A letter plops onto the mat from Tord Grip. I wondered if this was the same Tord Grip who is something of a luminary in the world of foopball coaching, but apparently it is a different Tord Grip altogether. Anyway, here is what he has to say for himself:
Dear Mr Key, I have been a devoted reader of yours for many years. Something that has particularly struck me is your fondness for the motif of a character “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”. You return to this again and again. Sometimes the person so leaning is a fictional character and sometimes, in first person narratives, it is you. I am not so naïve as to think that the “I” figure in such tales is actually you, and that the pieces are wholly autobiographical. I realise that the first person narrator may be a fictional or semi-fictional version of yourself. This interpretation is not simply common sense, but is borne out by Roland Clare in his introduction to the anthology By Aerostat To Hooting Yard, where he makes the point that “When Key … conducts occasional epistolary dialogues with correspondents … – almost certainly not real people – his engagement with them shades his own status with a fictional quality. His uncertain standing is compounded by the … pieces written in the first person”, and he posits a distinction between “Frank Key, author of the blog vs Mr Key, the quasi-fictional entity”. So, when you report that you were “at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, leaning insouciantly against a mantelpiece”, are we to infer that this statement is factual or fictional? Or are we deliberately left on shaky ground, uncertain, bewitched, bothered, and bewildered?
Incidentally, the quotation above from Mr Clare also calls into question my own existence, as one of your correspondents. While I know in the very core of my being that I am a real person of flesh and blood – I need only bash my head against my writing-desk to confirm as much – ouch! – your readers may, like Mr Clare, think I am “almost certainly not real”. Whether or not their suspicions will be heightened or dampened by the coincidence that I share my name with one of the tiptop figures in the world of foopball coaching, I cannot say. In my part of the world, Tord Grip is not so outlandish a name that one can jump to any conclusion in the matter. I think it best to pass over my further ruminations on the question of reality, otherwise we would be here all day and in all likelihood end up with what my clinician has dubbed “crumbling of the brainpans”.
Instead, I should like to turn to the reason I am writing to you in the first place. It so happens that one of my hobbies – alongside knitting, sandpapering rough surfaces, and bird observation – is enacting short extracts from my favourite writers. To this end I have, in recent weeks, gone about wearing a little Ether Hood (Emily Dickinson), taken pictures of Jap girls in synthesis (David Bowie), sucked innumerable pebbles (Samuel Beckett), and run screaming from a Paris hotel room after casting a spell to summon the great god Pan (Aleister Crowley). Having ticked these off in my ledger, next on my list was to go to a swish sophisticated cocktail party and lean insouciantly against a mantelpiece (Frank Key).
First of all, of course, I had to obtain an invitation to such a soirée. The difficulty with this was that, like you, I have been described as a Diogenesian recluse, and I don’t get out much – oh, wait a minute. That reminds me. If you are as reclusive as Mr Cutler asserts, how is it that you are forever attending swish sophisticated cocktail parties? I have spent an inordinate amount of time pondering this conundrum. Even if we take into account that many of the insouciant leaners are explicitly fictional characters, and concede that, pace Roland Clare, you yourself are quasi-fictional, there remains the fact that there is something compelling in these scenes that convinces the reader they must, at the very least, be the result of particularly acute authorial observation. Consider the swish and sophisticated nature of the cocktail parties, the insouciance of the person leaning, the brute solidity of the mantelpiece itself. It seems unlikely that such details could be fomented entirely within your head, absent of direct and emotionally shattering experience.
I am pleased to say that the result of my agonised mulling over the matter was ultimately beneficial. If Mr Key, as a recluse, can yet summon the nerve to accept invitations to swish sophisticated cocktail parties, I said to myself, then I too can screw my courage to the sticking place and do likewise. I said this to myself repeatedly, gazing into a mirror at my strange unnatural beauty. Eventually I was ready. But still I had not received any invitations.
I dabbled with the idea of skipping to the next item on my list, to ring upon the rein of a wimpling wing in my ecstasy (Gerard Manley Hopkins), but I am a methodical sort of person and I knew I would lie awake at night remonstrating with myself until I had completed the Frank Key element of my project. I had been very careful, when drawing up my roster, to place my proposed enactments in a very specific order, based upon the Blötzmann system (Yellow Notebook, Fifth Series). Though I was keenly aware of the possibility that Blötzmann, and his system, and his notebooks, in their series, were all fictional, having been made up by you, Mr Key, I have found his guidance invaluable in several different areas of my life, not least the careful compiling of lists in very specific orders.
I thus found myself at an impasse. I could not move on until I had leaned insouciantly against a mantelpiece at a swish sophisticated cocktail party, and I could not attend a swish sophisticated cocktail party without an invitation. Or could I? Was it not possible for me simply to gatecrash such a do? Hell, yes!, as Ed Miliband would say. But first I had to find a party to gatecrash.
Much as it went against my reclusive nature, I took to stalking the streets of an evening, stopping when I came upon a building with a window alive with lights, and peering in to see if a swish sophisticated cocktail party was in progress. I had already planned how I would gain entry. Knocking at the door, I would pretend to be an emergency postman with an urgent delivery for – at which point I would counterfeit a violent coughing fit and bite on a capsule of blood tucked in my cheek. Spraying what was in reality a small amount of duck’s blood all over the hallway carpet, I would stagger into the house and collapse. While the host ran for help, I would stand up, dab at my mouth with a napkin to erase any traces of gore, comb my hair, take off my emergency postman’s jacket and stuff it behind the umbrella stand, then sashay into the main room where the party was in full swing, grab a cocktail from a tray, and make for the mantelpiece, against which I would lean insouciantly. Job done.
I don’t know if you have ever stalked the evening streets in search of a swish sophisticated cocktail party to inveigle your way into by dint of a foolproof scheme, but believe you me it is not as easy as it sounds. Perhaps I was stalking through the wrong part of town, down by the docks where the sailors all meet, eating fish heads and tails, splitting the night with the roar of their jokes, laughing and lusting till the rancid sound of the accordion bursts. The lit windows I peered into framed scenes of unimaginable depravity and debauch. Nor did I spot a mantelpiece clean enough to lean upon in my specially-hired Ferdinando Boffo dinner-suit, worn beneath the emergency postman’s jacket.
I turned down an alley towards what I hoped would be a more salubrious part of town when I became aware of footsteps following me. There was something inexplicably menacing about them (M. R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu, E. F. Benson – names absent, alas, from my list). I quickened my pace, and so did the footsteps. Determined to confront whoever – whatever – was following me, I turned around. To my horror I saw, silhouetted against the sickly moon, the lumbering walrus-moustached psychopathic serial killer Babinsky! My mind was a chaos. I had always believed him to be a purely fictional maniac dreamed up by you, Mr Key, to trouble my dreams. Yet here he was, all too real, lumbering relentlessly towards me. As he raised his blood-drenched axe above his head, preparing to strike, intermingled with my terror I felt a small measure of solace that, though it was not the enactment of a Hooting Yard scene I had planned, when I drew my last breath having been felled by Babinsky, I would, inadvertently, be recreating a common motif from the works of Mr Key. There can be no more piquant farewell to this life, be it a real life or, perhaps, perhaps, an entirely fictional one.