A man comes to the door, and tells you he’s collecting the sexual favours from the descendants of Great Masters of English Literature. You didn’t know you were the descendant of any Great Master, but he takes out a family tree he’s researched and shows the direct line between you and Laurence Sterne, the author of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy (1759). You thank him, but explain that you’re happily married, and have never once in fifteen long years cheated on your husband. He says he quite understands, and has the grace not to look too disappointed. He bobs his head with perfect courtesy. And asks whether you happen to have the address of your sister handy. Your sister is married as well, but she’s always been flightier than you, and her morality is her own affair – you see no reason why you shouldn’t help the man out. He smiles, bobs his head again, gives you his card, and leaves.
Something about this encounter disturbs you, and it takes you a full hour to work out quite what. Your sister hasn’t even read the classics! She doesn’t read anything unless it’s in big print and comes with a naked pirate on the cover. Whereas at least you’ve read Tristram Shandy – you didn’t understand very much of it, but you read it. Your sister is unworthy of the collector’s attention. You call him on his mobile phone straight away, and suggest he comes back – but he’d better hurry, your husband will be home from work soon, and he might not understand, he’s not as supportive of the arts as you are. The man does you doggie style in the kitchen, it is most enervating. Afterwards he pulls off his condom, seals the mouth tight with a small wooden clothes peg, and then sticks the warm rubber memento in a large scrapbook with blu-tac.
You ask whether you can look at the scrapbook. He seems unsure; he’s clearly gone to a lot of trouble over it; he cares about his collection with a depth that is really rather sweet. At length he agrees, but you’ll have to look over his shoulder, you mustn’t touch. He shows you the condoms he’s worn ploughing the relatives of all the greats: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, William Makepeace Thackeray, the two better Bronte sisters, Wilkie Collins, Shelleys both Mary and Percy Bysshe, Nicholas Blake, Thomas Hardy. You admit it’s very impressive, it’s like a condensed library in there. There are pictures beside the condoms – of the nineteenth century literati, and of their sexually satiated great great grandchildren – the photographs show a whole array of subjects, some old, some young, fat, thin, both genders, the man tells you he doesn’t mind who he has to fuck, we’re all just bags of flesh containing our ancestors’ DNA, what does it matter the current form it might have taken? He shows you a picture of Laurence Sterne, and you think maybe you can see some family resemblance. And he takes a photo of you, and you try to smile properly, not display the same cheesy sleepy half-embarrassed grin you’ve seen in all the others – and you mostly fail.
When your husband comes home he’s concerned; something’s troubling you; what on earth is the matter? And so you tell him. You fancy you know your literary fiction pretty well, but you don’t recall ever having read anything by Nicholas Blake. He suggests tomorrow morning first thing you should go to the library, he’s always full of good ideas. And so you do. And there is Blake, under B, sharing shelf space with Balzac and Bulwer Lytton. You select the fattest novel you can find, it weighs in at eight hundred pages, and you start reading it on the bus home. The style is a bit old-fashioned maybe, but it’s full of urchins and prostitutes and reform bills and mistaken identities, the whole liberally sprinkled with jibes against the French and the blacks. It may just be the best book you’ve ever read. You can’t put it down, you read it for two weeks straight. You neglect the housework, and when your husband comes home one night, and sees all the dust that has been collecting, he jokes, “What, do you think we’re living in the nineteenth century too?” And, really, you have to laugh.
There’s a picture of Nicholas Blake at the back of the book, and he looks very old, and very wise, and you wish he had been your granddad – not Laurence Sterne, he looks like a right jerk.
It takes you months to find out the identity of Nicholas Blake’s great-great-great niece, on her mother’s side. She lives in Cirencester, you go there by train, it makes for a nice Sunday afternoon outing. You knock on her door. You tell her you’re a collector, and she sighs a bit, and looks bored, she’s seen this all before, of course – and when she opens her legs you tell her it isn’t sexual favours you’re after, you collect teabags, that’s it, you want teabags of the descendants of the Great Masters of English Literature, teabags will do you just fine. She seems a little disappointed. She makes you both a pot of tea and you sit out in the back garden and talk. It’s a hot day and it’s really too hot for tea, and you wish now you’d said you collected straws or ice cubes or something, a nice cold lemonade would be just the thing. Too late now. You ask her whether she’s proud to be related to a man of letters, and she says she doesn’t ever think about it. You ask her what she does for a living, and she tells you she works in a cake shop. She is really pretty dull, and you try to find a way to leave her as soon as politeness allows. You finish your tea. She offers you the teabag. You accept it, shake off the drips, put it in your purse. She asks whether she can see your scrapbook collection of teabags, and you say no. Because, frankly, even if you had one, she doesn’t deserve it.
You take the Nicholas Blake book back to the library. You had thought to keep it, but now you realise you won’t need it any more. You think any great artist should be measured not by his masterpieces but by the most average work he puts out to the world, and really, that niece of his was pretty average stuff. The overdue fine is hefty. You pay it without a murmur. You feel you ought to pay somehow, that you ought to be punished, you tried to soar above the rest of mankind on wings fashioned from other people’s genius, and now you have been brought down to earth.
A little while later your sister tells you that for her birthday present she would like a copy of Tristram Shandy. You are surprised by her awakening interest in the arts, and then understand that the man must have found her and collected her too – and for a moment it makes you sad that the condom he soiled inside your body hadn’t been enough for him, that he needed still more Sterne seeded skin fragments pressed between his pages. He had been a greedy man, for all his courtesy and his painstaking genealogical research. You never mention the man to your sister, but you do one day ask whether she enjoyed Tristram Shandy. Even over the phone you can hear she has wrinkled up her nose. “Not much,” she says, and then she sighs – “if we’re going to get saddled with some writer in the family, why can’t it have been one of the good ones?” And you never agree with your sister, you haven’t agreed with her about anything since primary school, you’ve never liked your sister, you’ve never quite understood how the same DNA is swishing about inside the both of you – but now you agree with her, you agree entirely, and you feel a familial warmth, a new bond, and you marvel at the unifying power of literary appreciation.