"Once or Twice Upon a Time" is a home for stories longer than is usual for blogposts. Some have been previously published in hardback. These are indicated (p) along with the year of publication. Word counts (2500 etc) let you estimate how long a read will take.

August 23, 2012


(1982. p.  4750 words)

Morning by morning, after a twenty-minute journey from his suburb Stringfellow drew up at the Tradesman's Entrance to the Medical School in one of Scotland's ancient Universities. His transport was a gent's bicycle - gent's defining the machine's social class as well as its gender - dark green, of George the Fifth stateliness, its chain totally enclosed in an oil-bath chaincase, and the action of dismounting was equally stately and as gentlemanly as Stringfellow could make it. Without ostentation, eagerness or athleticism and staring straight ahead he swung his leg up and backwards over the creaking saddle, which was of real leather with coil springs beneath, while retaining a firm clasp on the cushioned handlegrips. This brought both his Cherry Blossomed feet to the same side, left, of his machine.  At this point he stooped to disentangle trouser clips that had once belonged to his grandfather and, morning by morning, focussed on what the day had in store.
    In  the first week of term Government spending cuts had relegated his assistant secretary to Student Records and sent in her place, Fridays and Mondays only, an Agency girl, a Temp, a Canadian called Sasha Bezack, and this being Friday Stringfellow rolled the shutter doors, passed through, padlocked his bicycle to a safety rail in the boiler-room and planned a route through the day which would avoid his having to go into Miss Bezack's office even to say Goodmorning.
    He heaved a sigh. He unhitched the elasto-fabric straps that secured his briefcase to the bicycle's carrier.  He stepped into the lift. Alone, not permitting his briefcase to swing in his grasp or his gaze to stray from the winking numbers that marked the lift's ascent, he rode to the third floor which housed his Department as well as the Department  of Geriatric Medicine and the Department of Sexually Transmitted Diseases. His office door was opposite the lift. He put his case down on the floor outside his door. He took off his string-backed gloves. He took out his keys. He did all this as quietly as he could for from the adjacent office which the Temp shared with his regular secretary, Miss Northumberland, he heard paper ratcheting into a typewriter - a sound he recognized - followed by a sound he did not recognize, a soft rasp rasp like a match scraping repeatedly on a damp matchbox. He worked his doorkey wincing at its importunate noise. He opened his door - a plastic nameplate identified him as D. Stringfellow, Professor of Iatrogenic Pathology - and went in. Not tiptoeing which would have been childish, but placing his feet carefully and quietly he worked his way round his desk and sat down.
    Where was his post?  Usually Miss Northumberland opened his letters, filed any Minutes he would not have time to read, destroyed publishers' lists and threatening letters from drug companies, respected correspondence marked Private or Personal and placed the pile on his blotter. Today the ritual had not been observed. Stringfellow put his elbows on the desk and squeezed his nostrils between the tips of his forefingers. This was ominous. That no post had been delivered to the Department could certainly be discounted, for Iatrogenic Pathology generated continuous controversy and correspondence. The inferences were that Miss Northumberland had not arrived yet, that his post lay unattended on her desk, that Miss Bezack was alone in the outer office - of course!  Rasp rasp! Her fingernail applied to one of those sandpaper boards that women use - and that if he wanted his letters he must ask her for them. He sat back in contemplation. Friday was closing in.
    "It's no use dodging the issue," he told himself. Without his post the work of the day could not go forward.  He rehearsed under his breath.
    "Ah - Miss Bezack, would you fetch my letters through?"
    But how would she answer?  She could be logical, retorting "You're nearer than me."  And this was true. Though there was a door between, his desk was closer to Miss Northumberland's than Miss Bezack'a was. But that surely did not give her licence to . . . He did not pursue the argument. She might opt for disguised impertinence, "Miss Northumberland isn't in yet."  Simple impertinence, "Just as soon as I've finished doing (rasp rasp) what I'm doing." Or the frontal attack, "Your letters. Fetch them yourself - " (pause) " - Shiny."
   The trouble is, he told himself, people these days are undismissable. And complaining to the Agency was to embark on a assault course through a phalanx of women whose honeyed voices were trained to deflect complaints and if this failed, to hector complainants into submission.
    "Mail," he said. "Americans call it mail."
    His long fingers hovered over the switches on his inter-office speaker.
    "Ah, Miss Bezack" - he was still in rehearsal - "I'd like my mail, if you'd be so good." His resolve faltered. His hand fell. He would wait until Miss Northumberland came in. Miss Northumberland was fifty, wore cultured pearls and brown skirts, never trousers, and if she rasped her nails, did it somewhere private in her own time.
    He drew a note pad in front of him. Each morning on this pad, six inches by four, he made three lists side by side, of things he must do, things he might do, and things he could transfer to tomorrow's list. He uncapped his fountain pen and applied it to the pad. It did not write. He shook it the way his clinical colleagues trained their students to shake thermometers. Three drops of royal blue Quink splattered his left hand. He looked at them for a moment, opened his desk drawer, reached for a Kleenex but found the pack empty. He looked at the spots again. Miss Northumberland could always be relied on to supply fresh tissues. But would Miss Bezack have tissues? Asking her for tissues could be more dangerous than asking for his mail. He sighed again and wished it were Tuesday. He wiped the ink with his handkerchief. At the top of his pad he wrote Get Letters and under this Get Kleenex.
    He was about to add Finish Article on Mrs. McNee's Leg -  he was engaged in research into eczema caused by overprescription of anti-histamines - when the trimphone in the secretaries' office began chirruping and just when he decided Miss Bezack was not going to answer it he heard her twanging accent. "Professor Stringellow zoffice. This is Sasha Bezack." She sadi "Uh-huh," three times and "I'm sorry to hear that," then "O-kaay. I'll pass that message to him." He heard the handset replaced. He watched the connecting door in trepidation. Would she come in? Would she note the message and pass it to Miss Northumberland when Miss Northumberland came in? Or would she forget the message altogether as she often did? His nib moved over his pad again. He wrote Miss Bezack. Get the message and was giving anxious thought to the possibility that it was an urgent message which should not be held up until Miss Northumberland came in, when the door opened. He said "Come" to excuse her not knocking. He pretended to be busy turning the pages of his desk diary and making small ticks with his pen and using a sheet of white blotting paper carefully.
    "Oh sorry," she said. "Didn't know you were in. That's Miss Northumberland sick. Something she ate. She figures on being back Tuesday. Maybe Monday if you're lucky. O-kaay?"
    "Ah," he said, feeling hollow, feeling desperate. How could Miss Northumberland be ill on a Friday? He depended on Miss Northumberland. She hadn't time to be ill. "Has she had the doctor?" he said, thinking of course she hasn't, she has typed to many of my reports to risk calling the doctor. But, exacerbated by medical attention or not, her illness made an irritating situation very serious, for he relied on Miss Northumberland to communicate with Miss Bezack and, when overloaded, to delegate simpler items to her.
    His relationship with Miss Bezack had got off on the wrong foot on her very first Friday. Towards five o'clock she brought finished letters for his signature. He went through them. He clicked his tongue at the first batch of mistakes, then uncapped his pen and, bony knuckles whitening with annoyance, put neat strikes through each error. She watched him do this. Finally he laid down his pen, saying "Dear me, dear me. I think I could type as well as this, Miss Bezack." He had intended to jolly her along with words chosen for her inexperience and understandable nervousness. But his avuncularity had gone sadly awry. She said "Well, Jesus!  It's pushing five. You better than me? You stay and type them over."
    Thereafter Miss Northumberland dealt with Miss Bezack using feminine methods of persuasion and sanction that he did not understand or enquire into. But things got finished. Mistakes were edited out before they reached him. Raised voices were rare. It would be harsh to say that Miss Bezack resented the minimal discipline necessary if work were to be done. The trouble was, she was young - twenty three, Miss Northumberland had confided - and was working her way round the world. Her job was not a commitment of time and effort. It was a means to and end. It paid her next air fare. No landfall lasted more than a month or so during which she lived out of a backpack in hostels or cheap bed-and-breakfast places. She turned herself out neatly and turned up on time, but she typed slowly and erratically and complained constantly how she couldn't read his goddam writing. And though he resented her manners, he was, he judged, fair-minded and a liberal and he rather admired her pluck. Air schedules were at the mercy of intransigent trade unions. Malaria and high-jacking made travelling hazardous.  Perhaps too hazardous, for Miss Bezack's month had stretched to three, long enough for her suntan to fade and for Stringfellow to come to view Fridays and Mondays with recurring dread. And the reason for her extended stay, Miss Northumberland said with an archness reserved for the slightly improper, was that a Norwegian student of ship-building was giving her free board and lodging.
