Fiction | The Operated Englishman by Alex Pheby

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    Portrait of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottlieb Becker (1720-1782)

    Alex Pheby


    The Operated Englishman

    (after Salomo Friedlaender)


    It’s going to test our collective patience, but I’d like to take some time to talk about – I suppose eulogise – my old friend Gary ‘Little’ England(-er). As much as I’m able to, of course – he was so much more complicated than I could ever claim to be. It would take a real writer, an actor, an artist, a doctor, a fashion designer and probably a psychoanalyst all-in-one to do Gary justice – the things he said, the way he walked, the things he did, who he was. I’m not quite up to it, really; I can only give you a rough idea of the man.

    Gary was a hunchback – he suffered from kyphosis, I should say – and had a pigeon chest which bulged out under his preferred day and evening wear: an England football shirt. He was crooked. When he walked down the street he lurched off towards the kerb, or into the wall, and it was disconcerting until you got used to it. He was used to it and the weird shapes the nylon took on every time the wind blew, suggestive of the terrors hidden beneath a mortuary sheet.

    Gary’s face was ugly. Imagine black-and-white photos of Victorian criminals, callipered phrenologists’ specimens, captured Nazis – his face was like that: staring piggy eyes, grey blush to the cheeks and the brow, lips pulled tight across an under-bite, the constant impression of someone thinking thoughts that would be actionable under the law if they ever came to light.

    He had a nose like a fleshy lightbulb, or the pear from Arcimboldo’s Vertumnus, and a single eyebrow several shades lighter than his hair. In an earlier age he would have been drowned at birth, or exposed on a hill, which he said accounted for the fact that he wouldn’t learn to swim and hated the countryside.

    His teeth were brown-yellow, but strong – the fluoridation of the working classes – and he had a fat tongue that lolled out when he was thinking: a wet, half-inflated, purple airbed.

    He’d never been able to grow a beard or moustache.

    If all that wasn’t enough, he had rickets from never going outside as a child, preferring to stay in his council flat all day with the curtains drawn ‘on the Atari’.

    Later, I’ll touch on his lank, dry, flyaway hair.

    So, that is a rough still life: Portrait of the Gary as a Young Man. No idea how I’m going to capture what he was like in the round.

    When his mother and father emigrated from the deindustrialised coal fields, having taken Norman Tebbit’s advice to heart, he was still a toddler. They both went out to work and he was dragged up by a neighbour, a cockney shut-in whose accent he picked up. By maturity he had an idiosyncratic, anachronistic, ahistorical, ageographical accent that was neither one thing nor another.

    We didn’t care and he was fine about it. In general.

    Outside, this speech impediment was a different matter, but that was only half the problem, in any case, because he had a cerebrally palsied – muscular dystrophic? – control of his limbs (like a dancing Ian Curtis, or a seated Joey Deacon, if you remember them). When he walked (as well as the listing), Gary leaned as far back as he could go, and his bow legs jutted out, laterally, feet sideways, kicking. He never seemed to look where he was going; his face pointed almost directly up, eyes squinting against the sun. It was probably the rickets, but it seemed as if he was doing it for effect (though God knows what effect he was after). I asked him once why he walked so stupidly, he replied: ‘So I can get where I’m going!’ It took a lot of effort, and he committed to it fully – a gentle stroll had Gary sweating, beads dripping off his lank, dry, flyaway hair, plastering strands of it to his forehead. That might have been why he wore football shirts – to wick away all the sweat that just moving around provoked.

    He needed something breathable because all ordinary activities were like sport to him.

    His spasticity was different depending on which mood he was in, good or bad. He wasn’t irritable – he was too unfit and lacking in motivation  to get truly angry – but he did like to debate when the opportunity arose; then he’d sit up in his seat, draw back his trembling upper lip, aquiver with the force of his passion, his discoloured teeth like the pictures dental hygienists use to frighten the vain into a course at the whitening clinic.

