Archive for the ‘Short Fiction’ Category

Glatt’s Ronda

Sunday, March 1st, 2015

Justin Glatt. Remember him? Probably not, but, for a while, he was a name, not mega, as they say, but respected, admired, talked about. I knew him – well enough, at least, to dislike him, in spite of which he confided in me, bought me lunches and dinners on his then generous expense account. I never had nor will have that kind of money; nobody with the word ‘thinker’ attached to their name can expect to eat ox tongue at Quo Vadis or Devonshire chicken at the Ivy, and I was known as, among one or two other things, a thinker. Not Glatt though, he was a doer. He consumed the thought of others solely as a fuel to keep him doing. He always placed a notebook – Moleskine – and a pen – Montblanc – beside his plate. The first time he did this I was outraged. It seemed sordid, as if he had spat on the tablecloth or blown his nose on a napkin, but I said nothing. On all subsequent occasions, I was resigned and still said nothing. He would lay down his knife to make notes as I spoke. This made me pause to examine what I had just said, leaving me, usually, puzzled at why that in particular had been of such significance. The puzzle was always solved when my idea appeared, mutilated but still recognisable, in the midst of one of those big Sunday newspaper interviews with his shocking monochrome by-line picture, a lean face with pursed lips and staring eyes surmounted – or, rather, subverted – by the high, blond hair of some forties matinee idol.
“You are my oracle!” he would cry as he noted down some especially incisive summary of an aspect of contemporary thought widely considered trivial until two Sundays later when its hitherto undiscovered importance became apparent to all. I was not, I should say, lest I be blamed for everything, his only oracle. I knew of at least eight others and suspected there could be ten or more. They were academics mainly, scattered across the disciplines – sociology, philosophy, anthropology, physics, psychology, computer science and even mathematics. He didn’t buy them all meals, most he just phoned – he called them the phoners and the privileged few the eaters. I was fed because I could skate happily across all subjects. The ice, I admit, was often thin, but then Glatt only needed headlines or references he could slip into questions, just enough to suggest he had plumbed an entire frozen lake, an abyss of vast reading, deep research.
I marvelled at his efficiency, his assiduity. Newspapers being what they are, he could have done without all of us, but he really needed not to seem shallow. In the midst of some precarious slither across quantum computing or behavioural psychology, I would often pause and ask, “Do you really need all this?” He always answered that he wanted everything and more. He needed to stay ahead of the game and not just for the interviews; he had to be the smartest guy in the room, any room. He was in a tricky business, callow contenders were streaming off the campuses and, sooner or later, one would work out how to do what he did but better, faster, younger. Or they would be good on YouTube, a medium he was just old enough to regard with mistrust as representing a future that cared nothing for his labours. In general, he had a morbid fear of the young that I found ridiculous. I found it impossible to imagine any of them, neurotically distracted as they were, competing with his furious single-mindedness. His ephebiphobia was, I thought, a sign that he was not the modern man he appeared to be, but, rather, a relic of an age when jobs, even his absurd job, were done properly. There was, however, his passionate neutrality. He had no agenda, no urge to advocate or persuade. He believed in nothing but the abstractions and conventions of his calling. This arbitrary faith in mere process was, perhaps, his most contemporary attribute and his greatest weakness.

The ice, I admit, was often thin, but then Glatt only needed headlines or references he could slip into questions, just enough to suggest he had plumbed an entire frozen lake

He was in his early forties, he had two children and a design-conscious wife – small, dark, bright-eyed, watchful, Indian – in a heavily mortgaged house in Chiswick, not on the river but close. Being the biggest and best interviewer in the business, he could, to a limited extent, dictate terms, even to the nervous panjandrums of the declining newspaper industry. But the numbers only just added up. Apart from anything else, the children were at private schools and that, combined with the wife and the mortgage, meant that his expenses were his only real wriggle room when it came to disposable income. There was, somewhere, a lump sum, the proceeds of the sale of the wife’s small design business, abandoned when she was poleaxed by the birth of their first – she had rejected Glatt’s entreaties that she keep going with the aid of a nanny – but it was more a lump than a sum, something immoveable, untouchable. Oh yes, she was now working again, but only part-time in a vintage shop – it brought in pennies, but she was, she said, fulfilled. As a further distraction, she had insisted Justin join her in learning the Tango, a dance that had become a craze among the over-active affluent of West London. To Justin it was just another process and he became a prodigious Tangoist, all sharpness and chin-junting grandeur.
Whether he was fulfilled or not was another matter. I often wondered about his sexuality, thinking, probably unfairly, that an obsessive wife with two children could not provide all he needed. Perhaps he was gay, many people seem to be gay or near-gay these days. Or it didn’t matter, in which case it wasn’t even a question worth asking, though Glatt did ask it, suspiciously often, outing, as a result, a male tennis player and a female TV anchor. On the whole, however, I thought sex didn’t come into it. At our lunches and dinners, waitresses would rush up to him, swaying their hips and saying, “I LOVED your piece on….” They could never remember the victim, only the by-line and that shocking picture. He would respond, deploying the script of flirting but not, somehow, the manner. At once, the girl would notice this lack, this absence, this, as it were, abstincence. Most would keep swaying, though deflated, until it all became too much and they would sullenly return to serving the ox tongue done just so.
At our meetings he was ironic, confident, fully in control; this is what he did, he met people and recorded their words – the Moleskine and Montblanc for me and my kind, digital recorders for the victims. I wondered at the perfection of his manner. Say what you like about Glatt – and many terrible things have been said – he looked the part. He had a tailor, not a grand one, a humble one, Jewish of course, located in a shop with a regency bow window round the corner from them in Chiswick. Stein was good. Justin’s suits were tight enough to be fashionable but not so tight as to be ridiculous and they gave his slim but awkward figure a fine, angular clarity from which his large head emerged in triumph. Just seeing him eat lunch was like watching him tango. The suits also made some sense of his high, blond hair, flat at the sides. The colour was natural but dyed around the edges I suspected. Then there were his tight, usually pursed lips, his long nose and his huge, interrogator’s eyes – grey and flat, they denied the offer of anything other than his ruthlessly instrumentalised curiosity. Never mind, his victims bought the whole package and always spilled the beans. He was, like a shark, functionally perfect, beyond the need for evolutionary change. Or sometimes, oddly, he made me think of Fonzie in that American TV show Happy Days. He too had high hair and, when he looked in the mirror, comb in hand, he always decided nothing need be done, any further intervention would be folly. But, always, he looked again.
His band of thinkers – oracles- were his other tailors. We too made him look the part. I did it for the meals, why the phoners did it I don’t know, he didn’t even credit them. One, a biologist named Timmins, shrugged when I asked him why he took the calls.
“I don’t get many interesting phone calls in my line of work and it’s pleasant to explain my stuff from first principles, good exercise. Anyway, we’re always told to be ‘media friendly’ and, credit or not, doing a favour for someone like Glatt must pay off in the end, mustn’t it?”
Do I sound as though, deep down, I liked this man? Possibly, at times, I did. I shared with Timmins that sense of not getting many interesting phone calls and Glatt was never less than interesting. He was, for me, a voyager from a foreign land, a land where the apparent world was enough and its mastery the supreme prize. Of course, part of the appearance, the mastery, was to use the so-called wisdom of the inhabitants of the non-apparent world – the thinkers – but as no more than a rhetorical gesture or as elementary hygiene.
“Glatt uses intellectuals like Kleenex,” said one phoner.
What was that to me? I – and, I believe, they – had no proof that we weren’t Kleenex or little Jewish tailors in Chiswick, mere conveniences to the gypsies, aristocrats and pirates of Apparentland. We had only faith, or stupidity, or our minds, like our backs, were bent by the burden of tradition. No, wait, there was something else. Glatt was, you see, an interviewer, he asked questions to elicit answers, a process that, in itself, advertised, even if only metaphorically, the existence of something beneath the apparent. I had questions to ask too, they just weren’t like Glatt’s and they didn’t have answers, not, at least, in this world.
Then, one Sunday, it all fell apart. Much later at lunch, not at the Ivy, not at Quo Vadis, not in Soho nor Mayfair nor Chelsea nor Notting Hill, he told me the whole story, but, of course, like you, like everybody, I already knew most of it.

