This is the strange story of my uncle, the writer Albert Palmerson, who died peacefully over fifteen years ago. I should put “peacefully” in scare quotes because Uncle Albert maintained that he died for the first time twelve years prior to this, and far less calmly.
Bizarre, I know, but let me tell you his version of the story, which was brought freshly to mind after reading an article in this week’s Sunday Times about a celebrated young poet. I should say that I never heard Uncle tell his own tale in one straight narrative. I’d catch bits and pieces, often after he’d had a drink or three. Some of what he said I’ve been able to corroborate elsewhere, but certainly not the crucial elements — and I doubt they ever could be.
Let me start with his background. Albert Palmerson was of medium height and build. He had a prominent chin and a high wide forehead. By the time I first became aware of him (in my teens), his hair was already a steely grey. Most distinctively, he was severely short-sighted, and most of the time wore a pair of old-fashioned pebble specs.
When asked, he would always describe himself a writer, but, from what publishers have told me, early on he was in danger of entering the Guinness Book of Records as one of the most rejected authors ever. The irony, which has been expressed by several publishers, is that his writing was not in itself bad. In fact, many maintain that, in technical terms, it was almost faultless (albeit of a rather prolix, Jamesian cast).
The problems lay elsewhere. Firstly, with the content of his prose, which was unrelentingly dark. God forbid that anyone with a depressed cast of mind should encounter it — but, as none of this early work was ever published, this was not really a concern. As his relative, I was one of the few who ever read it, and I think I’ve survived unscathed.
Pessimism, though, wasn’t the main problem. After all, other authors are renowned for their melancholy take on life: Hardy, Kafka, and Beckett come to mind. But none of these had my uncle’s volatile nature. At the slightest whiff of criticism, he was on the offensive.
So it was the publishers’ anonymous readers and their editors who received his flack. Off would go the readers’ reports to my uncle and, usually by return of post, back would come one of Uncle’s infamous diatribes — pages of it, all in blotchy longhand — fulminating against their pedestrian attempts to stifle his creative voice. Editors, in particular, he regarded as nothing but jumped-up failed authors who took their frustrations out on those more blessed with creative genes.
It’s at this point that my uncle’s story turns a bit spooky. But perhaps I should tell you one more thing before we go there. Namely, that Albert Palmerson was brought up Catholic and, at one time, had considered entering the church. However, this idea came to a sudden end when his very first piece of creative writing was rejected by the parish magazine, though the editor did provide copious suggestions as to how Albert’s story might be improved.
Even though he was, at the time, a young, inexperienced writer, Uncle resented this attempt — as he saw it —to curb his independence of mind. He complained not just to the magazine editor, but to the parish priest and, subsequently, to the bishop of the diocese, too. The original letters have long been lost, but those involved have described his correspondence as not merely offensive but blasphemous, too. Perhaps, not surprisingly, Uncle forsook the church and, from then on, those pebble glasses of his beheld nothing that wasn’t at least half-empty of meaning.
Chartered accountancy — or “rendering stuff to Caesar”, as Uncle liked to describe it — was to become his day job, but he still devoted his evenings to writing those unpublishable novels and collecting rejection slips.
He wasn’t a complete anorak, though. He also liked to tend his garden, which was the cause of his downfall and the weird event I keep putting off relating. So, let’s get on with it.
According to my uncle, he was out in his garden, up his favourite apple tree pruning a few branches when he fell. It wasn’t a particularly high tree, but he landed badly, crashing down onto his wheelbarrow. Even that wouldn’t have been too bad had his scythe not been standing in the barrow at the time, its curved blade pointing skywards.
Landing on his back, the scythe sliced through him effortlessly. He recalled the blade emerging from his abdomen “like a shark’s fin”. I’ve seen the scars on his torso, back and front, so can vouch for this accident, but it’s what happened afterwards that’s the contentious part, the part that no one can corroborate. In what follows, then, I’m dependent on Uncle’s account, related not just personally, but also in a fictionalised version that he was later to write.
There was my uncle, then, skewered in his wheelbarrow with a shark fin sprouting from his abdomen. He always maintained that, at this point, he died. He didn’t simply “lose consciousness” or “go into a coma” but actually died. He was always adamant about this.
