The Invisible Man

6.4.2013

By Duncan Fallowell

A chance encounter in a remote Welsh town sparks an obsessive quest.

Photo: From the Collection of Duncan Fallowell

In a new collection of essays, How to Disappear: A Memoir for Misfits, the writer Duncan Fallowell describes a delicious and haunting encounter with a reclusive old man in the remote Welsh town of New Quay. The chance encounter becomes a catalyst for a picaresque quest to unravel the mystery of Alastair Graham, the real-life model for the charismatic Sebastian Flyte who stands at the heart of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, with whom the novel’s narrator, Charles Ryder, enjoys an intense and romantic attachment. The following excerpt describes how Fallowell began to piece together Graham’s story.

At the end of the 1970s I was living in the small town of Hay-on-Wye writing a book. Several times a week it was necessary to escape Hay’s delightful, gossipy confines, and one of my jaunts took me to New Quay, an obscure fishing village on the west coast of Wales. In the season, not very well-off holidaymakers occupy its few modest hotels and boarding houses.

It was not the season. It was chilly and damp and the sky was a monotonous grey. At lunchtime, after meandering New Quay’s little streets, I entered a pub called the Dolau Inn not far from the sulky, flapping water. Having ordered a pint, I nodded at a character sitting on a stool at the end of the bar and eventually exchanged a few words with him. He was getting on in years and bald, with a trim grey beard, and dressed spotlessly in yachting clothes: sailcloth trousers with knife-edge creases, a navy-blue jersey, slip-on deck shoes. One thing struck me in particular: His nails, perfectly manicured, were white from base to tip. In these simple surroundings his curiosity lay chiefly in the air he had of an extreme refinement tinged with exoticism.

He was a nervous fellow and our conversation, such as it was, never flowed. He held his head down bashfully and from time to time, when speaking, cast blue lugubrious eyes upwards from beneath a lowered brow. The voice, issuing from slightly pursed lips, was fastidious but not affected, and his manner of expression had that casual charm which suggests a great deal and is utterly unrevealing.

I told him that I’d abandoned London the previous year after coming unstuck. He said he’d done the same thing but long, long ago and hadn’t been back, “except briefly during the Suez crisis.”

“Why did you leave?”

“Because I’d had enough!”

He fingered the beer mat to distract himself from this sudden show of temperament.

Shuffling about for a change of subject, I mentioned that I was reading Joseph Conrad and rereading the early novels of Evelyn Waugh. The beer mat did a couple of rapid twirls. I said that the more serious Waugh’s tone became, the worse his writing was. My companion nodded. When I advanced the idea that, although well endowed as a writer, Waugh’s later work was undermined by the progressive narrowing of his sympathies, the old man uttered an extraordinary remark.

“He wasn’t well-endowed in the other sense, I’m afraid.”

How on earth had that gear change come about? He could see I was taken aback, but having quipped, he remained silent, staring at his Cinzano on the rocks, as though he’d surprised himself too. Could his reference to Waugh’s private parts have been a way of making a pass? I thought I’d find out and asked, “What do you mean exactly?” at which he waffled something in a low tone which I simply didn’t grasp and courteously excused himself. We shook hands, he said good-bye to the landlord, with whom he was on easy polite terms, slid away in those perfect clothes, and that was that.

Tags: Art & Books
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