"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 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.



1 comment:

  1. The final sentence is surely the straw which is liable to break the camel's back! Maybe Karate as Psychotherapy is a more arduous specialisation than we may have imagined, before we read this tale of woe...
    As ever, the detailed observations throughout make for a rich tapestry which needs close examination if we are to appreciate the craft involved in is creation.


I welcome your comments and your critique in particular. No one's writing was ever improved by their being told it's awesome.