Saturday, December 22, 2012


It 's Christmas Eve. God's in the air. Thomas Fastnet doesn't believe in Him.  His brother Chris does. They are good friends and argue at length but amicably.

Thomas says: "Why do you think that  this world and its inhabitants are important enough to receive divine attention? Of the millions of possible worlds, circling millions of stars in millions of galaxies, why this one? And if this one, why is it in such a mess?

"The world is God's. The mess is ours."

Again Thomas says: "Let's get it in perspective. The universe is 13.8 millions years old, the Earth three and half billion. We've been around for 200,000 years.  Crocodiles and ants, fish  and dinosaurs for much longer. The  whole lot is supposed to have started with a bang, from a pinpoint. How can apes like us, clearly bent on self-destruction, matter in the scheme of things?"

The big bang theory may be true but that doesn't mean that it didn't have a cause. There can be no effect without cause. Something must have created your bang. Yes or No?

And so it goes on.  Chris opens a bottle of Madeira, sercial, the dry stuff. They savour it together. Chris's small children are asleep upstairs.  Or supposed to be. Empty stockings  hang at the ends of their beds.  And their heads are buzzing with speculation and mystery. They are awake and whispering.  Chris's wife Pat and Thomas' wife Alison are at Midnight Mass at St Nicholas just round the corner from the house. If they listen carefully they can hear voices, "Hark the herald angels sing..."

"Where's peace? Where's goodwill?  Where's the justice? Just endless fighting over frontiers and tribal differences.

"Perhaps," says Chris, "justice and peace are in the balance of chemical elements in the universe which makes life and this conversation possible. Something of a miracle in itself.  Or one almost achieved.

On that they seem to agree. And so they talk on with long companionable pauses in which the fire mutters in sympathy, until the quiet is  suddenly disturbed. With a popping sound, the  Christmas tree lights go out. In the dark the church clock chimes midnight. When Chris restores the fuse they see that the star on top of the tree is no longer alight. The  bulb inside the  plastic casing has blown. "A surge of current," says Chris.

"Or divine disapproval of my views?" says Thomas.  "Or the state of the world?"

"Chris goes into the kitchen and brings another bottle. They drink in silence.

Outside,  gravel crunches under foot, voices and... "I thought I heard a baby cry," Chris says, and gets to his feet.  The sound of a key in the lock. The front door opens and into the room comes Pat and Alison, and in Pat's arms indeed is a baby wrapped up against the cold. "It's the Vicar's," she says. Her husband broke his ankle. Fell off a ladder trying to fix the lights which fused. At midnight would you believe it! Vicar's seeing him to the hospital. We're looking after the baby till she gets back. Jesse is his name." 

The baby looks  solemnly about him. He has that superior look of very young babies which seems to say, "I know more than you do".  She holds him up to show him the Christmas tree lights. He gurgles, wide awake now. He enjoys the attention.

Thomas, who has no children of his own, on an impulse, takes Jesse from her and raises him in the air. He jiggles him up and down. Baby and man catch each other's eye. In a moment of understanding they both laugh.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Stalker

"Move over Dermot. You're occupying my space"
London underground trains do not lend themselves to social niceties. Passengers avoid each others' eyes. In the rush hour, you shrink into yourself to minimise physical contact. The man sitting next to me, apart from accusing me wrongly of taking more than my fair share of space on the seat which we share, overflows liberally. His bum bulges and his elbow digs into my side. And now to make it worse he is talking to me.  Reluctantly I turn towards him.  Though he has obviously recognised me, I have no idea who he is.
"Another novel on the stocks, I suppose?"
For a moment I am flattered. I am not the sort of writer who seeks publicity, but confirmation that a stranger  knows your work, can sometimes ease discomfort. Not  this time. My neighbour is unsavoury as well as presumptuous. "Name's Shadwell," he says, "Tony Shadwell". Feeling as though I had been kicked in the stomach, I turn towards him. I sense some sort of bad joke. Tony Shadwell is a character in my last published novel and in the one which preceded it. A mean and ingratiating inhabitant of the corner of London where it is set. He makes a living by spying on people in public life and selling information to any one who will pay for it. He is a blackmailer and persecutor of women.  Much of the dirt he gleans turn up on the Internet, or worse specifically in the hands of hostile foreign powers.
"So you recognise me?"
" I suppose I should  be flattered," I say,  that you want to  enter into the spirit of  two of my books. The only thing is, your shoes are wrong, cheap and unpolished; that brand of wrist watch is not right for  Shadwell - he wouldn't wear a Swatch - and you have fat, pudgy hands, instead of sneaky, bony hands"

He laughs. He has a particularly unpleasant laugh. Something I recognise and have attempted to describe, though my description does not match the vomit-inducing, staccato snicker I now hear.
What is this? The beginning of some sort of blackmail attempt? Or an even even more sinister threat? The threat of mischief?  I think about my enemies. Who would resort to such a weird trick? And why?

The next stop is Charing Cross where I get out. Will he follow me? I stand up and leave the train without looking behind me. As I follow the familiar route of brightly lit tunnels and moving staircases which lead to the main line station, I persist in keeping my eyes in front of me. The Hastings train is waiting  on Platform 6 and I make straight for the barrier. Even when I enter a carriage half way to the front I refrain from looking back. Relieved I sit down. But my relief is short-lived.

As the train  leaves the station a body thuds into the seat beside me. Making use of its bulk it edges me to  one side. No question  now that I am being pursued by a persistent and sinister stalker. "Not going to greet me, Dermot? I am yours after all, Mr Dermot Frankenstein, your very own handiwork. I now have  a life of my own;  and, I don't mind saying, with rights and in particular the right of self-determination."

"I hope you are enjoying the joke" I say.

