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from White Ivory, chapters 29 & 30

< chapters 27 & 28

A Fortnightly Serial.By ALAN WALL.

Chapter Twenty-Nine.
The Blues in Paris

CHARLIE TOOK his thesis with him. He would give it to Jennifer with all the corrections when they returned. He was still uneasy writing a thesis about the blues, even though it was effectively finished. He always remembered the relationship between Dylan and Weberman. He sometimes thought of it as the quintessential relationship of the artist to the modern biographer and critic. The world’s first Dylanologist was discovered going through his hero’s garbage, secretly recording his telephone conversations, playing his records backwards to discover revelations. Eavesdropping on the artist’s soul, then trying to make a living out of publicising the rat-droppings.

Charlie had always known what was serious in music, ever since he’d been very small. The first time he heard Frank Sinatra he knew he was serious, because of that cello of a voice. The first time he heard Andy Williams he knew it was over-harmonised kitsch. But a particular thrill went through him the first time he ever heard plainchant and the first time he heard the blues. He knew he was being given something essential, something pared down to its minimum possibility. He knew in both instances the human soul was finding a figure for itself. Inscribing itself on the silence. There was some riddle at play in the popular song which the academics usually missed. In the blues it was the darkest message ever, all delivered with a smile. A gnostic riddle in a pentatonic scale.

The fetish, the talisman, the token, the taboo: these we like to think are the accoutrements of primitive folk.

There had been a chapter in Kicking Away the Ladder entitled Fetish. It was the one that had stayed in Charlie’s memory. The creatures of modernity, his father had argued, imagine they have no fetishes. The fetish, the talisman, the token, the taboo: these we like to think are the accoutrements of primitive folk. We have been cleansed of all such superstitious paraphernalia. Will insisted that the fetish had never been more prevalent in humanity than it was at present, but with one caveat: it had become invisible because it was ubiquitous. The car with its laminate-strip names on the windscreen specifying the owner and his sexual companion du jour; the inflated chrome exhausts; the silver-plated mythic creatures mounted on the bonnet. These were fetishes all right. Fetishes to the novel god of speed. The gold-plated taps in the bathroom, the His and Hers mats embroidered with sundry legends: these too were fetishes, fetishes to voiding and ablution. But they were designated by us moderns as mere utensils of life.

And the guitar was certainly a fetish: the herringbone inlays; the snowflake markers on the fingerboard; the mother-of-pearl lettering on the slot-head. All these signified a fetish as surely as the waving figures on a Viking prow, mimicking and thereby propitiating the fearsome power of the sea. What men’s soft hands had invested with such love, such potency, was always cultic and mysterious. This was the cultic instrument for the delivery of the song, the single most indispensable unit of communication of cultural modernity, so Charlie reckoned. The song comprised a brief summary of the modern soul. It held the gist of being human in the era of technology, a telegram from Hades or from Paradise. Abbreviation was of the essence. Symphony length would disqualify it. Contraction, condensation, was one of the conditions of art in the age of the city. Make it brief; keep it snappy; get in and get out again.

The song comprised a brief summary of the modern soul. It held the gist of being human in the era of technology, a telegram from Hades or from Paradise.

Now Charlie’s 1930s Martin was a commodity. It had been made in a market, made for money by people working for money. And yet. Such love and devotion had been poured into its creation, such pride, such delight, that Martin itself recognised there was no way back to such immaculate production. Despite their immense and justified pride in their modern guitars (which were both beautiful and exemplary) even Martin had to acknowledge that they couldn’t match this quality any more. Something nigh-on magical had happened in the ’30s with those Martin acoustics. And Charlie was only too aware that he was a beneficiary of this magus manufacture. White ivory had bequeathed Charlie, out of history’s toilsome murk, an instrument of such tone and clarity and truthfulness that he felt he had no choice but to be truthful in his use of it. He was utterly devoted to the instrument: the instrument knew. It understood. It responded.

The authentic blue note of grief and joy made an acoustic sound.

There was a final footnote about the electric guitar. For the plugged-in axemen the instrument would come to be fetishized in a different manner: as a prosthetic extension of the penis, juddering its overdriven musical jism into the ovum of the blissed-out audience. But Charlie wasn’t interested in the history of glamour, the curious brittle varnish with which celebrity briefly coats its favourites. The authentic blue note of grief and joy made an acoustic sound.

He stopped when Jess came back into the hotel room. She’d promised him she wouldn’t go in any shops unless he was with her, but she had a bag in her hand.


‘It’s all right, Charlie, I bought it.’


‘I promise.’

On the table was the Byzantine ivory. She had insisted on bringing it, even though Charlie was worried about customs.

‘I’ll hide it somewhere, Charlie. I’m good at that.’

‘Yes, I’ve noticed.’

