Moggerhanger, p.3
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       Moggerhanger, p.3

           Alan Sillitoe

  “You’re an insulting bastard,” my very own personal beggar said.

  Well, maybe I was, and felt ashamed, and knew that I needed to make a real financial gesture against the view of my ex-colleagues at the advertising agency with regard to beggars, and towards me becoming my old sympathetic self again. Who could begrudge him a five pound note? He had been right to throw the measly coin away. “Take this, then, and buy a few custard pies.”

  He held it to the light to make sure I hadn’t printed it that morning, and left the head on upside down, then turned his lit up face to me. “Cheers! That’s what I call generous. I come from Chesterfield, to work the patches down here now and again. I earn enough in a day to last a month in that hole. I’m studying for my ‘0’ Levels at night school.”

  He ran off to get himself a pint, I hoped, and I zig-zagged the streets as if soaking up the geography to become a taxi driver, heels hot and toes sore from walking so little in the last few years. Frances had asked me to buy a few score stamps from the post office close to my pint and sandwich place, so I went into the one on Albemarle Street.

  The woman before me in the queue had dark skin and a good shape, legs clothed by black slacks, hair flaring into a regal Queen of Sheba headdress, flashing teeth on smiling at a cartoon in the Evening Standard. I’d bring her pears and ripe black figs and damson-coloured muscatels to see her eat and imagine what she could do afterwards in bed. She was a feast for the eyes, so who wouldn’t relish her?

  She gave in a couple of packets at the guichet, knickers to a friend perhaps. On putting the receipt and change into her Gracchi handbag she dropped a kleenex, and though I would pick up a woman’s handkerchief in the hope of a smile for gallantry, then get talking to her, invite her for coffee, or even lunch, whether I was nearly broke or not, and subtly by little pulling her into bed, I was damned if I would latch my digits onto a piece of tissue which might have a fleck of snot on it, no matter how lickerish she might look on devouring my platters of fruit.

  To my astonishment and chagrin a man who had finished his turn at the pigeon hole handed her the kleenex back with such a smile you’d think it was pure silk and belonged to Marie Antoinette. She smiled oh so graciously, and from my turn at the counter I saw them talking amicably on the way out, his hand close to her elbow as if they might be heading for a smart bit of congress on the street.

  Such knightly behaviour was of a very high order, I told myself, and I would remember, true or not, that he had even given up his place in the queue to play the cavalier. The old Michael Cullen would have beaten him to it, snot or not, and got off with her in a flash, and pushed any other intruding ratface out of the way with a look that melted him to sewer juice, but I had become soft and slow, if not stupid, in thrall too long to my lovely doctor wife (nevertheless more of a beauty than the woman in the queue) who would chuck me into the street when I told her I had lost a job which she had always seen as just right for the likes of me, and who could blame her?

  I’d have to sharpen myself up. It could have been me, and should have been, walking with that personable woman to share a fourposter at a posh hotel in the Thames Valley for two hundred quid a night, but worth every penny. Having lost her made my liver ache. I had lived with Frances for three years, and no longer knew who I was, just as she didn’t much know who she was, I supposed, after living with me.

  I walked along Piccadilly towards Knightsbridge, in a mood not at all like any of Michael Cullen’s in former times. Things had to alter. Maybe wisdom only came when they did.

  Chapter Two.

  “There are more funerals to go to when you get older,” Blaskin was saying. “My appointment’s book is full of them, but I never go to any, in case I catch cold and die. I’m not much above sixty, but I crossed the good old River Rubicon a long time ago.”

  In the beginning was the word, which he would sooner or later use to start a novel. Whatever word was put into his mind switched him into full spate at the sight of me in the doorway.

  “People are cracking up so fast you’d think God had auctioned off His old fashioned single shot musket and gone back to the Middle East to buy a machine gun for a guinea. I’m afraid to open The Times and read the obituaries of those who have popped off at my age or younger. Or I’m terrified at finding my own obituary—though I should be so lucky—and then where would I be? I’d have to get up from my cosy study and find out who it was had killed me, so that I could kill him, then do the right thing and die.”