"What joke? The crime writer Dermot Martin has responsibilities, like a father for his children. Like a bitch for her pups. Jokes don't come into it. "

"What do you want?"

"What would you want in my place, Dermot? OK, I'll tell you what I want. I want respectability. I want to be ordinary, dull, banal, a bit  like you Dermot. And  I want to be looked up to at least  by a few people. To put it at its simplest, I want to be loved."

I fall for this. "But in that case you would be someone else. The person  in my books has no outwardly attractive qualities . He is a bastard, a liar, a thief and a bully. It is too late to change that. And you, meanwhile " I add to make it clear that I am  not myself nutcase enough to take my stalker seriously, "you are a nut case."

"But you could, if you wanted to, change me. You have already featured  me in two novels. Your Shadwell is a wanker but not a wally".  The stalker  is bright enough to come to terms with his weak and evil side, to pull himself up, brush himself down. "I suspect that I am already in the plot of  the next  book unwinding in your predictable, little brain. You could plunder your imagination for a change  to show a deeper side to my character, one ready to be rescued, to be redeemed..."

Please don't talk to me any more," I say looking out of the window. "I'm thinking." I am not  thinking. My mind is a blank. But may be  the belief that I am thinking will keep him quiet. Even encourage him to leave the train at the next station.  Some hope. My character lives in South East London in a flat above a seedy shop on a street corner.

From Hastings station it is a short walk  through a street of Victorian houses to my house. I walk quickly and don't look back. "Give me a few minutes" I say to my wife". I know there is a drink waiting and a meal in the oven, but I have a  chore before I can relax. From my study window I can see the street below and sure enough there is Shadwell leaning against a wall under a street lamp just flickering into life. At my desk I begin to type right away what is in my mind.

 '"Come with me," said Lorraine taking Shadwell's arm. She smelt of violets, Her blond  hair brushed his cheek.  Surprised he followed her. It was a new experience  for him to meet a willing partner. And the woman who called herself  Lorraine Price was  to his fevered mind something out of the ordinary. Carpe diem. The pick-up ruse had worked. The man  may have been cunning, coniving and and dangerous, but vanity drove caution out of the window. They left the pub together. "I'm staying here," she said, indicating a small private hotel. Looking over her shoulder she led him upstairs, unlocked the door of her room, and ushered him in. "Make yourself comfortable, " she said, "I won't be a minute" , and  disappeared into  the en suite bathroom. There, opening her hand bag she produced a syringe which she expertly loaded, holding it up for a moment to the light.  Hiding it behind her back she returned to find Shadwell as she had hoped naked and on the bed. "Ah," she said approaching him as though to negotiate an embrace, but instead plunged the syringe into his left buttock ..."That will settle you."'

Would that do at least for the moment?  Some polishing perhaps but positive enough. I looked out of the window to find that Shadwell was no longer in evidence.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The black butterfly 1989

Poem or story? Perhaps both. But true either way.

                   The Black Butterfly 1989

Two days after the funeral in darkest January in the silent house
a butterfly appeared, out of nowhere it seemed, in the room 
where she used to sit,  her long legs stretched out resting

on a footstool, cigarette in one hand, wine glass in the other.
It flew from window ledge to table top or settled now and then
on the arm of a chair or patterned rug as if in thought, or briefly slept.

It was black, quite black from wing tip to wing tip, from antennae
to abdomen. I had not seen one like it and have not since. I thought,
scepticism apart (hers and mine), had she elected to return

in animate form to satisfy a curiosity or concern, a black butterfly
would have matched her wit. What to do with such a guest,
wanderer or recidivist? A diplomatic quandary. It was cold outside.

I let it be. Its gentle wings whispered in the quiet room until one day
I found it dead, on its side, its wings folded, a black triangle, little more.

Obsequies are always inadequate. This town with its brick pavements 
and restricted parking is no place to bury a butterfly.

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Safe Pair of Hands

The day Bill Parchment retired  from the Bank they offered him some cakes containing a generous portion of cannabis. Which of his colleagues had thought up the prank, he was never to know. Four of the cakes were brought to his office with his mid-afternoon tea.They were little cubes of  moist  sponge, coated in white icing and decorated with curlicues of chocolate. There were a dozen cakes in all. The remainder were left in the pantry at the end of the corridor  to be eaten after work when their effect might not be too drastic.

He had been head of the department for the last 15 years.  His colleagues thought him dry and rather dull, a reluctant drinker. Senior management  considered him "a safe pair of hands". Nobody had a bad word to say about him but few had a good one. For the most part people took him for granted.  In fact Bill  had enjoyed his work,  and if he seemed taciturn and distant, it was because he had other interests. When not engaged with  his job at the Bank  his thoughts would be in his studio in the basement of his Victorian house in Dulwich. Here he had for years recycled old packaging materials - boxes, tins, cartons and the like into  small pieces of furniture  and ornaments. New projects crowded his mind when he was not working.

As he was hungry he scoffed all four cakes. He had missed lunch because he had to complete his last task before leaving the office.  This was to conclude the arrangements for a visit to the Bank by an oil magnet from a former state in the Soviet Union. The visit was to take place that afternoon, and he had to supply a final briefing to the Bank's Chairman, arrange an interpreter and book a limousine to take their guest to Heathrow Airport when the meeting was over.

By the time he had finished his tea and cakes the briefing was complete. Three hundred carefully chosen  words summarised the magnate's career and background, the political undertow which affected his long terms prospects as a client of the Bank and a tactfully phrased indication of sensitive areas to avoid in discussion.  At the end of  the meeting the magnate was to be escorted  to the limousine. He would be met at the airport by his staff  whom he had given time off to visit the shops. His briefing complete, Bill's work for the Bank was at  an end.  He sent the document on screen to the chairman. Others would assist at the meeting.

