How I Wrote ‘Leftovers’

Françoise Harvey

‘Leftovers’ was written a few years ago, when I still lived in London. At the time, it seemed to come together quite easily. I wanted to write a story in which the story was that we all have stories (and some of them are very very dark), but they are just white noise to the rest of the world. Like Patrick Ness’s The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which focuses on the kids in YA dystopia/fantasy who aren’t the natural protagonists – and reminds us that they are the protagonists to themselves. ‘Leftovers’ is about non-stories, stories not told or cared about by anyone but those living them.

Rereading it I can see more clearly how the elements of Leftovers linked. For seven years, my partner and I lived in Nunhead – a corner of Southeast London with its own gruesome rumoured history. The area is supposedly so named because a Mother Superior was beheaded on the green during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, and a pub, The Old Nun’s Head, was built on the nunnery – there’s no actual evidence for this, but it’s the local lore and proudly displayed on the pub (or was). Down the road there’s Blackheath, with connotations of plague pits – and a short walk away from out flat was Nunhead Cemetery, a beautiful sister cemetery to Highgate, which has an open day every year where you can tour the crypt under the roofless chapel.

I once got into conversation with a man who’d grown up in the area. He was about 90 and said he could remember when the rivers weren’t paved over, and when cows were driven to fields that have now become blocks of flats. Again, I don’t know how accurate anything he said was (though I did go away and look up maps) – but he left me with a strong sense that we were walking over more history than we could ever really know. I loved Nunhead a lot, but was always very aware of the bodies under our feet.

Fox was key to that very practical ‘life goes on’, disinterested overlay. As a character she literally walked into my life, and that moment is in ‘Leftovers’. A very young fox strayed into our house on a cold night. We have two large dogs, and the first we knew of it was when they went for her (I have always assumed a she). We don’t know if our dogs actually got her tail, but soon after we started seeing a tail-less fox in the neighbourhood. There’s an over-hang of guilt about that, a tendency to personify, as if, if we left out treats or something, the fox might forgive us for having dogs that were, after all, just being dogs. But of course, the fox is just getting on with its foxiness. There were cubs two gardens over that would yell all night. Bin bags would be emptied all over the yard. And there would be that smell, that actually I love, of fox musk.

Fox couldn’t have given less of a crap about us humans, any more than Fox in the story, except that occasionally there might be left-over pizza to nick. She doesn’t care about the ghosts – she cares about food, and shelter, and her cubs. She cares about having a bone to gnaw on, not being a pet and not whether her latest abode is haunted.

There were three pubs near our (admittedly falling-down) flat. The nearest was just over the road. It seemed to be in fine fettle – painted a fairly cheerful green, always busy, always popular. Then overnight it was boarded up. It went from having a bouncy castle for the kids on sunny days to being downright creepy in a matter of weeks. Squatters moved in, paint started to peel, and eventually it was knocked down and replaced with tall flats that leached quite a lot of the sunlight out of the road. The flats were very shiny and very new, and after not very long we could barely remember what the pub looked like. It’s scary how quickly the past can be overlaid and forgotten.

The area has become increasingly gentrified (when I first moved there, I knew people who would never go South of the river for a night out, and now it’s the place to be). It wasn’t long before people moved in who had no memory of the old pub, and because of the transient nature of a lot of London life – especially when an area becomes popular and the folks can’t afford to stay – people who remembered it left the area. (Including me, eventually. I’ve been living in North East England for a year and a half now.) I took that destruction and loss, and sort of overlaid it with the atmosphere of one of the other pubs, which was boarded up for years as far as we could tell (and if you peered through the windows there were a lot of taxidermy displays), but which came back to life as a quirky drinking spot.

I was deliberately unclear, in the story, about where the ghosts came from. Maybe there was a plague pit under the building; maybe there was a murderous landlord; maybe the original building burnt down and not everyone got out, and then the pub was built. The ghosts are there regardless. And now they’re in the flats.

I think that a lot of the horror of life, sometimes, is realising what a tiny part of the world you are; that moment of knowing, after a few years, that you won’t matter. There’s nothing like an animal to make you realise that. Buildings go up, people fall down, and it’s all just background noise.

Françoise Harvey writes short stories and poems. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Bare Fiction, Synaesthesia Magazine, Litro, Agenda, Envoi, The Gingerbread House and anthologies Furies and The Casual Electrocution of Strangers. She is one of the founders of Literary Salmon and works at Mslexia magazine.

‘Leftovers’ is published in Issue 5 of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.

Copyright © Françoise Harvey 2016. Banner image © Jo Mazelis 2016.