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Authors: Hanif Kureishi

A Theft: My Con Man

BOOK: A Theft: My Con Man
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HANIF KUREISHI

A Theft:
My Con Man

‘Silent, foul spiders spin their web in the base of our brain …’

   
CHARLES BAUDELAIRE
,
Les Fleurs du mal

I met a man who fed a worm into my ear,

I met a man who fed a worm into my ear, and it lived there for more than a year, where it became comfortable and began to devour my mind and eat into my brain. Colonised and infected, I was anxious and depressed, and, at times, a shell. I staggered about like a dying man and slept as much as I could; being awake was no fun. I understood hiding, denial and the passion for ignorance.

Sense is usually the last thing that anyone wants to see, but eventually the truth presses down until you have to open your eyes. I began to hate this man, whom I had only recently met, but who had led me on, and then deceived and stolen from me. At one point, it seemed, he even pretended to be me. After doing this, he disappeared but rang every day for months, with apologies, offers of help and mad promises.

I found my hate was so great that not only was it corrupting me – ruining my view of the world until I believed it was only foul – but, to my surprise, by some mysterious alchemy, it was turning into love. I was beginning to love my thief, a man I barely knew, but whom I had trusted and even liked, and who had taken my savings, amongst many other crimes. At one low point I was phoning him every hour. I was impatient with everyone else because I was thinking of him all the time. I was waking up at night to think of him more, and when he did call, my heart leapt. I would retreat to a quiet room where I could hear every tone of his voice. I would, I even thought, go to his house and see him in his privacy. I would become his stalker.

Freud wrote that love involves the undervaluation of reality and the overvaluation of the desired object. While the correct valuation of a person is an odd, if not impossible idea, we might say Freud meant something like this: for various reasons, many of them masochistic, we become involved with others who cannot possibly give what we ask for; we can wait as long as we wish, but they do not have it, and one day, if we can bear to abandon our fantasy and see clearly, we might face reality straight on. We will then look elsewhere for fulfilment,
to a place where our needs can, in fact, be satisfied.

At the beginning of this business, one of my agents, the man who had recommended Chandler, had told me how impressive Jeff had been at meetings. Clever and decisive, Chandler had satisfactorily done my agent’s accounts, as well as those of my agent’s family. Chandler was on top of things. He knew what he was doing. Everyone felt in good hands. But, by the end, when everything had gone wrong, the truth was that Chandler did not have anything. However, he remained confident and liked to give the impression he did have it all. Or he maintained that he would have it soon: funds were on their way from Spain or Switzerland. And so I kept asking for it, but he knew, and I realised eventually, that he had lost everything. It would never come back, and this was a loss I would have to live with, think about, and attempt to integrate.

*

Pop and the theatre, my first cultural loves, are both, in form and content, games of deception, deceit and mischief, where there is nothing authentic or real behind the artificial front, except the desire to play and to be someone else. David Bowie knew that pop
was a put-on; he lifted and modified everything that interested him. I’ve always been fascinated by the nefarious cleverness of hypnotists, tricksters, card sharps, mountebanks, con men, convincers, deceivers, big-mouths, bigamists, hiders and cheats; men who had three families living in one neighbourhood unbeknownst to one another, others who pretended to be doctors, pilots or Olympic swimmers, or who concealed an evil past as a Nazi. I like to think of the man who tried to sell the Eiffel Tower to an industrialist by convincing him it was to be used for scrap metal. I think of undercover agents, of anyone who has talked someone into something, someone with nothing who can persuade others, using words, that they have it all, or at least something desirable. The con man is the one who has the password to your hopes, who touches the G-spot of your wishes. Honesty and straightforwardness are dull; the con man makes you aware that life could be more gratifying than it is. He is everyone’s procurer, the sorcerer who conjures fantasy in you, the ever-flowing mother who will fill you up with good things, the one who can identify what you want even before you see it yourself. One shouldn’t forget that Hans Christian Andersen’s tale ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is the story of an almost
successful con, of a couple of weavers who convince an Emperor that he is more than he is. His vanity is their instrument, and they play on him until he is exposed and humiliated.

