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from White Ivory, chapters 27 & 28

 < chapters 25 & 26    chapters 29 & 30 >

A Fortnightly Serial.


Chapter Twenty-Seven.
Black Dog

SO THE FATHER of Malcom and Jessica Filey was arrested. Suspicion was lifted from Will’s shoulders. The Inspector had been in no doubt that it wasn’t him anyway. As he told his Sergeant: ‘Academics don’t kill people. They just write nasty things about one another in their funny magazines.’

The Fenshawe family gradually came to terms with the curious liaison between Jess and Charlie. Lindsey even started to become very fond of her, so fond that when Charlie announced they were to be engaged, she insisted they have a family dinner for them all up at the Mount. This event was looming.

By this stage Will had moved into a mobile home on a little caravan park near the aqueduct.

‘For God’s sake, come and live here, Will. There’s enough room.’

‘No, I couldn’t do that, Lindsey. But thanks for the offer.’

‘Alasdair wants you to, just as much as I do, you know. Can’t you forget the trouble there’s been between you over the years? You’re both too old for this.’

He had believed that as the spirit expands, material needs should shrink in proportion.

But Will had been adamant. A mobile home. One of the things he had most admired about Jim Ede of Kettle’s Yard was that he had lived in more and more restricted circumstances. He had believed that as the spirit expands, material needs should shrink in proportion.

Which was why Will was now lying wide awake at 2 am.

Although working-class and proud of it, his neighbour to the east was not content with this; she had seemingly set her heart on a more lowly social status, in her continual search for enhanced authenticity. She wished to be lumpen-prole, though she would never have dreamt of stating it in such sociological jargon. She would have said simply (and did in fact say simply) that she wished merely to be herself, although she would have undoubtedly added the word ‘fucking’. She always added this word, whatever the context, the weather or the time of day. Will noted to himself how the word ‘fucking’ had to stand as both adjective and adverb. You didn’t go fuckingly; you simply fucking went, as though the increment of that extra syllable would have been tantamount to a cultural aspiration. Distinctions between adjectives and adverbs: who fucking needs them after all?

So she effed and blinded, making sure the wide straps of her sweat-stained brassiere were always painfully visible to any fastidious and faint-hearted visitor. She even yelled obscenities at the contents of her oven, as though her charred crusties and shrivelled vol-au-vents might conceivably still be tainted by the fragrance of bourgeois haute-cuisine, and stand in need of some scenting-down with a feculent dose of nostalgie de la boue. Her favourite telephone-answering technique was first to pick up the receiver, then yell mightily through the angled window into the surrounding hinterland, that familiar untended wasteland of ragwort and dandelion stretching dishevelled and disconsolate about her domicile, ‘Didn’t you hear the phone ringing? Then why didn’t you answer the fucking thing?’ After thus clearing her throat, she would address herself to the benighted, and as yet anonymous, caller on the line with, ‘WHO IS IT THEN?’

All Will could think of was Newton’s formula, F=ma. Force equals mass times acceleration.

In love, her cries rang out in the night. Her moans and shrieks were vigorous, as the accessible mountain of her flesh was ploughed and furrowed by the latest lusty paramour from town. For some reason they were always as thin as she was fat. Did an inverse law apply? All Will could think of was Newton’s formula, F=ma. Force equals mass times acceleration. Well, the force of Wendy’s cries equalled her undoubted mass multiplied by the acceleration of her desire. The forces in play remained constant, as far as he was able to gauge.

But her latest effort this night belittled all previous soundings in the genre. When the ultima thule of her final cry came, after the archipelago of precedent love-taunts and bridles, it was a titan’s elegiac howl as Uranus bit the dust; an aural advertisement for Orgasm Inc. This was indeed ecstasy enfleshed. The earth might not have moved but the caravan certainly did — the caravan six feet away from Will’s. It rocked. Its rusty axles groaned in acknowledgment of the love-fest now climaxing above them. At two o’clock in the morning. Life in the country, eh? It was true what they said, after all: you got to know people better here than you did in town. Wendy for example had finally claimed that she had never shared sensations with anyone, never ever ever, comparable to the ones which she had in these last few minutes shared between the sheets with Tom, the latest stick-man to be clasped between her mighty thighs. And it had to be true because Wendy, the unvarnished, the plain-spoken, the femme du peuple, had said so and could surely not lie, even atop the Empire State Building of her passion, any more than King Kong could have bellowed duplicitously once he’d caught sight of Fay Wray. Wendy is as Wendy says, even though ‘says’ is a feeble word really to describe the volume of her nocturnal announcements. One thing was for certain: her joy could not be contained inside the corrugated tin walls of one small caravan, the mobile home in which her amours were conducted. Tom tended to say less during the deed of darkness itself, restricting himself to a steadily-rising crescendo of rhythmic grunts, but his own joy would undoubtedly express itself throatilly once more in the early morning — for Tom was a yodeller, though one seemingly without any particular gift or training, lacking the bona fide Austrian brio which that pastoral art of the valleys and mountains requires; still, he evidently found that yodelling helped him shave each day, shortly after dawn. Each day, mind you. And always shortly after dawn.

He didn’t suppose either Wendy or her sundry menfolk were what you’d call great readers.