Jess loved Paris. Loved everything. The food, the wine, the paintings, the river. Most of all she loved Charlie himself. Every hour she fingered the ring he’d put on her finger.

Once Wednesday had come and gone, and Charlie knew the screening of Traile’s film had come and gone with it, he was happy to return.

In London they went to Herder’s. Luna was on. First time he’d ever seen her when he wouldn’t be playing after. Now she was Australian.

I’ve come to your beautiful country from the land of the ’roo. Quite a town you have here. Some beautiful sheilahs and even a couple of blokes who don’t have their heads stuck completely up their arseholes. And on virtually every street corner there’s one of these Prat-a-Manger numbers. Now look, you know, back in Oz, we’ve got no more time for prats than you fellahs over here do, but we don’t eat the buggers.

A couple had arrived who were carrying their drinks to their table, a little more noisily than suited Luna. The voice became instantly prim and precise.

You may join my seminar for the evening, but you really are going to have to pay attention, you know.

They looked startled: they didn’t know the rules.

I was in the process of explaining to the others why I am not a tedious person. Take notes if you need to. So, to continue with my discourse as to why I am not tedious: fourteenthly…

Then she was herself, thoughtful inquisitive, helpful, but still entirely manic.

I think I might have worked out the big problem with football. Took a girl to do it, didn’t it? I’d only been watching for five minutes when I realised how you could make it so much simpler for yourself, boys. There aren’t enough BALLS. You’ve got twenty-two fit and fiery young men out there, all smelling of after-shave and testosterone, and they all want a kick, don’t they, so if you’re only going to have one ball, there’s bound to be trouble because they’ll end up kicking one another, won’t they. Which is what happens, every time, now isn’t it? So the solution to this, as to so many problems confronted by our government these days is, MORE BALLS.

Her voice and spirit took on the shape of the Delta, like the shiny silver mandolin itself, or her own face.

After Luna came some bogus country band. A Fender Strat being fingered and canoodled over a beer gut. The woman singer wore a Dolly Parton candyfloss confection, her coiffure like her lyrics bringing her closer to heaven, her breasts however mere mounds in comparison with DP’s momentous Tennessee waltzers. And she was wailing about her home down south, even though her over-long intros made it evident she’d actually been bred up north. Halifax apparently. But when she sang along to the swinging mandolin it segued into the Mississippi. Her voice and spirit took on the shape of the Delta, like the shiny silver mandolin itself, or her own face. Beneath the industrial quantities of Max Factor, it was shaped like an inverted pear, wreathed in the egregious blonde foliage of her wig. Charlie couldn’t help thinking of Stephanie. Her singing. Her body. He got them both some more drinks. It seemed to Charlie that alcohol supercharged some part inside him he was happy to leave docile; while dope eroticised everything outside, even the air. So that your appetite did not become any greater, simply more acute. But he didn’t have any dope left.

Next came a fiddle, a mandolin, a banjo and a bazouki, playing jigs one after another. Charlie wasn’t interested.

‘Let’s go,’ he said. They went into a pub near Cambridge Circus. They sat down next to two men who were staring lugubriously into their pints.

‘Just look at old Gerry over there, sitting in front of a glass of water. Can’t drink; can’t smoke; they even took the poor bugger off coffee last week. Makes you wonder how a bloke like that stays alive.’

‘Or why. Probably can’t even abuse the hamster after that last bit of prostate trouble.’

‘Good news for the hamster then.’

‘There’s always a silver lining.’

‘Through the dark clouds shining?’

‘Ivor Novello, God bless him.’

Jess was squeezing his thigh under the table and laughing.

They hadn’t taken their mobiles with them, at Charlie’s insistence.

‘I just want one week minus the dial tones.’

‘But I won’t be able to talk to my mother.’

‘Marjorie will still find a way to keep talking, don’t worry about that.’

Charlie was laughing too when he saw the paper. It was the Guardian and the man had the Obituary Page turned towards them.

Last Head Of Fenshawe Ivory Dies

Charlie leaned across to the man.

‘Could I please look at your paper?’

‘Well, I’m reading it actually.’

‘Please. Just for a moment. It’s important.’ Something in Charlie’s tone convinced him and he handed it over. The picture of his grandfather had been taken many years before; he was younger than Charlie had ever seen him in the whole of his life. A handsome man with a sardonic smile.

Alasdair Fenshawe, the last head of the once-famous Fenshaw Ivory Company, has died at the age of ninety-one.

Charlie managed to read to the end before his head slumped down and he started sobbing. Jess held on to him.

‘Oh Charlie. Charlie. Charlie.’


Chapter Thirty.
Back into the Dark

THEY BURIED him in the local cemetery. Many local people were there and others from much further afield. The new vicar rose to the occasion and somehow did manage to convey what a remarkable life his had been. Charlie had one arm around Lindsey’s shoulder and the other around Jess’s.

