An Inspector Calls

An Inspector called. He wanted to talk about what he called ‘alleged inappropriate sexual approaches concerning your good self at the premises known as ‘Shallow Assets’’’. I invited him in and made him some green tea.

“An Inspector?” I said. “I’m honoured. I would have expected a Detective Constable or a Sergeant at best, if anyone at all. Being an Inspector is after all the summit of the achievement of John Rebus, in spite of his having been at the centre of nineteen much garlanded crime novels.”

“Rebus is imaginary,” said the Inspector. “Sir.”

“Whereas you…”

A glint came into the Inspector’s eye that can only be described as Pirandellian.

“Point taken,” he said. “Sir.”

Pleasantries over, he took a notebook from his pocket and a pencil, the end of which he licked.

“The bedroom door opened,” he said.

“Are you putting words into my mouth, Inspector?”

He put his pencil down and sighed.

“In your own. Sir.”

“The first thing that I noticed was that he was dressed as an Edwardian washerwoman. I was expecting that, you see.”


“Don’t you read my blog? Don’t you do any research?”

“The internet connection, Sir, at the Station. Not reliable. We have to use BT, unfortunately: our service provider. Wheels within wheels.”

“Then I knew that he wasn’t who I was expecting, and thirdly I knew I’d seen him on the television.”

“So this figure from the television: he made you touch his male member?”

“One thing at a time. He advanced on me. With one hand he held up his skirting and with the other he grasped…”

“His male member, yes. And was it erect and proud? Was it glistening, with one drop of moisture on what we call the glans penis?”

“It was erect. More I can’t tell you, as it was inside his washerwoman’s calico drawers.”

“But you could see it through the calico? He was touching himself through his calico?”

The Inspector licked his pencil again: excessively, it seemed, as he then wiped it on his trousers, which were not, since he was a detective rather than in the uniformed branch, of serge.

“Then,” I said, “he got entangled in the rug and fell.”


“A Konya, I would guess. Certainly Anatolian. It was not in the best state of repair.”

“Ah. I thought you meant toupée. Sir.”

“He landed painfully…”

“On his nob end, eh, Sir, eh?”

“..which enabled me to get away.”


“And of course he spoke to me.”

The Inspector put his pencil aside again.

“You see my problem. Sir. How can we accord you victim status as regards inappropriate touching, when you are undeniably a member of what we call the Patriarchy? We have a list of minority groups which are pre-approved for victim status, and you don’t appear to be on it. ”

He gestured at the green tea and my small but obviously valuable etching by Odilon Redon.

“I was mentally frail, at the time.”

“There is that…”

I put down my cup, for fear of damaging it.

“That man, that man,” I said, and I gesticulated as I did so, “he ruined my life. He stole from me my late middle age.”

I was briefly in tears.

(I love that sentence. It’s borrowed from the great novelist Anthony Powell [The Military Philosophers, published by Heinemann, 1968, p 158]. The narrator is in liberated France towards the end of the Second World War. Peace is in sight. ‘For some reason it was all too much.’ He is ‘briefly in tears’. That is dignified. That is as it should be: not like our debased age where no encounter, particularly if televised, is complete without a lengthy recital of one’s feelings and recourse to the waterworks.

Just now, of course, I was teasing.)

The Inspector advanced on me, caring in his eyes. Maybe they have an afternoon on ‘counselling training’ at Staff College these days. He laid his hand on my knee. It was a meaty thing, and I speculated about where it had been as he fought his way up through the ranks.

“I so understand. But we have to be careful,” he said, “Sir. Some of the people who come to us, not victim status at all. Slags, most of them. Filth. White trash. Little whores. You should hear the stories the young police officers tell. Forcing themselves on the lads…”

He mouthed the phrase “BJ” silently and primly.

“… as young as ten, some of them.”

The Inspector removed his hand from my knee and mopped his chin with a tissue that he found in his clothing. He put his notebook in his pocket, wiped his still slobbery pencil with a dry bit of the tissue and placed that in another pocket.

“I think we’ve got enough here to have our friend bang to rights.”

“Have you identified him?” I said.

