The initial draft of Swarm was written very quickly. I tend to think at least one book ahead, so when I’m writing one I’m planning the next.
Swarm was different. I had the core of the story drafted in a few days. I was working on The Soul Bazaar at the time. My wife, who has trypohobia, came in from the garden. Something had bitten her on the cheek, leaving a small hole. What if it wasn’t a bite? What if it had laid an egg? Within moments I had Malcolm, Sandra, Iain and Emma’s story. As I played with the idea, I came up with Lucy’s story (though I changed her name several times before I found one that sounded right). But how the hell did such deadly insects come to be in a National Park?
Around the same time, I came across a flyer in my local library. The Dean Writers Circle was holding a short story competition to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. As it was a local competition I decided to keep the story local. I wrote a few stories that I placed in the forest, or in local towns. None of them felt ‘local’ once I’d written them. You could see they’d been dumped close by; they could have taken place anywhere. Then, whilst out with my family at Cannop Ponds, I saw an older guy fishing. Nothing unusual in that. But this guy looked asleep. Not just dozing, either. I mean, could-have-caught-anything-and-wouldn’t-have noticed asleep. So I began wondering why. I used to fish myself in the estuary near where I grew up. It was always a relaxing way to spend a few hours… until I got good enough to actually catch fish. I was never a fan of killing them, so I used to catch-and-release. Then one day I caught a flatfish that had swallowed the hook. A young, healthy fish too small to eat. I had to kill it. The act felt cruel and pointless. After that I lost the bug, and sold much of my fishing equipment at a car boot.
An old fellow who fishes but not for fish. Why? Fishing as a blood sport. And, by association, animal rights protesters. What if the fisherman had found himself a quiet spot away from picnicking families? What if the protester found him? What if the protester saw himself as some sort of vigilante? What if he valued the lives of those who kill less than the animals being hunted?
People think stories come from inspiration. They don’t. They come from questions. And with these questions I had a story and two characters. One of the characters, Spider, was a perfect fit for Swarm as well as The Stranger at Cannop Ponds.
The stranger at Cannop Ponds.
The lake was wide and dark and flat. Stalky grass grew in awkward tufts at the edge. Above the still waters an overcast sky glowered, sulky clouds grey and low.
Aaron’s rod perched on its rest, his newspaper sprawled on his lap. His green canvas seat creaked as he shifted his weight. It was quiet out here. There was the breeze. Lapping waves. The swishing of traffic from the road.
Footsteps crept from behind. Padded almost, like a cat hunting birds. Aaron looked over his shoulder. He didn't recognise the face.
"Allright mate, how's it going?" Not a local accent.
"Not too bad. Nice day for it. Could do with a bit more sun, though." The stranger didn’t reply, only rocked on his heels. One hand stayed in the back pocket of his jeans. His eyes flickered from Aaron to the road at the sound of every passing car. Aaron tried again. "What's your name, but?"
"Spi- Simon. Caught much?"
"Simon. Aaron. Pleased to meet you. Where you from?"
"Just visiting. Staying in the Forest nearby."
"Ah, one o' the b’n’b's around, maybe Parkend, yeah?"
"I see. They're all pretty decent down there."
"Sure. This a good spot for it? How many have you caught?"
"Me? Ho ho. Let me show you something."
Aaron leaned forward and picked up the rod. The multiplier whirred like a showroom model as he cranked the handle. Yard by yard he reeled in the fishing line until it was clear of the water.
"You've lost the hook."
"Don't use 'em. Don't like fishing. But I can't drink, see. Diabetes, my doctor said. And we've no garden in the flat. I only work part time, to top up my pension. Wife's the same. Love her to bits, we've been together nigh-on forty years, you know. But her can't stand me being under her feet when we're both off work. So I comes down twice a week for a break."
"It's quiet. Out of the way. I can read my paper in peace, ‘er indoors gets a break from me. By the time you've parked up across the road, traipsed this far from the picnic area... I'm surprised you came here rather than there. There's a car park nearer it, if you want to pay. You must have missed it. Anyway, the wife, her sister's a carer. Looks after old people at home. Their own homes, you know. Drives back and forth along this road between Parkend and Lydbrook a dozen times a day. Always slows down to look. She'll let the old girl know if I'm not here. And if I’m not… well, that’s a whole load of questions I can’t be buggered answering." He proffered his flask to the stranger. "Tea?"
"No thanks, mate. I’m, ah, exploring. I'll be off."
"Oh. Right. Well, take care. Enjoy the rest of your holiday."
Spider backed away from the lucky old man. He released his grip on the blade in his back pocket. Fishing was a blood sport, and those who took blood should be prepared to lose their own.
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