Beauty That Melts The Bully’s Heart

He Had Fists like Bunched-up Pink Sausages, But He Loved to Sing.

Todd Brewer / 6.9.21

Longtime readers of Mockingbird will know of our admiration for the literary brilliance of Francis Spufford. His latest novel, Light Perpetual (which does not disappoint in the slightly) has a stirring scene of unexpected abreaction — tears and all.

When the reader is first introduced to Vernon Taylor as a boy, he is simply described as a horrible bully, with fists like bunched-up pink sausages to back it up. But Vern also loves to sing.

Fast forward fifteen years (as the novel does), and we meet Vern on the brink of his career as a property developer. The youthful bully has become a predatory businessman. He has concocted a scheme, but has no money, and the slightly younger McLeish appears as his latest victim. Vern needs a financial backer; McLeish’s footballer’s salary makes him a target.

Vern meets McLeish at a fancy restaurant to deliver the duplicitous blows. All has gone just as planned, but just before Vern can land the knockout punch his strength somehow fails him:


At this point he looks up, to give McLeish as planned a double eyeful of sincerity. But instead his gaze snags on a sight behind the boy’s head. There, stepping off the spiral stairs with a couple of brilliantined continental smoothies in attendance, is a face he last saw minuscule and fifty feet below him on the Covent Garden stage, pouring out song that soared to the six-shilling seats in the gods, and took him by the heart, and twisted. She looks older without the tragic-heroine outfit, and her face is unfamiliar in its mild off-duty sociability. But it’s her. Just there, a few feet away. That woman, there, is the key to a compartment of feeling inside him that he keeps secure even from himself. When he gives himself the opera, he doesn’t let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. He goes behind his own back. He slopes off on the quiet to the West End with his own mind averted from the certain knowledge that later he’ll be wiping his eyes with his hanky, he’ll be sitting up under the golden roof at Covent Garden leaking silently down both cheeks. His eyes prickle now.

He should be launching into this lunchtime’s patiently developed coup de grâce. All the goads of greed and humiliation and flattery have been deployed. It’s time to close. And, somewhere far off, he is still talking. McLeish is nodding. But it’s as if Vern has split. A Vern kept locked privately away, a Vern who trembles at beauty, a Vern who does not know what he wants or how to get it, a Vern tenderly incapable, has with truly terrible timing emerged to divide the attention of the Vern who needs at this minute to be driving events to their destined destination with as hard a hand as he possibly can. Out of the chrysalis of the usual him has crept this damp-winged other Vern, who only wants to stare. Who wants to hang his mouth open and gawp. Who doesn’t want to speak the lines insisted on by the plausible fat man in the blue suit. Who almost resents him, in fact, with his grubby little scheme. And meanwhile the Vern who has worked so hard is feeling hollow indeed. His strength is failing, his energy is dipping, his delivery of the last part of the pitch going from fiery to watery. Where’s the conviction? Where’s the belief he should be infecting McLeish with? Gone AWOL. Distractedly lingering over the sight of the diva being served consommé on the other side of the room.

‘So, right, it’s just your name I wanna borrow,’ he is saying. ‘People know you, and I wanna use that to raise the profile of the firm; give it a bit of glamour, while I get it going. If I can do that, I’ll put you on the books and give you a cut. Which could be worth a lot, later. When I’m doing the skyscrapers.’ Ghost of a joke at the end there, but that’s got to be the limpest attempt at a closing ever recorded. Surely no one would go for it. Fat chance, Vern. Fat chance. His wavering gaze slips off McLeish’s face, and past it: past it so obviously that McLeish can’t help but notice.

‘Fuck,’ breathes Vern, more in despair than in awe.

McLeish turns his head to see what the big attraction is. But all he can see is a skinny, foreign-looking woman in her forties with black hair. When he looks back, he finds that Vern has put his hand over his face and is looking at the world through the gaps between the bars of his fat pink fingers.

‘What?’ he says, somehow compelled to drop his voice to a churchgoing whisper.

‘You know I said you get famous people here,’ says Vern very quietly.

‘Well, that’s one of them. That’s Maria Callas.’

‘Sorry, I dunno who that is,’ says McLeish.

‘She’s a singer. She’s – how can I put this?’ Her vocal cords are like Bobby Charlton’s feet, he ought to say, or something like that, something pat and funny that will make sense of her to McLeish. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to connect these two worlds up; he doesn’t want to build any kind of jokey bridge between what he feels when Callas sings ‘Vissi d’arte’ and what he’s doing here today. They don’t match. He doesn’t want them to match. ‘She’s … amazing,’ he says lamely.

‘You’re a fan, ain’tcha?’ says McLeish. The boy is smiling at him. Not scornfully – kindly. Encouragingly. It occurs to Vern that McLeish has probably seen the odd person go tongue-tied and shy when meeting him. ‘You know what, you should go and say hello. G’wan. Now’s your chance. She won’t mind.’

‘No.’

Coaxingly: ‘Go on!’

‘No.’

McLeish holds his hands up in mock-surrender, looking indulgent and puzzled. ‘Fair enough, fair enough. No one’s gonna make yer.’

He looks at his chunky steel watch.

‘I should get going, really, Vern. So – just my name? No money?’

‘None.’

‘And you won’t be doing any of that Rack-man stuff ? Nothing dodgy?’

‘No.’

‘All right, then. Don’t see what I’ve got to lose.’

‘Great,’ says Vern. ‘That’s … great. I’ve got some papers for you to sign, then.’

‘Okey-doke,’ says McLeish. ‘Gotta pen?’

Vern has a pen. Vern passes McLeish the pen, and McLeish obediently signs there, there, there and there, without stopping, just as Vern would have been busting a gut to induce him to do if he were not in this enfeebled state. Consequently, without McLeish noticing that what he signed on page three was a mortgage guarantee.

‘There!’ says McLeish. ‘Fingers crossed, maybe you’ll keep me off British Rail. Cheers, Vern.’

Vern pays the bill and McLeish leads the way back up the stairs, past the flunkeys, through the mystic portal of wealth, out again blinking into London daylight. Vern does not look back at Miss Callas. Vern uses his last pound note to send McLeish off in a taxi. Wave, wave.

Then he totters away towards the bus stop. He feels very tired. He only has the sixpence left he needs to go home to Bexford on the number 29, and it takes an age, but somewhere along the way, around Waterloo, it begins to sink in that it worked. This morning he wasn’t a property developer. Now he is. He stops trembling. At the Elephant and Castle, a gaggle of schoolboys boil up onto the top deck towards his seat at the front but he gives them the look the speedball gets and they retreat. About halfway up the Walworth Road, he starts to whistle bits from Tosca under his breath, badly.