Never open a book with weather. Never use the word ‘suddenly’. If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.
But what if a story begins with weather? What if a writer goes to work in a prison in a long gypsy summer and the world turns? Suddenly turns.
A modern prison. Red-brick buildings. Lawns, flower beds.
Even a pond in the middle, in which it is said there were once fish until they were caught and fried up on the wings.
A former military airfield – you can still see the shape of the runway cutting across the prison grounds and into the neighbouring cornfield like the ghost of some ancient ley line.
Writer in residence.
Though he does not reside here and does not appear to be much of a writer. He comes into the prison three days a week, wanders the wings, sits with the men in their cells, looking at their writing, but mostly listening to their talk.
Listener in residence, then.
Privy to the secret griefs of wild, unknown men.
The world turning all the while, really, though he is not aware of it, does not hear its creakings, the songs of the air.
Not that much of a listener, either.
Thinking his own thoughts while the prisoners tell their stories.
Taking a man outside to sit on a hump of grass and closing his eyes to the warm sun.
Gypsy summer, old wives’ summer, all-hallown summer, little summer of the quince.
The sun shining bright before the storm blast.
And then there came both mist and snow and it grew wondrous cold.
Or at least mist and snow in the north of the country and rain in the south, where the prison is, where the city is where he lives.
Rain against my window.
Lying on the sofa of the kitchenette apartment he had rented on 17th Street.
The malodorous sofa.
A pile of half-read books beside him.
Though the worst of the weather is soon over and he drives in to the prison through the tail end of the storm.
The windswept grounds empty.
The windows on the wings closed against the cold.
Smells of sweat, sperm and blood.
Fug of tobacco.
Prisoners loitering on the spurs, the landings.
Three men were standing very close together, the middle one of them holding a folded-up newspaper which the other two were studying over his shoulder.
The paper thrust at him.
The prisoners growing used to him now, this writer fellow who walks among them in civvies, comes into their cells without deadlocking the doors, drinks the tea they offer without worrying they have put bleach in it, urinated in it.
Wrote letters for the men.
At least until the prison scribes took him aside to explain that he was undercutting the wing economy.
Looks down at the newspaper. Takes in a headline about a body found in the snow, the blurry mugshot of an adolescent boy.
That’s Felix, isn’t it.
He was in here until not so long ago.
A hiker, the newspaper calls him, caught out in the storms. In the hills in the north.
What was he doing up there?
Most of the residents of the prison young men from the city who had seldom been out of their neighbourhoods until they were sent away.
That’s the question.
Not hiking, not dressed like that.
He nods, hands back the newspaper. He is growing used to the prisoners, too, their ways, their stories. This writer who does not write among these men who are here because they have lost the plot, lost the thread of their own lives.
The above is an excerpt from Felix Culpa, published by Scribe (£12.99)