Expertly crafted.Owen King

The call comes when he least expects it. He’s tidying away what’s left of lunch – some cold meat wrappers, a crust of baguette – when the phone rings, in that short-tempered peremptory way machines have. He almost doesn’t answer it; he’s been fending off unwanted offers of insurance, unlimited broadband, crates of discount wine for months now. His name must be on some list somewhere – Jeremy Eldritch, sucker, with a five-star rating after it to indicate the extent of his gullibility. Or maybe four. Why be so hard on himself always, so unforgiving? These past few weeks he’s found himself saying no with unexpected ease, behaving with a brusqueness he’s superficially ashamed of, but deeply pleased, even smug, to find as part of his tele­phone repertoire. I’m getting bad, he’s said to himself. Even my mother would be ashamed of me. I’m finding my teeth after all these years of pandering to people I’ve never met and would almost certainly hate to the deepest pit of my heart if I did, as they would me. He throws the paper and crust towards the bin two feet away, wipes his greasy hands on a tea towel hanging from the oven door and picks up the phone.

It’s his older sister, Rachel. “You’d better get back here,” she says. “He’s on his way out.”

***

Jeremy lives on the fourth floor of a building ten minutes’ walk away from Place de Clichy in the seventeenth arrondisse­ment, his favourite part of Paris. In the days when people read Henry Miller, long before he lived here himself, he’d use the man’s Quiet Days in Clichy as a sort of cultural landmark. Not exactly my idea of quiet, he’d say, referring to the book, more like a movable fuck-fest of very little literary worth, and people would leap to Miller’s defence, or not, depending on their age and sex and artistic pretension, or look at him with an anxious glance, surprised to hear such language from such an apparently mild and amenable man.

This is the smallest flat he’s ever lived in, just under eighteen metres square, a truncated cupboard masquerading as a kitchen, an all-purpose living space not much larger than a decent walk-in wardrobe, a bathroom small enough to shower while crapping and still be able to rinse one’s razor under the tap. It was sold to him as a studio and might even have had room for a desk or drawing board of some kind if he hadn’t squeezed a double mattress in the space between the cooker and the door to the bathroom, now a sort of improvised futon Jean-Paul produced by lifting the mattress up with the sort of strength the adrenalin of rage produces and flinging it against the wall. It skulks there, a drunken observer, its back against the plaster, a sheet hanging rakishly down from one corner, while Jeremy eats and writes and reads at the round wooden table that takes up most of the rest of the room. Jeremy sleeps on the horizontal part of the mattress, a not quite rectangular rhomboid with a couple of pillows thrown at the wider end and a duvet gathered at the other. He waits for Jean-Paul to come back and sort things out. He has been waiting for just over two months.

He’ll be watching the leaves as the wind turns them white and then dark again, and the movement of the young man in the window opposite, who wanders around his slightly larger studio in pyjamas or less.”

What made him buy the flat, other than its price and the fact that he likes small places, prefers them even, was the honey-coloured parquet and the window, which reaches to the ground and gives onto a courtyard and blue-grey roofs of weathered zinc and is altogether too splendid for the room in which it finds itself; a situation, Jeremy feels, that has some affinity to his. His favourite position is to sit at one side of the table with his back to the mattress, looking out through the wide-open window, his feet on a small wooden box that once held a magnum of champagne and is now filled with letters from the time when people wrote them, his arms crossed loosely above his stomach in the restful position of a man on his own tomb. He’ll have a book somewhere near his chair, or his laptop, or the manuscript he’s working on, but will have abandoned it to watch the gently urban wind in the leaves of the courtyard’s single tree, which may be a lime or may be something quite different, but which he continues to think of as a lime. He’ll be watching the leaves as the wind turns them white and then dark again, and the movement of the young man in the window opposite, who has no time at all for Jeremy and who wanders around his slightly larger studio in pyjamas or less, a large bowl of coffee cupped in his elegant white hands, and whose presence contributed in no small measure to Jean-Paul’s final fit of jealous rage.

First edition. Olympia Press, 1956

Jeremy has been in this flat for the past seventeen years, in or near Batignolles for almost twenty-five, in Paris for thirty-four, give or take the odd few months elsewhere, for reasons of the heart or penury. He was dispatched here by his mother when no other solution seemed feasible, with the address in his wallet of a girl she’d known at school, who’d married someone in publishing, the business card of a hotel she’d stayed in briefly before she married his father, in whose company she didn’t say, some traveller’s cheques for the first few months and a copy of a guide to the churches of Paris she’d claimed to have bought in a local jumble sale, trusting that some kind of solace might be gained from it. He studied the names as the ferry pitched its way towards Calais. Saint-Denys. Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais. Saint-Germain-des-Prés. What a saintly city it must be, he mused. He’d read French at university but spent his year out in Montpellier and only passed through Paris twice. He was saving it for when he was in love, he told himself, which made it feel vast and hopeless; the depth and span of its stations dispirited him, the elegance of its men, each one of them single and aloof and self-sufficient. His mother’s hotel, though, set him right within hours, when one of the kitchen hands followed him back to his poky, single-bedded room and gave him a lesson in a brusque and richly communicative sexual argot his three inter­rupted years at Exeter hadn’t prepared him for at all. So this is Paris, he thought, his face in the pillow as a slim Algerian whose name he never caught left teeth marks in his shoulder.