He was, for me, a voyager from a foreign land, a land where the apparent world was enough and its mastery the supreme prize

I remember, he said, the moment with awful, polychromatic clarity. I was wearing baggy turquoise swimming trunks and lying on an orange towel cast over an old green plastic lounger. There were two other loungers, similarly old, similarly green. The patio was paved with pale brown square stones, the gaps filled by small round dark grey stones wedged upright. Little lizards dived into the various interstices when humans emerged from the house. There were purple, yellow and white flowers – I never knew any of their names, though I did occasionally text a floral picture with a question mark to a botanist I know. There were three trees, an assortment of terra cotta planters and climbers covering the old walls. Beyond my feet there was a gap in these walls leading to the small pool, a twinkling rhomboid of a deeper turqoise than my trunks. Beyond the pool two white walls – one rough, one smooth – met and, above them a pantile roof sloped away to another white wall ending with ridge tiles and another roof. The whole confection supported a chimney, a satellite dish and a TV aerial with overtones of Picasso – two open metal lips and a jutting, spiked, screaming tongue. Children’s voices bounced loudly off the surrounding maze of white walls. My laptop and phone were on one of the neighbouring loungers. Flies buzzed and, on top of the wall to my left a black, brown and white cat stretched and yawned. It was a Sunday.
I was spending a week with the family in a mountain top pueblo blanco in southern Spain. These interludes had a settled routine. I did little, needing, it was agreed, rest, while Gita embarked on frenzied projects with the children involving churches, museums, perilous mountainside drives. The children were still a few years away from teenage scepticism and scorn and happily took her enthusiasms at face value. She always returned thrilled, full of stories of comic characters, unexpected food and funny things the children had said. I never inspired such excitement and I suspected her insistence that I ‘needed my rest’ was caused less by a concern for my health than by a determination that I did not intrude upon her outings. I would have stolen all her stories.
I did not mind, he said, our marriage had reached the stage where certain avoidances were necessary and acceptable. We had opened a space in which we were allowed to dislike each other and from which we could report back as if all was well, which, in a sense, it was. Besides, there was no doubt that I ‘needed my rest’. I was increasingly enervated by the rituals of work. The setting up, the researching and the journeys – short or long – had all become more burdensome. And then there were the encounters with the victims. I had always suffered from mild suicidal feelings for about an hour before these staged meetings, a dim awareness that I would rather throw myself under a train than go through with it. Latterly, however, the feelings had become intense, agonising, and were now combined with a deep loathing for the victims even I before I had met them. This all dissipated the moment we did meet as some reflex, perhaps professionalism, took over, but I still had to survive that agonising hour. Of course, I didn’t tell anybody about this; in my business one needed to appear ‘clinical’ at all times. Indeed, ‘clinical’ was the word most often applied to me as well as to footballers.

I had always suffered from mild suicidal feelings for about an hour before these staged meetings, a dim awareness that I would rather throw myself under a train than go through with it

