Table of chapters
Chapter 1.When you wish upon a star
This isn't life. It isn't.
If you get off the train to Kings Cross, walk along the platform to the ticket barrier, then turn left and keep going straight, you walk through an open door and into the street. York Way. In front of you there is a cheap café that sells mostly tea and sandwiches. On this particular day, the café was surrounded by scaffolding. Builders at second storey height marched to and fro carrying buckets and pushing barrows, working on one of the flats.
The man and the woman both looked about fifty, maybe sixty. The man looked like the older of the two. He was wearing an overcoat and dark coloured trousers. She was still attractive, the sort of woman who looks interesting to talk to, wearing a warm black leather jacket and heavily worn jeans. They were sitting in the cheap café opposite Kings Cross station, staring at two cups of tea and a couple of pork and pickle sandwiches. It was the man who spoke first.
"This isn't life, Lucie," he said, "it isn't."
Lucie picked her cup up, looked at it, and put it back on its saucer again. "We need a change, Eric," she said, "some sort of improvement, possibly. How long have we been here now?"
"Three weeks," said Eric. "At least, I think it's three weeks. It might be two. But then again, it might be four. I wasn't counting."
"Time to move on, in any case," said Lucie, and she picked her cup up again, looked at it and put it down.
"Your tea must be nearly cold by now," Eric observed. "If you don't want your tea, may I have it?"
"No. I want it. And your tea must be nearly cold as well. May I have yours?"
"Yes," said Eric, and Lucie immediately drank both cups of tea one after the other.
"Was it horrible?"
"Of course it was. Cold tea is vile. It ought to be illegal."
"Do you think the tea will be any hotter in the next café along?"
"Not if we leave it for half an hour before we drink it."
"But it's worth a try, isn't it?"
"It would be a change," said Lucie wistfully, "because this isn't life. It isn't."
They sat at the table looking at each other without emotion. A young waitress in overalls came from somewhere, picked up the empty cups and asked Lucie in an East London accent if she wanted another cup of tea.
"Yes," said Lucie, reading the name badge on the waitress's overalls, "I need another cup of tea, Sam. Without another one I shall be unable to face the horrors of the present, let alone whatever hideous hideosities the future may bring forth."
"I've got Twinings English Breakfast," she offered.
"That would be perfect," said Lucie.
Just outside the café, and unnoticed by most of the crowd of people pushing into and out of Kings Cross station, a brick fell from the second storey scaffolding and landed on the pavement with a loud crash. A cat, walking peaceably along York Way from a creamery to a fishmonger suffered a very near miss.
"Shit!" he miaowed, "that nearly took my tail off. Bloody careless idiots."
He turned around and dashed back to the creamery, where he would feel safer and where they would probably give him a free drink.
"Here you are." Sam gave Lucie and Eric fresh cups of tea.
"That's just what we needed," said Eric. "How did you know?"
"Lucie told me."
"Did she?" Eric asked. "I didn't notice."
"No, she didn't tell me. You got me bang to rights," she admitted, "I'm a psychic."
"I bet I am." She scribbled something on her bill pad. "Think of a vegetable."
"See?" Sam showed the billpad to Eric. She had written "carrot."
"How do you do that?"
"And why?" put in Lucie.
"It's a gift," said the waitress, "and I only do performances by request, I don't show off about it all the time."
"Good Lord," spluttered Eric, "if you're really psychic, you could make a fortune."
"No, I couldn't," said Sam with impeccable logic, "because I am one."
At the corner of York Way and Caledonia Street, Ibrahim and Esther run a small creamery, a family business which has been working and supplying local restaurants and caterers since the railway started bringing cow's milk into the city centre in the early nineteenth century. Esther was standing behind the counter wearing white work clothes. The street door opened a few inches and a medium size, athletic looking tabby cat came in."Jonathan!" cried Esther, "you're back. What happened? You only come in once a day usually, and it isn't raining."
"A brick fell on me," said Jonathan, scratching behind his left ear for no particular reason.
"Would you like a drink?"
"Nearly fell on me. Bloody careless builder dropped one. I would've been dead if I didn't have nine li… oh, that's nice."
Esther put down a white pottery saucer of double cream from a herd of twenty-six Jerseys on Left Buttock Meadow in High Wycombe. Jonathan lapped it up. "That definitely makes me feel better," he said, licking his lips thoroughly. "That was lovely cream."
"You off to the fish shop now, Jonathan?"
"Yes. Yes, I think I am."
"I'll see you tomorrow, then."
In the cheap café, Eric picked up one of the pork and pickle sandwiches, bit a piece off, and put the rest of it tidily back on its plate.
"How did she do that?" Eric asked Lucie, really expecting an explanation, "Mind reading?"
"What's the difference?"
"Well, she couldn't have read your mind, because at the time she wrote on the notepad she hadn't instructed you to think of a vegetable. She only asked you to think of a vegetable after she wrote down which vegetable it was. So the ability to read your mind wouldn't have helped her."
"So what was she doing, then?"
"Clairvoyance. Knowing in advance what you were going to think of is clairvoyance."
"So she can't really read minds?"
"I don't know. Maybe she can."
"Let's get back to complaining that this isn't life," said Eric in a matter of fact way.
"We could put Sam's gift to good use," said Lucie, "if she really is a psychic."
"Do we really need a psychic? Surely, if we just need someone to talk to, to tell our problems to, to get ideas from, we just need someone with common sense and broad experience, don't we?"
"Do we know anybody like that?"
"I don't know." Eric racked his brain and seized on the first idea that came out of it. "A fishmonger would know what to say."
"Yes," Lucie agreed, "a fishmonger would be marvellous, of course, and wise too, because fish is brain food. We've got the chance now to talk things over with a psychic, and I think we should take it. You only get these opportunities once in a lifetime. Psychics are very thin on the ground."
"Psychics are thin on the ground?" Eric repeated the phrase with a questioning intonation. "How can you tell?"
"Because they make so much money. You have to travel miles and miles and then pay an entry fee of several pounds even to watch one of them on the stage."
"In general, but Sam's here and she's here now and she doesn't seem to object to talking to us."
Sam emerged from the kitchen with a bowl of something and she walked directly to Eric and Lucie's table.
"You see?" Lucie hissed to Eric, "she knows we want to talk to her."
Sam put the bowl on the table in front of Eric. "Carrots," she announced.
"Thank you. While you're here..."
"Have you got a few minutes?" asked Lucie, "could you pull up a chair and sit with us for a moment?"
Sam dragged a chair from two tables away to Eric and Lucie's table.
"Now then," said Sam brightly, "I can probably sit here for a few minutes but in half an hour we'll be very busy."
"How do you know that?" Eric's jaw dropped.
"Psychic. Now, how can I help you?"
"We're feeling sorry for ourselves, that's all," Lucie summarised, "this isn't life."
"It isn't," Eric agreed.
"You need to think about…" Sam adopted the role of psychoanalyst as to the manner born, and then suddenly looked towards the door. "Oh, look, we've got a visitor! And he's lovely!"
An athletic looking tabby cat nosed the café door open and mooched inside. He stood just inside the room, looking around at the customers, and then he singled out Sam.
"Oh, he likes me," said Sam.
"No, I don't," said Jonathan, "I don't even know you. I just thought that you might have a fish about you." Jonathan sat about two feet away from Sam and looked steadily up at her. "Or a kangaroo. I could eat that." They sat looking at one another for a few seconds, and Jonathan said, "Spare a fish, guv'nor."
"Do you want a fish?"
"Yes, please. Salmon if you've got it. Can I sit in your lap? Giz a fish."
"Or I think there's some kangaroo in the freezer."
"I'd prefer the fish, if that's no trouble for you. Kangaroo jumps about too much and gives me indigestion."
Sam patted her lap as a gesture of invitation and Jonathan crouched, pretending that he thought the height was going to be hugely difficult to jump, then launched himself at her.
"You know," said Sam to Jonathan as he settled on her, "I think I've found a friend."
"Rubbish," said Jonathan, "you've not found a friend. You've found a cat, that's all."
"That cat really likes you," said Eric.
Huh! said Jonathan, contemptuously.
"So I was saying, you — and you, obviously — you obviously feel," said Sam, looking first at Eric and then at Lucie, "as though you made mistakes on the path that led you from your early childhood to here."
"Well, yes," said Lucie, who thought Sam was talking rubbish.
"I suppose we must have," said Eric, who thought Sam was psychic, "lots of mistakes."
"God spare me the pathetic confessions of your woeful inadequacy," said Jonathan, "you daft bugger. Where's the fish?"
"Cat agrees," said Sam.
"No, I bloody don't," snarled Jonathan.
"Was there a single big mistake?" Sam continued, "I mean, was there a moment when you elected Tony Blair as Prime Minister, or something like that?"
"Probably that wet Friday afternoon in, it would have been, 1973, when I went to the school sports day," said Eric.
"You never told me about it," said Lucie, who thought of herself as Eric's only confidante.
"Nor me," said Jonathan, "although I wouldn't have been interested if you had. Where's the bloody fish I ordered?"
"That was the turning point?" asked Sam.
"Yes. I could have skived off, gone home and sat and watched TV until my mum came home, and I would've been happy. Instead I went to the school sports day. It was raining hard, freezing cold, waist deep in mud and I had no idea who was running around the field or why, and I was thoroughly miserable. It blighted my life."
"And that was the turning point," said Sam, with powerful psychic insight.
"How can you tell?"
"I've been miserable ever since."
"What about you, Lucie?"
"That's a tough question," said Lucie, finishing her tea, and meaning that it would take her a couple of minutes to think of an answer. "You're the psychic. You tell me. And feed the cat while I think about that."
Sam stood up and Jonathan jumped to the floor and ran out of the café and out onto the street.
"Nine pounds fifty," said Sam.
"What?" said Eric, who didn't understand decimal currency.
"Nine pounds ten shillings," said Sam in the plain English of earlier days.
"Here." Lucie grubbed in a pocket and put a ten pound note on the table. "Keep the change."
"Ten pounds. That's a lot of money," sighed Eric.
"Not any more," said Lucie. "It's enough for four cups of tea and some pork and pickle sandwiches in a cheap café."
"Thanks," said Sam, picking up the note. "You didn't eat the sandwiches."
"We never do. We just like to think that we could eat them, if we wanted to."
"If we were starving," put in Lucie tactlessly.
"Thanks… Status symbol," Sam diagnosed. "You think you can lift the fog of constant misery that surrounds you by assuming the rôle of a provider and nurturer, but in reality you're miserable because you went to a wet school sports day in 1973."
"Serious mistake, that." Eric shook his head.
"I think we will move on now," said Lucie. "See you tomorrow. Thank you, Sam, for your insight."
The sun had begun to shine on York Way and Lucie and Eric began to walk northwards, as they had done every day for however long it was, without any clear sense of where they were going. A couple of hundred yards along, they saw a shop titled "Prodi, Fishmonger."
"Let's go in that shop," said Eric.
"Why? Are we deficient in potassium, or something?"
"No! Because there's a fishmonger inside. An experienced man, with ideas and a knowledge of the multifurcating labyrinth of human existence."
"You have unrealistic expectations. That's what makes you so miserable all the time." Lucie shook her head as she grabbed the doorhandle of the shop. "All right, then."
Stepping into the shop they saw the tabby cat Jonathan standing in front of the fishmonger, Julio Prodi, who was throwing him scraps of raw fish and shouting "Catch!" in Italian each time.
"There is less meaning," thought Jonathan as he leapt in the air and caught a teaspoonful of haddock entrails as it flew across the room, "in exchanging a glance with a fishmonger than with any other animal I know of."
"Hello, old friend!" Eric smiled as he and Lucie walked in. Jonathan turned his head for a second and recognised them.
"Oh, it's everybody's two favourite angst-ridden miserygutses," Jonathan sneered.
"Catch!" Julio threw another blob of grey material of vaguely ichthyological origin, and Jonathan leapt up and seized it.
"See?" Julio asked Eric and Lucie, "I trained him to jump up like that."
"You should join the circus," said Eric.
"They always need good fishmongers in the circus," added Lucie, "to feed the performing seals."
"And the big cats," Eric added. "You could take that performing tabby cat with you."
Suddenly Jonathan realised that his grandfather and his father had both been proud, self sufficient animals, killing mice and birds and stealing food from kitchens and dustbins and restaurants in the face of dogs and poison bait and aggressive, competing cats, and here he was in a fishmonger's shop, jumping cravenly for scraps. Still, no point wasting good food. He swallowed the morsel that he had just caught and walked proudly out of the shop and onto the street. Trained! Huh!
"This isn't life, is it?" said Eric to Julio.
"No. This isn't life. But what else is there?" Julio responded philosophically.
"We ought to be out there somewhere, living our dreams, exceeding our expectations, reaching for the stars, climbing the ladder, running on empty, that sort of thing. Instead, we've ended up at our time of life, no jobs, precious little else, sing the time of day standing in a fishmonger's shop watching a tabby cat jump for bits of squashed fish." Lucie paused mournfully. "Doesn't seem right, somehow."
Julio sighed. "Where did it all go wrong, eh?"
"Was there a single place where it all went wrong?" Eric asked himself out loud, "Or did it go wrong in bits and pieces, one thing here, another thing there, like the fibres breaking in an overloaded hemp rope?"
"The first strand that breaks, breaks at random," said Julio wisely, "but the second one breaks because of the strains placed on it by the breakage of the first strand. The third strand breaks because it can no longer bear the strains that have been imposed on it by the breakage of strands one and two. So nobody can tell which strain will break first, but as soon as the first strand breaks, the breaks follow a precisely fore-ordained and predictable path. The load on each strand gradually increases until the strand fails. Then the failure of that strand places an increased load on the surrounding strands until those strands break too. Can you see it?"
Eric and Lucie thought in silence for a long while. Eventually Lucie said, "No. You baffled us."
"It's like apples in a barrel." Julio tried explaining himself with a simile. "You can't tell which one will go rotten first. Unless, of course, you put a rotten apple in on purpose and you can remember where it is. But once one apple has rotted first, you can predict with reasonable accuracy which apple will rot second, and which apple will rot third. So, maybe your worst problem today is that you haven't got any food. But God didn't single you out to have no food like lightning striking one tree out of all the trees in the entire forest. You have no food because you have no money. And that in turn did not happen at random. You have no money because you have no job. And you have no job because you never got a university degree, and these days you need a university degree to get even a menial job at a supermarket check-out on the minimum wage." Having exhausted the possibilities of the simile, Julio lapsed into the language of mathematics. "The chain goes on, from effectn to causen, and causen is also effectn-1, and that has a causen-1, and so on until eventually you reach cause0 which does not appear to be the effect of anything, however hard you search for it in the undergrowth."
There was a silence as his audience digested this reasoning.
"Silence?" Julio was astonished. "Do you really need to digest my reasoning in silence? For God's sake, it's hardly Andrew Wiles."
There was a renewed silence as his audience continued to digest this reasoning.
The door of the shop opened a few inches and Jonathan the cat padded in and sat before Julio again. "I've changed my mind," said Jonathan, "you can humiliate me all you like, I don't give a damn any more. Better to die on your paws than rest on your laurels, or whatever… it's better to be well fed and alive than independent and die of fleas, drowning, starvation and then being run over by a lorry."
"Hello again Mister Cat!" Julio smiled in a particularly humiliating way, picking up a teaspoonful of fishy stuff and tossing it in the air. "Catch!"
Jonathan jumped up and caught it. Julio applauded him. "See! See! I trained him to do that."
Trained him? Jonathan learned in that instant what it means to sell out and accept the oppressive terms offered by the tyrannical enemy. At this moment, he thought, I feel a bit like a Socialist in the Labour Party. Did Julio really think that you had to be trained to jump in the air when you were hungry and someone who could easily buy a tin of cat food and empty it into a saucer and put it on the ground where you could reach it chose instead to pluck a repulsive lump of grey material from a fish and throw it over your head? Surely I'm not that stupid. It must be him. He's the really stupid one. Unless we're both both stupid… Oh, Christ, here he goes again.
Julio threw another lump of fish and Jonathan caught it. Julio clapped and yelled encouragement again.
Lucie stared out of the window for a second, then pointed at something. A clown was walking on the far pavement. As they watched, he came to a bus stop, and he waited there.
"What's he doing?" Lucie asked, "I didn't know the circus was in town."
"It isn't. He's probably advertising hamburgers or something."
"Why would he want to advertise hamburgers?"
"Probably he doesn't want to at all. It's a job. One day the burger bar put a notice in the window,Clown wanted,and he was the first in the door. So that's what he does from nine to five, Monday to Friday, in exchange for the minimum wage, I wouldn't be surprised."
"Do you really think so?"
"It's my best guess."
A bus came, stopped at the clown's stop, and when it drove off the clown wasn't there any more.
"You see?" Eric was vindicated. "He was going home after a day's work. Told you so."
"Unless he was going to work."
"Why should he be?"
"He might work evenings and nights. Lots of entertainers work evenings and nights."
"And what makes you think he's an entertainer? He might be, I don't know, a doctor or a teacher or an engine driver or…"
"He was wearing a clown suit."
Just then the clown appeared on the pavement at the far end of the street, walking back towards the bus stop.
"Oh, look. He's coming back," said Eric.
"That's strange. He only just left. Do you think he forgot something?"
"He's probably forgotten tons of things over the years. I know I have. Phone numbers, mainly, but there are other things too. For instance, on Monday I realised I'd forgotten how to convert degrees Fahrenheit to Celsius. I remember it was something to do with there being one hundred and eighty degrees Fahrenheit between the temperature of melting ice and the—"
"I mean," said Lucie, whose main interests in life did not include elementary physics, "do you think the clown is coming back here because he left something here by mistake?"
Eric looked around the foot of the bus stop. "He hasn't left anything here. We'd be able to see it."
"There's only one way to find out."
Eric and Lucie dodged between the traffic on the main road and fetched up at the bus stop at the same time the clown arrived there.
"Did you forget something?" Lucie asked.
"No, no," replied the clown in a chirpy East London. "I got on the wrong bus, that's all."
There was a pause, and then Eric asked, "Can you make us laugh?"
"I don't know."
"Go on," Lucie waved her hands about in an encouraging fashion, "try."
"I can tell you a joke." He paused for a second. "What's yellow and dangerous?"
"I don't know," said Lucie, "what is yellow and dangerous?"
"Shark infested custard!"
Lucie and Eric looked at each other with an expression of hopelessness.
"All right, what lies at the bottom of the ocean and shivers?"
It was Eric's turn. "I don't know. What does lie at the bottom of the ocean and shiver?"
"A nervous wreck!"
Lucie and Eric looked at each other with a more intense expression of hopelessness than before.
"I can make my head explode," said the clown.
"That should be good," said Eric, who didn't believe that anyone could make their head explode, at least without the aid of a hat loaded with plastic explosive.
"All right, I'll show you. Firstly, examine my head. See?" The clown took his hat off and exhibited his head for a few seconds. His head appeared perfectly normal. "And by the way," he turned his hat inside out and put it back on again, "there is nothing in my hat either. Stand back!" He took a couple of steps backwards and added confidentially, "By the way, if this trick kills me, my name's Donald McRonald and I fit neatly into a Size Eight coffin. Now then, silence please and imagine a drum roll."
So saying, Donald ferreted in his pockets and found a box of Swan Vestas. He struck a match — Eric noticed that Donald was left handed, but Lucie didn't — and held the flame to his left ear. The ear caught fire and burned with a bright flame for a second, like a torn shred of burning newspaper. Then the ear began to fizz and crackle like a firework, throwing sparks towards the side entrance of King's Cross, and then with a startling explosion Donald's head shot up in the air, leaving after it a trail of smoke and fumes. Eric and Lucie looked up. In the sky above them, with an enormous bang, Donald's head burst into a thousand fragments of glowing sparks and shrapnel in red, blue and green.
A couple of shabby passers-by applauded. Eric and Lucie joined in.
Where Donald's head had been there was now just a hole in his collar and a thick cloud of smoke that smelled of Bonfire Night. The rest of Donald's body remained steady, upright and motionless.
Eric and Lucie both said "Good Lord!" at the same instant.
"See?" said the hole in the collar, "I told you I could make my head explode, but you didn't believe it, did you?"
"No," said Eric, "I didn't. I was a disbeliever, a sceptic and a doubting Thomas all at the same time. But I believe it now."
Lucie was stunned. "How did you do that?"
Donald's head reappeared upwards through the collar. He shook his head and blinked, and after a few seconds he looked a bit charred but otherwise normal. "It's a gift. A distinctive and peculiar talent."
"Can anyone do it?" asked Eric.
"I don't know. I never asked anyone. It took me a lot of practice. Maybe anyone who tries can do it. The important bit is the tries. They would have to try before they knew whether they could do it or not."
"How did you start?" asked Lucie.
"When I was little, I mean about five years old, I found I could nod my head so hard that it fell off. I used to annoy my parents, my sister and my teachers by doing it. Now and then I did it in the street, just to irritate some wrinkly old lady with a tartan shopping trolley. I always hated them… Nod, nod, nod, I could see the horrified look on their faces because they knew what was going to happen, and then with a loud snap like the noise of a wishbone cracking when you pull it at Christmas dinner my head would fall off, roll down my chest and land on the ground at my feet."
"That's so clever," Lucie put in, "I'm surprised that you didn't become famous."
"How could I become famous? They didn't have TV in those days. They didn't even have Simon Cowell. Anyway I got fed up with doing it because it gave me a cricked neck and a headache."
"I should think it would!" beamed Eric in a tone of voice that was meant to suggest that he had a vague idea of what he was talking about.
"So," continued Donald, ignoring him, "I tried improving the manner of separation of my atlas joint — know where that is, do you?" Lucie pointed at the back of her neck. "Yes, there, I practised in front of a mirror," Donald went on as another bus went past the bus stop without stopping, "Fuck, I've missed the bus."
"So have we," said Eric. "What are we going to do?"
"Wait for the next one, you fool," said Lucie. "London buses always come in twos. See, there it is."
Another bus arrived. Donald boarded it and disappeared onto the lower deck somewhere. Lucie saw him sitting in a seat by the window and beaming towards her as the doors twirled shut and the bus pulled away.
"Come back and see me again!" said Lucie, really meaning it.
"Where is he going?" Eric asked.
"Oh, Eric," said Lucie with a languid dreaminess, "I think I'm in love."
"Well, why didn't you say so earlier? It's a bit late now."
"Another sad, missed opportunity. If only I could know myself and act on my desires without hesitation."
"Perhaps he loves you too," said Eric, "and he'll come back if he does."
"Oh, Eric, I do hope so."
Eric was silent for a moment, and he looked serious.
"I'd always hoped you'd fall in love with me," said Eric, "we've been together long enough, surely?"
"Yes, yes, I probably will, one day. But the glory of the circus, the power of the explosion, the rush of the head into the stratosphere, they quite turn me on. Even thinking about them, just thinking about them gets me excited, Eric. I'm in love. Be happy for me if you can."
"All right. I don't think I'm the jealous sort, so I'll let you enjoy whatever opportunities come your way. In the meantime…"
"Do you want to come back to my place?"
Lucie considered this proposition. "We went there yesterday."
"You weren't uncomfortable?"
"No, no. I enjoyed it. I'm sure I shall enjoy it again. Yes, let's go to your place."
"Come on, then."
Eric seized Lucie's hand and started off towards his house, which was a couple of hundred yards away. "We could watch television if you like," he suggested.
"What's on tonight?"
"It's The Frog Show."
"Oh, goody! My favourite. I love those bright red frogs from South America. They're so cute."
The door of the house closed with a deep clunk. Eric turned up the heating thermostat, which was just inside the door. Then he grabbed Lucie and kissed her. It was a long, passionate kiss. There was one hook on the back of the door, and they hung their coats on it. Then they carried on kissing for a while, embracing hard and feeling the curves of one another's bodies.
"Gosh, that was a surprise."
"Did you enjoy it?"
"Oh, yes, a lot. I think if we practised it, I'd like it so much that I'd look forward to it."
"Look…" Eric hesitated, "I don't know how to ask this."
"You don't need to ask. Of course we will. I'll take my pants off now, if that'll help."
"Yes please. Let's turn the telly on and practise while the television puts on The Frog Show in the corner of the room unregarded."
"With the lights off," said Lucie, smiling, "it's easier that way."
"All right." Eric steered Lucie into his one room. There was a sofa on one side of the room and a television in the corner. "Do you want to eat before, or afterwards?" he asked.
"Eat? Oh, I'll do that at breakfast time." Lucie settled on the sofa, unzipped her jeans and worked them down her legs.
"That sounds like a good idea," said Eric, admiring Lucie's long centrefold legs. "Do first what matters most."
"Quite," said Lucie, leaving her discarded jeans on the floor and reaching for the panty waistband, "and I have a keen sense of priorities."
"But," said Eric, who was still fully dressed, "there is one thing I want to try before we go to bed."
"What's that?" Lucie grabbed the waisband and without any attempt to tease her boyfriend she slipped the panty quickly down her legs and over her ankles and dropped it on the floor on top of her jeans. She sat on the sofa wearing her necklace, sweater, tee shirt and brassiere and nothing else. "Do you want me now, like this, or can you wait while I strip naked?"
Lucie had expected him to be staring at a special place about a foot below her navel but Eric was looking distractedly out of the window. "I've been meaning to try this all afternoon."
Chapter 2.There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover
Julio was holding the door of the shop open. "Closing time," he said, "I'm going home now. It's time for you to go home, too, pussycat."
Jonathan, the tabby cat, turned towards the door with his tail raised straight up and walked out of the door with deliberate, measured slowness. It was evening, so the park would be a good place to go now. There were always things to do in the park, and when you'd finished jumping out at the dogs, catching the birds, climbing trees and digging the flowers up, you could always go to sleep in the shelter of the back wall. As Jonathan walked out of the door and onto the street, a brick fell from the scaffolding above him and landed with a crash on the pavement, missing him by an inch or two. Jonathan shook his head. "They're a bunch of careless bastards up there," he muttered. "and why does it have to be bricks? Why can't they take fish up there and drop that?"
Jonathan padded along the pavement and avoided attracting attention as far as the canal bridge. Getting to the park involved crossing the road here. There were, basically, three approaches a cat could take to crossing busy roads like this one. One, dash across and look like a frightened animal cowed into submission by the fast moving traffic. Two, stare at a driver particularly sympathetic to cats and walk across the road slowly in front of him, thereby maintaining an appearance of due majesty but also giving an impression of boldness and bravery. Three, don't try to cross the road at all and stay on the block, for what did you need that the block could not provide? Jonathan looked twitchily at the traffic, and tried to look endearingly at a lady bus driver coming from the right. She looked back at him and blew him a kiss. Ha! Having established eye contact Jonathan felt confident about padding deliberately across the road. The lady bus driver brought the bus to a sudden unscheduled halt while he crossed as far as the centre line. Then a pretentious, ugly man in a pretentious, ugly yellow sports car hooted at him from the left, meaning that his life was in imminent danger and he had to rush across the further carriageway without any pretence at dignity. When he set all four paws on the far pavement he was still alive and in one piece, but he could almost hear every other cat in the district laughing at him.
One cat in particular was definitely laughing at him. A little cat, all over patches of white on a black background, looked down at him from the top of the wall that separated the pavement from the railway lines. She said, "That Lotus had you rattled, didn't it?" in a Cadbury's Caramel accent. She was perhaps nineteen years old in cat years, which means eighteen months in people years, lean, athletic but well fed, with short and very tidy fur. Somebody spent half of every day brushing her.
"Not at all," said Jonathan, trying to stop shaking, "I'm a case hardened, streetwise, mean, tough street moggy. I cross the road when I please. I eat cars like that one with my Whiskas Super Meat."
The black and white cat burst into a tinkle of laughter. "It didn't look like that from here but you can certainly talk the talk. What's your name, street Rambo?"
"I am Jonathan." He let himself smile. "Who are you? I haven't seen you before."
"I'm Rebecca. I just got off a train, I've never been here before. So, Jonathan, where are you going that's worth putting your life at risk for?"
"There's a park about five minutes from here. I'm going dog baiting."
"Ooh! Lots of chihuahuas and Yorkshire terriers?"
Rebecca laughed again and jumped lightly from the wall to the pavement, landing just behind Jonathan. "You'll need help then."
"No, I won't."
"I'll just sit quietly and let you impress me with your attack-dog skills, then."
"Doesn't look like it will take much to impress you."
"Doesn't it? I defeated an entire team of Husky dogs once. Had them all cowering in an igloo and scared to come out."
"I did. You should've seen them."
"Park's down here." Jonathan headed left down an alley and Rebecca followed him at a distance of a few feet. The alley opened out onto a towpath, and from under a culvert a canal flowed beside it. Sometimes there were rats on this path. Jonathan was quite glad he couldn't see any rats today, because Rebecca would probably expect him to catch one for her and, as a domestic feline, he would also have to skin it, joint it, cook it in a casserole with sauce marinière and set it before her on a dainty porcelain cat dish. You had to look out for Mary Bale, as well. She and her wheelie bin were a positive menace. Jonathan didn't actually know whether Mary Bale lived anywhere near this towpath. Quite possibly she didn't, but he felt this was the sort of place which attracted horrible people like that and their horrible wheelie bins with them. Suppose Mary Bale threw you into a wheelie bin and the dustcart came along, what would become of you then?