“A great pity that no one came forward in his lifetime: like you, Sir, someone with courage.”

“What do you mean, his lifetime? He’s not dead.”

“Dead these two years, Sir, and more…”

“It’s not Savile, you silly Inspector, it’s not a ghost, it’s one of the other ones, and he’s very much alive, and apparently still preying on the mentally frail.”

The Inspector took out his notepad and pencil again, but seemed at a loss for words.

“What in earth would be the point of building a case against Savile’s ghost?” I said. “Isn’t it a bit late for that? You missed the boat with him, I’d say.”

“It would send a very clear message,” said the Inspector.

“Who to? The undead?”

The inspector looked at me with dignity. Now I had put myself in the wrong. He put his notebook away for the last time.

“You’ll be hearing from us,” he said.

He stood at the door of the room, hesitating. Clearly there was something more.

“I suppose you want a blow job,” I said.

He smiled broadly.

“Well, go and find a Sergeant.”



“I had Transient Global Amnesia,” I said to Augustus Sly.

This was in answer to his question: “What are you doing in this dump again?”

The dump to which he referred was Shallow Assets, the former country seat of my relation Sir Featherington a la Blague and his daughter Alicia and currently a care facility for the mentally frail. I have been sent back here.

“It’s not so bad,” I said, vaguely.

“Give me details of your Transient Global Amnesia,” he said. “First and foremost, tell me, was there the sound referred to by the great Paul Jennings:

“The moment they actually see the great framework, they hear in their heads the sound that is always associated in films with attacks of amnesia – a kind of bloy-oy-oy-oynggg in a rising scale…” [Oddly Bodlikins: Paul Jennings: published Max Reinhardt: 1953: p 31]…

“Was there the kind of bloy-oy-oy-oynggg in a rising scale?”

“Don’t be persistent,” I said, “and I will try and tell you all, as it happened.

“One minute I was in Hammersmith,” I said, “and it was lunchtime. The next I was in University College Hospital and it was time for supper. This turned out to be fish and chips. Fish tasty: chips on the limp side. As I learned later, someone had turned me in to the police in the Tottenham Court Road, and the police had delivered me to University College Hospital.”

“The Tottenham Court Road!”

“I must I suppose have been acting strangely. It may not of course have been the Tottenham Court Road itself; it may have been some shop or other place on or indeed off the Tottenham Court Road. It is distressing to think that I may have been wandering vaguely in the traffic like Yvette Mimieux in Where the Boys Are [MGM 1960]. The policeman had gone long before I recovered my wits and of whoever delivered me to him there is no record.

“I had tubes in my arm, and they were asking me searching questions, like, ‘Who is the Prime Minister?’.”

“But was there a kind of bloy-oy-oy-oynggg in a rising scale?”

Augustus Sly was taking notes. There might be a chapter in this, in his thesis.

“No,” I said. “There was no bloy-oy-oy-oynggg, rising or falling. There was no moment of coming to. There was no seeing the great framework. It was as if I had known everything all along, except of course that I hadn’t, because I’d forgotten it. Finding myself in the hospital did not feel exceptional.

“It’s the same, I read once in some magazine of popular science, with Black Holes. When you pass the event horizon on your way into a Black Hole you don’t notice what is happening to you; it doesn’t feel like encountering a Black Hole; you think that everything is exactly as it always has been, but it isn’t – you’ll never get out.”

“Except,” said Augustus Sly, “into another universe, if the theories of some physicists of the Heisenbergian persuasion are to be relied on. And in that case the same would apply as regards the event horizon, going out – leaving the Black Hole – just as you say but even more so.”


“Yvette Mimieux. Black Holes. Would you say that you are trying to prove to yourself that there is no long-term damage to your memory?”

“Pft,” I said. “Paul Jennings, yourself.

“So they did some tests,” I said, “with the tubes in my arm and some scans. They said that I hadn’t had a stroke, that I probably wasn’t epileptic and that it was all perfectly normal. They asked me if I was stressed in the Tottenham Court Road. Then they tried to check my identification of the Prime Minister, using Google, but unfortunately their connection was down. Finally they released me into the Community at four o’ clock in the morning, accompanied by my excellent son. The better half has become agitated ever since whenever I go anywhere near the Tottenham Court Road, and finally decided that I’d be safer in here.”

