Of the Director of the Writers’ Centre’s preoccupations, the most prevalent and pressing was balancing the books.
“Balance?” said Henry. “Let the national broadcaster worry about governmental demands for balance. I think we should accept any books donated to us. And buy anything else that we think is important. Forget balance.”
“What are you wittering on about, Henry?”
“I am going to cull the library,” she said.
“Cull it! Why?”
“It’s a mess, there are books everywhere.”
“That is the point of libraries,” said Henry. “It is their nature.”
“We’ve run out of space.”
“You can’t cull books,” said Henry. “They’re an endangered species.”
“Show me the preservation order on them.”
“Well, if they don’t have one, they should have,” said Henry. “You can’t get rid of books at a Writers’ Centre. You’re as bad as a publisher.”
“Meaning what, Henry?”
“Publishers have always been ambivalent towards books. At the very least. Often they positively hate them. They’ve even removed books from the name of their trade association. It’s just called the publishers’ association now, no longer book publishers.”
“New media, Henry,” she said. “The electronic age. And we have to get with it.”
“You’re as bad as the university. They threw out thousands of books from the university library. And now they’re doing it again. There was a stall inside the library with a sign saying Free Books last time I went in there. All the standard works of literary criticism. It was awful.”
“They were awful,” she agreed. “I remember when you used to put them on those reading lists you handed out, and expected us to read them.”
“They should still be preserved,” he insisted.
“Not here,” she said. “We have to throw them out, too. They’re overflowing from the shelves. Somebody will trip over them and we’ll have a court case. It’s so untidy.”
“The bureaucrat’s response,” said Henry. “Tidiness over resources. Why don’t we put in more shelves?”
“There’s no wall space left.”
“Put shelves in the other rooms.”
“There’s no security.”
“What does it matter? If people steal the books at least they’ll be going to a good home. Somewhere where they’re wanted. Loved and cherished.”
He let his mind lap round the thought, the writer’s dream.
“Much better than burning them.”
“I was not going to burn them. I was going to cull them.”
“Cull, kill, burn, bury, what’s the difference? Everyone’s culling books and kangaroos.”
“So let’s do it.”
“No,” he said. “We have to resist the barbarism of the times. Put up more shelves.”
“I’ll think about it,” she said.
“I already said I would.”
“Thank you,” said Henry.
“But it would still help if you had a look along the shelves. You know what’s worth keeping and what isn’t.”
“Everything’s worth keeping.”
“You don’t think we have too many multiple copies of Tuscan Bayes and Francesca Templar?”
“I’ll have a look,” he said.
She smiled winningly.
“Can we get onto the real issue, now?”
“The real issue?” said Henry. “What is more real than preserving books?”
“You already said that.”
“The financial books,” she said.
“The real books.”
“Uh-huh,” said Henry. Dismissively. Uninterested.
“Good,” she said. “Now I have your attention.”
Henry grunted and gazed out of the window at the magnolia blossom. How long till lunch, how long?
“Do you what?”
“Have your attention.”
“Of course,” he said, turning to attend. “All present and correct.”
“If only it were,” she said. “We have a cash flow problem.”
His eyes wandered off again. He couldn’t help himself. It was the same when he came to do his tax. The glazed gaze. The prevarication. The procrastination. The slipping away, mentally, emotionally, physically.
“We have to do something.”
“Fine,” he agreed, “let’s do it.”
She looked at him suspiciously.
“Whatever you suggest,” he said.
“How about naming rights?” she said.
Henry groaned. “We’ve been through that.”
“No we haven’t.”
“I got defeated on renaming the Writers’ Centre the House of Fiction.”
“You’re always defeated, Henry.”
“No I’m not. It was just special issues this time. The poets objected. And the dramatists.”
“You said everything you ever tried proposing at university was defeated.”
“Oh, there,” said Henry.
“And how much happier a place the Writers’ Centre is.”
“So why be negative?”
“I’m not negative,” he said. “It was the committee that was negative. We’ve been all through that naming business and we set up a committee and they rejected the idea.”
“Not that sort of naming,” she said. “I’m talking commercial sponsorship. Like the Booker.”
“The Man Booker,” he said.
