Paperback: 224pp

Published: Lightning Books (April 2024)

ISBN: 9781785633904

The Body in the Mobile Library

Peter Bradshaw

£9.99

and other stories

‘Staggering and unforgettable storytelling’

Mel Giedroyc

In his retirement at the Vatican, emeritus pope Benedict XVI is hard at work on his magnum opus: a high-school comedy screenplay.

At a grimy pub in North London, a doctoral researcher is abducted by gangsters peddling William Wordsworth’s handwritten account of drug-fuelled sex orgies.

In the West African state of Benin, a politician’s daughter inherits a large cash sum which she can only launder with the help of a random Englishman sourced on the internet.

With twenty-one deliciously observed, gloriously mischievous short stories – some previously narrated on BBC Radio 4 or published in literary magazines, others completely new – Peter Bradshaw explores the boundary between the plausible and the absurd, often with a laugh-out-loud gag up his sleeve.

Amid the playfulness, he has an enduring warmth and sympathy for every character, however hapless. He offers pinpricks of light in a dark sky of confusion and pain.

OUT APRIL 2024. AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW

Extracts

To celebrate the election of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in 1951, a former officer in the Polish air force called Tadeusz Andrzejewski bought a drink for a woman he’d only just met. This was in The Bell in Hendon, Northwest London. Elspeth Pierce was a seamstress at the Golders Green Hippodrome: she was a divorced woman in her early forties with a pretty smile. Tadeusz was still a virgin, despite having reached the age of twenty-five and seen dangerous action in the last war.

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Extracts

To celebrate the election of Winston Churchill as Prime Minister in 1951, a former officer in the Polish air force called Tadeusz Andrzejewski bought a drink for a woman he’d only just met. This was in The Bell in Hendon, Northwest London. Elspeth Pierce was a seamstress at the Golders Green Hippodrome: she was a divorced woman in her early forties with a pretty smile. Tadeusz was still a virgin, despite having reached the age of twenty-five and seen dangerous action in the last war.

‘Ooh, may I have a ciggie?’ was how Elspeth had struck up the conversation.

‘Of course – but how did you know I smoked?’ Tadeusz had smilingly replied. He had not actually had a cigarette in his mouth, or any pack visible.

‘I just guessed.’

They had lit up, and after some explanation of his accent, Tadeusz asked if she had been up all night for the election. Elspeth replied that it had been a while since she had been up all night. Tadeusz agreed, but said that he had actually stayed up late because he was pleased for Mr Churchill. He had asked what she might like to drink. Elspeth asked for a Gin and It; Tadeusz got himself another pint of bitter, and they carried on talking.

‘So why are you not at work?’ Elspeth asked.

‘I’m a student,’ Tadeusz replied. ‘I’m studying philosophy at Queen Mary’s College.’

‘Are you indeed? And you’re in here, philosophising!’

‘Yes! Yes, I am.’

‘And what’s your philosophy, may I ask?’

Tadeusz, amazing himself with his forwardness, took Elspeth’s hand.

‘My philosophy is: seize the day.’

‘Gosh, mine too.’

They finished their drinks and Tadeusz bought the same again.

‘So what are you doing here in the afternoon, Elspeth?’ he asked, once they were settled again and talking about her job.

‘Well, there’s not much for me to do,’ she replied. ‘There’s no matinée today.’

She was working on a show called For The Fun Of It. They talked a little about that, and both silently noticed that the saloon was now entirely empty; they had a sort of privacy. Even the landlord was serving customers over in the public bar. This was not to say that another drinker might not come in at any moment.

‘I think you should be on the stage,’ said Tadeusz, extravagantly. ‘You’re much prettier than all those girls!’

‘Thank you darling!’ Elspeth exclaimed brightly, then leaned forward and kissed him on the lips.

