It’s the 25th November and, after a mammoth writing session today – during which I have somehow managed to write 8,000 words – I’m firmly on the home straight towards my fifth NaNoWriMo success. And what better way could there be to celebrate this most wondrous of occasions than by posting the first chapter of this year’s NaNo novel? (I hear you ask in breathless anticipation). Well, here it is….
It was dark by the time Scarlett reached the venue for her gig. Named with either deliberate irony or non-deliberate naivety, The King’s Arms pub was the polar opposite of anywhere an actual member of the royal family would choose to frequent. At first glance she wasn’t sure the place was even open, it’s grotty peeling exterior and two boarded up windows giving the impression of a derelict building that had long since closed down. But then the door swung open and a sliver of light proved that this was, in fact, an establishment doing current trade, albeit an uninviting one.
Scarlett shielded her eyes to identify the figure that had appeared in the open doorway and was now standing silhouetted against the light. “Jake?” The figure moved a step closer. “Who were you expecting? James Dean? If so I’m sorry to disappoint.” Scarlett took a playful punch at her friend’s arm and reached into the pocket of her house coat to find her tobacco. She pulled out the packet and pressed the pads of her slender fingers together to try and generate some heat. For the beginning of November it was still unseasonably clement, but her poor circulatory system was already denying her extremities the luxury of flowing blood. “So what’s it like in there?” she asked, opening the packet and pulling out her rolling apparatus with the care and attention of a surgeon preparing for an operation. “Honestly?” Jake replied, relieving her of the packet so she could roll her cigarette. Scarlett shrugged in response. “I guess.” She took a generous pinch of tobacco and pushed it into the expectant rizla paper, noticing with disgust that she had once again bitten her nails down to the stubs. “Pretty horrendous,” said Jake. “A few coffin dodgers with one foot in the grave and a ropey looking hen party in the corner.” Scarlett rolled her cigarette and licked along its length with careful precision. She rested the finished creation between her lips and leaned into the warmth of Jake’s hand as he held up his lighter. “Great,” she said, inhaling deeply and watching as the smoke drifted out of her mouth and up into the crisp night air. “That’s just how I pictured my first gig in London town.” Jake’s boyish face screwed up into a frown. “Come on Scar,” he said, “don’t be like that. Everyone has to start somewhere.” It was true, she knew, but it did little to shift the feeling of disappointment in her stomach that had stamped all over the butterflies that had earlier resided there. She took two more long drags on her roll up, threw it to the ground and stamped it out with a studded boot. “Come on then,” she said, “show time.”
Jake wasn’t wrong about the clientele. Inside, the pub was little more appealing than outside, though it was at least warm. The tobacco-stained walls were adorned with equally yellow pictures of bygone – and, to Scarlett’s mind, also somewhat questionable – ‘celebrity’ clientele. The crimson shag pile carpet was matted in places and covered up by newer looking rugs in others. In the non-boarded up windows were dusty displays of fake flowers, and on each table a candle wilted wax onto the surface beneath. The bar itself was made of dark mahogany and bedecked with gold plated horse shoes and other paraphernalia that Scarlett assumed must have sentimental value, for it was entirely devoid of aesthetic value. Behind the bar a woman stood polishing glasses. She was nearly as brassy as the ornaments that hung above her head, her hair a tumbling cascade of bleached blonde curls and her ample bosom creeping above the confines of her tight white top. She looked up as Scarlett approached and flashed a wary smile, as if scoping out her opposition. Scarlett did her best to return the smile. “Stella,” the woman said, putting the glass down and holding out her hand. “Scarlett.” They shook hands in what felt to Scarlett an oddly business-like exchange. “Right,” Stella said, appearing to feel the same way. “So the stage, if you can call it that, is over there. The PA system’s all set up, mike, amp and all that jazz. That’s all you need, right?” Jake picked up his guitar case from the floor. “And this, obviously,” he said with a lopsided smirk. “Okay then,” Stella said with an over-elaborate clap. “I’ll leave you two to get set up.” She peered in the dim light at her diamante-encrusted watch. “There’s half an hour until kick-off. It might be quiet now but trust me, by eight o’clock all the regulars will be in and you’ll have a great audience.” Scarlett and Jake exchanged doubtful looks.
