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A Life Discarded

Alexander Masters


  First published in Great Britain in 2016 by

  Fourth Estate

  An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers

  1 London Bridge Street

  London SE1 9GF

  Copyright © Alexander Masters 2016

  The right of Alexander Masters to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patents Act 1988

  Laura Francis’s copyright material reproduced by permission. Any requests to reproduce this material should be addressed to the author.

  A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, down-loaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins.

  Source ISBN: 9780008130770

  Ebook Edition © May 2016 ISBN: 9780008130794

  Version: 2016-04-20


  For Dido Davies,

  who was blissful.




  Title Page



  Part One: Mystery

  1. 2001: The Skip

  2. The Ribena box

  3. The Freshest diaries …

  4. Flatface

  5. The Torso box

  6. A Chapter of curses

  7. Wor

  8. As soon as I had the idea …

  9. Nothing is certain

  10. Ancestors

  11. It was easy to get in …

  12. Two close shaves

  13. Birth

  14. A Chapter of celebrations: birthdays from thirteen to sixty-two

  15. The Oldest book

  16. Vince, private detective

  17. The Second stabbing

  18. Growing up

  19. Sex

  20. What a queer set up

  21. Oh, glorious blaze!

  22. I have been stuck in this room twenty one years …

  23. Who E?

  24. Despite the fact that time passes with treacle-like languor …

  25. Who E? (cont.)

  26. For years, Flora has been telling me …

  Part Two: Crisis

  27. The End of history

  28. Auntie’s Tea Shop is a seaside shop …

  29. Hello! Are you Laura Francis?

  30. Epitaph

  Part Three: Biography

  31. Laura Penrose Francis

  32. PS



  Also by Alexander Masters

  About the Publisher

  A nice day in general; just enjoying myself.

  No particular thoughts, except perhaps

  I’d like to change my life.



  1 2001: The Skip

  One breezy afternoon, my friend Richard Grove was mooching around Cambridge with his shirt hanging out, when he came across this skip:

  Only partially filled, it was resting in an old yew hedge, on a stub of dead-end road. Richard squeezed between the scuffed yellow metal and the hedge and wandered through what had once been an old orchard. Tree stumps, sliced off at ankle height, glistened smoothly in the sun. Pear and apple branches were piled up beside a wood-chewer, waiting to be turned into chips. Beyond this cleared woodland, spreading like a pool of bleach among the grass and flowers, was a building site. A large Arts and Crafts house was being modified. The roof had gone. Underneath, two storeys of red brick walls were cordoned off by corrugated metal fencing. It seemed the property was being exposed to the wind for a good rinse-out. A lot of ancient professors live in this part of Cambridge, dozing on their laurels, shuffling about in worn-out cars. They give the place a musty feel; it needs the occasional airing.

  Although Richard had lived nearby for most of his life, this house was so well hidden behind hedges and trees that he hadn’t known it existed. By pressing his eye against a gap between the metal fencing posts, he could see the remains of a porch. The wooden column holding up the roof had been snapped, like a knee.

  Richard returned to the skip, peered in and became suddenly agitated. Something inside had caught his attention. He stood on tiptoe in an attempt to put his arms over the top and reach down, but his arms weren’t long enough. With his shoulders still hunched over the metal, he slid along the skip until he reached the low end and, after looking around unsuccessfully for something to stand on, tried to tip himself over the edge and slide in – but he wouldn’t tip. Professor Richard Grove is an energetic man, a world expert on the ecology of islands, and always eager to get himself dirty; but he’s a little plump. Defeated by the skip, he ran off. Half an hour later he reappeared with Dr Dido Davies who is thinner.

  Dido clambered in easily (by the tipping method) and slid down the metal slope until her feet rested on a large box. A plastic bath panel split and gave way. Dido dropped half an inch. Something collapsed with a metallic sigh. Dido fell to her hands. Dido – a historian, an award-winning biographer, author of two sex manuals under the pseudonym ‘Rachel Swift’ and the only person in the world who knows where the bones of Sir Thomas More are buried – could see exactly what had made Richard so excited.

  Clustered inside a broken shower basin, wedged into the gaps around a wrenched-off door, flapping in the breeze on top of the broken bricks and slates, were armfuls of books. They had been scattered across the rubble exultantly and anyhow. ‘They couldn’t have been there more than an hour or two, they looked so fresh,’ remembered Dido years later. ‘It felt as though the person who had thrown them might be still in the garden, but Richard and I looked – nobody was there. I thought, has someone thrown them away because they’ve gone loony? Has someone come along after the owner has died and tossed the books out in a fit of rage?’

