A love story, in which all the events, people and places are taken from the contents of The Times of 1st November, 1993.
New York Times Book Review
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.12(w) x 7.81(h) x 0.81(d)
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It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Quarndon or Northampton or Newry or York, in Kirkcaldy or Yeovil or Lincoln or Neath, a baby girl is born. Her name is Hazel. Her father Mr Burns, a salesman, puts the tip of his finger inside her tiny fist. He waves his head from side to side and puts on a childish voice and says:
`Who's the most beautiful girl in the whole wide world then?'
It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in the Kingdom, in Harlow or Widnes or Swansea or Ayr, in Reading or Glentoran or Nantwich or Hull, a baby boy is born. His name is Spencer. His father Mr Kelly, a warehouseman, circles a tiny upper arm between his thumb and index finger. He frowns and says:
`You're not as big as your brother was.'
All regions will have a mostly cloudy day
though some bright and sunny intervals
THE TIMES 11/1/93
11/1/93 Monday 06:24
Hazel kissed Spencer's shoulder and then covered him with the blanket.
`Amazing,' she said. `Unbelievable.'
She re-positioned her cheek against his outstretched arm, pressed her body up against his, and closed her eyes. `Let's spend the whole day in bed.'
An amber street-light hummed outside the curtainless window. On one side of the bed, which was a single mattress on a wooden floor, Hazel's discarded dress invented a charcoal-coloured landscape. On the other side, over the back of a chair, a silver space-suit flopped limply. A toppled stack of plastic-backed library books paved a trail towards the door.
Spencer, eyes wide and awake, wondered if this made him a changed man. Could a single event change everything? It had all happened so suddenly, and so definitively, but before he could make any sense of it her hand brushed up across his chest, reaching his cheek. That was nice, he couldn't deny it but then uninterrupted niceness had been part of the problem the first time around.
`The whole day,' she said, murmuring it into his skin, `in bed. You and me.'
`I'll allow you to get up from time to time,' she said, `to make me nice things to eat.'
Spencer stared up at the emerging whiteness of the ceiling, and pinned to the wall above his head, a single red-and-white-striped knitted glove. He tried to remember what it had been like being alive this time yesterday, before he'd ever woken up with someone he hardly knew, right now, in the present tense, her in the bed beside him with her breath curling up in his ear. He told himself not to panic. This type of thing happened to other people all the time.
The street-light in the window turned itself off, leaving behind the greyish yellow of dawn and the beginning of a London day. Spencer turned the back of his hand against Hazel's hip-bone, and waited for the warmth of her skin to spread through his fingers. It was true, then. Here he was in his own bed, her beside him, neither of them wearing any clothes. It therefore couldn't be long now before the light fattening in the window made her open her eyes and complain that this could never have happened. How could an apparently adult and fine-looking blonde woman with a job and a portable telephone possibly end up naked in bed with an unemployed warehouseman? Spencer ought, therefore, to be making the most of the fact that she was half-asleep and fully naked and wanted them to spend the whole day together. In bed.
`I can't,' he said, immediately wishing he hadn't. He stared past the flat red fingers of the woollen glove. `I have a hundred and one things to do today.'
`Ignore them all, one to a hundred and one.'
`I have to show some Italians round the house. I have to make William his breakfast.'
`He lives in the shed.'
`Well do that and then afterwards come back to bed.'
`It's my niece's birthday. She's coming for lunch. I have to go and fetch her.'
`Fine. I'll wait for you here.'
`And,' Spencer said, wisely resisting the real reason he had to get up and go out, `my library books are due back.'
`Big day,' Hazel said, pulling herself a little closer. `It's half-past six in the morning. Let's just stay in bed.'
`I'm usually up by now. I should get up.'
She stretched her leg possessively over his stomach, kissed his neck, and told him everything was going to be alright. Then she pushed herself up onto an elbow. She touched a strand of pale hair away from her eye. She said:
`You look completely terrified.'
`It's all been very sudden,' Spencer said.
She licked the tip of a finger, and wiped it across his cheek-bone. `I feel like I've known you for ages. It was amazing, wasn't it?'
