Moira Forsyth is the author of five novels and has also published poetry and short stories in magazines and anthologies. As editorial director of Sandstone Press, she has edited both fiction and non-fiction, including a novel long-listed for the Man Booker Award and the 2017 Betty Trask Prize.
The following excerpt from Moira’s upcoming novel, A Message From the Other Side, gives readers a glimpse into the life of Helen as she navigates the 1990s–and all the intrigue and excitement of a new, uncertain world…
Excerpt from A Message From the Other Side
You could not rely on Joe. Years later, Helen thought how different her whole relationship with him might have been had it happened twenty years later and they both had mobile phones. She could have kept track of him, and he might have told her what he was doing, or given her more warning if he wasn’t going to be around. As it was, Joe was one of the first people she knew to get a mobile phone, when many of her friends still scorned them. He saw the advantages.
There were times when Joe’s unreliability worked in her favour. He appeared out of the blue, probably letting someone else down, with a new car or–once, alarmingly, a huge motorbike–ready to take her out. He wanted her to drop everything, the moment he was back. Mostly she did, since being with Joe was much more exciting than being with anyone else.
‘Right–where do you fancy tonight?’
‘I’ve not had supper–do you want something to eat?’
‘We’ll eat up in town. Little place in Soho I fancy trying–my pal Bernie runs it. All right?’
‘I’m not dressed for that. ’
He was in her tiny hallway and she was in his arms. ‘Bed first? You lovely girl–come on then.’
It was ten o’clock before they were eating in Bernie’s cramped restaurant, full of people who knew each other.
‘You’re ruining my digestion,’ she told Joe. ‘I never eat so late.’
‘Try this,’ he said, pouring the rioja.
What was Bernie going to do when his friends stopped coming for dinner? It was such a small restaurant she didn’t see how he made any money, since everyone stayed for hours and he never got the tables cleared for another sitting.
Sometimes they were not back in her flat before three or four in the morning, taking expensive taxis home. He always had cash and rarely used his American Express card. He was not a man who liked paperwork. He took a roll of notes out of the inside pocket of his leather jacket, peeled off what he wanted, gave a generous tip, and was off and up the stairs before Helen.
‘Come on, girl, get your key out.’
‘Hush, you’ll wake the neighbours.’
‘Give them something to talk about.’
‘You’ve already done that, with a new car every other week and that motorbike!’
As soon as they were indoors his hands were all over her.
‘I wouldn’t like to get in a fight with you,’ she gasped, feeling the hardness of muscle as he gripped her. ‘How tough you feel.’
‘Women think they can fight men off,’ he shrugged, ‘but they don’t stand a chance. Men are always stronger.’
She wasn’t going to get in a fight with him, so what did it matter? His strength was good; she felt protected. He had old-fashioned ideas about the frailty of women.
He smoked but, in deference to her, not in bed. He sometimes got up again after sex, pulled on his jeans and a jersey and sat in an armchair with another cigarette. In those early days she rose too, giving up the night since it would soon be morning. During that first summer when Catherine went to Scotland, it grew light while they were sitting there, the grey London dawn coming bleakly into her little sitting room. ‘I’m exhausted. I don’t know how you do this.’
He shrugged. ‘It’s the weekend. Party while you can.’
‘If it was just the weekend–but I’ll soon have work to go to, even if you don’t.’
‘I’ve got work.’
‘I’m my own boss. I suit myself when I start and finish.’
‘What kind of business is it?’
They had been seeing each other for two months. The school holidays were nearly over and she still had little idea of how he spent his time when they were apart. They’d gone all the way to Brighton on the back of that motorbike, and walked over Hampstead Heath one morning he was full of energy he needed to work off. Once when he was driving a Jaguar, they had gone to Cambridge to meet someone who was keen to buy the car. She assumed he was some kind of car dealer, but he shrugged off questions about his business.
‘Ask no questions, you’ll be told no lies.’
She hated this answer. Seeing him lounging in her Windsor chair, dropping cigarette ash on the carpet, filling her room with smoke, she wondered if she even liked him. He wasn’t her sort. He said he had grown up in Glasgow then left at eighteen to find work in London. He had never gone to university, though he admitted to being ‘at college’ for a while, but she was no wiser about that than when she had first met him.
