenous need for my approval. This one was no better. And so on, through âSunset over Ely Cathedral' and âFrom a Train Window' to âAdvection Fog'. I couldn't read any more. I knew I wasn't going to find any flashes of brilliance: these were simple observational poems, without the benefit of any original observations or insights and occasionally disfigured by clunking imagery and leaden turns of phrase. Nothing unusual, in short. Absolutely standard homespun verse of the sort that gives great comfort and solace to its practitioners rather than its readers. Not, by any stretch, Poetry.
I closed the book gently and handed it back with a watery smile, as though moved beyond words. This was not sheer fakery: the sight of Mum's handwriting, so vividly hers, had brought a lump to my throat. All the same, I couldn't tell Dad what he wanted to hear: that these were works of great merit, richly deserving of a wider audience. Much as I loved my mother and honoured her memory, I couldn't do it. At the same time, I couldn't demolish Dad's faith in her gift â his chief comfort in his bereavement â with the unsparing language of literary criticism.
âWhat do you think?' he probed. âThey're special, aren't they?'
âOf course they are â to us,' I said, carefully. âAnything Mum wrote would be special. She was a very special person.' I had managed to advance as far as the sitting room, where my brother, Gerald, was already installed, watching TV with the sound down, the better to eavesdrop.
âYou're right,' said Dad. âShe just had this way with words. That one about the railway line: you feel as though you're there.'
âShe'd be very glad to think you appreciate them,' I said. âA lot of husbands wouldn't bother.'
âBut I want other people to be able to enjoy them,' he protested. âI send them off and back they come again.
Sorry we can't publish them blah blah
. And yet you go into any bookshop and it's full of a load of old rubbish by people off the telly. It's scandalous.'
I conceded that there was an awful lot of inferior material published and that the industry as a whole was best avoided. Mum was, I decided, a better judge of her own work than Dad: she had kept it in the back of the wardrobe.
âWouldn't it be funny if it turned out to be Mum who was the literary genius in the family after all?' said Gerald, without taking his eyes off the telly.
âHilarious,' I replied. âHave you read any of it then, Gerald?'
âI don't understand poetry,' he said bluntly. âBut then I didn't go to grammar school.'
It was going to be one of those evenings.
When Dad died, two years after Mum (a mild stroke, followed months later by the clincher), he left the house in Streatham, where we grew up, jointly to me and Gerald, an arrangement complicated by the fact that Gerald had moved into the spare room during one of his many bouts of homelessness and was in no great hurry to move out. It had always been understood, when Dad was still well enough for such things to be mentioned, that in the (unlikely, far distant) event of his death, the house would be sold and Gerald would, with his half of the proceeds, be able to buy a place of his own and put his troubles behind him.
A year on, he was still there and the house had not even been put on the market. Under normal circumstances I wouldn't have been in any rush to see it sold,
but I had just been made redundant, and money was sooner or later going to become an issue.
Gerald, however, is not a man who is easily hurried. When I'd gone down to London three months after Dad's funeral for the interment of the ashes, I'd called in at the house and been horrified to discover it in a state of Marie-Celestial abandonment. Dad's splayed toothbrush, whiskery shaving bar and razor were still on the edge of the washbasin in the bathroom, his flannel was bent crisply over the side of the bath and various items of off-white underwear were baked dry on the radiators. Mouldering in the fridge were the remains of Dad's last meal: half a squashed liver sausage, like an amputated penis, a jar containing a lone pickled onion, and an open tin of furry prunes. (Gerald's provisions were on a separate shelf, marked GERALD.)
After the service, I came back and bagged up these horrors and took them to the tip, along with the dregs of Dad's modest wardrobe. The decent stuff I carted round to Oxfam in a suitcase. The whole job took no more than two hours, during which time Gerald dithered over whether or not to throw out a packet of blurry photographs of the Gower peninsula, taken through a coach window. I left him still agonising over this task, but having extracted an assurance that he would put the house up for sale and start looking for a place of his own. He had been most apologetic about his inaction, when confronted with the evidence of it, and yet every time I rang for a progress report I would be met with nothing but evasiveness and
excuses. âI've had an ear infection.' âThere's not much on the market.' âI've been to Scotland.'
The only things I salvaged from the house for myself were a box of photos and Mum's poems, because although I didn't intend to read them, I couldn't bring myself to destroy them either. There's something sacred about handwriting. It must be universal, this urge to put things down on paper, to leave some account of ourselves that will stand as a memorial. I suppose we all feel we've got a story worth telling, if only the world would sit up and pay attention.
MINE BEGAN WITH
a letter from Gerald. always Gerald.
It was waiting for me on the mat when I got home from work on my last day with the Inland Revenue. Home is a small, unrenovated cottage on a sheep farm on the edge of the Yorkshire moors. When I first came up north in the eighties in my flight from London and its disappointments and disasters, I lived in a series of flats and finally a house in York. Initially that seemed rural enough, but at weekends and every available opportunity I'd head for the moors as if to put as much distance as possible between me and âcivilisation'. I must have walked every footpath in North Yorkshire. I made it my business to learn everything I could about the countryside I lived in, so that I could identify every tree, wild flower and bird. I even came to distinguish the many different breeds of
sheep â creatures which to me as a city-dweller had once looked identical. After some years my York address, though convenient for work, began to feel oppressively urban, and I started looking around for something within the national park itself. One of my colleagues at the time had a farmer friend near Kirkby who wanted a reliable tenant for one of his cottages.
I drove out to have a look at it on a summer evening after work. The moon and sun were both out, facing each other across an expanse of milky blue â
bestriding the star-pricked velvet,
as Mum might have put it. There were Swaledales cropping the tussocky grass at the side of the road. At my approach they sprang to and fro with tremendous panic and energy, but no sense of purpose or direction, rather like Gerald on a squash court. The road wound down the hill to a ford, the crossing point for a slack ribbon of barely moving water, then back uphill and eventually crumbled into a stony track terminating at a rusty gate.
, announced a wooden sign gouged by an amateur hand. A dirty white horse stood squarely behind the gate, gazing at me through a veil of midges.
I abandoned the car and followed the footpath which, according to my OS map, led right through the farm. There was a strong smell of wild garlic on the breeze, and the only sound was the reproachful bleating of sheep. As I climbed the stile at the corner of the field, I could see the farm â and the cottage â below, its grey stone walls turned to gold by the late evening sunshine, and, beyond, the moorland stretching away, not bleakly, but enticingly.