Rebecca padded along silently behind him. She was far enough behind him to be able to deny that she was following him, if anyone had asked. It wasn't so much that Jonathan was unattractive, so that she might feel ashamed to be showing interest in an unattractive male cat by padding around after him. Actually as male cats go he was quite good looking. She felt that she had to avoid giving the appearance of being emotionally attached, and therefore subservient, to another cat. "Of course I'm not following him," she would have said, "why would I want to follow another cat? I'm my own cat. I don't care about any other cat in the whole world."
There was a footbridge over the canal. The park was on the other side of the bridge. As Jonathan turned to cross it, he caught sight of an old lady sitting on a bench in the park scattering bread crumbs. Bread crumbs meant birds, and birds meant a good fight with a decent possibility of winning. He slowed down, lowered himself so that he was more or less pulling himself along the grass on his tummy, and crouched behind a chrysanthemum bush.
Rebecca made a feint of going straight past the bridge and looking at something interesting in the distance. Tiring of that, she padded into the park and settled beside Jonathan, behind the chrysanthemum bush. He greeted her with a brief, aggressive and sibilant "Ssh!"
"All right. What's that on the…"
"Ssh!" hissed Jonathan again, and Rebecca was so impressed that she almost stopped breathing by mistake. "Birds have ears."
"No, they don't."
Sitting on a bench, on the far side of the chrysanthemum bush, was an elderly lady in a blue raincoat and an elaborate blue hat. She had a walking stick, a paperback book and a brown paper bag, from which she occasionally produced scraps of dry bread. She broke each scrap into tiny pieces a quarter of an inch or so square, then threw them on the ground.
"Birds!" whispered Jonathan, unable to contain his contempt for the feathered foodstuffs any longer. "They ought to be ashamed of their bloody selves. Look! They'll eat anything! That thrush there," he pointed with his nose and sputtered, "is eating a bit of stale bread that's been lying in the mud! Eugh!"
"Shall we eat it?" Rebecca asked quietly.
"Bread?" Jonathan was incredulous that anyone could even suggest such a horror.
"No, silly. That bird."
"Not yet. We'll let it fatten itself up for a while."
They lay on the ground silently, watching the thrush's every move.
"Have you ever harvested a bird before?" asked Jonathan, using the euphonym conventional among pussy cats.
"I harvested a bugerigar once. Hateful, ugly beast, it was. Spooky green colour, like mouldy Kit E Kat. I couldn't understand what all the hoo-hah was about."
"What did it taste like?"
"Yucky. Too many feathers and not enough meat. I could barely bring myself to swallow it. Could've done with some Lee and Perrins."
"Do you like Lee and Perrins, then?"
"Love it. It's nearly as delicious as Marmite."
"And you even like eating Marmite? I like that as well, it's delicious."
"Yes. I lap it up."
"You should go on the programme with Esther Rantzen."
The old lady on the bench picked up her walking stick and shook it in the direction of Jonathan and Rebecca. "Are you two naughty pussy cats lying in wait for one of Auntie Margaret's feathered friends?" she asked rhetorically. "Shame on the pair of you. Go away!" The cats shrank back a few feet. "Go on," she went on, becoming shriller, "leave the birdies alone!"
"Let's climb a tree," said Rebecca, anxious to get away from the Auntie Margaret's walking stick and make it look as though that was what she was going to do anyway.
"That one over there." There was a horse chestnut tree a few yards away from the bench. Jonathan led the way to it. At the bottom of the tree they looked up into its canopy of leaves for features of interest. "Any squirrels?"
"I can't see any." Rebecca shook her head. "They don't taste very nice anyway. It's a good steady tree," she said, "easy to get your claws into."
A sudden rustle in the leaves above them announced the arrival of a heavy bird. It was a jay, or possibly a crow, two species which in exchange for a few poorly aimed pecks would usually yield enough meat for a day's supply. Both cats took off up the tree like rockets and balanced on the joint where the branch bearing the bird met the trunk. Jonathan stalked the bird silently, taking one cautious step after another, while the bird focussed its attention on the breadcrumbs soaking up the mud around the little old lady blow. He was about a foot from the target when it looked up, saw him and took off with a terrified squawk. Seeing the opportunity about to disappear, Jonathan lunged powerfully at the bird and dislodged one feather from its neck before it flapped its wings and fluttered off into the distance.
"Did you get it?" asked Rebecca, who could see perfectly well that he had missed it.
"No. I only fucking winged it. I'll get the next one… Oh!"
Jonathan lost his footing, held on to the branch momentarily with his front left paw, and then lost his grip altogether. With thump and a sort of cross between a scream and an asthmatic wheeze he landed squarely on the elaborate blue hat of the old lady. Jonathan kicked the hat off her head as he launched himself onto the ground and dashed for the safety of the back wall.
In the branches of the tree, Rebecca began to wail. "Help, I'm stuck! I can't get down! I'm going to be stranded up this tree for ever and I'll starve to death!"
Her miaouing attracted the Auntie Margaret's attention and she looked up at Rebecca. "You silly moggy," she laughed, "now you're stuck in the branches, and it serves you right! That'll teach you to go chasing after those poor innocent fluffy little birdy wurdies, you bastardy-wastard."
"Oh, Christ, that really is all I need," said Rebecca to herself. "As if having to stand here for the rest of my life being laughed at by birds wasn't bad enough, I have to listen to this smug, self righteous, sentimental twaddle for the rest of my days."
"Oh, all right, then." Margaret carried on as though any cat half-way in its right mind would ask her for a favour, "just this once I'll ring for the fire brigade. But if I ever see you stranded up a tree again, I'll leave you to die there."
"You would, too, wouldn't you, you spiteful old bag," said Rebecca.
With that, Margaret reached into her handbag, produced a cheap, grubby mobile phone, brushed the breadcrumbs off it and dialled 999. "Fire brigade." Rebecca could hear only one side of the conversation. "My name is Margaret Pullet," she began. As if anyone cared what her name was! Did she expect to be mentioned in dispatches for making a free phone call? "Pee, you, double ell, ee, tea. I'm in Camden Park." … "No, it isn't on fire, there isn't anything on fire as far as I can see." … "There's a tall tree here, a horse chestnut, about a hundred yards from the iron gate and a little on the right hand side as you come in. It was in blossom in May, do you remember? A fraffly attractive display. Do you know it?" … "No, it isn't on fire exactly." … "Well, I rang you because in your fire station you have ladders and hydraulic lifts and things like that, provided at the rate payer's expense if I recall correctly."
"You pompous git," said Rebecca, "it's not their fault they have to force arseholes like you to pay for their fire engines."
"Well, there's this lovely little black and white cat and she's mewing so piteously because she's stuck in the branches."
"Note to self. Keep my mouth shut next time."
"Well, it is an emergency if you're a cat. Because she's obviously completely terrified. Scared stiff. She can't get down, you see, it's a fraffly long way." … "You cannot be serious." … "Take my shoes off? These are non slip shoes. Vibram soles. I'll cut my feet, that is if I survive at all." … "Well, if you say so, but I'm not at all sure it's a good idea." … "Yes." … "Yes, of course I'll phone you back when I've finished. Just so you know I didn't fall out and hit my head on a paving stone."
Margaret Pullet turned the phone off and put it back in her bag. Taking her walking stick she stood up, obviously experiencing an attack of sciatica in the process, and began to hobble across the grass to the foot of the tree. There she took off her shoes and propped up her stick, grabbed the tree as though she were going to dance the waltz with it, and tried to place her feet sideways on the trunk.
Rebecca watched with amusement and, as she smirked, she realised that without thinking she had lain down and tucked her front legs under her. She was now lying on the branch in a completely stable attitude. Perched steadily on the branch, looking down, she could see Margaret struggling, and failing, to lift both feet off the ground at the same time. Every now and then an exclamation indicated that Margaret imagined herself about to succeed in rescuing her: "Yes!" for instance, or "That's it!" or "Good!" or "If I can just do that again!" Then with the inevitable thud she fell backwards, landing face up and spread eagled on the grass, and her walking stick slipped and fell on top of her. In an instant Rebecca knew what to do. Closing her eyes to make the altitude seem less, she made a soft landing on Auntie Margaret's stomach, scratched it as hard as she knew how, and scooted off to the back wall, where despite the cold she found Jonathan sitting and watching.
"You missed the show," she said. "I gave her a jolly good scratch."
"I should think so too. She deserved it. I didn't miss the show anyway. I was watching every second spellbound. You're jolly good at jumping down off things."
A minute or two passed, during which Margaret did not stand up again.
"I think I should go and see if she's dead."
"Why? Suppose she is dead. Do we care?"
"Well, if she's dead, we can eat her before she gets too smelly."
"Well, not eat her all at once, but bite a few bits off to sustain ourselves."
"Go on, then, go and look."
Jonathan wandered across to the recumbent Margaret Pullet and sniffed her nose and mouth to see if she was dead yet. She didn't seem to be moving at all. Jonathan was just wondering whether she would go better with Lee and Perrins or with cranberry jelly. Her bag was still lying on the bench, and the mobile phone inside it started to ring. Margaret's eyes opened and she saw Jonathan looking over her nose and mouth, sniffing them and licking them to get an idea of their flavour.
"Oh, you dear cat," she said, remaining flat on the ground, "I underestimated you completely. You really care about Auntie Margaret's welfare, don't you. You were actually standing guard over me while I was knocked out on the ground, weren't you. Here…" she grabbed the stick and used it to struggle to her feet, "I'll never slander a pussy cat again, I swear it." She reached the bench and took the phone out of the bag, adding "If only you could be vegetarian and learn to get along with mice and birds."
"You really are a complete loony," said Jonathan, to whom a vegetable was something to hide behind while harvesting small mammals in a kailyard. "What a total load of mouse droppings."
"Hello?" said Margaret to the phone. There was an indistinct voice at the other end. "The Fire Brigade? Why are you… Yes, I did try, and I'm pleased to say I rescued the little cat. She is perfectly healthy and well now. Unfortunately I slid a bit and I've hurt my ankle… I can't walk properly. I'm not at all sure how I'm going to get home… Well, I'm nearly eighty. So I am a bit on the delicate side… Ambulance? No, I don't… Very sore, I'm afraid, and I banged my head too… Yes, yes, I'll wait here, if you're sure it's for the best."
Jonathan wandered back across to the shelter of the back wall, where Rebecca was still waiting for him. "She's hurt her ankle," he told her.
"Do I look bothered?"
"No, but you fail to realise the full implications of her miserable but well deserved predicament. While she's unable to walk, she is helpless to stop us harvesting the birds. She will just have to lie there watching us catch them and unable to stop us, and that will really infuriate her, especially if we make them squawk a lot and gnaw their heads off where she can see us gnawing them."
"Great. It will jolly well serve her right. Where exactly are the birds' favourite muddy breadcrumbs?"
"Over there. Come on, I bet I catch more meat than you do."
The cats chose a patch of grass with a layer of breadcrumbs clearly visible from the air, wandered into a nearby flower bed and lay in wait there. It was not long before a suitable prey descended from the clouds attracted by the repulsive odour of muddy Warburton's Medium Sliced infused with the distinctive fragrance of cheap imitation leather handbag.
"It's a blackbird," said Jonathan. "one of the King's chefs once baked four and twenty of them in a pie. Do you know one when the pie was opened the birds began to sing?"
"Yes. Take it from the top. Sing a song of sixpence…"
"Wait until its wings stop flapping," advised Jonathan.
"All right. And then shall we start singing to it?"
"No, and then break cover, go over the top, dash out of the undergrowth and seize its frail neck with your powerful canine teeth and crush its—"
"Jonathan, did you think I was a first time kitten?"
"Well, I'm not. My mother taught me exactly how to knock a golden eagle senseless with a single whammy."
"All right, I'll give you a head start. You can shoot out of the vegetation like a rock from a catapult and seize him in the Feline Vulcan Death Grip."
"Ooh, thanks, Spock."
The cats' ears twitched. The siren of an ambulance came into hearing. It slowed down and stopped at the entrance to the alley and a door slammed. Seconds later two men in green day glow tabards came at a quick march along the canal path and across the footbridge. They carried a stretcher. The blackbird turned his head towards the commotion and, milliseconds later, he flapped his wings, lifted off and perched out of reach among the leaves of the horse chestnut tree.
"Dogs!" Jonathan swore out loud. "Jesus, can't they see we're busy? She's only a bloody old lady with a bent foot, and thanks to them scaring all the food away we're still hungry!"
"Yes!" The paramedics had outraged Rebecca just as much as her companion. "We can't just march into Macdonald's and order a fresh McBird Burger like they can. We have to work! We need peace and quiet. They could've waited out of sight and in complete silence while we got some food in."
"Whatever next, eh? They're causing us serious inconvenience. We would only have needed a couple of hours."
"Do your Star Trek act and this time tell Scottie to beam us up into the twig zone."
"That would be really useful. Someone will have to invent the Cat Transporter Basket."
"Mm. With little buttons for Bedroom, Kitchen, Garden and… that's all we need, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes, tree top."
The older of the two paramedics knelt and examined the knobbly bit at the end of Margaret Pullet's leg. "That's broken, that," he said. "Now, Margaret, we'll have to get you to the A and E." They lay the stretcher out and manoeuvred Margaret into place, then picked it up and carried her off. As they left, the older paramedic produced a heavy book from a bag that he wore over one shoulder and said, "Mrs Pullet, while my colleague is driving the ambulance, I'd like to sit on an upturned bucket two feet away from your head and share with you some of the wonderful things we learn from reading the Bible."
"Oh, shit," said Margaret barely audibly. Then she added in a tone of voice which she thought would sound amiable, "That would be so absorbing."
The cats roared with riotous laughter until they shook and had to hold their tummies. "What a remarkable display of self control," Jonathan guffawed, "she didn't even punch him up the muzzle!"
As the two cats' voluble hilarity subsided, calm descended once more upon the park. From the branch of the tree the blackbird looked down at the breadcrumbs, the mud marinade, and the two laughing cats, and made an approximate calculation of risk against reward. On the one hand, if he landed, he was about one hundred per cent certain of getting something to eat. And it wasn't just any old rubbish, but stale bread and mud — his favourite snack! With luck, among the breadcrumbs he might even find a worm! On the other hand, if he landed, he was about one hundred per cent certain that two starving and highly carnivorous moggies would launch themselves upon him, rend him limb from limb, pull his feathers out and have him for dinner like a sausage. So he cawed out loud and flapped off towards the distant boughs of the next park but one.
"Never mind," said Jonathan, "if there's one thing that living on a bus lane has taught me, it's that opportunities are like buses. Every now and then you miss one, but there's always another one along in a minute."
"Oh, come off it." Rebecca was distinctly scornful of Jonathan's blithe philosophising. "Standing here waiting for a plump young bird to fall into the metaphorical stew pot is like waiting for the night bus to Tooting in a snowdrift in the frozen plateau of the Mongolian desert on a Sunday without the exact change for a ticket."
"Yes," said Jonathan, "it is. I was just talking rubbish in an effort to keep our spirits up."
"Try singing Sing a song of sixpence instead. You know the words and it might work better."
"All right." He guessed which note the tune began on, and carolled, "Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye."
"Shut up!" yelled a nasty young man who was walking a large but docile golden retriever. The dog looked at the cats and slobbered amiably.
"Shan't," Jonathan yelled back.
"That song is doing me good," smiled Rebecca, "I feel better already."
"Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a p— Oh, look!"
Donald McRonald the clown was crossing the bridge that led into the park. The cats sat and watched him arrive. He lit a cigarette and drew on it as he followed the circular path between the trees and bushes. He settled on a bench out of the wind.
"I know him," Jonathan said to Rebecca. "He often walked along York Place. I think he lives near York Place."
"Hello, tabby cat!" Donald caught sight of him. "Is that your girlfriend?"
Rebecca blushed. Of course, you couldn't see any actual change in the colour of her skin because her fur was in the way, but she closed her eyes a bit and looked downwards, which is a sign of mild embarrassment.
"I had another argument with my boyfriend," Donald confessed for no reason. "His name is Cocoa and he's a selfish bastard. Like you cared. Cats don't care about anything or anybody except themselves, do they?"
"You've got more sense than I've got, then. Come here a minute."
Jonathan and Rebecca sat still and didn't come here.
"I've got fish."
Jonathan wandered over to Donald, trying to look as though the fish had nothing to do with it and he would have wandered over to him anyway. From one capacious pocket of his enormous baggy trousers Donald pulled a handful of fish and chips wrapped in newspaper. He unfolded it, balanced his cigarette on the arm of the bench and ate a chip."Do you like tomato sauce, pussy cat?"
"I'll give you one bit of fish from the end with the sauce on and one bit from the other end, and I'll see which end you eat first. How does that sound?"
"As forms of communication go, it doesn't seem a particularly efficient way to conduct a protracted conversation. Compared with, say, talking, or gesturing, or writing notes to each other in invisible ink and leaving them in the holes in fence posts."
"Here you are." Donald threw two bits of cod onto the ground a few inches in front of Jonathan. One of them was sodden in tomato sauce and the other one was in its natural state.
"You have that one." Jonathan invited Rebecca to join him at the table and started to eat the fish in its natural state.
"It's got red stuff on it," she complained.
"It's good for you. Eat it up."
"It tastes of plants."
"Trust me, it's never been near any kind of plant in its life. It's from a supermarket."
"Do you know what I am going to do in an effort to make my life bearable?" Donald asked Jonathan. He picked up the cigarette again, puffed it for a while, ate another chip and then he answered himself. "I am going to sit here in the cold, have dinner, have another couple of fags, and then go back home again."
"Do you think that will help?" said Rebecca, suddenly gripped by the human drama implicit in this course of action.
"Why don't you two come with me? I can give one of you to Cocoa as a sort of peace offering. It won't make any difference of course except for providing a momentary distration. There's plenty of mice you can have."
"How about some more fish?" Jonathan tried to get the important stuff out of the way first.
Donald threw another couple of pieces of fish onto the ground for the cats. He threw Rebecca a piece of fish with tomato sauce on it and Jonathan a piece without. "I gave you the bit with tomato sauce on it," he explained to Rebecca, "because I know you like that."
"You have an infinite capacity for self delusion, then," Rebecca replied.
"You can come and live with me and Cocoa," said Donald, "although you won't like living with Cocoa much because he's a totally selfish bastard. Thing is, before I can carry you away to the flat with me, you'll have to help me eat all this dinner because I've only got two hands."
"You could put the dinner back in your pocket," said Jonathan, "or you could leave us here and just visit us two or three times a day to bring us fish."
"I'm not sure about that," said Rebecca, "unless you stop them putting red vegetable matter on the fish," and she carried on trying to lick the red stuff off her nose without tasting it. "You might not have so many arguments with those you love," she advised in the fashion of an agony aunt in a women's magazine, "if you brought nicer fish home with you."
Donald took another cigarette from a packet and offered it to Rebecca. "Do you want a fag?"
"I don't know. Is it a fish?"
"I don't think you're old enough," Ronald continued without understanding, "so I'll have to smoke it for you."
"Why do people do that?" Rebecca asked.
"What?" Jonathan had been looking for birds.
"Put stuff in their mouths and set fire to it, then throw it away afterwards."
"I'm not sure. Maybe it keeps them warm."
"I don't know why I smoke the damn things," said Donald, "maybe they kill the germs. They're certainly killing me." He coughed as an illustration. "Hear that? I'm half dead already."
Donald wolfed the last of the fish and chips, screwed up the greasy newspaper wrapper and hurled it at a litter bin. It bounced on the rim of the bin and then, to his astonishment, fell into it. "Wow, two points." Donald awarded himself a score. "Donald McRonald two, Arsenal nil, how's that?"
"You're not supposed to say how's that when it's football, only cricket," Jonathan put in.
Donald caught sight of Jonathan's critical expression. "Arsenal fan, are you? Don't come near me, I don't want to catch it."
Donald, Rebecca and Jonathan looked at each other peacefully as the last of the cigarette burned away. Then Donald turned to Jonathan and said, "Come on, pussy cats. Let's go to my house. We can be warm and talk about everything to each other."
Chapter 3.Don’t cry, my love
There were no lights switched on in Eric's room. The window was open and some light from street lamps and car headlights streamed onto the ceiling. Lucie was sitting on the sofa, beautiful and naked from the waist down, Eric was sitting beside her seeming agitated about something, and in the corner of the room the first few bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony were playing because that was the signature tune of The Frog Show.
"What's wrong?" Lucie's self confidence was ebbing. "Don't you want to? Oh, Christ, you aren't gay, are you?"
David Attenborough's distinctive, regal voice spoke to the room as the great symphony faded. "We begin our journey this evening in Surbiton, where only last Tuesday an expedition sponsored by the Surbiton and Esher Museum of Cardigans discovered a colony of over a million of these enormous, distinctively shaped Legless Salami Frogs." A Legless Salami Frog appeared and rolled along Platform Three of Surbiton railway station, chirruping and squawking as it went along. "This Legless Salami Frog is doomed," Attenborough added funereally as the poor little animal fell off the edge of the platform into the path of the 10.35 to Weybridge and got run over, "because, having no legs, it is unable to get out of the way of oncoming trains."
"Just a moment, I'm not gay. At least I don't think I am, but nobody ever offered. I just need to do something, that's all."
"Is it more important than frogs?" said the television.
"No, it isn't more important than frogs." Eric cursed the day he'd parted with the money for a smart TV. "Frogs are vital to the ecosystem of our planet. But just at the moment I find the thing that I want to do more interesting than frogs."
"You're mistaken. It isn't."
"Well, I'm going to do it anyway." Eric ferreted in a cupboard and found a box of Swan Vestas, and he explained the reason his agitation to Lucie. "I can't believe that Donald McRonald is the only person in the world who can make his own head explode."
"But if there are more than one, that's no reason to believe that you're the other one."
"Lucie, I believe that everybody possesses at least one extraordinary talent."
Lucie considered this. "You can walk upright, which in evolutionary terms is a terrific accomplisment. Think of other animals. Snakes, for instance, have never managed to do it. You and your ancestors have only been able to walk upright for the last hundred thousand years or so. Before that you were crawling on your hands and knees, trying to avoid the snakes."
"Do you remember that television programme Heroes?" Eric was entirely convinced of his own sanity as he explained, "Every character in that series had one superhuman talent. Isaac Mendez had the ability to paint the future. Claire Bennet had the ability to regenerate herself. Peter Petrelli could fly. Claire Bennet's father Noah could probably do something superhuman as well, but I can't remember what it was. And between them they managed to prevent the entire world from being blown up, or worse, becoming subservient to Terry Wogan. Lucie, I…
"It's just a television series, Eric. Things like that don't really happen. People can't really fly or regenerate. In real life you need a special superhuman power just to have some money left in your current account at the end of the month."
"The Luminous Frog, found in the parched and roasting deserts of Tooting, contains so many photons that it can be in several places at once." There was some evocative music as a film showed the Luminous Frog creeping up behind a milkman on Tooting High Road. "It attacks its prey by biting off its head, its tail and all its legs at the same time." The frog suddenly lit up like a light bulb. It divided itself into six different identical sestuplet frogs, and each sestuplet attacked the milkman simultaneously. Having overwhelmed the milkman and left him for dead on the pavement in front of a small crowd of horrified onlookers, the sestuplets reassembled themselves into a single Luminous Frog, seized a container of milk from the milk float and hopped off into the distance with it.
"Good Lord," said Lucie, "just look at that extraordinary frog."
"See?" said the television, "I told you how interesting it was going to be."
"Watch this." Eric struck a match and held it to his right ear, yelped with pain, dropped the match on the floor and stamped on it to put it out. "Ouch! Oh, God, that hurt."
"Well, it was a jolly stupid thing to do, wasn't it." Lucie could scarcely believe what Eric was doing.
"There's obviously a trick to it," Eric surmised correctly.
"Try the other ear."
"Good idea." Eric struck another match and held it to his left ear, stifled a scream and waved the match around to make it go out. Then he tossed the spent match into his waste paper bin.
"That nearly worked, didn't it," said Lucie, trying to be obviously sarcastic.
"Did it? Well, yes, I suppose it did!" Lucie's intended sarcasm was lost on Eric.
"Try striking the match left handed this time." Lucie reached for some scientific engineerobabble. "Obviously the laterality of the ignition determines the combustion temperature of the match flame and, hence, the saturation vapour pressure of the ear lobe at the flash point."
"By Jove, you're right," exclaimed Eric, who had no idea what Lucie was talking about. He took the matchbox in his right hand and struck the match with the left.
"Now," Lucie held up her hand, "wait exactly three and one half seconds."
"One … two … three-Now!" Eric held the flame to his left ear lobe.
There was a slight pop. The ear lobe caught fire with a brilliant flame. The flame rapidly died away, a crackling and fizzing sound replaced it. Brilliant golden sparks began to issue from his left earhole. The crackling became more intense. Eric grinned and closed his eyes in anticipation. "See! I knew that—"
Then there was a tremendously loud bang. Eric's head shot up and hit the ceiling with a crash, bounced off the sofa and flew through the open window into the street outside. Against her better judgement Lucie leaned out of the window and saw Eric's head lying on the pavement, crying aloud "I did it! I did it! I've got a superhuman ability!" He paused to draw breath before clarifying his meaning to the gathering onlookers. "I can make my own head explode! Don't you realise how important that might be?"
"Donald McRonald can do that," said a middle aged woman in the crowd.
"Yes, he can," said Eric, miffed. "But I can do it as well!"
Inside the flat, Lucie looked at Eric's charred and torn collar, from which stinking grey smoke was still issuing in dense clouds. "My God, I can do it," said the collar, as Eric's head reappeared, forcing itself up through the collar in the manner of a mushroom forcing itself up between two paving stones. "Some of us are man and some are superman, and I'm one of those supermen whose mission is to save the world from something or other."
"I don't think he's generally considered to be an imminent threat, is he?" asked Eric.
"Perhaps your mission will be vouchsafed to you at the time you are required to start doing it," suggested Lucie, "like on Mission Impossible."
"Well, yes, perhaps it will. But on the other hand, perhaps the world will be overtaken by some dreadful calamity, and I will only realise when it's too late that I could have stopped the disaster in its tracks by being in a certain place at a certain stage of the unfolding catastrophe and making my head explode."
"You'd best keep your eye open for opportunities, then," said Lucy. "And I think you'd better have a bath, too. Pay particular attention to your neck and ears."
"I'll come and sit in the bath with you," Lucie offered, "if you like."
"I'd really love that," said Eric. "My, what a night it's been."
When Eric and Lucie were settled in the bath and Lucie was carefully rubbing the soot off Eric's collarbone with Cusson's Imperial Leather and a flannel, there was a very loud knock at the door. "Eric? Eric?" It was Eric's neighbour Barbara Ellison. "Are you all right?"
"Bugger." Eric got out of the bath and started to dry himself off.
"Only I saw your head lying in the street outside," Barbara went on at the door, "and I wondered if you were all right."
Wrapped in a bath sheet, Eric opened the door. The cold air made him shiver. "I'm perfectly all right."
"What on earth happened to you?"
"Well, ah," Eric thought about revealing his amazing superhuman ability to his next door neighbour and decided it might be a bad idea to tell her about it. After all, she might turn out to be his sworn deadly enemy and nemesis, or even the very individual that he and a handful of other random people with apparently arbitrary supernatural gifts might have been placed on earth to seek, capture and destroy. "We had a little accident with the guillotine," he lied. "Nothing at all to worry about. No harm done."
"Do you need something to get blood stains off the walls and the carpet," Barbara offered helpfully, "because I bought one of them Stain Devils a few months ago when a Legless Salami Frog got run over in my living room, and the bottle's still about half full."
"Oh, no, it's all right, we put some newspaper down first."
"Gosh, how very sensible. A right mess that damned frog made. I can't think how it got here, all the way from Surbiton. I mean, that's miles and miles away, isn't it?"
"Oh, yes. I mean it takes a couple of hours on the bus. God's creatures are indeed remarkable, aren't they?"
"Eric!" A lilting voice came from the bathroom. "Are you going to shag me in the bath, like you promised?"
"Coming, my darling," said Eric, really meaning it. "Excuse me, Barbara, but I'm really cold standing here. Maybe I could call on you some time?"
"Of course." Barbara waved goodbye and walked off along the corridor. Eric climbed back into the bath as quickly as he could, and it took him a few minutes to stop shivering.
"How do you feel?" Lucie asked anxiously when she and Eric were alone in the bath.
"I've got a bit of a headache, and my neck has felt better on occasion, but there's nothing much wrong with me, especially when you consider that the French used to remove people's heads during their Revolution and the victims actually died of it."
"Perhaps you ought not to do it too often. Not at first, anyway."
"Really, I feel fine. In fact I'd quite like to do it again."
"Let's wait for a more opportune moment. There's still some charring under your left ear here." Lucie took the flannel again, dipped it in the bathwater and began to rub the soot off Eric's neck. "Now, while we're in the bath, warm, comfortable, and with nobody to disturb us, why don't you shag me?"
