After getting my BA in English Lit from a redbrick university back in the early 60s, and with little other idea of what I might do with my life, I started working for the Philip Hobbs Literary Agency as what I suppose an American might describe as an intern, although we in England don’t dignify such posts with any particular term. Underpaid jobsbody, though, would have just about covered it.
Don’t believe what you now read and hear about the 60s. Even London, which was supposedly at the centre of everything, wasn’t that swinging. It was a world which belonged far more to the songs of Rolf Harris and Ken Dodd than it ever did to the Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix. London, mostly then as mostly now, was a city of full of grey streets, grinding traffic, bickering tourists and limping pigeons. The books that were selling then were as bad as the books which are selling now, although of their authors, like the songs which really dominated the radio at that time, are best forgotten. I’d gone into the business of publishing with my head still filled with the works of Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald and Shakespeare. What I found instead was an industry which subsisted on the outpourings of Barbara Cartland and Dennis Wheatley.
Philip Hobbs was a decent enough old buffer. He cared about his authors, and he cared about books. He was continually bemoaning the dreadful plight of the publishing industry through the pipefug of his big old office to anyone who would listen. And listen I did. I’d already worked out that all the stuff I’d learned about great literature was sheer flim flam when it came to the actual business of pushing print. But the publishing industry, I’d somehow decided, was how I’m going to make the world sit up and bloody notice Ros Godby—although a look in the mirror, or a survey of the long nights I’d spent standing in the corner at parties studying the bit on the back of the sleeves of LP sleeves which told you how stereo recordings could also be played on suitably adapted mono equipment, might have had something to do with my decision. In ordinary social intercourse, I know, I’m awkward. Physically, I’ve never had it. My nose is long and my chest is flat and my legs are bowed and my eyes are set close together and my voice tends to oscillate between a screech and a whisper. Not, of course, that I didn’t occasionally manage to get myself involved in sweaty fumbles with boys in doorways or coat-strewn bedrooms back in the day. But the other participant was almost always drunk, and invariably ugly.
In retrospect, I suppose you could say that my one meeting with Edna Bramley was a turning point in my career, although I hadn’t planned it that way. Hobbsy simply called me in through the smog of his office one morning—it was just me and him and a lady who came in to do what passed for the accounts every other Wednesday by then—and waved with characteristic dolefulness a letter which had arrived with the rest of today’s meagre post.
“It’s Penburys,” he said. “The bastards have only gone and pulled the plug on Tumbling Nancy.”
“Yes,” I said. Neutrally. Everyone of my age and a bit older remembers Tumbling Nancy—although probably without much pleasure. But I hadn’t realised that the author was one of ours.
“Poor old Edna. She’s put her life into those books. I mean, not that they’re…” He waved the letter again. The grey waves around him stirred and I thought, not for the first time, of Lewis Carroll’s fat caterpillar smoking his hookah. “But not to renew the option. After all this time.” Hobbsy pushed out his lower lip. He looked genuinely close to tears. There were displays like this almost every other morning. When he wasn’t beaming and booming on about some marvellous new voice, you just wait and see Ros, they’ll take the world by storm that was. Of course, they never did.
“What can you do?” I said. Then; “maybe I could check through the contract. Make sure what Penburys are doing is—“”
“No point, my dear girl. Absolutely no point. You know how they tie these things up in small print. But perhaps you could go and have a word with the dear sweet lady? Break the news. Commiserate. Tell her all’s not lost. There are plenty of other publishers out there. Plenty of other editors. Tell her it’s an opportunity dressed up as an obstacle and we’re on her case.”
I nodded. Hobbsy had a thousand such phrases. Somehow, he still believed most of them. “Where does she live?”
“Oh, only down in sunny Balham.”
All of which found me sitting in a dingy London café just a few hours later opposite a woman who spat at me as she talked. Edna Bramley, I’d quickly decided, wasn’t actually either sweet or dear or that much of a lady. Was she in her fifties, or older? I pondered, in that way that you do when you’re not really listening to what people are saying. A tall woman, once-striking, perhaps, but clumsy and gangling, with long half-grey hair bunched up in an elastic band. She was wearing a frayed old coat with drooping lining, and emitted an odour of BO which competed with all the other café smells in small, sour waves. Talentless old crow, the younger me had thought. Writing those dreadful books, what right does she even think she has to call herself an author? She might almost have been a tramp—what nowadays we’d call a street person—dragging her worldly belongings in a collection of old bags, but she was unwavering in her determination to keep writing more books in the series about the character she called “My Nancy” in the face of Pensburys’, and most probably the whole world’s, disinterest. It wasMy Nancy this and My Nancy that, and I leaned as far back as I could from the chipped formica table and waited for the sorry ordeal to finish.