    He’d bring his arms out, hands clutching rhythmically, lean across the table, threatening to scatter the assembled glasses, jut his head forward and back, like a pigeon, and then honk enthusiastically… like a goose.

    This was before he said anything.

    You could generally guess from this preliminary performance which way his argument would go – pro or con the consensus. Whatever he then said would be punctuated by animal sounds – dog snarls, bull roars, lamb bleats – all in place of anything more rational. He married these sounds to a very committed but seemingly random series of full body charades; if he sensed he was losing you, he’d twist from the hip, turn his entire barrel- chested torso towards you and beckon like an epileptic Salome, drawing you in – a pound-shop Franz Friedrich Anton Mesmer – gangly arms and grunts and grimaces and cajoling.

    So there was that.

    Then he’d begin to orate. How am I going to get across the nauseating mix of half-Yorkshire, half-Cockney, half-Discovery Channel, half-1950s- depressed-old-maid, half-gangster-rap, half-deaf-school, half-Karl-Marx, half-Malthus, half-Asperger’s, half-Tourette’s, half-and-half babble? I can’t. What I’ll do instead is write down, phonetically, some of the things I remember Gary saying.

    First, things of interest to the etymologists. He had two particular rhetorical devices which he used over and over that seemed to have no real meaning. Gary would say – when I asked him about his principled insistence on the wearing of official FIFA endorsed kit and David Beckham brand aftershave, for example – ‘Why shouldn’t I buy meself the proper stuff? – ‘kin Adidas trainers – ‘kin worth it, aint I? Kant, Kant.’ The reader will notice two words out of place in that transcription the presence of which is not to be accounted for by dictionaries. Firstly: ‘kin. This was a blurt accompanied by a spasm in the neck which brought the whole face forward an inch and drew it back again immediately. Occasionally this would be fuh-kin, but with such a stress on the ‘kin that the fuh never got an audible foothold. Most of the time ‘kin seemed to be used if Gary had some trouble thinking of the next word in the message he was delivering, so there was a great deal of it when he was excited. Secondly, the use of the Prussian enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant’s surname was more of an interjection or exclamation, and it had a life and meaning all of its own. He’d bark it – or cough it with phlegm – at the end of almost any sentence, usually as a capping off of an idea. He really made Kant work for him, and I’m not sure you or I would ever be able to win an argument in quite the same way as the use of Kant won countless arguments for Gary ‘Little’ England(-er).

    So how did he and I come to meet?

    Well, he was certainly an interesting case study, from a scientific point of view. I was attracted to him as one might be attracted to any freak. Perhaps there was also an element of charity.  He took terrible pains to adapt to going up to university, our way of walking, thinking, our gesticulations, the expressions of our intellectual traditions, our manner of speech and it seemed un-Christian to leave him helpless. But mostly it was selfish, on my part – I wanted to learn something about Gary’s culture. Rumours had always spread about their way of life, and though he wasn’t an ethnographer or a sociologist, he knew a lot about their little customs and behaviours, their foibles and habits – things that could not be found in the books or soap operas written by their betters.

    The more time I spent with him, the more rumours were spread about me by my peers, mainly centred on his lottery win. Gary was conspicuously rich. As a man who had not ticked the box that would have kept his name out of the papers, he was the talk of the town. He was viewed as one might view a child raised by wolves, or a kidnap victim from a subterranean dungeon: here was the product of a dark, filthy, debased, animalistic, nightmare world, who, by virtue of blind luck, found himself disgorged onto the shore of the greatest intellectual city in Europe, where he now stood blinking and clueless.

    Consequently, he and I were looked on with both astonishment and fear.

    I set about making some improvements here and there that would make him more acceptable to the world he found himself in.

    ‘Gary,’ I said to him one day, ‘you must change the way you walk. You’re all over the place, and this is why you’re mocked and ridiculed by passersby.’

    ‘Wot dya wan me to do abah tit? Ya reckon I’m not sick abah tit already?’ Gary shrieked. ‘Ah’ve allays walked like dis all me bleedin’ life. Me da does it, we all does it. Fix these rickets! I’ll pay whatever it costs!’

