Monday 17 November 2014

November: The Seventeenth

Our daily adventure continues right here with The Seventeenth instalment of November: Ralph Conway's Immortal Diary. If this is your first day with us, I'd recommend you click here for links to the preface and previous instalments.
The content appears here on The Literary Word courtesy of Table 13 Ltd


It has taken me sixteen days, fifteen excluding last Sunday, when who knows where I was, to fill up 121 pages of this book. I have just counted and there are 392 pages in this Flying Eagle Chinese diary of mine. If I do 121 pages in half a month, I’ll do 242 pages in a whole month. That’s 482 pages in two months, and 2892 pages in a year. (These calculations, by the way, are brought to you courtesy of my old man’s pocket calculator, which I came across in the inlaid box beside the gilt and green plush phone.) My God, suppose I live for the traditional three score years and ten. That gives me seventy minus thirty-one years to go. 70 - 31 = 39. (Steps!) Say 40 years. Going at this rate, I’ll have written 2892 x 40 pages by the time my time has come to kick the bucket, which = 115,680 pages. Now, all I have to do is divide 115,680 by 392, the number of Flying Eagle pages in this book. I make that 295. Amazing. If I keep this up at this for another 40 years, I’ll leave 295 of these volumes behind me.
Of course, being immortal, the figures become absurd. I have definitely thought the thought that someone would read these here words after my death. But if I am to have no death - what is the point in them? Oh God.
I supposed that sooner or later people are bound to start suspecting something. It won’t be all that long before I am England’s oldest inhabitant. I’ll get my hundredth birthday telegram from King Charles. But then, won’t it be news when I get my two-hundredth birthday telegram from King William, if he lives so long.
A most ghastly thought has just struck me. Suppose the loonies win and kill everybody, including themselves. And there’s only me left in the destruction. All alone.
Perhaps I won’t be alone! Perhaps there are others like me. Immortals. Total global nuclear war would in fact be a very convenient way of finding out if there are any others like me.  
I was walking along the front this morning and I was sort of looking at the sea out of the corner of my eye and what with one thing and another I started thinking about fish. You have to wonder about fish, don’t you, especially all these apparently super-intelligent dolphins and hump-back whales and the like. Well, yes, alright smartypants, I know that whales and dolphins aren’t fish, but they do live in the sea. That’s the point.
I went onto the stony beach and clattered down to the sea’s edge and looked at it more closely.
Supposing all the fish got together and started thrashing their tails in unison - they’d cause a tidal wave that could engulf the earth. No problem. Fish! We eat them and eat them and eat them. We hook them and net them and gut them and eat them. And sooner or later, they’re going to get fed up with being hooked and netted and gutted and eaten, and they’re going to get together, thrash in unison - and drown the lot us. Why shouldn’t fish get more intelligent? Humans are getting more stupid.
When my mother got back from the launderette yesterday, we finally had a conversation.
“So - to what do we owe the honour of this visit?” she asked.
“I just felt like seeing you.”
“I see.”
Inspiration struck me.
“I’m thinking of getting married.”
“To whom?”
“She’s called Joan.”
“Oh,” said my mother. I could see from the look on her face that the name, Joan, conjured up something unpleasant. “And who is this Joan?”
“She’s a waitress,” I said.
“Oh Ralph.”
Waitresses are rated on my mother’s social scale somewhere between prostitutes and bus-conductresses.
“She’s upper middle class,” I said.
My mother would like to think of herself as being upper middle class. In fact, she is middle class, verging, in her present state, on lower middle class. The thought that I might be marrying above myself soothed her.
“What’s her surname?”
“Henderson. Her father was a judge.”
I explained about Joan’s family and how her parents are dead.
“What’s she doing being a waitress then?”
“She likes being a waitress.”
“Huh,” said my mother, obviously finding this last assertion hard to swallow. “And what about you?”
“I’m not doing anything at the moment.”
“You’re out of work.”
“On the dole?” She made it sound like a nasty disease, like herpes.
“Certainly not.”
“And you’re living with this upper middle class Joan?”
“And she’s supporting you.”
“Well,” I said, “only up to a point.”
Fool! I should have lied. I should have told her I had a job. I should have told her I’ve got an incredible new career. What harm would it have done? It would have made her happy.
“And you and this Joan are planning to get married?”
“We’re thinking about it.”
“And when she gets pregnant?”
“Is she planning to carry on at her waitressing, or what?”
“Getting married doesn’t automatically mean you have children, you know?”
“Whose idea is it to get married, Ralph? Yours or hers?”
“It’s both of our idea. Well, Joan’s very keen and I’m thinking about it.”
“She wants children, Ralph. Are you going to look after them, while Joan goes off to be a waitress?”
“I might do,” I said.
“Oh for God’s sake,” she snapped.
There was a silence, and then I asked her if I could take them out to dinner.
“On Joan’s money? No thank you very much.”