“I’m sure Philip will come up with something,” she said as she bent forward to display her unwashed hair’s dandruff-clotted parting and spooned more dirty sugar into what was left of her coffee. “He’s always worked so hard for me. Over so many years…” She scooped up the cup with trembling hands. Then she banged it down again. “He always says that losing a disinterested publisher is the best thing that can happen to a writer. Of course, changes in fashion don’t mean changes in quality. And any a writer who—“”
“He’s dying,” I said.
“What?” The cup clattered.
“Philip Hobbs. He’s dying. The doctors say it’s cancer of the lungs…” I extemporised, recalling the office pipefug and showing what was for the time, I think, a surprisingly prescient knowledge of the dangers of smoking.
“Oh! My!” She said it so loud that the other troglodytes in the café glanced around at us. But it was worth it, just to see the miserable look which melted her crinkled old face. After all, it was bad enough having to listen to Hobbsy drooling out this hopeful gibberish day after day. But to have it from this talentless has-been… It was really too much. “Is there anything I can do? I must send him flowers, a letter! Perhaps I could—”
“Oh, no.” I raised a hand to block the spray. “You know what he’s like. Carry on regardless. Every day is a new day.”
“So he doesn’t want people to even mention it?”
I nodded. “Exactly.”
She was looking at me now in an awed way. “That’s so right, isn’t it? One has to carry on. Isn’t that what we’ve been saying?”
“Well, you have, Edna.” I felt as if I was on a roll, and I could get away with anything. “For my part,” I sighed, “I really don’t know. It’s up to you, I guess. You can carry on writing. Or you can give the world a break and stop. To be honest, I doubt if it matters much either way.”
“And who will be…?” Her whole face twisted. “Taking over when he’s…?”
“It’ll be me.”
Not long after, her big face still spasming, Edna Bramley blundered between the tables and back out into the grey London streets. But I sat there a while longer. The café, with its crusted tomato sauce bottles and smell of old fat, seemed be suffused in a kind of glow.
It was, I suppose, a small example of the sort of moment which Paul experienced on his way to Damascus. I’d realised you could say whatever you wanted, and, at least for a while, people tended to believe you. I mean, Hobbsy himself was a prime example. Although he’d wasted his life on pointless optimism, which had got him nowhere. And I wasn’t going to let that happen to me.
I started dressing and acting more sharply after that. I didn’t actually tell very many other people that Hobbsy was dying, but I made sure that I gave off the impression—along with a new whiff of Chanel and a better haircut and higher heels which did nothing to improve my looks but at least made sure that people noticed me—that I was in control now, and he was in terminal decline. And as for literature. Fuck literature—and it was unusual in those days for women to swear. What counts is what’s going to sell this Christmas, and the fuddy duddies in their ivory towers can go hang themselves. People want to be entertained. They want to be diverted. Or, I came to realise, they probably don’t actually want to read much at all. But they still like books, or at least they end up buying some of them, anyway.
Self-help this and that. Pointless lists. Novels which sell solely on the title. Books of inedible recipes that people will never try cooking. Celebrity confessionals. TV tie-ins. The self-justificatory twaddle of ex-politicians. Horoscopes for pets. As the proper bookshops began to close on every high street, this was the breaking wave in modern publishing. Within a few years, Ros Godby had become the kind of agent publishers knew they could always turn to when it came to producing something which would fill a gap in their autumn list. We’re looking for something… Well, doesn’t really matter what it is, Ros, but it’s got to suggest shopping and smart hotels. Or gay vampires. Or teenage wizards. Or childhoods and surgical implants gone wrong. Or whatever the current theme was that the sales graph had clustered around, and had thus already been done to death. And I’d ring around, and I’d bully the necessary amount of junk out from some writer’s bottom drawer or last night’s nightmares which would broadly fit the bill, at least in the sense that it wouldn’t warrant a law suit under the Trades Description Act. Good old Ros Godby. I mean, I sure wouldn’t want to cross the snarly old bitch, but she’s sure as hell pulled the iron out of the fire once again.
