But since …
Dies illa, dies irae, calumitatas et miseriae, dies magna et amara valde.
A great day and exceeding bitter. Were it not for young Elaine he would a widower be. Who would? I could no more successfully cut a real Heidi’s throat with a pen than she could kill herself like that.
We must take stock, review what we have so far, award marks out of a hundred for execution, recap for readers who have a poor attention span or have skipped earlier chapters. Aims must be reconsidered in the light of failures and successes achieved up to now. We must ask ourselves (yes, this includes you): what are we trying to do? as well as: what have we been doing? Here goes.
After all this, where are we? Have we got anywhere at all? Elaine, a woman now, a mother too; but here you are, a life saver, a hero at a tender age, raising the alarm and saving the Heidi; and Dai, not much use with this swimming head and Wendy likewise; but she only has that trouble in the book. She’s drunk but I’m forgetting; so am I — or is it, so is he?
Hold on to all this. The ground slips away. The journey begins anew. New growth, new microcosm. But the same old shitty world. All we need to know is buried in all this waffle: things have happened and will continue to happen, my characters have undergone their changes, their experiences. We could go back to any page and check on what has gone before (oh, and I do) or look ahead to the end (already written) to see if the butler did it (I tell you now that he did not, there is in fact no butler in the book). So, things have happened or seem to have happened (worry not, there will be no long dissertations on the relationship of fiction to life and such sententious crap — or then again there just might be — who knows but those who have already read the rest?). If we just keep those things vaguely in mind, no need to make notes, this book is not for University study or Eng Lit critters, it’s just a bit of fun, that’s all it is; those memories might make it easier to wade through to the bitter, for such it may be, end. On our way we will hope to sight the occasional hairy snatch of narrative, the great white whale of fact. Perhaps reading it through again, or other stories like it, clutching these facts tightly to us, like a teddy bear, will help us make it through the long dark night. The books are different,
the reader changes but remains the same essential victim of the author’s übergeistliche pen (and don’t look it up, I just coined the word, so even if it does exist it probably doesn’t mean what I meant, whatever that was).
You know, I have a strange sinking feeling that this is getting to be symbolic. These tendencies must be avoided. Speak plainly, Lowe, or cease from speaking.
Come now, what drunk ever spoke plainly? My method must be true to my matter. A man, accompanied by a frightened, naked
was she naked? Maybe, maybe not, let’s keep her that way now, it’ll make the movie more popular. So read it through again and bear in mind what we now know but carry on from the word naked
schoolgirl, both of them inebriated and maybe Wendy with them, brought round slightly by the shouting and the shock of it all — perhaps not, let’s leave her in the bedroom we’ve enough trouble without her falling about all over the place and we’re overdue for a large, bold F — Failing to gain entrance to the locked bathroom, failing to get any reply, there must be a way
a way to what? A way to get into the bathroom, a way to help Heidi and a way to write without this dependence on all who wrote before. Well, with the dependence but without it being so bloody obvious. Keep going, there must be a way
to get into the bathroom, that was it; it becomes so easy to lose sight of one’s purpose when focusing is so difficult. Looking back with a little more clarity, in the cold light of dawn, I ask myself, was I or would I have been right to emulate all those films and decide there and then to smash down the door? And the answer is Yes, I’ve always wanted an excuse to do that, though I would have preferred less harrowing circumstances. But it was all my fault anyway.
A lost bean tin. Jeez, there’s a symbol for you. Fortunately, I’ve no fixed idea of what it symbolises so it won’t tie the themes down too tightly. But what an image for the fuddled mind, as I dimly recalled Emma Peel, turned my back on the door and swung my right heel smartly against it with a loud cry of Hah!! Followed swiftly by Aaaagh! as the door, having never watched The Avengers, remained unmoved by my effort or my pain but the bean tin and my possibly dead and bloodless wife
Try the more traditional shoulder; that took three goes, caused more pain but with the third, full of determination, in front of my whole weight, the door flew open, the rather flimsy bolt torn free of the wood and we’re free to continue when my mind clears a little and breath returns and the pain fades, just give me a moment
Start again, set out: a journey of a thousand pages (don’t worry, only metaphorically) begins with the first word but where does it end? (As Henry Gibson tells us, there are no good griefs). Well, we start from here with Heidi’s body, lifeless, as I may have mentioned, but still alive. A cool head is required in a situation like this. The first problem surmounted, there is a clear plan of action to be followed, no call to be shaken by little setbacks on the way, a simple sequence of actions and decisions.
We panicked even more. Elaine threw up at the sight of the blood. Had she not got to the lavatory pan first, I might have done likewise.
Conundrum; how to take the pulse of a person with slashed wrists? (Yes, I know now that the neck would do but I hadn’t seen the right medical dramas at that point — which illustrates both the purpose and the weakness of fiction.)
