Advent Stories #13

TIGHT WRAPPERS

tw

Mantle stopped a taxi on the Edgware Road and piled in. He was breathless and, as always, a little panicky that he’d dropped something, that he was missing some essential part.

‘Holland Park,’ he said, patting the pockets of his raincoat. The hand of another pedestrian, cheated by Mantle’s claiming of the cab, slapped against the back window as the taxi moved off, leaving behind an imprint that took some time to fade.

Mantle had stolen the coat from a theme park staffroom a couple of decades previously, attracted by the numerous deep pockets, the better for storing his lists, address books, notes and clippings, his maps, an urban disjecta membra, the city in leaves. At times he felt as though he were a disorganised filing cabinet on the lam. Occasionally he fell asleep on his bed in his coat. He felt naked without it, or more specifically, that special form of insulation that his papers provided.

The day was a blur in his thoughts, as most were. He struggled to remember what he had breakfasted on, only that it had been in a coffee shop on Old Compton Street, half an eye on the newspaper, his notebook with its codes and descants, the phone in his fist. He had gone on to sell a couple of Fine/Fine Iain Sinclairs, doubles from his own collection, in a sandwich shop at the north side of Blackfriars Bridge before scuttling along the Jubilee Walkway to the National Film Theatre where he met Rob Swaines, his ‘Southwark Mole’. Over the years Rob had fed him some great information on the underground book networks of SE1. He had learned of a Graham Greene first sitting forgotten in a plastic washtub of an Oxfam in Stamford Street, an early Philip K Dick in a Fitzalan Street squat, a news vendor by the tube station at Lambeth North carried in his pocket a copy of HG Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau containing an inscription to its recipient from the author not to read it at night.

The rest of the day was a smear of motion, of buses caught at full pelt, of observations written in the corner of a fried chicken cesspit, of phone calls, hot and cold leads, rumours of a Bradbury unclipped, Dark Carnival, in a Battersea pub that came to nothing, hastily scribbled ideas for a book hunt in Edinburgh, catching up with the tracings of his route on the OS maps, marginalia he had forgotten about but that, freshly discovered, sparked more calls, more possibilities; there was no such thing as a closed door in London, he had learned. Every shelf was a display for him; it was just a matter of time before he got round to cherry-picking the best of the best from each one.

He’d received a text from Heaton, his main bloodhound, his in, not five minutes previously, alerting him to a rare Very Good/Good in W8. It was pleasing that he was already in the area; if the traffic favoured him he could be on Aubrey Road within minutes. He pulled out his battered Moleskine and slipped off the elastic binding. Inside he flipped through alphabeticised jottings, references to books he had in his sights, rare tomes, the jackets of which he sometimes felt under his fingertips in the moments before he became fully awake. Here was his file on Mick Bett, the thriller writer whose first two novels, Black Iris and One Man On His Own, published in the early 1960s, had been turned into quirky cult films starring George Kennedy. Bett had killed himself in 1967 when he had become blocked on his third novel, working title The Mummer, at a time when the James Bond franchise had hit its stride and a year after Adam Hall’s first Quiller novel, The Berlin Memorandum, had been turned into a successful film. Mantle wondered if the Sunday Times encomium on the front cover of the Pan paperback of One Man On His Own (“The best, after Deighton and Le Carré”) might have contributed to Bett’s decision to leap from the Golden Gate Bridge.

Mantle owned a signed first edition, first printing of Black Iris that he had bought at a Brighton book fair in 1976 for a wallet-bruising thirty pounds. The very same book was now worth seven thousand pounds. Mantle’s assessment of a book’s future worth was rarely off the mark. He had no compunction about spending a lot for a Fine/Fine now if his hunch whispered that there’d be a few more noughts on its value a decade hence. Heaton’s digging had led to this evening’s revelation; a copy of OMOHO sitting on a shelf in west London, its spine having probably never known any strain.

The traffic was snarled around Marble Arch; Mantle felt blisters of sweat rise on his forehead. He couldn’t relax despite the knowledge that the book, having occupied its place on the Aubrey Road shelf for the last twenty years, wasn’t going anywhere in the next ten minutes. His gaze was snagged on a criss-cross of scaffolding clinging to the face of an Edwardian house facing Hyde Park. Light snaked along the tubes and died on the dirty orange plastic netting. The house seemed diminished by the complexity, the aggressive sprawl of the construction. Scaffolding bothered him, it pulled at his vision like a scar.