Will had already learnt not to count on getting too much sleep round these parts. Occasionally Wendy and Tom, or Dick or Fred or Wayne or whoever had most recently returned from the pub with a bellyful of beer and a swollen penis, would go away for a few days and the black moons beneath Will’s eyes would begin briefly to lighten. Then his cohabitees from that little plot of earth known as Perry’s Park would return and their caravan would start jubilantly rocking through the early hours once more. He didn’t suppose either Wendy or her sundry menfolk were what you’d call great readers. For culture, they appeared instead to be very fond of the music normally referred to as heavy metal, presumably in honour of the way it clangs on the nerves, welds synapses together and banishes all possibility of unmetallic nuance for a distance of fifty yards. Wendy possessed a CD-Player, much smaller than Wendy herself and glitteringly silver and neat where she was redolently pink and sprawling, but incontrovertibly as loud as its owner. There were usually four ears inside that caravan at any time of day or night, and never had a single one been attuned to any form of understatement. It was a binary system: noise followed by oblivion followed by noise followed by oblivion. And so on, thus and thus, until kingdom come. Was it any wonder then if Will Fenshawe had once more started veering back towards derangement?

He rose now and wearily put on his clothes. He would take a walk as so often along the towpath in the dark.

But the figure of his dementia during his first breakdown had been not a black dog but a white cat…

All men have wounds, Will knew that, but he sometimes felt like a wound to which a man had been attached. A wound into which the whole world had cratered, a black hole through which all the light in the universe had swerved. The doctors call it depression; clinical depression. Churchill called it the black dog. Will didn’t call it anything because his words failed him at that boundary where the mind blurs and all five senses shriek in the face of perception’s razor. But the figure of his dementia during his first breakdown had been not a black dog but a white cat, Schrödinger’s cat maybe. Out in the dark, the dark outside his mind that matched the dark inside. She would come each night. She seemed to know that her death was approaching. She would recognize the silhouette sliding along the wall and hunt for a hole in the world big enough to escape through. Now she understood briefly what it was to be a mouse impaled on her own unforgiving claws, just as Will had come to know what it was to be the victim of those implacable shadows prowling about inside him. That was the strangest thing of all, Will reckoned: he himself was the capo of the mob that was out to get him. They were his creatures. He fed them. He clothed them. He gave them directions, lay words upon their tongues and contrived the crooked grins on their faces.

All men have wounds but they don’t all carve the wounds into their own mental flesh. For that you need to be a specialist, a blade-man, a psychic ripper. It was the viscera of the mind, Will’s mind, that ended up butchered and bleeding on the floor. Probably entertaining if you were in the right mood and your carpet was the right shade of red. Even the cat had once whispered as much, one night after she’d stopped trembling. Will was a kind of specialist, after all. This was his work in a way. Let’s call him a philosopher of darkness. His thesis, after so many years of detailed study, concerned the history of occlusions: an annotated text in regard to the lightless realms. It could be a treacherous business, but then somebody had to do it. And at least he got paid. Enough for a mobile home that had long ago lost all hope of mobility. The white cat’s only alibi was that she was merely an hallucination. Will wondered if there might be a gulag of chimeras? If so, he knew it had just been liberated, because the cat had come back. He had just seen her on the towpath, an ectoplasmic surge. Then he heard a bird’s cry, as though the air itself were feathering out there in a flutter of panic. And then silence. Then he knew he must be breaking down again.

Schrödinger’s cat. In a sealed room a cat shares its space with a phial of poison and a lump of radioactive material. If an atom from this decays it might emit an electron; on the other hand it might not. If it does then the container with the radioactive material gets broken and the cat dies. If it doesn’t then it doesn’t, and the cat lives. But neither reality is a reality unless and until it’s observed. Without the observation the cat is neither alive nor dead, but in some indeterminate state between the two. On this basis, the cat out there in the darkness was a reality because Will had just observed it. So he had no choice except to believe in it. After all, not many people get the opportunity to observe the French Revolution, do they? Or travel at the speed of light? Or see their own heart without someone else’s expensive machinery beaming through them. But they believe in these things nonetheless. Will had seen the cat and he knew very well what the cat meant: his own oncoming dementia for the second time in his life. He stared over the aqueduct to the Ceiriog river below, and wondered if he shouldn’t join Virginia Woolf underwater. Might that not be quicker and cleaner for everyone concerned?

Thought was dissonant where reflection was consonant,…

The next morning on the train he was busily reading Kicking Away the Ladder as though he might have left the answer there for himself years before, in his little labyrinth of clues. He had made a fundamental distinction between thought and reflection. Usually what was referred to as thought was in truth reflection. For reflection to be possible the water must be still. In this latter category he included meditation, contemplation, recollection, cogitation, musing, pondering, consideration and most forms of what are generally described as cerebration. Real thought had nothing whatsoever to do with still surfaces or any of the preceding, despite the confusions of the lexicon. The electricity of intellect, which is to say real thought, needed two poles, negative and positive, and a consequent burn of energy between them. Molecules needed to transmute visibly. Thought was dissonant where reflection was consonant, damagingly hot where the other was accommodatingly warm. Real thought made connections but it made them with a flicker of fire and what it left behind was the scorched earth trace of its invasion. In fact, as Will pointed out more than once there had been another intermittent name for such dissonance: namely, the devil. This emblematic creature was, in Will’s estimation, the personification of thought. Subversion incarnate. Resistant to domestication. Like a white cat that had gone feral.

