His sister had suggested he contacted the TV production company that made the programme about hoarders. Those strange folks who collect things from bins, who live in houses so filled with clutter that they’ve been reduced to a small window of space in a back bedroom. Sometimes they’re rescued through a gap in the rubbish bags by the fire brigade. They argue until they’re blue in the face about the possible future utility of a broken coat hanger or a plastic duck.
“They all have psychological problems,” she said. “The collecting is just how it expresses itself.”
Graham had seen that programme, but he’d never recognised himself in it. They were sad, strange individuals. Complete oddballs who had allowed their lives to become dominated by obsession and routine. It was different for him. He knew how it must look from the outside but that wasn’t how it felt on the inside. Collecting didn’t make him sad. It gave him something to look forward to and enjoy beyond the nine to five. An interest to be shared with likeminded people.
Most people didn’t get it. He knew that filling your garage, your attic and your spare room with pulp fiction novels looked a little absurd. Surely there were better things to spend your money on.
“It’s not a question of better he usually answered. It’s a question of different.”
Staff rooms used to be full of eccentrics. Teaching had been a profession that found room for them. Some of the best teachers he’d ever known had been complete oddballs, or disasters in their personal lives. They would come into work with egg on their tie and twigs in their hair driving rattling kit cars they’d built in their garage. They grew gigantic vegetables on their allotments or dreamt of defecting to the former Yugoslavia. They might marry Thai girls they claimed to have met on unlikely holidays. The female teachers would all be angry and somehow disappointed.
Terry Jesmond collected Victorian dolls. The porcelain ones they always put in gothic horror mini-series on the television. He’d gone round to Terry’s flat after starting work as a Newly Qualified Teacher in the early 90s. The dolls were everywhere. Sitting on the sofa, on top of the bookcase, peering at you as you sat on the toilet. He was particularly proud of his black doll.
“You don’t find many like this,” he said. “A black doll dressed like a young lady. Fine lace dress, jewellery. You find some in America but this is British. I suspect it was especially made. It’s heartening in a way. You have to remember this was only half a century after the abolition of slavery.”
Graham had agreed but he wasn’t really sure what Terry’s point was. It had been hard to get to grips with all those porcelain limbs and glass eyes, the hair farmed from slum girls. Terry taught geography. He took sixth formers pot-holing. He’d introduced Graham to real ale.
“Are they worth much?” he’d asked picking a doll up and feeling its fragility in his hands.
“It’s not about what they’re worth young man,” Terry had chastised him as if he was talking to a particularly insolent year nine. It had been an obvious but facile question. Graham had felt ashamed of himself for asking it. That embarrassment had grown as his own collecting had taken hold. People sometimes ask him that of his collection. It’s as if they can’t fathom why you’d do this for anything other than money. That was the problem with the world. The profit motive keeps creeping into every human activity. It’s as if nothing can exist outside of the cash nexus. Not romance, not familial love, not collecting.
He wasn’t a dealer. He wasn’t trying to top up his pension. It had been accidental like the best love stories. It was in his Sheffield days. His second teaching job, a permanent one this time in an unloved and unlovely school on an estate that was white, angry and frightening. Except it wasn’t as frightening as legend had suggested.
The people were poor and there was crime, acts of random violence but beneath all that there was community, people who really cared. There were parents, single mums usually who were heroic in their devotion to their children and equally admirable in their determination to make the estate a better place. None of them had any money. That didn’t stop the job being stressful, and he didn’t know many people locally. Making friends had been easy at university, it was a shock to discover that in the adult world you had to make an effort. And rejection wasn’t unheard of. The shared desperation of those early weeks as a student didn’t allow for such indulgence. The other NQT was a quietly serious young woman who had trained in the city. She was in the process of buying her first house with her boyfriend. They were sent away on training days together and were supposed to work alongside one another but the bond never came. He thought it should but the more he tried the more reserved his colleague appeared to grow. Elaine suggested that she probably thought he was trying to make a move;
“You have an air of desperation bruv. I wouldn’t blame her. Imagine she thinks you want to jump her bones.”
Conversations like this sometimes bristled. They had a habit of lodging in your brain and repeating themselves during times of doubt and introspection. His low mood nearly did for his tentative teaching career. If it hadn’t been for stumbling into the Book Fair after a sad, self-indulgent couple of solitary pints then it’s probable he’d have lost direction. There was a stall, a man in a beanie hat and a plaid shirt. In front of him was an array of old pulp fiction novels, some of them protected by cling film. It was the covers that first caught his eye. They were so garish. And the titles jumped out at you. Strange Sisters. Forbidden Love. Third Sex. Teenage Dope-Slaves. In pride of place on a stand in the middle of the table was the a book bold in red and black with the titles; “Satan Was a Lesbian.”
