meaning of life, midlife, screen, words

Headless Body in a Topless Bar (Part One)

a trainside wreck
Kaput visits a Great Writer in the countryside. Gets trolled by a scary native and goes to the pub.  Also featuring books, tingly necks and Italia ’90


     I know a writer who left London some years ago for the country. He couldn’t afford to live in London any longer, he declared, not on his royalties, and had gone off it anyway. 

The writer now lives in a former railway cottage in East Anglia, with a younger academic wife and a heart condition. He is half a generation older than me – although he disputes this differentiation – and moans effortlessly and smokes almost continuously despite the heart. 

It’s five months since I stopped smoking and Strauch puffing away all the time posed a challenge during my recent visit with him.* There were to be additional challenges however.

A Dead Warehouse from the Train
neo-liberal detritus

Strauch is a quite well known writer. Two of his five novels have been made into films. Small films, and a long time ago – but it’s still an impressive conversion rate. 

Strauch refuses to be identified for this piece and insists that I use a stunt name – which he has provided. I don’t understand why. It’s possible he’s just being difficult. The original plan was to do something regular, using real names, for a broadsheet – but the idea flopped as Strauch hasn’t got anything new coming out. (Strauch has always been a slow writer. He confides in an email that he writes less and less, ‘Hardly anything. Very little shit left’.) 

Strauch is an annoying name to type, or say – I’m putting a hard K at the end, if that helps. He said to be vague about his published work, as people will guess. This will be hard to keep to. Strauch writes stories about misunderstandings. The misunderstandings begin as amusing social comedies, sort of, before descending into fear and violence. His fictions circle around unexplained events and in this way are quite like mysteries. But Strauch dislikes the label crime fiction ever being used in his neighbourhood. ‘Genre writers always go second class. I want to ride in first.’ Strauch is generally seen as an awkward customer – which he is – and a bit of a misanthrope – a label he once enjoyed, for the wind up, but lately has come to resent.

After every last broadsheet flatly declined the idea for an interview, Strauch said come anyway – we can go for a bike ride. You’re not obliged to visit though, he quickly added, it’s not like I miss you. 

I felt torn. Strauch requires careful handling. He’s the type of man to sit by the front door on his birthday almost willing the cards not to arrive, so he can spend his special day feeling offended. Especially if it’s one of his two grown-up sons from his first marriage. (Both sons live far away from their dad. ‘As far as they could get.’)

As I’d booked the time off work and there was no Annoying Son around, it seemed best to go see the Great Writer. I think this is what he wanted. But you’re always reading between the lines with Strauch. 

Another Dead Warehouse from the Train
more blurry neo-liberal detritus

I travelled up late morning, using a cheap midweek ticket, on a train from King Cross to a flattened East Anglia soggy from recent days of rain. I had to change trains twice. The second transfer was at Ely – ‘Isle of Eels’ and the miraculous cathedral. But also, according to Wikipedia, the region’s rail hub. Hub is not an East Anglian word, it sounds modern and fancy, it doesn’t capture a set of windswept, chilly rail platforms in eastern England in early April. 

The last segment of the journey was four stops on a single-track, single-carriage service, with just two other passengers, one of them asleep.

I was the only person to get off at the station, which is un-staffed and situated in isolation, separated from the nearest housing or village by at least a mile of road. The station is raised up on a grass embankment, perched next to a derelict set of warehouses and an abandoned factory and refinery. 

Strauch texted that he couldn’t meet me off the train as he had yoga. I doubted the yoga was true while scrabbling to order a cab when changing at Ely. 

I looked down from the raised platform for my ride. There was an estate car parked opposite the station exit. A middle-aged man in work overalls was leaning against the vehicle with his arms folded. He wore an Obey baseball cap and was looking straight up at me. He was the only sign of life, but I gathered right away by the way he didn’t wave or speak, just gawped, that this was not my driver. 

His Obey cap was black and red and so were his worker gloves. I half opened my mouth to call out something, to at least confirm he wasn’t waiting for me – but didn’t find the words. I lost my nerve, or desire, or energy, or whatever the thing is we depend on to bring forth speech. I just stared at him and he stared back. I was trapped in a peculiar Great British stand-off, convinced this wasn’t my lift, but wanting to be told for certain, while appreciating it was by now too late to simply ask. And so he stared and I stared and the space between us seemed huge. 

Shin Fain
you say potatoe

The clouds suddenly shift and a vast shadow falls across the earth, dramatically switching the large ploughed fields behind Mr Obey from beige ochre to clay brown. The shadow frames the man and his vehicle. They become, at least from my placement, part of a well organised painterly composition in which Obey and his wagon represent the shape of a pyramid, with the peak of Obey’s baseball cap its apex. The dark field behind Obey’s right shoulder creates a triangle that complements the pyramid. The triangle has its symmetrical match beyond Obey’s left side, formed from the fanned layout of a slender sapling’s green branches.

