Next in the continuing series of kill-your-darling sections painfully taken out of Wrestliana. The following really hurt. This was written to illustrate the split between intellectual and physical labour. (It’s meant to be very awkward.)
The symbolic moment for me, and I knew it was this at the time, came during the summer of 1986. I had got into Oxford to read English; the college had sent me a ten page reading list. I was expected to cover most of it before I ‘went up’ in September. Averaging it out, I needed to read three or four novels a week – and I am a slow, minute-a-page, words-aloud-in-my-head, reader. Three or four novels each seven days, but it was the Victorians, so whoppers by George Eliot and Dickens, so Middlemarch plus Bleak House plus…
My family went on holiday that summer, and I had the fantastic experience of reading The Mill on the Floss in a cottage almost at water level on the river Dart. I also had a summer job, clearing tables and washing up, at Toddington Service Station (Northbound). But I spent much of that August and September in my bedroom, trying to speed read.
This particular day, my father knew I would be in, and he had arranged a coal delivery to our house. There still existed a glass trapdoor on the street, covering a shoot down which coal had once been poured, but it was sealed now, so burglars wouldn’t get in and rob us. There was a lot of concern about burglars robbing us, probably because our house contained a quarter of a million pound’s worth of antiques. (My father was an antique dealer, and I have his insurance valuation.)
Because the shoot was sealed, the half ton needed to be carried in through the front door, along the hall, left, right, then down beneath the stairs into the cellar.
I was reading and making notes on what I was reading when the knock on the front door came.
I showed the coal delivery man where the coal went. He fetched thick matting from the lorry and rolled it in sections on our Persian carpet, then began to carry in rough sackful after rough sackful.
He was a predictably solid man with a leather brace around his practical stomach. I snatched glances at him as he went past, above the words. His skin wasn’t filthy but he was grimy in a way we weren’t used to seeing in late twentieth century England. He was Victorian novel grimy – like a miner from Hard Times twenty minutes into his shift.
Third rough sackful, fourth. His breathing, steady. Of course, I couldn’t help him, that would have been ludicrous, but I also couldn’t go back up to my bedroom. And so, for about fifteen symbolic minutes, I sat at the Regency circular large breakfast table (£6,500) on one of the Set of 6 mahogany shield back chairs (£3,200), looked down on by the print that replaced the family portrait, opposite the bookshelf containing Wrestliana, and read – while the coal delivery man walked to and fro, hither and yon, tick and tock, weighed down by a full grey sack or lightened by an empty one.
Middle class always, I’d offered him a cup of tea, which he’d refused. That out of the way, my job – given me by my father – was to make sure no-one nipped through the front door and nicked anything. Pair Regency bronze and ormolu candelabra (£2,800). Tortoiseshell and mother of pearl caddy (£500).
As I sat there, I became very aware that I had fallen into rhythm with the delivery man. For every trip he made from the lorry to the cellar, I read a page. I stopped making marginal notes. (I couldn’t concentrate; the situation was too appallingly symbolic.) And I began to feel guilty, and wanted to say something to the man. ‘Look, I am working, too – it’s just a different kind of work to yours.’ The coal delivery man, as he went past, was massively impassive. He must long before have got used to the things people did whilst he was in and out of their lives and front doors. What I was up to, in sitting there seemingly ignoring him, was probably better than the friendly sorts who tried to maintain a conversation – like an tennis umpire speaking to the ball in play.
As far as I remember, he didn’t get out of breath. And he said nothing, passed no comment on the book I was reading, or the fact I was reading whilst he did hard physical labour. There were about twelve or thirteen steps down into the cellar, and the staircase at the top had a tight left turn.
The longer the delivery went on, the more I wanted to defend myself – to make the case that making notes on two hundred and fifty words of Dickens wasn’t worthless or lazy. At the same time, I imagined him stopping to give me a proud working class speech on the value of education and self-improvement. Or even, him casually saying that he reread all of Dickens’ work every year, and how did I think this one compared with, say, Bleak House? I also imagined him, hostile, telling his friends in the pub, that evening, ‘and the lazy little fucking fucker just sat there the whole time, reading a fucking book.’ He would be in the pub, that would make it worse. He would swear, that would make it terrible. I would never know, and would never be offered the chance to defend myself by telling him that I respected what he did, and didn’t see it as in any way lesser to what I was doing. But ‘lesser to what I was doing’! – even my syntax is condescending. ‘Syntax’.
By the fifteenth sack, I had become too distracted by the imagined scenes in my head to do anything more than pretend to read.
My father had left me some cash with which to tip the coal delivery man. After he had taken down the last full load, returned with the empty sack and was rolling up the carpet protectors, I got it out of my jeans pocket and stood there with it in my hand. ‘I’m not just reading all the time,’ I wanted to say. ‘I have a summer job in a service station. I clear tables.’ But instead I said, ‘Thank you very much,’ and handed over the cash.
The coal delivery man was standing on the doorstep – having completed his job cleanly, not wishing now to bring his black dust over the threshold.
I wanted him to leave; I knew, even then, that I would one day write about us.
His day’s work would long be done; mine would be starting.