In Spain, therefore, I was expected, in the name of ‘rest’, to ignore my phone and laptop entirely. Some days I succeeded and by mid-day on this Sunday – 11am in London – I had not looked at either. The phone had even been forbidden to vibrate. Gita had taken the children to Ronda. They had been before but the self-destructive thrill of the drop into the gorge – the El Tajo Canyon – in the midst of the town, the sickly, seductive pull of all that depth, never faded. “Don’t take them there after puberty,” I had told Gita; teenagers, in my mind, were never far from suicide. Throughout my own pubescence, I was accompanied, as if by a friend, by an infinitely ingenious spectre who daily devised ever more subtle and elegant methods of flinging myself into oblivion. I assumed – hoped – my children were not to be so warped. For now at least, they were life-lovers – or, perhaps, they simply had not yet distinguished life from anything else – and they would be gone for hours. My mind had lapsed into an emptiness through which drifted possibilities of a book, a coffee, a swim, even a walk round the village. Not included in this list was electronic contact so the phone and laptop lay untouched. Not that I expected much on a Sunday morning. I had a big interview in the paper – with an old and mystifyingly feted writer named Alexander Aldred – that was hardly controversial. Reactions, good or bad, usually took a day or two, but, somehow, an unease had crept stealthily into my vacancy.
The Aldred encounter, I now admitted to myself, had not been routine, not all of the pre-interview dread had drained from me as we shook hands. Perhaps it was the house – a tall, gloomy Victorian terrace, its ground floor bay window concealed by thick bushes and stunted trees – or the area – a wealthy, Bohemian, but deeply unfashionable part of north west London. Everything suggested darkness and, indeed, when Aldred answered the door, the hallway seemed, at first, pitch black, but for a distant, silvery-grey, rectangular glow from a window. This silhouetted half of Aldred’s head and one shoulder; I could see nothing of his features.
I started to introduce myself but he was already waving me past him into the narrow hall, which, I now saw, was hung with dozens of small, framed, black and white photographs, apparently, judging by the sharkish characters and the strip show signs in the background, taken in Soho in the fifties. There was a dark, unventilated smell, possibly of stale tobacco.
“Left, left,” he said, his voice a loud groan. I turned into a slightly brighter room. Every wall was covered up to the ceiling with bookshelves. There were two sofas and an armchair, all dust laden and faded, a glass coffee table with a black steel frame from the eighties, a complicated system of spotlights, a painting of, I guessed, a younger Aldred on a poorly stretched and now crumpled canvas and a girl standing to attention offering me her hand to shake.
“Sorry,” she said, “I’ll be gone in a moment. I just wanted to be here at this meeting of two greats. It’s me, Sophie.”
The last words were spoken uncertainly as she registered my blank expresson, but, with a mighty mnemonic effort, I realised that was the name of the publicity girl from the publishers and, with an uneasy but professional smile, I took her chilly, pale, wavering hand.
“Sophie, sorry, it was a bit dark in the hallway….”
Aldred lumbered in.
“Oh, Sophie, this is… this is…”
“Justin, I know.”
She smiled at me and rolled her eyes, attempting to enlist me in an ageist conspiracy. I smiled back without quite accepting the invitation. Her evident beauty, I noted, was undermined by certain hardness around the eyes and mouth. She wore a small, beige jacket over a very short, white dress. The heels were very high and there was a long gold necklace. She was, I guessed, going on to a party afterwards – “6-8pm, drinks” as the emails always put it, coldly managing expectations.
They amazed me these girls, he said, these eager fixers. Publishers seemed to have a limitless supply. I could see what the publishers wanted from them – short dresses etc. But what did they want from this peculiar industry? Sophie probably had a media or English degree and, when asked, would softly announce that she ‘loved’ words and ‘adored’ this or that author. Perhaps she wrote poetry or, more likely, there was a novel on the go. It would never be finished.There was a high turnover of such girls. They just thought publishing was a more glamorous occupation than it actually was and left, disappointed and impoverished though perhaps with a man fractionally more interesting than the average. Sophie was not quite there yet.
“I just know,” she said, “this is going to be a very special interview. So exciting. I’m amazed you two have never met.”
Aldred, now seated in one of the armchairs, smiled.
“Well, now we have,” he said.
“Indeed,” I said, “it’s a great honour, I’ve wanted to get to know you ever since Antiphon.”
It was his first novel. I hadn’t read it, of course, but I’d read enough about it the day before to bluff my way through. It had come out twenty years ago – Aldred was a late starter. Several critics detected overtones of Saul Bellow, just as, with his next, Charcoal, they noticed the influence of W.G.Sebald. My Other, his third, involved Kafka, Nabokov and Borges and was said to be his masterpiece – “the climactic realisation of the doppelganger theme in European literature”. Prizes came his way, he was thought to be a Nobel possible, but, at the highest levels, his ascent was hampered by a certain imprecision. Who was he, exactly? What could possibly be said in the Stockholm citation? Every book was utterly different, not just in style but in sensibility, and every book seemed to be in thrall to another writer, even his one foray into non-fiction – the essay collection, Absences – was said to evoke Beckett or was it Benjamin?
“A man so various,” said one sceptical critic, quoting Dryden, “that he seemed to be not one. but all mankind’s epitome.” Another called him the Vicar of Bray of English letters.

Prizes came his way, he was thought to be a Nobel possible, but, at the highest levels, his ascent was hampered by a certain imprecision. Who was he, exactly? What could possibly be said in the Stockholm citation?

