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My Story Collection, A Cupboardful of Shoes, published June 2012. See www.Cupboardfulofshoes.com
About the Stories
“I’m a librarian and I kissed a film star once. I touched her nipples too. At least, I think I did.”
So begins “Queen’s Grill,” the second story in this collection. Horatio Humphries (one of several “unreliable narrators”) strikes up a brief
friendship with a movie star on a rough Atlantic crossing, but his “twin” brother doesn’t believe him—particularly when Horatio claims she visited
him the following night.
The title story, “A Cupboardful of Shoes,” is told by a woman, but others have male or universal narrators, using either a third-person or first-person viewpoint—except for “Distantly from Gardens,” whose subject demands the use of the second. The most “experimental” story, this is a variant on the theme of the “double” found in Russian literature, presenting a man with a split personality, inhabited by two narrators
representing different periods in his own life.
In “A Pregnant Woman with Parcels at Brock and Bagot,” an unnamed woman may or may not have an affair with a man she met at a party—depending on whether she can get by a woman in front of her.
The collection concludes with a novella, “The Comedy of Doctor Foster,” based on Goethe’s “Faust.”
Other stories, all literary fiction, explore subjects as wide-ranging as disappointed love, violence, sex and war, sometimes with an underlying religious theme, while “The President Reminisces” is satirical. Some are told in the present tense, some in the past—serving to illustrate Wright’s eclectic style and literary interests.
They are set in North America and those European countries the author knows well from his fluency in six languages while living in Canada. Most have been published in literary journals.
[From Queen's Grill]
I’m a librarian, and I kissed a film star once. I touched her nipples too. At east I think I did.
A holiday, the kind where you fly to New York and return to England on the Queen Elizabeth 2. With my brother Arnold. He hated it, but since my divorce there’s no one else to travel with. I’ve looked after him since . . . well, since you died, Mother. He has to come. This film star . . . well it would have been better without Arnold in my cabin. I like exotic places, libraries like in New York, would have toured the one in Washington if there’d been time.
You’d like her films. Hélène Martin, pronounced the French way, I learnt enough of it in school for trips to Calais, for the duty-free. It happened on the ship. Where there’s a library too. Not that it fits in that fantastic world, not what I’m used to either. I mean, why get a book for entertainment with so many other things to do, like meeting famous people? My British Library is for study, I fetch the books for scholars.
Before I met Hélène I spent my time strolling round the ship, in awe at that whole new world of floating elegance between sea and sky. Watching for shearwaters—I’d read about them in the ornithology section, flitting over the ocean, never coming in sight of land except to breed. Arnold, meanwhile, stayed sleeping in the cabin—we might be twins but we’re not identical. He’s not too bright, poor Arnold. I mean, when there’s luxury food day or night, even for those paying the lowest fare like me! Easy to gorge yourself and get indigestion like I nearly did but managed not to. Good entertainment in the evenings too.
I didn’t read a single book. Five days at sea and a film star were escapism enough after managing with Arnold in our old East Croydon house . . . well you remember how some people, who might have bought it, called it unpleasantly musty when they didn’t.
Exploring decks and their different levels, discovering you can walk the length of the ship on some while others stop at a staircase or a lift . . . that’s how I met her. I’d wandered up two flights of stairs to the balcony with its expensive shops overlooking the Grand Lounge. Then forwards towards the Queen’s Grill Bar, off limits to the likes of me. You see, Mother, the wealthy passengers have a restaurant of their own, even special seats upstairs in the cinema . . . like a private club where they can remain anonymous without appearing in the public rooms. Except in the casino, the best place for seeing the rich and famous, with slot machines I’d sometimes risk a pound on and green gambling tables. Not that I’d make a fool of myself with things like that. The night before I met Hélène, I’d stood watching a TV personality playing craps. Didn’t say a word, of course. He’d never remember me afterwards, not like Hélène.
She was coming out of a first-class cabin. The corridors in the higher part of the ship are no different from those below, nothing to stop you pretending you have a cabin there, provided you don’t go too far, to the Queen’s Grill Bar itself. She turned to look at me, and with my democratic principles denying special privileges to the rich I told myself I had a right to be there. That I’d no desire to mingle with the upper classes, and that, walking around the boat deck, you could see into their windows anyway and might glimpse a celebrity if you weren’t afraid of staring.
She was in tears, genuine as in her first film, Love in the Morning. Seeing me—like the fantasies I make up for my brother Arnold, I still can’t quite believe this happened—she flung her arms around my neck and sobbed. No explanations, Mother. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t know where to put my hands and was tempted to hold her like I would to calm my wife, but that had ended badly and I wasn’t sure it was the thing to do. Someone might follow her out of the cabin, and how would I explain it?
“My God, I’m sorry,” she said artistically.
She was less glamorous than on the screen, I wouldn’t have paid much attention if she hadn’t been a star, with wispy blonde hair falling across a face . . . well somehow anonymous, except that everybody knew it.
