FICTION | Miss Mercedes Gleitze by Nigel Jarrett

FICTION | Miss Mercedes Gleitze by Nigel Jarrett

‘Miss Mercedes Gleitze’ is the ninth story in our Story: Retold series, and is inspired by Bert Coombes’ Twenty Tons of Coal’.

 

Cwmbran Colliery, near Pontypool, Monmouthshire, belonging to Messrs. Guest, Keen and Nettlefolds, will be closed down at the end of the week. Miners’ representatives are meeting to-day to discuss means of prevailing on the owners to keep the colliery open.

                                                                *

Isabel Trafford, 25, housemaid, employed at Belgrave-road, was charged at Westminster Police Court yesterday with stealing a diamond ring belonging to Miss Mercedes Gleitze. The accused woman pleaded ‘Guilty’ and was dealt with under the Prohibition of Offenders Act, being bound over to come up for judgement if called upon within 12 months.

 

                                                                           News in Brief, Western Mail, November 17, 1927

 

October 16, 1941

Now here is Mercedes Gleitze, believing it both natural and imperative to explain to her friend Dorothy that a diamond and a piece of coal are manifestations of the same basic mineral.  She actually uses the word ‘manifestations’, much to Dorothy’s delight.  Dorothy is delighted anyway because Mercedes has arrived home from Switzerland for the final time and sees fit to use the word ‘manifestations’ in her presence. It’s a word Dorothy would never use herself but she thinks she understands what it means.

Her parents see no point in sending Dorothy to finishing school in Lausanne – or anywhere else for that matter. In manifested mineral terms, poor Dorothy is low-carat.  She wears, and will wear that coming night, the black jewellery inherited from her grandmother.  It’s called jet, which Mercedes thinks she now has a word for. The word is ‘funereal’. But she really thinks jet is dull and non-alluring.  Which sums up all the funerals she’s ever attended. When a male cousin – one of the Norfolk Gleitzes – died of rheumatic fever, Coulson’s ran up a black mourning outfit for her but her father made her send it back, describing it as ‘inappropriate bordering on outrageous’. Her riposte, that the dead cousin, always so gay, would not have wanted his obsequies to be miserable, was met with contemptuous silence. Her cousin having sanctioned it, Mercedes liked the idea of gaiety about to break out from beneath a charcoal-grey surface, but she knew that her father would settle for nothing less than the propriety of grief: plain and anthracite-black. He knew she was a flapper. ‘Whatever next?’ he mumbled to Dorothy’s father when their shrieking daughters embraced the latest American fashions, knowing that the older generation relied on hers to keep them up to date.  Pride ever exuded from their small confabulating groups, half in shadow after dinner, the men biting on cigars and the women mitigating their varying slippages of ardour by summoning memory as the young jitterbugged carefree beneath the bright electric lights.

Anyway, an excited Dorothy has her arms to her sides and her hands sticking out at right-angles with palms faced down, and is bouncing up and down on her toes, flapper-like.  She has called especially (though there’s a suspicion that Mercedes may have half-invited her) to see the diamond ring that Mercedes’ parents have bought their daughter to mark the completion of her time at Madame Sausseur’s Academy, where, among other accomplishments, she has learned to make her way falteringly through Schubert’s Impromptu in G. The train to Switzerland, her father told her, would be pulled by a locomotive burning his own exported coal, so the journey would be smooth, purposeful and without technical hitch, unless ‘foreign engineering’ were at fault. While playing the Schubert, she must have felt the gravity of his reminder and contrasted it with the troubled progress of the music, exacerbated by her own deficiencies and some kind of constant division going on inside her, always about to race out of control.

Mercedes and Dorothy have been friends ever since their fathers sealed some kind of business compact to do with holdings in South Wales. But many, including Molly Renfrew, daughter of the Member of Parliament for the Borough of South Kensington, believes Madame Sausseur would never efface Mercedes’ tendency to choose as friends only those who will not embarrass her with their greater poise and intelligence and not take offence at the most grievous slight on her part.  Molly herself has been virtually discarded after supporting in Mercedes’ presence votes for women and universal suffrage.

