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Authors: Kingsley Amis

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The old devils: a novel

BOOK: The old devils: a novel
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The Old Devils

Kingsley Amis


Many real places are referred to in this novel (Carmarthen, Cowbridge) and many fictitious ones too (Birdarthur, Caerhays).

Lower Glamorgan corresponds to no county division. The fictitious places are not real ones in disguise or under pseudonyms: anybody trying to go from the coast of South Wales to Courcey Island, for instance, would soon find himself in the Bristol Channel. Courcey and the others have no more actual existence than any of the characters here portrayed. K.A.

Swansea: London

Published by Vintage 2004


Copyright © Kingsley Amis 1986

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

First published in Great Britain in 1986 by Hutchinson Vintage Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London SW1 V 2SA

Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:

The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library ISBN 9780099461050

The Random House Group Limited makes every effort to ensure that the papers used in its books are made from trees that have been legally sourced from well-managed and credibly certified forests. Our paper procurement policy can be found at: Printed in the UK by CPI Bookmarque, Croydon, CR0 4TD


One Malcolm, Charlie, Peter and Others

Two Rhiannon, Alun

Three Charlie

Four Peter

Five Rhiannon


Malcolm, Muriel, Peter, Gwen, Alun, Rhiannon

Seven Alun

Eight Charlie

Nine Peter

Ten Malcolm

To Louis and Jacob

One - Malcolm, Charlie, Peter and Others


'If you want my opinion,' said Gwen Cellan-Davies, 'the old boy's a terrifically distinguished citizen of Wales. Or at any rate what passes for one these days. '

Her husband was cutting the crusts off a slice of toast. 'Well, I should say that's generally accepted.'

'And Reg Burroughs is another after his thirty years of pen-pushing in first City Hall and later County Hall, for which he was duly honoured.'

'That's altogether too dismissive a view. By any reckoning Alun has done some good things. Come on now, fair play.'

'Good things for himself certainly:
Brydan's Wales
and that selection, whatever it's called. Both still selling nicely after all these years. Without Brydan and the Brydan industry, Alun would be nothing. Including especially his own work - those poems are all sub-Brydan.'

'Following that trail isn't such a bad -'

'Goes down a treat with the Americans and the English, you bet. But ... ' Gwen put her head on one side and gave the little frowning smile she used when she was putting something to someone, often a possible negative view of a third party, 'wouldn't you have to agree that he follows Brydan at, er, an altogether lower level of imagination and craftsmanship?'

'I agree that compared with Brydan at his best, he doesn't -'

'You know what I mean.'

In this case Malcolm Cellan-Davies did indeed know.

He got up and refilled the teapot, then his cup, adding a touch of skimmed milk and one of the new sweeteners that were supposed to leave no aftertaste. Back in his seat at the breakfast-table he placed between his left molars a small prepared triangle of toast and diabetic honey and began crunching it gently but firmly. He had not bitten anything with his front teeth since losing a top middle crown on a slice of liver-sausage six years earlier, and the right-hand side of his mouth was a no-go area, what with a hole in the lower lot where stuff was always apt to stick and a funny piece of gum that seemed to have got detached from something and waved disconcertingly about whenever it saw the chance. As his jaws operated, his eyes slid off to the
and a report of the Neath-Llanelli game.

After lighting a cigarette Gwen went on in the same quirky style as before, 'I don't remember you as a great believer in the integrity of Alun Weaver as an embodiment of the Welsh consciousness?'

'Well, I suppose in some ways, all the television and so on, he is a bit of a charlatan, yes, maybe.'

'Maybe! Christ Almighty. Of course he's a charlatan and good luck to him. Who cares?

He's good fun and he's unstuffy. We could do with a dozen like him in these parts to strike the fear of God into them. We need a few fakes to put a dent in all that bloody authenticity.'

'Not everybody's going to be glad to have him around,' said Malcolm, giving another section of toast the standard treatment.

'Well, that's splendid news. Who are you thinking of?'

'Peter for one. Funnily enough the' subject came up yesterday. He was very bitter, I was quite surprised. Very bitter.'

Malcolm spoke not in any regretful way but as if he understood the bitterness, even perhaps felt a touch of it on his own part. Gwen looked at him assessingly through the light-brownish lenses of her square-topped glasses. Then she made a series of small noises and movements of the kind that meant it was time to be up and away. But she sat on and, perhaps idly, reached out to the letter that had started their conversation and fingered it as it lay in front of her.

'It'll be, er, fun seeing Rhiannon again,' she said.


'Been a long time, hasn't it? What,. ten years?'

'At least that. More like fifteen.'

'She never came down with Alun on any of his trips after whenever it was. Just that once, or twice was it?'

'She used to come down to see her mother at Broughton, and then the old girl died about that long ago, so she probably ... '

'I dare say you'd remember. I just thought it was funny she never really kept up with her college friends or anyone else as far as I know.'

Malcolm said nothing to that. He swayed from side to side in his chair as a way of suggesting that life held many such small puzzles.

'Well, she'll have plenty of time from now on, or rather from next month. I hope she doesn't find it too slow for her in these parts after London.'

'A lot of the people she knew will still be here.'

'That's the whole trouble,' said Gwen, laughing slightly.

She looked at her husband for a moment, smiling and lowering her eyelids, and went on, 'It must have come as a bit of a shock, the idea of, er, Rhiannon coming and settling down here after everything.'

'Call it a surprise. I haven't thought of her since God knows when. It's a long time ago.'

