An Evil Haunting

I took Bella to West Ham Park. It is extraordinarily good at this time of year: buds on the trees; furtive women in the formal gardens taking cuttings (one of them hid her haul in her jilbab when she saw us coming); nutters with huskies on leads. Bella ignores the other dogs; investigates vernal smells and runners at their sweaty windings-down; takes an intelligent if uninformed interest in such cricket as may be taking place. First thing in the morning is best. The nutter ratio is higher at a time when good sane people are either in bed or Tube-bound to their work place, and even the sane occupants of the park stride around purposefully in their various directions like yachts setting out, for who knows what purpose.

Ijaz was standing at one of the gates to the formal gardens. He was dressed not in the crisp white clothing that he puts on for prayers, nor his green-for-Islam M&S slipover, but something amorphous involving track suit bottoms. He had contorted his body into a shape that was as unlikely as it was undignified. I greeted him as neighbour to neighbour.

‘Is that tai chi, Ijaz, that you’re doing?’ I said.

Ijaz spat.

‘Not stupid Chinese thing,’ he said. ‘It is activity traditional to my home.’

‘Gujurat State,’ I said.

Ijaz inclined his head.

‘Like yoga, is it?’

He spat again. We smiled at each other in a friendly way. I was about to be on my way, when Ijaz said, ‘Your blog much better this month. No smut. No black women receiving oral pleasure. The Street likes when there is no smut. Augustus Sly. Much better. Augustus Sly is your amanuensis, your Boswell, as we put it in Gujurat State.’

‘I never said that she received oral pleasure. Nor did the local drug dealer say so, although he might have wanted you to think it. It was all in the eye of the beholder.’

Ijaz came closer.

‘I have found very good internet website,’ he said. ‘Many, many black women, with big bottoms, giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure. This is between us as men, you understand. I can give you URL, if you have a pencil.’

I said sniffily that if my capacity for imagining black women giving and indeed receiving oral pleasure ever needed supplementing audio-visually I would rely on the excellent service provided by Messrs Google, thank you. Immediately I regretted being sniffy. If Ijaz finds certain matters suitable for discussion between us men but not for a public site available to his wives, daughters and staff, that is a cultural matter and not for me to criticise. I should, as Dame Jenni™ Murray so often urges me – often on postcards sent second class from Salford where I believe she now works – ‘check my privilege’.

If I want to write about such questionable matters I could after all put it onto the restricted-access part of the site, which Ijaz could then disable on his house computer.

Curiously, Augustus Sly was going on about the restricted-access part of the blog at our last meeting.

‘Not everyone can find it,’ he said.

‘I don’t understand that,’ I said. ‘There’s something, as I say, that you click on, and then terms and conditions apply so you have to click through them too. You managed it, after all, since you asked me about Jesus and the Rabbit, which isn’t on the public part of the site. Maybe some networks just can’t. You have a tablet. Maybe that’s it.’

I was flattering him with my reference to his tablet. As an academic, Augustus Sly is immensely proud of it. Although slim it holds not only a transcript that he has taken of the whole of this blog, including the restricted access part, all the way back to the French roadside whores – still for some inexplicable reason my most searched post – but also his notes for and initial fumblings towards his thesis on it.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘they want the restricted access stuff, they get a tablet.’

We were silent for a moment. Into the silence came a tiny sound. It seemed to come from the skirting board.

‘Have you got mice?’ I said.

Augustus Sly gave a short laugh.

‘Listen. It’s a voice.’

It was indeed a voice: small, high and querulous.

‘It was in the toilet,’ said the voice.

‘Goodness!’ I said. ‘That sounds like a South African accent. Am I right? And what’s a ‘toilet’?’

‘It does, doesn’t it? I think that ‘toilet’ is an old Afrikaans word for ‘lavatory’.’

‘I thought that there was someone coming out of the toilet’,’ said the little voice.

‘Can you see it? Or him?’ I said.

