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Alan Humm: The Sparkler


Chapter One


He'd made a life: a marriage and a nest of rooms. But happiness? What could he possibly make of that?


They were just back from honeymoon, and he watched her with the smugness of a connoisseur. Her hair was parted in the centre and arranged crosswise from ear to ear. There was a slight blurring of her expressions; she was tender, but cautiously so. You could see her watching his mouth.


It was an April night, unusually cold. He smiled and scratched his stomach, stretching his legs in front of the open fire. He admired the soft swell of her breasts, the crown of her head, like a blown egg, and the neatness of her hands.


"Impossible man," she said.


She was arranging her dress around her as she sat beside him on the floor next to his chair. He touched her cheek.


"Is Titmouse coss?"


She shook her head. It was a way, he could feel, of disobliging his hand while keeping it there.


 "But I fail to see the attraction..."


She negligently waved a wrist.


"...of all of that."


Outside, the rain was busy on the window. Inside there was a bell of light and a penumbra that was almost cozy: chairs and books and desk arranged so neatly that they looked like they were ready for inspection. He had created all of this; his will, like the fire in the grate, had conjured it up out of the darkness. He felt as much tenderness for it as he did for her.


"I've folded and starched five of my shirts," he said. "I have found a thoroughly respectable place for the carpet beater, and for the sugar tongs. I've used blacking on a good half a dozen boots and I have filled the range with wood. I am an intolerably domestic creature."


She was looking at him with what might, in an unguarded moment, have seemed to be a sad understanding.


"No, Charley, you're not. You are exact. It isn't the same thing at all."


He touched her ear. He had been marvelling at it.


"Kate," he said. "Consider. It behooves me–"


"'Behooves.'"


"...to see. To really see. I have a public."


"You have readers. They have placed you under no obligation, as far as I can tell. Unlike..."


But she said nothing more; just dipped her head towards her stomach. It was in these moments of deliberate self-abnegation that he found himself most attracted to her. Was she? Pregnant? Charles touched her other cheek. But, still, he intended to walk all night. He could already see how gaslight amplified the streets. He stood up, half in exasperation, and watched somebody swim in the darkness that spilled into the courtyard beneath their flat. He appeared to be carrying a bundle, but it was really just his stomach in the uneven light.


"I get up a head of steam," he said.


There was still the ghost of tenderness in his face, but it was evident, from the set of his chin, that he had made up his mind. His face could hold expressions in the same way that a glass of water can reflect the light scattered around a room. His eyes had taken fire from the half-hour they had spent in bed. But he was also scratching at his nose too rapidly and pacing up and down.


"Or else I have to. It amounts to the same thing. I have to walk it off, or up."


She smiled and shook her head.


"Impossible man."


She seemed to pity him. It was this, more than anything, that enabled him to put on his coat and scarf and jump the stairs, two at a time.


He made straight for the rookeries. He loved them – loved walking through them, rather. The road was dustier here but greasier too, as were the houses, which all seemed to sweat. He walked past girls who stood as though they were lying down. Old ladies were like withered apples; windfall, shaken from the moon. Smoking clay pipes, they failed to notice him, although, in a swallow-tail coat, a waistcoat in full flush and a high velvet collar, he was obvious enough. He would stop for a moment and produce a comb; would comb his hair and lift his head again and aim himself between the houses. Gas beckoned him on. The fog had stage properties: the lantern of the "beer", the boy who had been sent around the streets at supper time, looked like it had been suspended in it. He was never lost, although he allowed himself to feel it. It was a liberation. Gin palaces, like lighthouses, announced themselves at regular intervals. He'd written about them recently: how a "disease" had spread so that all of the old public houses had been knocked down, "depositing splendid mansions, stone balustrades, rose-wood fittings, immense lamps, and illuminated clocks at the corner of the street." This one, near Drury Lane, was one of the handsomest in London and he recognised in himself, again, the attraction of repulsion; how you can love the things you hate: the glibness of the harsh illumination and the little cakes and buns, so out of place, and all the names of drinks; their sleight of hand: "The Cream of the Valley", "The Out and Out", "The No Mistake", "The Real Knock-me-down" and "The Regular Flare-up." How the poor are kept down by the things they're taught to need. How one derives a certain comfort from the fact that one can have that thought, while striding seriously away.


