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from White Ivory, chapters 19 & 20

< chapters 17 & 18         chapters 21 & 22 >
A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Nineteen.
Vale of Llangollen

AT THE BEGINNING of the Apology, Socrates asks that his judges look upon him as a stranger. He might have said, as William Blake was to put it a few thousand years later, that they should try to see through their eyes not with them, that they should try to perceive what actually stands before them without convention, without that prior arrival at the rudiments of perception we call prejudice. See me anew, he seems to say, and you might actually see me. Let me be defamiliarized; expunge the well-scored template from your soul and let me sing.

When the mist comes upon the Vale of Llangollen it makes it new, makes the valley an ocean of blindness and unfathomability.

When the mist comes upon the Vale of Llangollen it makes it new, makes the valley an ocean of blindness and unfathomability. Everything has disappeared again into the primeval murk from which it once emerged. Dinosaurs come lumbering out of the heaving mists; amphibious creatures shuffle to your hand in search of food. A fossil the size of the Titanic is ambling calmly down towards the Dee, unfazed by its lengthy extinction. Then up the slopes a few trees start to emerge like fragments of tracery, bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang. The mist makes it new, makes it old, older than the word old can ever touch, makes you look again and remember that you once had eyes.

Then the world comes back by seconds, by minutes; the houses are restored one by one, white edifices up the valley’s sides, square lighthouses emerging from the wringing-out of vision, the rinsing of Clio’s milky retina. And down the road there comes a Morris Minor, Dr Livingstone probably, having located the source of the Nile. No worries now, everything is clearing at last. At least everything is clearing outside the car. Inside though it is a different matter.

Parts of them dangled beneath the back ends of her spectacles like baubles from the branches of a hardy perennial.

Miss Moyne’s faculties had decayed at a relatively even rate. Her memory, for example, had suffered a radical foreshortening at the same time that her taste buds had dulled. In this symmetry she chose to find a certain blessing, since she could no longer remember what the food had once tasted like, and was therefore devoid of any grounds for painful comparison. Eyes and ears weren’t what they’d once been either. These days she had hearing aids on either side, by way of stereophonic assistance. Parts of them dangled beneath the back ends of her spectacles like baubles from the branches of a hardy perennial. This had one unfortunate effect: whenever she took her glasses off, her hearing aids fell out. As a result, she tended not to take her glasses off at all, not as long as she was still hoping to hear anything, anyway. She had therefore got into the habit of ignoring the steaming up of her lenses, not wishing to induce any temporary deafness, and simply waiting until her windows on the world had cleared once more. It was after all only a matter of time, like the return of spring or the arrival of the Grim Reaper.

It was hardly as though her Morris Minor throttled along at Formula One speeds, but thirty miles an hour on a country road is more than fast enough to do a great deal of mischief, …

She liked to think her senses five were at least all in synch as they journeyed towards desuetude. This was all very well when she was sitting in a tea shop or gardening or watching television, in other words when the vestigial vision she still retained did not represent an essential requirement, but it undoubtedly took on a hint of peril when she was driving, as she was now. It was hardly as though her Morris Minor throttled along at Formula One speeds, but thirty miles an hour on a country road is more than fast enough to do a great deal of mischief, both to yourself and others. So it was through a binocular mist, two ovoid vignettes of smeary moisture, that Dorothy Moyne perceived (too late, too late) that she was colliding with Charlie’s third-hand Ford. Looking on the bright side, she heard the collision as clearly as any sound she could recall for many’s the long year, for she had carefully inserted new batteries into her deaf-aids only the day before. The wrenching of the metal, as she was later to put it to the police, made a most vivid impression. Woke her up, and no mistake. It woke Charlie up too, and he wasn’t even in his car at the time, but lying on his bed in the hotel room recovering from the night before. He had driven Stephanie over to Stan Ferro’s house and had then stopped off at a pub, where he had drunk a lot of beer without eating. By the time he managed to get the car back, somewhat perilously, to the hotel, he failed at his usually competent parking manoeuvres and simply left it jutting out into the road. So Dorothy Moyne, despite her decaying senses, was not entirely to blame for the collision. Charlie heard the crash, looked out of the window, muttered the first imprecation of the day and dressed hurriedly. He stopped briefly when he remembered that in his dream the night before a statue made of ebony and ivory with a collar of gold had been playing a banjo and laughing at the moon.

