Wednesday 24 April 2019

All New: Death of a Dream-Pedlar

Some longer term readers may know that not only do I lodge in Grub Street as a fan of Eighteenth Century Writing but am myself something of an underachieving author myself.

A few years ago I tried to crowdfund a book of mine called 'Death of a Dreamonger' but unfortunately fell short (mainly because I got tired of internet haranguing people to pre-order it and had a holiday in France instead).

Since then I looked back at it with the help of a wonderful editor (as opposed to the very rude editors I tried first). At the end of last year I finished a whole new draft, very different to the book I had previously tried to crowdfund.

I am currently having it looked over by editors and publishers and wait to see what may come of it in the future.

For now though, I'd like to present the new first chapter of my book 'Death of a Dream-Pedlar' - using as an introductory quote this nugget from 'Death's Jest Book.'

If there were dreams to sell, what would you buy?

Here goes the chapter...

Chapter One

I need to vary my routine. When I started visiting the antiques market in Camden Passage, the stallholders greeted me with anonymous smiles. Those have deteriorated into scowls of recognition. I’m not a thief but I am a serial browser. 

My favourite stall is called ‘Jack’s Ephemera.’ Today the little trestle-table contains a whole host of ancient postcards, a dog-eared leaflet about the Millennium Bug, and knitting magazines from the big-haired eighties. I pick up a faded postcard featuring iconic London images; a red bus, Big Ben, Buck House and a Beefeater. Turning it over, I peer at the looping writing. It’s addressed ‘Liebe Sara’, signed ‘Diener Markus’ and has a stamp but no postmarks. Perhaps it was never posted, or perhaps it was and became lost in the delivery before being bought in bulk by Jack. Do the Royal Mail sell old postcards? Maybe it’s done on the sly and Jack is some sort of shady postcard black-marketeer. 
   “Ten cards for a fiver love,” Jack’s voice snarls, taking me out of my thoughts.
   “I’m good thanks,” I say, giving him my best grin. The snarl stays on his face so I hurriedly move on.
   “Thought not,” he mutters.

The other stallholders are just as welcoming so I head back - down Upper Street, onto the Holloway Road and to that happy home of mine above the ‘Standard Tandoori’. Such a name doesn’t do the place justice, it’s not only an Indian takeaway where drunk men are beached as they flow towards Archway, it’s a happy little community bound by the smell of curry.

Opening the door and stepping in, I savour the dark dustiness of the hallway after the over-bright chilliness outside. I take a deep breath and smile. I’ve heard people say it has a soapy taste that infects everything else, but to me, coriander smells of safety. 

I brush my feet through the interesting mixture of junk and bills carpeting the entrance, much of it addressed to people that don’t live here any more. Most never wanted to found and hurried out without forwarding their addresses. Wherever they are now, they are unaffected by the increasingly angry letters printed with increasingly red ink that join the adverts for cleaning services, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and cheekily - other curry houses.

Why go to Jack’s Ephemera when I could start my own collection right here? I may even find my own ‘liebe Sara’. As I search through the pile, I spot my name on a neat little envelope. It’s plain and white, distinct from the colours of the other post that covers the floor. I pick it up and look hard. The envelope has a black border and my details are printed in some font disguising itself as fancy handwriting. Flipping it over, I see the return address. I’m going to need fortification to read this letter.

I put it in my coat pocket and huff up the three flights of stairs to the top of the house. Then I grab the pole from whichever corner I left it in last, hook the hatch open and let the ladder fall down. Climbing the ladder, I emerge into what had been described as a ‘cosy and contemporary studio’. 

Most of the room is taken up by a single bed. I think it might even be a toddler's bed because it has a pine safety rail and the only way to sleep in it is to curl up like a kidney bean. Under the bed are a few wicker baskets filled with all the odds and ends I’ve collected, as well as any clothes I can’t hang up. A rail on wheels manages the clothes I can. There are some hobs, a play fridge at the end of the room and a temperamental shower behind a permanent temporary partition built from finest cheap fibreboard.

