In The Vestibule

On the day Hattie Jacques died, Dobson was slumped in the vestibule of a large and shabby hotel, to which he had been summoned by a captain of industry. The out of print pamphleteer was on the verge his dotage, but was not quite there yet. If anything, his lucidity was terrifying. There were egg stains on his cravat.

The captain of industry failed to turn up, leaving Dobson in the lurch. At a loose end, and with barely a penny in his pockets, he slumped in the vestibule. The hotel did not have a commissionaire, or indeed anybody who cared that a pamphleteer was blocking the entrance, smelling faintly of egg.

Hattie Jacques died of a heart attack on the sixth of October 1980. The captain of industry whom Dobson was expecting to meet had died a day earlier. Nobody thought to look in his appointments diary. Even if they had, it would have beflummoxed them, for the captain of industry used an unbreakable code. He did this to lend himself an air of importance.

Of Norman Wisdom, with whom she appeared in The Square Peg and Follow A Star, Hattie Jacques said he was “difficult and self-centred”. The same could be said of Dobson. Indeed, he wrote as much, in a pamphlet entitled Why I Can Be Difficult And Self-Centred (out of print). Presenting an obstacle to anyone who wanted to enter or leave the semidilapidated hotel that afternoon was but one instance of this.

A number of people stepped over the slumped pamphleteer that day. Some even trod on him, so frantic was their haste. Dobson did not complain, for he was past caring. He was composing an essay in his head, as he often did, so that when he returned eventually to his escritoire he could scribble away at high speed. Sometimes he wrote so quickly that he scorched his notepaper.

The dead captain of industry had arranged to meet Dobson because he wanted the pamphleteer to write his biography. As we have seen, he had a massive and delusional sense of his own importance, and felt that only a master of majestic sweeping prose such as Dobson could do justice to his life. By any objective measure it had been a colourless and godawful life, devoted almost entirely to the manufacture and sale of buttons.

Hattie Jacques sported many buttons made by the captain of industry’s button company during the second world war, when she worked as an arc welder. The company provided the welding factory with all its buttons, and made its fortune in so doing. It was in the factory that Hattie Jacques nurtured her comic talents.

Dobson had been apprised of the reason for his abortive meeting, and, slumped in the vestibule, was tussling with a title. The Life Of A Buttoneer appealed to him, but there was already a book of that name, an adventure story by the bestselling paperbackist Pebblehead set in Wivenhoe and Cuxhaven. “A rip-roaring and emotionally wrenching rollercoaster ride!” exclaimed the review in Book Reviews With Lots of Exclamation Marks magazine.

Like Hattie Jacques’ ex-husband John Le Mesurier, the captain of industry had arranged his own death notice to appear in the newspaper. It read “Decisively Important Maker Of Buttons Is Dead. Keep buying his buttons so his name lives on for thousands of years.” One of the people who trod on Dobson in the hotel vestibule dropped his newspaper as he did so, and the page with the buttoneer’s death notice came to rest upon the pamphleteer’s egg stained cravat. He made no attempt to move it.

Hattie Jacques was buried in St Paul’s Churchyard in London. The captain of industry’s body lay undiscovered in his captainy penthouse flat, where it was gnawed by rats and mice. Eventually it was tossed into a furnace by a feckless janitor. The shabby hotel vestibule was not Dobson’s final resting place, thank god. At some point in the evening of that October day, he bestirred himself, scrunched up the newspaper that had fallen on him and shoved it into his pocket, finessed the cravat about his neck, and plodded home, difficult and self-centred, like Norman Wisdom, along lamplit streets. He had a while left before his dotage descended upon him.



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