I was the voice and presence of PHL, as it was now called, even before Hobbsy retired from the scene and died not long after—of lung cancer, funnily enough, although I don’t see I can claim much credit for that, after all his years of pipe-abuse. I kept his offices but I had the interior gutted and cleaned out and changed into the squeaky modernist shrine of plateglass and blonde wood which visitors see today. My flat on the Thames isn’t dissimilar. I like things new and sleek and clean.
PHL remains a small concern, at least in terms of staffing. Basically, it’s just some front office piece of eye-candy. And me. Why would I want to have things done by others which I know I can do better myself? My roster of authors and ghost writers and so-called “celebrity talent” is always impressive, at least in terms of current sales, although of the nature of these things, it changes frequently. In truth, I’ve long grown tired of those midnight rants and rambling e-mails. If it were possible to be a literary agent without actually having to represent actual writers, I think I would probably go that way. Computers, maybe? They can do so many things these days. But one continuing bonus of the humble origins of PHL in the old Philip Hobbs Literary Agency is a backlist which encompasses some usefully recognisable literary names. A few Latin American magical realists and Lithuanian ex-dissidents may not pay the rent, but they do help to give my company the requisite gloss and keep up the charade that well-written words still matter in publishing. And the best thing of all about almost all those Eng Lit Year Two warhorses is that they are all dead.
I like dead authors. No objections about marketing and covers. No this-isn’t-how-Davina-treated-me-when-I-came-out-of-Big-Brother tantrums. None of those tiresome lunches. A clearly defined catalogue, and only a remote cousin to send a yearly account to. And dying can often be exactly the kind of push that the modern writer needs to get themselves noticed. So one of my first duties when I arrive at work each morning is to log toThe Bookseller’s website and check for fresh obituaries.
Which is what drew my attention to a small notice about none other than Edna Bramley. Once-popular children’s writer, it said. Mainly known for the Tumbling Nancy series, it said. Which she also illustrated, it added. Not even any mention of representation, but I was up and through the plateglass doorway into the shining space where my current assistant Mark should have been sitting. But Mark wasn’t there, any more than he had been a few minutes earlier when I first came in. Sleeping off an over-strenuous session down at the gym, probably. Or with someone he met there. Vain men are even worse than vain women. Time to fire the useless faggot, but meanwhile I would have to undertake the tiresome task of going upstairs to look around in the store rooms myself.
After swallowing an anti-histamine, I keyed in the code for the fireproof door and headed up the creaking stairs. I’ve already told you that I like things new and clean and neat, and this rambling space full of old files and boxes of complimentary copies is none of these things. Truth is, I hate the upper floor of my offices, and would have the whole mess digitised and put on my Blackberry if it wasn’t for the currently ridiculous cost. But I’ll have it done, and sooner rather than later, in this day of the Kindle and the MP3. I might even take a trip along to the furnace to watch all the useless crap of lost ages go up in flames.
But there they were; four whole fat files amid the dead bluebottles and letter Bs. I took them down and flapped them out on Hobbsy’s old desk, blinking and coughing and sneezing. Nothing but a few dwindling royalty statements after that seminal meeting with yours truly. And then, heaped nearby on the floor like dead seaweed thrown on the shore after a particularly nasty storm, I found a whole stack of the Tumbling Nancy books. Flipping through them, wiping the drips from my nose—bookdust allergy is an occupational hazard literary agents share with spinster librarians—I felt both a falling sense of repugnance and recognition.
Like most people of my generation, I’d read some of these books. Or they’d been read to me, which somehow brought an unwanted recollection of the sound of boozy arguments which wafted up from below each night in my parent’s house. At school, though, was more likely. In one of those lessons where Miss Hall told class to shut up and read so she can concentrate on staring with bovine yearning at Mister Smith running the boys out in the playing fields. That itchy sense of imposed quiet came over me again as I flicked through the stiff yellowed pages of those peeling card-bound editions. But part of the feeling wasn’t simply mild disgust. Part of it was sheer excitement. My agent’s radar was well and truly spinning.
