A Short Story that Isn’t…
I need to unlock myself. I need the writing to flow again as it did two weeks ago. I am beginning to understand “writer’s block”. Before, not writing was just due to inertia. Laziness. Busyness. An absence of any reason to write.
Block is different. It is all of the above plus the heavy fog of hopelessness, of what is it for, of no-one reads it, so why bother. In my low moments, I just wonder if maybe I am as ephemeral as last week’s lottery ticket. If everything I have done, everything I own, is just passing through.
Well it is.
There was the dreadful de- Sylvain experience. Sylvain died a year ago – and his family had stayed away from his flat, unable to face the task of sorting, selling, clearing. I offered to help – Sylvain had been important to me.
Nuncle Sylvain: delightfully rotund, invariably cheerful. A friend of my mother’s family since the 30s when they used to lark about and swim together in the pool of the garden of mum’s grand Victorian family mansion in Parktown, Johannesburg.
Decades later he became the husband of my favourite Aunt, Pam. He was her second husband: the first, Stan, had been controlling, abusive, unfaithful and violent. Then, after all those years, Sylvain met Pam again and she became his second wife – the first, Hilly, had died of cancer after giving birth to Graham, Laura and Jennifer, in that order.
Pam died in 1996. Cancer. (I have written elsewhere about this amazing story – somewhere back in the blogosphere there exists romance, discovery, excitement, despair, disillusion, death…and there’s stuff written by me as well…) She had a wonderful few years with Sylvain in which they travelled the world and enjoyed his diamond wealth to the full. Eventually they moved into a one bed flat in a gloriously posh Deco mansion block in Chelsea which they filled with classy antiques, paintings and the weekly laughter of Sylvain’s children and grandchildren all of whom except Jennifer had moved to homes nearby in London. Jennifer opted for New York – her delightfully quirky personality was perfect for that city.
Sylvain was devastated by his second wife’s death from the same disease that had deprived him of his first. But he was an erudite gentleman whose deep love of art kept him from despair. So he revived his love of painting and travelled extensively around the UK painting – sometimes with a companion, often alone. His watercolours vary from the charm of his early naif period to the later competent and occasionally mysterious and exceptional portrayals of bizarre landscapes, or deeply mysterious stairways or tortured trees.
I think there came a time when he felt as if he had done it. Achieved whatever heights he was ever likely to reach in the medium. Depression lurked in dark corners.
Concerned and fearing he was falling into depression, I suggested – insisted – he write an autobiography. “Your duty to your children and grandchildren!”
To my great relief, eventually he began and as the project progressed he began to get more into the craft of writing. Possessed by a pedantic determination to perfect his style, he barraged me with extracts and chapters. I was careful to give him the right mix of encouragement and criticism. Not easy! I did, fortunately, partially cure him of excessive subordinate clauses and concatenations of commas…if only I could do that for my own writing….
Eventually the book was finished and edited with a certain amount of delicacy and tact by me. We found an excellent service, Print-on Demand at Blackwells bookshop and produced copies for the whole family. The title was Before you Knew Me. My dear friend Axe designed a delightful cover. We were proud of our product.
Hiatus set in. Post-coital despair. Ok so now I am beginning to sound like a narcissistic control freak – So I suggested he keep writing. Short stories. “You have SO many stories! Fact and fiction!”
And he did. By this time I had discovered Amazon and Kindle, and was beginning to publish my own books online so when he’d written sufficient stories for a book, we used Amazon to make them available to the world with Graham’s invaluable technical help. Sylvain designed the jackets himself and this first book entitled “Its Always Sunny in the Suburbs” tumbled out into the world wide web like a flea into a horse’s hair. “At last!” He said, “I am a published author!”
The stories, like his paintings, vary from the naif to the brilliant. He has a great talent for description as well as for plot. He transports the reader without any apparent artifice right back to the thirties or the fifties. To New York or Moscow or London or Johannesburg. You can smell the cigar smoke and taste the brandy. His South African Apartheid era tales are as real as I am. The language he uses is beautifully correct and classically constructed, yet immediately accessible. The tales are comic, or tragic, or all three. Many are part of me, hard to separate some if his stories from my memories of my own.
I suppose he expected to become an instant viral hit. Of course that didn’t happen. Self-publishing on the web without a presence on Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat and LinkedIn and WhatsApp and whatall is a fart in a snowstorm. So he did it again. In his Chelsea eyrie, he merrily churned out more and more stories and they flew at me on paper and digitally together with his demands to read, comment, amend.
The second collection, called “The Hypnotist” was completed and Kindled. This collection shows tremendous progress as a writer – his voice is already fully developed – that of an avuncular, charming, wise companion straight out of Agatha Christie. If you were to be sat next to him on the Orient Express all the way from Vienna to St Petersburg you wouldn’t have even a second of boredom.
