It was the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, making a ponderous joke.
Why is everyone so sententious these days at the end of the year? Is it the truly awful things happening just off camera or is it the immanence of the Christmas angels?
These invisible canisters, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, of which you write. Yes! I can feel them swinging. When I dance. But – I’m told – they’re dangerous. They’re used for spying.
The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had come round with a Christmas gift. This was kind of them. It was a small black tin of sprats – shproty – in olive oil.
The subtleties of Russian cuisine are often lost on Westerners. Much of it simply tastes bland to us. Pelmeny, for example, Siberian dumplings served in sour cream liberally doused with warm water, taste to us like nothing so much as inadequately processed wallpaper adhesive, with lumps, but Russians will kill for them (as indeed for most things) and there are enterprises that will rush pelmeny to you day or night in an emergency.
Even Russian salad, which has the reassuring emotional qualities for Russians that chicken soup has for Jews and the Full English has for me, tastes to us a little on the boring side.
But shproty are an unmitigated delight: served with a big slice of St John bread to mop up the oil and a shot or two of vodka, a clear and tasty spirit that also hails from Russia.
Normally when the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached come round the better half treats them to a proper feed. I will wander down to the kitchen at odd hours of the late morning or early afternoon to find them holding forth with their hankies secured beneath their chins and the table spread with bread and butter, varieties of cooked meat and cakes. But she wasn’t in and I didn’t. I put the shproty somewhere safe, made a pot of Amy’s gunpowder and cracked into segments a bar of black chocolate with slivers of sea salt in it.
No, I said, you can’t feel the canisters swinging. They’re not real. I made them up. They express a very real psychological and spiritual truth with, if I may say so without false modesty, an affecting emotional force, but they are a metaphor.
The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached looked at me cunningly.
You didn’t make up no nothing, they said. It was your friend. You said. My friend told me.
My little secrets, all coming out. I made up my friend too. He was a literary device used to put forward an un-anecdotal concept anecdotally. I got the idea from Plato. His imaginary friend was called Socrates.
The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached made the noise conventionally indicated by ‘harrumph’.
If canisters are used for spying, you would say that.
They changed the subject.
That Amy, she has become sententious too.
I know. When I was in Great Secret Miss she told me an improving poem. Did she tell you?
That’s the one:
A cold wind
Cools my congee
Ah! The first wind
That’s it, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached. It’s a haiku.
No it isn’t, I said. It has the wrong number of syllables for a haiku and haikus come from Japan, whereas Amy and congee – delicious rice porridge – come from China.
Of course, the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had to be right. They made a calculation on their fingers.
No, it’s the right number in Japanese even if not in the English translation. And Amy obviously learnt something else when she was in Japan. She was not just going around noting geishas’ hairy pudenda beneath their kimonos.
They did not say ‘pudenda’. There is a convenient Russian word and I’m afraid they used that.
For a moment they chomped on the chocolate. When their mouth was clear it was apparent that they had been using the moment to think further about sententiousness.
You English, they said, may think that we’re sententious people, but the Americans are far worse.
I don’t think you’re particularly sententious, I said, I suspect it’s the zeitgeist. And yes. The Americans are much worse.
Don’t you hate it when they call you ‘People’? People, we’ve gotta be kind to this planet of ours.
Yes. ‘You guys’ is bad enough, but ‘People’ is far worse.
We sighed together, confident in our own superiority.
Got to go, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached. Something worrying about Santa’s elves. May be dangerous. Got to check it out.
Thank you again for the shproty, I said. They’re always a treat. Do you want to take the remains of the bar of black chocolate with slivers of sea salt in it?
There’s a second one. Would you like that too?
I wrapped them up nicely.
The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached struggled out of the kitchen chair, their clothing not made for rapid athletic movement: tight jeans with camel toe; high heels. I noticed as I had not on their arrival that the camel toe was subtly accented in Swarovski crystals.
Nice Christmas get-up, I said.
The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached turned on me a look of such conspiratorial lubricity that I retreated as if flung across the kitchen.
Mind the loose flagstone, I said, as I always did as they went down the path, with your high heels.
Oops, said the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached.
They dusted themselves off and picked up the chocolate.
It was a good thing that I had wrapped it.