There was no real spite to all this. Almost everybody thought he was a great writer. My Other – about a man who met his double and proceeded to take over his life – routinely appeared in lists of greatest ever novels. His latest, the reason for our meeting, was called The Last Book and was garlanded with pre-publication praise from half a dozen of the leading literary names of the day. It actually was to be Aldred’s last book, though the book of the title was an apocalyptic text by an unknown author found, deeply encoded, in the memory of a super-computer in New Mexico. In spite of its 800 pages, this I had read, detecting, along the way, overtones of Cormac McCarthy and John Williams. It was, I could see, brilliant but not in any way that I cared about.
Sophie, wishing to demontrate that she was savouring the sanctity of this encounter, was reluctant to leave. She knelt by Aldred solicitously, one hand on his knee, and asked if he needed anything; then, having established that, from her at least, he did not, she stood by me, her hand on my arm.
“This is so exciting!” she said, handing me her card, “I will always remember this moment.” Aldred caught my eye and grinned.
Finally she left and I sat down in the other armchair, having my placed my two recorders on a small table, a copy of The Last Book and my notebook on my lap. I make notes as my victims speak, not, as they probably think, of what they are saying but of visual details – hair colour, an undone button, a curious to-dimensional metal cat by the fireplace, a tapping finger, a stray nasal or aural hair and, very occasionally, of a theme I must broach, a question I must ask. At once, I was noting down the way that Aldred re-ordered his crumpled clothes – capacious beige trousers with thick turnups, brown,check shirt, woollen waistcoat – and sank deeper into his chair. He folded his arms, defensively I thought, possibly defiantly.
“Gloomily,” he said, “the journalist confronts transparent man in a translated world. Wallace Stevens. Good eh? Now what do you want from me?”
“Your childhood….”
“Not, not that, you know all that stuff, what’s the point?”
I did know all that stuff but I always liked to begin on well-trodden territory. I noticed he was staring up at a bookshelf as if he had never seen its contents before, his mind was wandering already.
“All right this book…”
His heavy head swung round.
“Ah that’s better. Did you like it?”
“Very much.”
“Well what else were you going to say?”
“What’s it about? I mean did the computer write the book?”
He sighed and sank even deeper into the chair and formed a steeple with this fingers, his elbows resting on the battered chair arms.
“I don’t know. But let me tell you something. When I was very small, just after the war, I saw a picture in some magazine. It showed a man and a woman – Americans they would have been – in a room with a lot of machinery. It was one machine, in fact, the first proper computer.”
“ENIAC?” I suggested smartly, one of my worthy oracles had recently educated me in the history of computing.
“Exactly, smart boy. I stared at that picture every day, no idea why. Boys do that don’t they? There were very bright bits and very dark bits – contrasty – and it didn’t look real, as if it was on another planet or something. The people were working on the machine but I had this feeling – ‘uncanny’ is the word – that they were more like servants and the machine was their master. I felt they were concerned not for its continued functioning but for its well being. This made me feel frightened and sick and I had to force myself to stop looking at the picture. Then, a few years ago, I had a dream and I saw that picture again. So that’s why I wrote this book. There, never told anybody that before, not even that blonde frail.”
He flicked his extravangantly ragged eyebrows in the direction of the door though which Sophie had just left.
“But…’
That one word was not enough to exasperate him and he stared once again at a bookshelf. He turned back and spoke very slowly.
“You see I thought there were three people in that room, the man, the woman and the machine or something inside it. ‘Who is the third who walks always beside you? When I count, there are only you and I together.’”
I smiled indulgently, pretending to understand what he was getting at but thinking really it was the usual age-related cognitive impairment – a condition I treasured from one of the oracles. I was going to use his quotations from the poets but, in the end, I didn’t; they made me feel I was, perhaps, interviewing a man who had lost his mind.
Detecting the indulgence of my smile, he stared at me over the rims of his glasses. The room suddenly seemed to darken and I had to resist an urge to look behind me. He kept staring and I became aware that his eyes were shining; at last a single tear escaped to navigate, appallingly slowly, the darks folds of his cheek. I was revolted. He had become merely another old man. I shuddered at the thought of his folds and creases, the random lobes and flaps of flesh beneath his clothes. I thought of his genitals, his arse and I thought of the first time I had noticed stippling on Gita’s thighs as she stood naked, searching for something in a drawer. The moment of being desirable is so brief…. I made notes without taking my eyes of his.
“Oh, never mind, where were we? Yes, since you ask, this is my last book. No ifs, ands or buts, Alexander Aldred will not commit another word to paper, screen or any other medium, physical or virtual. So this, for you, is the big one, the last interview about the last book.”
He relaxed, the air lightened and, after a few more awkward moments in which I fought off the urge to rush out and vomit in the gutter, I slipped easily into my routine of following my victim’s leads and seizing opportunities to distract him into the themes and quotes I needed. The best possible outcome was that the interview should end with the victim thinking he had been talking uninterruptedly. An apology afterwards for ‘going on a bit’ was always a gratifying moment of triumph. For about forty minutes, this programme unfolded and then, for no obvious reason, there was a pause we both noticed, a silence in which the air thickened and the noises from the street grew louder. The old man’s heavy face slumped into absence then boredom, then irritation and, finally, suddenly, into a certain slyness, signalled by a slight upward movement of the eyelids.
“You a drinking man?” he said, his gaze suddenly attentive to my reactions. There were no clocks in the room and he had not looked at his watch, but it was, as I now confirmed for himself, exactly 5.30, the time, in his day, that pubs would have opened.
“I suppose I am,” I replied.

The best possible outcome was that the interview should end with the victim thinking he had been talking uninterruptedly

Two large whiskies and a good half hour of increasingly revealing recordings later, I left that dark house in that dark street feeling, as I always did after interviews, vindicated, justified and free. I transcribed the recording and wrote the piece over the next couple of days and, a few days after that, we left for Spain. And so I found myself, on that Sunday, lying on that orange towel on that green plastic lounger.
At 12.27 I succumbed to the electronics, he said. I was throwing myself into a gorge as deep as that which bisects Ronda but as, for a few seconds, I was blindly falling I did not see the uprushing rocks for what they were. I picked up my phone. Its screen was alive with messages, the most recent one of which read, “Sorry about that, Sophie xxx.”

