My Uncle Shall Not Die

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

I felt rather cheerful about it all.

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

“…awake…..”

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

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

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

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

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

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

I awoke.

What was that?

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

But who?

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

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

Or my uncle was going to die.

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

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

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

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

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

“What on earth’s going on?”

She was not pleased to be disturbed.

I explained briefly. I probably gabbled.

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

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

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

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

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

She turned to me again.

“What exactly did he say?”

I told her again.

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

“Yes.”

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

“You mean…?”

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

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Mechanics

Amy has been reading a novel – in English. She came to me slightly truculently as I sat on a divan at Great Secret Miss, her finger marking a page. I could see that she meant business, so I forestalled her.

I wiped my chin ostentatiously with a paper napkin. It had been provided by the management for that purpose and incongruously enough it bore on it an illustration of a cute Chinese rabbit.

Goodness, I said, this porridge is good. Just the thing now it’s turning cold at last. I do hope that The Porridge Man is not dead but sleeping, but, either way, what a bowl-full!

Amy ignored this, and indicated a page in her novel.

““Good God,” he sighed”, she said. What means ““Good God,” he sighed”? How?

I smiled sweetly.

How what?

How sigh and say ‘Good God’ at one time?

She attempted this feat. She got the sigh perfectly, but, as she suggested, the semantic element was compromised.

It doesn’t mean that. It means, “”Good God,” he said and he sighed” or ““Good God,” he said in a sighing voice.” But I agree. I try never to do it myself. For one thing it breaks number three of Elmore Leonard’s essential ten rules for writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Mind you, ““Good God,” he said in a sighing voice” almost breaks rule four:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely

… “in a sighing voice” being an adverbial phrase.

There are worse examples. I particularly hate ““Good God,” he chuckled”. I’ll be the judge of whether there’s anything funny going on. ““Good God,” he gibbered” or ““Good God?” he asked” ought to be all right, but I wouldn’t use them. As I say, I always try to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules. Most of them.

What you mean, you follow Elmore Leonard’s rules?

Don’t you read my blog, Amy?

She looked embarrassed. She had forgotten.

I catch up every week, every two week. Busy with proper novel.

That hurt – twice. Amy, blackest and biggest in the tag cloud, could not be bothered to read what is in many ways her own blog. And then she compares it unfavourably with what was probably a badly-written self-satisfied great lump of fiction, no doubt with a beginning, a middle, a heart-warming end and the flashbacks that seem to be compulsory these days.

I muttered in Mandarin that I was singing to a cow. Because I was irritated I got the tones wrong and had to repeat it. When she finally understood she said:

Hah!

‘Hah’ is a good English word, but Amy brought to it a Chinese sensibility. As a result it bore no relation at all to the apparently equivalent ‘ah’. In Mandarin there are four tones in which vowels may be expressed, those that I had just muddled in my reference to singing to a cow. ‘Ah’ is delivered, even when one is speaking English, in the level ‘tone one’, but ‘hah’ in the more declamatory falling ‘tone four’.

In Pinyin, the tones would be written āh and hàh respectively.

Having delivered her “Hah!” she flounced off.

No doubt Amy’s so-called novel includes at least once the phrase: Never a dull moment!. I would never write that, because I also try to follow George Orwell’s rules for writing, number one of which is:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

But Never a dull moment! is what I thought as a stunningly gorgeous transsexual entered Great Secret Miss and walked up to me and in a dark brown voice she said…

…but before she could, I interrupted her:

Lola!

P2 looked slightly crestfallen. I hastened to reassure her.

What a triumph, P2! And what a departure! So much more convincing than the lady in the Ridley Road market.

P2 fingered her crotch, with an air of purpose, but also I thought with an air of slight surprise.

There is not a moment to lose, she said.

It was the cellar room, familiar from so many trips before. The figure had his back to me.

Uncle E, I said.

He turned. It was not my great-uncle Edgerton. It was his brother Winthrop – and he looked grim.

They’ve got him, he said, and you must rescue him. There’s not a moment to lose.

The spine-chilling instructions that Uncle Winthrop then gave me I shall reveal at the appropriate time. Before I knew where I was I was back at Amy’s, on the divan, slightly winded.

I should like to be able to say that I sat there considering the enormity of my task with resolute determination. But you know how at moments of potential greatness irrelevant thoughts buzz round your mind like pernicious flies. So it was with me then. This is what I thought:

First, do I trust Uncle Winthrop? I knew that he lost his wits, but I didn’t know when. Had he lost them already by late 1934?

