Moggerhanger, p.26Alan Sillitoe
Breakfast was her only edible meal, a standard bullied out of her after much training. I would regret losing her to the clergy, though hoped she was but teasing me in her ice-maidenly way. I’d learned long ago that it was only possible to get a hint of what was going on in her mind by what she said, and then to conclude the opposite. Trying to fathom otherwise would be like wading a mangrove swamp.
I sorted the letters. An income tax demand for another thousand pounds dropped from my shaking fingers to the floor. An electricity bill went the same way. A begging letter from Oxfam with the photograph of a dying baby on the front was passed for Mabel to weep over—though I knew she hadn’t a penny to her name. An unpaid parking fine also went down the chute. A cheque from my agent for sixteen hundred pounds, being the advance on two Sidney Blood novels about to be rendered into Spanish, was slipped into my pocket before Mabel could see how much it was for. Last, and almost missed in the screwing up of paper, was a light blue envelope with a proper letter inside. The handwriting of the address resembled mine in less mature days, as if I had dropped a line to myself, though I didn’t recollect having done so. A first-class stamp, a whiff of scent, no sender’s location on the back, and postmarked N6. I marmaladed another roll before slitting it open with the butter knife.
“Dear Father,” I read, to myself, in case it should give solace or otherwise to Mabel: “My mother thinks it’s time I met my real father who, she told me, is the novelist Gilbert Blaskin. I’ve been putting the matter off for some time, not wanting to complicate my life more than it is at the moment. But I’ve decided to write to you at last.”
I felt a different colour go over my face. Whoever it was did sound somewhat like me.
“To get on with my story, as you might say in one of your books—I’m feeling rather excited, writing this. As a letter it’s easy and hard to compose. Anyway, after my mother’s abduction by you, and seduction or ravishment (you should know, unless you don’t remember, you cavalier bastard—though I write that with affection), she refused to have an abortion, thank God. She was confined in a cottage whose location she still can’t pin down. Then you abandoned her, and me. A few years later, after one hell of a life, she met a man infinitely more worthy of her than you, and married him. He brought me up, and still treats me as his own. So I’m your daughter, maybe the only one, and I think we ought to meet soon. As you can imagine, if you’re capable of imagining—though as a writer you should be, you male chauvinist pig—I want to see you, out of curiosity as much as anything. I’m not in distress, and don’t want money, because I’m married, and more than well provided for.
“My husband doesn’t know anything about this, though I suppose you might meet him one day. I did think of just turning up at your door, but didn’t want to be unfair, even to someone like you. Now you know I exist at least. I’m thirty-seven years old, another fact which might jog your memory. Your Loving Daughter (I suppose I have to say that) Sophie.”
Though facing my all-time steady at breakfast I had something to smile about, in spite of her severely disapproving features. “What is it, Gilbert? I’ve rarely seen you so absorbed.”
I turned the letter over and read it again. “She’s even got my style, so we won’t have the expense of a blood test.” I skimmed the Basildon Bond sheets across the marmalade, one flying so low it picked up the only shred of orange peel in the jar. “It’s from my long lost daughter.”
“Oh no! Not another child!”
Her anguished cry was to be expected. “You make a mistake, my love. It’s from a daughter, and I’ve never had one of those before, though a few more could be floating around. Wouldn’t know, would I? Read the letter, and have a good day.”
Wrinkles shivered across her forehead as if a dozen adders within were having the argument of their lives. I went on with breakfast, the good news increasing my appetite.
“So you’ll see her?”
Knowing she wouldn’t want me to I said I could scarcely wait.
“I wonder what she’ll be like?”
I swabbed crumbs from my face with the napkin before she could reach across to do it herself and make me hit her. “At thirty-seven? If she’s beautiful she’ll be promiscuous, and torment me. I wouldn’t let her, of course, though I expect she’d have a go at you. On the other hand if she’s squat and ugly, with clipped prematurely greying hair and tin ethnic earrings, and a few scars from being knocked about at Greenham Common, she’ll be a lesbian, but I’m sure you’ll love her, until she makes a pass at you, that is.”
“She wouldn’t dare!” She began to clear the table. “But I don’t really like you for saying all that.”
“Still too early in the day? I don’t care whether you like me or not, as long as you love me.”
She smiled in a way that indicated she was having a new thought. “Do you know what would be the best living arrangement for us, Gilbert?”
I was glad to admit that I didn’t.
“It would be,” she simpered, “if we could each have our own private bathroom.”
“What a good idea. And an even better notion would be to have our own breakfast room and then, come to think of it, our own bedroom and sitting room. It would be ideal to have separate flats. I could put on a mask, and burgle yours now and again. So when are you leaving? Sorry, darling, I didn’t mean that. It’s just that in your divine presence I’m unable to curb my exuberance. Now, be a good girl, and bring in another pot of coffee. Or I’d like it in my study. I must get to work. Idleness is unforgivable in a busy man. I occasionally regret the time I first recognised my ability to think joined up thoughts. Perhaps it’s time I retired, but a writer can’t do that till his head turns into a cabbage. In any case I want to be the first man of a hundred to write a novel. So instead of listening to you running me down all the time I’ll get to work. I only ask that you come into my study in a couple of hours with a soft cloth soaked in eau de cologne and wipe my fevered brow.”
