Excerpt from the Memoirs and journals of Mr. Graham Smith.
Written by Albert White.
ONE POUND OF FLESH. NOTHING MORE, NOTHING LESS.
It was 1952 when I crossed paths with Mr. Graham Smith for the first time, and though some scholars will find it hard to believe he wasn’t the man the world has grown to know, his story must remain intact in every way, so future generations can benefit from studying what lies behind a man of such marvelous achievements.
It is because of this misconception about his past, and because of my long association with him as a fellow writer, that I must reluctantly abide to the truth and avoid falling into the temptation of flattering an old friend, for whom I have nothing but respect and unconditional admiration.
That said, the intention behind these pages is not to taint my good friend’s impeccable reputation, but to describe the events on his life exactly as they occurred; for every man deserves to be remembered as himself, and not as a fabrication of society.
Back when we first met, Mr. Smith hadn’t yet cruised around the world aboard the Stella, his famous twenty feet hand-made sailboat, nor he had saved the lives of the two hundred and fifty eight passengers of the fatidic Bristol Britannia, after it crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Would it be pointless of me to mention he had never wrestled Bengal tigers either? Despite what most history books are inclined to teach these days, Mr. Smith only acquired that barbaric tradition years after our brief encounter with the Umangi tribe in North Africa.
If asked, I’m sure Mr. Smith would have not believed it possible for him to inherit the title of Emperor of Japan—the title he was honored with after marrying the exuberant Masuko Akihito—nor could he have believed that he would become the one who would discover the world’s ninth wonder, the Argentinean Pyramids.
But the truth remains true, and as much as we want to, nothing can change the fact that back in those days Mr. Smith was nothing but a common man, as common and regular as any of us can strive to be.
I was about twenty-something when the war ended, and like many other soldiers of my generation, I was lucky to have never seen a battlefield nor fired a gun other than in training. My company had just arrived in Paris when the army discharged most of us, offering the possibility of a career only to those who were officer material or had political connections, which was clearly not my case.
Ooh, Paris! Finding myself away from home at such early age in life and surrounded by the gratitude of the French—especially the women, they were particularly grateful—was a true bliss. Months flew off the calendar as many of my friends parted ways back home to continue their lives where they had left them. I decided to stay and pursue a career as a journalist; there was a considerable demand for English writers due to all the expats living there, and I was more than determined to become one.
What better place for a writer to begin his career than Paris? In a matter of days I was already typing the entertainment column for La Poste, a small but respectable daily gazette. It was on the corner, by their cramped office, that I met who would be later become my mentor and dearest friend. Mr. Smith couldn’t have been more than forty at the time; he was a quiet man who kept to himself and delivered his work with a quality that was neither exceptional nor commendable. It wasn’t strange to see him wear ribbon ties at work, which gave him a rather amusing appearance in combination with the way he wore his hair, evidently trying to cover the impending baldness that ran within his family.
Back then, Mr. Smith was a man of rooted manners, and as such, he liked to sort his day through a carefully arranged routine: he came to the office at eleven, typed the entertainment section of the newspaper until well past afternoon, grabbed a quick sandwich over his desk, kept working until seven for the evening edition, then left. Most of the time he would pass unnoticed by those around him, including myself—behaviour which I am not too proud to admit. This was not intentional, of course. No one disliked Mr. Smith; in fact, I don’t recall anyone ever discussing an unpleasant matter involving him, but then again, that was the problem with my friend. No one seemed to care enough about him to make any remark whatsoever. He left no impression on the lives of those around him; he was in every way invisible.
I had been hired to expand the entertainment section of the evening edition, which belonged to Mr. Smith. Obviously, he was not keen on the idea of having some brat taking over his work, but despite that Mr. Smith acted like a true gentlemen for the time we worked together, providing me with invaluable advice on grammar and style for my writing.
Later on, I would find out my friend strongly opposed the idea of sharing his column with me. Journalists were paid by the word back then, and though I was not aware of it at the time, Mr. Smith had struggled with poverty through his entire adult life, which made the whole matter of me taking over his column (and consequently, half his income) quite stressful for him.
Unfortunately for both, it was not long until the editors realized it could be highly profitable to replace old dogs with a basket full of puppies. Once myself and the other young writers had learnt all the dirty tricks this craft has to offer, they fired poor Mr. Smith along with six other writers.