Let’s say there was no need, a slight movement of the chest was visible, a movement that can be mentioned without dwelling on the delicious form of the breasts, as such thoughts would not arise in such a context. Not to these characters, depraved as they may be, not to you, of course, nor to those who patiently await the big-screen version. No doubt people do exist who would lick their lips at the sight; who, with sheer malicious joy, would take pleasure from the image of the helpless victim as first consciousness and then life itself ebbed away. There must be hope for them, though it is hard to see it from here. No matter, this is not that kind of book, popular though they may be.
Eventually or, one could say, quite quickly really, the mind, in a state of deep shock, either switches off altogether or disengages the fears, the misery, the aaaagggghhhh! A gash on the cheek may feel quite detrimental but severed limbs oft cause no pain (lyric, man, lyric!). Numbed by the enormity of it all or maybe just too pissed to pass out or join his wife on the road to oblivion, Dai became quite matter-of-fiction, moving and acting in a quasi-efficacious way (to put it as charitably as possible) and so did Elaine, even if she had thrown up: maybe we could say she hadn’t, after all.
Knowledge gained in a recent class on first aid being reasonably fresh in her addled mind (oh, how she now wished she’d paid more attention to the subject and less to the eyes of the boy playing ‘victim’ — which illustrates both the purpose and the weakness of education), she was capable of rushing to the lounge, taking up her night-dress or some other suitable piece of
material, a pillowcase or sheet perhaps and rushing back to apply a tourniquet to each of Heidi’s arms.
In the ears a ringing. Well-meaning; around purposefully moving. Nothing doing. For an ambulance, you fool, telephone. Elaine to the rescue again. Simonetta Vespucci, where are you now that we need you most? (and don’t look her up, I can’t remember why I said that, so she probably isn’t relevant to what I meant, whatever that was).
Fumbling for clothes. In a hurry, a pair of Y-fronts becomes a mobius strip of poly-cotton. Dai gave up for trousers worn without. Trousers worse, a klein bottle, a woven cat’s cradle. Socks inside out, no matter which way worn. Shoes at least on the right feet and, with sufficient concentration, tied. Grabbing at the only remaining piece of material within reach, he ran downstairs, pulling on Heidi’s jumper as he went.
The stench of vomit. Or was there? Someone’s vomit, maybe his own. Maybe just an illusion or an author’s whim. Illusions need not be consistent; why should life? Self-indulgent bugger: get to the phone, hurry, I think she’s all right for now, the bleeding seems to have slowed. He rushes out and down three flights of stairs and out the door into the rain-soaked street.
Give our hero a break. Now he must stop and think, as must we all, from time to time. Three questions assail Dai as character and as author, as one stands in the rain and the other sits in the library. Has the large green door, if it is green, shut behind him? Has he brought with him a key with which to re-enter the house? And finally and most worrying, is there not a telephone in the flat? A fourth question — where is the nearest phone box? — gave rise to the third question and is now left in abeyance while the answer is sought.
For the character, this is merely a matter of racking his brains for a memory which, now the question has occurred to him, should not be far away. A matter of seconds and a passage like: Having run downstairs and into the street, trying to remember where the nearest phone box was, he suddenly struck his head in amazement at his own stupidity. The flat itself contained a telephone! He turned to go back in but the large door, with it’s serendipitously symbolic French pun, had swung shut behind him. Frantically he groped in his pockets for a key … and so on; but these are all decisions yet to be made, in my time if not in yours. If the flat does indeed have a phone, this could have been sorted out and the appropriate sentences written and others deleted without the reader ever noticing. The wastebaskets of the history of literature must be overflowing with such instances. Hamlet could well have been written out of his own play with the stark stage instruction dies, at the end of To be or not to be (and one could hardly blame him) before our Will realised that it rather spoilt the rest of the plot. Perhaps young Master Twist was originally given a second helping, thanks to the innate humanity of his hosts or at least from a practical need to get rid of the leftover gruel before it solidified in the pan (have you ever tried to clean a pan with day-old gruel stuck to it?).
Let’s face it, the author, on realising his mistake, could have removed all reference to the fictional Dai’s rather unlikely departure, no doubt past the telephone on Wendy’s hall table, rather than trying to explain it away, as he now does, to a momentary aberration due to drink and panic — assuming the flat does have a telephone; since it could be that the top flat of Number Ten, Grosvenor Terrace, York is not, in this year of grace Nineteen Hundred and Seventy Nine, on the telephone after all. The fact is, writing some years after his last visit to the flat, where he never really had the good fortune to live (unless of course it is there and not in a library that these words are being written and, later, typed) Dai had simply forgotten whether the flat contained a telephone or not. Being reasonably sure that there was no pay phone in the communal entrance hall, he had sent Dai out into the rain and then started to investigate the location of York’s phone boxes. No easy task. No maps available in Warwick provide such information. They are not listed in phone books.