    And now the buffer between them was laid low by gastro-enteritis, gastric flu . . . he ticked off the possibilities, uncomfortably aware that his sympathies were not with Miss Northumberland, alone and palely retching, but with himself, cooped up for the day, Monday too, with this tall, poised Temp who called him Shiny. "Hi Shiny," she would say, raising her fingers from their desultory poking at her typewriter and waggling them at him if ever circumstance made setting foot in the secretaries' office unavoidable. He didn't understand why she called him Shiny. Miss Northumberland put it down to her being from North America where there were more open-plan offices, where intimacies ebbed and flowed with the weather and the staff spent a lot of time horsing around at the water-coolers.
    Miss Bezack, still in the doorway, seemed to be waiting for something. She had on a dress in green and white hoops.  He looked resolutley past her at the spider plants on Miss Northumberland's filing cabinets.  Their tendrils moved in the same slight draught that bore Miss Bezack's fragrance to his desk.
    "You'd like your mail, I guess?" she said at last.
     He made a quick nod and to avoid looking at her face, fixed his gaze on his note-pad.
    From Miss Northumberland's desk she called, "There's a whole big heap of stuff here. You want the circulars and the other garbage or just the personals. I wouldn't know which she throws out, Miss Northumberland."
     "I'll see them all, I think. Thank you."
   "I smell my mail before I open it.  You ever small your mail? You can tell if the sender smokes. I think lotsa offices must be lousy with smoke, like smogbound, the way some mail smells. I never smoke. I guess you don't either, in your trade?"
    He didn't. He said he didn't. He watched her through the connecting door. As she flipped through his letters she kept pushing her straight, pale hair behind her ear. She stooped slightly. She should be careful.  If she was self-conscious about her height she should forgo high heels. No good ever came of high heels. Or stooping. She could end up with a curvature.
    Carrying the letters she came round the front of his desk. She placed them on his blotter. He thanked her.
    "You want to give shorthand?  By this time Miss Northumberland is usually getting shorthand."
   The letter on top of the pile was from Sri Lanka. "Perhaps later," he said. He had little faith in her shorthand. He wondered if she had been to Sri Lanka. He wondered which way round the world she was going. There was protection in staring at the letter for right in front of him was the region of her waist and upper legs in their green and white hoops and the disposition of her hips showed she was standing with her weight all on one leg.
    "I'll dictate later," he said firmly.  People should not put all their weight on one leg.
    "O-kaay! Any time."
    He waited for her to go. He could work with Miss Northumberland in the office. He did not mind Miss Northumberland's presence although she rarely came this close to him. He was so used to her she hardly seemed female. It was different with Miss Bezack. With some severity he told himself he was not reacting to her closeness except as an irritating distraction from his letters. The communication from Sri Lanka, for instance, would be another reply to his world-wide questionaire about eczema. This reminded him that he must add Mrs. McNee's legs to his list. Still Miss Bezack did not go. He noticed a Japanese stamp and stamps from the Antipodes, Central America and the Low Countries. He tried again.
   "I think I prefer to work undisturbed for a while, Miss Bezack, if you don't mind. I have a considerable mail as you can see, and a lecture at eleven."
   "That's something bothers me about you.  I guess when you're lecturing your writing on the chalkboard's gotta be better than your handwriting - "
    He tutted. He didn't want to discuss handwriting. He wanted to be left alone. Any moment now she would call him Shiny.
    "It better be bigger anyway."
    Perhaps a few polite responses would move her.
    "I suppose it is bigger, yes - "
    "I guess the students learn to figure it out from the shape of the squiggles. Dotting some I's would help - "
    "The students don't complain."
    "I would.  I mean, I do. I complain to Miss Northumberland all the time. Doesn't she tell you?"
    In fact Miss Northumberland had given up telling him, as he had given up telling her that a half century's practice had set his writing firmly in its ways. He tried to encourage Miss Bezack to leave by making his posture show annoyance. He put his elbows on the desk and cupped his hands in front of his mouth. She stayed, and he was scrutinizing his stamps and postmarks and breathing hard to underline his annoyance when the green and white hoops rearranged themselves into the shape of a thigh and flattened buttock. He glanced up in alarm. She had perched herself on his desk, her hands clasped round her knee. He tutted again. Women should not sit like that with half the pelvic girdle supporting the whole torso. In extreme cases it could lead to birthing complications. He sorted his post with fresh vigour. He could not think of a single professional colleague who in any circumstances he could imagine, would look up to find a temporary secretary's leg on their desk.
    "I could be two people," Miss Bezack said.
    Paralysed with annoyance and anxiety - how to get rid of her without referring to her leg or being called Shiny - and yet polite because politeness was his habit, he made an interrogative noise and looked hard at the Sri Lanka stamp.
    "I'm ambidextrous," she explained. "I have two signatures. I can forge withdrawals on my own checking account. How about that?"
    He had no idea how to shift garrulous Canadian women who took up residence in his office.  Should he stare reprovingly with his eyebrows drawn together?  His wife told him this made him look quite fierce. He did not draw his eyebrows together. He did not even look at her, for the way she perched, half turned, thigh extended, spine curved, outlined her underwear through the knitted dress. He buried his discomfiture in a reply to her remark about her bank account.
    "I'm surprised your left and right hand signatures are any different - "
    She looked at her palms. She turned her hands over to look at their backs, her fingers tensed and spread out. "Just because my hands look like each other - " She sounded disappointed.
    "Let me explain - "  He stopped. He pinched the bridge of his nose between finger and thumb. Why didn't her order her to go? Why not say "Get off my desk at once. Can't you see I've work to do?" The astonishing thing was, he had never had any sort of conversation with her until today and now he was having an insane one. But, once launched into his explanation he pursued it, as if explaining was an academic compulsion.  "Blackboard writing utilises the whole arm. The great freedom of the elbow joint and shoulder are called into play. Desk writing uses only the fingers and the limited rotation of the wrist.  The muscular activities are quite different, yet the results are the same. I conclude that one's left-hand writing - if one were ambidextrous - would be the same as one's right."
    She was listening, staring at him.
    "Am I making myself clear?"
    "Are you just!"
    She was looking now at his desk top, at his note pad, and with a shock of embarrassment that made him lurch in his chair he remembered the last item on his list made reference to her. She will recognize her name, he thought.  She will decipher the squiggles even though she is seeing them upside down. Their eyes met briefly. His face grew hot but she only said "Is that it?"
    "The end of your ambidextrous theory?"
    She was looking at the pad again and her neck was twisting as she tried to read his writing. He saw the way ahead. Making small precise movements of his right forefinger he tapped the edge of his letter from Sri Lanka to slide it over the pad, at the same time carrying on with his explanation and staring over her shoulder. The blushing to which he was prone was colouring his scalp like a ripening plum. Nervousness hurried his syllables.
    "Not quite the end. I further conclude that if one taught oneself to write with one's feet - " He judged the pad was covered now and stopped tapping but couldn't stop explaining, " - it too would look the same."
    Miss Bezack said "What!" on a high note, the word cracking into a laugh.
    "One's footwriting would be the same. Again, a very different set of muscles and movements - "
    "You don't say!  You've given this theory a lot of thought?"
    "Beg pardon," he said, detecting her sarcasm,
    "Boy! You British really knock me out!  They told me you only talk about the weather. And mostly that's true. But if it's not the rain it's something goddam screwy. Boy, you're seriously weird, Shiny!"
    There it was.  Scared to point out that she had started it, wanting but not daring to ask why she called him Shiny, distressed at her reluctance to follow his intellectual curiosity down any avenue of logical enquiry he said nothing, realized that his mouth had fallen open and closed it while Miss Bezack went on - "Both hands! Both feet! Can't be too many more ways of holding a pen. You ever hold your pen with your feet when you're making your lists?"
    She placed her forefinger on the Sri Lanka letter covering the list. She wore a ring, a polished stone set in silver. The stone was golden brown, like sherry. Her finger trapped his letter and his list. Terror dried his mouth.
    "Aides-mémoire, that's all,"he said. "They help me not to forget things."
    "You know something, Shiny? It's a riot the way you make lists. It's crummy. My old Granddad in Saskatchewan, he used to do it all the time. I mean make lists. He used to go about all day in just his long johns making lists. Land he thought he owned. All the animals beginning with P. That sort of thing. In the end they put him away. You think it's maybe a symptom of something, the way you make your lists?"
