I’ve tried to complete NaNoWriMo, which challenges you to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in just 30 days, on five separate occasions. For the last three years, I’ve tried and failed (for reasons I’ll discuss another time). But this year, I dug my heels in and crossed the finish line, with 50,133 words, right on the final day of November.
If you’re curious, you can read the blurb and part of the first chapter below. I’ll publish the whole thing on Kindle eventually, hopefully early 2016, but it needs a lot of editing first!
Hey, Hey Helen: A Novel Inspired By ABBA
ABBA’s vast catalogue of catchy pop songs mentions 17 people by name. In Hey, Hey Helen, Angus Kidman reimagines and connects the lives of those characters.
Whatever happened to Fernando? How has rejection shaped Suzy’s life? Will Alice Whiting ever find true love? Who is Nina, pretty ballerina? Did Carrie ever marry? Does Rikky have any groupies left? Where has Joe been? And what of Harry — and Helen? Over three generations and multiple mistaken identities, from Kent State to the Rio Grande to Skegness, from Top of the Pops to Fake Name Night to MTV Unplugged, there’s a sense of expectation hanging in the air . . .
Prologue: Fernando (1970)
The bullet went directly into his brain. I hope that’s what happened. Death would be instantaneous then. A projectile hitting a crucial nerve, a leaky blackness, then nothing.
TV news won’t show us any of that yet. There is footage of protestors and rioting, but not of the actual killings. Four students have died and many more have been wounded. I feel sad for them and horrified for their parents. A tiny part of me even feels bad for the National Guardsmen. It’s the swampy part of myself I despise and cherish at the same time.
I suppose the soldiers were only doing their job. Yet if it’s obvious that what you’re asked to do is wrong, you must stop. I say that so casually. Actually saying no is often the hardest thing, I know.
One soldier on the TV screen frightened me. His hair was cropped short, his face was a blank. Not angry, not purposeful, not distressed about being asked to shoot a contemporary. You’d think nothing in the world was wrong.
I could imagine him as the one who shot Jeffrey Miller and the others. It’s not at all clear how many guardsmen actually fired their guns. But when I see that face, I feel sure that he was one of those who aimed their weapons, almost without thought.
Before today I had never heard of Kent State University. I fear we have become accustomed to disturbances at college campuses, and America seems such a long way away now. It’s often easy to just skip past the headlines in the paper. Not this time.
There have been incidents at the local university here in Manchester, but nothing like this. I can’t imagine British soldiers willingly lining up for the same task. Student protest seems very civilised in Britain, certainly compared to the US or France. I suppose it helps that we aren’t sending soldiers to Vietnam.
Low-key though they were, Fernando used to grumble about the protests here if they appeared on the TV news. Students were there to study, he would say, and what were they messing around with all these demonstrations for?
Because of what they believe, I would say to him quietly. And then he would go silent and I knew that he was remembering, as I was. Standing up for your beliefs matters, even if the consequences are dire. I don’t have to remind Fernando of the details.
We encountered death together, its chill breath licked our faces, but we were spared. We were spared then. But death isn’t always dramatic. It can sneak up on you. I’m not sure if that’s not worse than it lurching dramatically into view. Then again, I can’t imagine being at Kent State and trying to deal with what is happening there right now.
I understand why the students were protesting. My heart beats in the same way. They want a better world, an end to cruelty. Don’t we all? Some values really are worth fighting for. Liberty, love, equality. Those are worth standing up for — even if you find yourself on the losing side and end up moving to Manchester, as we did.
In the hospital waiting room, I look at more photographs of the Kent State students in the newspaper. Several show young people playing guitars around the Commons, the area where the shootings happened. That makes me smile despite knowing the dreadful fate that was waiting for so many of them.
Music gives you hope, it bonds you. This generation of youngsters sometimes acts as if they are the first to discover that. It is not so, of course. Music was all we had on that night long ago by the river.
When you feel powerless, music becomes the best and only weapon. It brings you together, it unites you. It fills your heart with hope. You want to sing your words to everyone. And then you hear the drumbeats in the distance, and then the gunfire, and you have to keep singing so that you can stop the fear from rising up and paralysing you.
At least, that’s how it was for me. I think it was simpler for Fernando. He enjoyed playing the guitar, but it wasn’t to keep away the fear. It was simply something he liked to do. He isn’t troubled by imagination as I sometimes am. He isn’t troubled by anything much anymore.
Sadly, Fernando’s guitar never made it to Manchester. At some point, when every item you carry is precious, you have to focus on the essentials. We left the guitar behind, but Fernando kept the pick. It always hung on a chain around his neck.
It’s not there now. When Fernando went into the hospital, the nurse gently took me aside. “We suggest that you take any of his jewellery home for safe keeping,” she said. “Unfortunately, with so many people coming through, we can’t promise that it won’t go missing.” He was in a ward with five other beds.
What an awful thing! I thought at first. Why would someone steal from a sick man? But I try to see the positive side in everything when I can. And so I firmly told myself: It was kind of her to warn me. Hospital work is exhausting, and I can see the lines of tiredness under her eyes. I grasp her hands warmly and thank her. She smiles absently.
Following her advice, I lifted the chain gently from around his neck. He grunted but I don’t think he really knew what was happening. The chain and his watch went into my handbag. I had to leave soon after that because visiting hours were over.
At first, I thought I would wear the pick myself, as a sort of tribute. Yet as soon as I put it on, it felt awkward and wrong. Yes, I was there, I sang along, but the guitar was played by Fernando. That part is his story. I was only a witness, a vocalist, a frightened girl. So I put it in the bedside drawer at home, wrapped in a piece of shiny blue cloth I found.
I suppose I hope that one day soon Fernando will come home to wear it. But then I think of how sick he looks. I find it impossible to let that hope flourish. It’s hard to see the positive side of your husband dying.
If you’re curious, you can also check out the beginnings for my two previous successful attempts below. I really should e-publish these suckers, shouldn’t I?