These modest scribbles were originally set in motion by a school short-story competition. Write a story in five hundred words, we were told by our excellent English Head of English, Helen Day. Death and the Reader and its Oxford variation at the end were the initial result. Once I’d started I found I couldn’t stop: a tiny idea would occur to me and I found I was unable to rid myself of it until I had ‘written it out’. Psychobabble? Self-imposed literary therapy? There are worse ways of passing time, though I have to confess that, for a few days, alright a week, perhaps a little longer, my marking suffered a little. Then, as insomnia began to trouble me during the ‘UCAS’ term, a little four o’clock creativity helped to slip me back into an uneasy sleep.
All resemblance to any persons living or dead is entirely coincidental, as they say. What you read is fiction. I have borrowed some names, taken inspiration from the world around me, as every writer does, but only to seed the imagination. More often than not, it was an exercise in style, in tone, a flirtation with a particular voice, for the pure pleasure of it. For the most part I was interested in giving you, dear reader, some form of unexpected tickle, coming up with a twist, a sort of prose sonnet, to turn the little edifice inside out at the last moment.
The French Lesson, however, does make use of the names of my then Upper Sixth French class. For the avoidance of doubt, Guy would know what comes after a quantity in French, and Katy always has a pen. I am indebted to June Dunford, our superb librarian, for the idea for this story, and for the title which led to The Loneliness of the Long Distance Librarian. To the best of my knowledge she has no cannibalistic tendencies. The Choir sends echoes reverberating across my own life and the observation of others, while grazing the fringes of a true tragedy from the school. My current tutor group pass through the story entitled ‘UCAS’: I wish them every success with their exams this year, and fondly imagine that much of what is anticipated will indeed come true (Alayah and Lorimer - just teasing), though for reasons of national security, I am unable to confirm or deny whether Esther has indeed already been approached by the spooks.
Others are highly parasitic: obvious homages to Borges, Nabokov, Turgenev, Hemmingway. Readers will note the great librarian himself appears briefly, as does a fleetingly innocent shadow of little Dolores herself. The uncaring voice of the adolescent narcissist in Boys will be boys is perhaps the least convincing, but the attitude is unfortunately recognisable, though not from those of my own pupils who are thankfully civilised by feminine companionship. In First Kiss and Popular, almost all the text is composed of the discourse that fills a certain portion of the world we now inhabit. If the tone is mocking, I apologise: I am, if anything, filled with compassion for the young people struggling with the angst of tumescence and sentimental education in the digital age. In Femme Fatale, the original voice was French, possibly a little after Adolphe and similarly drippy creatures from Gide. Not really a modern tale at all, but it found itself transposed to something like the fin du vingtième siècle, so there it shall remain.
It is unfortunate that one of the stories, Heart of Darkness, was suppressed. I felt it captured rather compassionately a lost soul, but I was advised against publication. I am, if nothing else, always careful to take advice, and to act with due reverence, consideration and prudence, so there is an end to it.
If you want more, by all means let me know. I may well carry on. Or not. We’ll have to see how the fancy takes me. I am very busy with UCAS forms, finding ways to keep the Third Form awake as we wrestle with the passé composé, playing the games of Life with my colleagues and friends. My children frequently require re-enactments of Operation Overlord on the stairs. My stilton soufflé and other manifestations of vigour are greatly appreciated by my loving wife, Emma. This might be all I can manage. It’s hard being a teacher, you know. At the risk of sounding like a hawker of novelty cleaning products, at less than £1.00 for over 9000 words in total, this does represent tremendous value, and by letting your friends know of this modest publication, you are helping to keep a humble teacher from ruin, and modestly supplied with passable wine.
In the meantime, if these little nothings amuse or shock you for a few minutes on the train, before you plunge into a troubled sleep, or perhaps as you strain to block out the day ahead while guiltily hiding in the bathroom, I feel I have served a purpose to the wider public. I sit before you (no disrespect intended, but it’s easier to type this way, and in any case we can’t see each other); I sit before you (and by the way, I’m in pyjamas, but rest assured they’re really quite elegant: you wouldn’t feel uncomfortable were we together); and, humbly grateful, and gratefully humble, I thank you for your graceful attention and indulgence.
Julian Károlyi, March 2015