Kettering as a State of Mind

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

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

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

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

I tell a personal story, said Amy.

That’s nice, I said.

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

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


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

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

Go for it, I said.

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

Was that here, Amy?

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

No. This story before 神秘女郎.

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

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

And was he?

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

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

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


With the heat.

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

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

I decided to risk it.

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

Amy frowned.

Then she said two very surprising things.

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

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

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

Kettering is a state of mind, she said.

And she would not be drawn further.



神秘女郎, said Amy.

I can see that, I said.

And indeed ‘神秘女郎’ was newly inscribed in red and gold paint on the fascia of Great Secret Miss.

Tell me again, I said. Tell me in pinyin.

Shén mì nǚ láng, said Amy. Means ‘Great Secret Miss’, of course.

I had guessed that. In fact the previous, English, name was still visible, in smaller lettering, on the glass. My task, self-imposed, had been to identify what it sounded like.

You like it?

I considered.

It’s more classy, I said. On the other hand it’s going to be a bugger for taxi drivers.

A cloud crossed Amy’s face. I should not have said ‘a bugger for taxi drivers’. She didn’t understand the phrase. Until recently she would have asked me to explain but now she has a translation app on her iPhone, which I saw her consult. This left her no wiser and visibly alarmed.

I explained what I had meant.

More to the point, I said, why are you and your girls and indeed your entire staff standing on the pavement outside 神秘女郎? Should you not be inside plying your customers with intoxicating and oneiroferous kefir? Can we go in? Indeed, where are your customers?

One customer very smelly. Had to come outside.

Was he incontinent?

I cursed myself. Out came the iPhone again.

No. Just very smelly man.

She looked infinitely distasteful, and so did her girls. One of them had lit some joss sticks and had ventured in with them.

What you call those things? Amy said.

Which things?

Things look like tapers. Don’t show dead people under the ground, but cover up smells. A girl buys them.

‘Joss sticks’, I said.

The iPhone came out.

J-O-S-S, I said. And ‘sticks’.

Ah, Amy said, apparently satisfied.

The joss sticks seemed to work well enough because the girls filed back inside. I stayed on the street for the length of a cigarette. I didn’t smoke a cigarette because I don’t; nevertheless the time that a cigarette takes to be smoked is a useful unit, and that is the amount of time that I lingered outside 神秘女郎 on the pavement, unwilling to confront the unacceptable smell of the very smelly customer.

I thought about how the gauge of the most modern railway is famously calculated in multiples of the width of a horse’s bottom, since that was the measure by which the size of a Roman road was calculated (two horses per carriage, or cart, so two bottoms’ worth for a one-way street and four with a bit to spare for two-way streets) and roads in the Eighteenth Century were still the same width as Roman ones, nothing in the essential nature of travel having changed in the intervening fifteen or so centuries; and railway gauges, proudly emerging in the Nineteenth Century as an apparently entirely new problem to be wrestled with, are based on them.

It is a story – the horses’ bottoms – from which lessons are often derived by motivational speakers. My thoughts, as I stood on the pavement outside 神秘女郎, cigarette-free, were however not nuanced in a way that a motivational speaker would approve. I simply wondered whether in the remote future, long after we have found something completely different to soothe and poison ourselves with, we will still time our natural breaks from quotidian responsibility by reference to the duration of a normal cigarette, smoked in a normally leisurely way and absent unusual wind conditions.

These musings did not take up the full cigarette-break-unit of time that I had allotted to myself, so I thought about something else too; a disinterested observer would have characterised me as resourceful. I thought of the ecology of 神秘女郎, so precious and so fragile, and how it had been traumatised, how all its denizens had been literally driven out. I thought of the very smelly man. He had done nothing grossly irruptive. He had not been incontinent as regards any of his bodily functions. By his own lights no doubt he simply took an unfussy approach to the matter of hygiene. And yet the consequences had been devastating. The parallels with anthropogenic climate change were inescapable.

I went in.

I have to say that the smell was barely noticeable. Maybe the joss sticks – and the healing passage of time – were already doing their work; maybe Amy and her girls had different standards in these things from me. In any event, it was for them to decide. They had to work there: I didn’t.

In retrospect it was thoughtless not to have realised that she was busy. I strode across the room to her.

Amy, I said. Your very smelly customer. The parallels with anthropogenic climate change are inescapable.

She stared at me for a moment with undisguised contempt.

Anthropogenic climate change, she said. Pft! You help me with joss sticks or you bugger off.

She learns fast.

“Anal warts!” she shouted.

The better half has the ability to concentrate with an unusual intensity. Sometimes she will be thinking, or dabbing at her iPhone, so hard that she barely registers what is being said to her.