‘I really did love him, you know.’

‘I know you did, Lindsey, and he knew it too by the end.’ She looked up out of her handkerchief.

‘How do you know that, Charlie?’

‘Because he told me.’



Then she put her face back in her handkerchief.

And a week later the will was read. Lindsey was provided for, to be given accommodation in the house for the rest of her life, with a substantial portion of money attached. Will also was left enough to get him out of trouble, out of his mobile home. The two big surprises were these: Frank was given nothing but some heirlooms and trophies. It was also stipulated that he should vacate the premises he had occupied most of his life within three months.

But the biggest surprise of all was that everything else, including the house and the estate, was left to Charlie.

‘It is time, Frank,’ the solicitor intoned on Alasdair’s behalf, ‘that you went out into the world and struggled there, as my other son Will has had to do. Whatever differences Will and I have had, whatever difficulties he has had, he at least always understood that life is a mystery. You think it nothing more than a puzzle. Maybe you are right. Time for you to go and solve it then.’

Frank looked utterly bewildered. Colette at his side was expressionless as always.

But the biggest surprise of all was that everything else, including the house and the estate, was left to Charlie.

‘Charlie gave me more joy in life than anyone else ever has and I want to thank him for it. Treat them all kindly, Charlie, but keep on going your own sweet way. And remember the promise you made me about enjoying your youth. If there is any continuance of the spirit, then you can always be sure that I’ll be looking over you. And if I’ve simply gone back into the dark, then you must become the brightness for me.’

By the time Frank and Colette had left, Will was back at work. Beth drove him in each morning and brought him back each afternoon. She lived twenty miles away.

‘I’ll be able to get a place of my own soon.’

‘There’s no rush, dad. I’m catching up on all that time we didn’t get to spend together.’

Will smiled and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

Steffie’s book on Alfred Wilberforce Fenshawe had already been accepted for publication. She came into the room laughing. She had the typescript she was collating in her hand.

‘Listen to this. I’d forgotten about this bit.’

Alfred was lying in bed, his hair uncut, his white beard straggly and untrimmed, when the lady evangelist gave the most perfunctory of knocks and walked straight in.

‘I have come to talk to you about Jesus and redemption,’ she said into the murk. ‘Your time is near at hand.’ Alfred immediately threw back the bedsheets to reveal a naked, though somewhat shrivelled, torso. ‘Get in, woman,’ he said in a voice hoarse from his weeks of solitary suffering and starvation. ‘Sex first; then theology. Even Jesus made sure his flock was properly fed before he started telling them what’s what. Take everything off but that funny little hat. Might remind me of a very special night I had in Paris a long time ago. I think I might be feeling better already. Well, come on then. No good standing around waiting for miracles to happen — you’ve got to give them a bit of assistance, you know. You’d be surprised the number of things that’ll rise from the dead with a little encouragement. What colour knickers do you wear, out of interest? Shall I take your clothes off for you? Would you find that more…stimulating, my love?’

The lady evangelist had left then, clutching the good news tightly to her bosom, and was never to be seen about those parts again. Alfred could not entirely hide his disappointment over the following days, even suggesting to the cleaning lady that in the circumstances, Christian charity surely dictated some kind of action on her part. The post for cleaning lady was re-advertised later that week. A few days later a letter arrived from the Evangelical Mission of Birmingham. It spoke of derangement, senility, public hygiene. Spoke of the danger of Lot to his daughters. Alfred found it so funny that he was to subsequently read it out at various times to the coterie that later formed The Yellow Book. ‘I seem to recall,’ he would say, ‘that Lot’s daughters were no better than they should have been. All the old man did was get drunk and try to get a bit of kip. The rest was surely their idea.’

‘I might still withdraw permission for this book, Lindsey.’ She went off laughing back to the library.

And then Jess arrived, her bulge now only too visible. She looked triumphant about something. She was holding up a video.

‘You’re famous, Charlie. While we were in Paris there was a programme on the telly. And you’re in it. Playing and everything. A friend recorded it for me. We can watch it together tonight.’

Charlie had poured himself a large glass of red wine. Jess was curved into his arm as they sat on the sofa.

The film began with the camera zooming slowly up through the smoke until it found Stephanie’s face, eyes closed, that extraordinary voice of hers belting out the song.

We’re flying through the air
And daddy’s at the wheel
And the river’s underneath us
And after all these years
I still can’t fathom how I feel

‘She’s good,’ Jess said.

‘Yes, she’s good.’

Then they were on the road, shots of travelling intercut with their playing, how they came closer and closer together on stage, how their playing and their singing started blending in some indefinable way. And then they were in a café somewhere and Charlie had his arm around her neck and they were laughing, then they started kissing. It was a very long kiss. Then they were arriving in Chester, at the same hotel where Jess and Charlie had stayed. It was then that Jess stood up and left the room.

