Authors: Francis King
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Born in Switzerland, Francis King spent his childhood in India, where his father was a government official. While still an undergraduate at Oxford he published his first three novels. He then joined the British Council, working in Italy, Greece, Egypt, Finland and Japan, before he resigned to devote himself entirely to writing. For some years he was drama critic for the
and he reviewed fiction regularly for the
. He won the Somerset Maugham Prize, the Katherine Mansfield Prize and the Yorkshire Post Novel of the Year Award for
Act of Darkness
(1983). His penultimate book,
The Nick of Time
, was long-listed for the 2003 Man Booker Prize. Francis King died in 2011.
âOne of our great writers, of the calibre of Graham Greene and Nabokov.' Beryl Bainbridge
erek Hammond would always call me Mouse.
From the top of the steps he would shout down into the steamy changing-room, with its smells of sweat, chlorine and carbolic soap, âMouse, Mouse, where the hell are you?' Everyone would look up at him and then across at me. The general laughter that followed was as though all of them were flicking at my naked body with their damp towels â a humiliation that they often inflicted on me.
He would hold up a slice of toast: âOh, Mouse, Mouse, Mouse! Can't you possibly concentrate long enough not to incinerate every slice of bread you get your grubby paws on?'
He would loom above me: âI'm afraid I'm going to have to beat you, Mouse. This is the third time you've been the last person to leave the study and have forgotten to turn off the light.' His voice would be jolly, he would be smiling. After the beating he would say: â Sorry for that, Mouse.' Once he added: â It's all for the good of your soul, you know.'
When I told my widowed mother how much I hated to be called Mouse, not merely by him but, in derisive imitation, by the other boys in my year, she said: â Oh, but that's just affectionate.'
âNo, no, it isn't.'
âOf course it is. The trouble is that you're always so touchy. Your father often used to call me Little Rat. That was affectionate too, of course it was. And a rat is a far less attractive creature than a mouse. Mice are sweet little things.'
I did not want to be a sweet little thing. In any case, she had not convinced me. The trouble was that I looked like a mouse. I was diminutive for my age. My eyes were tiny and bright, with pink rims, my nose was long and pointed, my ears were far too large, and I had virtually no chin. I hated my appearance, just as, unwillingly, I admired and envied his. If I was like a mouse, he was like a lion, golden, lithe and strong.
I was his fag for only a year. That was the length of any new boy's servitude. In any case, he had then moved on, first to read PEP at Oxford and then, after the outbreak of the War, to join Fighter Command as a pilot. At the end of the last day on which I was at his peremptory beck and call, he inspected the shoes that I had polished for him and declared, in the jocular, vaguely jeering tone now so familiar to me: â Oh, Mouse, Mouse, I have an awful feeling that you've used black polish, not brown.' He held out one of the shoes. âLook, Mouse. Bloody
!' Suddenly the lion sprang off the chair in which he had been lolling. With the hand that was not holding out the shoe he grabbed me by the scruff of the neck and thrust my head downwards. âLook, blast you, you little twerp!' The hand released me and ruffled my hair. He laughed. âWhat's to become of you, Mouse? You're absolutely hopeless.' I did not answer, biting my lower lip as, red-faced, I stared down at my feet. I felt myself to be, not for the first time in his presence, on the verge of tears.
âOh, well, never mind. I have something for you. A present. Not that you deserve it, Mouse. No one can ever have had to put up with quite so useless a fag. What do you think about all the time?' He had asked me that question on many other occasions. â That bally thumping of yours? Do you really think that you're going to become another Rubinstein or Solomon? You're far more likely to end up playing for dancing classes at a girls school. Oh, Mouse, Mouse, Mouse!' He gave a theatrically exaggerated sigh. âWell, never mind. It takes all sorts.' He drew out his wallet. It was made of crocodile leather, a gift, he had once told me, from an uncle who had made a fortune in the meat trade in Argentina. His dream was to go out there for a while â oh, not to make money, but to play polo, he said.
âHere you are, Mouse! Not that you deserve it.'
To my amazement it was a large, white Â£5 note. Such a note had never been seen in the impoverished household of my mother and myself. She had once told me that, if one used such a note, one had to endorse it, like a cheque, before it was valid.
I shrank away, as though from something contaminated. I could not believe that he was giving me so large a sum. My uncles never tipped me more than ten shillings; usually I had to be content with a florin or a half-crown from them.
