Where is My Mask of an Honest Man?

Laura Del-Rivo

Tales from West 11

Sample Passages

  • Portrait of an Author

    Joan Byker, 78, treated the composition of prose like one of the coprophiliac arts that used clay or tubes of pigment. Her green wirebound books were synaesthetic, being defaced or decorated with crossings-out and words in loops or margins wired into the text. The final logic was anything left standing. Her style was analytical but anal; of the mud-pie school of literature. She had had a novel published in the days of her youth when all a writer needed was cigarettes and seriousness, and publishers sat behind the desk behind the door that had their name on it. If one put in the talent and the work, the house was accessible.
    Each morning when woken by birdsong she girded herself with the rallying cry ‘Shit out; teeth in’, showing a preoccupation with hygiene; also to start the day before the possibility of dismay set in.
    In appearance she was jolly, weather-reddened, academic, raw-boned. On the occasions of a visit by the new landlord she wore a tweed skirt, baggy black jumper, and school socks and sandals. She received him with her legs braced apart, like a fielder.

    ‘Ms Byker? Harry Brightling. Angel have you any coffee? I’ve been up all night and on to a market in Kent. I bought some books. I see you’re a reader.’
    In the sexually aroused, businesslike manner of burglars and dealers, he assessed the furniture and other contents. The room seemed to belong to a clever but underdeveloped student: physical or emotional naivety looked out of her eyes. The many books included hikers’ guides of the Walks around Surrey sort and also leaflets for a wetland centre or Norman church. By their condition, the Oxford Etymological Dictionary, the Penguin Dictionary of Physics and the Keble Martin Concise British Flora seemed much consulted. Green wirebound exercise books were piled on a chair. A cooker, a sink and a fridge shaking with ague were in neglected collage. There was also a plastic bucket.
    On an amateur nature table, she had collected rocks like lower jaws with quartz teeth. Other rocks contained the fossilised imprints of molluscs and ferns. Twigs of fossilised wood were in the process of spontaneously combusting into ash and pyritic phosphate fumes more acrid than woodsmoke.
    She said, ‘Don’t touch that or you’ll smell of it all day. Millions of years old incendiary stink. If I’d known that the wood was unstable I’d have left it on the beach where I found it.’
    Brightling treated wherever he was as a club of which he was a member. He took it as his right to hold a magnifying glass to a painting. His hands were not clean; compromised but graceful.
    Joan was gratified by his interest in her belongings. She also liked his dissolute, sour-apple taint of whisky and the dark oily base of bergamot from which the higher notes had worn off; and the narrow black shoes whose high tight lacing puckered the supple leather. Footwear so gentlemanly could not fit a cloven hoof.
    She heated water in a saucepan.
    He said, ‘Sorry to arrive so actually shattered. I’ve a habit of gambling clubs or walking at night.’ The coffee which she gave him dissolved the gritty crystals of fatigue which itched and flashed behind his eyeballs. ‘I cut down on sleep.’
    She enthused, ‘Like Johnson and Savage. Of course they could walk and talk across 18th-century London in two hours. Now the city roars with the voice of dinosaurs, megalosaurian buildings rear up, herds of hypsilophodonts flee through the streets; archaeopteryx soars overhead. Did you say you were a gambler?’
    ‘Yes. But I gave up the club. The story is discreditable; I should not tell you.’
    ‘Oh, do.’
    ‘Very well.’ He prepared to entertain. In extremis he could perform a soft shoe shuffle. He leaned forward. ‘I was besotted by a red-haired croupier. One night I turned up at her place with a bottle. Actually it was half a bottle.’
    ‘Half a bottle?’
    ‘I was better looking then and could get away with it. In the morning it turned out we were not alone. She had a child, a two-year-old princess in a pink nightie.’
    Joan Byker angled Talmudic reasoning at this story. ‘Who looked after the child when the mother was at the club?’
    ‘The grandmother would stay the night. Anyway, during cornflakes, the phone rang. It was another mother asking about a playgroup. Joan, in that moment I saw that her plans for me were tame man in her single mothers’ group. I never went back, to the club or to the flat.’
    ‘You missed the club?’
    ‘Of course. But antiques dealing is a gamble. I should have brought the books I mentioned to show you. One of them is signed by the author.’
    ‘Which makes it more valuable according to the magic belief that virtue exists and is transferable from person to object.’
    ‘We think alike. The antiques trade turns on transferable virtue; from person to object as you said, and also of course from historical decades and centuries to the present. Virtue separates an 18th-century table or an art deco pot from their reproductions or fakes. It’s romantic theory expressed in terms of money, don’t you think?’ He tempted, ‘Now tell me something about yourself.’
    ‘Well, when I was at school I usually got the answers right because the questions were logical. Parsing a sentence or solving an equation are exercises in logic: one concentrates and works them out. Also the noun “student” has no gender. I was OK as a subject, but it turned out I was no good as an object.’
    ‘No good at what, Joan? I may call you Joan?’
    ‘Men; and fucking. Yes, you may. I was useless at all that. A complete dud. Now I’m old I’m free to do my own thing again.’ She gazed inspirationally upwards as if her palm balanced a leather netball and the girls in shorts shouted, ‘Shoot, shoot’, and finally, ‘Goal!’ She herself shouted, ‘Freedom!’
    In metaphor or legend she had regained the power of virginity.
    He said, ‘I must introduce my girlfriend to you. She’d be more helpful.’
    ‘Not the same one?’
    ‘Absolutely not.’
    ‘This one is childless?’
    ‘Definitely. She has a career. What’s that bucket for?’
    ‘Bucket? Oh, the bucket. The ceiling leaks.’
    He said, ‘I’ll have a look. How do I get onto the roof?’