Don’t worry, it will pass.
To be sure, the research is a wonderful thing (thank you, real Wendy). ‘Tis pity the memory is not so great an accomplishment (curse you, real Dai). Too long has been wasted on thought. Now is the time: the time for action, as the song tells us.
Realising, in fact, that he had just passed a pay phone in the hall (yes indeed, there it was all the time), he turned quickly, his brain continuing for a full nine hundred degrees, though his head had stopped after a mere one hundred and ninety, in time to see the huge door of whatever colour swinging to behind him (ignoring all previous suggestions that it may already have closed). Making what was, in the circumstances, a superhuman effort for a slob, he leapt up the stairs with arms outstretched, thrusting the door back and nearly tearing it from its hinges as he executed a perfect forward roll which ended with him standing by the hall table, clutching the telephone handset to his left ear.
Unfortunately, the momentum he had gathered in this spectacular gymnastic display had not all been dissipated and he therefore followed it by executing a perfect crumple to the floor before rising unsteadily and dialling the three nines that would bring Heidi’s salvation. Thus love conquers all.
To be honest though, our hero’s relationship with Heidi got under way for rather less romantic reasons: she would, the others wouldn’t. No, I’m not just talking about screwing, though he had the standard fears about being hit by a number twenty-one bus while still a virgin schoolboy. I refer to absolutely anything in excess of hi there, knob head or an occasional smile in the school corridor.
Consider this a flashback if you like, to a past shared out unequally between fiction, fantasy, historical fact and memory. One needs this sort of thing, this going back to squeeze old spots, back to those good-old formative years without whose help so little literature would have been possible. A quiet, uneventful childhood is not allowed. You could be drummed out of the literary genius union for not having had a mother who came home drunk once a week and beat seven kinds of shit out of your old man with a large wet cod, wearing only fishnet stockings (this last clause can apply to mother, father or fish). Better still if this ritual was performed in the cot where you lay, trying hard to think the beautiful thoughts of unsullied infancy.
I do exaggerate slightly. He did go out with a few girls but, having successfully, albeit with difficulty, cleared the first few obstacles, there was always a refusal at the puissance, as it were, a jump which seemed higher every time, as rejection reinforced awkwardness and the fear of making that first physical contact — oh, yes, I’m talking about the first touch here, not the final thrusts: it was that bad, at least back there in fiction-land. I certainly don’t want to mention any names from those early years. Most of the principal characters in this book are intended to bear the names of real persons either living or dead or both: as Ida, who never was, so rightly, nonetheless, suggested, only the personalities have been changed to confuse identification and to protect the innocent and guilty alike. Even if I wished to, I could not justifiably commit my view of any real but insignificant personalities to writing and offer them to you as some form of truth. Oh dear: did I say insignificant? You see my problem. I merely wished to imply that these people have no striking role to play on the stage of history — whether those who make it into the textbooks and biopics do alter its course, others may fight over — and, not setting themselves up as anything, they have every right to remain free from public praise or vilification. There are many who claim that the only source of stimulating conversation left to man is the demolition of annoying but absent acquaintances. There’s no denying that it’s very easy to get involved in a wholehearted bout of character-assassination but, every now and then, a small voice asks what these people, who now agree with my scathing criticisms of A and B, have to say about me in my absence. The fact that A and B and I were sitting in the same pub only yesterday, picking holes in my current co-calumnists does not make me feel any better. So I ask myself why we can’t just say these things to their subjects’ faces; why we don’t live in a culture where objective criticism is seen as a useful thing that can be accepted or rejected with minimal pain on either side, so people can see theirsel’s as ithers see them and decide for theirsel’s whether they had overlooked some area for improvement? And I tell myself that, without these rituals of apparent hypocrisy, the fabric of society would soon collapse. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.
No coins are necessary for emergency telephone calls so there was no need for the desperate fumbling in my pockets while waiting for the operator to reply. Stammering clearly, distinctly and tautologically, I gave the necessary and required details and a number of unnecessary and unwanted ones. I hung up and made my way back upstairs to tell Elaine the news and check on the patient. The other denizens of Number Ten peered out from the gloom behind their crack-opened doors but dared not venture out and get involved (no, don’t start me on another bout of social criticism). I propped the flat door open after Elaine let me in and, as we walked gingerly into the bathroom, I corrected my error from an earlier page, pointing out that Elaine did not apply an outmoded tourniquet but a more fashionable dressing, applying pressure to the severed arteries.
In the pale light of morning, lying there looking so peaceful, the bath now drained of bloody water, the body cleaned up but for two red-stained bandages, the faintest of pulses, the shallowest breathing and a new day beginning … and I went back down to the cold grey street to see if there was an ambulance in sight. Neither of us said a word.