But Molly’s father is an MP and Mr Gleitze bends so low in his presence that on one occasion, it is said,  his cordless monocle fell out and rolled across the floor.  It was at the time of that business with the inquest. Mercedes’s father had to go down there and give evidence after a miner was killed underground by a fall of rock; frightful tons of it. Mercedes, reading about Douglas Fairbanks in Don Q, Son of Zorro, and giggling as she noticed how the actor’s moustache looked exactly like her father’s, picked up shreds of the conversation. It was too awful – something about the man’s body having been crushed to pieces. No husband of hers would work down a mine. And something else about washing the corpse, or its bits collected from the immensity of rubble and taken to the dead man’s home on a stretcher. Ugh! She willed her thoughts onward, away from a man’s torn limbs tacky with mud and dust and waiting to be scraped and sluiced down. For the burial, she supposed, the final burial, before the hymn-singing her father was always talking about, as if he could hear it even in Threadneedle Street and not be rid of its siren song. Only the other day he was heard to splutter, ‘God, the miners! They even have a voice in Parliament. Next, they’ll be wanting to run the pits themselves. Our pits. Jesus Henry Christ!’  And Mr Gleitze a member of the congregation at St. Paul’s.

Mercedes holds out her hand for Dorothy as she does for her many gentleman callers, who support it lightly in theirs and slowly bury a lascivious look behind a genuflection so exaggerated as to appear as ridiculous as her father’s in the presence of the Member for South Ken.  The central diamond and its six smaller stones-in-waiting signal to Dorothy a world she will inhabit only in her imagination, so that Mercedes holds it for her inspection longer than is required.

It reminds Dorothy of an engagement ring, and she says so.

‘Idiotic!’ Mercedes erupts, finally withdrawing her hand as though the ring has been debased by her friend’s silly observation.

She knows Dorothy will admit it’s absurd. That’s why she is her friend.  Idiotic and gauche. ‘Now ladies, try never to be gauche,’  Madame Sausseur told them at their first class in deportment. Once Mercedes had learned what ‘gauche’ meant, she realised Molly Renfrew would never be socially awkward.

But Molly suspects that a gentleman will slip a real engagement ring on to Mercedes’ slender finger only as long as convention subdues wild instinct.

If only Molly’s father were not an MP only too willing to represent her own father’s interests, Mercedes thinks, she could be disowned completely and never be seen again. That Molly hates everything her MP father stands for, whatever it may be, makes no difference.  ‘In any case, what will women do with their votes when they get them?’ We heard her say that. Really. When we laughed, she started laughing too, but no amount of coaching at Sausseur’s could teach her to disguise the unutterably inane as something witty and too subtle to be immediately apprehended.

That night at the Gleitzes’ house in the Square, Dorothy does indeed wear Whitby jet – a black bracelet and a black pendant. It’s not even a luminous black, Mercedes notes, but impenetrable. It was enough to make you suicidal. Mercedes wears her new diamond ring. Molly is there too, her despised father’s reputation and influence offering her protection from gossip. Mercedes suspects that whenever Molly is silent and looking her way, there are complicated things going on in her head.

For her part, Molly believes there is nothing complicated about Mercedes and Isabel, the Gleitzes’ housemaid, when one has discounted the complexities of conduct and social acceptance. Isabel Trafford it was who had always helped Mercedes pack before the train journeys to Lausanne, where complexity ever gave way to frivolous certainties.

Isabel is one of two members of the Gleitze staff on solemn duty beside a table laden with titbits arranged around a salver of punch. Isabel smiles as Molly looks her way. Molly already refers to her  as Izzy and is thrilled to learn that no-one in the Gleitze family does, not even Mercedes.  Molly walks to where Isabel is standing and they exchange knowing glances. Isabel cannot shift from her post unless someone wants a drink, and especially not to exchange pleasantries with someone like Molly Renfrew.

“How are things, Izzy?” Molly whispers out of the corner of her mouth.

“I’m fine, Moll,” Isabel ventriloquises, trying not to show that she’s communicating with the subversive daughter of an MP.

“Don’t be impertinent,” comes the mock response. “Call me Molly. Or better still, Miss Renfrew.  By the way, I trust you’re not wearing knickers.”

Isabel’s upper body shudders with barely suppressed mirth as Molly walks away.