    There was a gulley, a shallow metal trough carpeted with tarred canvas. Leaves and other matter had degraded into a dam of sludge, causing brackish liquid to seep through. He called down for bin bag and broom. Waiting, he noticed that fatigue produced numbness, as if he had been nursed or persuaded into a padded jacket. He willed himself awake by concentrating on the sky which shone as far as he could see from Shepherds Bush to Paddington. Joan’s mention of the poets brought to his mind the succeeding generations of provincials arrived in the city. The exceptional ones had instantly recognised the café, jazz club, bar or hole in the wall that was the scene, the hangout, the place to be which took them seriously. Somewhere below the streets were splintered by the sound of a pick on masonry. His tenant would confuse romantic with sentimental at her peril. Harry Brightling was, definably, only romantic.

    When he had gone, Joan felt nourished by the flattery implicit in the intimacy which had been established between them. They had exchanged unusual confidences. He had a pleasing manner of referral: ‘Do you think?’ or ‘Don’t you think?’ Conversely she reserved the right to suspect his charm; to think him an operator.
    She observed the bees which were hunched like bison on the clover and knapweed in the windowbox. The windowbox contained wild flowers and tall grass, like a strip of the idyllic hay meadow of a 1930s, precisely positioned middle-class childhood. She was ecstatic at the colour violet which streamed, narrow as a laser beam, from meadow clary; and much interested in the jade escutcheon and transparent feelers of an insect that climbed a grass stem.
    She brushed down her arm in the action of the man whose saintly sullied hand had brushed roof dirt from his sleeve. She had flinched when he had mentioned a girlfriend but she concluded that of course he had a woman. Sexually and emotionally she had regressed to the adolescence of a crush on a film star. She had a crush on, or pash for, Harry Brightling.

    On leaving Joan in Vernon Crescent, Brightling strolled the short distance down Portobello Road to an arcade. His mouth contained a taste that was like the air on a tube platform: stale, invigorating, insomniac.
    Behind a scarlet and gold façade, the arcade opened, trumpeted out, into kiosks and stalls. An impeccably suited African dealt in silver-plated teapots. Two women offered used frocks and handbags under a handwritten sign VINTAGE. A Turkish middle-aged man sold T-shirts with slogans such as I SOLD MY SOUL FOR ROCK AND ROLL. The jewellery kiosk and the counter of London photographs were closed.
    He entered rhetorically demanding, ‘Where’s my costume, where’s my music, where did I leave my mask of an honest man?’
    Buying delivered an adrenalin rush. Selling, unless to an interesting customer, bored him. For this reason his collection, which mixed books with mocking or grotesque objects including a witch doctor’s shabby wand, and a group of nomili, stunted humanoids in stone from Sierra Leone, was looked after by a Polish woman whose two well-behaved children could do their homework at the back of the arcade. The employment of Krystina was a charitable action or cynical gambit. Brightling was ambiguous; Krystina was loyal and grateful.
    The accepted greeting among traders was a variant on, ‘Any good?’ such as, ‘How you done? Any good?’ The question was vulgar but the reply required delicacy. There was finessing; a swimming motion of the hand. It was tactful to line up with the others; to take similar totals; to incur neither envy nor pity. Only Brightling unblinkingly boasted. His effrontery either was or was not deception.
    ‘Krystina have we any money? Excellent; I knew that German would come back for the fairground Punch.’
    The seller of T-shirts said, ‘Health and Safety wants to close this arcade.’
    ‘Selfish bastards with no thought for the unhealthy and unsafe.’ Brightling enjoyed the camaraderie; the feeling that others, to whom he was almost entirely indifferent, were good sorts.
    A 1960s, low-slung Jaguar E-type slouched along the kerb. The back seat was covered by a blanket used to wrap pictures. The woman driver, mid-thirties, appeared pleasant, natural, fair-minded and brave. Cleanliness from forehead to fingernails was due to either soap and water or costly products. Her short springy hair was the colour of electric wheat. She wore a silk camisole, and jeans splashed with decorators’ emulsion.
    Maud Percival moved law books from the passenger seat for Brightling to get into the car. When it had gone its lion cough hung in the air.

