The town of Barrowcester—pronounced “Brewster”—is English as can be. From its cozy little pubs to its immaculate cathedral close, the quiet city seems straight out of the pages of Thomas Hardy. For American academic Evan Kirby, it’s paradise, a welcome escape from the United States, where he was haunted by the grim memories of his brutal divorce. A historian of angels and demons, he has come to Barrowcester to explore the cathedral library. But he will find there are no angels in this peculiar little village—only demons lurking around every corner.
From the agnostic bishop and his cannabis cookie–addicted mother to the sex-mad cardinal and the schoolboy with a very unusual relationship with his spaniel, every Barrower has a secret, each more shocking than the last. Evan came to bury himself in work, but as redemption comes to Barrowcester one sinner at a time, will he find love instead?
Inspired by Patrick Gale’s own youth in England’s ancient capital, Facing the Tank is a loving satire of the absurdities at the heart of provincial life. An homage to Anthony Trollope, it is as sparkling a novel as Britain has produced in the last fifty years.
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About the Author
Patrick Gale was born on the Isle of Wight. He spent his infancy at Wandsworth Prison, which his father governed, then grew up in Winchester, before attending Oxford University. He now lives on a farm near Land’s End. One of the United Kingdom’s best-loved novelists, his recent works include A Perfectly Good Man, The Whole Day Through, and the Richard & Judy Book Club bestseller Notes from an Exhibition. His latest novel, A Place Called Winter, was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Prize, the Walter Scott Prize, and the Independent Booksellers’ Novel of the Year award. To find out more about Patrick and his work, visit www.galewarning.org.
Read an Excerpt
Facing the Tank
By Patrick Gale
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 Patrick Gale
All rights reserved.
Evan was working at seat G16 at one of the long desks that radiated from the heart of the reading room. Before him was a pile of books, to one side a copy of The New Yorker, a packet of Winstons and a sheaf of book demand slips blank save for the boxes already filled with 'G16' and 'Evan J. Kirby'. The J stood for Joseph, his father's name. He always took G16 because G15 was always taken by a woman with astonishing hair that fell in sheeny black waves to the small of her back. She called herself, 'Cooper, Prof. C.J.' and she had spent the past two months reading up on ancient death cults of the Middle East and the Nile Delta. They had never spoken. She did not smoke so it was impossible to follow her to the portico for nicotine breaks and she never seemed to take lunch. Evan arrived minutes before opening time so was always sure of securing G16. Cooper Prof. C.J. arrived at about ten and always stayed on past Evan's breaking point. Even if she drifted in towards eleven, G15 remained uncannily vacant for her. They would never speak and he rarely saw her face (which, indeed, was less exciting than her hair) but he sensed that if some M.A. upstart or theological harridan were to approach G15 before her arrival he would feel compelled to apologize and say that it was already taken. He might even say it was taken by his wife.
He still wore a wedding ring; a plain band of gold whose inside surface was filled with 'Evan and Miriam and' to ghastly perpetuity.
Cooper Prof. C.J. sat in G15 now. When he had returned from his elevenses, which had turned into lunch because of The New Yorker, she had been there poring over a small pigskin-bound volume that looked as though its pages would smell bad, and she had not moved for three and a half hours. Unless, that was, she leaped from her seat whenever he left for a smoke. But no, that thought smacked of the obsessive and he was not the obsessive type.
Without taking his eye from the page, he reached a hand into a jacket pocket and brought out a mint imperial which he slid furtively to his mouth. Mints were meant to take his mind off smoking and cut down the tobacco breaks to once an hour, only he was not sure whether they counted as 'food' and were therefore illicit in the reading room. Sometimes they worked wonders. Sometimes they only caused a dull ache in his more receded gums.
He took up his pen now and copied a passage from the book before him, checking the spine for the date and volume number.
