One of my projects this year was Realer, an audio exclusive from W.F. Howes, narrated by Gemma Whelan. I wrote the first version of this story four years ago but it was so different to my usual work no one was interested (least of all my then agent).
Then, when the pandemic came along, I realised it provided the perfect frame for a rewrite. Realer is the first person story of a young woman called Charlie Mackintosh, living in difficult and impoverished circumstances in Yorkshire. The country is crumbling in the wake of lockdowns and Brexit. Charlie is being tempted to seek solace in a virtual reality device being pushed by the giant global corporation that runs the warehouse up the road.
When she does she sees something that terrifies her… the murder of her beloved father. A crime that doesn’t much interest the police. One she realises she must try to solve herself through the device she’s come to hate.
It’s a story about love and redemption, and finding a path through grief and poverty to acceptance. The work is audio only for the moment, available through all the usual channels including Audible, Amazon and Apple. Gemma’s performance – she comes from Leeds, close to where the book is set – is pitch perfect for a story with a narrator who’s charming but borderline unreliable.
Here is the opening…
Realer: Part One
I told them people were hanging round the house. There’d been noises at night. Outside in the garden. Once I felt sure they’d come indoors, padding around in the dark while I shivered in my tiny room, single bed shoved up against the door.
No one believed me. It wasn’t that long after the pandemic. Lots of people went a bit strange, started telling funny stories, seeing funny things. Why wouldn’t a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl called Charlie Mackintosh be one of them?
Didn’t help that home had fallen to pieces in ways I never understood. Mum and Dad struggled through that long, bleak year, not on bad terms, not on good either. I just tried to stay out of the way as we all tried to remember what day of the week it was and if it really mattered. They both worked, long hours, night and day. The warehouse was going crazy trying to pump out millions of orders from people who couldn’t get stuff down the shops. Then one Sunday Dad packed his bags, kissed me goodbye, said not to worry and went off to a rented flat in town. It all happened so quickly he never got to see me crying. Not long after, Rick was making his bacon sarnies in the kitchen. He was their supervisor in the giant warehouse up the road and went from bossing them around to slipping into Mum’s bed so quickly it felt like a lodger had turned up and found there was only one room to spare.
One Saturday in May when Dad was supposed to come round someone broke in for real. The door to his shed in our ragged, abandoned garden out back was off its hinges. No one went in there. It was his place alone. He was a big man, tall, burly, Yorkshire-born though his own father was Scottish, not that I ever knew him. From the pictures I’d seen, though, it was clear Ally Mackintosh inherited his looks and passed them on to me. Unruly ginger hair, broad freckled face. Dad was shy at heart even if he looked like a giant who ought to be tossing cabers somewhere. Cheery usually, apart from that morning of the break-in when his face was dark with thunder. He told me I’d have to go out for a walk on my own. He had work to do. They hadn’t nicked anything but he needed to make his private sanctuary secure.
Mum and Rick had watched from the kitchen, moaning about having to set off to work in Cold Blow down the road. After they left, Dad, fresh from the night shift in the same place, turned a bit milder, apologetic that he couldn’t go out birdwatching like he promised. The shed seemed important to him, not that we had much that was worth anything. Still, it needed fixing or the toe-rags would just come back and break in again.
Home felt the way the weather did when a storm was brewing. The way school felt now. The country too. Like everyone else, I’d spent the big lockdown cooped up indoors, wondering when it was coming to an end. Unlike most other people, I didn’t really mind. It meant I wasn’t at school getting called all manner of names by the louts who’d latched onto the fact I was ginger now most of the immigrants they used to taunt were either going or gone. I could talk to Dad when he was off work, paint the views from our windows and the one, half-broken bench seat we had in the garden. Read a lot as well.
Eventually people trooped back to school and work. The pubs opened, those that were still in business, not that so many wanted to crowd around a bar and talk crap to one another any longer.
Time and time again, on the telly, on your phone, on buses, people said, ‘Life won’t go back to normal now. Things’ll never be the same.’ Not that anyone quite knew what normal was, any more than they could figure out the strange, silent vacuum that had turned up to replace it.
We’d all have to be careful from now on, they told us. Wary about who we came close to, especially anyone we touched. Which I found quite welcome if I’m honest. Then there were the ‘solutions’ hatched up, mostly between a panicky government and some tech firms promising they’d help. ID cards, naturally, and woe betide anyone caught without one. Chasing soft targets, bored folk doing what they shouldn’t, when they shouldn’t, seemed to be more important to the coppers than banging up robbers and thugs. Which didn’t help the national mood.