‘You know all about me,’ she said. ‘What’s the secrecy for?’
‘No secrets,’ he said. ‘I have a few things going, that’s all.’
He stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray she’d put by the chair. ‘Furniture, antiques, that kind of thing. We got a warehouse just outside Watford.’
‘We? You have a partner?’
‘Two. You met them. Charlie and Brian.’
She could not remember which was which, or even if Brian was the man she was thinking of, that they’d met one night at a club, and whose wife had said to her as they occupied adjacent cubicles in the Ladies, ‘Joe says you’re a teacher, right?’
Unused to carrying on a conversation while she peed, Helen said only ‘yes’ until they were out and washing their hands. In the mirror their eyes met, Gaynor’s heavy with make-up. She was older than Helen, glamorous in a showy way, with heavy jewellery and short skirts.
‘I’m a music teacher. I work in primary schools and I have a couple of private pupils too.’
‘You’re not his usual sort,’ Gaynor said, amused, ‘but he’s smitten right enough.’
She watched him now in the cold early light, the white sky outside revealing nothing about what kind of day was coming, though the flat was stuffy from yesterday’s heat.
‘It’s just that school starts next week. You could come here in the evening, and I’ll still have weekends, except I’ve taken on a couple of Saturday morning pupils, so–’
‘Will I move in?’
‘Would it make it easier for you if I move in?’
She had not reached that stage. Where, anyway, was his home? In bad moments she wondered if he had a wife somewhere. There had been a speculative look in Gaynor’s eye when she questioned her that night in the club. So you’re his bit on the side this time, she might have been thinking.
If he offered to move in, there was clearly not a wife. Relieved, she said, ‘Would you like to? What about your own place?’
‘I’ve been kipping at Brian and Gaynor’s when I’m not here, to be honest. I gave up my place weeks ago.’
Perhaps the wife had thrown him out. Perhaps Gaynor had had enough of putting him up.
‘We could see how it went…’
‘Just say if you’d rather not.’ His smile was rueful. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to put you on the spot.’
‘No, no it’s fine, it would be lovely.’
‘Tell you what, I’ll give up the fags. You’d like that?’
Laughing, she went to sit on his welcoming lap, and put her arms round him. ‘I would.’
Afterwards, she began to panic. She knew so little about him, and there was a dangerous edge to Joe, with his secrets. Too late: he was moving in before school began.
She expected him to come and go mysteriously as he always had, out of contact for a few days, reappearing without warning. For the first few weeks, it was not like that at all; it was a kind of honeymoon. When she came home from school he was there, cooking the evening meal. He went outside for a cigarette when he couldn’t do without one, and he filled the only vase she had with flowers, then brought her a jug that looked old and valuable. Perhaps it was true about the antiques, for the next week he brought home a round mahogany table. Her kitchen was a galley, so she had no dining table and was tired of eating from a tray on her lap. The wood was burnished, the bow legs intricately carved. It took up most of the middle of the sitting room.
‘Pity you’ve got that piano,’ he said as they edged round the table on their way out one day. ‘Takes up a lot of space.’
‘Not as much as your table!’
‘I thought you liked it?’
‘I do. It’s beautiful.’ She kissed him. ‘But I need the piano.’
‘Got to get a bigger flat then,’ he said as they went downstairs to the street door.
‘I can’t afford a bigger one.’
‘Don’t you worry about that.’
He opened the passenger door and she got in. He made sure she was settled in the car before he got in himself. He always did this, just as he always walked on the outside of the pavement when they were together. In some ways, he was what her mother would call a gentleman. Not that her parents had met Joe and she was in no hurry for that to happen. They lived in the house where she and Catherine had grown up, in a leafy road of 1930s half-timbered houses, her father growing tomatoes and playing golf in his spare time, her mother a stalwart of the WI.
Joe took her to an exhibition preview at a small gallery in Highgate. Another surprising thing was how wide his acquaintance was, how catholic his interests. He knew the gallery owner, not the artist, but he said they should buy something as this was a painter whose work would increase in value.
