Sometimes compared to The Catcher in the Rye, this rediscovered novel of the 1960s has a similar haunting sense that the adult world is phony and threatening. The hero of the book, Ashton Vaughan, has come home after a long absence from his Welsh seaside town. A member of the notorious Vaughan family, he has become a hopeless alcoholic drifter, but he moves in with his brother, aloof and eccentric, who still lives in the family home. Slowly, as Ashton reaches out to his loyal friends in town, it becomes clear that a violent vendetta had forced him to run away from home.
About the Author
Stead Jones is the author of The Ballad of Oliver Powell which was published in the United States as The Man with the Talents. Philip Pullman is the bestselling author of several books, most notably his trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials. The first of His Dark Materials has been turned into the film The Golden Compass and the first two books from his Sally Lockhart series have been adapted for television.
Read an Excerpt
Make Room for the Jester
By Stead Jones
ParthianCopyright © 2011 Philip Pullman
All rights reserved.
'Geography begins at home,' Evans Thomas announced. 'No doubt we are all in agreement with that?'
The class nodded, but very reluctantly. It was the last day before the summer holiday.
'Porthmawr the fair, then,' he went on, and paused for the laugh. 'Sunset metropolis by an Irish Sea. Other Eden, demi-paradise – including the Palace Cinema, of course, where so many of you worship at the shrine of Metro and Goldwyn and Mayer; where Clark has a Gable, where Mae goes West, twice nightly, best seats one and six ...'
'Humour is the curse of the Welsh,' Goronwy whispered to me. 'Watch out for the catch ...'
Evans Thomas' glasses flashed a warning as he searched the class. 'Population of Porthmawr, Goronwy Jones?' A whiplash question that killed the laughter. 'On your feet, boy! Up!'
Goronwy's desk went bang as he stood. 'Five thousand, Mr Thomas.' Goronwy was using his insulting voice. 'Main export – the unemployed.' And the brave ones laughed.
The colour left Evans Thomas' face, came back again bunched up and dark below his glasses. 'Insolence!' he thundered. A purple vein coiled itself across his forehead. 'Big lout! Buffoon! Think you can say what you like, don't you? Father on the Education Committee, so you think yourself privileged. ... Let me tell you, boy ...' But he never did. Suddenly he was swaying there in front of us, one hand clutching at his chest, the other searching for support. 'Sir!' one of the girls cried out. 'Sir!' said Goronwy at my side. The dinner bell rang. Evans Thomas seemed to lunge out for his tall desk. It went over with him, the bottle of red ink in the air, splintering against the wall.
The class rose. A silence that hid screaming, then there was a rush to the front. And I would have been with them had Goronwy, his face the colour of lard, not blocked my way. 'He's dead,' he was saying over and over again. ... But now the staff were in, even Mr Penry, the Head, and they were saying 'dead, dead', too. Form VA were back in their seats, graveyard faces, a graveyard silence. 'Take them out,' the Head cried. 'Will someone take them out?' We filed past the prone body of Mr Evans Thomas. I never saw his face, never even tried to look.
The summer holiday began like that, with a sudden, public death. It was an omen, Meira said – would set off others, a thing like that. I'd got some of my colour back now, she said: it must have been a terrible shock. She licked the jam off her knife. 'Married, was he?'
'Bachelor,' I said. 'Used to call him "the Snake".'
'There you are, then,' she said, as she buttered another piece of bread. 'Get married is the motto. Single – and they go like that.' She gave me a cheeky smile. 'Not upset, are you?' She was all sympathy, but anxious for the details. 'Kept you in, did they?'
'That's the Head all over,' I said. 'Always getting to the bottom of things.' I remembered the hole in the seat of my flannels, and how a girl had giggled as I left the class. The Head and Super Edwards and Alderman Mrs Meirion-Pughe from the Governors were behind the table in the study. Mrs Meirion-Pughe's thick eyebrows made remarks as I entered.
'Name?' said the Head. Lew Morgan, sir. 'Lew? No such name as Lew, boy! Llywelyn is your name.' Lew, sir. 'Rubbish, boy. Where do these boys get their ideas from?' Smiles all round. 'Home address?' Number Twelve Lower Hill Road.
