Friday, September 27, 2013


" I think I can speak for my colleagues, Miss Lampeter, when I say how impressed we have been with your CV and your experience in magazine publishing and banking in New York. The position we want to fill requires an unusual degree of management skill in addition to the technical knowledge which you have demonstrated in the excellent way you have answered our questions so far. Upon the successful development of international digital publishing depends the future of our company. Universal Letters has been a leader in business and leisure communications for more than 100 years. We need now to take steps to ensure our dominance in the next 100 years..."

The person speaking is Sir Roland Forsyth, chairman of Universal Letters. On one side of him sits Helen  Rampling,  international director of marketing, and on the other Mark Stone, finance director. Across from the three of them in the centre of the long boardroom table sits Mary Lampeter, composed, quietly confident in a tailored light grey suit. She is most people would agree rather stunning.

Though only 27 her first class engineering degree at Cambridge, coupled with a diploma from The Harvard Business School in addition to internships with a small and still respectable American bank and Grandage Inc, pioneer in electronic publishing, explains her popularity with head hunters and why she has already turned down several job offers. The interview is taking place  on the fortieth floor of one of the new steel and glass skyscrapers high above City of London.

"... You have told us," says Sir Roland, " how you see publishing completely transformed in the digital age. How precisely would a largely traditional business like Universal fit in without compromising its reputation.?"

"I hope I covered that adequately in the paper I submitted with my application, but if it is a question of scale, of reach,  I believe that there are few limits for a company with Universal's resources." Her succinct answer modestly presented clearly meets with the approval of The Chairman and of Helen Rampling, who smiles benignly, the smile of one successful woman to another. Only from Mark Stone does Mary sense if not direct hostility a need to challenge.

"How hungry are you , Miss Lampeter?" She knows the mode of thought and of speech, and resists even the shadow of a frivolous response.

"I have found that the challenge of a task is enough to motivate me fully. Am I ambitious.? Yes. Quite simply to do a job well."

"And no more..."

"Is there more?"

" I would suggest a lot more, Miss Lampeter. This job is sought after across the world by the toughest and most accomplished candidates. You are one of a short list of six.  This is a race in a violently competitive business. I would expect the winner to possess nerves of steel and backbone, yes backbone. I am not sure that you have demonstrated that you have those qualities. what do you say?"

"None of us can know, Mr Stone, until we are tested. You are I suspect testing me now and I can only respond  by confirming my continued interest in the job" She spoke with the same measured calm but    was that a hint of sharpness mingled with the lilt in her voice which the Chairman had found so charming.

"First of all Miss Lampeter" says Sir Roland, " I would like to thank you for your application and to say what a pleasuret has been to meet you. A most stimulating and enlightening interview. Before bringing it to a conclusion are there any questions that you would like to ask us?

Mary looks calmly at the faces opposite. At the patrician Sir Roland, red face, white moustache, shrewd blue eyes. Helen Rampling, understated, lightly made up, immaculate hair, not obviously dyed. Mark Stone, glinting spectacles, severe drawn features. He looks away when for a moment her gaze crosses  his.  Her mind is made up.

"Just one question, " she says. " I am 27. Of child bearing age, a fact that none of you ventured to raise. Should I say thank you?  Or simply acknowledge the power of political correctness? So  I will raise it myself. I am not married and have no specific plans in that direction. But I often think that I would like one or two children before I am thirty. I wonder whether this thought would in any way affect your decision to offer me the job?"

In the silence that follows, she gathers the papers in front of her and makes for the door, scarcely leaving time for Sir Roland, ever the gent, to rise unsteadily to his feet.

Thursday, September 26, 2013


Extended comment and responses in the appropriate place seem to be difficult. So I am doing it here.

To respond to Robbie's search for a definition of the short story I can only plea that in my view there is no need for one. It can be what you choose it to be. My brother Ken aka Lucas kicked off with his idea of very short stories. I picked up the ball.   Lucy called them "flash fictions". Borges, the great Argentinian writer and English scholar, meanwhile, had already coined the term ficciones, fictions, to describe his pieces, almost stories if not stories. It seems to me that there is no reason not to push back frontiers. Meanwhile I am looking forward to Robbie's thoughts as promised. Only good can come of dialogue. I guess War and Peace is not a short story. Nor is Ulysses. But Borges might respond in one of his ficciones that in a different universe both might be.