At which reasonable request she stumped away in what could only be termed a huff, but I loved her as much as I was capable of loving any woman which, as far as I could go, was a notion sufficiently distant for me to realise I was a human being after all, for which I was truly grateful.
In the armchair—very conducive to dozing—I muttered my favourite mantra:
“I have no choice
Either for pen or voice
But to sing and write.”
Then, to give my itching fingers some encouragement I scribbled: “It’s my ambition to produce a novel which is a complete failure, the narrative to be a mish-mash of disconnections, non sequiturs, puns, splashes of word play, well laced with the mustard of magic realism, but no logic, only cut up stories, a page here and there with the prose backwards and therefore unintelligible, until the poor bloody reader, should one remain, has to rewrite it in his mind from the bottom right of the page diagonally back to the top left corner, only to wonder, on arrival, why he hadn’t thrown the book out of the window or down the latrine, since none of it made enough sense to keep him sane.
“A long part of the novel will be a dream of consciousness swamp, a demoniacal demotic screed without capital letters or punctuation, and as for separate paragraphs, why should the reader be allowed to break off for coffee. How dare he want to? Let him go on spitting tacks till the end of the section, where he won’t be any wiser about the progress of the story, and in no way entertained.
“In the core of the book I’ll tell of a wild party on the quayside of Trieste, where I was at the end of the War, the guests of honour being Dorothy Woolf and her girlfriend Virginia Richardson, D.H. Joyce and Jimmy Lawrence, Aldous Mansfield and Kate Huxley, together known as the Cul de Sac Kids. They skinny-dip blind drunk in the Adriatic, to be pulled out and saved from death by d’Annunzio’s fascist Legionaires on their way to liberate Fiume. Our revellers are not so dead, however, because after a few flagons of fiery Chian
“The longer the novel—at least six hundred pages—and the greater its failure, the more will it be regarded, such contempt for the reader being no more than they deserve. Factories of academics will keep themselves on eight-hour shifts for half a century at least, analysing a novel that many might buy but only masochists finish reading.
“But can I do it? Do I have it in me to bring off such a fraudulent work? Is there enough energy and anti-talent in my head? Do I have the genius to believe that such an enormous literary trash-bin of a novel is the road to immortality and possible redemption?—before going on to write a novel people might enjoy, love me for, and forget in a fortnight? Would it not be better and more pleasurable to cure my angst by going to the Black Crikey for a rocket polishing from Polly Peacham, and set myself on course to write another Sidney Blood in clear English?”
I was saved from my asinine burblings by a ring of the doorbell and, before Mabel could stir from washing up the breakfast things I was off to find out who was about to Porlock me, wondering whether it was my long lost daughter.
“Beg to report, sir, Sergeant Straw come to give further details of the expedition to Greece.”
Not for the first time had my sanity been saved by the bell. “Come in, Sergeant.”
“Make it Bill, sir. We’ve known each other such a long time.”
There was no getting away from his military bearing, and while leading a way into the living room I again regretted that such a fine figure hadn’t found his way into my platoon during the War. “You arrived just in time, Straw. I want you to write a novel for me.”
He gave the usual British infantryman’s half smile when asked to do something he thought he had little chance of bringing off, but would do it all the same, an attitude which lost me many of my best men. “You flatter me, Major Blaskin. I’ll do it, of course, but is that coffee I smell?”
I called Mabel, to bring a pot and two cups into my study. “Now, what about my erring son Michael?”
“I wrote a despatch about that from near Thebes, but I suppose the postal donkey’s still light-footing it over the Alps, and it’ll take another fortnight to get here. Unfortunately you didn’t provide the expedition with a wireless truck to have the report sent back in Morse. Anyway, Michael was all right when we got back this morning, though I expect he’s being tortured in Moggerhanger’s cellar at the moment.”
Mabel, aware of his arrival, carried in the tall silver pot and my best Meissen cupware. “I know I mentioned a novel, Sergeant Straw, but don’t try to frighten me about Michael’s present situation.”
“It’s only my sense of humour, sir. You know what sergeants are. Biscuits go well with coffee.”
I watched him go through a packet of the best custard creams while telling into the hand-held tape recorder all that had happened on the Mainland. “So you abandoned Michael at Moggerhanger’s gate, when he needed you most?”
He belched, allowable in the sergeant’s mess, such a ripe tone it was hard to believe this was his first breakfast. “No, sir. I might even say I left him an my part in a spirit of self-sacrifice. I did think of going in with him, because then I might have talked Moggerhanger into giving me some work, which I sorely need. But I know that while Michael’s got a lot of explaining to do, he talks much better on his own. So I left him to it. I only hope he gets me mentioned in Moggerhanger’s despatches for all the help I gave.”
“And what, exactly”—I leaned back in my chair—“could you do in the way of employment for the exalted robber-baron Lord Moggerhanger?”
