Talking about Books

The Angel, said Amy, had continued to bless their relationship.

“That of Alfredo and the woman from the train?”

I had had, incidentally, to explain about the Angel to Amy, as I had not told her about either my first encounter or my subsequent investigations.

“I haven’t seen much of Alfredo recently,” I said. “I thought he might be avoiding me. What about the settled domestic commitment?”

“This is a woman,” Amy said. “She is head teacher. She is called Lesbia Firebrace.”

The name was faintly familiar. I thought for a moment.

“No, she isn’t. Lesbia Firebrace is fictitious. She is a head teacher in the novel Two Worlds and Their Ways by I Compton Burnett. Great name, but this obsession with English literature, Amy, is getting out of hand.

“Moreover,” I said, “Lesbia Firebrace is not a lesbian, although rather a number of the members of her teaching staff appear to be.

“Furthermore,” I said, “what is the woman from the train called?”

“Ah. Alfredo don’t know. He won’t ask. Too late to ask.”

“I suppose that it would be embarrassing to ask someone their name when they have granted you the freedom of their loins in a kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company.”

“Waugh,” said Amy.


I thought that, as frequently, she had said ‘Ah’.

“Waugh. Freedom of loins. J. Flyte. Waugh. ”


Brideshead Revisited.”


I said it.

“J Flyte grant C Ryder freedom of loins. Of course,” Amy said, “absolute difference kiosk of West Cornwall Pasty Company and Wodehousesque ocean liner with state room, waiting staff, storm and orphans.”

“’Wodehousian’, conventionally,” I said. “Don’t know why. But enough, please, Amy, of these literary references. It’s overpowering. They are an inappropriate accompaniment to a pleasant and lazy Sunday afternoon’s chat, with green tea, at Great Secret Miss.”

She looked hurt – as well she might. Great Secret Miss is hers, not mine, to decide what should happen there.

“New to me,” she said, “Eng. Lit., as you say. I think you are my good friend. Help me please with Eng. Lit.”

“Of course,” I said, “but please stop showing off.”

“OK. ‘Freedom of loins.’ Bad taste, I think.”

“Yes I think it is a bit overwrought. Is that really what he wrote? Not as overwrought as Orphans of the Storm, though, which is how I recall that the chapter is titled. There is a distinct feeling that Waugh once had an adventure on a Wodehousian ocean liner, about which he continued to nurse excitable memories and that he put it in his book; as the years go by the fictional bits fall off leaving the rather rude autobiographical substructure showing through. Compare Anthony Powell, where the structure never intrudes on the lives of the characters, in spite of the efforts of the Real Powellites to treat the great work as if it were an acrostic and the characters mere ciphers for people Powell had met and whom we have to track down.”

“Like Peter Quennell!”

Amy shouted this. I held up an admonitory finger.

“Yes. No show off. But why always they talk about Peter Quennell? He model for this, he model for that. Peter Quennell, who he? What he do that is interesting? Let him forget!”

I have always thought the same thing, myself.

“But ‘freedom of loins’,” Amy said. “I don’t understand. What freedom? Freedom is choice, Mrs Thatcher say. What freedom? Chose back passage sometimes?”

She had the grace to blush.

I admonished her. “You forget, perhaps,” I said, “that you are referring to a member of the English aristocracy.”

“Ah yes, I remember. Of course. J Flyte. Honourable. Probably back passage compulsory, then. Do you give people freedom of your loins?”

I sidestepped this impertinent question.

“I think it means girls. That may seem discriminatory to a reader of the present day, but I think that Waugh would have been surprised to think that C Ryder had been said to make available to J Flyte the freedom of his loins.”

Amy reflected.

“I gave freedom of my loins to court of appeal judge once. Bad mistake. Took freedom away again pretty damn quick.”

A look came onto her eye. I recognised it.

“Don’t say it!”

But she did.

“’But that was in another county, and besides, the judge is dead.’

“Hampshire,” she explained.

“Shakespeare,” she added.

“Marlowe,” I said.

We lapsed into silence.

“Little room for freedom on the floor of the kiosk of the West Cornwall Pasty Company,” I would have thought,” I said, “granted or otherwise.”