`Yes,' Spencer said. `It was amazing.'
She was right. It had been amazing. It had been a complete disaster, obviously, but it had still been pretty damn amazing. She looked from one of his brown eyes to the other, and asked him if he was frightened.
`No,' Spencer said. `Sometimes.'
`Don't be frightened,' she said. `We're not in any hurry. Let's just take it one day at a time.'
It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in Britain, in Alloa or Arundel or Linfield or Dereham, in Manchester or Rotherham or Maesteg or Goole, Hazel Burns is ten years old and this is a sunny interval. Seagulls, sweeping in from the sea, along the coast, far and unexpectedly inland, swing vigilant and white in the high wind, the sky blue and wide behind them. Sometimes, as a sharp reminder that this is the here and now, the seagulls cry out, loud and fading in the wind.
Mr Burns, Hazel's father, has hired (for the afternoon) the clubhouse terrace of the local golf course. A railway embankment shadows the eighteenth fairway and an occasional train rattles by, overlooking this small celebration of Mr Burns's Successful Selling `93 International European Award for Salesperson of the Year, sponsored by Queen's Moat House or W.H. Smith or the Co-operative Insurance Society. A dedicated, distinguished-looking man, Mr Burns likes travel, meeting people and making friends. He often wishes he could spend more time with his family.
He introduces a new secretary to his two young daughters:
`This is Hazel, who is ten, and Olive, short for Olivia, who is eight. My brilliant daughters. The most beautiful daughters any father ever had in the history of the whole wide world.'
Hazel grins and stands up. The breeze flutters the skirt of her best white dress and pushes at her brown hair, which she tries to keep in place with her hands. Olive, wearing an identical dress, sits at a table reading The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows or The Water Babies, her legs swinging happily beneath her. She sometimes picks grapes or cherries or orange segments from a bowl on the table. She wears glasses with clear frames and Hazel wishes she didn't.
`So,' says Daddy's secretary (cream blouse, dark shortish skirt, good with children), `what does Hazel want to be when she grows up?'
Mr Burns has spied a colleague and he really must. He does, and his wife takes his place because she's naturally suspicious of a new secretary, especially near her children.
`Hazel wants to be a lawyer,' Hazel's Mum says, and Daddy's secretary says, `That's a nice ambition, isn't it?' and Hazel says: `No, not really. I'd prefer to be an Olympic freestyle swimmer. Actually.'
Mummy puts a hand on Hazel's shoulder. `Or a doctor,' she says. `A lawyer or a doctor.'
`Can we go swimming now?'
`Olive's just the same. She has a reading age of fifteen. She wants to go to Oxford or Cambridge to train as a lawyer or a doctor.'
`I want to be a swimmer,' Hazel insists.
`Good for you,' says the secretary, and then notices the look on Mrs Burns's face. `I mean if that's what you want.' She makes excuses and wanders away.
`Really, darling,' Hazel's mother says, `it's about time you grew up a little.'
`I don't want to be a lawyer.'
`Of course you do. You have to start living in the real world like everyone else.'
`I could be a footballer then.'
`Please, Hazel, don't start.'
`Daddy says I'm good enough.'
Mrs Burns sighs. She looks round the terrace for her husband but he's nowhere to be seen. Then she looks for his new secretary in her white, flimsy, almost transparent blouse, because Hazel's mother has no doubt that anxiety is the right response to life. Her timidity is therefore very assured, almost aggressive.
`And besides,' she says to Hazel, `swimming pools are full of other people's infections.'
She checks that both her daughters have taken their various health capsules and vitamin supplements. Then she advises Olive to chew her fruit more thoroughly, because she devoutly believes a mother can't be too careful. Hazel notices that when Olive eats, her glasses move up and down.
`I want to go swimming,' she says, `it's not fair.'
`We're not going swimming. You should read more, like your sister, and then you might get a scholarship to big school.'