 
In a shabby Chiswick wine bar, Justin told me all this not long after the story broke. He had neither written nor interviewed in those few weeks, but he looked and sounded no more than slightly anguished, the ironic distance of his manner was intact. I assumed he was recuperating and left it at that.
I heard nothing more until, a year later, Gita called and asked me if I’d go and see him. He was living in a ’studio’ in Hanwell, drinking heavily, he would no longer talk to her and she thought he might kill himself. She spoke briskly, delivering information and concealing alarm; if, indeed, she felt any. The few sentences she spoke sounded written, pared down, edited. I felt I was talking to a computer help desk in Bangalore – what did she know of me and I of her? Did she just want this off her desk or did she fear she would break down in tears? I could not read her.
I agreed, of course, out of curiosity and, I suppose, some concern. The story – Glattgate the smarter papers called it – was confidently presented as if it made sense even though it made none. His utter destruction, for that is what it had clearly come to, had been avoidable. A little crisis management here, a touch of damage limitation there and he would have survived, not merely unscathed but, in all likelihood, stronger than ever. He would certainly have a story to tell and, in a certain sense, his initial error represented a rather brilliant commentary on the role of the contemporary interviewer. It was, after all, the ultimate interview; he had interrogated a man who did not exist.
Alexander Aldred had died suddenly two days before the interview. The family, in collusion with the publishers, made no announcement. Instead, they asked a friend – Bill Tizzard – to stand in for the author just for the purposes of Glatt’s interview. Many years before Aldred had met Tizzard in a pub and, jocularly at first, told everybody he was his double, his doppelganger. He was, quite openly, reliving the plot of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Despair and rehearsing that of his own My Other except that Tizzard was a clever, cultivated, richly retired man, a computer scientist with a prodigious memory, who, at Aldred’s bidding, had absorbed the entire ouevre. He did this so thoroughly that, after a while, he could be presented in public as Aldred. He signed books, he spoke of his inspiration, and answered detailed questions about where and how he wrote – questions only ever asked of novelists and poets.
The strange thing was he did not actually look very much like Aldred. The Sunday paper that first broke the story on the same day the interview appeared made much of this – carrying photos of Aldred and Tizzard side by side – and, indeed, the resemblance was not even close. Coincidentally, a few weeks before I had read of some research at Berkeley which had shown that we are inclined to see different faces as the same when we expect them to be – this is why we happily accept stunt doubles for the actors they replace.
“This “perceptual pull” is actually,” ran the report, “a survival mechanism, giving us a sense of stability, familiarity and continuity in what would otherwise be a visually chaotic world, researchers point out.”
I sent the story to Glatt with a note. I adopted a light, storm-in-a-teacup tone.
“Error,” I wrote in the accompany note, “you will be pleased to hear, is an adaptation to ward off chaos.”
I also reminded him that the great journalist and spiritualist W.T.Stead had, in later life, made a good living out of interviewing the distinguished dead. He responded by inviting me to that shabby wine bar to tell me his version of events.
I thought nothing of this until, a few days later, the tabloids scented more blood. They had run the story of the interview with a dead man, of course, but now the dogs returned to their vomit with renewed appetites. They had evidently hired some pale, ill-nourished internet types to run passages from Glatt’s articles through Google. They found irrefutable evidence of plagiarism – whole paragraphs were taken, minimally altered, from the works of others. The papers found this shocking; I did not. Glatt had often plagiarised me and his other oracles. Once in a while he would give credit – though never to me, I was a difficult figure to explain in a couple of words. Never mind, it was a deal; as Timmins had observed, interesting phone calls were scarce and academics were required to be media friendly. Besides, what was journalism if not a massive act of plagiarism? They plagiarised thought in the academy and life in the streets or the battlefields. So what? He had not, at least, plagiarised other journalists, a crime our media types had decided was second only to paedophilia as a gross insult directed at the values of the commonality.

Besides, what was journalism if not a massive act of plagiarism? They plagiarised thought in the academy and life in the streets or the battlefields. So what?

