Loving Monstersby James Hamilton-Paterson
First published in 2001, Loving Monsters begins with a British writer, now living in Italy, being propositioned to write the biography of a strange near-neighbour, a man named Jebb whose life has taken in 1920s London, wartime Egypt and modern Tuscany. 'I suppose the book is a reflection on the nature of biography', James Hamilton-Paterson has written, 'but/i>… See more details below
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First published in 2001, Loving Monsters begins with a British writer, now living in Italy, being propositioned to write the biography of a strange near-neighbour, a man named Jebb whose life has taken in 1920s London, wartime Egypt and modern Tuscany. 'I suppose the book is a reflection on the nature of biography', James Hamilton-Paterson has written, 'but it is also about how love can appear to make a life monstrous while explaining and even redeeming it.'
'Thoughtful, provocative and extremely well written.' Sunday Times
'Fresh with the imaginative vigour and moral urgency that make Hamilton-Paterson an important writer.' Spectator
'New readers will stumble across [Hamilton-Paterson] in a bookshop and go on turning the pages with the same sense of joyful bewilderment: 'How does he do that? How can something be this good?' Bella Bathurst, Sunday Herald
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The figure in the hospital cot was shrunken and yellowed but still recognisably Jayjay. Being slightly deaf he perhaps had not heard me come into the room. He lay staring up at the ceiling, not blankly but slightly frowning at it as though trying to puzzle out a way in which it might be turned to his advantage. It was this typical expression which made him so readily identifiable even though he was not speaking, not moving, and had acquired in the last weeks something of the look of a dinosaur chick. A brilliant bar of Tuscan sunlight fell through the window beside the bed and across his wrist, which bore a white plastic tag. Swallows were jinking across the endless blue of the sky outside while below them Arezzo's traffic followed not dissimilar paths, weaving and whizzing and sending faint contentious sounds into the room. At length the jaundiced eyes swivelled towards me.
`Come to witness my demise, have you?'
`Actually, I was hoping to avoid that bit,' I said. `I always think these things are handled so much better by professionals.'
`True. If I were an ancient Egyptian I should already have hired people to wail dementedly in the corridor. I have reduced Dr Farulli to a state of abject honesty. He told me this morning there was little hope.'
`Did you want any?'
`Not really. I asked him what sort of hope was on offer to a man of eighty in my condition. My eighty-first birthday, for instance? He threatened me with nuns. That's their ultimate weapon, you know, for not making the right kind of death. The cry goesup: "Send in the nuns!" and softly in the distance, but growing ever louder, the tramp of stout boots can be heard approaching your room. What have you brought me that's nice?'
`This,' I said, sitting on the edge of the bed, opening my briefcase and handing him a 20 x 30 colour print. He examined it with eyes that still needed no spectacles.
`Cheap,' he said at length.
`It's what you said you were prepared to pay, Jayjay. Not that you have paid.'
`I had naturally assumed, James as any normal person might in the circumstances that you would have felt obliged to match my sum in a discreet sort of way. However, you are not normal and chose to be literal. Well, no doubt it'll do. How much was it?'
`Three hundred and forty thousand lire.'
`God almighty. I should have thought it could be cast in bronze for half that. This is your rock-bottom basic headstone. What is it, cement?'
`He said it was marble from Michelangelo's own quarry at Carrara.'
`Travertine, I expect. I should be thankful it isn't plaster of Paris. Still, don't think I'm ungrateful.'
`What would you prefer, Jayjay? A headstone in Eltham? One of those mottled pinkish things that look like slabs of compressed meat? And you lying beneath half a hundredweight of green glass chips within earshot of Rochester Way? Here, at least you will be reposing rather exclusively beneath the walls of Sir John Hawkwood's castle in Montecchio, clearly marked by this elegant tablet so that generations of pilgrims will have no difficulty finding you.'
`Of course, the pilgrims,' Jayjay croaked delightedly. `I can see them now. Earnest young students lost for a contemplative hour in the ivy-bowered hush of the camposanto, drawing from my lively shades the inspiration to finish their theses ' He squinted more closely at the photograph. `They've left out the bloody hyphen.'
`No, they haven't. You don't have one. I know you think I've skimped on time and trouble, not to mention cash. In fact I made the effort to ask the consulate in Florence and they checked with London Somerset House or whatever privatised registry it has become. You are Raymond Jerningham Jebb, not Jerningham-Jebb, and it was pretty decent of me to suppress the Ray, all things considered.'
But Jayjay had let his attention wander. There were voices in the corridor outside and a mild crash as if someone had banged a doorway with a metal trolley full of surgical instruments. A door closed. At length he picked up the photograph again.
`Discreet of you to have left the year of my death blank,' he observed. `It shows uncommon delicacy. You didn't even risk putting "19" as they sometimes do, confident that there's no hope the person is going to make it to the twenty-first century. There isn't, of course, a cat in hell's chance that I shall ever see 1999 as you, I and Dr Farulli know perfectly well.'
`There are such things as miracle remissions,' I began cautiously, but he only made a contemptuous sound. `Anyway, the marmista says he will fill the date in as and when, at no extra cost. That, of course, is the moment when I shall have him add a choice inscription. It looks awfully bare at present. I'm toying with Musicae sono murmurant colles. I always think a nice bit of Latin adds tone.'
He might have been eighty but there was nothing wrong with Jayjay's brain. He fixed me with a stem eye in which the arcus senilis was scarcely yet visible. `If you put "The hills are alive with the sound of music" on my tombstone I warn you I shall return to haunt you. One way or another, James, I shall contrive revenge.'
