Tag Archives: sodomy

Hail, Sturgeonia!

We are staying in the People’s Republic of Sturgeonia. We meant to enter through Berwick-on-Tweed, with its bridges celebrated in art, but apparently the A1 was shut; the satnav took us through deserted valleys and past uninterested sheep and lonely peaks. It was so deserted that I wondered whether we would spot the Border; there are no machine gun posts yet. In fact there was a cairn, with ‘Scotland’ on it and a boy vomiting against the side. He was vomiting on the Scottish side. I don’t know if it was a gesture – for all I know the other side of the cairn says ‘England’. We did not investigate but drove on towards Edinburgh and arrived at midnight.

Edinburgh strives bravely to please the tourist but its heart is not in it. We had booked a self-catering flat. It was the meanest bit of space that I have encountered since I was in New York and people there would boast of similarly exiguous and cabbage-smelling accommodation. In each case the excuse was location, and indeed we could look out of the barred windows onto at least one murder site from the novels of Ian Rankin. On the table was the book of rules. After perfunctorily welcoming us to the great city in which we were privileged to be resting our heads, it told us at length what we were not permitted to do. ‘PENALTY: £100’, it would say, or, in one case, ‘PENALTY: £500’. That I think that was for spilling Irn Bru on the carpet.

Bella, the dog, needed to relieve herself before retiring. She has a foible about this: she will only do it on grass, unless she is in Portugal. Portugal is an exception as there is very little grass there. It is like Buddhists being allowed to eat meat in Tibet. There is grass in Edinburgh but it is locked up at night. We wandered the streets looking for a blade or two on which she could deposit one of her small and elegant effusions. It was all put away behind iron railings. She became embarrassed. Finally we broke into the National Gallery and found a patch there: in the grounds, obviously, not inside, in front of the Reverend whatever skating, or any of their other masterpieces.

Edinburgh is the subject of an interesting social experiment. The aim is that fifty per cent of the population should be traffic wardens. If you look around you, you will see that they are well on the way to achieving this exciting target. Furthermore, there is a new law to the effect that it is an offence to block the view between a traffic warden and any car in which the warden might reasonably be considered to be taking a professional interest. As a result the roads are occupied by the much-admired new trams and by Americans in kilts trudging glumly up to the Castle, while the pavements are full of traffic wardens, preening themselves and lovely in yellow.

On we drove, past the wonderful Forth rail bridge and the site of yet another road bridge in the process of being built, and onto the A9. This is the road that takes you out of the Central Belt north from Perth and on as far as you want: even as far as John O’Groats. The A9 is a difficult road. It has two lanes for most of its length and you get stuck behind lorries and caravans. The radio signal goes and Radio 4 turns to white noise. There is money for another road bridge for the Central Belt, but not for communications in the Highlands.

The view of the Cairngorms is stupendous – or was. These days it is difficult to see the Cairngorms as the roadside is littered with official signs. These announce enterprising new traffic-calming projects, remind you of the speed limit and inform you that policemen are operating in unmarked cars. (Operating? On whom?) There are endless speed cameras.

And now we are in the Highlands and there is a problem with rubbish. I wish that there was an agreed standard about what could be put into which bin. There are two bins. There is a sign on one of them that tells you that various things are not welcome, and another sign to the effect that if you put the wrong things in the wrong bin they won’t take them away: on a second offence they would throw it all through your bedroom window with a foul cry. We put the bottles (there had been family merriment) in the bin that did not say that bottles were forbidden. Half an hour later the neighbour deposited the bottles back on our doorstep with a note. It was in capitals and underlined, like the anonymous notes that one gets accusing one of sodomising the vicar’s cat. It was to the effect that bottles were not welcome at all. They were to be taken to the supermarket.

I resisted the temptation to shove them, open end dripping, through the neighbour’s bedroom window with a foul cry. This was wise, as half an hour later she set out up the hill with a wheelbarrow containing, I am fairly certain, her murdered lover. Certainly she trudged glumly back with wheelbarrow empty and the lover has not been seen since. What might I have seen if I had looked in!

Instead, we drove with the bottles the twelve-mile trip to the supermarket and back, thus solving climate change at a stroke.

