James Clarke

Sanderson’s Isle


From Sanderson’s Isle by James Clarke published by Serpent’s Tail, out 13th of July 2023.

Set in the post-industrial late 1960s, Sanderson’s Isle (the second novel from 2019 Betty Trask Prize winner James Clarke) follows the story of Speake, a journeyman labourer from the North of England who comes to London in search of his father. Instead however, in London he finds a mysterious local TV presenter named Joe Sanderson, and this meeting sparks a covert journey to the Lake District in search of a child lost to a cult. 


Aldgate Library. The dog days of summer are on their way, and someone is burning plastic in my vicinity. I can almost taste it. London makes me uneasy. It’s a city of constant wanting. Look at this lot going about their business, giving you a once over before moving on, leaving you wondering what the verdict was. A woman smiles to herself at a kiosk. A busker plays his violin. I drop two bob in his case, and he says to me, ‘God bless you.’

Using the chain and padlock I borrowed from Ivan’s shed, I secure the bike then head through the doors of St Bart’s. It’s a close, ripe morning outside the oldest hospital in London. It’s so quiet I can hear the distant bleat of traffic crossing Blackfriars Bridge.

The hospital’s like any other in that it’s an echoing maze of unsparing light, unseen stairwells and wide, buffed corridors. Although I was only here a couple of days ago, the uniform colour scheme lends the place an oppressive neutrality, and I lose my bearings.

The sinister quiet chases me into a sunlit walkway. Here some awful paintings of harbours are mounted at the swing doors. A pair of chummy nurses walks past, oblivious to the mounting humidity and my attempts to make eye contact with them. I fall in behind, nearly colliding with a porter manoeuvring a wheelchair with an elderly man connected to an oxygen tank. The patient’s head lulls at such an unnatural angle his throat looks about ready to burst out of his neck.

When I finally locate the cardiac unit, a new secretary is waiting on the desk. It was the other lady, the older one, who told me to come back today. She’d have the contact details for my father then.

This new girl’s a pen pusher if I ever saw one. Her pompadour of sprayed hair has achieved impressive elevation, and she has shield-like earrings stabbed through her earlobes. After making me wait, she looks up from the Telex machine and does something with her mouth that I class as a grimace. ‘Can I help you?’ she asks.

‘Yes.’ I clear my throat. ‘I was here on Saturday. I spoke to your colleague Miss Higgs, the other secretary?’

‘Miss Higgs, yes?’

‘Is she not in today?’

That was a daft thing to say. Miss Higgs obviously isn’t around. I feel numbed by these sterile pastel walls. Then again, that’s probably the point of them.

 ‘Sorry,’ the secretary replies. ‘Miss Higgs isn’t in. She’s not well, touch of the flu.’

‘It’s just to enquire about Dr Wilcox. He was one of the consultants here a few years ago.’

She looks at me like I’m stupid. Like I’m not the full ticket. On her desk is a cup of very milky coffee, a single hair floating on the surface.

‘He was one of your top men,’ I add.

Her brittle laugh makes her earrings jiggle. ‘That’s good to know.’

‘Thomas,’ I say, the name I share with my father sending a reflex of discomfort through me. ‘His name’s Thomas Wilcox.’

Without looking up, the secretary starts scrawling a few wispy digits on her pad, already getting on with something else. ‘Sorry, Mr Timmins and Mr Green are our consultants. Then there’s Mr Ingham, senior registrar. Mr Noble is our house officer. Do you have an appointment? Cardiac patients tend to need a referral.’

‘I’ve no appointment, no.’

‘Well, can I take your name please?’

‘I’m just trying to get in touch with Dr Wilcox.’

The secretary gazes longingly at the powder room, giving me the urge to fling her notepad down the corridor.

‘Look, I expect he’ll be retired by now, and I know it’s an odd request and I’ve turned up out the blue and everything, but when I spoke to Miss Higgs she said she’d be able to find out about him for me. He’s ex-directory, you see. Come back Monday, she said. She’d have his details then.’ I knock twice on the desk. ‘Here, put your pen down, would you.’