  I sat on the sofa without waiting for the invitation. Nearer seventy than sixty, my father didn’t look much above fifty. Unlike most people, it was boozing, smoking, and humping young women that had stopped age crumbling him. He was tall and lithe, and not the man to get on the wrong side of.

  I hadn’t called to hear about the dead and dying but to unload my troubles, if such they turned out to be, though I should have known that a walking penis like Blaskin would only hear me when he was ready, the drunken bastard so needing to whinge about his hard life as a novelist that he had neither time nor space for anybody else.

  “Of course, God does scythe down the young as well.” He smiled at the notion, drawing red fire to the tip of a choice Havana, and giving the glass of five-star Napoleon a touch of his rubbery lips. “If he didn’t, a superabundance of the vicious young would kill too many of us off in our prime, in their scramble to get old and enjoy the durian fruits of age themselves. Life is a battlefield, and no mistake.”

  As if even speech wore him out—though it never could—he lay back in his armchair, the folds of his Mandarin-style dressing gown falling around a long body terminated at the top by a head utterly bereft of hair. The long white scar down the middle of his pink scalp, which he swore came from a too close encounter with German shrapnel at the Gothic Line in Italy during the war was, so I believed, the hatchet mark of a maddened husband.

  His lips and nose were large, forehead noble—to be fair—but his big ears hadn’t been serviceable enough to hear a jealous husband on the stairs, nor his blue eyes sufficiently acute to see him, before the unclothed woman by his side could scream a warning. He used the incident, properly disguised, in one of his immortal novels—as he liked to call them—telling how the husband had gone to board a plane for Hong Kong and, finding the departure time put back five hours, went home to spend it with his ever-loving wife. Catching her in bed with Blaskin, he went calmly to the kitchen for a sharp and shining cleaver, and came out to do the business.

  Back from the hospital, bandaged like a mummy of Ancient Egypt, Blaskin consoled himself that he had lived through an unusual experience. The marks of a lifetime gave such a raffish aspect to his appearance that even young girls, out of curiosity mostly, wanted to get closer, and he had never been one to turn them down.

  How long he would maunder on didn’t bear thinking about, and I could have waited more patiently had a drink been on offer but, from malice rather than meanness, his generosity was erratic. Him being my father it would be difficult flattering him into pushing the bottle forward, so I had to wait on my feet till his drawling smatter of tabletalk came to an end, and he looked up as if seeing me for the first time. I might have been a piece of driftwood instead of his only son. “And what, dear boy, brings you here, so close to dawn?”

  Mabel Drudge-Perkins came from the kitchen with a beaker of powdered chicory for me, and a silver pot on a tray with cup and saucer for Blaskin, the aroma of his coffee suggesting the best mocha. Did she think I was the window cleaner, or the plumber? She got a nod, but no thank you.

  Mischief in Blaskin’s eyes led to a touch on her arse as she leaned gracefully to pour for him. “How kind of you, my love,” he said.

  She was in her middle forties, fair hair neatly bunned, cold blue eyes, straight nose, censorious lips, and sculptured bosom under a white blouse buttoned to the neck. Her lips were set in a curve of eternal disappointment, perhaps after a decade of l
iving with Blaskin, because if his first purpose on earth was serial philandering, and the next an indulgence in writing novels, a third was to torment her sufficiently to make sure she would never leave him.

  “Don’t go away, darling. I know you like your elevenses in the kitchen so that you can cool the coffee with your tears, but I prefer to have you with me now and again, and not only in bed. I’m a modern man, after all. Women’s Liberation rules my heart.” He turned to me. “As I hope it does yours, my one and only—or so I have to take your mother’s word for it—son.”

  “Bollocks.” I admired his tomahawk parenthesis, and was not unpleased when Mabel’s left eye flickered at my language.

  “You see, Michael,” he said, “it’s not done to use a swear word in front of a lady. The world is full of divine, courageous, energetic, beautiful, intelligent and self-sacrificing women, who are too often married—or otherwise associated with—brutal, ugly, unfeeling and treacherous men. It’s very sad, but that’s why, if you fall off the carousel of matrimony, it can be dashed hard to take up with someone again.”

