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.