Authors: Tim Jeal
‘When you’ve lived as long as I, you’ll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account…. There’s no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we’re each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances…. I’ve a great respect for
Madame Merle in
For Love or Money
in about two months during my final year at Oxford when I was twenty. I knew so little about the habits of novelists that I was unaware that most would have considered this period of time inadequate even for a first draft, let alone a finished novel.
During the summer of 1965 I became convinced that I’d been working so little at Old and Middle English that I was certain to get a terrible degree. For some reason, which I now forget (probably laziness), I ruled out putting in some serious work on the English syllabus in order to avoid this debacle. Instead, I reckoned the best way to soften the inevitable blow, for myself, my parents and my favourite tutor, would be to write a publishable novel. This didn’t strike me as an inevitably doomed enterprise because I’d recently won a short story competition, which, rather embarrassingly, had been sponsored by the Oxford literary society which I’d helped to found. My prize had been publication in
(long-since defunct). A London literary agent, John Johnson, had read my story and told me that if I attempted anything longer he would like to see it with a view to representing me. This sliver of hope had given me the temerity to try.
I don’t remember thinking about the plot and characters for very long before I started to write. Such plans as I had remained in my head. Perhaps this was why
For Love or Money
would be my only book, apart from my memoir,
Swimming with my Father
(written thirty-eight years later), that, while I was writing it, seemed to flow effortlessly from the first sentence to the last. Reading random passages from my novel all these years later, their freshness and vitality still please me.
As I started to write, my overriding objective was to finish the manuscript in a convincing way. Apart from that, I wanted to amuse and divert anyone who might one day read my book. If I could make them laugh aloud once or twice that would be a bonus; and by mixing farcical moments with sad ones, I hoped to move my readers too. I was well aware that dozens of university novels had been written in the past decade alone and that I would therefore be wise to look elsewhere for my subject-matter.
When I was thirteen, shortly after I’d left my boarding prep school, I’d gone to stay during the summer holidays with a school friend on his family’s Scottish island in a decaying Victorian castle. His mother was separated from her titled husband and lived with her lover, a former army officer, who’d been one of the first men to land in France on D-Day. My friend’s mother was a lot more devoted to her beloved than he to her, and when he attempted to leave the island during a storm, after a noisy argument, she threatened to kill herself. Since there were several guns in the house, her two sons and I were highly relieved when the would-be absconder failed to launch his boat on account of the vile weather and had to return to the castle. In 2004 I would give an accurate account of this incident in my memoir, but in my novel, in the 1960s, I thought it sensible not merely to change everyone’s name but to transport the lovers and the boys from their Scottish island to a country house in Cornwall. In real life, both sons gave the impression of liking their mother’s companion, but in the novel I provided him with a secret London love-nest (paid for with her ladyship’s money), and made the elder son determined to get rid of the ‘parasite’ to protect his future inheritance. To achieve this he manipulates his younger brother, who, in the novel, is probably the lover’s son.
I typed with two fingers on an ancient typewriter, becoming quite speedy before I’d finished, and remember parcelling up the typescript with string, not Sellotape, in my digs in Park Town and sending it to John Johnson. Two months later (the same time it had taken me to write the book) he wrote to tell me that Macmillan had accepted it, just as it was. Opening John’s letter soon after my twenty-first birthday was one of the most exciting moments of my life. It was raining hard and I recall cycling to my college to find someone to tell, completely oblivious to the soaking I was getting.
This was the heyday of the gritty Northern novelists, Stan Barstow, Alan Sillitoe, and John Braine, and I ought to have anticipated that the publication of a tragi-comedy by a very young Oxford undergraduate involving a titled woman and a solidly upper-
cast was unlikely to create a sensation. It didn’t, but somehow it received more favourable reviews than otherwise. The best was by Francis King, who described my temporary gentleman of a lover ‘as a beautifully complex and compassionate creation’. The worst … I always remember those, but let’s not go there.