"All right," said Eric.
They settled on the sofa in the living room, having enjoyed the bath and the sex. Eric asked Lucie to sit naked below the waist again because he'd enjoyed looking at her and he would want to make love to her again soon. Lucie thought that was a nice touch, and she left her dressing gown open. The Frog Show was continuing on the television.
"The Computer Frog only evolved after the development of the personal computer," said David Attenborough, as one of the tiny grey animals sat almost motionless in front of a monitor and tapping the keyboard with its front legs. "It is the first creature to have developed the ability to communicate across the internet," and at this point the frog typed the word "Croak!" and depressed the Enter key. "Apart of course from a particularly common species of ape," David Attenborough added wryly.
"My word!" exclaimed Eric, "that's exactly what I have to do."
"What? Turn into a frog?" Lucie was nonplussed. "Shall I kiss you and see whether you turn into a frog?"
"No, no — of what earthly use would be the superhuman power to transmogrify myself into a frog when you kiss me?"
"I don't know. But you might as well ask what use is the superhuman power of making your own head explode."
"All right! All right. You were kissing me in the bath, and I didn't turn into a frog, so why should it be any different now?"
"Let me do it anyway."
Lucie kissed Eric and nothing happened. "See," said Eric, "it's strictly one superhuman power each. They're not all concentrated in one man, like Batman or someone."
Lucie was disappointed at not having the ability to turn men into frogs. "Let me try again."
Lucie kissed Eric again, and this time Eric turned into a frog. "I knew I could do it if I practised," said Lucie, happy at the thought that with very little effort she really could turn any man she didn't like into a frog.
"Ribbit?" croaked Eric, meaning "Do you think you can turn me back into a common species of ape?"
"I don't know. I never thought about how I was going to turn you back from a frog into the Eric I used to know and love."
"Ribbit!" said Eric.
Lucie tried to reassure him. "Perhaps the magic just wears off with time."
"Ribbit, ribbit!" said Eric.
"Of course I still love you," said Lucie, despite being unsure of whether she did or not. She doubted that the relationship in its present form had any long term prospect of a happy ending. "Come here." She kissed him, and nothing happened. He was still a frog.
"Oh, dear. Let me try again." Lucie kissed her frog again, and this time he was transformed back into a handsome Eric. Or, if not actually handsome, at least the recognisable Eric that he had been before.
"You're back," Lucie sighed, "I am so relieved."
"So am I."
"Do you think that was due to your magical powers, or mine?"
"I have no idea. As I was saying when you turned me into a frog and back out again, I need to tell the world that I have discovered my superhuman ability, in order that I shall be called upon in the event of some disaster that only a man who can make his own head explode can prevent."
"How are you going to do that?"
"I am going to broadcast my discovery. I shall send a squawk on Squawktalk."
"Isn't it a little premature? After all, you've only done it once."
"I am confident that I can do it as often as I want. I don't see why I should be unable to do it a second time, or a third, or even&hellip"
"I get the idea. Are you going to broadcast my preternatural abilities as well?"
"No, not unless you can convince me that turning people into frogs and back again is of any military or economic value. And besides, you've only done it once. Once in and once out."
"That's me told, then. Will anybody read your broadcast?"
"Probably not, but at least I shall have made the effort to send it."
The broadcast read like this. "squawktalk.com/eric: I've just discovered that I can make my own head explode."
"Are there any replies to it?" asked Lucie two hours later.
"Not a single one."
"Never mind." Lucie put an arm around Eric's shoulders sympathetically. "There haven't been many disasters in the last two hours. Why don't you squawk that your wife shags you in the bath?"
"Because it's interesting." Eric shook his head. "It's far too interesting to squawk. We would get hundreds of replies."
"Oh, yes. Do you want to do it again?"
"In the bath?"
"Sure. Best place. I can run another bath."
"I'd really enjoy that."
"Come on, then."
"The turning point of my life was a wet school sports day in 1973." Eric was sitting in the darkness of his living room and Lucie was beside him, naked from the waist down as Eric always preferred.
"I like sitting like this," Lucie smiled simply, "because I always know exactly what you're thinking about and what you're looking at." She put one hand in front of her crotch and said, "Close your eyes. Now, how many fingers am I holding in front of my comfort zone?"
"See. I had your attention. I even knew what you were looking at. Now, about the wet school sports day."
"In 1973. That was when things started to go wrong."
"Where was the school sports day held?"
"On the Winifred Mandela Sports Ground. There was a race track and a sand pit for jumping, and some sticks for jumping over. It was pouring with rain. I remember the cold and the rain and being soaked to the skin."
"Perhaps we could go there. Try to reconstruct the events of the day, gain insight into exactly what went wrong, and allow the problem to resolve itself."
"Like that film, ah, Rear Window.
"You mean Spellbound.
"Yes, I do. Spellbound. The patient has some repressed memory or mistaken concept. The psychoanalyst finds the cause of the problem and the patient is cured."
"You've lost me. Cured of what?"
"Cured of this not being life. This isn't life."
Why did schools have sports days, Eric ruminated. He had a theory which explained this extraordinary phenomenon. Well, his was a theory of two complementary elements. The first element concerned the nature of education itself. Really sports days only existed so that the teachers could sit outdoors and have a quiet cigarette and a cup of tea from a thermos flask instead of having to be indoors covered with chalk dust from head to foot and explaining to Simple Simon and Noisy Norma how you subtract seventeen from thirty-three for the hundredth time while the rest of the class got on with making and launching paper aeroplanes. Otherwise why would educational establishments spend a fortune not just acquiring and converting special buildings for education to take place in, but also on campaigning for existing special buildings to be demolished and replaced by new ones of the same size and identically equipped, and then go out of their specially designed and converted work places and head for patches of worn-out grass and cold mud and there run around in circles? If you enjoyed running around in circles, that was all right, although there was no obvious reason why running around in circles should be regarded as educational enough to justify a position in the school time table. And of those children who didn't enjoy running around in circles, or who did enjoy running around in circles but who were not good enough at it to be chosen to run around in circles on sports days and the like, many obviously enjoyed standing and shouting the name of one of their friends who was good at running around in circles.
Eric was one of the third category. He was one of those who neither enjoyed running around in circles nor yelling the names of those who did. He hated running around in circles, so the teachers made him run around in circles during sports lessons and then told him he wasn't any good at it and held him up to ridicule. He also wasn't interested in yelling the name of any friend of his who enjoyed running around in circles, because his friends were interested in more exciting and absorbing activities like watching television or eating or kicking each other or just about anything else. Being made to go to sports days and stand in the rain watching most of the rest of the school running around in circles or yelling made him bored, tired and thorougly miserable. What a waste of bloody time. Why did schools have sports days?
And the second element was that teachers are idiots.
Eric had no recollection of going to bed, but he woke up underneath a fluffy quilt with Lucie beside him.
"Are you still thinking of trying to find out exactly where your life went wrong?" Lucie asked him.
"I've got nothing more important to do. I'd love to know why things are going so badly."
"All right. Where do you want to start looking?"
"At the Winifred Mandela Sports Ground, I suppose."
"Just between you and me," Lucie confided, "I have no clue where that is."
"It might not even be there. It might have been transformed into Executive Residences during the intervening years."
"Do you think you can find the way there now?"
"I can find the school I went to, and I know the way from the school to the sports ground, so I suppose I can find the place."
"We'll go there today, then."
Lucie looked out of the window. It was bright and cold in the street outside, and on the pavement near a litter bin she saw a familiar body part. "Look, Eric, that's your head. It's still there."
"I don't need it any more," said Eric, "because I've got another one."
"All right. I'll go and dress. What colour panties do you want me to wear?"
"And a short skirt?"
"Thanks. I hope it's windy."
Leaving the door of the house, Eric picked up his exploded head and dropped it into the rubbish bin. "That's the most extraordinary thing I ever did," said Eric, "and I still have no idea what use I am going to put this ability of mine to."
"I guess most abilities are like that. If you can play a musical instrument or draw or kick a football with unusually great accuracy and power, does that make you useful in the event of a disaster?"
"If the disaster is Tottenham Hotspur losing two nil to the Arsenal," Eric said, "it would make you very useful indeed."
The General Haig Mixed Infants School was about two miles to the north. Eric realised that it still looked exactly the same as it looked forty years ago, when he was a pupil there. Eric led Lucie out of the front gate to the left, along to the main road, past a furniture shop and a clinic and then an electrical shop, and then up a side street. At the end of a side street was a gate and a notice, "Winifred Mandela Sports Ground, Closed For Ever Due To Cutbacks."
"Closed due to cutbacks," Eric mused, "who would have thought it?"
"Are you sorry that it's not still open?"
"Not at all. School sports days are pointless, unremitting misery and I'm glad the schools can't hold them here any more."
"But the children need to get some exercise, don't they?"
"Yes. And if their parents turned the television off and the local authorities made residential streets safe to play on, the kids would get so much exercise that when they got home from school they would throw their homework down the toilet, wolf their tea, go out and play, and stay out until they came home exhausted in the middle of the night. I'm sorry for children who are stuck in front of the telly because if they go out of the front door they'll be run over by a speedster in a car? I just can't see the point of making children run around in circles for one day a year in the pouring rain."
The Winifred Mandela Sports Ground was not as Eric remembered it. It was overgrown with weeds and thorny bushes. One of the two high jump posts was still standing. The cinder track was recognisable, and so was the sand pit. Lucie held Eric's hand, realising that he was upset by the dereliction of the place even though he had never wanted to go there when it was well maintained. She stood close to him, and when she realised that nobody could see them from the street, she offered, "It's a bit chilly here not to be wearing a panty."
Lucie held a finger up and said "There's a north wind."
"I mean prove that you're not wearing a panty."
Lucie turned her back and raised her tiny skirt for a second, showing Eric her bottom. "See?"
"You're beautiful," Eric breathed.
"But I'm cold. So do you want to warm me up?"
Eric cottoned on. "I'd love to."
Lucie made love to Eric standing up, hidden from view by the tangles of weeds and shrubs. "That was good," said Lucie, "you're improving."
"I still haven't seen anything that tells me where my life started to go wrong, though," said Eric. "I was expecting to make a life changing discovery."
"Isn't discovering that I love you life changing enough?"
"Yes." Eric had never heard Lucie put the words I, love and you together in that order before. Not to him, anyway. He had just taken it for granted that Lucie enjoyed making love to him and they were, well, friends close enough to give each other the intense pleasure of love making without any actual long term attachment to each other. "I love you, too," he said, "and I don't think I really loved anybody before."
"At this date?" Eric shook his head for a moment and then pointed, "Yes. I was over there, I think."
Eric led Lucie to a spot in the lee of where the stadium used to be. On the ground was some broken concrete run through with lengths of steel strip, which had evidently formed part of the concrete platform of the stadium. "I was here," he said, "the teachers were in the stadium, the runners were over there, and the jumpers were right on the far side over there." He pointed to the sites of the two athletic activities.
"Who was running? Can you remember?"
"No, I didn't care, quite honestly. Some nice girls."
"Can you remember any of the girls?"
"Only by sight. All long legs and short skirts. And blonde hair."
Lucie prompted, "Did any of the girls have nice breasts?"
"I was 32b at that age. I wore Rigby and Peller. My nipples were like thimbles."
"Did you get lots of stares?"
"All the time. Going to school, wandering around the shops, even sitting in church. I quite enjoyed the attention. I got especially stared at on school sports days because I had the shortest skirt and all men get hard for schoolgirls."
"I can remember the girl with the shortest skirt here."
"Do you remember her name?"
"I used to see her around the school often but I never learned what her name was. Even if I'd known her name, she wouldn't have gone to bed with me."
"Do you think her name might possibly have been Lucie?"
"She was one year younger than I was… Good Lord. Were you there?"
Lucie smiled. "It was a wet day and my shirt was clinging to my upper body. I might as well have been naked to the waist. And I noticed a boy staring at me. He was bit over excited, as you might say. Tight pants. But he didn't realise that I was attracted to him."
"Had I only realised," said Eric, wistfully, "had I only realised that you felt attracted to me, my whole life would have been different."
"Why? I mean, I am sure that your entire life would have been different, and so would mine. But what would have been different? That's the really important question."
"I would have had you. Companionship, beauty, sex. Now I'm old and grey and worn out, and the sun has set on all those days I could have spent with you."
"You have me now. And I'm still not wearing a panty." She leaned very close to Eric and whispered, "I shaved in the bath. Did you notice?"
"Let's enjoy one another's company now, then."
Lucie caressed excitement into Eric, made him ready for sex, and made love to him again. It took a little longer this time. Lucie orgasmed powerfully and breathlessly. "Christ, I have been missing something," she told herself.
It took Lucie many minutes to recover from the physical shock. She brushed herself off and asked Eric, "Do you want to go and stand where I was jumping?"
"Yes, I'd love to be reminded of it."
"Come on, then. I was in that corner of the field."
They picked their way across the grounds to the one standing high jump pole. They searched for a moment and found the second pole, stood it upright and set the lugs to four feet eight inches. "I used to jump that," boasted Lucie, "do you think I can still do it?"
"You were a strong girl, obviously." Eric was impressed. He saw the bar lying nearby on the grass, and he observed, "Well, there's the bar. Do you think you can still do it?"
"I'll try. If I can do it with my clothes on, I'll jump it naked for you."
There was not much room among all the weeds to run up, but Lucie found a strip of about ten feet of ground, rushed to the bar and completely failed to get off the ground. She tripped and barely managed to stop herself falling, turned and tried again from further away. This time she kicked the ground away in exactly the right place, sailed over the bar and turned towards Eric with a triumphant smile. "See?" she said. "I can still jump four feet eight."
"I didn't think I'd be able to do that," she said cheerfully, "and I did promise you I'd do the jump naked, so hold my clothes." She took off her coat, ripped her sweater over her head, unzipped her skirt, and stripped completely. The downy hair on her skin glistened in the bright sunlight. Lucie backed away from the bar, ran at it, kicked the ground and sailed over the bar gracefully. She was barely able to believe how easily she had repeated her inter schools championship high jump of all those years ago. Eric was stunned by her beauty and spent as long as possible handing Lucie her clothes. She wrapped herself up in them again, carefully leaving the sweater and coat until last so that he could admire her breasts. "I can still do the jump and get the stares," she boasted.
Chapter 4.I'm forever blowing bubbles
The two paramedics sat in the hospital WRVS tea room ruminating over the patients of the day. "I had hardly got as far as explaining the significance of the millenial prophecy," said the older one, "and she punched me up the bracket."
"Can't say I blame her," said the younger. "People aren't interested in your religious opinions. Don't you get it? They just want to get to the hospital and have their wounds stitched up."
"They should be less concerned about their brief and fleeting earthly lives and more worried about where they are going to spend eternity," insisted the older. "It is better to enter the Kingdom of Heaven with one broken ankle than to have both ankles intact and be cast into perdition."
"You're in the wrong job," said his colleague.
"What job would you recommend, then?"
"Phlebotomist in the blood transfusion service."
"Up yours." The older man suddenly noticed a distinctive figure emerging from a lift onto one of the high balconies of the block of flats opposite the hospital. "Hey, look at that. There's a clown with a cat in each hand. You don't see that every day."
Donald McRonald managed to hold onto the cats and at the same time open the door of the flat which he shared with his boyfriend Cocoa. "I'm back," he said, "I couldn't live without you."
"I'm so pleased," said Cocoa, "I couldn't have borne life without you. I am so, so sorry that I… What was it I did? I can't remember."
"I can't remember either. And I think it was me that did it, not you."
Cocoa was a chartered accountant in a pin striped suit, a neatly pressed white shirt of the variety with a detachable collar and no breast pocket, and a club tie.
"Attraction of opposites," said Jonathan as Donald put him and Rebecca down carefully onto the carpet.
"Them and us both," said Rebecca.
"Do you think they have any fish in this flat?" Jonathan asked Rebecca about the most important thing first.
"I don't know. We could try asking."
"I think it might be more fun to go exploring."
"Where's to explore?" Rebecca sniffed the air. "I can smell fridge but not stairs. There's only this room and the kitchen."
"Kitchen sounds a good place to start. Is there cat food in the fridge?"
"I don't think so, unless they've only got tins that they haven't opened."
"How about fish?"
"I would've told you." Rebecca suddenly brightened, "Oh, look — in the corner of the room!"
"It's a television set. It's probably another advertisement for cat food. Honestly, I ask you, I don't understand why they find it necessary to advertise cat food. Everybody knows that cats eat cat food."
"No , it isn't, it's The Frog Show."
Rebecca wandered across the room, sat in front of the television set and watched unique specially commissioned footage of the Shoe Frog found in Hampstead. "There is more in nature than you can dream of," said Rebecca. "Do you believe in evolution?"
"No, I don't," said Jonathan, "because otherwise there wouldn't be any monkeys any more and they would have evolved into something useful."
"They give us cat food sometimes."
"Only because nobody makes cat food in tins that a cat can open with its feet."
"They're a sort of peace offering," said Donald, waving his arms about like a demented windmill, "because we had a quarrel. The one who walks out and slams the door and goes to the park and has a fag always has to bring a present for the other one and say it's a sort of peace offering. That's the rules."
"I see. Well, thank you very much, I feel perfectly peaceful and gruntled again now, and if you continue to pick fights and argue about everything for no reason at all at any hour of the day or night then I suppose I shall look forward to living in a sort of zoo."
"Oh, ha ha."
"Covered from head to foot in a variety of domestic animals."
"Don't you like cats?"
"Of course I like them. Everyone likes cats."
Rebecca, still absorbed in the brilliant red patent leather and teetering heels of the Shoe Frog from Hampstead, found Cocoa's last remark most gratifying. Everybody liked cats. Therefore, somebody would be sure to bring her and her new friend some fish sooner or later.
"But I'm a chartered accountant," Cocoa insisted, "not a pets' boarding house. I have work to do. Numbers to add up, reports to write, bankruptcies to file, fees to charge. I can't just rollick around the town from bus stop to bus stop like you do wearing a silly hat and huge boots and making my head explode for a living."
"Yes, you can." Donald was dreadfully hurt at this uncompromisingly cruel characterisation of him. "You just choose not to."
"Oh, for God's sake, how long do you think you'd last on your own?"
"How long would I last on my own?"
"Yes. How long would you last on your own? Go on, give me your best estimate."
"Years and years and years. I'm the one who makes the tea and fetches fish and chips when we're hungry and remembers what time The Frog Show starts and, er… I can't think of anything else. Oh, Gordon Bennet, I forgot all about The Frog Show. It has already started."
"You forgot about The Frog Show? Never mind, Donald, I forgive you."
"That is just so kind that I can hardly believe you just said it."
"It's only a television programme. And we've only missed a few minutes of it."
"Can I hold one of the cats while I watch it?"
"Yes, of course."
Donald picked up Rebecca and carried her gingerly to an armchair, where he sat down and cradled her gently in his arms and stroked her over her head. She gave a purr so loud that she startled herself.
"Can I have a fish?" she said, "Go on, give me a fish."
"Let's watch The Frog Show together," Donald cooed to her, "because frogs are amazing animald, and besides, it's a lot better than all those women having babies on Coronation Hollyenders."
"Fish? Fish? Oh, it's hopeless. Goddamned monkeys, they're so insensitive."
First Cocoa came and sat in the other armchair, and then Jonathan gave up struggling to get into the refrigerator, wandered back into the living room and sat on the floor looking at Cocoa's knees. "Is it all right with you if I'm uncomfortable and freezing cold?" he asked.
"I didn't realise frogs were so interesting," said Cocoa, as the Rattling Purple Frog appeared on the screen and started to hop about on the twigs of a privet hedge, making a loud rattling noise as it did so.
Jonathan leaped onto Cocoa's legs and settled down there. "Your legs are more comfortable than the floor," said Jonathan, "but not much. Ooh, look, a frog!"
"I thought you hated television and despised everyone who watches it."
"I do. At least this isn't Coronation Hollyenders. This programme's got class.
"No," said Rebecca, "Coronation Hollyenders was on earlier, while we were playing outdoors. You've missed it."
"Dogs!" said Jonathan.
The last few bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony brought The Frog Show to an end for another week. A moment later someone knocked on the door.
"Who's that?" asked Cocoa.
"I don't know," said Donald, craning his neck in the direction of the front door, "I can't see who it is because there's a door in the way."
"You'd best go and open it," said Cocoa.
Donald picked Rebecca up and put her carefully on the armchair. He opened the door and saw his neighbour Nora Grouse standing there in an untidy cardigan and jeans.
"'Scuse me," said Nora, "but do you happen to know where Margaret Pullet is? Because I was going to come and visit her."
"How can you come and visit her," asked Donald, baffled, "if you live here and she doesn't?"
"Oh, silly me. I got confused. She was going to come and visit me, not the other way around."
"Oh. I get it now. I don't know, I'm afraid. She didn't tell me where she was going."
"She's in the hospital," said Jonathan, "with a wonky paw."
"Are you sure she didn't leave you any hint of where she was going? Because I'm really worried about her."
"She was trying to climb a tree." Rebecca supplied the back story. "She looked hilarious."
"Yes. Fancy being a monkey and not being able to climb trees," said Jonathan, "Anyway, it's our job."
"Oh, you've got a cat. Two cats."
"Quite right," said Donald, "I thought they might lend our household a thin veneer of normality."
"And do they?" asked Nora.
There was a pause, and Donald gave a considered "Well, if you have to ask, then I suppose they don't. We'll have to try something else."
"Get one of those aspidistras and put it in the window," Nora suggested. "That'll look normal."
"That would be just so last century, Nora."
"Nora is in hospital," said Jonathan, but the monkeys didn't understand. In an effort to communicate this simple and important fact to them, Jonathan tried holding up one foot and licking it, trying to give the idea of sore ankle. When that didn't work, he tried dashing around in circles crying "Nee, naw, nee, naw" in the fashion of an ambulance rushing to an emergency. And when that didn't work, he stood by the door of the flat where Nora could see him clearly, scratching the door.
"He wants to go to the toilet!" laughed Nora, priding herself on her non existent insight.
Nora opened the door and Jonathan ran out onto the street, sat down and called her. "Good Lord," said Nora, "I do believe that pussy-cat wants me to go with him."
"At last!" Jonathan breathed to himself, "Sometimes I don't know why I bother. Is there intelligent life on earth, apart from cats, I mean?"
When Nora caught up with him, Jonathan walked ahead, leading Nora along the road as far as the hospital. "Is that what you were trying to tell me? Is Margaret in the hospital? Why didn't you just tell me?"
"Because you don't speak bloody English," said Jonathan contemptuously.
"I wish you could talk," said Nora.
"Talk? It's all you monkeys ever do."
Nora wandered up to the reception desk, where a clerk sat eating peanuts from a plastic envelope. "Hello!" said Nora.
"May I help you?" The badge identified the clerk as Olga Cerenkova.
Jonathan rubbed his head against Nora's ankle.
"Is there a Margaret Pullet in the hospital?"
"Ford Ward," said Olga, pointing. "Turn left, go down the road, second building on the left is the Nick Clegg building. First floor."
"Thanks." Nora picked up Jonathan and held him, reasoning that if you asked whether you could take a pussy-cat with you you'd be likely to get a refusal, whereas if you didn't ask whether you could take a pussy-cat with you they'd probably just think you were a harmless loon.
"Margaret?" Nora saw the ankle first and then the face of the woman attached to it. The ankle was encased in plaster and supported by a steel framework.
"Oh, you've brought my cat."
"Your cat?" Jonathan was horrified. "Things are going from bad to worse."
"You won't believe it," said Margaret, "but this cat actually came up to me and checked that I was still alive. And then when he realised how badly I had injured myself, he insisted on calling the ambulance. Of course, I had to dial the number for him."
"How is the ankle?" asked Nora.
"It's a bit broken. They said I shall be in hospital overnight. I'll be home tomorrow, though."
"Is there anything I can do?" asked Nora.
"Oh, I'm certain everything will take care of itself," Margaret nodded, "nothing that can't wait."
"Are you sure?"
"Well, you've still got the key to my house, haven't you?"
"In that case, could you do a couple of little things for me?" Nora was fool enough to nod, and Margaret went on, "Just a couple of little jobs. Feed the fish, turn the heating down, shut the bedroom window, clean the microwave, plant those tulip bulbs, vacuum the carpet and clear the tennis balls out of the gutter over the garage. There's a ladder in the loft under the hosepipe. That would be so kind."
A man in a green paramedic's tabard walked into the ward. "Good day," he said, "I just wanted to see how Margaret was after her little bump this morning."
"Oh, she seems to be getting along fine. I'm her friend Nora."
"Nora!" beamed the paramedic, "May I just share with you a few of the wonderful truths we learn from the Bible?"
"No, thanks," said Nora.
"The ways of the Devil lead to perdition," he intoned, "but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our L—"
There was only one way to deal with the situation. Nora gave him an almighty punch up the bracket.
"That's the way to do it," said Margaret.
"Fuck you," yelled the paramedic.
"I couldn't help myself," said Nora apologetically, and completely truthfully, as the paramedic left the room clutching his nose.
"Oh, don't worry about it," Margaret smiled back, "everyone else does the same. Nurse!"
"Is everything all right?" Nora asked Margaret as a nurse came up to the bedside.
"Is there any fish for my furry friend?" asked Nora. "He must be starving."
"At last, a monkey who can tell what's important from what isn't," said Jonathan quietly.
"Oh, he's beautiful!" The nurse stroked Jonathan's ears. "I'll see what the WRVS can do. The café's probably still open." She walked off.
"That's very kind of her," Margaret said to Nora.
"Isn't it just."
"If they make me jump up and catch it," Jonathan schemed, "I'll savage their ears off."
Rebecca, sitting in front of the television watching Coronation Hollyenders, was the first to hear Jonathan padding along the street and scratching the door. She leaped up, ran to the door and waited for Donald or Cocoa to come along and open it. Donald seemed to take ages to get there and open up. Jonathan sauntered in.
"You're cold. What happened?" asked Rebecca.
"I took Nora to her friend. Margaret gave me half a fish finger. I reckon I've made a good and useful friend there."
"If I go and ask her, will she give me one too?"
"Maybe, provided you don't pose a threat to the birds that she so much adores."
"Shall we go home, or stay here?" Jonathan asked Rebecca.
"Let's stay here. It's warm and they've got a fridge."
"That's all we need," said Jonathan, and he curled up on the carpet with his tail covering his nose.
"I'm going to sit in front of the telly again and watch How Clean Is Your Mouse."
Jonathan yawned and closed his eyes. Rebecca padded over the television set.
It might have been two o'clock in the morning, or maybe even three, because cats can't tell the time. It was colder in the room now than during the evening. Jonathan heard someone moving and woke up to find Rebecca leaning heavily on him. The movements came closer and Donald came shuffling into the kitchen.
"Sorry," Donald said confidentially to Jonathan, "really, but I need a cigarette and a midnight snack. You can go back to sleep if you like."
Jonathan lay still but left his eyes open. He watched Donald reach into the fridge and grab hold of a plastic bag which smelled of fish. Donald put the bag on the floor in front of Jonathan, who managed to push his nose inside it and find a couple of pieces of cooked haddock. Jonathan began to chew it idly. Donald found a Dairylea cheese portion for himself, shut the fridge, screwed the wrapping paper up into a ball and swallowed the cheese portion whole. "That was delicious," he said, "and now I'm going out for a fag."
"It's the middle of the night!" Jonathan looked alarmed for a second. Then he said, "Oh, sod you. See if I care," and went on languidly chewing cooked haddock.
"I'm going out," Donald told Jonathan, "but you don't have to come with me if you don't want to. You can just stay here and keep your friend warm."
"That's nice of you." Jonathan settled down again. Donald picked the plastic bag up and put it back in the fridge.
A few minutes later Donald was walking quietly towards the park, holding matches and a cigarette packet, and wearing a different clown costume, this time in blue and green. He always found the night a happier time than the day. For one thing, there was less traffic. The relentless, brain-homogenising, ear-shattering racket of motor traffic was more or less abated at two in the morning, unless it was three, and he could hear people moving or talking. If a car did pass, ironically, it was only in the middle of the night that you could hear and see and smell how fantastically intrusive it was: the noise preceded it by a quarter of a minute sometimes, and in still air the stink of exhaust fumes persisted for half a minute or more after the car had passed. He could cross the road by listening for traffic, without the need to look for it. The alley, the towpath, the footbridge and the park were all empty. The bench was wet with dew, so Donald leaned against a tree for relaxation as he took out a cigarette and struck a match. The leaves of the trees rustled quietly. The gate creaked as it swung slightly in the wind.
Leaning against another tree on the far side of the park were a couple gently making love. Donald watched them quietly and tried to avoid attracting attention, as though two people making love in a park — or doing anything else in a park — had any reasonable right to insist on their privacy. He guessed from the sounds that came from them that the boy was a little over excited and the girl might be disappointed with his performance, but when their time came she moaned loudly for a while and she seemed pleased at the outcome. They relaxed together and held each other, then slid off quietly together and disappeared along the tow path. Donald noticed as they passed under the street lights of the towpath that the girl was wearing a tiny red nightdress and nothing else except shoes, as though she had been dressed for bed and had left the bedroom by climbing down a ladder because her disapproving parents, or her disapproving husband, had locked the front door and hidden the key. The young man with her was wearing what looked like football shorts and a black leather jacket. Donald wondered what story explained their needing to come to the park for sex, instead of using a bedroom, a hotel room or a railway carriage on a siding like everyone else.
