20 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 56

A nose for the needy

Penelope Lively

THE NICK OF TIME by Francis King Arcadia Books, f11.99, pp. 320, ISBN 1900850788 Francis King is 80 and this is his 28th novel; a moment of quiet respect seems appropriate. I often wish that one read a new novel unattributed, without the baggage that the known name brings with it. Were that the case, I much doubt if the reader would guess that this one was written by an octogenarian. Apart from a few wry asides that indicate familiarity with the process of aging, it seems to float free of authorial identification. The central figure, an Albanian illegal immigrant called Mehmet, is not only a figure very much of here and now, but is also entirely persuasive. Admittedly, he is always seen at a tangent, presented through the eyes of others, which avoids giving his point of view, but that is essential to the construction of the novel. Mehmet is a catalyst, a tantalising and eventually inscrutable presence.

Mehmet beguiles first Meg, a multiple sclerosis sufferer struggling with solitary life in a council flat, then Marilyn. a busy doctor, and finally Adrian, a wealthy gay financier — eventually running all three providers at the same time, unknown to each other. For Marilyn and Adrian, his charms are sexual. For Meg, he becomes a tenant who does not always pay the rent but who is assiduously helpful. And indeed one of the oddities of Mehmet's personality is that through chinks in his opportunism there glint suggestions of a kindly, generous nature, He is deraeinated (we never learn anything of his background or the circumstances of his arrival in England except for his own occasional expedient remarks), he is living from hand to mouth and his abiding concern is that his illegal status should not become known to the police.

The action skips from the surgery at which Mehmet falls in with Marilyn, walking in off the street to have a cut to his eye stitched up, acquired under circumstances that remain murky, to Meg's cramped council block, and eventually to the overheated world of Adrian, who combines high finance with gay adventures. This is a tale of fortuitous encounters, and the way in which contingent events can direct people's lives. Only one life is calamitously affected, in a final twist of high melodrama which proposes yet another facet to Mehmet's devious personality, but several others are significantly changed. Mehmet seems to have a talent for nosing out needy people: Meg is valiant but in desperate want of support, Marilyn is lonely, blasted by the death of her husband and child, Adrian is prey to sexual lust and is immediately infatuated with the handsome foreigner lounging in a gay pub. Where sex is concerned, Mehmet is evidently a fivestar performer and this has become his one realisable asset in a city where it is increasingly difficult for those outside the system to get work, or a place to live.

The Nick of Time could be seen as a tract for the times, and in a sense it is, with Mehmet's situation as the precipitating factor. But Francis King avoids comment, whether overt or implicit. This is not a novel about asylum-seeking, or about the circumstances that produce asylumseekers: rather, it is a tale of the way in which people can be driven by a chance encounter, and the way in which a perceptive operator can manipulate likely subjects, even in a country that is entirely alien to him and in a language that he hardly speaks. You have to hand it to Mehmet — and are made to wonder how many like him there may be out there, washing cars and serving in restaurants where the proprietor is not too choosy about whom he employs.