Black Chalk, my first novel, is a tale about a group of six friends – students in their first year at Oxford University – who devise their own game. It’s a game of psychological dares, a contest that turns dangerous when the challenges become tougher and more personal. As tensions and rivalries mount, their friendship becomes splintered, leading to a tragic event – one of the six friends is killed.
But how much did I base the story of Black Chalk on my own life? I was a student at Oxford in 1990 (the year in which the novel is set) with a close group of friends, much like those in my book, and we did indeed devise a game of psychological dares that we intended to play – the same game, in fact, that my six fictional students play in my novel.
In Black Chalk, the students are offered a large amount of money to play by a mysterious society. Fortunately for me and my friends, we never encountered a secretive group who offered to stump up the prize money (because nothing corrupts like a healthy cash prize.) And therefore we never played our game. So although Black Chalk is a work of complete fiction, it’s one in which I try to imagine what might have happened 20 years ago had we all played it. Do I think that it would inevitably have led to the death of one of us? Perhaps not. But I wouldn’t count it out entirely.
One of the things I explore is the sense of competitiveness that simmers among a group of friends who are all smart people, who all want to be known as the cleverest. I look at how their egos rub up against each other and why they might all be desperate to win.
This is very much something I personally experienced at Oxford; the desire to be top of the heap was there in almost every interaction. Funnily enough, over-competitiveness reared its aggressive head most of all whenever we, as a group, would play cards. We became obsessed for a few years with the game of bridge – when we would play it wasn’t so much a card game as an excuse to scream about each other’s inadequacies as human beings.
Every game descended into a torrent of abuse yelled at one’s partner or opponents. One time, having partnered my girlfriend at the time, she said to me after a particularly vigorous debate about cardplay: "If you ever speak to me like that again, I’m leaving you." It was as if a mist was lifted from my eyes. My God, we were arseholes.
I remember one day we were playing a friendly football match in the park. The ball was played up to me and after a devilish Giggs-like turn I had a clear way to the goal. I heard the voice of my best friend, who was playing on the other side: "Take him out." The next thing I knew I was lying in a heap, crying out in agony. Another friend had launched into me from behind and caused my limbs to bend in directions they weren’t designed to bend. My foot was broken.
After some debate, it was decided this wasn’t even a foul. The opposition accused me of faking my pain and everyone trooped back to college, leaving me to hop back alone. The other side had lost this meaningless game by six goals – but at least they had stopped me from making it seven.
Looking back on these times, I cannot entirely discount the possibility that, 20 years ago, had we played a game for a grand prize of £10,000 (a tasty little tempter for my fictional friends), that somehow we wouldn’t have found a way to kill each other. In fact, it’s entirely possible that the body count would have been considerably higher.
Black Chalk by Christopher Yates is out on 19 September, published by Harvill Secker.