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from White Ivory, chapters 25 & 26

< chapters 23 & 24   chapters 27 & 28 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Twenty-Five.
The Dolphin’s Back

HIS FATHER was in bed sedated, and Charlie was sitting nursing a coffee in his grandfather’s bathroom. The old man seemed to have gone into some sort of trance. Charlie peered through the tiny window as he listened to the monologue.

‘Think of a man, Charlie, who knows he has enough sex left in him to fulfil this much younger woman for a while but not for ever. The syncopation of her hips when she walks tells you that she has a lot more years left of being fulfilled than he has a chance of fulfilling. This would be his last woman (barely even a woman) and not far off her first man. And once his mature spindrift has hardened to wax, she’ll take a younger man between her sheets, between her legs, one who’ll doubtless be better at some things, though maybe not so good at others. His mind might be less distinguished. And women do notice distinction of mind, you know — young women like to feel that men of intellect can’t take their eyes off them. They like to know that their bodies are being intellectually observed, even as their minds are cherished.

‘Now this man isn’t quite what he seems. He hopes his riches might be measured by what he’s learnt to do without, not by what he’s acquired. The possessions in his life have actually been assembled, as Seeley claimed the British came to obtain their empire, in a fit of absence of mind.

‘He was a walking resurrection, a newly awakened sepulchre; the dead were raised at dawn each day within his precincts.’

‘I read once that a Zen master said people arrived out of their pain to study Zen, so as to avoid being crippled or going mad. Enlightenment in other words is not the icing on the cake; it is the ejector-seat before the mid-air collision. The prophylactic warding off insanity. Now this man had come to feel that his mind, his spirit, his soul, sod the nomenclature, was putrefying inside his body. Decaying as sound decays, fading as radiation fades, its throbbing slowly quelled. The muted atoms all around. Mere fruit rotting on the vine. He’d thought many times of making an end of it, but that would have involved killing his body. He had nothing against his body (well, apart from the usual things); his body afforded him, when all’s said and done, the only relief he ever obtained, which was far from excessive, but still. No, it was his mind he wanted to put an end to. Why punish the body for being visited with such an intellectual affliction? He wished merely to free his body into a zone of silence that might cleanse it of clamour, of clutter, where it might hear only the sounds of its own processes, as a mountain enjoys the rush of streams cascading down its flanks. But his mind was dead-set against silence: it wouldn’t shut up. Word-monger. Memory-mixer. Trawler of graveyards. His mind consorted promiscuously with the dead, Charlie. And spoke up for them, endlessly. Nothing was ever entirely dead while his mind was around. He was a walking resurrection, a newly awakened sepulchre; the dead were raised at dawn each day within his precincts. And much good it did him, or them, for that matter. His dead wife still had the run of his life.

‘A neighbour of mine, a widow, was pursuing me, and I had yielded, or arranged to yield anyway. I have amongst my intellectual bag of tools an invisible theodolite with which I can measure the angle of a person’s distance from the rudimentary requirements of sanity. I reckoned this angle in Sarah’s case, even by the most benign interpretation, was obtuse. To be unscientific about it, the rabid bint, though quite fetching, was completely off her rocker. Not the full shilling; doolally-tap; one degree short of the compass. And I was about to spend a week in Llandudno with her, attending to her irksome witter when Providence provided Lindsey instead. I accepted the gift with gratitude. But she strayed, Charlie, somewhere down in my little Garden of Eden she strayed. With one of the men I employed. I caught them at it and I never entirely forgave her. Whenever I thought about making love to her again, I saw him in my place and it stayed my hand. So there you are, Charlie: women stray as well as men. But then you probably already know that, don’t you?’

‘I do, grandad, yes.’

‘She assures me that she never did it again. That she hadn’t really meant to do it in the first place. That a little bit of flirtation down near the copse went too far. The funny thing is, I’ve started to believe her. Can’t do much about it now can I, Charlie?

‘You know, if you check the position of the larynx, even in the Neanderthal, it suggests propensity for speech. Not cries, not animal shrieks or murmurs, but speech. Symbolic logic and speech. Interesting, eh? I take a great comfort in this because it means we are speech; speech is what makes us different from the apes. They are blessed in the animal kingdom with an absence of shame about defecation and sex. Or anything else, I suppose. Though I believe they often grow uneasy in the presence of mortality. The mortality of their own kind, that is. So perhaps we do have something in common after all. But speech is ours, all ours, we’re the kings and queens of language and I want to live in speech, Charlie, not in this fucking decrepit body.’

Charlie had never heard the old man use that particular obscenity before and the word beginning in F made him wince as surely as the one beginning in C uttered by Stephanie.

‘When I die tell Lindsey she can publish her book on Alfred Wilberforce Fenshawe, our degenerate forebear. She’s already finished it, you know. I’ve read it. God, what a dirty little bugger the man was. I want you to promise me something, Charlie, I want you to promise me you’ll stay young as long as you can. And enjoy it all. I didn’t, you see. Then at least I can feel that you’re redeeming what I left cursed. Will you make me that promise, son?’ He turned his face at last towards his beloved grandson. Charlie simply nodded, because he couldn’t speak.


Chapter Twenty-Six.
The Ivory Men

HE WAS staring out of the window when he saw her at the bottom of the drive. He ran out of the door and down the hill. Without thinking about it at all he kissed her. A long kiss on the lips. He felt the tears on her cheeks before he saw them.

‘Take me somewhere for a few days, Charlie.’

