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.


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!”?”


“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.”


Hogget Pudding

Not having a menu, or indeed a price list, has never restricted the provision of food in Great Secret Miss. It tends towards the exquisite – albeit casually presented and consumed – rather than the filling. You might be handed a small dish containing morsels of something unidentifiable in an equally mysterious sauce. Eventually you would be relieved of a more or less appropriate sum of money: in cash as likely as not, as for most except a privileged few, including I am glad to say myself, the card machine will be unexpectedly broken.

Similarly, not having a licence has never restricted the availability of wine: this will not be provided for money but there will usually be a bottle or two already opened and made available at, of course, no cost. Senior members of the local constabulary are among the patrons and have expressed themselves entirely content with this arrangement.

Amy and her girls work long hours and tend to eat on the premises, although there are some excellent Italian restaurants round about. Some of the regulars also treat it as a reliable source of one or other of their three main meals of the day. Those who are fussy about these things keep their own chopsticks behind the counter, and I am confident that they are thoroughly cleaned between bouts.

So it was a surprise when Amy announced to me, without any preamble:

“I don’t want this stuff for my luncheon today. I read about hogget pudding. I want to eat hogget pudding. Like steak pudding and kidney, but hogget. Find it for me please.”

“Where do you read about this pudding?”

I thought that her exploration of English literature might have penetrated back to Fielding, or Richardson, where I could, or would, not follow her.

“I can’t say – but find it in London please.”

“I wouldn’t know where to start.”

She sighed and handed me her iPad.

The last time that I had hogget pudding was at the Garrick, but the great clubs were not an option since I am not a member of any of them. I phoned St John. They had served it a few weeks back but it was not intended to return to the menu in the near future. I Googled, also without success. Finally I telephoned Jake at The Kingdom. I should have tried him first: you can often rely on Jake.

“Curiously,” said Jake, “I do have some hogget and I can make a pudding for you. Obviously not for luncheon, because the preparation takes some time, but I could serve it to you for supper.”

I put my hand over the phone and consulted Amy. Then we agreed a time. I called the better half.

“Jake at The Kingdom is making a hogget pudding because Amy wants to eat one. Eight o’clock. You’ll come?”

But the better half had to meet a Russian client early in the evening and said that she would join us when she’d finished; we shouldn’t wait.

Jake called back.


“Perfect. Potatoes would be too much.”

The afternoon opened up ahead of me. I read the Spectator for an hour. Then Amy told me that she was experimenting with a flavoured version of the house kefir and I agreed to be a guinea pig. One of the girls took me to the back with a glass of the stuff and soon I was sleeping.

“Good dreams?”

I had emerged.

“Colourful. Dramatic. Maybe too dramatic. Like being in Assassin’s Creed.”


“Computer game. Actually I’ve no idea what being in Assassin’s Creed would be like. I’ve only seen the adverts.”

“I’ll take the edge off it anyway,” said Amy.

“Isn’t it time to set out?”

The Kingdom, as I’m sure you know, is to be found in one of those streets towards the Euston Road where Fitzrovia ceases to be Fitzrovia even to an indulgent eye.

“We can walk,” I said. “You need to get your energy up for a hogget pudding.”

“Pft,” Amy said.

We took a taxi.

The usual layabouts were sitting around, but Jake had kept one of the pine tables for us; there were even flowers on it. The Kingdom is more formally a restaurant than Great Secret Miss. There is no menu as such but there are suggestions on a blackboard, and some people go there to eat and then go away again. As with Great Secret Miss, there is no liquor licence.

In the interests of drama the greens appeared first, shining with freshness and a lump of butter. It then turned out that fortuitously a bottle of malbec had been opened. Then the hogget pudding was borne to the table. It was big, certainly enough for three. The suet was the colour that suet should be, quite unlike the colour of faces that are described as suety. At one point it was darkened by gravy that had broken through, and the suet had been stretched over so as to cover the point of the eruption and keep the intense flavour inside. I was reminded – and I told Amy – of the scene in Arthur Ransome’s Swallowdale where the children visit the charcoal burners, who cover their fire with earth to keep the wood slow-burned until it becomes charcoal, and whenever a flicker of flame breaks through they trowel more earth on top.