Meanwhile another task, which might in different circumstances have been his province,  had been assigned to his successor.  Now in  its final stages it concerned his own farewell dinner at a West End hotel. A car was to pick him up outside the Bank and take him to the hotel where his wife and colleagues would be waiting greet him.

Bill leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. He felt extraordinarily relaxed.  To his surprise, he found himself laughing out loud. When had he ever laughed in that office before? That in itself he found funny. For a while he couldn't stop laughing.

By the time he had  showered  and changed in the executive suite provided by the bank for senior managers, his laughter had quietened to an occasional chuckle. But there was still much to laugh at. And he thought it oddly amusing as he said goodbye to the receptionist in the lobby, to hear the jovial voice of the oil magnate in the process of leaving. He seems a cheerful bird, Bill thought. What he didn't know was that like himself  the magnate had been offered and greedily swallowed with his tea, some of  the remaining cannabis-laced cakes.

Out of the corner of his eye as hewaited for his own driver, Bill saw the magnate disappear through the entrance into the street, where the doorman helped him  into a waiting car.

A few minutes later Bill handed his suitcase to his driver who stowed it in the boot of the car.  As he sat back on the padded seat, he laughed again.   No more worries. Even his unavoidable speech at the dinner has been honed and reduced to seven points interspersed with two jokes. Now he went over the points in his mind, and one by one eliminated them as superficial. The jokes which earlier had seemed original were he realized only variations of old ones. No, he would not make a speech. How pleased everyone would be. He would just say thank you and sit down. He lent back and laughed at the prospect.

It was only then when looking out of the window  that he realised that the car was travelling in the wrong direction. Probably some sort of surprise they had dreamed up for him, he thought, and went to sleep.

When he awoke it was to find two men on either side of him in the back seat of the car. Another occupied the passenger seat next to the driver. One of his new companions was prodding his ribs with something that could have been a gun. They seemed to be speaking gobbledygook.  This was ridiculous. The bank had always been a sober institution steering clear of the excesses which had brought larger and more ambitious enterprises to their knees. To go to such lengths to surprise a middle rank executive on the occasion of his retirement party, didn't make sense. "Look, " he said, "It's very kind of you to go to such trouble to give me a good send off... but...". The man with the gun pushed the weapon heavily against him and continued to gabble in what, it dawned upon him, must be a foreign language. It struck Bill Parchment, whose  business life had been notably unexciting, that he was making up for the absence of  thrills on his last day at work. And much to the consternation of his assailants, he began to laugh. He looked out of the window and realised that the car was now on a motorway and that they were leaving London behind.

Meanwhile at the Savoy Hotel in The Strand a bewildered  magnet stepped out of his car to be greeted by the  Chairman of the Bank  to whom he had said goodbye only a few minutes earlier. Gradually the facts unravelled. After an hour of explanations,  apologies and calls to  the magnet's staff at  the airport, the Bank's guest set out once more for Heathrow. But what had happened to Bill Parchment? No calls from him. No response from his phone which he had left in the jacket of his suit now packed away in the boot of the hijacked car. Eventually the police were alerted and provided via the hire company with the registration number of the missing vehicle. 

It was nearly midnight when three police cars managed to stop the car on the M 6, to rescue Bill Parchment and arrest his kidnappers who were under the impression that they had a lunatic in tow and were waiting orders from their employers. As for Bill, provided with a lift in a police car on his way back to London,  he was still laughing.

Saturday, October 27, 2012


In the hotel swimming pool  I couldn't help noticing that Charles - I think that was his name - had gradually changed while we were talking into a benign and rather talkative frog.

The pool is very rarely used by guests other than ourselves when we are on holiday in mid-September,  and we find ourselves  as regular visitors quite unreasonably resenting others who want to swim. Charles quickly became an exception. He seemed to understand our possessiveness. And  I didn't mind at all when he plunged into the water.

As he stood in the middle of the pool and I above him on the edge, I  saw that while his head and shoulders appeared to be of normal size, his body below the surface, distorted by some trick of refraction, had dwindled to miniscule hips and small if muscular  legs.  As we talked, struck by his new appearance,  I nearly drew attention  to the change that had occurred, throwing in a reference to Ovid's Metamorphosis (for he was a literary chap) but feared that It might give offence. Kafka's version of the process, where a young man wakes up one morning to find that he has become a beetle, seemed  an even less promising  topic.  But I couldn't  get rid of the frog in my head and still can't.

Thinking about  Charles I realize that most of us  now and then change into other members of the animal kingdom  but don't realize it. How often have you heard a chicken cackling at a party and traced the sound back to a person with  a pair of mobile lips, a long neck and rapidly nodding head? Or seen at one end of a table at a formal meeting, the face of a large fish advancing a proposal for a new project or denouncing someone's expenditure. Watching the House of Commons at Prime Minister's Question Time you must sometimes have seen, as I have, rows of  MPs morph into a menagerie. One of my contemporaries at school had the ears of a monkey. Another walked like a duck.

The tendency for our fellow human beings to adopt alien shapes I suspect accounts for the way we  keep our eyes averted from one another in lifts and  underground trains. The thought of a wolf or a python rubbing shoulders with us when travelling between work and home can be too much for comfort and peace of mind.

I do not mean to be unkind about the way people look. Or the way animals look that matter.  In fact you will see that I am myself not exempt from this sort of  mimicry. Proof is to be found at this moment in the right hand column on your screen. There you will see how, bored with my old picture, by some deft manipulation  of the keyboard, I  recently transformed myself  into a seagull.