The many hours spent looking at period paintings in recent weeks has encouraged new ways of seeing, of finding reality’s potential for being shaped as harmonious structured compositions. The black paint trim along the side of Obey’s estate wagon echoes the black tyres, the black of his hefty work boots, and the black outline of the Obey patch; all of which contrast with the red gloves and red logo, as well as his grey work wear and the grey tarpaulin hooked to a fence post, which is drooped half inside a puddle and swaying timelessly in the breeze. These colours and lines pull together otherwise disparate components in a contemporary landscape piece, of which I should’ve taken a picture.

Too many seconds of me and Obey not speaking have passed. I feel uncomfortable. I look away and across the fields, drawn by the emerging sound of a small speck of a plane coming out of the clouds in the middle distance. The engine of the small plane grumbles faintly as it passes over a far off ancient church surrounded by treetops, then banks and turns towards us. 

The plane dips. It is getting closer and louder. I look at Obey watching the plane, but he then turns back round and squints up at me. His face remains impassive, but with time this flatness has started to feel belligerent. He takes his cap off and scratches his shaved head and returns the cap, twisting the peak so it skews slightly to the right. Should I make a run for it?

Cary Grant Chased by Plane in North by Northwest
now this is a set piece

Enough of this tense crap. Forget the man Obey. Forget the North by Northwest plane heading this way. I turn on my heels and walk over to the side of the warehouse. As soon as I’m out of sight, I get out my phone to call the taxi firm. 

No signal. Always the same in East Anglia, no shitting signal.

The dead warehouse is the last in a row of abandoned buildings that presumably once flourished. They probably caused the rail station to be set up here in the first place; and their demise now makes the train service largely pointless. 

I saw several dead factories and ghost warehouses on the journey up from London. I began to look out for wrecks. Businesses just go bust, or relocate, leaving their mess behind – semi-eviscerated hulks exposed to climate and rot. All over the world. I took pictures of derelict buildings through the train window, which came out the usual terrible quality. 

Knowledge Graffiti
but is it art?

The outside of the warehouse is blatted with graffiti tags and smashed windows. Next along is a larger building, a refinery – square with crumbling brickwork shedding plaster and spalled cement. The refinery walls are also sprayed with tags. I recognise TYPE from south London, with its stand-out formula of green, yellow and black. Is TYPE a dedicated artist who travels far, or a multiple-use name, the Luther Blissett of the spraycan scene? Or did a local badass copy the tag out of a book he got for Christmas?

The square refinery has a tall chimney stack rising from the middle of the roof. The plane flies over, behind the tip of the stack. I look toward the top of the building and a ghost sign where the brick meets cement, carved long ago while the cement was being applied. A lapidary builder who couldn’t spell traced out Shin Fain. I take a shot. But the plane has already passed. So it’s not the action photo it could’ve been. Ten years with a smartphone and still no progress as a photo memoirist.

As I return to the front of the building there’s a car coming down the road towards the station. Mr Obey continues to lurk, mute against his wagon. He looks to the car approaching, shakes his head, then gets into his vehicle and drives off. 

The new arrival is my taxi, at last. A woman pops her head out the window and says my name. She’s about my age and is wearing a pink hoodie. She apologises for keeping me waiting but her previous ride was held up at pilates. She tells me they used to store sugar beat in the building by the station and also packed local produce for freight. But she can’t say why there’s a smoke stack as the refinery goes back before her time.

We drive up towards the wooded enclosure on the rise, with the old church tower in the middle. We pass large fields, some freshly ploughed, some bright yellow, but others sprouting early crops I can’t identify. Then under a bridge and up round a small 1930s council estate, with some fresh new builds pasted on at the end as proof of the village’s future prospects. 

There’s a row of old farm-worker cottages from the 19th century, and along two sides of a village green some grander properties with front gardens overlooking the cricket square and a small caged playground with two swings and a roundabout. 

There’s a pub at the far side of the Green. Plus a Spar, an MOT garage, a hairdresser, and a narrow track of cottages with small gardens leading to the last cottage on the left, where Strauch is leaning on the gate, smiling at me with a fag hanging from his lips.

You don’t still smoke? I shout. I gave up, I say, as he opens the gate. Finally I did it. Five months now.

Well, I didn’t give up. Fifty two years.

It’s not as hard as you think. You could stop, you know.

Strauch smiles. He drags on his ciggie and pointedly exhales in my general direction. Drop you bags inside and let’s go to the pub. 

