Tag Archives: Aubergine Small

You Couldn’t Make It Up

Whilst telling the truth is important when other people are relying on you to do so, it has always seemed to me to amount to a failure of imagination when they aren’t. Keen followers of this blog will have spotted that some of the scenes are not true. There is, for instance, no such person in real life as Aubergine Small, the immense but benign deaf-mute who from time to time helps me and my friends when we are in the soup. He comes partly from my head but mainly he’s stolen from Ben Hur. Amy mocks Augustus Sly, my amanuensis, for thinking that she is a metaphor, but who knows which of them is right?

I have always been attracted to people who reinvent themselves. There are the women in history who impersonated men and joined the all-male armed forces, remaining undetected in spite of communal sleeping and washing. Then there are the people who made new identities for themselves, or maintained more than one identity at once, such as the Victorian men who had two households – both of apparent respectability, each ignorant of the other – and scuttled between them on Christmas Day. In at least one instance this has happened in my time, and to people that I know.

And then there’s Kim, Calamity Jane and Nurse Betty.

Often this was purely deceitful, or at any rate tactical, but in many cases the people in question were not motivated by gain or personal advancement but, for private reasons and in the argot of today, ‘identified as’ something that they weren’t. And this brings us to Ms Rachel Dolezal.

Ms Dolezal, as I understand it, was born of white parents and brought up alongside black step-siblings. She identified strongly with black people, who she thought were treated badly in the United States, and she became active in racial politics through the NAACP. So far, as everyone would agree, so good. But she took it a step further. She maintained that she was herself black, and took steps to look as if she were. She laid claim to a slice of the victimhood points earned by being part of a racial minority. When her parents appeared on television to say that she was, in fact, white, she said that this was beside the point because she ‘identified as’ black.

That seems to me to be entirely understandable, and I can imagine circumstances in which it might have been admirable. The problem is the messy interaction of the personal and the political. As the story has unravelled in view of the entire World, the emphasis has been on her ‘personal issues’, and she has appeared to be mad. That has not done any favours for the political cause that she has championed.

It is a complex thing to bring off, at all levels. One thinks of Philip Roth’s unreadably smug novel, The Human Stain, where the same thing happens in reverse – a black man claims to be white – and we are nagged with the philosophical implications over nearly four hundred pages. She has failed to bring it off, and every further bit of jargon that she offers on television (the whole drama has been performed on television) the worse it gets. If we hadn’t got ourselves to a point where it is unacceptable to talk about race except in pieties, it might have been easier.

However much the whole thing has turned to shit, however, one cannot help thinking that deep down, if she wanted to be black, why shouldn’t she?

And that in turn brings us to the far less attractive story of Ms Emma Sulkowicz. Ms Sulkowicz, also an American, said that she had been raped by a man called Nungesser. She attempted to get him hounded out of her university. It then turned out that he hadn’t raped her at all: the whole thing was a fiction. Ms Sulkowicz’s response was, if I understand it right, that she identified as having been raped, so that her vindictive actions against Mr Nungesser were justified irrespective of the facts. In order to support her argument, she then made a short film of herself having sex with a tubby actor with a pixilated head. She said that this was Art and she challenged its viewers not to ‘objectify’ her as she heaved away.

It is currently rather fashionable to ‘identify’ with being raped whilst remaining untouched. One of the more hysterical pieces about the transsexual Ms Caitlyn Jenner (I forget the name of the writer but it was an American woman) was to the effect that Ms Jenner was not entitled to any part of the aggregate share of victimhood allowed to women – and God knows there is only so much victimhood to go round; it is an increasingly crowded market – for a number of reasons: including menstruation of course and also that, unlike Ms Jenner, the writer customarily walked down the street (one in New York, I believe) thinking that she might be raped.

In other words, being entitled to the considerable share of victimhood available for victims of rape has nothing to do with actually being violated, so long as you feel violated. That in turn explains the strange idea advanced by some that, unlike all other crimes, no rape is worse than another: all rapes are the same because they all partake of the same Platonic ideal irrespective of the harm done. And now, you don’t even need an actual rape at all. Identify as having been raped and you can get the victimhood points just the same.

Do I object to Ms Sulkowicz’s identifying as having been raped? Of course not, if it amuses her. But she should leave Mr Nungesser alone, and probably avoid making pornographic films without proper training. And whereas it has been a prudent rule since all this silliness started to avoid sex with Americans, there should now be a new one:

Don’t Even Think About Sex With Americans.

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An Unusual Use for Vaseline

“’Really Quite a Bit’?” said Mr Singh, a representative of Newham Council.

“Yes.”

“Yulification-max?”

“Yes,” I said.

Mr Singh sighed.

“If I had a pound for every time I have to see to the consequences of some idiot who turns the yulification dial to ‘Really Quite a Bit’ without considering the consequences, I wouldn’t be considering strike action having regard to my pension rights,” said Mr Singh. “Which I am.”

“I’m sorry. It was the night terrors.”

I had thought it best not to identify Mr Putin as the subject of my night terrors and the possible occupant of my chimney, in case questions of diplomatic immunity arose.

Mr Singh sniffed.

“We’ve tried pulling,” I said. “Quite hard. And I’m afraid that he’s becoming a health and safety issue. He leaks.”

I thought that this was a cunning touch.

“Well, some years ago when I joined the service, I could have dispatched a task force. But the cuts, you see, the Tory cuts!”

He spat meaningfully into a sponsored cuspidor.

“Regretfully,” he said, “I have no longer a task force at my disposition. Have you tried the Fire Brigade?”

“No, I thought it best to consult yourself.”

I know that ‘yourself’ is ungrammatical, but by emphasising his personal role I was trying to flatter him.

“Actually, there’s probably not a lot that the Fire Brigade could do that you couldn’t do yourself with the liberal application of Vaseline.”