Charlie watched it to the end. He had to. They’d done some good music on that tour. It ended and some other programme came on about gardening. He stood up and switched the set off.

Outside at the top of the drive he sipped the wine and stared over his estate. A man of property. The bluesman of property.

Outside at the top of the drive he sipped the wine and stared over his estate. A man of property. The bluesman of property. Thanks, grandad. He finished his wine, went back inside and up the stairs to the bedroom. She was sitting cross-legged on the bed, hugging herself.

‘You promised me, Charlie.’ Raw Sex had a serious streak of propriety in her now that her tattoo had been translated. He sat down beside her on the bed and took hold of her hand, her little bleached-out, aged hand. Her hand that had already gone ahead of her into the years before them.

‘I’m sorry. Didn’t want to hurt you. It just happened, Jess.’

‘You even had to take me to the same hotel.’

‘It was the only one I knew. You didn’t exactly give me much notice.’

‘It means I was second-best. I’d rather marry someone a lot poorer and lot uglier than you, Charlie, and at least know I was his first girl.’

‘You are my first girl, Jess.’

‘Did you leave her or did she leave you?’ Charlie thought for a moment. The truth had arrived: he didn’t feel like avoiding it any more.

‘She left me.’

‘Then I was second-best.’

‘No. You just weren’t there, that’s all. That’s what a lot of life’s about and you know it. If you’d been there it would have been you I’d have been loving not her. And now you are here and you’re having my baby. So let’s not spoil it.’

She looked at him hard and Jess could have a very hard look indeed sometimes. He reckoned she might have inherited it from her father.

‘Do you promise me that if you could choose between her and me now you’d choose me?’


‘Swear it. Swear it on the memory of your grandfather.’

‘I swear, Jess.’

‘You’d better mean it, Charlie bloody Fenshawe, or I’ll get your grandad to come back from the grave with an ivory tusk in each hand, and you’ll never do it with anyone again. He liked me. And even though he’s dead, he still likes me. And he’ll come and get you.’

The thought of his beloved grandfather, of blessed memory, clutching not the two walking-sticks he had been hobbled over for the last ten years of his life, but two ivory tusks with which to disembowel his grandson, his eyesockets fused with the glow of the undead…this combined with the fierceness in Jess’s face, made Charlie burst out laughing. Three seconds later, she joined in. He was grateful when she let him make love to her, all the same.

It was a few months later when Will received a call at his office at Mercia College to say that he had become a grandfather. A little girl. They hadn’t decided on a name yet. Jess came home on the Friday. When Beth dropped Will off she asked if she could come in and see the baby.

‘She’s lovely, Jess, really lovely. You must be proud.’

‘I am.’

Jess’s tattoo was very much in evidence on her shoulder as she fed the baby.

‘What a beautiful tattoo. Charlie. You must take marriage very seriously.’

‘I do.’ Charlie’s voice came next.

‘Except that she didn’t do it for me. That was for someone called Charles Ivory.’

Beth looked flustered.

‘Oh, it was for him all right,’ Jess said. ‘Don’t worry about that.’

Why hadn’t he said? The father not wishing to embarrass the son.

Charlie was looking through the window when his father went out to the car with Beth. As they lingered and their fingers intertwined and then they kissed, it suddenly dawned on him. Why hadn’t he said? The father not wishing to embarrass the son. He walked quickly out into the drive before she could go.

‘Beth, we’re having a dinner tonight to celebrate the new arrival in our family, and we want you to come.’

Beth looked at Will for confirmation but he appeared to be as non-plussed as she was. They both looked at Charlie. He took Beth’s hand.

‘We want you to come and we want you to stay the night. You’ve become a good friend. We’re all grateful for your help with dad.’

‘Well, if you’re sure.’

‘Tell her we’re sure, dad.’ Will smiled.

‘We’re sure.’

‘I’ll go home and get my things then.’

As they watched the car go down the drive Will turned to look at his son, who now owned this house he’d grown up in, this house his own father had owned. His blues-playing landowner of a son.

‘Thanks, Charlie.’

‘I like her. I reckon you could do a lot worse. A lot worse. The second double-bedroom’s free by the way, if you want it. Mum’s coming up this weekend, you know. Wants to see the baby.’

‘Not bringing Maddox with her, is she?

‘No. She got his book though.’

That night they had a good meal. They toasted the baby and they recalled to their hearts the memory of Alasdair Fenshawe. Then Charlie played his guitar and sang. ‘Only ragtime tonight, no blues,’ Jess called out and he obeyed. Finally in the early hours they all stumbled to their different beds. The lights in the windows went out one by one. And half an hour after the big house had finally fallen silent in sleep, the baby started crying.


—This is the fifteenth and final 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
chapters 27 & 28

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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