by Michael Keyton
I had a window cleaner once. A real window cleaner who carried his own ladder and bucket, and climbed said ladder at what ever the angle or height of the house. He also whistled so you could choose not to be in or draw the curtains hurriedly depending on circumstances. In every sense, this man was a paragon, and more – a bibliophile.
One summer’s day, as I was pruning roses, he accosted me like an ancient mariner in search of an albatross:
“Tell me your favourite book of all time.”
“I don’t have a favourite book of all time.”
“Well then, tell me one you’d recommend to me – one I would like to read.”
“It depends on what kind of books you enjoy.” I was floundering, and still holding the bucket of fresh water he’d initially requested. He ignored my outstretched arm, the water dripping strategically over his shoes.
“Complex fantasy with a Victorian feel,” he said.
This was no ordinary window cleaner – but my answer was swift. “Gormenghast,” I said, “by Mervyn Peake.” He made me spell it, but didn’t write
it down. He took the bucket from me and placed it on the floor.
“Now I’ll recommend a book to you.” His finger touched me on the chest with conviction and zeal. He could have been saving my soul.
I smiled, caught in a book-trap I hadn’t seen coming.
“You must read Barnaby Rudge.” His eyes burned into mine. “You must read Barnaby Rudge.”
“Dickens, eh,” I said, as one bibliophile to another. “So, what’s so good about Barnaby Rudge?”
“Ah, and there you have it, sir, there you have it.”
This alarmed me. The man spoke Dickensian and without a Newport accent.
“It’s a wonderfully baggy novel, cavernous and windblown with all manner of characters, all manner of characters.”
I raised an eyebrow, wondering when my windows were going to get done.
“Listen to this, sir, hark to what he says about the Secretary Gashford:
“This gentleman had an overhanging brow, great hands and feet and ears, and a pair eyes that seemed to have made an unnatural retreat into his head and to have dug themselves a cave to hide in. Ain’t that good, sir. Tell me it’s good.”
“It’s very good, sir, capital in fact.” I was beginning to speak like him.
“No. The windows. I get it. Barnaby Rudge.”
There were noises coming from the other side of the garden fence. I thought I heard giggling.
I’ll end on this, sir – just so you know this is a book you must read. He’s talking about Mrs Miggs:
“With an expression of face in which a great number of opposite ingredients such as mischief, cunning, malice, triumph and patient expectation, were all mixed up together in a kind of physiognomical punch…
“Physiognomical punch, isn’t that wonderful? Can you see it… Physiognomical punch.”
I told him I could, and that I would read the book, and that the water was cold; would he like more?
The strange thing is that I did read Barnaby Rudge and lost myself in its vast, sprawling, chaotic and evocative world. The bugger was right. But I’ll leave it there in case any of you fears the ancient mariner’s curse is infectious, and the window cleaner will one day knock on your door.
Sometimes I wonder whether he ever did read Gormenghast and what he thought of Prunesquallor and Nanny Slagg:
Do you like babies my dear Mrs Slagg?’ asked the doctor, shifting the poor woman on to his other acutely bended knee-joint and stretching out his former leg as though to ease it. ‘Are you fond of the little creatures, taken by and large?’
‘Babies?’ said Mrs Slagg in the most animated tone that she had so far used. ‘I could eat the little darlings, sir, I could eat them up!’
I never found out. I asked him on his next visit and he just tapped his nose and winked, like window cleaners do. And then soon after that we moved from Newport to Monmouth and never saw him again. I still live in hope that one day he might accost another householder with the same artfully designed trap, but this time proclaiming the merits of Gormenghast and Titus Groan.