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This was a time of trouble for Benson, when he felt silence
forming over him like a crust, when he couldn't work and
couldn't sleep and spent a lot of time walking around the
city in an ancient overcoat of grey tweed, talking to
strangers, looking for signs, portents, auguries. Unhappiness
made him superstitious; he saw clues everywhere, even
in the vagaries of the weather.
In February the grip of winter eased for a short while, the
temperature rose suddenly and there was a succession of
sunny, astonishingly mild days. They began in the same
way, with thick mist off the river; but by mid-morning the
sun had licked this up and the sky showed through, pale and
radiant, suffused with a soft, bright haze, as if the gorged
sun were breathing out the surplus of the feast in vaporous
Some of Liverpool's blackbirds were fooled into singing
early; Benson heard them in different parts of the city,
singing jubilantly in unlikely places. One afternoon, less
than a minute before witnessing a suicide, he heard one in
full spate on the parapet of the Yoruba Club in Croxteth
Road. At sixty-three the arteries may be hardening but the
mind is as soft as ever for impressions. This outburst of the
deceived blackbird became linked with death in his mind
He had paused to look down the weeded driveway, past
the fringe of sad birch trees, at the flaking, dilapidated club
house, pale in the sunshine, with its incongruous verandah,
the strange confusion of tribal and social in the name above
the door. There was never anyone there when he passed,
never any sign of life. What were the secret hours of the
Yoruba? This afternoon he had felt once again something
of the half-painful sense of mystery, the sense of a
secret life going parallel to his own, that he remembered
After this, he crossed the road so as to walk on the sunny
side. He was approaching the tall block of flats at the
beginning of Croxteth Road. The white railing round the
top was half lost in light, half dissolved in the blank, milky-blue
heaven of mid-afternoon. Casually glancing up into
this bright zone of air, Benson saw the flash of the leap,
heard a cry, but despite this thought at first it was a carpet
falling, a red and blue carpet, because of the way it seemed
to drift and sidle in the first moments, but then it went
straight and fast and landed on the concrete forecourt with a
sound a carpet wouldn't have made. Feeling slightly sickened,
Benson strove to fix the sound of impact in his mind
so that he could make a note about it when he got home he
still made notes. The man was lying on his back, motionless,
inside the forecourt but in full view from across the
road. His face was turned aside, away from Benson, as if
that mild sun were too bright.
A car had stopped farther down. A small man got out and
walked towards Benson. He was wearing a black leather hat
with a very narrow brim. "Somebody fell off the roof," he
said. His eyes were bloodshot and sad. He looked across to
where the man was lying. "He's had his lot," he said. "You
can tell, can't you?"
"Looks like it. No one else seems to have noticed
Which was odd, considering the sound, the fact that he
had gone hurtling past windows and balconies. Benson too
was sure that the man was dead. There was no sign at this
distance of blood or damage; but he knew, he recognised, in
a way at once obscure and definite, that quality of stillness,
that semblance of ease. The man was strewn there, littered.
"We should do something," he said.
Two young black women emerged from the building.
They were dressed to go out, in light, summery-looking
clothes. Both were short-haired and slender and young, no
more than sixteen or seventeen, Benson thought. Their
meeting with the body seemed unplanned, but then there
was something ceremonious, accustomed, about the way
they took positions, one at the head, one at the feet. Neither
of them touched the man or stooped to look at him more
closely. After a moment or two both girls clutched at
themselves. Perhaps merely chilly, Benson thought it had
seemed to him when they emerged that they were too
lightly dressed, that they had been misled by the soft and
hazy sunshine. The gesture itself could have meant anything;
even the presence of death was not enough for it to be
construed with any certainty. Demonstrating the paucity of
body movement available to humans in time of stress he
would make a note of that too.
"He's a goner," the motorist said.
There was no one else, no other cars had stopped, there
were no passers-by. One of the girls went back to the
building, leaving her companion on guard.
"Gone to phone," the motorist said. He glanced along
the road to where his car waited. "Gone to notify the
authorities," he said, more loudly and somehow demandingly.
A warm reek of leather came from his hat.
Benson assented. He regarded the motorist's face, saw a
relief similar to his own: there was no need to do anything,
no need to cross over the girl had gone to notify the
authorities. He looked into the man's eyes, sad and moist
and shifty under the mildly reeking brim of his hat, and felt
for a sharp moment an impulse to embrace him. Instead he
made a gift of words, presented a fragment of his experience.
