ONE TRUE VOID
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They still called him Pisspot, the local scrubbers and all his ex-classmates, as they whizzed around the village on their Motobecanes. They didn’t understand why he wasn’t hanging about up the chip shop with them any more, or phlobbing cheese and onion curd outside the public bar of The Royal Oak and playing inside left for the second team. But it was 1973 and Henry Chambers, aged 17, was motivated to achieve greatness. He’d just found out that if he wanted to be a poet he had to have both a vision of himself and a Pre-Raphaelite girlfriend. But that was impossible in the dead winter village of Hawkhurst. And the Claires and Virginias of West Kent College, Tunbridge Wells already had the Jameses and Jollyons as their social equals. Not Henry, the quiet poet with the tumbleweed bumfluff and cotted hair. No: for Henry, the future was bleak. There was no point and no vision. But just as Henry was putting the black edges round his own stationery and plotting to murder his baggots, he visited an ‘old lady’ on his Thursday afternoon community service. The house was called Plato Villa and Maxine Pollenfex - not exactly the old lady he was expecting - was going to change Henry’s life, and everyone else’s, forever. De xter Petley’s fourth novel is a searing infra-red vision of 1970s Britain and the tragedies of class and tradition. Written in typically blistering language, One True Void tells how seventeen year-old Henry Chambers turns bleakness into beauty, anarchy and hysteria into poetic redemption, and takes apart the whole life of a small Kent village as he goes.
Praise for One True Void
'Delivers scene after scene of exhilarating rage, tenderness, lyricism and pitch-black comedy as its angry young hero discovers that "there was a chasm in society that no book-reading would ever fill". Conventionally enough, this is a rite-of-passage story about the events that fix the path of a bright but stranded 17-year-old. Less predictably, Petley writes, with a bittersweet mix of stifling intimacy and sizzling exasperation, about the English rural working-class of the early 1970s – no longer the peasant stalwarts of Hardy or Lawrence but the pikey scum that all now feel at liberty to loathe.' Boyd Tonkin, The Independent
'Petley's wonderfully acerbic style ... breath[es] new life into the rather jaded form of the bildungsroman ... written by someone at a high point in their writing career.' Lesley McDowell, The Scotsman
'Funny, savage and, despite the time frame, naggingly relevant, One True Void is the product of a distinctive voice you'd be wise to lend an ear to.' Scottish Review of Books
Praise for Dexter Petley
‘Petley’s style is like acid on a plate, biting into whatever it sees and leaving extraordinary linguistic marks.' Derek Beaven
‘Izaac Walton with attitude and Mogadon.’ Tibor Fischer
About Dexter Petley
Dexter Petley was born in Hawkhurst, Kent and is the author of three previous novels: Little Nineveh, Joyride and White Lies. He also translated The Fishing Box by Maurice Genevoix from the original French and is a regular contributor to Waterlog magazine. He lives in a caravan in Normandy and when not writing he is fishing or working in his organic vegetable garden.
An extract from One True Void
She drove to Hawkhurst in her maroon Austin Maxi. I was standing there at the bus station when she pulled up. That way, no-one would see us and I could get us out of Hawkhurst. I thought we could go for a drive, picnic on a rug. Then we’d take our clothes off, but she didn’t want to. She’d really never seen inside a council house.
– Please, darling, she said. Show me your bedroom. I must see it, I must have you in it.
The old bag was in the kitchen, she didn’t know Maxine was coming in.
– Ere, whass goin’ on, ooze that?
But she didn’t need to ask who. The Tancredometer needle was in the red.
– You shouldn’t be here, she said to Maxine. You shouldn’ really be ’ere at all. You’re a married woman. I won’t have it, waltzing into my kitchen … get out!
– Oh, keep yer wig on mum, I said. We only want a cup of tea.
– That’s right, Mrs Chambers. I’m parched. I’ve no intention of outstaying my welcome.