    He was stung. "I'm really not interested in your granddad - your grandfather. I think it's none of your business why I make lists. Or what it's s symptom of."
    "It's my  business if my name's on it."
    "That's in connection with jobs I must get done."
    "It's your hit-list, that it?"
    "Hit-list? This is becoming grotesque. Please leave me to get on. I'm behind already."
    Her finger stayed where it was.
    "Please release my mail, Miss Bezack. I find this rather tiresome and silly."
    "I bet. And I bet Miss Northumberland never acts this way."
    "If you mean does she come in to waste my time on busy mornings, no. She is conscientious, courteous and responsible - "
    "I bet she is, the stockings she wears - "
    "I fail to see - "
    "Yeah! I know you do." She smiled. "You want your mail?"
    "We established that some minutes ago. Really - " With what he hoped was unmistakeable meaning he raised his arm and pulled back his shirt cuff.
    "O-kaay! You get to see your mail when I get to see your list. Over in  Canada we have a thing called Access to Information. Citizens can ask to see anything about themselves the Authorities have on file."
    "My list is hardly a file - "
    "Suit yourself." She increased the pressure on her fingertip. Reasonableness and annoyance having failed to make any impression he tried another tack.  "Miss Bezack - you seem not to understand. Systems, offices, workplaces, can function only if there is a spirit of co-operation however grudgingly given. If yours cannot be secured I shall have to take steps - "
    "It is your hit-list!"
   "It is not a hit list!  Such a thing would be preposterous!" He leaned back in his chair. Wasn't the whole business preposterous? He glared purposefully at the finger. He knew she was watching him. It was his move and they both knew it. He considered his options. Clearly persuasion would get him no further than had threats or shows of annoyance. He did not feel angry enough to convert his anger into action. So what might he says? He rehearsed.
    "Miss Bezack - I appeal to you." Her retort was so predictable he blushed again.
    "Why are you doing this?" This lacked forcefulness and since it presumed a rational explanation, would most likely provoke only fresh nonsense.
    "Now look here - !"  No, no, no!  Bitter experience lecturing to unruly First Year classes had taught him he'd get small pay-off from bluster.
    Should he snatch the letters from under her finger? He wanted the letters, but was not the list the real point at issue? He tried to remember exactly what he had written but could not. In any case snatching was not dignified. He could seize her finger. This must provoke some sort of reaction but he was not sure he would know how to cope. He might dislocate her finger. Worse, perhaps she would struggle with him for possession of what was after all his list, and the consequences of a struggle were too horrible to contemplate. Was it possible that she had deliberately manoeuvred him into this position? Had she some crazed plan culminating in her rushing down the corridor shouting . . . Impossible! Yet women sometimes do such things, being at the mercy of their hormones. He was doctor enough to recognize the symptoms. And there was plenty of evidence to suggest that Miss Bezack was an entrepreneuse.
    No. Physical contact must be avoided at all costs. Where did this leave him? He could ignore her silliness and start work on the McNee Legs paper. But then she would get the list for herself while he was occupied.  He could try - "The joke is over." Or "This has gone beyond a joke- " Or, "I enjoy a joke as much as anyone - "
    The tension in her finger suggested it was no joke. But if not, what was her motive? Mere female curiosity? A desire to see the list simply because she had spotted her name? Well. whatever he had written was innocuous, wasn't it? What was lost by letting her see the list? Examined in this light the bargain she suggested offered a swift and simple solution.
    "Well, Shiny - ?"
    Not sure where the inspiration came from he said "Very well. On the further condition that you tell me the origin of your curious nickname for me." Inspiration, for by asking something she would not be able to resist telling, he had turned the bargain to his own advantage. For a moment their eyes met.
    "O-kaay!" She moved her finger.
    He took his letters. She took the list. He hoped she was thoroughly disappointed. He permitted himself a rare sneer which he was careful  not to let her see and was poising the tip of his paper-knife to carry out the first epistolectomy of the day when Miss Bezack uttered a strangled and horrified laugh.
    "You were figuring on getting all of this sewn up in one morning?"
    "Make of it what you will," he said, confident he had emerged, if belatedly, the victor.
    "So it isn't a hit-list?"
    He allowed himself a smirk. "Of course not."
    "You were setting me up for a fate worse than death - "
    "Pardon?" He stopped, the envelope slit half way. She got off the desk. She read from the list.
    "Get letters. That would be the kinky black ones, would it?  Then -Get Kleenex. Well, well. The perfect gentleman.  And Miss Bezack gets the message alright. I didn't know you cared Shiny."
    He needed a moment to see what she was talking about.  Was the woman insane?
    "Friday of course," she said. "But as it happens I'm booked out over the weekend."
    He willed himself to resist a hurricane blush. Thank God the list had not progressed as far as Mrs. McNee's legs.  He rose. She backed away from the desk, tearing the top sheet from the pad.
    "This is ludicrous," he said. "I assume you are unwell. Perhaps you should lie down - "
    "On the floor?  On the desk? Jees, Shiny, you sure know how to sweep a girl off her feet!"
    "You misconstrue - " He knew it was deliberate. He hoped it wasn't ominous. "Really, Miss Bezack!
This is more than I can tolerate. I concede my juxtapositions admit a certain ambiguity - "
    "Your juxta-which-ones? Boy, you're weird alright? Wyncha try your elbow with Miss Northumberland?"
    This is lamentable he told himself. Miss Northumberland's virtue was beyond question. Miss Bezack folded the sheet and tucked it into a pocket at her hip. "Wait till she hears about this. She'll fall over laughing. I'll post it to her. With a note about your juxtawassnames."
    "What do you mean, you'll post it?"
    "I mean by the time she gets over being sick I won't be here. It's my last day, Shiny." Her face told him she mean t it. "Your poopy old eyes are more than a girl can take. Flight's better than a broken heart."
   "You won't be here on Monday?"
   "Monday I'll be on a seven-four-seven. Amsterdam. Dubai. Dehli. Colombo."
    A sense of benison enveloped him. He felt born again. She was going. After three months of Fridays and Mondays she was taking her fatuous talk overseas. To Sri Lanka her noted, with a smile. And now he saw it all. He glared with undisguised scorn. "So! This is pathetic, I repeat, pathetic attempt to put me out of countenance was in the nature of a parthian shot. You thought you could snipe from a position of impunity. Dismissal - even at an hour's notice - would cost you precious little."
    "No. I was wanting a good story to leave for Miss Northumberland, that's all."
    "What do you mean, a story?"
   "To tell her what happened between us."  He believed she fluttered her eyelashes. He no longer cared. In a few more hours she would be gone.
    "Miss Northumberland?" He gave a short laugh. "I doubt she is capable of following the perversions of your schoolgirl humour."
    "I wouldn't say that. She figured out Shiny for your nickname."
    After a moment he said "Miss Northumberland would never - "
    "Wouldn't she?"  Miss Bezack swung her hair, then tucked it behind her ear. "You wanted the bargain. Alright. It's your shoes - "
    "I see." He glanced at his shoes. "Miss Northumberland's pleasantry. A minor endearment. A compliment in it's way - "
    "And that goddam bike - "
    She was insane. What was shiny about his bicycle? "I cycle to the University because I have seen the aftermath of too many heart attacks."
    "You see!  You always have to have goddam reasons!" She made a helpless movement of her arms. "Your self-justification shines.  That's what she says. She says mosta the people in this place only think they have a halo. Shiny really has one. And he polishes it."
   He put the Sri Lanka letter on his desk.  "Is that all?"
   "No it isn't! There's your trouser clips. And creeping about like a dried up ghost. And the way your eyebrows wag up and down when you have to say something you'd rather not say - "
    "Miss Northumberland would never gossip about such things," he said, stranded and swallowing. If there was a shred of sense in all this it was Miss Northumberland's discretion and loyalty, qualities which like her modesty were beyond reproach.  "You are trying to blame Miss Northumberland for your own rudeness. She would never - "
    "Miss Northumberland is a barrel of laughs. But you wouldn't know that would you? You don't know her at all."
    "Of course I know her. She's been with me for years."
    "Wake up, Pops! Miss Northumberland rolls them in the aisle in the secretaries' canteen. 'Got any Shiny stories' the girls ask her. Or 'Do Shiny's walk' Yeah!  She can even walk the way you do. Like there's a bad smell under your nose."
   He stared over her head. "Will you leave now?" he said.
   "I'm paid to five."
   "Take the rest of the day off. I doubt the concession will significantly reduce your output."
   "Well screw you, Shiny." She sounded angry. "Know what you are?  You're a prig. The kinda prig only the Brits know how to breed."