He was remaking the streets he walked along, shifting them slightly so that they showed to their best advantage. Best; worst. It didn't matter. He could afford to feel sympathetic. He had a pretty wife, a set of apartments and a burgeoning reputation. If he was a little too anxious about his trousers, lifting his legs, slightly, above the streets, then it was to be expected: he was in the rig of a gentleman. If he was escaping a feeling of constriction, then it was really only himself that he was running from. Or towards. He could never tell.


It was pay-time on Saturday night and, in the market in Somers Town, people were buying their Sunday dinner. The lights were white and red and gold, the glare of the gas lamps mingling with the flames of the grease lamps and the dull romanticism of the candles. The naked flames and ground-glass globes and open gaslights vied for your attention so that, from a distance, it looked like the street was on fire. All of those voices, too, the street vendors crying "chestnuts all 'ot" and "three a penny Yarmouth bloaters" and "here's toasters!" and "penny a lot, fine russets" and the men and women shouting above them to be heard; they made him feel a little drunk. He wanted a pen and paper, not just to write it down but to make it more orderly. He was an odd figure: a little man, cocked like an angry rooster, with hair in billowing folds and a face halfway between determination and amusement. He had always been out of place; it was his fondest hope and greatest fear. He leaned over a couple who were arguing over a halibut, prodding and pulling at it until the vendor leaned across and slapped the woman's hand. Charles said "Lor!" then realised that he'd said it and that all three of them were staring at him. He said, "Now vat is a fish."


It was a slight touch on the lower lip more than a "v." The vendor's head looked boiled. His teeth were the colour of sand.


"And what are you? A cocker spaniel?"


Charles did a little bow.


"A boots."


"In that clobber?"


This was the wife. Or not the wife, perhaps. Charles made a rapid assessment. She was middle-aged but undefeated. Her breasts were huge: assertive and forgiving. The man was as round as a dumpling. He wished for a pen. Instead, he improvised. The lights and the woman's credulous face encouraged it. He felt released into someone else.


"My father's wedding ma'am."


"Your father?"


"Yes. Best bib and tucker, as you can see."


He had slipped into a thick Cockney accent. It wasn't a stretch; his voice was muddy in any case. Something had always impeded his r's.


"Never..."


He could see the way he'd write it: "nivir."


"...go to Doctor's Commons. They puts things into old gen'l'm'n's heads as they never dreamed of. My father, ma'am, was a coachman. A widower he was, and fat enough for anything – uncommon fat, to be sure. His missus dies and leaves him four hundred pound."


He leaned a little forwards.


"Down he goes to the Commons, to see the lawyer and draw the blunt. Very smart, with his top boots on and a nosegay in his button-hole and a broad-brimmed tile. He goes through the archvay, thinking how he should invest the money and up comes the touter. He touches his hat and says:


 "'Marriage license. I think you wants one, Sir.'"


Charles made the touter's voice strain upwards, like a fly.


"'No,' says my father, "'much too old. Too wide, too.'"


"And the touter says, 'We married a gen'l'm'n twice your size, last Monday.'"


"So my father walks arter him, like a tame monkey."


He made a parenthesis with his arms.


"He goes into a little back office, vere a teller sits among dirty papers and tin boxes making believe he's busy."


"'What's your name, Sir?,' says the lawyer."


"'Tony Weller,' says my father."


"'And the lady's name?'"


"My father was struck all of a heap."


"'Blessed if I know,' says he."


"'Not know!' says the lawyer."


"'No more do you,' says my father. "Can't I put that in arterwards?'"


The couple were laughing now. Charles, too. He saw them: the father, like a cannonball, and the touter with his squashed mug and flapping ears. The woman wiped her eyes. People had been trying to get around him but he had held his ground. The vendor jerked his thumb sideways.


"'op it."


The woman smiled.


"I would if I was you."