As many of us do, I come from a family of showoffs, fantasists and big-mouths, and I wanted to be big myself, once – bigger than I in fact was. Sometimes I even believed we big-mouths were all in the same game: isn’t a writer a kind of con artist or spellbinder, telling stories for their life like Scheherazade, drawing the other into a conspiracy of lies, convincing them to turn the page and believe in flapdoodle?

Naturally, I identified with the con man and his omnipotence over the other, and not with his victims. But in this case I was the victim; I was the seduced, taken one. Jeff Chandler had helped himself to my money, and he had robbed me of more than that: of an orienting and useful connection with reality, which, once it had slipped away, left me feeling bereft, abject, dizzy and out of control. He had done me over, and done me in.

Long before this, though, and long before I learned that the insane, these days, might disguise themselves as money experts, I had heard that no one had met a sane accountant. Certainly, one of my previous accountants had been unwashed, almost
incoherent and, at the end, covered in paint smears, having fallen, he said, into a fence on the way to my place. Nevertheless, before this collapse he’d been a mixture of insanity, probity, cunning and high intelligence.

For my part, I was a good bourgeois bohemian who had always earned a reasonable and steady income. I considered my single duty was to support my children, otherwise I liked not having to think about money. As I needed an accountant, a kind friend then recommended someone competent they knew, but said she sidelined as a rubber-clad dominatrix at night. You could file your expenses and get a whipping. I thanked my friend, but thought that as the work was relatively simple, it might be a good idea to go with the straightest person I could find, a pillar of the community. And Jeff Chandler appeared to be upright. The firm he’d been a partner in for ten years – they’d been around for seventy – were the acme of respectability, with smart offices and a successful clientele. This lower-middle-class clerk would know and follow the rules, so that I could break them in my imagination. That was the idea. What could go wrong?

It was a relief when Jeff turned up at my place, appearing competent, unflustered and on top of it
all. What one wants, sometimes, is certainty and a guide, someone who knows better than you what they are doing. Jeff didn’t appear to be superinflated like some people. And I’d been trained, as a child, to be something of a truster; as a writer, I was a listener.

*

When the con man walked through my door for the first time, I saw a small, chubby fellow with a high voice whom I could imagine singing enthusiastically in a choir. He wore cheap brown shoes and a clammy suit, and he soon informed me that his hobby was collecting James Bond memorabilia. Alongside his love of thrillers, he managed the finances of several churches, running their fund-raising quiz nights. His Congregationalist church in Essex supported other, similar churches in Albania. This was how, apparently, he had met his Albanian ‘fiancée’, as he always described the woman he seemed to be involved with. Super-friendly, easy-going with an undogmatic nature, Jeff said I could call anytime. And, indeed, he wore his telephone headphones continuously, muttering away into the mouthpiece even as he walked into my house and sat at my table, waiting for me to fetch him some water. He was always available, he declared, except on Sunday
morning, when I was not to ring since he was at church with his family. He was devout, and didn’t drink alcohol; he’d never had a hot drink: even the madness of tea had never passed his lips.

He said he took over a hundred phone calls a day. Sometimes he worked for twenty-three hours straight. When busy, he slept only every other day. I thought: well, there’s a lot of heroically manic madness about, and most of it is not virulent. Think how agitated fluidity and rushes of ideas can be harnessed, for instance, to art. I liked him; for a while I was fascinated and even envious. Why an artist would envy an accountant might seem a mystery. But doing nothing – a large helping of tedium and dreaming – is essential to a writer’s activity. How wonderful to be like him, with such a quick brain, and so in demand. Having so much to do, playing with money so competently, the hours must fly by in a fuss of earthy materialism. In comparison, we artists are of no use at all until others make us so.

