Friday Night Book Club: Read an excerpt from Craig Higginson’s new novel The White Room
More about the book!
The Friday Night Book Club: Exclusive excerpts from Pan Macmillan every weekend!
Stay in and relax this evening with a glass of wine and this extended excerpt from The White Room, the new book from Craig Higginson.
About the book
South African playwright Hannah Meade arrives in London for the opening night of her new play. She has arranged to meet Pierre, the student she was in love with when she taught English in Paris. During their time together, they lied their way towards truths they were too young and inexperienced to endure. Perhaps this time they will have a second chance.
As the reader is drawn from contemporary London back to Paris on the eve of the war in Iraq, the mystery of past events is brought to vivid life in a series of dramatic, intriguing and deeply moving encounters.
Written in layered, stark prose, The White Room lays bare many of our assumptions about language, identity, memory, loss and love.
Read the excerpt:
Hannah returns to London at the beginning of autumn. The plane trees along the King’s Road are a dirty gold and the early morning light makes everything glare improbably. She isn’t mad about these new taxis, with their abbreviated contours and their interiors bristling with health-and-safety handles, but otherwise London appears much as she left it – the redbrick facades of Earl’s Court, the broken whirlpools of pigeons in the cramped squares, the lurching lines of buses, and the endless supply of pedestrians, who appear to be hurrying towards somewhere more interesting than where she happens to be.
She ought to feel different, and differently as a result, but in spite of being a bit heavier and more worn around the edges, Hannah can still locate the tentative young woman she was when she lived here, peering longingly into other people’s houses and always knowing exactly how much change she had in her pocket.
Several times over the last years, Hannah has been invited back to Europe, but each time she has come up with a variation of the same excuse: she is too busy with her teaching commitments. The truth, however, is that she is intimidated by airports and all those ranks of people impatient to get away. She is wary of giving way to the misanthropy that watches over her, twiddling his thumbs like Mephistopheles.
Hannah’s absence at her own opening nights has become firmly stablished – in her mind, at least. Why must the audience also gawp at the playwright if they are already there to gawp at the play? In South Africa, she prefers to attend the previews and whisper punctilious notes to the director afterwards. Once a play has opened and if it has been declared a success, she might return to have another look at what she has helped to create. Usually she books her ticket online and shuffles in with the rest of the audience, trying hard not to listen too closely to the commentary around her. Yet it is also comforting to discover how inaccurate people can be. She learned only recently from two elderly women in Cape Town of her death by drowning. She suppressed the urge to tell them that this was unlikely since the playwright in question only ever walked along the edge of the sea.
But Hannah’s decision to avoid Europe – and London and Paris in particular – also comes from another source. Until recently, a part of her was still trying to evade the young woman she once was – with the change champing in her pocket. Hannah looks back at that earlier version of herself as an old antagonist still capable of harming her and all she has accomplished since leaving Europe. That young woman certainly worked away at herself at the time like a team of trained dogs around an antelope, nipping off a bit here and a bit there until the whole creature tumbled into the mud, brought down in the end by the momentum of her flight.
A year ago, however, Hannah started to write a play about her time in Paris. The words started up one morning at her desk and before she was aware of choosing to write about it, the first scene appeared, followed by another, and another – as if each scene was a room that was finally allowing her to enter it. The play seemed to have been waiting for her to sit down and perform it. For Hannah, writing has always been an act of performance. Often when she is sitting at her computer she feels like a musician at the piano. The room in which she writes stands empty – there is never an imagined audience gathered around her – and it is enough in that first act of writing just to get the story out, and safely digested into the incomprehensible life of her computer, where she can open it up later and look over it, like an elaborate piece of music written by someone else.
Nine drafts later, the play felt ready to be sent to her London agent, and within a few months it was formally accepted by the Royal Court. This was a development she would never have anticipated during her ten years of living in London and Paris. Back then, success was for other people – people who actually wanted it.
Hannah lives in a small town not far from Cape Town that is stuck between a high wild mountain and a wrinkled bay filled with sharks. There are not many houses there and only a scattering of shops along the main road. In the harbour below float enormous military vessels the country can ill afford. The naval base, which has been there for over two hundred years, complicates her view, as does the knowledge of all those sharks. But she likes her little house. It stands on wooden stilts that ascend from the fynbos, just beyond the reach of the puff adders. Her study is little more than a glass box attached to her bedroom, and in it stands the ink-stained wooden desk she inherited from her grandfather, an antique wicker chair, and a small bronze sculpture of the boy Narcissus, who was given to her by one of her students in Paris – the long-departed and much loved Monsieur Levi.
She is employed at the university in Cape Town as a Creative Writing lecturer. Apart from her study, she is happiest in the classroom. Her favourite moment is when she shuts the door on the rest of the world. Here she tells her students that she is only interested in the life of the text. Their so-called real lives are of no relevance. She likes to quote that idea from Allen Ginsberg that if your poem is bad you must change your life, not your poem. She adds that Ginsberg’s poems might have improved had he spent more time on his poems and less on his life.