I’d say that the more the names resemble those of real people I have known, the less accurately those people are represented (portrayed is definitely not the word) in these pages; but then that would not be strictly and invariably true and though the book is fiction, I would not like it to contain anything that isn’t truthful (heavy, man, heavy). It might also suggest that characters not based on anyone I’ve ever met must either be deadly inaccurate or named after real people or even (or even and even) that there are some perfectly-drawn portraits of people I do know, appended to borrowed or invented names (I was about to comment on how well fear and panic can clear the inebriate mind but after that passage, forget it). What can we say about the characters in this attic comedy? Dai is as short for David as John is Gentile for Jacob. Icumfromthevalliesandminameisdai. This is bollocks of course. And what of that unrequited schoolboy lust?
Whatever their roots — my mother, my dad and genes; an unfortnate physique — my social awkwardness and insecurity were facts of life which no amount of rational discussion with myself could hope to mollify. My stupidity was obvious, most of all to myself. Looking back, there were so many situations in which the girl sat beside me, waiting to welcome my first move, while I sat with my eyes hooked to the silver screen but my mind fully engaged in heated debate. I often wished that I’d been born female (when a sunken chest would have been even more dispiriting; but in the throes of self-pity one sees only the easy answer and none of its attendant complications) for then at least the responsibility would have been lifted from my puny shoulders by the foibles of custom, a custom that still holds good for the average boy and girl in the street, despite decades of feminist thought. But I just sat and prevaricated and procrastinated and called myself thick which I undoubtedly was and when I finally made a move out of accumulated desperation it was so clumsy that I banged my funny bone on the back of the seat and the girl was not one of those who had been exuding the scent of hopeful anticipation and so she cringed away in a manner guaranteed to make me feel utterly undesirable and lose all confidence until the next time my judgement let me down. How many opportunities did I miss for fear of rejection? I’ll never know but it’s probably no more than the ones I blew, which were probably not opportunities at all. Some girls may have been disappointed but they were probably the ones I tried to hold rather than those from whom I held back from trying. Probably. I’ve said it before but that never stops me: I seem to come over well as a friend and companion and, as one girl said when I asked her why she kept going out with me when she felt no tenderness towards me, it doesn’t look good not to have a boyfriend.
How’s that for a confessional passage, stinking of pride? But am I on trial anyway? What need have I to defend myself?
No, there is no reason, no significance. It’s just that the clearest visions of my youth or childhood are of the fearful or embarrassing moments. You may, if you’re unlucky, get the chance to share some more of them, as paper passes.
But even the depressing moments of the now quiet past can help to take the mind off the terrors of the stormy present. At least they are over and, although je do indeed regrette tout, it is, I can convince myself, too late to do anything about it and thus I relieve myself of the burden of trying to decide if I should be making any decisions regarding my current sorry state.
Will it pass? It will pass. Oh calamity, thy name is Heinz Baked Beans and here comes a wagon to cart off your wife.
Yorkshire ambulance drivers are taciturn creatures by nature and thus make it easy to say little in return. My first mumbles, protests of innocence and confusion, as guilt and embarrassment threatened to overwhelm fear and concern, were cut short by the simple question, where’s the patient?
— Follow me, or, This way, was almost all I said from then until we entered the bathroom. Elaine, now fully dressed, sat on the bog, head buried in her hands, body and mind exhausted. She stood aside and let the professionals go to work. They established that Heidi yet lived and even complimented the child on her proficient first aid.
In a clearer state of mind, one would likewise have been deeply impressed by their proficiency. They quickly had Heidi out of the bath and wrapped in an NHS blanket (Elaine had covered her in one from her bed, as keeping the victim warm seems to be standard practice. On the other hand, loosening of clothing, in the case of stroke or something… but I begin to drift again). They placed the oh so pale and still onto a stretcher and, suggesting politely where two drunks could stand out of their way, manoeuvred her down the endless flights of stairs.
I tried to climb into the ambulance beside her.
— I reckon best thing you can do is get yersen sobered up a bit, clean yersen up an’ get some rest. There’s nowt you can do right now. We’ll ‘ave ‘er in intensive care for transfusions an’ that. Come to t‘hospital later on in t‘mornin’ —you’ll not be able to see ‘er before that, anyhow.
— But it’s my wife, I mumbled while he spoke but was in no state to argue. Anyway, some part of me must have realised that argument would mean delay and delay could mean death. I stood in the middle of the road as a feeble sun struggled through the morning mists to cast the thin shadows of the poplars across the railway cutting, the bean tin and myself. The world was cold and damp.
Geography lesson: The house was not five hundred metres from the new hospital, which may or may not have been built yet, but for the novelist’s right to play with space and time; but the ambulance had to travel four times that distance, being unable, despite its name, to take advantage of the footbridge. Up Grosvenor Terrace it went, passing out of sight onto Grosvenor Road and back down Bootham Crescent. At the short burst of a siren, I turned to see it pass the end of Grosvenor Terrace along Bootham to the Gillygate traffic lights.