“First time, no need freedom. All hammer and tongues. Later different when they know each other.”

“I wonder where they go now. Alfredo’s stopped coming to our flat, and I can’t believe that Ms Firebrace, or whatever she’s really called, is very keen on their using hers, given the settled domestic commitment.”

“No, not,” said Amy. “Alfredo says Ms Firebrace very good. ‘Accommodating,’ he says. He says she will grant freedom of her loins too, maybe.”

“To him? Together?”

“That for negotiation.”

“Italians!” I said.

I wondered how these negotiations would take place if the name of one of the women was unknown to Alfredo and the other a literary pseudonym. Again we lapsed into silence. Amy looked at her watch. She gestured to one of her girls, pointing at me.

“More green tea,” she said.

Then she turned to me.

“I am very much looking forward to a further conversation with you about books,” she said, and went off into the back.


Kettering as a State of Mind

I cannot say that the appearance of 神秘女郎 is immediately welcoming. Although the fascia has been repainted the door has not. I can’t recall whether it was newly painted when Amy took the premises a year or so ago, but it is not in a location where anything stays shiny for very long. Moreover it is shut. Sometimes it is even bolted, as when the very smelly customer was spotted walking purposefully up the street. The result is that the clientele is limited to the trusted and the apparently amusing.

I am not sure into which of the two categories I fall, but I hope to remain in at least one. Probably it is no more than that Amy likes to read occasionally of her own exploits on this site and indeed every day or so a visitor arrives solely as a result of reading about the place with alablague.

What, I thought as I passed at the door – unbolted on this occasion but nevertheless uncompromisingly shut – what Abraham Cowley, the man who originally gave us ‘great secret miss’, have made of all this chinoiserie? Did they have chinoiserie in the Seventeenth Century or were perceptions of China then limited to travellers’ tales, old copies of the Travels of Marco Polo? I had no idea. Anyway I went in.

Amy was sitting surrounded by her girls. She was explaining something to them. It was a scene not unlike the painting The Boyhood of Raleigh except that that aspiring merchant venturer would not have understood Mandarin. Two things happened as I entered the room. One of the girls, as if by prearrangement as to whose turn it was, went off to make me a cup of green tea; and the conversation mutated into English. Both were instances of that quiet courtesy that brings the customers of 神秘女郎 back again and again.

I tell a personal story, said Amy.

That’s nice, I said.

Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. Can I say ‘boy’? – this was directed to me – is OK?

How young a boy? I said, to establish the nature of the issue.


My analytical powers went into overdrive. Amy’s ‘girls’ are a special case, by their own wish; so the first set of conditions that I applied was that of gender bias. Then I ran ‘boy’ through the rules for sexism tout court. I didn’t expect sensitivity as regards anthropogenic climate change but it never hurts it be sure. Finally I looked at racism: ‘boy’ (or ‘bhoy’ as they had it in the Raj) has some very sensitive overtones but they seemed remote from the present context. It depended of course on the nature of Amy’s interest, but I could always bring the discussion to an end if I felt that she was bordering on the inappropriate.

I discovered later, incidentally, that the word ‘boy’ has an asterix on the translation app, to draw attention to the possibility of its being offensive.

Go for it, I said.

Some time ago, she said, I was interested in a boy. I didn’t know is he interested in me. He was often around but he was never [she paused, fingers on the keyboard] demonstrative. One day it was late in the evening and I got him to my bed.

Was that here, Amy?

I have a vulgar curiosity about her sleeping arrangements, and indeed about that secret part of the premises beyond the public space and the private rooms but before the plumbing and the tapers.

No. This story before 神秘女郎.

Anyway, she went on. I take off clothes and he take off clothes. It is hot night. I lie on bed and hope that he will be friendly towards me.

I could not imagine anyone not wanting to be friendly towards Amy in such a state.

And was he?

No. He said, I am very cold, it is a cold night. He take his side of bed, cover with duvet, cover with counterpane folded double. He looks round the room. He takes my dressing gown. It is beautiful yellow silk. I wore it until then in order to encourage him to be friendly to me. I tied it loosely at the front. It is very beautiful dressing gown and you can see my breasts without difficulty. He said, I put this on top of counterpane – just in case.