    As she went out of his office he noticed the sway of her high, insolent behind going one, two, three, four, five quick steps to the door which she slammed.
    He sat very still, listening to her collecting her belongings, his feet together, his palms flat on his blotter. When her door closed he picked up his paper-knife and the Sri Lanka letter. Then he put them down again. He stood. His office had a small washbasin and above it, a mirror. He had to stoop slightly to see himself. He adjusted his necktie, than peered as if expecting a halo and wondered if he should send a commiserating message to Miss Northumberland. He sat down and wrote Card for Miss N on his pad. But there was no one to send out to buy a card and she might in any case be recovered before it reached her. He crossed the item out. "Shiny," he said. He decided not to mention the morning's incidents to Miss Northumberland in case - in the likely case - that Miss Bezack had made the whole thing up.
    Then he asked himself whether disloyalty could have been Miss Northumberland's way of coping with Miss Bezack, whether Shiny stories were the carrots she used to get the frivolous Temp to do any work at all. What other reason could Miss Northumberland have for such tasteless lapses? Yes, he decided. This was the probable explanation.  But whatever the facts of the case, the Bezack woman had another Shiny story now. And he wondered as he opened his post whether the days between Monday and Friday would ever be the same again


August 6, 2012


(1980. p.  4450 words)

   Monday, and the weekend had left its mark in Norman Slater. Sitting in his battered swivel chair, his sock in his lap, raincoat and briefcase abandoned on his office floor, his bare heel resting on his radiator, he angled his foot this way and that, inspecting the mark - a congealing wound - on his instep.
  "Forty four next month," he mused. "My body will reach forty four with only this one sign of foul play. But the psyche . . . " He uttered an ironic bark of laughter. Ironic, for the psyche was limping on this damaged foot through the forty-fourth year of injury time.
   "So. What do we conclude?" he said aloud.
   Through the plasterboard partition that made two offices from one, the voice of his colleague Belford concluded that Norman must be in early for once and fit for work.
   "Fit! Ha!" He touched the wound gingerly. It would be exquisite, exquisite to peel the scab in one gritty piece. He squinted at it. Two or three days yet to harvestable ripeness.
   "And I conclude," he said to the partition, "that our overworked police do a tough job cheerfully and efficiently."
   He heard Belford snort.
   "Also," he went on, "that women. Are. Ordure."
   "Come through and look at this, Belford."
   "Christ, Norman. I'm lecturing at ten.  Sociology of sport. Just mugging some bumf. Crowd response to police aggression. Can't it wait?"
   "It's a lively tale."  He heard Belford sigh. A chair scraped. A door opened and closed, and Belford came in.
   "Well? What is it this time?"
    He pointed and Belford peered at the foot.  "When did your overworked police find time to do that?"
   "Not police," he said.
   "It's the steel studs in their heels,"said Belford. "They pretend to arrest you or whatever, then . . crunch. You're marked for life. Have you made a complaint?" He peered more closely. "Let's photograph it before the evidence fades.  It's going green."
   "Not police," said Slater. He curled his toes as the radiator warmed to its Monday morning task. "Not police. Wife."
   "Domestic? Ah . . so where do the fuzz come in?"  Belford sat in Slater's tumbledown leather armchair.
    "If you'd rather prepare your lecture?"
    "Don't sound so bloody plaintive, Norman.  It's O.K.  It's only the First Year.  I'll just saunter in and turn my mouth loose. Come on . . what happened?"
    "Everything.  Combat. Flight. Doublecross. Capture.  This is, er, between friends?"
    "Really, Norman!" Belford sprawled like a reproachful eagle in the broken bottomed chair. His clipped beard looked polished. "Your wife was kissing your feet?" he encouraged. "Love bite?"
    Slater groaned.  "Ordure," he said.
    "Shovel her out."
    "It's not as easy as that."
    Belford snapped his fingers.  "Don't tell me. The children!"
    Slater nodded and sighed. "Yesterday I made a suggestion, merely a suggestion. But she went wild."
    "Just like that, Norman?  How wild?"
    "It was about half past ten.  A rather splendid morning for April.  The two youngest, the boys, were playing their elephant game.  They use my tenor sax . . the old one . . and bits of plastic hose. Awful mess. Awful."
    "I'd imagine."  Belford was unmarried.
    "I've forgiven her many trespasses over the years."  He covered his face. Oh yes, she trespassed. With liquid movements of gold green eyes and the tip of her tongue run with such care, with such bewitching moistness along her upper lip. He forgave her trespasses for the children's sake.
   "What gets me . . "He peered at Belford through the pink slits his fingers made, " . .  she won't get up.  And the mess.  Bottles of stuff, creams and things. Dust.  Dirty dishes.  I end up doing them before they submerge us."  His heel's ordeal by fire was coming to a crisis, but he could withstand it. "The trouble is I don't think she likes me very much."
    "You're too modest, Norman." Belford glanced at his watch. "Wild," he prompted.
    "I suggested she get up and we all have breakfast together and go to a museum. Or art gallery. En famille."
    "In the middle of an elephant game?" Belford twisted to sit with his legs dangling over one arm of the chair, his head hanging over the other. "Bloody grotty chair, this, Norman. Your karate practice isn't doing it any good."
    "I'd been out for the papers. She had The Observer in bed.  She seems to want to waste Sunday."
    "Doesn't share your cultural aspirations?"
    "That's it. She thinks it all ended when she graduated."
    "Still . .  it seems a bit extreme to bite your foot half off for suggesting a visit to the art gallery."
    "It was for the children's sake. They need the right culture mix.  Old Masters. Good jazz. Zen.  You know the sort of thing. But it started an unholy row."
    It really had been awful. He hadn't been unreasonable. He had sat on her bed saying, well old girl, it's a jolly morning and giving her knee a little squeeze through the duvet.  But she was expert, he told Belford, expert at letting the corner of the newspaper droop so that she could stare at him out of one eye, saying nothing until he let go of her knee. Then, a tiny flick,  and as if by magic the droop was wafted aloft simply aching to be read.  Damn her eyes. Damn their swivelling line-scan.
    "Funny things," said Belford.
    "I meant newspapers.  The Observer drives her wild?"
    "No. No. That bit comes later."
    So, what would she like to do?  She begged his pardon and he asked once more, what would she like to do on such a jolly morning?
    "Snuggle up in bed. With the paper."
    The elephant game crashed into the bathroom.  He must stay calm. He asked when she intended getting up.  For answer she riffed the corners of the glossy supplement.  He pointed out that he had not breakfasted. None of them had breakfasted. But he had brought her tea in bed. And the papers. She reminded him where the bacon, eggs and gas cooker were to be found. So he wandered off, his day weighed down already be sleeplessness and her disdain.  He felt as if his arms were tied up his back and his ankles hobbled. As if he should approach his wife in circumspect hops. A flat hand in his face and down he crashed. And she, her foot on his chest, her golden arms folded, her nose in the golden air.
  "I made us all this splendid breakfast," he told Belford. "Hers on a tray. Ours on the brunch bar in the kitch-kitch. Bacon . . eggs . . "
   "Elephant steaks?"
   "Elephant?  Oh. Yes, Ha!" A grimace of mirth shut his right eyes and twisted the corner of his mouth. He hoped that breakfast in bed, brought in with  ceremony, with concern, would encourage her.  But to what?
    "Leave it on the dressing table." Her eyes did not leave the paper. He hovered by the bed.
    "Well, old girl. What's happening in the big wide world?"
    "You may have the paper when I've finished."  She had been out somewhere the night before.  Her eyelids were still green, gold flecked, black edged. Her hair tumbled on her brow.
    "What are you staring at?" she said. "When you stare like that I can feel it. Like hands. Ugh!"
    Her shoulders were bare, the lace of her nightdress poignant on her skin.  He shifted his feet uncertainly.  "You look . . "
    He shrugged. "Lovely. Yes. Quite lovely."
    The newspaper billowed like a spinnaker.
    "Get lost!" she said.
    "A bit primitive," Belford interrupted, "but not what I'd call wild. What happened next?"
    "Well, after breakfast I was telling the children about Bix Biderbecke and the white jazzmmen, you know the sort of thing . . when she came through."
    Yes, yawning and wriggling as if it was chilly inside her nightdress, and carrying the tray which she dumped untouched on the brunch bar. She sat opposite him.
    "Poor Norman," she said. One lace strap had slipped from her shoulder. "Fancy thinking I could face a breakfast like that."  She hoisted the strap. "After a night like that."
    "What do you mean?"
    "Is all the coffee gone?" she peered into the tall earthenware pot.