“I’ve got money,” I said.
“Oh yes?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact. Now do you want to come out to dinner?”
“Alright,” she said. “That’ll be very nice. It’ll make a nice change.”
“What about Dad?”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“Well, where is he?”
“What time is it?”
It was one-thirty.
“You might catch him at Forfars in the Lanes. He goes there for lunch. If not, he’ll probably be at King Alfred’s. Bowling.”
“Bowling? It’s a bit cold for that, isn’t it?”
“Not bowls. Bowling. Ten pin bowling.”
“Good Lord,” I said.
The walk along the front to King Alfred’s Sports Centre took me about twenty minutes into the wind. My lips were good and salty by the time I arrived - and descended into that clattering subterranean world. I think I must have been fourteen the last time I went bowling. I know I wasn’t strong enough to lift anything heavier than the speckled balls. I used to go with Eric up to the lanes in Temple Fortune. When I first moved to Cricklewood, I went to see if they’re still there, but they’re gone.
Dad was alone on lane thirteen. I traded in my sneakers for a pair of bowling shoes, bought a couple of games, and went and sat in the plastic seats behind him. He had his back to me, was holding his ball up to his chin, preparing to roll it at the pins.
He was wearing a bright pink bowling shirt, with the legend EARP’S ANGELS on the back. He moved forward with three fluid crouching steps and rolled the ball gently down the runway. At first I thought it was going into the gutter, but two thirds of the way down it started to curve in onto the target. A strike! He gave the air a little punch of pleasure. Then he about-turned, came back to the scoring table, filled in his score, while his ball returned and the automatic machine replaced the pins. He failed to notice me.
With his next ball, he got eight, and left himself with two, in either corner, a split. A gesture of annoyance from him. Then he failed to pick off either of the two pins. It was strange, watching him. He finished his game and noticed me.
“Hi,” I said. “Fancy a game?”
He was very happy to play with me. I was astonished at how well I did. It all came back to me. I scored 169, which is an amazingly good score. Dad was miffed, as he had been expecting to beat me hollow. But then it dawned on me that I had scored 169 - and that we were playing in lane 13. And that 13 into 169 is 13 and 13 times 13 is 169 and that’s how many pounds I weigh. And I am 31, which is 13 backwards.
If I was the kind of person who tends to imagine that he is the victim of satanic plots, it is at this point that I might well have started seriously to worry. But I’m not that kind of person. I’m not. I do not believe in satanic plots and conspiracies with me as the victim at the centre. I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. I don’t. 
We did not talk during the game. Then we wandered round to this rather wonderful cafe-cum-ice-cream-parlour called Marocco’s, round the corner on the front - where we had hot chocolate.
“I thought I’d take you and Mum out for dinner this evening,” I said.
“You don’t sound very enthusiastic.”
“No, it’s, er .... “
At this point a character breezed in and clapped my father on the shoulder.
My father introduced him to me. It was Earp.
“As in Earp’s Angels?”
“You’ve got it, son,” said Earp.
Earp is terrific. He’s a sixty year old Teddy boy, basically. He has grey Brylcreemed hair, combed up in a quiff at the front, and in a D.A. at the back. He was wearing drain-pipe trousers and winkle-picker shoes. Apparently, my father used to pop into Marocco’s on his various walks up and down the front. And it was here that Earp had recruited him for Earp’s Angels.
It turned out that my father’s reluctance about dinner had to do with the fact that he had made an arrangement to play snooker with Earp. But when Earp heard of my invitation, he insisted that my father accept.
Then we all went back to the bowling lanes. I sat and watched the two of them play. I declined their invitation to join them, claiming a sore shoulder. But the real reason was that I didn’t think I could follow the 169 in lane 13 with anything better. Another score in this other lane, where they were now playing, would spoil it.
Earp is brilliant. But my Dad beat him with his handicap. The old man was as pleased as punch. I played the space invader machines, while they had another game. Then Earp gave us a lift back to the Metropole in his customised Zodiac, which is black with leopard-skin upholstery and the names Earp and Sheila on the windscreen over the driver’s and passenger seat respectively. My father in this car, and indeed my father with Earp anywhere, was a thought-provoking sight. I thought that here he was, having the mis-spent youth he would have had, if he hadn’t had the misfortune to marry my mother and have me and my sister.
On the way up to the flat, Dad told me that Earp is 64, that his Christian name is George, but never used, that Earp and his sons run a we-buy-and-sell-anything kind of business in the back of Brighton, and that he is not to be mentioned “in front of your mother”.
My mother had organised a room in the hotel for me.
“Unless of course you plan to go back to Joan tonight?”       
“No, but it’s alright. I can sleep on the floor.”
“No you can’t.”
