Read Underground Rivers Online

Authors: Mike French

Tags: #town, #morecambe, #literature, #Luton, #Anthologies (Multiple Authors), #short stories, #bedfordshire, #book club, #library, #Fiction, #culture, #writers, #authors, #writing, #local

Underground Rivers

Title Page


Edited by Mike French


The Luton Writers' Group

Publisher Information

Published in the UK
in 2012 by

Andrews UK Limited

© Copyright 2012
Mike French

The right of Mike French and the individual authors from the Luton Writer's Group to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.

All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without express prior written permission. No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted except with express prior written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1956 (as amended). Any person who commits any unauthorised act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damage.

All characters appearing in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and not of Andrews UK.


Mike French, Neil Rowland and Luton Culture would like to thank:

Rose at The Kitchen café at The Hat Factory for providing a fantastic venue, Ben Hodson for his memorable images, Fiona Marriott for proof reading and making a published book possible, Andrews UK for publishing, Jane Turley for her contribution to the group, as well as proofing, the marketing team at Luton Culture, the staff at Luton Libraries for making reading and writing relevant and interesting to the people of Luton, the writers who have attended the workshop and given their time, their ideas, but most of all their written words.

Editor's Note

The Luton Writers' Group was born out of a question ... are there still writers out there or has Luton become a literary desert? Before we started we ran a workshop last year at the library about getting published. One person turned up.

A year on and we have a collection called Underground Rivers to celebrate the 50
anniversary of the opening of Luton Central Library. The name is a reference to the River Lea which runs under the library and it's an answer to our question - it may appear to be a desert, with the odd oasis, like Booker shortlisted Stephen Kelman, but underneath there is abundant life. This book is proof of that and is a mix of short stories, scripts and opening chapters of novels all of which have been forged this year from writers who gathered for the first time in February when the library started the group.

This book really shouldn't exist. Really it shouldn't. There hasn't been enough time. There's hardly any money out there to support ground root literature. The library is facing financial pressures. Waterstones closed down its Luton store.

But here it is all shiny and threaded through with local talent that will surprise you, entertain you and make you stop and ponder for a moment. It was a delight to edit and to see the range of styles and themes. And the belief that bursts through each person's writing is that it's worth telling the story, there's hope for the written word, a purpose, a chance of connecting with people. It makes this collection refreshing and raw - like a child wondering what or who they will become and dreaming of adventure.

Dig down and enjoy.

Mike French

September 2012

Luton Central Library

Luton Central Library celebrates its 50
anniversary this year, at virtually the same time that I am reaching my 25
anniversary working in the building. I came here in October 1987, fresh faced from library school and keen to make a difference. I only intended staying two years, so what happened?

I think I fell under the spell of the building, and the people that use it. In the fifties, Borough Librarian Frank Gardner dreamed up his vision for a new town library and his determination and persistence paid off. He was ahead of his time, and I only have to take a visitor round the library, to see it again through their eyes. It is not some sixties monstrosity or concrete block; it offers welcoming open spaces, massive windows flooding each area with light throughout the day, a balcony worthy of Romeo and Juliet and an air of peace and tranquillity that cannot be matched in the busy town centre. It wears its age well, despite the odd bit of cosmetic surgery we have forced on it, the marble walls, open spaces and original features have survived into the 21
century and I hope Frank would be pleased with what we have done with his flagship library.

In the central library, every day is different, sometimes challenging and irritating, sometimes a laugh a minute, what keeps us all here is that you never know what the day will be bring, and that's the joy of working with real people. One thing is certain, we make a difference, and it's not just about a few books issued. From help with job hunting and CVs, to language learning, baby rhyme times, family fun sessions and reading groups, we add value to people's lives, occasionally changing them forever. I know that without my local library, my childhood would have been desperately short of books, and kind and encouraging librarians kept me reading and even influenced my career choice.

Literacy levels in Luton are still too low. Libraries play a vital role in making sure the next generation grow up being able to read fluently and make the most of their lives. Without good reading skills you will struggle with computers, fail exams, not get a job, and miss life changing opportunities. What more important job can there be than working in a library and opening that “window on the world”?

Fiona Marriott

September 2012

A Walk Home

by Mary Baker

Long letters, fragranced with a past spring's blossom, sit in my bedroom drawer and the last remains of your aftershave linger on my coat. Your unclaimed belongings lie waiting for you, but they will drift towards the dusty Lost Property corner of the lounge. Winter came too soon for us, and you would not step back into the warmth we once had.

Three o'clock is embracing evening as my racing train struggles to escape the countryside's cold breath. For weeks, I have struggled to deal with your departure, so when I see you, walking down the carriage, it is as if I see your ghost. The buttermilk sunshine flickering through the windows is playing on your features. I am almost undecided whether it is you or not; and strangely enough, it is that which determines me.