“No wonder,” said Augustus Sly, “that you haven’t written much on your blog recently.”

“What blog?”

He looked at me sharply.

“Only joking.”

“Changing the subject,” said Augustus Sly, “what happened about that DJ who touched you inappropriately the last time you were in here?”

“Curiously,” I said, “as regards my transient global amnesia , everyone is much more concerned about me than I am. Either they encountered me when I was asking who I was, which must have been upsetting for them, or they weren’t actually there but imagine the bloy-oy-oy-oynggg, having seen the appropriate Hitchcock films. I on the other hand can’t remember a thing about it.”

“But is it Hitchcock that Paul Jennings is thinking of?” said Augustus Sly. “Oddly Bodlikins was published in 1953. Didn’t Hitchcock’s great films come later?”

“Not Spellbound,” I said. “That’s 1945: surprisingly. Whether Spellbound features the bloy-oy-oy-oynggg I can’t remember.”

I paused for a moment thinking of the different rates at which our world’s cultural assets decay: Hitchcock films in rude health; Paul Jennings’ books readily available second hand; older nameless films in which the bloy-oy-oy-oynggg first appeared – once so commonly as to become a by-word for a certain mental condition – now lost for ever except to men (usually men) in the British Film Institute wearing white gloves to avoid damaging brittle celluloid; Where the Boys Are now hopelessly dated but a lovely sentimental memory to those of us of a certain age, principally it must be said because of Connie Francis’ title song…

Augustus Sly reminded me:

“The DJ with the wandering fingers…”

“I remember it all quite well,” I said. “The DJ didn’t have wandering fingers; it was mine that he wanted to wander, if ‘wander’ is quite the right word: he wanted me to move straight to the point, as I remember it. Actually, that’s a worrying story. It should concern all of us who aspire to reach out to the mentally frail.”

Shallow Assets: the Night of the Three Revenants

What I could not work out in my mind was why I was here, drugged and deprived of both trousers and credit cards. It had only been pneumonia after all. I knew that my mother had made the phone calls that had ensured my admittance and I knew that the better half could have got me out at any time, simply by writing a chitty. When I had asked her she had simply replied that she was very busy. Did they think, the two of them, that this was for my own good? Indeed, was it for my own good? It was a mystery, and one that nagged painfully, especially in the last half hour before the medication was renewed.

I had however worked out why the Edwardian washerwoman struck a chord with me. It was the disguise adopted by the Toad in Wind in the Willows, and in turn, by way of homage, by Aubergine Small when on the run from HMRC after he had cut the tax inspector in half. The man had been bisected from head to crotch, which had convinced the authorities that, simply in order to apply the necessary force, there must have been an accomplice. For a while things had looked bad for the son, in whose piratical enterprise Aubergine Small often worked, but he had a solid alibi, pursuing treasure ships off the coast of Muslim North Africa.

Perhaps Augustus Sly had contacted Aubergine Small and asked him to cause mayhem at Shallow Assets for some purpose beneficial to me. I resolved to wait and see.

Possibly as a result of my mentioning the story of the ghost to the receptionists, it had spread among the staff and the clients (as we are called). In the Community Space you would hear of little else.

“Oh, Mr Alablague, do you think that that wronged woman will return and walk again? I don’t think that I could bear it.”

“There is nothing more likely to encourage a ghost to walk again,” I said, “than to speculate that it is going to do so. Mum’s the best policy, in my book. Mind you, you can never tell.”

I received a text, unnecessarily arch I thought, from Augustus Sly:

The ‘ghost’ will ‘walk’ tonight. Do exactly as Small says. Unable to be with you as last train will already have departed and as a student I have no car. Bonne chance and regards, Augustus Sly.

A possible problem, I thought, was that Aubergine Small, having had his tongue torn out, during a passage served as a slave along with my good friend Amy in the South China Sea and before being rescued by my son, was unable to ‘say’ anything. He used to resort to pre-printed cards which he kept about his person, but that might take too long if there were a crisis.

