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Piranha to Scurfy: And Other Storiesby Ruth Rendell
It was the first time he had been away on holiday without Mummy. The first time in his life. They had always gone to the Isle of Wight, to Ventnor or Totland Bay, so, going alone, he had chosen Cornwall for the change that people say is as good as a rest. Not that Ribbon's week in Cornwall had been entirely leisure. He had taken four books with him, read them carefully in the B and B's lounge, in his bedroom, on the beach, and sitting on the clifftop, and made meticulous notes in the looseleaf notebook he had bought in a shop in Newquay. The results had been satisfactory, more than satisfactory. Allowing for the anger and disgust making these discoveries invariably aroused, he felt he could say he had had a relaxing time. To use a horrible phrase much favored by Eric Owlberg in his literary output, he had recharged his batteries.
Coming home to an empty house would be an ordeal. He had known it would be, and it was. Instead of going out into the garden, he gave it careful scrutiny from the dining room window. Everything outside and indoors was as he had left it. The house was as he had left it, all the books in their places. Every room contained books. Ribbon was not one to make jokes, but he considered it witty to remark that while other people's walls were papered, his were booked. No one knew what he meant, for hardly anyone except himself ever entered 21 Grove Green Avenue, Leytonstone, and those to whom he uttered his little joke smiled uneasily. He had put up the shelves himself, buying them from Ikea. As they filled he bought more, adding to those already there until the shelves extended from floor to ceiling. A strange appearance was given to the house by this superfluity of books, as the shelves necessarily reduced the size of the rooms, so that the living room, originally fifteen feet by twelve, shrank to thirteen feet by ten. The hall and landing were "booked" as densely as the rooms. The place looked like a library, but one mysteriously divided into small sections. His windows appeared as alcoves set deep in the walls, affording a view at the front of the house of a rather gloomy suburban street, thickly treed. The back gave onto the yellow-brick rears of other houses and, in the foreground, his garden, which was mostly lawn, dotted about with various drab shrubs. At the far end was a wide flower bed the sun never reached and in which grew creeping ivies and dark-leaved flowerless plants that like the shade.
He had got over expecting Mummy to come downstairs or walk into a room. She had been gone four months now. He sighed, for he was a long way from recovering from his loss and his regrets. Work was in some ways easier without her and in others immeasurably harder. She had reassured him; sometimes she had made him strong. But he had to press on—there was really no choice. Tomorrow things would be back to normal.
He began by ranging before him on the desk in the study—though was not the whole house a study?—the book-review pages from the newspapers that had arrived while he was away. As he had expected, Owlberg's latest novel, Paving Hell, appeared this very day in paperback, one year after hardcover publication. It was priced at £6.99 and by now would be in all the shops. Ribbon made a memo about it on one of the plain cards he kept for this purpose. But before continuing he let his eyes rest on the portrait of Mummy in the plain silver frame that stood on the table where used, read, and dissected books had their temporary home. It was Mummy who had first drawn his attention to Owlberg. She had borrowed one of his books from the public library and pointed out to Ribbon with indignation the mass of errors, solecisms, and abuse of the English language to be found in its pages. How he missed her! Wasn't it principally to her that he owed his choice of career, as well as the acumen and confidence to pursue it?
He sighed anew. Then he returned to his newspapers and noted down the titles of four more novels currently published in paperback, as well as the new Kingston Marle, Demogorgon, due to appear this coming Thursday in hardcover with the maximum hype and fanfares of metaphorical trumpets, but almost certainly already in the shops. A sign of the degeneracy of the times, Mummy had said, that a book whose publication was scheduled for May appeared on sale at the end of April. No one could wait these days; everyone was in a hurry. It certainly made his work harder. It increased the chances of his missing a vitally important novel that might have sold out before he knew it was in print.
Ribbon switched on his computer and checked that the printer was linked to it. It was only nine in the morning. He had at least an hour before he need make his trip to the bookshop. Where should it be today? Perhaps the City or the West End of London. It would be unwise to go back to his local shop so soon and attract too much attention to himself. Hatchard's, perhaps then, or Books Etc. or Dillon's, or even all three. He opened the notebook he had bought in Cornwall, reread what he had written, and with the paperback open on the desk, reached for the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, and Whittaker's Almanac. Referring to the first two and noting down his finds, he began his letter.
