Thievery: William Faulkner’s Typewriter
This month I’m doing a mentoring special to celebrate all the talented and diverse writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with through WoMentoring. Today we have Isla Telford with a Faulkner-inspired story.
‘Well, now, Mr Stevenson sir, you have a beautiful machine here. You are a lucky man, I hope you know that. How in the hell do you manage to take it with you on tour? These things are beasts.’
Mr Stevenson sniffed and shrugged. ‘I need it so I bring it. Can’t write this album on anything else.’ He sat down cross legged on the edge of the cleared circle, elbows on bare knees, chin resting on his hands. ‘So, you get much work?’
Jay unpacked the trolley. He laid a white sheet out over the floor and put a deep plastic tray in the centre of it. He tipped gasoline into the tray and topped it up with oil. He put two small trays next to the machine, then laid out his brushes, pliers, screwdrivers, benders, cloths and wire. He unlocked a smaller box. A tiny pfft of dry air escaped. Inside was fine grade glass-paper.
He stood up, stepped back, hands on hips, and admired the order he’d created. He caught Mr Stevenson’s eye, still crossed legged on the floor like a child in Hebrew school.
‘Feeling strong, fella?’ Jay winked and nodded to the Underwood.
Together the two men lifted the typewriter and lowered it into the gasoline-filled tray. Mr Stevenson shivered and started searching the room for more clothes to put on. Jay settled on his knees and took a deep breath in anticipation. He began to dismantle the machine. As he worked, he talked.
‘We got some loyal contracts still, sir. There’s a division of M15 based here in NYC and between you and me they use Russian rules – paper, files, change the type-rolls regular, lock and key. They don’t go in for these old machines, of course, they have electric Smiths. Still need an overhaul and repair works doing.’
Jay soaked a white cotton cloth in the gasoline mixture and ran it over the inside of the Underwood’s chassis. Mr Stevenson sat back down in the silk hammock. Jay didn’t look up from his work. He was glad of the strong petrol odour. It felt clean amongst this man’s filth.
‘Police, the same. DCI Unit keeps stuff offline, off computers, filed away.’
Jay lifted the key segment clean out of the base, wiped it over with the gasoline-soaked cloth and blew through the keys.
‘Then we got people pick something up at thrift shops, flea markets, can’t leave them behind, take them home, bring them to us. We got one shop now in Greenwich deals with restored machines, telling us they do a trade with kids in their twenties, tired of touch-screens, want to press a button for once in their lives, want to make a mark.’
Jay touched the lever down and pushed the chassis across the machine. The heavy sound of the ratchet ended in a dull ping. Jay sat back on his heels and sighed. ‘That sound is beautiful, ain’t it?’
‘Then,’ he said, removing screws from the sides of the machine and laying them in the box in height order, ‘we got people like you, get themselves something with a little bit of value and want to keep it nice.’ Jay put the lid on the box that held the screws and looked up. ‘I gotta ask, Mr Stevenson, what d’ya hafta pay for her? Professional interest, and I am sorry to ask.’
Mr Stevenson screwed up his nose, felt around inside the hammock, found his cigarettes and offered one to Jay.
‘Quarter? About £250,000. Dollars, not pounds. Back when dollars was less, like.’
‘And has she been pretty good to you so far? Sir, I have to ask you to take the lit cigarette away from the machine and the fuel.’
Mr Stevenson rolled out of the hammock and opened the balcony doors. Crisp chill and mulch and traffic.
A couple of years ago I picked up a copy of Wild Palms by William Faulkner from a second-hand book shop. It was February half term. I’d taken my two small sons to visit my parents in Gloucestershire. One day we took a picnic to Newark Park, a Tudor hunting lodge owned by the National Trust, and I bumped into an old friend I hadn’t seen since I was at school. The same day I picked up a pile of books from the honesty bookshop in the lodge. I paid £3 for eight books. This may not have been technically honest, it did not follow the instructions in the handwritten signs, but it was all I had. In recompense, I made note of a quote that was printed on an A4 sheet of paper and stuck onto the wall:
“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.” – Virginia Woolf.
I solemnly swore to the quote by Virgina Woolf that I would read them all.
The following eighteen months were awash with life: house-moves, redundancies, precarious self-employment, Brexit, Trump, personal deaths, public deaths, illegal wars, climate change, fracking, children dying in boats, the funeral of that same friend from Newark Park. Something shifted in the way we operated. Even friends who are proud Luddites succumbed to smartphones. Everyone I knew seemed overwhelmed by grief and panic. I turned 37. I felt solidly in the middle of my life. I was able to look back as well as forwards. I became reacquainted with my teenage rage.
And at some point I read William Faulkner for the first time. Wild Palms balances the complexities of mid-20th Century racial politics in the Southern States with a story of what happens to a couple as they try to live with love as their fierce imperative. (Spoiler = not much good.) I was bewitched. As a child I used to write my diary in the style of the book I was reading at the time. I tried to do the same with Faulkner. The results were unflattering. I also wrote a 2000 word story made up of just three sentences in emulation of his grammatical mastery. My story, to date, remains rejected. But I am stubbornly covetous of Faulkner’s mastery of rage and grief and his portrayal of the brutal fragility of that which is beautiful.
The typewriter repair firm in William Faulkner’s Typewriter is a real one: they are still fixing machines in New York City for people who can’t live without that clatter and ping. My latest writing tutor, Michelle Green, gave me a newspaper article from the New York Times about the oldest typewriter repairman in New York. The story was that the oldest typewriter repair man in New York City had never learned to type. I didn’t change the name of the firm. I was seduced by this archaic constant as we live through a time of chaotic and irrational change. In my writing I am weak on plot. I have written many stories where the only thing that happens is that the protagonist fails to, say, cross a road. On the same course we were given the tip to structure a short story as a three-act play, which is what I tried to do here. It forced me to write characters that were visually dramatic … even if I’m still a little light on plot.
And William Faulkner found his way in to lend beauty to rage. I hope I one day to learn to do the same.
This story can be read in full in William Faulkner’s Typewriter: Short Stories by New Manchester Writers.