Monday, 22 July 2013

Extract from a novel in progress: Forty Apple Trees

The author at work*
The manuscript of my second novel Forty Apple Trees is well under way. My fellow writers at That Authors Collective (see side panel story) are giving me feedback; it's tremendous to have the support of a small network of colleagues who aren't afraid to frankly critique your work. 

Forty Apple Trees is a darkly comic story about the descent of a middle class family into criminality. Unlike The Play's the Thing, this novel is set in England and drawn entirely from imagination (well, perhaps). I plan to release an e-book version in 2014. 

Below is an extract from the opening chapter. Let me know if it piques your interest!

You get used to prison after a while. You look forward to the dreary food because there’s nothing else to eat. You forget the smell of the place - urine, cigarette smoke and bleach - because there's nothing else to smell.

Someone like me becomes invisible after a few weeks. There was the initial curiosity from some men who were frightening and pathetic at the same time, but they soon became bored with me; we came from different social universes, we didn't speak the same argot and I wasn’t  young enough to be the plaything of some thug with a big hairy belly. I fell in with a group of other misfits, among whom the common factor was that we were educated to a level that would be measured in the stratospheric in comparison with the rest of our fellows. The four of us ate together, exercised together and always tried to appear as no more than four smudges on the wall. My three friends were all in for financial fraud of one variety or another. Me, well I was in a different league altogether. We had fourteen university degrees among us - I say had, because one day the oldest of us didn't wake up, died of a brain aneurysm during the night, and we were down to eleven degrees and three smudges.

Here I am then, stuck for quite a few years in gaol in a forlorn field in the Midlands, miles from the pretty cathedral town where Thea and I broke the mold cast for us by family, school, university, and the law of the land. Here I am, forty, getting portly on cheap stodge, half way through an online bachelor of something or other that I don't need except as an antidote to brain rot, and becoming even more vastly overqualified for my prison job as mopper of floors and duster of handrails.
Two years earlier ...

It was a summer Saturday, Thea's day, when she would absent herself from the house while I ran William and Zita from one sporting or artistic activity to another, using the wait times to park the car and jog around a convenient park. The family reformed late in the afternoon on the back lawn, me in my running gear making mocktails on the garden bench, and Zita climbing over Thea and sniffing her neck and wrists, guessing the names of the perfumes she'd sampled at the shopping mall in the New Town. The baby sitter was booked for seven, and I had already called Rima at the shop three times to make sure that all was well. All fine, Rima said, not bad for a Saturday. I pushed aside the little niggle of anxiety; I wasn’t looking forward to letting Rima go.
Thea looked lovely, lounging in the deckchair in a white summer dress against her tanned skin, sipping a green drink piled high with orange fruit, a woman of forty at the peak of her dark mature beauty. She didn’t look like any of the university lecturers I’d been taught by.  I’d booked the restaurant and I had a small piece of expensive jewelry secreted in my linen suit.
We fed the children at the big table in the kitchen, the afternoon breeze bringing the scent of roses from the tiny walled garden that Thea had claimed as her territory. A little plaque on the doorway said ‘No children past this point’.  At six the neighbour’s daughter arrived to take over William and Zita, and we retreated to the bedroom.

I never tired of watching Thea getting ready for a night out: The expensive unguents and delicate implements of beautification, dressing and undressing as she approached – by some logic I didn’t understand – the final choice of outfit; trying on heels and swirling her hips in front of the mirror. And finally the laying out of jewelry, matching the pieces with clothes, bag, shoes, make-up, mood, occasion. But tonight was somehow different. She seemed curiously animated, nervous, like a cat before a thunderstorm. I showered, lounged on the bed in a robe and watched her begin the ritual at the dressing table, but she said “Get dressed and come back later. I don’t want you watching me.” I tried a clumsy manouevre, sidling up to her and kneading her shoulders, but she stiffened, raised her hands like semaphore flags and said “Just go”.
Downstairs the children were playing with the babysitter’s body piercings. She taken her nose stud out and William was prodding it with a spoon. Zita was trying to get one of the teenager’s earrings into her unpierced lobe. “Can we all wash our hands after this game please?” I said. I hung around in the garden reading the paper until it was ten minutes before the arrival of the taxi and then went upstairs. I knocked gently on the bedroom door.  "Not long." she said.

After a minute I knocked again and gingerly pushed the door. Thea did a swirl for me and I was transfixed by the dress - the muted sheen of the fabric, the deep harmony of magenta and charcoal grey, the way it hugged her body like a second skin, accentuating the lines of her shoulders and legs. I must have had my mouth open because she said “No need to look like a goldfish. What do you think, gold or silver jewelry with it?” I recovered myself: “Silver of course, something discreet.” Thea said: “Right answer, clever boy”, and kissed me deeply.

While she chose the jewelry I saw the glossy carrier bag. As the owner of a select bookshop in the most upmarket shopping street of a wealthy cathedral town, I know that you don’t buy a Jules Hector in British Home Stores. “I’ll just check whether the taxi’s here.” I said. I went into the vestibule and stabbed my phone to log on to our credit card account – no sign of a thousand pound purchase. Thea caught me up: “Stop fiddling with that phone. This is our anniversary dinner. In fact I want you to leave it at home.” I made a face but she gently took the phone from me with one hand and slid the other inside my jacket, caressing my chest: “Just leave it.”

©Stuart Campbell
* Actually, the photograph was taken in John Knox's House in Edinburgh.

In the meantime you can enjoy The Play's the Thing! It's available as an e-book on Amazon at

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