Donald finished the cigarette, stubbed it out on the tree and dropped it. He looked up at the stars. Everyone in every television programme he had ever seen recognised all the stars and knew them by name, but he took a more creative approach. He invented constellations as he went along. Over there were five stars that made a shape like a chair. Beneath them there were two stars that looked for all the world like a tank and an enemy soldier. To the right there was a rowing boat with oars, and right of that were a tap and a bar of soap.
Donald examined carefully the star at the centre of the bar of soap. He was no astronomer but he felt certain that the star was closer to the tap than it had been last time he looked, and further away from the rowing boat. Which meant that it wasn't a star at all but a planet. He decided it was Saturn because Saturn had rings and was more interesting to look at than any of the others. As a child his ambition in life had been to be awarded a commission in the British interplanetary space force and persuade his quartermaster to billet him in a fine mansion of a dwelling place on the planet Saturn with piped fresh air to breathe and a huge picture window overlooking the rings. He had no idea whether the rings were visible from the surface of Saturn during the day as well as at night. He did not even know whether Saturn had a surface or whether it was just a gas cloud that looked like a planet from a distance. He imagined sinking into a brown leather armchair in his living room, clutching a wine glass half full of some delicious liquid, looking out from the picture window across a landscape rather like that of Oxfordshire but populated with strange alien animals, under a royal blue sky flecked with white fluffy clouds and the rings shimmering white in the distance.
Do I want another cigarette, he asked himself. He decided that his lungs would never stand up to the damage. Instead he wandered idly to the tree where the two young lovers had been copulating, sniffed the tree for the girl's perfume, and picked her panty up from the floor. It was red satin, matching her lingerie. He put it into his pocket. Donald was, like most men, very sensitive to perfume and underwear, and having breathed her perfume and examined her panty he felt that he knew the girl's entire psyche. She was older than he had first guessed, creative, meticulous, self aware, poised, maybe a writer or — no, he had it: she was a cartographer. A lover of landscapes and shapes, an explorer and a painter at the same time. A careful and inventive lover. Good at athletics and dance. Her boy friend had indeed chosen wisely or luckily.
Donald was in no hurry to get home. He was used to nocturnal ramblings, as he called them. Sometimes he wondered whether he was really half cat. After all, he did go out in the night and walk about for hours together, and he did like eating fish. He left the park and stood on the canal bridge. There he stopped again and looked down at the moving water, noticing some bubbles blown by fish and a couple of floating wooden clothes pegs. Who on earth would be outdoors in the middle of the night throwing clothes pegs into the canal? Life was just as full of questions as the world was full of idiots. He heard footsteps coming from behind him, and he turned to face the oncoming walker. "Nora?" He spoke quietly, trying not to scare her. "That is you, isn't it?"
It was. Accustomed to the silence, Nora jumped visibly. "Gosh, what are you doing here? Have you locked yourself out, or something?"
"Oh, no. At least, I don't think I have. I'm often awake in the night, so I come for a walk. They don't seem to lock this park."
Nora had caught up with Donald now, and she stopped to talk. "I spent a while talking to Margaret."
"Where is she, then?"
"She's in the hospital. She hurt her ankle, that's all. When I came out of the hospital I realised I'd missed the last bus home, so I am having to walk."
"I can give you a couple of quid to get you home in a taxi, if you need it."
"That's kind of you but I'm nearly there now. I'm not going to my own house anyway. Margaret asked me to look after her flat for the duration, so I'm going there."
"We could walk together." Instinctively Donald took hold of Nora's hand, and she didn't seem to mind. "It's a long time since anyone walked me home," she smiled.
"Sorry about the clown suit. It's strange, isn't it: I just feel more comfortable in clothes like this than in anything else I've tried. Cocoa, on the other hand, can't get comfortable unless he's wearing a three-piece pin striped suit."
"What other sorts of clothing have you tried?"
"Nigel's suits, of course, but they make me dull and miserable. Women's clothes, like evening dresses, feel marvellous but they make me look awful. Uniforms make me cowed and regimented, and other circus acts like trapeze artists' tights and conjurors' frock coats just don't suit me at all."
"Oh, Donald — may I call you Donald?"
"Donald, I think you'd look really attractive whatever you chose to wear."
"That's a kind thing to say."
"Including," she leaned towards him and whispered intimately, "nothing at all."
"Are you setting me a challenge?"
They walked back to Margaret's flat together. Donald was walking naked apart from shoes, and Nora was wearing her usual clothes and carrying Donald's clothes as well. Donald tried to avoid the pools of light under the street lamps, trying to hug the shadows. Nora was staring at him and thinking how attractive he looked naked. Donald had never thought of himself as a joy to gaze upon, and he tried hard to avoid catching sight of his own reflection in windows as he walked past them.
Nora ferreted in her pocket and found the key to Margaret's flat. They had walked into the building together, past Donald's and Nigel's flat, and Nora was working the key into Margaret's lock. "It does go in," she said, trying to reassure herself as much as Donald, "it always takes a bit of wiggling, that's all. Oof! That's it." She turned the key one way and nothing happened, so she turned the key the other way and the door opened. The flat was completely dark. Nora felt for a light switch and clicked it.
"That was a magnificent half hour of public nudity." Nora congratulated Donald and still thought how much better he looked naked than in a clown suit. "Put some clothes on if you like."
Donald took his garments from her and put them on the floor in a screwed-up heap. "Do you have a dress I can borrow?"
"Of course. That short pink one would suit you." Nora pointed at a wardrobe. "There are pants and a bra somewhere."
"Thanks. I always think, however well I perform the rôle, that I look a bit ridiculous in a clown suit."
Donald was wearing Nora's clothes, and Nora was wearing her other clothes. Beside the window on the far side of the room stood an expensive looking telescope on a stand. "Margaret's a bit of an astrologer," said Nora. "She can see the future through this thing. She'll stare at the stars for hours and then she'll say, Margaret, the moon is in opposition to the planet Pluto and the Death Star is in conniption with the constellation of Mickey Mouse."
"And what does that tell her?" Donald was running his hands over his hips, enjoying the tightness and texture of the dress.
"I have to be more careful about dropping things and a friend is going to let me in on an important secret."
"Does she ever talk about the stars and the planets and the comets and the black holes and the dust clouds? Which are, when you think about it, the objects that one can see through a telescope."
"No, I don't think she ever has. She just prattles about the spatial relationships between various celestial bodies named after cartoon characters and domestic appliances."
"She didn't mention whether the star that looks like a bar of soap is closer to the star that looks like a tap than it was yesterday, did she?"
"I don't think I understand you, Donald," Nora understated.
"Well, there are two stars, and one of them looks like a bar of soap and the other one looks like a tap, and I think they're moving closer together."
"No, I don't think she ever mentioned that there was any displacement of the sparkling points of light that fill the firmament. She just said things like, if Roadrunner's Comet were to pass through the galaxy of Hoover Vacuum Cleaner then you may stand to benefit from a friend's generosity and kindliness."
"Would you mind, I mean do you think Margaret would mind, if I looked at the stars through her telescope? I'm sure I'd find it riveting."
"I'm sure she wouldn't mind. Go on."
Donald lifted the eyepiece, aimed the telescope roughly at the star that looked like a bar of soap, and peered through it. He couldn't see anything at all through it except a plain black sky. He couldn't even see street lights or cars when he pointed the telescope at the street. After trying again to see the stars, Donald decided to clean the further lens. He found that a black plastic lens cover was fixed across it with a length of plastic fibre, and then he managed to pull the cover off.
After Donald had removed the lens cover, he was able to see blurred stars. Turning the eyepiece brought a star into focus, and Donald found himself imagining that the star he could see was the Tap Star. "I think I can see the Tap Star," he announced, "but I'm a bit puzzled by the lens cover. Tell me, how long has Margaret owned and used this telescope?"
"Oh, for years now. Absolute yonks."
"Because nobody has ever taken the cover off the objective lens. The manufacturer fixed it on with plastic tape, and once you take the cover off, the tape breaks. She couldn't see anything through this telescope."
"That's extraordinary because her forecasts were terribly interesting."
"Were they accurate?"
"No, not in the least. Just interesting."
"Perhaps if she had been able to see the stars, she would have made more accurate forecasts."
"Yes, but nothing interesting ever happens to me. Never has, never will. So an accurate forecast would be as dry as ditchwater. I've never found a substantial sum of money, come to the aid of a friend, met a stranger from across a stretch of water, been successful in business, enjoyed a success by relying on the number thirty-one or even enjoyed good luck and happiness. Not so as you'd notice, anyway. Would you like a cup of tea? I think there are tea and milk somewhere. Maybe even a tap and a teapot."
"Being able to see the future, particularly with the aid of a telescope that provides no better a view of the heavens than Big Ben, is a great gift. But, Nora, do you have any supernatural talent or ability yourself?"
"I can sing a bit."
Donald tried not to ask Nora to sing and Nora tried not to start singing. She could hear a brass band playing Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and she wanted to join in with it, but she thought she might look a fool and sound awful.
"Apart from singing, do you have any other supernatural abilities? I mean, talents that have but that you wouldn't expect to find in other people."
"I can make tea."
"That's a good idea," said Donald, "I'd love some tea. Please do make some."
Nora disappeared into the little kitchen to make tea. She emerged carrying two cups of tea on a small tray, and beside the tea cups there burned a night light candle, but Donald noticed neither the candle nor the tea. Nora was wearing nothing but a transparent blue shirt, matching panties and pale blue high heels. Stripping and putting on the shirt had halved her age. She was prettier than he had noticed. She had perfect light tan skin, a slender body with hips slightly too broad, a flat stomach and firm, sculpted breasts. She might have been a strong twenty five year old.
"Does this suit me?" she asked.
"Very much. You look startling."
"I'm not used to being alone in this flat," breathed Nora, as though she had cast a spell on Donald and she was struggling not to break it. "Would you like to sleep with me?"
"Oh, Nora… I have a boyfriend."
"He's asleep. He'll not know unless you tell him."
"I mean, I have a boyfriend because women aren't really my thing, if you see what I mean. I know where I am with men, what they feel, what they want, because I can feel it too. I wouldn't know what to do with you."
Nora put her finger over Donald's lips. She had managed to put the tray on a table and switch the light off. She looked almost luminous in the moving light of the candle. "You don't have to worry about what to do with me," she said. "I can take care of myself. Just get into bed with me."
Chapter 5.Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer
"Let's discuss what we learned from that little expedition," said Lucy. She was using officious and bureaucratic sounding words but her intention was to be warm and open. "After all, we're still on a quest to find the exact moment when our lives went wrong, and it did rather seem as though nothing much really happened on the sports day."
"I missed you. You were there, taking part, looking bunny-girl sexy as you took part in a jump event, and I didn't even see you. There must be a moral there for me."
"Stitch in time saves nine?"
"How did you work that out?"
"I didn't. I only know about three conventional proverbs and that one comes first in the list. Half a loaf is better than no bread?"
"That means it's better to compromise than to lose everything you have. It's nothing to do with not noticing that beautiful women are jumping over bars in sports grounds."
"Opportunity only knocks once."
"Well, you didn't knock. If you had said, 'What's your name? I really like you, let's have an affaire,' that would have been knocking."
"All right then, better a dinner of herbs where love is than a fatted calf and hatred therewith."
"Isn't the deep meaning of that biblical saying not something to do with dietary supplements?"
"No, I don't think so. I think it's more to do with love being worth more than material possessions. I don't care too much for money, Money can't buy me love. Provided that by worth you don't mean its value expressed in terms of currency and market value." Lucie thought for a moment and then offered, "The phrase you want is, behold, I come like a thief in the night."
"You mean, you wore a sweater with black and white horizontal stripes, with a mask over your eyes, and you carried a sack full of jewellery and plasma televisions marked Swag?"
"No, it's a simile and nothing to do with the crude caricatures that appear in The Beano. It doesn't mean anyone broke in and stole anything. It means someone who loves you, someone who has come to save you from a fate worse than death, arrives close by and you don't even notice. So I come like a thief in the night."
"Well, it means I don't come as a conqueror or a king. Which is true enough."
"So we've been on site and we know that I missed you when you were taking part in the high jump, but the interesting question for me is what might have happened if I'd stayed at home."
"I'm sure we can try to find out." Lucy thought for a second. "Suppose you had skived off and gone home, what would have happened? Where was your home?"
"It wasn't far from here. We lived in a terraced house on Aylward Road. I had a key, so I would have gone in and sat in the living room and watched television, probably."
"Well, I guess we have to go there and then see what happens. Do you remember which bus goes to Aylward Road"
"Forty seven, I think. We have to go round the corner to catch it."
The forty-seven dropped Eric and Lucie outside the Methodist chapel at one end of Aylward Road, and they walked hand in hand towards the house where Eric used to live.
"What time did the school close on sports day?" asked Lucie, looking around for a clock.
"Midday. Then we had lunch in the school canteen, and then we had to go to the sports ground. Most days, lunch was awful. I can still taste the bitter spring greens and the soapy semolina pudding."
"Oh, God, don't remind me of it."
164 Aylward Road was a Victorian terraced house that had stood, or at least failed to fall down, since before the turn of the nineteenth century. The two of them stood before it wondering whether anyone was at home. Eric rang the doorbell, wondering what the householder would say to a scruffy middle aged man who wanted to come inside and watch television because he thought something interesting might happen but probably wouldn't.
Eric rang again, and waited, and then he told Lucie that there wasn't anybody at home. "I know how to get in without a key, though," he added, "because I used to live here."
"Lead on, then."
A few houses along Aylward Road there was a gap between two houses, barred only by a rotting wooden gate which had been painted green around the time of the First World War. Eric pushed it open and it fell apart. After Lucie had stepped across the wreckage, Eric carefully reassembled the gate. He left it looking reasonably gate shaped and then realised that, of course, the only way back to Aylward Road was through the same gate. The houses had tiny back yards, and at the back of those was a narrow pathway, used many years ago by the dust men to collect waste and rubbish. The path was overgrown with brambles on both sides and Lucy was grateful for the thick coat which saved her arms from being lacerated.
"This was our house." Eric pointed to one of the houses. He noticed that it still had an outside toilet and the rickety wooden fences on either side of the backyard. "It's exactly the same as when I left it."
"How long ago was that?"
"I make it thirty two years ago."
"And how do you get in without a key?"
"There's no lock on the back door." Eric turned the handle of the back door and opened it. "Anybody home?" he called, just to make sure. "The path at the back was built a hundred years ago," he explained, "there aren't any dustmen any more — the dustmen disappeared when the council built the sewers. The new owners might not even know the path is there."
Lucie's eyes accustomed themselves to the dinginess. "This is the kitchen," she said, "and I don't think anybody lives here."
"Why not? Maybe the owner likes places that," Eric tried to seal his nose shut against the smell, "reek of damp and don't have any furniture."
"He'd have a few kitchen utensils, surely? There's nothing in any of the cupboards."
"I suppose that if I had come home from school at about one p.m., I would have gone to the living room. That's through here." Eric led the way through a door into the living room. "There's a sofa. I guess I would've sat on the sofa and watched TV. You could sit with me. Or you could sit on the floor in the corner of the room and pretend to be a television. I would only have sat here watching it and pretending to do homework. I wouldn't have done much."
"I could pretend to be The Frog Show."
"Go on, then."
Eric took a seat on the living room sofa while Lucie sat in the corner of the room and sang the first eight notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. "Tonight we take our cameras to see the strange sights of Aylward Road. In the garden of Number 164 lives a Pole Frog. He's about six inches tall, cylindrical, and has an outside diameter of about three quarters of an inch. His extraordinary brilliant yellow colour means that he has to spend every day hiding under a bush in order to avoid being eaten by crocodiles—"
The doorbell rang. "Oh, piss," said Lucie, "that's probably the owner."
"It can't be the owner. Owners have keys. They don't ring the doorbell."
Eric went and opened the front door. Parked in the street outside was an ambulance, and standing at the door was one of the ambulance crew wearing a green tabard and carrying a canvas bag, as though attending an emergency.
"Good afternoon," said the ambulance man, "I'm here to tell you about all the wonderful things we learn from the Bible."
"No, thanks. I'm watching The Frog Show."
"You can't be watching The Frog Show. That was on two nights ago."
"I don't have time to explain, because The Frog Show is so interesting that I don't want to miss any of it.
"The end of the world is scheduled for two a.m. next Thursday. The dead shall rise from their graves and we who believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ shall be caught up and meet him in the air—"
Eric silenced the tirade with a punch up the bracket.
"Told you nobody would be interested," came a voice from the cab of the ambulance. "That's fourteen punches up the bracket today, and you've only been to twelve houses."
Eric shut the door, sat on the sofa again and watched Lucie impersonating The Frog Show again.
"Cillit Bong cleans phones, walls, light bulbs, hedgehogs, toothbrushes and children. Only £3·50 from your local hardware store," Lucie shouted. She drew breath, sang the first eight bars of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony again, and resumed the part of David Attenborough. "In the garden shed we found Marmaduke's Frog. This adult specimen is a dark brown colour because it eats Mars bars, and like all members of its species, it belongs to Marmaduke. Every Friday after closing time it performs an extraordinary ritual—"
The doorbell rang again. The ambulance had gone. A girl in school age was standing at the door clutching a satchel and looking embarrassed. "Please, is this Eric Bear's house?"
"Yes," said Eric, "it is."
"Can I talk to him"
"You're talking to him already."
"Oh, I'm surprised," she said, "I didn't recognise you."
The girl might have been fourteen or fifteen. She was small for her age, with slightly dark skin and golden hair. She spoke in a way that betrayed intelligence as well as shyness and deep thought. Eric was not sure what to say or do, so he offered "Would you like to come in? There's not much in the house," he continued apologetically as she came into the living room, "but there's a sofa. We can sit together. You've come a long way." He realised that Lucie was no longer in the room.
She shook her head. "Only from Haig Infants." Haig Infants was the General Haig Infants School.
"Weren't you supposed to be taking part in Sports Day today?"
"Yes but, well, you see, my friend Janet told me you were skiving off home and I decided I'd rather spend the day with you rather than getting wet and cold at Sports Day."
"You've found me, anyway. Won't you get in trouble for skipping Sports Day?"
"Probably. Miss Gray will cane me, I expect. She always does, for any excuse that comes along. She's a bitch."
"Does it hurt?"
"The first few times it hurt. I've got used to it now. I quite like it, to be honest, I'm looking forward to it. I get feelings,, if you know what I mean."
Eric looked around frantically for Lucie but she was nowhere to be seen.
"My name's Lucie, by the way," said the girl, smiling and looking deeply and steadily into Eric's eyes. "Do you know, I think you're the only man I have ever truly loved."
"Miss Gray will cane you for coming to see me," said Eric, not sure how to feel about this.
"Oh, yes. She gives it really hard. I still have the marks from last time. Want to look?" Without waiting for an answer she turned, lifted her skirt and showed Eric four deep scarlet lines which were clearly visible though the thin material of her cotton panty. "Those marks really sting. Bitch!"
Eric was still casting around for something to say in reply. "Do they give you feelings?"
"Oh, yes. Deep twinges and pangs of excitement. I don't know," and she turned her still and entrancing gaze onto Eric again, "what to do about them. If you were to stroke my bottom with your hand, that might soothe the pain for a short while."
Eric didn't say anything. Lucie lay face down across him and he laid his hand on her skirt. Lucie settled into position and Eric's hand made light circular movements on her bottom. As long as she kept her clothes on, he thought, nothing much could happen.
"Oh, that feels nice. Press a little harder, it makes me throb! Ooh." Lucie pulled her skirt up, showing her panty. "Those marks are going to need a lot of soothing. There's some cold cream in my satchel. We could use that."
Lucie's satchel lay on the floor near the sofa, where Eric could easily pick it up. As he held the satchel he noticed its strong leathery smell, which in the presence of such a beautiful girl he found powerfully erotic. He unbuckled the short straps that held the satchel closed and found the jar of cold cream inside. He put the satchel carefully back on the floor, unscrewed the top from the jar, and sat looking at the cream while his left hand found Lucie's bottom again and resumed the circular stroking movements.
"Don't be shy," Lucy entreated, "the cream will take all the nasty, stinging pain away. Take my panty down and spend as long as you like spreading cream over my bottom." Eric slid Lucie's panty down to her knees, dipped two fingers in the cream and began to apply it to the red lines. Lucie winced, "Ouch!" as the cream went onto the marks, then breathed out with a sigh, "Aaah!" as Eric's hand moved to the untouched pale skin. "I'll probably get six tomorrow for skiving off the sports day," said Lucie cheerfully, "so stay at home tomorrow and I'll come to you for tender, loving care afterwards."
"I will," said Eric, ignoring the practical difficulties. "If that bitch canes you I'll soothe the pain away."
"My friend Janet skived off Sports Day too," said Lucie, "so if she gets the cane as well, would you consider putting cream on both of us? Because that cruel bitch really makes it hurt."
"I could," said Eric, "if Janet wants me to." He dipped his fingers in the cream again and started rubbing it along the lines, silently enjoying Lucie's wincing and thrashing around on his knees. "Oh, ooh, ouch! Keep on doing that, yes, there, exactly there — Ouch, oh!"
Lucie settled again as Eric found the tops of her thighs and applied the cream there. "You are such a kind man. Those burn marks are giving me such strange feelings, they really will drive me wild soon."
"You know," Eric dared to get a little closer to the tops of Lucie's inner thighs, "you are giving me strange feeling as well."
"Put cream on the cane marks," said Lucie reprovingly, and Eric retreated his fingers to those four scarlet stripes on her bottom. "I don't really need it any lower down. Oh!" Lucie squeaked with pain as Eric pressed one of the bruises deliberately firmly, "that was marvellous. Oh!" she shrilled as he pressed it again. "Kiss me." She turned herself face up on Eric's knees and kicked her panties off. Eric kissed her soft mouth and rubbed her breasts through her school shirt. She allowed him to stroke her crotch lightly. As Eric's fingers teased and aroused her girlie parts she reached her orgasm and screamed.
It was early evening as young Lucie, fully dressed after hours of love and nudity, kissed Eric a passionate goodbye.
"You're beautiful," said Eric.
"I'm still a virgin," Lucie replied, "so don't worry."
"Next time," said Eric.
Lucie turned, left, and walked off down the street. Eric was still looking after her as he heard his woman friend on the stairs.
"So now you know what would have happened," Lucie smiled.
"Yes. My entire life has been blighted because one way or the other I didn't meet the right woman until three weeks ago."
"Maybe we can sort it all out now."
"Where do we start"
"Back at your flat, I expect. We've been lucky, nobody came home while you were shagging me. And by the way you're an expert at non penetrative sex. I can still remember that session?"
"How can you remember a session that didn't take place because I was somewhere else at the time?"
"That's metaphysics. Let's go back to your place and eat something."
"Yes, of course. You were a beautiful schoolgirl."
"And you were a very desirable boy, too. It's strange, isn't it, how you always regret things that you didn't do more than the things that you did. If I had just stayed after the jump at the sports day I could have seduced you in the bushes."
"Could you have seduced me?"
"Well, think about what happened an hour ago. You were a push over. I didn't even have to wear my sheer, tight panties. Just cheap cotton ones, and you couldn't resist."
"I love the way those panties take the shape of the girl's body. Face down they pick out the dividing valley betweeen the cheeks. And face up they just hint at the opening."
"How often do you think of girls' openings in a day, Eric?"
"I never really stop. I think that's one of the reasons I feel so close to you. You go around the house naked from the waist down."
"I shall have to start wearing revealing panties. You might find them more exciting than bare skin."
"Can you find panties for me too?"
"Do you want to wear panties?" Lucie was a little taken aback, but when Eric nodded she added happily, "I'd enjoy that. I've got lots — we can share them. How about a bra, too?"
"I'd love to wear one."
"Come on, then."
As they walked back to his flat, Eric tried to make himself sound casual and asked, "What happened when you went back to school?"
"Miss Gray sent for me and caned me. A pity I didn't know you back then. I just had to suffer on my own."
"So now I know what would have happened if I'd stayed at home instead of going to the sports day," said Eric.
Lucie was sitting on the sofa beside him, naked from the waist as her preferred. "Does it seem like the sort of decision that might have changed your entire life?" she asked him.
"No, but then neither does a butterfly deciding to flap its wings in Central Park."
"Where's Central Park?"
"New York, I think. There's a saying, 'A butterfly flaps its wings in Central Park and starts a hurricane in India.' Or is it Indonesia?"
"Quite. Or Inverness. Anyway, Jeff Goldblum says it in Jurassic Park. It's supposed to be derived from the axioms of chaos theory."
"Chaos theory as in the highly fashionable branch of modern mathematics?"
"It explains creation, evolution and the actions of the government. The only theory that could explain it is that branch of human endeavour which describes and predicts the payment of income tax refunes, the excavation of holes in the road in Edinburgh and everything in between as well."
"And people meeting each other forty years after they were at school together."
"Maybe. I was off school that day."
It was the wrong evening for The Frog Show and the best programme on television was Look At Me, I've Taken A Wobbly Film Of Someone Doing Something Daft And Falling Over with Jeremy Beadle, so they didn't watch it. For some reason they drifted across to the window. Eric slid his arm around Lucie's waist.
"The stars are bright," Eric observed.
"Pity they're so far away."
"I've always been fascinated by the way the Greeks saw them," said Eric, "grouped into constellations. Here there's a plough, there's a hunter with a sword, and somewhere else is a bear."
"The Greeks could see the stars better than we can, because they didn't have street lights."
"But how did they see animals, people and agricultural machinery in the stars? I don't get that."
"They just looked up and used their collectuve imagination. For instance, over there… Don't you think that star looks like a tap, and that one near ot looks like a bar of soap?"
"I hadn't seen it before, but now you come to mention it, yes."
Lucie looked out of the wimdow silently for a moment and then said, "Watson! The police have missed a vital clue."
"What are you talking about?" Eric was genuinely curious.
"Evidently Eric had been cleaning the windows."
"Good grief. How can you tell?"
"Elementary, my dear Watson." Lucie was bubbling over with laughter. "The ladder's still leaning against the window."
"Here. I haven't done this since I was a little girl. I'll pretend I'm Rapunzel and this house is the castle. Go to the bottom of the ladder just in case and I'll climb down it."
"With… with everything on view like that?"
"That would be fun but I don't want to tease and excite the neighbours just at the moment."
"Go on," Eric urged her, "it's dark. You can get away with it."
"Go and hold the ladder. I promise you'll be pleased."
Eric stood at the bottom of the ladder and began his traditional call. "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair."
Lucie strode out of the window onto the top of the ladder. Eric gasped. She was wearing a short babydoll and red high heels, clambering down the rungs with deliberate slowness. Neither of them saw the policeman approaching the foot of the ladder.
"Hello, ’allo, ’allo," he said, "what's all this ’ere?"
"We're playing a game," said Lucie, thinking the explanation such as it was would come better from her, "I'm his girlfriend and my husband is jealous and he's nailed the front door shut, so this is the only way out."
The officer considered this, looked at Lucie in her babydoll, decided that she was technically decent, and said simply, "Mind ’ow you go, then," and continued his slow patrol of the dark streets of the capital at night. This would be a damned good job, he thought, if it weren't for the criminals.
"Now that you've got me out of my jealous husband's house," Lucie panted, keen to keep the game going for as long as she could, "what are you going to do with me?"
"Go back up the ladder—"
"For my cruel husband to beat my bottom to a pulp with his leather whip? How could you?"
"He's probably down the pub."
"Nonsense. He is already looking for me, sniffing the air for my perfume, studying the ground for my heel prints. Hide me, hide me! Take me to the park , hide under a tree with me and make love to me there, It's the least adventure you can give me."
"Quickly, then. There's not a moment to lose."
Eric was still wearing his leather jacket and cheap trousers as he ran hand in hand with his beautiful Rapunzel down the streets and along the path to the park. There was one obvious tree away from the light. They ran to it. Lucie was giggling and screaming as she leaned her back against its trunk and Eric leaned against her. They kissed madly.
"Look," said Lucie suddenly into Eric's nearby ear, "over there, smoking a cigarette, isn't that Donald McRonald?"
"I think it is."
"It definitely is. He's going to see us making love."
"Yes! Do it now. Go on, stop making me wait like that. It teases."
Lucie whispered to Eric, "Standing up is best if I wrap my legs around your waist."
"How do you know?"
"I read More under the desk in home economics lessons when I was in the third form."
"Didn't the teacher notice?"
"Of course she did. And yes, she did."
"Send me to Miss Gray. And yes, she did."
"Good. Naughty little girls need firm treatment."
"How about girlfriends?"
"Good. I look forward to it. Gosh, the thought of it makes me… Ooh! Harder. Yes!"
In the minutes afterwards Lucie closed her eyes and relaxed against the tree while Eric held her close."Donald noticed the same stars that I did," he said, "he's staring at them."