In the new photograph I may appear tranquil enough but I confess that at a fishmonger's or near the sea where fishing boats are drawn up on the beach I can no longer keep my wings folded and begin a raucous series of cries, wild and penetrating to the human ear, as I rise up in the air in pursuit of raw flesh.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Plucking the goose

It had been a bugger of a day in the kitchen. Full house that evening.  A commis chef's finger almost amputated.  Somebody had to be spared to  take him to A & E.  Two staff short at a critical time and inevitable delays.  A row with front of house about a customer intent on trouble-making.  Hardly surprising that scrubbing down, the  traditional  after-service chore for the brigade which he never shirked himself, took longer than usual.

Home at last he fumbles with the key to his flat. Then he remembers it's not his flat. It's their flat. His and Sylvie's since Sylvie had moved in six days ago. Normally he would have extracted a can from the fridge, turned on the TV,  flopped on the sofa,  and almost certainly fallen asleep immediately, beer not drunk, TV still going. But now he must be quiet so as not to wake her. She too has to be up early in the morning.

 He has himself been up since 5 am today, or rather yesterday. The visit to the fish market was important. Getting ingredients right is 80 per cent of good cooking. The best advice he had been given on the way to his first Michelin star.  You  have to keep suppliers on their toes. But, God, is he tired! He takes his shoes off and creeps across the sitting room. He'd showered in the restaurant. But he needs a pee.  In the bathroom he pees. Then still on tip-toe  he eases open the door of the bedroom to be greeted by feminine smells, perfume and cosmetics to which he is not yet accustomed.  There she is curled up on her side of the bed apparently asleep. His clothes seem to fall off, and in a moment he is blissfully under the sheets, his eyes closed.

"Do you know what the time is?"  Sylvie's voice. Or is he dreaming? He swims on into sleep.

Sylvie props herself up on her elbow and in the darkness between them says:

 " Did you do it? Did you shag her? No answer from you. So of course you did. Was it a good shag? And where precisely did it occur? On the pastry bench, kneading flesh instead of dough. Or on the shag pile carpet on the restaurant floor? She may be the best pastry chef in London. It doesn't count with me. It's 2.30:   at least two hours later than usual, and you didn't call me.  Too busy with your fun and games.  Too busy being a celebrity? Plucking the goose. I knew it would  ruin you,  that TV series.  Of course you are silent.  Don't bother to say anything. No excuses makes a change.

"I saw the way she looked at you the other day. And I saw the way you looked at her tarte au citron. Oh?  Nice of you to ask, except you don't.  My God I've had a hell of a day. Not that you would care. Too many women want to tear that white jacket off your back. But you're not the only one to get the attention, though. My boss made a pass at me today. Then he hinted that he'd get me the sack. I'll get him. Don't you worry, I'll get him and I'll get you too. Imagine coming back to an empty flat after a day like I've had. Sitting in front of a screen chasing numbers, only a sandwich for lunch, and then alone all evening. Nothing to think about but you and that tart of a pastry chef..."

And so she went on, letting it all  out, talking into the dark.

 When  four hours later the alarm went, "For Christ's sake let me sleep, " she said. "I 've been awake all night"

" Me", he said as he switched off the alarm."I must have gone out like a light. " 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Lie

 "Aunt Rosie will take care if it"  was one of those shorthand jokes that occur in families. It was based on the hope of an inheritance never to materialise. As with most such jokes it came with layers of irony which the Grands took for granted but were wasted on outsiders.   It was a joke that Patricia,  Patrick Grand's second wife,  did not fully understand.

To complicate matters  Patrick misled her about Rosie. It had seemed to him that a larger-than-life picture of his aunt might add colour to his own background, which he considered dull. So selecting and distorting the facts carefully, he used his imagination to turn Rosie from a  sour, sickly, crabbed, old woman,  into a gifted, eccentric with a large straw hat and a forthright manner.  He  even implied some substance in the inheritance story.  She left me the house in her will." he told Patricia adding vaguely, "but I never did much about it". Aunt Rosie, he said, had loved the view of the Channel which inspired her art and her conversation. In the evenings, he remembered,  she would sing to the setting sun.   She made sculptures out of fragments cast up by the waves. He described expeditions to the beach from which they returned loaded with frayed strands of rope, pieces of timber whitened by salt and  polished by the sea, bottles, corks, tins, you name it. Rosie had a shed full of the stuff.  She sold her work to holiday-makers. "Some people believed she was a genius waiting to be discovered", he said.  Somewhere in the story were remnants of the truth.

Like Bluebeard's last wife. Patricia was, in time overcome by curiosity. She  was reluctant to bring up the question of the inheritance,  but they could do with some extra money and it had not escaped her that Aunt Rosie might now prove useful. So she raised the topic obliquely by suggesting a visit to Spratston. "It would give you the opportunity to introduce me to another aspect of your past.

 Patrick laughed nervously. "Aunt Rosie you mean? ".

Reluctantly Patrick drove her down to Spratston one weekend in early June.  He shuddered. There would be some explaining to do. He remembered the road  to Aunt Rosie's. It had led under the railway bridge by  the station up towards a quarry. She had lived on the edge of  the quarry. Now there was a motorway to be crossed by a footbridge before reaching the quarry road.  They rounded a bend in the road, topped a ridge and there it was. No way to disguise the extent of his deceit.

 A small patch of brambles, a collapsed shed and some nettles.  And the house?  Part of the joke.  It was no more than a caravan. And now, its roof collapsed,  its panels vandalised, its wheels missing, it looked utterly forlorn and unwanted. There was no view, only a high wire fence,with "keep out" notices bordering the quarry. It was clear why no one wanted to buy this pocket of land. Even he,  a victim of self-deceit, remembering the path and  neat flowerbeds in front of the caravan, was shocked by its  present desolation.    Patricia looked at him in surprise, her surprise quickly turning to anger.

"This is something to do with trust," she said. " We seem to have a problem, Patrick. I've always trusted you.  Why the lie?

 He didn't know. He still didn't know.He looked up at the sky where the setting sun had formed a golden sea streaked with islands.