A short train makes an unscheduled stop on the embankment, and Hazel sees a small boy wearing a football shirt pressing his face against the window. She bets he can do whatever he wants, every day of the week, including eat handfuls of Bourbon biscuits or Jaffa cakes or Cadbury's chocolate. He probably goes swimming whenever he likes, all the time.
`If I can't go swimming,' Hazel says, `I'm going to make funny faces and stupid noises until all Daddy's friends think I'm a nutcase.'
`Not today, darling.'
Hazel's Mum smoothes Hazel's hair. She finds it desperately sad that children in general, but her own daughters in particular, must one day find out how vulnerable they are. She reads her newspaper every morning and the growing number of hazards to be avoided constantly horrifies her. Left to itself on any normal day, like today for example, life can deliver meningitis or a mugging or murder, a car crash or a cliff-top fall or kidnap. Every single day it seems as if there is someone mad and reckless and dangerous, out there somewhere, which is why Mrs Burns considers it her duty as a good parent to teach both her children, little by little, how easily things can go wrong.
11/1/93 Monday 06:48
William Welsby inched open the door of his shed. He peered carefully out at the vegetable garden. As far as he could tell the unrushed daylight was doing its usual job clearing up the grey mess of dawn. It was overcast and rain looked likely, but he couldn't be discouraged by that. In fact it seemed altogether an excellent day for changing his life.
He pushed the door wide open and filled his lungs with the morning. As of today, according to the newspaper he read, William Welsby was a new and changed man because overnight, through no great effort of his own, he'd become a citizen of the European Union. In honour of this occasion he'd searched out his special-occasion clothes, which were the same as his normal clothes, only cleaner: white shirt, black braces, black trousers. He checked the shine on his German army boots, and then pinched himself on the upper arm. Then he punched himself on the jaw, though not very hard.
`A pinch and a punch,' he said, `first day of the month.'
He stepped down into the garden from the raised floor of the shed, lost his footing and nearly fell. As he steadied himself, it started to rain. He ignored it, just as he ignored the low-level noise of traffic from beyond the walls, and wondered whether moving to Europe would have made any overnight difference to Georgi Markov. William listened closely, recognised the song of a mistle thrush and then, exactly on schedule, the morning warble of Georgi Markov, a Siberian robin who should have been half-way to Asia. Instead, he'd decided to stop over in the garden's only mulberry tree, and William habitually made a point of wishing him good morning. He vowed to continue doing this no matter how dramatically, after today, his life might change for the better.
He stepped back into the shed, found a mirror, and tried to flatten his wiry grey hair. The rain should have helped but it didn't, and William's hair refused to be flattened. Giving up, he then manoeuvred himself past a shoulder-high stack of yellow plastic buckets, and leant to inspect a potted plant in its specially reserved place on an upturned box beside the bed. This flowerless shrub was William's ambitious attempt to cross a pimento plant with a tomato plant, supposed eventually to create a sweet though spicy fruit he would call a tomento. He crumbled one of the small leaves between his fingers. Once he'd developed it, perfected it, and found someone to buy it, the tomento was going to make him a fortune.
First of all though, he had to re-learn the under-rated skill of going outside. This meant beyond the garden, beyond the house, and out into the London streets. Today was the day. He'd successfully turned into a European, overnight, and with a bit of luck maybe other changes could be made just as easily. Because despite being nearer sixty than fifty, William still refused to accept the jowly conclusion that he wasn't a lucky man. There was no obvious reason why unexpected but brilliant things shouldn't happen to him, like they did to his brother. No particular reason why, on this special day, he shouldn't rise to the challenge of going outside.
This would actually be the third time he'd tried it in the last month, on each occasion hoping there was still something of Britain left to be seen. With hindsight, he now blamed his earlier failures on errors of timing. For the first attempt he'd studied the newspaper in advance for a day of sufficient significance to inspire him, and eventually settled on the 96th anniversary of the poet Edmund Blunden's birth. When this didn't work he tried to be more spontaneous, and his second attempt was an impulse decision on the day Mr Confusion won the two-thirty at Newcastle. Now he was back to his original theory, believing that certain days were special, and marked out for special deeds like his. He'd therefore waited attentively for a day of greater significance than Edmund Blunden's birthday, and the newspaper had been in no doubt that the beginning of Europe was it.