Artists are always ambiguous about themselves, and certainly about their position within society. Are we inside or outside? Does what we do have any social utility? Should it have? Are we in showbiz or in service? Just as the dream escapes the utilitarian agency and vigilance of the daily self, and disproves
the belief that we can rule ourselves, most proper writers would rather be at what I call the ‘Genet’ end of the scale, with the criminals, thieves and ‘bedlam boys’, than situate themselves within the farce and falsity of respectability. Art comes from chaos to make more chaos. The artist escapes the constraint of what he has done before, when he can; he has to. And, every day, I had to struggle against the impulse to become more conventional, to regress to the easy. My fears had been keeping me too safe.

*

The second time Jeff came over he made his move. He told me that the company, as it stated on its website, made investments for its valued clients. Many of his friends, as well as long-term clients, including several other writers (whose names he was not allowed to provide), were investing in a scheme he was running on behalf of the accountancy firm. The idea was to raise two hundred thousand pounds for someone to use as proof of funds. All Jeff had to do was keep my money safely for a hundred and twenty days, before returning it with good interest. He knew I had broken up with my girlfriend, and then with another girlfriend, and had school fees to pay. I was no longer earning a great deal. It was going
wrong, my day seemed to be done, and advances for books and films had fallen away for everyone. Interest rates had crashed, and people were losing their jobs. Beneath most of us there is an abyss, and sometimes your foot plunges into it, and you understand something about catastrophe and loss. Most of my contemporaries, the ones who hadn’t become rich in the good times, were teaching. The academy had become our patron, as good a use for it as any: we supported the students, and the university bought us time to write.

The interest Jeff offered was high, but that was because it was only a short-term deal, he explained, and I was fortunate to get in on it so late on. More than a hundred and twenty days after my initial investment Chandler paid the interest owed. I left the capital with him, and offered him a larger chunk of money. Muttering into his phone as always, he drove me to the bank to pick it up, his feet barely touching the pedals of his huge 4x4, his computer parked securely on the dashboard.

If he seemed particularly panicky and agitated that day, I put it down to his frantic life. But, looking back, I can see that he knew, at the moment when I signed over the money to him, that he was deceiving me, that it was all a lie, and this money, which I
had put aside for my children’s education, would be lost. But he said nothing and just smiled. By then I’d given him more than a hundred thousand pounds, which was the money he never returned, the money he stole, either stashing it somewhere, or losing it to other scammers.

This, it turned out, was the least of it. During this period, in the spring of 2012, he and I were doing business in a building society not far from my house. Jeff was helping me to ‘get more’ from my accounts. He asked me to give him my driving licence, which was my ID, to show the assistant at the teller’s window. He must have copied it, because a few days later my account at the building society was empty, having been raided. I didn’t become aware of this for a couple of weeks, until I returned to the building society to take out some money and found that my account had been gutted. That moment was like being hit in the face with a brick; I sat down with my head in my hands for some time, attempting to arrange the fragments of this story into one piece. I learned, much later, after a lot of confusion, that Jeff had gone into a branch of the building society in North London, where I’d never been, shown some version of my ID, forged my signature and walked out with eighty thousand pounds.

The afternoon of the discovery, despite my shock, some instinct made me continue with my detective work. I went into the branches of several building societies near where I lived, asking if they had accounts in my name. The first two didn’t, but it turned out that the third one did. When I enquired about this I had the uncanny experience of being asked by the branch manager if I was ‘the real’ Hanif Kureishi or an imposter. ‘How do we know you’re you,’ he said, ‘and not the other man?’ ‘I have ID,’ I said. ‘But he had ID,’ he replied.

While I am someone who likes to entertain interesting questions, and never mind the fact the branch manager had become a philosopher of epistemology, I had been taken over. My name belonged to someone else. I had become a nobody, a cipher, while Jeff had turned into me. After ruminating on this vertiginous reversal, I said that an imposter wouldn’t be this furious, and wouldn’t shout. Surely he would be nervous. ‘His signature is the same as yours.’ He pushed a copy across the desk. It bore no resemblance to mine. How could I prove that two quite different things were two quite different things? The situation got worse when it turned out that Jeff had also given a false address in South London. I checked the location; it was very near my
childhood home. I planned to go there and run into myself, living another life. We could be introduced.

BOOK: A Theft: My Con Man
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