The Famous Man by Jo Mazelis

I wrote this story sometime between 1988 and 1990 when I was living in London and working for a number of magazines including City Limits. The subject therefore is very much influenced by the particular atmosphere of London in the late eighties. I sent the story to one competition and one magazine but was unsuccessful both times causing me to shelve it until now.

An unpublished story written so long ago remains like an exposed live electrical wire reaching straight back to the past of the self who wrote it. A major influence on the story were the outspoken columns written by ‘hip young gunslingers’ like Julie Burchill who regularly poured vile and bilious scorn on establishment figures. The story represents a battleground between generations and genders, between post-punk fanzines and other independent publications and the gatekeepers of the ‘legitimate’ media. I wrote it with a degree of sympathy for both of the main characters, but the underlying themes are those I return to often; power, knowledge and the manipulation of truth. Jo Mazelis


The Famous Man

A young woman was sent to interview a famous man. Over the years, through his reticence to talk to journalists, this famous man had in fact become infamous. The interview with the young woman was his first for years and the only one he was prepared to give for what could be a long, long time.

The young woman glanced once again at her ‘A to Z’ and lightly fingered the note that bore his address. She had already half written what she planned to say about him in her head and what she dreamed of saying was not kind.

Despite her youth, the young woman was fast gaining a reputation for a fierce and incisive tongue that had whetted and sharpened itself on many an innocent pop star and minor personality. This would be her first truly important victim, yet she fretted over it.

In her leather duffle bag was a tattered copy of the great man’s first book. She had read it many years ago, in her first flush of enthusiastic innocence. So long ago that she felt dizzy with the appalling memory of her insignificance then. She remembered with horror her yearning to be with interesting people; the big names whose wit and intelligence she believed would dazzle her. What a shallow fool she had been back then! Two long years in London had taught her that admiration was an emotion to be despised. She now understood that Caesars were made to be buried, not praised.

She had seen how, suddenly, after years of adulation, the famous man had been scorned. His books, numbers one, two, three and four had climbed a glassy slope of genius. They had touched upon their time with searing vision and accuracy. Number five seemed to be merely reiterating what everybody else now knew. Number six read like the death throes; the rasping rattle of dead words.

Number seven made you laugh.

The young woman glanced down at her leg; on her knee she spied a small hole in her tights. She rubbed her thumb against it as though it might smudge it out of existence.

She thought about the review she’d written of his fifth book, ‘John James, on the production of “The Harrowing of Hell” has proved himself to be an emotional cripple, an old dog chewing away at his own bones, eating up his past glories like a fly eating its regurgitated guts. In short, the tired old mountebank should stop waving his amputated limbs at us and make the final gesture of self pitying sacrifice and chop off that bit of him that most offends; i.e. his head.’

It was published in ‘Lit Trash’, so it was doubtful he’d read it and besides which she’d been writing under the name of Tracie Venus so it was very unlikely he’d make the connection.

The rumour was that his new book was going to be better than even than his startling first book. That something had changed him, sharpened his style, that there had been something like a religious transformation in his life and the twentieth century hadn’t heard anything like it since ‘Ulysses’ by Joyce. Still, she’d heard all that before and it sounded like one of the most desperate hypes she’s ever come across.

She left the tube at Chalk Farm and began the trudge up Haverstock Hill. Her mouth was dry and she wished she’d had something to eat. She stopped to light up a little ready rolled spliff that she always carried for emergencies. She still felt that faintly exciting, faintly stupid-if-she-got-caught feeling she always got when she smoked dope in public, but hell, she was Cat Carver and it would do nothing to hurt her reputation if she did get caught.

She checked her watch, and that made her think of his second book, ‘The Time for Fools’. Very clever, very post-existentialist, even now his words seemed to mock her for looking at her watch and she supposed, mock him for naming a time; a place. Young tyros always become old fools in the end she decided. But where was she in this geography of court jesters?

She turned down his road and began to search for his house. Number sixteen was more dilapidated than the rest, paint was peeling away in long strips and the number was daubed in lime green paint on its crumbling Doric columns. Through a basement window she caught sight of a young man sitting at a typewriter. What made her draw in her breath sharply was that he was stark naked. His shoulders were hunched up and his elbows twitched furiously with the speed of his typing. She couldn’t see his face.

She climbed the steps to the main door and pressed the bell marked in biro with the name J. B. James. Her heart was beating faster.

‘Be professional’ she admonished herself, ‘keep calm’.

No one came to the door. She rang the bell again, and as she stepped back to gaze up at the windows, a figure appeared fleetingly at one of them, then was gone. She held her finger against the bell pressing it in while listening for any sound within. But there was nothing.