These books were bad. Poorly drawn, poorly written. Even poorly bound and printed. Poorly edited, too—I spotted askew words and spellings without even trying. Although perhaps that was just another reflection of the dreadful way they’d been written. Remember Captain Pugwash? Remember those ghastly black and white films which were replayed endlessly over the school holidays in one-screen town cinemas which reeked of cigarettes and toilet block? Remember the patronising, tie-and-twinset-and-pearl-wearing, anciently grown-up presenters with cut glass accents you used to get in the brief moments after the test card on what then passed for children’s TV? Remember when there wasn’t any TV at all, and girls were expected to do needlepoint and were shocked by their first period, and boys had to pass their time trudging through Walter Scott novels and worrying about the perils of insanity brought on by masturbation. A place of brutal haircuts, severe rationing, bad teeth, sexism and clipped phrases—and routine clips, indeed, around the ear. This is the era to which Tumbling Nancy belongs.
The everyday world from which Nancy originates, though, is never delineated with any clarity. All you ever get is the sense of a dark house and bulking adults talking boomingly of incomprehensible things. Nancy, quite understandably, begins every story feeling bored. Does she remember her other adventures? That’s not always clear either; they are sometimes referred to and sometimes not. But there is always a darning needle or some other sharp object which Nancy in her frustration starts to play with, and then invariably pricks herself in what a modern psychological interpretation might regard an early instance in the literature of childhood self-harm. From that moment, Nancy feels herself shrinking, whilst a convenient nearby crack in the wall or pavement grows ever-larger until she slips through lighter than a bob of thistledown.
So Nancy—now with the Tumbling epithet, although she never actually does much more than blunder vaguely about—enters so-called Splendorland, and lumbers around in her trademark dungarees with her two pigtails sticking ridiculously out from the side of her head, when who should come along but Rarr the Robin or Gordon the Grocer who are invariably in a most terrible rush because they’ve lost something, which, after several pages of conversation so stilted it would shame a speak your weight machine, Tumbling Nancy agrees to help them find. And off they go. And so it goes until, after a sequence of improbable coincidences and occasional weeping rashes of purple prose, something apparently happens which neither Nancy nor her friends seem to fully understand, nor care that much about, other than that, as they all agree, everything is just lovely and put back the way it should be. At which time, Nancy usually remembers her normal life, and flees back home through the crack in the wall where the big, boomy-voiced adults are presumably still waiting.
Have I conveyed to you the full awfulness of these books? The illustrations, for example, have a peculiar ugliness. They’re black and white, of course, or rather grey and beige now the pages are so badly foxed. Nancy’s face changes markedly from illustration to illustration, and what I imagine are supposed to be appealing freckles shift like bad acne across her face, and there’s something invariably wrong about the set of her eyes. If she resembles anyone, of course, it isn’t a young girl, but the ratty-coated old bird I met all those years ago in that Balham cafcafée. And the other people and animals, Nancy’s friends, have that dead and snarly look you get from those stuffed displays in glass cases you find in Victorian museums, or in scene of the crime photos of corpses; it really is that bad. You’d think, perhaps, that the bad characters Tumbling Nancy encounters might fare somewhat better than the rest. But that isn’t the case. Krago the Dragon with his dreadful snivelling snout doesn’t so much snarl as smirk, and some vaguely evil thing called Blighty Blight is depicted as nothing more than a pencil squiggle of the kind toddlers like drawing in books. Really, though, and if you’re on anybody’s side in the last few confusing pages as they dwindle into defeat, it’s theirs.
As for Splendorland itself, it’s such a dreary place that you wonder why Nancy ever bothers to crawl through. There are drab shops and lumpy-looking cars and weird patches of clawing trees and narrow terraces stuffed with grim little houses set between grey stretches of wasteland that might conceivably be called fields. Or perhaps they’re simply bombsites left over from the Blitz. Then there are the Bumbling People—Splendorland’s other occupants—who form a crowd of limbs suggestive of varicose veins encased in pink supportive stocking and wander around mumbling to themselves in a vague and confused way. The phrase somewhere endlessly in betweenwhich is used repeatedly in the Tumbling Nancy stories struck me as particularly apposite.
In fact, I decided, the Tumbling Nancy books were so spectacularly bad that, if there wasn’t something marketable here, my name wasn’t Ros Godby. Not the kind of books you’d sell to kids these days—not unless you counted glue-sniffing horror fans. But there would definitely be a kind of fission in rediscovering just how terrible Tumbling Nancy really was for the adult market which grew up with them. It would be like selling new editions of Little Black Sambo—which has made someone a lot of money since it became non-PC—but with a gothic edge. Tumbling Nancy tee-shirts as well? Why not? Even Tumbling Nancy (if it was done badly enough) The Movie.