‘What are you reading?’ Mantle asked the driver as he shoved the notebook back into its nest. A thrillerfat paperback rested open-bellied on the dashboard. Mantle had learned to quell his disgust at the way other people treated their reading matter, forced into supine positions they did not deserve.

‘That Dan Brown guy,’ the driver said, eventually, predictably. Mantle could dismiss him now. Him and his Very Poor, his Reading Copy. But it was something he had to know. He had to know what was on the cover, what was being sucked up into the eyes. On the tube he would crick his neck to catch a glimpse of any title. He was about to return to his notes, to trace the latest leg of his years-long journey through the capital on his OS map, when the driver came back with a question of his own.

‘No,’ Mantle said, trying to keep the bristling from his voice. ‘I’ve never read “The Da Vinci Code”. It’s… not my thing.’

He’d been offered a signed Mint in April, but he wouldn’t have forgiven himself, could never have allowed it to rub shoulders with his Lovecrafts and Priests, his M.R.s and his M. Johns. It was snobbery, to be sure, but the very act of collecting, serious collecting, was snobbery anyway. Mantle was too old, too alone to care what anybody thought of him or his obsession. All that mattered to him were the pencil webs he spun across his map of London, the treasure he was tracking from Shepherd’s Bush to Shoreditch.

The taxi disgorged him on the corner of Aubrey Road. A light rain, so insubstantial as to be barely felt, breathed against him. He looked back at the Bayswater Road and saw it ghosting across the harsh sodium lighting like the sheets of cellophane he wrapped around the jackets of his hardbacks, to further protect them. He darted away from the main drag, patting his pockets, fretting over the corners of reminders, receipts, appointments, all the clues that frothed dangerously at the lips of his pockets.

He found the address he needed and rapped hard on the front door. He smoothed down his hair and hoped the occupants wouldn’t be able to smell his odour, a mix of stale sweat and old paper, not really that bad, but perhaps offensive to those who were not used to it.

A well-dressed woman with professionally styled hair answered the door. She was in her late-fifties, it seemed to Mantle, although the way she was turned out made her appear quite a bit younger. Her expression was cold; she was chewing something, a chicken leg, nub of white gristle gleaming, clutched in her hand. He cursed himself. She had been drawn from dinner. She wanted him gone; no amount of charm would work now.

‘I apologise for disturbing your dinner,’ he said.

‘Quite all right,’ she snapped. ‘What is it?’

‘A book.’

‘A book?’ Now her expression did change, to one of bafflement.

‘My name’s Henry Mantle. I’m a collector, a diviner of text. I’ve got friends call me Sniffer.’

‘You’ve got friends,’ she said.

Mantle’s smile faltered as he wondered if she were belittling him, but he pressed on. ‘Anyway, I understand you have a copy of Mick Bett’s novel, One Man On His Own, published in 1962. I’d like to make you an offer for it.’

A further change. The woman, consciously or not, closed the door a fraction. ‘How did you know I had that?’

‘A receipt in a ledger in a Bloomsbury hotel. A book fair in the ’80s. A purchase traced to you.’

‘But this is… this is invasive,’ she said.

‘Not at all, Mrs Greville,’ he said. ‘I can assure —’

‘How do you know my name?’ Needle in the voice now. An aspect of threat.

‘The receipt. The book fair.’

‘I’m sorry, but I don’t like this. Please leave.’

She was making to shut the door and in his desperation he shot out his hand to block it.

‘I’ll give you twelve hundred pounds,’ he said. ‘In cash, right now, if you say yes.’

She paused, just as it seemed her anger would overflow and she would start shouting. The breath seemed knocked from her. Mantle refrained from smiling; he knew he had won.

‘Twelve hundred? For a book?’

‘I’m a big fan of his work. And copies – nice, well-looked after copies – are scarce.’

