Chapter 1, THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE

Chapter 2 appears tomorrow Tuesday 30th January

THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE, a novel

or Online Dating For The Hard of Hearing

by

JOHN MURRAY

 

‘One of the best comic writers we’ve got, the only natural heir to Flann O’ Brien’

JONATHAN COE, The Observer

‘One of my favourite writers’

DJ TAYLOR, The Guardian

 

‘THE LAWLESS BOOK OF LOVE’

It is 2014 and Joe Lawless is a foreign correspondent who has retired to Kalamos island, Greece. One night in the small hours his great-uncle Wilfred who has been dead since 1965 turns up in his bedroom on an urgent mission. Having passed beyond and also having acute supernatural powers Wilfred is able to tell him that before long Joe’s daughter Sarah will put her widowed Dad on the UK dating agency Lovebirds.com. He has come to warn Joe that the search for lasting love will not be easy and among the Lovebirds clients there are certain women with unusual and idiosyncratic agendas. These range from being shaman initiates, to a lady with a one-eyed singing parrot, to the yoga practitioners who listen to the radio with an unexpected part of their anatomy, to the Desert Island Discs addict who has a profound erotic addiction to the legendary show.

 

Her life was almost her only possession and she was as tender with it as a mother with a defective child: there was no doubt it would improve, the miracle would happen and, meanwhile, there were the smaller ones such as this chance to rove at her will through Upper Radstowe… and find the real country where the wind smelt of apples and damp moss.

Miss Mole by EH Young

 

1

Great-uncle Wilfred Comes With Two Warnings

It was a very warm and pleasant evening in June 2014 and having read to the end of my book, a powerful and exceptionally perceptive novel by M Francois Mauriac, I went to bed early and slept like a log until around three in the morning. I then awoke with an extremely violent start and a decidedly dramatic snort in my spacious and usually restful bedroom, sat up sharply on my elbows, and without all that much astonishment, much less any panic, beheld my first ever ghost in the form of my long dead Uncle Wilfred…

First of all, and to set the improbable scene, it was pitch dark in my bedroom with only a tiny amount of illumination coming from the backstreet of the port of the small and obscure Greek island Kalamos to which I had just moved from my native England. Secondly Uncle Wilfred’s perennially lugubrious and ironic visage and the rest of his squat little body was illumined by what appeared to be an inner green light, which seemed to be of the identical hue and quality of that you usually find emanating from very cheap Christmas tree lights, such as once could handily be purchased from the now sadly defunct high street Woolworths.

Wilfred Lawless, so aptly named, was not in fact my uncle but my great-uncle, my paternal granddad’s youngest brother and the black sheep of the family without a doubt. Born in West Cumberland in 1877, meaning eight years older than DH Lawrence of whom he was an outspoken admirer, he died in 1965 in Co Kerry, Ireland when I was fifteen years old and had just left him after a week’s unchaperoned holiday at his Ballyferriter mansion. You can judge of his genial laxity that on arrival he presented me with enough Carroll’s Sweet Afton (untipped) cigarettes to last me for the week and indicated his copious and connoisseurial wine collection on the mahogany sideboard and said to help myself whenever I needed some tonic as he called it. He also offered me a spare hip flask beautifully chased with silver and full of Jamieson’s but even I baulked at that, as only once had I tried raw spirits and they had appeared to be coming out of both my ears and eyes and even my arse as I coughed and choked and swore and spat…

“It’s myself,” the spectre croaked at me ungrammatically.

Wilfred sat there at the end of my bed, apart from the green light looking exactly as he did when I last saw him nearly half a century ago. He had a crumpled tweed jacket covered in numerous queer little bits of white fluff, a crumpled black waistcoat with a gleaming little pocket watch inside of it, green cords that were baggy and slack, brown brogues where one was brightly polished but bizarrely the other one was dusty and very much smeared. In 1965 he had been 88 but he was one of those men who both in my own experience (I met him first in 1955 when I was five) and from what I have seen of him in certain ancient daguerrotypes, always looked the same unflagging age throughout his life. Thus, when he was five years old and prominent on a Victorian family photograph, he had a comical sternness to his infant’s expression which was no different from when he was a sagacious if contrary octogenarian, nor on my previous visit to Kerry when he was a relative stripling of seventy-eight. He was one of those adults who looked like his baby imago stretched and expanded to an adult twin…and one of those infants who look like the aged sceptic and cynic in mesmerising homunculus guise.

