MIMI AND THE VIRUS, The Complete Novel

MIMI AND THE VIRUS (The Complete Novel)

MIMI AND THE VIRUS (or ‘Useful Tips on How to Stay Alert’)

a new novel by

JOHN MURRAY

copyright John Murray, Holmfirth HD9 UK. Published 2020-2021

one of the best comic writers we’ve got’ JONATHAN COE, The Observer

John Murray’s latest novel is a topical parable about Covid 19, confused and confusing world leaders, and what social distancing does to your head and your heart.

It is set in September 2020, some six months into the pandemic. Con Selby is running an adult puppet theatre in a small North English town, and is currently rehearsing a Covid-related political satire called ‘I Didn’t Do It’.

Selby also has some well-kept secrets, and regularly has extraordinary liaisons with Mimi O’Houlihan from Clifden, Connemara, a remarkable self-taught scholar. Mimi is both a yoga expert and an expert on the Kamasutra, as well as on linguistics and the hidden meaning of seemingly innocent fancy cakes, as encountered in cafes specialising in High and Afternoon Teas.

‘One can modify behaviour or replace a severed leg with a wooden prosthesis, but one cannot substitute a manufactured sensibility for a sensibility that does not exist. Nothing sticks in this void, nothing can take hold.’

MARGUERITE DURAS in Crime: The Pleasant Dream

‘And then there is the added interest of the weird semi-sexual relation with the horse…’

BORIS JOHNSON in 2005 describing his pleasurable experiences of fox-hunting, in the Spectator, of which he was then editor

Chapter 1

Barney Rubble Goes to Barnard Castle

It was in the sixth month of The Great Pandemic, and Conroy Selby was half way through his puppet show rehearsal, and badly in need of both a drink and a breath of air. He left his select invited audience with some refreshments carefully prepared by himself, then walked into the nearest pub where reasonably enough he hoped for a radical change of scene, in the sense of a cheerful companionable hubbub. It was a Friday night and it was very busy, but because it was a mild evening in mid-September, the bulk of the customers were drinking outside. They were certainly making a hell of a racket, it struck the middle-aged puppeteer, the usual Friday night amplified vivacity, but far louder than any standard weekend din. Constantly confirmed by all those printed warning signs and arrows on the saloon bar walls and floor, it was of course because of the hypothetical lurking presence, but hopefully physical absence, of the unpitying virus, with which in very literal terms, the customers were in constant competition. As if by sympathetic magic, as if they were some sort of weekend conference of provincial English witch doctors, they were trying to beat the bastard into submission and non-existence, by the collective ritual of very noisily enjoying themselves. And who, Selby muttered sotto voce, with his cigar-flecked lips visibly moving, could reasonably blame them?

Selby was the last person he knew to have acquired a mobile phone, but one of the few things he liked about them was that they sanctioned the admirable business of talking to oneself in public. In the old days it was only fist-flailing schizophrenics and far gone alcoholics who jabbered away to an invisible audience, but these days everyone was at it, vicars and Conservative councillors included. Indeed, with the prevalence of hands-free phones, it was all too reasonable in 2020 to suspect the motives and integrity of anyone who wasn’t regularly talking frenetically to themselves and sporting crazy hand gestures. Tonight, it was mild enough to sit outside adjacent to the handsome woodland that abutted the town and the nearby river, and Selby intended to do so, but the sheer number of customers meant they were encouraged to step inside to get their drinks. To do so, they had to queue in a snaking line extending into the courtyard, as if they were blameless Russians enjoying fraternal communism, but very much wanting the luxury of a loaf of bread in 1971. And of course, not only with a face mask covering every mouth and every nose, but with everyone standing at the regulatory two yards apart, which had created a decorous new terminology that didn’t exist six months ago, namely Social Distancing.

And that was how the problem started…

Selby was carefully standing two yards behind a very attractive young woman with dyed blue hair, who was fourth in line from the bar. But behind the puppeteer was a sleepy, you might say dozy looking man in his mid-seventies, wearing a give-away braided trilby hat, which was a fashion rarity indeed in 2020. It even had a jaunty feather in it, a brightly coloured plume, which must have looked all too dashing in among the Rotarians, Round Tablers and weekend golfers of say 1965. In keeping with his somnolent and extremely innocent expression, he was standing more like a yard, and then dammit only two feet off, and then buggerit, panic stations, as he was suddenly barely twelve inches from Selby, and clearly thought the arrows on the floor were a remnant of long-gone pub skittles.

At last Selby could not restrain himself.

“Social distancing please!” he hissed, rather like the hissing of one of his puppets should they happen to be a rampaging villain.

The old man was hard of hearing, which ought to have been a distinct advantage when it came to any dealings with Selby, who as it happened had an unusual surfeit of defective and arguably challenged older relatives.

“You what?” croaked this gent with the gorgeous kingfisher feather, as he cupped a predictably huge and bulbous ear.

“Social distancing please!”

The trilby man’s name was Milward Burlap though Selby was never to know this. He was a long retired junior school headmaster who was unusually well read and otherwise cultured in the sense of loving a great deal of classical music and opera, especially the Baroque French variety (he liked to boast that he was Rameau-mad) which now of course he had to play at Albert Hall volume on his Nineteen Seventies sound system. Not only was Burlap deaf, he also had permanent tinnitus, a result of a skiing accident in Austria back in 1973. To his surprise, only a year ago the former head teacher had discovered that the word ‘tinnitus’, meaning irritating and persistent noises in the ear, was derived from the far longer word ‘tintinnabulation’, a kind of linguistic swindle, as unlike the unpleasant condition, the latter is a tender and lyrical and very gentle sound. As is clearly obvious in the charming quotation: ‘the tiny tintinnabulation, faint as fairy bells.’ Burlap had no real clue what Selby was hissing about, and wasn’t helped by any lip-reading, as the puppeteer was excessively whiskery, and it was anyone’s guess what those suspicious lips were up to. All Milward Burlap could do, was do his best, meaning take an intelligent stab in the dark.

“So shall dustbins yield?” was his first rendition.

Selby was briefly and genuinely distracted by the musical rhythm of that quaint translation.

“Eh? No, not at all, man! Dustbins be damned! Social distancing, please!”

“So shall dustmen yield?” the old gent persisted.

“What? Oh, my fuck! Please move away from me, will you!”

 “There’s a strike on, eh? I wouldn’t blame them. Terribly monotonous profession. Lid off, tip, replace, lid off, tip, replace, lid off, tip, replace! And that’s it for forty hours a week. Regardless of any hygiene aspect, of course.”

Selby scowled and flapped his hands to try and shoo old Burlap away, as if he the amiable trilby man was as unhygienic as any striking dustman.

“Move away from me, man!” Then, a good deal louder. “Don’t you realise what you’re doing? You’re looming over me like a blasted ocean liner! Move away will you! Two yards! Two yards! Two yards!”

Burlap offered a judicial head teacher’s frown, as he eventually linked the aggressive hand gestures with the ugly words he’d heard.

“It’s bad enough insulting anyone with such an abusive nickname!  Even if you are perverse enough to think they or anyone else might deserve it. But to say that to someone you’ve never met, and who has never done you any harm? And to shout it not once but three times! And in public for everyone to hear!”

Selby gaped at him. “But I only said two yards. That’s all I said. Because I don’t want you to bloody well infect me! Who else d’you think would work my puppets if I came down with it? Move away will you, instead of lurching towards me like a bloody great magnet! Two yards, two yards, two yards!”

“Turd arse!” gasped Burlap.

“You what?”

 “Why on earth throw ‘turd arse’ at me? Three bloody times in a row. Turd arse, turd arse, turd arse!”

“I…”

“It’s not even an intelligent insult. It’s a classic case of ignorant redundance. Even a ten-year-old schoolkid would know as much. Where else would a turd possibly come from but from an arse? To speak your ugly and brainless saloon bar language.”

Selby snapped back that they were in fact in a saloon bar where bad language was permitted, albeit one covered with floor arrows and Covid 19 notices.  He then swore at this hideous world of mad contingent circumstances, turned tail, and fled. After some hesitation, he hurried over to the nearest supermarket and purchased a miniature bottle of red wine at an exorbitant price, the kind that impecunious teenage girls sneak surreptitiously into an expensive club. He then walked into the nearby little park, that was interestingly decorated with handsome eighteenth century tombstones, sat on a bench, and drained the bottle in three swallows. As he relaxed, he suddenly pictured his patient and grateful audience of precisely three: his Dad, Daniel Selby, aged eighty-six who like the turd arse trilby man was becoming very deaf; his ninety-year-old Uncle Dennis who was blind from macular degeneration since 2015, and his Aunty Mildred, a mere seventy-five, who had been born dumb or perhaps better to say mute at the end of the Second World War. He’d been away half an hour which was an excessive intermission, so he pounded the short distance to his studio theatre. There a good two yards apart, all on the front row sat Daniel, Dennis and the single Mildred Selby (despite numerous heartfelt offers, she had never married) who had all knocked back their substantial plates of bulgur salad with aubergines and peppers. Cookery and puppetry were Conroy’s twin hobbies, and his variously defective relatives were all contentedly licking their lips, and looking forward to the second act. All three of them liked alcohol, so they had been provided with bottles of cheap but extremely agreeable Czech beer. Dennis and Daniel by coincidence had followed the same career trajectory as that social distance vandal, the trilby man: junior school heads that is, which at least in the provinces often goes hand in hand with an intelligent radicalism and an autodidactic bent. Mildred had been a highly proficient secretary in Daniel’s school, and as both brother and sister knew sign language, it had proved a sinecure and a blessing for this baby of the family.

Con carried their plates and empty bottles to the minuscule kitchen cum hole-in-the-wall bar round the back of the stage. He returned by the side corridor and got behind the curtain to manipulate his two puppets for tonight’s preview show. The puppeteer was well aware this preview was for a deaf, dumb, blind and elderly audience, but, relatives or not, minus a crucial sense or not, they were manifestly more alert and critical than the average placid crowd. No doubt when you’re facing mortality, mused middle-aged Selby, at long last you are obliged to get your finger out and give life all you’ve got and more. There were only two characters in this play, which was entitled I Didn’t Do it and they were both called Fluffy, though easily distinguished as Fluffy Senior and Fluffy Junior. Selby provided the two loud and querulous voices, needless to add. They both depicted current world leaders who both remarkably had blonde and fluffy hair. Both of them were stout, in fact borderline obese as puppets went, though Junior’s hair was fluffier, and comically more unkempt than his transatlantic counterpart’s. Junior looked boyish and tousled, even though he was in his mid-fifties. Meanwhile Senior’s more businesslike mop had an emphatic sideways quiff, as they were called in the old days, and he also had a ruddy and choleric face. He was designed to look some twenty years older than his fellow marionette. The play had been scripted single-handed by Selby, and the puppets had been made by his girlfriend Dora who could not be here tonight, for as well as being a gifted marionette-maker, she also worked part time as a nurse and was therefore in great demand by the sixth month of the pandemic.

Daniel his Dad at eighty-six was very deaf, but had been given a printed script of the play and the theatre was only moderately dimmed for his benefit. Aunty Mildred was mute, but could hear every word as well as see the play, and likewise Uncle Dennis who had been blind for the last five years, could hear and comprehend the lines, which was all that really mattered. Without delay or any joking preamble, Selby leapt back into the drama.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Right at the start I’m talking about, son.  When we were both accused of being real slow off the mark, at the end of March and the days that followed. Your guy, your waddyacallit Chief Adviser. Great title, only you Brits could dream up something truly elegant like that. Sounds like Lord High Executioner and yeah, cool, he has that beautiful merciless look impresses me for one. His name is…I always think it’s Barney Rubble from The Flintstones cartoon, set in the Stone Age, and with cars pulled by dinosaurs and records played by pithycanthropussy beaks. Really funny, Fred’s sidekick with the throaty voice who is married to Betty Rubble, who was originally a cigarette girl in a bowling alley. Did you know that? Don’t tell anyone but I was completely in love with Betty Rubble when I was fifteen. Though it was chirpy Wilma Flintstone with the perky voice and the full set up front, turned me on even more. Anyway, son, when no one is supposed to be driving anywhere in England, your Barney Rubble, your Head Adviser, drives up from London to his Dad’s place up north, at wassit Dear Ham …

FLUFFY JUNIOR (coughs politely) Sir, might I most respectfully advise you over one or two troublesome trifles of forenames and surnames, and our absurdly confusing English geography. His father’s place was near the hallowed university city of Durham, and by Barney Rubble I think you must mean Barnard Castle where my adviser went to have his urgent eye examination. His wife you see had Covid symptoms, just as you and I have both had to battle the virus, in your case very recently and with extremely laudable fortitude…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep. Sure. Cool. Yep. It was God’s blessing in my case, and I sure did roast the tail of that dude of a fire ass virus. Yep. So, in a nutshell, Barney Rubble broke all the rules and drove his wife hundreds of miles up to Dear Ham, and then had the balls, I love it, to carry on to a village called Doughnut Corner to get his British eyes tested. That was cute, that last bare-faced tactical manoeuvre, and that really impressed me…Look you tell him, son, you tell your Big Chief Barney if ever he’s over by my… if ever he finds himself anywhere near the White Ho…

FLUFFY JUNIOR (clearing his throat nervously). Perhaps at this point sir, if I could with all humility amend just a little your heard-from-a-vast distance, hence understandably a mite skewed account. The fact is, it was my good friend and esteemed colleague, my outstandingly talented Chief Adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings, who with his wife and child went up to the Durham area and stayed in a cottage on his father’s farm. This was so that their young son could be looked after by Dominic’s parents, as Dominic’s wife had suddenly come down with the virus. They were even worried that the little boy had it too, but luckily he tested negative. Dominic then drove to have his eyes examined in Barnard Castle which is where just possibly I think you get your delightful animated character called Barney Rubble.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Barney Rubble or Barney Castle? Which should I go for? But in any case, most of them old English castles really are just rubble, aren’t they?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. He certainly did not drive to anywhere called Doughnut Corner, which I would readily admit sounds a very near homophone for Dominic Cummings. Often genially referred to as Dom by his many friends.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Homophone, you say? Dom Cummings, eh? That sure is some cute name. Personally, I’d petition for a name change if it was me. We all know what the word Dom makes anyone over the age of sixteen think of. And the kinda masks they use, ain’t as a rule for hygiene purposes. Come to that, we all know what the word Cummings makes most peop…

FLUFFY JUNIOR (rather less politely) As I’ve said numerous times in public, my inordinately talented and quite unreplaceable colleague, acted responsibly, legally and with the utmost integrity. I’m not ashamed to confess that when I muse over such an immeasurable integrity, I am moved with a very considerable emotion. The only stronger emotion I feel is when I think about the wonderfully steadfast British public, and how in the current crisis they have pulled together so courageously, and have exercised their good old British common-sense. They have without complaint sacrificed so much for that patriotic Greater Good. Including the truly sacred right of a common or garden Englishman, to stride into his local pub and enjoy a keenly anticipated pint without hindrance or cumbersome mask. Yes, they have sacrificed that sacred right, and have bravely stayed at home with a crate or two of Budweisers from Lidl or possibly Aldi or Nisa or Wm Low. Even more movingly, some of them are so incredibly brave and so bulldog fearless, they have purchased a crate of Corona. as if to say you may be the name of a cowardly and unsportsmanlike virus, but you will not overcome the noble and innate courage of a sacred albeit common or garden Englishman, like myself and my public house cronies!

FLUFFY SENIOR. Cronies? Coronies? Sure. But that phony eye test stuff was really cool. Barney Rubble knows how to spin em. He said his reason for the test was he needed to see if he was fit to drive to London, but by law he shouldna have been driving anywhere anyway. Especially with his little wife in the car has come down with the virus. That’s what’s called a double take on his part, or let’s say a magician’s sleight of hand.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I promise you there was no legerdemain in this case, sir. My colleague is a man of quite overwhelming personal integrity

FLUFFY SENIOR. Myself, I think Barney had a far more important reason for that eye test. I see him as my kind of No Shit From No One Guy, but I also see him as deep as the ocean, as being no one’s fool. I can tell you now, I know exactly why he wanted some new glasses, and it wasn’t anything to do with driving down to London. His eyesight for that purpose was obviously perfect.

FLUFFY JUNIOR.  I must confess I’m rather intrigued, sir. What possible other…

FLUFFY SENIOR. To see that dude of a virus better, of course! To see whether it was there or not! To see whether it was dancing about doing harm, or only pussying around and kidding.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. But…

FLUFFY SENIOR. With those cool new Doughnut Corner glasses, he only has to stare hard at his wife and he can see if the virus is making her sick or not. If she still has it, or if it’s blown itself away. Ordinary people with ordinary glasses wouldn’t see nothing, but not with a guy like Barney!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Blown away, sir?  That’s an extremely fascinating idea. Though in all humility, I…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Remember that guy, Kneejerk? He was Russian, I think. Or could have been Italian…Or might have been French?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Ah. I’ll possibly need a clue or two. You said that he was called Knee…

FLUFFY SENIOR. The guy who created Superman.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I… did he really? You know, I actually thought Clark Kent to be an American invention?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Not our American Superman, who is I admit very cool. But after all he is a cartoon and a comic, even if he is real lifelike. No, I’m talking about that flesh and blood European Superman. Kneejerk who invented him, said that he the genuine Superman didn’t pussy around. Superman went where others didn’t dare. Kneejerk apparently died of the clap, and went crazy, but before he did, he talked plenty of good sense. He inspired a great many great men, including, I’ve no doubt, your Chief Adviser, Barney Rubble.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. At this point I must obviously apologise. I’m afraid I stupidly misheard you, sir. You clearly must have said Nietzsche, not the extremely close homophone of Kneejerk. The great man with his legendary work, Thus Spoke Zarathushtra. Indeed, indeed! By the way, did you know that the name Zarathushtra literally means ‘Rich in Camels’?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah? An Ay-rab, was he, old Kneejerk? That’s cool. I don’t really care who has the good ideas, the genius ideas, as long as they are the good ideas of a genius. Rich in Camels or Barney Rubble, it’s all the same to me.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. And in most respects, I would heartily concur, sir. To be sure, a great idea is greater than the man who conceives it.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Barney Rubble, your Chief Adviser, who’d read his Kneejerk like I have, knew that because he’s a Superman, when he gets hold of the special glasses in Doughnut Corner, he’d be able to see the virus for what it is! Strong or weak. Toxic or fake. Fake news or Fox News. The enemy of the people, or the enemy of all the dudes and jerks. A lethal enemy, or more like a weekend bourbon hangover. Needing a spray of Walmart cleaner, or needing a shot of German steroids. Look at it this way, kid. Because your Barney Rubble happens to be a natural born Superman, in a way denied to most lesser mortals, he actually gives the glasses the power to see what ordinary guys cannot! You geddit? The glasses don’t help Barney Rubble, it’s Barney the genius, the friggin Superman, that helps the glasses!

And with that Selby drew the crimson stage curtain, and in a majestic baritone announced that Act One was finished and Act Two would be performed tomorrow evening at the same time and in this same venue. Unable, because of the plague, to embrace his three elderly hence vulnerable relatives, or even to shake their hands, he contented himself with blowing all three histrionic kisses. As he waved adieu, his mute but ever alert Aunty Mildred pleased him very much by holding up her tablet on which in twenty-four point bold she had typed Fucking Great, little Con! Mad Mockery Is Your Man. Meanwhile his deaf father whose speech was a little hard to follow, remarked that it reminded him of the touring Agitprop theatre he had witnessed here in the northern provinces some forty odd years ago: 7:84 and the like. But of course, they had had a didactic message of radical socialism, and the message was so obtrusive the drama was inevitably weak. It was blithely marketed as Working Class Theatre, but of course the working class stayed away in droves, and only paid-up liberal schoolteachers like himself, and social workers and college lecturers and the like, attended in the village halls.

“Though even they would fall asleep when the actors preached at them instead of acting. So, taking the piss is the right idea, Con. No slogans, no earnest propaganda, just keep on taking the piss.”

Uncle Dennis snorted as he brandished his white stick, “No amount of mockery can do those buggers justice. Kneejerk and his Magical Glasses is the least of it. I suspect that’s tame beside what he really thinks in the privacy of his august mind.”

Selby set off for the town centre, while his relatives walked in the opposite direction for Marble Street. There for convenience and mutual support, the three of them shared a large Edwardian villa. The puppet man stopped by the supermarket, scratched around in his pockets, and then angry and incredulous did the same thing about fourteen times, as if he had had his wallet stolen. He knew he shouldn’t smoke, that no one in his right mind diced with death and smoked in 2020, but he was bursting for a cigar. A big one or a little one, anything would do, and he knew for a fact that he’d started the day with a tin of Wee Willems containing at least four cigarillos. He rationed himself to three a day, and he had had one this morning, been tempted seventeen times to have another, but had manfully abstained. So much for his pious abstention. The tin was no longer there and he had no idea where the hell it had gone. He vaguely thought he might have emptied his pockets to find the cash for the Shiraz, consumed in the park where they had the eighteenth-century headstones. If he’d done so, they would have been emptied on that wall over there, so he went and scanned it half a dozen times, laterally as well as to front and rear, but found nothing. The little supermarket was closed, so no dice there. The pubs were shut early because of the virus, and in any case no longer sold tobacco of any kind. He was bursting for a cigar, and could think of nothing else but the odour and the flavour, and even the pleasant feel of the little tin every time he opened it. Even the solace of the bottle of wine he had back home, would only aggravate his yearning. And Dora his girlfriend was on nights tonight at the hospital, so there’d be no reliably five-star solace from that quarter either.

It was then he spotted a man sitting in the park that was filled with headstones, and who was smoking and clearly enjoying the hazardous pastime. He was about fifty, had a neat and fetching pony tail, was dressed tidily in good denims and a Levi jacket. He might have been a quietly charismatic art teacher or a lecturer at an art college, of which there were all of three in a twenty-mile radius. Selby had never seen him before, but he was one of those rare folk who looked amiable to the point of being put there specially for the purpose of being approached. From this distance he appeared to be smoking a cigarette, possibly a roll-up, but you never knew. It might just be a cigarillo, or even if not, he might just have a handy panatella or tin of miniatures in that nifty looking lecturer’s satchel by his side. So it was with a quaint and baseless confidence, that he walked across until he was about four yards away, meaning twice the recommended social distance, and addressed the stranger.

Hello there. Hello! I know it’s not something usually begged from a stranger, but have you such a thing as a cheap little cigar for me? I’m not usually as dozy as this, but I’ve been working very hard, and I’m clean out of my panatellas as well as my miniature cigarillos. The cigarillos -at one time there were also Churchman’s Cigarellas, and in my youthful courting years they were very dear to me – these so called cigarillos are customarily sold in attractive little tins, meaning they never get squashed in your inconsiderate bugger of a (or in Ireland they might say your ‘whore of a’) trouser pocket. Otherwise, if the miniatures are in a flimsy cardboard pack, the only safe pocket is the rear pocket, meaning the packet is effectively and affectionately kissing your backside, a pleasing reflection if ever there was. No, no thanks, I don’t want one of your cigarettes, no offence, but I just don’t like their smell, too acrid, too bitter, too of the moment perhaps, not a hint of posterity, medical dangers regardless. But no, me wondering if you have a spare cigar isn’t the only reason why I’m suddenly addressing you.  For a good five minutes I’ve been looking discreetly at your face, and especially at your eyes, and something very obvious has occurred to me. You look the kind of fellow, possibly an art teacher or even a practising artist or sculptor, am I right, that likes words. No, more exactly, one who devoutly adores, venerates and extols these curious little vandals called words, and everything to do with them. And, I would add, might go to some ferocious length to share your passion with others, whether they were likely converts or not, am I right? Not that that would stop you, Big Man (no I’m not Irish, but I very often wish that I was, a Dubliner from Ranelagh or Upper Leeson Street specifically) because at the risk of flattering you, you have the look of a determined and possibly stone-deaf proselytiser. And in case you are wondering, and I bet you are, I first heard that unusual and rather beautiful word aged twelve back in the Seventies, in Religious Education, RE, in relation to the Epistles when Saint Paul and his followers went converting or proselytising in Ephesus, Thessaly, Galatia etc. Which is to say, I learnt it in my Grammar School, and there you go again, you simply can’t get away from the universal obsession with that reified and deified demigod known as Words, when elevated as it always is to the status of Sublime and Hierarchical Stature. You will note that they don’t have Syntax Schools nor Semiotic nor Parsing Schools, nor Clause Analysis Schools nor bloody Tweeting nor Whatsapping Schools, though believe me before long they will, as their incorrigible vulgarity is of the breathtakingly transcendental kind, it goes beyond itself into unutterable abysses of stereoscopic crassness and sodden miasmas of eternally impenetrable stupidity, that in theory are mathematically as well as imaginatively impossible.

I’d be the first to admit I’m no clairvoyant, but I know with adamantine certainty that you really love those flaunting, flirting, tantalising Jezebels called Words. So here, absolutely gratis, is a generous handful of nice and big and very juicy ones for you, robust, plump and very succulent ones, ones that have metaphorical thighs, so to speak, as a spontaneous gift from one cordial stranger to another.

Usufruct!

You heard that? Yes? So, you know the word already, perhaps? No, no, I certainly did not say ‘Youse are fucked’, that would have been an excessive demonstration of wholly uncalled-for candour. Notwithstanding the fact that your shrewd mishearing happens to be extremely accurate, even clairvoyant in the proper sense. For like myself and everyone else worldwide in the autumn of 2020, with the festering ambience of the lethal plague, and the other lethal plague of our elected world leaders (meaning a majority of us lucidly albeit lemmingwise went and happily voted for the darlings), yes, you and I and everyone we know are indeed for the time being at any rate, truly fucked…

‘Usufruct’ means the right to enjoy the use of another’s property, short of the destruction or waste of its substance. I’m sure you’d agree it’s a beautifully sonorous word, but one that sounds at first glance like highway robbery and a passport to tyrannical appropriation. Far from it, for another interpretation is the assignment of one’s property to someone else, usually for the rest of their lives, which is to say the bestowal of a benign sinecure, as in the lord of the feudal manor giving a nice estate cottage to an old retainer until the old retainer snuffs it, and the lord can then do what he wants with his endearing largesse. Which is to say, the same word can have two opposite and diametric meanings, one of them worrying and one of them heartening, and this you might call an elementary lesson in Universal Ambiguity, which when taken to its full course I would call Universal Stereophony and/or Universal Stereoscopy. In plain layperson’s language, it means seeing everything structurally in the round, ambiguities and contradictions included, and indeed the latter to be comprehended as waxing and waning or possibly isomerising hallucinations. As a rule, such an understanding is wholly beyond the British, or at any rate the English, who can only ever so politely and with a modest cough think Either, Or, never Both, And. The latter being the sign of a truly mature which is to say truly adult as opposed to infantilised mind, in that it attempts however minutely and humbly to see things from the perspective of an aerial observer, to get the very tiniest fibrillating glimpse of what it is, to be like…and don’t look so frightened, art teacher!…God…

Now For A Most Entertaining Quiz…

What, my polite cigarette-smoking artist friend, have Mr Hans Eysenck and Mr DH Lawrence got in common?

