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Portrait of an Author
Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?
Sample PassageJoan Byker, 78, treated the composition of prose like one of the coprophiliac arts that used clay or tubes of pigment. Her green wirebound books were synaesthetic, being defaced or decorated with crossings-out and words in loops or margins wired into the text. The final logic was anything left standing. Her style was analytical but anal; of the mud-pie school of literature. She had had a novel published in the days of her youth when all a writer needed was cigarettes and seriousness, and publishers sat behind the desk behind the door that had their name on it. If one put in the talent and the work, the house was accessible.
Each morning when woken by birdsong she girded herself with the rallying cry ‘Shit out; teeth in’, showing a preoccupation with hygiene; also to start the day before the possibility of dismay set in.
In appearance she was jolly, weather-reddened, academic, raw-boned. On the occasions of a visit by the new landlord she wore a tweed skirt, baggy black jumper, and school socks and sandals. She received him with her legs braced apart, like a fielder.
‘Ms Byker? Harry Brightling. Angel have you any coffee? I’ve been up all night and on to a market in Kent. I bought some books. I see you’re a reader.’
In the sexually aroused, businesslike manner of burglars and dealers, he assessed the furniture and other contents. The room seemed to belong to a clever but underdeveloped student: physical or emotional naivety looked out of her eyes. The many books included hikers’ guides of the Walks around Surrey sort and also leaflets for a wetland centre or Norman church. By their condition, the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, the Penguin Dictionary of Physics and the Keble Martin Concise British Flora seemed much consulted. Green wirebound exercise books were piled on a chair. A cooker, a sink and a fridge shaking with ague were in neglected collage. There was also a plastic bucket.
On an amateur nature table, she had collected rocks like lower jaws with quartz teeth. Other rocks contained the fossilised imprints of molluscs and ferns. Twigs of fossilised wood were in the process of spontaneously combusting into ash and pyritic phosphate fumes more acrid than woodsmoke.
She said, ‘Don’t touch that or you’ll smell of it all day. Millions of years old incendiary stink. If I’d known that the wood was unstable I’d have left it on the beach where I found it.’
Brightling treated wherever he was as a club of which he was a member. He took it as his right to hold a magnifying glass to a painting. His hands were not clean; compromised but graceful.
Joan was gratified by his interest in her belongings. She also liked his dissolute, sour-apple taint of whisky and the dark oily base of bergamot from which the higher notes had worn off; and the narrow black shoes whose high tight lacing puckered the supple leather. Footwear so gentlemanly could not fit a cloven hoof.
She heated water in a saucepan.
He said, ‘Sorry to arrive so actually shattered. I’ve a habit of gambling clubs or walking at night.’ The coffee which she gave him dissolved the gritty crystals of fatigue which itched and flashed behind his eyeballs. ‘I cut down on sleep.’
She enthused, ‘Like Johnson and Savage. Of course they could walk and talk across 18th-century London in two hours. Now the city roars with the voice of dinosaurs, megalosaurian buildings rear up, herds of hypsilophodonts flee through the streets; archaeopteryx soars overhead. Did you say you were a gambler?’
‘Yes. But I gave up the club. The story is discreditable; I should not tell you.’
‘Very well.’ He prepared to entertain. In extremis he could perform a soft shoe shuffle. He leaned forward. ‘I was besotted by a red-haired croupier. One night I turned up at her place with a bottle. Actually it was half a bottle.’
‘Half a bottle?’
‘I was better looking then and could get away with it. In the morning it turned out we were not alone. She had a child, a two-year-old princess in a pink nightie.’
Joan Byker angled Talmudic reasoning at this story. ‘Who looked after the child when the mother was at the club?’
‘The grandmother would stay the night. Anyway, during cornflakes, the phone rang. It was another mother asking about a playgroup. Joan, in that moment I saw that her plans for me were tame man in her single mothers’ group. I never went back, to the club or to the flat.’
‘You missed the club?’
‘Of course. But antiques dealing is a gamble. I should have brought the books I mentioned to show you. One of them is signed by the author.’
‘Which makes it more valuable according to the magic belief that virtue exists and is transferable from person to object.’
‘We think alike. The antiques trade turns on transferable virtue; from person to object as you said, and also of course from historical decades and centuries to the present. Virtue separates an 18th-century table or an art deco pot from their reproductions or fakes. It’s romantic theory expressed in terms of money, don’t you think?’ He tempted, ‘Now tell me something about yourself.’
‘Well, when I was at school I usually got the answers right because the questions were logical. Parsing a sentence or solving an equation are exercises in logic: one concentrates and works them out. Also the noun “student” has no gender. I was OK as a subject, but it turned out I was no good as an object.’
‘No good at what, Joan? I may call you Joan?’
‘Men; and fucking. Yes, you may. I was useless at all that. A complete dud. Now I’m old I’m free to do my own thing again.’ She gazed inspirationally upwards as if her palm balanced a leather netball and the girls in shorts shouted, ‘Shoot, shoot’, and finally, ‘Goal!’ She herself shouted, ‘Freedom!’
In metaphor or legend she had regained the power of virginity.
He said, ‘I must introduce my girlfriend to you. She’d be more helpful.’
‘Not the same one?’
‘This one is childless?’
‘Definitely. She has a career. What’s that bucket for?’
‘Bucket? Oh, the bucket. The ceiling leaks.’
He said, ‘I’ll have a look. How do I get onto the roof?’
