A few weeks ago I received a request from the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries for five copies of my novel, “Mirrors”. The ALDL are responsible for harvesting copies of new books to be lodged with five of the greatest libraries in the UK and Ireland: the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, the Cambridge University Library, the National Library of Scotland, the National Library of Wales, and Trinity College Dublin. The British Library operates independently to the ALDL.
The key question was would I like to have copies of my books kept in such august institutions? Well, obviously ‘yes’. But…
But then I got to thinking about “Mirrors”, and I thought I’d just have a quick scan through it first. I didn’t like what I found. A few clumsy phrases, some typos I’d previously missed. How could I possibly send them copies of that? So I determined to re-edit it with a view to sending them copies of a revised edition printed later this year under the Coverstory books imprint. [In the interim, I sent them copies of “Losing Moby Dick and Other Stories“, “Secrets & Wisdom“, and “Human Archaeology“.]
So I started work on the new edition of “Mirrors” – and I found myself making more changes than I’d expected. Even though I knew I was making it better, I began to doubt the overall work…
About a quarter of the way through now and I’ve just come across this. It’s an excerpt from an excerpt (you’ll need to read the whole thing to find out what that means!) – and it suddenly reminded me why I do this whole crazy writing thing…
He stared at the door. He was close to it now, his nose no more than six inches from it. He could see the grain of the wood beneath the green gloss paint. In the past he had seen this door only from the end of the corridor. It was a dark shape, beyond Miss Trowbridge’s desk, like a castle beyond a moat.
And now he was there, close enough to touch it. He looked down and watched his hand, clenched as a fist, rise from his waist and pause before the raised drawbridge. Looking up again, through the mottled glass, he could see shapes, dark and disfigured. In front of an oblong of light, one shape, non-rectangular, moved awkwardly, its grace distorted by the opaque pane.
Silverman. He had seen him from a distance, when he occasionally walked the floor. Or in the car park as he made his way to that large black car, later to sweep past on his way through the gates. And he had heard him too, addressing meetings; a far-off figure in a dark suit, raised on a platform, face half-hidden by a megaphone, or by shadow, or by sheaves of waving paper.
And now. And now.
While he was not watching it, his hand moved of its own volition. The shape – Silverman – froze at the sound. Knock. Knock. It was too late. He could not go back. And what was there to go back to; the river bank?
He was unable to move. He had come this far – past Miss Trowbridge’s desk; past the solitary plant on its solitary stand; past the bright red fire extinguisher; beneath the bright fluorescent light – to be greeted by a distorted shape and a disembodied voice.
There was no retreat. He turned the handle of the dark green door and pushed, his feet leaden. The glass swung away to reveal the oblongs beyond in all their straight-edged glory. And Silverman at the window.
‘Maxwell, is it? Come in then man, come in!’
He had imagined a small man. Small and squat and old. He had imagined a man it would be easy to despise on sight. But Silverman did not fill the image of the man he had seen on the platform, or at distance in the car park. Silverman was a man much like himself; a medium, average kind of a man.
He walked towards the desk. Towards the chair that waited for him, four feet from the mahogany altar, angled towards the sun. He walked slowly. Silverman sat down on the other side of the desk, facing him, waiting for him to take the seat.
‘Sit down then; there’s a good chap!’
He had not known what to expect: a warm smile? a handshake? a cigar and brandy – for he had heard of such men. He looked at the chair, at its green, fading leather, then wiped his hands on the legs of his overalls and sat down. In front of him the oblong of the window, and in front of that Silverman.
And he saw that Silverman had a glass eye.
‘Miss Trowbridge said you wanted to see me. I’ve got a meeting at eleven, so you’ve not got long. What is you wanted to see me about?’
He looked at Silverman’s impassive and inexpressive half-smile, at the face of a man committed to nothing. At that blemished, thwarted face. How old was he? The war perhaps? An accident? No-one had said anything. Perhaps no-one knew. Perhaps no-one had ever been this close. Except Miss Trowbridge. Miss Trowbridge, who had been astonished at his approach; at his request; as if no-one ever asked to see Mr Silverman; as if he had asked to play in goal for England, or to marry the Queen.
The words came together, but the second slowly. He was not an arrogant man, but seldom had cause for deference.
Silverman’s half-smile slipped slowly from his face, like cooling fat from a plate.
‘I’ve seen the Union. Matthews has seen the Union men; Taylor and the like. If I’d have known…’
‘I’m not from the Union, Sir.’
He had not intended to interrupt, but he had noticed Silverman’s hands begin to press the desk; had sensed Silverman’s body beginning to rise with his voice; and he did not want to be thrown out. He had not come this far to be thrown out.
‘Are you one of his Pals? Is that it? Partridge is not, I gather, a popular man, but I suppose he must have Pals, eh?’
‘No, Sir; I wouldn’t say as I’m one of his Pals.’
He watched Silverman’s hands relax against the desk. He felt the voice falling. He could see in his eye – his one good eye – a spark of interest. he wiped his hands on his legs again and waited. There would be another question.
Silverman leant forwards on the desk and pulled a cigarette from a packet, then lit it with a Vesta. He glanced at the desk; he had heard of silver cigarette boxes too, but could see none.