Thankfully the secretary doesn’t go for the intercom. ‘Okay. Let’s try again, shall we, Mr?’


‘Mr Speake. It isn’t Miss Higgs’s job to go around promising people things. Even if there was a Dr Wilcox on this unit, which I highly doubt, I can’t very well go dishing out a member of staff’s information to anyone who wanders in off the street asking for it. You can see that, can’t you. You can see what I’m saying.’

‘But what if I was to tell you that this…This is very important to me.’

She goes back to her notebook, the matter closed.

[FO]A few minutes later I’m walking my fingers down the surnames beginning with H in the telephone directory. I’m relieved to find scarcely any Higgs listed. There’s a couple of blokes then a woman in Hampstead, but I can rule her out because I can’t see the Miss Higgs I met living in a fancy part of town. That leaves Susan Higgs in Forest Hill, miles away, and Veronica Higgs in Hackney. Following my gut feeling, which rarely lets me down, I head straight for the second address.

It’s gone noon when I arrive at the waste market on Kingsland Road. The bustling thoroughfare runs between stalls two rows wide, spare electrical parts, helices of wire and evocative tools with worn-out handles on sale for dirt cheap. Tuppence, even, some of it. You can buy various other wares here. Neglected antique furniture, second-hand science-fiction paperbacks stuffed into wine crates. Pastoral landscapes realised in shabby pigments. A load of clunky brown pottery.

I wheel the bike past a mongrel curled at the feet of some navvies mending clockwork tat. At the end of the row I spy a huddle of posing rockers lurking at a phone booth occupied by a pair of kissing teenagers. Weekend lovers, I’d wager, still at it on a Monday afternoon.

The home of Veronica Higgs isn’t far from the Compass Tenements or that spanking Trowbridge Estate going up in Hackney Wick, but it feels hundreds of miles away. Hundreds of years, even. This is old London, this. The two-storey city.

I cycle through the narrow pattern of outmoded back-to-backs and family businesses, passing a shunting yard spread on the other side of a chain-link fence. Fire and soot. Tar and engine oil. Someone’s cursing on the jumble of tracks. The cobbles force me to stand on the shuddering bike’s pedals to protect my backside.

The street takes me right back to Sarls Hyke. Every house is packed in tight, one place propping up the next, sod all foundations, while out back are washing lines you could strum a tune on and a view of more zigzag roofs that even this time of year appear sheened with rain. I wonder how long it’ll take the corporations to do for the old world. For years they’ve been throwing up prefabs and high-rises in its place for everyday people to live on top of one another in crate-like accommodation under that catch-all term philanthropy.

Penny-pinching, I call it. It must have been a shock to Muriel, having to pack up her nerve tonic and camphor balls and leave London the way she did. I wonder what was so bad about her affair with Dr Wilcox that she had to run hundreds of miles away from it. I have a recurring image of my mother travelling north by coach, gripping her clutch bag in gloved hands, heading to write the next chapter of her story and begin mine.

I’ve lived all over in the intervening years. Border villages, market towns, major cities, moving place to place, rarely knowing a single person. Subbing can be similar to working at a coal pit or a shipyard or steelworks in that there are close-knit communities to fall back on, but as a contractor you’re rarely in town long enough to form those ties, and the regular blokes can shun you off-site. This makes a lot of evenings drunken. It can make the quiet nights in caravans feel endless, hostile. Sometimes that’s all right. Sometimes you’ll do anything to fight the unfulfilled time. It’s amazing how a lack of direction can reduce your savings as quickly as any family. Aimlessness becomes your partner. It becomes your wife.

Don’t get me wrong, I chose this path. I like its short-term nature. I like the fresh starts and I like the women in the towns. I like hot meals in new places. I like exploring wild and fertile landscapes that alter whenever they want to, brooding, broadening and fortifying, and I like the local accents that can differ within towns less than five miles apart. There are few consequences in this drifter’s life and that, if I’m honest, is what suits me.

But you never get over your past, especially when you’re illegitimate you don’t. Illegitimate. What a way to put it. As a kid, whenever I asked after my mother, Muriel would tell me to mind my nose, and if I asked after my father she’d claim to have forgotten about him, and I believed her. ‘It’s the way of life,’ Muriel would say. ‘Full of not knowing.’ I believed that as well. I still do.

