A novel by Ken Johnson
It was a bright, cold day in April, and the clocks had broken down. Al Collick, wrapped in an overcoat and a thick woollen sweater to keep out the bitter draught that blew under the front door, slept in a torn and battered leather armchair in the downstairs room. An unfamiliar noise from the back garden disturbed him.
"Where am I?"
Al awoke, and as always these days, asked out loud where he was. It took a few seconds for him to recognise his surroundings. He supposed this was one of those things that happen to you when you get to his age. Waking up was always a brief moment of stark terror at finding himself in some random, unidentified place in the universe, with recognition following a few seconds later. This was home, where he had lived since the War. Before the War he had lived in Glasgow. On his left was an ancient table covered with letters and papers that he was never going to sort out. On it was a sewing machine, some pieces of fabric, and a toiletries bag full of small woodworker's tools: the toolkit of a model maker. On his right stood a Welsh dresser with plates and mugs and cutlery, a plastic waste bin and a bottled-gas cooker that must have celebrated its hundredth birthday years ago. Behind him was a staircase that went up to a bedroom. Al hadn't been upstairs for years. At the foot of the stairs was Al's extravagant doll's house.
Al's cottage was one of a row of four neat stone-built labourers' cottages on a muddy track in East Neuk, the country province on the coast of The Kingdom of Scotland. Above all, this was a quiet place. Everything was still, apart from that unfamiliar, low growl outside.
The dull growl grew louder. A lion roared at the his back door. It must be Stew. Al pulled himself to his feet, staggered to the back door, opened it and looked around. Stew was nowhere to be seen."Stew," Al called to the patch of garden, "Stewart Dappel, you can come out of hiding now."
Stew appeared from a bush and stood in the sunshine, grinning.
"Why do you do that?" Al found this mannerism of Stew's exasperating. "Why don't you just ring the doorbell like everyone else? What's behind the animal noises?"
"Well, if I wanted to ring the doorbell," Stew explained, "I'd have to stand at the front door."
Al waited to hear how this explanation was going to continue. When Stew didn't continue it, Al said, "Thousands of people stand at front doors every day. None of them has died of it yet."
"But if I did it, someone might see me."
Again, Al waited to see whether Stew would explain any further. When he didn't, Al asked slowly, "Stew, I'm missing some vital link in your sequence of logical dependencies. There's nobody anywhere near the front door. But just supposing somebody so far in the distance that I can't see them from here happened to be staring at my front door through a powerful telescope at the very moment when you arrived and rang the doorbell, what misfortune would befall you as a result?"
"I can't tell," said Stew, "but anyone who goes to the trouble of concealing himself in the landscape and searching for me with a telescope probably intends do something grisly to me if he finds me."
"Yes," said Al, thoughtfully if not entirely truthfully, "I can understand why you're so worried. Do you think I ought to keep my whereabouts hidden as well?"
"Oh, no." Stew laughed at the idea. "You'll be all right. Nobody's out to get you."
"In that case," Al looked at Stew as they settled in his downstairs room, "as it seems nobody is gunning for me and you are quite capable of hiding from anyone except an assassin armed with a thermonuclear guided missile while making noises resembling those of an animal best known for performing in circuses, how did you want to spend today?"
"I could make lion noises and you could wear a top hat and put your head in my mouth."
"Is that the best idea you can think of?"
"It's the thing I do best. Or I could tell your fortune," Stew suggested, "and we could play with the dolls' house."
"You told my fortune yesterday."
"But it might have changed. Who knows? The future is on open show to any who can deal a tarot pack, yet nobody knows what the present may hold. Celestial events may mean that the gods are more favourably disposed towards you than they were this time yesterday. Of course it's unlikely but maybe Lady Luck will smile upon you and place boundless wealth and power at your disposal at about half past three this afternoon."
"I don't think my fortune has changed much in the last thirty years. I can't imagine it changing much now. Do you really think it might?"
"Honestly? No, I don't. But it's vital to recognise how vast are the stakes for which we play. Money, camaraderie, women, food, victory in battle, all may depend upon the exact position of two pieces of chopped tomato and a slice of boiled leek."
"By what means are you going to demonstrate your preternatural abilities today, then?"
"Well, that certainly sounds unusual."
"It's almost unknown here in The Kingdom, yet it's a very common practice among the Romanians, especially in villages in the coastal region near Constanta. Whenever young men in that area seek advice from the fortune tellers of the town about gaining the affections of an attractive young lady or engaging in some risky and expensive business venture, they bring a bowl of soup with them so that the fortune teller may discern what the future holds in store for them by interpreting the left over bits of chicken and cabbage and other chopped up stuff."
"Is that fictitious but highly detailed account of life in a faraway foreign land a bit of exotic colour intended to make your tale appear more authentic than it really is?"
"Why, yes," Stew continued seamlessly, "During the broiling hot East European afternoons, as the sun beats down relentlessly upon the baking paving stones and parked Skodas, fortune tellers sit in the shade of the tall palm trees that line Ceausescu Boulevard wearing distinctive sky-blue pants on their heads, which traditional garb renders them immediately recognisable. Typically they charge four new lei for predicting the querant's future from a hundred and fifty millilitres of lukewarm cock-a-leekie."
Scene: A wide street on a bright, hot day in a Romanian city. Camels trudge up and down the carriageway carrying panniers full of groceries, electrical goods, garden furniture etc. Fortune tellers sit on tatty wooden chairs in small groups on the pavements. They are clothed in rags and wearing blue pants on their heads. Ciprian, a young man, approaches one of them, carrying a bowl of tomato soup.
Ciprian: Madam, my name is Ciprian. I beg you to counsel me. Tell me, shall I marry—
Fortune teller: With what may I help you, young Ciprian?
Ciprian: Tell me, shall I marry the beautiful Alina?
Fortune teller: Did you bring some soup?
Ciprian: Yes, here, here, take it.
Fortune teller: Poor boy. There is a beautiful woman. You have a problem of the heart. You feel the pain of love unrequited. (Puts one finger in soup and licks it, then puts silly expression on face and goes into trance.) Ommmm, Ommmm, Ommmm…
Ciprian: What do you see?
Fortune teller: Ommmm… I see red things.
Ciprian: Red things? A bouquet of roses perhaps? Given at a wedding?
Fortune teller: Ommmm, Ommmm… I see many red things. Ommmm…
Ciprian: A woman's lips? Alina's lips?
Fortune teller: No! Women don't have many lips. They only have two each. Guess again.
Ciprian: A bed of a thousand scarlet petals.
Fortune teller: This is no bed and no bouquet. Yet this is many red things.
Fortune teller: (Suddenly agitated) Aha! All is made clear. I see… tomatoes.
Ciprian: (disappointed) Tomatoes?
Fortune teller: In your future, as in your soup, are many tomatoes.
Al paused for a moment, caught up in the imagined beauty of this great and distant province, and then said, "You made that up, didn't you."
"Yes," Stew admitted cheerfully, "there wasn't a word of truth in it."
"And do you really claim to be able to discern my fortune in the dregs in a bowl of soup?"
Al paused again, then, "Are you serious? Can you foretell the future from soup dregs? If so, why aren't you rich?"
"No. I can't do anything of the sort. I made it up. I've never even tried to do it, but I'm willing to have a shot. Theoretically, it might work. They'll give me a Nobel prize if it does."
"But you said…"
"I said I claimed to be able to do it. I didn't say I could do it. People often claim to be able to do things that are impossible. Bend spoons, cure measles by yelling and waving their arms about, put rich crooks in the slammer. Since I've never tried my hand at zymomancy, I don't know whether I can do it or not, but there's no harm in trying."
"Oh," Al replied, trying to sound sardonic. He reached into the bin beside the cooker and found the remains of a soup tin which he had opened and drunk the contents of three days ago. He looked inside the tin and then tossed it to Stew, who caught it deftly. "Here you are, read this. I'm all ears," he added untruthfully.
"The soup dregs tell me first that you are a kind and loving man," said Stew, staring intensely into the tin, "generous, hard working and wise."
"You have an uncanny gift for the divination of character."
"There is a dollop of gravy on the label, so you should never trust your friends to look after your money. And, my, what is this? A tiny offcut of red pepper is in occlusion with half a pea. This means good luck will come to you from across the water and you will drive your enemy far into the mountains. Over here, a couple of grains of barley conjoined represent a woman. As the sun sets, she crosses your threshold bringing something. Something square."
"Is it a bicycle?"
"No, they don't make square bicycles. She is carrying something that definitely isn't a bicycle."
"Then which way is she going?"
"Towards the greasy patch where the meatball was. And I've found a little piece of parsley stalk and that tells me you will travel."
"Travel far away?"
"No, it's a very small piece of stalk. I'd say about as far as the grocer's."
"Grocer's? And why would I want to go to the grocer's?"
"Because you've run out of bread, potatoes, steak pies, Fairy liquid, tea bags and tinned soup."
"Gosh, that's everything I ever buy. And you can tell that just by looking into an empty soup tin?"
"No, I can tell it by looking at the dresser. There's nothing on it. The moving soup spoon writes, and having writ, moves on. Nothing to worry about. McMurdo the grocer probably has all those things. He usually does, except when there's a shortage."
"And what's the weather forecast?"
"Bright and cold. Wrap up warm."
"Do you want to come along?"
"Sure. Why not? Have you got any money?"
"I don't think so." Al felt in the pockets of his overcoat and found a dozen grubby coins: a few English pence, two US dollars, fifty euro cents and some Swedish krona. "Just look at all that," he said, beaming at the coins and clinking them together in his hand, "and I didn't know I had it. There was I thinking I had nothing at all."
"And have you got your ID?"
"For to walk down the road to the grocers?" Al couldn't imagine himself being stopped and asked for his ID on such a short errand.
"You might need to prove you're over eighteen," said Stew, "before he lets you buy Fairy liquid."
"No. My ID fell down the toilet and I couldn't bear to fish it out, so I flushed it."
"Lots of people do that. According to The Daily Sewage…"
"According to what?"
"Trade paper. According to The Daily Sewage, when they cleaned the big sewage works at Kingussie they found over ten thousand identity cards clogging the main pipe in between the crud extractor and the slime mincer. Ten thousand of them. Enough to sink a ship. Just think of that."
"Have you got yours, Stew? You can buy the Fairy liquid. I'll give you the money."
"No, sorry. I lost the old one and I haven't finished making a new one. I didn't have any cardboard. When I found some cardboard I didn't have a biro. And then when I found a biro it didn't work. But when I get some more cardboard I'll make a new one."
"Now here's a thing." Al took the soup tin and stood it on the table beside the toolkit. "This soup tin is just exactly the right size. If I cut it up with a pair of tin-shears and then batter it flat," he said, eyeing the tin carefully, "we could make metal identity cards. They'd look really impressive and they wouldn't go soggy in the rain like the cardboard ones."
"Metal ID cards? You mean, one for you and one for me too? That'd really be one better than the neighbours. Only trouble is, if you start making them now, McMurdo will have closed shop before you've finished them."
Al stared out of the window and considered this for a long while. "Aye. Well, we'll probably not need our identity cards just to go to the shop. So we'll go to the shop and get some things and come back here, and then when we get back here, we'll cook something and then we'll make the ID cards."
"That's a lot of things to do all on the same afternoon," said Stew. "Shall I make a list?"
"Oh, I think I'll remember them all. Don't show off, just because you can read."
"Scientists say you can only remember seven things. Go to the shop," Stew counted on his fingers, "buy the things, come back, cook something, and make the ID cards — that's five things."
"How did the scientists work out how many things you can remember?"
"They did experiments with rats. An American professor of mathematics, Hans Upp, worked out that if you divide the size of a rat brain by the average size of the things it has to remember and round to the nearest integer, that tells you the number of average things that the rat can remember."
Al gasped. "That is truly amazing."
"That's why you can recall more peoples' names than addresses," said Stew, "because houses are bigger than people."
"So if you were to tell me two more things that I have to do," Al deduced, "I'd be in serious danger of going out and forgetting to come back home again?"
"Yes. Will we still have time to play with the dolls' house?" Stew asked anxiously.
"That's six things, then. Are you sure you don't want me to make a list?"
"The dolls can sit and watch us at work," Al continued, pretending he hadn't heard Stew's offer. "I'll fetch them when we start on the soup tin. They'd like that."
Leaving the house, Al deliberately left the front door unlocked. He and Stew paused at the front gate to look about them. They saw fields, the sands and the grey North Sea stretching to the horizon, and behind them the low green hills with an occasional sheep.
"This is a beautiful place," said Stew, "truly breathtaking."
"You know," said Al, staring into the distance, "I still can't see anybody watching our front door. Are you really frightened someone is trying to kill you?"
"Oh, yes, no doubt about that."
"Ah, well, don't worry, we'll not be out here for too long — Stew?"
Al made the mistake of turning his head and looking into the distance, and when he looked back, Stew had disappeared. While Al was admiring the view of the North Sea in the distance, Stew had hidden himself somewhere.
"Why do ye keep doin' that?"
Al stared around, examining the fence posts, the long grass and the rusted hulks of cars abandoned long ago, but could not make out where Stew had gone to. Only slightly unsettled, Al began the short walk to McMurdo's grocer's shop at the cross roads.
"Good morning, Al."
The path led through the church yard. It was the minister, the Reverend Hugo Cabrio, whose greatest boast was that he had once delivered a three minute talk on Radio Four's morning religion show, I'll Talk Delusional Bollocks For A Couple Of Minutes While You Go To The Toilet. He had been repainting the sign in the church yard. The Church of St. Diana of Spencer, it read.
"Morning, minister. How come you've changed the name of the old place again?"
"I decided to revitalise the brand because I felt that St. George Burley, despite being a saint of great distinction and having performed many well attested miracles on the pitch of the beautiful game, was reaching the twilight of his consumer awareness cycle so I've taken the initiative and gone out with a tin of paint and a brush and reverted to a familiar classic to which the public feels an ingrained loyalty and devotion."
"Did you realise you said that entire sentence without once drawing breath?"
"I've still got that DVD of St. Diana fluttering her eyelashes in the late twentieth century. Do you know her eyelashes are on display behind the altar at St. Paul's, with all the old, priceless relics like George Burley's football boots?"
"No, but if you sing the verse I'll join in the chorus."
"It goes to the tune of When the Saints go Marching In."
Scene: Football crowd singing loudly and roughly in tune.
Music: Brass band, When the Saints go Marching In.
Are on display
Behind the altar at St. Paul's,
With all the old, priceless relics,
Like George Burley's football boots.
The Minister paused, then, "Tell me, how… how are the twins?"
"I've left them at home today. They wanted to stay indoors. How is the clock?"
"Not at all well, I'm afraid. Everything seemed to be making good progress until last week. We had the new spindle shipped across here at last. It was made specially for us by a dedicated sweatshop full of cute eight year old boys chained to a workbench in Huilongguan."
"So," Al beamed, "after all these years the old church clock works again. Just think of that." He looked up at it. "How come it's still got no hands?"
"Well, things are not quite as I would wish them," explained the Minister, "because the new spindle broke as soon as we took the ladder away. The hands of the clock weigh getting on for a ton. We heard a sudden snap and then with a terrific crash the entire pile of horological ironmongery hit the church steps. Nearly fell on my head, and look, you can see what it did to the stonework over there." He pointed at the top step, which was broken in pieces. "You must have heard the commotion, surely. I don't think the foundry realised what would happen, because they've surely never seen a church in their entire lives, let alone a church clock on one. But in a hundred years or so my successors will surely try again."
"And in the meanwhile, what if we and our lawful heirs and successors want to know what the time is?"
"There's always the sun dial."
"Over there? Contare solo le ore di sole. It says it's two o'clock."
"Two o'clock, indeed it is. I didn't think you spoke Latin."
"My father taught it me. He was a centurion in the Roman Army. He worked on Hadrian's Wall. His men laid the bricks around Housesteads. Vindolanda."
"He even taught you the Roman numerals?"
"No, that was a lucky guess, Minister."
"That was jolly good Latin, really, when you take all that into account." Minister Cabrio paused impressively. "Tell me, do you ever think about what will happen after you die?"
"I've given Stew instructions," Al replied briskly, "to put my body in a black plastic bin-bag and give it to somebody he doesn't like. So now I'm on my way to McMurdo's. See you later."
At the end of the path stood McMurdo's shop. Goodness knows why anyone would build a shop in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a row of four small houses, like this shop. Quite likely Al Collick was the only customer who would call here today. Perhaps many years before there had been other houses nearby, and people had come from the houses to buy their daily needs at this small corner shop with outdated cereal boxes, dusty newspapers and an old electric iron in the window and two wobbly, ill fitting doors that flapped and banged in the wind. The walls and doors were all amateurishly painted in a greyish shade of blue, with McMurdo's name in yellow capitals over the window. Inside, assorted goods were stacked on rickety wooden shelves from floor to ceiling. Al saw Stew already standing at the counter.
"Afternoon," said McMurdo.
"Afternoon, McMurdo." Al nodded a greeting to Stew. "How long has Stew been here?" he asked McMurdo.
"Can't remember. Half an hour at least. But to be honest I didn't see him come in."
"Can I get bread, Fairy liquid, potatoes, steak pies, tea bags and tinned soup, please?"
"I think so," said McMurdo, stroking his chin, "I think I have all those somewhere. What flavour soup?"
"That's good because I only have tomato. There's a shortage."
"You only ever have tomato."
McMurdo wandered around the shop apparently aimlessly, taking goods from one shelf or another and lining them up on the counter. Eventually he finished fetching things and stopped to count them.
"One, two, three, four," he lost count and started again, "one, two, three, four, five. I haven't got any potatoes today. Sorry."
"Not a single one. All gone. There's a shortage," he added, as though illicitly passing on a secret.
"How can there be a shortage?" Al pointed to the farm on the other side of the path. "There's a farm over the road. They grow potatoes there. They have acres and acres and acres of potatoes. Famer Howe over there has a special room where he can go and stand up to his neck in potatoes. How can there possibly be a shortage of potatoes barely ten feet away?"
"There's a shortage," said McMurdo, "because I haven't got any. So it's a distribution and logistics disruption rather than an inadequacy of material supplies."
Al considered this gibberish. "You ought to be an economist. Here." He took a handful of coins from his pocket and held them out. McMurdo took the pile of coins, arranged them on the scale, weighed them, took a couple of coins off the pile so that the weight would be just right, and handed the excess back to Al.
"Sorry about the potatoes. Maybe tomorrow."
"And maybe not. Do you have a carrier bag so I can lug all this back home?"
"No. Sorry, I haven't. Haven't seen carrier bags since the great environmental crisis of twenty-ten. You'll have to put it all on your pockets. Maybe Stew will help you."
"Stew?" Al tried to call his chum over. They both looked around for Stew, but he had already disappeared from sight.
"How does he do that?" asked McMurdo.
"Who cares? Why does he do it?" countered Al, mystified and exasperated. "That's what I want to know. Why can't he just… stand still or else walk about, like normal people?"
"To avoid carrying any of the groceries," said McMurdo. "That's why he does it. They're heavy things."
"I do wish he wouldn't," said Al, tutting and still shaking his head. He arranged the groceries in his pockets and set off for home.
Al arrived back at his house. Stew appeared beside him just as he was opening the front door.
"You're back, then," said Al.
"Oh, aye. Was that true about your father bein' a centurion?"
"What do you think?"
"I'm not sure. I'd like to pass on the benefit of any doubt, but then on the other hand the Romans did leave Scotland around two thousand years ago, and your father couldn't have been two thousand years old when he died."
"So your conclusion is what, Mr Holmes?"
"That you were being a little economical with the truth."
"I was, indeed. I made it up completely."
"So how come you speak Latin?"
"I don't. That wasn't Latin, anyway. It was Italian. I used to read Sundials Illustrated Monthly. I remembered the inscription that you sometimes see on Italian sundials, that's all. Now sit down, try not to hide behind anything, and let me get a fire going."
Al had matches and wood for the stove, and the two men shared tea, hot tomato soup and hot steak pie.
"Could've done with some chips, that," Al observed afterwards.
"Yes. We could have had some chips, if only there weren't any logistical disruption to the potato supply provisioning channel."
"We could organise our own logistics, if we wanted to. It wouldn't be difficult."
"I don't understand."
"We could cut out the middle man. We could fetch the potatoes ourselves, from the farm to the house. When you think about it, we don't really need McMurdo to do that for us. It's not a long distance really. They're only just over the road."
"You know, that's completely true. What will Mookie do if he sees us?" Mookie was a contemptuous and familiar sobriquet for Farmer Howe.
"Shoot us, probably. Well, shoot at us. He just bought a new rifle. He's probably dying to try it out on someone."
"Doesn't that scare you?"
"At my age? Not much. Death only scares you if you expect your life to improve. Being maimed for life would be a bit of a bummer, but if you stick with me, you'll be all right."
"I want to go home."
"Well, you can't," said Al, with finality, "because you haven't got one."
Al and Stew were out of sight of the road now, in the lee of the bramble hedge that ran between the fields. Under the hedge Al found two shovels. He offered one to Stew, who ignored it.
Stew sighed. "I meant your home, not mine. I'm still in the squat. At my age."
"Well, go there, then, if you don't want to help."
"Can't I just stay here and not help?"
"If you want to, but you'll make me really annoyed."
"I'll stay and help, then," said Stew, after leaning on his shovel and thinking carefully for several minutes. "The squat's a dreadful, mucky place and it stinks of rotten fish."
"Well, you shouldn't keep leaving the fish lying about it," said Al, picking up the second shovel as he spoke, "You should put 'em in water. Lyin' on the floor kills 'em, and then they start to smell."
"Is that a potato in the ground there?"
"Don't try changing the subject."
"It's a good size. We could have a fair few decent chips off that'n."
"Hey, those are my potatoes you're stealin'. Get off my land, you tramps!" The shout came in a moneyed accent from behind the hedgerow. "Or I shall try out my new rifle."
Al laughed heartily. "Aw, shit," he said to Stew quietly, "here we go. Try it out, then." he shouted back. "You can take your time because we ain't going anywhere."
"All right, well, all right, you asked for it."
"Don't rush yoursel'. Gie it your best shot, Mookie."
"You'll laugh the other side of your face when you've been shot."
"Shot at, you mean. Piss off."
From behind the hedge came a loud bang and an even louder scream. "Aargh, shit!" it went.
"Are you all right, Farmer Howe?" hollered Stew.
"No, I'm bloody not. I've shot my own ear off."
"I've told you before, you hold it with the pointy end facin' the trespasser and you…" Al couldn't speak for laughter. "Oh, there's no point explainin', 'cos you'll never learn. You should stick to what you're good at."
"And what's that?" Stew enquired.
"Isn't that those boats that go under the sea and shoot torpedoes?"
"Snook up on the English fleet and sank the lot of them?" Al mimed the graceful passage of a subsidy passing through the Puerto Rico Trench, just a few feet above the ocean floor, surrounded by sharks and whales and giant barnacles and other marine life.
"I always wanted to go for a ride in one of them."
Al and Stew pushed through the hedge towards the loud bang. In the yard near the farm house, Farmer Howe was lying on the ground, too shaken to stand up. He was clasping his hand to a wound where his right ear used to be. There was a puddle of blood on the ground, in which lay an ear.
"You're in severe shock, mate." Stew observed. "Do you want a drink?"
"It's all right, I've got one ear."
A huge cow wandered over to see what was going on.
"He'll be all right," Al reassured her. "it's only his head."
"Moo!" said the cow, as who would say, "That's all right, then."
"He's keepin' his ear to the ground," put in Stew, hilariously.
"Well, you have to, these days."
Mook grabbed hold of the cow and struggled to his feet, using her as a support. He was mud and dirt all over. The cow looked at him with distaste. While Stew picked up Mook's ear and handed it to him, Al examined the smoking rifle. "Made in China," he read aloud.
"What, my ear?"
"So, Mookie, now that we have stood your fire, can we get on with the potato harvest or do you need medical assistance?"
Mook looked aggrieved and didn't say anything, but the answer was obvious.
"Come on," said Stew, "I'll walk to the cottage hospital with you and they'll patch you up. Take care now. How many times is that you've nearly killed yersel'?"
Al watched them as far as the path and as they turned towards the cottage hospital Al wandered back to the potato patch. He and Stew probably needed three potatoes each. "King Edwards," he said to himself out loud, picking his shovel up again. "We'll have some jolly good chips from these." He chose a nearby plant and howked the shovel into the ground with tremendous force.
Scene: A lecture theatre at Edinburgh School of Medicine.
Lecturer: (in cut-glass accent) Chips are one of the four basic food groups, as you doubtless recall. (Points to diagram on flip chart.) The others being what, Smith?
Smith: Curry, beer and… I can't remember, er… water, sir?
McCall: Pills, doctor?
Lecturer: (sighs) Brown?
Brown: The four principal food groups are beer, chips, curry, and left-overs.
Lecturer: Exactly, Brown. And in alphabetical order, too. You have well earned a gold star. (Affixes gold star to chart on wall. Students launch armada of paper aeroplanes at Brown.) Smith, kindly do not waste your time coming to me for sympathy when you die of malnutrition in a few months' time. (Gestures to class.) And the correct way to prepare chips in order to obtain the maximum nutritional value from them is what? (Pauses.) Tirrel?
Tirrel: Fry them in previously used lard, drench them in salt and brown sauce and then wrap them loosely in newspaper, doctor.
Lecturer: Correct, unimpeachably correct. And what symptoms would you expect to see in a patient who was eating a diet deficient in chips? (Pauses.) I offer you a chance to redeem yourself, Smith.
Smith: Constant pangs of hunger, underweight, weakness, tiredness, general malaise and a desperate craving for potato derivatives, sir?
Lecturer: Indeed. And in the event of the deficiency remaining untreated?
Smith: Coma, and an agonising death, sir.
Lecturer: Absolutely correct. I believe you may have been awake during last week's lecture after all.
(Smith punches the air jubilantly.)
Al turned the earth over and threw up six decent looking spuds. He polished them on his overcoat, inspected them, scratched a bit more mud off them with his fingernail and and stuck them in his pockets. He wandered back to the path and into his own house again. Six good potatoes, not bad for an hour's work.
Stew was probably still at the cottage hospital, although you could never really tell. He might be in the room with you and you'd never know. Al spent an age staring around the room and listening for the sound of Stew drawing breath or taking a step on the creaky floor, and decided that as far as he knew he was alone. He reached for a vegetable knife, rinsed it off with the Fairy liquid, peeled the potatoes and divided them into reasonable sized chips.
The cottage hospital was the size of a large detached house. A sign said "Emergencies," and an arrow pointed to a side door. The side door led to a small examination and triage room, where Doctor Sandy Beech caught sight of the side of Farmer Howe's head and gasped "Oh, my God! I shall have to transfer you to the ward." at the state of it. He took hold of the patient and guided him to a bed in the corner of the next room. "What a mess. What have you done to yourself this time?"
A nurse bustled up with a manila folder. "The case notes, Doctor."
"Thank you, Dot. Just put them on the desk over there. I know them by heart, I think. Now then..."
"He's shot his own ear off, Doctor," put in Stew.
"Yes, yes, I can see that. Dreadful. What was he doing?"
"He was shooting me," said Stew.
"Shooting you? Why the devil would he shoot you?"
"'Cos I was annoying him. But he missed and shot his own ear off by mistake."
"You shouldn't annoy a man with a gun, you know, Stew. Not too much or too often, anyway."
"It's not risky at all, not in his case," said Stew. "Not for me, anyway."
"Now don't you worry," said the doctor to Mook, "we'll soon have you right as rain and fully binaural."
"Thank you, doctor."
"Just like I did last week, and the week before that. Can't you just ask trespassers to leave without shooting at them?"
Mook sighed but otherwise remained silent.
Dr Beech addressed Dot. "Can you give him some morphine, clean all this mess up on the side of his head and then stitch the ear back on again, Nurse Puzzle?"
"Yes, Doctor." She reached into a cupboard for cotton wool and a bottle of something.
"Do you know," the doctor asked Stew, "where the patient lives?"
"Oh, aye. He lives on the farm, near me and Al."
"Can you let his family know he'll be back tomorrow? I think we should keep him in the hospital for a wee while. Just to keep the numbers up. You know."
"Yes, I can do that for him." Stew turned to Farmer Howe and asked, "D'ye need anything, Mookie?"
"No, Ow!" said Mook as the nurse injected something into the stump where his ear used to be, "I'll be fine."
"Dressing gown, clean socks. Toothbrush. Book. That sort of thing," said Nurse Dot, from experience.
"Can he read?" Stew was astonished.
"Far as I know."
"I'll do it, of course," said Stew.
The sun was setting and it was growing dark. Al put more wood onto the stove, heated his pan of lard and fried the chips. He was sitting picking at them as Stew and Tawny Howe arrived at the back door of his cottage. They were carrying a small suitcase.
"Al, good evening," said Mrs Howe, who was obviously in a state of mild shock, "I'm Tawny, I'm Mook's wife. I just dropped by to say thanks for helping Mookie today. He could've lain there for ages."
Tawny was the tangled blonde, glamorous grandmother type and spoke with a Corstorphine accent.
"I didn't help him," Al replied, truthfully. "It was Stew's idea. He was trying to shoot us. I would've left him there."
"I wouldn't blame you. He's a bloody menace with that rifle. A danger to himself and others. He does nothing but have shooting accidents and claim subsidies." She calmed herself, visibly, by taking a deep breath. "We've put together a change of clothes for him. We're going to take them to him now."
"Oh, he'll be pleased to have company, I should think. It looked to us as though he'd hurt himself quite badly. The hospital knows what they're doing, though. Nothing to worry about."
"They told me he'll be out tomorrow," said Stew.
"It's his own fault," said Tawny, "the daft bugger."
