Doctor Sam Johnson (Sammy to his familiars), sat in his usual position in Mr Sturback’s shop window on Bloomsbury Road, watching all that was going on about him. A ham and tomato sandwich lay within grasping radius, its function to allay any pangs in his stomach, although in truth that portion of his body was not at much risk of wasting away. Johnson was at work, writing a book. Not right at that instant, not physically, but always it was in his mind, through daylight’s hours and at night too. A dictionary! This was his magnum opus and utopian vision. His work was going to transform how folk thought not just of words, but of sounds, sights, things: in short, words would act as signals, stand as signposts, flags, triangulation points; his collation would bloom as a constantly growing log and navigation chart for all humanity – or all Anglophonic humanity anyway.
‘What’s Bozzy up to today?’ Johnson thought, toying with an onion. ‘How amusing if my sycophantic Scotchman should drop by just now!’
A woman in a filthy apron was hawking hot dogs and pork and pastry buns from a pram, just by Sturback’s door. Sturback was hopping mad.
‘Damn you, Mags, I’ll run you out of town, you hussy!’
Mags, who didn’t normally toss a farthing for Sturback’s rants, flung two digits at him and slunk off with a scornful laugh, just out of sight.
‘Taking your custom? What a bitch!’ Johnson said.
Sturback stuck out his long jaw, shaking his oily pow as if civilisation had just sunk with all hands. ‘Allow that sort an inch and nuffing but public chaos will follow,’ was his gloomy opinion.
‘Too right,’ said Johnson, and bit into his sandwich. Its ham was too salty. His cappuccino burnt his mouth’s roof.
Sturback’s door was swung back with gusto as a short, wild, dirty kind of chap burst in. Johnson’s spirits sank. It was Buzz, a cousin of Bozzy’s, firmly out of Bozzy’s favour although Buzz’s own opinion was that Bozzy, common blood notwithstanding, was a bosom ‘pal’. Doctor Johnson was not a fan of words such as ‘pal’, nor of Buzz. Bozzy was charming, ingratiating, always apologising – ‘I am a Scotchman, but it’s not my fault!’, ‘Sir, I am sorry for my grammar, but I took instruction from an Irish tutor,’ – but Buzz by contrast was chummy in an annoyingly insulting way.
‘Haw, Sammy ma man, hoo’s it hingin?’
‘Must you talk in that uncouth fashion?’
‘Sociability, Sam, that’s aw it is. “A man’s a man for aw that”, and aw that, naw?’
Johnson’s scowl was as a storm growing on a wintry horizon, but Buzz was oblivious, landing a bold blow on Sam’s dorsal fins that had him coughing chunks of cold ham and cinnamon dust down his shirt front.
‘Confound you, you clumsy oaf, can’t you control your idiocy?’ Johnson said, half-choking.
‘Sorry, Sambo, A’m that gallus so A’m ur!’ Buzz said.
‘Sit down, will you – no, not in that chair! – and try to act with what scraps of dignity you can summon. Occupy your tiny mind with a study of playing-cards – or backgammon – anything! – till your cousin turns up.’
‘Is Bozzy comin? Brilliant! Will you no join us, Doctor?’
‘I’m busy,’ Johnson said, pulling a jotting-pad from his waistcoat. ‘Play against your own shadow.’
But Buzz could not stay still. Up, down, scratching, yawning, rifting, tooth-picking, window-watching, trying to look at what Johnson was scribbling, humming songs, rapping out drum and bass rhythms on Sturback’s backgammon board, displaying his ‘Hairy Mary’ and ‘Bannockburn 1314’ tattoos to a passing barmaid – his inability to anchor his bottom to his chair was driving Johnson mad till at last, with a flourish, Bozzy swung in off Bloomsbury Road.
Johnson was almost histrionic. ‘Bozzy, thank God! Your cousin is infuriating. I cannot stand his company.’
Buzz put a hurt, ‘Whit, puir us?’ look on his chops, which got no sympathy from Bozzy.