We head off round the Green. There’s an awkward silence, because it’s difficult when you haven’t see people in ages. So I begin to babble. I ask Strauch about the neighbours and the population of the village and how many buses go to the bigger towns. Strauch looks at me sideways, alarmed perhaps at the torrent of banality. 

Strauch has a limp. I always forget. He’s said it’s not a debility and walks quicker than most. He’s leading the way; but then I’m a slow walker these days.

Is there a bus shelter? I ask. 

Next to the church.

Wooden and dank. Where teenagers drink cider out of the rain, waiting an hour for a bus that’s been cancelled. That’s the countryside.

In a nutshell.

The thing about life out in the sticks is there just aren’t enough pavements and motorists drive too fast.

The sticks?

Young families leave London expecting bucolic Sunday walks, topped off with a roast and a pint at the pub. But they end up shitting it, half inside a bush by the side of the road, while Range Rovers slice past. Or stuck in traffic, because you’ve got to drive at least twenty miles if you’re going to do anything interesting.

And yet we’re on a pavement now. And look here’s another one. And there’s a third pavement coming up soon. 

But this is the famous village green. There aren’t any roads. It’s different. 


The village pub is called The Boxers. The staff know Strauch by name and greet him as a familiar. Same with a string of regulars perched in a line against the bar – mainly hale denizens with twangy accents, who nod and make a joke, and everybody laughs briefly, but I miss the reason why. 

Strauch orders plain lager, Foster’s. I carefully scan the local ales on pump. I can’t decide which one and ask for a taster. I sense this irritates Strauch. I tell him about the micro brewery revolution and he says he knows, he’s not an exile; that clearly new bar phenomena are not exclusive to London. He just prefers cooking lager, he says. 

The Ghost Writer, Philip Roth, Front Cover


This is like a short story, I announce, as we take the two seats by the fire, with the standard ornamental brass harness and bridle strung across the dark red chimney piece. It’s almost Philip Roth territory. You could write it up. Friend visits the Great Writer at his country retreat, old wounds are exposed, secrets from the past rise up as they joust intellectually and regret the passage of time.

Old wounds. Strauch shakes is head. What we are doing here is not like anything else. It’s just what it is. This is why you’ll never write fiction because you waste time comparing life to novels. You leave no room to make stuff up.

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, The Trip to Spain
life is tough, it just is

Or, perhaps it’s a another series of The Trip. You probably want to be Coogan. 

I don’t like The Trip. It’s not actually very good, it’s confected.

Well yeah, of course it’s confected. This bitter’s nice.

I’m glad. Not too hoppy? 

I shake my head.

Does it have a zesty citrus backwash?

What?

My risk-free lager tastes great. Strauch leans toward me. Reflexively I replicate the movement in confidence. He lowers his voice. My lager tastes exactly as I’d anticipated that it would. 

He sits back and smiles.

Returning to The Trip, he says – the travelogue footage blended with the laboured repartee; doing impressions of Roger Moore in place of actual real jokes; the wistful piano music signalling the bittersweet melancholy of middle aged men regretting they’re not young any longer. Why don’t blokes of a certain age, our age, just accept it, give way gracefully and stop hogging the space

So, that’s why you left London?

If you wish. Strauch rubs his leg. That’s the worst part about a limp nobody tells you, fucker hurts in the cold, and the damp. It’s freezing here in the winter.

Big skies, but hard winds. 

Lasts for months. When I was a child, my mum used to say ‘I can’t get warm.’ And I thought what is she going on about, she’s right by the fire. How is she not boiling? 

But now you’re the crock with cold bones?

He nods. I wanted to move to Spain after London. But there’s not much call for Rebecca’s anthropology lectures in Estepona. And you know Rebecca, the inveterate jobsmith. Weirdo: works, earns a living, pays the bills. Strauch shakes his head. 

It can’t be easy for you that Rebecca labours while you doss about pretending you’re still an active writer. Does she mind?

Do I mind is surely the larger question. The kept husband who goes to the shops and cooks dinner; then sorts and hangs the laundry, while the wife trades lectures for pay, as her middle class students sink neck deep into a quagmire of 2:2s, low-career prospects, and a lifetime of college debt.

Chippy is how I’d characterise Strauch on education. He  blames his limp for not going to college. It’s a circuitous logic. He was born in the Midlands and ‘messed up’ at school by ‘staring out the window all day and smoking too much dope.’

Strauch left school at sixteen – a lot of people left at sixteen back then, all of my friends did. He moved to London with no idea what to do next. He lived in a squat and did casual labour for a builder. He says he enjoyed mindless repetitive tasks and working with his hands. Strauch claims he was on course to becoming a master plasterer. I’m not sure that’s a recognised title. 