    We began looking for an orthopaedic specialist who’d agree to fix him, but they all tended to be of the opinion that his bones were now set. There was one man – a professor, an anatomist – who agreed to take a look at Gary’s skeleton and see what could be done for it. He stripped Gary off, made measurements, did gait analysis, MRIs. He said he’d never seen anything like him. Were we sure he was human? Gary said he could show him his birth certificate if he needed proof.

    The professor said, ‘If what I see before me is a human, then we better set to work making it look like one. But,’ he paused, ‘it will cost you…’

    ‘Money’s no ‘kin object!’ Gary interjected, very enthusiastically. ‘I’ll write you a ‘kin cheque. Kant. Make me a real boy! Kant, Kant!’ hands at shoulder height, head back, body rocking, teeth exposed, spit-flecked.

    It wasn’t any easier than it was cheap.

    The doctor smashed his bones with a hammer, set them straight, pinned them, and cased him in a tractioned corset. His neck was lengthened and braced. Physiotherapists formed and reformed his musculature, exercising and stretching him despite the obvious agony it put him through. Vast sums of money were transferred to the doctor and his staff of nurses and consultants.

    After three months there had been some progress, but not much;   the bow legs were not properly straight. The doctor tried to calm Gary down by pointing out that plenty of professional people – lawyers, bank managers, PR consultants – could be found with bent legs, but Gary wasn’t convinced. If he was going to do it, he wanted to do it properly – he wanted to be a proper blue-blooded Englishman and give up his working class physiognomy.

    New gene replacement therapies were coming to trial so they identified the genetic markers for Gary’s particularly inhuman form of humanity, took good genes from unwanted embryos (the Harley Street IVF clinics were full of them, apparently) and spliced them in, diluting the Gary-ness of Gary.

    The money was paid, and he spent further weeks in bed, dosed with drugs to prevent Gary’s virulent working class auto-immune defences –strengthened by his upbringing in the slag heaps of Yorkshire into a state of dangerous potency – from rejecting the pristine, but very delicate new DNA.

    Gary’s accountant sent cheque after cheque, much to the delight of those offering the ancillary services Gary made use of over the many weeks it took him to learn to walk again, and there really was some progress, in the end; he was now taller, and actually resembled a human being.

    And not just his legs: his face became symmetrical, his chin less pronounced, his pigeon chest was flatter, and the shapes his football shirt made were no longer those beneath Frankenstein’s monster’s jacket. The doctor addressed his tendency to flail about by placing a spiked belt above his waist, under his ribs, so that pain met any unnecessary movement.

    Still, that wasn’t the end of the problems. It was obvious, despite his now pine-like straightness and chinless symmetry, that one could still not introduce Gary into society – his speech was too oikish. There was never any hope of transmogrifying his dialect – he’d learned too many bad habits – so instead he was taught our speech as if it was Latin, or Greek. Volunteers were recruited from the local independent schools to sit with Gary and talk to him about things of interest to them – rowing, rugby, cricket, et al. – under the watchful eye of experts in physiological linguistics. Polite conversation was ingrained into Gary’s muscle memory and synaptic pathways. He was quarantined from any of his old associates and family so that he couldn’t backslide. He was, at great expense, inducted into the new world.

    Space doesn’t allow me to itemise every alteration, emendation, modification and ignominy Gary ‘Little’ England(-er) submitted himself to. He suffered in his cause bravely, and after a while, the pallid whiteness of his skin took on the sun-blushed ruddiness of a country estate owner, despite the fact that he was never out in a field (I suspect it was some venous side-effect of his medication, but there bloomed a perfect mild rosacea). He also fixed his lank, dry, flyaway hair using some fearsomely expensive organic, paraben-free, lanolin-based thickening agent to create a wedge of matter capable of holding a high and slightly quiffed coiffure, something he then had tended by a team of barbers and ointment splashers. To top it off, he changed his name by deed poll to Sebastian.

    Gary was, in short, an entirely new person.