‘No, frustratingly. Only reaction shots.’

‘Does it do anything else? Does it say anything else?’

‘Sometimes it weeps.’

And indeed at that point a gurgling sound commenced in the skirting board.

‘It’s a good strong sound, that gurgling, for such a little chap,’ I said, ‘if it is a little chap.’

‘I think it’s a haunting,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Many years ago there was a man in South Africa who shot his girlfriend several times with a gun in the lavatory. He said that it was a mistake.’

‘One that any of us might make.’

‘I think it might be something to do with that. I don’t really mind, except when I’m trying to concentrate on my thesis. And I got a bit off the rent as a result. One isn’t in a position to carp at a bit of the supernatural in one’s student accommodation. Different in your day of course.

‘Boomer,’ he added under his breath.

‘I thought there were people in the toilet,’ said the little voice.

‘It sounds evil to me,’ I said, ‘incredibly evil.’

‘I don’t know about evil,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘but I’m not sure that it has the ring of truth.’


A bit of high-level intellectual colloquy

‘Fire away,’ I said to Augustus Sly.

‘Montenegro,’ he said. ‘Ah, Montenegro.’

We were in London.

‘Or Crna Gora, as the locals have it,’ he said. His pronunciation was just so.

‘Montenegro,’ I said, ‘since you are interviewing me on the subject, is a boost to creativity. Of course, as a country, you shouldn’t judge it by February. It was cold and it rained. It reminded me of the west of Ireland from the days when I used to go there. In Ireland it rained and the cold got you deep down. Ireland and Montenegro both, you would hunch in front of some electric fan heater so that your face burned and your feet still felt like ice. It couldn’t be as cold as it felt, to judge by the temperature gauge in the hired Corsa: I suppose that it was the damp that got into the house and your bones and could only be dispelled by living there.

‘The difference between Montenegro and Ireland,’ I said, ‘is twofold: the music and the gossip. In Ireland there is always music: furious music through an open door, as Mike Scott says.’

‘Waterboys,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘Just so. Room to Roam. In Montenegro, there’s also always music, but it’s Europop…’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘At best.

‘And in Ireland,’ I said, ‘there are always stories. There’s gossip about the people who live there. So and so has become a lesbian. So and so has become a potter. So and so was JFK’s real father, still alive, by God. Such and such a church is the oldest in Europe, celebrated in poems and songs now lost. In that valley they still talk Latin – away from the incomers and the tourists, of course. In Montenegro there are probably stories too, but they’re lost on me, not having the Serbo-Croatian. So I’m driven to making them up.’

‘Kurd Maverick?’ said Augustus Sly.

‘He’s real, actually – but I have made him do things that he didn’t really do. He’s cool with it. No, I was thinking of Apa’tman, the great Sixteenth Century warlord who put his enemies to the sword and then subdued the nation with the benign aid of kefir, but would not survive a Google search.’

‘Apa’tman,’ said Augustus Sly, ‘is not a happy creation. With respect.’

‘Please don’t say ‘with respect’,’ I said. ‘It nearly always comes across as either rude or smug.’

‘In my case?’


‘Apa’tman is wholly unbelievable,’ Augustus Sly said. ‘Like Dame Jenni ™ Murray, another of your obviously made-up characters that you lay on with a trowel.’

‘Do you think,’ I said, ‘that there is a danger of making the whole thing more self-referential that it already is if we continue in this vein?’

‘Were you planning to record our conversations?’



‘Post them?’

‘Of course.’

‘That was the plan: if your questions were sufficiently amusing. My readers like nothing more than a bit of high-level intellectual colloquy.’

Augustus Sly studied the end of his pencil. He was on his mettle now.

‘Great Secret Miss,’ he said.

‘Ah. Tricky, that.’

‘Where is it, do you think?’

