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Top 5 Things Every Author Needs When They’re Starting Out

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One of the most wonderful things about this industry is the flurry of new authors who enter the fold each month and year – people realising their dreams and making their stories into a reality. But whether they’re planning to self publish or debuting with a publisher, some have no idea of the resources they need to make their book a success. Often, a debut author isn’t necessarily a blogger or part of the online book fan community already, meaning they don’t know about netgalley, blog tours or all the elements that become standard when you’ve been doing it a while.

So here are 5 things you absolutely need when publishing a book:

A decent website

Ideally, get your website up before your book is out. You can do it yourself cheaply and with very little effort, using pre-created templates on WordPress or Wix. I’d recommend looking at websites of authors you want to be like – focus on your theme and genre, and match that accordingly. Down the line you might want something more professional, but until you establish a brand, you just need to take up space. Even a basic website is better than having no web presence at all.

A social media stream

A lot of people come to writing with old fashioned ideals – they don’t read ebooks, they expect their first deal to put their paperbacks in Waterstones, and they don’t do social media.

In the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman: ‘Big mistake. Huge.’

Almost 40% of book lovers, when asked their reasons for buying a book, felt they had some sort of online relationship with them. Whether that’s as bloggers, seeing adverts online or getting a ‘thank you’ tweet for reviewing the author’s last book, social media exists to form relationships with your audience. It’s a massive way to reach people. It also offers opportunities – my ‘big break’ was through finding a call for submissions on Twitter. Social media showed me how many publishers and agents were out there, it helped me get a sense of what they wanted. Watching things like pitching through hashtags, or agents giving their wishlists, it gave me an insight into the industry, and helped me create friendships with other supportive authors. Whichever social media stream you choose – enjoy it, use it to learn about and interact with other authors, show support and get conversing. Your readers care who you are, so show them.

Writer friends

Get yourself a writer posse – maybe it’s other writers with your publisher, or groups of self publisher writers, or a local group. Whether it’s an online group with friends halfway across the world, or people who are down the road – you’re going to need a support system. One’s who know what the joy of that first great review, and know the perfect thing to say when the bad reviews come (and they will always come). Find a group who can answer your questions, and share their knowledge and be there to celebrate with you. Having people who know just how painful that second round of edits can be, or to remind you that you’re not crap halfway through a first draft makes the whole thing more enjoyable.

Content

Part three of the trifecta of website and social media is having things to say. Any writer who thinks their job is done when their book is written does not know what it means to be an author. Your job starts after the book is done. You’ll write more blog posts than you ever thought possible, about your process, your characters, your goals. You’ll write top tens, and create spotify playlists and do everything you can to share about your book. Channel that love for writing into your blog posts and share your excitement.

Be a reader

The old way of reading used to feel impersonal – an author could write something that would touch you, and yet you’d have no interaction with them, beyond paying for their book. You might read about them, or hear an interview, or recommend their book, but that’s it. Now, the reading world is so much bigger than that. You can interact with authors, talk to them, and influence their sales. As an author, you’ll know how much one review, one retweet, one fan saying how much they’ve loved your books means. Make sure you do that for other authors. Read their books, and be part of the community. And find your own rules for sharing feedback – think about how it makes you feel, and how true to yourself you need to be.

Personally, I follow a ‘nothing nice to say, say nothing at all’ policy. If I don’t like a book, I don’t review it. You’ll find your own way, but please PLEASE just think of how it feels to create something and have someone else shit on it. If something isn’t for you, that’s cool, but please don’t tag an author on Twitter telling them how crap it was. We’re a delicate community, and you’ll need other authors on your side.

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I remember how terrifying it was starting out, how it was a completely different world. So I’m creating a resources sheet for authors, including things to remember when setting up a blog tour, stock image sources, and how to consider all different promotional forms. A comprehensive checklist of everything you need if you’re wanting to promote your work. If you’d like to receive my resources list, sign up for my newsletter here. And if there’s anything you really want to see on the resources list, put it in the comments!

 

 

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GUEST POST: Carys Jones ‘Where I Write’

I’m excited to welcome Carys Jones, a fellow Carina author, to my blog this week! Her book Prime Deception is available now!

 

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I write all my books on my trusty pink laptop in the study of my house. My laptop isn’t connected to the internet so when I sit up there I am solely focused on my work.

