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THE LESSONS

The True Story of a Parasitic Novel

Madeleine Watson

To my other I


This Edition published 1 January 2019

All rights reserved. The Right of Madeleine Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 Section 77 and 78.


Introduction

Part 1: Prelude to The Lessons

Part 2: The Beginning

THE LESSONS

Map of Hitchfield Districts and Burntwood

Map of Hitchfield Central

Part 3: Secrets of this Novel

Part 4: Forces within this Novel

Forces and Domains

Part 5: The Other I

Part 6: Secret Scenes

Part 7: The Truth behind the Prologue

Part 8: How I Lost the Author-Hat

Part 9: Dolls, Degree Show and Other Outpourings

Part 10: Resolution

Afterword

The Secret Codes

Introduction


My parasitic novel begun on 23 April 1985


The following story is true.

In order to retain anonymity, I have changed names and locations but the events described are entirely accurate.


The Parasitic Strand

This book is about my novel, The Lessons.

Strictly speaking, it is not a novel at all, but something far more sinister.

The dictionary lacks a word for what The Lessons actually is. But for want of a better word, I shall describe The Lessons as a ‘novel’ for now.

At the age of nineteen, I made the momentous decision to begin this novel – on 23 April 1985, to be precise. I know this because I kept a detailed diary between 1977 and 1988. Excerpts from my diaries are included within this account.

My decision to pen my fantasy world into a novel clashed with a terrible illness that cut me down for a week. Chronic throat and migraine sent me to bed. I thought nothing of it, determined I was going to begin this novel as soon as I felt better.

Little did I realise how this novel would affect my life.

Feverishly, I sketched characters, places and maps, imagining scenes at night. In response, my secret world burned brightly. I kept my novel from family and friends, paranoid about my drafts getting lost. I read books on how to write novels, sitting in my flat for hours on end, eking out a few sentences. During feverish bouts of which I will call ‘novelitis’, I would lose weight and become ill. During my marriage, I had the peculiar notion I was being unfaithful to my husband. My secret fantasy world felt more real to me than my marriage itself.

During my writing, I connected with this ‘strand’. I let it guide and fuel my writing. At times, I would lose it and the fuel would peter out, becoming tame and safe. I wanted to reconnect with this strand because of a growing addiction. This strand feels deep, powerful, compulsive, exhilarating, shameful, deathly, depressing, creepy, shocking and devastating.

Little did I realize the source of this strand.


My diaries 1977-1988


Kiddie Mysteries

Between the ages of nine and sixteen, I had written a dozen or so children’s mysteries. These mysteries possessed haunting titles like Windswept High, Hollow Hill and The Secret of Melhound Creek. I delegated these efforts to amateur-land and stuffed them into the bottom drawer where they were almost disposed of. I believed I had come of age to be a ‘serious author’.


My children’s stories written between 1977 and 1982


Due to the magnitude of what has happened to me, the lead-up to the writing of The Lessons is vital as the events are truly strange.

Part 1 describes the prelude.

Part 1: Prelude to The Lessons


The Story of Big Untitled

My final children’s mystery was written when I was sixteen. I hadn’t given it a title, so I have called it ‘Big Untitled’ for this account.

The following is taken from my 1981 diary.

On 30 Aug 1981, a wheelchair-bound girl called Donna Jenkins who lived round the corner from us came to visit. She was fraught because she thinks she’s pregnant. (She was at this time seventeen). My twin, Eve, Donna and I sit in the garden by the swing and it is sunny. In such an idyllic setting, her next words were incongruous. Donna says she was raped by her friend’s uncle and fears her future would be ruined, (I had written in my diary).

I am struck dumb at the utterance of that awful word. The encroachment of such stuff upon my childhood home unnerved me. I was incredulous but keep my thoughts to myself. I live with five siblings and my parents in an idyllic cottage. We go to church most Sundays and I am a Sunday school teacher. I engage in kiddie pastimes and hobbies like babysitting, bike riding, story-writing, toy-making and I adore Nan who came to stay that day. I believed my childhood to be embarrassingly innocent and cosseted.

According to my diary, after Donna’s disclosure, I go upstairs and start a story in bed. Eve and Donna continue to chat in the playhouse.

For the next few days, I am working hard on my story.

On 6 Sept, I am Sunday school teaching and feel unwell. When I come home, I work hard on my story.

On 7 Sept, my cousin Dan comes. During his visit, I am upstairs working on my story and don’t come down until he is gone. Donna comes later that day. My diary doesn’t mention her rape or whether she is pregnant. I had obviously disregarded her claim and forgot all about it.

On 9 Sept, Dad wants to read my story, but I tell him ‘not till it’s finished.’ The following day, a black mood descends upon me and I quit Big Untitled for two weeks.

On 19 Sept, I have a photo taken for my art diploma course. My mug-shot appears blotchy and I dislike it. On the same day, I’m painting a tiger in the bushes for an art project. Big cats and jungle scenes had been my preoccupation for several years now and would continue to do so for years to come. The next day, I am Sunday school teaching again and I show the children round an exhibition of historic village photos. For some reason, I really dread Sunday school but Mum pressures me into going. In truth, I am ashamed of my jangling nerves. What is there to feel anxious about? I’m just teaching a few kids about the Creation and Noah’s Ark! When I return home, I am feverishly writing again.

8 Nov is Remembrance Sunday and I finally quit Sunday school, much to Mum’s disgruntlement. My nerves had finally got the better of me.

Since beginning Art College, I had two boyfriends but both affairs are fleeting due to mishaps and my crippling shyness. I suffered a terrible crush on another boy whom I barely spoke to. After a disastrous date where I lose my tickets and feel unwell, I am working on my story after a six week break. I skive off college with depression. Later, I’m singing carols round the tree with my baby sister.

It seemed part of me was averse to becoming a woman.

My story-writing episode ends on 30 Dec 1981 with the following entry: Couldn’t sleep last night and woke early so got up. Wrote lots of story in best. Mum sat by the fire and she read some of it and corrected the spelling. I’m on page 58 now! Had a giddy spell at late evening. Felt a bit sick and couldn’t sleep but feel ok afterwards.