Watch out for a new story in pipeline.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Catching on

"Flange", he says.
She looks at him surprised. What's he talking about? But she responds in kind. "Flange," she says.
"Flange," he says con affetto
"Flange," con spirito.
"Flange.." con dolore.
"Flange." com  molto  espressione
The word remains the same but variations come like pistol shots in a western.
"Flange. "
Together they walk down the street arm in arm. "Flange,   Flange., Flange, " in unison.
Soon they are joined by other students. They proceed towards the square, a vast army of young people. Some have already improvised banners which bear the word Flange.
There is no stopping them. They clamber up statues and lampposts, onto the ledges of buildings. They mount vehicles and each other's shoulders. They chant louder and louder with an in intense and deafening rhythm: "Flange, Flange, Flange..."
The sound spreads through the town, through the country.  It is quickly transmitted via Twitter and Facebook and U Tube into every corner of the world.  "Flange, Flange, Flange, Flange.. . " chant the people. And the sound rises up to where the atmosphere is very thin. It hangs there like the echo of a prayer.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


If there's was one thing that he liked about the iPad it was that it allowed him to take photographs of himself. He could compose his face on the screen, touch the screen and there were his fine features displayed for anyone to see. Anyone that is who had access to his photo file or to whom another couple of taps would ensure an email. Not that there were  many on his contacts list whom he deemed worthy of receiving the images of himself that he seldom grew tired of producing. Sometimes he sent himself an email which relieved his boredom when not engaged in photography.

One day in search of further relief he thought that would attempt to fly and to capture himself soaring among the clouds.  He had often been compared to an angel and if angels could fly so could he. With the remarkable agility that accompanied his beauty, early one morning, his iPad strapped to his stomach, he climbed the new steel and glass building known as The Shard on the south bank of the River Thames in London. Balanced  for a moment on a projection outside the viewing platform and looking eastward towards the river estuary, he admired the sunrise and imagined himself, his arms spread wide like eagle wings against the brightening sky. Why waste time? He unfettered his tablet, touched the camera icon and holding it above his head launched himself gracefully into the air. What a blissful sight! He clicked away before he realised that he was falling.

Not much time. Go to photographs. There he was, clouds and blue sky behind him, the sun imparting a special glitter to his eyes and lending a sheen to his chestnut hair streaming behind him. He almost forgot. Two taps only as he tumbled through the air... narc... he began touching the screen with difficulty as the momentum of his fall increased., believed that he had completed the address and tapped  "send" but he never knew whether the email had been sent and  neither he nor anyone else whether it had arrived. 

Friday, August 23, 2013


"Let's pretend," she says.

"Pretend what?" he says

"Let's pretend,  just for a bit of fun, that we're deeply, deeply in love, that it's hard for us to be apart even for a few days. That we are in tune with each other's thoughts and feelings, That  it's as easy for us  to be silent together as it is to talk.  That sort of thing.   Nothing wrong with a bit of fantasy from time to time?

On a terrace beside the lake candlelight from the restaurant table flickers on their faces. Stars float above the line of  the far shore.  From close to, a waiter sees anger in their eyes. Or is it hatred?"

Let's pretend that we've just met," she says. "Do you remember? Try to remember."

"You're asking a lot. You bamboozled me. I had no idea what you were really like. I thought ..."

"What did you think? How did you see me then? Tell me."

" I thought you were beautiful. Your beauty overwhelmed me. It was magnificent, self-sufficient, inevitable. It was remote.  It  called for no comment.  Yet it  shone with an intelligence that touched everything around it...And everyone. Or so I thought. A beautiful mind in a beautiful body..."

She is at a loss for words for  a moment, a little stunned.  "And how do you see me now?"

"I see you as corrupt, dishonest, deluded..."

"Is that the best you can do?" she says.

"You lie to yourself. You lie to me. You are living lie."

All this is delivered in conversational tones though an occasional high note suggests steam building pressure.

They fall silent. They stare about them. People at adjoining tables notice them. Waiters and commis with trays appear. A ballet begins at their table. Wine is poured, food served. Spotlights illuminate plates and glasses. But their faces remain candlelit and seem to threaten. They become self-conscious. The silence between them is oppressive. Neither likes to be the object of comment. They had wanted no row in the first place. Least of all do they want  it to continue now in public.

