CLIFF WINNIG

Our death room was on the blink again. Judy told me the very moment I got home from work. She’d discovered it the very moment she got home from work, too. I wondered why Judy had wanted to check on the death room so urgently, but I didn’t ask. She’d been crying. She’d been crying a lot recently.

“If it’s not one thing, then it’s another,” said Judy. The flat we rent is very cheap, but there’s lots that’s wrong with it. The flush in the toilet keeps sticking. One time the fridge freezer leaked, we had to spend half the night mopping the water up. The week before, we had this plague of cockroaches crawling out of the vents in the living room. We scooped them all up with kitchen roll and put them in the death room. Thank God the death room was working well that day.

We’ve tried telling the landlord, but he doesn’t care.

Judy took me to the death room right away, I didn’t even have time to take my coat off. We stood in the doorway. It seemed pretty grim. The smell of roses was stale. The background hum wasn’t the calming tone they promised in all the brochures, it was a bit too high pitched, like a dentist’s drill. The lights fizzed and stuttered and kept winking on and off; moths kept singeing themselves on the naked bulb, but the electric shocks never quite managed to kill them.

“I want this sorted,” Judy said.

Now, I love Judy, and I’ll give her anything she wants, but the truth is she wants lots of things, and I’ve found it’s always better to see whether she remembers to want them by morning. But that night we lay together in the loving room, and when I tried to smooch her she was having none of it. “I can’t sleep for knowing we haven’t got a functioning death room,” she said. “What if one of us in the night is taken fatally ill, what would we do?” I told her it wasn’t very likely, really we were both pretty healthy considering, but she said that was hardly the point, I was being irresponsible again. I hate it when she points out my irresponsibilities, it means she’s going to win the argument.

If we were going to fix this, Judy said, we were going to have to fix it ourselves. We would certainly die if we waited for the landlord to pull his finger out, and probably of old age. We got up right then and there, and together we looked through the Yellow Pages. It was rather fun, really, shopping for things we couldn’t afford, and Judy brightened and became almost cheerful. She was attracted by some of the bigger ads, but I was certain they’d be more expensive. I found a tiny ad for a man called Cliff Winnig, builder, plumber, electrician. “Looks like he can do it all!” I said, and Judy sniffed, and said she supposed we could give him a try. As if we had the power to audition manual labourers! She wanted to phone him straight away, but I pointed out that it was two in the morning. She came back to bed then, very reluctantly, but on the proviso that I would call him as soon as it was dawn, and that if she died in the night without the proper accessories installed she would come back and haunt me.

She didn’t die, and neither did I. I phoned Cliff Winnig. When he spoke to me, he sounded like a wise old man who was going to solve all of our problems. He said he’d send someone over to give an estimate in about three weeks. I told him we couldn’t wait three weeks, and that my wife was at death’s door. He went silent, and then in the same measured tones said he’d come over himself that very afternoon. I thanked him, hung up, and told Judy to go and make herself look ill.

Judy didn’t cough very convincingly, and after about ten minutes forgot to do it altogether, but Cliff Winnig didn’t seem to notice. He stood in the death room, sniffed at the rose scent, listened to the hum, watched the moths survive each kamikaze encounter with the light. “Some cowboy’s put this in,” he said. He told us the death room was going to require a complete overhaul. “Your dampeners are blown, see,” he said. “You’re trying to run an entire death room off blown dampeners.” I didn’t know a death room needed dampeners, but I wasn’t about to look stupid in front of Cliff Winnig. He was in his sixties, maybe, but still very handsome and lean, and his voice was gentle, and I wish he had been my father. I wish I could have been Cliff Winnig, a skilled workman, and look at me, just some office monkey. He was twice my age, but he seemed more man than I would ever be. I loved Cliff Winnig.

He had lots of ideas how he could renovate our death room. “You’re letting in natural light with those windows,” he said, “and it’s much more modern to use tinted glass, to make it a little more lugubrious?” I could see his point. “And one thing that’s good, is you can have running water down the walls. Not too much water, but it gives the room that right melancholy buzz. Looks like an indoor waterfall.” Judy liked the sound of waterfalls, she was quite taken with that. I said it all sounded very costly, and Mr Winnig turned his eyes on me with an infinite patience and told me it would be costly, but didn’t my wife deserve a beautiful death room? He promised us a death room to die for. He looked at our bathroom, said he could fit us a new one, offer us a discount on the two jobs. He was very persuasive, but I said we’d just stick with the death room for now.

Judy was charmed by Mr Winnig. She had some holiday due from work, and said she’d take it so she could be home whilst Mr Winnig was there. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him on his own, she just wanted to see a master craftsman at his trade. Cliff Winnig asked if we had a stepladder – he could bring one of his own, of course, but if we had one anyway it would save the faff. I said we did. I wasn’t going to look slovenly in front of a master craftsman. And after he left, we went around ringing the doorbells of all the other flats, seeing whether we could borrow one from a neighbour. We hadn’t met any of our neighbours before. Some were quite nice. And one of them said we could rent their stepladder, for just a small fee.

On the Monday Mr Winnig started work Judy called me at the office no fewer than four times. “He’s started on the painting!” she said. Or, “He’s taking the glass out!” Or, “He’s swatting the moths!” She was excited, and I was glad she was excited, but I told her she’d have to stop calling me at work, my supervisor kept glaring at me. When I came home that night she took me straight to the death room, I didn’t even have time to take my coat off. “There!” she said, displaying it like it was one of the seven wonders of the world, but I couldn’t see much difference really – there were a few splodges of paint on the walls, and one of the window panes was missing. The lights were still fizzing, but bits of moth were now squashed against the bulb. I told Judy it was very nice. And over the next few days this was the way it had to be, I’d be shown the death room the very moment I got in, and I’d make appreciative noises, and there might be a few more paint splodges to admire, and the stepladder would be standing in a slightly different position. I never saw Cliff Winnig. He had always packed up by the time I got home. I admit, I was a little jealous. Judy sent me to the corner shop one evening to buy Mr Winnig some tea. He liked drinking tea, she said, he drank a lot of tea whilst planning what was best for our death room. It had to be Ceylon tea, Mr Winnig was very particular. I wondered whether all master craftsmen were particular about Ceylon tea, or whether it was just Cliff Winnig.

At the end of that first week Judy said to me, “Do you think it’d be weird to have Mr Winnig over to dinner? It’d be weird, wouldn’t it? Do you think it would look weird?” I said I didn’t think it would look especially weird, it was clear Judy got on well with Mr Winnig, she was clearly spending a lot of time with him. “But do you think Mr Winnig would think it weird?” she asked. Mr Winnig didn’t think it weird at all; Judy told me he accepted the invitation with grace and politeness. Judy dressed up for the occasion, and put on a nice frock, I hadn’t seen it before. She made me iron my shirt and my trousers. And Cliff Winnig arrived in a jacket and tie, he looked very smart, and he’d brought flowers for Judy and a bottle of wine for the table, and I was glad I felt so ironed, I wouldn’t have wanted to stand out. We had prawn cocktails to start with and casserole for the main grub, and Mr Winnig said Judy was an excellent cook and Judy blushed and looked happy. Afterwards Mr Winnig smoked a cigar and drank the whisky I’d won at the office raffle last Christmas and told us about his life. He’d certainly seen the world. He’d been in the army and had killed a man. He’d been to Ceylon and gone big game hunting. He’d ski-ed. I thought there was something rather beautiful about it all, that he’d done so much, and was now giving something back, that he was spending his last days plumbing and fixing people’s death rooms. “And fitted bathrooms,” he told me. “Seriously, I could give you a discount.” I said that we were doing okay.

And some nights I’d wake in the night and realise Judy wasn’t beside me. I’d go to the death room. And there I’d find her, arms stretched out, her face beaming, breathing it all in – and so happy, happier, I think, than I had ever made her. “It’s just going to be wonderful,” she’d say. “Isn’t it? We should move the bed in here! We should eat in here, sleep in here!” I love Judy, and I try to give her what she wants, so I’d never say no outright – but the smell of fresh paint made me feel a little nauseous, the window pane hadn’t been replaced yet so the rain and cold got in. And I know it sounds silly, but I can’t help it – I just think that death is really rather a sad thing, when all’s said and done. Isn’t it, though? Isn’t it a bit? I was glad she liked the death room. But I didn’t intend to spend much time in there.

“We could have a baby,” she said then. Her eyes seemed to sparkle, they seemed to kick into life in spite of the surroundings. “I think we’re good together now. I think we can do good.” I wondered whether this meant we could start smooching again. She might have meant adoption. I don’t like to take anything for granted. I asked her. She pressed me on the nose, and laughed. “Let’s see what happens! Let’s wait and see!” I took her back to bed then, and there was no smooching that night, but she let me lie a little closer and she seemed warmer and softer than usual.

One Monday Judy didn’t phone me at work, and I knew I should be relieved, but I worried all the same. The moment I got home, of course, she told me what was wrong. Cliff Winnig hadn’t arrived that day. Judy hadn’t called him, she said she didn’t want to nag. But when by Tuesday lunchtime he still hadn’t showed, she told me to ring him and find out what was wrong. I tried to ring him, over and over. Each time it went straight to the answering machine.

On Thursday I finally tracked him down. His voice was immediately reassuring and made me feel like such an idiot for being concerned. He explained he had been called away to another job, a more urgent job – doing someone’s bathroom fitting. I pointed out that he hadn’t finished our job yet, and I really said it very mildly, but when he didn’t reply for a while I thought I must have offended him. “I’ll be round again tomorrow,” he said. “Without fail.” On Saturday afternoon he pitched up, and Judy looked so pleased she all but flung her arms around him; she went into the kitchen to make him a cup of tea. “Now,” he said genially, “let’s see what you’re making such a fuss about, shall we?”

We all stood in the death room, surveying his handiwork. “It’s nearly done,” he said. “One more day should do it.” Judy was delighted by that. I couldn’t see how he could finish so quickly – the splodges of paint were separated by whole oceans of peeling plaster; the moths had now been joined by mosquitoes and daddy long-legs, all bouncing around the lights and speckling the ceiling, and not a one showed any signs of dying; he hadn’t even started on the waterfall effect yet. Cliff Winnig said he’d be back on Monday. I asked if he wasn’t going to get any work done now, seeing as he was already here and everything. He told me he hadn’t brought the right tools.

We never saw Cliff Winnig again.

After the first polite messages I left on his answering machine I discovered a brittle terseness I’d never guessed I had. Still, he never picked up. By the end of the week I got a message telling me the line had been disconnected.

Judy refused to believe Cliff Winnig had abandoned us. Every day I left for work she gave me a brave smile and told me she’d phone me when he arrived. Not even an if, always a when. And of a night she’d say to me, “What did we do wrong?” She’d think back through our conversations with him, she analysed them all in great detail, she uncovered such a whole host of minor misdemeanours on our part that it was no longer a question of whether we had offended him, but only which way had been the most grievous. She got angry with me sometimes. She cried. But often she was just too tired to cry. She stopped eating. She’d go to the bathroom, she’d say she was going to throw up, but she hadn’t eaten enough to throw up – at night I’d wake to her dry heaving, and sometimes the flush would stick.

Judy’s holiday leave ran out. Her boss kept calling her, asking when she was coming back to work. The messages on the answering machine got increasingly angry, and until one day, they just stopped.

The neighbours asked for their stepladder back. The death room looked so much emptier without it.

Judy’s parents came round to visit. They normally give a week’s notice so we can prepare, this time they dropped in unannounced. Judy burst into tears when she saw them and rushed into her mother’s arms. “It’s all going to be all right,” said Mother. Father inspected the death room sourly. “You’ve made a pig’s ear of this,” he said to me. Mother said, “Don’t you worry, you can always use our death room. You, and that husband of yours.” Judy’s parents had a gorgeous death room; there were no paint splodges on their walls, and the windows were air tight, and the ambient hum was the sort of noise that could be the background music to Heaven itself – and three of Judy’s grandparents had died there, from both sides of the family, and the fourth was already booked in; it was a gorgeous death room, they’d shown it off to me that very first time I’d picked up Judy for a date. Father said, “That Mr Winnig of yours has a lot to answer for, a proper little crook.” And at that Judy got angry, and told her parents they had no fucking idea what they were talking about, they never had a single fucking clue, and she stormed out. You still couldn’t criticise Cliff Winnig in front of Judy, she just wouldn’t have it, even though some nights in bed she’d swear at him and she’d dig her fingernails deep into the pillow as if it were his face. Mother and Father looked shocked at Judy’s outburst. “I think you’d better leave,” I said.

Some nights we were almost close. “I’m such a bitch,” she’d whisper, in the dark, “I’m sorry,” – and I’d say she wasn’t a bitch, no, no, no, and even if she were a bitch, just a little bit, I loved her anyway, and we were going to be all right. I’d reach for her hand, and squeeze it, and sometimes she’d squeeze back.

One day Judy phoned me at work again. It was just like old times. “I’ve tracked down his address,” she said. I asked her how. “It doesn’t matter how,” she said. “Now we’ve got it, what are we going to do with it?”

It took me a full day to prepare. He’d left some tools in the death room – a screwdriver, a hammer, a pot of glue. I’d take them back to him. I could say it was an act of charity, to show what good friends we still were in spite of all. Judy wanted to come, but the idea of confronting him set her dry heaving again. In the end she agreed to wait at home on the strict instructions that I would call her for back-up if needed. I couldn’t see what back-up could be required, or what good Judy might be if it were, but I didn’t argue.

Outside the front door I took out the hammer and weighed it in my hand. I thought it might be a good idea to keep it visible, just in case. But then I remembered, this was Cliff Winnig, and although the love between us had gone cold, surely he was no threat. Not my second father, no, more, my better self. I felt ashamed. I put the hammer away. I put my finger to the doorbell. It took me ten minutes before I found the nerve to press it down hard enough to make it ring.

A man came to the door who wasn’t Cliff Winnig. “My father,” he explained, when I asked for him. “He’s dead.” Cliff Winnig had never mentioned a son, not in any of his stories about Ceylon or ski-ing. And this man didn’t look much like Cliff Winnig, but I suppose there was some resemblance – I squinted my eyes, and tried to picture this young man thirty years older, as someone more mature, and more wise, and less tattooed. I fancied at last I could see Cliff Winnig staring back at me. The son waited patiently whilst I did all this. I told the son I was sorry for his loss. He thanked me. I asked if his father had died in his death room. The son said yes. “I bet he built himself a nice death room,” I said.

I explained the situation. The son said Cliff Winnig hadn’t been strong enough for death rooms, death rooms were a young man’s game. “What he’d always loved,” he said, “was the simple beauty of a nice fitted bathroom.” I said I was sorry that I’d made him work in ours, and the son shrugged and said it wasn’t our fault, but he looked at me so coldly and I knew he blamed me. “I’ll come round, finish off your death room myself,” he said. “Have you got your own stepladder?” I said that I had.

He came the very next morning, bright and early. Judy asked him if he’d like a cup of tea, but he said no, he’d sooner get on with the job. He stood in the death room, took it all in, breathed in deeply just the once, then got to work. The whole operation took him just under three days. He replaced the window pane, painted the walls the right funereal green, corrected the hum so that it was wistfully morbid. He didn’t give us the waterfall effect we’d been promised, but you can’t have everything.

And all the insects that had been building up their vast empires on the ceiling fell to the ground and died. And we brought in worms and slugs from the garden, just to make sure; we set them down in the middle of the room, we watched them curl up and turn to dust, and, do you know, I think every single one of them died peacefully.

Cliff Winnig’s son said because of the inconvenience we had suffered he would only charge us half the estimate, plus materials. But he’d done a good job, and at great speed, and we had contributed to his father’s death, so we insisted on paying for the whole thing.

Judy and I stood together in our brand spanking new death room.

“It’s done,” she said.

“Yes.”

“I feel safe.”

“Good.”

“I want a child.”

I love Judy, and I’ll give her anything she wants, but I’ve found it better to see whether she remembers she still wants it by morning. And besides, I was no longer sure I could give her a child. I don’t know what it was, that maybe I’d spent too long around death, but when she chattered to me about babies my heart didn’t swell, it just hung heavy in my chest like a stone, I thought that maybe the death room had leaked and the part of me that could produce a child had withered to a useless stump, I thought that my love for Judy had had its best and fleshiest parts eaten away by cancer. But she took me to the loving room. She led me out of the death room, closed the door of the death room hard behind, and took me to the loving room, and she lay me down. And, for once, the loving room did its work: its perfumed smell excited me, the background hum seemed exotic and erotic, even the lights fizzed and stuttered and winked on and off suggestively. Our loving room had been on the blink, but it kicked into life just at the time we needed it most. I felt myself becoming warm and happy and fertile.

Halfway through, though, I stopped. I said to Judy, “But we don’t have a nursery.”

She stopped too. She gave it some thought. She balanced on top of me precariously and frowned. “Well,” she said, at last, and resumed what she was doing, and I didn’t much care about the problem any longer. “Well. We’ll just strip out one of the rooms we don’t use.”

I thought we might argue about which room we should strip, but we didn’t, it was obvious to both of us. And it didn’t take very long, it was in perfect condition. After she’d rolled off me, and I’d got my breath back, we set to work on it straight away.

The other day I was shopping in town for baby stuff, and I saw a man who looked just like Cliff Winnig. I almost waved hello, but then I remembered Cliff Winnig was dead. I thought about telling Judy, but decided it’d be best not to bother.

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MATTHEW TOZER

i

 We can speculate, and we can speculate, but the probability is that few of the silent movies made during the siege of Constantinople in 1453 were very much good. And there are clear reasons for this, both political and cultural.

On the one hand, we have to bear in mind the extremely trying circumstances under which the movies were being filmed. In attacking Constantinople, the Ottoman Turks were also attacking the last bastion of the Roman Empire, (if only in symbolic form) a direct line of power that stretched back some two thousand years. It was also the seat of the Orthodox Christian Church, a force equal and opposite to the Catholic Church in Rome. Expansionist wars were two a penny in the fifteenth century, but this was no run of the mill example, it was already rife with meaning, and no doubt the Byzantines under threat would have been only too aware of that. Besides which, on a purely practical level, the constant cannoning of the city walls must surely have been a distraction. Even making silent movies, surely, some peace and quiet is required for concentration’s sake.

On the other, and perhaps more pertinently, Byzantine art had always defined itself by a certain flat austerity. Their mosaics and paintings that we can study today are colourful, but there’s a grim functionality to all that colour; the lines are severely drawn and make the characters depicted seem two dimensional and undramatic. It would be foolish to expect that in the creation of an entire new art form that several centuries of engrained Byzantine culture would be abandoned overnight. It is unfair to imagine that the clowns who pratfalled and danced and poked each other in the eyes in Constantinople cinema were other Chaplins, or Keatons, even other Fatty Arbuckles. The conditions were wrong. Their genius could not have flowered.

And yet, of course, we remain fascinated by those movies from the Byzantine age. And again, partly this will be because they were the pioneers, the history of cinema begins here with these shadowy figures by the Bosphorus doomed to be killed or enslaved by the Muslim potentate. But I hope our fascination is not purely academic. That we honour not merely the historical significance of what was invented, but that, with care and study, and an open mind, we try to appreciate the art on its own terms.

 ii

 No entire print of a Byzantine movie survives, and that is to be expected. When the sultan Mahomet II appealed to the Byzantines to surrender, with the promise that their lives would be spared, his terms were rejected. The Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos, said that the city could not be yielded, for it was no single man’s possession to yield. And with these brave words he sealed the fate of the fifty thousand inhabitants of Constantinople, and, more importantly, the fate of those few precious cans of film kept within. The Turks had besieged Constantinople for fifty-five days. They were tired and angry. When they broke the defences, as was the custom, the soldiers had permission to ransack and pillage the city for three whole days, taking plunder, razing buildings to the ground, and raping and slaughtering the populace. These were not conditions in which a fledgling film industry was ever likely to prosper.