There was even a table in Kicking Away the Ladder whose function was to make this binary opposition clear. In the column headed Reflection he had entered the words celebration, prayer, homestead, security, kith, kin, enclosure, valleyman. All these categories and dispositions needed to be entered in the ledger, it seemed, and all were parted by a thick black line from the column beneath the word Thought, in which the following words appeared: alienation, nomadism, dialectic, unceasing, risk and gypsy. Maybe he should have included mobile homes. He’d had no sleep at all.

He didn’t seem entirely sure whether we had tuned in to a dissonance greater than ourselves, some admonitory noosphere that unceasingly surrounded us, or merely created one.

Will had made it clear in the prosecution of his argument that he understood the interdependence of reflection and thought, of the consonant and dissonant mind, but he also made it plain that philosophy in any true sense had its itinerary plotted through the land of alienation. Alienation was its Ur- land, its first tongue. His historic argument was curious and implied that each burst of disaffected and alienated thought left its traces in the vast machinery of our makings, like a vast and convoluted shell evolution had made for what was now a mere residue of soft pale flesh within it. Unwittingly, it seemed, with our monolithic expertise, we had built so much dissonance into the grand machinery of social life, in our search for consonance, let it be said, in our pharaonic labours towards an indemnified consonance, that it had now gained its own momentum. He didn’t seem entirely sure whether we had tuned in to a dissonance greater than ourselves, some admonitory noosphere that unceasingly surrounded us, or merely created one. But whichever way round it went, it was what Marx called contradiction, what the fundamentalists of the great Midwest call Armageddon, what his own old man had often called ‘a right bugger’s muddle’, but it was what Will had taken to calling simply the Insanity. Humanity was in for a caning, having carefully manufactured the cane for itself over the centuries. It had manufactured enough chemical and biological weapons to turn the planet into a spinning ball arid as Mars; enough nuclear devices to turn it into a bomb, a blazing holocaust, as lethally bright as Dresden during those endless nights in 1945. Was it now building rockets so busily as a means of escape? Time to go despoil another planet, teach ourselves to breathe without the assistance of an atmosphere, resign ourselves to living in the artificial light inside our canopies for ever? Like Hamlet, we were considering stepping out of the air. Was that thought then, or mere reflection? Would it be consonance or dissonance we’d be stepping into, as we left behind this life? Thanatos is consonantal, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics predicts its ultimate security. Entropy, like any sacrament, abolishes itself once the journey’s done.

Every man meets his wound, and once met it stays with him till death. It is after all his wound. It has been shaped in his image. Its atomic structure is fashioned from a failure matching each of his successes; the grief that corresponds to his exhilaration; the single tear in whose globe you can see a whole world of joy. It’s his, and surely belongs with him, as a tutelary spirit belongs to the place of its naming, and as anything once truly done can never be truly undone, but must find a site of memory to be named and listed, honoured among the ashes and the statues. Its own place. To refuse it is to refuse your life; to live as though the mirror of your days encountered only sunlight, and never swallowed the darkness once the faces, laughing or grave, have at last retreated to their homes for the night. The train had already left Telford.

And your wound grows old as you do, but it has a much better memory. A cicatrix with perfect memory, in point of fact. Will’s was now going for a walk through his memories. The walking wounded.  The speeding mind has many mansions and your mature wound, your cicatrix striated with memory, knows each single room, down to the last slumbering microbe in the last battered cushion. Every inch of every room. So what did it re-create, what Potemkin scenery long-dismantled did Lady Mnemonsyne erect to enable that lifelong wound of Will’s to enter once more with its announcement of fatality?

He can ponder the truths or otherwise of dead religions. He can pay his bills. He can teach his students. What else is there?

London in early evening summer sunlight. Crowds forming and re-forming at the river’s edge. The noise of the city, neither hostile nor welcoming, simply the noise of a vastness of life, a shifting morphology of  vagrant spirits. Up along the embankment comes a white MG with its hood down. Puccini pours from the radio like cream from a crystal jug. Turandot. In the driving seat, Will. And all the pubs are open. The pubs, the wine bars, the restaurants, the clubs, the terraced houses of Chelsea and Hammersmith. There is an infinite amount to drink in London and Will is a solvent Londoner permitted to drink it. No medication in those days. He can drive; he can drink; he can think philosophic thoughts; read philosophic books. He can ponder the truths or otherwise of dead religions. He can pay his bills. He can teach his students. What else is there? Can he still make love with the enthusiasm he did the year before? This remains to be discovered, possibly this very evening, for he is on his way to meet Marie. In the Gingleboy in Paddington. Amidst its sawdust, its ancient beams and contrived shadows, they’ll share a bottle of wine, who knows maybe two. He lives only five minutes from there and she lives, oh not much more than ten. He has already approved her body, this much has already been noted, but he knows little enough of her mind as yet. Should their thoughts meet on this mild London night, should they end their rendezvous by driving off together in his white MG, still with its hood down in acknowledgment of such balmy weather, and should their bodies later elect to shed their linen baffles of propriety as their thoughts had probably done already, then who could know what might lie ahead? The traffic dispersed, an entropic evacuation, a hundred yards beyond Westminster. He presses his foot down and the car’s throttle clears its throat. In those old two-seaters your legs were almost horizontal, flat out as though on a bed. Accelerator, clutch, accelerator, your warm hand firmly round the black smooth head of the gear-stick, pushing it into the slots where you want it to go, feeling the surge of power that comes out of your choices. And the world tonight permitted your movement inside it. All the way inside it. The wind was a silk scarf. He smiled through the windscreen at the road ahead. What awaits him? The road ahead said nothing. What after all was it meant to tell him about what lies ahead, even though you’d think that might be the one thing a road might be expected to know? What a guarantee of safety speed can seem. Then Will met the future and everything slowed down.

