The Lies Of The Pen Collectors
London's St. Pancras train station is not all it should be.
Outside, there is one of the most majestic buildings in the West End called – I believe – St. Pancras Chambers, which is now an apartment block and damned impressive by any standards.
I sold a pen to a guy who lived there once. He was either a collector or a cheapskate but when I looked at how much it cost to rent an apartment there, it was obvious that he was wealthy enough to have bought several versions of this particular pen from a store across the road.
The pen in question came into my possession when somebody gave it to me as an ‘unwanted gift’ and requested I make good use of it. Truth be told, it was a nice pen too. A Mont Blanc – but it was very obviously a pen designed for either the female of the species or a person with very small hands. Either way, it was no good to me. I’m a one-pen-man and that vacancy is already taken. I put it up for sale on a leading internet auction site at a very reasonable price and it sold immediately. The guy actually wanted me to take it there in person so that he could meet me but the price of postage is very different to putting juice in the car or taking the train itself and the actual amount of time taken is not quantifiable. Which is how it found itself being entrusted to the Queen and her legion of mail delivery people.
I think in hindsight I would have liked to take it in person, to meet this mysterious Dr Singh who collected pens to see what else he may have had to offer. Perhaps he had a pen for sale that once belonged to Dylan Thomas, for sale at a price I could afford. Maybe he would have left it in my hands to study as he went to make coffee for us and, as I turned around and saw that he had left the door open…
Anyway, St. Pancras station itself is now so overdeveloped it's exactly what it's supposed to be. A train station. This is fine if all you need to do is get somewhere. Functional is a good word to describe it, everything is high speed and digital display. You can get more brands of coffee there than you can in Brazil. Aside from the Foyles bookshop and a cool little shop that sells designer cakes for the sort of money you could actually buy a pen of heritage with, it's not going to appear on many 'must visit in London' lists. Neither are Euston, Paddington, Victoria, Charing Cross or any of the other major train stations.
King's Cross might be a tiny exception if you want your photograph taken at platform 93/4 or buy a movie replica wand. If not, you can add King's Cross to the list. For the record, you can also buy a Harry Potter pen in his store but that's not really collectible as I would use the phrase. I have to wonder, what possible use could Harry Potter have with a pen?
London’s railway stations are all so dull now, they no longer have the right to appear in novels. Your character may use one of them to get where they're going but he won't be hanging around to help you get a thousand words of amazing description rolling to bolster your plot. Conan Doyle would roll in his grave if he could see Baker Street.
Anyway, if you want to buy a pen with some history, sadly you need to utilise one of these (mostly) functional train stations to get the hell out of the capital for somewhere a little more errant.
Cardiff is not underground by any stretch of the imagination; nor is the main train station a magical palace that will have you sitting on a milk crate while you knock up some sketches of amazing architecture in your pocket book. It's just as functional as any of those London stations I mentioned but I have not come here to look at architecture – I have come in search of a special pen as a present for somebody. Is it irony in action that the person I want to buy a pen for is the same person who gave me the Mont Blanc pen in the first place?
The story really begins with a broken pen. I know I have mentioned this before but it bears repeating here: I don't own many things from my family history but from one grandfather I have a belt and a pair of broken binoculars, from the other, three battered pewter jugs, a George Cross medal from The War and a pen. As I said, the pen is broken. The nib is shattered, the inkwell syringe has seized up and there is a long split in the barrel. When I describe it like this, it doesn't sound much like a pen anymore and is officially, unfixable. I only keep it because of what it stands for. A thought. A memory.
When I decided to commit to one pen for life (pending flood, fire and acts of Gods), I chose a Waterman. It writes like a pen should (ie: by itself), looks like a pen ought and in an ‘out and out’ emergency, you could probably kill an assailant with it. I have plans for this pen. One day, I will hand this pen down to my daughter and so it will continue.
I have no idea if the pen I am looking for even exists but it seems like a good place to begin. Hours away from home, technically in a different country and with an old heart, it must have a good share of secrets. People are always looking for secrets and magic in London, but the more I look at the place, the more I see its secrets are either on display for an entrance fee or have pages and pages of exact instructions on how to navigate them on the internet.
The internet is a bona fide magic killer. Good for shopping at Christmas but a magic killer all the same.
