This was what one of my early creative writing tutors once said to a group of us scruffy art students. Later, I had to look up what Parnassus was. Anyway, today I begin teaching a group of third year undergrad creative writing students myself. They will workshop their work in progress, which is an exercise in trust, and can be frightening. To demonstrate that teacher is prepared to put himself up for it, here’s the first half of a short story I’ve had knocking about for a while. Discuss.
Sliding Paper is Nothing for Him
We stood opposite the main entrance to the Hotel and watched the head doorman slide a luggage trolley across the pavement, or sidewalk, as Hans called it. An assistant caught the trolley in one hand and whipped it to the kerb’s edge where a cab had pulled up. The assistant was going to lengths to pass himself off as a model professional. He transferred the suitcases from the boot of the cab to the trolley with neat precision while he dealt with the new arrivals with robotic politeness.
‘It’s a bum job, that,’ Hans said. ‘Society gives no respect for it, and it’s more difficult than it looks; always a hatbox or some unexpected item waiting to slip and make seem as though you’ve been careless, as though you personally cause mess.’
‘You seem to know what you’re talking about,’ I said.
‘I did such work one long summer ago, in Hastings,’ he replied. ‘Every shift, for sure, there comes along the frosty bitch in a frosty coat surveying you like a sentry, subjecting your technique to inspection, willing something to be damaged, vigilant for the opportunity to see what it is that will ruin things and give a sense of purpose into her life today.’
I met Hans very recently in a queue at a book signing. We were each, as it turned out standing in line to buy a present for a relative. The signing was by a television cook. Hans was immediately in front of me. Perhaps he had reached his boredom threshold, but whatever it was he turned quite suddenly and proceeded to rap off in this way he had.
‘Look how much they sell,’ he said, gesturing towards a cardboard cut-out of the cook. The cut out was dressed in a brown three-quarter-length skirt and a stiff cream blouse and was holding a plate of mackerel out in front of her.
‘The same old shit everywhere,’ he said, ‘But still the public can’t get enough of it.’
I didn’t want to get involved, and for a moment I considered cutting my losses right there, stepping out of the line and forgetting it. But I asked a question instead.
‘Why are you queuing to buy it, then?’
‘For my aunt, of course,’ Hans replied.
For his aunt. Of course. I had dropped into the shop after work. I was looking for something on interior design, this was how I chanced upon the signing event. I was on my way home, which, for the moment, at least, is on the 5th floor of a mansion block behind Hammersmith Grove. The leaded windows and the parquet flooring of the common parts of the block are listed, but you can do what you want in your own flat, within reason. The place is my father’s investment for when he and mother retire. He’s very considered like that. Father has worked tirelessly all his life, which he mentions once in a while. He recently sent electricians over to change the lighting. This work left behind a number of channels in the walls which have been filled over with rough pink plaster. I painted several coloured rectangles about the place from the little test pots, but I wasn’t happy with any of them.
‘For your aunt?’
‘Yes. She’s a finicky eater, but fish she loves. My aunt and fish both smell quite the same, I’m afraid.’ Hans smiled as he said this and I may have smiled back.
I worked in the Admissions department of a university annexe in Goodge Street. It would have been absolutely de trop in Admissions to say anything about how anybody might smell, or to say anything about anything else either. Soon after I started there one of the old-timers from maintenance was suspended for allegedly using the term ‘Jap’s eye’. When I first arrived it was this same man who told me, in a speech he had clearly given before, that ‘these annexes’ which ‘were springing up all over, nowadays,’ were ‘specifically to cater for the rising sun economies. They’re all Korean and Chinese and whathaveyou,’ he said. ‘But they speak English quite good, and lovely manners they have too. Lovely people, point of fact.’
He was suspended all the same, for the Jap’s eye thing.
In Admissions everyone gave the appearance of having very lovely manners. That was because Admissions was a central monitoring unit for language control. In Admissions one always had to think before one opened one’s mouth. Shortly after the old-timer’s suspension I heard a colleague, who was also new – his name is Robert, he started a few weeks before me – ask for his coffee white. ‘You mean with milk?’ said Kate abruptly, putting him straight. Kate was our senior line manager. I noticed Robert flinch slightly at his faux pas and I gave him a small look, to help him out.
Behind Admissions there’s a patch of grass called The Green where people sit when they go out to eat and drink and smoke. The rising sun girls hang around The Green in pairs wearing extravagant combinations of candy-striped over-the-knee socks with silvered stack-heeled trainers. They spend most of their time giggling, unless essay marks have just been released, in which case the atmosphere can be much more sombre; at these moments there are quite often tears. Anything less than a First is a disaster. Their degrees do not come cheap, and back home expectations are high. I’d been eating a salad out of a carton on The Green earlier this lunchtime. A late autumn sun was shining. Robert came and sat nearby. He had a flapjack. Kate walked along. I concealed my vanilla smoothie from her as she passed. I said to Robert it was just as well she hadn’t seen it, in case it was illegal like a white coffee or something. Robert made no rejoinder, but I continued trying to be friendly, so as Kate went out of earshot I remarked that she walked as though her knickers were too tight. I’d thought of her as Tight Knickers Kate ever since the coffee incident.