Time passed relatively fast after Mr. Smith left, and I grew somewhat accustomed to the editorial work. The twenty-something boy gradually turned into a thirty-something man, and the daily gazette, as exciting as it was for me at the beginning, gradually turned into a dull and unchallenging venture. The decision was not difficult; I moved back to London, in pursuit of a more fulfilling writing career.
Although I had done considerably well for myself during my stay in France, as all my savings account allowed me to rent out was a one-bedroom apartment at the Blackwell Palace. It was a fairly decent hotel in midtown London, which was mostly occupied by aspiring young writers who, like myself, barely made enough to cover their expenses by ghostwriting in-not-so decent publications.
From the street the hotel wasn’t much to look at, other than the peculiar fact that it was located exactly on a very angled street corner. The three-story building looked as trivial as the one next door, but once you crossed the big glass door, turned right past the lobby and walked down stairs into the restaurant, it was an entirely different experience.
Your eyes would need some time to adjust to the darkness when you reached the last few steps, but one could tell almost immediately why the Blackwell Palace had such a notable reputation. Beyond a thin layer of dust and smoke, the number of writers scattered through the tables was fascinating; it almost appeared as if one had descended into a clandestine gathering of sorts.
From fiction writers to journalists, moving through poets, screenwriters, romance authors and dramatists, the Blackwell clientele was a pond of light in the swamp of ignorance a metropolis like London could sometimes be. As if it were an inn from one of Tolkien’s stories, there was a small wooden desk near the stairs with a sign; it pled writers to keep the sanctity of the house by leaving their pen for safeguarding before taking on a table. Next to it, a wall of fame with hand-drawn portraits of figures like Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Dickens—among others—were on display, though barely visible due the collection of roses people left. There was a local jazz band, composed mainly of gypsy guitar players, that officiated at the church choir every weekend until well past midnight. It was in one of those delightful evenings I happened to cross paths, for the second time in my life, with Mr. Graham Smith.
I didn’t have any trouble recognizing the man as he was practically wearing the same clothes he did the last time we had seen each other. Same ribbon tie, same gray suit, same worn out shoes. Seeing my old mentor like that made me think he had perhaps traveled through time from La Poste, five years into the future. Unfortunately, as I discovered when I walked to the bar, Mr. Smith was no time traveler. The white lines running through his small patch of hair told me ever so quickly, and loudly.
I sat next to him, leaving the stool between us unoccupied just in case the fellow was still holding a grudge against me, then casually nodded at the barman for a glass of Scotch.
Since Mr. Smith had turned away to watch the show he was not aware of me, but when the barman reached for the bottle to get me my drink I caught his reflection on one of the mirrored faces of the shelf and, for a second, I thought he had caught mine. Mr. Smith appeared to be enjoying himself, which was not unusual for a man so fond of jazz. But there was something about this particular Django piece the gypsies were playing that made his eyes water and fill with a despair. All of which I hadn’t seen on his face before.
It was around ten o’clock when I decided it was best to keep my editor updated on the story, so I ordered a sandwich from the bar and went upstairs to make the call. Though upon my return I realized that my sandwich was there, but Mr. Smith was not.
Shortly after, I ate dinner and stayed to listen to Django’s music for a while, letting the alcohol settle in and do its magic, then paid my bill and decided to go upstairs for a change of clothes. At that age, one always becomes a weekend alchemist, field testing the never-ending theory that the newly-acquired charm at the expense of Scotch can be successfully used to increase the chances of mating with the opposite sex.
Never would I have expected walking into Mr. Smith on my way to the elevator.
“Well hello Albert my boy, what a delightful surprise to see you!” said Mr. Smith.
“I thought it was you at the bar, sir,” I babbled. ”It was dark, but I thought I had seen you in the mirror. Well at least I thought it was you, could have been anyone else, really. Are you a guest here, sir?”
“For the moment, yes, while I find someone.”
“Someone?” I said, but Mr. Smith seemed reluctant to answer so I quickly changed subjects.
“So how have you been, sir?”
“I’ve been doing just fine Albert, just fine. Thanks for asking. Keeping myself busy, you know. Like always. Yourself?”