    © Laura Del-Rivo – the full story has been published in Laura’s latest short story collection Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.

  • Notes on Time

    Naked and Middle Aged

    Evidently time moves at different speeds, fastest during the propitiating, morning rites. Even Dr Kuhlman defining time as the space between events and therefore not starting until the Big Bang, cannot explain how my morning ablutions wipe out so much time.
    These rites are burdensome but compulsive. Bent under the burden, I can still sniff freedom. I have not given in.
    Parenthetically, the label, or bar code, on Kuhlman’s white coat, titles him Dr, but the coat fastens with poppers like the white coats of female catering workers. It could be the white overall of an immigrant packaging airline meals. The oil which burns in Kuhlman’s eyes, which are the colour of dirty oil, is either holiness or fraud.
    Body and mind are functions of each other; the space which contains the bone box should properly also contain the mind. The space, the one room, where I blunder from bed, is also the space where I think.
    By extension, all life forms are functions of the planet. Air inflates the lungs; twenty years ago a wind from North Africa picked up desert sand and dropped it on London, where it was visible as red crystals on cars parked overnight.

    How I Met the Devil

    A slim, quick, hip young man lounged on the corner; also intrigued by the sand. He wore scruffy jeans, and a T-shirt with an arcane logo. His eyes were close set, which concentrated his holy-man focus. I was not his type of girl, but near enough his type. He offered me speed.
    The sample, licked from my finger like sherbet, tasted bitter. A click in my head cancelled boredom; I was alert but null. My eyes were varnished, I did not blink when I looked at the sand which was no longer significant but only there, and sand. I kept up with Kuhlman, who ran in shabby trainers.
    He fervently explained the serpent tattooed on his left arm.
    ‘The snake believed that the knowledge of good and evil is higher than happiness. I’m a diabolist.’
    He said he was crashing on friends’ floors. However he gave me a card. His status surprised me:

    DR KUHLMAN

    How Will I Know if I Am Enlightened?

    I cannot inhabit the mindset of a primitive form of the species: a creature with concepts for stone or tree, but not for arguing that non-existents may have properties but still be non-existent, such as the specifications for a devil. However the knowledge of good and evil proves fraudulent.
    Alternatively the Fall could be upwards; knowledge delivered as revelation, significance like that of the muscular wind which hurled the red sand across continents. I look at nature, my fingers poke my mind, conscientiously checking, ‘Am I in ecstasy? Is this an epiphany? Can I learn to fall upwards?’
    I lie on my back in Kensington Gardens, in tall grass which tosses feathery tufts. The sky is oceanic, Prussian blue with wisps of white like the sea around an island. Altitudes are reversed.

    The Devil with Thinner Hair and Thicker Waist

    The hospital’s original structure, and later wings, were surrounded by outbuildings housing various clinics, centres, units and departments. The weather was showery, the marble sky was melting into slush or vapour. A Portakabin had a card tacked to the door.

