Moggerhanger, p.2
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       Moggerhanger, p.2

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  And if the same fate overtook writers, who breathe life and fire into his image, why, that would be even worse.

  27 November 2002

  Certain facts the reader might care to know before the novel begins:

  I, Michael Cullen, have been a bastard most of my life, except for a break of legitimacy when my father the novelist Gilbert Blaskin met my mother again and married her. I was a grown man by then, so will never know why he did, for they parted two years later, and I reverted to my status as a bastard. Not that I had stopped being one, in any case.

  I was born in Nottingham—where else for such as me?—but left at eighteen. At the time I was working, if you can call it that, in an estate agents’ office, till a way came of making a bit of ready on the sly. The scam paid off, but the manager rumbled me so I had to leave. Luckily, always with an eye to the future, I made enough to buy a car and set off for London.

  I would have done better had my belongings been wrapped in a handkerchief and balanced from a stick on my shoulder, with a mangy cat mewing behind, because the car, which was not only British made but secondhand, dropped to pieces bit by bit on my progress down the Great North Road. After the engine’s massive cardiac arrest at Hendon Station I finished the journey by Underground.

  On my way to London I had picked up a hitchhiker fresh out of jail, a sponger from Worksop called Bill Straw, and through him became employed for a while by Claud Moggerhanger, a racketeer who made Rachman seem like a charity worker from Oxfam.

  I worked as a bouncer at one of Moggerhanger’s Soho clubs until, ever greedy for cash, I saw more to be made smuggling gold out of the country for an organisation run by Jack Leningrad, who conducted his operations from the inside of an iron lung. This business ended by my being banged up for eighteen months, though not before I had put by sufficient to buy a Beeching axed railway station at Upper Mayhem in the Fen country. Moggerhanger sent me to jail, because he was Leningrad’s rival in the gold trade of that time, but he also put me there on discovering I had been giving too much mutton dagger to his depraved daughter Polly.

  When I came out of prison I married an ex-au pair from Holland called Bridget Appledore, and retired to Upper Mayhem, but after ten years of what I considered bliss at my railway station, she left me, and took the children to Holland.

  In my despair I lit off for London, and worked for Moggerhanger again, who often took on those he had injured, in the knowledge that they knew the consequences should they be so daft as to do anything against him again.

  He judged me wrong, my object being to find sufficient evidence to put him where he had so callously sent me. But he had meanwhile been ennobled into Lord Moggerhanger, and was even more cunning than he was rich. Suspecting my intention of contacting Interpol, he put Bill Straw to follow me onto the ferry at Harwich. Straw found his way to throw the briefcase, of carefully collected incriminations of Moggerhanger’s drug running empire, into the sea.

  A few weeks before, I had met Frances Malham, a medical student. She was besotted by Ronald Delphick, England’s foremost performance poet, but I rescued her from him by marrying her, and we lived happily ever after, which is to say, for the last three years.

  By that quick thinking, which a picaresque hero such as myself is born with, I had helped her Uncle Geoffrey out of trouble, because he’d fucked the Portuguese maid and made her pregnant. My untruths put him in the clear with his wife, and in recompense he gave me a job at his advertising agency, where he assumed my talent for telling lies would be useful.

  Now read on.

  Chapter One.

  The funny-money City of London, on a clear spring day, put me into a philosophical mood. I’d heard that you became wiser as you get older, no matter how dodgy the start. Not me. Where’s the liberty in going along with that? Liberty, like the wine of a good year, doesn’t come cheap. It’s enough to keep on keeping on, and let wisdom take care of itself, which generally happens. All I had learned for sure was that fight against Fate and you’re done for, dropped by parachute—if you have one—into the middle of Dreckland.