And yet, we are lucky. In spite of all, some sequences of film are extant. They are fragments only, most no more than a few seconds long, but they still afford us a tantalising impression of early cinematography, and what those Byzantine audiences must have enjoyed. One man tries to sit down upon a stool, and a second pulls it away, so he falls to the ground with his legs splayed in the air. A farmer waters his crops with a bucket of water, but a prankster holds it upright; when the farmer pours the bucket over his head to see what’s wrong, he gets soaked. It is not sophisticated comedy, granted, but there is a spirit of mocking fun to it; yes, it plays upon the weak and the vulnerable, but no one gets hurt, no one gets savaged, and certainly no one experiences the sort of carnage that is awaiting them at the end of the siege. Some historians have tried to read a political subtext into the extracts, but I think that can be exaggerated. One of the more (justly) admired sequences is of a beggar, or tramp, who at dinner sticks a knife into two vegetables and proceeds to do a puppet dance with them. In siege times food was scarce, and this flagrant disregard for its value can be seen as something deliberately provocative, a renunciation of the very crisis that would have caused the food shortage in the first place, and thus a renunciation of war. But what attracts us to the film is not its message, but its simple beauty; there is such elegance to the dance, and to the comic conceit of it, and for the duration the tramp smiles out at the viewer in childlike innocence.

One might have expected that there would have been a pronounced propaganaist element to the films. But the Ottoman Turks are never referenced, and instead what is offered to us is cheap comedy and heightened melodrama. The longest extant extract – and, sadly, one of the most tedious – is a case in point. A moustachioed villain, sniggering silently to camera, ties a damsel in distress to a set of railway tracks. The damsel is left there for no fewer than six minutes of static inaction, as we wait in train for a train to come and flatten her; however, since we are many centuries shy of the invention of a locomotive engine, it is unclear how much jeopardy the girl can really be in. The tracks are not the important part; it is the villain. Wearing a gabardine common in fashion at the time he looks like an everyday Byzantine. He’s not given a turban, or a Muslim beard, or shifty Oriental eyes. It’s the ideal opportunity for the film maker to identify and feed off a common threat to the audience, but it refuses to do so; even in its monsters, Byzantine cinema remains stubbornly domestic.

Many eyewitnesses recorded the siege of Constantinople for posterity, and the most celebrated is George Sphrantzes. Sphrantzes recounts the conflict from a mostly militaristic perspective, and pays depressingly little heed to the day to day to and fro of the thriving visual arts scene. Nevertheless, he does record in his diary how, one evening, shortly after the siege had been raised, he was ushered into a big hall, alongside some other hundreds of citizens. There he took a seat, and the windows were covered with sacks, and the room was cast into darkness. He describes an expectation in the audience, something apprehensive, like fear, but more pleasureable than fear. And then, at the end of the room, facing them all, a large piece of white cloth was illuminated. He writes: “At first I thought there was a stain upon it, and then the stain enlarged, as if by magick.” It was no stain; it was the image of a horse and cart, and its approach towards the camera. George Sphrantzes describes the awe and wonder as the ‘moving painting’ flickered upon the makeshift screen – and then the rising panic as it became clear that the horse and cart were coming directly at them. People rose from their seats; they stumbled towards the exit; they fell over in the darkness – if they didn’t escape, within minutes the cart would reach them and there might be an irritating bump. Sphrantzes records how the authorities arrested the man in charge of the exhibition for disturbing the peace.

No name of any actor has survived the fall of Constantinople. But the name of that man has survived, and he must be regarded as the first maverick genius of cinema. His name was Matthew Tozer.

 iii

 It is all too easy to be seduced by images of the Byzantine Empire as a thing of great glory. That was true at its zenith, but its zenith was centuries past. By the time the Ottoman Turks lay siege to Constantinople, the empire had shrunk to little more than a city state, and the population within were a random ragtag of different nationalities from different backgrounds. Matthew Tozer (or Toza, or Tusa) was probably a Greek Cypriot, but his name is peculiar, and no one can say for sure. There is no physical description of the man. There is no record of his beliefs, or anything he stood for – save his obvious love for the cinematic medium.

It is not even clear what Tozer’s part in the craze was, merely that he was at the very centre of it. Had he invented the principle of moving photography himself? Was he instead the director of the films, exploiting someone else’s discoveries? It is possible that he merely ran the cinema in which the movies were shown. Scientist, artist, entrepreneur – scholars argue which of them he may have been. Maybe there is no single Matthew Tozer. This essay does not purport to take any great interest in specious biography. For simplicity’s sake we shall assume Tozer is all three rolled into one; not so much a man, but a personification of a new art form; we can never know Tozer the individual, let us instead study Tozer the wave of revolution.

The earliest account we have of Tozer is what we now refer to as the Horse and Cart Debacle. Punishment in the middle ages was typically severe, especially in times of military crisis. But within days Tozer has been freed, and moreover, is showing new films, we can only suppose with the blessing of the authorities. Sphrantzes writes again, after a turgid account of a day setting up the city’s defences, and his concerns of a maritime engagement with the Turkish fleet: “And, in the evening, to the picture house, there to see a comedic play about three men and a mule. Silly stuff. Amiable.”

Sphrantzes might dismiss it as silly stuff, but it is clear that Tozer was doing something right. He set up a cinema just a stone’s throw from the Hagia Sofia, and there he’d show the latest movie releases – and the people of Constantinople began to flock to them in droves. It is important to remember what siege conditions were like in the fifteenth century. They were frightening, yes, and they were desperate, and they were hungry; but mostly they were very boring. With the Ottoman Turks on one side, and a naval blockade upon the other, there was really very little for the Byzantine folk to go and do in the evenings. However silly the movies on offer may have been, the distractions they provided were hugely popular, and tickets became highly prized; one anonymous commentator writes that to get into see one particular blockbuster a family bartered a week’s supply of precious bread. Tozer was forced to put on more and more screenings, sometimes letting his cinema run all night until dawn. He employed janissary bands to accompany the films with the music of harp, lyre and zither; he employed young girls to serve sweet snacks in the intervals.

And what Tozer was accomplishing was not merely artistic, but also sociological. Because if these citizens of a dying empire were merely desperate stragglers with no real identity, here, at least, they could find something that unified them. They could sit in the dark together and laugh and cry as one collective. Is it too much to hope that at last they discovered that they had more in common with their fellow man than they had realised – that the same stunts thrilled them, the same custard pie fights kept them amused? Is this the irony of the end of the Byzantines, that only in their final days they became a proper people?

As for Tozer, he appears to have worked tirelessly. With almost superhuman energy he released several new movies a week, filming them during the day and presenting the results on screen once the sun went down. To satisfy the appetite of a citizenry starved of entertainment, he produced an oeuvre that makes Steven Spielberg look like some dilettante hobbyist. And with the introduction of a new art form, inevitably the people are inspired; they are no longer content to be mere spectators, they want to take part in the art form too. Sphrantzes complains, but when does Sphrantzes not complain? He writes that the most pressing concern the Byzantine population faced was the Muslim hordes outside the gates, and that work should be done repairing those gates, building new walls, training all able bodied men to fight. Instead everybody wanted to be an actor, to star in the movies, to see themselves flicker on the white cloth screens, to be famous, to be adored.

The greatest tragedy of the fall of Constantinople is that not one frame of Matthew Tozer’s masterpiece, ‘The Ten Commandments’, survives. A true epic, it ran for nearly six hours, and used over a thousand extras. It was a gamble on Tozer’s part; to find time to make it he had to close the cinema for three full days, and there was civil unrest and small scale rioting whilst the people were left starved of their fix. But the gamble paid off. It is a testament not only to Tozer’s vaulting ambition but to his commercial canniness – even if you weren’t in the movie yourself you knew someone who was, and if you saw only one movie this season it had to be ‘The Ten Commandments’! The sets, by all reports, were sumptuous. The cast were on peak form. And the special effects were remarkable: to achieve the parting of the Red Sea, Tozer had used up a half of the besieged city’s water supply.

It was Tozer’s greatest achievement. Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos took time off being the champion of the Orthodox Church to attend the premiere, and had even taken a cameo role as a burning bush. Could Tozer have suspected that it was all downhill from here? And that all that ambition would prove his undoing?

 iv

 On 29th May 1453 the Ottoman Turks broke through the walls of Constantinople. Their troops numbered some one hundred thousand to the Byzantines’ seven thousand. The Turkish flag was flown from the battlements, and many of the Christian defenders lost heart. Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos himself declared, “The city is fallen and I am still alive,” and he tore off his purple cloak of majesty, and entered the fray as a common soldier. His body was never found. The Byzantine people fought bravely, but with a certain dispassion perhaps, a certain defeatism.

The talkie movies had not been a success.

Matthew Tozer had been experimenting with sound for a little while now. He would have the orchestra time their drum beats to the exact moment an explosion appeared on screen, to give the impression that the bang had come from the movie itself. It was witty, but it was a gimmick, and the audience enjoyed it as a gimmick. When at the end of May Tozer announced the premiere of the first proper talking picture, with full dialogue and a prerecorded score, the people were incredulous, then doubtful, then baffled.

Some extracts survive. As film historians it is impossible not to appreciate what Tozer is attempting. But in practice, as casual viewers, we would have to judge it doesn’t work. Tozer has not found a way to make the sound sync accurately to the image; it is rarely more than a second or two out, but that jarring second makes everything seem imprecise and unreal, even eerie. And the voices of the actors are not what we might expect. We see the tramp again. In the silent movies he demonstrates a charm that is both winning and humane. In the sound rushes, he reveals he has a high-pitched voice like a strangled dolphin. The charm is gone. So, too, is the illusion.

As the Turks invade, so Tozer’s picture house is burned to the ground. It is not clear whether the Turks or the Byzantines are to blame.

 v

Matthew Tozer’s fate is unknown. Many people fled the city, and there is every chance that he too might have escaped. But if he did, there is no record of his attempting to make any more films. Either Tozer becomes like Emperor Constantine, one of those anonymous casualties who were lost in the battle – or he survives, in exile, disillusioned, thinking himself a failure and his art form a failure, rejecting his talents and never returning to them for as long as he lives.

Is it wrong to hope that he was butchered by Turks? Is it wrong to wish for him that one little mercy?

Historical opinion has turned against Tozer in recent years. The argument is that without his interference the population would not have been distracted, and would have been better prepared to repel the Ottoman conquest. Professor Kettering has even published his theories that Tozer was a Turkish spy, deliberately undermining the morale of the Byzantines from within with his dreadful movies; it is a theory that I find at once both absurd and heinous, though nothing Kettering says any more should surprise me.

What is harder to dispute is Tozer’s legacy. Sadly, it is negligible. The footage of Tozer’s movies was only discovered in a basement in Ankara in the 1920s. By the time Tozer’s advances came to light, the motion picture industry was already in full swing. The great film makers of the 1890s, Lumiere, Michon, Melies, all reinvented cinema without ever realising Matthew Tozer had been there first. Mack Sennett produced his movies without Tozer’s influence; David O Selznick, head of production at RKO Pictures, famously viewed the recovered prints of Tozer’s films, shrugged, and asked what all the fuss was about: “It’s already been done.”

And yet surely we cannot write off Matthew Tozer as a failure. We must not.

When we see the history of the world put before us, it’s easy to think it’s just a catalogue of wars and genocidal atrocities. Of peoples conquering peoples, and then getting conquered in turn. That the development of mankind has been nothing more than an exercise in studying new acts of brutality to be turned against still larger sizes of population. That, in effect, all Mankind’s inspirations are directed towards evil.

But what then of Matthew Tozer? What then of that spark to create, to produce art for art’s sake, if only because it wasn’t in existence before? To take a population and want not to decimate it or enslave it, but instead crowd it together, into one room, into the dark, and make it laugh? And maybe with Matthew Tozer the spark didn’t die. Maybe the spark lasted out the centuries, just waiting for the right conditions in which to take fire. Maybe, in spite of all, Matthew Tozer and the better impulse will win out.

We can speculate. And, oh, we can speculate, we can imagine, we can dream. Sometimes I think that’s the true gift Matthew Tozer left us.

HELEN MARSHALL

The woman at the front desk smiled at him sympathetically, and he thought nothing of that, she smiled sympathetically at everyone. But as he walked down the corridors to his wife’s private room even the nurses were at it, and one or two of the doctors, they were nodding at him in acknowledgement and offering good mornings. He didn’t question it, didn’t think about what all that might mean. But when he opened the door and he saw Helen sitting upright on the bed, and she was fully dressed, and her eyes were sparkling, and she looked so healthy and happy and young, he supposed he had guessed it, he supposed this is what he thought must have happened.

“Oh God,” he said. And, “No. No.”

Helen spoke to him then. “Hello, baby,” she said, and she hadn’t spoken to him in months, not properly, not with any real understanding of what she was saying or who he was, any words she’d said had come out like staccato grunts. And now she was calling him baby, just as she’d always used to, and he burst into tears, he couldn’t help it.

“Hey,” she said. “Hey. It’s all right.” And she got up from the bed, and came towards him, as if movement was no problem at all, as if the exercise of limbs wasn’t some slow torture. She stood close, she didn’t touch him, he didn’t know why.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“It’s a shock.”

“It is a shock,” he agreed. “Yes. Wow. Yes.” Yesterday he’d sat beside her, and he’d talked to her about nothing in particular, and he’d stroked her hair, and he’d held her hand. And she’d done nothing, not a thing, save grasping on to his finger when he tried to leave.

“I love you,” she said.

He didn’t even think about that just yet. “It’s too soon,” he said. “They told me you had ages. Another year, even. I haven’t. I haven’t had time to prepare.” And he was crying again, Christ. And he was angry with himself for that – and still Helen towered close, and it seemed as if her arms were itching to put themselves around him and give him some comfort. He realised at last why she hadn’t hugged him – she was shy, and that was so ridiculous, they’d been married forty-three years! So he put his arms around her waist, and held her instead, and she hugged him back, tightly, gratefully, and on he cried but he felt so much better.

“Do I look all right?” she asked.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, and she was.

She was taller, and plumper, but plump in all the right ways. Her balding white hair was now thick and brown and down to her shoulders. She had hips and long legs and she had breasts. She seemed altogether much bigger than he remembered, and that was the greatest surprise, how over the years she must have shrunk in on herself and he’d not thought to notice. The room around her now seemed small, like a box; it was just a box; it was the best room he’d been able to afford, and it was pretty enough, and she was on her own here, and the wallpaper was pink and there was a television in the corner and flowers. But now it was a box, and she’d been boxed up here for nearly two years, that was long enough.

“Let’s get out of here,” he said.

Now they walked down the corridor together, and the doctors and nurses were all smiling at the sight of them, but they were sorry too. “Take care, Mrs Marshall,” said the woman who had used to turn her bed. “We’ll miss you, Helen, you’ve been lovely,” said the woman who’d inject her each morning. And Helen smiled back at them all, and nodded, and looked a bit awkward, as if she didn’t really know who all these people were.

Doctor Phillips was waiting at the exit, he must have been informed. He shook Helen Marshall firmly by the hand, and told her that she’d been a kind patient, not many of his patients had been so kind. He shook Mr Marshall’s hand too, and called him sir, and told him to be brave, and that he was sorry for his loss.

“We thought we’d have longer,” said Mr Marshall. “You told me we’d have longer.” And Doctor Phillips just shook his head, and offered his hand once more.

The woman at the front desk with the sympathetic face smiled at them both sympathetically, and asked Mr Marshall how he wanted to settle the final bill. Mr Marshall handed her his credit card, and she swiped it.

 *

 Mr Marshall wasn’t there to witness his mother’s last day. Dad was still alive back then, and he’d said he wanted her to himself. That seemed fair enough, and Mr Marshall made his farewells to his mother every time he visited her, just in case he never saw her again. One day his Dad called and said that his mother was gone. Mr Marshall didn’t know what to say. Was it peaceful? “Yes,” his Dad had said, “it was peaceful.”

For his Dad, it had been another matter entirely. There was no one else left for Dad. He’d driven out to see him at the old family house, and there was his Dad waiting for him, in the front driveway, all teeth and muscles, and wearing a flannel sports jacket. “Hey hey!” Dad had said. Dad wanted to spend his last day at a cricket match, so that’s what they had done. His Dad seemed fit enough to play cricket himself if he wanted to, and Mr Marshall knew he’d he played in a team when he was younger, wouldn’t he rather do that? “No, no,” said Dad; spectating would be just fine. Mr Marshall had never much enjoyed cricket, but they sat there together in the crowd, and Dad would tell him at which points he should be excited and whether anyone was playing well or not. Afterwards they went to the pub and drank beer and talked about girls, and it was easy to forget that the man ogling the barmaids beside him who was stronger and bolder and wittier than he had ever been was his old father; more than that, it was easy to forget they had anything in common at all. At the end of the day Mr Marshall had driven his Dad back home; “Thanks,” said Dad, “that was perfect, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” and he really seemed to believe that. He left his Dad there, then; he asked him whether he’d like some company for the very end, and Dad said no, he’d be all right. It had been such a good day, why risk spoiling it? And sometimes now, when the cricket played on the television, Mr Marshall would sit down and watch it, and think of his Dad, and almost enjoy the game for his sake.

Helen had been dying for such a long time. It had crept over her slowly. She had been the only woman he had ever loved, someone who had never failed to make his heart race, someone who always made him feel lucky and proud – and death had crept over her, so slowly, so carefully, it took away her looks, it took away her memory, it took away her self. Mr Marshall had tried taking care of her for a while, until it became clear he really didn’t know what he was doing, and his wife stood a better chance of happiness if he put her away in a home – and if not a chance of happiness, then a chance of comfort maybe, or at least a chance of a few months’ extra life.

And the only consolation Mr Marshall had allowed himself was that he was being given lots of notice. So that when her time was up, he could have everything ready. He’d have tickets for a London show, a musical, Helen liked those, the very best seats in the house, they could watch it in a private box if she wanted! He’d take her out to some fancy restaurant, and they’d stuff themselves with everything on the menu. They’d go to the seaside, maybe. If the weather was nice. They’d go to the seaside, and walk along the beach, and kick at the sand, and they’d hold hands, and stare out at the sea, and stare out at the horizon, and they’d wait for the sun to go down.

He’d give her back everything the disease had stolen. Just for a little while. Just for as long as they were given.

“I’m taking you to the seaside,” Mr Marshall told his wife, as they went out into the hospice car park.

“That sounds nice,” she said.

She got into the car beside him. He wished he’d tidied it up, the passenger seat was strewn with empty crisp bags; sometimes after he visited Helen he’d stop at a service station and buy bags of crisps and eat them parked on the forecourt. He pushed the rubbish on to the floor, he hoped she wouldn’t comment, and she didn’t.

“Oh God,” he said. “Nothing’s prepared. I wanted everything prepared.” And just for a moment he gave in. He lent forward, he pressed his head upon the steering wheel in despair.

She stroked the back of his neck. “It doesn’t matter.”

“No,” he said. “You’re right. You’re with me now.”

“I’m with you now, baby.”

“And we’re going to the seaside!”

“Yes! Let’s do that!”

“Could you pass me the map?” he said. “It’s in the glove compartment.”

“I’ll need to go home first, baby,” said Helen. “I need to change.” It was true. She was bursting out of her clothes. And besides, they were old lady clothes, even Mr Marshall could quite see they didn’t suit her.

They drove home. Oh, he wished he’d tidied up the house too. He said to her, “You rush in, I’ll wait here in the car. Don’t be long, we don’t have a minute to lose. We want to miss the traffic.”

