Tag Archives: kefir

Phrase Error

‘Oh, suck my nipple, please’ said Amy.

It was spring at Great Secret Miss. In its progress across the street and up the outside walls, the late-afternoon sun had just reached the windows, and His Highness Sultan Qaboos’ benign face, in the large print that I had presented to Amy when the place opened and which hung on the wall opposite a similar representation of our Queen, was dappled by the beams venturing (if pathetic fallacy is permissible in relation to a bunch of photons) past the more or less Oriental junk in the window. The Sultan’s khanja, which he was fingering characteristically, was still in shadow. In about twenty minutes, I knew, it too would be bathed in soft London light.

Amy and I were sitting in the front room drinking and talking about green tea. Not surprisingly she prefers the Chinese varieties and whilst I agree that there are some very fine green teas from China I don’t think that anything can touch Assam Green, which is grown, of course, in northern India. Assam Green has a taste that is full and deep and as satisfying as a good red wine. Unfortunately it is hard to get hold of and I have had to resort to Kusmi Tea, from Paris, which is by no means cheap, largely on account of the packaging. Darjeeling Green can be found more easily but it is not the same thing at all.

Other people were lounging or working in the room. Some minutes before, we had been brought a bowl of the crispy things that taste of rainwater, but they were so far untouched. Three musicians were deep in conversation and two poets were rolling on the floor tearing each other’s hair out. I would report their names to you but they escape me; they are quite well known, I believe – for poets.

For all these reasons Amy’s remark surprised me. It was a robust intrusion into a moment of deep peace – poets apart. I allowed one eyebrow to arch.

‘Surely not,’ I said.

Our relationship does not admit of such things.

Amy reached for her iPhone. She has assembled on it a database of her own frequently used phrases, Mandarin to English and English to Mandarin, and she checked this. She coloured.

‘I’m sorry. It was an error. I meant, ‘Please refill (or refresh coll.) my teacup’.’

Let me make it clear that I do not blame Apple’s software for the mistake. As so often it was probably a case of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’, or just Amy’s memory. Nevertheless one follows the conventions.

‘Bloody iPhone,’ I said, to spare her blushes.

‘Ah,’ said Amy.

I refilled or refreshed her teacup from the black iron pot, and we resumed our discussion about green tea.

I could not however help reflecting on what she had so innocently said. We all I suppose have our stock of frequently used phrases, although most of us do not hold them on our mobile phones. I sometimes regret that people use such phrases without considering the semantics of the component words. Politicians are particularly prone to this. At a more personal level I could not help musing on the circumstances in which Amy’s phrase had been required, and why, presumably after the event, she had jotted it down on her iPhone. I wondered on what private occasion she might have cried out, affectingly but erroneously, ‘Please refill (or refresh coll.) my teacup’.

I wondered to whom she had addressed the remark, whatever it was. Was it her husband in Kettering, if such a person existed at all: a matter of increasing doubt. Was it even one of the poets? They are passionate people, I’m told. As if to illustrate this, a clump of hair, with quite a big bit of scalp attached, flew across the room and landed in the bowl of the lovely crispy things that taste of rainwater. I recognised it as the forelock of one of the poets, a man, frequently and notoriously tossed but never before so radically. The names still escape me. They are both members of The Poetry Society, if that helps. I wondered what I thought about Amy engaged carnally with one – or indeed the other – of the poets. Was there the merest frisson of jealousy?

Not at all.

‘Do you see anything of Alfredo?’ I said.

What made me think of him?

‘Of course we agree,’ said Amy, ‘that add dead flowers a no-no.’

‘It is often a way to disguise that fact that the least tasty, and therefore cheapest, leaves has been used.’

‘Not often. I believe his rehabilitation as far progress as possible. Give him his own kefir. Off he goes.’

‘I hope he isn’t wasting it on Lesbia Firebrace, or the other one.’

Amy laid her hand decorously on my elbow.

Kefir is for the world,’ she said. ‘Even Lesbia Firebrace and the other one. We are only agents, you and I.’