I am sitting with the sun setting over the western mountains. (I am writing but not posting, as there is no broadband.) There is little human between us and Canada. The landscape is immense. It ruminates as it settles into the night. Otherwise it is absolutely silent. I hope that they let us continue to come here. I love it and it feels like home. And I hope that they grow out of their current mood of institutional bossiness.

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An Eyeful

Some weeks ago Ijaz was explaining to me about the restrictions placed on the devout during Ramadan. I had said that I understood that it was not just an injunction against food and drink passing the lips during daylight but anything doing so. I knew this because a friend of mine, living in an Arab country, had told me. Normally accommodating boys, he had said, ceased to be so during this time. It was one of those little pieces of information that one stores away in case it comes in useful. Sodomy, I suppose, would have been acceptable, but a man of taste and manners proceeds to sodomy only by stages.

Of course I did not mention any of this to Ijaz. He, however, took the point, almost with vigour.

“No, no; no sex,” he said. “But it’s more than the mouth, it’s the eyes too. During Ramadan we may not see anything impure with our eyes either.”

“See,” I said, “or dwell on?”

I had in mind the distinction observed by the poet Blake between having an unacted desire and ‘nursing’ it. But Ijaz dismissed this.

“We are men of will,” he said. “It is the same thing.”

I was glad that Ijaz lived across the road from me and therefore had had no chance, as he would have had, some days before, if he lived on our side of encountering a sight that he might well have regarded as impure. It was then still at the very end of the summer. I was idly looking out of an upstairs window. Some doors down there is a house occupied by eastern Europeans. Although we smile and say hello when we encounter each other in the street I have not really met them to talk to, but someone who was coming to see us once got directions from one of them at the nearest Tube station and they walked up the street together. Our neighbour informed our guest that the end of the world was imminent. They based this prediction on signs and portents and also written authority.

Anyway, my eye was caught by the sight of two of them, a young man and a young woman, walking in the garden. He was clad in a shell suit. She was wearing a loose and rather short dress. A flower took her attention and she bent over it and as she did so her dress rode up.

“Goodness,” I thought, “a naked bottom.”

It was round and flat and with all the unmistakeable features of the bottoms of the citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It could not have been a bottom of a member of what we are encouraged in the London Borough of Newham to call the UK host community. It was a bottom that one would not be surprised to encounter in a drawing by Egon Schiele; one could imagine such a bottom – seen, remembered or imagined – taking pride of place in feverish disclosures on Dr Freud’s couch in the Vienna of a hundred years ago. In those days, of course, it would have emerged from elaborate petticoating rather than, as now, out of something bought at Primark.

I looked for a moment in admiration. I then saw that it was not in fact naked. The merest piece of cloth disappeared between the cheeks and re-emerged below, preserving modesty. I moved back from the window. The entire incident had taken a couple of seconds.

I wondered what Ijaz would have done. As a man of will he probably just wouldn’t have seen it. But if it had been, as it were, thrust into his attention, what would his reaction have been?

I hope that it wouldn’t have been laddish. I don’t think so.

Would he have regarded it as no more impure than any other of the female attributes that he thinks it best to be covered up: hair, shoulders, bottoms – all much the same. Ijaz is no fundamentalist and he accepts that whilst he has certain standards he cannot insist on their being upheld by the non-believers among whom he happily lives. Perhaps he would regard the innocent flashing of a Bulgarian or Polish bottom as par for the course in a pluralistic society, to be faced and tolerated in others although spurned for oneself, just as he smiles indulgently when I take out the empty wine bottles as he stands across the road having a cigarette (except of course during Ramadan).

Would he have regarded it as one more innocent example of divine munificence, no more or less beautiful than the flower that our neighbour bent to look at? Again, no I don’t think so.

I suspect that as a man of will Ijaz would not have seen the bottom unless he had absolutely had to, and then he would have been at pains, like Blake, not to have nursed it, Ramadan or not.

And me? Well I suppose that writing about naked bottoms is nursing them if anything is, but then, no harm done, and anyway it isn’t Ramadan and moreover I’m not a Muslim.

Meanwhile, still on our side of the street but to the left rather than to the right, they have erected a tabernacle in the garden. Well, it’s a marquee, but it glows softly at night, and voices can be heard indistinctly like the songs of birds. I listen out for music but there isn’t any – yet. Maybe it is an early stage of some ceremony, a wedding probably, taking place over an extended period. They have hung the front of the house with what we in the UK host community might call Christmas lights, and thank goodness that Ijaz can see for himself, across the street, such a wholesome sight. Maybe on the appointed day people will arrive, magnificently dressed, in rented Bentleys and the sound of the oud will ring out in the autumn air. Maybe it will but I’ll miss it.