Working on a warehouse conversion in the late 1970s – ‘before exposed brick was trendy, before yuppies even existed’ – Strauch fell through a skylight and broke his left leg. He told me this years ago and similar accounts featured in some of his early interviews. But later he modified the story and said actually, there was no skylight, it was just an awkward fall while ripping out rotted lumber. The leg break was severe and needed an operation with a bolt and plate; but the insertion was botched and they had to do it all again. And then, when it still didn’t heal, a third attempt was made. 

I thought I was going to lose it.

I’d be furious

Lose the leg.

Strauch went to ground – lay about in his squat for months, hobbled between the pubs of Finsbury. Later he wrote an account of his ‘broken experience’. When he realised he couldn’t go back to labouring, Strauch signed-on the dole and took a creative writing course at City Lit. ‘Just down the road from the warehouse where I had the accident. See, ley lines – it’s all true.’

He claims his limp aches worst of all when he’s in the vicinity of Covent Garden. Phantom limb syndrome. Oliver Sachs. Not that I ever go to Covent Garden.

Do you miss London?

Police sirens, flying cranes, flat whites.

Miss people? 

Snacks in the office. Listening to my colleague’s take on last night’s Line of Duty.

It took a while to realise, but it transpires that flat white’s my favourite coffee. 

Strauch puts his empty glass on the table and gently pushes it towards me. Not coffee break now though, is it? 

I go get us a fresh bout of drinks, changing my pint from pale ale to bitter. My plan, which I’ve already mapped in my brain, is to then move on to Guinness if we stay for a third. 

As the man behind the bar pours the drinks and takes my card, I decide that while I’m up I might as well go for a slash. 

Go for a slash is not a phrase I normally use. Can I blame this blokey coarseness on the Great Writer? I’ve always been good at matching the speech levels of the people around me.

Obey Baseball Cap
not a hypebeast

To get to the toilet I need to pass through the other bar. On the far side there’s a pool table with a man bent over the baize, lining up a shot. To the side of him, observing his opponent with a vague and flaccid face, is Mr Obey, who straightaway turns his attention from the pool table to look towards me. I sort of smile or nod in recognition, or do something physically with my face, shoulders and head in acknowledgement of our previous interaction at the rail station, that wasn’t an interaction. Obey however does nothing but stare without blinking and sips from his beer. 

Into the toilet, where the only cubicle is locked. Not occupied, but locked, as in out of action. I wonder if that’s legal. I must take the urinal trough out of necessity rather than preference, and focus half on my pissing and half on the entrance. I’m not scared of Mr Obey. (Not that scared.) But film logic suggests he’s about to burst in on these hard-tiled close quarters, acting taciturn and weird behind my back, while I’m stuck with one hand on my penis and limited outs. And I don’t love this thought at all.

Thankfully, Obey doesn’t make it. When I return to the bar he seems to have departed – not only from the pool table but the room itself. I collect our pints and then think of crisps and buy two bags and go back to Strauch, who rejects any kind of engagement with the crunchy snacks.  

No, she doesn’t mind, says Strauch. 

I look at him blankly.

Rebecca doesn’t mind being the breadwinner. She loves her husband. However, she’d prefer me to write another book. For my sanity. I’d say my sanity’s fine…

…Well, they say you’re always the last to know… 

…But then again, sanity is a dark cloud.

I agree you should write another book. I would also like, if I may, to return briefly to the theme of storylines from popular culture comparable to me coming up to see you today. 

Okay, but make this is the last one.

There was an episode of Girls recently where Lena Dunham goes to see a lecherous famous novelist, who tricks her into touching his knob. Don’t even think about it with me by the way.

Strauch cackles. We like Girls. It’s Rebecca’s favourite TV show. That was a good episode. We argued about it afterwards. 

You argued?

Rebecca felt the storyline was forced and pure ideology over aesthetics. But I enjoy that. Aesthetics are fine, but they’re a bit neat and tiresome by this stage of the game, don’t you agree? Ideology, I’ll take that now. I want ideas, not well-crafted sunsets. I guess that’s partly why I’m so attracted to Rebecca, she’s good with concepts, theory, analysis. It is rather perverse though, Strauch muses: as a creative writer I dislike and distrust academics – and then I go and spoil it all and marry one.

Should I be writing all this down?

I admire and quite like Strauch, but also think he’s comical. I was his editor for a long time, and although this can be a co-dependent relationship of unequals, you grow fond of some authors all the same. 

We used to see a lot of each other. Looking back, I could’ve been more kindly as an editor. Strauch writes slowly and infrequently. The sense of uncertainty or dread in his fiction derives from the situations he imagines rather than from his prose style, which is plain and simple. 

