Tag Archives: my double the assassin

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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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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Talking about Books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Waugh,” said Amy.

“Sorry?”

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

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

“Sorry?”

Brideshead Revisited.”

“Ah.”

I said it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Like Peter Quennell!”

Amy shouted this. I held up an admonitory finger.

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

I have always thought the same thing, myself.

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

She had the grace to blush.

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

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

I sidestepped this impertinent question.

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

Amy reflected.

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

A look came onto her eye. I recognised it.

“Don’t say it!”

But she did.

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

“Hampshire,” she explained.

“Shakespeare,” she added.

“Marlowe,” I said.

We lapsed into silence.

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

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

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

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

“To him? Together?”

“That for negotiation.”

“Italians!” I said.

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

“More green tea,” she said.

Then she turned to me.

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

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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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A Lovely Surprise

Alfredo said, “The ending of parties is often more troublesome to neighbours that the parties themselves.”

Alfredo is staying with us. He arrived unexpectedly. We are quite a house-full as our friend George is also staying: his flat is under the builders. Anyway, one minute George was explaining to the better half and me the sinister influence of the Man in the Moon and why it is regularly overlooked by the newspapers (the reason is influence) and then there was Alfredo in the midst of us.

George, who has some accomplishments in the foothills of karate – he does not have a black belt but a lesser sort, possibly, I forget, a gingham belt – went into an ungainly but oriental crouch

Hello, Alfredo, I said. I thought the door was locked.

It was, he said.

Double-locked.

Yes.

It’s very nice to see you nonetheless.

I introduced him.

I hope, I said, that you’re not carrying.

My Beretta (the cardinal’s friend)?

Yes, that.

I was disarmed by your doorkeeper. Little chap from Waziristan.

Ah.

I’d always wondered what function he fulfilled.

Astute readers will have noticed that my first meeting with Alfredo, recently reported in these pages, took place some fifteen years ago, and here he is immediately translated to the present day. What I say, how time flies.

Even more astute readers will have noticed that that last sentence – ‘What I say, how time flies’ – is my homage to the great Elmore Leonard, who died a couple of weeks ago.

Wheels within wheels, as Alfredo is given to remarking.

Anyway, Alfredo said: The ending of parties is often more troublesome to neighbours than the parties themselves.

This was in the context of a discussion that we were having about the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a metaphor. I hesitated a minute before replying as there was a real party all-too-evidently taking place elsewhere in the building. It was still some hours before the party-goers would disperse and the bass from the music could be heard, or rather felt, relentlessly thumping through the fabric of the building.

I wonder, I said, pretending to take him literally. Random shouting and the slamming of car doors are louder, but you are forced to listen to the bass lines of the music. They may be quieter but they are much more intrusive.

Thinking back later, I realised that this was equally true, at a level of metaphor, of the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Let’s go out to the front door of the building and see what’s going on, Alfredo said.

I don’t smoke.

No reason to be deprived of fresh air.

So we walked down together to the front door. A group of people from the party stood around smoking, including a young West Indian woman who was the host. She wore a clinging lemon-yellow dress. She was strikingly attractive. She was smoking something non-conventionally wrapped.

I made a quiet comment about her to Alfredo. I hope that it was non-patriarchal, respectful and did not objectify her as a woman.

Yes, he said. So would I.

Why aren’t you capering then, I said to him, mildly surprised.

He looked at me kindly.

Not Italian.

Indeed as the evening progressed I never saw him caper, either bandily or straight-legged. On the other hand I heard him use the word rassclaat more than once, with aplomb, and, given the word’s troubling etymology, with apparent semantic conviction.

But that is to jump ahead. Triply astute readers will realise that this is the second anniversary of my first post to this blog, Randy Belgians and French Roadside Whores. Last year, the first anniversary was marked by some gratifying – indeed humbling – attentions by various celebrities, friends and fans. I never expected that the second anniversary would be the same. Second anniversaries are so much more routine. So it was nice when Hassan arrived in the morning with a note of congratulation from His Highness Sultan Qaboos of Oman, and some chocolates.

The dear old bugger, I said to Hassan, inviting him in. But how did he find you?

I had forgotten all about my anniversary when the woman in lemon yellow advanced on me and took my hand.

You’re coming with me.

I looked at Alfredo, who had a cunning face on.

So you are, he said. So am I.

The sound system got louder as we approached her flat. Around the outside of the door were neighbours wondering how to start a conversation about the volume, but we went straight in and she took me to the centre of the room. At a signal from her the music was turned off and they all started to sing:

Happy birthday to you
Happy birthday to you
Happy second birthday http://www.alablague.wordpress.com
Happy birthday to you

Then they all clapped. I was so moved that tears came to my eyes. I wondered if I should say a few words but she gestured to the Mickey Rooney figure in the corner (Let’s make a sound system, right here!) the music came back on at full volume and she turned to me.

Now we dance.

I got home very late. I missed the random shouting and the slamming of car doors altogether. Finally, Alfredo took my arm like an unwanted Virgil.

Time to go.

We picked our way between the bodies; then down the stairs to the front door.

Some fresh air please, I said, and he agreed.

Well, I said, what an evening. What a night. And how much of that was your doing?