‘Speaking of which,’ I said, and gestured vaguely towards the back rooms.

Amy summoned one of her girls, I took a couple of the crispy things that taste of rainwater, for, as they say in those advertisements on the television, the journey, and soon I was asleep, gripped by visions. They were unusually violent, but since this is not the sort of blog where we describe our dreams I won’t.

I emerged a better man. Amy was still there, proprietorially engaged.

‘And Augustus Sly?’ I said, affecting, as we like to do, she and I, that no time had passed at all. ‘Does he come around?’

‘Never. Never come here. He thinks Great Secret Miss is like magic toyshop. He thinks I am a metaphor.’

‘So you are, Amy.’

She laughed harshly.

‘I’ll have a fiver each way,’ she said.

‘No. Close but no.’

Out came the iPhone.

‘Sorry. I meant, ‘Speak for yourself, buster’.’

‘You have to laugh,’ I said.

‘Ha!’ she shouted.

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Ciao Bella!

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

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

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

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

‘Woof,’ said Bella.

He appraised her.

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

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

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

‘An ‘Italian’?’

‘Whatever.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?’

‘Smug.’

‘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?’

‘This?’

‘Yes.’

‘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?’

‘Ng?’

‘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.

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The Insatiability of Lesbia Firebrace

‘I heard it before I saw it,’ said Alfredo. ‘Like, if memory serves, the Jabberwocky, when it came whiffling through the forest – the tulgey wood, as the poet has it. Or in this case the bedclothes. It was Sunday morning and I was still three quarters asleep.

‘”Not the strap-on again,” I said,’ he said. ‘Or rather, I cried. “It’s Sunday morning. Not the strap-on, for God’s sake.”’

‘Burbling as it came.’

I thought this a constructive – even amusing – contribution, but Alfredo ignored it.

‘Was this,’ I said, ‘your friend from the West Cornwall Pasty Company floor, whose name I never got? What is her name by the way? Was it strapped onto her?’

‘No. She was sleeping the sleep of the just, on my left. This was Lesbia, on the other side.’

Lesbia Firebrace?’

‘The very same. The insatiable Lesbia Firebrace.’

‘Who is not really called Lesbia Firebrace at all, because that is the name of a character in Two Worlds and Their Ways by I Compton Burnett, which Amy was reading at the time.’

‘The name stuck.’

‘Does she know? Does whatever she’s called know that you call her Lesbia Firebrace?’

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘What is she called?’ I said. I was feeling forensic.

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘And the one from the West Cornwall Pasty Company floor: what’s she called?’

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘So you’re living with two women and you don’t know the names of either of them?’

‘Um,’ said Alfredo.

‘I can see that constant sodomy must have its appeal. It must dramatically reduce the occasions where you need to make introductions. Don’t they talk to each other? Doesn’t that give you any clues?’

‘They use pet names,’ said Alfredo.

Alfredo has done and seen horrors at which you and I can only guess but at that moment he shuddered. Taking pity on him, I didn’t ask him to tell me the pet names that Lesbia Firebrace and the woman from the West Cornwall Pasty Company floor had for each other. Because I am a really kind person I didn’t ask Alfredo either what Lesbia Firebrace called him, either before or after having at him with the strap-on.

I reflected affectionately for a moment on the difference in Alfredo. When I’d first met him he had been an assassin with nerves of steel. I had been frightened to go too close to him. Indeed, in our first encounter there had been moments when if the cards had fallen differently he would have done away with me without any remorse; in those days no one would have dared approach him with a strap-on. Now he was a bumbling incompetent like the rest of us, and a much nicer man; I could wholly understand why Lesbia Firebrace wanted to sodomise him. It was all undoubtedly thanks to Amy and her course of kefir. How much of that was attributable to Amy and her personal therapeutic skills and how much to the benign but powerful qualities of her elixir was a question from the answer to which the obligations of client confidentiality debarred me.

‘Powerful stuff that, Amy,’ I had said once, fishing.

