BANES OF BOYS & GIRLS
My debut novel, first published in August 2013. It follows a group of final-year students at Cambridge Uni, including the beloved Laura. It’s a coming-of-age story and a love story. It’s a tale of desire, of decision-making, and of the certainty of youth being reborn against its will into the confusion of young adulthood.
It has been called “impressive”, “sharp and intelligent” and with “an engaging, deceptively simple narrative style”.
Here’s the first chapter. (Or you could just buy it now.)
To be honest I always thought Laura Cassady was a top girl, the best. I met her at Cambridge Uni, where a whole group of us hung out together. She was the eldest so slotted smoothly into being a surrogate mother to us when we were all unsure how to live our first freedom. Here was this bronze-haired maiden who dressed in rose-gold Grecian gowns and was cinched in with serpent belts, wore copper torques. She was a Classicist, and I still think she was a statue made flesh, with her rounded hips arching up to wobbling settling breasts. No wonder we followed her, she had a wit that cut right into you; and through those green marble eyes you saw deep down to her interior soil, and it was so good. And oh man her smell. Oh that smell it’s the smell of home, it just wraps you up and makes you feel full.
She is James’ though, but that’s no big deal.
We are starting our final year now, me and Laura. James has graduated into an admin job in Parliament. Those two are moving in together in Cambridge for this year, and he’s commuting down to London while she and the rest of our lot study. And then? Who knows. We’ll have to see how this year goes first. Existing physically nearby someone is the easiest thing, but keeping your sanity meanwhile let alone your dignity is the most complex of human achievements. I’m still in University halls.
One evening in late September, just before term starts, I’m on my way to Panton Street for Laura and James’ house-warming. I get a safe Pinot Grigio from Co-op and wander down Coronation Street and Union Road. You know the rough bits of Cambridge because they sound like strippers’ names: Princess Court, Cherry Hinton, Chesterton, Perse Way.
‘Alright mate,’ James says at the door.
‘Wotcha,’ I say.
He extends a hand and I proffer the Hardy’s or Jacob’s Gooch or whatever the hell it is.
‘No no,’ he smiles as he shakes my other hand. ‘Friends not businessmen.’
‘Oh, right, orful good of ya, guv,’ I say taking off my shoes. I stand, and my eyes rise like magnets from my laces up to a glowing orison all domestic. Oh dear I’ve forgotten how she takes my breath away: Laura is scrutinising tomato sauce from a teaspoon. She’s in this snug black dress, with sinopic hair rolled up and pinned loosely with pencils, kitsch apron tied taut to her waist.
‘Hello stranger,’ I say, and she turns stunned out of her own little reverie.
‘Oh hello you!’ she beams and totters over kissing my cheek with her lips the deep tomato-red of plums, not cherry, never buffalo, but yes sometimes a santorini smile. ’I was off in my own little land then; but you’ll thank me later when you try this!—it just needs a little lemon juice or lime or some doody like that. A lifter, you know? A lifter!’ and she spins back to the kitchen dispersing a gust of parfum d’opium like glitter.
‘This looks mega,’ I say, ’who’re you trying to impress?’
I sit down at the table with bowls bulging with artichokes, olives, huge architectural crisps, homespun dips.
‘You, my sweet!’ she goes, ‘he’s already a convert—’
James muffles ‘Hallelujah!’ through a mouth full of baba ghanoush and honey flatbread.
‘—You’re my guinea pigs, all of you. Has he told you? Oh, well it’s just, I know it sounds lame, but . . . I want to write a recipe book. But a proper one, for other people to use, to read, ordered by seasons and occasion, and by what veg and fruit comes through at what time. So tonight you’re having the last of the tomatoes, olives, and then there’s just a little bit of cheating season-wise with some chillies and garlic and—well, I don’t know yet but it needs . . . a lifter,’ she trails off.
‘There’s a book in that,’ James goes, eyes down: ‘The Last Of The Tomatoes.’
‘How was the move in?’ I say.
‘Torturous,’ she goes. ‘But it always is, isn’t it? I think people should be allowed to just stay in one place, like we used to, or else live like proper nomads, like we used to. We’re such . . . second-class citizens, students, being ferried about from place to place.’
I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do one thing at a time; she is always chatting and making and thinking and shopping and eating and laughing, never or.
James gets up and kisses her cheek. He grabs her peachy bum and I shoot to decant more ginger beer.