The dog and I used to have a game. We would range ourselves as if by accident into a line, with the dog at one end, the better half in the middle and me at the other. The line was not entirely straight as it was necessary for the dog and me to maintain eye contact. The better half would be facing me rather than the dog, for reasons that will soon be apparent.

At a prearranged signal I would ask her a question.

The dog would predict the answer, by means of an agreed code.

One paw meant complete silence.

Two paws indicated a grunt.

Three: “No, Al!”

Four: violence.

Five (four paws plus raised tail; a not untricky manoeuvre): a complete considered sentence. One of the rules was that a main verb was to be taken as conclusive proof of a ‘five’ response.

The dog would necessarily be lying on his side, or he would have fallen over. Even so he had a natural preference for predictions ‘one’ and ‘two’.

We would agree the number of questions, and if the dog was right more than half the time he could expect to receive something special in his bowl later in the day.

We also tried it the other way round, with the dog asking the questions and me making the predictions, but it was not nearly as satisfactory, as the nature of the questions that the dog could put to the better half was necessarily limited. To be frank, responses ‘one’ and ‘two’ would in most cases be inevitable.

The dog always called it ‘the cricket game’, because it reminded him of the juxtaposition of bowler and wicket-keeper with the hapless batsman in between. Last year the dog joined ‘my Hornby and my Barlow long ago’, so the game can never again be played, but it still amuses me when I hear Michael Vaughan on the television talking about some England bowler ‘asking searching questions’ of some batsman. In my mind’s eye I see the great Matt Prior, tucked behind the batsman, not in the habitual crouch but on his side covertly displaying a coded combination of wicket-keeper’s pads and gloves. What he does for ‘five’, the cricketing equivalent of a full sentence (a reverse sweep perhaps) is something that I am content to leave to the more technical sections of Wisden.

I say that the game can never be played again. Certainly it can’t be played in its pure form as the dog is no longer with us, but I still play it in my head, and I am not entirely sure that it would not make for good, and cheap, television. I have put a proposal to the film company for which I work, part time, and I am awaiting their response. It would give the better half and me great pleasure to see a brief credit for the dog at the end of the closing titles. That would of course involve my telling her about the game, which I have never so far had occasion to do.

As I write this, another thought occurs to me. I take a small piece of paper and a pencil and write: ‘The Cricket Video Game’. I sign it, date it and put it somewhere safe. As I have recorded before, I am creative first and last.

The difficulty of successfully getting the better half’s attention means that many of her friends telephone her. If she has the iPhone at her ear she cannot be dabbing at it and the immediacy of a telephone conversation means that, unless the friend in question is very dull indeed, it will take precedence over even her most urgent musings.

So it was the other morning with Thumper.

Thumper had not been calling for some weeks. I was worried that with his Petomanic tour de force, I Will Always Love You with sax solo, he had torn something. You may remember that his name had later materialised on a small piece of paper, accompanying a stylised representation of a rabbit, at Great Secret Miss. Amy had fancifully suggested that he was imprisoned in it. She has an imagination that is sometimes regrettably coarse and she had had some fun picturing its being applied by accident to her nether parts and lost in the primitive plumbing that lies just behind and below her establishment like the dead people, who, if the tapers are anything to go by, lie immediately below the plumbing.

I think that Amy was winding me up. Anyway she was wrong, for here he was, on the phone to the better half, who was on the other side of the matrimonial bed drinking a delicious cup of tea that I had just made for her.

What! said the better half.

You’ve been under the doctor, she said.

Anal warts! she shouted.

In poor fiction and particularly in inadequately scripted television plays characters frequently say things in the course of a conversation that are intended not to communicate with the other person conversing but with the audience. Sometimes one character will tell another things that the other already knows (“I am your father!”) and sometimes on the telephone one player will repeat what the other says because the audience can hear only one end of the conversation.

That was not the case here. The better half was not repeating what Thumper had said for my benefit, let alone yours. She was doing what my friend John, who is a psychotherapist, calls ‘taking ownership’. Thumper’s anal warts become real to her when she names them, as it were, in her telephone conversation. She was ‘taking ownership’ of them.

Indeed shortly afterwards I heard her say, ‘Leave them alone, Thumper. You’ll only make them worse’.

When she ended the conversation I put the Spectator to one side.

Thumper has anal warts?

It was I Will Always Love You that did it, she said, brushing aside a tear. With sax solo. It was too much. I blame myself. He may never fart again.

Four main verbs! In my mind’s eye I saw my dear dog, at the edge of her pillow, on his back with all four paws and his tail erect.

It never hurt Rod Stewart, I said. He had nodes, didn’t he? That of course was his vocal chords and not his bottom, which may make a difference.