'Psychic Journal 1921,' he wrote. 'Vol. 15. Letter from Mrs Vaux of Wilton, Wilts. "In November 1908 I was staying with my cousin the Bishop of Barrowcester. I was sleeping with Miss V. S. when I suddenly saw a tall white figure sweep through the bedroom from the door to the open casement. It was only hazy in outline and was gone in a second or two. I was beside myself with terror and called out at once, 'Did you see that?' and at the exact same moment my companion, Miss V. S. exclaimed, 'Did you hear that?' Then I declared, 'I saw an Angel sweeping through the air,' and she replied, 'I heard an Angel's song.' We were both much afraid but said nothing of this matter to anyone. Miss V. S. has now passed over to the other side to join my late husband."'
Finishing, Evan set down his pen, flipped to the next page and cracked his knuckles. He glanced at Cooper Prof. C.J. She was so intent that she had let her hair slip round into a curtain across her forehead. He wondered how she could see to read. Perhaps she was dozing; the library was dotted with people who had acquired the skill of dozing in a studious position. His eyes roamed up to the dome and across to the clock. It was nearly time for his teatime Winston. He watched as a young librarian emerged on to the upper gallery from a door that was disguised as a bookcase. He watched him walk half way round the circle of wall then, with two books under one arm, stretch on a stool to push a third book into a high shelf. He was pushing from too low a point on its spine and Evan was not suprised to see it topple back out of his grip. The librarian looked young enough to forget where he was and swear loudly, but if he did so his voice was swallowed by the dome. The book struck him a glancing blow on the shoulder, bounced off the gallery railing and flew out into the abyss, scattering pages in its wake. The librarian fled blame through another secret door. One reader jumped up to avoid being hit but most continued their work undisturbed. A few then reacted in slow motion, dulled by hours of rustling papers, distant gurney wheels and dully echoed thuds of giant indices. When the book crashed innocently on an empty desk, these stared first in the direction of the noise then peered up at the flock of sheets making a slower descent on the currents of body heat and yawn. Somebody chuckled and was silenced by shushing.
Evan rose, scooping up his cigarettes. The mint imperial had worn off and the room had begun to feel submarinely quiet and slow. He changed his mind five yards from G16 and returned to pick up his books and file. Cooper Prof. C.J. did not look up. Perhaps she was asleep. Perhaps she was dead. Evan waited for the man at the desk for surnames G to M to check that he had handed in everything he had taken out. It had not been a productive day. The bulk of his text was ready but, while waiting for his agent to fix up a trip to some ancient libraries in the Midlands, he was meant to be checking through the bibliography and quotations. The latter tended to be such fun that he kept being sidetracked and would spend half an hour or more dipping into irrelevant correspondence or journalism. An hour after lunch had been squandered on a romance called Wings of Flame by 'A Member of His Majesty's Armed Forces' that was sent to his desk because of a misread catalogue number. It had turned out to be the story of a nurse who fell in love with an RAF pilot after he lost his sight and could not see that she wore a built-up shoe. The thought of disability made Evan queasy and it was only this that had caused him to toss the novel aside in embarrassed disgust rather than relish it to the end.
He strode out via the readers-only Gents, throwing a twinkle to his favourite black security guard whose elaborate coiffure lifted her uniform cap two inches off her forehead. Out in the fresher air he smoked two Winstons in quick succession with the other reading room refugees then, packet in hand, he left the striped sunshine of the portico and headed after the first of the two buses that would take him back to the Booths' flat in Notting Hill.
Will Booth was an historian friend from Evan's doctorate days in Boston who had married a British girl, taken a job at London University and settled off Ladbroke Grove. Evan had given them the keys to his cottage in Vermont in exchange for the use of their flat so that he might spend the spring in England finishing his new book. This was a study of Paradise legends that would provide a companion piece to his surprisingly successful investigation of the concept of Hell. It was also a good excuse to stay away from America, which he was coming to mistrust, and out of the territories of his estranged wife, Miriam, whose influence he was trying to slough off. It was thanks to Miriam that he now had great difficulty in smoking or eating in the street or in putting more than one artificial sweetener in his coffee.