She seemed to change her mind about him. Maybe she was thinking of all the other unread copies of books on her shelves, perhaps the result of buying sprees by a dearly departed, or something inherited that she couldn’t be bothered to take to the charity shop. She drew the door open wider and ushered him in, insisting sharply that he could have five minutes of her time, no more.

He barely took any notice of the hallway he was walking along; the smell of books was in his nostrils. He patted his pockets, felt the comforting scrunch of bus tickets, pencilled symbols and hints, directions and directives etched on paper napkins, beer coasters, cigarette packets. His whole life was in these pockets; he couldn’t bear to throw anything away. He supposed it described a weakness in him, a form of psychosis, but he was helpless. He felt emboldened by these layers, these graphite and ink ley-lines. His wallet was fat underneath all of this. He ached for something to happen.

She introduced him to a room whose darkness was penetrated only by a soft, low lozenge of orange light; a cat was curled around the base of the lamp, glancing up unimpressed at Mrs Greville’s guest.

‘Here’s the book,’ she said, reaching up to tip a volume into her left palm.

He winced as she handled the book. She wouldn’t pass it to him quickly enough, and kept hold of it, turning it around in her fingers as if searching for some clue as to why it was worth what he had offered. She gave him a look; her tongue worked at some shred from her rapidly cooling and forgotten dinner.

‘You know, this was my husband’s, my late husband’s, favourite novel. I really don’t think I would feel happy letting it go. It’s become something to remember him by.’

Mantle smiled. He had prepared himself for this. It always happened. ‘I fully understand. I’m willing to go to sixteen hundred. Which is way over the odds for a book of this sort.’

He could see her scrutinising him, wondering if she could wring out another hundred, wondering how to play the game. But she didn’t know anything. She was sold.

‘I suppose there’s no point in hanging on to the past,’ she said. ‘My Eddie would want his books to be appreciated by readers rather than gather dust on the shelf.’

Mantle pursed his lips. His mobile phone went off, vibrating against his leg.

‘Then you’ll take the sixteen hundred?’

‘I will,’ said Mrs Greville, in a voice of almost comical reluctance.

She passed him the book once the bills were in her hand. He was hastily wishing her good night, wrapping the book in a brown paper bag after a swift, expert appraisal of its jacket, boards and copyright page. ‘Very fine, very fine,’ he said, his little joke, his signature.

He barely heard Mrs Greville asking if there was anything else he’d like to look at. He fumbled the phone from his pocket and barked his name before the answering service could kick in.

There was no reply, just the sound of air rushing down the line, as if the caller had contacted him from a tunnel, or a windswept beach. There was a pulse to the wind; he was put in mind of the white noise of shortwave signals on his old radio.

‘Hello?’ he said, his voice thick in his throat. He heard the faint echo of his own greeting, that occasional anomaly of mobile phones. It sounded as though, for a second, he was talking to himself. He might as well have been; nobody replied.

That radio. He wondered where it was now. It had been his father’s, but Mantle had spent more time than he twisting its knobs and dials. He would zone in on the pulses and bleats of what he had believed were signals of intent from distant aliens, try to decipher their insistent tattoo. A few months later, after the violent death of his father, he believed they were the frantic, distorted echoes of his last breaths; scorched, impatient, encoded with a meaning he could not extract.

His father had worked as a builder’s mate, hod-carrying, mixing cement, making the bacon butty runs. One night he had met a girl in a pub and smuggled her into the site after closing time. Mantle had dramatized what might have happened on many occasions, running sequences and dialogue through his mind like a writer planning a passage in a novel. There were never any happy endings.

*

He lights cigarettes for them; she tastes the sticky residue of whisky and Guinness on the filter. She watches him lark around, his steel toe capped boots crunching through glass and plaster; the odd, metallic skitter as he kicks a nail across the floor. In here are great mounds of polythene wrap, packaging for fixtures and fittings, looking to her drink-addled mind like greasy clouds frozen into stillness.

He’s opened the windows. Outside, the sky is hard with winter. Goodbye cruel world as he lurches into the night. A breath catches in her throat. She rushes to see. Tricked you. Step into my office. He’s giggly, foolish, reckless. Unlike the man who skulks at home, the taciturn man, incapable of tenderness, of affection. The scaffold bites into the building’s face like an insect, all folded, fuddled legs. His steps shush and clump on the wood. The angles of metal look cold enough to burn. Come inside, she says. She’s nervous. This is an unknown, unknowable world to her. It’s a sketch of a home. There is no comfort here. She unbuttons her blouse, lets him see the acid white bra, the curve of what it contains. Come inside.