He got under this big pile and turn to the wall. He said, I am still very cold. Then he went to sleep. He was entirely [keyboard again] inaccessible. I feel he has taken advantage from me.

That’s outrageous, I said, and I said it with feeling. Did he melt?


With the heat.

He thawed, Amy said, with a half smile. In the end.

One thing bothered me. I didn’t know if I knew Amy well enough to mention it. She had always been insistent on her exclusive loyalty to her husband. ‘I am married person from Kettering: no sex,’ she had always said to the court of appeal judge, when he attempted to be friendly towards her, and if he had had his way in the end it was not entirely with Amy’s consent.

I decided to risk it.

What does your husband in Kettering think about your interests in boys? I said.

Amy frowned.

Then she said two very surprising things.

The first was surprising because it went entirely against so many things that she had said with apparent sincerity before.

I was not entirely truthful with you about Kettering, she said.

The second was surprising as it indicated an approach to things that was totally at odds with the practicality, not to say lack of imagination, that had characterised almost everything that she had ever said to me before.

Kettering is a state of mind, she said.

And she would not be drawn further.

Train Stories: South by South West

I miss the Court of Appeal Judge, said Amy.

This was peculiar, given what she was to tell me.

So you always say, I said. But I thought that you were going to tell me your train story featuring Hampshire.

It is my train story. It is an old story, from when the Court of Appeal Judge was alive. (If you report what I say, is it the usual rules?

The usual rules? I demanded quizzically. You don’t talk in broken English but I can use drivers for reported speech other than ‘said’?

I had anticipated her response, she twinkled, which was, however, in the affirmative.)

It was, she said, like mine, a strange story, involving lurches into the fashions of times gone by and also unexpected desire, the latter undercut by moments of farce.

Everything that one looks for in a story, I said: trains, nostalgia, lust, jokes. There was no lust in my train story. But Amy, unexpected desire and the Court of Appeal Judge? Surely not. You told me that he always wanted to have sex with you and you said: No: you married people from Hampshire, I married people from Kettering: no sex.

Once, she admitted wryly; only once.

He asked her to travel with him by train from London to where he lived in Hampshire. Something or other for Great Secret Miss had to be delivered or collected.

What about your family? she had asked. What do they think if you turn up with a Chinese person from a kefir bar?

Silly girl, he had said. You can be inscrutable with the best of them.

So she had gone.

You were right, she said, it was Waterloo. Many destinations not from the top drawer: Woking and so on – but then, in a corner by itself, the platform for the Hampshire train.

Have you read Harry Potter? Amy asked.

Haslemere, Brockenhurst, New Milton; all those Hampshire stations.

The Court of Appeal Judge ushered her into a First Class carriage. They had the compartment to themselves. A wine waiter appeared as if from nowhere and produced a bottle of St Emilion, two glasses, a linen napkin and a small table covered in red leather on which to place them. The Court of Appeal Judge thanked him with a meaningful look and pulled down the blinds against the corridor.

When you’re unsure with a wine list, he lectured her, go for the St Emilion. It’s rarely of the very top flight but you can’t go seriously wrong.

They drank. Irony, she reported. They drank more.

And the old goat seduced you! I expostulated.

Seduction, she told me, she was prepared for, but he was too straightforward for that. Before she knew where she was she was invaded.

He talk vintage she said, vintage this, vintage that, and suddenly he fingers in my knickers.

He carried on talking vintages as his fingers did their despicable work. Then it was too late.

In spite of myself, I shout, ‘Oh! Excuse me! I come!’”

So it was you, I said. I despised him for boasting to me about it.

He cleaned his fingers with the linen napkin, and finished the bottle.

Waste not, want not, he said. Well timed! Here we are.

Her mind was entirely confused, she recalled, as he steered his Daimler too fast through the lanes. They got to his house. I was curious what it was like, but Amy’s cultural references deserted her at this point. Maybe she was too shocked to notice; but I persisted.

Was it Lutyens? I enquired; Lutyens-type?