After a considerable silence I thought it was time to make some civil conversation. I said: “Uncle Wilfred. You look very green under that light.”

He blinked a couple of times like an old barn owl and then cleared his throat which of course an owl would not have done. Then to my amazement he brought out what looked like an already ignited Sweet Afton and started to puff at it with a pensive if weary calm.

“Yes,” he said. “It’s myself alright. And I am here on urgent business. Bugger me, Joe Soap, but this is a very serious case. A hell of a bloody thing, believe me.”

Joe Soap had been his special affectionate nickname for me, and over the years it had caught on with certain of my closest friends. His inflections were North West English with a Gaeltachd lilt for he had moved to Irish-speaking Kerry at the age of thirty in the summer of 1907, having given up an Oxford All Souls Fellowship where he had researched in Oriental languages and Oriental philosophy, specialising in those written in Arabic, Coptic and Armenian. Perhaps equally significantly, six months earlier, January 26, 1907 had seen the first performance of JM Synge’s Playboy of the Western World, set in somewhere like rural Kerry, where the puritanical Dublin audience had gone berserk and wrecked the joint when they heard unseemly reference in the play to a respectable Irish peasant woman parading around in her shift! To a certain extent then, as he later explained, Wilfred Lawless had desired in, however idiosyncratic a way, to reverse that primitive and risibly prudish trend in Ireland, by doing his bit apropos shedding idiotic inhibitions and resisting sundry obnoxious clerical tyrannies. That apart, in 1965 he had told me that sixty years earlier Oxford was a living death, no, not the research, no that was great stuff, that was a gas, but he despised the vintage Madeira and Gentleman’s Relish bachelor milieu of fustian All Souls where no one was obliged to teach, and they could simply research away, meaning they could endlessly lucubrate, and publish as much or as little as they liked. What’s more, he had inherited a colossal packet from his favourite and equally deplorable uncle, my great-great-uncle Leonard (Lenny the Roaring Lion) Lawless, owner of a vast Ceylonese tea plantation who had managed, before reaching the age of thirty, to annex himself a whole harem of nubile Tamil and Singhalese women, as well as some muscly and lusty tribal ladies from the fabled Andaman Islands.

And, of course, he also did things in reverse when it came to the usual direction of immigration, once he had bought himself that majestic property in Ballyferriter on the remote Dingle Peninsula with its ten bedrooms and a manorial garden full of fruit trees, plus a monumental greenhouse heaving with exotic oriental shrubs. For strategic purposes he had made sure he was handy for the Anglo-Irish set whom he soon alienated by eschewing with no small scorn and numerous expletives, their view halloo fox hunting. But he had so much money and they had so many unmarried daughters, for the first time in his life he found himself delightfully immune and automatically untouchable no matter what he did or omitted to do. He immediately announced  himself a dyed in the wool Protestant for convenience sake, as he had no wish for some importunate priest to come round pointing his finger at his rumoured licence, nor at the curious single theme topiary of his hedges which was let us say affectionately risque rather than lewd, with their depictions of curved and voluptuous possibly classical Greek damsels’ bosoms and backsides, which though made out of unsensuous privet, set me the fifteen-year-old thinking with a hot complexion and determined eyes about this business of love and of attractive young girls.

“You are in serious danger on two scores, Joe Lawless, Joe Soap, always my favourite nephew. You were as you know the apple of my avuncular eye when I was, what’s that unhappily inaccurate word? alive. The first danger might arguably be taken to be on the trivial side, but the second one most certainly is not.”

I tried to feel anxious at his words, but looking at his paltry snot green illumination, and despite myself, I could not.

“The first one concerns the largest of the supermarkets in the port of this very queer little Greek island…”

I gawped at him. “You mean there might be some poisonous bacilli lurking in the kefalotyri cheese?” And then dozily racking my brains. “Or that some of the aubergines were seen growing rather close to a defunct lead mine on the mainland?”

“Not at all. I’ll give you a handy hint though, as it relates to those specific shopping aisles where you, Joe Soap, like to dither and hover the most….”

I twitched and squeaked, “You mean the biscuits?”

