After spending six months back in the UK, I’ve finally come back to France. To Normandy to look after a farm. How long I’m not quite sure. Maybe enough time to finish a novel?
Yesterday was hot. Very hot, so I spent it in the small lake we have here. More a large pond. Later I made a short film accompanied by music someone recorded in a street in Nantes. Where I am is about 300 kilometres from Nantes so there’s very little connection. Except that it’s in France.
For those of you who’ve never read this blog, it started out in Lyon in 2011. Then it was called BLOGLEY and was about living in Lyon. Since then it’s become a general platform for stories, travel articles, short films, audio pieces, and general pieces about nothing in particular.
So if you have a few minutes of your life to waste you might want to browse some posts. Or you could even buy the book: A Man in France by clicking on the photo of bottles of wine and cans of beer opposite —->
If not, this 60 second film with music from Nantes pretty much sums it all up.
‘It’s illegal NOT to smoke on the premises,’ the sign read on the wall as Paul walked inside the building for the first day in his new job. Must be a mistake he assumed. Or an office prank, seeing as the smoking ban had been in place now for years.
So it was a surprise when he got to the reception desk and saw the two ladies behind it smoking to their heart’s content.
‘Didn’t you read the sign?’ said one.
‘The sign?’ squeaked Paul.
‘The smoking sign!’ the second announced fiercely.
‘Oh, I thought it was a joke.’ ‘There’s no joking here. It’s illegal not to smoke. That’s what it says. Can’t you read,’ she roared taking a cigarette out of her packet and thrusting it violently at Paul. Unsure of what to do, Paul took it, put it in his mouth, accepted a light from the outstretched receptionist’s arm and inhaled weakly. ‘That’s better,’ said the first as Paul started coughing. ‘Take the elevator to floor eight, Mr. Grey is expecting you. You’re Paul, I assume.’ ‘Yes,’ he spluttered and walked towards the lift wanting to throw the cigarette away, but scared to do so after his telling off.
When the lift finally opened Paul saw that everybody inside was smoking. Three men and two women all sucking on cigarettes and full of smiles. Paul looked at them, smiled back, took a belated drag on his cigarette and joined them. ‘What are you on today?’ the man standing closest to him asked when the door closed. ‘What do you mean?’ replied Paul innocently. ‘What are you smoking?’ ‘Er,’ said Paul desperately trying to remember what his dad had smoked before he died. ‘Marlboro.’ ‘Nice,’ said the man approvingly. ‘Great brand. Strong and satisfying I always find. Great morning cigarette. Really gets the lungs moving.’ Paul nodded in agreement and tried pinching himself a few times wondering if perhaps he was dreaming. But as he choked on the smoke filling up the lift like a gas chamber, he realised it was all real. When the lift got to the eighth floor he leapt out barely able to breathe and desperately hoped his office would be non-smoking like every other one in the country. But it was not. The 8th floor was as smoky as the lift. A yellow fug hung over the desks and computers like smog. ‘This is insane,’ Paul muttered to himself as he gazed around and saw that everyone was either putting a cigarette out, smoking one, or lighting up a fresh one. ‘Hello Paul,’ a voice behind him said. Paul looked round and saw a middle-aged man walking up to him offering his hand. ‘I’m Al Grey, sorry we didn’t meet at the interview but I was in hospital with a lung infection, but I’ll be your manager,’ he said taking a deep drag of his cigarette between his yellowed fingers. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ replied Paul. ‘Ermm, I was wondering if I could have a word before we start.’ ‘Of course, let’s go to my office where we can talk and smoke in private.’ The man showed Paul into a spacious, heavily nicotine stained office and offered him a cigarette. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ Paul demanded refusing the man’s offer. ‘I’m sorry,’ said the man taken aback. ‘I don’t quite follow.’ ‘Smoking! Why is everybody smoking for Christ’s sake. What is this place? A laboratory. Some experiment gone horribly wrong.’ The man took a long meditative drag on his cigarette. ‘I’m not sure I follow you at all Paul. And by the way, you need to light a cigarette.’
‘Why do I need to light up a cigarette?’ cried Paul. ‘I don’t even smoke. I came here to work not smoke.’ ‘What do you mean you don’t smoke?’ The man paused, crushed his cigarette out, lit another and looked directly at Paul. ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about. Everybody smokes. It’s the law.’ It was then Paul realised something very bad was happening to him and without saying another word left the room and started running back down the corridor past a giant cigarette vending machine. Paul got into the lift and was immediately confronted by a middle-aged woman thrusting a cigarette at him. Paul wasn’t in the mood to start explaining himself. He just wanted to get back to the real world. He looked at the woman as the doors shut. ‘You’re insane, you’re all insane.’
Once outside he took a huge breath of air and started walking towards the station to get the train home. But something was wrong. The smell. The air was different. And then he realised, just like in the building, everybody was smoking. Either lighting a cigarette, smoking a cigarette, or throwing a cigarette away into giant ashtrays lining the street just like in the office building.