As you can see, my desk is covered in lots of girly trinkets. I have up programs from all the ballets I have been to with my Mom, we usually go twice a year. I have a Little Mermaid snow globe as its one of my favourite Disney movies and the picture in the Minnie/Daisy frame is of my beloved cat Pepper who sadly passed away a few years ago. Behind the picture of Pepper is a picture of me and all my friends on my wedding day. 

There is also a Hello Kitty clock which I’ve had for years and has followed me from my parents’ home to my own house now. I’ve always loved anything Hello Kitty. When this picture was taken I’d finished working for the day, when I’m working there is always a large glass of water on the pink coaster! 

There are more pictures scattered around on the walls but they are out of the shot. I try and make my writing space really personal, my own little area where I am surrounded by everything that I love and find familiar. It means that when I’m stuck, or writing something particularly emotional, I can look up and smile when I see either a picture or a memory of somewhere I’ve been.

On the far left you can see a load of notes from the story I’m currently working on. What you can’t see are all my scribbling’s written all over it as I’m forever changing my mind and altering things from my original plan! 

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On Dealing with Not Being a Special Snowflake: How the desire for originality can get us down.

I’m on my third novel at the moment, and it’s the first one I’ve ever written under a contract, with a deadline, and expectations and all that jazz. Usually, I write because I fall in love with these crazy people I’ve been having conversations with in my head, but this time round, it’s a bit like walking into a room of people and thinking ‘I have to fall in love with one of you tonight, or I’m screwed.’ A bit like starting a relationship before getting to know the other person. Suddenly we’re curled up watching TV on Sunday nights, and I don’t even know what their favourite colour is.

I’m into character driven stories, incase you couldn’t tell. I want to know about people, how they tick, why they act crazy in certain situations. And usually, the situations arise out of the crazy character. Now, I find myself desperately searching for places to put these characters, searching for drama, making issues where there are none.

 Issues always come from your character. The way they act, or how they think, inevitably causes problems for them. That’s what’s satisfying. Taking your average joe and sticking them on a runaway train, well, that’s not appealing to me. Not unless Joe used to be a train driver, and hasn’t ventured onto public transport in thirty years, because his wife died after being hit by a bus. I don’t care if Joe’s a big damn hero, I want his actions to have effects.

 

And here’s where we get stuck: There are an unlimited combination of people, problems and situations. However, after a while, they all seem to become the same. And I find myself accidentally using names other people have used, or having parts of a similar backstory. Is it that I’m reading more of the genre, and accidentally picking stuff up? Or is it that we’ve adapted to finding formulaic texts comforting, because we secretly know how it’s all going to turn out?

A writer friend of mine always used to have this issue. He’d get halfway through a truly brilliant project, and then find out someone had already done something really similar. My response was always ‘but YOU haven’t done it, your voice has value, it might bring something different to the table’, but now I get how he was feeling. When you’re passionate about what you do, and it starts to look fake, it’s hard to be enthusiastic. So what do I do? Throw away this book and start again? Remove any traces of anything that’s been mentioned in previous books? No. Impossible. Our influences define us, even if they’re unconscious.

 

All I can do is continue to explore my characters, hope that within them, in their histories and quirks, lies the answer to the originality of my story. Yes, boy meets girl, some stuff happens, everything’s fine, there’s drama, they’re together. There’s a reason it’s a cliche. But hopefully, at times like these, we trust that our voice really does have something new to say, even if we’re not sure how to do it.

 
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Sacrificing Stability for Creativity.

 

We make a living behaving like children- creativity is the last vestige of childhood, it remains within a few of us, unhindered by bills and mortgages and the responsibilities of adulthood. We all have the potential for creativity, we’ve just forgotten it in the wake of more present worries.

Yesterday, my father pointed out to me that I would never build a life without a nine to five job. He said life is about sacrifice, and that the way to get a mortgage and a home and the nice things every adult wants, is to get up at an ungodly hour each morning, work at a job I hate, and then come home and enjoy the spoils.

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That made me sad. Mainly because that’s what he’s been doing for over thirty years, but also because lots of people still seem to have this skewed view of the self-employed professional.  

If you are not passionate about the process of your work, then of course you are going to be passionate about the spoils. But I am passionate about the work I do. I will sacrifice the chance at a mortgage, at having extra money, at extravagant holidays and expensive jewellery, just so I can do what I do. So what does that leave me, the realisation that, at least in my father’s eyes, I am not building a career for myself? 

