Of Wills and Canaries
If the sobering truth is to be told I have written the first chapter of a novel on a number of occasions. I tend to find it's the rest that's the problem. How do I flesh out my characters? How do I fill out the middle. I have an good idea about A and Z; it's just the letters in between that pose a problem.
I really am more determined this time. But already I can see a problem with letters D-M which make up rather a large chunk of the alphabet.
At least I feel in an iconoclastic mood. Tomorrow is March 1 (or at least it was when I started this post) and we'll wake up to find employees of Google rifling through our undergarments. Make the most of the next few hours.
LIKE A CANARY IN A COAL MINE
I did not see Paul Moriaty again for two months and when I did it was in unexpected and fleeting circumstances.
One Tuesday I walked into my office and was told I was going to Hackney. My supervisor seemed to be suppressing a giggle at the news which was uncharacteristic for her. I work at a law firm. People don't giggle generally or show any outward signs of humor.
I often wondered how I ended up as a paralegal. I blame the day when, clueless about my future I went to a Job Center. The twitchy, acne ridden guy behind the desk who probably wasn't much older than me, went through the usual range of unimaginative options involving being some kind of clerk or other. I sat in silence because my mother had instructed me to visit the Job Center and I had no idea why I was there. After a couple of minutes the silence became embarrassing and the acne ridden one started clearing his throat. I felt myself becoming nervous that he would start squeezing the pustules on his nose and wanted to get out and breathe some non stale, government subsidized, Job Center air.
"Well," he said finally.
"Well," I replied and overheard a sharply dressed young woman in the next booth talking about being a paralegal.
"Paralegal," I ventured.
"Yes. Good choice," he replied and pushed some forms in my direction. I won't say that settled my career path but as I meandered aimlessly through education it was always in the back of my mind. I filled them in and the rest, as they say, is history.
But that wasn't the end of my career angst. Later in life I started to think more about history. I would ask myself were Alexander the Great alive today would be be a paralegal? What about Julius Caesar? I doubted it very much, although I still have a strange recurring vision of Alexander stuck in a four mile line of traffic on the M-25, trying to barge other vehicles out of his way as if they were chariots, his angry thumb jammed on the mobile phone button to the Cones Hotline.
My boss was called Mrs. Jones. If she had a first name I couldn't imagine anyone ever addressing her by it. She was always rather controlled, sucked in and a bit withered. She was nothing like Mrs. Jones in Rising Damp who perversely I had a soft spot for, her voice aside. The day I went to Hackney Mrs. Jones was bordering on the jovial.
"I need you to take some details from a Mrs. Collins," she informed me. "She's rather old and a little eccentric, but you'll get the measure of her. Its...well... it's probate. Read the file on your desk first."
The thought of Hackney failed to galvanize me. I had been thinking of Hawaii a lot of late and Hackney seemed like a poor, palm tree bereft substitute, with the similarities running out somewhere after the H. Still I boarded a small commuter train and found myself shuttling through stations with names like Hackney Downs and Hackney Wick looking over a world of huddled terraces and gaunt concrete monstrosities that rose over greens of a most sickly hue. Hackney made no sense to me. There are places where you can live surrounded by crime, squalor and bad schools that are far cheaper to live in, without the feeling that the city has swallowed you up and discarded you.
Clapton meant little to me. My only knowledge of the place was from people who said it was borderline trendy. They were almost always confusing it with Clapham.
I took a cab and walked down a terraced house off Pembury Road. While I had always been dismissive of Hackney I was finding something stimulating in the urban grittiness on the street scene; the faint smell of cat piss, the shuffling hobo and the kind of pubs that looked like you could drink there all day until you slumped off your bar stool onto the floor and a jolly landlord would prop you up half an hour later and exhort you to buy a round for the whole bar. After two years of working at a law firm, there was something mildly attractive about disorder.
Mrs. Collins' home generally fell easily into the theme and marched behind. The three story terraced house was grand and rambling from across the street but when you came closer you saw the fissures in the stucco, the paint jumping ship off the railings, the bike rusting away at a subterranean level and Mrs Collins herself who was doing a good impression of being 110 even though she was probably not a day older than 80.
"I'm sorry about your loss, Mrs. Collins," I said, lowering my voice as per the firm training manual.
"It's quite a loss sir."
"You were close, I know. Let me see ... you were together 62 years."
Mrs Collins' already scrunched up face contracted further. "Nart that bastard."
"Oh. I see. Well I have some documents..." At this juncture I realized I had been so busy admiring the grubby inner city scape of Hackney I had forgotten to read any of the documents. I had no idea what this probate case was about and resolve to visit the toilet as soon as was polite, to acquaint myself with the paperwork.
"I have tea." It was a threat rather than an invitation.
"That sounds fine Mrs. Collins."
She headed to the kitchen and heard a chorus of twittering as she brushed on a cage near the kitchen.
"What bird is that Mrs. Collins?"
She shot me a malevolent glance which I thought to be strange at the time given the innocuous nature of the question, before vanishing into a kitchen of stale yellow wallpaper that looked like it had been clinging to the walls since the war. There was an unclean and dull clattering noise that made me glad I was not witnessing the tea making process.
Then over a scalding cup of tea in a cracked mug I started going over the files. "All that time and you never married. Did you ever consider it?"
"Are you joking me?"
The old bird was a lot tougher than the on in the cage that was clearly a canary.
"I don't want to pry but," I said, the but hanging in the air like a big hook and an invitation to pry. "If you disliked him so much why were you together all that time?"
For a few seconds a lost expression passed over Mrs. Collins' face, as if I had asked her a question that never occurred to her before she snapped back. "He was there."
I felt like pointing out dog mess and chip wrappers on the street were there, but it's not normal practice to take them inside and cohabit with them for more than 60 years.
Then out of nowhere Mrs.Collins started to talk about a vicious argument in the most colorful of terms. The "f.. bastard' wanted to plant crocuses; she said they were a disappointment and insisted on daffodils. They had hardly spoken since. Then there was the stoke and he lost the power of speech. But not the power of glare.
The papers before me were interesting. The house was dilapidated but it was worth a lot of money and there was a parcel of land in Wimbledon of all places. I assumed the couple's differences had been sorted out in the will if not life until a line in the document jumped out at me. Her watery eyes met my gaze at the same time as the information entered my consciousness like a the sting of a north easter on a February day.
"So the estate was left Mrs. Collins to the um. Canary."
There wasn't so much to say once I had reached this pertinent line in the document that I should have read a few hours later.
"Well. Mrs Collins. Canary's don't live very long. I don't suppose he has a day job in a coal mine?"
By this time any wetness in her eyes had glazed over and given way to an unsettling flintiness. The feeling came over me that the life span of the canary would not be a long one.
Back on the mean little platform at Hackney Wick I reflected on my surreal morning and longed for the train to come to get me out of the borough and back to reality. As it appeared in the distance I noticed a scene nearby. The man was thick set but not excessively so. His hair was glossy black and his hands were moving jerkily through it. He was squared up to a dishevelled looking woman dirty blond, slightly wild and unkempt and a striking looking teenage girl stood between the two. I heard their voices rise and fall above the rush of the incoming train. The woman almost wailed, the man sounded lost in a deeper baritone and the girl gave off the air of referee in a wrestling match.
My train arrived but I strained my neck to watch this micro conflict on an unimportant inner city platform. The man, as if sensing my attention, turned and I had my second shock in the space of an hour. His features were those of my squash partner.