The next thing he knew, he was climbing a carved stairway towards the Pearly Gates. Alongside them, next to one of the bejewelled pillars that supported the gates, stood a man in a long white robe.
“St Peter, I presume,” my uncle said, spotting the keys.
“Yes, my son,” replied St Peter. “We had high hopes for you at one time, and would have welcomed your arrival. But, sadly, that’s changed. You are now destined for elsewhere.”
“Why? What did I do?” demanded my uncle.
“It’s more what you didn’t do,” responded St Peter. “Life is about growth and development. You, though, have systematically spurned the advice of others, never learning anything. Do you disagree? Have you ever heeded anyone’s advice?”
“I would gladly have done so had I been advised of anything that wasn’t half-baked nonsense!”
“‘The way of a fool is right in his own eyes. But he that harkeneth unto counsel, is wise.’ Perhaps you know the quotation? Proverbs, 12:15. A little humility would not go amiss, my son.”
“So, this, I presume, is yet another rejection I’m hearing?” said Uncle, once again taking the initiative.
At this point, St Peter and his Pearly Gates faded away. Before my uncle could decide what was happening, the air cleared and another pair of gates was visible. They were not pearly at all but gunmetal grey with bent, rusty spikes on the top. The gates also leaned into each other, gaping wide at the bottom as though long neglected. Unlike the former gates, this kingdom clearly had no named keeper of the keys. Instead, Uncle found himself staring at a small, red-hued figure with budding horns on his forehead and, in one hand, a trident, the prongs of which were also bent and rusty.
Again, Uncle took the initiative: “I always thought the entrance to Hades was a gaping maw — a ‘hellmouth’ in fact.”
“We’ve come a long way since the Middle Ages,” replied the demon.
Uncle Albert decided not to argue. In his writings, he’d often tried to depict hell, so was keen to see how it looked in reality. He began walking towards the yawning gates.
“And where do you think you’re going?”
“Baaa!” responded my uncle, right into the demon’s face. “Having failed as a sheep, I thought I’d explore my goatishness.”
“Very witty, Mr Palmerson. But we don’t automatically accept rejects from … up there,” replied the demon, his eyes flickering upwards.
“Oh. I thought you had a niche for everyone here.” Uncle gave his impression of a lift operative: “Going up, first floor — fornicators, pagans and suicides -”
“This isn’t the Divine Comedy! If we took in all that shower, we’d need far bigger premises!
“So, who does get to stay in your exclusive, long-stay accommodation?”
“You have to have been really wicked. A murderer, rapist, war criminal or the like. An impenitent baddy!”
“And arsonists? I bet you’ve a soft spot for them!” joked Uncle, but the demon remained unamused. “So,” Uncle continued, “is this yet another cold shoulder I’m being given? Another rejection?” Still the demon said nothing. “What would you have me do now?” shouted Uncle, exasperated.
The demon finally responded: “After consultation with the boys upstairs,” again he flicked up his eyes, “we’ve decided that you’re another of these lukewarm idlers who grumble endlessly about life not being worth living. So, as with the others, we’ve found the best cure is to send you back, to try harder, until you finally get the point.”
“Do we ‘lukewarm idlers’ often appear here, then?”
“More than anticipated. Some, particularly recalcitrant reprobates have been round the block a few times before learning their lesson.”
Uncle told me later how it made him think of Buddhists and reincarnation. But before he could ask more questions, the demon, along with Hell’s gates, faded — just as those of Heaven had done.
The next thing he knew, he was lying in hospital, feeling very groggy and in intense pain. A nurse was beside him, tending his mid-section which was swathed in bandages. “Like a mummy,” to use Uncle’s words. “Completely rigid.”
“You’re lucky to be alive,” said the nurse. “Despite a serious loss of blood, somehow the scythe managed to avoid your major organs.”
Uncle then learned what had happened to his earthly body in his absence. His neighbour, Walter, having witnessed the fall (he’d also been up high, on a ladder fixing his guttering), had immediately phoned for an ambulance. He’d then run round to my uncle’s, though he suspected he’d be dead. The ambulance crew were similarly minded. It was only when they started swathing the scythe blade in blankets, having been careful to leave it in situ (it being too dangerous to remove), that Uncle emitted a few groans (fortunately, they’d managed to detach the blade from its wooden handle).
