In Competition No. 2941 you were invited to supply a short story entitled ‘Diary of a Superfluous Man’. Turgenev’s Tchulkaturin; Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; Goncharov’s Oblomov: these ‘superfluous men’ are not simply literary types, says the critic David Patterson, but represent a ‘paradigm of a person who has lost a point, a place, a presence in life’. A few submissions contained clear references to 19th-century Russian literature’s hollow men, but there were many echoes elsewhere in the entry of the nihilism, cynicism and fatalism that characterises them. The winners earn £25; D.A. Prince pockets £30.
Saturday: pleasant afternoon on the substitute’s bench, finishing crossword, and the team managing a decent draw without any intervention from me. The coach appreciative, as ever, of my reliability. Got home to find Hugo had completed his maths homework by himself, and Jane had dealt with the Volvo’s puncture and planted four rows of early potatoes. My turn, technically, to drive over to Sam and Sheila’s but Jane happy to tackle M6 at its grizzliest. Both women very cheery (marriage suits them) and Sam revealed she’s pregnant by some IVF procedure she described to Jane as they mixed salad in the kitchen while Sheila chopped logs for the woodburner. Finished sudoko at third attempt while the girls discussed significance of gravitational waves and impact on geomagnetic fields and Nasa programme. Drinkable chardonnay. On way home asked Jane if she envied them but she was negotiating a tricky junction and didn’t reply.
In the old dispensation they’d walk miles for me and offer me little gifts. I could scare them with a bit of thunder or impress them with a rainbow. Now I sit around twiddling my thumbs. In days gone by I could climb on a mountain and have hordes of them screaming in terror. Not any more. I’m surplus to requirements. They’ve hacked into all my secrets and found a few of their own. It was a mistake to take a rest on the seventh, for they took that as meaning the Old Man was tired, and tiredness doesn’t draw in the crowds. For human centuries — no, for millennia — I’ve had nothing to do. The old gullibility has gone and the ones that pretend to respect me are serving their own bellies. I’m as dead … come to think of it, why did I make the dodo?
1 June: in April, it happened at some smugly suburban Surrey villa, in May at a nicotine-stained bedsitter in Slough. Today, I travelled to a croft on Benbecula, the weather fouler than my temper. Ever professional, I knocked politely, though the door was, ominously, slightly ajar. Before I could introduce myself as ‘Mr Million’, mention Premium Bonds in general or his £1 million prize in particular, the wheezing bagpipe of a crofter says, ‘Aye, I know. We’re no backwater here; we’ve broadband.’ I used to relish the initial bemusement of the winners at my very existence, the ritual verification of my credentials, their surprisingly slow-dawning joy at an unexpected windfall. Now they just look pityingly at me, the embodiment of superfluity, as if I’d delivered yesterday’s weather forecast. ‘Oh,’ the crofter says, ‘would ye drop these letters in at the Post Office on your way?’ A new career beckons.
Like many silent-film stars, Augustus Hapcott was unable to make the transition to sound pictures, known as ‘talkies’. Employed for a time by Thomas Edison’s studio, Hapcott was the first movie star to kiss Greta Garbo on screen, and the first to wrestle with a gorilla (in Make Mine a Martini). Female audiences couldn’t get enough of ‘Gorgeous Gus’; in one month alone he received 830 proposals of marriage. Despite his handsome face and strong physique, Hapcott’s voice was high and whiny and deemed inadequate. Louis B. Mayer said it was like listening to ‘a terrified peacock having its feathers plucked’. In June 1928 he took his gorilla act on the road. The result was a disaster as it soon devolved into a gimmick, with the press lambasting his ‘ridiculous’ performances. Finally, Hapcott tried his hand at politics; but proved superfluous at that, too.
Friday: off to the movies with Derek and Anita. Something foreign. Derek rather fancies himself as an intellectual. Anita not so keen. She’s probably prefer to go dancing. Afterwards Derek called it a study in alienation, so I told him it alienated me. Anita laughed. He didn’t.
Saturday: persuaded Anita and Derek to try lunch at El Wok, the new fusion restaurant. Now it was Derek who didn’t like foreign. He sulked. Typical. Anita was game though, and I enjoyed showing her how to use chopsticks.
Sunday: pre-lunch drinks at the Plough. Whoops, clumsy me, I spilled a G&T on Derek’s trousers and he had to go off and deal with an embarrassing stain. Anita was very sweet about it, even patting my knee. She’ll be good for a tumble before the month is up, I know it. A cool weekend’s work for a professional gooseberry.
The diary was found in the flat occupied by a man who had hardly been seen by his neighbours before a strange smell alerted them to the fact that he had died. Looking at the diary, the police psychiatrist pieced together the man’s life. He had been judged to be superfluous by his mother who gave him to an adoption society. His adoptive parents lost interest in him when they had a baby of their own. He went to work for a packaging company that found him superfluous to their needs after a week. He claimed jobseeker’s allowance, but when he didn’t turn up for an interview was deemed superfluous to their list of claimants. The landlord was about to evict him when he died. But the man had his revenge, writing the diary with tattoo ink containing arsenic, which made a lasting impression on all who touched it.
No. 2944: Much ado?
What would characters from Shakespeare’s plays have made of this year’s fulsome celebrations of the 400th anniversary of his death? You are invited to supply a verdict from one of them in up to 16 lines. Please email entries to email@example.com by midday on 13 April.
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