The first chapter of my first novel, ‘Wild Ink’, published on June 7, 2014 by Dead Ink Books. You can buy a copy here: http://www.inpressbooks.co.uk/publishers/dead-ink/wild-ink-1/.‘Wild Ink’ is a blackly comic story of friendship and envy, love and memory, booze and uproar, secrets and scandal. Albert Chaliapin is dead – or at least, he feels like he ought to be. He lives in a world occupied only by the ghosts of his former life (and his nurse, who can’t even get his name right). Then, one day, his past – in the form of a drunk cartoonist, a suicidal hack and a corrupt City banker – pays a visit, and Chaliapin is resurrected, whether he likes it or not. He doesn’t, much. Someone’s sending him some very strange cartoons. Someone’s setting off bombs all over London. Someone’s been up to no good with some very important people. This is no job for a man wearing pyjamas. Will Chaliapin make it out alive? And is being alive, when it comes down to it, really all it’s cracked up to be?
There isn’t, I’m afraid, a great deal to talk about.
I’ll try. There’s a square window full of flat white sky. A calendar still folded to August although today is October the twenty-second. By my bed, my things: some books, a glass of water, pill-bottles, a sheaf of as-yet-unlooked-at submissions in brown envelopes.
My bed-sores look like war-wounds or split blood-oranges.
There are medical things here and there: dossiers, a wheelchair, a rack of linen and bandages. The drip plugged into my inner arm.
There’s me, Albert Chaliapin, fifty-nine, radiating energy into the ether and asking nothing in return, poring over my sores, looking seventy-five and enduring the betrayals of my body.
I came in here with a troublesome liver. They opened me up like a jacket-potato, hustled away a kidney, made off with a bowel-segment, and watched my treacherous blood escape and pool on the flecked hospital tiles. My body is a fifth column and in the end it’s going to win.
Still I have the liver. It is like a scarred, shell-shocked old major-general who hangs on, hangs on. Doesn’t see that it would be best all round if he only let go.
‘Morning, mister Chaplin.’
‘Yes. How are you feeling this morning?’ The nurse Paula, without much ado, pulls back my bed-clothes and starts swabbing down my private zones.
‘That’s good.’ Paula rolls me over and sees to my war-wounds. They sting. ‘Lots of work to do?’
‘Some. Not too much.’ I gesture at the envelopes by the bed.
She heaves me back into a sitting position and replaces my covers.
‘Thank you,’ I say.
‘My pleasure,’ she says. She isn’t what you’d call pretty. She is a little bit ugly and a little bit pretty.
‘Bye, mister Chaplin.’
‘Chaliapin, c-h-a-l– ’, but Paula has closed the door behind her. That’s my most meaningful human contact of the day.
Sometimes an Irish nurse with a buttered-up hand comes and has to tug an especially stubborn turd out of my arse, but we aren’t on friendly terms. I’d rather have Paula do it but I could never bring myself to ask.
I turn my attention to the piled envelopes. It’s eight-forty-five. Take the top one and tear it open. Pull out four white cartridge-pages.
What does Albert Chaliapin do, the clapped-out old ruin? What’s my line? These days I work for a satirical paper that you probably haven’t heard of.
Harry Stoop founded the paper in nineteen-sixty-six and he still edits it from an inky cubby-hole somewhere in central London. Mostly he recruits sharp-toothed young things from among lowly Whitehallers, TV-company runners, aimless arts graduates, square-mile wannabes, but, because I was at school with the old bum-hole, he employs me as a cartoon editor.
It’s work that requires an eye for a good line, for good command of the nib and brush – an ability to discern whether the pen-hand is doing what the brain wishes the pen-hand to do. It requires, too, a sense of humour, of what’s funny now, right now, and of what will always be funny (some things will always be funny). It’s work for an artist, of sorts.
It’s work you can do while sitting in bed: that’s the important thing.
I haven’t always sat in bed, of course. I’ve done things. Great things? Good enough, I’d say. But in nineteen-ninety-eight I came in here. Stoop got in touch after a week or two. He needed a cartoon editor. He needed someone to sit on their arse all day, he said, leafing through doodles. I had some experience: I was an arty shit, Stoop said.
It’s started to rain outside. I’m tired. But you don’t do anything, you say. I damn well do: I bleed, I ache, I ooze and seep, I wet myself, I endure side-effects, after-effects, withdrawal-symptoms, addiction-symptoms, I lie wide-eyed at night, I grumble and puke, remember and forget, I die, that’s what I do, slowly, slowly, but I die, and these things, each of them on its own and all of them at once, they’re very tiring.
I lay aside the four cartoons on cartridge-paper, and take a sip of the stale water.
The next afternoon, bum-hole himself, old Stoop, turns up in person to collect the submissions. Stoop is four years older than me, but we look the same age: seventy-five.
‘How do, bum-hole?’
‘I’m a mockery of former greatness. You’ve looked them over?’ He takes the wad of envelopes from my bed-side and shoves them in a jacket-pocket.
‘Yes. All rot, except Insmith’s take on Hargreave is a firecracker.’
‘Right.’ He sits down in the room’s only chair. His unironed face is unhappy because he doesn’t like hospitals. Me, I think they’re a riot. ‘So how’s the dying business?’
‘Get out of it while you can, bummer. There’s no profit in it. Want to see a war-wound?’ I roll on to my left hip and pull down the waist-band of my pyjama-trousers. I’ve got a real peach there.
‘Isn’t it?’ I sit back and fold my hands on my coverlet. ‘The rag is perishing still?’
‘Down the toilet without ceremony. I give it a year.’
‘I give it nine months.’
Stoop’s little paper is struggling. People aren’t buying satire.
‘Should’ve gone into something safe,’ he says.
‘Only two safe businesses, Harry: coffins and toilet-seats.’
‘No fun in coffins and toilet-seats, Chaliapin.’ The bum-hole smiles: he has a smile which turns crooks into whistle-blowers. Industry insiders spill the beans just to see that smile. It gets him into locked filing-cabinets, and out of locked rooms, and he built his paper on that smile, did Harry Stoop.
‘You aren’t dead yet, bum-hole.’
‘You either. You know who is?’
‘Who?’ I’m eager to know. I really am. Every dead acquaintance is a sad little victory. There are men in beds with racked kidneys and rotting throats who will smile feeble smiles when Albert Chaliapin hits the obits.
‘Leonard?’ A surprise. Leonard was a monstrous rat who sub-edited for one of the right-wing dailies, but he was only, what, thirty? Thirty-five?
‘Only thirty-one. Stabbed.’
‘Outside the Beckett,’ says the bum-hole – the Beckett, where I’ve drunk myself many times. This done-in liver of mine remembers the Beckett.
‘Lordy – anyway,’ because I feel a bowel-function approaching and I don’t want to embarrass him, ‘nice seeing you.’
‘Yes.’ He stands up, doesn’t want to shake my hand, probably because he doesn’t like the look of it – I don’t much myself. I leave it folded on the duvet. ‘I’ll have the next batch of doodles run over tomorrow.’
‘Keep well. Ha.’
‘Yes. Ha. Your number next, bum-hole.’
‘I shall expire in a blaze of glory.’ He smiles and leaves. Joop, joop, joop, say his corduroy trousers, by way of good-bye.