Mm. A lightning resume, for both our benefits. Berlin-born Hans Call-Me-IQ Eysenck, one of the world’s best-known Behavioural Psychologists, got out of Germany in the Nineteen Thirties, and went to England where during the war he was almost interned as a dangerous alien. But at the age of twenty-four in 1940, under the supervision of Sir Cyril Burt, he managed to get his PhD at University College, London, and before long was hailed as a wondrously original empirical genius, over the next twenty years publishing his bestselling Uses and Abuses of Psychology and his Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, not to mention his delightful DIY brainbox’s yardstick, Know Your Own IQ. However, his precise methodology came under worried scrutiny (and at least one member of the public actually punched him on the nose) when he proclaimed that black people are genetically rather than environmentally inferior when it comes to intelligence, as quantified by that other demigod (qv what I said about Words) the all too delightful Intelligence Quotient. Not one to do things half-heartedly, immigrant Hans said the same thing was true of impoverished Italian and Portuguese and other Twentieth century immigrants to the USA, that indeed they were born objectively unintelligent, rather than made that way by malnutrition and the best in contemporary pan-European Fascism. Eysenck himself must have been chronically confused at an early age, as his Mum Helga was both a Silesian film star and a Lutheran, and his Dad Eduard a night club entertainer and a Catholic, who was once unanimously voted ‘the handsomest chap on the Baltic coast’. Hans had an unsavoury genetic endowment, you might say, of the risque and the shallow, which is why no doubt he became such a strident sobersides in his new emigre life. He also managed to affirm that proneness to cancer was genetically determined, rather than linked to cigarette smoking, or rather he insisted that the smoking connection had not been empirically proven. Both before and after his death in 1997, his methodology was forensically examined by the most rigorous of peer experts, and by 2019, King’s College, London was able to announce that at least twenty-six of his research papers were extremely unsafe, and particularly when it came to his curiously elastic ideas about equivalent statistical sampling. More to the point, as a child he was raised by his devoutly Lutheran grandmother, rather than his bohemian parents, and the tragic irony was that she wasn’t even a proper Lutheran, but a historical convert. Somewhere along the line her ancestors must have been proselytised, as she was of Jewish extraction, and because of that the poor woman was cruelly murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

But as for grandson Hans, and those titillating and tittupping sirens called Words, he loved them as much as the rest of the world, if not slightly more. Because of this particular addiction, in one of his Penguin bestsellers, he sourly lambasted a media egghead of the wartime Nineteen Forties. Namely, the most popular academic philosopher ever, CEM Joad, who alongside Julian Huxley and Commander AB Campbell (ABC that is, meaning what you see is what you get) was a veteran of the astonishingly successful BBC radio show The Brains’ Trust. Joad’s charismatic voice was heard more on the BBC Home Service than anyone other than the news reader, and he became so beloved among those listeners who liked words but had no idea what the bloody hell he was talking about, that he was regularly invited to open bazaars and to advertise proprietary brands of tea. His catchphrase in response to a listener’s query on the lines of say ‘What is the meaning of life?’ or ‘ Why does a dog turn round three times before settling down to sleep?’ was ‘It all depends on what you mean by…’ and in those two cases he indicated that we must sceptically query the serial ambiguity of ‘meaning’, ’life’, ‘round’, ‘times’, ‘settling’ and ‘ sleep’.   Poor CEM met a wretched fate in his last couple of years, rather in the same way that Hans Eysenck did so posthumously. Brainbox Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was fool enough to boast on air that he dodged paying for his ticket on the train, and so it was that one day he was caught red-handed, and ultimately prosecuted and fined. Cue his public shame emblazoned across the scandalised newspapers, and his dismissal from the BBC, whereupon he became permanently bed-ridden, and unsurprisingly converted from agnosticism to C of E Christianity, and wrote a book about it called The Recovery of Belief. Predictably his chronic confinement brought on a serious thrombosis and he died of terminal cancer in 1953. In a nutshell, his life was ruined because of a laughable train ticket, and because the hubris that came of his massive celebrity encouraged The People’s Philosopher (we’re crazy about our Joadie, even if we don’t know what the bloody hell he’s going on about!) to brag to his delighted radio audience that he was a fearless fare dodger.

Joad cheated the railways and was fined two pounds, whilst Hans Eysenck fiddled his results to demonstrate that Blacks and Italian and Portuguese immigrants to the USA, are born incorrigibly stupid, and no one should blame the schools nor the state nor hunger nor any related disease for their inevitable lack of innate genius. So, there you go, art teacher. No problem, is there, in swiftly deciding who is the bigger crook, when it comes to flagrantly fanning the flames of racial and cultural discrimination. Yet it was Eysenck who lambasted Joad, and not the other way about. Hans cried in public J’accuse CEM, and what he said specifically was that this heinous and unscientific so-called People’s Philosopher was guilty of…wait for it, now…take a nice big drag from your B and H there in anticipation…

meretricious sesquipedalianism!

That’s right. Tawdry verbosity! Pah! Pshaw! Bless my soul! Can it be true! Too many big words! Such a contemptible and truly wicked crime! For shame, CEM, sir! No doubt, according to Hans, Joadie’s tawdry wordiness was cunningly intended to disguise the brittle thinness and punily non-empirical nature of the philosopher’s so-called reasoning. He accused CEM Joad of blinding as well as baffling his listeners, that is to say the dear old credulous war-battered British public, with his bloatedly overweight if paradoxically underweight, yet infinitely seductive, hence treacherous words.

So far so feasible. But there is a common sense, as opposed to highbrow objection, to such a categorical assertion. Can’t you see it, art teacher? Surely it is glaringly obvious, viz that anyone who accuses anyone else of ‘meretricious sesquipedalianism’, is thereby guilty themselves of ‘meretricious sesquipedalianism’! Reflect that not one in a thousand intelligent members of the public, know what on earth ‘sesquipedalian’ means, and would therefore have to up and seize their well-thumbed dicks, or alternatively google it on their phones without delay. So it is, we have the pot called Hans calling the kettle called CEM black. Worse still, we have a bare-faced scientific cheat denouncing a far less culpable ticket dodger. Eysenck’s slander as I’ve said, is also a solipsism, a species of spurious reasoning that leads one squat up one’s unalluring arsehole, and with not a glimmer of helpful illumination coming down that ever so endless alimentary canal.

But God love us, B and H man! We have almost forgotten to bring in the fabled author, firebrand, and incendiary prophet, Mr DH Lawrence (1885-1930)! And just as important, his curious connection with some would say that brazen charlatan known as Prof Hans Eysenck. This connection, I should stress, could only ever have been discovered by myself, and no one else in this universe, if only because I have a questionable habit of seeing things that no one else has ever seen, nor ever will see. The fact is that this same DHL, who was famed for his simple, at times seemingly artless prose (e.g. and at random ‘He stopped and stared at her queer little smile’) was also deeply in love with Hans’s relatively obscure word ‘meretricious’! For in his controversial and libellous novel Women in Love, which one irate critic declared to be ‘a festering heap of dirt’ Lawrence scathingly makes mention of some characters who are indulging in (voila a staggered horn fanfare as with the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier) …

meretricious persiflage!

D’you understand, art teacher? Tawdry banter! Worse still, tawdry light banter! Worse still, tawdry light banter that is beneath the dignity of the brainboxes/eggheads doing the appalling light bantering! This despicable charade or time-wasting pantomime peculiar to decadent and moneyed highbrow society circa 1920, made DH Lawrence bloody well fume and spit! Life for DH was a serious matter!  Life was a life or death matter, and to prove it he died aged only forty-five, just a kid, just a youth, just a babe in arms. To paraphrase this perpetually raging man, you were required to get your teeth, not your fucking dentures, into this thing called life! Your manhood for example was a Cosmic Phallus or a Mighty Lingam, not a polite and pleasant and no you go first darling ‘penis’, which must be one of the most ludicrous words ever uttered by our petrified Anglophone tongues.  For ‘penis’ sounds rather like a drab village in flattest Lincolnshire, or like an unsavoury anal wart, or like the glum condition of an eternal bachelor, P. Niss Esquire, who languishes with his unseemly anal wart in bleakest horizonless Lincs, and whose antique wireless only plays the Valium music station BBC Radio 2, and absolutely nothing else. 

Of course, the opposite of getting your teeth into life is vicarious living, participating from a safe distance, and things helpfully crystallize as that word ‘persiflage; suddenly reminds me of something else quite different. It reminds me of its living and breathing, comical soundalike homophone, Percy Fladge, a fascinating man who I never met personally, but who I once read about with considerable interest. Mm. You look surprised and even cynical, avant-garde art teacher, as if no one could possibly be called Percy Fladge? You’re right of course, that wasn’t his real name, which was Mattie Morton, and the nickname referred to his singular and unsavoury profession.  For, exactly a half a century ago, in 1970, in his mid-twenties, Morton emigrated from his obscure native town of Goole, East Yorkshire, to Soho, London where he rapidly got into the sleazy books and niche market prostitution trade. He started off as an ill-paid assistant at the counter of a pornographic literature concern (though of course what was termed pornographic in 1970, would now be termed extremely tame Page Three stuff, something you could jovially flourish in the vicinity of your yawning maiden aunt). Morton took studious note of the motley if fascinating clientele, and then calculated the profit margins, and then decided which of the stock was more or less decorative and a waste of resources, and then resolved to start up a shop himself, but with a strict specialisation of erotic content. Fladge of course is short for flagellation, and Percy, young as he was and provincial as he was, and driven as he was, was so fearlessly unschooled, as to be a natural lateral thinker, meaning that with no preconceptions about the mystery of marketing,  he broke all the rules and thereby skilfully cornered the market and made a lucrative living by indulging the notorious ‘English vice’. The reason I know about him and know his real name, was because I had a journalist friend Frank Summers, who I’d met at university, and who managed to place an article about Morton in one of the sleazier Sunday newspapers, the same  that for decades had to be smuggled as it were contraband into the puritanical Republic of Ireland. The principal condition imposed for Frank’s article was strict anonymity, meaning he was allowed to refer to the owner as Percy Fladge, but not as Mattie Morton. Photographs of the front covers of the salacious magazines imported from Sweden, and the half dozen rented rooms where the fladge took place in two or three streets adjoining the shop, were also graciously permitted. But of course, Frank was not allowed to photograph, even with blurred or blanked-out faces, any of the customers or the prostitutes, whether they be harmlessly sipping coffee, much less in flagrante flagellationis. Nor on pain of death could he take a mugshot of Mattie Morton, even if Morton were to wear a vaudeville mask. This risible insistence on anonymity was a crafty move on Morton’s part, for anyone with any sense could walk into any Soho coffee bar and be swiftly directed to the Percy Fladge shop, whence should the customer be looking for the real as opposed to the vicarious thing, the well-paid usually graduate assistant could after some businesslike discussion and money in advance, be directed to one of the women and her specialist services.

Several things related to language and semantics, are worth elaborating here. Permitting the newspaper to refer to the shop owner and the godfather of the highly trained ladies, as Percy Fladge, was a veritable masterstroke (forgive the punitive pun) on Morton’s part. He sounded like a cross between an avuncular clown and a trained seal, or at any rate someone who would emphatically be safe to introduce to your short-tempered great-grandma.  The converse of which was that half a century ago Percy was also a saucy nickname for the male genitals, as in the jovial formula for masculine urination as ‘pointing percy at the porcelain’. Plus, any sinister or excessively seedy subliminal nuance was neutralised by the utterance of that farcical handle itself. It would take a psycholinguistic genius to calculate why exactly the name Percy makes most of us, if not laugh hilariously, shall we say ‘ejaculate’ a muffled titter! After all no one chortles at a woman called Mercy, even though ‘p’ and ‘m’ are both labials, meaning as we all know they are the hardest obstacles for ventriloquists to master. Mercy isn’t at all a funny name, and yet Percy very much is, whether we be talking about Percy Thrower the modest and affable celebrity TV gardener, or the Canadian Percy Faith and his hit orchestra of yore, with its A Summer Place or Tammy Tell Me True. At which point, I’m almost afraid to inform you, B and H man, that Percy Faith’s wife was called Mercy Faith, truly she was, google it, if you don’t believe me! Percy and Mercy together, one of whom was laughed at, and one of whom was not, even though it doubtless encouraged them to marry each other, if only because their names rhymed. Or what price Percy Sledge from Alabama, who poignantly crooned the world into hypnotic euphoria with his When A Man Loves a Woman? Or Percy Grainger the Australian turned US composer who rather like fellow musician Percy Faith picked a woman with a name that really mattered, in his case Ella Viola Brandelius Strom. You will note that her full name includes that of a musical instrument, the viola, and another composer, an Englishman called Delius. Moreover, Percy Grainger was largely schooled at home, and his teacher mother Rose happened to be a harsh disciplinarian, just possibly exacerbated by the fact her womanising husband, John Grainger the eminent Australian artist, had given her a form of contagious syphilis. Rose’s frequent thrashings of Percy G no doubt explains the composer’s lifelong fascination with S and M, and suggests that had circumstances not been against him, in his regular trips to London he might well have been a frequent habitue of Percy Fladge’s place. Had he lived longer that is, for time got in the way, and the composer died in 1961, aged seventy-eight, thus antedating Fladge of Soho by a decade. Born in 1882, Grainger was three years older than DH Lawrence, who you will recall was enamoured of the word ‘persiflage’ but was never to know anything of the man called Percy Fladge. Add to which, for many years, up until thirty years after his death in fact, Lawrence himself was regarded as a seditious pornographer. Not to speak of along with his German mistress Frieda, suspected of being a spy for the Boche during World War One, hence far more of a danger to society than any smutty and uneducated entrepreneur from Goole, aged twenty-five in 1970.

Right at the start, Frank Summers was informed by the intelligent young graduate assistant that his employer stocked mostly books related to male-female fladge. If any man were bold enough to ask him, did he have any colourful material showing men being chastised by women, and ditto the same pageantry to be acted out with the ladies in the rooms nearby, he was immediately shown the door. Even more bizarre, should Percy Fladge happen to be in the shop and overhear the sheepish or sometimes brazen request, he would immediately tear over to buttonhole the gent, and berate him at full volume for being so pathetically unmanly.

“What was that? You think that you want to be walloped by a nice respectable woman, by one of my handpicked girls, do you? For being a very naughty little boy, is it? Have you no such thing as a basic masculine pride, man, sneaking in here and whinging for one of my lassies to grab you and put you across her knee? Just you get out of my shop and bugger off home to your wife, or more likely your poor old Mum that you live with and scrounge off, the pathetic eternal bachelor! Then pull your pants down, and beg Mummy to give you a bloody good thrashing!”

Similarly, conspicuous posters near the door politely informed gay men in twelve-point bold ulc, that there was no male-male S and M on offer here, whether pictorial or the real thing by advance booking. To be sure, the word gay meaning homosexual barely existed in antediluvian 1970, nor was discrimination on sexual grounds routinely enforced only three years after the Wolfenden Report. So it was that Percy Fladge without reflection practised a bare-faced double discrimination, consistent with his own extreme prejudices. Bizarrely then, unreflecting Fladge had no qualms whatever about lesbian customers consorting in his rooms with his so-called girls (in fact their age range was between thirty-five and fifty) where often, as the vaudeville duo of tittering schoolgirl and strict schoolma’am, they would either be soundly punished, or do the sound punishing. This untoward tolerance on Percy Fladge’s part, was never openly advertised, but somehow just wordlessly understood, then confirmed by the gay woman having a discreet and helpful conversation with the obliging graduate assistant. In fact Percy had two ‘girls’, aged forty-seven and forty-eight, who as well as accepting chastisement from males, were also set apart with a welcome bonus as specialists in the lesbian field, even if the pair of them were happily married, and both had little grandsons, both of which by a comical coincidence were called Darren.

Frank was also permitted to take a comprehensive look at the smartly furnished rooms where the girls were situated, though no photographs of the women themselves were permitted. But the walls, lavishly decorated with posters of bare and beautiful female bottoms, selected by Percy Fladge the avid connoisseur when it came to outstanding callipygy (and imported in bulk from a warehouse in  Amsterdam) appeared with bare-faced cheek, in the ‘Sunday Smut’, as choleric Irish priests would dub it. After that, Morton’s endearing Goole-style subconscious had its curious say, for it was his eccentric idea and no one else’s, to have antique bookshelves with quaint old volumes in the rooms, as if anyone intent on administering or receiving corporal punishment, would choose to relax with a chapter of a pound a yard of shelf-fillers like Vicki Baum or Harrison Ainsworth, before getting down to business. In one of those rooms where the male clients chastised Fladge’s women, there were shelves containing numerous vintage Just William books, as penned by the serious novelist Richmal Crompton, many of them Twenties and Thirties first editions, with the immaculate illustrations of that genius Thomas Henry. In another room were collectable hardback copies of Billy Bunter, the comic creation of Frank Richards, a name not that far removed from that of my friend, Frank Summers. But just as Percy Fladge was an alias, so was Frank Richards, being a mere four per cent of the myriad literary identities of the real author, Charles Hamilton. Hamilton was pace the Guinness Book of Records, the most prolific prose writer of all time, penning a hundred million words in total, or the equivalent of one thousand two hundred, average length novels. He also boasted twenty-five pen names (including Owen Conquest, Prosper Howard, Sir Alan Cobham and Freeman Fox) and touchingly he died of all days on Christmas Eve. His immortal creation Bunter, the gluttonous, obese and cowardly schoolboy, wore the ‘tightest trousers in the Remove’ and in that context not only schoolmasters Quelch and Prout regularly wielded the cane upon the boys, but schoolboy prefects also. Hamilton/Frank Richards didn’t mind straining credulity for plot purposes, so that the otherwise ignorant and talentless dunce of a Bunter, happened to be a virtuoso ventriloquist. Indeed, memorably in Bunter the Ventriloquist he cunningly threw his voice into the mouth one of his decent fellow Remove chaps, who broke all precedent by addressing Wingate, Head Prefect and Head of the Sixth, with the following unpardonable insult:

“I say, Wingate. Don’t talk rot, old chap!”

Accusing a sovereign, more or less totemic authority, of talking rot! Hamilton knew how to make his readers shudder! At those evil anarchic assaults on all that kept the world a seemly arena for the good and the great, the rulers and the ruled, the leaders and the led. Many of his keenest readers were lonely young soldiers who were painfully missing their mums, the same who dropped their aitches and jumped to attention, not the posh and fresh-faced counterparts of Bob Cherry and Johnny Bull and Lord Mauleverer and Frank Nugent and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. These were the same boy geniuses who because they studied Latin, bawled Cave! when they meant Hide! just as the austere beak Mr Quelch came stalking down the quad. Thanks to the Fat Owl’s treacherous wiliness, the innocent Remove man was scheduled to be given six of the best by Wingate for cheeking not a beak, but an Ennobled Lieutenant invested with Sublime Authority from Above. So it was that a fitting flagellatory atmosphere was provided by Percy’s insistence on the Billy Bunter books, albeit amnesically he had stuffed the shelves with the homeoerotic variety.

 As for Just William, perhaps because he was created by a woman author of considerable literary talent, there was virtually nil reference to corporal punishment in all thirty-nine volumes published between 1922 and (the last one posthumously) in 1970. The Just William stories were manifestly very well written, but strange to say, predicated on extremely wishful thinking fantasy, emphatically on the part of the readers, but also on that of the generous and willing to please author. Consequently, though a thousand times more elegant than Bunter, the Crompton stories were far less true to life. Eleven-year-old William’s family had a whole armoury of maids and cooks, yet incredibly William was sent to a simple village school where among the rustic riffraff like Arabella Simpkin, he learnt to drop his aitches. He also went ratting with his mongrel Jumble and his gang called The Outlaws, all of whom lived in posh suburban houses with maids and cooks, and had fathers who commuted to sedate offices in the metropolis. In reality, these so-called outlaws would have been in their last year at prep school, but instead had pitched battles in the woods with a weedy gang of equally posh Laneites headed by fat and cowardly and above all treacherous Hubert Lane. Do you see what I’m getting at, art teacher, as it is very important? To make her middle-class boy hero exciting for the child readers, brainbox Crompton had to invest him with the habits, activities and vocabulary of vandal working class lads, even down to calling his gang The Outlaws. As a gifted adult novelist, Crompton possessed a considerable and very decorous vocabulary, so that if I, an educated gent, an artist of a kind like yourself, have any fluency at all with words, a good part of it comes from my imbibing her Just William stories. For the fearless benefit of her artless young readers, she uses words like ‘lionise’, ‘escutcheon’ and ‘susceptible’, as well as Latin tags like meum et tuum, and mutatis mutandis.  There are several vital conclusions may be drawn from this display of wishfully-thought improbability, where a posh little Home Counties boy behaves and speaks like a rustic proletarian, and where an overall narrative sophistication somehow glosses and justifies the whole sleight-of-hand confection. And, needless to add, as if by magic, produces a minor species of Great Art. For Just William is assuredly a Minor Variety of Great Art, while the Bunter sagas are an extremely bad kind of art: repetitive (‘Ha ha ha! cried the Remove chums’ occurs umpteen times on virtually every page), cliché ridden, at times appallingly racist (why, you cheeky nigger! Bunter roars at the South Sea natives in Billy Bunter Among the Cannibals) and with only the Fat Owl’s greed and deviance and farcical cowardice as genuine and beguiling comedy.

Conclusion One. Sometimes you need to bend the rules and indeed break all of them, in pursuit of originality and excellence. As Gustave Flaubert said, the greatest artists as a rule have no rules, but what lung power! Conclusion Two. The same can be true of the inverse phenomenon of dreadful writers, terrible painters, bad musicians, who can on more than one occasion attain outlandish commercial success. A lucky or possibly unlucky writer, for example, can cook up tawdry (remember that addictive word meretricious, art teacher?) improbable, even cloud-cuckoo land fictive scenarios, and yet hit the mythical big time. Take what my nurse girlfriend Dora refers to as that Fifty Thousand Grades of Shite, the S and M saga that sold sixty million copies worldwide, everywhere from Uppsala to Uttoxeter to Ulan Bator, and back. It is a statistical fact that the majority of those purchasers were married women over the age of thirty, whether from Fiji, France or Frinton on Sea. Hence by the cynically superior it is often cruelly dubbed as Mummy Porn. Let us for now put aside the vexing question of whether this proves millions of married women worldwide are fascinated by common or garden flagellation, and then beyond that the grim and daunting variants of bondage, clamping and worse. Forget all that for the moment, art teacher. But here is a nice little poser for you.

Yet another timely quiz question…

What is the single most remarkable thing about that mega-selling book Fifty Shades of So Forth, which everyone aside from the brain-damaged concurs is wonderfully atrociously written? Parenthetically, some would add that the author needs to be congratulated for those copious quantities of wholly original varieties of virtuoso bad writing, entirely unknown until she discovered the species?

I repeat. What is the single most remarkable thing about Fifty Shades of Satin Gloss? No, you can’t think of an answer? Don’t worry you’re not the only one, twenty a day B and H man. In fact, I think I must be the first person in the world to discern what is genuinely extraordinary about an otherwise banal and painfully anticlimactic and truly anaphrodisiac book.

The names of the two protagonists, are what I am referring to. Why has no one else noticed? And while we’re at it, I seriously doubt whether the author herself has noticed what exactly has leapt from her unruly subconscious.

The man who likes total control and to administer stern punishment and beyond that aches for perversion proper, is called Christian. Consider. The author could have called him anything she liked: Doug, Des, Miles, Zoot, Willy, Septimus, Percy, Calum, Reg. But no, she chose to call him of all things Christian. And her besotted young girl admirer who eventually he flagellates until he flagellates her once too often, and far too harshly, so that she sobs and swears at him, and leaves him. What is she called?

She happens to be called Ana, but her full name which is often referred to, is Anastasia. Anastasia is both a classical and a modern Greek name, and is the female version of the masculine name Anastasis. And Anastasis, what else does that mean, art teacher? For as well as being a name, it also means something else, and indeed it has an infinitely significant meaning.

Anastasis means Resurrection, art teacher, and Anastasia is the female version of Resurrection. So it is in this wishful thinking and excruciating but world-conquering volume, we have ‘Christian’ and ‘Resurrection’ as our sorry heroes. As the stumbling protagonists, that is, of a penny dreadful that purports to explore the troubled Universe of Pain and Power.

I just thought I’d run it past you, art lecturer…

Chapter 2

Curly Wurlies and Aladdin’s Cave

It was late evening, just as it was getting dark, when Selby walked towards the cash machine adjacent to the supermarket. The town was unusually deserted tonight, but as it and its northern neighbours had just been moved into a new and higher Covid category, that was scarcely a surprise. He peeped inside the shop from his oblique angle, and it too seemed wholly without customers. But no worries, he blithely assured himself, just as everyone under the age of seventy formulated things these days. He had plenty of cigars, cigarillos, red wine, strong cheese and Italian olive bread back home, and thus was more than ready for all that life could throw at him. Or so he thought…

He inserted his Visa card, and waited the regulatory two seconds. so that both he and the machine could have a bit of a think. Reasonably enough, what he expected to appear on the screen ranged left was BALANCE ONLY and below that BALANCE AND CASH. Instead of which, he was presented with the extraordinary options:

-IQ ONLY

and below that

-IQ AND EXTREMELY MEMORABLE EROTIC ENCOUNTER

Selby hesitated a microsecond, then pressed the second option. He blinked in a tense manner, until the message came full screen.

YOUR IQ IS 2020

It was a puzzled middle-aged puppeteer who blurted, “That can’t possibly be true. Even if I have read the whole of Eca de Queiroz, and nearly all of Benito Perez Galdos. They’re mixing it up with the blasted date.”

Next appeared some amplification concerning the erotic encounter.

GO TO UPSTAIRS FLAT, 47 ASSIDUITY MEWS, AND ASK FOR MIMI

Assiduity Mews? Selby scratched his whiskery chin to recall where that was, but his intuitive feet certainly seemed to know, and once he’d got his bank card, they took him out to the south of town and along by the river. Here too it was all but deserted, and only a little cat at one stage crossed his path.  After about ten minutes, he turned as if by some magnetic torque up a winding incline, and the incline itself seemed to have some subtle significance. Noting a quadrangular development of tidy semis called Punctuality Drive, he knew he must be getting close to the mysterious Mimi. Who he very much hoped was a woman, and not a poodle nor a Schnauzer.

At last Assiduity Mews appeared on a street sign. It took no time at all to find 47, in part because Selby had a great fondness for prime numbers. 47B was up a flight of spiral steps which led to an impressive oak panelled door. He was about to knock when it seemingly opened of itself, and lo, rather than a poodle or a labradoodle, there was a wide-eyed, humorous, attractive and fair-haired woman of about forty. Selby was Interested to see she was in a fetching state of semi-undress, meaning in her bra and knickers only. He took in the full breasts, a shapely and slim belly, and thighs one might admire as if they were virtuoso living sculpture

“Mimi?”

“Who else, sweet boyo? I’m certainly not an Avon Lady. I was once but thank God no longer. The effort involved and the pecuniary rewards were risibly out of proportion. Now then. I’ll just remove this too tight brassiere. There we are. Feast your eyes on my fecund little bosom, Mr Selby. Enjoy the sight of those lively nipples and my truly outsize aureoles.”

Selby found himself blushing like an errant schoolboy. He croaked:

“I see you already know my name. But please call me Con. Which is short for Conroy.”

Mimi smiled with an encouraging warmth. “Your name bounced up on my laptop, Con, once you pressed the ATM option. Just get yourself inside here Mr Selby, and make yourself exceedingly comfy. Take off that fetching jacket and relax and stretch, and maybe have a little pensive whistle or siffle before we get stuck into some splendid you know what. Mm, I see that this jacket here is made of corduroy, Con. Conroy’s corduroy! How very nice the two words are when intimately adjacent! Toss it, fling it, chuck your beloved corduroy jacket onto that full-length sofa, my so sweet man. Tell me now Conrad, Conway, no I mean Conroy, do you happen to like these remarkable things called words? Are you the kind of chap who loves words to the point of severe addiction, and at times complete and addled and virtually certifiable intoxication?”

Selby smiled rather shyly. “Oh indeed. I love them to bits, right enough. Big ones like say perspicacity, thrasonical and desuetude… and even little ones like dog and cat and if and belch.”

“I thought as much! You definitely have a ripe, mature and very verbal look about your nice wee chops. And tell me too while we’re at it, do you also like ladies’ bottoms?”

Selby flushed crimson, as if Mimi could see right through his artless exterior, and as if he were the last word in puerile transparency.

“Oh, yes indeed. Shoot me down if I’m wrong, but who in their right minds wouldn’t?”

“Boys, I knew as much! I knew that you were the primeval, primal and primordial, primitive type. And tell me now, Mr Conway, exactly what kind of luscious, mouth-wateringly infinitely succulent female bottoms do you go for? Big buxom ones, little sweetish ones, patriotic rigidly square ones, no nonsense no worries blandly rotund rumps, radical left lascivious but always pugnacious and pick-a-fight stern backsides, or right-wing and very reactionary yet paradoxically alluring female behinds?”

Selby frowned and whispered, “Pert and protruding, I would say.  That is, at the end of the day, I would say.”

Mimi clapped her shapely hands. “I knew it! As soon as I set eyes on you, I said to myself here comes a good old PP man. Or even a PPP chap!”

Selby stared at her beguiling enthusiasm. “Really? But I thought that was an Oxford degree? Psychology, physiol…”

“In this fundamental, in the literal sense, context, it signifies pert, protruding and pulchritudinous! Then, should you wish to add ‘preferred’, you have PPPP, no less.”

Selby found himself getting into the swing of things, and snorted, “Or PPPPP. Which would translate as pert and protruding, pulchritudinous posterior preferred!”

Mimi tittered her amusement and even wiped away some tiny tears.

“And bear in mind, all we’re talking about is the female backside, not Boolean Algebra, Emotional Intelligence, Neurolinguistic Programming, nor even Common or Garden Ontological Phenomenology. Which reminds me Con. I’m taking my expensive silk knickers off now, and turning around for your benefit. Do you like what you see, Connie boy? Is this humble little Irish behind of Mimi’s up to scratch? Go, on you can scratch it if you like, you greedy wee Englishman.”

Selby demurred, “Oh no. I’d sooner just take an appreciative and enthusiastic appraisal, rather like a pigeon fancier fancying his beloved pigeons. Because this sumptuous little bottom of yours, Mimi, is far from being a humble or banal object, believe me. I would say it is more like something noble and inordinately majestic, to the point in fact of being profoundly world-shattering.”

Mimi gave an affable tsk tsk, then confessed that her backside was always good and shattered after a hard day’s employment. Meaning that there was a practical physiological explanation for her bare-faced cheek, as one might term it.

“Now then, first things first. You’ll need to validate your credit with your bank card, Con. No, no, don’t look so scared, Connie, it’s not a scam and no money will vanish from your account, I promise. It’s just to confirm that you are who you are, and to leave a digital record that you were here tonight for the purpose of a tip-top full value encounter with me Mimi O’Houlihan, originally a native of Clifden, Connemara, County Galway. But I can see you’re already asking yourself, what’s that delectable truly exquisite little bottom of Mimi O’Hooligan’s got to do with a Contactless Visa? Simple. Just take your bank card and swipe it very firmly across this naked and as you say world-shattering behind. Contactless you understand, but not too contactless if you follow. And here’s a bit of handy advice. For some reason, Conway, it always works better on the left bucket than on the right bucket.”

