Morel mushroom

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It was a Wednesday morning shortly after ten o’clock when Norman Puttock walked briskly across the broad avenue that separated the run-down street where he lived from that on the opposite side of the park, which, according to the Greater London Statistics Office, was a considerably better place to live, do one’s shopping and, naturally, enjoy one’s ten o’clock constitutional attired in a tailor-made suit and a 60s-style brown homburg.

Puttock was a man of modest height – some would say very modest. He was built unevenly, a rotund body mounted on a pair of stick-like legs which served only to accentuate his stocky torso. Baldness had come early to him. Of his red hair there remained little; and what was left had already taken on an unpleasant yellowish tinge, a sign that the hair had aged faster than its owner.

Seeing him like that, with his upright walk, his proud aspect and his elegant apparel, the casual onlooker might have imagined great things of Norman. That he must be a humanist of some sort, a philosopher or a writer, or a combination of the two. Or perhaps a scientist, equally at home in books of theory as in the laboratory, where he worked on great discoveries of world importance which would ensure that the name of Norman Puttock would find its place in the universal chronicles of collective knowledge.

Indeed, he believed fervently that he was all that, and more. On his engraved business cards one could read: N.L. Puttock – writer, explorer, historian, photographer. And there lay the source of his misery: with the passage of time the image he had of himself corresponded even less to the reality. Although only in his early forties, he seemed far older than his years. His eyes had a profoundly sad and defeated look, a certain ill-concealed resentment, sometimes with a plaintive touch, but always revealing an underlying bitterness.

The morning stroll was his opportunity to escape from the building where he had lived for the last fifteen years, a hideous place that he heartily detested. His flat was on the top floor of an old house in which several occupants had their separate rooms. He was proud that his status as a long-standing tenant had earned him a slightly larger room, with the added luxury of a minuscule kitchenette equipped with a refrigerator and micro­wave oven.

In this gloomy bedsit reigned a permanent, chaotic disorder. Amongst uncountable piles of books, old films, magazines and diverse bric-à-brac covered by dust could be discerned a table, almost invisible owing to the objects accumulated over many years and now lying on or against it. A single bed, its sheets creased and sliding to the floor, was half-hidden by dozens of bespoke shirts and jackets suspended from a metal rail above it. The scene was completed by a toothbrush which had somehow found a space for itself, a plant sitting on the floor, boxes of shoes, and a window left slightly open in a vain attempt to lessen the vile odour of stale smoke that had impregnated every fibre of the room. This was where Norman Puttock lived. He would don one of the suits which hung above the bed and walk out into the street – the epitome of the English gentleman.

He worked as a part-time administrator in a London-​based organisation; it paid badly, and brought him no intellectual satisfaction. He encouraged his colleagues to believe he moved in high social circles, leading a life full of pleasurable moments and delightful outings to London’s most chic establishments. In reality, he had neither the financial resources nor the necessary companions. The few occasions he had visited a grand restaurant had left him with costly memories that filled his dreams while at the same time creating a great sadness in him.

His literary ambitions had driven him long ago to start writing a book. (Indeed, this was his principal approach when he tried to impress the opposite sex.) He wanted so much to believe in himself as a writer that he lived this fantasy in an almost physical way – which made it all the easier for him to affirm without embarrassment that it was true. Over the years he had created for himself an imaginary persona that he did his best to live up to. He believed himself to be highly intelligent and a fount of knowledge, but the knowledge was superficial, for he had never studied; all his supposed erudition came from the books and the magazines of which he was an avid reader. So his understanding of the sciences was heavily influenced by his enthusiastic perusal of the New Scientist, in whose veracity he placed an unquestioning faith. He did, in fact, see himself as a man of science; and not a common one, rather as a respected researcher carrying out pioneering work. Pushed by megalomania he had a vision of himself as one of the elite, among whom he shone with an exceptional brilliance. Often, buoyed up by his self-centred folly, he engaged in violent arguments, finding unbearable the idea that anyone could hold a view different from his own.

His mental instability led him to drink; to drink a lot, in order to anaesthetise the deep-felt doubts in himself. He could be considered an alcoholic, being unable to function without the support of the bottle. This created great difficulties on those occasions when he had to face the world sober. Mornings were especially hard. He was incapable of speaking or acting normally, often preferring the unhealthy silence his abstinence produced. Then there was work, the curse of his life that he loathed with all his being. He detested his colleagues, their thoughts and their clothes. In his mind these people were scum. He himself was the only man worthy of respect. This dark truth depressed him horribly and made him nervous and aggressive.

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