Guest – The Story Behind the Story

SJ Bradley is a writer from Leeds, UK, whose short fiction has been published in the US and UK. She is the organiser of Leeds-based DIY literary social Fictions of Every Kind, an award-winning editor, and the director of the Northern Short Story Festival. Her second novel, Guest, will shortly be published by Dead Ink Books and here, she talks to Disclaimer about the influences behind the work and allows us a peek at an extract:

The character of Samhain, an angry punk squatter who never knew his father, came to me one day as I was making fliers. I was my friend's basement at the time, rolling the treadle on an antiquated, ancient letterpress printing machine. Printing ink on cards, then alternating the fliers, still wet with ink, with old newspapers.

We always used to use the Guardian for interleaving, and as I alternated flier with newsprint, flier with newsprint, I saw pictures of Mark Stone's face. At that time, the paper was full of stories about the undercover cop who'd spent years infiltrating activist groups in Nottingham, Leeds and beyond. Mark Stone, also known as Mark Kennedy, had been one of the most successful cops ever to go undercover.

Stone spent years gaining the trust of activists. He lived amongst them, following their activities, often instigating actions himself, and feeding information back to the police. Kennedy / Stone, like other undercover police before him, had lengthy relationships with genuine activists, including one which lasted six years. Eventually, it was his activist girlfriend, and her trusted ex-boyfriend, who followed a trail of evidence which uncovered Mark Stone / Kennedy for who he really was.

The history of undercover policing is a long one, going back to at least the 60s. There are many shocking stories. Some undercover cops fathered children with activist girlfriends who didn't know their true identity. In every case, the victims have faced a long struggle for compensation and justice.

 it made me want to tear the skin from my bones

For a long time, I'd been kicking around the idea of a character who was a lost, lonely man-child who'd live in a squat, and bumble his way through life, infuriating those around him. This was my Samhain, and although I sort-of knew him, I wasn't sure where to put him, or what to do with him. Then, as I stood there in the printing studio with the fliers drying on the table, and the torn sheet of newsprint in my hand, everything clicked into place.

Suddenly I understood my boy much better. I knew who Samhain was, I knew why he was. He would have come into the world under disastrous circumstances, a conception by false pretences, born to an activist mother who hated his undercover cop father, and the boy, Samhain, who reminded her of him. My Samhain came more clearly into view. I knew exactly who he was, and what he'd have to do.

So although Guest touches on undercover policing, this forms the backdrop against everything else that happens in the book. It is essentially a rite of passage novel, a book about a boy who struggles with his identity, and how to become a man. Will he be the same type of man as his biological father – a man who abandoned his family responsibilities and disappeared back into the arms of his “real” family? Or will he become another type of man – a man who faces up to the past, and shoulders all the burdens life gives him?

I started writing Guest three years ago, writing the novel around my day job. I did my research in the evenings and the writing on my weekends and days off. My routine for the first draft was simple: 700 words every time I sat down to write, sometimes more, but never less, and I couldn't move from the chair until they were done. Some days it was easy, and on other days it made me want to tear the skin from my bones. It wasn't always an easy book to write, and sometimes I asked myself whether I was doing the right thing.

In the second and third drafts, I tore huge chunks of it out, bringing it down from 100,000 words down to about 65,000 words. Then my editor complained that I'd taken too much out and made me put some of it back in again. I was trying to get the whole novel down to under 200 pages, like many of the Philip K. Dick books I was reading at the time. Ultimately it was the force of the narrative, a need to be fair to my character Samhain, that led me to expand beyond those 200 pages. I wanted him to reach a fair conclusion, for his story to have an optimistic ending. In real life, we can't always choose how our stories end but in fiction, we can. That's what I wanted to give to Samhain and his mother.

___

            Things had been left tidy. Bed corners squared and grimy with dust. Four UHT milk cartons, spiderwebbed and politely perched on saucer sides on a tea tray. A dead house spider, legs curled inwards in death, crumbling in the cup. 

            Samhain might have been in a tree house. Branches stretching in dancers’ arms over the Velux, the sky a searing blue behind a fluttering confetti of new leaves. He opened the window to let out the scent of decay, and heard a lawnmower. 

            The scent of trapped life had been stronger with each step he’d taken. He’d pushed open this last door half-expecting to find a museum. Oak furniture, an old Grandfather clock. But it was more like a Premier Inn. White walled, all one piece. Everything covered in a dust so fine it formed a coverlet like dryer lint. 

            He glanced around, and ditched his rucksack on the bed. His shoulders felt strangely light without it: he had been carrying it a long time. Tools, his hoody, a t-shirt. Things he couldn’t manage without, when things were so easily lost. He looked in the mirror, and realised that somehow he had ended up with a cobweb in his buzzcut. 

            ‘Sam?’ Roxy’s voice had the tone of a rusted gate blowing loose in a gale. She appeared in the doorway, in her work clothes, her tattoo a vibrant splash of green and blue. ‘So this is it, huh?’ 

            ‘Great, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Our new home. At least, for now.’ 

            Something in her expression made him think of a laboratory beagle. The way they didn’t know what to do when the clasp slipped to let them free – looking at both sides of their cages, uncertainly, the only life they’ve ever known. ‘It’s great,’ she said. ‘It’s so big.’ 

            ‘We should keep it for just the three of us. You, me, and Frankie.’ 

            She nodded, and stepped closer. He could smell last night on her. The taste of whisky in her sweat; her top thin enough that he could see her nipples. 

            ‘So, this is your room – is it?’ Her smile was wary. 

            Sudden silence from the lawnmower. Quiet, and the noise of cooing pigeons overhead. 

            ‘Yeah. Well, there are plenty to choose from. It’s not like any of us need to share any more.’  

            He saw her harden, and turn away. ‘No. We don’t need to share. I just thought you might want to.’ 

            In the next step, she moved to an unexpected distance. Out of reach and curving backwards, too far for him to touch. ‘Roxy,’ he said. ‘Come on, don’t be like that.’ 

            ‘I’m going to choose my room.’ She receded into the darkness of the stairway, and started hopping down. ‘Just so you know, I’m on a split – so don’t expect me home early. Tommy and me might go out after closing.’ Pausing at the curve of the stairs, with one foot hanging over the next step. ‘Did you hear what I said?’ 

            Samhain didn’t answer right away: he didn’t know how to. Anything he said was going to be the wrong thing, anyhow. That was always the way with Roxy. 

            ‘Forget it,’ she said. 
            It was as she hopped around the bottom corner, that he suddenly remembered. They were without electricity and gas. Somebody had to sort that out. 

            ‘Hey, Roxy?’ he called. 

            ‘What?’ 

            She paused where she was, already on the second landing, and didn’t look happy about being stopped.  

            Reconnection in a squat was easy. Frankie had taught him how. First step was to find a call centre worker lazy or gullible enough to send a letter to him at this address, which he could use as proof that he lived here. Only, Samhain couldn’t make phone calls. He’d lost his Nokia in a pub a week or so ago, or maybe in the street on the way home, and had no idea where to start looking for it. 

            ‘Can I borrow your phone?’ 

Guest by SJ Bradley is published by Dead Ink Books and is available now for pre-order.​

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