An icy stillness greets me as I step onto the platform. Up until now the place has been only a name. Its slatted fence is crystallised with frost-fronds and the sweep of my glance takes in the ridged brown fields. Only a short walk brings me into a small copse, and the starkness of the skeletonal trees adds to my tranquillity. I no longer feel sated standing within them. There is no noise, no jostling, no hassle. The environment I am standing in now is a quiet enough place for me to hold the moment in suspension, in awe of a secret heartbeat surrounding me. The woodland goes on silently, uncompromisingly, existing: long life has made the trees wise.

As I walk on deeper, the parts of me that do not belong here go. Italian leather heels crafted next to the warmth of the Mediterranean are dismissed by twisting roots, and are swopped straight away for my gym trainers. My hair gets in my eyes until I pull it back into a ponytail. My sweaty fleece goes on over my office suit and my hat and scarf too.

Facing the bleak force of cold air and damp ferns, I stumble on until I emerge to begin a slow climb of a twisting track, with the ravens beginning to caw their evening goodnights above me. From the trees I had glimpsed a church spire, and I aim for that as the next marker on my way.

I am resting my head on my hands on the church wall watching an elderly figure replace flowers by a graveside when he creaks up and looks towards me. His unshaven face and worn coat contract my heart in pity. I venture a greeting, but it is cut off by the reproach in his face, and the speed with which he strides out into the lane, ignoring my presence. Although I know his resentment is not towards me but towards my youth and the time I still have here, I stagger up under the lynch gate for the shelter of the shadows. Then my tears, long forbidden, pour. I am blinded, and my other senses stand sentry.

It is not long before I hear approaching footsteps. Has the old man forgotten something by the grave? Then I am thrown into confusion: the scent of the man I thought I was leaving behind infuses the air about me. Hesitatingly I stand up and there by the white, slate-roofed chapel is a figure. It is a young man, certainly, but he is shorter and stockier - I feel ashamed at my terror - a thousand men must smell the same.

The large khaki trug he carries in one hand has the tips of nettles and dandelions peeping over the top. His mud encrusted boots and wax jacket over a gillet mark him as the gardener. But he also wears a concerned smile on his ruddy face, and I have spent too much time teaching myself to hold my stomach clenched and my jaws set so men do not see me cry to allow this boy to do so. I look away quickly, towards the woodland. From this distance it looks forbidding, as if the trees, by their very gloom, are encouraging me not to stray back inside their territory. I make up my mind quickly.

“I have the ‘mean reds' as Holly Golightly would say,” I announce cheerfully.

I pull out my paperback copy from my handbag and hold it out in front of the gardener, as if modern American literature will be enough to scare him away. It isn't. In fact he turns laughing eyes towards me and in a solemn voice says:

“You have come to Tiffany's to be bedazzled by the jewels and to forget?”

It is such an absurd thing to say that I make a slightly hysterical, gulping sound but he continues:

“Are you searching for beauty, for fragments of our lost Eden?”

There is a flash in his eyes that suggests a deeper sincerity than his first statement, but then he smiles again, no longer serious. He walks about the graveyard unburdened of his weed bucket, his jacket flapping in the wind, and under his tutelage the churchyard becomes what it is in his eyes: a garden. His voice rises and falls with all the studied passion of an over-earnest orator of the seventeenth century, and I am uncomfortable, not sure whether he is mocking me, for sometimes he as gentle towards the early blooms as if I am no longer there, and at other times he looks at me and smiles as if he can read my mind and knows I find him odd. He sits on his haunches as he strokes the petals of a flower that rests within a cluster beneath a tree. He lifts up his face to say:

“Here, madam, is the diamond of the season, the
, as known as the Christmas Rose. Its unique beauty may be hard to see at first, like this dismal December day. You have to know that it is there and trust, when you lift the arching head you will find - splendour in its fineness. Here is an array for your choice, madam. Violet is perhaps a favourite of mine, but the yellow is a splendid piece, and as Tiffany's would tell you, a yellow diamond is a rare treasure. ”

The majestic purple head he holds against the ancient tombstone is freckled with pale yellow. He pulls his secateurs from their tan leather holster and the sad brown leaves fall to one side under the cut. Unsure, but ultimately willing, the fresh growth beneath is defying the bleakness of winter.

Suddenly as angry as the old man, I cannot stand his playfulness any longer, and his intrusion into my life. I round on him, spitting out:

“Do you think that, because I am young, I have no friends to mourn, no pain that I have to bear whilst I carry on with my life? Do you think I wander in this graveyard in unknowing bliss? No. For me, as for that old man, memories tumble around my head like the turns of some grim kaleidoscope, throwing up the shards of my life into my mind until I cannot rest. Tired. So tired, exhausted, and unable to sleep”.

