This is the true life of Billy Quinn - adventurer, drifter, musician, poet, lumberjack, fisherman, bodyguard, gigolo. It’s hardly surprising that he couldn’t find time to be my father.
He walked out of the house when I was twelve, which broke my mother’s heart. I despised him for that. He reappeared twenty-one years later – some time after my mother died – and I wanted an explanation. During long evenings over several weeks, I taped conversations with my father. He told me about his life, and as he did so I discovered understanding, forgiveness and love.
So this book is for anyone who lost and found their dad – which, one way or another, is just about everyone.
“You don’t remember me, do you, Mr Jones?”
I looked up from the bookstore desk and I recognised her immediately. Rosemary Quinn.
“Of course I do, Rosemary. How are you?”
“Never better, Mr Jones. Will you sign for me?”
“I’d be glad to.”
I took a copy of my first published novel from the stack and opened it to the title page. She leaned forward as I picked up my pen.
“Please write, To Rosemary, my star pupil, who’ll be signing her own book for me one day.”
“Well – are you a writer now?” I asked as I scribbled.
She reached into her shoulder bag and took out a manuscript, offering it to me. “Oh, yes. Would you like to read it?”
“I’d love to,” I said.
I really hate lying.
Opening the front door I heard ice chinking into a tall glass – what Capote called the most welcoming sound in the world.
“How did it go?” Lily said, handing me a vodka and tonic. “Cheers.”
“Really good.” I took a sip. “Though I met another ex-pupil with a manuscript.”
Lily laughed. “I told you this would happen. Woodwork squeaks…”
“It’s an allusion to a tune written well after the discovery of electricity.”
“Ah, popular beat music. Not my field of interest.”
She grinned. “So tell me about this acolyte. Scarlet lipstick and purple passages? Another lit-smitten flirty-something?”
Lily’s wasted as an agent. She should write. It would take me hours to construct a line like that, and she comes up with the stuff just chatting.
“Not at all. She was a rather bloodless child, and she’s still a bit spectral. But a damn sight more cheerful than when she was twelve.”
Twenty-odd years ago I gave Rosemary Quinn a handkerchief as she wept on the steps of the school. I sat beside her and reassured her that she was better than the taunting bullies.
“They call me a bastard,” she sobbed, blowing her nose.
“Well, that’s not strictly true,” I said. “Your parents are married.” Not a helpful response to a distraught adolescent, admittedly – but, sorry, once an English teacher.
Her father had disappeared. He’d stormed out of the house, saying he was going to the pub, and two months later there was no sign of him. Being fatherless is a commonplace these days, but in a provincial English market town during the early eighties it was a stigma. The people of Elswick freebased gossip, and gear of that potency was transmitted from aproned mothers to grubby-socked daughters like toxins in a food chain.
“The poison collected around Rosemary,” I told my wife.
“Yeah - I know small towns.”
“Her escape was the written word, and I was her audience,” I said. “She produced endless stories of rescued heiresses, gypsy divas, superheroine rebels. She had some talent.”
“So what has she produced now?”
“I haven’t dared look.” I picked up my bag. “Listen – I’m going to get a couple of hours writing in before dinner – okay?”
“Do. I have to pack for Frankfurt. Ben’s going to ask about the synopsis for book two. What shall I say?”
“The synopsis is next on my list,” I said, heading for the stairs.
“I know the story’s flowing and all that, but you have to give him something tangible.”
“I will. I just don’t want to break my stride.”
Second lie in as many hours. It wasn’t getting any easier.
Charlotte, NC. She was working in a topless place, and Billy Quinn stopped in for a beer. It had been two years since they split up - on the docks a thousand miles away - but he noticed her at once. It was her hair, red made redder by the stage lights. He simply sat there looking at her face silhouetted in the follow-spot. He didn’t speak to her, afraid she would disappear like hot ice. He wasn’t sure he had the right to approach her any more.
The place thinned out in the small hours. Quinn was about to leave too when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Don’t I know your name?” she said.
Her eyes were full of recognition but her expression was blank. It was a game, and they had played it before. They were starting anew.
“It may come to me.”
