The Imprecise Art of Knowing

Pippin is actively seeking representation for this novel.

Felix saved Eli’s life the day they met, and since then their stories have been as inextricable as ballet and Russia. As the years and shared trauma bind them ever closer, Eli clings to the token of his survival; a necklace he found in his mother’s pocket the night she was killed and he was not. The necklace is no mere trinket; its diamonds and emeralds have seen horrors Eli cannot imagine, horrors Felix is eager to recount on his fleeting summer visits to London from Moscow.  Felix inserts himself deeper and deeper into Eli’s life, paying for his ballet tuition and watching him dancing from afar. Eli knows that Felix is dangerous, but he recklessly chooses not to until Felix faces life imprisonment for murder he didn’t commit – at least not this time. 

The Imprecise Art of Knowing is 87,000 words long.

An Excerpt from the novel

Chapter One | PRESENT

I grew up on stories about the end of the world. Melting icecaps, the crash of the millennium, countries run by men who could barely string a sentence of truths together. Somehow it had been quite far away, until all at once I was staring at my own ending. I had thought I would die in bomb blasts or drowning in the rising sea. I thought I would go out like civilisation.

The thing is I’ve never quite believed I’m the hero of this story. I’m not even sure I’m the main character. I had thought I’d have the chance at a last hurrah though, some tiny saving grace that might leave some lasting mark. Instead the end looked very much like the middle, and the beginning; alone at the top of a staircase, holding a letter addressed to me, but not the version of myself sat there on the stairs. No. The letter was meant for me years ago. A boy that died in a bed that should not have been empty.

I went upstairs to the bedroom I had shared with my partner until three weeks before and I opened the drawer still filled with socks folded into neat little lines the way she liked it. right at the back, my fingers bumped against the familiar worn wood of the small box I had hidden from Maria for years. The keys, flimsy little things, were right beside it. The lock squealed as I turned it. There, inside, a weight I had felt around my neck ever since Felix’ long fingers had first hung it there. A phantom pain in my collarbones, the ghost of cold metal on my skin like a gust of wind. The large, flat gem at the necklace’s centre glinted darkly in the half-light of the room. The diamonds set around it glittered. As with every time I had dared to take it out in the past fifteen years, my chest seized, and every thud of my heart was agonising. I could see my pale reflection in the stone, cut and shining a dozen times in every perfect facet. The last Tsarina of Russia had worn it, Felix told me, on the night that she was shot.

I know now that most of what Felix told me about the necklace was a fantasy. The deaths of the Romanoff family were too shrouded in doubt and mystery, the story too drenched in blood for all the facts to have been as clear as he made them. They were all shot in the basement, as he’d said, and their remains never fully recovered. But whether they had been planning to escape imprisonment that night or not isn’t clear. He could not have known that the Tsarina knew she was doomed, that although they had spent weeks sewing all of their heirlooms into the linings of their dresses, she had chosen to keep this piece free, to dress her finest in this last moment of doom. Her health was failing by then, that much is true.

The truth about the necklace is muddy. Just like the truth about Felix, and the truth about me. I am a liar and cheat, and so guilty is always my default position, but the strange curdled feeling I always had in my stomach when I touched the necklace was something else, something deeper. True or not it felt like it had been drenched in blood more than once. That along with wisps of the cloth it was kept in, tiny fragments on the past caught on the white gold that held the stones into place. The reflection I saw in the black-green stone at its centre was truer than any I’d ever seen in a mirror.

I dreamed I would dance in it, on a grand stage, dressed not in the tights and jackets I’d worn in traditional shows, not even half bare as I’d been in others, but in a ballerina’s tutu, allowed to step out in front of an enormous crowd en pointe and beautiful, prima and adored. I’d dance the White Swan’s transformation and be reborn.

Maria and I went to see the stone being cut for her engagement ring. I was surprised at the violence of it, the sickening crunch of stone against grinder, the slam of hammer into metal to seal closed the clasps. How something so delicate could be made out of fire and force I couldn’t understand. Maria had said how fascinating an art form it was, wasn’t it, but it hadn’t seemed like art to me at all. It was an assault. That night in bed, she’d spread her hand on my chest, the diamond shining in it, and dug her fingers deep into my skin, hard enough that there were still marks in the morning. Maybe the secret of all beautiful things is the pain it took to make them glitter.