To create Strauch’s kind of plain and simple takes surprising amounts of time and effort. I used to pester and browbeat him to revise sentences and paragraphs, when he’d already flogged his guts out. I would also on occasions present him with broad, sweeping ideas for radically changing characters or reformulating whole plot lines. Once, he delivered a finished work and I read it and wrote back asking if he’d consider switching from first to third person narrator. That is a huge edit to lob at an exhausted author. And a stupid idea. I see now why it made Strauch angry. He said I’d completely misunderstood the whole thinking and architecture of the work and that he might just as well have a gorilla for an editor. 

We bickered. I wrote back and said he was being rude and precious and the money I was being paid didn’t cover such demanding authors. I then wrote again, at length, explaining why he should implement additional amendments. He rejected all my suggestions, in principle, he said; the principle being that I was a frustrated writer with no talent, who should try doing my own fiction rather than making him feel shitty. 

We should have fallen out for keeps. But we’ve always been quite up for crosstalk and harsh words. Some men are. I’m not sure though how you stop this style, and what kind of communication you replace it with.

And then I moved away from publishing and Strauch switched to a different publisher, for other reasons – ‘better terms, more geld’ – and the friendship drifted and dwindled. 

I think I last saw him towards the end of 2015. I ask Strauch if he remembers and he says he has no idea. But that’s always what his gruff side is going to claim. His gruff side can’t carry sentiment and nostalgia. But I know he has a good social memory and a weakness for the past. We just don’t always want to verbalise the emotional content.

‘I don’t want another feeling; not one, ever again.’ This was a line from Strauch’s second novel. (It also sounds like something the Annoying Son might say.) The second novel that never came out. So it’s not really the second novel, but a fictive entity pitifully suspended in limbo, probably for ever. 

The second novel didn’t make it because Strauch refused to implement fundamental edits. Our dispute turned to defiance, as Strauch withdrew his manuscript and sat on it in a pouty strop. 

For his second published novel, Strauch wrote a different fable of travel and youth concerning a twentysomething couple, a man and woman, who go inter-railing in southern Europe and the man is brutally tortured. 

Before it had been identified as a field of inquiry, concept, or trope, Strauch staked out woundedness as his main theme as an artist. It was the time of Reservoir Dogs – ultraviolence as decoration. Strauch wrote a scene where the young man gets separated from his girlfriend and is persuaded into delivering a suspicious suitcase from the former Yugoslavia to Trieste. 

But on his return home to London, the young man is abducted and tortured for information he doesn’t possess. His kidnappers pour boiling water over the man’s bare torso, from a bubbling saucepan straight off the stove.The violence isn’t portrayed as cool or provocative, but an extreme means for contemplating personal damage. Strauch said in an interview that the limp is the best thing that could ever have happened to him. The interviewer took it as a nihilist gesture, from someone who liked to smoke, drink, argue and take drugs.

Giorgione La Vecchia
col tempo – it comes to us all

By the time he was winding up to leave London, Strauch’s many years of not living well – of smoking, drinking, arguing and taking too many drugs – were vivid in his face. He looked done in. If I was penning a graphic novel of The Great Writer’s life at this time, the panel outside the registry office, on the day he married Rebecca, finds him smiling with a face so grey he resembles a ghostman dipped in ash. 

Sitting by the pub fire over a second pint, Strauch looks better –  weathered, but he’s got his pink outer skin back. Still wiry in the style of an alkie that never eats, Strauch has regained his nervous energy.

I think the country air and all of its joys agree with you.

Is that a Roxy Music paraphrase?

It’s the latest edition of you. 

The country air. Quiet nights. Good food. Yoga, pilates, walking, cycling, rock climbing. He smiles. Yes, I even go indoor rock climbing.

The yoga class wasn’t a rotten lie?

I knew you’d think that. Of course I’d come pick you up from the station when you’ve bothered to travel all this way. I just couldn’t. I can’t miss yoga. It’s important. They run loads of classes up here, at the methodist church as well the village hall. You should see all the types and ages. It’s not Pineapple Studios. 

Strauch explains about pilates on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the next village. How most Saturdays he and Rebecca go out walking for the whole day; while every Sunday he’s off cycling with a local bike team. 

We do a lot of miles and it’s not as flat round here as people think.

In full Lycra?

He nods. Go on. But the jokes won’t be funny.

You’re looking after yourself. 

Got to. 

Strauch say his heart isn’t any good. We compare symptoms. His are worse than mine. He says it is genetic and isn’t related to smoking like everybody assumes. (I read later the likelihood of problems with inherited atherosclerosis is increased by as much as 200% through smoking.) 

