Land of Dreams, John Irving Clarke’s New Captivating Novel

land-of-dreams cLARKE


Chapter One

Cassandra Jackson

I love him to bits. Of course, I do. He’s absolutely gorgeous. Sometimes when he’s asleep I look at those lovely long eyelashes curling up and I watch his gentle breathing, the soft rise and fall of his chest, and my heart could burst with love.
Of course, I love him, I love him when he wakes and I hold him; we talk and we look out of the window down on to the tiny figures scurrying below, the little old ladies clutching their shopping bags and leaning into the wind; the traffic bustling along the main road. I’ll point out all of the kids as they leave school and anything else of excitement we can see: stray dogs sniffing the playground swings, birds being hurled across the sky or any break in the unrelenting grey. Best of all, even though he’ll never see us from down there, we look to see Daddy coming home for his tea and we’ll wave and point. Both of us: me and Will. I love him, of course I love him, I think of him first thing in the morning and last thing at night, but I also know he drains all of my energy, he sucks me dry.
I decided to call him Will. There are no Wills, Williams or Bills in our family, or at least I don’t think there are, I called him Will after a lad I used to know; a nice lad who was ever so polite and he always tried to do the right thing. You can’t knock anyone for that, can you? No, I used to like Will even though he’d annoy the hell out of me sometimes. I haven’t seen him for ages and the truth be told, I don’t want to see him again either. All of that was a long time ago, and it’s not a place I really want to revisit.
No, Will and I are fine. Will and me. Me and Will. Me and Will and his daddy: Simon, of course. We’re all fine and I’d much rather look to the future than the past, that’s for sure. There’s a lot of nasty stuff in the past and I’m better off trying to forget about it all.
It’s easier said than done. How did I ever get into this position: sitting looking down on the world from my sixth floor flat like a Queen surveying her lands, or in my more desperate moments, Rapunzel waiting for her saviour prince? Cassandra Jackson: Cassie, one-time daydreamer and mother of the adorable Will. Okay, he’s adorable, but don’t let’s pretend that he doesn’t make an ear-piercing racket sometimes. He’s adorable when he’s asleep, but when he’s awake he’s a source of constant demands: feed me, change me and entertain me. And I do all of those things because I love him, I do all of those things and it leaves me shattered.
Sometimes I count the minutes until Simon comes home. I check the clock and then later I’ll check it again and I could swear it hasn’t moved. I feel like shaking it really hard to see if it is still working. I’d throw it across the room if I thought that would help. And when Simon does come home, does he want to hear all about my day of feeding, changing and playing with the baby? Well what do you think?
I do my best. I always try to make the flat look reasonably ship-shape. I give my hair a brush and I have the tea pot full and ready to give him a nice welcome home because this is Simon’s home now. I couldn’t bear to have him think any other way. He’s earning and he’s done well. He’ll be taken on permanently by his firm soon and that’ll mean an increase in money. I know lots of lads Simon’s age would prefer to spend their money with their mates, having a beer and a laugh, chasing other girls, and there’s plenty who would have him, where do you think Will gets his looks from? But no, Simon comes home here, to Will and to me, the mother of his child.
We do okay. We don’t get out much unless you count the weekends when we load up the buggy and, if the lifts aren’t working, we climb down the endless flights of cold, concrete stairs and we set out to walk through the park, go and see the ducks perhaps. Weather permitting, we’ll stop on a bench for a cup of tea each, and sometimes, if a devil-may-care mood takes us, we’ll also have a biscuit or a piece of cake.
We used to go by the football pitches but not anymore. We caught the end of a match once as the Pink Ladies F.C., the team I used to play for, came trooping off the pitch with mud on their knees and victory in their smiles. The girls flocked around and they had Will out of his buggy in no time fussing over him and making baby noises, “Googoo googoo goo. You’re lovely you are!” and saying how lucky I was. But I saw the looks on their faces, they could go and get showered and plan a boisterous night of booze and boys. They didn’t ask if I wanted to come along or if I was going to start playing again, they didn’t need to. Simon and I headed back to the six flights of stairs and our tiny flat. No, as I say, we don’t go round that way now.
So how do we manage? Not too badly actually. Simon earns a bit and most months we usually make ends meet. Luckily, Dad often pushes some money our way. He says he’s doing well. He always did like to talk up his dreams and achievements and he hasn’t changed at all. So, he gives us money for his first grandchild, and I take it because it might just ease his conscience as well.
Mum’s great considering what she’s fighting against. It was a bit strained at first as I thought we could all move in with her: me, Simon and the baby. After all, there was plenty of room, but she more or less threw me out. She knew what she was doing when she said it was no place to start off together. Now she’ll often pop round when her shift allows and she loves to sit on the rug with Will but she’ll also roll up her sleeves and get cracking with the hoover or a duster. “You know me and dusty houses,” she says.
She and Simon get on well together too, which is just as well as Simon’s lot don’t really bother with us. We did try for a while, taking Will round in the buggy; you’d have thought they were pleased to see us, or at least pleased to see Simon and Will, maybe not me: the evil witch Cassandra who had cast her spell. No, the atmosphere was vile. The clink of a spoon on a saucer could reverberate for hours and there was nothing else to crack the ice of silence. Simon’s dad, I always had a soft spot for him, he said once as he saw us out of the front garden gate, “Don’t worry. Give it time and people will come round.” Okay, so now we are giving it time.
Did I mention Alison, Simon’s sister? Ali and I are best mates. Or at least we used to be but not anymore. What the hell happened? I try to piece it all together sometimes, how we used to work together at school; she was brilliant, we played football, messed about in each other’s bedroom and talked about all kinds of things. But there was also jealousy, mine I suppose, and that business about me changing schools. There’s the other stuff too: my stupid daydreams, my drifting around the past and the present. It got to the stage where I didn’t know where the hell I was, so how could anyone else keep track of me? Plus, she’ll never forgive me for ruining Simon’s life.
All I know is that I used to be a good girl once. Here’s a word for you: schizophrenia, go and look that up. I did, it means a mental illness, gradually losing your mind or your personality to enter into another reality. Doesn’t sound good, does it? Is that me? A schizophrenic? I don’t think so; I just think I allowed imagination to overact, looking for a better world than reality. It was hardly a better world though, it was awful. It was like a giant trapdoor which I’ve slammed shut and I daren’t let it open again. I know it’s still there though; I’ve just got to guard against letting it creak open just the slightest.
So how do I make sense of it all now? How do I piece this jigsaw together? It’s a mess, a complete mess, but like every jigsaw you should start with the corners. So that would be friendship in one corner, rivalry, competition and jealousy in another and then daydreams could definitely go in a third. So that leaves the fourth corner for the biggest, ugliest piece of the jigsaw, the bit which casts a dark shadow over the rest refusing to fit in easily anywhere. It’s the bit of the jigsaw where even just thinking about it now makes me want to throw up.