Lutyens Schmutyens, she replied. Not architecture story.

I forgot to tell you, my dear, the Court of Appeal Judge said, with a nasty laugh, the wife is away and the servants have been given the evening off. We’re alone.

He was unexpectedly powerful and before she knew what was happening she had been manhandled into the master bedroom and onto the bed.

Why, I asked, did you allow him to?

She’d thought about it. Two reasons, she said. One was that Court of Appeal Judges have decades of successful bullying behind them. The other was the nice things that he did with his fingers on the train.

The bed was a four poster, Jacobean in style but not, she noticed, right; it was Chinese early-Twentieth-Century repro.

He had her on the bed. He had the grace to use a condom but that was the beginning and end of his consideration.

He very strong, she recalled wistfully. Very strong, so old. He kill me. Of course, so old, only once.

When he’d finished he flung the condom into a corner of the room and lay there looking enormously pleased with himself. When he had recovered his breath he started again on his account of the wines of the Bordeaux region. Then it was time to get dressed.

There, he said, is the rubber johnny but where is the wrapper for the rubber johnny? Where did I put it, my dear? Little silvery wrapper.

She told him, recovering something of her self-control, that she had absolutely no idea; nor cared.

Must find it, my dear. Her ladyship finds it, all hell breaks loose.

As he searched she said that he gradually lost his self-possession and his pride. Within ten minutes he was on his hands and knees.

It can’t have just disappeared. What the hell have you done with it?

She said: Stop whining for a minute and listen. Then if you want to you can put your head back under the bed. You very strong but you bad man. You touch me again, I kill you. I go. Car keys please.

She left him feverishly turning over cushions (brocade, Peter Jones) and took the Daimler to the station. She dropped the wrapper for the condom and the keys for the car into a rubbish bin in the forecourt.

For all I know, she said, he was searching till the day he died.

The First Class carriages were at the back of the train. She got into the next one after them. She stared through the window at the First Class carriage. She stared hard. She stared so hard that as the train picked up speed it became detached. With the benefit of inertia it travelled, unhooked, at first at almost the same speed but fell further and further behind. Then it disappeared.

It disappeared!

I say pouf, and it is gone. Nasty smell and no more. No more little compartment, no more wine waiter, no more linen napkin, no more bloody Bordeaux wines, maybe no more Court of Appeal Judge. All gone.

You made it vanish, Amy!

Train story. Maybe.

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.


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:


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!

flora for the judge

Amy’s place is different every time I go there. It started as an opium den without opium – or at any rate a place where opium was only for those for whom kefir didn’t altogether do the trick. Then it became a place of more general resort. There was a bar – after a fashion. There were divans with cushions. Then food became available. When you enter through the very discrete front door you are greeted by the aroma of green tea and of Chinese and Japanese delicacies. There is nothing however so vulgar as a menu. In the front room, you can usually depend on meeting people you know and spending an agreeable half hour with them, and then there are the back rooms for more recondite pleasures, like the private rooms of a New Orleans brothel or the library of a Pall Mall club.

There is no name over the door. In one window, facing the street, there is a portrait of Amy’s provisional head of state against a red, white and blue background. It will remain there at least until the Olympics are over. Inside is a rather bigger photographic portrait of His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman, benevolently fingering his khanjar. That was a gift from me.

You can get anything you want, at Amy’s restaurant.

Excepting Amy, quoted the dog, showing off.

After a rocky start, things were looking up. Late one night, however, she telephoned me. I was to go straight round. It concerned the Court of Appeal judge, and Amy, who is never entirely unsettled, was clearly far from settled.

This, as will be seen shortly, is probably the man’s last appearance in these chronicles, and he deserves more than the generic description – ‘the Court of Appeal judge’ – that he has received to date. Unfortunately however the circumstances are far too delicate to admit of his being named. Professionally he would be described as ‘Lord Justice’ – followed by his surname. He was not acting professionally at the time though, so he would properly be known in this context as Sir J- K- (as it might be), having been knighted when he became a High Court judge and not yet made (indeed, as we shall see shortly, never to be made) a life peer, as would normally be appropriate on his acceding in the fullness of time to the Supreme Court. I shall call him Sir J-, like a provincial town in the stories of Chekhov.