My imagination was probably running away with me, but I could definitely see a nice line in the gift market for tastefully tasteless reproductions of these books. You could even do straight photoprint copies of the copies I had here and include all the yellowing and foxing. They would make for an edgier variation in the kind of ghastly nostalgia that sells Victorian manners guides and all the other useless crap which people give each other at Christmas. A ha-ha toilet book. Gift-shop promotional stands. Tumbling Nancy dolls, and Krago the Dragon as well, to frighten the kids with, and show them what the world of childhood was really like before it was invaded by all those Tellytubby and In the Night Garden bad trip goblins. Despite all my years of ingrown cynicism, my mind was already doing somersault sale pitches. Although, even when I reigned myself in, I knew that I was on to some serious money.
I was still leaning on Hobbsy’s old desk. For a moment, I thought I caught a lingering whiff of pipesmoke, and glanced up and almost expected to see the fat slob to be slumped there. What, I wondered, would the sad bastard have said? But that didn’t matter. This was now and that was then.
The telephone number I found at the back of the files I lugged downstairs with me to my pristine marble desk, and still no sign of Marky-boy, had one of those old London codes; they change them about every ten years now on what’s always supposed to be a permanent basis. I’d stabbed at my Blackberry through so many permutations I’d forgotten what exactly it was that I’d dialled when I finally heard a definite ringing at the other end, even though it was crackly and distant. Of course, Edna Bramley couldn’t answer it now, but maybe someone else was there, and could point me in the right direction. I wiped a drool of mucus from my nose and tapped my nails. Come on, come on… Or if there isn’t anybody there, if there are no next of kin, then that might mean, subject to all the usual bullshit legalities, that PHW might actually be able to hold any new revenues in their entirety unless and until—
I was almost disappointed when the phone was finally picked up, dropped, and then fumbled around in a dull clatter.
The voice was female and breathy. I pictured somebody running up a set of dark stairs from a cat-smelling hallway strewn with damp final demands.
“Is that, ah, the residence of the author Edna Bramley?”
“Residence?” Another muffly clatter. A giggle from far away.
“I’ve just read the news,” I said. All concern. “I was so terribly, terribly sorry to hear that she’d passed away. I knew Edna over many years. We worked together, but I’d like to think we were also friends. Such a dear, sweet lady. I really am sorry.”
“Sorry.” Was that an echo down the line? A question? Whatever, the voice had somehow harshened.
“Look,” I ploughed on, “My name’s Ros Godby and I’m Edna’s literary agent. I mean, I represent her books and her interests. I know this must be a difficult time for all involved, but I need to speak to the next of kin. We must discuss how we distribute her continued earnings.” That last bit normally got people’s interest.
“Involved…?” Another clatter. Another muffled giggle. Or it could have been a sob. In fact, it could have been anything. Then droning silence. I tried hitting redial, but my sodding Blackberry was under the impression that I’d called an unrecognised number. Nothing for it, then. The file address in Balham, of course, was unchanged.
The Northern Line. Lost tourists and foreign students and glum office workers and bag ladies. Gum on the seats and on the grab handles. My eyes and nose still stinging. I sniffled, and stared, with unaccountable fascination, at an old woman’s holed and wrinkled pink stockings, and the ghastly bits of mottled yet hairy skin that showed through. Then at a nearby man in a ridiculous tartan flat cap who seemed to have to keep swallowing to stop his teeth from falling out. The Bumbling People, I thought. They’re fucking everywhere. Then; how much of what is true about life is expressed through art, even if the art in question is absolute rubbish.
There was a particular Tumbling Nancy story, I remembered now, although I wasn’t sure whether that was because I’d just seen it, or it was one of the works I’d somehow absorbed—along with chicken pox, mumps, and the allergy which was still making me feel around for a tissue or handkerchief I didn’t seem to have—as a child. Tumbling Nancy and the Adventure of the Shrunken Treasure, perhaps, or was I making that singularly stupid name up? But I did have a definite impression that Nancy had actually died at the end of one of the stories. I could see her splayed body, the blood leaking out from her across the blotched page in a dull grey stain. Of course, she’d been up and around and bored as ever at the start of the next adventure. Was this religious imagery some half-arsed tribute to Aslan in the Narnia books? Or had I imagined the whole thing? I swayed with the train and ended up wiping my nose with the back of my hand, and then up and down the sleeve of my midnight blue Bagatelle jacket, which would cost more to dry clean than the other people in this carriage had spent on their entire wardrobes, as I swayed on between seemingly interminable stops. London Underground regrets. But not as much as I do, chum… Nothing bloody like it.