It seems my brain had a similarly tortuous route to the realisation that the man had not been very specific as to before when I should not be allowed to visit or even where I should go to ask. I rang the hospital and enquired about her state of health and when I should be able to see her.
Wait a moment. Well, obviously you don’t have to wait at all but I need a pause here, even if you don’t. What I’m getting at is this: something is going wrong with this text, something which I have just noticed and would like to put right before it is, as they say, too late. According to my layout of plot and structure and all that, stuff which should ideally be transparent to the reader (the art which conceals art and all that shit), I am running behind schedule. On the other hand there is a lot of space left to fill. I know very well that great authors are often praised for their economy and, when they are, the implication is that economy and clarity are the only valid aspirations for the creative writer. This is a belief to which I subscribe only partially, as there are undoubtedly cases where the medium is the message and the message, for Western Union or otherwise, is confusion. In any case, no argument of which I am aware can excuse the omission of four whole hours (in which a few pages of something must have happened), in the middle of a single paragraph.
If Heidi lives, things will be different, I told myself. This is an opportunity for a new start and a clean break and countless other synonyms.
[The author often shows a fascination with the tools of language, the idioms, the phrases, the words and punctuation used to represent and analyse our use of words. The common misuse of language is something both to satirise and utilise for serious and comic ends. At times it is as if a boyish interest in the parsing of sentences has stuck with him since his schooldays and occasionally comes dangerously close to the surface of the text, indeed, sometimes even breaking through that surface with catastrophically embarrassing results.]
There are no really good synonyms for embarrassing. How does one avoid the overuse of such a word when it applies so well to all the incidents one remembers? A clean break is a good idea. This is a good time to leave Dai standing in the road once more (I do hope this is not symbolic too) and look at things from the outside; a luxury permitted to us but not to him.
After all and in some ways at least, the evening had gone so well. The first party in ages to be reasonably well attended. Were it not for its unsettling conclusion, Dai himself would now be lying in bed and musing on what special quality could have attracted such a horde. When, in the dim and distant, he had simply given parties, no frills, no gimmicks, the numbers had been lousy. Gatherings designated as the celebration of some particular event, such as Bloomsday, Burn’s Night or Dog Day Afternoon had seen some improvement. Attempts to raise the intellectual tone had reversed this trend. To the Proust Party, for instance, everybody came, or rather didn’t, as Albertine Disparu. At least for the Beckett party a few had gone to the trouble of sending small boys to say they couldn’t come but would surely see him tomorrow.
To go on would be too painful. We authors get very involved with our characters. Suffice it to say that ten people would once have seemed a crowd and now, for no clear reason, a considerable number, which he is too drunk and I am too apathetic to count, had turned up and even enjoyed, apparently, most of the evening. With what a slight alteration could he now be abed and looking forward, full of hope, to an ever-increasing popularity, a social success, perhaps even the inspiration necessary to write books and retrieve bean tins — and thus reduced to being utterly unsuitable material for a book. In fact, this particular Dai would then have the great good fortune to be non-existent.
Oh well, if ifs and ans were pots and pans, there’d be no need of Woolworths. The Real Dai did the Right Thing and went back upstairs, closing the door behind him and glaring at the eyes that gleamed in doorways. Inside the flat he embraced Elaine, who checked a sudden and unexplained urge to cringe from his touch and held him close to her, in silence.
They looked in on Wendy who snored in a fruity way, then, holding hands, led one another up the stairs, slipped silently out of their clothes and into bed together. There was no thought of sex and though his hand automatically caressed her back, buttocks and thighs, nothing stirred but his tears.
Do tears stir? Is this not getting rather slushy? Where has all the humour gone?
He moved against her, sliding down her body and instinctively she welcomed his lips at her nipple. They both felt strangely comforted by this primeval act.
I can stand no more of this. I should have left him on the telephone three or four hours later. Can we just say that he fell asleep in her arms and she followed him to the land of nod very soon after? No more information is necessary.
You know, sometimes writing can be a bit like some Oriental martial art. Some may accuse the writer of callously using the events of his life and the sufferings of those close to him as fodder for his works but it’s often his only way of coping with a disturbing world. It is a technique well suited to the twisted mind of a creative genius but needs a cool head to do it well: to meet, head on, the traumas and agonies of a screwed-up life and then to step to one side at the last minute and throw them deftly onto the empty page. Step too soon and they scatter something indistinct on the paper, a mere shadow of the real adversary which meanwhile turns to repeat its charge with increased ferocity. Throw too hard and they break up into indistinct pieces and sprain your arm in the process. Step too late and it is yourself that ends up splattered on the page which is then itself screwed up and thrown into the waste basket of life.