She was beaten by the accent and sulky as she filled the kettle. We all sat in the front room sipping tea as if we were bomb disposal defusing dangerous liquid. The old baggot was guard dog, dinner-lady, chaperone, moral copper, social class ombudswoman. Maxine had jeans and a rose tee-shirt with no bra, twelve-bore nipples aimed at the china dogs on the mantlepiece. The baggot just sat shuffling her arse, saying:
– S’posing yer father comes ’ome dinnertime.
He never did. He’d never had a dinner break his whole life. Me and Maxine said nothing to each other, she wasn’t scared of Mrs Chambers. She treated her just like a charwoman, sitting there taking it all in with a smile, lighting up a Chesterfield and putting it in an amber holder. Yeah, the real, authentic Lady Muck. I’m not sure I liked her for it, either. None of us were coming out of this with any dignity and I couldn’t see what Maxine was doing beyond humiliating us all. I didn’t need her to defend my domestic front like she was the Home Guard, the volunteer force. I didn’t want her sitting there forcing the comparison because, I had to admit, the old bag’s life was humiliating enough. She suffered like Maxine would never suffer.
I’d always seen her life as if she lived it packed in walls of ice, only sometimes she appeared to me elsewhere, in the open. Like now, sipping on her fag but blowing out the tears. Silently bullied by Maxine. I pitied her, shrinking horrified from this feeling, confusing it with longing for family love, as if Maxine was only the mum I never had. That’s why I didn’t want her there. I didn’t want to be seventeen to her thirty-four, but she couldn’t see it. She was spellbound by the claustrophobia of our birthright, the stiffling gag of furniture polish and mothballs and Brillo and haughty minisculeness. I couldn’t look at Maxine. Instead, I forced myself to look at the old bag, just fascinated by the fact that she was my mother in this room. I’d even started to see her face on the end of my prick when I was having a piss, or about to screw with Maxine, and my theory was that all boys who love older women see their mother’s face like that. Then there were other times I saw her when she wasn’t there.
I didn’t want Maxine to make her hate herself more than she probably did. I didn’t want to have to hear one of her ‘outbursts,’ her ‘abdabs,’ while Maxine was in earshot. These outbursts, they were manifestations to plug the chasms down no. 51. Like a cow after its calf’s been sent to the abbatoir for slaughter. They began with the banging of saucepans and ended with howls at God. The old man would just sit there in the front room unmoved, shuffling through the TV Times. In the kitchen an operetta’d be taking place at bursting point, a screaming temperetta with the lid just on, boiling away the sprouts of her life into soggy mush. She combined scraps of prayer with Light Programme rat-pack favourites. Perry Como, Old Blue Eyes, Tony Bennett:
The very thought of youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu
Just makes me want to spewwwwwwwwwwwww
Oh God in heavennnnnnnnnnn
I hate your sodding guts – ohhh sixes
And sevennnnnnn ...
– Where are your children? The baggot suddenly said to Maxine.
– At the seaside with nanny, having a wonderful time, Maxine said, as if she was reading Virginia Woolf out loud. The baggot didn’t know what hit her.
– You should be s’lucky!
– Yes, aren’t I, Mrs Chambers.
Pinky was locked in the shed for snarling. Maxine even got the baggot to smoke another Chesterfield. She hadn’t smoked one of them since the war. Huh, the old man was merchant navy, got torpedoed with a cargo of Chesterfields for the troops. I loved poetic justice normally, but this was leaving me diseased. Then Maxine started giving me those looks. It was exciting her, this stand-off with the char lady and her nubile son.
– You ’aven’t bin to Hawkhurst before then, the baggot said.
– No, Mrs Chambers, Maxine said. What have I been missing?
– Nothing, I said.
Ever after, she was what was missing from the place. For me, Hawkhurst was before and after Maxine. Everything was. Coffee, cigarettes, literature, cars, knowledge of good and evil. It was as if I’d been born between Maxine’s legs after all. What a hypocrite she was making of me too, with her wine cellars and avocado pears, that deep husky voice and all her money. I knew about stratification. Snobs and ploggers, Hawkhurst was. Maxine was even a cut above the snobs. She was club casino, that day. Beach and open top. Landed ancestors. What a mess.