Now, what’s this? Mercedes and Dorothy are bearing down on the drinks table, Dorothy bringing up the rear and fussing as usual. They hand Isabel their glasses and she re-fills them with the ladle, making sure that she includes some of the floating bits of fruit. Isabel has been noticing how Mercedes picks the fruit out of her glass, lets it sit on her tongue then squelches it in her mouth and swallows, before licking her thumb and forefinger. Dorothy tries to do the same but it’s Mercedes whom Isabel observes in detail, and Isabel senses that she is watched by Mercedes in turn. It’s been a month since Isabel was told by Molly that she, Molly Renfrew, would like to lie with her naked. That was at the Playbox, near the Strand, when Isabel was on a night out with her friends in service – the FIS, as Molly now calls them. They’d all had too much to drink. Molly has noticed that Isabel’s skin is covered in a fine golden down that shivers like ripe wheat in the breeze. But the week before this evening’s celebration, she saw Mercedes plant the gentlest of lingering kisses on Isabel’s lips and forage in Isabel’s nether regions with both hands. Mercedes doesn’t want a male, eligible or otherwise; she wants Isabel. If only she could proclaim her desire as the ring her parents bought her semaphores its presence below the Gleitzes’ chandeliers.  Mercedes may indeed have ‘half-invited’ Dorothy that evening but for no reason more complicated than the wish to be flattered unconditionally. It’s a formal thing; but her craving for Isabel seems to be informal and impossible and alive. Molly can show this but only Mercedes can tell it. But how can one tell what must be kept secret?

The secret, however, will out.

A month later Dorothy says she sees Mercedes out walking hand in hand with Isabel.

Dorothy innocently asks her mother, ‘Is Isabel, you know, twp?’

And Mrs Callaghan tells the Gleitzes. (Twp is a Welsh word for simple-minded, one of the many comical words and phrases Mr Gleitze has picked up in the Welsh communities where his holdings are located. As the new expression goes, he ‘dines out’ on them, as he does on memories of the lusty hymn-singing, as he calls it, native to those parts.)

Molly could have told anyone who’d listen that Mercedes’s parents would never have brought themselves to confront their daughter with the enormity of what the simple act of grown women holding hands in public stood for.

But even Molly fails to establish the events that lead to Isabel being accused by the Gleitzes of stealing Mercedes’s diamond ring. That it is a pretext cannot be doubted, she tells her friends.

‘Did she steal it?’ she asks Mercedes. ‘Well, did she?’

Mercedes, sobbing, replies, ‘Of course she did. Ask her.’

So Molly does.

‘Izzy, why on earth did you steal Mercedes’s ring?’

But Isabel just stares at her, stares at Molly Renfrew, daughter of an ambitious honourable member of the House of Commons, always having her cake and eating it and wanting to lie with her naked.  ‘You people,’ Isabel sneers. “You, you horrible people.’

The Gleitzes inform the police and Isabel is dismissed. She is told that if she admits her guilt, she will be bound over by the court to stay out of trouble for a year. Molly attends the court hearing, expecting to see some of Isabel’s FIS friends there. There are none; they are all working. On the way out, Isabel strides up to Molly, who is waiting for her, and in full view of the passing Westminster crowds, who create for them an almond-shaped space on the pavement, kisses her long and violently until Molly breaks free. Isabel pleaded guilty but refuses to admit her guilt in private. It was very confusing. Was she a thief?

Let’s assume that the Gleitzes really did find out about Mercedes’s proclivities from the Callaghans, via Dorothy.  Fearful of the way scandal and family disharmony can lead to ostracism in their circles if not concealed, and knowing how physically close Mercedes and Isabel must have been under their roof (aware, too, that each night on turning in Mercedes placed her jewellery in that mounted pearl-lined shell her grandmother left her and which she kept on her bedside table), it would have been easy for Mr Gleitze to slip into his daughter’s bedroom after she’d fallen asleep, take the ring and contrive that it should re-appear in Isabel’s possession. Gossip suggested that Mrs Gleitze was inveigled into following Isabel upstairs the next day and claiming the maid had dropped the ring inadvertently. Dismissed on the spot and later persuaded to confess before justices, Isabel might have considered the outcomes. Denying the offence would only have meant pitting her own testimony against Mrs Gleitze’s, and having to witness her own story – not so much a detailed rebuttal as a prolonged and perhaps hysterical plea of innocence – flounder among the taradiddle of the ne’er-do-wells swelling the corridors outside the court. Nor would she have looked forward to the consequences in the unlikely event of winning her case: the return to a household where her perceived guilt would have hung in the air like an invisible Thameside miasma. Molly told her the Bench had no powers of restoration: they might advise but could not insist that the Gleitzes revoke her dismissal and allow her to return to work. Not that she’d want to go back in the circumstances. In fact, she could have protested her innocence on the stair, if that’s where her ‘comeuppance’ took place,  accused the Gleitzes of lying when they persisted in their slander, and marched out on them; or even admitted theft, apologised as best she could, perhaps with a story about frailty and fleeting temptation, and departed of her own accord, self-abasement triumphing over rancour. That’s if she did  steal the ring. If she didn’t, she might have cowered before the Gleitzes’ vindictiveness, their punitive excess, which Molly put down to ‘old man’ Gleitze’s attitude to his every undertaking.  It was said he countenanced no unreasonable demand, no insubordination, no defeat and no obstacle to progress, not even the appearance overnight of a two-acre dirt band reducing the middle-coal seam at his Henllys mine to a miserable ten-inch depth. (This overheard by Molly at some evening exchanges among the Callaghans and the Gleitzes, their engineers, and a few MPs at her home.)

