Cover image for Primrose Hill : a novel
Primrose Hill : a novel
Falconer, Helen.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Persea Books, 2001.

Physical Description:
211 pages ; 23 cm
General Note:
Originally published: [London] : Faber and Faber, 1999.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



A novel about two best friends who live in North London with their single parents, and who become wrapped up in a murder plot.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

A low-level druggie, Si, narrates his version of a murder plot hatched on a hill that rises above the squalor of London's inner city and is frequented by retro-hippie dopers and pushers. Si is Hamlet once-removed: his semibuddy Danny wants to kill his mother's boyfriend, who supplies her with drugs and beats her. While Danny sees the case for murder as clear cut--it's a form of trash removal, he argues--Si agonizes, both over the terror of abuse he's witnessed firsthand at Danny's house and over the casualness with which his friends consider murder another kind of high. Si's take on the horrific home lives endured by his friends and himself is both caustic and heart-wrenching, and his observations (like his repugnance over his pregnant mother) are often screamingly funny. Falconer's powerful novel is a kind of doped-up, jittery version of Strangers on a Train. Powerful. --Connie Fletcher

Publisher's Weekly Review

Originally published in England, this colorful, often harrowing debut pits teenage Si and his best friend, Danny, against Danny's mother Josie's abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend, turning what the boys have termed a 1990s-style summer of love into a summer of violence and revenge. Suddenly, their school break isn't just about hanging out on London's Primrose Hill. The boys hatch a desperate plan to kill the man who has beaten Josie with a baseball bat, stabbed her with scissors and kept her addicted to and begging for drugs. The one diversion from these grim preoccupations is Eleanor, a 15-year-old whom Si meets on the hill. Both a rich, flirtatious delinquent who eagerly joins in the murder plot and a troubled child with a dark secret, Eleanor is a stubborn, perplexing character who steals every scene she's in and occupies a good deal of space in Si's head besides. The dialogue doesn't sound a single wrong note, but the characters act on a limited stage: Si's mother, Louise, is pregnant with a baby whose benign but lazy father, Andy, has "done a runner," much like Si's own father, who decided he was gay and deserted the family shortly after his only son was born. The most moving aspect of the story is Si's presence at the birth of his baby sister and his quasi-fatherly devotion to her and his mother; less effective is Danny's single-minded protectiveness of his own mother. Though the novel purports to be about the "thin lines... between doing the right things and doing the wrong thing... between life and death," it doesn't quite measure up to those lofty aimsÄbut its verve infuses the bleak events with intelligence and heart. (Mar. 30) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Me and the crowd were hanging on Primrose Hill, playing music, smoking a bit of draw, watching the brilliant sun go down, made blazing colours by the polluted air. And we were having this heavy discussion about how terrible it all was, global warming and that, but I was laughing because we were basking in it, man, day after day, all July, sunning ourselves on the burning hill -- tropical London! I was feeling good, when Danny ran out of the beautiful sky and threw himself gasping on the ground beside me.     'I'm going to kill that fucker.'     I didn't need to ask. All the good feeling went out of the evening, like a separate sun suddenly going down.     'He's fucking done it again, Si.'     'Shit ...'     'With a baseball bat.'     'What?'     'She had to call an ambulance.'     'Jesus, Danny,' I said, feeling sick, sitting up. 'What're you going to do?'     'I'm going to kill him.' And he clutched at his face, his expression of rage, like he'd rip it right off, like a mask.     I stayed silent. Someone was changing the tape. The crowd were spread out on the darkening grass. All around rose the sweet smell of draw, getting stronger as the tropical night closed in, and in the distance a drunk on a bench started up -- 'Pah! Pah! Pah!' -- like something weird in the rain forest after darkness falls. Our mate Luke came by with a serious spliff: 'You want a toke on this?' I did. I held it out to Danny, but he shook his head, like: not in the mood. I thought he should have some, though -- come down a little, find a bit of space. 