He started work on the third. Working title, “Up in Smoke”.
Then he got ill.
It started with a brown mole on his ear. A concerned GP had a biopsy done and yes, it was a malignant melanoma. They cut that part of his ear off.
But the cancer had not finished with him. Into his lymph nodes it plunged. Not content with having destroyed both of the women he had loved, the beast feasted on the man himself.
I cannot understand why people believe in a loving god.
Despite the illness he completed Book 3. But tormented by the treatment, he couldn’t face designing the cover. The collection sat on the back burner, while he struggled on to produce book 4 between the grind of radiotherapy and chemicals which ripped unto his system destroying, destroying like a frantic firefighter in a burning house with an axe. Entitled, with a kind of dull irony, “Full Circle” the stories in this volume are distinctly darker. There is menace and danger, and yet his Favourite Uncle sense of humour still leaps out and catches the reader.
By the time the beast was sated, Sylvain’s fine mind was eroding.
And so he died almost a year ago. Invited to the tombstone unveiling ceremony I made my offer again and a week later found myself with Graham, Laura and Jennifer, as well as his grandson Gavin, in that flat packed with its memories. Unchanged from the days when I visited to read manuscripts, or go to lunch with my delightful Nuncle. (I called him Nuncle because he was not an uncle by blood)…nuncle could hold an erudite opinion on anything. Politics, philosophy art…a fantastically wide-ranging and deeply well-read autodidact, a pleasure to be with…memories everywhere in those rooms, as if he’d just stepped out…
I had dreaded the experience. I imagined his children and grandchildren overwhelmed by the range of goods and possessions in there, redolent with his thoughts, ideas, his dna sticking like an invisible aura to everything.
But there was very little emotion – visible anyway. Yes his children had their own thoughts, nursed and sometimes shared their own memories. But there was so much STUFF! I think there were fifty shirts – some still in their original wrapping. Socks! How many goddam socks can a man use???!!! Ties, drawers of scarves. Cufflinks. All the accoutrements of the fifties Gentleman About Town. Coats…suits…all good stuff. Charities were called and finally one agreed to pick up and we began to fill crates with STUFF. The kitchen! Never have I seen so many pots and pans, spices, tins of anything, pasta, rice…He had loved cooking and his rotundity had been well earned by decades of fine dining, both at home and in restaurants.
So the project became, how to get rid of the STUFF.
Including the antiques and the paintings – around a hundred of his own watercolours, a mere thirty or so framed and on the walls. Then, a small collection of rather good oil paintings by someone famous, I don’t know who. And someone else famous too. The fellow from Christie’s got fairly excited. But, of course, sneered at the antique furniture. “There’s just no market for Brown,” he said with a sigh, “it’s all too big, just so out of fashion…”
“My house is full”, his children chorused.
“So is mine,” I said sadly. Although I did accept two framed photographs, one of Sylvain and Pam and a rather glam black and white picture of Pam doing her Greta Garbo impression, as well as a couple of ornaments that reminded me of her. I laid claim to one of his better watercolours too, which I am sure I will receive some time…but my house is full!
And so the refrain became, what are we going to do with all this STUFF.
His life, his fascinating, adventurous, diamond-dealing, globe trotting, loving and losing, wonderfully well-read and opinionated, charmingly humorous, music loving, LIFE!….WHAT ARE WE GOING TO DO WITH THIS STUFF……?
I don’t blame his family, they will always have their memories. And the books, too. The autobiography – I know they will keep that precious. And I am determined to publish the last two collections of short stories on both Kindle and paperback. Graham will help.
But then that thought smacked me in the face…what will happen to my STUFF when I die? Someone will find it such a nuisance to dispose of. And when that Brown furniture hits the charity shop or the dump, the dna I have left all over that wonderful George I Chest of drawers or the paintings or the tsatskes I rescued from Sylvain’s flat will stick like an invisible aura, a miasma of me, undetectable by anyone passing in a rush to get stuff…
And all my writing too.
Who will love it?
So many words…poems stories books cries in the night and hysterical laughter too…
All written because I love you! Especially if you read this whole piece to the end…
IDEA: I am going to hide little notes in deep dark corners of the things I have loved. Just a few words about what I know of their history, and what they show about me. Immortality is a delusion; but as my mom once said, “all I want to do is draw a line on the sand. So what if the sea takes it away…”
“Its Always Sunny in the Suburbs” and “The Hypnotist” are both available now on Amazon Kindle. Highly recommended. Shortly to be published in paperback. “Up in Smoke” and “Full Circle” will be published in both formats in the new year.