She said, “Baby, I’ve got to go through my things. I can’t remember what I have to wear, I threw so much out! I’ve got to go through it all. And I want to put on some lippie, I feel naked without it. I won’t be too long, come indoors with me.”

“No,” he said, “it’ll be quicker if I wait in the car.”

She took his keys, and left the car, and let herself into the house.

He waited twenty minutes, then decided to go in after her.

She took nearly three quarters of an hour, and he paced up and down in the kitchen, and he fretted. When she appeared he forgave her at once. Her hair was done up the way he’d always liked it, her face was full of colour, and she was wearing a red dress that made her look so pretty it took his breath away.

“I hung on to this for years,” she said. “You know. Just in case.”

 *

 At first they made good progress on the A23. Helen said that when they’d gone on outings they’d sung songs along the way, did he remember? And Mr Marshall did remember! Though he couldn’t necessarily remember what. So she taught him Summer Holiday, she sang it over and over again, and the words came back to him, and eventually they stuck. It was fun, although it was hardly summer yet, it was only May.

They didn’t talk much. When she’d been sick he’d talked to her non-stop. He’d found a way of filling the silences even though he’d had nothing to say – because there was never any news to share with her, all that he was doing with his life was visiting her in the hospice every single day. He’d talked, though; and he’d supposed she might be listening, he’d hoped that even if she weren’t able to understand what the words meant that the sound of his voice would be a comfort. But now, side by side in the car, he felt embarrassed. Still, they sang. And as he reached for the gearstick his hand brushed hers, she’d been lying in wait for it, she caught hold of it and grasped it tight. All the time looking ahead out of the windscreen quite innocently, as if she were doing nothing at all, just enjoying the scenery and singing Cliff Richard. And she tickled his palm with her fingernails, and he felt happy.

“How long do we have?” he asked suddenly. “You know, before?”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“No.”

“I’m sure we’ll get our full day. Everyone gets a full day.”

He said, “We can have fish and chips tonight! The fish is better by the sea. I’m going to have battered cod and mushy peas!”

She said, “And I’ll have the haddock, if there’s any fresh!”

A little outside Lewes the cars ahead began to slow. “This won’t be a traffic jam,” he reassured her, “don’t worry.” But it was a traffic jam. Pretty soon they were just inching forward. All around them the cars were honking their horns in frustration. He did the same.

“That doesn’t do any good, baby,” Helen said mildly.

“Bloody hell,” he said, and fumed.

“Well, there’s not much we can do.”

“We could have set out earlier, that’s what we could have done,” Mr Marshall said. “And who wears a bloody dress to the bloody beach anyway?” He felt sorry. “Bloody hell,” he said again, quietly.

She didn’t say anything for a while. He stole a look at her to see whether she was cross, or whether she was sulking. She didn’t seem to be either.

He said, “Are you frightened?”

She turned to him, frowned, tried to work out what he was talking about. Then she said, “Yes. A little bit.”

He squeezed her hand. “It’ll be okay.”

“I know,” said Helen. “I don’t know what’s waiting for me afterwards. But I’m sure there must be something. I believe God is kind. Because he has to be, don’t you think? He wouldn’t give us this. That before we die, just for one day, everyone gets to be young and happy again.”

“You think that’s proof of God?”

“Don’t you?” she said.

In all their years of marriage, they’d never really discussed God or anything like that. She’d never wanted to go to church, she’d never seemed the preachy sort. He couldn’t help wondering about all the other things that they had never got round to talking about, in all their forty-three years. There were still new things left to say.

“Yes,” Mr Marshall said. “I suppose I do.”

They sat in silence for a couple of minutes.

“Are you frightened, baby?” she then said.

He wasn’t sure what, frightened of his own death, or frightened she was about to leave him? “I’ll be okay,” he told her.

He knew how it was going to happen, of course. That at some point Helen would just start getting even younger still. She’d shrink again, but not this time with old age and disease, she’d become a little girl, then an infant, then a baby, all her memories falling away. And then she’d be gone. It would only take a few seconds, and they said it was painless and rather sweet. Peaceful.

Mr Marshall hoped it didn’t happen whilst they were stuck on a dual carriageway outside Brighton.

It began to rain.

“Let’s go home,” said Helen.

“No,” he said. “No. I want to give you a perfect day.”

“I like home,” Helen said. “I’ve always liked our home. Let’s go home. Baby. Let’s go.”

They turned around. The roads leaving Brighton were free and empty and they were back before they knew it.

 *

 Mr Marshall said, “We can still go out for dinner, there’s a new Thai restaurant that’s opened around the corner.” Helen said, “Let’s stay in. I’ll cook.”

Helen looked in the fridge. She looked in the freezer. She tutted. “Baby, this is all junk,” she said. “How are you supposed to take care of yourself with this stuff?”

“I’m sorry.”

“We’ll go to the supermarket,” she said.

He objected. He wasn’t going to take her to the supermarket. He had wanted to take her to the seaside, and to a West End musical, to special things. She said, “If I get to choose where we go, I choose the supermarket. Come on, it’ll be fun! We’ll make it fun!”

It was fun. Helen placed Mr Marshall in charge of the trolley, and she’d order him up and down the aisles whilst she picked things from the shelves, and he told her he wasn’t in the bleeding army, and she laughed and began to call him Corporal Marshall, and he called her his Sergeant Major. She was shocked at how expensive everything had got. “How long have I been away?” she said. “What, was I in a bloody coma?” They both found that very funny, and Mr Marshall laughed so hard he began to wheeze and Helen had to clap him on the back.

She cooked them spaghetti bolognaise. Nothing too grand, but she’d always done something clever with the sauce, it tasted better than any spaghetti he’d ever had eating out. “I want to look after you,” he’d protested. “You’ve looked after me for long enough,” she said, “now it’s my turn!” She said she didn’t want any help, but he could stay in the kitchen and talk to her if he liked. He didn’t find anything to talk about, but he stayed anyway, and kept her company.

They ate the pasta. It was really good. “Who likes Thai anyway?” said Helen.

Mr Marshall said, “I’ve been dreaming of this. That you’d be all right again. That things would be back to how they used to be.”

Helen said, “Oh, baby.” She took his hand. “Oh, baby, but I’m not all right. Am I? I’m really very very ill indeed.”

Mr Marshall swallowed. “Yes,” he said.

She reached over the plates and kissed him then. Her lips seemed so soft and big, and he knew his were just these awful cracked things, but she didn’t seem to care. He hadn’t kissed in such a long time, he thought he might have forgotten how, but it all came back to him like Cliff Richard.

“Let’s go to bed,” she whispered.

“Oh, Helen,” he said. “Oh. I don’t think I can. I can’t. I can’t. I’m sorry. I can’t.”

“Do I look all right?” she asked him.

“You’re beautiful,” he said. And she was, she was.

 *

 So they went to bed, and stayed dressed, and lay side by side, and held hands. They didn’t say much, and sometimes Mr Marshall would start, and wonder whether she’d vanished already, and he’d take a look, even though he could still feel her fingers stroking his palm.

No, God wasn’t kind. One extra day wasn’t kind at all. Why not a week, that might have meant something, he could have taken Helen away, to Paris, or Venice, or New York. Why not a year? Then they could have tried for a child, again, maybe. Why not twenty years, so they could see the child grow up? Why not forever?

He was crying again. He blurted out, “I don’t think I can go on without you.”

“Look at me,” she said softly.

“No.”

“Look at me.”

He looked at her.

She said, “All day long we’ve been together. And you’re still old. So that means you’ll live through tomorrow. You can get through tomorrow without me. And if you can live tomorrow, you can live the day after that. One day after the other. You’ll be all right.”

“I’ll be all right,” he whispered, and she kissed him on the nose.

He felt so sleepy. This latest bout of tears had quite worn him out. And Helen was stroking at his hair.

“Of course you’re tired,” she said. “All you’ve been through. My poor love, I’ve quite put you through Hell these last couple of years. I’m so sorry. You go to sleep. Just for a little while. You take a nap, I’ll hold you.”

He wanted to say no, but his eyelids were drooping, and when he opened his mouth to answer a yawn popped out. “Promise you won’t leave without saying goodbye,” he said.

 *

 He slept through the night, and it was only the sunlight flooding in through the windows that woke him. He looked for Helen, he called around the house for her, but he knew she was gone.

He found her little red dress on the floor downstairs.

He also found a note.

You’re so tired, I didn’t want to disturb you.

 Thank you. You have been the best thing in my life. You have been my life.

 Take care of yourself, for me.

 xxx

 Mr Marshall wasn’t sure that he would ever forgive Helen for leaving him behind. But eventually he did.

He ate the healthy food she’d left him in the fridge, and when it ran out, he went to the supermarket and bought some more. He started to lose weight. He looked trim.

He tried out the Thai restaurant one night. There was a special deal on Thursdays. He had the lad nah with chicken, it was quite nice. There was a woman there eating alone, and he said hello.

He went back to the Thai restaurant a couple of months later, and this time he didn’t worry about a Thursday discount. The woman was there again! He supposed she was a regular, but it was only her second visit as well. They laughed at the coincidence. She asked whether he’d like to join her, and he said he would.

Her name was Claire. She was a widow. Her husband had died seven years ago. “I don’t think I said the right things to Helen that last day together,” he told her. “Oh, darling,” Claire said, “no one ever does.”

It felt odd to have a new girlfriend, though she wasn’t really a girlfriend, was she? Well, maybe she was. They’d meet a couple of times a week, and they’d kiss good night, on the cheek, and then one time they went for the mouths. She invited him in, and he accepted, and when she took him to the bedroom he got scared again. But this time he could, he could.

 He felt guilty. He liked to think that Helen would have got on with Claire. But would she have, honestly? Claire said to him one night, “What was it you wanted to say to Helen? Let it out. Tell me instead.”

Mr Marshall said, “I love you too.”

 *

It was a whole new year, the first year in which Mr Marshall hadn’t got a wife called Helen any more. Claire asked him to move in with her. He already spent so much time at her house anyway, wouldn’t it be simpler?

He went back to his home, began to sift through all his old stuff. So much to throw away. Still, so much to keep, too.

He took a deep breath, he at last boxed up all of Helen’s clothes and took them to the charity shop. He hesitated about the red dress, but it was just a dress, it wasn’t Helen – and he could never give it to Claire, Claire was seventy-four years old and fat, she’d never fit into it. And he would never have wanted Claire to have it anyway.

He cried for Helen that day, and though he didn’t know it, it was for the last time.

And in a dresser he found an old photograph album. He hadn’t even known Helen had kept one. He leafed through it, from the beginning, from their wedding day. He used to be so handsome, and Helen was so pretty. And as he turned the pages he watched himself get older, but Helen, Helen didn’t age at all, Helen stayed young and healthy forever and so so full of life. In every picture they stood together, and he looked so proud of her. And she looked so proud of him.

Halfway!

Hello, everyone!

Within the hour I’m going to release story number fifty. Fifty, in this marathon of one hundred stories! Mathematics was never my strongest subject at school. (Though, frankly, I was doing all right, until they started putting ‘x’s and ‘y’s everywhere in the sums. They’re not numbers, what was up with that?) However – even I can tell that number fifty means I must have reached the halfway point.

I feel quite celebratory! …And also quite scared. Because that means I have another fifty stories to go. So, although I might crack open the champagne, I’d better not drink any of it yet. I probably still need my wits around me. (Curses.)

Thank you, as always, if you’re reading this, and you’re still pursuing my act of folly. And thank you doubly if you’re one of those hundred souls with whose names I am taking such liberty. Your  support, enthusiasm – and, yes, patience – are what keep me driving on.

Quite a number of the stories already on this blog are already being printed in other collections and anthologies. (More news on that soon.) And quite a number, too, are being *first* released in other books, and although they’ll end up on the blog sooner or later, the peculiar adventures of Richard Hardy, Yasmin Timothy and Lucy Zinkiewicz (amongst others) will soon be available in old-fashioned paper form. It’s all so oh-twentieth-century, that.

New one to come shortly. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you enjoy the ones to come, too.

Rob xx

 

 

 

 

 

ANDREW LOVING

You’re none too impressed by the posters up all over the village. ‘Andrew Loving’s Circus of the Incuriously Drab’, they say, which you concede is certainly arresting. But there’s too much colour to them, the posters are too loud, too garish. You decide not to go to the circus. But when you see it set up on the village green you’re quite surprised – it looks smaller than you’d imagined. The big top is a subdued grey. And you find yourself buying a ticket at the little kiosk at the front.

The old woman who sells you the ticket does so quite vacantly. She asks you whether you want any popcorn, and doesn’t seem to care when you say no. An unsmiling clown tears your ticket and leads you into the circus ring, and to get to your seat you have to cross the sawdust floor, and it feels light and spongey beneath your shoes. You feel the urge to take off your shoes and walk in it barefoot, you think that would feel nice, you can imagine sinking deep in it and the sawdust coming up between your toes, you feel the urge to dance in it. You don’t. You take your seat. You can’t tell whether the unsmiling clown is unsmiling because the downward curve of his mouth has been painted on, or because he is genuinely unhappy; you ask him a simple question, something like, “How’s the show going?” or “Will it last long?” or “So, you’re a clown, then?”, not because you care, but just to get his mouth moving. But he doesn’t reply.

There is no one sitting next to you. There is no one sitting in front of you, and when you bother to check, you see there is no one sitting behind you either. The tent must seat five hundred people, maybe a thousand, maybe more, it is hard to see in the dark. You wonder whether you’re the only one in the audience. You wonder whether you should leave. You wonder what would be the most embarrassing thing to do, to stay and sit through the show quite alone, knowing that each and every one of the acts is directed at you exclusively and is only done to win your sole approval – or to leave, and have to walk back past the unsmiling clown and the vacant woman at the kiosk and let them know you’re rejecting them.

And then you see, the other side of the circus ring, with the whole stage between you, another figure in the audience. You squint at it. You try to make it out in the dim. It’s a woman. What is she doing? She seems to be leaning forward, there’s a strange expression on her face. You realise she’s squinting at you. Is that what you look like? You’d better stop.

At some point a ringmaster walks on. Is this Andrew Loving? It might be. Andrew Loving is wearing a red jacket and tails. He has a top hat, but he doesn’t bother to put it on his head, he carries it uselessly like it’s a bag of shopping. You sit up straight, you feel a rush of adrenalin, something is going to happen. And you’re excited, and you’re glad you stayed, and you’re a bit nervous, and wish you’d gone. The ringmaster walks out on to the sawdust, shoulders slumped, looking down at the ground. Then he stops, hesitates – and walks back off again, as if he’s forgotten what he was doing there. Not once does he look up at the audience.

You wish you had brought a book. There isn’t the light by which you could read a book. You wish there was more light, and that you’d brought a book to take full advantage of the light with.

You try not to look at the woman again, but sooner or later you just have to – and she catches your eye, and she smiles. You smile back, then quickly look away. You don’t dare look again for a minute or two, and when you do she’s still looking at you (or has she been looking away too and only just given you a second glance?), and still smiling (though, again, this might be another smile altogether, she might have taken a break between the two smiles, you weren’t looking at her to tell), and God, now she’s waving. She’s waving at you! Or she’s waving at someone else, maybe someone is behind you, and you turn around to see, but you know no one has come in, the unsmiling clown hasn’t been back with fresh audience.

You don’t know what to do. You smile. You think maybe that’ll be enough. It doesn’t seem enough, a smile hardly equals a wave, and in the moment of the action it feels a bit mean and unfriendly. You wave back, then, but try not to put too much effort into it.

She gets up. She gathers her things, and begins to move. Is she leaving? Has she had enough? Or, no, is she coming for you? You don’t want her sitting near you. You don’t know her. You don’t know what you’d say. And it’ll take a while for her to get to you, she’s got to walk a whole semi circumference before she’s with you. And you feel that if you got up right now, and begin walking in the opposite direction, then maybe you’d keep ahead, you could both keep circling the circus ring forever without needing to meet. But you think that she’d catch you up eventually, your leg is a bit sore, and you’re tired, you didn’t sleep so well last night. Your wife doesn’t seem happy any more, and during the day that doesn’t seem such a big deal and you can ignore it, but somehow in the still of the night it occurs to you it might be quite important, and you have the urge to nudge her awake and ask her if she’s all right, but you’re not sure how she’d like that, so instead you just lie there beside her and you close your eyes and try to sleep but thoughts keep churning around in your head. No, it’s best to stay put. You just hope the woman doesn’t sit right next to you. You hope she doesn’t try to start a conversation.

She reaches you. She sits right next to you. “Hello,” she says.

“Hello,” you reply.

“Do you like circuses?”

“Not really.”

“Nor me.”

And at that she shrugs. She’s brought popcorn. She offers you some. You thank her, but refuse.

So she eats some popcorn. She eats it perfectly silently, the popcorn is soft and marshmallow, and she doesn’t even rustle the bag.

You feel bad for refusing her popcorn. You feel it might have seemed rude. You say, “Do you think it’s going to start soon?” And she doesn’t answer, and you think you must have offended her after all, and you look at her, really for the first time, and she looks at you, and her face breaks into the broadest smile, and she doesn’t seem particularly offended.

You try to work out whether you find her attractive or not. You decide you do.

She looks nice, she’s wearing lipstick, and her hair is done up in a nice cute bob, she might have just come out of the hairdresser’s, and she’s got on a pretty dress. You begin to wish you were wearing better clothes. You wish you’d sprayed deodorant under your armpits that morning.

The ringmaster shuffles on again, and he doesn’t make it far into the ring this time. He seems to think better of the venture and is about to leave once more, and the woman whispers to you, “Do you think he even knows we’re here?”, and you whisper, “I don’t know,” and she whispers, “I think we should let him know we’re here,” and you whisper, “Yes, we should,” and then you wait for her to call out to him, and she doesn’t, and the ringmaster has nearly disappeared now, he’s nearly left the ring and you’ll have lost him, so you say, quite loud, “Hey. Hey.” And your heart’s not really in it, you don’t want to be a nuisance.

The ringmaster stops, and turns around, and looks towards you, and shields his eyes from a bright light that isn’t there. “Sorry for the delay,” he says. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. There’s been a delay.” And off he’s gone again.

“Thank you,” the woman says to you.

“That’s all right,” you reply.

She offers you some popcorn. This time you accept.

You don’t say anything for a while, and nor does she, but it’s not awkward, it’s very friendly. You wonder how the two of you look together, all alone in the big top. You suppose the ringmaster would have thought you were a couple. You wish you’d brought a book, but not because you’re bored, you just think it would be nice if you read a book beside her, and she was reading a book too, and that would be nice, and at the end of each chapter one of you would look up and smile at the other, it would just be so very nice.

You look at the sawdust. It really does look so soft and spongey and inviting.

The ringmaster returns. He still looks ashamed of the ring, and when he speaks he doesn’t quite look up at you, but at least there’s an announcement of some sort. “Sorry for the delay, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We’ve had problems with the trapeze artist. The trapeze artist, ladies and gentlemen, has got a case of vertigo. The vertigo has shaken her up something chronic, boys and girls, it’s a terror to see. But we’re dealing with it. We know what to do. In the mean time, sorry for the delay.”

He leaves. You try to make conversation. “Do you have vertigo?” you ask the woman.

“Sometimes,” she says. “It depends upon how high up I am.”

“Yes.”

“If I’m up too high, then I do. If it’s not high at all, then I’m all right.”

This seems to you very wise.

“Me too,” you tell her.

The bag of popcorn is finished. It’s all right, she’s bought another.

“I wish I’d brought a book,” she says.