“Vaseline! But – can you supply me with such?”

“Fortunately,” said Mr Singh, “I still can. Please fill in this form.”

As we left he said, “Just be careful of the sack.”

I smiled grimly.

A barrel of Vaseline takes some shifting, and it was some hours later that I was rolling it up my street, with Bella at my heels, getting in the way. Aubergine Small had generously agreed to meet me there. It was immediately clear that he had addressed a problem that had been worrying me: how to get the Vaseline up the chimney and surrounding the little dictator. He produced shyly but proudly from about his person something resembling a giant bicycle pump.

Donning rubber gloves, I gave the protruding leg an initial tug. As expected there was a distant groan of ‘Horse Potty!’. Was there a hint of movement? Mr Putin was getting smaller with each succeeding day of no food and drink, after all, although his notoriously pumped-up torso was likely to be a problem given the domestic scale of my fireplace.

“We must be careful not to suffocate him with the Vaseline,” I said to Aubergine Small.

He gave me a look that was pregnant with meaning. It was as if he could speak. ‘Dictators come and dictators go. What matters most is that your chimney is clear and free for Santa this Christmas.’

He searched through his bag and produced a card:

TIME IS OF THE ESSENCE

“Yes?”

He tore off a scrap of paper.

RUSSIA IS ALREADY BECOMING A BIT BALKANISED, IF THIS MORNING’S FT IS ANYTHING TO GO BY

He went at it with a vengeance. Quantities of Vaseline disappeared under pressure up my chimney. Unfortunately some of it came back down mixed with Mr Putin’s leakages. Bella sniffed a couple of dollops in the grate, gave me a pained look and went to lie down in the spare bedroom.

ANOTHER TUG

“Mind the kelim.”

You can tell that my mood had changed to one of optimism. I really believed that we might get him out.

And eventually we did. The biggest problem was the second leg, which had got itself caught behind the one that was already protruding. After that the rest followed relatively easily, although Aubergine Small indicated that we should take special care with the head. The torso had not turned out to be the blockage that we had feared. Suddenly, my night terrors flooded back to me. I attracted Aubergine Small’s attention.

“Aubergine Small, I just can’t stand to see the parting: his horrible neat parting. It’s probably got ruffled in my chimney, but I can’t take the chance.”

He smiled affectionately and indicated that I should look the other way; he could manage the last bit. There was a sucking noise and then a thump. He invited me to turn round. Mr Putin, or at any rate someone who looked like him, was collapsed on my kelim with a pair of my underpants on his head hiding his tonsorial arrangements.

“Good work,” I said to Aubergine Small and then turned to the other man. I thought it best to get my retaliation in first.

“What exactly were you doing in my chimney?”

I spoke in German. I believe that he is at his best in that language because of spending his formative years in Dresden clerking for the KGB. However, he didn’t answer.

Aubergine Small put a sign in front of me, where the other man couldn’t see it.

ANY DEMANDS RE UKRAINE?

“No point,” I said. “If it’s really Putin, he’s a liar. He’d say anything. I’ll take a photo though, just in case of future trouble.”

And I have it. The man is smeared with Newham Council’s Vaseline and his own faeces and he has my underpants on his head.

He squelched towards the door, with, I have to admit, surprising dignity.

“Leave my underpants at the door,” I called. “Carpet bagger.”

“Do you think that that was really him?” I said to Aubergine Small when he had gone.

GOODNESS KNOWS. BUT YOUR CHIMNEY IS YOUR OWN AGAIN

“Did you see his parting?”

Aubergine Small indicated yes with a nod. But his face went white at the memory.

“You’re a braver man than I am,” I said.

Then the same thought struck us at the same time.

“The sack!”

If the parting was a horror, the contents of the sack were ‘Really Quite a Bit’ horror. Since this is a blog occasionally consulted by the impressionable I will describe them only on the restricted-access section.

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He’s Only Half Way There

“I think,” I said to Amy, “that I have got that Mr Putin half way up my chimney. Or as he would regard it, half way down.”

I couldn’t help regretting that there was no way to share my predicament instead with Augustus Sly, but he is in Vienna following up my neighbour Maria’s bottom. He would probably have had something sensible to offer whereas Amy was always more likely to shout.

“You got in your chimney how? I saw him at G20, on television.”

I started to tell her about my night terror and my fateful and clumsy use of the yulification ‘app’, which had had the effect of making a bad situation much worse.

“I know. I read this. But how you know it’s Putin?”

“I don’t, of course, and of course I saw him at the G20 too. That may have been a double. He wouldn’t have wanted to have a full and frank exchange of views with Angela Merkel himself – who would? – or with our own Mr Cameron, bless him, so he may have sent a stooge. Lenin would do that, expose someone else instead when there was any risk to his personal safety. It’s certainly someone Russian. I twisted the Cossack foot. From the depths of the chimney breast I heard a faint cry. They said, ‘Horse potty!’.”

“’Horse potty’?”

“It’s a mild but characteristic Russian ejaculation. Like ‘Goodness!’.”

“Did it sound like a little dictator, to judge by the vocal quality?”

“It was too faint to tell.”

“What say the better half? Her bedroom too.”

“She’s keen to put it to political advantage. She shouted up the chimney – and she has a penetrating voice. She said, ‘Withdraw your troops from Ukraine and we’ll let you out!’.”

“What he say?”

“He said ‘Chto?’.”

“’Chto?’?”

“What? It means ‘What?’. He was indicating that he couldn’t hear.”

“Cunning bastard.”

“Being a cunning bastard is one cornerstone of his successful career.”

Amy thought about this.

“I wouldn’t just say leave Ukraine. I’d say: free press, free elections, no more murders, no more lies and a substantial contribution to your extraction expenses taken from the budget for his enormous new dacha near Sochi.”