'One toke, Dan.'     Danny's mum fucked up bad when she was a kid -- pregnant at fourteen, left home at sixteen, got herself a flat on a Kilburn estate, let the local dealer move in. He pinned her down and stuck the needle in her while she was screaming, 'No, no, no!' Or so she told Danny, but she was lying, right? What was she going to tell him? She'd thought it was this really cool idea? It was killing her; her whole life was fucked up by it. Even worse, this guy used to beat her up; he was psycho numero uno. One time Danny tried living with her, but it didn't work out because of this evil fucker. Danny brained him with a lump of wood. He was only twelve then, but this boyfriend wasn't up to much. Danny always called him Shortarse. He was man enough to beat up Danny's mum, though -- that's for sure.     After a toke or two, Danny said, calmer, handing the spliff back to Luke, who wandered on, 'No, really, I'm going to do him, Si. Before he does her.'     'Yeah, I know, you're right,' I said. 'The guy's a complete arsehole.'     He pinched at the long black hair that hid his eyes, twisted it hard, and said, intense, 'No, listen, Si, I'm going to kill him, man. I mean seriously kill him, man -- I'm serious.'     It gradually came to me Danny was being for real -- like Tarantino, dribble of blood from the mouth, corpses to be got rid of, boots of cars, and that. First thing came into my head was, Danny didn't have a car. I stared at him, mouth open. 'Shit, Danny, you can't do that,' I said at last, like he'd claimed then and there he was going to stand up and spread his arms and fly right off the hill, floating fast away across London, a free black speck in the orange air.     'Why the fuck not? Why not?'     He was a big bastard, Danny, but he wasn't the macho type. He didn't hang out with those arseholes in Ralph Lauren shirts and YSL jeans and too-short hair who stand in all-white groups on the corners of buildings, comparing designer labels and waiting for someone to mug. He hung with me -- with the crowd on the hill, the peace and love types, all growing our hair. We cared about the planet, played sixties stuff, wore friendship bands around our wrists -- it was our summer of love, for fuck's sake. It was good: we were doing the hippy thing. I said, 'Get real , Danny.'     He turned on his back and pulled this old baseball cap he always wore down over his dark eyes, down to his big nose, and put his hands behind his head, like: end of story.     'You'll get done , man. What if you end up inside?' Though I knew that wasn't the point.     He looked at me over his arm, knocking up the cap. 'I'd rather that than she died on me, man.'     'Why don't you go to the police?'     Danny, rolling his big dark head away, lit a cigarette, no comment.     He was right, of course. I was being pathetic. What was I thinking? One waste of space scaghead beating up another waste of space scaghead. Who'd care?     I started to watch the stars, swimming into view light years above us. That summer, that's what I'd really been getting into about the hill, being able to see through a billion billion miles of open space, all the way up to the stars. It wasn't like being in London at all -- not down in London where you couldn't see shit, but up here, closer to the sky, like we'd been living down a manhole and climbed up and pushed off the cover. You could imagine you were right out of it, maybe on a mountain top somewhere, real air and a sky you could see. Down in the hot, sweaty, concrete valleys hunted the shorthaired packs, with their knives and their YSL jeans, but up here we old pony-tailed long-hairs were well out of it. Even the 'Pah! Pah!' drunk was a harmless old fucker.     Danny said suddenly, urgently, 'You know that Hitler guy, right?'     'Ri ... ight,' I said.     He shook his big head impatiently. 'No, fucking look, man -- if I'd met him before he started all that crap, I'd've crucified the bastard.'     Danny believed in doing the right thing. I got to tell you, years ago when the kids in school found out my dad was gay, you wouldn't believe the shit that went on. I couldn't keep one fucking book or decent pen from one day to the next. Every day I was having to jump in and punch someone out for the way the kid looked at me -- I was acting like a hard man, but you had to get in first or else you were fucked. I'd known Danny right from primary school. We weren't like big mates then, but he knew I was in trouble and not only did he never look at me wrong, he started giving me back-up if things got rough. I didn't really know why at the time. It's just with Danny, a mate was a mate. You didn't even have to've done anything for him, he just knew you were his mate. It was lucky for me, though. He always was a big bastard. He kept me safe till things cooled down. After that we really were best mates, for good, for ever. If it hadn't've been for Aids, we'd've been blood brothers. It was only about eleven, but the crowd was breaking up -- going round Chetan's to play computer games, but I didn't fancy it. 