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“Painful, funny and highly readable. Jacobson is at the top of his verbal form here”
—The Evening Standard
“Page for page and sentence for sentence, it confirms Jacobson as, by some distance, the cleverest, funniest, sharpest writer we have”
—The Sunday Telegraph
“A rich, unrepentantly funny novel, full of vim and vigour and bolshie cleverness. Its prose pulsates with fresh images”
Henry believes he knows exactly when the ninety-four-year-old woman in the neighbouring apartment dies. He hears her turn off. Until now he has not been able to distinguish her from her appliances – her washing machine, her vacuum cleaner, her radiators, her television. But the moment she gives up the ghost he detects the cessation of a noise of which he was not previously aware. A hum, was it? A whirr? Impossible to say. There is no word for the sound a life makes.
‘Ah well,’ his cleaning woman muses, once word of the death has seeped out, ‘what’s one more?’
‘Plenty, if you happen to be the one,’ Henry says.
She sidles a walled Irish eye towards his, oblivious to an Englishman’s partiality for space between two people not connected by marriage.
‘There we are, then,’ she says with a shrug, and goes on with the dusting. They’re all shrugging and dusting round here. Not on edge exactly, but fatalistic. Waiting to be blown apart. Henry isn’t thinking like that, though; Henry is just waiting for himself to die. There ’s a subtle political difference. Never mind poison gas in the Underground, never mind helicopters crop-dusting the city with anthrax, Henry sees what’s coming as an entirely personal catastrophe, something between him and his Maker and no one else. That’s always been the trouble with Henry – he has never been able to grasp the larger picture.
Rather than remain in his apartment while there is a corpse next door, Henry ventures out. This is not something Henry normally enjoys doing. Nothing to do with anthrax. Out, in Henry’s view, is a madhouse. Historians of social lunacy will confirm that this is literally the case, that the mad have been let out of the asylums and allowed to walk the streets. But Henry doesn’t mean that. By mad, nerve-strung Henry means revving when you’re stationary and driving with your hand on your horn – read that sexually if you like, but Henry has in mind incessant honking – he means text messaging the person standing next to you, or being wired up so that you can speak into thin air, conversing with God is how it looks to Henry, or wearing running shoes when you’re not running, or coming up to Henry with a bad face and a dog on a piece of string and asking him for money. Why would Henry give someone with a bad face money? Because of the dog? Because of the string?
But there ’s out and there ’s out, and this out, Henry concedes, beats others he ’s encountered. Still too much revving and honking and similar vehicular hectoring – inevitable, given the tripleparking which is the custom here: people nipping out of their cars to say hello to other people who have nipped out of their cars to say hello, and people boxed in by both sorts having heart attacks on their horns – but it’s a superior sort of hectoring, and the sports clothes, especially on the elderly, bespeak a greater gentility too, more cricketing and yachting than footballing – due, presumably, to the proximity of Lord’s and the boating lake in Regent’s Park. As for the bad-faced men with dogs, they rarely venture this far into the comfort zones of NW8. Neither did Henry much before now. Henry isn’t from here. As aren’t many of the people he sees in the street or bumps into in the lift, which accounts for much of the appeal the place has for him. It’s better to be a stranger among strangers, Henry reckons, no matter how jumpy everyone is, than to be even partially at home among the indigenous.
