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The Sparkler: Chapter One

He’d made a life: a marriage and a nest of rooms. But happiness? What could he possibly make of that?

They were just back from honeymoon, and he watched her with the smugness of a connoisseur. Her hair was parted in the centre and arranged crosswise from ear to ear. There was a slight blurring of her expressions; she was tender, but cautiously so. You could see her watching his mouth.

It was an April night, unusually cold. He smiled and scratched his stomach, stretching his legs in front of the open fire. He admired the soft swell of her breasts, the crown of her head, like a blown egg, and the neatness of her hands. She said,

“Impossible man.”

She was arranging her dress around her as she sat beside him on the floor next to his chair. He touched her cheek.

“Is Titmouse coss?”

She shook her head. It was a way, he could feel, of disobliging his hand while keeping it there.


 “But I fail to see the attraction…”

She negligently waved a wrist.

“…of all of that.”

Outside, the rain was busy on the window. Inside there was a bell of light and a penumbra that was almost cozy: chairs and books and desk arranged so neatly that they looked like they were ready for inspection. He had created all of this; his will, like the fire in the grate, had conjured it up out of the darkness. He felt as much tenderness for it as he did for her. He said,

“I’ve folded and starched five of my shirts. I have found a thoroughly respectable place for the carpet beater, and for the sugar tongs. I’ve used blacking on a good half a dozen boots and I have filled the range with wood. I am an intolerably domestic creature.”

She was looking at him with what might, in an unguarded moment, have seemed to be a sad understanding.

“No, Charley, you’re not. You are exact. It isn’t the same thing at all.”

He touched her ear. He had been marvelling at it.


“Kate,” he said. “Consider. It behoves me…”


“….to see. To really see. I have a public.”

“You have readers. They have placed you under no obligation, as far as I can tell. Unlike…”

But she said nothing more; just dipped her head towards her stomach. It was in these moments of deliberate self-abnegation that he found himself most attracted to her. Was she? Pregnant? Charles touched her other cheek. But, still, he intended to walk all night. He could already see how gaslight amplified the streets. He stood up, half in exasperation, and watched somebody swim in the darkness that spilled into the courtyard beneath their flat. He appeared to be carrying a bundle, but it was really just his stomach in the uneven light.

“I get up a head of steam,” he said.

There was still the ghost of tenderness in his face, but it was evident, from the set of his chin, that he had made up his mind. His face could hold expressions in the same way that a glass of water can reflect the light scattered around a room. His eyes had taken fire from the half-hour they had spent in bed. But he was also scratching at his nose too rapidly and pacing up and down.

“Or else I have to. It amounts to the same thing. I have to walk it off, or up.”

She smiled, and shook her head.

“Impossible man.”

She seemed to pity him. It was this, more than anything, that enabled him to put on his coat and scarf and jump the stairs, two at a time.

He made straight for the rookeries. He loved them; loved walking through them, rather. The road was dustier here but greasier too, as were the houses, which all seemed to sweat. He walked past girls who stood as though they were lying down. Old ladies were like withered apples; windfall, shaken from the moon. Smoking clay pipes, they failed to notice him, although, in a swallow-tail coat, a waistcoat in full flush and a high velvet collar, he was obvious enough. He would stop for a moment and produce a comb; would comb his hair and lift his head again and aim himself between the houses. Gas beckoned him on. The fog had stage properties: the lantern of the “beer”, the boy who had been sent around the streets at supper time, looked like it had been suspended in it. He was never lost, although he allowed himself to feel it: it was a liberation. Gin palaces, like lighthouses, announced themselves at regular intervals. He’d written about them recently; how a “disease” had spread so that all of the old public houses had been knocked down, “depositing splendid mansions, stone balustrades, rose-wood fittings, immense lamps, and illuminated clocks at the corner of the street”. This one, near Drury Lane, was one of the handsomest in London and he recognised in himself, again, the attraction of repulsion; how you can love the things you hate: the glibness of the harsh illumination and the little cakes and buns, so out of place, and all the names of drinks; their sleight of hand: “The Cream of the Valley”, “The Out and Out”, “The No Mistake”, “The Real Knock-me-down” and “The regular Flare-up”. How the poor are kept down by the things they’re taught to need. How one derives a certain comfort from the fact that one can have that thought, while striding seriously away.