 

Except, a career isn’t built on wages. It’s built on reputation, on success, on recognition, on improvement and growth. Now, of course, profitability comes into it, we need to survive. But the realisation I had was that it doesn’t take much to make me happy- a little flat, enough money for fruit, and the occasional gig or show somewhere, and the fact that I get to write, and I’m pretty darn ecstatic.

 

So, by living happily, am I ignoring my future? No. Everything I do works towards making my name synonymous with what I do. Towards earning what I’m owed, having the confidence in my abilities, building up the experience and knowledge so that I can be the best I possibly can. What is that if not building for my future?

 

My generation is not the generation of mortgages and marriages and money. We are the scroungers, the interns, the jokers, the survivors, and it will be that way for quite a few years more, I’d guess. But the building we do to our futures, the foundations that we are setting right now are in our experiences, our friendships, our loves and our losses. We are beginning to define ourselves right now, as artists and as people. We are always working on our future, no matter what.

So keep building, keep creating, keep dreaming. Because that’s what gets you through.

 

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Let’s talk about (safe) sex, baby.

This isn’t REALLY for #weloveromance but as far as I’m concerned, you can’t have one without the other!

Do romance writers have a responsibility to present safe sex?

 

This was the question I wondered as I read a really great romance recently. It had all the things I love, a snarky love interest, a crazy family, excellent characterisation and backstory. The sex scene had been delayed long enough, and was really hot and then… when asked by the male she was just about to sleep with for the first time if he should get a condom, the female replied ‘Don’t worry, I’m on the pill.’

 

Now, here’s the balance: do we present safe sex, knowing that young women learn about the ‘normality’ of relationships through books like these, OR do we stay true to what sex is actually like, and that sometimes that stuff happens?

 

Here’s what bothered me- I wouldn’t judge a woman I know, or just met, if she told me that story. I might have rolled my eyes and said that the pill doesn’t protect against STDs and it’s not really the same thing, especially when you’re sleeping with someone for the first time, but I wouldn’t have judged. But I judged the writer for presenting me with such a character. A cautious and thoughtful character, who never takes risks and is always in control…and yet, this. Especially after they’d just had a whole discussion about the fact that the male character has had multiple fuck buddies at the same time.

 

Fair enough, a lot of people don’t like writing condoms into sex scenes- they think it loses momentum, breaks down the romantic bit, or the ‘ravaging in process’ bit. Personally, I don’t think that’s true, and I make a point to include it, especially in the first few sex scenes. It doesn’t need to metaphorically flick you in the face every time you start a steamy scene, but it’s a part of sexual experience. We don’t tend to write about all the gross stuff that happens in sex either, because we’re writing the ideal most of the time. But the ideal includes being safe, doesn’t it?

 

If we were writing to be true to life, we’d include all the nitty gritty gross stuff, so I can understand ignoring it altogether, I have no problem with that. But bringing it up, only to dismiss it for something that doesn’t actually address the situation? That’s the kind of excuse brought up in erotic fiction on the internet, where rape fantasies and incest stories hide away. They bring it up to get it out of the way, so that women are expected to give that answer, and ta-da! There sits your male condom-free fantasy. Except….the majority of readers of ‘chick lit’ are female…so what is achieved here?

 

I haven’t got an answer for you, but I’m interested in what you think! Do writers have an obligation to present safe sex, or do we ignore it and accept that it’s just fantasy? Comment, I’m intrigued!

 

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Why I Love my Kindle…And Why I Hate Myself For It.

 

I was a steadfast, never-changing, can’t-see-the-point, technology-goes-too-far defender of printed books. The ‘Original Book’ if you will. I spent a year on my MA in Creative Entrepreneurship listening to people defending the uses of e-readers, imploring me to consider changing markets and adapting writing to new ways of reading. I refused. The printed book will never be replaced, and I just wasn’t interested. However, when I needed to start editing other people’s books and stories, and my back was starting to break from dragging my laptop everywhere (which I still do, I’ve just added a kindle to the Big Bag of Doom), I decided to give them a chance.

Reasons I love it:

1. Instantaneous gratification

Ooh, I really want that book. Ooh, it’s coming out today! I can’t get to the shop today. My local bookshop doesn’t stock it. Oh, I don’t want to order it and wait for weeks, I want it NOW. Oh, BLAM, look at that! I have it. Shopping for books is one of the greatest pleasures, I may even prefer it to reading books. Seeing a book that grabs me, and instantly getting to read and enjoy it really feels good.

