Pre-order from 3rd of February, folks! The ISBN is 978-0-9932388-6-4 and it’s published by the wonderful independent press, Patrician. Killing Hapless Ally is not a book for everyone. It’s densely packed with idea and allusion; it’s dark and (I hope!) comic. But if you like it, take it to your heart and that will make me so happy. It is fiction, but within it, there lies a distillation of what I know, what I have found out and what I have been through. It is about how mental illness takes hold – how it can settle in so young – and about imaginative ways to fight it. And that, lovely readers, is all me. x
NB: there may still be some editorial changes to this copy before I bid it goodbye in a few weeks.
THE FOLLOWING EXTRACT CONTAINS EXPLETIVES. Actually, there’s a hefty amount of creative swearing at various places in this book.
Not for this homme a lie down in the afternoon, but a manly growl after lunch, some Gitanes and a marc. Step forward Albert Camus and also the story of becoming an existentialist on a campsite. Not Albert; oh no, no, no: he was far too cool to be seen in a Fucking Caravan. It was Alison, trying to translate the world into something that made sense.
We have already shared fateful tales of The Fucking Caravan, of the entrapment between two alder trees and, on the same trip, tales of two blacksmiths. However, on that same ‘holiday’, parked up by the Seine and sitting under the willows for days (with her parents somewhere else; they didn’t say) Alison began a roaring and extraordinary affair with Camus. It was a reading summer, between the two sixth form years. All around was the sense that people were dropping like flies and the deaths of Dad and Santa Maria must surely be imminent; she just hoped, ever practical, they didn’t happen when the two were out in the car, or maybe driving on to the cross-channel ferry, with everyone hooting furiously behind them. But the reading: for days on end by the river: Sartre’s Nausea, Genet’s The Thief, and, best of all, Camus’s The Plague, The Fall, The Outsider and Selected Essays and Notebooks. Also, at speed on the journey home, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Force of Circumstance and, cheerily, A Very Easy Death. When she got home, Alison devoured Gide’s Straight is the Gate and Fruits of the Earth: ‘Nathaniel—I will teach you fervour!’ Fervour: Holy Fuck—what was fervour? What was lust for life? Were those things somewhere in the unknowable distance, just visible beyond the bacon grease of The Fucking Caravan? She was intoxicated: dislocated entirely from her surroundings. The dislocation did not provide a new or unfamiliar sensation, but this kind of dislocation was one in which she was on fire and in splendid company.
‘Come. Come away with me now. Tonight!’ said Albert Camus.
Now, one could dwell on the literary qualities of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, but the most impressive thing for an adolescent Alison (she whose constant companions to date had been imaginary Swedes in a crawl space) was the sense she gained of Sartre and de Beauvoir’s love affair; that they wrote and argued and shared and, of course, smoked (like Helen) in the cool way. And when de Beauvoir wrote about her love affair with Nelson Algren—not to mention sharing bricks (bricks: Ooh la la!) of raspberry ice cream with him—Alison had a peculiar light headed and heavy hearted sensation. It was, we would have to say, the first knowledge of the erotic. And it hurt, because it didn’t exist in any part of the real world, where there was just getting off and, for some girls, an early, clumsy, grasping fuck. When Simone de Beauvoir wrote of their ‘contingent lovers’; of love affairs, known about by both but clearly allowable and part of happen-stance rather than a dedication for a lifetime, it sounded both painful and delicious. How entirely entrancing for the teenage Alison that de Beauvoir and Sartre wrote and expressed an intensely creative life to one another. This was something Alison could never quite get out of her head. And when she tried and failed to engage something which might look like it, the stone dropped in her heart and she was scared to open her hand in case the frightening thought was there, pressed into the palm, waiting to open. And she was scared of being herself: Just Alison (as Denis the Lusty Blacksmith had it), while in her heart remained the appalling leaden feeling and the acute sense of being separate; weird, possibly a killer; not inclined to the magazines and spontaneity of her female peers: missing the point always. Wrong and Weird Kid. She willed herself to live on in a way that was meaningful and hoped that she would find people to discuss these feelings with; that she could know someone who understood about absurdity, existence precedes essence or the frightening experience Sartre’s Roquentin has when, in Nausea, he touches a door handle and comes face to face with jarring, sickening anguish: that anguish lived alongside Alison permanently. At five, it had started somewhere after Saturday morning cartoons, as the day unfurled; at sixteen it began after Weetabix and before the first application of lip-gloss.
‘This I understand: it is when the scenery collapses,’ said Camus.
He made it sound exciting in his low tone. But it wasn’t in real terms: at least, not yet; instead, it was terrifying and yet Alison had a timorous sense that from that terror came only a beginning. That definitely made sense. Good god: intellectual heat; the erotic in its most subtle form; a notion of how to live with hope, when God quite clearly does not exist and we must travel to the frontiers of our anxiety to understand where to start. Alison was not asking much in a man, then.