‘I can’t of course say exactly where it is or it would be inundated by my thousands of Followers, which would spoil its peculiar ambience. Soho, I suppose, with The Kingdom further up towards the Euston Road. It has certain Magic Toyshop qualities, though, hovering between real life and the world of dreams. You may not be able easily to see it from the street.’

‘And Uncle Edgerton…’

‘Everyone hates Uncle Edgerton.’

‘No. No. The whole zombie thing. Fascinating. In a way…’

‘What I felt, I’d been very brave. Credit was due.’

Augustus Sly ignored that.

‘The whole zombie thing,’ I said, ‘as you call it. What’s your take on that, then?’

‘Oh,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Post-ironic anomie. That whole thing. It’s a rather important element of my thesis, actually. Won’t say any more if you’re, you know…’

‘… posting. Of course. Internet piracy. You wouldn’t want anyone else stealing a march.’

‘I’ve been burned before,’ said Augustus Sly. ‘Peer review! Ha! Peer theft more like.’

‘Not on your alablague research?’

‘No. No. A thing on Barthes. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? Peer theft more like.’

‘I’m sorry to hear it. If I do a post about this do you want me to take out the bit about post-ironic anomie?’

‘Yes please,’ said Augustus Sly.

He stared at the end of his pencil again.

‘What will you call it?’ I said. ‘Your thesis?’

‘Before the colon or after?’


‘All titles of theses are split about a colon. Pilate Jests: Truth and Lies in the Alablague Blog. Barthes: Roland or Simpson? . That sort of thing.’

‘Is that it? There’s no Pilate in my blog.’

‘No it isn’t the title. That’s a secret. Of course there isn’t Pilate actually in your blog. That would be too blatant a channeling of Master and Marguerite even for you. ‘

Augustus Sly flipped his fingers into aerial quotation marks when he said ‘channeling’.

‘But ‘alablague’’, he went on, ‘ – ‘in jest’ in French; Canadian French anyway – is an obvious reference to jesting Pilate.’

‘Bollocks,’ I said. ‘It’s my surname.’

‘My daughter,’ I said, ‘like you an aspiring PhD, likes to drape her thesis titles around a semi-colon, incidentally, rather than the colon as more generally found.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I suppose you’re not telling me the title because of the post-ironic anomie business.’

‘Bollocks,’ said Augustus Sly.

‘I’ll get it out of you.’

He fell silent and ruminated for a moment – figuratively, of course, on account of having only one stomach.

Or so I assume: our acquaintance is still too young for confidences of that nature.

Clearly he was working up to something.

‘Big one,’ he said.

I realised at once that he was not attempting to flatter me by using the vocative case. He meant, ‘This is the big one.’ It was usage I had come across before.

‘Mm?’ I said.

‘Who is Amy?’ said Augustus Sly.

Like Sainsbury’s Mushroom

There was animated conversation, in Mandarin, and some laughter in Great Secret Miss, when I visited the other day. When it subsided I asked Amy to explain. She was initially reluctant, but gave in, knowing my interest in gossip and particularly gossip from that temple of dreams.

A man, white, English, in his forties, new to Great Secret Miss, had asked one of the girls to assist him on his way, in one of the back rooms. This was not unusual. She showed him into the room and went to prepare the kefir. When she returned his clothing was in disarray, although not removed, and he made it clear that the release that he required was not only that of sleep and benevolent dreams but, intermediately, sexual.

This again was not unusual. Some of the girls were prepared to assist, for an honorarium; others were not and took the view that it was a matter entirely in the hands of the client. There was a woman, a regular, who was unable to achieve the release of dreams without an energetic working over first. She just couldn’t nod off. As I say, some of the girls helped her and others left her to her own devices while busying themselves with the preparation of the kefir, but in either event it was a noisy affair and except at busy times the girls tended to keep the rooms to each side empty for fear of frightening the inexperienced.

Not Dame Jenni ™ Murray?

No, she doesn’t need to.