"I thought it was a carpet, at first," he said, "you
know, from the way he fell."
He would have liked to enlarge on this, now that the need
of action was over, to commemorate this death with at least
a few minutes of conversation. But the motorist had already
turned away and begun to walk back towards his car.
Benson too, after a moment more of hesitation, moved on
along the pavement. He noticed after some time that he had
reversed direction: whereas before he had been proceeding
on a southerly course, towards Sefton Park, he now found
himself walking back towards the city centre. This didn't
matter. He had no particular destination. He had a client to
see at 5.30, nothing before that. On this mild afternoon he
was walking down Prince's Avenue, on the southern border
of Toxteth, distressed by what he had just seen, lonelier for
that lonely death, with a twinge of rheumatism in his left
arm and absolutely no sense of where he wanted to go.
The avenue, in its straightness, its wideness, its long
blank vista, seemed designed to add to his desolation. Many
of the tall Victorian houses had slumped and cracked open,
it seemed, gaping ruinous, eviscerated, spilling their rubble
out onto choked gardens, or charred and gutted with arson.
People, mainly men, mainly black, mainly out of work,
were sitting on seats along the central strip, where stunted
saplings grew at intervals in their cages of wire netting.
Pausing at intersections, glancing to his left, Benson looked
down wide streets of low houses, like streets in settlement
towns, where space is plentiful and materials few. Figures
in the distance moved slowly against the luminous horizon,
were lost in the haze where the streets dipped down towards
the Mersey. Stages, he thought. The man's fall had been a
kind of paradigm, leap of birth, indeterminate motions of
infancy, gathering gravity ...
When he was nearing the end of the avenue, Benson saw a
fattish, serene-looking, middle-aged negro sitting by himself
on one of the benches, dressed in a raincoat and
sneakers. He crossed over and sat down beside him. After a
moment or two he began to tell him about the suicide.
"He jumped at the precise moment I was passing," he
said. "Half a minute either way and I would have missed the
whole thing." He leaned forward eagerly, moving his hand
in gestures that were rapid but half formed and inconclusive.
As always these days his own words impassioned
him. "I see it as a performance, a kind of performance," he
said. "Meant for me somehow. As if, you know, he was
waiting up there. Here is Benson now, hoop-la! Over you
go. Just in that space of time." He shaped the duration of it
with one of his sketchy gestures. "Then these two girls
came out," he said, "that was a performance too. Then the
thought came to me that the whole thing was like the stages
The negro was looking at him steadily with a half smile.
The smile was sleepy but the deepset eyes were bright with
a sort of derisive appraisal, which Benson was aware of but
too intent on talking to consider much. He began to explain
what he meant; the leap, the floating, the plunge. His
loquacity was not new, but nowadays, when he was on the
brink of speech, there was a slight but noticeable convulsiveness
about his lower jaw.
"In the floating there was also the crash," he said. "In my
beginning is my end, as Eliot has it." That isn't it, he
thought, with sudden discouragement. There was something
else he wanted to say, but couldn't something to do
with the hush and blankness up there, the mild sky, the
white railing half-melted, the leap, the cry. The man had
jumped from the heart of silence. And those two black
guardians ... "That is the phase before personality is
formed," he said, less certainly. "That would
"No stages," the negro said suddenly in a soft blurting
"How do you mean?"
"You telling me he jump off. You talking about stages.
No stages there, man. When he jump off, that the end of the
The man's face glistened slightly in the sunshine. He was
smiling still but Benson did not think he was very well. His
pale lips were chapped and sore-looking and the whites of
his eyes were discoloured.
A little girl and her mother came and sat down on the
other side of them. They were waiting for the bus there
was a stop just opposite. The little girl was dressed for some
occasion, in a pale blue coat and white stockings, and she
had white ribbons in her hair. She was eating ice cream
from a carton, freighting her little plastic spoon with
minute quantities and eating in a series of darting licks.
"Woman drown herself in a poddle," the negro said,
nodding his broad face in the direction of Granby Street.
"Last November. Three inches poddle water. My wife's
cousin living in Antigua, cut his wrists but he didn't die."
"You don't want to get that all over your coat," the
woman said. The little girl had started to eat the ice cream
very slowly, to make it last, and it was melting and
"Policeman in Aigburth eat rat poison," the negro said.