Once out at the roadside he became solicitous, not of his bent car, but of Miss Moyne, for which she was grateful, since she felt more than a little bent herself by this stage. He patted her shoulder, since she barely reached his chest.

‘I wonder whose it is,’ she said, staring at the clapped-out Ford with a look of infinite perplexity, as though it were a new genus of fauna.

‘Mine,’ Charlie said.

‘Oh dear.’

‘Shouldn’t worry. You just put it out of its misery, that’s all. It was about to lose the will to live any time now in any case. Just look at it. All curled up on the pavement there with that glassy look in its eyes.’

‘Was it insured?’

‘Last time I looked. Why don’t you come into the hotel and have a cup of tea.’

And that was why Charlie turned up unexpectedly at the Mount after a taxi ride. He had waited until noon for Stephanie to call. But then he had to check out. He stood bedraggled, just him and his guitar in the rain at the door, which was closed for once. Lindsey opened it.

‘Why Charlie,’ she said and started laughing. ‘What happened to your feathers?’

She let him in. Made him a cup of coffee. He seemed unusually unforthcoming as he sat in the kitchen, so she picked up the local paper and told him the tale that had enlivened all their lives over the last few days.

The man, it appeared, had simply found himself in need of micturition, that’s what he subsequently told the police. This need was unassuageable. The road was dark and he took the next turning on the left. He didn’t even see the sign saying Lord Membury Hall, Private School for Girls, which was only half a mile away from the Mount. He could have stopped right there at the beginning of the drive, but his own sense of social responsibility, his wish to avoid an accident involving other nocturnal users of the road, had made him press further on. So he drove until he found a little car park. Then he slipped over onto the grass underneath the trees. Urination by moonlight, in his view, could hardly be construed a crime.

He was in the process of relieving himself of unwanted liquid waste when the caretaker first shone his flashlight upon him. The defendant had assumed he was, as it were, surrounded by a cubicle of darkness; he had felt confident that the night had supplied its own propriety. He was not, he vehemently asserted, exposing himself. It is of course an unfortunate feature of the more economic type of tracksuit bottoms that they are not provided with flies. There is in other words no means of facilitating the relief of natural urges other than by dropping the bottoms so that they gather around the ankles. ‘It’s not as though I get my clobber designed by Gucci, you know.’ So what the caretaker saw in the dark was the vividness of two naked white legs evidently belonging to a male, since Harrison stood well over six feet, with or without his tracksuit bottoms. Surreal albino lower limbs. It was either a satyr frolicking in the wood or, more likely, a depraved person flaunting himself before the girls’ dormitory.

The light flashed. Harrison couldn’t help but see the shadow cast before him, the shadow of himself, the chiaroscuro of his own vulnerability. He turned about then, thus converting his activity, as the caretaker pointed out, from mooning to flashing, since he was now directly facing the girls’ dormitory windows. A man does not necessarily like to have a flashlight shone upon his private parts even if, like Harrison, he is by no means ashamed of what he has to offer in that department. The defendant’s next remarks were therefore, as he explained in a subsequent deposition, unconsidered.

‘Turn that light off, you dim little fuckwit, or I’ll stick that torch of yours so far up your arse your nose will glow for a month.’