Anyway, he was dead. Amy tried to prepare me with ineffective circumlocutions but I went straight through to the private room and the position was beyond doubt.

A stroke?

He choke on he own kefir.

That much could be seen. The man’s face was such as I hope never to see again, his slight body distorted with horror, his tweeds awry. The intestinal flora had got him in the end.

He can’t be found here, I said. Not just for your sake, Amy, but his family’s. We have to get him away.

How? she said. Who can help us? Aubergine Small he at sea. On Jolly Thought.

I hadn’t, I admit, thought of Aubergine Small. Brute strength was not required, but we had to get the man unseen through the streets of London to a place suitable to leave him. I had a brainwave. I called the Jibjab Woman on her mobile and fortunately she picked up.

Come at once. Amy needs you. Bring spare jibjabs.

What a star she is! She soon arrived, took in the scene with a shudder and got straight to work: off with the tweeds and on with the jibjab.

You too, Amy, I directed.

There being a fourth jibjab, I also put it on, and there we were, although mine was a little small for me, to all appearances four modest Moslem women about to go shopping; one of us increasingly less pliant than the others.

We were convincing enough, but no likely match for a London cabbie. It was then that I had my second brainwave. Our friend M, it may be recalled, does not trust public transport, and always uses a contract driver. This man – let us call him Igor – speaks no English, lacks basic familiarity with the geography of London and is of unparalleled venality. So I called him.

He’ll never tell about us. He probably won’t even notice.

There was of course a delay while Igor found us and another as he manoeuvred the Bentley down the street, which had been designed only to take two lanes of traffic. I think that he found my accent confusing – probably it was the falsetto – but I’m confident that he never guessed that I was English. I directed him, in Russian, to take us to Sir J-‘s country place, the address of which, in Hampshire, I had located, using Google.

Sir J- would be discovered, re-tweeded, among his familiar shrubs and gazebos, having passed away unexpectedly but peacefully.

We fairly bowled along. Once we hit the main roads out of London it was a smooth ride. I was very tired and I confess that I dropped off. So I believe did Amy, for whom it had been a trying day, and the Jibjab Woman must have slept as well.

I awoke too late. We were not at Sir J-‘s country seat, we were at Farnborough Airport.

Gompshire! Gompshire! shouted Igor.

Too late I realised that ‘Hampshire’ meant only one thing to him: the private airport that delivered his clients to him and bore them away again.

Across the field a Lear Jet was taking off.

She very stiff; she go at Novosibirsk, said Igor, lapsing unexpectedly into English.

It wasn’t at all what I had intended, but perhaps it was for the best. There would be puzzlement in England about Sir J-‘s disappearance but the arrival in Novosibirsk of a dead English judge dressed as a modest Moslem woman would probably go unremarked. A contract killing, they would no doubt conclude, and leave it at that.

Anyway there was no more that we could do.

The stress lifted, Amy, the Jibjab Woman and I were suddenly attacked by giggles.

I thought, These jibjabs are too good to waste.

Harrods, my man, I said to Igor in my most authoritative falsetto voice. And step on it.

I was confident that although shaky on central London and fundamentally confused as regards Hampshire, Igor would know how to find Harrods.


It was Amy who came up with the idea of music. She said that they used it in her place to ease the progress of the customers to their kefir-enhanced dreams, and it might be just the thing for the dog. I remembered the sort of music she had introduced, oriental pan-pipe music of the worst sort, with syrupy strings and, carrying the tune, exquisite Chinese guitars that were never intended for such a vulgar thing. That would never relax me, but I understood the principle.

Music has charms to soothe a savage beast, I reflected.

We had quite a session that evening, the dog and I: tears, demands for spirits, blaming his ‘addictive personality’, endless recriminations, a bit of growling. I was exhausted and I thought that it was time to bring it to a conclusion. Like some music, I asked.

What were you thinking of?

You fool, he added.