He shrugged, but not convincingly.

How did you know about my blog? How did you know about my anniversary?

Come on, he said. Research. An assassin who is lazy is an assassin who is dead.

Well I think that it was a lovely and thoughtful gesture and I’m very grateful.

Rassclaat, said Alfredo.

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Secret Water

It’s funny how life imitates art.

The scene in my latest post where my mysterious double Alfredo, in a guise as an Italian which may or may not be natural to him, capers bandy-legged around the lady from the trattoria while uttering the sort of cries that an Italian impersonated by, say, Benny Hill might use, came as I thought entirely from my head. In the post I speculated indelicately about the reason for the bandy-leggedness.

Later the same evening that I made the post I accompanied the better half to the front door of our block of flats for her post-prandial cigarette. Our new neighbour came up to us. He has taken quite a shine to her and when he sees her goes immediately into stage-Italian mode. No finger stays unkissed. He ignores me completely – looks straight through.

On this occasion however there was a significant modulation. For the first time he went bandy-legged. He had capered before but straight-legged, as an Englishman might, if of course the English were given to capering. I was marvelling at the bandy-leggedness, the way the sharp little Italian shoes came up, first one and then the other, each at right angles to the temporarily stationary leg, when he went one further than even Alfredo, as imagined by me, had. Ensuring that he had the better half’s attention he gesticulated at his crotch.

Two big melons! he said.

I felt obscurely vindicated. The better half says that she did not hear the remark, which is a credit to her wholesome cast of mind. Nonetheless, he certainly made it.

Anyway, from the ludicrous to the sublime.

On the morning of my eighth birthday I was called into my parents’ bedroom. Traditionally in our household a gift would be vouchsafed on these occasions, together with a hearty handshake. Afterwards I would go as usual to fetch in the coal. That was my duty. Then half an hour for my Ancient Greek studies, and the family would finally gather for porridge, and then school. Nothing more would be said about birthdays.

Anyway on this occasion we were still at the present and congratulations stage. My mother handed me a book. I could see that it was unwrapped and slightly grubby but it was complete, with a dust wrapper in near-fine condition.

Lovely, I said, a second-hand book.

It’s not second hand, she said. Your father’s reading it.

Give it back, he said. You can have it again when I’ve finished it.

It’s awfully good, he said by way of explanation.

That was my first (and his first) Swallows & Amazon book, by Arthur Ransome. After that they came frequently, with or without a birthday as a pretext, until I’d read them all. And I’ve read and reread them since. I loved the camping and the sailing without for a minute wanting to try either activity voluntarily myself. What I really loved and tried to replicate was the map-making.

In each of the books the children find themselves in a real landscape and they rename all its features to conform to their own fantasies, whether of being pirates or explorers. Sometimes the real landscape (as in the books set on the Norfolk Broads) corresponds more or less exactly to objective reality, but the lake in the early books is a conflation of two different lakes in the Lake District.

My favourite of the books was always Secret Water, partly because map-making is what holds the book together – there’s little plot and nothing much happens. The children spend a couple of weeks in a tidal area, flooded by the sea at high tide and mud flats at low tide. Birds feature, and eels. There is a map in the inside front cover and the islands and inlets on it are named by the children.

I was determined to find out if it was a real place. I knew that it was said to be on the east coast of England so I borrowed the AA road map from the family car and systematically cross-checked. I found it. With the exception of one non-existent creek it matched exactly an archipelago in Essex.

Fifty years of school, university and work then intervened. They invented the internet.

I bet it’s gone, I thought. It can’t have survived anthropogenic climate change. It’ll be under the rising sea. It would only take a few centimetres there to make a big difference. I summoned Google Maps in some trepidation. There is was, just as it always had been.

Well I expect it’s an Arthur Ransome theme park, I thought.

Now that we’ve got a Mini, I said to the better half, we’d better go and find out.

Like many women, the better half is good at multi-tasking.

Good idea, she said. We’ll take the kayak that I’ve borrowed from Thumper and we can paddle round it. I tried to explain that what I wanted was to be alone with my melancholy thoughts, but the kayak was in the back of the car last Sunday when we set out. Fortunately we were meeting our friends the Fosters there and she is too pregnant to be able to bear the excitement even of watching us attempting to boat. So the kayak was quietly forgotten, and by mid-afternoon we were walking down a deserted track (there is no Arthur Ransome theme park) towards the causeway where the children were caught by the tide and nearly drowned, and there it was snaking away to the island where the farmhouse (the ‘Native Kraal’) was just visible in the afternoon sunlight and we could not follow it or we too would have been caught by the tide. I was profoundly moved. We turned, like Moses at Mount Pisgah, and went back to the car.

I don’t think that we are done with Secret Water, and the kayak may well yet come into its own, maybe rechristened and bearing at its prow a small Jolly Roger.

Wikipedia reveals incidentally that the correct and splendid name for the inlet that the children call ‘The North West Passage’ is ‘Cunnyfur Ooze’. That would probably appeal to the smutty mind of our Italian neighbour. On second thoughts, he’d probably be more at home with ‘Enormous Cock Mountain.’

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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.

Sorry.

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?

Markov?

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,

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