The caretaker needed no further provocation; he prided himself on his physical fitness, having once been a marine. Twenty miles running a week and frequent visits to the gym had kept him in shape. He had no intention of being spoken to like that by some uninvited pervert in the grounds of the school over which his authority held sway. Anyway, the truth was that it had been a long time since he’d given anyone a serious going-over, and what with the mood he was in that particular evening, the encounter with Harrison appeared to provide a perfect opportunity. He promptly took our man down in a rugby tackle of such violence that the latter screamed an inventive scatter of obscenities with the fund of breath he could still call his own. This was probably the noise which woke the remaining girls in Pankhurst Dorm, so that they were all soon standing at the windows in their jim-jams and chemises, watching with some glee as the caretaker, a deeply unpopular man amongst them, and long suspected of being responsible for the disappearance of certain items of underwear from the changing rooms, wrestled on the greensward with a half-naked stranger. A man, moreover. What could have been better? They were subsequently perplexed as to how the situation might have been improved. A photographer from the tabloids perhaps, or the presence of the headmistress, universally known as Mrs Hitler, preferably in her nightie.

‘I am not a fucking pervert,’ Harrison was to say stoutly in his own defence on several occasions at a later date. ‘I am not a flasher, an exhibitionist, a paederast, or anything whatsoever of that nature.’ Indeed he argued in his own defence that that very evening he had been explaining at some length to a group of complete strangers in a pub he had never previously visited, how all paederasts should be gassed, and as for nonces, well anyone in prison who cut their gear off without benefit of anaesthetic or bereavement counselling should get the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, as far as Harrison was concerned. He felt that his credentials in this respect were above suspicion. He liked it often but he liked it straight. And what, he added, had happened to the noble institution of the public convenience? Had no one ever needed a slash on his way home since Queen Victoria went to meet her maker? Ever since she died, as far as he could see, all they’d done was to pull the bogs down and flog the green iron and yellow ceramics; they didn’t seem to put any new ones up in their place. Hardly surprising if a man was taken short from time to time, on his way home from a little light entertainment.

She looked up from the paper and said, ‘So you see, Charlie, life far from the madding crowd can still be quite exciting. You should come and see us more often.’ But Charlie was barely smiling. It looked as though he’d been having a hard time of it somewhere.

His grandfather was delighted to see him, of course. And they said they would all have dinner together. They couldn’t give him the Shepherd’s Cottage for the night, because Frank had already booked it out to a couple for the week. He would stay with them instead. So they were both disappointed when Charlie asked if he could borrow the car and go somewhere at nine. There was someone he needed to see.

‘Tell him to come here,’ his grandfather said. Then once he had caught Lindsey’s eye, ‘Tell her to come here.’

‘I don’t have her number,’ Charlie said uneasily. ‘I lost it.’

‘What’s her name? We can ask Directory Enquiries.’ Charlie blushed to think he had never asked Jess her second name.

‘If you were to describe her, Charlie…it’s not a big town.’

He knew what it was to be heart-sick and he couldn’t abide it.

‘She has a…’ But he stopped. No, he must go. He was not even sure he knew why he was setting out to find her again. But in the car driving over to The Plough he realised. He knew Stephanie wasn’t coming back, he had a sudden certainty about that, all sorts of things Stephanie had said about him not expecting anything other than the present made coherent sense now, and for the first time in his life he knew what it was to be truly bereaved. He knew what it was to be heart-sick and he couldn’t abide it. He found himself imagining those tiny aged nun’s hands clutching him, caressing him as though he were a sacred statue unexpectedly come to life in a darkened chantry. So where was she? Jessica. Jessie. Raw Sex.

He stepped a little warily into the pub and walked around. And there she was. Sitting at a table opposite a man with dark hair as long as his own. She caught his eye and the man turned. Dark eyes, dark beard. Young. As young as Charlie, not at all dissimilar. It threw Charlie completely, as though a mirror had started speaking. And he turned there and then and walked out of the place, got in the car and drove back where he had come from.

When the evening was over Lindsey brought fresh pillow cases for his bed at the top of the house. She stood in the open doorway as she was leaving.

‘You all right, Charlie?’


‘Seems to be running in the family at the moment.’

‘How come?’

‘Your dad seems pretty low too. Very low actually. Couldn’t you get to see him tomorrow?’

‘I can’t, Lindsey. Just realised I have to be back in London to play at Herder’s tomorrow night. Blind Charlie Shade is on with Luna Module. Could you drive me to the station in the morning?’