Prior to NW8, Henry had lived postcodeless and with the semi-permanent headache of the never quite settled anywhere, with one dry foot on the cobblestones of the town and one wet one in the drains and delfs of a moor so dour it was a miracle a single flower could find the will to bloom there, and few did. Walkers came and marvelled, but walkers are only ever passing through. As for the natives, Henry’s explanation to visitors to his rented crofter’s cottage was that they looked the way they did – blunt-nosed, crook-backed, mole-blind – as a consequence of never having moved from here since around about the end of the ice age, or whenever it was the great muds came. ‘Their heads grew beneath their shoulders as a matter of adaptational imperative,’ Henry went on, ‘and they’ve never been able to find a way of prising them out since.’ Assuming this to be a complaint about his environment, the less subtle of Henry’s visitors wondered what, in that case, he was doing living in a cold-water cottage by a delf. What did he expect, for God’s sake? At which Henry opened his eyes wide. He did not like people to talk ill of his heartlands. Ever since he could remember, Henry had woken up to a view fringed like an eyelash by the Pennines. The Pennines were his Mountains of Mourne. He attached lyrical significance to their green and purple. They were his Alps. They extended his conception of the possible. They were all foreignness and promise.
He should have stuck with the view. Down here, Henry is happier – which tells you something, since he isn’t happy – or at least he is more at home being not at home. But he hasn’t been here long. And wouldn’t be here at all if he still had his job, or his youth, or someone to love. And if it weren’t for the accident of a luxurious southern apartment – the one that has the dead old lady lying next door – passing into his possession.
The luxurious apartment is another reason why Henry would rather be in than out. Crystal chandelier over his bed, sunken bath, electronic drapes – press the keypad and the lights go on, the bath fills and the curtain closes – Henry has never lived so graciously before. The sound system is so good he cannot locate the speakers, he just gets music wherever he goes. A white barebreasted mermaid, Saudi Arabian in conception, conceals the lavatory cistern, promising to press herself against him when he sits. She has a plastic plug in each of her nipples, from which, Henry initially deduced, fountains must play, though why you would want fountains playing down the back of your neck when you visit the lavatory, Henry had no idea. In the end he worked out that the plugs were simply to protect the nipples when the seat went up. But he is still feeling his way round the place and hasn’t given up finding fountains yet.
How it is that the apartment has passed into his possession Henry can explain, it’s the why that’s the problem. Because there ’s a God, that’s why, would be Henry’s best shot, or at least his second-best shot at an explanation. Unless there ’s a devil and NW8 is earmarked for destruction. The how is much easier. An envelope popped through the letterbox of his moorland cottage, that’s how, just as he was considering his future, its contents a life-tenancy agreement with his name on – he takes it to be a life tenancy anyway, though he can’t be trusted to comprehend any piece of writing which isn’t what his profession calls ‘imaginative ’ – and a letter from Shapira and Mankowicz, Solicitors, outlining the terms of the gift, to wit an obligation, as per the enclosed lease, to make no noise, to house no pets, to let off no firearms, and otherwise to ask no questions, in return for which he can expect to live unhampered and be told no lies. Henry doesn’t think it’s a mistake, Henry believes he can discern a bit of logic in it, but just in case he ’s wrong, just in case someone else ’s name should be on the lease, another Henry Nagel even more deserving than he is, he means to enjoy his good fortune before it’s taken away from him again. Like life itself.
Not that Henry wants much more from the inside than he expects from the out. He doesn’t riot in the sunken bath, or go to sleep with the chandeliers ablaze. Mainly he potters about in a kimono (an affectation), makes tea in a samovar (another affectation – but then it’s all affectation in the twenty-first century, doing anything that isn’t slobbing about in running shoes with writing on them is affectation) and searches for peace in his heart. He likes it that he can see London from any of his windows, Regent’s Park, the Zoo, the Mosque, Lord’s Cricket Ground, the towers of the City. Better than the hills, all that. It means that life is out there if you want it, which Henry doesn’t, but he is grateful for being given the choice. You need life to be out there if you are going to find peace in your heart.
‘My husband reckons they’ll bomb the City first,’ his cleaning lady has observed, leaving it as read that Henry’s apartment will be a good place to watch it burn from. Henry even wonders if she’s fishing for an invitation to come round with her husband when it happens. But this isn’t the peace in your heart Henry is talking about. Henry is thinking about himself. He would just like to feel right, for once, vis-à-vis the rest of the world.