'Ffordd Allt Isaf,' said Mrs Meirion-Pughe, giving our street its Welsh name. Mrs Meirion-Pughe was so Welsh that she thought the English Bible unsuitable for Christians. She was very religious, too.
'What did they ask, then?' said Meira.
'Lot of nothing,' I said, remembering the agony of backing to the door, one hand clamped over my behind.
'Some cake,' Meira offered. 'Only workman's, though. Baked them this morning.'
Workman's – pastry and raisins – was fine, and so was sitting there in the kitchen of Number Twelve Lower Hill Road, Porthmawr, Wales, with Meira making things ordinary – even the sight of a man dying – with a cheeky word, a lick of the knife, a smile that came from the eyes. She was my cousin – my only relative now that my mother was dead – a small, dark woman with dimples like stars in her cheeks. Living in Number Twelve with her and Owen was fine, even if they did act like lovebirds, even if she did talk about sex all the time. Meira was thirty-five in 1936, the year all this happened, and now and then there was mention of how she was getting past it, talk of the third month being bad, and how she'd lost them every time. Talk I had to pretend not to understand.
Owen was tall and fair and very thin. He was a handyman, Owen, capable of any work, except that economic conditions, as he said himself, were against him. Most of the year he was on the dole, but now, for the summer, he had a job up on the beach, minding the boats and deckchairs. He wanted a boat of his own but there wasn't much point because, just as the quarry had died in the hills at the back of the town, so the fishing was dying in the bay. 'No competing with Fleetwood and Grimsby,' he said through his bread and jam, 'so this boat I saw today might as well have been the old quinquireme of Nineveh herself. Know about that, do you?'
He was forever testing me – the penalty of having passed the scholarship to the County School. 'John Masefield,' I said.
Owen chuckled. 'Salvation through education,' he said. 'We'll have you down the library to read out the situations vacant for the proletariat ...'
'A teacher died today,' I said. 'In class ...'
Owen dropped his knife. 'Good God,' he said, 'is it possible to have too much education?' But by then, unaccountably, I was in tears, and they were both rushing to comfort me. 'Tell me, Lew – get it out of your head.' And after I had done so Owen, in a local preacher's voice, went on about death and Mons and Vimy Ridge. 'Out of our hands, see ... Don't be upset.'
'A greater Power,' Meira joined in.
'Forget it,' Owen said. 'What d'you say – come to the Palace with us? Second house? Pay-day today ...'
Down Lower Hill Gladstone Williams would be waiting, but I couldn't resist a chance to go to the pictures, so it was the Palace that night, the visitors all around, wet macs steaming, the air smoke-blue and tropical hot, and the dying forgotten.
But, some time in the early hours, Evans Thomas was there at the window, eyes burning, mouth twisted and ready for the bite. I had the light on quick, and in a shaking sweat was clawing for the curtains to keep him out, for in my nightmare I had been convulsed with laughter – standing on my desk, roaring – as he fell down like Buster Keaton, fell down and got up, fell down and got up again. ... I clung to the curtain and in a while managed to tell myself it was a dream. But once back on the bed I was overcome by black remorse – a man dies in front of you like that, and all you can do is laugh, make a comic film out of it – and I became stiffened there, my arms tight around my knees, unable to move, unable even to cry out for Meira, as if paralysed, only my mind thundering as the hours of night passed and the window grew light. ... If only I had gone to see Gladstone. ... Then, as if in a film again, I was in Gladstone's house and it was two years ago and I was telling him about my mother, about finding her like that, and how I had thought it funny, had actually laughed: and how the shame of that was like a knife turning in me. 'Pushes on the comedian, something sad,' Gladstone was saying. 'Cap and bells and all.' And he was on his feet, arms waving, dancing, being the Jester for me in order to stem my tears. 'Never be afraid to open the door and ask the Jester in,' he cried, then stood still and grave, adding almost fiercely, 'Always, Lew. Always.'
My arms and legs were mine again. I stretched and lay back – let the Jester in, like a prayer, let the Jester in – and in a while, as the day climbed over Porthmawr, slept.