‘Plus,’ Laura says, ‘I’ve just moved into a house which absolutely reeks of boy—’
‘—I added extra puppy-dogs tails or however that shit goes,’ James snorks.
‘And—quiet you—and which had an inch of dust all over like it was a desert, and the toilet-seat was up!’
‘Boy oh boy, how quickly stereotypes have become us, my dear,’ he says.
And then they’re both looking at me. I feel ashamed, all transparent and papery. But in a bit our mates Beth and Emma arrive all full of jazz and that straightens me out.
She’s done a grand job with the place, with all these flowers in de simone vases, photos of us all perched smiling out at us—a little idiot-like admittedly—but boy she’s just mistressed this thing of turning life into art. Do you know what I mean? It’s like a living archive of her hottest ambitions, this place. That’s true interior design.
But now the fungi pâté’s spread thinner, the crispy-secco grana padano tops it all off wickedly, the aubergine parmigiano all-in-all’s a winner, and the amaretto is the best Sicilian stinger. Dinner goes on and flattens out.
You know when you’re in regular company: after two drinks the night descends into shared anecdotes? Well we’ve got this joke about Laura because she’s the only one of us who cares about her subject; I mean I’ve never known anyone so passionate about Roman history, Greek literature, all this stuff. So James has kicked the wasp-nest because he says, though I can’t remember the context, ‘The only history relevant to our lives is post-holocaust, even post-nine-eleven,’ he speculates.
Oh and she’s bitten. ‘Irrelevant?’ Laura’s eyes widen, blood flushes her cheeks as we titter a bit. ‘Don’t be ignorant James, and yes I do know that you’re just trying to wind me up but that’s not the point, because you know that it’s not irrelevant that half the words you use have Latin and Greek etymologies, that you only went to uni because of Classical theories on education, that Roman military tactics are replicated to the tee today because they’re the only ones that work, that the British bloody Empire was just a template from Rome’s reach to Asia, Africa and yes James even your precious bloody England.’
‘They used to bum boys, didn’t they, the Greeks?’
James is utterly astounded by passion. He looks at it like an astronomer at an alien planet, through a telescope, studiously. It’s just a game to him, the intense expression of passion; it ain’t intuitive.
‘Oh damn,’ I say. ‘I just remembered The Game.’
‘Oh,’ Laura tuts.
‘What?’ Beth says.
‘The Game,’ Laura says.
‘You know The Game?’ I say.
‘Yeah, it pisses me off. Especially when people who are bad at it drag me down with them.’
‘I’m not bad at The Game,’ I say, ‘not normally.’
‘Wait!’ James says. ‘What the fuck is The Game?’
‘The Game,’ Laura sits back, ‘is to forget The Game.’
‘Right . . . ?’
‘That’s it. If you wake up tomorrow and never remember The Game ever again, then you’ve won The Game.’
‘But,’ I say, ‘if you remember The Game then you have to tell everyone around you at the time.’
‘It’s fucking stupid,’ Beth says.
‘It is when you play with amateurs,’ Laura winks at me.
‘I like it,’ James narrows his eyes in a way he thinks is pensive and attractive. Now you will see, he has his own humours, saline not blood or bile: ‘It’s like the Greeks and Romans, Laura. A sort of shadow you live under in ignorance, a foundation you thrive upon. They gave us our civilisation, our mentality even, and The Game gives us a benchmark of our thoughts. Only, I’m too aware that channels of influence are frivolous beasts. I’m all for rhizomes, not structures, but—’ He has an odd pseudo-intellectualism about him; I think he’ll end up like Julian Barnes. ‘But . . .’
But weariness has fallen on us. How quickly we sag from the corners. It’s 12.45 am. She is twirling the neck of her glass, watching the wine lapping at the crystal sides. Her eyes rise wearily to his fading words and she smiles softly at him. What a lovely weird boy.
Beth’s fallen asleep chin to chest.
I can see Laura dreaming of the cool linen of her bed, wordlessly with him, and plumbing the depths of sweet sweet oblivion.
I leave. Wandering back to my mildewy student digs I can’t think of anything else. For now, I am most in love with her gorgeous witty smile. I think of how close we are, only ten minute’s walk after a whole summer apart, and I look up at the pearlescent sky and smile.
Cambridge is full of bits of magic like this. I once saw two baby deer munching through the botanic gardens one evening.