The kiss continued. Elspeth’s tongue swarmed into Tadeusz’ mouth, and he set his glass back down on the table with a bang: it nearly spilt. They carried on kissing, and Tadeusz placed his hand on Elspeth’s right breast. She pushed his hand away but carried on with the kiss. Tadeusz now had a very painful erection. Finally, they broke apart and smiled shyly at each other. Hardly knowing what to do or say, Tadeusz fumblingly took out a ten-pound note and made to go up to the bar for more drinks, but Elspeth stopped him.

‘Don’t spend your money on drinks,’ she whispered to him. ‘Let’s go back to my flat. Brent Street. Do you know it?’

Tadeusz nodded quickly and emphatically, like a child. She leaned in closer.

‘Do you have a French letter, Tadeusz?’ Elspeth murmured.

‘Back at my digs.’

‘Go and fetch it, darling, and meet me at 97B, Brent Street.’

They both rose, Tadeusz a little unsteadily, and parted at the door; he hurried downhill to his rooms in Stratford Road and Elspeth more calmly went up towards her place.

Tadeusz did indeed have a contraceptive at his rooms, and could hardly believe that he was now about to put it to use. He walked more quickly.

As for Elspeth, she had a way of asking her new gentlemen friends for presents and was adept at timing the question. As Tadeusz was undressing in her bedroom, she would say something like: ‘Can I have that ten pounds, now, ducks?’ implying that they had already discussed the matter. The poor boy would be too embarrassed to make a fuss, too ashamed to admit that he had misunderstood the situation, too mortified to confess he genuinely thought he was so attractive as to sweep a woman off her feet at five minutes’ notice in the middle of the afternoon. He would hand over the money as meek as a lamb and they would go ahead. Elspeth could later, of course, with many forgiving endearments, tell Tadeusz she didn’t do this for just anyone, and that he was special.

Now trembling almost uncontrollably, Tadeusz arrived at his own front door and let himself in with his latch-key. He couldn’t help imagining Elspeth in her underclothes, and then in no clothes at all.

He kept his contraceptive hidden. It wasn’t in his rooms, where he knew his landlady would discover it, but in a concealed ledge by the steps in the building’s cellar, a gloomy, cavernous and frankly noisome space. It actually descended two levels below the ground, but the lower floor had been damaged by a bomb in the war. A brick staircase took you down eight steps and below that there was a void, a dark, empty and dusty vault. It was also very cold.

Tadeusz opened the door and pressed the light switch. Nothing. The bulb must have gone since he was last down here. He gingerly took two steps further and felt along the grimy brick levels to his right. Where was that contraceptive sheath? He couldn’t see. Angry and impatient, Tadeusz felt for his matches and, while both of his hands were thrust deep into his pockets, he stumbled and fell fifteen feet, head-first onto the stone surface below. He broke his neck, lost consciousness and died.

Tadeusz had made no noise, and the cellar door had swung closed behind him. Nobody had noticed him come in. He lay there, in the utter darkness, his feet pointing towards the front of the house, facing up, having effectively performed a twin-phase somersault on hitting the ground. The hours until teatime went by. Other tenants gathered in the dining room above for the evening meal and many people remarked on Tadeusz’ absence, particularly his landlady, Mrs Price. His rent, which he had paid three months in advance, was for half-board: bed, breakfast and evening meal, prepared in Mrs Price’s notoriously reeking kitchen. In Brent Street, Elspeth assumed that he had got cold feet and equably prepared for the evening’s work.

The days went by and Tadeusz’ disappearance became a subject of general conversation. A college official called at the house to ask if anyone knew of any reason why Mr Andrzejewski was persistently absenting himself from lectures and tutorials. Mrs Price telephoned the police and wrote to Lt Cmdr Richard Wilson, the RAF officer who had provided her with a reference for Tadeusz. Both were unable to help; the assumption was that he had simply gone home. Both his parents were dead and there were no relatives to notice his absence. Eventually Mrs Price re-let his room after confiscating and selling its contents: clothes, books. There was also an envelope containing fifty pounds in cash, which she quietly took and did not mention in her many shrill complaints about the situation.