Impossible to predict, certainly at that moment, that it was going to be a summer for the Jester.CHAPTER 2
Gladstone was trying out various signatures on the sand.
Adolf Hitler Jones, he wrote. Then after it he added A. H. Jones, BA, BD. 'Well,' he said, 'it might have been Adolf Hitler if he'd been born in Berlin, or somewhere like that.'
The Rev A. H. Jones, BA, BD, was minister at Capel Mawr, and they didn't make them any bigger than that. A. H. stood for Alvared Hounsdow, as we all knew, but Gladstone liked playing around with names. 'Adolf Hitler Jones, BA, BD,' he went on. 'The famous Welsh-German, or German-Welshman ... Lew, you never know, do you? It could be his real name. I mean, nobody calls him anything except A. H.'
We were sitting at the unfashionable end of the beach. It was the only place for us with our bathing gear. Dewi and Maxie had their sisters' knickers on, a bit modified, but with moth holes in the wrong places; I was wearing a pair of khaki shorts which Meira had picked up in Capel Mawr jumble; the little ones were in knickers and underpants – the ones they wore all the time – and they didn't hide much, especially when wet. But Gladstone, of course, had a proper pair of bathing trunks, Marks and Spencer, blue, with a white stripe down the leg and a white belt with a chrome buckle. Gladstone always managed things right.
'Clarke Brentford,' he wrote with his stick. 'That's a nice one. Clarke with an e – for distinction and affectation.' He had a voice like a girl's, not high, but with a girl's sound to it. 'Mussolini Morgan,' he wrote. 'I like that, too. It sounds like an Italian tenor who does juggling as well. Anything's nice when you've been launched as Gladstone Williams.'
'Chief Lord of the Navy, Gladstone was,' Maxie said.
'Prime Minister,' Gladstone hissed.
Maxie was the thickest going. He had been in the same class for years. His real name was Will, but he had a boxer's face so he was Maxie to everyone, even his mother.
'Beethoven Jones,' Gladstone wrote. 'Is that how you spell Beethoven, Lew?'
'Ask me another,' I said.
'Composed the "Messiah",' said Maxie.
We threw sand at him.
You're the smartest, Lew,' Gladstone said. 'Scholarship and everything. I wish I had brains.' He wrote William Shakespeare Hughes on the sand. Gladstone was seventeen, the oldest among us, and he was, as he said, practically a non-starter in the Porthmawr Education Stakes. 'I didn't go to school much, you know,' he said. 'I'm not really sorry, but it might have helped me to concentrate. Of course, I'd have gone more often, only Mam kept on having the babies there. She had to have someone to give her a hand, after all. Besides, I found school very restrictive.' He wrote Tennyson Keats Cadwaladr on the sand, and with a flourish added Professor of Comparative Alcohology, Bangor University.
Gladstone had the best vocabulary, English and Welsh, in all Porthmawr. But Dewi was all for swearing. 'Too bloody right it's restrictive,' he said. 'School puts bloody years on you.'
'Language,' Gladstone said.
Dewi was my age, and until I had got the scholarship we had shared the same desk. As well as being an artist at swearing, he carried more scars than anyone in the town – on his knees, hands, face, even through the close-cropped hair on his scalp you could see them – and they were all the result of doing things the hard and daring way.
'I don't like dirty language,' Gladstone went on. 'The world's plagued with dirty talk.'
We all nodded, even Dewi, because Gladstone was the leader. Not because he was older, though, not even because he was very tall and slim and handsome, but because he had authority. Gladstone could tell you he put peroxide on his hair, and waved it now and then, but you didn't start thinking he was soft or anything like that. He had this girl's sound to his voice, but you were held by it just the same.
'William Wordsworth Williams,' he wrote. 'A lovely old poet.'
'It was the schooner Hesperus,' Maxie began.
'Wrong poet,' Gladstone said gently, but firmly.
