Books: Falling Towards England — Fairy Mild Green Liquid Godmother |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Falling Towards England — Fairy Mild Green Liquid Godmother


While having my mouth fixed I had changed residence. Farewell to Tufnell Park. Even through the dull ache in my mouth I could taste the thrill of a new era. Youth was at the helm. London had begun to swing. Films were being made in which it was assumed, almost always erroneously, that the story would be more interesting if the people concerned were to run instead of walk. Nothing could be more up to date than to be a young man with a beard and strange shoes, carrying a suitcase, free-wheeling, on the move. I moved all the way up the road and around the corner, into a loft made available by a nice young married lady who charged a reasonable rent. My pyramid-shaped hutch, which could be entered only via a ladder starting in a top-floor room full of her children, was half the size of the room I had left behind and had even fewer built-in facilities, but by moving two blocks I had entered Kentish Town, so for all practical purposes I was in Hampstead. As part of the same upwardly mobile thrust, I had landed another white-collar job, and this time I wasn’t coding reports or filling up charts. I was coding reports and filling up charts.

Market Assessment Enterprises had third-floor offices just off High Holborn on the Gamages side of Grays Inn Road. Gamages is gone now and I suppose Market Assessment Enterprises, or MAE, has long been wound up, because it was a happy-go-lucky outfit that was far too much fun to work for. Except for the recently ex-Oxbridge Jeremys and Nigels who owned the company, the work-force consisted exclusively of young fringe-dwellers who worked for no other reason than to finance their intense night life. There were some outstandingly pretty girls, fashionably dressed in high white plastic boots yet always cadging each other’s cigarettes. There were young men in sharply cut suits with flared trousers — the first hint of the Carnaby Street look — but they couldn’t afford to eat lunch.

The low-paying jobs were in the office, coding the reports. The even-lower-paying jobs were out in the street, where you stood with your report sheet and asked randomly selected people from the passing crowd whether they preferred the cap of the plastic bottle of green liquid detergent fully detachable from the plastic bottle or else attached to the plastic bottle by means of a short plastic attachment. In reality the selection of respondents wasn’t random at all, because the only people who would consent to answer such questions were mental defectives or people with such inadequate personalities that any form of conversation came as a blessing. For the first day I tried to be honest but it was hopeless. The only man who gave a coherent set of answers to all twenty-five questions turned out to come from Sweden. Rather than discard the one answer-sheet that made sense, I wrote down that he came from Swindon. It then occurred to me, as it had independently occurred to all my colleagues, that if you could make up the man’s address you could also make up the man’s answers and even the man himself. The whole thing could be done in the pub.

Employing the same skills which had scored me a perfect mark for my Clinical Case Study in the Sydney University Psychology exams, I produced, at the end of my first week, a set of reports which ensured my promotion to the office staff proper. This meant that I could sit in the office and take the fantasy a step further by coding the incoming reports so that they would be ready for transfer to punched cards. Everyone sat at small desks, as if at school, but talked at the top of his or her voice, as if the school were in the grip of some permanent rag day. The light of spring poured through the windows and illuminated Moira, the girl in the next desk to my right. Moira’s physical presence disturbed me in a way that I knew I remembered, but couldn’t remember exactly how. Then I suddenly realised that she reminded me of Sonia Humphries, the girl who had sat beside me in the double front-row desk of Class 1B at Kogarah Infants’ School in 1946. The resemblance was furthered by Moira’s notable deficiency of height. Measured vertically, she lacked inches. Measured around the chest, however, she did not. Moira was the first girl I ever found both attractive and out of proportion. Up to then I had always been drawn towards a classical balance of forces, but Moira made her combination of diminutiveness and excess seem like a romantic challenge. Besides, she was keen — always a potent influence on judgment. Half-way between a garden gnome and one of those country and western singers off whose straining denim shirt-fronts the rhinestones jump like popcorn, she thought I was wonderful and I found it hard not to agree.

