A burnt aspect. The old sodium of streetlamps reflects on clouds which hang by greasy threads and linger in the dark hours. Rain pounds the paving stones and crawls to the gutters. Headlights bore the street-mist, wheeling round the all-roads and snagging puddles. The night-time is one-thirty. It is the last day of a weary September. Nothing is open but those beacon-lit, evening-singed cafés for whom the electric bulb and caffeine have conquered the night. One such subversive perches on the intersection of Oxford and The Crescent, the light of its spitting filaments diffused by the bottle-green windowfront and chalkboard glass of its door. Inside are a dozen or so low-set tables, around each of which three or four high-backed, copper studded armchairs are arranged. The chair- leather is mottled by shadows drawn from the score of ceiling bulbs situated in clusters at each corner. The central void is occupied by a rusted plate-map of the globe, the metal twisted such that its extremities spiral crazily inward and crease. The late hour discourages enthusiastic custom, the café’s three patrons are arranged haphazardly in solitude at different tables. The first leans in to ruffle the yellowed pages of a jacketless hardback as the second scrawls a few letters into a tabloid crossword, withdrawing his cuff so the ink doesn’t smudge. The third mutters to himself in the corner, fixated on the half-blank screen of his laptop, typing a line before deleting more and scribbling a few notes on an exercise pad set parallel to the edge of the table. He goes to stand, hesitates, sits back down and stands again, more resolutely this time, folding the pad crosswise and walking half a dozen paces toward the reading man.
“Yeah, I was wondering whether you could just –“
“Hand it over”
The exercise pad was exchanged, unfolded and fastidiously examined by David, a coffee stirrer conscripted to hold his page in the hardback. He read through the four pages twice and for several minutes before passing them back to the writer.
“What do you think?”
“There’s some good stuff in there”
“Have a direction in mind?”
“Not so much”
“Should I have?”
“Should you have a plan?”
A thoughtful interlude.
David paused before gesturing vaguely at the armchair set opposite him, at which the writer was obliged to sit. He waved his hand to indicate the pad.
“You’re the one writing the book, why are you asking me?”
“I value your advice. “
“Advice I can give you. I can’t give you ideas unless my name’s going on the front cover.”
“How about an acknowledgement?”
“How about I write a novel and you can put your name on it? Save you the trouble of thinking too hard. It has to be your thoughts, your ideas. It all has to be yours for anything you write to be worth something. ”
“How’s the book?”
David smiled slightly as he opened the hardback to his page and replaced the stirrer into a mug to his right.
“I’ll have to tell you when I’m finished”
“I can’t argue with that.”`
The writer pushed back in the armchair, stood up and returned to his table, leaning down to check the time on his laptop. He pulled up the document he had been working on, and surveyed it for fifteen seconds before folding over the computer and placing it reverently in a rucksack that lay against the chair set perpendicular to his own. He grimaced wryly.
“Seven hundred words in four hours – seven hundred words in four hours…four hours.”
He turned to the man doing the crossword.
“When about would you say I got here?”
In irrelevant consultation with a rather impressive silver watch came the reply.
“Quarter to ten or so”
He nodded with a detachment that implied resignation.
“Seven hundred words in four hours”
The door swung outward and the writer was beyond the threshold. The warm air of the café rushed out into square rain and subsided. Opposite, the city green was encircled by a fire-rimmed rail, itself bordered by trees, amber by daylight, now a flame-tinged white. There was no wind and little motion to disturb the fog, which had coalesced with the rain, drawn-vertically, to curtail the street well before its end. The writer turned up the collar on his coat and secured the rucksack to brave the slick pavestones, glistening with streetlight-combustion, which led out to the immediate horizon. He was moved to step down to the curb, and was held for a moment by a puddle that appeared much deeper than it could have been, silver and eldritch. A distant cough dispelled the enchantment and he turned, again crossing the threshold into the café.
“Sorry, how much do I owe you?”
A quick, disheartening glance to the eight or so mugs set on the draining board behind the counter confirmed it.
“So I do”
He awkwardly shrugged off the rucksack and retrieved a box from the front pocket, within which lay a leather wallet containing five or six notes and a couple of pennies. A twenty was selected and proffered. The receipt crumpled in his palm as he seized the change and stuffed it into a pocket.
The crossword-man looked up.
“Only for a minute.”
“You forgot to pay?”
“So I did.”
The man smirked slightly and straightened his paper.
The writer, again outside, turned hastily down Oxford and followed the street for a quarter of a mile or so until its end at the City Library, a brutalist slab of a building that jutted volcanically out of the earth, its fierce geometry cleaving the road left and right. The left road was now followed, and soon the neon pulse of a petrol station was vaguely perceptible, illuminating the immense coils of mist that surrounded it in a nebulous orb . The writer’s path was marked, unremarkably, by the same collection of commercial and civic structures that had stood there for twenty years and may perhaps endure another ten. In addition to the petrol station, three supermarkets, each of a different time, a chemist, two bars, a pub and a three-story block for council administration, which was so innocuous on an overcast day that its summit fused to the clouds and rendered it monolithic, were arrayed down what appeared to be some forgotten, secondary thoroughfare. There was no immediate end to this road, it seemed to extend indefinitely and turn with the arc of the world, running up through London, east to Paris and any way to Washington as it joined the poles, meandering until it was again remembered and again tethered here. The writer glanced at the watch he had forgotten he was wearing and passed through a junction to the right into a park. This was not the city green; the ferns grew to knee height and usurped the grasses, narrow-leafed trees towered far above their appointed height, and the wildflowers were not yet wilting. Each leaf, petal and stalk were drawn in strokes of tar and outlined by a pale moon. The writer set across the park diagonally for a full forty seconds before ceasing to walk, taking the rucksack from his back and retrieving his exercise pad and pen. Bringing his face inches from the page, he wrote a few words which were swiftly half-obliterated as rain blotted the paper. Satisfied, he flipped the book closed and replaced it in the bag, walked a further thirty metres and joined a broken path that precisely bisected the acute cone of the park. A gate of Victorian iron, wind-peeled and pointlessly ornate, emerged a little beyond the point at which the path spluttered and terminated.
I would be greatly appreciative of any feedback anyone may have on this piece; I'm trying to decide whether it's worth developing further. This isn't intended to be a cohesive narrative by itself, simply a prospective component of a possible first chapter.