Talbot & The Fall

A Comedy (With Support)

Michael Nath

Novel Extract

Explanatory note: Talbot & The Fall: A Comedy (With Support) is a spirited consideration of art, death, and ordinary life. The daily material of the novel incorporates historical visions and a chorus. Aside from a couple of support acts, the narrative alternates between John Talbot and his daughter Charlie.

Talbot, a Welshman, drives a tube on the London underground. Waiting for the results of a colonoscopy, he has seven days to think about his life, even do something significant. Though Talbot never went to university, he’s received an education of a kind from the words and music of The Fall.  In the present extract, he tries to reckon with, 1) ethics; 2) the problem of time. 

‘The Captain’ is Mark E Smith; the novel is set in April 2018, 3 months after the Captain’s death.

Read a conversation with the author here

Chapter 15. John Talbot

Brown-cracked Barbour, dreaming of …

grooved gent


message (crumbling)

relay room: 660V!

Rita kneeling, bum in air, boulder-compact in the dim light. Talbot should stretch in the morning. Talbot didn’t. So many shoulds and shouldn’ts, butt. For the happy life, long life, good life, fit life. Not from defiance of the experts did Talbot not stretch in the morning, but from laziness, or just not getting round to it. Which was no doubt to blame for other omissions if you were going to point the finger: I just didn’t get round to it. On the other hand, there were no doubt certain shoulds and shouldn’ts that he had observed, some with effort, others naturally.

Reckoning what those might be as he shat, showered, shaved, Talbot felt he should get round to calling Billy Shaw, ask how he was doing, maybe have a chat about the wake (without mentioning the colonoscopy); which duty rose to the top. Thinking of your life’s like digging in sand: you’re getting some depth, the excavation fills with water,  you have to start again – or just give up, and live the bloody thing. 

One of Harry Shaw’s sayings being ‘A shit, a shower and a shave’ (army days).

And our Talbot caught onto it?

See how it worked back there?


Rita calling how long he’d be, Talbot grunted because he’d got back to his earlier reckoning, alongside consideration of his nakedness in the mirror, so Rita said hey?, and Talbot replied distinctly. In his present condition – regard without flinching, mun – in his present condition, even if a tumour might not be working every hour God gave inside him, would an adventure be possible, never mind attractive, to another woman, or to himself, for that matter, seeing as sex is a matter of ego-pride, quite as much as physical enjoyment?

Note ‘an adventure’, not ‘another adventure’ or ‘last adventure’; seeing as Talbot’d never cheated on his wife, even though offered the opportunity once or twice, or more often perhaps (this or that lady having made a beeline for him, or looked in his eyes a lot while talking, at certain gatherings, or during long days out with the lads). Now this was observation of a shouldn’t that you might feel virtuous about, certainly more than stretching in the morning; but was it right to feel virtuous?

Something in the word was off-putting, like the virtuous never shit (Talbot giving the bowl a squirt of bleach to erase his own traces, which one of the leaflets said might contain blood), or were always washing their hands in case they caught something. A phrase nowadays was ‘virtue-signalling’. Why this kept coming up, Talbot wasn’t too sure, though when Marshman said laughter was being banned, that seemed in the territory. The signals Talbot knew about were a practical matter; people’s lives depended on them, as did their getting to work on time. Might be something to ask Charlie about whenever. He fancied the Captain would not have been in favour of it. And had the feeling that people only ever pretended to be virtuous as a matter of pride or self-love, or in public, like checking what they said, or knowing what they should say and coming out with it like school kids at their lesson, without a child’s simple heart, yeah? Meanwhile, their unvirtue went further in, or down the pipe, and stunk there without ever actually disappearing, so the virtuous actually poisoned themselves, and sooner or later they’d become their own disease. Which worried Talbot, since it seemed to be an argument for being bad, even wicked, as a healthier option; but that could not be, could it? 

Talbot heard the voice of Big Roy Turner: ‘I’ve led a full life, Johnno – led a full life, and not always been a good lad.’ Himself answering, ‘Better that way,’ like he meant it, or knew the world. 

Rita calling on the stairs; Talbot crossing landing. Living alongside a woman for 28 years, day in, day out, sleeping beside her, you were like labourers, scaffolders:  watched each other’s back, shared the load (well as you could, though you may have different strengths), sometimes made a bloody awful racket, as when you were putting up a new rig, or taking it down. What you didn’t do was dodge your share, or vanish on the job.

