Ciao Bella!

We have a new dog. She is called Bella. That is her name because her old owners delivered her to The Battersea Home for Dogs and Cats already answering to it. This is unlike the previous dog. He had been abandoned in the streets and was wandering namelessly. We gave him a new name because he didn’t like the one that Battersea (then catless) had allocated to him. Even so, we don’t know if she is Annabella or Isabella or even Belladonna or Donna Bella. Sometimes, for reasons that will not require explanation she is called ‘Bella Two-shits’.

I think that she is probably Isabella. I hope so. I had a nice girlfriend called Isabella once.

I thought that I should consult Alfredo, my double the assassin, on the point. When he came through the door Bella jumped up delightedly. Alfredo is a much more contemplative sort since he started his course of kefir with Amy, and he tells me that the nightmares engendered by a life in the assassination trade are gradually becoming a thing of the past. Nevertheless he can still turn on the Italian.

‘Bella! Bella! Ciao Bella! Molto bella!’ he said, capering in the customary bandy-legged style.

‘Woof,’ said Bella.

He appraised her.

‘Good capering,’ he said, ‘for a dog. Strong bandiness too.’

‘She’s a staffy,’ I said. ‘Bandiness is in the DNA.’

‘I think you’re right,’ said Alfredo. ‘Isabella it is. Speaking as an Italian.’

‘An ‘Italian’?’


She is a friendly sort. She gets on well with my mother and she very much likes the Ukrainians who have come to do miscellaneous carpentry and seem to have become more or less permanent members of the establishment. They call her ‘Bellichka’. She likes it especially when they sing. At the start of the troubles in their homeland they sang gloomy nationalistic songs about the house but as spring has established itself more certainly they sing happy songs of renewal. Or so I suppose, since I don’t speak Ukrainian. It is difficult to imagine Mr Putin, the Perpetual President, singing at all, unless it is some dreadful broederbondy sing-song designed for all the KGB boys together. I know which I prefer, and on such simple judgments are political decisions reached.

Her predecessor was male. Because they are both staffies, we thought that it would be a good idea to get a bitch so as not to mix them up in our minds. Even so, she sometimes gets accidentally called by the old dog’s name and referred to as ‘he’. Nevertheless it is immediately apparent that they are very different. The old dog came with a range of neuroses, many of which he kept to the end. They indicated a much darker puppyhood than Bella seems to have had. He would get agitated by the appearance of a leather belt, particularly if taken slowly (as, entirely innocently, one does) from the trousers. He had an unnatural fear of sneezing on the part of men (though not women), sudden bangs (Guy Fawkes was always a torment), falling leaves and umbrellas. No doubt a veterinary Sherlock could reconstruct his troubled youth on the basis of these phobias, but what would be the point? Bella, on the other hand, seems well adjusted. Her only worry is to keep the family all together all the time and where she can see us.

She is also refreshingly ungreedy. We have adopted a reward principle involving dog-treats: three for two shits, if you must know. At first she was polite. Then she started declining to eat them, whilst making it clear that the offer of them was most welcome. As Mrs Thatcher would always say to me, it is not the treat that matters but the freedom – the choice – to accept or refuse the treat when it is offered. This morning we were eating, to the accompaniment of hammering noises and Ukrainian minstrelsy in the other room, our usual second breakfast of black bread, gherkins, smoked catfish and green tea: a virulent blend of the latter kindly brought back for me by Amy. (It was China, not Kettering.) I noticed that Bella was perched on the sofa displaying a quiet and polite interest in our food but showing no desire to share it. Any other dog, including our last, I thought, would have been up on the table with his teeth in my catfish as soon as my attention was distracted.

(I say ‘up on the table’ in order not to disturb the even flow of my narrative. In fact we were eating at our state-of-the-art ‘island’, stark modernist white and constructed of new Ideal Homes-approved wonder-material corian.)

