When I decided to turn my short story ‘The Rise and Demise of Fat Kenny’ into a novel, the biggest consideration, literally, was how to turn fifteen hundred words into sixty thousand. I knew there was a novel in there somewhere. I just had to find the key, the way in. I read and I re-read. And the same paragraph kept jumping out. It wasn’t about Ronnie Swordfish and the blood-doping scam, or how Fat Kenny had made it into the big time overnight. It wasn’t even about how he walked into the river at the end and never came out. It was this:
‘Kenny was the lad we never picked for football, but who stayed to watch anyway. Who’d turn up on me doorstep, out the blue, askin me mum if I could come out and play. I’d tell Mum to tell him I was doin me homework, or something. It weren’t just me. I’d see him knock up and down the whole street. One door after another shuttin in his face. In the end, no-one bothered to even open the door to him. Poor bastard. His old man used to beat the shit out of him for bein fat. So did we.’
That was the heart-breaker. That was the key. The childhood.
The characters had already told me they came from Bethnal Green, in the heart of London’s East End. I couldn’t change that. I was born in 1969, in a hospital in Dagenham, but spent most of my life growing up in Romford in a borough right on the edge of East London. So by going back to the childhood of these characters, I ended going back to mine, albeit, geographically, slightly removed.
I grew up in the seventies. So the colours, the toys, the telly, the music, the football, those memories became the story of my characters – the asides, the extraneous details I needed to give their story authenticity.
So far so good. I thought.
The story was coming along, though I still didn’t know where it was taking me. I was writing one chapter at a time – winging it all the way. Thirty thousand words, listening to John tell the story of his and Kenny’s childhood. There’d been tales of Christmas days and nativity plays. Football in the playground. FA Cup Finals. School dinners. The Queen’s Jubilee. And amidst all that, what happened to Kenny. The whole thing rippled with sentimentality – except for that last bit. But there was a darkness from the start – a darkness attached to Kenny. And I could feel it growing. John could feel it. John knew it. But I carried on, not realising the darkness was coming from inside me.
When the darkness consumed John, everything changed. This was no longer an exercise in expanding a short story into a novel. In truth, the short story had disappeared long ago, all that remained were the names of the characters. The novel I was writing was a something else entirely.
It was my life.
Obviously, it wasn’t actually my life. I’ve never been to prison or involved with gangsters or found anyone hanging from a set of bannisters. But I did grow up in a world that was brown and orange all over. I do remember the Cup Finals of 1975 and 1980 where West Ham beat Fulham and Arsenal, respectively, and I remember the Queens Jubilee and I remember sitting at the back of the class staring out the window. Waiting for something. Anything. And I have felt empty and lost and distant and confused and searing, unbearable, unspoken pain.
And all of this stuff was there all along, buried within the layers of that short story. I just didn’t know it at the time. I sometimes wonder if every short story is just the tip of a very large, very dark, very scary iceberg.
In the case of ‘The Rise and Demise of Fat Kenny’ that was certainly, and somewhat surprisingly, true.