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INVENTING ORLANDO: THE REDHEAD ON THE TRAIN

 

There really was a redhead on the train. One autumn evening in 2004 we climbed aboard the local branch-line service at Ashford International together. He got off at Ham Street, donning a cyclist's safety helmet (blue) while I went on to Rye.

I can't be the only person who, boarding a local service at Ashford while watching the Eurostars thunder past on the adjacent tracks, has heard his heart whisper like a pleading child – take me with you. But on this occasion I had nine minutes to ponder the thought in the company of a handsome younger man with whom I exchanged neither word nor smile nor look. Nine minutes in which to think – what if...?

And so the idea of writing Getting Orlando came to me. Perhaps most novels are born that way. What if...? fires its starting pistol and the race of ideas begins.

The man on the train gave me an idea only of what Orlando looked like, not of who he was. And even my invented character's appearance changed subtly in my mind as I began to work on the story. Orlando's slim but muscular physique was borrowed partly from another young redhead who worked on a hardware stall in the Portobello Road some dozen years ago and who, when summer's warmth tempted him into riskily short sawn-off denims, displayed an overwhelmingly alluring set of legs and buttocks... Orlando's kingfisher-blue eyes came from someone else again. Ditto the temporary head-shave and green baseball cap.

None of this matters in the end, of course, because every reader's mental images will be slightly different from my own: everyone has their own personal 'redhead glimpsed on a train', and now we may all be slightly influenced (even me!) by the handsome fellow whose photo brightens the cover of the published book – though ebook readers, for whom he appears in black and white, must conjure his red hair for themselves.

The book nearly didn't happen at all, though. When a man in mid-life sits down to write a fantasy about a man in mid-life copping off with someone much younger the result is liable to come across as delusional and sad – accolades I could do without. But then I realised that this had already happened to me in reality, only the other way round. When I was very young, a man in mid-life copped off with me. Together we travelled the UK in pursuit of work as actors; later, as English teachers, romantically criss-crossing France and Spain, determined to be together come what might. A good many experiences that could only appear absurd if projected into an imaginary future with a stranger on a train were mine already – part of me.

It's said that everybody's life contains the material for a book. This is of little comfort to anyone who wants to write more than one. (There may be honourable exceptions. Ernest Hemingway, for one, springs to mind as someone whose life may have contained more adventure than there was room for in all his written work. Even so, it's still 'may be'.) In my own case, as I'd already written five novels and invested quite a lot of my life's capital in them, I knew I would have to do what novelists are supposed to – invent something – or else Getting Orlando would end up on the short side and woefully underpowered.

But I didn't have to invent too much. I wrote the first draft of the novel almost in real time, throughout the first half of 2005. I watched the TV news during that time, and read the papers, and Orlando and Oliver followed the same news day by day, and commented on it too: the death of Pope John-Paul II, a traffic accident in Madrid, the rounding up of drug traffickers on the Costa del Sol... Eventually Oliver and Orlando got caught up in the events of the time, and the news began to follow them.

The ambush by the French protest group, the Crav, of a tanker carrying Spanish wine into France was a real event of that May. It's just that my two characters played no part in it – they were fictional, after all. And nor was I involved. I simply read the story, as you too may have done, in the newspapers of the time, and saw the photo of the spouting red cargo making a ruby lake out of a village square.

Just over a month later, as my first draft was coming to a close, London was wounded grievously, and Londoners killed, by the bombings of the seventh of July. I can't give away the ending of the book. There really is no ending to give away. As with the story, The Lady, or the Tiger?, all individual readers must make their own mind up about how things end. The big adventure that Oliver and Orlando are embarked on is life itself – which they know must one day end. But whoever finds a soul-mate to accompany them on some section, short or long, of that journey of surprises – of horrors, raptures, triumphs and shocks – is more than lucky.

I saw the redhead on the Ashford train a second time, two years after finishing the book. (No, it didn't get published right away. Things rarely do.) We drank a beer together, though in our separate worlds, in the station buffet, The Lemon Tree. When he dropped the wrapper of his biscuit-snack on the floor he was quick to pick it up again, which I was relieved to see, knowing that Orlando would have done the same. Again we travelled together, though this time he did not get off at Ham Street but stayed on the train after I'd left it at Rye, heading onward to … Hastings? … Brighton? … Land's End?

A year after that I saw him one last time, again on an Ashford train. This time my partner was with me. The same one who'd changed my life for ever thirty years before, the one who is named in the dedication on the flyleaf of the book. I pointed the redhead out to him. “That's Orlando,” I said. “Good God!” was his awed reply.

I still don't know who he is, that redhead, and, as I rarely travel on that train line now, I probably never will. He is unlikely to discover that he was once the flashpoint for a book – a book that in the end is not a fantasy about a younger man but an extended love letter to an older one. ...Unless he's reading this, that red-headed lad. Unless, dear reader, he is you.