So I thanked her graciously. Then we discussed where I was going to take them, and my mother suggested a French place called Le Trou dans le Mur, which didn’t bode well. She booked the table and I went and had a look at my room. Nothing to write home about - but better than the floor. Apart from which there is a certain something about all hotel rooms, however ghastly, that is strangely enchanting.
I gave them time to get themselves ready. Then I returned to their flat. My mother had in the interim been going through my father’s wardrobe - and produced an outfit for me to wear.
The shoes weren’t bad. Black brogues. The trousers were out of the question. But I agreed to don the sports shirt - “which he refuses to wear” - and a herringbone jacket that I really like.
“Are you sure you want to part with it?”
He shrugged.
“He never wears it,” said my mother.
“I never wear it,” he echoed glumly.
I put it on.
This restaurant, to which my parents had not been, but about which my mother had read good words, was dreadful. I mean, they started you off with perfectly acceptable crudités - but when it came to the main course, tinned French beans were produced. Tinned! As everyone knows, a French bean, unless it be fresh, is simply not worth the shit in which it was grown. I said to le patron: “Look, you served all those nice fresh vegetables to start with - why serve tinned beans?” He made some preposterous excuse about the size of the kitchen.
Then my mother said: “If you don’t like them, Ralph, why don’t you just leave them?”
I dropped the whole subject.
Over the inevitable chocolate mousse, I mentioned that someone had read my palm and told me that there is a mystery surrounding my birth.
“The only mystery surrounding your birth,” said my mother, “is that your father ever managed it.”
I was shocked - but he was highly amused.
“I went to get my birth certificate,” I told them.
“Checking up on us, eh?” he chortled.
“What an extraordinary thing to do,” said my mother.
It seems to me now that I was stupid even to have considered that my parents weren’t who I’ve always thought them to be. Namely, them. Apart from which, what difference does it make? I mean, really, what difference does it make, whether my father is a retired incompetent shop-keeper or, I don’t know, a shower of golden rain?
I mean, when Jesus was a kid, did he know all along that Joseph wasn’t his father? No, I think that Joseph was Jesus’ dad, and that’s who Jesus thought he was, and when someone in the playground said to Jesus: “What does your dad do then?” - Jesus would say: “He’s a carpenter.” 
“So,” said my father, “your mother tells me that you’ve landed yourself a rich girl.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” I muttered.
“That’s what I always wanted to do,” he said, “but I got your mother instead.”
They wanted to know when they would meet Joan. I told them that we would try to manage it, but that she was very busy at the moment.
I always fancied being a restaurateur,” said my dad, “opening my own place.”
“Thank God you never did,” said my mother.
Then we talked about my sister. Most of the time, I completely forget that I even have a sister. She’s a few years older than me - and I hate her. I’ve always hated her. When I was sixteen, she fell in love with an Australian person and married him and went to live in Australia with him, in Melbourne of all places. Apparently, she now has four children. Mum and dad are going there for Christmas.
“That’s nice,” I said.
Dad gave the same shrug he gave when he gave me his jacket.
She said: “It’s better than nothing.”
“I don’t see why she can’t come here,” said he. “She’s always going on about how well-off they are.”
“You know they can’t, with the children.”
“Huh,” said my father. “Children.”
I paid the bill with a cheque. We walked home, said goodnight in the lobby of the hotel. 
Breakfast was included in the price of the room - so I went and had it with the delegates in the enormous hotel dining-room. Frosties, followed by  kipper.
I wandered up to the Brighton Pavilion, which looks as though it has just landed and is about to take off again at any second. Then I wandered around the town for a bit. Everybody here seems to be either old or stupid. The rest must have gone up to London. I met my father for lunch at Forfar’s in The Lanes - not the bowling lanes, but The Lanes - where I ate an excellent Buck Rarebit, with not one but two poached eggs on top.
I decided that my father was perfectly content, that he didn’t particularly mind my being there - but I was an interruption, a nuisance. I think that’s what I must have been, when first I erupted from his loins, when he was thirty-one and I was nought. Mind you, he’d already had to get used to my sister. But she went, and I remained. And my school fees were much more expensive than hers.
“Do you regret having children?” I asked him.
“That’s a funny question. From you.”
“I’m just wondering. I mean, why did you?”
“Have us.”
“I don’t know really. There wasn’t much alternative, when I was your age.”
“But did you like being a father?”
“Some of the time.”
He said he had to get along to the bowling lanes, King Alfred’s. To give him his due, he did ask me if I’d like to come too - but I reckoned he’d rather be left to it. So I came back to the hotel.
I don’t know what to do. Whether to go or stay. I can’t stay in the hotel. They can’t afford to pay for the room - and neither can I. But I just don’t feel like going back to London. I - hang about. There’s someone at the door ...

See you back here tomorrow for more.

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