His mother’s friend’s husband had turned out to own not a publishing house but a sizable printing works to the south of Paris. He caught the train out there one late autumn morning, enjoying the sense of being a foreigner these journeys within the larger journey always heightened. I don’t belong here, he found himself repeating in mantric rapture, in time with the leafless poplars that lined the railway track as soon as the city and its suburbs were behind him. I don’t belong here. And its counterpoint. And so I’ll stay.

He was met at the station by a short man with a large moustache who introduced himself as the general manager of the works, which impressed Jeremy, as it was no doubt meant to. The man drove him to a smallish factory on the outskirts of the town, with a row of sedately smoking chimneys, their off-white pads of vapour sloping away to the side in infantile chorus like something from an impressionist painting. The printing works were behind this, in a squat red-brick manoir-like building, from which came the sound of machinery, an arrhythmic thudding that nonetheless reminded Jeremy of his journey and gave him a sense of inevitability he realised he had been craving. He wondered what was being printed behind such mundane walls. What had seemed like a courtesy visit took on a new importance.

He heard the presses at work, glistening black giant looms weaving words, or text as he had learned to call it during supervisions with his teachers, always with the epithet holy in his head.”

The manager walked him round the works, explaining each stage of the process, but Jeremy’s French was barely up to it, and what he did understand made it all seem more mysterious. He watched a young man his age set type, his hands like birds after seed, and didn’t want to know any more than that; that hands had made it. He heard the presses at work, glistening black giant looms weaving words, or text as he had learned to call it during supervisions with his teachers, always with the epithet holy in his head, as though the words were measured out by gods who wished both to remain secret and to be obeyed. The author was dead, but the printer survived, the actual artisan of the text, a man no older than he was, fine-featured, stooped like a heron over water, all of these images of birds tumbling one after the other; perhaps there was some sort of narcotic in the ink they used, he thought, as he stumbled behind his brisk, gesticulating guide until he was suddenly in an office, the distant thud of the printing attenuated by music he couldn’t place. Something that reminded him of Satie, but wasn’t.

A man unfolded himself from behind a desk and held out his hand. He announced, in rumbling, accented English, that he was Jeremy’s mother’s friend’s husband, presumably to show off his grasp of the genitive. Jeremy sat down in the seat provided and let the man talk for a little until he could make up his mind about what he thought. The man was tall, large-boned, with long, slightly thinning hair and expressive hands he was clearly proud of; he’d catch sight of them suddenly and pause, as if surprised by such contingent elegance. His name, he said, was Armand. Jeremy wasn’t sure which name this was, his first or second. He glanced above the man’s head to what looked like a university degree, framed in gilt, and saw the name Armand Grenier in blood-red copperplate across its centre. The truth, thought Jeremy as he cautiously glanced around the rest of the room, its cabinets and glass-fronted bookcases, its telephones and in-trays, its general air of busi­ness being conducted, was that he knew nothing. He had a degree in a language he could read but barely speak without being aware of an anxious, even supercilious, look appearing on the other person’s face. He would have to work harder, work faster, he told himself, if only to stay in the same place, wherever that was, let alone get out of it. He hated his hotel room. The kitchen hand was avoiding him or had simply left. He might have been traceable if only Jeremy had discovered his name. He might have been able to run him to ground, to leave for Algiers with his Berber love, to lose himself in the desert as whatever-his-name had done in The Sheltering Sky, a book he loved, except that the hero had died, which Jeremy would rather avoid.

While all this ran like water through his head, Grenier was explaining the workings of the printing industry in fluent, heavily accented English. Jeremy heard little, and would have understood less; he had an aversion to practical knowledge of any kind. He wondered why everyone should want him to know so much about the intricacies of book and magazine production, and commercial printing, and only later asked himself, as the train took him back to Paris, whether he might not have been the victim of a plan cooked up by his mother and Hilary, or whoever she was, to keep him busy until his father would have him back, assuming he would. Busy, and even, if it weren’t too much to ask, involved in some sort of business, a money-making activity of some sort. Money. That would be the type of thing to win his father over: for Jeremy actually to be capable of making money. Slumped into his chair, he watched the Frenchman’s floating hair and almost verbal hands in a wordless daze, until he was startled into attention.