Will wondered what on earth had happened to that white MG. He knew only too well what had happened to Marie.

Will wondered what on earth had happened to that white MG. He knew only too well what had happened to Marie. And to himself. But he did wonder about the car, the most rudimentary car he’d ever owned, the one with the fewest needs. Built before cars got really fancy with themselves, with fuel injection and air-conditioning, and all the rest of that palaver. He reckoned he should have studied that car more while he had the opportunity: Maybe he could have learnt a lot from it. Might have cut down on his requirements. He hoped it might be still pressing on, up the road somewhere, answering somebody’s needs.

The first person round his door at Mercia College was David Delmore. It seemed to Will that David remained as thin as he did merely to spite his flesh. The wintry moon of his face appearing in his room immediately tilted the temperature about Will’s heart towards the wind-chill factor. Here comes the hunter in search of elusive faults, cracks in the system so minuscule they are invisible to the naked eye. Pound to a penny he’d have once more lost a quid and found a query.

‘Are you entirely…happy with the way the seminars are going, Will?’ Well, you’re obviously not, are you David, you pinch-faced, freckle-faced Pharisee. Play the man, pilgrim, play the man.

‘Oh, I think so David, yes. Why, might something have given you grounds for concern perhaps?’ In your ceaseless and avid search for sources of misery and betrayal, you weasel-featured, prattling little wanker.

‘Drift, Will, I find I’m growing anxious about drift.’ Scared we might strap you naked to a raft and set you afloat on it, professor? So that the gannets might gobble your pellet-sized bollocks. If only to compare them with the pebbles Newton’s boy played with so famously on the beach.

‘Always easy to confuse drift with imaginative scope, of course. Don’t you trust me, David, after all the years we’ve been teaching together?’

Silence. What a stupid fucking question. Delmore, head of philosophy, would not have trusted his own wife while she was in the act of fellating him. He would be anticipating a bite; be dubious, even as he moaned, as to motive; wondering about the present balance on her credit card, or whether the new BMW was free of scratches and scars.

Academic life, like most forms of human existence, only functions with the grease-guns of mendacity and cant applied with a high rate of frequency to all its moving parts.

‘Of course I trust you, Will.’ Mendacity and cant. Academic life, like most forms of human existence, only functions with the grease-guns of mendacity and cant applied with a high rate of frequency to all its moving parts. How ghastly the creature’s face when it smiles. Where does he keep his blood? Count Dracula at prayer following a bereavement. ‘But even so…’

And he left then, exiting through the ellipsis his own utterance had provided. But even so. Indeed.

The student he liked. She seemed troubled in a mildly erotic sort of way. She sat on the other side of his table. She spoke in strong Scottish tones. Wrote so, too. Dyslexia, she said. Her unconscious ability to metamorphose the shapes of words to fit her tongue struck him as word-sensitive, rather than the opposite. ‘The gells where all whirring perils around their necks.’ She did to words what Picasso did to faces. They were entirely hers by the time she’d finished. She brought them home to her mouth and ear, sucked them smooth with her tongue.

Your life has been structured thus, so that everything else never can be done, and this appears unalterable.

Increments. The lecturer’s life is made up of increments. Oh not the paltry increases in salary grudgingly conceded by a state whose indifference to education is matched only by its ceaseless prattling as to its unique importance. Anyone who enters education for the money is obviously so functionally illiterate that such a person shouldn’t be permitted to teach anyway. Even the holidays get whittled away, those legendary perks of the professorial classes. All that preparation; all that marking. And here’s where the increments lie. There is never a clear desk, never a clear mind, never a clear day. Fifty assignments from year three have been eating away at your concentration for two weeks, and now you are about to finish them, on the cusp of completion indeed, but only in time to get your notes together for tomorrow’s lectures, when an email arrives, informing you that sixty-five essays from year two have been deposited in your pigeon-hole in the last hour. Admin’s job is now complete. Its annunciation is effected. Over to you then, sunshine. But the trouble is you haven’t even started on the new course on Romantic Philosophy. Not a smidgeon, not a shred of thought has covered this mighty topic as yet. No use waiting until everything else is done, because everything else never is done. Your life has been structured thus, so that everything else never can be done, and this appears unalterable. Incremental weights, unceasing accumulative obligations, words and paragraphs by their thousands and tens of thousands sift through the leaky sack of pedagogy onto your benighted head. The lucky ones, the ones with friends in high places or glamorous egos, the Ken Malmseys, get lengthy sabbaticals, during which their students shrivel into a distant and clamorous dream, the hallucination of learning. The others simply have breakdowns when the incremental weight reaches such a critical mass and the mind snaps under its weight. Or even worse: they retire into a hard skin of self-protection, expert at avoiding risk, shrewd at spotting any student with a serious problem from the furthest end of the lengthiest corridor, and ready always with the smiling phrase: ‘Can’t actually. Fully committed this term. Up to my ears.’