“Charcoal burner has snake. Very tasty food.”

I was not sure that she had the point. She continued:

“I thought Swallowdale below standard book, but reread, revised ideas, very good book.”

“You’ve reread Swallowdale!”

No wonder the Chinese are going to be top nation.

Jake plunged a knife in. The gravy unleashed ran on to the plate. The smell of the mature meat and the herbs in which he had cooked it was indescribably wonderful.

Forty-five minutes later the better half arrived. Amy was sitting propped up in her chair, an idiotic smile on her face, fast asleep. This had enabled me to take more than my share but there was plenty left for the better half and she set about it.

“Takes away the taste of the champagne,” she said, with the sound often rendered as ‘Pah!’.

In the fullness of time Amy woke up.

“Hogget pudding very wonderful,” she said. “Fielding or Richardson don’t say the half. And great dreams. Man in hood. Very sexy man. Is it Assassin Creed?”

I tried to catch the better half’s eye but she was staring intently at the hogget pudding, helping herself to the last piece.

Of Ducks and Drugs

“I am reading,” Amy said, “a very good book about a duck. In English; this book not translated for Chinese.”

Since she discovered that Anthony Powell was a writer she has become a keen reader of English fiction.

“About a duck?”

“It is a big duck, very dignity, and sometimes he changes into another person, very bad, have a good time. Then he is a duck again.”

“A duck: an aquatic bird found often on farms and also, once dead, in the windows of restaurants in Gerrard Street?”

“Not bird.” She laughed shortly. “Big big man. Very important man. Downton Abbey. Duck Ellington.”

“Oh, ‘duke’,” I said. “But I still don’t know a book about a duke who turns into another man. It sounds like Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. But he was a doctor not a duke.”

“Yes, yes. Doctor Jekyll. Not Duck Jekyll. Doctor very important people.”

“In Edinburgh, certainly.”

I wondered what she was making of Anthony Powell. He is famous after all for dissecting the relations between the English classes. Although his novels are not unsympathetic to the natural world – his cast of characters includes for example Sultan, Eleanor Walpole-Wilson’s dog, and Maisky, the monkey that kills the butler, Smith – there is little investigation of the social relations between species: unless Maisky’s killing Smith counts.

Amy’s confusion, I reflected, merited further thought. Of course her pronouncing ‘duke’ as ‘duck’ was amusing but neither here nor there: she knew what she meant. Muddling doctors with dukes was a different matter.

I’m not sure that I have actually read Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, but, like most English people I feel as if I have. To Amy, on the other hand, coming from south-east China by way, possibly, of Kettering, it was entirely fresh. She wasn’t to know that late-Nineteenth-Century Edinburgh had a ruling caste which included doctors but didn’t include dukes. The nabobs of Edinburgh were Scots; dukes were to be found further North, in the grouse-infected Highlands, and they were English.

Doctor Jekyll transforms himself into Mr Hyde by means of an elixir, a drug of his own devising. I have a vague memory of Spencer Tracy in a film version wrestling with retorts and pipettes as the effects get to him. Was hair on the back of the hand involved, or was that werewolves? Amy also wasn’t to know that dukes do not prepare their own elixirs. Persons on lower grades of the peerage might. Anthony Powell in A Dance to the Music of Time has an Earl of Warminster living at about the same time as Dr Jekyll who is known as ‘the Chemist Earl’, and he was no doubt a dab hand at both retorts and pipettes. But earls are earls and they are not dukes. If a duke wants an elixir he rings for it.