Secondly, I looked again at the paper napkin. I had used it to wipe The Porridge Man’s porridge from my chin but I had retained it in my hand. It had been to 1934 and back. Something had been nagging at my mind. It was the cute rabbit. The Japanese have cute rabbits but for the Chinese a rabbit is generally something for the hot pot. I looked more closely. Beneath the rabbit in cursive script it read ‘Thumper’. Was the poor lad trying to tell us something?

And lastly I thought, I wish that I understood, like P2, the mechanics of time travel as I try to understand the mechanics of writing.

I could have been a contender.

(Orwell Rule 1).

Apotheosis Deferred

So many stories are working their way through to their conclusions: so many people are working their way through to their apotheoses.

The rain falls constantly. It feels uneasily like the approach of the end of the world. Maybe it’s the coming mid-winter solstice: maybe one of the minority cults is right after all and it is the end of the world. Like Karl Marx on speed, tragedies repeat themselves as farce and then back again to tragedy, all spinning by.

Last weekend we went to the cremation of Evelyn Williams, about whom I wrote recently. It turned out that that meeting was to be our last. The ceremony was enormously dignified, as befits her. God played no part in her imaginative life and didn’t get a look in here, but the occasion resembled more than anything a Quaker meeting, as members of her family and friends stood up to bear witness to the huge influence she, her love and her work had had in their lives.

Unlike most of us, who rely on the memories of others after we’ve gone to provide some sort of half-life, in Evie’s case there is her work. I hope that someone will show it: soon, often and into the indefinite future. Shamefully she was spurned in her lifetime by the Tate, which has different priorities – though it is difficult to guess what they might be.

The dog’s losing fight with cancer ought to be a case of stepping from the sublime to the ridiculous, but of course it isn’t. We commit so much emotionally to our animals that these things do matter, and in the case of this particular animal he is, on any objective assessment, a very good dog.

Others will attest to this.

As I write, he is stretched out asleep beneath a particularly monumental painting of Evie’s. He sleeps a lot these days. He still dreams and, to judge by the fluttering of his paws, still races in his imagination across the huge beaches of Dornoch Firth (his favourite place of all) even though the same paws now fail him when he attempts the stairs, a failure that he bears with dignity, even when he clatters down the bottom half of the flight and lands on his nose.

One effect of his illness is an absence of music in the house. In fact the house is entirely silent, as my beloved better half is away in Germany. When the dog needs to go outside he needs to go quickly and if the sound of Haydn (as it tends to be these days) drowns out that of his toenails tapping on the front door by way of warning to me, the consequences as regards the hall floor are horrid.

I first discovered the consolations of the visual arts over thirty years ago when daughter one as a baby made so much noise that listening to music, for different reasons, became impossible. Now those consolations are still available. So too, when Haydn is not there to divert them, are the fancies that tug unbidden at my sleeve.

Sometimes literally: I was in Ridley Road Market the other day. I was on my way from the bus stop to TLC, the Turkish supermarket which I have mentioned before. My attention was distracted by an Amazon, magnificent, haughty, kallipygous and clad in a dress of a colour and material both of which improved on the beneficence of nature. She was too good to be true. I stared greedily at her back (though also, I am glad to be able to report, appropriately, respectfully and excluding all possible elements of patriarchy, discrimination or condescension). To my astonishment she turned round and approached me.

She was too good to be true. Her face was sketchy, suggesting that after the attention bestowed on her bottom the imagination of her creator had flagged.

P2?

Come at once! Your uncle is in dire peril.

One of the lessons of Evie’s life, it has occurred to me over the past week, is that idiot distractions must be avoided if one is to achieve what actually matters.

Furthermore, I was depressed, and zombie-fighting demands a certain élan.

You know what? I’ll get back to you, I said, and strode on to the shop.

P2 disappeared with an exclamation of irritation and a slight but nasty smell, although the latter may have been the fishmonger’s stall with his pile of catfish which I was then passing.

There would be time enough for Uncle Edgerton.

If it was serious, I thought, as I entered the vegetable department in TFC, there was always Aubergine Small. I gazed unseeing for a second at a tray of the succulent purple creatures for which Small’s mother had presumably named him, unlikely close relations of both belladonna and the potato, so glorious to look at and so unpleasant to eat. No doubt it had sparked the recollection of my friend and comrade in arms.

It also mocked my cowardice.

But I promised apotheoses. There have been two, neither easy. I think however that they will be another story.