That got a ‘two’.

She jumped out of bed.

I’d better go and sort it all out, she said.

You’re too caring, I said, and returned to Rod Liddle.

Under the Ground

I will not disguise that it all started with a dream.

In this dream I was walking through the land where I live or at least, which is different, the land where it appeared that I lived, and someone explained that just below the surface of the ground there were dead people.

In my dream I immediately thought of the Handsome Family and their song about the singing bones beneath our feet. When I woke up, though, I forgot all about the Handsome Family and their song. That particular thought only came back to me much later.

When I woke up and went out I inspected the land and I saw the places where the dead people were said to be. I noticed that whilst in my dream people had brought the location of the dead people to my attention, in my waking state there appeared to be no recognition from anyone else that they were there at all.

I explained all this to my companion in this vale of tears.

We have to find out if they’re there and if so where, I said.

Why? shouted my companion in this vale of tears, who was truculent through drink.

How? she added, a little more quietly.

I believe, I said, that there are tapers that you can sink into the ground and if there are human remains beneath they change colour: red for human remains, green for no human remains – the opposite of traffic lights.

Tapirs are pigs, she said. Do they root the human remains out like truffles?

Not pigs, I said. ‘Tapers’ not ‘tapirs’. ‘Taper’ is probably the wrong word but these things are like those you might light your pipe with, though much bigger. You fit them into the ground and as I say they may or may not change colour.

Spills, said my companion in this vale of tears, which I ignored.

To work, I said, and set out on an expedition to buy the tapers.

Where do you buy an implement that indicates the presence beneath the ground of human remains? They looked uncomprehendingly at me in the local hardware shop and in the specialist building supplies place there was a lot of talk but no tapers; indeed I am not sure that they knew what I was talking about either.

Or maybe, it occurred to me later, they were seizing whatever pretext was available to avoid dealing with me.

In the end I made for John Lewis. It should have been my first choice.

One of the constants in life is that the best things are unclassifiable. Take the Handsome Family again. Are they Folk, Rock or Country, or any of those with ‘Alt-‘ as a prefix? None or all: they are ‘If you require assistance please do not hesitate to ask’ – or they would have been in the days when there were record stores and assistants who were not serving out their redundancy notices and staring suicidally into the middle distance.

It was the same in the days when I required CDs of the music of Cap Breton. Sometimes the assistants got animated when they finally tracked the music down under ‘World Music: Europe, France’.

Dunderheads, they would exclaim, with a conspiratorial wink.

And so in John Lewis I sought out an assistant.

I need a taper that indicates human remains, I said, or rather a set of them.

A set of tapers, I explained with a smile; not human remains.

Certainly, sir, he said, naming a location within the store.

He must have phoned through because they were waiting for me. A nice middle-aged man explained to me at some length the range available. The more expensive ones promised one hundred per cent reliability, and had an elegance lacking in the cheaper ones. As he chattered on I noticed that we had been joined by another man, also in John Lewis livery but with a badge suggesting that organisation’s officer class.

Might I have a word with you, sir? he said. In private?

He put an arm around my shoulder and we walked to the window. I could tell at once that here was a man who was going out on a limb for me, motivated by nothing but pure fellow feeling.

Is this purchase wise sir? he said.

I am afraid that I jabbered. I told him that there were bodies beneath us and how essential it was that people recognised that fact.

For all I know they have names, I said.

Indeed, sir, but – how can I put this? – is it wise that you, sir, should be doing this?

As he said this, a great slab of the dream came back to me. I thought I’d remembered it all but maybe the most important bit was only now returning. As it did my dream turned in retrospect into a nightmare.

They thought that I had killed them. I’d forgotten that.

Good lord, I said. I see what you mean.

Bears thinking about carefully, he said. Doing myself out of a sale!

Thank you, I said, and left the shop, more confused than I can say. Both men seemed relieved to see me go.

There were I realised only three options.

I could abandon the matter altogether. That was the sensible course. The man at John Lewis had indicated that without equivocation. But could I live with myself if I did? What quality would the remainder of my days on Earth have if I did that?

I could do what any politician would and organise an enquiry. I could revisit the dream. Kefir was always a reliable tool for that. But I knew in my heart what the dream had been; there was nothing to be gained from equivocation.

And so it was that I took the third option. It was a week or so later and I am glad to record that my companion in this vale of tears was at my side. In the small hours of a moonless night we planted the tapers (I bought the expensive ones in the end) and then we stood back and activated them. Across the baleful landscape they glowed, softly at first and green, then changing, most of them, gradually to red.

I awaited what would come with whatever reserves of courage remained to me.