With a week to go until the publication of NIGHT OF THE PARTY, here’s a sneaky preview of the opening pages.
It’s 12 December. Almost the end of term. I should be in school but Miss D’s off sick so Philosophy was cancelled and the others were arsing around Blu-tacking balloons and tinsel to the common-room ceiling. I couldn’t be bothered. Checked out, went for a walk, ended up at the South Bank. Wrote an essay. Did some maths. Do you know it’s possible to prove that infinity minus infinity equals pi?
Had my interview this week. Uni starts in 292 days. Just over 25 million seconds. If I get an offer. If I get the grades.
The Xmas market’s up. Remember? All those overpriced stalls along the river? You used to love it.
I should go.
He deletes the letter, empties the recycle bin, packs his laptop away, swallows the last mouthful of cold coffee. The cup’s left intersecting rings of moisture on the table, a Venn diagram of empty sets. He wipes it clean with his hand, finds a philosophy lecture on his phone, jams his headphones in and heads outside.
It’s nearly dark; the huge, projected images on the buildings across the river are already on: the right-angles of the English cross alternating with the curled flames of the Party torch. The images flicker, break up, go off, and come on again.
The voice in his ears asks if it’s possible to prove that anything exists outside his mind.
It bloody better.
Everything that’s happened in the last sixteen months (approximately 41,500,000 seconds)? He doesn’t want to have invented all that; doesn’t want to be stuck in the kind of mind that could invent it.
He’s lost track of the talk. He clicks it off, hurries across the bridge and down into the station; when he reaches the platform, his train’s pulling out. He studies the posters on the far side of the track (the usual government announcements; ads for yet another Second World War movie), glances at the headline in an abandoned newspaper on a bench (Lucky for some? PM confirms 13 February General Election), paces to the end of the platform.
When the tube comes, he gets into the last carriage, drops into the third seat on the right, restarts the philosophy talk and stares at the floor, trying to concentrate. The train judders and stops, judders and stops. The shiny shoes opposite him get off, are replaced by a pair of running shoes.
Proper running shoes, with cushioned and engineered soles, worn and scuffed like they’ve done hundreds of miles. He glances up. The girl wearing them has long dark hair that hides her face; she’s reading, her book balanced on the backpack on her lap. She’s wearing baggy grey tracksuit bottoms, cuffed at the ankle, and a navy-blue waterproof jacket: the sort that rolls up into its own pocket. Lightweight jacket, small backpack, trackie bottoms, trainers: she looks like she’s ready to run.
The train slows into Camden Town. She stands, hesitates, and sits again; as she does she looks straight at him. Her face is pale, serious; she has dark eyes that lock on his. He blushes and ducks his head. The doors slide shut, the train jerks forward, picks up speed. Two minutes to the next stop. He counts down from 120 seconds. At 77 the lights flicker off, on, off again. The train slows, and stops.
They’ll get going again in a minute.
He counts again, forward this time.
At 200 nothing’s happened. The train’s still stuck, the lights are still out; it’d be totally dark if people didn’t have their phones out, making little blocks of white light along the carriage. Someone says bloody London Transport. Couldn’t organize a piss-up in a brewery. A few people laugh. A kid starts to cry.
The train doesn’t move.
It’ll be another blackout.
He looks across the aisle at the girl. The man next to her is looking at his phone, and its glimmer bleaches her face and makes dark hollows of her eyes. She’s scared, he thinks. He switches on the torch on his phone, and leans towards her.
“You OK? It’s only a blackout.” (Probably)
“I know. It’s just . . . I’m late.”
He nods down at her trainers. “You’d have been quicker running.”
“Yeah. Probably.” She meets his eyes briefly, with a fleeting smile.
He wants to keep talking to her. “What’s the book?” he asks and she tilts it towards him so he can read the title. Four Quartets. T S Eliot. Poetry. He gave Sophie a book of poems once. . . “Poems on the Underground,” he says. “Don’t see a lot of those nowadays.”
It’s a pathetic joke, but she smiles again. She lays one hand lightly on the book’s cover. “Have you read it?”
“No,” he says, and then, “Will you? Read some . . . I mean . . . if that’s OK.” Good thing it’s dark; he can feel himself blushing. The girl stares at him for a moment, then she opens the book and leans forward to catch the light of his phone on the page. Down the carriage, the kid’s still crying and the piss-up in a brewery guy has lost his sense of humour in the dark and is saying loudly, What the hell is going on? And can’t you shut that kid up, for God’s sake?
She starts to read.
He has no idea what any of it means. He catches odd words – the light fails – a winter’s afternoon – but he can’t put them together into any kind of sense; there’s just her low, clear voice and a feeling in his chest like the beginning of tears.
No. No no no no no. Not now.
Only, he doesn’t cry; at first it feels like he’s going to, it feels like the same sense of building pressure, of something too strong to contain, but it’s not. It’s not the same, it’s something different. Lighter. He hasn’t felt like this for – definitely not for the last 41,500,000 seconds, maybe ever, and all he wants to do is go on sitting here, in the dark, listening to her voice, feeling whatever this is.
There’s a sudden flare of torchlight. She stops reading. Two underground workers in big boots and high-vis jackets come stomping along the carriage. The kid’s still crying; the man’s still complaining loudly about cyberterrorism and the need for heightened security and what the hell are the police doing about it, he’d like to know?