She double-checked the address, looked again at her A to Z and finally blinked dully in confusion at the name on the door. Was this some kind of joke of his? To arrange to meet a journalist then not answer the door? ‘Well, to hell with him’ she thought and began to descend the steps again. It was then that the door must have opened silently, because the first thing Catherine Carver heard was the voice which seemed, somehow disconnected with the person she swung round to see lolling lazily against the door jamb. It was surely the same young man she had seen downstairs typing, though now baggy black flannel trousers hid his long downy limbs. His feet and chest were bare and around his neck hung a large silver and ivory crucifix.

“Ms Carver, I presume?”

He pronounced Ms with a long drawn out zed sound and finished by giving her a smile that did not seem quite genuine yet was not clearly false either. She wondered if he was an actor. He was certainly good looking; like a young Cesare Borgia, she decided.

He pushed the door open wide and indicated that she should come in, yet instead of stepping aside or leading the way he remained where he was thus forcing her to squeeze past him. The hallway was dark and musty smelling, and after a few paces Catherine stopped and turned to look at the young man again. He was still standing in the doorway his body echoing the angular shape of the doorframe with one arm raised as though he was guarding the entrance. The daylight burned against his black silhouette and his face was in deep shadow.

She was angry at this treatment and sick of it. Direct insults would be easy to confront, but this dumb insolence combined with the young man’s feckless sexuality, which seemed centered more on his own self-love than any wanton desire for her was infuriating.

She tried to speak in a quiet, commanding, business-like tone but her anger rippled at the back of her throat, knotting the muscles of her jaw. Her voice was a throttled whisper. “Which way is it please?”

For a time he didn’t reply, perhaps it was only a fraction of a second, but the hesitation, the staring desperately at the black figure waiting for a response, wondering if he was even looking at her made her want to bolt suddenly and escape into the daylight she’d only minutes before deserted for this.

Then, finally, he made a long, low, questioning “Hmmm?” and lurched away from the door towards her like a sleepwalker. Then, from the depths of the house a thin whining voice emerged, calling ‘Michael, Michael’ with increasing urgency.

The young man stumbled past her, head down, his long hair falling like a dark curtain that once more hid his face. He beckoned her by flapping his arm loosely in the direction he was going. She followed him to the back of the house then down some stairs and finally into the room in which she had first seen him.

“Wait here,” he instructed before once again disappearing, this time behind a heavy velvet curtain. She waited and listened to the sound of furniture being dragged about and thought she could almost hear faint whispers but with the scraping they remained inaudible, scarcely human even.

Her earlier fear had subsided, and she now burned with curiosity. For one thing what relationship exactly, did the young man have with John James? She knew that during the interview an outright question about his sexuality would show a severe lack of tact and besides an outright ‘yes’ would be interesting, but ultimately dull in its forthrightness. Whereas ‘no’ would demand no mention of the issue of homosexuality. Then it struck her, that the perfect way of writing this would be to describe her arrival at the house, the mysterious young man who was possibly drugged, his nakedness and, what shall we say, his almost girlish beauty?

She was inventing phrases to describe the young man when he re-emerged from behind the curtain. ‘A peacock man’ she thought ‘of devious pulchritude …’

“He’s ready for the interview now.”

Catherine stepped towards the curtain, still juggling metaphors and idiom like so many tasty Hors d’oeuvre. The young man stepped in her path and raised his arm to stop her way.

“You can talk to him from here.”

“What?”

“You can talk to him from here.”

“But …”

Then a voice came from just behind the curtain, it was the same voice she had heard calling earlier but now there was more power in it, yet the inflection was still a wheedling and contemptuous one.

“Doesn’t she want to do the interview now, Michael?”

She didn’t wait for Michael’s response, but answered herself.  “Of course, I want to do the interview, but I had expected it to be conducted face to face!”

“If you are looking towards the curtain then you must be facing me, so we are face to face, don’t you think?”

“Well, if that’s the way you want it. But maybe you should hold the microphone on your side so I can get a clear signal.”

“No microphone. I don’t want what I have to say to be recorded, haven’t you got a notepad?”

“Yes, but I…”

“…never learned shorthand. You see I told you that, didn’t I, Michael? They haven’t got a clue these days.”

Catherine turned to see Michael, sprawled on a mattress under the window; he was nodding and grinning. She turned her back on him once more but found his indolent presence annoying, if not unnerving. Still, once she had got her rare interview and escaped her story would be the making of her.

She fumbled in her bag for a pen and pad and her hand brushed over the tape recorder, for a second she wondered if she dare switch it on, but no, maybe this way would give her more freedom to elaborate and interpret.

