The following is from A.L. Kennedy’s novel, Serious Sweet. Kennedy has twice been selected as one of Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists and has won a host of other awards–including the Costa Book of the Year for her novel Day. She lives in London and is a part-time lecturer in creative writing at Warwick University.
Because lying in bed when awake was inadvisable, she’d come up here to see the dawn arriving. The council left the Top Park open, even at night. The qualities of the view it offered made constant access a must. People felt they might have to nip round anytime and check on the metropolis where it lay uncharacteristically prostrate at their feet. And wasn’t it flat—the city—when you saw it like this, so plainly founded on a tidal basin, rooted in mud? Strangers would remark to strangers about that. Inhabitants of the Hill didn’t need to; they were used to it. They could stroll along, perhaps through music—the Hill is a musical place, people practice instruments—and they could hope for the startle of a good London sunset, the blood and the glitter of that splashing on banks of distant windows, making dreams in the sky. Or else they might get the brawling roll of storms, or firework displays, or the tall afternoons when the blues of summer boiled and glared like the flag of some extraordinary, flawless nation. Even on an average day, the city needed watching. You shouldn’t turn your back on it, because it was a sly old thing.
She’d wanted a sunrise. Or rather, she’d wanted to be out and it had been very early and she’d had no choice about what she would get—at dawn the sunrise is reliably what will arrive, you can be calm about that, no fear of disappointments. You’re all right.
She’d cut in and taken the broad path, safe between distantly dozing trees, no shadows to hide any bother. A woman by yourself—you didn’t want to feel constantly threatened, but you’d no call to be daft about things, either. You don’t like to put yourself at risk. Well, do you? No, you don’t. You shouldn’t. At risk is no way to be.
Then she’d gone past the silent tennis court and headed—with fair confidence, even in the dimness, because she was here a lot—headed over the oily-feeling grass to the absolute highest point on the slope. Foxes had been singing, screaming, somewhere close.
It was traditional to hate foxes, but she wasn’t sure why. She guessed it was a habit to do with guilt. They always sounded injured, if not tormented, and that could get you thinking about harms you’d done to others in your past. The foxes perhaps acted like a form of haunting by offering reminders of sin, and that was never popular. Or perhaps there was no logic involved, only free-form loathing, picking a target and sticking with it.
She enjoyed the warm din of the foxes, the bloody-and-furry and white-toothed sound—it was intense, and she appreciated intensity. This was her choice. In the same way, the Hill was her choice. The open dark had given her a cliff-top feeling as soon as she came within sight of the big skyline. It provided the good illusion that she could step off from here and go kicking into space, swimming on and up. Below her, opened and spread, were instants and chains of light apparently hung in a vast nowhere, a beautiful confusion. It was easy to assume that London’s walls and structures had proved superfluous, been let go, and that only lives, pure lives, were burning in midair, floating as stacks of heat, or color, perhaps expressions of will. What might be supporting the lives, you couldn’t tell.
Then, during the course of an hour, the sun had indeed pressed in at the east, risen, birds had woken and announced the fact, as had airplanes and buses, and the world had solidified and shut her back out. It was like a person. You meet someone at night and they won’t be the same as they will if you see them in daytime. Under the still-goldenish, powdery sky, buildings had become just buildings, recognizably Victorian in the foreground and repeating to form busy furrows, their pattern interrupted where bombs had fallen in the war. These explosive absences had then been filled with newer and usually uglier structures, or else parks. There were also areas simply left gapped. They had been damaged and then abandoned, allowed to become tiny wildernesses, gaps of forgotten cause. Rockets had hit in ’44—V-1s and V-2s. Somewhere under the current library—which wasn’t council anymore—there’d been a shattered building and people in pieces, dozens of human beings torn away from life in their lunch hour. It didn’t show. There was a memorial plaque if you noticed, but other human beings, not obviously in pieces, would generally walk past it and give it no thought.
She was the type, though, to give it thought. She had an interest in damages, you might say: damages and gaps. They could both be educational.
Other places were more peaceable. She could pick out church spires and the cream-colored Battersea chimneys of what had been the power station. Farther off, thin trains pushed themselves to unseen destinations and details blurred. The far distance raised up shapes, or hints, or dreams of impossible coasts, lagoons, and mountains. Mirages crept out from under the horizon. And somewhere, the crumpled shape of the Thames hunched along invisibly toward the coast.