“Exactly! The biscuits and opposite those the equally charismatic herbs and spices. Like me you are a bugger of an enthusiastic cook, and like me, though seventy odd years later, you were born in unspeakable West Cumberland where spices and herbs are even now largely unknown. You, like I, were raised on overcooked and stringy meat and boiled potatoes and sodden carrots and that alone, and without a sniff of rosemary or a whiff of basil or a hint of cinnamon or a trace of clove. So it is that you have deliberately transformed yourself and matured, as did I, to a cosmopolitan connoisseur, because for both of us the scent of spices indicates the exotic, the foreign, the mysterious, the poetic and even the sublime, all that is the patent antithesis of our suffocating feckin homeland.”

I stared at him and like a naïve and literal-minded schoolboy wondered how the hell he could know what I did when I went poking in the big island supermarket. Had he been studiously gawking at yards and yards of their security cameras now that he had relocated to the other realm?

“And yet, Joe Lawless,” he said with a scowl, “you are still a typical product of that hopeless and claustrophobic little province. You are you know, despite yourself, admit it!”

I glared at him with ill-masked resentment, as he added: “You are a horrendous bloody biscuit fiend, admit it! As indeed was I all the way through my allotted time on earth. Raised in an area of permanently grey skies, of redundant and failing coal mines, of massive but ill-constructed and inhospitable docks, in an innately melancholy and helplessly morose milieu, you did what anyone else would have done and you turned to sugar! As a child you ravenously stuffed yourself like some opium addict with sweets and chocolates whenever you had any pocket money, and inside the parental house you wolfed down the packets of fig rolls and ginger snaps as if being pursued by your sworn homicidal enemies who apparently were after your, let’s face it, objectively innocent ten-year-old blood.”

I waited for him to elaborate, but he took on a dry and weary expression and began sucking pensively at his Sweet Afton.

“So,” I snapped at him. “What is this terrible hazard I must avoid in the supermarket?”

He grunted and knocked the ash off his fag and to my amazement it simply shot back into the cigarette and kept on doing so for the rest of our dialogue. You don’t need too much of a refined visual imagination to conclude that the Sweet Afton never got any shorter and would seem to have been turned into an eternal indeed transcendental puff so to speak.

“The Papodopoulos Lemon Creams! You get through two feckin packets a day do you not! When you’re sipping cheap red wine and watching your arthouse foreign films at night, on your whatsit, your hotpot…?”

“On my what?”

“Your doings. The thing everyone has these days, like a TV, just as I once had when I watched the Telefis Eireann in Kerry back in the Sixties. It’s like a briefcase as well as a goggle box, and feck knows why you choose to call it a hotpot.”

I struggled to restrain my derision. “I believe you mean a laptop, Uncle Wilfred.”

“Is that a fact? I thought that was a type of naked and shameless style of dancing by certain lissom young women.”

“No no. A laptop is a small and portable computer and recall that they had computers even in the 1960s in Irish university engineering departments, though they were true enough the size of a small Wicklow village. They are called laptops as they are very compact and hence can be sat on your lap. You are also confusing laptop with lap dancing where the naked women often sit on the drooling spectators’ laps, and especially should they be cheerily waggling a twenty pound note and inserting it between their outsize breasts.”

“Do they now? That sounds a beguiling little item of anthropology if ever there was. Well, talking of laps, I’m also talking about bloody Lapland for that matter, meaning just call me Father Christmas as far as you are concerned, Joe Soap, an avuncular Santa who is here to save your bacon. Tomorrow my boy when you go in the supermarket you will see to your amazement a swaggering new species of biscuit stacked next to the Lemons whose packets are a slightly lighter shade of yellow, as a result of which the two look damn near identical. Let us for convenience sake call these shifty and suspicious inroaders Pseudo Papadopoulos Lemons or Fool’s Papadopoulos Lemons. They have the gall to describe themselves as Papadopoulos Fruits (frouto) but I took one of my necessarily incorporeal bites and damn me they taste like something a geriatric dog might have sicked up.  Lemons my buttocks and fruit my hairy backside, they taste like grated turnips and carrots all mixed and slowly infused in last year’s paraffin…”

Something quite untoward happened at that point. I hadn’t smoked cigarettes for forty-seven years but just then felt sorely tempted to ask old Lawless for a spectral Sweet Afton, just to see what they tasted like, and also to see the magically subliming ash whizz back into the parent fag.