“Yes. We could have an award. A competition.”
“We don’t want to run competitions. They cost money and they just offend the people who don’t win.”
“You speak from experience?”
“It would alienate the membership.”
“I’m not talking prizes,” she said. “I’m talking naming rights.”
“Neon signs on the roof?”
“We’d need planning permission,” she said. “But it’s possible.”
“I hope not.”
“But we can name the rooms,” she said. “Sell naming rights to the library.”
“Why stop at the library? Why not the cellar? The lavatories?”
“All of them,” she said.
Henry groaned. All that literary gent’s dislike of commerce, that heritage of the aristocratic disdain for trade that writers had adopted from their patrons in the days when they had patrons and were not compelled to throw themselves before market forces.
“It’s so seedy,” he said.
“Then it might produce a harvest.”
“Who’s going to negotiate it?”
“Well, Henry, with all that under-utilised time on your hands—”
He stopped himself delivering a rousing “Never, never, never.”
“I don’t think I’d be very good at it,” he said modestly.
“In that case,” she said, “the next option is more workshops. The reality is—”
He could feel himself slipping away again. Reality, what crimes are committed in thy name. Whenever he looked through the Centre’s magazine, he shuddered. That recurrent nausea. Writers offering courses. How to succeed in writing without really trying. How to be an investigative journalist. Gay romance writing. Erotica for tiny tots. How could they bear to do it? To teach workshops, to enrol in them. Why didn’t everyone just stay at home and write?
“Henry, you can keep those thoughts to yourself,” she said, after he had delivered himself of them. He was never one to waste a thought.
“Workshops provide income,” she said. “For the Centre, and for the writers who teach the courses. It all looks good in the acquittal.”
“Acquittal? Have we been on trial?”
“To the Ministry and the Council,” she said. “It’s one of those things they like. Offering professional employment to writers.”
He shuddered. It sounded like forced labour camps.
“Arbeit macht frei.” he said.
“Why don’t people just buy our books?” Henry asked. “Then there would be no need for writers to teach workshops.”
“If we don’t have more workshops and we don’t sell naming rights, all that leaves is weddings.”
“Weddings? Do people still get married? I thought they all lived in sin, these days.”
“That was your generation, Henry. The new young today marry. They like ceremony. They love to come to our grounds.”
“Then there you are,” he said. “No problem.”
“We need to provide more facilities to attract them.”
“If we had a wedding celebrant, for instance.”
“Why not?” said Henry, insouciant.
“Would you do it?” she said. “Really?”
She was all warmth and happiness and charm.
“Would I do what?”
“Become a wedding celebrant.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Alternatively, would you take the licensed premises bar management course?”
“You were the one who insisted we had to get legal about serving alcohol.”
“That was just to keep you out of jail. It doesn’t mean I want to serve it.”
“You just want to drink it.”
“There you are then. It doesn’t pour itself.”
“There’s no way I want to do a bar course. Or any course for that matter. Ever again.”
“When did you last do a course, Henry?”
“When I was a student.”
“That’s back in pre-history. You need retraining. Urgently.”
“How can you start a new life in retirement without retraining?”
“I have a life.”
“Hardly,” she said. “You’ll just become another dithering old man if you don’t keep your brain in training. I worry about you, Henry.”
“Maybe we should offer some retirement retraining workshops for retrenched old writers.”
“I was not retrenched. Nor am I retired. I no longer teach, that is all. I am a full-time writer.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But you’re certainly old, old boy.”
“Good old boy,” she said, more precisely.
“There is no way,” said Henry, pouring himself another glass of retsina down at the Greeks’, “absolutely no way that I am going to do a course in bar management.”
“Good one,” said Pawley. “Why collaborate with repressive authority? Why should alcohol have to be licensed? Why should there be licensing laws? If we were in Greece, every restaurant would have its barrel of krassi from the proprietor’s vineyard. Or his cousin’s. Any corner shop would sell you a bottle. Or pour you one into a plastic mineral water bottle.”
“You feel the plastic improves the bouquet?” asked Dr Bee. “You prefer a recycled container from a garbage bin? Is this place too fancy for you? Would you like me to ask them to remove the table-cloths?”