Anyway, on this occasion the girl returned and the client indicated his groin. He had, as I say, pulled his trousers and pants down over his thighs. The girl paused, which angered the man. He grabbed her wrist roughly.

The reason for pausing, the girl explained to Amy later, was not reluctance in principle – she was one of those who were prepared to assist in that way – so much as a momentary failure to establish what exactly she was expected to do.

(Before we deal with the unsavoury details I should perhaps address another point, and it relates to my description of Amy’s assistants as ‘girls’. Dame Jenni ™ Murray, stopping me bodily in the corridor of the film company for that purpose, is not the only one to take me to task.

They are not ‘girls’, they are women, she said. You wouldn’t say that if it was a man. You wouldn’t call them ‘boys’.

No one is more implacably opposed to gender bias than I am, and I would say two things in my defence.

One is that if they were male I would indeed call them boys.

The second is that in earlier posts I did call them ‘women’ and they objected. I never suspected that they followed this blog (Amy doesn’t always) but they clearly do and they came to me in a delegation.

We are not ‘women’, they said, we are Amy’s girls.

WordPress has an exciting function called ‘Edit’ and at their urging I used it.)

Anyway, we must return to Amy’s girl, the client and his groin.

The problem, as explained by the girl to Amy, was that it was extremely small.

Like Sainsbury’s mushroom.

I was momentarily intrigued that she had referred to Sainsbury’s rather than, say, Loon Fung supermarket in Gerrard Street. I suppose that it is because Sainsbury’s sells those little white button mushrooms whereas those at Loon Fung tend to be funkier, more interesting and, well, bigger.

It was so small, Amy’s girl as reported to me by Amy said, that I couldn’t see what I could feasibly do with it. It was flaccid, too.

The girl was there, incidentally, part of our group and nodding as Amy related her story to me.

Anyway, the man apparently seized her wrist roughly again, which resolved that immediate question. She rummaged about a bit and that seemed to give satisfaction. Indeed, after some minutes of this he took a bottle from his pocket, unstoppered it and put it solemnly to his nose.


Of course.

He gave every sign of extreme enthusiasm, short of tumescence. If it was like a Sainsbury’s mushroom it was not in its perky raw form, as encountered on the shelf in the salad section; more parboiled. He continued to issue loud instructions to the girl, grabbing and manhandling her. She administered the kefir much more perfunctorily than was normal and escaped.

He mustn’t come back, Amy said. No one bullies my girls.

They’d taken a photograph of him to encourage him not to return, in case of any disagreement. They were giggling over it and they showed it to me.

Shame, they said.

But I wondered. Out of male fellow feeling I didn’t inspect the photographed button mushroom but I did look at his face. He had the chilling expression of the celebrity paedophile (‘I’m King Jimmy’), the disdain of the self-regarding cocksman as seen in the pages of Heat magazine. I suspected that he was beyond shame.

But out of male fellow feeling I wasn’t.

What happened?

Out the back door. Photo in pocket. Trousers failed. Fell, unfortunately, on face.

When Amy was riled, even Mr Lee’s stakeholders could not be more ruthless.


I have had a couple of expressions of concern over the latest post.

Sources close to Dame Jenni™ Murray contacted me yesterday evening. It was rather late and they weren’t entirely coherent but I can probably summarise their concerns as follows:

One: The latest post is entitled Thumping Unnecessary, and the entirety of the last paragraph reads:

Dame Jenni™ Murray?

Two: Thumping is used in the blog as a reference to masturbation. See Bunanza!

Three: This is a deliberate and derisive reference to Dame Jenni™ Murray and her recent assertion to John Humphrys:

I’ve never needed to.

Four: Dame Jenni™ Murray has never needed to.

I jotted down sources close as remarking that this was because she gets it regular. Such vulgarity: I must have been mistaken.

Five: A woman’s control over her own body is not negotiable and is a beautiful thing,

Six: We wouldn’t be having this debate if it was a man.