I suppose Strauch could die quite soon. He certainly thinks this is the case. ‘It’s a trend with writers lately.’ 

He laughs with the same cackle. This is a new laugh for Strauch. He didn’t have a cackle in London. The Great Writer has a thing about personal authenticity, so it’s strange to find he’s tweaked his public self in this way – a suggestion of nervousness in his village paradise. I want to point out the the new laugh, but he won’t like that, he’ll get prickly.** 

In my reading for the recent trip to Madrid to see Goya’s ‘black paintings’, I worked through the bulk of Robert Hughes thumper biography of the great man. Hughes is eager to display his background research by putting Goya the artist in his historical and socio-cultural context. He reports that eighteenth century Spanish theatre featured a popular form of comic opera called the sainete

These short one-act dramatic farces often depicted broad, rough knockabout scenes featuring easily recognisable social types. The stock characters doing typical things included the nobleman, the wife, the widow, the indigent hidalgo, the majo (macho) and his distaff, the maja, the Frenchman, the Italian, the chaste flower girl, the cunning page to the buffonish duke, mason, lawyer, the rotund police officer, the hairdresser, her husband, the bawdy carpenter, the street vendor hawking his roast chestnuts…. I’m liking my list, but must end it now.

The Injured Mason, Goya
The Injured Mason, Goya

In a 21st century British sainete, Strauch is the stock writer of a certain stripe: the disgruntled novelist buried in the country, slightly seething, a dry wit of disappointment primed to spit out harsh judgements. Plus a cackling laugh.

Why are we calling you Strauch?

He checks his watch. Later, he says. We’ve got to go to the shops. 

The Great Writer leads the way across the Green, over the slippery wet grass to the Spar, where he collects some last-minute things for dinner and makes a joke with the woman behind the till. I sense Strauch’s performing for me. He assumes I have him  pigeonholed as a burnt-out case, at odds with existence, in love with griping. He proffers a counterlife to the stereotype, which he maintains while cooking dinner by listening to a highbrow podcast discussing the political theories of Hannah Arendt. As one autodidact said to to the other, I just can’t stop learning new things.

It’s getting dark. Rebecca is due back from work. Strauch roasts some organic chicken pieces. He explains that he jointed the local, organic, outdoor reared, free-to-roam bird this morning, to marinate for the daylight hours in herbs, mustard, olive oil and lemon juice. The roasted chicken will come with leeks steamed in vermouth to be served ‘on a bed of fresh linguine.’ I wait for Strauch to mock this Masterchef language. But nothing comes. While he finishes off the cooking, I am instructed to return to Spar to buy two more bottles of white wine – Pinot Grigio, says the Great Writer.  When I return, Rebecca’s car is parked outside the cottage, squeezed in against the side fence, almost forced into the wooden piers.

Rebecca opens the front door and shouts my name as if I’m a complete surprise. Rebecca is small and very bright and always friendly. Born in Scotland, she lived in America for half of her childhood, and her accent is an unusual mix. I once called it an odd concoction, and she corrected me and said better to describe it as unusual. Rebecca teaches anthropology at a well-known university. She asks me about my journey up and in return I sympathise with her long daily commute. 

It’s murder, she says. Really eats into my day.

Presumably there’s little time left over to sleep with your students.

That joke’s already been made, shouts Strauch.

All of my students? I don’t want to sleep with the whole class. Anthropologist in a gangbang.

You’re speaking like Strauch.

It rubs off on you. I’d move closer to work if it were down to me. But Strauch likes it here and it’s cheap, which means we don’t have to worry about money so much, whereas we used to worry about money all the time. And it wasn’t nice.

Why are we calling your husband Strauch?

We’re not. You’re going to change it to Strauch when you write this up.

But why Strauch?

We’ll get to that later, says the chef, leading us to the table.

We eat in a dining room that’s low beamed. This always makes me nervous – tall people crack heads. Three of the walls are lined with huge bookshelves. I tell them my theory that shelves or cupboards should never reach higher than the picture rail.

Why?

The walls close in on you. 

My hosts agree. But Vela (Ex No2) argued differently, that my cupboard rubric was a waste of space. She meant this literally. She wanted cupboards built all the way to the ceiling. We argued over this when we had our house done. I had to give way. But although she got the extra cupboards, they were too high for her to reach. 

So, she both won, but also lost.

You two argued about everything.

Except for money. Which studies show is the most popular source of discord in relationships.

I doubt it’s popular, says Rebecca. Anthony Powell wrote that books decorate a room

I worry the pages will smell of cooking, says Strauch.

I ask, but why should that matter?

Re-sale. There’s got to be a few city-breaks just in my first editions alone.

