Read by Cliff Chapman
I begin every morning lying in the same double bed, but I will later tell my students never to write a story in which a man wakes up and goes through a routine. Don’t start that way: it’s tedious, particularly when the routine is unremarkable. But then I’ll tell them to make their writing faithful to perception, faithful to their own lives, and sometimes I’ll mention the name of the writer who first said that. Sometimes I won’t, and they’ll go away thinking it was me.
After breakfast I read the headlines from the first six pages of The Times. If there’s a woman in my bed I’ll complete the Times crossword using any answers that fit, then leave the paper in a place where she’ll notice. If I’m alone I’ll search the internet for synopses of a classic novel – today, Frankenstein – before walking to my bookcase to find a copy where I’ll read a paragraph to get an idea of its style. Later at work I may claim to a colleague that I’ve been commissioned to write its new introduction. This type of lie has previously led to a conversation with a publisher and to my actually writing a new introduction to The Immoralist in Noble & West’s ‘Modern Classic’ edition, released in 2008. I have never read The Immoralist.
I teach Writing and Performance Studies in the Evergreen building on Westmorland Street in Cambridge. The faculty is part of Haye College and has nothing whatever to do with the University of Cambridge. Still, the school has a reasonably good reputation among writing academies and there is a fair chance I would lose my job if anybody found out that I have never read a book from cover to cover in my entire life.
Dr Robert Trott teaches dramaturgy. He’s older than me, thirty-seven, but my salary is six thousand pounds a year higher than his because I hold a senior professorship. Lewis Reese teaches From Page to Screen. He’s my age exactly, thirty-five, an ex-Eton boy with a degree from King’s and someone who earns nine thousand pounds a year less than I do. The three of us are drinking outside Haye’s union bar, watching undergraduates at lunch. Reese balances a lit cigarette on the ashtray then opens his workbag – something which is trying to be a satchel with its buckles and initial-engraved plates. He makes a deliberate effort to expose his copy of Truth on Stage, an anticipated collection of essays which doesn’t go on sale for another month. ‘Advance copy,’ he says. ‘Personalised dedication.’ He shows us the introduction in which he has underlined a passage and written ‘NO’ in the margin, then drawn a circle around the word. ‘Here’s the trouble with this place,’ he says. ‘The four-year tide washes in and takes with it those passingly engaging conversations you mistook for meaningful connections. Middling men are dangerous in a place like this. They have something to prove to these overpaying underachievers. None of them are in awe, you know. None of them care. We offer courses in mime for Christ’s sake.’
Trott removes his glasses. ‘There’s nothing wrong with mime, Lewis.’
‘Oh yeah,’ he says. ‘Who’s your favourite mime?’
It’s quiet for a moment. Reese fans his own cigarette smoke. ‘That reminds me,’ he says. ‘Prologues. Don’t do prologues. Call it chapter one, then realise you have to cut it altogether.’
Trott laughs. ‘That’s a fact. What about epilogues?’
‘Worse. That’s like filming the clean-up in a porno. Your epilogue is your DVD special feature, your supplementary material. Save it for a centenary edition or better yet, save it for readings. Build some mystique, a little bootleg.’
‘Settle down, Lewis,’ I say. ‘Prologues and epilogues are a great way to frame a narrative in a faux-historical context. Frankenstein had a prologue. A preface, actually, then a kind of prologue after that. The whole novel is an essay into the inner workings of narrative structure.’
‘Frankenstein is a structural nightmare,’ says Reese. ‘Worse than Lear. Worse than
‘There’s no apostrophe in Finnegans Wake,’ I tell him. ‘Did you know that?’
‘I didn’t say it with an apostrophe.’
‘I couldn’t tell,’ says Trott.
Reese says it again.
‘It sounds the same.’
‘Of course it sounds the same.’
We each take a turn saying it.
Reese drags on his cigarette, so I lean back in my chair to show him I disapprove, though he probably doesn’t notice.
Trott says, ‘Why are we talking about Frankenstein?’
‘The product of Frankenstein’s experiment is often called the monster,’ I say. ‘But I prefer to call it the creation.’
‘Deep,’ says Reese.
I can’t take much more of this so I announce that I’m going to the library, when of course I’m not.
I go instead to Christ’s College and walk though the porter’s lodge without anyone stopping me. I do this several times a week. At the back of the College is a small court with Gothic buildings on three sides. I sit in an alcove facing the main library and empty the contents of my bag onto the cold stone. The task at hand is to peruse editions of old literary magazines that I might plagiarize for my novel in progress.
I like to work here, as I hold a deep contempt for people who use coffee houses to publicly advertise that they are working on a novel, or reading, or having coffee in the way these people do: as if coffee is a necessary supplement to their cosmopolitan lives which, as it goes, are unashamedly taking place in backward market towns.
On the other side of the court, two students are walking across the lawn. One of the students is Kayleigh Nocks, a girl I’ve seduced on four occasions and slept with twice. She’s walking with Rhiannon something, whom I once tried to seduce without success. Rhiannon is more attractive than Kayleigh, so seeing them walk together is irritating. It’s as if someone means to remind me of my limitations by displaying these girls side by side. I stare blankly across the court, unable to extinguish the anguish of my past failures until I see, over by an archway, a group of Japanese tourists on a tour of the College. They point in my direction and pause to take pictures of me, assuming what they see is a Cambridge academic deep in the meditation of his study. An exalting relief passes through me.
