‘John Thornton, Albert Chaliapin, Harry Stoop,’ said Insmith, when we were all bottlenecked in the hallway with a standard-lamp and a hatstand and the smell of roasting potatoes.
John Thornton. A name of rather butch literary provenance, if you know your London or your Gaskell. I shook his hand, which wasn’t at all large or sinewy, but dry and careful and stubby-fingered.
‘Yes, please,’ we chorused. With a rabbit-mouthed smile Thornton ushered us into the living room.
He had a pair of stuffed jays in bell-jars, Landseer and Lowry prints on the wall, three framed dog-collars, a stand-up piano, a grandfather-clock, a tin case for fishing-flies.
‘We’ve died and gone to Harrogate,’ said Stoop.
‘Quite a place,’ I called to Thornton.
‘Quite a mess,’ he apologised, coming out of the kitchen with his hands full of sherry.
He had wire-framed spectacles, fustian trousers, a burgundy shirt and no tie, sparse brown hair distributed carelessly over his head, a long top lip, a nose slightly bulbous in the tip, and red ears which were rubberishly prominent.
‘I made an attempt at tidying,’ he said, perching on a stool, ‘but you can’t really tidy clutter. It makes no sense, after a while.’
The sherry tasted festive and we settled comfortably into the welcome. A creaking and recklessly colourful Christmas fir imparted its sweet smell to the room.
‘You’re a cartoonist yourself, I hear?’ Thornton said to me.
‘More was than is. Not really cut out for it.’
‘All those long hours on your own in a room,’ he nodded.
Ha! Insmith scratched his chin, trying not to laugh. He’s right. Not cut out for that sort of life at all.
‘Well, yes,’ I said, ‘but it’s more that I had no talent.’
Thornton laughed, and moved on to Stoop, who said that he used to be a crusader for justice but was now just indignant on a part-time basis.
I gave Thornton’s book-case a once-over. Henry Williamson, Scott, Masefield. Nothing that clashed outright with the stuffed jays. Mark Twain and George Orwell.
‘I expect you disapprove,’ Thornton suggested anxiously.
‘Not at all,’ I said. What do I look like I read? I suppose I look like a Heap customer. Not as much as Stoop does, though, with his overcoat and lonely rumpledness.
‘I’m not very modern,’ said Thornton.
‘Well, who is?’ I said, and smiled agreeably. Then I thought about it, and decided, in fact, that I am: I’m up-to-the-minute. Chaliapin features all the recent developments in decay, is kitted-out with all the accoutrements of fashionable entropy. I’ve not missed a trick.
Look how old-fashioned Insmith is. All out-moded vigour and dated poise.
He and Thornton started chatting about various neighbours, acquaintances, and I was staggered to hear how many shop-keepers, dog-walkers, pensioners and postmen Insmith actually knew.
‘Don’t let Sam Bulcock hear you say that,’ and, ‘Ted Wait doesn’t miss a trick,’ and, ‘Malcolm Fitch has nothing but good intentions,’ successively astonished me by passing Insmith’s lips. It was as if he were speaking in tongues.
‘I expect you find all this very dull,’ Thornton, anxious again, said to Stoop, after a while.
‘Nonsense. It’s the marrow of life.’
‘True,’ agreed Insmith.
‘Really very dull,’ said Thornton.
Then Insmith got on to talking about his other world (how many does the bastard have? I tell you, he hoards them), the television, the panel-shows, and Thornton, vivifyingly, lost all his self-consciousness:
‘And what about such-and-such veteran newsman? You’ve met him?’
‘An atrocious drunk, I’m afraid.’
‘What about this-or-that controversial TV satirist?’
‘A fool and a hypocrite.’
‘And so-and-so, the attractive current-affairs presenter? You know her?’
‘Oh, yes. We used to go punting together.’
So on, so forth. That kind of undignified talk. Insmith, anyway, was lying most of the time. He certainly never had anything to do with the attractive current-affairs presenter – I would have known.
Stoop poked fun.
‘And I believe you’re on intimate terms with the arch-prelate of Minsk?’
‘Certainly,’ said Insmith. ‘A terrible substance-abuser, I’m sorry to say, but quite a way with a karaoke machine.’