"I think he's noticed something." Lucie opened her eyes. "The bar of soap star is definitely closer to the tap star than it was yesterday. I'm sure it's sort of moved along."
"Do stars move?" asked Eric.
"Planets move. Stars stay where they are. So that's probably a planet."
"It's not the Earth, I'm fairly sure of that," Lucie counted on her fingers, "It's not Mars because it isn't red, and it's not Saturn because it hasn't got rings. But that still leaves six others."
"Five since they struck Pluto off."
"For adultery. Want to do it again? May as well be struck off for a sheep as a lamb."
"Yes. Your place or mine?"
Lucie giggled again, grabbed Eric's hand and began the walk back to his house. In one corner of the park Donald McRonald drew on his cigarette. He and Jonathan the cat watched them skip off together.
"Do you want to go back up the ladder or shall we pretend that we're normal and use the front door?" Eric had the key in his hand and really felt that using the front door would be the more sensible choice.
"Which would you prefer?"
"Let's go indoors normally. We don't have to behave normally once we're inside."
Lucy took her place on the sofa. "I'm not wearing panties so I don't need to take them off," she said in the quiet, seductive way that so enticed Eric.
"That's quite all right." For an instant they played a game in which Lucie tried to cover herself and Eric moved his head so as to see around her hands.
"Tell me, Eric," Lucie asked, covering and uncovering the area of interest so as to make Eric look alternately at her face and her crotch, "do you now think you know what went wrong with your life?"
"I have an idea that — don't put your hand in the way like that — my life would have been so much better than it has been, if only I'd met you a lot earlier."
"Perhaps you had other chances to meet me," Lucie suggested, "or perhaps I had other chances to meet you."
"I used to work in a shop on Saturdays. There was a draper's on Fore Street. I loved touching and feeling the fabrics."
"I often walked past it. Maybe I should have gone in there."
"Weren't you ever sent on an errand to buy, I don't know, fabric for a dress, or even a tea cosy?"
"Regularly. Tomorrow I shall have to try going there. Do you want to come and watch?"
"I'll stay here and let the re-enactment take care of itself. I hope it works out, though."
"Oh, come on. You don't want to watch yourself score?"
"I'd just be jealous of myself."
"Even though you'd have all those delicious memories afterwards and the chance of a lifelong loving relationship?"
"You just talked me into it. I shall be there."
Eric turned and looked out of the window at the park, the lights, the houses, the night bus, and the two stars that definitely looked like a bar of soap and a tap. He felt certain that the bar of soap was moving. Not visibly, but playing a celestial game of grandmother's footsteps faster than a star ought to move even if it was a planet. Then, looking longingly at the dark, scented space between Lucie's upper thighs, he sat beside her.
Eric was a little hesitant but he managed to ask the question that had been on his mind for a couple of hours. "Would there be any chance of re-enacting your meeting with Miss Gray after you were missed at sports day?"
"I thought you'd never ask. Of course we can re-enact it, and you can come with me. In fact I think Miss Gray had a soft spot for you."
"Somewhere in her directoire knickers, I shouldn't be surprised. Teachers do have crushes on their pupils, you know, it's not just the other way around."
Eric was wondering whether to invite Lucie to go to bed with him straight away or whether to offer the chance of some other activity first. "Shall I phone for a Chinese, or something? Are you hungry?"
"I'd like that. What's your favourite?"
"I'm not into rice much. It's tasteless and boring. I can't understand why Chinese people eat it. But I do like chicken and pork and crispy automatic duck."
"Beef with bean shoots," Lucie picked as Eric fetched the latest menu to find its way through his letter box.
"Fine. And they have a small wine cellar too." He picked one at random and suggested it.
"Yes," said Lucie, who didn't know what it was either, "that'll do nicely."
Lucie had turned the television on. It was Prisoner Cell Block G, the greatly missed precursor of a much loved and similarly named series about a prison somewhere in Australia. Despite the cries of "You wouldn't do that if Bea was here," "You mongrel!" and so forth, Eric heard a van pull up outside the house. He leaned out of the window and saw a young Asian man fetching two paper carrier bags of Chinese food packed in silver paper tubs. Eric leaned out of the window and called down, "You'll have to come up the ladder, mate."
The Asian man said something in reply but Eric didn't hear it. "Stairs are out of order," he called down.
"What?" asked the delivery boy.
"Stairs are out of order. You have to come up the ladder."
Lucie erupted into laughter and Eric put a finger to his mouth to silence her.
The delivery boy struggled to the top of the ladder and handed Eric the two carrier bags. "Twenty-five pounds seventy."
Eric handed over thirty pounds. "Here, keep the change. Would you rather go back down the ladder or shall I tie a rope around your neck and lower you gently to the ground?"
"Which is easier?"
"Being lowered on a rope is easier, but the trouble is, it will kill you."
"In that case," said the delivery man as he stuffed the banknotes into his pocket, "I shall struggle back down the ladder."
"Goodnight, mate! Don't look down."
"You get them bloody stairs fixed."
The man struggled back down the ladder, smacked his hands together to get the dust off the palms, and drove off in his van. Eric put the bags down and began to laugh helplessly. Lucie joined in, guffawing until tears came to her eyes and her tummy was beginning to hurt. It was ten minutes at least before Eric felt able to compose himself, find the wine bottle in the bag, and fill two glasses from it.
Chapter 6.When I grow too old to dream
Donald was unused to the sensation of waking up with a woman in the same bed. Nora was asleep, still wearing her shirt, panty and shoes, and she smelled of perfume and perspiration — didn't they call perspiration 'glow' when it came from a woman, because the Victorians thought it vulgar? — and what he guessed was conditioner in her hair. Donald had thought her lingerie so beautiful that he had untangled it, pulled it tight and smoothed it over her before they fell asleep. He reached down to her feet and gently stroked the glossy patent leather shoes, stroking the sole and the long tapering heel with his finger and thumb. Nora did not stir. She must have been tired out yesterday. He stroked the shoes again, lingering over the narrow tip of the heel. He had never slept with a woman who kept her stiletto heels on in bed, but he had spent hours imagining how intensely sensual it would be to wear them. Maybe she had high boots too, somewhere in a cupboard.
During the night Nora had made the running with teenage-like energy, and he had lain back, held her waist, kissed her mouth and her body and simply enjoyed being the object of her passion. Now he felt a sensation that was new to him: the simple pleasure of looking at her. The early daylight lit the room a greyish blue. She was lying still, breathing steadily and slowly, and either asleep or pretending. The sheet was around her shoulders. He pulled it down to uncover her breasts and her perfect, flat tummy. Nora did not appear to wake up. She was beautiful, queenly. Her face was not so much cute as intriguing: the face of a woman of experience who would be interesting to talk to. Her shirt was cut from transparent deep blue material and designed to cling to her curves and show her off. He had already learned to enjoy its coarse muslin-like texture and even the sound it made as she moved. He stroked her hair, feeling its slight dampness. She was still either asleep or pretending. Donald pulled the sheet over her again so that the slight chill would not wake her. Then he lay still and looked, and looked.
"Hello, you two." Margaret had turned the key in the lock deliberately quietly but didn't feel it would be honest to sneak around her flat trying not to wake Donald and Nora, so she opened the door and stood in the bedroom doorway. "It's all right, don't get up if you don't want to."
"Oh, Christ," Donald cursed quietly. Nora stirred and turned her head towards her friend in the doorway.
"She's beautiful, isn't she," Margaret whispered.
"Very. I am glad you introduced us."
"I introduced myself," murmured Nora, without opening her eyes.
"Ssh, I'm asleep."
Margaret closed the door and left Donald and Nora together in peace.
Two hours or so later the couple wandered into the living room, where Margaret was scribbling neatly in a notebook. "My predictions for the day," she said before they asked. Donald looked relaxed in Margaret's blue floral dressing gown, which he had found hanging behind the bedroom door. Margaret had put on a bra underneath her sheer shirt. Donald couldn't look away from her.
"Can you really predict?" Donald asked.
"I let you decide that," she replied without looking up, "predictions are always vague and you have to decide for yourself what they really mean."
"Can't you cast your predictions in unambiguous language?"
"Of course not."
Nora leaned across to Donald and whispered, "Would you like to take my bra off?" She turned her back to him and he slid the shoulder straps off and unclipped the bra so that it dropped to her waist, then onto the floor.
"That's nice," Margaret smiled, looking up at Nora. Donald picked the bra up and held it, stroking the straps and cups lovingly.
"Have you written any predictions for today?"
"Arsenal will defeat Newcastle by two goals to nil, with Gamete scoring with a spectacular cross in the eighty-eighth minute, and the lottery numbers will be 5, 6, 22… Is this really what you want me to do? Because I think it takes all the fun out of the lottery if you know the answers."
"Were those the answers?" Donald replied with obvious interest, "Of course I want to know the answers."
"I'd need a crystal ball to see the lottery numbers," said Margaret, "in advance, anyway. Not a telescope."
"Do you like my bra?" Nora noticed that Donald was still playing with it.
"Yes," he said, "it's a beautiful thing. Someone made this specially to emphasise the most beautiful part of a woman's body. Just as someone made your shirt to show off your hips and tummy."
"Do you think I look better with the bra, or without it?" Nora pouted.
"You're beautiful either way," said Eric, "truthfully, if you wear a bra then you're teasing, and if you take it off you're showing off your beauty, and I love you both ways."
"What's Cocoa doing?" Margaret asked pointedly.
"I know he's got a boyfriend, if that's what you're driving at," said Nora.
"How long have you two been together?"
"Just the one night," said Nora.
"I mean you and Cocoa," Margaret corrected.
"Oh. We met at school." Eric remembered their first time clearly. "Thirty something years ago."
"Perhaps I should invite him in for breakfast?"
Donald and Nora looked at each other. "Yes," said Nora, "let's do that."
Breakfast was awkward. Minutes passed. Nora, her breasts still proudly on show under the blue shirt, Donald and Cocoa sat around the table with cereal, yoghourt, scrambled egg and toast provided lavishly by Margaret. Margaret spent so much time in the kitchen that it was obvious she was staying away from the breakfast table on purpose. Nora wasn't really sure whether to say to Cocoa "Your boyfriend is fun in bed, isn't he?" or "Can you let me keep your boyfriend for a bit longer," so in the end she said "Your boyfriend is fun in bed so can I keep him for a bit longer?"
"Sure," said Cocoa, "please be my guest because he's an arsehole."
"For sleeping with a woman who offered?"
"No, of course not, you dick." Cocoa waved his hand to dismiss the thought. "Just because you're an arsehole, Don. What's her name?"
"Nora," said Nora.
"What's her name can have you for as long as she wants, bring you back afterwards, and then take you away again if she feels deep pangs of desperate loneliness in your absence. Don't you worry about me. I've got accountancy to do."
"Ooh," cooed Margaret, carrying a packet of muesli and a plastic box of milk to the table, "that's exciting."
"It certainly is. You take credit checking for instance. A vital business function that's far too often neglected and falls by the wayside. It only takes five minutes to do it right, but if you spend four minutes and do it wrong, where will that get you?" He didn't wait for Margaret to answer. "Up Carey Street without a paddle to stand on. That's where it gets you. Seen it straight from the horse's mouth, I have, thousands of times."
Margaret put the food she was holding onto the table and then took a place at the table beside Cocoa and as close to him as possible. "May I come too?"
"To my office?"
"At Cocoa and Sugar?"
Nigel gave the appearance of giving the question weighty consideration. "Yes, of course, you'd be welcome."
"I could make the tea. Or vacuum the carpet."
"It's all right, Margaret," said Nora, "you don't need to find excuses for him to take you, because Cocoa's already said yes."
"Vacuum the carpet with your ankle in that state? I don't think so," said Cocoa, "I think you'd be better off just sitting with me looking through sheets of figures that are all made up anyway and saying "Yes," and "Ah," and "Maybe we can classify this as an allowable expense under Schedule D."
"I'd be good at that," said Margaret.
"Then you're just the kind of person I need in the office," said Cocoa, "instead of arseholes like him over there. I don't need him at all. Have you got a bowler hat?"
"I'll get you one. They sell them at Marmaduke Pangbourne's Bowler Hat and Crystal Ball Emporium on Finsbury Square."
"If you're going to Pangbourne's," said Donald, trying to make it sound as if he had heard of the shop before, "can you buy a crystal ball for Margaret as well?"
"Yes, I should think so, Mister Arsehole."
Margaret cut a striking figure in Cocoa's office sitting up on a leather sofa holding a pencil and a reporter's notebook, wearing a black pin stripe miniskirt and a white satin blouse. Nigel fetched a manila folder from the filing cabinet in the corner of his office and plonked himself down beside her.
"Overhead allocation," he told himself quietly as he removed a couple of sheets of paper from the folder, "for Thresher and Grayne, which is combine harvester factory in Tottenham."
"Not many cereal farms in Tottenham, are there?" Margaret asked.
"No, not many, but this company exports all over London. Harrow, Edgware, Neasden, you name the place, they've sold a combine harvester there. Now look at this cost structure." He pointed with his pencil to two rows of figures in the middle of a sheet. "The paint shop accounts for…"
"Thirty per cent of fixed costs," said Margaret, surprised that the calculation was so easy.
"Supposing you allocate overhead in proportion to land area use?"
"Sixty two," Margaret did the calculation in her head instantly, "but employee time is a more logical basis for overhead allocation in a manufacturing industry and all the resource costs are already priced out. So the overhead allocation to the paint shop ought to be thirty per cent."
Cocoa played with a calculator for a couple of minutes and then, surprised by what he found, he said, "By Jove, you are exactly right, to two decimal places. What about the metal bending shop?"
"Forty one. And the remaining twenty nine per cent is office costs and advertising."
Cocoa sat back in his seat and looked at Margaret with wonder. "Were you ever an accountant?" he asked her.
"No. No, I've been a plumber and an engine driver and a landscape gardener and a few years ago I stood in for a friend who was a consultant neurologist for a couple of months, but I can't say I've ever been an accountant."
"This is remarkable, then," said Cocoa, one word at a time, shaking his head.
"Why are you shaking your head like that?"
"It's the only way I know."
"Well, what I mean is, why are you shaking your head. I am right, aren't I?"
"Completely, and I shake my head in stark disbelief because I'm astonished at your ability. Look at this set of production costs." He handed her a few more sheets of paper. "How much does the company owe in back value added tax?"
Margaret studied the figures. "What's the profit margin before discount?"
"Sixteen per cent," said Cocoa.
"They owe fourteen thousand, six hundred and fifty one pounds and, er, ninety pence."
"Mean due date?"
"Fifth of February. Nothing to worry about unless the price of steel goes above seventy two pounds per metric tonne."
"Total exemptions claim?"
"One hundred and thirty eight thousand, five hundred and one pounds and fifty pence."
Cocoa cast around for something else to ask and fetched up against, "What would be the effect of a rise in the minimum wage?"
"How large an increase?"
"Say, if it went up to ten pounds thirty five an hour."
"Mainly a fall in bonus payments and share options to senior management. If bonuses were payable at two and a quarter per cent and each director took a thousand options each, the cost of a combine harvester would rise by ninety three pounds twenty. Which would result in a negligible fall in demand."
"Suppose value added tax at twenty per cent were imposed on freight charges?"
"The cost could be more than offset by shipping CKD and assembling on site. They'd save at least two hundred and fifty pounds a unit."
"Suppose they moved their equity capital to an account in the Cayperson Islands?"
"Then they'd save fifteen thousand, eight hundred and ninety one pounds thirty in tax, but since they need the capital for maintenance and renewal, eleven thousand three hundred of that would go in transaction fees and four thousand two hundred and fifty in foreign exchange conversion."
"So what would the net saving be?"
"Three hundred and forty one pounds. Less than one return air fare to the Cayperson Islands."
Cocoa was quite dazzled by her understanding. "You have a remarkable gift, Margaret, most remarkable. I've never seen anything like it. I've never seen anything remotely in the same class since Carol Vorderman stopped doing Countdown. Where on earth did you learn to read accounts like that?"
"I haven't, I can't. I only came with you so that Nora could have some privacy to shag Donald again," she gushed tactlessly, "I could see she was dying for the chance."
"She's welcome to him because he's an arsehole. Here," he held out his pencil to her, "write down the sum of money that Thresher and Grayne have to pay in VAT within the next fourteen days."
Margaret took the pencil, wrote "£4,883·97," and gave the pencil back.
"I'll phone them and tell them the bad news."
At that instant a sea green phone on the desk in the corner of the office trilled. "That'll be Thresher now." Cocoa picked up the phone. "Cocoa and Sugar… Oh, it's you, you arsehole." The voice on the phone asked something and Cocoa replied, "No, just the bowler hat. I'm afraid if you really need a crystal ball that much, you'll have to get it yourself because I have to present some bad news to…"
The phone went dead and Cocoa hung up. To Margaret he continued, "I believe I have inconvenienced my favourite arsehole a little by forcing upon him a short walk to the bowler hat and crystal ball shop."
"Why does Arsehole, I mean Donald need a bowler hat?"
"He doesn't. He wears conical clown hats with pom-poms. He wants a crystal ball so that he can foretell the football results and the lottery numbers. I shall now telephone Messrs. Thresher and Grayne and let them know the result of your calculation."
"We might achieve more if we go in person," Margaret suggested.
"You're right, he's a tough old bastard, never listens to a word I say."
"It's not far. There's probably a bus."
In Margaret's flat, Donald slammed the phone down. "He's an arsehole. 'I can't be bothered' is his middle name, do you know that?" Nora looked on, dressed more than elegantly in her patent high heels and tight transparent lingerie. "Now we'll have to go and buy the thing ourselves. Where's Pangbourne's?"
"Finsbury Square. Cocoa told us it was in Finsbury Square, remember?"
"Oh," Donald drawled sarcastically, "where's Finsbury Square?"
"It's near the terminus of the 149."
"Cleverdick. You look special in that outfit, though, so I forgive you."
Donald and Nora entered Pangbourne's an hour later, in search of a crystal ball. Marmaduke Pangbourne, an old man with a moustache and a suit and almost no hair, greeted them, "Good morning!" as he had greeted every customer since the tiny shop opened its doors way back in the eighteen nineties.
"We're looking for a crystal ball," Donald explained succinctly.
"Then you have come to the right place, Sir and Madam." Mr Pangbourne was rather distracted by the couple's clothing. Donald was wearing a red and yellow clown outfir and, at Donald's insistence, and also because it was fun, Nora was wearing a thick three quarter length fur coat over her negligée and stockings, and nothing else except heels. Mr Pangbourne walked to a varnished wooden display case and pointed to two identical objects. "I have two in stock at the moment, both five-inch diameter solid optical glass models. Manufactured by a Mr Pilkington from St Helens in the fifties. This one," he indicated the one on the left, "will cost you five pounds and the other will set you back one hundred green paper ones."
"Why is there a difference?" asked Donald, a thrifty man.
"This one, sir," Marmaduke pointed to the more expensive instance, "was used by Leone Petulengro himself to predict the Great Fire of London in 1951."
"But the Great Fire of London was in 1666."
"Mr Petulengro told me," Marmaduke explained unfazed, "that it was easier to make predictions after the event than before it. He went on to predict the outcome of the Pelloponesian Wars, the invention of the stone axe and the extinction of the dinosaurs, sir. A most remarkable record, you will agree."
"One hundred per cent accurate," said Nora, smiling. "Did Mr Petulengro make any predictions about the future?"
"Yes, madam, he did. Of course, you have to remember he was speaking in 1951. He predicted that by 1970 every country in the world would be part of the British Empire, by 1980 that travel through time would become cheap, safe and readily available, that by 1990 oranges would become extinct and that by the year 2000 cities would be regarded as a hideous relic of the nineteenth century and everybody would live on an acre of land in the countryside and grow their own cows and chickens."
"What remarkable powers he must have had," Nora smiled, "we'll take the crystal ball that he used."
"An excellent choice, Madam," Marmaduke agreed, "He was a most prescient man. I congratulate you upon the wisdom of your selection. Do you have an account with us, sir?"
Ten minutes later Donald and Nora were crossing Finsbury Square in the general direction of King's Cross and Margaret's flat.
"Which bus do we take from here?" Donald asked Nora.
"Where does it stop?"
"Over there, except you can't see it from here. The bus stop's behind a tree."
"How did you know it was there?"
"It's a big tree with leaves and branches and things. It's taller than a house — I couldn't have missed it."
"I mean, how did you know that the bus stop was there behind the tree?"
"Let me try you with some other lucky guesses. Which bus goes from Liverpool Street to Victoria?"
"107 and 107a."
"From the Bank of England to Paddington?"
"11, change at Regent Street and catch the 41."
"From Mill Hill East to Edgeware?"
"262, Monday to Saturdays only."
"From Heathrow Airport to Dulwich?"
"How do you know all that?"
"Lucky guesses. Why, was I wrong?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. I just think you have an astoundingly accurate grasp of the largest urban public transport system the world has ever seen."
"It's all guesswork. I've never worked for them or anything. Actually I've never really been interested in buses. They just go up and down the street and they carry me around, and that's all I care."
"I want a way," Donald said conspiratorially to Nora, "to get Margaret to use both the telescope and the crystal ball at the same time."
"You could stand them side by side," said Nora.
"I just had another idea," said Donald. "Look over there. On the other site of the road, there's a house with a ladder leaning against the wall. See? It goes up to a window."
"I don't think Margaret can foretell the future just by looking through someone's window." Nora shook her head. "Didn't they do that on Play School?"
"I think this will work. Stand here and hold the ladder for a moment, would you?" Donald, awkward in bright green clown shoes two feet long, clambered up the ladder and set the crystal ball on the window sill. He looked around for a moment, appearing to take in the view. Wiv a ladder and some glasses, went Gus Elen's music hall song, you could see the ’Ackney Marshes, if it wasn't for the ’ouses in between. The rhyme perfectly described the vista from the garden of a terraced house in London around 1890, and things had not changed for the better, even from first floor level at the top of a ladder. Donald clambered even more awkwardly back down the ladder. When he reached the ground, Nora wrapped her arms around him and he felt the softness and warmth of her fur coat.
"Clever boy," she said, really meaning it.
"By co-incidence, from the top of the ladder," Donald explained, "I could see Margaret's bedroom window. Therefore, from her bedroom, Margaret can direct her telescope at the crystal ball, thereby foretelling the future by two means at the same time instead of just one."
"So she will get half the errors," Nora deduced.
"Twice as many, I expect," said Donald, "but we may be able to pick out what the accurate predictions are among the error."
"Like the way you listen to the news on the radio."
"Tomorrow will be warm and sunny and the prices of food and housing are going up," said Nora.
"The first half is false and the second half is true. Weeds and flowers. The train to York is cancelled and Banish removes stains from carpets leaving them sweet smelling and completely spotless."
"True and false. Wheat and chaff."
"Which proves that between us we can sift the diamonds from the dirt," Donald surmised alliteratively, "which isn't exactly a super-human power but it might come in handy."
"Could you see your own bedroom window as well as mine?" Nora asked.
"Of course. I live next door to Margaret."
"How about mine?"
"I don't know. I don't know where you live."
"I'll have to take you there," Nora promised, "because apart from anything else this fur coat is getting hot, and I want to take it off."
"Take it off then."
"I'll think about it."
"So will I."
"You'll think about taking your coat off and standing on the street in nothing but underwear?"
"No, I'll think about you doing it. Vividly."
Cocoa, Margaret and Nigel Thresher stood around a table in a conference room in the offices of Thresher and Grayne. "This is Margaret, our new recruit," Cocoa introduced her, and Nigel Thresher looked her up and down and shook hands with her and said "G'morning." They took their seats and Cocoa pulled the familiar manila folder from his briefcase.
Cocoa responded with "G'morning, Mr Thresher."
"Nigel, please call me Nigel," said Nigel.
"I'm afraid your annual accounts are going to show a loss this year," Cocoa began.
Nigel Thresher seemed not to be surprised. "How much?"
Margaret cut in. "One hundred and ninety eight thousand, six hundred and forty five pounds and seventy three pence."
"Bugger," Nigel cursed. "We sold five units this morning to a thistle ranch in Beaconsfield. Does that cut our losses at all?"
"At book price?" Cocoa asked.
"We gave them three and a half percent off, just to cheer them up."
"Then it's one hundred and eleven thousand, two hundred and forty one pounds and sixty one pence," Margaret calculated.
"Can we pay a dividend this year?"
"You could reduce the allocation to maintenance and release a couple of thousand that way," said Margaret. "Don't panic, you've got a few months before you have to call in the receiver."
Cocoa nodded approvingly, but Margaret was ahead of him. She could, clearly, see something. Cocoa couldn't see it: it would have taken him days, and a computer, to achieve the same vision. Cocoa was thrilled to see how she did it, just as he was thrilled to watch a gifted cartoonist draw pictures or a gifted footballer score goals or a gifted musician play piano. Whatever gift Margaret had, whatever Margaret could see in her head, it had something to do with numbers, prices, quantities, taxes, weights and measures. It just wasn't the future, that was all.
"We thought this might be a better way of using your talents," Donald explained, when Margaret and Cocoa came home in the evening.
"We?" asked Nora, who hadn't given the matter any thought at all.
"All right then, I thought it might be a better way of using your talents."
"Well, as it be thee, Duke, I'll give it a try, but don't get all upset and miserable if it doesn't work, because it won't. Bring me a cup of tea and I'll see what I can see."
Clutching the cup of tea, Margaret trained her telescope on the window sill of the house in the distance. Focusing on the crystal ball, she stared into it, desperately hoping that she wouldn't disappoint Donald because knowing the future seemed to mean so much to him. Poor soul, if only he realised that the only important bit is where you are now, what you are doing now, who is with you and who is against you now, because you don't really have any power over anything else. The past is finished, sealed in concrete, and it is too late to do anything about it. The future you expect never happens, as the guardians of Leone Petulengro's prophecies discovered. Neither do the future you hope for the most nor the future you fear the worst. The future is, and Margaret could find no other word to describe it, unpredictable.
It was near sunset but still too light to study the constellations, so Margaret humoured Donald by examining the crystal ball in as minute detail as she could. In the crystal ball she saw distorted refractions of the furniture in the flat behind the window sill. Upside down and in a bent and twisted transmogrification were a television set, a sofa, a bed, a couple of chairs, a table and, where the ceiling ought to be, a carpet. At the bottom of the image was an electric light in a cheap plastic lampshade.
"I'm afraid you might be disappointed," Margaret said.
"Oh, no!" Donald cried.
Margaret thought for a second, trying with all her might to raise some water of prescience in the bucket of urgency on the rope of anticipation from her well of creativity and avoid the mud of dismay. "We're going to have tomato soup and corned beef fritters for tea," she predicted lamely.
This did not disappoint Donald as much as Margaret thought it would. "Yes? Is there more?"
"Not yet, no, but this is a new technology I'm alpha testing here, so don't rush me."
"Do you have tomato soup and corned beef in the fridge?"
"Why, yes!" Margaret tried her utmost to sound astonished at the co-incidence. "I do. Now there's a thing."
"Good Lord! What else can you see?"
Margaret put her eye to the telescope again and once more looked into the distorted image of Eric's flat. A familiar opening sequence was rolling upside down on the television, and Margaret ventured, "The Frog Show will be on television again in just a moment."
"How do you do it?"
"It's all quantumised in the precognition," she said.
Cocoa had been standing silently watching Margaret perform. "I have something on my mind that I'd like to ask you," he put in.
"What is it?"
"What is going to happen to Thresher and Grayne Limited?"
Margaret guessed at random. "They will stop selling whisky," she said, "or they'll go under."
"Whisky? Thresher and Grayne make combine harvesters."
Margaret shushed him. "They do," she said. "But I didn't say they had to stop making whisky. I said they have to stop selling it. Under the counter."
"Don't—" Just in time Cocoa stopped himself continuing, "talk rubbish." Instead, he put it this way. "What makes you think that they're selling whisky?"
"You didn't think their pattern of shipping expenses was unusual in any way? All those container loads of spare parts coming from Perth and Stirling?"
"Steel fasteners from the suppliers that used to ship to Leyland in Bathgate."
"Delivery vans taking three, four hours to make a one-hour trip? Fuel costs, tyre replacements, fleet service costs six times what they ought to be?"
"That sort of thing varies from one company to another and compared with raw material and employment costs they're trivial amounts."
"You mean you didn't look at them. It's all right, I'm not criticising you, you did exactly what everyone else would have done. Including me, if I hadn't noticed a delivery van being loaded with bond crates."
"I don't understand. Why shouldn't Thresher diversify if his market is disappearing?"
"Because the load of crates was pilferage. We left at, what, six o'clock? It's dark already. So the van driver should've clocked out and gone home."
"So are you saying that Nigel should tell the police about it and let them deal with it?"
"No, not at all. If he does that, bankruptcy will be the least of his problems, and the greatest of his problems will be how to get out of prison. I'm just saying that the whisky rounds cost his company three hundred and forty two thousand, three hundred and seventy pounds in the last financial year, and if he stops it and concentrates on his legitimate product, he'll be back in the black by this time next year."
"This time next year?"