“So are we ready? Pencil poised? Paper primed? Then I’ll begin; I was born to Alfred James a shoemaker of Bethnal Green, London and Edna James nee Chambers a seamstress of Bow in 1919. I was the sixth child of ten and attended the Coronation Row Infants School where I was awarded the prize of a leather bound gold embossed Bible for poetry. My brother Edwin died aged ten shortly afterwards. I’m not going too fast for you, am I dear? It was only six months after that both my parents succumbed to an influenza epidemic followed by three of my sisters and one other brother, Albert …”

Catherine was scribbling as much of these names and dates as she could, but her long hand betrayed her and even as she wrote she knew she was jumbling things up. The bastard was doing it deliberately; he was hardly even pausing for breath. He sounded, she thought, as though he was reciting it all, so carefully worked through was it. At the same time she knew that none of this biographical information had been made known before and so it was important that she get it. She continued to scratch at the paper desperately.

“After Emily left for France I turned to the priesthood yet found that my faith was weak. It was at this time that I began to write…”

Catherine lost all track of time, but was aware of the basement room darkening almost imperceptibly. She did not know if it was evening falling or a storm brewing and blackening the sky or Michael standing close behind her blocking out the light. All three ideas passed briefly through her mind and she shivered at the last, but kept writing.

“When Peter Probert read ‘The eye of the little God’ and agreed that Faber should publish it all the years of work and isolation seemed to be over. Shall we take a tea break or would you care to carry on?”

Catherine had scrawled the last sentence down before she realised that it was a question directed at her and that the silence that followed was waiting for her voice to fill it.

“Oh, yes please and perhaps I could ask you a few questions about your work, where your ideas come from and of course about your new book?”

“All in good time, all in good time. Michael, some tea I think and some of those biscuits with the faces on. I’m sure Miss Carver would like them.”

Michael left the room; she heard his footsteps as he traveled up the stairs and across the room above. She decided to make polite conversation and whilst studying the room she put on her brightest, chattiest voice.

“It’s very kind of you to talk to me so frankly. I’d read that it’s been over twenty years since you gave your last interview.”

Her eye fell on the typewriter where Michael had been sitting, the paper was gone from it now but near it were a thesaurus, a dictionary, Tippex and a large pack of photocopy paper. All the tools of a writer’s trade excepting the humble pen and the mighty word processor. Despite having seen Michael typing she couldn’t think of him as a writer, maybe it had been his nakedness, maybe it was his youth, whatever it was she just couldn’t see anything more eloquent than ‘the tea’s ready’ tripping off his tongue.

“Is Michael your secretary?”

There was no answer.

“Are you still there?”

She waited.

“Jesus wept” she hissed it under her breath, suddenly filled with anger again, this time at a curtain that she’d tried to engage in conversation.

“He very probably did weep.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realise you were still there.”

“Jesus was a very interesting person or phenomenon, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” she sat upright, maybe now he was going to talk theory, this was the time to really pay attention, to cut down to the bone. “You’ve used religion as the starting point for a number of your books, is that the case with the latest one?”

“You could say that.”

“Then, it’s not directly about religion in the way that ‘The Harrowing of Hell’ was?”

“You could say that.”

“Oh, come on,” Catherine thought “spill the beans, tell me before that damn fool Michael comes back with the tea.” But, she merely asked quietly; “So what is the inspiration for the newest book?”

“The Red Shoes.”

She noted that down.

“’The Red Shoes’ by the brothers Grimm?”

“The very same.”

She realised she either hadn’t read it or that she had, but forgotten it. Either way she was in trouble.

“I don’t quite see the link with religion here, I mean it’s a children’s story isn’t it?”

“Ah, I see you haven’t read it, then.”

She blushed. Just then, Michael reappeared bearing a tray laden with a teapot, cups and the candy coloured biscuits decorated with the faces of clowns and cowboys which seemed so oddly out of place in these surroundings with only three adults to pick at them.

“She hasn’t read ‘The Red Shoes’ Michael. You said as much didn’t you?”

Michael grinned and nodded and passed her a cup, before resuming his position on the mattress.

“Shall I tell you what ‘The Red Shoes’ is about then?”

“Yes, your interpretation of the story would be very interesting.”

“Well then, are you ready? I’ll begin.” He took a deep breath and set off once again on his high speed soliloquy. “It’s about a little girl who is too clever for her own good. She’s a greedy little thing who only cares about herself. She is also rather vain. I suppose if the story were set in the present day, she’d be a shallow person who thought it meant something to run around London in the latest fashions. Katherine Hamnett dresses and shoes by Manolo Blahnik, jewellery from Cobra and Bellamy. I’m sure you know the type of person I’m referring to. You see them at the Groucho Club or the Soho Brasserie. A few years ago they’d have been wearing black leathers and Ray Bans but now they’ve gone all sixties retro.”