‘What if you don’t like the pictures?’ Helen teased.
‘We don’t have to put the bleeding thing on the wall, girl. I’ll keep it in the lock-up, wait a bit, then in another year or two, sell it on.’
‘That seems a waste. I’d rather buy something I liked and have it to look at.’
‘If you like one of them,’ he said, ‘I’ll get it, and you can hang it on the wall in our new place.’
As they reached the gallery he said, ‘What about Highgate then? D’you fancy a place here?’
‘Can we afford it?’
He put his arm round her waist and squeezed. ‘Course we can. Come on then, this is it.’
There was no missing the gallery, since on this warm summer evening the preview guests had spilled out onto the pavement with their glasses of wine. She felt the buzz of excitement that went with all Joe’s excursions.
Joe introduced her to the gallery owner, a little man in an embroidered waistcoat waving a cigarette in an ebony holder. His laugh was hoarse with years of smoke inhalation and he had a Glasgow accent many times thicker than Joe’s, whose veered between Govan and North London depending on his mood and who he was talking to. Helen thought Frankie a bit of a poser, but he made her laugh and seemed such a friend within five minutes she felt she could ask him, when Joe drifted off to speak to other people, ‘Which one is the artist? I can’t imagine, looking at the paintings. Everyone looks too civilised to produce one of them.’
‘Over the top, eh?’ Frankie said with a wink. ‘They sell though. I don’t see him in this crowd. He’ll be outside having a fag, pontificating aboot his art.’ He reached out and caught a girl by the arm. ‘Never mind, here’s Rose, she’ll tell you about the paintings. Won’t you sweetheart?’
‘Oh, hi, Frankie,’ the girl said. She looked Helen up and down.
‘I’m Helen Guthrie.’
‘She’s with Joe,’ Frankie said, grinning, so that Helen worried this meant more to Rose than mere information. Not that Rose would attract Joe. She was stocky, with no looks, and dressed in dusty black. She also seemed, as Helen shook her hand, a bit grubby, her dyed red hair unbrushed and lank.
‘Right,’ Rose said. ‘How long’s that been then?’
‘That I’ve been with Joe? Oh, not so long. A couple of months.’
Rose raised her eyebrows. ‘You’re doing well.’
Catherine had a gift for chilling you with a look. It was a gift Helen longed for sometimes.
Later, she said to Joe, ‘Who was that girl, Rose something? Is she Will’s girlfriend? The artist.’
Joe stopped outside an Italian restaurant. ‘This do? I’m starving after all that cheap wine. Frankie’s commission’s about ninety per cent and he still buys antifreeze.’ He pushed the door open. ‘Ok?’
‘Oh, give it a rest. I’ve known Rose for years. She’s always hanging round some guy’s neck. It could be Will now, for all I know. Piss, his pictures anyway–I wouldn’t waste my money.’
‘So you didn’t buy one?’ She wouldn’t have minded Will’s painting being consigned to a lock-up in Camden.
‘Too right. Frankie’s losing his touch.’
They went into the restaurant, where it turned out he knew the waiter and there was a long conversation about football before they even ordered their food.
Rose. They had barely spoken before Gaynor appeared, and Gaynor by contrast seemed quite a pal, so she had gone round the exhibition with her. Gaynor had drunk several glasses of the cheap wine, and was able to tell her a lot about Frankie and the artist and several other people, that Helen found illuminating. Joe’s world opened up a little more.
Gaynor said nothing about Rose, except, ‘That cow.’ Then with a squeeze of Helen’s arm, ‘You keep away darlin’, she’s not the kind you want to get friendly with.’
There was no need to worry about Rose–or anything else. In a fortnight Joe had found them a three-bedroomed flat in a 1930s block in Highgate, close to Hampstead Heath. He arranged it so that Helen got out of the lease of her own flat without a penalty, and he took her to Heal’s to buy furniture, since the new flat was largely unfurnished. She did not see whether he counted out several thousand pounds to pay for all that, since she had wandered off to look at lamps and coffee tables while he arranged delivery.
Go back to the Highlands and live with her sister? She was glad she hadn’t even considered it.
Three months after they moved into the new flat, Helen realised she was pregnant.