Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Disappointment And Ketchup

This week's sentence was taken from John le Carré's short story, 'Call For The Dead.'

It was: 'Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as "My Friends".'

Disappointment And Ketchup

Turn off the Wash Road at Guyhirn and drive for miles out across the endless godforsaken peat-black plain. If you have committed sufficient sin in your life you might well find at last looming through the fog a dismal, yellow-grey building of squat, unappealing proportions surrounded by clinging, coal-black mud and fronted with a peeling-painted wooden sign: 'Pub Food. Car Park. The Greyhound. Polly Adam.'
Inside: Stygian gloom. Formica and brown linoleum. Faded. Worn through in places. Twelve tables. Forty-eight wooden chairs.
No two legs the same length.

Signs prohibiting:
coach parties,
food not bought on the premises,
Mrs. Arbuthnot,

Promised exotic delights:
steak'n'kidney pie,
scampi in a basket,
lemon meringue pie,
and ominously: "more".

The reality:
congealed fat,
uncertain wobbly brown things,
watery gravy,
burnt bits,
and ketchup.

And behind the bar:
Miss Adam herself dispensed the nastiest coffee south of Manchester and spoke of her customers as "My Friends."
Smeared glasses and stale ale served warm and flat joined the dreg-rich stew of her bitter, brackish, days-old coffee. Regulars wiped the oily film from their top lips between sips and spoke, when they spoke at all, in hushed monosyllables.
Polly Adam ran, with iron discipline and a grease-grey pinnie, the only pub (in fact the only social establishment of any kind whatsoever) for forty miles around. Locals grew up on her foul fare, and knowing no better, accepted it with the same grim stoicism that allowed them to live out here in this soulless, mirror-flat, drenched wasteland.
Miss Adam had inherited the place, and her dubious culinary skills, from her parents, who had in their turn received the same blessings from Miss Adam's grandparents, and so on down into the dim, damp and decidedly Dickensian distance.

Not conventionally attractive, even to the untrained eyes of the local lads, schooled as they were in more porcine pleasures of backfat and bristle, in her youth she had for one brief and wonderful week thrilled to the throes of wild romance, surrendering her innocence to the smarmy wiles of Mister Eve, a middle-aged travelling seed merchant whose own seed had mercifully not travelled, though he himself had, with unseemly haste upon discovery of his dastardly deception.

Now past her prime and fading fast it had begun to dawn on Polly Adam that the true love she longed for might never find its way out here to her cold haven in the bleak and empty fens. That perhaps her own Mister Darcy was not going to appear suddenly in the bar one evening and sweep her into his arms. That maybe it was time to start collecting cats.

Midnight. The last of the Greyhound’s regulars squelches disconsolately away into the inky mist. With a sigh, Miss Polly Adam locks up and climbs the twisting stair to her room. Afraid of what sleep might bring she sits weeping long into the night, shoulders softly shaking, salt tears falling, pat, pat, pat into her lonely lap.

Background note:

The Greyhound at Guyhirn now sadly no longer exists. Unlike poor Polly Adam, however, it was not fictional.
I stumbled upon it one foggy evening, lost on a forty mile detour after an accident blocked the only decent paved road across the flat, featureless fens: that endless dank pismire of squelchy peat bog and empty misery.
It beckoned in much the same ominous manner as a bat-bestrewn castle might in a Transylvanian thunderstorm, but at least it promised something different than the usual greasy-spoon roadside cafés and it has exerted a perverse fascination on me for years afterward. I was genuinely sorry to see it closed down.

The description in the story is pretty much spot on. I ordered a coffee and a sandwich and quickly regretted it, settling later for a flat, stale beer and a packet of soggy, out-of-date crisps. I left as precipitately as Mister Eve, though not - I am glad to say - for the same reason.

These days, the only remaining rest facility on that long, lonely levée stretching despairingly across the unending bleak waste is a tacky filling-station "Caff" dispensing chalky burgers to bored lorry-drivers. I stopped in once for coffee and petrol (not an exotic local cocktail … the coffee was to drink; the petrol for the car), returning from a conference with my old boss, Terry, who had refused to believe my tales of Guyhirn being the kind of place that would scare the crap out of the banjo playing backwoods freaks of 'Deliverance.' We were served by a girl of around fourteen with one eye and not many more teeth (every word of this is true), who took a fancy to Terry and kept leaning on him and giggling, offering up her gap-toothed grin to tempt him away from the outside world and into the nightmare haunt of fenland folk.
Needless to say we got the hell out of Dodge.

Guyhirn is now by-passed by an almost decent road so nobody from the real world need visit any more, leaving its denizens to live out undisturbed their lost and lonely lives of furtive incest and pork porking and whatever the hell else they get up to there. It truly is a place of palpable aching despair; driving past you can feel it clawing at you with a terrible emptiness that chills the heart and leaves damp, smeary fingerprints lingering in your soul. My own theory is that Guyhirn exists as the result of a sharp corner of our own universe accidentally puncturing the lowest circle of Purgatory (the one next to Hell). The suffering souls have been leaking into our reality and populating that part of the fens for hundreds of years. They now haunt the place, wailing and weeping as they wait in the sodden, mist-shrouded peat-bogs for Judgement Day to come at last.


MmeBenaut said...

I enjoyed this so much Dive that I imagined myself driving along the back roads in the fog.
What an absolutely fascinating background note to your equally fascinating and fabulous story.
It was so good that I read part of your story out loud to MB. I particularly loved the extra long sentence that took up a whole paragraph about Mister Eve. You are quite hilarious you know.

Now, check out the link on my latest post and hear some pretty good country/popular music by Danny Hooper. His lyrics could use some of your writing style but the music is rockin' good for country music and he can make his guitar sing in parts.

dive said...

Ah, Mme, what would I do without you?
Thank you so much for cheering my weekend with such compliments.

I'm glad you liked the long sentence; I enjoyed writing that one.

As for Danny: I've just ordered his album. Glorious harmonies and great music. I dare say Prudence would like him, too. Thank you for pointing me is his direction.

Vanda said...

Sounds and looks a lot like Indiana. With Tom Waits providing the soundtrack.

I love the story - very evocative.

dive said...

Vanda: I had no idea Indiana was so moist. Come to think of it, I really have no idea what Indiana's like at all. You've piqued my curiosity now; there's an Indiana-shaped hole in my knowledge of the US that must be filled.

Which is not the case with Tom Waits. I am a saddo Tom Waits 'completist,' religiously tracking down rare recordings and all manner of crap that perhaps I should be avoiding. Hey ho.

Vanda said...

I had one summer in Indiana when it rained every afternoon, almost at the same time. The worst are the winters though. They last at least 6 months, the skies are gray for months on end. You're lucky to see the sun once a couple of month. The landscape is flat, flat, flat. And then there is Gary, Indiana...

dive said...

Sounds enchanting, Vanda. I'm planning my vacation right now.