I simply did not see imminent destruction in all this. He could have apologised for the plagiarism and, perhaps, submitted himself to a refresher course in journalistic ethics or taken himself off to some showy religious retreat, an ashram perhaps. A little penance and all manner of things would be well.
He chose to do nothing. After the flurry of publicity about ‘gullible’, ‘copy-cat’, ‘hack-rat’ Glatt and the earnest, high-minded columns, he vanished from the public gaze and, I confess, from mine. I had, as I say, not liked the man and my only real interest was in his peculiar calling – the smart, informed interviewer who, it was believed, would deliver some whole person to us on Sundays, a person placed, located, defined and, I often thought, laid out like a corpse. It had all been so strange that my curiosity overcame my dislike, but, if he was no longer that exotic creature, then what was there in him for me? If he had lapsed into ordinariness, then I would simply dislike him tout court and, if he was in crisis, I knew from past experience that I would be of little use.
A suicidal crisis, however, demanded objective concern and, of course, re-established my curiosity. How low could he have sunk? Had he stared into the abyss and found it was staring back? I had no choice, I rang the number Gita had given me.
“Justin?”
The phone had been picked up but there was no response.
“It’s me.”
“Oh, right, hello. What do you want?”
“Gita asked me to call you. She’s worried.”
He laughed, a high pitched ullulation I had not heard from him before.
“She wanted me to talk to you.”
“Okay,” he said abruptly, “tomorrow, lunch at…”
He rapidly reeled off the name and address of an Indian restaurant. After several attempts, I got the details down and then, without a further word, he hung up.
The restaurant was in a row of shops I now thought of as ‘Old London’ – two betting shops, kebab house, laundrette, dry cleaners offering executive shirt service, hairdresser and nail bar, estate agent, small Tesco, cafe, pub and solicitor’s office – in spite of the fact that such collections of shopfronts could only have been around for a few decades. It was a consoling, familiar array, cheap, grubby and ill-designed like ordinary life. This, I felt, was where most people lived and most people were just that, the majority, the primary mass of feeling, sentiment, suffering. This very massness made them the uninterviewable unless a pollster happened upon them or they witnessed some cataclysm and, even then, they were being offered, not as celebrities but as Unremarkables, our native version of the Indian Untouchables, people to be avoided for fear of contagion. So had Glatt simply sunk into the quotidian? Had he taken his place among the Unremarkables? Why not? He was a human like any other and that was its own form of consolation, a quiet smothering by the requirements of survival and functional conviviality.
He was the lone customer in the restaurant, sitting at a table covered by a faded pink cloth – is any colour more pathetic or disgusting than pink when faded or soiled? – protected by a stippled white paper cover which he had already stained with yellow drops from his large bottle of Cobra beer and rust red smears from the lime pickle he was absently but hungrily loading on to shards of poppadums which he broke violently from a stack of six. A single waiter in white shirt and black bow tie was polishing glasses behind the counter at the far end of the room. The bleakness of this scene was relieved by an orange carpet, lurid red flock wallpaper above a dado rail and electric green paint beneath. Framed photographs of elderly, bearded Indian men surrounded the usual black and white shot of the Taj Mahal. On the counter there was a large ceramic sculpture of the elephant god Ganesh. I was staring at this when Glatt looked up. He glanced round to determine the object of my attention.
“What do you think they mean by that?” he said loudly, “That India is a rich, colourful and exotic holiday destination? Or does it say, ‘We are not like you, not like you at all? We have elephants for gods, you do not have gods, you do not even have elephants.’”
I looked uneasily at the waiter but he had paid no attention. I realised Glatt must be a tolerated regular, a local “character” whose behaviour may be offensive but who was, nonetheless, comfortably eccentric.
“Sit down, sit down. I’ve fixed the food. I can’t stand all that fussing over menus, not any more. They only do a few decent things here and I’ve ordered them all. And it’s so cheap! Gita gave me her lump sum to get me out of the house, but it wasn’t much as lump sums go and I’m not earning anything. The estate agent next door offered me a job…..”
The waiter set a bottle of Cobra and a glass before me, studying my face closely as he did so.
“What’s your first question? You are allowed two. I know what they will be. You can, in silence, study my wrecked features first if you like and be shocked by the evidence of my decline.”
In truth, he looked fine. The sharpness of his suit had survived intact but for a few creases, his shirt was white and ironed thanks to, I guessed, the executive service of that dry cleaners. The hair was no longer high, however, it was smeared flat and now clearly greying. The features had changed, not so much from decay – it had only been a year after all – as from some inner loss. It was hard to define, but his face looked, somehow, pressed inwards, as if the world had finally breached his defences. He stared back at me – his eyes still gray, still flat, still offering nothing but cold curiosity – and I stared back in silence. Minutes passed, the food arrived, huge amounts – stainless steel bowls and platters placed on heated metal trays, bread, rice, more lime pickle. And still we stared until, finally, I asked my first question.
“Why did the family and the publishers do it?”
“Ha! I knew that would be your first, that touch of the inexplicable, the discontinuous, unnoticed by the red tops and the heavies and even unnoticed by you the last time round. Simple. Aldred hated me and everything he thought I represented – as if I represent anything! – and had always said if ever an interview came up, they should wheel out Tizzard. He died suddenly but they naturally assumed the wish should survive his demise. Why he hated me is unclear but I would guess it was just general loathing of the pervasive shallowness of our times, the usual senile whining. It hardly matters, people hate people like me, especially, as I learned, people in my own trade. The family went to a lot of trouble. That thing about him noticing it was exactly 5.30 – Tizzard had a phone in his pocket set to vibrate at that time just so he could give me that line about pub opening times. Brilliant. You only have one more question and I know what that one will be.”
I had started eating tentatively. Glatt was devouring everything and ordering a second and then a third beer.
“You know the funny thing is,” he said before I could reply, “my Indian wife never cooked Indian food and would never go to Indian restaurants. She hated the whole thing…,” he waved his arms to signify the whole room, “….I think she was ashamed. Pity really, I remember thinking when we married that I could get lots of Indian food. I love the stuff. You can just eat it all, you don’t have to cut off fat or anything. And, anyway, Hanwell, what’s not to love?”
I was about to ask him why they separated but realised that question would be answered by another, the one he expected.
“Do YOU like Indian food?” he continued, “Come to that, what DO you like you miserable bastard? Come on, you fucker, what floats your pathetic little boat?”
A couple – elderly, retired I guessed – had occupied a nearby table. They looked upset by Glatt’s outburst. I was not upset. He was well into his third large bottle of Cobra and, I suspected, had been drinking earlier. It did not matter. Nothing – nothing here, nothing in this place, nothing at this time – mattered.
“Okay last question. Why did you give up? Why not survive? You were never seriously damaged. Why toss away your marriage and your children? You were the victim of a cheap stunt and the plagiarism stuff was nonsense – all your people were at it. Journalism IS plagiarism. You know that better than anybody.”
He slumped suddenly as if I had shot him. Life drained from his body. He stopped eating and, his fork poised, he stared at the runnels and granules, the brown and yellow chaos on his plate. The old couple were watching us furtively, the waiter had paused in the polishing of a white wine glass, fearing, perhaps, violence. Glatt closed his eyes and his large head dipped forward as if he were about to collapse into his food, the fork dropped from his hand with a clatter. He began to murmur, inaudibly at first.
“… because,” I finally heard, “I could not know anything any more. They could all be imposters, frauds, cheats, traps set just for me. What was I supposed to do, ask every victim for photographic ID? I thought I could see things clearly… I KNEW I could. But then I couldn’t and, if I couldn’t do that, I might as well be here, among the people, the masses, the ordinaries, the people who don’t get interviewed….”
He had been the master of the apparent world but the Apparentland was now out of control, exacting vengeance. I stared at him, the tip of his nose now an inch or so from the pool of rice and sauce. Of course, he had to leave his wife, not liking each other was manageable, not recognising each other was intolerable.
“Oh fuck this!”
Justin picked up his plate and threw it at the elderly couple, narrowly missing but spattering them with food, before stalking out of the restaurant. A few weeks later I noticed a story about a man who had travelled to Ronda from London and flung himself into the El Tajo Canyon, falling 100 metres to his death. I imagined Glatt, tangoing in the warm, lively Andalucian air on the way down, his flying feet seeking the floor. It was not, of course, Justin Glatt. He lacked the necessary self-belief and, when all is said and done, Hanwell was as nice a place as any to end up.

Dexter

Tuesday, August 1st, 1978

Nothing had ever inspired Dexter to greater heights of emotion than the faint lyricism he now felt at the sight of a dog’s discarded bone at the centre of a deeply green lawn that stretched to a row of beeches, all now darkening in the twilight. Had he been a perfectionist the chill in the air and the ache in his stomach would have weighed heavily against such extravagance, but, as the sky lightened at the expense of the earth, Dexter was happy.

For hours he had been sitting in the deck chair which was set to hold his back as nearly vertical as possible. From behind the thin grey hair and the top of his scalp could just be seen projecting over the faded green and orange striped canvas. From the front he appeared crumpled …. almost broken, yet strangely prominent against the background of the house which was unlit except for the glare silhouetting the revellers in the French windows of the lounge. An alarming paralysed grin had been fixed on Dexter’s face for the past forty-five minutes.

