Over a decade ago, the children’s charity, Barnardo’s, ran a controversial advertising campaign aiming to raise awareness of the damaging impact of being born in poverty. The Advertising Standards Authority received almost 500 complaints about the ads, which showed shocking (photoshopped) images of babies, such as one with a cockroach in its mouth and another apparently drinking from a bottle of methylated spirits. As a result, the campaign was subsequently banned. While the complaint that the pictures could be demeaning to the poor was justified, I believe the public revulsion also stemmed from our discomfort at the juxtaposition of innocence with delinquency.
The image that struck me most strongly could have been a stereotypical “junkie” holding a syringe, except that the drug user was a baby, not an adult. Was it a portrait of a villain or a victim? Or the vulnerability common to both?
I’ve long been interested in the vulnerability that lurks under the skin. My debut novel, Sugar and Snails, is about a professional woman whose entire adult life has been structured around keeping her vulnerability hidden from view until a new relationship threatens to expose it. While Diana’s vulnerability – if not the reason behind it – is evident from the first few pages, Steve, the narrator of my second novel, Underneath, presents initially as a straightforward villain. Of course, he has to be: he’s keeping a woman captive in a cellar.
As I descend the concrete staircase, I can’t see my feet for the cardboard box I’m cradling in my arms. Nudging the banister with my elbow for balance, I duck to avoid the underbelly of the main staircase and catch a whiff of chocolate sponge filtered through the fragrance of your freshly laundered clothes.
The stairs shunt left and left again. I count the last three steps beneath my breath. A short walk down the corridor and I’m setting down the provisions on the chequerboard lino alongside the panelled door.
I put my eye to the peephole and flick the switch on the wall. Inside the room, the ceiling light beams on the grass-green carpet dotted with daisies and on the three hundred and sixty degree mural in fiery sunrise hues. It picks out the lidded bucket in the far corner and, directly opposite the door, the double mattress marooned in a sea of discarded food packaging and dirty underwear. It traces the curve of your back where you lie beneath the duvet.
The duvet veils your torso, your hands, your head, your hair. But it can’t disguise the spasm in your shoulders as the light comes on. The flinch. There’s an echoing jolt through my own body, and I have to back away for a moment while my pulse quells. When I look again, you’re frozen in the same teasing posture: camouflaged by the quilt apart from one foot peeping out the bottom, the enamelled nails a regal lapis lazuli.
The bolts squeal as I drag them one-two-three into their casings. I shoulder your box of goodies and shove through the cream-coloured door.
But turn over the page and he’s anxious about making a good impression on a woman he’s just met in the hospital canteen. A little later, he’s struggling to resist the demands of the sisters who have controlled him since childhood. Later still, in flashback, he’s a lonely little boy unable to connect with a mother who is grieving the death of her husband, the father who died before Steve was born.
Steve’s vulnerability is different to Diana’s; it doesn’t lead him to self-harm. It’s different to that of the babies in the Barnardo’s adverts; although he smokes cannabis, he’s not an addict living only for his next fix. In the beginning, he is how he sees himself: a perfectly ordinary guy. He might well have stayed that way if Liesel hadn’t threatened to leave him, and he hadn’t bought a house with a cellar he needed to put to good use.
Unable to bear his own vulnerability, Steve locates it in others: in his mother’s dementia; in the psychiatric patients at Liesel’s workplace; in her childhood trauma. When his own vulnerability threatens, he pushes it down as deep as it can go into the underground prison.
In exploring Steve’s vulnerability, I’ve no wish to condone his criminal behaviour. But the novel is narrated from his point of view and he certainly doesn’t see himself as a bad guy. Yet, the more he tries to justify himself, the more deluded and dissociated he becomes.
The mentally disordered offender disrupts our desire for a clear demarcation between victim and villain. Is he mad or bad and, if the former, can that explain, or even excuse, the crime? I’m hoping that different readers will come away from Steve’s story with different answers.
I’ve given my character a rationale for his crime that functions for him, until the strain of living a double life overwhelms him. I’ve tried to maintain an authorial neutrality, to approach him with the empathy and lack of judgement which are familiar from my previous professional role as a clinical psychologist. But that doesn’t mean ignoring the bigger picture of the harm he’s perpetrated, which I hope will be evident to the reader too.
I was going to end with the hope that readers of Underneath will feel, as I do, compassion for the criminal alongside condemnation of the crime. But that isn’t my greatest desire for my second novel. What I really want, is for it to be an engaging read.