They can  go no further. They look at each other. They look away across the lake.

She says, "people are watching us. Let's pretend,,,"

"Not again, not again ... for fuck's sake, not again."

"I'll tell you what, " she says: "Look at me and count aloud to ten. "When you have finished, I' ll  start counting."

He stares at her bewildered.

She stares back: "Whatever happens you  must look as though you  mean it."

He shrugs his shoulders, begins: "One, two three..."  and continues to ten.

"Ten, nine, eight..." she responds with feeling.

"Un, deux, trois..."

A nervous giggle erupts in her voice as she enunciates, "Uno, dos, tres ... "  It ripples on as she reaches, "ocho, nueve, diez."

He picks up the reflex of laughter  with a choking sound, "Eins, zwei, drie ..."

People are staring at them. They are laughing.   They can't stop  laughing. And they don't want to stop for fear of the emptiness to come.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The eye

A hole had appeared in the wall. It was a about three inches wide. The wall disappeared over the horizon behind him and  beyond the horizon in front of him. It rose so high  that he could not see its top. It was made of  black granite. He looked through the hole which reached  to the other side of the wall, a matter of four feet. Staring back at him was an eye. It was the eye of a living creature. Its iris expanded as his own eye greeted it. A mammal's eye, he thought. Or perhaps even a human eye. He watched it and it watched him. In the silence he heard a sound as though the owner of the eye was trying to sniff at the hole.

His eye to the hole he waited until without warning the eye vanished completely. In its place remained only a circle of sky.  He hoped that the eye would return. He listened for a sniff. He sniffed at the hole himself.  But soon  he realised that he would have to wait a long time, if ever, to see the eye again. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Shattered Part 3 of A Cat's Tale

Part 3

I cannot be sure how long I slept. Voices came and went in my dreams. And I could not know for certain whether those which  eventually awoke me were real. "Trophe, Trophe..." they were saying. A male voice unnaturally wheedling, Kangaroo doubtless; and in her normal voice, Cheetah. My first thought was one of relief. The pun  in Catastrophe was no longer operative. The name, though  it had probably been clever was too long to be practical.  Trophe would do.  My next  thought was that I was now likely to be released from the laundry basket. As I have said I detest the "miaow" sound and refuse on principle to employ it. But escape was imperative. So I managed a sort of growl, a locution which in a lion would have been a roar.

Within a minute the basket was upright, the lid removed and I felt myself lifted up  by the soft hands of Cheetah. "There, there ," she said as she put me gently on the floor. I think she liked me. If I liked any human I suppose I liked her.  Kangaroo meanwhile looked down with a puzzled expression. I couldn't make up my mind how he felt about me and in truth I didn't care. I walked away my tail in the air.

Such was the introduction to my new home and the two people who shared it with me. In the days that followed my release from the basket, I began as I inspected my new premises to build up a picture of my companions, their routines and habits. Clearly they were addicted to work. Except at the weekends they left the house early and returned late in the evening. Even when at home they sat in different rooms in front of whispering keyboards and fluttering screens. Around them rubbish of one sort of another expanded like something organic. They even snacked separately at their computers. It was only in their large untidy bed under a soft duvet that they met for any length of time. When  they were not sleeping  there side by side I was aware of them  heaving and rolling under the covers.

The  lack of order in the house, which I have already described, was now the least agreeable aspect of my life.  That's to put it politely. I hate mess. And they lived in chaos. Might it, I thought, be in my power to change things? It may seem vein to say this but I am a fine looking animal, sleek and  well proportioned. I  possess a pair of eyes that make people think of emeralds and  my silken ears are pointed like the buds of an exotic flower. My black, shiny coat reflects light like a mirror of polished granite, my nose is velvety, my mouth small and discriminating, my whiskers fine and of a delicate blond colour.  A figure such as mine, to be seen at its best, requires a spacious and elegant backcloth - a need seldom out of my thoughts whenever I am going to sit or lie down.