And then there are lights! And drums! And out comes the ringmaster again, except this time he is walking tall, and the top hat on his head makes him look like a giant, and he strides to the exact centre of the ring and flings his arms out wide. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he calls out to the empty rows facing you, to the empty rows to your right, to the empty rows on your left, to you. “Boys and girls! Mesdames, messieurs! Les enfants , peu importe ce que le sexe! We take great pleasure in presenting for your especial delight, La Trapezette, the queen of the trapeze!” And he applauds, and the woman next to you applauds, and you join in.

The trapeze artist is young and pretty, and her dress is sparkly, her teeth white. She strikes a pose to the whole ring, and in doing so turns her back to you mostly, but you clap just the same. She takes out a piece of rope, unrolls it, lays it upon the ground straight. She stands at one end. A drum roll begins. She takes a deep breath. And then she walks across the rope, her arms stretched out to keep her balance, and she does it so painstakingly, so slow, you can really feel the tension, and once or twice she wobbles. But she’s reached the far end, and you applaud once more, because had the tightrope been suspended fifty feet in the air she would almost certainly have survived.

And then the drum roll gets heavier, more omninous, and she produces a blindfold. And the woman next to you gasps, and clutches on to your arm. And it’s the first time you’ve touched, and it feels good. For the remainder of La Trapezette’s death-defying return across the tightrope, with nothing but her own innate skill to guide her across, the woman holds on to you – and La Trapezette certainly makes a meal of it, she keeps on having to stop and steady herself and sways side from side as she finds new courage, she drags out that return journey across a line in the dust last ten full minutes – and you can’t complain, you’re giving some comfort to the woman beside you, she feels better for your company, you could have wished the act had lasted even longer.

At the end of the act your new friend gives the trapeze artist a standing ovation, and you don’t think it quite deserves all that, but you hate being the only person left sitting in a theatre. So you get to your feet too, and you both applaud, long and hard, and the trapeze artist beams and takes four full curtain calls before you are rid of her.

The ringmaster seems to suck up your applause, he stands proud and his chest puffs out. But as soon as you stop, he starts to wilt again, even his smile sort of collapses in on itself, and he mumbles whilst looking at the ground: “And now there’ll be a delay. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, yes, a delay. We’re sorry. We’re sorry.” And he shuffles out of the ring, the trapeze artist following, now shuffling too, her arms gangling and awkward and her sparkly dress refusing to sparkle.

Since there’s a delay, you wonder if you should leave the ring for a while, get some air, stretch your legs. Would the woman come with you? Could you ask her, “Fancy a stroll?” – what would she make of that? You turn to her, and she turns to you too, and she’s smiling, she’s perfectly happy, oh, she’s happy where she is.

It’s at least another hour before the ringmaster comes back.

You think you should say something to your companion. You should ask her name. Ask her what she does for a living. Ask her if she likes her job, finds it challenging, or fulfilling, whether she regards the colleagues she sees each day as actual friends or just people she has to make the best of. Ask her whether it’s a job she’d chosen, something she always wanted to do as a child, or whether those child ambitions are still out of reach, and what she is doing now is just something temporary to make ends meet and that somehow ‘temporary’ has stretched its definition already to fifteen years and counting. Ask whether she’s good at her job, in spite of her lack of enthusiasm, and ask whether her proficiency at it offers any real compensation for the nagging fear that she’s sold out her hopes and dreams. You should ask whether she has a cat. You like cats.

Instead, she’s the one to speak, and she asks, “Are you enjoying yourself?”

You say, “Yes.” And you mean it, and that’s good.

Andrew Loving is back with another presentation of the incuriously drab. He looks defeated. His announcement is apologetic, but not too apologetic, it’s all gone beyond a simple sorry now, if he let loose his profound regrets he’d burst into tears, it’s better that he keeps his composure blank and his voice numbed. “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. We present for you the menagerie de Loving. We do not present them proudly. We are not proud. They were damaged in transit. Enjoy.” And then he does a flourish anyway, as grand as you like, and he rolls his top hat up his arm and on to his head, and that deserves a little applause in itself – and the lights in the ring get brighter, there’s a drum roll, and the music starts. You’re not sure what it is, it might be Dido. And on traipse the animals. Lions limping on sore paws and wincing with every step. Tigers with broken tails, some jutting out at sharp angles, some drilling straight down into the sawdust floor so that the tigers don not so much walk but drag. Elephants with their trunks bandaged, elephants with eyepatches, elephants with entire legs in slings. Depressed bears.

The music plays on.. And the animals walk around the perimeter of the ring, in single file, again and again and again and again.

She’s touching your arm. “I like that elephant!” she says. “It has a face just like my old geography teacher!”

You point out a lion. “And that’s just like my postman.”

“That tiger looks like the woman in the sweet shop.”

“That bear looks like my wife!” You wish you hadn’t mentioned the wife.

At one point a tiger just keels over to the floor. It might be asleep, or sick, or dead. The bear is right behind it, and stares down at it impassively. Then it seems to roll its eyes, ever world weary, and sidestep the body, and continue the march. The lion behind the bear isn’t so forward thinking; maybe it isn’t good at contingency strategy, maybe it’s just not concentrating hard; it tries to climb over the slumped tiger, staggers, falls. The elephant behind the lion has no chance, it’s hard to slow an elephant in parade mode, and it slams right into the back of the lion, and then the lion into the tiger – and after that the traffic just starts to pile up, some animals crashing into each other when they brake too suddenly, others having to crawl to a snail’s pace and get stuck in the ensuing jam. By the time the bear makes it all the way around the ring there’s no way it can continue its journey; it looks thoroughly pissed off by this, and sits down upon the ground, and sighs.

It takes ages to get all the animals off, and you’re still not sure whether that tiger is dead or not. The ringmaster leads the applause. “Give it up for the Andrew Loving menagerie!” Delighted, the woman jumps to her feet, and her clapping is fast and loud. You stand up beside her, try to match her for speed and volume. You wish you could ever be as happy as she is now.

“Delay,” then says the ringmaster. He can’t even be bothered to make it part of a sentence any more. “Delay,” he says again, he’s off, that’s good enough.

You’re on your own with her again.

You think you should say something. You should ask her name. Ask her whether she likes her name. Asks her whether, when she looks into the mirror, she really believes she’s called x when she sees herself as a y. Ask whether she has any siblings – whether she’s an only child (like you, before you were eight), or has brothers and sisters (like you, after you were eight). Ask whether she has a favourite aunt or uncle. Ask whether any of her grandparents are still alive. Ask whether she has a lover. Ask whether her lover loves her back. Ask whether she’s straight, or gay, or partnered, or single, and if she’s straight and single whether she’d like to go to the circus with you again some day, and if she’s straight and partnered whether she’d like to go to the circus and keep it as a secret, and if she’s gay whether she’s properly gay or whether she could be turned. Because that can happen sometimes, apparently.

Instead, she offers you some popcorn. She’s got a third bag. You take a handful. Some of it is sweet, some of it is salted. “When I mentioned my wife earlier,” you say – and then you don’t know what to add. She’s very close to you, her leg is brushing your leg, you can smell her and you’re not sure whether that’s perfume or just that she naturally has a faint whiff of flowers about her.

There are more acts. A fire breather with a sore throat. A mime who prefers to work with the real glass boxes and struggle against real gusts of wind. Each time the woman gives them a standing ovation, and there is nothing ironic about it, she’s celebrating them as they are, warts and all, and it’s forgiving and kind and beautiful. For the next act you jump up to clap even before she does, and you think she smiles at you approvingly. It’s not such a bad act anyway; he’s a juggler who tells you he can juggle seventeen balls, but only one at a time.

And in the silences you think you should say something. You should ask her name. Just her name. Nothing else. That’d be enough.

You find out her name soon enough.

The ringmaster looks more embarrassed than ever. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. He cannot even bring himself to appeal to the boys and girls who might wander it, he wants to protect the innocent. “The next act… I’m sorry. It’s shit. It’s just such shit.” He opens his mouth to say more, to explain, to beg forgiveness maybe, but then he closes it again, shakes his head, what’s the point? He shouts out the name of the next performer. It’s a woman’s name. The woman next to you rises from her seat.

In the spotlight you can now see she’s old, and plump, and plain. No one bothers giving her a drum roll.

She kicks off her shoes. Her feet look big and calloused, before they sink beneath the sawdust surface.

She begins.

At first you think she’s just fidgeting. Maybe she has an itch? She’s swaying from side to side, once in every while she’ll shuffle her feet a bit. And then it dawns on you she’s dancing.

There’s no music. Music might help. She doesn’t seem bothered by the silence, she opens her arms to you, and she claps. She wants you to join in. She wants you to set the rhythm. So you do. You clap out a beat, she shuffles some more. And then after a while you just sort of stop, because it doesn’t matter, she can’t even keep time with that – and when you try to vary the pace to help her, go faster, go slower, anything, her gyrating body seems to slip away from whatever new rhythm you establish and chase after something bizarre and random of her own.

And when you stop clapping she just closes her eyes, and she’s dancing to the music she hears in her head, and she’s smiling so hard now, she’s so proud.

It seems to go on for bloody ever. But, at last, it’s over. It’s really over, it’s not just one of those mad pauses she takes, she’s actually stopped moving, the dance is done, and she stands tall awaiting the audience response.

You clap, of course you do, and you try not to sound sarcastic. She bows. Then she curtseys. She’s really milking it.

You wonder how long you have to go on with this for.

You feel a sudden wave of love for her, all alone down there, a bit faded, a bit ugly, but enjoying her moment, as Godforsaken and benighted a moment as it is.

She waits for the standing ovation.

And you’d really like to give her one, but there has got to be a limit.

 *

 You look at the sawdust, and you think how good it’d be to put your bare feet in it, and just dance.

 *

 She leaves the ring eventually. You stop clapping altogether. There’s silence. Still, she waits. Still, she looks proud. And there’s silence for ages, great yawning minutes of embarrassment. The spotlight fades. The ringmaster enters the ring, tries to usher her off. Still, for a while, she is expectant. She believes in you.

And then, quite suddenly, she just turns and marches off.

She doesn’t come back to join you in the audience.

You sit there in silence for a few minutes. You wonder if the show is over. You wonder if that was the grand finale. You hesitate. You don’t want to miss anything. Even now, you think, something good might be on the way.

The woman’s things are under her seat. A cardigan, a handbag, five more boxes of popcorn. You wonder whether you should take them with you, but then think, no, best leave well alone.

You leave. Just as soon as you’re through the exit, and the unsmiling clown has given you a blunt nod, and the woman at the kiosk has stared you down with utter disinterest – just as you leave, you hear the drum roll is starting up again. Bugger.

 *

 Your wife says to you, “Where were you this evening?”

“Andrew Loving’s Circus of the Incuriously Drab.”

She thinks about this. She says, “Will you take me to the circus?”

“No, I don’t think that’s a very good idea.”

That night, before she turns off the lights, she actually tells you what’s wrong. She doesn’t say anything you weren’t expecting. Really, you agree with her. Really, you’d understand completely if this is the last time you will ever share a bed, a house, a conversation.

“We’ll talk about it more in the morning,” she says.

You lie there, wide awake, try to think of things you want to say. The promises she wants to hear, the ones you might be able to keep, or at least, the ones she might believe you can keep. Clever things that will win back her love. You practise arguments, you mouth them softly in the dark. You tell her it’s easy to be good at something, where’s the challenge in that? What’s hard is being mediocre, and getting on with it anyway. Getting on with life in spite of all.

You think you sound so smart and persuasive, but know that it doesn’t matter, by the time she’s awake you’ll have forgotten it all.

*

 You get up, go downstairs to the kitchen. From the fridge you take out all the eggs. You’ll give juggling a try. That’ll be easy. Especially if you do them one at a time. It’s harder than it looks, and you create quite a mess for your wife to clean up in the morning.

AMANDA HADLETT

 I had this girlfriend once, who said she’d been to a museum which put on display the feet from statues. “Just the feet,” she said. “Anything above the knees, they throw away.” I said that sounded like rather a boring museum, who only wants to look at feet? – but in truth I thought it was exotic. And we went to a museum that very day, and we looked only at feet. We’d bend down, and study the toes, the ankles, and the calves. People thought we were weird. We laughed a lot.

She liked going to museums. She was the only girlfriend I ever had who did. Some liked going to the cinema, or to wine bars, one enjoyed ten pin bowling. But it was museums or nothing for Amanda Hadlett. We went all over the city. She found little museums I’d never heard of, down narrow alleyways and round darkened corners. Behind supermarkets, at the top of multi-storey car parks, in garden sheds. The curators looked very impressed when we’d show up. “But how ever did you find us?” they’d say, and Amanda would smile, and tap her nose, and say nothing, as if it were a secret.

For a while it was all statue feet, nothing but statue feet would do. Then she wanted to look at paintings, but not the artwork, just the frames. One day she said she felt the urge to examine exhibits which only began with the letter ‘X’, that didn’t take long.

And pots! Yes, ancient pots from long dead civilisations, and she was trying to find where our names were spelled out by the cracks – “Look,” she said, “I can see Amanda everywhere!” She found this one vase, this big fuck-off sized thing from Egypt, she said she could see us both in there, one name wrapped around the other. She traced our names with her finger, though the signs said Don’t Touch.

She didn’t care about history. She didn’t know what had happened when, who’d killed who. “The past is dead,” she said, “I don’t need the past.” I found that odd. What good were museums then, but sticking the dead things behind glass cases? She said, “But this isn’t the past, how can it be the past? It’s all still here.”

I asked her where this museum of hers was, the one with all the sawn-off statue feet. She said she didn’t remember.

 *

 We were in bed, and we were thinking of having sex, or maybe that was just me. And she said we’d now been to all the museums in London, we needed to move further afield. I said, fine. I thought she meant Surrey. “We’ll move to Greece,” she said. All Greece was a museum, rubble and marble blocks everywhere, statue feet lined up side by side as far as the eye could see. “What will we do for money?” I asked. She said she’d be a poet. And me, I could be a fisherman – a squid fisherman, she liked squid. I could go out in my boat and hunt for squid, and keep only the squid, all the normal fish I’d have to throw back in the sea. “I don’t like squid,” I said. We argued.

I don’t know whether Amanda went to Greece. Her landlady said she’d just paid up, packed, and moved on, and no, there was no forwarding address, and no, no message had been left for me. I asked if I could look around her flat. It was weird being in the flat, and seeing it had been stripped of all things Amanda – it looked gutted, somehow. I found a pot of yoghurt in the fridge, pills in the bedroom, a stray sock.

I asked if I could keep them. The landlady said, sure. She gave me a plastic bag to carry them in. When I got home, I threw the plastic bag away.

 *

 I’ve had girlfriends since. I’ve had two wives. (Though not at the same time.) Some ex-girlfriends came to my first wedding. My first wife came to my second. She sat there, in the midst of the celebration, beaming proud like a queen. And after the speeches and the toasts and the awkward dances, after the party was done, I went and bagged the leftovers from her plate. A bit of cake, a fag end, a paper napkin with her lipstick on. I took them all, and put them in my museum.

You can’t start collecting too soon. Too soon, and everything is an exhibit, you could fill to the brim all the display cases of the twenty-second century with the detritus about us from the twenty-first. All those Egyptian pots, those vases from ancient Mesopotamia, Stone Age flints and mammoth teeth – at their time you could get them two for a penny, they were what the cavemen put out in the rubbish bins for collection every Sunday night. I don’t start picking up after my girlfriends until I’m sure our relationship is on the wane. I recognise the symptoms now. I’ve got good. The way their faces hang slack with boredom when I’m near, the eyes dead, the eyes looking straight through me. Janet’s nail varnish remover, Anne’s knickers, the contact lenses I took from Margaret’s handbag in the night – I acquired them only once they were turning nice and rare.

My wife doesn’t know I keep a museum. I look at my museum sometimes when she goes out. Amanda was right, whilst they’re on display they’re not the past, those I have loved and those who loved me and all the girls who were inbetween – they’re here. They’re not history. They’re not history. I still own them. Still, I keep them safe.

I itch to start collecting my wife. I itch to preserve the things she takes for granted, the crisp packets and the teabags and the gobbets of toothpaste she spits into the sink. Not yet. But soon. Her eyebrows, I shall cut off her eyebrows, every last hair. We’ll make a deal. I can keep the eyebrows, she can keep our son.

When she leaves me, I won’t miss her. And I don’t miss Amanda Hadlett. You see.

I wonder what Amanda took of me. I wonder what part of me she keeps on display in her museum, I bet she has one. I look about the house, look in the mirror even, try to work out what’s missing. There has to be something missing. Once in a while I can almost sense what, I’ve nearly solved it, it’s on the tip of my tongue.

 *

 My family goes to museums. Every so often, if my son is on holiday, or has a school project. He likes to look at dinosaurs. My wife, she reads the plaques against every single exhibit, so seriously, as if there’s going to be a test at the end, she does her duty with every urn and coin and Saxon brooch. I look for Amanda Hadlett.

And I’ll find her eventually, the odds are in my favour. She’ll stand out, she’ll be the one who’s staring at statue feet. She’ll recognise me, she’ll fling her arms right round me and hug me hard, or maybe she won’t recognise me, I’ve grown so old, I feel so old, but she’ll hug me anyway. I’ll tell her I was wrong. I’ll tell her I’m ready for Greece. I’ll find her all the squid she wants. Or, no. No, I’ll give her back her yoghurt pot, her pills, her sock. I take them with me each museum trip, just in case. I’ll say, I don’t need you in my life any more. You’re past, you’re dead, I don’t need you. And she’ll cry, or she’ll be brave, or she’ll say sorry, or she won’t. And she’ll reach into her pockets, she’ll give back what she took from me, my football scarf, breakfast leftovers, my watch, soap, clippings from my beard, clippings from my nails, shoes, socks, old newspapers, half finished Coke cans, my pens, my pencils, my keys, my heart.

PAUL HISCOCK

My son Paul is in the same class at school as Robin Hood. Not the Robin Hood, of course, that would be ridiculous, he’s a semi-mythical hero from the twelfth century. No, this Robin Hood would be his son.

Paul brought home a couple of kids from school one day, and one of them was Robin Hood. At first, I’ll be honest, he didn’t seem much to look at – I wouldn’t have given him a second glance in the street. Short, square-jawed, a little meanness around the eyes – but they all look mean at that age, don’t you think? But I looked again, and I don’t know, I suppose I could see something of the celebrity in him. And he had a stud in his ear, but not in the lobe, stick into that bony bit at the top, that’d be more painful, wouldn’t it? I didn’t know whether to shake him by the hand or not. I didn’t.

I said to the other kid, “What about you, you got a famous Dad?” I was only joking. The kid said, “No.”

Paul said they were all working together on a school project. I asked what the project was about, and they said it was heroes. Each group had to pick a hero from history, and the best essays would be read out at Speech Day. I said, “Can I help?”, Janet had told me I should take a greater interest in what Paul was up to, but they said that they weren’t allowed to get external assistance from a parent, this was something they had to do on their own. I asked them which hero they had chosen, and they said Winston Churchill.

“Well, can I get you boys anything to eat?” – but Paul said they were all right. So I left them to work on the kitchen table, and they helped themselves to snacks from the fridge, cola and ice cream and peanut butter sandwiches.

A couple of hours later the boys went home. Robin Hood didn’t come and say goodbye, but why should he have done, really? I waited until the coast was clear and then went into the kitchen. I asked Paul whether I should fix something for his supper, but he said he wasn’t hungry any more.

“Winston Churchill,” I said. “Well. So, what’s your favourite thing about Winston Churchill?”, and Paul sort of shrugged.

I said it was nice he had made some new friends, and at that he just rolled his eyes. They weren’t friends, they’d all been put into groups by the teacher, Paul Hiscock was next to Robin Hood in the register. “I don’t even like Robin Hood,” he said. “Robin Hood’s a spaz.”

