8 The Life of Dorsett
The story had become a search with too many suggestions and not enough discipline. Unless he concentrated on the question he would remain a man firing shots randomly in the dark hoping to hit an unseen target. There was a rough direction but it wasn’t detailed enough. It needed narrowing down to sensible options.
If the question was nonsense then it made sense to look for the solution through unconventional thinking.
Dorsett sat at his table with his pen and looked at the words lined like ragged rows of soldiers at the centre of the page. The feeling of writing about Garbutt’s existence and his life seemed at times both liberating and limited. Prose made the words capable of anarchy as well as order and the potential for so many meanings drew him away from his familiarity with poetry and gave him a feeling like homesickness. Balance was required but it was a balance that could only be noticeable in pages of words rather than a few lines of a stanza.
Blank verse was the stuff of cowards, but worse, of lazy cowards. Nothing but middle ground for those who couldn’t, or wouldn’t write prose and were incapable of rhyming words. Words in rhyme waited their turn and wouldn’t appear until suited for the task. Sound and metre were important. Where prose walks, it is said, poetry dances. Why not dance to the riddle of the Nonsense Question?
Dorsett allowed an itch in his eye to break his concentration. He released his pen, rubbed his face furiously, and rose from his chair to walk about the room. Sam would be home soon and the thought of it gladdened him. Any reminder of her after hours of pushing pen across paper felt like joy from nowhere, or perhaps, he suspected, the source of where love came from.
She was twenty-six and lectured in College. She’d met Dorsett at University and while he found no real direction after dropping out a year after, a mutual interest in poetry was reason enough for their friendship to continue, first with groups of friends, then with each other until one goodnight kiss, exhilarated by wine, sparked a likeness to affection.
From that moment on, no one else to either of them seemed remotely as attractive. Her dark brown short hair, conservatively styled, reminded him of the French-ness of Paris life even though he’d never been there. She had, he was not surprised to hear.
He worked at her father’s bookbinding company but didn’t get paid, a small contribution to Sam’s charity enabling him to live rent-free in her flat. It was a gesture of gratitude, his way of helping to pay for his meals and lodgings. He didn’t want any other job because he already had one. He was a poet, he told her, and unpublished, as all writers are when they begin.
She’d given up telling him he could stay at home and work, but Dorsett needed the daily routine of boring work to contrast his true vocation. Waking early on cold and mornings and walking to work made him miserable yet thoughtful.
Dorsett’s workplace was not the same as the Victorian renovated Textile factory where Garbutt worked, but a recently constructed building well lit and furnished as a modern office complex. Sanitary and ordered with synthetic carpets, chairs, and wide plastic tables, the windows were clean and covered with string blinds. It was centrally heated and air-conditioned, a safe place to work, with clearly marked emergency exits, conveniently placed fire extinguishers and sprinklers. The walls were white and un-cobwebbed.
For all that, considered Dorsett, it was still a place of mundane employment, possibly even worse than Garbutt’s warehouse, because this was a building whose décor was too similar to the homes of those who worked there. At least Garbutt could go home to a room clearly distinguishable from a workplace of an earlier century.
Sam’s father ran his company easily and without trouble. His workers were not poorly paid, which gave them little excuse to have grievance. He agreed to allow Dorsett to work there as a gesture of gratitude to his daughter but cautioned him of the complications it might cause with other members of his workforce should they suspect any favouritism towards him. He only wanted to help, he said, the same way that a man with no money would work in a kitchen for a meal.
The company employed the same kind of people that existed in Dorsett’s story, with notable differences. Derek and Isobel did not like each other. Widow Julie was not a widow but a twice-divorced thirty-something who had three children from two fathers and Red Marrion was not Marrion or red but a little Asian lady called Asmir whose poor command of English made her shy and liked by all. On the other table, Marcie was still the Supervisor but was not as austere as Dorsett’s character. She was worryingly thin, happily married, and went home at dinner break to have lunch and take her pet spaniel for a walk.
Her three co-workers on the other table across the room were the same Beth, Mary, and Hazel, elderly housewives, born for warehouse work. Beth with her constant hair bun, Mary with her pointed glasses, and Hazel with her worrying habit of changing into slippers whenever she came to work, as if unable to separate one environment of life that was completely different from another.
