An extract from Jean McNeil’s new novel, Day for Night, published by ECW Press in June 2021
Early January. The pavements are coated with pine needles that have been ground into paste. Carcasses of Christmas trees wait to be carted away to the post-festive charnel house. Some houses still have fairy lights and I find I am grateful to see them, rather than annoyed as I was two months ago, when they went up in early November. The monster of winter is in residence, of course, along with the epic remorse that follows Christmas.
The city levers itself into wintry, estuarine mist. In the half light of midday, bundles of unidentifiable creatures that might just be people propel themselves laboriously forward, curiously elevated, as if they are levitating off the ground, into the fog. The trees wave calligraphically to the sky. At the southernmost finger of London Fields a child wearing a Santa hat roars by me on a plastic car in the shape of a dragon. The man who runs the black pudding and cappuccino stall at the market sits slumped against his counter, reading the Daily Mail. “Remainers exposed” is the headline. Underneath it is a police line-up photomontage of the doughty faces of MPs who are not sufficiently zealous about torpedoing the country, we can only surmise.
So we live in Hackney. Why, you might ask? My film school brethren live in Notting Hill, in Battersea. Shorthand explanation: they made more money. Real explanation: they were less besotted with the idea of being an auteur. We moved here twenty-five years ago when we finished film school and made delicate, shifty “European” films, and never left.
Construction cranes rake the skies, where winking planes stitch patterns across the indigo darkness. I walk through arches, underneath bridges, those dank aortae between the neighbour- hoods near our house: de Beauvoir Town, Haggerston, London Fields. We live on the fringes of the latter, between two flat, uncharismatic parks.
Mabati the dachshund (meaning of his name in Kiswahili: corrugated galvanized iron) accompanies me through this Siberian miner disaster film, clattering along on his stubs of legs. I recognize the trees and the streets and the grey parkaed bundles for what they are, but alongside reality is the version I would film, running like a parallel river. This film is about a film director, previously hailed as a visionary, who stands just over the threshold of middle age. The suet hue of the winter sky is the same colour as his heart and he has no idea why, he has done everything right, he has a convincing bio on IMDb, he has made Voyagers (2001), The Grass Is Singing (2004), Ryder (2009), Everyone Is Watching (2011) and Torch Song (2014). Watch him lurch across London Fields Park in the day-long twilight, bent against the storm of his future.
Yet this is not me, this imposter protagonist. I am not depressed, I see no reason to change or complicate my life. I love our house, a narrow Georgian leakage monster pumping wasted heat through sash windows and unpatrolled cracks in the wooden flooring, fireplace and panelled shutters, stopped only briefly by knock-off Persian rugs bought at the Turkish furniture emporia on Kingsland Road. Our two children, Nathan and Lucy, are well adjusted and happy in their state school, where they walk through knife detectors and on their way home fend off MDMA pimps who try to recruit them into moped gangs.
We have enough money. Joanna and her business partner Neil are the real breadwinners; they now work exclusively for Netflix and Sky, pumping out British content, mostly pearls- and-tiaras nostalgia fare for North Americans transfixed by codified social hierarchies. The money Joanna makes is largely kept from me and goes straight to her broker, where it is invested in renewable energy in South Africa and carbon-capture technology in New Zealand.
Time is ticking. I can hear it inside me. It is less clock than bomb. If I don’t make another film I will lose the thread of myself. Ambition is only the terror of irrelevance.
My subject has taken an interest in me. He walks beside me in these submarine hours when Mabati and I orbit the park, trying to read the hieroglyphs the trees have inscribed on the sky. This is when I know I’m on to something, as a writer: my characters don’t take over — that’s a silly fanciful notion — but they do start to haunt me, becoming friendly ghosts, chaperones, doppelgängers.
“Don’t negate this time, however difficult it is to live through,” he says to me, loud enough to cause Mabati’s left ear to wobble. “Yes, it’s cold, it’s January, your country has foresworn itself, it’s like a living death. But never wish time away. You don’t know how much of it there is left.”
“You should know,” I say. “I’ve already been alive a year longer than you were when you died.”
“Two,” he corrects me.