There is no weather in Cardiff today – no rain, no wind, no sun – nothing. If you're of the same kind of mindset as me, you'll know the only way to find something is to get lost. That way, you might stand a chance of two lost things ending up in the same place. This seems so simple to me. If things are found we know exactly where they are but if things are lost, they must be somewhere else – and that's the place you need to get to.
That's where the thing you're looking for will be.
After pausing for thought for twenty minutes at Starbucks, I put my nose to the wind and began to walk.
The main streets are littered with people who have no use for a pen – this is a place for people who have purposefully super-glued their mobile phones to the palms of their hands. I hope they are happy – they certainly seem to have a decent community of other like-minded people to share things with.
It becomes evident that I need to head for the outskirts of the city – to the streets where rental is lower and people still smoke behind the counter of their shop because it’s their damned shop and the law can go hang itself.
Eventually, I find a store that is marketing itself as an antique and collectibles kind of place but in reality it’s nothing more than a junk shop. The guy behind the counter really belongs here. He is wearing a track suit which is an insult to its original intention. A shower wouldn't go amiss that’s for sure. The shop smells of Old but the man himself has an alternative source of odour. He reminds me of something that's recently been dug out of the ground, then left out in the rain and dried – repeatedly.
He does however have a small cigar box of pens on the counter. You don't really see cigar boxes these days. This used to be a nice one, too, but has now gone the same way as all the other things in here, which is sad in the extreme.
I say 'almost' because right in front of me is a fountain pen that has survived this holocaust inside of a Perspex box.
It's a Waterman too. The King of Pens as far as I am concerned. I point to it.
"Can I take a look at this out the case?"
The voice that comes out of his mouth is eloquent and precise – which should teach me not to judge a book by its cover – but he still smells like he lives in a mausoleum, no matter how well-spoken he is.
"Of course. You look like a man who might know a good pen when he sees it."
"I try. It certainly looks like there's some heritage here."
"Tell you what. If you're truly interested, I will give you the pen for half of what I have it marked up at if you can guess who used to own it."
I turned the box upside down to discover a price tag of £549. Pretty steep – for a junk shop. I put the box down on the counter, prised off the top and took it out for closer inspection. It was certainly old but I am no expert on the history of pens – I just like them.
"How many guesses can I have?"
"I believe three is traditional.”
“What are you – some kind of junk shop genie?” formed itself in my head but never actually left my mouth.
I turned it over repeatedly in my hand and disassembled it on the counter. It was certainly in good condition and had been well looked after. It also appeared to have its original reservoir – though it would definitely need replacing if it was ever to be of practical use again.
I put it back together and placed it at an equal distance between the two of us. We both stared at it for a long time.
"I think this pen once belonged to..."
I left a good pause for maximum effect.
His jaw dropped and his mouth opened by a few inches so that more dead smells could come from his mouth. He quickly recovered from my lucky guess but not before I had the pen in my hand in case he changed his mind.
"I'm right aren't I?” I stated pointing the pen at him.
Dejectedly, he sighed and told me I was.
I took a roll of notes out of my pocket, counted it off in twenties and handed the cash over to him. Satisfied with my find, but now clean out of money, I headed straight back to the train station to go home. A city is a bad place to be without money to play with.
I don't know if Dylan Thomas used a pen or not – maybe he only ever banged things out on a typewriter. If he did own a pen – a special pen – the odds on it being a Waterman were remotely slim. The odds on it being this Waterman were even slimmer.
None of this matters.
What matters is that the pen now has a story attached to it – even if it’s only my story. If it turns out to be a lie – and we shall more than likely never know – that makes the story even longer and that's a beautiful thing.
What's the point of a pen if you're not going to tell a story with it?
As I headed back to London, it occurred to me that I might be well served to rummage out Dr Singh's address and tell him of my find; but from the limited correspondence I'd already had with him, I figured he might know exactly what kind of pen Dylan Thomas owned – and the truth would be the equivalent of taking your kids to Disneyland and seeing Mickey Mouse with his head off, taking a cigarette break.
So I sit in a non-reserved seat on the train with a potential piece of faux-history in my pocket and look at my face in the glass reflecting back at me.
This country does not build train stations like it used to, some people need to address their personal hygiene and the majority of the population wander around in a daze not noticing anything of value.
But I bought an old pen and nobody I care about died today.
All is good in the world.