In a room like this, the bed is more that just a bed. It's a sofa, a retreat and a desk and it's where I throw the letter before slipping into something more comfortable. I’ve gone for a pair of pantaloons with rainbow stripes and a loose flowing Chinesey gown in red that clashes with my hair. Many of my clothes come from when I first came to London and lived a few years on an actor-manager’s sofa. It was the perfect arrangement between a teenage runaway and a young artiste terrified of doing the dishes. He gave me a lot of old costumes to dress up in. I think this leisurewear has its origins in a production of Aladdin. Very cosy, but no pockets. I wonder where he kept his lamp?

I have a miniature bottle of gin that I saved for an occasion such as this. It’s somewhere in the cupboard under the hob, tucked behind a bag of pasta spirals and a tin of dog food left by a previous tenant. I twiddle the tiny top and throw the splash of gin down my throat. The little envelope sits menacingly on my bed. The walls pull in and I feel my heart beat. This ‘cosy and contemporary studio’ is not big enough for the both of us. The return address is from Copthorne, a nice little village in Sussex. The letter is from my Mum.

I creep up to the envelope and open quickly. Inside, is a smartly printed invitation with my name hurriedly scribbled in a gap at the top. It would appear Mum has cordially invited me to a special event at the crematorium followed by a memorial get together at her house. Typical of her to publicly commemorate the ten years since my Dad died. She does everything publicly. The anniversary is tomorrow, the card must have been under the other letters for a while. That would explain all her missed calls recently. I’m not going. I have my own plans to remember Dad. I’m going to take the Piccadilly line up to Cockfosters and go for a walk through the bluebells in Enfield Chase. That’s a far more fitting memorial than whatever shindig Mum has planned.

I stare at the tasteful black border and rub the expensive card, turning it over in my fingers. There’s a little note on the back, scrawled in her awkward handwriting. ‘Please’, it says, underlined. The whole thing will be torture, it will be trite and shallow and inappropriate. There will be dips and sparkling wine. People will ask me how I’m doing even though they will already have made up their minds. But I see the writing on the back of the invite and I can’t help but feel a flutter of shame.

I root through the little wicker baskets for my mobile. Not having much money and minimal social engagements mean that I’ve not really kept up with the latest in telecommunications. I pull out the little black cube and scroll through the phone to text Mum. The buttons are stiff and awkward so every word must be keyed in the old fashioned way. This phone is so old that I was mugged once and the mugger gave it back, that was a few years ago. Though to defend it, the reception is very good and I can leave it nearly a month without charging. 
   ‘See you tomorrow,’ my text reads. I send it. I’ve not even put it down and it vibrates with a text from Mum.
   ‘cant w8’, it says. I certainly can.
There’s a clattering from below as someone awkwardly falls against the ladder. 
    “Buggerit!” Hisses a voice. The steps clumsily shuffle up, pausing for a moment to rearrange something. Then a little head in a bowl haircut pops up. 
  “Eeeey,” the head says. It’s Manna. For some reason he thinks he’s the Fonze and expects a round of applause every time he enters a room. I try to oblige with my measly two hands. He climbs up the ladder, his small body perfectly complementing his small head. The only things big about him are his ears and teeth. His walk implies that something else is big as well but I think he just puts that on. He’s balancing four silver trays and a large padded envelope of naan bread in his right hand. 
   “I brought dinner.”
   “Brilliant. What’ve we got?’”
   “Saag aloo, saag paneer, lamb saag, pilau rice and two saag naan.”
   “That’s a lot of saag.”
   “Someone mucked up the spinach order, they got saag coming out their arses down there. Though after this, I suppose we’ll have it coming out of our arses up here as well.”
   “Charming.” I mutter, uncurling my legs to get off the bed.
   “You stay there, I’ll sort this lot out.” He drops the trays next to me. I envision the grease leaking out the lids and dripping on to my bedsheets. 
   “Where are the bowls?” he asks and I try to stop envisioning grease.
   “In the sink.”