‘Data protection,’ she had replied.

We were standing, by the way, Alfredo and I, outside Great Secret Miss. I was about to go in and Alfredo was leaving.

‘How is Amy?’ I said. ‘I was hoping to see her.’

It had been a week or two: one thing and another.

‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘It was one of Amy’s girls. Amy has gone home.’

‘For good? For a holiday?’

‘Only a few weeks, she said.’

‘Thank God for that,’ I said. ‘Home? China or Kettering?’

‘Ah. I didn’t think to ask.’

‘Anyway,’ I said, ‘I was going in. Do you fancy some green tea? One of those little crispy things that taste like rain water? I guess they do them even if Amy is in China. Or Kettering.’

‘You know what,’ said Alfredo, ‘old double of mine, old nemesis of my assassination days, I think not. I have just spent two hours in there. One of Amy’s girls has been unravelling, with the aid of the good Montenegrin kefir, some of the traumas of a life misspent. I’m sure you can imagine. They’re awfully good, all of them awfully good. They don’t have Amy’s lightness of touch, but goodness knows they’re effective.’

‘Is it the elixir or the therapist, do you think, that does the trick? I was just wondering, as it happens.’

‘There’s a question,’ said Alfredo.

‘But anyway,’ he said, ‘after all the Sturm und Drang, no I don’t really want to go back for a little crispy thing. I need a change of place and a change of mood.’

‘The Kingdom?’

‘You’re on.’

We walked up there, chattering away.

‘Jake, my man: your finest hogget pudding please!’

I was feeling light-headed and now regret taking that jocular tone. There was of course no hogget pudding to be had. That had been a treat. There was a good steak pie, though, and it turned out that Jake had just opened a bottle of Corbières. We fell to eating and drinking. I told the story about the local drug dealer and Mrs K, but apparently the former had made less of an impression on Alfredo than had his girlfriend with the split skirt and the latter he had never noticed.

We sat back, full of good things and momentarily silent. My mind reverted to the beginning of our conversation.

‘But what’s it like?’ I said.

‘What’s what like?’

‘You know. Lesbia whatshername with her strap-on.’

Alfredo said nothing for a moment. I wondered if I had presumed too much on our friendship. It was after all a private matter. Maybe it was none of my business. But no, he was scrutinising his mind for the exactly right word.

‘Bracing,’ he said.

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My Uncle Shall Not Die

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

I felt rather cheerful about it all.

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

“…awake…..”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I awoke.

What was that?

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

But who?

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

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

Or my uncle was going to die.

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

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

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

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

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

“What on earth’s going on?”

She was not pleased to be disturbed.

I explained briefly. I probably gabbled.

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to me again.

“What exactly did he say?”

I told her again.

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

“Yes.”

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

“You mean…?”

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

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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.

“Greens?”

“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.”

“Assassins…?”

“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.

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

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

“Me?”

“One.”

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

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

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

“This is different.”

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

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

“He does that less now.”

“The kefir is working then.”

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

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

“Kiss me, kiss me, I have no ticket.”

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

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

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

At this point the little old lady intervened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aah!” said the little old lady.

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

Alfredo was turgid with lust, Amy said.

“Turgid!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you like me?” she said.

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

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

“Saki last words,” Amy said.

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

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

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

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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.

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The Bandersnatch of Frome

“I’ve been at the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at Eton College,” I said.

This was in response to Amy’s question: “Why do you never come to see me any more?”

The true answer is that it is much further from Stratford to Great Secret Miss than from Clerkenwell so I have got out of the habit, but I thought to put her off by a cunning change of subject. It worked.

“He wrote about me in his Society Newsletter,” she said.

“That’s the man,” I said, “but it wasn’t him, he’s dead, and now the Society celebrates him and his work.”

“You should have taken me, said Amy. I investigate him at the internet. I read some books. The wrong overcoat. Compare Gogol.”

She is immensely thorough.

“It was wonderful,” I said, ”the Seventh Biennial Conference of the Anthony Powell Society, at Eton College. I met some lovely people, there were some agreeable wines from the Eton College cellars and I came away with a renewed love for the man and the novels.”

“Grey Gowrie was there?”

“He was. He made a very elegant speech, in lovely well-modulated tones. It took one back to the days when we had Ministers of Culture who could read. In fact all the talks were very good except one from Robin Bynoe. You remember him. He thought that all the characters in the novel should have job descriptions and measure their achievements against targets at the end of each chapter. Probably he thought that Messrs. Heinemann should have published the books with feed-back forms.”

“He don’t understand artistes. He has no soul. He still barred Great Secret Miss.”

“That is as it should be,” I said.

“Cantankerous bugger though,” said Amy.

“Robin Bynoe?”

“No, Anthony Powell.”

“Certainly he could on occasion be not unrebarbative,” I said. “I think that his fictional narrator Nick Jenkins would have been more amenable company than he. But now that he’s dead it’s possible to express our love for both without fear of its being rejected.”

“I think: the bandersnatch from Frome,” said Amy.

“Frome-ious bandersnatch,” I said. “ Mm.”

“Pun,” said Amy. “English humour.”

“I see, I see. Though possibly…”

I was at Great Secret Miss for a specific purpose. Alfredo, my double the assassin, is still staying with us. He has been here for nearly a month. It had not become clear why. He intrigues me and I am happy to have him around – there is never any risk of his doing anything clumsy or rude and unlike many of our house guests in the past he has accurately located the dish washer – but there are always claims on our spare bedroom. Normally it is a revolving-door policy and since he has been with us there have been mutterings from those who regard themselves as in the queue.

Finally he confided in me.

“Life,” he said, “is not always easy for a retired assassin. People say, relax. Try relaxing when you are accustomed to listening for the slightest sound, watching for the slightest movement in your peripheral vision. I am not stupid,” he said, “and I know that I have tied up all the loose ends as much as that can possibly be done; in practice I am not in danger. But I thought that I could leave it all behind and I find that that is impossible. I have tried la dolce vita. I have capered at parties, clutching my private parts. I have worn plastic hats and amusing glasses. I have clasped women to my bosom and encouraged passers-by to photograph us together on my iPhone, entrusted to them temporarily for that purpose. I have drunk excessively, particularly the agreeable wines of the Amarone region. I have tried recreational drugs. I am new to them, as you will understand: they are not compatible by and large with the assassin’s deadly trade.

“Sometimes,” he said, “I have thought that what I need is opium, the drug of forgetfulness. I found an opium den in Limehouse. It was run by a Mr Lee. It wasn’t a success. First, I was the only man there in an open-necked shirt. Then no one, neither the customers, many of whom seemed to be from the higher reaches of the judiciary, nor the Chinese girls serving green tea, addressed any conversation to me apart from the curtest of exchanges. It wasn’t a success. One cannot seek oblivion while socially uneasy. I made my excuses and left.”

Of course I recommended Amy, Great Secret Miss and the recondite consolations of kefir. Even as Amy and I were now conversing, Alfredo was in one of the mysterious back rooms having his titanic and inconsolable ego benignly dismantled by one of Amy’s girls and the elixir of forgetfulness.

As it happens (or ‘ironically’ as we are encouraged to say these days) I have been trying to cut down on my own intake of kefir. Amy allows me my own supply – the gold-standard stuff from Montenegro – so that I am not reduced to that available in the Eastern-European food shops with which Stratford is blessed. But I have taken too much recently. The extravagant dreams muscled in on my waking hours. I awoke feeling as if my mouth has been scoured dry.

So I have given it up for a week or so. Of course that has its effect too. The nights pass in silence and the daytime is distinguished by a banality of almost surrealistic intensity.

I keep this to myself. My colleagues would find it upsettingly alien and Alfredo has his own problems.

At that moment he emerged, wild-eyed and supported by that one of Amy’s girls who had ministered to him. He fixed me with a feverish eye.

“I suspect that something important has happened,” he said.

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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.

Poppers?

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.

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