William looked at his watch. Spencer would be making breakfast in the kitchen, the table already laid and The Times in its usual place between the knives. The teapot and the mugs would be arranged in a diagonal across the table, just as they always were, and Spencer might be wearing his apron which said If you don't like it write to the Queen. William hoped it was kippers. He closed his eyes and said a little prayer for kippers, and then pulling on his black jacket he peered into the top bucket of the yellow stack. It was half-full of water and three small goldfish turning slow circuits, one after the other. Another day and all still alive, and if there was one thing which could be said in favour of fish, William always thought, it was that at least they weren't horses.
Behind the buckets was the beginning of the disordered jumble which filled up the rest of the shed. William reached in and rustled around for a plastic bag. He rejected the first one he found because it had holes in the bottom to stop children from suffocating. He wanted one of the old-fashioned child-killer type bags, with no holes in it, and eventually he found a white one with a Union Jack printed on either side. He dipped his hand back in and this time came up with an orange plastic sandcastle mould, which he used to scoop a fish out of the bucket. He then emptied the fish into the plastic bag, along with a generous amount of water.
Checking the bag didn't leak, he took it with him as he stepped carefully down from the shed, this time without stumbling. It had stopped raining. He closed the shed door and set out along the wet and winding path towards the house. November and a gloss of rain had turned the last leaves on the chestnut trees a rich ochreous yellow. The hornbeams added a different tint, more like lemon. It was like living in a park, William thought, only better than that because no-one came to move you on or spray you with graffiti as you slept. As he scuffed across the damp grass of the lowest of the terraced lawns, William had his first view of the top half of the columns of the colonnaded dining room.
He hoped it was kippers.
It is the first of November 1993 and somewhere in Britain, in Bath or Hartlepool or Londonderry or Yarmouth, in Haverfordwest or Tunbridge Wells or Stirling or Grimsby, Mr Kelly, warehouseman, asks his son Spencer how much a footballer can make in a week.
Mr Kelly and two of his three children, Spencer (10) and Rachel (8), are standing in the goalmouth of a football pitch in the middle of a municipal sports field. Spencer is wearing a replica Coventry City, Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Queens Park Rangers, Southampton football shirt with the number 10 on the back, and Rachel is wearing the same, but with the number 8. Mr Kelly is wearing his work clothes.
Spencer clutches the white football high up on his chest and looks across at Rachel, who says:
`Average transfer fee, about 2.75 million, for a midfielder.'
Rachel's hair, which could be blonde if it was longer, is cut even shorter than Spencer's.
`The answer,' Mr Kelly says, as he paces out the boundaries of their pitch, `is lots. Bucket-loads. But you have to be strong. You have to be robust. What do you have to be, Spencer?'
`He has to be robust,' Rachel says, grabbing the ball. She drops it and starts dribbling expertly across the six-yard box, and her legs look just right, slim and strong. She wears her football shirt outside her white, black, blue, green shorts. Spencer's legs are thin and very pale.
Mr Kelly finishes marking out the pitch, determined to prove that Spencer is made of sterner stuff than his brother Philip (13), who because God is cruel to men like Mr Kelly (Mr Kelly thinks), has turned out to be a great wet wimp. Philip likes to read books and newspapers, and always lets a frightening story frighten him. This is his morbid imagination, according to his mother, and Mr Kelly wouldn't mind knowing where it came from. Not from his mother, anyway. Philip is so old, nearly fourteen, that Spencer rarely thinks about him. Instead, he watches the way Rachel runs, is proud of the way her body-swerve bamboozles imaginary full-backs.
`Last to touch the posts is goalie,' says Spencer's Dad, and touches the post which is right beside him. From the middle of the penalty area Spencer runs as fast as he can, enjoying himself and trying hard but not, in fact, going very fast. Rachel calmly cruises past him. She touches both posts and then starts laughing, making champion fists beside her ears. Catching her breath, she leans her hands on her narrow knees, which are bent inwards slightly. She looks up at Spencer and smiles brightly and in that moment Spencer sees clearly that everything, always, is going to be alright. There is no need to worry because it all turns out just fine.
