“Do you keep your tools sharp?” I ask Nige. We’re standing at the bar of The Ladywell Tavern. It’s 11.16 pm and Nick has three full pints of lager lined up in front of him. I know from experience that he is waiting for eighteen past which will give him a leisurely two minutes in which to down them all. In the meantime, he keeps adjusting the glasses so they are in a dead straight line, exactly two inches (not 25 mm) apart. I suspect he also has to prevent his fingers twitching towards his absent spirit level to check the heads are even.
“You been listening to Radio 4 again, Tel?”
I struggle to control my surprise, since he is right. Then again, he knows I get most of my material from Radio 4.
His gaze flicks to the large clock on the wall above the door, then back to the young barman serving someone a couple of yards away.
Nige is a conspiracy theory enthusiast but also something of a traditionalist. He still follows builders’ etiquette, for example, which is that you don’t want to have an empty glass in front of you at two minutes to drinking up time. Trouble is, The Ladywell Tavern is one of these new-fangled pubs which doesn’t always close when it’s supposed to.
“Well, yes,” I say, “they had this carpenter on who said that when his plane is really sharp, the work is easy, the wood just seems to lift away of its own accord.”
He isn’t concentrating. I’m going to have to settle his mind. “Excuse me,” I say to the barman, surprised when he hears and comes over to us. Usually, amongst Tavern bar staff, the ratio of looking cool to being efficient is directly equal to the ratio between old git and getting served.
“What time are you closing tonight?” I say.
He shrugs. “Not sure. May stay open another half hour or so since it’s busy.”
Nige turns pale and his long brown grey-tinged hair seems to lose its normal gloss (literally) sheen.
“Can I get you gents another,” says the barman, adding ” . . . three?” in Nige’s case. Which is actually quite humorous for a cool guy.
“We’ll get back to you,” I say.
Nige’s complicated mind is at work on something, possibly the dilemma of having to drink slowly for once. But then he says, “Thing is, that carpenter meant what he said literally. If his plane ain’t sharp then taking an inch off a piece of wood will be like trying to shave with a bleedin’ spatula. He wasn’t saying carpentry is like art. That’s just what you writer types choose to think–”
He’s right. That’s exactly what I’ve been thinking. I’d just wanted him to agree so I can use it as an analogy in the creative writing group I’m taking.
“–what exactly are your tools anyway? Just a bleedin’ keyboard and your fingertips. Don’t see how you can keep them sharp. Clean, maybe; clean pipes is what plumbers aim for, which is I suppose why you eat too much of that brown rice shit, Tel. It’s like putting pebbles in an exhaust pipe; which is interesting when you think of the term ‘pebble dash’ . . . ”
Nige is now displaying builder’s stream of consciousness syndrome, brought on by the contradiction of laws resulting from having got in as much as one can but not yet being able to swallow it for fear of suffering the major faux pas of being in a pub after closing time with an empty glass.
But in amongst his flowing polyfillababble, I get the point about over-analogising. Earlier this week, there’d been some heated exchanges on one of my writers’ forums, following a new literary fiction writer posting to ask for ideas about where she could learn from other literary writers. I’d suggested the published genre writers on the site would have some good ideas too. But she asked what could she possibly learn from say children’s and science fiction writers (both genres of mine)? And gave the analogy that the number 9 and the number 6 buses go different routes. I, not as calmly as I’d have liked, pointed out that the number 9 and number 6 are indeed going in different directions, but children’s, science fiction and literary authors are in many respects travelling the same route. She didn’t agree. Much time was wasted (which of course is the main purpose of writers’ forums).
” . . . don’t want to end up with a wall of tapes full of useless secrets,” Nige concludes. I haven’t caught the lead-in to this arcane piece of advice but I know what he’s talking about.
In our quiet little South East London street, Nige’s front room is still the way it was when Amanda lived with him. For instance, there is a candle stick at each end of the mantelpiece. But after nearly a year of central heating and dope fumes the candles are now drooping, a libidinous symbol I am not willing to point out to him for fear of any voodooish transference properties they may possess.
Both expanses of wall either side of Nige’s mantelpiece are packed with books and videotapes. Serving his conspiracy needs, the books are mostly histories, biographies and stuff by anti-establishment writers like Noam Chomsky. Nige’s mind is not constricted by standard education since, as he says, he went to a daily war-zone comprehensive where the greatest sign of weakness anyone could display was an interest in learning anything.
His video collection is full of bits of brass plucked form twenty years worth of TV muck. I haven’t actually seen any of it, much as I would like to, on account of Amanda’s parting shot when she left him. Nige, being thorough and orderly, had numbered each of his two hundred or so cassettes, then listed their contents in an index book. For reasons which still escape him she took the index book with her when she left.
He downs the first of his three pints in around 15 seconds then says, “You Radio 4 types will see all kinds of moral allusions in Amanda stripping the bleedin’ ID from me tape collection. But you want to know the real reason she did it?” He picks up the second pint, perhaps studying the thousands of rising little globes of light in its amber core; perhaps not.
“She’s just a vindictive cow.”