And so he did. Or Weller did. There was a touch-me-not-ishness to his walk, but that was Charles, too. He was still listing sideways in appreciation of himself, but part of him kept hearing the word "spaniel." He kept feeling it in his chest. He should go home. His wife was there; perhaps his child. He had the same renewal of affection that he always felt when he was far away from her. The home; the hearth. It was the thing he told himself that he would fight for. But even as he was reminding himself that it existed, conjuring it so successfully that it was, once again, like being warmed right through, he found himself walking away from it. The rain had stopped, but there was a brisk wind now and he pulled his collar up around his neck. He had wandered to Pentonville, past barbers' shops where mannequins seemed to want a touch of something – the swiftness of a simile – to give them life. This inn, for example: the way that its blinds gave it a sleepy look. Its wagons, each with a pile of goods like eiderdowns. And here: this public house. Its knuckled forehead. He became aware of what looked, through the refraction of the leaded panes, like the female form. The female form unadorned; not squeezed into an inverted trumpet. When he pushed the door open, it was like his impersonation: a wilful jump into the unknown.


But, still, he was thinking, who's the voice? This Weller. What does he wear? It was a way, partly, of reminding himself of who he was: the soon-to-be-famous writer. Swiftly, he took in a room set out like someone's sitting room but with the cheapest of wooden tables. There was a fire and, on either side of it, a group of unsteady old boys. Directly in front of him was the bar. The parlour behind it looked inviting; it was dimly lit, like a forge, and furnished, he could tell, in roughly the same style as his own flat. The raffishness of being on display gave everything an air of knowing invitation. A man nearby was saying something very definite. Was he in earnest? You couldn't tell. The left side of his mouth was halfway up to his ear and, briefly, Charles felt this as a memory: his face; that mouth; the something in his eyes that looked like a building that was on fire.


The girl was behind the bar, ignoring this. There was, he saw immediately, nothing to constrict the figure in the way his wife and all her sisters (and his friends' wives and all their sisters) deemed so necessary. She looked denuded, but defiant too. Her beauty was a beauty that had had to flourish in straitened circumstances. Her face was redder than it ought to be. Her mouth...


But then he heard the voice.


"Coo. Fucking Hell. Bastard."


The man's voice was new but it forced you to look at the face, and the face was not. The face was beautiful, but not because of anything it did or was; it was because of what Charles had once felt for it. The girl was murmuring something in a voice like a rusty hasp. He had a terrible urge to run away, or else to throw something, he wasn't sure what at. He thought: a thieves' kitchen. He saw his wife's translucent pearliness. Her diffidence. The girl was arguing over the freshness of the porter in somebody's glass. Meanwhile, the man's voice was saying,


"'alf a knicker. 'ass all I want. It's not like I'm not good for it. Look at me."


He was in the remnants of what would once have been considered a decent suit, with a stock and collar and a serious jacket. Charles was fascinated by the man's leer. Because he wasn't, obviously, good for it. One side of his mouth was deadly serious while the other was grinning broadly. His eyebrows danced. Charles remembered.


"Grimaldi!" he said.


He found himself stepping forward.


"You're... I'm sorry. I do beg your pardon. But you're Joseph Grimaldi, surely."


The man's upper body turned slowly round while his legs remained under the table. His face communicated several things at once: gratification and suspicion and a faint hint of enthusiasm and disdain.


"And you're a creditor, I presume," he said.


"No, no." Charles shook his head. "I saw you. Years and years ago. You were–"


"Funny. I was funny."


"Yes. You were. You did a duck."


And Charles did the duck's pompous walk. Grimaldi looked on, half in appreciation.


"That's true. I did."


"You punched somebody."


"In the codlins, and I 'ope it hurt."


"And I applauded. I was tiny. I was very proud of myself."


Charles shaped a bundle with his hands. He was, momentarily, all tenderness. Grimaldi watched him, shrewdly. He looked him slowly up and down. He smiled.


"Sit down, sir."


He patted the chair beside him.


"I would get up but, as you see, I am rheumatised."


He waved, indolently, at his lower half.


"Goutised and puffised. No more for poor Joey the larks and games, the sausage and baggy breeks."


He had said this before. His face was suffused with something. Drink? No: frank enjoyment. Again, he patted the chair. His veins were like knotted ropes.


"Sit down," he said. "Davey will buy us both a drink."


