Friday, 8 November 2013

The Kindness of Strangers by Alberto Fernández Carbajal

71/365 - My ink pen

I pity any writer who publishes a book before they’re thirty. They don’t have what it takes, that rounded experience of life that makes their writing jump off the page. You must have had your heart broken at least twice, known death in the family, lost a best friend. Before that you are just a child who’s learning his first language and performing for his folks. Writers in their twenties don’t write about life: they write about books. They are ventriloquists. They are stylistic whores. They are almost saying: ‘Look what wonderful book I’ve just read; look how profoundly it’s influenced me’. They might as well be copying out the Yellow Pages― To anyone acquainted with his cadences, this would seem just one of his regular tirades. Norbert Griffin is the most underrated unpublished writer North of Sheffield. He has been writing novels since his early twenties – two per decade. They have all made the rounds of the British publishing industry and have even ventured into the American market, equally without success. They are around four hundred pages long, single spaced. Norbert Griffin can recognise the typesetting of each of his manuscripts: the typewriter he bought with his first pay cheque; the one he bought with his first social benefit cheque; the one he managed to purchase from the window of a vintage clothing shop after flirting with the shop assistant; his first electronic typewriter, a present from his son; his first word-processed one, churned out of a hand-me-down computer and printer charitably donated by his nephew. Each novel is different from the previous one: a radical change in style, aiming to revolutionise the British literary scene – each of them rejected by all mainstream publishers. Norbert Griffin refuses to self-publish; refuses to go with vanity presses; refuses to admit that, well into his seventies now, it is far likelier he’ll never see his name in print, lest in the local newspaper and in the form of an insipid death notice.
But he is a child of the 1930s, and if he knows anything it’s that he’s not to be easily crushed: he remembers Hitler, Churchill, the Blitz, The Beatles, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, the Gulf War, the Iraq War. In his jigsaw of a brain, all these faces blend together in a fascinating history that has nothing to do with his ordinary life, and from which he tries to escape on a daily basis, plunging deeper into the shadows of his back-to-back grey stone house in a valley of the South Pennines. He knows life too well, but it’s not the life of the important people: it’s the life of the little people braving toil and weather in Northern inclemency. Norbert Griffin has a grandiloquent turn of phrase, mentally and verbally; he likes colons and semi-colons, he detests comma splices.
His day begins with a strong coffee and a rolled-up cigarette, and, if he’s feeling particularly romantic, with a thimble of brandy. The first page must come before breakfast, while his eyes are still shaking off sleep, that precious state of mind when one is his best self, his most honest self. If it rains, he sits in the far corner of his library, as far away from the window as possible. (The sound of rain tends to pepper his prose with musical allusions and pathetic fallacies that he then has to cross out painstakingly.) The roar of the old computer’s fan is appealing to him, a reminder of the life of mine and mill, replicating the incessant noise of life. If it’s fine, he indulges in writing by hand; fetches his drawing pad of thick, grainy paper, and sits under his skylight, making undulating motions with his pen, writing as he used to do in his letters sent to his mother from boarding school. He often saves the softest moments in his prose for such pleasurable sojourns.
The most dreaded moment of the day takes place around lunchtime; that’s when the postman comes. He’ll pretend not to listen, but he always does: he angles his ear towards the front door, waiting for a slow swish or a quick thud, the slow swish being a circular or a threat from the electricity company; the quick thud a rejected manuscript – he can always picture this – with four ruthless stamps sniggering at him. He mastered the art of interpreting rejection letters long ago: he can easily cut through empty kindnesses and glaring euphemisms. (We are afraid your novel does not fit in with our editorial line my arse. I’ve been reading your paltry volumes for years and some of your authors cannot even write a subordinate clause.) He piles rejection letters next to the toilet in eager anticipation of a bowel movement. His returned manuscripts are arranged in a line leading from his bedroom door to his bedside cabinet, where the Writer’s Handbook enjoys undisturbed sleep. What a measly, what a rubbishy, what a bloody awful way of life. Where’s the tin opener?
Norbert Griffin has never been fond of plot twists; to him, they separate high from low art; they give away the easy manufacturing process of the popular writer. Little does he know that today his life is about to take a drastic turn.
It is time for his fortnightly wash – always on a Monday, always after lunch – and, in a rather agile manner, he hops into his grimy bathtub, the steam from the shower head congregating this side of a mouldy floral shower curtain. The water streams thinly on top of his well-populated white head. He hums some Kurt Weill mixed with some Gershwin mixed with some Frederick Loewe, and as his right foot skips on a bubble of carbolic soap, his body slips and his heart takes flight…