Her baffled client poked inside his left ear, as if he were Daniel Selby trying to improve his hopeless hearing by a brief excavation.

“Your left bucket?”

“Well I refuse to use that ridiculous word buttock! It sounds like something out of a butcher’s shop or a queer kind of hold in feckin Cumberland Wrestling. Go on, Connie, swipe away! Swipe your card nice and firm across my delicious little Connemara bum.”

The puppet man hesitated, then did so. Immediately a yellow light on the opposite wall flickered, before flashing the laudatory message, YOU ARE GOOD!

Selby blinked and said, “I am good? It’s very nice of them to say so, but…”

Mimi who had her back to him, reached behind her and grabbed hold of his hand. She turned around to face him, and grinned to see his appreciative gaze at her dancing breasts.

“All it means is your credit is good, little Connie. I promise you they don’t take anything from your account, and it’s basically just an ID check to keep out the under eighteens. But let’s press on, my wide-eyed boyo, for we need to bustle on a bit. After all, you did come here for an interesting erotic encounter, and using suitably complex algorithms your tailor-made encounter with myself has been carefully structured in advance. First of all, you need to know that you’ve got a choice of three options, which is to say you can choose to have one only of the following erotic prizes or rewards. Do you understand?”

Selby made a strange swallowing sound. “Up to a point.”

“No need to be suggestive, naughty Con, ha ha! Nor to parody old Evelyn Waugh, or as my mother in her Connemara innocence called him, Heeflin Waff! You fellows and your points and your ups, and your always getting it ups and not getting it ups! No, Con, your three Take Your Pick Michael Miles Star Prize choices are, hush, wait for it, wait for it!  First of all, we have your powerful man, Number One, and wait now, wait now, Mr Impatience Is My Middle Name Selby. You can choose as your star prize, Mr Connie Selby, guess what?”

“Yes?”

 “You can choose to have a splendid little Curly Wurly!”

Her client stared open-mouthed, cupping his right ear as if Connemara Mimi were speaking Middle or maybe Old Vandalic. At length, he snapped:

“Can have what! You mean one of those ridiculous latticed chocolate bars? Please enlighten me, Ms O’Houlihan, but what on earth is even passing arousing about a so-called Curly Wurly?”

She surveyed him with an unflappable patience. “Oh come, come, my precious boy, Connie! Come, come, come, come, come, come, come, my wondrous little one! You’re an intelligent man, and must know that since the birth of time chocolate has always been acknowledged as an incendiary aphrodisiac. Along with celery, seafood, and knock me down if I’m wrong, but raw beaten egg laced with honey and rosewater as described in the erotic treatise, The Perfumed Garden…”

Selby gurgled, “Raw egg be buggered. Ugh! What’s more, I can’t stand celery and never have.  But please do enlighten me as to my second choice, as by now I’m not undesperate to know! And if it’s alright by you, and with due deference to the immortal Michael Miles and Take Your Pick, I’d prefer a star prize rather than a booby prize.”

The Galway woman raised her bare shoulders by way of consent.  “Fair enough, Mr Con. By way of a starry star prize, I’m now going to offer you something far more straightforward. That is to say the immaculate first edition no less, of the first English translation of Maxim Gorky’s little read 1901 novel Three of Them…”

Selby blinked a considerable relief. “Phew.  That’s definitely more like it. Though as a lifelong Gorky fan, I am sorry to say that that book is far from erotic.”

At which Mimi, hugging her naked breasts, turned deadly earnest. “Why would it be? Your man’s real name was Peshkov, but he had a very hard and cruel childhood, so he adopted as his pen name Gorky, meaning ‘bitter’. You love words, my fine little boyo, so you can call him Max Bitter, if you like. More to the point, I happen to know that you read this same Max Bitter book exactly forty years ago in 1980, and that you enjoyed it very much.”

Selby concurred with a wistful smile. Yet how on earth could this naked Connemara hostess, possibly know what he had read four decades ago? Had she been spying on him in some mysterious, inexplicable and thoroughly unethical way for all of forty years? Then something very unpleasant occurred to him.

“Hang on, Mimi. The wretched hero, Ilya Lunyev, he went and bashed his head against a brickwall! He had left the city slums of Tsarist Russia in order to join the Russian middle classes, but their moral corruption was driving him more or less crazy.”

The Clifden lady patted his brow, and even gently kissed his hair. She murmured wisely, “We can all bash our head against brickwalls, darling Con Con.”

Selby sniffed and mumbled, “I’m afraid you don’t understand. Ilya Lunyev did so literally! At the end of the book, he runs as fast as he can against a bloody great wall, just to do himself in!”

Mimi gasped her astonishment. “That’s what I call a hell of an ending, Con! No fuffin, faffin, feckin post-modern pish from a man like Max Bitter. Poor man, that poor wee Ilya boy. And my poor Con Selby too with his obvious disappointment so far. But this your third and last choice will certainly perk you up, big boy. It’s undeniably of an exalted erotic nature, and you’ll be pleased to know it involves a certain fetching lady from rural Connemara.”

Selby nearly licked his lips, as he looked at Mimi’s heaving generous breasts, and her sweet and vulnerable naked shoulders.

“What is the third option?” he asked.

“Tis Kenny Lingus, Con! Tis good old Kenny Lingus, my son! Now what d’you say to that?”

Selby’s body commenced to shiver. “Kenny what?”

“His sister was Connie Lingus, a sempstress worked in Leenane and a prime dab hand at that. Their Dad kept greyhounds and he was the biggest drunk in Oughterard. One of the greyhounds was called Aer Lingus. And boy, musha and wisha as they all say in JM Synge, could that Aer Lingus feckin run…

Selby raised his hand like some stern traffic policeman, for he could not hold back.

“I’m sorry I’m obliged to say this, Mimi. But to pot with your Aer Lingus family! They’re no use to me as far as I can see!”

She laughed and grabbed hold of his admonishing hand. “Baw, I’m only joking man! I’m doing my old Celtic vaudeville turn, just to ease the laden atmosphere somewhat. In any case, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Selby could not hold back. “I’m going half crazy, Mimi! You’re sat there before me with those naked and perfect breasts, and as you say with their enormous aureoles that are desirable beyond words. Yet you think it so hilarious to be rambling on about Kenny blasted Lingus!”

She pumped his hand briskly. “You know exactly what I mean, son! The business with the old tongue. Oral Whatsitjig, and with plenty of the jig, needless to add. You see, for all I’m a hostess, Connie, and currently as nude as the day I was born, I’m still an old-fashioned Irish Catholic underneath this carapace. I’m hopeless at calling a spade a spade, is what I mean. I can’t possibly use that contentious C word at any price, so instead I usually say, See You Next Tuesday.”

Selby looked her straight in the eye “The trouble is you also call me Connie at times! A masculine diminutive of Con, meaning I know you’re not mistaking me for Connie Francis.  But now you’re talking about a woman called Connie Lingus who has a bloody big dog called Aer. Don’t you see? It makes me impossibly confused.”

She patted his hair and cooed, “Ah shush shush, there, there, my poor sweet lad! Put your head upon my ample and alluring Irish bosoms a while. Tell you what, dear Connie. Let’s to hell with it and break all the blasted rules, and say that you can have all three choices instead of just the one! You can have all of them:  the Curly Wurly, the Maxim Gorky, and the Kenny Lingus. And while we’re at it, let’s be good and businesslike. In terms of intelligent sequence, I suggest you put the Gorky in your jacket pocket, and leave the Curly Wurly to gnash on as you saunter home. Meanwhile to assist you immediately with a first rate, five-star Connie Lingus, I shall turn myself upside down and inside out to facilitate the maximum erotic pleasure.” 

Without more ado, the naked Clifden woman, very obviously a practised yoga adept, flipped herself into the legendary Crab Posture, also known as the Reverse Table Top. Meaning that that beautiful and mesmerising Seat of her Fertility was only a foot removed from Selby, while her head was more like a yard and a half away.

With her mouth at such a distance, Mimi had to raise her forthright voice somewhat. “The catuspadapitham or Crab Asana. Also known as the purvottanasana or Reverse Table Top Posture.”

“Gosh, “blurted Selby as he stared at what was before him. The table top instead of hosting scones and sandwiches, had two exquisite Irish breasts upon it, and they would surely make a superior High Tea, if he could only get anywhere near them.

“You like what you behold?”

 “You bet I do! And how the Sanskrit glides off your tongue by the way.”

From the extended posture, Mimi snorted. “So it bloody should! After training day and night at Hatha Yoga, I decided I might as well mop up some Sanskrit as well. On the premise that I wasn’t just a pretty Irish backside, nor even just a pretty Irish face…”

Selby stammered, “You actually taught yourself Classical Sanskrit? I’d have thought that well-nigh impossible. I mean it’s not like learning parliamo Italiano  or hier ist dein hubscher Hut, hubsches Fraulein? ”

“Meaning in German, hat is a masculine noun, whereas the word for missy maiden is neuter. Such a salutary lesson for us all. The fact is I managed to get hold of a copy of Teach Yourself Sanskrit which without a word of a lie, Connie boy, does exactly what it says on the box. A model of lucidity written by a gentleman called Michael Coulson, who taught Sanskrit at Edinburgh University. In my scant spare time, Mr Selby, as well as studying Patanjali’s Yogasutra, I went on to dip my tootsies into Sanskrit drama, and greatly enjoyed some Kalidasa, also known as the Indian Shakespeare. His beautiful and touching love story Shakuntala was admired by Wolfgang Goethe no less. From there it was but a moment till I was battering away at the complex analysis of the Sanskrit language itself, as propounded by that linguistic genius called Panini. And before you say it, Con, yes, I know that ‘panini’ is usually understood as a type of bland Italian sandwich, which has, you’ll agree, become a kind of tedious culinary cliché. But Panini the brilliant grammarian who flourished, as they say, in the Gandhara area of Ancient India, somewhere between 600 and 350 BC, he was no feckin cliché, Con, believe you me! In eight chapters of his famous Astadhayi, and in about three thousand six hundred sutra verses or aphorisms, he propounds a morphological analysis of his sacred language, more advanced than any Western linguistic theory ever known! His is a generative model, Con, which is why the eminent and radical brainbox Noam Chomsky called him the first generative grammarian. Panini uses oh so nifty meta-language and meta-rules, and has been compared to the Turing machine of computing and mathematical renown. He has also been hailed as the first descriptive linguist, and indeed as The Father of Linguistics, and was a major influence on that other towering boffin, the Swiss Saussure, who as it happens also taught Sanskrit in sundry universities. Reflect Conway Selby, as you stare down there at my little Mary Ann, that the standards for linguistic genius were set two and a half thousand years ago! When they didn’t even have smartphones, and probably no talcum nor toilet cleaner.”

Selby took that as his cue and blurted, “Wonderful stuff no doubt of it, all that unparalleled if hoary ancient scholarship. Panini the great grammarian certainly makes me feel humble for one. But getting back to Kenny and Connie Lingus just for a…”

Mimi from her great distance, mused with a voice full of emotion, “That’s what I, Mimi O’Houlihan, call a man and a half! A linguist lad like Panini, who was two and a half millennia ahead of his time. You know Conrad, I would love to have a really brainy feller like him for just one night of tender intimacy in my upstairs flat here.  I can feel myself melting like a buttery croissant, when I think of Pandit Panini, even though the same lad’s been gone for many an aeon. Words as we’ve agreed are so addictive, at times so downright erotic, and so damn blinking sexy. Isn’t that a fact, big man?”

Not without a pricking jealousy, Selby sighed, “Up to a point, Mimi.”

“Listen a while, my sweet little boy. You’ll note that Lingus as in Kenny Lingus has the interesting cognate ‘lingua’. Meaning both tongue as language, and tongue as oral appendage? Now that has to prove something, has it not?”

Selby tried to disguise a sullen frown. “That fascinating double meaning hadn’t occurred to me, Mimi. But between you and me, it’s the oral appendage that has my attention.”

Mimi gave the yogic equivalent of an inverted shrug “Rightio, fair enough. Let’s put that to one side, and talk real turkey as they say. Let’s forget about the complexity of grammar, and the taxing technical matters of syntax and semantics. Let’s just chat about the business of sonorous sound effects, Con, or call it the musical joy of words. Let’s talk about Bana for example, the seventh century Indian writer, who specialised in gadyakavya or prose, or shall we say the very early novel.”

Selby said, “I’d much sooner we stuck to the Lingus family for now.”

“Your man Bana who loved to show off with extremely obscure verb forms, the desiderative and the intensive and the causative, and wrote two fine strapping epics, the Kadambari,a love storywith a talking parrot, and The Deeds of Harsha, the biography of a sterling warrior king. Listen carefully, Con, as I’m going to give you an enthralling little lecturette on literary sound effects. In The Deeds of Harsha we have a sonorous sentence begins ‘bhupala-alapana’. Now according to the rasikas, the literary connoisseurs of the time, that echoing sound effect is called ‘yamaka’ or bell chime. The ‘p’ and ‘l’ of ‘bhupala’ which means ‘king’, turns into the ‘l’ and ‘p’ of ‘alapana’ which means ‘speech’. Hence it translates as ‘the king’s speech’, though of course has nothing to do with stuttering Brit monarchs and an Australian actor. In English verse it is called ‘assonance’ and you get it in John Clare the nineteenth century Northamptonshire poet, he who had his troubled mental health, as you know. John Clare who was to write the eternal and exquisite line, ‘eggs like harebells, gilt with dew’. There, my Connie, we have the assonance of ‘g’ and ‘l’ from ‘eggs like’ and ‘g’ and ‘l’ from the word ‘gilt’, so that…”

Nothing could have halted Selby at this point.

“John Clare might well have had mental trouble, Mimi, but he’s not the only one in this pedagogic farce of yours! You are driving me quite nuts with your talking parrots and your bell chimes and your birds’ eggs! I’m currently confronted with a not unarousing front elevation of your naked crab posture, meaning I have a perfect view of what in chaste Latin would be termed your pudendum muliebre. Recall that I was promised a hearty exploration of that as my star prize. Instead what I get is a lesson on a long dead Indian linguist, where the naked lady lecturer is instructing me from an asana in the shape of a blinking table top! Which means that I can’t even see the beautiful Irish visage that is giving me the lecture! I would call that distance learning gone mad!”

Mimi tutted as she reached up and managed to stroke Selby’s furiously twitching nose.

“Calm yourself, don’t worry, Con! You’ll be having your guaranteed mouth-watering feast soon enough. But I must add for the record, meaning for let us say post-Covid posterity, that just as Panini with his mighty linguist’s brain is a thunderous erotic charge for the likes of me, the same holds true for Bana and his super-sexy and supersensual assonance. I swear Bana’s masterly and ineffable wordplay makes me melt with an incredibly raw and burning and torrentially dripping desire! It’s an aphrodisiac so stupendously potent, that it needs to be strictly licensed in my view. Wait now as I search for a compelling analogy.  I’m sure you’ll remember John Cleese in that hilarious film ‘A Fish Called Wank…’, no that can’t be right ‘A Fish Called Wendy’ where he struts around bollick-naked, driving that American lass wild with lust as he talks his best Italian. Well that’s me Mimi O’ Houlihan, and that’s how I feel about your gorgeous gentleman that flourished in the seventh century, Pandit Bana from Thanesar, India. You see, once my darling Bana in his gadyakavya starts his beautiful assonating, I can’t stop myself twitching and shivering around the backside and the Mary Ann area. And before long, you’ll find me spurting and gushing and rushing and roaring and well-nigh flooding at the blessed gills, Connie Selby!”

Selby responded in a blank tone. “But…”

“I’m as rampant as a Galway mare beside a Sligo stallion, once old Bana starts to assonate!”

“But…”

“When Bana starts to chime like a bell with his yamaka, I commence to shudder and shake and literally flood the ground below me.”

“Mimi, please…” 

“I get so wet with his bell chimes, my Irish toes get soaked! Can you feckin credit that, Con?”

Selby could credit it so much, that he expostulated: “Will you stop all this and give me my promised reward!  Instead of making me so painfully jealous of Pandits Panini and Bana! They may have been dead for centuries, these classic pin-ups of yours, but they are still able to make me feel grossly sexually inadequate. Which is no easy thing for any man to admit, of course, as they assure you every alternate day in the Guardian Supplement.”

The naked crab that was Mimi, reached out a consoling hand.

“There, there, my poor little mannikin! I’ll shut up about my Ancient Indian heart throbs, as you’re right it wasn’t very kind at all. Only one more hurdle, Con, confronts us now. At this stage I need to advise you that concerning the matter of Kenny Lingus, your star prize is perhaps more accurately called a Mock Kenny Lingus.”

Selby shuddered incomprehension. “Come again?”

“I can try, my little lovely English gent. In fact, if you suddenly started to assonate, it’s a cast iron certainty. No, Con, what I mean is in the present unique circumstances, I have no option but to offer you Mock Kenny Lingus, or as one of my less sensitive colleagues calls it, Fool’s or Eejit’s Kenny L…”

Selby began to guffaw and then just as swiftly exploded. “You mean to say you as my designated hostess, have the face to offer me ersatz or shall we say bargain basement Pound Shop sex! I’m sorry Mimi, but I really have to call a spade a spade at this point.”

Still perfectly balanced in the crab asana, Mimi admonished, “You hold your rampant horses, Connie boy! What I’m offering you now is far more valuable than that crude old tongue and gob palaver. By which I mean, I can give something far more important in terms of your enduring spiritual well-being.”

Selby scowled like a sullen teenager. “Humph! Suffice to say, at this supposedly seminal juncture I don’t really care about my spiritual well-being! I really don’t want your remedial substitute, if what it boils down to is doing it all on the cheap. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it would appear you are offering me the equivalent of Mock A Levels or Fool’s or Idiot’s A Levels, when what I want is the genuine A Level or even S Level. or even my Oxbridge entrance in Oral Se…”

Mimi felt around her legs to touch his wrist as she tried to calm him down.

“That is what you will get, Con, I promise! Or rather, even better, you will get a special S Level which is to say the Scholarship or Pandit Level, or in epistemological terms the Really Real Level. It’s so very easy, Conrad. All you have to do, sweet boy, is get your two eyes down there right by my lovely Seat of Fertility. Your eyes, your little peepers, I must stress, not your cheeky wee gob! Once you‘re comfortably in place, and thanks to all my years of Hatha Yoga, I will flex the old vegan muscle and you can take a good dekko up the Mary Ann.”

Selby was momentarily distracted. “Bloody hell. You can’t even say the word vagina, can you? So, you say vegan instead! That’s a hell of a closeted Irish attitude, Mimi.”

She rapped back, “Enough of that snooty English sarcasm of yours! Go on, wee man. I’ve flexed the vegan as much as I can, so that the entrance now is rather like a standard cat flap. Go on, Con! Get your eyes up against me for that most splendid of estate agent’s views. As close as you can now. That’s it! Now tell me loud and clear exactly what you can see deep inside the Seat of my Fertility.”

Selby remained silent for some time, because his astonishment was so profound. As he mutely gazed inside, he marvelled to see that Mimi’s womb was like a massive subterranean cave, illumined as if by a theatre’s stage lights. He almost gasped as he beheld stacks of brilliantly twinkling jewels heaped up against the grey cave walls: apparently a treasure trove of sapphires, emeralds, beryl, amethyst, topaz, jade, and, yes, what only could be priceless diamonds!

“What can you see?” repeated Mimi from her unseeing distance. “Tell me exactly, Connie boy.”

Selby sighed, “Aladdin’s Cave, would be an accurate summary. I can see an Aladdin’s Cave inside of your Irish body, Ms O’ Houlihan.”

“And didn’t I hint as much! Didn’t I imply that whatever you saw with Mock or so-called Eejit’s Kenny Lingus, would be a damn sight better than huffing and puffing and guzzling down below. After all, nice as it can be on a wet afternoon, in my view your standard Kenny L is a bit on the mundane, quotidian side. All that panting and blowing and slurping away, as if the greedy man thinks it’s some feckin globe artichoke, cleverly dipped in mayo and balsamic.”

Selby wasn’t listening, as he murmured with a hoarse and broken reverence. “It’s like having a vision of something long lost and precious, Mimi! As I look inside the beautiful cave of your womb, it’s as if I’m right back in my earliest years of infancy. It’s astonishing. You see, in among those glittering mounds of jewels, I can also see old-fashioned toys, the kind you saw in picture books given long ago at Christmas. I can see smiling rag dolls seated among the piles of rubies, as well as musing teddy bears and shy little dogs among the heaps of beryl and topaz. And look, among the diamonds, there’s a small wind up music box the size of an old tea caddy, decorated with circus clowns who are jumping with glee. You could buy those music boxes from Woolworths for I think five and sixpence in the Nineteen Sixties. Looking inside of you, then, is like gazing at a pop-up book of a children’s ballet, as if watching the poignant start of The Nutcracker Suite. You see, Mimi, I know full well that those jewels heaped inside of you aren’t real jewels, and they aren’t worth millions of pounds. Instead, those radiant imitation gems are full of so much…joy. That unfathomable and depthless joy that we only know as the forgotten joys of infancy. And of course, you cannot buy that for a king’s royal ransom, and any infant could tell you that a real diamond is just a humble lump of coal in the literal sense. But it still leaves me with a lot of questions, Mimi, this Fool’s Connie Lingus, of yours. I mean why on earth would an eternal and transcendent tableau of infant joy, be there inside your particular womb?  Are you an incarnation of Mother Earth, as well as the local beauty inevitably dubbed the Pride of Connemara? You, Mimi O’ Houlihan, being in 2020 a woman of the evening who’s so frightened of calling a spade a spade, you call a vagina, a vegan.”

But instead of hearing Mimi briskly denying she was Mother Earth or Mother Riley or Mother Goose, or any other legendary matron, Selby suddenly felt himself being shaken and tickled hard. Through a groggy species of hungover fog, he also noted someone bending over his prone form. It took him some seconds to realise he had actually been dreaming about ATMs and Kenny and Connie Lingus, mock or fool’s versions or otherwise. Bent over him, and grinning at his curious babbling, was his girlfriend Dora the nurse, who had just come in from her hospital night shift of ten till six.

Pulling off her uniform, she asked, “What the hell were you dreaming about? You were gabbling about nutcrackers and Mother Earth, as if your life depended on it.”

Con sighed as he squeezed her hand. “Maybe it did. I had this very vivid dream, Dora, that was all about the bliss of early childhood. I also saw mountains of glittering jewels in…inside an approximation of an Aladdin’s Cave.”

Dora was naked as she got into bed beside him. “It must be all those hours you spend with the puppets, Selby. You’ve maybe regressed to childhood big time. As for me, instead of blissful dreams, I’ve been dealing with a living nightmare.”

Selby frowned his indignation, as he knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Item. The hygiene measures we have at the hospital are a joke and a shambles. As for the laughably named PPE…”

Her groggy partner muttered, “Sorry, I’ve forgotten what that stands for. What’s more, that’s the second time I’ve heard an acronym the same as an Oxford degree.”

Thumping her pillow, Dora said, “Oh yes? Dreaming spires, my overworked arse. PPE stands with bare-faced and bare-arsed hypocrisy, for Personal Protection Equipment. The masks we wear were obviously designed with a splendid profit margin, probably made in great haste in East End sweatshops. Our nurses’ aprons, if you were given to understatement, you might describe as flimsy. As for the testing, it turns out some quarter of my colleagues have shown up as Covid-positive. Of the lucky devils proving negative, some are showing clear symptoms, meaning that the testing just like the government doesn’t know its arsehole from its elbow. Nonetheless, we have to keep on doing close hands-on work with all our patients, whether they have tested positive or not. It’s tempting to do some serious whistleblowing, but of course our employers have such integrity they won’t tolerate that, and would take paranoid and punitive measures. Otherwise, my job is a delightful piece of piss, Con, and the camaraderie with my pals, that is the gallows humour mumbled through our useless masks, is what really counts. You might even say it’s that camaraderie that is saving lives, not much else, and certainly not the PPE. As you know, if I could make a living out of making puppets, I would gladly go self-employed and say to hell with it. For the present though, the most useful thing you can do to help my peace of mind, is to touch me ever so rudely down there. No not there, there. Yes. Inside yes. Yes. Now pretend that I am a sitar and that after twenty years apprenticeship with a musical guru Iike Nikhil Banerjee, from Bengal, you the hairy sitarist are playing me to a crescendo.  Did you know that in his apprenticeship Banerjee was often required to practise from four am till midnight? Slowly, slowly, an endless snail’s pace and then gradually, gradually, building up to the lightning fast part of the raga. What else can I add, Con? What else needs explained? Isn’t silence alongside pure passion the most perfect of all possible things?”

Chapter 3

Dog Ass Willy and Bart Simpson

It was night two of the preview of Selby’s puppet show, I Didn’t Do It, and his Dad, uncle and aunty were sitting in his theatre in alert anticipation. Selby was at this stage experimenting on his versatilely challenged audience, as to the ideal length of the play, which in his view could have gone on for ever, but of course for practical purposes could not. Satire usually tends to be done as quickfire sketches, and luckily there were almost an infinite number of these could be presented via the dialogue between the US leader Fluffy Senior, and his British counterpart Fluffy Junior. However, unlike their TV equivalents, these dialogue skits could go on at some length, with monologuic leisure you might say, and to that extent they were far from quickfire. Besides, Selby, who was obliged to function as author, as well as the entire acting ensemble, stage manager and coffee lady, was incapable of trotting out the identical drama night after night. As a one man show, he would assuredly be bored senseless, and therefore anticipated a notional four-part drama performed on four consecutive nights, after which he would repeat the cycle.

Selby handed the printed version of the script to his deaf Dad, then walked behind the little stage. He began with not exactly a prologue, but delivered a kind of booming admonition in an old-fashioned thespian baritone. He explained that the play in all its entirety was very much like contemporary world events themselves, inasmuch as it and they had no comforting and conclusive much less graceful and cogent sequence. The good side of that was that they didn’t need to remember what had happened on stage last night, that it and tonight’s performance were both self-contained, and so would be the next two. The bad or down side, was that the living, breathing prototypes of the two Fluffys were obviously incapable of behaving themselves in a wise, sober, ethical and accountable manner. For clearly their conduct was as aimless, impulsive, improvisational, and at times panic-stricken, as that of any unelected buffoon, be they cis- or trans-Atlantic.

Uncle Dennis who was clasping his white stick grunted, “As I said last night, those two end-of-the-pier comedians, are completely beyond parody. No matter how cracked you make them, Con, you will never plumb their full and astounding crackedness. And the blackest joke ever, so called intelligent adults have decided that they and their like, be put in charge of the world. They ought to be both manning the ticket kiosk of a crazy golf course, though I doubt they would cut the mustard even there.”

Aunty Mildred raised up her I-pad which in twenty-four-point ulc declared, ‘Fucking spot on, Dennis, and even worse than that’. Mute from birth, by way of compensation, Mildred’s written communication had always been very vehement and passionate, and she was a virtuoso when it came to bad language. If anyone remonstrated with her constant swearing, she explained on her tablet that she was born in 1945, meaning she was only seventeen when the Beatles and the Stones and he rest of them got started, so what the fucking hell did they expect?

Selby gave them each a bottle of beer before the curtains were drawn, and the play began.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Tell me. D’you ever think about such a thing as personal role models, son? Role models for your incredibly powerful job as leader of your country?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Indeed, I do, sir. What serious politician would not decide to fashion himself on some previous charismatic spirit? Churchill is my chosen template, and in fact I have written a rather well-received book about the great man.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah? That’s cool. But I’ve been thinking hard about our last conversation, kid. You know, when we talked about your chief adviser, the guy with the cute alias of Barney Rubble. Him who used his special glasses to take a close-up scrutiny of the virus, when other folks would just sissy around with masks and stuff. I told you he’d probably been influenced like me by what he’d heard about Kneejerk, the Swiss guy that wrote Thus Said Zorro’s Sister. I slept on it, last night with everything whirling around my head, and then in the morning it all became crystal clear! It’s now so, so obvious, that the best role model if you want to be a successful world leader, and if you want to stay in power for ever, and even after you are dead in extreme cases, is what? Guess what?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. You have me there, I fear. Could it be one of the great Roman emperors?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Nope. Wait for this one as it’ll take you by surprise. I am talking about no less than Bart Simpson, as the greatest political thinker ever.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Bart Si… you mean of the cartoon show?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Exactly. And for two very good reasons that only someone like me could figure out. First of all, he’s an animated character, which means that like Barney Rubble and his magic glasses, he has ready built-in supernatural powers as recommended by Superman and Kneejerk. You must have noticed that say Bugs Bunny can fall from ten floors and splat on the ground, but two seconds later he’s whistling and saying, what’s up doc? He’s immortal and unvincible like Superman, get it? Secondly, if he’s caught in the act, doing something that other folk don’t like, he doesn’t hesitate, he shouts, I didn’t do It! Now tell me, who does that remind you of?