“Let’s put it this way, sir. I’m an all-round man—who’s as thin as a rake. I’ve done everything, though I left off robbery with violence after coming out of the army. I like to threaten violence these days rather than use it, but you have to be prepared to use it, and when you do, go in without hesitation. I can do that a treat, as I did in Greece for Michael, and don’t know of any time it hasn’t worked. But violence for its own sake, that’s not me, sir. If somebody owes money, or has information that wouldn’t do a certain person any good if it was revealed, they expect a man of substantial build and an ugly face to get it out of them. But when they see an ex-soldier to his finger tips like me, with rolled umbrella, and respectably dressed, they think I might have cut the privates off a few of the enemy in my time, and really get the shakes, for fear I do it to them. Ah yes, they do whatever is needed, without any violence from me. I will say one thing, though, I’ve never threatened to get money out of a person I knew to be poor. Not in my line, sir. I did petty thieving in my young days, and indulged in smuggling now and again for a bit of ready cash, as Michael will tell you, and I’ve even pulled off the odd confidence trick. What I like most of all, though, is driving a getaway car, but the trouble is the model’s more like a tea-caddy on wheels to give me much of a thrill. Anything swish would be too conspicuous. All the same, whoever’s on my tail, I lose them, and don’t hurt pedestrians, either.”
He gave that self-glorifying laugh so designed to captivate and impress a sedentary tale spinner like me, ending with: “I tell you, sir, Michael and me have done some dodgy work in our time.”
“You’re so bright and smart, Straw, I simply can’t understand why you haven’t gone higher in life.”
He stood, as if about to give the most impeccable salute ever seen on Horse Guards Parade. Thank God he didn’t. “The thing is, sir, it would be too dull, striving to get on like all the happy savers worrying about their insurance. They’re ten a penny, and there’s something to be said for what feeling different does to your self-respect.”
I slapped my thigh with delight. “Quite right, Straw,” thinking it amazing how much a man of the lower orders could be in tune with someone of such breeding as myself. “Do go on.”
“The thing is, sir, I’m fundamentally untrustworthy. Oh, I don’t mean to people like your good self. To you I’ll be as reliable at the North Pole, and as straight as a die. I’m only untrustworthy to myself in never knowing what I’ll do next. That’s what makes life so exciting, and why I’ll never settle down. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
“I do recall,” I said, hoping to take him down an inch or two, “that your adventures with that son of mine landed him in prison.”
“We all have to do our time in the glasshouse, sir. Wouldn’t be men if we didn’t.” He rubbed his palms, whether from regret, or because they itched, I knew not. “I agree it was regrettable what happened to Michael, but we were young—or younger, anyway. I won’t go into details—no name no pack drill—but it was because he got set up by Moggerhanger. It was also due to Michael’s bad luck, and a bit of his carelessness thrown in.”
What novelist wouldn’t be interested in such an exposition of low-life philosophy? From what other sort of person can we get ideas and material for stories? “Are you able to type, Sergeant?”
Having finished the dregs of coffee, and the last crumb of biscuit, he got to his feet as if the question offended him. “Of course I can, sir. I’m not illiterate. I once did a spell in the orderly room. Picked it in no time. Only two fingers, but I’m as fast as those who use all they’ve got.”
Such a promising response told me I could set him going on my old Remington. He would work, I knew, till Moggerhanger offered something more in line with his capabilities, though after a bout of such employment I would reap even greater benefit from the details of his further experience. “All you have to do is sit at the dining room table with a stack of A4 paper, and type everything from the tape recorder—to begin with. Just sit down and keep going.”
He upended the coffee pot, and when nothing came out, reached for the milk jug and drank from that. “That won’t be a problem, sir. You leave it to me. The o
I waited for a moment of inspiration. “Call it ‘Blood’s Blood Money.’ As soon as you have it down I’ll knock it into shape.”
“No problem, sir. I did one for you about three years ago, and it was as easy as pie. I can’t wait to get going.”
“Splendid. You’re a good chap, Straw.”
His expression was modest. “I hate to have to ask you this, Major Blaskin.”
“Well, what is it now?” I demanded, a little tetchily.
“Will it be all right if I start after lunch?”
I couldn’t help but feel a sense of accomplishment as I drove into Moggerhanger’s compound. On the other hand the clang of the shut gate made me think of the arena in Roman times, when the gladiator was barred from turning back on going in to fight for his life.
I decided there had to be two of me—where would I have been without them?—and wouldn’t have minded having three or even four, for at least one of us would then have had a chance of walking out to enjoy the future.
Still inside the Rolls, I lit a cigar, and thought that if there were four, what could their characteristics be? I would consider the first to be that still lurking latchkey single parent slum brat who, as an adult, rarely forgot such a beginning. Secondly would come the juvenile delinquent who had never been caught by the police because he was sly enough and smart enough to keep out of their way, too intent in any case on getting his hot fingers into the knickers of any available girl. The third personality would be the cocky young man who launched himself on London, reinforced by the jungle-like street credibility of the first two, up for every chance and thinking he could never come to harm, but landing in prison for a year. Lastly there was the me of now, who after some experience in the deviousness of the advertising trade, considered himself too second to none to be afraid of a jumped up hidebound hypocritic bastard like Moggerhanger.
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