People suddenly started looking at him and tutting. ‘You’ve got to smoke,’ he heard somebody say. ‘Smoke-up!’ said another. And then he saw them. ‘Oh my God,’ cried Paul when he saw two uniformed thugs racing towards him. On their jackets were the words Smoke Police written in bold red. ‘Oi, you in the suit. What’s your game?’ they shouted as they grabbed Paul.
‘Get off, you’re insane,’ cried Paul. ‘We’ll see who’s insane m’laddo,’ said the first one taking a packet of cigarettes out of his jacket. ‘No,’ protested Paul. ‘Please no more. Why are you doing this to me?’ ‘Because it’s the law,’ shouted the second policeman forcing a cigarette into Paul’s mouth. ‘No, please,’ wailed Paul. ‘Let me go, I don’t want to smoke.’ ‘Shut up and smoke,’ they both said in unison. ‘You know the law. Everybody’s got to smoke. Everybody’s got to smoke in Smokers World.’
‘But I don’t want to,’ pleaded Paul. ‘Please! I don’t want to smoke. It’s not good for you.’
‘We’ll decide what’s good for you,’ said the first policeman shoving another cigarette into his mouth. ‘Now stop squealing and start smoking,’ he finished booting Paul hard in the ribs.
‘OK OK,’ said Paul. ‘I’ll smoke, I’ll smoke. Give me a lighter for God’s sake.’
The second policeman handed Paul a cheap plastic yellow lighter with the image of a skull and crossbones on it. ‘Here. Now smoke up before we arrest you.’
Paul sat wearily down on the curb, lit the cigarette and took a long deep drag.
‘That’s better, isn’t it?’ they said.
Paul slowly nodded. ‘Yeh,’ he said taking another long pull. ‘Strong yet satisfying,’ he mimicked the man in the lift.
The policemen put away their truncheons and prepared to leave the scene of the crime.
‘But one thing before you leave,’ asked Paul.
‘Yes,’ said the first policeman curtly.
‘Why aren’t you smoking?’
They looked at each other. Their minds seemingly unable to process the question. After a few seconds the second one replied. ‘We’ve never been asked that before.’
‘I thought so,’ said Paul standing up and facing them, flicking his cigarette away in defiance.
‘Well,’ said the first. ‘We don’t smoke because we don’t have to.’
‘Why not?’ asked Paul.
‘Because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to do our job as we’d always be smoking.’
‘What about everybody else,’ demanded Paul. ‘All the people in the offices and the shops and the factories smoking all the time.’
‘I’ve never really thought of it like that,’ said the first.
‘If you let everybody do their jobs without smoking,’ ventured Paul boldly. ‘Their jobs would get done quicker and more efficiently and the country would be richer and stronger.’
The two policemen looked at each other and Paul saw a small imaginary coin drop somewhere in their brains.
‘But,’ started the first one realising the seriousness of what Paul had just said. ‘Then what would we do. We wouldn’t have jobs.’
‘Yeh,’ piped up the second looking angry again. ‘I’ve got a family to feed. And a house and a car to run.’
‘Too right!’ said the first. ‘And look, he’s not smoking again, looks like we’re going to have to arrest him,’ he finished whacking Paul to the floor with his truncheon.
Paul did nothing as they started tying his hands behind his back. There was no point in struggling any more. ‘Get in the van,’ said the second hauling him into a blue army style truck that had appeared from nowhere. ‘You know the law,’ he started saying again. ‘Everybody’s got to smoke. Everybody’s got to smoke in Smokers World.’
Copyright 2019 Philip Ogley
(Taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd and Other Stories by Philip Ogley buy here.)
I wrote this story one evening while living in an old house in Starcross, Devon. A small village along the River Ex about 8 miles from Exeter. Read the text or listen or download the audio version below. Or both?
‘Sorry I didn’t get down sooner,’ I apologised to my Aunt Marie at Exeter station.
‘Well you’re here now,’ she said as we embraced.
Six months ago my uncle disappeared. The search party found nothing. No note, no trail, no clue. No one even remembers seeing him that morning. As though he’d walked out into the Devonshire mist and vanished forever.
‘I just don’t understand it,’ I said to her as we walked to the car. ‘I mean why?’
‘I don’t know,’ she declared. ‘I really don’t know,’ she added weakly as she unlocked the car and got in.
As we drove to the village we talked about the old days. When I used to visit them during the school holidays after my mother had died. When my uncle and I would go fishing or cycling. Eat fish and chips by the sea, play crazy golf at Torquay, or simply walk the bleak moors and threadlike lanes.
I was going to miss him for sure. But not as much as my poor aunt. Who even after six months spent every waking hour wading through endless scenarios trying to find a reason for her husband’s disappearance.