  The blue-skied day was so fresh I seemed to be convalescing after a long illness, or living in my carefree twenties again, though I was edging towards forty. Sound in wind and limb, and as footloose and fancy free as fancy could still make me, I felt at the acme of self-satisfied overconfidence, until a cornering taxi painted my turn ups black with diesel smoke, reminding me that last night I’d had the alarming notion that if I succumbed to sleep I would never wake again. Such premonitions I could live without, but since nothing could stop slumber on its wool bound iron wheels I knew on waking this morning that the day was going to be another fateful one in my life.

  How right I was. In the office a letter on my desk told me I’d got the push. In so many words it informed me that my imagination and genius for lying weren’t needed anymore. The fact was that my obvious and endless contempt for the job had got under my colleagues’ pinstripes, and they didn’t like it. What had taken them so long? All they believed in was a load of bollocks, and they knew it, and they knew I knew it, but my frequent jokes on the matter were no longer allowed.

  They diligently worked to persuade people what they should buy. They deliberated on what the folk ought to eat, the clothes they must put on their backs, the powders to wash their baths and shit pans with. They stipulated the sort of fire-hazard beds to sleep in, and chairs to fall back in while watching infantile entertainment on television. They decided in their toy balloon tinpot heads that people should believe what they would never believe themselves. But how wrong they were to think they ran the world.

  The last account I worked on had appalled more than worried them, as I had meant it to, and because I had done my best to fuck up their values more than anybody ever had in the history of advertising it was no surprise when the guillotine kissed my clean-shaven neck. So here I was, free for as long as the quarter’s cheque lasted, knowing that three years with them had been more than enough.

  I should have resigned with the usual psychiatrist’s report certifying I was off my trolley and not likely to clamber back for the rest of my life. Tendering for their understanding and goodwill I could have got a golden handshake and gone off like a dog with a tin tail to breed hamsters on a farm in Wiltshire. Not me. By making them sack me I had cut off my nose to spite my face, which my mother had always said was my usual way, and would do me no good.

  Motorists barked their horns at an ambulance blocking Marchmont Street, while one of the crew helped a crippled old lady into her doorway. A chap in a white Mercedes leaned his pink head out and told them to get a move on: “Or I’ll run her over.”

  While the ambulance driver gave an extended two-finger salute from his cab the ninety-year-old woman rested on her zimmer frame, as if to wind some breath back into her lungs, then shouted with the voice of a twenty-year-old King’s Cross strumpet to the impatient man in the Merc, that he should go away, find a quiet corner, and give himself a good fucking, a remark which changed his complexion from pink to red, and entertained the street no end.

  With traffic so conveniently stalled I crossed the road and walked my uncertainties away, convinced that the only important person in the world was me. Who was next on the list it was impossible to say, but at least I wondered, and supposed it had to be my wife Frances, who I’d sooner or later have to tell about the loss of a job she’d expected me to hold for life.

  As a general practitioner she slaved all the hours God sent, and would have put in even more time had the solar system made the day longer. Again and again she told me how she loved her job, and that the only worthy life was to help the poor and the sick, while at the same time having no illusions.

  “The poor are always with us,” I had told her last night, “and the poor are always sick, otherwise they wouldn’t be poor.” She put hands to her beautiful ears, not to know I didn’t much believe what I said. “As for the
sick,” I went on, “they can’t help but be poor, because who wouldn’t feel poor if they were sick? The fact is, darling, that you never get any rest, not even during the night. Just as you’re snugged up in my arms and about to have an orgasm the bloody phone stops it because some mardy bastard’s run out of tablets and wants you to drive a couple of miles in the murk to give him the needle and send him back to never-never land. How can you go on living like that? And what about me in all this?”

  “You’re a monster of selfishness.” Her half smile indicated that no matter how irredeemable I was she’d go on putting up with me. “You give me no encouragement, though I suppose it’s my fault, because that’s what attracted me to you in the first place. But don’t put me off. Some poor chap wants seeing to. I must go.”

  I switched on the bedroom light to see her lovely breasts hoiked into the little lacy bra, and knickers cover the auburn triangle, as if she was going to see a lover rather than a patient. A slip over all, she put on skirt, shirt, and sensible shoes to prove me wrong, then lifted her bag of gear. “You have no sense of social responsibility, Michael. You’re even worse than Ronald Delphick used to be.”