Some bits of Balham are now gentrified, but this certainly wasn’t one of them. Another inconvenience, another sodding glitch in my bloody Blackberry, was that it hadn’t even found the road with Edna Bramley’s address. So here I was, stumbling through south London along dogshit pavements and fumbling the splayed pages of a London A-Z that I hadn’t used for so long it was falling apart. And my nose was still running. But I was still on a buzz. Bad was bad, for sure. But, just as Michael Jackson had once sung when he still resembled someone living, really bad was good. I could hear myself pitching it to one of the big editors at some otherwise pointless cocktail evening.
Usually, of course, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tell people that something or someone, is past it, old hat, absolute rubbish. People believe that easier than staring down into the toilet bowl at their own shit. It’s the positive kind of news—so-and-so’s on the up, you wouldn’t believe what’s happened between the first and the second draft—which is harder to convincingly get across. But this was where Tumbling Nancy already had it won hands down. No, no, I’m not kidding, it’s absolutely terrible … But, yes, I represent the old crow’s estate, and I’m going to give you first dibs before the bidding war starts as long as you come in with some serious zeros. Absolutely. Deserves an 18 certificate. Sheer trash of the vilest sort. You’d never let modern kids read it, even though they subsist on a diet of internet porn and murderous video games… And they’d turn back towards me, a little wary of course, because I’m Ros Godby and they don’t want to piss the old dragon off, but also because I’ve piqued their curiosity.
But here at last—around a turn and then another turn that looked to be a cul-de-sac but wasn’t—was Brook Mews. Greybrick houses with overgrown gutters. The old-fashioned kind of rubbish bins you never saw anywhere now; exactly what London borough was I now in? Multiple addresses beside every doorway. Bedsitland incarnate, and not a soul about. I reached number 15, creaked open the gate, and stepped warily over a dead, or possibly slumbering, cat.
No doorbells as such, and the flat labels had been washed out by rain and age. I tried pushing at the front door. Then I gave it a hefty shove. Tumbling inside, I dropped my A-Z, then scrabbled around the greasy carpet amid a spew of old letters to gather it up. Somewhere, someone was talking in a booming voice, or maybe music was playing, but it was far off. The doors ahead had the numbers 1 and 2 screwed into their crackled paint, but the address I had from the file was Flat 3. I grabbed hold of the greasy handrail and hauled myself up the steep stairs.
Nothing, other than those dull, distant voices. I gave the door, which was actually ajar, a little rap.
“Anyone at all?”
It swung open. What can I say about what I found inside—at least, to start with—that you can’t probably imagine? A wan little hallway lit by a bare bulb. Cheaply partitioned rooms crammed into what had once been the bigger spaces of a larger house. People lived their whole lives this way. It was a horrible thought. The bedroom might as well have been a wardrobe. Maybe being swung around in here was what had done for that cat outside. The bed was a hollowed mess of off-yellow sheets. I retreated quickly.
The main room had a bar electric fire, and a sagging settee, and a foldout table with a typewriter squatting in the middle of a strew of papers and mouldering mugs. This was where my work in my sacred calling as literary agent lay, so I sat down on the creaky chair and began to pick my way through. Here it all was. More and more Tumbling Nancy in slipping, sliding masses amid the dirty spoons and half-eaten cream crackers.
It was apparent that Edna Bramley had done what she’d said she’d do when she met me at that café, and had continued on down the royal road of her life’s work. If Nancy’s adventures were dreadful in print, they were even more horrid in these collapsing unpublished drafts. And the illustrations, done in indian ink using a rusty scatter of artist’s pens I pricked my finger on when I found them scurrying around in a drawer, were so crude they should have suggested nothing at all, yet seemed to be working towards some apotheotic vision of the sort which Goya might have recognised. Krago the Dragon was genuinely horrific—a fly-splatter of half-dead wings—whilst Blighty Blight, no longer a bland scrawl, became a suggestion of something trying to unknot itself from other dimensions. If I’m sounding over-dramatic, all I can say is that you haven’t seen those pictures—and that Gordon the Grocer’s smile had most definitely acquired a predatory leer as he gazed down at Nancy from over his folded hams.
