08 Bealtaine 2010

Keats and Chapman 3

An obscure portal

Feeling himself in need of a stiff mid-morning drink, Chapman stepped into the gentleman's club of which he was a long-standing member. As he made his way, glass in hand, towards an armchair next to a window in the smokers' lounge he was surprised to see Keats slumped in an adjacent chair, a vacant but somewhat harassed expression on his countenance.

'Keats old boy! Good to see you! It's not often we have the pleasure of your company' said Chapman warmly – the younger poet had agreed, at Chapman's urging, to join the club some years before but he generally preferred the quiet of his study to the convivial surroundings of the club and rarely visited it.

'I have been hunted from house and home' replied Keats glumly.

'Good heavens! What happened? Do tell me everything' urged Chapman.

'It's my nephew Mervyn. He's coming up to college in October and my sister felt it would be a good idea for him to spend a month or two in town before then, to familiarise himself with the city and so on. He can't take rooms in college until term begins and, since I live alone in a four-bedroom house, I could hardly refuse to put him up ...'

'I can guess the rest', said Chapman, 'I dare say he plays the gramophone at all hours of the day and night, holds interminable conversations on the telephone, rolls home in a state of inebriation in the small hours – his rowdy friends blowing their car horns as they drop him off ...'

'No, no, nothing of the sort. Quite the opposite in fact. Young Mervyn is a model of industry and application and has hardly gone out since he arrived a month ago. He spends all his time making improvements about the house. It began innocently enough: first he mowed the lawn and trimmed the hedges, next he cleaned out the eave-gutters, then he swept the chimneys ...'

'Capital!' exclaimed Chapman, 'you couldn't spare him for a few days could you?' Chapman suppressed a laugh as Keats shook his head and sighed wearily. 'I do apologise, Keats. I really shouldn't make light of a situation which distresses you. But what exactly is the problem?'

'It's the noise, the disruption, the general discomfort while Mervyn's laudable works are in progress. You recall I had stacks of books in all the bedrooms? Of course, I had to empty one room for Mervyn's use and I relocated those books on the steps of the staircase. There was still space enough for one person to pass by, but Mervyn insisted on erecting wall-to-wall shelving in every room.'

'But that's splendid! Just think Keats: when all your existing books are stored away on the new shelving, you'll be able to use the free floor space to double the size of your library.'

'Of course, I realise all that', said Keats, waving his hand irritably, 'but while Mervyn was working on the shelves I had to endure three days of uninterrupted sawing, drilling and hammering. And then the smell of turpentine and paint assailed my nostrils for another few days. I haven't been able to write a line for more than a week now. This simply can't continue, but how can I tell Mervyn that he must go? The young fellow means well, after all, and I couldn't possibly explain it to his mother – a most formidable woman I assure you.'

'Surely the bookshelves are finished by now?' asked Chapman.

'Oh yes indeed. The shelves are finished. But then he announced that all the electrical wiring in the house needed to be replaced. At present he is working on the front door and the windows. They were varnished as you may recall, but Mervyn assures me that this is most improper for external surfaces. For the last couple of days I could hear nothing from dawn to dusk but the infernal scratching of sandpaper. I had hoped for some respite when he began painting this morning, but he insists that all the doors and windows should be left open until the paint dries and there is a veritable gale blowing through the house. The very papers on my desk ...'

'What colour of paint is he using?' interrupted Chapman, a note of excitement entering his voice.

'It's a mahogany colour, the same as he used for the bookshelves. Why do you ask?'

A smile spread across Chapman's features and he slapped the palm of his hand against his knee in a gesture of triumph. 'Then you have him Keats – young Mervyn has played right into your hands!'

'I'm afraid I don't follow you' replied the poet in a baffled tone.

'When you return home today' said Chapman, 'you must tell your nephew, politely but firmly, that he is never to darken the door of your house again'.