Davey was something like a dog. He gave the same impression of being wary of your hands and feet. He ascended, slowly, against his will, and rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand. Charles found them both irresistible. The whole pub was like one of his own illustrations. He knew that there was danger here: he saw it in the men beside the fire and in the look that passed, swiftly, between Davey and the girl behind the bar. He saw it, too, in the way that Grimaldi's gestures attempted, like the fire, to fill the room. But it was, all of it, irresistible. He was repelled, yes, but encouraged. He glanced at the girl, who was being careful to pull a proper pint. Her dress went plunging, like a waterfall, over her breasts. Davey was murmuring something behind his hand and Grimaldi was teetering over, laughing at something that he was about to say. Charles put his hand out and said, "Sam Weller." He looked around the pub and wondered what he was going to make of it.


*****


Chapter Two


The streets were fizzing with rain. The wind threw gusts of it, like pellets, into his face. There was no gas here, just oil lamps in the windows. They made everything else seem doubly dark. Once, a link-boy appeared from out of a side street. It was difficult to see the men he led in the light of the faggot that seemed to lift and plummet like a lion in a pantomime. He saw how their boots had a life of their own and he felt lonelier when they were gone. He drew his coat around him and then shrank from the inside of his clothes.


He was following the barmaid.


"Sarah," Grimaldi had said. "Her name is Sarah."


Although he hadn't asked. Grimaldi had been watching him. He was a shrewd old man beneath the appearance of bonhomie but now he seemed to be leering out towards an audience. His face was as incongruously expressive as a monkey's. Charles had laughed; he had thrown his head back and then taken out his handkerchief to wipe the porter from his chin. He was aware that Grimaldi's eyes didn't partake of the riot that was going on in Grimaldi's face. They were assessing him, noting the gusto and the finicky self-regard.


But Charles didn't care. Grimaldi! He carried with him all the glamour of the theatre. Of Charles's childhood, too, when what went on between the circles of stage fire had seemed like a bolder and more legible reality. It still did. Grimaldi's back wouldn't shift from one side to the other. His eyes went furtively around the pub. But there was another Grimaldi, the Grimaldi of Charles's memory, that adhered to this one like ectoplasm. Charles still saw the bright white face and the tall ruff of hair. When Grimaldi said "Here we are again" it was so calculated that Charles felt sorry for him. But he was also thrilled. This old man was a lecher; a pander, possibly. But it was his ghost who had spoken to Charles, and who had made everything into a game.


"A boots, my hairy arse," he'd said.


But that was all he'd said. Now he encouraged Charles to buy a drink. While he waited, he watched Sarah perform a sleight of hand. Her hands were tough and leathery and there were places where they had hardened into yellow callouses. This was, on the whole, attractive. They were self-sufficient in a way his wife's hands rarely were. They had purpose and definition. There were four glasses behind the bar and he saw Sarah's hands dip purposefully amongst them. It was a form of prestidigitation. Her back was to the customer and, when she turned, she had the same glass and, ostensibly, the same liquid that she had just taken from the bottle. Only it wasn't. It was duller and less viscous. It moved more adroitly around the glass and it didn't wink back at you like it should. The customer seemed perfectly satisfied. He was drunk, Charles supposed, although he stood there stolidly and made a point of raising his hat. Sarah turned and circumspectly sipped the shot that she had poured.


"Impressive," he said.


But she ignored him.


"Wery."


But still she wouldn't acknowledge him. The customer looked at him then looked at her and, finally, at his glass. There was a long moment in which his face appeared to gather itself together. Mysteriously, he gave his hat a ferocious cock, and swaggered off. The swagger was enough, it seemed, to reassert his place in the universe. Sarah stared at Charles. Her upper lip pushed firmly downwards on her lower and she raised her chin towards him. She served him silently. Her face was a coarse, unhealthy red. Her arms were like a sailor's arms. But she was beautiful. The more the night wore on, the more beautiful she became.