He was remaking the streets he walked along; shifting them slightly so that they showed to their best advantage. Best; worst. It didn’t matter. He could afford to feel sympathetic. He had a pretty wife, a set of apartments and a burgeoning reputation. If he was a little too anxious about his trousers, lifting his legs, slightly, above the streets, then it was to be expected: he was in the rig of a gentleman. If he was escaping a feeling of constriction, then it was really only himself that he was running from. Or towards. He could never tell.

It was pay-time on Saturday night and, in the market in Somers Town, people were buying their Sunday dinner. The lights were white and red and gold, the glare of the gas-lamps mingling with the flames of the grease lamps and the dull romanticism of the candles. The naked flames and ground-glass globes and open gaslights vied for your attention, so that, from a distance, it looked like the street was on fire. All of those voices, too, the street vendors crying “chestnuts all ’ot” and “three a penny Yarmouth bloaters” and “here’s toasters!” and “penny a lot, fine russets” and the men and women shouting above them to be heard; they made him feel a little drunk. He wanted a pen and paper, not just to write it down but to make it more orderly. He was an odd figure: a little man, cocked like an angry rooster, with hair in billowing folds and a face halfway between determination and amusement. He had always been out of place; it was his fondest hope and greatest fear. He leaned over a couple who were arguing over a halibut, prodding and pulling at it until the vendor leaned across and slapped the woman’s hand. Charles said “Lor’!” then realised that he’d said it and that all three of them were staring at him. He said:

“Now vat is a fish.”

It was a slight touch on the lower lip more than a “v”. The vendor’s head looked boiled; his teeth were the colour of sand. He said,

“And what are you? A cocker spaniel?”

Charles did a little bow.

“A boots.”


In that clobber?”

This was the wife. Or not the wife, perhaps. Charles made a rapid assessment. She was middle-aged but undefeated. Her breasts were huge: assertive and forgiving. The man was as round as a dumpling. He wished for a pen. Instead, he improvised. The lights and the woman’s credulous face encouraged it. He felt released into someone else.

“My father’s wedding ma’am.”

“Your father?”

“Yes. Best bib and tucker, as you can see.”

He had slipped into a thick cockney accent. It wasn’t a stretch; his voice was muddy in any case. Something had always impeded his “r”s.


He could see the way he’d write it: “nivir”.

“… go to Doctor’s Commons. They puts things into old gen’l’m’n’s heads as they never dreamed of. My father, ma’am, was a coachman. A widower he was, and fat enough for anything – uncommon fat, to be sure. His missus dies, and leaves him four hundred pound.”

He leaned a little forwards.

“Down he goes to the Commons, to see the lawyer and draw the blunt. Very smart, with his top boots on and a nosegay in his button-hole and a broad-brimmed tile. He goes through the archvay, thinking how he should invest the money and up comes the touter. He touches his hat and says:

 “‘Marriage licence. I think you wants one, Sir.’”

The touter’s voice strained upwards, like a fly.

“‘No,’ says my father, “‘much too old. Too wide, too.’

“And the touter says, ‘We married a gen’l’m’n twice your size, last Monday.’

“So my father walks arter him, like a tame monkey…”

He made a parenthesis with his arms.

“… and into a little back office, vere a teller sits among dirty papers and tin boxes making believe he’s busy.


“‘What’s your name, Sir?’, says the lawyer.

“‘Tony Weller,’ says my father.

“‘And the lady’s name?’


“My father was struck all of a heap.

“‘Blessed if I know,’ says he.

“‘Not know!’ says the lawyer.

“‘No more do you,’ says my father. ‘Can’t I put that in arterwards?’”

The couple were laughing now. Charles, too. He saw them: the father, like a cannonball, and the touter with his squashed mug and flapping ears. The woman wiped her eyes. People had been trying to get around him but he had held his ground. The vendor jerked his thumb sideways.

“’op it.”

The woman smiled.

“I would if I was you.”

And so he did. Or Weller did. There was a touch-me-not-ishness to his walk, but that was Charles, too. He was still listing sideways in appreciation of himself, but part of him kept hearing the word “spaniel”. He kept feeling it in his chest. He should go home. His wife was there; perhaps his child. He had the same renewal of affection that he always felt when he was far away from her. The home; the hearth. It was the thing he told himself that he would fight for. But even as he was reminding himself that it existed, conjuring it so successfully that it was, once again, like being warmed right through, he found himself walking away from it. The rain had stopped, but there was a brisk wind now and he pulled his collar up around his neck. He had wandered to Pentonville, past barbers’ shops where mannequins seemed to want a touch of something – the swiftness of a simile – to give them life. This inn, for example: the way that its blinds gave it a sleepy look. Its wagons, each with a pile of goods like eiderdowns. And here: this public house. Its knuckled forehead. He became aware of what looked, through the refraction of the leaded panes, like the female form. The female form unadorned; not squeezed into an inverted trumpet. When he pushed the door open, it was like his impersonation: a wilful jump into the unknown.

