Last year we were honoured and delighted to asked to be part of the first ever London Litcrawl. Our leg of the crawl was held in the basement of The George just off Charing Cross Road, was packed out by the end, and was loads of fun. So naturally we agreed when we were asked to do it again - especially since it was taking place in our spiritual (and for many of us, actual) home of South London - Petitou Cafe in Peckham, to be precise. We picked three great stories from our archives and threw in a new one just for fun, and we think it went rather well.
The stories read were (in order of performance) In Walks a Unicorn by David Douce, PTSD: Part Timer, Still Down by Caroline Greene, The Magic Lamp by Phil Pavey and Naked by David McGrath (NSFW). If you'd like to read the texts of the archive stories, please click on the title links - The Magic Lamp is reproduced in full below, and you can see full or partial videos of all the readings below too (apologies for the quality - lighting level was low and our camerawoman was a bit far away). We also recorded a podcast of the entire event - click the link to access.
THE MAGIC LAMP
by Phil Pavey, read by Helen Belbin
It was, Harry Beddoes felt, a very fine bedside lamp. He had always been fond of it, and was immensely pleased to have kept it. There were those, of course, who said it was vulgar or kitsch. But he loved its gleaming brass base, bulbous white and gold china stem, rounded metallic mount, finely decorated glass shade and delicate brass finial, suggestive of an oil lamp in a nineteenth-century saloon.
There had originally been two, a present from his parents to him and his wife Hilary, but one had somehow got lost years before in a house move. Hilary maintained that it was his that was lost, and claimed the remaining one for her side of the bed, but he couldn’t see how anyone could tell which had been his or hers. Since they had been a present from his parents, he reckoned the survivor morally belonged to him. The hassle over this, gnawing away over the years, was of course only a tiny factor amongst many in the process that had eventually led to their divorce; but in a way it typified the sort of tensions that had grown between them and how they arose from her unreasonable attitude.
In contrast to the lamp’s Victorian appearance its operation was a modern novelty. Once plugged in, the touch of a finger tip to any metal part of the lamp switched it on. A further touch made it brighter, another touch brighter still, and a fourth touch turned it off. It also worked with other parts of the anatomy, such as the nose or elbow, but it did not respond to inanimate objects such as a pencil or a spoon. Also he had discovered, by trial and error, that it did not work by touching it through fabric such as a sleeve or a glove, or even a handkerchief; but it could sometimes be fooled by touching it through paper. Most curiously of all, touching the china stem did not work with a single touch, but it did respond to two simultaneous touches either side, from two fingertips or a finger and thumb. Clearly it was all down to conductivity but he could never fathom out how it worked. Perhaps that was part of its charm.
On the night of his decree absolute Harry went to bed early, and touched the lamp three times to achieve the maximum brightness which he needed these days for reading. At length after a couple of chapters he was suitably sleepy and touched the lamp to turn it off. But it didn’t go off. To his surprise it became one stage brighter. He was sure it had never had a fourth brightness setting so it was strange that it apparently had one now. He thought he must have had it on the second level by mistake, and that when he had touched it intending to turn it off it just went to the top brightness. So he touched it again – but again it became brighter still. This was ridiculous! He touched it again and brighter, and again it got brighter, and after an angry rain of touches it was fiercely floodlighting the bedroom. Surely the bulb couldn’t take it? With more increasingly desperate touches it was like a little sun in the room, impossible to look at, and now giving off detectable heat. At this rate it could start a fire!
Then of course he came to his senses. It must be just an electrical fault in the lamp, some sort of reversed polarity or something, and the simple solution was to switch it off at the mains. He bent down and pressed the switch in the wall socket; but, to his horror, it would not yield to his touch. He pressed and pressed it but it would not budge. This was like a slow unravelling nightmare. Perhaps he had dozed off while reading his book and, like in those old films, would wake up with a start any minute to find the lamp at its normal brightness and obedient to the touch. He went to the next stage, already resigned to what would happen. He pulled on the plug to remove it from the socket but inevitably it would not come. It was adamant. Pulling the plug from the socket was like trying to pull the socket from the wall.
One last expedient remained and he went through the motion, in a daze, of going to the cupboard under the stairs to switch off the fuse box. But the master switch was of course immoveable and the fuses fused in, so to speak, and even his desperate attack with a hammer, through tears of fear and rage, yielded nothing.
He calmed down. If he wasn’t going to wake up from this he would see it through. He would sleep in the spare room, letting the lamp glare out all night, and call an electrician in the morning. This was all very well, but as he passed his own bedroom door, with incandescent light streaming out underneath it, he could smell burning.
“My God, the thing is going to burn the house down!” he screamed, “There’s only one way!” Snatching a pair of scissors from the bathroom, without pausing to check whether they had insulated handles or were all metal, he burst into the room, now sweltering, and grabbed and hacked and cut at the flex ...
When he had not been seen for several days one of his mates who knew where the key was hidden investigated and found the body. The severed flex, and the scissors still gripped in Harry’s hand, told the story. At the pub after the funeral, when quizzed on the details, though, he could offer no answer. “Strange thing”, he said, “he loved that lamp. After they split up he always said ‘My wife won’t bloody get it, the witch’ … Funny how he always called her that”.
(c) Phil Pavey, 2014
Phil Pavey was a public service pen pusher all his career. On semi-retirement he channeled his writing experience towards personal interests, publishing Mysteries of History in Sussex (Pomegranate Press 2012) and Sussex Saints and Martyrs (Country Books 2013). Now he is venturing into creative writing with some short stories.
Helen Belbin: Training: Drama Studio London & Northumbria University. Theatre: Verdict (Agatha Christie Theatre Co); Northern Star (Finborough); The Trial of Marie Antoinette (Once Theatre); Beauty & the Beast (Puppet Lab); A Christmas Carol (St George’s West Players); Battle in the Hills, The Storm Watchers (Theatre Enigma). Radio: HR, Saturday Review, Front Row (BBC Radio 4).