Thornton, a little chastened, smiled and returned to the kitchen.
I’d got to thinking about Orwell, his crack about the world being full of dead men and live gorillas, and not much of anything in between. What I got to thinking about was: which are the dead? Or all those angry young men with tank-tops and cigarettes stropping about in cemetery towns. You can get unnerved, thinking about that.
I suppose the general gist of it is that the dead, the zombies, are the ones who don’t read the angry young men’s books, or if they do, they don’t think too highly of them. I imagine that’s the hard-and-fast rule.
Unsatisfying. I didn’t let it ruin my lunch or anything, but unsatisfying, still.
Over the lunch, which was brought in on high-heaped crockery as the grandfather-clock chimed four, Thornton clasped his hands together and, instead of saying grace, said:
‘It must be a fascinating life, yours.’
The three of us exchanged glances.
‘Whose?’ I asked.
‘Yours,’ he said, making an inclusive gesture with his arm and raising his eyes at my pernickitiness, as if a pedant had picked him up on an obscure point of grammar or a physicist had insisted on the difference between a muon and a quark. ‘All of you. You must think I’m really bloody drab.’
We all, naturally, cooed our nos and nevers, and Thornton, grateful for our good manners, sloshed out some red wine, but Chaliapin, he was off again – thinking.
It’s Thornton who’s the zombie in this instance, yes? A retired civil-servant, respectably bespectacled – a man wearing fustian trousers, for Christ’s sake. And it’s us, we three, the intellectuals, the bohemians, the drinkers, dissolutes, improvisers, we’re the living, yes?
Yes. Yep. Well. I had thought that coming back to London was coming back to life. It felt that way, but, as I’ve said, I’m a little blunted by inexperience.
‘This is a tremendous turkey,’ said Stoop through a mouthful. ‘It is a turkey of great pith and moment.’
‘Claudette had a way of roasting a chicken with thirty garlics.’
‘Cloves of garlic, you mean?’ asked Thornton, setting down his cutlery and leaning forward like a character in period-drama.
‘No, whole – what d’you call them? Look like daff bulbs – bulbs, I’ll say,’ decided Insmith. ‘Thirty bulbs of garlic.’
Stoop, with the expression of a staid father correcting his eight-year-old boy, said, ‘If you’re telling me that a single chicken can secrete thirty bulbs of garlic about its person, then you’re either a liar, Insmith, or a bloody fool.’
Insmith, nodding gravely: ‘The chicken has to concede some dignity in doing so, it’s true.’
‘It seems to me,’ said Thornton with a beaming smile, ‘to be more sort of a dish of garlic seasoned with a hint of chicken.’
How we all laughed.
I realised, then, over the tasty plum-duff, that I died, all those years ago, because I didn’t have any other choice. Coming back – well, I’m just wandering the catacomb. I don’t think there’s any more life to be had down here. Chaliapin’s done with.
‘A toast, to Christmas,’ said John Thornton, lifting up his glass.
‘A toast, yes. If I may – ’ said Insmith. He set down his spoon, sat back in his chair, swilled his wine around and assumed a complacent declamatory pose. ‘A toast, to good friends all around, and life in turbulent times, and life in comfortable times, in all houses, in all streets, as all the books, and all the bottles, promised us all along,’ he said.
‘To all beggars and all princes,’ said Thornton.
Yes, we all touched our glasses together, yes, and to all the cats, all the tonnes of clouds, all cartoonists, all foreign cars far from home at Christmas, all crooks and all angels, Paula, to all players of patience, all pornographers and bomb-makers, all whores and war-heroes, all adultresses and cellists, yes, to life, gentlemen, to life.
I choked on some brandy and a cigar, munched Thornton’s damp Christmas cake, hit the whisky a little hard on the journey home.
Lately I’d been thinking about Paula. I missed her voice. However much you imagine a voice (I imagined Paula’s voice saying things Paula had never said: unprofessional things), it is always a dreamed voice, a half-voice, beside which the softest whisper in reality is thunderous, and plangent, and a song.
In fact whispers are often thunderous. But all I mean to say is that I had been thinking of Paula.