They had been transferred and transformed into Dorsett’s fictional story in order to try and find answers, familiar faces with different temperaments inside them. New and imaginary faces were not necessary and would have taken too long to create.
There was no Bessie the Squealer and there were no rival tables vying for top-dog status. All worked at the same rate and there was a bonus payment if a certain amount of books were bound by the end of the month. They rarely failed to meet the number required, and that was why Dorsett’s presence at the company was tolerated because he helped them to reach the desired quota with no personal reward. As employment went, it wasn’t a job easy for anyone to hate, unless there was a bigger ambition fixed in them. Dorsett had that ambition, a poet desperate to be published.
He had timed the slow cooker for Sam’s arrival but she rang him late to tell him she would be delayed and so he reduced the heat level from high to warm. He had the plates ready on the table and her favourite wine in the glass.
This was not the bedsit of Garbutt’s, his fictional character, but a luxury flat situated away from the estates where cars screeched at night and gangs gathered on street corners. This area was select, the same kind of area where he told Garbutt he lived but was disbelieved.
A little later he heard her car pull up outside and began serving the food to the plates. He always greeted her with a perfunctory kiss when she walked in and she would go straight to the table, sit down, and take the first sip of wine medicinally.
He knew her well enough to know what she liked and didn’t like to eat and she knew him well enough not to expect elaborate recipes. Weekends were spent walking or shopping, mid-week evenings watching films, or catching up on work while sitting in the same room. Unfussy sex and a close friendship fuelled their relationship along contentedly.
‘I’ve thrown that question at Garbutt.’ Dorsett said to her after they’d eaten. ‘The one I was telling you about.’
Sam looked up from her paperwork and over her spectacles.
‘You mean the one about the Universe?’
‘Yes, the Nonsense Question.’
‘Well, I hope he has better luck with it than you’ve had. There’s a reason why it’s called the Nonsense Question, Dor. It doesn’t make sense.’
‘The question makes perfect sense. It’s finding the answer that’s difficult.’
‘Dor, if your character is just a drunk without any knowledge of science, how do you expect him to answer it?’
‘Sometimes you don’t know what you know until you write about it. If there was a pathway that led to a place no one knew anything about, wouldn’t that make you curious? The fact that you couldn’t find out wouldn’t stop you wondering. He’s a good place to learn from.’
‘Well, by the sound of him, he’s no Einstein.’
‘But he has a runaway imagination and it’s stimulated by drink. There’s a quote that says if you give enough chimpanzees enough time, they’ll type out the complete works of Shakespeare.’
Sam exchanged comments as she worked.
‘No one can live that long, Dor. The chimps who write them, or anyone who has to wait to read them.’
‘But I’m coming at the problem from two directions.’ he told her. ‘Garbutt is going to formulate some random suggestions through music, alcohol, and imagination and I’m having a go with poetry.’
Sam turned over another page on her lamp-lit table.
‘Well I hope you find it.’ she said, hoping to close the discussion. Dorsett hesitated before asking.
‘I’ve started already. Do you want to hear the first lines?’
She recognised the plea and was always careful to respond to it. She looked at him across the room and removed her glasses.
‘Go on, then.’
After he recited the words of his poem, he placed it down, frowning.
‘I’m still trying to find the last line for that stanza.’ he told her, half apologizing.
‘A story in verse is called a fable.’ said Sam. Your intention seems to be to tell a story.’
It slipped his mind that he was living with someone who lectured in English Literature.
‘It’s not really telling anything. But it will ask questions.’
‘So the structure of your couplets is ABAB?’
‘Maybe if you used ABCB it might give you more room.’
‘I thought about that.’ he confessed. ‘But I just think making it tighter might be easier.’
‘How long have you been pondering over that last line?’
‘A couple of days.’
‘Not so easy then.’
‘I might leave it for a while. Come back at it with fresh eyes.’
‘Good idea.’ she said and put her glasses back on to resume her work.
A few days later, Dorsett used the small amount of time he had on his hands before work to try and finish the last line of his poem. But when he sat at the desk and found the sheet of paper, he noticed the last line was already completed, written out clearly, and without any sign of prior editing.
It didn’t look like Sam’s handwriting and she’d never interfered with his work before. Dorsett welcomed good advice but for someone to write down words into a piece of work that belonged to someone else could be considered meddlesome and even intrusive. What made him feel worse was that he considered the line not bad enough to be discarded. He made up his mind that he would leave it in as he knew Sam did it through kindness. When she returned from work that evening he mentioned it nonchalantly.
