Gravel and Dust

John Saul


After some drinks at the Ship—where the tables have sloping tops and the glasses slide with gravity, suggesting life at sea—a couple of people from out of town who are on one of these creative writing courses thought it an idea for me—I quote the woman with orange hair, Heather—to hoist the jib and sail forth to Knodishall, where their course was. ‘I mean’, she said—’like’, she said—’how does a person put together a riveting tale?’ I could scatter a few tips, like fish food on the surface of the water. PenUltimate, the course was called. I’m told my response was to decline. I had weeds to weed. Clocks to wind. All I recall is that another of them—Gary, Gerry?—sitting at the top of the swell said ‘it could be refreshing’, while his PenUltimate friend next to him, looking like death, went on staring at me. I was in no state to think a way through to a decision but apparently I eventually tacked in the face of this headwind and said yes, albeit with conditions, which were that someone would get me to Knodishall and back in one piece and once there we wouldn’t sit around talking—’descending into talk’ Heather with the orange hair said I called it. I could have said that, there is something of me about it. I’m an action person—I believe in doing, is all I’m saying.

So I decided to act. I would write something new—creative—and tell how I got on. Maybe, I was supposed to have said, it would serve as a useful example. I don’t know where I got that idea from, or if I ever did say such a thing. To check what I might have agreed to I did the next morning call Alan, my trusty companion and like me one of the deeper drinkers at the table, where we had spent the evening down the trough end (the worst end, you have several glasses sliding your way). There was no reply, either because he was still asleep or at his day job at the Felixstowe docks (which came to much the same thing, for him too). Then a call from Heather reminded me what had been settled. When she said ‘done and dusted’ I felt the air turn to dust and with great glee pile lungwards. She claimed I made a promise, a word of other-planetary origin to me. She said I had until a week on Friday, which as it happened was my birthday. No it isn’t really, I threw that in as it seemed the creative thing to do and maybe I’d better start practicing. So here it is, I’ve started. I’ve eased myself in and here we go.

I got out the laptop, which reminded me of my fan, who is in Perth, Australia. Philip wrote to me that my last book was so great my Olympia typewriter would make a fortune at Sotheby’s once I’d made my main career move and flung myself off Beachy Head (the Orwell Bridge is a lot closer, but how was he to know). His declaration of fanship had fuelled my megalomania to the point where it was in danger of burning out altogether in a crackle of laughter. There, I almost went creative. All I’m saying is: sometimes when I get out the laptop I think of Philip who I’ve never met and this imaginary typewriter and imaginary fortune and imaginary death of mine and you can imagine the effect that could have on a person. Nonetheless I still get out the laptop. I got it out and waited. This is my first tip, by the way. I waited. There are several kinds of waiting, and it’s a toss up between them. There’s waiting and trying hard, writing anything, day after day, waiting for something to show up. Then there’s waiting for the mood to take you, which can also go on for days.

To be honest there is a better kind of waiting. Forget laptops and keyboards. Jog to the sewage works and back. Bake a Moroccan orange cake. Check out the local B&Bs as places for relations to stay in. I might go further: do nothing and you might get somewhere. Lie in the grass all afternoon and it will repair itself in the night. I read that somewhere. I know where, but must continue. Well. I was on my run to the sewage works when there showed up a potentially interesting person, a pole of a figure in the landscape, rising up from the creek—this is east Anglia—jogging towards me. As he passed I knew: that was Dacre. Tall, floppy, gesticular, dark good looks. Could be dangerous. By the time I’d circled the works I had more people in my head. I had Emile and Dacre, and in my mind they were already together in a car park, standing around, it was the car park at Dedham, up the Stour river from Constable’s Flatford Mill.

Now I don’t know if the fact they came out of next-to-nowhere is creative or just mad. However things then got tough. What, I asked myself, were Emile and Dacre doing hanging around in this car park? Apparently they were supposed to go north to Blaxhall, a village on sand in the middle of fields. They had to make some sort of regular delivery, but they wouldn’t budge from the car park. I’ll add: the car park was impacted gravel on ragged land sloping into the Stour, and apart from these people of mine it was empty.

It was early in the morning and the temperature had the wrong kind of edge. There was Dacre and Emile (small man; pilot jacket and cap with flaps; hyperactive) and out of nowhere someone called Rosie Ro, and Irkut. Rosie Ro’s arms were a throng of tattoos from the wrists upwards; I saw flowers and dragons and stars. She was saying something about ‘Thomas in Blaxhall’; if they didn’t get going, Thomas would be asking questions—so she said.

—So? said Dacre, looking in no mood to jog anywhere ever again. So call di man.

—You call him.

