Horatio Smith spends every day telling fibs. This habit is woven throughout the fabric of his days, weeks and months just as threads in a tapestry form a picture. Indeed, if you follow each of the stories Horatio tells, it will tell you a great deal about the man who lives in the attic in the house at the end of the street.
We don’t have time to unravel the entire warp and weft of his fabrications today. No. Horatio is in a great hurry, which is unusual for him. A man who is six feet tall and spindly is not built for speed. He is designed for lounging, for unfolding himself gently and deliberately from his old wing-backed chair, which is positioned just so to the left of his fireplace. In his fertile imagination, the grate burns merrily with logs that have been gathered from a nearby wood and seasoned to perfection. In reality, a two-bar electric fire takes pride of place in the Victorian grate, its electric cord snaking around the chimney breast to a socket which is fixed slightly askew to the plaster-clad wall. Oh, and by the way, there is no ‘nearby wood’. If you peer out of Horatio’s grimy dormer window, all you can see for miles are rooftops. His is not a rural retreat.
Horatio pulls on his coat (slightly frayed at the cuffs with a number of threads dangling from the hem) and in two strides, has left his attic. He locks the door behind him and bounds – yes, bounds – down the four flights of stairs to the front door, the most imposing remnant of the building’s past. The landlord’s son – a teenager who seems so loose-limbed as to possess no bones at all – polishes the brass lion’s head door knocker and letter box every week, without fail.
The boy is in evidence this morning, yawning, worrying at another patch of acne that has sprouted on his jaw line and spread down his neck. As ever, he is in a daydream, a state of being which infuriates his father, who wishes the boy would get his act together and pay attention to his engineering course for once.
Horatio coughs, loudly, deliberately. The teenager jumps, brought back to earth with a thump.
“Alright, mister,” he grunts, dragging himself out of the way. “S’early, innit?”
“Yes indeed, yes indeed! But some of us have important business to attend to, very important indeed.”
The boy – his name is Karl ‘wiv a K’ – grins. “Important? In this hole of a town? You mad or summink?”
“Young man – Karl – there is always, always something important taking place, if you seek it out. You need to raise your eyes to the horizon instead of staring down at your feet. You never know what you might be missing.”
“Tssss,” hisses Karl, his tongue behind his front teeth. “You’re crazy, mister. Not being rude or nuffink. You’ve lived here for years, right? This town ain’t goin’ nowhere, and neither are you. No offence, like.”
“My little flat gives me a bird’s eye view of the entire city, and the opportunity to see the world beyond. Anyway, I must be going – I absolutely cannot be late today! But before I do go, tell me something. Why does your father send you here so regularly each week, to polish the brassware? Is door furniture a particular interest of his?”
Karl blushes, looks down and shuffles his feet. He fishes a stick of chewing gum out of a pocket, unravels the silver paper and shoves it into his mouth. He chews meditatively. ‘Simple, innit? My dad’s got this woman, name’s Margaret. She comes over dead late on a Wednesday night, so I get out their way in the morning. Dad don’t know that I know about her.”
Horatio nods, feeling for the boy in his discomfort and trying not to wince at his horrendous grammar and diction. Now is not the time for a lecture.
“Ah, I see. Well, I expect you are doing the right thing, giving them some privacy. Now, I am terribly sorry, I do have rather an urgent appointment. But we can talk another time, if you would like.”
Karl watches the strange man stride down the road, bouncing as he goes. “Tssss, ’raise your eyes to the horizon’! You’re mad, innit!”
Now we find ourselves on the number 46a bus with Horatio, who is sitting neatly on the seat tucked behind the driver. He is not keen on public transport, but it gives him the opportunity to continue weaving his web of fantasies. Today is no different – he is riding in a plush, horse-drawn carriage on his way to a medieval castle filled with lords and ladies, dressed in all their finery. He nearly misses his stop except for the driver – a kindly soul enjoying his last day of work before retirement – who turns around and snaps his fingers in Horatio’s field of vision.
“Oy mate, ain’t this your stop? Randall Avenue?”
Horatio stares blankly for a moment, then returns to the real world with a jolt. The bus is chugging throatily whilst it idles at the kerb. “Oh yes, you are quite right, thank you so much. Good day!”
“’Good day!’” chuckles the driver as the doors close behind the silver haired gentleman, who pauses by the bus stop, looks left, then right, and then strides purposefully down the hill. “You’re living in the wrong era, mate!”