“It’s a blackout, sir,” one of the underground workers says.
Just a blackout.
He stands, shoulders his bag and stays close to the girl as they climb down onto the black gravel in the brick tunnel and walk along the dead rails to Chalk Farm station, and up the 54 emergency steps to the surface. The police are checking IDs at the barriers; he fumbles his card out of his pocket, is waved through, out onto the pavement. It’s raining; it’s utterly dark except for the lights of the police car and ambulance parked outside the station, reflecting blue off the wet road.
He stares. He knows this scene.
Déjà vu is a trick of the brain. Jas, who does A level Psychology, told him that: it’s when one half of your brain registers something before the other, or something. Except. . . This isn’t déjà vu. He really has seen this before. The blue lights. The wet road. The blue lights.
“Are you OK?” she asks.
He blinks hard and wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. “Yeah,” he manages. “You? How’re you going to get home?”
“Which way are you going?”
“Uh. . . Up the hill.”
He lights the way with his phone. The power cut’s knocked everything out: house lights and street lights, and it must go on for miles because there’s none of the usual reflected city glow in the sky. The shops and cafés on the hill are closed, but in the pub halfway up there are candles in the windows, and the sound of muffled singing from the bar. La-a-and of Ho-o-ope and Glo-o-ry: the local Party, not exactly calm, but carrying on despite the blackout. Just past the pub, the Neighbourhood Watch are on patrol: Mr Smith from the flat downstairs, and Clyde from the block opposite.
“You need to get home,” Smith tells them. “Stay in till the power’s back on.”
He nods; when the patrol’s moved out of hearing, he asks her, “Where d’you need to get to?”
“I’ll go across the Heath.”
The Heath’s huge: he thinks of her running across it, in the dark, alone. Anything could happen to her.
“I can drive you, if you like.”
“Sure.” He’s not sure: he only passed his test last week, you’re meant to stay off the road in a blackout, and Mum’ll go mental if she finds out. But she’s scared; he can’t just leave her.
He doesn’t want to leave her. They carry on uphill and round the corner; he pauses at the bottom of the steps and stares up at the flats. There’s a faint flicker of candlelight in some of the windows, but the top floor is dark. Mum’s probably still at work, or stuck on another tube. He turns to the girl.
“I need to get the car key. D’you want to come in?”
She sounds startled, and he stammers, “I mean. . . It’s freezing out here.”
“Oh. Right. This is where you live?”
She follows him up the front steps and into the lobby. As the inner door clicks heavily shut behind them, he glances at her. The emergency lights glimmer weakly in the darkness, and her face is still shadowed, unreadable.
“You could stay for a bit, if you want? Wait till the blackout’s over?”
“I can’t. Sorry.”
He doesn’t want her to go; he says, “Sure. Won’t be long,” and runs upstairs. When he opens the door, Lulu leaps out at him like a miniature hellhound on speed.
“Get down, dog.” He pushes her off, and lights his way into the kitchen with his phone; he still can’t navigate this flat in the dark. He scoops up the car keys. Lulu whines at him. She’s been shut inside all day.
“OK,” he says. “OK. . . You better come,” and she scampers down the stairs ahead of him; by the time he reaches the lobby, she’s jumping up at the girl, licking her hands. “Get down, Lulu!” he says again, and, “Sorry. Sorry. She needs training.”
“It’s OK.” The girl crouches to ruffle Lulu’s ears. “Did you say her name was Lulu?”
“Yeah.” He hasn’t told her his name, he realizes; he doesn’t know hers. “I’m Ash. You?”
“Zara. Ash what?”
“Jones. Sorry. I really need to get home.”
Don’t go, he thinks. He lets them out into the cold darkness, finds the car, slings the dog into the back, and clears his trainers off the front seat to make room for Zara. The headlights glare into the blackness as he pulls out and – he’s not exactly wishing he hadn’t offered to drive her home, but he can see why they tell you not to drive in the blackout: down the hill there’s the white glow of the hospital, running on emergency generators, but everywhere else there’s absolute, total darkness. He drives like someone’s great-grandmother: sitting forward, hands tight on the wheel, peering ahead, going at 20 mph. This is safe; braking distance at this speed is forty feet and the headlights reach four times that far.
It doesn’t feel safe.
It feels like anything could fly out of the darkness at any time.
They inch up the High Street, past the closed tube station, up the narrow steep road to the Heath. Usually, from here, you look down on the lights of the city, but not tonight; the whole of London’s blacked out. The road across the Heath is utterly dark except for the reflected glimmer of his own headlights in a fox’s eyes that sends Lulu into a storm of furious barking; by the time she’s shut up, they’re at East Finchley. He drives under the railway bridge.
“You can drop me here,” Zara says.
“It’s OK— ”
“I only live round the corner. It’s fine. Drop me here.”
He pulls over to the side of the road; she opens the door: in seconds she’ll be gone.
“Wait,” he says. “Can I have your phone number?”
She says nothing, staring straight ahead into the darkness.
“I’ll take yours.” She unzips her backpack, pulls out Four Quartets and a pen, flips the book open to the back page. It’s already covered in scribbled notes. She writes Ash Hammond. He tells her his number, slowly, carefully, watches her write it down and draw an irregular shape around it.
“Hey? You will call, won’t you?” he says, but she’s already out of the car; she shuts the door and the dark consumes her, instantly.