"Do you want some chips?"
"Oh, yes. I'm in no hurry. Mook won't go away. Chips are one of the four basic food groups, you know," Tawny added knowledgeably.
"Aye. Here." Al piled chips onto a dented enamel plate, dusted them with salt, shook the dregs of a bottle of brown sauce over them, and passed them to her.
Tawny sampled them and her face lit up. "Hey, these are great. Seriously tasty. Giz a fork."
"Over there. And Stew, get some chips for yourself. They're in the pan there."
At the table Stew ate a few chips and cast around for a subject of conversation.
"I saw a frog in a field on the way home," he said at last.
"What was it doing?" asked Al, while Tawny said "Was it one of my fields?" at the same instant.
"It was sitting still watching the sun go down, and croaking quietly."
"As frogs have done since the dawn of time," said Al without interest.
"This frog hadn't been croaking since the dawn of time," said Stew, "because it wasn't there when I went to the cottage hospital. It was only there on my way back. So if it had been croaking since the dawn of time, it must have been croaking somewhere else."
There was a brief silence and Tawny Howe asked, "Did it look like a very old frog?"
"Not specially. I doubt it would've been around much before the invention of, say, offset lithography."
"Frogs don't live to that age. Common sense says the frog you saw was a mere hatchling when Mr Parr patented his Tickle Accelerator."
"So," Stew moved on, "I listened to this frog croaking—"
"Would you like some more chips, Tawny?" Al interrupted.
"Oh, yes, another two or three would be nice, thanks."
"Are you two at all interested in this frog what I saw?"
"No, not at all really," Al replied, knowing this would in no way stem Stew's flow.
"There were frogs in London," said Tawny, who had once been there, "called pea soupers, because they couldn't see anything far away."
Stew carried on regardless. "I listened to this frog croaking. I listened really closely." He made a dramatic gesture of cupping both ears with his hands. "I just had this feeling, you know, this insistent intuitive certainty that this wee creature was trying to convey to me a message of vast importance. I shut out every other sound completely and just concentrated on what it was croaking, in the eager anticipation of a life changing experience."
"If you want a life changing experience," said Al wistfully, "all you've got to do is cut your own head off."
"I'm afraid I've lost the plot," said Tawny. "If someone had a message for you, why didn't they just come and tell you? Why would they have entrusted the message to a frog, of all creatures?"
"Aye," Al nodded, "aye, I give you that. It does seem a bit of an odd choice. Whoever it is wants to tell Stew something could've taught a parrot to recite the message, and then taught it to read a map, and made a cross on the map where the squat is," he mimed drawing a cross on a map, "and shown it a picture of Stew, and then it could convey the message to him directly, verbally, clearly and distinctly."
Stew was sceptical. "I don't think that would work particularly well. Parrots can't read a map, can they?"
"Oh, yes, after sufficient instruction." Tawny asserted. "Mook told me once about a parrot that was trained to carry a message from the Farmer's Union somewhere in Cornwall all the way to a mango and papaya preservation factory in the outskirts of Johannesburg. Half way around the world. They gave it a map and one of those plastic thingies with some Philadelphia cheese and bread sticks, and it flew off, determined to find the owner of the company and deliver a vital snippet of crucial information. True grit, that is."
"All the way from Cornwall?" Stew double checked.
"Yes. All the way from Cornwall."
"So it was one of the parrots of Penzance."
The joke fell flat, but the account had impressed Al. "What was its name?"
"Squisho Pty. The Squisho Tinned Fruit Company. I can remember it distinctly."
"I meant, what was the parrot's name?"
"Fruitgum, I think. Yes. Fruitgum the Parrot, it was. Anyway, it dropped the map, flew about two miles in the wrong direction, ate the snack and dropped dead. They found the poor bird in a field near St Ives. Its last words were 'Giz a bag of chips.' Actually I never understood why they didn't just post it. There was still a postal service in those days, if I remember."
"Wouldn't it peck its way out of the envelope?"
"If it resisted the temptation to escape its confines, it would stand a fighting chance of getting there. I sent a photograph of my dog to an exhibition in Reigate once, and that arrived."
"What happened to this heroic parrot? What did it die of?" Stew really wanted to know.
"Serious illness, that," he tutted. "But in any case anyway, there I was standing motionlessly on the path, silently and intently listening to the barely audible croaking of my wee froggy friend to the exclusion of all else—"
"Is there such a word as motionlessly?" Al asked Tawny.
"I don't have any idea."
"And what was this softly spoken wee amphibian trying to tell you?"
"Well, I don't know. It was definitely trying to tell me something so important that it justified the laborious yomp from its pond in the middle of some field to the side of the path, but I didn't learn much really. It was just making a sort of croaking noise."
"You don't speak Frog, then."
"Not a croak."
"So how did it eventually convey its vital message to you?" Al persisted, "Did it jump around the field leaving a trail of trampled grass and muddy footprints in the shape of letters of the alphabet, like a corn circle with subtitles? Did it carry a wee scroll on a bit of string tied about its neck? Or did it write the message in the mud with its toes?"
"Do frogs have toes?" Tawny asked, gracefully adding, "Those chips were delicious, by the way."
"No, it didn't," said Stew, "it didn't do anything like that. It just looked in my direction and took a huge leap away from me. Then it took another huge leap towards the glorious, incandescent sunset. And I thought, well, if you don't want to sit and talk to me, I can find other things to do as well. I don't have to spend my life chasing after your sort, standing in the dark and the cold and trying to glean messages from taciturn frogs like yourself, you know."
"So this boils down to, you saw a frog that couldn't talk, and it ran away."
"Yes," said Stew, "yes, that's about it, really. So I know at least that you were paying attention despite your show of affected indifference. Nothing much ever happens to me."
"You could have tried kissing it," suggested Tawny, "because it might have been a wandering soul bewitched by an evil sorceress some time around the discovery of the ball-point pen, waiting only for a tender loving kiss to turn it into a handsome prince before your very eyes."
"What would I want a handsome prince for? If you ask me, I'd much rather have a frog."
"Doesn't it have to be a beautiful young lady?" Al put in.
"Yes," said Stew, and thinking a little more consecutively than on most evenings he volunteered, "Al, may I take the twins and show them the frog?"
"Of course. You take the twins to see the frog, the present position of which incidentally you have not the least idea of, while I clean up in here and wash everything up and throw the potato peel on the compost heap and tidy everything away." The sardonicity was lost on Stew. Al paused for Stew to make the intended inference, but he didn't, and then Al timed out. "Sure, take them. They like frogs. Wash your hands first."
"Oh, thank you. They'll enjoy the walk."
"Twins? I didn't know you had twins." Tawny was astonished.
"Oh, I do," said Al, "and Stew loves helping to look after them. He always babysits them and such. They're wee darlings." He looked across at Stew and back at Tawny. "What are you going to do now?"
"Oh, me. I think I've got my work cut out," said Tawny. "I'm going to take this suitcase to Mook in the cottage hospital, poor thing. You never know when you might need a change of underwear. So I'm sorry, I'd have loved to stay and the chips were so delicious that you could be the next Gordon Ramsay, Al."
"Do you mean that I could be on the telly, if the telly ever makes a come-back?"
"They could call the programme F-ckin' Chips."
"That's a jolly good idea. Or The C Word."
"That'd be better, but I liked F-ckin' Chips more. That title's got pizazz, audience recognition, familiarity, verve, vibrancy, dynamic energy, life, and a hyphen in the middle to stop the nannybots from blocking any usage of its full name."
"You're a natural, Al." Tawny smiled and stood up to leave. "Goodbye for now, then, both of you."
"Bye," chorused Al and Stew.
They watched the door close behind Tawny, and Al turned to Stew.
"Pick up the plates and stuff and put them in the sink, could you?"
Al wiped the slops off the table with a rag, and turned to face the sink full of plates and cutlery covered in chip fat.
"I don't suppose you fancy helping me with this mucky, time consuming and thankless task, do you, Stew?"
"Oh, no. I'd much rather take the twins out."
As Al laboured over the sink, Stew knelt and opened the front of the doll's house. With great warmth he took out the two identical Barbie dolls, Jazz and Jacqui. He looked into their faces and felt for a moment as if they really knew how much he adored them and as though they really cared about him.
"We're going to see my new friend," he told them, "and he's a frog."
The dolls stared back, cute but expressionless. The dolls were dressed in jeans, short tee shirts and black shoes with heels, and they looked like highly desirable dancers in a city bar somewhere. Jazz seemed to be wearing perfume, Jacqui had ear rings. They were scale models of the sort of woman you wanted to buy a drink for just in case she would talk to you for a few minutes.
"Put their coats on them," said Al, wagging his finger at the coat-rack in the doll's house. "It's cold out."
Al wriggled the dolls into their coats and buttoned them. Jazz wore white fur, Jacqui a blue overcoat.
"Sit in my pocket here, gorgeous girls, and let's go." Stew put his coat on and positioned the dolls in his breast pocket, so that they could both see out. "You warm enough, Jazz? You comfortable, Jacqui? I'll see you later, Al."
"See you. And don't take them to the squat. I don't want them to know the sort of—"
There was a slam. Stew had left, shutting the door.
Al noticed that the wind had dropped and there was no longer a freezing cold draught coming in under the door. Peace descended upon the living room and Al, laboriously finishing the washing up and the drying up and the putting away, sat down at the table again and took up his metalworking tools. The empty soup tin was still on the table. Both he and Stew needed new identity cards. What should they look like, he wondered, running through some possibilities in his head. The last lot had been dark blue with grey writing and they hadn't lasted long because he had made them out of old cereal boxes. He decided these should be black identity cards with a picture of King Thomas Sheridan somewhere, maybe on the left hand side. That would lend the necessary gravitas to their appearance. People wouldn't try to stop you in the street if you had a picture of the President of Scotland on your identity card, oh no. He practised with a pencil on a scrap of paper and found that he could do a decent likeness of King Thomas Sheridan without much effort. It was good enough to convince anyone who had never actually seen King Thomas Sheridan, which was everyone he knew. He started scratching the label off the soup tin. He took up a fine brush and pointed it in his lips. Al could write his own name and Stew's name, and for the rest of the words he could just put neat, straightish scribbles because nobody ever read those words anyway.
Al was enduring his recurrent nightmare. He was a young man again. The War was on. The noise of battle was filling his ears. He was in Glasgow, near his one time home, amid those cramped, terraced houses just up from the docks and the shipbuilders. It was night, and raining hard, and there was a half moon, enough to see black outlines. There was a blare of sirens and aircraft noise and burglar alarms and explosions and ack-ack fire.
Al was running away from his home as though possessed, wearing only a coat and slippers, tripping on bricks, timber, shards of glass and rubbish. A sudden roar from the sky heralded a volley of missile bombs from an aeroplane. The bombs hurtled narrowly overhead. Instinctively, Al covered his head with his hands and ducked to avoid them as they shot over the roofs. There were thumps, the clatter of breaking glass and falling masonry, some screaming and yelling but no nearby explosions. English missile bombs, made in China, mostly failed to explode. The radio never mentioned the bombs going off, because mostly they didn't. On the English radio you could hear percentages "reaching their target," but most of them probably didn't even do that. These missile bombs, for example, were no part of the slum clearance scheme which the Prime Minister of England, Jacqui Smith, had been carrying on in England. They were probably meant for the shipbuilding yards a couple of miles away.
With a sudden, terrific roar another missile bomb flew overhead, closer to the roofs than the first wave, low enough to break chimney pots. The slipstream knocked Al to the ground. Al fell hard onto some sharp rubble and he knew he had cut himself but he didn't feel any pain. He heard the thump of the missile hitting a house, and he knew without looking that it was his house. The engine of the bomb cut out and, despite the racket of the air raid, he heard silence. Even the heartbeat that had been ringing in his ears ceased. Still lying on the ground, defying a deep stabbing pain in his left shoulder, Al turned slowly to look at his house, and he saw the damage. The missile bomb had hit the front wall a few feet above the ground. New door, he reckoned, couple of panes of glass, window frame, some bricks to replace, guttering come away: five hundred euro maybe. It could certainly be a lot worse.
Al put both hands onto the road to try to lift himself to his feet. By pure good fortune he had his back turned to the missile when it exploded.
A fireball engulfed the house and painted the entire scene white. It set fire to trees in the street, flowers in the gardens, washing lines and his own coat. A hail of bricks flew in all directions: one landed hard on his ankle, another on the small of his back, and suddenly Al was flat on the street again and his injuries were really starting to hurt. The pain from his ankle was so fierce that Al thought he would never stand up again. He looked at his house and screamed with the shock of it. The fireball had abated enough for him to see what had happened to the house. It was reduced to an unrecognisable pile of flames, brick and timber. What was left of it was completely ablaze. He could feel the heat even here, where he was lying. It dawned on him that the heat in his back was coming from flames on his coat and he managed to throw it off. For some reason he noticed a rat a couple of feet from him, preening its whiskers, sniffing the smoke and pattering off towards the fire. Al tried to get back on his feet but failed. The crushed ankle was useless. Neighbours poured onto the street, and Al heard them mouthing "Looks like the Collicks bought it, then," "Shame, innit," and "That was a damned near miss." His coat burned to ashes, Al was naked and crying hysterically.
A dog barked near the back door and woke Al. For a few seconds he was really sobbing, desperately miserable, unsure of where he was, desperate to go back to the home in Glasgow where he once felt so loved and happy. The noise of the war was still echoing in his head, his heart was racing, he was in a cold sweat. Gradual recognition came, and Al came to his senses and found himself wrapped in his heavy coat, sat in his tatty armchair, in the living room of his cottage. It was some time in the morning. The war had been over, what, thirty or forty years ago, wasn't it?
The dog barked more insistently. It was Stew.
"I still say you're a fuckin' idiot," Al muttered to himself, rehearsing some longed-for altercation with an as yet imaginary Stew, as he went to the back door and looked out. Stew stood there, grinning.
"What time is it, Fido?"
"Dunno." Stew looked at the sky. The irony was lost on him. "Morning."
"Did you bring the twins back with you?"
"Oh, aye, they're here." Stew gestured towards his breast pocket, from where the beloved dolls peeked out.
In the living room Al turned on Stew. "You took the dolls to the squat, didn't you," he said, in the agitated manner of an irritated parent. "I told you not to take the dolls to the squat."
"How do you know?"
"Because they're wearing each other's coats and the squat's the only place you ever sleep. Christ, I can't imagine why I trust you with them. I don't want the dolls sleeping over at your place. They've got class. They're good and gentle girls. Romantic, bright and lovely. Full of joy. They deserve better than that place."
"Why shouldn't I take them?"
"Because they don't like it." Al was becoming angry. "They hate bein' there, and I don't blame them. You're not to take them there."
"For God's sake, Al, they're only plastic—"
Al punched Stew hard in the face, making a cut in his upper lip that dripped blood. He grabbed Stew by the hair and shouted. "I told you, they don't like going there, you fuckin' idiot." He let Stew's hair go but continued to shout. "They like sleeping in their own house, or in the open air, or in a nice clean place, not a foul, stinking, filth-encrusted pig sty like your squat."
"Jesus Christ, Al, you've got—"
"Now say sorry to them, put them to bed and, so help me God, if you don't treat them with proper due respect you'll not see them again."
Stew opened the front of the doll's house, wriggled the dolls out of their clothes and into their night dresses, said "Sorry about last night," to them in a way that you could tell he didn't mean it, and lay them in their beds.
"Do they want a story?" he said, as he cleared up the fallen clothes into the double wardrobe.
"No, they're too tired." Al was calmer, his attack of rage ended. "Let them sleep, you'll give them nightmares."
Stew smoothed the dolls' long hair with one finger, said "Goodnight, darlings," and closed the doll's house again.
"So now," said Al in a manner which still conveyed enormous annoyance, "you tell me a story,"
"The Three Bears?"
"No, I want a special story," Al explained as though speaking to an imbecile, which he was, "I want the story of the magic talking frog."
"Oh, I see. That magic talking frog. Well, me and the dolls went out of the cottage together and we went down the path. It was dark but we found the froggy by the side of the road again, and Jazz seemed to rather take to it, so I held her close enough to the froggy to kiss it if she wanted to. And she didn't, and then the frog hopped away into the distance, and I never saw it again."
"We, Stew. The dolls were with you. We never saw it again."
"Oh, aye. We never saw it again."
There was a short pause as Al digested all the non-existent implications of this tale. As though incredulous, he asked, "Is that all of it? Is that where you all started living happily ever after? I thought your froggy friend was only there so as to convey a life-enhancing revelation from God. Or at the very least from the omniscient, eternal and sacred Saint Diana of Spencer, or someone like that."
"Yes," said Stew, "that's the end of the story. Mind you, I'm not surprised it was Jazz. She's always the imaginative one. Dreams and drawings, stories and stuff. She would empathise with someone who had been bewitched and turned into a frog by the wicked witch. She would definitely want to be the one who kissed the frog halfway down the last page."
"Poor soul." Al shook his head. "So what you're telling me, if I might summarise your unnecessarily verbose account of events in just fourteen words, is: you found the talking frog, it didn't say anything and now it's gone away."
"Yes, that's it. Mark you, frogs aren't really interested in messages from God and His Angels. They don't like being used as messenger boys. Not unless the messages are about tadpoles, ponds, flies and lily pads. That's about it. They don't really bother their heads much about things like business opportunities or lottery numbers."
"Yeah, they wouldn't be," said Al. "Wash your face now the bleeding's stopped. You look even more of a mess than usual."
"While the dolls and I were out scouring the landscape in search of dramatically life changing messages from transcendental beings of a non corporeal nature," Stew asked, "did you—"
There was a knock at the front door and both men froze for an instant before Al opened it.
"Good morning, sir." It was Nick, the policeman, carrying a clipboard and a pencil on a string. "Al Collick? Identity card check."
The identity cards lay on the table. Al picked one of them up and handed it to the constable, who looked at it and gave it back and ticked a box on his clipboard.
"That's a nice card, that is."
"Aye, it is." Al boasted, "I made it myself."
"Metalwork. I always wished for that sort of talent. It's a beautiful job."
"It's neat work, good layout, all the important features clear and distinct. Superb likeness of King Thomas Sheridan you've done there, too." He paused, looked at the card, and then continued, "You haven't seen Stewart Dappel around? I know he's your best mate."
Stewart had disappeared. "He's in this room somewhere," Al explained vaguely, waving his arms about. "Can you see him?"
"No, I can't. Are you sure he's in here?"
"He's definitely somewhere. Behind the chair, under the stairs, in the sink, swinging from the chandelier, he's always hiding somewhere. God knows why he does it."
"Can I talk to him?"
"If you can conjure him, yes. Anyway, you might not need to, because his identity card is on the table too. I made his card at the same time as I made my own."
Nick glanced at it and ticked the box. "Stew wasn't in the squat, see, so I had to ask."
"What sort of state's the squat in now?"
"You haven't been there recently?"
"Not for years. I'd sooner stand on my head in a river full of starving crocodiles than go there again."
"Oh," Nick said airily, "well, it's all been rebuilt. Clean as a new pin inside and out, no broken windows, no missing tiles or bricks, fresh paint, refurbished antique furniture. Even the garden's been tended — it all must've cost a fortune. The place is very comfortable, I'd say. Lovely house it is now. I doubt you would recognise it."
"You're winding me up, Nick."
Nick relished the tension and held off answering while he smiled and shook his head slowly. Then he couldn't hold it in any longer. He laughed. "Yes, Mr Collick, I am indeed lying my butt off, a skill born of long practice when giving evidence. The squat is the same fetid, stinking rubbish tip it always was. I'm amazed that the people there are still alive."
"You hear that, Stew?" Al called into the room. Stew didn't reply. "He's in here somewhere," Al reassured Nick.
"I'm over here." Stew was standing at the back of the room by the doll's house.
"Goodness! What happened to you?" Nick asked him.
"He's got a split lip," Al recounted, "because I punched him."
"Aye. Look on it as a sort of pest control."
"Why did you do it?"
"I was wonderin' that as well," put in Stew, although he knew why really.
"Tiff? He's got blood all down his chin."
That's because he doesn't know how to wash himself. I punched him up the bracket because he was bugging me. He took the twins to his bloody awful squat, that's why, if you must know."
Nick was astonished by such a gaffe. "You didn't!" he breathed to Stew.
"And while he was floating around the field like a fuckin' tumbleweed in a gale, searching for Ribbit the talking frog from outer space, I was sittin' here by candlelight workin' my fingers to the bone, makin' him an identity card. And then I stayed awake and I did two more tiny wee identity cards so the twins could have one each too." He picked up two identical rectangles of metal, both smaller than his thumb nail. They were delicately decorated to resemble identity cards. "This one's Jazz's and this one's Jacqui's. I'm goin' to make wee holes in one end and thread them on pink ribbon."
"How old are the twins now?" asked Nick.
"Twenty eight or thereabouts."
"They'll need to carry those whenever they're out and about, then."
"They will. They'll be proud to."
"OK then, that's you ticked off my list." Nick looked around him as though checking for the presence of enemy spies. "Have either of you seen anything suspicious hereabouts?"
"In the East Neuk?" Al couldn't believe Nick found it worthwhile asking. "Askin' if there's anything suspicious going on hereabouts is like goin' into a mosque on Friday and gettin' hold of the Imam and asking, 'Have you seen any pigs recently hereabouts?'"
"Or it's like goin' into a toy shop," Stew added, "and saying, 'Can I have a packet of peanuts?', and then when they said, 'I'm sorry but this shop only sells toys,' saying, 'Well, I don't want toy peanuts, I want real ones.'"
"Is he…?" Nick asked two thirds of the question and left it unfinished.
"He's my best mate," said Al warmly, "even though I smash his face in when he bugs me."
"One other thing, then," said Nick, briskly, "do you think you could make me a warrant card?"
"What's a warrant card?"
"It's just like an identity card except it's a special identity card for policemen. I'd love one that looked as professional and distinguished as your identity card does."
"Sure, I can do that for you. Of course I will. Come and pick it up in a day or two. Just one thing. Can you write 'Police' down for me? Because I can't spell." He pronounced it the Glaswegian way, Pólis, with the stress on the first syllable.
Nick wrote the word in block capitals on a loose sheet of paper on the clipboard and set it on the table. "P, O, L, I, C, E," Al sounded it out. "Sure, I can do that."
"See you soon."
Nick went on along the path and Al shut the door behind him.
"Did you notice something about yesterday?" Stew asked, after Nick was out of earshot.
"Nothing special. It was just another day, I'd say."
"Do you remember me trying my hand at divination?"
"Yes, I did, and you said a woman would come to the house carrying something square."
"Well!" Stew was proud of himself.
"Well, Tawny Howe had a square suitcase. Don't you see?"
"What a remarkable, fortuitous co-incidence. You have an assured future ahead of you as a Romanian fortune teller, then. It is a great pity that your attempt at batraquomancy met with less success."
"Divination and prophecy by means of a frog."
"Look at it this way: at last and after many years of believing myself to be completely useless, I have found some trade that I might be good at. Are we having soup today?"
"That depends. Did you bring any?"
"Soup." He left "you daft bugger" to be added. "Did you bring any soup?"
"Well, it's fortunate that I have some which I bought for myself."
There were two identical tins in the cupboard. Al reached them both down onto the stove.
"Which one are we going to have?" Stew asked.
"It's a hard choice." Al shook his head as he stared at the tins. "If the tins were different, it would be an easy choice, because I could always say, I like this one and I don't like that one. Or, I like this one but I like that one even more. Or, I like this one and I've never tried that one so I don't know whether I like it more than the other one or not. But these two tins are exactly the same, so I don't have any basis for taking a decision. You see, Stew? It's like being a donkey, standing exactly half way between two piles of hay. The more alike the tins are, the harder it is to choose between them."
"What's in this one?" Stew pointed to the tin nearest him.
"And what's in the other one?"
"That one's tomato as well."
"It's a difficult choice to have to make, isn't it. Come to think of it, why don't you just open that one?" Stew pointed again to the tin nearest him. "Then we'll know whether you were right or wrong."
"Sure. That's a good solution. All right." Al put the further tin back into the cupboard and set to work with the tin opener and the saucepan. Soon a delicious smell filled the house.
"It smells all right," said Stew. "That tin was probably better than that other tin."
"Here." Al poured the soup into bowls. "Soup and, here, a spoon. One day I'll make bread rolls too."
"Thanks. I'm starvin'." Stew tried it and liked it.
"You're welcome to it. Really." Al took his first spoonful of soup. "Good stuff, this."
After the soup was all gone, Stew asked, "Shall I have another go at the ole zymomancy?"
"Of course. Why not? In fact I thought you'd already decided to do it. It might be of enormous help to us both and provide information and guidance of profound value."
"Do you really mean that?"
"Oh, forget it." Irony was lost on Stew, but that didn't stop Al trying it, just in case. It satisfied some deep need to express his frustrations to himself, like angrily telling people off for their misdeeds, out loud, when they were somewhere else.
"Bear in mind that tomato soup embodies a higher per unit data content and lower error rate than any other known zymomantic medium."
"What about its nutritional content?"
"That's unimportant in comparison."
"I think we should really finish drinking the soup first."
"Here," said Stew, staring at the two empty, unwashed soup bowls afterwards, "let's see what we can see. That really was delicious, by the way."
"So, what can you see?" Al was fascinated, despite trying to appear uninterested.
"You've eaten most of it. You didn't leave me much to go on. Your bowl has some coriander leaf in it, a couple of bits of tomato skin, two tomato pips — no, three if you count that one, I think that's a scrap of potato, there. The bits are rougly in a line, from bottom left to top right. There's one tiny scrap of grease. So I would say… fish."
There was a silence.
Al said, "Fish?" incredulously.
"Aye. Fish. Look at it." He waved his index finger, pointing at the little marks on the inside of the soup bowl. "Coriander leaf, potato, tomato skin and pips. It's obvious. It all adds up to fish."
"Is that all? Is that both the forecast for tomorrow and the outlook for the next couple of days?"
"Yes, it is. My prediction is fish."
"Any particular sort of fish?"
"No. Just… fish."
Scene: Exterior, midday. General view of street scene outside the Stock Exchange. A telephone kiosk can be seen. Men in bowler hats and carrying umbrellas and briefcases are rushing around, red double decker buses, taxis etc. chug along the road. A newspaper seller has a billboard, "Stock Exchange Still In Turmoil." Man in bowler hat is standing on a high ledge on a tall building.
(audible in background above street noises)
Extra, extra! Stock exchange in turmoil! Read all about it! We're all going to die!
Man on ledge: (jumps) Aaaaaaaargh!
Sound effect: Crump!
Scene: Interior, inside the Stock Exchange, midday. Pandemonium. Buyers and sellers of stock haggle and argue. Screams and piteous wails can be heard. Fred Goodwin and his Servant can be seen panicking. They go to a cloakroom, put their coats and hats on, open a fire exit and dash out of the exit onto the street.
Scene: Exterior. Phone box on street. Fred Goodwin and his servant run to the phone box. Servant holds door open.
Money, please. Ten and twenty cent coins.
Servant: Yes, Sir Frederick.
Servant opens into briefcase which is full of money. He takes out three coins, which he gives to Sir Frederick. Servant closes the briefcase and opens the door of the phone box. Sir Frederick goes into the box and the servant shuts the door and stands outside on the street. Sir Frederick drops the coins into the slot and dials a number.
Inset frame opens, showing: Interior, Stew's room in the squat, midday. Stew Dappel is lying on an unkempt bed looking unkempt. There is a grubby table beside the bed with an empty soup bowl and an ancient bakelite phone on it. The ancient bakelite phone rings. Stew stares at the phone for ten or fifteen seconds looking as if he didn't know what it was, then picks the receiver up gingerly and holds it to one ear.
As Stew Dappel answers the phone, the coins clink into the cash box.
Is that you? Stew Dappel of the East Neuk?
Fred Goodwin: Thank God, thank God I've found you. This is Sir Fred Goodwin here of The Royal Bank of Scotland. Listen, I need your help urgently.
Scene: In the squat.
Why, what's happened to you? You know, I haven't so much as seen a bank in years.
Fred Goodwin: (voice on phone) Everything's in a dreadful panic. The whole world seems to have gone pear shaped. Prices are dropping like stones. Strong grown men are crying like babies while others are jumping to their deaths from tenth floor window ledges. Hundreds of them. You can't begin to imagine the unbelievable horror of it all. I just don't know where else to turn.
Stew: Now calm down, that's the first thing. Take a deep breath and—
Fred Goodwin: (voice on phone) I've just sold the Bank's entire holdings of commercial property, European currency and manufacturing industry in a desperate effort to pay off our losses.
Stew: (astonished) Was there any manufacturing industry? I didn't know there was any manufacturing industry left any more.
Scene: The phone box.
No. I mis spoke. A small terminological inexactitude. I meant to say worthless loans.
Stew: (voice on phone) I see. That makes more sense.
Fred Goodwin: I need your honest advice. Man to man. Heart to heart. You know we've always been close friends and I need your knowledge, wisdom and insight more now than at any time in my entire life. What must I do to be saved?
Scene: The squat.
Stew: (looking into soup bowl) The answer is fish.
(voice on phone)
Fish? You think I should go fishing while the world of multi million pound corporate finance is coming apart like a paper bag in a waterfall? I've always relied on you, Stew, I always prized your advice as I would the finest gold, but fishing…
Stew: No, I don't mean go fishing. I mean fish — those little animals that swim around until they get coated in batter and eaten. Those fish.
Fred Goodwin Your advice to me is fish.
Stew: I, Stew the Zymomancer, see a scintillating vision of fish. That's what it says in the soup dregs here. I bring you a clear and unmistakable message from the spirit world, and it is fish.