‘Oh, Doctor Johnson, I am mortal with horror that you should mix with Buzz at all! ’Tis an affront to your sophistication. My cousin is a symbol of that – if I can put it this way – tribal part of our nationality that it is my profound wish to banish into total obscurity. I wish it would so diminish through our imbibing at your gushing fountain of Anglicisation that finally no part or portion of us would know how to roar “och” or cry “whit a glaikit tumshy”.’
‘A’m a symbol am A, ya big sook?’ Buzz said. ‘And is this a play or a story A’m in? A thought it wis actuality, but naw, it turns oot it’s a fiction. Mind, though, A fancy a bit o imbibin. Drams aw roond is it? Haw, landlord, shift your dowp and bring us a trio o hauf-pints o whisky, and a fourth for luck. Lagavulin, Bruichladdich or Highland Park, A’m no fussy. Bozzy’s payin.’
‘I am not,’ Bozzy said. ‘I’m skint. Not a shilling in my pouch.’
‘That’s on accoont o aw your hoorin,’ Buzz said, laughing nastily. ‘Don’t think A didna clock you last nicht, wavin your magic wand at that braw young lass from Drury’s Fast Food and Quick Strip Joint.’
‘I know of no such institution,’ Bozzy said, blushing.
‘Land of oats, strong liquor, accusing cousins, fanatics and foul climatic conditions,’ Johnson was murmuring, ‘what a dump Scotland is! And what a nirvana is London.’
‘London’s boggin,’ Buzz said. ‘It’s fou o toffs.’
‘A man who has had his fill of London has had his fill of living,’ Johnson told him. ‘And you, sir, should not spurn what is good for you. No sight so grand to a Scotchman as that high road which shifts him southward. An illustration: in this country folk supply oats to nags, hacks and dobbins, but in Scotland it’s human food.’
‘Parritch?’ Buzz said. ‘Maist tasty scran onywhaur, forby haggis. It’s whit maks us Scots so good at shot-putt and discus-flingin. It maks us romantic, Spartan, up for a fight against your Goliaths and similar bully-boys.’
But Johnson was also in full flood. ‘Barbaric north, so lacking in civilisation, why if you cannot adopt our ways can you not mask your crudity? Why all this brutal nationalism?’
‘It was your lot’s fault originally,’ Buzz said, ‘wi your colonial ambitions, your invasions, occupations, scorchins, rough wooins and aw that. Brutality? Civilisation? Ach, awa and shit in a piano stool.’
‘What’s that, an old ballad sung by a clansman out in ’Forty-Six?’ Johnson said, with cold irony.
‘Now Jacobitism is romantic,’ Bozzy said wistfully. ‘A mournful ditty such as “O Hap My Cauld Corp in Bonny Tartan” would, I trust, not appal Doctor Johnson, Buzz, as your historical, political and scatological faux pas do.’
‘Fuck off,’ Buzz said, aiming a foul look at Sturback who had just brought across a tray of drinks.
‘What hour is it?’ Johnson said.
‘Happy hour,’ Buzz said, throwing back his first glass of whisky. ‘Lang may your wig wag and your snot run.’
‘Bozzy,’ Johnson said, ignoring this childish quip, ‘talking of symbols, I want you to cast your ocular organ on this blog I’m writing. Do you spot anything odd about it?’
‘Odd?’ said Bozzy. ‘What work could your brain possibly concoct that was odd, if by that word you signify untoward, lacking in rationality, poorly thought through or plain crazy?’
‘Don’t construct such complications!’ Johnson said. ‘I simply say odd. Unusual, uncommon. Look at it, man!’
Buzz, noticing no inclination from his cousin or Doctor Johnson to knock back any whisky, swiftly sank all drams outstanding on Sturback’s tray, triumphant at managing to cowp four malts without, thus far, hurt to his financial condition.
Bozzy was at a loss. ‘I am at a loss, my good Doctor J.’
‘What is missing from it, Bozzy, is a symbol of such slight, almost insignificant bulk that you’d hardly mark it ordinarily – but without it all our world of writing and printing, all notions and truths, myths and opinions put down in books, cannot function. That is to say, can function – of this my morning’s labour is proof – but only with gross difficulty and much adjusting of familiar ways.’