Needless to say, I am distressed. I would not upset Dame Jenni™ Murray for the world. I entirely accept propositions four and five, which seem to be the crux of the matter – but not the others.

Only someone eaten away by paranoia would make the connection between the title and the final paragraph. Much water flows under the bridge in between. I’m not accusing Dame Jenni™ Murray of paranoia – of course not – but the sources close, and I can’t believe that they are authorised by her, certainly are.

It is true that I have given the soubriquet ‘Thumper’ to the better half’s devotee who telephones her in the mornings.

Curiously, what you hear through the phone, at any rate from across the bed, is less thumping than grunts, little whinnies and the snap, finally, of Lycra replaced. One infers the thumping.

Thumping in the context of The Culture, however, has no overtones of self-love. It is a serious part of the technology of creating dairy products and is dealt with in some detail in my post Vladimir Putin and the Intestinal Flora of Sheep. The word thump, like so many, has more than one meaning.

I have to say that I deplore the efforts of some people to see double entendres everywhere and to drag everything down to the level of filth.

Finally, whilst the better half’s admirer is male and would undoubtedly if close-miked (or ‘close-miced’: I must ask Kurd Maverick) make thumping noises, women are different in that regard. I concede freely – if that helps – that if Dame Jenni™ Murray were to masturbate – which of course she doesn’t, as she doesn’t need to – she would not make thumping noises.

I trust that that concludes the matter.

The second bothers me more. It is that the latest post was excessively allusive. The word ‘gratuitous’ features, particularly as regards plays on words in relation to dairy products. Some took particular exception to my ‘dragging in for the sake of a cheap joke’ that fine song by Paul Simon You Can Call Me Al.

I would say two things:

One: My saying ‘You can call me Al’ was a cheap joke. People sometimes shorten ‘Alablague’ and call me ‘Al’ but my friends generally use my Christian name. The Jibjab Women provoked me into it, however, by saying as she did ‘You can call me Jib’, and my glib answer did raise a titter from Amy.

Two: But should I have recorded the incident for you? Here I must come clean.

I suggested in the post that Amy gave me steroids. This was not true. It was the usual herbal rubbish. It was the dentist who gave me steroids. Now, steroids have the effect of making you run and cycle jolly fast, but they also make you a bit perky. This effect is less remarked as it takes a lot to make an athlete exhibit characteristics that a normal person would describe as ‘perky’. Usain Bolt’s mime is quite perky, but that militates against my argument, as Usain Bolt would never take steroids.

Anyway I went home and tried to sleep because of the pain from my tooth, but I couldn’t, because of the steroids. So I wrote the post instead. And if I failed to maintain the standard of cool and factual impartiality to which I aim and which you expect, I am sorry.

I will never again irritate you with steroid-induced maunderings again. That is my pledge.

Kefir of course is different.

Hold on. Here comes another one.

It’s signed ‘Pro Life’. It criticises me for ‘equivalentising’ my ‘decrepit old tooth’ with an ‘Innocent Young Life’ [upper case Pro Life’s]. It goes on to hope that I develop ‘septiseemia’ [It really isn’t difficult to check spelling, even with Microsoft Word] and die in horrible pain.

For heaven’s sake!

If you don’t like it, Pro sodding Life – and who’s life by the way, obviously not mine – sod off and read something else.


Today I tell you one thing, one thing only.

Amy made a grand gesture. She is enjoying rationing her life story, a bit at a time, and each visit circumscribed in time and etiquette. We don’t start until green tea has been served by one of her girls and preliminary courtesies have been exchanged.

One thing. My mother has no name. My brother one name. I have two names.

Your mother?

She dead.

But she had no name?

No name.


Too much trouble, girls, then. Many Chinese women no name then.

But what did you call her?

It was an idiotic question.


And your brother?

He in China. He like China more.

And he is called?

No need you know. He just my brother.

And you have two names because Amy is your English name and you have a Chinese name too?