Fumbling. Stumbling. An accident. A flame from a match, from the smouldering coals of the cigarettes. A fire leaps, too swift and strong to stamp out. A drunken attempt. The surge of molten plastic. In the flickering orangedark, before she runs to escape, she sees him twisting in the suffocating layers, wrapping himself in clear, wet heat as it melts through his flesh. His fingers fuse together as he tries to claw it from his face. He stands there, silently beseeching, loops of his own cheeks spinning from his hands. The black fug from burning plastic funnels out of him and he staggers to the window, toppling on to that cold, black edifice.

*

He sees one now. Like an exoskeleton. A riot of violent shapes. His father had never been a great reader, unless you counted The Sun, which was never off his dashboard. He had always snorted his derision whenever he found Mantle leafing through an Ian Serraillier, or a David Line. There was always something else to do, in his opinion, as if reading for its own sake, and reading fiction especially, was a waste of time. The scaffolds were erected – that arcane, mysterious practice – and dismantled. They were the means to deliver repair, but Mantle could not, would not see that in them. Whenever he chanced upon them, he saw only his father cooling on the duckboards, black sheaves lifting from his face.

Bitterly, Mantle closed his phone and assessed the road. He couldn’t see any taxis but the bus stop across the way was busy; there’d be a 94 along any moment. He joined the queue and extracted the book from his pocket. He sucked in its brittle breath and traced the tightness of the head, the embossing of the title and author on the front cover. Twice what he’d paid would have still been a modest price. Quickly, before the cold air, or the pollution, or his excitement could have any adverse effect on the pages, he slid it back into the brown bag. Books and brown paper, well, there was a perfect marriage. Yet an increasingly unlikely one, in the bookshops he haunted throughout the capital. Flimsy plastic bags, one molecule thin it seemed, were used to package books these days. He’d talked to some of the booksellers, suggested returning to paper, that the books might sweat under plastic, that they could be damaged, but had only ever received blank looks. He liked the snug way the brown paper folded against, into the book it was protecting, as opposed to the slip and slide of the plastic, as if it were trying to shun what it sheathed. It was too much like smothering.

A sudden gust of wind; a smack and clatter in the deep dark behind him. He flinched. Nobody else seemed to notice. He stared again at the scaffolding as it snaked up the face of the church. The light was good enough only to see a treacly gleam trace the geometry of the struts and tubes and platforms. It waxed across the netting, creating the impression of a series of rhomboid mouths opening and closing against the night. Mantle mimicked them.

The bus arrived; he boarded, feeling the air condense at his back as if someone were hurrying to catch the bus before it departed, but when he glanced back there was nobody. The doors cantilevered shut. On his way home he noticed so many houses and shops masked by aluminium that he had to reach up to his own face to check it wasn’t similarly encumbered.

*

Mantle’s flat: bookshelves everywhere. He had the spaces above the doors adapted to take C format paperbacks. There was shelving in the bathroom, although he had spent a fortune on air-conditioning to ensure that the steam from the shower and bath were negated to ensure his books remained in pristine condition. The floor was a maze of literary magazines, reviews, photocopies of library archive material, letters from booksellers.

He unwrapped the Bett and placed it next to Black Iris. The covers hissed together as if sighing with contentment. A completeness there. A job done. He could imagine Mick Bett himself nodding his appreciation. Here was somebody who cared as much for the decent writer of bestsellers – and there were some around – as the leftfield scribes, the slipstreamers, the miserablists. There were writers he adored who had never sold well when people like Jeffrey Archer, Dan Brown, Martina Cole were coining it. Forget clitfic, or ladlit, this was shitlit. He’d rather stick with an arresting, original writer who deserved greater exposure, a writer who cared about the craft, a writer who lived for it – a Joel Lane, a Christopher Burns – than some twunt who could hardly write his or her own name, but whose name was gold because of some other supposed talent: Rooney, Jordan, Russell fucking Brand.