  The discovery reminded her of a story about the Cambridge literary critic Frank Kermode. ‘Kermode was moving house, and he had this incredibly important library, all first editions, all signed to him by the authors, all boxed up. But somehow he accidentally gave the boxes to the dustbin men instead of the removal men, and this very personal collection was carted off. He never saw the books again. It was the same with these books in the skip: a feeling of wronged privacy. It was so obvious that they shouldn’t be destroyed. You wanted to pick them up. It was nothing to do with keeping them. Just to save them, because whoever had thrown them in the skip had run off only a few minutes ago. These books were alive.’

  A few of the volumes had royal emblems embossed on the front:

  Others were cheap

  exercise pads in stale grey-blue. Many were plain, good-quality hardbacks in old-fashioned, accountancy-office red, stamped with gold letters: ‘Heffers, Cambridge’. Others were thin and black, with illustrated boards that might have been based on neurological patterns, and therefore belonged in a medical lab. There were jotters of the sort 1950s policemen brought out of their breast pockets, and small, plump ledgers that I last remember seeing in my school uniform shop in the 1970s. Some of the books had been partially destroyed by water that had long since dried out. The corners of the paper stuck in blocks; stains of rotting metal seeped into the pages from the staples. A box, big enough to contain a head, had landed further into the skip an
d split with the impact. Inside were more volumes, with covers ranging from post-war sugar card to glistening, oily hardbacks that looked as though they’d been bought that morning. The box had jaunty green print on the sides: ‘Ribena! 5d off!’

  A chalky notebook that Dido picked up broke like chocolate. Inside, the rotted pages were filled with handwriting, right up to the edges, as though the words had been poured in as a fluid.

  It was a diary.

  All the 148 books in the skip were diaries.

  2 The Ribena box

  Aged twelve

  A person can write five million words about itself, and forget to tell you its name.

  Or its sex.

  People don’t include obvious identifiers in diaries: things such as what they’re called or where their home is. They are simply ‘I’, who lives.

  And then dies, and gets dumped in a skip.

  It was evident that the author had died. People might burn their intimate diaries before they die, but they don’t throw them out where any stranger can pick them up.

  Two terrible things happened after the discovery of the diaries.

  Richard was being driven home from a party, in Australia, when the driver fell asleep and crashed the car into a tree. One of the most courageous and inventive academics of his generation, he is still alive, jolting in a wheelchair, and being moved around the nursing homes of England.

  Several years later, Dido, my writing collaborator for a quarter of a century, was diagnosed with a ten-centimetre neuroendocrine tumour on her pancreas. I went with her to hear the diagnosis. There aren’t that many times I’ve seen real courage – the sort that makes you start with admiration each time you remember it. Top of my list for biblical chutzpah is Dido’s bemused calm as we came out of the GP’s surgery. ‘Well, I’ve had a nice life,’ she said. ‘Now, shall we go through these pages of yours in Waitrose’s café? It’s cooler there.’

  A few weeks later she began to clear out her house. She had not progressed far with discovering who owned the diaries. As well as no name or return address, on the pages inside there were no obvious descriptions of the writer’s appearance, his or her job, or identifiable details of friends or family members. Everything that a person uses to clarify themselves to another person was missing. Why should ‘I’ bother to put them there? ‘I’ knew them already.

  What could Dido do with this journal? She couldn’t take it to the police – they’d laugh at her. She couldn’t burn it – that would be criminal.

  She gave them to me. It was now my job: I was to find out who was the rightful heir of these ‘living books’, and return them.

  She’d put the diaries in three boxes. The original Ribena bottle crate had no lid; one side was caved in and the top half-shut-up, like a punched eye. The last person to touch this box before Dido was the person who’d thrown it out. There was nothing written on the outside except those shouts about ‘5d!’ No packaging label. Nothing with an alternative address. One of the hand holes was ripped clean in half.

  The biggest box was thin, plain and approximately the length of a thigh. It bulged meatishly. Through the gaps in the cardboard I could see strips of lurid-coloured modern journals.

  The third container was torso-sized and originally for a Canon portable photocopier (‘ZERO warm up time’). It was shiny and strapped down with duct tape. On one edge there was a label, addressed to The Librarian, Trinity College, Cambridge.

  Perhaps the diaries belonged to a Trinity don, I thought, and got depressed.

  The Ribena box was the one that interested me most.

  I imagined the hands of the person who’d pitched it into the skip were still half there, glowing on the cardboard, and wondered if careful scientific analysis could reveal whether the injuries the box had sustained as it landed in the skip were because it had been hurled (perpetrator enraged) or lobbed gently (perpetrator calculating). Using the torch on my mobile phone I peeped through the torn hand hole. The diaries inside had been packed with incompetence. Large dark-coloured journals were separated by single pocket books, leaving narrow shelf-shaped gaps in the layers, like rock caverns. In one corner, a thin hardback had been flattened down with such force that its spine had broken. Many of the books were rotting along the edges, and mossy-coloured, as if I had caught them secretly returning to trees. The cover of one was coated with regular stripes of white mould, like the fungus you get on old cheddar cheese.