“It’s hard to ask for anything complicated if all he says is ‘Chto?’. The better half thought that if we did something unpleasant to a toe it might make him hear better.”

“Or,” said Amy with the subtlety for which the Chinese are famous, “you could tickle his sole.”

“I thought of that – but I don’t think I could bear to touch him. Also, I’m not sure that I want to descend to his level, even to help the people of Ukraine.”

There’s an issue,” said Amy. “Ends and means. We can debate this.”

“My friend Theo says,” I said, “that he is a strong leader holding his country together and that without him Russia would become dangerously balkanised.”

“Bollocks,” said Amy. “They said that about Chairman Mao and the Gang of Four. Anyway, he is not holding anything together now. He’s in your chimney. Maybe we leave him there and see if Russia balkanised.”

“I wish it was that simple, Amy. Unfortunately he’s started to leak. He’s dribbling into the grate. It smells bad. The better half doesn’t like it. Even Bella turns her nose up, after some initial interest. We could go to the spare bedroom until either he empties or Russia balkanises itself, but that’s only a temporary solution.”

What would you have done? We decided to think it over.

Half an hour later Amy sent me a text:

PUTIN/SANTA HE GOT SACK AND PRESENTS IN CHIMNEY?

It was a pertinent question but one for which I had no answer. I couldn’t see and I couldn’t ask.

A few days went by. Russia didn’t get noticeably balkanised. Someone who looked like Putin continued to appear on state television and point out the hypocrisy of the West. They accuse Russia of political murder, he said, but what about the Northern Line? Who are you to point the finger? The leakage eventually fell away but the smell became appalling. The better half said, “You’ve got to do something.”

“What about independent Ukraine?” I said.

“Geopolitics is immensely complex,” she said, “and I want my bedroom back.”

I put a handkerchief round my hands and tugged at the leg. Nothing moved. There was another cry of ‘Horse Potty!’, but far weaker this time. Whoever was up there, Putin or not, ensacked or not, they were alive: but this was a condition whose continuation indefinitely could not be relied on.

I called round to see Aubergine Small. Strength and resourcefulness seemed to be called for. It crossed my mind to find out if The Jibjab Woman would help, but I didn’t know where she stood on a resurgent Russia and I didn’t want to offend her. Aubergine Small assessed the situation. He also twisted the leg, but could get no purchase. All he got was another weak cry of ‘Horse potty!’. Muttering to himself (or what would be muttering if he had the wherewithal; Aubergine Small is dumb and converses by the use of pre-printed cards), he took himself off and the next thing was that I heard him on the roof. He was prodding a bit of wire into the chimney from above. This time there was silence. He returned to the bedroom.

He produced a card:

SILENCE!

“What does that tell you?”

He demanded paper. This was a circumstance without a well-known phrase or saying.

IT IS THE DICTATOR WHO DIDN’T CRY ‘HORSE POTTY’ IN THE NIGHT.

Without his cards he can be quite prolix.

“You mean…”

YES. HE HAS A SACK AND IT’S ABOVE HIM. THIS IS MORE SERIOUS THAN I FEARED.

Aubergine Small threw himself at Mr Putin’s leg with a passion. For thirty minutes he tugged, but to no avail. Sweat on his brow, he faced me.

A. SMALL FAILS!

THERE’S ONLY ONE OPTION

“?”

He seized the pad.

NEWHAM COUNCIL!

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Shallow Assets: the Night of the Three Revenants

What I could not work out in my mind was why I was here, drugged and deprived of both trousers and credit cards. It had only been pneumonia after all. I knew that my mother had made the phone calls that had ensured my admittance and I knew that the better half could have got me out at any time, simply by writing a chitty. When I had asked her she had simply replied that she was very busy. Did they think, the two of them, that this was for my own good? Indeed, was it for my own good? It was a mystery, and one that nagged painfully, especially in the last half hour before the medication was renewed.

I had however worked out why the Edwardian washerwoman struck a chord with me. It was the disguise adopted by the Toad in Wind in the Willows, and in turn, by way of homage, by Aubergine Small when on the run from HMRC after he had cut the tax inspector in half. The man had been bisected from head to crotch, which had convinced the authorities that, simply in order to apply the necessary force, there must have been an accomplice. For a while things had looked bad for the son, in whose piratical enterprise Aubergine Small often worked, but he had a solid alibi, pursuing treasure ships off the coast of Muslim North Africa.

Perhaps Augustus Sly had contacted Aubergine Small and asked him to cause mayhem at Shallow Assets for some purpose beneficial to me. I resolved to wait and see.

Possibly as a result of my mentioning the story of the ghost to the receptionists, it had spread among the staff and the clients (as we are called). In the Community Space you would hear of little else.

“Oh, Mr Alablague, do you think that that wronged woman will return and walk again? I don’t think that I could bear it.”

“There is nothing more likely to encourage a ghost to walk again,” I said, “than to speculate that it is going to do so. Mum’s the best policy, in my book. Mind you, you can never tell.”

I received a text, unnecessarily arch I thought, from Augustus Sly:

The ‘ghost’ will ‘walk’ tonight. Do exactly as Small says. Unable to be with you as last train will already have departed and as a student I have no car. Bonne chance and regards, Augustus Sly.

A possible problem, I thought, was that Aubergine Small, having had his tongue torn out, during a passage served as a slave along with my good friend Amy in the South China Sea and before being rescued by my son, was unable to ‘say’ anything. He used to resort to pre-printed cards which he kept about his person, but that might take too long if there were a crisis.

At about 2 am there was a knock on the door. An Edwardian washerwoman came in. Even in the half-light I could see that it was not Aubergine Small. It was however male, as evidenced the fact that he held his dress around his waist with one hand and was manhandling an erection with the other. I recognised the face, whilst unable to recall the name.

“Weren’t you on Top of the Pops?”