We lay back on the warm sand then, the four of us, while the children fought and played. I was with my friends and the sun was back in the sky, and I had almost forgotten that they were burying poor Mr Evans Thomas that day. Behind us Porthmawr looked warmer, gentler – not the way it did in winter, or when it rained. The sun was crimson and amber and gold through my closed eyes, and the wind tasted of salt. Poor Evans Thomas had died of natural causes years ago. All I wanted now was for the clocks of the world to stop so that it could stay like that for ever.
'When you leave school,' Gladstone was saying, 'what are you going to be, Lew?'
'Gangster, me,' Dewi broke in. 'Going to have a mob and live in Hollywood.' Dewi saw nearly all the pictures that came to Porthmawr's three cinemas. 'A mob and molls,' he added.
'Nobody asked you,' Gladstone said.
I kept my eyes closed and said, 'I'm going to be a poet.'
Maxie tried again: 'It was the schooner Hesperus ...'
'Shut up,' Gladstone said. 'A poet? Seriously?'
'Yes,' I said.
I felt the fine sand falling on my face and knew they had sat up.
'Tell us a poem, then,' Maxie said. 'Tell us one of them ...'
Gladstone yelled at the children because they had buried little Walter. Then he said, 'Got a poem handy, Lew?'
I kept my eyes closed and said, 'Thousands'.
They all considered that. 'Like the National Eisteddfod?' Dewi asked.
'All singing that,' Maxie said scornfully. 'Singing and sopranos ...'
'Oh – imagine Lew winning at the Eisteddfod,' Gladstone said. 'Going to the front in his nightie. I'll lend you mine, Lew.'
I sat up. 'I wouldn't try for the National. I wouldn't try for anything.'
'Because of the nightie, Lew?'
I had been working on this for some months. 'Because that isn't a poem,' I said. 'Writing to order isn't a poem.'
Gladstone nodded. 'Quite right,' he said approvingly.
'Shouldn't do it, that's all,' I said. I'd nearly sorted this out a few nights before, but now the idea escaped me – like trying to remember what happened next in a dream. 'A poet shouldn't do that.'
Gladstone smiled and gripped my arm, but the other two looked at me with blank wonder. 'What's he to do, then?' Maxie demanded.
'Shouldn't do anything,' I said heatedly. The stuff about being a poet had slipped out. I'd never told anyone else. 'Just write it down, that's all,' I said.
Both Dewi and Maxie nodded, but blankly.
'I wandered lonely as a cloud,' Gladstone said, as if to explain it all.
'Wyt Ionawr yn oer,' Dewi put in.
'Welsh or English, which do you write?' Gladstone asked.
'English,' I said, and that was another lie. I hadn't written anything yet.
They all nodded approval. 'Wales is the best country in the world,' Dewi said, 'but the language is old-fashioned.'
Gladstone considered that carefully. 'It's the best language all round,' he said firmly, 'but there's too much talk about good Welsh and poor Welsh; and good Welsh is too stiff altogether.' He held up a fistful of sand and let it trickle out slowly. 'The poems are nice, though. But we're all half and half here, aren't we? English and Welsh all mixed up. Maybe ...'
'There's no pictures in Welsh,' Maxie said.
'Know why that is, don't you?' Dewi put in. 'That's because Hollywood isn't in Wales.' He turned to me. 'Lew – say a poem. Go on.'
Gladstone clapped his hands. 'Come and listen, children. Lew is going to tell us a poem.' Dora and Mair and Walter scrambled across and crouched facing me. They all stared at me, except Walter who had cross-eyes – but probably he was staring too, in his way.
'All right, Lew?' Gladstone asked gently.
I was in a panic now. Cornered. I didn't have a poem ready, and I knew I could never remember one which Gladstone, at least, didn't know.
'Can't do it,' I mumbled. 'They're not ready yet – my poems.'
They all looked disappointed, but Gladstone took over smoothly for me. 'Don't force him,' he said. 'Lew's not ready to tell us – and he's quite right. You can't force flowers to grow, can you?' I knew then that Gladstone had seen through me, knew that relief was at hand, too. 'Tell you what,' he went on, 'I'll give you one of mine. Not a real poem, Lew – just a bit of an entertainment.'
Excerpted from Make Room for the Jester by Stead Jones. Copyright © 2011 Philip Pullman. Excerpted by permission of Parthian.
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