Horatio has moved ahead at such a fast pace that we don’t catch up with him again until some time later. Now a very smart, grey suit and a pair of new black shoes have replaced the threadbare coat, ill-fitting trousers and shoddy brown boots. Horatio’s usually wild curly hair has been tamed – if we move a little closer we can see that he has also had a wet shave and his sideburns have ben trimmed. He is in fact, almost unrecognisable. He is standing on the doorstep of a smart Victorian terraced house, shaking hands with a dark-haired man, whose other arm is wrapped around a smiling woman – presumably his wife – who is holding a sleeping baby.
“Thank you Andrew, thank you Sarah. You have performed a marvellous transformation, I am indebted to you both.”
“You are more than welcome, Horatio. Now quickly, get in the car, don’t be late, today of all days!”
We witness more smiles, some air-kissing, a pat on the baby’s head from Horatio, and promises to follow shortly, once the babysitter has arrived. Horatio then folds himself into the waiting car – a very smart silver affair with black leather seats and tinted windows.
“Good morning, sir. Are you ready for your big day?” The driver is wearing a black suit, silver tie and a smart peaked cap.
“Yes, yes, I rather think I am,” says Horatio nervously, fiddling with his collar a little. “Shall I pay you now, or –“
“Goodness me no, sir. This is all paid for ahead of time – I am at your service all day. Don’t worry about any of that.”
Horatio lets out a slight sigh of relief, mentally counting out the money nestling in his trouser pocket. The rent can be paid in full this month after all. “How marvellous! In which case, I shall enjoy the journey.”
“Just let me know if you need anything sir – air conditioning, water, a comfort stop just before we arrive…”
“Thank you, you are most kind.”
Regrettably, this is where we must part company with Horatio for a few hours, for where he is going, we do not have permission to follow.
Much later, we are able to re-join him at home in his eyrie. It has been a long day and since it is only late spring, it is now quite dark outside. The boy, Karl, is once again in the picture, sitting at Horatio’s small dining table, picking at the peeling varnish with a thumbnail. Horatio had found him sitting mournfully on the doorstep, the slack and miserable features transformed at the sight of a well-suited Horatio stepping out of a sleek Mercedes at 10pm on a Thursday evening.
“Alright mister,” he had said, sniffing and wiping his sleeve across his eyes hurriedly. Horatio could not be sure, but thought he had caught the suspicion of tears in the boy’s voice. “What’s goin’ down? Where you bin?”
Horatio had sighed, the memories of his wonderful, fairy tale day colliding with the difficulties of reality.
“Would you like a drink? I have this -” Horatio had waved at the bottle of champagne he was holding under his arm. He held his hand up just as Karl bounced to his feet, all misery forgotten. “You are old enough to drink, I take it?”
“Course I am!” The boy had romped up the four flights of stairs to Horatio’s attic, eager as a puppy.
So here we are, eavesdropping on this bizarre tableau. Horatio is sitting in his careworn wing-backed chair, his hands steepled thoughtfully underneath his chin.
“You met the Queen? Like, as in the real Queen? The one from the telly?”
“Yes, Karl, Her Majesty the Queen herself. She’s not very tall you know.” Horatio stared at the glow from the electric fire, replacing it in his mind’s eye with roaring flames.
“But, she’s like, important, innit? Royalty, man! What’s she gotta do with you?”
“A very good question, young man, a very, very good question indeed.”
And now, silence, much like the Queen herself, reigns. Horatio is lost in the thoughts of his day, probably the best of his life, and Karl is busy wondering how to leave without attracting Horatio’s attention. This was seriously weird, man. The old guy had just told him some mad story about going to Windsor Castle, mixing with soldiers, lords, ladies, even famous people he had heard of and then meeting the Queen – all because ‘he followed his dreams’. This man was like, well off his head.
“Karl! Karl! Where are you, boy?”
The boy stiffens in his seat and then sighs. “It’s me dad, mister. I gotta go – like now.”
“Of course, young man, of course. Your father will be worried about you. Did you enjoy the champagne?”
Karl grins, pulling on his jacket as he stands up. “Yeah man, it was like smooth, know what I mean?”
Horatio smiles dreamily to himself, amused at the boy’s innocence. “Yes, I know what you mean. A very lovely experience, champagne.”
Karl reaches for the door handle just as Horatio unfolds himself from his chair. He is still wearing the smart grey suit, now slightly crumpled from the day’s wear. He fumbles in his jacket pocket, and pulls out a cushioned, navy blue, gold-embossed box. He opens the lid, takes a look at the contents for a moment and then snaps it shut. He taps the lid thoughtfully with the tips of his fingers and then makes a decision. He holds the box out to Karl.
“Please, take this. Consider it something to remember my story by, when you are an old man yourself. You can tell it to your grandchildren and show them this as proof that this ‘hole of a town’ as I think you called it, can produce magic, after all.”
Karl hovers in the doorway, shuffling from foot to foot. He is embarrassed again. “Thanks, mister. What’s in it?”
“Open the box when you get home, see if you can find what you need.” Horatio pats the boy absentmindedly on the shoulder. “Now, go and make amends with your father, tell him you are sorry, no matter whether it is necessary or not. Family should not be taken lightly.”
Karl stares at the man, and a moment of clarity illuminates his face. For the first time, he sees a real person, a man with thoughts and feelings, someone who understands what it is to live a life – who understands what it is to be a boy who doesn’t seem to fit. Then, as suddenly as the revelation announces itself it disappears, and he reverts to his teenage stasis once more. It is a little early in his life for such maturity to be permanently present. Horatio catches the look, like a light turning on and then off, and smiles. Ah, the joys of early adulthood.
“Karl! Karl! Where the hell are you? Come back son, come home! We can sort this out!”
“There is your cue, young man. Off you go. Remember what I told you.”
Karl sticks out his hand suddenly, the one that isn’t holding the box. “Thanks mister. I’ll look after this, promise.”
Horatio takes the outstretched hand and shakes it firmly. “You are welcome, young man. Will I see you next Thursday morning, as usual?”
“Probably. I kind of like it, making the metal stuff all shiny. Gives me thinking time, you know?”
“I know, young man, I know.”
Now, Horatio is alone once more. He is seated in his chair in front of the electric fire. In his hands is a navy blue booklet, embossed in gold. He opens it, turns to a particular page and traces his fingers over his name – his full name – and the legend inscribed beneath:
Mr Frederick Charles Horatio Smith
For services to children’s literature, and children’s charities
His mind whirs, playing back the events of the day, bowing before Her Majesty, hardly daring to breathe as she reaches up to pin the medal on his borrowed lapel. He remembers its weight. It is something that will remain with him, always.
Now his mind turns to older times. His father, destroyed by war, had sought a solution to his demons in the bottom of the local canal. His mother, a practical woman with no time for feelings or emotiosn sent Horatio to a good school, then a technical college, so that he could learn a proper man’s trade. His fibs (as she called them) had not fit into her plans for him and his constant daydreaming and storytelling had caused an irreparable rift to form between them. In short, they did not understand each other. Whilst she dreamed of her only child passing his exams, learning a trade, marrying a nice local girl and setting up a home, he dreamed his way through lessons, staring out of classroom windows, his mind elsewhere. The close relationship they had both wished for, each in their own way, became less real than the fantasies floating around in his head.
He had bitterly regretted their estrangement the moment he stood at her graveside as a young man of nineteen, an orphan. After the funeral, he had returned home, sat down at the kitchen table armed with a cheap biro and paper, and started writing his first children’s book, which he dedicated to both of his dead parents. Once he began, he found he could not stop and his stories captured the imagination of agents, publishers and children around the world. Translated into 25 languages, he was it seemed, a worldwide success. But as his bank balance increased, so did his misery. His father had been wealthy, yet the ex-Army officer had remained inconsolable after the end of the war in Europe. A sensitive man, a dreamer just like his son, he had not been able to cope with the burden of all he had witnessed. Horatio understood that money did not guarantee happiness and so he retreated into himself, becoming a recluse who insisted on obscurity. Nobody connected the strange, unkempt man with the successful children’s author whose books could be seen everywhere.
One morning, after another restless night, Horatio decided to give all of his money to a children’s charity – one that would look after families who struggled to communicate, nurture and nourish each other. As soon as the burden of all that money was released (against his agent’s advice, might we add), he felt much, much happier. He didn’t want fame, he didn’t want fortune, he didn’t want anything, except to write. The night after the first cheque had been written, he slept a sound, dreamless sleep.
Thirty five years later, he lived simply, frugally, on the bread line even, but he was happy. His imagination was what kept him complete in body and soul – words were his nourishment, much like an epyphitic plant living on air. He cared not a jot that the people he met day by day thought that he was odd, that he was mad even, nor was he concerned that they would laugh in disbelief if he told them that he had met the Queen who had awarded him an OBE for something that was, as you now realise, as natural as breathing to him.
Horatio closes his eyes once more, watches the picture reel of his day flicker to life and presses the pause button at the point just after Her Majesty had pinned the medal to his lapel. He would never forget this day. He hoped that young Karl would remember it too, and run with his dreams.