Down in the pub — where she regularly paid for her round of drinks after helping me pay for mine — she would sit on the edge of her seat with the toes of her sling-backed shoes just reaching the floor and tell me horror stories about her lover, a company director called Eric. Eric’s company, it transpired, dealt principally in goods which had fallen off the back of a van. One of the tell-tale signs of the now efflorescent Sixties was how the much-touted outbreak of classlessness was matched by an obsession with status, so that any fly-by-night operator would call himself a company director merely on the strength of having had his mohair suits made to measure. Apparently Eric had rescued Moira from her old job as a knife-thrower’s assistant in Brighton, but she soon found Eric’s idea of looking after her almost as bad as watching the knife-thrower take a stiff drink to steady his hands between the matinee and the main performance. So Moira had run out on Eric and was now covertly occupying an under-eaves bed-sit in Lamb’s Conduit Street. While she was telling me this, the evening sunlight flooding through the clear upper panes of the pub windows lit up her beehive of red hair, her freckled face and her chaste white blouse, which didn’t seem to drape vertically anywhere except at the back. Just as it was occurring to me that Lamb’s Conduit Street wasn’t very far away, Moira insisted that I accompany her there immediately. I complied, doing my best to stroll in a casual manner while she trotted beside me. It further occurred to me that all this was too simple. I was right about that, but first there was a short interlude while I enjoyed the uncomplicated delight of a perfectly straightforward woman. In her little room, decorated only by a chianti-flask lamp stand and a suitcase rather like mine, Moira asked for nothing except to give love while having money borrowed from her. She was infinitely exploitable. It should have dawned on me sooner that my predecessors in her favours would be unlikely to let such a bonanza go by default.

What I couldn’t hope to guess in advance, however, was the extent and fervour of Moira’s gratitude. The mere fact that I did not beat her up was enough to establish me in her mind as a gift from heaven. With desperate urgency she granted me her body as a reward. Amazed to discover that there was someone in whose universe I rated as a kind man, I did my best, through evening after evening, to keep up with her frantic insatiability. My landlady grew ever more waspish as I telephoned once again to say I would be home very late. Sometimes I arrived home so weary, and so fuddled from the cider with which Moira had kept me primed, that I had trouble climbing the ladder from the children’s room up to the loft, and would sit there among the teddy bears until I got my breath back or dawn broke, whichever was the sooner.

The only, but real, trouble with Moira was that there was nothing else she wanted to do. I took her to the NFT to see Chris Marker’s Letter from Siberia, a documentary film whose exuberantly serious tone of voice still influences everything I do twenty years later. At the time I was knocked sideways. The details of the majestic final sequence are fresh in my mind today. ‘There isn’t any God, or curses,’ said the narrator as the rocket took off, ‘only forces — to be overcome.’ I didn’t agree even then, but I sat transfixed by the rhythm of that voice — the strong view lightly stated. It wasn’t words plus pictures. It was words times pictures. At some length I told Moira just how badly the world needed to forget John Grierson and his whole boring tradition. Moira, however, just wanted to get me alone so that she could go on being grateful in the only way she knew. Hazlitt was only half right when he warned his fellow writers that they will dream in vain of the analphabetic woman who will love them for themselves. There is such a woman. What he should have said is that if we find her she will bore us. Moira would have been the ideal concubine if an ideal concubine had been all I wanted. To find out that I wanted something more, or at any rate something else, was disturbing. A fantasy had been made actual and had scared me in the process.

Things got scarier still when I tried taking a night off. The next day at the office Moira was red-eyed from lack of sleep. Just while I was pondering how to disentangle myself from her pneumatic embrace without destroying her newly established faith in mankind, my problem was solved for me. A man walked into the office, stood over her desk, and nodded towards the door. He didn’t look quite violent enough to be Company Director Eric but he didn’t look like Canon Collins either. She left with him without saying a word. I went after them down the stairs and she must have heard me, because on the last landing before the street I found her facing me. I accused her, with more relief than rancour, of having carried a torch for Eric all along. She told me that the man wasn’t Eric. It was the knife-thrower. She was married to him. Then she gave me an uncharacteristically reticent kiss, clattered down the remaining stairs and went out of my life.

I got fired the same day, after a statistical fault in a report about a red plastic tomato-shaped tomato sauce container led to an investigation. The people out in the street had faked their questionnaires as usual, but at least they had built in a few believable discrepancies. For three long and light-headed weeks I had coded the questionnaires while blacking out from the previous night’s encounter with Moira. Husbanding my vestigial energies, I had neglected to put in the inconsistencies required by verisimilitude. The result was too perfect, too simple to be believed: rather like Moira herself.