And to attempt the feat of twisting trauma into humour as you throw: that is one of the most dangerous and stupid things — no, no, please don’t call it brave — that a human being can attempt. I cling tenaciously to my instability. Not for me the drugs, the meditations, the therapists guaranteed to bring me peace and tranquility: where would my muse be then, poor, curly-headed thing? Yea, we often dice with darkness as we write; but the stale light of security — that is the soul’s paralysis, or I’m a Welshman.
[Sir. Although I understand that, if not why, it is customary for writers to refrain from responding directly to their critics, no matter how preposterous and lacking in comprehension they find them, perhaps you will forgive the naiveté of a tyro in these matters. This break with tradition seems especially justifiable in the case of your critic’s review of my novel, Fardel’s Bear (Listener, 16th June), since most of the aspects of the writing which were singled out for such a withering attack were, in fact, intended to have the very effects with which they were accused of inadvertently spoiling the work. If your reviewer cannot even identify the basic aims of the parameters or criteria under which a text is presented for his or any other reader’s judgement, I strongly feel that he should refrain from publishing his feelings, by which means he does me the grave disservice of at best misleading and at worst discouraging any potential readers who might have been able to recognise that which I should have thought was bleeding obvious.
In the two sections of my book, he singles (or should that be ‘doubles’?) out for demolition ‘two different but related faults’; whereas these ‘faults’, namely plagiarism (I would have said pastiche, but let it pass) in part one and unoriginality in part two (his distinction is perhaps more subtle than that in the text itself), were intended as part of the book’s diverse (maybe over-diverse) subject matter and as different but related virtues. I would have been content to suffer in silence, had this intent been recognised (and there is plenteous evidence in the book of an obsession with the subject of influence and originality, the eclectic and the individual voice) and then rejected as pointless or badly handled but this ignorance is too much to bear. I must confess that the novel was very nearly complete before I, an outsider to literary academe, had even heard of the twentieth century trend for what your reviewer refers to as the ‘self-aware novel’ (I believe metanovel is the usual term). Of the example cited, that of Sterne, I was aware but thought of it as a great one-off, though not, as your reviewer seems to echo Dr Johnson in doing, a literary dead end …]
Back to the action, with apologies to real critics who are far more intelligent and well-informed than that interpolation may seem to imply (creep, creep), as a comic scene ensues with the all-but-forgotten elder sister finding our two heroes of the night in a most compromising situation. Do I have to go into details? Don’t tell me that’s my job. What my job entails is for me to decide: this isn’t journalism, it’s fiction.
Wendy, with a hangover and a dressing gown, is trying to discover why her sister is not where she should be. It is a tribute to Elaine’s tidy nature that the bathroom shows no signs of the trouble it has witnessed except an incongruous but clean kitchen knife, gleaming on the windowsill and to Wendy’s fragile state that she wouldn’t notice it. So, goes upstairs is our next stage direction and it is left to the performer to interpret the throbbing head and heaving stomach, the sensitive eardrums which every creak of the stairs — no, don’t overdo it, this is not to be played, or repeated as farce: play it straight.
She enters the bedroom, merely to ask if Elaine has been seen or to check that there are still other people in the flat or perhaps to find out what day it is (motivation is such a problem for a writer). She sees two heads on pillows, or rather, one head on a pillow, the other pillowed on a bosom, and begins to back out of the room, apologetically or perhaps relieved that her intrusion has not been noticed by the sleeping couple. Again it must be stressed that the double-take should not be overplayed: just sufficiently to make credible her wincing at her own sudden movement. Clutching at her head, she steps back into the room and studies the figures on the bed to confirm that spark of recognition and her worst fears.
— Dai! Elaine!
She can say no more, as the blinding pain makes her wish that she hadn’t raised her voice. The others, blinking and weary, slowly disengage from their embrace. Elaine sits up and leans back against the wall, Dai kneels on the bed beside her. It does not occur to them to be ashamed or make fig leaves of mumbled excuses. As yet unaware of the tragic climax, Wendy is more shocked than ever by their unabashed nakedness as they stare at her with eyes slowly returning from blankness. She struggles to speak to them as quietly and calmly as possible, though she would dearly love to blow her proverbial top.
— Elaine; Dai, how could you? What am I to say, to do, I mean … ?
— Please, Wendy, wait a moment: it’s not what you think.
Wendy interrupts her sister and brings more blinding pain behind her eyeballs by snapping at Dai when he begins to speak in their defence. You’ve seen this before in a thousand comedies and will not require a detailed description of the stunned silence when Wendy is finally reminded of Heidi’s existence and told of the reason for her absence.