John Irving Clarke, Land of Dreams, Ciberwit 2024

The teenage Cassie Jackson, confused by adult manipulation and by the appearance of a boy soldier from mid-19th century, has to confront the demons which are plaguing her.
The line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred; pop music and sporting success, dream dates and military action, whether real or imagined, throw up consideration of competitiveness in friendship, the place of women in society, violence, teenage relationships and abuse.
A story that will hook you in.

An interview with the author

1. John, I met you as a poet. When did you start writing fiction?

Writing fiction, for me, started a long way back, before I started writing poetry in fact. It is well-documented that as an eight-year-old, I had an inspirational teacher. Mrs Procter taught me for a year at Junior School and one of the striking things I remember about that year was the time we spent writing stories. In addition, to writing the stories we also had the opportunity to have them displayed on the wall, read out to the class and, sometimes, read to the class in the adjoining room. We must have studied other subjects during that year, but it is Mrs Procter’s enthusiasm for story-writing I remember most.
Incidentally, I am still in touch with Mrs Procter who insists I should now call her Mavis. We swap Christmas cards every year, write letters quite frequently and send postcards from our holiday adventures. Her postcards have been curtailed recently on account of the fact that she has to care for her husband who has ill-health and mobility problems. But the last time I saw her, shortly before Christmas, she herself was very sprightly and articulate with a very acute memory. She reminded me of some of those stories I wrote as an eight-year-old and the character called Chubby which I invented for them.
Sadly, as my educational career progressed the opportunity for creative writing dried up and any writing I did was done at home for my own satisfaction. Poetry finally came into play as I approached my final years at Secondary School and it was provoked by studying Wilfred Owen, W.B. Yeats and D.H. Lawrence. The stories were always there and they re-emerged as I read Steinbeck, Hemingway and the Yorkshire writer, Stan Barstow.

2. You have studied quite a number of short stories. Some of them have appeared in Margutte (a few also in translation). What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing short stories?

I’ve a feeling that within the literary arts, short stories and poems are very closely related. They have a relatively concise form and a shared potential to rock the world, however slightly, on its axis. Choose the right words and order them to make maximum impact. Push the reader to see things differently after reading. Was it the American poet, Robert Frost who said that poems begin with delight and end in wisdom? The same applies to short stories. Novels have the space to ruminate, to engage with themes, the slow development of thoughts and issues. But poems and short stories operate on a smaller canvas and they have to make their mark so much quicker. So, if there are advantages to writing short stories in particular, it is that like all writing, it can be deeply satisfying, but the writer of short stories is dealing with a compact unit, easier to pick up and put down; there is a quicker hit available for the short story writer whereas writing novels is a selfish act of total absorption. The process becomes primary and all other considerations become sidelined. Flip this coin over to discover the disadvantages of writing short stories: space is an issue and development is not always possible.

