Mary Rose was in her garden. She was transferring a large old lilac bush to the opposite side of the patio, across the broken bits of crazy-paving on which outdoor furniture must once have sat. Gardening was not one of Mary Rose’s primary activities; she did not like dirt very much and lacked the patience necessary for nurturing. The plot behind her house was possessed by a will and spirit of its own due to some previous occupant’s toil. Every spring there were blossoms, in the summer a huge variety of flowers, and in the autumn tomatoes and berries. Mary Rose did not eat any of this produce; she had read in a newspaper that children brought up in Inner London were becoming increasingly moronic and science pointed its finger at the fumes of leaded petrol.
Well, this opening paragraph typifies both the strengths and the weaknesses of the writing in this book. There’s some good stuff, ‘lacked the patience necessary for nurturing’ and ‘children brought up in Inner London were becoming increasingly moronic’, and some bad stuff - it’s not the greatest first line, and ‘on which outdoor furniture must once have sat’ is pretty clunky. ‘Inner London’ too - this was written a couple of years after Thatcher outraged us by taking away London’s own governing body, the GLC - god, she was evil, wasn’t she? - and ‘Inner London’ is poor, council-speak. So, an unshowy, somewhat awkward beginning.
As she dug beside the base of the bush, attempting to avoid its roots, Mary listened to the noise around her. Neighbours were shouting at their children. Cars from the makeshift garage across the green were tearing up and down the street. The radio was on in the kitchen. Glancing towards the back door she saw a piece of guttering fall from the eaves of the roof. It tumbled through the air and landed next to the garden bench. Mary wondered if it had been meant for her.
Coming from western Canada, as I do, where buildings from the 1930s are considered ancient monuments, one of the things I loved most about living in London was its general decripitude. In Vauxhall I had a friend whose parents lived in a house in Essex that had built in the sixteenth century. The houses we were living in were Victorian and they had been empty for a long time, which is why they were ripe for squatting, and they were falling apart. But we loved them back to life. Nice bit of foreshadowing there with the falling guttering. Way to go 1980s Kate.
Pushing her fair straight hair out of her eyes, Mary directed her attention back to the lilac bush. The roof had waited four years and could last another hour or two. She scooped up the soil and piled it behind her. She dug deeper and deeper until she thought she could pull the roots out without harming them. Lifting the lilac bush carefully, she struggled across the patio and then placed it in a hole she had already dug in preparation.
In the draft of the novel that I handed in to my publisher, this lilac bush was in full bloom. We had big lilac bushes when I was a kid and I had always loved the smell. However I have never been the slightest bit interested in gardening; it took a good copy-editor to point out to me that, generally, lilac bushes aren’t in full-bloom in this time of year.
The spade had fallen down into the pit which, without the bush, was deeper than Mary Rose expected. She jumped down to retrieve the implement and on landing felt something strike the sole of her shoe. Bending over, she pulled a piece of red clay pottery from the ground. It was like the bits of urn on display in the British Museum. Mary wondered if it was Roman. She decided to continue digging.
I love the British Museum. 1980s Kate used to spend a lot of time there. The idea that Romans lived in Britain has always filled me with glee.
By the end of the long, warm afternoon she had dug up enough of her garden to make it clear that underneath the ancient roses and herbs lay the remains of a Roman Bath. She uncovered a few square feet of a mosaic-inlaid false floor supported by bricks. Beneath that lay the laudably simple Roman technology necessary for steam bathing. Mary put down the spade and went inside the house for a cup of tea.
Life in those days was defined by endless cups of tea. We were always having cups of tea. Often the milk was sour.
In her brightly painted kitchen she sat and thought about the garden. Mary had vague, partially formed ideas about how she wanted it to look. Some plants she liked much more than others; she loathed hydrangeas, for example, but loved sweet peas. She wanted to grow green grapes in a glass house. But none of her plans had at any point included archaeological explorations and the excavation of a Roman Bath. The garden was far too small for such upheaval and, besides, she liked to be alone. A team of archaeologists would get in her way.
I still think this is funny.
‘London is an old town,’ Mary murmured to herself. ‘One is constantly reminded of its age.’ She poured herself another cup of tea. ‘Remnants of the past are everywhere, even in the places where attempts are made to hide them. New buildings somehow manage to age rather rapidly, falling apart after only a few years. It must be the weather,’ she mused. ‘Something about the climate.’
Yikes, this little speech Mary gives to herself is bad. 1980s Kate, what bad writing!
Over a few more cups of tea Mary made some decisions. What would the Archaeologists’ Trust, or whichever public body concerned with this type of remains, think about the fact that she was a squatter? She imagined they would try to buy the building out from under her, or worse still, ignore the fact that she lived there and bulldoze it. Mary would do almost anything to avoid homelessness.
Oh my god, so much tea already! However, it is true that, as a squatter, I did live in fear of homelessness and I was evicted several times. But my giant network of 1980s friends and acquaintances meant that I was never, in fact, homeless.
Later, at about midnight and under the light of the full moon, she stood above the hole. Looking down, Mary could see the rudiments of the Roman construction, straight and practical in its design. A cloud passed over the moon as she began to shovel dirt, hoping that the neighbours would not look out of their windows that night.
The next morning Mary slept late. She lay in bed keeping her body still, nursing her tired and sore muscles. Out in the garden was a dark mound that looked rather like a grave.
This is actually not a bad beginning. I like that she digs up it and then buries it again. If I was writing it now, I would probably find a way to shift a version of the last line of this para up to become the first line of the novel