`I'll be Argentina,' Rachel says, and dribbles the ball to the edge of the area, turns, flips the ball up for a volley, then flights a beautifully weighted cross to the far post. Mr Kelly meets it with a powerful header which leaves Spencer stranded. There is no net in the goal and the ball stops rolling somewhere half-way down the next pitch. Mr Kelly sighs and tells Spencer to leave it where it is. After a moment of hands-on-hips and significant head-shaking, he fetches a rugby ball and tosses it to Spencer, who drops it but then quickly picks it up again.
`I'm the Australian defence,' Mr Kelly says, bending his knees and leaning forward. `You and Rachel have to get past me and score a try. But remember, no pansying about. This is rugby league, and there's good money to be earned.'
Spencer passes the ball to Rachel who shoots out of the blocks and beats Mr Kelly with an incisive left-right sidestep. She dives and touches down, all smiles.
`Give Spencer a go.'
Spencer takes the ball, and shadowed by his father he runs in a long curve first one way and then the other, but without actually making any forward progress. Eventually he slips in a pool of mud and falls on his bum. He laughs, and Mr Kelly ponders, not for the first time, whether these days babies still get swapped at birth. Is it too late to take Spencer back?
`Rely on your natural talent,' Mr Kelly says. `Get past me once and you'll never look back.'
Spencer stands up. Rachel flattens him with a tackle and steals the ball and scores another try.
Mr Kelly sighs and fetches a cricket bat and a tennis ball.
Rachel bats first, Mr Kelly bowls, Spencer fields. Rachel scores a brisk 37 off 35 balls. Then she retires and it's Spencer's turn to bat but he claims an injury sustained in the outfield: a damaged rib cartilage or a groin strain or severe concussion. It starts to rain. Mr Kelly looks up at the grey heavens, and follows the smooth flight of a seagull before squatting down to put his hands on Spencer's shoulders. He looks his second son directly in the eye.
`Do you want to grow up to be a warehouseman? Is that it?'
Spencer looks at his feet and kicks at the grass.
`Come on, son,' Mr Kelly says, `there must be something you're good at.'
Rachel looks up at the gathering cloud, and holds out a hand to catch the early rain. She makes a suggestion, only trying to help:
11/1/93 Monday 07:12
Lying on her side, watching him dress, Hazel was hoping that at last her life had really begun. He wasn't as gorgeous as she'd sometimes imagined him, but then he wasn't as ugly either. Instead, like most things, he was somewhere in between.
`You have nice legs,' she said.
He found some trousers underneath the space-suit, and while he pulled them on Hazel felt like touching his knees. He also had good muscles in his back, and she liked to see a man's ribs. He pushed his arms into a dark shirt, brown, with a tartan kind of design, fastened the lowest button and worked his way up. Sensitive hands. He reached for his jacket. His black hair was also nice, rufflable.
`What's so funny?'
`I never imagined you in a suit.'
`It's a Simpson suit.'
`It's cool. I like it. I think.'
It was double-breasted though he didn't button it. It hung loosely over the pockets of his trousers and it looked alright. It would look better with a tie, of course, and a proper shirt, but she didn't want to race ahead.
`I bought it in the sale,' Spencer said. `I liked your dress last night.'
They both glanced at where it lay wantonly on the floor, empty and anybody's. `Earlier this morning,' Hazel corrected him. `It wasn't really last night.'
`I didn't realise it was so late.'
`I phoned after midnight. It was well into today.'
`Does it matter?'
`No. I don't suppose it does.'
Hazel rolled over onto her back and slipped a bare leg outside the blanket. Keeping it straight, she lifted it up like a dancer, moving her foot slowly up and down from the ankle until the bones stood out. She tried to imagine a day in which everything went right, but Spencer kept glancing at her hair, trapped behind her ears by the pillow.
