Maybe, you will say that I should have known what it was. But I didn’t. I was, you may point out, at London’s King’s Cross station. It was the 1980s and King’s Cross was where men who wished to went to buy sex.
Everyone knew what King’s Cross was about. Women thronged the busy roads around the station in hot pants and boob tubes, strutting the high street, leaning on the bus stops. This trade was not tucked away in back streets or on industrial estates at the dead of night. It was men driving up in cars and offering anyone female, including me – a 15–year-old, like as not in my dowdy school uniform – wads of fivers from the tinted windows of black saloon cars. In broad daylight. So I should have known.
I thought it was all rather exotic and thrilling. I wondered how much money I might command.
This was a regular weekly show. My younger brother and I used to go to King’s Cross every Friday after school to catch a train that would take us to Royston in Hertfordshire, near where my father lives.
Here I must confess my own dirty little secret or the story won’t make sense. It’s this: for years I couldn’t remember anyone’s birthday except my own. I know. Horrid. But true. So I was forever running out to buy presents at the last-minute, even for close family members, like my dad.
That’s why, one Friday evening, I realised that I had nothing to give my father for his birthday which was the next day. I paced the station feeling a bit sick. This was well before the concourse full of shops which you will now find at any large station in a big city. Back then, there was paper shop. And a chemist.
I should really have known when I walked in. It was dark in the chemist and everything on the shelves was dusty. If that failed to alert me, the nervous expression on the shopkeeper’s face should have been a bit of a giveaway.
He was a short, shuffling man, with deep, dark rings around his eyes. And the shop smelled of smoke. Another clue, perhaps, that this was not a chemist where conventional concerns for health carried much sway.
Poor man. When I picked up the back-massager – with detachable heads – his tongue must have adhered to the roof of his mouth.
At this point, I need to make a short interruption. I hope you don’t mind. It won’t take long. I just want to know why you’re reading this. I know it’s a dangerous question. You may think to yourself, good point, and stop reading. But it’s a question that I have been grappling with this week as I’ve been attempting the first two chapters of my story.
So when I found myself in Waitrose, a high-end supermarket, I looked at the books they are selling. Which ones, I wondered, would persuade me to buy them with their opening pages? Which ones would I want to carry on reading?
I picked up 50 Shades of Grey first. There’s been so much press, good and bad about E L James’ debut, that I was curious to have a look. I think E L sounds lovely in interviews. She is completely unpretentious and rightly excited about the buzz around her story. But the first page features the protagonist looking in the mirror and brushing her hair. She is rushing off to interview a rich industrialist. And with that, we know all too well where we are. I put the book back on the shelf.
The second book I picked up also featured the protagonist looking in a mirror. I put that one down too.
The two books that did hook me in both featured what I suppose might be called mini-McGuffins. No, not something you buy at a fast food place for breakfast, a term I’m borrowing from film for things protagonists quest after, like the Holy Grail in the Indiana Jones franchise, or the glowing briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
One, which I didn’t buy, featured a letter which was mentioned in the first paragraph, the content of which was not divulged. I did want to know what was in that letter. But I didn’t want to read a historical romance. In the end I bought Rosie Thomas’s The Kashmir Shawl which features an undefined ‘discovery’ in its first sentence. I wanted to know more about that, definitely.
When I’d lugged the shopping home and put it away, I went back to my chapters and made some good edits. I think.
Do you want to know how the story of the back-massager (with detachable heads) ends? If you don’t, I haven’t succeeded. Here’s hoping.
What could the shopkeeper do? He could hardly explain. I still remember the strangled embarrassment on his face, although I didn’t understand it at the time.
I looked at the box. It had pictures of happy-looking girls in bikinis. The girls gave me pause, but, on reflection, I thought my dad would overlook the gender issue. He is, if not a feminist, not hidebound to convention either.
I saw the look on the shopkeeper’s face again when my father unwrapped my gift. There was a short silence, as my step-mother picked up the torn paper and smoothed it fervently into a possibly reusable state.
At some level I knew something was off because I offered an explanation. ‘You said your back was sore, dad, so I thought, this would be good.’
Dad gave a glassy smile. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s very good.’
It was more than ten years before I allowed myself to know what I’d given my father. It was a further five before I broached the subject with him. Dad was relieved to learn that it had been an innocent mistake, even if the innocence was culpably extreme. He’d wondered if I’d intended a tasteless joke at his expense.