    "What do you mean?  Was last night so special? I noticed only the lounge wallpaper and some cretinous guff on television."
    "Couldn't you make coffee on a grand scale for once?"  The pot lid rattled. "You're sort of small scale all the way through, aren't you?"
    "It's the goading," he said to Belford, covering his face again.
    "You know . .  it all comes back to her association with our mutual colleague down the corridor." He indicated vaguely.  "I asked . . I demanded . . to know where she'd been,"
    "How true.  I was treated o a diatribe.  The privacy of her private life. My stuffed shirt friends. She means people like you, Belford.  Worthy chaps doing worthy work. Then . .  my silly job. My silly specialisms."
    "Karate as psychotherapy? Silly?" said Belford.
    "She can't see the Universities in their modern context.  Can't, or won't . . see how exploration of the self via karate is socially useful . . and just as interesting as, say . . " he waved his hands about " . . the study of Horace Walpole. Or fifteenth century watermarks.  Or aerodynamics."
    "You pointed this out?"
    "Of course. We do have a position to defend, you and I."
    "But something must have sparked the powder keg.  No, wait. You got in first, was that it?  One chop with the edge of your foot . . you were bleeding and she was begging for mercy."
    "Therapy Norman. It gladdens the heart to hear the enemy scream."
    Slater sighed. "Karate sublimates violence in ritual, unlike the thuggery of the football park.  You've never understood that, have you Belford?  Bricks. Planks of wood. Never skulls."
    "Saves the price of an axe, I suppose. But doesn't it screw you up . . knowing how to decapitate without leaving a mark, but never getting any further than dismantling the furniture.  Sideboards can't scream."
    Slater surveyed his roasting foot.  "I must admit . . . " He paused.  She had composed her mouth, distilling taunt and insolence from her smile, leaning across the brunch bar, still smelling of her bed, with the children watching.  She spoke pleasantly enough.
    "Why, Norman.  You've got your Jesus boots on. And no socks. What a delightful frivolity so early in the year."
    "If we'd stayed," he said to Belford, "things could have got rough."
    "For somebody. Or for somebody's feet."
    "For the children. Scenes, you know. Cripple the psyche.  So I decided to cut and run.  To take them out."
    "And spoil the game?"
    "I wouldn't call it a game."
    "Rubber hose elephants in bathroom stockade. Rogue male rampaging in the kitch-kitch?"
    "What?  Oh . . that. Plastic hose, Belford. Not rubber." He gave a squeaky laugh. "She always starts in front of the children. When one can't . . so I said 'Come on children. We'll go for a coke and ice cream.'"
   Belford laughed. "Cooling your ardour, eh?"
   "But I might . . I could kill her.  Easily." He raised his hand, stiffened, palm slanting up.
   "Wait a minute," said Belford. "You escaped with your foot intact.  Where do the fuzz come in? Did you ask for police protection?  Or did you dump the kids in the Silver Tassie caff, slink home and get nicked while demolishing her gable ends with a couple of well aimed kicks?"
    "Nothing like that."
    No.  He had bustled the children out of the house and down the avenue, past a few people leaving piety and sleep behind them in the corner church.  The children were silent and grim.  The April morning was sunny and grim.  His eyes seemed reluctant. His head felt too light.  His tongue was like rubber.  The eldest, nearly fifteen, began to sing 'Where have all the flowers gone?' Her hair looked like a string bag.  They reached the Silver Tassie. While the children swarmed round a table in the window, shrieking at each other he stood at the counter where the ice-cream cooler throbbed and a thin girl in white overalls shouted what did he want above the jumble of her radio.  He took ices in glass dishes and bottles of coke to the table and slumped down while the children fought over the plastic spoons and straws.  Well might one ask where the flowers had gone.  He formed a picture - of himself in a travel poster setting, leaning on the mast, blowing 'Misty' on a throaty saxophone while a girl loosely wrapped in white knelt on the deck with her arms round his knees.  The youngest child blew down its straw into the dregs of coke.
    "Stop that!"
    The next joined in, bubbling and giggling, and when he shouted at them and smacked his palm down on the table, hurting himself, the eldest sang 'When will they ever learn? When will they evv-vvv-err learn?'
    "You might reinforce my authority a bit. And stop whining that commercial pap."
    "Da-a-ad!" She poked at an igloo of ice-cream.  Her nose, all their noses, all three, were modelled on their mother's "Anyway, it's not commercial. It's from an old Russian hymn."
    "She was confusing it with something else," he explained to Belford. "You know what the young are like, Two O levels and they think their erudition is bottomless.  That's when the police came in."
    "Not surprised.  Fuckin' old queen in Jesus boots wandering about in April with no socks on. Sussing you out were they?  Thought you were luring innocents with ice-cream?"
    "No. No."  His heel felt raw, but less raw than his wounded spirit.  "Look here, Belford. Why not go back next door and get your lecture ready?"
    "Just a joke, Norman. Bash on."
    "Well . . this Inspector, a dyed-in-the-wool P.C.Plod, you know, face like a brick, silver all over his hat. Two waxy young constables in the background. Car outside. Big Rover, or something.  It was as bad as the guff on television."
    It was worse.  The Inspector had knuckled the table with both big fists. "Mr. Slater?"
    "A wee word, sir?"
    The bubbling and giggling stopped.
    "What is it?"
    The Inspector coughed predictably. For a moment he studied the children.  "Alone, sir . . "
    "Its all right.  No secrets in our family."
    "I think we should talk privately."
    The children studied the Inspector's fists and hat.
    He rose. "Wait here a moment." He spoke to the eldest, wagging his finger. "Loco parentis."  She pulled a face.  He moved away from the table with the Inspector who sighed just as predictably.  "Your wife called us, Mr. Slater."
    He was aware of his jaw dropping, aware even of the cliché of his dropping jaw.
    "She!" Belford broke in.  "Your good lady wife?  What for?"
    "Phoned them after we left the house and told them where to find me."
    "She shopped you!" Belford tittered.
    "It shows how far down the road to childishness she's come."
    "We understand . . we quite understand," the Inspector had continued, "that sometimes a man can go beresk."
    To Belford he said "He actually did say it. Beresk. Just like a police soap opera.  Of course I asked for an explanation.  She had actually called the police and told them I'd gone berserk.  I'd put her over my knee. Thrashed her. Knocked her about. With the youngest cowering in fear and the eldest trying to separate us.  Then I hurled her into a corner, broken and bleeding, and calmly walked out to buy the children ice-cream.  Of course, she pleaded that she could take the punishment, that she was used to it.  But she was terrified I'd start on the kids. Then, with, you know, a meaningful look, he asked me was it true I taught karate at the Uni."
    "He would say Uni," said Belford. "A fuzz who'd say beresk would definitely say Uni."
    "I ask him had she a black eye? Was her lip split? Was her clothing in disarray? Had he seen weals? Bruises? He took the point."
    "Your wife was still in night attire, sir. And we didn't have the assistance of a W.P.C."
    "But you agree she didn't look knocked about?"
    "Mr. Slater . . the incident goes down as a domestic. We're  reluctant to butt in but obliged to check.  Much better for chaps in your position to keep your own back yards in order.  The Uni., Mr. Slater. Bad publicity.  People who teach in glass towers shouldn't throw wives about."
    His jaw dropped further, stepwise, in time with the Inspector's metaphors.
    "I think I take your meaning."
    "Your wife seemed quite well, sir."  He turned to leave with the constables, adding "I have been married myself, Mr.Slater."
    "Ah. Yes. Ah-ha." Nothing else seemed fitting.  But anger thudded in his blood. He could hear it.  He went back to the children but did not sit down.
    "We must go home now."
    "Are you a bad daddy?" said the youngest. "Will you get porridge?"
    "Come along!  Leave your drinks!"  He could taste his rage like bile.
    "Dad?" said the eldest.
    "Nothing.  It was nothing.  A mix-up.  Come along.  Mummy will be waiting."  He herded them out into the sunshine. He flexed his hands. The karate hand could splinter brick as easily as the edge of a trowel.  When they got home she was sitting at the brunch bar.
    "Hallo children!  And Norman!  Normie Pormie!"
    He told the children to go out and play or get the elephant game going again.  "I have to talk to Mummy." She was holding an earthenware coffee mug which she rolled slowly between her palms. The children trooped out with backward glances.
   "Normie darling! Sit down and have a natter.  What a lovely day.  I was out.  In the garden.  Dancing in the dew.  In my nightie."