On my third day weary of playing Miss Marple, Inspector Poirot and Lieutenant Columbo all rolled into one, I took myself off on a long walk. I knew Tuesdays was her Bridge afternoon so it seemed as good a day as any.
After nearly five hours of hard walking on Dartmoor, my packed lunch and can of beer long since gone, I came across a large building about three miles out from my aunt’s village. A line of crows on the roof watched me as I approached.
I stopped and looked around the makeshift car park: A dozen cars among some old scaffolding poles and rotting timber. Above the door was a sign with the word PARTS written on it.
Weird I thought. I’d walked this route many times before with my uncle but couldn’t remember seeing such a place. Something so conspicuous and ugly. It seemed mysterious. But then again Dartmoor was mysterious. Everyone knew that – it was famous for it!
Not too worried by old legends and myths and stories Iheaded inside half hoping they might have some water or a can of coke. I was parched. Apart from my can of beer at lunchtime I hadn’t drunk anything all day.
I walked into a large rectangular room illuminated by bright fluorescent strip lights that shone down upon row after row of freezer cabinets. It reminded me of the old Kwik Save supermarket I used to shop at when I was a student in Leeds in the late 1980s: deceptively big, overlit, and completely soulless.
Except the clientele were completely different. Instead of grebby students looking for burgers and pizzas, they were academic types dressed in suits or cords. Peering into the freezer cabinets as though they contained pieces of jewellery or rare museum artefacts.
‘Hello sir, looking for anything in particular?’ A voice came from behind me giving me a start.
I whirled around to see a man dressed in a starched white coat. He wore tiny spectacles and had a large domed head. If it wasn’t for the general queerness of the place he might have looked out of place. But he fitted right in.
‘Oh hi,’ I said. ‘I was wondering if you’ve got any water?’
‘Certainly sir, follow me.’
I followed him down one of the aisles towards a door at the end. Halfway along it occurred to me that perhaps I should get something for tea. I could cook even. Give my aunt a break and me a change from the weak stew and boiled potatoes I’d been eating for the past few nights.
By her own admission she was an appalling cook, always had been. Even joking a few nights ago that it was the reason her husband left her. Then proceeded to sob into her serviette, her stew and potatoes untouched as normal.
I looked into one of the freezer cabinets thinking of perhaps toad-in-the-hole with a thick onion gravy. Followed by one of those sickly desserts full of cream and sugar.
But instead of seeing a sausage or a meringue, I saw a human body. Bent over double wrapped in clear polyethylene like a Christmas turkey.
‘Anything grab your fancy, sir?’ the man piped up. ‘Good specimen this one: a six-foot-two farmer’s son, got trapped in a combine last summer. Horrible mess it was.’
I stared at the man in disbelief.
‘Or over here.’ He pointed to an adjacent cabinet. ‘A strong fifty year old male, owned a breakers yard down in Paignton, but rather unwisely fell into his own crusher one morning. Wasn’t too badly damaged as a matter of fact. Killed him of course but he manage to keep his shape. Look, the pelvis is almost intact.’ He grabbed the body and twisted the dead man around like he was a doll.
I shifted my terrified gaze back to the cabinet and then back to the man. ‘These aren’t real, are they? I mean they’re models right, dummies, they’re not actual human bodies?’
My voice trailed away.
‘I understand your concern, sir. You’re not the first person to feel uneasy about what happens here.’
‘What does happen here?’ I cut in.
‘We sell bodies,’ said the man blankly
‘Bodies,’ I mumbled.
‘The demand is unbelievable in fact. Surgeons looking for body parts, film companies looking for props and stunt doubles, mainly horror films of course. Then there’s the scientists and not to forget the artists.’
‘I just want some water,’ I said. ‘Then I’ll go.’
‘Our main customer however,’ the man continued. ‘And this may surprise you, is actually the police.’
‘Yes. There’s a few in the Power Tools Accident section over there.’ He pointed to an aisle three rows along.
I looked over and saw three sturdy built policemen in uniform laughing and joking while yanking a large corpse from a freezer as though hauling a sack of spuds out of a cart.
‘What are they doing?’ I said feeling slightly more relaxed.
‘They are looking for murder victims,’ confirmed the man. ‘Saves them a lot of time and money if they come here first rather than scouring the landscape or diving into quarries.’
‘So hang on a minute. All these bodies are from people who have been killed, murdered?’
‘No.’ The man shook his head firmly. ‘Only a small portion. Most of our corpses are from normal deaths.’
He checked himself. ‘I say normal deaths. I mean deaths from illness, accidents, old age.’
‘Why do they end up here?’
‘They are all from families sir who don’t want to go through the painful, and sometimes expensive ritual of a traditional funeral. Instead they come to us. We simply take them away and within ten days a nice cheque falls through their door. The modern world. Everything has a price. Even dead bodies.’