The things you see!

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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.

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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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The Link-Boy’s Tale

I walked back to meet the procession, having inspected the shopping centre. Unfortunately, with Cardinal V-‘s pernicketiness about his dress, it was now late in the afternoon and people were leaving. Also the entrance was lower than I had remembered. Neither bothered me unduly.

The procession was a fine sight coming slowly along the road into central Stratford. It had increased in size. Local Catholics, energised by parish magazines or some more contemporary means of communication, were tagging along and there seemed to be far more nuns.

I took a closer look at these. The newcomers turned out not to be nuns, however, but modestly dressed Moslem women, also in black. I noticed one staring at me.

I’d recognise those eyes anywhere.

The Jibjab Woman!

Hello, Al.

Assalamu ‘alaykum wa rahmatullah, I said.

Et cum spiritu tuo, said the Jibjab Woman.

Why are you here?

She narrowed her eyes.

The cause, she said.

I caught the almost inaudible sound of her grin against the cloth covering her mouth.

I am always pleased to see the Jibjab Woman and I feel safer when she is around. So, foolishly, I did not ask her whose cause.

By this time we had arrived at the entrance to the shopping centre. Cardinal V- was flinging blessings around as if they were free, but there was indecision. The cross could not go in upright; the doorway was simply too low. The bell-toller ceased tolling and awaited developments.

I assumed that they would pass the cross in with Our Lord on his back, but apparently that would be wrong. Many creatures in nature – notably sharks – lose consciousness when laid on their backs and it was felt that the same logic (if ‘logic’ is the right word) might apply to Him. The cross was lowered so that He was face down and manhandled through the doorway.

Halfway through this manoeuvre there was a nasty crack. Christ’s bottom half came adrift. He continued to hang by His hands, metal-alloy feet dragging noisily on the floor, but the nails in His wrists were now subject to greater stress than had ever been intended. Mongo, now rather hot and dishevelled, got the cross upright again.

At this point a further problem revealed itself. The ceiling would accommodate the cross held upright in some places but not others, where, because of ducting for example, it was much lower. Mongo indicated that it would be easier to compromise on a semi-upright position that he could maintain. He held the cross at about forty-five degrees. It must have been an immense strain on his shoulders and arms. From the top Our Lord hung forwards, at the same angle. The procession struggled back into life.

My mobile rang. I have, I should explain, a network of young people, crossing-sweepers, link-boys and the like, whom I pay small sums of money to keep their eyes and ears open for me. I had told them all of my urgent desire to see the Angel of Paddington Station again.

So my mobile rang. It was a text from one of them:

What price the Angel of Stratford International? Sighted! Come at once!

I had to make a quick decision. The procession with gorgeous robes seemed to be stable. It could manage without me. But I called a local member of my network and told him to keep an eye on things. He is my source for what happened then. I hurried off to Stratford International.

Hassan is a link-boy, aged about twelve. I have no idea why link-boys have a dubious reputation, unless it is because of that salacious painting by Joshua Reynolds. Whatever may be the case with other link-boys Hassan is an entirely wholesome lad and if he attracts attention it is because of his natural and unaffected good looks. He joined the crowd soon after I left. Almost at once, he told me later, two things happened, followed by a third, and the third brought the proceedings to an abrupt close.

As Hassan scanned the procession his eye lit on Cardinal V-. The latter chose to take this as contact directed at him personally. He deserted his place at the head of the procession and pushed through the crowd (‘like rat up drainpipe’) towards Hassan. He was, Hassan told me, gabbling in an unknown tongue. Whether this was Latin, Italian or the simple incoherent vocalisations of lust we will never know.

As I say, the shopping day was drawing to a close and the shops were shutting. When that happens the area is given over to skate-boarding. The youth had already started to gather, waiting for shoppers, processors and all to depart so that they could describe their arabesques on the marble-effect floor in peace, subject only to the appraisal of their peers. As they waited they spun their boards in and out of their hands, using minimal gestures with their feet.

