BLACKBURN BOOKS FICTION
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for LOVE or MONEY?
a novel of love and intrigue
by Graham Blackburn

CHAPTER ONE

Derek the Bored
The Motive


SHE FIDGETED, MOVING HER WEIGHT FROM ONE STILETTO HEEL TO the other. Certain well-developed portions of her otherwise diminutive body threatened to burst their tightly tailored confines as she gave vent to discreet but exasperated little sighs. Finally she tsked impatiently. As he looked up she braced herself for another of his withering remarks — but he was smiling broadly. Unnerved by this unexpected reaction, she simply pointed at the envelope and said: “The messenger’s still waiting for a signature for this. Shall I sign for you?”

It had begun. Or at least Derek’s part in it had begun. In fact, as we shall see later, his part might well be said to have begun a long time before, although Derek himself had at this moment no idea that this had been the case. And had the envelope not found him nothing would have begun at all — at least as far as Derek was concerned. Attempting to define the beginning is therefore a little tricky. So let’s just jump in here and now and establish a few basic facts

First of all, it’s Tuesday and we’re in London — or at least we are when the action commences. Later, as you’ll see, we nip about a bit. There are digressions to Wales, trips to New York, interludes in various salubrious and not so salubrious parts of old Albion, and even some time spent in other parts of Europe, which the Brits (or at least those Brits sufficiently certain of their natural superiority not to be worried by any accusations of political incorrectness, and who, therefore, do not wish to be thought of as having anything to do with Frogs, Wogs, and Krauts, or any other unmentionable foreigners) make a point of referring to as ‘the Continent’: a very separate place. But to start with, we’re bang slap in the middle of jolly old London town, not too far from Piccadilly Circus, the very spot regarded by many of that singularly insular race as the divine navel, or at least the centre, of the known world.

Secondly, our handsome hero, Derek Davis — for whose pitifully non-U(pper Class) name I make no apologies — is a thorough-going Limey, Brit, Tommy, or whatever you or others of the above maligned groups may want to call him. He is of good, upper Upper-Working Class antecedents, provenance, parentage, and upbringing (or lower Lower-Middle Class antecedents, provenance, parentage, and upbringing — depending on the niceness with which you wish to classify him, and assuming, of course, that you are actually in a position to classify him with anything approaching the niceness of classification commonly practised in their inimical way by the aforementioned Brits, Limeys, or Tommies). I mention this because class prejudice has a lot to do with the way things develop in this tale, and while some of the underlying motivation may remain obscure without a lengthy examination of the complicated sociological history that has produced such a stultifying system in that otherwise sceptered isle, it is well to be aware that many of the characters you are about to meet are to varying degrees unavoidably driven by these most unrepublican forces.

The time, as near as we need to know it at the moment, is the mid-seventies. The United States is embroiled in various international fiascos, attempting to displace regimes, unseat presidencies, and generally control an assumed Communist menace. In England, other equally questionable events are afoot, but none of these is as important to us (at least to start with — and it’s the start that we’re concerned with here) as what’s happening at a certain publishing house where Derek, in a position of minor authority, is employed for a monthly salary. The amount is hardly generous but, as Derek frequently consoles himself, it’s better than working for a weekly wage.
Derek has done well at school and so far overcome the insidious effects of the class-system as to have secured himself a fairly U position in a definitely U profession. That he has done this by a certain sleight of hand, and not as completely successfully as would at first glance seem to be the case, will be made clear as we go along. But suffice it to say for the moment — until we all become more familiar with the way the class-system works (presently, it must be admitted, more byzantinely than formerly as a result of the more democratic principles supposedly obtaining since the end of World War Two, and the ever-increasing influx of foreigners largely oblivious of and impervious to said system) — that he has done so by taking full advantage of the reputed liberalism of that profession long known for its suspect relationship with the Artistic Sphere.