It wasn’t a bad morning. She wasn’t a morning person, but she could still like it. The parakeets were lively already and sleeking about, flaring to a halt and alighting—an alien green that never was here before—bouncing and head cocking in dull trees. They were something from the mirage country beyond the rooftops. Initially, there’d only been a pair of them on the Hill, but two was all it ever took—think of Noah. One plus one equals more. They were teaching the magpies bad words.
By this point—almost seven o’clock on an April Friday—the standard architectural landmarks were on offer: the complicated metallic cylinder rising up near Vauxhall, the vast stab of glass at London Bridge, the turbines rearing uneasily over Elephant and Castle, the shape of a well-turned banister marking Fitzrovia . . . each of the aids to navigation. And then there was the toy-box clutter of the City, a slapdash collection of unlikely forms, or the vaguely art deco confections at Canary Wharf and, dotted about, the distant filaments of cranes that would lift more empty peculiarities into the undefended sky.
These were the self-conscious monuments of confident organizations and prominent men—everyone of less significance was forced to look at them and reflect. Insignificant people gave them nicknames purposely comparing this or that noble edifice to a pocket-size object, a domestic item: cell phone, cheese grater, gherkin. If you couldn’t make them go away, or prevent new ones appearing—these proofs of concentrated power, silliness, silly wealth—then you could declare them ridiculous. You could be pleased to hear of their design flaws, their structural defects, their expensively unoccupied floor space. It did no good, but it could make you smile.
You could try the same with other sections of reality. Sometimes. Sometimes the art of naming could subdue hostile territory for a while. She’d once visited a friend—more a friend of friends—in the hospital. The room he’d shared with two others had been high enough to peer across Chelsea. Some former inmate had left a meticulous drawing of the landscape, every roof in silhouette, marked across an elongated strip of card. The detail was obsessive. Each building was identified and given historical, or scurrilous, footnotes.
As she’d had very little she could talk about to her friend’s friend, she’d drifted into remarks about the unknown artist. She’d said that someone must have spent week after week here being very ill, or very bored, or dying and trying to keep useful by leaving a present behind. Her friend’s friend had, at that time, been in the process of dying, although he was taking it well.
It had been one of those days when her tact had failed her.
Now she wondered if the Hill could find somebody who would make them all a similar long, thin chart to explain their outlook and keep them right. It would be both useful and appropriate. In summer, when residents loitered outside in the early hours to smoke, paced on front paths and in gardens, leaned against doorways, sat on steps, then the place did have a hospital atmosphere: slippers and nightgowns, quiet nods in passing, half-awake stares and faces still pillow-creased, soft. They all needed a therapeutic map they could walk up and learn from, alter, perfect, garnish with added footnotes as they wished. It would be a thing of power.
Or they could go on as they were—half knowing, recognizing, deducing.
Or they could make things up. She could do that. She was good at invention, often unhelpfully so. She could quickly feel definitive and point to Over There and then announce, That is the listening post that records our affections, there is the confectioner’s workshop devoted to making models of our souls—they do it with spun sugar, souls never purchased, only taken as gifts, or eaten—and that’s the Depository of Regret, and there is the doorway to the Furnace, guarded by a clever dog. She could reel off all sorts of nonsense like this—no worries over whether you wanted it or not.
In bleak moods, she just would prefer that all the signature constructions, the grand gestures, were rechristened factually: the Shinywank, the Spinywank, the Fatwank, the Flatwank, the Weirdwank, the Overlooked, the Understrength, the Pretty, the Petty, the Squint, and the Sadwank.
Why not be straightforward? But she wasn’t in a bleak mood today. In conversation, she might—it was true—have said, I will meet you under the Spinywank—right beside the station. But she’d only have meant it in fun. She might even have thought it but kept quiet. She would have been able to remember that some people don’t appreciate terms like wank and so she would have waited and had a thinkthinkthink, checked to discover if she ought to skip the cheap laugh and be more standard-issue instead. That way you wouldn’t cause offence. Although you might discover later that nonhabitual swearers were up for it on some occasions and pleased by bad words from others when the time was right. Hard to tell by looking. You had to test the waters without drowning, slip in gently for a bit of a dip. To be cautious, then, she might have said, I will meet you on Friday, right next to the tower—at London Bridge Station. And added no flourishes.