  “He still is like that,” I called after her, then went back into the warmth and tried to sleep. I didn’t offer to drive her, as I sometimes did, for it was dark and raining, and I needed all the dreams I could get, though I remembered none, which was just as well, or they might have shown even more clearly the bastard I knew myself to be.

  A motorist missed clipping me by an inch on crossing Malet Street. Such a bang and I would never have seen Frances again. What you halfway hoped for never came, though I didn’t much care for being carted home in a plastic bag and having Frances, with her usual puzzled frown and stethoscope poised, bending just so that I could see her exquisite décolletage, no longer to be delved into and got at.

  But where do I go? I had lived in London on and off for thirteen years and it still seemed unreal. Patches I knew, and could get from one to another, yet felt I only belonged to the area around our house, regarding London as a place to own rather than live in, either that or forget it.

  Changing course at every corner I wondered whether to call at the Cain and Abel pub in Soho, and say hello to my father, Gilbert Blaskin. He’d be on a high stool, holding a double brandy, a cigar between his teeth, and telling dropouts and media scumbags what angst he went through while writing his big successful novels.

  If he wasn’t there I would look in the Box and Cox, or the Black Crikey, till I remembered he’d been blackballed from both because people would no longer put up with the lash of his insults—novelists having a way with words—or tolerate his boasting. As often as not he would burst into tears, and end by vomiting in the loo, behaviour so boorish it couldn’t even be put down to self-indulgence, a devil in him he was incapable of taming. Thank God I in no way took after him.

  Most likely he was still in bed with a thundercloud hangover, moaning for Mabel Drudge-Perkins his paramour to put another cold wet towel across his scorching brow. He would be glad to see me if I told him about my downfall, and would use the fact of my being thrown out of the advertising agency as a paragraph or two of padding for his current novel. I knew him. Many’s the time I’ve picked up one of his books and read accounts of my misfortunes, though so distorted or magnified as only to be recognisable by me who had suffered them.

  He once got me to write a novel which he could send to his publisher as his own, according to contract, while what he considered to be his good one went to a firm offering more money. My effort was the worst I could do. I’d never written a novel anyway. It was crap, a farrago of juvenile and semi-literate slop crammed with senseless magic realism—which was all the rage—written as quickly as I could work the typewriter, but it won him the Windrush Prize of ten thousand pounds, which he didn’t share with me.

  The ways of the literary world were a mystery, and I still don’t think he has forgiven me. Such garbage pulling a prize shattered all faith in himself, for a couple of days, and when he got the news I had to dodge an empty brandy bottle that splattered too close to my head.

  I jinked through the streets, glanced in the techno toyshops of Tottenham Court Road, and turned onto Oxford Street. Stopping at a phone box I dialled Blaskin, whose voice scraped into my ear: “Whitehall 1212. His Holiness the Pope speaking, but don’t confess until I get my notebook.”

  “I don’t care if it’s the Grand Mufti of fucking Mecca. I only hope I’m not disturbing you.”

  “My ever-loving son Michael?” He sounded pettish. “Of course you’re disturbing me. I was halfway through a comma.”

  “A coma?”

  “Don’t insult a hardworking novelist. It’s too early before six o’clock in the evening, and then I’m in the pub. What is it you want?”

  “I’ll be passing your place in half an hour.”

  “Good. I’ll get Mabel to grind the poison with the coffee, after she’s finished making the beds, of course, and steaming my fedora. You can rest assured that the poison won’t take effect until you’ve told me what’s on your mind.”

  “Something important’s happened to me,” I said.

  “Good or bad?”

  “Bad, you might say.”

  A gloating liveliness came into his voice. “Tell me about it on the phone. Poison doesn’t come cheap.” I saw his smirk on hearing I was in trouble, as if he was able to see through those minute parts of the callbox windows not covered by prostitutes’ cards. “But do come and get your coffee. At least I can watch you die. Copy straight from life reads much better.”