‘This is absolutely crazy.’
‘Maybe sir. But you’d be surprised how many we get, it’s very popular in fact, as you can see.’ He turned his hands over gesturing to the banks of freezers in the room with wide palms.
‘You see sir. Funerals can be very expensive, can run into tens of thousands of pounds. And of course it’s never the deceased who pick up the bill. Always the relatives, who, let’s face it, have probably got better things to spend their money on than a wooden box that will only rot in the ground.’
Whether he was telling the truth or not. I wasn’t sure. Yes I was intrigued, I loved the bizarre and strange, but maybe this was a touch too far. I mean dead bodies in freezers. Even for me this was a bit too weird.
‘Well,’ I finally said. ‘It’s certainly been an experience. But I probably won’t be buying today, maybe next time.’ I smiled and turned towards the exit.
‘But what about that water sir?’
‘Oh yes.’ My mouth felt like sandpaper. ‘Anything would do, a can of coke, or perhaps something stronger.’ I half laughed.
The man half laughed back. ‘This way sir.’ Showing me to the door at the end of the aisle. ‘There’s a kitchen in there. Help yourself.’
I opened the door and walked in. It smelt horrible. I turned around but the door slammed shut. Then I heard someone locking it.
I desperately searched for a light switch but there was none. I couldn’t even see my hand.
‘Hey!’ I shouted banging on the door. ‘What’s going on? Are you there? Open the door. Help! Help! Police. Please.’
I don’t know how long I cried out for – maybe an hour maybe more. It was only when I stopped banging on the door and dropped to the floor exhausted that I felt the terrible cold.
This is a short story about a good old fashioned punch up between a milkman and a postman on a Bristol common. While this event is fictional, it may have happened at some point in the past. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?
I was walking across the park the other day when I saw a postman and a milkman boxing on the section of grass normally reserved for cricket.
They were still wearing their uniforms: white jacket and black trousers for the milkman. Blue trousers and red polo shirt for the postman.
A small crowd had even gathered. Passersby drawn from their daily lives to watch this strange spectacle being fought out on a damp municipal park in North Bristol. As though a page had been ripped out of a fairytale and blown on the wind to this part of town. Picked up by the protagonists and played out as best they could without props or a stage.
Whatever it was – improvised theatre or simply an ongoing feud – I was as transfixed as everyone else and it didn’t take long before people started taking sides.
‘Go on postie! Come on milkman!’ came the shouts as more and more people joined the crowd.
Whether the fighters heard any of this or were simply intent on getting the fight over, so perhaps they could go home, they both seemed to raise their game. The blows becoming faster and more direct until moments later the postman caught the milkman on the jaw with a fierce right hook. Sending him down onto the compacted earth of the cricket square with a loud thud.
But he wasn’t down for long and once they had restarted some shifty character in a flat cap and thick grey trousers started taking bets.
Most of the initial money seemed to be going on the postman, but I wasn’t convinced. While the mailman was certainly the younger and fitter of the two and had already floored the milkman once, the dairyman definitely had the weight advantage. And I was sure he needed only one good hit to finish the contest.
By now there must have been over a hundred people round the ring with money changing hands faster than a Vegas showdown. The bookmaker wasn’t stupid either and quickly realised that in order to maximise his takings he needed to prolong the fight for as long as possible.
He quickly ran into the ring to split the fighters up and announced to the excited spectators that there would be a two minute interval. Slightly bewildered, the two fighters went to opposing corners where some people who seemed to have a knowledge of boxing started relaying tactics and splashing water over their faces.
I’d never gambled before in my life, but if ever there was a time to take a punt, it was now. I waved a ten pound note in the air and immediately a small boy forced his way through the crowd towards me. The boy, no more than nine years old and who had clearly been commandeered by the bookie as his skivvy, snatched the tenner out of my hand and asked who I was for: Postie or Milko – their official fight names.
I told him my bet and he quickly scampered back to his master to place it. Someone who’d been a boxing referee at one time or other volunteered his services and the bookmaker, who was now all-round promoter, manager and gangmaster, happily obliged him.
What was certain on that Monday morning was that no-one was going anywhere. This was high entertainment.
The fighters were greeted by a huge roar as they bounded back into the ring looking revitalised and eager to go.
‘Milko!’ screamed the fans of the dairyman against the opposing yells of ‘Postie!’ from the mailman’s followers.
Both fighters were now stripped down to their trousers making the whole scene feel like an old French short story set on the damp plains of the Solonge or the Vendee. Two story-book characters fighting over land, a girl, money, a pig. Who knows? – I was pretty sure no one had bothered to ask them.
Despite their initial enthusiasm the opening encounters to the second round were fairly tame with neither fighter taking any unnecessary risks. This didn’t please the hyped-up crowd and a few boos rang out around the arena. The fighters took their cue and the blows started to rain in much to the delight of the braying mob.