On 31 Dec, I got up and felt awful. Things were on my mind. I tried to write story but didn’t get to it. We toasted the New Year in.

Not only did this story have no title, I remember only that it featured a derelict house. It is missing and I continue to grieve for its loss.

Big Untitled was my final children’s mystery story.


The End of my Kiddie Mysteries

I have forgotten about Big Untitled and four months have gone by.

It is 23 April 1982 and I make my first diary entry of telling my twin Eve a ‘silly story.’

This silly story is nothing like the kiddie mysteries I had been writing in my early teens. These were adult romances with a dark subtext. I believed adolescence had spurred this evolution. I was reading a few Mills and Boons books at the time, which I thought were cheesy but entertaining. I continue to tell Eve ‘crappy romances’ throughout that summer.

My diary first mentions drawing a man’s face on 12 June that same year. He was a central character to my stories. I called him John and he had broad features, shaggy dark hair and glazed eyes. His creepiness was sort of funny. My twin and I ridiculed creepy John to death. I would hide his face under her pillow or prank her by sticking it on her window. One day, the wind blew it away and the drawing ended up on next door’s lawn. I was mortified. Before long, a friend and I rang Eve from a phone box and did silly voices down the line pretending to be creepy John. By 1983, I had created another version of John, which I called Bernard. Bernard was more maverick than John with a toady grin. On 19 Sept, I drew a body to go with the Bernard head and hung it in Eve’s wardrobe. She got freaked when she saw the ‘man’ hanging behind her door. Later, Dad had stuck the head on a pole and was tapping our window with it as a joke.

On 23 Sept I told a student about my Bernard drawing. Later that day, I applied detail to Bernard. The next day (24 Sept) I got caught out in town with a gripping period pain which gave me a temperature and shaking muscles. It was one of worst I’ve ever had, I had written. I had been suffering these crippling period pains for some years now but thought nothing of them, believing I was simply an unfortunate slice of the female population.

Meanwhile, numerous plotlines assaulted me at night. They started to take over my mind and I would get depressed. On 5 Oct 1982, I wrote, I hate writing in this diary but I know I won’t give up. On Jan 1983, I was drawing another life-sized body; not Bernard’s but my own for art homework. I had stuck two pieces of A1 sheets together so the seam would have slashed through my midriff. On 14 Feb when I was due to finish this drawing, I retreated to the college library gripped by one of my vicious period pains.

I would not notice the recurrence of my period pains with drawing life-sized bodies.

The telling of my ‘crappy stories’ takes a new turn when on 6 April 1983 I hear about a derelict house at the bottom of our lane. I had seen a documentary that day called Simon’s War, a QED programme describing Simon Weston’s facial burns. I explore the place with my youngest sister but I wouldn’t return until 30 May 1986 whilst working on my second draft of The Lessons.

My John-drawings, facial disfigurements, period pains, the derelict house and Donna’s disclosure would all converge to The Lessons. I have not seen Donna in months and I had entirely forgotten about her rape story.


A Normal Life

On the face of things, my life was nothing surprising. I am in my second year of my art diploma course which starts badly due to the usual nerves. We were supposed to visit a local zoo to do preliminary drawings and I kept skiving. My parents’ difficult marriage didn’t help. Mum suffered mood swings and Dad’s mental illness brought violent outbursts. He had been out of work since I was four and had moved into the spare room to the north of our cottage. He was forever sculpting balsawood for installations and holding exhibitions in local galleries. I revered Mum who appeared to keep things together in the face of adversity. She was fiercely protective, to the point of being somewhat controlling. But I could hardly blame her, as she had Dad’s temperament to worry about. The cottage was shabby and cold in the winter and conditions cramped.

I explained my disturbed thoughts to my bumpy childhood and the belief I took after Dad. I feared I would become mentally ill like him. For this reason, I would not start a family until my mid-thirties. For now, I accepted my life as it was without question. Family ructions had become old hat and I had come to terms with my ‘plate’. Everyone has difficulties, don’t they?


Mr Krakatoa

On 10 May 1983, I became aware of a student called Mark who fancied me. He was a bit of a grunge, being tall with dark shaggy hair and broad features. I had never associated him with my John-drawings despite both bearing basic similarities. But Eve started to tease me about Mark and draws him as well. This spurs baffling trapped feelings inside of me and I tell her to stop.

Being a hobby-addict, I prove to be a highly productive art student, spewing out mountains of creations despite skiving. My bedroom was not only littered with unfinished kiddie stories and jungle paintings, but puzzles, poems, felt-tip drawings, made-up quizzes, and an astronomy project. I was obsessed with nature’s fury such as earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes.

It was as though I was feverishly distracting myself.


Sample pages from my colossal weather project (Feb 1982 – June 1983)


One of my biggest ventures was a weather project which I had begun on 28 Feb 1982 (superseding an earlier weather project). I would skive in the college library and cut out pictures of clouds and photocopy images of tornadoes and hurricanes. Every morning, I would tap on my barometer, take readings from a psychrometer (a wet and dry bulb that measures humidity) and write a description of the clouds. By the time I had met Mark, I had written about air masses, cloud families, climates of the world, thunderstorms, lightning and more. I savoured books bearing titles like Earth Shock, Element’s Rage and Clouds of the World. I dreamed of becoming a storm chaser.

On 13 May 1983, Mark utters his first word to me: ‘hello.’ I conjure a reply, shrinking inside but putting on my usual front. People think I’m a bit of a laugh but part of me just wants to merge into the background and hide.


Pages from my chapters on hurricanes and tornadoes


I had been working on a scorched theme for preliminary artwork. On 11 May, boils erupt on my face. Steam treatments never helped. A headache develops and my brain fogs over whilst I was recording the top 30 charts. On 14 May, I randomly start drawing toys that I had made for my baby sister three years earlier. I recall hiding them under Dad’s bed up to Christmas 1980.

When Mark spoke to me, I must have looked a mess, as I had developed a nasty cold and upset stomach too. But on 15 May, something weird happens to my weather project. I decide in include a chapter on Krakatoa – a volcanic island in the Sunda Strait. I recall being annoyed at myself. Why would I insert a chapter on volcanoes within a book about the weather?