`I hadn't expected you to be so blonde,' he said.
She let her leg drop and pulled the blanket up over her nose. Did it always have to be like this? It wasn't as if they were complete strangers: they'd already slept together. She wished they could learn everything about each other instantly, or at least in a single day. That might be possible, if it was love, building on the feeling that she'd always known him anyway, which is what persuaded her into bed with him in the first place. She wished she had always known him. It would have made everything so much easier.
`Tell me about the house,' she said, pulling the blanket down to her chin. `How many rooms?'
`I have to make William his breakfast,' Spencer said.
`I know, you already told me.'
`Then I have to get a present for my niece. It's her birthday.'
`And don't forget your library books,' Hazel said. She turned towards him and reached up her arm, hoping he'd take her hand. `How about making some more babies?'
`William's breakfast,' Spencer said. He took Hazel's hand all the same, and she pulled until he gave in and sat himself down on the edge of the mattress.
`How many rooms?'
`I've never counted.'
At least eight bedrooms, Spencer tried. Three dining rooms. A gym. A jacuzzi. There was the swimming pool and several different types of marbled bathroom, four or maybe five of them. The main drawing room had wood-panelled walls and a ten-metre-high dome, the main dining room was flanked by columns, and suddenly Spencer seemed relieved just to be talking, as if he found it much easier than actual conversation. The house was eighteenth century, he said, Grade 2 listed, and the swimming pool, did he mention the swimming pool? It was granite-lined and had a glass roof. It connected the main part of the house with the garages and staff apartments, where they were now, and although Hazel was already impressed Spencer thought she'd like to know that Charles Kingsley once lived here. Charles Kingsley was a vicar who wrote The Water Babies, but even so Hazel put her hand on Spencer's knee, hoping to calm him down.
He told her the house had the second largest privately-owned garden in London. There were terraced lawns and semi-circular flowerbeds and a mulberry tree planted by Elizabeth the First. Relax, Hazel wanted to say, I feel I know you already so there's no need to be nervous. But he'd forgotten to mention the walled garden where William lived, as well as leaving out the house's valuation at twenty-five million pounds, and the billiard room which had once been painted by David Jones. David Jones was a painter.
`Stop,' Hazel said. `Just stop a minute. Tell me what's wrong!
`Nothing's wrong. I have to make William his breakfast.'
`Come on, Spencer. You can do better than that.'
Spencer reached under the chair for his shoes. He turned his back to Hazel as he put them on and laced them, very slowly.
`Let's not fool ourselves,' he said. `We hardly know each other.'
`We've just spent the night together.'
`It was very late.'
`Didn't you want to?'
`Yes,' Spencer said, `I wanted to.'
He let himself fall back across the bed, as if it was all suddenly too much. Hazel's stomach became his pillow and he stared up at the ceiling, shading his eyes with his hands. Hazel stroked his hair.
`We ought at least give it a chance,' she said.
`This might be it. This might be the one moment which changes everything.'
`That's why it frightens me.'
`Let's give it a day. One day. Today. If it doesn't work out then no hard feelings. We can pick up where we left off yesterday, living very happily and very far apart.'
`Don't you have to go to work?'
`How will we decide?'
`If this is it.'
`If we end up back in bed,' Hazel said. `I don't know. Look out for signs, omens, anything that says in the grand scheme of things we fit together. I mean other than the fact that I don't have a boyfriend, you don't have a girlfriend, we're both twenty-four years old, speak the same language, and have recently had totally amazing sex.'
`I really ought to be making William his breakfast.'
Spencer sat up, stood up, and Hazel grabbed hold of a turn-up on his suit trousers. `So it's agreed then, we have the whole day?'
`I still don't see how we'll know,' Spencer said. `We'll probably go back to bed anyway, just because we feel like it, or because it gets dark.'
`Alright then. Pretend we're vampires in reverse. We'll make the decision in daylight.'
`Okay,' Spencer said. `Let's do that. Sex isn't everything.'
`Stay a bit longer.'
`I can't, really. I'm already late. William.'
`My library books.'
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