In the end my degree was no disaster – a solid second, rather than the spectacular fourth achieved by my best friend. So, really, I needn’t have written my novel after all. Before it was published, I had been offered a coveted General Traineeship at the BBC, but the publication of
For Love or Money
, shortly after I began work in television, led me to undervalue the opportunity I had been given in that unique period in broadcasting history. Already, I secretly hoped that one day in the not too distant future I would be able to leave the BBC to become a full-time writer.
put down his glass of whisky on the ledge over the wash-basin between his Arden for Men and his
. He did so with conscious care as though the slightest noise would distract him from his immediate purpose. He turned and, going over to the bed, lifted the revolver from the patchwork bedspread; in his hand it felt small and
, little more dangerous to look at than the black telephone by the bed. Really Ruth had gone too far this time. The boys were difficult enough already without her slating him in front of them for drinking too much, if you please … her … drinking too much … he flung back his arms in a dramatic gesture, almost overbalancing as he did so. Reapplying himself to his task, he spun the
and placed a bullet in two of them. Realism was
. To fill all six chambers would be too obvious … Rasputin had needed rather more … but for suicide … ridiculous. Two would be adequate.
Slowly he paced back to the wash-basin watching his
shoes slide over the carpet as though on
. He looked at his reflection in the mirror—not bad for forty. Carefully he took another sip of whisky and replaced the glass. A face prematurely aged by tragedy? What else could be the cause of his receding hair and the
furrows on his brow? The whisky reproached him slyly from the ledge. Well who else, living with a woman getting on for fifty and turning pious, wouldn’t every now and then have a sip? And Steven … no words of sufficient condemnation occurred to him—Steven was his mistress’s elder son.
He looked at himself more carefully … he hadn’t shaved.
When they found him he’d like to be looking his best, like a child going to Sunday school, he thought sentimentally. A perfectly shaven face, a clean shirt, a well-pressed suit, just the tiny red mark in his temple. He turned round and lifted the lipstick off the chest of drawers.
To be forced to play a practical joke like this at his age … George sighed and leaning forward let his nose press against the mirror; his breath misted the glass. Momentarily he closed his eyes and contemplated their reactions to his
and beautifully staged ‘ending’. They’d find him lying on the bed as though asleep. The room slipped
, he hastily reopened his eyes. Then they’ll be sorry. He imagined Ruth shrieking and falling down praying on her knees. Even Steven would be humbled by this room of death. He shook his head knowingly and started to lather some shaving-soap. The scene was so clearly before him that he almost wished the two bullets in the revolver weren’t blanks. A little childish perhaps, but they had to be shown his value and the obvious way to do this was to show them how grief-stricken they would be at his sudden removal.
The razor slipped easily across his face from cheek bone to jaw, with a slight flick of the wrist he ran it over his chin. He felt a sharp pain just below his lower lip. A small trickle of blood mingled with the white lather. Nothing much, a little water … but it was deeper than it looked. The blood obstinately continued. He went over to the corner cupboard and rummaged through bottles of pills and boxes of
. Funny, no cotton wool. He looked in the chest of drawers, also without success. It would have to be stopped … it might drip on his clean shirt. Just the tiny red mark on the temple. The picture in George’s mind became increasingly important as he went on searching. No, he’d have to wait until it stopped. He tucked a handkerchief into his collar like a bib to protect his shirt. Hurt a bit too. Damn stupid thing to do. Back in front of the mirror he looked at his bloodstained chin. Self-pity is most unattractive, he thought grimly. Was that really him? That half-lathered face with blood at its chin and a napkin at its neck. Ice cream and a dollop of jam. You messy man. No time for joking; his
mouth fell back into a straight line again. At this rate they might come up before he was ready. Shouldn’t have drunk anything … unbecoming levity. He tried thinking of more serious things; the last war, old friends, his mother, his financial dependence on Ruth, Steven’s discovery of his London flat. The world’s starving, the deformed, the crippled, were all given a passing thought. George sat down heavily on the bed … perhaps, perhaps after all this little plan was just a tiny bit childish. He tried to think of the number of whiskies he’d had; remembering seemed tiring. He lay back on the bed. Better think it over … After all, fully grown men don’t play jokes. Of course his life was very tiresome … anybody else in his position … every now and then … just a sip … there were limits … think it over … very childish … his head on the pillow the room became uncertain. The light bulb shone brighter than the sun. He shut his eyes.
Steven found him half an hour later.