'See ya, see ya,' people were calling; dark bodies peeling away from the dark hillside. 'See ya later.' 'See ya, see ya, see ya later, Martin. See ya later, Al, see ya,' we said. They were an all right crowd.     Danny turned to me in the dark; the little red circle of his cigarette swept my way. 'Do you want to stay at my place, man? My grandad's gone to bring her back from casualty.'     I could've done without seeing the mess someone could make of someone else with a baseball bat. 'Sure it's OK?'     'Yeah, yeah,' said Danny. 'Yeah, it's OK.' He sounded kind of lost, not like him at all.     When we stood up the air drifted cool under my shirt, damp from the night grass. Below our feet the London lights lapped softly round the base of Primrose Hill, and stretched like moonlit water to the horizon of our sight. We were nearly the last to go, walking slowly down the long steep hill until the stars we'd seen so clearly from the top faded into the orange reflected light and the voice of the traffic rose to greet us -- we'd descended into the sewer again, and the city's dirty sky settled over us, a close-fitting lid. The trapped-in air down here between the tall houses and the high-rise blocks was hot and wet, unmoved by the breeze on the hill. It had that strange metallic taste. The sweat broke out on me.     I called my mum from a callbox on the way. She sounded all right. She was eight months' pregnant, and I had to be around for her in case anything happened. Like, she was planning to have that baby at home . I was scared she'd try doing it all by herself and fuck up somehow. The only thing freaked me more than the idea of being there at the birth was not being there. She was so careless and slapdash about things, and that waster had deserted her. Us. Her. His child. (Fucking around about whether he wanted the baby or not until it was too late for her to have an abortion and then 'It all got too hard for me, man' and he left for the gutter he'd crawled out of in the first place.) The box was like a sauna. The waistband of my jeans was wet. I stood there waiting for the money to run out while she bitched on about how my nan'd been round bitching again. 'She says homebirth is selfish! Coming from her !' Listening to her talk, in the orange light of a street lamp I fingered the cards stuck all over the inside of the box -- like, French maid into correction, busty blonde, 40, 20, 40, gives golden showers (what? for fuck's sake) -- and then this kid I'd never seen before in my life jumps up out of the dark into the orange light, leaping up against the glass like an animal in the zoo, and starts hammering on it: 'Oi, you , I seen that, you perve!' I nearly jumped out of my fucking skin.     My mum said, 'What's that?'     'Nothing. Some kid. Look, I'll see you in the morning, OK?'     After I came off the phone the kid was still hammering, my heart still hammering too, from the adrenalin rush. I was opening the door into the hot dark jungle air thinking, Fuck, here we go, and getting ready for it, when Danny stormed back from round the corner where he'd gone for a slash in the dark and grabbed the kid round the neck. I looked round quickly in the hot shadows for the big guys, but there was only one, sitting on a wall half-hidden by dark greenery, and he was scratching behind his ear and pretending not to notice.     'Oi,' screeched this kid, kicking and elbowing. 'Get off of me! What've I done to you?'     'I know you,' said Danny suddenly.     'Oi! Get off! Leo!'     (Other guy still looking casually away.)     'I know you,' said Danny to this kid, with more conviction this time, really threateningly. 'You hit my mate with a brick.'     'He did what? It was him bricked Viv?' This was something happened to a Bengali guy we knew. The Asian kids got constant grief from the YSL crowd. If you walked down the street with them, you got 'Oi, Paki-lover!' all the fucking time, really pissed me off. It happened when I was with Danny sometimes -- his nan was Italian, and his mum told him in secret his dad was Italian too, a good mate of her dad's, married with a lot of hair (irrefuckingsistible, yeah). Anyway, some stupid fucker seeing Danny'd go, Ooooh look, dark skin, black hair, brown eyes -- er, can't be English -- er, Paki, innit? Black bastard! Oi, you! Paki-lover!     