As the taxi mutters off and she hauls her suitcase away from the pavement, she looks up to find the white Edwardian building that is already familiar from the website. From her glass study, she decided to treat herself to a five-star hotel within walking distance of Sloane Square. If she was going to return to London, she decided, she would do so in style. She would only be staying for a couple of nights.
A man of indeterminate accent and race helps her inside, where her passport is scanned by the receptionist and a slim blondish woman shows her to the third floor. Hannah is pleased to see that her room overlooks a private garden, where she finds a row of maples progressing from liver-dark purple to pale gold, a discreet swing and a lone thrush stabbing at the grass.
We have high tea in the living room at four, Mrs Meade, and complimentary champagne in the conservatory at six. Would you like to book a table for dinner?
Thank you, but I’ll be going out.
You have friends in London?
That’s none of your fucking business.
Of course, she only thinks this.
I’m going to see a play, she says instead.
Oh good. I do hope you enjoy it.
After looking around the room once more, like a ferret trying to locate its young, the woman smiles breathily and clicks the door closed behind her.
Hannah sits on the end of the bed and removes her shoes. She still has long, high-arched, shapely feet – and as she massages her heel she remembers Pierre’s hands around this foot.
Pierre, her student from Paris, who was of Congolese descent.
Pierre, the subject of her latest play.
Pierre, who has agreed to meet her in London after the opening tonight.
Pierre has been trying to contact her for several years now. As she is not to be found on any form of social media, he has had to content himself with writing to her publishers. It is about the only fan mail she has ever received, if she can even call it that. His letters are never long and they always seem deliberately uninformative. The most he has told her is that he lives in a village in Somerset, where he works as a translator of African fiction from English into French. How Pierre can make a living from this is something he has never been inclined to explain. He has never mentioned a family or even a dog. All he has said is that he has watched some of her plays – three of which have now been successfully produced in London – and that he would very much like to meet.
Hannah has no idea why he would want to meet, given what passed between them in Paris. She would have imagined that he would have put their months together down to a few bad decisions, an unfortunate interlude. From the outset, there was a strong and dangerous attraction between them, an ineluctable force that wanted to draw them together, as mismatched as they might have appeared to be. But that did not make them compatible or healthy for one another. Can we not, according to Freud, be driven as much by the death instinct as we are by the instinct towards life, towards sex? For Hannah, however, these two contradictory forces have often seemed indistinguishable. She sometimes thinks of sex as a kind of death, and death as something as full of dread and intimacy as sex.
Until the writing of her play, she never felt brave enough to write back to Pierre. But the act of writing about him brought her first ideas about him back to life: his apparent innocence and charm, his earnest simplicity, his clear gaze that rendered her desirable again. Straight after she booked her hotel in Chelsea, she emailed him a quick note, pressing ‘send’ before she could revise it.
It really is lovely to hear from you.
I see you are living in Somerset – deep in the green, unpleasant land. Is England all you hoped it would be? Have you managed to ‘make yourself at home’ yet?
I will be in London for a few days for the opening night of my new play. Perhaps we could have a drink in the theatre bar afterwards? I am curious to see you again. I promise to resist the urge to correct your English – although it must be pretty good by now if you are working as a translator.
Our time in Paris, brief as it was, seems like another life. I hope you have forgiven me for the part I played in what passed between us. I trust we can put it down to the excesses of youth. We are both firmly middle-aged by now – although I have always been a few steps ahead of you in that regard.
I do hope you can make it to the play. It is about an English teacher in Paris.
With all good wishes
Hannah arrives in the hotel lobby as the high tea is being set out. The ferrety woman lifts her head in Hannah’s direction, but Hannah is moving too fast to be apprehended. If feels good to be entering the streets of London again. The enormity of the city, the anonymity, the freedom she has to do anything she likes. For the first time in what feels like years, she feels excited – excited at the prospect of the play and the prospect of Pierre. The two things have become weirdly entwined for her in recent days, so that she sometimes catches herself thinking that she will be meeting the Pierre from the play rather than the Pierre in reality – who will be older and changed in ways she has no way of predicting. Now that Hannah has written about him, she feels far too familiar with him, as if she has already spent months in his company. But this is merely her version of Pierre – which, like a figure in a dream, is little more than an extension of herself.
As the light drops behind the buildings, she tightens her tweed coat and glances at the windows of Peter Jones, where abstracted white wooden trees are sprouting silk scarves in autumn colours. Across the square and through the dark gold of the plane trees, she can already make out her name above the theatre entrance in that famous red lettering:
THE ENGLISH GIRL
The director of the play, as arranged two weeks ago, is waiting to meet her at the downstairs restaurant. He turns out to be a distracted but gracious near-adolescent called Stephen Green, who looks faintly Mediterranean – or maybe Jewish. As Hannah finds her chair, he is already trying to assure her how clever the play is, how devastating, how current. But she can sense underneath his rapid stream of verbiage the same uncertainty about the play that she has herself. It is impossible to know what it will be until it has been tested against the audience – and, regrettably, the critics.
What about the previews? she asks. Was there much of an audience?