Scene: The phone box
Thank God you're there and I've had the benefit of your brilliance, intuition and insight. Tell me, does it make any difference what sort of fish?
Stew: (voice on phone) Of course it does.
Scene: The squat
You couldn't expect a haddock to perform as well on these turbulent markets as a mullet or a trout, could you?
Fred Goodwin: (voice on phone) No, I suppose I couldn't.
Stew: So obviously it would make a difference what sort of fish you chose.
Fred Goodwin: (voice on phone) And what sort of fish does the other world recommend today?
Stew: The other world isn't really a fishmonger, you know.
Fred Goodwin: (voice on phone) Of course.
Scene: The phone box.
How selfish and silly of me. I have to make the decision myself and take full responsibility for it. I suppose I shall just have to make a wild guess and back it with millions of euro taken from our customers' accounts.
Stew: (voice on phone) That's it. You can have all the computers in the world but in the end it boils down to the question: Do I prefer haddock, trout or mullet? Mark you, I've always found cod very tasty myself.
Fred Goodwin: And the estimated rate of return—
The Phone: Meep meep meep meep meep…
Fred Goodwin: (stares at the receiver) Damn it, damn it! I have no more coins at all.
Fred Goodwin slams the phone down, leaves the phone box and barks an instruction to his servant, who is waiting outside the phone box.
Servant: Yes, Sir Frederick. What sort of fish?
Fred Goodwin: Cod.
Servant: Yes, Sir Frederick.
Fred Goodwin: And another thing. I can't abide red phone boxes. Get it painted green.
Servant: Yes, Sir Frederick.
"It's a beautiful evening," said Al, admiring the view through the window, "do you want to go for a walk round?"
"Sure, let's. Will you bring the dolls?"
"Of course. I wouldn't leave them behind, now would I?"
Al knelt in front of the doll's house, tenderly picked up Jacqui and Jazz, and slipped them into jeans, jerseys and winter coats. "We're just going outside for some fresh air. Will you come with us?" He waited for their answers, holding them close. "I'll keep you two comfortable," he reassured them.
At the corner, five minutes' walk from the cottage, where the path turned to face the hills inland, Al and Stew admired the setting sun. Jazz and Jacqui looked at the sunset out of Al's breast pocket.
"Magnificent," Al breathed, "now, you'd not see a sight like that in Glasgow."
"You wouldn't, indeed. You'd just see houses and factories, except there aren't any factories. Houses, dress shops and banks, perhaps."
"The dolls like dress shops," said Al, watching their blue eyes sparkle in the evening sunlight. "Is the froggy anywhere to be seen?"
"You asking me or the dolls?"
"I can't see him. My little froggy friend left, I think. Maybe it gets too boring out here for a young frog. What is there to amuse a frog in the East Neuk? He prefers the bright lights, the puddles on the streets and the clouds of flies that gather in the town."
They walked on a little further, Al exchanging occasional small talk with the dolls while Stew remained on the look-out for the frog. The path wound through some trees, where it was fairly dark, and then it emerged into a clearing.
"Now will you look at that." Al was brought to a stand by what he saw ahead.
"What?" Stew hadn't seen it.
"It's a bus."
"Oh. That! That bus. I haven't seen a bus for a long time. Not in years. They stopped ages ago."
The bus was a couple of miles away, standing still and quietly. They saw nobody on board.
"It wasn't there yesterday, was it?" Al asked.
"No. It's new here."
"I wonder where it's going."
"We could go and have a look. They often say on the front, where they're going. I could read it to you."
"Don't rub it in." Al looked at the dolls. "What about you two, do you want to go and look?" He paused. "They're interested. You know, Stew, I don't think they're old enough ever to have seen a bus."
"Do you think the wee froggy might have gone to have a look at the bus?"
"Well, I suppose he might," said Al, leaving "you daft old bugger" to be added. "Maybe he writes the numbers down in a little note book and ticks them off in a stock list. Coming from outer space, he would be really interested in the everyday details of earthmen's humdrum lives, like buses and things."
They continued along the path, getting closer to the bus.
"Aye," Stew nodded, "I once knew a frog that did that."
"That must have been some frog. What was his name?"
"His name was Roly."
"Roly? That's a good name for a frog."
"Frogs are extraordinary animals," Stew recounted, "if an average man could jump as high as an average frog, he'd be able to jump nearly two feet in the air, because that's how high the average frog can jump."
"Aye, and if an average man ate as many flies as the average frog, he'd be very sick."
"Anyway," Stew continued, "Roly the frog would hop out of his pond, put his hat on, grab his season ticket, wait at the bus stop until the bus came along."
"Then he would hop on a bus." They quoted the 'fifties slogan exactly together.
"Didn't care where the bus was going," said Stew, "he just sat on the bus until he saw a building or a tree or a pond that looked interesting, and then he hopped off again. By the time he was ten years old, he must have seen every historic landmark and architectural treasure in the whole of eastern Scotland."
"Nature is marvellous, isn't it. Did he die after that?"
"Well, no, not straight away anyway. He got a job as a tourist guide. Led crowds of tourists around the countryside, telling them entertaining tales of the landscape as they chewed gum and took blurred photographs with the cameras in their mobile phones."
"It must have enlightened their lives to an extent that I can barely imagine. Just think of being shown that horrible little puppy, what is it, near Greyfriar's Kirkyard in Edinburgh by a chirpy little frog who knew everything about it."
"It is called Greyfriars Bobby. It's still there."
"How did you know that?"
"A little frog told me."
The bus was empty. Al and Stew had expected to see passengers dozing in the seats and waiting for the driver to turn up, but there was nobody there and nobody nearby. Al found the button that opened the door, and they climbed on board.
"Did you notice where the bus was going?" Al asked.
"Anstruther. It said that on the front."
"Anstruther? That's miles away."
"Yes. Who would need to go that far, do you think?"
"Must have been somebody important."
"What do you think happened to them?"
"Maybe the bus ran out of fuel and everyone on board got off and starved to death looking for a posh restaurant. Or maybe the bus went over a cliff killing the driver and all the passengers. Maybe the bus stopped near a cliff and all the passengers jumped over the cliff and got killed and then the bus turned around and came here. Or maybe the bus was going round Aberdeen or somewhere and it suddenly shot forwards with tremendous acceleration so that all the passengers fell out and the bus couldn't stop until it got to here. Or maybe…"
"Stew," said Al, kindly, "shut up talkin' rubbish."
"It's not rubbish. It's my theories concerning how this bus came to be standing in the middle of nowhere, empty."
The two men went upstairs and settled on two of the seats.
Scene: Outdoors, late afternoon. A double deck bus stands on a derelict road. There is no traffic at all on the road. The surface of the road is badly worn, cracked and pot holed, indicating that it hasn't been repaired for decades. Al Collick and Stew Dappel are sitting on seats on the top deck of the bus. Two Barbie dolls are peeping out of Al's breast pocket.
We hear the sound of a man entering the bus and climbing the stairs. Hercule Poirot steps onto the upper deck and looks around him.
(Takes a seat on the bus between the men)
Al Collick: Good evening, Monsieur Poirot.
Stew Dappel: That's jolly interesting French, Monsieur Poirot. You said bonjour, in French, and then gentlemen, in English. Is that like what they talk in the Channel Islands?
Hercule Poirot: I am from Belgium, you ignorant British yokel. I have been brought to you to investigate ze mysterious appearance of a stationary bus in the middle of nowhere. (Turns to Al Collick.) Where were you on the night of the murder?
Al Collick: Murder? There hasn't been a murder.
Hercule Poirot: Are you sure of zat?
Al Collick: Absolutely.
Hercule Poirot: Very well, let us ask about something more quotidian. Where were you on the night this bus mysteriously appeared from nowhere?
Al Collick: I was at home, dozing in my armchair like I always do.
Hercule Poirot: So you could not have been driving ze bus? Or perhaps building it?
Al Collick: No, of course not.
Hercule Poirot: (Turns to Stew Dappel.) And you, my witless acquaintance, where were you on the night zis bus mysteriously appeared from nowhere?
Stew Dappel: I spent an hour standing at the side of the path persuading the dolls to kiss a frog and then I went to the squat and then I came back to Al's house in the morning.
Hercule Poirot: So neither of you were anywhere near this road when the bus mysteriously arrived in a completely empty condition?
Al Collick and Stew Dappel (together) No.
Hercule Poirot: Pah! A bus appear from nowhere, and Hercule Poirot himself has not ze least idea where it came from.
Stew Dappel: Never mind. This episode could never have got into an anthology of detective stories with a title like Murder on the Bus.
Hercule Poirot: The title would be Murder on the 17.45 (Tuesdays Only) from St Andrews to Anstruther.
Al Collick: So you know which bus this is and where it's going?
Hercule Poirot: Indeed. Ze paint on zis bus could only have been applied to ze 17.45 to Anstruther on a Tuesday. The brush marks on the paintwork could only have been made by ze bus washing plant at St Andrews. These seats (waves arms about) have been recently sat on by passengers travelling from St Andrews. It is obvious in a hundred different ways. Hastings? Examine ze ticket machine for evidence, if you please.
Stew looked around for any sign of life, behind the seats, under the stairs, or on the street nearby. There was nothing and nobody there. "It's just you, me and the dolls," he said, "nobody else is within a mile."
"Do you think we can find out whose bus this is?"
"We could have a séance."
"Why not? It'd be a good way to find out what happened. How the bus got here. Maybe it'll tell us something about where it intends to go and who intends to travel in it."
"How do we set about holding a séance, then?"
"Start by sitting in a circle. You and me and the twins."
They rearranged themselves so that Al and Jacqui were facing forwards on one seat and Stew and Jazz were kneeling on the seat in front, facing them.
"Don't we need a ouija board or something?" Al asked.
"Sure. Got a coin?"
Stew wrote the letters of the alphabet in the dirt on the window, and Al held the coin against it.
"Shouldn't it be a wineglass."
"Yes. Do you happen to have such a thing as a wineglass about you?"
"No. Do you?"
"No, but this'll work." Stew put his finger on the coin and began the sitting.
"O Spirit World, tell us what it is you're trying to tell us," Stew commanded.
The coin began to move, aimlessly at first, but after a few seemingly random movements it went to 'F'.
"Ah," said Al, "the other world is trying to tell us something."
The coin moved again and stopped at 'I'.
"That's two letters, an 'F' and an 'I'."
The coin moved again, more briskly, and settled on 'S'.
"Oh, that seemed fairly definite," said Al.
The coin moved in a long curve across the window and came to rest on 'H.'
"'F', 'I', 'S', 'H'." Al recited. "If only I knew what that means."
"It means fish, said Stew, "that's what it means."
"Why would the other world want to tell us fish?"
"I don't know. Maybe they like fish."
The coin stopped.
"Do they want us to do anything?" Al wondered out loud.
"O Spirit," Stew intoned again, "what would you have us do? Shall we bring you a nice cup of tea, or something?"
They were holding the coin against the window, each of them with one finger on it, but it fell to the floor.
"Don't think so," said Stew. He groped around under his seat and found the coin, and he held it to the winsow again. "Let's ask something else. You ask something."
Al hesitated, then, "What is your name?"
The coin clattered against the window and spelled out "ROLY."
"What, Roly the frog?" asked Stew.
"YES," clattered the coin.
"Hey, that's amazing. I didn't know you were dead."
"Who was the owner of Greyfriars Bobby?"
"Greyfriars Bobby. You know who Greyfriars Bobby is. Well? What was the name of his owner?"
There was a pause, then "JIM".
"Aw, you must know. Try again."
There was a longer pause.
"This is a fake," said Stew, "a complete fraud. This spirit doesn't know who the owner of Greyfriars Bobby was, so it can't be the spirit of Roly the frog. Roly would've known the answer straight away."
"Try another question," Al suggested. "Maybe he's forgotten the answer to that one."
"Fair enough. Which historic citizen of Edinburgh was the real life character who provided the inspiration for Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde?"
Pause. Nothing from the coin at all.
"You're a fake, aren't you. A fraud. A counterfeit. Maybe even an imposter."
"Who are you, then?"
Long pause. The coin remained exactly where it was on the window, and then Al started to snigger.
"It's you, you…!" Stew exploded.
Al laughed out loud. "Yes! I am Roly the frog, I am Roly the frog, hear me, Earthling."
"You need a tablet," said Stew, "one o' they green ones."
"So what? I haven't had one of them instant lobotomies for years. If I take one now, my stomach'll just look at it and say, 'Hey, what the devil's this?' and ping it straight back out again shouting, 'Yuck!'"
"It'll be savin' your brain the trouble."
"It'll be saving my brain, full stop, what's left of it. I've just about got over all that stuff."
Stew stood up and looked around the bus. He stared back and forth along the derelict roadway and into the surrounding fields in the gathering dark. "So how did the bus get here?" he said out loud by accident.
"God knows, an' he's not telling." Al gathered up the dolls, put them back in the breast pocket of his coat, and prepared for a long walk home in the dark. "Time you were back at the squat, Stew. Come along, you two."
It was the middle of the night and there was little moonlight. Tawny entered the squat by the unlocked front door and found a grubby young man in an ancient duffel coat smoking a cigarette, loafing in the hallway by candle light.
"Which room is Stew's?" she asked him as her eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom.
"Up the stairs, on the right," the young man replied without looking up.
Tawny found the room, pushed the door open and walked in. It was pitch dark inside. She said "Hello?" and "Stew?" quietly a couple of times but she heard no reply. She could make out where the bed was. Nobody was sleeping in it, and she was more desperate to sleep than to do anything else, so she took her outer clothes and shoes off, left them where they fell, lay down and pulled the blanket over herself. Eventually Stew would return to the room — where was he, she wondered — and then she could explain everything. A cat climbed onto the bed, stretched and settled beside her for warmth.
A few hours later, returning from a visit to her father who lived ten miles away, Phyllis Tyne walked in. Phyllis struck a match, lit the candle and saw her visitor. She confronted Tawny in a startled and angry tone with, "Who are you, for God's sake?"
Waking with a start, Tawny scared the cat so that it jumped heavily off the bed and ran out into the corridor. "I'm visiting a friend. I've every right to be here," she replied incorrectly, "who are you?" Then Tawny saw Phyllis in the candle light. She had expected to see a furious twenty two year old newlywed. She saw a woman of what used to be pensionable age, small, with a mop of grey hair, and every bit as furious as a jilted bride.
"This is my room! I live here," Phyllis yelled before Tawny could work out what was going on. "Who are you?"
"You mean he's married? Oh, my God. The bastard! I never so much as thought—"
At that instant Phyllis's husband Argent arrived in the doorway. Phyllis didn't wait for an explanation. She just tore into her husband, viciously. "Somebody's been sleeping in my bed. You bastard! Look who I found. No wonder you wanted me to stay at Dad's while you came home to feed the cat, with your… delightful young mistress waiting conveniently for you in our bed."
"Darling," he began, bewilderedly and tactlessly.
"Don't you darling me. Get out, get out of my room, both of you. I never thought you'd do this to me. It never even occurred to me that you might have a mistress." Phyllis was screaming. "I always trusted you, except that time you spent a weekend in Leeds with Emily from the boot factory, and I forgave you that without you having to beg me to. Christ, what a fool I have been. Get out and leave me," she burst into tears, "to endure the misery of being a deserted, betrayed, lonely, solitary, unwanted and unloved wrinkly old woman."
"That's not my mistress," Argent stammered, seizing the opportunity provided by the brief and rare silence before Phyllis started screaming at him again, "I mean, my mistress is not this lady. I mean, I have never seen this lady before in my entire life and I don't know who she is at all and what's more I haven't got a mistress."
"That's just how I feel," Tawny raised her voice high enough to join in the yelling and make herself heard for a short while. "Who are you both, and where's Stew?"
"Stew lives over the way, across the corridor," said Phyllis, suddenly cottoning on.
Tawny picked her clothes and shoes up and went into the corridor. "Stew?"
Stew had been asleep in the room on the other side of the upstairs corridor until the noise of the argument woke him. His room was without light of any sort. He could hear a great deal of yelling from across the way. Two women's voices and one man's. Phyllis and Argent were arguing with another woman. To all intents and purposes Phyllis and Argent never argued. Then, even with his fingers in his ears and a pillow drawn over his head in an effort to keep the noise out, Stew heard the other woman's voice calling his name. He hesitated for a moment, wondering where to hide, but then he recognised the voice. The voice was coming closer. He was naked, but he reckoned that in the near pitch darkness and at this time of night nobody would care much. He opened his door and called "Tawny!" into the corridor.
The cat dashed through the open door into Stew's room, found a piece of fish on the floor and began to eat.
Tawny was standing in the corridor barefoot, shaken, wearing a necklace, a plain bra and pants and carrying an armful of clothes and a pair of discoloured but sensible outdoor shoes. There was a flicker of light from downstairs and in the faint flickering gleam of the candle in the hall, Tawny looked the perfect slender blonde woman.
"I was visiting Mook at the hospital," she explained. "He's not recovering as well as they hoped — we hoped. They're keeping him in for another night. I thought I'd drop in. To be honest I knew you lived here and I was so tired, I thought I'd ask to sleep on the floor."
"Of course you're welcome. I'm sorry the place is so awful." Stew brought Tawny into the room and sat her on the bed. When he shut the door, the darkness was all but total. "It's the best I can find for myself. Try not to stand on the fish. Most of these fish come from the waters off Torness, so they glow in the dark." He sat beside her.
"I'm so tired, and it's so dark outside. I couldn't walk all the way home."
Stew wondered why Tawny wasn't telling the truth. She was exaggerating the distance between the squat and the farm, which he was reasonably sure was less than a mile. "You're welcome here," he said, "it's a dump but you're welcome. I don't think I've ever had a visitor before, so please tell me if I'm doing it wrong."
"You're coping fine. I think I upset the neighbours, though."
"Don't worry about them. Their life together is so humdrum that they needed something like that to entertain them in the dark evenings. You've probably done them some good by shaking them up. Why are the medics keeping Mook in hospital? This is his second night, isn't it? It was nothing serious, only an ear."
"The breech of the gun burst. Cheap steel, badly tempered, defective in manufacture, insufficiently tested, it happens all the time. The thing is, it wasn't just the external ear that he blew up. There's some damage to his inner ear as well as the flappy bit on the outside of his head. They probably won't ever be able to cure him completely. He gets dizzy so he can't stand up unaided."
"What are they doing about it?"
"They've put him on a waiting list."
Both Tawny and Stew knew what that meant.
"Oh." Stew looked grave. He felt quite moved that the farmer, whom he had always regarded as a harmless buffoon, should suffer such a fate.
Scene: The ward of the cottage hospital. Dr Sandy Beech is standing, talking to Tawny Howe quietly so as not to be overheard by the patient. In the background the patient, Farmer Mook Howe, is lying in bed with an enormous wad of blood-soaked bandage over where his right ear used to be.
Music: Emergency Ward Ten theme (Silks and Satins by Peter Yorke)
Tawny Howe: Yes, that's me.
Dr Beech: Mrs Howe, may I be honest?
Tawny Howe: Yes, I'd prefer you to tell me the precise and exact truth with no white lies, elisions, circumlocutions, significant omissions or euphemisms.
Dr Beech: Your husband has damaged the delicate structures of his inner ear. He is in pain and if he tries to stand up he becomes so dizzy that he falls over. Now in this cottage hospital, we have little equipment, and what we have is out of date and worn out. I'm the only qualified medical consultant here. I've had this auriscope, for instance, (holds up auriscope) in my supplies cupboard since 1993. We have few medicines and no time to perform any but the most urgent and critical treatment. Your husband could go to another hospital, but they're all in the same boat as we are, so there's really no point in trying. If your husband were rich, well, maybe I could arrange to see him privately for treatment in a well equipped clinic, but as long as he stays here and he stays poor there's nothing I can do.
Tawny Howe: Well, since you put it as candidly as that, I'd rather you were dishonest and told me that my husband isn't going to suffer any lifelong injury as a result of his pissing about with a dangerous firearm and he is going to be all right soon.
Dr Beech: As you wish. Your husband has damaged the delicate structures of his inner ear. He is in pain and if he tries to stand up he becomes so dizzy that he falls over. So I have put him on the SHS waiting list for treatment. Most patients on waiting lists are treated the same day. In his case an internationally renowned consultant otologist is already on his way here in a chartered helicopter. Your husband's treatment will be as fine as any that can be obtained anywhere in the world and he'll be as right as rain by three o'clock this afternoon.
Tawny Howe: That makes me feel a lot better. Thank you, Doctor Beech. (To Mook Howe) You stupid, stupid old bugger!
Mook Howe: Aaaargh, my ear hurts!
Tawny Howe: Did he suffer any brain damage?
Dr Beech: No. He's lucky he hasn't got a brain, otherwise he would have injured that as well.
"Sorry," Stew added, "I am truly sorry to hear that."
There was an awkward pause and Stew realised he was staring open mouthed at Tawny in her underwear. She didn't seem to mind.
"You're the original yummy mummy, do you know that?" he asked quietly.
"Gosh." Tawny was flattered. "Would you say that to me again? It made me feel so valued."
"Tawny, you are the original yummy mummy."
"Getting called yummy is really exhilarating. I'd like to think that I merited the description, apart from not being anyone's mummy. That never worked out. I really did like the yummy bit, though."
Tawny slid under the covers. Stew wondered about the proprieties of sharing a bed with another man's wife, thought about settling down on the floor, and self consciously stretched out beside her. She put her arms around him, which reassured him about not spending the night on the floor among the dimly luminous fish scraps.
"I still don't understand what's going on," Stew whispered to her. "How did you get into Argent's room?"
"By mistake. I asked the boy downstairs and he said you were in the first room on the right."
"Chris? The automatic cigarette smoking machine whose useless flesh continually obstructs free passage along the hallway of this revolting establishment?"
"Cigarette, duffel coat, mumbles. That boy."
"Yes, him," Stew recognised Chris Packet from Tawny's brief yet accurate description, "I don't think he's done anything but stand in the passageway and smoke roll-ups since the day he was born. You should've asked someone else where I live, because he can't tell left from right."
Tawny giggled. "Well, that explains everything. We all have our crosses to bear, don't we."
Tawny and Stew lay still for several minutes, and then Tawny whispered, "Are you still awake?"
Stew jumped. "Wha…?" He had nearly dozed off. "Yes, I'm awake."
"What time did you get back here?"
"Oh, I have no idea. I was back maybe half an hour after dark. I'm often sat up late with Al. He's my best mate, and besides, I'd rather be there than here. He had some metalwork to do and I stayed and helped." Stew thought about that and corrected it. "Well, not really helped so much as watched him do it. He's really gifted and skilled. It's amazing to watch how he does it."
"So you weren't spending half the night at a party, then, with crowds of glamorous young women?"
"Don't you like that sort of thing?"
"I never had the chance to find out. No, I was in Al's cottage, sat watching him. It's wonderful just to see how he can make things. They're all from stuff he finds lying about. Scraps of plumbing, tin cans, bits fallen off cars. You should see what he can make from a number plate."
"What was he making last night?"
"A warrant card for Nick. Out of a soup tin, it took an age. Very intricate work with lots of tiny writing."
Tawny started a different tack. "How long have you lived here?"
"God knows." Stu tried to reckon the passage of years. "Me and Al fled north at the end of the War and I ended up here. Call it cowardice but everyone ran away if they wanted to stay alive. We had to. Thirty years ago, was that? It must be thirty years or thereabouts."
"And you've not had a visitor before?"
"Not a real visitor. The police come around checking up on us, as though we weren't miserable enough already. Every now and then someone comes to read the electric meter, but there's not really much point in reading the meter because the electricity went off for the last time ten years ago at least, so it always reads the same. Apart from Peter the Meter, well, this isn't the sort of place people make social calls to. It's more the sort of place you go round the long way to avoid walking past."
"We'd best make this visit memorable, then, if it's your first. Look, I need you to help me with something." She had realised his naiveté and lowered her voice to a breathy whisper which she imagined — correctly — to be seductive and erotic. "If I turn my back for a moment, can you help me off with my bra? I've been wearing it since this morning and it's getting quite itchy."
"Yes," said Stu, genuinely not understanding what she was trying to communicate. "Yes, I'll do that."
"It sort of unclips in the middle. Yes!" she breathed as Stew unfastened the clip and she shrugged the garment off, "oh, that's better."
"What about…" He touched her panty waistband.
"We'll take those off later. Don't rush me. Let's spend a while kissing first."
"Kissing," Stew repeated, and he realised what she was offering him. "Yes. That's a good way to spend an evening. Let's do that."
As dawn was breaking, the cat, who had eaten all the fish he wanted and taken refuge in some corner of the dark room, leaped onto the bed heavily and stretched out peacefully beside Tawny's warm, sleeping body. Stew woke for an instant, turned onto one side, held Tawny close and fell asleep again. He was experiencing what was for him a new emotion. He was besotted with her.
In the morning they walked hand in hand the mile or so from the squat to the farmhouse.
"I'm truly busy," said Tawny, as they went in through the front door that gave straight onto the kitchen. "Thanks for walking back with me. You can have some tea and whatever you want. There's not a lot. But after that I need the house to myself."
Stew looked disappointed. He had been hoping they might have the day together.
"We'll see each other again," said Tawny, kissing him, "so don't worry. I'll come around again one evening."
As Stew left the farmhouse and set off for Al's cottage, he noticed the cat sitting in the garden in front of the door. It must have followed us, he thought, and he held the door open so that the cat could go inside.
"I think he must have followed us here."
"He's beautiful. He is so cute!"
"What's his name?" Tawny asked.
"I don't know," said Stew, "you can christen him if you like."
"All right. His name is Chubby. After Chubby Checker."
"Does he like rock music?"
"All the swinging cats do," said Tawny in 1950's teenage slang.
"Sounds good to me." He hesitated. "I will see you again, won't I?"
"Yes, you will. I'll see you later."
It was too late in the morning to go home and sleep, and it was too early to wake Al. Stew walked around to the back of Al's cottage and sat on a log, gazing at the sunrise. Tawny was his first girlfriend since school. He could still feel where she had been kissing him and holding him.
Stew had never before had a girlfriend who loved him. At school he'd had unromantic, but effective and satisfying, sexual intercourse with a girl in the form below his. Her name was Alyssum Carefully. She was pale, skinny, in her mid teens, a sweet girl with the long, fine chestnut hair and the high-pitched, piping voice of an eight year old. She was endowed with a gift for writing stories and drawing pictures. This gift attracted Stew to her more than anything else. One afternoon she was crayoning a vivid tableau of fish and seaweed in the art class. He had been sitting admiring her until just before the bell rang, and just in time he overcame his natural reticence and asked her outright if she'd like to have sex together. Alyssum thought about the idea for a second, sucking the blunt end of her colouring pencil, and said, "All right," as though agreeing to sweep the floor, and then the bell rang. She and Stew had enjoyed three heated sessions in different parts of the school buildings: the first time, as tradition dictated, in the bicycle sheds after school the same day, the second in a cupboard more normally used for storing text books while everyone else was in assembly, and the third time, for daring, they skipped afternoon lessons and did it twice in the assembly hall. She did it very competently, without undressing more than necessary, smiling or showing pleasure. Stew noticed how Alyssum's conversation during sex was never about her feelings or her fantasies. She never even talked about her plans for the evening or for when she left school. She voiced an occasional slight twinge, "Ow! Be gentle," showed mild boredom with, "Hurry up," and gave a list of instructions, like a cake recipe, for doing it properly.
They'd not been caught, and she hadn't become pregnant, but Alyssum was fool enough to boast of her conquest — the older girls regarded Stew as highly desirable, which Stew himself was unaware of — and gossip about their fun and frolics reached the ears of Alyssum's parents. There was a frighful hoo-hah and both of them had been threatened with the police and then viciously tawsed by the senior mistress. After that they were never left alone together, and Alyssum left the school shortly afterwards. Stew had never seen her naked. He had often wondered what happened to her. Quite likely she had been killed in the War. If she survived, she would be, like him, living in some squat or some derelict property and struggling to feed and care for herself from day to day, just as he did, and Al did, and everyone he knew did.
Stew tried to remember when, or how, life became as bad as it was. What train of events had led from the carefree routine of a young assembly line worker, as he was when the War broke out, living with his loving parents in a busy city constantly full of new things to see and do, to the present stark unrelieved poverty, the drab food, the cold, the sheer dullness, hunger, boredom and misery that was the daily grind. He thought he had been born in nineteen ninety three. His childhood world was a strange place with topsy turvy values. For instance, if you were unlucky, they would throw you into prison for innocently enjoying sex with a girl schoolmate although burgling a house, selling heroin, smashing shop windows or stabbing a stranger to death on the street would probably go unnoticed. It was a stifling, bureaucratic world where cancelling a subscription to a newspaper could take months, much of it spent listening to electronic music on the phone and trying to make oneself understood to staff who answered the phone but spoke no English. It was a world where the fictional events of a second-rate television programme displaced real news from the headlines onto page five or seven. It was a world where children learned all about the causes and prevention of sexually transmitted diseases at school, but didn't learn to read. It was a world where train travel cost double the price of air fares. Above all, nothing ever seemed to work. Clothes didn't fit, shoes fell apart, furniture wore out in one or two years, kettles leaked, cafés couldn't make tea, banks took your money and wasted it, governments asked scientists what to do and then did something completely different. Visiting the dentist often meant arranging an appointment in a year's time, government departments covered their windows with perforated steel sheet and yet left millions of top secret files lying around on trains and buses for anyone to find. Suitcases loaded aboard an aeroplane had disappeared two hours later when the same aeroplane was unloaded, yet you never heard of anyone being killed by a suitcase falling out of a passing aeroplane. He had once read something about the French. During a time of oppression, the starving French workers had fallen upon the bourgeoisie and rent them limb from limb, yet in his world, nobody ever seemed even to care, let alone complain, about how ghastly things had become.