‘Jess, I’ll take you anywhere you like but I can’t do it now. You’ve no idea what’s going on here.’

‘Yes, I do. I do know what’s going on here.’ He was rubbing his hands up and down her back. His eye had fixed on her tattoo. Raw Sex. ‘I know what’s happened, Charlie, and you’re the only one I can trust. I want to tell you everything but I can’t do it here. Take me somewhere, Charlie. Now.’

He looked down and saw the little bag she’d packed.

‘Do you know who killed him?’


‘Wasn’t my dad, was it?’


‘Come up to the house.’

‘I can’t go up there, Charlie.’

‘Come up to the house.’ He took her by the hand and led her up the drive.

As Charlie phoned the hotel in Chester where he’d stayed with Stephanie and booked two nights, Lindsey stared with interest at Jess in the hall, as she walked around the glass cases containing all the ivory pieces. She had forgotten her fear for a moment.

‘They’re beautiful.’

‘Yes, aren’t they.’

‘Nice the things you get, if you’re Ivory People.’

Then Charlie was back with his bag.

‘Can you run us to the station, Lindsey?’

‘Where are you going, Charlie, at this critical juncture in all our lives?’


‘Then why don’t I run you there, and you can tell me all about it. Because I’m going to have a certain amount of explaining to do when I get back.’

But all the way up all Jess would say was, ‘I’m going to tell Charlie everything, but I’ve got to be alone with him. It wasn’t your dad, Charlie.’

‘I knew that anyway.’

And Lindsey kept staring in the mirror to see their sad embrace in the back seat. Well, Alasdair and Lindsey were a pretty rum match, she thought, but this one looks scheduled to be even rummer.

She dropped them at the hotel and drove back, wondering what on earth she was meant to tell everyone else.

Once they had made love they went for a walk along the old city walls.

‘I love it up here. We used to come here for special treats when I was a kid.’

‘What happened, Jess? Tell me what happened, love.’ He had his arm around her waist and he pulled her to him. She started speaking, haltingly at first, but then it came out faster and faster.

‘We called you the Ivory People. We always called you that.’

‘We called you the Ivory People. We always called you that. And if we wanted something that was too expensive, dad would say, “We’re not Ivory People, you know. We can’t have everything we want in life like they can.” When your dad had that crash with our Malcolm…’

‘Your Malcolm?’

‘Malcolm was my brother. I’m Jess Filey.’

Charlie stopped, put both his hands on the parapet wall and stared out towards the Mersey. Then he put his arm around her waist again and started them walking.

‘Go on, Jess.’

‘He went mad, dad, for days. Weeks. Shouting about how the rich kill the poor and get away with it.’

‘He said one day, if he had anything to do with it, the Fenshawes would pay. The Ivory People would pay.’

‘Dad wasn’t at fault. Malcolm was pissed.’

‘I know that. My mum knew that. But dad doesn’t want to know anything except what he wants to know. Never did. He broke in to your house. Nicked the ivory from the sign and those old billiard balls. And he made this little shrine. Mum made him put it up in the box room finally. It freaked us out so much. It was a picture of Malcolm with these tusks around it and all the old billiard balls in a circle. He said one day, if he had anything to do with it, the Fenshawes would pay. The Ivory People would pay.

‘Dad was in a lot of shit about money. Everybody knew that. Everybody in the pub knew that. So then this Paul Quinto turns up and he’s talking to everybody. People said how odd it was they seemed to tell him everything. I told him everything, Charlie. Told him how broke dad was. And then he came back with this package a few days later. Said he represented the Fenshawe family.’

‘The Fenshawe family?’

‘You, Charlie. He said a settlement would be made that would get my dad out of trouble as long as I promised to make no further attempt to get in touch with you. Said the old man had heard about our goings-on down in Shepherd’s Cottage. Said he was pretty anxious to end it all right there and then. Didn’t want his only grandson shacked up with some little local tart.’

‘He said that?’

‘He said that. That’s when I got angry. He knew so much about you all. He said the family did this in 1950, the family did that in 1990. How did he get to know so much about you?’

‘I don’t know. He was clever.’

‘So dad signed everything. And a month later we found out what was really going to happen. Dad had been spending the money like a drunken sailor in a brothel. Twenty thousand cash. Even bought a new car. Then he found out we’d lose the house. He thought it was the Fenshawes. The Ivory People had done him again. Somebody told me about the killing. As soon as I heard I ran back home and up into the boxroom. The tusks had gone, and the old billiard balls. Then I knew. That’s when I came over to the Mount.

‘What’s going to happen, Charlie?’

‘Your dad’s going to go to prison.’

‘He knows his way around there anyway. Won’t be the first time.’

Charlie was glad that she wouldn’t be grieving for him.

‘Was he the man on the phone?’

‘You phoned?’

‘I tried to, from London.’


‘He sounded so aggressive.’

‘That’s because he is.’

‘Sounded as though he’d have beaten me up.’

‘He would. And me too. Paul Quinto picked the wrong man for a fight.’

‘I’m going to have to make a phone call, Jess, you know that.’

‘Yes. Then can we go back to the hotel?’

‘Then we can go back to the hotel.’

So Charlie phoned. They said he’d have to come back with Jess there and then. He said she was too distressed to be returned there and then. And in any case, he thought it might be a good idea if Mr Filey was in custody before she returned home. Then they went back to the hotel.

—This is the thirteenth 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
chapters 19 & 20
chapters 21 & 22
chapters 23 & 24

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.

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