The piles of junk that filled the  house were a gross abuse of my beauty. Even Cheetah and Kangaroo, I thought, should in time come to recognise that I deserved  better surroundings.  As I have said the only two places in the house where there was any evidence of order were the tables where they worked. So, taking his work-place and hers in turn, I would sit down  and choose a position which showed my profile at its most superb and  where the space around me did credit to my proportions. I wanted to make it clear that I expected order and harmony. Did I demand too much ? I think not. I have astonishing powers of silent communication which are  supported by an iron will. As a rule I get my way.

One fine day it seemed that my project had succeeded.  A skip appeared on the road outside the house. A cleaning lady arrived and she and Cheetah began to clear up the mess room by room. Decorators next painted the walls and built shelves for the books. Kangaroo even brought flowers for Cheetah who put them in a vase on a newly cleared table. Curtains were hung and I was able to spend days choosing good places to sit and to snooze. An embarras de richesse.

A cat flap had appeared earlier allowing me to come and go as I pleased.  But it was the other improvements to the house  of which I was most proud. It had been moulded to my every wish and whim. Space in plenty. Colour where it was needed but plenty of white to set off my jet black profile.

Only in one respect did I feel let down: kippers. My favourite food of all never appeared in the house again since I had  demolished a couple of them at a sitting on the first day of my arrival. I never ceased to think about that blissful experience.  I had achieved so much  with my thought control yet  in this small respect, I had to admit, the system was failing.

For  all  that I was not going to complain. Gratitude does not come easily to me but  even I managed a small purr when I next saw Cheetah.

Unfortunately she scarcely seemed aware of me, as she opened my tin of food and refilled my water bowl.. My purr went unnoticed.  It was then, as I looked up at her,  that I saw that she had changed. Her face had become rounder.  She smelt different. She was less tense, slower in her movements. And then... then I noticed the bump. Her belly had swollen. And I knew what  had happened. I was stunned, horrified.

If there is one thing I hate it is smelly, human babies. And as for the changes which had taken place in my house, it was  painfully clear that that they had nothing to do with me or my efforts. Whatever happiness I had flew straight out of the window.  Have you ever heard a cat laugh?

                                                   The end

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Catastrophy Part 2 of A Cat's Tale

 My nose led me to a table top in the middle of the kitchen . Among the bottles of  jam and wine and boxes of biscuits and cereals  on it, was a pair of kippers. In my previous existence the idea of jumping on to a table would never have occurred to me. I knew my place. And my place had been instilled in me from kitten-hood . But here amid the mess in which these serial destroyers of order managed to live,  my inhibitions fell away. In minute I was picking with my paws at the sweet and delicate flesh and working it away from the bones.

 Reader, dear reader, I have never enjoyed a meal like that, and I doubt if I ever will again. Because of the bones it took time, but every minute was exquisite. Even now I dream of that smokey, oily flavour, lick my lips, and try not to wake up. All I needed now was a drink. Beer. I had never tasted the stuff. I disliked  it as much as I  had loved  the kippers. But there was a glass full of it which I managed to tip over. Despite its bitterness it was a relief to quench my thirst and I lapped up every drop.

After such a meal two things were foremost in my mind. One was sleep and the other, an urge, which in common with human beings I am reluctant to describe in detail. Certain pressures let us say had to be relieved. But how and where? In the old days it was easy. A cat flap had been built into the back door, which allowed me into the garden. I never, at least not as far back as I could remember, crapped in  our own garden. It was my territory and sacrosanct. As to the neighbouring  gardens. I never gave much thought to their purpose. They were  pleasant spaces which I took it for granted were intended for my use. There I  would do my business where the neighbours had conveniently turned the soil in preparation. What to do now? I wandered into the next room where a computer sat in solitary splendour on a desk. It was  the only place I had so far encountered where I sensed tidiness. On the floor beside the desk was a  neat pile of manuscripts.  On the sheet on  top of the pile I read : Page 1  Quantitative Easing: A Necessity? Whatever this was originally intended to mean (something to do with economics) it contained one clear and relevant direction for me, and  it was with  intense relief that I crouched over the paper and supplied an answer to the question.

Now for some sleep. I left the room where I had left my deposit and as quickly as possible. Stairs are for climbing and I glided up the staircase  in front of me, vaguely aware of the continued conversation between Cheetah and Kangaroo in the room where I had left them. At the top of the stairs I encountered the place which I have always thought of as "the room of the falling waters". I didn't like the disinfectant smell too much but I was driven to explore it. And what was this? A basket full of  what seemed to be soft material, cosy and comfortable. Just what I wanted after my series if ordeals.  I jumped in and realised immediately that I had made a mistake. In the first place the basket toppled over jamming itself against the wall and trapping me inside. In the second I found that  the rags had the revolting  human smell of clothes intended for washing. I was trapped in Cheetah and Kangaroo's laundry basket.