To their surprise, Stella had been right about the imminent influx of locals. Within fifteen minutes a steady stream of people had more than doubled the head count inside the pub, and though they weren’t quite the hip Camden crowd she longed to perform in front of, Scarlett was relieved to see that at least some of them were under the age of fifty and enthusiastic looking. Once they had set up the equipment they ran a brief sound check. “Testing, testing, one, two, three,” said Scarlett. “Yes, very testing,” someone shouted from a dark recess at the back of the room. Scarlett’s stomach contorted in sudden, naked fear. “Very funny,” she said into the microphone with a theatrical roll of her eyes. “That’s right love,” a second disembodied voice shouted from the same general direction as the first, “don’t let that miserable bugger put you off.” Scarlett returned the comment with a slow smile, then looked to Jake and nodded. On her cue he started to play the familiar first few chords of the new song Scarlett had composed especially for the gig. She leaned into the microphone, closed her eyes and began to sing. When, some thirty minutes later, she came up for air and broke out of her trance, the audience burst into spontaneous applause so loud it made her jump. She turned to Jake and he beamed back at her. “Wow,” she said into the microphone, finding her voice and turning back to the modest crowd. “This was our first gig since moving to London from Cornwall and, well, we weren’t sure what kind of reception we’d get. You’ve been amazing, thank you so much.” She slipped the microphone back into its stand as a second round of applause began to fade and walked over to her friend. “Great going kiddo,” Jake said with a wink. “You weren’t so bad yourself,” Scarlett replied, noticing for the first time he had replaced his normally scruffy attire with a new pair of jeans and a round-necked jumper from Gap. “New threads?” she asked, and Jake’s face flushed red. “I just thought it might be nice to smarten up a bit. First gig and all…” Scarlett leant closer and examined his head. “Have you had a haircut too?” she teased. “Okay, who are you and what have you done with my friend?” Jake took a swipe at her and she ducked out of his way. “Come on smarty pants, let’s have a celebratory lemonade. I’d say we’ve earned it.”
It was just past midnight when they returned to the flat they shared above a shop on the Old Kent Road. They picked their way through the detritus of leaflets, newspapers and empty kebab packets in the communal hallway that was also shared by three other flats in the same building and walked up to the second floor. As soon as they got in the door Scarlett kicked off her shoes and threw herself onto the sofa, which was so old it sagged under her slight weight. She surveyed the room with a sigh, its drab décor and peeling damp-filled walls dragging her spirits down from the level the gig had elevated them to. “Make me some toast will you?” she asked Jake with an eyelash-fuelled smile, “with Marmite?” Jake rolled his eyes and left the room. “And a cuppa?” Scarlett shouted after him. “Don’t push your luck,” came the response, though she knew he would do as she asked. Jake, her dear friend, without whose unswerving support she might never have had the confidence to move to London and make a go of a career in music. Jake, who had brought her back from the brink more times than she cared to admit, even to herself. Unwilling to pursue that line of thought further she sat up and switched on the ancient second hand television they’d purchased in Camden market the previous day for ten pounds. The picture flickered into life to reveal a programme about India, and Scarlett’s thoughts immediately turned to Ruby. It had been a month now since they had driven to the airport to see her little sister off on her travels abroad, and since then Ruby’s contact with her family had been sporadic at best. But then, Scarlett knew, Ruby was not the type to spend hours in an internet café Skype-ing her friends (Scarlett was not at all sure Ruby had many friends), nor was she particularly fond of lengthy telephone conversations. She was a tomboy in that respect, as well as in others. One of Scarlett’s earliest memories was of running barefoot along the beach of Trebarwith Strand in a flimsy cotton dress, arms outstretched like an aeroplane, while Ruby, clad in thick corduroy trousers, a hoodie and wellington boots, explored rock pools looking for crabs. It was true to say her sister was an introvert by nature. Bookish, was a term that was bandied around a lot when she came up in conversation. ‘That sister of yours is such a bookworm,’ old Mary in the bakery had said to her one day. ‘Always got her head in some complicated looking book or other – it’s a wonder she doesn’t bump into things.’ They had all been surprised when, over breakfast some months previously, Ruby had calmly announced her intention to go travelling before taking up her place at Cambridge where she had a place to study chemistry. Nobody, least of all Scarlett, thought she was the travelling type, but then she could well understand Ruby’s need to break out of the tiny community where they had lived all their lives and see something of the world. Scarlett herself was grateful to Ruby for providing a much-needed catalyst for her own departure from the sleepy Cornish fishing village she had called home for the past twenty three years. The thought of what her life might have been like if she had stayed there forever made her shudder even now.