    He sat opposite her. Amongst the clutter of breakfast dishes she had arranged daffodils in a green glass vase.  She put the coffee mug down and raised her ams. "Stre-e-etch!"  The nightdress shaped itself to her body.  "Did the police get you, darling?"
    "You know that wasting police time is an offence?"
    "Pouf!"  She isolated a strand of hair and twisted it round her fingers.  "They were lovely policemen."
    "I'm sure they were.  What do you think the children thought?"
    "Such big men."
    "Humiliated.  I was humiliated."
    She leaned across the brunch bar and scratched the top of his head.  "I fancied that inspector."
    "Will you listen!"
    "A no-nonsense sort of chap, didn't you think?  No funny quirks.  Your hair's like wire wool darling."
    "You're mad.  Sometimes I think you're mad."
    "Lumbering he was. But dependable.  Workmanlike."
    "Reporting me was pure disloyalty.  Your lies hardly matter set against your disloyalty."
    "An arresting experience for you, Normie.  Have some coffee?"  She lifted the coffee pot and poured.  "What a day you've had."
    "Yes," he shouted,  "Haven't I?  I'm left here alone all Saturday night while you go gallivanting with my professional colleagues.  Dressed like a tart.  Next morning you throw it all in my face . . with breathtaking blatantness.  You goad me.  You flaunt yourself.  To save a scene I take the children out and my wife, my own wife, sets the police on me . . "
    "Is there such a word?  Blatantness?"  She drank more coffee.
    " . . with lies!"  He was on his feet now.  "Lies!  I . . look here. I forbid you, absolutely forbid you to see him any more."
    "Blatancy?  She ran her tongue along the rim of the mug.
    "You aren't listening!"
    "Blatance?' She sipped. "Forbid me to see whom, Normie?"
    "Him!  You know who I mean.  Take the injured innocence off your silly face.  I have rights you know.  I forbid you to consort with that . . that poor man's Arturo Ui."
    She said she found Arturo's rise and fall irresistible.
    "Goading, you see," he said to Belford who had stopped fidgeting in the chair.  "She just sat there, Belford, fondling . . no, not fondling . . caressing a wretched coffee mug.  As if it was . . . The red mist was coming on me, I tell you.  But I decided to play it cerebrally.  I attacked Arturo's aerosol philosophy . . "
   "Poetry, that, Norman. Pure poetry."
   "His slapstick logic.  His drama school vowels . . "
   "Better and better.  And she?"
    Well, she had remodelled her smile and lowered her lashes a bitchbreadth and become very still.
    "To hell with his vowels, Normie.  He's a big. Randy. Bugger."
    Belford whistled. "Straight from the shoulder, eh?"
    "Verbal karate.  And that's when . .  " His voice trailed off as the memory shouldered in on him.  He had been shouting something -  "Look here, I've had just about enough of this" - when the children came back to see what the noise was.
    "Daddy's going to hit me, children.  Split me down the middle or something. He's an expert. It's his job." She did not stand up. The straps of her nightdress had slipped again, both of them.
    "Damnable.  Damnable way to behave in front of little ones," he shouted, stamping round the bar.  She sat bare shouldered and the children stood their ground, open mouthed.  Fatigue, anger, everything log-jammed in his throat.  He could still feel her finger nail snagging in his hair.
    "You knuckles are going white, Normie.  But shouldn't you be barefoot?  Isn't that part of the ritual? Slip off your Jesus boots before you put me asunder."
    A picture unrolled in his mind of Arturo Ui wearing only sandals and gold-rimmed half glasses, his plummy vowels irrestistibly rising and falling as they plunged together, and her mouth shaping itself into a voiceless scream.
    "Don't call me that, Normie.  Call me Slater's Slattern. All your poofy colleagues do."
    "Right!  That's it!"
    He lunged for her shoulders or throat.
    "Normie!  Norman! No - " Her face, wide eyed with alarm went in and out of focus. She slapped at his hands.  He grabbed her, clawing her hair.  Her nightdress fell, lace crumpling round her waist.
    "No!  Norman!  Darling . . . no!"
   Someone's hand struck the flower vase strewing daffodils.  He heard his voice booming through caves of rage and the eldest child shouting and pulling at his jersey.
   "Dad!  Stop it!  Daddy!"
   "Slattern! Yes!  Whore!  Yes!"  He jerked her head from side to side.  The youngest child began wailing.  He hauled her to her feet, still gripping her hair.  She clutched her nightdress with one hand, the other closed round the coffee pot.  She lifted it over her head.  When the pot smashed down on his foot pain took  two or three seconds to overcome his fury.  She shook herself free.  They were both panting.
   "Two basic rules of unarmed combat, Norman."  She covered herself, hoisting the nightdress. "Get yours in first.  And cheat." Despite the anguished signals from his foot he noticed how flushed she was.
   "The coffee pot saved her though," he told `Belford.  "But for that I might really have damaged her."
   "Just then flew by a coffee pot, as big as a tar-barrel," said Belford.
   "What? Tar-barrel?"
   "I was musing.  Was it empty, the coffee pot?"
   "Not quite.  Nearly cold though, fortunately.  It smashed.  It was a wedding present from her sister.  I was bleeding."
   "I suppose that ended round one?"
   "It ended the whole rotten business. Bleeding robs one of dignity.  I sought cover. And a plaster."
   "And the Slatt . .  the missus?"
   "She sought a dustpan.  And laughed.  Near hysterics in fact. 'You disappoint me, Normie' she kept saying. 'Better luck next time'"
   Belford climbed out of the chair.  "You disappoint me too, Norman."  He paused, studying the foot. "Response to aggression.  Hmmmm . . . interesting.  Well!  Duty calls."  His hand fell on Slater's shoulder.  "Courage, Normie.  You've  a serviceable foot on the other side."
   When Belford had gone he reprieved his baking foot and took off the other shoe and sock.  He hung his raincoat in his locker and lifted his briefcase onto his desk.  He slipped his jacket off.  He fell into a fighting crouch.
   "Right," he spat.  "One lecture specially for slatterns."  His hands came up in front of his chest, angled like the blades of some remorseless machine.  His teeth showed through a snarl.  After one or two explosion of breath his hands slashed in swiping arcs, pulping her face, splintering her cheek bones.  Once. Twice. And again.  He spun, hissing, on the ball of his injured foot.  His serviceable foot lashed out, aiming for her knee-cap.  His toes struck the radiator with bone crunching force.  He hopped wildly for a moment then collapsed into the broken chair, his face boiling with tears from a dozen springs of despair.  Through the partition he heard Belford collect his notes and go, whistling, to his lecture. As the footsteps faded he released his pain in a long, whimpered whine.
   The Great Clock in the college tower rang the four quarters and after the quarters laid ten careful chimes like lashes on the shoulders of his morning.



August 4, 2012


(p 1979. 3900 words)

        After showing Mrs. Williams into her morning room, Mrs. Heddon brought a tray with coffee pot and wafery cups and told Mrs. Williams that her husband, Mr. Heddon, was in active charcoal.
   “Active charcoal?” Mrs. Williams feigned an interest although she had no idea what her hostess was talking about.  Imagining Mr. Heddon somehow barbecued she said, “It sounds very important.”
   “Very important,” said Mrs. Heddon. “Industrially, you know.  And he does so well from it, my husband.  Coffee, Mrs. Williams?”
    “It’s Audrey.”  She smiled.  They were neighbours, if not yet friends.  “Yes. Please.  It smells very good.”  Mrs. Heddon had invited her to discuss some birthday party or other.
    “My own blend.  Kenya – and two rather uncommon Brazils that my husband smuggles in.  He knows a little boulangerie in Geneva.  He goes abroad a lot, you know.”  Mrs. Heddon made a movement of her finger and thumb like sprinkling salt.  “And just a dash of chicory.  One must have good coffee – if one can afford it . . . particularly, you know, these days.  I sigh for the early sixties.”  Mrs. Heddon poured coffee. “Well, Audrey.  I’m Zoe”
    “How strange.”  Mrs. Heddon stiffened and Audrey gabbled, “Oh, I didn’t mean Zoe is strange.  I meant Audrey and Zoe.  A and Z.  First and last.  I like crosswords, you see. I notice things like that.”
Mrs. Heddon put down the coffee pot although her guest’s cup was barely half full and Audrey had to pretend not to notice.
    “Well now,” said Mrs. Heddon. “I understand your husband teaches at the University?  You must find it a bit of a struggle.  You know, with things the way they are.  This government, Audrey. Sooner we get them out the better. Have a piece of chocolate cake?  So common to call it gateau, don’t you think?”