2. Holidays

I have always been a bookworm. When we went away on holiday, as a kid I had to think very carefully about my packing allowance. I always had three books for the plane (just in case) and five more in my case (for a two week holiday). No more using up all my packing space, weighing down my luggage, or having to make awful torn decisions about which book had to be left behind (poor little thing).

3. People can’t see what you’re reading

I think this was voted the number one favourite thing about e-readers. If I’m reading my typical maudlin YA fiction that I’ve read a hundred times before and probably has nothing to offer me, no one can judge. If I did want to read such absolute shite as Fifty Shades of Grey, or Twilight, I could do so without judgement. Which perhaps should be counted as a negative, as shaming people out of buying such things might be a good idea.

4. Supporting indie authors

It’s pretty easy to publish on Amazon for kindle, or even publish an e-book. For a minimal price, you can instantly support an author trying to make it, you can spend fifty pence and show solidarity without even really having to read the thing. It’s one click to make someone really happy. I’ve found some great stuff on twitter, downloaded it straight to my kindle, and it’s a bit like finding some hidden gems, it wasn’t what you were looking for, but you’re glad you took a chance.

 

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And some things I just can’t get over:

 

– People can’t see what you’re reading

As a Londoner, I’m quite averse to unnecessary communications on public transport, BUT sometimes it’s nice to have a chat with another book nerd on a bus. When I worked as a barista, it was really easy to start up a conversation with someone about their book. Reading is an internal thing, but the externalising is the talking about it.

You can’t lend books!

This absolutely drives me mad. I recently read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and it was one of the best books I’d read in ages. And whilst I was recommending it to everyone, could I force it on them by physically handing them a copy? No. So e-books are cheaper, but you have to buy them. Again, internalising reading.

On the beach

There’s something very anti-holiday reading about screens and glare and doohickeys and technology. I like the way my pages get crinkled in the sun, and sand gets between the pages. Getting sand on a kindle-fear.

I worry about getting mugged

No-one’s ever going to stop me for my copy of Harry Potter, but for an e-reader worth a hundred quid? My reading on the tube makes me feel like I’ve got to stow everything away going to the ‘dodgier’ parts of London. And that’s not nice.

The Smell

You know what I mean, don’t you?

 

As always, you can buy my book in physical print and on kindle. Because having the best of both is important, right?

 

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It Exists! Wine Dark, Sea Blue, Hard Copy and Kindle!

So, I’ve been a good author and a bad creative entrepreneur. Because my book exists! Wine Dark, Sea Blue has it’s very own special site, and we’ve been busy making it look all pretty, so you lovely people will buy it. Check out the new website here. It’s lovely.

If you modern types would like to download a copy to your kindle, you want to go to Amazon. Please remember that authors want reviews. Pretty much more than anything. Well, preferably good reviews. But interaction is the key here.

Stay tuned for my upcoming blogs on How to Deal with the Post-Launch Slump, What to do When you Start to Hate Your Work, and Essential Social Media Tips for Writers.

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Wine Dark Sea Blue- Out now!

So, over this last year or so, the goal has been to get published. Yay, level up! The next goal is to sell those books.

Wine Dark, Sea Blue is a coming of age story. It’s about London, the recession, finding comfort in strangers, escapism, loyalty, and never really knowing how to say the things you want to say. It’s about secret keeping, family connections, unsaid truths and making art.

You can buy Wine Dark, Sea Blue from my publisher Stairwell Books. It will soon be available on Amazon and kindle, but please bear in mind, if you want to support the author and publisher, don’t buy hard copy books from Amazon, buy them straight from the source.

I’ll be blogging about the launch party and how it went (fantastically!) but for now, get hold of your copy, and show how much you’ve enjoyed it by posting a pic of yourself with the book, and hashtagging #almichael #winedarkseablue like all these lovely people have done! Get involved!

