This is For You An autobiography of sorts
The new novel by Pedro Silmon, serialised, exclusively for you on The Blog
As previously explained, the characters within this book are fictitious and any similarities to persons living, or dead, are coincidental but, like many first novels, This is for you, is an autobiography of sorts. At 26,000 words, it is relatively short, however, it was written, re-written, edited and refined over a five year period, spanning 2001-2007, in Germany and the UK. I am endebted to David Miller at the prestigious UK literary agency, Rogers, Coleridge & White, to whom I was kindly introduced by Sarah Spankie, Deputy Editor of the Condé Nast Traveller; having read a draft of the text, David suggested a few changes which improved it enormously.
A curious mixture of the combined aromas of singed hair and pipe tobacco smoke filled Bede’s nostrils. Slowly, he lifted himself up, then slumped back down on to the bench, brushing automatically, and to little effect, at his dust-covered clothes. Picking vacantly at the grit ingrained in his skin, then licking the end of his finger and rubbing it in little circles over the dried blood, he watched a small, black spider negotiate its way through the hairs on the back of his hand and disappear under his shirt cuff. Excited shouts from the direction of the lake jabbed through the dense layer of grey felt that lined his skull. Just as the boat was within a whisker of capsizing, the boat-sailing father had pulled off an amazing rescue manoeuvre. Indifferent to his father’s triumph, the little boy’s blue-eyed gaze rested solely on Bede.
Towards midday, Bede rose unsteadily to his feet and bent to retrieve his pipe. It was chipped, but still in one piece, and he pushed it deep into his coat pocket. Although one of the lenses was cracked at the corner, his glasses were unbroken. White glare from the chalky paths stung his eyes. His coat hung heavily on his shoulders, and through the thick fabric, he scratched at an insistent tickling itch near his elbow. His armpits prickled, and he could feel rivers of cold sweat running down the sides of his rib cage. People had been coming and going around him throughout the morning, and at one point someone had even sat down on the bench and asked whether he was all right. Bede had neither answered nor acknowledged the other’s presence; his mind was busy and he was in no mood for interruptions.
Pigeons, and then ducks and geese, scuttled aside as he made his way shakily along the path that ran around the circular lake. Bicycles crunched swiftly at the gravel, which produced a strange, tuneless music as it bounced off their wheel spokes. Overgrown flowerbeds registered vaguely in his peripheral vision. The unkempt park bore little resemblance to the lush haven it had once been, however, the geography remained the same. He steered his body slowly round to the right and, without raising his eyes, took a familiar path, which led at a sharp tangent away from the water. Suddenly, he froze. His back stiffened and his legs bent as his head went back and his shoulders jerked forward. He sneezed powerfully; sneezing again and then again; and again. It seemed that he would never stop sneezing. Bede caught himself suppressing a grin: sneezing had always given him an intense, if momentary, pleasure. Though he had never suffered to any great extent from hay fever, certain types of pollen always seemed to set him off, then his eyes would itch and he would become anxious. Perfumes were a problem, too, and, to their credit, his female partners had, on the whole, reasonably understood this. Those who had not, had not lasted very long in his company. To avoid having to walk through the menacing massed ranks of scent counters in the main entrance areas of department stores, Bede had only ever gone in via side doors. He had never worn aftershave or cologne, and throughout his life stuck resolutely to basic, non-scented soaps, although in recent years he had not had the problem of choice to contend with, there being little else on offer.
The sneezing fit sapped precious energy from his already-weakened body, and he leaned against a brick building to steady himself. Assaulted by the sharp tang of the urinals inside, wafting down through a narrow open window above his head, with intense effort he heaved himself upright and began again to move forward. The park was large, and it was some time before he stepped out on to the pavement of the wide road that ran the length of its southern edge. He turned eastwards. It had been some years since he had ventured anywhere near the city-centre, but he had to go through it to get to where he was going, and all his instincts drove him in that direction. Despite the fuel rationing, the traffic was surprisingly heavy. Nowadays, the city’s roads once again carried the occasional horse and cart, though the clapped-out, ancient cars, bursting with people, the rusty motorcycles and the mopeds and bicycles greatly outnumbered them. Many big lorries and numerous heavily-laden buses lumbered by. As if from nowhere, a long, sleek limousine with dark, tinted windows, sailed into view, escorted by motorcycles. The other road-users swerved to let it pass. As the car came alongside him, one of the windows slid slowly down just far enough to afford Bede a brief glimpse of the man and small boy who occupied it.
Entering a subway just beyond the park gate, Bede got caught up in the solid flow of people heading towards the underground trains, which, he was surprised to see, on that day at least, appeared to be operating, though it made no difference to him. Without papers, even if he had wanted to, he could not have travelled on public transport.