    He still wasn’t satisfied, however. ‘I’m a proper toff, real posh! Quite a gent,’ he’d tell himself, in front of the mirror. ‘Aristocracy, not workin clarse. Go wherever I wan, sit wherever I wan, no one knows the ‘kin difference. Kant!’ But there was a difference; Gary knew that. Inside.

    Was Gary properly human? Or was he like the other working class animals? A senseless, feckless, worthless slob. This we all debated – all those that had contact with him. He could hold a conversation on matters of interest – cricket, politics, business – just like we could, but was he really one of us? There is something inherent in the Englishman, some ineffable quality below the surface, that no trained ape can mimic, and the lack of it made his eyes dead and glassy.

    Gary wanted to know where the Englishness of the Englishman resided. We had to point out that this was something the greatest English thinkers had failed to answer, and so the question was wrong. The closest they’ve got, we said, is saying it is a matter of blood, and the bluer the better.

    ‘I’m gonna buy me sum blue blud! Where can I score blue blud?’

    You will shake your heads, but Gary knew about transfusions. He knew that it was possible to extract blood and lymph from one person and inject it, if one wished, so why not into him?

    None of the doctors would touch it – it had the sniff of vampirism – but Gary wasn’t deterred. We scoured the city searching for aristocrats who had fallen on hard times, offering them substantial sums for a pint of their good, blue blood. They weren’t difficult to find, but when they discovered what we were planning to do – to give an oik what wasn’t due to him – there was no amount of money we could offer. We had to set up a blood donation drive in a private girl’s school in the end. Gary himself sat behind the curtain as we bled those horsey young virgins pale, the blood going directly from their arms into his, he swelling as they withered. His bad blood was washed out and the pure blue stuff remained in its place.

    From then on he started reading poetry, attending book groups in provincial libraries, watching the old ladies as they read their Shelley, noting the nationalist stirrings in their breasts and the distant looks that passed across them like a film of oil rippling across the surface of a polluted duck pond.

    Gary had actors come to his house and made them perform Shakespeare for him – the famous parts at least – and after a while Gary was able to say things at the dinner table like ‘There is something so perfectly droll about Shylock, don’t you think?’ and he’d chuckle gently, as if to himself. His eyes were still flat and doll-like, but many people weren’t looking as closely as they might, and were fooled. He even got the breathing right: through the nose, without the mouth hanging open, and with the minimum of flaring.

    Once he heard someone remark that Sebastian was the quintessential Englishman, much to his delight (despite his not understanding what ‘quintessential’ meant).

    Gary still had a number of unacceptable habits, thought patterns, manners and eccentricities, but I chose to keep this a secret from those paid to socialise with him. Gary knew better than to tell them. During the day he was buttoned up as straight as any upper class gentleman, but when the door shut behind him, on went the football shirt, out came the tins of Heineken, and on went Sky; Kant, Kant, ‘kin, ‘kin, and all the rest in a stream unstaunchable.

    And even this was not the worst of it.

    His lack of willpower was one thing, but that’s a failure of personality and intellect; there were other things even more ingrained. Like all of his type, for example, Gary couldn’t relax when evacuating his bowels. Gary’s father and mother had an outdoor W.C. and Gary, as a child, shared their primal fear of rats emerging into the toilet bowl to bury themselves snout first into the gaping anal tracts of the straining proles. He would perch on the toilet seat, peering between his legs, watchful for a skittering black body and writhing worm tail, his underpants pulled forward and taut to improve his view.

    Distasteful and ridiculous as this fact is, it is a fact nonetheless. Beneath the surface there was much about Gary that had not changed, parts of his organism that could not be changed. Still, he persevered.

    No Englishman is complete without a wife by his side, and Gary was particularly keen that his new self should be able to reproduce. Consequently, we went in search of a filly for Gary – good English stock to give his new respectability a chance of surviving a generation. An English rose was sought, and if she wasn’t a true beauty, she should at least possess enough of the weak-chinned, high-foreheaded, wiry-hairedness of the true Home Counties deb to offset his northern pit-donkey, pit-bull, mine-collapse-fodder heritage.