Nevertheless the old dog had depths that his successor seems to lack. We used, as persistent readers will remember, to imagine the old dog talking to us. We used to mock his touching though demented delusion that he had written the Ride of the Valkyries, by Wagner, and kept our little family afloat, financially, with the royalties. There seems little risk of Bella’s embarking on such lonely spiritual journeys. At the same time I think that she will probably be spared the anguish that drove the old dog to hurl himself repeatedly from the tops of kitchen dressers in the hope of catching a ceiling-suspended German sausage on the way down, or to attempt to assuage his alcoholism in the consolations of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet.

It takes, as a very wise man once said, all sorts to make a world.


Train Stories: That Old James Bond Trick: The Angel of Paddington Station: Part 4

“Why do trains make you horny?” said Amy.



“You tell me,” I said, referring to a past incident in her life.

“Ah, that,” she had the decency to say. “No, something Alfredo told me.”

“You can’t tell me what Alfredo told you. Secrets of the small back room, secrets of the confessional.”

“This is different.”

He was on a train, she said, the other day, a dim dirty commuter train into London. It was late at night, the rain was relentless outside and the carriage was almost empty. In the next section there was a little old lady of mild and benevolent demeanour. Opposite him sat a young woman of Caribbean origin. As he looked up from time to time from his dull book he glanced at her. Sometimes from the tail of his eye he saw that she was glancing approvingly at him. These things, he told Amy, often happen with him on trains – it’s probably his thick black curls – and nothing comes of them.

“Did he stand up and caper around, first on one leg and then the other, clasping his private parts and crying ‘Bellissima, bellissima!’?”

“He does that less now.”

“The kefir is working then.”

Kefir reliable make people less Italian. It is the science but nobody knows why.”

The tannoy, she said, announced that the ticket collector was about to pass among them. To Alfredo’s surprise, the young woman leapt up and crossed the carriage to him.

“Kiss me, kiss me, I have no ticket.”

“That old James Bond trick,” Alfredo had said, but nevertheless took her onto his lap and kissed her. She took firm hold of the thick black curls to ensure that he persisted. They were in that attitude when the apparatchik arrived.

“Tickets please, sir and madam,” he had said, but to no avail. Their mouths were on each other and their hands were encumbered with each other’s outer garments.

“Tickets please, madam and sir,” he said again. He knew the old James Bond trick too; they had screened it in Training.

At this point the little old lady intervened.

“Can’t you see they’re in love?” she said.

“Love it may be,” he said, “or filth in breach of the Bye-laws, but they need a ticket: each.”

The young woman of Caribbean origin sucked greedily on Alfredo’s tongue, Amy said.

The little old lady said, “Please don’t bother them. I’ll buy them tickets. We have all been in their position.”

“Speak for yourself, madam,” the apparatchik said, “and in your own case not I hope on a facility delivered by this service provider,” but he gave her two single tickets. Alfredo, who has a tidy mind when all is said and done, felt aggrieved, having provided himself with a ticket in advance, but was unable to speak, for the reason already reported.

The apparatchik went off satisfied to his lair. The little old lady said, “Don’t you mind me. You just carry on. I won’t look.”

And so, as Alfredo was to tell Amy later, it was necessary – good manners demanded – that he do so. He did not mind in the least, since his book had proved uninteresting, and it was increasingly clear that the young woman did not either. It was not however the case that the little old lady would not look. Indeed the reflective effect of all the windows is that everything can be seen on a suburban train at night, like it or not.

The young woman loosened her jeans, took Alfredo’s hand and put it in.

“Aah!” said the little old lady.

Soon afterwards they arrived at Charing Cross Station. It was deserted. Alfredo paid the little old lady back for the tickets. She went off towards the exit marked ‘Taxis’ and said, “I hope you have somewhere to go.”

Alfredo was turgid with lust, Amy said.


“New word for me. I need check it on iPhone dictionary.”

Their fingers tore at each other’s palms, Amy said. He proposed a hotel, but the young woman said that she had an established domestic commitment, which made that impossible. My flat, where Alfredo was staying, was too far away.