3. You published your first novel “Who the Hell is Ricky Bell?” ten years ago. What has happened between then and this new novel?

Moons have waxed and waned, seasons have come and gone, and my retirement from teaching has been finalised. I have written a lot. I have the manuscripts to two novellas, including “Land of Dreams” and a longer novel, “Three Chords and the Truth” which is under consideration for publication in December 2024. It is true that I have concentrated a lot on short stories, winning the Magic Oxygen prize in 2016 and being shortlisted several times in the Historical Writers Association short story competition as well as being Highly Commended in this year’s Hammond House International Literary Prize. My most recent poetry publications have been in Orbis and Dream Catcher.
However, the most significant change over the past ten years has been my son’s forging of a life and career in the United States. After a spell in Michigan and Atlanta, he is now living with his partner in Brooklyn. Naturally, his mum and I have been to see him on a yearly basis, pandemics permitting. It has allowed us to sample life “over the pond” and assess the current state of the American Dream. Whilst we thoroughly enjoyed visiting the Motown Museum in Detroit and picking up stories about Marvin Gaye, Martha Reeves et al, perhaps the most moving and influential visit we have made was to the Human Rights Museum in Atlanta and seeing, in particular, the shocking videos of the Civil Rights Movement and how those who avowed non-violent protest were treated with such barbarity. Coupled with that was the realisation that Dr Martin Luther King’s message transcended racial issues. I now have a statement of his posted on my wall: “I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
Moving and influential words, and cutting a long story short, I have gained a greater sense of equanimity. There is nothing to be gained from dwelling on the circumstances of my departure from teaching, nothing to be gained from establishing a writing timetable for myself which replicates the time and nervous energy I put into teaching, and absolutely nothing to be gained from fulminating against the brick wall which is literary representation and publication opportunity. I am writing, I am making my mark and the values which underpin my writing are my own. A reader once told me that “Who the Hell is Ricky Bell?” was about redemptive love. So be it.

4. “Who the Hell s Ricky Bell?” was written from the point of view of a teenage girl. In “Land of Dreams” we have the story of a young woman. Why have you decided that your protagonists should be women?

That is a good question and not an easy one to answer. The starting point for “…Ricky Bell” was the situation of a new pupil starting at a school. That pupil is a boy and the boy’s name is present in the title. But it soon became apparent to me as I was writing that the story was very much the girl’s story, Sammy Jones’s story. Whereas Ricky’s interior layers are soon revealed: he is a keen birdwatcher, he likes films, he sees some value in schoolwork and he is devoted to his sister, Sammy, on the other hand, has none of these things and as she tries to develop a relationship with Ricky, she has to re-evaluate many aspects of her life. It’s a boy meets girl story, yes but the greater challenge is for Sammy to meet and understand her own self.
Would the story have worked so well if the situation had been reversed? Who the hell is Sammy Jones? Somehow, I don’t think so. Should middle-aged men be writing first-person narratives from the point of view of a teenage girl? Probably not. My only defence is that Sammy was a composite of the many teenage girls I had been working with closely as a teacher. I never tried to incorporate authentic teenage language as I knew that it dated very quickly. But I did try to incorporate attitudes and behaviours and for that I used keen observation and the tool that all writers should be able to lay claim to: imagination. If we are to write only from our own direct experience then I’m going to be limited now to the life of a retired, white, male teacher. Roll up, roll up!
Cassie Jackson’s dreamworld is one that degenerates towards a context of male competitiveness, bravado and violence. If women are to succeed, if they are going to achieve equality, does it have to be on these terms? If there is a glimmer of hope for Cassie’s future it has to be because she is in an open and honest relationship with her partner, Simon. In order to achieve this Cassie had to undertake a re-evaluation of her life probably more rigorous than the one Sammy Jones undertook. It should also be pointed out that towards the end of the novel Simon and his father have a conversation which touches upon respect, doing the right thing and ultimately, the power of love. This not solely a girl’s book. Neither of them is. I sincerely hope that lots of boys read both of these books.

5. Can you tell us more about “Land of Dreams”, but without spoiling the story?

Cassie Jackson employs daydreams and fantasies as a defence mechanism. Eventually though, even these defences fail as Cassie is in a dreadful situation which is revealed towards the end of the story but can probably be guessed at earlier. She takes radical action to extricate herself from her situation but it is morally indefensible action. Desperate straits demand desperate remedies, right? The problem for Cassie is will everyone, including Simon, see it that way?

(Edited by Silvia Pio)