Rocking in the top of a number 12 from Oxford Circus, he lit another Winston then waved his travel pass at the conductor. The photograph was far from flattering. It had been said that his looks faintly echoed Gary Cooper but photo booths made him look more like a tired, cocaine-blasted airline pilot.
As the man beside him rose to leave, Evan had to rise slightly too because he was sitting on the man's coat, then he felt in his breast pocket for the letter from his lawyers in Boston. He had read the front and the back of the envelope several times since breakfast, he had even begun to open it with a knife in the greasy spoon where he had spent the elevenses that had turned into lunch. Now however he had read The New Yorker from cover to cover and had twenty minutes on a bus with nothing to do but take out the letter and, as the Brits said, face the music.
They met at one of his mother's interminable bridge evenings when he was thirty-five and Miriam was thirty. He rented a flat on the other side of Boston but six times a month he put on a tie, splashed on whatever after shave Mother had given him that Christmas and rode a bus out to her fat house in Back Bay. Four times out of six this was for Sunday lunch where he would meet his younger sister, smug brother-in-law and brutal nephews and would eat enough to keep him going on Graham crackers and peanut butter for the next six days. The other two times, in part payment for the Sunday lunches, were to put in a welcome bachelor appearance at Mother's bridge evenings. There was never more than one game in evidence and that was invariably played by Mother, a fourth-generation rag-trade widow from next door, a distinguished but silent man they called the Commander and pallid young Mr Trudeau who did not seem to work and, like Evan, was a bachelor.
'With Evan,' Mother would say, 'it's just a matter of time. With young Mr Trudeau' (it had always been young Mr Trudeau – it probably still was) 'with young Mr Trudeau,' she would say, 'I think it's sort of a confirmed thing.'
Mother thought bridge conferred a gracious status on her evenings but she was forever interrupting the game to yell a greeting at a new arrival or to hiss polite requests to Mona Mae, the coloured maid she hired for the occasions and instructed to act 'in residence'.
There were usually ten or so guests besides the three bridge players and these quickly learned to fend for themselves without the manipulation of an active hostess. Evan's sister rarely came. The unspoken understanding was that it was Evan's duty to do so to 'keep up his side' in the struggle to find him a wife. Being thoroughly uninterested, Evan allowed it to be assumed that he was a bachelor of the helpless variety, although he was quite content with Graham crackers, peanut butter and the occasional invitation to dinner from a fellow academic's wife. He had been known to spread the peanut butter with jam or to scatter it with chopped tomato and once in a while he bought a family-size pizza which would lie conveniently to hand on a bookshelf and be eaten in slow, cold slices. The faculty women were either old enough to play bridge with Mother or, if single, loud and intimidating. There was rarely more temptation on offer at the fat house in Back Bay. Then he met Miriam. She was out on the porch sipping her mint julep (it was heat-hazy July) and being talked at by a woman in huge round tortoiseshell spectacles. He remembered the detail about the spectacles because two years after their marriage she had insisted on buying some like them. He had crept out hoping for a little peace and had forgotten he was still obediently clutching a plate of stuffed eggs.
'Gee thanks,' Miriam said and took one.