But there was no answer to his problem. And no Aunt Rosie to take care of it.                                                                                                                                              ...................................................................................................................................,,,,,,,,,

Friday, October 12, 2012


"If there is a Mr Phillip Defoe on board will he please make himself known to the cabin staff?" The doors were locked and the plane was begining to move into position for take off. "That's you," said his wife seated beside him, surprise in her voice. He pressed the button above him. A member of cabin staff  having confirmed his identity, handed him the transcript of a telephone message. All it said was "Saw you at the airport. Carmen", followed by a telephone number.

"What is it?" said his wife.

"Nothing. Somebody I used to know was at the airport." He had gone white and closed his eyes as the Airbus gathered speed on the runway.

"Are you alright?"


She leafed through catalogues from the art galleries which they had visited in the last few days. From time to she cast her eyes in his direction. He had never liked flying, she thought, any more than he liked the profit motive. They were returning  to London from a buying trip for their West End art gallery.  Paintings were his love and he had the knack of knowing what would sell. And what sold he usually liked. She was the business partner, her head full of calculations.

He screwed up the paper and leant back as far as he could in the upright seat. Carmen. He couldn't remember her other name. Perhaps he had never known it. But In 20 years he had not forgotten the time they had spent togther. He could find no words for their encounter which did not reduce it  from something to treasure to something mundane, even sordid. For some people it  might have seemed ordinary enough for  two arractive strangers  towards the end of the 20th Century to meet away from home and make love on the spur of the moment.  But for him certainly in retrospect it had been far from ordinary.

They had walked out of the  press party conference in the Ritz Hotel talking, sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English,  as though they had known each other for years. She a photographer, he a journalist whose special subject was photography. It was early evening. May. And the warm air despite the traffic fumes smelt of perfume and dark tobacco  people still smoked in those days). They went from tapas bar to tapas bar and eventually to her small flat down a narrow street in the old quarter of the town. The ice-cold fino Sherry sharpened their minds and appetites, both of which in their different ways were to be languorously sated . Could he ever forget  the free play of her laughter and the fleeting moments of intervening sadness when she sat up her arms clasped round her knees her head on one side? Had she cried then? He couldn't remember.

Two days later he returned to London. They didn't communicate again. Perhaps it had had seemed too close to perfection, uncontaminated by familiarity or detail, to be spoilt by further contact. All he knew was that as the years passed their meeting seemed to grow like a knot in the timber of his memory.

In his left hand the note had been reduced to mush by the constant pressure and moisture of his hand. He sensed his wife looking at him. He pretended to be asleep. The plane droned homeward above the clouds.  He kept his eyes  closed wishing that he would not  have to open them again. It struck him  that in the last 20 years he had never stopped pretending.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Still counting

Even before he retired he began to count and note  the number of stairs on staircases, sheep and cows in fields, people on railway platforms, birds on telegraph wires. He loved numbers as poets love words and sculptors love wood or stone.  After his leaving party at Fontwells, publishers of timetables and directories, where he had been finance director for 30 years, he found that he had time to broaden the scope of his monitoring activities. Nothing escaped his attention: bowls of sugar - how many grains? Roofs - how many tiles? Stretches of forest how many trees?  His notebooks grew fat with data which would have seemed useless to most people, but which, when he cast his eye over them, made him smile as he remembered their context.

His wife was pleased enough as he became more deeply engrossed. At least he didn't traipse after her to the supermarket like the newly retired husbands of many her friends suddenly at a loss to fill their day. Instead he was happy to cross The Common on his own, or sit in the park  making  new statistical studies. "Obsessive," said his son who wrote and played music for a living, and had no sympathy for a pass time which he considered empty and uncreative.

But Henry Pidgely was happy. Sometimes but not often he would laugh at himself.  What he did made little sense to the rest of the world. But to him it helped to explain some of the mysteries of existence. And as the field was so vast he would never run short of material.

When one fine day  he fell  ill he remained calm and interested in what was going on round him. In the hospital bed, he lay quiet and uncomplaining. To visitors including his wife, he said little. For there was little to say. When eventually his son came to see him, he greeted his father cheerily.

"What have you been up to Dad?"

 If you really want to know since I woke up this morning I have been counting the number of breaths I have taken.  So forgive me if I concentrate on the task in hand."

And he wasn't joking.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Electricity Dragon

When my children were small - three  and five years old or so -  I used to keep them entertained with  stories which I made up specially for them. Among their favourites  was The Electricity Dragon. The dragon was born in a cave near the fishing village of Goran Haven in Cornwall where we usually  holidayed. He was in residence there whenever we were occupying the cottage which we regularly rented.

To reach the cave you had to walk round a small outcrop of rocks from the  main beach where  fishing boats were drawn up;  or, at high tide, floated beside the harbour wall. From the neighbouring beach  you could, at low tide, walk round to a still smaller beach. It was here, when I was myself a child, that I discovered the narrow cave which the sea had carved out of the cliff.

To keep the children amused one day I took them as promised to see the cave. The smaller child  sat on my shoulders, the younger I held by the hand. The sea lapped at the mouth of the cave and the roof, high at first, quickly descended so that only a child could crawl into what must have been a dark tunnel leading to the interior. Neither child was tempted to investigate, for the dragon could be heard making gurgling sounds from within.

The dragon's chief occupation was making electricity. I will  have to leave to your imagination the tricks the dragon got up to when he wasn't  at work.  Many of them I have forgotten, as in fact I had forgotten the dragon himself. Until  that is, the other day, my daughter now a grown woman, reminded me about him.  It seems that she, without my knowing it, had picked up where I had left off and told the same or similar stories to her children.