"Not exactly. 4.23 pm on Tuesday 25 October 2011 to be exact."
Margaret twirled towards Donald and smiled. "Forgive me, we're talking shop after office hours." She put her eye to the telescope again and sighted the crystal ball again. In the crystal ball she saw the last moments of The Frog Show and reflections of the stars. "You know," she said, "I'm certain that star that looks a bit like a bar of soap is moving closer to the other star that looks a bit like a tap."
Chapter 7.Back in your own back yard
Eric and Lucie arrived at the front entrance of the General Haig Mixed Infants School at about ten in the morning, when all the classes were in progress. Miss Gray's room, they both knew, was on the right of the corridor as you went in, near the cloakroom. They felt, probably correctly, that they were entering the lair of a dangerous and bad tempered animal. Eric said, "I'll go first." He knocked on Miss Gray's door, waited a couple of seconds, and went into the room. He had never been able to hear teachers say "Come in," and at the time he had just accepted, as kids do, that it was his fault that he did things that annoyed the teachers. The reality, that the teachers did things to which the children reacted in irritating ways which they (the teachers) could then punish them for only came to him years later.
Miss Gray was sitting at the desk in the room, looking a lot younger than Eric had remembered her, wearing a rather severe blouse which emphasised her curvy bosom and an upper thigh pencil skirt. She looked hostile and quite well endowed in the upper body. "I've fetched Lucie," Eric said. He noticed that Miss Gray was wearing perfume, to the sensual attractions of which, even at his tender age, he was very sensitive.
"Lucie. Five minutes ago you asked me to fetch her from her lesson." And I wish you wouldn't pretend that you've forgotten all about it, he didn't add.
"Yes. Please stay in this office, Eric, I want to talk to you later." She looked deeply at him and added in a whisper, "Very much." So perhaps Lucie had been right about the soft spot.
"Lucie," Miss Gray stood up and began with acid, "you were absent from school yesterday afternoon. Please give me the letter from your parents stating the reason for your absence."
"I haven't got one." Miss Gray definitely intimiated Lucie. Lucie was as flustered now as she would have been at the time.
"You know what happens to children who bunk off school. You're no exception. Please take your coat off. Bend over the desk."
Miss Gray took a cane from the cupboard below the office window, flexed it, lifted Lucy's skirt and swung the cane hard against Lucie's backside four times. The pain came as a fiery shock. Lucie actually screamed when the cane struck her. She was left in tears. "Stand in the corner facing the wall with your hands on your head," Miss Gray ordered.
Without saying a word, Miss Gray put the cane down on her desk, where she would be able to pick it up again easily. She locked the door of the office, leaving the key in the lock, and stood uncomfortably close to Eric, facing him and looking him steadily and unnervingly in the face.
"Now," said Miss Gray in a tone of voice which only women teachers ever master, both warm and threatening at the same time, "what did you think of that?"
Eric was aware of gulping, but apart from that he was silent. In the corner, facing the wall, Lucie was crying.
"Come on, boy, you were watching, weren't you?"
"Well, do you think it hurt?"
"Yes, miss. Lucie got four strokes of the cane and it hurt. How much?"
"A lot, miss."
"It hurt a lot, quite right. What colour do you think Lucie's bottom is now?"
"Do you think her bottom is stinging and throbbing and aching and burning?"
"What does Lucie's bottom feel like, boy?"
"I don't know, miss."
"Lucie's bottom is stinging and throbbing and aching and burning, boy. Say it. Lucie's bottom is stinging and throbbing and aching and burning.
"Lucie's bottom is stinging and throbbing and aching and burning, miss."
"Again." Miss Gray loved hearing the descriptions of what, to her, were intimate, intensely sexual and loving acts.
"Lucie's bottom is stinging and throbbing and aching and burning, miss."
"Serves her right, too, doesn't it, boy."
"Little hussy. She is a hussy. Fancy turning up at school in a see through negligee and panties. How long do you think she's going to go on crying and sobbing and snivelling for?"
"I don't know, miss."
Miss Gray paused. She was obviously about to say something else, but she thought better of it and instead she unbuttoned the cuffs of her blouse. The cuffs fell away, exposing pale and very slim arms and emphasising her narrow fingers. Her nails were painted blue. Then she undid the zip at back of the collar, raising the blouse over her head and displaying to Eric her white, lace edged bra. "It's a 38c," she said, and after letting him look at the bra and her curves for a while, she turned her back to him and said, "Unclip my 38c bra, child."
The bra had one metal clip in the centre of Miss Gray's back. Eric fumbled with it and eventually the back strap parted. Miss Gray shrugged her bra onto the desk, where it lay on top of her cane. She turned around with her finger tips covering her nipples and, as a professional stripper might have done, lowered her hands very slowly. "What do you think?" she asked.
"Very nice, miss."
Miss Gray called across to Lucie, "What size training bra do you wear, girl?"
"28a, miss." Lucie could still hardly speak from the shock, pain and crying.
"Do you prefer a grown woman, boy, or a schoolgirl whose breasts look like field mushrooms?"
Eric looked at Lucie, at Miss Gray, at the bra and at the cane. "Please, miss," he offered in a mumble, "I love Lucie."
"Ha!" Miss Gray either found the idea hilarious, or affected to. "You love her? I'll show you who you love. Bend over the desk. Legs apart. Keep still or you get this," and she fingered the cane suggestively. Standing behind him, she put one hand between his thighs and tickled his crotch lightly. "I'm an expert at this. You won't be able to resist, so relax." She found his penis and manipulated the tip so that Eric became erect. Then she withdrew her hand and Eric began to feel an intense physical frustration. "Now tell me whether you want to have sex with me."
"Yes, miss. I didn't say I don't want to have sex with you."
Miss Gray fondled Eric's penis again in a way that increased his frustration. "You're about four inches. I'll have the school doctor put you on penis enlargement tablets."
Miss Gray's hand found another sensitive spot and teased it for a moment. "You want sex with me," she said, and with her hand she made him desperate for it. "Say that you want sex with me."
Eric was silent. Miss Gray gave him one tap on the backside with her cane, making him squeal and put the cane back onto the desk. "Say it," she repeated, "say that you want sex with me. The next stroke will hurt."
"Please, miss, I want sex with you but," Eric cast around desperately, "I might get you pregnant."
"No risk of that," she said. "You're not getting inside me. Lucie, did you hear that? He's thinking about getting me pregnant! He wants penetrative sex with me!"
"Yes, miss," Lucie snivelled.
Miss Gray opened the clip that held Eric's trouser waistband together, lowered the zip at the front, and pulled his trousers and briefs down to his knees. "It doesn't take penetrative sex to make a boy into a love slave. It's all a matter of technique, boy," she growled, "I can make you love me. I can make you desperate with desire for me." She curled her hand around the base of his penis. "Say you love me."
"I love you, miss."
She gave him a pang of intense pleasure. "Say it again."
"I love you, miss." She gave another sweet squeeze.
"Say you're desperate to slip into me."
"I'm desperate to slip into you." And another little reward.
"You're nearly there already. Now I'll make you pump white stuff."
With a deft milking movement she made him spray his mess onto the surface of her desk. He moaned as the orgasm hit him, much to Miss Gray's satisfaction. When the spray had ceased she released his penis gently and with obvious affection. "There's love. How was that, boy, did you enjoy it?"
"Yes, miss." Eric was red faced and panting with embarrassment and heart rate.
Miss Gray gave Lucie a couple of tissues from her desk drawer. "Clean my boyfriend's mess up with them and come back after your lunch." she ordered as she unlocked the office door. "Both of you put your clothes back on now, and Lucie, wash your face. And Eric, boy, come here."
Miss Gray spoke intimately, firmly and with intense sexual undertones. "I shall make love to you any way I want, whenever I choose," she said quietly, "and if you resist me, I shall spank you until you scream. You are mine, not Lucie's, and you will come when you're sent for and perform whatever act I tell you to. Don't ever, ever, dare deny me my wants. Don't have sex with anyone else because I can cane you so hard that you'll be rubbing your sore buttocks until the day you die." Miss Gray was still bare to the waist, knowing that Eric was fascinated by her upper body and already becoming erect again. "Come back after lunch time. It's a date, boy."
"It's a date. Say it. It's a date."
"It's a date."
"It's a sex date. Say it."
"It's a sex date, miss."
"Say that you love me."
"I love you."
"Good. Do you want to marry me, boy?"
"Just think of stripping me naked, kissing me, dressing me and undressing me, breathing my perfume, feeling my cool hand milking you. My breasts will tease you and excite you. The promise of an occasional penetration, deep, loving sex. Do you want that?"
"Marry me. You won't regret it, boy."
"Say it. Say it! Say you want to marry me. Ask me to marry you."
"I want to marry you, Miss Gray. Please marry me."
"Yes. Darling. Of course I will." Her hand found his crotch again and with a quick, skilful and practised movement she gave him an erection that was clearly visible through his clothes. "That's to keep you thinking about me until lunch time."
Eric and Lucie walked down the corridor towards a fire exit which they knew would be open. "What now?" asked Eric.
"I need a bit of time to recover. She really hurt me, the bitch."
"I thought you were looking forward to being caned."
"I was. The pleasure takes a little while to kick in, though. My backside's on fire. It hurts like being sat in red hot coal."
"You were right, Lucie. Miss Gray does have a soft spot for me. I didn't expect that."
"Are you going to come back to her at lunch time, then?"
"I don't know. Probably not. She asked me to marry her. She's good with her hands. I can't stop thinking about her."
"You can go to her, if you like. She'll probably cane you if you don't, so you have an excuse. I'll still love you for ever, don't worry. I'll still be here."
"She's good at sex, but I don't even know if she is even a nice person."
"Lots of women are good at sex. I am, and so's your mum. But you don't have to fuck every woman who wants you to, let alone marry her. You're a beautiful boy. You should pick and choose."
There was an alcove beside the fire door. Lucie swung herself into it and leaned her back against the wall, pulling Eric against her. She kissed him hard on the mouth and guided his hands to her breasts. "I am very, very sensitive there," she confided, "so keep your hands flat and just massage me in circles."
"We might have met that day at school," said Lucie, "if you'd stayed in the office instead of fetching me and then going back to whatever lesson it was. Our whole lives would have been different."
"When it happened, she didn't invite me to stay. Asking me to stay was new. She did it this time but not the first time."
"Now you know what she really had on her mind."
"Did you see the technique she was using on me?"
"I wish I had. I was facing the wall, I'm afraid. Do they give evening classes on relief technique?"
They left by the fire door and felt warm sunshine on their bodies as they stepped outside. For now, at least, they were together.
"I'm not really a 28a any more," said Lucie in reply to nothing in particular as they walked towards Fore Street, "I was a 28a when Miss Gray sent for me after I missed sports day. I'm a much bigger girl now. Do our sizes matter? Do you think Miss Gray would be a good wife because she has a 38c bust? You're wouldn't choose a girlfriend on the basis of her bust measurement alone, would you?"
"I don't think so," said Eric, "but on the other hand, if I were to find myself having to choose between two women I didn't know, I would without hesitation ask their bra sizes and choose the girl with bigger breasts."
"Maybe she's for you, then," said Lucie, "or maybe I need a prosthetic brassière."
Ross, the draper's shop, occupied half the ground floor of a large and solid brick building on Fore Street, which in 1959 had become one of the first buildings in London to be fitted with the new fangled float glass windows. Holding hands affectionately, Eric and Lucie went into the shop together, then Lucie turned right to look at the rolls of fabric and Eric went straight ahead to get to the little room behind the counter. She was still wearing her fur coat over her blue shirt, stockings and heels, and her bottom was still on fire.
Lucie wandered around rolls of fabric in uncountably many colours and textures, waiting to see whether Eric would pluck up enough courage to come and speak to her. At school she had known that Eric worked in Ross, and she knew that she was attracted to Eric, but she had never gone to the shop with the sole intention of inveigling Eric into becoming her boyfriend. So far as she knew, this was the last re-enactment that would be offered to her. Her back up plan, therefore, had to be radical. If he did not speak to her, she would have to go up to him and demand that he become her girlfriend. Or failing that, ask nicely and flutter her eyelashes, which Mr Mills and his close friend Mrs Boon had convinced her was a tactic that never failed. She tried looking at simple repeating patterns of primary colours, which would be suitable for curtains or cushions. After ten minutes she decided that cushion fabric was not the sort of intended purchase that would bring Eric flocking to her, so she tried floral designs in pastel colours, which would evoke a civilised and stylish sort of dress. And after ten minutes of that, she began to examine the sort of silvery white and satin fabrics from which she might one day want to make a bridal gown.
Half an hour or so had passed since Lucie had walked into Ross, and she had seen neither hide nor hair of the boy who she intended to have an intense teenage crush on her. A lady in a blue smock walked up to her. She was about thirty and she seemed to know her way around. "Can I help you?" she asked. This, Lucie thought, is my chance to say yes, you can help me, just arrange a date with Eric for me, he's the cute boy who works here and he's probably somewhere near the kettle. "Erm," Lucie said, "I'm not sure."
"Tell me what you want and I'll let you know if we've got one. I'm Katy, by the way."
Lucie found strength from somewhere. "I want a really cute boy called Eric."
"We've only got one of those in stock," said Katy.
"Can I have a closer look at him?"
"Sure," said Katy, "he's over there."
"Has he already been reserved for use by another customer?"
"Not that I know of. Go on, he's over there and he's not busy. Not busier than the rest of us, anyway. Go through the green door and into the office."
Lucie opened the green door and saw Eric drinking tea from a grubby enamel mug. "Eric?"
"Oh, hi, Lucie." Eric seemed surprised to see her. He was wearing the shop's uniform overalls and boots of the kind that factory workers wear to protect their feet against heavy objects falling on them.
"I knew I'd find you here." She paused, waiting for Eric to offer her some tea, but he didn't cotton on. "You can give me a cup of tea if you want," she said eventually.
"Of course. Here, have this one, I'll make another." Lucie wasn't sure whether it would be a hygienic idea to accept Eric's offer, but she took it anyway.
Lucie wasn't sure where to take the conversation from here, but Katy came to her aid. Katy came into the office and told Eric, "Lucie here wants to become better acquainted with you. There are no customers in at the moment so there's no rush to get back out there."
"Is that true?" Eric asked Lucie.
Lucie thought about whether it was true or not and said, "Yes, it's true."
"You could go out together for the afternoon if you wanted," Katy suggested, "and nobody would ever know."
"There's a film on at the Granada," said Eric, as though he expected a polite refusal.
"There's nobody in my house," said Lucie, "and I've got a new goldfish in my bedroom."
"What? You've gone out and left the poor fish all on his own?"
"Yes. I desired you so much that I left the wee soul to fend for himself while I set off in search of you. How did you know it's a he?"
"I don't. But have you never heard the Roumanian proverb, 'Who goes in search of love should never leave a fish at home?'"
"No, I never heard of it."
"I've never heard of it either," said Katy. "But the Roumanians do have some jolly good proverbs, like 'Always light the fire an hour before you are going to get cold,' and 'However much you like beef, you can't kill a cow one piece at a time.' I went there on holiday once."
"Is it a common saying among the fish-owning class of gnarled and wrinkled Roumanian grandmothers?" Lucie asked.
"No, it isn't. I just made it up. But it's quite good, isn't it?"
Lucie liked it. "It's excellent. It's a lot better than most proverbs."
Katie was more skeptical. "Mine are better."
Lucie decided to get back to the point. "Eric, do you want to come and see my goldfish? He's very cute."
"Is he as cute as you?"
"Is he as cute as I am, then?"
"No, he's just cute in a sort of goldfish idiom. He isn't someone you would choose as a pin-up for your bedroom wall."
"All right. We shall go and say hello to your new pet."
They walked to Lucie's house and noticed someone standing in the shadows, perhaps trying not to be noticed, in front of Lucie's front door. She was wearing a dark blue jacket and matching, high cut pencil skirt over a pale blue blouse of the kind that zips at the back in order to tighten it over the breasts.
"Miss Gray!" Eric and Lucy breathed dismay together.
"Good morning, you two," she said, in as unfriendly a tone as she could manage. "I wonder if we could perhaps have a word together."
"We're a bit busy at the moment," said Lucie.
"Nothing that can't wait, I'm sure," Miss Gray continued in the identical tone. Lucie bit her lip when she noticed that Miss Gray was carrying a school cane. "I've brought my friend along, I hope that's all right. Are your parents home?"
Inside the living room, Miss Gray organised her charges by telling Eric and Lucy to bend over and place their hands on the seats of the two chairs there. "Take off your clothes below the waist, both of you. Completely off. Put them in a pile over there." She obviously felt completely at home in her adopted temporary premises.
"Eric, let's start with you. You said you would marry me. You promised. Don't you know what that means?"
Miss Gray was still holding the cane. She put her left hand gently on the back of Eric's neck and pressed him into position. "You couldn't remember to stay away from whores like Lucie so perhaps you'll remember this." Then she administered four smacks of the cane with all her strength. Eric yelped as the stick bit into him. "Yes, you definitely will remember that." Eric moved to stand up and Miss Gray put him back into the vulnerable position. For no reason Eric suddenly noticed Miss Gray's high stiletto shoes and the black lace tops that surmounted her stockings. "Stay bent over, Eric. Feet well apart."
Miss Gray turned to Lucie. "Now, Lucie, I will not take any more shit from you."
"Find your own boyfriend, and check with me that it isn't one I want for myself. This one is mine."
With the same gentle movement Miss Gray pressed Lucie's head down. She took a step back, behind Lucie and to one side, and let fly with the cane. Lucie's already tender bottom took another four whacks, each one delivered with Miss Gray's entire body strength. "Stay bent over, Lucie. I want you to hear this."
Miss Gray was still holding the cane, so Eric was uncertain about what she was going to do. She stood close behind him and stroked his inner thighs, just below the crotch. "You are a very attractive boy," she said.
"Is it a pity that you need such firm control? Or do you enjoy it?"
She lowered her voice, sounding low pitched and breathy. "Many boys secretly enjoy being made to stay in line," she said, her hand brushing against the testicles. "They dream of their wives, mothers, aunts, sisters, bosses' wives as well as headmistresses giving them a sore bottom. Secretly boys want every girl, every woman to have a cane and be keen to use it on them. Do you feel that?"
Eric had no idea what the right answer was, so he said "Yes, miss."
"Do you love to be caned by a woman?"
Miss Gray's hand continued to stroke the testicles. "I shall give you such an erection," she murmured. She tested the straightness his penis with one finger. "You're getting sexually aroused."
"You can feel the pressure at the base of your penis building. You expect the pressure to release itself suddenly, pumping a spray of your white mess out of the tip of your penis. Don't you, Eric?"
"Say it." She kept her voice low and breathy but she was still insistent and obviously becoming excited herself. "Say it. Say, 'I'm getting an erection, Miss Gray.'"
"I'm getting an erection, Miss Gray."
"Say it again. Say it so that Jezabel over there can hear you."
Eric said it slightly louder. "I'm getting an erection, Miss Gray."
"He isn't," Lucie protested. "He's just responding to your fingering him like all boys— Ouch!"
Miss Gray lashed out at Lucie's bottom with the cane and caught the tenderest spots of her cheeks. She nestled up behind Eric again and resumed touching him. "Your penis is straight, and very smooth and silky." She sounded genuinely admiring. She ran her index finger along it. Eric wondered how many penises she had touched. There were hundreds of boys in the school as cute as he was. "Are you going to orgasm for me?"
"Not just yet."
"Do you want me to make you orgasm?"
"Did you hear that, Lucie? My darling boyfriend wants me to make him orgasm." She used her finger and thumb to milk Eric a little. "Do you like this?" She made Eric gasp with pleasure. "I am expert at technique. You are nearly at the orgasm, Eric, aren't you."
"Shall I make you orgasm now?"
"Lucie, do you know how to bring a boy to orgasm? To make him lose control of his little prostate gland and coat the inside of his knickers with mess?"
"No, miss," said Lucie, who had done it often.
Miss Gray changed her grip slightly and used her left hand to press the sensitive spot behind Eric's scrotum. Eric realised that she was very sensitive to his sexual feelings. Very quietly, she said "Now," and gave Eric such an intense burst of stimulation in exactly the right place that he pumped his fluid onto the chair. "See, Lucie? I can make him deliver his mess exactly when I give him the command."
"Yes, miss," said Lucie.
"That's why you want to marry me, isn't it, Eric. Because I can give you orgasms whenever I please."
"Yes, miss," said Eric. He had felt the full power of orgasm slash right through him, like lightning.
"I am exactly what you want to marry, Eric."
"What is my bra size, Eric?"
"My bra size is 38c. Say it. Say, 'Miss Gray's bra size is 38c. I am going to marry Miss Gray because she has firm, beautiful breasts.'"
"Miss Gray's bra size is 38c. I am going to marry Miss Gray because she has beautiful, firm breasts." Eric spoke with less enthusiasm than an intending wife might have expected.
Miss Gray's put her hands onto Eric's crotch again. "What is my waist size, Eric?"
"I don't know, miss. Ow!"
"I can cause pain as well as orgasms, Eric. Sharp, penetrating pain. My waist size is twenty five inches. What is my waist size?"
"Twenty five inches, miss." A caress gave Eric a sharp frisson of pleasure. "Oh."
"What are my bra size and my waist size?"
"Your bra size is 38c and your waist size is 25 inches, miss." Miss Gray gave another caress.
"Very good. How often shall I cane you?"
"I don't know, miss."
"I shall cane you four times a day. Lucie, my boyfriend will submit to the cane four times a day. Maybe five, if you perform well for my hands."
"Yes, miss," said Lucie, which seemed adequate.
"Say it, Eric. Say it. Say, 'You shall cane me four times each day, Miss Gray.'"
"You shall cane me four times a day, Miss Gray."
"Again. Say it again. 'We shall be married and you shall cane me four times each day.'"
"We shall be married and you shall cane me four times each day."
Miss Gray gave an arousing squeeze which made Eric's penis stiffen and uncoil. "You are becoming erect. I am straightening your penis and making you aroused. You can think of nothing but your next orgasm. Do you want another orgasm yet, Eric?"
"Yes. Of course you do. Say it. Say, "I want an orgasm, Miss Gray."
"I want an orgasm, Miss Gray— Oh!"
She gave a careful squeeze in exactly the right place, bringing him to the edge of pumping. "You shall have an orgasm now."
"Yes, miss. Ooh, yes, miss, ooh!" Eric was unsure about where exactly Miss Gray's fingers were pressing, but an expertly delivered jet of high pressure excitement hit his prostate and he immediately pumped sticky stuff onto the chair again.
Miss Gray relaxed her hands, then renewed her grip of exactly the right spots. Eric felt himself melt and stiffen at the same time. "Watch this, Lucie. Now."
Eric's prostate felt as though she had squeezed it like a water pistol or a bulb horn, and Eric pumped another squirt of mess onto the chair. "Oh! Yes, miss," was all he could think of to say.
Miss Gray squeezed out the last drops of feeling and boy fluid and then released her hold. "You'll get more orgasms at school tomorrow, darling. Come to my office before assembly. And Lucie, keep off Eric. He is my sweet love. I will cane you, if need be."
Suddenly the endless, insistent voice was silent. Miss Gray's perfume was absent, replaced by what might have been the aroma of food cooking in the kitchen. Both children, not sure whether they were adults or not, remained bent over and looked around for the stockings, shoes and skirt that had been tantalising and punishing them for the last — how long was it? — two hours, perhaps. They stood up gingerly. Lucie's bottom was throbbing. Eric's penis had been squeezed, stroked and milked, so much that it was quite sore.
Lucie spoke first. "Do you think she understands about penetrative sex?"
"Miss Gray, of course." Lucie thought she was probably not a schoolchild. Eric looked distinctly adult.
"Not with the schoolchildren. She's dominant. She has to assert herself over them. She can't let her partner have his way with her. Her partner can't have any feelings, really, except for the feelings that she projects onto him."
"Tell me something. Is she, you know… is she good at it?"
"Very. She really does know what she says she does. I had an orgasm within a second of her holding me and squeezing. The pressure was firm enough to produce the results but she didn't hurt."
"Just as she knows exactly how to cane a child. Exactly where it hurts. She's the only teacher in the school who makes the boys cry, and she isn't the strongest. She just has the gift."
"A special talent," said Eric, "that nobody else has. She is right, of course, she will make an indescribably sensual wife for someone."
"You've got the offer. Take it. She loves you. I do too, of course."
"I'm not sure I want to live with her. I need a bit more from a wife than regular canings and hand jobs. Not much more, but definitely a bit more."
"Do you have any clear idea what you'd like from a wife, Eric?"
"Love would be nice. Just the casual reassurance that I mean something to her, that she isn't going to have sex with somebody else and not come back."
"But would having sex with somebody else be all right?"
"Yes, of course. Everyone needs some good sex now and again, like I just had. Being milked by an expert with a 38c bra size is a wonderful thing. It's the coming back afterwards that's important."
"Are you going to come back to me afterwards?"
"Are you going to see Miss Gray again before you come back afterwards?"
"I don't know."
"But you will, if you get the chance, is that it?"
Chapter 8.When the lights go on again all over the world
"Cocoa, you still don't get it." Margaret was trying to explain to Cocoa the precarious situation in which Thresher and Grayne found themselves. "If the Income Tax send in the receivers, Nigel Thresher will be found out. So either he stops this unprofitable bit of secondary diversification now, or somebody else will stop it for him."
They were sitting together in Donald's flat now, with Jonathan and Rebecca scampering endlessly around the room in circles in some energetic feline game. Having scampered around the room clockwise for ten minutes or more, the two cats reversed their direction and headed anticlockwise for a change.
"Stir crazy," said Margaret.
"Too much fish and not enough cat food," said Cocoa, with a philosophical air.
"He probably got hold of some alcohol for a friend," Margaret found an excuse for Nigel, "like everybody does when they take a short trip abroad, and gave it to her when he got back. She told some of her friends and he found some space in a combine harvester container to store bottles. Suddenly he found he was bootlegging for fifty, maybe a hundred people. At that stage you start incurrung distribution costs and opportunity costs, and suddenly what was a nice hobby becomes a burden on your company's profitability. And in Nigel Thresher's case it just got out of hand. That's what I think. I don't believe there's any real criminal tendency about it. I just think running the business became too easy and Nigel had time on his hands."
"Where's Donald?" Cocoa asked, suddenly realising that his friend had been out all night.
"Next door, still, with Nora. Don't worry, she's looking after him."
"I'm sure she will. I said she's welcome to him, and she is."
"I bloody am not."
There was an awkward pause, and then Cocoa asked, "Margaret, do you have any carrier bags about you?"
"What's wrong with that one, over there?"
"That one's ideal." Cocoa walked to the bookshelf and picked up an Office Staples carrier bag which he hadn't noticed until Margaret pointed to it. "Perfect."
"What do you need a carrier bag for? Don't you have one of the most expensive briefcases money can buy?"
"Of course I do. I'm going to put Thresher and Grayne's accounts into my briefcase, because if I were to carry them to his office in a carrier bag, people would think I hadn't done my job properly. And since I charge him three hundred pounds an hour I need a jolly convincing briefcase. No, this is for something else altogether."
The cats changed direction and chased each other around the room clockwise again. As she left the house to get into a taxi with Cocoa, Margaret noticed that the cats were singing as they ran. "Here we go round the mulberry bush," they sang merrily, Jonathan singing somewhere in the tenor range and Rebecca one octave up.
For an hour the taxi wound through the colourful roads of east London. Driving along Black Forest Road, Cocoa called the taxi to a stop for five minutes and came back with two bottles of cheap whisky. As the taxi continued on its way, Cocoa put the two bottles in the Office Staples carrier bag, wrapping one of them in his handkerchief so that, as he explained to Margaret, the two bottles wouldn't clink together.
"I'm going to tell Nigel that I found these bottles in the depot, being loaded onto a van."
"He'll say you couldn't have found them there and anyway they're not the same sort of whisky."
The taxi came to a stand outside Thresher and Grayne's small assembly plant five minutes later.
Margaret found the tatty orange door marked 'Visitors' in black letters a foot high, but she couldn't turn the handle. The handle seemed to be jammed, or locked. Cocoa let her try again and then took hold of the handle himself. He turned it without difficulty. "Sorry, Margaret," he said, "I didn't realise there was a knack to opening it. Could you carry this for me?" He gave the carrier bag, with the two whisky bottles inside it, to Margaret.
He led the way through the door and the two of them found themselves in the factory. The area had a concrete floor on which stood four brilliant red combine harvesters in various states of assembly, and piles of parts in plastic crates. "Watch your step in here," Cocoa warned Margaret, "you wouldn't be the first visitor to trip over a compressed air hose and break your ankle." He caught sight of Nigel Thresher at the far end of a corridor. "Ah! — Nigel!"
Nigel Thresher was crossing the corridor at the far end of the building, disappearing into his office with a cup of tea from the machine on the shop floor. He turned towards the sound of his own name and displayed surprise. "Cocoa! What brings you here? You aren't starving, are you? I thought I'd paid you."
"That," Cocoa whispered to Margaret, "is supposed to be a joke. He doesn't think anything of the sort."