'I'll fucking kill you,' said Danny. He was gripping him so tight round the neck, the kid's eyes were nearly popping out. Then he held out the kid towards me with his knee up his arse and shouted, 'It's you he was calling a fucking pervert -- hit him now if you like.' The kid was thrashing about like a scared cat. His shirt was out and soft stomach bare.     'It's all right,' I said, looking at the kid's plump white stomach.     'Hit him, man,' insisted Danny. 'It's the only way he'll learn not to go round being such a fucking arse hole.'     'It's all right,' I said.     ' Hit him.'     'It's all right.'     'For fuck's ... now fuck off and stay out of it.' He shoved the kid into a hedge. The kid scrambled out, coughing and choking, and ran off. Danny went right up to the half-hidden one who was still sat there and said, sticking his face aggressively into his, ' Your mate hit my mate with a fucking brick! Made his head bleed!'     The guy said, 'What -- him? He's not my mate. Don't even like him,' and he got up and walked away, lighting a fag.     When Danny came back he was still really wound up, but he lit a cigarette himself and started laughing. 'You know,' he said, 'after that kid landed that brick on him, Viv ran into an off-licence because it was the nearest thing and the off-licence guy said, I'm not serving you anything unless you've got ID. And his head was bleeding , man! And he doesn't even drink, for fuck's sake!' Danny thought that was well funny. He nearly choked on the fag. He stayed hyped up about it almost till we got to his grandparents' council place, a concrete maisonette, part of a block set sideways on to Adelaide Road. Danny's mum was home from the hospital, sitting in the kitchen having a fag and talking to Danny's grandad in a quiet, unhappy voice. When I heard her in there I hung about in the hall, but Danny barged on in and I had to follow him. She stood up and turned round to us, and I couldn't help flinching away, but she didn't see me do it -- she'd eyes only for Danny, who was amazing, he didn't gasp or cry, not even his eyes filled with tears, he only held out his arms in the most loving way to hold her.     'Oh, don't hug me, Danny darling,' she said, touching him gently on the arm. 'I'm that sore.' She looked fucking awful. She always looked shite anyway because of the scag -- skinny as fuck and a bald spot on top. But now her mouth was all swollen up like a smashed plum, and her broken nose thickly bandaged and her eyes embedded in purple-brown doughnuts of flesh with red splits in them, so you could see where he'd hit her with the bat across the face -- once, twice -- across her mouth, then again across the bridge of her nose. Under her thin white blouse, her ribs were strapped. I felt ill, like really ready to throw, and wished I hadn't come.     'Don't worry, Mum,' said Danny, very calm. 'I'll take care of him.'     'Oh, now,' she said, trying to smile, though her lip was all mashed up and thick. 'I'm all right. Don't you go getting yourself into trouble now, do you hear? It'd break my heart.'     'Don't worry, Mum,' said Danny.     'There's a good boy,' she said. 'You go to bed now, or watch telly or something. I'm just sitting here talking to Dad.'     Danny's grandad nodded at me. I was concentrating on looking as if everything was normal, nothing shocking. He wasn't an old man, just oldish, with heavy grey-black hair. But tonight he looked rough, wearing stained trousers and an old green top with fag holes in -- he looked sad and old. His daughter did his head in. He never understood her. She told Danny why she'd pissed off from home so soon was, he never let her go anywhere, not after she got pregnant. She wouldn't tell him who the father was and he gave her a hard time about that. It was a joke, him not letting her out of the house. His hairy mate'd got her pregnant in the bathroom upstairs. 'All right, Si,' he said. 'Have you had something to eat, OK?'     'Some chips,' I said. It wasn't true, but I didn't want to get in the way, and I wanted out of the kitchen in any case. Me and Danny went into the front room. I thought he'd go into the killing thing again, but instead he said nothing, just searched around for the remote control. I didn't blame him for not being able to speak. I helped him look, but he found it before me, down the back of the couch, switched on the telly without a single word and fell into the armchair, his big feet in trainers cluttering the floor, his baseball hat pulled down over his heavy dark eyes, remote control stretched out before him. I lay down on the sofa and pulled a cushion under my head.     