He goes off behind the partition and comes out with two red bowls and two large spoons. 
   “Sorted,” he says. I can never tell Manna’s accent, sometimes he sounds proper London and sometimes he sounds like Dick Van Dyke. He brings the bowls and bread over and sits down on the edge of the bed. We start to dish out what we fancy and Manna tells me about his day which he has mostly spent shooting pixellated people on a Playstation.
    “Are you still free tomorrow?” I ask.
   “Yeah,” he says, spooning something green in his mouth. “No college, no work, no nothing. It’s great.”
   “Do you want to hang out?”
   “Didn’t you say you’ve got some private thing?”
   “Something came up. I wondered if you wanted to spend a day in the countryside, have a free lunch, meet my Mum.”
   “Meet your Mum? That is not hanging out.” He waves his naan all over the place, spilling bits of saag. It’s fine, I have a Mini-Dustbuster in the shape of a cow - it was cheaper than the cat one.
   “I won’t lie, it’s going to be a strain but I need a wingman.”

I see the emotions playing over his face and around his teeth. The first is outright rejection but the second is curiosity. I’ve met most of Manna’s family, they all find themselves doing odd-jobs for Standard Tandoori at some point but he’s not met any of mine. 
   “Okay,” he sighs, nosiness winning out. “You’ve got to deliver my leaflets this week as well as your own.” He points at me sternly. “No ditching them.”
  “That’s your trick not mine,” I see him try to give me a face of rebuttal. “I found the ones on Blackstock Road, remember?” He nods his acknowledgement. “You’re doing me a favour though, so I’ll deliver yours.”
That’s one of my days gone, roaming the streets of Highbury spreading the good word of the Standard Tandoori but it’s a fair price to pay.
   “Where is this thing, do I need to borrow the motorbike?” Manna asks with hope in his eyes.
  “God no. Mum would have conniptions. We’ll have to go the slow way. I’ll pay for your ticket.”
  “What with? I thought you were between jobs again.”
  “Mum’ll give me some. Besides, I found some cash this morning.”

I’m quite lucky that way, I often find money in the street, wedged in the strangest of places, often when I’m feeling hard up. If that doesn’t happen, I can always get some cash-in-hand waitressing or some shitty little job until we get tired of each other. I might not be rich but I always seem to get by. Sometimes I feel I have a Fairy Godmother.

I crank up my laptop to order the train tickets, tapping my fingernail on my teeth while it connects to the internet I’m piggybacking off the bookies next door.
   “Let’s get some music on,” I say, bored of waiting for the eternal computer and crawling on the floor amongst my cassette tapes. I’ve stolen most of the cassettes from skips so it's a music taste mainly dictated by what others throw out. Most of it is easy listening and middle of the road, old crooners and swing bands, Chris Rhea if I’m going modern.
  “Put one of mine on, can’t be doing with all that dead people shit.”

I search for one of Manna’s mixtapes and press play. The crunch-slurp of a Michael Jackson beat fills the room.
   “You know that he’s dead too, don’t you?”
   “The Prince of Pop? No, he’s just hidden away somewhere recording his greatest album.”
   “A double-header with Elvis I presume.”
   “Nah, he shat himself to death. Everybody knows that.”
   “Tomorrow, you’ve got to try not to swear and you’ve got to dress smart.”

Manna shrugs his thin shoulders and grins with his huge teeth. 
    “I was made for smart,” he says, “I’m a mod at heart.”

The rumble of dubstep comes from his mixtape and he jerks his head around making wiki-wiki noises before noticing he’s spilled some dinner. Watching Manna try and suck the curry from his sweatshirt, I’m not sure if he is really the right person to ask to a memorial but I’ve done it now. At the very least, he’ll be a distraction which can be infinitely valuable at times such as that. I get back on my bed and fight my computer to buy two train tickets for tomorrow.

(Any comments appreciated.)

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