When I was fifteen Muriel started complaining of headaches. Six months later she bowed out of this life in a medicated trance. I’m playing it down, I accept that. But you have to deal with complex things in simplistic ways. She wrote me a letter before she passed away. A joke of a thing, really, it contained an apology followed by details of who she thought my father was, plus a cruel story about a mix-up on the maternity wing where she thought she’d come home with a changeling. Admitting she was my mother only to disown me again a paragraph later was an impressive final insult. According to Muriel’s letter, Dr Wilcox was a respected clinician who’d have been struck off for having an affair with a colleague back in the days when he dealt with matters of the heart at St Bartholomew’s. If the story came out, Muriel wrote, it would have ruined their reputations, not to mention the doctor’s marriage. After all they’d worked for, it didn’t seem fair.

Well, stuff her. Stuff the lot of them. It’s taken me years to act on Muriel’s letter. I said to myself, if the doctor’s not bothered about me, I’m not bothered about him. That is, until a recent bust-up I had in Coventry. Everyone knows Coventry was flattened in the war. Since then a new city has emerged from the detritus. A brave, thrusting modernism has been cast in pliant concrete. Between the prestigious admin centres, urban plazas unified by shrubbed courtyards and water features, plush offices and serried tower blocks, there’s been plenty of work for guys like me. On this particular job I got friendly with a hod-carrier, a bloke named Roy. Roy’s a perfectly ordinary stiff. About my height, Brummie accent, hawkish face, Roy’s the kind of guy who never examines himself too closely. He’s the kind of guy who the first thing he does when he gets home is switch on the TV.

One day, after a few of us subs were let go at short notice, Roy overheard me complaining about how I was going to afford my B&B. He asked if I fancied the sofa at his place for a couple of nights. ‘Until you’re back on your feet,’ he said. In exchange I was to pay for us to get loaded in Roy’s local, Lyle’s, whenever he fancied.

Over the course of the next fortnight I got to know the barmaid at Lyle’s very well. Millie Rowlands was full of beans. She had slightly bucked teeth that did strange things to me, and she claimed to have been pulling pints for nearly twenty years. ‘I’ve had issues, me,’ she said, ‘major situations. Married at sixteen, a widow at eighteen. But I stuck a pin in all that. I moved on.’

We had that attitude in common, I suppose. Otherwise we didn’t know the first thing about each other. All we had was our bravado and a powerful physical attraction, plenty to be getting on with from the outset. I took Millie out dancing, and as the conversation rallied between us, it became clear that neither of us had been afforded much say in our fates. We’d been ushered down fragmented walks of life. We’d worked hard to little end in spiritless jobs, transitional work that sought our time and bodies, not our minds, only for there to come a point when we realised the work had taken a huge bite of our innocence, and we’d spent all the money we’d earned in exchange.

I could have fallen for a girl like Millie Rowlands. We spent Whitsuntide shacked up in her Wood End bedsit. The only window was cracked and couldn’t be opened for fear of shattering, so to stay cool we strung a length of twine around the bed, pegged on a couple of sheets soaked in cold water, then placed an electric fan behind the set-up, dialled up to full blast.

Gentle misty air, billowing bedsheets and Desmond Dekker singing about the Israelites. Millie wasn’t keen on me the way I was on her. Maybe it was the sex that kept us together. We were compatible like that, although I’m no Casanova. All I’m saying is I know how to follow an instruction. Millie liked to be turned over and done animalistically. Held at the throat, part-throttled, she’d say, ‘Go on, Tom.’ So that’s what I did. It was easy.

All of this is relevant because, long story short, I got back to Roy’s one night and found him climbing off Millie. Her beads were tangled in her hair. She had a belt-like mark darkening her neck. She’d been waiting for me to get back, Roy said. The bulb had gone in his room, he’d gone downstairs and one thing led to another.

I spent that night in Coventry station. The place rang like a clanking factory. Me, lying on a bench between dormant trains, head on a suitcase, saying to myself, Well, this has happened.