Unexpectedly his dry lips had begun to move. He was whispering as he stared at the bone.

“And after the emperor is thus interred, no man shall be so hardy as to speak of him before his friends,” he breathed.

“Many cause themselves to be interred privately by night, in wild places, and the grass put again over the pit, to grow; or they cover the pit with gravel and sand, that no man shall perceive where the pit is, to the intent that never after may his friends have mind or remembrance of him. Then they say that he is ravished into another world, where he is a greater lord than he was here.”

Damn right, mused Dexter as his lips stopped moving, damn right. He had first read those words forty-seven years ago and they had been a meagre comfort ever since, to be repeated at times of extreme depression or apparent elation – in both cases ready to be ravished into another world at a moment’s notice. A harsh laugh from the party behind the partly-open windows just behind him caused an even harsher inward laugh in Dexter as he, yet again, thought how difficult it would be for him to be a lesser lord.

Dexter’s lordship had become an easy ability to be the centre of attention. His nominal minions, he knew, had been watching him as they sipped their drinks. Not that he was much to look at, a couple of inches of grey scalp and his body indicated by the taut canvas, but they would all have been looking long and hard, no doubt about that.

The bone looked fairly fresh. The disgusting Ralph must have left it there that morning, having been diverted from his usual procedure of burying such fragments at the foot of one of the beeches. Ralph was the perfect dog for James and Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the unpleasantness that had somehow formed from Dexter’s seed was, he knew, intelligent. Behind him she was talking to her friends. They were listening to her talk to them and probably they liked her, certainly they would be allowing her to drag them round by their elbows. Ralph would be dozing in the kitchen.

Dexter liked to dwell on how much he could hate his daughter. He told himself she was without character and made himself giggle silently when he thought of the way Elizabeth and her mother had always believed they had ‘got on’ and been able to tell each other things he couldn’t possibly be told. And Dexter liked to imagine that one day it would come home to his daughter how little she had ever known; though it was a pity she would outlive him and he would never again look out on a bright Elizabeth-less world. He had done so once and he had known he was doing it.

It was now very cold. More noise seemed to be coming from the people behind him, but quite suddenly Dexter found himself remembering another deck chair in which he had sat watching a cricket match between two village teams. He recalled it had been a tense struggle with the result uncertain until the very last over. The bowler was a tall blond man with a beard, who bowled with fearsome speed and accuracy, but the timid, rather useless batsman had scored the winning runs by snicking one through the slips. Dexter felt again his sharp pang of disappointment and he recalled how surprised he had been that he cared. As the ball reached the boundary he realized that, without knowing, he had studied carefully the whole game. Each movement had registered as being intensely significant.

Now – just when the bone seemed to be performing some mysterious alchemy upon him. Not one to be receptive to such imaginings, Dexter stared hard at the bone. The effort of concentration made him hallucinate, amorphous dark shapes unglued themselves from the grass; their arms raised, they floated into the profound sky and obscured the rising moon. Blinking quickly, Dexter found himself staring at humped herds of sheep on the law. He sighed, irritated by these painterly malfunctions. In involuntary embarrassment he raised a hand, rubbed his eyes and massaged his brow. A pain shot through his arm. This surprised him, accompanied as it was by an unnatural quickening of thought in his mind. The effect seemed synthetic, though he had taken none of the stimulants or depressants he had collected over the years.

Dexter caught his rising panic with a wrench of his will and swung his mind round to concentrate on the party behind him. Yes he could see James and Elizabeth entertaining – greeting whom? Stuart, Dora, Angus, Vic, John, Hilda, Hilary, Hal … Possibly – possibly others. Dexter found he has gasped and was hot.

The moon had risen, full and perfect above the beeches. Dexter’s mouth fell open and he stared in wonder at the soft haze that surrounded the disc and the vast misty ring filling a qauerter of the sky – surely had had never seen that before.

The sound of breaking glass interrupted him briefly, but now the warm swelling inside his head was clearly beyond his control. Forcing himself to relax, he determined to see whatever was happening as clearly as he could. A window opened somewhere behind him and childish whispers could be heard – Harry and Margaret who should have been asleep hours ago. Hours ago – the phrase echoed several times, lost meaning and grew into cloudy red mushrooms.

With a novel passion he saw the cricket match again. And with an intensity that drove saliva into his mouth, he saw a tremendous arc of figures in red drapery reach over the field – each squashily fragmented as they dissolved into the earth: into gravel and sand.

The remains of a reflex panic trapped his mind as he felt a sharp blow at the back of his head.

Dexter rose slightly and then pitched forward from his sea on to the grass, into the grass.

 

***

 

“…just a glass cylinder that fits on to the lens. Inside there’s a curved mirror so each picture shows the complete 360 degrees. I almost sent off for one.”

“Wouldn’t every picture look precisely the same?”

“What?”

Elizabeth didn’t bother to expand on her paradox and, picking up her glass from the mantlepiece, she glided off, leaving Vic the photographer staring after her.

“Oh she’s always doing that, don’t worry. Can I fill you up?” asked James creeping up to the bewildered cameraman.

“Yes – no, I haven’t got a glass. A whisky anyway.”

James moved over to the drinks table and stood there fiddling with bottles and glasses without really knowing what he was doing. His attention was fixed on the strange sight of Dexter in his deck chair in the middle of the law and the twilight.

What is the old sod doing? he wondered. He says he’s not coming to dinner and then he sits outside like some bloody ghost.

“One for me too. How’s the photography coming along? James winced as the dreadful John grabbed his arm.

“Never realized you had so many friends. No – sherry please.”

“Neither did I. Who are you?”

John laughed.

“Tell me how are the destroyers anyway?”

James looked blank.

“The kids – remember you children, little Harry and little Margaret.”

“Oh bowling along.”

James marvelled at the way his manner and speech had taken on John’s bantering tone. Over John’s shoulder he noticed Elizabeth, standing in a ludicrously over-emphatic posture, talking to four wives. The photographer was leaning on the mantlepiece being talked to by somebody whose name he always forgot. And Angus, a maddening, bulky, tweed-suited figure, was slumped in an armchair with a bottle of beer and an empty glass.