I continue to write about Krakatoa into 2 June 1983 when I would follow this with another volcano, Santorini and finally Mount St Helen’s.


My chapter inclusion on volcanoes including Krakatoa (May 1983)


I did not realise at the time, but Mark had triggered this veer in my weather project and my selection of the scorched theme for my artwork. My subconscious had seen something I would fail to see for 33 years.

My weather project meets its end on 10 June 1983 after I had reverted back to hurricanes. I write in my diary: I woke up with terrible vertigo. Don’t know what it is. I’ve had it all my life, but it’s been extra bad lately. Even when I sit up slowly, it comes on strong. It lingers for about 10 minutes before it goes away. Had day off from college. Tried to do a bit on hurricanes (the eye) but my heart’s not in it.

Except for a few revisits in August and September, my weather project is done with. It is 200 pages long and crammed with images. I have my first date with Mark ‘Krakatoa’ on 4 July 1983. He writes silly love letters and my unexplained trapped feelings return. At first, I wanted to run away from Mr. Krakatoa, but he would become my husband in October 1987.


My Degree Years

In September 1983, I begin my Fine Art degree course in the city and I don’t see Mark for months at a time. The following three years would be the toughest of my life so far, hampered with terrible homesickness and missing my twin. I was the youngest of my year.

My opening term features a mini-foundation course focussed on printmaking and sculpture, which I was never interested in. I created a model of an eyeball exhibiting cogs at the back in order to express the fusing of the industrial with the natural. The eyeball was gross, a big blue staring thing with veins and wires. During its construction, I was struck with a mysterious sick pain that cut me down for a week. I couldn’t attribute it to my sterile pre-packed pasta of my final meal and I wasn’t actually sick, just nauseous with terrible neck ache. I soldiered on with my eyeball to completion. When I returned home half-a-stone lighter, Mum thought I had been dabbling in drugs.


The Black Panther

When I finally begin painting in the New Year of 1984, I encounter a brick wall. My opening painting is my usual jungle scene featuring big cats that I grow to dislike. On 18 Jan, I am struggling with the Black Panther’s face. Students remark on its ferocity and haunting eyes. On 19 Jan, I move onto the owl and foliage as the Black Panther glowers at me. Blotches erupt on my face again. By the 24 Jan, I write, I look like someone had stamped on my face. Skin treatments never helped as the lumps weren’t acne or blackheads, but swellings yielding nothing but clear fluid when squeezed.

Two years previously (17 Jan 1982), I had painted a large tiger’s head overlooking a pond with an owl and lots of foliage. I have no recollection of this painting but it seems to bear a startling resemblance to this one. What is this preoccupation with jungle scenes? During the painting, I report of stomach upsets, depression and a burning fantasy world that started to take over.

On 7 Feb 1984, I write, the only thing I look forward to is going to bed and thinking up stories that I would like to happen but know they won’t come true. Don’t get to sleep till early morning hours. It’s a blunt hit when the alarm brings me back to reality. On 10 and 11 Feb 1984, I have two nightmares featuring plagues and brutalised bodies. Such dreams were nothing new to me, but these distressed me greatly.

On 15 Feb, I graft the head of a leopard onto the jaguar. At the time, I’m reading Ira Levin’s trilogy: Rosemary’s Baby, Stepford Wives and A Kiss before Dying. I’m skiving in the library again.

In the meantime, my fantasy world is burning a hole in my head.


My painting of the Black Panther and Jaguar (oils 3.5x5ft Jan 1984)


During my twin’s brief visits, we buy cheap sketchbooks and cram them with drawings of John and his split-offs. Bernard now has company in Marty, Leonard, Dominic, Luke, Nurse Nadia and sinister Father Jonah. On 3 June 1984, I draw a particularly ominous character called Dean in my ‘black sketchbook’ that I reserved for these characters and I conjured tales of his relentless pursuit and roving eyes. We ridicule his stupid glower like always but Eve and I retire to bed spooked. I dispose of the portrait and never drew Dean again.

But shadows of Dean was nothing new, for on 29 Oct 1983, I got hold of Eve’s sketchbook and I tipexed the eyes of one of her Bernard drawings to make him appear ardent. It went wrong and he appeared demented instead. When Eve saw it, we were in stitches over this drawing. I continued tipexing and inking over his eyes until he mutated into an alien. I reasoned my compulsions were the result of my upbringing, Dad’s psychosis and the weird seventies’ culture. Heathcliff-like men of Poldark or Armchair Thriller must be the source of these tall, dark, tortured men that I imagined. No one I knew resembled them, so they must be fictional. I have always favoured precarious characters to safe anyway.

On 10 Nov 1983, I had a distressing dream. A big man was at my door with an ill atmosphere, nightmarish and murderous. Instead of having eyes, he had white specks that appeared to be made of cloth. He was going to get me. I awoke frightened and opened my door to let the light in.

I had just completed my gross eye sculpture and hadn’t made the connection between the white cloth, the eyeball and Bernard’s tipexed eyes.


The Face Montages

On 16 Dec 1983, I am painting my first of three ‘faces montages’ in Dad’s bedroom, which I seldom entered. This painting featured Bernard, Luke, Leonard and others. My diary reports a bad dream during the planning stage. On 14 Jan 1984 shortly after completion, I dreamt of a cat being raped. On 9 April, I am conceiving my second faces montage, this time using my own face as reference. My diary says, Got big mirror out and drew in my black sketchbook. My face came up in blotches for no reason. Put cream and cleanser on which made it worse but went down significantly after half-hour. Can’t sleep.

The following day, Put radio on and drew a bit. That’s when my face became a Medusa. Again, the swellings yielded no puss. This seems a repeat of what happened when painting the scorched theme and the Black Panther.

On 16 May, I begin painting my second faces montage featuring a sneering Luke. Also included is a man lighting the cigarette of another man, an old woman and two figures in conversation. Going to add others, I wrote. During the painting, I report of a painful, pulsating lump coming up on my left hand. A headache develops in the evening and I work hard on the painting the next day. I spend the following weekend alone in my university digs working tirelessly on this second faces montage. That night, I thought I heard someone try my bedroom door. When I looked, no one was there.