‘Yes, he was fast asleep. Covered with shaving-cream, he’d got it over his best suit, the blue one with polka-dot stripes. Lipstick on his face, too. He’d managed to cut himself … blood all over his shirt.’
His mother sighed and philosophically helped herself to another gin. Poor dear, he really had had far too much this evening. She sighed again.
George woke up several hours later. His best suit was on the floor. Patches of dried shaving-cream spotted one sleeve and marked the back of his trousers with a displeasingly haphazard pattern. He reached out a hand to his left
raising his head. The hand groped, first slowly and then rapidly, patting the bedspread with outspread fingers. George rolled over and then stood up. Where the hell was it? He crawled about on the carpet, peering under the bed.
Was it in the cupboard? He turned out the chest of drawers. No need to panic. He felt gradually weaker as he forced his bare knees over the thick carpet. Not under the wardrobe; he crawled round the end of the bed, peering vainly at the mocking emptiness of the floor. Under the washstand,
up, he saw it. One word, with clumsily formed letters, written on the mirror with his shaving-brush. A little dribble of dried soap hung from the bottom of each letter—
. George got up and looked at the chaos of his room. Very slowly, he began to undress. And no trousers too, he moaned to himself softly. He couldn’t face sleeping with Ruth after his discovery. How much had the little beast told her? The question faded as he fell asleep, trouserless in his dressing-room. Ruth would be loverless tonight.
Steven perversely didn’t mention ‘our little secret’, as he maddeningly persisted in calling it, till several days later. George had never been on very good terms with Steven, as Ruth had constantly reminded him. As a child Steven’s
unconcern for domestic upheavals had disconcerted George more than the upheavals themselves. He had refused to call him George, but had referred to him indirectly as ‘that man’. David, on the other hand … but George was distracted before he could soothe himself with calmer thoughts of his mistress’s more tractable younger son. Steven had come into his bedroom quietly. It was ten o’clock in the morning. A drab wintry light pierced the thin gap in the curtains, casting indistinct shadows on the far wall. He looked next to him; Ruth had got up.
‘Didn’t anybody ever …’
‘You have more than once.’
‘I’d rather you weren’t so pert at this hour of the
,’ George answered lamely.
‘Mummy was up three hours ago.’
‘Good for Mummy.’
‘Actually I didn’t come to talk about Mummy. It’s about our little secret.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t call it that.’
‘Can you think of a more appealing name? “At the Point of a Gun” perhaps?’
Steven was nineteen, thin and sallow-faced with
-looking buttery-coloured hair. Or that was how George saw him.
‘No?’ George looked at the window as though thinking of escape.
‘The reason why Mummy bought Trelawn was so that there would be no more publicity.’
‘Your concern is most touching.’ He rolled away from his teenage persecutor.
‘Naturally I wouldn’t dream of telling her about our … it. The shock would be bad for her and there’d be rows for six months.’
‘So I’m on parole. Is that it?’
‘You’ll tell if I don’t do what you want?’
‘George, don’t be so crude. I may have only just left school. No, George, I only ask a favour: the key of your London flat. If Mummy knew what you did with your allowance …’ He clucked depreciatively.
Steven’s discovery of his flat had been a disaster that could well yet become a tragedy. But as yet he had said nothing about the possibility that George might be entertaining nocturnal visitors at his mother’s expense.
George turned round to face him.
‘You know I could go to the Sunday papers,’ he said wearily as though repeating an easily rejected formula.
‘Second-rate baronesses wouldn’t fetch more than five hundred pounds and your present allowance …’
Steven shut the door, but opened it a second later.
‘Of course you’ll fix up with Mummy about my visit to London.’
Lucky nobody was living in the flat. The thought of Steven going there was very nearly too distasteful to bear,
but the thought of Ruth knowing about it was worse, far worse.
Steven stood waiting for an answer.
‘I suppose you know those bullets were blanks.’
‘I’m not sure what they were,’ said Steven slyly.
But still this was only a secondary blackmail. This could only make him look a fool, but the flat …
‘Yes,’ he said quietly. ‘I’ll fix it.’
Steven shut the door.
Read all about it in the
Steven the wonder-kid hits on a wizard jape and touches his old man for a tenner. But George couldn’t even manage a
shrug. Drinking too much really did have severe drawbacks.