Because technically I was trespassing, I spent much of the night keeping my eyes peeled for the night watchman, and maybe it was this sense of transgression, of my own hopeless enclosure, but I could really see the silhouette I’d let myself become. I had poured myself into a mould of my own making without ever understanding who I was in the first place. I had spat myself into a life of grudging acceptance. What the hell was I playing at?

With morning approaching, I turned over the realisation that we’re all serving a master of some kind. We might not think it’s the case, but it is. All our lives are spent in servitude. Some of us serve our children. Some of us serve our wives or husbands. Some of us serve last orders or the bell at work. Some of us serve whatever the weekend holds for us this time. Our master can be a fond memory, an experience unlived. It can be a first passion that broke us and made us who we are. It can be our thoughts, our future, our sunrise. I guess we could call it our God, because if God is nothing more than an invention designed to give us hope, what else is a master but that?

Whatever God I’d been serving, I was more than done with its spell. I stamped my feet and watched the day breaking through the rafters of Coventry station, then caught the next train south without a ticket. My new God must have been smiling on me that day because all the way to London there wasn’t a single conductor. I checked myself into the lockhouse that afternoon.

I come to the last row of houses. Number fifteen’s down this end. Its raw, dented brick reminds me of mincemeat. I knock on the door, avoiding the searching gaze of a girl swinging around a lamppost using a skipping rope knotted at the crossbar. I spit on my palm and pat my unruly fringe as a movement in the neighbouring house catches my eye. It’s a topless lad peering from behind a polythene sheet covering an upstairs window. He has a crow in his hands. Its black bill protrudes between his fingers.

Shocked, I turn in time to see the door of number fifteen swing open, revealing the correct Miss Higgs. I knew my gut wouldn’t let me down! A puffy-eyed woman in her late fifties stands before me, her petite frame thickened by a dressing gown. A mane of dyed-blonde curls are kept from her face by a wide, elastic headband.

‘I’ve no shillings for the meter,’ she says, letting the door narrow to a crack. ‘If that’s what this is about.’

The boy and his bird have disappeared. What was that about?

‘Beevers send you?’ Miss Higgs adds. ‘If it’s about rent, forget it.’

Shaking off the unsettled feeling, my voice returns. ‘Hi, no, we met at St Bart’s the other day. I’m Tom Speake. Do you not remember me?’

The door opens properly. Giving me an appraising look, Miss Higgs tightens her dressing gown. ‘How did you get this address?’

‘You’re in the phone book. At the hospital you said to come back Monday. When you weren’t in, I thought I’d pop round to see you.’

That gown could have been cream once. Now it’s marked with gory stains. Something weird and foreign, perhaps. Bolognese. One of those Vesta curries. ‘Sorry for just turning up like this.’ I stoop closer, bringing friendship to my eyes. ‘I don’t want to impose on you or anything.’

‘No, you’re all right.’ Miss Higgs scratches her scalp with Pepto Bismol-pink nails. ‘Remind me who are you again?’

 ‘I’m Tom Speake. I’m looking for a guy named Wilcox. You said you’d have his address for me. Dr Tom, you called him. You worked together at St Bart’s.’

Realisation inundates Miss Higgs’s face. ‘Oh, gawd, Dr Tom! You’re the son, ain’t you. The relative.’

‘That’s me.’

She waves a hand about her head as if describing an invisible halo. ‘I’d completely forgot. My brain feels like it weighs ten tonnes.’

‘Not to worry.’ I set my foot on the welcome mat. ‘Mind if I come in?’

[FO]Stepping over a pile of uncollected circulars, I’m led into a grungy tan passage with a concrete floor. At the end of the corridor, a piano stool bears a Regency telephone. ‘So how’d you get here?’ Miss Higgs asks. ‘Come far?’

‘Not really, I cycled. I’ve been trying to get fit.’

‘Good for you.’

She smiles joylessly over her shoulder, her thin expression betraying depletion, and not just from illness. Some people have lived without luck or care all their lives. You can see it in everything they do.