‘You know I could. But beware the fecund spirits of the night around this haunted palace. I’m told they can even pass through the walls.’


  Chapter Twenty.
The Death of Blind Charlie

HE DIDN’T FEEL like being Blind Charlie any more. Everyone was on to the joke now anyway, but it had become part of the scene, part of the number. Luna was everyone and no one, and Charlie was the blind man who went home and could see again. Maybe it seemed like resurrection.

Luna fizzled and sparked.

I’m a vegetarian. Not because I like animals. Au fucking contraire, I can’t stand them. Which is why I don’t want them decomposing inside my intestines. You are talking about creatures which don’t even wipe their bottoms with a dock leaf after they’ve crapped. Right there in the middle of the field. And that’s their home, their domicile. That green floor-covering is nature’s fitted carpet, so what do they do? Shit all over it. And these are the fellahs you want in your mouth, is that it? Well, excuse me, but I’m a little bit fussier about what ends up on my tongue, thank you very much. At least with fellatio you don’t have to swallow, and there’s always the possibility in the classier venues that you might have been introduced first.

This friend of mine Karen goes to a Buddhist monastery to kick her smack habit. Worked too. They have their own techniques there; no intermediate drugs, no nothing. You suffer and you learn through suffering what you have been doing to your own body. She actually showed me some of their methods last night. Very colourful it was too, though I doubt that projectile vomiting is going to catch on at our local Indian. Though it did improve the flock wallpaper for a few hours.

With a change of expression that took two seconds she was the Prince of Wales in confessional mode.

‘One simply didn’t understand that one’s wife was bulimic and suicidal, or that she’d taken quite such umbrage that one was quilting the other one, you know the horsey character, can’t remember her name for the moment. That’s pretty much par for the course in my family. If you want to check your history…’

On she went until someone called out ‘Religious Broadcast’. Immediately Luna was pious, ingratiating, one of those cut-price roads to spiritual wisdom on the radio.

And so I was standing on the platform at Earl’s Court this morning and those of you who use the underground system as much as I do will well know that feeling of staring up continually at the indicator boards. I was coming here to do the religious slot and I stared up wondering if I wanted to modify what I was going to say in the light of the week’s events. Circle Line said the green sign, and I thought Yes, life is a little bit like the Circle Line sometimes, isn’t it? Round and round with nothing but repetition and delays. Richmond it said next. I would imagine most of my listeners have a little bit of French, so you will know that in that language Richmond would be riche monde, rich world, and it is of course except for when we are feeling impoverished. Wimbledon said the sign now. And I think we all know that feeling, don’t we, being wimbled on. I sometimes feel I’ve been wimbled on from a very great height indeed. Acton said the sign. And I know from twenty years as a parish priest that we certainly have to act on something. But what? Ealing Bdy said the sign. Not Ealing Broadway, but an abbreviation which comes out as Ealing Bdy. Ealing Body. Healing Body of Christ. See how the signs of everyday life give us clues all the time. I was feeling better already. So when the last sign said Upminster, I thought yes, Up Minister. There simply isn’t time to be down.

Charlie played his set. They gave him a good hand but his heart wasn’t in it. Normally after the gig he took the shades off and sidled off into the night with all the rest of them, but tonight he decided to stay blind all the way home. Because at midnight Blind Charlie Shade would die for ever.

It seemed to link up with the way they hit the high notes, black crows landing on a telegraph wire.

Charlie had no great wish to get home. He got off the bus at Bayswater. He’d often stared hard at the photographs of the blind bluesmen: Willie McTell, Lemon Jefferson. Head upright, fearless. Eyes ready for anything; blank as courage is when it takes on all comers. Something dementedly brave about the face of a blind man. It seemed to link up with the way they hit the high notes, black crows landing on a telegraph wire. Shouting the blues sometimes as though they would yell their way out of the lightless room.

So Charlie’s head as he sat on the bench along Bayswater was fixed, staring forward into the day that was always night, and now was turning into night anyway.

Two young women were standing at the bus stop.

