The Georgian townhouse still smelt of fresh paint. It was the new home of Faber and Faber ? the U.K. publisher synonymous with T. S. Eliot
, W. H. Auden
, Ted Hughes
, and Sylvia Plath
? and they were still moving in. The packing crates that had spilled copies of everything from Never Let Me Go
to Lord of the Flies
all over the tiled floors during our first weeks may have been unpacked and removed, but the place still felt fresh. New. Full of possibility.
There were about 20 of us: Faber's big experiment. A group of fledgling, unpublished writers who had signed up for one of the first creative writing courses ever to be run by a U.K. publishing house. It was a six month course, and we were already a couple of weeks in. Louise, one of our tutors, had told us during the first week that we'd done "brilliantly" to get this far. "But," she'd added, "that's the last nice thing I'm going to say to you until July. For the next six months at least, you're writers. And that means lots of hard work, I'm afraid. So let's get going."
It had gone well, so far. We'd got to know each other and discussed our work and what we wanted to get out of the course. We'd done our homework, and one of us, Antonia, had even been brave enough to submit some of her writing for us to criticise and discuss. But, despite what Louise had said, I was still having trouble thinking of myself as a real writer.
See, I wasn't sure what real writers did. I wasn't naïve enough to think they sat at the keyboard and produced reams of effortlessly brilliant prose without even pausing for thought, but still I didn't know what they did do. What made them different from me.
And this day, more than at any other time in the weeks since Louise had told us we were writers, I was nervous. It was the first of our monthly all-day sessions, and that afternoon I was due to have the opening chapter of my novel critiqued by my fellow students ? the novel that would go on to be called Before I Go to Sleep but back then didn't even have a title. It was brand new, fresh from my laser printer, and I had no idea whether it was any good.
In just a few hours I would find out, but first we were to do a group exercise, something which, according to our schedule, had the rather ominous title Kidnap a Character. None of us knew what that might mean, but then Louise explained.
"I know it's a cold day," she said, "but I want you all to go out onto the streets of Bloomsbury and find someone, anyone, who looks interesting. I want you to follow them, wherever they go. Observe them and take notes. I want you to look at how they dress, what they wear. Look at how they walk, talk. What they do. Note their habits, their quirks. Try and get close enough to hear them speak. Get as much detail as you can, then come back and we'll talk about what we found." We all got our coats, our notebooks. "The only rule," she said as we headed for the exits, "is work on this alone, and please don't get arrested."
We scattered. I wandered towards Oxford Street, past the British Museum; suddenly no one seemed even vaguely interesting. I began to despair, but then, near Tottenham Court Road, a woman caught my eye. I wasn't sure why ? perhaps because she reminded me of an aunt and was dressed entirely in black ? but I decided she would have to do. I changed direction and began to follow her, a few paces behind. She looked in a few shop windows. I knelt to tie my shoelace. It was going well, I thought.
A few minutes later she stopped to light a cigarette. I took the opportunity to open my notebook. "Smokes," I wrote. "Looks like Malboro Lights. Uses matches." I looked up to get more detail, then back to my notebook. "Wearing a black coat. Looks quite old. Has a very old-fashioned looking mobile phone in one pocket. Gold jewelery. Her hair is blonde and cut short. Her shoes... "
I looked again to check whether the black shoes I'd noticed were slip-on or lace-up. The woman was nowhere to be seen. Vanished. I looked around anxiously. She hadn't walked past me; she didn't seem to be further ahead. She hadn't crossed the road, and no buses had gone past while I'd stood noting details of her outdated telecommunications equipment, so she hadn't escaped that way. She must have disappeared into one of the shops, I thought, but we were standing outside an office block and the newsagent further down the road was devoid of customers. Panic rose in me. Bloody hell, I thought. I'm an hour into the exercise and all I've noticed is that one rather ordinary woman on Oxford Street smokes and wears gold jewellery... I have to find someone else, quick!
I looked behind me. Oxford Street on a Saturday morning suddenly seemed like a deserted wasteland. I could have stalked the policeman that was standing outside the Starbucks opposite, but I couldn't imagine going back to Bloomsbury with the words, "Man. Dressed as a policeman. Is a policeman in fact." What to do? What to do?
Frantic, I looked around again, and there, hoving into view from one of the side streets, was the answer to my prayers. A woman, well over six feet tall, wearing a too-short, semi-transparent mini-skirt, bare legs, lime green socks pulled up to her knees, a fake fur coat that had seen far better days and carrying a bright pink shopping bag. She couldn't fail to stand out in any crowd, much less the deserted wasteland I seemed to find myself in. Hallelujah! I thought, whipping out my notebook and following as ? joy of joys ? my new prey went towards the internet café a few doors down. I followed her in and settled at the console next door but one.
Even if the woman I'd originally kidnapped had been in there, I would've no longer been interested. Under the guise of writing a long email, I noted every detail of the exotic creature I was now following. The large, cracked hands, the nails that had been painted baby pink. The cheap costume jewellery, the makeup that had been inexpertly applied. The face that at once looked profoundly sad, yet at the same time proudly defiant. I noted the way she hunched over her machine, her unfamiliarity with using the keyboard, her hesitancy with the mouse. I felt absurdly nosy, yet it was a nosiness that seemed to befit a writer, an observer of life. Plus, I was dying to look at which sites she was visiting. I was in the middle of speculating when she opened her bag and pulled out a black, leather facemask and fitted it over her mouth and nose and, as if it were fitted to an oxygen cylinder and we were at altitude, took a series of deep lung-filling breaths. How weird! I thought, adding that to my list. This is brilliant! I felt like a real writer. The remaining hour flew by and my list of observations grew longer and longer.
We compared notes back in class. Lousie told us that when she does this exercise with her students on the Greek island of Skyros, the entire town comes out to see the group of writers wandering around thinking they're being subtle. Amy told us she'd stalked a man in the British Museum who had evidently mistaken her attentions for something else and offered to take her out and buy her a drink. Another student had spent 90 minutes having coffee with a woman who had then said, "I do hope you find someone to write about dear." Someone else had followed their character onto the Tube and ended up at the wrong end of the Central Line. I described my character, with whom I suddenly felt an inexplicable bond, with a strong affection. "Anything you might use in your book?" said Richard, our other tutor. "I don't think so," I replied, not seeing how a six foot four transvestite might fit into a book about a woman with no memory.
"But it was a useful exercise?" he said to all of us.
"Oh yes," I said. We all nodded enthusiastically. I pondered why, then realized. That morning, as I sat there in the café noting details and getting completely, utterly absorbed in trying to bring this remarkable individual, this whole, rounded person, to life on the page, I'd felt transported. I finally knew what it felt like to be a real writer.
I've still no idea what was in the leather mask, though...