Stew remembered expecting things to improve when the Kingdom gained its independence from England. There was a treaty and then the dreadful War followed. He couldn't remember what the War was about, nor whether anybody won it, but he remembered the refugees desperately fleeing on foot in shambolic crowds and something about the Border Wall. He and Al, his mentor on the assembly line, had found each other by chance in the rubble of Glasgow. They had survived life on the refugee trail, and they carried what they could northwards and eastwards, away from the devastation of the fallen cities, looking for a place where they could live in peace.
Had there ever been a world, he wondered, where he could have lived safely and comfortably in a sturdy, warm, lighted house with sufficient food and clothes? Where water and electricity and fuel could be taken for granted? Where any healthy, educated person who wanted to work could find a job without difficulty? Where a fair week's wage was enough to pay a fair week's costs? Where the phones, the heating, the carpets and the vacuum cleaners lasted for ever? Where schools educated children? Where banks looked after your money? Where Members of Parliament who stole from their constituents were discharged from office? Where policemen protected the innocent, sympathised with the victims and had the criminals carted off to gaol? Where the trains ran on time? Where the people who answered phones worked for the companies whose phones they answered and knew what they were talking about? Stew had no recollection of such a perfect world. He merely conjectured that at some time in the past it must have existed, and that since then the world had followed some sad, crooked path that led from there to here. If it had ever existed at all, it was the Golden Country.
Chubby the cat wandered into the back yard and jumped into Stew's lap. Stew awoke with a slight jolt and stroked Chubby's head. Chubby began to purr loudly.
"I blame tea bags, myself," Stew confided in Chubby.
"Tea bags, see? In the old days every household had a teapot, so you made tea for all the family and you shared it, and the whole family would sit together and add milk and sugar and talk and drink it together. Maybe eat a biscuit. It all brought about social cohesion and mutual support. Now mum, dad and the kids go to the larder and get tea bags or cappucino in envelopes. Everyone makes their own hot drink for themselves, and they don't sit together and talk any more."
"No wonder the world's fallen apart."
Scene: Interior, evening. A music hall. In the orchestra pit is a palm court orchestra. Al Collick is sitting a couple of rows from the front of the auditorium. He is the only person in the audience. The orchestra plays a few bars of I'm a Little Green Frog as the curtain rises. Roly the Frog is standing on the stage ready to perform a song and dance number. The stage has a backdrop painted like a lily pond. On stage are a small flying saucer and a coffee table bearing a ouija board and an upturned wine glass.
Voice from auditorium:
It's Roly the Frog!
Second voice from auditorium: I hope he's better than that stand-up chameleon.
Third voice from auditorium: Sssssh!
Music: The conductor raises his baton and on his signal the band strikes up It's a Lovely Day Today by Irving Berlin.
Roly the Frog:
I'm a frog from outer space
So whatever you've got to do
You've got a frog from space to do it with, that's true.
If you want to open a dialogue
You can sit and talk to a small green frog
For I'd really like to stay
I'm a frog from outer space
And whatever you've got to do
I'd be so happy to be doing it with you
If you're white or brown or Caríbbean
You can please befriend an amphibian
There is nothing worse to face
Than passing a lovely day in meeting
Frogs from outer space.
I'm a frog from outer space
So whatever you have in mind
You've got a frog from space should you be so inclined.
We could spend all day simply catching flies
With my sticky tongue and protruding eyes
For I'd really like to stay
I'm a frog from outer space
So whatever you want to find
You've got a frog from space to find it with today
If you find a pond I can lay my eggs
If you find me dead, you can eat my legs
Fried with salt and garlic paste
Which means it's a lovely day for singing
Frogs from outer space.
Tremendous roars of applause, cries of "More," "Encore," etc. Al claps furiously as Roly bows to the audience and leaves the stage. Orchestra plays Roly off.
There was a sudden clatter as some pieces of metalwork fell from the table onto the bare floor, and Al awoke suddenly.
"Where am I?" he cried, really not knowing.
"You're at home," said Stew, "nothing to worry about. I let myself in. I'm sorry Chubby here knocked the stuff off the table and woke you. I wasn't watching where he was going. You could ignore us and go back to sleep."
"Home? Do I live here? Oh, Christ forfend."
"Give it a second and you'll recognise this place. You always do after a wee while."
"Yeah. Oh, God, what a nightmare."
"You still having the nightmare?"
"No, I didn't have that one. I had a vivid dream about a frog doing a music hall act. Load of rubbish. I just meant, what a nightmare living in a place like this is. At least I recognise it now. When you woke me I had no idea at all where I was."
"Are you all right now?"
"My brain has resumed its normal if inadequate function and I am now perfectly adjusted to my surroundings, dreadful though they are."
"That's the most anyone can hope for."
"Whose cat is that?" Chubby was sitting on the floor washing around his mouth.
"Ours, I think. He came into the room with Tawny and he's been following me."
"Cats always are. They're lucky."
"I've news for you. I found a girlfriend and fallen in love."
"That wouldn't be the cat, would it?"
"No, a real human being girlfriend."
"Is she nice?"
"Perfect in all respects."
"Do I know her?"
Stew smiled. "Tawny Howe."
"Oh, very nice. What happened?"
"Cupid shot an arrow straight through her heart and she threw herself upon me. I can't think why."
"Very nice, definitely. There's just one fly in the ointment as far as I can see. Did you notice the gold ring on the third finger of her left hand? She's already married."
"She is, but she likes me enough to share a bed with me every now and again, and that's all I could ask, isn't it."
"So where's the heavily armed Mookie while you're getting it on together?"
"He's still in the hospital, on a waiting list, waiting for Dr Beech to mend his ear."
"How long will that be, have you any idea?"
"Forever, I should think."
"It's usually forever. Or at least until he snuffs it. So you and Tawny could probably enjoy a long term residential relationship if you wanted to. It's Mook's own fault, so if you think about it, it serves him right for being a trigger happy twerp."
"Just an occasional night with Tawny is all I really need to make my life complete."
"Well, I suppose to make my life really absolutely complete I would need a job, a house, money, holidays, education, friends, beer, whisky and a plasma television with two hundred channels, all different. Until that comes along, though, an occasional night shared with my wonderful new girlfriend is all I shall need before I regard my life as complete."
"A job? You've never mentioned getting a job before, Stew. Not in all the years I've known you. What's come over you?"
"I could get a job, if there were any. I must be good at something."
"What could that be?"
Stew thought. "I'm pretty good at shovelling."
Al couldn't think of many jobs that required nothing more than the ability to shovel. "Anything else?"
"You could work on the roads in Edinburgh, then. You'd make a good living there."
"What about the other things?"
"Well, I noticed that you left out wine."
"Wine? Yucky horrible French stuff. Can't abide it."
"What about a car?"
"I forgot that. A Lamborghini would go nicely with the job, the money, the holidays, the education, the friends, the beer and the whisky. A really noisy yellow one would be best, parked in front of the west wing of the house, where you could see it from the street. One that broke the sound barrier and the threshhold of auditory pain at the same instant."
"And a yacht?"
"A thirty eight foot yacht with a crew of eight attractive women, moored in the Seychelles, at my beck and call for all those tiresome business trips. And then there's the private aeroplane."
"Dream on, then. You'll still be living exactly as you are now in a hundred years' time, if you're still alive."
"But at least I'll have Tawny."
There was a knock at the door again. Stew hoped it might be Tawny, but it wasn't. It was Nick.
"Al!" he said, as though they were friends, "Have you done my warrant card?"
Al noticed that Stew had disappeared from view.
"I have done it," said Al, standing by the table and looking under a greasy plate for it, "here." He handed Nick a playing-card sized warrant card made from carefully flattened and decorated soup tin.
"Gosh." Nick was dumbstruck by the quality of the workmanship. "This is a beautiful piece of work. This isn't just a warrant card, it's art. The portraiture looks just like me, and the graphics are truly masterful in their execution." He turned it over to admire the reverse face, which was a plain blue with a pattern of chequered ribbons around the edges. "Magificent." He slid the warrant card into a blazer pocket. "There aren't many artists who can deter crime and display mastery of their medium at the same time. How much does this sort of work cost?"
"I don't know. Never thought about it, really. How much do you want to spend on it?"
Nick reached into a pocket and produced a handful of coins. "That's all I have on me."
Al looked at the coins thoughtfully and took roughly two thirds of them. Then he looked at the coins that remained in Nick's hand and pointed at an Indian rupee, observing, "I've never seen a coin like that one there. May I take that one too?"
"Sure," said Nick, "have it."
Al took it, looked at it, and put it in the pile with the others. "I enjoyed doing the work, so if you need anything similar, please tell me. I'd be happy to do another one."
"I certainly will," said Nick, and he continued his patrol along the path towards the shop as Al closed the door.
"You can come out now," Al called to Stew, and Stew reappeared from behind the stove.
"Why do you keep doing that," asked Al, "you dimwit?"
"Force of habit."
"Force of habit? Nick wasn't looking for you. He just wanted his new warrant card. Why would he be looking for you? Why do you keep disappearing from sight? For Christ's sake, why can't you just remain on show like… normal people do?"
Realising that he had more or less answered his own question, Al stopped his tirade, and Stew didn't answer it.
Al knelt in front of the doll's house, opened the front and looked in on the twins. Jacqui was asleep in the armchair and Jazz lay on the bed. "Look at them," Al sighed wistfully, "the sleeping beauties, dreaming only of flowers and fairies, remaining oblivious to the troubles of this world." He reached out and raised Jazz's head so that she appeared to have woken up and seen him. "Jazz? Is Jacqui awake yet?" He paused for Jazz to answer, then, "All right. When she wakes up we'll go for a walk in the sunshine. Maybe we'll even go to the shop." He settled Jazz into her bed again and smoothed her hair. "The wee darlings."
Stew saw the obvious. "You love those dolls."
"You see? You're in love yourself, so you understand what I feel."
"Do you want to come for a walk with me and the dolls, before the rain starts?"
"What makes you think it's going to start raining?"
"Because this is Scotland, you doofus. It's always going to start raining. When was the last day it didn't start raining? Wrap up warm."
"What's a doofus?"
"It's you, that's what a doofus is."
Al had arranged the dolls so that they each had one arm wrapped around the other's waist, and he was cradling them gently in one hand. He and Stew were walking through the church yard, on the way to McMurdo's grocery shop, and the Rev. Cabrio hailed them.
"Morning, you two," he shouted, bustling up to them. "I see you brought the twins?"
"Good morning, Minister," Al returned the greeting without much enthusiasm. "What's the name of the church today?"
"We're still the Church of Saint Diana of Spencer," said Hugo, "the new name's still in the early adopter phase so I won't change it again for a while. Not until it's peaked."
"Great," said Stew, "because if someone tells us that the way from our house to McMurdo's grocery is along past the Church of Saint Diana, and you've gone and renamed it the Church of Saint Barack de Obama, then we might both get lost and sink into the mud up to our noses and drown to death."
"The mud isn't as deep as that, is it?"
"No, well, not unless we fell in head first. It might only come up to our waists, but then if we'd fallen in feet first and we couldn't get out then we'd starve to death instead of drowning to death, unless you came along and pulled us out."
"Or," suggested Al, for a bright idea had dawned upon him, "you could bring us tea and sandwiches so that we didn't starve to death."
Hugo considered this for a while and said, "We got our new step yesterday."
"Step?" Al had forgotten about the step. "Why did you need a new step? What was wrong with the old one?"
"I thought I shared this with you, but maybe I forgot to keep you in the loop, so in case I didn't, not so very long ago we were attempting to replace the spindle of the church clock, and the hands fell onto the top step in front of the doors, and the step was cracked and broken, but it's not broken any more," Hugo beamed with pride. "because yesterday afternoon a workman brought a new step in a wheelbarrow and he and I fitted it in front of the door there, and if you will both look at it, you'll see how impressive it looks now!"
"You still haven't got the hang of simple but pithy sentences." Al critiqued, "That last sentence of yours contained exactly one hundred words."
"It's all the sermons. I use far too many words. Sorry about that. "
"That's not just three short sentences," said Stew, "it's haiku. I couldn't really understand the long sentences. By the time you get to the end I forget what you're talking about."
The new top step was unbroken, clean and obviously thoroughly mended. Al carried the dolls up the steps and sat the dolls gently on the edge, as though to let them see the church yard.
"They like this place," Al imagined their emotions, "it's calm, beautiful, and ancient. You see, Jacqui," he spoke to the doll further from him, "this place dates back to a time when people could build things of beauty and set them in well tended gardens and they didn't let the rain in or fall down. Those days won't come back."
"Go up there yourself. Look at the view from the top step," Hugo suggested.
Al stood on the new top step, turned to look at the sea in the distance, and immediately the stone snapped and crumbled to pieces. Jacqui tumbled backwards and landed with her legs waving in the air. Jazz fell onto the second step and landed face down. Al picked them up and dusted them off with great care. Hugo caught Al's forearm so that he didn't fall down.
Hugo was genuinely apologetic. "I'm sorry. Are the twins all right?"
"They're a bit grazed but they'll be fine."
"I suppose I shall have to order another capping stone." Hugo paused for a moment, stared at his feet and said quietly, "Stew, I have to ask you this. Have you ever thought what will happen to you when you die?"
"Yes, I have. I'm going to come back here and haunt you."
McMurdo greeted Al and Stew briskly. "Morning, Al, morning, Stew. I see you've brought the family."
"Oh, we have. It's a beautiful day. The twins wanted to come with us."
"They're beautiful wee girls. What happened to them?"
"A bit of horse play in the church yard, scratches and muddy clothes but no serious damage. Even though they're twenty eight," said Stew.
Al set a pile of coins on the dusty counter. "Well, let's get the shopping done. Stew's eaten me out of house and home again. Two of them tins of tomato soup, please."
"Oh," said McMurdo, "I've got something here you might like. Fresh in yesterday. Alphabet soup."
"No, thanks, I'm sticking with what I know. Just the tomato, please."
Stew saw immediately the possibilities of telling fortunes with alphabet soup. "Oh, go on, let's have one tin of alphabet soup. It's not much. It could change our entire lives."
Al was preparing to tell Stew that it took more than a tin of soup to change a man's entire life and he (Stew) could bring his own money if he wanted to buy his own soup, but instead he said, mildly, "All right, McMurdo, you've talked us into it." After all, he had all that money from selling Nick a warrant card. "Two tins of tomato soup and one of alphabet."
Al disappeared into the store room for a while and came back with three tins, somehow held awkwardly in the long fingers of one hand. "Here. You'll like that."
McMurdo took a few of Al's coins from the pile on the counter and handed over the tins. "I hope you don't need a bag, because I haven't got any."
"No, it's all right. We don't need a bag. We'll manage. It isn't far."
Inside Al's cottage the twins were smiling, perched on the top of the armchair watching Al cook. On the seat of the armchair reposed Chubby the cat, his tail wrapped around his nose, snoring occasionally. After their fall, Al had cleaned the dirt off the twins' clothes and faces and brushed the tangles out of their long blonde hair. Stew sat at the table watching him at work.
"I decided to try yours first," said Al as a kind of mealtime banter, "see, it was a lot easier to choose between a tin of alphabet soup and a tin of tomato soup, because alphabet soup and tomato soup are completely different. So that was an easy decision."
Stew grasped this point instantly. "But tomorrow, when there's nothing but two tins of tomato soup, you'll have a really difficult choice to make."
"I've thought of that. I'll toss a coin."
"Was that your idea?"
"Yes. Brilliant, isn't it. It has all the hallmarks of a sound innovation, except the bit that says nobody shall ever have done it before. It's effective, simple, cheap and easy to deploy in the field."
"We're not in a field."
"All right, then, it's easy to deploy in the cottage."
"Is that still one of the hallmarks of a good idea, or does it have to be in a field?"
"Not just a field. Not just any old field, but the field. No, it doesn't have to be easy to deploy in the field. It could be easy to deploy in the cottage, or in the sea, or up in the sky for that matter, and it would still be as brilliant an idea as any that anybody's ever had."
"Scotland has always been renowned as a country of invention. It's amazing to think you and I are now a part of that long standing tradition."
"Indeed I am. I am the latest heir to a long line of staggeringly clever Scottish inventions such as the Bennie railplane, John Logie Baird watching a light bulb going on and off through a magnifying glass, kilts, bagpipes, a silly game where you knock balls into holes with sticks and the deep fried Mars bar."
There was a sudden loud hiss from the stove and a cloud of steam. The noise startled Chubby, who ran off and hid in a corner. "Oh, my God," shouted Al, "the soup's boiled over. Why didn't you tell me?" He grabbed the saucepan and looked around for a rag.
"While you're in an inventive mood," Stew suggested, "you ought to invent something else that stops soup from boiling over."
Al was cleaning up the spilt soup. "Like a very tall saucepan."
"Yes, that might work, or you could throw a deep fried Mars bar into the pan when it starts to boil over."
"You've lost me, mate. How does that stop the soup boiling over, exactly?"
"It cools the soup down so it stops spilling over for a while, especially if it's a very cold deep fried Mars bar. It doesn't actually fix the problem but it buys time, like smoke alarms and things."
"So what you're saying is, Stew, you've found a use for a deep fried Mars bar."
In the corner of the room, Chubby realised there wasn't anything to worry about, and he pattered back to doze on the seat of the tatty armchair.
"Yes, or a bagpipe," said Stew, "you could throw a bagpipe into the soup pan, which might stop it boiling over, except it'd splash and you'd probably get soup everywhere and you'd never be able to wash the stain out of the bagpipe."
"But, say, if the soup was boiling over and you didn't have a deep fried Mars bar handy…"
"Then you could always use a bagpipe."
Al considered this with care. "You know, some inventions are useless when they're first invented and they only become useful two hundred years or so later. Maxwell's equations, for instance. Here you are, finding uses for two of them. Who would have thought that deep fried Mars bars and bagpipes would be pressed into useful service within our lifetimes?"
"And if you combine the deep fried Mars bar and the bagpipe you can have another really useful Scottish invention, which is by name the silent bagpipe. One day I shall patent it and make a fortune selling CDs of silent bagpipe music."
Scene: A kitchen. There is a chip pan boiling happily on the stove. There is a bare table and a couple of chairs. There is a telephone screwed to the wall. Greta London, a middle aged woman wearing a housecoat and an apron is sitting at the table reading a newspaper.
The chip pan catches fire with a tremendous whoosh. Flames and thick black smoke belch from it. Woman starts to cough and grabs phone. She dials 112.
Cut to: Scene: Telephone exchange. Tape recorders, oscilloscopes displaying voice waveforms, wires, plugs etc. A light on the plugboard goes on. Telephone operator in uniform and wearing a headset presses a switch and begins to talk to the caller.
Operator: Emergency. Which service do you require?
Cut to: Scene: The kitchen
Greta London: (Panicked. Glasgow accent.) Help! Fire! Mah chip (cough, splutter) pan's on fire!
Operator: (voice on phone) Putting you through now.
Phone: Ringing tone.
Cut to: Scene: Fire station. Buckets of sand hung from hooks on wall, fire extinguishers, helmets on rack etc. Firemen are sitting at tables drinking tea, playing draughts, playing snakes and ladders, doing their children's homework etc. Phone rings. One of the firemen picks it up.
Fireman: Fire brigade.
Cut to: Scene: The kitchen. Smoke is now very dense.
Greta London: Fire! Mah chip (cough, splutter) pan's caught fire! (splutter, cough) I'm chokin'!
Fireman: (voice on phone) Listen. Try not to panic. Have you got a bagpipe somewhere lyin' about?
Greta London: Yes, I always keep one handy (cough, cough) in case I need it.
Cut to: Scene: Fire station.
Fireman: Pick up the bagpipe in both hands, hold it carefully horizontally and get as close to the fire as you can. Then throw the bagpipe over the chip pan, drones first. Have you got that?
Cut to: Scene: The kitchen.
Greta London puts the phone down on the kitchen worktop. She takes a bagpipe from a cupboard near the phone, takes a couple of steps towards the flaming chip pan and throws the bagpipe onto the pan. The fire goes out. Greta picks the phone up again.
Greta London: It worked, it worked! The fire has gone out.
Fireman: I'm glad we managed to get that put out with a minimum of lives lost and property damaged.
Greta London: Well done. Hangs up phone. Porter London, Greta's husband, comes into the kitchen.
Porter London: What's this, woman? Have you been trying to deep fry mah bagpipe?
Greta London: The fire brigade told me to throw it onto the chip pan.
Porter London: You ought to leave that there nouvelle cuisine to Jamie Oliver. Can you no' make chips and deep fried Mars bars like everyone else? What are our daughters Ena, Tara and Phyra going to eat?
Greta London: Well, Porter, if that doesn't take the cake I'll eat my damned hat. I've saved our house from being consumed by fire and narrowly escaped being burned to death myself, and all you can say is 'What's for dinner?'
"I wish I had your gifts, Stew. Here you are, alphabet soup." He reached the bowl of Marmite-coloured soup and pasta letters to Stew, who took it and dipped in with his spoon. They ate in silence, watched by the smiling twins and by the lethargic cat, who opened one eye occasionally.
"That was good. Pasta letters and sort of bouillon stuff," said Stew appreciatively, "really nice. I told you you'd like it."
"You were right." Al wiped his mouth with the rag. "It's good. Does it have Marmite in it?"
"No, it says on the label here, No Marmite was used in the preparation of this soup, there, in between Only 1050 Kcal and Sell by 31 December 2047.
"That's good, because I can't stand Marmite. Do you want to interpret the dregs?"
"Of course. Hand me your empty bowl and let me see what's there. Reading letters ought to be a lot easier than interpreting scraps of unconsumed tomato orientated vegetable matter."
"There's a word of three letters left over. It says B, S, U. What does that mean? Bath Spa University?"
"I think it's more an anagram. Let me see." He thought deeply, licking his lower lip visibly as he concentrated. "BSU… SUB… BUS. It says BUS."
"No, it doesn't, it says BSU."
"You're supposed to treat it figuratively," explained Stu, "to interpret it in a subjective way for yourself, not to regard it as rigid and literal. So if I just gently slide the letter B around to the end of the row," he manoeuvred the letter with his fingertip, "it says BUS."
"Bus? Which bus?"
"The empty bus standing on the road, I suppose. I don't think there's another bus, is there?"
"Oh, yes. I remember. Well, I've got nothing more important to do that I can think of, so we can go there if you want to."
"The soup is definitely trying to tell us to go to the bus. Or it might be acting as a medium of transmission from some sentient entity that wants us to go to the bus."
There was a knock at the door. Al opened the door. Tawny was standing there, while Stew had disappeared from view.
"May I come in? Is Stew here?"
"He's in here somewhere."
"He's there." Stew stood up and Tawny saw him. He had been crouching expertly behind the armchair. "With Mook being unwell, I've done the rounds of the farm today. You could come and sit in the farmhouse and talk to me."
"What sorts of thing were you doing?" Al asked, since despite having lived in the bucolic East Neuk most of his life, he had never really understood about farms.
"We're a market garden. Apart from one cow for milk, Mook was never really interested in keeping animals. He never had the gift for looking after them. Even the cat that followed us home this morning has run away already."
"Don't you even have chickens?"
"Well, yes. There are two or three of them in a shed. I don't think they count, though. They're not really animals. They're just poultry."
"The cat's over there, on the chair, by the way." Al pointed to the sleeping pussy cat.
"He's beautiful, isn't he. Oh, well, if he's adopted you and he's happy here… so as I was saying, Mook doesn't keep animals so I was busily running around milking the lettuces, shoeing turnips, feeding the onions, shearing the apple tree and rounding up the stray tomatoes. And then there's the never ending paperwork. All those subsidies to claim, it fair wears me out."
"It's constant heavy work, farming. I know. It would kill me."
"You're too old for it, Al," said Tawny, tactlessly.
"Talking about killing people, have you shot anybody yet?" asked Stew even more tactlessly. "I would've thought that was the fun part."
"No, because it isn't necessary to kill a cabbage. You just sell it or boil it or pickle it and then you eat it with none of that tiresome messing about in slaughterhouses. Besides, I don't think I would risk standing near Mook's rifle when he pulled the trigger. It might explode and blow my head off, which is what nearly happened to him, and even if it worked properly you can never tell which way he's going to point it. He just sort of waves it about, as though it were symbolic rather than functional." She looked meaningfully at Stew and added, "You really must come and taste my pickled cabbage."
"Can I put it in a ham sandwich?" asked Stew, combining the snack gourmet with the literalist.
"What do you mean?" Tawny took a second to catch up, then, "Oh! Of course. Sure, provided I've got bread and stuff."
"In the meantime, we're on a mission," Al told her. "We're going to see a bus."
"Bus?" Tawny was nonplussed. "But there hasn't been a bus in these parts since God knows how long ago. I might have been ten years old when the last bus left."
"We have received a message from the spirit world telling us, 'Bus!'" said Al, "unless it came from the soup canning factory."
"You know," said Stew, "if I owned an off-licence, I would call it Spirit World."
"How would you communicate with your customers?" asked Tawny.
"Soup dregs, ouija boards and mysterious wails in the middle of the night. And I'd deliver to them by walking through walls. Our slogan would be Spirit World, the rattling chain store."
"Well," said Tawny, "I'll come to the bus stop with you, if you let me."
"That would be nice. You'd be most welcome," said Stew.
The weather was bright and cold. Al said that the twins wanted to come, and he tucked them into his coat pocket while Stew and Tawny exchanged romantic glances and prepared to spend the day on the road. Tawny took Stew's hand as the three of them left the cottage — five, if you counted the dolls. Chubby the cat was sitting sleepily on the indoor window sill watching them go. At the corner of the path they looked around for the frog, but he wasn't there. Predictably, Al said the frog must've hopped it. Stew and Tawny laughed.
They walked through the wood and out into the clearing, and saw the bus ahead of them on the road, exactly where it was before, and quite deserted. They plodged through an inch of mud to get to the roadside, flipped the emergency switch that opened the doors, clambered on board and took seats on the top deck. Tawny sat at the front in the right corner, Stew sat beside her, and Al and the dolls sprawled on the front left seat. Tawny kissed Stew and he gave her a passionate hug in response.
"What do we do now?" Tawny asked first.
"Wait until something happens," said Stew.
"Such as," Al added, "we all catch a disease from a grubby seat and die."
"How could the seats be grubby if nobody was on the bus?" asked Stew.
At countered with, "The only reason the seats are grubby is because you were sittin' on them."
Tawny tried not to laugh. She was the first person to notice a man in bus company uniform walking along the road towards them."Good Lord," she said, "I believe we have a driver."
"See?" Stew bragged to Al and the dolls. "See? I knew we had to come here, O ye of little faith."
"It's all a co-incidence," said Al, cynically. "If the letters had been different then we would all have been somewhere else, such as Bath Spa University."
"But we're here and this is definitely the right place."
The bus driver climbed on board and noticing the passengers on the top deck he called up to them. "You for Cumbernauld Shopping Centre?"
"Where?" asked Tawny.
"Why?" asked Al.
"Yes," yelled Stew, "that's exactly where we want to go."
"Have you got tickets?"
"No," they chorused.
"Well, I don't care. The bus is free."
"What happened?" asked Al, going down the stairs to say hello to the man in the driving seat. "Why's there suddenly a bus to Cumbernauld Shopping Centre of all places?"
"Fife Council arranged to operate one return service a year to Cumbernauld Shopping Centre and they never cancelled it, so we still run the service."
"But Fife Council was blown up in the War. There's nobody left to cancel any orders, or anything else."
"Yes, I know. But our operations are governed by written agreements, which we are obliged to honour and comply with. The agreement was that Second Bus Group continue to operate the service until it's explicitly cancelled in writing by Fife Council."
"That must have been, what, thirty or forty years ago."
"That's an example of our long term operational planning. The policy of maintaining services in the long term provides stability to the enterprise and in the long term dependability for the passenger base results in fewer passengers seeking alternative means of transport. Passengers don't take to fly-by-night operators."
"Why once a year, then?"
Al noticed without much interest that the bus driver was wearing an ID badge in the name Ivor.
"Well, don't let me put you off taking us on a trip," said Al, "but it's April."
"It says in our agreement with Fife Council that the company has ultimate discretion over the dates and times of operation. Since the roads are impassable from October to March, this is the earliest we can run the service. This bus is shown in the timetable as Christmas 2047. There was a notice attached to the bus stop explaining the position."
"Bus stop? What bus stop?"
"There was a bus stop here when the company attached the notice to it, but twenty years ago or so somebody illicitly removed the bus stop to replace a leaky pipe in the loft. They probably threw the notice away since you couldn't really have used it to repair a pipe."
"Maybe they needed toilet paper that day."
"Aye, quite likely."
"Very good. That is all perfectly clear, then. Drive on!" Al rang the bell twice, London Transport style, and the bus moved off, weaving gingerly around the biggest rocks and pot holes and bouncing wildly across the smaller ones, nearly knocking Al off his feet.
The bus swayed west and south over the worn out roads, through the green spring countryside of the East Neuk and into the grey dereliction of the central industrial towns. Devastated in the War, the region completely lost all its former inhabitants. They were either blown to bits, or they were living in squats and tumbledown cottages miles away. The road to Cumbernauld shopping centre was strewn with rocks. With extraordinary navigational skill, the driver managed to stop the bus within fifty yards of the main entrance. The passengers alighted and stared at the scene. The shopping centre was intact, but with that exception the entire town was reduced to smithereens.
"You've got two hours to do your shopping," the driver told them.
"Great. Where shall we start?" Tawny asked.
"It makes no difference," said Ivor. "None of the shops is open."