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My Career as a Professional Bullshitter

 

So, the day of The Book Launch is almost upon me. The books are at the printers, the merchandise has arrived, the venue is confirmed. And yet, I’m still panicking. Why? Well, firstly, whilst it’s a moment of accomplishment and joy, it’s also bloody stressful. And really, so far, things have gone smoothly. So why the stress? Is it the idea of talking in front of a crowd? No, there’ll be wine to deal with that problem. Is it the judgement, the idea that people will be reading your work and forming opinions and not all of them will be good? Maybe, but as writers we become accustomed to that. Is it, perhaps, that all of this is going swimmingly, and yet I still feel like a bit of a fraud? Bazinga.

Writing is about bullshit. Writing itself is a world of lies. Talking about writing is giving opinions on something that may mean something different to someone else. Talking about your own writing is pointless, because it should speak for itself. When we teach writing, it’s a different kind of bullshit again. We are determined to make ourselves sound good, because no-one else will do it for us.

I am destined to say ‘I’m a professional writer and teach workshops’ for a very long time, and will almost always be confronted with questions of what my ‘real’ job is, and sniggers of derision. That’s fine, they don’t really get what I do. My job will always be a patchwork of various opportunities coming together at various points in time. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s a colossal mistake. But that’s what my job is. Bullshit about how much I’ve achieved, bullshit other people’s CVs, bullshit my way through interviews, editing, talking about my students’ progress. This is not to say I’m lying, that I don’t do the editing, that I don’t have experience, or my students aren’t improving. But with everything we do, as creative entrepreneurs, it feels like we’re just winging it.

Tote bags!
Tote bags!

So, the book launch will no doubt be a lovely event where I’m surrounded by people who love and support me, even if they’re not sure about my writing. But here’s some things to think about when considering launching your book:

  •  Appropriate excerpts. I don’t know about you, but I write a lot about sex and drugs, with a lot of swearing. Finding a family friendly excerpt is proving pretty difficult. Similarly, finding something where family won’t assume I AM my narrator, or people present won’t be looking for themselves in my fiction is pretty damn hard.
  • Swag! Man, who doesn’t love merchandise? I do! Big time. So I’ve had some tote bags and bookmarks made up that the first hundred people can claim with their buy. Added value, and extra publicity for me.
  • Press release. Despite having written these on my MA, it’s pretty hard going. Again, it’s a form of bullshittery. What sounds good, what fits the theme? What do people want to hear? Some may fight back against pigeonholing but it’s the easiest way to draw in your target market.
  • What do you want from your evening? I went for laid back, dingy pub, making use of my excellent creative friends by having them perform or get involved. Themes are also useful. I’m all about collaboration and creative community, so anyone who wanted to be involved was.
Launch poster
Launch poster

Okay, so there’s my guide to bullshitting your launch party. Act confident, be proud, and enjoy it. I’m sure I’ll be talking about my event once it’s happened. Which, if you’re about in London on 10th May 2013, can be found here.

And here you can find the press release:

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Here’s some of our performers:

 

Fiction

Wine Dark, Sea Blue

This is the first chapter of my novel ‘Wine Dark, Sea Blue’. It’s similar in themes to my piece ‘Atomiki’, but obviously, a lot more in depth. I’m currently working on a new book at the moment, before returning to this and putting the final shine onto it. Feedback is appreciated!

Temporary Image. Photo taken by graphic artist Alex Michael http://theothermichael.tumblr.com/

 

My mother’s voice was on repeat as my brain lining trembled and began to disintegrate.

‘Accidental overdose, the paramedics said.’

‘How the fuck is that possible?’

‘She was getting older, so many different medications…’ Mum’s voice was tinny, lost down the phone line in the white noise. She forgot to tell me off for swearing, and her voice trailed into sighs and silence.

‘What do you need me to do?’

‘Get home now,’ she said and hung up. It was ten am, and Mum never called before twelve. I should have known when the phone rang. There’s never good news before twelve. Especially not after half a gram of MDMA and almost an entire bottle of vodka, shared in a South London flat with a boy whose name I’d already forgotten. He was pretending to be asleep when I took the call, and I was grateful. I paced the small space of his flat, bare feet scratching on his carpet, waiting to see how I felt, if I would feel anything at all. If I would panic when I didn’t.

He made a big show of waking up, yawning and stretching.  He looked much like all the others, dark hair, nice arms. His smile failed to hide a concerned expression.

‘Everything okay?’ As he stood, his jeans slid down to his hips. A thin line of hair ran down from his belly button to the start of his boxers, and I focused on that. A dark trail of ants, a line not to cross, a line of coke, a line in the sand. Give me a line, a lifeline, anything.

