Pen Work

Yes, The Tin God is out, and I’m overwhelmed by the reviews it’s received so far. I’ll be going on about that book again very soon, I know.

In the meantime, though, a short story that came to me this morning. No idea how it popped into my mind. And not all of it is true. I’m not about to tell you which bits are false, though…

I never told you

I lifted the nib from the paper, watching the ink colour dark blue against the white. A fountain pen, the first time I’d written with one in years. It was old, expensive once, and probably antique now, the better part of half a century old. It had been father’s, of course. One more thing he’d bought that we couldn’t really afford. But then, he was a man who’d occasionally spend money we didn’t have. Like the watch that cost far more than most men made in a week, or the baby grand piano that hardly fitted in the front room, and big Wolseley car with leather seats and a walnut dashboard. The type of thing that drove my mother to silent despair.

And this was what remained. Fifteen years since he died. The fountain had passed to me. I’d put it in a drawer and just found it again the week before. Then some cleaning and finding somewhere to buy real ink. That wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined; apparently penmanship making a comeback. Artisan copperplate. Retro chic, of a sort.

What to write, though? That was a good question. Weighing the pen in my hand, the way it slid comfortably between my fingers, it seemed to demand something special.

I’m a left-hander. We’re not built for writing with instruments like this. We either have to turn our hand crabwise or hold it in an unnatural position to avoid blotting everything with the side of our hands.

I’m old enough that I learned to write with the old type of steel nib that had to be dipped into an inkwell. A relic of Victorian times, barely a step up from a goose quill. The year I turned ten, a teacher told me in June that I needed to learn to write without the awkward blotting before I returned to school in September. I did. I sweated the summer away, practising. At that age you don’t question authority; you adapt. I still write that way, not that I actually write much anymore. All my work is on the computer now. Yet I still remember the relief when I started A-level classes and we could take notes and submit essays in ball point.

The last thing I wrote with a fountain pen was a letter. To my girlfriend of the time, quite formally breaking things off. We’d been going out for almost six months, almost an eternity at that age. Long enough that people thought of us as a single unit – DaveandJane.

She went to the girl’s school next to our boy’s grammar. I’d wait at the bottom of the hill in the morning so we could walk up together. Then later, in the afternoon, back the way we came, talking about – I don’t remember.

Truth to tell, there’s very little that I do remember. Her face won’t even come into focus in my memory. It should. After all, she was the first girl I believed I loved. We lost our virginity to each other, a scrambled, dismal affair on my bedroom carpet that lasted seven seconds, if I’m being generous. Yet the years have turned her hazy. Gauzy. Try to touch the memory and my fingers slip right through it. I’m not sure if that’s a talent or a failing.


Those were days of longing. Innocent days, still a couple of years away from discovering that sex could be oral, too. Jane went on holiday for a fortnight with her parents. I pined and kept a diary – in ball point – and played “Wild World” over and over.

We’d stared going out after she split up with a boy in the year above me. It was one of those things she never wanted to discuss. No comparisons, no recollections. I never persisted; some dogs were safer left sleeping.

But after six months, I heard a whisper. A quiet word from a friend. The kind of thing to start the paranoia twitching. Someone had seen her in town, sitting in a café, talking to her ex.

Ask her? Confront her? I was sixteen, I didn’t have that much confidence. Or perhaps I was scared of an answer I didn’t want to hear. Fear seemed to crowd in around me, especially after another friend said they’d seen her with him at the cinema.

I sat in my room, playing guitar and waiting for inspiration.

We still walked to and from school together. When I looked in her eyes, everything seemed quite normal, quite content. But was that some reluctance in her kiss? One weekend she said she wouldn’t be able to see me – relatives were visiting. Yet when I accidentally strolled past on the Saturday afternoon, her parents were working in the garden. They didn’t see me, no conversation.

My throat went dry, I felt sick.

At home, I took a sheet of notepaper and picked up the fountain pen.

I made up an elaborate tale. I’d been seeing a girl from another school for three weeks. I apologised for cheating, but now I was admitting it, and it was only fair to end things. I knew Jane was wonderful, but this was the only right way to end things. I apologised again, waited until the ink was dry, folded the paper and put it in an envelope. I knew the address by heart. I still do, for that matter.

Strike first. It was a matter of adolescent pride. Walk away with my head held high or be known as the boy who was dumped.

I left early for school on Monday morning. She wasn’t waiting by the parade of shops after the final bell rang. It was over. It was done. The next I saw of her, she was holding hands with her older boy. He saw me and smirked.

In sixty-three years, I’ve told my share of lies. Hard to live that long without a few. But that was the first big one. I put the pen to paper again.

I never told you the truth.

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