‘Bloke in the bloody kebab shop.’


‘All I wanted was some chips.’


‘Maybe you like a beet of houmous and pitta bread? No, I don’t want any houmous, not even a beet, and no pitta bloody bread. I just want some chips. Maybe a kebab. Nice doner kebab. Very fresh. Lamb was in here this afternoon doing a commercial. No, I don’t want any kebab, Stavros. No kebab and no bloody houmous. Just some chips. Not even a cheese bugger? No THANK YOU. No cheese bugger. No doner kebab. No houmous in pitta bread. Just chips, all right? No salad with it… No dressing, not even mayo-bloody-naise. Chips. You know what they look like don’t you? Bloody Greek.’

‘He’s from Neasden.’


‘He was brought up in Neasden.’

‘So why does he talk like that then?’

‘Exotic. He was probably trying to entice you. So what did you buy, finally?’

‘Bloody chips is what I bought. Don’t you start.’ Pause.

‘Ever been to Greece?’

‘No. Probably get my chips quicker if I popped over there in future.’

‘We went to Kos. It was lovely. All these little white houses on a hill.’

‘How were the chips?’

‘Only ate Greek food while we were there.’

‘Don’t tell me.’

‘Kebabs mostly.’

‘And some houmous and pitta bread, I know. Nice bit of salad with dressing. No cheese buggers till you got to Athens and saw the big red McDonald’s sign. He wasn’t there with you, was he? Little bloke; black curly hair; white T-shirt?’

‘Well, they all look like that over there, don’t they? Even the women.’

Charlie had closed his eyes, gone to the world. Another voice arrived from nowhere.

‘You blind, love? I’m good with blind men. Fancy a bit of company?’ A silent man in his dark tunnel.

‘If you could see me you’d see how nice I look.’ Through his graveyard shades he could see her all right. And she did look pretty good, as it happened. Short leather skirt, black-stockinged thighs fleshy without overdoing it. Her blonde hair ragged. Raw sex. Jess, Steff, who needs them?

‘Set you up for the week, love. All the blind men like me.’ Must do regular gigs for the RIB. He stood up and let her take him by the arm. They went back to his flat.

‘Have you got any drugs?’ she said almost as soon as they were in.

‘Only to soothe the pain. Sometimes I try to rub away the blindness. Smoked my last joint before I played. I have some whisky.’

‘But have you got any…gear?’

‘Not unless somebody left some behind, which I very much doubt.’

‘Shouldn’t think somebody would have done that. Not if I know somebody, I shouldn’t think he would. I’m going to have to get some. Give me the money and I’ll go get some. I won’t be long.’

He stared at her out of his blindness and understood for the first time what a difference it was, the difference between desire and craving.

He hadn’t desired this woman, merely craved her, and now the craving was faltering swiftly. She herself he suspected had no desires at all any more, merely cravings — relentless and costly cravings. Eyes manic with blankness; they blazed and glazed with a focused lack of content. He stared at her out of his blindness and understood for the first time what a difference it was, the difference between desire and craving.

‘Where’s the money then, love?’

‘Shouldn’t we…you know…first?’ She took his hand and placed it on her breast, with remarkable tenderness. His fingers started to squeeze all by themselves.

‘I won’t be able to concentrate. Just let me go and get some gear. It won’t take me long. I know where to go. I’ll come back — I always do. My name’s Angie Lee-Pinkerton. I used to be in the papers a few years back. Thirty-five quid. You’re getting me very cheap. Only because I’m desperate tonight. You’re a bit young to be blind: they’re usually older.’ The hand extended into the blind man’s face. A streak of black ink across her tiny palm. What had she been writing? Her autobiography? Life On The Streets: A User’s Guide. He gave her the money. And once it was in her hand she was out of the door seconds later.