He giggled to himself. It was probably the alcohol as the next minute he was picking it up.
“Jumps out at you that one doesn’t it?” laughed the stall holder. Graham had nodded, admiring the rest of the titles. “Set you back six hundred quid that. It was a limited edition. Bit of a collectors item. Like the holy grail of pulp fiction.”
“Wow.” Graham stopped flicking through the pages and slowly placed it back down on its stand. “I’d no idea.”
“Most people don’t. The guy who did the art for it was one of the greats. There’s some reckon this was his finest hour. He was coked up most of the time. A lot of them were high lifers. Speeding all the time. They had to keep knocking them out to make a living. Never slept.”
That had been enough. With the tenner in his pocket Graham bought two books. One was about spanking cowboys, the other about a wayward gymnast. He read them at home on the bed. They were ludicrous really, but the art was engaging. In the twenty years that had followed there’d been book fairs, and charity shop bins, convention in European cities, a trip to Las Vegas, rummaging through the boxed leftovers of the recently deceased. His flat was now full. Book cases in every room, boxes under the bed, in the false roof, piled up behind the sofa in the living room. And not only his flat. He rented out a lock up on an industrial estate which was full from floor to ceiling with boxes of pulp fiction. He had one of the largest collections in England.
“I nearly had chance to buy a second Lesbian Satan.” He’s talking to Ian in the Fiddlers Arms on the Old Wharf. Ian is a collector too. A minor collector. He has nothing like Graham’s collection, instead he has a wife and three kids. Ian readily admits that he’s allowed them to get in the way.
“Phew!” Ian is shaking his head from side to side in disbelief. “That would’ve set you back a bit wouldn’t it? Hen’s teeth. aren’t they?”
“Yeah, yeah. They’re getting fewer all the time. Just wear and tear and the like. Problem is most people who’ve got them don’t realise what it is they’ve got. It’s just some weird old shit from a dead pervy Uncle’s box of weird old shit. So, it gets recycled or sent to the charity shop.”
“Well if it ends up in a charity shop they make a mint from it.”
“Not really.” He takes a large glug of beer and wipes his mouth. “No one knows what it is, so they sell it for a quid and someone who likes the cover buys it and then it sits in a drawer. Frustrates the hell out of me.”
“And you didn’t buy it then.”
“Nah, couldn’t justify it.”
“How much did they want.”
“Oh, just a quid. It was in a charity shop.”
“Oh.” Ian was thoughtful now. He did what men in such circumstances did. He took a long glug of beer then placed his glass down on the table. It landed with soft thud that seemed to grow and echo around the bar in one of those strange unlikely lulls that falls upon busy pubs. Those moments of awkward stillness when the whole congregation is collectively out of words.
“I didn’t need another. And it felt dishonest somehow. Like I was party to some special knowledge and was using it to rip them off.”
“So what did you do ?”
“I picked it up. I flicked through it. Then put it back down in the book box. I picked up something about Welsh railways and bought that instead.”
“Are you interested in Welsh railways.”
Graham shrugged. He wasn’t sure if he should have made this admission. The rest of the evening had been awkward. Ian had clearly been struggling to know how to respond to this revelation. It was odd when people didn’t act to type. Graham felt sure the pub invitations from Ian would dry up. When they’d parted at the door it had felt like saying goodbye to an old lover who in the cold light of day you realised you had nothing in common with, all that you shared suddenly seeming awkward.
It had been the same with Nicola. It wasn’t until after they’d gone their separate ways that he started wondering why she was a never a Nic or a Nicci, always Nicola. It wasn’t that she’d been particularly proper. She was an art therapist. Quite laid back as it happened. She had red hair and a bouncy smile that redeemed a face that was less than top notch. You might not be instantly attracted to her but you couldn’t spend long in her company without finding her endearing. Nicola was always endearing. She’d even taken an interest in his collection and for his thirtieth birthday had painted a canvas of one of his favourite covers;
“Bad Girls Need Love Too”
It had been an awkward surprise made worse that she’d handed it over to him at the party she’d arranged at the house they shared. None of the people there were really his friends. They weren’t people he’d met and got to know independently of her. They were the people in the larger social group. Nicola knew so many people. The canvas had been good. A non-afficionaddo would have been impressed he was sure. But it wasn’t right. It possessed none of the detail and subtlety of the original. It was almost a parody, the whole thing reeked of irony. It was perhaps an irony he’d have shared once. But not now and not then. Illustrators like Robert Maguire were some of the 20th century’s most accomplished artists. They framed an idea, gave energy to popular art. They were the product of the most vibrant democratic culture the world had ever seen. They weren’t to be mocked. They couldn’t easily be copied.
