Years ago, I was working on an advertising campaign for a theme park. In the course of my online research into the target market, I blundered into the world of ride and theme park enthusiasts. Immediately it was obvious that this was exactly the same kind of community I knew well from music fandom – the injokes, the nicknames, the disturbingly detailed knowledge of trivia, the bickering. It was fascinating to see the parallels when outwardly these people and I had little in common.
It’s a kind of kinship repeated all over the place, from LARPers to Whovians to rail enthusiasts. All the same and all largely oblivious of each other, these constellations of people like extended families who, whatever their individual differences and however fierce their infighting, will close in if one of the group is threatened.
Last year, I’d almost forgotten about the theme park enthusiasts. I’d been thinking about loss, and how hard it is for a writer to make sense of. I wanted to write a story that wasn’t about “coming to terms” with death, but about the ownership of loss, and how grief is shared out. I also wanted it to be about life- so often, if someone dies young, their life becomes defined by their death, and this seemed like something that was worth trying to explore and address.
Then I was lucky enough to see Jon McGregor talk and read from his collection This Isn’t The Sort of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You. His swoops from exuberance to horror and back to the mundane gave me a eureka moment – my “lost friend” character was one of the roller coaster fans I’d been reading about! The theme park environment was the perfect metaphor for the giddy thrill of being part of a gang, mixed with the sickening terror of terminal illness.Of course this plunged me into a swamp of research, and made me briefly wish I’d chosen a more familiar setting – every bit of technical information mentioned in passing had to be painfully extracted from the depths of the internet. The relationships between the boys, though, were something I already understood, like anyone who’s been a member of something, and once I knew who they were, the characters wrote their own story.
Jas’s family stand off to the side a little. Their tragedy is great and incomprehensible, but I hoped that looking at them through the eyes of someone who’s outside the family circle might allow us to see their situation more clearly, in the same way that a driver can only see his own car when he gets out of it.
It was a hard story to end. It wanted to end with Jas’s friends scattering his ashes, but that set off my sentimentality-alert siren. The narrator’s dream that does end it is a heavily adapted one of my own. It was an incredibly vivid dream in which a much-missed friend returned to us, purely to have a good laugh at us and our earthly squabbles and dramas. I woke feeling sad but optimistic, and I like to hope the reader might feel a tiny echo of that on finishing the story.
‘The Coaster Boys’ appears in the latest Fiction Desk anthology, Because of What Happened, available in all good bookshops, on Kindle, and through iTunes.