How Mongo managed to intercept one we shall, again, never know. He was very hot, exhausted and stupid, and he could not see his feet on account of his robing. There is no reason to suspect some malign intervention on the part of the Jibjab Woman. I will leave it at that.

Suddenly, Hassan was to tell me later, he hurtled forward on the skateboard, the cross now held straight in front of him like a lance.

‘That metal man, he was hanging, first two hands then one, feet making a terrible sound on the floor. Then a woman, she was big, big like the man holding the wooden thing, she was Caribbean I think, she seize the metal man and pull him off.

‘She shouts, “My Lord! My Lord!”

‘The man with the red hat, he’s just arrived where I’m standing and he’s put his arm on me. He hears this and turns round. He shouts, “No! My Lord!”

‘Then he turns back as he is more interested in me.

‘The wooden thing is going like clappers. I don’t know how that lady got the metal man out from under it. Anyway it sticks in a shop and can’t be got out.’

And what, I said, did Mongo say?

‘He said, “Aaargh!”’

And after the first two things came the third: the arrival of two policemen.

‘Unfortunately for the man with the red hat he has his hand on my trousers when the policemen feel his shoulder.

‘”We have warrant for your arrest,” they say. “Blah, blah, blah sexual offence…blah, blah, blah minors…blah, blah, blah thieving… blah, blah, blah European arrest warrant…”

I thought that European arrest warrants didn’t apply with the Vatican, I said.

Hassan beamed.

‘The man with the red hat say that too! Police say, “Let’s discuss that down at the Station, shall we, sonny?”’

And that was the end of the procession with gorgeous robes.

The Angel? What a waste of time. Some old whore with red knickers. Late middle-aged, I’d say. What is it about the red knickers that blinds people to everything else?

French too.

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Immigrants in Love

Not many Londoners are native. That’s even more the case with New York or Los Angeles, but London I know personally. When I was a child my parents, my brother and sister and I lived in the Surrey hills and would engage in Ivy Compton Burnett-like bombing raids on the capital, “up to Town”, always in our best clothes; I was nearly in my twenties before I attempted London without a tie.

Sometimes it was for a Test Match at the Oval. My father preferred the Oval to Lords as it was closer to home and I preferred it because I was a Surrey supporter during the county’s glory days of the 1950s. Just as my father retained his childhood loyalty to Kent, having been born there – well, Deptford was in Kent once – so have I retained my preference for Surrey CCC and the Oval, even though both have been transformed utterly from the gruff, pipe-smoking geniality of my youth.

Sometimes it was a play. My parents reckoned to see everything that they put on at the National Theatre, which in those days was still located at the Old Vic and nearly every play seemed to star the young Maggie Smith. I remember Shaw’s St Joan, where in the last act Joan herself (not, I think, played by Dame Maggie) reappears on stage, long after her iconic death, to general admiration in which I was unable to share as there was a pillar in the way.

Shaw always reduces me to tears. It’s not just the clunky lines he gave his actors to speak but the fact that he was a music critic and he still didn’t realise what clunky lines they were. Star Trek has the same effect.

At the end of the day we would go and eat: always in that Chinese place just off Piccadilly Circus. It lasted for decades and disappeared only recently. There was a principled absence of chopsticks, or indeed anything that an unbiased observer would class as Chinese food, which it must have taken a heroic effort to maintain, with Chinatown so close.

The first time I went to London without my parents was with my friend Sidney to see Ben Hur on an enormous screen (I was only half-size myself then, so it was even bigger, relatively) in a first-run cinema in Leicester Square. I have seen Ben Hur many times since, in different flea-pits including my own front rooms over the years, but nothing equals the original experience. It had a profound effect on me. For years afterwards, when either Sidney or I emerged from the school locker rooms the other would put on a deep portentous voice and intone:

You’ve changed, Judah Ben Hur.

The other memorable thing about that adventure was the train journey up. We were two school boys with ties and across us in the little carriage were three mathematicians. All the way to Waterloo they talked entirely in mathematics, for forty minutes and with passion and hand gestures. It was a path not to be taken, but a one vividly indicated nonetheless.