The next thing he sees is the beige tinge of the hospital walls and the blurred image of a man eating toast on the opposite bed. Greedy bastard. He turns his stiff neck painfully and discovers a familiar face staring at him.
Bloody hell, Uncle Norbert. (It’s his nephew, Peter, looking as clean-shaven and cruelly limpid as usual.) How dare you? And on the week before Christmas.
How long have I been out of it?
Out of it? When have you been in it? You fell in the bathtub two days ago. Thankfully, your neighbour had her hearing aid on and was in her own toilet doing her business. She called for an ambulance straight away. You could be dead.
Where am I now?
Calderdale Royal.
Oh, shit.
Well – indeed. You want to know the news now or would you rather wait for the nicey-nicey doctor?
As he shields his eyes against the glaring light overhead, Norbert Griffin ogles at the idea of his life turning into the stuff of penny dreadfuls. He asks cruel Peter to tell him there and then. Spinal damage. Wheel chair. Home care once a day, possibly. Or an old people’s home. Possibly. Up to him. He can’t move in with them; Ellen far too concerned about the kids. He not gone enough in the head, apparently, to be incapacitated and leave the decision to someone else. (How they managed to assess that when he was unconscious is a mystery to him.) Home it is then. Visit from nurse once a day. How long the visit? Depends. Lots of debate in the media. Some people say fifteen minutes in some parts of the country; everyone demands at least half an hour. Half an hour! He’d rather not see anyone. But home is home. It is dust and paper; his dust and his paper, his books, and his old pipe he’ll never be able to fetch for himself now. What about access to his home library? He’ll have to live mainly in his bedroom. Oh joy! A life of luxury and dissipation.
Peter hands him a Christmas card in a perfunctory manner and departs with some vague words of encouragement and apology. Does his son Edward know? He’s all the way in Canada. (Ontario, leafy and covered in pine trees is how he’s always pictured it.) But Peter’s gone, his footsteps echoing down the corridor, his thoughts rushing back to a life without Uncle Norbert, the grumpy git who never remembers birthdays and never gives Christmas presents.
The man in the opposite bed offers him some toast.
Is it butter or margarine?

Do you picture things in your mind first? She has come in unannounced with a soft click of the lock, has skipped up the carpeted staircase, and is now staring at him in his bedroom. He is silent. She’s a new nurse, but not new as a nurse, has a way with a patient. Is that how you do it? You are a writer, aren’t you? She touches one of his manuscripts lined against the wall with the tip of her white nurse clogs. Yes, he supposes he is. Always has been. She has always dreamed of becoming a writer but never dared show her stuff to anyone. Too afraid of criticism.
She starts doing things with her hands; they seem to have a mind of their own. Her tongue rattles on about her ambitions and the marginalia of life, while she glides to and fro, props him up, helps him relieve himself. She has beautiful blue eyes, the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen. For once in his life, he’s at a loss for words.
You’re not very chatty for a writer, are you? Well, we’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other. I’m Nurse Julie.
All of this while she undresses him for his bath, which looks sparkling clean for the first time in almost a decade. Her soft hands touch him here and there with respectful, sensitive motions. He falls in love with her almost immediately. Get over it, old crank, she’s only doing her job. So she is, but doesn’t she do it beautifully? His mouth and eyes pucker up in the coy self-consciousness of a fifteen-year-old, and Norbert Griffin suddenly feels like a long-forgotten younger self, despite useless legs, despite wheelchair in the corner, despite – perhaps even because of – his candid nakedness. And all the time those eyes, flicking from limb to limb to face. Look into mine now, darn it, do it. He remains as silent as the moment she stepped into his bedroom. He has managed to utter six to ten words overall. He is clean, and he tingles, and he dingles.

After that, Nurse Julie doesn’t appear again for a week, her place being taken by perfunctory bores who grunt or talk aimlessly about celebrities or about their sisters-in-law or about the price of gas. He is suffering from withdrawal symptoms, but not because of his discarded pipe somewhere in the top-floor library he’ll probably never see again. He is craving a particular pair of eyes, a soothing voice. All he has now is a pen, and his telephone with a long, winding cable that has been kindly brought up to him all the way up the staircase from the ground floor socket. He is plugged and ready to go. But he makes no phone calls; he holds on to the pen. He starts writing on the back of one of his novels. Which was it? The Kindness of Strangers. Finished in 1965. Well, doesn’t he know such comforts now – he never knew them before, made his contrived characters posture in an affected Blanche Dubois style, powdered his nose with Tennessee Williams’ figurative knob. He scribbles. Nurses come and go; he goes on scribbling.