Beth put her head around the door.

‘Don’t forget that CD-Rom, Will. The deadline’s closing.’

As he made his way along the corridor he caught a snatch of the conversation ahead of him.

‘He made his name with a paper called “For O, For O, The Hobbyhorse is Forgot: The Annihilation of Continuity in Harrison Birtwhistle’s Percussive Work.”

‘Musicologist, is he?’

‘No, but he can hum a good tune when he hears one.’

It seemed to all the students that afternoon that Will had already been speaking when they entered the seminar room.

‘Two white apparitions in the black stuff. The swans so much more regal than the canal they’d landed on. The point is this: the contiguity of my perceptions, a fragment of water here, a reach there, an iron bridge duly embossed with name of maker and date of construction, some Midlands foundry long defunct, its finances flotsam by now, trapped in a lock where the gates haven’t opened for so long they’re probably frozen…such glimpses are glimpses of diachronic topography merely, but I want to talk to you today about synchrony and universalism… I don’t want you to see just the occasional flash of a rainbow in the petrol catamenia, the menstruation of boats, the snake-like trickles from their tanks or sweetly-oiled little motors… no, what I’m trying to point you to (since we’re all in the same boat, all on the same train, precise destinations a technicality for the moment anyway) is the grand scheme of all this, the metaphor of which this stretch of towpath is a metonym, the whole vessel of which this leaking hull is a mere synechdoche of local affection and decay, and that’s the scheme of the Grand Union Canal itself, do you see, the whole diagram with its telos and its functionaries, laid in the dust as they might be, of which this is a part, antique now, I grant you, defunct in fact, but a shard of the purpose nevertheless, as surely as some ancient potsherd scraped from the soil of Mesopotamia, as surely as a Sumerian god dug out from under the Tigris…these doodles of water we catch sight of from our speeding window are talismans like the word dialectic in Hegel or resentment in Nietzsche…parts of the whole, you see, emblems of the whole caboodle…they speak a holistic language but they can only speak it in fragments, they are speaking a language of ruins…every single sentence Wittgenstein ever wrote…please hear what I’m trying, really trying to say to you, if you can, even you at the back, even those who’ve just come in, because it really is so important, I can hardly tell you…and you can always finish that sandwich later…always have a chat on your mobiles in the library.

‘I think I introduced you once to the work of Peirce. You’ll remember his distinction between icon and index. The icon of a town would be a painting, a photograph, something with a structural parallel…but the index might be the smoke rising from a single chimney. It indicates the nature of what lies below but it doesn’t portray it, you see, not the way the icon does. Between this room and Wolverhampton, along the edge of the railway line, you must have seen it…many times, I shouldn’t wonder…there’s a dumping-ground for defunct fridges…thousands upon thousands of them…there to remain to help cook the planet towards its extinction…which will ultimately cool down, all the same….never doubt that…

‘A purple polythene bag has maybe snagged in a tree. Above it a constellation of gulls over a housing estate. Data accruing all about us all the time, do you see…the other morning there was a young woman sitting opposite me on the train, her face bony, the skin almost translucent…I mean I could hardly bear to look but found it completely impossible at the same time to turn away.

‘All I’m trying to give you here is the larger picture or — let’s put it another way round entirely — to ask on your behalf what on earth is the purpose of studying philosophy? Three thousand years ago astrologers gazed up into the skies above Iraq and saw the future. Well, what would you have seen if you’d been staring up into them two years ago? The stars exploding, my friends. The portents are bigger than any history has ever seen before. And do they form images? Then the images must be obliterated, all of them, except as a dubbing-track for the new world order. Why else did NATO bomb that television station in Belgrade? Why bomb al-Jazeera in Kabul? Why did one tank and one aeroplane bomb the Hotel Palestine and the al-Jazeera offices in Baghdad? The only kills to be had were journalists. People recording images, people creating images, that might make reality real again, do you see…candidates for assassination by the agencies of democracy. Can you just try to look into the canal and see the swans…look up into the sky and see the future…look at your television screens and see the future bleeding. Look at me. Look at me. I mean…well, take a look at me…now…here…before you…I’m a man, you know, and that’s all I am…’

By the time he was sitting with his face in his hands, tears flowing so freely that his fingers were soaked, one of the female students was kneeling by him, caressing his white hair and the back of his neck, so gently, and another was already talking in hushed tones to one of William’s colleagues in the corridor outside. Beth was there a few minutes later.

‘I think I’d better drive you home, Will.’

And she did. Up to Ivory Mount. Even Will knew he couldn’t be delivered back to the caravan in the state he was in. They called the doctor. Soon his nervous system was efficiently sluiced with sedatives. Bipolarism. The doctor said something about bipolarism. Extremities of perception. He lay on the bed finally and slept.

Two days later Charlie and Jess were walking along the towpath near the aqueduct when they saw the signs on the trees. There were so many of them that they took one down. When they got back, Charlie went up to his father’s room and laid the little photocopied notice on the bed before him.

‘Maybe you’re not going nuts after all, dad.’

Lost. White Cat.
Hunts often along this towpath. If you find
her please ring…

‘Schrödinger’s cat,’ Will said. ‘He always said it was all a matter of observation.’          Kleptomania

‘Have you been with anyone else, Charlie?’