“You look a mite distracted, you young oaf. I trust you realise I am not just talking about feckin biscuits!”

I offered him a mutedly combative expression which made him even more irritated.

“Listen hard, Joe Soap. You should be aware that you pleased me very much in 1970, five years after I snuffed it, when you went up to Oxford and did Oriental Studies like myself seventy years earlier. You went and took on Sanskrit, ‘the adorned language’, no mean feat I would say, and you also took a commendable shot at Avestan and Old Persian.”

I sighed impatiently. “Very true. But what has that to do with the Papadop Lemons or the Fools’ Pseudo Lemons?”

His eyeballs expanded alarmingly under their algae-coloured illumination. Then he roared at me: “Everything you buffoon! The real thing versus the bogus thing, don’t you get it? And especially when the two of them look so close to being identical twins. The one thing being authentically delightful and the other being thoroughly ersatz and abhorrent. Bugger me, you went and took a stab at Indian philosophy didn’t you, and read up on Advaita and Vishista Advaita and the Nyaya Vaisheshika and Purva Mimamsa and the Samkhya and all the rest of those boys. Can’t you see, you overgrown clod, what it is that I’m driving at?”

I grunted wearily, “All I know is that I believe you when it comes to biscuits, and I’ll lay off the Fool’s Lemons tomorrow. I have very subtle taste buds Uncle Wilf and…”

“Pah, you bloody trifling clown. Sit up straight and cudgel your brains and just think back to your Oxford studies. In Vedanta, what do they talk about when they discuss epistemology, meaning the nature of knowledge? Go on, tell me. No, well I’ll tell you. The snake and the rope! The bloody old snake and the bastard old rope, Joe Soap!”

I smiled at his unintended rhyme and even added an affected yawn, just to stir his ire a little more. It was after all three in the morning.

“If let us say you, Mr Soap, think that a distant object is a snake when actually it is a rope, you may look a bit of a fool as you teeter nervously by, but no harm is done in the long run. But supposing instead you be an incautious novice, as you most surely are by what I’ve seen to date, and even perhaps a little drunk on this particular day. If then you were to saunter up and pick up what you think is a rope and it should prove to your horror to be a feckin hissing viper, then what? Inanition, paralysis, even death, albeit and because there are no lethal snakes on your little Greek island, a Pseudo Death or a Fool’s Death, just like the Papadopoulos Fruits. Listen to me, son. The Shitey Creams versus the Lemon Creams are just a pithy parable or a vivid allegory prepared for you by the Man in Charge up there. They are there to instruct and forewarn. Avoid those verminous Papodopoulos Fruits tomorrow, but far more important, you should watch your back when it comes to some truly catastrophic hazards looming over your ignorant head over the next few years!”

I found myself frowning sceptically at his pouting vehemence, while also faintly alarmed by it. In any event I hadn’t a clue about the lethal hazard he was referring to…

“I can see I need to speak clearly, as if to an infant or to an adult who is a proven dolt. You would seem to function as both of those for much of the time, despite your sharpish brains, and their far too intermittent cognitive and conative astuteness.”

I made an impudent clicking noise with my tongue. “Flattery from you, Uncle Wilfred. Now there’s a memorable novelty…”

He stormed at me: “Bloody women! Bloody women, man! Don’t you see? Both woman as understood in the seemingly harmless singular, or when they genially refer to them as a group or a genus or a bevy of females. In Sanskrit, as you know, a plurality of women is called strijana. My own addiction to provincial Irish strijana proved my frequently sorry downfall, as well as often being my greatest blessing in every sense. On those one or two miraculous occasions when I hit the romantic button on the head, that is. But you, Joe Soap, if you don’t watch it you will end up wallowing helplessly in a species of rancorous shite that will make the taste of Papadopoulos Excremental Fruits seem like ambrosial nectar or the sweetest mead to be sampled in paradise…”

There was a staggered pause as Wilfred Lawless stared me into a kind of awed and far from comfortable submission to his will. And for the first time in nearly half a century, I came close to asking someone for a cigarette, in this case a supernatural one where the ash like hallucinatory Time itself would never dissipate but would eternally renew itself.

 

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