One quality -  or perhaps you will think it a fault - which I possess is never to make the pathetic moaning noise that cats are supposed to make and which is usually transcribed as "miaow".  So I kept quiet. I gathered my thoughts, fuzzy as they were as a result of my unaccustomed intake of beer. One  good thing was that  thanks to the gaps in the walls of the wicker basket, I could breathe. Another was that I had somewhere that seemed safe and comfortable to sleep.

No sooner had I closed my eyes than I heard  the voices of Cheetah and Kangaroo ranging the house. What were they saying? It took me a minute or two to catch the words  repeated over and over again.  Then I got it. "Catastrophe ... Catastrophe..." Oh God, I thought:  Is the  house on fire? Have we been burgled?  Not a sound emerged from my throat. Then I got it.  They were calling me, and calling me by a new name which they had bestowed on me. And what a name! Bloody hell, I thought. I have always despised cats with names based on puns on the word "cat". And now this was to be my fate. Henceforth I was going to be called Catastrophe. Cats don't sigh. They make a noise like a human fart. And that, reader, is what I did before sinking into a troubled sleep.
                                            End of part 2

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Crisis Part 1 of A Cat's Tale

For most of my life I lived with an old woman. She  was clean and compulsively tidy, characteristics which to some extent have rubbed off on me.  She was my only companion in the house where we used to live,  and it did not disturb me that she never stopped telling me what she was thinking. As though I didn't know!  What I liked least was the baby language.  I am not, nor ever have have been, a human baby. Smelly  little creatures. I hate them. Being addressed as one makes me want to throw up.

Nor did I enjoy being called Mr Toffee, a ridiculous name which had nothing to do with my appearance nor with my temperament, which is far from sweet. I would like a name that  I can be proud of. Hercules has a certain appeal. Likewise Tamburlaine. But as it is not in my power to  name myself I have to put up with what I am given. So I was glad when fate arranged that "Mr Toffee" should be dropped.

Though what  came with my new name completely changed my life. I don't like change. And this was shattering. A major crisis.  It happened a year or so ago, when the old woman one day put me in a wicker carrier and took me down the road to a neighbour's house. She didn't talk much on this occasion, and seemed sad even to the point of whimpering. When we reached the other house which belonged to the same terrace as the first, she rang the bell . It was answered by a woman. She was much younger than my old woman. She had a wild look,  an animal quality which appealed to  me. It was something about the way she stood, relaxed, one hip jutting forward, her mouth half open as though she were about to  protest. There was something fearless about her.  I immediately named her Cheetah.

My old woman began talking without delay and rapidly. She was talking about me.  It seemed that the next day she was to enter a retirement home. And she wanted to hand me over to Cheetah.  What was else was she to do?  Her daughter  had been going to look after me, but she had resolved to go to Australia at the last minute. I knew the daughter. The screaming woman, was how I thought of her. Not to my liking at all.  She smelt of embrocation. And now it seemed she preferred Australia to me. No taste. No judgement.  A lucky escape.

 We went in. I was still in my hateful carrier. It was the first time that I had been inside a house other than my old woman's, which, naively as it turned out, I had thought of as my own. On entering, even with my view limited by the sides of the carrier,  I had  probably the biggest shock of my life. The hallway was stacked with books, newspapers, boxes, items of furniture, which made it almost impossible for my old woman with me in the carrier and Cheetah jammed against us to make any progress. I could - athletic and supple as I am -  have managed very well  on  my own, by clambering over the obstacles.  But I felt  sorry for the old woman, who was not  steady on her pins. "I am afraid," said  Cheetah,  "that  although we've been living here for nearly a year, we still seem to be moving in. We've been so busy both of us".