    DR KUHLMAN

    Below the name, some manic had scrawled:

    Real cool, man

    Twenty years on, he still flaunted a hip, fuck-you style but had gained gravitas and ex-wives. When I reminded him of knowledge versus happiness, he said, ‘I was young, so my knowledge was about sex and drugs and café philosophy; did you ever go to The Hole or that piss hole under Charlotte Street? I was already a murderer. It happened like this. I was zigzagging along, in relatively harmless mode, when some idiot shouted at me across the road. It wasn’t the first time I had received insults about my hair style or supposed sexual practices, but this guy called me a Social Security scrounger. I had trafficked in childish things, like drugs and stolen bikes and heisted jeans, but I had never signed on the dole. It was a point of vanity.’
    My attraction to Kuhlman was ambivalent, in that I mistrusted his conviction of grievance which could invalidate the rest of his thinking.
    He continued, ‘I noticed how quickly I became vicious. I suppose the guy thought I was a skinny little runt, because he crossed the road to attack me. I killed him with a biro.’
    ‘What happened?’
    ‘Nothing happened. I was a fast runner and there was nothing to connect us. I killed because I was interested in my own viciousness and how far it would take me. I wanted that knowledge. But when I looked outside the cafés, I realised that the world knowledge includes war and starvation and imprisonment and torture, and that unlike me, most victims had not chosen or agreed to their experiences. This questions the position of the diabolist. So here I am, in this hospital, doing good.’
    The oil-burning eyes were sincere and untrustworthy. He wore sandals made from old tyres pitted by desert pilgrimage. Black hairs grew from his naked toes.
    He said, ‘I don’t know how long I shall stay. The patients are either tedious or troublesome; you must meet Sonia. Basically I have a restless nature.’

    On Deception, and the Killing and Eating of Gods

    A principle of spite hides my socks, although they are a witty, fluorescent colour.
    I scream at no God, ‘You fucking shit, you arsehole in heaven, give me my socks back.’
    The room is percussive with injustice.

    On my next visit, Kuhlman again wore the tyre sandals, and a skinny, scuffed leather jacket over the womanish white coat.
    Belief that 2 + 2 = 4 carries a different intention from belief in democracy, and again from belief in God. One is about fact, the second about values, and the third about being or non-being. Phrases containing the word ‘belief’ should therefore be dismantled, and the units properly reassembled like the units in parsing, algebraic equations, and a drawer which contains all fluorescent lime socks and only fluorescent lime socks.
    However, placing words does not alter my experience of the world. Rationally I believe, that if I put probability at 99%, the 1% allowing for an uncertainty factor such as a burglar who fancies sharp socks, that I am responsible. Emotionally, I feel victimised by a malicious entity which mocks by hiding socks and other small objects, and by altering the speed of time.
    When I described this paradox, or confusion, to Kuhlman, blasphemy and spittle flavoured with blue mouthwash flew from my lips. I was then distracted by a concept of a bumblebee which loomed, hovering, behind its triangular furry mask.
    During my period of practising ape and australopithecine identities, David Attenborough’s TV series about insects told me to become a creature whose external skeleton was a pod containing a bright green sap, but which performed complex tasks to conceal her eggs. Insect behaviour was proven deceptive. An insect’s own grubs usurped by the grubs of a rival; a more complex ant sprayed a pheromone which made the victims attack each other instead of the invader.
    ‘Do you keep bees here?’
    ‘Virtual bees,’ Kuhlman said. ‘The therapist in the next cubicle treats phobias, behaviourally. He has his bee guy today. His arachnophobic guy is tomorrow.’
    ‘I heard bees. Then I thought of other insects. It wasn’t random. I don’t know if there is free will.’
    ‘Right, we’ll allocate several sessions to discuss it seriously.’
    ‘Free will may be possible for us, but not for insects. They are programmed to deceive. Deception is necessary for their survival and propagation. If deception exists in lower life forms, is nature false?’
    ‘Nature is a fix between God and the devil,’ Kuhlman insinuated. ‘They are inseparable.’
    The laws of physics were also infested.
    Kuhlman was not shocked by dishonesty. He classed honesty as a commodity, sometimes affordable.

    The word ‘God’ requires circumspection, as it need not include existence. There are also the gods of the second part of my title, which refers to an antique and modern practice. When I was young, and on the scene, I shared ashtrays on café tables with elders who, being habitués of Soho and Fitzrovia, on seeing the poet plain, roaring from a bar stool among blaggers and belles dames sans mercenaries, reverently bought Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan another drink. The sacrament of killing and eating gods is less direct through the newsprint priesthood which fattens footballers and musicians for communicants. As a fairly disgusting creature, and objective thinker, I have no rights to disapprove; however I’m personally uninterested in godliness by ingestion or proxy.