He drew a bath and pulled a bottle of Magners from the fridge. Food was nothing more than a thought. Already he was considering the following day; Heaton had mentioned possibilities in Crystal Palace: an 1838 Elizabeth B Barrett, ‘The Seraphim and Other Poems’, with an inscription. You were looking at 2.5K plus for that. He took the drink over to his desk and looked out at the city. Books under every roof. Most of them forgotten, badly looked after, unread. He felt the weight of all his own literature bristling behind him, smelled that all-pervading tang of ancient pages.

Something shimmered under the caul of city light. The reflections of red security lamps crept along the wet scaffolds like something alive, determined. Mantle was suddenly shocked by the mass of spars and supports cluttering the skyline. It seemed as if the whole of London was crippled, in need of Zimmer frames and callipers. The night breathed through it all, a carbonised, gasping ebb and flow. A miserable suck, a terrible fluting. He thought he saw something move through the confusion, shadow dark, intent, clumsy. Before it merged with a deeper blackness, right at the heart of the scaffold, he saw, thought he saw, deceleration, the wrap of a hand around a column, black fingers that did not shift until his eyes watered and he had to look away.

Mantle remembered his bath and stood up sharply, knocking over his drink and bashing his knee into the underside of his desk. His foot skidded on the open pages of a magazine and he went down awkwardly, an arm outstretched to stabilise himself serving only to swipe a cairn of novels to the floor. Pages riffled across his line of sight, a skin of words in which to wrap his pain. They wouldn’t leave him alone, even after he had managed to wrestle a way into sleep.

*

His alarm didn’t so much bring him out of sleep as rescue him from a desperate conviction that he was about to suffocate. He felt as though he were in the centre of a world of layers, and all of them were trying to iron him flat, as if he were some crease that was spoiling the uniformity of his dreamscape. He wore a tight jacket that was like a corset, pinning his gut back. The city was similarly constricted; he couldn’t see brick or stone for the weight of aluminium, slotted with mathematical precision into every available square metre of space. It caused him to feel sick at his own softness; he felt arbitrary, ill-fitting. The books he was carrying seemed to sense his otherness and kept trying to squirm from his grasp. Pages fluttered. He felt the bright sting of a paper cut in his finger. Blood sizzled across onionskin. He gazed at his hands and saw how the print from the books had transferred to his flesh, a backwards code tattooed on every inch. He was ushered into a series of ever-narrowing streets by faces smudged into nonsense by the speed he was moving at, or the lack of oxygen reaching his brain. A building up ahead stood out because of the presence of an open door, a black oblong of perfection among the confused angles. He was fed through it. Shapes, presumably people, gestured and shrugged and pointed. He was shown a gap in the heights, a section of hammerbeam that had rotted and was being prepared for repair. Ladders and platforms were arranged around the workstation like props in a play.

He was cajoled and prodded up the ladder until he reached the ceiling. He was manhandled into the slot, he screamed as his neck was twisted violently to accommodate the rest of his body. Great cranes positioned at either end of the hammerbeam slowly rotated a mechanised nut, the size of a dinner plate. The two ends of the hammerbeam were incrementally forced together. Pressure built in his body; he felt blood rush to his extremities. He bellowed uncontrollably, a nonsense noise, a plea. He felt bones pulverising, unbearable tensions tearing the shiny tight skin of his suit, his stomach. At the last moment, as breath ceased, he saw himself burst open, everything wet in him raining to the floor. It looked like ink. It looked like a river of words.

