I recently posted a couple of scenes from the opening of Gamboge, which introduced two of this boarding house's residents. One was upon a bed (Gordon Gearing, known more resonantly on stage and film as George Street) and the other (Sylvia Court) in the bath.


Here is a scene from further into a narrative which opens out as residents are galvanised by the newcomer Gordon.


I think this stands in its own right as a scene, even though the whole book has an underlying structure of cross-references.


Another resident Frank is a recently-released prisoner who, as one learns at the beginning,  has found freedom almost as confining. But now this voluntary work takes him in another direction, and not only brings all these artefacts with it but some of his own past.


As I worked on it, there often came to mind Paul McCartney's song "Junk" about arrays of worldly goods. Hum the tune, originally intended for The Beatles (another of the novel's themes), and it stays in the mind.




“I’m a too-teared cakestand.”

Time was when Frank had often uttered this strange phrase - it had become almost code, a shorthand which partners share as much as anything else.

Today it came back to him.

Beside the charity shop’s till was a round, shiny bell perhaps awaiting a firm palm. This could summon the staff busy elsewhere. He had soon learned how some of the regular customers - regular in their visits if not their demeanour - were glad of any such absence as an excuse to wield so forceful blow, one might almost expect a nuclear rocket to land outside. After this they invariably resumed a search for the wherewithal to buy the goods they handed across the table. On this also stood a box for superfluous change (what became of those boxes resembling a shed from which, less than thrillingly, a lifeboat emerged after a coin was slotted into the roof?).


Nodding in approximate time to the thrust of the till drawer was a fluffy mascot, all limbs, generally kept in recumbent place by white tak. This creature was more safely positioned than Frank who had at first found his waist, and worse, take a battering from so propulsive a drawer.

Even when accepting so many payments by card, that drawer opened to activate the receipt slot. Sometimes the small device alongside, little bigger than cards themselves, uttered a doubtful noise before offering customers the fallback option of tapping four numbers into its keyboard - an alternative not available to those who found their ’phone failed to make its monetary connection.

His training in the mechanics and electronics of the cashless society - and a till whose keys were masked by a transparent plastic sheet darkening from fingertips’ pressure - was accompanied by growing familiarity with the variety, a sheer, teetering abundance of donations often better described as abandonment.

Beyond the public scene, shrouded by a thin curtain (itself a donation), was another room. To one side of this often stood the manager Betty whose hair was piled somewhere between a bun and a hive while the frames around her spectacles curved towards a point, as if a plant which, given more water, would taper further. Among her self-appointed tasks was the wafting of a pole whose jet of a steam brought clothing a better sheen than any achieved by those noxious processes absurdly termed dry cleaning.

Jackets, shorts, trousers, dresses, all of these were doused, left a while, and then suspended from metal hangers by flat clips. These often confounded customers’ attempts to study items more closely, let alone re-attach them after proving unsuitable.

Scant faith was given by the discerning to any labelling of them as S, M, L or VL Some manufacturers’ way with the scissors is more generous than others’. In any case, such tailors were in the habit of labelling some items to flatter those now of a girth which calls for discretion (of corsets true). What was once L has become M in an expanding universe.

Chest and waist measurements were only an indication of how an item would look. This is also determined by the material (“wool rich” means impoverishment by polyester, which is to dress in plastic, as if a creature risen from an oil field). For those determined not to chance it by shadowing such items against the body, there was an ad hoc changing room, a cubby hole with scarcely space for the mirror which clung to its pegboard wall. Even in Frank’s time here, several customers had pushed back its slatted swing-doors and emerged, as if from a Western saloon, not to untie a horse but in search of a better perspective than the one provided by a twisted neck beneath a fluorescent tube.

So many tugs, so many intakes of breath but their waistlines were as obdurate as the wrists which protruded more than fashionably from jackets whose arms could not be raised above shoulders without causing strangulation or split seams. Sometimes this brought a snort of discontent, even a glare, as if the premises and staff were to blame.

“That’s all right, sir, I’ll put it back on the shelf.”

