A Piece of the Sky is Missing, by David Nobbs

The third novel, published in 1969, and notoriously (well to me anyway) expensive on abebooks. But the library used their inter-county loan service and got me a copy from Gloucestershire.

I hadn't really clicked with The Itinerant Lodger and while I liked Ostrich Country, I didn't think it was of the same standard as Perrin and Pratt. But this book is almost on a par with them I think. It's about Robert Bellamy, who plays a silly joke at work and is given notice. As he works his final month, he applies for other jobs, and the book broadly covers this period, but is interspersed with some of Robert's fantasies and memories of earlier episodes in his life.

I think that the slightly broken narrative style, which is a little reminiscent of The Itinerant Lodger, doesn't quite work as well as it could, but apart from that very minor criticism, I really enjoyed the book. There are many Nobbs themes here: the drudge and petty politics of office life; national service; cruelty of children to each other at public school; attempts to revisit girlfriends and nearly-girlfriends from the past, and something I think of as very typical Nobbs: running jokes. For example, every so often during the book, Robert catches sight of newspaper billboards, which carry the messages "Mystery Murder Sensation", "Mystery Murder Sensation Search", "Mystery Murder Sensation Search Row" and "Mystery Murder Sensation Search Row Inquiry".

This is definitely a book I'd want to read again. It's very funny and also poignant. I thought the end section (which is told from the perspective of the author "from now on, I'm going to let him keep his thoughts to himself. A fat lot of good I've done him.") was really moving - reminded me a bit of the ending of Changing Places. But I'm not sure when I'll next be able to get a copy of it, so include some quotes here as examples. Any of these could have made an appearance in Pratt I think.

"I'll see you this afternoon, after early grind," said Bernard.

"After what?"

"Early grind."

A master passed by. They said: "Hullo, sir."

"That's Stinky R," said Bernard. "See you on the corner of Lower Broad half an hour after early grind."

"Where's Lower Broad?"

"Go down to the little lagger-bagger behind the ogglers' tonkhouse, turn right at Pot Harry's, and you can't miss it".

Another master passed by and they said: "Hullo, sir."

"That was Toady J," said Bernard. "O.K., see you this afternoon, Bellamy. Bring your iron and we'll go for a hum."

Robert didn't find Bernard. He didn't take is iron and they didn't go for a hum, because by the time he'd found out what all the school slang meant it was two hours after early grind.

I read the paper. Putney shopkeeper jailed. Putney man in Turkish earthquake. Councillor accuses Putney of parochialism.

He was posted to Germany in June, 1954, but Aunt Maud needed an emergency operation, and for a few days it was touch and go. A compassionate officer gave him compassionate leave. When he returned to camp his draft had gone. He spent six weeks in the depot regiment, idle, forgotten, an administrative oversight, an anachronism in uniform. Then, late in August, his posting arrived. He was XOX Draft.

He caught the military train to Parkeston Quay on a glorious summer night. Farmers were combining under floodlights. He had a whole carriage to himself, and thought this odd.

At Parkeston Quay there were three customs officers, one for XOS Draft (The Gloucester Regiment), one for YBB Draft (400 men from the Royal Artillery) and one for XOX Draft (Robert).

He was the first man on board the 'Vienna'.

"Draft?" said a corporal at the top of the gangway.


"B Deck. Berths 1-350."

Half an hour later the corporal woke him up and said: "Hey, you, where's the rest of your draft?"

"I'm all there is, corporal."

"All there is? All there is? I'm indented for 350 men." "No, corporal. There's only me."

"Well fucking roll on." The corporal gave him a long, hard look, as if expecting 349 men to come tumbling out of his pyjamas. "You think you're very clever, don't you? Getting yourself 350 bunks. You think you're very smart. What's your name?"

"Bellamy, corporal. 608 Private Bellamy."

"You haven't heard the last of this, Bellamy."

In the huts at the Hook of Holland there were three separate queues for breakfast, one for the Gloucestershires, one for the Royal Artillery, and one for Robert. He managed six cups of coffee from his enormous urn, and four boiled eggs, not liking to disappoint his cooks.

On the troop train he had 44 reserved compartments. Farther up the train they were standing in the corridors.

On his arrival at Munster Hauptbahnhof he was met by a major, a sergeant, three corporals, and twelve trucks.

"Who are you?" said the major.

"Bellamy, sir. XOX Draft, sir."

"Where's the rest of you?"

"I'm all there is, sir."

"I was expecting 350 men."

"No, sir. There must have been a mistake."

"We've had 16 huts cleared out specially for you, Bellamy. We've had 350 late teas laid on. We've got 350 seats laid out in the lecture room so that Sgt Major Hawkins can lecture you on not getting into trouble with the Frauleins. Q. Watson has aired 350 matresses. And now you tell us you're only one man."

"I'm sorry, sir."

"So you should be."

He drew his bedding from a surly Q. Watson. He was given his late tea by a catering corps corporal so livid that he broke Robert's plate with the serving spoon. In the huge, cold lecture room Sgt Major Hawkins glumly advised him to steer clear of the Deutsche bints. He slept alone in an empty hut in an empty wing of an empty block. In the morning he went on parade before the sergeant major, six sergeants and eighteen corporals. He marched past the C.O. Then the C.O. marched past him. Then the C.O. halted, left-turned, and came violently to attention.

"XOX Draft ready for inspection, saaaaaaaaaarrgh," said the sergeant major.

The C.O. inspected Robert. So did the sergeant major, the six sergeants, and the eighteen corporals. Then he went to the C.O.'s office for an interview.

"I was expecting more of you, Bellamy," said the C.O.

"I know, sir."

"On Saturday week you were going to do a little exercise against 300 men of the third regiment. Have to cancel it. Wouldn't be fair on you."

"Thank you, sir."

"You're a damned nuiscance, Bellamy. I think we'll have to move you over with C. Squadron. They turned up two months ago a man short."

"I think that must have been me, sir."

"Oh, that was you, was it? Well you'd better take his place. I mean, take your place. I mean, be yourself. Well, you know what I mean."

"Yes, sir."

"Damned nuisance, Bellamy. Damned nuisance."

Completed : 10-Jul-2006

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