Fiction

    Your girlfriend’s left you. You find another woman’s diary on a park bench. What to do? Archie Bryant’s decision sets off a chain of events that ends in tragedy.

    And so begins ‘Happiness Is An Option”, a 12 part serial, set mostly in Kentish Town and Dalston, which was published in 2009 on Time Out, and happily won fans in as diverse places as Camden New Journal and New York literary blog Brooklyn Vol 1. I also wrote a piece on it for The Guardian.

    Fiction on Wednesday is a new weekly slot on The Kentishtowner which we hope will celebrate London-based writing. So if you’re a budding author and wish to have your work considered, please email us at kentishtowner@gmail.com.

    In the meantime, let’s kick things off with the first instalment of ‘Happiness’, lightly spruced-up for 2011, which will continue every Wednesday. Let us know what you think.

    CHAPTER ONE: THE NOTEBOOK

    Happiness, mused Archie Bryant, as he stepped out onto Queen’s Crescent market, was not worth thinking about: distant, glamorous, an aunt he had never known.

    It was Saturday lunchtime, and words cracked and split all around him. Mothers scolded infants, a teenage couple argued, and bull-necked sellers with ringed hands battled cheerily for trade: you could buy anything here, even a wig to wear as you hovered over the discount electricals or leopard-print trousers.

    Archie sighed. Three days since Rose left, but still the sunshine flooded the pavement. He circled the Irish matriarchs outside the halal butcher, and took a right at the flower stall, where kids attacked a couple of black bin-liners. By the basketball courts, a gang spread themselves over a wall.

    Soon he reached the petticoat of leafy streets beneath Parliament Hill. Climbing, the wind whistling away his hangover, he was pleased to find his favourite bench unoccupied at the summit. Heavy clouds staggered over the playing fields below, and beyond the sprawl, he could just make out the spectral outline of the South Downs.

    Taking a seat, he ran through the facts again. On Tuesday night their relationship had been fine. Slugging back bottles of beer, Rose had purred, ‘I want a baby, Archie’, in his ear. But in the half-light of Wednesday morning, flying round the kitchen, her mood had changed.

    ‘Where’s my purse? Why do I always forget everything? What’s wrong with me?’

    Before he could respond, she was downstairs, slamming the front door. Why, he remembered thinking, did it always feel as if the air was ambushed; as if their words, once uttered, conspired against each other?

    And he hadn’t seen her since. Rose, who for five years had slept by his side.

    Sighing again, he leaned back. The sky was as grey as an old woman’s skin: it moves so quickly, doesn’t it, compared to time? After all, three days had seemed an eternity. About to leave, he spied a notebook lying on the ground: forgotten rather than abandoned, normal in size, a blue plastic cover. Glancing around, his fingers reached down. Marianne Templeton, read the girlish scrawl on the first page. Haircut, said one entry; essay work, another. Pete’s wedding. Rosa christening. Fix taps, sort clothes, Mum card, paint room. How reassuringly ordinary.

    But he was curious; had it been left on purpose? Was the owner spying from the brambles? He dug out a pen and, on a whim, scribbled his name and email address in block capitals. Who knew where it would lead? A hurried addition of a smiley emoticon (he was a recent convert) made him grin too – for the first time, in fact, since Rose had left.

    Was this fate? After all, our lives can be transformed in a second. Stillness swayed; and then, as if to wash away the week’s pain, the rain started.

    CHAPTER TWO: ENTER MARIANNE

    A wonderful fact to reflect upon, Marianne Templeton considered as she jumped out of bed, was that every human being was really a mystery to every other.

    In the bathroom, she began with some dry body brushing to slough away the dead skin cells. She had only been in London two weeks but the dirt! Dalston, with its markets and noise, was a far cry from Deal beach. She considered happiness as she stepped into the cubicle. It floats, she decided. It will float down to you in ways you never expect. The power shower seemed to endorse her theory. She felt happier than she had for a long time.

    She washed her hair, massaged conditioner in, and used an exfoliating scrub. She shaved under her arms every day, unable to understand women who grew their body hair. In the sink, she washed her face and neck with a gentle exfoliant.

    You are happy either way.

    Her gran’s phrase: as satisfying as moisturiser. Peering closely at the mirror, her face flushed but healthy, she smoothed in eye cream, being careful to pat it in around her eyes so she didn’t drag the skin.

    Let the day grow on you, up through your feet.

    She smiled. Would someone have taken her notebook? She feared so, but it was worth a trip back to the Heath. How silly she’d been, sitting on the bench, admiring the view – Mum was right, the best in London – and, in a breezy moment, forgetting it.

    She dressed – skinny jeans, a vest and Converse today, Sunday – and blow-dried her hair in the bedroom, before returning to the bathroom to do her makeup: foundation, under-eye concealer, brush-on translucent powder. A splash of blusher across the cheekbones. London was an inhospitable place – terrifying and stimulating – so wasn’t the way to conquer it to practice kindness? A lost art, she thought, applying mascara on top and bottom lashes, careful to reach even the little lashes at the inner corners.

    Yes, people could communicate better in the capital, she was sure of it, like they did along the promenade in Deal, where she said hello to everyone, whether she knew them or not.
    She enjoyed a good spritz of perfume, more generous than usual to match her mindset: on her navel, cleavage, as well as neck and wrists. Then she sprayed some into the air and walked into it so the scent would drift into her hair.

    So, would the notebook still be there? It didn’t matter really, but she’d catch the overground train to the Heath anyway. Putting on her rings and bracelet, she opened the front door, blue sky peeping out between the clouds, to a world blossoming with opportunity.

    Stephen Emms

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