 *

 In my defence, it hadn’t been anything serious, and I’d never meant to hurt anyone. If I had thought anyone would have got hurt, I wouldn’t have ever got involved. That was implicit from the fact she was married, I’d have thought. If you have a fling with a married woman, it should be pretty clear it’s only temporary.

So when the husband came over, and he was a lot bigger than me, I thought he was going to hit me, and I suppose I might have deserved that – when he came over and he said, “You stole my wife!” – my first thought was that it hadn’t been theft, I was only borrowing her for a bit. I didn’t say that, though. And the husband didn’t hit me, in fact, he just burst into tears, and the fight went out of him, and I felt very sorry for him and didn’t know what to do.

Janet left me. She said if I was going to cheat on her, the least I could do would be to show a little discretion. Sleeping with the next door neighbour had been rubbing her nose in it rather. It was my own fault, I’m not saying it wasn’t, I don’t think I come out of this story well at all. But Janet works long hours, and travels a lot, I don’t think she’d even met the neighbours very often, what difference did it being the neighbour make?

She takes Paul at the weekends, I get him for the school days. I work pretty locally, so it makes much more sense that way. I gave her a call. I told her that Paul had made new friends. I knew she’d been concerned, Paul had been so withdrawn since the break-up and her moving out and the lawyers and things.

“That’s good,” she said.

“You’ll never guess who his friend is. His name’s Robin Hood! You know, the son of the actual Robin Hood.”

Janet said she was pleased, and she sounded pleased, but would it have killed her to have sounded more interested? Excited, even? She said, “They’re thinking of cutting back on my overseas contracts, I should be based in the city much more come the spring. I think I should take custody of Paul when I do.”

I told her it was funny that our son was hobnobbing with famous people! Who would have thought it? And Janet laughed, I’ll give her that. And she said she’d once been at school with a girl whose sister was a backing singer for Dexy’s Midnight Runners. I told her that wasn’t the same thing at all.

I asked her how she was, and she said she was all right, working too hard of course, but that was as per usual, wasn’t it? She laughed again. She asked me how I was doing, I said I missed her. I said again that I was sorry.

I see the woman from next door sometimes, of course, but I’m not allowed to speak to her. I promised Janet I wouldn’t. I don’t think she’s allowed to speak to me either, she’s still with her husband, I think there were conditions to that. We don’t speak, but I want her to know it’s nothing personal, so if she’s out in the garden I’ll raise my hand and give her a sort of half-wave. She half-waves back, mostly.

 *

 Speech Day came. They said that Paul’s Winston Churchill project was one of the best of his year, and it was selected to be read out in front of the entire school. I was very proud, and told Paul so, and he seemed to believe me for once, he grinned from ear to ear.

I didn’t go, though. Janet was supposed to be out of the country on business, but at the last minute her trip was cancelled, and she phoned up and asked if she could go and see Paul instead. She felt it’d be important for their relationship. To be fair to her, she didn’t insist, she said she’d quite understand if that inconvenienced me too much – she’d be bitterly disappointed, but there it was. I said that we could both go, it would be all right; she wouldn’t even need to see me, I could sit at the back. But Janet thought she wasn’t quite ready for that yet. “Maybe next year,” she said.

I found out after that Robin Hood had been there as a special guest, and had given out the sixth form prizes! I called Janet, asked her how the evening had gone. She said Robin Hood had been quite charming, and he’d given a little speech, and told the kids that stealing was a bad thing and not to follow his example, and that besides what he’d done hadn’t been stealing, he had taken from the rich to give to the poor, it had been a political act, he called it ‘reappropriation’. I asked Janet if he had been dressed in Lincoln green. She said no.

I told Paul I was sorry to have missed him. I told him he could perform the Winston Churchill speech to me, if he liked, privately, in our front room. He said he hadn’t performed it at all. He’d written the essay, and that other lad had read it out, that’s how they’ve divided up the work. Robin had barely been involved in the project at all, Robin had skived off as usual. I told Paul to perform it for me anyway, I wanted to hear it. And Paul huffed a bit, but said all right. At the end I gave him a round of applause, and told him I was proud, but Paul didn’t look too pleased. “You already said,” he told me. But I was proud, I meant it. It was a good essay, there was more to Winston Churchill than I had realised, like Robin Hood he’d been a proper hero.

 *

 Mr and Mrs Hood had the pleasure of inviting my son to young Robin’s birthday party. Paul said it was nothing to get excited about, everyone in his class had got an invitation – but it had come in the post, and it was nicely done, and it asked us to RSVP. It told Paul to bring swimming trunks, so that meant Robin Hood had a pool! I asked Paul whether he thought it would be a fancy dress party, and Paul said, “Why the hell would it be fancy dress?”, and I didn’t know, I just thought it might have been.

Before the big day I asked Paul whether he was going to get his friend a present. He said no. I told him he had at least to buy a card. The card Paul bought wasn’t good enough, I had to go out and buy another. I told him to write something nice inside. I hope he did, he wouldn’t let me see.

We drove all the way to the Hood house, the other side of town. I suppose I had expected a castle or something, maybe a mansion. It was just a semi-detached. But it was on a quiet street, the front garden was well-tended and a little bigger than ours, no, it was nice, it was nice. Paul looked quite smart, I looked smart too, I’d put on my best jacket even though it was rather a warm day. A harassed man opened the front door to us. “Hello, Mr Hood,” I said, and I put my hand out. It wasn’t Mr Hood at all, it turned out he was just one of the other parents dropping his own kid off; they were all out the back, he said, and then pushed past us and made his escape. I was glad he hadn’t been Robin Hood, he hadn’t been how I’d have pictured him at all.

In the sitting room all the furniture had been pushed against the walls to create a larger play area. On the patio outside there was a barbecue going, and there were the drinks, and there on the lawn was the swimming pool. It wasn’t a proper pool. It was quite big, I suppose, but it was still made of plastic, at the end of the day you could drain it and flatten it and roll it up and put it away. I was a little disappointed.

There were lots of kids everywhere, all shapes and sizes, and I just think it would have been nicer if someone had thought to make it a fancy dress party, they could have been Robin Hood’s merry men, you could have have Friar Tucks and Will Scarlets and Little Johns (the tall kids could have been Little Johns). I can’t see why someone hadn’t thought of that.

There were a few parents milling around too, all of them obviously hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous man himself. “He’s not home,” a woman told me when I asked, and she sighed, because she’d obviously been asked a few dozen times already. I told her I supposed she was Maid Marian; “I’m Stacey,” she said, “Marian is the ex.”

She suggested that the adults should go, and return to collect their children at six o’clock. I asked if I could stay. “I told you, he’s not here, and he won’t be back til late.” I told Mrs Hood I didn’t care.

Some of the kids had smuggled in cans of beer, and Mrs Hood and I had to keep going around confiscating them. We’d take them indoors and drink them in the kitchen, and when we’d finished, we’d go outside and confiscate some more. Every once in a while one of us would pop out anyway to check no one had got burned on the barbecue or drowned in the paddling pool.

Robin Hood’s house had a big widescreen TV and off-road parking. I told Mrs Hood it wasn’t as grand as I’d expected, and I supposed Robin must have given to the poor and not kept much back for himself. She found that very funny. She laughed a lot. I decided to laugh too, so it’d look as if I’d been witty on purpose.

About half past five the parents started arriving for their kids, and I’d go out into the garden to help find them. I’d ask for the kids’ names, and I’d stand in the middle of the lawn, and start calling. It was funny how they all looked the same.

And eventually Paul was the only kid left. A thought occurred to me – “But where’s little Robin? Where’s the birthday boy?” Robin had left the party ages ago, apparently, he’d gone down town with his mates. I asked Paul to thank Mrs Hood, and he did, very politely, and I thanked her too. We had to get a taxi home, I was a little over the limit. I asked Paul whether he had enjoyed the party, and he said he had, very much; he thanked me for making him go even though he hadn’t wanted to; he said he was sorry, he said he hadn’t been nice to me lately, he loved me, he said. He was very good, he wasn’t sick in the taxi, he waited until we were safely home.

I went back the next day to pick up my car. All the balloons and streamers had been taken down out front, Robin Hood’s house looked like any other. I supposed Robin Hood was inside, he’d probably come home by now, and I waited for a bit, but I didn’t see him.

 *

 I was asked to come into the school and see the deputy headmistress. I waited outside her office on a little plastic chair, and I felt nervous, as if I were the one in trouble!

She was very stern. She told me that Paul was a very promising student. She said that his take on Winston Churchill had been good, the words she used were ‘spirited’ and ‘rousing’. But, she said, Paul was mixing with the wrong sort of company. He’d been seen in a gang. There’d been lots of complaints about this gang, they’d hang about the shopping precinct, and drink, and be noisy, and play with traffic cones. They hadn’t done anything illegal yet, no one said they’d stolen anything, but it was only a matter of time.

She told me the ringleader was Robin Hood, and advised me to keep Paul away from him. “Don’t let Paul give up on his future,” she said. She told me she knew he was going through a difficult time, that there were domestic problems, and that she was sympathetic. But the school couldn’t condone anti-social behaviour. “How do you think it’s going,” she asked me, “the relationship you have with your son?” I didn’t want to discuss relationships. I didn’t want the school to know about my problems with Janet, what had Paul been saying about me?

I spoke to Paul that evening. He told me that the gang didn’t have a leader, it wasn’t that sort of a gang, and that if the gang did have a leader it’d be Nicky Culshaw, it wouldn’t be Robin Hood, Robin Hood just hung out and did shit the same as everybody else. I told Paul that maybe Robin Hood was a bad influence, all the same; could I rely on him, could I trust him, that if he went out with his mates down town to play and Robin tagged along, could Paul make his excuses and come home? “Sure,” said Paul.

In retrospect, I felt angry, and ashamed, and I phoned the deputy headmistress the next day. I told her that whatever ‘relationship’ my son and I enjoyed it was none of her business, her business was to teach him, that was all. And besides, it was all a storm in a teacup, the gang wasn’t doing anything wrong, they were just kids having fun. What was wrong with having fun, if no one got hurt? Couldn’t she remember being young once? She didn’t answer. Maybe she couldn’t.

It was in the local paper – a cat had been shot with an arrow. The owners found it in the morning when they were taking their kids to school; the cat had dragged its way to the house, and tried to get in through the cat flap, but with an arrow sticking out of its side it had got stuck, and it’d spent the night half inside and half out. The arrow was in its flank, just above the hind legs. Miraculously, the cat had survived, the arrow hadn’t gone in too deep, that was one lucky animal. Though, mind you, it had to have one of the legs amputated, there was a photo in the paper, nasty.

A few days later a dog was found, and this one was dead, chained up to a kennel, an arrow through its neck. This one had been a more expert kill, and the only consolation the owners could find in the interviews they gave – because by this time the national press had got hold of it, it was even on the telly in the evening news – was that at least the kill had been quick and the dog wouldn’t have suffered. The police urged people to keep their pets indoors and safe, although they were certain whoever was responsible would be caught soon, and there was no need for panic. It was odd seeing pictures of our town on the television; I know those streets, but they looked bigger on the screen somehow, and all the signposts and wheelie bins looked like movie props.

Young Robin Hood confessed the very next day. It’s said that he didn’t offer any explanation, or show of remorse; he just went up to a policeman and said, “I did the pets,” and as proof showed his bow and his quiver. ‘I Did The Pets’ was one of the headlines the next day; others used ‘The Face Of A Monster’, alongside a photograph of Robin. He looked calm and insolent, and that meanness around his eyes was plain for all to see.

He wasn’t sent to prison the way the public demanded on chat shows, he was too young for that. He was expelled by the school, of course. And he gave a statement to the papers that said he was bitterly regretful of all the distress he had caused, and that he blamed temporary insanity – it was only a written statement, the press weren’t allowed to interview the lad. They tried to track down his father for comment, but the family had gone into hiding – the one time they got him on camera he kept silent and tight-lipped, pushing his way through the reporters towards his car, and I was surprised at how ordinary Robin Hood looked, really, how thin, how old.

 *

 I didn’t see Stacey again after that. I suppose we both used the scandal to put an end to things, but in truth it was on its way out already. The last time she’d come to my house she’d asked me where I thought our relationship was headed.

“Is it a relationship?” I asked. “I didn’t know we’d got that far!” I was only joking, I was only trying to make her laugh.

“I just don’t know what it is we’re doing,” she said. I didn’t know what to say, and she sighed, and got out of bed, and got dressed.

And I said to her, that she was lonely, and that I was lonely, and that there was nothing so evil in two lonely people meeting up every so often to make themselves feel better. What was wrong in having fun?

“But I’m married,” I went on. “And I love my wife, and one day we’ll get back together. And you love your husband, don’t you? And it’s not as if you love me.”

She just said, “I don’t know what we’re doing, if it’s never going to mean anything.”

We’d only ever met up at my place. Saturday afternoons, when Paul was safely with his mother. I thought that was simpler, and she’d agreed. Better that our sons didn’t know we were seeing each other, after all our sons were close friends. But there was more to it than that. I just didn’t fancy going to the great Robin Hood’s house and having sex with his wife in his own bed. I suppose you could say there’s a moral ambiguity surrounding Robin Hood and the way he pursued a life of crime for a greater good, but whichever side of the argument you come down on, Robin Hood as folk hero or as social menace, surely the man deserves better treatment than that.

 *

 Paul brought me the bow, and the remaining arrows. He’d taken them from the Hood house, but insisted he hadn’t stolen them. There were so many bows and arrows just lying about there, how could it be stealing if no one would notice they were gone?

He didn’t know why Robin had confessed. He told me that if Robin hadn’t confessed, he would have done so. In fact, he’d just been on his way to confess, and then Robin had got in, just ahead of him.

“He doesn’t even like archery,” he said. “Any of that stuff his Dad was into, he thought it was all bollocks.”

Paul was sorry about the cat. He hadn’t meant to hurt anything. He was just mucking about, he never thought he’d actually manage to hit the thing. “What about the dog?” I asked. He didn’t say anything to that.

“Are you going to tell the police?” he asked.

And he stared at me, and he seemed frightened. Or maybe it was just another sort of defiance, one I wasn’t used to.

“I don’t think we should even tell your mother,” I said.

I took the bow and the arrows. I said I’d get rid of them, I’d dispose of the evidence. I put them upstairs, nicely under my bed.

I asked Paul if he wanted any supper. Normally he’d say no, he’d go out with his mates. That night he agreed to stay in.

Neither of us quite knew what to say as we ate.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “This is all my fault.”

He looked genuinely surprised by that. “Is it?”

“I just wish,” I said. “I don’t know. I’ve always wished. You’d be the sort of son who’d want to take after his father. That I’d done something, achieved something, worth taking after.”

He said nothing, just toyed with his apple crumble. That was probably the kindest thing.

After supper Paul asked if he could be excused from the table. That was polite of him. So I said yes.

 *

 The next evening, when Paul came home from school, I asked him if he wanted any supper. “No,” he said. “I’m going out.”

There was still a gang, but no one pretended that Robin Hood was in charge of it any more.

I had rather hoped Paul might stay in, that the two of us could do something together. I told him this. And he said we’d do something soon, yeah. But he had to go out, he’d promised, and the others wouldn’t know what to do without him.

I watched some television. I went upstairs, from under the bed I took my bow and arrow. I wondered whether Robin Hood had ever killed anyone with them. I wondered whether he’d ever killed anyone famous, like King John, or one of the Sheriffs of Nottingham. I texted Stacey. She didn’t reply.

 *

 On Thursday night, Janet called and told me she wouldn’t be able to fit Paul in this weekend, she’d be at an impromptu conference in Frankfurt instead. I said I’d tell him.

On Friday morning, I broke the news to Paul. If he felt rejected, he didn’t show it. I asked him whether he had any plans for Saturday. I knew he wouldn’t have had time to make any, that got him.

On Saturday, I showed Paul what I’d found.

From the attic I’d brought down whole boxes of my past, I’d been through them to find all the best bits. There were photographs, of me as a child, me with my parents, the brother I hadn’t spoken to for years. My wedding day. Janet looked so beautiful. I looked a bit fat.

And things I had forgotten. My Cub Scout badges, one for orienteering, one for knots, one for helping the old folk cross the road. A little medal I’d won at school for swimming. Certificates proving I was a qualified chartered accountant. A prize-winning essay about the great hero Francis Drake. Valentine’s cards.

“This is who I am,” I said to Paul.

“Right.”

“No bows and arrows! Ha! Nothing as exciting as Robin Hood could show his son. Ha!”

“No.”

“I’m no one special. But. Maybe there’s something here that might inspire you.”

Paul didn’t look very convinced. I sort of smiled at him, encouragingly. He sort of smiled back. He put his hands deep into one of the boxes, as if it were a lucky dip, and he pulled out some old postcards from somewhere or other.

“I’ll leave you to it,” I said.

“This is all shit,” he said. Not even unkindly.

“I’ll leave you to it,” I said again. And I walked out of the room. And I closed the door. And I locked it.

“Hey!” said Paul. “Let me out!” He banged his fists on the door. They were heavy fists, Paul was already so strong, stronger than me. But I thought the door would hold.

I went upstairs to my bedroom. I decided I wouldn’t free Paul for a while. It was tempting, he’d be so angry when he got out. But if I wanted this relationship to work, I had to believe in it, give it a fighting chance.

I pulled the string from the bow, and I broke all the arrows, I snapped them in two.

I went to sleep for a while. I don’t know how long.

And at last I went back downstairs. I trod softly, I didn’t want to disturb my son. He had stopped shouting and banging at the door, I hadn’t heard a sound from him for ages. I stooped, I peered through the keyhole. It was hard to see properly, and I could only guess at the expression on his face, but he was holding that swimming medal to his chest, hugging on to it tight, and I thought it might have been with pride and with awe and with love.

JAMES GRIZZELL-JONES

On the coroner’s report it said that James Grizzell-Jones had suffered ‘death by euphemism’. Those were the actual words, I saw them for myself. And it’s certainly true that my poor husband had shied away from matters of delicacy. He was not a man to call a spade a spade, not unless it were a good solid British spade with no nonsense or flim-flammery about it; offer him a spade that in any way suggested the sloppier, seedier, steamier side of life and he’d have refused it politely, thank you very much.

He died on a bus tour, high in the Cretan mountains. We’d just done some museum or another, now we were on our way to Knossos. The bus tour didn’t cater exclusively for the English, the commentary the guide gave us was in French, German, Spanish too, and one other language we couldn’t identify, James thought it might have been Dutch. Doing a tour with some Dutchmen, well – I suppose you get what you pay for, and this tour was cheap. “We should have gone for the more expensive one,” my husband muttered to me as we drove along. “Twice the price, but at least we’d understand what was being said to us.” I was inclined to agree with him; we agreed about most things, really. And I think they may have been the last words he ever said to me. He tutted. I tutted back in sympathy.

He’d had a moussaka the night before that hadn’t agreed with him. Or maybe it had been all the retsina, that nasty little waiter kept on filling our glasses though we’d told him not to. Or the vine leaves. Anyway, James had been up and down all night, out of the bed and into the bathroom. “Are you all right?” I asked him, and I could tell he was embarrassed, he told me to go back to sleep. But it was hard to sleep with all that commotion going on, when the bathroom door didn’t close properly and kept letting the light in, with the electric fan that turned on every time he went in there, with that smell.