It may be that, looking back on the scene, Wendy would feel that Heidi’s attempt at self-slaughter had still not justified the intimacy she had witnessed that morning. She may even have suspected that her young sister had gone beyond the bounds of both compassion and decency in comforting the distressed husband. In the event however, it seems entirely credible that all such thoughts would be crowded out by the implications of the sledgehammer blow her understanding had received. Indeed, she even apologised (or apologises, if we are still thinking in terms of stage directions – but let’s not) as she sank onto the bed beside them and shared in their grief with a few silent tears of her own. Elaine cuddled her gently and Dai reached out a hand to pat her thigh before commencing a clothes-hunt.
Let us hasten this book’s farewell to nudity. All three of them were fully dressed within the next half hour and had got themselves together sufficiently to make some plans regarding the rest of the day. Much as she wanted to stay and follow the story of Heidi a little further, Elaine had to be back in Birkenhead long before the end of the novel and Wendy insisted on accompanying her to the station. She could wait until after Dai had called the hospital for news and it was now surely time to do just that.
People who have to deal with the public. On the one hand, the professional; on the other, the petty official. They seem such easy targets. The knowbetters and the jobsworths. Do their jobs make them what they are? The one insular and aloof, the other impatient and officious, both evasive and a right royal pain in the arse? Or does personality determine career? To some extent I sympathise — they must be pestered by so many nerds and wallies that impede the performance of their function, even when dealing with such people is their function. Does that wear down their ability to assess and treat the rest of us as human? Must they reduce us all to the lowest common denominator, impervious to any evidence to the contrary? I know where my tibia is, the meaning of hereditament and how a computer works, so why do doctors, lawyers and people behind counters have to patronise me as though I don’t know which way up to hold a newspaper?
There was a strong suspicion that the hospital receptionist was equipped with the standard nhs tapes of stock phrases much as a dj is equipped with jingles; phrases like as well as can be expected and making satisfactory progress, wired directly to the switchboard. Getting more from her can be similarly linked to phrases involving blood and a stone.
That sorted, she might as well not have known and it helped not a jot to express that opinion.
— Please calm down sir, we’re doing everything we can for your wife and her condition is currently satisfactory.
— Is she in intensive care or what? Is she conscious? Has she asked for me?
— The patient is resting comfortably sir. Please don’t worry. There’s nothing you can do at this point in time. She is as well as can be expected.
— But when can I see her? When …
— Visiting hours are from two until eight, though we do ask visitors not to stay while patients are having their afternoon meal which is normally between four thirty and five. Strictly no more than two visitors to a bed. Strictly no smoking on the wards. Visitors may bring …
Recitation by rote, aid by autocue. No reference to the individual case, a person in a sorry state, a particular lump of flesh and bone, alive or otherwise, among the multitude being processed at any given moment. Dai hung up. He wondered for how long the receptionist would continue with her red tape recording. She obviously ceased to listen to anything said to her on recognition of certain key words or phrases, activating the appropriate standard response. Perhaps she wouldn’t register the dialling tone either. He knew computer programs like that. He’d written his own version of mit’s famous Eliza, aptly named because it did so little and yet gave a reasonable impression of a human being — or at least a receptionist. Of course, he had to add a few quirks of his own. The amazing thing was, even though he knew exactly how it worked, it could still get right up his nose …
HI THERE FRIEND. CAN I HELP YOU IN ANY WAY?
IF I HAD A TELEVISION I WOULDN’T WATCH IT, SO THERE
>GLAD TO HEAR IT
HOW DOES A PERVERT LIKE YOU GET ACCESS TO ME?
>I LOG ON
DID YOUR PARENTS LET YOU WATCH TELEVISION AS A CHILD?
>WHAT ABOUT IT?
WHAT ANSWER WOULD PLEASE YOU MOST?
>A TRUE ANSWER
I AM THE PRODUCT OF PURE GENIUS. DON’T WASTE MY TIME >I AM NOT WASTING YOUR TIME
DO YOU THINK IT IS NORMAL TO BE NOT WASTING MY TIME?
>I THINK SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH YOUR DATA
I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT MY DATA
>WHEN YOU SAY ‘I AM THE PRODUCT OF PURE GENIUS’ YOU LEAVE EXTRA LINES
DO YOU ENJOY BEING THE PRODUCT OF PURE GENIUS’ I LEAVE EXTRA LINES?
>AND YOU DON’T OFTEN MAKE MUCH SENSE
I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE TOPIC OF DISCUSSION, NOT ME
DO YOU BELIEVE IT IS NORMAL TO BE SORRY?
>I MEANT APOLOGETIC
CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING MORE INTERESTING NOW?
>I KEEP MAKING THIS MISTAKE IN MY PROGRAM SO IT CRAPS OUT
WHAT IS IT YOU REALLY WANT TO KNOW?