    Disgust and Delight

    Soon after dawn, strands of the colour orange unravel across the turquoise sky. My notes are titled ambiguously: ON TIME

    Yesterday at the tube station, the indicator board showed: ‘Circle Line 4 min’. I walked the platform before wheeling. The information was unchanged: ‘Circle Line 4 min’.
    The deception was blatant. Time mocks and confounds, treats unfairly, provokes. I suppressed my fury to a mutter.
    ‘Fucking ludicrous.’
    Nobody else protested; nobody else resented irrationality and injustice. Evidently MORNING HYPERSPEED has its antithesis, WAITING FOR A SPECIFIED TIME TO ELAPSE. However, some events occur in both contexts. I have identified (pun) CLEANING TEETH.
    The savoury taste of the gums hints at the delights of the body’s interior; the offals suffused with blood, the cellular bump and grind. I affirm my stinks and stews but compulsively neutralise each orifice.

    Identifang

    Animal species as diverse as flea, squid and elephant have an equipped head, system of ingesting, consuming and excreting, and enabling limbs. Neither species nor graphics, however grotesque, invent outside this plan. The intentional plan of vehicles copies the plan, whose degrees of intention are degrees of inevitability, of animals. If the plan is indeed inevitable, by tautology it also informs extra-terrestrial and extra-galactic species, and the species of parallel universes. If it is not, there is a possibility of species which are radically different, e.g. composed of more energy and less matter.
    I realised, which is a different verb from knowing, that the teeth of reptiles and mammals were the teeth which picket my gums.
    Cleaning teeth occurs in MORNING HYPER SPEED but I follow the dentist’s instructions to brush for two minutes, i.e. I am WAITING FOR A SPECIFIED TIME TO ELAPSE. Time whines as it tries to engage both gears simultaneously. The whine must not be caused by my electric toothbrush; I am accustomed to move forward through the day by small explosions of will. I get up, I clean, I complete all errands and tasks, I am reliable.

    Sonia, A Woman Scorned

    Where there is a hospital waiting room, I sit on the addicts’ side of the chair arrangement, or they choose me. I’m not their type, but recognised by them, therefore the young woman named Sonia aimed her grievances at me.
    ‘That fucking cow won’t give me my dustpan.’
    She wore skinny jeans which boggled at the knees, and a shawl of black, netted yarn with soft hairy filaments like the legs of spiders. This outfit was attractive but most of her front teeth were missing.
    The smug woman at the desk said, ‘Doctor can’t see you if you’re late for your appointment.’
    ‘I told you, my disabled bus pass got stolen. The fucking driver wouldn’t let me on the fucking bus.’
    Her dependency and abusive manner were fatal to her cause.
    ‘They’re all cows here. I want my dustpan.’ She gripped my wrist, ‘Excuse me darling.’
    Her face, pale as a moth, was stained with amber bruises. She had sustained damage and neglect, she smelled of singeing.
    I have few relationships and must analyse this which was forced upon me. I am cowardly, I can pass as normal and be complicit in banning creatures like Sonia, who risk and suffer for my instruction. Another consideration to address, is that both Kuhlman and Sonia noticed my outsider status and granted me almost equality. Possibly I am one of the saints, who will jazzily march in, unlike the self-righteous woman at the desk who wore a prissy blouse, parcelled in a bow under her chins, which reproved Sonia’s chic, draggled furry cobweb. However I must be a saint by remove, without letting Sonia and her manipulative wants into my life.
    Then something unexpected happened. Sonia let go of my wrist and fled to the reception desk. She buried her face in the woman’s bloused breasts, and the woman cradled her in a manner that was partly competence and partly motherly.
    I was confounded. I am misanthropic because I cannot love humanity when the weight of its numbers oppresses and depresses me. Humans are all over the streets, the parks. They lack rarity value. Now this woman, typical of the masses, nice, kind, reading behind her desk a tabloid newspaper specialising in swallowing small gods, was preferred, was canonised, before me.
    I am a loner, unranked against the reception nurse almost certainly a wife and mother secure in the community. Loners notoriously mark out their territory in unpleasant habits, such as hoarding food waste or faeces in bin bags or paper parcels about the flat causing neighbours to complain of a sweetish stench. I cannot therefore wish for the support of the type; on the contrary my equilibrium rocks on the desire to be accepted by that humanity I dread and despise. The weight finally comes down to my refusal to countenance a pink blouse.