The main door was supposed to be automatic, but as there was no electricity Al had to drag it open with almighty force. Inside, the shops were in the state their occupiers had left them in when they left it. Fully half the shops had women's dresses in the window. Al took a couple of pretty skirts and jackets and blouses to cut up and make pretty new clothes for the dolls. Tawny looked nostalgically at the office, improvised in a commandeered dress shop, the window full of ration books and identity papers and application forms for this, that and the other. Stew found a newsagent and read the headlines of the creased and faded newspapers. As he read them, a story began to emerge.
Grainy black and white film.
Scene: Exterior, early morning. An Army base a few miles north of the Scottish Border. Lorries loaded with missile bombs are driving around. Short scenes of soldiers in flak jackets loading bombs onto trucks and giving thumbs up signs before driving off. Missile bomb launchers are parked in the background.
Scene: Interior, early morning. A meeting room in which Colonel Ken Grue who has an enormous moustache is briefing about twenty Soldiers in combat jackets who are seated at tables. There is a huge map of southern Scotland on the wall covered with pins, chalk marks, snakes, ladders, Monopoly houses, Monopoly hotels, Lego bricks, chess men, wads of chewing gum, post-its, Matchbox buses, Hornby signal boxes etc.
Colonel Ken Grue:
Thank you, Sergeant. Gentlemen: Operation Mashed Potato. The time has come for an assault on Cumbernauld. This attack will follow an unusual pattern. Cumbernauld is as you have seen a spectacularly ugly town, which gives rise to the unprecedented plan of action with we shall undertake.
(Takes envelope from pocket, takes several photographs out of envelopes and hands them to the soldiers.)
Soldiers: (examining the photographs) Gordon Bennett! What a dreadful place! How awful, fancy having to live in that, etc.
Young lady brings tea, sugar and milk on silver tray and sets them on a table near the Colonel.
Colonel Ken Grue: Thank you, Mildred. We are going to delegate the destruction of Cumbernauld to the inhabitants themselves, who have volunteered in their hundreds to form a Citizens' Demolition Force which will willingly undertake the task. In exchange, we have agreed to supply explosives, bulldozers, sledgehammers, hard hats and all the paraphernalia of a medium sized demolition site. These requisites will be issued from 06.00 tomorrow from temporary distribution points located here (points at pin on map), here (points at chessman on map) and here (points at snake on map and pauses. Looks around the room.) The only exception to this will be Cumbernauld Shopping Centre, a building of such unique, unbelievable and overpowering hideousness that it has won several awards. The Shopping Centre will therefore not be attacked. A detachment will be sent to prevent any accidental incursion by the volunteer demolition force. This extends to the large car park adjacent to the Shopping Centre, which must also remain undamaged. I am informed that the National Trust for Scotland has agreed to purchase the Shopping Centre as an example of hideous architecture which will serve as a dire warning to the architects of future generations. The National Trust for Scotland will of course relocate those of their friends and relations who reside within the target area to picturesque houses in wealthy and attractive regions of the countryside.
Pause. Colonel pours milk into tea, takes a drink and looks around the room.
Colonel Ken Grue:
Private Churchill: Sir?
Colonel Ken Grue: Yes, Private Churchill?
Private Churchill: What about refugees, sir?
Colonel Ken Grue: Shoot them. Any more questions?
Private Attlee: Sir?
Colonel Ken Grue: Yes, Private Attlee?
Private Attlee: May I have a cup of tea too, sir?
Colonel Ken Grue: Of course not. It's on the ration. You get yours down the NAAFI. Any more questions? (Pauses. No questions are offered.) Carry on, Sergeant.
Scene: Exterior, afternoon. Crowd of people hard at work with hammers, bulldozers, wrecking balls, crowbars and sticks of dynamite reducing Cumbernauld to pile of smouldering rubble.
Dissolve to: Scene: Exterior, afternoon. Soldiers in uniform with rifles stand guard, keeping the Citizens' Demolition Force away from the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre.
Black and white film ends.
Tawny and Stew were sitting on a bench inside the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre, opposite the newsagent, and looking at the newspapers dating from the day the town was torn down. The Day the City Fell, read one.
"So the National Trust bought the building," said Stew.
"You could've fooled me," said Tawny, "I didn't see any National Trust signs on the building, did you?"
"No, but all that means is that some time in the last thirty or forty years they've fallen off."
"And the National Trust always charges an exorbitant fee for admission to its properties. Did you notice a price list?"
"No, you're right. We came in through the main entrance and there wasn't a price list."
"Look, we've got an hour or so before the bus leaves for home. Al is happily going around the dress shops taking pieces of fabric from here and there. Do you want to come for a walk round?"
"Yes. Yes, all right. Sounds better than traipsing round dress shops. The dresses don't even fit me."
"Made in China."
"OK, we start at the car park. I'm going to take a couple of these newspapers, too. I think they might be worth looking over later."
"The Scotsman, of course, and the Glasgow Herald. That should cover it."
The car park was crazed and pitted. Three cars in different states of decrepitude stood around, all rusted and with wheels or windows missing. Tawny examined them carefully and then started to inspect the building.
"What are you looking for?" Stew asked her.
"I don't know, but when I see it I'll know what it is. I always wanted to be Miss Marple."
"Well, all right, what sort of thing would it be, if you could see it?"
"It would be evidence, of a sort. Look, why would the English demolish a wide area around this building and clear it of civilians?"
"Because the people who lived in the wide area around this building hated the place and wanted it to be done away with."
"Well, yes, but in that case, why say it was all for charity?"
"Because you can get away with anything if you say it's for charity. Is it all right if I take your coat, hat and shoes and sell them for charity? Is it all right if I kick your head in for charity? Is it all right…"
"I get the idea. Now, the Army asked the volunteer demolition force to leave the Shopping Centre standing for charity, and despite their obvious desire to flatten it, the demolition force left it standing."
Tawny waited for Stew to guess what she was thinking, and he didn't, so she continued. "The people wanted to demolish the town, so that gave the Army an innocent sounding pretext for arranging the demolition. If the people had wanted to stay put then they would have bombed it, or blown it up, or sent in the Pioneer Corps with bulldozers. So why resist the same people when they wanted to demolish the Shopping Centre?"
"I don't know." Stew thought for a long time and Tawny waited patiently. "I really have no idea at all. Why didn't they just demolish it and have done?"
"Because they had a use for it. Here, there's a door in the wall there. Coming with me?"
"Sure," said Stew, not expecting to find anything behind it, "let's go."
Tawny pulled at the lock on the door. The lock held firmly but the hinge tore completely away from the rotten wood and the entire door fell forward, so that she and Stew had to jump backwards to avoid it. Inside was a large, dark, and completely empty room with walls of bare breeze block. There were some marks in the dust on the flor, and that was all.
"Operations room," said Tawny. "The map was there," she pointed to four screw holes in the wall, the Colonel's coffee table where he stood his tea tray when he was addressing the troops was there." She pointed to four marks in the dust on the floor.
"You're imagining things," breathed Stew.
"I'm not. My father was deployed here. After the War he escaped back to Scotland and he told me what was going on. But if I just told you why this building was left standing, without providing you with any sort of evidence, you wouldn't have believed me."
"Well, that's true, yes, I wouldn't. There's a difference between being a bit daft and being completely gullible. But at the moment I'm only about two thirds convinced."
"Then I shall have to find some more traces of their activities for you."
"It doesn't look as though there's much more to be found here, Miss Marple."
"Just you wait. I'll grit my teeth and find incontrovertible evidence for you and then you'll be forced to change your mind. Now, let's leave by the stairs there."
The stairs led up to a landing, and a small unlocked door led from there into the documents office. There were still ration cards, identity cards, air raid precautions notices and blackout notices lying about, some of them dating back to almost to the turn of the century. Stew picked up a couple of documents at random and crammed them into a pocket. Then they walked through the front door and into the corridor of the Shopping Centre again. Al was waiting for them.
"I'm glad you're back. I noticed you in that office. I was stood here waiting."
"What were you up to?" asked Stew.
"I found a toy shop and took some Barbie clothes for the twins. And then I cut some bits of fabric from some dresses in the shop windows. I even found a reel of Velcro lying about, look. The twins will be really pleased. I can make some beautiful dresses and things for them out of this, look." He held up a few scraps of material. "Trousseau material, this."
"Can you sew?" Tawny was intrigued.
"I worked as a tailor in the military. I did a whole day of training before they let me loose on rolls of khaki and camouflage cloth. So I discharged my legal obligations and I spent the entire War doing something useful without getting shot at. The Scottish military, of course."
"I'm not much of a needlewoman. I would love to see how you do that."
"You may, as soon as we get back and we've rested. Where's the bus and what time is it?"
"It is in the car park, where we got off it. I don't know what the time is but we'd best rush," said Stew, "in case it's about to set off."
"Did you two both grab some souvenirs?"
"Yes," said Stew, "we found a couple of old newspapers, and we both went exploring."
The bus set off with the three or five of them on the top deck, depending on whether you counted the dolls. Darkness fell while they were still on the road, and they arrived in the local clearing in the early hours. As they came near to the squat, Stew invited Tawny to spend the night in his room with him.
"No, thanks," she said gently, "I'm sorry, I just can't stand fish. You come to my house this time."
"All right," said Stew, not bothered in the least about the slight upon his residence, "let's go to yours."
Finding the way back to Al's cottage through the trees and bracken in the darkness took an age. They went into Al's cottage together, sat Al in his armchair and wrapped him up, put his fabric and Barbie dresses on the table, and left him to nod off as they made their own way into Tawny's farmhouse. Tawny shut the door behind them, found a box of matches by touch and lit a candle.
"Isn't there something in the Bible about thy neighbour's wife?" Stew asked quietly and rhetorically.
"No, that was Gay Talese."
"What if Mook comes home, you mean? Don't worry, he's safely tucked up in the ward, and anyway this is my house, so I can let anybody in that I want," she continued meaningfully, "and do whatever I like. Now, I need to tell you that we rigged up a shower in there," she pointed to a door, "and the bed's in there. Do you want a biscuit?"
"Right answer. I made them myself. I'll bring a tin of them. We'll eat biscuits in bed like naughty kids."
Al was suffering his recurrent nightmare. It was during the War, and the blare of a wartime night filled his ears. He was standing in the small bedroom of his house, looking peacefully at his little twin daughters as they slept. Jazz, the artistic one, who loved to dress up and pretend to be a pirate or a cricketer or a newsreader on television. Jacqui, who looked exactly the same as her sister, had a gift for memorising facts in school and excelled at history, geography and arithmetic. Jazz could draw, Jacqui could find her way with a map. Both of them could talk without pausing for breath the whole while they were awake.
There was a flash in the distance and by reflex Al looked through the bedroom window onto the street. A volley of five missile bombs were hurtling towards his house, but too high to hit it. They roared over the roof. The window shook so much that he expected it to break. Then by the light of the missile exhausts he saw himself running down the street away from the house. He heard his distant self look up at the window and shout, "Put that bloody light out!" and he replied twice as loud, "Get back in here, you damned fool!" He saw himself turn towards the house, as though to run back. Then the distant self fell to the ground as a stray missile bomb crashed through the front of the house, breaking through the bedroom wall and tipping Jacqui out of her bed. Jacqui landed awkwardly and began to scream and then cry with bewilderment and shock.
"Oh, my God," said Al, thinking in the ensuing calm of how to settle the children for the night now their bedroom was half demolished.
That was when the missile bomb exploded. There was a deafening crash and a blinding light.
Al awoke with a sensation of having fallen heavily into the armchair from a height of many feet. "Oh, my God, where am I?"
Dawn was breaking. He recalled the dream and the lost sensation of talking to the girls, touching them, stroking their hair, smelling their scents. He found tears in his eyes and felt for a handkerchief or a rag to wipe them away, ending up weeping freely and wiping his eyes with his left coat sleeve. He recalled that there was a shortage of stretchers. With his crushed ankle the ARP had to improvise an ambulance by lifting him into a gardener's wheelbarrow and pushing him to the field hospital. There the neighbours visited him and told him that the girls, those lovely girls, had been incinerated. No recognisable trace of them was left.
When they had put his ankle in a cast and treated him for shock, Al had staggered back to the splintered wreck of the house. On the way back he found the twins' Barbie dolls intact and unharmed. They must have been catapulted out of the house by the force of the impact and somehow been sheltered from the fire. He dusted the dolls down and carried them with his to the Temporary Accommodation Office.
Sometimes he felt that surviving afterwards was the most difficult part of living through a war, and he hadn't yet learned how to cope with it.
Al looked around and sensed that, for once, Stew wasn't hiding in the same room. Al was on his own in the cottage. He guessed where Tawny and Stew had disappeared to, and he didn't want to fall asleep again. He moved Chubby the cat off the work table and set him down on the seat of the chair. Recognising it as the warmest place in the territory, Chubby curled up and settled there. Al arranged a wooden chair at the work table so that he could sew by the dim light of the early morning. He leafed through the collection of fabrics and found a couple of feet of blue denim which would make a decent pair of jeans for a doll, or an unusual coat. He decided on the coat and sat Jazz on the table in front of him as he marked the material out with chalk. The coat was for Jacqui, but by using her identical twin as a model he could make it a surprise for her.
"Now don't you go spilling the beans and telling your sister about this coat," he told Jazz, "just let her sleep while we get this marking up finished… I could've been one of the world's great couturiers, you know, one of the hautest there's ever been. I could have invented spats, the mini skirt and Rohan Bags if someone else hadn't already invented them. Do you mind if I take your nightie off for a while? Just so I get the cut right. Oh, all right, sorry, keep it on if you're embarrassed, just tell me if you think I've got the marks wrong. You aren't cold, are you? Sit still, sweety, that's right. If you move you'll make my chalk lines wobble." He looked at Jazz, and at the cloth, and then at Jazz again, and drew the path for the scissors to follow.
"You see that?" He held up the fabric so that Jazz could see the chalk outline. "It's going to be beautiful. Stylish, warm, machine washable, you name it. And I've got some really nice fabric to line it with. French women would pay thousands and thousands of francs for a coat half as good as this one's going to be, if they could afford it."
Jazz turned her head and looked at Al. Her long hair swayed with her movement and flashed in the light of dawn. She blinked and smiled at him. "Can I help?" she asked.
"Don't be silly," said Al, deadpan and without a hint of astonishment. "This is a man's job. You have to be trained to do it. How can you help?"
"Look." Jazz produced a miniature pair of tailoring scissors. "I've got the right sort of scissors. What else do I need? Hold the cloth still, Daddy, and I'll cut it. Go on, let me."
"Careful with those. They look sharp."
"I'll be very careful, I promise."
"Jazz, I've only got two feet of this fabric so follow the line exactly, won't you. I can't start again if you— I mean, if my hands shake while I'm holding it."
"Hold the cloth really still and you'll see."
Al knew Jazz couldn't cut a mark accurately, Jacqui could've done it far better, but it didn't matter. Jazz had never made any attempt at the simplest tailoring, and here she was trying her hand at one of the most difficult types of womenswear. In time she had to learn to be a competent seamstress, for making and mending your clothes was a survival skill, one of those chores that you had to be able to do, otherwise you and your family would probably end up going naked. He held the cloth carefully steady and turned it so that she was cutting in a straight line away from her: that was the easiest position for her to work in.
She cut the left front panel precisely. "How's that?" she asked, "is that good enough?"
"That's first class." Of course, Al would have said that the workmanship was first class even if it had lain waste the cloth, but the surprising truth was that Jacqui's cutting really was first class. "I'm most impressed," he added.
"Jazz," Al said quietly, showing the diffidence with which fathers speak when they are communicating their intimate feelings to their children, "do you know I dream of you most nights?"
"Oh, daddy, I'm not this little girl any more. I've grown up. I'm a famous cricketer now, and Jacqui is a famous accountant and she lives in a vast penthouse with servants in Beijing."
"Jacqui accountant famous?" Al's brain was so bludgeoned with the surprising news that it forgot to form a syntactically correct sentence from the words.
"Absolutely! People queue for days in the rain outside her office to have Jacqui work out their personal income tax or apportion the fixed costs of manufacture among the various co-located industrial processes."
"Are there any famous accountants?"
"Of course! William Wallace was an accountant. And George Stephenson was an accountant. So were Kirkpatrick Macmillan, Henry Ford, Admiral Cochrane and Beyoncé Knowles. They were all accountants to begin with."
"I didn't know that."
"Ha!" Jazz laughed so much that her whole body rocked. "You believed me!"
"Of course I believed you. Why shouldn't I?"
"Because I made it all up. I was talking rubbish!"
"Now there's a skill you're going to need when you grow up. Talking rubbish will get you far in life."
"He's doing what he loves," Stew said somewhere behind him, and the girl and the conversation dissolved instantly. Al awoke with a start.
"Sleeping, do you mean?" said Tawny's voice.
"No! Making clothes. It was always his forté."
Al sat bolt upright in the chair. "Oh, my God, where am I?"
"You're at home," said Stew, "don't jump."
"Christ!" Al still had the marked up cloth in his hand, nobody had started to cut it, and Jazz was a doll, sitting still, exactly where she had been, and her hands were empty. There were no miniature scissors to be seen.
"You said I could watch," said Tawny with calculated petulance, "and then you started without me."
"I've only done that marking up you can see there, and that's not difficult. If you want to do it full size, you get a paper pattern and trace the lines in chalk."
"I just go to a shop and buy it?"
Al realised that going to a fabric shop and buying a pattern died out years ago. "No, sorry, I wasn't awake properly. I have a few paper patterns but if you don't like any of those, find a simply designed, worn out coat that used to fit you, unpick the seams and use that as a pattern. Or you could ask me to do it. It's not a long job and once the lines are drawn, the cutting and stitching isn't hard. Have you never made clothes for yourself?"
"I've sewn a button back on. I tried to darn a sock once but I stabbed myself in the finger and got into a frightful tangle. That's all."
"Just sit in a good light, use a sharp needle, work slowly and carefully and everything will work out," Al counselled her.
There was a brief silence, so Al broke it with, "I've not had breakfast yet. Do you want some soup?"
"Oh, yes, please," said Stew. Tawny nodded.
"I've only got tomato. I think that's all that McMurdo has in his shop at the moment, just tomato. I can make that if you want."
"That would be much appreciated," said Tawny.
Al found a saucepan and two bowls, so with the bottled gas stove he was able to heat the soup and divide it between the two bowls and the empty tin. He gave the bowls to Stew and Tawny, poured the rest back into the tin and sat, relaxedly, supping his own portion as though the tin had been a china mug without a handle.
"They should put handles on tin cans," said Stew, "so that you can drink the soup from them and you don't need a bowl or a spoon."
"That's a brilliant invention," said Al, intending irony which was lost on Stew, "in a sensible world you would patent soup tins with a handle and you'd go on to make piles of money and found a dynasty. Eat Dappel's Tomato Soup," he imagined the advertising on telly, "and forget about washing up afterwards."
"And forget about having to have a bowl and a spoon," Stew continued, fired with enthusiasm. "And it doesn't end there. It doesn't just have to be tomato soup. It could be alphabet soup instead."
"You're a genius," said Tawny, really meaning it. "Dappel's Soup, in 2 varieties."
"Aye. Count 'em." Al put in.
"Give me your plates and things, I'll wash them." Al reached out for the crockery.
"All right, but while you're doing that, I'll take a look at your empty tin and attempt to prognosticate the future," Stew offered.
"Here you are."
"I didn't know you were a fortune teller as well," said Tawny, "for as long as I've known you, you haven't ceased to amaze me with your gifts."
Stew was already holding the tin so that light from the window fell on its interior. "There's a croûton there, with a tomato pip either side of it. That's a scrap of parsley opposite it, there. Oh, dear."
"What is it?"
"Fights, recriminations, disappointment and other bad things."
As Stew spoke, there was a knock on the door. The three of them stared at each other. Not knowing what to expect, Al opened the door. It was the Reverend Hugo Cabrio.
"Good morning everyone. How fortunate that I've bumped into the three of you together."
"In what way?" Al asked, his tone of voice indicating that he really didn't give a toss.
"Well, it's just that I haven't seen Mook lately. You know how deeply I care for my parishioners. Do you know what's happened to him? Where he is?"
"He's in the cottage hospital," Stew informed him, "after shooting himself in the ear."
"Oh, how awful. Attempted suicide? There's a lot of it about. Bankers and Members of Parliament are so ashamed of themselves that they simply can't face life any more, and they take their own lives."
"What?" Tawny was surprised. "I didn't hear of any of them killing themselves."
"They didn't. It was just my little joke. But what about Mook, was he trying to end it all?"
"No," said Stew, "attempted justifiable homicide, but as he was shooting at me with a cheap Chinese rifle, the breech burst and he's very lucky to be alive."
"Oh, how awfully awful. Where is he now?"
"He's in the cottage hospital suffering a tremendous headache in his right ear and giddy turns so powerful that he'll probably never stand up or walk around again. They're keeping him in."
"Oh, how awful." The Rev. Cabrio shook his head.
"Terrible," said Stew.
"Yes. How awful. How absolutely, absolutely awful. We should hold some kind of service, don't you all think?"
"That's just what I was thinking," Tawny chipped in, "do you think you would marry us?"
Al's face again changed to one of bewilderment and astonishment.
"I…, I thought you were married already," said the Rev. Cabrio. "I mean to say, a minister in the church of Scotland is allowed to marry people if their spouses are still alive, but not if they're still married to them."
"I am married, that's right. But that was to Mook and now I've met Stew so I want to marry again. I want to marry Stew, and I wasn't sure that I would be allowed to marry in church."
"Did you propose to Tawny in the night?" Al asked Stew.
"Yes," said Stew excitedly, "and she accepted!"
"Well, Mrs Howe, if you're married already," said the Rev. Cabrio, laying careful stress on the word 'married', "then I'm afraid I have to decline your invitation to marry you in church. It would have been a great pleasure of course…"
"Oh, I am so disappointed, I'm mortified." she wailed, bursting into tears. "You've ruined the most wonderful day of this poor woman's life."
"I'm sorry, Mrs Howe. I'm sympathetic, but that's how it works. The rules say you can't get married in church if you're already married."
"Oh! You bloody bureaucrats. You're all the same," she wailed more piteously than ever, "all you care about is that everyone obey the sodding rules, and you've got absolutely no respect for other people's feelings."
"There's nothing I can do. I will pray that Mook recovers, of course. Tomorrow at ten in the morning, if you'd like to come along. We'll have a little service."
"We'll think about it," the others said in unison, not adding that none of them would choose to attend the little service even after thinking about it, and the minister left the cottage.
"Al," said Stew after a suitable period of quiet reflection, "will you marry us?"
"How do you mean?"
"I mean, will you conduct the ceremony? You're my best mate after all. Why should we have a ceremony by someone we never see and don't like much when we do? Why can't someone we know lead the proceedings? Couldn't you do it for us?"
"Yes," said Al, "I will, but I don't know the words."
"It doesn't really matter as long as you have the right idea," said Tawny, trying to be encouraging. "Something flowery and memorable and full of symbolism."
"But we've got nothing to make today feel like a special wedding day. No dress, no flowers, no music, no guests, no beer, nothing, and isn't there something about having a ring as well?"
"Ring?" said Stew, who hadn't thought about it.
"I have a ring already, and we have love," said Tawny, "which is what matters really. Isn't it?"
"Well, yes, of course, but a few flowers around the place would be nice. Maybe some music. After all, you're supposed to be having the finest day of your life. And don't you have to have witnesses?"
"The twins are witnesses."
"Oh, of course. They'd love to join in and be helpful." Al lifted Jacqui carefully from the doll's house and sat her on the work table beside Jazz, then arranged them both so that they could see the spot where the proceedings would be.
"Could I just go and comb my hair?" asked Tawny.
"Of course. We won't start without you."
The bride disappeared for a moment and came back with her hair combed.
"Darling," Stew greeted her on her return, "you look positively ravishing."
Tawny and her groom stood in front of Al, who cleared his throat as a sign of the import of what he was about to say and then recited the phrases of the wedding ceremony as best he could remember them.
"Dearly beloved, we are gathered here together in the sight of God and each other to witness the joining together in matrimony of this man and this woman.""That's about right, isn't it?"
"I think so," said Tawny. "I think it went like that last time."
"Good. Let's keep going, then. I can remember a bit more of the preamble, I think:"
"Which is an honourable estate and not to be entered into lightly.""I was going to say the word lawful but in view of the circumstances, lawful didn't seem appropriate really. Now, Stew, you say I do."
"Stew, do you take Tawny to be your wedded wife for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?"
Come to think of it, Al reflected without saying anything, the sickness and health bit wasn't too tactful either, but the bride and groom didn't seem particularly outraged.
"I do."There was a tense, pregnant silence for a few seconds while everyone remembered bit in Jane Eyre. about Bertha Mason and the marriage of Mr Rochester.
"Tawny, do you take Stew to be your wedded husband for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health?"
"If any person present knows of any reason why these two may not be joined in matrimony, let him speak now or forever hold his peace."
"I pronounce you man and wife. Stew, you may kiss the bride."Stew kissed Tawny lovingly and Al felt that he had solemnised his first matrimony with reasonable competence. Chubby the cat looked up for a few seconds and dozed off again. Tawny held her left hand aloft and showed her ring off.
"Congratulations to the happy couple, then," said Al in a matter of fact kind of way. "I'm sorry that I don't have a wedding present for you because the ceremony was held at such short notice, but if you can sit fairly still together for a few minutes, then I can paint your portraits on a piece of metal, and you'll have a picture to remember the happy event by."
"That's a very kind offer," said Tawny, really meaning it, "most generous of you."
"Thanks for doing the honours," smiled Stew, wrapping his arm around Tawny's waist and pulling her close, "we really appreciate your helping us out like this."
"Oh, that's all right, completely all right," Al said over his shoulder as he fetched a piece of tin, a pencil, paper, paint, brushes and some sort of solvent for cleaning and thinning and set them out on the work table, "I happened to have a piece of nice primed metal so this won't take too long. Stew, why don't you sit in the armchair and Tawny, on his lap perhaps?"
"Delighted to." Tawny looked into Stew's eyes and giggled as she settled into place. Stew shuffled in his seat to take her weight.
"Hold it!" Al started on a pencil sketch.
As Al drew, Tawny asked, "Would you mind if I asked you something? It's about the War."
"Dreadful time, that," said Al, "what do you want to know?"
"I know, I mean, Stew told me, you were caught out in the open when they raided the shipyards. You were there."
"Yes," said Al, trying not to say that he'd rather not talk about it and could she please ask something else. "Yes, I was late for my shift on the fire watching, and I was running down the street."
"Look, I won't press you on this, because I know what happened that night." She looked at the dolls and paused. "But can you just recall one thing for me?"
"I can assure you that I have a masterful grasp of everything that happened that night in the finest detail."
Tawny hesitated, then asked, "Did the missile bombs fly in from the east, or from the west?"
"Tawny," said Al heavily and without humour, "you're younger than I am so you don't know what it was like. When you're lying helpless in the street watching your children being blown to pieces, I assure you, you don't much care whether which direction the enemy is attacking you from. You just think, if they're going to die, I want to die with them, not out in the bloody street watching it happen and enduring the memory of it for as long as I live. So if you'll excuse me, and I honestly don't mean to be rude to you, I'm going to do what I can not to get upset by the horrifying visions that you have managed to bring back to mind and instead I am going to get on with the portraiture."
Tawny said, "Please. I know it's painful to remember but it really means a lot to me. The bombs flew from behind you. When you looked at the explosion, was the moon on your left or on your right?"
"On the left," said Al, who recollected the scene with photographic clarity, "and now please talk about something else before I storm out of the house screaming with rage and sit in the middle of a field having an attack of post traumatic stress disorder."
"Thank you. I'm truly sorry about what happened."
"Wars are indescribably awful times. Perhaps you will let me offer you some unsolicited but heartfelt advice, for one day you may need it. Should you ever become a government minister, don't start one."
Al returned to the pencil and paper. He finished the pencil sketch in five minutes. When he showed it to the happy couple they were both surprised at how good a likeness of them it was.
"I'll bring the picture round when it's finished, then."
The paintwork took several hours, during which time Al was sitting alone at the work table while Tawny and Stew went back to the farmhouse, saying that he could bring the work over to them when it was finished. The paint on the portrait was layered, so it had to be left repeatedly for an hour or so to become dry enough for the next layer, and the work wasn't finished until sunset. The twins were sitting watching him the whole time, completely absorbed.
Al dreamed it was morning. He was in the cottage. He went into the kitchen to heat water for a wash and a shave, and to make tea for himself and the twins, who had little army-style enamel mugs which he had made for them years ago. Pink for Jacqui, orange for Jazz. He managed to get the coughing bottled gas stove alight, found a clean saucepan for boiling water and held it below the old brass tap on the chipped Victorian stone sink. A thin stream of water came out of the tap for a few seconds, and then it dried up. Bugger! The last of the public services to his house had now ceased. The postal service had been withdrawn thirty years ago, the television fizzled out a bit after that. The telephone had been cut off twenty years ago, electricity stopped working ten years ago, and now, inevitably, it was the turn of tap water, that basic essential for making tea and generally trying to arrange a healthy, comfortable and civilised life for oneself.
Al had been expecting the water to dry up one day. There was nobody official to notify or complain to, since all the management of essential services had long been moving around the world from one country to another in search of a supply of labour even cheaper than in the country before. Firstly it had been India, then Mexico. The last he heard of it, phone calls were being routed to Cambodia, bills sent out from Peru, letters from customers opened in the Comoros Islands and replied to, though never actually read, by a former opium poppy dealership in Bhutan, who spoke no English and answered every letter on whatever subject with the same irrelevant, mimeographed standard pro-forma. Probably nobody in the Kingdom now knew within a thousand miles where the water company's head office now stood or how to get a burst pipe fixed.