Such was the stock reply - so to speak - given to those who laid a spurned, newly-tangled item on the counter; a euphemism for the precaution of returning the object to Betty, whose steaming he likened to that oxymoronic trade of a car’s “hand wash”: those dealings which he had learnt inside are often a dark subject in themselves.

All of life was here and, naturally, death. (Some look scornfully at “dead men’s clothes” while eager to get a dead man’s house at a good price.) For all the stray items donated as a living attempt at feng shui (including many books on a subject which, mysteriously, means wind and water), there were the repeated carloads forming as much a stage of the grieving process as the hearse and limousine (“I was telling him to get rid of all this stuff for years - the only shame is you don’t take half-empty pots of emulsion”).

Some might simply deem these bagloads the stuff for instant despatch to the incinerator or, at least, somewhere abroad. Betty had told him about a place in Ghana called Kantananto where thirty-thousand traders in seven acres received fifteen million garments a week. One of them had even put up a sign Obroni wawu: dead white man’s clothes.

And, if truth be told, those are better than the new clothing which had arrived in recent years on British shores by the containerload: material complete with built-in obsolescence. By contrast, call it what you will - vintage, retro, slow fashion -, a welcome proportion of these donations was in demand, not only among those clinging onto the decades but by others born but yesterday. Made from good material, cut by hand rather than robot, these items could command a premium. He was opposed to their being consigned to the online “store”. To do so downgrades the real (“physical”) ones to a rummage sale when they should be a continual reminder to grateful customers of the further task which they benefit: in effect, an advertisement, for every shopfrontis a hoarding which not only eases hoarding but is dunned into the subconscious and can bring bequests invariably larger than most day’s takings.

Even so, how irritated he was by those who, when flicking through random racks of albums - “vinyl”, as he had learnt to call them - brazenly consulted lists to see whether there was a demand for surviving copies of discs which, decades earlier, had spun on racks in shops long vanished from this street.

Just when you thought you had seen everything, there hoved into view a box whose lid displayed a vat of baked beans tout court which bore an orange-hued likeness to exposed brain cells; either way, within the box, this image was fragmented into a thousand pieces with varying edges, cardboard islands whose promontories and inlets were capable of being reassembled to replicate so terrifying a cover. Aficionados or even connoisseurs of the pastime opted to set about the task without this pictorial guidance as autumn turned to winter - literally, metaphorically - while they lived in fear of the endeavour being upset by a leaping cat.

Try as Frank might, even when he had endured those long, lonely hours, he could not understand the stimulating and soothing diversion which some found in these things (“jigsaws are cardboard embroidery”). That time could be better spent in learning the rudiments of drawing and painting upon an easel of one’s own (wooden boxes of brushes were indeed consigned to the shop by widows, one or two of whom were also chuffed at the surviving oeuvre finding here a public display impossible during the spouse’s lifetime).

Give it a while and the “curios” shelf could find room for those toasted-sandwich makers redolent of a ridged skillet. Perhaps others had observed life measured out in coffee makers (spoons also available, sometimes clumped by elastic bands). Drips; filters; conas; pots in two metal halves separated by a rubber ring and set atop the (gas) stove; plungers; plug-ins; astros; something with a metal protrusion which, in theory, whisked milk but often decorated walls; and a new, post-stretch one, pods at which he was determined not to look closely. Would anybody establish the definitive, the perfect way of creating caffeine-driven refreshment?

One did not mention the tub of instant and vociferous kettle available out the back to those who volunteered their time to this establishment. Mercifully, milk powder appears to have been carried out by the tide even though expensive water-laden concoctions filled cartons with an emphasis on a nominal element of oats and coconut. Why add gruel - porridge! - to coffee and tea?

Same goes for the as-yet unsold futon. Why does anybody opt for furniture which is nothing more than a lumpy, tasselled mattress (the actual futon) folded across hinged pallets and, when coaxed into either of its designated positions, fails to provide the desired support?

“Have you seen this?” With a snort or a snout, Frank held up a butter dish. Its upper half resembled a recumbent cow who, black and white, was supported by a green base. “Who’d buy this?”