 The next  thing I knew we were in a room stacked to the ceiling with  more boxes of books many of which were overflowing.  The floor was covered with stuff,  files and bulging envelopes, gadgets of one kind or another, a radio, an electric iron, an ironing board,  a vacuum cleaner. With a sweep of her hand, Cheetah moved some books and folders from what turned out to be a sofa. "Sit down," she said. "I'll get Keith." My old woman put my cage on the floor at her feet and cautiously sat on the edge of the  sofa. Keith was a narrow man, with large glasses and  long arms  which made him look like a tall monkey.  "You know my husband, don't you." My old woman did, and so did I. For I had seen him walking past the house head bent forward looking neither to left nor right, blinkered like a horse or a greyhound in a race. He tipped some stuff off an arm chair and sat down.

My old woman started talking again her words now interrupted by sobs. "Look," said Keith, abruptly. "We'll have the cat." He sounded bored by the thought of it, and I had the feeling that he just wanted the old woman out of the house.  I don't think he cared a damn about me. Cheetah was meanwhile trying to be kind to the old woman and me and to humour Kangaroo  (my name for Keith) who was beginning to twitch and bounce up and down.

What followed was mercifully quick. The old woman opened the door of the carrier and I stepped out into my new life, the unaccustomed smell of dust and mould, and a  maze of junk for me to explore and hide in. I stuck my tail up in the air and slipped into the jungle.  As I penetrated the unknown,  I felt  like Christopher Columbus or David Livingstone.  I heard talking and the front door closing , and more talking as Cheetah and Kangaroo were doubtless discussing me, their new charge.
Oh and the old woman? it seemed that I had blinked and when I opened my eyes she was no longer there. Ahead of me a brave new world, behind me, one which I would quickly forget. I sniffed the air and through the dust I thought that I detected the smell of food. Do you blame me? It was in that direction, towards what turned out to be the kitchen,  that treading with care, slipping through encumbered doorways, past a hat stand on its side and a sealed carton marked Fragile, I set my course. I was hungry. Definitely hungry. And indignant and scared.

                                                  End of part 1.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Making it up

 She didn't fancy the Valentine's  dinner. Certainly not in her husband's company.  It was as intended a surprise. Not enough notice to turn it down.  "Why did you suggest this, she said as they were led into the candle-lit dining room? " I should be flattered but I'm not. You must want something from me. But I can't think what." They sat side by side on a  cushioned banquette in the richly decorated restaurant where other couples examined  the menu with signs of animation.

"That's not very gracious." He spoke as though he didn't care one way or the other. Her reaction  had been no surprise.

It's how I feel. We haven't talked properly for months. Today you left for the office without saying goodbye. Not a word. Typical. Cold, self-obsessed. Even now  when we met in the bar you didn't notice  what I was  wearing.  I took the afternoon off to have my hair done. I  put some decent clothes on.  Not to let you down?  My metier for the last nine years.  Not to let you down. To be truthful  it was not to let myself down.  Not that you would care either way.This was after all  just another  appointment in you diary.

"I thought it might break the ice.  The menu and the wines seemed  OK. I thoughts perhaps we might remember better times.

"That demands a long memory and a high pain threshold."

A waiter slid into place and handed them each a leather folder. Options were few and discouraged. This was a special menu devised to restore romance to the jaded lives of the rich.  "For the first course we suggest a truffled consommé with gold leaf. To accompany it a glass of chilled manzanilla." She nodded her assent. Her husband did the same.

"I was thinking just now," she fixed him with a steady gaze, "that this might be an opportunity to have a serious talk about our future. But perhaps that would be ungracious."

The consommé  glittered in the candlelight. Slices of black truffle bobbed beneath it. The   perfumed  bowl proved enough to take their minds off her recent outburst. As they sipped   they looked across at other tables. She was afflicted by a sense of inadequacy. A sort of loneliness.  Should they not be enjoying themselves or at least pretending to? But her doubts didn't last. He never felt inadequate. Why should she?

"Not bad," he said.

"Must have cost a bomb," she bit into a generous tranche of fungus: "Truffles are scarce in the Dordogne this year, like eating banknotes."

"To go with the gold leaf."

They fell silent. The silence lasted a long time.

It was a relief when the waiter appeared: "Next there is artichoke heart filled with chicken liver parfait.  With it we suggest a glass of St-Amour.   We prefer to serve it  slightly chilled.

Again they nodded it through. "I detest the Gamay grape," she said, "even in a Beaujolais Cru.  But never mind Amour conquers all I suppose. "How's the bank? Still raking it in despite the crisis?