A second reminder of the dragon and its cave came a few days ago, when from the balcony of our hotel room in Spain I saw a man with a child on his shoulders walk round an outcrop of rocks similar to the one in Cornwall. There was I knew a small cave on the far side. Had the electricity dragon made a home there?  But of course not. I had noticed the cave, little more than an alcove, in the cliff face, in previous years. And last year it had become part of another story more up to date you might say than my fairy tales.

That summer as the sun rose over the sea and began to light up the beach we noticed a couple making love under a blanket by the edge of the water. We watched as,  presumably having finished, they threw off the blanket and ran naked into the water where they cavorted like a couple of dolphins. Later, as the beach  filled up, we saw them again - the man with short, dyed blond hair and the girl with a distinctive tattoo like an elaborate necklace. Both were adorned with rings attached to various parts of their bodies, which were now marginally more clothed than earlier.  They were sun bathing  in the company of a good looking boy of about 12, who wore a Barcelona Football Club shirt.  It was difficult to know how the boy was related to them. He did not seem to share their taste in fashion and surely  he was too old and they too young for him to be their son, Later we saw the couple in a restaurant at a table with the boy.  It was even harder there to link his conventional dress and behaviour to them.

The next time I saw the couple it was to see them disappearing - this time  once again on their own - into the cave under the cliff.

As I said it was a small cave. There was very little room for a dragon.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

The centurion

Metal detectors have never attracted me . It strikes me as daft to walk  up and down with a magnet on the end of a stick in the vain hope of finding something valuable. You could spend a lifetime doing it and come up with nothing more exciting than an empty beer can. So I was uninspired but  rather touched when my grand children recently hit on the idea of giving me one for my birthday. To keep me out of trouble I supposed, which at least flatteringly  would imply that I was still capable of getting in to it.

Dutifully one fine day I took the device for a walk in a remote corner of Ashdown Forest near where I have lived most of my life. Doing my best to avoid other people I set out along an unfrequented path  over run on  either side by nettles and bracken. As I rounded a corner the machine began to click and bleep in a way which, if it were human, you might call hysterical. At first I did not know what to do. But remembering that I had brought a garden trowel with me, I began to scrape away at the bit of path which was causing the most excitement.

What I found was to say the least surprising. As I scraped, the top of  what I quickly identified as a Roman centurion' s helmet emerged, a galea it  is called.  Years of teaching Roman history had not gone to waste.All that was missing was the plume of feathers or horse hair that adorns this fabled headgear.

What followed was astonishing. The helmet began to move. It surged up toward me and as far as I could tell contained a head, not so much a skull but a head  for there were signs of life in the dark eyes glittering above the cheek plates. But what shook me and still shakes me as I tap these words on to the screen, was that a neck, shoulders and torso followed rising in the air in front of me, thighs, legs, booted feet and all, until the figure a Roman centurion stood before me.  The chap breathed heavily with the exertion or possibly, for  his body language was unmistakeably aggressive, with suppressed anger.

He began to speak from the moment  he emerged from his subterranean resting place. It didn't take me long to realise that he was speaking in Latin. My knowledge of Classical Latin
did not prepare me for the stream of words which came from the mouthpiece of his helmet. They sounded a bit like modern Italian  and I soon began too understand them. His rage was mingled with grief. It seemed that he had had a girlfriend, a local British girl, who had lost her life, when Boudicca romantically known as Boadicea, Queen of the Iceni, had razed to the ground the town of Camulodunum, today's Colchester.

" I detest this miserable bog of a country. I detest its mean and savage inhabitants, their drunkenness and stupidity.And I want to go home. And that is precisely where I am going now...Without a further word he walked stiffly down the path, into a mist which had begun to encroach from the edge of the heath.

I followed  for a while but soon he was lost to view. When I returned the hole from which he had emerged with such vigour seemed much smaller. Foxes or badgers might find it useful I thought.  Meanwhile, what  to do? I shouldered the metal detector, pocketed the trowel and made my way back to my car. Should I tell the police? Or the local museum? They wouldn't believe me. Who would? Would you? I went home and made myself a cup of tea. Eventually I ditched the metal detector.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Everybody agreed that Paul and Mary were a perfectly matched couple. They had become  accustomed to each others shortcomings as well as virtues over the five years in which they had been together, and in honest moments of introspection even they would agree on how well their personalities interlocked. They we're a jovial pair, plump and rosy of hue, tall and broadly built and not afraid in certain circumstances to be course. They both enjoyed food and drink and excelled in preparing and dispensing it. People liked to have them at their parties because they made parties go.

It was only when Paul one day over a  piece of well hung sirloin, cooked rare over charcoal, said to Mary, " do you ever worry about animals?" that a fly appeared to be struggling in the ointment. She stopped chewing in mid-mouthful and stared at him across the table in astonishment. "Paul," she said, "are you not feeling well? I have never thought that you ever cared  a moment about the fate of the animals we eat."

"But I do. Or at least just recently I have  begun to. Just think about
 those horrible abattoirs, the planned, mechanical slaughter, the smell of blood, the animals' fear as they are penned up outside.

"For God's sake finish your steak and drink up your Nuita St George's like a good lad.

He did. But from then onwards a tension grew up between them. There was a lack of relish at mealtimes. And sometimes when they fell silent  it was not the silence of  good companionship but rather one of suspicion. From time to time they went over the  old  arguments. If  we didn't eat meat there' d be no reason to breed animals. The fields would be empty. Sheep and cattle would become extinct. We are carnivores. Why pretend not to be? But none of  that is an excuse for the captivity, exploitation and murder of our fellow creature.  And so on ...

One day Paul came back from an overseas sales conference.  As marketing director of an international drinks company he had always looked forward to such  events, where he shone as a gourmet as well as a communicator. But on this occasion his presentations had seemed to lack zest. And when he returned home he embraced Mary, squeezing her in the usual places but with a lack of enthusiasm. "Mary," he said, " there is something I have to tell you." 