Though the picture of the lazy labourer gave Talbot a qualm, since it kicked back upfield the idea of just not getting round to it for him to catch on the bounce – and run smack into a nasty question.

What if he just hadn’t got round to cheating on her? So the world was made up of the virtuous and the wicked, then the lazy, idle or sluggish? Enough to make you fall on your knees and pray, or start going to Church. Which wasn’t something he hadn’t got round to, but, in the modern way, probably thought he was too smart for. Well it wouldn’t be happening now. Couldn’t be. In his heart he knew. Something evil in the imagination of it: the planning, the act, the afters; worst of all talking of his wife to another woman … 

Whether she’d cheated on him, Talbot was above suspicion. Above suspicion because it made him unhappy to contemplate it; and he had a kind of awe for her determination, once she’d set her mind to a thing. The spirit of The Three Kings, March 1990, was typical of her. He was no fool: it could happen beneath your eyes, more or less, with the online cheating apps; but Talbot would not become suspicious, that being also a kind of disease, like thinking yourself virtuous. If she’d thought about it, without doing it, then he should be bloody grateful to her.

And himself, the daft bastard.

Let him be!

Charlie’s room, door open. 

Talbot rolling the years, there she was again. On his old man’s knee. Five or so … 

Where the years were now, where they’d gone – how to reckon? 

Coiled, as rope; tubed cashier’s coins; folded with care, like Rita’s linen cupboard – you could fancy them. 

Used and gone: log fire.

Objection. That image of Charlie being bright, its hour hadn’t gone anywhere; in between were seventeen years; had they gone, with their hours? 

Where could they go? ‘Where’ meant place, or space. But the time this morning, April 2018, wasn’t anywhere in particular (even if it varied in the capitals of the world). The years between – and not just between little Charlie and his old man and this morning, but between now and every bright image that the mind admitted – the years between were like things put away. If you opened the box, Look what we’ve got here! 

Except that still supposed they were somewhere, which we thought above couldn’t be. And it said they were things, which they weren’t – were they?

Talbot rolling further back. 1978. 

Year of glory, strictly personal. 

Kate Ruby he’s thinking of.

Doesn’t that count as cheating?

Though in ’78, dark ‘82 was four years down the line, when they parted forever. And if the interval 4 was introduced to more recent experience of time (as between April 2014 and the present), then dark ’82 was just down the line, if he recalled with all the powers at his disposal, certain enchanted afternoons in 1978: a shocking feeling, as of one who’s just discovered he’s aboard a runaway train. For between these recent Aprils, was little more than a flash or blur, and somewhere, a kind of roar.

Obviously, the present cracked the whip. Might all seem faster now, but in the earlier interval, you were growing (different pressures, drives, goals); horizon unmarked. What was more, the latest interval contained the earlier – as it contained or pulled with it all others, like a Class 66 diesel. Think of that! Talbot tried to. Grasping that it wasn’t just a matter of scoring personal triumphs, or disasters; others occupied him – daughter, girlfriend, many more. Half-grasped that all this was still to think of it as going in containers, marked year and contents. As if history was pulled along, with infamous years and famous years, on the container side, where we’re used to seeing ‘Maersk’, ‘Dongfang’ or ‘Tex’. But packed up, they were being delivered, yeah? – not disposed of, the vile years and the good – if there ever were good years in history (granted you or I might have one). 

But years could not be packed. 

Say they went and stayed like migrant birds …

Lord, this was all mysterious.

Leaving for work, absorbed by intervals, personal arithmetic: 57, 38, 19: now; two thirds; one third.

Yourself at 19. Deptford. Gigs. Shadwell. Gigs. Earl’s Court. More gigs. Employed by the council. Twice a month KR sent letters. When you got round to it, you replied. Meeting, talking, listening, moving on. You liked listening. Voices, music, vocals; words of women when they lay with you. Between Kate and Rita, you had your times, and grateful for it – to name names now would just be lists. Only the music’s stayed: faith and education. 

That the essence of it?

That’s more than yourself at 19, mun; shunting later years you are there.

38 was not in sight; 57 nothing but a number. 

Yourself at 38: long employed on the underground. Father of three, mind on growth. Listening, soothing, praising, telling off. Life as school, swings, festival; as market, and bear-garden. Strife alternating with felicity.  Senior family intact still. Marriage bearing up. End nowhere near, subject forbidden.

