Guest post by Jonathan Walker: Little Dorrit

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was never my home, not after my mother died. I couldn’t stand it there, in my father’s home, in the dark there, with the recessed windows and the ceilings, so low I used to bang my head on the doorjambs. The smell was what really used to get to me, as if it had seeped into the stone floors.

Child of an unfortunate father.

In the Summer of 1989, I left my father’s home, which was no longer my home. I left for Liverpool, knowing that I would only be there a few months, until I went north to university in October. I had no job and no money, but an older friend had just bought a gutted house that he was planning to renovate. I could stay there in one of the upstairs bedrooms.

A delicate appeal for a small temporary accommodation.

There was a streetlamp directly outside my window, which had no curtains. I turned the bare lightbulb off before I undressed, and I slept under the orange glow of sodium, on the floor, in a sleeping bag, on cushions I borrowed from the sofa downstairs. I took the cushions back downstairs every morning.

I shared the house with three other young men: two mechanics and a binman, who were in the habit of lying around watching television and eating takeaway food when they got home, in their workclothes, lying on the same sofa I used for my bedding. So the cushions were never especially clean.


Some things in the house worked. The toilet in the bathroom flushed, and there was an electric shower mounted over the bath that emitted a thin, feeble stream, which alternated between scalding hot and lukewarm as the circuit breaker kicked in and out. The cold tap in the kitchen also worked. But that was it for water. You had to boil it on the gas stove if you wanted it really hot, and most of the washing took place in the kitchen sink.

Faculties evidently decaying.

The boards on the kitchen floor had been ripped up in preparation for redoing the plumbing, exposing the gas pipes feeding the cooker, and the only heat source in the house was a fire in the living room, the same room with the sofa and the television. The electricity was supplied by a meter system, into which coins had to be fed regularly.

Tuppence please.

Nobody had figured out the local council’s garbage collection system, but there was a backyard, so whenever a garbage bag filled up, one of us tied it off and threw it out the back door. No-one dared to go out in the yard after dark.

The flies trouble you, don’t they me dear?

It was entertaining enough for a couple of months. I was glad to get away in October, but it was still the only available place to stay when I came back to Liverpool after my first term at university. I didn’t want to go to my father’s home. I couldn’t go back there. He wasn’t speaking to me. So I was back sleeping on the smelly sofa cushions. Still, it wasn’t so bad. It’s never bad with people who care about you.

I’m a friend. Remember?

A film version of Charles Dickens’ novel Little Dorrit was part of the Christmas television schedule that year. It was a six-hour adaptation, shown in two separate three-hour parts.

I decide to give it a go. Thirty minutes later, I’m hooked, but there’s hardly any credit left on the electricity meter, and there are no fifty-pence coins anywhere in the house.

Nobody’s to blame. Noise, fatigue, a moment’s inattention.

‘Turn everything off except the television’, I say. ‘All the lights, the fridge, don’t take a shower, don’t use the microwave, don’t wash your clothes, don’t dry your hair, don’t listen to music. If the power cuts before the film ends, I’m going to go crazy’.

Paid to squeeze. Squeeze to pay.

I haven’t read the novel, so I can’t even guess how it’s going to end – except that probably somebody is going to get married, and probably somebody else is going to die.

‘What are you watching?’
Little Dorrit’.
‘How long?’
‘Three hours’.
‘Three hours? Bloody hell’.
‘Six, actually. Two parts’.
‘Are you mad?’
‘Humour me. I want to know what happens’.

Pancks the gypsy. Fortune-telling.

Another thirty minutes later, I’m shivering in the twilight glow of the television when the doorbell rings.

‘Can you get that?’
‘Merry Christmas!’, someone outside says. ‘What’s up?’
‘Sssh! We’re watching Little Dorrit!’
‘What’s Little Dorrit?’
‘Come in. I’ll explain’.

We watch Little Dorrit, together.

The meter turns, infinitesimally slowly.

How can you speak of forever to a maimed creature like me?

The story advances, faster.

All phrases in italics are excerpts of dialogue taken from the film version of Little Dorrit, dir. Christine Edzard (1987). Jonathan Walker is the author of Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel and Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy.

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