“Could say the same about Michael. God I’ve bred a handful there.”

“I would have been stunned if you had done otherwise, John.”

“Too right…”

Five men and five women – all assembled and correct, like putting together some banal, intense domestic drama. James really felt he ought to write a novel, if only to establish he was above such stuff.

John was still bantering on about his son – the child’s unusual wit, his quirky vision of human nature and the ease of his demeanour with little girls.

James snapped his mouth shut, realizing it had fallen open, and suddenly, glancing apologetically at John, took two quick steps over to the photographer and gave him his drink, artfully dodging the eyes of the man whose name he could not remember. In doing so something made him look upwards over the mantlepiece at a convex mirror in a gilt frame. He saw his own enlarged head and slender body vanishing towards an impossibly distant pair of shoes. Elizabeth and ger group were a cluster of gracefully curved reeds. John appeared about to fall over and Angus looked much as he did normally.

But at the sight of the darkening lawn, the still-bright sky and Dexter in his chair, motionless, all by some freak included in this warped scene, James trembled. He turned away quickly as an icy wash swept up his body and looked directly out of the window. Dexter was still there – exactly as he had been half an hour ago, except now James thought he could see a dark object on the law a few feet in front of him. He hadn’t noticed that before.

He turned wondering what to do next. Something to divert the chill was what he needed, but the rest of the room seemed to make him more anxious. He pushed away from the window like a poor swimmer leaving the side of the pool and immediately caught a glass with his sleeve. It fell on the floor, shattering. Quickly James started pushing the pieces to the side.

Everybody had turned to face him. Elizabeth called to him to leave to it for the time being and added a semi-jocular ‘clumsy oaf’ to the order. Again James tried to re-establish his equilibrium.

John was now crouched by Angus, both looked intent, so James was forced to join Elizabeth and friends.

“Shall we eat?”

“Just a minute. It’s true, I can see you don’t believe me. She just dened it – and there was that bloody toilet roll in her bag. I just stared at it – I was astounded.”

Elizabeth stopped and James tried to move her towards the door.

“It’s incredible,” commented Dora, a large bovine woman in a flowery dress who was moving her head from side to side in wonder.

“Well I think it’s typical,” mumbled the woman standing beside her, whom, James realized dizzily, looked almost exactly the same as Dora.

He was waiting for the cooing and cheaping to subside and tried to time his next intervention so that Elizabeth would hardly notice he had said anything. This time it worked and they began heading towards the door. Elizabeth, thinking she appeared to be floating, gathered together photographer and anonymous whom she surprisingly addressed as “Ivan”. Pushing them along with one hand as they talked, she lowered the other on to John’s shoulder; he glanced up, said something in an undertone to Angus, and stood up.

James left the room followed by photographer, “Ivan”, Elizabeth and John. Angus paused and stretched his arms with a series of soft grunts – he felt as though he had been in the armchair for hours. Vaguely thinking he would check how late it was he glanced out of the window to see if it was still light. It was, just light enough to see the deck chair, the canvas now slack, a crumpled shape on the lawn in front of it and two small objects nearby. He rubbed his eyes but the darkness was thick enough to conceal further detail and the rubbing made phosphene dance over the lawn. He shrugged his shoulders and joined the others. Food at last, he thought.

 

***

 

“Half naked, brown skinned and strong,” read Harry, “the warrior stood at the entrance of the hut, his eyes gleaming strangely in the gloom.”

“Sssssh!” interrupted Margaret. She was kneeling in her night dress by the door. Harry was reading sat up in bed. The curtains next to him were open. He sighed – yet again Margaret was thinking she had heard somebody coming up the stairs, somebody who would discover her long after her bed-time, still playing with and being read to by Harry.

Harry looked out of the window. Grandad was still sitting on the lawn as the light faded, he seemed to be staring at that bone Ralph had left. He suddenly felt a wave of irritation and annoyance.

“Oh, there’s no one coming,” he said impatiently and threw the book across the room. Margaret jumped and then subsided into a sulky look. She walked over to the bed, sat down at the end, and joined Harry in staring at Grandad on the lawn.

“What’s he doing there?”

“Probably moaning as usual,” said Harry, repeating one of Elizabeth’s remarks.

“What are they doing downstairs?”

“Still in the lounge drinking. Mummy’s making a lot of noise.”

“She always does. You’d think somebody would go out and speak to Grandad.”

“I don’t think he’d want that. He doesn’t look in a speaking mood.”

“How can you tell? You can’t even see his face from here.”

Harry stared harder at the old man trying to imagine what he was thinking about – probably emperors and old books and strange journeys, that’s what he was usually thinking about. Harry wondered if he’d be like that when he grew old, just spending his time sitting in a deck chair. His father told him to “have some respect” for Grandad’s age – but why? There didn’t seem much point if all the years of his life had given him just enough to know how to sit in the middle of the garden staring at a bone. This thought filled him with an obscure anger.

“Why don’t we talk to him?” said Harry and, without waiting for Margaret’s answer, he got up to open the window.

“What are you doing?” hissed his sister.

“Just opening the window.”

Harry picked up a cricket ball that had got in the way from the window sill and opened one half of the window wide. He leaned out and thrilled at the cold, dampish air hitting his face. The talk from downstairs became louder. Margaret pushed in beside him.

“What are you going to do?” she whispered.

“Keep quiet, he’ll hear us.”

For a few moments they stared at Dexter and as they watched he seemed to grow tenser, but they were both too excited to think about it. Harry grew even more impatient and then quickly extricated his arm from between himself and Margaret and lobbed the ball towards Dexter.

“No,” hissed Margaret desperately. But the ball curved with astonishing accuracy through the cool air straight for Dexter. Margaret put her hands over her mouth and pulled herself back into the room. Harry was transfixed by the sight.

The ball landed with a thud on Dexter’s head and, to Harry’s horror, he simply fell forwards out of the chair and lay still.

“What’s happened?” called Margaret from the far side of the room.

“Nothing – it missed him,” Harry lied out of fear.