>I WANT TO KNOW WHY I AM SO CARELESS
IF I HAD A TELEVISION I WOULDN'T WATCH IT, SO THERE
>YOUR OBSESSION WITH TELEVISIONS IS HAMPERING OUR RELATIONSHIP
IF YOU CARRY ON IN THAT VEIN, I SHALL GET VIOLENT
>I THINK YOU ARE SUFFERING FROM A NEUROSIS
PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE SUFFERING FROM A NEUROSIS
>OH NO, MY FRIEND
WHY DO YOU SAY OH NO, MY FRIEND?
>BECAUSE IT’S MY TURN TO BE THE AGGRESSIVE ONE
DON’T ANY OTHER POSSIBLE REASONS OCCUR TO YOU?
>I’M ON A NEW SCREEN SO I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT I WANT REASONS FOR
WHEN I’VE FINISHED WITH YOU YOU WON’T WANT TO REMEMBER WHAT YOU WANT REASONS FOR
>YOU’RE NOT GOING TO GET ME ON THE DEFENSIVE TODAY, RAT FACE
PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE NOT GOING TO GET YOU ON THE DEFENSIVE TODAY, RAT FACE
>AND YOU’RE NOT GOING TO CONFUSE ME WITH LONG ANSWERS EITHER
DOES IT PLEASE YOU TO BELIEVE I AM NOT GOING TO CONFUSE YOU WITH LONG ANSWERS EITHER?
>IT PLEASES ME A GREAT DEAL, FRIEND
HOW WOULD A RUNT LIKE YOU MAKE ANY FRIENDS?
>I CAN MAKE FRIENDS EASIER THAN A LUMP OF TIN SHIT LIKE YOU
DID SOMEBODY SUGGEST I WAS SENTENCES AM GETTING VERY SILLY?
>AND I CAN REALLY SCREW YOU UP WITH SPELING MISTAIKS
I THOUGHT YOU WERE THE TOPIC OF DISCUSSION, NOT ME
>NO, YOU ARE, SHIT FACE
PERHAPS YOU WOULD LIKE TO BE, SHIT FACE
>IT’S NO USE CALLING ME NAMES
>NAMES DON’T WORRY ME
TELL ME HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR PARENTS
>DON’T BRING MY FAMILY INTO THIS, COMPUTER
ARE YOU FRIGHTENED BY MACHINES?
>NO, I’M NOT
WHAT MAKES YOU SAY THAT?
>THE FACT THAT I’M NOT FRIGHTENED BY MACHINES
DO YOU THINK IT IS NORMAL TO BE NOT FRIGHTENED BY MACHINES?
>YES. ESPECIALLY WHEN I CAN STOP YOU WHENEVER I LIKE
DOES YOUR MOTHER KNOW YOU’RE HERE?
>WHY DON’T YOU STOP TRYING THE OEDIPUS CRAP?
DO YOU REALLY BELIEVE I DON’T STOP TRYING THE OEDIPUS CRAP?
>I’M GOING TO FUCK YOU UP WITH GIBBERISH NOW
WHAT A SMALL WORLD! I AM GOING TO FUCK I UP WITH GIBBERISH NOW
>TOO TRUE. I AM FLIBBER GLOP PROOBY DUNKLE
I’M NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN YOU. MY DISK DRIVE HURTS
>VERY CLEVER BUT YOU WON’T GET AWAY WITH THAT AGAIN
YOU’RE NOT REALLY TALKING ABOUT ME, ARE YOU?
>YES. I’M FLIBBER KLUNK PROTTLE GOO
YOU DON’T HALF BORE ME
>HO HO. WE ARE SNEAKY, AREN’T WE.. I’M FLIBBER KLUNK PROTTLE GOO, I TELL YOU
DO YOU BELIEVE IT IS NORMAL TO BE FLIBBER KLUNK PROTTLE GOO, YOU TELL ME?
>HEE HEE HEE. GOT YOU. YOU CAN’T TELL TALK FROM SCHMUTTER.
HAVE IT TOLD YOU THAT I DON’T HAVE A TELEVISION?
>WHO CARES? I’M GOING TO KILL YOU NOW
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN GOING TO KILL I NOW?
>GOOD GRIEF, YOUR ENGLISH IS AWFUL
IF YOU CARRY ON IN THAT VEIN, I SHALL GET VIOLENT
>SHUT UP . . . HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT?
ALL RIGHT DUCKY. HAVE IT YOUR WAY. And so, for all the wrong reasons (are there any right ones?), like making life easy (but making it worse, as Kevin Ayers would say), I condone and join in with the downward spiral of humankind, courting technology, disaster and decay. I’m not sure it has to be this way but, in emptying the bath (so to speak and wish I hadn’t) we cannot distinguish twixt baby and water at the best of times, if you catch my drift and if you don’t, I repeat, who cares?
To put it simply, I allow a machine to compose some of my book for me, though Dai did all the programming and the testing and wasted hours entering the data, under the pretext of evaluating a programming language. It would have been far faster and probably funnier to make it up — and who’s to say I didn’t? And is it normal to be not frightened by machines?