And then Bang! Postie’s guard went down allowing Milko – just as I’d predicted – to slam a perfectly weighted left hook into his opponent’s face. Blood spurting out from a deep cut under his eye as he went down to the floor.
The referee started counting. One – Two – Three, triggering a riotous roar from Postie’s supporters urging him to get up. Four – Five – Six. Postie was hardly moving though. Seven – Eight. The roar became louder and slowly Postie began to get to his feet. Nine! Postie stood on one leg and then after what seemed like an age, finally forced the other one up, until he was standing tall and ready to fight. A giant roar went up from everybody. Nobody wanted this to finish yet.
When the battle recommenced each man was giving it his all. The punches were coming in from all sides as each fighter pushed for the final victory. The noise level increased as the supporters demanded a knockout. Especially as I was pretty sure it wouldn’t be long before the police turned up. Some idiot jobsworth concluding enough fun had been had for one day.
After about another minute of frenetic action, the fighters started to tire. Their work rate dropped and they seemed to be content to lock arms and hug each other, occasionally delivering the odd punch to prove they were still interested.
The crowd egged them on, trying to push one of them on for a final knockout. But they were done. Who knows how long they had been fighting for. They could have been at it for hours, days, years.
So when they finally collapsed to the ground, embraced like two lovers in a tragedy, a huge roar erupted over the park.
And then, just as quickly as they’d arrived, everyone drifted away. Leaving the two fighters, the referee and the bookmaker in the ring.
At first I couldn’t understand why nobody had asked for their money back – it was clearly a draw. It was only when I saw the bookmaker take his roll of money from his pocket and stuff it in between the bloodied bodies of the fighters that I got it.
And then like everyone else I walked away leaving a postman and a milkman lying on the ground, the best of friends. Two men who’d given several hundred people a marvellous morning’s entertainment.
Copyright Philip Ogley 2019
The Mailman Milkman Affair taken from The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd. Available here
When I lived in Bristol I ran a second hand bookshop. This is a short story based on those days. Listen or download the audio version below or read the text. Or both?
I’d never been much of a reader. I found novels daunting, weighty, difficult to finish. Even the good ones with their catchy covers and gushing praise rarely kept me hooked for more than a few chapters. If that.
So when my flatmate at university insisted I read A Farewell to Arms, thrusting a copy of the tattered book into my hand like a grenade, I didn’t expect to start it. Let alone finish it.
A few days later, much to my surprise, I was in the literature department of the college library.
‘Have you got any more books like this?’ I asked the librarian, showing her my book.
‘Hemingway,’ she murmured unenthusiastically picking up a pencil and writing out a list: Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Twain, Kerouac, Thoreau, Updike, Mailer, Bellow, Burroughs, Vonnegut, Bukowski, Wolfe, Faulkner, Miller, McCarthy, Pynchon, Auster.
‘And they’re just the men,’ she said as she gave me the list. ‘When you’ve read those, come back and I’ll give you the really good ones. The women.’
‘Oh yes, I will,’ I replied weakly. Then disappeared off down the dusty aisles to get my books.
The next three or four weeks were spent in my room drinking coffee, smoking and reading. Lectures and labs passed me by. Food was delivered. My favourite TV programs missed. Even the girl I was seeing on the Humanities course took a back seat.
I was obsessed and yet it was only when I went back to the library to pick up my new stash that I realised all the authors were American. Explained by the fact that on my first visit I’d wandered into the American Literature department.
I said ‘Hello’ to the librarian at the desk again.
‘Finished?’ she asked.
‘I’m here for my next assignment.’
She half laughed and wrote me out another list. A longer one. ‘Here. And good luck.’
A month later I decided there seemed little point in continuing my studies. So one Friday evening I packed my bags and told my flatmate I was leaving.
‘I’m going to my brother’s in London,’ I told him. ‘If my parents phone, tell them I’m on holiday.’
When I got to the capital and explained my idea to my brother, he agreed instantly, even insisting he lent me money. Since the age of 17 he’d worked as a fashion photographer and understood the importance of feeding your soul. Listening to your inner voice and ignoring the wishes and advice of other people, your friends, and especially your parents.
After a few months of searching for premises I opened a small oblong bookshop off The Edgware Road. I called it The Great American Bookshop.
I had two rules. The authors had to be American and every copy had to be great! I wanted the old, weird, limited, foreign, promo, signed editions. I wanted stuff you couldn’t buy anywhere else except at The Great American Bookshop. I wanted people to walk in and feel like they were walking back in time. Back into the dark soul of American culture.
And it worked. Business boomed.
I developed a knack for going to the right places at the right time, picking up great books for next to nothing. Charity shops, house clearances, auctions, book fairs, car boot sales. You name it, any place where people were getting rid of books, I was there.