FLUFFY JUNIOR (pause) Mm. That is something of a loaded question. I’m afraid it would not be diplomatic to be so crudely categorical, as to name names.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s cool, I can go with that. Your enemy’s enemy is your buddy, as that old strategy guy Monty Verdy said. So sure, you and me, son, are now going to talk nice and diplomatic and anonymous. Right. We both of us know of a certain world leader who has other leaders loudly accusing him of poisoning his enemies what live abroad. Now this guy has clearly studied Bart Simpson as closely as I have, cos every time it happens, and it happens quite a lot, and despite all the angry accusations from those leaders, he always says the same thing. He screws up his face with real sincerity, and obviously thinks about how Bart would have acted in the same shit. Then as we know, he always has the one infallible formula. He always says to them leaders, I didn’t do it! Don’t you agree? He says I didn’t do it, and it wasn’t me!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I am rather loth to argue the point, sir, but I’d have thought perhaps Monteve…actually was it Machiavelli might have been the strategist in question? That Niccolo Machiavelli would have been this gentleman’s role model rather than Bart Simpson.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Huh. No way. It wasn’t no Matty Velour he had for his bedtime reading, it was watching wall to wall Simpsons, and I can friggin prove it! Listen hard, son. This controversial leader, call him WL1, has a kind of devoted buddy who lives far away and is another world leader, call him WL2, and who is obviously another follower of Bart Simpson.  Everyone agrees that WL2 has the sweetest little Hiram Holliday face, because butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and that’s what’s weird at first. As you know, three years back WL2 got one of his planes to drop sarin gas on some town he didn’t like, kids and all, killing and injuring right, left and centre. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it and he was caught with his pants down sure enough. But again, WL2 screwed up his face like Bart Simpson and shouted, I didn’t do It! Everyone in the world apart from WL1, his other favourite role model, they denounce what he’d done as a war crime. But WL1 not only said that his buddy WL2 didn’t do it, he said it was a staged and phony event to win support for hostile terrorists. Every leader including me, said that was phooey, and two days afterwards, I sent in missiles at where we knew that sarin was stored.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Something my party thoroughly applauded. A commensurate punishment for an evil deed by a heartless ty…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep, I made a real mess of that airbase OK. But you know something else.  I happen to have this wild niece who is big on highbrow culture, and she watches real boring foreign movies. She told me that WL2 looks the spitting image of a French guy in some old film, what plays a crazy postman. A kind of Frenchy Charlie Chaplin.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (chuckles) That quaint resemblance had never struck me. But I believe you are referring to Jacques Tati and his legendary Jour De Fete. Side-splitting, without a doubt. I saw Jour de Fete myself back in 1985 in Oxford.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Great title. Sure as Fate. Just like Gone with the Wind. It’s fate right enough. What I want to know is why would Hiram Holliday or Frenchy Jake Tortoise or Charlie Chaplin drop poisonous gas on little kids? It doesn’t make sense to me, but shit it happens, and that is what folk like me and you are obliged to call tough guy diplomacy or Ree-yal Politick. I don’t think even Fred Kneejerk would have liked it to happen, but he’s in there somewhere as an influence, along with Simpson Junior. Like you and everyone else, I’m real pissed by what WL2 did, and what WL1 said was staged by the enemy. But let me say I’m blown sideways by a monster lie that is turned by special magic into a working truth! The way I see it, when WL1 shuts his eyes, and with every bit of sincerity, swears he didn’t poison his enemy, then by Superman Bart Simpson wizardry he immediately cancels the truth! In the case of WL2 doing the same abracadabra, he’s imitating his hero WL1, he’s a kind of WL1 tribute band, and he’s learning fast. At the end of that Simpson-influenced list, we find your adviser Barney Rubble, who of course didn’t hurt no one, but for the greater good is using his glasses to take your country to a better place. Barney Rubble shrugs and swears he didn’t do anything either, including he didn’t even go to Doughnut Corner! In Barney’s case, he also needs to get down on his knees, and thank young Bart. Meaning that a guy with a Stone Age cartoon name, needs to really thank another cartoon guy, who truly represents the twenty first century. And therefore is. what’s the word, fit for purpose?”

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I think I grasp some of what you propose, sir. Animation as the key to all things and in every possible sense?  ‘Anima’ of course meaning life or spirit.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Are you sure? I thought it meant a little cartoon, not feature length.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. As it happens, sir, I studied Greats at Oxford, and may assure you that anima is Latin for life.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Grits, kid? And mama’s pecan pie too? Why didn’t you do Business Studies like all the real go-getters? But wait, put that to one side. I need to set on record I go further than all those world leaders who are taking inspiration from Bart Simpson. Let’s get things good and straight. Like your own guy Barney Rubble, I don’t kill or disappear no one, not even my shittiest enemies. The only thing I do is build a wall to keep Mexicans out, and I have the whole of my country behind me there, except for about three professors. So, I never need to shout, I didn’t do it, except when they say I talked locker room stuff about women, and had some scene with some chick called Breezy or Windy. As if I’d be interested in someone with a really stoopid name like that.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I can sympathise, sir. A field day for those mendacious and insinuating media chaps. In fact, I can testify myself in the most egregious…

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. Where I go beyond every other world leader, and believe me I ain’t bragging, is that I’m using a secret role model that don’t seem to make no logic or sense! On paper, this secret model that I imitate, is my polar opposite, which is why it’s so cute when I say and do what no one could ever expect! By my own unique kind of presidential magic, I take everyone by surprise, and I find that I win every time!  So that we’re back again with strategy man Monty Verdy? It’s really simple, son, you should try it yourself, and you’ll see it always works. Get this.  Me the world’s best-known fiscal conservative, I model myself faithfully on a friggin dead Commie! And no one here on planet earth has ever worked that one out yet!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Good God, sir! Good heavens!

FLUFFY SENIOR. Look at me son and listen. I saw early on that my biggest problem was going to be the media, the ugly way they poke their scummy noses into personal as well as political stuff. The newspapers do all that creepy listing stuff of facts and figures. And all this crazy detail and more friggin faggot detail, to prove what a cruel monster I’m supposed to be. Luckily Joe and Margie from Arkansas don’t give a flying shit for faggot details. What they prefer is someone like me hitting way below the belt, and my sissy opponent crumpling and whimpering, oh how doosed unfair you are! Well, I’ll admit I bow to the Simpsons there. Cos, as you know, if Homer or Bart sees someone trip up in the street, and really hurt themselves, they both fall about laughing, just like all regular guys do! But at that point the Simpsons and I part company, and I turn to my dead Commie for my inspiration. So, you tell me, kid, what are my two famous catchphrases when I turn on the media and give them what they deserve? Yeah, right. I say Fake News! and I also say that with all their lies and lack of patriotism, they are no less than the Enemy of the People! To me it’s obvious with that last one I’m saying what the badass Commie Joe Steel said. But not a single person anywhere on this planet has noticed the friggin obvious!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. A Communist named Joe Steel you say?

FLUFFY SENIOR. It was his code name like Barney Rubble is for the Doughnut Corner guy. And he was a real mean-faced Roosky, no kidding.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Oh, I see. I understand now, sir. Though he was actually from Georgia. Which is probably why he was obliged to change his original name.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Say again? A Commie from Macon or Atlanta? Dream on, kid!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Oh no, I mean Georgia as in Eastern Europe. Which of course was formerly part of the USSR. His real name was Dlugashvili, and I believe he was from Tbilisi.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That right? OK, that’s kinda cool. Anyway, your Dlug…your Doug…your Dog Ass Willy from this Tibble … from this Russian Tennessee, he had this mighty brainwave which in turn gave me a massive brainwave. Back between the two world wars, and then before he died, if there was anyone Joe Steel took a dislike to among the other Commies, what was it that he always shouted at them?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Was it possibly, fake news?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Almost, kid. Not bad. You’ve almost got the idea. But no, Joe Steel just bawled and shouted, Enemy of the People! at folks he had a grudge against! Of course, he didn’t have no trouble with the Roosky media, cos they just printed whatever he said as the gospel truth. Which, whatever your politics, is a kinda cute idea if you hold it up to the light.  But like me, he did have headaches and hassle with other people, his so-called loyal friends, who were supposed to be on his side in fair weather or a New Orleans hurricane! Like WL1, who some leaders say encourages his enemies to disappear, Dog Ass Willy Joe Steel made darn sure his enemies did disappear! Historians usually refer to them as the Joe Steel Purges.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I.. I gather as much, sir, But surely in your own case…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Joe probably had an old-style Georgia Fundamentalist preacher for his role model, even though he ended up a kick ass Commie! There were the ones on the right side, which was his side and his side only. And then there were the ones who weren’t on his side. Angry old-time preachers always condemn the wrong side to Hell, and old Dog Ass Willy did the same! And I’m talking about hell on earth, cos he had them jailed and tortured and shot, and sometimes worse. Which is where a guy like myself deserves to be praised not criticised, cos I don’t have no one jailed and shot, even if they deserve it. All I do is call these pussy Ivy League reporters, Enemy of the People, when really I want to call them friggin faggots. But you can only say a word like that that when no one can hear you, what’s that foreign word, son?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Sotto voce?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Sorta itchy? Off the cuff private, for sure. Anyway, if I do enough of calling these Harvard kids Enemy of the People, when they throw their nasty little questions, it eventually sticks and does real collateral damage! It definitely works for Joe and Margie from Little Rock, cos they love to see these grad kids’ noses get rubbed in the shit. The way I see it, I mark out my own personal patch of honest, home-cooked, and, if need be, way below the belt truth. And yeah, if I keep on doing that long enough and loud enough, the world soon bends my way! That way, and with badass Dog Ass for my role model, I make my own Fat Ole Mama’s Pecan Pie Style Truth. Which as far as I’m concerned is the really real truth, kiddo, as it applies to my personal quest in 2020! You see, whenever these pussy journalists shoot their dumb mouths off, it’s always gonna be fake news, and it’s always gonna do damage to regular guys like Joe and Margie. Luckily for them, and believe it or not, thanks to a dead commie called Steel, I have personally reinvented, in fact, rehabilitated The Truth! It’s my very personal and very powerful brand of truth, the kind that works for all those down-trodden guys who openly love and adore me. In fact, many of them tell me time and again, that they actually worship me.

At the end of the second preview night, the audience fulsomely applauded, and blind Dennis praised the wonderful wild notion of the cartoon being a metaphor for the anarchic ideology that presently ruled the fallen world.

“Yosemite bloody Sam,” he snorted, rubbing away at his itchy eyes. “That is Fluffy Senior’s role model. He models himself on a short-arsed crackpot raging and blasting off his gun at everything that moves.”

Mildred seconded as much on her I-pad with a comment of extreme obscenity, involving both animation and oral sex, and which unshockable Daniel was happy enough to read aloud. Con took their empty beer bottles to the kitchen, then wished them all good night. Part three, he assured them, would be at the same time tomorrow evening, and would be a little or even very much on the bawdy side, a promise that delighted all. He then decided he would wander down to the town centre, sit peaceably in the park, and gaze long at the tranquil river on this mild September night. Outside of his dream world, Selby was no fatalist nor believer in paranormal coincidence, and yet he felt little surprise when he noted the same art teacher with the same pony tail sitting in among the eighteenth-century gravestones, as he had been twenty-four hours ago…

You’re here again, Selby addressed him conspiratorially. I agree it’s a good idea during the pandemic to sit down near old tombstones, to remind ourselves of our inevitable shared mortalities. Some of those stones over there list the names of children dying before the age of five back in 1820 or 1880, some losing three or four infants in a row, and you would wonder how on earth they coped with that impossible quantity of sorrow. The only author I know (and for the very first time in my life it now occurs to me that the word author and authority are significantly connected) who has put his feelings in words is Tomas O’ Crohan.  He was from the Blasket Islands on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, last stop between the British Isles and America, and he was known alongside the Blasket writers Peig Sayers and Maurice O’ Suileabhain. Tomas was in his mid-twenties in 1880, and he and his wife had lost several tiny children in a row. He wrote in The Islandman quite simply that there was no remedy but for him to bear with it, meaning for him to endure it. You can imagine how primitive the islands were in 1880, so that his wisdom was you might say very pragmatic as well as very brave. As for the current pandemic, the only correspondences I can think of in the hallowed if sometimes hollow annals of literature, are those of Defoe and Camus. A Journal of the Plague Year is set in 1665, when Defoe himself was five years old, so this bubonic plague memoir was probably the experience of his uncle, who was called Henry Foe (minus the de) a Whitechapel saddler, as is the book’s narrator. The work was published in 1722 by someone called E Nutt, so there you have it, Foe and Nutt, two very comical monosyllables, when the thing under discussion is far from comical. Far more folk will have read The Plague by Albert Camus, where the source for his fictional Nineteen Forties bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria was the real cholera outbreak of 1849. Unflattering correspondences with our present-day pandemic are striking. In the novel, a good many of the Oran medical board of the day, all French, all men, none Arab, did not wish to call the plague the plague, as it might spread inconvenient civil panic. They did almost everything wrong, especially when it came to the sight of rats haemorrhaging in the streets, the precursor of bubonic plague. They ordered the council workers to go around picking up dead rats, but it was the fleas on those bleeding carcasses that spread the plague far better than anyone could have hoped. Eventually, they had to admit it was what it was, but when it came to the business of social distancing, that did not even figure. Instead they locked the city gates so that no one was allowed out, and no one was allowed in. The post ceased to be delivered and telephones could only be used for extreme emergencies, so you had the bizarre situation where most of the city’s communication was conducted by telegram, the rich man’s chosen preference. Otherwise life went on much as normal, aside of course from the unstoppable nightmare. Cafes, bars, shops, theatres and symphony and opera halls stayed open, until a visiting opera star more or less imprisoned in the city collapsed on stage, cruelly haemorrhaging. The queerest thing about this inevitably gripping book, is that not a single Algerian Arab gets a mention, and if you consider that the great man’s best-known work is about a Frenchman Meursault killing an Arab on the beach for no reason at all, you begin to wonder.  I see that a young Algerian writer has recently penned a fictional riposte, where the brother of the unnamed victim angrily tells the tragic story of the nameless Arab.

But how about you and me, art teacher, in the north of England in 2020? At the moment, providing we are masked, we can go in shops, cafes and restaurants, when for months we could go nowhere. Almost certainly there’ll be another lockdown soon, as previous forecasts of when the virus would vanish, proved witless wishful thinking. Our leader said it will have gone away by Christmas, so that his loyal tabloids immediately trumpeted, lo, like Father Christmas, he alone has given us back the great festival! Santa Claus of course is a saint, hence close to God, who is doubtless the only one we can trust to prophesy with any accuracy. You and I know it won’t have gone away by Christmas, nor will his further prediction of the start of spring see its demise, even though the fawning tabloids will crow, look at this munificence, for this fluffy saint has promised us a Happy Easter!

A major part of this vertigo when it comes to computing the duration, is that there is no precedent at all for what we’re going through. Comparisons with World War Two are pointless, as even the name itself is a misnomer. Between 1939 and 1945, the whole of the world was not involved, whereas the entire world, including the once neutral Switzerland and Portugal, is frenziedly dancing to the pandemic. During World War Two, all the way from Banff to Bude or Banbury, you could go to the pictures and the pubs and the libraries and the shops, and could start romantic affairs by night if you so wished. The worst possible fate eighty years ago, was to be conquered by a brutal and terrifying invader, which sure enough was only averted by America’s intervention. Being terrorised by vicious Nazis is obviously far more frightening than an invisible germ whose symptoms may prove lethal, but do not begin with your oozing blood in public. So, horrible as the pandemic is, for most people it is severely inconvenient, possibly economically crippling, but is not a matter of life and death and/or permanent enslavement by deranged Wagnerian warriors.

And what specifically do you, art teacher, hanker after most these days? When everything was closed, it was the cafes I would miss the most. For even the poorest of cafes in the poorest of towns, work not only as havens, meeting places for friends or even enemies, but places to rendezvous par excellence. If you cannot rendezvous, as we could not do this summer, and probably won’t be able to a second time soon, you are I would say not a full shilling, not a full man nor woman, whatever brave face you put on it. The point is that if you have the freedom to rendezvous, as it was before the virus, you might well choose not to do so, and happily dally at home. But a freedom unused is different from a mandatory proscription, which in many respects feels like a blocked-up tunnel or a numbing blow on the back of the head. Worse than that, and if you’re like myself, even with the cafes open now, you find you cannot quite relax. In fine weather of course, you can sit at an outside table, yards from everyone else, and that is more or less tolerable. But suppose it is very cold or raining hard, and you step inside, even with the social distancing, you cannot but feel the hazardous proximity of others. This by the way has made me ponder more than once, how the current measures affect what you might call those uneasy loners amongst us. We all know people who are at markedly ill at ease in human company, and maintain an invisible shield that keeps them at a distance from the anxious arena of intimacy. They are not all hopeless neurotics of course, some of them hold down jobs, even very good jobs. But it is as if for them the business of light-heartedness, of unselfconsciously opening up and relaxing with others, is a very perilous game, the fantasised far end of it being their personal dissolution, no less. But look and now behold, these days their obsessive and unsmiling self-protection is our obligatory norm, and not only that, it is praised and rewarded as the touchstone of responsible citizenship. Stay alert! Stay alert! Keep your distance! Keep your distance! Your enemy is proximate intimacy, no other. And of course, it has to be so for the present, for the sake of protecting others as well as oneself from the plague. But for these anxious loners it has always been the case, virus or not, and I wonder if perhaps they feel a certain quiet, unspoken smugness, that this ignorant world has finally woken up to what was always their astute approach. Or whether conversely, they feel annoyed that someone unauthorised and alien, has invaded their exclusive pitch, and worse, that these garrulous, frank, and overstated types, the rump shall we say, of normal, small-talking and sociable human beings, are only playing at the real and urgent thing. Which is for ever and always, plague or not, to be distancing, distancing, staying alert to everything and anything, and for the very good reason that it is not the virus is the only lethal danger, but the terrifying mystery of human otherness itself.

Just in case you think I possibly culled that from Sartre and his Being and Nothingness, I will admit I have never read beyond the first paragraph. It is beyond me I am afraid, just as it is beyond me that the great man admired Mao-Tse Tung and was an influence on the Khmer Rouge, perpetrators of their own private and copyright holocausts. Though that last word for some odd reason, is rarely if ever applied to their particular kind of virtuoso evil.

Chapter 4

Peter Piper’s Peppercorn

Con Selby was staring at his dusty old laptop screen, when suddenly out of nowhere appeared one of those garish Why Not Try This Fun Quiz? links. The link was titled wordmonarch.com which as a lifelong socialist naturally irritated this satirical puppeteer from the word go. He normally avoided such flippant nonsense like the plague, or indeed the virus, but tonight as if of its own volition, his finger clicked on it, and he was presented with the following two questions.

1.What are your three very favourite words, and why?

Without hesitation, Selby typed:

Breasts, bottoms, thighs. (And should there be any ambiguity, the first plural indicates that we are talking about the female anatomy specifically)

Why? Firstly, because the thought of them, and all the millions of succulent and delicious ones busy at large in the world, gets me out of bed in the morning, where otherwise I might succumb to a deleterious and disabling sloth. Secondly the great French writer Jean Giono characterised part of the alienation of the modern male, as being due to the fact they had had started to worship things without thighs. I would readily concur, adding female breasts and bottoms to the Provence gentleman’s formula.

2. What three words do you hate the most?

Empathy, iconic, judgemental

Why so? I need to be a little discursive here. That charming weekend encounter group word ‘empathy’ first.  A few months ago, I had a vivid dream where after losing someone I loved very much to a terminal disease, in due course I received some thirty condolence cards from various well-wishers. Every single one of them bore the identical message which was DEEPEST EMPATHY. In my dream I wrote back to all of them saying, I know that you mean well, but somehow when you write Deepest Empathy, I feel a thousand per cent short-changed, both semantically and in terms of humble but overwhelmingly sane and old-fashioned common sense.

Now to ‘iconic’. Unless applied specifically as an adjective relating to the famous Greek Orthodox work of art, the icon, this is a risible nonsense. The proof is that you can apply it to almost every noun, and it makes a kind of smug and spurious sense each time, which is why it is favoured by brain-free radio DJs, TV lifestyle show presenters, and so on. Iconic vegetable, iconic quiz show, iconic holiday resort, iconic dungarees, iconic bra, iconic backside, iconic brand of dentifrice, iconic sexual technique, iconic colonic irrigation course, the last one being a bit of a tongue-twister.

Finally, ‘judgemental’. I first met the original Judge Mental about 1990, and the long-established malicious rumour was that he was so lazy and elusive and such a chronic boozer, that for practical purposes he did not exist before that date. Nursing his triple brandy, Judge Mental was ruing the passing of the good old days, pre-1964, when he could impose capital punishment upon murderers, whether guilty or not, a trifling distinction surely, and when the world he added was ever such a better place. I told him that outside his London club where we were sitting, no one knew of his flesh and blood existence, they all thought he must be dead,  and instead they had turned him into an aqueous and all-purpose adjective, with the apparent meaning of , ‘one who is always passing judgement’…

“You mean critical, condemnatory, admonitory and the like?” he asked me with trembling indignation.

“Yes. But those accurate words, those words of precise nuance, don’t sound as good, as impressive, as your own name! Judge Mental has a hell of a ring to it, which is why they use it at every turn.”

The old man looked at his brandy with apparent disgust. “There is such a thing as copyright. I ought to set the law on them…”

The wordmonarch questionnaire completed, Selby idly drummed his fingers on the desk, until something quite incredible happened. As if by magic, his finger drumming grew faster and faster than he could have ever imagined, and with that he found himself in the unprecedented and grandiose guise of apprentice Indian tabla maestro. He blinked twice with great determination, to try and stop the furious drumming, but instead felt himself comically propelled from his seat, as if by some antiquated fairground mechanism. His study then became filled with a kind of whirling pea-souper fog, or equally it might have been some amiable disc jockey’s special effects. While he waited with a fatalistic acquiescence for it to clear, he realised he was no longer in his study, but was standing outside the front door of someone’s flat.  As soon as he turned to look behind him, the fog at once vanished, as if it had never existed, and he realised that he must have ascended some steps. The door had 47B on it, and as that prime number clicked in his head, the door suddenly opened and there stood Ms Mimi O’Houlihan with a welcoming recognition. She had her arms folded to cover her bare breasts, though Selby also noted she was wearing some lushly endearing crimson knickers.

“Come inside,” she breathed, with a warm and womanly Connemara purr. “I was expecting you, sweet boyo.”

Selby smiled politely, then asked how that could be. Whereupon with a humorous impatience, she more or less yanked him inside, and swiftly shoved her right breast inside his mouth.

“Call that brunch, “Mimi said, “You know in some respects, you ask far too many questions Conway. It’s true that we both think words are very important, but surely even more so are the experiential things they lead to, which of course are always wordless. Any self-respecting mystic or eremitical anchorite could tell you that in a jiffy. It just happens to strike me, that you Con Selby could do with a hearty and substantial feed, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. Meaning that I am at the moment nourishing you as well as nursing you. By the way, are you choking down there, wee man, do you possibly need some air?”

Selby agitatedly waved his hand, so that she gently pushed him back and allowed him to oxygenate.

“Was that really good, Conrad lad?”

His extremely odd reply startled himself as much as Mimi.

That wass queyt a guid chow,” was what he spontaneously uttered.

His hostess snorted and guffawed, and as she did the breast he’d been eating began to quiver with incredulity.

“What in the name of Adam and Eve? Is that Old or Middle English, or maybe proto-Early Viking?”

Selby said, “You nearly have it with that last one. It’s actually the singular dialect of rural North East Cumbria, softened by its close proximity to the Scottish border. I lived in that area for some years, but of course not being a local never spoke the dialect. One day when I was very hungry, I stopped my car outside a little post office, sitting in the middle of nowhere, as I knew that it sold snacks like chocolate and crisps. As it happened, I was the only customer, and the friendly old man there watched me with fascination as I tried to decide on my chocolate bar. Finally, as I took up one that he clearly approved, he remarked with an earnest emphasis, ‘That wass queyt a guid chow’.”

Folding her arms across her naked bosom, Mimi translated “The old man reminisced, ‘That was quite a good chew’? But referring in the present to your hungry osculation of my sumptuous breast? You were chewing it with an appetite, right enough. But tell me, sweet Con, and this is a very important question, in the post office was it a Curly Wurly that was quite a good chow?”

Selby snorted, as, along with the offers of Kenny Lingus and Gorky, he recalled the star prize of yore.

“Not at all. It was an extra-large Crunchie, if you must know.”

She shook her handsome head at such apprentice innocence. “Not in the same league, I’m afraid. Alas, it lacks the lattice, Con. And that which lacks the lattice, also lacks the true essence…”

He peered at her with great puzzlement. She seemed to be conveying a timeless aphorism relating to the Ancient Wisdom of the East, but it was the first time he’d heard such a thing expressed via mass market confectionery.

“To be honest,” Mimi continued, “I find myself a bit on the knackered and yawning side today. Once again, it’s all to do with words, words, words, rather than deeds, deeds, deeds, or shall we say words as obsessive antecedent to deeds! There was a nice enough feller here yesterday, a decent enough lad who came to see me via the ATM, like you did last time. Confidentiality is all important, so let’s call him Samuel…no let’s call him Jeff… no I’ll tell you what, I’ll call him Sonny. Sure enough, Sonny was as hungry for me as you are, but let me add, he had this little, meaning bloody big, outrageous bugger of a personal quirk! Sonny likes his lovemaking to be accompanied by arousing spoken words, words, words, and without those passionately muttered syllables, any amorous dalliance would be, to quote American film star Billy Bob Thornton when humorously describing the Dominion of Canada, ‘like mashed potatoes without the gravy’. Versatile Billy Bob was playing there with his rock band by the way, but the outraged Canadians cancelled every last one of his gigs.”

Selby brushed aside Thornton impatiently. “You mean that Sonny likes what they call talking dirty?”

Mimi grimaced and murmured, “It might have been less taxing if he had. Quite the opposite in fact, up to and including sweety-pie ickle baba baba baby talk. No, no, when it comes to the business of love language, your man is a bugger for rhetorical effects, just like me and my passion for assonance. But where I happen to be greatly aroused by the writings of a poet or a prose man when he goes and assonates like the clappers, old Sonny was turned on by the most mundane and mechanical rhetorical effect in the book! I refer of course to alliteration, or as it tells you in Teach Yourself Sanskrit, the poetry connoisseurs, the Indian rasikas, they called it anuprasa.”

The puppeteer puckered his lips in disbelief. “You mean when you were about to commence you know what, this Sonny chap demanded you rattle out Peter Piper Picked a Peck of…”

The hostess wrinkled her delicate nose and sighed, “Not at all. The alliteration boiled down to his employing synonyms strictly for the breasts and the backside, all beginning with ‘b’ of course. He would mumble one of these arousing stimulants as he feverishly caressed me, and then as agreed I would be obliged to repeat what he’d said, to be his faithful erotic echo. The word ‘breasts’, if you think about it, has only two b synonyms, ‘bosom’ and ‘bust’, and that’s where it ends. Of course, no one in their right mind would achieve perfervid erotic bliss, by chanting aloud the word ‘bust’, nor by the alliteration of the stodgy compound ‘beautiful bust’ nor ‘beautiful bare bust’, be they ballock-naked or not. Sonny doggedly experimented with muttering several alliterating ‘bosom’ compounds, as we passionately stroked each other, and with me chanting the same words back. No dice as it happened, more like a five-star anaphrodisiac, Con.”

Selby suddenly raised a schoolboy hand, as if he’d spotted something teacher hadn’t.

“Let me run something past you, if I may. Of course, it doesn’t begin with ‘b’, but there is the word ‘cleavage’…”

Mimi emitted a quaint gasping noise. “Indeed. And there was in Freeman’s feckin catalogues back in 1964, and lingerie or not, even they were allowed into Ireland. But, so what, might I humbly ask?”

Selby waved aside the salivating sarcasm. “Well I mean, so that Sonny might have bawled out a compound like ‘comely cleavage!’ and you might have obligingly echoed the same, Then, he might have gone to town in every sense, and passionately piped up ‘caressable comely cleavage!’ Whereupon you Mimi O’Houlihan could have…”

She shook her handsome head at this wide-eyed apprentice, all too clearly out of his depth.

“Are you sure of that, Mr Selby?  Wasn’t Comely Cleavage the name of the lass who went out on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims? Or isn’t she’s that sweet little Quaker girl from Dunstable who runs a sewing shop, and thinks that sneezing and hiccupping are unseemly acts of violence? If you think that comely compound would have old Sonny rampant as a bull, you’d be better off with some pickled peppers. But feckit, Con, let’s get back to the backside, back to good old fundamental fundaments, and perhaps those you’ll comprehend better. The salient point is that the ‘b’ synonyms for backside, go on for ever and a day. Backside, bottom, behind, and then the diminutives, the sugar-pie baby talk that Sonny liked very much, of botty and bot…”

Selby frowned, then offered like a pert quiz contestant: “Not to speak of bum, Mimi.”