She was amazed at the accuracy of his description.

“Do you possess any red shoes?” he said, with sudden interest.

“Yes, some.”

“Hmm, I thought as much. It’s a pity you’re not wearing any today.”

This seemed to demand no answer, so Catherine nodded. She was disturbed by his swings between madness and lucidity; his conversation had a way of engaging one with philosophical debate then dragging one into an abyss of perplexity.

“Of course, I could be wearing red shoes myself. But you wouldn’t know it, would you?”

Catherine had a ghastly vision of John James as he sat behind the curtain. Old, twisted, hairy, ravaged by time but clad in high-heeled red court shoes and black stockings.

“I’m not as it happens. Men seldom wear red shoes, they’re very repressed little creatures really.”

Catherine couldn’t resist the challenge of this statement.

“Is that why you have to hide behind the curtain then?”

Behind her, Michael sniggered.

“Oh, you have taken a long time to get around to the question of why I’m sitting here like this.”

“Well, I didn’t like to… to assume that you …”

“How very punctilious of you. I really hadn’t expected such good breeding from one of your kind.”

Catherine was silent.

“One would think that journalists would be brave enough to display their little knives in their oral speech as well as their written. Talking of knives shall we tell her about my accident, Michael?”

She twisted round in her chair to see Michael nodding his assent and smiling.

“You see there was a nasty incident with a bread knife. It left rather a bad scar. I didn’t want to frighten you.”

She had to ask but at the same time didn’t want to hear the answer. “What happened?” She was relieved when he brushed the question aside. Hot tea slopped onto her notepad as her hand shook with a momentary palsy.

“That was why I took ‘The Red Shoes’ as my inspiration. In it you will find that the vain little girl is forced to cut off that part of her which most offends.”

His words came at her in a wave of lurching familiarity, she felt cold suddenly.

“Is there anything wrong?”

“No, it’s just a bit of a chill.”

“You see, the young girl first becomes crippled by her desire to possess the red shoes. It is a kind of emotional blindness, she cannot see beyond her own self love, she cares about nothing but the shoes. Yet when she gets them she does not become their possessor, rather it is they that subjugate her. And so she must dance. Do you like dancing?”

Catherine stood up. She rocked on her heels.

“I think I’ve got to go now.”

“So soon? It was just getting interesting too. Oh well. It’s over with now.”

She moved towards the door, fighting a rising panic, fighting the desire to run.

“Well, bye bye. Michael will see you out.”

Michael trailed behind her up the stairs. She kept imagining one of his bony hands clutching at her ankle and pulling her down, but she reached the hall and managed to walk at a dignified pace to the front door. He opened it for her with a mortice key produced from his trouser pocket.

Outside, the sun burned red and low in the sky. She guessed it was about eight o’clock. Her mouth was dry and her legs seemed seized by tremors. She imagined that her walk must look strange, like the jerking dance of one afflicted. She thought about the mortice lock on the front door; all that time she’d been thinking that flight would be easy and it hadn’t been. She decided to walk some of the way to calm herself and digest the afternoon’s events. The further she went from the house the safer and more pleased with herself she felt.

She followed the road down Haverstock Hill past Chalk Farm and through Camden down to Kings Cross. There she hopped on a bus that took her into Soho. Her colleagues would be at The Coach and Horses, she had a fine tale to tell and an even finer thirst.

Michael shut the door and carefully locked it again. He went upstairs and changed from the black flannel trousers into jeans and a sweater. He took off the crucifix and laid it in a drawer, then he tied his hair in a ponytail and put on shoes and socks. John James knocked lightly at the door, then entered.

“Do you think they’ll print it?”

“It’s a certainty I reckon.”

“Think we went too far?”

“We could have gone further, but I think it was just right. Even she would recognise the boundaries between what is believable and what is absurd, as would her readers.”

John James threw his head back and laughed, his exposed neck looked surprisingly young and vulnerable. It was without a flaw.

me b and w new york 2005Jo Mazelis is a novelist, short story writer, poet and essayist. Her collection of stories Diving Girls (Parthian, 2002) was short-listed for The Commonwealth Best First Book and Welsh Book of the Year. Her second book, Circle Games (Parthian, 2005) was long-listed for Welsh Book of the Year. Trained at Art School, she worked for many years as a freelance photographer, designer and illustrator. She has won prizes for her short stories in The Rhys Davies, Allen Raine and PenFro competitions. Her novel Significance (Seren, 2014) was long-listed for The Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Award, 2015. Her latest book, a collection of short stories entitled Ritual, 1969 (Seren) was published this year.

Words and images © Jo Mazelis, 2016.