At about 2 am there was a knock on the door. An Edwardian washerwoman came in. Even in the half-light I could see that it was not Aubergine Small. It was however male, as evidenced the fact that he held his dress around his waist with one hand and was manhandling an erection with the other. I recognised the face, whilst unable to recall the name.

“Weren’t you on Top of the Pops?”

“And the rest, sonny. And the rest. And no, I ‘m not a ghost, it’s really Me! I’m in disguise! Now Daddy’s coming over to the bed and we’re going to give Daddy’s willy a lovely little kiss, because this week Daddy loves the mentally frail.”

He lurched towards me, but tripped over his dress and landed heavily on his erection. So far as I was concerned his pain was neither here nor there: all grist to the mill, I thought. I flung open the door and shouted into the darkness the words that have become the catchphrase of our depraved age:

“Help! I am mentally frail and I have been inappropriately touched by a television presenter.”

Pandemonium broke out. This might or might not be a problem for Aubergine Small, who next appeared, also dressed as an Edwardian washerwoman. I had worried about his ability to convey the aural qualities of a ghost and clearly so had he as he carried a sign, which read:


He put that away and substituted:


“Thank you very much,” I said. “I am a little weak. Can you hoist me up?”


Some of the pre-printed cards were made in America.

Just then the tiniest tug could be felt on my leg.

“Hang on a second, Aubergine Small…”

It was a third ghost. This time it was not an Edwardian washerwoman.

“Who the hell are you?” I said.

The voice was so tiny as almost to be inaudible.

“It’s Belkin. I’m Belkin. Belkin the under-footman. She got me in the end, the creature. And now I too am condemned for eternity to wander…”

“I’m terribly sorry to cut you off, but I have a pressing engagement with the real world. I can recommend it, if it isn’t too late.”

Off Aubergine Small plunged, with me on his shoulders. Everyone was shouting, police cars were arriving and no one gave any attention to us. Soon we were out of the grounds. I clung on with one hand, parting the occasional shrubbery with the other. We reached the road. There was the family Mini, with the better half at the wheel and Bella in the back.

“Hurrah,” said the better half.

“Hurrah,” I said.

“Thank you, Aubergine Small, you’re the best,” she said.

He fiddled in his bag.


I shook his hand without a word. He knew that I knew that he was the best. Suddenly he was no more to be seen. I got into the car.

“Trousers,” said the better half, “in the back. Get off, Bella. And now,” turning the wheel in that general direction, “Scotland.”

Shallow Assets: Cousin Alicia’s Book

I don’t remember much about the next couple of days. Augustus Sly left, saying that he would be in touch. “I’ll text,” he said, tapping the side of his nose significantly. Then the nurse came back in and told me off for shouting. “We could hear you in the Community Space,” he said, shaking his head and giving me pills. I think that they increased the dosage of my medication (I hope that I never get so inured to them that I say my ‘meds’) because, as I say, I don’t remember much of the next couple of days.

Then, as promised, Augustus Sly texted.

I have a plan. Will take a few days. Read [imp. not trans] Cousin Alicia’s book. P 96 et seq. Regs, Augustus Sly. PS Delete this message.

I had no copy of Shallow Assets of my own so I put on my dressing gown and went down to Reception, where two or three volumes were available to be borrowed by those curious about the history of their current place of resort. There is a big, not to say grandiose, sign above the heads of the receptionists, of whom the institution runs unnecessarily to two. Beneath an escutcheon that undoubtedly fails to comply with the rules of the Royal College of Arms it reads:

Shallow Assets
Part of the P- Group
Providing Worldwide Care
For the Mentally Frail

Then, on a separate and rather more chatty bit of board it tells us:

Shallow Assets was the country home of General Sir Featherington à la Blague (1856 – 1921). Sir Featherington was widely famed as a friend of the North African Moslem Community. The unusual name of the house is possibly osier-linked. The mentally frail have been cared for at Shallow Assets since 1957 and it passed into the custodianship of the P- Group in 1999. The P- Group is proud to take its place in an exemplarily fine tradition.