Chinese name too.

What’s that?

No need you know.

She was certainly enjoying this.

No wonder you called it Great Secret Miss.

She laughed.

And today I tell you no more.

No, Amy, you have to. You have to leave me guessing what comes next. That’s the game. You’re my Scheherazade.

I was fairly confident that she had never heard of Scheherazade and, wrongly, that she would be entirely unable to pronounce her name. I was getting my own back.

Ah! Scheherazade! Now I have three names!

And with that she disappeared into the murky – indeed secret – nether regions of Great Secret Miss. One of her girls gave me more green tea but it was clear that that was all that I would see of Amy for the day.

I went home on the bus. It occurred to me to think about all the Chinese people in London. All those secrets, I thought. How many of them had unknowable names? Or no names at all? How many of them had husbands in Kettering?

It is of course wrong to generalise – still more so to fantasise – on the basis of nationality. Dame Jenni ™ Murray, had she access to my thoughts, would have brought me to order. Racist, she would have said, and sexist – and she would have been right. A reprimand from Dame Jenni ™ Murray is always a pleasure, a stern pleasure but one that leaves you firmly on the straight and narrow and ready to face the world with one hundred per cent confidence. I have come to value our encounters in the corridors of the film company and I shall be sorry when the production of the first, I hope, of many series of Bunanza! is finished. However, as it turned out, on this occasion a reprimand from Dame Jenni ™ Murray was not necessary to put me right.

I settled into my seat upstairs on the bus. It was nearly full. As I sat down I noticed a young Chinese man in the seat behind me. He was on the phone. He had a rather high voice. That, combined with his very clear diction, meant that although he never raised his voice he must have been audible throughout the upper deck. And I, scarcely a foot in front of him, had him talking directly into my ears.

He was making an arrangement to meet someone for the afternoon in a week’s time .

Now, he said, I am very much looking forward to our meeting and we will have sex together. Maybe we will have some food together first. I like to eat. Do you like to eat? Or maybe after. They tell me that you very much like having sex in your bum. Is that right?

There was silence as the other man (for man, to judge by the pitch of the noises coming from the phone, it was) explained the degree of his desire to have it in his bum from my neighbour. Evidently, on balance, that was just what he wanted.

Well, said my neighbour, I don’t do that very often.

He explained in some detail what it was that he did do very often.

But you want to have it in your bum. And you will. I have a week now. So I will practise. You will like it very much.

The other man apparently explained that he was pleasurably anticipating – in the correct sense – receiving it in his bum from my neighbour.

No. I can’t now. I’m on the bus. Wait till I get home. Don’t do it yet. I call you.

He hung up. Everyone on the bus gave a little sigh. There’s nothing like young love to bring folk together.

But as I walked home from the bus stop I couldn’t help comparing his approach to secrets with Amy’s and I resolved to stop generalising.

I imagined my neighbour’s joyless but enthusiastic experiments with the techniques of sodomy with whatever stand-in bottoms he could muster, and the refinements produced in due course for the delectation of his inamorato.

When I got home there was a text from Amy.


I replied:


Who’s that, asked the better half, who was packing.

Amy. She’s got to the bit where she leaves Kettering and eventually meets Aubergine Small.

Pft, said the better half.

From Guangxi Province to Kettering

Chinese people, said Amy, no like the way you make me talk.

As part of her drive to learn, Amy has been reading, and I suppose sharing, this blog.

I know. Dame Jenni ™ Murray was saying much the same thing, when she passed me in the corridor at the film production company. She called me patriarchal, patronising and racist. Is it because of leaving out the definite and indefinite articles?

Mainly that, said Amy. I don’t mind. Some Chinese people mind.

I’ve been thinking about it anyway. It’s a funny mixture. I write the words that you say but I don’t try to represent how you say them. There’s never a question of writing ‘borrocks’ even if that’s what you actually say – which you do when you’re cross and not when you aren’t. And Chinese people must have noticed that whatever you say it’s nearly always wise and generally right.