She looked at him coldly for she knew that something was badly wrong and some frightful announcement was going to be made. She also knew her man.

"Mary," he said, "I'm going to..."

"Before you begin," she said, "let' s sit down to dinner. I had some foie gras sent over from Strasbourg and the Ch d'Yquem is in the Fridge. 

It struck him then that he had never in his life felt hungrier.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Queen Mary

In the days before my fourth birthday (of my 79 birthdays it was the first one of which I have any memory) my parents took me to a toy shop, and asked me to point out to them, anything which especially caught my fancy. Little attracted me largely because toys in such profusion were new to me, an  embarras  de  richesse  you might say.

I walked round the shop in bewilderment and when  they explained that the object of the exercise was to choose a present, I entered a whirlwind of indecision. I had not yet reached the age when acquisition becomes an end in itself.  And I was beginning to lose interest in the whole affair when with a cry of delight I stopped in front of a dolls' house. "That's what I want," I said, transfixed by the inter-connecting rooms, the miniature furniture and the feeling that something large and familiar - I understood houses because I lived in one - could be reduced to something as small and manageable as this.

The details of what followed are vague in my mind. Nothing specific was said  about my choice of present then or subsequently. I certainly never raised it, and this must be the first time that my recollection of the event has seen the light of day. What I do remember is some sort of huddled conversation with which I did not concern myself. What I have reconstructed  goes like this. Dolls houses means dolls. Boys don't have dolls.  Heaven forbid. So he can't have a dolls' house. Sexual politics and gender stereotyping were not yet in the air, and even if they had been, knowing my parents, they would not have considered for a moment giving me a dolls' house.

I have never had   to see a psychiatrist. If I  had, I daresay he or she would have found  some meat in this story.  I will not speculate on that point having little time for their theories , open to misinterpretation as they generally are. But I do know if only because I have remembered it so vividly that it must have had some  sort of effect on the person I was to become. At its most simple it defined a liking for architecture  and a dislike  of .... But am getting a head of myself. First I must tell you what I received instead of  the house  - dolls I should say at this point did not interest me then any more they do now - which I still believed was coming my way.

The present which I eventually unwrapped was a solid block of wood crudely painted black and carved into a boat-shape. On it was imposed the superstructure of an ocean liner, three funnels painted red and white, and I believe some masts but little else in  the way of detail. "It's The Queen Mary," my mother said. The liner had just been launched the first of the ships which took the names of the queens of England who released bottles of Champagne on their hulls to introduce them to the water for the first time.

The Queen Mary was the first if not the biggest disappointment of  life. I have not thought about it a great deal, but it is a fact, that even as I grow more sedate the idea of an ocean voyage or cruise fills me with horror. And with infinite satisfaction at having survived into the age of jet travel. Meanwhile I still linger in front of a dolls' house if I see one.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Fox and Sixpence

Mysterious and invisible threads which link human beings with other other living creatures  turn up in life as in fiction when you least expect them. In a recent poem I described how, following the funeral of my late wife a butterfly completely black from wingtip to wingtip appeared out of nowhere in my house, notwithstanding the January weather outside.

That was 25 years ago. Since  then several times I have met animals in the wild and in domestic circumstances which have provided similar cause for thought and speculation. Of those the oddest involved a fox I met one summer evening on a path across some fields near the village of Penshurst in Kent. We spotted each other almost simultaneously when the path took me through a gap in the hedge between two fields. She, for judging by its size I took the animal to be a vixen, was scratching at the ground as though trying to unearth a root. When she saw me, she looked up and gave me a steady stare.  Her sharp eyes showed curiosity rather than fear and seemed to reflect the sadness of separation which often occurs between beings unequipped  to communicate with one another. Then as though she had no alternative in a sort of desperation she trotted off and vanished into a thicket.

Driven by curiosity myself I walked over to the spot where she had been digging with her paws. Something shone in the scuffed earth. With my own inadequate paws I managed without difficulty to extract what turned out to be a coin. It was a silver sixpence, the equivalent in modern money, of two and a half pee, as I recall from my childhood, an item of pocket money not to be sneezed at. Still visible was the head of King George V and the date of the coin, 1933,  the year of my birth.

I still have it, polished from long residence in my pocket and, yes, as I write and  remove my hand from the screen for a moment,  it is still there, a thin, metal disc, a reassurance of some kind, though of what precisely I do not know.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Birthday story

Fifty years ago to the day I swam across the Estuary of the River Corrib in County Galway in the west of Ireland and back. I had drunk at least four pints of Guinness and swallowed  three dozen oysters or more. This tale of excess occurred during the Galway Oyster Festival where I was a guest invited in my role as editor of a magazine devoted to food and drink. It is  as much a confession as a  boast because I am no longer proud of the feat if feat it was. Pumping testosterone I must have been showing off or at least trying to prove something no longer worth proving. I was of course only 29, a poor excuse but a genuine one. How do I know with such certainty that this took place precisely 50 years ago? Because today is my 79th birthday.  Here is the connection.

I left my friends on that warm afternoon outside the pub called Moran's by the Weir, without a word except to say that I was going to swim to the other side of the river, about 300 yards. I stripped down to my under pants and having made a pile of the rest of my clothes, crossed the estuary without difficulty.

On the far side  I walked in my bare feet up a grassy slope  to explore the walls and gardens of the abandoned house which had prompted my venture in the first place.

"It must be your birthday." The voice from behind a pile of stones belonged to an old woman seated as I recall in a worn armchair and smoking a clay pipe.

 "How did you know it was my birthday?"

" Because you are in your birthday suit. Or almost. "

I laughed,  drunk enough to be surprised  at nothing and amused by almost anything.

"You sound like  a foreigner, English I expect. A bloody colonialist back to the scene of his crimes. We burnt this place down you know back in The  Troubles, as we politely called them. It belonged to one of your lot, a lord or a sir, I'm damned if I remember."