Mimi snorted. “Exactly. Not to speak of bum! Meaning that that particular word when me and him were busy clinching, was never to be spoken!  Sonny was very precise with his specific rhetorical demands. He assured me that the synonym ‘bum’ was a banal functional term, not an erotic one, and I could chant bumbumbumbumbloodybum to him for the next forty thousand years, and it would do damn all good to him and his dancing Mister Arthur! Though that was just the bare beginning, Con, for that contrapuntal choral recital he put me through was more or less endless. You could say that this lad Sonny was into serial or compound alliteration, which of course is completely harmless, but felt like three shift factory work to me, conveyor belt and all. So, for example, he would stroke sweetly at my breast and sensuously murmur the word ‘breast’, echoed by my repeating the same word. Then, alliterating bugger that he was, he would improvise an adjective, and in a husky manner say ‘bare breast’, and as descant I would silkily respond with ‘bare breast’ too. ‘Beautiful bare breast’ was his next tender utterance, and with me replying likewise. So far so good, but then when we get to the bloody owld backside, Con, it turns into Mimi O’Houlihan’s Ten Thousand Labours of Hercules. I have to turn and present my behind for his caresses, and so we have him warbling that incendiary bisyllable ‘behind’, accompanied by my obedient lustful echo. Followed by, you get the pattern, his salacious elaboration of ‘bare behind’ plus my hot-faced salivating counterpoint. Then follows his feverish formula ‘beautiful bare behind’ and with me chirruping the same volcanic stimulant. Imagine going through as I did all those fifteen a cappella posterior options, such as ‘beautiful bare backside’, ‘beautiful bare bottom’, ‘beautiful bare botty’ and remember that the baby talk, and especially my goo goo diddums enunciation, immediately had your man like a turgid macaque. If you tot it all up, Con, there were a good fifteen saucy backside phrases, plus my obligatory echoes, equals no less than thirty erotic touchpapers. Add to that his three breast alliterations plus my faithful repetitions, grand total, thirty-six arousing formulae.  Meaning that in the end, the two of us with all our breast and backside singsong and our steamy, seamy foreplay, were blattering away like one of those Handel operas, like say Rodelinda or Admeto, nothing at all like the bone- idle soundtrack of Deep Throat  or Emmanuelle 3 and the like.”

But Selby still had some technical matters to clarify. “I know we’ve talked enough about the contrapuntal intricacies of backside alliteration, but you mentioned yourself the synonyms ‘posterior’ and ‘fundament’. And then of course there are ‘rump’ and ‘buttocks’, not to speak of ‘seat’ and ‘hindquarters’ and the laughably prudish ‘b-t-m’, as favoured we are told by Samuel Beckett’s peevish mother. What I mean is, for advanced erotic variations. Sonny might well have deserted his beloved b’s and cried out, ‘rip-roaring rump’ or ‘faultlessly fair fundament’ and had the pair of you going crazy with all those r’s and f’s.”

Mimi touched his arm consolingly. “Sorry, Con. But sadly, both of those charming lullabies would be not just detumescent, we might die of the painful hysterics. For your information, Sonny told me that ‘rump’ and ‘buttocks’ reminded him only of meat in butcher’s shops, and as far as we know, Con, not many laddoes get a lazy lob thinking about polony and haslet and tripe and black pudding. Not unless they happen to have some unsavoury mental health thingummies. As for the word ‘fundament’, it reminded him of funerals and embarrassing anal examinations at the doctor’s, so his Jack the Lad would hardly be stood gleefully saluting at your ‘faultlessly fair fundament’ formula, or call it your FFF feckin F…”

Selby pursed his lips, then effortfully mused, “Anomalously attractive arse. Amazingly alluring arse. Axiomatically angelic arse.”

Mimi raised an admonishing finger. “Give it a rest will you, Conway! As it happens, and much more significant, was what you might call the highly subtle tug of war between Sonny and me, when it came to things erotic. You see, Conrad, his singing the key words that excited him, and then elaborating them one item at a time, as with ‘breast’, ‘bare breast’, ‘beautiful bare breast’…all that was matched with him getting more and more like granite, from rhubarb rock to pre-stressed concrete and beyond. This was as he studiously went from caressing my ‘bottom’ to my ‘bare bottom’ to my ‘beautiful bare bottom’. Do you follow?”

Selby snorted, “Not without envy, Mimi.”

“Chin up. I promise you, you’ll get your turn, my sweet wee manny. But listen, what counted at this point was the blinking echo, meaning my chiming echo, which was done in a faithful and obedient manner and at his lordly behest. Seemingly that ritualised sequence made Sonny into Lord Muck, my master always in control, but in fact cunning Mimi would regularly subvert things in her own sly way. She would modulate and play slyly with her echo, and do all sorts of subtle things with her saucy responses. Sometimes pausing, sometimes slowing, sometimes raising her voice, sometimes lowering it, sometimes stretching it lewdly, sometimes talking icky lickle baby talk to drive Master Sonny and his joystick feckin mad. D’you get it? He thought he was in sovereign control, but it was me in the end that kept him at boiling point by my verbal and choral manoeuvres. At such an elevated peak, in fact, that if like me you’ve done advanced yoga and read the Shvetashvatara Upanishad in the original (with its helpful bhasha commentary of course) you know that mastery and domination, and especially in the context of the bedroom, are puerile and unworthy hallucinations. Isn’t that an all too obvious fact, Connie boy?”

Selby stared rather blankly, not undazed by her rapid discourse. “Up to a point perhaps.”

“Up to my backside! No, the truth is if you want to be a proper adult, Con, especially in the majestic realm of amorous dalliance, you have to feckin give as well as take. Even if you are permitted, as in a game or charades or a mime show, to play with the childish illusion of mastery. Reciprocity is the name of the game, even if it’s a stodgy, arsey kind of word, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes with our chanted counterpoint, Milord Sonny would be taking the erotic lead, but other times it was myself was the teasing boss of him, your proud and haughty Lady Mimi, as I dragged out and a cappellaed the arousing syllables. Sometimes likewise, he was the capricious masculine tyrant when he paused and dummied, and sang the words as dragged out staccato. At the end of the day, it felt more like the teasing improvisations of free jazz, than it did like JS Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. More to the point, I could see that old Sonny had decided he was never going to explode inside me in a hundred years! He was enjoying things far too much, being perpetually at the peak of his Machapuchara climax. Meaning he was cleverly scaling up and down that peak, and was encouraging me to do the same, just as I was encouraging him and myself at what we were doing. It’s what in Ancient India was called the Eternal Copulation or Maithuna, as it never ever ends, but always stays on the summit peak, and it’s still the venerable practice of certain yoga masters and the Tantric folk and the like.”

She paused to stare with incredulity at Selby, who was launched again on his buttock erotica improvisations.

“Hot hindquarters? Hefty hindquarters? Hot hefty hindquarters? Hefty hot humpable hindquarters? Who would wish to be an alliterating poet, eh, Mimi? Not forgetting haunches too, of course. Handsome hot humpable hefty haunches. HHHHH no less. Which do you think the best Mimi?”

But Mimi made no answer as Selby felt himself being shaken, and through a mist beheld his girlfriend Dora, still in the nurse’s outfit from her night shift. For a mad second and in the context of Mimi’s role play discussion, he thought she might have deliberately dressed up for him, as in the case of that curious dating site dedicated to those who are aroused by the sight of someone sporting a uniform.

Dora pouted as she began to disrobe. “Hot something did you say? It sounded like it was ‘hot hankies’ you were muttering. I’ve heard of boring dreams, Selby, but dreaming you are working in a laundry or dry cleaner’s, really has to be the pits.”

Selby distracted her from the embarrassing truth of things, by a neat red herring. “You and your nurse’s uniform, Dora.”

“What about it?” she asked, with a dry, old-fashioned look.

“Here’s a little quiz query, Dora. Which generic, as opposed to specific profession, do they respect most in modern Germany?”

Dora twanged her knickers as sardonic response. “You certainly have me there.”

Der Beamte. The official! The majority of Germans actually like being fined by an inspector on a tram when they’ve forgotten to pay their fare. And why would that be the case? Because they worship anyone wearing a uniform.”

“And so?” she demanded.

“Well you wear a uniform, Dora. Or rather you did ten seconds ago. And I would say that I more or less worship you.”

She parodied a smirking complacence. “Do you really? Are you sure?”

“Why wouldn’t I? Given your manifest talents as nurse, puppet maker and lover? I’d be a real fool not to have let you snap me up.”

She immediately slapped his ear so that he winced, and then they wrestled in the bed till she had him trussed in an extremely professional wrestling hold.

“Give in, give in, give in, you mad bugger!”

Selby squawked, “Social distancing, social distancing, and you bloody well stay alert!”

“Stay alert or what?”

“Stay alert just like Churchill the Second urges us to do. Stay alert or else!”

Chapter 5

Tally Ho! and the Magic Burger

It was the third night of the preview of I Didn’t Do It and instead of giving them Czech beer, Selby had bestowed two miniatures of malt whisky on his kinsfolk Daniel, Dennis and Mildred. They all loved malt whisky and especially Cardhu, as indeed did Con Selby, who of course had to stay lucid and unslurred for his performance, so hadn’t touched a drop of anything.

“Ambrosia,” blind Dennis remarked, of the pricey Cardhu. “I mean the food of the gods, not the tinned bloody rice.”

At that Mildred swiftly inscribed on her I-pad that there was nothing wrong in democratically liking both, and what’s more, conventional rice pudding was more like noxious school or prison fare, and it always stuck to the roof of your fucking mouth.

Selby resisted mediating in a potentially incendiary debate about the charisma of brand name processed foods. Instead, he strode round the back of the stage and his puppet play resumed.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Know what, kid? I thought it was a good idea to get one of my interns to do some proper research on you yourself, the British leader, before we met together formally as two world leaders. To have me kosher and well prepared, know what I mean, briefed up to the eyeballs, as you’re supposed to be our oldest and most dearest ally. And boy, were there some really big surprises! To be honest some of the really crazy stuff I didn’t think you had it in you, you being so polite and proper and truly aristocratic English, meaning as if you all have something stuck way up your ass. I guess that’s a natural fall out of being an ancient foodal monarchy.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I’m…I am flattered enough, sir, that you think I show a certain forthright audacity at times. As I argued in my work on Churchill…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Let me toss it back to you, kid, a bit like a hand grenade, so you can tell me it like it really is. Straight from the horse’s mouth as they say. And of course, horses are real important stuff in your CV, and I think you can guess what I’m talking about (slaps his thigh resoundingly). Isn’t it true that as a student at Oxford, in among those dozy ole spires, you were a kind of blazing radical and ran a magazine called Spectre. Or no, maybe it was called Sphincter? Meaning it was either like a ghost or an asshole, right? Typical student crazy stuff.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (very rushed) I have to apologise for arguing every little pedantic trifle, sir, but once again chronology is the elephant in our room. The magazine you refer to is in fact the Spectator, which far from being a leftist weekly, these days speaks with great eloquence for the conservative right. It was founded in 1828 by one Robert Rintoul, a Scotsman who was somewhat of a humanitarian cast, as it happened, and to quote from contemporary sources, ‘every line and word passed through the alembic of his brain’…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah. Which Alum Pick was that?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. He’s… an alembic is actually a kind of glass retort, sir, as in one’s chemistry classes at school. With of course the secondary connotation of alchemy, meaning no doubt the transforming magic of Rintoul’s editorial brain.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Know what. I kinda like that. I like Alum Pick, and I’ll try to remember that old Scottish dude for my next party convention. But listen, the reason I said I was stunned at what you said as editor of Asshole, was connected specifically with horses. Which is what I was touching on before. You told your Asshole readers who like to hunt, that if they agreed with your opinion, they should go and break the law and up the ass of the police, the courts and judges, and every other sonofabitch. I’m talking about how you, kid, from your personal experience reckoned hunting foxes was all to do with sex and your very close connection with your horse.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (his puppet strings visibly quivering) Dear me. Goodness me! No, sir! I assure you that a precise chronology here is absolutely vital to your proper understanding. It was in fact in 2005, fifteen years ago, that I wrote about fox hunting in the Spectator, whereas I was a stripling, if not quite a neonate at Oxford, some twenty years earlier in the mid-Eighties. In 2005, I was a Member of Parliament, as well as an editor, the bullying socialists then were still in power, and they had just made fox hunting illegal. It was and remains, the most horrifyingly brutal, cruel and heartrending, thing one might possibly imagine.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Hunting? I guess you’re right. A bunch of slaverin howlin dogs tearing all the guts out of a fox. I guess that might hurt some. But wait, wasn’t it you English back in the old days invented and patented hanging, drawing and quartering, for people you didn’t like? I was about forty before I understood exactly what that was, and get this, for two whole seconds I actually felt sick.  Back home we never learned to do much really colourful like that, except for maybe a few scalping Indians.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Alas, those hunting saboteurs do not adhere to science, sir. The so-called agony of the fox is entirely specious, and in any case any farmer or yeoman whose sheep have been ravaged by Reynard, will tell you that a fox is a species of vermin, not a sentient animal like for example my dog Winston. In any case, I’ve been assured by at least one experienced foreign vet who trained in an eminent college in Minsk or was it Pinsk, and who dearly loves to hunt, that the fox feels absolutely nothing as it is killed. No, sir, the unthinkable and quite unbearable brutality is that of the Marxian legislators from our British socialist party, who were determined to abolish an old and sacred tradition, and inter alia to mount a spiteful and envious attack on the British upper class! From memory, I believe this is what I wrote in my editorial:

‘I sincerely hope that the fox hunters defy the police and the magistrates and the government, until a new government can rescue an old tradition, and restore it for the sake of freedom and freedom alone!’

FLUFFY SENIOR. Aha. Do you realise you were really spitting when you said that, and I even had to close my eyes? But two important things I need to ask you. Why do you say Marxian instead of Marxist? You’re the only person in the world I’ve ever heard say that. Is it a house-style condition of working for Asshole? You’re not mebbe a border case dyslexic, are you?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. You’ll forgive me, sir, but I could hardly have published a well-received book, had that been the case.

FLUFFY SENIOR. The second thing is that you were forty years old in 2005, not a crazy student punk writing mad crap for Viz, or in your case Asshole. At forty years old, in let’s say your mature middle age, you were ordering English folk to break the law, meaning defy the judges, the police, the whole shebang. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my intern said only fifteen per cent of the Brits are in favour of hunting foxes, meaning eighty-five per cent ain’t. So listen, with you, kidda, what I see is we have a middle-aged aristocrat who is saying to his hunting pals, go fuck the law, meaning that you’re not a regular anarchist, but an upside down and inside out anarchist defending the lords and dooks and barons and duchesses. No, shit, don’t look so scared, kid, what I’m getting to, is I that I really admire your spunk, your middle-aged aristo-punk spunk, cos to look at you I mean well… like I said, you look like one of those prissy, after you, no after you, sir, itsy bitsy snooty Brits, with a cucumber or at least a little zucchini stuck up his ass. But instead, and get this, here you are bawling at us like a crazy Tucson auctioneer, for your freedom and your freedom alone, when only an itsy bitsy number of your citizens agrees with you! Seriously, that’s what I call real superstar class, son, that’s what I call telling them like it is, and if they don’t friggin like it, there’s the exit and tough shit. You get top votes from me for saying all that, no kiddin kid…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Well I’m more than honoured, sir, by your heartfelt testimony, even though I would frame my polemical fervour in rather a different hue. Rintoul who founded the Spectator in 1828 actually stole the title from the short-lived newssheet of the great Joseph Addison and the equally fabled Richard Steele, founding fathers of their trenchant pamphlets or philippics.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s kind of cool as well. Is he some English relation of Joe Steel who taught me to say, Enemy of the People, and flatten the wise guys just like that? But look, son, there’s still one thing worries or let’s say confuses me, in this business of you liking your blood sports, and telling all your patriotic hunters to break the heartless law. What I’m talking about now is sex, kid, and I’m also talking about sex and horses, meaning aristocratic British horses in your case. You and sex and horses, to be even more precise, and how they all combine, and come, if that’s the right word, how they all come together. And whether that kind of thing is ever going to be legal, even in a Britain that eventually changes the law and decides to look after its cruelly downtrodden and neglected aristocrats, never mind anything else.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. The business of sex, you say? And its thematic connection with fox hunting? Once again, I admit I am rather trailing behind you when it comes to your audacious leaps of…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Sure. OK, let’s get it straight. My intern says that when you explained in your Asshole why it was you liked fox hunting, it was because it gave you a ‘semi-sexual’ sensation. That little semi word has stuck in my mind for some reason.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. That is an extremely approximate and highly inaccurate gloss, sir, as it is not what I actually said. What I actually penned for my piece, was, ‘a weird semi-sexual relation’.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Weird OK. For a start, I don’t really get semi-sexual. Semi is Greek and means half, as in a semi-detached and gated Florida villa, with armed guards and a ten-acre pool. So, it means half-sexual right? So OK, does that mean we’re talking about like half a yellow zucchini, growing at a forty-five-degree angle?

FLUFFY JUNIOR (aghast)Good gracious! Nothing so flagrantly absur…nothing quite so overarchingly… nothing so overwhelmingly literal!

FLUFFY SENIOR. And is it half a zucchini cos of straddling the horse, or cos of the horny thrill of killing the little fox? Don’t be shy, you can tell me, son, I’m old enough to be your old man, and believe me, I’ve been around the block and been hung, drawn and quartered myself. Those schmucks even poke their dirty noses into my friggin sex life.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I’m sorry but I’m afraid that once again, sir, it is imperative that I quote from my exact wording in the Sphincter…I mean from the Spectator. From memory this is how I put it:

‘Hunting on a horse is like skiing, in that you are personally tracing at speed, the contour of the landscape. And then there is the weird semi-sexual relation with the horse, in which you have the illusion of understanding and control…’

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah?  I’m still no wiser. It seems to me, kid, that if you really are on a weird kinda half zucchini gig with a horse, you need to either keep quiet about it, or be a lot more careful about what you write. Being an editor is a serious business and in the old days and specially in Old Merry Englande if you made a slip, you could pay for it with your neck. That’s why I only tweet and nothing else, cos the last time I wrote an email was on Thanksgiving Day 1995. Nobody remembers a tweet a day later, never mind fifteen years later. And that skiing and horse hunting stuff still has me baffled. Controlling a horse and understanding it, according to you is like controlling a woman and understanding her. And of course, the whole thing is as you say weird, cos at the end of the day it’s only half a zucchini, not a full one. Plus, and worst of all, you say the whole thing is a friggin illusion! You’re not a kind of fox hunting George Harrison Maharishi Beatles Hindu, are you, kid? And there again like your Marxian word, you use words that no one else ever does. ‘Relation with the horse’ don’t make any sense. Relationship with the horse makes sense, so is that what you mean? You know if I was you, I’d straighten up and get myself tested for dyslexic.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (snorting) If I may beg, sir, to be permitted to finish what I started. There is only a morsel left to quote:

‘You have the military-style pleasure of wheeling and charging as one, the emulative fun of a pseudo- campaign.’

FLUFFY SENIOR. Huh. Pretty cool word, that Emma Latif. Meaning when you’re having fun because you’re imitating something. So it’s a bit like playing charades or mimicking really stoopid folk cos they’re so ridiculous. But you know what. You’re the only person in the world says Emma Latif, along with your Marxian and your half relation with the horse. Must be your Asshole house rules, I guess. Still, I really worry about all your dodging the dodge ball, kid.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Really sir? In what sense?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Pseudo this and semi that, and illusion this and Emma Latif that, when that particular chick’s at home!  And then you apologise when you try to explain about sex and horses, and you blush like a kid, and you stress ok, ok it is kinda weird. Even, if only semi-weird, not proper kosher weird! But on you go with your ifs and buts and your blushing, you the aristocrat anarchist who is rousing the upper classes to fight for freedom and freedom alone! But take a tip from me. You need to take your finger out of your ass, son, and stop saying pseudo and semi and illusion, and realise that the public don’t like sissy words like maybe and perhaps and slightly and rather and somefuckinwhat. What they like is someone like me who bawls at them 24/7: you can friggin betcha ass that I mean what I say, and I say what I mean!

FLUFFY JUNIOR (clearing his throat) Perhaps you have something there, sir. Reading Greats at Oxford meant I probably dallied overmuch with the subjunctive. As in utinam adessem  ‘Ah, would that I were there!’ Meaning I was somewhere not where I am. And even more with the timorous optative, as in that aye-bittersweet formula, If only!

FLUFFY SENIOR, Joe Steel didn’t do no Grits, and he never said no, If onlys! Joe got on with it like a mad bulldozer, and he kicked ass until he got exactly what he wanted. I’d advise you to brace up and do the same, kid, and ditch them Ivy League broads like Emma Latif. Even if she is like you say she is, a heap of fun. But talking of women and half zucchinis, let me give you another little tip, kid, like any wiser, older man would give to a younger and bound to be goofier guy. Are you ready?

FLUFFY JUNIOR (warily) I am always at your disposal, sir.

FLUFFY SENIOR. What, if anything, do you know about my regular evening habits, kid? After I’ve been toilin away in my office all day?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. What exactly?

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s right. My sugar is down by that time so I really need to eat. I need to have myself a healthy snack. You know, being the most powerful person in the universe is really hard work, and it ain’t for dudes or pussies. You need to take all your vital calories and your vitamins and your supplements, and you need to build yourself up for the daily fight. Joe Steel, he did the same, after a hard day on the phone where  he’d pointed out that some asshole called Ivan was an enemy of the people, and so was Mikhail an enemy of the people, and so was Sofia and more or less everyone  who was supposed to be on his side was actually, if you scratched good and hard underneath, a treacherous enemy of the people! Joe Steel took energising Roosky snacks to keep going against his many enemies, and I take one every evening to stay strong amongst my potential traitors. Guess what my favourite snack is every night?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I ah… peanut butter sandwiches?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Nah, that was that crazy kid, ‘Just Dennis’. And come to think if it he was always saying, ‘I didn’t do it!’ as well. So maybe I need to go on Sixties You Tube, and make sure I don’t miss anything else that’s strategically useful. No, son, my favourite snack is, get this, a Diet Coke and a burger.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. And laudable enough. The Coke being a Diet, the burger being doubtless organic.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Listen hard now, kid, as very few people know what I’m about to tell you. People think the burger and Coke are only to build me up, and nothing more, so that I’m strong enough to wage battle against the phony radicals, the journalists and all them nosey TV interview schmucks. So, I stick to that story to please them, but the real reason for my special burger snack is actually a state secret! It’s flown in fresh by helicopter every night with some fancy story that even the security guys believe. What they don’t know is that it is a very special burger made for me and me alone, by an Armenian guy Jimmy who has a burger joint in the Bronx. It’s made to a secret recipe of his legendary great-grandfather, Baret, at the time the most notorious character in the Armenian capital. Which is called…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Erevan, I believe, sir. And is also known as Yerevan.

FLUFFY SENIOR. There ain’t many capitals I don’t know, and I knew that one. Hairy Van or sometimes Cherry Van. I didn’t wanna embarrass you, kid, in case you thought it was War Horse in Slovacky. Anyway, Jimmy’s great grandpop was the biggest womaniser in that Armenian city, and in addition old Baret was incredibly clever, a brain the size of Eysenck’s, and nearly on a par with mine. You see Jimmy’s burger has a secret combination of four types of peppercorn, pink, black and red and white. It also contains a spice like allspice, but a special Armenian allspice, and it’s that unique Hairy Van allspice, and the precise quantity, that does the trick. The point is, my exclusive burger made to a secret Cherry Van recipe by Bronx Jimmy, for me and for me alone, it does no less than three amazing things, not one! And it’s those three truly incredible and outstanding things, that make me the amazing and incredible person I’m often told that I am by so many people. Like I said, the magic burger builds me up, just like Joe Steel got up to top notch after he’d swallowed his favourite snack. In my case it’s to fight my war against the Enemies of the People who spread fake news back home, and shoot nasty sneaky questions for the fun of it. No bragging, son, but it also makes me kinda special when it comes to being a hundred per cent a hero, so I have no problems with half zucchinis, and I definitely ain’t, what was it you said In Asshole, semi-weird as far as the gals are concerned. The Diet Coke, what’s that cute word, potentiates the action of the burger, if we’re talking about them old Afro-Dizzy Snacks, but nobody knows that apart from me and Jimmy. Forget about chewin shitty celery like those stupid porn stars, for the Andy Stenos and all of that. A magic burger and a Diet would turn anyone on earth into concrete, but I’m glad to say the only one that has access to that magic combo is me. And them Cherry Van burgers don’t come cheap, believe me. Look, I haven’t finished yet, in fact I’ve barely started when it comes to special food and magic. On top of what I’ve told you, Bronx Jimmy’s burgers add to and elevate and sustain the most important thing in the world as far as I’m concerned. Other than a patriotic love of my wonderful country, needless to add. D’you know what I’m talking about?”

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Hm. You certainly have me guessing. The legacy of your beloved parents? That most enduring of filial loves?

 FLUFFY SENIOR. Nope, none of that. I’m talking about my legendary IQ, son, and how the Armenian allspice, concocted back in the nineteenth century by that genius of a Hairy Van womaniser, has given me a brain even bigger than his! As a direct result of eating all those Bronx Jimmy burgers, a few years ago, and before I was president, I was able to tweet something that wasn’t me boasting at all, but a simple, undeniable and overwhelming truth. I tweeted that when it comes to my predecessors, my IQ is significantly higher than that leftist Barack Obama’s, and also, way higher than G Dubya Bush! What’s more, if we’re talking about the so-called Apprentice show gurus, it’s also bigger than your English tribute version of me.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. You mean Lord Sugar?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Call him Dook Salt or the Baron of Mustard, he still ain’t got brains like mine. Nor will he ever have, as long as I’ve Jimmy from the Bronx looking after me.

The play paused at that point, and Selby’s old relatives applauded with an amiably musical rhythm. Mildred grinned and held up an empty Cardhu miniature, seemingly suggesting that another one or two or even six, would be more than acceptable. Daniel adjusted his cumbrous hearing aid and warmly reminisced about an aphrodisiac story in northern dialect where the proven remedy was epic amounts of brown bread and salted butter (it had to be salted, not unsalted, or you would be even less than half a courgette, he snorted). Eventually Selby ushered them out, after confirming there would be more I Didn’t Do It tomorrow night, and at the same time. Then he took himself off for his breather to the centre of town, and as with the repetitive drift of his humble shoes in his recent dreams, he found himself yet again in the little park with the ancient gravestones. Where, of course, once more, as if by wordless prearrangement, there was the man with the ponytail, who smiled at Selby as if quietly anticipating yet another instructive and ad hoc seminar.

Selby greeted him with animation.

Here we are again, art teacher. I realise I haven’t told you yet, but I’m actually a sort of theatre director, and I must say that you are one of the most impressive audiences I’ve ever met. You listen hard and with total attentiveness, and as I see it, with very few words you communicate your opinions principally by measured smiles and finely graduated nods, and minute and subtle turns of the head. You know, I was once a part of a circle of student friends where the most charismatic member was someone who spoke about one sentence a week, if that. If anyone but he had been as perpetually mute he would have been written off as a dismal bore, but no as in those paradoxical Zen aphorisms, his silence spoke not volumes, but entire copyright libraries, including the Bodleian and Fitzwilliam. At any rate, I’m feeling quite hungry at the moment, even though I ate earlier, and it’s got me thinking about the recent culinary experiences of myself and my girlfriend, who as it happens is a nurse on regular nightshift, in the virus frontline as you can imagine.

Since July the town cafes and restaurants have all been open, with social distancing and with obligatory masks. You can remove the masks, only if you are pinned to your seat, and of course it helps if you wish to actually masticate. Dora and I are a sociable pair, and we like going out for good meals. We are both keen and cosmopolitan cooks, partly as a function of being raised in two grim northern backwaters, about a four-hour drive from here in my case, and a three-hour trip along the opposite direction in hers. This town is very small, but has a remarkable range of restaurants, wouldn’t you agree, not just ethnic places, but surprisingly stylish wine bars with surprisingly imaginative menus.  In the last three months, Dora and I have been making up for lost Covid time, and we have celebrated our two birthdays in restaurants, and also, because I’m a widower of a thirty-year marriage, and she is a widow after thirty-five happy years, the anniversaries of our partners’ deaths, plus the birthday of Dora’s husband. So, we’ve been out five times in all, and had four truly excellent meals, and one, even though it had been recommended by several reliable acquaintances, extremely average, or if I’m being candid, downright bad. Dora thought it rubbish too, but as I say we are both keen cooks, and have rather exacting standards as a result.  It was the Italian restaurant that had just opened, and was, virus notwithstanding, very crowded, albeit with rigorous socially distancing. We tried simple and safe pasta dishes, pomodoro e arancia in her case, and penne con peperoni in mine. Both meals tasted as if out of a tin, with an appropriately bitter and metallic flavour, as if purchased from some discount wholesaler. But being spineless Brits, when the manager came round and asked us if we were satisfied, we grinned and joked, and said oh yes, oh yes indeed. He had a nice face and we didn’t want to give him a miserable evening, not in this precarious pandemic ease up, where he was anxiously trying to make ends meet. After he’d gone, we reflected that if he could make two hopeless meals out of standard pasta dishes, then probably everything here was bad, even if everyone around us was uproariously lapping it up. I would take as a useful analogy a book, a serious novel, say. If the first ten pages are unremittingly bad, there is no way on earth the next two hundred and forty will be adequate, much less excellent. Life does not work that way, and thank God never will.