That the essence of it?

Not dead centre.

Well here you are now. 57. Oh to meet yourself at 19, 38, hang around together! Have a word, listen to you, buy a round. Stay together for a long, long lock-in. Compare notes: who knew best, knew most; had it right, knew the way …

‘Ever been caught in a rip, boys?’

To what you were listening, listening still. So, Live at the Witch Trials, Dragnet, Grotesque after the Gramme (Talbot 19); The Marshall Suite (Talbot 38).

Ah for God’s sake leave it, mun!

The effort to remember Talbots then, kept filling up with Talbot now, like digging in sand; or three blokes jammed in the same suit. Just couldn’t subtract the now from the then, to get the essence.

‘Understand time till I’m asked about it’ [‘In My Area’, The Fall]

Understanding the value of that line, first heard as it happened aged 19, Talbot checked tail lights, switched white lights, set destination (Upminster), number (78), turned off cab heating, checked PA, door light. Door light being out, Talbot walked all the way down the train to the other cab, where the door was open, and back to where he started. During this walk, he had a text from Charlie: Preeti’d seen the Captain’s wraith, plus emoticons. Talbot was delighted. While he checked whistle and air pressure, Charlie texted again, not to tell Jo F anything, with an ambiguous emoticon, causing Talbot’s stomach to burn, since he already had (bloody fool), and wonder what his daughter was up to. 

Saved from replying only because there was a third incoming from Charlie, like she wished them both to overlook the second, where she asked if he remembered I am the spirit of dark and lonely water. Finger on Brake Controller, Talbot said the words:  rang a bell. Tested lamps and brakes, checked the Weak Field switch, said the words again: no picture. Driver Talbot performed a Traction Test, checked the doors override, checked the door panel on the back bulkhead, set off down the train: same again, end cab. From the dark-water spirit, which wouldn’t come just now, he went back to the Captain’s wraith, which they were obviously making up, Charlie and Preeti. Weren’t they? … When I am dead and gone,/My vibrations will live on [‘Psykick Dancehall’]. Him and Banks talking to the regular, six months left if he stayed on the sherbert. Captain couldn’t be hovering – surely to God? Down onto the shed road, check the leads. Back to the fore-cab: wait for shunter’s call. Something stirring: deep joy. So he took her east, No78.

Earl’s Court: wait to regulate. Standing in the cab door at Platform 2, he acknowledged two engineers with rucksacks and a track pole who were coming out to the end of the line. Like pilgrims. Talbot saw them crossing fields, where the network terminated, on and away, Speck Marsden, horizon; settled himself, pressed the PA, outta there, chanting magic pre-lyrics, ‘Bang, bam, o-cocabana …’ 

Lived a good many solid years, had Talbot, since his young adventures. Life seemed to be expanding, like a heated substance: joy, deep worry, curiosity, its new, and fluid forms. No doubt it was waiting for the colonoscopy result, bringing all this on. Next Monday’d put an end, if all was well.

Supposing he ever did return to his solider self, feelings having started their climb. Could they be called back to base? On the other hand, if it was cancer of the arse, which orders would feelings follow? Drop into the dark, or continue to climb? This protected seven-day spell, might be training him for death – Talbot wiped his brow – by raising his soul above ordinary. Such thoughts were not at all ordinary, barely seemed his own. Unused to these fluencies in mind, or heart, was Talbot.  Nor to wraiths, or warning dreams. But the week wouldn’t pass quietly. Something was coming to the boil. 

This was what Talbots 19 and 38, had not experienced.

‘Bang, bam, o-cocabana!’ [‘Last Commands of Xyralothep via MES’].

Michael Nath is a British author and academic. His first novel, La Rochelle (Route, 2010), was shortlisted for the James Tait Prize (2011). His second British Story (Route, 2014) divided the Man Booker judges (longlist phase). His third novel, The Treatment, was published by Quercus (Riverrun) in 2020 – please see website below for reviews, etc. Nath’s fiction and articles have also appeared in Stand, New Welsh Review, Critical Quarterly, and anthologies. Extracts from British Story were translated into Spanish (Argonauta 3, 2016). As an academic, he specializes in Creative Writing, Modernism, Shakespeare, and the Renaissance. http://michaelnath.wordpress.com @MichaelNath11

Photo Credit: Tim Bechervaise on Unsplash

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