Eve visits that weekend and I surprise her with my almost-complete second faces montage. I continue the painting on the weekend of 11 June, using two mirrors to attain unfamiliar angles of my face. On 21 June I write, I was terrible last night when I just cried. The Luke figure smirks then smiles at you. It unnerves me. Since I’ve painted its eyes in, I’ve dropped my paints and spilled the water.

However, on 22 June, I am thoroughly dissatisfied with Luke and cry on the phone to Eve. In the end, I scrub the paint off and start again. I work diligently over the weekend and I report that the 22-26 June 1984 were the longest days of my life.

27 June bears an odd diary entry describing one of my unsettling dreams: The cottage is sold against my will and my family don’t belong to me anymore. I misinterpret this dream as homesickness.

6 July 1984 is the day I return home after completing my first year at City University which has been mired with depression, melancholy, health niggles and a burning fantasy world that won’t go away. I reasoned my experiences were nothing unusual being a young student miles from home and missing her twin. Art attracts students who are somewhat emotionally lopsided, doesn’t it?

On 8 July, I start my third and final faces montage featuring a poker table. Being home, I start seeing Mark Krakatoa again. I stop at his house on the 9 July with sporadic visits over the summer.

On 12 July, I am feverishly painting my poker table scene using my reflection as reference again. On 20 July, I add an extra face which might have been a female. I was reading Colleen McCullough’s The Thornbirds at the time. The scene where Mary Carson is found dead in her bed deeply distressed me.

On 24 July I complete my poker table.

Sadly, all three faces montages have gone missing after they were misplaced at the end of my second year at uni. However, I had taken photos of the poker table painting which is shown here. I was 19 when I painted it. On 25 Sept, I planned a fourth faces montage but instead veered onto idyllic garden scenes of our cottage, an odd turn in subject matter. I was reading George Orwell’s 1984 at the time.


The Poker Table (oils 2ftx18in July 1984)


Big Brother

I have now started my second year at uni and on 29 September 1984, I write my first short story since my Big Untitled of 1981.

I had finished reading Orwell’s 1984 on 26 Sept and wrote, it’s really affected me. The saddest story I’ve ever read. Wanted to cry all afternoon but couldn’t. I then finished writing a ‘silly story’ and posted it in Eve’s letter.

On 3 Oct, I write another ‘horrible romance’ in Eve’s letter, which becomes serialised throughout the autumn. None of these stories have survived due to my opinion of them: they possessed themes of tormented men, derelict houses, pursuit, kidnap and other trapped situations. It seemed my faces montages have been delegated to writing about the subjects.

On 8 Nov, I have a distressing drowning dream after writing into the late hours. My symptoms seemed to indicate the usual homesickness and a troubled childhood. I couldn’t explain them to anything else and so I ignored them.

By 12 Nov, my vivid fantasy world is consuming the life out of me leaving me feeling empty. I have now moved from my idyllic garden paintings onto still lives featuring toys (shown in part 9 of this book). This abrupt change in subject matter was as mystifying as my inclusion of Krakatoa in my weather project on meeting Mark. It seemed these abrupt shifts in subject matter were simply a reflection of a chaotic mind. I soon dislike my toy paintings and follow these with a new concept with my big cats theme.


Concept pen sketches of the cottage garden for paintings (Summer 1984)


Nightmare Cats

On 30 Jan 1985, I have a disastrous assessment when two tutors turn my toy paintings to face the wall. I am accused of trying to be modern with my new big cats’ idea and advised to return to my idyllic garden paintings. I write in my diary, I think my paintings are shit. My fantasy world has grown to claustrophobic proportions and I am missing my twin terribly. I write to the head tutor to inform him I wish to quit the course. He calls me into his office and he talks me into staying on.

On 19 Feb I continue to develop my big cats’ concept against my tutors’ advice. An idea first conceived in June 1984, distorting big cats’ faces seemed an exciting idea.


Distorted cats’ faces based on my earlier drawings (spring 1985)


Throughout the spring of 1985, I am filling my sketchbook with contorted big cats and creating relief art from drawings I had completed in the summer of 1983.

On 19 Feb, a student remarks that my distorted cats appear violent and unsettling. I reply I want them to be disturbing with ‘ugly attractiveness’. I inserted bike reflector lights into the eyes so that they glowed in the dark. I thought nothing of my imagery as I had been studying German Expressionism and Vorticism at the time. However, I would later realise that these were not the inspirations for my artwork.

On 4 March, I order a 6.5x8ft panel for my biggest Nightmare Cats painting yet. Moments later, acute nausea like the time of my eyeball sculpture sends me home. That night, I’m awake with a nasty period pain. I don’t begin this painting for two weeks due to health niggles and depression.


Concept pen sketches for my Nightmare Cat paintings (Spring 1985)


On 23 March, Found someone had left nearly a whole packet of Marlborough cigarettes and I took it (being a thoroughly immature cow). Spent the morning in the park to collect reference on trees and on the way there took puffs at my cigarette. Decided it was a filthy habit but it made me feel a bit superior just holding one. Drew trees and took photos. I had puffed at 5 cigarettes by then. Got back. The flat is empty, so am I.

Soon after I had started smoking, I am peroxiding my hair and go full-pelt on painting my Nightmare Cats.

Looking at the bigger picture now, one cannot help but notice that something was obviously wrong with me. But in the day-to-day context, nothing appeared out of the ordinary. Stuff can be explained away: teenage angst, hormones, homesickness, a troubled childhood or simply exploring artistic influences.

I go home on 21 April 1985 to find one of my terrible romances I had written the previous year. Eve suggests it could be great if I improved it and sent it to a publisher. I pause at the idea. Why hadn’t I thought of that before? I had lived this claustrophobic fantasy world for years now so I might as well do something with it! Why not shape it into a novel with mass appeal?

The idea excited me.


The Illness

The day after I made the momentous decision to pen my fantasy world into a novel, I was struck down.