Charlie thought for a moment. He thought of Angie Lee-Pinkerton. But then he hadn’t actually done anything with her: it had been more like watching late-night television after an evening in the pub. But there was no way round the thought of Stephanie Sheehan and those six weeks on the road.

It is reported that Bob Hope, a newly-employed youthful secretary recently installed in his Beverly Hills home, waved farewell to his wife of many years who was going out shopping for the afternoon. When she returned half an hour later, having realised she’d left her purse behind, she found Bob and the youthful secretary naked together in bed. In what some regard as the only genuinely funny remark Bob Hope ever made, he then jacknifed upwards clutching the sheets about his vulnerabilities and shouted, ‘It’s not me’.

The retreat into untruth when cornered is such a venerable tradition that the law expects it as a matter of course.

It’s funny because it’s true, and it’s true because of the plaintiveness, the utter desperation of its untruth. Or as Lenny Bruce once put it, ‘When your wife catches you red-handed and there’s no way you can deny it, just deny it. Deny and keep denying.’ What else, as the song has it, can a poor boy do? The retreat into untruth when cornered is such a venerable tradition that the law expects it as a matter of course. It builds into its forensic procedures an elaborate anticipation of this automatic reflex. What the act of aural confession and the psychoanalytic session have in common is their devotion to a way round it or through it or under it or behind it. Why should we tell the truth, when all’s said and done, either to Freud or God? Does telling the truth, even in an enclosed wooden box, even to a stranger in the dark, make you stronger or weaker? What’s the motivation to take the sheets from your vulnerabilities, sit up in the bed and say, ‘Actually, beloved, it is me’? What reward has been offered? And in regard to the Almighty, surely Bob Dylan’s words come to mind: if he can read our mind, then why must we speak? Even if I lie, you know precisely that that’s what I’m doing, so either way my words merely confirm my powerlessness before your omniscience. If you make me speak, it’s only for the sake of telling the story better in the appropriate chapter and verse of your mighty book. It’s all down to symmetry and balancing the wheels.

Which is a grand way of getting round to saying why Charlie said what he now said. He decided on the most straightforward course of action with Jess: he would lie.

‘No,’ he said.

‘Are you sure, Charlie?’ she asked, scrutinising his face a little more closely than he would have liked.

‘Sure. Just been you and me, Jess.’

What he had entirely forgotten about was the forthcoming film to be broadcast on television, directed by Francis Traile and entitled Blues Up and Down the Land. Charlie was playing the blues right now.

‘You really do love that guitar don’t you, Charlie?’

‘I really do.’

‘Wouldn’t want to get you to choose between that guitar and me if we were both going over the cliff.’

‘I might get a bit confused, Jess.’

‘Even with your baby in my womb, Charlie.’

He looked at her.

‘Are we talking about tomorrow or some later date?’

‘We’re talking about today, Charlie. I think it must have been in Chester.’

Charlie stared out of the window for a moment then he put his guitar in its case, walked over to her and took her in his arms.

‘I think it’s time you started rummaging underneath my vest again.’

‘You don’t wear a vest, Charlie.’

‘Imagine I did though. You could have a rummage. Those broken fingernails of yours would snag on the cotton.’

‘Cotton. Those are the vests you don’t wear then?’

‘Cotton vests are the ones I choose not to buy, Jess. I find they come out better in the wash. So white they’re almost invisible. Like Dad’s cat.’

‘Think I will have a rummage now, since you’ve brought the subject up.’

‘But what is it that you’re rummaging after? If you’d only tell me I might have the co-ordinates.’

‘We could always start with this, I suppose.’

Robert Johnson’s voice escaped once more the smoky barroom of mortality. Squeeze my lemons, Let the juice run down my legs. He kissed RAW SEX on its lipsticked mouth. Sucked the saliva from its salty tongue; felt its red ink mingling with his own.

‘I fell in love with you that first night, Charlie.’

‘What took you so long?’

A moment later he was halted by the customised thong she’d had made with its embroidered legend: Charlie is my darling.

‘You don’t like it.’

‘It’s lovely. It’s sweet. I just wasn’t expecting any letters from you down there.’ At those words she went down. But he lifted her up again. Very gently, holding her cheeks.

‘You don’t have to do that every time, Jess.’

‘I know what men want.’

‘Then you know more than men do. You lie back for once. Relax. I’m already here, aren’t I?

Later he said, ‘You know at the do on Friday?’

‘Mmm.’ She had her eyes closed.

‘You won’t nick anything will you?’

‘I’ll try. It just comes over me sometimes.’

He remembered how in the hotel in Chester she had picked up every little package provided. Soap. Shampoo. Conditioner. Shower gel. A packet of tissues. Four sachets of tea; three of coffee; six of sugar. A handful of plastic milk capsules. She had noticed him watching her as he lay on the bed.

‘My dad taught me. Says we paid for it, so we might as well take it.’

‘What, everything? Not going to take the towels are you?’

She had though. He hadn’t realised until they’d got back. He’d phoned up the place and apologised. They’d been very good about it. Said it happened all the time. Said they’d send a bill. They hadn’t. Then in a shop in Oswestry he had watched her slide the little clock from its shelf and into her pocket with an evidently practised grace. He had surprised her with his sudden affection right there in the centre of the shop, until his caressing hands had located it, extracted it and put it back where it had come from. The owners had never noticed. Now he gave her a caressing frisk whenever they were leaving anywhere, to make sure there were no new bumps, no sudden protruberances. It struck him that pregnancy might provide her with all sorts of novel opportunities in this department. There’s be so much more in the way of spaces and cavities.