A Wedding; an Exorcism

Going into the church for the wedding of my lovely daughter three I noticed the dog – who was a page boy – shiver down the entire length of his body. Although the more extreme signs of his Satanism had abated over the last few days, he was clearly not right. I had heard nothing from Uncle Edgerton. Maybe the bad spirit was lying low. More likely the dog, who is very fond of daughter three, had made a supreme effort for her.

He lay there quietly, talking sotto voce with the grand-daughter. Only at two points were there signs of real distress. The first was when my brother and I played appropriate wedding music, and his disquiet may have had less to do with his spiritual allegiance than with his acuteness, as a dog, of pitch. But the second was when Father J stressed that this was not a secular occasion but a sacrament, and then he shivered again.

Afterwards we went on to the venue chosen for the reception, from which he was barred on the grounds of health and safety – barred as a dog, curiously, rather than as a creature possessed by a devil. The venue, to give credit where due, was The Canonbury in Islington, and they do a good spread, with lovely surroundings and food far above the normal standard of bulk catering.

Everything went very well, few people sat there swallowing their lips, and the only really sad thing was when the grand-daughter’s red balloon became detached from its attractively decorated string and set off for Germany. For a bit she was inconsolable.

Daughter two was a bridesmaid, without Parrott on this occasion but with her boyfriend Dan, another treasure-hunter. She whispered to me that she was standing by to be summoned whenever she was needed.

The time came for me to make a speech as the bride’s father. I stood up clutching my notes and surveying the sea of rubicund faces with some dismay. Would they be quiet? Just as I was about to embark on my first well-rounded aphorism a woman lurched into me. It was my brutal cousin Ella, from Denmark.

But – you weren’t invited…

Saved from speaking in the nick of time, said P2, and The Canonbury in Islington faded away.

You’ve been busy, said my Uncle Edgerton admiringly to P2, as the dog, daughter two and Parrot arrived a moment later. Daughter two and Parrot were soaking wet, daughter two in a wetsuit. I noticed that P2 was also wet through. Presumably she had had to venture under water to fetch daughter two and Parrot.

Whisked away just as we were closing in on treasure, said daughter two. Good wedding though last week. Enjoyed every minute.

Pieces of eight, said Parrot.

‘Last week…’. When did the dog come from, I wondered. He seemed anyway to be taking to the 1930s with his usual aplomb.

Only then did I notice another figure in the room, a vague tweeded man in middle age with a clerical collar.

Did you ever meet my brother Winthrop?

Uncle Winthrop! Of course I remembered him from my childhood. In the 1950s he was what is now called a person with Alzheimer’s and then senile. Retired early from the priesthood, he was kept impeccably tweeded and dog-collared by his wife but was incapable of getting a coherent sentence out. We loved to torment him. A real adult was a rare victim in those days. But Winthrop survived the War and Edgerton didn’t. That was not a discussion that I wanted to get into and I suspect that Edgerton didn’t either. I said nothing.

Can do it without a priest, but best with.

Uncle Winthrop squatted down by the dog and whispered to him in Latin. The dog responded in the same language. Both spoke in reasonable measured tones, sizing each other up.

If you have read the exorcism scene in Stella Gibbons’ masterpiece Starlight you would expect as I did to be in for the long haul; a trial of strength; the priest trying patiently to coax the spirit out, the spirit cornered and resisting. I settled back to watch. My second concern was whether good would triumph; my main one was whether the dog would survive.

As it turned out, it wasn’t like that.

Uncle Winthrop ran his hands over the dog’s coat. The dog bridled.

I say, he said, in English. What’s this here, under his skin?

I felt where he indicated.

It’s a little transmitter. Or receiver. Where he was indentichipped. By Battersea.

No, no. That’s on his shoulder. (In the weeks that followed I often wondered about that remark.) This one.

It felt exactly the same to me.

It’s no spirit, said Uncle Winthrop. He’s being controlled remotely through this. Satanists do that, especially in the Twenty-first Century.

Guessed as much, said Uncle Edgerton.

The liar.

With a speed surprising in one so vague, Uncle Winthrop, pulled a pen-knife from one of his pockets, nicked the dog’s fur and pulled out the tiny bug. With a speed surprising in one so mangy, Parrot seized it, swallowed it and flew away into the 1930s – a seabird possessed.

The dog turned on Uncle Winthrop a face briefly full of love, and the scenery vanished.

Half-way through an aphorism is no place to re-enter, and, as last time, I staggered slightly.

