Eternity is Temporary, by Bill Broady

The evil usherette on the night shift
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Bill Broady's first substantial novel is set in Camden during the blastingly hot drought of 1976. At the Roundhouse, north London's crucible for fusing new musical styles, loud and shouty punk acts are beginning to displace the lumbering old behemoths of progressive rock. Evan and Adrea catch a few unimpressive gigs there but mostly they are preoccupied with each other's bodies and - more improbably - their work at Heron Close, the nearby residential care home for the elderly, where they met.

Theirs is no consciencious dedication to abandoned geriatrics, however, and Heron Close is a world away from the bitter sniping of grumpy old interns in novels such as Liz Jensen's excellent War Crimes for the Home. Perhaps buoyed up by the intensity of the summer heat, Broady's old biddies all seem joyously doolally, largely unencumbered by memory or sentience and receptive to the transgressive ideas of their fresh young careworkers. The appeal of Heron Close is play: Evan and Adrea have no particular affection for any of the "ressies", but they begin to tease the home's hidebound and merciless routines into a livelier atmosphere. They unshackle the more difficult residents at meal times. Evan penetrates the mysteriously locked kitchens via a dumb waiter to uncover a wholesale food scam. They sneak a resident off to the pub and precipitate a mass exodus for sherry and mild. Gradually, their mischievous complicity in warping the old institutional habits becomes a part of their own sexual repartee.

Piquant characters are Bill Broady's strength and Eternity is Temporary is thronged with eccentrics and grotesques. Mrs Parker drifts through the home in pursuit of Mrs 'Yu-No-Hu', who is actually Mrs Barker, who is obsessed with Swan Vesta matches and the clankings at the back of her wardrobe. Matron, who had hired Evan in the nearby pub, delights in being beaten up by her sailor boyfriend. Snow is the sinister and socially dysfunctional Assistant Matron. Responsible for the night shift, he bullies and abuses his docile charges, aggressively re-selling them their own chocolate bars and stalking the corridors with his wares like an evil usherette. "Nosferatu", Deputy Matron Price drily whispers at Snow's shadow.

Price is Broady's greatest achievement here, presiding over the home with a lofty disdain (after Matron and her battering seaman are finally removed by the authorities). Price glides through the building with surprising grace, his obesity propped up by a weekly order of 400 Capstans and seven bottles of Kummel. Kleenex in hand, his masturbatory interludes are haunted by the figure of WPC 119 who stood him up earlier in his limited priapic career. Price has moulded this sorrow into a detached resignation that allows him to enjoy toying with Evan and Adrea, playing Prospero in orchestrating their shifts to facilitate lust. Sloping off to the British Museum or revelling in Mahler, Stockhausen and his precious Wolf 78s, Price is an indulgent aesthete: eloquent but reticent, deliciously dry and offbeat.

Swimmer, Broady's debut, was an ingenious monologue stretched into a slender novella with flashes of brilliance but an overburdened form. A subsequent short story collection, In This Block there Lives A Slag, confirmed his skill at rubbing characters together until they spark. Eternity is Temporary finally delivers on this promise. Pin-sharp and enjoyably odd, Broady's characters hold interest against the indolence of his most driftily undynamic of plots.

Eternity is Temporary slowly gathers momentum as Evan and Adrea screw themselves into the grip of a consuming lassitude, copulating and smoking dope up in the home's attic flat. Broady playfully introduces a surreal fluidity to normal boundaries which, he implies, could be heat induced or the fringes of a "psychic commotion". Broady enjoys such frivolous ambiguities. Together with the subtle contrariness of duty and carelessness which underpin this engaging novel, they give his dallying youngsters occasional touches of a Kunderan lightness of being.

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