  Mabel watched her lover sip from the superfine Meissen cup. “That’s very true, Gilbert,” she said, with a glint of fight in her eyes, “so men such as you have to be careful, and not drive them too far.”

  “The likes of me,”—her phrasing clearly displeased him—“were born careful, but this coffee, my love, tastes so good you must have put in a fair measure of deadly nightshade. You do excel yourself now and again.”

  “Which reminds me,” she said, “isn’t it time you tidied your study? It’s in an awful mess.”

  “Let it stay that way. Neatness is a sign of old age. As long as it’s in a state of squalor I know where everything is. Your passion for creating order out of chaos has cost me a novel or two in the past. Ever since we got together you’ve wanted to destroy me as a writer so that I’ll pay unremitting attention to you, and if it wasn’t for a beautiful foreign girl coming through the door now and again to talk to me about a thesis on my work I might forget I ever was a writer.”

  A glint in her eye told me she might think that would be no bad thing, while I began to wonder whether there could be any paternal connection when he rattled on so cruelly, but my mother, meeting him again twenty years after the event, had persuaded me, and him, that such was the fact. Around the time of my conception she had been a factory worker, and more liberated than most women today, as free as dandelion fluff, with maybe a different lover every night—or so my grandmother had once said, thinking me too young to understand.

  How Blaskin had been deceived I didn’t know. There wasn’t much physical similarity between him and me, yet I dreaded living till sixty and going bald. I was the same height, and might still inherit a scar down my skull. He and my mother were convinced I was his son, and perhaps it was true. Only the uncertainty was precious, but if I was, everything being possible, how could I be disappointed? Whomever I came from I was still me.

  “Yes,” he said to Mabel, “I recall the heady days when I first got you over the bath and shafted you like the devil I was. Do you remember, my delectable ice maiden? Her scream, Michael, when she had an orgasm, sounded like another execution in Red Square. Then she said she hadn’t had one, to take me down a peg or two.”

  “I hate you, Gilbert, I really do.”

  “For God’s sake leave her alone,” I said.

  He laughed, hardly on his worst form. “She loves it. Why does she sit there if she doesn’t? Oh, I know, she wants to see how far I’ll go, but curiosity will be her downfall. In any case, my delicious icing cake, you’ll be here forever. When we did a runner to the South Seas three years ago she tried to kill me, then got frightened at the notion of having nothing left to live for if I popped my clogs. So she nursed me back to health, and her sentimental attention almost put me back at death’s door. Being a novelist I know her better than she does herself, and she doesn’t appreciate the advantages of being so understood and affectionately cared for.” He tinkled the silver apostle spoon around the empty cup. “Whenever I hear your melodious voice, dear Mabel, my heart’s no longer a desert. Is that what you want to hear?”

  “Something like that. I don’t know whether or not I love you, Gilbert, but you’re certainly a factor in my life.”

  Though I didn’t like having such a grand seat at the Wimbledon sex war they made it hard for me to go back on the street and think ordinary peoples’ lives were more exciting. Strawberries and cream would have been a help. I recalled Geoffrey Harlaxton treating me to prime seats once, but here I was at a different match, unable to escape Blaskin’s Great Game playing before my eyes and too close to the insides of my ears. If this was how Englishmen treated their women I was as Irish as my mother claimed our antecedents to be. I knew I was different. I charmed women, made them laugh and feel wanted, looked on older ones as queens, and younger ones as princesses, so as to get any of them sooner into bed.

  “Whenever,” Blaskin began coolly, which I knew he wouldn’t be for long, “somebody says you’re a factor in their life, especially your wife or paramour, tell her, in no uncertain terms, to spirit herself away and never come back.”

  “I’ll remember that,” I said.

  “Do.” He turned. “Mabel?”

  “Yes, Gilbert?”