None of this, though, challenged Uncle Albert’s conviction that, between his fall and recovery, he’d died and visited both Heaven and Hell. The only thing that shocked him was the fact that he’d returned to his old body, rather than coming back — as he’d expected, thinking along Buddhist lines — as a baby, to start over again. However, as he later reasoned, beginning from scratch would make him less likely to learn from his mistakes (if mistakes they were — Uncle remained unconvinced).
Realising the bizarre nature of his experiences, he largely kept them to himself, although he did fictionalise them in what became his first published novel, Extraterrestrial Trials, his most critically acclaimed book. It’s this account that I’ve drawn on, above.
However far-fetched his experience might sound (his few confidants put it down to the anaesthetic), there was no doubting that my uncle was a changed man — even if not a reborn one. I can’t say that I knew him well before the accident — I was only a teenager at the time — but even I could see a transformation.
So, too, did his would-be publishers, who now warmed to his works, just as he warmly and magnanimously accepted most of their suggested revisions. He even gave them a formal acknowledgement in Extraterrestrial Trials: “My thanks to the various anonymous readers of earlier drafts of this work, without whom it would have been a different animal. My especial thanks to my editor, Gary Smyrna, for his patience and diligence, and not forgetting the salutary advice of St Peter and that anonymous demon.” Most people, of course, thought this last bit was just another of Uncle’s little jokes.
Uncle’s success continued to grow over the next two decades until he was in his late sixties, by which time he was the respected writer of five critically acclaimed novels. He’d even garnered a few literary prizes and become a regular at literary festivals. Towards the end of his life, he started putting in an occasional appearance on chat shows, coming across as affable and eccentric. But that all changed following an incident on The Graham Norton Show (Graham confessed to being a fan of Uncle’s novels, especially Extraterrestrial Trials).
Jan Caraway, a reality-TV star and ex-drug addict who had found salvation in Christianity, was also on the show that night, promoting her memoirs. For some reason, Uncle Albert took exception to her, especially as he thought her memoir was ghost written by a hack of his acquaintance. Caraway’s faith, he declared, had not saved her from diddly squat. She’d just swapped one drug for another. She might as readily have resorted to drugs to save her from an addiction to Christianity!
I think a clip from the show can still be found on YouTube. It caused a sensation at the time. Caraway, in turn, called Uncle “a callous atheist,” a claim that he strongly rebutted, relating — for almost the first time in public — his personal meeting with St Peter. However, Uncle was quick to add that we shouldn’t kow-tow to such arrogant beings. Those that have the audacity to label as, for eternity, as either sheep or goats. We should, said Uncle, refuse to play their childish games! We should stand on our own two feet! You could see Graham Norton wishing that Albert was in the show’s famous red chair, primed for ejection.
That was the last time Albert appeared on the media. A few articles surfaced in magazines, but there were no more novels. Uncle seemed to have reverted to his “pre-death” self. He disowned his published works, claiming that they were superficial, written to appease an audience needing sweeteners to make their reality palatable. It was his earlier, unpublished works that warranted more attention, he said, where he’d laid bare the barrenness of the human condition. Needless to say, his commercial publishers were not impressed!
Shortly after this, it became known that Albert Palmerson had stomach cancer — a condition, it was stressed, that had nothing to do with his scythe accident. In a matter of months, he was dead. I was the only one there at the end. We’d become close, I like to think — as close as anyone could get to such an irascible character. It seems that I was one of the few who found his mordant humour engaging.
Uncle definitely didn’t want a religious service — although, as he reiterated, he was no atheist. When I asked him about the fate of his remains, he suggested that we compost them. In the end, we interred him in a biodegradable casket. A few of his diehard fans were present, so we had some impromptu readings from his work — all taken from his published novels, apart from my piece. As ever, the scene featuring the pearly/infernal gates was the most popular and made the burial quite uplifting, though I don’t know what Albert would have made of it — or anyone else listening in!