He fell silent again, frowning upwards as if pondering retribution, but when he next spoke his voice was more surprised than anything.
`I've been noticing something funny,' he said. `You see those cracks in the ceiling? I'm damned if they're not a street map of Eltham. At least, the area around Beechill Road. A bit crude, but that's Gourock Road across there, joining Westmount Road which runs down to the top end of the High Street. Just before it gets there, on the left where that stain is, see? That used to be a greengrocer's called Starr & Britt. Then around the corner by all those fly specks is where the bus from Welling stopped the 228 or the 241? I can't remember. Single-decker, anyway.'
`All stops to Memory Lane.' I thought it required a wistful imagination to discern any sort of map in the network of cracks overhead.
`You're so heartless, James. Can't you see how extraordinary this is? Here I am, lying on my deathbed in Arezzo right beneath a street map of my birthplace a thousand miles away in southeast London. It's too punctual for words. How can one not believe in fate?'
From the window embrasure outside came a sharp burst of wings and a strident cheeping. Two tiny feathers, no more than fragments of down, drifted in through the opening and began sliding down the sunbeam, very slowly, turning and glittering like phytoplankton streaming towards an illimitable ocean floor.
`I shall be forgotten utterly,' the man in the bed said suddenly.
`You're not going to give way to self-pity at a time like this?' I asked in alarm.
`No. It was just the sudden realisation. When you, too, come to find yourself in this unenviable position, James, in however many years' time, you will discover that even if your whole life appears to have been a dream from start to finish certain things achieve an insistent sort of clarity.' He raised an arm whose skin had clearly been designed to fit someone larger a long time ago and examined the bony wrist with the name tag. `Iebb Iernigam,' he read. `Apparently that's me. That it should have come to this.'
`If you become maudlin I shall leave.'
A long silence fell, intensified by the background sounds of swallows and traffic going about their business in the bright sunshine outside. A timeless inertia congealed in the room, redolent of moated granges. I thought Jayjay had fallen asleep. Then he opened a saurian eye and said, `No, you won't leave. Not yet. You still want to know what's in my will.'
I didn't deign to respond and the eye closed again. This time he really did doze off. The sun's ray slid across a corner of the crumpling plastic bag of glucose and saline mixture that was seeping into his arm. From chance prisms in the brilliantly illuminated liquid tiny rainbows were struck. More footsteps approached in the corridor. The door opened softly and a nurse appeared, half hidden behind an immense bouquet of flowers swathed in cellophane. Even I, who had chosen them and dictated the note, was impressed and a little horrified. Now they were no longer in the flower shop they looked less like an expression of cheerful good wishes than a tribute fit to be laid on a cenotaph by a head of state. Still, it was too late now. I got to my feet, put a finger to my lips and took the bouquet from the nurse with a smile of thanks. She smiled back, glanced at the sleeping patient and tiptoed out again. The cellophane was the soft kind that didn't crackle and I carefully peeled enough of it back to divest the flowers of their funereal aspect. At least he would be able to smell their freshness. They were the first things Jayjay saw from inches away when he opened his eyes. Maybe in his confused state he thought he had already died. He gave a great gasp.
`No! Take them away! Away!'
`Don't be silly, Jayjay. They're beautiful. Smell how fresh they are.' I thrust the bouquet under his nose. `And look, here's a note. Don't you want to know who sent them? Just now you were moaning about being forgotten and it's perfectly obvious someone has remembered you. I'll open the card, shall I?' Glancing sidelong, I noticed his eyes had filled with tears. I slid the card from its little white envelope, observing my handiwork with some pride. I had made the florist copy a message of which she understood not a word. Her uncertain Italian penmanship looked convincingly as though she had taken it down from an overseas phone call.
`Good Lord, Jayjay!' I cried. `You'll never guess who they're from.'
`No!' he croaked.
`They're from the Queen Mother. "Sent at the express wishes of HM the Queen Mother with her heartfelt prayers for Mr Jebb's swift recovery." It's signed "Reginald Wilcock, Deputy Steward and Page of the Presence". How about that, Jayjay?'
A scrawny hand reached out for the card. Tears had run back into his white sideboards. `It's absolutely her style,' he wheezed, `even if Reggie did have to remind her. A little tight, the Bowes-Lyons, they all are. Always were, even back in their Hertfordshire days. It's not such a big bunch to have ordered from England, is it? Well, bless the old girl for the thought. After all, we did have some good times.'
He was overtaken by an alarming paroxysm of coughs that shook his bed and splintered the rainbows in the drip. I rang the bell and waited for the nurse to take over. When she bustled in I gave Jayjay a reassuring pat on the hand and got up to go outside. It was clearly a moment for professional expertise and I was merely in the way. Besides, it was time for a caffè at the bar in the hospital grounds. I looked back from the doorway. His clawlike hand was clutching an empty plastic drinking cup which lurched up and down in rhythm with his coughing. `Fill it,' I thought I heard him gasp querulously. `Oh, fill it!' I smiled as I sauntered down the corridor. It was a recognisable piece of the Jayjay imperiousness that occasionally broke through his normal charm. After half an hour I went back in to take my leave of him and found a full-scale medical drama in his room. Before I was shooed out again I had a glimpse of oxygen cylinders, the bedclothes flung
Excerpted from Loving Monsters by James Hamilton-Paterson. Copyright © 2001 by James Hamilton-Paterson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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