He doesn’t really speak like this. Would you be so kind, gentle lady, as to show me the path to my salvation? That was how he spoke, all his contemporaries commented on the decorous, Old-World syntax that even in 1940 was considered hilariously baroque. He says this to me in English, although in life his English was shaky and rudimentary, according to Hannah Arendt.
Mabati and I head back to the mothership, 11 Navarino Road. Our wedge of Hackney is criss-crossed by the railyards of the Overground which blazed an orange-coloured trail of gentrification into the neighbourhood — when? I can’t remember when it started. Our streets are lined with separate utopias: Paradise Hair Relaxing Salon, Lilliput Daycare, Nirvana Nails. From Google Earth two tourmaline geometries are visible in our neighbourhood — the rectangle of London Fields Lido, the children’s square paddling pool sidling next to it. Also visible are smaller turquoise jewels, dropped in the allotment-sized gardens on our street in the back of number 3 or 5, on our odd-numbered side. When your neighbours in London start putting in outdoor swimming pools, feasibly useful only perhaps two weeks of the entire year, and the Range Rovers start stacking up outside, you know you have been oligarched.
London is never only its present incarnation. I cart the memory of what it used to be, like pictures of dead family members, everywhere. Remember when Mare Street was Pentecostal churches and jerk chicken joints and I used to be dragged down the street by crack addicts? London is a spaceship, an opal mine, a broken soundstage of dreams. It is the only city I have ever been in which is more than itself, which has its own agency and intelligence, a giant multi-tentacled alien. It is mythological. I dread the day when I will hear the call to leave, when I no longer believe our fates are entwined.
When I return home, I smell Joanna’s expert arrabbiata for the children, who are no longer children, really, having morphed into teenagers when we were not looking.
“Big year ahead,” I say, but too late I see that she is plugged into her iPhone with those Bluetooth earbuds. Her mouth is moving as she speaks to Neil, I suppose, or one of her producer colleagues who are all fifty-something women with sharp fringes dressed in floor-to-ceiling Whistles. I watch her rotate around the kitchen, clicking the top onto the blender, whizzing anti-winter flu concoctions that smell like hayfields. She scrolls through emails on her iPad while on her iPhone she swipes through her corporate Instagram.
“A multi-tasking poltergeist has taken over the kitchen,” I yell.
Joanna’s eyes flick in my direction. She points to her ear and mouths a name which might be Verity or Charity.
I retreat to my study, a room we constructed out of a sinister broom closet space underneath the stairs, the kind of room where weeping Victorian maids probably once drank overdoses of laudanum. Night adheres to the window. The blender’s fury is only a distant roar, like traffic on Queensbridge Road. I begin to construct the alternate world I will soon recall from the outer edges of erasure: this world has olive groves, ravines, mountaintop pine trees as unforgiving as razors, slim well-dressed people in graceful Edwardiana and acting in good faith, then in bad faith, then good faith again, like emotional ellipses that never run out. I begin to see a young man with dark hair like ink. I have never met this man, but he is the person who will make my film with me. He feels the tug of my gaze, the call to return to a dimension denser, more real than life.
It is January but this year, 2018, will not unfold as we think it will, its narrative organized into stalwart chapters, January thumbing over into March, then June, then November. Some years are truculent, they have to be coaxed into life. Benjamin writes that to go forward in history we have to reclaim the memory of ourselves, throttle our fear and perfect the vocabulary of our distress. The trick is, as he wrote, to gather the fragments into a larger unity, to put out feelers to the universe, imagine a different destiny. In these times, when precisely what is happening could not be imagined, and when what must happen can no longer be imagined, and if it could it could not happen . . . in these unspeakable times, you can expect no word of my own from me.
Events have overtaken our capacity to imagine them. We are tilted forward into light in the form of the coming spring, but for the first time in my life, a menacing darkness clouds the road ahead, as if someone has switched off the sun. Now all hours are three or four on winter afternoons, their melancholy waiting-room light. By then, the day is largely behind us but we have not accomplished what we wanted, we are not sufficiently convinced of our right to exist. We have not used time wisely. Night awaits.