Although I was brought up away from London in the Surrey hills, my ancestors had lived in the city. My grandfather moved to London from Barbados in the Nineteenth Century with his widowed mother and his brothers and sisters. They clung together for warmth with two other Bajan families, thirty of them altogether if the 1901 Census is anything to go by, in a house north of Euston, furiously marrying each other. After a generation they spread their wings, thus enabling my father to be born in Deptford and in due course to move to the country and me to become the second wave of immigration. I too spent my first five years or so in London living in various flats but all on the same page of the A to Z. So it’s easy to understand why people newly arrived in our capital want to stick to the haunts that they are comfortable with, like the shy creatures you sometimes see scuttling from One Hyde Park to Harrods and back.

I know that it is a challenge coming to a strange city but it is a challenge that it is easier to face if one finds love. That was why I was so much uplifted to overhear the telephone conversation of the young Chinese man that I related earlier. Unsurprisingly I never saw him again so I don’t know if he found his experiments with sodomy reassuring, but I do hope so.

Curiously enough there was a similar episode the other day, again on the bus but this time downstairs. A man sat opposite me. His legs were wide apart, which is often a sign of self-confidence. He telephoned a succession of women, most of whom appeared not to want to pass the time of day on the phone with him. One however did.

You meet me at my work, he said, after some preliminaries. Where I work. I work at Oxford Circus. You know Oxford Circus?

Apparently this location was unknown to her.

It is by the Regent Street. You know the Regent Street?

This also appeared to be drawing a blank. I thought fondly back to my early days. Central London, I then worked out in my mind, is a circle described by the Circle Line. It is bisected laterally by the Central Line. The Central Line corresponds to a street that runs east to west. It has various names but it is the same street. Oxford Circus is right in the middle. It is on the Central Line and it is also on the Bakerloo Line, which goes north and south, as does Regent Street. London, therefore, is a hot cross bun and Oxford Circus is where the cherry would be if cherries were permitted in Lent.

I might have imparted this valuable information to him, but it had became apparent that he had a different solution.

Not know Oxford Circus. Not know the Regent Street. Is very difficult, very difficult.

His voice took on a tone of infinite lubricity.

Is best you come my house then.

He settled back in his seat and spread his legs even further apart. Then he embarked on a lengthy description of how to find where he lived. When it became obvious that it wasn’t One Hyde Park, I returned to my book.

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Munros

There is a risk, amid all the challenging discussions of anthropogenic climate change, of overlooking the continuing movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates. These are no longer considered anthropogenic, so far as I know, although the Roman Emperor Justinian famously considered that homosexuality caused earthquakes. That may be a view gaining traction (as they probably call it there) in the University of East Anglia. I considered doing a Freedom of Information Act search to find out, but then, I thought, what’s the point?

What we do know, even without a Freedom of Information Act search, is that there is tectonic movement and as a result some places are getting higher and some lower. One of the saddest things that I have read recently was that some mountains that until recently were not high enough to be Munros (as they call peaks in the Highlands of Scotland that are over three thousand feet in height) have as a result of tectonic movements become Munros.

The Highlands of Scotland are of course arrayed around a volcanic rift valley, and so it is not surprising that if any mountains in these islands are to grow or diminish they will be Scottish ones.

It’s not clear whether, if tectonic movements are indeed caused by the activities of the gay community, it is the Scottish gay community with which we should concern ourselves or the wider gay community acting, as it were, at a distance. I called the University of East Anglia’s press office to ask their view but they said that their lips were sealed.

In any event that is something that we must leave to The Science (as I believe they call it in the University of East Anglia). One imagines white-coated and dedicated men and women calibrating incidents of sodomy against millimetric spasms of mountains hither and thither. It is not in any case my concern here, and it is not why I found the news that we had new Munros saddening.

Some people, men mainly, have always found the Munros a challenge. They have resolved to climb every one of them. Many have succeeded. Many have made things more challenging for themselves by, for example, climbing the Munros at a trot, rather than striding as is more conventional. (Most Munros I believe are smooth on top and can be climbed without resort to crampons and stout ropes, unlike foreign mountains.) All these men have no doubt finished the job with a sense of relief and usually a relaxing of the disciplines required to attempt the feat in the first place. Some have grown old buoyed up with a quiet sense of achievement.

And that is the sad bit. Suddenly, when they are too old or out of condition to do anything about it, a new Munro or three pop up, and they have no longer climbed them all. Maybe they climbed everything that comprised the authentic category of Munros at the time, maybe they climbed the mountains that have since become Munros before they were Munros, but it’s not quite good enough. The quiet sense of achievement evaporates.