Give the old bugger another drink, shouted a raucous cousin.

I swallowed hard and returned to my theme: meditations on the institution of marriage illustrated by anecdotes from daughter three’s earlier life. I noticed daughter two, her face perfectly innocent. She still had the trip to look forward to.

I had wondered when the dog had been summoned from. When we got home it was apparent that it was not yet. He had chewed two plugs, one of them in situ, and vomited on my favourite Belochistani rug. When I entered the room he belched loudly and declaimed the last few verses of the Lord’s Prayer, backwards and in rather approximate Latin.

The denouement came a couple of days later. We were walking round the block when he staggered, and then looked at me with the look of love the start of which I had seen addressed to Uncle Winthrop. I squatted down by him and kissed his furry forehead.

He whispered to me, When I was under the control of Satan I was a bad dog, but now I’m a good dog again.

You are a good dog again.

And so he was.

Three days later daughter two rang me.

You owe me an otter, she said.

Confidence in Young Bradman

Daughter two came round to see us. She brought Polish fudge for the dog. It is sold in yellow packaging with a smiling cow on it, and it has always been his favourite. For some reason they have stopped selling it in Sainsbury’s in London but it is still available in Southampton, where she lives.

She is an underwater explorer. Sometimes she does this in her guise as an archaeologist and hands over the goodies that she discovers to the University where she works, but at other times she is a treasure hunter and then she keeps what she finds. It is rather like doctors. You go and see them on the NHS and they bounce around enthusiastically on their beds, sing about Voldemort and take six months to send you the letter that says, yes, you do have cancer; so you go private and, just like in Hammer Horror films, it’s the same man sitting grinning across the desk, deadly efficient now and clocking up the charges like a manic runaway taxi.

She had on her shoulder a rather mangy bird.

What’s that bird, I asked.

It’s my Parrot.

It’s not a parrot.

I know it’s not a parrot. Parrots can’t swim. It’s called Parrot.

Is it one of those birds that swim on David Attenborough?

It’s very good when I’m treasure hunting under water.

You’d be better off with an otter.

Why she needs anything on her shoulder I can’t think and didn’t ask. Probably she’s jealous of her brother, the privateer, who often sports an exotic bird or two when at the wheel of The Jolly Thought and, less acceptably, when visiting his family in England.

Anyway the dog was the point of her visit and she was saddened to see him. He was listless and took little notice of his fudge. Previously he has always been delighted when she visits, but not today; he lay on his rug muttering and from time to time his head turned three hundred and sixty degrees.

Do stop that, I said whenever he did it, but to no avail. He fixed me with his new diabolical stare and said something in Latin.

I walked daughter two to the station. Something will have to be done she said, and I agreed.

I’m hoping that your great great uncle can help, I said.

Who?

Never mind. I’ll tell you if anything comes of it.

No sooner had daughter two descended into the Underground than it did. I was walking back along the pavement when someone barged into me.

My God, it’s Jessica Ennis, I cried. I’m such a fan of yours.

Stow it, said P2.

P2’s slang sometimes betrays her pre-War origins.

Much better than your Victoria Beckham, I said, recovering my dignity.

Pft, said P2, and disappeared, as did the whole King’s Cross mise-en-scene.

Just a quick one, said Uncle Edgerton. On my lunch break. From the insurance. What’s all this about exorcism?

I explained about the dog. I’m at my wits’ end, I said. Can you help? I can’t think of anyone else who can.

Uncle Edgerton stroked his chin, in a way no longer fashionable.

Yes. I probably can. Won’t be easy. Won’t be cheap.

He fell silent.

And?

Two things. It’s a bad spirit. We’ll need to drive it out.

It says it’s Satan himself.

Pft. They all say that. Satan wouldn’t waste his time on a pet dog.

I bridled. The dog is a much-loved Staffordshire bull terrier of good parentage. He wrote The Ride of the Valkyrie by Wagner.

It’s a bad spirit. We’ll need to drive it out and we’ll need something to drive it out into.

A person? A Z person?

No, for a dog it’ll have to be another animal. You fix that and await the call. You, the dog, the receptacle and we’ll do our best. Never certain, these things, but we’ll do our best.

Two things, you said, Uncle E. The other one?

Ah yes. We have a test series this summer.

Yes I know, I said, the 1934 Australians. Bent on avenging the Bodyline tour.

Tell me something I can use. You can use the shaving mirror again.

I smiled.

I don’t need to. The second Test is at Lords.

Of course, he said irritably. The second Test is always at Lords.

