This is the final chapter of this first, publicly written version of the novel. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! You’ve come through a working first draft of ‘The Girl on Harlow Street’. There are gaps, and errors, and things to be sorted and streamlined in the next version. There are also lots of surprises. But for now, what you’re about to read is the end of this first leg of the journey, though the journey is far from over! Please bear in mind, I’ll be posting 3 Justine/Harold chapters on the PROCESS section soon, along with some important project updates, including plans for the story after this one. In the meantime … here it is … The Light of Day.
Ada entered the grove – head high, gun raised – blood suddenly curdling as she saw he stood there with his own gun raised, the satchel pressed against him like a shield.
Phil felt the frigid angle of his index finger hooked around the trigger, but too, the surface of the satchel warm against his torso. Locking eyes with the figure before him, he knew if it fired, he’d fire too, the bullets passing one another in their flight. If he went down, he’d take this figure down with him. Just like Harold Clarke had said, it all came down to timing in the end, and instantly Phil saw a clock spinning through the air toward a temple on a marble hearth. And just like that, he willed the pending bullets into tiny clocks with outstretched hands and faces terrified. If they were catapulted from their barrels, time would fly faster than it ever had. Ticking time bombs – missiles tearing to their targets – in wars – on land – in human mindscapes – why does it come down to this?
“You’re done,” Ada scathed.
“Then you’re done with me,” Phil returned, his potentially last breaths steaming the air like magic.
But no. Not ‘like’ magic.
He could ditch the simile, because when all was said and done, it was just as Vic had always said: the super was within the natural, so, in and of itself, the Breath of Life was as magic and enchanting and as brilliant as magic gets. “Shoot, and we’ll go down together.”
“Give – me – the – satchel,” the figure growled.
“No,” Phil replied.
“Sidney – listen to me – you’ve no use for that. Drop the satchel.”
“Give me the satchel, Sidney – and I won’t shoot.”
“I don’t trust you,” Phil whispered with everything he had.
“Trust me –”
Ada started into Sidney’s eyes.
For her, then was now, and now was then; this was her former life, a bygone century, a retroactive chance to change the course of history. It was just as some nebulous professional in decade upon decade hence would tell her in the shadow of an eventual lemon tree: her perception was her reality; it didn’t count how others viewed her. She was the centre of her own mentality. She was only Ada now, the future nothing but an unsolved mystery not yet scripted, at least not in the hemispheres of her grey matter, the only matter that truly mattered in this crucial matter of time, these last five minutes.
And there it was for her as well: the face of time – bold and unrelenting – as she always raced against it as she did each Sunday evening, testing the congregation’s patience, forcing them five minutes past the hour. What a triumph that had been at first: to know the vicar and his faithful flock had catered to her tardiness and arm wrestled the hand of time to accommodate her arrival.
But then – of course –
In that infinite split-second, Ada felt the heart-wrenching nature of her individuality.
She flinched with old pain, trauma which had taken root in her body.
How old had she been? Sixteen? When she’d woken up, believing Jeanna to be beside her, only to discover she’d had a boy who’d died before he’d come into the light, only to suffer the phantom pain of a baby who would’ve been hers for all time. Only to find the resilience she was born with, to live with her uncle, and bloom in George’s presence, to take up religion in its whimsical form, and belt out her sermons for the man she’d bring into her body. Only to love – and love – and love – and love – and –
But love was blind – the world knew that.
So blind with love, she hadn’t seen the true love story taking place behind her back as she sat riveted by scripture in the back pew of St. Matthew’s, dreaming up her erotic interpretations of the testaments to titillate her husband who, unbeknownst to her, was weary from his escapades with Sidney – the man who stood before her now with nothing but his breaths protecting him.
How dare he have the family story?
“Give – me – the – satchel.”
“I deserve it.”
Phil beheld the figure.
It wasn’t Redmond, nor was it Ada. It was a symbol of something far greater than a single human, past or present, in body or in spirit. Phil’s perception was his reality, and no one by a lemon tree had ever told him that. The more Phil stared at the figure, the more he saw beyond it.
Beyond this, the moment.
To begin with, he saw Claire.
There she was, in that moment ‘do-or-die’, or perhaps because that moment was dire. Despite their ups-and-downs, Claire had always been there; he just hadn’t seen her sometimes; he’d seen her roles instead. But now, as he stood face to face with this figure in the steely light of dawn, he pictured Claire mid-quarrel with him in 17 Sorely Lane. She was rooting through her mental archives, dragging up some random thing he’d done 2 weeks, 12 months, or 15 years prior, using it to justify her current complaint, using it to fuel the fire. Half the time, he’d clean forgotten his bygone marital misdemeanors. But no, not Claire; she had them all saved up and on the ready to blast him good and proper.
While this might seem like a negative thought to most, it was exactly what Phil needed in that moment as he clutched the briefcase with his left hand and held the gun with his right.
Then, he saw Nico.
‘Have you ever killed anybody, Daddy?’ a five-year-old Nico asked.
‘No, of course not.’