    P2K4, The Chess Player’s Car (Kuhlman)

    I always knew the nature of Kuhlman’s practice. Only psychiatric patients are sharp enough to graffiti a door; medical patients are slow on their bad legs. I had taken to dropping in at the Portakabin for the discussions I thought we both enjoyed.
    Apparently he regards me as a patient, like Sonia. He cannot treat me because he has the inferior mind. His chess tactic is that an absurd move will throw his opponent. Certainly the first time he made one, I scoured the board for his plan. I even said, ‘So! Vot is zis fiendish plot?’
    His theory in this, and therefore possibly in other matters, is based on a misconception, an amazingly wrong idea. His wasted appearance, pilgrim sandals and close-set prophetic eyes disguise a mediocre mind. His integrity is in his experiments on himself.

    In the Mouth of Hell and the Teeth of Time

    There has been a fortnight’s heatwave. A sirocco blew in through my open window. Pavement cafés were crowded. The fields of Kensington Gardens were brown as if covered with coir matting. I was exultant.
    Eventually the temperature dropped but the power of inertia retained heat in earth, air and water. Even after three cold days, I turned a corner and encountered a pillar of heat in a form between energy and mass. Finally a North wind defeated the inertia and established its own rule of cold and inert cold. This cold coincided with the Sonia incident which denied my pretensions.
    The bus stop nearest the hospital is on a thunderous dual carriageway. Vehicles continuously hurtle over a spur and onwards. Their roar continuously approaches, continuously breaks to the Doppler effect, and continuously recedes. A slip road feeds more traffic, from an industrial estate, onto the dual carriageway which is separated from the estate by a wire fence suspended between two concrete posts buffered by a hedge of privet pruned to its wooden springs.
    No bus comes; they are possibly, but not provably, delayed because my Time Protester is in the pocket of my anorak; in semantics both a hooded waterproof jacket and that jacket’s typically nerdy wearer. The Protester, in prototype form, is a chemist’s bag containing toothbrush and paste and a bottle of stinging blue mouthwash. I am experimenting to hold time in slow gear. Either the experiment, or my sanity, will fail. They are eyeball to eyeball. My sanity doesn’t blink, therefore I am not mad. I have neither proved nor disproved the instability of everything including time.
    The metal-plated monsters charge down like mammoth and bison from an ice age. The industrial wind carries grits and rattles the plastic rags in the coils of the hedge. I am appalled by this place so desolate of nature. Energy leaks from my body and spirit flies out through the pineal eye. The debilitation is the reverse of the awe when I saw the red sand, soil of another climate.
    I identify this bus stop as hell because I have been sheltered from the war, starvation, imprisonment and torture named by Kuhlman. Compared to the death of a child, mine is a lesser dissatisfaction in the permanently out-of-order complaints department of god. The note sellotaped to the door of this department says: BACK IN 5 MINUTES; but on closer inspection it says: BACK IN 5 BILLION YEARS.
    I struggle between despondency and the inept prodding of my brain to produce enthusiasm, Greek ‘enthous’ or ‘inspiration by a god’.
    Kuhlman understands and practises this principle. Its extreme practitioners die of excess. My nature is cautious but persistent: I need that something should be earned or learned here. A word is present but incorrect in my brain; I am an anorak wanting inspiration by an anoraknophobic God.

    © Laura Del-Rivo – Notes on Time has been published in Laura’s latest short story collection Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? You can buy this book in print or e-format from the top of this page.

Summary

Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? is a powerful collection of short stories set in and around Notting Hill or W11. Short and sharp, ideal for today’s audience.

This wonderful book was launched on 29 September, enjoy the pictures!

Though the stories share a common setting, they deal with a wide variety of issues and range from stark realism to the surreal.

‘Dark Angel’, part 1 set in 1951 and part 2 in 1982, could be seen as the author’s commentary on her debut novel The Furnished Room, filmed by Michael Winner.  It covers similar ground but now seen through the prism of the author’s wickedly evolved style.

The main protagonist, Joseph Kuhlman, and his girlfriend, Tanker, are vividly described. His eyes, set close together, were the colour of holy oil or dirty engine oil; untrustworthy and fervent as a hip descendant of a tribe of lying prophets and psychotic visionaries.

1951’s Tanker: Tanker had a pale moon face. Her skin was satin, her features peaked. Especially her left eyelid drooped; the eyelashes drowned downwards like the legs of insects and Tanker in 1981: She had been fat with mousey hair. She was now a skinny bleached blonde with amphetamine eyes like flies.