I never know what sinks in and what doesn’t with the dog, when it comes to music. He has the bizarre conviction that he wrote The Ride of the Valkyrie by Wagner, and indeed there are strong similarities between that famous piece and his own occasional vocalising, but unfortunately, of course, Wagner wrote it down first. The dog however believes that his Valkyrie royalties mean that he contributes more than he takes from the household budget and I have never had the heart to disabuse him. But Valkyrie or not, a dog’s hearing is far more acute than ours and that deserves respect.

When I have been able to get away, clutching my iPod, from the sturm und drang of the dog’s parlour I have been listening to Shostakovich’s string quartets and revisiting my Grateful Dead live albums. My friend John gave me for my birthday the recordings of the string quartets by the original Borodin Quartet and they are astonishingly good.

I mentioned both to the dog. He said that he liked the music of the Grateful Dead.

Do you like the singing or the noodling, I asked. Over the years I have come to the reluctant conclusion that I don’t actually like Pigpen’s singing. I respect the man immensely, I love his organ playing and I’m glad that I saw him once, soon before he died, but he could not sing in tune.

And get that Donna Godchaux! Her yowling! For a dog, that’s a painful noise, he laughed. But I love the noodling. Fast noodling from Jerry and Phil, that’s like chasing a rabbit in a dog’s dream.

Let’s listen to Shostakovich instead, I said.

OK, said the dog. Number 8 please.

I felt that we’d made contact again, somehow.

A couple of days later I was able to return Amy’s favour. This time I had a visit from the Jibjab Woman. I told her about Amy’s problems with the police. To my surprise, as the Jibjab Woman’s thought processes are often obscure to me, she was immediately and fiercely interested. She wanted to know all about Amy’s place and particularly about kefir.

Is it from the pig?

No, I said. It is made with cow’s milk and the active agent is the intestinal flora of a sheep.

It’s entirely kosher, I teased.

I could hear the sounds of her frown against the material that covered her face, but she is too intelligent to rise to that bait.

They torment her because she is a woman.

I conceded that that might well be the case.

Is she modest?

As the day is long.

I will help her.

And out she strode.

I called Amy, and told her that she was about to receive a visit. Her visitor might help or she might not, but she was capable of marvels when, inshallah, the force was with her. But cover everything up, I said. Yourself, principally; the bar, certainly. The help. If there are soft furnishings cover them with more soft furnishings. Drag the Court of Appeal judge into a back room and put something in his mouth to stop him making a noise. Better still, cover the Court of Appeal judge too.

Like Christo whorehouse, Amy laughed.

I am always surprised what she knows and what she doesn’t. The string quartets of Shostakovich are a closed score to her, for instance.

She called me an hour or two later. I have good feeling, she said.

She was right. The police have stayed away. I don’t know what the Jibjab Woman said or did. She won’t tell me. Maybe she just played the race and gender cards better than Amy could. Maybe she invoked Islam. Maybe she put the frighteners on them with her overpowering combination of innocence and belligerence. Anyway, so far it has worked.

And so apparently has Shostakovich.

That Eighth Quartet, said the dog, it speaks of a pet’s indomitable will, his struggle against apparently insuperable burdens – in my case my addiction, the burning desire for Famous Grouse whisky. With Dmitri Dmitriovich’s help I believe that I can beat this.

Not ‘this’, ‘it’, I said absent-mindedly. ‘This’ is American for ‘it’. And you are not American, you are an English dog, of Staffordshire stock.

This, schmis, said the dog.

I could tell he was getting better.

Indeed some days later – days mercifully free of crying jags, accusations, violent outbursts and the rest – he sidled shyly up to me.

Daddy, Daddy, I can stand on my own two feet, he said.

I couldn’t keep the catch from my voice.

So can I, my puppy.

Of course he still fell over sideways, but he did so in a sober and modest way. On four legs he’s fine again now.

Triadic Memories

It’s important to know whom you’re dealing with. It helps to have dealt with them before.

Predictably, Amy and Mr Lee have fallen out. They had very different personal visions for the opium den. Amy has left to set up on her own. Mr Lee has aggressively removed all traces of her time there. The cushions and the covers have gone. The benches are bare wood again.

My stakeholders prefer it like this, he said.

Who are the stakeholders of an opium den, I asked. The owners? The users?