He sighed. He had been prepared for this contingency. He looked in the cupboard under the sink, stepped back slightly as the stench of damp wood assailed him, and reached for the two buckets he had stored there. With those buckets, even hampered by his sore ankle, he could walk to the stream at the back of the house and bring back water from there. But the buckets weren't there. He blinked several times, as though once his eyelids had drenched his corneas in lachrymal fluid his eyesight would recover and he would be able to see the buckets again. He knew that he had bought the buckets and put them in the cupboard. He had never used those buckets for anything because they had to be scrupulously clean. He looked again. He shut the door of the cupboard and looked around to see if there was any other cupboard in which he might have stored the two buckets by mistake. No, there was only the one cupboard, the cupboard under the sink, this was definitely the right cupboard, and the buckets were not in it.
Al felt panic rising within him. What the devil was he going to do without two clean buckets for water? There was no chance of buying new buckets, and making a bucket required a forge and welding kit. His next thought was of the twins. He and Stew and Tawny and Hugo and even Mook in his witless way were adults, so he and they had to bear whatever was coming to them with a stiff upper lip, but the poor, sweet twins were uncomprehending victims of the privation. How could they be expected to cope? He imagined what they would suffer as the hours and the days passed and there was no clean water to be had. Thirst, dirt, lice? How much worse was life going to become now, as if times were not hard enough already?
Shortly before ten in the morning, a bell rang in the spire of the Church of St Diana of Spencer. It woke Al, who could still feel the raised heart rate and cold sweat of panic. "Where am I?" he called out. The bell rang again, by which time Al had recognised his surroundings and looked at the twins to see that they were unharmed. By the time the bell had finished its peal, he realised that he had awoken from a vivid dream, nothing worse. The water supply was — probably — still running. There were still two clean buckets in the cupboard under the sink. Reality was sometimes better than dreams.
Scene: Interior, the same morning, 10.00 am. The Church of St. Diana of Spencer. The church is dimly lit by daylight, it has a couple of stained glass windows etc. The church bell rings five times. The Minister, the Rev. Hugo Cabrio, walks from the vestry into the nave wearing robes, and turns towards the altar. Apart from the Rev. Cabrio the church is empty. The Rev. Cabrio kneels at the rail before the altar and begins a prayer.
Rev. Hugo Cabrio: Oh God my Heavenly Father, I have failed to keep thee in the loop with regard to my colleague Mook Howe. Please have mercy upon him, for as a result of a foolish act of complete stupidity with a loaded firearm he is now looking at a lifetime of vertiginous incapacity. There is a window of opportunity, O Lord, for healing him and binding up his wounds. If you could perhaps push the envelope by expediting his healing processes I know he would be most grateful. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Cut to: Scene: Interior, the same morning, 10.01 am. The Kingdom of Heaven. Unaccompanied abstract choir music. God and St Peter sit at a beautifully cared for Chipperfield desk. St Peter looks like High Grant and God looks like Sir Alan Sugar. They are perusing a computer screen closely. There is a pair of reading glasses on the desk beside the computer. Both immortals speak with coarse Scottish Borders accents.
God: Who is it this time? (Looks at screen.) It's something about Mook Howe again. Can you get his case notes up in a window?
St Peter moves the mouse and clicks something.
Oh, dear… what does this say? I can't find my reading glasses.
(Points to something on the screen.)
Right at the top of his life history there.
St Peter: (reading aloud) Daft bugger, sir. (Hands God the reading glasses.)
God: (puts on glasses) Thank you, that's much better.
Screenshot. The camera is behind the computer screen. The shot is out of focus at first, then comes into focus as God puts on the reading glasses. God's reading glasses reflect the screen clearly. On the screen are two windows in a celestial style, one headed "Case History" and the other "Prayer." The Case History says 'Mook Howe' visibly, and it contains a short life history of Mook Howe in unreadably small text. The Prayer is the text of the prayer uttered by the Rev. Hugo Cabrio, again in small text. At the bottom of the Prayer window are three option buttons in a row, coloured green, red and blue.
God: Can't these reverends learn to express themselves clearly in as few words as possible, without all this unnecessary verbiage? It doesn't impress me in the least. (reading aloud) Oh God my heavenly Father, blah blah blah blah, vertiginous incapacity, Grant, Decline or Ask Me Later.
Which one would you go for, Peter?
St Peter: Grant.
God: You always were the merciful one. I'd have struck the daft bugger down with a bolt of lightning before he killed someone, leaving nothing behind but a pile of smouldering ash and cinders. Someone other than himself, I mean. (Clicks the Grant button. Confirmation pop-up appears. Reads.) Are you sure? Of course I'm sure, otherwise I wouldn't have clicked on Grant in the first place. Yes. (Clicks Yes. All three windows disappear. Turns to Peter) I hope you won't live to regret that, Peter.
St Peter: So do I, sir. What do you think he means about pushing the envelope?
God: I can't really tell, but as Lynne Truss would have said, you can only push the envelope so far, because after that it falls off the table.
Cut to: Animation: Exterior, 10.02 a.m. Unaccompanied abstract choir music continues, taking on the character of the choir music in the last fifteen minutes of 2001 A Space Odyssey. A vast severed hand with its index finger extended, as though pointing forward, flies through the morning sky above the East Neuk countryside. It is the Finger of Destiny from the Lottery advertisements.
Cut to: Scene: Interior, 10.03 a.m. The inside of Tawny Howe's farmhouse. Unaccompanied abstract choir music continues. Stew and Tawny are lying awake in bed. They see the Finger of Destiny in the sky fly past the window.
That thing's flying low!
Tawny: (Sharp intake of breath.) Uh! It's going to hit the cottage hospital.
Unaccompanied abstract choir music stops.
Cut to: Scene: Interior, the same morning, 10.04 am. The ward of the cottage hospital. Mook Howe is still lying in bed with bandages around his head. On the bedside cabinet are a bottle labelled Medicine, a tube labelled Ointment and various boxes marked Pills, Tablets and Painkillers.
Music: The Emergency Ward Ten theme.
Mook Howe: Aaaargh, my ear hurts! (Music fades out) Oh, no, hang about. (Suddenly enlivened) My ear doesn't hurt any more! I've suddenly got better! There's nothing wrong with me any more! My life is worth living again! I have recuperated!
Music: You Sexy Thing (I Believe in Miracles) by Hot Chocolate. First few bars are quiet and the dialogue is audible over them.
Mook Howe: (calls) Nurse! Nurse!
Nurse Dot rushes in.
Nurse Dot: Whatever's happened to you, Mook?
Mook Howe: I am recovered! I feel completely healthy! It's a miracle!
Nurse Dot: Well, I'll be blowed.
Music: Fade up You Sexy Thing as the vocals begin. The music is loud and no dialogue is audible.
Nurse Dot goes to help Mook Howe out of the bed. He declines her offer of help, sits up in bed, unwinds the bandages from his head with a dramatic gesture and throws them on the floor. Then he pulls back the covers, puts his feet onto the floor, gradually manoeuvres himself until he is standing upright, supporting himself with one arm on the head of the bed. Then he lets go of the bed, spins around out of control and falls flat on his back. Loud thump, music stops abruptly.
Mook Howe: Aaaargh, my ear hurts!
Nurse Dot: I think you'd better let me help you get back into bed again, Mook.
Nurse Dot helps Mook back into the bed, produces a bandage from her pocket and starts bandaging his right ear again.
Cut to Scene: Exterior, 10.09 am. The cottage hospital. Nothing happens for a few seconds. Complete silence apart from birds, rustling trees etc. The Finger of Destiny suddenly crash lands in the hospital kitchen garden with a whoosh and a bang. It skids along the ground to the hospital at high speed. The top joint of the index finger breaks through a window. Broken glass noise.
Cut to Scene: Interior, 10.10 am. The ward. Noise of breaking glass continues and becomes louder. The finger breaks through the window and comes to rest pointing at Mook Howe. Breaking glass noise dies away.
(Sits up in bed.)
What the fuck's that?
Nurse Dot: It's the Finger of Destiny! I've won the Lottery at last, after all these years! I've won the Lottery!
Mook Howe: It isn't pointing at you. (Suddenly overjoyed.) It's pointing at me! God Almighty, I've won the Lottery! (An envelope flutters through the broken window and lands on the bed. Mook Howe rips it open (the envelope, not the bed) and a cheque and a letter fall out. He studies the letter.) Look at this, I've won two million pounds in assorted foreign currencies! Yippee!
Music: First verse only of The Gold Digger's Song ("We're in the Money") by Harry Warren with lyrics by Al Dubin, from the film Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933).
I can stop spending my days in the cold, muddy farmhouse living room wearing myself out, soaked to the skin and working my fingers to the bone claiming one subsidy after another come rain or shine! Thank you, God! My ear is going to be mended! I shall be cured! I'm going to recover!
Nurse Dot: How did you work that one out?
Mook Howe: (ecstatically) With my enormous new-found wealth, I can afford private treatment!
"It means, you see, that the English were attacking from the east." Tawny explained her insight into the battlefield to Stew as they relaxed, curled up together on her sofa to fend off the cold in the farmhouse. "Not from the west. They weren't firing from a battleship out at Gourock and trying to take out the shipyards. They were probably firing from Cumbernauld, where as we have seen they had commandeered the shopping centre."
"What are you? A battlefield historian, like Peter Snow?"
"I went to university, you know." Tawny brushed the backs of her fingernails against her lapel in that gesture that means, 'I'm a brainbox.' "You wouldn't have guessed it but I got a first in The History of Europe Since (And Including) 1800. My secret identity is Tawny Howe, BA. They gave me a certificate to prove it. The 1800s was the time when ideas like democracy, equality, justice, liberty and secularity began to take root, and gradually, one country at a time, the ruling class had it beaten into them. Of course, now they've worked out what was going on, and they've more or less put a stop to it. They're getting their own back."
"You enjoyed it, then. Did you take your studies further?"
"No, apart from reading books from the library in the days when there was a public library. And to be honest if I'd known then what I know now, I'd have studied mathematics or law."
"Why not? Pure and applied mathematics with Scots Law on the side. Sounds good to me. Mathematics because it's interesting and challenging and if you had a maths degree you sometimes used to be able to get a job that didn't make you ill,deaf or filthy. And Scots Law because I'm tired of not having any money."
"So now this really matters to you, doesn't it, the sinister rôle in history played by Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. You really believe this far fetched tale of subterfuge and mendacity. Even if it's true, what does it matter at this date?"
"Ask Al about his nightmares. He'll tell you. Or, better, don't ask him, because I upset him enough already and I really value his friendship. Just take it from me, there are people to whom it's vitally important to know whether the English shot and killed their loved ones by mistake or on purpose. Look at it this way. Losing your family in warfare as an accidental side effect of enemy fire on a legitimate target is a terrible thing, but calculated pointless slaughter and outright terrorism are another thing altogether. There are laws of war, you know."
"Terrorism? You speak of demented towel-heads with long unkempt beards riding the Northern Line with sticks of dynamite sellotaped to their underwear? That's sooooo last century, my darling."
"No, I don't mean four halfwits trying to blow up a train with a spiked bottle of shampoo, I mean an atrocity. A deniable, deliberate hail of high explosive missile bombs lauched against civilians, not as a reprisal for anything, but just in order to strike fear into the hearts of the populace. What possible military objective would be achieved by bombing defenceless civilians living in grubby streets of cramped, jerry built houses?"
"None at all, which is why I think your theory's barking. The English are crap at football, I'll grant you that, and their cricket's pretty rubbish as well, but they're not mass murderers like what you're accusing them of being."
"They did it. And they did it just did it to shake people up, to demoralise the plebs, to make the peasants clamour for a surrender. I'll prove it to you yet."
"No, you won't."
"Just you wait." Tawny faked a Poirot Belgian accent and pointed at the newspaper that was lying on the table. "See zis newspaper we brought back from ze Cumbernauld? You think I picked it at random, but no. Ze little grey cells guide my choice. Look at ze pictures illustrating ze destruction of Cumbernauld. Et maintenant, monsieur," she dropped the accent and reverted to her native tones, "spot the Colonel."
Stew scanned the pictures. One of the pictures showed three soldiers on duty at the Shopping Centre, and one rather older man in important looking uniform. "Is that him?"
"Of course it is. And the caption beneath the picture agrees with you. See. It's him. Read that."
"On duty," Stew read with expression, "On duty: Colonel Ken Grue—"
"I didn't really mean read it out loud," said Tawny, "I can read too."
"Oh, sorry." The caption read, "On duty: Colonel Ken Grue commands a squad securing the Centre for the National Trust."
"Remember his face," Tawny bid him, "because one day you may see Colonel Ken Grue again, and he won't have the same name."
"Well, all right, I'll keep a look out, but why should he be in Scotland? Why not Brazil or Argentina?"
"Don't know. Maybe he is in Brazil or Argentina, for all I know. But look at it from his point of view and you'll see he might have come here. He was behind enemy lines and he committed a crime against the laws of war in front of at least these three witnesses. From that deployment, going further into enemy territory might well be easier than going back south. The witnesses probably left for England at the end of their tour of duty. When that happened, Colonel Grue had to choose between, one, going back with his men and risking being court martialled on the evidence of the three of them or, two, stealing clothes from men killed in the fighting, posing as a refugee, traipsing north and hoping that nobody would know who he was." She paused for dramatic effect, then asked "Which would you do?"
"Definitely number one."
"You'd go back to barracks, make a clean breast of it and get court martialled and shot. There's a first time for everything."
"No, I wouldn't. I'd do the other one. I'd dress up as a riff raff and take to my heels. Pose as a refugee."
"That wasn't number one. That was number two."
"Don't you think the Army would have noticed that he'd deserted?"
"That might have happened, but on the other hand they might have thought he'd gone missing in action. Somewhere in England there may even be a war memorial with his name carved into it."
"Oh. Well, supposing he did commit an atrocity, that begs another question."
"Was he acting alone, or was he ordered to commit it?"
"Aha. So at least I've successfully snagged your interest. You've started to ask the right questions."
A large black Rolls Royce pulled up at the front door of the cottage hospital. From it strode a man wearing a commissionaire's uniform, even including a top hat. He got out of the car, walked inside the hospital and presented himself at the front desk. Doctor Beech happened to be standing behind the desk sifting through some notes looking for an age old prescription form. He vaguely recognised the man in the top hat but couldn't quite place him.
"Hello, I'm Doctor Beech, and you are…?"
The man spoke, and looked, rather like Alfred Pennyworth, the butler played by Michael Gough in Batman (1989.) Sixty years old, maybe, and with the kind of accent rarely heard outside the wealthy circles of the Civil Service, the armed forces and the City. "I am Philip Bottles," he said, "a humble chauffeur and factotum from the Donald Trump Exclusive Hospital for Extremely Wealthy Patients Who Are Not Particularly Ill. But you may call me Sir. Would you care to authorise the discharge of Mr Mook Howe and his removal to another hospital, Doctor?"
Dr Beech was dumbstruck for an instant.
"Do not be alarmed. Mr Howe is in possession of the financial resources necessary to pay, I mean of course to invest in, the Hospital's enormous fee. I have the forms here," said Phil, "and to sign them with the grace and elegance of which they are worthy, I also have a very beautiful gold nibbed fountain pen decorated with Japanese lacquer work, which you are welcome to keep."
"I'm left handed, I'm afraid. If I tried to use a pen as delicate as that one, I'd probably—"
Phil took off his top hat, showed Dr Beech that it was completely empty, reached into it and pulled out an identical looking pen. "Here," he explained, "is a left handed version."
Dr Beech struggled with it. "I can't get the top off."
"The screw thread on the cap is of course left handed, as is the nib." This didn't appear to help Dr Beech in his struggles, so Phil explained, "By reason of sinistral ergonomics, sir, to unscrew the cap, you must turn it clockwise."
"Oh." Dr Beech took the body of the pen in his right hand, twisted the cap clockwise with his left, and it came away. "How amazing. Sinistral ergonomics is a much neglected branch of engineering, I find. Have you ever tried to use a pair of scissors?"
"I made sure that the pen is filled with ink and generally in excellent working order, so you may be assured that it will work for many years without you ever needing to scratch it on a piece of scrap paper first like a cheap biro, in the days when you could get biros. Please just sign here, Doctor."
Dr Beech found the dotted line and signed on it. "Pleasure to write with. Please give Mr Trump my grateful thanks for it." He put the pen carefully into a desk drawer. "So what is to happen to Mook, poor daft soul?"
"That very much depends upon you, sir. As I understand matters, Mr Howe needs a delicate operation performed upon his right ear. You, I believe, have sufficient skill and knowledge to perform the operation but you lack the basic requisites for performing microsurgery in an operating theatre, such as scalpels, microscopes, auriscopes, an anaesthetist, electricity etc. Is my understanding correct?"
"Yes. Quite so."
"Now I have here another form," he continued, unfolding the second form and laying it on the desk before the Doctor, "which constitutes a contract between yourself and the Hospital, by the terms of which the Hospital will engage you to perform the surgery necessary to restore Mr Howe's right ear to its former condition. Do read it carefully."
Dr Beech's eyes skimmed the paragraph headings until he came to the paragraph marked Remuneration, and they began to read the text of that paragraph with care. "My goodness," he said wide-eyed, "so much money… and a round of golf and a slap up dinner at the fourteenth hole with Donald Trump himself and a notebook wallah from the Scottish Daily Liar. I am deeply honoured." Why the fourteenth, he wondered. Why not the nineteenth?
"The hospital will pay all your expenses, of course, in the unlikely event of the use of a furnished detached house for the duration, a Rolls Royce with chauffeur and twice daily visits to your home from a chef and a sommelier, both of them employed at the Savoy Hotel in London before it sold out to Starbuck's, being insufficient for your needs."
Dr Beech signed the contract and gave it back to Phil. "I'm in the wrong job," he observed.
"No, Doctor, you are in the right job. Thank you, Doctor. If you would now issue instructions for Mr Howe to be loaded aboard the Roller on a stretcher, we can be on our way and bring this poor man's suffering to a welcome end."
"Good. Nurse Puzzle,", he called to her, "can you get Mook onto a trolley? Thanks. You know, sir, I've seen you somewhere before. I'm completely sure of it. You were on television, is that right?"
"Yes, sir, I believe your recollection may be accurate."
"Which programme was it?"
Phil sighed. "My mug shot once made a brief appearance on a show called Have You Seen This Crook, sir. Let us set off for the Donald Trump Hospital now, before I become embarrassed about your unwitting intrusion upon my unfortunate past indiscretions."
They managed to stretch Mook out along the back seat of the car, and Phillip drove away. Nurse Puzzle gratefully waved them goodbye.
Al walked up to Tawny's farmhouse and pushed the door slightly. It swung open and he called to see if anyone was at home. "Tawny? Stew?"
"We're over here."
"Oh, hello, I didn't see you. May I come in?"
"Sure. Of course. Pull up a chair. There's probably one somewhere."
"Thanks. Well, I've finished the paintwork on this little portrait of you both." He held up a piece of metal two inches square, painted with perfect likenesses of Tawny and Stew wearing wedding clothes, beaming in front of a blue sky. "Go on, take it. Hold it."
"Oh, my, that is beautiful."
"I found a frame for it," he said. The picture sat in a shiny black wooden frame. "I don't have any glass, I'm afraid."
"Oh, it will take pride of place on the wall." Tawny lifted the small photograph of Mook from its place in the middle of the wall and tossed it squarely into the waste paper bucket, where the glass shattered. She hung the wedding portrait in its frame from the same hook.
"Did you ever play basketball?" asked Al, seeing the accuracy of the toss.
"No, but I once had a job at Virgin Phones dealing with customers' complaints."
"And is that really how you feel about Mookie?" asked Al.
"Don't be shocked. I've felt exactly like that about him for years."
"Oh… I'm sorry."
"It must be hard for you to believe how I feel. The hard part is going to be telling Mook that I've found someone else. It's been coming to him for a long time, though. He just hasn't noticed it yet."
"It's a terrible thing, divorce and separation."
"He'll get used to it. There are no children, there's no fortune to divide. It'll all be over quickly."
"I should hide the gun, though, if I were you."
"The gun doesn't matter that much. Mook's not a danger to the person he's yelling at, arguing with or pointing the gun at. He's only a danger to himself. Deep down inside, he loves me. I trust him not to shoot me on purpose."
Nurse Dot Puzzle walked briskly through the farmyard to the front door of the flat. Recognising her by her uniform, Tawny put her hand to her mouth and burst out, "Oh, God, she's come from the cottage hospital. What's happened to Mook?"
Tawny flung the door open and ran out to grab Dot by the arm. "Something's happened to Mook, hasn't it?"
"Are you Mrs Howe?"
"Yes. What happened to him?"
Inside the farmhouse, Al said quietly to Stew, "I thought she didn't care about him."
"They all say that."
"All of them? How many women's husbands have you cuckolded in this fashion, then?"
"Only this one."
They heard Dot reassure Tawny as the women came into the living room. "Nothing to worry about, Mrs Howe, but prepare yourself for a bit of a shock. Your husband Mook won a sum of money on the Lottery and he has decided to spend part of it on undergoing treatment privately for the damage to his ear."
"How much did he win?"
"Two million pounds in cash, in assorted foreign currencies."
"And can he be treated successfully, do you think?"
Al attached significance to the order in which Tawny asked her two questions.
"Probably. There are no guarantees in medical treatment but you can be optimistic. Sandy — sorry, Dr Beech — is performing the operation. So, he was reckoning on one day for pre operative assessment, that's today. One day for surgery, one day for post operative recovery, and one day for post operative assessment and discharge. Don't count on it but Mook may be back with you again in three days' time."
"Gosh. That's Friday. Thank you so much for coming around and telling me, Nurse Puzzle."
"It was the least I could do."
"Does he need anything?"
"The Donald Trump is an excellent hospital. Good medicine, good housekeeping, fine food and so forth. He won't want for anything. But I'm sure he misses you already. You could go and see him. He'd appreciate that a lot."
"Which way is it?"
"It's too far to walk, I'm afraid. It's in St Andrews, so as to be handy for the golf courses. You could always ask Nick for a lift. He'd probably oblige you in the circumstances."
The Ancient and Royal was the world's best and most famous thirteen hole golf course, because the other five holes had been at the end where the new hospital stood. The Donald Trump Exclusive Hospital for Extremely Wealthy Patients Who Are Not Particularly Ill stood in the middle of a large garden equipped with a very long metal sign at the gate. Nick drove carefully and slowly past the sign and up the driveway, where Tawny thanked him profusely as she got out of the car.
"How are you going to get back?"
"I don't know. I'll find something. There's probably a…" A what? Bus, train, boat, horse, footpath? Compass bearing? "I don't know," she finished.
"Don't worry, I'll wait for you here, then. I doubt there'll be many crimes committed in East Neuk while I'm parked out here, so I can spend the time imagining what it'd be like to be rich, and to be so good at hitting balls with sticks, that I could play golf on the Royal and Ancient and sleep with twelve women at once. If I do get called away, which I won't be because the two way radio is a Chinese import and it doesn't work, then I'll come back for you as soon as I can."
"You are too kind. I accept your generous offer."
Collectively the nursing and cleaning staff at the Donald Trump called themselves the Trumpettes. The Trumpette at the desk directed Tawny to Ducat Ward, a well appointed little room with two beds. Tawny found poor Mook lying in one of the two beds, his ear still bandaged, crying "Aaaargh, my ear hurts!"
"Oh, my poor darling," Tawny cried in great distress, "how much did you win?"
"Hello, Tawny. Nice of you to come and see me. I'm well looked after but being away from my family is hard to bear when you're feeling as rotten as I do. Look, don't fuss, I'll get one of the servants to take your coat and scarf. Sorry about the weather being so cold. Staff!"
One of the Trumpettes put her head around the door. "Yes, sir?" Her name badge read 'Ms Shirley Knott.'
"Could you take my wife's coat and scarf and put them to dry somewhere, Shirley?"
"I shall put them in the drying cupboard for visitors' wet outdoor clothing," she replied, "and may I be permitted to shine Madam's shoes while I'm doing that? It would be no trouble."
"Oh, of course." The young woman helped Tawny off with the coat and scarf, and then Tawny extended her legs in turn so that the young woman could hold her shoes and remove them. "Thank you," said Tawny, as she took a seat in the armchair beside Mook's bed.
"Two million pounds' worth of assorted foreign currencies, paid in cash."
"Goodness. That's an awful lot of money. How are we going to spend it?"
"I hadn't really thought about it," said Mook, thoughtfully. "Staying here for a week is going to be several thousand of whatever the Scottish currency is these days, I expect. After that, to be honest, I haven't really thought about it. I shall be one of those punters who says that winning the Lottery won't change my life at all, except that in my case it won't."
"As soon as I heard what an enormous pile of money it is," said Tawny, "I thought we could change the front and back door of the farmhouse for new ones, replace all the upstairs floorboards, get someone to remove all those ancient pipes in the loft that don't go anywhere, get new carpets, replace all the cracked paving stones, build a conservatory and a loft conversion, replace the entire kitchen, including a dual fuel cooker and a microwave, put up a greenhouse in the back garden and have the creaking wrought iron garden gate replaced with a new one forged from solid gold."
"Yes, all those are jolly good ideas, but we've only got two million pounds." Mook paused and closed his eyes as he pictured his dream in his head, complete in every detail, "Have you thought, I could get my rusty old bicycle repaired. It wouldn't cost much. It's still in the shed somewhere between the flowerpots and the hose pipe. I haven't been for a bike ride since the derailleur seized up, years ago."
"Forget about the bicycle," said Tawny. "I'll get a car. A really big yellow one that costs more to run than the gross national product of New Zealand, makes a lot of noise, goes extremely fast and makes all the neighbours envy me so much they'll wish I were dead."
"Well, of course, darling. I can see what you're getting at. What else are cars for, after all. We never actually go anywhere, so a cheap car that just sort of stands outside the house, goes rusty and occasionally carries us about from one place to another without attracting attention to how much money we have wouldn't really serve any useful purpose."
"And I want a dog called Sausage."
"You shall have one, darling."
Tawny stood up and looked out of the window of the ward. "This is a beautiful place. No wonder rich people choose to come here for treatment. How is your ear, by the way?"
Shirley the Trumpette opened the ward door, holding two expertly cleaned and polished shoes on a wooden tray. "Your shoes, madam."
"Thank you, Shirley," said Tawny as to the manner born.
"Tea and a sandwich, sir, madam?" She handed menu cards to Tawny and Mook. "I'll be back in a moment to take your order."
"I think I'm going to be all right, but you know what these doctors can be like. Playing their cards close to their chest…"
"What's the difference between an Americano and a Latté?"
"I've no idea. I think Latté has more milk in it, that's all. They're pretty much the same. Actually if you're desperate there's a kettle over there and some coffee filters and there's fresh milk in the fridge. Choice of skimmed, semi skimmed, full fat or goat. Bone china crockery is in that cupboard there, and so is the sugar. Snacks are in the freezer and the microwave's just there, look, between the fax machine and the dishwasher. It's a bit silly, isn't it. I'm far too ill to do anything except lie here and take painkillers. If I recover after all this treatment I might be able to use those things, but with any luck I won't be here then. Anyway, Dr Beech came in this morning wearing a suit and tie and carrying a sort of a telescope thingy with a light. He had a look and he said there was a bit of damage to something or other but he could sort of dope me up with local anaesthetic and kind of prop up the damaged bit until it healed, sort of thing…"
Tawny was still studying the menu. "Are the muffins nice?"
"I don't know, I'm afraid. I ordered one of the muffins yesterday but I was so dizzy that I couldn't eat it. I managed to keep a cup of tea down but that was all. The rule seems to be, if you want a little cake, ask for a muffin, and if you want a muffin, ask for a crumpet. Two if you want. The chef is jolly obliging."
Shirley came back. "Cup of tea for Mook, another cup of tea and a chocolate brownie for me, please, and can you take a cup of tea and a gruyère cheese and waldorf salad sandwich on wholemeal granary to Nick, the policeman parked outside? Butter, not marge. He brought me here so it's the least I can do for him."
"Certainly, madam." Shirley went off, scribbling on a billpad.
Ten minutes or so later Shirley carried tea and a sandwich out onto the driveway, knocked on the window of Nick's police car, and Nick wound the window down.
"Mrs Howe thought you might appreciate a snack, sir."
"Oh. That's kind of her," he smiled, "and you. I'll enjoy this."
"May I ask one thing of you, sir?"
"Well…" she hesitated and avoided Nick's eyes, "I'm really sorry to ask but do you think you could wait for her somewhere else? I mean, seeing a police car parked outside this posh Hospital might give people a misleading impression concerning our clientèle. You do understand? Some people are so oversensitive about appearing to be above suspicion. When you've eaten the food it'd be appreciated if you could park your car somewhere else."
"Such as where?"
"In the pub car park there. Or outside the betting shop."
"What about the parking bay outside the bank?"
"Don't park there. You'll probably start a panic."
"Don't worry, it's quite all right, I'll move the car and park outside somewhere dodgy. I wouldn't want to embarrass you."
"Thank you for your understanding."
"It's perfectly all right. It happens all the time. By the way, how do you cope with visiting undertakers?"
Shirley either didn't hear or pretended not to. Nick wound up the window and tucked in. It was good food.
Pandemonium broke out briefly about ten minutes later. Nick, finishing his tea and sandwich, took his plate and cup into reception, left them there, climbed back into the car and began to drive slowly in a half circle so as to face the main gate, ready to move the police car to the lay-by at the betting shop. As he was straightening the car out, a black Rolls Royce came in through the gate and stopped at the main door. The driver, who wore commissionaire's uniform and a top hat, stepped out of the car and went into the hospital through the main door. At about the same time Dr Beech knocked on the door of Mook Howe's room, greeted Mook and Tawny and apologised most profusely but he wanted to talk to Mook alone for a few moments. Tawny said that she really ought to leave now anyway, and she walked out of Ducat Ward, along the corridor, turned to leave by the main door and saw Phil Bottles in his top hat coming towards her. She recognised him instantly.