We all have our Munros. I know that I do. I am occasionally nagged by the thought that my collection of Buffy Ste. Marie CDs is complete except for the doggedly unavailable Live in Toronto. And I know that even if I did find a copy of Live in Toronto some other live album, available perhaps only in Japan, would sneak into the Amazon lists and then become unavailable before I had noticed.

I was musing about these things as I sat by myself in our local fish and chips restaurant. Skating on Ice (very popular in the fish and chip community for obvious reasons) was showing on a big television set in the corner and although all the contestants reported that they felt very emotional, I was confident that their heightened feelings would not blunt the keen edge of my analysis.

I was eating by myself in the local fish and chips restaurant because the better half was being entertained by friends for dinner and there was nothing in the fridge that I was capable of cooking. These friends are in London for a week or so and have entertained her for dinner most nights. On one occasion I was included. They come over every month or so and entertain the better half on successive nights and sometimes, as this time, kindly ask me along too.

And here’s (as they no doubt say in the University of East Anglia) the thing. They never eat at a restaurant that does not have at least one Michelin star. It is a dogged attempt on the category of London Michelin-starred restaurants. And as with the Munros – more frequently in fact, geological time being what it is – restaurants gain stars or lose them. A rat is found in a previously favoured kitchen: an evening has, in retrospect, been wasted. Some previously spurned fusion eatery gets the nod. Some super-trendy place opens: better wait, just in case. You can never relax for a moment.

As I thrust my tongue into my portion of moist haddock, evanescent hints of the sea playing against the more trenchant notes of the beer batter, it seemed to me that maybe there is more pleasure to be had in the culinary foothills; that a saunter through the strath curling down the mountain, with the water in the burn bubbling over the rocks, the trout dark shadows barely discernible in the pools and the midgies lurking out of the sunlight and awaiting their turn, gives more pleasure than the stern, bare, unforgiving slopes above.

An obsessive Munro hunter, like an obsessive diner out, or a vinyl nut, would tell us curtly that that was not the point.

And fair enough.

But, just a thought, in these restaurants, do they have to tell you what you’re eating?

The last time I was included in the invitation we went to one of those Indian-lite places so much smiled on these days by the Michelin judges. The food was delicious – not as good as my haddock but very nice.

The difference is this. The woman brings you your haddock with the remark, There you go, dear. In the Michelin place they set your plate down and then tell you in detail what it contains.

Good manners prevent your replying, Yes I know; I ordered it.

On this occasion the waiter indicated with a flourish a small copper bowl.

And that, he said, is fish curry.

No it isn’t, we said; it’s chicken.

To which he replied, with the gastronomic acuity that makes reputations or breaks them, but with a charming giggle:

Fish, chicken, whatever.

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The Chorister Stopped at a Chemist

Unsurprisingly, Popes Я Us have not been returning my calls. No doubt the issue of what His Holiness’s position should be on the trans community has slid down the list of priorities with the announcement of his resignation. He may reasonably feel that the trans community can safely be left to his successor.

And who would want that job? As our vicar said to me when I facetiously told him that I had had him down for Canterbury: I may be dumb but I’m not stupid.

And this is Canterbury in spades.

I left a phone message after two or three attempts, with my best wishes for the man. These are sincere. I don’t agree with much of what he has said but he seems to me to be a genuine and godly man in an impossible position. The only time I saw him was in the distance in St Peter’s, soon after his appointment. He was celebrating mass and the congregation, instead of standing with modestly lowered heads, were pogoing up and down like early enthusiasts for the Sex Pistols, holding their mobiles above their heads and attempting to get a good snap. I can’t help thinking that he hoped for better when his colleagues shyly but firmly thrust the keys of the fisherman into his hands.

His enemies say two things against him, both of which seem to me to be beside the point.

The first is that he turned a blind eye to the sheltering by the Church of paedophile priests. That doesn’t seem to be borne out by the facts, which seem to be that he did pretty much all that he could to ensure that the police were involved as a matter of routine, but that things drifted and decisions were put off during the senility of his predecessor.

The second is that when a boy in Germany he joined the Hitler Youth. I think that in his circumstances most of us would have; I myself joined the Surrey Young Conservatives.