“And the rest, sonny. And the rest. And no, I ‘m not a ghost, it’s really Me! I’m in disguise! Now Daddy’s coming over to the bed and we’re going to give Daddy’s willy a lovely little kiss, because this week Daddy loves the mentally frail.”

He lurched towards me, but tripped over his dress and landed heavily on his erection. So far as I was concerned his pain was neither here nor there: all grist to the mill, I thought. I flung open the door and shouted into the darkness the words that have become the catchphrase of our depraved age:

“Help! I am mentally frail and I have been inappropriately touched by a television presenter.”

Pandemonium broke out. This might or might not be a problem for Aubergine Small, who next appeared, also dressed as an Edwardian washerwoman. I had worried about his ability to convey the aural qualities of a ghost and clearly so had he as he carried a sign, which read:

WOOOOO!

He put that away and substituted:

I WILL CARRY YOU ON MY SHOULDERS TO FREEDOM

“Thank you very much,” I said. “I am a little weak. Can you hoist me up?”

ALL SET

Some of the pre-printed cards were made in America.

Just then the tiniest tug could be felt on my leg.

“Hang on a second, Aubergine Small…”

It was a third ghost. This time it was not an Edwardian washerwoman.

“Who the hell are you?” I said.

The voice was so tiny as almost to be inaudible.

“It’s Belkin. I’m Belkin. Belkin the under-footman. She got me in the end, the creature. And now I too am condemned for eternity to wander…”

“I’m terribly sorry to cut you off, but I have a pressing engagement with the real world. I can recommend it, if it isn’t too late.”

Off Aubergine Small plunged, with me on his shoulders. Everyone was shouting, police cars were arriving and no one gave any attention to us. Soon we were out of the grounds. I clung on with one hand, parting the occasional shrubbery with the other. We reached the road. There was the family Mini, with the better half at the wheel and Bella in the back.

“Hurrah,” said the better half.

“Hurrah,” I said.

“Thank you, Aubergine Small, you’re the best,” she said.

He fiddled in his bag.

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK, MA’AM

I shook his hand without a word. He knew that I knew that he was the best. Suddenly he was no more to be seen. I got into the car.

“Trousers,” said the better half, “in the back. Get off, Bella. And now,” turning the wheel in that general direction, “Scotland.”

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My Uncle Shall Not Die

I awoke. I was on the same bed. I felt drowsy all over, except in one particular. The woman was still there. She came into view. I was dressed, to some extent, I could just see my bow tie which had come rather rakishly undone, but she was able to inspect me briefly and then, apparently satisfied, went out of my vision again. Had I been restrained? I moved my limbs languidly. No, I was not restrained. I was just very, very relaxed, except, as I say, in one particular.

I felt rather cheerful about it all.

I heard the woman’s voice, as if from far away.

“…awake…..”

Was she talking to me? There couldn’t be anyone else, obviously, in my hotel room, except her and me.

“I’m awake, my dear,” I tried to say. I’m not sure what came out.

I giggled. Not to be able to say “I’m awake, my dear”! What had they put in that champagne!

Of course her spoken English, earlier, had not been fluent. Fluent enough to say ‘awake’ through, I reasoned to myself. I was reasoning to myself, I thought, with another giggle; things are not that serious. She came back into my field of vision. She was still wearing the lovely dress, sheer but immensely stylish, that had first caught my eye at the ball, hours earlier. She gazed at me.

If this is a honey trap, I thought, bring it on!

She was still in her lovely dress, but I noticed with surprise that instead of the long silk gloves that she had worn earlier she had on surgical gloves. The green clashed.

I awoke.

What was that?

It had felt immensely real – not as a dream that I was in but as if someone was talking directly to me.

But who?

I got up agitatedly and made myself some green tea to clear my head. I noticed that it was four o’clock in the morning – not a proper time for green tea. Back to sleep, I thought, getting into bed and placing the mug with the tea on the bedside table. In the other side of the bed the better half was sleeping soundly. Fortunately I had not disturbed her. But I couldn’t get back to sleep. It had been too vivid. I had a sudden thought. The only person who ever tried to contact me like that was Uncle Edgerton, though he’d been quiet for months now. Uncle Edgerton, of course, usually summoned me by using his familiar, P2, who would adopt the shape of a woman known to me and then convey me back in time. I checked the better half under the blanket. No, it was really her, not P2; with P2 there is always a certain skimpiness with the attendant detail.

Uncle Edgerton was in trouble. That gradually came to me and then I couldn’t get it out of my head. It was a most unlikely mise en scène for him, but, yes, it was his tone of voice. Silly, dirty old fool! I remembered with a flash that he was said to have died mysteriously during the War. These were certainly mysterious enough circumstances for him, far from Lewisham and the life assurance company. It came to me even more cogently: he’s got out of his depth and he needs my help.

Or my uncle was going to die.

I dashed, quietly, down to the kitchen and downed a glass from my home supply of kefir. It was essential to recover the dream, or whatever it was – and then I might know what to do. I soon slept again. What I now encountered chilled me to the bone. There was nothing to see and a plain unvarying electronic note. Had Uncle Edgerton flat-lined?

That underlined the danger but I realised that it needn’t be fatal. If I could get back, I could do so a minute or two earlier, and I could deal with the vamp and her accomplice, the one she’d said ‘awake’ to, before they did whatever unspeakable thing it was that they had done – or would do – to my uncle. Actually I could take Aubergine Small and he’d sort them out. He is, as readers may recall, much bigger than I am.

But how? How could I get back in time to what must be the 1940s? Uncle Edgerton had always dealt with that side of things before. He was, after all, an adept of the Order of the Drawn Sword (Third Level) and I wasn’t. I was not thinking straight. I dashed upstairs again and fetched the mug of green tea. It would counteract the effect of the kefir.

