This is where it all began. This is where everything changed. I light up a cigarette and inhale, the nicotine rushing through my veins and calming my nerves, the lamppost propping me up as I stand on the street and look up at my old study, the indistinct movement within making me feel uneasy at the thought that someone else is in there. The light is on and I can see someone moving around, a shadow passing between the open curtains, the glass filthy and barely secured by the rotting panes. I haven’t been back here in over forty years and as I stand at the roadside examining the new shops, it’s remarkable how vastly things have changed. I wipe away the faint trace of a tear, kidding myself that it’s the effect of the wind, and suck heavily on my cigarette, the need for a stiff drink rising within.
The figure moves inside the room again and I throw my cigarette down onto the pavement and step on it, the grit grinding beneath my boot as I twist my toes to extinguish the remaining embers, the ash momentarily staining the asphalt before the rain washes it away. I flick my collar up and lift my shoulders closer to my chin, the chill trying to catch me on my skin and remind me that I’m stood outside at six in the morning, in the middle of January when the sun is somewhere else, comforting someone else. A car crawls by and I stare at the head lights, my pupils straining at the glare but readjusting accordingly beneath the dark sky, the stars gradually disappearing amid the increasing illumination of the stirring city. I light another cigarette and cup it in my hands so the rain drops don’t kill it, our lives inextricably allied, for the moment at least. I inhale and close my eyes. When I open them the room is still there, as it always has been, despite my disappearance.
Behind that unassuming window, mere metres away from my present position and with only the uneven tarmac and aged bricks between us, is the tiny bedsit in which I wrote my first novel. It was 1973 and I was fresh out of University, eager and impatient with my mounting inspiration. I was informed about the bedsit by a friend of mine who was moving back up north and in a couple of days I was packed up and standing on the doorstep, my few possessions stacked beside my feet, the Olivetti tucked under my undernourished arm. Within a week I was settled, the abandoned furniture carefully positioned among the cracked and pealing plaster, the rattling pipes beneath the boards and faulty kitchen faucets welcoming me into what would become, and remain, my only home. I had finally arrived, and I was ready.
After a couple of weeks I developed a strict routine. I woke up early and worked until my stomach began to cramp and I was forced to walk the markets, haggling for food and striking deals with sellers who eventually became my only friends. After I’d eaten I would resume my work and type until the evening when darkness descended and flickering flames ensured I never froze. Every day it was the same. I sat behind a stolen school desk with my back pressed against a distorted plastic chair, the ashtray full and overflowing, my fingers battering the keys. I went on like this for months, the paper piling up amid the plumes of smoke and stirring shadows. I locked myself away from the distractions of the world outside and wrote about my own, and when it was finished I sent it off and waited, hopeful but not naïve. I continued to write and found myself a part-time job waiting tables in a little Italian Restaurant in North Ealing. I made enough money to pay the rent and random bills, and what tips I made went on ribbons and paper and the beer that soothed my throat and made the smoking sweeter. The stories piled up and the practice was doing me good, I was getting better, I could feel it. I was getting closer.
On the 16th April of the following year I descended the stairs to go to work and saw the envelope lying on the matt, brushed aside by the opened door, crumpled and creased and waiting. I picked it up and immediately recognised the logo. This was it, I thought, and tore it open with little regard for decorum. I read the words and stood there, stuck to the dirty floor and trembling. I read the letter again. I couldn’t believe it. They liked it. They liked my novel and wanted to meet. They wanted to discuss publication. They wanted me. I’d done it. I’d finally done it. I stuck the letter in my jacket pocket and left, my mind focused solely on the pint waiting for me at the bar, my toast to impending authorship. I got drunk and continued to do so until the book was published and I could hold it in my hands, and weep. Staring up at the window, eleven novels, two Pulitzer prizes, several films and a play later, I wonder where it all went wrong. I wonder why I left. I see my reflection in a parked car and shake my head at the sight of my stupid hat and silly Barbour jacket. This is what I wanted to be. Him. I look up at my old flat and wonder if I would do the same again, if I would willingly position myself here, forty years later, knowing what I would leave behind. Despite it all, I remember when it happened. I remember typing the final sentence of that novel, the feeling of elation at realising I had finished, that I had actually done it, and done it the way I wanted. I remember sitting back and smiling, the droplet from the faucet echoing in the room. I reach for another cigarette but realise I’ve got none left, so I turn to walk away as somewhere in the distance a telephone rings.
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The Soundtrack for Stirring Shadows’ is Elephant Revival’s ‘Quill Pen Feather’.