By Eddie Willson
From the beginning, Patrick disliked making home visits. The estate depressed him. It didn’t surprise him that it was to be demolished, and replaced by a low-rise development. Glum-faced towers loured over waste ground speckled with fly-tipped junk.
Most tenants wouldn’t let him into their homes. He’d breathlessly explain that he’d been hired as the estate’s writer in residence, and was gathering material for an anthology of tenants’ reminiscences. This information was usually greeted by silence and a closing door. Patrick partly blamed the ID card he’d been issued, which made him look like Sir Laurence Olivier playing Richard III. But what depressed him most was what he encountered on the rare occasions when he was invited inside. In his journal he wrote, I used to be so impressed by Greene’s facility at revealing character through the details of inhabited space. These flats reveal nothing. The same Argos sofa in front of the same Argos television, tuned to the same daytime pap. The people seem to have no stories. I plonk the Dictaphone in front of them and get next to nothing; no plot, no punchline, no point. Only one useable bit so far. One Barbadian old dear, on arriving here and being appalled that white people had their bread delivered unwrapped, left on the doorstep for any passing dog to Christen. Sort of stuff they’re after, if I can get the voice right. Would variant spelling be alright? Got lost again today. This place is worse than the Barbican.
His duties were listed in a glossy folder which bore the slogan, ‘Valuing yesterday, today and tomorrow.’ He would run fortnightly drop-in sessions for tenants. Two days a week he’d make home visits, collecting reminiscences. And he’d submit regular reports to a woman from the council who wore Doctor Marten shoes and had a job title that sounded to Patrick like some Burroughsian cut-up. In his first report he wrote that there was a clear need to be proactive in involving tenants. He’d be emphasising outreach work initially. He felt confident the tenants had a capacity for storytelling, but it needed exercise, like an underused muscle.
Then he met Rex. He was sitting on a deck chair on the top landing of Mallard Tower, a frail-looking man in a blazer. Patrick gave his foot-in-the-door spiel. The man stood shakily, folded the chair and, smiling, said ‘You’d best come in.’
Patrick looked around the living room as the man made tea in a brown pot. A curtain of coloured plastic strips hung at the kitchen door. On the wall was a painting of a bottle green woman in a bottle green forest. There were antimacassars on the armchairs and a chrome ashtray on a stand by the fireplace. Later, Patrick wrote in his journal. Rex’s place is like some museum of retro kitsch. Does it count as retro if you’re not doing it deliberately? No television! I sneaked a look at the kitchen. He’s got a larder! With tinned peas in!
With the strong sweet tea poured and the Dictaphone in place, Rex settled himself. ‘I hope you’ve got plenty of tape.’
Patrick sighed. Gently but clearly he said, ‘You know, I don’t want to take up too much of your time.’
Then Rex began. About his time in music hall, working with the Crazy Gang and others. ‘Not much of an act to be honest. I’d come on dressed like Widow Twankey, do five minutes of gags. Then I’d sing ‘Rule Britannia’ and flash my drawers. They had God Save the King embroidered on them.’
He talked about the end of the halls and his move into working as a film extra. ‘If you ever see that film Brighton Rock, look out for the bit on the pier just before Kolley Kibber gets killed. You can just make me out, walking past the amusements; grey jacket, black trilby.’
That evening Patrick made it to the video shop in Blackheath just before it closed. At home, he paused the videotape over and over at the shot Rex had described. He peered at the slanted, flickering scene. There was a man there of roughly the right build, with a similar profile to Rex. It could be him. Quite possibly.
On the next visit, Rex was wearing a tie and a newer cardigan. The living room looked different, as if tidied for visitors. This time, there were fig rolls with the tea. ‘Help yourself. I’ll only have the one. They give me wind if I’m not careful.’
Above the fireplace was a painting that Patrick hadn’t noticed before. It showed a middle-aged woman, naked except for a towel, reclining on a sofa. In one corner, the lines of an initial sketch were visible, where painting had apparently been abandoned.
Rex pointed at it. ‘I did that. That’s my girlfriend. My daughter Helen don’t approve of her.’
‘Don’t see much of Helen. Too busy. She’s an actress. When she can get the work.’
Taking the Dictaphone from his pocket, Patrick headed Rex off. And that would always be the pattern. Patrick began to have more success with the other tenants, but still he returned to Rex like he was an unfinished story. He’d sit transfixed by Rex’s tales of National Service and concert parties, of a full life. He’d been scared half to death fighting unremembered battles, he’d whitewashed coal, and he’d queued in back-street brothels. He’d taught himself the piano and recited Shakespeare to squaddies miles from home. The tales ran on and the light of the tape recorder would seem to grow brighter as daylight faded in the room.
Occasionally Rex would sigh and say, ‘Got nothing to show for it now of course.’
And Patrick would say, ‘You had those experiences though. Nobody can take that from you.’