He looked at the seductive mix of mischief and tenderness that was her face. Raw Sex. He pulled her towards him. Then he was kissing the tattoo, sucking hard as though the ink might come off, catching her skin with his teeth, as she shifted and murmured beneath him.

‘It’s just that it would be a bit silly nicking things from the house if you’re going to be my wife, Jess. You’ll be getting it all anyway one of these days.’

‘Still not sure how I managed to steal you.’

At the end she saw him staring at her tattoo.

‘You want me to get rid of it don’t you?’

‘Or at least cover it up on Saturday. If you get grandad going on that one, I can’t imagine what he might come out with.’


Chapter Twenty-Eight.
The Engagement Party

AT THE DINNER the old man insisted on having Jess to his left and her mother to his right. Charlie was a little worried. He had spoken many times to Jess’s mother, or to be more precise he had been spoken to many times by her. She was already in full flow.

‘Do you remember that American politician, the one with a dicky arm, who started going on about how they’d put him on Viagra and he was at it again. Well, he was no chicken. I remember thinking, he should be curled up in an armchair at home with a good book, not stripping off for a bit of how’s-your-father, not at his age. His wife always looked a bit peaky in those newscasts, as it was. Bit much to expect of her at that stage, I’d have thought, to show any bona fide enthusiasm. I mean, if she’d really fancied a bit of slap and tickle I shouldn’t think it would have been with him. They weren’t short of a bob or two either, so she could probably have afforded the odd toy boy to iron her wrinkles for her. Her old man must have looked like what’s left of the turkey after Christmas by the time he’d got his clobber off and they were getting down to the nitty-gritty. Makes me shudder even to think of it. Bet she was hoping the US might bomb the Viagra factory, the way they did that one making aspirins in Somalia.’

She had brought her dog Skippy, who apparently became inconsolable without her. The dog was having a wander. It occasionally caught Alasdair’s eye. A mangy poodle. It had once been white, but that must have been a long time ago. Its fur was now extremely patchy, thanks to alopecia. Alastair thought to himself, ‘I’m certainly not dying as long as that poodle’s pissing on doorposts and clogging up the rug with its clumps of fur. Can it really still be staggering around and whimpering? What does she feed it on, nectar?’

‘It is lovely round here though isn’t it?’ He realised he was being asked a question. There was a sudden and unexpected silence in his right ear.

But then what does any small town in England need these days? 

‘Yes indeed. I gather we grow ever more popular. I’m told the property prices are soaring even here. But then what does any small town in England need these days? A bustling tea room, a thriving amateur theatrical society, efficient night-soil collection, since we’ve all grown far too civilised for proximity to the slurry pit, and we, I am happy to announce, are blessed with all three. Is it any wonder then if the world is beating a path to our door? North Shropshire is now a kind of Mecca, though without quite so many glinty towers. And of course we don’t get woken up in the morning with any keening cries.’

‘We’ve got our church-bells.’

‘We do indeed.’

‘Though the last vicar had to leave, you know.’

‘Yes, I heard about it. Down to the vicar’s wife, I believe. She apparently tired finally of being married to a bisexual Anglican clergyman, whose petulance gained by one calibrated mark with each new birthday. I believe she had once felt flattered that she had so entirely captured the female side of his bifocal attentions, but had come to think lately that he might have been a little more one-eyed in his desires than she’d originally anticipated. She certainly never had any fears that he might be cheating on her with another woman. Finally the inevitable happened, and he encountered a Malayan youth called Harry who so entirely captured his heart that he really couldn’t bear to share the bed with Janet any longer. The church was very understanding about the whole matter; and so was she: they both told him to bugger off.’

Someone tapped Charlie on the shoulder and told him he was wanted on the telephone.

‘No hard feelings, Charlie?’

‘No hard feelings, Steff.’

‘We had a good time.’

‘We did.’

‘I just wanted to tell you the film’s being screened next week. BBC2 on Wednesday at nine.’

Charlie thought for a moment.

‘Tell me, Steffie, is it obvious that you and I were…’

Steff had started laughing.

He’d only ever heard one person who could play as well as that.

‘Well yes, Charlie, I don’t think you’d need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out what was going on. Old Francis must be a bit subtler than I thought. He caught us when I didn’t think anyone was looking. But listen, Charlie, there’s something I want you to hear.’ She stopped speaking then and he heard the most phenomenal guitar playing start up, frailing and picking, arpeggios and thumps. He’d only ever heard one person who could play as well as that.

‘What do you think of that?’

‘It’s Stan, isn’t it?’

‘It’s Stan.’

‘Playing now.’

‘Playing now. He wants a word.’ The phone was put down, then lifted up again.

‘Hello mate.’ That deep voice.

‘Hello Stan.’

‘Sorry I took Steffie away from you.’

‘Maybe you just got her back.’

‘No hard feelings then.’

‘No. I’m glad you’re better. Really. You were missed. Not enough people around who can play like that for you to go silent on us.’

‘I’ve seen the film, man. You can really move it along. I’d like to gig with you some time.’

‘You’re on.’

‘Oh, Steffie wants a final word.’

‘The record company have agreed to do a live album of the tour, Charlie. Me and you. Joint credits. We’ll split the money.’