I smiled again.

Hedley Verity takes fifteen wickets in the match. Seven for sixty-one in the first innings and an astonishing eight for forty-three when Australia follow on. England win. The last time in a Lords test against Australia in the century – not that that helps you.

And the rubber?

Australia win two to one.

And young Bradman. Does he come good?

Oh yes, very good. Though not at Lords. The greatest batsman ever.

He looked at me sideways.

Looks like a busted flush to me. All right, all right. My people will be in touch.

Your P2?

Of course.

I staggered slightly as I reconnected with my body at King’s Cross in 2012.

Behave yourself, sir, said a nearby policemen. A Paralympian ® might see you….

I rang daughter two on my mobile.

How do you fancy meeting your great great uncle Edgerton in 1934?

Yeah.

She’s a brave girl.

The only thing…

Yes?

Parrot. He needs to come. And he needs to be very brave.

She was silent.

I’ll get you an otter…

OK then.

We arranged to await developments.

When I got home the dog had embarked on learning the Lord’s Prayer backwards, in Latin. I tested him on it. Whatever the outcome it might come in useful.

a jan leeming impersonation and the fusion food of death

P2 is getting worse, not better. I took a wrong turning in the Tube the other day, and there she was, a frankly bad impression of news-reader Jan Leeming.

The M- Restaurant, she said, without preliminaries. You know it?

I had better anonymise the place, given what I am about to relate.

I racked my brains. Knightsbridge? Indian fusion? I’ve read about it.

The same. Your uncle Edgerton wants you to check the biryani.

With that she dematerialised. I could not imagine what relevance the biryani at a Knightsbridge restaurant had to the unending struggle against the zombies (or the Z people, as my uncle would call them in front of his wife, my Aunty Sally). I would have treated it as a low priority. In 2012, unlike the 1930s in which Uncle Edgerton lived and worked, the Z people could not be called a current menace. However, as I was preparing for bed that night I noticed smoky lettering on the shaving mirror:

BOOKED YET?

So, for a quiet life, I did, and a few days later (‘good heavens, sir, we seem to have a cancellation’) there I was with the better half. She has little patience with Uncle Edgerton – I think that she holds it against him that he’s dead – but she’s always up for dinner out, especially at a place such as this that has caught the attention of the Michelin committee.

The address is fashionable and the décor is what Tanya Gold in the Spectator calls Assad chic. I left my coat at the door – it had been raining – and we went in and took our place. We ordered our food and drink from a nice but vague lady.

The real Indian food is designed to be shared and is served as it is prepared, there are no conventional first courses or main courses, she explained.

The bill arrived first.

Only joking. It was someone else’s wine.

How elusive the taste sensations were! These are subtle complex marinades using time honoured Indian grilling methods, the better half explained.

And they are prepared in full view in a theatrical restaurant show kitchen, I noted. It certainly makes for a casual and joyous dining experience.

The uncertainty about when the biryani would arrive only increased the excitement. Finally there it was. The waitress drew my attention to tiny red flecks on the surface, like the veins on an unwillingly exposed brain. It is rosewater, she said. She was, as I say, amiably vague, and I think that the reference to rosewater was the only specific remark that she volunteered to us all evening. As it turned out it was wrong – horribly wrong.

I think that the M- restaurant’s biryani is the most revolting thing that I have ever seen on a plate. It was the colour and texture of sludge, inert but not – horrifyingly – quite inert enough. A faint smell came off it. It wasn’t rosewater, it was…

As I sat there with my fork poised a passing customer jogged my arm, disrupting my train of thought. Involuntarily I looked up.

OMG, it’s Victoria Beckham, I cried.

Or rather a very late impression of Victoria Beckham, I added, getting a better view of her face.

P2 ignored this.

On no account eat the biryani. But find how it’s made.

At least she didn’t disappear in public. She shimmered into the Ladies and no doubt did it there.

That set me a poser, and one that the better half was disinclined to help me with. We finished eating and got the bill. Again, it was someone else’s.

Go on ahead. I’ll follow you. There’s something I have to check.

I was still uncertain how, but events assisted me when I presented my ticket at the cloakroom.

No record, said the man amiably.

I sighed elaborately.

I’ll look.

I never did see that raincoat again, but the cloakroom gave me somewhere to hide. Hours later, after they had locked up, I emerged to see what I should see.