"My God," she said out loud by mistake, "it's Colonel Ken Grue."
Phil Bottles looked at her as though answering to his name. Then he spun around and fled out of the main door. Nick, in the slowly moving car, looked in the mirror and saw Phil sprinting for the gate, and just after that Nick saw Tawny in the mirror, looking at him, shouting something and pointing at Phil. Realising that this was the moment for which the whole of his professional career had prepared him, Nick drove the car to within a few yards of Phil, screeched to a halt and leaped out, landing upon Phil in a rugby tackle.
"Gotcha, sunshine. You're nicked," said Nick, which was what they had taught him to say at police training school.
"Why? What have I done?"
"I don't know. Wait for Tawny, she'll tell us."
Tawny arrived, breathless, after a few seconds. "He, this man, he's a war criminal."
"You're joking," said Nick. "Are you sure?"
"He is, or used to be, Colonel Ken Grue of the British Army." Tawny nodded, "yes, I'm certain. I recognise him distinctly. He is responsible for an atrocity in wartime."
"Someone wants a word with you," said Nick to Phil, still holding onto him in a sort of World Wrestling Federation grip.
"You're talking rubbish, both of you," said Phil, "I am Phil Bottles, resident patient transport specialist of the Donald Trump Memorial Hospital. I know nothing about the Army."
"Save it for the judge. Now, are you going to come quietly or do I have to use earplugs?"
"That's a very old joke," said Tawny, "although it's still quite a good one."
The police car was still parked on the driveway of the Donald Trump Memorial Hospital. Nick sat in the driving seat, Tawny was beside him in the front and Phil Bottles had the back row to himself.
Nick took the notebook from his pocket, blew the dust off it and wrote down a sentence to remind himself of where he was and what he was doing. Then he asked for Phil's identity card. Like most of the identity cards he saw, it was a scruffy thing made by scratching a few details on a piece of a cornflakes packet with a biro. Nick copied the name and number into the notebook, and then asked Tawny for hers. She hadn't brought hers because she hadn't been expecting to need it. She spelled her name and address out to Nick, who said reassuringly that it didn't really matter much about the card but he might have to check it later.
It was a long drive to the police station. At the front desk a large Jamaican women in sergeant's uniform greeted them with, "What's been going on?"
"Evening, Auntie. I think this suspect and I need a long chat," said Nick, "somewhere quiet. Book him."
"Yes, sir!" said Auntie, in the tone of voice that meant she was surprised to hear Nick say an imperative in such a commanding tone of voice. "Which one?"
"This one. The ugly one. Phil Bottles. The pretty one is Tawny Howe, who thinks she saw him do it."
"What's he been doing?"
"Book him for making his own identity card out of an old cornflakes packet for now."
"Is that illegal?"
"Not much but it'll have to do for now. We'll fill in the details later. Leave plenty of space."
While the rituals of Auntie booking in a suspect continued at one end of the desk, at the other end of the desk Nick guided Tawny into a small room with a couple of chairs. "You're the only witness," said Nick, "and it's going to be a wee while before I'm ready to have a frank, open and heart to heart conversation with Mr Bottles, so if you can possibly stay here for the moment I'd be grateful. I can't make you stay, of course, you're free to leave at any time."
Tawny nodded again, "It's all right, I know this is important," and took a seat.
"Expect a long wait. Make yourself comfortable. Auntie will be here overnight so shout if you need anything."
Tawny was walking along a grey street lined with grey shops in a low rent western suburb of Glasgow. There was a car hire franchise that did mini-cabs, then a launderette, a greengrocer, a carpet shop, and a chippy. After that, she caught sight of a well lit shop called Howe Delightful. The shop sold greeting cards. On a whim she went inside and found Mook serving behind the counter, still with a bandage around his ear. She was not at all surprised to find him here. "Tawny! Good to see you. How are you?" he asked.
Tawny acknowledged his greeting, "All right, thanks, I'm fine," and went looking among the cards.
"I've got some left over April Fool cards at half price," said Mook.
"April Fool cards? I didn't know April Fool cards existed."
"They only exist here. I invented them. See?" He waved at a rack of cards with messages like Happy April Fool's Day, On April One Have Loads of Fun and You have Won a Posh Car.
"What a good idea," said Tawny, "but I'm afraid none of them is really what I was looking for."
"Can you tell me what are you looking for?"
"I don't really know. This shop just looks such an interesting place that I'm sure there must be something for me here."
"Perhaps it's this." Mook held up a card that had been lying face up on the counter. The front showed a blonde bride in her wedding dress. The drawn face looked exactly like Tawny. "Go on," urged Mook, "take it, there's no charge. Open it."
Inside, the greeting read "Congratulations on your wedding, from your other husband."
"I can sign it if you want," Mook added.
"Yes, please." Tawny was feeling rather shaken.
Mook produced a silver fountain pen and said of it, "This pen was a wedding present, you know." He signed his name in sky blue ink at the foot of the inside page. "There," he said, "that's something to treasure."
Tawny took the card and its envelope and she was about to leave the shop when Mook called her back. "You should take this too." He held out a white card with a print of a floral wreath.
"What is it for?"
"It's a sympathy card for a funeral. You never know when you might need one. It's always best to keep a couple of funeral cards handy at the back of the bureau drawer, I find."
"Yes." Tawny was now feeling so shaken that her lips were trembling. "I have to go now," she said.
"Whose funeral is it?" asked Mook.
"I don't know yet," said Tawny, "someone will tell me, I expect."
"I'll be here if you want me," said Mook.
Tawny awoke as Nick came into the room. It might have been five or six in the morning. "I'm sorry it's taken this long," he said, "but I had to contact the Army to get their file on Ken Grue for positive identification. You'll be pleased to hear that your suspicion is correct, as far as I can tell. Either that or Phil Bottles and Colonel Grue are the first two people in the world to have identical finger prints."
"Oh, that's good," said Tawny, trying to force herself to wake up. She noticed a cup of cold tea on the table. Auntie must have brought it quietly so as not to wake her. She grabbed the cold tea and swallowed the lot of it.
"Do you need some more tea?"
"Yes, please. Hot if possible."
"If you need to stretch your legs you could come with me."
They both stood beside the tea machine and Nick explained what he had been doing in the night. "The Army let me bring his file back with me. Sound officer, it says, no problems, perfectly respectable history of service, but on the front someone's handwritten on it, "Deserted? Possible MIA?"
"Missing in action. Colonel Grue was in charge of the destruction of Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. Basically he had to manage a small army of volunteers who offered to demolish it for him. But he also set up launchers in the car park and the Army were firing on the docks at the time, so he might have launched the attacks against civilians. So he's quite a catch. Well done. Very well done."
Nick drove Tawny home, where Stew was waiting and worried.
Scene: Interior, early evening. A television news studio in Ancient Rome. The presenters Eddius Mairus and Caroline Aquina are seated at a table on which lie various pieces of paper carrying typewritten news stories. A Cameraman holds a television camera steady, pointing it at Eddius Mairus. Behind the camera are several television sets showing Eddius Mairus in close up, the Colosseum, a set of coloured vertical bars etc. A Woman in Headphones is standing behind the cameraman. She is holding a clipboard. All four are wearing togas. Behind the presenters there is a false wall. "SPQR" is painted on it together with the traditional SPQR insignia.
"On Air" sign lights up.
Music: The Grandstand Theme plays for about fifteen seconds and then fades out.
Eddius Mairus: Salve and welcome to today's sports news. Today's sporting headlines come of course from the Colosseum where the Hungry Lions have again soundly defeated the Christians by V lives to nil, and in the Crocodiles versus Poets match, the Crocodiles trounced the Poets by a staggering VI nil. Caroline has all the details.
Cameraman points camera at Caroline Aquina.
Yes, as Eddie was saying, today I saw II very decisive games. Once again the Hungry Lions playing a game of VII a side on their home turf have shredded the opposition in a V nil victory. Most of the action took place in the Ist half. Lazlo the Lion took his time over calmly biting both legs off newcomer Saul of Tarsus before chewing his head to a pulp, and Levein the Lion leapt onto Christian striker Bartholomew Mappus and bit both his arms clean off in a single smooth and graceful movement. Levein, you remember, joined the Hungry Lions for a fee believed to be MMD sestertii only last week and he has definitely proven worth the money. The crowd rose to its feet to cheer him as he showed off those wonderful curved fangs to best advantage. The IInd match of the afternoon, Crocodiles versus Poets started chaotically as the Crocodiles' midfielders Carter and Cusiter attacked each other in the penalty area and Cusiter was ruled offside, but then Keegan took the penalty, turned and in a flash he just gobbled up Petronius, while Kevin, Kenneth and Claudius in a startling, well orchestrated and completely unexpected pincer movement made very short work of Herodotus. Just watch this. This film contains scenes of III crocodiles biting an old man to death, so viewers may find it upsetting.
Eddius Mairus: Not to mention nauseating.
Caroline Aquina: Or if they're his relatives. They probably won't want to watch either.
Disgusting film of three crocodiles sneaking up on an old man chained to a stake and savaging him to death. Crowd cheers, claps, blows chariot horns, waves huge cardboard crocodiles about etc.
Eddius Mairus: And what happened to Petronius?
Caroline Aquinas: A bit of background. Petronius is the one who writes, I mean used to write, all those rotten Poems on the Chariots and stuff.
Eddius Mairus: Serves him right, then.
Caroline Aquinas: Absolutely. This was the Ist game to be played under the new rules which dictate that the Poets are chained to stakes in the field, so nobody really knew what outcome they should expect.
Results appear on the screen as captions.
The final scores, as you've heard, Lions V, Christians nil, and after the interval Crocodiles VI, Poets nil.
General view of studio. One of the television sets changes from coloured vertical bars to a still frame of Leo the Lion. Leo is a clay character of the kind normally seen in Creature Comforts.Eddius Mairus: You must have had lots of gore and screams to enjoy, then, Caroline.
Caroline Aquina: It was most exhilarating. After the game was over I managed to grab a word with Leo, the Hungry Lions' captain.
Woman in headphones presses button on video tape player. VT starts to roll. Clay lion speaks to camera. Eddius Mairus and Caroline Aquina relax and nod to each other quietly, as the live camera has stopped running for a few seconds.
Cut to close up of Leo the Lion.
Leo the Lion:
It was a better result than I'd expected. I knew we were going to win, but maybe by II to I. We had a stroke of good fortune early on in the game when Saul of Tarsus dropped his wooden sword and Daniel of Judaea slipped and fell. Once the Christians were II men down, the others were easy meat.
Caroline Aquina: (out of shot) Now you've achieved this result, what are your chances of going on and winning the Imperial Cup?
Leo the Lion: Well, we mustn't rest on our laurels. We face a particularly tough bunch of Christians next Saturday afternoon so we shall be training hard and starving ourselves nearly to death so as to be really fit, strong and hungry.
Caroline Aquina: (out of shot) Thank you, Leo the Hungry Lion.
Leo the Lion: Thank you. Now I really must go and join the others in the hypocaust.
Cut to general view of studio.
What was the disruption we heard took place during the interval?
Caroline Aquina: Well, not so much a disruption as a rare event brought before the crowd by the commander of Brittanica Garrison. Allus Colicus and Philus Amphorae, II Britons from north of the Antonine Wall, were led into the arena. Now apparently Philus Amphorae is a deserter from the Imperial Army, and the master of ceremonies called for silence and asked Allus Colicus to indicate whether Philus should be allowed to return to Scotia or whether he should be publicly decimated as a deserter. There was a very tense silence until, after a few seconds, Allus gave the thumbs up sign, meaning that Philus should be returned to Scotia and released.
Eddius Mairus: I suppose the crowd found that a bit disappointing.
Caroline Aquina: Yes, of course they were hoping to see him thrown to the crocodiles or something amusing like that, but after Allus gave his decision the II men were marched out of the arena and the lyre band came on and sang and played like billy-oh until the MC let the crocodiles in and devour them all.
Eddius Mairus: Thank you, Caroline.
Slave comes onto the set with a scroll of parchment which he gives to Eddius Mairus. Slave leaves. Cut to close up of Eddius Mairus.
Eddius Mairus: (reads the scroll) Some news just in. During a violent disturbance at the Forum it seems that Emperor Julius Caesar has been stabbed and rushed to hospitium. Two senators are assisting the Lictors with their enquiries.
Eddius Mairus: And now, here's Nillus Blythus with the slave prices. Is it still XXX pieces of silver, Nillus?
At Tawny's suggestion, Nick called at Al's cottage.
"I have some news for you," said Nick, "I'm not sure whether it's welcome news or not."
"Go ahead," said Al, "tell me." Chubby the cat sat on the table looking attentive.
"We've arrested Colonel Ken Grue."
"Never heard of him."
"I am fairly sure that he's the officer who ordered the missile bombing of the houses around the docks. That was where you lived. So we've caught the Army officer who ordered the deaths of your children."
"Only twenty five years after the event. Great work."
"Be fair to me. Sometimes it takes a while for peoples' crimes to come out into the open. But usually, in the end, they do. Tawny recognised him. If it hadn't been for her, Grue'd still be at large."
"By 'still at large,' you mean peacefully doing his job, tending the sick at the Hospital, looking after his family or whoever he lives with, and generally doing no harm to anyone, do I understand correctly? I need to think about this," said Al. "it's a shock. I need to sit and think about this."
"He's definitely the right man, I'm afraid. We got Grue's fingerprints. Once he realised that I knew who he was, he started singing like a kettle."
"Don't you mean, singing like a canary?"
"Singing like a canary? Is that what policemen are supposed to say?"
"Yes. I think it is."
"I was absent from training college that day." Nick drew breath. "I have to ask you one thing, Al, with my police hat on, as it were. If it turns out that this man is the one who launched the attack that killed your twins, will you press charges?"
"Will I press charges? I'll have to sit and think about that."
"You see, you're the last surviving witness, or at least the only one I know about. If you don't press charges, and if you won't tell a court what happened to you and the girls, I might have to let him go."
Al sat still, considering. Nick sat still watching him, with his pencil and notebook ready.
"No," said Al at length, "no, I don't want to press charges or give evidence or ever meet the fellow."
"Are you sure?" Nick was aghast and saw his promotion prospects floating into the distance on a fast moving stream heading towards a mile high waterfall.
"Completely. I've lived with that explosion every night for twenty five years and I really don't want to have to live with it during the daytime as well." He shook his head. "Sorry, Nick, I know catching this man meant a lot to you but look at it like this. He was probably only doing his job in the best way he could see to do it. Catching him hasn't changed anything that really matters. The twins are dead, the house I used to live in is destroyed, all my possessions are away with it. Where this officer is now, whatever job he is doing, whatever family lives with him, he is doing a useful job of work and looking after his own loved ones. Whatever else may happen, he'll never go near a missile launcher again. The attack wasn't personal, he didn't direct it against me or against poor little Jazz and Jacqui. God rest their souls. God knows why he did it, but I'm an old man now. I can do without opening old wounds again."
"I'm sorry I brought it all back to mind, Al."
Al was, for an instant, lost for words. "It's always in my mind, Nick. I hadn't forgotten about it and I didn't suddenly remember it when you mentioned it. Did you think I only remember my children being killed when someone is tactless enough to talk about it? Don't fash yourself, you didn't change a thing."
Nick muttered his thanks and left. Al heard Nick's car start and move off.
Al wandered over to the doll's house, opened the front and looked in the living room, where Jazz was sprawled in an armchair with a box of chocolates and Jazz was lying on a chaise longue with an orange. He sat on the floor so that the dolls were at his eye level.
"Did you hear that, you two?"
The dolls looked at him silently.
"Nick the policeman says they've caught the bad man who launched a bomb at your bedroom. All those years ago."
The dolls continued to watch and listen in silence.
"I decided the man might as well be set free and go home. What do you think?" Al listened for a second and agreed with what they said to him. "No. I don't give one either. Chubby, what do you think?"
From his spot on the work table, Chubby the cat gazed at Al intensely without conveying much of an opinion either way.
"All right, Chubby, you don't have to answer. You're too young to understand. If you didn't experience it… Let's all of us just get on with our lives, what's left of them."
Tawny was lying in bed in the farmhouse and Stew was sitting beside her.
"Lie down with me, for heaven's sake," said Tawny.
"In a minute. I need to get the other sock off. What was Nick telling you in the car?"
"That driver, Phil Bottles, was really Colonel Ken Grue. And then, Ken Grue was a war criminal. Therefore, Phil Bottles is a wanted man."
"Afraid so." Tawny tutted. "The Army didn't know whether he was missing in action or whether he deserted. Colonel Grue fashioned a new life for himself and lay low."
"So what happened on the night of the attack?"
"Nick said, Colonel Grue was told the attack on the docks was failing, and instead of firing on the docks they should blow up the houses nearby where the dock workers lived. That would effectively cripple the docks for a while. All deniable, of course."
"Who told him to do it?"
"No idea. Grue wouldn't say. The order may or may not have existed."
"At this date, who can tell?"
"Grue said he questioned his orders. He insists that at the time of the bombing he was following orders. Even if the order didn't really exist, Grue could always say he was only obeying orders and the operation had a valid strategic purpose. Not that that makes it legal, of course. And then Nick said Grue might face a charge of war crimes, and Grue said Nick had got him bang to rights but he would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for us meddling kids."
Stew and Tawny both recognised the shared cultural reference.
Stew asked, "Was any hint vouchsafed to you of when or why Colonel Ken Grue become Mr Philip Bottles, then?"
"Well, here's what Nick said. Nick said he talked to Grue for more than an hour and got the bare bones of the story. A few days into the campaign Grue found himself so sickened by the civilian casualties that he deserted. He told the squad at Cumbernauld, untruthfully, that he had been assigned to a top secret mission. He took a car to Abbotsinch, he found a couple of ground crew to get him off the ground, climbed into a military aeroplane alone, and he flew off into the night sky and vanished."
"What happens to him now?"
"If I understand rightly, I think that depends more on Al than on anyone else. He has to give the thumbs up or the thumbs down."
"Just like at the end of the gladiatorial Lions versus Christians matches, sort of thing."
"So it seems. Come on, lie down here, I'm waiting."
It was two in the afternoon by the church sundial. Stu wandered up from Tawny and her farmhouse across the path to Al's cottage. He thought about going boldly up to the front door and ringing the doorbell, but he decided that he didn't know who was watching, let alone what they might be armed with, and he went around to the side door instead.
Standing outside the door, Stew barked like a dog. Al didn't come and open the door, which was unusual. Stew tried a different sort of dog, and then after a few more barks, he decided Al thought the bark was from a real dog, and instead Stew called him by name. "Al?"
After a couple of minutes of standing at the side door calling Al's name and knocking, Stew tried the door and found it unlocked. He walked into the living room and saw Al asleep in the worn out armchair, awkwardly doubled forward. He was just deciding to let his friend sleep, just turning to go, when he realised that Al was silent and completely motionless. Usually, Al's sleep was troubled. Al made constant slight movements, snored and mumbled quietly and incomprehensibly. Unnerved by Al's stillness, Stew approached him, hoping at least to hear his breathing. There was none, even when Stew crouched over Al and listened to him closely. Stew touched Al's face and found it cold.
"My God," he said out loud, "Al has died."
At first, Stew simply leaned on the armchair beside Al feeling numb. He was glad that it was he who had discovered the body, not policemen or environmental health officials or Burke and Hare. Stew had no idea what to do about the death. Al was obviously beyond the help of doctors or hospitals, and didn't really seem to be in immediate need of a minister of the church, even though that would be his next port of call sooner or later. Stew didn't want to tell Nick yet. If Stew asked Nick for help, Nick would probably ask lots of questions, which Stew would find difficult to answer at the best of times and certainly very upsetting just at this moment. So, having no idea what to do, Stew simply leaned beside Al, looking at him, turning over all the things they had done together and said to each other, with no idea of what to do next.
Stew was still for a very long time, wishing fervently that Al would come back to life or that someone would magically appear in the room and tell him what to do next. Stew made tea for himself, feeling truly desolate in that poignant instant when he picked up two cups, realised he was making only one cup instead of two, and put one of the cups back. Then he went to lean beside Al again. In the end Stew decided that the minister at the church offered his best hope of practical help.
"That's awful," said the Rev. Cabrio when Stew broke the news, "totally awful. What an awful shock. I sympathise deeply. I'll come back to the cottage with you now," he went on, "and we'll see if there's anything I can do. You'd better go to the cottage hospital and see if you can fetch someone from there."
"A bit late now, isn't it?"
"He needs some paperwork from a doctor. We can't really hold a funeral for him until that's out of the way. It doesn't take long and it's not difficult."
Stew walked the long path to the cottage hospital. Nurse Dot was there. She told him that Dr Beech was still in St Andrews.
"My mate Al died," said Stew. "When's Dr Beech due back?"
"The Donald Trump expects to have Mook patched up and sent home by tomorrow," said Nurse Dot, "but I can forge Sandy's signature. He won't mind. Did Al have a middle name?" She reached for a pad of certificates.
"Not that I knew of," said Stew. "He's always been plain Alfred Collick for as long as I've known him."
"I'll put his name down as Alfred Collick, then. Here."
Nurse Dot handed the certificate to Stew without ceremony. "I've put cause of death as 'Natural Causes,'" she explained.
Stew accepted the certificate silently.
"I'm truly sorry about your loss," Nurse Dot added. "I know you loved him."
"Yes, I did."
Stew returned to Al's cottage and found the Rev Cabrio still there, sitting quietly. He handed the certificate over. "Thanks for staying," said Stew, "you can help me to wrap his body and carry it into the church yard."
"Why not just leave him where he is for the moment?"
"Because he didn't want anyone to see how he lived. And because a service in church is probably what he wanted. We had an agreement that if he died before me, I should wrap his body in a black plastic bin liner and give it to somebody I don't like."
"And who would that be?"
"You, of course."
Hugh decided to treat that as a compliment. "Did Al say he wanted to be buried in the church?"
"No, he didn't actually say it. I don't think he cared much, but I think it's the right place for him. He's lived in East Neuk since the end of the War. He hasn't known anywhere else since then. It's only right that in his turn he become a part of the landscape."
Stew made a half hearted search of Al's cottage looking for any kind of documents. Al had no loved ones apart from Stew and the dolls, and he had made no provision for any loved ones after his death. He had never told Stew about any will, nor given him any instructions on how he wanted his few possessions to be divided after he passed on. There were no insurance or savings. Few people had such things in these times. The dolls had the dolls' house, that was obvious. Stew would gladly adopt them and put the doll's house somewhere prominent. Stew could clear out the tins from the larder. There wasn't anyone else to worry about, nor could Stew find anything else of value. In one drawer of the work table Al had kept a couple of black bin liners for the purpose of wrapping his dead body when the time came, hoarding them against a shortage. Stew took one to become a shroud. Between them, Stew and the Rev. Cabrio managed to stretch Al's body out on the floor, manipulate it into the black bag and secure it with the tie tape. Then Stew took Al's feet and the younger, stronger Hugo took his shoulders, and between them they manoeuvred Al the hundred yards or so along the path and into the churchyard of St Diana of Spencer.
"This will be your last resting place," said Stew to the bin liner as they set it down among the graves.
"Let's not leave him out here," said Hugo, "it's open to the elements. Let's stretch him out on one of the pews inside the church building."
"Sure. He would prefer that, I'm certain. I don't want to neglect him at all. Just give me a minute because I need a wee stretch. Sorry."
Stew waited until his arms stopped hurting. Then the two of them picked Al up again and carried him with difficulty into the church, where they stretched him out on a pew at the back of the nave.
"We'll say goodbye to him here," said Hugo. "Tomorrow, I imagine, just so you have time to fetch your wife and Al's dolls. You did marry Tawny, didn't you?"
"Yes, I married her two or three days ago and I'm truly happy with her."
I'm really pleased to hear that, although you understand I couldn't approve of your marriage officially. In circumstances like this, bureaucracy and regulation always seem so pointless, don't they… Can you think of anyone else who might want to say farewell to Al?"
Stew mulled over how many friends Al had, and decided that aside from the dolls, probably only he and McMurdo had seen Al regularly these past ten years or more. "McMurdo might accept an invitation," he said, "but apart from him, I can't think of anyone at all."
"No parents or relatives?"
"None. I never saw him receive a Christmas card or a birthday card or anything. He had a wife once. She gave him the twins and moved on. I have no idea where she is, or even who she is. Aside from her, he was a loner so far as I know. Not from choice but simply because he outlived everyone he knew — wars do that to some families. He and I knew each other. He went to McMurdo's grocery a couple of times a week. Mook used to shoot at him. Apart from me and McMurdo, he had no relatives, wives, girlfriends or anyone else."
"He is lucky that he knew you," said Hugo.
"No. Other way around. I am lucky that I knew him," Stew replied.
"Perhaps we can get the five of you together for a service, then. To say goodbye."
"I'm sure we can. Tomorrow, some time."
"Very well, then. Some time tomorrow morning, come and sit in the church. There's no reason for us to set a time. When everyone's here, we'll lay the poor old man to rest in the churchyard there."
"Doesn't Al need a coffin or something?"
"I can sort that out. I've got a couple of emergency issue coffins left over from wartime supplies in the store room. They're only plywood but they're not disrespectful and they do their job all right. With all the difficulty of getting new supplies, I'll use one of my own rather than try to order a new one, pay for it and then find that it falls to bits. Stew, there's one other thing you may be willing to help with. If you're strong enough to dig a grave, you can help me with that job because it's really exhausting."
"I suppose I really ought to help," said Stew, who had hoped not to be asked.
"A grave is one hundred cubic feet of earth, as near as makes no difference. It's hard work to shift that lot. We'd better get started. Come on, I've got a couple of spades somewhere. Thanks for offering. Be careful about the top step there, it's a bit wobbly."
It took half an hour to assemble an emergency coffin from jigged and sawn plywood and put the loaded bin bag into it. Then it took several hours to dig a hole deep, long and wide enough to contain it safely. Stew arrived back at Tawny's farmhouse in the early evening half covered in spatters of mud.
"Goodness. What happened?" Tawny hadn't expected to see Stew in such a mess.
"Al died. I went to see the minister. We…" Stew wasn't able to finish the sentence.
"I'm sorry," said Tawny, wrapping her arms around him. "You were close to him, weren't you. Apart from you, I don't think he had any other friends."
"He didn't. We were thrown together in the War and we had to stick together. They used to say at the time, if you don't hang together you will surely hang separately. So you and I and anyone else who knew him all have to say a final goodbye to him tomorrow sometime. The minister was very nice about not setting a time. We just turn up at the church and when we're ready, the minister'll start proceedings."
Tawny held Stew close and bit her lip to try to stop herself crying.
"Did you find the dolls?" she asked.
"They're in my pocket somewhere. I picked them up from Al's house this morning. They are safe. I couldn't have left them. They need looking after properly. I'll go and fetch the doll's house when I feel up to it."
"Put the dolls down somewhere and get a shower. I'll wipe them clean. Maybe you'll feel a bit better when you've cleaned the mud off."
"I might stop aching all over if I'm lucky." Stew took the dolls from his pocket and set them on the table so that they were facing himself and Tawny. "You two darlings sit here," he said to them, "and don't worry. Al's not coming back…" he broke off for a moment, "but we'll look after you well. You'll see."
Suddenly Stew realised that he hadn't seen Chubby the cat anywhere. He must be somewhere in the fields looking for mice or catnip or something. Or just running around enjoying the grass and the flowers. He'd probably be back trying to find his adoptive parent tomorrow. Cats never did care much about their owners.
In the morning, the minister had fetched McMurdo, and Tawny had caught up with Chubby. She was holding him over her shoulder and he was quite relaxed in the circumstances. The mourners stood around the back of the church in silence.
The Rev Cabrio looked across at Stew. "Do you want to say anything about our friend Al?"
"Well." Stew thought and spoke slowly. "He was my best mate. We worked on the line together in Glasgow, in the war, sewing uniforms for the Scots. He did the cutting. That's the skilled bit, you know. Stitching is donkey work. Even I could do it. One night there was a dreadful blitz and I was burned out of my house. I was sitting in the street. I suppose I must've been shell shocked. It was a terrible night, big explosions everywhere, people shouting and fires starting. I saw Al come down the street. He's been injured and one of the ARPs was pushing him up the street in a wheelbarrow. He saw me and he was saying, 'We have to get away, we have to get away,' and he took my hand. He'd lost his children in a big explosion. He never got over that. He never stopped thinking about the girls for a moment."
Stew looked across at the Rev Cabrio for a cue, not knowing whether to carry on talking. Hugo seemed to want him to go on.
"Al was coming up the street in this wheelbarrow, in a desperate state and he saw me sitting in the gutter moping. Funny how you never realise how much worse than your own fate other people's troubles can be. I'd lost nothing more than clothes and furniture. The ARP helped me to my feet, the casualty station patched him up and gave him sticks to walk on, we waited for light and we started the trek away from the war zone. It seemed to take weeks. He always looked after me. I wouldn't have survived if he hadn't been there, giving me food, finding somewhere we could shelter, mending my clothes, and even when we got to a peaceful place, he used to take me for walks so that I wouldn't just rot from boredom." He paused and added, "Now he's gone for ever and I don't know how I'm going to stay alive. Honestly I don't."
Tawny put her arm tightly around Stew and murmured quietly that she would look after him. Chubby suddenly struggled, jumped from Tawny's shoulder to the ground and ran off towards Al's cottage.
The Rev Cabrio began to recite the funeral service from memory.
