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Authors: Mick Jackson

The Underground Man

Further praise for
The Underground Man:


‘What Jackson evokes with invention is the play of energy within His Grace’s lonely self-absorption: the strange comedy and bravery of self-diagnosis attempted with inadequate means.’


‘A strange, imaginative, rich and ultimately sad novel.’


‘What this unorthodox and remarkable novel amounts to is an elegiac, engaging and labyrinthine portrait of an aristocrat.’
Daily Telegraph


‘An intriguing and satisfying first novel about fantasy, identity and the reliability of perception.’


‘The writing is poised, clear and concise … it has an accomplished finesse and a thrilling sense of ambition.’
Scotland on Sunday

The Underground Man

Mick Jackson

The Underground Man


I have no idea how an apple tree works. The quiet machine beneath the bark is quite beyond my ken. But, like the next man along, I find Imagination always willing to leap into Ignorance's breach …

The tree roots, I imagine, play a major part – managing somehow to soak up the richness of the earth. I picture this richness drawn slowly up the trunk, pumped out along every branch.

No doubt the sun and rain are also involved, their warmth and moisture in some way being essential to the constitution of the tree. But how the richness of the earth, the sun and the rain come together to produce (i) a perfect blossom, then (ii) a small apple-bud – well, that remains a mystery to me.


Locate a local apple tree. Visit it daily through the summer months. Note how the bud slowly puffs itself up into apple-shape. See how it slowly takes a breath. The weeks roll by until its own increasing weight finally forces the fruit to fall. You will find it on the ground, all ready to eat. This whole process is utterly dependable; has a beginning, a middle and an end. But I am not satisfied. Far from it. Plain baffled is what I am. All sorts of questions remain unanswered. Such as
… who taught the tree its apple-conjuring? And … where does the fruit's flavour come from?


I have on my estate one of the largest orchards in the whole of England. My Bramleys and Orange Pippins bring home trophies and silver cups. Each year, as the summer grinds to a close, I watch the carts being led down the drive. Their wheels creak and judder under the weight of the baskets. Every one is packed to the brim. I sometimes stand at the gate to the orchard and watch them dreamily trundle by. Sooner or later, an apple takes a tumble. I pick it up. I study it. But am never any closer to understanding how it came about.

O, how wonderful to be an apple tree – to know one's place in the world. To be both fixed and fruitful. To know what one is about.


Woke at dawn this morning, after a wearying night's sleep. Blew down to Clement to fetch a sack of corn and twenty minutes later we were both of us striding out along the Sloswick path to feed the deer. The day was bright and fresh enough, certainly, but had about it a brittleness, as if it had been wrought from glass, and though the sky was perfectly cloudless I sensed a chill in the air which rang silently all about me and warned that autumn was on its way. This proceeded to fill me with such foreboding that I became quite distracted and had to leave Clement to attend the deer alone.

As a young man I imagined growing old would be something like the feeling one has at the close of a long and satisfying day: a not unpleasant lassitude, always remedied by a good night's sleep. But I now know it to be the gradual revelation of one's body as nothing more than a bag of unshakeable aches. Old age is but the reduced capacity of a
failing machine. Even my sleep – that beautiful oblivion always relied upon for replenishment – now seems to founder, has somehow lost its step. My fingers and toes are cold the whole year round, as if my fire is slowly going out.

Made my way home via Cow-close Wood where I spotted the lazy dipping flight of a single magpie. Spat twice, raised my hat, said, ‘Good morning, Mr Magpie,' then looked around to make sure my little ritual had not been observed by anyone. I do believe I grow more superstitious with every passing year. Once upon a time, I would have thrown a stone after the bird. Now I cower like a frightened child.

A hundred yards further down the lane, rounding the corner by Horses' Graveyard, I came suddenly upon a huge and tatty crow, perched on a rotting tree stump, with his little legs apart. I was less than ten foot from him before I registered him and the shock of it brought me skidding to a halt. He eyed me, I thought, most malevolently, like some squatting devil in his black raggedy cloak. I distinctly felt my sphincter slacken, my testicles shuffle in their sack.

