Tessa is nineteen and fleeing a dead-end job and the humiliation of being dumped by her boyfriend when she packs her rucksack and sets off for Berkshire. Idealistic and naive, only her friendship with the aristocratic beauty, Rori, sustains her through those first few weeks of mud and cold and songs around the campfire, eventually culminating in a spell in prison. Fast forward thirty years and Tessa is the manager of a struggling charity, at loggerheads with her teenage daughter and, along with husband Pete, going through the motions of marital therapy when a friend, Maggie, nominates her to take part in a TV makeover programme. Initially reluctant, she agrees to the filming as publicity for one of her “causes”, but when the producer wants to focus on the “Greenham angle”, the memories from that late adolescent rite of passage come flooding back.
This novel seems the ideal companion for my response to Charli Mills’ latest flash fiction challenge to compose a 99-word story on the theme of ruts. Tessa sets off for Greenham to escape the rut of living with her parents as a young adult. Maggie proposes the TV makeover to jolt the middle-aged Tessa out of another perceived rut. While neither of these are sufficient in themselves to resolve the underlying issue, getting out of the rut provides the catalyst for deeper change in unanticipated ways.
Yet I identify with the older Tessa’s resistance. What’s wrong with being in a rut if those tramlines are taking us were we want to go? Western societies tend to value novelty over repetition, with those who continue to plough the same furrow considered retrograde and dull. This isn’t the case in all cultures: some prefer the predictability of tradition with deviations from the well-known path considered pointless verging on mad. Age is also a variable, with the adolescent’s rejection of the old ways almost a requirement for leaving childhood behind. Perhaps a society that fetishises youth out of a fear of old age, will inevitably struggle to recognise the wisdom underlying some decisions to stick with what one knows.
For those of us stuck in an apparent rut, how do we judge whether we are there out of fear and/or laziness, or if we’ve reached a state of Zen-like detachment and acceptance of our limitations? The protagonist of my forthcoming novel, Sugar and Snails, considers herself, at the age of forty-five, fairly content. She has her own house, good friends and a steady job in academia. But it isn’t the life she hoped for when she left home for boarding school at fifteen. Yet the risks of stepping away from that familiar channel and letting a man into her life are immense. Being considered a stereotypical cat-loving spinster seems a small price to pay for staying safe.
But I’ve already decided how far Diana’s able to step away from her rut and, apart from seeing her through three rounds of edits, I’m ready to let her go. November is the traditional time for new writing projects and, although I’m not going the whole hog with NaNoWriMo, I’m devoting myself to some intensive work on a new novel project this month. I’ve got three viewpoint characters, each with a different perspective on the tramlines of their lives. Although I expect only the first to make much sense without additional context, I’d like to introduce you to each character via their own 99-word slot:
Irene slid the prospectus across the table. “Anything you fancy?”
George eyed the whitewashed villas bathed in sunshine. “You’ll leave Eric for me?”
“It’s what we planned. Once you were retired and my kids had left home.”
“Nobody mentioned moving to Spain,” said George.
“Why not? The heat would do wonders for your arthritis,” said Irene. “And everything’s so cheap there. How much would you get for this place?”
“I can’t sell The Willows. I’ve lived here all my life.”
Irene sighed. “You’re not still expecting your sister to come back, are you? It must be over fifty years.”
The breakfast things were always cleared away by nine so the girls could lay the tables for luncheon. Yet it was nearly ten and every surface still strewn with greasy plates and bowls crusted with porridge. Her mother would never have countenanced such slovenliness.
“Come on, Matty.” A man took her arm and escorted her into the lounge. “It’s time for the meeting.”
Staff and guests were arranged in one large circle, like the denouement in an Agatha Christie. “I’m not bothered,” she said.
The man frowned. “It’s important, Matty. We’re discussing where you’ll go when the hospital closes.”
Social workers rarely ventured onto the backwards but Janice was curious. The nurses laughed when she chose to take tea with the patients, unaware it came with the milk and sugar already added to the pot. Along with the faint tang of urine, the sickly drink made her retch but she forced it down. No-one acknowledged her except an elderly woman who claimed her father was a duke.
The Sister showed her Matty Osborne’s file. Moral decrepitude? What kind of diagnosis was that? Incarcerated for fifty years for giving birth out of wedlock? Janice resolved to set her free.
I’m hoping to get about 30,000 words written this month. Wish me luck!
Thanks to Seren Books for my review copy of Love and Fallout. To discover more about the writing of this novel, see my Q&A with Kathryn Simmonds.