I drank it slowly. It was still hot. Green tea is quite delicious lukewarm or even cold, but hot is best, especially when you want to dispel the lingering narcotic effects of kefir.

This round of dashing up- and downstairs had woken the better half.

“What on earth’s going on?”

She was not pleased to be disturbed.

I explained briefly. I probably gabbled.

“And what exactly are you planning to do about it?”

“That’s what I’m cudgelling my brains about….”

“I don’t see P2. So you can’t go back in time.”

The better half, unnecessarily I thought, got on her hands and knees and shouted satirically under the bed:

“P2, come out! P2, are you under there?”

She turned to me again.

“What exactly did he say?”

I told her again.

““If this is a honey trap, I thought, bring it on!”?”

“Yes.”

“I very much doubt that they said ‘honey trap’ in nineteen forty whatever it was, and they certainly didn’t say ‘bring it on’.”

“You mean…?”

“He didn’t say it. You made it up. It was a dream. It’s half past four. Now go back to sleep.”

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Standing up to Bullies

One thing I like about Amy, the better half said, is she’s so practical. The girls were giggling at the man’s small penis, you were intent on drawing some specious generalised conclusion and only Amy got the point, which was that the man was a bully.

Our friend Anthony Perry says that you should always stand up to bullies. Indeed he wrote as much in his book Love Me, Love Me, Love Me. It is a line that the better half often quotes, as indeed she did on this occasion.

And so Amy did, ruthlessly, I said. Stand up to bullies. As far as she was concerned the man’s penis was neither here nor there.

The better half was flustered. She had just got back from an evening out and it had ended badly. She spent the evening with two friends of hers. I think of them affectionately as Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal.

(Why Sounding Brass and Tinkling Cymbal?

I explained the reference. 1 Corinthians 13:1:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Ah, she said. It’s not the same in Russian.)

Anyway, although they had spent the evening in a Wetherspoons pub next door to a Tube station on our line, Sounding Brass had insisted on driving her, not home but to some station where a train could be caught that would take her to another station at which an all-night bus (for it was now long past midnight) might be available.

Tinkling Cymbal, although the reverse of an assertive person, had secured that the meeting took place next door to where she lived, which was the other end of London from the others. She had walked home to bed.

I’m perpetually amazed at the arrogance of people with cars. As with bullies, we should stand up to them. So often a simple ‘No, thank you’ is all that is needed. Here we are, privileged to live in one of the great cities of the world, with the oldest and biggest metro system in the world, planned in the age of Napoleon, magnificently launched with steam trains a hundred and fifty years ago, not to mention our lovely red double-decker buses which are recognised in the most remote places where they have not yet heard that Elvis Presley is dead and don’t even know who Victoria Beckham is, and people like Sounding Brass insist in ferrying us around instead in their nasty Renault Meganes.

The better half was already on edge – who wouldn’t be – after hours spent in a Wetherspoons pub on the wrong side of London, but when she arrived at the station where the all-night bus might be found she was horrified to find herself in the middle of a Santathon. She rang me on her mobile.

Listen, she said. I’m in the middle of nowhere and there is a bloody Santathon.

I could hear that unlike the version that we had encountered last year, which was earlier in the evening and still relatively benign apart from isolated instances of bloodletting, this was unrestrained in its drunkenness and violence. I could hear sounds that, notwithstanding the uncertain acoustic qualities of the better half’s iPhone, could only be described as baying.

Buck up, I said. There’s a bottle of Picpoul de Pinet in the fridge, only just opened.

Heartened by that she made her escape and arrived home not long afterwards. She had read about Amy and the very small penis on the bus.

I notice incidentally that the tambourine-bashing wing of the Church of England now regards ‘sounding brass’ as a mistranslation and prefers the phrase ’noisy’ or ‘reverberating gong’. This is absurd. There is all the difference in the world between the sound that precedes Sunday lunch and that with which Joshua caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. As regards the better half’s friend I mean the latter. I reckon St Paul did too.

In a pathetic attempt at relevance the tambourine-bashing wing of the Church of England also incidentally proposes replacing ‘tinkling cymbal’ with ‘twitter’. But like the very small penis of Amy’s client that is neither here not there.

The better half’s way with a glass of Picpoul de Pinet is as ruthless in its way as Amy’s with a bully, but unlike Amy she eases up with the second round.

Talking of all your strange friends, she said, I thought that there was some crisis with your half-witted and dead Uncle Edgerton. I thought that you were summoned back to 1934 and he had disappeared. That’s gone very quiet.

I thought I told you, I said.

No.

Oh, he was exiled into the future and his nervous system was strung out and bricked into the fabric of a disused monastery in Hendon. It was guarded by necromantic spells and zombies. Aubergine Small got him out.

Well that’s all right then. What about Uncle Winthrop?

Lost his wits. That turned out to be when it happened. Between summoning me and Uncle E’s return. Stress-related. As so often.

Well that’s all right then.

Yes. Only thing was, some distortion in the space/time continuum. When he got back to 1934 it was about a fortnight later. Had to take it as annual leave from the insurance company. Sick as daughter two’s otter, he is.

Poor Uncle E.

The better half spoke without conviction.

And what have you done with Thumper?

Ah. Thumper.

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Apotheosis Deferred

So many stories are working their way through to their conclusions: so many people are working their way through to their apotheoses.

The rain falls constantly. It feels uneasily like the approach of the end of the world. Maybe it’s the coming mid-winter solstice: maybe one of the minority cults is right after all and it is the end of the world. Like Karl Marx on speed, tragedies repeat themselves as farce and then back again to tragedy, all spinning by.

Last weekend we went to the cremation of Evelyn Williams, about whom I wrote recently. It turned out that that meeting was to be our last. The ceremony was enormously dignified, as befits her. God played no part in her imaginative life and didn’t get a look in here, but the occasion resembled more than anything a Quaker meeting, as members of her family and friends stood up to bear witness to the huge influence she, her love and her work had had in their lives.

