Old Man Failing

A new short story

Allan Massie


He had always felt good in the morning. It had been his time of day, no matter how much he had drunk the night before. Back then he made himself a cup of coffee, unlatched the kitchen door, and with Raq the spaniel darting about in the bushes walked through the dewy grass to the pond and his heart lifted with the ducks that flew from his approach. Some mornings he took a shotgun with him but he never fired it. He thought of it as a companion like the dog. In the cold hour after dawn he believed in God. He liked the world without humanity when the sun began to peer through the mist. Then he would return to the house and his study and work for two hours till the household came to life.

That was when it was good and it was a long time ago now. He had conversations with himself and nobody else and they were the same things over and over again. When they’ve put you away there, nobody ever trusts you again, you’re diminished. You poor old boy, he would say, and despised himself.

Some days he went and sat by his wife’s grave. It was a sort of penitence. There had been a time when he was proud to have put her through hell; she deserved it, he would say.

Now she’s having her revenge, he thought.It was better by the dog’s grave. He had been a difficult dog, with a streak of meanness. He missed him a lot. He missed him more than he missed his wife.

It was two months since they had allowed him home and when he got to the cottage he found they had taken his gun away.

“Will you be all right on your own?” his son said.

 If he’d said, “No”?

He hadn’t. He’d nodded, said nothing really till Andrew drove away, and then he spoke a bit to himself. 

A lot of post had accumulated. He tipped it into a drawer. There were Jiffy bags from publishers hoping, he supposed, for puffs for books. The hell with them. He couldn’t read anything anyway.

There was a sheet of paper in his old Olivetti manual. Across the river and into the trees, last words of Stonewall Jackson. How come he’d written that? Had he intended to go on, write about Hemingway? Well, he hadn’t. Evidently. Had found nothing to say. Fine yourself for any echo of Hemingway, an editor had once told him, go fuck yourself, he had thought; he remembered that, and waited for days to drift by him. 

Now it was another afternoon, late autumn turning to winter, just short of twilight.

A tap on the window-pane. He looked up and saw a girl. He shook his head. She tapped again. He recognised her as his granddaughter, Katie, went through the house and opened the door to admit her.

“I thought you were your grandmother,” he said.

She leant forward and kissed him on the cheek.

“You don’t look so bad,” she said.

“My face has always been a liar.”

She turned and gestured to the car. A young man got out. He wore a thick polo-neck flecked jersey and green corduroy trousers as if he had stepped out of a dead decade.

“That’s Johnny,” she said. “He wants to meet you. He was excited when he discovered I was your granddaughter.”

“The man he wanted to meet died a long time ago,” he said. “Tell him to go away.”

“Stop play-acting,” she said, and went to bring her friend in.

“His name’s Johnny,” she said again. “I’ll make some tea.”

The old man sat in his leather armchair and put his hand down to pat the dog that was dead and buried. The boy was slightly-built with Mediterranean-brown eyes. It was the chunky jersey that made him look stocky. He didn’t know what to do with himself now he was here. The old man didn’t help him. The boy tried to smile.

“I hope we’re not interrupting you.”

“Interrupting me?”

“Your work, I mean.”

It wasn’t worth a reply, but he said,

“My work’s finished.”

He took out his tobacco pouch and began to fill a pipe. The boy looked beyond him, over his shoulder, out into the ruined garden. Katie came back with three mugs on a tray. He put a match to the pipe.

“Sit down, Johnny,” she said. “You’re making us nervous. You don’t seem to have got very far.”

“I don’t know how to begin.”

“You’re useless,” she said. “All right then. Johnny’s at uni with me. He wants to interview you. He edits an online magazine.”

“I’ve been interviewed too often. The questions were always stupid. I’ve nothing left to say.”

“I can’t believe that,” the boy said, and added “Sir”, as if once again he belonged to a time that was long buried.

“Drink your tea,” Katie said. “If you’ve got nothing to do you might as well give Johnny his interview. It means a lot to him and can’t hurt you.”

“You speak like your grandmother too,” he said. “She was always critical of my manners.”

He drew on his pipe.

“They didn’t allow me to smoke where they put me,” he said. “Are you lovers? Or what do they call it now? Partners, isn’t it?”

“Whatever,” she said. “Now it’s your turn, Johnny.”

The boy hesitated still. He looked too young for her. He looked too young for anyone or anything. He took a swallow of tea, as if to nerve himself.

“I’ve just finished Next Year in Jerusalem,” he said. “It’s marvellous. It’s the second time I’ve read it. It’s a masterpiece. Do you feel neglected?””Forty years ago, near forty. Nothing to do with me now.”


“There’s no ‘but’,” he said. “No ‘but’ at all. You write something. Maybe you think it’s good. So you’re happy. For a little. It’s published and it no longer belongs to you.”

“It was criticised, even attacked, as anti-Semitic, wasn’t it? Did that hurt you? Anger you?”

“It meant nothing to me,” he said, and wondered if that was a lie. “Maybe it was before its time. It’s quite the thing to be critical of Israel now. Or so I understand. Aren’t all you young people that?”

“I read somewhere that it was that novel which prevented you from getting the Nobel. Because you had your Nazi say when he was condemned to death that he admired the Israelis for their creation of a national socialist state.”