There were many exits from the station, and although he was certain that he knew which one to take, he emerged beside an enormous, white, classical arch, marooned on an island of overgrown grass, completely surrounded by traffic. Through the fumy gaps that opened and closed between the moving vehicles, he could just make out the point where he should have been. Descending the gloomy, littered stairway again, he tried to keep his head angled and his eyes fixed in the right direction. It was not easy, and once he got below ground, it proved impossible for him to move in a straight line. The labyrinth of tunnels was disorientating. He felt dizzy and lost his balance, then banged his head hard against a tiled wall before finding himself, once again, at the point where he had first entered the subway.
Several of the kicks he had received earlier had been extremely hard. There was an area on his back, just below his left shoulder blade, which began to stiffen and ache. As he paused and twisted his arm around so he could massage the tender area, a dense mass of bodies spun him round, swept him up with them, and bore him back down the stairs. Indistinguishable from more-or-less every other female he ever saw now in the streets, the women were almost all dressed in very short, black leather skirts, below which their black suspenders extended down over expanses of white thigh. The suspenders supported sheer or fishnet, randomly torn and laddered, black stockings. Others were in skin-tight vinyl trousers, with tartan loincloths flapping around their buttocks. Every one of them had a white powdered face and wore eye make-up in strong colours, with lots of black liner. Their lips were also black, or sometimes purple. Tall, peroxide blonde or dyed black cockscombs sprouted from the heads of some the men and a few of the women. Others, of both sexes, had teased their hair into spikes. Some wore studded dog collars. All of the men were clean-shaven, and many were dressed from head to toe in short, zipped, black leather jackets and trousers with slogans and swastikas crudely daubed or sprayed across them. They had on capped-sleeved, white or black T-shirts, slashed open at the front. Narrow, black trousers, loosely belted across the back of the knees, which somewhat restricted their ability to walk, were favoured by a few. Safety pins were haphazardly attached to all of their clothes; they had poked them through their eyebrows, and around the tops and lobes of their ears; a small number had even put the sharp ends into their mouths, pierced their cheeks and fastened them on the outside. What looked like lengths of toilet chain – which the women, especially, appeared to enjoy sucking on – were looped between one safety pin and the next.
Bowling forward, the merry, heaving crowd, on their way together somewhere in a hurry, sang loudly in accents that were incomprehensible to Bede. He felt sure that they had been drinking alcohol, or were on drugs. Several of them reached out and draped their arms amiably around his shoulders, vehemently insisting that he must go along with them. Their frank camaraderie intoxicated him, and after the briefest instant of hesitation, he abandoned himself with pleasure to their will. Their voices ricocheted off the graffiti-covered tunnel walls, as they dragged him, laughing with them, down the long slopes and up the stairways then out once again into the open air. Bede could not remember when he had last felt so happy. Miraculously, he was delivered at the exit he had been seeking, and, somewhat reluctantly managing to disentangle himself from his new-found friends, he was soon alone once more. He paused briefly, listening as the fading voices moved off to wherever the crowd was going, then continued on his way.
Powerful shock waves hit him suddenly, square across his back, jarred his rib cage and almost made him fall, as a deafening explosion burst out from the underground station he had just left. A plume of black smoke rose quickly, stopped, and then spread out slowly in the sky. Steadying himself, he swayed and dodged forward away from the screaming, between the frightened masses running frantically past.
Presently, he arrived at a wide, open square with a river of traffic now surging, now piling up, around its perimeter. A classical building of delicate proportions extended the entire length of the north side. Bede recalled that it had once been a great gallery, with a magnificent and renowned collection of some of the very best items of historically-important, international art. A wave of unfamiliar emotion welled up in his stomach; his throat tightened and his eyes filled with tears. Suppressing a sob, he saw that the building’s entire exterior – the delicate cupola, the massive, colonnaded façade, the grand stone steps leading up to the vast portals, what remained of the decorative iron railings, and even the pavement below – had been obliterated by multi-coloured, multi-layered, spray-painted graffiti. He would have liked to cry out, but that would have drawn attention; people would have noticed and he could have been reported.
A few nervous-looking protesters had erected banners around the base of the tall, finely-carved, stone column near the middle of the square – which, Bede recalled, had once supported a statue of some naval hero – and were beginning to attract a crowd. Their demonstration was of no interest to him, but to walk around the perimeter would have taken about three times as long as crossing directly over the square, so he began wading through the stationary cars to get on to it. The speeches started just as his foot touched the kerb of the island. Simultaneously, a hundred or so massive horses, surmounted by armoured, baton-wielding militia, clattered from their hiding place in a parallel street, and charged at the protesters. The militia must have decided beforehand that the sound of the first amplified voice would be their signal to act – and act they certainly did, with the utmost brutality. As the batons swung down and bludgeoned the helpless demonstrators, a great wave of pigeons swept slowly up into the air, circled low over the furore, momentarily masking the obscenities and appearing to calm the chill atmosphere. But the illusion was short-lived: before the birds alighted on the far side of the square, the paving stones ran red with blood. Turning his back and ignoring the shouts and screams of the battle, Bede retraced his steps and cautiously made his way around the perimeter of the square. A small, timid-looking dog appeared from nowhere to tag in his wake.