Did I really invite her for a drink? I’m still in awe at the enormity of it.
“Coffee,” she said. “Not in the Queen’s Grill, though.” (As if I’d ever suggest a place like that!) “I can’t stand it another minute! Somewhere else. It’ll be an . . . experience!”
With other passengers looking on, I paraded her proudly down the glittering metallic staircase through the Grand Lounge to the Lido Bar behind. Sitting at a comfortable table with views of sea and open sky, with the swimming pool outside and glimpses of an occasional shearwater skimming by between the waves—it was a place I loved. A waiter in white gloves took her order.
I didn’t dare ask why she’d been crying, so I asked her name instead. Knew it already, of course, but not whether it was correct etiquette to say so. Bad enough not having a dark suit for dinner, which would have done for our Mauretania Restaurant, but I’d only brought a decent pair of trousers with me, plus that corduroy coat you made me years ago.
I’m not sure she was offended I didn’t let on I’d recognized her or relieved. “Hélène . . . Martin.”
“I’m Horatio Humphries.”
She laughed. I’ve never liked my name.
“My husband says he doesn’t want us slumming with the other passengers. He’s the director, Brandon Phillips.”
I knew that too.
She told me they were travelling to England to make a film, and Brandon assumed in his usual shitty way (her words, I’d never say a thing like that) she wanted to relax without her fans. So they kept to the Queen’s Grill and surrounding rooms, except for going to the casino like they’d done each night, and yesterday she’d lost nine hundred dollars.
The waiter, bringing our coffee, was just as nonchalant serving a celebrity as a complete nonentity like me. If I were famous, I told Hélène, making her laugh, I’d still have eaten in the Queen’s Grill up above—why not enjoy being acknowledged by other important persons too?—but would stroll in public rooms as well, where ordinary people would recognize me. Make me feel good. I don’t get much recognition from my fellow humans since you died, Mother, despite working in the library. And Arnold might as well not exist, for all he helps!
I explained I was sharing an inside cabin with him on a lower deck, leaving him asleep in the morning (“Like my husband!” she laughed) while I walked around the deck to welcome the wonderful new day at sea. And when I returned late at night, unwilling to miss something and go to bed, he was already tucked in and dreaming.
I hesitated, “I’m a librarian, you see.”
People mostly respond with a bored “How interesting” to that. But she exclaimed “Heavens!” with that touch of drama that reminded me she was an actress. “It’s what I always wanted! I love books. If I hadn’t been forced to do what my parents told me, I’d have gone to library school and never even entered a cinema. My God, I hate it!”
“And if I hadn’t been forced to do what my parents wanted,” I blurted out, “I’d have gone to acting school.”
An actress who wanted to be a librarian, and a librarian who’d give anything for just half her fame! Her parents, she told me, had been music-hall comedians in France; while you, Mother, were a schoolteacher and Father was a city clerk in Walthamstow. That was the difference. I said I’d acted in plays at school, but not that my greatest success had been playing the grandmother in one of Chekhov’s. But I was good! Then I described my work at the British Library, which she thought she’d heard of.
The ship gave a roll, and a wave of anxiety spread through the Lido Bar. The water in the open-air pool slurped against the side.
Hélène said “It’s going to get exciting.”
I thought the same. On my trips across the Channel, I secretly enjoy the rocking motion and being out of reach of land. I felt a rough sea might be fun, though Arnold is afraid, and calls me morbidly romantic when he knows I’m listening.
“My husband keeps on saying ‘If only it doesn’t get rough!’” Hélène reached over the table and took my hand. “Horatio—wasn’t that Nelson’s name?”
“Battle of Trafalgar, 1805.”
“Let’s walk round the ship, Horatio!”
We struggled along the deck against the wind, under the lifeboats hanging solidly above. Up the steps at the front—battling the gale, we could barely lift our faces towards the bow and the grey waves ahead—and then down the other side, the wind pushing behind us now as the deck rocked and pitched beneath. This was where you could see into the windows of the Queen’s Grill, but now my celebrity walked beside me, her steps veering from side to side like mine, shortening or lengthening erratically. Round the rear of the deck to a sullen, threatening ocean without a shearwater in sight. On our next circuit, they’d closed the steps up to the front—high winds, a board across them warned—so we had to go inside again.
Back to the bar, where the white-gloved waiters were collecting crockery. Hélène laughed excitedly. “It’s so different! Normally I’m hanging around the set, waiting. The same thing time and time again. This is real!”
I thought of the world of books, my usual escape from the gloom of a deserted suburban house and a twin brother whose only existence is watching TV. This was real life, which I was sharing with a star!
I found her more and more attractive. Since my divorce, I’ve sometimes thought about remarriage, but no, Mother, I’m not that unrealistic. A brief affair, though. Don’t film stars have them all the time?