He'd barely begun flicking around when someone started banging, much too loudly, on the front door. Nobody moved in the house. Me and Danny waited, frozen, staring through the television. In the kitchen there was nothing but silence. Bang, fucking bang, bang. Danny's grandad came out of the kitchen and stood in the hall.     'Who's that? What do you want?'     'Who the fuck do you think it is, Jim, you old cunt?' yelled Shortarse. He sounded frighteningly loud, almost in the house, because he was yelling through the letterbox. 'Where the fuck is she? Josie -- come on out here, you mad bitch!'     'She's not here!' Jim screamed back at him in fear and anger. 'She's in the fucking hospital where you fucking put her, you junkie fucker! Now fuck off before I call the fucking police!'     All went quiet outside. Several minutes passed. Still we stared into mid-air. I'd goose pimples all down my arms. Danny's grandad went back inside the kitchen. We could hear him and Danny's mum murmuring together. Slowly I let my muscles go, and found I was dying badly for a pee. I stood up. 'Gotta have a piss, man,' I said. Danny just sighed, a long shaky sound, and took out a fag.     Then a brick smashed through the window, straight between the curtains, and bounced on the floor at Danny's feet. Danny sat rigid, his eyes fixed on it, holding up an unstruck match. His grandad roared and came running in to see what the damage was, pushing me aside, and Josie was screaming her head off and went scrambling upstairs in a mad rush to hide herself. Another brick came through, and dented the wall.     'That's it ,' said Danny, jumping up and throwing the fag away, unlit. 'That's fucking it.' He dashed past me into the kitchen and came running back down the hall with a carving knife in his fist, like a serious nutter -- he went so quick he had the front door open, howling 'Die you bastard!' before me and Jim went after him. When I reached him on the crunching tarmac they were going in circles, Shortarse hanging on to Danny's stabbing arm with one hand and with his other trying to reach in and slash Danny's face with a switch knife. Danny was yelling abuse and pulling his head back out of the way of the whizzing blade.     'Get off of him!' I was dragging the fucker off when that junkie bastard went to cut me instead, and nearly did too, I couldn't believe it. Then Jim got punching and because Danny's mum's boyfriend was a skinny little bastard, he took fright and ran off a few yards. We wrapped ourselves round Danny's neck, but he was fighting us like mad to get free.     Shortarse got cocky then, and started waving his dirty fat switchblade at us. 'See this, son?' he was shouting at Danny. 'This knife's got your name on it, it has! When you're asleep I'll be coming through your window and whack! you're dead, you're a dead man, Danny, you're dead, all right?'     'I'll kill you first, you fucker!' screamed Danny.     'The police are on their way!' shouted Jim. It was a lie, but Shortarse started walking away, pulling up the collar of his manky suede jacket and smoothing down his hair and looking back over his shoulder every few steps and threatening Danny that he was dead , right?     When he'd disappeared into the streets, we took Danny back inside. His nan was awake, crouching barefoot at the top of the stairs in a short pink nightie showing her soft lumpy legs. She looked really upset, her voice was shaking. 'Has he gone, Jim?' she asked.     'Yeah, yeah,' he said. 'Everything's OK.'     'Josie's in a terrible state,' she said. We could hear Danny's mum in the background upstairs, still screaming and crying.     'Tell her everything's OK now, Gabby, he's gone. I'll put the kettle on.'     Gabriella came down to get Josie's tea for her. 'It can't go on like this, dear,' she said, like she was making polite conversation in front of the children. She was a really small woman. When she sat on a chair her yellowing toes dangled above the ground like a little kid's. She was always nice to me. She didn't need some arsehole putting through her windows in the dead of night. As she held the mug of tea in both hands her wrists were going, and the tea flooded in spurts over the sides of the mug. 'Poor Josie won't stop crying.'     'Everything will be all right,' said Danny's grandad. 