I never expected to find the biryani being made in the theatrical restaurant show kitchen – and I was right. There was another kitchen beyond it and down some stairs. At the centre was an enormous cauldron, simmering. You can guess what was in it. But you may not guess what was being dripped into it from an elaborate arrangement of retorts and pipettes. It wasn’t rosewater, it was blood. And I was prepared to wager that the blood was human.

So what happened to those who ate the M-‘s biryani? With Uncle Edgerton’s interest and my growing suspicions I was beginning to understand. I was suddenly furious. My uncle Edgerton had risked his life to make London safe from the Z people and here they were being brought back. I seized everything I could find, starting with the subtle complex marinades. (Actually what I found was vinegar and curry powder, but they were a start.) I emptied them into the cauldron; then the contents of the fire extinguisher. The biryani gave an almost human sigh, and then it did become inert.

Having destroyed the abominable concoction as best I could I left the restaurant and ventured out into the Knightsbridge dawn. Figures lurked in the shadows, swaying. I could see that they were the customers from the M-. They were dressed for a Knightsbridge evening out, the men in blazers, loafers and ironed Levis, the women in little black numbers and amusing costume jewellery, all now smeared with blood, faeces and worse. Their skin was greenish. Decomposition had begun.

You ate the biryani, I cried.

Aaargh, they replied.

Enough was enough for one day. I texted Aubergine Small to sort it all out and I set off fast, away from the zombie menace and towards home.

sunday dinner in lewisham: 1934

Damn and blast, said Uncle Edgerton.

That was surprising in itself. I was at Amy’s at the time, which was the Twenty-first Century, lying on a divan and thinking about this and that. I heard a tune from Amy in the back and I padded through to tell her again how much I liked her singing. It wasn’t Amy, however, it was a crude simulacrum – P2, as I realised at once. Her P was much better than her Amy, even though her P was unaccountably black. And since it was P2 I knew straight away what to expect.

Damn and blast, said Uncle Edgerton, again.

Horse potty, I exclaimed.

Aaargh, said Aunty Sally.

For I was in no Lovecraftian combat chamber this time, confronted by zombies, but suddenly materialising in my Uncle Edgerton’s front parlour in Lewisham with Aunty Sally and young Swallow.

Glad you could drop in, old man, said Uncle Edgerton, adding in an undertone: Summoning went off unexpectedly, God damn and blast it. Have to stay for dinner now. Not a word!

And so it was, Sunday dinner in South London in 1934, not something I’d ever expected to experience. My cousin M would be envious when I told him. The meat was of good quality but overdone, as were the vegetables. No surprises there: I remembered Aunty Sally’s cooking from the 1950s. Swallow for some reason, looking surly as I remembered him, was wearing his Etonian frock coat and a great deal of starched white stuff round his neck.

Swallow’s going to be in Pop, said Aunty Sally proudly.

Not even a Pop bitch, I thought to myself. They didn’t know it, but as regards Swallow this was as good as it got.

Uncle Edgerton poured a surprisingly good claret.

Entre Deux Mers, entre deux guerres, I quipped – foolishly because of course they didn’t yet know about the second one.

Think there’s going to be another war? said Uncle Edgerton. He fixed me with his blue eyes and said sotto voce: The, er, …. Z people?

Germany, I reckon, yes…. No, not them.

Oh no, I don’t see that. I rather like the little man they’ve got in Germany. Bolshies, more like.

I knew as they didn’t that the war would come, they would lose their house to the Luftwaffe, and that Uncle Edgerton himself would not survive it. It was surprising perhaps that he was more interested in the result of the 1934 Derby than his own prospects. Probably it’s the same for us all; we’d rather not know.

Hunched over a spotted dick, Uncle Edgerton grew red in the face.

Psychic energy, he muttered. Don’t hang about, old man.

I could see that as my materialisation in their front room had been remarked it might be damaging to leave in the same sudden way, so I disposed of my own spotted dick and made some excuse.

Come again, said Aunty Sally. I thanked her and said that I certainly would.

They went back inside and I walked down the front path to the road. As I reached the pavement I could sense Uncle Edgerton’s relief as I dematerialised. I felt like a fart that has been bottled up too long for comfort.

Amy, the real Amy, looked at me with qualified approval.

You want pork dumpling?

I rubbed my stomach.

I couldn’t eat another thing, thank you, Amy, but some green tea would be nice.

As I drank it I wondered about his term for me: old man. Was it just a term of affection, or did he regard me actually as old? I had got into the habit of thinking of him, being my great uncle, as older that I was, but in lived years he was much younger. I must remember to ask him when the zombie wars break out again.