He had tried to be conscious of what he was drinking but he hadn't wanted to appear to be so. In the end, he wasn't drunk so much as appreciably relaxed. He knew that, for as long as he was with Grimaldi, he wouldn't have his pocket picked. Or not exactly. Grimaldi had asked him for two coins; a half crown and a penny. He had placed them back in Charles's hand and then removed one. Ostentatiously, he had waved it in his face. Charles was fascinated, not by the coin but by the dream-like dexterity of the gnarled and knotted hands. Grimaldi placed the coin in his pocket but it was like watching a bird, or a cloud. The hand seemed not to be doing something so much as being it. When he opened Charles's own hand again both coins were resting in his palm. Grimaldi did this twice. Then, after blowing on his fingers, he prised them open. There was nothing there. When he shrugged, Charles knew he wasn't getting them back. He was delighted. The trick itself was adequate, something he knew that he could teach himself in an easy afternoon. No, what delighted him was Grimaldi's face. It was a London face, boiled-looking, with thick chops and gristly ears and eyes that strove, unsuccessfully, to look innocent. It seemed, just for a moment, to be bursting at the seams. Grimaldi took so much delight in his own ingenuity that it was impossible not to share it with him.


Later, he put the bite on him. It was, he was meant to infer, his safe passage out. Grimaldi was wringing his hands and wheedling but Charles barely listened to him. Smiling in understanding, he slid two notes under his palm and across the table. Grimaldi was surprised. It was more than he had been expecting.


"Coo," he said. "Fuck."


He pushed the notes into his trouser pockets. Then he slapped one hand over his mouth.


"Pardonnez-vous."


 Charles's own act of generosity had hardened him a little.


"I am quite capable of saying 'fuck', Mr. Grimaldi."


He had chosen to give him the money; that was the thing he wanted to convey. He could, had he wished, have attempted to talk his way out of the door. He could, like Grimaldi, have been a character; he would have made sundry humorous promises. It might have worked or it might not, but it was important that it was understood that he wasn't frightened. Grimaldi eyed him for a moment. Then he jerked his head backwards, towards the empty bar.


"If you go now you might catch her."


He nodded rapidly and patted Charles's arm. This was a new role: the friendly, fatherly cove. He was one thing and then another. It was in his nature to provide a discernible outline. Charles saw how he would have written him but he also found himself responding frankly to this show of generosity. He leapt up, grabbed his coat and gave a kind of wave, all in one gesture. He was drunk, he realised, but he also didn't want to let Grimaldi down. He wanted to show that he was game. It was an act of bravado, partly, but it was also true that he had an unmanageable erection. He was, to all intents and purposes, a marionette.


He tried to keep his distance. Sarah's walk declared itself more frankly than another woman's would. The women's clothes that he was used to emphasised their helplessness. Each movement was exaggerated and circumscribed at the same time. He had barely seen his wife naked; had caught glimpses, as of a mouse edging its way along a skirting board. Sarah was in her dress and a jacket that barely covered it. It was hemp or hessian and it rode up so that you saw her rear. It moved frankly from side to side and Charles was troubled by it. He realised that he was following it; that, in his imagination, he was shaping it with his hands. He never did this. Or almost never. There was mud everywhere and horse dung and he found that he hardly cared. He looked down at his shoes with something like satisfaction. The mud was an emblem; almost a simile.


He kept as far behind her as he could. He was being circumspect but he was aware of a form of excitement that was similar to the excitement that he always felt when in the process of creation. Most likely, he would just see where she lived, he told himself. Then he could write her too. Wasn't that so? His penis nodded assent. They were heading down towards High Holborn. You could see a rind of light, like you would on a dead kipper. London lay stinking in the declivity and it emboldened him. He was so much a part of it that he still felt at home, despite the strangeness of the houses and the way that they all seemed to be shouldering him aside. Sarah had a slight roll to her walk, just like a sailor, but it was really only her reaction to the wind and the rain and the mud. She pulled her coat more tightly around her and Charles was surprised by a burst of fellow feeling. He nearly let her go. What was he doing? He was barely married. His wife was waiting patiently at home. She was, he told himself this deliberately, almost certainly with child. He saw her arranging her skirt around the chair; bestowing it, as though it hid the egg that she was trying to hatch. Meanwhile, his hair was like wet wool. His trousers hung like flax. They were in Exmouth Street. They had turned right by Sadlers Wells and now there were hansom cabs rattling past and big trees with empty branches. Shops seemed to breathe a faint blue light. He paused and attempted to take stock. But it was then that Sarah veered off. She had suddenly turned a corner and this, too, was like something in a narrative. A plot device. He felt himself follow her almost despite himself.