"I can't bet on much of a bonus this year, but I shouldn't complain.  Some will get none at all and I can think of at least one person with a prosecution round the corner. It will be alright for commercial lawyers like you particularly with connections like me. At least I have some uses where you're concerned. "

"Sometimes I think I would  run a restaurant with gastronomic pretensions somewhere rural, with bunnies in the garden and pheasants in the woods".

When  the  artichoke arrived she said: "You know, this Beaujolais was a good idea. I must rethink my Gamay phobia."

The waiter again: "Would you like a pause before the next course?"  "No,"  they both said  almost in chorus. "Bring on the duck.

 "To accompany  the Duckling with Poached Cherries,  we propose a glass of Château Mouton Rothschild 2000."

"Makes a lot of sense, it should be drinking well just at the moment. Thank you, " she said.  And was that a skeletal smile?  She thought  maybe she had managed one. No one could say she wasn't trying.

"Banking is no longer a respectable profession. People look at me as though I were a pimp or  convicted rapist. Perhaps  I should take off to the country, forget the boardrooms and the politics. Would you come with me though?"

" Fine talk, darling, but you couldn't let go of the power and the thrills. Not for a  moment."

"I might if I had to contend with another parliamentary committee and the threat of some sort of investigation...

"You don't mean ...."

No I don't but.... if it's not  a dirty business, it too often looks as though it is. If I retired while the going was good, I could expect a reasonable  handshake, enough to leave us comfortable..."

"Comfortable maybe, but happy ...How would we spend it?   Managing a restaurant is a lot harder than playing with investment when it comes down to it. You're no golfer.  You're not suited to country life. Nature is not exactly your cup of tea. What would we talk about?"

The waiter: "Something for love and romance  to celebrate St Valentine there is a Délice aux Fruits de la Passion, a delicate assembly of passion fruit custard, with fine layers of sponge and meringue" and to accompany it a glass of d'Yquem 2005.

"I  would be happy with that,"  he said. His wife blinked her agreement.

In the moments of anticipation before the arrival of  the passion fruit he said to his wife, "I wonder if you have noticed that couple over there, do you think they are enjoying themselves?"

"They are not really a couple,  I'm afraid my dear, despite your efforts.  Vain as ever, you are not wearing your glasses. If you were you would have recognised yourself in that  mirror and perhaps  noticed who it was  who was sitting next to you."

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Near miss

He on the  down-escalator, she on the up. Who saw the other first? They waved more or less at the same time. It was five-thirty on a Friday afternoon.  The London rush hour. Time to go home or to meet friends for a drink.   There was no room for either of them to turn on the moving segment of stair on which each was wedged.  He shouted her name across the well, "Sylvie'". She managed only a smothered cry.

He thought: What to do? What would be in her mind? Had she shared the intensity of his feelings? They were different people then. How long was it? Ten or eleven years? Should he when he reached the bottom of the escalator turn and go up?  Would she wait at the top? Or even turn round and transfer to the down-escalator? Time would have changed her as it had changed him. He could not, as he might  once have done, guess her thoughts or feelings. Or predict her behaviour.  Just follow your instincts, he said to himself, and  edging into the jostling crowd, up he went back where he had come from.

She thought: What to do? More than anything else she wanted to tell him that she had missed him. She repeated his name under her breath, "Tim, Tim",  as though chiding him. More recently since her marriage break-up, he had been continually on her mind. At least the Tim she had known. No question,   she would turn at the top of the stair and go down in pursuit. With luck he would be waiting for her. With luck. She wanted to throw her arms round him. To say sorry, though she was not sure for what she was sorry.

What happened? They both retraced their steps, he on the up-escalator, she on the down. They passed for the second time midway, and waved frantically. He tried to indicate that this time  she should wait for him at the top but his signals were open to misinterpretation. And uncertainty was beginning to gnaw on either side.

She thought it likely that he was hurrying home to a girlfriend or a wife. Or perhaps he was on his way to an appointment. Perhaps one  that would affect his future. She felt guilty about her own loyalties, the new lover she was on her way to meet.

This pursuit is about to become absurd, he thought, a perpetual hell of passing escalators sweeping them off for ever in opposite directions. What if they succeeded in making contact? What would be the outcome?  Life was complicated enough as it was, in the office and at home. An ache hollowed his stomach.