“I quit La Poste a couple of weeks ago, sir.”
“Did you?” said Mr. Smith with a smile on his face.
“To be honest with you sir, I felt as if they were holding me back. You see, I need to know if there is something more for me out there other than writing about plays.”
“Let us hope there is,” said Mr. Smith. “London is not a forgiving market for young writers like yourself. It is much more difficult to land a position here than in Paris, I’m afraid.”
“I could certainly use some pointers sir, if you have the time.”
“Well, I am heading to a previous appointment right now, but we can meet tomorrow for breakfast I suppose.”
“I would very much appreciate that, Mr. Smith. Thank you.”
“Very well then, tomorrow it is! Eight o’clock, at the restaurant.”
“Eight o’clock, sir.”
“Goodnight, Albert,” said Mr. Smith after a brief handshake, then he disappeared around the corner of the corridor.
I left for the local bars in hope of finding a maiden for my one-bedroom castle, but couldn't find a soul. Somehow women were not as impressed by writers back then as they are now. Perhaps it was because there were so many of us around, or perhaps because so many of us had the dreadful habit of intoxicating ourselves before approaching them. Despite their reason for rejection, my experiments as an alchemist had a very short duration that night. After my brief encounter with Mr. Smith, I couldn’t help but feel that going out was the wrong thing to do. After all, the man was likely to be working on another newspaper; arriving late to our breakfast meeting with the scars of battle fought the night before would have been very unprofessional on my part, so I decided against my natural instincts and went back to my bedroom for a proper sleep.
The next morning the clerk woke me up with nearly enough time to take a bath and get dressed. Mr. Smith had already ordered breakfast when I went down to the restaurant.
“Morning,” Mr. Smith said.
“Morning to you, sir.”
“Please. Sir, if you don’t mind the question, how long have you been staying at the hotel?”
He smiled to himself while pouring the milk, as if he was expecting the question at some point or another. He waited until the milk was settled to start serving the tea, then answered.
“And why do you suppose I should not be staying here, Albert?”
“Oh, I never said—”
“But you meant it. Why else would you ask if I mind the question? The only reason for which I would mind not to answer would be—here you go, stir it while its hot—if you thought only young writers took rooms here, would you not?”
“I apologize if I offended you, sir,” I said. “There was no malice behind my question, I can assure you.”
Mr. Smith smiled to himself again and waved his hand at me. “Accepted. It was not your fault, lad,” he said. “The answer to your question is none, I’m not staying here.”
“Oh, I thought I saw you walk to the end of the corridor last night on my floor…”
“Indeed; I was heading to a business meeting in one of the rooms. The person had not yet arrived when I got here yesterday, so I decided to wait at the bar.”
“You? A business meeting in the middle of the night in a hotel room? Mr. Smith, how unlikely of you!” I said, using a cheeky tone he had always found amusing.
“You told me last night you are looking for a job in the city, is that right?” he said quickly, changing subjects.
“Yes, I’m trying to make connections with some of the journalists here, but they all keep very much to themselves when it comes to discussing work.”
“Many writers do. Mostly to avoid a typewriter fight with a young man like yourself,” said Mr. Smith. ”That game never ends well for the ones giving away their cards; newcomers always get the best hand when it comes to keeping a job, Albert. You should know better than that by now.”
“About that. I never had the chance to apologize—”
“Forget it, Albert,” he said. “It was not your fault. If I had to blame someone for what happened, I would have to blame myself.”
“It was me for whom they fired you for, sir.”
“True, but I came to realize nothing could have changed that. They would have replaced me for new blood eventually.”
“I cannot help but feel bad about it, though.”
Mr. Smith leaned across the table and put a kind hand on my shoulder. “It is in the past, Albert. Learn to let it go, just as I did. You have other worries now, more urgent ones, especially if you are looking to work as a journalist in this city, I’m afraid.”
“What do you mean?”
“The market has become impossible,” he said. “There are simply no opportunities for young writers like yourself anymore. Not that there are any for old dogs like myself, but it has been hard for both extremes, the ones starting out and the ones who are reaching their forties.”
“But there must be work somewhere for writers? I mean, it is London we’re talking about after all, is it not?”
