The curse of Not Your Heart Away has claimed another victim. So far I’ve had three ‘but that was my life’ comments, one utterly heart-broken female version of Ben mourning a 30-year spiritual tryst, two people in tears, one who won’t talk to me at all, four ‘I know who this is’ comments and one some of the above so won’t review it publicly.
I wrote the book to begin with as something of an orgy of nostalgia. I’d gone down to Dorset to see my oldest friend and we sat up until silly o’clock drinking and talking until eventually, as these things do, the talk got around to whatever happened to whoever.
We ran through the catalogue of shipping container entrepreneurs, fatal motorcycle and combine harvester crash victims (we’re both from the West Country and it is not funny), eye-wateringly successful lawyers, the happy, the sad and the dead. On the way home, just like Ben I stopped the car and got out to have a look at a huge house where someone I used to know lived. When I got back all the stories from those times poured out. I’d tried to write something for decades but it just didn’t come out right. Not this time. This time it was like a dam breaking.
But I do need to clarify some things, I think. Ben and Poppy and Liz and Claire are all fictional characters. They were based on real people. The way Liz speaks is exactly the way my friend in Dorset speaks, but Liz is a made-up character. I’ve never pressed knees with my friend on a sofa in Finsbury Park and I doubt she’d want to, apart from anything else.
Poppy was based on a happy, lovely, artistic girl I knew when I was 18 and 19, who was hugely, madly, deeply into Art and Drama and Life. Just thinking about all of her hope still makes me smile. We went to the cinema together but that was as close to real life as Poppy got. The rest of her was totally made-up. She smiled a lot as I remember and although when Poppy spoke I remembered someone else’s voice I thought of that smile and Poppy’s words came out slightly differently.
Claire, ah. Well, Claire. There was this girl I couldn’t talk to. We actually did go to the theatre once, and a picnic, but she had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend and there were exams and and and. Never happened. But all I had to do to write Claire was think of the memory of a voice and the character was there, complete, right down to the skin-tight Levi’s.
Am I Ben? No. I heard Ben’s voice when I was writing him. Like any first-person narrator he was a version of me, but a fictional version. I was just as stumbling and idiotic and unable to listen to what people told me. I thought I was just as poetic as Ben and probably more so.
Just for the record, to clarify, all of the things that happened in the book happened to someone, at some time. They aren’t very extraordinary things, after all. But all of those things did not happen to the four people those characters were based on, or within that time-span. Some of the things in the book happened to totally different people. Some happened years later. Some of the incidents in the story I most enjoyed writing never happened at all.
So apologies, everyone who’s said ‘I know who this is about.’ You don’t. It’s about a ghost, many ghosts in fact. The ghosts of youth and hope, the ghost of tomorrow, a ghost that like Joseph of Aramathea’s staff in Ben’s hands, never quite flourished and grew. Because it couldn’t. Because as Ben said, they’re denied the wholeness of the living. Because we all grow up. The lucky ones, anyway. And maybe Ben was right after all. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true, so long as you believe it is.