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.