That awful crow stared right at me; its gaze seemed to penetrate my skull. By now, my mind was furiously sending out instructions – to turn and run, to get well away from that bird – but my body, I discovered, was weirdly stuck, as if caught in a spell. (As I sit here at my desk with my feet in my slippers I can muse over how but a minute before I had dealt quite satisfactorily with the single magpie … had known how to counteract its little load of bad luck. But with the crow I was utterly defenceless. I had no antidote for that bird at all.)

Coming so dramatically upon it had left me breathless. My mind's slate was rubbed quite clean. And yet my own voice whispered distantly to me, insisting that if some effort were not soon made to remove me the crow might hold me in those woods until the end of time. So I did all I could to encourage my legs into action and found that some blood still
shifted weakly in my veins. I inched my foot out along the ground until, at last, it became a tiny step; tentatively put some weight on it, then began the whole interminable process again. All the while, that damned bird kept his evil eye on me. But by concentrating my mind on my own creeping feet and doing my utmost to block out his vicious gaze I began slowly to edge my way past him until, in time, I had put between us an extra yard … two yards … finally, three.

Now I have never been especially athletic (and, even if I had, those days would now be long gone), but as soon as I was a dozen steps past that bird I broke into a frantic, rickety trot. I turned only once – to be certain the little winged monster wasn't after me – and as I did so he let out a terrible ‘Caw' from his throne. Then he spread his oily wings and pumped them; rose, banked and disappeared into the trees.

I would not claim to be especially mindful of bird lore and the symbolic meaning attributed to each one but I am in no doubt that that crow most assuredly meant me harm. It had created around it an almost paralysing field of malignity; I am sure any other man would have felt it just the same. Such a small and common creature, yet its evil filled the whole wood up.

When I got home I found that Mrs Pledger had grilled for me my favourite smoked bacon and she looked most put out when I failed to raise a forkful to my mouth, but it was all I could do to get a cup of sweet tea down me and make my way back up to my rooms. I was deeply shaken by my crow-encounter and reckoned I might have caught a headchill along the way. When he returned, I asked Clement to be good enough to dig out my old beaver hat and give it a brushing down – a sure sign that summer is at an end.




Slept right through till eleven when I was woken by Clement as he tended the fire. Felt much improved on yesterday, if a little muddled. Bathed, put on my thick tweed trousers and a brand-new Norfolk jacket. Strapped myself into my good brown boots and tried to comb some sense into what remains of my hair.

I have been going bald now for well over thirty years; was still quite a young fellow when I first found a little nest of hair in the lining of my deerstalker after a particularly vigorous stroll. Thereafter, I brushed my hair less frequently (and with a good deal more care), vainly hoping to slow the whole terrifying process down. I thought perhaps my strolls' exertion might somehow be to blame or, more specifically, the heat they generated under my hat. I don't mind admitting it took me quite a while to come to terms with the facts before me, one day managing to convince myself how it was all in my imagination and that I wasn't going bald at all, the next day suddenly certain I would be an egghead by a week Friday and that my life was not worth carrying on.

But there are, it seems, a hundred different ways of losing one's hair and I should perhaps be grateful that the manner handed out to me was one which takes a good long while. My hair made a slow, almost imperceptible retreat from my forehead, while at my crown a small circle of exposed scalp gradually grew. Two carefully positioned mirrors were required for me to observe the decay as, year by year, these two clearings made their way towards each other. Eventually, a thin channel of flesh connected them up, which then widened from generous parting to a broad pink trough, until, at last, all that remained was an occasional startled baby-hair on my otherwise bare cranium.

Even now, there are days when I am sure it is all over, that the damage is finally done. But closer inspection always obliges me to concede that new corners of my scalp continue to come to light and that the spread of flesh goes on. It is not an unbearable burden. My days of real vanity are gone. I no longer fret about it. There is simply more face to wash, less hair to comb.

The hair which still clings to the sides of my head is white, like lambswool. It sprouts out around my ears and in a rude manner behind. In order to scotch the inevitable comparisons with the proverbial coot, I have long sported a full moustache and beard, also white but a good deal more muttony, which seems to me to restore some much-needed equilibrium.

