Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

02 April 2012

Stealing From Pegasus Press

This is a drawing I made of Pegasus Press in about 1987. It was a charming old house converted to offices with a printing works at the rear on Oxford Terrace, Christchurch. Its managing director was Albion Wright, whom I got to know well.

When I wrote my novel 'Second Bite' I unashamedly stole both Pegasus and Albion (and his slightly eccentric receptionist) and fictionalized them.

This is how I used them:

...One step inside the front door was like a journey into Victorian colonial history, the bare, creaking floorboards and low wooden ceiling and walls of the entrance hall torn from a page of Dickens. Immediately to [Perry's] left and right, closed doors concealed the front rooms either side of the gabled doorway. The sound of passing traffic, and the dappled sunlight filtered through old trees, barely penetrated the musty gloom. As his eyes adjusted to the abrupt change of light he saw that a narrow stairway, perhaps little wider than his shoulders, climbed from the right hand side of the hall. Its lower steps were blocked by brown paper parcels carrying 'Augustus Press' address labels. From in front of him, beyond another closed door, came the rhythmic hiss and wheeze of printing machinery.

A second door, opposite the stairs, halved like a stable door, had its top half partially open and through the narrow gap Perry could see weak daylight and hear the barely audible sounds of a female voice muttering.

He pressed a bell push on the architrave. The voice continued. He rang again, this time longer, then pushed the door farther open. Sitting behind a desk piled high with papers and comprehensively cluttered with books, dockets on a spike, a rubber stamp carousel, paper punch, calculator, stapling machine and a bulging black leather handbag from which spilled cigarettes, lipstick, a packet of tampons and a crumpled, lace-edged handkerchief, a small woman with tousled mousy hair was counting coins into a battered green cash box. He watched her lips moving as she shook her head to stop his interruption. She scribbled a figure on a slip of paper and threw it with the final coins into the box, slammed the lid, shoved it under her desk and looked up.

‘Yes?’ she asked, imperiously, her not unattractive, forty-ish face marred by an irritated frown.

‘Good morning,’ beamed Perry wearing a false smile and affecting charm, ‘I wonder whether I might speak to your manager, or whoever’s in charge?’

‘What’s it about?’ her accent was English ‘upper class’, her clipped words suggested that she was either inherently rude or a little eccentric.

Perry gave her the benefit of the doubt, opting for eccentricity, and patiently, but firmly - not wanting to be interrogated by the office helper - replied, ‘Well, with all due respect, I would rather discuss that with him... or her.’

‘Oh, I’m not prying;’ she said dismissively, ‘it’s just a question of whether you want somebody on the printing side or the publishing side.’

‘Oh, ah, publishing, please.’

‘Then you want Mr Augustus.’

She looked up at an old Bakelite-cased electric wall clock with Roman numerals; its assegai-shaped black hands showed the time at just after noon. ‘He’ll be in the BBC.’

‘The BBC?’

‘The back bar of the Cavendish. It’s Friday, isn’t it?’...

[Perry waits for Augustus for some time and then re-visits his office]

...There was nobody in the office when Perry rang the bell. So he shouted, ‘Anybody home?’ several times before, from the front room to the right of the street door, a reply came: ‘Come in for Christ’s sake!’

He turned the tarnished brass knob and eased open the door. Despite the room’s windows being unshuttered it was in deep shadow, the screen of trees and shrubs outside excluding virtually all of the sunlight: indeed, the brightest object was a small, ceramic table lamp with a conical parchment shade which stood on the morocco-topped directors’ desk behind which Augustus was sitting, his face illuminated from beneath like an actor’s on stage, by the lamp’s light reflected from papers he had been studying.

Perry began to see more of the room. It was quite large and hung with heavy, flocked Victorian wallcoverings in deep green and gold. Around the walls, in spaces between crowded bookshelves, were hung framed dust-wrappers, illustrative artworks and pictures of groups or individuals, many of them inscribed with signatures. A cocktail cabinet behind Augustus’s desk stood open. Below the windows was a conversation area, two couches on either side of a coffee table whose surface, picked out by the grey rectangle of pale window light, was scarred by the long ago dried ring marks of glasses and tumblers and by the burns of carelessly discarded cigarettes. A large, square ashtray was full. The room smelt musty with stale cigar smoke; Perry found it not unpleasant but wondered how long it had been since the windows had been opened or a vacuum cleaner had passed over the patchy carpet that covered its uneven floor.

Augustus sat back and tilted his wooden swivel chair with a squeak of dry springs. ‘I heard I’d had a visitor. Who are you?’ he asked as he dragged at the small cigar and waved Perry to a chair.

‘Mr Augustus?’ Perry countered.

‘You’re looking at him. What do you want?’ His voice was like a bark, as if he were forcing air through a constricted throat. His esses had a Churchillian slur. His jaundiced eyes were watery. Perry speculated upon the man’s state of health; it appeared threatened; or was this how he usually appeared on his normal Friday afternoon after the pub?

‘My name is Perry, Paul Perry...’

Augustus tapped ash into a waste bin and sat forward so that his face was once again more fully revealed by the table lamp. ‘Do I know you?’

‘I don’t think so. Mr Augustus, I have called on you because I want to speak to one of your authors - Marion Sweetman.’

Augustus did not reply. Instead he rose from his desk and walked past Perry to the door, pulled it open and shouted, ‘Verity!’

He turned to Perry. ‘I want some coffee. Want some coffee?’

‘Thank you, yes.’

‘Verity! Where is that bloody woman.’

The door slammed behind Augustus and Perry could hear his muffled barking again: ‘Verity... where the bloody hell are you, woman?’

He was left in silence. Traffic sounds came dully from the main road. A carriage clock, its anatomy exposed through bevelled glass panels, ticked rapidly on a mantelpiece over an open fireplace at the end of the room. He could feel, rather than hear, the rhythm of the printing presses, like ship’s engines vibrating through the occasionally creaking timbers of the old house. At least, in this mildew-scented gloom, is was cooler than it had been outside.

The door was kicked open by Augustus carrying two mugs. Perry hoped that no ash from the cigar, still clamped between his lips, had fallen into his coffee.

‘Bloody woman’s disappeared,’ muttered Augustus, ‘must be Friday.’...

donovan@ihug.co.nz . 'Second Bite' is available as an e-book from Amazon.com. Kindle.

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By Don Donovan