It’s even been suggested – Molly again – that Isabel’s physical attraction to Mercedes might have been bogus, and that giving in to Mercedes’s ‘advances’ were a means of avoiding what might happen if she had resisted: the loss of employment. Of course, said Molly, it was always possible that Isabel took advantage of Mercedes in order to exert some hold over her; or that she really had taken the ring (it simply went missing and never re-appeared); or that Mercedes had given it to her  as a love token to be worn at the Playbox and similar haunts but to be returned and displayed to satisfy Mr and Mrs Gleitze’s sense of parental largesse, only for her to lose it and place Mercedes in an impossible position. Perhaps Mercedes herself had lost it: unlikely – but if she had, no stricture laid down at Sausseur’s concerning penitence (with a capital P) would have had much effect on her.

Then there were what we called ‘imponderables’, including our ignorance of Isabel’s background and character and the existence of some other source of friction between her and the Gleitzes, specifically including Mr Gleitze. Molly believed that every woman in the Gleitze household ever crept about in his shadow. Maybe he saw in the lively Isabel a mere distaff version of his Welsh ‘trouble-makers’ and wanted rid of her before she gathered about her like-minded women. The thought of some unspeakable act perpetrated by him against Isabel, her threat to reveal it in public and the ordure in which the Gleitzes would thereafter be obliged to bathe, and the theft business as Mr Gleitze’s way of forestalling such an eventuality, was discounted on the grounds that to be free of such an entanglement, Isabel simply had to walk away, albeit without references – though some sort of commendation might be have been offered in exchange for her quiescence – and certainly in the forlorn hope that anyone would believe her should she decide to complain about her former employer. But Mr Gleitze a molester? Surely not. No worse than the ‘over-protective and possessive’ Mr Renfrew, as he was called by some, hedging their bets.

What everyone, including the Callaghans, wanted to know was why Mr Gleitze had contacted the police. But he was a man who always rushed to make an example of a wrong-doer, or someone believed to be a wrong-doer, to encourage the others. ‘Now you see how complicated this all is,’ Molly said. ‘How life entails all sorts of possibilities.’  She was right. Above the mantelpiece in the Gleitze drawing-room was not a mirror reflecting back at them their social standing but a framed  map illustrating the location of Britain’s rock formations. Those convolutions and striations and whirlpools in different colours represented things solidly fixed and moved only by dynamite and pick-axe, but they looked more like something coming into riotous being, an ever-deferred skimble-skamble of what might ensue, a world in flux. ‘Everything is feasible,’ Molly said. ‘Anything.’ (Actually what she’d said before was, ‘How life is entailing all sorts of possibilities’, a nuance we would come to describe as ‘a Renfrew’.)

And Dorothy Callaghan, dumb Dorothy, dull at the centre of everything yet, maybe, in her dumbness and stupidity, the unwitting reason for it all in the first place. Mad Dorothy, later to pursue unavailingly a friend who had been run over and killed by a tram in Aldersbrook Road, Newham, but had, according to her, been ‘delivered again unto the world’, to be seen in Oxford Street, the Strand, Highbury Fields, Marylebone Road, Shoreditch; a wraith for ever just beyond reach. Gullible Dorothy, later to be sectioned, who once saw something wondrous in two women holding hands but could neither suppress her loathing that they belonged to different classes and were doing something or other wrong nor guard the knowledge that one of them was her high-stepping friend Mercedes Gleitze: la débutante dans toute sa gloire, as the ‘unfinished’ Dorothy herself might have translated it.

