I went to Great Secret Miss. Someone let me in. Across the room Amy looked up, saw it was me, and said:
Anthony Powell says, or at any rate has his character Nick Jenkins say
There is, after all, no pleasure like that given by a woman who really wants to see you.
Nick is talking about Jean Templar, who has just opened the door of her flat to him quite naked, and Nick’s passion for Jean reverberates through all twelve books of the series. ‘Passion’ is perhaps the right word only for a brief passage in volume three, but there is an itchy preoccupation with her at all other times. In my case, Amy was fully clothed and our relationship is simply one of friendship born of a shared interest in kefir and gossip, although when, as I have recorded, she showed me her pubic hair to assist in a discussion about Diversity I had to go and sit down quietly for a few minutes.
All things considered I was happy that she wanted to see me.
In the case of the better half there is indeed passion, reverberating, I hope, through the volumes that I have left, and there is no pleasure like that when she wakes up, sees me across the pillow and is glad to do so.
Much of the time.
That was during the day time and much later I had gone to bed. I was reading a book given to me by daughter two for Christmas about creatures that have survived from millions and in some cases billions of years ago. It’s called Survivors, by Richard Fortey. I was reading the chapter about lampreys, which apparently mark a significant stage in the process by which our remote Darwinian ancestors emerged from the sea and colonised the land for the first time. In spite of their importance in the grand march of evolution lampreys are not sympathetic creatures. They have no jaws (zoologically that makes them Agnatha, like the singer from Abba) but a round mouth with teeth, which they fasten onto a chosen victim and suck. The book tells us that they can ‘empty’ a salmon in no time at all.
Worryingly, there are both salt-water and fresh-water lampreys. I am familiar with stories about eels wriggling through water meadows and fastening their mouths onto the teats of cattle in order to drink the milk. If eels (to which lampreys are not related) can empty cows’ udders can lampreys empty whole cows? And if so who among us is safe?
For all these reasons, but mainly because of a texture and taste that reminded me irresistibly of sewage, I decided when I ate my first lamprey ten years or so ago in St Petersburg, my parents-in-laws’ and their daughter’s jaws across the table a blur of enthusiastic mastication, that it would also be my last.
The better half was still downstairs hooting with laughter into the telephone. She was having her nightly chucklefest with our dear friend P. I have always found it hard to discern what is so funny about the things that our dear friend P has to say, but the better half assures me that much is lost in the translation.
Anyway, it came to an end and the better half came to bed.
Our dear friend P says that David Cameron is a werewolf, she said, removing her outer clothing. She read it on a blog.
To avoid, I confess, a discussion about our dear friend P’s barmy convictions, I changed the subject.
According to this book, I said, they no longer eat lampreys in Lithuania, where it was formerly a delicacy. But they still eat them round the coast in St Petersburg, don’t they? We have. Your mother particularly likes to take on a lamprey.
Late at night the imagination is at its most unruly, isn’t it, and I had a sudden image of my mother-in-law nose to nose with one of the little creatures – a face-off, as it were. Evens, I would have assessed their respective chances, apart from the important consideration that the lamprey would already be dead.
The better half has just acquired, in festive circumstances, a tablet computer, so with a flourish she attempted to Google the lamprey. Since the machine has predictive text and lampreys are not a priority in its little world view, this took some time. I suggested that since I was reading a whole book on the subject Wikipedia was unlikely to have anything to add.
A whole book on lampreys?
As the better half tried to circumvent the helpful features of her Christmas present I told her that Henry 1 had famously died of a surfeit of lampreys.
At that moment the Wikipedia entry finally revealed itself on her little screen.
English king Henry 1 died of a surfeit of lampreys, she shouted.
I know. I just said.
What is a surfeit?
It’s a type of pie, I think. Our Queen was given a pie of lampreys when she got crowned and again when she had a jubilee. It was probably the same thing. Alexander Pope died of it too.
No, Alexander Pope. Pope Alexander died of a surfeit of arsenic. And serve him right. Alexander Pope. The proper study of mankind is man man.
Again the little fingers flashed over the keyboard. I looked over her shoulder. She had found a website entitled ‘Quotable Quotes of Alexander Pope: a Treasure Trove for the Public Speaker’.
Ha! she said several times, presumably in recognition. Pope said surprisingly many things that everyone knows and it is unfair that he should always be confused with the Borgias. He was unnaturally small and never healthy, but he was on the side of the angels in which he didn’t believe, and rarely if ever resorted to poisoning others.
Then she quoted:
No woman ever hates a man for being in love with her; but mainly a woman hates a man for being her friend.
I hope not, I said, thinking back to my reception at Great Secret Miss and my pleasure because of it.
Here’s another one, said the better half. His last words:
All right, just one more lamprey. And then I really must be going.