Break-ins. School. The ever-present threat the pandemic might just decide to pop its head out of its virus grave and squeal, ‘Surprise!’ The river was a place to forget them all, even if on that particular day Dad couldn’t make it. Out there in the open, away from everything, beneath a bright blue summer sky, listening to the quacking on the water and the buzz of dragonflies rising from bulrushes by the edge, I felt briefly free.
I’d brought along the easel Dad had bought at Christmas, a box of paints, some brushes, and pencils. Halfway through trying to sketch a pair of swans before picking out some watercolours there was a hard tap on my shoulder, the kind you’d usually get from someone you knew.
This was a stranger, so close that, even before I turned, I could hear him breathing, smell him too, a sharp and physical stink above the familiar soft and rotting odour of the river. He had uneven teeth, not very white with marked canines, and a beard that was grey going silver, probably there to cover a double chin. Not tall but hefty like a rugby player. Plain black jacket, plain black jeans. Millions of men like him everywhere, though the police weren’t much impressed when I told them that. As I tried to explain in the interview room, I was sure I’d recognise him if he turned up again. It was describing what he looked like that was difficult. The thing that stood out most was a big badge on his jacket, shiny, circular, grey. Like the blank pupil of a giant glass eye. Never seen anything like it.
‘Hello, Ginger. You’re as pretty as a picture,’ he said, sounding dead pleased with himself.
Straight off I hurried to pack up my brushes and paint and snap the easel shut.
‘Have you tried out one of them new toys they’re all talking about? What’s it called?’
‘Don’t know what you mean, mate.’ My hands were shaking as I struggled to get everything back into the holdall. For some reason running didn’t seem an option. ‘Got to go.’
‘Course you know what I mean. Everyone’s talking about it. Realer. That’s it. Realer. Ever seen one, my little ginger beauty?’
‘Don’t have money for that sort of stuff. Dad works in Cold Blow.’
His laugh was low and slow and liquid. And there, in that always-active imagination of mine, I found a name for him. Mister Chuckles.
‘Trapped in Cold Blow. Just a slave then.’
Scared as I felt I wasn’t taking that.
‘He’s not a slave. None of us are. Never will be.’
Mister Chuckles laughed again and I wondered what was bad inside him to make a slopping noise like that.
‘Wrong there, girl. Poor but happy? Poor but free? None of that works. If you’re trapped in Cold Blow that’s just what you are. A slave. On a chain. Never going to break that either. Never going to get away.’
His hand fell on my shoulder and he squeezed so hard I could feel his fingers grip my bones. Then he winked and leered, said something about how he’d never had a ginger. I couldn’t stop staring at that shiny badge on his jacket.
‘Be good now, eh? That way it won’t hurt.’
I wasn’t good.
It did hurt.
They never found him, even though I spent a long afternoon in an interview room trying to answer questions that seemed mostly about me making things up. It made a couple of paragraphs on our town bit on Facebook, the only thing that replaced our now dead local paper. A minor assault victim to go down in the statistics.
As one of the officers who turned up pointed out, it wasn’t as if he had time to get very physical. Largely because I kept fighting, screaming, scratching, trying to do as much harm to him as he wanted to inflict on me. Then a bloke with a dog came along and started shouting. All that noise and yapping chased him off.
The uniform policewoman taking notes said being alone like that by the river wasn’t the smartest thing in the circumstances. On balance, maybe I was lucky. Next time don’t expect there’ll be a stranger and a barky dog to save my bacon. If push comes to shove, she added, maybe the best thing to do is give in and hope he doesn’t murder you into the bargain. Or better still, stay indoors and never put yourself ‘at risk’ to begin with. Even out there in broad daylight. Tempting fate, that was. Self-isolation, you see, was the safest way to be, even when Doctor Covid wasn’t doing his rounds.
Facebook never mentioned my name. Didn’t matter. That place was full of gossip, some true, some not. Hard to tell the difference. Still, pretty much most of Soulswell knew Charlotte Mackintosh, the solitary ginger kid, got almost raped out trying to paint a picture. Was all round our virtual little town in a matter of hours, or so it seemed.
I didn’t go out with my easel and brushes after that. Didn’t go out much at all except to school and there I had no choice.