Walking the Lights: Glasgow's Feminist Withnail & I
Deborah Andrews' highly recommeded debut novel Walking the Lights offers an authentic portrayal of 90s Glasgow slackerdom. Here we present an exclusive extract from this Not the Booker prize shortlistee: techno, tea and skunk
Hanna answered the door wearing dungarees, her strawberry blonde curls tied up in a scarf.
‘Hey, gals. Come in.’
The living room curtains were still shut. Heavy smog hung just above head height. Blue ribbons of smoke, rising from an incense stick, unfurled an illegible script.
Liam was sitting in his Ernst Blofeld chair. His dressing gown gaped at the thigh, threatening Maddie with more than she’d like to see. His flatmates Iggy and Keith were lying on the floor playing Virtua Racing on the Mega Drive. Up at the decks, a tall guy with wild shoulder- length black hair.
Hanna gestured towards him. ‘Jo, Maddie, this is Brendan.’ She flopped down on the sofa.
‘Hi, Brendan.’ Jo moved a packet of Jammie Dodgers onto the coffee table and sat beside Hanna.
Brendan looked up at Liam. ‘Haven’t you got any techno?’
‘Techno’s a load of shite.’
‘Not gabber, man. Gabber’s class.’
Maddie sat on a green velvet beanbag next to Jo.
As Brendan pushed his fingers through his hair, his eyes elongated like a cat’s. ‘Just the Chili Peppers are doing my box in, man.’
Liam swivelled round. From the ghetto blaster at his feet, he ejected a tape, turned it over and pressed play. Toots and the Maytals came on. He spun back round. ‘Hi guys. Got some quality skunk in, if you’re interested?’
It looked quite full of seeds, but smelled pungent, a sweet field of wet hay.
‘Cool.’ Maddie took her purse from her bag. ‘Can I get an eighth?’
The fifty pounds came out as a thin wad. The notes were soft, like chamois leather, and smelled of the shop. Her hands shook as she peeled off a twenty and handed it to Liam.
Jo cleared a bit of space on the table and began laying out her skinning-up paraphernalia.
‘Man, you should’ve been out last night.’ Brendan moved to the front of the decks to take a pipe from Liam. ‘We were sitting down by the river when these guys appeared with drums and started playing. Then these chicks turned up with a load of booze. Before you knew it there was like twenty, thirty of us. Then some geezer came by with a shit load of microdots and just started handing them out.’
He puffed on the pipe. ‘Then the geezer built a fire, and another fella got some poles out and twirled the fire over his head and behind his back and swallowed the flames down, like, breathing them out again in roaring jets, filling the sky with a thousand multi-coloured rainbows, all sparking and flying in time with the drums.’
As he used his hands to draw the images in the air, his jeans – baggy at the knee and scuffed with mud and grass – slipped a little showing a thin line of hair running from his navel.
Iggy whistled the Rainbow theme tune.
‘Shut it, Zippy.’ On screen, Keith’s car nudged Iggy’s onto a verge. ‘And take that.’
‘Fuck you, Bungle.’
Brendan seemed unfazed. ‘Then the flames took on a fucking life of their own, man. They swooped about the sky, spelled out our names, made pictures. One of them became this great big devil dragon, like a Chinese dragon, that danced round the moon.’
Liam raised a leg, Karate-Kid style, and said in a dodgy Chinese accent, ‘Enter the Dragon.’
Iggy coughed and looked up from the screen. ‘What the fuck’s that supposed to be?’
Keith laughed. ‘Was he Welsh?’
Liam tutted. ‘Bunch of fucking cultural idiots.’ Brendan took a lighter from the coffee table and sucked a flame into the bowl of the pipe. ‘Then the dragon’s face came right up close to mine and it opened its mouth and it’d got these great big fuck-off horrible teeth, man. And there was like blood in its eyes, and I was scared.’
He passed Maddie the pipe. A tattoo of thorns around his hand. She inhaled and almost choked on the thick smoke. A rush sped up her legs to the tips of her ears, then tingled down her arms. With rubber fingers, she passed the pipe to Jo.
‘I was scared shitless. But the geezer who’d given us the microdots, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It’s okay. Just dance with the beast, man. You’ll feel the heat of his breath on your belly right enough, but you ain’t gonna come to no harm.” So I got up on my feet, and sure enough the dragon closed his mouth. I started dancing and the dragon turned round and – can you believe this? – the dragon shook his fucking ass.’
Shafts of silvery-white burst through the gap in the curtains, backlighting Brendan as though he was some kind of saint.
‘He looked over his shoulder, winked at me and shook his ass. I laughed but I knew what he wanted. He wanted me to take hold of his tail. So I did, and I was doing the conga. I was doing the fucking conga with the dragon!’