He turned towards the waiter. The waiter stood behind the bar and looked back suspiciously.
“I don’t object to table-cloths,” said Pawley.
“Well, I suppose that’s something we should be grateful for. I am in constant fear you will insist on lunch at Harry’s Café de Wheels.”
“Not like it used to be,” said Pawley. “Gone up-market.”
“Or perhaps the Our Lady of the whatever it is soup kitchen.”
“You want to try it some time?”
“Along with the homeless advocates of unlicensed drinking.”
“Actually,” said Pawley, “most of the homeless lost their homes through gambling, not alcohol. And who runs the gambling? Who holds the casino licences?”
“You feel gambling should be unlicensed and unrestricted?” Dr Bee asked. “More homes on the market? Why not?”
Henry emerged from his introspective gloom. The view across Hyde Park was relaxing him. Looking down on the canopy of trees. The sense of being above it all. Like laughing gas, Pawley described it.
“She also suggested I should become a marriage celebrant.”
Dr Bee licked his lips.
“That sounds more like it,” he said. “What does it involve. Do you get droit de seigneur?”
He dug into his moschári stifádo with relish.
“You’d have to perform gay marriages,” said Pawley. “Not sure you’d want it.”
“I would refuse.” said Dr Bee. “Against my religion. Leviticus xx 13.”
“Announce that in public and you’ll be in jail,” Henry warned him.
“And there’ll be lots of droit de seigneur going on in there in the showers,” said Pawley, averting his eyes from Dr Bee’s dead calf and focussing on his own vegetarian stuffed tomatoes. Henry had chosen moussaka.
“She wanted me to draw up a programme of suitable poetry to read at weddings.”
“Epithalamia,” said Dr Bee. The Hellenic ambience.
“More like verses for greetings cards,” said Henry. “She wants to sell the cards and commission new poems.”
“Give it a go,” said Pawley.
“Certainly not,” said Henry. “Anyway, I don’t write poems.”
“You will,” said Dr Bee.
“What’s all this about, anyway?” Pawley asked. “Why does she want to do all this?”
“Money,” said Henry.
Pawley raised his glass to the light and looked at it reflectively. Sun rays sparkled on it like morning in the Mediterranean in an earlier civilisation. The music of Theodorakis spread across the tables.
“Why this obsession with money?” Pawley asked.
They looked at him in bemusement.
“You prefer to pay the bill with cowrie shells?” Dr Bee asked. “All that beachcombing has gone to your head.”
“I mean the Centre. Why should it have to make money?”
“To reduce our dependence on government grants,” said Henry. “When it began it was one hundred per cent funded. Now we’ve got that down to forty per cent.”
“And is that good?”
“I would have thought so.”
“Yes, why?” Pawley persisted. “Why does everything have to make money? Why is that the only criterion? What about service? What about utilities? Why should the telephone company and the water supplier and the national airline have to be profit making? Even William Randolph Hearst believed public utilities should be kept out of the hands of the robber barons.
“It’s all drug money,” he elaborated. “That’s what the monetarist revolution was all about. All this drug money was swirling around with nowhere to invest. The chemical companies had already monopolised seeds. The supermarkets were already run by a handful of chains. Same with the media. Same with the motor industry and the aviation industry. It was all at the merger and takeover monopoly stage. No room for any new players. So they decided to privatise airlines and railways and telecommunications and water and transport and heavy industry to give the drug money bankers somewhere to invest their profits so they could make even more money.”
“But you’re in favour of drugs,” said Dr Bee.
The waiter replaced Theodorakis with rebetika.
“Certainly am,” said Pawley. “Legalise everything. Grow your own. Cut out big business and usurers and other criminal elements. It would reduce the price and reduce crime. It would reduce the exorbitant profits, too, of course, which is why it isn’t going to happen right now.”
“It’s just the way things are,” said Henry.
“The way things have become.”
“Which is the way they are,” said Dr Bee.
“They don’t have to stay that way,” said Pawley.
“Perhaps,” said Henry. “In the meantime while we await your revolution, we have to raise revenue to keep the Centre going.”
“Maybe,” said Pawley.
“Without a doubt.”
“Well, go for cigarette machines,” said Pawley.