He nearly called her name. He was glad that he knew it, although he wasn't going to use it yet. It was like a calling card; something that he would flourish at the right moment. She had led him into an alley and then another that opened out into what he realised was another rookery. Later, when he described it, he wrote that it was "very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops, but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out of the doors, or screaming from the inside." A light touch; a comic touch. There were only, in reality, three or four of them at a time but, in his imagination, they were as promiscuously squeezed together as a nest of rats. When he was a boy, when he was working in the factory, he had kept himself aloof from streets like these. He had done this almost physically; it accounted, partly, for the military way in which he pulled his shoulders back. But he was also intimate with them. He felt complicit with them; they were a part of his own secret.


They had turned another corner. Later, too, he would describe the "ill-looking fellows," the ones who were "cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, upon no very well-disposed or harmless errands." But he wasn't scared of them. A labourer was in his way. He was as burly as a horse, but Charles danced around him. He all-but-danced with him. He was tempted to kick a child, like a football, out of his way. He had lost her. No. Wait. He hadn't. A door was closing on the left. It was quieter here, and narrower. He was standing on a cinder path with a long line of weeds that seemed to be curdling around its edges. It was so narrow that the air here had a different texture; it felt like you could roll it around your tongue. He did: he felt compassion. But also frustration. Here? She lived here? He was interested in himself. What was he going to do? He knew that he wouldn't knock. Knocking would make it a whole other kind of adventure; one that he wasn't prepared to face. His frustration also had something writerly about it. It was a feeble ending. He wanted to improve it.


As he watched, a light went on in a first-floor window and a female form passed behind the blind. He was as inflamed by this as he had been by anything else so far. The house was sliding into dereliction. It seemed to be shrugging one shoulder downwards, and its roof had more growths of moss than tiles. But the shadow was mysterious. There was no more hessian; no more of the bullish, long-suffering determination that had bent her forward like a man with a pickaxe or a shovel. He watched her in the same way that he watched the candle's flame, between the slats of scaffolding that seemed to be holding the building up. The window was like a stage, something exotically removed from his experience, and the scaffolding was like a balcony. He stood and breathed and watched and thought that, actually, he was drunker than he'd thought he was. He found that he was climbing his way up.


The scaffolding was shaking. There was a pot of paint and a nest of rags and he had to catch them before they danced their way over the edge. He stood with his legs apart and slowed his breathing. The room was radiant with the light of the candle but when he sneaked a look between the curtains it was initially a disappointment: an unlit fire; two chairs of such little distinction that his eyes refused to register them; and Sarah. Sarah naked, he realised, her breasts tolling as slowly as church bells. He was transfixed. Had he ever seen Catherine's breasts? Once, he remembered, but she had been so embarrassed that he had had to cover them up. As he watched, Sarah stood before a mirror that was resting on the mantelpiece. It was a shard, really; something more akin to the scrap of light that you might see in a puddle. She gestured upwards with one arm, and then the other. He heard her voice. It was toneless and awkward. She moved her arms again, and her breasts leapt up and down. Her head was immobile; she was staring determinedly into the middle distance. She was reciting something. A prayer? A spell? Her brow was furrowed and she was leaning earnestly forward. He saw that she was trying to be something other than the person that she was. It was clear in the way she stood and in her dogged intonation. She was acting. Then, suddenly, she wheeled around, she threw her hands into the air, and it was too much for Charles. He jumped backwards and his whole body went backwards too. Landing, he heard the pot of paint fall inches from his head. He waited for the pain in his body to catch up with him. He hardly saw the window opening or Sarah sticking her head out. He heard her, though, and then he was able to see her face: the muted anger and bewilderment and then, after a pause, the humorous resignation.


"You," she said, "are a fucking nuisance."



Alan Humm is the editor of One Hand Clapping. His novel, The Sparkler is published by Vine Leaves Press and is available here.

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