  “I want you out of the flat for the rest of the day. I’m expecting a foreign research student in an hour, so go and spend a happy time shoplifting in Harrod’s. You’ve no idea how skilful she is at it, Michael. She takes a reticule, dresses like a Chelsea woman locked out of the Flower Show, and comes home laden with goodies. Nowhere’s safe in that establishment, from the furniture department to the food hall. I hope she’ll be caught one day and get put inside for a year, so that I can have a mite of peace. Trouble is though she would be in her element there, and set up a workshop for petty thieving in no time. But she’s too damned clever to get caught.”

  “It’s fiction, Mr Cullen.” She blushed, as I took out a cigarette and waited for Blaskin’s next serve. “All fiction,” she said, though with such a smile I couldn’t take it for the truth.

  “Oh no it’s not. She brought back that box of Romeo and Juliet cigars last week, which turned into scotch mist as soon as I had my hands on them. But to return to the topic of heretofore. Whenever I’m expecting a research student I contrive to be struggling with the vacuum cleaner as she comes through the door. She sees my sad attempt to get it going. I can’t even find the socket to plug it into, so the dear girl takes it with a smile of ‘Oh what can you expect from a such a great novelist?’ and ends by hoovering the flat more thoroughly than Mabel ever could, who’s English to the bone. Then, to reward my pretty little student, I fumble around the kitchen, as if to get something to eat. She gives a little tinkling laugh of disbelief as I put spaghetti into a saucepan with no water, and ends by cooking a wonderful continental meal, the sauce enough to melt the tastebuds. It’s not the watery soft cabbage, brown paper roast beef, rehydrated potatoes and tinned carrots I get from Mabel, who tries to outdo my old boarding school. Nothing like that. It’s a meal fit for a gentleman. I open a couple of bottles of choice wine, the label depending on her nationality, to encourage my gorgeous student further, and after the last delicious drops of her coffee we fall into bed for the best of desserts.”

  “Every word he speaks is false,” Mabel said. “I can’t think why he doesn’t save it for a novel. It might be so much better there, though I doubt it.”

  “He used it in the novel before the last,” I reminded her. “I’ve read them all, and it wasn’t very convincing, either.”

  She turned from me and said: “Gilbert, I’m sick and tired of hearing you say such awful things before me over and over again. It bores and distresses me terribly. I can’t listen to anymore of it.”

  I was ready to agree, and take her part, until she came close to the tears he so much wanted to see. “The next thing
he’s going to say, Michael, is that I’m a lesbian.”

  “I know she’s improving when she realises what I’m going to say next. But I only say such things to amuse her. A man who can’t make a woman laugh is the lowest of the low. Besides, darling,” he said to her, “you have such a wonderfully shaped behind to inspire me, like jelly escaped from its mould. Still I love you to madness, and you know it. I’ve never loved anybody else. There, what more can I say? In any case, you come from very good stock, a fact that means so much to me, such a line of nobility I’m sure your family has a long entry in the Almanac of Gotha.”

  I couldn’t have stopped her. Nobody could. I knew what was coming and so, I’m sure, did Blaskin, who went on full red alert, though he was unable to prevent a real life happening that would certainly read well in a future novel. Wasn’t his popularity with readers based on the fact that he could always ‘make something happen’? Now he had. Perhaps it was what he had hoped for all along.

  Mabel stepped to the tray by his side, lifted it high, and let all that was on it fall squarely over him. Cup and saucer, milk and sugar, napkin and spoon struck his baldness and ricocheted over the carpet. “There, you foul beast. That’s what you wanted, and now you have it.”

  He pushed the tray aside. “You’ll only have to clean everything up.”

  Her eyes were gleaming. “The student will have to do it, won’t she? If she comes.”

  “Oh, she’ll come all right, much sooner than you ever did.”

  “You never made me come,” she cried. “Never. You’re not capable of it.”

  “I know. Only a lesbian could make you come, if she rowed you like a galley slave.”

  She turned to me. “What did I tell you. I said he’d bring that up sooner or later.”

  I made such a good spectator my neck was turning to rubber. If I could write a book, I thought, I’d put him in it, and make sure he died by the end. “Leave me out of it,” I said.

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