    “Thanks, but no,” said Audrey, remembering the uncommon boulangerie.  She rubbed her maternity smock.  “Just now rich things give me awful heartburn.”
    Mrs. Heddon raised cake to her mouth, chewed quickly, coaxed crumbs from her top lip with her tongue.  She can’t have failed to notice the baby, Audrey thought.  “He doesn’t teach,” she said. “He does research.”
    “Who, dear?”
    “My husband.  He does research.  At the University.”
   “How interesting,” said Mrs. Heddon. “My husband travels.  He’s been the world over.  Europe. The States. South Africa.  The civilized places, you know. Where the money is.  He directs sales of . .”
     “Active charcoal?”  Audrey could not keep her gaze from Mrs. Heddon’s heavily lacquered hair.
   “Exactly.” Mrs. Heddon frowned. “He’s on his way to Zurich at this very moment.  They fly him everywhere. Business class, of course.”
   “Of course,” Audrey retorted, thinking, just tell me about this birthday party, then I can go.  A twenty-first, she concluded, unless Mrs. Heddon had come late to motherhood. She was intrigued by her hostess’s dough-white shoulders.
    “I don’t suppose your husband needs to travel?”  Mrs. Heddon’s cup paused halfway to her mouth. “In that sort of job?”
    Feet pedalled suddenly under Audrey’s heart.  She was too close to her term and too happy to resent Mrs. Heddon, even half-heartedly.  Wanting to argue that her husband preferred to come home at night, especially just now, she said that sometimes he had to go to conferences, which he enjoyed, but not the travelling.
    “Oh, my husband loves it!  Loves it! You should see the knick-knacks he picks up.  No . . . wait . . . I must tell you.”  Mrs. Heddon set her cup on the glass coffee table.  “My husband . . .” She leaned forward confidentially.  Audrey glimpsed heavy white breasts before Mrs. Heddon raised her hand quickly to her neckline.  “My husband was on Concorde’s very first commercial flight.  To the Bahrain. Business of course.”  Mrs. Heddon leaned back, victorious on her bottle green chesterfield.  Audrey’s baby cycled on.  To the Bahrain, she thought, clenching her teeth on a smile.  Surely his antics show through my smock?
    “That’s an experience to dine out on,” she said.  She was aware of a belch coming. Mrs. Heddon frowned again.
    “But doesn’t it show how important he is?  Come now, Audrey. Some cake?  Are you sure?  I think I’ll . . . just a teeny piece more.”
    Audrey raised her hand to her mouth to disguise the belch, thinking, in the Bahrain I could belch in her face to compliment her coffee.  Mrs. Heddon was scrutinizing the cake plate. “Yet the fact is,” she said, munching, “with all his globe-trotting, he likes us to take our holidays at home.  We have a holiday cottage. In the Yorkshire Dales.  You won’t have a second home yet, I don’t suppose? We love the Dales. People do underestimate the North of England.”  Mrs. Heddon selected a third slice of cake and chewed.  “Of course there isn’t the money.  And those dreadful accents. Buttyland, my husband calls it.  But we find we can . . . insulate ourselves.”
     “I was born in Batley,” Audrey said, caution to the winds.  “A little town in the north of England.  Somewhat underestimated.  Not a patch on the Bahrain of course.  And never a boulangerie for miles.”
   “Ah, but you’ve escaped, Audrey.”  The riposte was driven home by a steely glare.  “Your background hardly shows.  Hardly at all.  I’m sure you’ll soon settle into a refined neighbourhood. More coffee?”
    Audrey knew her voice was tightening. “I’ve given up clog dancing, if that’s what you mean.  But I agree, it is difficult to adjust to refined ways.  Perhaps a cat would help? I expect our neighbours all keep cats, Zoe?”  Her baby was placid now, as if subdued by her anger and humiliation.  A party, she thought. All I’ve earned is an invitation to leave.
    Mrs. Heddon’s face softened.  “Audrey!  How spirited! Yes!  You will fit in, my dear.”
   Tried and found not wanting, Audrey thought, half expecting that Mrs. Heddon would clap her hands and bounce.  But she merely prinked the bows on her summery frock.  “Now,” she cried. “Down to business.  The birthday party.  You will come, won’t you?”
    “But  . . . we’ve no young children . . .”
   Mrs. Heddon hesitated, then said “No, no, Audrey.  You don’t understand!  It’s a party for my husband.  He’s fifty. No . . . don’t look astonished.  Everyone gives parties.  It’s expected.  So one might as well have a reason.  The avenue got together and came up with – Birthdays!”  Mrs. Heddon chirped the word.  Audrey stared. Now, surely, her hostess was going to bounce.
    “So?  Friday next week? About eight o’clock?  Outdoors if fine. Feed on the hoof.  No bottles, please. Dwinkies on the house. And please . .  . no presents.  Floppy hats and jeans if you like.  Do say you’ll come.  All the young set come.  Even our divorcees . . . well, some of them.  The avenue is dying to meet its newcomers.”
    “Yes . . . I’m sure we can,” Audrey replied, dazed.  Oh God!  The sozzled and the trendy frolicking through the Heddon rhododendrons.  “Yes. All right.  Thank you Zoe.”
    Mrs. Heddon clapped her hands. “Lovely!  And . . . now we’re friends, can I offer you a little something?”
    Audrey pressed her hand to her smock.  “You’ll have to excuse me, Zoe. It goes straight to the baby.”  Yet, with the truce declared, she wondered about Mrs. Heddon, one-upping, guzzling cake, tippling in the morning. And in case her refusal seemed ungracious she said that yes, she would have a tiny, tiny glass herself.  So Mrs. Heddon rose, flowered haunches rocking, and went to a reproduction cabinet and poured vodka into chunky glasses while Audrey admired the floor length velvet curtains and the walnut grand piano and was told that, sadly, no one played.  And then the two ladies sat chatting and sipping vodka while Mrs. Heddon’s mantel clock doled out the quiet morning and the sun printed oblongs on the parquet squares in the bay window.
    Audrey declined a second drink, for the baby now lay in a torpor.  She wondered when Mrs. Heddon would enquire about the birth, so close that terror had given way to massive impatience.  But Mrs. Heddon steered the talk from the neighbours to the Yorkshire Dales and from the Dales to Bahrain and on round the world, while Audrey sat smiling and saying “Lovely,” and wondering whether her milk would be all right.
     When Mrs. Heddon teetered for the third time to the cabinet, she brought the bottle back, banging it among the coffee cups and saying “Oh dear,” as she dropped back into her seat.  She inclined the bottle towards Audrey who shook her head.  Mrs. Heddon slopped vodka into her own glass, drank, rested her head on the back of the chesterfield but struggled upright at once, patting her hair, laughing.
     “D’you know, Audrey . . . six . . . six . . . sixteen pounds this arrangement cost me!”
    “Goodness!  It’s so smart, though.”
    “I thought, why not?  I’ll be a reac . . . “ Mrs.Heddon dealt with a hiccough.  “A reactionary in my age. Yes.  And to my age.”  She drained her glass.  “You remember the style?”  With her forefingers she traced the exaggerated flicks that curved almost to her shoulders.
    “Eight years ago?” said Audrey, weighing politeness against astonishment at her hostess’s daring.
   “Eight!  Oh, Audrey!”  Mrs. Heddon’s laugh shrieked. “Twelve!  At least twelve!  When I was . . . well, never mind. I hunted out an old Vogue and took it to Mister Nicolas . . . by the Mercat Cross.  You know Nister Mic . . . Mister Nicolas . . . he’s so soothing.  Just like that, I instructed.  You should have seen his eyebrows.  He’s so playful.  But so with-it.  He said, Is Madam sure?  And I poked him and said yes, and Madam is paying.  Lovely man.  Lovely man.”  She shook her head quickly and her bluish, greying hair swayed and she seized the bottle.
    “But it suits you.  It really does.”
   “Mister Nicolas will freshen it, and I shall keep it . . . just like this, for the party.  I’ll show them.  The sixties revisited.”
    Freak, thought Audrey, and wondered at her own uncharitableness.  Mrs. Heddon examined the square bottle, twisting it this way and that in her tightly ringed fingers. “I can’t tempt you?”
    “No thank you.”  Audrey considered whether to go, for the clock whirred and began to chime eleven.  Mrs. Heddon poured.