He hoped his disappointment wasn’t showing. It was the other partygoers who were the worse that evening. The way they had looked at him as if there was something clinically wrong in his head. One woman in the kitchen asked him if he got some sort of sexual kick out of the degradation and objectification of women that these books appeared to delight in;
“No not really. I just choose not to judge them.”
“It’s easy for you not to judge,” she’d replied. “It’s easy to be ironic and arch when you’re a bloke with all the privileges that entails. Women aren’t just here to fuel your rape fantasies you know.”
He’d been shocked into silence. Then he’d been quietly outraged. He’d never fantasised about raping anyone and he wasn’t being ironic. It was so infuriating how people refused to understand anything outside of their comfort zone. He’d told Nicola about the encounter in the kitchen. She’d been drunk and had tried to make a joke out of it. If there was a time when he was meant to explode into anger it had been then. He’d gone out into the garden as the last of the stragglers began to head home. He could hear Nicola’s little sister giggling with her boyfriend through the open window of the spare bedroom where they were staying for the weekend. He’d sat on the tree stump at the bottom of the garden and started to cry. He thought someone might miss him. He wondered if someone would come outside to see how he was doing. No one did. He sat there for a couple of hours at least, the birds were starting to stir in advance of the dawn chorus when the temperature dropped even further, and mist began to rise from the ground. Nicola was stretched out on the bed still wearing her dress, her party make-up untouched. He felt mildly disgusted at the sight of her. If it hadn’t been for the impossibility of moving his collection he’d have left her there and then.
As it happened it took a few weeks. There’d been wrangling and arguments and in the end Nicola said it was obvious that he was never going to be capable of a real relationship. It was the reason he didn’t have any friends.
“You don’t know how to be young. You don’t know how to enjoy yourself.”
It hadn’t been a cutting put down by any means. Who wanted to be so frivolous?
Despite his solitary existence and his library of pulp fiction novels he remained a good teacher. Not an inspiration or anything remarkable but a competent one. He was admired in the staffroom if not overly liked. He certainly wasn’t popular. He couldn’t engage in the banter and after work drinks were nearly always a no-no, but he could teach.
He remembered this as he drove to work. It was a grey day. They ran one into another, it was several weeks from the last holiday and several weeks until the next. He had a book fair lined up and a convention in Brighton to attend. He would be amongst like-minded people. He’d been invited onto a panel at a fringe event but was as yet undecided about whether or not to take part. It was sometimes easier to remain anonymous at these things as much as you could in such a small world. School had been unremarkable. He’d tore into a Year 9 who was turning into a persistent trouble maker. Jenny Renshaw advised him that the girl had problems at home, there was something happening with her father, an investigation.
“What sort of investigation?”
“I’m not sure I can say,” Jenny was being cryptic. Was he meant to probe further? Perhaps he was meant to make some kind of knowing sound and they’d nod, or smile and anticipate the future conversation they were meant to have. He just ignored it. He wasn’t interested in the girl’s home life. He wasn’t paid to provide pastoral care for her. All she had to do was turn up in his lessons and do the work he set her. If she didn’t he would reprimand her but more than that he was powerless. If she didn’t want to work, then she didn’t. It was ultimately none of his concern.
Back home he made himself beans on toast for tea for the third time in a week and ran a finger through the thick dust that was gathering on his windowsill. It made him smile. Nicola and that party felt like a very long time ago. He achieved a certain purity in how he lived now. If he’d stayed with her she’d have worn him down over the years. He’d be just another suburban muppet with his tidy house and tidy wife. He’d have sold his collection years ago. Probably when the first kid arrived.
“Are you sure?” Nicola would have asked when he told her the decision he’d made. He’d have nodded obsequiously all the passion and steel worn out of him. The novels on the shelves, piled in boxes, in the false roof, waiting to be filed away and catalogued on tables were a symbol of defiance now. This life he’d chosen was his own.
“They’ll bury you with all this ropey old shit,” said his sister, “like a latter-day Pharaoh.”
Graham smiled quietly at the thought of his little empire reaching off into eternity.
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