‘Hmm,’ was all Robert said. It was a neutral sound. As the rest of the afternoon unfolded I worried about which side of the fence he was really on. I hardly knew him. Now I started to wonder if he mightn’t shop me for the knicker thing. There’s a common type who sees the passing on of information of that nature as a career stepping-stone. By the end of the day I’d convinced myself that the matter wouldn’t end there, that something would come of it.
‘Men are different,’ Hans said, as we remained on the sidewalk across the road from the Hotel, still watching the goings-on of the door, which were somehow mesmerising us. ‘Men do not care one jot about luggage. Also, men know what other men are like; they expect damages. A man will usually dash good, even if there is scuffing.’
‘Tips,’ said Hans. ‘I had a friend in Brighton, from Lagos. For him there were but two kinds of client: dash good and no dash.’
I reckoned Hans to be about ten years older than me: I am twenty-five and nearly six foot in height; Hans is a little taller. His features are sharp, symmetrical, his face is the sort a computer would design if you programmed it to make a north European who is good at tennis. He said he was Swedish. The first Swede I could think of was Freddie Ljungberg. When I was a teenager I had the Calvin Klein poster on my wall. Silently I nicknamed Hans ‘Freddie’ but I kept it to myself; ‘Hans’ seemed somehow so corny. There were no nicknames in Admissions. Of course there weren’t. In Admissions everything had to be played with a dead bat; Good morning Kate, Good morning Benjamin.
Hans lit a cigarette, a Prince from a soft pack with the health warning in Turkish. Across the street the assistant doorman guided his trolley expertly into the lobby. National flags flew over the door of the hotel, fluttering emblems denoting which Heads of State were in residence. The brass bars of the centre door glinted as it circled. It was a Grand hotel. If there was anyone around who was giving good dash, this was surely where they checked in.
‘What a dump,’ said Hans. ‘Shall we?’
‘Round the side,’ I replied, ‘There’s a lounge bar.’
‘Lounge bar? My dear boy, you are so English. What are we to order, cucumber sandwiches?’
‘How long have you lived here, Hans?’ I asked, as we crossed the road. I was turning over his ‘one long summer ago in Hastings’ remark.
‘Long enough to pick up on your stinking syntaxes in all truth,’ he said, ‘But I never do. Still, I have come to understand England and its people and I use this impediment to maximise my personal charm. It does not work for the immigrant immigrants, but Swedish people are neutral in these respects, eh, the same as in war, apart from those who claim that we supplied Hitler with steel, of course.’
I had observed Hans’ neutral Swedish charm in action a short while earlier, when it came to his turn to have a copy of ‘All New Fruits de Mer’ signed. ‘Always I watch your show, it is the must-see highlight of my week,’ he said as he handed the book over. The reversal of the first two words along with his accent constituted enough of a signal to cause the author to raise her head and to speak beyond the barest pleasantries in which she was trading. She looked Hans straight in his eyes; they were very blue, like the halogen spotlights you get on Audis. She asked him where he was from.
‘Sweden,’ he replied.
‘Oh, so much fresh fish to be found up there,’ she said.
‘Mainly soured herring,’ Hans replied, ‘And no one eats that for fun. Also, of course, our chefs are quite basic. With you it is different: with you there is the artistry.’
She asked if there was anyone to whom she should dedicate the book. ‘No,’ Hans said, ‘Just your name please: they are worth more like that.’
After I had my copy signed and dedicated – to Josephine – Hans ushered me round the tail of the queue. He took my copy on the pretext of wanting to compare the two signatures, placed it in a pair with his own, tucked them inside his coat and walked out. I glanced around. I paused. I pretended to look at a carousel of greetings cards. I stepped out of the bookshop at a normal pace, and then I ran. I had never stolen anything in my life. My parents were law abiding. Just once in family history had my father come a cropper with the law and that was only a mild speeding ticket which upset him beyond reason, not because of the fine, but because of the blemish on his record. I strode along in silence beside Hans. If I was expecting an explanation there was none forthcoming. We took the next turn right and pressed on in more silence. Hans returned my copy of All New Fruits de Mer to me. I had meant it to be a gift and now all I could think about was my father, the speeding ticket, and how I’d have to get rid of the thing.
‘Having saved you twenty quid I think you can afford to buy me drink,’ Hans said.
‘Do you always steal books?’
‘Of course,’ Hans said. ‘I have not time for those in publishing. I wrote once a novel but not one of those bastards would publish it.’
I was quite taken aback. ‘What was it about?’ I asked.
‘Existence,’ said Hans sharply. ‘What else could it be about?’
Though several alternatives came to mind as possible answers to ‘subject of a novel’ I did not suggest any (my short time in Admissions was making me more circumspect than usual). Without even glancing sideways I could sense that Hans was still seething about the matter of his literary rejections. Also, there was something about the way he had said what else could it be about? that made me think that the publishing world had made a mistake here, that Hans had probably written a masterpiece.
There were neither pubs nor bars in the streets in which we found ourselves. It was quite odd. This was how we came to pull up to a halt and watch the revolving door and the doormen at the Hotel: it was the first place we came across where you could get a drink.