“Your mother has told us you write,” said Grenier.

“Well, yes,” said Jeremy. “I mean, not really.”

“Come, come, mon ami, no modesty, please.” Grenier stood up. “You will accompany me now to my second office, where I have something I wish to show you.”

Jeremy followed him along a narrow corridor with a suspended quality about it; metal-framed windows overlooked a sloping zinc-covered roof at one side, the other side lined with advertisements for household goods of various types: detergents, domestic appliances, cosmetics for women, sham­poos for men with prematurely greying hair. There was a house style – crude, slightly retro but knowing, a nod towards the nouvelle vague, but pop-arty as well, the style he recognised immediately when Grenier opened the door at the end of the corridor and, walking him to a tilted draughtsman’s table in the middle of the room, pointed down to the sheet of paper on its surface.

She’s blonde, with high round buttocks that already appear to have been beaten a deepening rose. Behind her a man in a feathered headdress and bulging loincloth is holding a whip and smirking as he lifts it.”

“This is the front cover of a little publication we plan to export to your country,” said Grenier.

A woman has been stretched face down across what appears to be a stone altar. Her flimsy clothes have been torn away and her ankles and wrists attached to usefully placed metal loops by flimsy golden chains. What looks like a conquistador’s helmet lies on the floor beside her. She’s blonde, with high round buttocks that already appear to have been beaten a deepening rose. Behind her a man in a feathered headdress and bulging loincloth is holding a whip and smirking as he lifts it. Across the top third of the cover, in the sort of jagged font used for 1950s science-fiction movies, are two words: Montezuma’s Revenge.

“It is only a working title, naturally,” said Grenier. “Our private joke. Intestinal, yes? We would like to find something with a little more, how do you say, libido.”

Jeremy, mute with embarrassment, nodded as Grenier squeezed his arm above the elbow, almost tight enough to hurt.

“Perhaps you can help us?”

“With the title?”

Grenier shook his head, bared his large grey teeth in a grin. “With the book.”

***

Jeremy puts the phone down and stares out of the window, his eyes misted over against every expectation. He sits there for what might be minutes, or tens of minutes, the leaves on the tree in the courtyard outside almost motionless, as though they were also waiting for some further change to take place, some further news to arrive. But the air is still. After however long it is, he reaches down and picks up the laptop beside the chair and reads what he has written that day.

Lady Mirabelle held back the curtain with her slim white hand so that her view into the formal garden was uninter­rupted. Beds of pink and yellow roses meandered gracefully towards the lake below, but Lady Mirabelle’s attention was less on the scented array of blooms than it was on the gardener, only recently employed, whose name she had still not discovered. Against regulations, he had taken off his shirt in an attempt to cool down from his exertions and was standing no more than thirty feet from the house, his lustrous hair tied back from his strong brown neck, his smooth skin glistening in the late morning sun as if waiting for the birch, the birch that would duly arrive if she decided to rebuke him for his shirtless state. Lady Mirabelle lifted her Spanish fan to her face and agitated it, her bosom rising and falling. She was about to sit down when a sound behind her caused her to turn.

“I have some bad news for you, my Lady,” said Grenier, the estate manager and her family’s most trusted servant.

Bad news?” Her voice was faint.

Your father, my Lady, my Lord Clichy, he’s… Oh, my Lady…”

Lady Mirabelle gave a gasp. Dropping the fan to the parquet floor, her delicate fingers grasped the heavy brocade of the drawing room curtain for strength.

He’s dead? My father’s dead?”

“You must come with me, my Lady…”

Thus life imitates art, thinks Jeremy. That sentimental fool Oscar Wilde was right. He writes: “Bloody good riddance,” said Lady Mirabelle, with a casual, but heartfelt, laugh. “The selfish bastard deserves to die”, then reads the words aloud in a trem­bling voice, a faint voice, and pauses for a moment before deleting them. Not yet, he thinks. Not now. It is early after­noon. He puts the laptop down and covers his face with both hands, shaking with unexpected grief.

from Prodigal (Gallic Books, £8.99)

 

Charles_Lambert_290Charles Lambert is the author of several novels, short stories, and the memoir With a Zero at its Heart, which was voted one of The Guardian readers’ Ten Best Books of the Year in 2014. In 2007, he won an O. Henry Award for his short story The Scent of Cinnamon. His first novel, Little Monsters, was longlisted for the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. Born in England, Charles Lambert has lived in central Italy since 1980. Prodigal is published in paperback and eBook by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books.
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Author portrait © Patrizia Casamirra

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