I suppose, I said, that it’s the elision of singular and plural, present and past, and the absence of the definite and indefinite articles that fascinate me. It’s the same with Russian, as to the definite and indefinite articles anyway. It makes for a completely different way of talking. But I couldn’t put it into the mouth of the better half. For one thing her English is too good. For another she’d kill me.

I no want better half say my words.

And so for the time being we left it. We were at Great Secret Miss. Amy had just barked an instruction to one of her girls, who returned some minutes later with a fish head on a plate. Amy set about it with some chopsticks and the occasional use of her fingers, removing small pieces of meat, but from time to time resorting to sucking.

Dame Jenni ™ Murray better not call you racist if she know which side her bun buttered. You very important film people.

Dame Jenni ™ Murray is first and last a person of principle, I said. That is the quality that she brings to Bunanza! and that is why Bunanza! will wipe the floor with the opposition, integrity-wise.

I was not going to discuss Bunanza! with Amy. There have been creative differences, as you’d expect, but that’s for another day.

Never mind Bunanza! and Dame Jenni ™ Murray. Tell me about your husband in Kettering.

Amy inspected her fish head. She had neatly reduced it to some small bones, some black stuff and two eyeballs and had eaten the rest.

I no eat fish eyes, said Amy. Eat enough, make you look like Japanese people.

I laughed. The trouble with you, Amy, is that you are patronising, patriarchal and racist.

Matriarchal, she said.

My mother-in-law won’t eat fish eyes because she says they are fattening.

Each person his own. What you say?

I say, when it’s fish, nothing above the neck. Or indeed that shiny bit just below. Unless it’s whitebait, of course. But tell me about your husband in Kettering.

Amy sighed.

Not complicated, not interesting.


Your son rescue me in South China Sea. I slave. With Aubergine Small. He slave too. Man cut his tongue.

I remember. And the son brought you both to England, but he left the other slaves that he freed with Social Services. How did you become a slave?

Amy paused.

I no tell you life story without definite and indefinite articles. Undignified.

OK. I’ll put you in reported speech.

She was born in China, in Guangxi Province. She had a brother and a sister. Her father was a chemical engineer. Once he was required by his company to travel to the West. Amy was vague about where: ‘not UK – some other‘. He came back with stories that disturbed and excited his family. It was not like on television, he said. There was freedom and opportunity. There were great clothes. They never sent him abroad again.

Amy’s sister had been more excited by what their father had said than had Amy. Amy wanted to finish her education, but the sister had already started work and was dissatisfied with it. She got a cheap ticket to England. Weeks went by and she sent word that she was staying. She had found some barely respectable language school and enrolled, so as to get a student visa. She wasn’t doing much language study, but she was working as a waitress in Chinatown and surviving. She said that London was as wonderful as their father had suggested it might be and that Amy should join her.

When Amy left school she did.

So you were in England before you became a slave in the South China Sea.

Of course!

She worked with her sister and they found a flat together, off the Harrow Road. She decided that she wanted to stay and, more methodical than her sister, that she should find a way to make it permanent. She found a husband.

Where did you meet him?

I find him on internet.

And he is in Kettering.

His name was Giles. He was in his fifties, English, divorced and troubled.

I told Amy that many of my family lived in Kettering.

Kettering very beautiful.

I’ve never been there. It’s none of my close relations. Sometimes one of them writes to the Daily Telegraph and people ask if it’s me. It’s not a common name.

Disgusted of Kettering?

Not for the first time I was amazed at what of life in England she knew and what she didn’t.

That sort of thing.

Amy had married Giles and moved to Kettering to live with him. He, it appeared, having married out of loneliness, fell for her deeply.

He very much in love with me. He hate when I leave the house, shopping, whatever.

