Welcome back to The Story Behind The Story series. Today’s post is by Geoff Le Pard. Not only is he the first male contributor to the series, but he’s also one of my favourite bloggers.
I’ve written a few books and published two. Each one has, at its core, something from my past, some event, some setting, some character. One, which is the darkest by far, is currently in a final edit before publication this year. I’ve agonised more about this than any of the others. With the rest my overriding concern is the quality of the narrative, whether it is readable and credible. This one involves another layer of concern, but essentially it comes from the same place. Is it honest? Perhaps that is an over used word and an odd one in fiction since telling stories can be, at one level, the essence of dishonest.
What I mean is: am I doing justice to my principle characters? Again one might think – so what? They are fictional constructs, not real people. And yet, as most writers of fiction will tell you, the characters are real, they travel with us as we write and their very existence comes from something within us.
Salisbury Square is set in central and south London over a few stiflingly hot days one summer about now. It concerns a homeless junkie, Suzie, and a Polish itinerant workman, Jerzy, who is running from a troubled family. It’s an unhappy story, tough to write and probably to read. You will root for them but you will not stop fearing for them.
They are, to me real people in that the genesis of the book and their characters are firmly founded in two incidents.
I worked for many years in a office on Fleet Street in London. That part of town is riddled with many historic passages and walkways, often dark and lonely at night. One such led from the side door of my office to the station from where I commuted. I wasn’t the shortest route but enjoyed keeping off the traffic congested streets.
Sometime in 2009 one of the adjacent buildings was hoarded off to enable a refurbishment to take place. The scaffolding narrowed the passages even more making them less inviting and less well travelled, especially after dark. This particular day, I worked late and it was dark, cold and, under the occasional yellow streets lights a mist clung like a sour gas. As I approached the hoardings one panel shifted. I stopped and stared, alert to who might be there so long after the builders would have gone home.
A woman, maybe in her 20s backed out. Her legs, the first thing I saw were blue with cold and maybe bruises and scratched. She wore a small denim mini skirt and a stained fake fur jacket. She didn’t notice me at first; she straightened up and ran her fingers though matted hair.
I felt guilty watching, certain she’d jump when she realised I was there. It took her a few moments to register my presence. Instead of showing surprise or shock she just smiled. I think it was her teeth that got to me, how bad they were. I think she said something like ‘fucking cold’ and began to roll a joint. She didn’t move to let me past.
The odd thing was it took me several moments to realise she was in control here, she was the one dictating the space. She lit up and offered me a drag. I declined and managed to ask if I could squeeze past. She laughed, a ridiculously deep and rough sound for one so young and offered to let me squeeze a lot more for cash. But she moved out of my way and I hurried on.
It took me the rest of my walk to recover my equilibrium – I’ve not been propositioned much – and a lot longer to recognise the damage that had been inflicted on her which I ignored because of her brazen defences. That she needed help was apparent. That she took hard drugs – the rotten teeth suggested crystal meth or similar – just as obvious. I could and should have asked one of the many agencies to go and see if she wanted some of their help. But I didn’t that night and the next night she had gone.
Her presence hung heavy on those walks. Who was she? How did she end up behind a screen in one of the richest cities on the planet? How did she become so damaged and yet sufficiently streetwise to see me off in a flash?
Weeks later I volunteered to help serve breakfast for a homeless charity near where I worked. Mostly the attendees were known to the staff but the day I was serving two large men appeared. They were decently dressed with good shoes – a sign they weren’t long in trouble – but they were both soaked miserable and shivering. They had little English but we gathered they had come from Eastern Europe on the promise of work and accommodation which had failed to materialise. They had been robbed of money and identity cards and thus breakfast was their first proper meal in days. They were beyond grateful, young men brought to tears by circumstances. The staff were extraordinary and after food took them to their embassy to help them get home.
One hopeful ending, one not so much. I knew, almost immediately I wanted to write about people like these characters, how easy it is in an affluent city like London to sink though the cracks. Also I was fascinated by my meeting with the young woman. Our lives felt like chalk and cheese and we naturally avoided the other but what if one person was dragged by circumstance into the other’s orbit? What would the outcome be and who, really would be the more resilient? From those questions Salisbury Square was born.
Geoff Le Pard started writing to entertain in 2006. He hasn’t left his keyboard since. When he’s not churning out novels he writes some maudlin self-indulgent poetry and blogs at geofflepard.com. He walks the dog for mutual inspiration and most of his best ideas come out of these strolls.