The fictional city (and county capital) of Crosschester from my first novel, The Water Meadow Man, is back. In my new novel, currently called ‘The Assumption’ it is a place of mad spies and fry-ups. Here’s an extract from the first draft.
I left The Four Crosses Hotel in search of a decent early morning breakfast. I turned left out of the square and crunched past several tourist tat shops masquerading as religious memorabilia ’emporia’; three pubs and a branch of Liberty that perfectly fitted Crosschester.
After a half hour trudging past Tudor this and mock Tudor that, I walked onto The Sleeper’s Hill, the spine of one of the hills that surrounded the city. Shortly after World War II it had been bombed by brutalist blocks dropped from high in the dark and light blue skies by idealistically authoritarian architects hoping to change the world for the working classes at a safe distance.
Love poems to sweaty concrete, unexpected darkness and theory. Praxis making imperfect. Caves for the proud new working troglodytes who had once lived in horrible cottages by unedifying rivers of clear, chalk water out in the villages that surrounded the city. Peace through separation. Strength through the cloying damp and flickering lights of passages to and from compartments before and after work.
At least there was a pub close by, The Green Man, flat roofed and mumbling in its sleep. More importantly there in the dark and the snow sat the brave – no! the plucky – Regent Cafe. Wedged under a tower block that threatened to crush it by toppling off its spindly legs, the caff looked just the thing. I took a red, hard plastic seat near one of the steamed up windows and prepared to order breakfast. My first fry-up since I ‘went away’ as they say.
The only other person in the cafe sat with her back to me. Even so, even from that perspective, she looked old. Her hair was covered by a faded silk scarf patterned with faded gold foliage on a dark green background. Her coat was black and impenetrable by light so I couldn’t make out the material it was made out of. She was reading a newspaper the size and weight of a good blanket, and occasionally she would lay it down to sip her drink or take a bite from her breakfast.
Every so often her shoulders would shake. I hoped it was laughter.
The menu, complete with helpful pictures was covered in clean, thin transparent film. It was all on a single, double-sided page, just as it should be. I didn’t need to think. I knew what I wanted so when the guy who owned the place came over, wiping his hands on a clean tea towel, taking a pencil butt from behind his ear, I was quite ready.
“I’ll have the Prince Royal Breakfast: fried eggs, fried bread, no beans, no tomatoes, extra mushroom, extra onion thanks”.
“Tea or coffee?”
“Mug or cup?”
He smiled. I smiled. I wish I still smoked. I mean, go with me here; a greasy spoon caff that was as clean as a whistle, steamed up windows obfuscating the snow and freeze outside. One fellow breakfaster who had no desire for a conversation. The only things that were missing were an ashtray, a packet of fags and an unfailing Zippo lighter, dented by a fall. But giving up things up means this sort of abiding loss of apt environment sometime down the line. Cigs, booze, cars, homes, lovers, faith. All the same, you deal with the loss and move along before you’re dragged back and you remember why you left as you fall again.
The chef-patron returned with my mug of tea, bag still in boiling water, just hanging off its string. Metal jug of milk ready to go. He also brought me a newspaper. A broadsheet, its form looked strange after prison. We swapped thanks and the acceptance of thanks with minuscule muscle movements around our mouths, as was right. He returned to his stove and grill behind the glass display case for sandwiches and pies. I leafed through the newspaper. It turned out that it was the previous week’s edition of local weekly, The Chronicle.
The first few pages were plastered with quaintly framed adverts for cattle or tractors or auctions following deceased estates or chickens or hundred-weights of good manure. Tiny print. The back pages were sport from the city and its surrounding villages. The snow hadn’t hit when this edition had been put to bed so there were reports of long lost games and matches. Crosschester wasn’t a turf town though, so no race results. Just big men throwing and kicking balls and each other around muddy fields while no one stood by to watch and the reports were sent in by club secretaries or proud parents.
I felt good drinking my tea, waiting for my breakfast, hidden from the world by nothing more than cold fighting warmth and clouding the window. I’d eaten in some very high class places in my time, stars everywhere but that’s another story and certainly not an interesting comparison. Not long after I’d sat down, the chef-patron of the Regent Caff returned with my breakfast on a beautiful round white, thick and unchipped plate as big as his own big, round, beautiful face.
He set it down in front of me with something of a flourish and said that he hoped I enjoyed it. I could see that the man enjoyed his work and took pride in it. None of the usual cynical, close to suicide by slow roasting in the overheated kitchen attitude that was usual in places like The Regent. It just goes to show that you can’t tell with places or people. Even smug, self-satisfied Crosschester had this gem of a place. I made a note of it. I still have that note, even after everything that came after. I might go back one day if I am able.
Back in my modelling days I was barred from fried streaky bacon, fried eggs, fried black pudding, fried bread, fried mushrooms, any kind of sausage however it was cooked, and Worcester Sauce (way too much sugar in that wonderful liquid). Body weight, skin clarity, clearness of eyes, muscle definition, it was like being alive but only just. So I eagerly made my way into the enormous plate of food. Just because he loved his work, didn’t mean he was any good at it.
Everything on it was fabulously, genuinely adequate. I could go on about the plastic edges of the eggs fried in way-way-way too hot oil or the bread fried cooked in cheap oil not bacon grease but the standout was the back bacon that had been half-boiled, half-fried in under-heated oil. But I won’t. It doesn’t take us on in this story. Suffice to say, I enjoyed it all enormously.
The rest of the newspaper would, I’m sure, have enlightened and informed me about the goings-on on the city had I any interest in them. As far as I could see from skim reading, there weren’t any murders. No high-speed car chases. Not even a decent burglary. Only some dowdy shoplifting, which said more about the inequity of the place than it did about high jinks, and a single rather sad sounding hit and run.
As I was wiping the plate clean with the last piece of fried bread, eight or nine workmen bowled into The Regent ready to get the day going. As they sat down around two tables, the woman stood up, paid and walked out. As she past me she whispered, “Have a very safe journey to Ireland”. I said thank you and, basking in the afterglow of a full breakfast, didn’t think any more of it, which was dangerously stupid, complacent of me.
Soon after this encounter following a brief exchange of pleasantries with the chef-patron I paid my bill. It turned out that his name was George Palmer and he’d run the place for twenty years. Being cheerful and happy in his work was the most important thing in the world to him, so he told me unprompted.
Good on George, I thought. Good man. Possibly the best of them, and certainly the best one I’d met for quite a few years. As I walked out and the cafe’s hanging bell chimed behind me, I promised myself to tell other people about The Regent.
Full of breakfast and feeling generally charitable towards the rest of human-kind who now basked in the afterglow of bacon and Mr George Palmer, I walked slowly back to the hotel.