At her apartment she lit a burner on the stove and offered him a pipe. Quinn felt like a thief who’d broken into a house only to find it was his own – surprised, a bit foolish, but also relieved.
Even when I was teaching fulltime, I wrote prolifically. On my forty-fifth birthday I opened a bottle of champagne and skimmed through my collected unpublished novels. There were eleven of them. Halfway down the second bottle I decided that I’d write one more, push it hard and then – if it didn’t find a home – give up. I wrote during the summer break, almost carelessly, certain that the effort was futile. My ex-wife’s friend Lily was starting her own literary agency. Within a month she sold Chalkdust for the equivalent of twice a headmaster’s salary. She says that I’d never have fallen in love with her for less.
It was a two-book deal and now the deadline for the second manuscript was three months away. Despite my protestations to Lily, I hadn’t written a word. Well – not quite true. I’d written the first ten thousand words of three novels that were going nowhere. I’d promised Lily that when she got back from the Book Fair I’d give her a sight of the new stuff. But I had no new stuff.
Tuesday after lunch I hauled Lily’s suitcase to the taxi and waved her off. Back in the house I made tea and thought about how to structure my five days of solitude to greatest creative effect. I ironed five shirts, because I write best when I’m dressed for work. I invested a couple of hours in a trip to the supermarket so that I wouldn’t have to think about food every day. I cleared all my outstanding e-mail correspondence so that it wouldn’t tempt me further. I sought out and downloaded some half-remembered Sibelius, listening to which was going to be my reward at nine or ten each evening.
It was nearly midnight by the time I got myself straight - too late to begin writing. But if I went to sleep straight away I could be up and at it by seven, so I hadn’t so much lost a short day as gained four long ones.
Just to give myself some winding-down time, I took Rosemary’s manuscript to bed with me.
She was married when they first met, soon to be divorced. Quinn helped her out of a jam, but he always used to say – darkly, intriguingly - that he used a little too much force.
It was breakfast time on Wednesday when I finished reading. I’ve tossed aside better-written manuscripts and I’ve given up on tighter plots, more convincing characters, more inspired themes. But I stuck with Rosemary’s two-hundred pages because I was waiting for it to do what I hoped it might. It never did.
Rosemary painted her father as a roguish anti-hero, a maverick soul in a conformist age. Fleeing a suffocating provincial marriage he washed up on the east coast of the US in 1983, and spent twenty years travelling with the wind – a cross between Charles Bukowski and Boxcar Willie. He was an engaging character although his life – like the book itself – lacked real direction. His talent, implicitly, was to become whatever was required of him. Given the possibility of a payoff – food, sex, shelter, the usual fundamentals - he met the expectations of anyone who needed something from him. He would have been easy to dislike, but there was something compelling in Billy Quinn’s voice. Although it was the daughter’s writing, you could practically hear the father’s words coming straight off tape. He was a character in search of a context.
Lily called at eight.
“I thought you might have worked late,” she said “Did I wake you up?”
“No, I was making breakfast. How’s Frankfurt? How’s the hotel?”
“Fine. You getting a lot done?”
We chatted for a few minutes. I could hear traffic.
“My cab’s just arrived at the conference centre,” Lily said. “So am I okay to tell Ben we’re going to deliver on schedule?”
“I wish you’d stop nagging,” I said. “I’ve been writing like a demon all night.”
Procrastination is as addictive as nicotine – and it inspires justifications every bit as insidious. A single cigarette to give me focus, and that’d be the only one today. An hour editing a chapter or two of Rosemary’s manuscript, just to get my own engine turning over. It’d be a favour for an ex-pupil and a good warming-up exercise for me. Everybody would benefit.
I found a red pen and a pack of Lights and took the manuscript out to the patio.
Thursday morning I called Rosemary to offer her lunch by the canal.
“Did you like my book?” she asked, even before the menus arrived.
“I did. It’s rough and unready – but it has something.”
She smiled a smile that I haven’t seen since I left teaching. It was the smile of a kid whose alibi stood up, or whose test results exceeded expectations. It was a smile of vindication.
“I knew you’d love it,” she said. “You always loved my stuff.”
We ordered wine.