‘One thing, Steff, because I’m just finishing my thesis this week. That song about flying down to the river. What did it mean?’ There was a silence for a minute.

‘You really want me to tell you?’

‘I really want you to tell me.’ He heard as she turned and spoke to Stan. ‘Go get me a whiskey would you, darling?’ Then she was back with Charlie. ‘Didn’t want him to hear the story again. It upsets him too much.’ There was a pause. ‘Forty-five years ago, Charlie, something happened in Arizona they still talk about out there to this day. A man took his two daughters out in a car when he lost his custody battle to keep them for himself. He bought them a meal and a beautiful doll each and then he put them in the back of the Packard and he drove to a big bridge over a river. He started to go very very fast. And half way over the river he swerved. As the car crashed through the iron railings at fifty miles an hour and headed down to the river below, their daddy turned around to the two young daughters in the back seat, I can still remember his face, Charlie, so white with fear and grief, my daddy, God my own daddy, and he said, “I love you both very much.”’

‘“But why are we flying, daddy?”’

‘And those were the last words my daddy and my sister ever said. But one of the little girls survived, Charlie. They all said it was a miracle.’ She fell silent.

‘You were the other little girl.’

‘My body may be post-menopausal, but my mind bleeds every day. Now you know why I asked you to do all the driving. And to slow down when we were going over that big bridge.’

‘And now at least I know what the song means. You and Stan, keep it together, eh?’

‘It was good, Charlie. Take it as it comes.’

‘Now we’ve both got someone else, so let’s love them instead.’

And he put the phone down. Then he thought about that screening on Wednesday and he made a decision.

When he arrived back at the table it was to see that Jess’s mother had been silenced. The old man was winning.

‘You must try to imagine a man who’s already imagined everything, including the death of everyone he loves,…’

‘You must try to imagine a man who’s already imagined everything, including the death of everyone he loves, so you’d think that nothing can hurt much any more. He has pre-experienced his living and his dying. Do you know what he finally learns, too late, too late? That it is only the blessing of self-deception that makes living possible at all. He has removed that possibility from his own life. He has denied himself that salve. Every thought then is like Achilles and Patroclus and the grief that fell like a blade between them.

Good old grandad, Charlie thought. Jess tapped the old man on the arm.

‘My old mum’s not got the faintest notion what you’re on about, you know.’

Then Charlie tapped his glass and stood.

‘I would like you to all drink a toast on the occasion of my engagement to Jessica Filey.’ There was applause and a few cheers. ‘I also have another announcement to make. We might as well get everything in the public domain in one go. We are also expecting our first child.’

At this point Jess’s mother leaned right across Alasdair, grabbed her daughter by the arm and said, ‘You never bloody told me about this.’ Charlie tapped his glass again.

‘It’s all right, Marjorie, I’m making an honest woman of her.’ And an uphill struggle it can be some days, he thought, but left the sentiment unvoiced. ‘And to celebrate, we’re going on a sort of early honeymoon. On Monday.’

‘Where are we going, Charlie?’ Jess asked.

‘We’re going to Paris. It’s beautiful in the autumn.’ And they don’t have any British television there. Jess was smiling.

‘So raise your glasses then, to our future.’

And they all did.

Later he saw his grandfather whispering something in Lindsey’s ear. Lindsey went off and came back a moment later with a little ivory from the collection. Alasdair tapped his glass.

‘There is an old family tradition that if a new bride holds this little Byzantine madonna and child in her hands before the wedding ceremony, if only for a few minutes, she will have many children. I want Jessica to hold it in her hands for a moment. I have awaited my great-grandchildren for a very long time.’ And he placed the little carving then in Jess’s cupped hands.

‘But it’s beautiful,’ she said. ‘It’s so beautiful.’

‘And so are you, my dear. So are you.’

Jess’s dress had fallen away at the shoulder, revealing the tattoo.

‘And you are so devoted to my grandson you’ve had his name engraved on your skin.’

He had taken the A and R and the S and somehow wreathed them into a bouquet called Charles.

Charlie walked over and peered down. Someone, much more skilful than the last one, had re-tattooed her. He had taken the A and R and the S and somehow wreathed them into a bouquet called Charles. His name was surrounded by a trellis of roses. Now the Raw Sex had become entirely him. On Jess’s face was something perilously close to a shy smile, but he had little doubt it wouldn’t stay shy for long.

As they all stood in the hall at the end of the evening, Charlie positioned himself next to Jess and as the others went through the door he clasped her in an embrace, frisking her efficiently as he had learnt to do. Sure enough, the Byzantine ivory was tucked inside her sleeve. He removed it gently, and was about to slip in into his pocket so he could return it later when he heard his grandfather’s voice.

‘Let her have it, Charlie. I want your fiancée to have it. It’s my present to her.’

Jess grabbed it back from him and held it in her hands, staring. The little child held so tightly to the mother’s breast. She walked across to the old man, tiny and hobbled on his walking sticks.

‘Can I really have this, Mr Fenshawe?’

‘You must.’

‘Oh thank you, you’re so lovely, you really are, you know.’

She kissed him full on the lips. Jess wasn’t tall but she was a taller figure than the old man had become. Everyone pretended they didn’t see his tears when he said, ‘And I think you must start calling me grandad.’

—This is the fourteenth 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
chapters 25 & 26

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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