    Enquiries were made in appropriate circles and one ‘Penelope’ was found, more equine than even a horse might be expected to be, with teeth such as those that are generally only seen on production of a sizeable quantity of peanut butter, with almost no chin at all, so that the neck seemed to join directly to the cheeks. Between Gary’s accountant and Penelope’s father a deal was struck.

    The day was set for the wedding and everyone in Christendom was invited – all the people from the university, all the doctors, all the linguists, the sociologists, the osteopaths, the chiropractors, the corset makers, all their friends, and all of the society matrons and lords and pretenders and brides-to-be on the bride’s side, and the day was set.

    Now, there’s a saying that some women are all fur coat and no knickers – you’ll have heard that. Perhaps you are one of these women. You might even be a man of that stripe – I’m not one to judge! Perhaps you lie in other ways, make out you’re better than you are. Here’s some advice:

    Stop it now, because one day you’ll be found out. One day your fur coat will blow open in the breeze, and your naked knockers and minge, your scrawny, dangling cock and balls will be there for everyone to see.

    To lie is not English. The Englishman tells the truth, regardless of the consequences.

    With this in mind, let us return to the end of Gary’s sad tale.

    In the reception rooms of the Lamb and Flag there gathered the great and the good who had just recently witnessed the marriage of Sebastian and Penelope.

    The registrar hadn’t noticed anything awry in Gary’s paperwork and no one had any just cause or due impediment, which may or may not be related to the generosity with which Gary was lavishing his guests with favours and drinks. In fact, let’s try to put ‘Gary’ to the back of our minds – this was Sebastian’s day. It is Sebastian who is centre stage, and  if it is only by unprecedented effort that Gary is kept invisible below the surface, he is hidden, completely, and the tall, straight, blonde Sebastian covers him completely.

    They brought round the wedding breakfast. Sebastian had eschewed complex foams, purees, and veloutés, and insisted on standard English fare – soup, roast, and crumble done to traditional recipes. Except organic. And local. There had not been so much as a slug pellet within spitting distance of any of the veg provided at that meal, and the animals slaughtered could have walked from their pastures directly to the plate – indeed, the lowing of their remaining relatives wafted in through the open windows.

    The guests were shamed by the largesse with which Sebastian treated them: the wholesomeness of the provender, and the bounty with which it was provided, was belittling in its enormity, and even those used to the best were made aware of the privilege of eating at that table. The whole business was made more intimidating still by the punctiliousness of the waiting staff, who were hired on the say so of an ambassador, and were used to such a high standard of clientele that they carried themselves with a savoir faire exceeding that of anyone not themselves royally titled, or charged with the running of a nation’s political administration.

    So, here we go; it’s all about to ‘kick off ’, as Gary would have said.

    There was a definite shift of atmosphere as the meal progressed and the attention of the guests was directed, incrementally, away from the food, the service, and the guests’ inadequacy before it, to the happy couple at the head of the head table. Whether the food itself lost its power to awe, or whether the quantities of wine foisted on one and all, glasses filled the moment a sip was taken, had taken the edge off, it was hard to tell, but what wasn’t in doubt was the amount Sebastian had drunk. Every time anyone congratulated him on his good fortune, or wished him well, they did it with a raised glass, and Sebastian knew better than to snub a toast.

    Now Gary,  as with all men of his class, could hold his beer – often a gallon of it before needing to visit the conveniences – but wine was a different matter. Even the strongest lager does not reach the alcohol percentage of the average wine. Sebastian had failed to bear this in mind, and was necking glass after glass of the stuff, as if he’d have preferred to have it served by the pint. In fact, he’d drunk so much that the conscious parts of his mind were giving way to those studiously held in abeyance, and so lowered were his inhibitions that into his behaviour were creeping not only those aspects of his personality he’d spent such effort to repress, but aspects more primal, more shameful, too.