I folded the necklace back into its cloth and placed the box back into its hiding place. I walked through the gaping house, every open doorway oozing cold and things I did not want to think about. I made myself a pot of tea and as it brewed, I thought seriously about taking the last of the pills hidden in the piano and having it all over and done with, there and then. I went as far as taking the bag out, weighing it in my hand. I rolled two pills between my fingers before I crushed them into dust and sniffed them through a broken cigarette holder. Knees gone, I stumbled into the living room and lay myself out on the rug and felt the world envelop me. That’s what I’ve always loved about morphine, the way it makes things small and softer. Like a blanket from your childhood bed. I closed my eyes and let myself float.

It was never supposed to be this way, but I can never quite muster the strength to be angry about it. To place blame is to think, seriously, about everything that has happened, and I know that I can’t do that because so much of it is on me. A good deal on Felix, a good deal on Maria, a good deal on various other players, yes, but some part of the account is under my name and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stomach working out quite which.

I swear I could feel the necklace around my throat, a cold hand resting just so. When Felix came, I would have to be naked but for that. It was the only way to make him see that it was all that was left of me, really, and it was never really mine in the first place.

I was still holding his letter when the sun set and my soul came back to my still, aching bones. He wasn’t there. He hadn’t come for it, yet. Maybe there was still sense in hoping that he never would, but I couldn’t do it. If he came for it, he would be here, in my house, breathing my air. It would be enough to see him, just for a moment, I thought. Even if it cost me everything.

Chapter Two | PAST

The very rich do not decorate their own houses, my mother told me. It is part of the privilege of having money not to have to think about where to place your wardrobe or the colour that the walls in your hallway should be. If they do choose to leave a personal touch, she said, it was as a hobby, out of interest rather than practicality.

We had sat up the night before building a new cabinet for the living room in our flat. It was to house my things, whilst I was away at school. We only had one bedroom – even in Zone 3, London was really too expensive for us to afford space for the both of us – and my mother was quite looking forward to not sleeping on the pull-out bed, I think. There’s a lot I didn’t realise then, like the reason my mother had to work so many jobs, that now I fully understand them it makes me wonder if really it was my fault either of us were there, that day in the Kensington House.

It was one of my favourites, though I’d only been there twice before. She’d started out as a cleaner, my mother. Dusting shelves of unread books with gold-embossed bindings and twice-life-size portraits of families that seemed like royalty to my eyes. When I was ill, and later when I’d had time off school for auditions, she’d take me with her and tell me to sit quietly in the hallway as she vacuumed and polished about the place. I always thought it would feel strangely invasive, to have someone else clean up after you. Homes were a place for private mess. I wondered if she picked up their dirty pants from their bedroom floors; she was always snapping at me to pick up mine.

There were houses with marble floors like rivers of white and pink, that shone so bright I thought they had to have been polished every day. I could hardly believe I was allowed to walk on them at all, let alone in my shoes, but my mother said that taking your shoes off at the door was not a thing that very rich people would ever ask you to do. If they floors were ruined, she said, they would just get new ones. It was not the same as the threadbare carpet we had to preserve in our flat. There were no landlords to bargain with, in the houses where my mother worked. No neighbours shouting on the other side of thin walls.

The houses were so big that my mother was not the only cleaner. Others would come past with their mops and polish, lighting candles in the hallway, dusting the statues by the doors, watering the plants. Generally, I did as I was told. I sat quietly and stared at the paintings. I would practice pointing my toes, twirling my ankles. I would cough into tissues, fold my hands in my lap, and keep as quiet as I could.

There was a house with a mirror in the hallway large enough that it could cover the whole wall of our living room. I’d been to the toilet in one of them, found polished gold taps in the sink, towels so soft I’d have curled up and slept on them. There were houses with huge staircases, one with its very own lift, some with a staircase at the back of the house to use for every, some so big I would need to spend a week if I wanted to see the whole thing. Mostly, I was confined to the hallway right inside the door, but I hardly ever minded. The halls were often double height, lined with flocked paper, huge staircases framed by paintings in heavy frames. Paintings of people and animals, shapes that didn’t make any sense. Paintings twice as wide as I was tall. Paintings so big I couldn’t understand how they’d got inside the houses at all.

There were sconces and ceiling patterns carefully picked out in gold leaf. Busts and statuettes kept vigil over me as I waited, listening to the distant hum of vacuum cleaners, the clink of pots and pans. Sometimes I heard dogs barking in some distant part of the house, echoing in the large rooms. Some had rugs thicker than my mattress.