Some days I could feel my hand quivering when I was near a first edition Steinbeck or a signed Updike or a rare promo Kerouac. My ability was uncanny and I soon made a name for myself flogging rare books I’d picked up for pennies. Crap I’d found in bargain bins then flogged off for a huge profit. In the 19th century I’d have probably been hanged as a fraudster. In 2019 I was regarded as a genius.
True I wasn’t cavorting around America in a station wagon with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy. But I wasn’t far off. Authors, actors, musicians, journalists, directors, even politicians, all came into my shop to talk about books, some even invited me out for dinner and drinks. I became known as The Book Guy, almost a minor celebrity, almost as popular as some of the authors in my shop. A remarkable turnaround for someone who was destined for a dull career as a Plant Biologist.
Then one day I put a sign above the door of the shop. It read:
Never Judge a Book by its Cover
My sales doubled and it dawned on me exactly what I was doing in this small shop in North London.
I wasn’t selling books. I was selling memorabilia. Curios. Gifts.
When my customers flicked through my precious first editions like they were browsing store catalogues. They weren’t assessing the writing, or checking out the blurb on the back. They were making sure their rare piece of American culture wasn’t ripped, defaced or had pages missing.
For them the writing was irrelevant. They were just rather annoying lengthy footnotes. Even the author and title weren’t that important. Mere references to distinguish one book from another. Here in The Great American Bookshop it was all about the book – the cover, the design, the edition, the signature. How much was it worth?
When I realised all of this, I could hardly stop laughing. It was hilarious. There I was thinking I was some high brow book seller, some intellectual. When I was actually running a damn gift shop. All that missing were sticks of rock, a wind breaker and a bucket and spade. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was making a packet, I’d have gone back to my studies years ago.
I didn’t. And ten years later my book/gift shop was still going strong, my ability for digging out great books undimmed. I now had a wife and a small child called Ben, but the shop and its philosophy remained the same. No fancy Penguin reprints here. Everything, just as before, had been dragged out of soggy books bins in Carlisle, Comellell, Caithness or Criccieth.
I’d even made trips to New York, Paris, LA, Stockholm, Moscow to meet other sellers and talk about books. Or more invariably talk about books for half an hour before hitting the pub to watch the football and get blind drunk. Even obsessive bookhunters needed a break.
My peers were in awe of me. Drunk or sober no one could match me. I was unique, I had the Midas Touch they said. An ability to find rare books in places where before there was just stacks of Mills & Boon, John Grisham and Dan Brown.
Where this gift came from I had no idea. Certainly not my parents. They were fuddy-duddy science teachers who believed in fact and analysis. And who according to them I only found these books because statistically speaking I was bound to find a good one once in a while.
But despite them things were good. Very good. At 30 I couldn’t have hoped for or planned anything better. Except one thing.
As if my ego wasn’t big enough. I too wanted to write a novel.
I expected my wife to laugh at the prospect. ‘You, write a novel!’ I was braced for. But she was remarkably supportive. Even suggested I took some time out to write.
‘But the books!’ I countered. ‘I’ve got to keep getting the books – it never stops.’
‘We’ve got millions of books in the cellar,’ she argued. ‘Half of them you’ve never seen, all those ones people have dropped off over the years. Why don’t you go to write somewhere and I’ll sort through them. It’ll be fun. Maybe I’ll find some real gems of my own?’
My eyes narrowed. I was unsure, I hated letting go of my books, it had been my life for ten years and I wasn’t sure how I would deal with not being involved.
But in the end she insisted: ‘If you don’t do this now. You’ll never stop going on about it.’
She was right. So I decided to take three months out and leave my wife to run the shop. An actor friend suggested I use his holiday home in Devon to lay down my masterpiece in. No-one would bother me there especially as it was winter. So one bright morning in February I set off on my adventure into the realms of authordom.
From years of working in the shop I felt all my cast of characters were already in place. The hard bit was going to be the story. But what story? I mean what on earth was I going to write about. I loved reading. I loved film. I loved plot and intrigue. I loved life. But I had no real imagination of my own. Not that I thought it mattered I told myself. It was perhaps buried deep down somewhere waiting to be unleashed onto the waiting world.
When my wife came to visit me on my second weekend in Devon, I couldn’t stop talking. Asking her about the shop, what had been sold, who had been in. Even though she would visit me every two weeks to keep me sane and assess my progress, I was already feeling intensely isolated in my hidey-hole in Devon.
She filled me in with the news and gossip but I could tell she was anxious to find out about my progress with the book. And that was the bit I had been dreading. Because for two long weeks, I had done nothing. Except stare out through the window from my desk at the pie-shaped hill on the other side of the valley.
I lied and said I’d been busy making notes. She nodded understandably, but I could tell she knew I’d done bugger all.
The next two weeks were worse. I would get up early with good intentions, have a coffee, sit down at my desk, make another coffee and then look out of the window for another hour trying desperately to come up with something. Anything. A Western, a sci-fi, a crime thriller?