Several of the other stories feature Kuhlman. In ‘Rape of the Soul’ we find out whether Kuhlman really murdered Fr Quinlan with a ballpoint pen – or do we?

In ‘Notes on Time’ Kuhlman appears to have become a doctor and is observed through the eyes of one of his patients, or indeed it may well be the other way around.

I was confounded. I am misanthropic because I cannot love humanity when the weight of its numbers oppresses and depresses me. Humans are all over the streets, the parks. They lack rarity value.

‘The Woman with Crocodile Teeth’ is surreal, akin to a story by Franz Kafka. Yet while the woman in the title is clearly a monster, Dr Kuhlman – yes, him again – plays a dubious role too. The story is also a scathing comment on the plight of the elderly.

‘J Krissman in the Park’, included in the Best British Short Stories 2013, published by Salt Publishing, deals with the travails of an ageing writer, contemplating his rejections while surrounded by happy families in a park.

‘The Professor A Katz Memorial Evening’ is a hilarious account of Elizabeth Woolacott, a large-boned, energetic woman, giving a talk to mathematicians. You need a writer like Laura to carry this off: Numbers and women had been his dominatrixes.

The title story, the longest, is perhaps the most autobiographical. In it 78-year-old Joan Byker develops a severe crush on her 38-year-old landlord, Harry Brightling. Set in the present day, the story is again beautifully observed, and you feel you’re there with Joan and Harry in the key scene on the roof of Vernon Crescent. Their conversations keep taking you by surprise:

He tempted, ‘Now tell me something about yourself.’
    ‘Well, when I was at school I usually got the answers right because the questions were logical. Parsing a sentence or solving an equation are exercises in logic: one concentrates and works them out. Also the noun ‘student’ has no gender. I was OK as a subject, but it turned out I was no good as an object.’
    ‘No good at what, Joan? I may call you Joan?’
    ‘Men; and fucking. Yes, you may. I was useless at all that. A complete dud. Now I’m old I’m free to do my own thing again.’

Laura’s skill in describing people and her gift for writing dialogue makes this a collection full of breathtaking observations about life.

Enjoy this interview with Laura on the Culture Trip.

The stories:
Dark Angel
The Professor A Katz Memorial Evening
J Krissman in the Park
Rape of the Soul
Notes on Time
Woman with Crocodile Teeth
Where is my Mask of an Honest Man?

It’s quite unlike any other short story collection you could buy.

Stop press! You can hear Laura Del-Rivo read a story from this collection at the very first London Short Story Festival held on midsummer weekend 20-22 June at Waterstones Piccadilly. Laura will read in the Speakers’ Corner on Sunday 22 June.

£8.00 – $16.00
You can buy Where is My Mask of an Honest Man? now by clicking on the ‘Buy this book’ button on this page. Your card will be debited in your local currency.

If you want to order in any other way, please email the publisher.

ISBN: 9781907320392
Number of pages: 90
Price: £0

Reviews

‘Her wicked turn of phrase and acid observations of people and place shows a writer at the peak of her power.’ – Richard Wood in Bukowski

‘Del-Rivo is masterful in her word splicing, compounded image style. Her plots are on the surface simple, but that is only to fuel the more complex emotional cores running throughout.’ – Amber Kelly Anderson on Necessary Fiction 

‘The stories are packed with distinctive phrasing – Del-Rivo rarely writes a commonplace sentence – and focus on marginal figures in an inter-zone between a realistic London of market traders and greasy spoon cafes, mainly in W11, and a heightened metropolis of the mind seen through crazed but intense vision.’

‘Mask is a volume of considerable intrinsic value and a rich extension of Del-Rivo’s oeuvre. In the course of time, it should prove of increasing interest to readers and critics.’ – Nicolas Tredell in The Literary Encyclopedia

‘She allows the characters to narrate for themselves, using words with precision and deftness which is combined with an ear for contemporary dialogue.’ – Emma Lee on her blog

‘A series of poetic short stories with diverse characters woven among the tapestry of life’s experiences. Prose, poetic and captivating scenery makes this read unique and different.’ – book feature on Laura’s List

‘I loved the way she could pack so much in such a short amount of story – perfect for dipping in and out of.’ – Nadia Anguiano on A Bookish Way of Life

‘The humour is wry and plentiful, and the writing is full of great little observations. It’s on my re-read list already.’ – Highly recommended. Alan Beard on goodreads