"It was in the paper. He's smoking his pipe, lean over the
gate, say hello good evening like every evening, then he
goes to this little shed he got in the garden and eat the rat
poison. Where the stages there?"
"For God's sake, Sandra," the woman said. "I dunno
why I got you that ice cream." She caught Benson's eye and
smiled with resignation and pride.
The negro turned a softly blinking face away from
Benson towards the cooling sun. There was a smell of
vanilla and dry dogshit and warm dust. Feelings of sorrow
came to Benson in this aftermath of shock, amidst these
odours remembered from childhood. Something else from
childhood too: he had been rebuked; he had spoken on
impulse and been rebuked for being excitable, for being
fanciful. He remembered the ironical patience on his
father's face. "I'm not trying to detract from the man's
death," he said, "you think I'm making a story out of it,
don't you? But we can make analogies surely. You are only
thinking of it one way. In my view nothing is accidental.
The universe is a vast system of correspondencies, as
After a moment or two the negro sighed and lowered his
head. "Police got their feelings too," he said. "But they
* * *
Later, back in his apartment in Greville Street, Benson
resisted the temptation to tell Jennifer Colomb the story of
the death leap, mainly because she was waiting for his
opinion of the new chapter of Treacherous Dreams, and was
so tense about it that to raise any other topic at that point
would have verged on sadism. Miss Colomb was a valued
client. Apart from anything else she actually paid him his
fee for the weekly consultation.
In happier days, when he was full of plans, before he was
stricken with silence, while working on the closing stages
of Fool's Canopy, his novel set in the Venice of the 1790s,
and while at the same time beginning the research for his
complex and ambitious new novel set against the background
of the Liverpool slave-trade, he had hit upon the
idea of supplementing his income by setting himself up as a
literary consultant. Have you got that manuscript in your bottom
drawer? his advertisement had demanded. If so, now is the
time to bring it out. Are you having technical problems with work
in progress? Blocked? Stuck? Bogged down? Get expert advice
from a professional writer on all aspects of the craft of fiction, style,
narrative, characterisation. Also marketing. Fee by arrangement.
The arrangement was five pounds when he could get it.
Initial response had been good, half Merseyside was in a
fury to write, it seemed, but now only a few clients
remained to him. By an ironic reversal, in which under
other circumstances he might have seen beauty, he had
become the very bogged-down creature appealed to in the
advertisement. He, the unblocker, had got blocked and
more than ever talkative and progressively stranger. He
was left now with those too innocent, unhinged or self-absorbed
to be put off by the change in his manner, the
growing lack of any real resemblance between this pale,
gesturing improviser behind the desk and knowledgeable
Clive Benson, the Literary Consultant of the advertisement
and the sign outside the door. This heroic remnant he
privately named `Benson's Fictioneers'. They kept on coming,
bringing manuscripts for assessment, more then ready
to read extracts, avid for practical hints. In the nights of his
insomnia he heard sometimes the crazed voices of their
fictions whispering and crooning to him from reverberant
Jennifer Colomb was of this company. She was sitting
across the desk from him in jumper and cardigan of the
same shade of lilac and pearl earrings, pale hands clutching
the handbag in her lap. Silence gathered between them as he
read the beginning of her new chapter.
"This burning sun of June is no friend to one of your fair and
delicate complexion." Sir Reginald spoke in a tone between jest
and earnest, keeping an easy grip on the reins of his gelding.
"Nay, Sir Reginald, I am tougher than I look."
"Ay," he said softly, his dark eyes intent upon her delicate
profile, "I doubt it not, but I would not be the cause that you should
put it to the test. For the sake of your beauty and my conscience,"
he urged her, still in that tone of honeyed jest.
"Nay then, an you list, let us ride into the coverts. I will not
gainsay you. 'Twould be impolite in a hostess. You will not have
cause to complain of your treatment here at Beaulieu Castle, and in
my father's absence. Besides, it makes no difference to me as I have
ever been a lover of the wildwood."
"Have you so?" The innocent gaiety of her words had touched
him but abated nothing of his fierce purpose. The motto on his crest
was `I Will Repay', and in the dark history of his family it had
always applied equally to a debt of honour or an injury, With a
kindled look on his hawklike features, he signalled his retinue to
retire a little farther off, while he led the Lady Margaret into the
grateful shade of the trees.