“Half an hour, tops,” she had said. “But where?”

A figure materialised beside them, as if out of nowhere, the station having seemed deserted: a young woman, Alfredo had told Amy, also of Caribbean origin, with blond hair, boots and a ripped mini-skirt. His immediate thought was that she was about to announce that she did couples, professionally; but then he noticed the transcendental innocence of her gaze, and felt ashamed.

“Come,” said the woman, leading them across the platform. Alfredo told Amy that even fixated as he was on the woman from the train, whose name he had not yet secured, his attention was caught by red knickers, glimpsed through the rips in her mini-skirt.

She took them to a kiosk operated by the West Cornwall Pasty Company, or possibly one of its so-called rivals. It was shut for the night. There was a locked door, bearing the warning: NO CHIPS LEFT ON THESE PREMISES OVERNIGHT. She passed her hand over the lock, which fell away. She ushered them in.

“I turned round to thank her, but she seemed to float into the air: she disappeared,” Alfredo had told Amy.

“He too turgid,” she said to me. “He not think straight.”

“No,” I said. “I think that’s exactly what happened.”

It was totally dark inside. They undressed and laid their clothes on the floor. There was just enough room. She lit a match.

“Do you like me?” she said.

“You’re perfect,” he said. “But put that bloody thing out.”

“I don’t believe for a moment that he said that,” I said.

“Saki last words,” Amy said.

“That’s why I don’t believe for a moment that he said it.”

But such is the human desire to embellish our stories that I had my own vision of the young woman of Caribbean origin, like a line drawing by Eric Gill, sensual and pure in the dark and silence of the West Cornwall Pasty Company’s little tabernacle, with the Angel of Paddington Station – for it was surely she – hovering beneficently above.

“I do hope that he brings her for tea,” I said.

A Lovely Surprise

Alfredo said, “The ending of parties is often more troublesome to neighbours that the parties themselves.”

Alfredo is staying with us. He arrived unexpectedly. We are quite a house-full as our friend George is also staying: his flat is under the builders. Anyway, one minute George was explaining to the better half and me the sinister influence of the Man in the Moon and why it is regularly overlooked by the newspapers (the reason is influence) and then there was Alfredo in the midst of us.

George, who has some accomplishments in the foothills of karate – he does not have a black belt but a lesser sort, possibly, I forget, a gingham belt – went into an ungainly but oriental crouch

Hello, Alfredo, I said. I thought the door was locked.

It was, he said.



It’s very nice to see you nonetheless.

I introduced him.

I hope, I said, that you’re not carrying.

My Beretta (the cardinal’s friend)?

Yes, that.

I was disarmed by your doorkeeper. Little chap from Waziristan.


I’d always wondered what function he fulfilled.

Astute readers will have noticed that my first meeting with Alfredo, recently reported in these pages, took place some fifteen years ago, and here he is immediately translated to the present day. What I say, how time flies.

Even more astute readers will have noticed that that last sentence – ‘What I say, how time flies’ – is my homage to the great Elmore Leonard, who died a couple of weeks ago.

Wheels within wheels, as Alfredo is given to remarking.

Anyway, Alfredo said: The ending of parties is often more troublesome to neighbours than the parties themselves.

This was in the context of a discussion that we were having about the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a metaphor. I hesitated a minute before replying as there was a real party all-too-evidently taking place elsewhere in the building. It was still some hours before the party-goers would disperse and the bass from the music could be heard, or rather felt, relentlessly thumping through the fabric of the building.

I wonder, I said, pretending to take him literally. Random shouting and the slamming of car doors are louder, but you are forced to listen to the bass lines of the music. They may be quieter but they are much more intrusive.

Thinking back later, I realised that this was equally true, at a level of metaphor, of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Let’s go out to the front door of the building and see what’s going on, Alfredo said.

I don’t smoke.

No reason to be deprived of fresh air.

So we walked down together to the front door. A group of people from the party stood around smoking, including a young West Indian woman who was the host. She wore a clinging lemon-yellow dress. She was strikingly attractive. She was smoking something non-conventionally wrapped.