21 Grove Green Avenue London E11 4ZH
Dear Joy Anne Fortune,
I have read your new novel Dreadful Night with very little pleasure and great disappointment. Your previous work has seemed to me, while being without any literary merit whatsoever, at least to be fresh, occasionally original, and largely free from those errors of fact and slips in grammar that, I may say, characterize Dreadful Night.
Look first at page 24. Do you really believe "desiccated" has two s's and one c? And if you do, has your publisher no copy editor whose job it is to recognize and correct these errors? On page 82 you refer to the republic of Guinea as being in East Africa and as a former British possession, instead of being in West Africa and formerly French, and on page 103 to the late General Sikorski as a one-time prime minister of Czechoslovakia rather than of Poland. You describe, on page 139, "hadith" as being the Jewish prayers for the dead instead of what it correctly means, the body of tradition and legend surrounding the Prophet Muhammad and his followers, and on the following page "tabernacle" as an entrance to a temple. Its true meaning is a portable sanctuary in which the Ark of the Covenant was carried.
Need I go on? I am weary of underlining the multifarious mistakes in your book. Needless to say, I shall buy no more of your work and shall advise my highly literate and discerning friends to boycott it.
Yours sincerely, Ambrose Ribbon
The threat in the last paragraph was an empty one. Ribbon had no friends and could hardly say he missed having any. He was on excellent, at least speaking, terms with his neighbors and various managers of bookshops. There was a cousin in Gloucestershire he saw occasionally. Mummy had been his friend. There was no one he had ever met who could approach replacing her. He wished, as he did every day, she were back there beside him and able to read and appreciate his letter.
He addressed an envelope to Joy Anne Fortune care of her publisher (she was not one of "his" authors unwise enough to reply to him on headed writing paper), put the letter inside it, and sealed it up. Two more must be written before he left the house, one to Graham Prink pointing out mistakes in Dancing Partners, "lay" for "lie" in two instances and "may" for "might" in three, and the other to Jeanne Pettle to tell her that the plot and much of the dialogue in Southern Discomfort had been blatantly lifted from Gone With the Wind. He considered it the most flagrant plagiarism he had seen for a long while. In both he indicated how distasteful he found the authors' frequent use of obscenities, notably those words beginning with an f and a c, and the taking of the Deity's name in vain.
At five to ten Ribbon switched off the computer, took his letters, and closed the door behind him. Before going downstairs, he paid his second visit of the day to Mummy's room. He had been there for the first time since his return from Cornwall at seven the previous evening, again before he went to bed, and once more at seven this morning. While he was away his second greatest worry had been that something would be disturbed in there, an object removed or its position changed, for though he did his own housework, Glenys Next-door had a key and often in his absence, in her own words, "popped in to see that everything was okay."
But nothing was changed. Mummy's dressing table was exactly as she had left it, the two cut-glass scent bottles with silver stoppers set one on each side of the lace-edged mat, the silver-backed hairbrush on its glass tray alongside the hair tidy, and the pink pincushion. The wardrobe door he always left ajar so that her clothes could be seen inside, those dear garments, the afternoon dresses, the coats and skirts—Mummy had never possessed a pair of trousers—the warm winter coat, the neatly placed pairs of court shoes. Over the door, because he had seen this in an interiors magazine, he had hung, folded in two, the beautiful white and cream tapestry bedspread he had once given her but that she said was too good for daily use. On the bed lay the dear old one her own mother had worked, and on its spotless if worn bands of lace, her pink silk nightdress. He lingered, looking at it.
After a moment or two, he opened the window two inches at the top. It was a good idea to allow a little fresh air to circulate. He closed Mummy's door behind him and, carrying his letters, went downstairs. A busy day lay ahead. His tie straightened, one button only out of the three on his linen jacket done up, he set the burglar alarm. Eighteen fifty-two was the code, one eight five two, the date of the first edition of Roget's Thesaurus, a compendium Ribbon had found useful in his work. He opened the front door and closed it just as the alarm started braying. While he was waiting on the doorstep, his ear to the keyhole, for the alarm to cease until or unless an intruder set it off again, Glenys Next-door called out a cheery "Hiya!"
Ribbon hated this mode of address, but there was nothing he could do to stop it, any more than he could stop her calling him Amby. He smiled austerely and said good morning. Glenys Next-door—this was her own description of herself, first used when she moved into 23 Grove Green Avenue fifteen years before: "Hiya, I'm Glenys Next-door"—said it was the window cleaner's day and should she let him in.
"Why does he have to come in?" Ribbon said rather testily.