All sold out, Mrs Meade, but then that’s pretty standard when it comes to the Court.
And how was the play received?
Very well – standing ovations, in fact.
Ah well, that’s something, isn’t it?
Yes, yes, a very promising start. Although the big test is what happens tonight. The actors still need to step up and claim the space. They have to make the play as a whole matter more – to themselves as much as to the audience.
Stephen is not really looking at her as he speaks. Perhaps he is wondering how she could possibly be the writer of such a play. She probably looks too conventional, too beautiful, albeit in a strained and potentially disappointed way.
We’re going to a little Italian place around the corner after the show tonight, Mrs Meade. The cast were really hoping that you’d be able to come?
Why not? I’m supposed to be meeting a friend, but I’m sure that won’t take too long.
Your friend is very welcome to join us too, Stephen suggests.
Thanks, she says. I’ll see how he feels.
The young man smiles at this – and, making a demonstration of not wanting to pry any further, he goes on to list a few ‘minor cuts’ that he has made to her text. Although Hannah does not agree with any of them, she decides not to interfere on an opening night. Tomorrow, if necessary, she will ask for them to be reinstated – which is her right, as stipulated in her contract.
After she has had something to eat – she orders the tomato rather than the onion soup as she doesn’t want onion breath – she lingers in the theatre’s bookstall to look through the latest published plays. One has a fluorescent cover with two neon heads screaming against each other. When Hannah peers inside, she finds language that has been torn to fragments, to shards of hurt.
She wonders whether she will ever be able to write like this, feel like this. She fears her new play will be considered too conscientious, too internally coherent, to satisfy the times. Hannah still works in the shadow of the five-act structure and believes in character arcs, dramatic reversals and carefully placed metaphors that evolve surreptitiously into fully worked themes. She is committed to such devices because without them she is lost and her writing feels lost. The complicated dazzle of the world is often too much for her to contemplate. Sometimes, in her glass box high above the sea, she has to write with her sunglasses on.
Hannah settled on writing not because she had anything of interest to say but because she felt happiest in the place of language – the English language specifically. The girl in her play is only English insofar as she speaks English. But even Hannah’s English has been coloured by her upbringing in Africa, which she has continued to carry around however much she has washed out her mouth, like the aftertaste of onion soup.
First came the love of words, the feel of them on her tongue, which became a surprising source of power and pleasure. She learned how they could be released like pebbles, like ducks and drakes, skittering across the surface of the world and leaving ripples in their wake. As a schoolgirl, she was drawn to poetry, then to plays, and by the time she matriculated she had decided to become an actress. Everyone at the time said she was pretty enough – with her blonde hair, pale grey eyes, perfect bone structure, dancer’s body – but the words she spoke at drama school and in England afterwards never sounded enough like her own. Her performances always felt like already-written speech.
Only when Hannah decided to ditch her acting career and move to Paris to teach English did she begin to find a home. Not in the city, but in the language she had brought with her. She started to learn the eccentricities of her language as one learns about a new lover. Nothing, in that first flush of recognition, was ever enough to put her off.
In the event that they might trigger something new in her own writing, Hannah buys some of the plays and decides to take a closer look at those scarves in Peter Jones. She is buttoning her coat near the box office when she overhears a man who has come to pick up his tickets for the play tonight. He says the name of the play conspiratorially, as if referring to the girl herself and not the play.
Hannah knows before she turns her head that this is Pierre. His voice is still known to her as much as anything is known – and yet she had forgotten all about it during the writing of her play. She had given him an altogether different voice – one not so kindly and confident.
She sees at once that Pierre has also cut off all his hair. His slender frame has been fitted into the shape of a man. She is about to call out his name when she sees the woman at his side. The woman is tall and honey-skinned and her hair has been braided with cowrie shells. She is leaning into Pierre as one might lean into a sturdier animal that you know and love – like a horse or, indeed, a husband.
Before Pierre can turn towards Hannah and recognise her, she descends the stairs, circumvents a hooting taxi and heads towards the relative safety of Peter Jones. V She sees them again that night as the house lights are about to fade. Pierre is sitting four rows from the front with the woman, who is chatting away, apparently oblivious. Pierre’s arm is draped around her as if they are on the couch at home – although Hannah wonders whether Pierre is feeling quite so comfortable. Another woman might have gone up to the couple and introduced herself. She might have acted above this revelation. But Hannah is not that woman. She wishes she had never entertained the thought of Pierre, or written about him, let alone arranged to meet. What was she thinking? That Pierre would still be interested in her after all this time? She understands now that he was only being friendly, perhaps aggressively friendly. Maybe all he wants is to flaunt his glamorous wife. As the light thickens, and all the crows come home to roost, Hannah suddenly remembers the play she has written. It runs ahead of them like a long country road, and she sees every turning in it – every bush, every flower, every leaf. She understands only now that she has made a terrible, terrible mistake – not only in writing the play, but in inviting Pierre to come here tonight. She withdraws deeper into the shadows as the rest of the audience fades into insignificance, and the world of the play, with hideous alacrity, starts to rearrange itself around him.