After my third coffee, I would make breakfast. A large breakfast that took time and effort: black pudding, poached eggs, sautéed mushrooms, bacon, sausage, fried bread, heart attack.
This I would eat while I read the paper which I had delivered each morning. Then at around 11.30 I got down to work. Real work. Now I was ready.
Only I didn’t. I ended up staring out of the window wondering how long the pie-shaped hill had been there. Had people once lived there in ancient times? Why was it there in the first place? What was it called? Maybe I should go and visit it. Get some inspiration. Anything to avoid writing this damn novel.
By the third Saturday I decided to give myself the ‘afternoon off’ and went down the pub for lunch. The two mile walk along the coast to the nearest village might jolt my mind into action.
But of course it didn’t. I became a regular and a mixed grill and three or four pints every lunchtime was as far as my novel got. I mean who was I kidding. Was I really going to write a novel. A novel as good as all The Greats I was surrounded by in London. Never in a million years. I hadn’t even written a paragraph. Yet alone a full novel. I was a charlatan. A joke. A dreamer.
On the fourth Saturday I was awoken by knocking at my door. It was my wife and I was a wreck. She asked me what was happening and I told her.
‘Look,’ I started. ‘Just because I like A Moveable Feast. Love Under The Volcano. Adore This Side of Paradise. Fawn over Cannery Row. It doesn’t mean I can write. Or even want to write. I’m a bookseller and I love it. I’m the best there is. No one has the ability I have and the thought of sitting here month after month on my own writing a book when I could be out looking for books using my God given gift is the worst thing I can imagine. My version of hell.’
As we drove back to London that night she asked me if I had actually written anything.
I said I had, ‘Four words.’
‘Four words,’ she laughed. ‘Is that all?’
‘Yes. Four weeks. Four words.’
‘What were they?’
I grinned. ‘Guess?’
‘The Great American Bookshop, perhaps?’ she ventured.
I was gutted. ‘How did you know that?’ I asked. ‘Did you see my monitor or something?’
She sighed and shrugged as best someone can while driving.
‘Because I know you. You were the dopey teenager who came into my library that morning asking for a list of books by American writers you’ve never even heard of. Who then reads them, gives up his course and comes to London to open an American bookshop and who within six months knows more about American literature than people who’ve studied it for decades. Then this man, no longer a clueless boy, rings me up on a whim asking for a date, saying he’s got some great books for me to read. You’re like Casanova or someone and I’m bowled over and make a three hour train trip for a drink with someone I’ve met twice in my life in a library. And now you are asking me how I know what you are going to call your novel? Probably the first thing that comes into your head. The place you’ve been living in for the past ten years. The Great American Bookshop.’
‘Wow!’ I swooned. ‘Am I that predictable?’
‘In a word. Yes.’
‘OK smartass,’ I replied. ‘What would have happened if on that morning I had taken a turn to the right and walked into the French Literature section instead of the American one. Then what would have happened?’
She seemed to scoff at the suggestion. ‘Well nothing. Most likely you would have ended up reading Balzac instead of Burroughs. Married someone called Florence. Ben would have been called Bernard, Beaufort or Benedict. The Great American Bookshop would have never existed because The Great French Bookshop would have sounded ridiculous. And I would have probably married some boring academic called Carl. That’s what would have happened.’
I shook my head in disbelief. ‘Now that’s a story. Why couldn’t I have thought of that?’
She patted my leg gently. ‘Because I’m the writer and you’re the bookseller. Maybe we should keep it like that.’
She winked at me before looking back out of the window into the streaming lights of London.
How far would you go to give back something that wasn’t yours?
It’s midday. So it’s a surprise to find myself in the pub when I’m normally at work. As the landlord pours my pint I tell him I just didn’t feel like it when I woke up. So after watching TV for a few hours, I came here.
More business for him he replies as he hands me my drink. But I can tell by the way he sloshes beer everywhere that he doesn’t really give a shit. Why should he? I’m just another shadow drifting in like all the other old-timers who sit at the bar like brooms until closing time.
After paying for my drink I go through to the lounge area to be on my own. It’s a small, square room with four tables surrounded by cheaply upholstered, leatherette benches with a few stools in the middle to fill the spaces.
I’m about to flick open my paper to read about the local crime wave when I see it. On the bench opposite me is a watch.
I stand up, walk over to the other side of the room, pick it up and return to my seat. I’ve never worn a watch in my life and realise why people do, especially one as elegant as this. The dial is big and bold and says look at me. It says quarter-past-twelve and you should be at work. I laugh.
I turn it over and see engraved on the back in smooth, swirly writing, neither too big nor too small, the name Larry Fabulous.