    “Don’t you go thinking,” she began, “that I usually celebrate in the morning.  Oh no.”  Some regional accent that Audrey could not place was creeping into Mrs. Heddon’s voice.  “That wouldn’t do at all . . . “
     “I didn’t for a minute . . . “
    “No!  But once in a way you know, I like to have my morning snifter.”  Mrs. Heddon giggled and swung her legs, briefly lifting both heels from the floor and had to pull her dress down over her pale knees.  “Sometimes I lure a neighbour in and we have a good old gossip.  We conspire.”  With a vigorous nod she said, “But I can tell you’re more reserved, Audrey.  More . . . contained within yourself.  But goodness.  I expect we’ll find we have a lot to talk about.”
     “I expect so.”
     Mrs. Heddon peered over the rim of her glass.  “Well then?”  High spots of colour were forming in her cheeks and between putting down and picking up her glass she rubbed her forearms and sometimes her knees, and fingered the ends of her preposterous hair.
    Fill personal buckets to be passed along your refined gossip-chains?  No fear!  Audrey plunged into a different conversation without stopping to test the water.  “Are your family away from home, Zoe?  You see, I had worked out that the party must be your son or daughter’s twenty-first . . . “
    Mrs. Heddon rose abruptly, took three paces to the fireplace and held on to the high marble mantel. “I have no children,” she said.
    “Oh . . . I . . . “
    “There were . . . difficulties.”
    “I didn’t mean to be . . . “
    “Difficulties,” Mrs. Heddon emphasized.
    “I’m sorry to hear that.”
    Mrs. Heddon pressed her forehead on her knuckles on the mantel.  Mr. Nicolas’s handiwork brushed the clock face  “Mental difficulties.”  She sounded muffled.  Then she straightened and turned to Audrey, pushing at the flicks of hair.  Her face was blotchy red.  “I have been cheated.” She raised her chin, wobbled and looked forlorn.  “Cheated!”  She swayed and would have lurched backwards but for the mantel.  She elbowed herself upright, stumbled to the chesterfield and grabbed the bottle, knocking the cups about with a clatter.
    “Zoe . .  “
    Tears came to Mrs. Heddon’s pale yes.  Audrey thought, if only I could say it’s not too late.  Her baby kicked again.
    “Don’t you think . . .?" Audrey began, but Mrs. Heddon had half filled her glass.  She drank and sniffed.  “He . . . he . . . “ She flapped at the air near her face.  Audrey rose clumsily and took the glass from her.
    “Zoe . . . let me make you some fresh coffee.  Put your feet up for a few minutes.”
    Without opening her eyes, Mrs. Heddon said, “I read somewhere, in one of those . . . magazines . . . that it’s like having your soul bathed in champagne.”  She grinned, her eyes still closed. Her head lolled from side to side.  Audrey stood still.
    “Whatever we did,” Mrs. Heddon said, and then, more carefully, “whatever we tried . . . you know, after the first once or twice . . . his . . . he. Just. Couldn’t.  Twenty years!”   When her eyes opened, Audrey looked away just in time. Mrs Heddon began a low, musical groan, a soft hooting sob that went on and on.  Audrey though, this is not fair.  There are people, volunteers she could phone to tell this to. She collected the coffee cups and her own empty glass and put them on the tray.
    “I’ll take these to your kitchen.”
   As Audrey went out Mrs. Heddon said, “I adored my husband when I married him.  Adored him. D’you know . . . I picked him up.”  Audrey heard Mrs. Heddon giggling in the morning room.  “I lured him on.  In a bus shelter.  I had a red and white plastic rain hat on.  Imagine it.  He was a buyer then.  For a bedding manufacturer.  Little did I know.”
    Audrey found the plug for the percolator.  She rinsed the cups. Everything in the kitchen was electric and expensive.
   “I let him sweep me off my feet.  I was blonde then.  What they used to call ash blonde.  Remember?  I knew he had prospects.  He was a go-getter.  I could tell.”
   Audrey looked out onto refined neighbourhood gardens.  Next door, her clothes drier drifted.  She thought how brazen her red knickers looked, tugged by the breeze.  Mrs. Heddon’s monologue drifted from the morning room.
   “At first we lived in Maidenhead.  I loved our little flat.  I love the Thames valley.  We kept telling each other . . . it will be all right.  It will be all right.”
    Audrey dried the cups.
  “But it wasn’t all right.  And it wasn’t only . . . you know, with me.  He even tried paying.  Paying?  You understand?  We agreed.  But it was no good.  After a year or so . . .” The sob was back. “You give up.”
   Audrey put the cups on the tray.  The percolator bubbled.  From the morning room she heard the bottle chink against Mrs. Heddon’s glass. From the kitchen window she saw a thrush land on the lawn, hop, jab at the earth.  Its little shadow looked very black.  She thought, I could just go.  This afternoon, after a sleep, she probably won’t remember.  She switched the coffee off.
    “I decided,” declared Mrs. Heddon, “to be faithful.  Not that I couldn’t have had my share of flings.”  As she said this, Audrey fathomed her accent. Birmingham!  She’s a Brummie!
    She took the tray back to the morning room.  Mrs. Heddon was sitting upright, but she stood as soon as Audrey came in.
    “Look . . . I’ve heated the coffee.  Sit down and have a cup, Zoe.  I’m sorry . . . sorry you’ve been upset.”  She set the tray back on the coffee table.  Mrs. Heddon lurched round the table.  Audrey noticed tiny red lines in the yellowish whites of her eyes.
    “Audrey . . . you’re too, too kind.”  Mrs. Heddon came close.  “Ever since you came in . . . ever since you . . . can I ask you something?”
    “Mrs. Heddon, I really think . . .”
    “A teeny, teeny favour?”  Mrs. Heddon laid her hand on Audrey’s shoulder.  The hand was cold and the slight grip fell away as soon as Audrey jerked her arm.
   “What favour, Mrs. Heddon?  Why don’t you have some coffee?”
   “Let me put my hand on her.  On your little baby”
    Him, Audrey thought. Him. Him.
   “Please. Just now, when you were sitting down, I could see her kicking.  Just for a moment.  I’ve never . . . so tiny.”
    “He’s asleep.  Asleep just now!”
    "Like a little birdie . . . fluttering . . . only for a moment.”
    Audrey looked around wildly.  “I must go!”
   “Just for a moment.”  Mrs. Heddon placed her flat palm where the baby lay and made little noises like a settling dove.  Audrey seized Mrs. Heddon’s hand and flung it aside.
    “I’m going.  I’m sorry, but I must.”
    Mrs. Heddon dropped into a chair.  She pressed her finger ends to her temples and when she spoke the cooing tone had gone.  “Such a small favour to a cheated woman.  Uncharitable.  Just what I’d expect from Batley.”
    Audrey fled, outside, down the front path and round to her own door, panting, crying.  In her bedroom she lay down and at once fell asleep.
 * * * 
   During the afternoon she went into the garden to take in her washing, but warily, for the dividing hedge was less than head high.  She though how bright and soft the sunshine would make his nappies, which she had already bought.  She loaded the clothes into a plastic tub, sunwarmed, sweet smelling towels, underwear, socks and shirts.  It was hot in the garden.  The lawn felt hot through her thin sandals.  In Mrs. Heddon’s garden, sunflowers nodded gravely, golden and grand.  Refined, sunflowers are, she thought.
   Then she saw Mrs. Heddon coming down the stone steps from her house to the garden, still extravagantly dressed for summer, bare-shouldered, and approach the hedge.  Audrey pretended she had not seen her.  She busied herself with an old shopping bag in which she kept her pegs, thinking, I was unkind. Poor woman.  If only she hadn’t been drunk.
    “Oh . . . Audrey!”
    There was nothing she could do but look round.  “Hello Zoe.”
    “A little word, my dear.”  Mrs. Heddon waited till she crossed to the hedge.
    Mrs. Heddon looked fresh and rested, had renewed her make up and tidied her hair.  “I do hope that you will still come to the party?”
    She sounded so unexpectedly contrite and friendly that Audrey blurted out, “Why yes!  Of course!”
    “I wondered . . . after . . .”
    “Oh, that’s all right.”  Audrey looked down at the grass, at her hands, at the sunflowers.  “I . . . I’m. I understand.  I’m looking forward to it.  My husband will, too.”
    “Good!”  Mrs. Heddon paused.  “There’s another little matter, Audrey.”
   “It’s not easy to say this, my dear.”  Mrs. Heddon sounded firm but helpful.  “And you mustn’t be offended.  You’re new here and not likely to realize.”
   “This is the sort of neighbourhood where we try to avoid airing our washing in public.  I, certainly, try not to do so . . . you know . . . too often.”
    “Oh!  Yes.  I see,” said Audrey, relieved, seeing only that by saying no more she would be admitted to the refined freemasonry of Zoe’s confidantes, whether she liked it or not.

* * *