Don’t worry, Art Lecturer, there is a serious point to this culinary resume, and it is to do with the virus, the plague, the Corona, which once upon a time was the name of a fashionable beer, and now is the name of a killer.  My story returns to a level plateau of complete satisfaction, as I tell you about the other four meals. We tried again another new arrival on the block, that North African eatery run by a Moroccan couple, and with a Tunisian chef who was happily versed in all kinds of Maghreb cookery. We had the fish tagine, which was made with fresh halibut, flavoured unusually with celery leaves and the more standard trio of cumin, oregano and garlic. Soaked in a sauce of tomatoes thickened with puree and onions, and with chilis and lemon juice to make our tongues sing and dance in ecstasy! It was superb, as was the bulgur salad loaded with fried eggplant, courgettes and peppers, and with a stinging chili and cinnamon spicing. Encouraged by that, we moved up the road a fortnight later to a Turkish grill run by a young man from the town of Cesme near Izmir. We happen to be vegetarians who eat fish, hence bear that ludicrous name ‘pescatarians’ which sounds like people who are either always pissed or always pissing, or always both. We had the sea bass in grape brandy, raki soslu levrek, rich in butter, wine and cream, and flavoured with aniseed, as well as with the raki, which of course is grape spirit flavoured with yet more anis. It was garnished with odorous fresh tarragon, and every mouthful, Dora and I quickly agreed, was sublime to the point of the ridiculously sublime.

That takes us to the pricey South American place a half hour’s walk from here. We ate vegetarian that night, as we saw they had an unusual dish of mushrooms in a fresh gooseberry and chili puree. It was called hongos something, and I recall that it was Mexican. That was for starters, and as entrée we had a Nicaraguan speciality: fried aubergines baked in a cheese and tomato sauce, ripe with chilis and allspice. The rice accompaniment was the legendary arroz verde which is cooked in a blended mess of shredded lettuce, roasted and skinned green peppers, and roasted green chilis. The arroz could hardly be more verde, could it? It tastes like nothing on earth, the flavour is at first incendiary, then molten, and is truly beyond compare. That gourmet vegetarian fare led us a little further out of town, where at the busy Prashad we sampled some fine South Indian. It hosted an unusual range of exotic fruit dishes, including banana foogath, apple bhaji, and a rice that was flavoured with mangoes and yoghurt and coconut. Intentionally or not, that meal was an expert blend of the salt, the sweet, the pungent and the astringent, as codified in Classical Indian medical lore, meaning a humoral system consisting of Wind, Bile and Phlegm, or if you prefer Air, Fire and Water.  As is expounded in the definitive Ayurveda treatises of its founding fathers, Sushruta and Charaka, and their respective encyclopaedic samhitas.

Finally, and as swansong, is the Chinese that needed a taxi to get to, though of course it allowed us both to have a drink.  You probably know that it’s been there for years, but it was our first ever visit. It is called The Royal China, and reasonably enough feels assured of its lonely sovereignty, as it puts all competitors to shame. It does lovingly prepared individual vegetable dishes, rather than the ubiquitous and odious mixed veg, as a rule reminiscent of flavourless cowpoke mush. We had bean curd with the chef’s ingenious addition of dates and orange peel, steeped in orange juice, ginger and soy, and garnished with crushed walnuts. We also had aubergines cut into thin matchsticks, stir fried to perfection in chili and sugar and soy, then sprinkled with cashews.  Three Flavours Rice speaks for itself and has a common base of fennel, sesame and cardamom seeds, but the second and third portions have additions of fried cashews and coriander leaf respectively, and the three rices are served like little monarchs in three separate dishes.

Need I go on? Yes, I bloody well need to, very much. A week after we were at the indifferent but busy Italian place, it was suddenly closed, as one of the kitchen staff had come down with Covid symptoms. Its umpteen employees were all aged between eighteen and thirty, which gave the lie to it being the old and the vulnerable who are principally afflicted. It was the middle-aged manager who rang round those who had been customers that night, their names taken down at the entrance of course. He told me in an encouraging voice to ring the doctor, should either I or my girlfriend develop worrying symptoms. As if such a thing would not have occurred to you, he added as a supplementary jest. Dora and I were briefly startled, of course, but as she is a night nurse in the frantic front line, it was not for very long. Coals to Newcastle, you might say. But then two weeks after that, the same thing happened with the Moroccan couple’s place, and it was closed for an unspecified period. Their cook’s assistant had come down with Covid, but it wasn’t after our night there, so no one rang us, and we learnt about it only through the grapevine. Meaning that two out of five, forty per percent of the restaurants we went to, to celebrate our virus era birthdays, or to mourn that of Dora’s late husband Tom, or to mourn the poignant anniversaries of our partners’ deaths, had been potentially lethal.

The point is that only about six months ago, back at the start of March 2020, when most of us knew nothing at all about the virus, such a scenario would have seemed fantastic, impossible, a tasteless joke, and an example of third-rate and feverish science fiction for the easily duped. It was inconceivable that by eating out amongst your fellow men and women, in a prosperous First World country, you might end up dying, you might actually go and kick the bucket, and none too pleasantly as nurse Dora regularly assures me.

Worse still, you might die in fruitless pursuit, not of a good meal, but of a very bad meal, after politely knocking back a dreary penne dish and an even more dismal tagliatelle standard? And what could be more tragic, than a truly pointless exit like that?

Chapter 6

Mixed Fancies

Selby found himself dawdling one afternoon outside an old-fashioned confectioner’s shop, where he stared with fascination at the objects on display. He was mesmerised by the garish colours of the many types of small cake, of all that chromatic icing, crystallised fruit, glace cherries and desiccated coconut… and was even more bemused that they made him feel hungry. Those odd little childlike works of art, reminded him of prehistoric Sixties rummage sales, and Women’s Institute Home Produce stalls, as witnessed in small towns on sunny and cheerful Saturday mornings. Always they flew like hot cakes, even if manifestly they were cold cakes.

“But what the hell is their name?” he mused. “Not their individual names, but their generic name, as individually encased small cakes. Something like ‘Little Darlings’ or ‘Little Sweethearts’, or ‘Little Sweetypies’? Though only someone entirely free of their marbles would give them a bloody stupid name like that…”

He closed his eyes to make his memory work the better, if only because the common name for common objects is one of those things a man who values himself must always retain. As he shuffled through the creaking filing cabinets of his classificatory categories (they were definitely not digital memories, he soon realised) Selby suddenly felt a kind of pleasurable lightness and airiness within himself, followed by an indication of energetic propulsion. All too evidently, not only was his porous old mind on the move, but he himself was in locomotory transit, and an unusual inner velocity was the name of the game.

As he opened his eyes, two things happened, one concerning his location and the other his memory. He realised that he was outside 47B Assiduity Mews again, if only because Mimi from Connemara had opened its door, as if she’d been expecting him. At once he observed that although she was wearing a bra, she was currently without a trace of knickers.  And unless his memory was deluding him (memory and sieveholes yet again, bugger it), the last time he was here it was the other way round.

She smiled at his bashful attempt to ignore her naked nethers.

“You’re wondering why no knickers, Connie? Simple, I love hot air blowing up my Irish backside from that convector heater over there. And here’s a handy tip for you. Remember to take all cost-free and innocent sensual pleasures while you can, big man, as they might start charging you the day after tomorrow.”

Selby’s response was unexpected, as he flicked his fingers with excessive excitement, then blurted as if it were some secret formula:

 “Mixed fancies!”

She frowned with apparent seriousness. “What would they be, wee man?  What exactly would Conway Selby’s mixed fancies be? What might be the assorted daydreams and unsublimated yearnings of this sweet little boysie boyo? A month in Madagascar, staying at a boutique hotel in Antananarivo, and jotting down notes on the fauna and flora as you tramp the hills and dales? But do they have dales outside of England, now? They don’t have dales in bloody Ireland never mind Madagascar. Or maybe a week in bed with your favourite female pin-up. Who would that be, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Selby felt so self-conscious that he whispered in her ear.

His knickerless hostess roared, “Emma Thompson!  Well, fair play, no riffraff, real class, damn good for you, big lad. I’m thinking she must be about sixty, so is at the very height of her…at the very zenith, at the very acme of her damn near everything, Conrad Selby. Suffice to say she is in her fulsome prime.”

Selby blushed as he muttered, “She is unspeakably handsome, and indeed Emma emanates pure sweetness…”

Mimi snorted “Is that a pun? Emma Nates. Emma emma nates. And of course, nates is Latin for the backside, and no doubt hers is up to scratch. And wouldn’t you love to have a pure and disinterested look at your pin up’s lovely little bum, Connie man? Have you any more mixed fancies, Mr Selby, while we’re at it?”

The puppeteer replied, “I was actually juggling with my hopeless memory, Mimi. I was cudgelling my brains to recall the general term for those little fancy cakes you get at bring and buy sales. Covered in colourful icing and sprinkled with coconut and garnished with glace cherries, and so on. All in their individual greaseproof cases, just like proudly independent post-Thatcherite homeowners. And then I remembered the name. Confectioners call them ‘mixed fancies’. On account of their being both fancy and assorted I suppose. So, for example, you might buy a whopping bag of mixed fancies for a child’s birthday party. I mean no self-respecting child would want a barrowload of uniform or drearily monotonous fancies, would they?”

Mimi O’ Houlihan concurred. “Would they bollocks, the poor wee chislers. Nor would you yourself, my son, and as I see it, this is a perfect example of Chance or Fate or Jungian synchronicity. Call it whatever you like, but it brings you to me at this time and to this place. Cast your eyes at the table in the corner there, and tell me what you see spread out on the cloth.”

Selby was astounded. “A massive array of mixed fancies! Dozens of little coloured cakes in parchment paper cases. There are also one or two things with copious chocolate, and with whipped cream. Cream splits and iced baps with glace cherries, and yes Eccles cakes and rock buns. If they’re not from some master confectioner, Mimi, you must have been sweating in your kitchen for days on end.  But I can see more than that. There would appear to be stacks of neat little sandwiches with all the crusts removed, and tenderly garnished with bits of cress. Hang on a minute. You’re not seriously planning a children’s party, are you? I mean they might not understand your being quite so casually dressed to the point of this complete deshabille, hot air or not.”

She guffawed and touched his cheek reassuringly. “No kids’ party here, because the only child is you, wee man or big man, or whichever Irish stage play salutation be your chosen favourite. No, you see, it occurred to me after your last visit, that I really put you through the mill, most cruelly so, with that blow by blow erotic account of the chap who was a word fetishist when it came to love sports. The time before that, I regaled you with Curly Wurlies and Fool’s or Mock Kenny Lingus and the like, even if you experienced a priceless vision of The Spirit of Childhood when you gazed deep inside my maw, my little Mary Ann. So I thought the best remedy for my short-changing you, was to do the opposite and spoil the feckin socks off you today! I thought I’d give you one hell of an Afternoon Tea for a start…”

Selby could barely hide his disappointment. “That’s very kind of you.”

“But I haven’t finished, Conrad! I’m talking about an afternoon tea that is to be consumed on my completely naked body!”

Selby brightened, albeit cautiously, as he waited for the next catch. “Like the Tokyo geishas, you mean? Stinking rich and ugly old businessmen eat the choicest Japanese tidbits off their naked bellies and breasts.”

“More or less, Con. They use the Tokyo lassies as occasional tables, you might say, and especially if there’s an occasion. But rest assured there won’t be any platter of raw fish slapped on my belly button, nor any sushi or mushy sushy peas, nor any of that palaver on Ms O’ Houlihan’s precious bosoms. Instead I am going for the rustic, retro-resonant and reassuring comforts of a nice old-fashioned, dear old, good old Anglo-Irish afternoon tea, and with all the trimmings! Watch me now as I take a plateful of mixed fancies and a few of these crustless, cress-bestrewn sandwiches. Watch now Connie-wonnie, as I remove my brassiere, so I am both bare up top and bare of bottom, as my mother first beheld me back in Clifden town in 1968, the year of the Paris street riots, and then declared in a joyous shriek of Connacht Irish that I her little neonate would be a blinking riot too, in due course! See me now, young Conway, as I lie prone and lusciously naked on this antique divan, and as I deposit these pretty cakes and toothsome sandwiches at judicious points the length of my body. First of all, I have to lean forward to place just above the robin’s nest of my Mary Ann, this fine little example of a Kunzle cake…”

Selby watched her like a dog its mistress. “A Kunzle? A sort of chocolate boat, with a cherry in the centre and with ornamented icing. A Kunzle adjacent to your…”

“Indeed, indeed. A Kunzle it is thou dost verily descry, sir, right above my old See You Next Tuesday. The cake was named after a Swiss gentleman who began to manufacture them in the Nineteen Twenties. And blimey, Con, crumbs, did they take off, gosh how they exponentially rocketed, and they and their chocolate boats and their cherries in the middle, soon conquered the entire cake-guzzling world! But come on, son, let’s move briskly on, in case we lose our momentum as they say. Next and squat upon my belly button, I place a scone smeared with ample cream and much much much, oh far too much delicious plum jam! Such touchingly blameless WI tucker, isn’t it, Con? Meaning after you’ve munched away at my Kunzle, my sweet little English chickaboy, you can lick your lips then move on up my body, to mop up this well-loaded bruiser of a scone here. And by the way, do you say it ‘skon’ like I do, or prefer ‘skoan’, if you are morbidly class-conscious, or more like a mentally defective? Thank God for that, Con, my sweet little English skon, and look at that, it rhymes! And by the way, you can relax, you needn’t worry about the stickiness factor, that’s already taken care of. As you’ve already guessed, I’m not completely ontologically annealed to this mundane and circumscribed world, so am quite incapable of becoming yukky sticky.  Among sundry other heuristic perks, that is. Nor in the present circumstances, within 47B Assiduity Mews (and I can proudly boast that I’ve paid off all its whopping mortgage) will you become sticky on account of our erotic contact either. I promise that all your other tactile sensations will be enhanced and five-star, but yukky stickiness you can forget about. Now then look, take a gander at what I’m draping all around my luscious breasts. A handsome garland of savoury sandwiches no less, crustless and cress-adorned, and to sweetly adorn our coming congress. You do know what exactly you’re looking at, I trust, at this elevated sternal point, in the sense that it is at the top of my body, rather than in the valley down there where the Kunzle and its glace cherry repose? No, Con, you’re gawking and looking a little vacant, so I must point out the obvious. A Kunzle down by the Mary Ann, and scones and cream plonked upon my umbilicus, constitute a standard English Afternoon Tea as consumed in its English millions every day. Plague permitting of course. But up here I have savoury sandwiches draped around my breasts, so that we are no more in the arguably childish world of Mixed Fancies and the like. There is no such thing as Low Tea, of course, not even in horizonless and depressed Holland, nor in the glum and featureless Lincoln Wolds. But there is, and how redoubtable it is in its quiet glory, the elevated and legendary majesty of the High Tea!”

Selby dimly echoed, “High tea?” which sounded very much like Hai Ti, as in some long lost branch of Manchurian Martial Arts.

“High Tea means the obligatory inclusion of savoury comestibles, as well as the standard sweet ones, of course. These savoury sandwiches, aptly placed ‘high’ on my body around my gorgeous breasts, happen to be laced with lovely sockeye salmon. And before you ask, it is the very best proprietary salmon, the flavoursome red not the cheap and lacklustre pink. One look at your fizzog, Connie lad, and I know you’re not a meat eater by the colour of your iris. You can only be a vegetarian who also eats fish, a so-called pescatarian. Now, I’m sure there must be a side-splitting limerick, with a pescatarian veterinarian and a pescatarian librarian, and their unpardonable goings on behind the dusty reference shelves. A Connacht limerick in my case, and that would be original, perhaps a first. But here’s my culinary advice, Conway. Start at the top, just as you would in a genteel tea shop in snooty Harrogate or other spa town, savoury matters first, then work your way like a bloodhound down to the sweet things, the scone with the plum jam and the cream. But no, hang on, sweet lad, I’ve jumped the gun. I’ve forgotten something vital, and so I’m remedying things now by placing mid-way between my breasts and belly button, this brace of little rock buns…”

Selby politely demurred at this point. “I hope I don’t sound too ungrateful Mimi, but not only do I not like rock buns, I don’t know anyone who does like the unalluring items. They are always dry and crumbly and arid, and rather like the case of the shunned vegetable marrow, are the home-produce gift that no one ever wants.”

His hostess was by now prone, as well as naked, and displaying an ornamental culinary ladder starting with sockeye sandwiches, sweeping down via rock buns, scones, cream and jam, to the Kunzle cake just above Mimi’s groin. She murmured her indignation at his sniffy statement, and also gestured that it was high time for Selby to take his own blinking clothes off.

She continued vehemently, “Any man who spurns a rock bun is a fool, Conway. And Conway Twitty or Twitty Conway is the appropriate name in your case! The acclaimed crooner’s real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins, but misguided as he was, he thought that Twitty had some stylish elan to it. Can’t you see what’s obvious about rock buns, Connie lad, because the name itself is a feckin give-away? Rock buns, providing they have the right sort of currants, ideally from the sultry Greek island of Zakynthos, aka Zante, are so called as they always turn a man into genuine pre-Devonian rock!”

Selby nearly choked. “Are you sure? And me wedded to the idea that like Cornish pasties or cold sago pudding, they were first class anaphrodisiacs.”

Adorned with High Tea and Afternoon Tea apparatus, the naked hostess sniffed :

“No way, Connie boy, no bloody way! You guzzle these two rock buns after you’ve chomped away at the sockeye, and you’ll be like quarry granite, believe me. You’ll be gneiss and schist, nice and shisht alright, and you’ll be toasted in every bar in town. Albeit with the necessary social distancing, as the standard rider, and yes what a racy rider you will also prove to be. But I have yet more to tell you, before you start any of your senile humming and hawing, Connie lad. Let’s resort to the subjunctive, and indicate that, were you to masticate let’s say four of these handsome lads, four of these rock buns loaded with those powerful Ionian currants, you’d suddenly notice your feller down there straining up to tickle your chin.”

Selby eyed the two rock buns below her handsome chest and was speechless. His hostess by contrast had hardly started.

“But don’t stop there, son. Let’s imagine you were to stash away a full eight of these excellent Zante rock cakes. If you did that, Connie lad, you could tape a brush on the end of your wee pugilist, and then emulsion the ceiling of a Bank Holiday afternoon. DIY is the least of it, Con.”

Selby was stupefied. “I am thoroughly lost for words. I was about to comment something wholly redundant, or is it tautological or pleonastic, on the lines of ‘fuck me stiff’. But given these quite unearthly and magical rock buns of yours, it would seem quite…”

“Coals to Newcastle, Con! Superfluous, if not redundant, if not wholly supererogatory! But first things first. Mop up all that sockeye first just to sharpen your brain, then tear into those rock buns to sharpen your, let’s say, your Little Tool for Conviviality. Remember that he who forgets his Ivan Illich will one day find himself at a significant loss. And look, take off your blinkin duds and spats, for crying out loud, you’re not here for a day course on digital feckin marketing….”

Selby said chastenedly, “Very well, Mimi. But bugger it, my underpants are completely stuck. I’ll have to sit down now, and…”

“Hurry up that feckin striptease, then gobble up your sockeye! You punish that arm and a leg sockeye, Selby, or there’ll be damn all amorous dalliance for you the day! That’s it, keep guzzling it down! Chew it and bolt it! Gnash it and swallow it! Masticate, then gulp it! Bugger it, they’ve got no crusts, Con, they’re only dainty wee items.”

At last free of his constraining underpants, Selby was as naked as his hostess. But not only did he count six sockeye sandwiches, he had to pause to sweep some cress from Mimi’s erect nipples.

“Will you stop your bloody hoovering and dusting, man! Get your English gob around my salmon-laden breasts, and swallow the blasted cress, and you can also pensively chew at my Galway nipples while you’re at it. But wisha and musha, and long live the likes of Juno and the Paycock, where on earth were you brought up, I ask myself. You don’t have my excuse of rigid Catholic Connemara where everything on telly was banned for impropriety, including The Newcomers and even feckin Compact and google it if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Didn’t you know that you can buy yourself a handy paperback Kama Sutra or a Perfumed Garden for fifty pee in any little charity shop. Invest one meagre pound, Connie, and with the addition of your erotic toolbox of rock buns and sockeye and Kunzles, you’ll have every woman from twenty to a hundred and twenty, queueing and wildly slavering at your door!”

Selby took a deep breath, exhaled, then tore into the half dozen sockeyes. He gnashed away doggedly at the cress, then much less doggedly at Mimi’s nipples, and truth be told he found himself actually enjoying himself and reflecting that this was a recreational hour by no means idly wasted. As he moved down towards those Zante rock buns, he also conjectured that Mimi being a yoga adept, perhaps at her unspoken behest he was tracing the line of her chakras, as he literally feasted upon her from head to toe. He also managed to get down one of the rock buns, and sure enough felt himself becoming extraordinarily taut and turgid, and filled with a quite overpowering desire.

“No mocker now, eh?” Mimi cautioned. “No mocker of the rocks, which is to say no mocker of my rock buns.”

As confirmation, she seized hold of his manhood, shook it with exaggerated vigour, and exclaimed:

“I trust I find you in the best of health and spirits, sir! No, no need for you to answer, Con. I’ll switch to Dublin bar talk now, and speak as if I was ventriloquising you: ‘Sure, if I was any more fitter, Ms O’ Houlihan, I’ve no doubt I’d feckin well bust in half.’”

Selby guffawed so much that his bun-charged baton started to waltz with a fetching rhythm. But at Mimi’s testy chivvying, and in order to focus on the job in hand, he proceeded hurriedly down to the scone, jam and cream, located in her umbilical nest. He was pleased to see that there was only one scone, though it was a real whopper as scones went. Plus, were there such a thing, it seemed to be stuffed with triple rather than single or double cream, not to speak of Mimi’s jam which though plummily delicious was very rich.

He panted, “If I’m being brutally honest, Mimi, I am starting to feel a trifle full.”

She examined his face with scientific interest. “As a bull’s bum, most like. But whatever happens. you cannot neglect my charismatic Kunzle with the centrally sited cherry. And yes, I see now that you Con have an aptly Gallic name for that exciting area. So just get your North English gob down to my little See You Next Tuesday, sweet Connie, and tuck into that sweating Kunzle till you start to squeak. Or maybe you’ll take fire, combust with lust, one of the two.”

Wheezing and puffing, Selby slowly swallowed the chocolate boat with its perfectly central cherry. By now he could hear his belly gurgling and rumbling, as indeed could Mimi who swiftly applauded him, and said it reminded her of the melodious post-prandial digestive music of her Dad and brothers back in dear Galway.

“And now we do the flipside, the B side, the feckin backside, the reverse, Connie Mr Rock Bun! Good boy, you keep you mannikin stood stern to attention, and see if you can get him to raise his cap to me. What happens now is I turn onto my belly, and you must place a beguiling line of mixed fancies and one other special thing, from the nape of my neck down to my thighs. No good trying to balance Battenberg or bloody Bakewell on my legs or feet, cos they’ll just drop off and plunge into the adjacent albeit symbolic void. So here I go, Connie, I’m lying on my belly, and remark what a stunning, truly lovely tapering back I have. As my Dad said in his plosive Connacht Irish, I look just like a young Galway filly. My neck above is very sweet too, ideal for kissing and nibbling and nuzzling, as if you were a Connemara calf. Or maybe like a greedy boysie in the Clifden picture house in 1962, desperate to get his lustful money’s worth after blowing four Irish bob on two double seats meaning snogging is the least of it love seat tickets. So, you get over there and pick up some varied but harmonious mixed fancies, and start that little confectionery chain from my neck to my thighs. Drape them like some kind of steamy erotic garland or sensuous daisy chain, down as far as my exquisite backside, but make sure you leave my behind for the moment for something special, for it and it alone will host a unique item. As I can’t see myself, you will need to describe in precise terms how exactly you’re decorating and adorning me, as if I were the blushing Snow or Gypsy Queen in a village carnival.”

Selby did as he was told, and selected half a dozen mixed fancies that took his particular fancy. He also placed the whopping cream split on his plate, if only to reduce the quantity of his to-ing and fro-ing between his hostess and the occasional table. Mimi didn’t bother to turn her neck to check on his choices, and listened approvingly as he read out his checklist.

“On the neck a cheerful, indeed beaming raspberry fancy, with pink icing, and garlanded with two choice items of red candied fruit. Next, and In between your priceless shoulder blades, clavicles I believe they are called, though I always confuse them with clavichords and JS Bach and CPE Bach and WF Bach. Me and my obsessive Bach side, Mimi. There I shall place a little lemon fancy with its delicate yellow icing and its sliver of candied lemon. In the middle of your young Galway filly’s back, I have modified all aesthetic considerations and idiosyncratically laid down a coconut fancy with standard white icing and a rather pensive pecan in the centre. At the base of your spine, hence just above your more or less sacred Connemara bottom, is a choc bun fancy with dark chocolate icing, artfully scattered with colourful hundreds and thousands. Now leapfrogging, as requested, over your sumptuous bum, on the top of your thighs I find myself depositing a heraldic object, which is actually a little choux pastry pie full of strawberry jelly, and a luscious fresh strawberry smiling within. That leaves us with only this massive cream split, Mimi, and I am not really sure what you …”

With her chin upon the divan, she uttered with a sleepy terseness:

“Use your common sense, Con Selby! There’s nothing currently garnishing my, as you say transcendental backside, and it’s the cream split that is very obviously fit for purpose, as the smirking management-speak blatherers would have it. The cream split is split lengthwise, and of course my bum is also split like that, indeed cunningly bifurcated as is everyone’s here on earth from the birth of time. Aside, that is, from Cunegonde’s old maid in Voltaire’s Candide, she who tragically lost half her backside in her youth, and was never a full shilling thereafter. She actually came of noble blood, but as a young lass encountered some starving janissaries who demanded one of her buttocks for a makeshift repast, poor girl. That’s ‘janissary’ with two s’s, not ‘janizary’ with a ‘z ‘, as my fellow native Samuel Beckett has it in More Pricks than Kicks. That book was swiftly banned by the Irish censors on account of the worrying title, the same myopic gentlemen seemingly unaware that it is a quote from the Bible itself. That aside, it makes sense to place the divided cream split in the middle of my similarly bisected bum, so that we have two harmonious splits, not one. I can’t see it of course, face down like this, but I imagine that the split would appear like some sweet little boat or canoe, amiably sailing the universe on the sea of life, the gently buffeting endless ocean that is in fact my universal and indeed for all practical epistemological purposes, cosmic backside.”

Selby frowned as he conjured with a technical problem. “It’s a shame that you’ll never actually see what you look like. A splendid naked gypsy queen covered in mixed fancies and boasting a posterior cream split. Look Mimi, how about I take a handy photo with my phone, then send it on to you? Of course, I’ll immediately delete it afterwards. I’m assuming that you’re on Facebook, Mimi?”

Her voice was muffled by the divan. “Send it to my Arsebook, not my Facebook, Con. Not everyone knows we’ve had Arsebook in Connemara for donkeys, the bachelor farmers love it, but then it got superseded by the big one, by the Face. But that’s enough of the shallow and perfidious social media. You still need to gobble up all those lovely mixed fancies along my back and thighs, and then finish up with that gigantic cream split on my tasty behind. Talking of which, I’m pleased to see your old rock bun’s still doing its job, Con. Your prancing wee lad would seem to be conducting like Sir John Barbirolli flailing away at Berlioz or Bruckner or Derek (that’s a joke) Satie. Tell you what, as a special treat I’ll let you eat the cream cake off my backside first, and then if you like we can delay the mixed fancies and go straight to the grand business of felicitous carnal congress. What do you say to that revised programme, Conway?”

His reply was along boyish lines. He cried exultantly, “Yippee! Wahey! At last! At long bloody last! It’s really about to happen!”

But instead, his ingestion of the fundamental split and the subsequent longed-for congress, were impeded by a violent shaking at his shoulders.  Yet again, through narrowed early morning eyes, he was to behold his partner Dora examining him with a mild astonishment.

She snorted, “I never saw you as a budding cheer leader, Selby. Yippee, why the hell, and wahey, who would that be?”

Selby gave a deceitful precis. “Ah yes.  I was busy dreaming about confectioners and cake shops. The usual thing. Mixed fancies, hundreds and thousands, cream splits, Kunzles and Eccles galore. Not forgetting the occasional spartan rock bun of course.”

Dora flicked her lips with extended fingers, and adopted an expression of significant lewdness.