"It's his fortnight for doing the back, Amby. You know how he does the front on a Monday and the back on the Monday fortnight and inside and out on the last Monday in the month."
Like any professional with much on his mind, Ribbon found these domestic details almost unbearably irritating. Nor did he like the idea of a strange man left free to wander about his back garden. "Well, yes, I suppose so." He had never called Glenys Next-door by her given name and did not intend to begin. "You know the code, Mrs. Judd." It was appalling that she knew the code, but since Mummy had passed on and no one was in the house it was inevitable. "You do know the code, don't you?"
"Eight one five two."
"No, no, no." He must not lose his temper. Glancing up and down the street to make sure there was no one within earshot, he whispered, "One eight five two. You can remember that, can't you? I really don't want to write it down. You never know what happens to something once it has been put in writing."
Glenys Next-door had started to laugh. "You're a funny old fusspot you are, Amby. D'you know what I saw in your garden last night? A fox. How about that? In Leytonstone."
"Really?" Foxes dig, he thought.
"They're taking refuge, you see. Escaping the hunters. Cruel, isn't it? Are you off to work?"
"Yes and I'm late," Ribbon said, hurrying off. "Old fusspot" indeed. He was a good ten years younger than she.
Glenys Next-door had no idea what he did for a living, and he intended to keep her in ignorance. "Something in the media, is it?" she had once said to Mummy. Of course, "for a living" was not strictly true, implying as it did that he was paid for his work. That he was not was hardly for want of trying. He had written to twenty major publishing houses, pointing out to them that by what he did, uncovering errors in their authors' works and showing them to be unworthy of publication, he was potentially saving the publishers hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. The least they could do was offer him some emolument. He wrote to four national newspapers as well, asking for his work to receive publicity in their pages, and to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, in the hope of recognition of the service he performed. A change in the law was what he wanted, providing something for him in the nature of the public lending right (he was vague about this) or the value-added tax. None of them replied, with the exception of the department, which sent a card saying that his communication had been noted—not signed by the secretary of state, though, but by some underling with an indecipherable signature.
It was the principle of the thing, not that he was in need of money. Thanks to Daddy, who, dying young, had left all the income from his royalties to Mummy and thus, of course, to him. No great sum but enough to live on if one was frugal and managing as he was. Daddy had written three textbooks before death came for him at the heartbreaking age of forty-one, and all were still in demand for use in business schools. Ribbon, because he could not help himself, in great secrecy and far from Mummy's sight, had gone through those books after his usual fashion, looking for errors. The compulsion to do this was irresistible, though he had tried to resist it, fighting against the need, conscious of the disloyalty, but finally succumbing, as another man might ultimately yield to some ludicrous autoeroticism. Alone, in the night, his bedroom door locked, he had perused Daddy's books and found—nothing.
The search was the most shameful thing he had ever done. And this not only on account of the distrust in Daddy's expertise and acumen that it implied, but also because he had to confess to himself that he did not understand what he read and would not have known a mistake if he had seen one. He had put Daddy's books away in a cupboard after that and, strangely enough, Mummy had never commented on their absence. Perhaps, her eyesight failing, she hadn't noticed.
Ribbon walked to Leytonstone tube station and sat on the seat to wait for a train. He had decided to change at Holborn and take the Piccadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus. From there it was only a short walk to Dillon's and a further few steps to Hatchard's. He acknowledged that Hatchard's was the better shop, but Dillon's guaranteed a greater anonymity to its patrons. Its assistants seemed indifferent to the activities of customers, ignoring their presence most of the time and not apparently noticing whether they stayed five minutes or half an hour. Ribbon liked that. He liked to describe himself as reserved, a private man, one who minded his own business and lived quietly. Others, in his view, would do well to be the same. As far as he was concerned, a shop assistant was there to take your money, give you your change, and say thank you. The displacement of the High Street or corner shop by vast impersonal supermarkets was one of few modern innovations he could heartily approve.
The train came. It was three-quarters empty, as was usual at this hour. He had read in the paper that London Transport was thinking of introducing Ladies Only carriages in the tube. Why not Men Only carriages as well? Preferably, when you considered what some young men were like, Middle-aged Scholarly Gentlemen Only carriages. The train stopped for a long time in the tunnel between Mile End and Bethnal Green. Naturally, passengers were offered no explanation for the delay. He waited a long time for the Piccadilly Line train, apparently because of some signaling failure outside Cockfosters, but eventually arrived at his destination just before eleven-thirty.
From the Hardcover edition.
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