The old man felt a stirring of interest. There had been a time when he delighted in controversy and argument.

“It was my character speaking, not me,” he said. “Bad readers make that mistake and base their reviews on their own stupidity. I was never in line for the Nobel anyway. Only fools could have thought I was.”

“Many of your admirers put your name forward.”

“Many of my admirers were fools.”

“Do you think most people are fools?”

“Of course. I don’t make an exception of myself. I’ve made a mess of my life.”

Johnny asked him about other novels. He knew them well enough for the questions to be almost intelligent, but his replies were laconic. They must disappoint him. Good lesson for life. Yet he felt almost apologetic. He was evidently a nice boy and he liked the way they exchanged looks. Katie put her hand on the boy’s thigh. To encourage him to go on?

“Katie,” the old man said, “there’s a bottle of whisky in the kitchen press. Three glasses and a jug of water…”

When she went off obediently, without so much as a questioning look, he said to the boy, “A drink might help us all.”

He liked the way Katie had acted. She would know, would have been told, of his troubles with booze that had brought him so close to destroying everything. It was only since he had come back that he had decided to break his twelve-year-long habit of abstinence. It was a week since he had bought the bottle in the village shop and he had played every day with the thought of it lying in wait for him.

“Bell’s,” he said, “a good old-fashioned blend. Only snobs drink malts. Give us each a good measure, half a tumbler and top mine up with water.”

Once again she obeyed, without questioning, without even the suspicious look he remembered of old. Not her look, that is, her grandmother’s. A madeleine moment, he  thought but didn’t say, filling his mouth with the old taste. The boy said, “Are you at work on something now?”

There was that sentence on the typewriter. Stonewall Jackson’s last words, Hem’s title for the novel the old man liked best of his which all the critics had panned. Some had found it embarrassing. Jackson had been shot in the back. By one of his own men. Accident? Or? The old man preferred the “or”. When he typed the words, had he been starting something? Or was it his suicide note?  He couldn’t tell. That day and the days before had been wiped out of his memory.

“I found a sentence on my typewriter when I came home,” he said, “but I doubt if it could be called work.”

“You stopped publishing ten years ago.”

Statement in search of an answer.

“It left me,” he said, “or I got left behind. I don’t rightly remember.”

He wasn’t playing for sympathy. He really didn’t remember. But there had — he knew this — been a marked lack of enthusiasm from his editor when he delivered the last typescript and from the publicity department when finished copies appeared. Sales had been lousy.

“I’d had my day in the sun,” he said, “or what passes for sun in these sad islands.”

The whisky was doing well. He lit his pipe again. An owl hooted from the Duke’s woods. It was the old duke had given him the cottage, pleased to offer patronage to a literary man, though he had never read any of his books. They used to go fishing together and eat pheasant sandwiches and drink brown sherry in the hut.

The boy said, “How do you start a novel? I’m sorry, that must seem a foolish question, naïve. But I would really like to know.”

It wasn’t stupid.

“There’s no one answer,” he said. “Sometimes a phrase, sometimes an image or a character, sometimes a what if? Old Pritchett used to watch two people in a bar and ask himself, what does she see in him? You never know if you can go on of course, not till you’ve done so.”

“So you don’t know where you’re going?”

“I once asked Saul Bellow about that, when I was young. He said it was helpful to have some signposts. Maybe it is. In his own novels he missed a lot of them or they were pointing the wrong way. But then he was really an essayist.”

“What was that sentence you found on your typewriter?”

The boy was gaining confidence and the old man hesitated.

“Pass the bottle, Katie. ‘Across the river and into the trees’, Stonewall Jackson’s last words. I’ve often wondered what he meant. We cross the river and into the dark woods…”

“And Hemingway,” the boy said.

“Great writer, lousy man. Like a lot of us.”

“You’re too hard on yourself, Sir.”

“Not your grandmother’s opinion, Katie.”

The whisky was mellowing him. He felt it. A mistake to have deprived himself of it.

“When I was young, your age,” he said, unprompted, “I believed that if I wrote one really good book, with sentences that rang true, I would have justified myself. You  think that way when you’re young. Maybe you should think that way then. I don’t know.”

It was true. He had believed that and made a wasteland of his life in consequence.

“It’s like a marriage, starting a novel,” he said, “you don’t know how it’s going to turn out.”

Of course he shouldn’t have married her. She shouldn’t have married him. But that’s how it had been…across the river and into the trees. Without her he would have been less. Without him she would have been more. He knew that now. Too late.

Their quarrels had been icy. She used to say, your imaginary characters matter more to you than I do, there was that girl who never existed you fell in love with in that Jerusalem novel. Did I? he wondered. He had brought her, the Jerusalem girl, to a bad end, sad end, too.

“I’m tired,” he said. “Bedtime. You’ll stay the night, not drive after whisky. Nobody’s slept in the spare room for years. You’d better find hot-water bottles, Katie.”

He staggered, just a moment, as he got to his feet.  The whisky, nothing else. “There’s the owl again,” he said, “deep in the woods.”

In bed himself, he thought of them making love. When had he last done that, except in books? He turned over to let his weight lie on his heart.

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