I look away from my plate of embedded tagliatelle, over to the rows of novels with a mix of envy and regret. The five novels duplicated and multiplied into a rainbow nation of colourful spines, through translations and reissues, are more than enough to suggest a lifetime’s work, a library of achievement. But I sigh at the thought of the many manuscripts and stories that never made it or went missing. 

Strauch has a lot of unpublished works in his backstory. From the prentice years onwards, when he was at his most prolific, he had a talent for self-sabotage. His early works feature footloose twentysomethings travelling, idling, pursuing pleasure and getting tangled up in binds. His debut work comprises two linked novellas set against the backdrop of the 1988 Euros in West Germany, and tracks a young straight male getting into drugs for the first time. The young straight man, who likes to fight, has a threesome with two other male fans while on ecstasy. It happens in a tent at a designated campsite near Dusseldorf and afterwards the young man decides to stop fighting. The mood is upbeat and Balearic. There’s fat chance Strauch would write anything like it today. 

Bryan Robson and Gary Lineker Celebrate Scoring vs Holland 1988
England score, then lose heavily

The young ‘straight’ man continues onwards across Western Germany with his two new friends. Towards the end of the first novella, as the football tournament builds through the knock-out stages, one of the threesome goes missing in the night. Vanishes like a character in an arthouse movie.

The second novella relocates the action to America, later the same summer, and concerns a chaotic search for the lost football fan, mostly set in New York and across the two days of the Tompkins Square police riot. 

Strauch always tries to feature historic events as the backdrop to his minor character’s ‘major dramas’. We first bonded as author-editor when I pointed him toward The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. The novel includes a chilling scene outside Buckingham Palace on Victory in Europe day, May 1945 – where among the thousands of people crammed together drunk and delirious celebrating the end of the war, the lead character witnesses a man kill a rival by stabbing him in the back and disappearing into the crowd.

The Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark
through the eye of a needle

Strauch’s lost ‘second’ novel is set in Italy during the World Cup of 1990 and concerns another hapless young man in too deep with pleasure. The football backdrop suggests a kind of sequel, or reprise of The Great Writer’s debut work, but the narrative contents and the action have moved on. The running gag is the man has come to Italy for the football, the chance of a lifetime, but due to various mishaps, he never gets to see a single minute of live action. 

Eventually the hero drifts away from the tournament and loses himself to pills. And then actually loses a dealer’s bulging bag of tricks and spends the duration of the World Cup final searching around the stadium for the lost pouch of narcotics in a panic.

Gianluca Vialli, Italia '90
I dream that one day I will go to Chelsea and then Watford

Strauch’s fictional version of Italia ’90 is told largely in flashback and opens with Gianluca Vialli preparing to take a penalty to clinch the trophy for the host nation: ‘Gianluca Vialli had dreamed of this moment all his life.’ It is late into extra time between Italy and England (wishful thinking?) with the teams deadlocked at one all. Planet Earth is watching Vialli. The narrator imagines all types of people in all kinds of living rooms or crowded bars in all the countries on all the continents, watching the fuzzy-haired striker placing the ball on the spot and preparing to run up and shoot. The whole world is gripped and holds its breath, except for the hapless lead, who’s searching through garbage hoppers in the stadium’s underground car park.

Strauch wrote his book Italia ‘90 before the actual tournament had played out. Although Italy didn’t get to the final, Strauch imagined it so that they did, and when reality refused to bend to the artist’s will, the artist took it badly. I said he needed to make changes – because, let’s face it, Vialli never took a penalty in the final. That the tournament, as we know, just didn’t work out for Vialli, as the striker barely got a game. A peevish Strauch refused to change the opening line, ‘not even a hair on its head’, or the many other false details and inaccuracies about the tournament, which read like the disturbances of a delusional author. Strauch insisted that between the covers of his novels, fiction overruled reality. That he’d rather the book didn’t come out than acquiesce on this fundamental philosophical matter. And the book never did come out. There is no Italia ’90 on the bookshelf, in fifteen languages in several editions, formats and re-issues. And it was a good novel. 

And perhaps he was right. From the early years, Strauch’s fiction, with it’s blurry ambiguities and druggy disorientations, was a manifestation of the notion, texture and sensation of perceptual uncertainty, from out of which can rise fun, but also paranoia and a mood of threat. The sunlit buzz darkens as the day lengthens, and Strauch’s blue moods have only darkened with the passing years. These themes and his percussive pared-down delivery make him a good fit for crime fiction. But he refuses to turn out that kind of novel.

I think Strauch should write a thriller, I say. What do you think, Rebecca?

I think that’s unlikely. I think you’ve travelled down that track before and my husband would prefer not to. 