The particular firm that Derek works for is known, as indeed it has been for the entire two hundred and thirty years of its existence, all of them in family hands, as Wallthorp and Johnson (never abbreviate the ‘and’, if you please). It is a Good Old Publishing House, and while most Good Old Publishing Houses are run by good old U-type boys with plummy accents and the requisite family background, all of whose ancestors were on chummy speaking-terms with many famous U-type authors such as Sir Walter Scott, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Wallthorp and Johnson is occasionally regarded by other Good Old Publishing Houses somewhat, just somewhat, askance. This is because there is an undeniable connexion with something not quite U about many of its authors. This is a little unfair, of course, since literature in general, once you get away from the Miltons and the Shakespeares, now undeniably respectable as evidenced by their larger yawn-ratings among the populace at large, certainly among the boorish U echelons themselves, is frequently all regarded as rather suspect by certain U authorities. There are simply too many people carrying on too far beyond the pale. Scribblers such as James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller, to mention just three characters who have had a decidedly questionable effect on the propriety of the whole business…er, profession.

While it is true that this very raciness has an appeal in some quarters, even, it is regrettably to be admitted, in some U quarters, it is also considered to be the reason why many of the servants of the profession are said often to be drawn from less than impeccable circles. To wit, our Derek. The publishing profession affords them ingress and access in a way that would be totally unthinkable in better-regulated professions. The law, for example. It would do the likes of Derek Davis no good to wave around their educational certificates, much less their æsthetic sensitivities, in the faces of the powers that control the venerable and highly respected Inns of Court, should they take it into their impudent and upstart non-U heads to attempt to penetrate that bastion of U-dom.

Anyway, we’re slipping away somewhat from the point, which was to establish a few basic ‘whens’, ‘wheres’, ‘whos’, and ‘whys’ of our story. Interesting details belong later. To recap: the ‘when’ is in the mid-nineteen-seventies; the ‘where’ is London, specifically the premises of Wallthorp and Johnson; the ‘who’ concerns (to start with) our hero the suave Derek. This leaves but the ‘why’. Before we can get going we have to mention the basic ‘why’. In one sense, of course, this is the story, and will become self-evident as we go along, but it will help if we understand exactly where the ‘why’ comes from.

The ‘why’ manifests itself at first in the form of something unusual in the daily round of commonplace and unremarkable. It is perhaps best described as an imbalance. An imbalance that provides, indeed provokes, the motion, the slippage, the motivation and motive force for the whole shebang, and without which there would be no story. This potent disequilibrium in Derek’s immediate world, this perturbation in an otherwise admirably balanced if tedious universe, is made possible only because of the boredom and frustration currently experienced by our winsome hero who longs to improve himself, to count for something, to do something meaningful; in fine, to make sense of it all. It is nothing grand like lust or an appetite for power or overweening pride. Just plain, common or garden boredom that has prepared the ground so well.

Many people, particularly many of Derek’s erstwhile schoolmates, for example, regard boredom as a weakness and a particularly shameful vice; a luxury denied to less advantaged mortals. They should be so fortunate to have such problems! But Derek felt he had worked hard enough to deserve it. While he was keeping a sharp eye out for ways to by-pass the vast sea of boredom in which he found himself as our story begins, he was also fast becoming a master, a connoisseur, a prize-winning practitioner of this self-indulgent vice. The curious thing is that the more adept he became at giving in to and participating in the wicked habit, the more vulnerable he was becoming to any sudden upset. He was, so to speak, far out on the rim of a vast disk of boredom. At a point where the slightest wobble would cause an instant spill. Which is precisely what happened on Tuesday — remember, I mentioned it was Tuesday?

This particular perturbation was indeed just a tiny wobble at first. No more than a legal size envelope left on his desk by his censorious and sanctimonious secretary, Angie Wagstern.

Now Derek disliked Angie so much he ignored as much of her and her doings as possible. He paid scant attention to her remarks, suggestions, and innuendos, and pretended to be blind to any little notes she might leave. But the envelope she deposited on his desk this particular Tuesday was large. Inordinately and unusually large. It bore, moreover, an impressive insignia. He did his bored best to overlook it for as long as he could, but proved ultimately unable to withstand its demanding presence. This capitulation marked the start of his involvement in our complicated story, for when he finally opened it the wobble assumed critical mass, and all boredom imploded. The news that the envelope contained overwhelmed and absorbed all available boredom instantly and completely, faster than a black hole sucking in light, and our hero found himself instantly operating from a different level of consciousness, an ultra-hyper alpha state of the mind. And what was this news that could so instantly effect such a fundamental sea change in Derek’s perspective on life? Couched in somewhat obtuse legalese, the gist of this overwhelming missive was as follows: If a certain someone — a someone he had never heard of — could not after exhaustive enquiries be found, he — Derek Davis, our tall, dark, and handsome hero — stood to inherit an astonishingly large sum of money.