I made a quiet comment about her to Alfredo. I hope that it was non-patriarchal, respectful and did not objectify her as a woman.

Yes, he said. So would I.

Why aren’t you capering then, I said to him, mildly surprised.

He looked at me kindly.

Not Italian.

Indeed as the evening progressed I never saw him caper, either bandily or straight-legged. On the other hand I heard him use the word rassclaat more than once, with aplomb, and, given the word’s troubling etymology, with apparent semantic conviction.

But that is to jump ahead. Triply astute readers will realise that this is the second anniversary of my first post to this blog, Randy Belgians and French Roadside Whores. Last year, the first anniversary was marked by some gratifying – indeed humbling – attentions by various celebrities, friends and fans. I never expected that the second anniversary would be the same. Second anniversaries are so much more routine. So it was nice when Hassan arrived in the morning with a note of congratulation from His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and some chocolates.

The dear old bugger, I said to Hassan, inviting him in. But how did he find you?

I had forgotten all about my anniversary when the woman in lemon yellow advanced on me and took my hand.

You’re coming with me.

I looked at Alfredo, who had a cunning face on.

So you are, he said. So am I.

The sound system got louder as we approached her flat. Around the outside of the door were neighbours wondering how to start a conversation about the volume, but we went straight in and she took me to the centre of the room. At a signal from her the music was turned off and they all started to sing:

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy second birthday
Happy birthday to you

Then they all clapped. I was so moved that tears came to my eyes. I wondered if I should say a few words but she gestured to the Mickey Rooney figure in the corner (Let’s make a sound system, right here!) the music came back on at full volume and she turned to me.

Now we dance.

I got home very late. I missed the random shouting and the slamming of car doors altogether. Finally, Alfredo took my arm like an unwanted Virgil.

Time to go.

We picked our way between the bodies; then down the stairs to the front door.

Some fresh air please, I said, and he agreed.

Well, I said, what an evening. What a night. And how much of that was your doing?

He shrugged, but not convincingly.

How did you know about my blog? How did you know about my anniversary?

Come on, he said. Research. An assassin who is lazy is an assassin who is dead.

Well I think that it was a lovely and thoughtful gesture and I’m very grateful.

Rassclaat, said Alfredo.

Secret Water

It’s funny how life imitates art.

The scene in my latest post where my mysterious double Alfredo, in a guise as an Italian which may or may not be natural to him, capers bandy-legged around the lady from the trattoria while uttering the sort of cries that an Italian impersonated by, say, Benny Hill might use, came as I thought entirely from my head. In the post I speculated indelicately about the reason for the bandy-leggedness.

Later the same evening that I made the post I accompanied the better half to the front door of our block of flats for her post-prandial cigarette. Our new neighbour came up to us. He has taken quite a shine to her and when he sees her goes immediately into stage-Italian mode. No finger stays unkissed. He ignores me completely – looks straight through.

On this occasion however there was a significant modulation. For the first time he went bandy-legged. He had capered before but straight-legged, as an Englishman might, if of course the English were given to capering. I was marvelling at the bandy-leggedness, the way the sharp little Italian shoes came up, first one and then the other, each at right angles to the temporarily stationary leg, when he went one further than even Alfredo, as imagined by me, had. Ensuring that he had the better half’s attention he gesticulated at his crotch.

Two big melons! he said.

I felt obscurely vindicated. The better half says that she did not hear the remark, which is a credit to her wholesome cast of mind. Nonetheless, he certainly made it.

Anyway, from the ludicrous to the sublime.

On the morning of my eighth birthday I was called into my parents’ bedroom. Traditionally in our household a gift would be vouchsafed on these occasions, together with a hearty handshake. Afterwards I would go as usual to fetch in the coal. That was my duty. Then half an hour for my Ancient Greek studies, and the family would finally gather for porridge, and then school. Nothing more would be said about birthdays.