“Well, I rather like it. Put £8 on it.”

“Eight quid? It won’t sell.”

“Do you want to bet? Loser puts something in the donations box.”


“We do better with animals than an animal charity!”

True enough, the place was full of them in one unfleshy form or other (including tea towels) but to dwell on this would have him hankering to be a scorpion.

He and Betty had quickly established a rapport, and their usual odds ensured it would not be worth either of them employing a ringer to fix the market in a bid to win. And so the porcelain bovine was accorded pastures new upon a shelf behind the till. This honour was akin to those strange companions kept out of hands’ reach in a convenience store lest they “walk” (among them, baby foods and whisky). And here, these shelves were also thought rightful place for a coffee-pot in the guise of a red telephone-box.

More questionable a matter was the darts board. Still out the back, it remained a subject of discussion in need of resolution from the regional office. Sharp knives were forbidden from sale but surely a dart could be as vicious an implement in a gangland dispute or its street-corner equivalent. Not to mention the corkscrew on the household-goods shelves (even if its natural home would soon be curios or gewgaws, such is the rate at which bottles are being secured by metal tops).

Already Frank had often heard the phrase “we’ll have to ask the Regional Manager”. The apparent demands upon this functionary meant that he, unlike them - and, to be clear, he was a he - not only required payment for his middle-management services but made Godot himself appear gregarious.

Frank had missed badinage in the steeped seriousness of life out of public sight. (Inside, a gag could be taken as a slight - “are you trying to be funny?” - with all the consequences that risked.) He relished the parries which this new existence brought him. Life, though, can change in a moment, as he was to be reminded, when the till bell was rung by somebody who had unwonted enthusiasm for a bundle of tea towels. Marked up in price and accorded both a ribbon and a place out of reach on the privileged shelf was a blotchy depiction of the Victorian take upon Arundel Castle.

Even so, the £500 impressively featured on the till’s green, straight-limbed screen was so wayward that not only did the mascot wobble fervently but the customer questioned Jayne at the till about its veracity (“I like to be as generous as I can but I didn’t expect to be funding a village in the Congo for a year”, an assertion at some odds with none of the day’s takings being destined for it: he must have thought himself in one of the shop’s many rivals).

“What’s the matter, Jayne?”

“Oh, Frank, I’ve done it again!” Her ear-rings shook with a silent “fuck” as her long-nailed fingers stabbed a pencil’s rubber tip against the keyboard. This only accelerated the total at a rate which would have been deemed outrageous even in Las Vegas.

“Am I going to get out of here alive?”

(Thank the Lord, who was also not one of this charity’s beneficiaries, for good-humoured customers.)

Things calmed down, stock of anecdote pleasingly augmented. A way of circumventing the Regional Manager’s raised eyebrows was devised as the till spluttered lengths of paper to bear witness to mere error. Mercifully, the till roll had not reached that red streak which signals the imminent contrast with matters digital: the whole other ball game of trying to instal a fresh one.
And then, towards the end of the afternoon, the sun returned after mingling with rain to form a monkeys’ wedding before weaning off.

Days like these, Sylvia had found, prompedt Gordon to cite Nabokov: they “give sight a rest and allow other senses to function more freely”. She was not persuaded of this as she recalled it while entering the shop with Barbra who shook herself and tugged at the lead to sit by the till. This was another spot where experience had taught her that monetary transaction was a lesser concern than the barter which humans call mates’ rates: she traded her good nature for a biscuit from the glass bottle beneath a large cork lid on the shelf where now lay a cow whom any self-respecting dog would not bother to chase. Biscuits made for dribbling anticipation enough while Sylvia, inwardly salivating, conned other shelves to decide which were dvds and which duds: as usual, the latter predominated.

Sylvia went “Ah!”, and Barbra looked up (so did other customers, perhaps resentful at missing treasure buried in plain sight). A slim box with four discs within was sufficient for her to bring it to the till.

“I’m glad to find this, I didn’t know it, do you?”

