In my twenties I lived in London, trying to break into theatre. I’d come over from Canada with a couple of friends, full of passionate intensity. Strangely believe it, the English theatre lacked all conviction that it ought to be impressed by three Canadians. My stake had not been large, and London was expensive. Finally, on my last legs, with no money left at all, I took a job as a temporary word processor operator. At least I’d be able to write stories, I thought, or even just letters.
To last till I got paid, I had to borrow money from my impoverished friends—all very painful. About that time, the movie Withnail & I came out. My brother telephoned to say, “Hey, they’ve made a movie of your life.”
The weeks went by, and at last I got my cheque for £300. (A lot of money in those days, as the oldsters always say.) I went straight to the bank and cashed the whole thing, to pay my friends back and have £50 to go on with. I was so happy as I rode along on the top of the number 9 bus, perched in the very front seat. A perfect day. London was glowing, narcissus and daffodils heaped on every street corner flower stall, the February air sweet with almost-spring.
The Ladbroke Grove library was still open, I could get a book! I hopped off the bus, went into the library, found a few books and sat for a while—then they were closing. I took my coat from the back of my chair. But there was no purse hanging there. I searched the library, frantic: no good. I left my address and phone with library staff, and walked out onto library steps, in despair. I stood there staring into an abyss of moneylessness and the prospect of borrowing more money to get through the next two weeks, let alone the horrors of replacing my bus pass and ID.
Along came a number 9 bus. But of course I didn’t have my bus pass any more, so I would have to walk home.
On my side of the street, going the other way, another number 9 came trundling to a stop. Standing on the library steps I idly thought (my subconscious mind sliding the notion up like a note passed in school), maybe that’s the one I was on, on its way back around.
I hopped on, ran up the stairs—and there was my purse sitting on the front seat. All the money still there.
In my novel The Little Shadows, Clover, the middle sister, follows her eccentric beloved to London. Of course I used my own recollection of London in the 80s to imagine Clover in the London of the First World War. Unlike me, Clover manages to get a job on the tatty fringe of the theatre world, dancing in a revue at the Tivoli. She writes to her sister Aurora, back in Canada:
The manager at the Tivoli has the dirtiest fingernails I have ever seen—I cannot imagine that he has ever washed. He wears a black cape and is Melancholy. He made us wait til Monday morning for our pay, I suppose because they are in straits themselves—that week I’d got a note from Victor at the Front, saying he had to wait for his too! ‘The Paymaster is an—interesting study in humanity’ he said. I’ll have to ask about the Paymaster’s fingernails.
On Monday I went down at noon for my pay packet (and opened it quick to check, you’d better believe), and there it was, my lovely lolly. (Do I sound like an English girl? No roses in my cheeks, though.) Twenty-two shillings, enough to buy coal & food for a fortnight, maybe even a bottle of wine for supper. I can’t get used to their stewed tea.
So I hopped onto the number 9 bus and ran up to the top. I took the front seat, and sat enjoying myself for the first time in a long time. The corner flowerstalls still burst with yellow and white and blue—so pretty that a couple of stops before Ladbroke Grove I got off and spent a pleasant few minutes bargaining with a flower-seller for a bunch of daffodils called Soleil d’Or, with enough scent to knock you down, or to put a tired soldier back on his feet, if only Victor could get leave.
I reached for my purse, and did not have it. It had everything in the world in it. Nothing—I had not a penny without it. I put the flowers down and must have looked quite sick. The woman put out an arm to catch me if I fell, but I did not fall. I stood on the pavement with my knees trembling from the loss, and trying to think where—what—and along trundled the number 9 bus, and stopped in front of me. I thought, ‘Perhaps that’s the same bus, come back on the circuit’ and without any more thought than that I jumped on and ran up the curving stairs helter-pelter, down to the front seat and—
There was my purse. And the money still in it.
I climbed downstairs very carefully on shaky legs and asked the conductor to let me off at the next stop, and walked through the streets and up our steps and in our door and gave Madame such a heart-felt kiss, she thought something dreadful had happened. Instead of something wonderful. I forgot to buy the flowers, so we had a dingy old fish-smelling room instead of the bower of Soleil d’Or I had planned. But a cold grey room with a purse safe in hand is not such a bad place to be.
The synthesis of remembered experience into fiction, the mysterious alamgam of imagining and memory and invention: I think that’s at the heart of our work. Putting Clover into my shoes lent her reality, and let me carry on writing.
But in the end, I cut that letter.