Anyway on this occasion we were still at the present and congratulations stage. My mother handed me a book. I could see that it was unwrapped and slightly grubby but it was complete, with a dust wrapper in near-fine condition.

Lovely, I said, a second-hand book.

It’s not second hand, she said. Your father’s reading it.

Give it back, he said. You can have it again when I’ve finished it.

It’s awfully good, he said by way of explanation.

That was my first (and his first) Swallows & Amazon book, by Arthur Ransome. After that they came frequently, with or without a birthday as a pretext, until I’d read them all. And I’ve read and reread them since. I loved the camping and the sailing without for a minute wanting to try either activity voluntarily myself. What I really loved and tried to replicate was the map-making.

In each of the books the children find themselves in a real landscape and they rename all its features to conform to their own fantasies, whether of being pirates or explorers. Sometimes the real landscape (as in the books set on the Norfolk Broads) corresponds more or less exactly to objective reality, but the lake in the early books is a conflation of two different lakes in the Lake District.

My favourite of the books was always Secret Water, partly because map-making is what holds the book together – there’s little plot and nothing much happens. The children spend a couple of weeks in a tidal area, flooded by the sea at high tide and mud flats at low tide. Birds feature, and eels. There is a map in the inside front cover and the islands and inlets on it are named by the children.

I was determined to find out if it was a real place. I knew that it was said to be on the east coast of England so I borrowed the AA road map from the family car and systematically cross-checked. I found it. With the exception of one non-existent creek it matched exactly an archipelago in Essex.

Fifty years of school, university and work then intervened. They invented the internet.

I bet it’s gone, I thought. It can’t have survived anthropogenic climate change. It’ll be under the rising sea. It would only take a few centimetres there to make a big difference. I summoned Google Maps in some trepidation. There is was, just as it always had been.

Well I expect it’s an Arthur Ransome theme park, I thought.

Now that we’ve got a Mini, I said to the better half, we’d better go and find out.

Like many women, the better half is good at multi-tasking.

Good idea, she said. We’ll take the kayak that I’ve borrowed from Thumper and we can paddle round it. I tried to explain that what I wanted was to be alone with my melancholy thoughts, but the kayak was in the back of the car last Sunday when we set out. Fortunately we were meeting our friends the Fosters there and she is too pregnant to be able to bear the excitement even of watching us attempting to boat. So the kayak was quietly forgotten, and by mid-afternoon we were walking down a deserted track (there is no Arthur Ransome theme park) towards the causeway where the children were caught by the tide and nearly drowned, and there it was snaking away to the island where the farmhouse (the ‘Native Kraal’) was just visible in the afternoon sunlight and we could not follow it or we too would have been caught by the tide. I was profoundly moved. We turned, like Moses at Mount Pisgah, and went back to the car.

I don’t think that we are done with Secret Water, and the kayak may well yet come into its own, maybe rechristened and bearing at its prow a small Jolly Roger.

Wikipedia reveals incidentally that the correct and splendid name for the inlet that the children call ‘The North West Passage’ is ‘Cunnyfur Ooze’. That would probably appeal to the smutty mind of our Italian neighbour. On second thoughts, he’d probably be more at home with ‘Enormous Cock Mountain.’

Assassins Don’t Wear Shorts

I thought we’d go out, said Alfredo, for breakfast.

It was promising to be a hot day and I had come down in a t-shirt and shorts. Alfredo on the other hand was soberly dressed in slacks, loafers and an open-necked shirt.

Am I dressed OK? I said.

Of course.

He smiled self-deprecatingly.

Assassins never wear shorts.

We walked in silence the short distance to a trattoria. A big woman of a certain age came out of the door and waved her arms when she saw him.

Excuse me, Alfredo muttered.

He also raised his arms.

Ah! Bella! Bella! Molto, molto, molto bella! he said, giving little whoops.

He capered in front of the woman, bandy-legged. I imagine that the formal message intended was that such was the enormity of what he carried between his thighs that it was impossible to bring them anything like together. He threw one arm around her and fondled her bottom with the other.