He sat at the table overlooking the railway from Paddington and poured himself half a tumblerful of whisky from the bottle Jimmy must have bought. You are a silly bugger, Charlie, he said to himself as the whisky scolded him, its incredulous harsh bite cutting the flesh of his throat. And so he drank. And then he drank some more. Half the money from the gig had left with her. The liquor in the bottle went down until there was hardly anything in it. Then it went down again and there was nothing in it at all. At last Charlie staggered through the bedroom door and managed to disentangle himself from his clothing before folding the sheets about his uncompanioned body. Needless to say there had been no knock on the door. And Charlie no longer cared. All he craved now was oblivion.

It must have been nearly an hour later that the knocking began. Charlie had fallen through the trapdoor of the room marked consciousness shortly after shifting to the horizontal position. He really had no wish to start shimmying his way back up the rope ladder to stick his head above the boards. What would he hear? Snakes and trumpets in the blind man’s closet. And see? Disshevelled clothing, tiny streaks of vomit on translucent surfaces. As for touch and taste…he didn’t even want to think about touch and taste. And he certainly didn’t want to think about smell. All five senses he could do without for a while. He resolved, if the word is not too coherent in its suggestion of intentionality, to ignore the knocking.

But the knocking was equally resolved not to be ignored. Knock, knock. Knock knock knock. KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK.


He fought his way out of the linen labyrinth and then oscillated like a communications tower in a storm.

An ache had settled round his head like a makeshift aureole, already a familiar catch of nausea at the back of the throat, a dry and grating token of misery promised to the bearer, and Charlie himself the master of these souring ceremonies floundered edgeways until he fell over the edge of the bed, knotted in the white sheets of his own deposition. He fought his way out of the linen labyrinth and then oscillated like a communications tower in a storm. Precariously towards the hall he lurched. Only when the vivid chill of its terra cotta tiles chastised his feet did he register that he was now entirely naked. He stared down at himself with disapproval. Leaking light through the frosted glass made his flesh garish and maggot-white, even though it seemed darker than usual. Why was everything so dark? The tangled thatch of pubic hair almost exhaled its vapours of immiseration: here be monsters. Stranger, begone. Down, nuncle. He was about to turn back in search of something to wear when the letterbox snapped open and the unmistakable voice of Angie Lee-Pinkerton hissed through it: ‘Well open the fucking door then.’ And she was in.

He knew the flare of nausea was hunting about inside him now, back and forth like a comet in the darkness.

They were in the living room. Off came the minute black leather jacket; vestigial leather skirt; bright purple silk blouse and high-heeled black patent leather shoes. At this point in the proceedings Angie halted. She was standing in the middle of the floor. He had slumped into a chair. He knew the flare of nausea was hunting about inside him now, back and forth like a comet in the darkness. Was it about to seek egress through his mouth?

This was undoubtedly a brighter Angie than the one who’d left. If not positive exactly, then a lot less negative. Why did we so often speak of people as though they had electric currents racing through them? What was it the old guy said to Miles about junk? After a short while, you don’t get high any more; you’re just chasing away the sick.

‘Do you want me to stay like this or shall I take the rest off?’ Her mouth twisted suddenly with self-reflective incredulity. She stared up at the ceiling. ‘Can’t fucking see the difference can you, Tiresias? What confuses me, Charlie, is your hair. Blind people don’t usually have such beautiful long hair. I mean, they need to be practical. Here.’ His hand in hers, she directed it up the inside of her thigh, across her little tuft, up her belly to the lacy bra. And suddenly Charlie had RAW SEX in his mouth, its small salty wave of bitter desire, except that the flesh had now become unaccountably cold and damp. A clammy corpse of dead craving. Desire was nowhere to be seen; she had fled in her nightie, back to her mother’s house. He ran into the bathroom and was retching even before he reached the bowl. Haaaarrrrgh. Heeeeoooouuuugh. The projectiles flew from his mouth, whiskied into rebellion. The comet had found its point of egress. How could this stuff, inside you for hours already, be so cold, so cold and lumpy? It bobbed about in the little harbour of the porcelain vomitarium. And floating on top of it all, he couldn’t help noticing, were his Polaroid sunglasses. Things were suddenly looking brighter. At least he’d not been entirely naked while receiving his visitor.

