Book Club: A vision of a magnificent pub, built on frozen fields ‘like a grassy sea’

Sheffield author Susan Clegg's debut novel, The Dolphin, published by Linen Press in June this year, is the story of Larry Lambert and his vision of a magnificent pub, built on frozen fields ‘like a grassy sea’.
The Dolphin by Susan CleggThe Dolphin by Susan Clegg
The Dolphin by Susan Clegg

The Dolphin is an echo of a single, failed, gay encounter in a fishing boat, and a moving exploration of the constraining expectations of society on three generations of one family. Signed copies are available at Sheffield bookshop La Biblioteka or online on the Linen Press website.

July 1939

The hot weather continued. Each day Larry thought it would break, but no relief came and he felt heavy and slow, the heat a physical weight he couldn’t shrug off. His workmen were listless, carrying half the usual number of bricks in their hods, stopping often for cigarettes. More time lost, more money lost, more grist for the bank manager’s letters. But Larry left them alone and said nothing. Tempers were short enough already.

Susan CleggSusan Clegg
Susan Clegg
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When he came home, Rosemary was absorbed in the Daily Telegraph or the news on the wireless. She barely answered his questions about Europe, but gave him a withering look that implied he should be following events himself. He noticed dust had started to settle on some of the furniture, that his shirts were carelessly ironed. Roy and Joanie were left to occupy themselves for hours at a time, Rosemary only rousing them to help with cooking or run an errand. Larry felt he had no role in the house anymore.

Only at The Dolphin did the tension lift, slipping away as he drove up the hill to the fresh breeze at the top. He started to go there at lunchtime as well as in the evening, dreading the moment when he would have to return home.

He was there when the weather finally broke. It was a Thursday afternoon and so hot that the heat had risen right up the hill, bringing a dusty inertia to The Dolphin. The last customers had gone and only Larry, Malcolm and one of the barmen were left. They cleared up slowly, taking their time to wipe each table, polish each glass. When the barman cycled away at half past three, Larry went outside to tidy up the terrace. After a minute Malcolm joined him.

‘I’ll just check down the end of the lawn there,’ he said. ‘I think some of our charming customers have been chucking their glasses in the border.’

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The air was grey and thundery and as Larry rearranged the chairs and tables, he felt spots of rain on his arm. It came silently at first, evaporating on the warm stone of the terrace, but then falling faster and heavier until it was like standing in a waterfall. The sky was almost black and he could only just see Malcolm at the far end of the lawn, making an attempt to run for shelter. Lightning flared above them, catching Malcolm in an attitude of surprise. Thunder like a slammed door came instantly afterwards. Through the noise of the storm, Larry heard another sound and peered into the murk to see what it was.

Malcolm was laughing. When the lightning came again, Larry saw that he had taken off his shirt and was standing with arms outstretched, laughing wildly. He was pale as an owl in the gloom, his hoots and giggles rising like a song above the rain.

Larry stood watching him, water dripping from his chin, his nose, his eyebrows. He felt it stream from his fingertips as if his whole body was turning to liquid. He couldn’t move, could only watch the dim figure capering at the end of the lawn. Then Malcolm came towards him, becoming solid again, his features sharpening as he approached. Larry could see the thinness of his torso, the dark hair on his chest, the pointed nipples. The beauty of him.

‘That was…’ Malcolm began to laugh again. ‘God, there’s so much bloody rain!’ He looked Larry up and down. ‘And you stayed out in it too! Look at the state of us!’

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Larry felt the weight of Malcolm’s hand on his shoulder, the smell of rain and sweat and skin that came off him.

Malcolm’s face was close to his an he noticed a spray of freckles across his cheekbone and that his jaw was turning bluish as his beard grew through. The urge to touch his cheek was overwhelming.

‘I think we should get inside, Malcolm,’ he said.

They retreated into the porch. The rain on the roof was deafening and they stopped to watch as it poured from the gutters and drainpipes and raced across the terrace. Larry looked down at his sodden clothes and felt suddenly foolish. What on earth was he going to say to Rosemary?

‘I’m freezing,’ Malcolm said, his teeth knocking together. ‘We need to get changed.’ He started towards the stairs in the tower. ‘Some of my things are upstairs already. I thought I’d bring them over a few bits at a time. Hope that’s all right with you. There’s probably a shirt you can borrow at least.’

Larry followed him up to the living quarters.

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There was still no furniture but Malcolm took him into one of the bedrooms where a tea chest of books and a suitcase sat in a corner. He opened the suitcase and rummaged through the clothes. ‘Let’s see. Clean shirt. Socks. That’s all I’ve got.’ He straightened and handed them to Larry. ‘Will they do, Mr. Lambert?’

‘Thanks, Malcolm,’ Larry said. ‘Look, please call me Larry. Mr. Lambert sounds so formal.’

‘Right ho then. Larry.’ Malcolm smiled.

‘I’ll go and get dried off.’

He took the clothes and went into the bathroom. With the rain running down the window and a greenish light reflected from the tiles, it felt more than ever like being under the sea. A faint echo of his old dream came back to him. He sat on the side of the bath with his eyes closed, trying to deny what he’d felt when he saw Malcolm in the rain.

Trying, and failing.

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