Now on the tour I could tell he wasn’t feeling quite right. He kept on wincing, and grabbing at his stomach, and I’d hear the odd gurgle from within – and he’d clasp his hand to it to muffle the sound. It’s all that oil they put in their Mediterranean dishes, it can’t be good for you, though apparently all those Greeks seem to live a long time. Anyway, at one point he got up from his seat, and struggled down the aisle to the front of the bus. The tour guide was at that moment telling the French all about Minoan pottery; we’d already heard the English version, it was nothing to write home about. I could tell it genuinely pained my husband to interrupt her. He tried to whisper to her, but she was holding a microphone, and bits of their conversation were broadcast all around the bus. “Please sit down, sir,” she said; I’ll give her her due, she’d clocked we were British, right from the start. “I need to use the whatsit,” said James. “I beg your pardon, sir?” “The thingummy. You know. I need it very badly. Very urgently.” “I don’t know what you mean, sir, please sit down.” And so he turned around and came back down the aisle, and his face was burning red, and he was doing his best to walk proud and tall but he was starting to stagger. And there was some little laughter, but I couldn’t tell whether it was at my husband’s expense, or at some foreign joke that the guide had made about Theseus and the Minotaur.

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked, and I got up so he could sit by the window. But he shook his head, angrily, as if angry at me, and he gritted his teeth, and he turned his head to look at the Greek countryside whipping fast past the window, and he died.

It’s not the way I would have chosen for him to go. But then, what sort of death would I have chosen? I’m rather glad I wasn’t presented with a set of options, frankly I’m rather glad the matter was taken out of my hands altogether. They say that the best way to go is peacefully in your sleep, and it’s certainly the one most people seem to pick. But how can they know? Maybe, at the very point of death, you suffer the most terrible nightmares. You look all peaceful on the surface, but inside something is raging. Maybe that’s what actually kills you. And all the nightmares you ever had as a child, the really big ones you never quite forgot, the ones that left you forever scared of the dark, or of spiders, or of great heights – all the nightmares come back for one last hurrah, and they torment you, and they fill up every inch of your sleeping body and crush your heart.

Really, these days I’m frightened to go to sleep at all. These days I keep the bedside lamp on, the television loud, the windows open wide and cold, anything. Just in case I never wake again.

 *

 The coroner’s report said ‘death by euphemism’, and I thought, how could they have known? And was it even true? If my husband had been able to overcome his embarrassment – if he had more cogently expressed the immediacy with which he needed to relieve himself – would it, really, have made much difference? It wasn’t as if he suffered for much longer, he returned to his seat and his kidneys ruptured and that was it.

But I do wonder whether had the tour guide given him some reason to hope – an assurance that his concerns would be addressed, or that looking for a rest stop would be made a matter of high priority – then it might have given James something to live for. I think the truth was, James just gave up. He was given two options. He could either die, or he could speak forcefully before a large group of strangers about his bladder problems. He went for the easy way out.

Sometimes I get cross with him for that. That after nearly fifty years of marriage I wasn’t worth fighting that little bit harder for. I wasn’t worth that little humiliation.

I mean, had it come to it, he could have dropped his trousers and done his business in front of everyone. He could have pooped right there in the bus aisle,  and yes, it might have embarrassed both of us, but it would have saved his life maybe. I’m sure that’s what the Mediterraneans would have done.

‘Death by euphemism’ seems rather an odd thing to put on a coroner’s report. Unless I read it incorrectly, and it really said, ‘Death by (euphemism)’, as in, ‘Death by (insert euphemism here)’. It’s just possible that the coroner had opened James up and looked at the fatal accumulation of moussaka and vine leaves, and recoiled, and was still trying to find a pleasant way to describe it. Which would be reassuring, because it would suggest that James’ death wasn’t caused by any hesitancy on his part. But only a little reassuring – because we’re then left with this rather squeamish coroner who, like my husband did, shies away from the sloppier parts of life and wants to cover all that up with niceness and obfuscation. Now, I’m all for tactful politeness, but it isn’t what I look for in a coroner. I want someone out there who isn’t afraid to confront death head on, warts and all, and who can express it clinically and without shame. Because if even the coroners are forced to hide behind euphemisms, what chance have the rest of us got? And how awkward, how embarrassing, how cross-your-legs-tight and screw-up-your-eyes appalling must death really be?

Or maybe. The coroner was suggesting that James was killed by a euphemism – but not his euphemism, my own. Because even though I knew my husband was dead, or dying, I didn’t raise the alarm on the bus. There was his body lolling next to me and I chose to ignore it. Instead I read the guide book, I listened to the English bits of the tour commentary, I looked past James’ dead head out of the window at the scenery. And when the passenger across the aisle asked, “Is your husband all right?”, I smiled and said, “He’s just a bit under the weather.” ‘Under the weather’, of course, being a euphemism for ‘dead as a doornail’. I didn’t want to say anything. I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want to interrupt the tour guide, because my husband had already interrupted her once, I didn’t want her to think the elderly British couple sitting near the back were troublemakers. I didn’t say a word, in fact, until the bus had come to a designated shop outside a market selling souvenirs. I spoke up, after everyone else had go off, and said, “I think there’s a slight problem with my husband,” and they took a look at him, the bus driver and the tour guide, and they called for an ambulance.

I didn’t ever get to see Knossos.

 *

 They assured me they’d get James’ body flown home in time for the funeral. I made a joke. I said, “I hope he is home in time, I know he’d hate to miss it!” No one laughed. Perhaps no one understood it? Adam and Marcia took charge of all that, everything to do with the funeral. They were very proper and solemn, and I thought of how adult they’d suddenly become, and how unknowable. They kept on coming to visit me to see if I were all right, Marcia more than Adam, of course, because Adam’s kids are younger. They talk to me about how James was a ‘good man’ and a ‘good father’, as if they’d only barely been introduced.

Of course, it had all been Adam’s fault. James would never have eaten moussaka if we’d been on our usual holiday in Totnes. But Adam did insist, he said, “You should travel the world a bit, you’re not getting any younger, you don’t know how long you’ve got!” He would keep going on about it. One day James found in the local Oxfam a guide book, and it was only going for two pounds fifty, and it was all about the Greek Islands. And once he’d bought that, James had to have the holiday too, the book would have been useless otherwise and James did so hate waste.

The night before the funeral Marcia and her two girls stayed over with me. And I found her outside in the garden, in the dark, late. I asked her what was wrong. Her shoulders kept heaving. She said to me, “I can’t make the tears come out, no matter how hard I try. What’s wrong with me? Am I a bad person?” I said I didn’t know.

During the funeral everyone was very polite. It was said that James Grizzell-Jones had gone to a better place, although I rather doubted that – he’d never been religious when we’d met, and he’d not told me of any new beliefs he might have acquired, that was one of the things he would have found embarrassing to discuss – and besides! where could he have gone to that was better than Crete, the travel agent had told us it was one of the top tourist destinations. They told me that he was a good man, a good father, a good friend, a good husband. They told me that everyone would miss him.

It hadn’t been euphemisms in the beginning, had it? Between Jimmy and me. Back at the start we could hardly keep our hands off each other, he was always pulling me into corners and kissing me, on the mouth, in the mouth! – and sometimes with my parents in the next room! We said we’d know each other for the rest of our lives. And he wasn’t shy, and do you know, I wasn’t shy either, and we’d make love, and we wouldn’t worry about what to call it, we’d just rummage around with all of our bits until it felt good. He wasn’t ashamed of his thingummy then; I wasn’t ashamed of my whatsit. And I wondered, as the vicar droned on, as we stood up to sing a hymn Jimmy wouldn’t have liked, I wondered – when did we let the euphemisms creep in? When did we find the reasons to stop talking? Because once in a while James would say, do you fancy a bit of business this evening? Without even looking at me, he was blushing bright red. We did business a few times, but I never liked the word for it, it sounded so cold and formal – and maybe that’s exactly what it was, maybe the word changed it into something that was cold and formal, I don’t know. And after a while he’d ask if I wanted any business, and I’d say no – I’d say that I had a headache, needed to wash my hair, that I was feeling tired, that I was feeling anything, anything but the truth. And eventually he stopped asking.

Sasha was being noisy. Sasha, that’s Adam’s youngest. Sasha was saying, “But where’s Granddad? Is Granddad in the box?” And Adam and that wife of his were shushing her, they told her to be quiet. Yes, Granddad was in the box, ssh now. “You said he was with the angels! Are the angels in the box?” They didn’t know where the angels were, the angels were waiting for Granddad when he got out of the box. “How can he get out? He’s dead, isn’t he? Isn’t he dead? Isn’t he dead?” My son and that wife blushing to hear the word mentioned, and telling her to shut up, and looking so embarrassed, and trying to find the right phrase that would cover ‘dead’ up and make ‘dead’ all right again – he’s at rest, he’s asleep, he’s at peace now, ssh, he’s in a better place, he’s with the angels in the box, ssh ssh.

And I realised that it is the children who bring on the euphemisms. It’s the children who make us feel awkward, and send us retreating behind soft words and smooth blather. We look at the children, and we know that we’ve made them, and we don’t know how, they’re so fragile, and so very strange, we did it with body parts we no longer will describe in front of them, we did it by methods we’d sooner now do with the lights off, or once a month, or not at all. And we’d do anything to protect them, anything to save them, we don’t fear death for our own sakes, but for them we’ll do everything we can to hide death away where it can’t get them.

“I said, that’s enough!” hissed Adam, and he smacked Sasha hard, and she burst into tears, and he had to take her outside.

I don’t blame anyone for James’ death. These things happen. But if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s Adam’s.

 *

 Oh, I don’t let on. People would think it were odd. That I knew he were already dead, and did nothing. Sometimes I even pretend to myself I didn’t know, just to take away a little of that oddness.

I saw the actual moment he died. He grunted, turned from me towards the window, and sort of slumped. And in a moment he was gone. It didn’t look so bad, it didn’t look so frightening – that’s the sort of death I can live with.

He’d closed his eyes, and I was grateful for that, I could carry on as if he were just sleeping, or shielding himself from the glare of that Mediterranean sun – I wouldn’t have wanted to have closed them myself, that would have felt wrong, my skin crawls at the very thought of touching a dead man’s eyes. But I didn’t mind holding his hand. I took his hand.

And I pointed out bits of the Greek scenery to him. There wasn’t much scenery, we were on a motorway, but I did my best. I chattered about Knossos, all the things we were going to see together. All the things we’d ever see. And I told him I loved him.

“I love you,” I said; the very words, no substitutes, and this time he couldn’t flinch, this time he couldn’t back away, change the subject, leave the room or go and hide in the garden shed. “I love you,” I said, and he was mine now, he couldn’t help but listen; “I know we both thought I’d be the one leaving first, but I think it’s better this way.” It was better this way. His hand was still warm. His bare arm brushing against mine, it had started to tan. “I love you,” I said again. I had run out of ways to say it. I let go of his hand, picked up that old guide book he’d bought.

I’m not saying my husband’s death was a good thing, that I’m glad it happened. But at last the suffering was over. His suffering, my suffering. Same difference.

 *

 It’s not the way I would have chosen for him to go, death by euphemism. And yet, it makes me smile. It’s a mistake, I think, to read too much into the way a person dies, that it in any way sums up the way they lived. James’ death was silly. He was not a silly man. It was therefore an inappropriate death. But he’d had a sense of humour once, hadn’t he? I’m sure of it, I remember it from back in those days of youth and wildness and sex. It’s true, it hadn’t peeped out of him in quite a long time. I am glad, at the very end, that he let it peep out once more in spite of himself.

I was glad it was quick. To save him the need for some long drawn out goodbye. To save him that last embarrassment.

When the doctors said I was dying, James refused to discuss it. Not with the doctors, and certainly not with me. He insisted we mustn’t tell the children. We’d upset them. I said to him, “But they’re going to find out sooner or later, aren’t they?”

Now James is gone I could tell them. I could phone up Marcia right now, and Adam too, I suppose. I haven’t yet. I don’t know why. I might do it tomorrow.

The doctors say I could go off at any time. I shouldn’t be frightened. It could happen in my sleep. I don’t want to die in my sleep.

It’s a mistake, I think, to read too much into the way we die. But sleeping isn’t the way I would choose to go.

I wrote an ad for the personals column in the newspaper. I said that I was a widow with a dicky heart that could give up the ghost at any moment. And that I wanted to die in the arms of a young man. Oh, not in his arms, that’s a euphemism. Not just a young man, either, a stud. I said I wanted to die with a stud’s thingummy jammed high inside my whatsit. I wanted to die better than I’d lived.

I wrote it, rewrote it, replaced all the euphemisms I had put in. The newspaper published it, and put in lots of new euphemisms of their own, I hadn’t even heard of some of them.

No one has called yet. But it’s a big world, and there are lots of people out there. I have faith. I have faith someone will find me in time.

Because – will you excuse me? If I speak bluntly? Because death is a mean-spirited old cunt. And if she’s coming for me, she can catch me with my knickers down.

EDWARD READ

1

Plenty of people said that Edward Read was a handsome baby, but that wasn’t strictly true. Oh, he looked perfectly proportioned at first sight, but if you had to look at him for any length of time – and Mr Read and Mrs Read felt they had a parental obligation to do so – then the defects were really quite pronounced. Edward’s eyes were a little too far apart. His nose was too big, which gave his nostrils the impression they were permanently flared. His lips were thin. He was by no means an ugly baby, he was better than average, Mr and Mrs Read had seen worse. But he wasn’t as handsome as all those people kept telling them, and sometimes that irritated them a bit, and they wished that they’d stop.

But Mr and Mrs Read loved Edward. He was the new centre of their world.

He wasn’t much of a bother. He did what was required of him. He’d feed when it was time to feed, he’d sleep when it was time to sleep, when Mrs Read had to take him on the Thursday supermarket run he’d sigh with weary resignation at the banality of weekly routine and go and wait by the pram. He didn’t poop in his pants much, and seemed to regard the production of faeces as a grim necessity that should be endured not enjoyed. And when he sucked at his mother’s breast he did so very gently, balancing the nipple between both lips with studied care, as if there were something not quite right about all this, as if there were something dirty; he’d take a drink of her milk with cold efficiency and then pull away, his face embarrassed and disdainful, he wanted that tit away from him and put quickly back under wraps before anyone could see.

And he never cried.

Everyone warned them about the crying. Friends with kids. Second time birthers they met at the hospital. Their own parents. Even people who’d never had babies of their own, merely by dint of having been babies once themselves, everyone was an expert. “Baby will like to cry, baby will like to keep you awake all night,” the nurse had told them. “But you mustn’t be cross with Baby. Baby just wants to communicate, the only way he can.”

But, still,  Edward never cried. They wondered if something was wrong. They took him back to the hospital. “You should thank your lucky stars!” a doctor told them genially. “He’s probably just a bit shy.” But the baby never seemed shy, sitting in the centre of the rug, staring at them, silently, and frowning with disapproval. “He’ll start crying when he begins to teeth.” But the teeth were already pushing their way through the gums, Mrs Read could feel them clamp her nipples into place when he wanted to feed. “So long as he’s crying a little bit,” said the doctor, giving up, “he’s crying a little bit, isn’t he, it’s all right so long as he’s crying a little bit.” And Mr and Mrs Read were eager to get out of there and get home, so they said yes, there was nothing really wrong with him, their baby wasn’t damaged, he cried a little bit every once in a while. But he didn’t.

“Why doesn’t our baby want to communicate with us?” Mrs Read asked her husband one night.

Mr Read just shrugged. “Maybe he doesn’t have anything to say.”

But as a rule, Mr and Mrs Read chose not to talk about it. Mr Read would come home from work, and he’d ask Mrs Read what sort of day she’d had, and she’d ask him the same in return. They’d both say, fine. And Mr Read would ask how Edward was. Fine. It was simple that way.

If nothing else, they were grateful Edward let them sleep. Sometimes, in the dead of night, when the house was so still and peaceful, they could pretend they’d never had a child at all.

2

They’d installed a baby monitor by his cot so that any sound Edward made in the night would be immediately transmitted to their bedroom. They’d bought it as part of a joblot with other baby paraphernalia back when Mrs Read was expecting – a pram, some toys, a rattle, little blue pyjamas that looked as if they’d been designed for a doll. They’d made good use of everything else they’d bought, though Edward hadn’t looked overly impressed with the rattle. The baby monitor, though, never made a squeak.

So when it spat into life that night – so suddenly, the noise of a baby shrieking, in what seemed like deathly terror – well, they were surprised, of course, and a bit alarmed, but as they fell out of bed and rushed to the little nursery down the corridor the most overwhelming sensation that either the parents felt was one of relief. Edward, at last, was speaking.

By the time they’d reached the room the shriek had stopped. It had stopped quite abruptly, although at the time neither Mr nor Mrs Read gave that much thought. Edward was awake, his face lit up by a Walt Disney night light, and he looked unperturbed – he stared at his Mummy and Daddy for a few seconds, as if asking them to explain their intrusion, and then turned away from them, turned over on to his back, and fixed his attention to the mobile of circus animals rotating slowly above his head.

They felt they’d been dismissed. And Mr Read stood in the doorway, uncertain, not wanting to come in. Mrs Read felt she should do something – something maternal – she should tuck her baby in tight, she should check his brow to see whether he had a temperature – and she stepped into the room, and went to her son, and it was only then that she saw the body lying beside the cot.

The baby was a little smaller than Edward. Its eyes were open, and stared up at her in what looked like innocent confusion, but then, all babies look innocent, don’t they? It didn’t blink once, and she thought it might be dead, but then perhaps that it was playing a game with her, babies liked playing games, most babies anyway – but still the blink never came, and Mrs Read nudged the body gently with her foot, and, yes, it was dead. She saw the head wasn’t balanced upon the shoulders properly, the neck was twisted. And now that there were marks around the neck, little pressure points flaring red against the baby’s milk skin. There was a thin line of drool coming out of the dead baby’s mouth, welling up into a tiny bubble.

She looked back up to Edward. His chest was heaving, his eyes were closed tight. He had gone back to sleep.

3

Mr and Mrs Read went down to the kitchen, and put the kettle on, and sat together, and talked it through.

“We need to call the police,” said Mrs Read.

“We certainly need to call them,” agreed Mr Read.

Though neither of them did.

“Maybe,” said Mr Read eventually, “it was self-defence.”

Mrs Read laughed at that. She didn’t know where the laugh had come from.

“There’ll be fingerprints all around its neck,” she said. “They’ll know Edward is guilty.”

“They won’t put him in jail,” said Mr Read. “Not at his age. I’d have thought.”

“They’ll say we were bad parents,” said Mrs Read.

It occurred to her they’d just left the dead body up there. They’d left their baby sleeping in a room next to a corpse.

“We’ll bury it,” said Mr Read, suddenly decisive. “In the garden.”

“Do you think so?” said Mrs Read. She liked the idea. She sounded relieved. She just wanted to be sure.

“It won’t take long,” Mr Read pointed out. “It’s only a little baby. It won’t need a very big hole.”

“Edward is only six months old,” said Mrs Read. “We need to give him the best start in life we can. We can’t have him saddled with this, not at his age. We need to be good parents.”

“Exactly.”

“And besides,” she said. “Maybe it was self-defence.”

4

They went back upstairs. Edward was still fast asleep, and he looked so very peaceful. He hadn’t moved at all, he was still lying flat on his back. The other baby hadn’t moved either.

Mrs Read brought with her a plastic bag, a strong one she’d got from the supermarket. The idea was that they’d tip the baby into that, at least then they wouldn’t have to look at it any more. But now that it came to it, she couldn’t bring herself to touch the dead body. Neither could her husband. So he fetched a spade from the garden shed, and he picked it up with that.

In death the baby had already stiffened. Mr Read looked at it curiously. “It doesn’t seem entirely normal, I think it was a bit deformed.” Mrs Read leaned in, in spite of herself. The skull was too small. The legs and arms, both awkward and spindly. And now that Mr Read lifted the body up to the light, they could both see that there was a little stump, just a few inches in length, sticking out from the baby’s stomach. Mrs Read realised it was an umbilical cord, and she hadn’t noticed it before, it must have been lying flat against the skin. Now it had stiffened too, and it was standing erect, hard and unyielding and poking upwards like a drain pipe.