‘What’s your name again?’

He smirked and ran a hand through his hair, ‘Daniel.’

‘Right, Daniel.’

I tried to place that somewhere amongst the memories of the night before, of the breathless laughter and the way I stroked his fingertips. The guitar sat untouched in the corner of the room. He hadn’t played for me. His fingertips were flat and rough, and I had traced his filed-down nails in soft delight. He was amazing last night. They always are.

But in the little white-flaked flat, with the green curtains that tinted the daylight, I felt like I was looking at this Daniel person from far away, through a haze of heat distortion. Like I understood that humans were just walking, talking lumps of meat, much like every other animal that lived and died. Except humans had things like Topshop and SkyPlus and Hello Magazine. This Daniel person was just another part of that world.

‘My grandmother’s dead,’ I said, staring past him to the posters on the wall. They were in French, pretentious twat. I scanned his bookshelf for Sartre and Nietzsche, and found them, broken spines and folded pages. Last night he was my best friend, this Daniel.

‘Are you okay?’ He started towards me, and I stepped back, ‘sorry, stupid question.’ He detoured to the sink, ran the tap, and handed me a glass of water. I drank desperately, so that I felt it hit my insides, rebounding off my organs and making waves. My stomach was an ocean. But it was always that way on the comedown. Nothing was different, not the boy, or the drugs, or the Saturday morning feeling. Except that she was dead.

Moving took forever, each muscle moaning, telling me I was stupid to do anything but lie down and get warm. Slow motion. Cotton wool head. Fuzzy.

Daniel was kind and earnest, like a lot of them are, willing to chat, eager to carry on the party. Some are like me, and happily say goodbye in the morning, not expecting anything more that a one-night friendship. Some are ashamed. Most of the time they’re asleep, and I just pick up my bag from by the door and get out. There are rules.

‘I’ve got to go.’

‘Maybe have a cup of tea first, eh?’ His voice had a northern drawl, soft around the vowels. I hadn’t noticed it last night, hidden behind the clipped London sound.

‘I don’t…’ I shook my head, surprised by how lost I felt, ‘I’m numb. Completely numb.’

‘That’s the comedown. You do know that? Last night, you said you knew. Chemical imbalance, body fuck-up. Right?’ He reached out a hand, and I backed away.

‘I know, I do know. I just…’

‘Shock.’  He nodded intently, and moved closer, almost whispering. ‘Look, I’m going to make us a nice cup of tea, and we’ll sit for a bit, and you can go when you’re ready, okay?’

He’d reached me by that point, and I couldn’t stop my teeth from chattering, my hands from shaking. So cold, ridiculously cold. How was he shirtless, the bloody idiot.

He wrapped his arms around me, his cold palms flat against the base of my spine. You don’t do that on the comedown. The night before is for touching. Loving the sensation of hands on shoulders, fingertips encircling wrists. Skin on skin isn’t right the morning after. You’re back in your cocoon, and every other human is a hundred lightyears from where you are. He could have been anyone, but he was warm, and that was enough. And I put my arms around him, encouraging him to hold me tighter, harder, because if I was going to fall apart, it may as well be when someone was holding me up. It was only when I had to gasp for air that I finally pushed him away.

‘Don’t confuse what this is.’

‘And what is this, exactly?’ His smile was a half-twitch at the corner of his mouth, like I was a child he was humouring because he wanted to see what funny thing I did next

‘This is two people who got fucked together, and in the morning said goodbye.’ I strode past him, and grabbed my bag from the floor. Purple party bag, always ready for the escape. Toothbrush, fresh from a pack of ten, four of which are remaining. Ancient Nirvana hoody with the smiley face symbol peeling off. Scarf, always useful. Large bottle of water, because it helps. Chewing gum for the gurn, painkillers more for the placebo than the effect.  The comedown kit.

‘Ellie.’ Daniel smiled and shook his head.

‘Don’t say my name like that!’

‘Like what?’

‘Like you know one fucking thing about me!’ I pulled on my hoody, tugging on the hood and pulling my hair free. My hand rested on the door handle.

‘I was listening last night when you spoke.’ His smile was smug, his hands open, palms up.

‘I hate to burst your bubble, but this is a weekly occurrence for me. You’re just one of many guys I do this with. It doesn’t mean anything. Ships in the night, strangers on a pill. Get it?’

The door handle was warm and slippery.