In gentle cliché, his jacket is around my shoulders. I can barely cope with the closeness of his indirect touch, the not unpleasant mugginess. The flowing of his blood around his active body has made this jacket hold the imprint of his vivid energy. I do not understand for a second why my left arm is still cool. Then I look at him and know that I am not the only one alive, and young, and in pain. He stands back from me. After a few moments, he begins to speak. His voice is quiet and has a tightness about it which makes me feel that he is talking of something he would rather not speak about.

“I remember the heat of the desert, more than anything. The sand, everywhere, after a storm, in places that you wouldn't have thought of. The bombardment never stopped as we wheeled out the beds, squeezing them into spaces you would never have thought could hold another one, making up pathetic alternatives when the beds ran out, to make room for more patients, coming in, day after day, hour after hour, then moment by moment. Our troops, Iraqis, children; death didn't know the difference. Not a very bright spark in general, Death. It only took half of me.”

In the moment that he pauses I am cognisant only of breathing the crisp, cool air of the open countryside. For the first time in a long time my mind is outside the confines of itself. Then he quietly says in a manner which has lost its tightness, and I can no longer hear mockery but only kindness: “There has been enough light, madam, to look at the diamonds, but know I must shut up shop. Next time you must really come at breakfast time and see all we have to offer. For now I can only suggest that you come with me for a cup of tea. My name's Iain, by the way.”

From the front room of Iain's home, I can see that the light is very long on the ploughed fields, and in the sky, a roll of inky blackness comes slowly in from the east. A drop of dark water on a painter's fresh-white paper, soaking, spreading. Soon only the edges will be left. Iain brings in a steaming mug. I renew the conversation we had started on the walk back to his house, when I leant heavily on his remaining arm and told him my sad little tale:

“I still need to remember, I still need - “

He is stooping by the fire, and a dislodged lump of coal and the clatter of tongs makes me silent for a moment. Then, getting up, he carries on my thought:

“Healing? We can certainly stop, for a moment, now and then, to mourn. But only for a moment, because I
young - and what calls me on is life, not death.”

As he moves back towards me, I stifle that inward thought that like another man he will ‘smile and smile and be a villain'. I can only allow myself, for once, to be human, to be stupid, to trust.

He has gone past me. From the table beside me he has picked up a piece of paper, brightly coloured, and puts it into my hands. Full of excitement, his face moves and I hear the sound of his words, piecing them together in bewilderment. This place of release, of exquisite loveliness, is not his destination. The picture I have in my hand is a child, not his, I cannot, I do not want to understand. The child's gaze is as soulless as the man's in front of me is alive and vivacious. He seems to understand and says:

“It is not those of us who forget who will win, but rather those who remember to suffer, to feel, to remain human, who will be given at last, hope. I have been accepted by this organisation, and fly out in the New Year. The children will know, as I will know, what it is like to be in a war, and I feel I can look into their eyes with some integrity”.

There is a short time during which we talk over his plans. When I fall asleep on the settee and hear the door close quietly behind him, I dream of an eagle. I struggle to hold him in his golden cage, and the gold gilt falls with his scratchings. I know he is turning to hate me - not suddenly, but with a slow indifference, and then hot dislike of the prevention of his freedom. I remembered it as we ate supper, and it is so strongly with me that I am prevented from asking him to keep in touch. Whilst I had been asleep he had checked a train for me.

“I'll give you a lift to the station about eight thirty, then.”

I remembered that young man every time I pass that that country station. As spring came, he was in the raven, swooping to the field. By the track side in the March winds, he was in the clouds billowing past, the ripples on the ditch-pond. In August, the growing fields, golden and eager to leave the land, recalled his excitement of last year. He had not left me empty. He had flown so merrily into the distance with no thought to pain me that I could not be sad. In every creature, every movement of the earth, I remembered him.

It was not until another bleak November day that a streak of sunshine entered a carriage and lighted playfully on the shoulders of a man I vaguely recognise. My stomach leaps, but not, this time, in fear.


He is struggling with a large suitcase. Changing jobs has made me stronger, and more likely to be wearing sturdier footwear, and I push along the carriage aisle. When I leave the train three stops early for the second time in as many years, I am not alone. Iain and I traipse silently up the lane, the fields and woodland left behind us. When we reach the churchyard and see the new mound of fresh earth, I think we both have the same thought. We have brought nothing, not knowing. All we can do in tribute is to stand alongside each other next to the grave of the old man, now with his wife under one joint tombstone. I read, slowly,

‘He holds you in the hollow of his hand.'

It does not feel a little thing now, this being alive, this being young. I have let my hand fall to my side. We stand there, two figures against the reclining sun, the edges of our hands barely touching, until he grasps it, and warmth is found once more, in the bleakness of mid-winter.

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