After five minutes' oiling and tinkering my head looked little different to when I started out. To perk me up I undertook twenty gentle knee-bends and trimmed my moustache then had a glance in the full-length mirror.

I have heard me described as a wiry man, which I interpret as meaning ‘held together with wires' and seems altogether quite fitting and fair. Now, whether I have more wires in my body than the next man or whether it is just that mine are more on display, I could not say, but they are clearly at work at every junction of my frame – most noticeable in my arms, legs and neck. When I walk or bend or even grimace they can be seen twitching under the skin like tense lengths of twine.

Where my neck and torso come together is usually a regular network of root and vein. Of late, however, I have become uncertain whether all these wires are properly attached. Some appear to have grown quite slack; one or two to have come away from their housing altogether. On a bad day I worry that somewhere inside of me an essential spring might have snapped, to dangle and rattle about in me for the rest of my days.

I have also recently noticed how, in wet weather, I have a tendency to creak – there's no denying it, it's plain for all to hear – so on damp days I stay in by the fire and play Patience or Bagatelle. All the same, I think ‘wiry' still just about does the job – even if the wires are not as taut as they once were.




I was returning down the West avenue this morning, with autumn's grim carnage all around, when I came across one of my gamekeepers walking the most gargantuan dog. A terrific beast, it was – some sort of long-haired pepper-and-salt mongrel with a two-foot tail and an insolent gait. A donkey of a dog. Well, the keeper and I struck up a conversation about the weather and suchlike. Meanwhile the dog appeared to listen most intelligently, furrowing its brows as we carried on, so that I half expected it to share with us its own considered opinions and maybe put us right on the odd point or two. I complimented the keeper on his fine creature and asked what he fed it on and I recall him saying how, as a matter of fact, it belonged to his wife's brother and thrived on Lancashire hotpot – a large bowl, three times a day. Well, I was most impressed; especially after hearing how the keeper's young niece and nephew often went riding on its back with never a grumble from the dog.

I stroked its huge head – as big as a bison's! – and felt a lovely warmth spread across the palm of my hand from the thick rolls of dogflesh. I could have happily spent the entire morning marvelling at the beast but the keeper seemed eager
to be about his business so we drew our brief exchange to a close. He raised his cap, made a clicking noise from out the side of his mouth and gently tugged on the dog's leather lead and that great solemn creature seemed also to nod its heavy head at me before turning and ambling away.

Once the dog had picked up a bit of momentum I saw how the keeper had trouble keeping up, and in no time they were fifty yards away and apparently still gathering speed when a thought occurred to me. I called after them, which sent them into something of a spin, and I hurried over to where they had come to rest. It took me I should say maybe three or four attempts to properly get the idea out – I tend to become tongue-tied when my mind is all fired up – but managed finally to articulate my offer of having a saddle made up in the dog's measurements so that the keeper's niece and nephew might sit upon it without fear of falling off. Personally, I thought this a first-class idea – a dog in a saddle, very good! – but the keeper kept his eyes pinned to the ground and politely declined. So we said our goodbyes all over again and I let them carry on their way.

I have always been very fond of dogs. Cats have much too high an opinion of themselves and generally make for poor company. Are, on the whole, utterly humourless and always wrapped up in their own thoughts. Some days I reckon all cats are spies. Dogs, on the other hand, are reassuringly foolish and always game for a roll-around. Over the years I should say I have owned several dozen dogs – of all temperaments and shapes and sizes – and while I retain a good deal of affection for each of them it is fair to say I have been besotted only with one.

About twenty years ago, on my birthday, good Lord Galway of Serlby presented me with a beautiful basset-hound pup. At that time his was the only pack in the country
(brought over from France, I believe) so that they were valuable and unusual to boot. Immediately recognizable by their stout little legs, concave back and baggy ears, something about their appearance suggests that they have been knocked together out of odd bits of various other dog. The simplest task – such as walking – can prove very troublesome for a basset-hound. It is as if they have been poorly designed. Their coat is always most generously tailored and none more so than on the pup handed me that day. He had on him enough flesh to adequately clothe another two or three dogs besides – the majority of it hanging off his face – and though he was, at the time, no more than a few months old he wore the immutable basset expression of Lifelong Woe.

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