Amy is much more knowledgeable than I am about many things, but one of them is her own elixir, kefir, as regards which she is currently presiding over a curious see-saw effect involving me and my double, the assassin Alfredo. I have recorded that Amy’s kefir is the real stuff. The sheepskins within which the intestinal flora of sheep were first combined with dairy products to create the original Culture from which Amy’s product is grown were first beaten, so as to advance the fermentation process, by camp followers of the Sixteenth Century Montenegrin warlord Apa’tman, and in more recent times by Kurd Maverick and his Valkyries as they carried the Culture across the sea. Amy’s kefir bears as much relation to that purchasable in little Eastern European corner shops as a forty-year-old Ardbeg does to a bottle of Old Tartan Trews Blended, purchasable for £7 from the same sort of shop. For one thing, it is much stronger.

Like all drugs there comes a point at which it stops working. Kefir is a benign drug and the solution is not to take more but to stop and rest for a week or two. That is what I am doing, but the traces still surge through my blood and where they would formerly have stimulated my dreams now they just keep me awake, and, as I have recorded, they coat daytime life with a baleful veneer. And even though I have stopped taking the drug, I still wake up, having finally achieved some sleep, with the true kefir headache, what Goethe, bless him, called Kefirs Katzenjammer.

At the same time Alfredo is in the joyful opening sequence. He cannot get enough of it. For a few nights now he has not come back to our flat at all. He stays at Great Secret Miss nearly all the time. Sometime you see him in the lobby reading a couple of the magazines that he likes to buy at the international newsagent on the corner, but usually he is in one of the back rooms. Amy has assigned three of her girls exclusively to help him and they work round the clock, eight hours each. She is rather proud of their progress.

“He has many bad things. He process them in dreams.”

“And he processes them so that the dreams themselves are not bad?”

“Yes, kefir dreams benign. Vivid but benign. Even with Putin.”

She spat.

“Sometimes there are very large snakes, but not usually. Depend on person. Putin,” she said, “obviously not processing very bad things. Has kefir every night, so we are told, but goes on doing them. Probably low-grade supermarket product.”

One of the girls gave me to understand that the details of Alfredo’s ‘many bad things’ were hair-raising. But of course discretion is the absolute priority and I shall never know what Alfredo doesn’t tell me himself.

“Like Dr Jekyll,” I said, drawing a parallel. “He has the elixir, becomes his evil self and emerges purified.”

Amy gave me to understand that his was an absurdly sentimental interpretation of a rather hard-headed book. Not, as I say, having read it I didn’t argue.

Under the Ground

I will not disguise that it all started with a dream.

In this dream I was walking through the land where I live or at least, which is different, the land where it appeared that I lived, and someone explained that just below the surface of the ground there were dead people.

In my dream I immediately thought of the Handsome Family and their song about the singing bones beneath our feet. When I woke up, though, I forgot all about the Handsome Family and their song. That particular thought only came back to me much later.

When I woke up and went out I inspected the land and I saw the places where the dead people were said to be. I noticed that whilst in my dream people had brought the location of the dead people to my attention, in my waking state there appeared to be no recognition from anyone else that they were there at all.

I explained all this to my companion in this vale of tears.

We have to find out if they’re there and if so where, I said.

Why? shouted my companion in this vale of tears, who was truculent through drink.

How? she added, a little more quietly.

I believe, I said, that there are tapers that you can sink into the ground and if there are human remains beneath they change colour: red for human remains, green for no human remains – the opposite of traffic lights.

Tapirs are pigs, she said. Do they root the human remains out like truffles?

Not pigs, I said. ‘Tapers’ not ‘tapirs’. ‘Taper’ is probably the wrong word but these things are like those you might light your pipe with, though much bigger. You fit them into the ground and as I say they may or may not change colour.

Spills, said my companion in this vale of tears, which I ignored.

To work, I said, and set out on an expedition to buy the tapers.