The second drop-in session went much like the first. Nobody disturbed Patrick for a solid two hours. Happily, he tapped away on his laptop, sketching ideas for a soap opera set on a run-down housing estate. He’d just run out of steam and begun playing solitaire when a skinny woman with gold earrings poked her head round the door.
She introduced herself as Doreen and said she wanted to get involved in the reminiscence project. She said the word involved as if there was no l in it. Patrick gestured to her to sit at his desk. They chatted for several minutes, then she took a scrunched fistful of paper from the pocket of her puffer jacket. She flattened the old envelopes and takeaway fliers and laid them out in order. She began to read. ‘One year me and my girl Lindsey went this caravan place in Dartmoor. There wasn’t hardly any shops or people round there. Lindsey was good as gold all week. She liked the ponies.’
Patrick listened. He thought of his job interview, where he’d waxed lyrical about making the out-of-the ordinary out of the ordinary. He’d enthused about the project’s potential for healing and empowerment at a time of upheaval. He found himself wondering what to cook for supper.
Doreen’s piece ended with a flat, ‘Then we went home. That was the best holiday we had.’
Carefully Patrick said, ‘I’m not getting much sense from this of why the holiday was special.’
Doreen glared at him. She pursed her lips. ‘It’s all in there if you know what’s what.’
Patrick’s back straightened. ‘Well, please trust me that as regards writing, I do know what’s what.’ He shuffled the scraps of her story into a pile. Looking at it he said, ‘Please don’t be offended if I say that as it stands, this piece doesn’t warrant inclusion in the anthology.’
Doreen pulled a face as if she didn’t care.
Patrick grimaced and said, ‘I suppose some people’s lives are more eventful than others. I met this fascinating older guy, Rex, in Mallard block, who just had so many stories.’
Doreen’s face tightened into a sneer. ‘Rex? What, Rex on the top floor?’
‘That’s right. Used to be in showbiz. Travelled a lot. Got a daughter who acts.’
She laughed out loud now. ‘Travel? I doubt he’s ever been further than the Isle of Wight. He used to work at Citibank as a messenger with me dad. And I went school with his daughter. Last I heard she was working in a bar in Shoreditch. She couldn’t stand him.’
Patrick leaned back in his chair. ‘What about his time in music hall?’
Doreen inspected her nails, triumphant. ‘First I’ve heard of it.’
Patrick walked home through the market as it was closing. The man from the junk stall was tossing an old painting into a green wheelie bin. Patrick remembered Rex’s painting of his girlfriend. If, of course, it was his painting and she was his girlfriend. Perhaps Rex, like some dorky teenager, had invented a girlfriend to make himself seem cooler and more attractive.
Near his bed-sit Patrick bought biscuits. He curled up on the sofa, wrapped himself in a duvet, ate digestives and drank pot after pot of tea. It was Doreen’s fault. Later he wrote in his journal, I can imagine her at Tenant’s Association meetings, pointing and shouting, her face bulging with petty resentment. If a word’s got more syllables than she can be bothered with, she leaves some out. Kept going on about Vietmese people. She likes Danielle Steele. I asked what she liked about her. She said, ‘The way she uses language.’ As if she’s going to like her for her punctuation.
He thought of Rex. He’d developed an image of him, and now that image was wobbling and shimmering like the freeze-framed figure on the tape of Brighton Rock. Who knew how much truth there was in what he’d told him? There may have been some exaggeration involved, but surely it was natural for somebody to present themselves in the best possible light. There was always a story behind the story.
He remembered his job interview again. He’d talked the panel through his CV. He mentioned his time at Middlesex University but didn’t mention he’d failed to complete his degree in Writing and Publishing. After all, he’d reasoned, F. Scott Fitzgerald dropped out of college. He realised however that he was being selective in choosing his role models. He wouldn’t have dreamed of going to work in a bank on the basis that if it was good enough for T.S. Eliot it was good enough for anyone.
His account of his editorship of Another Story Altogether, the magazine he’d launched after Uni, was similarly slanted. He chose not to reveal that the magazine had hit the buffers when the temp job he was in had ended, terminating his access to free photocopying. And he’d felt it unnecessary to admit that his list of publishing credits largely derived from a kind of literary pyramid selling where other writers running similar magazines returned publishing favours.
He hadn’t even lied exactly. Not even when asked what he did at the publishers where he was then working part-time. Breezily he said, ‘I read novels all day! And they pay me!’ Actually he was paid to sit at reception, sign for the odd parcel, and greet people arriving for appointments. But that left plenty of time to read, and nobody complained.
On landings and walkways, in the launderette and the off-licence, the estate’s bush telegraph was buzzing with spite. People who’d previously been indifferent to the reminiscence project, now stirred like wasps in winter. Nodding vigorously above their folded arms they agreed it shouldn’t be allowed. Something should be done. The poison seeped down to the infants and toddlers. They poked their heads out of the stairwell on Rex’s landing and sang ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’ Rex stopped sitting out in his deckchair.
