West Camel’s debut novel, Attend, was published by Orenda on 13 December 2018.
Today Orenda have kindly allowed me to share an extract from Attend with you.
‘That day in 1913, the day I found the strip of cloth with the motif
stitched onto it – the day she gave it to me, I should say – no one
seemed to be paying me the slightest bit of attention. I thought it
was because they wanted to be rid of me. I was seven – far too old
for the Hospital for Infants in Albury Street. I’d heard Mrs Clyffe
say as much to Sally when we were walking back from church the
‘“I shall have to be thinking of where to send Deborah, you know.
I’ll have the Institute Ladies on my back otherwise. We’re not really
supported for the grown ones.”
‘She hadn’t meant for me to hear her, but I did; and that entire
evening, while she read aloud from the
Illustrated London News, I thought about what I’d heard her say.
‘Mrs Clyffe took the Illustrated London all the years I knew her,
and after supper on Sundays, she would read out parts she thought
suitable to the other staff at the hospital. Being older than the other
children, I was allowed to stay up and listen too.
‘“Anyone can tell I was born on the Surrey Side, just by hearing
me speak,” she used to say. And years later, when I read and reread
that article by Jacob Mellor, searching for any mention of my name,
or a record that he’d even met me, it was her voice that I heard. And
I remembered how I’d lain awake that night, thinking about what
she’d said to Sally.
‘Looking back, it was more likely they ignored me because they
were all so busy. Three sick babies had come in that morning. One
was born just the night before. I saw the doctor bringing him in
first thing and saying to Mrs Clyffe, in the flat voice he used when
someone had died, that the mother hadn’t survived the labour.
‘Mrs Clyffe saw me hanging over the banister, and sent me upstairs
to sew. My own mother had died giving birth to me. Mrs Clyffe had
been there, and held me when I was just seconds old.
‘The other two babies came in later with nasty coughs, Sally
wrapped them up and put them in the line of cradles by the kitchen
fire. I offered to help, but Sally said, “I can’t see as there’s much help
for these two. I’ve heard their mother’s a drunk, and who’s to say
who their fathers are.” Mrs Clyffe said, “Will you hold that tongue
of yours, Sally. I shan’t tell you again,” and popped sugared butter in
one of the babies’ mouths. I knew what she was thinking: who’s to
say who my father was?
‘Sally stomped off. And I’m not sure why I thought to do it just
then, but while Mrs Clyffe was bent over a cradle, I pocketed a bit
of candle and a match from the dresser and sloped off downstairs.
‘Mrs Clyffe didn’t mind the children going into the back base-
ment, where there was the scullery with the big sink, the tallboy
for the wash jugs and a narrow window into the yard, which she
was careful to lock ever since she found a man sleeping down there.
But she didn’t like us in the front basement, which was more like a
cellar – dark, with a heap of coal and dirty boxes everywhere. What
she was proper rough about, though, was the door to the tunnel. It
was set in the front wall, right under the pavement, and was bolted
top and bottom. She used to say if we ever got in there it would be
the last she’d see of us.
‘I knew I was making a racket – dragging a box over so I could
reach the top bolt, shooting the bottom one with a bang and then
pulling the heavy door open – but I was sure they were all so busy
with the babies, they wouldn’t notice. I was a good child generally –
always if Mrs Clyffe was near – but now I knew she planned to get
rid of me, I thought I could do what I liked. I could disappear and
she wouldn’t pay any attention; none of them would.
‘I stepped through the open door. Inside, it smelled damp and
chilled, like the church crypt. I took the stub of candle and the
match out of my pocket and pulled the door closed behind me. It
was so dark then, I could have been in a cavern or a cramped hole,
and I wouldn’t have known the difference. I felt for the wall and
struck the match, then brought it to the wick. The candle sputtered,
but then the flame grew tall and I was able to look about.
‘Mrs Clyffe had told us the tunnel was dug for ships’ captains, to
keep them safe off the streets when they were carrying the gold from
their travels. After that it was used by smugglers, she said. Sally said
that Lord Nelson used the tunnel to meet Lady Hamilton when they
lived in Deptford more than a hundred years back, but Mrs Clyffe had
told her not to be so soft and that, in any case, the tunnel was no place
for children: it was dirty, dark and unsafe, a maze we’d never get out of.
‘I’d always taken her at her word; but now I saw it was just boxes,
like in the cellar. And I thought: is this it?