Later that afternoon I’m in London, having lunch with Michael Dirk, my literary agent. Dirk prefers to talk business in restaurants, though his reluctance to pay, or even to split the bill, is beginning to annoy me. He’s chosen La Ferme in the new retail complex in Putney. It’s one of those high priced lunchrooms with fake rustic furniture and undersized portions. It wants me to believe it’s genuinely continental, but I know the chef is from Peterborough.
Dirk orders a bottle of wine before we talk about my novel. The typescript has been at his agency for six months, so I’m beginning to lose patience with his inability to get it published. ‘It’s come back from Pandora,’ he says. ‘They’re not looking to buy literary right now.’
‘Is that what they said?’
‘I’m sorry. They wanted you to know they really liked it.’
‘I thought we were at an advanced stage with Pandora. I’ve been telling people it’s at an advanced stage.’
A skinny waitress comes with the wine. She pours a shot for Dirk who drinks it before saying, ‘Very nice.’
‘The response is that’s fine,’ I tell him. ‘She’s not asking if you like the wine.’
I turn to face the waitress serving at the table next to us. She’s significantly more attractive than the girl we’ve been given. When I turn to Dirk he’s holding his glass like a coffee mug. ‘Jesus, Dirk,’ I say. ‘Use the stem. It keeps your fingerprints off the glass and keeps the wine chilled.’
‘You don’t chill red wine,’ he says, smiling to the waitress. ‘You drink it room temperature.’
‘Cellar temperature,’ I correct him.
The waitress goes away. ‘Here’s where we are,’ Dirk says. ‘The novel. I don’t know where else I can turn with it.’
‘What about Caldron, Whistler, Rupert League? Try the American presses.’
‘You don’t want Europeans to read the novel?’
‘I want readings,’ I say. ‘I want debates, interviews, awards. I want pink champagne every night for the rest of my life. But I want it in London. London or New York.’
‘So we need another edit.’
‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s time you moved out of the counties. Where is it you’re staying? Cambridge? That place rots the mind. There’s no excuse for another tweed novel about quads and bicycles with people walking around quoting Latin. Don’t start thinking there is. If you want London then at least move here. Everyone moves here eventually. You think that commuting makes you some kind of railway gent?’
I’m barely listening to this. Dirk looks at the menu while I defend myself, but I imagine he’s not listening, only trying to avoid looking at me. Across the room our skinny waitress is presenting a cork to an old man who smells it before nodding his head. His guests laugh and make fun of his sophistication. They seem unaware that he has just exposed himself as someone who knows absolutely nothing about wine. Even the waitress looks impressed. I wipe my forehead with a napkin. ‘I’m pent up,’ I say. ‘It’s my research. It’s this life of the mind.’
I’ve no idea what I’m talking about, or what I mean to convey with the slow nod I give in response to this question. Dirk tries to look sympathetic. ‘What are you researching?’ he says.
I feel like telling him the truth – nothing – but instead I say, not very convincingly, ‘Hamlet.’
‘Hamlet?’ he says. ‘No wonder you look like shit.’
‘I’m looking at the grave-digging scene. You know, act five scene one. Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.’
Dirk looks confused. ‘Just that scene. That’s your research?’
I’m too tired to freestyle about Hamlet, so I nod again, but get the feeling he knows I’m lying. He says, without looking up from his meal, ‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him, Horatio.’
I stop listening. Dirk is saying something like, ‘Metropolitan books are over. Bloomsbury hardly exists. You have to write the commuter novel, something structured like a train line.’ I watch his lips move, hear his voice, but am able in the depth of my haze to ignore the words entirely.
Out of the window a group of girls dressed in hockey skirts are crossing the road. They look eighteen, maybe older, and as I stare at the neat row of their patterned socks, then at my own reflection in the window, alternating my focus in a kind of stupor, I have the ridiculous impression that I am among these girls, like an apparition. The window shows I’m graying already, wrinkling even, beginning to look entirely unlike myself. The girls go on laughing, and as I’m sitting there in the restaurant I’m reminded of a former version of myself, a teenager who watched laughing girls in a bar while a conversation about Milton passed him by. As Dirk goes on talking, I imagine being the type of man who is not interested in being a type of man. Rain falls on the window. One of us says: ‘We’ll send the novel to Max Beaker at Cauldron. It’s time people found out who you are.’
(c) Paul Sweeten, 2013
Paul Sweeten has published fiction in Ambit and Flash: The International Short Story Magazine. His essays have appeared in Persuasions: The Jane Austen Journal, The Journal of the Short Story in English and The Oxonian Review. He is co-Editor of The Harlequin, a new literary quarterly found at www.theharlequin.org
Cliff Chapman is Leicester born, Manx raised and available with a number of bonus features including: theatre; voice acting; audiobook directing; idents; music videos, short films and commercials. He is represented by Meredith Westwood Management and is easily won over by red wine.