Unlike most of us, who rely on the memories of others after we’ve gone to provide some sort of half-life, in Evie’s case there is her work. I hope that someone will show it: soon, often and into the indefinite future. Shamefully she was spurned in her lifetime by the Tate, which has different priorities – though it is difficult to guess what they might be.

The dog’s losing fight with cancer ought to be a case of stepping from the sublime to the ridiculous, but of course it isn’t. We commit so much emotionally to our animals that these things do matter, and in the case of this particular animal he is, on any objective assessment, a very good dog.

Others will attest to this.

As I write, he is stretched out asleep beneath a particularly monumental painting of Evie’s. He sleeps a lot these days. He still dreams and, to judge by the fluttering of his paws, still races in his imagination across the huge beaches of Dornoch Firth (his favourite place of all) even though the same paws now fail him when he attempts the stairs, a failure that he bears with dignity, even when he clatters down the bottom half of the flight and lands on his nose.

One effect of his illness is an absence of music in the house. In fact the house is entirely silent, as my beloved better half is away in Germany. When the dog needs to go outside he needs to go quickly and if the sound of Haydn (as it tends to be these days) drowns out that of his toenails tapping on the front door by way of warning to me, the consequences as regards the hall floor are horrid.

I first discovered the consolations of the visual arts over thirty years ago when daughter one as a baby made so much noise that listening to music, for different reasons, became impossible. Now those consolations are still available. So too, when Haydn is not there to divert them, are the fancies that tug unbidden at my sleeve.

Sometimes literally: I was in Ridley Road Market the other day. I was on my way from the bus stop to TLC, the Turkish supermarket which I have mentioned before. My attention was distracted by an Amazon, magnificent, haughty, kallipygous and clad in a dress of a colour and material both of which improved on the beneficence of nature. She was too good to be true. I stared greedily at her back (though also, I am glad to be able to report, appropriately, respectfully and excluding all possible elements of patriarchy, discrimination or condescension). To my astonishment she turned round and approached me.

She was too good to be true. Her face was sketchy, suggesting that after the attention bestowed on her bottom the imagination of her creator had flagged.

P2?

Come at once! Your uncle is in dire peril.

One of the lessons of Evie’s life, it has occurred to me over the past week, is that idiot distractions must be avoided if one is to achieve what actually matters.

Furthermore, I was depressed, and zombie-fighting demands a certain élan.

You know what? I’ll get back to you, I said, and strode on to the shop.

P2 disappeared with an exclamation of irritation and a slight but nasty smell, although the latter may have been the fishmonger’s stall with his pile of catfish which I was then passing.

There would be time enough for Uncle Edgerton.

If it was serious, I thought, as I entered the vegetable department in TFC, there was always Aubergine Small. I gazed unseeing for a second at a tray of the succulent purple creatures for which Small’s mother had presumably named him, unlikely close relations of both belladonna and the potato, so glorious to look at and so unpleasant to eat. No doubt it had sparked the recollection of my friend and comrade in arms.

It also mocked my cowardice.

But I promised apotheoses. There have been two, neither easy. I think however that they will be another story.

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The Great Secret Miss Slumber Party

I miss the Court of Appeal judge, said Amy.

It was a quiet moment at the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party. At least it seemed like a quiet moment at the time, but it got quieter later. A slumber party follows an entirely different arc from a normal party, which starts quietly, gets noisy and finally gets quiet again just before people go home. A slumber party has long stretches when absolutely nothing appears to happen, and those are often the best bits.

Anyway, this was a blip on the early part of the arc of the Great Secret Miss Slumber Party. In general it was still getting noisier but in particular there was a lull, Amy’s attention was not for the time being required elsewhere and there was time for a chat.

So do I, I said, but it was different for me. Our professional relationship as lawyers was inescapable. I had to treat him with a certain deference.

Even at my place?

(The judge had died before it had become known as Great Secret Miss.)

Less than anywhere else at your place, but still a bit. If I met him at a garden party I’d probably call him Sir.

If at garden party he not hanging on my tit, spilling kefir on Garrick tie.

True.

The death and unintended relocation by private plane of the body of the Court of Appeal judge, clad like a modest Muslim woman in a jibjab, to Novosibirsk seemed to have passed off as unobtrusively as could be hoped. There were notices in the broadsheet newspapers which were vague as to the circumstances of his death, a memorial service in the Temple church but no mention of a funeral. The Dawn Chorus of the Unattached had come up with increasingly paranoid and outrageous theories about what had ‘really happened’, but no one took much notice of them at the best of times. Of course I told nothing. Our dear friend P had a theory linking it all personally and malignantly to Mr Putin, but then most of her theories did.

He always want have sex with me, said Amy. I say no: you married people from Hampshire, I married people from Kettering: no sex.

The judge had been devoted to her and had followed her from Mr Lee’s opium den, which, despite all the benefits of kefir, must have been a wrench for him as it certainly had been for Mr Lee and his stakeholders. It may also have been the occasion of opium withdrawal symptoms on the judge’s part and, in consequence, questionable legal reasoning on the Bench.

I recalled as regards the question of sex, the judge and Amy a rare confidence that he had imparted to me once, as we sat on the divan together drinking green tea.

“Little Chinese girl. Got a hand into her knickers. Great success. She shouted, ‘Oh! Excuse me! I come!’”

Maybe he meant one of Amy’s girls rather than Amy herself. Maybe it was a story from his remoter past. Maybe he simply made it up.

I reflected not for the first time on the difficulties consequent on the absence among the Chinese and Russians, and to a large extent the English upper classes, of definite and indefinite articles. If he had said ‘the little Chinese girl’ or ‘a little Chinese girl’ the story would have been clearer even if still untrue. And now we would never know, as I certainly would never ask Amy directly.

