“I am reading,” Amy said, “a very good book about a duck. In English; this book not translated for Chinese.”
Since she discovered that Anthony Powell was a writer she has become a keen reader of English fiction.
“About a duck?”
“It is a big duck, very dignity, and sometimes he changes into another person, very bad, have a good time. Then he is a duck again.”
“A duck: an aquatic bird found often on farms and also, once dead, in the windows of restaurants in Gerrard Street?”
“Not bird.” She laughed shortly. “Big big man. Very important man. Downton Abbey. Duck Ellington.”
“Oh, ‘duke’,” I said. “But I still don’t know a book about a duke who turns into another man. It sounds like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. But he was a doctor not a duke.”
“Yes, yes. Doctor Jekyll. Not Duck Jekyll. Doctor very important people.”
“In Edinburgh, certainly.”
I wondered what she was making of Anthony Powell. He is famous after all for dissecting the relations between the English classes. Although his novels are not unsympathetic to the natural world – his cast of characters includes for example Sultan, Eleanor Walpole-Wilson’s dog, and Maisky, the monkey that kills the butler, Smith – there is little investigation of the social relations between species: unless Maisky’s killing Smith counts.
Amy’s confusion, I reflected, merited further thought. Of course her pronouncing ‘duke’ as ‘duck’ was amusing but neither here nor there: she knew what she meant. Muddling doctors with dukes was a different matter.
I’m not sure that I have actually read Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but, like most English people I feel as if I have. To Amy, on the other hand, coming from south-east China by way, possibly, of Kettering, it was entirely fresh. She wasn’t to know that late-Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh had a ruling caste which included doctors but didn’t include dukes. The nabobs of Edinburgh were Scots; dukes were to be found further North, in the grouse-infected Highlands, and they were English.
Doctor Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde by means of an elixir, a drug of his own devising. I have a vague memory of Spencer Tracy in a film version wrestling with retorts and pipettes as the effects get to him. Was hair on the back of the hand involved, or was that werewolves? Amy also wasn’t to know that dukes do not prepare their own elixirs. Persons on lower grades of the peerage might. Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time has an Earl of Warminster living at about the same time as Dr Jekyll who is known as ‘the Chemist Earl’, and he was no doubt a dab hand at both retorts and pipettes. But earls are earls and they are not dukes. If a duke wants an elixir he rings for it.
Amy is much more knowledgeable than I am about many things, but one of them is her own elixir, kefir, as regards which she is currently presiding over a curious see-saw effect involving me and my double, the assassin Alfredo. I have recorded that Amy’s kefir is the real stuff. The sheepskins within which the intestinal flora of sheep were first combined with dairy products to create the original Culture from which Amy’s product is grown were first beaten, so as to advance the fermentation process, by camp followers of the Sixteenth Century Montenegrin warlord Apa’tman, and in more recent times by Kurd Maverick and his Valkyries as they carried the Culture across the sea. Amy’s kefir bears as much relation to that purchasable in little Eastern European corner shops as a forty-year-old Ardbeg does to a bottle of Old Tartan Trews Blended, purchasable for £7 from the same sort of shop. For one thing, it is much stronger.
Like all drugs there comes a point at which it stops working. Kefir is a benign drug and the solution is not to take more but to stop and rest for a week or two. That is what I am doing, but the traces still surge through my blood and where they would formerly have stimulated my dreams now they just keep me awake, and, as I have recorded, they coat daytime life with a baleful veneer. And even though I have stopped taking the drug, I still wake up, having finally achieved some sleep, with the true kefir headache, what Goethe, bless him, called Kefirs Katzenjammer.
At the same time Alfredo is in the joyful opening sequence. He cannot get enough of it. For a few nights now he has not come back to our flat at all. He stays at Great Secret Miss nearly all the time. Sometime you see him in the lobby reading a couple of the magazines that he likes to buy at the international newsagent on the corner, but usually he is in one of the back rooms. Amy has assigned three of her girls exclusively to help him and they work round the clock, eight hours each. She is rather proud of their progress.
“He has many bad things. He process them in dreams.”
“And he processes them so that the dreams themselves are not bad?”
“Yes, kefir dreams benign. Vivid but benign. Even with Putin.”
“Sometimes there are very large snakes, but not usually. Depend on person. Putin,” she said, “obviously not processing very bad things. Has kefir every night, so we are told, but goes on doing them. Probably low-grade supermarket product.”
One of the girls gave me to understand that the details of Alfredo’s ‘many bad things’ were hair-raising. But of course discretion is the absolute priority and I shall never know what Alfredo doesn’t tell me himself.
“Like Dr Jekyll,” I said, drawing a parallel. “He has the elixir, becomes his evil self and emerges purified.”
Amy gave me to understand that his was an absurdly sentimental interpretation of a rather hard-headed book. Not, as I say, having read it I didn’t argue.