On 22 April 1985, I wrote, my throat came sore and my head and neck ached. Hardly slept a wink last night. Suspected I had a temperature. Never had one for years. Watched TV and started improving my story. Hopefully when it’s readable I can send it off. Only Eve knows about it.

23 April: I came down with something really fucking horrible. My throat is sore and my neck feels tense. A horrid reminder whenever I moved my neck. Have dizzy spells. Feel crap. That day, I had bought a dictionary and thesaurus. Really enthusiastic about my story but this fucking head stops me from doing anything. Watched TV with thudding headache and went to bed. The worst of my sore throat was here. Couldn’t do much to my story tonight.

24 April: My 8x6.5ft painting hits a brick wall. I couldn’t get the lid off a jar and everything seemed to go wrong. In fury I threw the glass pot filled with blue paint down the stairs. The paint splattered everywhere.

25 April: I want to abandon my Nightmare Cats painting. The crouching cat looks disturbing and compact like it weighs a ton. The other cat is descending from a tree. Most of it was from my head.

I am now writing my novel.


My Nightmare Cat paintings with 3D effects (acrylics 4x5ft March 1985)


Beginning my Novel

On 26 April 1985 I skived all day from uni, engrossed in writing my story on the coach home. Eve meets me on the other end. Her friend visits and they both plan to go jogging. Despite feeling like death, I decide to join. We jog past a pub to the east of the village then walk for miles. In the fresh air, I experience a high, resonating with my bike rides of years ago. That night I report of distressing dreams. Woke in the middle of the night with a nasty sick pain. Had to sit up for a while and it gradually went away. Don’t know what it was.

This doesn’t stop me from writing my novel. In fact, I continue in spite of everything. My novel would soon become my obsession that would take over my life.

My first draft features Marmaduke, a John-precursor who suffers acromegaly (a condition of overgrown bones like Elephant Man). He had haunted my mind during my senior school years, never twigging he was a precursor of creepy John until writing this account. Visions of this big man standing beside a railway track had recurred for some reason. Marmaduke was doomed to a tragic life in a dead-end town with no future. He has terrible acne scars earning him the name Crater-face. Where do these horrid notions come? I decided to change the story and his name. And I would change it again. And again. During the process, he would become less Frankenstein and more ‘normal’. I purchased a second-hand typewriter from my brother-in-law’s office. It was thirty years old and thudded when I pressed the keys. If only laptops existed in the eighties! I got uptight about ribbons, tipex and paper. I set myself an hour or two every day to writing my secret novel and jealously guarded this time. Soon, Eve would grow disenchanted with my compulsive novelitis. She even got annoyed and took an interest in other things. Who could blame her?


The Tunnel Mouth

I am now in my final year at City Uni. My subject matter had taken yet another turn: studio pieces sourced from onsite oil paintings of a railway tunnel overlooking a cattle gate and cornfield. Surrounded by my huge paintings in my studio space, I drew maps and sketches of my fictional place, including a railway track, woods and a derelict house. The climax of the novel is set at the foot of a railway bridge. Shortly after beginning my novel I changed Marmaduke’s name once again to Aidan. This time, the name would stick.

For ease, I have provided an outline on the setup of The Lessons:

The Lessons is a story of Laura, a young English teacher who had believed her student to be a schoolchild needing a little brushing-up on literacy. But she is shocked to discover that her subject is in fact a dyslexic thug who is part of a criminal ring headed by psychopath, Kurt who operates in a derelict house near a railway track.

My typewriter had been tapping away for weeks now. My novel is reeling out before my eyes. My exhilaration soured to despair when I saw how abysmal my writing was. The pacing of the story sped ahead like a demented train, the scenes crashing into each other. The dialogue was stiff and the plot spaghetti-thin. Worse, Aidan failed to come through how I had imagined. My impression of him was stuck in my head and wouldn’t come out. But I wouldn’t give up. My story continued to burn a hole in my head and I would write and rewrite the scenes into the night.

On moving out of Mum’s into a bedsit after graduating from City Uni, the tenant downstairs complained about the thudding. I was mortified, as I didn’t want anyone to know about my novel. I soon had this crushing sensation of every word representing a brick to a huge pyramid and I was at the bottom.

But Aidan and my storylines wouldn’t let me go. Images continued to flash at night; action sequences obscured the day. They seemed fantastic when I was watching them in my mind’s eye, but turned to drivel the moment I laid pen to paper. The Lessons was rooted in my John drawings. His glower must signify a wretched and tormented life. I asked myself, what would cause such a glower? This question spurred me to insert my own difficulties into his life; my thoughts, my fears.

Isn’t that what authors do?

I had inserted myself behind the man’s face.


Part 2: The Beginning


With the prelude described, it is time to move on to my novel, The Lessons.

At the beginning, young teacher, Laura leaves home after a family disagreement and bumps into an old school friend. She is like the author who leaves a real place and enters a fictional one as an avatar. The avatar-analogy is key when understanding the nature of The Lessons. Laura is in a sense, ‘me.’


The Undercurrent

What I didn’t realise was that this novel holds a message. During the writing, I was blind to it. Only on seeing the message years later, would I notice an undercurrent running throughout. It is like watching reflections upon the water’s surface only to notice objects at the bottom. A different mode of focus is required. Since noticing this undercurrent, my novel doesn’t feel mine anymore. It has been written by another force that I didn’t know existed. My novel is in fact, two novels: a sunlit one and a shadowed one. For this reason, I have supplied elements at the end of each chapter. These are: ‘diary entries’ and ‘author’s notes.’

The ‘diary entries’ inform upon my life whilst I was writing this novel. This in itself tells a story. My entries are abridged, omitting noisy life events centring only upon the silence of my novel and my secret world.

The ‘author’s notes’ draw attention to the unsettling subtext of this novel – the undercurrent. Initially, questions are posed. All will be answered as the book progresses. To reflect the intensity of my fantasy world, I have provided illustrations including those of characters and locations. The reader may wish to read the chapters only to see how the novel was supposed to appear. A staple psychological thriller was all I had seen. The final draft of The Lessons was completed in 2010. I have added scenes from earlier drafts that have survived, for these possessed important elements.