Anyway, at that point she was called away. The moment had arrived for the unveiling of the new kefir: that made with The Culture.

I knew that there had been trial runs and that Amy was very excited about them, but this was the first time that the new kefir was to be made available to anyone outside a small circle of intimates, which excluded me.

People gathered round.

A number of familiar faces were there.

The better half was explaining in Russian some of the subtleties to the Dawn Chorus of the Unattached, who were responding with expressions of cynical disbelief.

The son had returned to the South China Sea, daughter one could not have brought my grandchildren and daughter three was in the North, but daughter two was there, Parrot on her shoulder. Parrot was enjoying a succes d’estime. His sampled speech on Kurd Maverick’s latest release Pieces of Eight had attracted the attentions of the music press and his articulations generally, unusual for an otter, particularly when overlying what the son strenuously maintained was semantic bedrock, had attracted the attentions of the scientific press. His photo graced the cover of the latest editions of both Q Magazine and Nature: a first, I believe – certainly for an otter.

Daughter two had become Parrot’s representative with the press and was making the most of it. Kurd Maverick, irritated as a composer that Parrot had stolen his musical thunder – the cries of ‘Pieces of Eight!’ were after all intended as no more than a witty embellishment to the master’s electronic concepts – and infuriated as a lover of dairy products that even Nature referred to the beast as ‘Parrot’ and not as ‘Rick Otter’, was sulking and had returned to Montenegro where he was properly appreciated.

No Kurd, I said to daughter two, stirring it. He would have loved to be at the conclusion of the story of The Culture, in which he played such a part.

Daughter two responded obscenely.

An American graduate had been dispatched, either at the behest or merely with the approval (stories differed) of Professor Chomsky to find out whether Parrot’s little brain was hard-wired with the great man’s Universal Grammar. This person hovered with a tape recorder a step behind daughter two, on whose shoulder Parrot sat looking as pleased with himself as might have been expected.

I caught the eye of Aubergine Small. He had abandoned his habitual disguise as an Edwardian washerwoman and was dressed as a rear admiral. Possibly, on reflection, that was his uniform on The Jolly Thought. He grinned and held up a sign:

KEFIR AT GREAT SECRET MISS: WE NEVER KNOW WHEN WE’RE BEATEN

A new friend was The Porridge Man, who had been introduced to me recently by my friend Céleste. His interest in dairy products was, he frankly admitted, not disinterested. As The Porridge Man, he said, my passion is relationships. Porridge and dairy products. Dairy products and porridge. But I believe, he said, that we’re in for something special today.

Amy uncovered a brimming china bowl and clapped her hands.

I don’t tell you, she said, about Apa’tman, great Golden Age Montenegrin warlord. I don’t tell you about Kurd Maverick, his great voyage and his great rescue by the ketch Scintilla. There are rumours about these. Rumours are best that way. I don’t tell you about this kefir, except one thing. It’s the best. It’s better than Mr Lee opium (and Pft, incidentally, to Mr Lee’s stakeholders). It’s better than chasing best of all possible dragons or sipping tastiest gin and tonic.

It’s even better than green tea.

It’s kefir at Great Secret Miss.

Have some!

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a dawn chorus of the unattached

The better half is in Italy again.

It is another celebration by one of her Russian friends: a birthday this time, an important one, fortieth I think. I rang to congratulate the birthday girl. She said that she was sorry that I wasn’t there. I replied that nevertheless I was touched to have been asked. You’re too busy, she shouted, a sudden note of panic in her voice.

I reflected that the conversation had got out of sync. I should have said the last bit.

The better half tells me stories late at night on the phone, when she has gone to bed and the last of the hostess’s girlfriends’ husbands has given up scratching at the other side of her hotel bedroom door. She describes them all warmly as witty, rich, modest, well-read, rich and good-looking. She says that the woman whose fortieth birthday it was appeared at her party practically naked and could be said to have got away with it. Some of them have a real talent for karaoke.

I reflect on the attractions just sometimes of being inside the tent pissing out. How often does one get the chance of being part of a shiny Russian karaoke party as opposed to being a spectator? I remember the similar pleasure years ago of crossing the forecourt of Victoria Station in the company of a close friend who was a drunken, dangerous and noisy Glaswegian, and how the crowd melted away respectfully to each side of us.

Nevertheless I woke up last night from a nightmare in which I was being harassed by women whose faces resembled that of the good Captain Beefheart on the cover of his celebrated album Trout Mask Replica, and by men in blazers stumping angrily around on their little legs.

It is of course ridiculous to think that there was any connection between the better half’s fun in Italy and my nightmare. Blazers in Italy in July! But you know how it is with nightmares. They mix different things in your mind so that they feel as if in fact they’re the same thing. I was thoroughly at sixes and sevens by the time I actually got up, and it took a second pickled egg with my matutinal whisky to be able to face the day.

It was as well that I was prepared, for when I opened the front door I was met with a scene of pure terror. Some ten or twenty creatures, men and women both, stood there, their faces hideously mutilated and immobile. The women were all clutching enormous bags. God knows what horrors they contained.

Aaargh, I said, and slammed the door.

It was the creatures from my nightmare!

No, that was stupid; in a flash, common sense returned and I was thinking straight again. Obviously it was the zombies from the M- restaurant. I found my mobile and texted Aubergine Small, selecting the ‘Urgent’ option.

DIDN’T YOU SORT OUT THE Z PEOPLE IN KNIGHTSBRIDGE? I THINK THEY’VE COME TO GET ME

He replied quite quickly and to the point.

ALL TERMINATED! NOW BACK AT SEA, TERMINATING SOMALI PIRATES! OOPS! JUST TERMINATED ANOTHER ONE! LOL, SMALL!

So it wasn’t the zombies from the M- restaurant either.