“Mixed fancies? I have plenty of those myself, and fancy is the least of it. Cuckoo, more like. Hundreds and thousands of cuckoo fancies cum fantasies, in this extraordinarily sculpted head that you see presently looming over you. You know, after a shift on that bloody Covid ward, I’m itching for a fight and to take on everyone and everything that moves. The way I see it, I have to get back something, however small, for myself at this truly hellish point in time. If I don’t, I’ll dry up and disappear, like a Dodo or a Great Auk. Beggars can’t be choosers, Selby, and you’ll do for a start, with all those dubious night time dreams of yours. You get hold of that here, yes, and I’ll grab hold of this down here, as fair exchange and no larceny. Keep doing exactly what you are doing, and without variation, until I command you to stop. All give and no take is very bad for the likes of me, but I know that you have it in you to selflessly offer full value and even with a modest bonus. As long as I keep your nose to the grindstone and shout at you if you dare to protest. Tell me now, what’s it like to be my willing slave?”

Chapter 7

IQ and Haiku

Tonight was the fourth rehearsal cum preview of I Didn’t Do It, and Selby was able to inform his relatives it was to be the last. Next week it would be presented to the public, and nurse Dora the gifted puppet maker and skilful all-purpose artist, was busy designing social distancing materials, with giant arrows and prominent warnings urging, ‘Walk In This Direction Please’ and, ‘You Must Wear Masks at All Times’ and, ‘Please Sit In Designated Seats At A Safe Distance’. He explained how just like the double decker buses that rolled through town, half the theatre seats would be cordoned off with tape. That would mean half the audience and of course half the takings, and tempting as it was to double the ticket prices, he believed that they would scrape by with only a twenty per cent increase. In all, he hoped that it would run up until Christmas, but of course that depended on no more complete lockdowns, as they’d had in spring and early summer.

While he spoke, Mildred was visible writing furiously on her I-pad in eighteen point bold, and Daniel volunteered to read it aloud for the benefit of Dennis. The message was so long she had to switch screens, and Dan boomingly recited it with a practised headmaster’s delivery. She had written:

“Let me tell you, I’m going to come to every performance, all the way to Christmas Eve, as I think it’s so shit hot, like a dose of effing salts! There’s a logic to that as well, Con, it’s not just family loyalty. Because this is the kind of experience that needs to be repeated several times, to allow for full penetration of the message. It makes me so fucking boiling, as I realise what is so obvious now, but I didn’t till I watched I Didn’t Do It. Which is, that Covid 19 isn’t the only massive crisis we’ve got, it’s only the tip of the bloody iceberg in structural terms. Like nothing else, the pandemic tests the big ones, the mighty ones, those world so-called leaders, who think themselves fit to rule our roost. Meaning that with reference to animation, and the two transatlantic allies, I would say the cartoon Barney Rubble, as opposed to his real life tribute act, or for that matter Bugs Bunny, or that extremely nice cartoon woman Marge Simpson (principled women are usually far less See You Next Tuesdays than supposedly principled men)would make a far better job of it than our useless effing leaders.”

Dennis frowned then remarked, “It’s a hell of a pity that of all deficiencies you chose to be dumb, Mildred, rather than macular blind like me, or deliberately deaf like Daniel here. Only joking, little brother, calm yourself down now. You, wee sister, should be up hustling at the next election, bawling away with your red-blooded and I’m pleased to say honest anger. Honest is a word that speaks volumes, but is rarely used seriously, by which I mean honestly, these days. That Fluffy Senior lad is always bellicose, but his anger isn’t honest, as any self-respecting four-year-old would notice in two seconds. Fluffy Junior with his lordly Eton and his Tally Ho Balliol, sublimates his huffing puffing running scared anger, by dreaming about fox hunting where he is a fearless military leader or a semi-sexual skier.  Is it hyperbole then, on my part, for me to declare to the world around me, that all this political vaudeville or maybe I mean burlesque, makes me want to fucking well spit? And you know what, the last time I used the f-word in public was in August 1968, fifty-two years ago, when the ugly Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. And consider something else. That seeing an old blind man, violently expectorating in public, might just be the sign or signal of some sort of momentous turning point in human affairs.”

Selby touched the empty seat in front of him, and nodded his agreement to both his blind uncle and his mute aunt. He then distributed two miniatures per relative of Glenmorangie instead of Cardhu, although none of them complained, nor even noticed as they swiftly grabbed them. He strode round the back of the theatre and part four of I Didn’t Do It began.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Like I told you, son, the only way a country can trick along smoothly, and have a hot economy, meaning plenty of dough for those who really deserve it, is when you have very intelligent folk at the helm like myself. And if you’re really doing your job, the same ought to apply to your country and you yourself, kid, with your Oxford spires and them old Grits of yours. In my case, you should also take into account my incredibly intelligent cabinet, which, as I once tweeted, has the highest collective IQ of any US government ever. Make sure it’s true of your cabinet too, kid, but like I said, you need more men like Barney Rubble and his high-powered optics, with a formula known only to him. Your sound English guy who models himself on Kneejerk, so he always pleases himself first, and after he’s kicked ass, he does what has to be done, bruises and all. Of course, Kneejerk had one hell of an IQ, so we’re talking about IQ as the vital element here. The intelligence quotient is an unfallible scientific measurement of intelligence. Meaning that it can’t be argued against or disputed, cos it is a scientific fact.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Indeed, sir. A capacious mind and an incisive intellect, are truly indispensable when it comes to proper leadership.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s why I started my famous Apprentice show back in 2004, and that was prime TV all the way till it finished three years ago. It was totally unique and totally world-shaking, and was copied and syndicated in so many countries, including yours, I soon lost count.  I said at the start, I wanted sixteen competing apprentices for a start-up job in one of my businesses, all of the highest intelligence. Sure enough, all of them contestants had an unparalleled intellect, all of them close to two hundred. We’re talking about genius level, son, and as I once tweeted, I would describe myself as a very stable genius. Though, and this is kind of confidential, sometimes I change the adjective and tweet that I am an extremely stable genius.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I ah…perhaps you mean an adverb, sir?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Huh?

FLUFFY JUNIOR.  I would say ‘extremely’ is generally regarded as an adverb, sir. As indeed is ‘very’.

FLUFFY SENIOR. But I said it was an adverb, wise guy. I friggin know I did.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Really? In which case, I foolishly misheard, and I apologise sincerely, sir. I am not, I would stress, an inflexible pedant, and am more than happy for ‘very’ and ‘extremely’ to be regarded as adjectives had you preferred it so. Though, as you rightly confirm, you did actually say that ‘extremely’ was an adverb, and I have clumsily obscured the sovereign truth. You must know as I do, sir, that the world out there is full of those itching to mock any solecisms of grammar or vocabulary on our part, as they are invariably envious of our status and power. One more example of those inevitable trials of being placed in high office, hence always in the merciless public eye. I recall that once when I was very distracted, I stated on TV that Mr Dominic Cummings, our iconic and as you say possibly Nietzschean hero, had definitely not ‘flaunted’ the law. Would you believe that no less than seventeen journalists from all over Britain and the Isle of Man, instantly bellowed in chorus, that he had not only flouted the so-called law, but he had also flaunted his monumental arrogance! The last adjective, or in fact it might be an adverb if you prefer it so, was theirs of course, not mine.

FLUFFY SENIOR. I get the picture. Flaunted or flouted, but who gives a flyin fuck, son? Anyways, my brain-child Apprentice show finished three years ago, and the last super-intellect winner was a kid called Brandy Kuentzel. Only in her thirties, but with a brain as big as San Francisco where she lives.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. A rather unusual name sir, or at least it is to an English ear. Her surname sounds very much like Kunzle which I believe is some sort of fancy cake, and rather like an ornamented chocolate boat. And Brandy as a first name? An Englishman might quip that she should have been called Whisky Eccles or Vodka Bakewell or Eggflip Battenberg.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Fancy cakes, my ass! That girl is set for life, for the very summit, and only because of my ground-breaking TV show. And that’s another thing, kid. Only people with genius intellects like mine, can actually go out and break ground, meaning really change the world out there, big time. The ones who ain’t geniuses would love to break ground, but all they can do is fail and flop and bust their asses. And know what, the most unlikely people will agree with me on that point. When I was talking to that North Korean guy with the name like Rin Tin Tin…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. (reflective pause) Would that be Kim Jong Un?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep. Sure. I was talking to young Kim about IQ, and with US elections only six weeks away, we got to discuss my so-called opponent for president, that really frail old guy who you must know is touching eighty.

FLUFFY JUNIOR.  Mr Bid…?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Him alright. Close to Bee Day as a word, eh? And, believe it or not, I was generously sticking up for my truly no hope opponent. Cos he’s such a very old guy, and cos he can’t really help it, and specially as he flinches when he looks in the mirror. But guess what the Korean kid says about him during our discussion? Kim says that my doddering opponent, this would be president of the most powerful country on earth, is, get this, a low IQ idiot!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Did he really?  To be honest, I wasn’t sure North Koreans ever thought about IQ.

FLUFFY SENIOR. His exact words! And I swear, that was without any prompting from me.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. How very odd. That particular phrase I mean. ‘Low IQ idiot’ is such an unusual insult.

FLUFFY SENIOR. It’s precisely because IQ has a universal currency, son. Or if you like, an absolute value and an absolute meaning. High IQ folk are like Freemasons, they understand each other immediately, and are only really comfortable with other very clever people. Take me for example. I ain’t comfortable with that movie guy Robert de Niro cos he’s got a low IQ and he talks like Al Capone. And not just in all those gangster films. As long as they’re not journalists, I like people who talk pure Ivy League. And I also like English aristocrats like you, who talk exactly like Vincent Price, a different kind of film star, but no way was he a dumb one.  I have no time at all for dumb guys or dumb women, and especially if they’re pretending to be clever.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. And I am on your side there, sir. One ought, at least make the effort, not to dissimulate or dissemble. It can be so appallingly messy if one sinks into the inevitable quagmire of rebuttal and denial.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Back in 2013, well before I was president, I was obliged to put those rebooters and deniers straight. This is what I tweeted. ‘Sorry, losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest and you all know it! Please don’t feel stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault!’ That’s how I talked to them jealous wise guys…”

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Indeed, indeed. Trenchant and, and … most inspired.

FLUFFY SENIOR. For me the IQ is the absolute of absolutes, meaning it’s a really sacred thing. The geniuses of this world are exactly like a sacred band or chosen brotherhood, and of course that means that strict confidentiality is part of the game.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Oh, really sir? In what sense?

FLUFFY SENIOR. It’s so sacred, the IQ number, it should never be made a public fact, and especially if you’re in high office! It’s like telling the ignorant, the jealous and the crummy non-genius world, the size of your you know what. It’s completely inappropriate, and a total betrayal of what is sacred, in my view. So, my own IQ, huge as it is, is obliged to be a state secret. I’ve regularly ordered my appointed adviser guy, to tell all my Elmo Maytors, my high school and my colleges, that releasing my grades and reports and all would mean facing jail time, nothing less! Of course, that didn’t stop some jerk on Twitter challenging me to disclose it, and to take a test in public to prove my IQ! Know what I tweeted back?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. That upholding public office is not like conducting some unspeakably vulgar TV reality show (holding his mouth in dismay). I mean, no, such an atrocious lapsus linguae. I didn’t at all mean…

FLUFFY SENIOR. I made it short and sweet to this wise guy. Just like one of them Haiku, which of course is Japanese for IQ. About my IQ, I tweeted back: ‘the highest, asshole!’

FLUFFY JUNIOR. A well-merited acidulous riposte!

FLUFFY SENIOR. I admit that I prefer to be among people who’ve been to the most exclusive colleges in the world. The cream of the world’s geniuses is what appeals to me. Oxford and Cambridge of course, and the old Sawbones too, even if it’s French, meaning it’s always gonna struggle to be the krem deli krem. Talking of which, I once met a very brilliant Rhodes Scholar feller, who went over to be a Yank in Oxford, like him in the film. But what was his name?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Possibly Mr Clinton? Who went to University College, Oxford, on a Rhodes.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Shit to that, kid! Fake news! Fake news and friggin fuck news! They wouldn’t let him, a hickory stick Arkansas hick, an Enemy of the People, into a holy British place like Oxford with all them sacred spires. My guess is he flunked at some farming college in Little Rock, and out of pity they let him be the college janitor. That’s where he got his so-called education.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I wonder? Is it just possible that Mr Clinton had a convincing double parading around Univ quad between 1968 and 1970?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Nothing would surprise me about him and that dizzy wife of his, that other Enemy of the People. Poor gal, she saw stars dancing in front of her eyes, after she’d been in competition with me. And three years ago, it wasn’t no TV reality show, cos it was really real reality itself! The theme music wasn’t ‘For the Love of Money’ like on the Apprentice show. It was ‘I Love Him So, He Is the Only Man For Me’. Him being me, the genius Dee Tee, of course. Come to think of it, weird that no one has ever made any jokes about my initials. Maybe cos they’d get friggin jail time if they did.  But who was it that wrote that catchy tune, son? It’s on the tip of my tongue. Do you know?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Burt Bacharach? Mel Torme? Paul McCartney? Joni Mitchell? Johnny Mathis? Mrs Mills? Liberace? Rawicz and Landauer. Winifred Artwell? Lenny the Lion? Rod and his Emu? Dear me, I’m running out of names. Wait, sir, it couldn’t have been Walt Disney, could it?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Ahah. Just maybe, kid. Just maybe it was old Walt!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Most apt, sir, given that you have such a tremendous passion for animation. Anima as I said being the Latin for spirit, life, vitality, force, and all things manifest in a charismatic statesman such as yourself.

Very abruptly, like some vaudeville comic, Selby put his face through the rear curtains, and between the two Fluffys.  After mimicking a trumpet rallentando, he announced:

“That Is The End of All Ends, folks!”

His audience broke into vigorous, prolonged applause. Dennis boldly hazarded that after its imminent sell-out success, it should go on tour all around Britain, and then the whole of the world. Assuming. that is, that the Covid plague was finished by Christmas, as Fluffy Junior had confidently promised it would be.

“Fat chance,” sneered Daniel, adjusting his hearing aid. “Best to double, triple or quadruple any estimates that that puppet pulls out of his magician’s hat. And remember that a magician’s magic, however attractive, is always an illusion. It is never the real thing.”

Selby saw them off, and they all in chorus (Mildred, for once, in vehement sign language) said they’d see him next Monday on the opening night. He turned down towards the town centre, and his shoes again led him to the little park with its ancient headstones, where he was hoping to see the gent with the pony tail, that rara avis, the perfect listener. But no, and Selby winced with intense disappointment. For the first time that week, there was no art teacher or practising artist, if that’s indeed what he was. Pony tail man had never confirmed his profession one way or the other, and indeed he might well have been a bus conductor or a laid-back postman. There was only a painfully empty bench, which was catching the last of the benign September sun. Selby eventually decided to slump on that, and for a moment in the pleasant evening warmth he closed his weary eyes.

It was only for a second and then he became aware of someone who had sat down next to him. Of course, he hoped that it was Pony Tail, but no, when he opened his eyes, he almost jumped off his seat with the shock.

“Mimi O’Houlihan!”

She grinned her naughty Galway grin. “The same one, Connie boy. I’m not Germaine Greer or Mrs Dalloway, fine females that they are”

Selby gulped. “I thought you only existed in 47B Assiduity Mews. Where you have your steady position as a…”

Mimi said, “As a hostess? Whose job is to educate sundry men via the ATM, in the pleasures of the flesh. But let me confront you with some common sense questions, wee man. How many hostesses do you know have taught themselves both Classical and Vedic Sanskrit, and how many can expatiate on assonance in the poetry of Mr John Clare? How many of them know the word ‘expatiate’ come to that, and lots of other lovely big bastards like concupiscence, nugatory, efflorescence, and judgmatical?”

Selby snorted, and not without disdain. He muttered, “You must mean ‘judgemental’ as there is no such word. And frankly Mimi. I thought you had more shall we say admirable root integrity, than to use a bloody stupid word like that.”

She slapped his arm in reproof. “You’re kidding. I would sooner eat Dublin dogshit than say that word ‘judgemental’. Though you really should widen your reading, Con, as there is such a word as ‘judgmatical’, rare though it be. If you google it, you’ll find it generally comes just after Jude Law, which can be very handy. It means ‘behaving like a judge’ and I read it in a very fine 1939 novel by Ann Bridge, called Four Part Setting, which happens to be set in Thirties China. But ask yourself something else, Conrad. Do you really think there is such an address as 47B Assiduity Mews?”

“I don’t see why not.  I have a friend in London lives in 17 Perseverance Avenue NW11, and another in Godalming in Patience Place, which is jovially nicknamed Peyton Place by all those over seventy.”

 “They will have pre-menstrual flushes if they read The Tight White Collar, by that same lass, Grace Metalious. It was immediately banned in my home country, and on the title alone. They should have left out the ‘tight’, and they’d have though it a seemly tale about vicars who one day run out of tea. But anyway, Con Selby, Assiduity Mews or not, I am leaving England soon.  I am moving back to my beloved Connemara.”

Selby’s face fell drastically, as if she had hit him with a brick. “You’re not, Mimi! Please say that you’re not!”

“Sorry, sweet lad, but I do so hanker after my roots, and nice as the English are, they are also totally abhorrent. Their hearts always swim in a polite sort of limbo, except for the one per cent who show occasional twitches of an inner life. No, I’m thinking of opening up a jazz café in Clifden, or at any rate I will do so once this poxy virus feller has his hash settled by some vaccine, or by an act of God.  And something else. I can tell by the colour of your iris that you’re also a big jazz fan, big man. So just listen to this astounding piece of music on my phone, and tell me if you know what on earth it is.”

The music she played and it was seemingly half way through a long track, was ripe with the sounds of the North African Maghreb as well as apparently the Middle East. There was a soprano sax by turns furious and meltingly tender, and Selby also recognised plangent cowbells, plus an airy and rarefied xylophone, as well as myriad kinds of African percussion. Add to that an occasional chanted singing that frequently was punctuated by yodelling that was not a Swiss yodelling. but a type of raucous gobbling sound that he knew to be the signature frenetic vocals of the Maghreb.

Mimi said, “Whose band is playing that? Got any little clue?”

“It sounds a bit like the album Tauhid that I have at home. In which case I think it might be Pharaoh Sanders.”

Mimi applauded, much in the same way that Selby’s old relatives clapped at the end of his puppet plays. She also gave him a tender kiss on the side of his face, that made his heart melt and run like the wax of a candle.

“Good boy. Spot on! Your Tauhid, which also had cowbells, was from 1967. The yodelling or better those Maghreb ululations were prominent in Jewels of Thought which appeared some two years later. Tell me Con, which word do you prefe, ululate or pullulate? It’s emphatically the former in my case as I would say it has an inner assonance, an inner yamaka which puts it up there with the verbal greats. At any rate, Afro-American Pharaoh Sanders is still alive at eighty, and he was a boy of thirty when this music I’m playing was recorded. That was on July the First, not sure what day of the week, in 1970. Did you know that Sanders was from Little Rock, capital of Arkansas, and in the bad old days had to play in segregated clubs? Ornette Coleman said he was probably the best tenor player in the world, but here he is playing the soprano like an angel. You could say that like Coltrane he was into spiritual jazz or free jazz, though for that matter maybe freedom and the spirit, are the same item, wouldn’t you agree? And do you know this album’s title? It is the strangest one of all, for it is in a very foreign and exotic language?”

Selby racked his brains. “I knew it once. But I’ve forgotten. I think the title is Arabic but I can’t remember the words.”   

Mimi replied, “I can. This album is called Summun, Bukmun, Umyun.”

Con said, “I do remember now!”

“Which apparently is Arabic for Deaf, Dumb, Blind.”

She looked Con straight in the eye and he gave out a little shudder.

“And we all know who the deaf, dumb and blind are, in your particular case, don’t we? Shoot me down if I’m wrong, but I believe that I am for practical purposes completely omniscient, and know absolutely everything. And I’m not even the seventh daughter of a seventh Galway daughter, Con! I have this ability to see all things not just in the round, but in the lateral and the linear. Not to speak of via the ellipse, the circumcircle, and even the feckin e-circle of unhappy schooldays memory. I got the cane once back in Clifden for drawing him with a 6B pencil.”

Con shrugged with an obscure resentment. “In that case you’ll know that my Dad is deaf, my Uncle Dennis is blind, and my Aunty Mildred is dumb. Or as she and I always prefer to say it, she is mute.”

Mimi stroked his quivering hand and said, “They were the test audience for the rehearsal of your impudent 2020 morality play I Didn’t Do It. Weren’t they, Connie? Using wee puppets for the drama, seeing you couldn’t book either prototype Fluffy to play themselves at short notice. They were a very good audience, I believe, those three old relatives? Am I right?”

Selby snorted with a subdued  anger. “Too fucking right, to quote my foul-mouthed, no I mean my foul I-Paded Aunty Mildred!”

Mimi went on, “All of your audience lacking a vital sense, but all of them full to the gills with good sense. As we know, the two Fluffys happily wallow in all their senses, but of course they have no sense whatever, not the meagrest modicum, not a biblical jot nor a biblical tittle. All three of your old relatives are transparently good folk, meaning they were and are both big doers and big givers in their jobs, their interests and their private doings. To be sure they’ve had their severe personal trials as well as their sensory afflictions. Your Dad lost your mother young of ovarian cancer; Dennis’s wife left him for an alcoholic buffoon, and that was before the poor feller went blind. And last but not least Mildred has a secret lost love, that she has shared with absolutely no one, and don’t you go feckin askin about it either, or I’ll haunt you in a way far from fun, believe me. Some things you never wish to write on your tablet for the world to see, cos there aren’t enough shites and feckins and twats and hooers’ gets, and See You Next Tuesdays, to allow you to purge your heart of all that grief. But for all their present handicaps, your deaf, dumb and blind kinsfolk have put an irreversible good into the world, which cannot be blotted out or ever ballocksed or denied or made light of. Though as sure as shit, it or its like, may sometimes be persecuted or viciously bullied by the likes of Fluffy the Elder. Nevertheless, good cannot ever be destroyed, as it is, according to all the great spiritual authorities, wholly indestructible. Your widowed Dad really cared about his schoolkids and gave them all he had, regardless of personal tragedy. Likewise, your shamefully cuckolded uncle, achieved wonders in his tiny little country school. And mute young Mildred rolled up her sleeves and organised state of the art sign language classes, not to speak of boozy nights of hectic socialising for the local deaf and mute.”

Selby answered, “I know all that and it is a good thing to hear someone like you say it all loud and clear. Speaking aloud heartfelt things like you do, is almost like putting something into print. It gives authority and permanence, it makes for dignity and human decency, and all the things that really count. Shite, I’m getting preachy now, and if you’re a director you have to watch you don’t stifle your audience with too much of a rant. But I really wish you weren’t leaving town, Mimi. I have a feeling that life will lose a lot of its savour once you’ve gone. Especially in these bloody bleak pandemic days.”

She reached across and touched him on the nose.

“I have to go because so it is ordained. As indeed are all things. And if anyone tells you that is a species of fatalism, you have my permission to tell them to stick their clever gobs up their brainless arseholes. Now then. I take it you are well aware of the best predestined thing that ever happened to you, Con Selby?”

Selby said in a liquid voice, “Oh yes, and certainly for sure. I have always known. Or at rate I have since 1978, that kernel year.”

She held his hand. “Two things then, before I bugger off. Both of them being of the utmost importance.”

“Oh yes?”

“Look after Dora, that brave English nurse of yours. She needs looking after in that harrowing and knackering feckin job of hers. And you, better than most, know how to do it, as it happens to be one of your fated gifts. So feckin make sure you feckin well do it, Con.”

Selby said. “I promise that I will. But what’s the second important thing?”

She answered, “It’s to do with what the Irish said in the bad old days, when they were facing hideous persecution and terrible slaughter because of their faith. It was their chosen valediction, and a kind of selfless act of blessing as they parted. Because of course they lived in constant terror of your feckin monstrous English forebears, Mr Selby.”

He asked, “What was it? What was it they said?”

She winked at him, then rose and skipped a yard or two away. She then blew three or was it four socially distanced kisses.

“Keep the Faith!” she shouted uproariously, at the top of her little lungs. “Ask the great Pharaoh Sanders if you don’t understand. He’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!”

And with that she disappeared. And at that the puppet man awoke with a considerable start. And he frowned as he wondered where the hell she’d gone.

THE END OF MIMI AND THE VIRUS BY JOHN MURRAY. Copyright 2021

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MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 7

Chapter 7

IQ and Haiku

Tonight was the fourth rehearsal cum preview of I Didn’t Do It, and Selby was able to inform his relatives it was to be the last. Next week it would be presented to the public, and nurse Dora the gifted puppet maker and skilful all-purpose artist, was busy designing social distancing materials, with giant arrows and prominent warnings urging, ‘Walk In This Direction Please’ and, ‘You Must Wear Masks at All Times’ and, ‘Please Sit In Designated Seats At A Safe Distance’. He explained how just like the double decker buses that rolled through town, half the theatre seats would be cordoned off with tape. That would mean half the audience and of course half the takings, and tempting as it was to double the ticket prices, he believed that they would scrape by with only a twenty per cent increase. In all, he hoped that it would run up until Christmas, but of course that depended on no more complete lockdowns, as they’d had in spring and early summer.

While he spoke, Mildred was visible writing furiously on her I-pad in eighteen point bold, which Daniel volunteered to read aloud for the benefit of Dennis. The message was so long she had to switch screens, and Dan boomingly recited it with a practised headmaster’s delivery. She had written:

“Let me tell you, I’m going to come to every performance, all the way to Christmas Eve, as I think it’s so shit hot, like a dose of effing salts! There’s a logic to that as well, Con, it’s not just family loyalty. Because this is the kind of experience that needs to be repeated several times, to allow for full penetration of the message. It makes me so fucking boiling, as I realise what’s so obvious now, but I didn’t till I watched I Didn’t Do It. Which is, that Covid 19 isn’t the only massive crisis we’ve got, it’s only the tip of the fucking iceberg in structural terms. Like nothing else, the pandemic tests the big ones, the mighty ones, those world so-called leaders, who think themselves fit to rule our roost. Meaning that with reference to animation, and the two transatlantic allies, I would say the cartoon Barney Rubble, as opposed to his real life tribute act, or for that matter Bugs Bunny, or that extremely nice cartoon woman Marge Simpson (principled women are usually far less See You Next Tuesdays than supposedly principled men)would make a far better job of it than our useless effing leaders.”

Dennis frowned then remarked, “It’s a hell of a pity that of all deficiencies you chose to be dumb, Mildred, rather than macular blind like me, or deliberately deaf like Dan here. Only joking, little brother, calm yourself down now. You, wee sister, should be up hustling at the next election, bawling away with your red-blooded and I’m pleased to say honest anger. Honest is a word that speaks volumes, but is rarely used seriously, by which I mean honestly, these days. That Fluffy Senior lad is always bellicose, but his anger isn’t anything like honest, as any self-respecting four-year-old would notice in two seconds. Fluffy Junior with his lordly Eton and his Tally Ho Balliol, sublimates his huffing puffing running scared anger, by dreaming about fox hunting where he is a fearless military leader or a semi-sexual skier.  Is it hyperbole then, on my part, for me to declare to the world around me, that all this political vaudeville or maybe I mean burlesque, makes me want to fucking well spit? And you know what, the last time I used the f-word in public was in August 1968, fifty-two years ago, when the ugly Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring. And consider something else. That seeing an old blind man, violently expectorating in public, might just be the sign or signal of some sort of momentous turning point in human affairs.”

Selby touched his beard and nodded his agreement to both his blind uncle and his mute aunt. He then distributed two miniatures per relative of Glenmorangie instead of Cardhu, though none of them complained, nor even noticed as they swiftly grabbed them. He strode round the back of the theatre and part four of I Didn’t Do It began.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Like I told you, son, the only way a country can trick along smoothly, and have a hot economy, meaning plenty of dough for those who really deserve it, is when you have very intelligent folk at the helm like myself. And if you’re really doing your job, the same ought to apply to you with your Oxford spires and them fancy Grits of yours. In my case, you should also take into account my incredibly intelligent cabinet, which, as I once tweeted, has the highest collective IQ of any American government ever. Make sure it’s true of your cabinet too, kid, but like I said, you need more men like Barney Rubble and his high-powered glasses with the formula known only to him. The sound English guy who models himself on Kneejerk, so he always pleases himself first and last, and after he’s kicked ass, he does what has to be done, bruises and all. Of course, Kneejerk had one hell of an IQ, so we’re talking about IQ as the vital element here. The intelligence quotient is an unfallible scientific measure of intelligence. Meaning that it can’t be argued or disputed, cos it is a scientific fact.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Indeed, sir. A capacious mind and an incisive intellect, are all too indispensable when it comes to proper leadership.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s why I started up my Apprentice show back in 2004, and that was prime TV all the way till it finished three years ago. It was totally unique and totally world-shaking, and was copied and syndicated in so many countries, including yours, I soon lost count.  I said at the start, I wanted sixteen competing apprentices for a start-up job in one of my businesses, all of the very highest intelligence. Sure enough, all of them contestants had an unmatchable intellect, all of them close to two hundred. We’re talking about genius level, son, and as I once tweeted, I would describe myself as a very stable genius. Though, and this is kind of confidential, sometimes I change the adjective and tweet that I am an extremely stable genius.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I…perhaps you mean an adverb, sir?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Huh?