'I'll stick something over the window and fix it tomorrow.' He began levering a cork noticeboard down off the kitchen wall with a breadknife. But he said to himself while he was doing it, 'I don't get it. How could she do this to us?'     Gabriella looked at Danny, who was sat at the table with his big fists still clenched on the plastic top. His grandad'd taken the knife off of him and put it quietly back in the drawer. 'Did he have a go at you, Danny love?'     'Sort of,' said Danny, indifferent. He was lucky to be alive, but he didn't give a toss.     'Oh, Danny ...' She started wiping the dripping cup dry with the corner of her nightie.     'Don't worry about it, Nan,' said Danny. 'I'm bigger than him, aren't I?'     'He is that,' said Jim.     'I'm sorry you had to see that, Si,' said Gabriella.     'Don't worry about it, Gabriella,' I said, though I was still in shock. 'It's no big deal. He just ran off.'     'Praise god for that,' said Gabriella. 'I'll take Josie her tea, then.'     Danny let his mum stay up in his room that night, because she was too afraid to come downstairs at all. Jim offered me money for a cab, but I couldn't leave Danny to sleep down there alone. The noticeboard was nailed over the broken glass, but still the warm draught came gently through, drifting the orange curtains and rustling the stuff pinned to the cork, the bits and pieces of their lives: paper messages and shopping lists and photographs of Danny as a baby being held by his mother, who was younger then than he was now, and some crap painting Danny'd done years ago in primary school. On the pulled-down sofa bed beside Danny I lay fully clothed even to my shoes and covered myself heavily from head to foot in a winter duvet. I felt totally naked and exposed.     Danny spoke in the dark, and I twitched, saying, 'What? What?'     'I said, now do you see what I mean.'     'Absofuckinglutely,' I said, with feeling.     'You seen the mess he made of my mum?'     Too right I had.     'You hear what he said to me?'     'He said he'd kill you, Danny.'     'I have to kill him first,' said Danny, meaning it.     'Yeah,' I said. I could see where Danny was coming from all right. I was so cold I was shivering, even though the duvet was much too much for that hot summer's night. I couldn't stop thinking obsessively about Shortarse's threat to come creeping through the window with his knife with Danny's name on it and stab Danny to death -- and me, too, if I was there, I supposed. Every time the nylon curtains blew forwards in the draught or the stuff on the noticeboard flapped around, my blood ran cold.     Danny rolled towards me and leaned up on his elbow. 'I have to ...' he broke off, listening.     The feet crunched soft and slow over the tarmac out front. Then there was silence. Now there was nothing. Then we could hear them moving around heavily, creeping about.     'Here we go again,' whispered Danny. 'I'm getting the knife.'     I felt sick and my heart was going dangerously fast. 'Get one for me, too,' I said. I wasn't going in bare-handed this time.     While he was in the kitchen I crept along the hall on my hands and knees and soundlessly opened the letterbox. A fierce white light blasted in, blinding me, and I yelled out. Danny was right behind me, he came tearing down the hall in his T-shirt and boxer shorts, carving knife in hand, chucked me the breadknife, and ripped open the door shouting, 'I'll slice your balls off, you fucking bastard!' then froze.     The two policemen looked as scared as we did. Danny was hanging there in mid-air with his knife raised above his shoulder, black and white horror freeze-framed in the powerful torchlight; I was on my hands and knees, squinting up at them, brandishing my breadknife. Some really long seconds passed us by.     'Fuck it,' said Danny, at last, irritably.     The spottier, skinnier cop said, nervously winking, 'Now then, lads, why don't we try shutting the door and let's just start this one over again?'     Josie wouldn't come downstairs, not even for the police. They didn't really mind, they didn't want to stop -- they kept looking at their watches as they spoke, like they'd rather be telling pedestrians the time. One scaghead terrorizing another scaghead? Just another day to them. They'd only come round because someone'd complained about the noise. They weren't that bad. They didn't hassle Danny about the carving knife -- they called him 'son' and advised him not to take the law into his own hands. But they didn't take him under their wing, and when they left they left a loneliness: an emptiness without answers and without action. Copyright © 1999 Helen Falconer. All rights reserved.