By this time I had sobered up and stopped laughing. "Never mind," she said, "you look innocent enough, and too young to be one of the criminals. Probably don't even know what it was all about. 

I do know," I said but felt that it was not my place to apologise. 

"That's as may be," she said. "let's  talk about it no more young man. Instead I'll make you a prophecy: 50 years from now I will long be under the turf. But you, if you are spared, will remember our conversation and think of the old woman you met in this ruined house when you were wearing no more than your birthday suit." 

And yes, as it happens, I do.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The briefcase

The professor's new briefcase was an embarrassment. It had been presented to him as an accessory to the international literary prize which he had been awarded for his book The Compensations  of  Poverty . He had argued in this work, with studied irony, that the poor have a greater potential for happiness  than the rich. The annual prize is awared annually by Castiglioni, the fashion giant whose  label is even more highly valued by some than its expensively crafted products. 

He was  just about to travel to Milan to receive the prize when the briefcase arrived by special messenger. It came in a large, silk-lined box with the Castiglione logo discretely printed on the lid.  The case itself shone as though made of crystal.   It was in fact moulded from one of those new  materials used in space exploration. Above all the simplicity  of its design spoke of  wealth. It was clear that much depended on his presence at the ceremony. It had been impressed on him that the entire board of the biggest name in fashion were about to assemble in his honour. "It looks disgustingly new," said the professor to his wife. "I suppose it would be ungracious  to arrive with my old carpet bag. " Bollocks to graciouness," said his wife, who while she disapproved of Castiglione and all it stood for, was glad of the substantial prize  money. "Why don't you take it to the farmers' market before you leave for the airport? Fill it with vegetables and buy a chicken. I need to cook a meal for the children when you've gone. Scuff that case while you're about  it as much as you can."

Time was running out when  he returned from the market. He needed to be at Heathrow by 2pm. It was now 12.30. He emptied the case on to the kitchen table and ran upstairs to stuff it with necessities for an overnight stay. He had informed Castglione that his principles precluded his wearing a dinner jacket. He would receive the award in the tweed suit he was now wearing. 

At the airport when he put the case on the conveyor which led to the X-ray machine he tried to pretend that he had nothing to do with it .  There was in fact little to associate the svelte item of luggage  with a bearded, long haired sociology professor. The anomoly had not gone unobserved by the  security team. The request to open and unpack the case was hardly surprising.

"What is this , sir?" 

A potato  as far as I can tell." 

"As far as you can tell!" The sarcasm was not wasted on the guard. 

"So you're not certain, sir". The professor shook his head in despair. A despair which quickly became panic when he realised that he would now almost certainly miss his flight.


Sunday, September 16, 2012

What are you thinking about?

It was her birthday. She wore a sleeveless black dress which set off a cropped crown of  blonde hair. A gold chain with a single sapphire pendant to match her eyes, was her only adornment . They had been married for a little more than three years. As they sat down at the restaurant table her husband said: "you look ravishing, truly ravishing. She knew that she did.  Smiling in acknowledgement, she saw herself, as she had a few minutes earlier in the mirror,  newly applied lipstick glistening  on the swell of her lower lip as though she had just passed her tongue over it. She continued to smile while her husband, trying hard  - he often did on such occasions - demanded, "What's going on in that lovely head of yours?"

She thought, that wine waiter has the face of a wolf, sharp and wild.  Perhaps when he  poured her wine he would drop a note into her lap. "I'll be in the car park.  Meet me there now"   "Now" underlined three times. He was already astride his motor bike. The engine was running.  No crash helmet. None for her either.  Without a word she hitched up her dress and mounted the pillion.   Hair flying out behind them, his and hers. The bike was silent now by the track a few yards off. The heather was rough under her skin. The summer evening was scented with gorse and the waiter's sweat.

"Nothing,"  she said.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Tired of swimming

At the time I owned a kite shop in a small seaside town. One morning a burly man called in. Clinging to his arm was a woman with a stream of golden hair. She wore a black mackintosh  the hem of which touched the ground. She seemed to float across the floor impelled by the man's strength and energy. Her coat trailed about her with a whispering sound as the couple advanced toward me. "I want you to make me a kite with a harness that will support a person," he said, turning to his companion who looked up at him and nodded with approval. And I need it before the end of today. Tomorrow the wind will blow off shore and it is that wind  which I need to catch." He produced a wad of notes the size of which persuaded me to drop everything else in order to make the kite to his specifications and meet his deadline.

 He came back late that evening and after I had explained how the  harness worked, he carried off the kite. My curiosity roused I could not  refrain  next morning from getting up early myself and taking the cliff walk to see if he was there. Sure enough in the half light I saw him hoisting the kite into the wind. Strapped beneath it was his companion of the previous day, whom I identified  chiefly by her hair. She had discarded the mackingtosh and as far as I could tell now seemed to be wearing little else. As the sun rose I saw the kite and its passenger soar over the sea. Beneath  it the rising sun caught a wave of gold in the air. And could that be a sheath of silver trailing behind? As the sun rose I witnessed without warning the occupant cut loose from the kite and harness, and drop into  the sea and vanish beneath the surface.  I looked back to the cliff  edge where I saw my customer staring at the spot where she had disappeared. There was something in his hand other than the reel for the kite string. A knife I thought. And so it was. With a quick movement he severed the string.

As I stood and watched in continued amazement, I saw my handiwork, free of its payload, leap up toward the sun now well risen over the horizon. A minute or two later the man walked past me. "She wanted to fly," he said. "She was tired of swimming." That was all. I watched him as he took the path back to the town.  I never saw him again.

A few says later I read in the paper that  the body of a man of his description had been washed up on a beach a few miles down the coast.