There was a gulley, a shallow metal trough carpeted with tarred canvas. Leaves and other matter had degraded into a dam of sludge, causing brackish liquid to seep through. He called down for bin bag and broom. Waiting, he noticed that fatigue produced numbness, as if he had been nursed or persuaded into a padded jacket. He willed himself awake by concentrating on the sky which shone as far as he could see from Shepherds Bush to Paddington. Joan’s mention of the poets brought to his mind the succeeding generations of provincials arrived in the city. The exceptional ones had instantly recognised the café, jazz club, bar or hole in the wall that was the scene, the hangout, the place to be which took them seriously. Somewhere below the streets were splintered by the sound of a pick on masonry. His tenant would confuse romantic with sentimental at her peril. Harry Brightling was, definably, only romantic.
When he had gone, Joan felt nourished by the flattery implicit in the intimacy which had been established between them. They had exchanged unusual confidences. He had a pleasing manner of referral: ‘Do you think?’ or ‘Don’t you think?’ Conversely she reserved the right to suspect his charm; to think him an operator.
She observed the bees which were hunched like bison on the clover and knapweed in the windowbox. The windowbox contained wild flowers and tall grass, like a strip of the idyllic hay meadow of a 1930s, precisely positioned middle-class childhood. She was ecstatic at the colour violet which streamed, narrow as a laser beam, from meadow clary; and much interested in the jade escutcheon and transparent feelers of an insect that climbed a grass stem.
She brushed down her arm in the action of the man whose saintly sullied hand had brushed roof dirt from his sleeve. She had flinched when he had mentioned a girlfriend but she concluded that of course he had a woman. Sexually and emotionally she had regressed to the adolescence of a crush on a film star. She had a crush on, or pash for, Harry Brightling.
On leaving Joan in Vernon Crescent, Brightling strolled the short distance down Portobello Road to an arcade. His mouth contained a taste that was like the air on a tube platform: stale, invigorating, insomniac.
Behind a scarlet and gold façade, the arcade opened, trumpeted out, into kiosks and stalls. An impeccably suited African dealt in silver-plated teapots. Two women offered used frocks and handbags under a handwritten sign VINTAGE. A Turkish middle-aged man sold T-shirts with slogans such as I SOLD MY SOUL FOR ROCK AND ROLL. The jewellery kiosk and the counter of London photographs were closed.
He entered rhetorically demanding, ‘Where’s my costume, where’s my music, where did I leave my mask of an honest man?’
Buying delivered an adrenalin rush. Selling, unless to an interesting customer, bored him. For this reason his collection, which mixed books with mocking or grotesque objects including a witch doctor’s shabby wand, and a group of nomili, stunted humanoids in stone from Sierra Leone, was looked after by a Polish woman whose two well-behaved children could do their homework at the back of the arcade. The employment of Krystina was a charitable action or cynical gambit. Brightling was ambiguous; Krystina was loyal and grateful.
The accepted greeting among traders was a variant on, ‘Any good?’ such as, ‘How you done? Any good?’ The question was vulgar but the reply required delicacy. There was finessing; a swimming motion of the hand. It was tactful to line up with the others; to take similar totals; to incur neither envy nor pity. Only Brightling unblinkingly boasted. His effrontery either was or was not deception.
‘Krystina have we any money? Excellent; I knew that German would come back for the fairground Punch.’
The seller of T-shirts said, ‘Health and Safety wants to close this arcade.’
‘Selfish bastards with no thought for the unhealthy and unsafe.’ Brightling enjoyed the camaraderie; the feeling that others, to whom he was almost entirely indifferent, were good sorts.
A 1960s, low-slung Jaguar E-type slouched along the kerb. The back seat was covered by a blanket used to wrap pictures. The woman driver, mid-thirties, appeared pleasant, natural, fair-minded and brave. Cleanliness from forehead to fingernails was due to either soap and water or costly products. Her short springy hair was the colour of electric wheat. She wore a silk camisole, and jeans splashed with decorators’ emulsion.
Maud Percival moved law books from the passenger seat for Brightling to get into the car. When it had gone its lion cough hung in the air.
© Laura Del-Rivo - the full story has been published in Laura's latest short story collection Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.
Number of pages: 90
Find out more about the author
What was said about Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?‘Her wicked turn of phrase and acid observations of people and place shows a writer at the peak of her power.’ – Richard Wood in Bukowski
‘Del-Rivo is masterful in her word splicing, compounded image style. Her plots are on the surface simple, but that is only to fuel the more complex emotional cores running throughout.’ – Amber Kelly Anderson on Necessary Fiction
‘The stories are packed with distinctive phrasing - Del-Rivo rarely writes a commonplace sentence - and focus on marginal figures in an inter-zone between a realistic London of market traders and greasy spoon cafes, mainly in W11, and a heightened metropolis of the mind seen through crazed but intense vision.’
‘Mask is a volume of considerable intrinsic value and a rich extension of Del-Rivo's oeuvre. In the course of time, it should prove of increasing interest to readers and critics.’ – Nicolas Tredell in The Literary Encyclopedia
‘She allows the characters to narrate for themselves, using words with precision and deftness which is combined with an ear for contemporary dialogue.’ – Emma Lee on her blog
‘A series of poetic short stories with diverse characters woven among the tapestry of life’s experiences. Prose, poetic and captivating scenery makes this read unique and different.’ – book feature on Laura's List
‘I loved the way she could pack so much in such a short amount of story - perfect for dipping in and out of.’ – Nadia Anguiano on A Bookish Way of Life
‘The humour is wry and plentiful, and the writing is full of great little observations. It's on my re-read list already.’ – Highly recommended. Alan Beard on goodreads