Being in the wood was something like sitting on the inside of a
green aquarium, the tens of thousands of leaves all round filtering
out the unwanted blues and reds from the spectrum to leave a sort of
green haze broken only by an occasional shaft of sunlight.
Benson raised his eyes from this to the fair-skinned,
delicate-featured woman opposite; she was flushed and her
eyes had an oddly beseeching look. It was a look he
sometimes saw on the faces of all his clients, except on that
of the dreaded Hogan, whose face was too rigid with
depression to show much.
"Well," he said, "I think it's going along all right."
"Do you really?"
"Yes. I would cut out that first `delicate' if I were you you
don't really need it. And I am not sure that you are quite
getting the right consistency of tone."
"Where do you mean?" Miss Colomb had leaned
forward tensely. Her hair was streaked blonde and permed
in an elaborate style that swept it high off her forehead,
giving her face a naked, exposed look. With this elaborate
coiffure and her naked face and her pearls she always
seemed to Benson like a person made ready for sacrifice.
She was easily his most affluent client. She lived with her
father in Kirby, in a house near the sea; her father was an
antique dealer and Miss Colomb helped him in the shop she
loved beautiful things. There had never been mention of
"It's Lady Margaret," Benson said. "Sir Reginald always
stays cool, bless him, but she keeps jumping out of the
frame. I mean, for example, would a woman of her class
and time say, 'I'm tougher than I look'?"
"She might," Miss Colomb said defensively. "I don't see
why not. She is very unconventional. I've made that clear
elsewhere in the book. She is a free spirit."
"She is, yes." Familiar weariness descended on Benson.
Miss Colomb was using the argument of character against
him, a ploy used by all his clients at one time or another.
"She may be a free spirit," he said, "but that doesn't enable
her to defy anachronism. We must remember that she is a
character in a story. And a story is a world. It has its own
laws, its own internal consistency."
"Yes, but she is a free spirit in the story. She defies the
narrow conventions of the day."
"That may be so, but she can't anticipate the speech
patterns of a future age."
He paused, smiling at Miss Colomb, for whom he felt
considerable sympathy. He was conscientious in his dealings
with his clients, making it a point of honour, even in
the midst of his own despair, to take their work seriously,
try to offer what help he could. But there was not much
point in pursuing this particular issue. He thought he knew
why Lady Margaret, and only she, committed these solecisms.
It had started happening since Sir Reginald Penthaligon
had ridden into her life on his bay gelding and she had
become the object of his dark designs. In fact, it was Miss
Colomb's voice that kept breaking through, but he didn't
think he could say this to her except indirectly. He didn't
want to hurt her.
She was waiting. She was looking at him expectantly. He
must say something. What sins have I committed, he
wondered, that I must be plagued so now in late career? A
little tact, Benson.
"Of the various attributes we fiction-writers require," he
said, "one of the most important is detachment. Of course
tenacity of purpose is the sine qua non, otherwise we'd never
keep on with it for the year or two years or longer that it
takes to finish the work. And we have to be a certain sort of
egotist or we wouldn't want to make a display of ourselves,
would we? But without detachment, without distance,
there is always the danger of losing perspective, of getting
enmeshed in our own fictions."
He paused, looking across the desk with a hope that
quickly withered of some admission or acknowledgement.
Miss Colomb's level grey eyes looked back at him steadily.
Her mouth, which must have been pretty, did not make
motions of speech. In her silence, on her face, Benson read
the marks of the true fictioneer, saw his own abjectness, his
own absurd obstinacy. Miss Colomb was in the prison of
her invention and she did not want to be free. He thought in
that moment of the man who had jumped. High up there,
quite alone, he had clambered over the white bars of the
railing. Benson knew now why the railing had fascinated'
him, knew what he had wanted to tell the man on the bench,
but had been afraid to because the man was black. In the
Liverpool shipyards they had fitted high rails on the slave
ships to make it difficult for the slaves to jump into the sea.
"That description of the wood," he said, "it's a bit
ordinary, isn't it? All you are saying is that inside the trees
the light was different. And they are not sitting in an
aquarium, they are sitting on their horses, they are moving.
Couldn't you give it more atmosphere, more sense of
movement away from the light? This is not just any old
wood, is it? It is the fatal wildwood, it is the wood that Lady
Margaret and Sir Reginald Penthaligon are entering