The following is an excerpt from the earliest surviving draft of The Lessons that I could find. It was written around 1987.

Laura rushed out of Aidan’s room horrified. She wished she had not turned back, for he was standing at the top watching her. From the harsh set of his mouth she could see that he retained hatred; for Laura’s freedom; resentful for all the things he had to bear.

Laura forbade herself any thoughts except that she was glad of the air.

His expression was not meant for her eyes.


THE LESSONS


Prologue


FRANK sat at the kitchen table as Kurt’s uncle dragged Kurt by his hair to the wall. A picture dislodged itself from a hook and crashed to the floor. The uncle glowered from a translucent iris on a bloodshot eyeball. His nephew merely stared back.

Kurt had only turned eighteen yet he was sprouting like a weed in the dark. Frank, a year older, had become aware of having to look up to meet Kurt’s gaze. The uncle did so too, spitting curses to get a reaction from his nephew’s black gaze. Kurt turned casually aside. Delirium flashed in the uncle’s eye. He pressed Kurt against the tabletop and pounded his face with force that made his breaths rattle. Kurt wiped the blood onto the back of his hand. The uncle dragged Kurt across the room, causing the table to scrape. Frank shifted out of the way, nausea rearing in his gut. The uncle pinned Kurt against the wall and raised his fist. Kurt maintained his blank stare as his uncle dismounted and staggered to the door.

Kurt was often beaten. Frank could see it coming when Kurt’s uncle’s eyes had that brewing look. The uncle would mope around the house in his vest and bed-socks and a petulant mood. He was forever in bed watching TV unless he wanted something to eat or to go to the toilet.

In the earlier days, Kurt’s uncle had regaled Kurt with stories of the Middle East. Frank could see that his uncle had wanted to buddy-up with Kurt but his nephew did not repay in kind and spoke only for money.

Frank felt uneasy whenever he visited Kurt’s in a squashed up housing estate of grey net curtains and lopsided gates. He didn’t like the knife marks, graffiti and Kurt’s mob-rule that prodded Kurt’s uncle further into his bedroom. With a sense of loss, Frank harboured secret admiration for Kurt and wishing to be like him. Kurt, lean and self-assured, attracted obsequious friends from the estate of which Frank suspected he was the most adept. Frank, the class clown, they all thought, impudent, rule-breaker. It made Frank feel good to think the teachers either loved him or hated him. But then, he found no contention within the womb of an old-fashioned school in Burntwood, a leafy suburb outside Hitchfield.

The city Comprehensive punched him into reality with its influx of scum from Blackatree. He disliked their mongrel look, dull-eyed; indicative of the broken home. Frank spurned one weedy third-year for nicking his locker. The fight after school with this gaunt competitor perturbed Frank more than his other scuffles with bigger thugs. He would never forget the bare-knuckled jabs, bone-jarring. Frank’s knees gave way, more through an inner frenzy than the force of the blows themselves.

A week later, this ‘weed’ known as Kurt Bowers, was expelled for starting a fire in the sports hall. Kurt Bowers. Frank wished he had never heard of that name.

But Frank spotted Kurt the following year, loitering with his cronies at the common. Frank walked up to reminisce on the fight but Kurt denied any recollection. This caused Frank’s gall to burn his throat. Frank would teach him to spurn someone who had jabbed those black eyes at least three times, and made this point barefaced in front of his friends. Kurt cut a teethy grin. Of course he remembered.

Thus began Frank’s truancy with Kurt and his friends, shoplifting at the Three Arches, gibing at the shopkeepers, frequenting the Hollows, a derelict house at Elmhirst Station. For long weekends, Frank and his best friend, Greg, would fish at the pond, smoke out burrows and hold ceremonies with whisky and promises.

Frank knew his life would spiral out of control from that very day Kurt’s eyes had passed over his own. The resident tramp provided the catalyst and the rest was history. If only they had taken off before Kurt had got his lighter out. If only Greg had cut his donkey-laugh and they all had left the hovel to Mother Nature. But Kurt did not seem to know when to stop; he did not seem to realise the power he had over people. Greg moved back to his roots in Manchester soon after the accident. Frank never saw his friend again.

Frank pushed Greg from his mind; no time to dwell upon what could have been; such regrets could become a hall of mirrors. Instead, he took to pilfering with Kurt’s cousin Robbie to display their takings at the Hollows. God knows why Frank got a recommendation for Hitchfield Art College. Perhaps his art teacher took pity on this poor misguided soul. Frank arrived with a shabby portfolio and walked out of the foyer before his timeslot. On his way home, he binned the interviewer’s letter along with his former aspirations.

His mother didn’t understand why he would do such a thing; his father kept out of it, subdued within a morose fug from working in the car factory all day. Frank moved out. He bartended at the Horse and Jockey and crashed out at Kurt’s before renting a bedsit. He tagged along with Kurt’s parasitical friends, partying at their spurious venues, notably the First Floor, a dive with a history of drug peddling and glassings. No one was going to control his life – no rules, no routines, just one big blast. Frank never wanted to come down; he feared what awaited him at the bottom of the well: Frank, the funny guy. He could make people laugh so that he can reinvent himself. In secret, Frank found nothing to laugh about.

Kurt’s uncle went downhill. Frank returned after an evening’s brawling to find Kurt’s uncle gazing into space. He asked Kurt something. Kurt cut a path in front as though his uncle didn’t exist. A week later, Kurt’s uncle was put into a mental hospital. The council house was vacated and Kurt moved to the Hollows.

From then, Kurt got weird, rambling on about committing the perfect arson and then stare at Frank as though he were a stranger. For a while, Frank did not care to be alone with Kurt. Neither, it seemed did the female gender, Kurt’s relationships fleeting. Since his uncle’s admission, Kurt had become ever more shrouded.

But Frank could tell from a galvanising aura that something was coming. Next thing Frank knew, Kurt was spending time at Her Majesty’s pleasure for torching an off-licence. Good. A quiet period was long overdue without Kurt’s bullshit about beating the system. Frank took a job at Creations Limited in John Street, printing T-shirts. But Kurt got early parole and that’s when Frank realised the stranglehold Kurt had over Frank’s existence. Yes, Frank would sell himself out to be back on Kurt’s tightrope, to experience the merry-go-round that was Kurt and his universe.