“I didn’t say I loved it. I said I liked it.” I tapped out a cigarette. “There’s still work to do.”
Work I had started doing, in fact. The previous day’s breakfast on the patio had lasted well into the evening as I scribbled notes in the margins of Rosemary’s manuscript and wrote entire new passages longhand on the backs of her pages. My intention had been merely to give pointers as to where the story might benefit from a little tweaking, but I’d ended up writing what was missing.
I reached into my bag and took out a sheaf of paper. “I devoted some time to your draft,” I said. “Excuse the typos. I was awake at six typing it all up.”
“Do you know which character most intrigued me in your father’s life?” I said. “The redhead. She crops up every few years and she and Billy get it together, then it all goes wrong and they split. They’re always connected but they don’t keep in touch. They run from each other but they’re inevitably drawn back. They generate heat but they wilfully refuse to stoke the fire.”
“Yeah – I say they were soul mates.”
I shook my head. “That’s a hollow cliché and it criminally wastes an opportunity. We never see the redhead except through your father. The episodes that involve her just come and go without any development of the relationship.” I struck a match and lit my cigarette. “You don’t even tell us her name.”
“He didn’t tell me her name.”
I laughed. “Okay. Then I’ll tell you. I’ve called her Alex.”
I handed the newly-printed pages across the table. I smoked and drank as Rosemary read my development of her work. I’d overhauled and expanded five or six chapters, putting in place a parallel narrative and introducing elements of plot that gave rise to the need for resolution. I have written enough crap in my time to know that this was pretty impressive stuff. It was the best prose I’d ever produced.
“This is all made up,” Rosemary said at last, frowning. She pushed the pages back across the table. “This is fiction.”
“Of course it is. It has the makings of a great story.” I topped up her glass, took a deep breath and made my pitch. “It has the makings, actually, of a publishable and very successful story. A co-authored novel.”
The word I expected her to balk at in that phrase was ‘co-authored’. I was wrong.
“Novel?” she said, disgustedly. “You want to turn my father into a character?” She made it sound like a synonym for glove-puppet. “You don’t understand my book at all, do you?”
I’d burned her, though I couldn’t see how. But suddenly the best prose I’d ever produced was hanging over the fire.
“Perhaps I don’t,” I said smoothly. “Explain it to me.”
She reached across the table and took one of my cigarettes. I struck a match for her.
“All right,” she said, exhaling smoke. She sat back in her chair. “When my dad left, the kids at school all made up stories about him. He was in prison. He’d run off with the woman from the baker’s.” She took another drag. “They got this crap from their mums – I knew that.” She flicked at the ashtray. “He’d turned queer. He had another wife and family in Abbeywood.”
“Kids are cruel,” I said. She needed a cue, and that flabby truism was the best I could do.
Rosemary shook her head, rolling the burning tip of her cigarette around the rim of the ashtray as she spoke. “They taunted me with all that made-up tripe, but I knew they were wrong. Even as I was sobbing in the toilets, I knew that my dad was doing something they couldn’t begin to imagine. Their speculations were petty and parochial and dull – like their lives. For Christ’s sake – a bigamous marriage in Abbeywood?” She looked up from the ashtray. “I was sure my dad was more exciting than that. And so it turned out.”
“You’re right. It’s a great story.”
Apparently I blew it again. She slammed her hand down on the table. “No!” My wine glass tottered and I reached out to steady it – a displacement gesture, but safer than speaking.
“No,” she said, more calmly. “It’s not a story. It’s true. They have to read it and see it’s true. Not fiction. Not made up. My dad was better than their stories. And my book proves it.”
At which point I could have launched into any one of many oft-delivered lectures concerning the emotional and elemental verity of narrative fiction, as opposed to the untidy and unconvincing wholesomeness of narrative fact. But – only one bottle in – I could tell the timing wasn’t right.
Rosemary gazed across the canal towards the town. “Look at this place,” she said. “Everything about it’s so paltry. But where Dad went – New Orleans, Delacroix, the Great North Woods…” She laughed. “Even the names are evocative, alluring. The Great North Woods. It just makes you want to run full-tilt through the trees screaming at the sky.”