As the surge finally subsided and the technicolour tide of refuse within him ebbed, he slumped into the corner, moistened by the poisonous sting of his own perspiration. Angie kicked open the door with one patent leather shoe. Fully dressed now, all togged out in leather and taffeta in less than a minute, ready to ply her trade out there on the street once more. No timewasters need apply.

‘Well, thank YOU,’ she said, with a certain upper-class grace. Breeding, you never really lose it, do you? Some sort of default setting in the human psyche. Then she flashed out, slamming the door behind her. The letterbox snapped open one last time.

‘Not really blind, were you Charlie? I could tell, you know. Blind men have eyes in their fingers. Your fingertips wouldn’t see your arse if they were stuck right up it.’ Then she was gone into the streets she knew so well.

The next morning Charlie was sitting at the table, death’s head in his hands, when Jimmy arrived.

‘Hello mate,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I ended up staying over at CP’s again last night.’ Charlie focused on his flat-mate, but only with difficulty.

‘Won’t she let you call her C yet?’


‘Oh never mind.’

‘Fancy a bacon sandwich? I’m starving.’

‘Jimmy, if you put any bacon in the grill I’ll use my last bit of strength to throw you out of the fucking window.’

Jimmy had by now noticed the empty whiskey bottle. He picked it up and stared at it inquisitively.

‘What happened, Charlie? You get your first taste of sexual failure last night?’

‘Ask me another time, all right? I’ve got to get over and see my supervisor with my thesis.’

On the bus he was sitting behind two women, shop assistants seemingly, in their blue uniforms. He found himself staring at their faces, trying to distract himself from the bus-jolts thwacking his solar plexus.

‘Have you met Mr Wright?’

The other one’s eyes seemed to moisten briefly.

‘Not yet, no. But it’s early days. There was a boy last year in Tenerife…’

‘No, no, MR WRIGHT. Ted Wright. The electrician who’s coming today to sort out the wiring in the basement.’

‘Oh I see. I thought you meant…Is he the one who smells?’ Her faraway look had reverted to a sort of microscopic focus. Her nose actually wrinkled, something Charlie had assumed only happened metaphorically these days.

‘He certainly does. I should go and get another can of air-spray from the shop before he turns up, unless you’ve got a gas mask handy. Shouldn’t have any problems with insects while he’s there, anyway, looking on the bright side. I’d have thought they could have marketed him as some sort of organic repellent.’ Charlie could already smell the smell, and Mr Wright was still many miles away.

But here it was, drowned, crushed, the stopped vein of wormhood in all its indignity.

Outside the building, he stopped. On the tarmac before him lay a worm or what was left of a worm. Pink and beige, its washed-out membranous corpse. Minuscule memorial. The rains in the night must have tempted it from beneath the turf and it had set out venturing. For a richer loam to turn, thus to do its bit in the worm-world, the world of turning and turning. Had the plough sliced it, then it would have wrinkled off twice, at 180 degrees to itself, and been doubly replenished. But here it was, drowned, crushed, the stopped vein of wormhood in all its indignity. And no more than three feet away a fork, its dull metallic sheen purloined from the Students’ Union. Fork and worm together made Charlie immediately nauseous once more. Over the good green sward he vomited copiously. He forked into two, body versus emetic. He was himself and not himself. The foreign body heaved out of the native son. The innertube of his own disgust wormed out of him, warm and cold by turns. Couldn’t work out how there could still be a single thing left inside.

He went up in the lift with his head down and his hand pressed against the door. Down the corridor Jennifer greeted him crossly.

‘Finished are we?’

‘Do you mean the thesis or the tour?’

‘What do you think I mean, Charlie? I’m not here to supervise your blues tours, now am I?’

She settled down to his latest chapter. He had written it out somehow over the last few days. Fortunately for Charlie he had all the matter of his thesis in his head. It was simply a question of dispensing with Steffie, Jess, Angie and his various other problems long enough to put something on his laptop. Which he had done. Jennifer started reading with interest.

But his academic enthusiasm was so far from their own hard-bitten skills that the gap between them could not be filled with anything but wary smiles and cold beers.