The other thing Henry wishes to stay in and do is take his father to task. Who am I? Who are you? Do you love me? Am I a disappointment to you? Don’t you want to know whether you’re a disappointment to me? Did you never care? Did you never feel bad? Do you ever feel bad now? About me? About Mum? About yourself?
Isn’t Henry a bit old for this routine? At his age, shouldn’t Henry be watching daytime television, or playing canasta with fellow irascibles, or doddering to the park with his grandchildren?
Probably yes. Probably very unhealthy doing what he’s doing. The trouble is, Henry has no children to give him grandchildren. And no friends disposed to lend him theirs. Henry has dishonoured his friendships, whether by disparaging his friends’ achievements, or by turning away from their society, or by borrowing their wives, and you know what friends are like when you start that.
So he has no one to play canasta with him either.
In fact, ‘borrowing their wives’ is at once rather too cute and rather too buccaneering a description of what Henry actually did, which was more in the nature of running himself down, looking soulful, and confessing to feelings of long-standing devotion which in truth he hadn’t known he’d felt until the moment of expressing them. Out of pity for which, or simply out of curiosity, yes, they on occasions borrowed him. Borrowed him, fucked him, and put him back. But as a man with reason to doubt his own ability to be at the active end of any verb, Henry glamorises the little devilishness of which, in his younger days, he was capable.
Either way, whoever borrowed whom, he still has no one to play canasta with him.
And, come to that, no father. Not living. But he had one once. Everyone who doesn’t have a father now must have had a father or heard tell of a father once. You can’t manage without the idea of a father. The idea of a father, especially the idea of rejecting a father, powers the modern world. And you can’t reject what you haven’t had.
For his part, Henry is just learning to talk to his.
Nothing fanciful. No ‘my father, methinks I see my father’, no crossing over, no table rapping. Elbows on the dark green banker’s desk which came with the apartment, chin in the chalice he makes for it with his too-tight hands, Henry silently delivers himself of his vexations while his father, dead for a decade, listens. It’s because he knows his father is only partially understanding – both in the sense of slow to comprehend and reluctant to sympathise – that Henry values his attention. He doesn’t want to be humoured. When they start humouring you it means you are headed for an early grave. Go on arguing and you might just live for ever.
That’s Henry’s father’s job – to see things differently and keep his son alive.
Always was. (Henry’s father, arguing the toss already.) Not something I was ever given credit for, but that always was my job. Who else was going to save the boy from drowning?
Drowning in what, Dad?
As though you don’t know. Drowning in women, drowning in books, drowning in sick notes, drowning in your own terrors . . .
As for why Henry wants to live for ever when he’s got no friends, got no one to love, and thinks life ’s a madhouse – you might well wonder. But it’s in the nature of the machine not to want ever to be turned off. Ask the ninety-four-year-old woman in the apartment next to his. Just don’t expect a reply.
She has one mourner. Henry no sooner leaves his apartment than he walks into him in the corridor, standing, as though he ’s just been sent out of class, with his hat covering his genitals. Showing respect for the dead while the people who do what needs doing to a body do it. He is also, it seems to Henry, surveying the condition of the paintwork.
Henry nods. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he says. Trips off the tongue now. Someone dead? So sorry. Used to be Henry’s father always saying sorry to the bereaved. Now the responsibility has passed to Henry. Good morning, so sorry . . .
The mourner is about Henry’s age, of an appearance which once – when older men were in vogue – would have been described as ‘dapper’. Fallen dapper. Gingery moustache, bounder’s eyebrows, jutting jaw, fag-stained teeth, bloodhound cheek pouches, apoplectic colouring. ‘Rotten luck,’ he makes Henry want to say.
‘Been expecting it some time,’ the mourner tells him.
‘Sorry, I didn’t realise,’ Henry says. ‘I knew she was elderly but I was under the impression she was hale.’
‘Hale enough to go on for another ninety years. But that doesn’t stop you expecting, does it?’