Before I knew where I was there was a knock on the front door. I pulled myself together. Was I the man who stood shoulder to shoulder with his Uncle Edgerton in man-to-zombie fighting? If I failed would I be able to look the son in the eye again? I took a letter opener from the hall table and, grasping it in my dagger hand, opened the door a fraction.

Speak, I cried, in my most hieratic tones.

There was a shuffling sound, and then one of them spoke.

Can the better half come out to play?

No, I said, through my teeth and the gap between door and jamb. She’s in Italy.

More shuffling.

Ah, said the voice. We weren’t invited.

Nor was I.

It was not the zombies or the birthday guests or the creatures from my nightmare. It was a fourth contingent. I should have made common cause with them. They were harmless, all too human, a dawn chorus of the unattached doing their best in a strange city. They weren’t pissing out of anything. I should have asked them in, and offered them tea.

But I didn’t.

They shuffled off down the path again. There is a loose paving stone and every single one of the women got her high heels stuck on it. When there was no longer any danger of their rushing the door and occupying my front parlour I opened it and called after them.

There’s a private view of a show of fabulous Russian conceptual art at 22 Calvert Avenue tonight. See you there, eh?

And I did, but that’s another story.

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trouble in threes

I told the better half that I had met our dear friend P’s double, except that she was black.

Horse potty, said the better half. She sometimes says this. I don’t know what it means but it usually suggests that she feels under attack in some way, which on this occasion she needn’t have felt, so I told her again slower.

Is the double a paranoid half-wit too?

Our dear friend P is a very sensitive woman, I said admonishingly. Don’t you remember when you were on the phone with her half the night when her father fell down a manhole and she was terribly and caringly concerned that it would reflect badly on her own reputation for reliability in the pavement space?

Having got that far I had to tell her about P2 and her message, which was not easy. The better half looks askance on my zombie-hunting in the 1930s. She hopes that if she ignores it it might go away

Who did win the 1934 Derby, she said, going straight to the point.

Windsor Lad. Can’t you read?

And what are you going to do about it?

What I did was to write ‘Windsor Lad‘ in soap on my shaving mirror and await events.

And so after a day or two I went to Amy’s, partly to check on the availability of Aubergine Small if the call were to come. Aubergine Small apparently was at sea with my son on The Jolly Thought. Skype is sometimes possible out there, but the more reliable mobile connection is no good of course since he cannot speak. I decided to leave it. If he was needed a way could be found.

Amy is having trouble again. Her supplier of kefir has decided to go into competition with her. This is absurd as no one could reproduce the atmosphere of Amy’s place, but that’s accountants for you. The supplier is being particularly aggressive. First a delivery was missed; the next was borderline off. Amy has typically taken things into her own control. She has made a deal with a sheep-farmer in Cumbria for the supply of his sheep’s unwanted intestinal flora and she has converted a couple of the back rooms. They are now hung with sheepskins full of the makings of the kefir. It’s like nothing so much as the climactic scenes of The Long Good Friday. Diminutive Chinese girls thump the skins regularly to assist the fomentation process.

I wondered idly how their job description would have been described in the girls’ work permit applications – had such been made.

More trouble: as we sat there a power cut occurred. The lights went off, but there are plentiful candles. The CD player also abruptly ceased its all-purpose oriental musak: a relief for some. Amy, however, who prides herself on offering her clients a total experience, sighed – and began to sing. She has a high clear voice, the music was profoundly alien and beautiful and everyone else in the room fell silent. I was very much moved. Then the power came back on, the CD player resumed its warbling and the moment passed.

I decided to finish my tea and be on my way. The bottom of the bowl was covered with fine leaves. They seemed to be moving in a way undirected by me. As I watched, they formed themselves into words:

YOU’VE GOT MAIL P2 X

Amy discourages the use of mobiles on the premises so I went into the street. The Inbox indicated an unread email from ‘P2’. I clicked on it. It wasn’t an email, it was a summoning. With a flash, there I was in 1934, next to my uncle. This time he was battling not one but a hundred zombies.

Aaargh, I shouted.

Aaargh, shouted the zombies, who still had a healthy respect for ghosts.

We were hopelessly outnumbered, but at least this time Uncle Edgerton has his trouser-leg firmly secured and both hands free to fight with. I sallied into the melée.

Then with a flash, Aubergine Small also arrived, so we won.

My son later told me that this was fortunate, as when the summoning came Aubergine Small had been about to be shot at point blank by a Somali with a musket. The latter did not take the disappearance in his stride and was still shouting ‘Aaargh!’ when my son cut him down with his sabre. My son used to take sabre classes in the evenings at St Paul’s School and this has stood him in good stead as a privateer.

Uncle Edgerton eyed Aubergine Small.

You’re a big lad, he said. I don’t I have the psychic energy to keep you here long.

Aubergine Small thrust one hand into his satchel. As he disappeared, a card remained for a moment, suspended in empty air like the Cheshire Cat’s grin:

NO PROBLEM!

Uncle Edgerton and I surveyed the noisome scene.

Cleaned up on Windsor Lad, he said.

I had nothing to say on that front.

But:

I have something for you.

It was an afterthought from the Jibjab Woman, which I had been carrying around with me. I handed it to my uncle.

It’s meant for keeping your sleeves free while fighting, but it’ll do just as well on your trousering.

It was of course a set of the Islamic bicycle clips.

My uncle considered the decoration.

Powerful magic, he said.

Allah. The best.

I realised that I’d have to leave in a moment. Something was bothering me.

Here you are in 1934, I said, cleaning up zombies everywhere. In 2012, not a sign of them.

There you are, said my uncle, not without quiet pride.

And there I suddenly wasn’t. I found myself on Amy’s divan, dishevelled and smelling unmistakably of ex-zombies.

May I have more green tea, please, Amy?

This once, she said, not pleased.

I could tell that, for her, trouble was coming in threes and I was the third.

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