The Great Writer would indeed prefer not to. I don’t think Herman Melville would’ve put it any better. 

Strauch smiles warmly at Rebecca. I like being called husband, he says. Being owned by another. First time round being married felt like we were playing grown-ups and being bourgeois. Now it just sounds solid.  

Then, with some melodrama, Strauch drops his forehead onto the table and sighs. What I don’t like is writing. I’m not sure I can get it up any longer.

An Intrigue of Kittens in a Box
pure evil

What do you do all day, then?

He rubs his eyes. I watch videos of kittens on Facebook and YouTube. Just like the rest of humanity.

I don’t look at kittens, I say.

Strauch laughs, uses the cackle again – which is now officially annoying. OK, you don’t, but I really do. 

He sends me links at work.

I also look at cute owls. And dogs. All kinds of useless memes. There’s even a site where girls twirl their hair. 

Naked?

Don’t judge me by your standards?

Not naked, says Rebecca. It’s ASMR. 

Spell this out, please.

Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response

Wow. Very good. I can never remember stuff like that. 

Rebecca cups her hands on the table, like a catcher. But I’m an anthropologist.

True. I think I know about ASMR. It’s a scam, no?

Rebecca shakes her head. Not at all. In the first instance it merely describes a sensory phenomenon – the tingling you get on the back of the head and neck triggered by certain stimuli: sounds, whispering, singing, or gestures. So, for instance, someone playing with their hair may cause the person watching to experience a mild sense of calm or even euphoria.

But not orgasm? Asks the 12-year-old me.

Actually, previously the word orgasmic was used to describe an ASMR response. But ASMRists, the community, grew to dislike the associations and they removed orgasm from the lexicon.

Strauch leans back and folds his arms. He likes it when Rebecca takes the platform.

The ASMRists are the individuals who ‘execute’ the sensory triggers for pleasure. There are whisper triggers, which are very popular; or acoustic stimuli, the sound of crinkling paper, the nib of a fountain pen writing, a person swallowing a cold beer. There are many YouTube videos of people whispering or eating in order to invoke ASMR responses, which can also be triggered at the hairdressers, or a nail or massage parlour. The chain reaction is such, Rebecca continues, that videos of these exchanges – for example, a massage – especially when consciously enacted or performed, is enough to trigger a response in receptive viewers. I’ve written a paper on the subject. 

I’d like to read it.

I’ll send you the link. There’s actually a subset of ASMR where actors perform in the role of your doctor or therapist, and although it is made clear that the ‘general examination’ depicted is merely a simulation of a general examination, some viewers report positive health outcomes. 

Susceptible brains, says Strauch sagely, as Rebecca gets up and starts clearing the table. 

I offer to do the dishes. I get goosebumps just thinking about it. But Strauch says you’ll only get it wrong and Rebecca prefers that it is done right. Rebecca smiles, but notably doesn’t dispute her husband’s assertion, and shortly she goes to bed. I settle down on the sofa expecting a whiskey and a chat, but Strauch follows Rebecca and I’m left with a fold-out bed in the lounge and the last chapter of the Goya biography. 

The reading doesn’t last long. It’s too arduous in the weak lamp light. I put the book down and turn off the lamp and listen to the rain and wind outside. There’s a branch tapping at the window. It’s a staple sound effect for a spooky tale. But there’s one story in particular where this happens that keeps nagging away in my head and I can’t remember what it is.*** This is fatal. The tapping is intermittent and I start listening out for it. This is double fatal. 

I can’t sleep with a busy brain. I switch thoughts and imagine the turbulent dark outside as a black foaming sea, with Strauch and Rebecca’s front room my small wooden boat bobbing up and down in the storm. The boat rising and falling with the tide is rhythmic and calming… 

to be concluded…

Boat in a Storm
tossed at sea


* Not smoking was a challenge during the recent trip to Spain to see the Goya paintings. The people of Madrid adore cigarettes. He wanted to stop the people, say, don’t you realise how much harder you’re making this for me?

** Strauch’s involuntary cackle took him back to the time he sprouted a new laugh on a first date. It emerged from nowhere, a grating chuckle that persisted the whole evening. It really affected his dating game. Years ago, he went through a stage of euphorically clapping his hands when amused. It still pops up occasionally. There was a time he pulled on his ear whenever thinking hard. He continues to rub the beak of his nose if confused.

*** The tapping of the branch on the window pane is from Alfred Htichcock’s Marnie. The grown up Marnie has a recurring nightmare from childhood of a tree branch tapping on her bedroom window at night. In fact, the branch is a screen memory, the actual tapping that she’s blocked from her memory is that of the men knocking on the window, sailors from the local port who have come to spend time with Marnie’s mother, who is a prostitute.




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