‘Some of the boxes had her writing on them. I knew her hand –
big white-chalk loops spelling the names of children who’d been in
the hospital. Some of them had gone back to their families; some
of them had gone on to other places. And I knew that others had
died. Most people thought Mrs Clyffe was fierce, but I’d seen her
cry, holding a cold baby to her nightdress first thing in the morning.
‘I walked down the line of boxes, looking for my name, but I
didn’t really expect to see it. There was nothing of mine to put in a
box and store away. Where the boxes stopped, a set of bars ran from
floor to ceiling. I held the candle out between them. There were brick
arches for a few feet, and then the tunnel turned a corner.
‘On my side of the bars, the boxes within reach and the door just a
few steps behind me, I was still at home really, with my bed upstairs,
dinner already cooking, my sewing to do and the Institute Ladies
coming in to teach us our letters that afternoon. And, of course,
Mrs Clyffe. If I went any further, I risked not being seen again. But
in the candlelight, I thought of the edge of a silk dress disappearing
around the corner.
‘I turned sideways and pushed through the bars.
‘A few steps and I was at the corner. I looked back. A line of
light slipped under the bottom of the door. A sound came from the
cellar – the scrape of the shovel. Someone had come to fetch coal. I
could’ve gone back then, but my white apron front was already filthy.
I turned the corner.
‘There was nothing for a long while, just earth walls and wooden
beams holding them up. The floor was wet in places, and water
dropped on my head, making me shudder. Every now and then, I
passed a doorway in the wall, but each was bricked up. I thought of
the bricklayer who’d fixed the yard wall, and imagined him coming
down right now and bricking up our doorway, with Mrs Clyffe
watching and saying, “There now. That’s settled that.” I’d truly never
get out then. And in the dark, my mind ran wild. Perhaps Mrs Clyffe
had been waiting for me to find my way down here so she could
shut me in. I heard her laughing as the last brick was placed, saying,
“That’s settled her.” The problem of Deborah solved. It was a silly
thought, but it stopped me dead.
‘I was at a junction; the tunnel went three different ways. To the
left and right I didn’t know what I’d find. Behind me was the way
back. If I took that, I thought, I’d have to make up something to
tell the others; I couldn’t say I’d come down here and got scared
and come back. I’d have to sneak my apron into the wash pile. And
I’d have to sit up that night and do the sewing I’d been set for this
morning. And then?
‘One girl, a little younger than me, now that her chest had
improved, was to go to live with her sister. There was a boy who said
he was going to his uncle in the countryside, and Mrs Clyffe didn’t
contradict him. But me, I’d only ever had Mrs Clyffe, the hospital,
the Institute Ladies and the sewing they set me to do. I was too
young for service, and anyway, Sally said they only took girls from
good families. I had no family, good or bad.
‘I took the right fork. I should have been scared, I suppose, I was
still just a child. But at least the tunnel was empty and silent; just my
own footsteps, the dripping, and the hiss of the candle flame. It only
lit up the space a few feet about me. I walked on in my own small
globe of light, almost in a trance.
About the book
When Sam falls in love with South London thug Derek, and Anne’s best friend Kathleen takes her own life, they discover they are linked not just by a world of drugs and revenge; they also share the friendship of the uncanny and enigmatic Deborah.
Seamstress, sailor, story-teller and self-proclaimed centenarian immortal, Deborah slowly reveals to Anne and Sam her improbable, fantastical life, the mysterious world that lies beneath their feet and, ultimately, the solution to their crises.
With echoes of Armistead Maupin and a hint of magic realism, Attend is a beautifully written, darkly funny, mesmerisingly emotive and deliciously told debut novel, rich in finely wrought characters that you will never forget.
About the author
Born and bred in south London – and not the Somerset village with which he shares a name – West Camel worked as an editor in higher education and business before turning his attention to the arts and publishing. He has worked as a book and arts journalist, and was editor at Dalkey Archive Press, where he edited the Best European Fiction 2015 anthology, before moving to new press Orenda Books just after its launch. He currently combines his work as editor at Orenda with writing and editing a wide range of material for various arts organisations, including ghost-writing a New-Adult novel and editing The Riveter magazine for the European Literature Network. He has also written several short scripts, which have been produced in London’s fringe theatres, and was longlisted for the Old Vic’s 12 playwrights project. Attend is his first novel.