Thursday, 15 July 2010

Mr Toppit by Charles Elton

"He had filched from me my good name and left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son," said Christopher Robin Milne of his father, author of Winnie the Pooh, which is a good point of reference for the poisonous legacy of the Hayseed Chronicles featuring Mr Toppit, the book within a book in Charles Elton’s debut.

Arthur Hayman has published five books in the Chronicles but is killed (run over by a cement truck in Soho) just as the sinister presence in the books, Mr Toppit – a sort of diabolical counterpart to Enid Blyton’s Mr Pink Whistle – emerges from the Darkwood in their final paragraph.

His son, Luke, immortalised as Luke Hayseed both in print and the ridiculous illustrations by the family German teacher, Lila, narrates most of the book with an icy detachment, his way of coping with the sudden fame incurred by the books becoming a posthumous publishing phenomenon thanks to Laurie Clow, a DJ on a hospital radio station in California.

Five years after his father’s death, Luke is at a party the night before he goes to America to visit Laurie, now a chat show host in LA. The books have bought the family great wealth, but it’s a tainted legacy. His sister Rachel, who invites him round, is drug addled and neurotic. Still, the rest of the guests are an entertaining mix of foreigners, actors and a priest:

Although it was summer and still light outside, the curtains were drawn and the room was lit by candles. There was a peculiar smell that Claude said was church incense. “The best, the very best,” he said. “I nicked it from All Saints, Margaret Street.” The priest laughed so much that he knocked over the jug that contained the special cocktail Claude had made with vodka and blue Curaçao.

Rachel flees the party and Luke finds her downstairs:

She handed me a bottle of clear liquid. “What is it?” “Grappa. It’s made from all the grape crap left behind after they’ve done the wine. Claude loves it. It’s Italian. Don’t’ drink it all.” The grappa seemed to avoid my stomach and go straight to my head so when Rachel came back I was feeling a bit dizzy.

The party carries on into street and finishes with a police caution for all involved. Still, it’s a fairly abstemious evening compared to a night out in California when Luke ends up visiting Travis, one of Laurie’s staff, late at night. He’s with Merry, the daughter of Laurie’s friends. She’s also cutting up lines of coke and knocking back the tequila:

She showed me how they had been drinking the tequila. You put some salt on the back of your hand, licked it off, took a big swig, then sucked a lime quarter. Its sharpness made me shiver as the tequila went down.

And then the toot kicks in:

I was trying to concentrate. Of course, nothing happened instantly. I’d had quite a lot of wine at dinner and then there had been the tequila so I knew I was a bit drunk, but the odd thing was that gradually my head cleared. When you’re drunk you get a bit sluggish but suddenly the blood was moving round my body more efficiently. In a while I could feel every pulse inside me working in unison, like those oilfields you see with the pumps going up and down like crazy. The next time we combined it with tequila. Slug of drink, lick of salt, suck lime, snort line.

Needless to say, all this hellraising is going to come to bad end and Luke finds himself compromised, to say the least. But then again, the misfortune is spread around equally. As the Chronicles themselves say:

And out of the Darkwood Mr Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us.

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