I finally sat back. This was brilliant. This was gold. Tumbling Nancy for theSaw generation. Might do to get a photographer in. Get some images. Black and white, of course. No, make that sepia. The same colour as these ghastly woodchip walls. Which only left the issue of who I was now supposed to be dealing with. Was that voice I’d heard briefly at the other end of the line, and whoever it was who’d left that door ajar, a daughter? That hardly seemed possible. Distant cousin or niece, then. But where the hell were they? A cold, moist sense of behind you touched my neck and I twisted quickly, but of course there was no-one there.
I stood up, and peered and picked a little more. The woman was dead, but I had no idea of what she’d actually died of. Squeezing through the sideways doorway into a space which, bizarrely, shared the function of bathroom, toilet and kitchen—and surely that was against planning rules?—my feet crunching dead flies, I was certain that this really would make a fabulously grim photoshot. Perhaps get on the news as well. Famous children’s writer dies in squalor. Play for the sympathy angle to generate some initial buzz. Then build up from that. The bath was scummed and rimed. So was the toilet. Pity she hadn’t committed suicide. Unless she actually had…
I suppose I must have a forensic streak in me, because I was still lifting and peering long after most people would have stopped. Why, for example, would any sensible person want to open the fridge in a dead old lady’s bedsit? But it almost changed my mind about the photoshoot—maybe we should go for colour after all. I stopped and listened after I’d got my breath back and slapped the door shut. Still, those dull, booming voices were coming from somewhere far off.
Another sound, though, had caught the edge of my senses, and it made me turn back into the foul little kitchen just as I was preparing to squeeze my way out. It was a small sound, thin and scratchy. Insects, most likely. And it seemed to be coming from beneath the sink. The sink was as stained and ancient as the bath, and filled with swamp of dirty dishes and more dead files, whilst the space beneath it was covered by a piece of gingham cloth strung on one of those bits of plastic-coated twine. A funny, turny feeling came and went in my stomach. A small bird fluttered close to my heart. My eyes still stung from opening the fridge, and I’d never wear these clothes again, dry-cleaned or not. But it was no use my being squeamish now. Squeamish was other people. Squeamish Ros Godby most fucking definitely was not.
There was no way I wasn’t going to tweak aside that little curtain beneath the sink. And if there was something horrible there—say, the author’s head with a few beetles crawling in and around it—I’d be kicking myself if I hadn’t looked. What I actually saw was therefore a bit of disappointment, for it looked at first like nothing more than a mass of rusty Brillo pads. Or perhaps a ball of coathangers which had somehow got snarled up with old hair. Nevertheless, it was all pretty grim, although I decided after a relatively quick glance that it had no photographic potential in the Channel 5 documentary I was constructing in my mind, and was about to let go of the bit of filthy rag I was pinching between my fingers when the thing beneath the sink started to move.
I stepped back and put my hands to my mouth as it flopped out onto linoleum. It still did look partly metallic, and partly like one of those ghastly hairballs you sometimes have to haul out from the drain beneath your shower. It seemed rusty, certainly, and scratchy, especially in the sound it made as it moved. But it also seemed organic, and it was most definitely alive. Nothing which was dead could possibly be hauling itself like this across the floor.
I suppose I could have kicked the thing or tried covering it with a bucket, but I simply stood and watched it go. You might call that a failure of nerve—Ros Godby finally baulked—but I could see where it was intent on going, and I had no desire to get in its way. At the back of the clawfoot bath, there was a crack in the wall, and that was where this damp and clawing mass was heading. All I really wanted to happen as I stood and watched it go by was for it to hurry up and get there. But the process was protracted, and it left behind dishwater-grey smears. It was alive, but it didn’t seem particularly lively. Or cheerful. But who knows what cheer amounts to, when you’re a bundle of rotting stuff somewhere between rusted metal and balled-up hair?