He realised then as did she that to resume their journeys they would anyway have to retrace their steps, he on the up and she on the down-escalator. This time they glanced across the well but there was an awkwardness in their wave, something half greeting, half farewell.

At the top of the escalator the crowd grew even busier and more urgent and she felt herself swept on towards the station exit.  In the sharp  air of  the winter evening laden with fumes and the smell of food, a tear came  to her eye. She wiped it away impatiently. She had promises to keep.

At the bottom of  the stairwell for the second time he half turned and tried to join the opposing stream of people to go up again, but he was troubled by doubts and fears.  He was older now. Suspicious of impulse. He gave in and allowed himself to be dragged by the flow towards the Northern Line platform and the train that would take him home.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Book

From the cave in the mountainside  the procession follows a rough, winding path down to the plain below. Three tall figures  - two men and a woman, the woman taller than the men - lead the way. All three wear garments of a grey,shining material. Behind them six men similarly clad carry,  on a sort of stretcher, a large solitary  book with a worn leather cover. Beside the book, a structure,  about 5ft high, rises from the stretcher  towards the sky. Its uneven, knobbly surface, gives the impression of a giant anthill. It is secured to the stretcher by cords made from the guts of animals, tough but elastic enough to allow it to sway as the stretcher advances.

On the plain in a natural amphitheatre in the rocky ground  a crowd of people has gathered. In the early morning sun their faces have a golden tint but are otherwise white and expressionless. The men, women and children all  wear animal  skins. Many sit on  the ground. Their eyes are fixed on the procession which moves slowly in their direction.

When it reaches them, the people part to allow it through to an elevated area in the centre of the circle. Here a flat stone serves as a stage. A boulder provides a stand for the book. The woman sets it  down  and bowing her head backs away respectfully.  The tower meanwhile  is unloaded beside it. The six stretcher-bearers bow towards it and towards the book.  Once in place as you look towards the horizon, there is no mistaking the tower's resemblance to a mountain and  specifically to the central peak of the range which extends along the skyline.

The procession consists  of people known as "guardians of the book" The word for book is sad, plural sadth. It is a word rarely employed, for books are objects of mystery and written words are neither considered nor conceived of.  This, the only known example of a book, was found buried in the cave in the mountainside, but the guardians have long speculated about the existence of others.

With the book in place and the replica mountain on the floor beside it, the tall woman, chief of the guardians, steps forward and begins a prolonged wailing chant.  Its  harmonies  owe much of their rhythm and tonal variety to  the  sound wolves make at night up in the mountains.  Regularly in the long hours of darkness  her listeners are thrilled and terrified by the howling of wolves. As they are now in the light of day, by the  sound similar, but more formal and  more cerebral, which emerges from the guardian's throat tilted  back, like a wolf's. As she breathes in and out her breasts rise  and fall to the cadence of her chant. It lasts about five minutes and ends suddenly leaving a silence hollow as a cave.  Pairs of eyes in the white upturned faces topped by tangled manes follow her as, bending over the boulder, she lifts the book above her head, and turns it to left and right to make sure that everyone had been able to see it.

The book back on the boulder, with reverential slowness and solemnity, she opens it. To her watchers, who  have never seen it close to,  it is as though she has effortlessly doubled its size.   She leans over it as a mother over a child.  She spreads her hands above it in a gesture, half of blessing, half of caress, before with deep deliberation she tears one of the pages from the spread. It is not the first page to go, as the tattered margin bears witness. She  raises the page above her head and shows it  to the crowd. Lowering the page she tears it into three pieces. One piece she hands to each of her fellow guardians. The third she stuffs into her mouth and began to chew it. The other guardians follow suite. The six stretcher bearers sit on the ground cross legged.

As the guardians masticate the strips of page, the crowd begins to intone, "chew, chew, chew... chew the Sad."

When the paper in their mouths has been reduced to something soft and pliable, the guardians spit out the  papier mâché and one by one stick it still wet and pliant on to the model of the mountain, adding  proportionately but minutely to its stature.

 "Sad. Sad. Sad..." chants the crowd.

The sun is high in the sky. It is the longest day of the year. The mid-summer ritual has been handed down from  ancestors and practised as long as anyone can remember.