Perchance to Scream. No, I don’t. Great title.” Frank looked closer: to the fore was a man’s head, with others - a man and a woman - in his shadow. “Looks familiar.”

“George Street.” She was about to elaborate, but his doppelgänger had requested discretion, which she honoured. Sylvia waved the stripe, or was it chip, of her card and Frank reached for the Gift-Aid gun which resembled an invading Martian. (Strange, so many tools, such as price-labellers, are called guns, an object which they could not sell to children unless they, the guns that is, were of a fanciful, extra-terrestrial sort.) Barbra was simultaneously rewarded with another biscuit, tongue leaping as rapidly as any colder-eyed snake’s, while Sylvia dropped the box of discs into her bag and noticed it included an extra: a film called Press Button B.

Her heels even more imperious than Barbras’s, Sylvia nodded to Frank, a man with whom she had found it difficult to establish a rapport during the time he had spent in the house. She was mildly grateful for these slightly more forthcoming exchanges provided by his job or whatever one might call it.

She was on her way, and he, sighing, had time to himself again before closing time. And then came a jolt. Somebody, possibly another relict, arrived in the doorway with a stout bag and the remark “I’d like it back, please.”

Frank reached for it, carrying the goods “out the back” and setting them on a table. Among some paperbacks and stained cookery manuals were other items in newspaper with the Financial Times’s glossy supplement “How to Spend It” folded around them for protection. One could not be sure that this august journal had ever recommending the crockery within to those who sought a living on the world’s money markets.

It all came back to him.

Not only were there cups, saucers, plates and jugs but also, matching those, two plates: one was smaller than the other, a metal, gilded pole threaded through their centres and capped by a curving handle suitable for a modest, possibly female grasp. He had never seen one of these, decorated with roses, on a domestic table. That they did find such a place, however, could be inferred from the number of them tugged aloft from the shelves by the handle to join the queue for packing during a summer he had spent in the basement to which a department store consigned its China Department.

To his surprise, that Dantesque location became a battle scene, people well-nigh camping on the floor during the rigours of a Sale’s opening day heralded by queues before sunrise. As the street doors were unlocked, they had flocked surgingly down the escalator faster than it could move, almost landing upon one another as they turned left, away from bathroom fittings, towards their own particular take on Valhalla which often included a craving for ramekins, an object he had rarely encountered since.

Several weeks of this, as the Sale’s immediate delights eased, had taken its toll on the ad hoc staff. Many of them were given to a wit equally appreciated, sometimes matched, by those who worked there all year. Frank well recalled the late afternoon when one of his temporary number, an Indian student whose real subject was particle physics, leaned beside the till or against a cabinet. Indelible was the memory of the fellow’s state of exhaustion turning an intended “I’m too tired” into “I’m a too-teared cakestand”. So plangently, inadvertently punning was the phrase that they all adopted it, and brought it currency amidst lovers and friends in their life beyond the store’s curtilage.

Time had gone by as if itself fallen rose petals, unlike those painted permanently on the china in front of him here. Can one compost time? He had thought to elaborate the idea one long night inside, on the shovel. He had not anticipated the years bringing him here, amidst a very different staff from those during that hot summer he had directly felt only during walks through a London morning which was separated by a crepuscular basement from long evenings’ strolling beside a refreshing Thames.

Who would have pictured this? Where are those comrades in china? And how long had it been since somebody beside him could lament she too was an exhausted cakestand?
And who would now crave this medieval-looking device, its intended function a forcing of potatoes through a fortress-like grid, a portcullis from which they emerged to spend the rest of their surface lives as chips? If nothing else, from this shop’s point of view, the thing was more permissible than a well-deployed knife. (And in this moment, he wondered what had happened to the thong-like catapult as a childhood weapon of choice.) What’s more, shed of its Financial Times camouflage, this chip-maker sat on its vintage cardboard box, whose survival was evidence more of cupboard than worktop.

A ring of the bell and a call of “Manuel!” had Frank - after these mere minutes - blink into the present with an apology which was pleasingly mollified by the impatient donor’s confession, “don’t worry! I’ve always wanted to do that!”