The house in Kensington was one of the biggest, and they were the first to ask her to serve at a party. She’d sat in front of the mirror in the bathroom for half an hour and I’d watched, enrapt, as she painted her face and became something glamorous and unfamiliar. ‘How do I look?’

‘Beautiful,’ I told her.

‘Help me zip up?’ She turned her shoulder, and I slid the zip on her black satin dress into place. ‘It doesn’t look too worn, does it?’ she asked, twisting in the mirror. I shook my head, but I had no idea what she meant. She looked like someone else, like she had stepped from a parallel universe and was not quite the person she had been when she stepped into the bathroom.

I’d gone to the flat downstairs and hung out with the boys that lived there, but I found I was even less interested in their toy cars and video games than usual. It had been arranged for me to stay over, but I’d sat in the window, staring down at the path up to the lobby of our block, waiting for her to come home. It was long after midnight when a cab pulled up and my mother stumbled out of it. I crept into the hall, listened to the clatter of her heels as she emerged from the lift.

She smelled like wine and cigarette smoke. Her hair, neatly straightened when she’d left, was elegantly messed. One of the thin straps of her dress was hanging off her shoulder. She wrapped me in her arms and held me fast. She was small and thin, not much bigger than I was. ‘I still look like a dancer, don’t I?’ she would ask me, and tap me on the nose.

She liked the quiet, most of the time, but sometimes she would talk about the dancing. She had photographs of herself as a child, dressed in tutu’s and pretty shoes. ‘I was good for my age,’ she told me. ‘I could have been brilliant, if you hadn’t come along.’

This was always the story she told. She was trying out for dancing schools when she found out she was going to have me. She’d never have thought to get rid of me, she promised. Of course not. But just like that, years of work and practice were over. I was lucky, she told me, that I was not born a girl, and I could never have my dreams dashed the way that hers were.

In my favourite picture of her, the only one I still have, she could not have been more than eleven. Her arms are poised above her head, face turned away from the side. Her eyelashes are so long they brush her cheekbone as she looks down towards the top of her toe, stretched elegantly out to the side. She looks as though she might spring into movement if you look at her for long enough, like she might push up of the floor into an elegant spin.

I could not give you an exact moment that I fell in love with ballet. It crept up on me, as all lasting loves do, more like a tumour than a heart attack. ‘If you want to be a dancer’, mother told me, ‘you have to go to school. You just can’t get into any of the major companies unless you’ve had the proper training.’ Every morning she’d get me up and make me practice in the hall outside our flat. Keep my back straight, move smoothly from first into third. Don’t tuck myself small when I lean down to rest my head against my knees; keep them straight. Fold like a book cover, she said, smooth and easy. She’d raise my foot onto the bannister, a makeshift barre too high for my little body. ‘Breathe through it, Eli,’ she’d say sternly. ‘You’ll get there if you grit your teeth through it.’

I’d got my acceptance letter to the London International School of Ballet almost a year before I was old enough to go. I’d done well, but not well enough for a scholarship. My mother locked herself in the bathroom for hours, and when she finally came out, though her eyes were puffy she was smiling. ‘It has to be done,’ she said. ‘We’ll grit our teeth and get it done, won’t we?’

I didn’t want her to go to the party that night. I couldn’t think of anything worse to do with my last weekend before school than hole up with the boys downstairs, pretending to care about any of their conversation. They were never outright unpleasant to me, but they would glance at each other a lot when I was around. Dancing was not something they thought that boys should be doing, and they made that pretty clear, without being cruel. Just firm, and indignant. Like so many people are when I tend to show them secrets about myself.

I kicked up a fuss the whole time she was trying to get ready, and in the end, she said that if I wouldn’t be a grown up about it, I could go with her and sit in the hallway at the Kensington house all night.

She stuffed me into the suit she’d bought for me to wear for auditions – a little short in the sleeves now it had been a whole year since I’d last had it on – and sat in stony silence the whole tube ride across the city.

The street is one of those streets that you think for a moment is lined by hotels. The tiny front gardens are pristine, the lights in the downstairs of every grand, white-fronted house gleaming. She stopped me at the front gate and smoothed the hair on the top of my head. ‘Don’t embarrass me,’ she whispered, and she kissed me on the cheek. She turned on her heel, and I followed her in a haze of perfume and irritation.

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