âCome on! What's the matter? Haven't you ever seen a five-pound note?'
Mutely I put out my hand.
âWell, there you are, Mouse. You've been an awful trial to me, but you're not a bad little squirt. Perhaps you'll improve.'
âThanks. Thanks a lot.' Looking down at it, I began to uncrease the note between the fingers of both hands.
I used the money to buy some second-hand piano scores from a murky, dusty, labyrinthine shop in Charing Cross Road to which I often used to go when I had any cash. During the Blitz, the shop, all its stock, the proprietor and his elderly woman assistant, who hobbled around with an iron brace on her right leg, were all to be annihilated by a bomb.
Five years later I was walking my mother's spaniel, Roy, in Kensington Gardens. This was a task that my mother, mysteriously to me, enjoyed and claimed for her own. But she had had a fall in the black-out, while returning from her work as an auxiliary nurse at St Mary Abbot's Hospital, and was now laid up with a sprained ankle. Roy, who was almost as old as I was, was exasperating me, as always, with his slow, panting progression from one tree to another, first to sniff and then laboriously to cock a rheumatic leg and emit a slow trickle of bronze-coloured urine. I tugged on the lead but, obstinate, he would not budge.
Suddenly, Roy froze and jerked up his head. A moment later, I too heard the churning of a VI. That sunny afternoon the Gardens were full with people in their Sunday best â many of the men in dark suits, most of the women in hats. At the approaching noise, almost all of them flung themselves down either on the pathway or on the grass. I remained standing, tugging at Roy.
Soon I realised that, in charge of a wheelchair, a tall, elegant woman was also standing â not far from me, in the centre of the same path along which I had been dragging the dog. In an instant, as I waited for the VI to detonate, I took in the beautifully tailored grey suit, the grey gloves, the pale-pink blouse and the pale-pink hat, its brim tilted at a jaunty angle up and away from the face.
I then heard a voice, unmistakable to me. âMouse!
!' Irrationally, I at once felt the same trepidation that I did when I used to hear it back at school. The voice was coming from the wheelchair. My first emotion was one of astonishment. I had thought the figure slumped in it to be an old man.
As I stared in incredulity, the VI passed over with a now diminishing splutter. The splutter ended in the muffled thump of its impact on what I later learned was a block of Knightsbridge flats. All the people who had been lying on the lawn or the path, now scrambled to their feet and began nonchalantly to dust themselves down. The women straightened their hats, one even taking a mirror out of her bag and peering into it as she did so. In recollection the scene has now become a comic one for me. At the time, it was merely a humdrum part of wartime life in London.
âMouse! Come over!' With a mixture of bewilderment and dread, I had been hesitating. Slowly I walked towards the wheelchair. âDon't you recognise me?'
Of course I could not reply: âYou've changed out of all recognition.' So I did not venture an answer. He had had large, strong hands, the nails of which, unusual for a schoolboy, he had always scrupulously manicured. Now they were like the talons, stiff and striated with purple and black, of some dead bird of prey. I took in the face. One side was crimson and hideously rucked up and there was a pink celluloid eye-patch over the eye. Even on that summer's day there was a tartan rug reaching from his waist to his ankles.
âHow strange to meet you here! I've often wondered what happened to you.' His voice had always been forceful. Now it was little more than a hoarse whisper. He turned his head upwards with a brief grimace, as though it hurt him to do so. âMa â this is Mouse.' I felt a spasm of fury. Why did he have to use that derisive nickname after so long time? âYou remember my talking of Mouse?'
âYes, of course, I do. Hello, Mouse.' She raised her hand from the wheelchair and held it out to me. My first impression was of her narrowness. The pale face was narrow, with the grey-green eyes set close together, and the waist, legs, ankles and feet were all narrow. â Was he a terribly demanding taskmaster? I'm sure he was. He has no patience.' Later, I was to see many examples of this lack of patience in his treatment of a woman who, however urgent the job in hand, never herself hurried.
âWell, what are you up to? You must have left the old place by now'
âOh, yes, a year ago.'
âDid you make house prefect?' He laughed. âI bet you didn't.'
Humiliated, I shook my head. I might have added: âBut I'm the youngest person ever to have played at a National Gallery concert.'
âI'm up at Oxford. Balliol. I got a music scholarship.' I almost added that, but for the scholarship, I could never have gone there.
âNo call up? Don't tell me you're a pacifist. That would be entirely in keeping with all I remember of our Mouse.'