  I pressed my nose against the hand hole. It smelled crisp and mournful.

  There were twenty-seven diaries in this box in total. The first I picked out was a pocketbook: quarter-bound, blue, with a red spine. Inside, a printer’s advertisement read ‘Denbigh Commercial Books’ in a border made of moustache shapes, which made me think of signs swinging in a mid-western breeze and Clint Eastwood clinking into town. On the facing page, the seller had stamped his details in purple ink: ‘W. Cannings Ltd, 23/5 Peckham High Street, London’. The price was marked in the top left-hand corner, handwritten in pencil: 3/10.

  Inside, the pages were crammed to the brim with handwriting. The letters were confident and generous, occupied all the available space on a page with six words to a line, and apart from occasional merriments in the letters ‘J’, ‘H’ and ‘d’,

  the script continued with almost mechanical regularity from the front cover to the back. It was not a purpose-made journal. No printed diary could have been manufactured to accommodate this writer’s need. Some entries were four thousand words long; a few were even longer; no day was left alone. It was an ordinary pocket notebook, ambushed by a person’s desperation to record his or her life. At the top of the first page, written inside square brackets, as though it hardly mattered, was the year: 1960.

  I felt unexpectedly moved by this detail. A tube I could look down seemed to puncture the blur of the last fifty years and pop out again, fifty miles away in South London, beside the diarist as he (in my mind it was already male: there was a destructive element about the way the writing filled up the page – like a boy stamping on fresh snow) walked up Peckham High Street. I put my eye to this tube and blinked at my new friend. Who was he? Why was he moving at such a pace? Was there something about him that already said, ‘You will end up in a skip’? I saw Cannings the stationer’s as a low-ceilinged room, the brass bell above the door shaking off the noise of the traffic outside as my man entered. I imagined a flight of steps in the centre of the shop leading to a basement store, and a stout assistant gloomily wrapping up a parcel beside the cash register. I had not read a word of these books, yet already the diarist was clear in my mind: his height, the colour of his fedora hat, his energetic walking pace, the fact that his brown shoes were not brogues (I hate brogues).

  The entire Cannings volume covered two months, from October 16th to December 16th, and many pages had excited-looking comments, put in as after-thoughts, running like bubbles up the margins. It was as though the book had been scooped into wordy water and brought out, gurgling.

  I noticed that the covers were warped, and thought for a moment that the book had been bent, as if crammed into a pocket that was too small; but then I discovered the distortion was caused by a small mound of folded inserts stuffed at the back of the diary. The writer, unable to stop himself rushing on even when he’d reached the end of the book, had spilled his text onto torn-up segments of letter paper. Scribbled up the margin of one of these extra sheets, in handwriting as pale as a whisper, were the first words I read:

  Hope my diaries aren’t blown up

  before people can read them – they have immortal value.

  The Cannings diary feels as though it was produced by someone mesmerised by writing. The letters in the body of the text are large, and have been put down at speed in soft pencil or ballpoint pen.

  The next book I picked out was a cheap, thin, black notebook, covered in washable rexine. Here the handwriting was smaller and in blue fountain pen, and from a year later:

  I must continue with this starving life �€
“ the long slogging hours with only a sandwich for lunch – the work must so fill & dominate my soul …

  He is working on one project in particular – the greatest of his life. But, as with all the things that matter to him profoundly (such as his name, his sex, his address, his physical appearance), he doesn’t say what this project is. It is simply ‘it’. He doesn’t describe ‘it’ even vaguely, either because that would be dangerous, because he is a spy or a bomb maker; or because ‘it’ is so obvious to him, so much a part of him, that ‘it’ must be on a par with his existence.

  I cling to life very desperately – feel I could do great things – very afraid of physical disaster, nothing could be worse – could not bear to die before I had given of my gifts to the community – have already worked & suffered so to bring my gifts towards fruition.

  In some sections of this journal there are more crossings-out than others, more words have been underscored and the handwriting is more uneven: injure, atmosphere, doesn’t believe me!! so hungry! I’ll kill them!

  One must live dangerously, take risks, or one otherwise is in an ordinary metier all along … I now see I can do it.

  3 The Freshest diaries …

  I had a dream, of beating Peter up.

  Aged fifty-four

  The freshest diaries contain the oldest handwriting.

  These are in the second box – the one the size of a thigh – and are as out of place beside the 1960s diaries I found in the Ribena crate as bubblegum squashed on an Etruscan pot: one is indignant green, similar to fish-and-chip-shop mushy peas; another is milky parma violet; a tangerine version looks as oily and dimpled as the fruit. The diaries in the Ribena box suggest Britain after the war. By contrast, these books in the thigh box couldn’t have existed before the 1990s. They’ve been produced using computer-aided chemical processes. They’ve made long container journeys from South-East Asia by sea, and they have a texture similar to thin, soft rubber; it’s disgusting, like a sheath.