Ah—but one ready day along came Albert, ready for action. If you have ever read his peculiar, flat, sparkling, cold story of Patrice in The Outsider, then there is little to express. But if not, imagine a wandering, solitary individual, not inclined or feeling the pressure to act as expected. Not cruel, but mercenary because appetitive; plainly erotic in responding to his needs as and when they push forward, articulate of who and what he is and yet without what would feel like morality to us. He did not cry when his mother died; he shot a man on the beach and did not express regret, only annoyance. For the teenage girl, it hit a nerve. The description Camus had of his protagonist as a solitary and wandering individual; as somebody entirely alone and on the edges of society, now, that was the truest description of her to date. It was—and there is no other way to say this—a first orgasm. Not only with the plainness of the character and Camus’s prose, which Alison gamely attempted in both French and English, but also because of the man. Let us describe him. Alison had to get over Mersault first, a man both in love with the world and separate from it. Camus told her of how his protagonist was inspired by a stubborn passion, for the absolute and for truth. His truth remained negative truth, but it had its own beauty and without it there could be no adroit comprehension of ourselves and of the world; no self containment. Mersault’s life was that of a foreigner—a stranger—to the society in which he lived, and he wandered about on the fringe, in the shadows of others’ lives: plain, but deeply sensual. Such descriptions made Mersault enormously attractive to Alison and made her fall more for the man who wrote him into being. Such a telling of the outsider, the wandering foreigner living and breathing a negative truth, pierced and had a difficult heat for her because, of course, that was Alison. We could say she was Weird Kid—plenty did and probably still do—but l’étrangère would sound altogether more arousing, non?
Alison had photocopied a picture of Camus: it was of him, apparently sitting on a rather lopsided sofa, and leaning forward with his hands tensed, his mouth slightly open, his eyebrows raised and his trousers showing his socks as he inclined towards a co-combatant to advance his argument. He was so fabulously French; so fabulously exotic because he came from Algeria, that he carried off the sock thing with élan; socks were not normally a detail of erotic piquancy. Camus might have been describing how brilliant it was that William Faulkner had pulled off the language of high tragedy; that a man from Mississippi could find language that was simple enough to be our own and lofty enough to be tragic. Or perhaps he was dictating something for the Resistance magazine, Combat, of which he was the editor. But, to a teenage girl, under his spell he was also evincing arguments for,‘Come away with me.’
And, ‘Let me show you.’
Or, ‘Let me show you how to live in the face of despair. Sit on my knee and we will begin.’
And, occasionally, when the Oran sun roused his temper, ‘Come here now and stand against this wall. I will take you.’
Was this what Helen had meant, gifting Alison the Camus as she lay on her Cyclamen Terrace deathbed? It was a jolly long way from a few drunken fumbles in the dark when they—the boykind—mistook her for someone else. Camus would have taken a bowie knife from his pocket and cut her out of her clothes, grazing her skin and eliciting just a little blood as he went. Later, he would lick the drop of blood off the knife like a wolf.
Albert’s cadences were delicious: he was declaiming phrases of profound, shattering erotic power to Alison’s ear. And by God he had enough style to be vulgar, if he wanted. Camus had a history of manly pursuits, too: goalie for Algiers; a fine swimmer and athlete. She had a sense of his being a consummate man. Funny; brave; a demon in the bedroom—if you ever got that far, because what are walls, floors and furniture for? And, unlike JK, he could have built a wall or changed a tyre. On the occasions when Alison went to other girls’ bedrooms, she saw they had pictures of The Cure, or Bono, when he was ragged, young and angry. She, meanwhile, had a picture of Albert Camus next to her desk. People said, ‘Who’s that?’ and she said, ‘My godfather. The notion felt entirely, naughtily fitting, for the Camus books, en Français, that Alison possessed had been bequeathed to her, as you learned earlier, by her godmother Helen, studying Camus at The Sorbonne. Perhaps Helen had been similarly intoxicated (which made the Terry the Fat Controller, the unexamined life, Friday-pie thing even more depressing). So the honorific chimed as fitting. Plus it felt like Albert leaned over Hapless Ally in a proprietary and manly style. L’Étranger was inscribed with the words “Helen Griffiths, Paris, le 19 Janviér 1962” and Alison had always hoped that, in leaving France for Terry, his mother’s pie and a new life in Tyneside, Helen was able to say, like Camus’s protagonist at the point of death, that she knew she had been happy. She hoped it was like this for Helen especially when the morphine gave her respite from pain and the unexamined life downstairs, punctuated by the sickening puffs of air freshener from the Cyclamen Terrace plug-ins.
Now, all those years it never mattered to Alison that Camus had been dead ten years before she was born: he was there on her wall now.
Godfather. Most louche, brilliant, gorgeous godfather.
She saw in his Notebooks that he wrote, ‘I loved my mother with despair. I have always loved her with despair.’ Good God. He even understood that. It was exactly how she felt about Santa Maria. And by God (although He is Dead if He ever Existed) Albert was brave: he would stand in the face of despair and say that now he was free.
Ah: the growingupsexthing. Alison had hopeless expectations, really, for while Camus smouldered away behind her closed eyes, real life was, shall we say, more a damp inconsequential thing than a smoulder. There was Johnny in the barn. Always, ‘Let’s go to the barn,’ a bunk up against a bale: no use there expecting conversations about Proust. She asked him about books and he said, ‘Why would anyone want to read boring books?’ But in school, there was an important dalliance with D.H. Lawrence. It was Sons and Lovers and she remembered mostly Paul Morel’s loving: not the bit which was like a communion (with Miriam) but the bit which was ‘too near a path’ with rather racier Clara. The evocation of Paul’s mother, however, as he drifts back to her—and drifts to his own future death (as Lawrence himself had it in his notes on the text), now that was a theme best avoided during these delicate years. Besides which, no-one would have got it because at that time boys just wanted to get you drunk and feel you up in a dark room when the parents are away. Only in reality, they were feeling up someone else. Like Heroic Alice. Oh yeah: Heroic was still around; jiggly tits, cool-thriving and diving and looking on her hapless (again, ironic, though note lower case) counterpart with scorn. She had the best clothes and hair; told the kind of jokes boys liked. When she moved upstairs, the party moved with her, while Alison stood downstairs thinking about existentialism and, ‘I’m a misfit and nobody fancies me.’ Alison was definitely Weird Kid. Good job she had Albert