She’d have been happy, though, however she phrased it. She’d have been happy in any case.
I will meet you.
It’s a happy statement.
It’s a good promise.
And it had joined her birthday as a pleasant thing to bear in mind.
It’s my birthday.
This is her first birthday.
She is forty-five years old and having her first birthday.
This has been her first birthday for quite a while, in fact, longer than average, to be honest.
I’m spinning it out. Just try and stop me. You can’t. Bet you can’t. This birthday is all mine.
She’s made it as far as her continuing first birthday and is trotting further on. This is an excellent thought.
She has a collection of premium-quality thoughts that she likes to count through. She has scenes and moments she remembers deliberately. This is her equivalent of maybe passing warm pebbles from hand to hand, smooth and reliable, or her version of the rosary, her misbaha, her mala, her komboloi, her worry beads—everyone worries and why not have beads? She counted out invisible fragments and wished they were more obvious, better at saying to other people, Just leave me alone for a minute, because I am busy with wanting to feel all right.
There’s no fault in wanting that.There’s no harm in milking your birthday. Even if it did happen more than a week ago—so what?
My name is Meg. It’s my fucking birthday.
She feels that she’s justified.
How often, after all, do you have your first birthday? Usually not more than once.
Fine, OK—it wasn’t a birthday, it was an anniversary.
My name is Margaret Williams, Meg Williams. My name is Meg and it is my anniversary. One year.
But birthday was a better word for it, because telling yourself first birthday could remind you of when you were a kind of celebrity at rock-star level, but too young to enjoy it. When you got born, you were immediately good news. When anyone saw you, they smiled. They gave you stuff. They wanted to hold you and protect you and be kind. You could dress like a mental patient and not utter a sensible word, but that was OK, that was cool, that pleased people and they purely wanted to know more about you and find out your needs. If you messed up, then somebody else washed away your problem and you only had to be and that was enough to satisfy. You being you was a bloody treat for anyone who caught it.
One is the age of automatic celebrity.
Who wouldn’t want a share of that?
One is spotless and has no baggage and can do no harm. It has only the ghosts of things to come—each one of them carrying a happy promise.
She didn’t, in the usual way of things, enjoy thinking of the future—the future had an unmanageable shape.
But when you were one, you had this big, noticeable, smiling future—it was right there for you, straight ahead and held to be inviting. You had promise and it wasn’t meant to disappear, not until you were older. You were a promise. To others as much as to yourself.
A nudge of emotion started to seethe up from her feet, and she hoped that the early dog walkers didn’t come too near and notice her slightly crying. The Hill was a chatty area, you might not get away with tears—you’d have to protect yourself against inquiries.
Really, she ought to head home and get warmed and out of her pajamas. Outings undertaken with Wellingtons and a coat over pajamas were viewed as an acceptable morning practice in many households around here. The Hill didn’t judge. Car jaunts of an evening could use the same dress code. If you had a car. She didn’t anymore. And there was work soon and something else before and she had to get ready in a number of ways, and the bus schedules had become mainly theoretical of late, which meant she had to be responsible and set aside more time for journeys. She should shower and make ready and chase straight off to be where she should and then onward to do her job and serve a purpose.
This was another good thing to have in mind: she was employed and her employers found her useful and wanted her to keep appearing as agreed and paid her and provided a workforce kettle and mugs—free to all staff—and encouraged community-building traditions, like the rota that meant each last Friday in the month someone had to bring cake.
It occurred to her that the pressure of her approaching turn as a bringer of cake was OK.
But, then again, it was a pressure.
When a cake failed, it ruined the mood for the whole of the office and finished the month sadly. Success in the cake area was therefore important.