She was five foot five with a heart-shaped face, honey-blonde hair and the kind of thinness that screamed nerves at anyone within a four-yard radius. A titless rake. She had smiled full in his face and everything had changed. After what in retrospect was an astonishingly naïve courtship, though with little more than the usual diplomatic deceit on the woman's part and an immoderate element of belated adolescence on the man's, they had a curt white wedding in the university chapel followed by a fairly delirious fortnight in Paris. Miriam had never been to Europe and Evan had never gone accompanied to bed, hence the measure of delirium. Then they moved into his flat and everything changed again. Miriam had not been to college and grew quickly impatient with the fact that Evan still had not left his at thirty-five. However hard he tried to explain that research with a little teaching could be a profitable end in itself, she persisted in the belief that he had somehow failed his first degree or had been left behind to iron out some minor problems so that he could 'leave school' like everybody else. She had moved straight from high school to work in a real estate business which, by the time she took a stuffed egg off Evan, she was almost running single-handed. As she set about trying to tidy Evan's work into the corner behind the new Regency television one week and the next throwing awesomely engineered dinner parties for faculty members in an effort to help him to 'get on', he realized that he did not know why she had married him. He had only found the courage to put her this question ten or twelve years later, by which time she had set up her own real estate firm using his money, had enjoyed several flagrant affairs and had started hiring a coloured maid for dinner parties.
'Well, I didn't take you on to have kids, honey,' she replied, "cause it didn't take long to find out you were incapable in that department. I guess it was because you were a pushover. A rich, virgin pushover.'
To the relief of the faculty wives, among whom Miriam had rarely deigned to mix, Evan left her. To their chagrin he also resigned all but his honorary post and left with his books for his cottage in picturesque Nowhere, Vermont. Here he started writing a book about eternal punishment. There was a general store in Nowhere, Vermont, which gladly delivered cigarettes, Graham crackers, peanut butter and deep-frozen pizza. There Evan led a pleasant existence, broken pleasantly by trips to New York, where he revived old friendships and then increasingly to London, where he made new ones. With the help of agents in each city he began to do comfortable, tasteful things like give lecture series and speak on the radio. After keeping blissfully silent for months, with the help of hard work and one Huby Stokes traced by Evan's mother, Miriam sued for divorce. Ever since the launch of the book on Hell she had been muddying his complacent pool with questions of money and maintenance. His mother had begged him to sue her at the outset of their separation on grounds of infidelities and (Mother being ignorant of her son's incapacity) her refusal to start a family, however he still bore his wife an ounce or two of misplaced sympathy and ten years of her shrill get-up-and-go dogmatism had brainwashed him into feeling the guilty party. Now she had taken the initiative on grounds of desertion and irreparable breakdown of marriage. She had founded most of her real estate firm in her simple sister's name, blinding Evan with jabber of tax evasion. Only now, with a lawyer's help, had he come to see that this had been insurance against the day when one of them chose to bolt.
As the bus lurched towards Notting Hill Gate, Evan clutched the letter and pulled out his glasses so that he could reread it without holding it at arm's length. He forgot to light another Winston and he almost smiled. Everything was settled. Miriam was going to rob him of only half what he thought she thought she could get. As of Tuesday week he would be a free man. Sweet L.I.B.E.R.T.Y. was his. As if carried away by sympathetic excitement, Evan's lawyer polished off the letter with an unprofessional flourish of news about his wife and family. Marni was well, Sal came tenth in the junior marathon and little Kim had just had the braces taken off her teeth.
'God bless them all,' thought Evan, bounding down the stairs as the bus stopped by the Coronet cinema, 'and I bet Kim looks swell.'
He dived into a cake shop and emerged with a bag of chocolate fudge brownies. Heading down Kensington Park Gardens he bought a Standard and two bunches of anemones. He liked anemones because they looked dead until one gave them something to drink. He liked the deep colours as they revived. Miriam had liked dried flowers, often spraying them with gold or silver paint. She had liked the way they lasted. The flat, and then the house where she had insisted they move, had crackled with their spidery shapes. They would catch on his cardigan sleeves as he passed by and he would relax on a sofa only to have them rustle in his ear.
Two little girls slid past on roller skates, attached by headphones to the same Walkman. A woman who had to jump out of the way with her shopping bags appealed for support in her wrath but he was smiling and eating chocolate fudge brownies in the street so she turned elsewhere, doubly indignant.
Excerpted from Facing the Tank by Patrick Gale. Copyright © 1988 Patrick Gale. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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