He shoved his hands in his back pockets. ‘But some bitch grabbed my ankle and said, “Hey, watch out for the fire.” When I looked back up the dragon had gone. I thought I was gonna go into a real downer then ’cos that dragon was like the best fucking friend I ever had.’
Liam played an imaginary violin.
‘But then I met up with a whole load of guys and went back with them to a flat and sat around in front of an oven. Every now and then one of us started laughing. It was so funny, man. It was so fucking funny I had to crawl to the freezer and put my head in it ’cos my eyes were melting. I fucking love this city, man. There’s always something going on, you know?’
Maddie sealed the joint she’d been building and offered it to him. He should have the honour of sparking it up.
As he leant forward to take it, sunlight glinted off the anodised blue barbell bolted through his eyebrow. ‘Then someone passes me a joint. Could life be any fucking better I ask you?’
What would it be like to dance with a dragon – to hold its tail and sail around the stars?
Swinging on a Star…wasn’t that some old song her dad used to sing?
Jo handed her a machine-rolled joint. It was mostly tobacco. She was slightly embarrassed to pass it on. Liam took a drag, frowned, then left it in an ashtray. ‘I’ve got fucking hundreds of those microdots if anyone wants one?’
She looked at Jo, who’d wandered over to the terrapin tank.
‘Nah,’ Jo said. ‘You’re alright.’
‘Get it up ye!’ Keith punched the air.
Iggy threw his controller towards the telly, got up and plonked himself down on the sofa next to Hanna. ‘Fucking stupid game.’
‘I’ll take a handful off you later,’ Brendan said, sitting next to Keith and picking up Iggy’s controller.
‘Alex…?’ Hanna called.
‘Yeah?’ a voice came back from the hall.
‘You off somewhere?’
‘Thought I’d take the unicycle out for a bit.’
‘Want my keys?’
Alex appeared in the doorway, juggling four balls with one hand. With his turquoise trousers, checked shirt under holey v-neck and cherry-red Doc Martens, he reminded Maddie of someone, maybe a character she’d seen in a film at the GFT.
Hanna chucked her keys at him, but they hit one of his juggling balls. He caught three of them, but the fourth, and the keys, fell to the ground.
Hanna turned to her. ‘This is my brother, Alex, I was telling you about.’
Alex picked up the juggling ball and keys, looking sheepish. His blonde hair fell forward over his brow. ‘Hey.’
Hanna proffered Liam’s pipe. ‘Wanna toke?’ ‘Nah. Gonna do a couple of hours’ busking.’
‘Catch ya later then.’
His eyes caught Maddie’s as he turned to leave and blood rushed into her cheeks.
‘Some busking.’ Liam sniggered.
‘Ach, leave him.’
‘Told you the boy’s a clown.’ Liam laughed more openly.
‘I’ve seen him on that unicycle,’ Iggy chipped in. ‘He can ride that thing.’
Hanna glared at Liam. ‘He’s not a boy. He’s only a year younger than you. And he’s not a clown.’
Maddie rescued herself from the mouth of the beanbag, straightening her legs. She kept her chin low as her cheeks still felt tingly. ‘How long’s he here for?’
‘Dunno. He dropped out of art school.’
Liam spun circles in his chair. ‘He’s not from this planet.’
‘He’s just been travelling around for a bit.’
Keith glanced up from the screen. ‘On his unicycle?’
‘Hey! He can make good money on that thing.’
Liam, Iggy and Keith laughed.
‘Fuck you all.’ The cups clanked as Hanna gathered them together. ‘Maddie and Jo are getting coffee, the rest of you can get to…’
Brendan looked round from the TV, suddenly more hobbit than shaman. ‘Am I not getting coffee?’ His car fell from a bridge and burst into flames.
Liam shook his head. ‘No luck, brother.’
‘Hey, Liam’—Jo’s voice sounded edgy—‘what happened to Madge?’
Maddie grabbed the corner of the coffee table and pulled herself up. The purple swirls of the carpet made her giddy as she stepped over newspapers, beer cans and polystyrene carryout boxes.
In the tank, Harold the terrapin was sitting up on a rock staring back at Jo, but Madge was floating upside down in the water.
‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Liam stretched some tobacco over fresh skins. ‘She’s been like that for days now.’
Not the Booker prize 2016 shortlist in full
The Combinations by Louis Armand (Equus)
The Less Than Perfect Legend of Donna Creosote by Dan Micklethwaite(Bluemoose Books)
Walking the Lights by Deborah Andrews (Freight Books)
The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel (Scribe)
Chains of Sand by Jemma Wayne (Legend Press)
What Will Remain by Dan Clements (Silvertail)
Walking the Lights is out now, published by Freight Books, RRP £9.99