So that night, a sombre mood settles on the Gleitze home. Mr Callaghan and others have arrived to discuss some kind of crisis in the Welsh holdings: if it isn’t dead coalminers, their dissembling comrades and their families’ counterfeit insurance claims,  it’s hard granite spears come out of nowhere to spike the seams, or a slow-moving sea of dirt and grit arrived to squeeze it into a  useless sliver. There’s talk of closing the pit, but the miners want to keep it open. There’s to be a meeting. ‘Fools!’, Dorothy’s father mutters, his head bowed and buried in a fog of cigar smoke like a cloud of ectoplasm called up by Madame Arcati. Dorothy has arrived with him to keep Mercedes company, but Mercedes hasn’t asked for company and certainly not Dorothy Callaghan’s. She notices that Dorothy is wearing one of her baubles, a thin bracelet studded with what appears to be pieces of unpolished coal. If only she could wear her diamond ring. But the worse thing is that a commiserating Dorothy rushes up to her and flings her arms around her neck. It makes her feel physically sick. It’s the right sentiment –  one suspects her upper thighs part involuntarily now in this kind of proximity – but it’s the wrong person, the wrong woman.

Later, at the Renfrew residence in Russell Square, just as she is turning in, Molly hears her father coming home late after a protracted Commons sitting. He assumes she is in bed and, after some faintly audible preliminaries, turns in himself. What of Molly and her father now that her mother has gone?  There’s speculation, but we’ll only know if Molly decides to tell us. About what happened and what accommodations, if any, were made. Another time, perhaps.

She closes the book she’s been reading and turns off the bedside light. For a few minutes she can see nothing. Then, from a source that seems to be located inside her, everything becomes faintly apparent before it succumbs to a slow flood of pitch, blacking out her thoughts.  She dreams, but what she dreams only she can tell. A few years on, however, she will say that she dreamt of how Mercedes broke free and pursued Isabel Stafford with a wreath of forgiveness in her outstretched hands, just as Dorothy followed her dead friend around the city, and how Isabel remained elusive, as Mercedes, without success, tried to repent of an original sin and the origins of a sinful life lived beneath the surface in society’s dimly-lit stalls, away from the main highways of a privileged, uncomplicated existence, and never coming up for judgement. But also how all that would change for everyone. Eventually. This is what Molly said. This is what she told me. She believed things really would change; were, indeed, changing. ‘After the vote, the ownership of the will and the body,’ she said.  Endless possibilities, opportunity there for the grasping. The vote: when Mercedes uttered the word, it sounded  like a disease.

Mercedes never did return that black ‘flapper’ dress to Coulson’s, the one her father disliked. It barely reached her knees and it harboured drifts of bright huddled sequins.  Once her father died, not long after the Trafford business (it was said, in imitation of a conceit, that the uncertainties and responsibilities of mine-owning bore down like a great weight and eventually killed him), she would wear the dress to parties in places called ‘nightclubs’, dimly-lit subterranean haunts that must have resembled, if only superficially, the places where her father’s miners had laid siege to coal at the dripping face. It was Molly Renfrew who made all those connections: the black haunts of the outcasts, warm in their beleaguered companionship; the rockfall of debt and reproach that did for Mercedes’s father; the mineral sought by all the Callaghans and the Gleitzes and which in other forms and other places sparkled to the syncopation of the new ‘jass’ music. One night at the Playbox, it must all have come together for her, because she gave out such a scream, more like an extended wail really, that the whole place fell silent and all that could be seen were rows of faces appearing out of the gloom and looking her way, open-mouthed, and all that could be heard after she’d finished was the sound of Big Ben in the distance, tolling an early hour. I was with her; I heard everything. What happened confirmed for me that we all resort to hiding-places, and from them sometimes spring our cries of frustration. She was fine after we’d calmed her down and the hubbub of the place resumed, like the motor of some charabanc transporting us wearily into the morning’s first smear of light.

 

*

 

Little did the editor of the Western Mail‘s London edition know that those two brief news paragraphs placed side by side to satisfy both Welsh and expatriate subscribers were related.  Mr Callaghan called them ‘little reads’ and were the extent of Dorothy’s interest in the outside world. We all saw them, or our attention was drawn to their conjunction. The pit referred to closed, which only made the mining community angrier and Messrs Gleitze and Callaghan seek restitution in other engineering projects, other ‘holdings’; there was a slight dip in their stock value, but it soon recovered. No-one ever saw or heard from Isabel after she left. More than ever, she seems to have been sent among us, a sacrificial victim, the emissary around which hitherto unacknowledged concerns spun for just a few weeks. It’s the only way I can put it.  Doubt replaced ignorance and unconcern and there appeared a vision, blurred and distant, of a stirring Nemesis.  It was enough.