Where do you buy an implement that indicates the presence beneath the ground of human remains? They looked uncomprehendingly at me in the local hardware shop and in the specialist building supplies place there was a lot of talk but no tapers; indeed I am not sure that they knew what I was talking about either.

Or maybe, it occurred to me later, they were seizing whatever pretext was available to avoid dealing with me.

In the end I made for John Lewis. It should have been my first choice.

One of the constants in life is that the best things are unclassifiable. Take the Handsome Family again. Are they Folk, Rock or Country, or any of those with ‘Alt-‘ as a prefix? None or all: they are ‘If you require assistance please do not hesitate to ask’ – or they would have been in the days when there were record stores and assistants who were not serving out their redundancy notices and staring suicidally into the middle distance.

It was the same in the days when I required CDs of the music of Cap Breton. Sometimes the assistants got animated when they finally tracked the music down under ‘World Music: Europe, France’.

Dunderheads, they would exclaim, with a conspiratorial wink.

And so in John Lewis I sought out an assistant.

I need a taper that indicates human remains, I said, or rather a set of them.

A set of tapers, I explained with a smile; not human remains.

Certainly, sir, he said, naming a location within the store.

He must have phoned through because they were waiting for me. A nice middle-aged man explained to me at some length the range available. The more expensive ones promised one hundred per cent reliability, and had an elegance lacking in the cheaper ones. As he chattered on I noticed that we had been joined by another man, also in John Lewis livery but with a badge suggesting that organisation’s officer class.

Might I have a word with you, sir? he said. In private?

He put an arm around my shoulder and we walked to the window. I could tell at once that here was a man who was going out on a limb for me, motivated by nothing but pure fellow feeling.

Is this purchase wise sir? he said.

I am afraid that I jabbered. I told him that there were bodies beneath us and how essential it was that people recognised that fact.

For all I know they have names, I said.

Indeed, sir, but – how can I put this? – is it wise that you, sir, should be doing this?

As he said this, a great slab of the dream came back to me. I thought I’d remembered it all but maybe the most important bit was only now returning. As it did my dream turned in retrospect into a nightmare.

They thought that I had killed them. I’d forgotten that.

Good lord, I said. I see what you mean.

Bears thinking about carefully, he said. Doing myself out of a sale!

Thank you, I said, and left the shop, more confused than I can say. Both men seemed relieved to see me go.

There were I realised only three options.

I could abandon the matter altogether. That was the sensible course. The man at John Lewis had indicated that without equivocation. But could I live with myself if I did? What quality would the remainder of my days on Earth have if I did that?

I could do what any politician would and organise an enquiry. I could revisit the dream. Kefir was always a reliable tool for that. But I knew in my heart what the dream had been; there was nothing to be gained from equivocation.

And so it was that I took the third option. It was a week or so later and I am glad to record that my companion in this vale of tears was at my side. In the small hours of a moonless night we planted the tapers (I bought the expensive ones in the end) and then we stood back and activated them. Across the baleful landscape they glowed, softly at first and green, then changing, most of them, gradually to red.

I awaited what would come with whatever reserves of courage remained to me.

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.


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.

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.


He replied quite quickly and to the point.


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.

Vladimir Putin and the Intestinal Flora of Sheep

A year or two ago, Mr Putin’s press office allowed it to be known that Russia’s dictator was such a busy man that he did not have as much time as he would like for family life. His evenings, like his days, were taken up with affairs of state. However, the story continued, he liked to get home before bedtime, so that he could share an hour of quality time with Mme Putina consuming yoghurt together.

It was clear that a picture of wholesome domesticity was being advanced for our admiration, at once reassuringly human and at the same time gently scotching the scurrilous rumours, with which the Russian blogosphere was then awash, that Russia’s iron man tended to spend his leisure moments in the arms of someone other than Mme Putina.