Finally, it reached the crack behind the bath. There, it sort-of pulsed amid the old cobwebs. Then it began to draw its way in. The crack was narrower than the thing itself was, and the process was protracted, and looked painful. Assuming that, like cheer, the thing could feel pain. It was, I thought, as if the crack was giving birth in reverse. Then, with a final dragging shudder and a bubbling wheeze of greyish fluid—perhaps it was some kind of blood—the thing was gone. I started shivering from shock, and took my hands away from my mouth and clamped them hard beneath my arms. I had, I realised, just witnessed the passage of Blighty Blight in all his/her/its glory. If only I’d thought to use the camera on my Blackberry. But people rarely do practical things on these occasions. After years of scoffing, and despite some decent sales figure on a few I-was-abducted-by-aliens books, that was something I now fully understood.
I stood there for a while longer, still shivering and staring uselessly at the crack in the wall. The sound of those distant booming voices had faded. It was so quiet I could hear my own breath whistling across my lips. Then, much to my relief, I heard footsteps in the little hall. Pausing only to check myself in the blotched mirror—not that crisp, Godby, and your nose is still dripping and your eyes are red, but it will have to do—I squeezed my way out and through to meet and greet.
“Hello there.” I was on autopilot. “I’m Ros Godby. I’m Edna’s literary agent. You’re probably wondering why I’m…” The words slowed and thickened in my throat. “…Here.”
Hmmm. This was some strange old bird, even in a literary landscape where you get to encounter more than the occasional loop-the-loop. She was big, broad—brawny even—although the hand that I was still pointlessly trying to shake felt clammy and soft as old dough. She was wearing worn dungarees and her hair was done up in pigtails and her teeth were poor and her eyes were hollowed and her face was covered with what might have been blotches, scars or spots. And she smelled the way kids used to smell, back in the time before anyone washed. She looked, of course, a little like Edna Bramley probably would have done when she was a girl. Or, rather, if she’d been trapped in childhood for so many years that everything about it had turned to dust.
“You’re Tumbling Nancy?”
The snag teeth bared themselves. Nancy giggled. Her hand still hadn’t let go of mine, and now she was pulling me towards her with every impression of eagerness, although I really had no desire to come out and play with this monstrous child.
“Can’t you talk?”“ I gave my right hand a more determined tug, this time using the left for leverage. “Can’t you speak? Can’t you even say anything?”
“For Christ’s sake, you sad monstrosity! What the hell are you for? What are you even doing here?”
“Doing?” Nancy giggled. She looked left and right, although there was nothing to see along this narrow hall but yellowed woodchip. “Here?”
She was stepping back now, and I was I struggling to stop myself falling forward. Then the worn carpet gave beneath my heels. After a horrible moment of stumbling into her stale embrace, my momentum pushed her on into the corridor, and from there, arms spinning and mouth ripped wide, to the lip of the stairs. There, Nancy teetered there for a moment, and almost seemed to regain her balance. Then she tumbled back in a series of crashing thumps.
I wiped my sleeve across my face. I think I may have even giggled. Or snarled. Or at least made some or other kind of noise. I peered down the stairwell, and was less surprised than I should have been to see that, apart from a broad brown stain which could well have been there before, there was no sign of Tumbling Nancy at the foot of the stairs. The fall should have killed her. Or, at the very least, left her crippled. But this is Splendorland, or something like it, where normal life and logic have no place.
Weak-kneed and sniffly and somewhat breathless, I made my way down and out into the street. The houses were much as they had been before, although there were gaps of rubbled wasteland beyond still waiting to be reclaimed. I limped on along the empty roads past lumpy-looking cars beneath scratchy trees. Occasionally, although only in the distance, there are booming voices, and other sounds I have no desire to trace. Every now and then, but so far to no effect, I’ve tried shouting out Nancy’s name. But no response. Not anything. Seems, after what I did to her, that she has no desire to come out and play. It’s getting darker now, and I still can’t get a goddamn signal on my Blackberry. The battery, as I tap out these words, is down to one eighth. But who knows what adventures await, as I lumber on through this world which really is best described as somewhere endlessly in between.
That old witch did have a way with words, and I’m still convinced that her stories could make an absolute packet on the right publisher’s list. Soon as I get myself to the office and I’ve worked out the best spin to use for whatever’s currently happening to me and everything’s put back the way it should be, I’m going to start ringing round and pitching—maybe even get something viral going on the web. So I hope you’ll look out for the Tumbling Nancy books next time you’re by the book-bin at the supermarket, or get a pop-up when you’re browsing Amazon for underwear, or are looking for presents at the local garden centre.
And do buy one.
After all, it isn’t as if you actually have to read the horrid thing.