 ‘I was only being funny ’cause of Beevers. The miserable sod’s chasing me on rent. Every day he comes round or he sends a crony. Gets right on my tits.’

She directs me to another door. I’m to hang my jacket on the handle because there’s nowhere else for it to go. She daren’t show me the kitchen, she says. The living conditions this Beevers reduces her to are criminal.

I’d forgotten what a talker Miss Higgs is. She says she’s holding rent due to mice and woodworm, naked basement electrics. She’s still blathering on when a whistling sound zips out of the room behind us.

‘In there.’ She chuckles. ‘Be with you in a sec.’

The terribly stuffy lounge has a crab-red carpet and walls papered with an ornate pattern of semicircles. Positioned in front of the window is a cage about twice the size of my torso. It’s home to a remarkable blue and yellow macaw.

‘Bet you don’t see one of them every day,’ Miss Higgs observes, stepping into a pair of crocodile-leather slippers.

‘No, you don’t.’

The cage dominates the room. Light pours through it, issuing violent bars of shadow across my chest.

‘It belonged to a neighbour,’ Miss Higgs reports. ‘Come all the way from the tropics. His daughter passed the cage over the fence the day he died. “Too much like hard work,” she said. Live for decades, do parrots. Would I take it home? Best decision I ever made.’

She blows the parrot a kiss.

‘I’m sure he’s staring at me,’ I say, unable to take my eyes from the parrot’s studded black iris.

‘It’s a she, actually.’

‘Oh, right.’

‘Real fusspot when she feels like it. Has me up at first light every morning.’

The bird pecks at a tiny mirror with its thick, cracked beak. It bobs its crescent wrench-shaped head.

‘I bet. Cooped up all day like that.’

‘She’s perfectly happy, thank you very much. Do you mind? She don’t like having her cage messed with.’

I pull my finger from between the bars.

Miss Higgs studies me. ‘I should offer you something. Tea?’

‘No, ta.’

‘You sure? You look like you could do with it.’

‘In that case I will. You’re a treasure.’

The moment Miss Higgs is gone, I help myself to a cigarette from the humidor, then dig out my matches. Home. What an ironic description for this strident little flat. I spark my cigarette and blow smoke into the parrot’s cage. Muriel used to say that with irony you’re in trouble. You never take a damn thing seriously.

‘Take sugar?’ Miss Higgs calls from the kitchen.

‘Two please. A dash of milk.’

Some pamphlets from the League of Empire Loyalists are fanned across the nearby pouf. I leaf through one then toss it on the sofa. A summer fire is punishing the scorched flue. Compelled by the flames, I go to the lintel. Willow-pattern plates accompany a row of porcelain knick-knacks. Dainty elves with their arms round each other. Baby rabbits and deer that have been given the most banal human qualities.

I rotate my cigarette against the standing ashtray, sculpting the glowing nib into a cone as heat bullies the room. I want to see myself in the parrot’s eye, but I can’t. I keep thinking about what I’ll say to Dr Wilcox.

The parrot squawks, drawing my attention to the TV, which has been on this whole time. It’s probably rented for a few quid a month, a small price to pay to have something to forget yourself in front of on a Monday afternoon. A TV show’s credits fill the screen. Sanderson’s Isle, the punchy yellow capitals say. To a theme tune of suave, jazzy keyboards, a slender man exits a townhouse and sets a homburg on his head. He’s confident, posh, evidently so, dressed in a sharp suit with a tie knotted loose in what I take for an act of defiance. The camera tracks his progress through a city. His raincoat flaps open and now he’s boarding a train, removing the hat. Cut to an illustration of Great Britain. Animated lines criss-cross the map, segmenting the country.

‘I’m Joe Sanderson…’ the voiceover says. ‘And you’re watching Sanderson’s Isle.’

James Clarke was born in Manchester in 1985 and grew up in the Rossendale Valley, Lancashire. His debut novel The Litten Path was published by Salt and won the 2019 Betty Trask Prize. Hollow in the Land, a set of interconnected short stories, was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2020.

The above is reproduced with permission from the novel Sanderson’s Isle by James Clarke, published in July by Serpent’s Tail.

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