Tadeusz’ rigor mortis relaxed. His face, quite invisibly in the cellar’s darkness, became ashy white as the blood settled on the underside of his body, but his arms and legs, again quite invisibly, turned an inky blue-black. His skin progressively dried out and shrivelled and made his hair and nails stand out the more starkly. His eyes, initially closed, half-opened in the dark as the eyelids contracted.

His lower intestine began to decompose, as micro-organisms broke down the dead cells. A greenish-brown patch began to spread across Tadeusz’ lower stomach, a sticky, damp mass of blisters, which stuck to and then ate through his vest and into his shirt, his trousers and his underpants. The putrefaction had begun. Bacteria spread through the body: the rotting advanced up his chest and down into his legs, and those two inert black flesh logs began to ooze and sweat decay. Presently, there was not a square inch of his clothing which was not saturated with degenerate matter. Internal gases pushed his intestines out through his rectum, and after two weeks, his stomach split along the fault line of a war wound with a report that was quite loud, but inaudible to anyone in the building.

The smell was not remarked upon by Mrs Price and her tenants, as the lower floors of her building were oppressed by the odours of her unclean kitchen, and the ventilation in the two icily cold basement levels was such that most of the odour was neutralised.

As the months went by, the decomposition continued in such a way that Tadeusz’ body mass diminished very considerably. Within a year, it was reduced and flattened, and a year after that it was hardly more than a dark, waxy outline upon the floor; the sticky, matted clothes gave it what substance it had. His skull was propped up at the top: a black cratered orb. The jaw became detached and rolled off Tadeusz’ right shoulder and onto the floor.

The years passed, the fifties became the sixties, and Tadeusz’ skeleton continued to thin down in the unvisited gloom. His bones, though ashier and more attenuated, continued to be an intelligible form. Mrs Price died in 1964 and her son, who wished in any case to emigrate to Australia, had no interest in managing a rooming house. And then the property, like everything else in the street, was subject to a compulsory purchase order, because the whole terrace was to be demolished to make way for three fifteen-storey blocks of flats.

The wrecking ball went through the buildings with an almighty crash and they collapsed heavily. Tons of masonry descended on Tadeusz’ remains and whatever unwitnessed form they had had for the previous fifteen years was, in a moment, utterly effaced. Some clearance was made and by the end of the decade the concrete foundations were being poured down into the vacant lot. The cement formed an undifferentiated mixture with the black atoms of Tadeusz’ residue, and above, the buildings climbed – three stark towers whose lift shafts and stairwells were always haunted by the howling of winds. As the seventies were succeeded by the eighties, Tadeusz’ molecules stayed constant in their cement animation, while the buildings became a notorious site for crime and drug dealing, but in the nineties the authorities discovered that this could be deterred simply by changing the open-plan design to make the premises secure. A front door would be added, with an entry code known only to vetted residents.

The twenty-first century dawned, with many of these flats sold off to their tenants or to other buyers: now they were desirable properties with excellent views over London and Middlesex. Their prices climbed, stalled a little with the crisis of 2008, and climbed again. But the dust got in from the pavement, and the sound of the wind was unceasing.

quotes

‘These stories go down as easily and deliciously as a tray of chocolates. But beware: each chocolate has a tiny grenade inside! Staggering and unforgettable storytelling’

Mel Giedroyc

‘It was a great pleasure to read one of Peter Bradshaw’s stories on Radio 4, and now it’s an even greater one to read his whole collection, which is by turns funny and macabre’

Michael Maloney

reviews

extras

ABOUT

Peter Bradshaw

Peter Bradshaw is the author of three novels – Lucky Baby Jesus (1999), Dr Sweet And His Daughter (2003) and Night of Triumph (2013) – and regularly writes for radio and television. His collected reviews in The Films That Made Me (2019) represent his work at The Guardian, where he has been chief film critic since 1999. He lives in London with his wife, the research scientist Dr Caroline Hill, and their son.

selected works

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