‘This is puzzling,’ said Bozzy. ‘What is it? An important symbol, my assumption is, but is it common too?’
‘I told you so,’ Johnson said, chortling. ‘It is most common, in fact. Think, think, lad!’
Buzz, rank with whisky, stuck his long, sharp nostrils in amongst things at this point.
‘Is it, ah…?’ said this apology for a human, who had no opinion but was anxious for inclusion, and was also trying to focus on two Doctor Johnsons and a similar quantity of cousin Jimmys.
‘No, it is not ah,’ Johnson said. Buzz’s discomfort was vastly satisfactory to him.
‘Um,’ Buzz said.
‘Not that,’ Johnson said.
‘Oh,’ Buzz said.
Bozzy’s phizog lit up with joy. ‘Gracious, Doctor Johnson, I am with you now! Most common! How astonishing! How fab. How totally braw. And do you say that in this – this drama as my poor stotious cousin has put it, of which your jotting-pad has a full account, and in which all of us play our parts – do you maintain that right from its start it fails to contain this symbol at all?’
‘From start to finish?’
‘Not a hint of it!’
‘I am struck dumb,’ Bozzy said, though obviously this was an inaccuracy, or possibly a downright untruth.
‘A’m gonny boak,’ said Buzz.
‘It is nothing, nothing,’ Johnson told Bozzy. ‘I am not first at this carry-on. An author from Paris has in his list of publications a full work of fiction, 100,000 words long, that avoids that symbol throughout. In francais, naturally, but still. Just shows what you can do.’
‘Just shows what you can do without,’ Bozzy said.
‘Your wit’s quick today, Jim,’ Johnson said.
‘You honour it simply by noticing,’ said Bozzy with a bow.
‘Aw, fuckin shut it, will you, you mutually smug, fud-licking toads. A’m oot o this slurry-pit.’ Swaying as if on a ship in a typhoon, Buzz took a stumbling lurch and was soon off into Bloomsbury, no doubt to find a location in which to vomit.
His going brought loud hurrahs from Johnson and his aficionado.
‘I thought your horrific cousin would stay till chucking-out hour,’ Johnson said, slapping down thirty quid. ‘It was worth having him drink all that whisky just to rid our company of him. Now, what’s your fancy?’
‘Fish and chips,’ said Bozzy, matching Johnson’s thirty with cash of his own. ‘And gin. And as for tonic, go light on that.’
‘Will do,’ Doctor Johnson said. Dictionary-making could wait. Sammy (to his familiars) was up for a party. ‘Barmaid! Sturback! My buddy and I wish to act as your patrons!’
Four a.m., a dark, solitudinous hour, and Doctor Johnson is stalking his attic rooms, trying his imagination on words still unknown to him. Two floors down, his landlady, Mrs Coalsack, quilt up to nostrils, nightcap tight on wiry curls, puts fist to mouth and gnaws, afraid of his night walks. Somnambulist or insomniac? Who knows? All Mrs Coalsack wants is for him to stop. But Johnson turns, stamps, groans, rubs his aching brow, driving his anxious thoughts onward. What words will fit this…this mad industrial and social hubbub that London now is from dawn to dusk? How can quill and ink, or blocks of print, portray such and such, or this, or that…? How do you control words?
In his waking agony an apparition of Buzz looms into sight, grinning, drunk, but kindly. Kindly? Johnson’s skin crawls with suspicion. ‘I can assist you with your dictionary,’ Buzz says. ‘I am your missing link. This did not start with words, no. It did, though, start with sounds. Long, long ago, that’s all communication was – sounds. From that distant start, that far swamp, you, Bozzy and I all spring. You may publish books, and books may outlast us, or futuristic things not known to us may usurp that crown now worn by books, but it all flows back to sounds. Without sounds – nothing.’
Doctor Johnson’s pacing grinds to a halt. It is most odd, but ghostly Buzz sounds not Scotch but almost …civil.
Two floors down, Mrs Coalsack sighs, smirks, turns to pillow-soft oblivion. Finally, all is dumb, blissful hush.