*


Derek sat up very straight; refreshed, you might say. Tuesday was an especially good day to get this kind of news. It added interest at a point when the week seemed likely to stretch on forever. Mondays usually ground by relatively unnoticed as he went through the necessary motions at the office like an automaton, still painfully fogged with the residue of the weekend’s excesses, but by Tuesdays consciousness had returned. On Tuesdays he knew all too well that he was trapped for another week at Wallthorp and Johnson, prey to all the petty politicking and inter-office rivalries that threatened to provoke either resignation from the position he had worked so hard for or complete insanity. So far he had opted for the insanity. It wasn’t just that the rent had to be paid, he had Iris (our heroine, whom we’ll meet shortly) to think of. Iris might be his ticket out of this tedious rat-race leading to terminal ennui. If he could only keep Iris committed and believing in him there was a good chance that sooner or later when the old trout of a great-aunt who had brought her up and who still liked to think of herself as Iris’s guardian cashed in her chips they would be able to do something better. By which Derek meant having a chance at writing the best seller that would put him on the literary and financial map. In the meantime he needed to keep Iris convinced that he knew what he was doing, and that meant maintaining appearances as a promising editor at Wallthorp and Johnson (never abbreviate the ‘and’): booksellers and publishers to the trade since the heady days of John Baskerville and Horace Walpole.

The oblivion that he indulged in over the weekends generally wore off by Tuesdays. Tuesday was reality day. Face the music but try not to admit the hopelessness of his prospects. Even if he had been genuinely committed to a career in publishing, even if he had secretly seen himself as another boy wonder, discovering and developing a succession of literary geniuses in the best Maxwell Perkins tradition, Wallthorp and Johnson was hardly the place to indulge the fantasy. The firm was stuffy even by old-fashioned standards, and not since the days of Bulwer-Lytton or Alfred Lord Tennyson had anything remotely approaching popular acclaim disturbed this august house, even though its taste was sometimes disparaged by other, stuffier publishing houses. But so far his cover had remained relatively intact.

His secretary knew he was an impostor, and so did Toshoff, the mealy-mouthed, toadying, sci-fi editor who had ingratiated his way into the editorial department last year after having a disgustingly pretentious article entitled Science Fiction and Contemporary Angst published in the Lodestone Review. He had sent old Joseph Wallthorp, the geriatric head of the firm, a personal copy of the magazine with a note dedicating the article to: ‘One of the leading lights in contemporary publishing.’ Wallthorp was impressed, probably since few people had even spoken to him in the last twenty years, let alone dedicated anything to him, and he had favoured Toshoff with the editorship of a non-existent sci-fi department. Toshoff had immediately upgraded his rimless spectacles to the next largest size, making his owlish face even more owlish, and had taken to wearing jackets with leather elbow patches. The other members of the board had not dared to contradict Wallthorp but they had seen to it, and doubtlessly would continue to see to it, ever mindful of the pressure to maintain standards brought to bear on them by their very U counterparts in other firms, that nothing remotely resembling science fiction ever issued from the house of Wallthorp and Johnson (never abb. the ‘and’). Derek, of course, had not been able to disguise his contempt for Toshoff the upstart, Toshoff the conceited, self-styled émigré, who a scant three months before had been an incompetent mailing room assistant. Nor could he hide his glee at the impossible position Toshoff now found himself in. Impossible since any editor not achieving a minimum sales figure from the books he was responsible for in any given twelve-month period was doomed — even if it was impossible to give him the sack.

Toshoff naturally resented Derek’s gloating and spent much of his time, in lieu of editing or publishing anything, trying to undermine Derek’s reputation. So far he had not been too successful, but he had come to realize that there was a certain amount of insincerity about Derek’s commitment to the old firm. So much so that Derek was beginning to think it might be advisable to get Toshoff out before Toshoff got him out.

Everyone else in the thickly carpeted five story Georgian building that had been home on the square to Wallthorp and Johnson for somewhat more than two hundred years was still in the dark. Derek was considered a very serious young man, destined to go far. His crisp collars and tightly knotted silk ties seemed totally in sync with the traditions of the old firm. But Derek himself was becoming increasingly schizophrenic with the effort of maintaining the right appearances while trying to convince himself that inside he was still true to his own ideals.