At the same time his mental state deteriorated. He was convinced, it seems, that, having come into his life so suddenly, she would leave him as unexpectedly. He got in such a state that he had to give up work. Whereupon money, never in generous supply, became an acute problem.

I think, if need money, I must.

And it was that fateful decision that had led eventually to the meeting of Amy, Aubergine Small and the son in the South China Sea.

But now – Amy inspected the remains of her fish head with critical detachment – I must do work. I tell you more soon. Quite soon.

World Leader Salutes Blog

The dog woke me with his barking just after dawn. There was someone at the door. It turned out to be a young man, bearded and wearing a dishdasha, his right hand resting lightly on his khanja and his left proffering an envelope and some flowers. I scanned his face but this time it was not my son.

From His Highness Sultan Qaboos, the young man said, so I asked him in.

I recognised the flowers. They are the intensely red desert irises that grow in the wadis near Nizwa in the rainy season. If you have ever spent time in the wadis near Nizwa in the rainy season you will know with what feelings of pleasurable nostalgia I took them and placed them in a suitable vase – glass, with the words ‘A Souvenir of Northants’ etched (or possibly marked by a process equivalent to etching) into the surface.

How is His Highness? Well, I hope.

Open the envelope, said the young man, with suppressed excitement.

First I extracted a press release. This is what it said:

World Leader Salutes Blog

His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Muscat and Oman has congratulated Mr Alablague on the occasion of the first anniversary of the initiation of his blog He wishes it be known that the site is bookmarked on all the royal computers in all the palaces and even some tents and that there is nothing that His Highness enjoys more than reading a new instalment of the adventures of Amy, Aubergine Small and Uncle Edgerton (and the dog but less so) in the company of a young friend or two.

His Highness has enjoyed every step of the way from mendacity to outright fantasy. He feels that it has been a “Journey” that he and Mr Alablague have, in a very real way, shared.

His Highness commends the site to all well-meaning people – except those living in Oman, where internet access is restricted for their own good.

His Highness commends the struggle of The Jibjab Woman to beat the shit out of the enemies of Islam.

In recognition of the anniversary of the initiation of the blog His Highness is pleased to make two orders.

Mr Alablague’s son is freely pardoned from the open charges of piracy (well, privateering) and stealing a Lee Enfield rifle plus bullets.

Mr Alablague himself is admitted to the Order of the Falcon’s Tail, Third Class, and is welcome to collect the insignia personally at any of His Highness’s palaces, any time, whatever.

Mr Alablague said, “I’m chuffed to bits. I salute the benevolent rule of His Highness Sultan Qaboos, his encouragement of the enjoyment of the light classics and his aspirations to democracy, and I shall wear my gong with pride.”

All enquiries please to the Superintendent of Police, Muscat.

Contact details followed.

There was also a card and a personal note which I need not reproduce here. The picture on the card, incidentally, was a reproduction of a painting by our friend Julian Barrow of the goat market in Nizwa.

I gave the young man a cup of tea and a piece of fudge left over from daughter three’s wedding and returned to bed. Hours later the parcel post came and again the dog woke me. I signed for a tiny parcel and opened it feverishly. Inside there was a small piece of dried pasta. It was in a rather personal shape.

There was also a card. Its front read:

A Wish for You

And inside:

I hope that this stops you writing your sexist patronising patriarchal filth for at least six months.

Best wishes

Dame Jenni ™ Murray

“at least” was underlined twice.

It was nice of her to take the trouble. Naomi herself hadn’t.

Actually it was probably one of Naomi’s, left over.

Other people have also been very kind. You only have to look at the hundreds of touching tributes on the alablague Facebook site. It’s that sort of thing that gives you the strength to carry on.

His Highness calls it a ‘journey’, which is an idea that (much as I revere the man) I hate. Like Amy, I prefer the idea of ‘good unsought experiments by the way’.

Enough of that. When I went up for my after-lunch nap there was a message in soap on the shaving mirror:

Many happy returns! Good show!


How on earth could he tell?