Patrick’s drop-in sessions and home visits continued. Perversely, the gossip was generating more interest in the project than any amount of fliers and posters could. Soon there was enough material and the editing could begin.
At the final drop-in session, he sat proof-reading copy for the anthology. There was a knock at the door. Doreen jutted her face into the room. She sat opposite him, placing a blue carrier bag on the desk. She said, ‘I know you don’t want to put the thing I wrote about the holiday into your book, but I want you to know something.’ She took an exercise book from the bag and pushed it towards him.
He read. There in block capitals was the story of Doreen’s daughter, her descent into addiction and her death, alone in a squat in Dalston. The last few sentences froze him. ‘I blame myself. I spoilt her rotten from day one. Never taught her to do without.’
Patrick laid his hands either side of the writing, stared at it as if some words to say about the piece might float up from the page.
‘It’s very powerful, moving. I’m sorry. About it all.’
They sat in silence for a time. Eventually he said, ‘Would you want this in the anthology?’
Doreen made the familiar jutting motion with her chin. ‘Course I fucking don’t. I don’t want everybody knowing my business. Not everybody’s like that; all the lights on, no curtains.’
‘It throws another light on the holiday piece you read to me. Perhaps we could include that if there was some way of giving a bit of context.’
Doreen looked doubtful. She pulled a piece of paper from the bag. ‘There’s something else you need to see.’
He only needed to scan it quickly to know what it was, even though she’d spelt the word petition with an ‘a’. On the paper were the signatures of about half the contributors to the anthology. And at the top was the polite threat that they would withdraw their contributions if the anthology contained anything that wasn’t ‘real memories about real things that happened.’
Patrick shook his head. ‘I’m not sure I can agree to that.’
‘Nobody’s asking you to agree to anything. It’s just telling you what’s going to happen.’
Patrick tilted his head on one side. ‘Why does it bother you so much?’
She paused as if considering the question for the first time. ‘Because you’re asking us to share something. And he’s getting a free ride. He gets the attention and it hasn’t cost him anything.’
Patrick managed to wrap up the conversation with a vague promise to ‘think of something’. He felt like a victim of the school bully, promising to bring in all their pocket money the following lunchtime. In his next report to his employer he wrote that after some initial hesitancy many tenants had become quite passionate about the project.
The lift was broken. He was glad, because it allowed him to delay further the thing he was dreading. Even as he reached Rex’s flat he hadn’t finally decided what to say. He’d rehearsed a few opening lines but each one tripped and fell before it went anywhere. The language wasn’t the problem; the problem was deciding the right thing to do.
A woman answered the door. Patrick peered at her. She was too young to be the woman in the painting. He introduced himself.
The woman nodded. ‘Thought so. He’s always going on about you.’
‘Are you Rex’s daughter?’
‘His daughter? No, love. I’m the home help. I’m just packing a few things for him.’
Patrick frowned. ‘Why?’
‘He’s had a fall and cracked his hip. He’s up St Thomas’s. He said to let you know.’
‘That’s a shame. I hope he’s okay’
The woman leaned against the door jamb, weighing him up. ‘You are going to visit him, aren’t you?’
Patrick nodded. ‘Of course. Yeah.’
For a time, it felt like proper work. He’d wake early and spend a few hours on his own writing. Then he’d settle to editing and proofing the anthology, tweaking and tightening, forcing himself not to regularise the grammar. He’d then phone or visit the contributors to okay any changes. And then, in the evenings he’d see Rex. He’d listen to him talk until Rex grew tired, then he’d listen to his breathing as he slept.
Patrick stood by the fire exit of the library, smoking a last cigarette before going into the function room. He thought of what Rex had said when he asked how he felt about going into sheltered housing. He’d shrugged and said, ‘I could do with looking after.’
He imagined him now, arranging the ephemera of a life in his room, then going into the dining room for his first meal in the new place. He would eat with a fork in one hand and the anthology in the other, waiting for someone to ask him. And when they did, he’d explain and say, ‘Yes, I am actually. Borrow it if you like.’ He would present to them his written self, a Rex that suited him, fitted him. Or was that it? Still Patrick hadn’t established the truth of Rex’s life. But if everything he’d told him was just a story, he wasn’t sure it mattered. He couldn’t blame him for wanting to be remembered as something other than a solitary old man with sad eyes and bad breath, who’d spent his life aiming at himself and missing. And who really would have been made happier by the truth?
This thought turned his attention to the task at hand. He stubbed out his cigarette, shut the fire exit and straightened his tie. He would have to go in now.
In the function room were local councillors, the Doctor Martens woman and her colleagues, contributors and other tenants from the estate. And, on a table was a pile of copies of the book, as yet untouched. Patrick walked steadily down the corridor to the room. He knew the shit was about to hit the fan, and he felt proud of himself for the first time in ages.
* * *
Eddie Willson is alive and well and living in Deptford, England. In real life he’s a library assistant as well as doing voluntary advice work. His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines in the UK and the USA. ‘Stories’ has been long-listed for the Bridport Prize.