‘By the way. Thank you for finishing that line for me.’
She turned away from the TV with a puzzled expression and he thought she hadn’t heard him clearly.
‘My poem.’ he said. ‘Thank you for your help.’
‘Oh. You mean you’ve found your line?’
It was his turn to look confused.
‘I didn’t find the line, Sam. You did.’
‘What are you talking about?’
He tried to make light of her deception and repeated the piece.
’And read a story so wild that logic lost place, all things made from a bang that began time and space.’ Don’t be modest. I think it works.’
‘Dor, I didn’t write that. I haven’t touched your work. I never do.’
That was the only part that made sense. She never did. Or never used to. He went to the table, unearthed it from under a folder, and handed it to her. She looked at it briefly.
‘I didn’t write that. For a start, that’s not my handwriting. In fact, I don’t even think it’s yours.’
‘It definitely isn’t mine.’ he agreed.
‘Are you sure you didn’t wake up in the middle of the night and write it?’ she asked him. ‘That would also explain the unevenness in the lines.’
‘Not unless I’m a sleepwalker. Besides, you always wake up whenever I leave the bed.’
She pondered for a moment.
‘Usually. But not always.’
‘But even if I did that, why would the handwriting be so different?’
This time they looked directly at each other. He walked back to his chair as if the distance between them would help with the problem.
‘This is weird.’ was all he could say. ‘Who else would do it?’
Sam was already ahead of him.
‘There’s only one other person who comes in here when we’re not at home: the cleaner.’
‘I’ll have to have a word with her.’ decided Dorsett.
‘It’s not a she.’ said Sam. ‘It’s a He. His name’s Mason.’
‘He’s a bloke?’
‘Yes he’s a bloke. Not all cleaners are women, Dor. Catch up, for goodness’ sake.’
‘Well, whatever his gender, he has no bloody business writing lines in my poems.’
With the puzzle apparently solved, Sam teased him a question.
‘Not even if it completed your stanza?’
‘It hasn’t completed it. I’ll delete it.’
‘Oh? How come you didn’t think of deleting it when you thought it was my doing?’
‘Because you’re you,’ he said, grinning back, ‘I can forgive you.’
‘I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not, but I’ll take it as one.’
Dorsett returned a more serious tone.
‘The problem is, that poem was under several other folders of my work. It meant he had to move my stuff around to find it. That’s not reassuring, is it?’
‘No, it isn’t.’ she agreed, looking at the TV but not watching. ‘I’ll have to let him go.’
Dorsett made a decision that he thought would be better.
‘No. I’ll take the morning off work tomorrow and meet your cleaner. It was my work he tampered with so I’ll deal with it.’
‘Maybe he’s a poet, too. Ever thought about that?’
‘I’m thinking about it now. But if he is, then what’s he doing cleaning people’s houses?’
‘People still have to earn a living, Dor. You work for my father, don’t you?’
‘Yes, but I don’t do it for a wage, more to help out.’
Sam rose from the sofa and took an empty coffee cup into the kitchen to clean, reluctant to renew the stuff of old disagreements.
‘Yes, and I’ve told you before, Dorsett, you don’t have to feel obligated to pay for your board.’
Whenever she used his full name it felt like a warning light.
‘I know. But it makes me feel better, you know that.’
When she came back he pulled her closer to him and sat her on his lap.
‘Serious question.’ he said. ‘And I want an equally serious answer.’ She looped her wrists around his neck.
‘What does your father think of you giving a home to an unemployed poet? Someone who, even if he gets his books in print, is unlikely to make enough money to keep his daughter in the luxury she’s accustomed to?’
‘He doesn’t think anything of it. He said to me when you first moved in; as long as you’re happy Samantha, then I’m happy. Whatever I feel has no bearing on anything.’
‘He said that?’
‘Yes. You said you wanted an honest answer so I’ve given you one.’
‘I’m not sure if I feel better after hearing it.’ he said. ’Whatever I feel. That sounds to me like an opinion deliberately suppressed.’
She tapped him on his nose with a finger.
‘Then you’d better make sure you keep me happy, hadn’t you?’
He considered a flippant reply but thought better of it.
