Richard Cunliffe’s novel could be subtitled “The Secret Diary of Will Prendergast”. Although not told in a strictly diary format, the story follows two timelines, young Billy growing up on the New Parks council estate and middle aged Will, a partner in an advertising agency post divorce with two children on the brink of adulthood looking for a new start. The story starts with Billy in May 1975. His mother’s yelling up the stairs but Billly can’t respond until the cistern has finished filling up. He also has to wash his hands three times and line the soap up. He dares himself but can’t bring himself to jump the final five steps on the staircase, the number the same as his age. He’s a middle child with an older brother Keith and younger sister Annabel. His friend’s mother has invited him out swimming and then back for tea. The latter to Billy’s dismay because he’s worried about missing the next episode of “Doctor Who”.
Billy doesn’t know that his rituals are a way of coping with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but Cunliffe handles Billy’s OCD with sensitivity and accuracy rather than a plot device or a character quirk. As the literate, intelligent child, Billy suffers in comparison with his bolder, football-mad brother, especially on a working class council estate. Keith’s thuggish antics are cheered but Billy baffles his parents. The OCD is diagnosed by Caroline, a school friend, in their final school years. She goes on to get a place at Oxford and becomes a psychotherapist. Will ends up at one of the local universities, De Montfort, a former polytechnic and drifts into teaching. A chance meeting with a pupil’s mother’s cousin, who’s impressed with Will’s eloquence, leads to a job offer at the advertising agency.
Will’s timeline starts in April 2016 where he’s now a partner in the advertising agency Hobb-Prendergast. The Brexit referendum is pending. Politics is the chief topic of Will’s conversations. Despite his working class roots and Labour-voting, union-supporting father, Will’s mother became a fan of Margaret Thatcher who came to power in 1979 when inflation was running in double figures and wages were stagnating. “Red Leicester Blues” aren’t references to cheese and the football team but political affliations. Will crosses the line from red (Labour) to blue (Conservative) due to his mother’s influence. The other partner in the advertising agency, Gordon Hobbs, is also right wing but further than Will, who’s more right of centre.
Another motif is a man with terrible scars who haunts Will in dreams and visions, particularly when he’s stressed and his OCD rituals become more pronounced. The man, who is never named, was scarred by Keith, Will’s brother, who serves a lengthy sentence for inflicting the injuries. Will’s offer to pay for plastic surgery is refused. But Caroline provides therapy for free so the man learns to live with his scars.
When Keith’s prison sentence is served, Will buys and pays for a flat and gets his brother a job at the agency. By this time their widowed father is in poor health and can’t cope with his wayward son. Will sees it as his duty to ensure Keith doesn’t end up homeless, but it doesn’t occur to him that Keith might not see it that way. The friction between the two brothers erupts at their father’s wake. Leicester city is still in lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic, but Will lives in Rutland in a house with a lake view, which is not part of the lockdown. Numbers at the funeral were restricted so Will invites their dad’s friends and family to his home and generous garden. Keith accuses Will of showing off and thinking that their old home on New Parks isn’t good enough (even though it would be against the law to hold a wake there). This marks a turning point in the brothers’ relationship: the options are either permanent estrangement or a tentative peace.
Meanwhile Will’s attention (finally) turns to his love life. The tender, will-they-won’t-they dance he’s performed around his personal assistant, a reliable source of teasing from other colleagues, reaches the end of the tune where it’s decision time. Does Will let her slip away into another regret or does his overcome his fear of screwing up again?
Occasionally the characters’ dialogue becomes information dumps where the characters tell each other things they already know, sometimes signalled by the phrase “as you know”. Otherwise the dialogue flows naturally. Readers get to learn how characters think and where their sympathies lie through political discussions: which politicians they favour, whose policies they approve of. Annabel, Will and Keith’s sister, keeps to the background. She’s a peace-maker and joined Billy in doing the housework – their mother’s work – while their father and Keith watch sport and drink.
Overall “Red Leicester Blues” is engaging. The political discussions do not dominate or become boring, but allow readers to understand and appreciate the characters. At its heart are two brothers who react very differently to the expectations and aspirations to their working class origins. Keith’s the macho bravado who understands not to get above his station and ends up lashing out, although he’s never hurt a woman. Will escapes, creating a life beyond his parents’ expectations, crossing the line from working class to comfortable middle class, flipping the script from red to blue. The best moments come when both brothers can ditch the expectations – society’s, their peers’, colleagues’ and what they believe their parents would have wanted – and focus on their own wishes and desires to figure out what’s best for them.
“Red Leicester Blues” is available at this link.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.