For a long time I’d had in mind to write a story around a guy I knew many years ago. Freddie was a compulsive alliterator, quoter of poetry and teller of inane jokes which he must have gathered from the Beano. None of us ever knew anything about his background. It was as if he was only ever real when we met him in the city centre. When the rest of us went home, somebody put Freddie away in his box until next time. Must have done. And he was, at times – I can’t quite put my finger on it – sinister. Sort of. Don’t ask me to explain that – he just was.
The difficulty was that so long as I was consciously trying to mould a character with Freddie as my starting point, it didn’t work. He didn’t come to life. And I couldn’t get a name for him. But then another character kept coming into my mind. An old guy who was a collector – a collector of books and jam pots and books and broken tellies and books and boxes and books. And more books. His home was packed to the ceilings with all his treasures. And then a newspaper photograph came to me from nowhere. An old lady and her very large son who had just been released after several years in prison, wrongly convicted of murder. (The real culprit was at last arrested some time before Bunderlin was published.)
At last, Peter Bunderlin came to life. With his family background, his dotty habits and his crime. He wasn’t any of those characters who inspired his creation. He was himself, a different guy altogether. He wasn’t wrongly convicted. He really did do it, but that didn’t stop him being one of the good guys. It just meant that nobody could understand him. Except Martin the academic historian, Scobie the old lag, and Maureen the retired prostitute whom he set up in a rented shop.
I suppose that while I was writing Bunderlin I became the character. If he was the master of the slightly off-target quote from Omar Khayyam, so was I. I could come up with the not-quite-right stanza at the drop of a hat, and I could mangle a proverb to suit any purpose. And once I had finished the final edit, it didn’t come quite so easily any more.
Here’s a snippet:
Two heavily made up young women in tight jeans were smoking and chewing gum. A middle-aged man with tattooed knuckles and wearing a leather-belted white boiler suit thrust his hands into his pockets and stared at his feet. Martin had expected many more than this. The small door in the large solid gateway opened and a prison officer stepped out whilst his colleague watched from behind him. He glanced at the waiting people, looked up and down the approach road and beckoned everyone inside.
From the main entrance they walked along the side of an open yard and went into a dismal room at the corner. First the women and then the man submitted sullenly to the brief search, handed over various possessions to be collected on the way out, and disappeared through the door at the far end of the small room. Martin stepped forward. No, he had no tobacco, drugs, chewing gum, knives or other weapons. He dropped his loose change, wallet and notebook into the box and joined the others, to be led to the visiting room.
It was set out with enough tables and moulded plastic chairs to accommodate far more visitors than the four of them. Martin took a seat at the table he was directed to and waited. A few minutes later Bunderlin was escorted into the room. When he was seated, the officer escorting him went to sit at the side of the room, just a few paces away.
‘How are you?’
The big man smiled faintly but said nothing. Conversation with Bunderlin was never easy. Today, Martin thought, it would be harder than ever.
‘Are you reasonably comfortable?’
Still no reply.
‘I tried to take Kenneth back. Tried lots of times but Franz was never there.’
‘Shopping. Always shopping.’
‘My sister Jean is looking after him now. She’s good with animals. Has a dog of her own. Border collie. And a Shetland pony. She’s got a decent field, about an acre, behind the house. They run free all day. Seem to enjoy it.’
‘Send me a photograph. They won’t let me have Kenneth in here, but I think they will allow me a picture.’
Bunderlin began to stand up and immediately the prison officer barked, ‘Sit down!’
Meekly, he sat. ‘Sit down, eider down, down derry down. Among the leaves so green oh.’
Martin laughed. ‘What do they make of you here?’
‘They make rules, they make little wooden boxes, they make tea. But they never make love-in-a mist or hay while the sun shines.’ He began once more to stand up.
‘Bunderlin! Sit down! And stay sat down till I tell you to stand up, or you will go back to your cell!’
Again he obeyed and slowly the seat gave way underneath his great weight. Its flimsy legs splayed and Bunderlin sank to the floor and looked set to stay there for what remained of the visit.
‘Bunderlin! Stand up, you idiot!’ barked the officer.
You can get it here: Bunderlin