It concerned a book called Psalms of the Dispossessed: An Anatomy of the Blues by Everard Clay, a book published at the author’s own expense in a limited edition in New York in 1950, and now much sought-after. Clay’s father was the astoundingly rich industrialist and bibliophile Stringer Clay. Everard was a good slide guitarist and a competent singer, and there was not a significant blues lyric that he didn’t seem to know. But the black musicians to whom he was auditor, recorder, stenographer, musicologist, ethnographer, and all-round paymaster and analyst, were baffled, utterly baffled, as to what he was doing there amongst them. His enthusiasm they knew was expressed with missionary passion. But his academic enthusiasm was so far from their own hard-bitten skills that the gap between them could not be filled with anything but wary smiles and cold beers. They were glad to be properly recorded and they happily took his money. But he wanted to be their friend, and this was not possible. Life made this impossible. And when he sometimes had an extra beer and played them back one of their own songs in the bar they would gaze upon him with sinister wonder. Everard had a westside apartment a few minutes walk from Manhattan and a big house on Long Island. He could return from the downtown bars at any time to either of these homes. His equipment, his time, the time of his life, were financed by his inheritance. This did not apply to them. Somebody must be acting.

These songs say: from this precise defeat comes this precise truth.

But was Everard acting? Charlie reckoned not. ‘The blues,’ he wrote, ‘represent a unique metaphysics: the metaphysic of defeat. These songs say: from this precise defeat comes this precise truth. And only thus defeated will you too be able to speak with such authority.’ But Everard wasn’t defeated. He couldn’t pretend that, not even with his eyes closed in the middle of a blues song.

Some of his smart New York friends thought Everard regarded the black blues singers much as anthropologists in their field-work regarded natives. Everard never condescended though; he never assumed a superior optic. The metallic surface of his prose glitters with unimpeachable admiration. It is as though he is saying the rich can only articulate the truths of the poor by imitating their chord progressions, their vocal inflections.

And this Everard actually did, in his musical imitations, in his writings. In NYC there was a kind of baffled admiration for the extent of his cultural curiosity and his musical mimicry. Down in the Mississippi Delta there was wary bemusement. Was he really a chameleon, or merely a gifted cuckoo? A collector or a usurer? At least he put plenty of money where his mouth was. Many an indigent bluesman, with barely the requisite dime to replace his top E-string, lived for months on Everard’s beneficence.

‘He represents,’ Charlie wrote, ‘the curious and uneasy interface between black and white culture, written and sung modalities, the expressive and the analytical. Somehow his devotion managed to convey, with both truth and passion, the hollering, the howling, the whispering, the murmuring, that is the blues, these vestiges of grief and desire. One of the things Clay conveyed most powerfully is that the blues make no pretence to being anything other than fragments, shards from an unsatisfactory existence. The blues make no stab at completion; in our age only kitsch lays claim to completion. The blues tell you that when you’re fulfilled, you’re not; that when you’re finished, everything’s left unfinished. It tells this truth with great directness and brevity. That’s why it can still make people so uncomfortable.’

‘It’s good Charlie,’ Jennifer said finally, when she looked up at him. ‘Assuming you haven’t met another female blues singer and fallen, I think we might actually pull all this together in time.’

—This is the tenth installment of White Ivory.
See previously
chapters 1 & 2
chapters 3 & 4
chapters 5 & 6
chapters 7 & 8
chapters 9 & 10
chapters 11 & 12
chapters 13 & 14
chapters 15 & 16
chapters 17 & 18

ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor PlaceboJacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd VolumesThe Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.

Image credits.
Peter Tillemans,
The Vale of Llangollen, Yale Center for British Art (via Wikimedia Commons); Morris Minor with background removed (via Wikimedia Commons); Duke of Edinburgh Badge (via Wikimedia Commons); vintage whiskey font (seamartini); Polaroid sunglasses (Marta Tuchka); whiskey bottle, cropped (IMOGI); Set of jazz posters (Sergei Krestinin).

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