“For God’s sake, just put it in the bag,” Mrs Read said. Mr Read did.

She watched him from the bedroom window as he dug the baby’s grave, as he laid the plastic bag within it gently, as he filled the hole and covered it with topsoil.

5

Neither Mr nor Mrs Read slept very well that night.

They were woken up, far too early, by the clock radio by their bed. Without a word they listened to the news bulletin. There was no mention made of a missing baby.

Mr Read got up, looked into the mirror with bloodshot eyes, sighed.

“Call in sick,” said his wife. “Stay home today.” Stay with me.

 Mr Read said, “We should carry on entirely as normal.”

He drove to work at the usual time.

Mrs Read went into the nursery to see Edward. He seemed to wake as soon as she arrived, as if he were only waiting for his cue.

He wanted breakfast, so she took her breast from out of her nightie. Edward pulled it towards him with two strong little hands, wrapped his mouth around it, and sucked down all the milk he required in four bold gulps. Then he wiped his mouth dry with the back of his sleeve, and pushed the breast aside.

Mrs Read listened to the midday news. Then she phoned her husband.

“There’s still nothing about a baby,” she told him.

“Darling, you mustn’t call me at work.”

“I just wanted you to know.”

It was a Thursday, and on Thursdays Mrs Read would do the supermarket run, so. She took Edward with her. Usually, as a treat, she’d let him sit in the front of the trolley. Today she kept him in his pram, and carried all the groceries in a basket. The shopping was heavy, and the weight of the basket hurt her hand. If Edward realised he was being punished he didn’t seem to care; he surveyed the aisles of breads and cereals and tinned beans with supreme indifference.

There was nothing on the early evening news either.

When her husband got home she told him, “I want Edward to sleep in our room tonight.”

He seemed surprised. “Are you sure?”

“Yes,” she said, although she suddenly realised she didn’t want Edward anywhere near her, what she really wanted was that he stayed in his nursery and they locked him in, she knew she’d never sleep peacefully with her son so close to her in the dark.

They moved Edward’s cot to the end of their bed, and his Walt Disney night light, and his mobile of circus animals too. They put him to bed at about seven o’clock. They ate their dinner. She tried not to talk about babies. He obliged her by not talking about babies either. Most of the meal was spent in silence.

“I’m tired,” he said, and yawned.

“You must be.” It was the only intimation either of them made to the events of the night before. That far, and no further.

So they went to bed early. They got undressed carefully, so as not to disturb Edward. He whispered good night to her, and she whispered good night back, and they kissed just the once, and she turned out the bedside lamp.

He went to sleep straight away. She thought the night light would keep her awake, but there was something so comforting about it, and the way that as the mobile turned she could see all the little animals shining one by one – a tiger, a lion, an elephant.

She must have dozed – because there was a noise that woke her up, something light, something skittering across the floor and then up, up on to the cot. Its wooden frame creaked, the mobile was sent spinning chaotically. And she saw it – it was no bigger than a monkey, and it had a monkey tail, and it was staring down at her sleeping child.

Mrs Read shook her husband awake. “Look,” she whispered.

And at that the little monkey lifted its face and looked at her. And it was a baby, of course it was a baby – and it seemed to recognise her, and its face positively lit up, and it beamed at her, that little face shone out with such unquestioning love. It was her baby. She knew that in an instant. It was her baby, it was hers – it belonged to her, she knew it, and the baby did too.

Mr Read began to climb out of bed. She stopped him, held him by the arm.

Like the last baby, it didn’t look quite right. It hadn’t properly developed. The head was far too small, it sat upon those shoulders like a growth. She could see that gripping on to the bars of the cot there were fingers and things that weren’t quite fingers yet, just knuckles, little else. But it didn’t have a tail. It had another umbilical cord, but it was a full one this time, long and majestic, and twice the length of the baby’s body, and drooping behind it like a dead weight.

And the baby cried at her. Not a wail, not a scream; an acknowledgement, an introduction, a wave hello.

That little cry was the mistake. It was all Edward needed, and now he was awake, and alert, and his hand reached up strong and clasped itself around the intruder’s throat. The baby gave a gulp of surprise that was almost comical, and it had a second to flash of look of quizzical concern at Mrs Read. Then it was pulled down into the cot.

Mrs Read tried to go to it, tried to help, but she felt something stopping her, and she turned to look, and it was her husband, this time it was her husband pulling her back. “Just wait,” he said.

There were screams coming from the cot now, but none of them were Edward’s; Edward fought with a ferocity that was calm and quite unemotional. He punched the baby once, twice, three times in the face – there was a crack, and the nose was broken, and Mrs Read saw a little spray of blood. And then Edward grabbed hold of the umbilical cord, and wrapped it around the baby’s neck, looping it a couple of times, all the while the baby looking stunned and even now doing nothing to defend itself, only reaching up to its crushed nose in wonder – and then Edward pulled, and the baby gagged, and Edward pulled even tighter, and the baby’s face seemed to swell like a balloon, bulging eyes, flailing legs, jazz hands, and Edward throttled the life out of it.

“No!” said Mrs Read, and she shook her husband off. But she didn’t get out of bed. And she did nothing to help, and she saw the baby give up the fight and stop struggling and die. Only then did Edward let go.

“He’s only doing what is natural,” said Mr Read. “He’s defending his territory. It’s what boys have to do, you wouldn’t understand.”

She had nothing to say to that. Her husband clearly expected a response. He didn’t get one. He sighed with resignation.

“I’ll go and get the spade,” he said.

6

They moved Edward and his cot back to the nursery after that.

7

The baby monitor woke them up most nights. “Well,” said Mr Read, “we were warned we might not get much sleep!” He was trying to make the best of it, she knew that. He was trying not to let his exhaustion make him irritable. She hated him a little for that.

And whenever Edward disturbed them, her husband would be the one who’d deal with it. At one point he said, “You know, maybe we should set up some sort of rota?” And she glared at him so forcefully that he never brought up the matter again.

Edward still never cried. Her husband would go to work, and she’d have to spend the day looking after him, feeding him, helping him get big and strong.

“I don’t think this will go on for much longer,” Mr Read dared confide to her one day. “The babies who come to challenge him, they’re all getting smaller and weaker. Eddie can polish them off, no problem.” She got up one night to see. “What are you doing here, darling?” Mr Read said, gently. “You go back to bed.” There they were, the two of them, father and son, and it looked as if they’d bonded over something, and she’d interrupted some private joke – and they were hiding the dead body from her, her husband had turned the spade away so she couldn’t see.

When she’d been pregnant, Mrs Read had wanted to be the perfect mother. She’d read any book on the subject she could get her hands on, and there were so many books, she thought there might be one book out there per child. The perfect mother, she’d held on to that through all the stomach aches and the sickness – and then out had come Edward, all red and new, and utterly silent, and the doctor had snipped off the cord that had tied him to her, and held him up to smack his bottom to get him to start crying, and the crying had never started. The doctor had shrugged. “Oh well,” he’d said.

She’d read all those books, and she knew that to make a foetus some forty million sperm compete for the attentions of one single egg. All of them racing up the uterus, with only one possible winner. All of us, everyone alive today, anyone who has ever lived – we were all champion athletes once.

She wondered if Edward had cheated.

One day at breakfast Edward had coughed, and cleared his throat, and then said, very clearly and slowly, “Daddy.” And Mr Read had turned to his wife, and he was starting to cry, his eyes were shining with joy.

That same afternoon she went into the back garden with the spade, and she dug up the most recent pretender to her son’s crown. She opened up the supermarket bag, and looked at the body inside, so weak and malformed it had never stood a chance.

8

“It just doesn’t seem a fair fight,” she said.

Edward sat on the carpet between them, flexing the biceps of his right arm.

“Well, no,” Mr Read said. “No, it isn’t. I mean, Edward has really toughened up a lot recently. Realistically, those little babies don’t stand a chance against him now. Realistically, I don’t know why they all just don’t give up and go home!”

Because this is their home, you idiot. He laughed at his joke anyway, and Edward smiled cruelly with those thin lips of his, he liked it when his Daddy laughed.

“It just doesn’t seem fair,” she said again. “I think it should be more fair.”

“What? Why?”

What are we teaching our son? She wanted to say. What are we teaching him, but that might is right? We’re teaching him to be a bully and a thug. We’re teaching him to be a monster. She didn’t bother. She just said, “Tonight, I want you to even up the odds a bit.”

Mr Read laughed again, Edward even gave a dry chuckle.

“I want you to tie one arm behind his back.”

“Dear oh dear!”

“Just one arm. It doesn’t have to be his good arm.”

“Too funny!”

“I want you to make it tight, so he can’t get free. And it isn’t fucking funny.”

He stopped laughing. Edward didn’t notice, or didn’t care, he carried on with his chuckles anyway.

“I don’t think I love you any more,” she said. “You, or him. I can’t stand this fucking family we’ve become.”

He didn’t say a word.

“I think I want to leave you, I think. I think I want you out of my life, I think, It’s me or him.”

Still not talking to her, just like his son.

“This isn’t what I wanted it to be,” she said. “And I’m so tired.”

He nodded at that, at least. “I know.” He looked as if he might be about to say something else, but he didn’t.

They watched television for a while. At seven o’clock Mr Read got to his feet, and said quietly, “I’ll take Eddie to bed.” She didn’t reply, didn’t even look at him, just bore her eyes into the TV commercials until they hurt.

Mr and Mrs Read went to bed a few hours later. Under the sheets his pyjamas brushed against her and she flinched.

When the baby monitor woke them up, he said, “I’ll go, you don’t have to see this.”

“No,” she said. “No, I’m coming.”

For once the scream still sounded as they reached the nursery. A strange little baby was giving a victory cry. His face was featureless like putty. His limbs barely more than stumps. He raised the stumps in some sort of jubilation, tipped over the umbilical cord that was coiled fat around his body like a cobra, fell down.

Edward was dead. His body was hanging from the mobile. It was too heavy for it, and had all but pulled it down from the ceiling; the animals could no longer rotate, the lions and elephants looked confused.

Mrs Read saw that both of the child’s arms were tied behind his back.

Mr Read said, “I love you. I love you. Please. Don’t leave me.”

9

Mr Read didn’t want to bury his son in a supermarket bag, and he didn’t think he had one that was big enough for him anyway, and he didn’t know what to do – and by the time he’d returned to the nursery with his spade the body of his baby boy had vanished, as if it had never been there.

10

 She wondered how to explain it, why her baby had changed appearance so radically. But no one seemed to remember the old Edward. They all thought she was a very brave mother, coping with a child who had such deformities. They wondered whether she’d had the measles or the mumps when she was pregnant, or whether she’d smoked, or taken drugs, whether was an alcoholic – whether, frankly, there was just something wrong with her insides. They all thanked God they’d never had a baby like hers, would they have loved it, could they have? No one ever said he was a handsome child.

Edward cried a lot in the night. He cried for years. His screams were very loud. They didn’t need a baby monitor to hear them.

At kindergarten the other children would keep away from Edward, and when she’d pick him up to take him home he was usually howling with tears.

At primary school the other children began to beat him up. And as they grew taller so Edward seemed to shrink, as if the extra weight he put on was pushing him downwards somehow.

He learned to fight back.

One day, when Edward was about six years old, his mother caught him outside in the street playing with a stray cat. He’d got it trapped under a box, and it was spitting and snarling. He was trying to set light to its tail with matches, he’d managed to get the tail free from the box, he was holding it fast with one hand whilst trying to strike matches with the other. Mrs Read took the matches from him, shouted at him, and he just stared at her without understanding. The cat had been smaller than him and weaker than him. Edward’s arms and face were covered with scratch marks, he was bleeding all over, and he didn’t care.

When he was eight he joined a gang. He told his parents that with some pride, and they thought at first he meant some after-school group, that at last he’d made some friends. No, he’d joined a gang – teenagers mostly, but some even older than that, and they’d walk around the town at night swearing and drinking and kicking over road signs. They called Edward ‘gargoyle’ and ‘dwarf’, they said he was their mascot.

“I love you,” she said to her son once. She actually held on to him, put her arms tightly around him, so he couldn’t get free. “I love you so much!” she said. He wriggled, he kicked, he shouted at her to piss off.

His father lost his temper with him once. He grabbed hold of him, pushed him hard against the wall, told him he was going to punch his lights out. Edward looked frightened, but also exhilarated. Later that day Mr Read tried to apologise, and Edward laughed at him. But from that point on he seemed still to have some respect for his dad. For his mum, he had none.

He had been expelled from his first school. The second was harder, they promised they wouldn’t let him off so easily. But Edward didn’t go to school very often.

Mr Read would come home from work, and he’d ask Mrs Read what sort of day she’d had, and she’d ask him the same in return. Fine, they’d both say, fine. And Mr Read might ask how Edward was. Fine. It was simpler that way.

She wondered whether her husband even remembered their other son, but she didn’t like to ask.

11

 One day he was waiting for her in the kitchen. She didn’t recognise him for a moment. She thought he was very handsome. And then she looked a bit more closely, and she saw that his eyes were too far apart, she saw his big nose and the thin lips.

He was fifteen now, maybe? Yes, that would be right. He was smart. He wore a blazer and a tie, he looked posh.

“How did you get in here?” she asked.

“Hello, mum.”

“Don’t call me that.”

“What should I call you?”

So she told him her proper name, and his eyebrows raised, he’d obviously never even guessed.

It was easier to talk to him if he used her name. No one used her name any more. Her husband called her ‘darling’, her son might sometimes call her ‘mum’, for the school counsellors and policemen she was always ‘Mrs Read’.

She made them both a cup of tea. He thanked her.

She told him family news. His grandfather had died, and his aunt Beryl had run off with someone. He’d met them both, did he remember? No, he didn’t.

He told her what he wanted to be when he grew up. He was going to be a lawyer, one of the nice lawyers, he only wanted to do good in the world. And his eyes were too far apart, and his nostrils seemed to flare in contempt, and he spoke through such cruel thin lips, and she didn’t believe a word of it.

She told him how very lonely she’d become. And she hadn’t even realised until she thought to say it.

“I could come back, you know,” he said.

“No.”

“I could be your son.”

“I have a son.”

“I could be a better son.”

“No. Go away. Go away. I have a son. Do you hear me? I never want to see you again. Go away. Go away.” And he nodded at that, and smiled a little, and she wondered whether he was going to do what she asked, or whether he was just humouring her.

He left.

Her husband came home an hour or so later. “How was your day?” “How was your day?” “Fine.” “Fine.” “How’s Edward?” “Fine. You just missed him.”

 12

 They were both alone in the house that night. Edward hadn’t come home. No doubt he’d stagger in later, drunk, or worse; or there’d be a phone call to tell them he was in trouble again. But for the time being they were on their own.

They went to bed, and lay next to each other in the dark.

It was so quiet.

And she began to cry. And so as not to disturb the silence, she did so as softly as possible.

“Hey,” he said. “Hey.” And he moved closer towards her.

She held on to him.

She remembered what she’d said to her son. How lonely she felt.

“Hey,” he said. “We’re all right, aren’t we?”

And she kissed him then. Properly, on the lips. She hadn’t done that for a while. He didn’t respond at first, it was very dark in there, and she might have been aiming for his forehead and missed. But she kissed him again, they were kissing.

“Make love to me,” she said. “Please.”

“Are you sure…?”

“Yes.”

He kissed her again, a bit more forcefully, and she wasn’t sure at first whether she liked it, and then decided that she did. He turned on the bedside lamp, and she saw this middle-aged man, old before his time, fat and sad and dull.

“No,” she said.

“I’m going to find a…”

“No,” she said. “Turn the light off. Make love to me in the dark. Let’s make another baby.”

He didn’t turn the light off.

“Are you sure?” he asked again. “Because, darling, we’re neither as young as we were.”

“I know.”

“And maybe. Maybe it won’t come out right.”

“Then we’ll love it anyway.” Or we won’t. But let’s wait and see. Can’t we just wait and see?

He turned off the bedside lamp, and kissed her again, and they made love, and it was a little better than she’d remembered, and when he shot forty million sperm into her she let out a cry into the dark.

PAUL LINDBLAD

HER:               Well. Well, here we are again.

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               Together again, united. At the end of the day, at the end of our individually long and wearying days.

HIM:               Yes.

HER:               Together again in the bedroom.

(Short pause)

Yes. Can I open my eyes now?

HIM:               You can open your eyes whenever you want to.

HER:               Yes, but is it the right time?

HIM:               It really isn’t desperately important…

HER:               Are you ready to give me the present? Ready enough for me to open my eyes?

HIM:                You can always open your eyes. I never suggested you should close your eyes…

HER:               Of course I have to close my eyes! You’re giving me a present.

HIM:                In fact, I would really rather you hadn’t closed your eyes. Here I am, clutching this present. In front of me stands my wife, boring me down with her eyelids.

HER:               Oh, so it’s a present you can clutch, is it?

HIM:                … Yes.

HER:               Oh, how fascinating! A clutchable present. I can’t wait to find out what it is…

HIM:                Well, why don’t you simply open your eyes then, you stupid woman?

(Short pause)

HER:               Right. Well, here goes… Are you ready?

HIM:                Yes, yes, get on with it…

HER:               I’m opening them now… Oh, darling!! You shouldn’t have…

HIM:                You like it?

HER:               You really, really shouldn’t have. You naughty little man…

HIM:                No, quite, I shouldn’t have, but do you like it?

HER:               What exactly is it?

(Short pause)

HIM:                Well… I don’t know… it’s a bit of fur, isn’t it?

HER:               Yes, yes, but where does it go?

HIM:                Oh, I don’t know…

HER:               I mean, it’s not very big…

HIM:                You wrap it around one of your hands or something, I don’t know.

(Short pause)

HER:               Well, it’s lovely, lovely.

HIM:                So you like it.

HER:               I think it’s gorgeous.

HIM:                Well, good.

HER:               And getting me a present like that. Out of the blue.

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               You just bought it to say that you love me.

HIM:                Mmmm.

HER:               That was the idea, was it?

HIM:                Mmmm.

HER:               You were trying to say that you love me?

HIM:                Mm.

HER:               That you love me. Say it, darling.

HIM:                That I love you, yes.

HER:               And again.

HIM:                I love you.

HER:               One more time, with feeling.

HIM:                I love you.

HER:               Which is lovely, lovely, of you. Buying me a bit of fur just to tell me that you love me. But, you know, you can just say you love me if you want to say you love me. Just the words, “I love you,”  you can make it as simple as that. You don’t have to buy me a tiny scrap of fur, so tiny I have no idea what to do with it. You shouldn’t have. You really shouldn’t have.

HIM:                No, you’re right. I shouldn’t have.

(Short pause)

HER:               Lovely. Well, time to get into bed, I think.

HIM:                Sure.

HER:               First, I’ll just drape this bit of fur here…

HIM:                Over the bedside table…

HER:               That’s right, where I can be absolutely certain I won’t lose it… Good. Good, that’s good. And now I think we’re ready for bed. Mmmm, that’s nice, isn’t it?

HIM:                What?

HER:               Nice and comfy, isn’t it?

HIM:                Well, I suppose.

HER:               Nice and comfy and lovely, lovely, after our individually long and wearying days. Would you massage me now, please?

HIM:                Yes, all right.

HER:               Massage my back. And my neck.

HIM:                Turn around.

HER:               Good. Start gently, very gently indeed, in the small of my back… Oh! You’ve cut your fingernails!

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               Why did you cut your fingernails? You’ve cut them right down to the skin!