I had been intrigued how Sir Featherington had contrived to befriend the North African Moslem community here in rural Gloucestershire until I read Cousin Alicia’s book, in which she tells us that he was known affectionately in the village as ‘the Hammer of the Fuzzy-Wuzzies’, following some imperial war in that part of the world. That must be what the P- Group had in mind.

I bore the book away.

“Only a few pages, Mr Alablague,” said one of the receptionists. “Don’t tire yourself.”

I assured her that my intended researches were highly specific.

The relevance of the incident to which Augustus Sly drew my attention was not immediately clear. It concerned a washerwoman.

When I was still a child a curious incident occurred regarding a poor unmarried woman of the village, who took in the washing of some of the household’s linen. She was not of an age where one would suspect her to be susceptible to romantic inclinations; nor did the attractions of her features encourage any such thoughts. She was, moreover, big of bone. It was therefore a surprise to us all when it was reported that she had attained a certain condition and was no longer to be seen in the village. Needless to say, these rumours found their way to the Nursery long after they had exhausted their novelty in the Drawing Room, and some of what I have to relate I assembled in my mind long afterwards.

It is still not clear what happened. Months later she reappeared, but not in the way in which she had been accustomed to attend upon the household: modestly and at the back door. It was in the middle of the night, long after all were abed. She was seen striding through the corridors. The butler was sent for but he was found to be so profoundly asleep that by the time he had been awakened and properly dressed for the intended encounter the woman had gone. This happened on more than one occasion.

Dame Rumour, it need not be said, made play. The woman had died, it was conjectured. The more extreme theory among our friends below stairs, to which as I say I became privy only years later, was that the natural course of her condition had reached its conclusion most unnaturally: unaided and fatal. Accordingly, concluded those to whom this version appealed, the woman seen prowling the corridors was her ghost.

Was there a suggestion that the household had failed her in some way and that the revenant was there for the purpose of casting blame?

Papa, when I spoke to him of the matter years later, had a simpler explanation.

“That was no ghost. Stuff and nonsense. She was a healthy one. She’d been seen in the village with Belkin, the under footman. I was pretty sure that he was intimately concerned in the condition in which the woman found herself. No proof of course, but I sent him to the London house till it was all over. It was him she was after, I reckon. Revenge or marriage. One of the two. Probably didn’t know which herself. Or distinguish.”

Those determined for the supernatural explanation pointed out that the doors were all locked at the time of the woman’s visits, more particularly after the first, and that there was no apparent explanation for the means of her entrance and exit.

I returned the book.

“I’ve been reading about the ghost of the washerwoman,” I said.

To my surprise they knew only too well what I meant.

“Oh, she appears every so often,” they said. “Mind you, some of the poor souls here may be over-sensitive to seeing that sort of thing. Begging your own pardon, of course, Mr Alablague.”

I smiled to show that I had taken no offence. It’s safest in a place like this, where they dispense powerful drugs according to whim.

But why, I wondered, had Augustus Sly drawn my attention to the passage? And what was there about Edwardian washerwomen, nagging at the back of my mind?

Shallow Assets

I have been sent away to recuperate. I have a little room of my own with a trim single bed and a bedside table. On this are the book that I am currently reading and two get-well gestures. Amy had sent some of the little crispy things that taste of rainwater, in an exquisite china bowl. I texted to thank her.

“It’s beautiful. Is it Qin Dynasty?”

She replied: “Qing. Idiot. ”

Ijaz sent me a selfie. He had printed it, framed it cheaply but neatly and consigned it to the post in a bubble-wrapped envelope. He was wearing his green Lands End slipover but a white skull cap, acknowledging Ramadan. I wondered, but without passion, what the position of the Prophet was on selfies. Was not the representation of the human form frowned on?

And Augustus Sly had come to see me. He accepted a mug of milky tea from one of the nurses, waited until he had left the room and said, “What is this appalling place?”

“You’re only saying that because you got lost on the way from the station. I’m very lucky to be here.”