Sorry, love, I’ve been on holiday. Majorca. I should have said. Oh, it was just like heaven. The nice part, without all the tourists. That’s where I stayed with me friend. The volcano looks like somewhere out of this planet. It was just beautiful. And now back here with the wind and the cold, but I can live the rest of the year with such images in me mind to keep me warm. She’s not married then; she looks beautiful. She has a slight tan. A few freckles, too, but those make her look like a child out of a picture book. Out of his bed covers comes something: an envelope.
I’ve been thinking of you, ventures Norbert Griffin.
She looks at him and smiles automatically but genuinely, her blue eyes suddenly darting to the envelope being lifted towards her. It isn’t money, she knows that; nor a love letter, although he does moon at her, poor sod.
It’s for my neighbour, two doors down on the left.
The University professor?
(How well she knows the area already.)
Yes. Well – lecturer, at any rate.
You want me to give it to him?
Yes, please. If you don’t mind.
Mind? ‘Course not. I’ll pop it in after this. I have another job a few streets down. Mrs George. Oh, Mrs George, she’s in a bad way, poor dear. Her dog had to be put down and she’s inconsolable, but I think it’s better for the poor creature, always cooped up in that stinky house of hers. Hope you don’t mind me saying. There’s nothing one can do to that house. One of me colleagues thinks there must be fish bones stuck behind the radiators.
He lets her silly nonsense rub on him like a sweet balm. He could listen to her for hours, except he only has her to himself for half an hour. Half an hour with Nurse Julie. A real treat – never mind Majorca.

I hope this won’t come as much of a shock. The man with the glasses looks at the young nurse nervously and with rehearsed seriousness. She has known him for quite a while now, this Nurse Julie; he knows she cares about his old neighbour.
Is he dead?
Her eyes plead; she normally wouldn’t allow herself to become emotionally involved with her patients, but this one has a tenderness about him that she finds hard to resist; he’s like an old infant, craving some maternal company.
No, he’s not dead. But he’s got several visitors up in his room and he can’t see anybody else for a few minutes.
Visitors? He never gets visitors. His son lives in Australia.
Canada (he corrects her; of course, he’s the bloody professor from two doors down. She knows now).
Beg your pardon. In Canada. And his nephew is a right old tosser; lives in Surrey with his witch of a wife and their two little monsters.
(Crikey! The girl does take sides quite considerably.)
Not family visitors. I’m afraid he’s being interviewed for a couple of magazines.
Magazines! Like Hello and Closer?
(A slight snort from him.)
Not quite. Literary magazines. He’s just been awarded the Costa Award.
Costa. As in the coffee shops?
Yes.
For a novel?
No. For a collection of poetry.
Poetry, eh? I never knew he wrote poetry.
He doesn’t normally. This is his first real go at it. It is a sequence of seven poems, covering the seven days of the week. They’re quite clever, really. The judges say he’s one of the most original voices to come out of the North of England for years.
Blimey! What’s the book called?
That would be telling, the professor thinks. And indeed he won’t dare tell her. It would embarrass her, and he’s only just met her.
Come on, what is it?
He tells her. Nurse Julie doesn’t just blush; she goes up in flames. She looks towards the door fondly and her blue eyes cut through the walls to that stupid soft fella propped up in his bed, pen in one hand, phone in the other.

A poetry prize, marvels Norbert Griffin inside his bedroom crammed with inquisitive journalists. He starts laughing, making the walls vibrate with his booming bass. He laughs and laughs, while the journalists cast bewildered side glances at each other.
How does it feel to win this award at your age? hazards the youngest, a shaky freckled thing. Norbert Griffin stops laughing and looks at him in mock solemnity, his eyes full of mirth.
You ask me how it feels? Well, I feel well and truly buggered. 



About the Author: Alberto Fernández Carbajal was born in the Northern Spanish city of Oviedo, in the Principality of Asturias. He moved to Yorkshire ten years ago and he currently lives in Hebden Bridge with his partner and their two cats while teaching English Literature at the University of Leicester. His scholarly monograph on E. M. Forster and postcolonial writing will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014. His once creative writing tutor Peter Sansom compared his stories to those of Alice Munro, which means Alberto will be in the long run for the Nobel Prize for Literature sometime in the next sixty years… 

Image: (c) Olga Filonenko