But, still, he was thinking: who’s the voice? This Weller. What does he wear? It was a way, partly, of reminding himself of who he was: the soon-to-be-famous writer. Swiftly, he took in a room set out like someone’s sitting room but with the cheapest of wooden tables. There was a fire and, on either side of it, a group of unsteady old boys. Directly in front of him was the bar. The parlour behind it looked inviting; it was dimly lit, like a forge, and furnished, he could tell, in roughly the same style as his own flat. The raffishness of being on display gave everything an air of knowing invitation. A man nearby was saying something very definite. Was he in earnest? You couldn’t tell. The left side of his mouth was halfway up to his ear and, briefly, Charles felt this as a memory: his face; that mouth; the something in his eyes that looked like a building was on fire. The girl was behind the bar, ignoring this. There was, he saw immediately, nothing to constrict the figure in the way his wife and all her sisters (and his friends’ wives and all their sisters) deemed so necessary. She looked denuded, but defiant too. Her beauty was a beauty that had had to flourish in straitened circumstances. Her face was redder than it ought to be. Her mouth…

But then he heard the voice.

“Coo. Fucking Hell. Bastard.”

The man’s voice was new but it forced you to look at the face, and the face was not. The face was… beautiful, but not because of anything it did or was; it was because of what Charles had once felt for it. The girl was murmuring something in a voice like a rusty hasp. He had a terrible urge to run away, or else to throw something, he wasn’t sure what at. He thought: a thieves’ kitchen. He saw his wife’s translucent pearliness. Her diffidence. The girl was arguing over the freshness of the porter in somebody’s glass. The voice was saying,

“’alf a knicker. ’ass all I want. It’s not like I’m not good for it. Look at me.”

He was in the remnants of what would once have been considered a decent suit, with a stock and collar and a serious jacket. Charles was fascinated by the man’s leer. Because he wasn’t, obviously, good for it. One side of his mouth was deadly serious while the other was grinning broadly. His eyebrows danced. Charles remembered.

“Grimaldi!”, he said.

He found himself stepping forwards.

“You’re… I’m sorry. I do beg your pardon. But you’re Joseph Grimaldi, surely.”

The man’s upper body turned slowly round while his legs remained under the table. His face communicated several things at once: gratification and suspicion and a faint hint of enthusiasm and disdain. He said,

“And you’re a creditor, I presume.”

“No; no.”

Charles shook his head.

“I saw you. Years and years ago. You were…”

“Funny. I was funny.”

Yes. You were. You did a duck.”

And Charles did the duck’s pompous walk. Grimaldi looked on, half in appreciation.

“That’s true. I did.”

“You punched somebody.”

“In the codlins, and I ’ope it hurt.”

“And I applauded. I was…”

Charles shaped a bundle with his hands. He was, momentarily, all tenderness.

“…tiny. I was very proud of myself.”

Grimaldi watched him, shrewdly. He looked him slowly up and down. He smiled.

“Sit down, sir.”

He patted the chair beside him.

“I would get up but as you see…”

He was waving, indolently, at his lower half.

“Rheumatised”, he said. “Goutised and puffised. No more for poor Joey the larks and games, the sausage and baggy breeks….”

He had said this before. His face was suffused with something. Drink? No: frank enjoyment. Again, he patted the chair. His veins were like knotted ropes.

“Sit down”, he said. “Davey will buy us both a drink.”

Davey was something like a dog. He gave the same impression of being wary of your hands and feet. He ascended, slowly, against his will, and rubbed at his nose with the back of his hand. Charles found them both irresistible. The whole pub was like one of his own illustrations. He knew that there was danger here: he saw it in the men beside the fire and in the look that passed, swiftly, between Davey and the girl behind the bar. He saw it, too, in the way that Grimaldi’s gestures attempted, like the fire, to fill the room. But it was, all of it, irresistible. He was repelled, yes, but encouraged. He glanced at the girl, who was being careful to pull a proper pint. Her dress went plunging, like a waterfall, over her breasts. Davey was murmuring something behind his hand and Grimaldi was teetering over, laughing at something that he was about to say. Charles put his hand out and said, “Sam Weller”. He looked around the pub and wondered what he was going to make of it.

You can order The Sparkler here.


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