"Who's the honey?" Nigel asked. He meant Margaret. Margaret tried not to snigger, but she sniggered anyway.
"Meet Margaret, Nigel." They shook hands and settled into Nigel's office, where Cocoa continued introducing her. "Margaret is a business acquaintance of mine. She is a gifted and brilliant forensic accountant, which means she looks through accounts for evidence."
Nigel waited for Cocoa to continue his sentence and was rather flustered by the silence. "Evidence of what?" he asked at last.
"Nigel," Margaret took the floor, "this business engages in some activity that is not entirely related to the manufacture of combine harvesters."
"I don't know what you're talking about," said Nigel, on cue.
"Margaret," said Cocoa with a sense of drama, "could you let me have that carrier bag for a moment?"
"Sure." She passed it across.
Cocoa removed the whisky bottles one at a time and stood them on Nigel's desk. "These are from your assembly shop," he lied. "What's going on, exactly?"
"Nonsense, unless Joe knows anything about it. Let's go and find him. He's probably hiding in his office."
They found Joe, as expected, in his office and set the whisky bottles on the table there. "Do you know anything about these?" asked Margaret, trying not to seem threatening. "We found them on the shop floor."
"These? These are nothing to do with me, I don't sell that brand." Then, realising the extent to which he had irrecoverably incriminated himself, Joe added, "Woops!"
"Which brands do you sell, then?"
"Does it matter?" Nigel asked, anxious to avoid embarrassing Joe any more than was necessary.
"Nigel, Joe," Margaret tried to keep the meeting on course, "you owe a fortune in back taxes and the bootlegging, however exactly you're doing it, is damaging the business. Seriously damaging it. If you want to avoid going bankrupt then you'll stop trading in unlicensed alcoholic beverages." She managed to make it sound as though it wasn't a serious matter after all.
"Do you think the business will recover?" Nigel asked. Thresher and Grayne had been his life since he left school.
"I think there's a real risk that you'll get caught. If you can remove the evidence and pay your back tax then there's a good chance you'll still be here in a year's time."
"Can we drink the evidence?" Joe asked.
"Depends how much of it you've got," Margaret answered.
"A few crates."
"In that case, no, you can't. Look," Margaret tried desperately to think of something and couldn't, "look, have we got your home phone number?" Joe nodded. Cocoa had it somewhere. "Have the crates put onto a delivery vehicle, do a normal day's work, go home at the usual time, and I'll phone you and tell you what I think you ought to do. I'm not keeping any sort of secret from you, I just have no idea what to do just at the moment."
"Will we stay out of trouble?" Nigel asked.
"I don't know," Margaret said truthfully. "But you should be able to stump up the back tax, and that will help."
The meeting concluded naturally. Cocoa picked up one of the two whisky bottles, cupped his hand over the bottle top, and the top came away easily. "There," he said, "enjoy some of this while you worry about cleaning up your act."
"How did he do that?" Joe asked nobody in particular.
"Margaret," Cocoa offered as they left the factory, "it's about lunch time. Would you like to try The Fat Chicken? It's a nice place at lunch time. There are people there but it's never too busy, and since Egon Toste runs it, it's always excellent…"
"You don't have to talk me into it," Margaret smiled, "Of course I'll come."
"I hope you're hungry."
"I am. Don't worry."
Margaret came up from a background where you judged a woman's ability to cook — or a man's, come to think of it — by how well she could cook from cheap ingredients. Margaret's mother had regularly haggled with market stall holders for half price on a tin that was bent or had the label missing. She felt that if you could cook well, you would make a palatable dish from ox liver, streaky bacon, onions and potatoes. If you were hopeless at cooking but you had to do it because of the force of circumstances, then you would need to spend a fortune buying fillet steak, cous cous and vine tomatoes. She ordered the cheapest things on the menu because, buying them in The Fat Chicken, she would for the first time be able to enjoy the best that a true expert could make of those foods. There was no point in buying expensive dishes. She could cook those at home. Even The Fat Chicken’s gold plated cutlery, though it probably cost little more than silver plate or chrome, struck her as an unsightly extravagance.
Cocoa, on the other hand, lavished suprême of salmon and freshly gathered asparagus on himself, and the chef had cut it into four neat little circles with a pastry cutter and arranged them in a symmetrical layout ornamented with a pattern of cranberry sauce, thin longitudinal slices of gherkin and halves of quince. It grieved him to see Margaret appearing to economise in a place where food was expensive because it was so good, and Margaret could not fathom why Cocoa would spend what was obviously most of £100, plus service, VAT and travel expenses, on a dish which she could have cooked at home for £5 or so and an hour's light work, and she wouldn't have thrown half the fish away because it didn't fit within the circumference of the pastry cutter. The cats would have loved it.
"Margaret," said Cocoa as he turned his culinary attention upon the second disk of suprême of salmon, "I wonder if you would consider joining the firm of Cocoa and Sugar."
"Making it Cocoa, Sugar and Pullet?"
Cocoa laughed and immediately conceded. "It will mean getting a new brass plate for the front door of the office, but that is exactly what I had in mind."
"I'll think about it."
"I've been very impressed by your gifts and I think there are other clients who would benefit from having you look their numbers over. You can take full responsibility for Thresher and Grayne's account from your first day, if you like, reporting directly to Sugar and me."
"I just finished thinking about it."
"And?" Cocoa put his knife and fork down with an expectant air. He put his hands together and rested his chin on his fingertips.
"I accept." Margaret held her hand out and Cocoa shook it to clinch the appointment.
"Congratulations. You are now a partner in the recently renamed firm of Cocoa, Sugar and Pullet. I'll phone my brass plate maker in the morning. We haven't given him much work in the last twenty years. Would you like a little round thing of salmon? It really is delicious." He picked up his knife and fork and, to the horror of all the posh people dining in The Fat Chicken that evening, lifted a piece of the salmon and slid it onto Margaret's plate. A chorus of 'Eeugh!' ran around the room from all the diners who saw it. Cocoa poked his tongue out at the lot of them.
"Mm," she nodded, tasting it, "it is delicious."
"More wine? It's château Lafitte so it ought to be good. If it weren't for American Express I don't know how I'd ever arrange to have meat for dinner. You've got something to celebrate and I have as well, so go on. Neither of us is driving afterwards." Cocoa thought for a moment and then added, "What I am about to tell you is a closely guarded secret. I have absolutely no idea whether this wine is any good or not. So if you don't like it, I shall be happy to call the head sommelier, whom you see over there trying to sell a five hundred pound bottle of wine to an American tourist who can't tell the difference between a fine wine and a cup of tea, that he is a liar, a cheat and a fraud and deserves to spend the rest of his life locked up in the deepest dungeon in the whole of Her Majesty's network of prisons."
"That won't be necessary. I don't—"
"Thank God for that."
"I don't know how much you paid for it, but it really does go down well."
They watched the tourist eagerly. "I've seen that look on a man's face before. I bet you two pence that he buys it."
"Nah." Margaret deliberately pronounced "No" as the dismissive East London variant. "He's got more sense."
"Will you stake your money on it?"
"Two pence. It's a wager."
They watched closely. The tension rendered both of them unable to breathe for fear of breaking the silence and losing concentration. Perhaps the man spent half a minute taking the decision, or maybe it was three quarters before the head sommelier finally wiped the top of the bottle with his white linen napkin and handed it to the tourist.
"I win," Cocoa said triumphantly.
"I owe you two pence," Margaret smiled. "How do you know he's an American tourist?"
"He had to ask where the toilet is. I heard him earlier. He's obviously not been here before, so naturally Guy had to try it on." He pronounced Guy like the word ghee, intending to convey a wholly unjustified semblance of familiarity with the vendor of high price wine. "And he's got an accent like the population of a village duck pond."
Cocoa raised a finger a couple of inches and beckoned Guy over. "How much did that American pay for that fine red wine just now?"
"Ah, good evening Mr Cocoa." Guy spoke with a Latinate accent which might have been Italian or Belgian as well as French. "Is this beautiful lady your wife?"
Cocoa thought carefully before replying. "Not yet. One thing at a time. She has joined Cocoa and Sugar and she is our new partner, a specialist in forensic accounting with rare and extraordinary talent. You will certainly see a lot more of her here in the future so do make sure her thirst is well taken care of."
"I sold the bottle of fine wine to the American gentleman for five hundred pounds, sir."
"And, just between you and your accountant and subject to conditions of total secrecy and data protection, how much did it cost you?"
"Eleven pounds ninety five, sir."
"Asda or Sainsbury?"
"No, sir, neither Asda nor Sainsbury, but personal contact. A very nice old man," Cocoa harrumphed a little, "who makes a living running a combine harvester factory."
"We don't know the one, do we, Margaret?"
"No, Cocoa, we definitely don't."
"No, Guy, we haven't just come from a meeting with him and his business partner at his office."
"I understand, sir," said Guy, although he didn't.
"Stretching the meaning of the word 'friend' for an instant, look at our tourist friend for a moment, Guy. Does he appear to be enjoying the accidentally relabelled wine for which he has paid an unusually enormous price?"
"Judging by the rapidity with which he is emptying the bottle, I would have to say yes, sir."
"Margaret, you have before you an unparalleled opportunity to show off your talent at accountancy. What in your experience is a fair profit on a bottle of wine in the luxury catering trade?"
Margaret scratched her head as though she didn't have the answer to hand immediately. "Forty per cent, sir."
"So if a restaurateur buys a bottle of wine for eleven pounds ninety-five and sells it at a profit of forty per cent, how much does he sell it for?"
"Sixteen pounds seventy-three."
"Good Lord, how did she do that?" Guy could not contain his surprise. "I would have needed a calculator at least."
"Bottle of Sainsbury's finest red plonk, please, Guy," Nigel ordered, making no attempt to explain his partner's mathematical ability, "and don't bother sticking a fake label on the bottle before you carry it up the steps from the cellar, because I believe conserving paper helps to save the planet."
"Certainly, sir, and in view of the well known regulations that prevent alcoholic beverages from being classified as business expenses I shall ensure that it does not appear on your bill."
"Thank you, Guy. You do your job excellently and with understanding, as always."
Guy turned and strode off to fetch the wine and Cocoa asked Margaret, "Tell me, if there is an answer, I mean if you are able to give an answer, how did you do it so quickly?"
"The calculation? Easy. I knew you were going to ask so I worked it out in advance. Fourteen times twelve is a hundred and sixty eight, so one point four times twelve pounds is sixteen pounds eighty. After that there are one point four missing fivepences. Look." She grabbed a paper napkin, took a half-length stub of pencil from her handbag, and wrote down some sums.
"I still think it's a miracle. You have a special sort of brain that can do sums."
"No, I haven't. It's like conjuring, it's all in the show. Arithmetic isn't mathematics, it's performance art. Just ignore what you learned at mathematics lessons in school and follow your gut instinct."
Guy brought the wine and drew a corkscrew from his pocket. "Good Lord, don't cut your arm off using that," said Cocoa. He held the bottle in one hand, cupped the other hand over the cork, and with a quiet pop the cork came out of the bottle effortlessly. Cocoa gave the bottle back. "You can pour it for us."
As they moved on to the desserts, Margaret asked, "Is there really a regulation prohibiting you from claiming a glass of cheap wine on expenses?"
"Inexpensive, one should perhaps say, as I don't want to stand accused of buying my business partner cheap wine. No, of course there isn't. Guy just wants to hang on to a nice little earner, which he is going to lose if Thresher and Grayne decide to salvage what remains of their agricultural machinery business."
"I've never been an accountant before," said Margaret, successfully impaling an irregular lump of custard tart on her gilt three tine fork, "but it's been interesting to see who really was making the money out of the business."
Donald and Nora were home already. Nora was wearing a bright red bikini and kissing Donald very lovingly. Donald was wearing boxer shorts and nothing else. He was sitting in the armchair resting his hands lightly on Nora's waist, and she was standing over him. resting her hands on his shoulders and bending towards him so that their lips touched. Donald was feeling her hips, back and rib cage up and down as though learning for the first time the curves of a woman's body.
"Have you ever done this before?" Nora was not poking fun at Donald's naïveté but genuinely taken aback at how much her waist and hips fascinated Donald. Not just the shape, the firmness, but the hairless, satin texture of her skin.
"No. I always wanted to and now I have a chance. I understand the meaning of to have and to hold now. Have I been doing it for too long?"
"No, of course not. Don't rush. Just take your time. There's no prize for getting through the most activities in an afternoon, and I think women in general are a bit unfamiliar to you."
Margaret and Cocoa arrived home at about four in the afternoon. Donald and Nora scampered off to the bedroom and emerged three or four minutes later wearing dressing gowns.
"Did you learn anything?" Nora asked Cocoa.
"Apart from never wear a bikini while you're making out with an arsehole? No, not much."
"You're still jealous, Cocoa. It won't do any good. Just let him have his fun. We learned that one of our clients is staking his entire fortune on not getting an enforceable demand for back corporation tax and VAT."
"Sounds an unwise move." Donald shook his head.
"It is. Most unwise. So we told them to pull their socks up."
"Just a minute." Nora had noticed something strange. "One of our customers, we told them to pull their socks up… Have you two joined forces?"
"Depends what you mean. I'm working for Cocoa, Sugar and Pullet starting tomorrow morning."
"You've done well for yourself, then, Margaret."
"So have you, Nora. Donald's such a nice man. You make a lovely couple."
"Oh, vomit, vomit," Cocoa sneered.
"We have to find somewhere out of the way to stash the whisky." Margaret was sure that if the bootlegging wasn't on open view then the Inland Revenue wouldn't go looking for it "Just to keep it out of the way while the company gets back on its feet and hands over its debt to the taxman."
Nobody suggested anywhere. "Come on, there must be somewhere. Someone's house, office, school. The Houses of Parliament."
"Up Eric's arse," Cocoa suggested, and then, "Or in the Inland Revenue offices." He wasn't being entirely serious in either case but there had been no other suggestions. "In the Strand."
"Cocoa, how are we going to put six cases, if it's that few, of bootlegged whisky into one of the most closely guarded buildings in Britain in full view of one of the busiest main roads anywhere in the world?" Margaret ignored Cocoa's first suggestion completely, while her objection to his second suggestion was the obvious one. "Not that I'm trying to rain on your parade, or anything."
"It's a huge building," Cocoa said, "and there must be an empty room in it somewhere."
"He's right," Nora said. "If we turn up and say we've got a delivery and it has to go into the empty room, provided we look like workmen and we've got a good story to explain why the crates contain whisky rather than, say, cheques or payment records or national insurance cards, we'll get in. After that, if the Inland Revenue come to inspect Thresher and Grayne, they won't find anything except what looks like a bone fide factory whose owners lost a lot of money on a diversification project."
"Which is not at all unusual these days," said Cocoa. "At least it was diversification and not outsourcing. They'd have lost everything, including money, the business, and the respect of everyone who trades with them. The Chinese must be laughing all the way to the bank."
"Where are the cats?" Donald realised they weren't in the house.
"They must have found a way out," Nora stated the obvious, "Cats do. They always explore their living quarters, so they can escape if they need to."
"Don't worry," Margaret tried to reassure him, "they'll be back."
"Nora," Donald invited her, "would you come out with me for a few minutes, just to see if we can find them?"
"They aren't lost. Cats know exactly where they are and how to get back to the food bowl."
"Yes. All the same."
Nora paused a second. "Can I put some outdoor clothes on?"
"All right," Donald agreed, although he had grown used to seeing her in more revealing outfits.
Alone with Cocoa in the flat, Margaret decided to broach the subject that she found most on her mind. "You really are jealous of Donald and Nora, aren't you?"
"Of course. He doesn't really want to end his friendship with me, though. He just wants to have a girlfriend for a while. I think he imagines that he can have a sort of bisexual harem of both Nora and me."
"And can he?"
"I can live without an exclusive relationship. Like most men I'm promiscuous at heart, I'm just too old to be attractive to the young men and women that I would want to attract. I don't have any reason to stop Donald from being with Nora, I just have this aching wish that he wouldn't."
"In other words you're jealous."
"Yes. By the way, where are the cats?"
"I didn't see them leave. They must have found a way out. Don't fret, they'll be back. Give them their freedom nad if they love you they'll come back."
"Am I supposed to take them as a paradigmatic metaphor for my arsehole of an ex boyfriend?"
There was a sudden flurry of activity behind them. Donald had climbed the ladder and he appeared at the window clutching the two cats, who jumped out of his hands onto the living room floor and then scampered out of sight beneath the sofa. As Donald clambered into the flat through the window, Nora entered through the front door. "I'm glad I put some clothes on," she said, "it's really cold outside now."
"Will you take them off again afterwards?" Donald was hopeful.
"Yes, all right. I'm a naughty girl."
"I will too, if you like," Margaret said to Donald.
"The wine from Sainsbury really is good stuff," Donald replied. "It's all right, Margaret. You got the job. You don't have to lie down on the hiring couch like other hopefuls."
"You didn't tell me you had a hiring couch!" Donald rounded on Cocoa. "I always knew that underneath the veneer of sincerity and devotion you were an unfaithful bastard who shagged everyone he could get his mittens on."
"There is no hiring couch, Donald, so if you can't stop speculating wildly and baselessly then at least calm down. I'm not even responsible for hiring people most of the time. We outsource hiring to a company in China whose staff don't speak English and have never worked anywhere outside Shanghai in their lives, so they have no idea whether the candidates are any good, and they choose candidates on the basis of their appearance and the opinions of a Chinese astrologer, and look where we are today. Margaret is my first ever appointment, and she's brilliant, and I'm one of them so I can't be biassed towards women with sexy voices and big hooters. So don't lash out."
"So getting back to the topic of whether I should wear clothes or not, I don't have to undress if I don't want to." Margaret was already slipping out of her trousers. "But I offered. You can accept if you like."
"Is this going to end up in a sort of orgy?"
"Yes," said Margaret, "if you like."
"Now we're all a lot more familiar with each other than we used to be," said Cocoa in the morning, "I think we would be well advised to make our contribution towards removing Thresher and Grayne's bootleg alcohol. I took the precaution of hiring a van in somebody else's name, which turns out to be surprisingly straightforward, and I'm going to fetch it. Who's coming with me?" Margaret, Nora and Donald volunteered. "Fantastic, we'll do it easily provided you lot try to look like labourers and not as if you just came from the Royal Garden Party."
"I think we'd better make our way in through the factory entrance," said Cocoa after driving them into the forecourt. The door was closed but he opened it easily, and inside he asked Margaret, "Where exactly did you see those crates?"
She pointed to a side door. "They were in there."
Margaret found the door locked, but again Cocoa managed to open it without obvious brute force. Inside the room held only four crates. Cocoa asked "How many did you see?"
"Eight at least, possibly ten." She struggled to remember a scene which had been only a passing glimpse at the time, which she hadn't expected to need to recall.
"Definitely more than these, though?"
"So they're hiding the stock somewhere themselves."
"We might as well not have bothered," said Donald. "Let's go home and carry on."
"Depends on whether they are intending to wait until the hoo-hah dies down, recover the hidden stocks and carry on trading."
"Why shouldn't they? It's their stock."
"Because, Donald, we are acting for their own good, whether they want us to or not."
"Leave this to me for a minute. Stay in here and if anyone comes to fetch a crate ask him where it's destined to go. I'm going to find Thresher."
"Why?" Nora was a bit lost.
"Because he's a fucking idiot. I don't know, some days you just can't do anything about the people around you. Yesterday an arsehole, today a fucking idiot who's trying to put himself into bankruptcy and Pentonville at one and the same time. Why can't I just get a proper job like normal people do?"
He disappeared from the side room and came back a few minutes later with Nigel Thresher in tow. “…now at least four crates have gone from this room, so what's been going on?”
Nigel was obviously surprised. "I don't know, I didn't authorise their removal."
"Oh, God, let's start playing detective. This is no job for an accountant. Just go back to your job, Nigel, and in a couple of days the phone will ring and it'll be Margaret telling you that you still have one."
Nigel left, shaking his head.
"We'll go and sit in the van and just see if anyone turns up and collects any crates, then." Cocoa sighed with exasperation. This wasn't his rôle in life, was it?
Chapter 9.I'll be with you in apple blossom time
"The turning point was on Sports Day because, whether you stayed at home or not, we might have started an affaire, and we didn't. You had a chance to talk to me when you fetched me to see Miss Gray the next day, and I had another chance to talk to you when I went past Ross's and I didn't go in, but either of those possibilities would have meant you becoming the masochist slave of an intelligent, voluptuous and sadistic headmistress." Lucie was sitting in the café on York Way, sharing tea and pork and pickle sandwiches with Eric. "You see what opportunities you missed."
"Yes, indeed," Eric nodded.
Today was a warmer day and the door of the café was open, so they could hear the noises of the railway station. Eric listened for the blasts on the air horn that meant a train was departing, and depite the fact that he didn't have anywhere to go, he always regretted listening to an express roaring off to Penzance or Edinburgh or Fort William without being aboard. Lucie heard the squeals of brake blocks on the arriving trains and the babble of crowds struggling to carry their luggage through the ticket barriers and on to the bus station for second class passengers, the taxi rank for first, and the London Underground for the more intrepid. Eric noticed that it was midday by the station clock, heard a departure and said, "That's The Clansman. Twelve o'clock for Inverness. A historic train that's been running daily since about nineteen thirty."
"Is anyone we know on board?"
"No, not to my knowledge."
"Well, then." Lucie thought she had made some sort of point, and Eric knew that Lucie thought she had made some sort of point, but Eric couldn't fathom what it was.
Two cats drifted in through the door and wandered up to them. "It's our friends!" Lucie saw them first and felt delighted that the animals recognised her.
"Got any fish?" Jonathan was on the look out as always.
"Are you eating bread?" Rebecca had captured something of Jonathan's attitude to life and monkeys. "’Cos we hate bread, eugh."
"Have some sliced pork," Eric offered.
Rebecca took it in her mouth, hissed at Jonathan when he asked politely for a share, and wolfed it.
"She's a greedy bastard, isn't she?" Eric commented, tearing off another scrap of meat and holding it out to Jonathan.
"Yes," said Jonathan, seizing it and not giving Rebecca any.
"Poor scraps, they must be starving."
"Oh, yes, we are," said Jonathan, hoping that Eric and Lucie would both understand and act upon this urgent problem. "You could help by giving us each a fish. Me first, of course, and then Rebecca can have the other one."
"What about you, Lucie?"
"I never had the feeling that my life had been irremediably impoverished by one single near chance event that took place many years ago. I didn't meet you at school because I missed a couple of opportunities. I went to university in Cardiff, amd I married Tony, the only boy in my final year who got a first and a half decent job. I lived with him, had regular mundane but satisfactory sexual intercourse most nights, and then when I realised I'd fallen asleep in the middle of a conversation with him I arranged a divorce. Nothing hateful, I hope, just the sheer monotony of it all made me want to get out."
"Everyone's life is monotonous."
"Oh, don't you start. Yes, everyone needs to wake up and smell the toffee once in five years but I stopped having orgasms when I got back from honeymoon and I'd forgotten what it felt like until Christmas fifteen years later when I let the television repair man shag me on the sofa after he fixed the high tension power pack and made the TV work and wanted to stay indoors until the snow stopped falling. Look, I was so desperate for kinky sex that once I was at home for the holiday and I begged my dad to spank me."
"And did he?"
"Well, all right, did you enjoy it?"
"We both did, but he was so gentle that he gave me six smacks and I hardly felt it."
"Is that, I don't know, is that normal?"
"I've no idea. Does it matter? The purpose of telling you that I did it is to convince you of how desperate I was."
"You convinced me. We could try going back to the choice points and see if you can find another path."
"It worked for you," Lucie said after a pause, "but it won't work for me. That's not metaphysics, it's just the way my life history worked out. A series of little things went wrong. Nothing big, nothing nuclear, no U turns or metamorphoses or revelations along the way. If I had married someone else, or divorced earlier, or not shagged the TV repair man — who, incidentally, didn't even ask me for a shag when the horizontal hold went haywire three months later — and if I'd bedded the window cleaner and the electricity meter reader instead — he was dishy, I should have — my life would have been much the same as it was. Just different names scratched into the bed post with a compass point."
"What do you mean?"
"Didn't you do that at school? When you slept with a boy you got your pair of compasses and you scratched his name on the desk with the point. With a star rating. So if you look carefully at my bed you'll see some names there."
"That's a bit one dimensional. Suppose a man's good at one thing but not another thing?"
"If you have a choice of two men you still have to prefer either one or the other, or both, so a one dimensional scale is good enough. And can you really imagine a girl who couldn't kiss being any good at dressing up or stripping off? People are good partners or they're useless partners, or they're somewhere in between, but we don't need a factor analytic orthogonal scale set to measure them. We can pick and choose. The high point of my sex life for the last ten years was letting the television repair man shag me on the sofa, and he was quite good at it but he came back and he didn't even ask for another ride. So that's what he thought of me. The bastard."
"So your sex life is pretty much sorted out, really."
"Yes. It's a good thing that I don't thrive on variety, isn't it."
"What about your work life?"
"I got my degree, looked for a real job while temping for a year, found one, worked for the meteorological service until they made me redundant, and then I kept looking for work until I gave up looking and accepted that I'd be on the dole for ever. Too old to get a job, not enough experience to get a job, and I wasn't yet forty when they did it."
"When they decided that the best way to manage the British economy would be a combination of high unemployment and falsified statistics, they gave the doctors instructions to put anyone who asked them on invalidity benefit. So along with everybody else who hasn't been able to find a job for more than a few months, I'm on invalidity benefit. I'm perfectly healthy, but I'm exactly as out of work as I would be if I claimed job seeker's allowance. And that's my life. I've got used to it. When I see a job advertised I just think ‘Huh!’ with a sort of snort at the end."
"Who are they? The they who decided, I mean.
"As David Frost said, it was a Civil Service decision, and probably the French civil service. I have no idea."
Jonathan and Rebecca were sitting quietly at Eric's and Lucie's feet hoping for another piece of sandwich meat. Jonathan decided that his monkey friends had probably forgotten about him, so he said "Come on," to Rebecca and the two cats walked out of the café with their tails in the air.
"We'll go to the park," said Jonathan.
"Oh, goody. Can we catch birds?" At the mention of the park, Rebecca was already looking forward to launching herself on the birds.
"Yes, of course. That and annoying the dogs are the only reasons I go there."
"What do monkeys see in dogs?" asked Rebecca. "Huge smelly things."
Another air horn resounded in the station, followed by the roar of a diesel engine starting a stationary train. "One o'clock," said Eric. "I have this feeling that after spending an hour eating lunch, I ought to go and do something at one o'clock, but I can't think of anything. Can you?"
"We could get some food for this evening, or we could stay here, or given that we're in the middle of one of the most written about, photographed and visited cities in the whole world, we could go and take a look around."
"Fine," said Eric, "it's not a bad day, so we can wander around and see where we end up." He called Sam, the waitress, over and he paid the bill.
"I just thought of something," said Lucie. "If you had married Miss Gray, you'd probably have such a sore bottom that you wouldn't be able to sit down."
"Makes you think, doesn't it?"
Although Greater London is a metropolis of some twenty five million people, London itself, the bit that you recognise as London when someone says, "I've been to London," is quite small, and at night when the shops and offices close it is almost empty of people.
King's Cross is a mile or so north of what you would call the City, aka the Square Mile, which is the bit of London where the finance industry concentrates itself. All the thieves, robbers, footpads and other low life who create money out of thin air, double it and then make it vanish back into thin air again. That's right, the people who very nearly brought the entire world to a standstill and were then officially let off by every government in the capitalist world. That band of undesirables works in offices near Saint Paul's Cathedral.
On the other hand, Kings Cross is two miles or so east of what you would call the West End, which is the bit of London famous for its shops. Harrods, the Posh People's Shop, is top of everyone's list, whose famous but defunct telephone number is Knightsbridge 1234. Then there are Selfridges, Liberty, Fortnum's, Lewis's, on Regent Street and Oxford Street, which everybody knows.Coming out of the café, turning left and walking down York Way, Eric and Lucie were heading south. Turning right, they were setting off towards the shopping streets, and on the way to the West End they found themselves walking on The Strand.
"The word strand meant a beach, as in 'we are stranded,'" Lucie said, "and that," she pointed at one of the less attractive buildings, "is the headquarters of the Inland Revenue."
"It looks as though they are having a party, doesn't it?" Eric noticed the hire company van parked on the pavement outside as a sort of invitation to traffic wardens to call out the tow trucks. Four people in overalls were lugging crates of whisky out of the van and into a side door marked 'Tradesman's Entrance.'
"Good for them. Good for us, too. We need tax men to be happy and a bit woozy, I think. When you go and see a man in the tax office and you say 'Here's the fifty pounds I owe you,' you don't want him to say 'Thank you very much and don't forget about the other three hundred and forty one.' You want him to be in a drunken stupor, put down his bottle of whatever for a minute and say, 'Jush you forget about it, darlin’. Jush you forget about it. Go an' buy a dresh or shomething wish it for yourshelf. We're the fucking Inaldn, sorry, Inland Revenue. We've got money coming out of our earsh, you know, we don't need yoursh as well,' and then fall off his chair."