I look around the lounge area with its exhausted décor and faded maritime paintings screwed onto the wall. I think of all the names that must have sat in this room over the years, drinking, farting, snogging, smoking, singing. How many Joneses, Smiths, Evanses, Turners have joked, laughed, shouted and sworn between these walls. How many Davids, Edwards, Johns, Nancys, Sarahs and Louises have talked, gossiped, chatted and nattered sitting at these tables.
I look at a painting of a sailing ship moored in the docks and have a swig of my beer. Why would somebody with a name like Fabulous come into a low-life drinking pit such as this. Why would this seemingly sophisticated man lose something so dear to him without coming back to reclaim it?
As I stare at the paintings on the walls, I can only conclude that the watch in my hand is stolen – the offender leaving it behind, either too drunk to notice, or too guilty to care.
So the dilemma.
The landlord of the pub isn’t the honest chap everybody takes him for. The regulars think he’s a genuine guy, a real character who would step over hot coals to make you happy. The generous landlord who would give away his beer if he didn’t need to make a living. But I know him. I know about the missing charity boxes, the cheap imported beer, the diluted spirits. Why should I let him take it down to the pawnbroker the minute I hand it in, when I could do it myself?
Because it isn’t mine. It’s Larry’s. I could take the watch and wear it forever but it still wouldn’t be mine. I could score off the name but the outcome would be the same. It doesn’t matter if this Fabulous character is a murderer, an aid worker, a sinner or a saint. The simple fact remains, the watch isn’t mine.
So the plan.
I decide I’ll find him myself. I’ll be the one who gives it him back and then I’ll be able to judge him for who he is. Until then, he’s just a man who has lost his watch. Nothing more nothing less. If he chooses to give me a reward, a simple thank-you, or even a punch in the face, that’s his business not mine.
I leave the pub and go to work where I hand in my notice. They are shocked and ask me why and what I’m going to do. I say that I’m going away and they shouldn’t worry about me. After a few handshakes from the guys and hugs from the girls, I head home and dig out a map of the town where I live.
I’m going to knock on every door on every street and ask if Larry Fabulous lives there. If he doesn’t, then I continue to the next, and the next, for as long as it takes. Eventually, I would find him. It would become my purpose in life to find Larry Fabulous.
The next morning I get up early and start my search.
I’m sitting in the pub where it all began and have just bought a pint of beer with the last of my money. It’s two years since I started my quest and I’m no nearer to completing it.
After failing to find him in my own town, I decided to look in the next, until I had knocked on every door of the small island nation where I live. I’ve knocked on over half-a-million doors and asked the same question to everyone. But no-one has ever heard of Larry Fabulous. No-one.
I’ve sold my furniture, my car, my possessions and my house. And for what? Did I ever really think I would find him? Probably not. But over the past two years I’ve seen every inch of the country I was born in, met the wildest of people and had the craziest of times. That I’ve failed in my quest is not my fault, or indeed important anymore.
I finish my drink and head down the road to the jewellers. I hand the watch to the proprietor and ask him how much he’ll give me for it. He takes it and starts inspecting it with his pencil-like fingers. When he notices the name on the back he looks at me with an expression as blank as the dusty cabinets behind him.
If I had come in here two years ago, I would have felt like a common thief. But now it’s different. If Larry Fabulous was out there, I would have found him. But he isn’t, I can prove it. Half-a-million households, an entire nation can prove it.
His eyes begin searching for signs of weakness, desperation and poverty. He wants to know before he makes his first offer, what condition my clothes are in, whether I’ve been drinking, have I eaten, have I got a place to sleep. I can see by the way his eyes quickly dance over me that he’s done this a million times before. A seasoned professional who knows what price to start at and where to finish.
But I already know what I want and won’t settle for anything less. I know exactly how much it’s worth because it’s been valued more times than any other watch in history. Every person in every house, business, bar, café I visited on my travels offered me an opinion on how much it was worth. By the end of my travels I had valuations ranging from a few coppers to entire fortunes and everything in between. So when the proprietor finally gives me his offer, I laugh, shake my head and tell him my price.
I can see he’s a bit taken aback by my cocksure demand. I can tell by the way his mouth has started twitching up at the sides.
But it doesn’t matter how long the man turns the watch over in his palm with his expert fingers, twitches his mouth, or shuffles his feet, I know I’ll get my price. It’s a rare feeling to know nothing could possibly go wrong, to feel so patient and at ease. To feel so in control.
He twitches one more time, grunts and presses a button on his cash register releasing the money drawer below. I know he doesn’t need to do this but I guess it’s all part of his routine when it comes to closing a deal.
He looks into the drawer, turns the watch over in his hand once more, looks at me squarely and offers me the price I want. The deal is done. The quest is over.
He hands me the money and within a minute, I’m walking down the road to the station with a smile on my face no-one has ever seen before. I’m not sure where I’m going or why. All I know is that I’m glad that I’ve changed my life, glad to be someone different. Glad to be Larry Fabulous.