  To be idiosyncratic, cantankerous, and full of bile was a necessary state for his work, so who was I to upset the equilibrium? It wasn’t possible, though I often tried.

  I put the tackle down. Oxford Street was crowded, giro day or not. Thatcher’s government had closed the factories, and was doing its best with the coalmines. They had kicked everyone out of the loony bins and left the poor sods to sink or swim. Mostly they came down to London and cluttered up the golden mile begging for the price of a fix to put them out of their misery. Overspilling garbage cans, split condoms and rusty needles were all over the place, on streets which ministers and members of parliament drove through in blacked out cars. If you can’t get on, get out, but when hadn’t it been like that?

  A girl at the office last year rattled on about being a socialist, and one day said a bit too loud that Mrs Thatcher was a rotten old bag who should be hanged from a lamp post. I’d never say that about any woman, or man for that matter, unless it was Moggerhanger. But the girl was a feminist who loved it when one of us went to fetch her a cup of tea or coffee. Unluckily for her, her anti-Thatcherite diatribe was heard by Eric Pushpacker, who doted on Margaret Thatcher.

  When he told Geoffrey Harlaxton what the girl had said, she was thrown out in no time. The rhythm of her language on being shown the door would have been a treat to march to. “We must go on proving that Darwin was right,” Geoffrey guffawed, but still red at the recollection of her curses. They laughed over their pints of directors’ bitter. “And careful not to let any such scrawny chit from the working class come into the office again,” at which I said: “I suppose your grandfather was selling night soil from all the shit-houses in Battersea before he made his pile,” another reason he wasn’t sorry to get rid of me.

  A bomber jacket junkie in smart trainers, factory-stained jeans, and a red and green ethnic hat stood before me and asked for money. I pushed him aside, though hoped he’d try to hit me so that I could make up for having lost my job by booting him into Selfridge’s to do a bit of shoplifting. He was drugged up to the eyeballs. “Fuck you,” he spat, and looked for someone else to nail.

  I’d never been uncharitable, and five years ago I’d have given him something, as I had to Almanack Jack, but he at least sold smelly old almanacks or packets of damp matches from a tray. I’d helped Bill St
raw when he was down (as he had helped me) and picked up Arthur Clegg when I’d found him on the road and homeless, making him caretaker at Upper Mayhem. Even Ron Delphick had benefitted by a bob or two now and again. As the self-styled North country performance poet he still pushed an old pram with a giant panda on top, up and down the Great North Road, a pennant fluttering from a handle-mast saying: “Poems tenpence each, or as much as you can afford.” He got an MBE in the New Year’s Honour’s List, but continued sponging because—and this pissed him off no end—an income hadn’t come with it.

  But three years hobnobbing with agency boyos had turned me sour and mean. They wanted people to buy—I’d heard them say—not beg. Begging was against all they stood for. The money people gave to beggars would be better spent on the trash they advertised. Beggars only got drunk, or bought drugs. The agency lads snorted drugs as well (though I never had) but were flush and could buy all they wanted.

  I bawled at the junk-head that he should get a job, a suggestion so audacious and unexpected that he took his fingers from the lapel of a next victim and came closer to me than last time, to fathom the features of a bloke who could make such a cruel remark.

  I nudged him from passing traffic towards Selfridge’s window. He had a General Custer hair-do, and an earring. It was impossible to stare him out. He must have trained his eyes to jump through hoops like fleas at a circus and never hold still. One of his teeth was missing, but if someone from an advertising agency had knocked it out I hoped this chap had smacked the fuckpig back.

  Charitable, and by now halfway sorry for him, I sorted a pound coin from my pocket, but he looked as if it was a black widow spider, and threw it onto the pavement. A well-dressed little Crispin, on his way to Hamley’s I supposed, snatched it from the gutter and ran after his mother: “Mummy! Mummy! I’ve found some money.”

 
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