Though Uncle had always been a sincere man, I too subscribed to the view that his other-worldly experience was more psychological than physical; that his encounter in the hereafter (or, in his case, the almost-after) could be explained in terms of the delusional effects of his anaesthetic. I never let Uncle know my views, and I certainly still enjoyed fantasising about the fate of “lukewarm idlers” like himself.
Could, I wondered, writers like H.P. Lovecraft and Samuel Beckett have experienced similar rejections at those gates? Perhaps such rejections weren’t their first, either; perhaps, decades before, they’d originally approached those gates with the swagger of a Schopenhauer or a Nietzsche. How many mortal rounds, then, did it take before such rebels finally gave in and succumbed to writing happy-pappy books à la Billy Graham, Patience Strong or Barbara Cartland?
They were delightful reveries, though I could never picture Uncle Albert succumbing to such a Panglossian fate. As I said before, I think he was always sincere, so it was his post-Grim Reaper reborn self that seems to have been the act, with Uncle parodying the sort of good behaviour that most of us performed most of the time: a show to impress those Immortals hanging out in the gallery.
I am also convinced that Uncle knew about his cancer before the Graham Norton Show and used it to “come out”, to use a voguish term. But, unlike Job, Uncle refused to connive in that role as the pious, obsequious sufferer. By then, Uncle had had enough of playing the good guy. He, I’m sure, never intended to go gently into any good night. He was more of William Blake’s persuasion: “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s; I will not reason and compare.” And, I believe, he never did, refusing to vacate the naughty seat. I like to dream that Albert Palmerson is still out there somewhere, still on the mortals’ merry-go-round, orbiting away the centuries.
As I said at the outset, I was inspired to put pen to paper (or, more accurately, fingers to word-processor) after reading an article in the Sunday Times entitled “A New Rimbaud”, about the latest Wunderkind, Conrad Applebaum, a saturnine young poet (then aged only fifteen). Eagerly I examined that boy’s picture, keen to see a family resemblance. There was no reason why there should be, but I did note that Uncle Albert had also died just over fifteen years earlier.
You’re probably thinking that I too have lost it, like some QAnon fanatic who sees patterns of coincidence everywhere. Perhaps I am, but when I spotted the title of Applebaum’s first volume of poems, I confess, hot coffee landed in my lap: Grim Reapings, he’d called it. A coincidence, of course!
7 thoughts on “The Fall and Rise of Uncle Albert by David Rudd”
The writing was excellent and you intermingled the story within a story effortlessly.
The background of this was so plausible that the reader considers checking the references and again, for me, that shows a superb bit of story-telling.
All the very best my fine friend.
Some of the world’s best literature has been produced by cloven hooves. Not up to the cut for Hell’s standard is an excellent idea. The ultimate in “We’re so sorry, Uncle Albert.” Told with the right voice.
Lovely little tale, nicely handled! (But do I really have to die & come back before I get another story accepted here?!)
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Good question Steven French. I’ve got a non-fiction coming up, but maybe I can some post-humous after that too.
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Nothing like a scythe through the abdomen to get some writing inspiration! Those near death experiences can be super valuable. Uncle refused to vacate the “naughty seat” though….all the references to Blake, etc., very droll. I liked the amusing formal style of the narrator, as he told his Uncle’s transformative tale, and all the religious bits. It’s all speculation, what happens after death, I’m eager to get on Amazon and order a copy of “Extraterrestrial Trials.”
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What a thoughtful, suspenseful, multilayered, unusual, and well-crafted story! At first, I thought that I was reading about a grandiose narcissist who had a transformative near-death experience. And yet it became clear that, as soon as Uncle Albert started telling his near-death story, his narrative became absorbed by the larger narrative structures of Christianity and of contemporary near-death storytellers on YouTube. We do have to stand on our own two feet, so let’s not forget what you highlight about the interplay between truth and narrative structures!
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“No heaven or hell to die for” said John Lennon or something like that, but it is fun to wonder what might one come back like. Cats have infiltrated our lives to attain easy living, but most house cats had to give up sex , so maybe not.
I identify with the pre first death Uncle with the sure knowledge that any criticism of my deathless (until the publishications die) prose is ill-founded.
Did not get all the literary allusions. Not much of a reader outside of LS posts.
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