(I should say in my defence that I had no hand in the matter. My mother forged my signature on the application form. She thought that it would enable me to make a better class of friends than the cross-dressers and jazz fiends into whose company I had fallen.

Actually there was only the one cross-dresser, and he gave it up when he grew too big for his mother’s clothes. We drifted apart but I believe that like his father he went on to a successful career as a stockbroker.

I never attended the deliberations of the Surrey Young Conservatives. With the over-sensitivity of youth I was never convinced that my tweeding would pass muster.)

Of course there are rumours why the Pope is leaving. By all accounts the Vatican is awash with fraud and sexual incontinence. He has been threatened with the exposure of this secret or that, so the rumours go, unless he resigns and leaves matters in the hands of someone more malleable.

These rumours cannot simply be ignored, and that is one reason why I was anxious to check some of the more extreme of them with Popes Я Us. The crux of it (as regards sexual incontinence anyway, rather than fraud) seems to be that Cardinals have been freely indulging themselves in the Roman gay underworld – many of them, indeed, with rent boys.

The first rumour has some Eminence or other sending out from his eyrie in the Vatican for home delivery. Apparently a ‘chorister’ would act as the go-between. It’s not clear to me whether this ‘chorister’ was a smooth-cheeked treble or an older tenor or bass singer on whom such worldliness would sit more naturally. My belief, though without checking, is that castrati are a thing of the past. It was probably a grown man, as one detail that has come to me involves the purchase of condoms.

Condoms are apparently hard to come by in Vatican City. You will look in vain for a condom dispenser in the public lavatories to be found there, just as, for different reasons, you will look in vain for an ATM with money in it. Nevertheless the application of a condom to His Eminence’s elderly and uncertain member is, on health grounds, as desirable for His Eminence as for the rent boy. His Eminence has researched the knotty theological question whether an act that would condemn a man and wife to the everlasting bonfire might be, for him, pure and free from sin. He has delved into the incunabula of the Vatican Library (to be found between the Hollywood DVDs on the one side and the complete recordings of Paul Simon on the other) and his conclusion is that, whilst condoms are in general the work of the Devil, as used between himself and his young friend no sin is involved as there is no conception to be thwarted. Preventing conception, he has convinced himself, is the nub of the matter. This is despite certain Thirteenth Century manuscripts that assert that the mingling of the fluids of a Cardinal and his catamite is the very best thing for the creation by artifice of certain monsters. He discounts these as superstitious.

Anyway the upshot is that when the ‘chorister’, disappears into the stews of Rome in one of the Papal Zils he stops at a chemist (there is an all-night Booti on the way), buys a pack of three – or ‘Trinita’ as it is colloquially known around Vatican City – and delivers it to His Eminence together with the boy.

That’s why I think that the chorister must be a tenor or bass. The words ‘Trinita, per favore!’, delivered in an unbroken voice of a purity that would, the following Sunday, launch the glories of Palestrina across the great space of St Peter’s, would cause the hardened old pharmacist not to come across with the goods but to sink to his knees in prayer.

Younger Cardinals, on the other hand, take the Papal Zils into town in search of pleasure. Their chosen destination, I gather, is the ‘Bathhouse of Caracalla’. My source (who has been, so he tells me, their chauffeur on more than one such occasion) describes the high spirits with which these saintly gentlemen clamber into the back of the limousine in their Armani suits. Their excitement is such that as often as not they have forgotten to change their collars. What a giveaway! they shriek, stuffing the clerical articles beneath the seat, and appearing at the Bathhouse otherwise impeccably dressed but open at the neck.

Curiously, when I make my way to places such as this, I find that wearing the full Cardinal’s robes, crimson from biretta to Prada-encased toes, makes for a talking point and can break the ice when it comes to introductions. (I am not homosexual myself, but I think that it’s right to keep one’s hand in.)

My informant does not follow the gentlemen into the establishment, waiting outside until they are done, but he tells me that he likes to imagine their smooth well-fed bodies doing the business with the laity of Rome and the great community of Christendom beyond, the latter in town as tourists and drinking up the atmosphere.

Urbi et orbi, he comments wryly.