‘You really think you won’t remember this moment?’

I rolled my eyes in response, ‘Sorry, guess you’re just not that special.’

‘Your grandmother’s dead. You always remember where you are when there’s bad news.’

‘Well, maybe I don’t care. Or I don’t like my family. Maybe I have no family.’

Daniel took two lazy steps and was invading my space. I tried not to breathe in, because it was his air. Hold your breath, Elena. Get out, go home, deal with everything. Everything. Her. Deal with whatever that means.

‘You,’ he smiled, ‘are a terrible liar.’ He stepped back a little, and I got the full effect of that smile. A smile that dared me to argue, that wanted me angry instead of scared. Anything but numb.

‘I like you,’ he said, stepping back, that half-twitch grin in place again, ‘So, tea.’

He strode across the room, and tapped an ancient green kettle with his foot, so it lit up and hissed. His little kitchen area was so tidy, an ageing mug on the side with a knife and a spoon sitting in it, his one plate in the sink pathetic and lonely. I knew then that I’d stay.

I had the chance to walk out, slam the door, but what would I be heading towards, really? Parents who didn’t know what I’d been doing when my grandmother died. What was so important that I hadn’t come home, they would ask. Family who thought my nights out included a couple of glasses of wine, maybe a kiss. The night spent on Dexter’s floor, or in Lee’s spare room. Never class As and a one-night friendship, in bed with a boy in Clapham Junction. Never that I did it every week, every chance I could, because it made me feel so perfectly alive until the morning came.

So I dropped the bag. I sat on the bed and drank strong tea from a chipped blue mug. I watched rubbish re-runs on TV and smiled, even laughed. I forgot. And when he relit a joint from the night before, I let him rest his head next to mine, closing my eyes as he softly blew the smoke into my mouth. Sweet, herby, tinted by toothpaste. Sleepy green, taking the edge off of the morning.

When I finally did leave, that morning sun had faded into grey dullness. I felt flushed with and irritable as I walked to the tube, pushing the last moments with Daniel from my mind. He’d asked for my phone number, and I’d given it to him. I never gave them my phone number, I only wanted them when they were strangers. I only ever wanted one night with someone who had no idea who I was. But when he kissed my cheek, he smelled of sweat and aftershave, and everything I’d found fascinating the night before. I had let him hold me in his bed as I pretended to cry, pretended to feel anything. But all I felt was cold. And he was so warm. The warm boy with the cold hands.

I walked through Clapham Common to the tube station, and got on the Northern Line. It had been hours since Mum called. When I finally appeared Dad would rant about my irresponsible nature, my selfishness. Mum would be disappointed, and that’s always worse.

The train carriage was empty, and I sat in a corner seat with my headphones in. I was glad there were no people, I can’t bear to make eye contact on the tube. On those kinds of Saturday mornings, I start to get paranoid about the Underground. I take it personally when people choose the seat two down from me, or move when another space becomes available.  Like they think I’ll infect them. I never move seats in case I hurt someone’s feelings.

I tugged on my hood again, and put my headphones in.  Sometimes, I pretend to react to the music I’m not hearing, smile when I play a certain song on my internal jukebox, tap my feet in time to a rhythm that isn’t there. This time, I just closed my eyes, and tried not to think about how many people’s arses had sat on the seat I was sitting on.

The train droned on, rattled and jolted and it was easy to lose myself. I watched at every stop how the tourists boarded the opposite trains, heading into town for a weekend with the family, a day out with friends. That was the best thing about returning from central on a Saturday, everyone was going in the other direction.

I wobbled out of the tube station at High Barnet and walked to the bus stop. The sky promised rain.  I told myself I would let five buses go passed, then I’d get on the sixth and go home. Give me five buses, thirty minutes. Breathing space.

Dead. She was dead, and I had been smiling with a stranger. Had she died whilst I was dancing? I shivered, it felt like I was drowning in mundanity, greyness. Traffic, and jobs and so many people just living their little lives. Overdose. She never seemed that old to me. I thought of her dark eyes, her white hair, her steady trundle across a room with her swollen ankles. Overdoses were ugly. Painful.

I suddenly wanted to be back in Daniel’s little white room with the green curtains, where time froze and I had no dead relatives. I didn’t have to be strong in that room. But I did now. I waited till the seventh bus came and went. Then I walked home.

 

©AL Michael 2012