She noticed me and let loose a torrent of Italian. The only word that I could recognise was ‘fratelli’.

She says that we must be identical twins, said Alfredo, running his hands through his thick black curls. The woman grabbed us both to her bosom, one in each arm and one to each breast, and then guided us to a table in the corner. With much kissing of fingers and more business at her bottom Alfredo ordered some coffee and tea, a plate of cooked meat and some bread.

Molto bella’, I said, or ‘molta bella’?

Molto’, he said. Adverb.

Where do you come from? Originally?

He gave me the look deserved by someone who has just been thoughtless, and said nothing.


The first thing to do was to sort out the problem of our shared passport. Surprisingly, this turned out not to be difficult. The solution would not have occurred to me but it was no doubt something that Alfredo had done before. I cannot of course reveal it but there is absolutely no chance now of either of us spending the night in prison in Port-au-Prince.

And you? he said. Alablague. Funny name.

Huguenot, I said. Kettering.

I embarked on a brief account of the Edict of Nantes and its revocation, but he indicated that that was unnecessary.

Of course.

Our business was done, or so it seemed.

Did you ever, I said, have a failure again, or was our darling Harold the only one?

He was silent for a moment, no doubt wondering how much he could reveal to me.

Are you setting out after this? You’ll need more than bread inside you.

And he ordered me a small plate of the local pasta.

It’s delicious, he said. You only find it around here.

He named it, pronouncing it clearly so that I would remember. Since it is so specifically local and since I am determined to preserve his identity I will call it merely ‘–i’.

Your –i look indeed delicious. Take a forkful. No, I insist. Yes, so they are. With nothing but black pepper, olive oil and a little garlic they are practically perfect. So much more toothsome than most other pasta. But I think you were about to tell me about another failure on your part.

Curiously, he said, there was one. And it was the only one apart from Wilson where my sympathy was with the victim. It was for the Russians, and it was in London. Another outsourcing.

The mafia or the state?

He looked at me kindly, as if, again, I had let myself down.

Let’s just say that my employers found it hilarious that I had previously done work for the brutal Putino family in Salerno. Literally hilarious. How they laughed. My target lived in London in exile. He was a nasty cantankerous old man, with a smelly beard and a noisy conviction that all his misfortunes were the personal responsibility of the Perpetual President. This was only partly true, but it was decided that he should be eliminated. Do you remember the man who was murdered with a poisoned umbrella?


Yes, him. That was the Bulgarians but the Russians thought that it would be a lark to use the same method on my man. So I was duly kitted out. I objected to that too. I like to use my own ways and means.

It was a sunny evening, which made my umbrella doubly silly. There was a demonstration outside the Russian embassy in Notting Hill and my man was to be there. He always was on these occasions. And there he was pontificating to whoever would listen.

I dropped my fork into my –i.

Alfredo, what was the occasion of the demonstration?

He told me.

You’re not going to believe this. I was there too. The better half dragged me along. Let me tell you my story and you tell me if it isn’t true.

I thought back to that evening. I remembered the man with the beard and my subliminal thought that he might have washed first. Nothing much had happened. We had stood there. Some people had shouted. Banners were raised. The goons inside the embassy no doubt photographed us but no one came out. Then we all went off for a drink. There was only the one tiny incident.

You thrust out your umbrella, I said. Between you and your victim a clumsy Englishman trod on it. Surprisingly it broke clean through. The Englishman was angry. He said, ‘You idiot!’. He thought it best to get his retaliation in first. You, surprisingly, did not stop to argue, but grabbed the wreckage and ran. Am I right?

For the first time Alfredo looked at me with affection.

I think you might just be my guardian angel, he said, as well as my double. Finish your –i. They’re much too good to waste and you won’t be able to get them in Stratford. You know, he said, this is like one of those great metaphysical novels by one of the South American magic realists.

South American magic realists? You really are foreign, aren’t you? I was thinking more of a television comedy series,