The owners and the suppliers. Of course it’s all the same families. And it’s very bad if they are not happy. I know from my experience.

Amy talks, as did the Corleones, of going legitimate. Certainly hers is a kefir joint and there is no opium to be seen on the premises. When I visited the place (I decided to keep a foot in both camps) I did wonder if it was entirely legitimate. The appeal court judge was there. He has switched allegiance. The centrepiece of the room is a divan, covered in rich Chinese cloth, kelims, more invitingly woolly rugs from the mountains of Afghanistan and cushions from Turkey. The judge was lying there, in an advanced state of kefir-induced narcolepsy. Amy was spooning the liquid into his mouth. Her shirt was unbuttoned and between mouthfuls of the kefir he would fasten onto her right breast. His teeth rested in an exquisite porcelain bowl on a lacquer table by his side. It was almost translucent, which is how I could tell that it contained his teeth.

The judge’s clothes were also unbuttoned – a loathsome sight.

Amy is admirably direct and told me once that a useful trait of some Chinese women was the length of their nipples. She said that she shared this characteristic. It was handy in maintaining attachment on the part of men with whom she became involved. I had not really wanted to know this, and still didn’t, but as the judge slid into unconsciousness and his head fell to the divan I could see that it was true, or at any rate had been so up to the point at which his attachment failed. She wiped off the excess kefir, covered herself and joined me at the bar.

Are you OK, I asked.

Oh yes. I have good business, entirely new business. Old China hands still go to Mr Lee. My clients more modern, more new.

A pity perhaps, she suggested, about the judge following her.

Do you know Mr Lee’s stakeholders? Will they mind?

They mind about judge. He very value to them. Yes I know Mr Lee stakeholders. From China many years. They very bad people.

And so we left it. Curiously, a day or two later I heard of the judge again. I was having a bottle of port in El Vino’s with my friend Rodney, a barrister. Rodney of course knows nothing of the judge’s tastes. He merely remarked that the old man was clearly going off the rails. The other day I was before him on a trade mark matter and he took a most eccentric view of Section 9, he said; time he retired.

I wondered why. Perhaps he had fallen in love with Amy. That would have been far less of a risk in the bracing atmosphere of Mr Lee’s opium den. Perhaps he would retire. Perhaps his usefulness to Mr Lee’s stakeholders would cease. Perhaps they would blame Amy for it. I truly hoped not.

Of course things came to a head. They usually do. I was not there but a couple of informants were.

Amy was invited to attend on Mr Lee at a particular time and place. She was given to understand that representatives of Mr Lee’s stakeholders would be there; non-attendance would be taken amiss. A brave girl, she resolved to attend alone, but she did leave word of where she would be.

The meeting started badly. There were three of Mr Lee’s stakeholders, small unobtrusive men, but with expressions that were implacable and admitted of no possibility of pity. It was clear that the judge’s switch of allegiance was not forgiveable and that she was to blame.

The conversation modulated to the next part, which would comprise what was to be done about it.

Mr Lee’s stakeholders’ mistake, an understandable one, was to assume that they would be the ones doing the doing. Given his enormous frame and the creaky nature of the old Soho floorboards it is astonishing that no one had any warning of Aubergine Small’s approach. He burst into the room. He was still dressed as a washerwoman (a disguise adopted, it will be remembered, in order not to arouse suspicions on the part of the authorities, who are seeking him for the bisection of a Revenue man). In front of him he brandished a sign:


As they gasped he brandished a second one, at Amy:


It would be nice to say that he dealt with Mr Lee’s stakeholders before they could get into their martial arts first position. In fact they had, and they rained deadly kung fu blows onto him, but he took absolutely no notice. One went through the window as a warning to the people and the other two were left on the floor. They will not walk again.

He showed me the signs later, when Amy told me the story. To my surprise they were printed rather than written.

I keep a number, which are appropriate responses to frequently asked questions, he scribbled. Otherwise I write them specially, but that takes longer, which is a problem when bursting into rooms. He showed me the most used:


And how did you know, I asked, that Amy needed to be rescued, that her case was urgent. He shuffled the pile and pulled out another printed sign: