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.


Assassins Don’t Wear Shorts

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

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

Am I dressed OK? I said.

Of course.

He smiled self-deprecatingly.

Assassins never wear shorts.

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

Excuse me, Alfredo muttered.

He also raised his arms.

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

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

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

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

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

Molto’, he said. Adverb.

Where do you come from? Originally?

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


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

And you? he said. Alablague. Funny name.

Huguenot, I said. Kettering.

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

Of course.

Our business was done, or so it seemed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mafia or the state?

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

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


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

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

I dropped my fork into my –i.

Alfredo, what was the occasion of the demonstration?

He told me.

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

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

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

For the first time Alfredo looked at me with affection.

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

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

Kettering as a State of Mind

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

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

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

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

I tell a personal story, said Amy.

That’s nice, I said.

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

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


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

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

Go for it, I said.

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

Was that here, Amy?

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

No. This story before 神秘女郎.

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

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

And was he?

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

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

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


With the heat.

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

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

I decided to risk it.

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

Amy frowned.

Then she said two very surprising things.

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

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

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

Kettering is a state of mind, she said.

And she would not be drawn further.

In the Shadows of Limehouse

I didn’t recognise her for a moment. She hurried up the street in an anonymous sludge-coloured North Face jacket and a strange hat. This latter was made of mock tiger skin and had two vestigial tiger ears. Neither coat nor hat was anything like her usual get-up, which was restrained, stylish and utterly alien.

I was standing on the pavement wishing that I smoked and had a reason to stand there. It was bitterly cold and inside was steamy and on the cusp of smelling bad. I was about to go home. I was too depressed to be out, but home was not the welcoming place that it had been with the dog there.

She started when she saw me. As if in acknowledgement that this was an unusual encounter she tore off her hat.

Very cold, she said.

Nice ears.

Tiger ears. Kettering clothes.

You’ve come from Kettering?

Yes, yes. Yesterday Kettering day. Come in, come. Very cold.

So I did.

She was not pleased with what she encountered.

I go away one day. Place smell like armpit.

She busied herself. Girls who had been lolling (there is no other word, I am afraid) with customers were organised. A kettle was put on. Sweet oriental scents wafted from somewhere. It became a pleasant place to be again.

Tea, she said. Green tea.

She proffered a china cup with no handle.

Put it down, I said. It’ll be too hot to hold.

No. High tech cup. Hot inside, cool out.

And so it was.

Chinese supermarket, she said. Very good.

How was Kettering?

Very good.

You were telling me some time back how you left Kettering – but something happened; we were interrupted.

Not interesting.

Tell me anyway.

Usual terms?

The usual terms are that, when reported here, she talks in reported speech and whole grammatical sentences.

OK, I said. And this time you talk in whole sentences but I can use drivers with dialogue other than ‘said’. And sometimes with adverbs. OK?

Deal, she grinned.

The relationship with her husband was deteriorating. She left Kettering in dismay. She came to London, working here and there. She would return for twenty-four hours every week or so to her husband with a story about some job that required her to stay on the premises. Money came in.

Briefly she worked for Mr Lee at the opium den in Limehouse.

So you’d met him before?

Oh yes, she admitted ruefully.

You both kept very quite about that.

She remarked that inscrutability had never been a challenge for either of them.

She had also at that early stage encountered Mr Lee’s stakeholders, an experience she hoped not to have to repeat.

And then, she recounted round-eyed, the terrible events had started which had led to her being enslaved in the South China Sea and ultimately rescued by the son.

She finished her shift one night at Mr Lee’s place in Limehouse. It was four in the morning, still dark. Rather than wait half an hour for a night bus she wandered down to the river to clear the obstinate traces of opium smoke from her head. One great liner was at the quayside, its prow far above her, a hawser running down from it to the quay where there was a bollard to which it was attached.

On the quayside was a group of Chinese men. She could see at once that they were up to no good. They talked furtively and when they saw her they retired into the shadows to continue their conversation secretly. There was a gangway up to the ship, but another Chinese man, burly and rude, barred the entrance to it.

She had had no intention of doing anything other than walking past the ship and then going home, she told me frankly, but the deliberate attempts to exclude her had riled her.

I did something very stupid.

As dawn came the quayside finally emptied. There was no one around. She went to the hawser and slowly climbed up it, pulling herself hand over hand and tucking her legs around the steel so as not to be too visible, until she reached the prow of the ship. The hawser itself was connected to some machinery, no doubt it was retractable, but she was able to grasp the rail and haul herself over it onto the deck.

She just wanted to see what was going on. At a deeper level, she admitted frankly, she felt that nothing in her life was going well and an adventure, even an insanely dangerous one, was the only way in which she could change it for the better. She went off to explore the ship.

Of course, she conceded ruefully, it was impossible that she would not be spotted. There was a sudden violet pain, insensibility, and the next thing that she realised, from the motion beneath her, was that they were at sea.

It would be many months before she tasted freedom, or English air, again.

She stared at me truculently.

You’re putting me on.

Of course.

It never happened.

Only to Rupert Bear. My favourite Rupert story actually.

How on earth did she know about Rupert Bear? Was The Daily Express taken in Guangxi Province? But when she said this I remembered the story. It was probably my favourite too. I remember receiving the annual that it appeared in for Christmas, back in the Fifties. Unless I’m mistaken, Rupert finally prevailed with the assistance of some snakes. It was good to be reminded even if I was no further forward as regards the Kettering saga.

Or, as George Orwell would not permit my saying, even if I was back to square one.

She changed the subject.

What that mess round you face?

Where I haven’t shaved? I’m sitting shiva for the dog.

You shouldn’t be here then. Should be at home.

No. It’s not kosher at all, but then I’m not Jewish. It seemed appropriate to pay respect, that’s all.

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.

Figaro Figaro

One way or another it was some time before I could broach the subject to Amy of her husband in Kettering. When she first told me that he existed she had made some excuse, and no opportunity to talk about him had occurred since. As she had been rescued by my son only a few months ago from a slave-dealer in the South China Sea I could not help being intrigued.

I was again in Great Secret Miss, as she had named her place.

Now that Paralympics ® over, she said, I think I safe.

Certainly police suspicion seemed to have evaporated with the general public euphoria for the Games™. One of the triumphant processions had passed not far away, but it had not been accompanied, as I had feared, by crowd hysteria and violence. Few windows had been smashed. Amy’s remained intact, with nothing worse than some aggressive graffiti about ‘Our Boys and Girls’.

Inside, people were milling about as usual. I was chatting with Amy, who would however dart off from time to time to attend to some more or less recherché need on the part of the clientele.

A Mozart opera was playing in the background. This made a change: a pleasant one from the all-purpose Oriental muzak that she normally had; though nothing was as beautiful as Amy’s unaccompanied singing.

I didn’t know you liked Mozart.

Amy, who is relentless at improving her general knowledge, told me that she had bought a box set of European classical music. Later investigation showed this to be the Harmonia Mundi set Music of the Enlightenment, a wonderful selection, thirty CDs for less than £1 each. She was working her way through from start to famish. This had had been a joy, she said, until two thirds of the way through there were three operas, back to back.

This third and last. Good luck. This called Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart.

She pronounced the ‘z’s as in ‘zeitgeist’ as opposed to ‘pizza’.

Ng, I said.

What means Le Nozze di Figaro by Mozart? Not English.

Mozart wrote it, I explained. He was a composer from Austria, near Germany.

Mozart I know. He had symphony before in box. What means Le Nozze di Figaro?

Figaro is a name. Nozze is Austrian for nose. So it is Figaro’s Nose.

Think should be not nozze but nozza, interrupted Amy, who had also applied her mind to comparative syntax.

It would be la nozza if Figaro were female but, in Austrian, where the possessor of the nose is masculine it is correctly le nozze instead. Figaro is a dog, loveable, small – and male. The action of the opera revolves around the concerns of the characters whether Figaro’s nose is sufficiently cold and wet. Suffice to say that in Acts Two and Three there are serious concerns on the matter, some genuine but others generated by confusion caused by a series of hilarious misunderstandings; but by the end of the final act it is triumphantly cold, wet and healthy and the subject of a resounding tutti.

Cherubs? One character he Cherubino.

No, Amy. Cherubs is putti. Cherubino is not a little cherub, but a very big pageboy. It’s just his name. He’s usually sung by a woman. A soprano. A mezzo soprano. Tutti just means everyone.

Ah. And Figaro. What he sing?

What he sing?

He tenor, baritone voice? What voice?

He no sing, I said. He dog.

Ah, she said again.

She paused to let this information sink in.

Is all very – and she said a word in Mandarin that I didn’t understand.


I get dictionary – which she did.

Is very boisterous.

It is. It’s too boisterous for me too. But Figaro is little more than a puppy, a very boisterous dog. And it is an early example of opera buffa – comic opera, opera for the people, as opposed to the high-flown tragedies of earlier in the century. There are serious undercurrents, however, for those who care to look.

Ah! Figaro’s nose symbolic?

Doctorates have been earned on the symbolism of Figaro’s nose.

Still too boisterous.

She pronounced it carefully, with three syllables.

Later in his tragically short life, Mozart wrote a sequel, The Marriage of Figaro, and that is less boisterous.

Dog got married!

In those days dogs in Austria could. And they were subject to certain forms of criminal liability for crimes not extending to dishonesty. They were dangerous times for dogs.

(Enlightenment! said Amy. Pft!)

Cherubino has an aria in the second opera to that effect. How Can Towser Stand Such Times and Live? is how it goes in English, the English of the 1930s when the most popular translation was made; dogs aren’t called Towser any more. Cherubino is by now a bass, of course.

We were interrupted. One of Amy’s girls had a problem with a client and an acupuncture needle. Amy stood up to deal with it.

You do acupuncture now?

Outsource him.

She returned five minutes later. She was holding the booklet for the box set and smiling broadly.

Why you talk bollocks?

She approached the last word cautiously and carried it off with aplomb.

Have you read Mozart’s version?

Anyway, Amy, I said, what’s all this about a husband in Kettering?

Yes I go Kettering. I see husband.

And indeed she had her coat and hat, and without more ado she left.

Don’t You Know Who I Am

When you have a passion to communicate it’s extraordinary the compromises that you have to make.

I have been fascinated by my family’s history, since long before that wonderful television series where celebrities explore their roots: Don’t You Know Who I Am. Some relations are fascinated too and we discuss family matters through a website which I created for that purpose. I will tell you a little about that site in a moment, but first something about my ancestry.

The Alablagues, as you will have guessed from the name, were Huguenots. They left France after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. In France our name, when written down at all, was more usually spelled in full – ‘M. à la Blague’ – but was eventually contracted, as was ‘de Gas’ to ‘Degas’.

My ancestors made landfall at Deal, in Kent. There are Alablagues still living in Deal, although they do not trouble the Phone Book. Most however have migrated to Kettering, in Northamptonshire, which became and remains the centre of the Alablagues, although some, including me (or ‘including myself’, as they say on The Apprentice), could not resist the call of the ‘Great Wen’.

By and large the family has been hard-working, virtuous and a bit dull.

My cousins and I have tracked it down through censuses, old editions of Kelly’s Directory and other records. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Masons both have good records of their members, which they will make available, for a modest payment. It appears that no Alablague was ever a Mormon, but Masonry did attract them, possibly appealing to their instinctive anti-Catholicism. My great-uncle Edgerton, who lived between the Wars and also came to London, Lewisham to be precise, is an example. Apparently a colourless employee of an insurance company, he was a keen Mason. I have discovered through my researches that he ascended to the Third Level of the Order of the Drawn Sword. A rather sensational book, acquired from Abebooks, suggests that as such he would have routinely been required to fight in unarmed combat with zombies, handicapped moreover as regards the trousering of one leg.

The website for the family history predated this site. Indeed it predated WordPress altogether. This was a shame as WordPress would have been ideal. I am sure that you will agree that its layout is clear and navigable and its infrastructure sturdy. Other sites for blogging will not let you, as a visitor, move without trying to sell you something. Google is particularly irritating. Not so WordPress.

But in those days WordPress didn’t exist. I found two possibilities. One was a site for gay porn and the other for swapping tapes of Grateful Dead concerts; even in those days I don’t think that they were actually tapes, but people still called them that. The idea in each case was that by inducing visitors to the site with information about the history of the Alablagues I would ‘drive traffic’, as they put it, to the profit-making parts of the site, the porn or the tapes as the case might be. I would be paid a small return for this.

I went for the gay porn. You may find that surprising as I am not gay and I do like the music of the Grateful Dead. There were three reasons.

The first was a disinclination to mix business with pleasure.

The second was that the financial provisions were much the same.

The third was the endless scope for confusion between ‘Deal’, the town central to the Alablague story, and ‘Deal’, the fine song written by Jerry Garcia and regularly performed by the Dead from the early 70s onwards.

Obviously I looked at what I was ‘driving traffic’ to. A range of videos is available. There is some turnover but they tend to fall into one of two categories. The first involves a number of men, not all in the first flush of youth, shuffling around like penguins and waiting to be relieved, one way or another. I imagine that the pleasure lies in the anticipation. The other, presumably more traditional, involves two spotty youths enjoying sodomy, mutually but of course sequentially.

They paid me £200, but apparently that all had to be recouped in ‘expenses’. I also get a small royalty. It’s not a lot but at least the porn pays for the Masons.

Not only am I not gay but few of the Alablagues seem to have been. The one notable exception was Henrietta Alablague, my great-great-aunt, who in Edwardian times seduced the wife of the Bishop of T- and bore her back to Kettering, where they lived together in open scandal, driving around rural Hertfordshire in a new motor car and painting watercolours of naked young women with far-away looks in their eyes and unnaturally pronounced pubic mounds. The Alablagues hoped, with decreasing confidence, that these paintings were products of my Aunt Henrietta’s imagination. The Bishop of T- went to pieces altogether and lost his bishopric. His family are still touchy and have asked me to not to identify him, a request that I honour.

You can find the site at – actually, better not.

In fact I have been thinking of moving it altogether to WordPress. The gay porn people have started asking me to work in what they call ‘advertorial’: material in the middle of my accounts of family history extolling the lubricious qualities of their videos. I find it very difficult, or, as I suppose they would have me say, very hard. Great quivering members and Uncle Edgerton just don’t mix.

And in case you discern gender bias in my exploration of my father’s family I should say that I am also investigating my mother’s. It’s a very different kettle of fish. My maternal grandfather comes from a long line of horse thieves in Tenerife. The doings of that family are recorded in broader, more Iberian, brush-strokes but they have a romance rarely to be found in the Town records at Kettering. The tradition is that my mother, having just met my father on the beach at Deal in high summer and seeking to impress him, spirited away one of the beach donkeys, but he made her give it back.