Tuesdays were the crisis days. The battle was waged on Tuesdays. Tuesdays were when he fought the urge to chuck it all in. Wednesdays so far had been days of grim determination, followed by lessening resolve on Thursdays, and days of barely restrained impatience on Fridays when the temporary release of the weekends at last became palpable.

Last weekend had been especially releasing. He had gone to visit Harry Ashworth. Harry, six foot two with an unruly shock of badly barbered hair that hung down over the collar of a tweed jacket that had seen better days, was an old college drinking friend, who like Derek had importunately won his working class way into one of the country’s better universities. At the time everyone had been convinced that Harry would become the next poet laureate. But despite his vision his roots had overwhelmed him, and thoroughly disgusted with what he found at the top of the class heap he had taken refuge in sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Now he was running a boarding house for unwed mothers in Margate, and being paid for it by the state, the same state, he liked to remark, that had seen fit to award him a generous scholarship to a prestigious U-niversity but had failed to provide him with a membership card to the cl-U-b, so that in the end he was constrained to do the dirty work and help the ‘fallen’. The weekend’s rest-and-relaxation had been so releasing Derek had very nearly stayed, abandoning not only the hated job but Iris and her seemingly immortal aunt as well. In the end it had been Harry, in an unwonted access of conscience, who had put a barely ambulatory Derek on the train back to London on Monday morning. He had stumbled into work muttering about migraine but brushing aside any expressions of sympathy so that the result was a grudging admiration for his dedication to work rather than any condemnation for his presumed debauchery. Such are the rewards of the beautiful and the handsome, and our Derek was far from passing up any advantage however gratuitous.

Now it was Tuesday however, and the weekly battle had come within an ace of being definitively lost when the news had arrived in the form of a hand-delivered solicitor’s letter sent to him in care of Wallthorp and Johnson. His secretary, noticing the legal letterhead on the envelope, had brought it in and dropped it down on the desk in front of him with a smirk that said: ‘In trouble with the law now, are we?’ He had caught the look and was ready to believe his parking tickets or worse had finally caught up with him, but affected as much nonchalance as possible until he could no longer resist opening it. Quickly scanning the contents for some kind of threat or dunning debt warning, he saw the words ‘conditional inheritance’. Suddenly he forgot Angie Wagstern and riveted his full attention on the letter.

There wasn’t much to absorb. Unless a putative beneficiary by the name of Judith Callaghan could be found within ninety days, he, Derek Davis, as the legal survivor of his father (dead after a sudden heart attack two years earlier), and being now therefore Titular Administrator (whatever that was) of a Trust set up so and so many years ago by the Harlech Miners’ Union (whoever they were), would become, subject to certain formalities, the Dispositionary Beneficiary of — of a Trust Fund in excess of two million pounds!

He let the figures roll around in his head for a while and then began to wonder who the putative beneficiary was and whether she had any idea of her position. The letter had stated: ‘If she could be found.’ That seemed to indicate a rather less certain procedure than: ‘Were to be informed,’ for example. It sounded as if perhaps this putative beneficiary might be ignorant of her position and that the solicitors might be ignorant of her whereabouts. Dare he hope she would remain undiscovered and in ignorance? What if she could be somehow kept out of sight for ninety days? What a challenge! If he could find her and keep her out of sight for ninety days he would be rich beyond anything that Iris’s aunt might make possible. But gazing out of his imprisoning office window he realized there was little chance that he could do anything about that. In any case, he hadn’t the vaguest idea who or where she might be.

All the same, Tuesday now seemed a very pleasant day. At last, brought back to an awareness of his surroundings by Angie’s impatient tsking, he looked up, smiling broadly. She seemed surprised and pointed at the envelope. “The messenger’s still waiting for a signature for this. Shall I sign for you?”

“Sign for me, and give him a kiss as well if you want. But get me the solicitors that sent this message on the phone first.”

Her eyebrows went up, she sniffed — it was almost a snort — so deeply that her already tightly stretched blouse came perilously close to a structural failure, and minced out of the office wobbling unsteadily from one stiletto to the other. Cheeky thing! It’d be all the same if they did come for him one day, the way he carried on.

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Chapter Two    or   back to FICTION