"You know, I never thought of it that way." Eric was still staring at the workers unloading the crates. "Do you recognise that man there, the one holding the van door open? I mean, don't stare of course, but have you seen him before?"
"Oh, its Donald! Definitely. It's Donald McRonald, the clown we bumped into a few days ago." Lucie started waving to him and hollering "Hello! Donald!" in an effort to gain his attention. Eventually Donald looked up and waved back unenthusiastically.
"That's his day job, I suppose," Lucie speculated, "as a delivery boy. I'm not surprised he isn't keen on being recognised."
It took a couple of minutes before Eric and Lucy could cross the road. By the time they were walking up to the van, all four workers were packed into the front seat and ready to move off.
"Stocks for the Christmas party?"
"Yus, guv," said Donald.
"It's amazing what the taxpayer has to pay for, isn't it, sometimes?" Lucie asked.
"We can't really say any more about it than that," said Donald, with deliberate pomposity. After all, the van had to be well off site before anybody realised that neither it nor its crew had any right to be mucking about inside the Inland Revenue's building.
"Come on, Lucie," said Eric peaceably enough as the delivery boys wound up the windows of the van and drove off vaguely eastwards. "Let's go to Selfridges and look at wedding dresses."
"Wedding dresses?" Lucie was taken aback.
"Yes, I've always wanted one. If I buy one will you wear it in bed?"
"Oh, I was thinking… Of course. I just misunderstood a bit."
"Misunderstood? You don't want to marry me, do you?"
"Well, yes. Actually I think it would be quite a good idea. We missed the opportunity forty years ago so now that we have another opportunity the least we can do is take it."
"Oh. Well, I'd love to as well. So shall we go to Selfridges and look at wedding dresses?"
"Yes. Definitely. I would enjoy that."
"Shouldn't we do things in a different order?" Lucie pondered aloud, "Like setting a date first?"
"And deciding whether to hold the ceremony in a church or a registry office, and who to invite, and where to go on honeymoon? That's not the right approach, it's the sort of approach you have to building a system architecture or something at work, but marriage is something you do for fun and laughter. For us, the question is, what other parts of preparing for a wedding are fun? All that organisation's a separate, parallel process, which we can do first, or afterwards, or at the same time as choosing a dress. But as we're in the right place, not far from it anyway, we can buy a wedding dress and you can wear it in bed without assigning a date to the purpose for which the dress was sold. This is fun. Organisation comes later, if anywhere."
"How about choosing a cake?" asked Lucie.
"Eating cake in bed makes me fall asleep," Eric objected.
"That's definitely not what either of us would want." Lucie smirked, cutely. "All right. Choosing the dress does sound fun, they are beautiful and sensual things, and do you know I have never worn a wedding dress?"
"Neither have I."
"Should we buy two, then, one each?"
"That would be ace."
Lucie was taken by the symbolism of the dress: virginity, submissiveness, and the sense of wearing it to mark one day which was your transition from being an independent human being to being part of an interdependent couple, which was not an idea that she really relished much. On the other hand, it was the contrasting textures of the dress that appealed so intensely to Eric. The cool smoothness of the dress fabric, the slightly rough surface of the veil, the tight and deliberately sexual underwear beneath the shapely but slightly looser long skirt, and the firmness of the rings and tiara all appealed to Eric, who couldn't at that moment think of a more sexual garment to drape, clip, strap and tighten over Lucie's body, and then reach out and clasp to himself in bed by candle light. He even wondered whether it would be possible for Lucie to hold her bouquet in bed with them. "Can we get the shoes as well?"
"Sure. Glossy white pumps, six-inch heels. Worn with white stockings and silver toe nail varnish."
"You are a very sensual woman." Eric had already known for a while that Lucie had an intense, feminine sexuality that appealed to him, but this was the first time he had noticed her consciously playing on his fantasies. He could already imagine himself holding her through the cool, smooth, heavy white fabric, and she could already imagine him doing it.
Selfridges Weddings Department gave the happy couple a cooler reception than they expected. Lucie said, "We would like to buy one wedding dress," and the lady in charge seemed quite comfortable with that, but when Lucie added the word "each," the lady looked down at the heavy notebook on her desk and said, "I'm sorry, I don't have any appointments today or tomorrow." That came as rather a surprise, because the notebook was open at a page headed clearly by the date, and there were only two appointments written in it. Eric took their point exactly: if you wanted to wear such dresses, even if you paid thousands of pounds for the privilege of owning each one, you had to wear it on the supplier's terms: absolutely, strictly women only, which struck Lucie as a bit unfair and Eric as cruel. Lucie was able to make the best of it. "Is there another shop where we can get them?" she asked. "Well, I don't know," said the senior shop assistant, "perhaps Nuptials down the sides street, or someone else."
"That's a pity," said Lucie, out on the street, who had spent the last ten minutes imagining herself in the full uniform of white underwear, dress, veil and shoes.
"We couldn't really afford two wedding dresses," said Eric.
"You're not one to spend first and worry afterwards?" Lucie thought about this. "On balance I suppose that's a good thing in a husband. Would you have bought them, if they had let us buy them?"
"Oh, yes, if the credit card company allowed it."
"Never mind. Want to go and look somewhere else? I'll tell them you're my sister."
"Will they believe you?"
At Nuptials they were received rather better. An old man in a suit, obviously the owner, welcomed them, gave Lucie a flower, congratulated them on taking "the plunge," as he called it, and showed them his mannequins wearing dresses of different lengths and designs. Lucie and Eric immediately fell for "Marilyn," as their owner called her, and he had no difficulty measuring both the customers for dresses. "A male cut is interesting," he said, "as a dressmaker, I mean, it isn't the same as making a woman's dress in the same size, so I really look forward to making it."
"I really look forward to wearing it, too," said Eric, and Lucie gave him that cute look of hers.
"You will look stunning," said the owner, really meaning it and without any trace of irony, sarcasm or unpleasantness of any kind.
"As there are two of you, this order will take twice as long as usual, and I shall take a special interest in it myself. Can you come back in two weeks?"
They agreed to come back in two weeks, and went back out onto Regent Street.
"And now," Lucie said, "Hamleys." In her imagination she and Eric were both wearing silvery white gowns complete with veils, gloves, high shoes, tiaras and rings on their fingers.
"The toy shop?"
"Yes, darling. You never know, they might have something that I want to play with."
"Have you always secretly wanted a toy tank and a train set, then?"
"Yes!" Lucie agreed. "I really have. I'll share my Barbie dolls with you and you let me shoot Buzz Lightyear with tank shells."
"While wearing bridal gowns?"
"Eric!" Lucie drawled, in mock sympathy. "You're a tomgirl! Yes, that would be marvellous."
A tatty young man walked up to them and handed them a leaflet printed on cheap paper in two colours. God Hates Gays, the title read. "And So Does Everyone Else," it continued further down the page.
"You're a bit late," said Lucie as kindly as possible in the circumstances, "I've just bought my boyfriend a bridal gown."
Mr. Tatty, as Lucie already thought of him, tutted. "Is he gay, then?"
"No," said Lucie, "at least, I don't think he is, because he has sexual intercourse with me and he enjoys it."
Mr Tatty thought about this. "That's not natural."
"Yes, it is. And he wants to wear a bridal gown and make love to me at the same time."
Mr Tatty thought about that as well, and then he said, "I'd like to share with you some of the wonderful things we learn in the— Oof!"
Thinking as one, Lucie and Eric both punched him smartly up the bracket. "Bloody Christians!" Lucie swore at him as he thrashed around on the pavement amid a pile of leaflets.
"Are you thinking what I'm thinking?" Eric asked.
"No. Well, I might be, but I don't think I am."
"All right, we'll see. Can you see any policemen about?"
"No, Eric. Is anything the matter?"
"Oh, everything's fine. I was just double checking."
A small crowd had begun to gather around the laid out, but conscious, form of Mr Tatty. Eric bent down and placed both hands between Mr Tatty's legs. With a light squeezing movement in one place and pressure from two fingers in another place, he made Mr Tatty orgasm instantly into his pants.
"You bastard!" yelled Mr Tatty, "you've turned me into a gay! When I die, I shall go to Hell now!"
"If you see the Devil," said Eric in an attempt at humour, "tell him I sent you." The crowd laughed.
"Did you enjoy that?" Lucie asked.
"Who are you asking, him or me?" asked Mr Tatty.
"I don't mind. Why, did you enjoy it?"
"Yes, it was a lot better than I expected." Mr Tatty turned to Eric and struggled to stand up. "Where did you learn that trick?"
"From Miss Gray, my Headmistress."
"Good Lord, were you at the Haig Memorial School?"
"Yes, I was, many years ago."
"She never did that for me. You must have been beautiful. Do you ever…"
"Not with boys I don't know. And before you ask, my girlfriend doesn't, either."
Around them the crowd dispersed, leaving the leaflets to blow wherever the wind would take them.
Inside Hamleys, Eric didn't need to ask his way to the model railways. Like all railway enthusiasts, railways of any kind were a primary landmark on his mental satellite navigation, so he was able to find them without getting directions first. Lucie and he settled easily on The Flying Scotsman and decided that it should run on a shelf extending all the way around the lounge, as and when they acquired a flat so big that it had a lounge. Lucie found a Tonka tank intended for two year olds, and she felt very happy clutching it on the way out. "This is all we need to entertain ourselves," she said, "so who needs television?"
"Do you want Buzz Lightyear for a target?"
"No, I've got a better idea. I shall make stand-up cardboard cut-outs of Nick Clegg and David Cameron, and blast them off the face of the earth with high explosive shells."
"Do you think we could make a boxed game out of that?"
"It would certainly be a popular product, wouldn't it, in the British market."
"We could sell enough of the boxed sets to pay for our wedding dresses, couldn't we."
They both laughed.
"So you think we should book a church?" Eric asked when they were back on the street.
"Not now. Let's leave it to the last minute and have a panic."
"Sounds good to me. If you think about it, it could be quite hilarious playing with a toy tank on the living room floor and then suddenly starting to run around in front of Mum and Dad and the cats yelling, 'Oh my Gawd, I forgot to book a church, what are we all going to do?'"
"Remind me. I really have to do that. Booking a church is not the sort of thing you have an opportunity to forget about every day of the week, is it?"
"No, so we shall take the chance to not book it while we have it."
Eric looked up and down the road with its dull vista of plate glass windows, expensive luxuries and tourists, and he asked "Is there anywhere else on Regent Street that we ought to visit?"
"Liberty's, for dresses, and Agent Provocateur, for underwear. And I would suggest Heal's for furniture, but we've already got some."
"Dresses and underwear sounds like quite a good way to spend an afternoon on the tourist trail in the West End of London."
Agent Provocateur happily measured Eric and Lucie and let them choose bras, pants and stockings even to the extent of letting Eric mingle with normal customers, which made Lucie feel quite proud of choosing a shop with a liberal turn of mind and sensibly organised changing rooms. "Shall we buy matching underwear or contrasting designs?" she thought out loud.
"You're thinking out loud," said Eric. "I love the way you do that."
"And your answer is?"
"Were you thinking to me? I thought you were just thinking to yourself. I didn't realise you were doing telepathy."
"Oh, that was definitely telepathic thinking out loud. You're supposed to think out loud back again, so I know what you're thinking and you know what I'm thinking."
"I get it. I want us to wear matching colours and identical designs. I think a couple looks prettiest when they're wearing as much as possible the same clothes. I'd say we ought to wear the same size as well, but I don't think we're the same size, are we?"
"I'm afraid not. Hey, I've got a really stupid joke to tell you. There were three pieces of string, and they walked into a bar, and the barman said 'I'm sorry but I don't serve pieces of string, I only serve people,' so the three pieces of string tied themselves together in a knot so as to look like a head, and then they pulled strands of string fibre out of the top of the knot to look like hair, and then they walked back into the bar, and the barman said 'Hello again. You don't really think you look like a person, do you?' and guess what the three pieces of string said."
"I don't know. I give up."
"They said, in unison, 'No, I'm a frayed knot.' Get it?"
Eric groaned, then burst into helpless laughter, and then Lucie started to laugh at her own joke as well. "Here," she said as she recovered, "how are we getting on?" She found Fifi bra sets in both their sizes. "We'll take these. My boyfriend here," she added to the shop assistant who served them, "can't wait to get home and try these on."
"That's what we are here for," said the assistant. "Do you want to spend a bit longer looking at women's underwear, or do you want to go and try them on?"
Lucie looked at Eric and said in a low voice, "I think we'll try them on at home. It could take several hours."
"Oh, that's definitely possible."
"Eric," said Lucie, "I suppose the day you buy your wedding dresses is a special day, but I have to tell you, I never wanted to undress and make love to you more than I do right now, here."
"On Oxford Street?"
"Well, yes, I suppose I am. We have to distract ourselves in some way before we just rip each other's outer clothes off and make love in our underwear."
"Do you want to know what underwear I have on?"
"Yes. Anything about your underwear is a matter of vital importance."
"I'm wearing a Per Una black bra. I couldn't find the matching panty so I wore a green one." She looked an accusation at Eric. "Where did the black panty go, I wonder."
"I'm wearing it."
"Is it comfortable?"
"It's beautiful but a bit tight. The more I think about how beautiful your panty is, the tighter it gets."
"Women's panties are odd like that. And do you know what?" She leaned over so that she could whisper to Eric, "The more I think about you wearing my panty, the damper my panty gets."
"The green one?"
"Yes," she continued in a whisper, "isn't that strange?"
Eric put his arm around Lucie's waist, pulled her close and kissed her. "Do you know something?" she asked him "I love you. I really love you. I don't think I ever felt this way before, about anyone."
Chapter 10.We'll meet again
Tourists on Oxford Street have a choice of a dozen restaurants, perhaps even a hundred, within a few minutes' walk, but if you know what you are doing in that part of London you will buy your dinner at The Blind Foreman. It is hidden up a side street and is known only to residents, and since its owners have carefully removed all mention of it from directories, maps, aerial photographs and satellite navigation data, its existence is known only to people who have discovered it by chance. Lucie, as it happened, knew The Blind Foreman well, and had known it since her aunt, who had been a regular customer, brought Lucie there as a teenager.
Lucie and Eric walked in and were immediately smothered by the warmth from a couple of simulated coal fires and the company of assembled drinkers, who obviously all knew one another by sight at least. "Pity they don't have coal any more," said Lucie, as she grabbed a bar stool and motioned to Eric to grab the one beside her. "And don't go to the bar and ask for a menu, because you'll look like you're a tourist if you do. The menu is steak pie and mash, fish and chips, roast pork and roast potatoes, roast chicken and champ, Lancashire hot pot or ham and egg salad."
"What's the vegetarian option?"
"The vegetarian option is go somewhere else." Lucie paused. "As it should be, bloody self-centred twerps, they're only being selfish. I'll tell you something else, and this is a strict insider's secret that, along with the name and location of this wonderful place, you must never tell anybody else. You may smoke here."
"Cigars, cigarettes, cigarillos, whatever. You just have to stay away from anyone who's eating. See? Common sense in action, and it works. You never noticed anyone smoking when you came in, did you? No. Did you ever kiss a girl who was smoking a cigar?"
"Can't say I have."
"Now's your chance. Betty!"
Betty, a pretty lady of sixty years or so, came to the bar and spoke in perfect East London, "Yes, duck?"
"A Winston Churchill, please."
"Here." Betty already had the cigar ready, and she handed it to Lucie together with a matchbook. "Four pounds fourteen and six."
"I'm pre 1971," said Eric.
"It's just her way of asking." Lucie gave Betty a five pound note.
Betty fumbled in her pocket and found twenty-two new pence in change. "I never could get used to this bloody dismal currency," Betty shook her head, "and in the end I gave up."
"I don't blame you." Lucie sliced the band off the cigar with her thumbnail, sucked it and held the match against it. "Now, excuse us a minute," she said to Betty, "but Eric and I have some serious snogging to do. Here," she gave the matchbook to Eric, "put this into your pocket until next time I buy a gasper."
Lucie filled her mouth with smoke and opened it wide, for a kiss. She licked her lips sensuously, put her hand on the back of Eric's head and held him close for what might have been five minutes. When they separated, several of the drinkers around them clapped and cheered. "You see?" she asked, "what's it like?"
"It's good, very erotic."
"Pubs are like everything else. The more the government improves them, the worse they've become. A few years ago we could have kissed and smoked in any pub in England. Now, there's only this one left. Do you want to do it again?"
Lucie opened the top three buttons of her blouse to give him a glimpse of what she was going to show him later, drew another mouthful of smoke and pulled Eric to her again. This time she felt herself almost melting against him, so intense a love for him did she feel. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pulled him against her so tightly that he had to remember to breathe through his nose. The deep, metallic tang of the cigar smoke melded with the sweet taste of her lips to make an incendiary and an aphrodisiac. When eventually they separated, Lucie said to those around her, quite in general, "I am going to marry this man." She held up the Agent Provocateur carrier bag and pulled out the Nuptials receipt from it. "We have our wedding dresses ordered already."
There was a chorus of "Congratulations," "You lucky bugger" and "Does she have a sister?"
In the corner a voice said, "What, you've got one wedding dress each?"
"Yes," said Eric, "something as beautiful as a wedding dress has to be shared."
"I quite agree." It was Mr Tatty. "Quite agree, and do you know what? I've decided to find a boyfriend. Can you show me how to do that trick with the orgasm again?"
"Not here, no. But girls can do it too. It doesn't have to be a boyfriend."
"Can they?" He was looking at Lucie for an answer. She smirked and nodded. "All of them?" he continued, and Lucie shook her head gently. "Uh-uh," meaning no, "just a select handful."
"Do you have a sister?"
"I have a friend who's looking. Give me your first name and phone number." She found a ballpen in her handbag and passed it to Mr Tatty with the cigar band. He scribbled something on it and returned it. "Timothy Tatty. I'll tell her."
"Is she beautiful?"
"Fabulous. 38d, long brunette hair, eyes the colour of black coffee and legs all the way down to the ground. Wears stockings and thigh length boots and". she whispered, "lacy knickers. You'll love her. Wait a moment, I'll be back."
Lucie disappeared into the toilet for a moment and came out giggling. "I've found Mr Tatty a girlfriend."
"He'll be forever in your debt. How did you do it?
"I wrote a message on the toilet wall. Someone will see it."
"Over there," said Eric. "I didn't see them come in. It's definitely Donald and the van crew."
Donald and Cocoa were sitting together, Donald holding hands with Nora and Cocoa with Margaret.
"Of course it's them." Lucy waved to them. "Donald's local, he's working here. He must have decided to do his friends a favour and introduce them to this place."
"That'd be the best day's work he ever did for them, I should say. Betty!" Eric called Betty over, and she looked up at him from the far end of the bar. "Get a round in for my friends over there," he said, pointing to them. "Whatever they're drinking."
Betty went off to fetch glasses. As she poured wine for the women and pints of beer for the men, Lucie heard a mobile phone ring. Mr Tatty reached into his breast pocket and produced the ringing phone.
"It's his new girlfriend."
"Who is she?"
"Lovable woman in her thirties whom I've never seen before in my life. Weren't you watching the toilet door? He'll worship the ground she treads on."
A startlingly pretty girl, tall, blonde and with very nice curves walked out of the toilet and took the seat beside Mr Tatty.
"You weren't watching closely enough," said Eric.
"That, or he now has two girlfriends. Rule one of phoning numbers you found on walls is scotch the competition. If he's a nice boy, rub his number out."
Lucie hadn't noticed the radio playing in the background. It was probably only there to provide Betty and her cow orkers with audible wallpaper at times when they were there and the customers weren't. Nobody could have heard it above the conversation and the noise of drinking and eating and, yes, smoking. It was obviously a modern radio, because it was playing a radio channel that no outdated set would have received, but in keeping with the general atmosphere which had made The Blind Foreman so popular, it was disguised by a bakelite box in the 1920's 'sunrise' style.
Betty shouted "Shut up an' listen to this."
"…comet is approaching the Earth on a collision course and is expected to strike the surface in about two hours' time," said the male voice at the microphone.
"At least we won't have to put up with that bloody David Cameron any longer," said Mr Tatty, and his new girlfriend Matrioshka laughed.
"Get another round in, quick," called Nigel, "American Express?"
"That'll do nicely." The entire pub laughed, and Betty resumed her normal duties fetching wine and beer.
"Do you think there's really anything hurtling towards us?" Lucie asked Eric.
"They lie about everything else. Why should this be true?"
"visible to the naked eye in the eastern sky since the first of November, and for most of that time it has looked a bit like a bar of soap," said the radio as a lull in the conversation allowed the drinkers to hear it. "It is now large enough to be the largest object in the night sky, and you can see it with the naked eye provided there isn't a building in the way, or anything. Here is our expert astronomer Patrick Moore."
There was a short pause and Patrick Moore began at his unmistakeable enormous rate of words per minute, "Of course this is a very exciting moment for astronomers all over the world who have been predicting another extinction event rather like the one sixty-five million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs and left a crater in northern Sibera so deep that you could have put two hundred double decker buses into it one on top of the other." Patrick Moore was obviously enjoying his last couple of hours on Earth so much that he never paused for breath. "I don't think we've seen anything like this before, it's a unique event…"
Betty turned the radio down again and put it back behind the bar, and Patrick Moore's unique gift of the gab continued to excel itself.
Eric and Lucie spilled out of the pub and into the street, along with the massive crowd who had heard the broadcast interrupting other programmes. They held hands in the crush and both were, for the first time, actually afraid of being separated and meeting their ends apart.
Above them in the sky was an object the size of a bar of Imperial Leather, but growing steadily. It was moving straight towards the spot where they stood.
"We'll never get married," said Lucie, "it's all over."
"Did you keep the receipt for the dresses?"
"It's in the pub, in my handbag. What good is it now?"
"You and I," said Eric, "are going to save the world."
"Oh, Eric! You are the bravest and boldest man in the whole of history."
"No, I'm not. I just enjoy my life too much to let a flying bar of soap put an end to it. Is that a fire escape?"
"There's a metal staircase up to the roof of the pub. If I climb that, I shall be a bit closer to the flying peril."
"What are you going to do?"
Eric looked around at the crowd. "There's Donald. He can help. Donald! Donald!"
Donald shuffled through the crowd, still holding his pint in one hand and Nora in the other. "Are you good at maths, Donald?"
"Not much, but…"
"I did accountancy," said Nora, understating her gifts.
"This is no time for modesty," Eric shouted above the crowd.
"Should I take all my clothes off?" Nora asked.
"I mean," Eric continued to shout, "modesty about your talents. How much do you think the flying bar of soap weighs?"
"Nothing. It's in outer space. There is no gravity there, so it doesn't weigh anything."
"All right, what do you think the mass of the flying bar of soap is?"
"If it's made of rock, ten to the nineteenth tons."
"But it's a jolly long way away. Suppose a lump of stuff about the size and weight of a human head were to hit it, how much would that deflect it?"
"Not much. It has terrific inertia and speed. I'd say one one-hundredth of one degree."
"Would it miss the earth?"
"It probably wouldn't, because the earth has a gravitational field that would pull the asteroid towards it. I'd say that whatever hits it, we're all going to die."
Eric looked at Lucie and tried to assume an expression of earnestness. "It's worth a shot."
"No, it isn't," said Nora.
"Eric! Are you going to risk our last two hours together?" Lucie was shocked.
"I'll be back in a few minutes."
Dragging Lucie by the hand, Eric shoved through the crowd to the foot of the fire escape stairs. He was just putting one foot on the bottom step when a policeman appeared from nowhere. "Where are you going, sir?"
"I'm, er, going to the roof to get a better view."
"You're a looter," said the policeman, "and you'll stay down here where I can keep an eye on you."
Lucie, sensing that her intervention was unlikely to make matters worse, said, "Officer, I always wanted to kiss a policeman in uniform. Please?"
Lucie kissed the officer firmly on the mouth and in an instant he was transformed into a Legless Salami Frog. Donald, watching from a safe distance, recognised the species instantly. "Oi, shouldn't you be in Surbiton?" He began to laugh helplessly.
"That's all I can do to help you," said Lucie. "Good luck, my darling. Goodbye, or au revoir." She kissed Eric lightly and he didn't turn into any sort of frog.
On the roof of the pub, Eric searched in his pockets and found Lucie's matchbook. He struck a match, held it to his left ear and waited as the flame ignited his ear and it began to fizz and sparkle. Eric inclined his head carefully towards the approaching asteroid. With a tremendous bang his head parted company from his shoulders and flew into the sky at high speed.
"Do you think his head reached escape velocity?" Donald asked Nora.
"Without continuous propulsion? There's no chance of that," Nora replied.
"Don't under-estimate my Eric," shouted Lucie. "At least he is doing what he can. If he dies in the impact, or from falling off the roof, it won't be for want of courage and resourcefulness."
On the roof, Eric felt his head burgeoning from inside his collar and resuming its rightful place. "Bloody hell," he said out loud, "my neck is fucking sore." He turned to the crowd and raised both fists in a gesture of victory, but nobody noticed. He came back down the fire escape, carefully so as not to tread on the Legless Salami Frog, and Lucie threw her arms around him.
"My hero," she sobbed against his shoulder, "my darling hero."
The flying bar of soap was now bigger than it was when they had first spilled out of the pub. Maybe it was half as big again, or maybe double the size. It seemed to be both unstoppable and unstopped. "Piss!" Eric exclaimed.
"At least you tried your best," Lucie said, "and nobody can do any more than that."
"I brought you a beer," said Donald, handing Eric a freshly drawn pint, "because I knew you'd do something pointless."
Eric held the beer in his right hand, conscious that this was quite possibly the last beer he would ever drink. The froth on the beer had subsided and the asteroid was reflected in the bubbly surface of the drink. As Eric raised the glass he saw the reflection yaw to one side, turn slightly on its axis, and suddenly pitch upwards. Torn between drinking some of the beer and looking into the sky to see whether the asteroid was actually changing its course or whether this was some optical illusion brought about by being reflected in a tilted container of effervescent fluid, Eric decided to drink the beer. He was three quarters through the pint when a roar of cheer and triumph surged through the crowd. They weren't going to die after all! The asteroid was visibly on a course that would take it through the sky above them, over the horizon and away to lose itself in the furthest reaches of outer space. And he knew that it was he, Eric, who had diverted it and saved the whole of the Earth.
"Two weeks' time, then?" Eric reminded Lucie of the most important date in their lives so far.
"Two weeks. That will be Tuesday the fourteenth. The dresses will be ready by then, and I'm sure we will find a church free if we leave it until the last minute to book."
"Nobody noticed me save the world," Eric observed.
"I noticed," said Lucie, "and it doesn't matter that nobody saw you do it. You did it. We are still alive."
Lucie paused and hugged Eric close. Around them the crowd was beginning to disperse. Above them the asteroid was shrinking again, and moving away.
In the background Eric's head plummeted to earth at enormous speed and landed with a crash of brickwork, slate and glass on top of the headquarters of the Inland Revenue, destroying it completely.
"Come on," Eric cheered up, "let's go back to the pub. We have good reason to celebrate."
Copyright Ken Johnson, 2010.
You may read this novel, enjoy it, perform it, recite it, set it to music, quote from it, copy it or republish it freely without paying me anything, provided that attendance at the performance, recitation, song, quotation, copy or publication is free to the public. If you make any money out of this novel, I want a share.
By the same author:
There are several novels and CDs with the same title as this novel.
This novel isLife in the Bus Laneby Ken Johnson (2010.)It is not connected to works of the same name byPat Lunt (2010),Tony Bell (2007),Marcia Clayton (2001),employees of First UK Bus (2009),Puzzle House (2008)or Applicants (2008).
Dramatis personæ in case anyone ever wants to make this novel into a film:
|Character||Played by||Special power|
|Eric, boyfriend of Lucie and adventurer:||Geoffrey Palmer||Head explodes|
|Lucie, girlfriend of Eric:||Doris Day||Turns men into frogs by kissing them|
|Donald McRonald, a clown, boyfriend of both Cocoa and Nora:||Jimmy Edwards||Head explodes|
|Cocoa, boyfriend of Donald McRonald and chartered accountant:||Peter Bowles||Opens doors, bottles etc.|
|Jonathan, a tabby cat:||Felix the Cat|
|Rebecca, a little black and white cat:||Top Cat|
|Margaret Pullet, neighbour of Donald McRonald:||Jayne Russell||Accountancy|
|Nora, friend of Margaret and girlfriend of Donald:||Marilyn Monroe||Knows London bus network by heart|
|Julio Prodi, a fishmonger:||Richard Baker|
|Marmaduke Pangbourne, a shopkeeper:||Sean Connery|
|Businessmen, owners of the Thresher and Grayne combine harvester factory:|
|Nigel Thresher||Campbell Singer||TBW|
|Joe Grayne||Tony Hancock||TBW|
|Miss Gray, Headmistress of Eric and Lucie's school:||Maggie Kirkpatrick||Makes boys orgasm on contact|
|Katy McConnel, a shop assistant at the Ross draper's shop:||Su Pollard|
|Thomas Tatty, a nut case distributing anti gay literature:||Nigel Planer|
|Leone Petulengro, a fortune teller:||Does not appear in person||Forecasts past events accurately|