‘But you’re a police officer.’
‘Right, well I’m a British one so I don’t carry a gun.’
‘You could use your truncheon.’
‘I don’t know how effective that would be. Besides, it’d take a lot for me to kill someone.’
‘You’d do it if it were to save yourself though, wouldn’t you?’
‘The only time I think I’d kill someone was if it were to protect other people – you, James, your mum, or any other innocent person that was going to be hurt by my opponent. That’s when I think I’d pull the trigger. If I had a gun that was.’
And that’s where Claire’s go-to strategy came in.
Because in almost every argument they’d ever had, she hadn’t stuck with the moment hand. She’d gone way back, often waaaaay-way back, to gather up all these figurative little bits of shrapnel to pack them into one great grenade against which he, with his short-term memory, didn’t stand a chance. Not to mention Claire usually did this when looking like a million quid, often in a mohair jumper which fuzzed and beckoned him into submission before she’d even taken her shot.
So, how does an everyman garner the force to kill another human being?
That was the split-second question.
And, fortunately for Phil, it had a split-second answer.
“Give me the case,”
Phil was deep in his personal Narnia now, in that realm where long thoughts occur in the blink of an eye. So, there was time to think. There was time to rationalise and deliberate at the speed of light. That was the grace of the human mind. You could debate yourself silly in the fraction between two words without your opponent knowing you were doing it. For instance –
“Give me –” the figure insisted.
If Phil were just Phil, a regular old bloke with a high blood pressure and a mortgage who lived on Sorely Lane, he might have thought, ‘Sod it – I’ve had enough of this gig – take the fucking case and run. Things haven’t been great for me lately for me anyway. In fact, my life’s a bit of mess to be quite honest. Claire’s halfway pissed off to Africa with some like-minded chap she hooked up with on-line, and the boys are as good as riding on her faux fur coattails all hyped-up on vegan protein powder. I mean, seriously, if you take me out, at least I won’t have to make minimum payments on everyone’s Visas, or the mortgage for that matter, because I’m not an idiot; I have insurance.’
But, after the epiphanous Philamorphosis he’d just been through, Phil could no longer see himself as only Phil from Sorely Lane.
He was so much more than Phil.
He was Everyman.
It was high time he ditched the masculinised language.
He was Everyone.
He was a bona fide, in the flesh, 120% foolproof, cash-back guaranteed Kaleidoscope Person.
“– the case,” the figure continued without skipping a beat, proving that the speed-of-light thought processing phenomenon was an actual ‘thing’.
But fully conscious of this THING, Phil knew the phenomenon could only get better.
Forget sentences unaware they were being interrupted. Phil knew that the oncoming long-thoughts were about to outstrip the speed of light and flash mid-word, between letters.
‘Take this,’ you Predator, he thought, staring at the figure. ‘Take this –’
“Nev –,” he began, initiating the finetuning of his mind-blowing THING.
It was time.
It was time to ‘pull a Claire’, to delve back into the past and to derive from bygone outrage. It was time to summon fury from the unjust moments, isolated from their understandable contexts, and pack it into one cathartic shot which acted on behalf of the collective wronged and silenced.
‘Could you ever kill someone, Daddy?’ Nico came again, gusting through the grove.
‘Only if it were to protect others,’ his former self replied.
Hugging the briefcase close, tightening his hold on the grip of the gun, Phil saw himself a one-man army, poised to answer his own question more specifically this time.
Where does one find the brute force to end another?
From the past, whether it be a century gone or five minutes prior.
Always from the past.
Phil was aware of the manuscript, the journals, the paintings, the documents, and the music in the briefcase. He felt them through the manmade leather, on his hip, but also, sending him their strength, their courage, their emotion, their voices.
Every piece of paper was a holy grail unto itself yet stood united in the informatic whole.
Phil felt a deep archaic duty to protect them.
He was there.
On Paternoster Row.
On the twenty-ninth of December 1940.
He could hear the sirens, the whistle-after-whistle of the Luftwaffe’s bombs, followed by the silence, then the booming crash until the noises overlapped against the hiss of burning timber, the crackle of each page as it curled, charring into nowhere, joining the sparking constellations of everyone’s ideas. Phil was there, with Holls, with Tallow, running from the district burning. And as he saw her running with Harold’s transcription of Justine’s explicit writing, Phil shivered, realising that it was that one document that got away, the testimony of sexual love experienced in defiance of excruciating absence.
‘I am the book,’ he heard Justine whisper. ‘Its spine is my spine. Its ears are my ears. Its voice is my voice. If you have the book, you’ve got me. I’m always in your lamplight. Forever on your hands.’
And so, Phil found himself right there, in the middle of ‘never’.
In the vastness between the ‘v’ and the ‘e’.
It was there in that space that goes unnoticed, that he saw Lady Emeline standing by a bonfire, watching Gregory’s diaries from Mexico burst open in another effigy of Guy Fawkes. He couldn’t afford to sympathise with her, to see that she’d been kept in England, or betrayed by her adventuring husband besotted with another. To glean the anger, he could only see the evidence of a great love story in a foreign land going up in flames.