Nobody was getting on with anybody. A crow walked in from the main road. (Crows know everything, but don’t tell.) In looks alone Irkut (small like Emile, but well turned out) seemed out of place, a secretary in search of a board meeting. She smiled, just smiled, as if she was pleased to be among this gang, as if (creative insight) she felt joy in the presence of recklessness. Nonetheless they weren’t making a move. I knew I would eventually get them all in the car—it was a Vauxhall Insignia, just like my brother used to have. They had to go. They wanted to go. They just didn’t want to go together.

I felt uneasy. I sensed they would have been there—mooching around, kicking up gravel—whether I’d written about them or not. I knew, from experience, I’d better keep a close eye on them. If I’m really unlucky, I thought, they’ll suddenly pile in and drive off; leave me here with that menacing swan that’s just appeared, waddling up the gravel. Irkut smiled. Rosie Ro had a lizard inside one arm and a bird sat on her shoulders. Small Emile, though he must be over forty, was darting everywhere, looking for an opening, but an opening in what?

And what did I know about Dacre, lankiest of lankies? Dacre has a council-estate past, I sensed. He’s seen a lot of broken glass (creative, creative). This guesswork—that there’s something tough about Dacre—was based purely on the fact that he was leaning on the driver’s door so no one could open it. I wondered who had the keys. I got restless trying to figure out what these three (not counting Irkut, so silent) were doing so thought to check there wasn’t a corpse in the back of the car. Would I have to stagger back in horror, retch from the stench? I stepped forward and tried—successfully—to open the hatchback. Practically empty. Just a pair of hiking boots and a cardboard box, taped shut.

Rosie Ro had begun haranguing Dacre. Shall I tell you what it’s like loving you? she said—what it was like? Dacre said nothing, taking his time. He must have known all the tattoos. Among the stars and dragons I caught one or two names. Florence, or was it Terence, fell comfortably from her right shoulder. Marco, it said, beside a face with hair in flames on her other forearm. I’ll tell you what it was like, Rosie Ro said: like going through a car wash. No response. Irkut kept on smiling, as if witnessing yet another delightful moment in a happy scene. Suddenly Emile, who gave out a feeling of ‘I may have seen a lot less broken glass than Dacre but still a lot more than most’ saw me looking suspicious and went to guard the car-back, then changed his mind.

Look. Do you think I cared about these antics, crows in car parks or wherever, flying over Constable country, or swans or dragons made with needles or stars stuck on arms? So what if Dacre’s there with his good looks and Rosie Ro is fuming. If it wasn’t for my deadline for Knodishall do you think I would have hung in there? No, left to myself my tendency would have been to drop them altogether and set up the dartboard. Check the fridge. Get the hoover out (no, not really). But duty compelled me to ask what was in this box. Mind you, it is an opportunity for some nifty dialogue. By the way dialogue, my second tip says, should always be nifty. Otherwise bin it.

—What’s in this box Rosie Ro? I asked.

—None of your business.

—She don’ even know, said Dacre from his post at the driver’s door. None of we know. You come away from dere. Secret. Tahp secret.

—Secret? said Emile, top secret? What’s the difference?

—We can open it, I suggested—too late reflecting how lunatic that must have sounded.

I lunged towards it, knowing this might—and did—prise Dacre away from the driver’s door. Quick as a rabbit Emile was in, door shut, window up.

—Doesn’t matter, said Rosie Ro.

—What doesn’t? I asked.

—She got di keys, said Dacre, explaining helpfully. We got di riddim. We got di music.

—With no keys he can’t even turn on the radio, Rosie Ro added.

—Don’ suppose he know how anyway, Dacre said.

My phone went.


I convinced myself the orange on her hair was an orange which would only ever be used for hair.

—I’m so sorry, she said. We’re re-thinking our whole approach. So, well, maybe we can do something next year. We really have to find our own way forward. I do hope you understand. All that drinking. Shouldn’t really. I’ll be in touch. Bye.

—Your calls ahlway involve jus’ listenin’? said Dacre.

—Of course not. This one was just a little … bewildering.

Irkut got in beside Emile.

—Bewilderin’, Dacre repeated. Yeah, I know dat, he said looking at Rosie. Bewilderin’.

He shut the hatchback.

—We got to be goin’. We got di riddim. We got di music.

—I’ll come with you, I offered.

—Be seeing you, said Emile.

Dacre got in with Rosie Ro.

—Come wid us? Don’ be mad. We goin’.

Irkut smiled. Rosie put the window down.

—See you around.

—No he won’, said Dacre. Dis is di last consignment. We got important tings of our own to do. Got our life to get on with. In two minutes we’ll be forgettin’ he was even here.

Radio blaring, the Insignia spewed a spray of gravel and earth, stones falling amid lingering dust. The crow hopped into the air, flapping its great wings, and followed.


John Saul is making the contribution from England to Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction 2018 and had work in Best British Short Stories 2016 (Salt Publishing). His novel Heron and Quin was published by Aidan Ellis and Seventeen is electronically available. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies and in four collections. He recently became a member of the European Literature Network. He lives in London. A website with more information is at


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