Bede’s head was gradually becoming clearer. Again, he felt an irritating itch, and, with a rapid movement, he slapped the back of his shirt collar to his neck. Reaching inside with two fingers, he pulled out the remains of the elusive little spider last seen disappearing up his sleeve. He stopped and held them up to examine them closely. The spider’s body lay still, its lifeless legs folded inwards, in his cupped hand. He regretted having been responsible for its death, but felt relieved that he had killed and not merely maimed it. He tipped the tiny carcass gently on to the top of a low wall, and continued on his way.
Shortly, he came to a wide street, at the middle of which stood what had been, he remembered, a very grand hotel. The building was intact, and looked well-maintained. Armed guards stood on either side of the main entrance ushering dark limousines into the underground car park. Bede had memories of taking a girlfriend for cocktails at one of the hotel’s many bars, years before, but that things had not gone the way he had planned. Having booked a double room for the night, he had limited himself to only two dry martinis, while she insisted on trying as many sickly, multicoloured concoctions as possible. Consequently, after a couple of hours, he had ended up having to manhandle her into a taxi, and to pay the driver in advance to offload her in the seedy, outlying district of the city in which she lived. Feeling sorry for himself, and being unable to sleep, he had floundered about alone in the enormous hotel bed. Suddenly, the telephone rang in the darkness, and, reaching blindly for it, he knocked a glass of water on to the floor. The silky-voiced male on the other end of the line introduced himself, and told Bede that he had noticed him going upstairs alone, and wondered if he might perhaps like some male company. Telling him smartly to fuck off, Bede smashed down the receiver, pulled out the jack-plug and leapt out of bed to check that his door was firmly locked. In the morning, making sure that he made no eye contact with any of the male staff, he skipped breakfast and hastily checked out.
All of the shops and cafés he now passed were open for business, but crouching in the doorway of each was a figure wrapped in a blanket, or lying in a sleeping bag on a sheet of cardboard. Ratty-looking dogs accompanied several of them, and each had a handwritten sign. One had taken a plastic traffic cone, cut off the pointed end, and rested it on a small radio, so that the sound of it was impressively amplified. They stared harshly up at everyone who passed by, taunting them aggressively, and thrust forward white paper cups, like the ones used in vending machines, containing a few coins. Bede, who had never before in his life given anything to charity, paused briefly to fish about in his pockets until he found a token and tossed it into the nearest cup.
He trundled purposefully on, his destination still a long way off. The sky darkened and it began to rain, causing the pavement people to scuttle, crab-like, inside their doorways. After a time, his hair became plastered to his forehead and then over the rest of his skull. Raindrops collected in his thick eyebrows, then ran down into his eyes, making it difficult for him to see where he was going. His drenched coat felt heavier, and his trousers wrapped themselves around his legs. The trousers themselves became longer as the sticky tape that held up their hems, like those of all of Bede’s trousers, came loose. Water seeped down around his ankles and into his shoes. He could feel his woollen socks drawing it towards his toes.
A little while later, the rain petered out. As the clouds receded and thinned, the bright sun reappeared. Shiny-leaved plane trees hung heavily over an encampment of scruffy, makeshift tents in an overgrown square pockmarked with the sodden, black remains of fires. Bede continued on through an area where ancient town houses lined wide, potholed streets. Rain-soaked cherry blossom hung heavily above the derelict gardens, where gangs of small children, under the sharp-voiced direction of several women in loose, drab clothing, diligently collected huge bunches of dripping daffodils. Clearly empty now, most of the buildings were boarded up with corrugated iron. One had been partially destroyed by fire, another totally. In former times, many of them would have had numerous nameplates and bell-pushes fixed beside their front doors, but the metal parts had been removed, and only a few brass screws and ragged holes remained to indicate where they had been. Occasionally, an odd, twisted remnant of the iron railings that had contained the gardens, and which must have proved too difficult to remove, clung to a wall. The wide, stone-flagged pavements were in bad repair, and caused Bede to trip, once almost pitching him down into a filthy, exposed cellar cavity.
The light was changing. It was perhaps around six when he sharply altered direction. At one time, he remembered, when he had worked nearby, it had always been possible to know what time it was by listening for the church bells, of which there had been many. Now they had all gone: no clocks were displayed in public places anywhere, and ordinary people were prohibited from wearing watches. Even in his dazed state, some inbuilt security mechanism had prevented him from going straight to his destination. Crossing the river and feeling a little unsteady, he paused near the middle of the bridge and quickly turned his head to see if he was being followed. ©Pedro Silmon, 2011
Don’t miss the ninth and final instalment of This is for you, which follows next
Friday, 2nd September
What do you think of the story so far?