Of course, Kurt embraced Frank with a shoulder-clap as though long-lost pals. But since Kurt’s parole, the dynamics had shifted somehow. Frank couldn’t define it, but Kurt started accommodating a pimply and morose geek who surely would not befit the fodder of Kurt’s troupe. Toby. Frank found himself trying to disarm Kurt’s new guest with droll banter that failed to break the ice. Kurt seemed to suspect of Frank’s difficulty, loaning this geek Frank’s valuable music collection. Frank cut the talk this time, but Toby’s height added to his effortless menace. Frank waited all afternoon whilst Toby and his impish girlfriend pleased themselves over food, films and fondling. Frank’s music collection disappeared without trace. He stormed into the First Floor and found Kurt laughing with Toby. An acrid soup curdled in Frank’s gut and suffused though every pore in his body. How could this happen? How could Kurt be talking to a misfit from Manor Park, a district of new-world mock Tudor houses, toffs and fucking business consultants? Frank invited Kurt and his friends on a fishing trip that weekend.

Things didn’t work out for talentless Toby in the end. Frank and Robbie found oblivion within dry cider and fun-poking. The fuel? Toby’s ungainliness, his acne, his illiteracy, the things money couldn’t buy. Time to reminisce; time to exclude Toby from the group. Toby remained sober, watchful and forgotten by everybody – most essentially, Kurt.

But this small victory seemed to expose a deeper discontentment. Frank produced sloppy work at Creations Limited so Alan, his boss, would have reason to complain. It ultimately ended in Frank’s suspension. Kurt’s friends took pleasure in Frank’s story of squander, but Frank was sweating. He couldn’t explain it. The turning point came after a drunken spree when he awoke shivering, convinced his identity had fused with Kurt’s uncle and Kurt had consumed Frank out of existence.

Frank lay awake, the sheets soaked. He decided to make changes. He took time out to clear his head and to rethink his life. He quit his job at the Horse and Jockey and worked overtime at Creations Limited where he begged Alan to give him more responsibility.

On a trip to an arts convention on the lookout for inspiration for T-shirt designs, he spotted a chick he knew from Lyndhirst High. She was being fondled by a Stone-aged hippy on how to do the Rumba in front of a delighted audience. He’d obviously picked her because she wasn’t paying attention or something. Laura – that’s her name – Laura Carter; dainty-looking, olive eyes and flaxen hair – a classic Snow White. She sported a sequinned blouse, a pleated skirt and a desperate expression. Frank liked that sort – respectable, square. It made him feel good to play the rescuer; he enjoyed walking side-by-side with someone like her. Frank swallowed memories of dalliances with many such females and approached the old hippie. ‘That’s not how you do it,’ Frank said.


The Hollows


Diary Entries for Prologue

15 Oct 1983: Went to a barn dance at the parish hall (Mum made us go). This tall wobbly bloke with dark hair grabbed Eve and they did ‘the flirt’. His friend dragged me in front of everyone – just me and him.

16 Oct: Got up in the night with sick pain. Took the plastic bath up and kept heaving but wasn’t sick. Don’t know what it was.


Author’s Notes for Prologue

Parallel of my Diary with my Novel

On face value the prologue bears no relation to my life at all. A callous nephew moves into his uncle’s house and takes over. The uncle is driven upstairs and eventually to a mental hospital by Kurt’s mind-games. His friend Frank is drawn into a life of adrenalin and risk. At this time, I lived in a sleepy village with five siblings, go to church and do kiddie stuff. However, the prologue cunningly disguises the force that drives this novel. Real life events lie at the heart. Part 7 will reveal all.

The closing of the prologue describes an arts festival. It is a prime example of a fictional scene taken from a real life event; in this case, the barn dance of 15 October 1983. This selection is not as innocent as it seems and such selections will recur throughout The Lessons.


Chapter 1


LAURA thought she looked good with Frank. She could tell he thought so too. Even their names sounded good together: Frank and Laura. It made a change from her past affiliations. The son of an undertaker, no less, who she suspected had worn his father’s work suits to their dates; and the nephew of the managing director of where she worked who had a penchant for brown – his clothes, his hair and his voice. Her decent parents saw no reason to object – these were respectable working people with wholesome values. She could do much worse. That was one of the reasons why Laura had moved out.

From her little knowledge of him, she knew that Frank had left home at seventeen to make his way in the world. Laura’s background had been plodding, her upbringing having taken place within a terraced house in Burntwood just outside Hitchfield.

Laura waited outside the apartment where she lodged, her dinner not sitting right. The anticipation of Frank’s company always had this effect. Like waiting her turn on a rollercoaster, her innards roiled, yet she knew a payoff awaited. She checked she had her keys and mobile should she need a taxi. A few times, Frank had opted for a drink, putting him over the limit. Two cars pulled up before a sporty hatchback raced into the lay-by. The passenger door swung open unleashing Lou Reed’s Venus in Furs. Laura tucked her bag beneath her shoulder before her shoes clopped across the tarmac.

Frank muted the volume. ‘Hi,’ he said, with his customary economy and proceeded to roll a spliff. The armrest exhibited his collection of music, retro to modern: Velvet Underground, REM, Blocparty and Muse. Laura narrowed her eyes at Frank’s motion as she sat beside him. Frank caught her expression and extinguished the tip. Laura didn’t mind playing admonisher. She was certain Frank had asked her out because of their background differences.

Frank gassed up and moved off. With New Year done, discourse in the car had thinned. In fact, she didn’t know why Frank kept seeing her. Frank had the confidence to be with any girl he chose. Her father would have objected to her relationship with the likes of Frank Doyle. He had got suspended from Lyndhirst High for his involvement in petty crime and moved to the comprehensive after one fight too many. No doubt he continued to play against the rules whilst she studied cloud formations to the drone of lectures. Her father had chosen her wholesome name. He held outmoded values with an obduracy that had forced a wedge between them.