Of course we in the West were glad to have that reassurance, on both fronts. But one detail nagged: the yoghurt. One imagined the two of them sitting by an immense open fire in ancient quarters of the Kremlin in which Tsars and Commissars had both in their different eras found solace from the cares of office. Maybe body-parts still adorned the recesses of the great chimney. In one’s mind’s eye Mme Putina would don in anticipation the industrial-scale gloves that she wears to eat – if her behaviour at the state banquet to which our Queen treated them is anything to go by.

One could see the Once and Future President proffering two little plastic tubs, with attached break-off-and-use spoons. Strawberry, or fruits of the forest, maya lubimaya, he might be asking.

One imagined his cold little eyes fastening on the fruits-of-the-forest yoghurt and that whatever she said he would always get his first choice.

Of course it was a mistake, a failure of translation. The press office should have known better. It was not yoghurt as we know it that they had last thing at night, but kefir, a delicious and particularly Russian fermented drink.

It is made with milk and kefir grains. These grains, which have the consistency of thoroughly boiled cauliflower, cause the milk to ferment. Apparently, they start life as the intestinal flora of a sheep, but I suppose that – as with the yoghurt cultures or bread yeasts that form the alternative currency of Stoke Newington and other places where lovers of the organic gather – one overlooks the funky origins.

The milk and the kefir grains were traditionally combined in a bag formed by the skin of a sheep, probably that from whose intestines the flora had earlier been removed. The bag would be thumped by passers-by to encourage fermentation. Since the huge strides made by Russia in the last century to become a major industrial nation, they probably have machines now to do the thumping.

Equally delicious fermented milk drinks can be found in Turkey and India: ayran and lassi. So far as I know, ayran and lassi do not involve the intestinal flora of a sheep, but all three, kefir, ayran and lassi, have these things in common.

They are probiotic, which I think means that they are good for your guts.

They are extremely tasty, to the point of being addictive.

Finally, they give you extraordinary and benign dreams.

All three are good reasons for regular consumption of the stuff, but the last will change your life. Other foods aid dreaming, notoriously cheese, but they do so by being indigestible, which is unpleasant by itself and tends to give your dreams an irritable quality. A kefir dream is generous and warm. Your favourite characters appear, and they are on your side. The other night I was organising a new television quiz show. Boris Johnson was helping me. Every time I had a new notion he would say, Golly, what a good idea.

I hurry to turn off the light these days. Unqualified approval is hard to come by, and approval from Boris in a dream is a lot better than no approval at all.

And that drags us back to the question of Mr Putin’s dreams. There is nothing to be gained by asking, and his press office no longer returns my calls. They did volunteer that his dreams were Russian dreams, but they would not elaborate.

What, to put it in a nutshell, would constitute a benign and generous dream for him? Benignity and generosity are not qualities, after all, that one immediately associates with the man.

I had a dream about him, by the way. This was an ayran dream rather than a kefir one, courtesy, to give credit where due, of TFC, the excellent Turkish supermarket in Dalston. It took place in his sports club. He sallied out onto the area of engagement, back straight, shoulders back. He was wearing an admiral’s hat of the Napoleonic era – it was a dream. His Black Belt was tied one extra time around his tummy to avoid his tripping over the ends.

But I am avoiding the question of his own dreams and the question will not go away. When he lies in the imperial bed with Mme Putina, side by side like Jack Sprat and his wife, what nocturnal fantasies assail him?

I imagine him meeting the people of the Baltic nations, the Ukrainians, the Georgians, all those who got under the wire in 1990, the men of the Stans (the women are indoors), the Hungarians. Come back, says Vladimir Vladimirovich. Let us build the Russian empire all over again. We will be mighty and I will be your eternal mighty leader. And in his dream the people of the Baltic nations, the Ukrainians, the Georgians, the men of the Stans and the Hungarians will chorus:

Golly, what a good idea.

I hope so. If his press office made it all up and there is no kefir to soothe his night thoughts, it would take a stronger mind than mine to peer inside his.