Mr. Smith shook his head solemnly. “I can get you a few interviews with colleagues of mine who are lucky enough to still be on the market, but I will be doing you a disservice if I were not to warn you they would be merely doing so to please an old friend.”
I was devastated! Mr. Smith was someone whose judgment I had learnt to respect over the short period of time we had worked together. Perhaps he saw something of himself in me and it was because of this he had always treated me with the same respect. If he said the market was dead, then I had no more business there.
It was not likely of me to show defeat under any circumstances back then. Young people have a way of seeing the world through a glass of optimism and opportunity that slowly tarnishes through the years. Life becomes more and more blurry with each autumn, until there is nothing left to see other than a reflection of the young person they once were. But on that particular day, Mr. Smith had caught me off guard. Perhaps it was because of this that he talked me into what would be the most incredible adventure of my life.
“I am sorry if I gave you false hopes last night, Albert,” he said. “Editors are more interested in degrees than experience these days, and self-made men like us lack both.”
“I appreciate your honesty, sir.”
He took a cigar out of the inner pocket of his jacket and bit the tip off, then lit it with one of the branded matchboxes from the ashtray. He spent a while puffing the smoke in and out with his eyes fixed on me. At the time I didn’t understand my friend’s inquisitive stare, though years later he would confess to having doubts about me, doubts that quickly dissipated as our friendship grew stronger.
“There is a proposition I want to make you, my young friend. I was intending to get someone else for this, but since we have already worked together and I trust your prose as much as I trust mine, there is a job offer you might be interested in. Do you wish to hear it?”
“By all means, yes!” I said.
“Back when you—well, when I lost my job,” said Mr. Smith, “I went home and thought about where my life was heading. I had spent fifteen years working for La Poste and accomplished nothing. The bills were piled under the doorstep, the toilet was leaking, the cheese was not on the rat trap anymore and the only place where people knew I existed at all had found a replacement for me. Desolate isn’t even the word to describe how I felt, but it’s the one that often comes to my mind when I look back at that night.”
He stopped to puff his cigar a few times, then settled it on the ashtray as he reached for the tea pot. “My choice was simple, and quite logical at the time. I tied my belt around one of the beams on the ceiling, got up on a chair and then on to the table.”
“Oh yes Albert, I did. But like the filament of a light bulb which reaches the maximum of its capacity before burning out, a thought crossed my mind the very second I was about to jump.”
“What was it, sir?”
“I could not leave this world without writing my memoirs. The prospect of doing so terrified me,” said Mr. Smith.
I was shocked. The man that had taught me the craft of writing was sitting across the table saying he almost committed suicide because of my actions. Though indirectly, I had affected him by not realizing what the editors had in mind when they hired me. Should I had known, I would have never accepted the offer, but I was young and anxious back then, with great omission to details, like young people often are when marveled by the idea of starting their lives as adults.
To my astonishment, Mr. Smith finished his tea with a smile, then continued smoking his cigar and making conversation as pleased as a man sitting on a park bench on a Sunday afternoon.
“There I was, in front of my typewriter. The words flowing like water. You know the feeling, Albert; when you don’t even have to think about what you are typing, it just comes to you. The letters make words, the words make sentences and the sentences make paragraphs, all by themselves. It’s like seeing a dream that existed only in your mind which materializes right in front of you. Magic, Albert. It is like magic.”
“Indeed, I have felt it myself.”
“But after a while, Albert , it just...” Mr. Smith briefly paused, “stopped.”
“Writer’s block. Could you believe that, lad? Writing my own life, I got a bad case of writer’s block. Ask me how many pages I was at when it happened.”
“How many pages were you at?”
“Two. Only two pages, Albert, and one and a half was about my school days. After I graduated and became a man, there was only two short paragraphs, in which one included you.”
I was speechless. The mere idea of a man not being able to finish his own memoirs for neglecting to live his life at its fullest struck me with the ferocity of a bullet.
“I wept that night, Albert. Not because I lost my job of fifteen years to a chap who barely knew the craft, but because I could not finish the second page of my memoirs. There was nothing else to add. It was all there, my life, in two miserable pages.”
“I had no idea…”
“The sight of an empty life can be a terrible thing for a man, Albert. A terrible thing.”
“What did you do after that?”
“I got back up on the chair!” said Mr. Smith. “The only thing I could do, really. The very next morning I sold my old typewriter, most of my clothes, some family belongings, and closed my account with the Banco De France, then set off to wander around the country. Within a year that half-page that was my adult life became three of these notebooks,” said Mr. Smith, taking a handful of Moleskines from his briefcase and dropping them on the table.
“Pretty much, yes. You see, Albert, I sailed twice around the world, fought against the Berber rebellion with the Legionaries for six days and nights in Morocco, stood on the wing of an airplane above the Pacific Ocean and hunted sharks in the Bahamas along with the natives. I have filled these notebooks with what I believe is a worthy life to be told.”
“Incredible,” I said, in awe of the contents in the notebooks held in my hands. They had taken a beating over the years, no doubt as a result of Mr. Smith’s adventures.
One of the covers had a hole in it, presumedly made by a small-caliber pistol. Another had been chewed to shreds by some kind of large animal, and a third was barely held together by hemp string. Mr. Smith had even tied a lion’s fang to one of the bookmarks as a lucky charm. The smell imprinted on those notebooks was captivating; you could close your eyes and smell grass, rock, rain, and mud, like holding a tiny piece of the African savanna in your hand.
“They whisper to you, don’t they Albert?” said Mr. Smith with a grin on his face. He had been watching me the whole time and caught the expression of astonishment on my face.
“Certainly.” I muttered. “You will now be able to finish those memoirs. Congratulations, sir.”
“I’m afraid I won’t” he said.
“Last night when we ran with each other, I came to realize that it is not up to me to write them, but to you, Albert.”
I was perplexed. It would have helped me greatly in terms of getting published and while I did not doubt for a second that Mr. Smith was an honest man, he could as well have been a desperate one too. I stared at him for a moment and felt the question slip through my lips.
“If I may say so sir, how can anyone prove the veracity of these notebooks?”
“Well, that is your job to find out, Albert. Those, however, are not the ones I want you to base my memoirs on. The ones I want you to write, are these,” said Mr. Smith, and he handed me five notebooks.
“But… these are blank, sir.”
“And it will be your duty to fill them. I have a full year’s salary with me. It is twice what you earned in La Poste. I want you to follow and document my every move, just as Doctor Watson did for Sherlock Holmes in his journals.”
The offer was tempting. I would not have to worry about money for a year, which at the moment was starting to become a problem. In exchange, Mr. Smith would require my full-time services as a personal biographer, but the thought of delaying the beginning of my career as a genuine writer kept me from agreeing.
“I am terribly sorry, Mr. Smith, but I will have to decline your offer. It is not that I am not interested, which I am, but there is still a career I want to build for myself here in London, and if the market is as poor as you say it is, I should be trying to get inside one of the literary magazines as soon as possible.”
“I understand your position, lad,“ said Mr. Smith. “Nevertheless, I must urge you to reconsider. You might be turning away unique material which could help launch you into that writing career you long for. You have a unique style, my boy. The very moment they had us working together, I could tell; you are destined to become a great writer. But, like many others out there, you lack a vision, a story to tell. And a writer is only as big as the story he tells, Albert. You know this. My memoirs can be the key that unlock that door for you, if you are willing to take the risk. Do not waste your time like I did. Working for some small newspaper leads to nowhere. Do something meaningful with your best years while you have them. Write a biography worthy of being written, and worthy of being read.”
“I am honored by your offer, sir, but—” I said, but before I could finish, Mr. Smith stopped me, waving a hand.
“Or… you might go to Glasgow and try your luck there, maybe at one of the small presses that have been spawning during the last year? It should not be difficult for a fellow like yourself to find work there. The pay might not be much more than in La Poste, but you will be able to write about all those wonderful plays behind the comfort of a desk for the next ten, maybe fifteen years…”
He put out his cigar and leaned forward to me across the table until we were eye to eye. “Or perhaps, Albert my boy, what you truly want is to become a writer.”
I still don’t know if it was the way he described his life or the fact he had lived it which made me accept his proposition. Either way I could not say no at the time and like all writers, my curiosity overwhelms my common sense. How else could one explain the act of sitting through an entire afternoon daydreaming in front of a typewriter, while the rest of the world enjoys a fulfilling life outside the door?
We shook hands and he gave me half a year’s salary in an envelope, which I placed inside my briefcase along with his notebooks. For the following twenty years, I became Mr. Smith’s shadow, and he, my most dearest friend.
I followed him throughout his expeditions to Egypt, where along with a renegade archeologist and six graduated students Mr. Smith uncovered the secret behind the pyramids of Giza. All at the risk of being hung by the local authorities when he tried to smuggle the Scroll of Life through the border.
I was present when he joined the Great Norwegian Expedition of 1962 to the Antarctic, and it gave me great joy to have been part of the small group who witnessed Mr. Smith’s discovery of what would be known as the Frozen Valley of Slibdvard. Later that year my friend’s interminable thirst for adventures took us to Portugal, where after a brief and well-deserved vacation under the sunny beach of Prai da Falesia—against my own wishes—we became the first to explore the marvels of one of the deepest sinkholes on the planet. We spent two weeks in a exceptionally well preserved prehistoric ecosystem, just as the visionary and prolific author Jules Vernes described in his works of fiction. Little would have we guessed when we descended into those caves that we were to be the ones who established first contact with the Inunara, that gentle race of creatures that inhabit the inner cortex of the Earth.
It was the peculiarity of that discovery, and the fact that Portugal’s government tried to seal the entrance to this amazing new world, that made my friend and employer the historic figure he is today, which ultimately brought me, his biographer, professional acknowledgement as well.
It is only fair to say my business arrangements with Mr. Smith had already concluded years before that incident. Nevertheless, I kept following him across the globe, which allowed me to publish twelve of my own novels whilst keeping my word to complete his everlasting memoirs.
But I had always wondered about that Saturday afternoon when I encountered Mr. Smith in the Blackwell Palace’s restaurant. The sadness I saw on his face escaped me for years. It wasn’t until recently, after a medical position diagnosed me with terminal cancer, that I finally understood my friend’s struggle to contain his tears.
That afternoon at the bar he had seen me, prior to us meeting. I know this now because of a detail I found when visiting my old hotel on a signature tour my publisher arranged for me. To help me describe the scene to a member of the international press, I had sat on the same stool Mr. Smith had been sitting on that same Saturday evening, all those years ago. As I mentioned before, there was a mirror on one of the inner walls of the shelf behind the counter from where I could see him. But what I did not know back then, is that Mr. Smith could see me as well. He sat there, listening to the Django covers the unknown group of gypsy players delighted the restaurant’s clientele with, and thought about the future. Not his, which was already well undergone, but mine.
See, Mr. Smith needed a third party to write down his memoirs, but above all, to have them validated as a factual biography and not as a work of fiction. He needed a witness, someone credible who could testify for his actions. The moment I walked down those stairs at the Blackwell Palace, he decided to convince me into becoming that witness. But despite the great opportunity being Mr. Smith’s personal biographer will mean for my career, he also knew there was something else he was taking from me. Something far more important, which I have now come to realize.
My life is incomplete. I spent my best years following the man and documenting his adventures, but neglected to make any of my own. He made me into that gray man he himself used to be. Maybe not as gray or little as the one he once was, back when we first met in Paris, but small, nonetheless.
I cannot say I completely regret following my friend through his many adventures. Not one day passes by that I don’t kindly recall the hours we spent traveling the world together. What I would have given for having been able to follow him in this new endeavor across the galaxy.
Oh, to think of the wonders he must have seen in the past few years! In spite of the world’s governments’ several attempts to take down his ship after it left Earth’s orbit, and in spite all the dangers that came afterwards, I would have rejoiced if only my health had allowed me to accompany him on this last journey.
But part of me feels deceived. He stole something from me, something I will never be able to get back. Perhaps it is because of this that Mr. Smith broadcasts old Django records on his way to Mars. He wants us to remember that life is not something to take for granted. That it is a precious gift, worthy of being explored and experienced to its fullest.
Near the Pegasus constellation, my friend and mentor reminds us all, through the melancholic melodies of a three-fingered gypsy guitar player, that dreams are not there just to give us hope, but to be lived, and that any man or woman can achieve greatness, no matter how small or how gray they believe they are.