In London, Finnbar Morgan felt the freedom of anonymity. He had lived in the city for over six years but still enjoyed the novelty of being able to wander for hours without being recognised. He came from a small town in British Columbia, that most western part of Canada, a land of mountains, lakes, and few people. His parents had emigrated from Northern Ireland before he was born. Back in Morriston it was impossible to walk the length of Main Street without being recognised. Even the heavily disguised would have been noticed, if only as a stranger in town.
‘Finnbar Morgan’: this is quite an ornate name, especially for a Canadian, at least a Canadian of my acquaintance at that time. The character Finn is of Northern Irish descent, though Morgan is often thought of as a Welsh surname. I received a letter from a reader complaining about this fact. I always find letters from readers pointing out mistakes infuriating and embarrassing when really I should simply be grateful that someone has read my book and cared enough to correct me. Quite often, they themselves are wrong (one reader tried to insist that in the novel ‘Weird Sister’ it was a mistake to call a London taxi a ‘hackney cab’ when everyone knows this is correct). Wikipedia says that the surname Morgan arrived in Ireland in the Middle Ages. However, I wrote this novel on a typewriter, in the days before Wikipedia; computers did exist, but I didn’t have one yet, and the internet was but a dream.
Big cities lend themselves to the abdication of responsibility. Finn was well aware of this; he understood that it enabled him to behave in ways he would not have done in other, more closely observed, circumstances. London allowed Finn a certain measure of madness that neither Morriston nor his Northern Irish parents could have dealt with, or, more likely, would have dealt with harshly. In London he had joined and left the Communist Party without repercussion. The city had ignored Finn while he dyed his hair a variety of different colours and changed his style of dress daily. London even permitted him to change his personality from time to time. In Morriston any one of these activities would have gained Finnbar Morgan a reputation with the local branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
This is my experience, of course; I grew up in Cranbook in the Rockies and then outside Victoria and I spent my adolescence longing for anonymity; I hated the way people thought they knew me in high school, when the ‘me’ they thought they knew was not the real me at all. A common enough experience. I like that ‘certain measure of madness’; one of the great things about London has always been the way it embraces eccentricity.
The day after Mary discovered and reburied her Roman Bath, Finn was aboard a number 77 bus on his way to visit her. He was in his smart but casual phase and had spent the morning in the market searching for the perfect smart but casual suit. Sundays were meant for shopping he had recently discovered, quickly spending most of the money he made during the week. Finn worked in a local authority housing department and found his profession distressing; the homeless multiply while the housing stock shrinks. He consoled himself with fashion.
For the visit with Mary, Finn wore an outfit put together on Portobello Road. His trousers and shirt were both made of stiff, black heavy cotton. He had his short dark hair slicked back off his forehead with some kind of professional hairdressing slime. This style suited his sharp features and made him look Italian instead of Irish. And, of course, he wore his prescription dark glasses, semi-permanent fixtures on his daytime face. Finn claimed he was afraid his clients would recognise him on the street and then try to persuade him to take them home. ‘I can’t bear another night in that hostel,’ they would shout. ‘I know you must have space, if only on your sitting room floor. Please take me home with you, please.’ This had never happened but he lived in fear. London was anonymous, but not completely so.
Finn was looking forward to seeing Mary. It had been the better part of a week since they last met. Having been a couple, on and off, for years, they were currently off but hovering. He disembarked from the bus on the Bondway, just beyond Vauxhall Cross, opposite the empty Cold Storage Building. Mary’s house was off Kennington Lane on a street called Glasshouse Walk, deep in the dark heart of Vauxhall. The only squatter on her street, she had lived there for so long almost all her neighbours had forgotten the fracas she caused the night she moved in.
I had been a squatter for the previous five years; the shrinking housing stock was high on my agenda. The idea that these two have been a couple ‘on and off, for years’ makes me laugh – they’re practically children! He’s only been in London for six years! But time passes differently according to one’s age – a year is forever in the life of a child, and a long time even to someone in their early twenties. The Cold Storage Building on the Thames at Vauxhall no longer exists, but it featured heavily in our lives when we lived there. It was abandoned and semi-derelict, a place to explore, a place for art and parties. More on this building later.
Finn knocked hard on the front door as the doorbell was unreliable. Mary was sitting in the kitchen reading the newspaper. She did not expect Finn to arrive until later. Carefully folding the paper, her heart thumped as she wondered if one of the neighbours had witnessed her discovery in the garden. The heavy knock resounded a second time throughout the small house. Pushing back her chair slowly, she rose, turned off the kettle which was about to boil, and walked towards the door.
‘Shit, it’s only you, Finn. Thank God.’
‘Mary, I love you too, sweetheart.’ Finn stepped across the threshold and embraced her. ‘You’re all shaky and sweaty. What’s wrong?’
‘Oh nothing,’ said Mary. ‘I just wasn’t expecting you quite so soon. You never know when it might be the police or the authorities or something at the door.’
‘The authorities? The police? Have you been having trouble with them again? You really do need a man to protect you. I’d put a stop to all these worries, I tell you.’