Now, fourteen years later, bombs are dropping and the Gleitzes’ home in Canonbury is among the casualties. Mercedes and her mother have long departed that house and indeed the capital; the Callaghans, too, after some neighbours in Mortimer Street took a direct hit. Molly Renfrew, who nursed her father until he died, is an ARP warden.  While seeking shelter the other evening at the nearest Underground station, I saw her in Piccadilly Circus, helping to guide people to the safety of the platforms below.  We kissed but said nothing. It’s never a time for small talk when the sirens are howling. I must have been among the last to descend, because when I looked back she was standing at the top of the steps alone, waving to me. Will she ever read this somewhat imaginative account of what went on, or what might have gone on, with Isabel, Dorothy and Mercedes (Dorothy is now at the Buckinghamshire County Asylum)? Will anyone else? The contingencies Molly is always referring to are on hold, but reminders of the kind of lives we lead and what we do about them resound everywhere, not least down there in the tunnels, where we have time to think or sleep while waiting fearfully for deliverance.

 

nigel jNigel Jarrett: Bert Coombes, the author of ‘Twenty Tons of Coal’, is not my kind of writer; or, rather, ‘Twenty Tons Of Coal’ is not my kind of story. It appealed to me, first, because at some time both my grandfathers were coalminers – or ‘hewers’, as the National Census describes them. The story, graphic enough, is a description of an underground fatality told by the mate of the victim and of the dilemma he faces at the end, when he knows that to tell an inquest the truth about the dubious procedures that led to the tragedy would deprive the dead miner’s family of an insurance payout. The final sentence, after the moral difficulty has been outlined, is a question addressed by the narrator to the reader: Would you?

Well, what we would do is neither here nor there in terms of the story as imaginative literature; but in terms of politics and didactics it’s certainly relevant. A writer shouldn’t have asked the question, and one feels it is the writer asking it, despite the ventriloquism that puts it in the mouth of a miner so eloquent he should be a writer. Coombes, of course, was both. Fiction thus considered is labyrinthine and no less interesting for that; indeed, having reached the end of ‘Twenty Tons of Coal’, readers must think they’ve just consumed a gobbet of autobiography, in which case its author’s tendentious nudging would be more appropriate.

My taste is for fiction that makes me feel uncomfortable without providing or suggesting palliatives for my queasiness: in other words, literature as subterfuge, undermining my cosy and possibly unexamined certainties. You might say that’s exactly what Coombes does here. I disagree. If the narrator had deleted the question and simply told us that he’d lied to the inquest – or not – and left us to cast judgement, we could have asked the question of ourselves. It’s what good fiction makes us do. In other words, Coombes, if not his narrator, is taking a step too far. Up to the final page, his story is unadorned and harrowing narrative; on the final page, its accumulative power is diminished: Coombes the anxious moralist steps out of a story told by Coombes the writer.  It’s a small point that makes a huge difference. Writers always have to be aware of how it can change the tone of their fiction. Out of duty to the commission, however, and for other, writerly, reasons  I’ve tried to incorporate in my story the spirit of Coombes’s moral anxieties.

No, what further attracted me to ‘Twenty Tons of Coal’ was its force as an illustration of the price of coal; the price others pay, sometimes with their lives, to support the civilised – and in this case, the glamorous – life. ‘Miss Mercedes Gleitze’ is an attempt to move from Coombes’s story into a life with which it’s connected, and there are many connections made, some of them direct. I’ve stirred the mix by emphasing the politico-moral issues raised by coal-owning and coalmining and the way they connect with other issues and dilemmas miles away from the mines and their troubles, such as personal behaviour and the moralities of convention. It’s all part of the same thing; we are all connected to other people’s lives.  Not that these issues are ever simple.

That labyrinth aforementioned is further convoluted by the two ‘news in brief’ paragraphs at the beginning of ‘Miss Mercedes Gleitze’. They are my epigraphs but they are also the narrator’s; and they’re also authentic. Both appeared in the Western Mail on the date specified and side by side. Even then, newspapers seemed oblivious of their cynical juxtapositions, such as today’s news feature on poverty set next to a full-page advert for a £3,000 wristwatch. Coombes would have been alert to that.

Original illustration by Dean Lewis