‘You’re not a Union man. And you’re not one of his Pals. But you want to see me about Partridge?’
‘All right then, I’m listening. But make it snappy.’
A puff of blue smoke floated between them, hovering above the desk. It removed the clarity, obscured his vision. Somehow it made things easier, but he still had no idea where to start.
He searched his memory for images of men he could imitate; men who would have revelled in his situation, who would have known what to say, who would have had Silverman eating out of their hands. He could think only of heroes from the cinema, and he knew he could never be Humphrey Bogart or John Wayne. He looked again at Silverman, for the first time just long enough to make eye contact.
‘I don’t think you can sack him, Sir.’
Silverman smiled again, and eased himself back in his chair. Glancing at the clock on the wall – it was ten fifty – he pulled on his cigarette.
‘You don’t think I can sack him, eh?’
‘Where do you work, Maxwell?’
He suddenly wondered if he might be told to leave himself, there and then. Out, just like that; just like Partridge.
‘Been extra busy recently, haven’t you Maxwell?’
‘All those lorries from Antwerp. The red and gold ones with the funny number plates.’
‘They’re Belgian, Sir.’
Silverman smiled more broadly, staring at him, waiting for a little more eye contact.
He looked up at the silence, and caught the glass eye. The safe eye. It blinked lifelessly at him.
‘And you know about the Belgian order?’
‘It’s a big one, Sir. I know it’s a big one.’
‘Now,’ Silverman rose, and turned to the window, ‘you know where Partridge works, don’t you? On one of the presses. And Partridge is an important man for this Belgian order. That press is an important machine. If it doesn’t run – if I can’t rely on having someone there to run it – then we might not make the order, Maxwell. We might upset the Belgians.’ He turned back. ‘Do you understand?’
He did. He knew the story of the order; or at least part of it. No-one had told him how important Partridge was; and he knew he didn’t want to lose his job too.
‘There is another man on that press now, Maxwell. We had to hire another man for that press. And now the machine is running. And we will fill our order. And we will all keep our jobs.’
He watched Silverman bend forward to stub out his cigarette in the small crystal ashtray that sat on the desk.
There seemed little to do now. Silverman had told him what was happening. Maybe he knew more than anyone else in the factory. Perhaps Silverman had told no-one else about this.
He stood up. Silverman, standing, but still slightly bent at his desk was suddenly looking up at him. He thought of Alan Ladd; how, because he was so small, they made other actors walk in trenches to make him look bigger. Because if you look bigger, if you are taller, then you are the man.
“Do you have a wife, Sir?’
Silverman blinked up at him.
‘A wife, Sir?’
‘Is that any of your business?’
‘I have. Or I had. She left me. Not long ago. Ran away up north to stay with her sister. Took our young boy.’
‘I’m sorry for you.’
Silverman sat down, but he remained standing; ready to walk to the door at a moment’s notice; ready to run if he had too. But he wanted his moment, to be the man, just once. Alan Ladd, dark and brooding in ‘Shane’ waited for him.
‘I don’t know why, but she went. I came to work the day she left me, and the day after that; and every day since then. I might not have done. I might have been like Partridge. And you might have sacked me.’
He looked at the man with the desk, and the crystal ashtray, and the glass eye. Silverman said nothing.
‘I went to the river on Sunday. The meadow just below the weir. There’s a small bridge there, and I stood on it, looking down into the water rushing by. I can’t swim, you see, Sir. And I thought I might just… But I didn’t, Sir. Because something stopped me. And do you know what that was, Sir?’
It was his question. The one real question he was allowed. He was Perry Mason defending his greatest case. He was Shane waiting to draw, his finger poised over the trigger.
‘No, Maxwell, I don’t.’
‘Partridge?! In Heaven’s name, why?’
‘Because I thought that if he got the sack, then he might just do the same thing as me. He might go down to the meadow. He might stand on that bridge. And he might not have anything to stop him. Or anyone to try and save.’
He turned and began to walk to the door, waiting for Silverman to say something, to call him back, to tell him to leave the factory, to jump off the bridge.
Hearing nothing. he stopped and looked back. Silverman was watching him, intently.
‘You see, Sir; if I’d had to skive off work for three days to stop my wife from leaving me, I’d have done it. And if she’d still been with me, and had been taken ill, I’d have skived off then too, Sir, just like Partridge. I know the job’s important, and I know the Belgium thing is important too; but I love my wife, Sir, and that’s more important. Which is why I wondered if you had a wife, Sir. That’s all.’
He had his hand on the door handle before Silverman spoke.
There was the half-smile on Silverman’s face, but it was sadder than before.
‘To answer your question; yes, I do have a wife.’
‘Good, Sir; I’m pleased for you.’
His left foot had crossed the threshold when he heard Silverman’s last words.
‘Thank you for coming to see me, Maxwell. Would you ask Miss Trowbridge to pop in on your way past.’
But Miss Trowbridge was already in motion between her desk and the office, and must have heard in disbelief Silverman’s words. She looked at him askance as he walked away: he was Perry Mason leaving the empty courtroom; he was Alan Ladd riding into the sunset.