It was there, in the open heart of ‘never’, that he watched Anthony Winterbourne hammering Foxglove’s mirrors, and burning his wife’s pages in a barrel in the heath. He couldn’t allow himself to accept a husband’s heartache at being excluded from the muses Justine clung onto with her pen. He could only feel the proof of first love disappearing.
It was there, in the uncomfortable blank between ‘nev’ and ‘er’, that Phil saw ‘Walrus Man’, a picture painted by his sister-mother, glimmering on his phone whilst she, the artist was, physically, decades over and done with.
It was there, in the in-between of two small letters of the alphabet, that Phil cowered in the shadow of his mother as she snatched his latest story from his hands and through her narrowed eyes, said, loud and clear, “No son of mine – no son of mine – no son of mine – no son of mine – no son of mine – will go sharing stories beyond the walls of this house. Mark my words, Phil Owens. Nothing you’ve written or will ever write will see the light of day, not if I have anything to do with it. If I find out that you’ve been airing our most painful moments in public, I swear to God I’ll burn your work into thin air, I will.”
Flinching, Phil felt his lifeline against the grip of the gun.
Aubrey was there.
‘They weren’t there,’ she said. ‘My intended audience wasn’t there. I played my heart out on so many stages without their eyes on me. I wrote. And wrote. And wrote. But they didn’t read. They didn’t read me. And so, they never knew. They were so terrified of seeing their vulnerabilities made manifest, they never knew that I also saw their beauty, that I understood so deeply where their fear came from. In turning away from my art, they cut themselves off from the resource of my love, from my ability to contextualise their human frailty. If I listened to them. If I silenced myself. If I didn’t write about suicide, infidelity, sexual passion, psychological adultery, cruelty, despair, death, colonial plundering, invisibility, vulgarity, loneliness, self-pleasuring and self-healing and abandonment, well, then, I wouldn’t have anything to write about. How human of them to be so narcissistic that they couldn’t face me in print. How human of them to be afraid of what I’d express.’
Phil saw Aubrey shining in the middle of ‘never’.
Tall, slender, fair – beyond alive – aliver than alive.
‘But I wasn’t writing about them. I was writing about all of us. I was writing about myself. I was writing about you. And I’ve come to see that you, whoever you are, and wherever you may be, are my intended audience. If you’re hearing me, then I’ve found my own voice. I’ve not been silenced.’
‘Nothing you write will ever see the light of day.” Beryl’s bygone threat was out of thought and into full-blown hearing now.
It was that strong, that fierce.
But Holls was cradling Tallow in her arms. And Justine and Sid were painting mirror shards to make a mobile. And Harold was transcribing Justine’s love letters. And Richie was protecting her remaining artwork. And Aubrey was safeguarding her final piece of music in Foxglove’s beams and hurrying to the letter box to post her manuscript. And Phil was holding the briefcase against his hip. He was holding their pain, their passion, their crudeness, their heartache, their resilience. But it was more than that. He was holding our pain, our passion, our crudeness, our heartache, our resilience.
He was holding the human story.
It wasn’t biblical. It wasn’t renowned. It wasn’t published. It hadn’t brought in a single penny, not in its organic form. It wasn’t on screen. It hadn’t won any awards, or even garnered accolades around a kitchen table. It hadn’t hung in galleries, nor been applauded in concert halls, not as it was in its current state. And in its poignancy and obscurity, still hungering for visibility, it was more human than ever.
“Mark my words, Phil Owens. That’ll never see the light of day.”
Beryl’s voice was well out of italics now; Phil felt it ringing in his ears.
But let me tell you what ‘er’ looks like.
‘Could you ever kill someone, Daddy?’
‘If it were to protect you.’
And just like that, Phil pulled the trigger.
And the bullet sailed in slow motion into the figure’s head.
Phil reeled backward and thudded to the ground.
And as he hit the earth, the contents of the briefcase – the manuscript, the journals, Tallow, the paintings, and the music slid out onto the graves.
The universe was there for that.
With its impeccable timing and penchant for coincidences which prove that God exists.
So, let me tell you what ‘er’ looks like.
Well. It looks like daylight coming, you see.
Even though someone you loved said it wouldn’t. Even though people tried to stop it. Even though the publishing houses went up in flames. And the painters died in prison. And things with present gravitas burned late into the past. And lovers were cut short by violence. Even though –
The light of day approached, infiltrating the mist which hung above the graves. That light was amber and prismatic like the scorpion’s resting place. It was a light which shimmered on the peripheries of death itself. It was forcefully gentle and perfectly blemished with globules of dew. It was imbibed with ancient breezes from the heath which tasted like salt from the seashores and harbours in Portsmouth. It was excruciating, but exquisite, as it touched down on the paintings, the pages, and the music.
The light of day came.
ALL children of yours. ALL children of mine. ALL children of ours. ALL children, especially those we carry within, must know that when all was said and done –
There was death because there is always death.
the light of day came,
AND the human story lived to see it.