*

Coffee. It burned his lip but he was grateful for anything that reminded him he was still alive. His fingers shook a little as he replaced the cup in its saucer. Heaton’s last text was burned into his thoughts, helpfully chasing away the remnants of the dream. He spread out a fan of notes on the table, sucking up the gen on this new quarry. Tucked away in a Stoke Newington studio flat was a Mint/Mint of Bryce Tanner’s first novel, Noble Rot, published by Faber in 1982. According to Heaton, the studio had been abandoned by the occupant, some failed venture capitalist who had needed a temporary base while he searched for his Hoxton warehouse. Rumour was he’d drowned himself in one of the reservoirs in N16. The flat had been left as it was while his nearest and dearest were sought, a process taking longer than had been expected. Armed with a hammer, Mantle had cased the building an hour previously, and had been encouraged by the lack of humanity; the building seemed little more than a shell giving the come-on to the wrecking ball and the softstrip crews. The jitters Mantle was suffering on the back of his dream, and a need to be sure of what he was about to do, had driven him away in search of caffeine. Now, sitting on a hard metal chair outside a deli in Church Street, the call of the book too great to resist any longer. He tossed a handful of coins into his saucer and retraced his steps to the High Street. A block sitting back off that busy main drag contained more boards than glass in its window frames. Mantle negotiated the buckled front door and the inevitable climb up the stairs. Broken glass was scattered across every landing; dead insects provided a variety to the crunch under his shoes. The door he needed was padlocked – cheaply – and his hammer dealt with it after a couple of blows. Inside he paused in case his attack had brought any remaining residents to investigate, but either the building was deserted or apathy reigned. It didn’t matter – he wasn’t going to be disturbed.

The studio was well maintained, leaning towards minimalism but with enough books, CDs and DVDs to suggest that it was a life choice that wasn’t being taken seriously. There was nothing to suggest that its inhabitant was likely to take his own life, but Mantle was no psychologist. He didn’t care one jot. All that mattered to him was that couple of pounds of paper and board.

He located the book almost immediately. It seemed to call to him from among all the dog-eared paperbacks. It had presence, gravitas. He slid it clear from the shelf and hefted it reverentially.

The book turned to ash in his fingers.

He stood there for a while, as the air seemed to darken around him, his mouth open, trying to keep himself together. The notes in his pocket lost their insulating properties. He was in a cold room, bare but for a bucket filled with a dried meringue of shit.

The boards across the window had collapsed; wind flooded in. He moved towards it, the flakes in his hand rising up like angered insects. Scaffolding bit deep into the pebbledashed skin of the block. Through the shapes it created he could almost imagine he could see the muscular City architecture, the Gherkin, the old Nat West tower and, further afield, Canary Wharf. The aircraft warning lights they pulsed might shine in the tubing outside this very window, but also, deep within him, matching the insistent thrum of his own heart. He heard the creak of the broken door behind him and he acted upon it, not wanting to turn to see what had followed him up here. Falteringly, he clambered out on to the platform and edged along it until he had reached the end. His hands, coated with the dust of a book he could still smell, clawed at the brackets that kept the entire structure married to the block. They were so cold they scorched his skin.

He heard something struggle out of the window frame and on to the duckboards. Whatever it was had no grace, no balance. Its weight sent stresses and strains along the planks to his own feet, lifting them a little. The song of the wood might have been the keening that played in his throat. He smelled the high, narcotic smell of burned plastic. There were no books. There were no notes. No text messages. No Heaton. No wallet filled with cash. No Mrs Greville. No Mick Bett. No Gherkin. No past, no future. No nothing. Mantle’s love of books was desperate, a wish never to be fulfilled. He reached up to his eyes and pressed his fingers against the dry membrane that filmed them. Pockets of interior colour exploded. He could never know what it meant to be able to read a story, no more than he would ever learn what colour his own eyes were.

The lie these books contained. The fictions. It had a face, it had a fury. They infected your life, it was a contagion. You built up your own monster from the deceptions you invented. And Mantle was all about deceit. He’d managed the most horrid of them all, tricking himself. It was second nature, now. The blind leading the blind. Fear unfolded in every pore of his being. Nevertheless, he turned to confront what had chased him all this way, all these years. Not being able to see him gave Mantle a Pyrrhic victory of sorts. He was able to smile, his mouth finding an unusual cast even as the sum of his trickery leaned in close. The hand over his mouth was little more than crisped talons. He felt as if he were becoming infected by that alien flesh, growing desiccated, so sucked dry of moisture that his face might disintegrate. His chest muscles ruptured with the strain of trying to draw a breath. Millions of capillaries burst, flooding his inner sight with red. He heard the stutter and gargle of his own breath, or of the thing silencing him. White noise. Explosions of crumpled paper. In extremis, he managed to kiss the hand, to reach out and hold tight, to imagine that this was the hug he had craved for so long.

 

 

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