We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.The dolls looked on from the top step of the church as Stew, McMurdo, Tawny and the Rev. Cabrio each took a rope, lifted the coffin off the pew and hauled it out of the church, down the steps and through the church yard. They lowered the coffin into the ground as carefully and gently as they could. Standing around the grave, the assembled friends took handfuls of earth and threw them onto the coffin.
Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower. He fleëth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay. In the midst of life we are in death.An elderly man appeared at churchyard gate and strode to the graveside. Tawny recognised him. Everyone stared at the intruder, and he replied defensively and quietly, "I'm sorry I'm late." Awkwardly he in turn picked up a handful of earth and dropped it on the coffin.
The Rev. Cabrio looked up and said, "Who are you?" in a stage whisper.
"I knew Al a bit. It was a long time ago. Excuse me."
"Oh, Christ." Tawny cursed quietly to herself.
For as much as it hath pleased Almighty God to take unto himself the soul of our dear brother here departed, we therefore commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.There was a long silence. McMurdo was first to speak. "I'm no great host," he said, "but as my house is the nearest, you can come to mine for a wee while now."
There was a chorus of "That's kind" and "Thank you."
The elderly stranger placed himself at the end of the line entering McMurdo's shop. "Is it all right if I come in?" he asked, "I realise none of you knows me. I don't want to intrude. I just have to pay my respects. That's all."
"You've every right to attend a service, of course," said the Rev Cabrio, "but people are curious. Including me, I have to say."
"Tawny Dappel already worked out who I am, anyway," said the man, who spoke with a careful and precise English accent. "so it couldn't have remained a secret for long. It's best I tell you myself. I am Ken Grue. Colonel Ken Grue, Retired."
Silence engulfed the room and Colonel Grue found himself telling his story to everybody in it.
"I fired the missile bombs on Al's house and probably on Stew's house as well. I am a deserter, a mass murderer and a war criminal. I created a fake identity for myself, found a job and lived without attracting attention. Tawny recognised me from a newsreel they made when I was an English commander of operations. I congratulate her on her sharp eyes and quick brain. The police interviewed me. Then they spoke to Al Collick and they gave him the opportunity to put me behind bars if he wanted to. I believe I might have been imprisoned for life. I might even have suffered the death penalty if the Army chose to enforce it. So you see I am truly grateful to Al because he deliberately chose not to bear witness against me in a court. I came to pay my respects to a truly magnanimous man. There are few such generous and good people in the world. The world is a darker place now."
McMurdo appeared beside Hugo and colonel Grue, holding a couple of paper beakers of cheap whisky. "Here," he said, "I'm sorry the drink's not better."
Stu held his beaker up in front of him and proposed a toast. "Friends. To the memory of a good man."
Everybody drank. "A good man."
"What are your plans now?" Tawny asked Colonel Grue (retired.)
"Thank you for asking. I just want to get back to my job in St Andrews and work my days out there, I suppose. I don't have any plans or any aims and ambitions. The days are over when you could aim to work your way to the top of the heap. If they were ever really here at all. I'm grateful that I'm still alive, really."
"You could stay with Stew and me tonight, because there isn't really anywhere else except dossing down in the church. Tomorrow you can at least start the journey back with a full day ahead of you."
"That's very kind of you in the circumstances."
It was an awkward afternoon in the farmhouse. Tawny led Ken Grue home while Stew stayed behind in the church yard and helped the Rev Cabrio fill in the grave and rig up a temporary marker for it. When Stew arrived at the farmhouse, he and Tawny couldn't really enjoy the sensuous chatter of the third day of their honeymoon in the presence of a guest, while neither of them could really find much to make conversation about with Colonel Grue either. The sunset and the onset of darkness were definitely welcome. In the evening Tawny settled Colonel Grue on the living room sofa and led Stew to the shower and the bedroom.
In the middle of the night, Chubby the cat nosed the bedroom door open and jumped onto Stew, waking him. While lying and waiting to go back to sleep, Stew conceived a means of avenging Al's little girls. Tawny was sleeping now, so he kept the idea quietly to himself rather than wake her and ask her opinion of it.
The sun had been up for an hour or so when a vast, shiny yellow car roared along the path at excessive speed and stopped and parked at the farmhouse. It woke Tawny, Stew and the Colonel, and they all looked at it and rubbed their eyes. The driver's door opened. Mook got out and walked to the front door of the farmhouse. His right ear looked as good as new.
Tawny opened to the door. "I'm sorry," she said, looking as though she really meant it, "I'm truly sorry. I have to tell you…" She composed herself and took a deep breath. "While you were in hospital I fell head over heels in love with another man, and I married again."
"Married again?" Mook was nonplussed. "I was only away for a week. How could you have left me and found someone else in so little time?"
"That's what happened. I'm Mrs Stew Dappel now."
"Oh," said Mook, deeply hurt, "I'm deeply hurt. What was wrong with being Mrs Mook Howe?"
"Nothing. In fact I still am Mrs Mook Howe. I was getting into a rut, that's all. That, and the farm work doesn't suit me. All that digging and hoeing, claiming subsidies and weeding. As soon as I spent some quality time with Stew, I knew I had to up sticks." She cast around for something less hurtful to say, and she came up with, "I have to say that I like your new car. It suits you. Expensive and powerful."
"It isn't my car," said Mook. "I bought it for you. It's your car. It's registered in your name. Don't worry, I'm not selfish enough to take it from you just because you prefer to live with someone else. You can still have it."
"That is very generous of you," Tawny conceded, "It must have cost a fortune."
"No, it didn't," said Mook, "because it has a towing hook on the back, so in the eyes of the European Union it is classified as agricultural machinery and therefore it qualifies for a one hundred per cent subsidy."
Tawny thought about this. "I hope you're not in a great hurry because I think we still have a lot to talk about."
"I've got forever," he said, truthfully.
"You won an awful lot of money."
"Two million pounds in assorted foreign currency. A huge amount, even after settling the bill for private surgery." Mook agreed. "Of course, money isn't as useful now as it would have been before the War, when you could buy things with it, but I still feel it's a lot better to have it than not to have it."
"And Mook, I think, in fact I estimate with a probability of correctness of about ninety per cent, I still have feelings for you, deep inside. Strong tender loving feelings. Some part of my soul still remains passionately in love with you. Darling."
"That's good to hear," said Mook. "Perhaps we can talk for a few moments? Alone together. Would that be possible?"
"Stew," Tawny asked, realising that alone together definitely was possible, "would you mind awfully taking my car and driving…"
"Your car?" Stew was briefly mystified. "I didn't know you had a car."
"Mook kindly gave me that one." She pointed. "So would you mind doing a good turn for a stranger on my behalf? Take it and drive my poor friend Colonel Grue back to the Donald Trump hospital, where he probably still has a job waiting for him under a false name?"
"You can't do a good turn on somebody else's behalf," Stew pointed out. "The whole point of a good turn is that you make an effort yourself to help someone else out because you're kind and loving and generally a good person behaving ethically. You can't make someone else be kind and loving for you if you can't be bothered to be kind and loving yourself."
"Oh, Stew, don't be beastly. I have to talk to my first husband for a while. Do this little favour for me, darling."
"Sure," said Stew, who couldn't drive, "all right, of course."
"Now, Mook," Tawny smiled at Mook as, in the farmyard, Stew and the Colonel squashed themselves into the low profile of the yellow car, "what do you want to tell me, and," she whispered suggestively, "bearing in mind that you won't have enjoyed much female company for a while, which part of my body would you most like to talk to?"
"Before I begin my tale," he said, "my ear is all right now. I'm not dizzy any more, either. I forgot to tell you that."
"Oh," Tawny giggled, looking closely at Mook's left ear, "I forgot to ask, and what's worse, I didn't notice. How remiss of me. It's perfect! You'd think nothing had ever injured it."
"Nothing ever did," said Mook, "because it was the other ear I blew off."
"I've gone up a cup size," Tawny replied proudly, deftly changing the subject. "Does it show?"
"This car is aerodynamic," said Stew, who was unfamiliar with brightly coloured and expensive roadware, "which means there isn't actually any room in it and you can barely see over the kerb. My head keeps hitting the ceiling. Now, how do you drive this thing?"
"Start with the ignition."
"The key. Tawny must have given it to you."
"No, she didn't. It's probably in her bag. Wait a moment."
Stew squeezed himself out of the driver's door again and went into the farmhouse. He looked around and saw Tawny's large black handbag on a chair, riffled through it and found the key on a yellow leather fob.
Back in the car, Stew tried the key in the lock and it fitted. "Tawny wasn't in the room any more," he said to the Colonel, "but I found the key anyway."
"Oh? Where is she, then?"
"Noises from the bedroom. I think she's making Mook feel at home."
"Dear me. That's bad news."
"I'm not downhearted yet. She is married to him, when you come to think of it, so it's only fair. There are three possible outcomes. Look at it this way: one, Tawny ends up living with me, or two, she ends up living with Mook, or three, she, Mook and I end up in a very agreeable and low stress ménage à trois. If I had a three sided coin, I'd toss it to divine the outcome. Until they start making three sided coins, I feel that I've got a two in three chance of a reasonably happy ending."
"Only if the three outcomes are equally probable."
"That was when you and I were at school. These days there's quantum mechanics, that strange, twisted world in which if there are three possible distinct outcomes then the probability of a particular outcome is always one third, even if one of them happens more often than the others."
"Does it really say that?"
"That and a lot more besides. Now, I've got the key. How do I start the engine?"
"Perhaps I'd better drive," said the Colonel.
"Yes, I think that would be a jolly good idea," Stew said, and the two of them exchanged seats.
The car made an enormous noise, as it was designed to do because there's no point spending many tens of thousands of pounds on a car that nobody looks at and doesn't annoy anybody. The state of the road limited it to weaving around bricks and holes and tree roots at a forward speed of fifteen miles an hour or so. Rabbits, deer and horses fled the approaching racket, all of them moving faster than the car itself.
"Are you going directly to the hospital?" Stew asked.
"I was going to ask you that," said the Colonel. "Is there anywhere you want to go on the way? People to see? It's so hard to travel anywhere these days."
"Actually there is something," said Stew, "it's been on my mind a lot since Al died. If it won't upset you too much, can you tell me whether it's true that after the raid you took an aeroplane from Abbotsinch and disappeared from the war zone?"
"Yes, it's true. I deserted my post and turned up at Abbotsinch in the middle of the night."
"Yes, I said as much at the wake. Everyone who deserts is accused of acting out of cowardice but the truth is I didn't want to be responsible for massacring civilians, and from somewhere I got enough courage to run away. I had no children, no close relatives, I wasn't married, so I could just disappear without anyone worrying about where I was except for the purpose of bringing me to justice. So I got to Abbotsinch, I flashed my Army ID card, grabbed some likely looking ground crew, told them I needed a small transport plane to fly a top secret mission to the Arctic Circle, they should never tell anyone I was there, and they fell straight into it. No questions asked. It's amazing what people will believe when you tell them a big lie with a straight face. No questions asked at all. They found me a Lear jet that belonged to some rich local bigwig. I commandeered it, piled into it, cleared the runway and off I went to the frozen north, or so they thought. Couldn't have been simpler. I wished I'd thought of it earlier."
"Where did you land so as not to be noticed?"
"I brought the plane down in Troywood. Have you heard of Troywood?"
"Troywood was a very secret government bunker at the time, known only to several hundred people, every English spy in Scotland and every newspaper in the world. Those newspapers whose headquarters stood in Britain weren't allowed to print anything about it. There was a grass airstrip there, meant to be hard to spot from the air. The Army doesn't suffer deserters gladly. I knew they'd assume at first that I was outside Scotland somewhere. They knew I'd flown north. Then, when they couldn't find me anywhere within the range of the plane, they'd assume I'd been flying over Scotland and crashed somewhere."
"Did they set about finding you?"
"I expect so, with spy planes, possibly, or just plain old enquiries on the ground. I taxied the Lear jet under some trees so it would be hard to see from the air. In the end, they lost interest. I don't think they ever found it."
"Isn't St Andrews over there?"
"Turn left, I think."
"Did the Army send out search parties?"
"Probably. When I think about it, I realise I'm quite lucky that I didn't swell the ranks of the Disappeared. And they probably sent a search party to the North Pole to ask Father Christmas if he'd seen anything unusual. Why not? It's a free holiday. So while they were doing that, I had a couple of days to sort myself out. The Donald Trump had a vacancy for a driver in patient transport so I took it."
"You know," said Stew, "I would like to see whether the plane is still there."
"Why, do you think it might still be in working order? I doubt it."
"It might be fun to try, though, and when you think about it, you do owe me a favour."
"Yes, indeed. All right, I'll do my best."
Scene: Exterior, midday. High viewpoint over a copse of trees. A grass airstrip extends from the copse towards the viewer. Car engine can be heard turning over but the car is hidden among the trees. Stew Dappel and Colonel Ken Grue (retired) can be heard talking but the copse hides them too.
This is definitely where you left it?
Ken Grue: It was a long time ago.
Stew Dappel: It's a big place. We'll keep looking for a while. I can see something over there.
Sound: Car moves a short distance.
Ken Grue: And there she is.
Stew Dappel: Does she still work?
Ken Grue: We shall soon know.
Stew Dappel: She's in good condition. Can we tow her onto the airstrip?
Ken Grue: It looks as though we can. This is the only Lamborghini I've ever seen that has an industrial strength towbar attached to the rear end.
Stew Dappel: All right, so we can tow her. I'll attach the tow rope and you haul her out onto the strip.
Sound: Car door opens. Stew Dappel gets out of the car. Door slams shut. Pause.
Music: The Train Departure from Murder on the Orient Express, composed by Richard Rodney Bennett.
Sound: Car moves towing a heavy load.
The car drives out of the copse onto the airstrip, towing the aeroplane. Stew is in the cockpit and Ken Grue is driving the car. Stew releases the tow rope. Ken Grue drives the car off the airstrip. He abandons the car and clambers into the cockpit door. The plane remains still and quiet on the airstrip.
Music: The sforzando chord that, in the original film, accompanies the headlamp of the locomotive lighting up.
As the chord plays, Stew finds a key in the dash and turns it. The engine starts. Stew and Ken Grue clap, cheer and congratulate each other. The aeroplane begins to move forward, reaches speed and lifts off.
Music: The music tails off as the aeroplane takes off and disappears into the distance. Then there is a reprise. Long views of the plane flying over the countryside, akin to the views of the Orient Express travelling through the Eastern European countryside in the original film. When the train music stops, cut to:
Scene: Interior, midday. Inside the cockpit. Stew Dappel and Ken Grue are talking.
Sound: Engine noise.
Stew Dappel: This crate is in remarkably good condition.
Ken Grue: I'm surprised there was any fuel left.
Stew Dappel: It was in the emergency tank. We've got enough here to get to our destination.
Ken Grue: I forgot to ask you what our destination is.
Stew Dappel: You'll see.
Ken Grue: Where did you learn to fly a plane?
Stew Dappel: My first job when I left school.
Ken Grue: Your first job was as an airline pilot?
Stew Dappel: No, of course not. I was a Skycap running errands at Abbotsinch airport. Carrying pets, pushing wheelchairs, loading parcels. I had a full airside pass. I soon learned the basics.
Ken Grue: Are you telling me you have no qualifications at all to fly this thing?
Stew Dappel: None whatever. Dinnae fash. I got you up here safely, didn't I?
Music resumes for a few bars of reprise.
Views of the plane flying over countryside. Plane flies over various readily recognisable monuments in alphabetical order e.g. Forth Bridge, Glenfinnan Viaduct, Loch Ness, where the Monster looks up at them, Torness Power Station, Wallace Monument.
Scene: Inside the cockpit.
Sound: Engine noise.
Stew Dappel: Now, Colonel, our mission, should we choose to accept it, which you already did, is to drop a bomb on Cumbernauld Shopping Centre.
Ken Grue: Did I hear that correctly?
Stew Dappel: I don't know. (Speaks very clearly and distinctly.) Our mission is to drop a bomb on Cumbernauld Shopping Centre.
Ken Grue: How do you think we can manage that, Stew? We can't drop so much as a safety match. This is an unarmed civilian aircraft.
Stew Dappel: Colonel, the situation is not quite as hopeless as that. In the days when there were air services, as you know, there used to be a lot of security at airports. Metal detectors and x-ray cameras and body searches and so forth. They only needed that stuff because every now and then a passenger came along who was trying to load a bomb into the passenger compartment. Now I am willing to bet my life, in fact I already have, that you are one of those passengers whom the security equipment was designed to stop.
Ken Grue: Are you out of your skull?
Stew Dappel: Oh, yes. Now, this plane is your standard issue Lear Jet, commandeered from some local bigwig member of Abbotsinch Flying Club and never returned due to wartime fuel restrictions. I'm about right so far, aren't I?
Ken Grue: What are you getting at?
Stew Dappel: It looks from the outside like a civilian light aircraft, such as might be owned by a rich politician or a footballer or a Russian oligarch or a property developer with more money than he knows what to do with, but in reality it's something special. In a departure from the usual design of civilian light aircraft it is modified so as to carry high explosive bombs. It has a bomb on board, doesn't it? Quite possibly two.
Ken Grue: No, it doesn't. It's a civilian aircraft. It's a Lear Jet 60. It has a passenger compartment with four seats, a video player and a bar. Where would you put a bomb on it?
Stew Dappel: A video player? That would be to keep the payload amused before it explodes. What films does it watch? Max Bygraves in Bang, You're Dead (1954) I suppose.
Ken Grue: I told you, I commandeered this plane in order to get away from the fighting. There's no armour, no ammunition or anything.
Stew Dappel: I think it might be better if you told me the truth. There's nothing to worry about. Nobody else will ever know, and you're completely safe. I'm not going to hurt you.
Ken Grue: That is the truth.
Stew Dappel: You see, Colonel, I believe you, but my ignition key disagrees. It says that the furnishings in the passenger compartment was ripped out and replaced by a bomb launcher. I'll have to take the key out of the ignition and explain to it.
Stew takes the key out of the ignition and the plane goes into a dive. Alarms ring, lights blink, computer generated warnings are heard, etc.
Ken Grue: You said you weren't going to hurt me.
Stew Dappel: I'm not. If my instinct is right, and there's a bomb on board, and if we hit the ground and then either the aeroplane will bounce or the bomb will explode, and then you will die instantaneously. It won't hurt at all.
Ken Grue: (scared) What are you doing?
Stew Dappel: I'm wondering whether to drop the key on the floor. It could easily take me eleven seconds to grovel around for it and pick it up.
Ken Grue: You're crazy.
Stew Dappel: So what? Looking at the way the altimeter is spinning I'd say you have about ten seconds to tell me about the modifications to this aeroplane. You can see I'm not bothered by the imminent prospect of being blown to pieces when the light aircraft in which I am travelling crashes at high speed while carrying high explosive but there are people who—
Ken Grue: (panics, shouts) You're right, for God's sake, pull the nose up. There's a bomb on board.
Stew puts the key in the ignition and rights the plane.
Stew Dappel: You are so right. One bomb, or two?
Ken Grue: One.
Stew Dappel: See? That wasn't so bad. You are still alive. There's only one bomb, although you took off with two bombs on board and you dropped the other one on the column of refugees heading north out of Glasgow.
Scene: Night time. Exterior. Countryside with wartime fires in city in the background. Lots of shouting and groaning. Refugees are walking away from the fires. The Lear Jet 60 flies low over them and launches a missile bomb into the crowd. There is an explosion.
Scene: Inside the cockpit.
Ken Grue: How do you know all this?
Stew Dappel: Lucky guess. Well, it started as a guess but then I found this stuck to the dash. (Holds up Post It note with some scribble on it.) I can't interpret all these numbers but those words there say Bastards want me to bomb refugees. I guess the numbers tell you the drop zone is. Which unit of the Army were you attached to?
Ken Grue: I was operational commander.
Stew Dappel: You underestimate yourself. I don't think the bastards who ordered you to drop a bomb on a refugee column were just people you didn't want to work for. I'm fairly sure they weren't ordinary bastards. There are lots of bastards in the Armed Forces but I think these ones might have been the British Army Secret Terror And Reckless Devastation Squad.
Ken Grue: I've never heard of them. By "bastards," I just meant the generalissimo and the high ups in general.
Stew Dappel: Maybe I'm wrong about that. At this date, who cares? As I said, you have nothing to worry about, anyway. We are going to drop a bomb on Cumbernauld Shopping Centre and then we will go home, you can turn back into Phil Bottles the hospital gopher and I'll resume my life of wedded bliss with my stunningly gorgeous and dearly beloved wife Mrs Dappel.
Ken Grue: So you're not planning to report me to the International War Times Tribunal at Den Haag?
Stew Dappel: How could I? I don't speak Dutch. I don't even like the cheese.
Scene: Exterior, early afternoon. Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. The aeroplane is in the distance and approaching.
Stew Dappel: That's the target there. Low and slow and, with some luck and some judgement, we'll reduce it to smithereens with our first shot. In fact, since we only have one bomb on board, we won't have a second chance. Do you want to drop the bomb, or shall I?
The aeroplane loses height and slows down.
Ken Grue: To be honest, I'd love to. It's the ugliest building I have ever seen.
Stew Dappel: You shall have your wish. There's two levers under the dash, there. Safety catch, release lever. Can you see anyone down there? Is anyone anywhere near the Shopping Centre?
Ken Grue: No, nobody at all.
Stew Dappel: Business never recovered after the War, then. Ready? Now please fasten your seat belt in case of any unexpected turbulence. The emergency exits aren't going to help much so I wouldn't bother about them. Bombs away!
A bomb falls from the fuselage of the aeroplane and crashes through the roof of the Shopping Centre with a noise of breaking glass and falling brickwork. There is no explosion.
(after a few seconds)
Bloody useless cheap imported ammunition. Where does it come from?
Ken Grue: Venezuela. Second sourced from Cambodia. It's a few years beyond its sell by date, as well.
Stew Dappel: At least we tried. Al Collick, if you can hear me, your children's death is well avenged. As of now, you may start resting in peace.
The aeroplane accelerates, climbing and turning away from the Shopping Centre and returning north eastwards.
Scene: The cockpit.
Ken Grue: I'm still puzzled, Stew. Tell me something.
Stew Dappel: Sure, anything.
Ken Grue: How did you know the aeroplane was gimmicked?
Stew Dappel: The same way I knew that you were one of the BASTARDS.
Ken Grue: They were top secret.
Stew Dappel: When you commandeered the plane, you flashed an identity card with the Crown on, and the word BASTARDS near the top. With a full stop after every letter. Then the words were spelled out further down.
Ken Grue: How did you come to see it?
Stew Dappel: I didn't. But I told you, my first job was a Skycap at Abbotsinch airport. I was draughted into the uniform factory when war broke out. And a friend saw Al and me on the refugee column. He'd had this strange job in. Strip the cabin and instal launchers. The lads in the hangar were all told not to talk about it to anyone. And a day or two later he was in there with a paint sprayer and there was someone's army ID on the floor. That's all. Oh, except they had to take the transponder out, so the plane would be hard to find if it came down.
Ken Grue: And he saw my card.
Stew Dappel: You must been on the plane to inspect the work in progress. You probably got it back. He probably handed it in. I really can't remember. Let's forget about it and go back home.
Music: Last few bars of the finale from Murder on the Orient Express.
Scene: Exterior, afternoon. Very high viewpoint. Cumbernauld Shopping Centre can be seen in the foreground. The aeroplane is disappearing towards the horizon, back towards East Neuk.
The bomb explodes, completely flattening Cumbernauld Shopping Centre.
"Was that the first time you've ever flown a plane?" asked Colonel Grue, as they walked from the aeroplane to the car.
"No. I managed to put in some hours at the flying club, and I used to get taken up in the business jets. I'm very pleased to have returned from our mission in one piece, though. Tell the truth, I expected to be killed." Stew opened the driver's door of the car and asked, "Do you want to drive?"
"I'm still a bit shaken."
"All right. I'll ferry you back home, then."
They settled into the cramped front seat of the car and set off for St Andrews. At the Donald Trump Memorial Hospital, Shirley Knott the Trumpette dashed out to open the passenger door. "Oh," she said, pleased to see him, "it's you, Phil. Where have you been?"
"I've been on a short holiday to Cumbernauld."
"I've never been to Cumbernauld," said Shirley. "What was the weather like?"
"Marvellous. Much better than here."
Stew left the Hospital and drove the car gingerly out of the gate. He turned it towards East Neuk. Watching for the boulders and pot holes he almost failed to see the woman standing beside the gate trying to thumb a lift. She was perhaps fifty, about the same age as Stew, slim, fair haired and very pretty.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
Stew had forgotten that the car was designed to attract attention. He had expected a hitch hiker to know where she wanted to go, rather than simply to want to get into the car.
"I'm going home. It'll take a couple of hours. I'm going to East Neuk."
"Oh, may I come with you?"
"Sure, of course, if you like. Get in. Where are you going?"
"Same place. Anywhere, I don't care. Just somewhere that isn't here. East Neuk sounds OK."
"Which way do you want to go?"
"Wasn't there a motorway at one time? Is it still passable?"
"We can try. You point, I'll steer."
Stew sat for a moment looking at his passenger, and in the end he asked, "Alyssum?"
"That is you, isn't it?"
"So to coin a phrase," said Stew, putting the car into gear, "where have you been all my life?"
"Fled the war. Lived in a room in one of the old halls of residence in St Andrews, got a job at the Donald Trump, cleaned floors, fetched and carried. I had a couple of boyfriends but never started a family or anything. Today I was leaving work and setting off home when I thought I recognised you. Why were you giving Phil a lift?"
"The man I brought with me, you mean?"
"He and I go back a long way. I just happened to bump into him a few days ago. We've been seeing the sights, the bright lights and the singing frogs."
The motorway was cracked and corrugated but nowhere blocked. "I haven't been on a motorway in years," said Stew, "and quite honestly I can't see why we bothered."
"They were one of the great engineering achievements of the twentieth century," Alyssum mused.
"So were skyscrapers, shopping malls, atom bombs, nylon tights, video games and wind farms."
"Yes. They ought to have stopped the calendar in 1887."
"So, now I've met you again," Stew invited, "do you want to be friends forever?"
The End of Motorway sign had fallen from its post and lay on the carriageway. Stew drove across it and stopped at the crossroad that followed.
"Do you know where we are?"
"You're not far from home so don't worry. Go that way." Alyssum pointed to the left.
"I have to tell you," said Stew, "I got married a week ago."
"Damn. After, what, nearly forty years I miss my destiny by seven days? That's an error of less than 0·05%. Couldn't we…?"
"I don't think Tawny would approve of anything more than friendship forever. Isn't this the East Neuk road?"
"Yes. Can I at least invite you to come up to my room and see me some time?"
"I accept. Look, we'll drive to my house so Tawny knows I'm back and I'm still alive, and I can tell her briefly what I was doing, and then I'll take you home."
"All right." Alyssum was disappointed.
"I've never forgotten you. The girl who made school bearable."
"We can stay in touch, at least."
"Can you read?"
"Yes. I was at school with you, remember? They taught us."
"I'll write to you sometimes, if there's a courier going. I'll visit sometimes. You were so dear to me. I can't let you slip away.
"Write clearly, then. None of that high faluting joined up writing."
"I am a master of highly legible calligraphy."
Staying in touch in the post War world was not easy. Stew was well aware that the car was a great luxury, and that although it had enough fuel in the tank for perhaps another couple of hundred miles, after that he would probably never be able to fill it again. Shortages and rationing had put paid to freely and easily riding around wherever you wanted to in vehicles whose main purpose was to impress the neighbours. There were no phones any more. There were couriers who would take a letter to a loved one at a price, but even finding an honest courier was tricky, and anyway most people younger than Stew could neither read nor write. Stew couldn't remember receiving a letter since the War. His last letter was probably the scribbled note from his mother that arrived just before the conflict spread to Glasgow. Just a short note wishing him well and reassuring him she was still alive and she had supplies enough to get along. She had not survived. Since then, as far as he could recall, nobody had written to him.
Stew turned off the road and edged along the muddy path that led to the farmhouse. Tawny had seen the car coming, or more likely heard it, and it was she who opened the farmhouse door.
"Stew!" she called as he walked up to the front door, leaving Alyssum in the passenger seat.
"Tawny!" Stew put his arms around her. She turned her face away and didn't kiss him.
"Who is that?"
"I picked up a hitch hiker. Her name's Alyssum." He struggled to remember whether he had ever told Tawny about Alyssum's existence and decided he probably never had.
"Stew, I am sorry, I am really sorry."
"Stew, I've fallen back in love with Mook," Tawny confessed. "He has so much money now, he's become irresistible."
"But, Tawny, we are married. We belong together. I love you. Really, I love you."
"I'm sorry. I can't help the way I feel. It's over. It was never a real, legal, binding marriage with certificates to prove it. It expressed how I — how we — felt at the time. But I've spent the day talking things over with Mook, and I feel differently now. I wish I'd never done it."
Chubby the cat ran out of the farmhouse, followed by Mook, who was brandishing a new looking rifle. "This rifle is loaded," he shouted intemperately, "so take your hands off my wife and get off my land."
"All right," said Stew, "keep your hair on."
Mook pointed the rifle at Stew and made a feint of squeezing the trigger. Stew walked slowly towards the car, seated himself behind the wheel and made off as fast as he dared on the muddy path.
"She's changed her mind," said Stew blankly, "Tawny wants a divorce."
"My place or yours?" Alyssum asked.
"Yours sounds nicer."
"Remember," said Alyssum, "I'm in charge."
Stew turned off the drive and headed back towards St Andrews.
From behind them they heard Mook shouting, "Hey! That's my new car! Bring it back here this minute!" Then there was a loud bang and the last they heard of him was a scream of "Oh, shit, I've blown my bloody ear off again."