She’d have to buy one, because she couldn’t bake, not reliably. Baking the cake, anyway, would invite hysteria. If it was a dreadful cake from a shop, you could blame the shop. Your own dreadful cake—people have to be polite about it, but they don’t want it and you being around in the aftermath of your rotten cake provision means that coworkers have to sneak off and ditch their slices. Then you’ll end up catching sight of trashed cake wrapped in paper towels, but still obvious, or cake troubling pigeons on the windowsills, or anywhere really; it would depend on how resourceful your coworkers at GFH were, and the more resourceful they were, the more energy they’d have to waste in jettisoning your disaster, which was your fault, and the entire mess would be so deeply humiliating that it didn’t bear considering.
So she wouldn’t consider it.
She would acknowledge instead that it wasn’t a big deal and she was being melodramatic.
Nevertheless, she’d been testing shop cakes once a week to be sure she’d avoid catastrophe. How good they were depended quite depressingly upon price. She wanted a relatively cheap cake. She also wanted a cake that felt innocent and as if some experienced relative’s hands had formed and finished it—plain but delicious and heartfelt. She wanted to give people something kind and simple.
That wasn’t available.The cheap cake was horrible. The expensive cake tasted of greed—of greedy bakers.
She couldn’t win.
Who knew cake was such a bastard?
It wasn’t the major issues that tripped you up—glorious suffering and mayhem were oddly easy to discuss. You could similarly try not to be embarrassed or pursued by your very many inadequacies. But ridiculous, obsessive anxiety about virtually nothing: that was shameful and so you didn’t mention it and so it festered.
I am letting myself be harassed by eggs, butter, sugar, and flour.
She would buy chocolate for Gartcosh Farm Home. Chocolate cake.
Chocolate always worked.
A cake could be nasty, commercial, impersonal, slightly toxic—if it were chocolate, it worked anyway. This was some kind of rule.
You couldn’t be absolutely sure, because maybe it would be possible to make the people at GFH finally tired of chocolate. It was a bit of an open goal when it came to providing treats, and so it occurred very often.
She wouldn’t be boring.
She wouldn’t trash a path to joy for everybody.
She wouldn’t ruin chocolate for everyone forever.
Jesus, this was hard.
Cake was hard.
She was out of the park now and on her way back to the flat—her strides fast with patisserie-related tension.
No. This is crazy.
She paused at the curb, as if being cautious about suddenly appearing traffic, although no sign of any such thing was even distantly approaching.
I cannot be bullied by cake. Not even real cake—by theoretical cake.
She sniffed, frowned, stepped into the empty road.
What I should do is get a chocolate and another one . . .
NoChristfuckshitforshittingfuckssake. I mean, really.
What she would do was not think about it.
Not think about chocolate cake without traces of nuts.
And no gluten.
And no alcohol.
Chocolate that helped starving villages and put orphans into schools, that built the schools, that saved lives and nourished communities and made strong women sing and wise men love them.
No one could argue with that.
Although there was no need to fuss or think about this. Not about cake.
It was just a fucking cake.
Which should be chocolate.
Why the hell were they all so demanding?
Making people bring cake. Which sadist thought of that?
Not that it wasn’t a good idea.
It was nobody’s fault but her own that the prospect of cake provision could burrow a hole through her head within seconds and let all the sense drop out, have her imagining accidents: choking, allergies, and sickness, these swiftly followed by her sacking and destitution, homelessness, begging, and death.
Just a cake.
Just the threat of a cake.
So don’t think about it.
She would move herself forward to something else.
She would pick one of her shiniest, best things. Pick a warm thought, a true one.
I will meet you.
She opened her gate, walked up the path to her front door and undertook to ensure that while she waited for the doubtful bus and then something unpleasant beyond it and then work—she did like her work—she could have that promise, kept safe.
I will meet you.
Fear or no fear, the thought was with her—all the way in.
I will meet you.
It was so dangerous with hope that she’d only consider it in little rushes, for fear of worrying and pulling it apart. For fear of fear and the way that her fear would breed further fear. One plus one equals more.
I will meet you.
But it was with her, anyway.
My name is Meg and I’ve passed my one-year anniversary and I have this with me.
I will meet you.
Meg could feel it was almost certain that if somebody parted her ribs and looked inside, there would be a light to find because of this. Because of all this.
It was with her.
Here it is.
Excerpted from Serious Sweet by A.L. Kennedy. Published by Little A. Copyright © 2016 by A.L. Kennedy. All Rights Reserved.