“Here you go, lazy cow,” said Jake, strolling into the room and handing Scarlett a plate of toast and mug of tea. She sat up and crossed her legs, folding her long skirt into her lap and pushing the multitude of gold bangles jangling at her wrist further up her arm so she could eat. She watched as Jake walked the length of the room and sat down on the armchair opposite. He had changed out of his new clothes into his old tracksuit bottoms and school athletics hoodie, and now looked more how she had come to think of her best friend; casual, slightly foppish with his too-long brown hair falling across his face. Jake went about his life in an unhurried way that Scarlett envied, exuding a quiet confidence that things would work out in the end, no matter how strenuous the journey. He was the only child of their neighbours in Port Isaac, Pauline and Nick. Nick was a fisherman with a similar temperament to Jake’s, which Scarlett supposed was where he got it from. When she was recovering from her illness she and Jake used to spend hours in their front room, looking out to sea and playing ‘spot Nick’s boat’ as Pauline kneaded bread for that night’s supper. When Scarlett first began to cut herself Jake wouldn’t leave her side, and he had been her protector and friend ever since. It seemed only natural when she moved to London that he would come with her, not least because they shared a musical ambition. Indeed Jake’s company was a stipulation of Scarlett’s being allowed to come to London in the first place, her mother feeling that she wasn’t strong enough to go all by herself. Not yet, she said. Not yet.
Scarlett took a bite of her toast and pulled her old Nokia out of the folds of her skirt. She hadn’t thought to check it all night – why would she? – but now she saw a number of messages, both text and voicemail, demanding her attention. “Turn it down a sec will you?” she asked, and Jake duly obliged with the remote. Scarlett put down her toast and held the phone to her ear. The first voicemail was from her mum. “Darling, it’s me, Mum. Can you call me back please?” That was odd, Scarlett thought, her mum’s voice had sounded shaky, unlike the normal cheery one she was used to. She pressed the button to move onto the next message. “Darling, it’s me again. I’m sorry to call so late but there’s something I have to tell you.” Scarlett felt a prickle of fear rise up inside her. “Everything okay?” Jake, as always, sensed her mood. He stared at her across the room, his brown eyes scanning her face for an answer. “Messages from Mum,” Scarlett said, keeping her voice as even as she could, “she needs to speak to me about something, urgently. I’ll call her back.” She punched in the numbers of her home phone and waited as it rang once, twice, three times. On the fourth ring there was a click and a man’s voice answered. “Hello?” It was Phil, her stepdad. “Phil? It’s Scarlett. I just picked up Mum’s messages. Is everything okay?” There was a moment’s silence on the end of the line. Scarlett pictured Phil’s time-ravaged face in quiet contemplation. “Let me get your Mum,” he said. “Hang on a sec.” Scarlett shrugged at Jake. He stared back at her, eyebrows knitted into a frown. “Scarlett?” Her mother’s voice came on the line. “Mum?” A strange choking sound emanated from the receiver. “Mum? What’s wrong?” Her mother cleared her throat in an attempt to compose herself. “Darling,” she said with considerable difficulty, “something’s happened – to Ruby.” Scarlett tried to suppress the panic rising up inside her. “What do you mean? What’s happened?” Her mother was crying now, sobbing uncontrollably into the receiver. “Scarlett,” said Phil’s voice, having taken charge of the situation. “Ruby’s gone missing in India. And they’ve found a body.”