Augustus Sly was about to explain that as a student he couldn’t afford to travel by car, so I forestalled him by telling about the place, appalling or otherwise. There was a family connection, I told him. It had been the country seat of my great-great-great uncle Featherington. It had been sold decades ago but for some reason a family connection had been maintained. It was now a private home for the mentally frail, its fees not modest, but my mother had been able to make some phone calls and get me admitted for a short time.

“Uncle Featherington had a daughter called Alicia,” I said, “and she wrote a book about her early years spent here. It was never published commercially but you can download it from one of those history sites. Shallow Assets: Memories of a Gloucestershire childhood. It’s not very interesting: fêtes, fun at the Harvest, bucolic Christmases, outbreaks of beastliness at the village school, the usual thing.”

Shallow Assets?” said Augustus Sly. “What are they?”

“It’s the name of the house. It’s a joke, apparently. ‘Assets’ comes from the French ‘assez’, meaning enough. ‘Shallow’ suggests not enough. Or some think it could be a corruption of a dialect word for osiers, which were grown here. It’s marshy land: not very healthy.”

Augustus Sly grunted. He hates exhibitions of pedantry by anyone other than himself.

“One day – before I was sick – Bella grunted like that,” I said, “and involuntarily shat herself. Only a nugget, but she was devastated.”

I smiled to myself. How much I miss her.

Augustus Sly ignored this too. He turned over the book on my bedside.

“Crap,” he said.

He fingered the bowl with the little crispy things that taste of rainwater.

“You can have one,” I said, “only. And it’s Qing Dynasty.”

“Well, only an idiot would think it was Qin,” said Augustus Sly.

“And,” he said, why is that man wearing a white skull cap and a Lands End pullover?”

“I know that,” I said, “because the better half sends me texts quite often.”

“How often?”

“Yes, quite often.

“Because it is Ramadan, she tells me, Ijaz goes to the mosque for prayers five times a day. Sometimes he wears the full formal kit but for other times smart casual is acceptable, so long as the white skull cap is also worn.”

“It sounds like Church in our own mellow tradition,” said Augustus Sly. “Tweeds for Matins, but corduroy trousers and a nice woolly quite proper for Evensong.”

“You get to thinking in here,” I said, after a pause.

“Unwise,” said Augustus Sly.

“What are we doing to our planet, Augustus Sly?” I said. “The hottest year on record yet again. Look at the little leaves! Scorched! Is this an English summer, in our own mellow tradition as you say, as we knew them in our youth? My youth, anyway. I don’t think so. Presenters of television programmes sodomising corpses. And the acronyms, the three-letter-acronyms. All this nonsense about KYC, the gas bills everywhere. What will they do when the gas board don’t send bills? They don’t send me bills, only demands from made-up firms of solicitors…”

“I can’t read about KYC,” said Augustus Sly, “without thinking of KY jelly – talking of sodomy.”

“Exactly,” I said, ignoring him. “Faced with a problem – venal money-laundering bankers in this instance – they invent a three-letter-acronym, KYC, put together a hugely complicated and entirely pointless procedure and employ a bureaucracy to administer it. Then they sit back smugly as if they’d done something useful. And look at female genital mutilation. Can you think of anything where the rights and wrongs are less evenly balanced that having your clitoris cut out without any say in the matter? They ignore it for decades, no doubt because Harley Street is doing very nicely out of it, thank you, and when they cannot do that anymore they turn it into a three-latter acronym, FGM, and endlessly discuss the cultural implications on minority television channels….”

“You’re shouting,” said Augustus Sly.

“I’m sorry.”

He wiped my lips with a tissue provided by the establishment.

“Are you restrained here?” he said, “by any chance?”

“They took my trousers and wallet,” I said. “They said it was for reasons of security.”

“Neither,” said Augustus Sly, “is a problem in the great scheme of things. We must get you out of here. It’s not doing you any good. Do you think the better half would give you a chitty?”

“I don’t know. She said that she was very busy.”

“In that case,” said Augustus Sly, “we will resort to subterfuge.”

He took out his mobile phone and searched for a number.