‘No, I don’t suppose it does,’ says Henry. Then, because more appears to be expected of him, he adds, ‘You the only child?’
‘Me? No fear. Just the stepson. My father’s folly, that one.’
Henry mishears. ‘Filly?’
‘Filly, folly, same difference. Could never see a woman, my old dad, without doing something stupid.’
Henry notices that the mourner has a way of letting his words die in his chest, as though everything is a damn cheek but there ’s nothing to be done about it. Though whether that’s integral to the man or just a consequence of his bereavement, or a hurried breakfast, Henry has no idea. ‘My condolences anyway,’ Henry says, trying to hurry on.
The mourner offers his right hand, leaving the left holding the hat with which he covers his respectful genitals. ‘Lachlan,’ he says, spitting. ‘Lachlan Louis Stevenson.’
Tricky name to get your teeth round, but Henry thinks a man of Lachlan Louis Stevenson’s age should be able to speak his own name by now without spitting. But then you’d think Henry himself would have been spat at enough times in a long life not to be obsessed with the particle of food which has just landed on his sleeve. Hard, though, for Henry – always has been – to concentrate on anything a person who has just put food on his sleeve is saying. He stares, mesmerised, at it – the speck, the smut, the atom. Bad manners, but he has no choice. For the very reason that he shouldn’t be looking, look is all he can do.
Lachlan Louis Stevenson is telling him something about becoming a neighbour, about his plans to move directly into the old girl’s place, once she ’s been removed. It’s his by right, apparently. Always has been.
‘I’m sorry, what did you say?’
‘Was left to me originally, but you have to wait your turn. Couldn’t exactly turf her out.’
‘Well, everything comes, as they say,’ says Henry, shaking his sleeve.
Lachlan thrusts his tongue into his cheek. ‘That’s word for word what the old boy told me on his deathbed thirty years ago,’ he says, as though it’s Henry’s fault he ’s had to wait.
We’re all still battling the dead, Henry thinks, closing the doors to the mansion block behind him. He tests, then tests again the security locks, listening for them to click, then pushing at them with his shoulder. The wrong sort of people have been seen in the building recently, going from apartment to apartment, selling duff electricity, syphoning it out of one person’s supply and into another’s, making veiled threats to the elderly, of whom Henry, on his next birthday, will officially be accounted one. No one admits to letting them in. It’s possible they just strolled in, a stride or two behind a bona fide keyholder, too old to notice or too frightened to ask questions. That’s how it is with buildings occupied by the aged: you might as well go to sea in a sieve. So Henry is double-checking the security locks, then double-checking his checking, by subjecting them to his weight, not a negligible force these days, for Henry is growing portly. If he does this every time he goes out he will seriously weaken the locks, then the second-hand electricity salesmen will be able to stroll back in again.
What the block needs is a doorman. There’s on-site porterage, as you would expect of apartments of this quality, but you have to ring a bell for anyone to answer and by the time anyone does you can have bled to death. A person on guard twenty-four hours a day is what you want. Armed to the teeth, preferably. Henry doesn’t know about the arms but he has reason to believe a doorman did patrol here once. What is more, Henry believes he has met him . . .