‘Oh, Finn,’ said Mary, ‘you’re ridiculous.’
‘A boy can’t even try these days, one little flex of the old biceps and the world comes crashing down on him.’
‘Biceps, Finn?’ Mary said over her shoulder as she headed back into the kitchen. ‘Do you want a cup of tea?’
Another cup of tea. Oh dear, this dialogue is horribly clunky and totally unreal sounding. No one talks like this! Finn also sounds unfeasibly camp. However, he’s talking like a Brit, at least how Brits sounded to me at the time. The slightly camp straight man is one of the things I love about England. How to explain this without sounding like an idiot? David Bowie, Marc Bolan, Ian Curtis. The general gender-bending; this was mostly foreign to my experience of what men and boys were like where I came from and I was trying to find a way to show what I might have been like had I been a male ex-pat instead of female. Clunky and awkward, yes, but that’s what this is about for me.
Finn followed Mary along the corridor, stooping slightly as he stepped down into the kitchen. Mary had done all the plumbing and electrics herself. Gas pipes twisted to the cooker, through the hot-water heater over the sink and then up into the ceiling. Christmas tinsel ropes were wrapped around the electrical wiring that hung from the ceiling like bunting. One of the taps in the sink had a drip that Mary was unable to fix. Occasionally she was gripped, as though with a fever, by frenzied attempts to stop the drops of water from making their inevitable journey from the edge of the tap to the large enamelled white sink below. Neither washers, new bits of pipe, nor any amount of Plumber’s Mate could stop them; they were like Napoleon’s army on its sure-footed march to Waterloo.
When I was a squatter I learned to do this stuff as well, though I was only ever barely competent. Home-made plumbing and wiring was very common. Now I can’t even remember what ‘Plumber’s Mate’ is.
Finn pulled a chair up to the elderly and well-worn wooden kitchen table. He tilted it back, leaned against the wall and contemplated lifting his feet up on to the table. Sometimes he liked to pretend he was a cowboy, thinking this would enhance his North American-ness. But today he refrained. Mary seemed upset.
‘What’s up, Marylou?’ he drawled.
‘Come on, I can see something’s wrong. Were you expecting another man perhaps? Am I spoiling some intimate interlude you had planned? Tell me. I can take it.’
Mary looked at Finn with- a frown. ‘Sometimes you’re so paranoid,’ she said.
‘Oh yeah, and you’re Miss Calm-All-The-Time. Tell me about it.’
‘Tell me about it. Tell me about it,’ Mary repeated, attempting to copy Finn’s accent. ‘Sometimes you sound more Irish than a priest, Finnbar Morgan.’
‘Aye,’ he replied. ‘It’s my heritage.’ Finn stood and stretched, walking over to the back door. Mary wished she had remembered to shut it as he gazed out at the garden. ‘What have you been up to lately?’ he asked without turning around.
‘Not a lot. This and that. You know. I made a cake today.’
‘The garden’s looking good. You moved that bush. Shame about the mound it left behind though,’ he said, stepping outside. Finn walked across the patio with Mary following close behind, wringing her hands. ‘Jesus Christ, Mary, that hole was huge. You must have dug up half the garden.’
‘Yeah, well,’ said Mary, ‘it had big roots. Bigger than I expected.’
‘Bloody great huge roots, I’d say.’
‘I got a bit carried away. I wanted to make sure I didn’t harm it.’
‘So you massacred everything else instead.’
‘I want to do some autumn bulb planting anyway. Since when did you know so much about gardening?’
‘I don’t know anything about gardening but I know a big hole from a little one, all right?’
‘Don’t be cross, Finn,’ Mary said as sweetly as she could.
‘You look smart today. Are those new clothes?’
‘Yes, just a couple of things I picked up at the market.’
‘Very nice,’ said Mary, thinking she had diverted his thoughts. She walked over to where he was standing and put her arms around his waist. ‘I’ve repainted my bedroom, want to see?’ Finn nodded. Mary led him by the hand up the stairs. When she kissed him on the lips Finn silently marvelled at his own irresistibility while Mary felt guilty at such a calculated seduction. She was steadfast in her determination that no one find out about the Romans in her garden. The kiss lingered on, becoming a caress and soon neither of them could think of much else.
Later, as it grew dark, Mary said, ‘Here we are again.’
Yes,’ replied Finn. ‘I never quite understand why we aren’t lovers all the time.’
‘I suppose it’s because you annoy me so much,’ said Mary.
‘Not so much, eh Mary, not too much. It’s my irrepressible Canadian charm that does it every time, I’m sure. One flash of my wicked smile and you’re done for.’
‘Shut up, you’re annoying me,’ said Mary. ‘What do you want to do this evening?’
‘Mmm. That sounds like a good idea.’
Still some clunky bits, but not quite so bad. Finn’s use of the word ‘cinema’ is an affectation; back home he would have said ‘movie’. When I came to London my friend Pam was the first person I ever met who talked about movies in terms of who had directed them. Before then, it hadn’t occurred to me that movies had directors, and that directors might have an oeuvre. I thought movies had movie stars, and that was that.