“The Great, Water Kick” is a glorious little bit of comic bravado, taking as it does the idiosyncratic voice of a tramp and following his gaudy, barnstorming inner commentary as he picks out a suitably opulent house to break into and take that two-yearly bath.
As he sketches in a brief biographical summary — all superfluous vocabulary long relinquished, another element of his attachment to normalcy burned away a la careers, family and personal hygiene — we get an immediately indelible sense of the man, the unremarkability of his tragedy, which he has necessarily recast as something endurable.
I’m tramp, see. Hobo. Drop-out. Gentleman of road. Swagman. Tramp. May have seen me on road anyday fifteen years. Push pramalong. Full gear. Got long black coat. Rags other clothes under. These not see for many years at a time. Not observed. Between these and skin lining newspapers. The news is old. Keep all about me, day and night. Pushing pram.
His soundless reckoning of the world (and when he attempts to speak, to an irate farmer ejecting him from his barn, or an unwitting neighbor as he saunters unstealthily away from his latest uninvited chaotic bath time escapade, his words emerge incomprehensibly, a mangled sequence of savage noises as unkempt as he, and the response is unsurprisingly not very receptive) is a stream of compressed reportage, an engagingly essentialized register of instant reflection, nothing remaining that’s of no interest or utility. His world is stark and stripped down, ditto his inner-language, which need only keep him company, no airs and graces, no observing decorum required.
So finds this house, oh verynice. Verygoodclassperson. Green grass of Mugstown well-cut, metal-edges. Keep grass not feeling too fullofself. Keep place. Gravel paths of mustard yellow. Windows white nets, swags like innertent. Front door smart boxsweets. Good chain for pullbell.
He goes out.
Kids go out.
She goes out. Big bag so out all Mugstown day.
Up steps goes smelly Horsa pulls chainbell.
Now if one comes, one Gran, one serving-maid, one lodger one mad aunt kept close within, says Horsa, ‘Besogood. Give poor tramp glasswater,’ which sings out ‘Wurble-burble-splash-woosh-
splot-PAH,’ and Horsa screamed upon, yelled upon, scourged upon, sentonway.
But if no answer then it’s the great, grand, soap-water kick. Oh boy!
Horsa possesses a certain amount of refinement, in fact. Just not regarding himself, his own person. He has had to render that from which he is occluded, for reasons we can only speculate about, as amusing and alien, quaint and irregular. He need not speak to anyone, no longer a card-carrying member of civilized society, so has lost the ability. He can appreciate a nice garden, a nicely furnished home, and his sense of what’s pleasant and civilized is intact. It’s just all eternally in another world, one he visits every now and again when he can no longer delude himself about his lack of a regular scrub. “People start moving away.” Only then does he cross the line once again into the enchanted parallel world containing running water and soap.
Beholdnow mirror. Amber-tinted-rose! And there (how he glares) is Horsa.
AND NOW —
Horsa mustersgether —
sit there you lot
now then —
HERE COMES HORSA
In we go. Oh boy!
Maybe half-hour, maybe hour, maybe four hours. Best bath ever. Friends, let me say, let me proclaim —
THIS IS A REAL GOOD
It all goes wrong, of course: reality, by way of an unchecked flooded bathroom and the inevitable requirement that Horsa towel himself off, rob some rather ostentatious clean clothes (“Big fellow Grandad, same size Horsa.”) and skidaddle brings his wrecking-ball jaunt to an eventual close (after clattering through a kitchen to the tune of much additional damage).
Perhaps an obvious observation: both Anthony Burgess and Angela Carter sprang to mind during “The Great, Grand Soap-Water Water Kick.” That is, those were the writers I wondered about regarding the inspiration for Horsa. Nicola Barker, obviously, has read Burgess, Carter, and Gardam, or I’ll eat my top hat. (And, I wonder, has Jane Gardam heard Keith Richards in inimitable action? Quite possibly.)
Ultimately, then, eight-and-a-half pages of mesmerising, enormously involving curiosity, during which we find ourselves happily complicit in a burglary and a destroyed bathroom, as Gardam once again throws us an unconventional and slippery protagonist who is nonetheless engaging and empathetic, his distinctively delivered and humorously accounted exploits offsetting our potential mortification at his tragic existence. The writer conferring grace upon the graceless, and gifting an afternoon of happy havoc to a doomed antihero. And another infectious, peculiar little bit of vicariousness, further proof of Gardam’s startling facility with different voices and registers and a grand day out to boot before the bus shelter beckons.