With the bidey-in working away for a few weeks, I have a rare, extended period of solitude at home and had hoped to use the swathes of uninterrupted time to storm ahead on editing the novel. And I am doing so; it’s knitting together better this time round, but progress is slow. Partly this is because I’m battling against the glittering shiny of new ideas, because that’s one of the features of editing – you’re long past the point where the story you’re trying to tell has any interest for you. It looked amazing on the drawing board, but this creation sitting up on jacks on the shop floor doesn’t bear much relation to the sexy, if sketchy, original design. You look up at that now slightly tattered blueprint pinned to the wall and then back down at the book, and then you look over at the drawing board with a sheet of lovely, clean, white paper stretched across it. And you shake your head and gird your loins and get out your Number 3 lump hammer and start in about the panel beating for the dozenth time.
See, that’s the rule: No new things until the old thing is finished.
But the other reason the work has been going slow is that living on your own, even temporarily, throws you right out of your routine. You don’t cook properly because it’s hardly worth it for one. You stay up too late and when you do go to bed you don’t sleep well. You get strung out on the discontinuity from your normal rhythm of living. One night I woke up around 3am, sitting up with the light still on, and was convinced I saw a mouse on the carpet. Except it wasn’t exactly like a mouse. The shape was a little wrong, the movement smooth in a way that I found disconcerting enough to cry out. No, more than that – it scared me, in a proper 1970s TV adaptation of an MR James story kind of way. When I shouted, the shape stopped moving and then in the next blink of my fried-out eyes, it was gone. I figured “the mouse” (I could only think of it in those terms) must have gone back under the bed. So, I duly forced myself to get up and pulled the bed out from the wall and moved the junk stored under it, and…there was nothing. Nothing at all. I had to persuade myself not to go through and sleep on the couch that night, and the rest of the night’s sleep once I did get back into bed was rubbish.
The next evening, when I got in from work, the phone rang. Our landline is hardly ever used, to the extent that when you answer there’s a 70% chance that it’ll be a recorded marketing message. Expecting a call from my mum, I took a chance and answered, and what I heard absolutely chilled me to the core: You are alone in this conference. Click. Common sense immediately kicks in and tells you that someone’s conference call system has screwed up and…somehow…managed to randomly call your home phone just at the time you came home with a message so anodyne and yet so bleak as to sum up your by now utter sense of dislocation. A feeling that now leadens your bones everywhere you go, that interrupts your thoughts, makes it impossible to think. Makes you constantly check the carpet for smoothly scuttling non-mice.
Last night, during the 25 minute walk home from work I imagined an entire short story that I think sums up all of this perfectly. It’s something entirely new for me – a contemporary middle-European fable involving an olfactory genius, a magical Hapsburg-era nose, and a very seedy side of the internet. Comfort zone it is not. Duty shift on the novel it is not.
But I know it has to be written if I’m to have any prospect of settling the hell down and getting on with things.