I‘ve had a novella ready to go for a couple of years now, a genre splicer that veers from mildly saucy rom-com to dark psychological thriller, about a man whose life unravels when he has an affair shortly after his 40th birthday. The title is (predictably, but aptly) Midlife Crisis, and it draws an influence from What I Know by Andrew Cowan which also begins with a 40th birthday, and works from James Hawes such as Speak for England and My Little Armalite, which see a middle-aged, middle class everyman thrust into crisis.
It’s a work I’m very proud of, and have submitted it a couple of times, but accepted quite early on that its juxtaposition of two very contrasting genres would make it difficult to place with a publishing house: some who enjoy the beginning might find what follows too shocking; those with the strong stomach for the bad stuff might have bailed before they realise this is their thing after all.
So self-publishing became my preferred option for this story, but I knew this meant more work on certain details; and most importantly, the cover.
I had a decent idea of the image in mind. There is a scene in the book where the protagonist shuts himself away from life and builds a beautiful model house, only to snap and smash it up with his bare hands. For me, this was always the enduring symbolism for the story; that which had been built up over so long shattered in an instant never to return; a microcosm of the journey the character was taking.
A Google search for ‘damaged model house’ yielded the perfect result: a bright, burnt-orange structure, standing proud apart from the extensive devastation to one corner. All I had to do then was track down the creator, and seek permission to use the image.
From following the link I saw that it was – deservedly – a prize winner, scooping the Gauge 0 Guild (Britain’s premier model railway club) award in the Scenery category in 2010. It was made by a man named Ted McElroy, who had also secured second place in the same category, and by both images there was a picture of him, smiling broadly and warmly at his achievement. But what it didn’t have were any contact details for him.
I went through the years: there he was again in 2011, runner-up for Scenery with another damaged house, and after that, nothing. That was a bit worrying: with the few year gap, I had to wonder if Ted was still with us. But although he seemed to be past retirement age even in 2010, he seemed sprightly, robust, and obviously dextrous enough to build the model which had so captured my imagination.
So it was with some hope that I left messages to request contact details for Mr McElroy, but with no certainty as to whether they would have the desired result, or even if they would be seen at all. And after a couple of weeks with no response, I had to try something else.
I experimented with different wordings on further internet searches, until I found something, but it was so shocking and disconcerting that I wished I hadn’t. An unwieldy and incomplete Daily Mail headline: ‘British elderly couple on sightseeing holiday in US hit and killed within …’, which I followed, and there he was, the man I was looking for, arm around his wife and both of them smiling and looking out at me. The story that followed described a loving couple who were enjoying their retirement by taking holidays abroad, only for a trip to America to tragically result in them losing their lives in a road accident.
It was a strange, numb feeling, seeing someone whose work I admired, and who I wanted to get in touch with. And I’d seen a little glimpse into their lives two and a half years after they ended.
My book cover now seemed not to matter at all, but I was becoming increasingly keen on using the image as my own small tribute to them. Tracking down a next of kin would have been near-impossible, but the local news article included the married name of their daughter, who requested people not to wear black to the funeral, and instead use the occasion to celebrate her parents’ lives. It was a brave and refreshing attitude, and one that gave me the confidence to contact her.
I’m glad I did, because this striking image, which takes on even greater resonance now that I know the circumstances behind it, will now grace the cover of Midlife Crisis when it comes out next week. I just hope that my story is worthy of it.