‘I live to keep you happy. I’m lucky to have you.’
And he kissed her on the cheek to let her know he meant it.
The next morning after Sam had left for work Dorsett dressed and prepared himself for Mason’s arrival. He sat at the table with his poem, half working and half distracted. Right on time, the front door opened and Mason walked into the living room. He stopped abruptly when he noticed Dorsett sitting at the table.
‘I’m sorry. I thought the house would be empty. I’ll come back later.’
‘No, it’s alright.’ said Dorsett, ‘I want to speak with you. Come and sit down.’
Dorsett looked at him and found it hard to imagine anyone who looked more unlike a domestic help. A middle-aged man dressed in a white shirt and short brown leather jacket, with faded clean jeans half covering the laces of shiny brown shoes. Who wears shoes to clean a house? Trainers perhaps, something more flexible and comfortable, but not shoes. His hair, fair and thinning and slightly greying at the sides, gave him an authoritative appearance.
Dorsett saw him as man misplaced, a city financier on a day off. When Mason approached him, Dorsett noticed that he pulled out the chair closest to him rather than one further along. He placed his hands on the table, fingers entwined.
‘What’s the problem?’
‘It’s Mason, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. You must be Dorsett. Sam told me about you.’
The news that Mason and Sam were on first name terms made Dorsett a little uncomfortable.
‘Yes. She said you’re a writer or something.’
Dorsett ignored the unintentional affront.
‘Well, that’s kind of what I want to see you about, Mason. Let me start by saying I would never accuse someone of anything unless I had proof, so please don’t jump to conclusions. I’m just wondering if you had anything to do with this.’
He handed the sheet of paper over to Mason. Dorsett watched him read the four stanzas in silence. If he was guilty of interfering in his work, he wasn’t giving anything away. When he’d finished, he shrugged and handed it back.
‘It’s a poem about the universe.’
‘Yes, I know. But look at the last lines. I didn’t write them.’
Mason twisted his head slightly to look across.
‘And you think I did? Is that what you’re saying?’
‘That’s what I’m asking, yes. Sam said she didn’t do it and I know I didn’t. As you’re the only one who comes here when we’re out, I thought you might have done it.’
Mason didn’t say anything but formed a slow hurtful expression that caused Dorsett to speak.
‘It’s a mystery I’d prefer to solve rather than prosecute someone for. It’s been bugging me, that’s all.’
The two of them looked at each other without saying anything. Then, as if shaking himself out from deep thought, Mason smiled a denial.
Dorsett continued with his case and pointed his finger on the page.
‘There, you see. I mean it’s not even my handwriting. There’s no way I wrote that.’
‘Are you sure? Are you saying you wouldn’t be good enough to write it?’
‘No, I’m sure I would have found the right lines eventually, but I wasn’t given the chance. Someone else wrote them.’
‘Then rub them out.’ suggested Mason, as if the problem was simple to solve.
‘I don’t think you understand. This piece of paper had to be found first for anyone to interfere with it. Items on the table would have had to have been moved.’
‘I see. So you’re more concerned that someone might have been snooping around your personal belongings rather than improving your poetry.’
‘I didn’t say it improved it.’
‘Well, even though it’s not my place to say it, I think it did improve it because the other scribbled options beside it don’t seem anywhere near as good.’
Dorsett looked at the words edged around the poem at the centre of the page. Rapid suggestions written and then rejected with the swish of a pen, words circled with question marks, with reminders to consider. The workings of a poet struggling to find that ideal fit that completed the couplet. Engrossed in his analysis, it had almost slipped his mind that this man who was a cleaner of houses had become a critic. He was running out of patience.
‘Look. All I need to know is, did you write those lines?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
Dorsett had made up his mind that by the morning’s end he would have solved the problem but now a denial of the charge left him with a decision to make. He knew he couldn’t sack him without evidence and yet to keep him on would only make him worry that it would happen again. He convinced himself that the meeting itself would deter Mason from repeating any further interference.
‘Ok. Thanks for your time, Mason. I’ll let you get on with your work. I have to go to work myself now.’
But he didn’t. He had time enough but thought it better if he went to the library to carry on with his writing rather than remain in the house. The sound of a vacuum cleaner banging against doors and walls was not conducive to writing poetry. Especially when done by a middle-aged domestic called Mason, who may or may not be a liar.