Henry has a theory that the apartment has come to him courtesy of a wealthy mistress of his father’s. The apartment was his father’s secret love nest, Henry’s theory goes; a long way from home, admittedly, too far to nip around to on a bicycle between meals, but his father was always on the road, often having to travel to conferences and conventions on the black arts, and he could easily have kept a second marriage going concurrently with his first. By easily, Henry does not mean financially – he doubts his father could have afforded to feed the chandelier the bulbs it consumes in a week – but easily in the sense that such a thing would have fallen effortlessly within the compass of his father’s tractable nature. Someone lays Henry’s father down upon a feather bed, Henry’s father does not know how to explain he already has a place to sleep. A manners thing as much as anything else. Henry’s father does not like to cause anyone offence. Sorrow of sorrows, Henry’s mother is then killed in the front seat of a coach with bad brakes travelling to London (no doubt on a failed mission to find the truth), Henry’s father no sooner being apprised of the tragedy than he is off south to retrieve the body (in what state Henry cannot begin to imagine – his father and the body) and no sooner seeing it than he suffers a fatal double heart attack – grief and guilt, guilt and grief – leaving the pair more united in death, Henry likes to think, than for a long time they had been in life; holding hands, Henry dares to hope, if hands there are in heaven, and who knows, maybe even canoodling again. Whereupon, for year after year, the distraught mistress maintains the apartment as a shrine until she too dies, lonely and contrite, bequeathing the apartment without presumption of ownership, via Shapira and Mankowicz, to Henry, only child of the man she loved. And of the woman, not to put too fine a point on it, she killed.
What inclines Henry to this theory, as well as to the belief that the mansion block once enjoyed the services of a doorman, is a recollection he has of being accosted at his parents’ funeral by a weeping red-faced man in a square black coat, much like a town crier or a bailiff in appearance, who asked Henry if he would be kind enough to step aside with him a moment. Were it not for the weeping, Henry would have taken him to be some sort of underworld enforcement agent. Unlikely that his father had gambling debts or was mixed up in a protection racket, but then everything about his father had been unlikely. The weeping, though, spoke against it. Henry had never heard of people who came to beat money out of you weeping as they did it. The man was not family, however distant, that much Henry knew. He had taken his hat off when he should have kept it on, and he hadn’t, as was customary, wished Henry ‘long life ’.
As a matter of religious protocol, ought Henry even to have accepted the hand held out to him? Was a chief mourner permitted to touch or be touched by another person? Was a man who was burying both his parents permitted to look another living soul in the eye, on that day or indeed on any day thereafter? At home the mirrors were all covered. Was that to cut out vanity or to recommend blindness? There was a propriety in not knowing. It behoved Henry, Henry thought, to blunder. A man shouldn’t be in control of himself on the day of his parents’ interment. So why not let the weeping bailiff, or whatever he was, force open his hand, place inside something which felt like a bag of bizarre copper currency – Azerbaijani shillings, were they? – and then close Henry’s ice-cold fingers over it one by one, like a baby’s. ‘In all the years I stood there in the wind and rain,’ he told Henry, pausing between words to wipe his nose on the sleeve of his coat, ‘I was never once treated with anything but courtesy. Remember that when other things are said. Not a single discourtesy, not once. But mine is not the only broken heart that’s left behind, Mr Nagel. Not by a long chalk. And if you can find it in yourself to make a home here ’ – tapping at Henry’s obedient fist – ‘you would be doing a kindness by the living and the dead. That’s the message it is my sad responsibility to bring you. You would be doing a kindness. Feel free. You are loved for who you are the son of, Mr Nagel. Feel free.’ With which he bit hard on his lip, lowered his shaven head, and returned in the direction of the fresh mounds of earth under which Henry’s mangled parents lay, for all the world as though he meant to hurl himself upon them. What Henry found when he finally remembered to open his hand was a set of keys, but to what property he had no idea. He knew his father had spilled out of the house and rented garages and disused railway arches in which to store his bits and pieces all over Manchester, so he assumed it was just another one of those. As for the unknown man, well, his father collected such people by the dozen: the demented strays of his rapacious philanthropy, fans of a kind, enthusiasts of his work. Only now, in line with his new theory of events, is Henry able to work out that those long-lost and long-forgotten keys must have been to this apartment, shrine to a forbidden love, and that the broken-hearted bearer of them, acting on behalf of the even more broken-hearted mistress – who had the tact, at least, to stay away – must have been its doorman.
Those were the days, Henry thinks – practising thinking like the old man he is soon to be – when self was not the enemy of duty, when a man could be sentimentally attached, without resentment, to his job. Try finding a doorman who will weep over a resident now. Try finding a doorman full stop. Upstairs an old lady has just been turned off, and there is no one to notify the inhabitants of the building – you smell her or you don’t – let alone shed a tear for her.
