By Jenn Ashworth
Fell arrived out of the blue. Just one scene. It happens like that sometimes. The scene was this: Jack, Netty and their daughter Annette are sitting on the concrete terraces over Grange-over-Sands old lido on a hot afternoon in August. I saw it all before I wrote it: the murky dark blue of salt water pool, the glare of the sun giving Jack the worst headache he’s ever had, and Netty watching a good looking young man swim lengths of the pool like a sleek white dolphin.
As soon as I started to write these details down (they demanded to be written – it’s a cliché, I know, but it was also true for me) the character spoke and moved and acted: Netty was sick and Jack was worried about her overdoing it. Annette went down to the lido to swim and Netty was worried about her, in the pool with the big boys who were messing about. Netty sent Jack to ask the boys to calm down an the strangest thing of all happened: this beautiful strange boy who introduced himself as Timothy Richardson (where did the names come from? I don’t know) laid a hand on Jack’s face and not only wiped away his headache – as if by magic – but cured in one fell stroke his life-long short sightedness.
What happened next? I typed in order to find out. Jack was nearly struck dumb with the shock of the strange healing – but not dumb enough to fail to seize the opportunity and to ask Timothy to come home with him and take a look at Netty. The doctors can’t help her, he says, but perhaps there’s something you can do for her…? The scene ended there.
I didn’t write anything else for six months. But these characters waited at the lido and I was tormented with questions about them. What was wrong with Netty? Did Annette know her mother was sick? How seriously was she sick? Who was Timothy Richardson and had he really cure Jack, or was it just a trick? Would he be able to help Netty, and if he could, what would he ask in return? Would the price, whatever it was (and there is always a price – I knew enough about angels-in-disguise to know that) be worth paying?
I spent days and days at Grange-over-Sands, looking at the boarded up and now derelict lido and inhaling the salt-and-mud smell of the unbiddable, dangerous Morecambe Bay. I travelled to London and spent a day on Savile Row speaking to cutters and tailors and watching them chalk outlines of suit jackets and trousers on rolls of grey cloth. I visited a retired nurse who told me what caring for someone dying at home was like in the early 1960s, before chemotherapy, before palliative care, before the hospice movement.
A few months later I went back to the scene, and started to write. I didn’t have much of a plan, which meant tonnes and tonnes of drafts, following my nose, and letting characters and the landscape they lived in shape the structure and tone and plot of the novel. In an early draft, Timothy Richardson, the butchers boy and aspiring tailor from Edinburgh, had an entire backstory: much of that was cut because in the end I wanted him to be as mysterious to the reader as he had been to me. After a few drafts, the ‘frame’ of the novel developed – a present day strand where grown-up Annette returns to her parents’ empty house in Grange and attempts to come to terms with her past, with the stories her parents never told her, with the magic she was never allowed to see. She isn’t quite haunted, but the house certainly is, as I would be, until three years had passed and I was able to close the computer and say goodbye to the novel.
Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light(Sceptre, 20011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is also published by Sceptre, as is her fourth and new release, Fell. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.