    Aside from that he’d loosened his corset, which had been oppressing him throughout the meal – ‘getting on his ‘kin wick, Kant.’ And now he was a proper Englishman with a proper English wife, didn’t he have the right to a certain level of comfort? On his ‘kin wedding day? And anyway he could hardly be found wearing a corset on the wedding night, could he? So he took it off.

    Then he began his bridegroom’s speech – out of turn.

    At first it was fine – good-natured, more cheerful than anything else: muttered half jokes and belly laughs. Analysts of linguistics would have made out a few ‘kins and an occasional Kant, but without knowing what he might have meant by these sounds, couldn’t differentiate them from the general run of phonemes expressed, and so they passed by unnoticed. There was plenty of audience participation, at first – the raising of more toasts to the bride, her mother and father, but as he went on, his posture reverted, gradually, to that which was described at the outset of this story, his hands outstretched, his chin jutting with every uttered ‘kin, making it more and more obvious what this sound represented. The Kants came thicker and faster, too – everyone that Sebastian mentioned bore that great thinker’s characteristics, especially the waiter, who had drawn away to a distance, unused to the breach in propriety that speech of this sort represented.

    ‘More wine! Kant, Kant! Aint a ‘kin Englishman ‘loud to drink on his wedden day! Kant!’

    Everyone was uncomfortable now, if they hadn’t been before – staff, guests, the extant cows in the distant fields, the birds – as Sebastian morphed by degrees from a red-faced plummy English lord to the red- faced sweating Gary, spit-flecked and flatulent, corsetless, stooped and damp beneath the armpits of his suit. No-one could quite believe what they were seeing, as if it was an ill-judged magic trick, or experimental stand-up comedy. Even Gary’s assistants were staring, the memory of his original form having been so comprehensively overwritten by their months of hard struggle to get him into shape.

    ‘Bring me the ‘kin wine, you ‘kin Kant!’ he bellowed, and the waiter was obliged to obey a direct order. He brought the bottle, and placed it before Gary with as much punctilio as he could muster. Gary took it to his lips and swigged. Thus fortified, he continued and all trace of his elocution was vanished and his vowels were there again, front and centre, and so also his common and vulgar mannerisms of expression. ‘England! The ‘kin greatest ‘kin country on ‘kin Urf. God’s own ‘kin country! And her,’ he pointed to his wife, ‘best of the ‘kin best! ‘Kin gagging to pluck England’s rose! Kant! After all my ‘kin work. Love her, I do. Gave my blood for England’s rose, I did!’

    Now he got up on the table and began a bizarre striptease. The guests scattered to the edges of the room, but no-one left; the sight had a sickening fascination, and the assembled were transfixed. He unbuttoned everything and allowed what would slip down to slip down. His legs bore the scars of the treatment for rickets, the skin ulcerated and pocked, and as the crowd watched the legs buckled anew, as if a circus strongman was bowing an iron bar. His arms were scabbed, like an addict’s,  from the needles that carried the blood transfusions, patches of necrotic flesh blackening, dead veins like rivers mapped in prison tattoos, Quink beneath greaseproof paper. He tore away his shirt, and his barrel-chested, pigeon- chested rib cage and crooked back were there for all to see.

    Penelope rushed into the arms of her mother, appalled.

    Lastly he pulled down his pants and, crouching and straining, his rat-fearing back passage relaxed into submission by all the wine and the good roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, stuffing, and horseradish sauce, shat a mountain in the midst of the feast and collapsed into it, muttering and murmuring.

    ‘Kant. Kant.’

    _


    Alex Pheby was born in Essex and moved to Worcester in his early childhood. He currently lives with his wife and children in London, where he teaches at the University of Greenwich. Alex’s second novel, Playthings, published by Galley Beggar Press in 2015, was shortlisted for the 2016 Wellcome Book Prize. His third novel, Lucia, published in 2018, went on to be the joint winner of the 2019 Republic of Consciousness Prize. Alex’s fourth novel, Mordew – the first in an epic fantasy trilogy – was published by Galley Beggar in August 2020.

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