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.