And that is how it will be for me, Henry reminds himself. He knows what’s waiting. He will hobble homewards one ordinary madhouse afternoon, he will feel a stabbing in his heart, and he will beshit himself. Not very medically precise, but then Henry never has understood much about his own body. Too delicate. Too squeamish ever to find out. But what’s waiting is what’s waiting, whether you live in ignorance or you don’t. He will beshit himself in a public place. He will come out of himself, his own entrails the waste matter of his life and being. See that mess? That’s Henry. And all the delicacy, all the careful watching, all the aloof approximations, will have been for nothing.
Better not to go out. Better to be found, like the old lady, in your bed. But he likes the sensation of coming back home, and he can’t have that unless he ’s been out. He walks for forty minutes, surviving attacks by traffic twice, the first time trying to enter Regent’s Park, the second time trying to leave it, then he catches the bus to Marks & Spencer in Oxford Street where he has taken to watching people more senior than himself raiding the café – Café Revive it’s called, ha! – making provision for what’s left of their lives, pocketing free sachets of sugar, free milk, free serviettes, some brazenly, some furtive as squirrels. How long before he’s doing this? He feels the depths of his pockets. Now? Should he start now? Two elderly women at a table next to his are reading UFO magazines. They are identically infirm, each with an arm in a sling, each with purple bruising below the left eye, each with a stick hooked on to the back of her chair. Have they been carted away in a spaceship, both of them? Henry wonders. Have they grown demented trying to get people to believe their stories? He knows how they feel. He too has been sequestered among aliens for most of his adult life. He too has never been believed.
He slips three plastic containers of milk into his pocket as he leaves, then thinks better of it and returns them, in his confusion dropping two on the floor. The women from the spaceship, following him, tread on one and spear the other with their sticks. Was that deliberate? Henry wonders. Is this what they’ve been programmed to do? To spill humans’ milk? He quits the café, flustered, conscious that compunctions cause more trouble than criminality. Something the old know, and is time Henry learned: businesses would rather you stole from them than made a fuss.
He’d dodge his bus fare if he dared, but daren’t. Back at his apartment block he pushes at the lock to make sure nobody has tampered with it or left it open for the traffickers in contraband electricity while he ’s been gone. Then he has to frisk himself to find his key. Lost, is it? No, yes, no. How long, how long now before the beshitting starts?
Going up, he runs into Lachlan coming down. If Henry is not mistaken the old woman’s chief mourner is looking more cheerful now than earlier in the day. Though it’s warm and dry he is wearing a green knee-length oilskin, the pockets of which are bulging, Henry notices, and he is carrying a small portrait of somebody or other in oils. He holds it up, as though at auction, for Henry to inspect. ‘Robert Louis, the old ancestor. Staring out to sea on board the yacht Casco, bound for Tahiti, the lucky blighter. What do you think? Looks as though he could do with a square meal, but then none of our family ever enjoyed foreign food much. But otherwise, not bad, eh? Especially the frame. Worth a few, the frame. As you said, everything comes. And she won’t be needing him to look at where she ’s going.’
‘Why, where ’s she going?’ Henry asks, inattentively. Tahiti, is it?
An alarmed expression crosses Lachlan’s face. ‘You know . . . A better place.’
‘Oh yes, there,’ Henry remembers. ‘When’s the funeral?’
‘Not sure. Crematorium’s getting back to me. You don’t mind her up there for another day or so?’
‘No,’ Henry assures him. ‘No, not at all.’
‘Hardly a nuisance, eh?’
‘Certainly not that,’ Henry says.
What’s one more, when all’s said and done? And better to be with the dead inside – remonstrating, remonstrating – than with the living in the madhouse which is out.
Posted October 19, 2010
No text was provided for this review.