HIM :               Well, sometimes, my dear, sometimes the dirt that gathers there gets a little too difficult to remove. The dirt gets stuck to the underside of the nail. Squashed hard against it. And it’s like a cancer, the dirt will grow, and then it’ll spread, the dirt will pour out from under the nail and over the skin and over everything, stinking like shit and disease. You see, my love. My love. And nothing but a full scale removal of that nail is going to do anything about it.

(Short pause)

HER:               I preferred it when your nails were longer.

HIM:                So I gather.

HER:               Could you move a little higher up, please? It’s getting a little too warm where you’re rubbing…

HIM:                Right.

HER:               I don’t want to start sweating or anything. You know how much I hate sweat.

HIM:                I do.

HER:               It’s like the body is just leaking, isn’t it?

HIM:                I have another surprise for you.

HER:               Another present?

HIM:                If you like.

HER:               Is this bit of fur going to be bigger than the last bit?

HIM:                No more fur. This present is going to be a story.

HER:               But you never tell me stories.

HIM:                This time I shall.

HER:               You say that when you’re massaging my body you need all the grim determination you can muster. You never even want to speak to me, to acknowledge me at all, let alone tell me a story. Lovely, lovely. Are you ready to start the story yet? Tell me when you’re going to start, so I can close my eyes.

HIM:                You don’t have to close your eyes.

HER:               Don’t be silly. You’re about to tell me a story. You can’t listen to a story with your eyes open.

(Short pause)

HIM:               Well, I’m starting now.

HER:               Right… And clossse… There!

HIM:                Good.

HER:               I’m ready.

HIM:                So I can see.

HER:               And massage in a different place now, for Christ’s sake. The sweat’s drenching me.

(Short pause)

HIM:                There was once a man walking in a park. It was his lunch hour during a long and wearying day. He always decided to walk in the park during the lunch hour, because it always seemed more real to him than the office, as if he were closer to nature. Not that it was the job which bothered him. From dawn to dusk the man would think of nothing but his wife.

HER:               That’s lovely…

HIM:                He remembered that he had once been miserable, growing increasingly aware that the love he had felt for her was fading, and that whatever desperate attempt he made to revitalise it always smacked of that desperation. But the actual misery by this time had passed, because his love for her had now faded so completely, that he found it impossible to believe that he had ever been in love with her at all. Yet he thought of her continually. He thought of the inevitability that he would have to see her that evening, and was sickened to his heart when there was every reason to believe that he would see her the following evening as well. And she was in his head all the time, and he could only think of her and how much he honestly, genuinely loathed her.

HER:               Mmm. Rub a little firmer. Tell me more about this man. What was his name?

HIM:                I don’t know, he didn’t have one.

HER:               Everyone has a name.

HIM:                All right. His name was Paul Lindblad.

HER:               That’s a funny name.

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               Hang on. That’s your name, darling.

HIM:                So it is. It’s a coincidence.

HER:               Did he have any children?

HIM:                No. His wife had never wanted any. That had used to upset him, but now he was relieved. Because he was only too aware of the risk the children could have ended up like their mother, or, more horrifically, some perverse amalgam of both him and their mother, an amalgam of such contradictions that it would break the laws of science.

HER:               What did he look like?

HIM:                Well, let’s say, he looks extraordinarily like me.

  (Short pause)

HER:               Mmmm. All right. I think… I think I can just about picture him…

HIM:                Well, good. That’s very imaginative of you, darling.

(Short pause)

And every day I will go and look at the squirrels. Today I looked at one particular squirrel. It was on a branch, and looked straight at me, and I looked straight back and refused to blink. And I have no idea whether that impressed him or not. It was so proud, and it defied me as it sat there. Untarnished by humanity. Come on, it said, come on, it seemed to say, despoil me then. Its little tail languidly swept over the bark; its little eyes darted, but only with a show of supreme unconcern for my presence. Its little head was separated from its little body only by a little neck. I think… I think it was quite a thin neck…

HER:               Would you do my neck now, please?

HIM:                I backed away slowly, and gently, oh ever so gently, reached into my bag to pull out a slice of white bread. I chose white because it shone better in the sunlight… and today, there was indeed sunlight, though greened and browned maybe by the trees all around. There was plenty of sunlight, and the squirrel tensed as I brought the square of food into it. I could see it quite clearly tense, though always looking at me. Its eyes wide open.

HER:               My neck. I said, my neck.

HIM:                Its large eyes never leaving mine.

(Short pause)

Now, when you feed squirrels, which is something I do a lot, it is never wise to attempt to feed them with acorns. They probably have quite a nice supply already and are too untrusting to risk themselves to take one more. I could see out of the corner of my eye another squirrel, at another tree, threading its way up and down the tree, collecting acorns, taking them up into the branches, coming back down the tree again. But it could only be out of the corner of my eye, because I knew that I could not risk losing contact with this squirrel, what I already thought of as my squirrel… And the man, Paul, that is,  thought back to his wife as he held the white bread and he held the squirrel’s attention and he considered how much better it was to build a relationship with this squirrel, which though untrusting, at least was silent and kept its distance. It is useless, of course, to coax a squirrel over towards you, holding your scrap of white bread between forefinger and thumb. That is what the fools of the park were doing, the fat joggers taking a breather, the young children and the old idiots. When I use bread, I always throw a scrap at the base of the tree and make a gentle but swift retreat so that the squirrel can procure the food without feeling threatened. I did this.

HER:               A different part of my neck, please. That bit’s getting sweaty.

HIM:                And I was able to see the squirrel on the next tree, still finding acorns, climbing the tree, and storing acorns among the branches. Time after time. Indefatigable.

HER:               Mmm.

HIM:                But my squirrel… I watched him first eye me, then the bread. Then, cautiously, ever so cautiously, it came down the side of the tree, round and round like a helter-skelter… And reaching the grass, it took the bread chunk which was as big as its head and devoured it quickly, before escaping back to the relative security of the tree… And the squirrel in the other tree, back and forth up and down his tree, with his acorns… I approached the tree once more, my squirrel’s tree, and its ears seemed to prick up in anticipation of more food, its eyes scrutinising me, but its tail moving back and forth proudly, as if in contempt for my attempts to buy its friendship. And the squirrel in the next tree, the one collecting acorns, I could still see it out of the corner of my eye, finding these acorns, storing these acorns, and back and forth, back and forth up and down its tree with them…

(Short pause)

So. Are you enjoying this story?

HER:               I’m enjoying the massage.

HIM:                Really?

HER:               Although you are making my skin sweaty and I prefer sharper fingernails. Are you taking a break for a minute?

HIM:                I thought I might.

HER:               Does that mean I can open my eyes now?

HIM:                Of course you can open your eyes. You could always have opened your eyes.

HER:               I’m a little confused. There are two squirrels…

HIM:                Yes…

HER:               The one eating bread and the one eating acorns…

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               Hmm. Couldn’t you call them Squirrel A and Squirrel B?

HIM:                No, I really don’t think I could.

HER:               Oh.

HIM:                If I descend to such banality as that, I really don’t think I could live with myself afterwards.

HER:               Well, all right.

HIM:                And I was rather counting on being able to live with at least somebody.

HER:               I don’t see any reason why you should have stopped massaging.

HIM:                Sorry. The neck?

HER:               Yes. So there are these two squirrels and there’s a man with your name…

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               Does he still look extraordinarily like you?

HIM:                More so by the minute, I assure you.

HER:               And there are no other characters?

HIM:                Oh, well, there’s the woman. Haven’t I mentioned the woman?

HER:               No.

HIM:                Well, there’s a woman.

HER:               What woman? Where did you meet a woman?

HIM:                Close your eyes and I’ll tell you.

(Short pause)

And as Paul Lindblad stood there, feeding the squirrel, he still thought of his wife, and how much happier he was with the beasts of the park. Behind him there stood a woman.

HER:               What was her name?

HIM:                Ssh. He didn’t know her name. All he knew was that she was tall, because she cast a shadow in front of him. He turned around and looked at her. She was dressed from top to toe in fur. Even her deep brown hair ­for she had deep brown hair – deep brown beautiful hair – even her deep brown hair looked like fur, so that it merged with the furs she was wearing and Paul Lindblad could not tell where the hair ended and the furs began.

HER:               She must have been very hot and sweaty.

HIM:                But she wasn’t hot and sweaty. And, don’t you see, she wasn’t beneath those furs, she was of those furs, and those furs seemed a part of her. I could see that her skin was cool and dry. Smooth, though, not a rough dryness. There was no sweat at all. Neither on her forehead, nor on her hands which half poked out to exposure. She had long fingernails, and I could see that even these fingernails were cool, they were painted red, but the red was a cool red…

HER:               I hate long fingernails…

HIM:                From between her long, cool fingers appeared a cigarette. I approached and lit it for her.

HER:               Why did you do that?

HIM:                Why not?

HER:               You never light my cigarette.

HIM:                You don’t smoke.

HER:               You wouldn’t if I did.

HIM:                She breathed her thanks to me through a haze of cloud.

HER:               Who was this woman? What was her name?

HIM:                I told you, I don’t know her name. Maybe she didn’t have a name.

HER:               Everyone has a name. What was she doing in the park? What was she doing there?

HIM:                Enjoying herself. Watching the squirrels. And as Paul Lindblad looked at her, as Paul Lindblad admired her cool fingernails and her deep, deep, deep brown hair, he thought of his own wife who sweated neat salt every time he rubbed her skin.

(Short pause)

I thought you said you were going to close your eyes.

HER:               I don’t have to.

HIM:                Quite right. Keep them open.

HER:               I shan’t. I’ll close them.

  (Short pause)

HIM:                Paul Lindblad could feel the coolness of her long, long shadow on him as he faced his squirrel again, as he began to throw more bread at the foot of the trunk. After a while, maybe five or six such feedings, I tried to approach the squirrel. As soon as I had taken a step forward, the squirrel had abandoned the bread, scurried back into the branches. I cursed myself silently for my impatience. The squirrel stared back at me from the safety of the foliage, and I could see his dark eye caught in the green sunlight. It was a proud eye, unblinking. I looked back at the woman, but she gave no signs either of encouragement or discouragement. I retreated a good thirty yards, and began throwing the bread to the grass. The squirrel eyed me angrily, made no movement at all towards the white specks beneath it. I stood rigidly, silently, oh, for a good two or three minutes. Maybe more. I could feel on my back the shadow of the woman as she watched, I could see that other squirrel hard at work collecting acorns out of the corner of my eye, but I didn’t move my head at all, I tried not to move my eyes. I could see that the squirrel diverted its focus from me to the bread beneath it, but still, still it refused to budge. Paul Lindblad counted softly in his head, but he began to despair that the squirrel would ever move at all, and, to his horror, the image of his wife, which he had succeeded in keeping to the back of his mind during this adventure, that image began to occupy his thoughts once more. And, and just as I was about to give up hope, with what joy, with what carefully muted joy I watched as the squirrel raced to the bottom of the tree, took the bread, and sped back up into the branches. It sat there, munching the food, staring at me sulkily. And, out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the shadow of the woman had never moved, and I could practically smell her coolness on the back of my neck. And, out of the corner of my other eye, I was going practically cross-eyed by this point, I could see the other squirrel, still tirelessly finding acorns and taking them to his store. Again and again and again.

(Short pause)

Don’t you ever feel that your life is simply going round in circles?

HER:               Rub a little firmer.

HIM:                No, not circles, not really circles…

HER:               I don’t know what you mean. Above the shoulders now, please.

HIM:                The sense, don’t you ever get the sense that everything you’re doing in life you’ve already done before? And, what’s more, have already done better? Don’t you ever feel that everything that you do has already been done before, and that you’ve already done it better, and that even when you’d done it the best, even then, that someone else had already done it better than that, and that, what is more, that the person who’d done it better than your best hadn’t had to push himself to do it his best?

HER:               I don’t know what you mean.

HIM:                Don’t you ever feel envious, actually envious of people whose lives do go round in circles, because you feel that your own life is only treading back and forward measuring out a particularly small straight line? Don’t you ever feel like that?

(Short pause)

HER:               I preferred it when your fingernails were longer.

HIM:                Don’t you ever feel like that, my love?

HER:               No.

(Short pause)

HIM:                And Paul Lindblad… as Paul Lindblad looked at that squirrel, the worker squirrel, Squirrel B as you would have him called… he envied him his life that went round in circles. He waited… I waited a good half an hour before I dared approach the squirrel again. The woman waited, patiently. The shadow never wavered. Whenever I turned to look at her, she was somehow always breathing out smoke through her nostrils and mouth, though I never caught her inhaling… This time the squirrel tensed as I edged slowly towards it, throwing pieces of bread near it – near it, but never at it – all the while, all the while as I put distance between myself and the shadow, all the while as my still sharp fingernails broke off chunks of bread. The squirrel retreated up the side of the tree, but not nearly as far as it had done before, and watched greedily as I threw bread piece after bread piece to the ground. I did this at the other side of the tree as well, so that it was surrounded by the food, and while I was occupied there, it began to feed on the opposite side. When I encircled the tree, it ran around to the side from which I had just come. I continued walking around its circumference always catching sight of the squirrel’s tail as it darted in front of me. As if we were playing a ridiculous game of follow-my-leader. And I think it too sensed how ridiculous this was. And as I dropped bread, as I walked in circles, always in circles, every time I rounded the tree, I would see standing in the distance a tall woman dressed wholly in fur, followed by a squirrel ever gathering acorns … And then… And then my squirrel stopped… it stayed on my side of the tree…

(Short pause)

Still massage your shoulders?

HER:               Yes, please…

HIM:                But it’s your neck which seems most tense… But even now, you see, standing so close to the animal, I still wasn’t its friend, I still wasn’t trusted. I knew that I must not try yet to stroke it. Instead I threw pieces of bread at my feet, and waited to see whether it would feed so close to me. But it ignored the food. It ignored the bread altogether, and I began to think that maybe it didn’t care about eating so much after all, and… and I wondered whether really… whether it was really interested in me… Claws in tree, head cocked, it looked at me… We looked directly into each other’s eyes. What it saw… well, I can’t say… but it continued to search, and for my part, I saw a pool of blackness. Shining blackness, where the sunlight caught it. It was not a blackness of void, you understand… there was something there… I don’t know, something. It probably was nothing very profound. But I seemed I thought to be drowning in this pool… and I saw all the fear finally quelled in those eyes. And all the pride… And I thought, and I think, that maybe the squirrel began a little to love me. To love me, really. And the eyes continued to burn in mine. For my part, I had to concentrate hard not to blink. A blink itched. I must not blink. I must not blink… I did not blink. Tell me… tell me, my love… are your eyes closed?

HER:               Of course my eyes are closed.

HIM:                Of course your eyes are closed.

HER:               You’re telling me a story.

HIM:                Yes. I’m telling you a story… And we stayed there, both of us, playing this preposterous game. And Paul Lindblad wished, so much wished, so dearly wished, that he could forget all about his wife, about her emptiness, her pointlessness, but even then… Yes, even then. But I could only see those harsh, pensive eyes and sense the heavy breathing which shook the fur which encased them… and, for the life of me, I don’t know… don’t know whether the breathing was mine or the squirrel’s … and we stared, stayed like that, for I don’t know how long. And I knew that the woman would wait, and that the other squirrel would gather his acorns… Those eyes. Those eyes! How such a tiny creature can have such large eyes! How such a big animal as myself can outstare them! And as it quivered, so I am certain I did too… rippling… And then… then I took a piece of bread and held it with shaking hand… There was a moment and then… it leaned forward nervously, sniffed it, and then, when it was satisfied, began to nibble. Its teeth never touched me. I took a second piece, then a third, and it began to nibble less cautiously.

(Short pause)

I stretched out my hand… actually stretched it out, I could feel it stretching… It closed its eyes as my hands touched its fur, deep deep brown, closed its eyes for the first time… deep… if it could have purred… It hanged there on the tree trunk… A few claws flexed, but it did not fall, just slowly unfastened itself as it relaxed…

HER:               Please, a little firmer…

HIM:                And I knew it loved me, that it actually loved me…

HER:               Lovely, lovely…

HIM:                And I stroked more deeply, deep deep brown, my fingers lost in his fur. The eyes remained closed… I like to think in ecstasy. I like to think in love…

HER:               I love you, darling…

HIM:                I stroked its head with the back of my hand, my fingers explored the smoothness of his chin, and it was smooth…

HER:               I love you…

HIM:                And surprisingly cool, seducing it with my sharp fingernails, my long fingernails… it responded, oh God yes, it responded! With heaving of the chest, first slow, then quicker…

HER:               I said I’m in love…

HIM:                Yes, yes, quite, I know what you said…

HER:               Rub me a little firmer…

HIM:                And I plunged my fingernails into its throat. I put my other hand around the back of the neck and squeezed slowly until I heard just a little crack… And, do you know, it still loved me, it made no resistance, swaying on the branch like a drunkard, and its little chest was still heaving rhythmically and violently as we reached climax. I let it topple into the leaves below, and I was surprised at how much blood I had drawn. And Paul Lindblad was surprised at how dry the blood felt. Its eyes stared up at me. The sunlight caught them again, but they were no longer shining. Greened a little by the foliage, maybe.

(Short pause)

HER:               You can stop massaging me now, I think.

(Pause)

                         I said you can stop massaging me. I said… No. No. Stop. Yes. Thank you.

HIM:                You’re welcome.

HER:               And this fur… this fur was…

(Short pause)

Well, I…

(Short pause)

Well, I think that’s lovely. Lovely, lovely. And this fur was once… living… and now, now you killed it because you wanted to show how much you loved me. You wanted to show me that. You wanted to tell me that you love me. Out of the blue. Didn’t you, darling? Darling? Didn’t you?

(Short pause)

Thank you. I love you.

HIM:                … Yes. That fur isn’t the squirrel.

HER:               It isn’t?

HIM:                No.

HER:               Oh.

HIM:                And Paul Lindblad walked up to the woman who stood all the while, waiting, breathing smoke into the air in steady, unhurried streams… And he offered her the squirrel. He offered the woman of fur the squirrel. And just as suddenly as it had appeared, her cigarette vanished because there wasn’t room even amongst her long, cool fingers to hold both. And she breathed thank you to him, and somehow she still breathed it through a cloud of smoke. Is there anything she could give him in return? And she offered all the fur she had on her. And he said no. He didn’t need that much fur. Just a little bit of fur. Just the smallest bit of fur, really, the smallest she had. Because any more fur and his wife would get all hot and sweaty. Just a pathetic amount of fur, that’s all his wife deserved. And she smiled and gave him the fur you see there, before you. Draped on the bedside table. And when they shook goodbye, he realised just how cool her hands really were, and how sharp her long, red fingernails were as they glided over his palms.

(Short pause)

HER:               I don’t… I don’t quite see…

HIM:                Well, no, love. Of course not. Your eyes are closed, aren’t they … ? And Paul Lindblad turned round to look at the other squirrel. Squirrel B. And Squirrel B had just finished gathering together all the acorns he could. There were hundreds. And he looked as exhausted a little chap as you could imagine. He gave me a little wink, and a wave, as if to show me he was ready now to tuck into his store. And the really odd thing is… and I kid you not… just as he bent down to eat the acorns… the acorns rose up and ate him instead. Bit of a turn up for the books, don’t you think?

(Short pause)

I cut my fingernails when I couldn’t remove the blood… You’re beginning to sweat, darling.

(Short pause)

HER:               You shouldn’t have… you shouldn’t have…

HIM:                No, I know I shouldn’t have. But I did anyway.

(Short pause)

HER:               When you killed it, did you look into its eyes?

HIM:                Yes.

HER:               I don’t think I could do it. I could kill. I know I could kill. But I couldn’t look into the eyes.

(Short pause)

Darling…

(Short pause)

Darling, can I keep my eyes closed now?

(Short pause)

Darling?