After retrospectively loving Simon Crump’s Neverland last year, I bought his other three books and put them aside for a time when I fancied a reliable pleasure – a comfort read, if you like, though comfort doesn’t readily come to mind when thinking of the creeping madness and sick delights which seem to populate his fiction. Nonetheless, the time was this week, and the book was Twilight Time, Crump’s only ‘novel’ proper: his other three books are a collection of stories, Monkey’s Birthday, and those unclassifiable fancies My Elvis Blackout and Neverland.
Twilight Time (2004) tells the story of, and is narrated by, Bruce Glasscock, foul-mouthed husband of Linda and co-curator of the Hays House, a building preserved in its 1930s integrity by the English Trust. Bruce is mocked by the local kids (“Eee fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s fuckin’ lovejoy. Sold any clocks today, mester, shagged any old ladies?”) He is prone to adulterous fantasies, and once exposed himself to a friend’s wife (“A bit grey and baggy perhaps, but I reckon I could still cut it with the ladies. Nothing happening in the trousers, nothing much upstairs. Not bad for fifty”), but is fairly uxorious for all that:
I set the tea on the bedside table and same as every morning it steams over the photo of our wedding day. Me handsome in my uniform, Linda trussed up in her mother’s dress, all nipples and organza, thick fog drifting in.
The uniform is an army one, and we get the impression that Bruce has never really adjusted to life outside. (“I’ve seen the world and I didn’t like it.”) He enjoyed the orderliness of the army, just as he did with school before that (“They’d tell you when to speak and when to not, when and where to sit, when to shit and when to pretend to relax”. Even now he resents his job, where he’s second fiddle to his wife, and wishes “I was a binman. The pay’s good, the job keeps you fit, you’re out in the fresh air all morning and down the pub by dinner. You don’t have to think or worry about fuck all”). He spent so long adjusting himself to fit in with school and army colleagues that now “[I] don’t fit in anywhere any more.” His life, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, seems like an enormous no.
All this makes Twilight Time sound like a gloomy read, but it’s not. The dominant tone is of comic absurdity, from the satire on National Trust heritage (passionate debate arises at a meeting to determine how often, if at all, the toilet hinges in the Hays House should be cleaned), to excruciating banter on sexual hang-ups. But the melancholy comes often enough to develop into a recurrent theme, and the moments of greatest candour from Bruce (one review on the back cover calls him ‘dishonest’, which I’d dispute: he’s completely honest, which is one of his main weaknesses) tread a line between awkward and affecting:
The air smells like snow. I remember the first time I kissed her. She cut through me, the drinks cut me in half. I put a ring on her finger and brushed back her hair. I am, I am not a freak. Somehow I lost my connection, somehow I lost my way. Mind like a sewer, memory like a sieve.
And if I hadn’t read and liked Neverland so much, I would have wondered whether the awkwardness was Crump’s or his character’s. Twilight Time lacks Neverland‘s multi-faceted brilliance. However, like Neverland, it seems sometimes inconsequential, daft and annoying, but by the end, the undertow of melancholy built up so forcefully that it caught me unawares and quite swept me away. It made me want to do what reviewers so often claim to do: I wanted to reread the book immediately to see how Bruce had got here almost without my noticing. (The impulse soon passed, but the point remains.) What seemed like a scatological comic tale turned out to be a wrenching character study. When Bruce carries out some premature gardening on the house grounds, his response to Linda’s ‘What are you doing?’ tells us about his attitude to much else besides:
“I’m just trying, I am just trying, Linda, to get it over with.”