But that wasn’t the worst part.

Frank cut to the city overlooked by the cathedral and pulled up smart. He then stepped out without a heed. After nine years, he had retained his boyish good looks. She recognised him instantly where she spotted him in the crowd watching her being humiliated by a creep at the arts convention. At school, Frank was easily the best looking. Without an ounce of fat, he moved with limber grace and his amber eyes darted like quicksilver beneath corn forelocks.

Laura walked beside him, haunted by how the hippie had almost stepped on her hair as he twirled her to the floor. Stupid old fool. Stuff like that always seemed to happen to her. Frank had rescued her from further humiliation in his unique brand of coolness.

Frank led her into a neon-lit building down Sandford Street called the First Floor that possessed a bar atop a winding staircase that flickered and throbbed. At the top, steam clouded the ceiling of a large room like foam in a beer bottle and a pulsating baseline smothered the clamour. A crowd clutched the bar for drinks. Laura suddenly felt overdressed – a pencil skirt and a tailored jacket befitting a business meeting. The only items missing were her laptop and briefcase. She cursed herself as she eyed the Goths and skinheads nearby. What had possessed her to pick this outfit? Drinks in hand, Frank ushered her to a table before he muttered to a stubbled corn-head wearing a faded Arsenal T-shirt. The man sized her up in a cursory fashion as he leaned toward Frank.

‘Man, you’re not gonna believe what’s come up.’ Corn-Stubbs’ eyes shifted from Laura’s as though she were usurping on his account. ‘Kurt came across your mate, y’ know…’ The man’s voice trailed off in a shoulder shrug, thick with meaning. Frank froze for a millisecond. He casually reached for his beer.

The man blundered on, his voice betraying a tremor. ‘He took the early train from Manchester. He and Kurt spent the day together. Harry spotted them at the Queen’s Head last week.’

The manner of Frank’s hesitation didn’t fit the Frank she had always known. Troubled, she watched Frank sup his beer.

Corn-Stubbs continued without pause. ‘Greg disappeared back north that evening. No one knows why he came ‘ere. No one knows what they’ve been talking about, not even Harry.’ The man’s gaze grew earnest. ‘I wanna know why he came up to see Kurt, Frank; everybody’s been wonderin’.’

Frank plonked the beer down with a rap.

The man’s expression pinched up in disapproval. ‘Christ, Frank, act a little more interested! You haven’t seen him in ten years!’

Corn-Stubbs’ harsh tone startled her. But quickly gave way to his mention of the Hollows – a creepy place that backed onto the railway line at Elmhirst. The owner was arrested for fraud. The dump attracted truants and squatters. Now the structure is almost forgotten by the town.

The man pulled Frank’s beer from him. ‘Come on. Tell us why Greg disappeared up north.’

Frank tried to retrieve the beer. ‘Christ, Robbie, you know why!’

Robbie wouldn’t let go. ‘You always say that.’

Frank’s cheeks darkened. ‘There’s nothing to tell.’

‘Don’t play evasive with me, pal. You should know I’m never gonna quit on this.’

A rabble clinked glasses and Robbie waited. Laura sipped her spritzer with the creeping sensation Frank’s next words were not for her ears.

‘Greg said the whisky had made him puke that night, you know.’

A grin teased the edge of Robbie’s lips and Laura knew she would be invisible for the following moments.

‘Kurt probably told you Greg had nicked the stuff from his dad.’

‘Kurt doesn’t talk on it,’ Robbie put in and leaned toward Frank, partitioning Laura off.

‘Greg wanted to go home,’ Frank continued and fondled his drink. ‘He wanted to let that tramp sleep it off and forget the whole thing, but Kurt was dripping the whisky through the bedroom floorboards with a lighted match. He’d reassured us that the alcohol would glow like fire drops and then go out. But the tramp seemed to get a kick out of the stupid game. He was yelling at us about harbouring something stronger. I don’t know whether Kurt’s told you all this.’

Robbie merely shook his head.

‘The tramp got delirious like he was tripping out. Apparently, a courageous knight would “chase the dragon” out by means of a bonfire. There was enough for us “kiddies” if we wanted, and we could all lure the dragon out together.’

Robbie let forth a snort; Laura gave a smile.

‘A spark hit the tramp’s hair and he dropped his dopes. They rolled on the floor like marbles. We were laughing like shit and that’s when he caught on. He tilted his head and stared at us through the floorboards. Greg wanted to quit the game – you know, he was wincing like a dog. So when the tramp nears the top, we hid in the corner, sniggering like a pair of goons.’

‘What happened next?’ Laura asked.

Frank continued to address his friend. ‘The tramp continued to clunk up the stairs. Kurt had hunkered down, lighter at the ready, attached to string for some pendulum action. The tramp seemed to know something was coming, then Kurt took his best shot and the flame hit the stupid hobo in the face and singed his eyebrows. I can only imagine what it must have been like in his delirium, but I’ve never heard a fully grown male emit such a scream.’

A compressed snigger had reddened Robbie’s face. ‘Something like a woman’s?’

‘Words cannot express. When I realised Kurt had took off, I made a move. Greg kept grabbing at my coat, trying to hide inside it. By then, I could hear the tramp’s screams make its way outside. I managed to make the chase, minus my coat. Christ knows – there must have been something else in that tramp’s smokes. We must have chased him through the woods for two miles. We didn’t see him again, perhaps because he thought the place was cursed.’

Robbie emitted a loud bark.

‘What happened to Greg?’ Laura asked.

Frank shrugged, looking away. ‘Injured himself. Ended up in hospital with both legs up.’

Laura regretted the question.

But Robbie was still laughing. ‘I wish I had been there to see a tramp minus his eyebrows tripping out!’

Laura noticed Frank hadn’t explained Robbie’s question to why Greg had moved away or his meeting with Kurt. When Frank glanced up to a passer’s address, his eyes had taken on a fluid quality. Laura was certain at that moment he was hiding something. He stood talking and she sipped the spritzer feeling awkward at being at a place where everyone seemed to know him. The crowd knocked the table, spilling beer onto the floor.


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