I was hoping that Popes Я Us could deny all this filthy talk and put my mind at rest. I am still confident that they will. If half of it is true, and it becomes generally known, the Church will be in an appalling predicament. In the meantime we owe it to His Holiness to maintain silence: sceptical but reverent. These secrets, whether true or tittle-tattle, are safe with me.

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Scheherazade

Today I tell you one thing, one thing only.

Amy made a grand gesture. She is enjoying rationing her life story, a bit at a time, and each visit circumscribed in time and etiquette. We don’t start until green tea has been served by one of her girls and preliminary courtesies have been exchanged.

One thing. My mother has no name. My brother one name. I have two names.

Your mother?

She dead.

But she had no name?

No name.

Why?

Too much trouble, girls, then. Many Chinese women no name then.

But what did you call her?

It was an idiotic question.

Ma.

And your brother?

He in China. He like China more.

And he is called?

No need you know. He just my brother.

And you have two names because Amy is your English name and you have a Chinese name too?

Chinese name too.

What’s that?

No need you know.

She was certainly enjoying this.

No wonder you called it Great Secret Miss.

She laughed.

And today I tell you no more.

No, Amy, you have to. You have to leave me guessing what comes next. That’s the game. You’re my Scheherazade.

I was fairly confident that she had never heard of Scheherazade and, wrongly, that she would be entirely unable to pronounce her name. I was getting my own back.

Ah! Scheherazade! Now I have three names!

And with that she disappeared into the murky – indeed secret – nether regions of Great Secret Miss. One of her girls gave me more green tea but it was clear that that was all that I would see of Amy for the day.

I went home on the bus. It occurred to me to think about all the Chinese people in London. All those secrets, I thought. How many of them had unknowable names? Or no names at all? How many of them had husbands in Kettering?

It is of course wrong to generalise – still more so to fantasise – on the basis of nationality. Dame Jenni ™ Murray, had she access to my thoughts, would have brought me to order. Racist, she would have said, and sexist – and she would have been right. A reprimand from Dame Jenni ™ Murray is always a pleasure, a stern pleasure but one that leaves you firmly on the straight and narrow and ready to face the world with one hundred per cent confidence. I have come to value our encounters in the corridors of the film company and I shall be sorry when the production of the first, I hope, of many series of Bunanza! is finished. However, as it turned out, on this occasion a reprimand from Dame Jenni ™ Murray was not necessary to put me right.

I settled into my seat upstairs on the bus. It was nearly full. As I sat down I noticed a young Chinese man in the seat behind me. He was on the phone. He had a rather high voice. That, combined with his very clear diction, meant that although he never raised his voice he must have been audible throughout the upper deck. And I, scarcely a foot in front of him, had him talking directly into my ears.

He was making an arrangement to meet someone for the afternoon in a week’s time .

Now, he said, I am very much looking forward to our meeting and we will have sex together. Maybe we will have some food together first. I like to eat. Do you like to eat? Or maybe after. They tell me that you very much like having sex in your bum. Is that right?

There was silence as the other man (for man, to judge by the pitch of the noises coming from the phone, it was) explained the degree of his desire to have it in his bum from my neighbour. Evidently, on balance, that was just what he wanted.

Well, said my neighbour, I don’t do that very often.

He explained in some detail what it was that he did do very often.

But you want to have it in your bum. And you will. I have a week now. So I will practise. You will like it very much.

The other man apparently explained that he was pleasurably anticipating – in the correct sense – receiving it in his bum from my neighbour.

No. I can’t now. I’m on the bus. Wait till I get home. Don’t do it yet. I call you.

He hung up. Everyone on the bus gave a little sigh. There’s nothing like young love to bring folk together.

But as I walked home from the bus stop I couldn’t help comparing his approach to secrets with Amy’s and I resolved to stop generalising.

I imagined my neighbour’s joyless but enthusiastic experiments with the techniques of sodomy with whatever stand-in bottoms he could muster, and the refinements produced in due course for the delectation of his inamorato.

When I got home there was a text from Amy.

COME TOMORROW. I LEAVE KETTERING AND SEEK FORTUNE. YOURS SINCERELY A

I replied:

LATER, SCHEHERAZADE. I’M OFF TO MONTENEGRO. X

Who’s that, asked the better half, who was packing.

Amy. She’s got to the bit where she leaves Kettering and eventually meets Aubergine Small.

Pft, said the better half.

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