“You know, those things you put money in a slot and pull a lever and they dispense cigarettes, what do they call them?”
“Cigarette machines,” said Dr Bee.
“Not a hope,” said Henry.
“You already tried?”
“I suggested it because the committee members were always running out of smokes. She said the members would object. The anti-smoking lobby.”
“Even if the committee approved?” said Pawley. “More infringement of civil liberties by the nanny state. Where is freedom of choice?”
“I thought you were a man of the left. Now you sound like a market economist,” said Dr Bee.
“You know for the cover of Sam Samson’s collected poems, they whited out the cigarette he was smoking from the portrait they used? Same with Tom and Jerry cartoons. They’ve been going through them and removing all the cigarettes. It’s like re-writing Shakespeare.”
“Shakespeare!” said Dr Bee.
“You survived your own heart attack but you’re quite happy to encourage others to kill themselves, is that it?” Henry asked.
Dr Bee suggested if not cigarette machines, why not condom machines?
“All that young flesh waiting to write. Awaiting the touch of the master.”
“What young flesh? It’s mainly pensioners.”
“We pensioners have our needs and desires,” said Dr Bee.
“And what touch?” Henry went on. “Can’t feel anything with condoms.”
“You would prohibit them on aesthetic grounds? Lack of tactility?”
“I’m not prohibiting them,” said Henry.
“How about funerals?” Dr Bee asked.
“Funerals?” said Henry.
“If you hire the place out for weddings, why not funerals?”
“Equal opportunity,” Pawley agreed.
“Marriages go in and out of fashion, but the market for funerals is constant.”
“It’s growing,” said Pawley, “now all the baby-boomers have reached retirement age.”
“There is a difference between retirement and death,” said Henry.
“Not a lot,” said Pawley.
“A Garden of Remembrance,” said Dr Bee. “A little plot of consecrated ground beside the Centre. Or unconsecrated if you prefer. Where you could scatter the ashes of deceased writers. Or place them in urns. I see urns. Urn burial. Funerary reliques.”
He gestured at the amphora beside the bar.
“I don’t know,” said Henry, looking away from it.
“If not a Garden of Remembrance, how about one of Sweet Forgetfulness? Perhaps preferable for certain of our national treasures. Your dearest and closest contemporaries. Tuscan Bayes. Francesca Templar. Scobie Spruce.”
“Sweet and Sour Forgetfulness, perhaps,” said Dr Bee. “More appropriate for the ambivalence one feels towards the dead. And a gesture towards our Asian neighbours.”
“It could be a money-spinner,” said Pawley. “We could draw up an order of service. Not quite a state funeral. But you could make something of it. Offer different plans, range of prices. You could provide epitaphs. Elegies. You could write and publish collections of suitable epitaphs for inscriptions. Have a couple of engravers on call. Stone-masons, too.”
Henry was reduced to silence.
“You look ashen,” said Dr Bee.
“Ready for the urn,” said Pawley.
The waiter came over to deliver his formal obsequies.
“Everything all right, sir? More wine?”
After that the ideas flowed fast and thick. Condom free, as Dr Bee explained, in deference to Henry.
“There’s always gambling,” said Dr Bee.
“A casino licence?” Pawley asked. “Or were you thinking more along the lines of a two-up game?”
“A bridge team.”
“Daily poker sessions.”
“Like a Red Indian reservation,” said Dr Bee. “Or you could have a wine club. Discount price for members. Henry’s patronage alone should be sufficient to get it off the ground.”
“Conspicuous consumption,” Pawley agreed.
“The possibilities are endless,” Dr Bee enthused. Enthusiasm was so rarely come by these latter days. He called the waiter over and ordered baklava and Greek coffee and brandies all round. Pawley asked for ouzo.
“Cheer you up,” he explained to Henry. “It’s this talk of mortality. It casts a pall.”
“I am not depressed,” said Henry.
“You are, but you don’t realise it,” said Dr Bee.
“False consciousness,” said Pawley with satisfaction. There was a use for the old terminology still. One day the revolution would return. And the urns would fly open. The ashes reassemble themselves into reborn activists. From the round earth’s imagined corners come. Rapture! He drank to it.