'Plenty of that, isn't there, nowadays? Well, this won't do. All right if I take first crack at the bathroom?'

'You go ahead,' he said, as he said every morning.

He waited till he heard a creak or so from the floor above, then gave a deep sigh with a sniff in the middle. When you thought about it, Gwen had given him an easy ride over Rhiannon, not forgetting naturally that it had been no more than Instalment I (a). A bit of luck he had been down first and had had a couple of minutes to recover from some of the shock-rightly so called - of seeing that handwriting on the envelope, unchanged and unmistakable after thirty-five years. Gwen had left the letter on the table. With a brief glance towards the ceiling he picked it up and reread it, or parts of it. 'Much love to you both' seemed not a hell of a lot to brag about in the way of a reference to himself, but there being no other he would have to make the best of it. Perhaps she had simply forgotten. After all, plenty had happened to her in between. Finishing his tea, he lit his first and only cigarette of the day. He had never greatly enjoyed smoking, and it was well over the five years since he had followed his doctor's advice and given it up, all but this solitary one after breakfast which could do no measurable harm and which, so he believed, helped to get his insides going. Again as always he filled in time by clearing the table; it was good for him to be on the move. His bran flakes and Gwen's chunky marmalade enriched with whisky went into the wall-cupboard, the stones of his unsweetened stewed plums and the shells of her two boiled eggs into the black bag inside the bin. He thought briefly of eggs, the soft explosion as spoon penetrated yolk, the way its flavour spread over your mouth in a second. His last egg, certainly his last boiled egg, went back at least as far as his last full smoking day. By common knowledge the things tended to be binding, not very of course, perhaps only a shade, but still enough to steer clear of. Finally the crocks went into the dishwasher and at the touch of a button a red light came on, flickering rather, and a savage humming immediately filled the kitchen.

It was not a very grand or efficient dishwasher and not at all a nice kitchen. At Werneth Avenue, more precisely at the house there that the Cellan-Davieses had lived in until 1978, the kitchen had been quite splendid, with a long oak table you could get fourteen round with no trouble at all and a fine Welsh dresser hung with colourful mugs and jugs. Here there was nothing that could not have been found in a million cramped little places up and down the country, lino tiles, plastic tops, metal sink and, instead of the massive Rayburn that had warmed the whole ground floor at Werneth Avenue, an oval-shaped two-bar electric fire hanging on the wall. Most mornings at about this time Malcolm wondered if he had not cut down a bit too far by moving out here, but no point in fretting about that now, or later either. There came a faint stirring in his entrails. He picked up the
Western Mail
and without hurrying - quite important as a matter of fact - made his way to the slant-ceilinged lavatory or cloakroom under the stairs. The old sequence duly extended itself: not trying at all because that was the healthy, natural way, trying a certain amount because that could have no .real adverse effect, trying like a lunatic because why? - because that was all there was to do. Success was finally attained, though of a limited degree. No blood to speak of, to be conscientiously classified as between slight and very slight. This, was the signal for him to sit to attention and snap a salute. In the bedroom Gwen was at her dressing-table putting the foundation on her face. Malcolm came round the door in his silent, looming way and caught sight of her in the glass. Something about the angle or the light made him look at her more closely than usual. She had always been a soft, rounded, fluffy sort of creature, not ineffectual but yielding in her appearance and movements. That had not changed; at sixty-one - his age too - her cheeks and jaws held their shape and the skin under her eyes was remarkably supple. But now those deep-set eyes of hers had an expression he thought he had not noticed before, intent, almost hard, and her mouth likewise was firmly set as she smoothed the sides of her nose. Probably just the concentration - in a second she saw him and relaxed, a comfortable young-elderly woman with gently tinted light-brown hair and wearing a blue-and-white check trouser-suit you might have expected on someone slightly more juvenile, but not at all ridiculous on her. To get her voice as much as anything he said, 'More social life? No letting up?'

'Just coffee at Sophie's,' she said in her tone of innocent animation.

'Just coffee, eh? There's a change now. You know it's extraordinary, I've just realized I haven't seen Sophie for almost a year. One just doesn't. Well. You'll be taking the car, will you?'

'If that's okay. You going along to the Bible?'

'I thought I might sort of look in.' He went along to the Bible every day of his life.

'Don't worry, I'll get the bus.' A pause followed. Gwen spread blusher - called rouge once upon a time - over her cheekbones. After a moment she dropped her hands into her lap and just sat. Then she speeded up. 'Well, and how are you this morning, good boy?'

'Perfectly all right, thank you.' Malcolm spoke more abruptly than he meant. He had prepared himself for a return to the topic of Rhiannon and the query about his bodily functions, though usual and expressed much as usual, caught him off balance. 'Quite all right,' he added on a milder note.

'Nothing ... '

'No. Absolutely not.'

As he had known she would, she shook her head slowly. 'Why you just can't deal with it, an intelligent man like you. The stuff that's on the market nowdays.'

'I don't hold with laxatives. Never have. As you very well know.'

'Laxatives. Christ, I'm not talking about senna pods, California Syrup of Figs. Carefully prepared formulae, tried and tested. It's not gunpowder drops any more.'

'Anything like that, it interferes with the body's equilibrium. Distorts the existing picture. With chemicals.'

'I thought that was what you were after, Malcolm, honestly, distorting what you've got. And what about all those plums you go in for? Aren't they meant to distort you?'

BOOK: The old devils: a novel
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