FLUFFY JUNIOR.  I would say ‘extremely’ is generally regarded as an adverb, sir. As indeed is ‘very’.

FLUFFY SENIOR. But I said it was an adverb, wise guy! I friggin know I did.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Really? In which case, I foolishly misheard, and I apologise sincerely. I am not, I would add, any rigid pedant, and am more than happy for ‘very’ and ‘extremely’ to be regarded as adjectives had you preferred it so. Though, as you rightly confirm, you did actually say that ‘extremely’ was an adverb, and I have clumsily obscured the sovereign truth. You must know as I do, sir, that the world out there is full of those itching to mock any solecisms of grammar or vocabulary on our part, as they are invariably envious of our status and our power. One more example of those inevitable trials of being placed in high office, hence always in the merciless public eye. I recall that once when I was very distracted, I stated on TV that Mr Dominic Cummings, our iconic and as you say possibly Nietzschean hero, had definitely not ‘flaunted’ the law. Would you believe that no less than seventeen journalists from all over the world, instantly bellowed in chorus, that he had not only flouted the so-called law, but he had also flaunted his monumental arrogance. The last adjective, or in fact it might be an adverb if you prefer it so, was theirs of course, not mine.

FLUFFY SENIOR. I get the picture. Flaunting and flouting, and who in hell gives a flyin fuck? But anyways, my brain-child Apprentice show finished in 2017, and the last super-intellect winner was a kid called Brandy Kuentzel. Only in her thirties, but with a brain as big as San Francisco where she lives.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. A rather unusual name sir, or at least it is to an English ear. Her surname sounds very much like Kunzle which I believe is some sort of fancy cake, and rather like an ornamented chocolate boat. And Brandy as a first name? An Englishman might quip that she should have been called Whisky Eccles or Vodka Bakewell or Eggflip Battenberg.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Fancy cakes, my ass! That girl is set for life, for the very summit, and only because of my ground-breaking TV show. And that’s another thing, kid. Only people with genius intellects like mine, can actually go out and break ground, meaning really change the world out there big time. The ones who ain’t geniuses would love to break ground, but all they can do is fail and flop and bust their asses. And know what else, the most unlikely people will agree with me on that point. When I was talking to that North Korean guy with the name like Rin Tin Tin…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. (reflective pause) Would that be Kim Jong Un?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep. Sure. I was talking to young Kim Jong about IQ, and with US elections only six weeks away, we got to discuss my so-called opponent for president. That really frail old guy that you must be aware is touching eighty.

FLUFFY JUNIOR.  Mr Bi…?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Him alright. And believe it or not, I was generously sticking up for my truly no hope opponent. Cos he’s such a very very old guy, and sure he can’t really help it, and specially when he flinches when he looks in the mirror. But guess what the Korean kid says about him during our discussion? He says that my doddery old opponent, the would be president of the most powerful country on earth, was, get this, a low IQ idiot!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Did he really indeed!  To be frank, I wasn’t sure North Koreans ever really thought about IQ.

FLUFFY SENIOR. His exact words! And I swear, that was without any prompting from me.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. How very odd. That particular phrase I mean. ‘Low IQ idiot’ is such an unusual insult.

FLUFFY SENIOR. It’s because IQ has a universal currency, son. Or if you like, an absolute value and an absolute meaning. High IQ folk are like Freemasons, they understand each other immediately, and are only really comfortable with people like themselves. Take me for example. I ain’t comfortable with that guy Robert de Niro cos he’s got a low IQ and he talks like old Al Capone.That’s film stars for you. As for other professions, as long as they ain’t journalists, I like Americans who talk best Ivy League. And I also like English aristocrats like you, who talk like Vincent Price, a different kind of movie star, but no way was he a dumb one.  Outside of electioneering I’ve no time at all for dumb guys or dumb women, and especially if they’re pretending to be clever.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. And I am your advocate on that last point, sir. One ought at least make the effort not to dissimulate. It can be so appallingly messy if one sinks into the inevitable quagmire of rebuttal and denial.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Back in 2013, well before I was president, I was obliged to put those rebooters and deniers straight. This is what I tweeted. ‘Sorry, losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest and you all know it! Please don’t feel stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault!’ That’s how I talk to jealous wise guys…”

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Indeed, indeed. Trenchant and, and … most inspired.

FLUFFY SENIOR. For me the IQ is the absolute of absolutes, meaning it’s a truly sacred thing. The geniuses of this world are exactly like a sacred band or chosen brotherhood, and of course that means that strict confidentiality is part of the game.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Really sir? In what sense?

FLUFFY SENIOR. It’s so sacred, the IQ number, it should never be made a public fact. And especially if you’re in high office. It’s like telling the ignorant, the jealous and that crummy non-genius world, the size of your you know what. It’s completely inappropriate, and a total betrayal of what is sacred, in my opinion. So my own IQ, huge as it is, is obliged to be a state secret. I’ve regularly ordered my adviser guy to tell all my elmo mayters, my high school and my colleges, that releasing my grades and reports and all would mean jail time, nothing less! Of course, that didn’t stop some jerk on Twitter challenging me to disclose it, and to take a test in public to prove my IQ! Know what I tweeted back?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. That upholding public office is not like conducting some unspeakably vulgar TV reality show (holding his mouth in dismay). I mean, no, such an atrocious lapsus linguae. I didn’t at all mean…

FLUFFY SENIOR. I made it short and sweet to this wise guy. Just like one of them Haiku, which of course is Japanese for IQ. About that, I tweeted back: ‘the highest, asshole!’

FLUFFY JUNIOR. A well-merited and acidulous riposte!

FLUFFY SENIOR. I admit I like to be with people who’ve been to the most exclusive colleges in the world. The cream of the world’s geniuses is what appeals to me. Oxford and Cambridge of course, and that old Sawbones too, even if it’s French, meaning it’s always gonna struggle to be the krem deli krem. Talking of which, I once met a brilliant Rhodes Scholar feller who went to Oxford. Now what the hell was his name?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Possibly Mr Clinton? Who went to University College, Oxford, on a Rhodes.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Ah shit to that, kid! Fake news! Fake news and friggin fuck news! They wouldn’t let him, a hickory stick Arkansas hick, an Enemy of the People, into a holy British place like Oxford with all them sacred spires! My guess is he flunked at some farming college in Little Rock, and out of pity they let him be the college janitor. That’s where he got his so-called education.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I wonder? Is it just possible Mr Clinton had a double marching around Univ quad between 1968 and 1970?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Nothing would surprise me about him and that dizzy wife, that other Enemy of the People. Poor gal, she saw stars dancing in front of her eyes, after she’d been in competition with me. But three years back, it wasn’t no TV reality show, cos it was really real reality itself! The theme music wasn’t ‘For the Love of Money’ like on the Apprentice show. It was ‘I Love Him So, He Is the Only Man For Me’. Him being me, the genius Dee Tee, of course. Come to think of it, weird that no one has ever made any jokes about my initials. Maybe cos they’d get lotsa friggin jail time if they did.  But who was it that wrote that catchy tune, son? It’s on the tip of my tongue. Do you know?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Burt Bacharach? Mel Torme? Paul McCartney? Joni Mitchell? Johnny Mathis? Mrs Mills? Liberace? Rawicz and Landauer? Winifred Artwell? Lenny the Lion? Rod and his Emu? Dear me, I’m running out of names. I wonder. It couldn’t have been Walt Disney, could it?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Just maybe, kid. Just maybe it was old Walt!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Most apt, sir, given that you have such a tremendous passion for animation. Anima as I said being the Latin for spirit, life, vitality, force, and all things manifest in a charismatic gentleman such as yourself.

Abruptly, and like some vaudeville comic, Selby put his face through the rear curtains, and between the two Fluffies.  After mimicking a trumpeting rallentando, he announced:

“That’s The End of All the Ends, folks!”

His audience broke into musical applause. Dennis also prophesied that after its imminent sell-out success, it should go on tour around Britain, and then the rest of the world. Assuming, that is, that the Covid was finished by Christmas, as Fluffy Junior had confidently promised it would be.

“Fat chance,” sneered Daniel, adjusting his hearing aid. “Best to double, triple or quadruple any estimates that that puppet pulls out of his magic hat. And remember that a magician’s magic, however attractive, is always an illusion. It is never the real and reliable thing.”

Selby saw them off, and they all in chorus (Mildred, on this occasion, in vehement sign language) said they’d see him next Monday on the opening night. He turned down towards the town centre, and his shoes again led him to the little park with its headstones, where of course he was hoping to see the gent with the pony tail, that rara avis, the perfect listener. But no, and Selby actually winced with disappointment. For the first time that week, there was no art teacher or practising artist, if that’s indeed what he was. Pony tail man had never confirmed his profession one way or the other, and he might actually have been a bus conductor or a laid back postman. There was only this painfully empty bench, which was catching the last of a benign September sun. Selby eventually decided to slump on that, and for a moment in the pleasant evening warmth he closed his weary eyes.

It was only for a second and then he became aware of someone who had sat down next to him. Of course, he hoped that it was Pony Tail, but no, when he opened his eyes, he almost jumped off his seat with the shock.

“Mimi O’Houlihan!”

She grinned her naughty Galway grin. “The same one, Connie boy. I’m not Germaine Greer or Mrs Dalloway, fine women that they are.”

Selby gulped. “I thought that you only existed in 47B Assiduity Mews. Where you have your steady position as a…”

“As a hostess? Whose job is to educate sundry Engish gentlemen via the ATM, in the pleasures of the flesh. But let me confront you with some common sense questions, sweet boy. How many hostesses do you know have taught themselves both Classical and Vedic Sanskrit? And how many can expatiate on assonance in the poetry of Mr John Clare? How many of them know the word ‘expatiate’ come to that, and lots of other lovely big bastards like concupiscence, nugatory, efflorescence, and judgmatical?”

Selby snorted his disdain. “You mean ‘judgemental’. And frankly Mimi. I thought you had more shall we say admirable root integrity, than to use a bloody stupid word like that.”

She slapped his arm in reproof. “You’re kidding. I would sooner eat Dublin dogshit than say that word ‘judgemental’. Though you really should widen your reading, Con, as there is such a word as ‘judgmatical’, rare though it may be. If you google it, you’ll find it often comes just after Jude Law, which is very handy. It means ‘behaving like a judge’ and I read it in a very fine 1939 novel by Ann Bridge, called Four Part Setting, which happens to be set in Thirties China. But ask yourself something else, Conrad. Do you really think there is such an address as 47B Assiduity Mews?”

“I don’t see why not.  I have a friend in London lives in Perseverance Avenue and another in Godalming in Patience Place. Which of course is jovially nicknamed Peyton Place by all those over seventy.”

 Mimi said,“They will have something like pre-menstrual flushes, should they read Tight White Collar, by that same lass, Grace Metalious. It was banned in my darling home country, and on the title alone. They should have left out the ‘tight’, and the Irish would have thought it a wholesome tale about priests who had suddenly run out of tea. But anyway, Con Selby, Assiduity Mews or not, I am leaving England soon.  I am moving back to my beloved Connemara.”

Selby’s face fell drastically, as if she had hit him with a brick. “You’re not, Mimi! Please say that you’re not!”

“Sorry, my dear lad, but I do so hanker after my feckin roots, and nice as the English are, they are also totally abhorrent. Their hearts as a rule lurk in a polite sort of limbo, except for the one per cent who show occasional twitches of an inner life. No, I’m thinking of opening up a jazz café in Clifden, or at any rate I will do once this poxy virus feller has his hash settled by a vaccine, or by an act of God.  But now to something else. I can tell by the colour of your iris that you yourself are a jazz fan, Con. So just listen to this astounding piece of music on my phone, and tell me if you know what on earth it might be.”

The startling music she played, and it was seemingly half way through a long track, was ripe with the sounds of the North African Maghreb as well as perhaps the Middle East. There was a soprano sax by turns furious and meltingly tender, and Selby also recognised some plangent cowbells, plus an airy and rarefied xylophone, alongside myriad kinds of African percussion. Add to that some occasional singing, that frequently was punctuated by a yodelling, which was not in fact a Swiss yodelling. but a type of raucous poultry gobbling that Selby knew to be the signature frenetic vocals of the Maghreb.

Mimi said, “Whose lovely band is playing that? Got any hint of a wee clue?”

“It sounds a bit like Tauhid that I have back at home. In which case it might be Pharaoh Sanders.”

Mimi at once applauded, much in the same way that Selby’s relatives clapped at the end of his puppet plays. She also gave him a tender kiss on the side of his face, which made his heart melt and run like the wax of a candle.

“Good boy. Spot on! Tauhid, which also had them lovely cowbells, was from 1967. The pseudo-yodelling or better say these Maghreb ululations, were very prominent in Jewels of Thought which appeared some two years later. Tell me Con, which lovely word do you prefer, ululate or pullulate? It’s emphatically the former in my case, as I would say it has an inner assonance, an inner yamaka, which puts it up there with the greats. At any rate, Afro-American Sanders is still alive at eighty, but he was a boy of thirty when this music I’m playing was recorded. That was on July the First, not sure which day of the week, back in 1970. Did you know that Mr Sanders was from Little Rock, capital of Arkansas, and in the bad old days had to play in segregated clubs? Ornette Coleman said he was probably the best tenor player in the world. But here he is playing like an angel the soprano. You could say that like Mr Coltrane he was into spiritual jazz or free jazz, though for that matter possibly freedom and the spirit, are the one and same item. Wouldn’t you agree? But do you know this album’s curious title? It is the strangest one of all, and moreover is in an exotic foreign language?”

Selby frowned and racked his brains. “I knew it once. But dammit, I’ve forgotten. I think the title might be  Arabic but I can’t remember the words.”   

Mimi said, “I can. This album I’m playing is called Summun, Bukmun, Umyun.”

Con exclaimed, “I remember now!”

“Which the sleevenotes reveal, as you rightly guessed, is Arabic for Deaf, Dumb, Blind.”

She looked Con straight in the eye and he gave a visible shudder.

“And we all know who the deaf, dumb and the blind are in your case, don’t we? Shoot me down if I’m wrong, but I would appear to be wholly omniscient, and I appear to know absolutely bloody everything worth knowing. And damn it, I’m not even the seventh daughter of a seventh Galway daughter! I have this crafty ability to see everything not just in the round, but in the lateral and in the linear and from the vertiginous bird’s eye point of view. Not to speak of via the ellipse, the circumcircle, and even the feckin e-circle of unhappy schoolday memories. I got the feckin cane once in Clifden for drawing your e man with a 6B pencil.”

Con shrugged in a rather sullen way. “In that case you already know that my Dad is deaf, my Uncle Dennis is blind, and my Aunty Mildred is dumb. Or, as she and I prefer to say it, she is mute.”

Mimi stroked his restless hand and said, “They were also the test audience for the rehearsal of your cunning 2020 morality play I Didn’t Do It. Using these wee puppets for the drama, seeing you couldn’t book either prototype Fluffy to play themselves at short notice. They were a very good audience, weren’t they? Your three old relatives I’m talking about, Con.”

Selby snorted with an open anger. “Too fucking right, to quote my foul-mouthed, no I mean my foul-I-Pad-ed Aunty Mildred!”

Mimi went on, “All of those relatives lacking a crucial physical sense, but all of them full to the gills with good sense. As you know, the two Fluffies happily wallow in all their senses, but of course they have no sense whatever, not the meagrest modicum, not even a jot nor a biblical tittle. All three of your old relatives are palpably good folk, meaning they were and are big doers and big givers in their jobs, their interests, and their private doings. To be sure, they’ve had their personal major trials on top of their cruel afflictions. Your Dad lost your Mum young of ovarian cancer. Dennis’s wife suddenly left him for an alcoholic buffoon, and that was before the poor feller went blind. And last but not least, Mildred had a secret great love, that she has shared with no one, and don’t you go feckin askin her either, Conrad, or I’ll haunt you in a way far from fun. Some things you never wish to write on your tablet for the world to see, cos there aren’t enough shites and feckins and twats and hooers’ gets, and See You Next Tuesdays, to allow you to purge your heart of all the grief. But with all their handicaps, these deaf, dumb and blind kin of yours, have put their irreversible good into this world. Meaning it cannot be blotted out or ever ballocksed or denied or made light of. Even if, as sure as shit, its kind or equivalent may be persecuted or viciously bullied by the likes of Fluffy the Elder. Nevertheless, what is good cannot ever be destroyed, as according to all the great spiritual authorities, it is wholly indestructible. Your dour old widower Dad really cared about his schoolkids, and he gave them all that he had, regardless of his marital grief. Likewise, your cuckolded and cruelly humiliated uncle, achieved wonders in his little country school. Meanwhile wordless but angry Mildred has organised state of the art sign language workshops, not to speak of boozy nights of hectic socialising for the local and raucous deaf and dumb… by which of course I mean the mute.”

Selby replied, “I know all that and it is a very good thing to hear someone like you say it loud and clear. Speaking aloud heartfelt things like you do, is almost like putting something into print. It confers authority and permanence, it makes for dignity and human decency, and all the things that are supposed to count. But shit, I’m getting good and preachy now, and if you’re a director like me you have to watch you don’t stifle your audience with too much of a rant. But I really wish that you weren’t leaving town, Mimi. I have a feeling that life will lose its best savour once you’ve gone. Especially in these really raw pandemic days.”

Mimi reached across and touched him on his nose end.

“I have to go because it is ordained! As indeed are all things, Conrad. And if anyone tells you that is a species of fatalism, you have my permission to tell them to stick their stupid gobs up their brainess arseholes. I take it you are aware of the best predestined thing that ever happened to you personally, Con Selby?”

He answered in a liquid voice, “Oh yes. Certainly and for sure, I’ve always known. Or at any rate, I have done since 1978.”

She took his hand. “Two things then before I bugger off. Both of them being of the utmost importance.”

“Oh yes? And what are they?”

“Look after Dora Dixon, that brave little nurse of yours! She needs looking after in her harrowing and so feckin knackering but very necessary job. And you especially know how to do it, as it happens to be one of your fated gifts. So feckin make sure that you feckin well do it, Mister feckin Con.”

Selby said to her, “I promise that I will. But what’s the second important thing?”

She answered, “It’s to do with what the Irish said in the bad old days, when they were facing hideous persecution and terrible slaughter because of their ancient faith. It was their chosen valediction, and a kind of selfless act of blessing as two people parted. Because as you know they were living in constant terror of your truly monstrous English forebears, Selby.”

He looked at her carefully and asked, “What was it? What was it they said?”

She winked at him, then rose and skipped away a yard or two. She then blew him three or was it four socially distanced kisses.

“Keep the Faith!” she bawled uproariously and at the top of her little lungs. “Ask your man Pharaoh Sanders, cos he’ll know exactly what I am talking about!”

And with that Mimi disappeared. And at that, the puppet man awoke. And he wondered where the hell she’d gone.

The end of the novel ‘Mimi and The Virus; by John Murray, Holmfirth, UK. Copyright 2020-2021

MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 6

Chapter 6

Mixed Fancies

Selby found himself dawdling one afternoon outside an old-fashioned confectioner’s shop, where he stared with fascination at the objects on display. He was mesmerised by the garish colours of the many types of small cake, of all that chromatic icing, crystallised fruit, glace cherries and desiccated coconut… and was even more bemused that they made him feel hungry. Those odd little childlike works of art, reminded him of prehistoric Sixties rummage sales, and Women’s Institute Home Produce stalls, as witnessed in small towns on sunny and cheerful Saturday mornings. Always they flew like hot cakes, even if manifestly they were cold cakes.

“But what the hell is their name?” he mused irritably. “Not their individual names, but their generic name, as individually encased small cakes. Something like ‘Little Darlings’ or ‘Little Sweethearts’, or ‘Little Sweetypies’? Though only someone free of their so-called marbles would give them a bloody stupid name like that…”

He closed his eyes to make his memory work the better, if only because the common name for common objects is one of those things a man who values himself must always retain. As he shuffled through the creaking filing cabinets of his classificatory categories (they were definitely not digital memories, he soon realised) Selby suddenly felt a kind of pleasurable lightness and airiness within himself, followed by an indication of energetic propulsion. All too evidently, not only was his porous old mind on the move, but he himself was in locomotory transit, and an unusual inner velocity was the name of the game.

As he opened his eyes, two things happened, one concerning his location and the other his memory. He realised that he was outside 47B Assiduity Mews again, if only because Mimi from Connemara had opened its door, as if she’d been expecting him. At once he observed that although she was wearing a bra, she was currently without a trace of knickers.  And unless his memory was deluding him (memory and sieveholes  yet again, bugger it), the last time he was here it was the other way round.

She smiled at his bashful attempt to ignore her naked nethers.

“You’re wondering why no knickers, Connie? Simple, I love hot air blowing up my Irish backside from that convector heater over there. And here’s a handy tip for you. Remember to take all cost-free and innocent sensual pleasures while you can, big man, as they might start charging you the day after tomorrow.”

Selby’s response was unexpected, as he flicked his fingers with excessive excitement, then blurted as if it were some secret formula:

 “Mixed fancies!”

She frowned with apparent seriousness. “What would they be, wee man?  What exactly would Conway Selby’s mixed fancies be? What might be the assorted daydreams and unsublimated yearnings of this sweet little boysie boyo? A month in Madagascar, staying at a boutique hotel in Antananarivo, and jotting down notes on the fauna and flora as you tramp the hills and dales? But do they have dales outside of England, now? They don’t have dales in bloody Ireland never mind Madagascar. Or maybe a week in bed with your favourite female pin-up. Who would that be, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Selby felt so self-conscious that he whispered in her ear.

His knickerless hostess roared, “Emma Thompson!  Well, fair play, no riffraff, real class, damn good for you, big lad. I’m thinking she must be about sixty, so is at the very height of her…at the very zenith, at the very acme of her damn near everything, Conrad Selby. Suffice to say she is in her fulsome prime.”

Selby blushed as he muttered, “She is unspeakably handsome, and indeed Emma emanates pure sweetness…”

Mimi snorted “Is that a pun? Emma Nates. Emma emma nates. And of course, nates is Latin for the backside, and no doubt hers is up to scratch. And wouldn’t you love to scratch your pin up’s lovely little bum, Connie man? Have you any more mixed fancies, Mr Selby, while we’re at it?”

The puppeteer replied, “I was actually juggling with my hopeless memory, Mimi. I was cudgelling my brains to recall the general term for those little fancy cakes you get at bring and buy sales. Covered in colourful icing and sprinkled with coconut and garnished with glace cherries, and so on. All in their individual greaseproof cases, just like proudly independent post-Thatcherite home-owners. And then I remembered the name. Confectioners call them ‘mixed fancies’. On account of their being both fancy and assorted I suppose. So, for example, you might buy a whopping bag of mixed fancies for a child’s birthday party. I mean no self-respecting child would want a barrowload of uniform or drearily monotonous fancies, would they?”

Mimi O’ Houlihan concurred. “Would they bollocks, the poor wee chislers. Nor would you yourself, my son, and as I see it, this is a perfect example of Chance or Fate or Jungian synchronicity. Call it whatever you like, but it brings you to me at this time and to this place. Cast your eyes at the table in the corner there, and tell me what you see spread out on the cloth.”

Selby was astounded. “A massive array of mixed fancies! Dozens of little coloured cakes in parchment paper cases. There are also one or two things with copious chocolate, and with whipped cream. Cream splits and iced baps with glace cherries, and yes Eccles cakes and rock buns. If they’re not from some master confectioner, Mimi, you must have been sweating in your kitchen for days on end.  But I can see more than that. There would appear to be stacks of neat little sandwiches with all the crusts removed, and tenderly garnished with bits of cress. Hang on a minute. You’re not seriously planning a children’s party, are you? I mean they might not understand your being quite so casually dressed to the point of this complete deshabille, hot air or not.”

She guffawed and touched his cheek reassuringly. “No kids’ party here, because the only child is you, wee man or big man, or whichever Irish stage play salutation be your chosen favourite. No, you see, it occurred to me after your last visit, that I really put you through the mill, most cruelly so, with that blow by blow erotic account of the chap was a word fetishist when it came to love sports. The time before that, I regaled you with Curly Wurlies and Fool’s or Mock Kenny Lingus and the like, even if you experienced a priceless vision of The Spirit of Childhood when you gazed deep inside my maw, my little Mary Ann. So I thought the best remedy for my short-changing you, was to do the opposite and spoil the feckin socks off you today! I thought I’d give you one hell of an Afternoon Tea for a start…”

Selby could barely hide his disappointment. He muttered dully, “That’s very kind of you.”

“But I haven’t finished, Conrad! I’m talking about an afternoon tea that is to be consumed on my completely naked body!”

Selby brightened, albeit very cautiously, as he waited for the next catch. “Like the Tokyo geishas, you mean? Stinking rich and ugly old businessmen eat the choicest Japanese tidbits off their naked bellies and breasts.”

“More or less, Con. They use the Tokyo lassies as occasional tables, you might say, and especially if there’s an occasion. But rest assured there won’t be any platter of raw fish slapped on my belly button, nor any sushi or mushy sushy peas, nor any of that palaver on Ms O’ Houlihan’s precious bosoms. Instead I am going for the rustic, retro-resonant and reassuring comforts of a nice old-fashioned, dear old, good old Anglo-Irish afternoon tea, and with all the trimmings! Watch me now as I take a plateful of mixed fancies and a few of these crustless, cress-bestrewn sandwiches. Watch now Connie-wonnie, as I remove my brassiere, so I am both bare up top and bare of bottom, as my mother first beheld me back in Clifden town in 1968, the year of the Paris street riots, and then declared in a joyous shriek of Connacht Irish that I her little neonate would be a blinking riot too, in due course. See me now, young Conway, as I lie prone and lusciously naked on this antique divan, and as I deposit these pretty cakes and toothsome sandwiches at judicious points the length of my body. First of all, I have to lean forward to place just above the robin’s nest of my Mary Ann, this fine little example of a Kunzle cake…”

Selby watched her like a dog its teasing mistress. “A Kunzle? A sort of chocolate boat, with a cherry in the centre and with ornamented icing. A Kunzle adjacent to your…”

“Indeed, indeed. A Kunzle it is thou dost verily descry, sir, right above my old See You Next Tuesday. The cake was named after a Swiss gentleman who began to manufacture them in the Nineteen Twenties. And blimey, Con, crumbs, did they take off, gosh how they exponentially rocketed, and they and their chocolate boats and their cherries in the middle, soon conquered the entire cake-guzzling world! But come on, son, let’s move briskly on, in case we lose our momentum as they say. Next and squat upon my belly button, I place a scone smeared with ample cream and much much much, oh far too much delicious plum jam! Such touchingly blameless WI tucker, isn’t it, Con? Meaning after you’ve munched away at my Kunzle, my sweet little English chickabiddy, you can lick your lips then move on up my body, to mop up this well-loaded bruiser of a scone here. And by the way, do you say it ‘skon’ like I do, or prefer ‘skoan’, if you are morbidly class-conscious, or more like a mentally defective? Thank God for that, Con, my sweet little English scone, and look at that, it rhymes! And by the way, you can relax, you needn’t worry about the stickiness factor, that’s already taken care of. As you’ve already guessed, I’m not completely ontologically annealed to this mundane and circumscribed world, so am quite incapable of becoming yukky sticky.  Among sundry other heuristic perks, that is. Nor in the present circumstances, within 47B Assiduity Mews (and I can proudly boast that I’ve paid off all its whopping mortgage) will you become sticky on account of our erotic contact either. I promise that all your other tactile sensations will be enhanced and five-star, but yukky stickiness you can forget about. Now then look, take a gander at what I’m draping all around my luscious breasts. A handsome garland of savoury sandwiches no less, crustless and cress-adorned, and to sweetly adorn our coming congress. You do know what exactly you’re looking at, I trust, at this elevated sternal point, in the sense that it is at the top of my body, rather than in the valley down there where the Kunzle and its glace cherry repose? No, Con, you’re gawking and looking a little vacant, so I must point out the obvious. A Kunzle down by the Mary Ann, and scones and cream plonked upon my umbilicus, constitute a standard English Afternoon Tea as consumed in its millions every day. Plague permitting of course. But up here I have savoury sandwiches draped around my breasts, so that we are no more in the arguably childish world of Mixed Fancies and the like. There is no such thing as Low Tea, of course, not even in horizonless and depressed Holland, nor in the glum and featureless Lincoln Wolds. But there is, and how redoubtable it is in its quiet glory, the elevated and legendary majesty of the High Tea!”

Selby started, then echoed, “High tea?” which sounded very much like Hai Ti, as in some venerable branch of Manchurian Martial Arts.

“High Tea means the obligatory inclusion of savoury comestibles, as well as the standard sweet ones, of course. These savoury sandwiches, aptly placed ‘high’ on my body around my gorgeous breasts, happen to be laced with lovely sockeye salmon. And before you ask, it is the very best proprietary salmon, the flavoursome red not the cheap and lacklustre pink. One look at your fizzog, Connie lad, and I know you’re not a meat eater by the colour of your iris. You can only be a vegetarian who also eats fish, a so-called pescatarian. Now, I’m sure there must be a side-splitting limerick, with a pescatarian veterinarian and a pescatarian librarian, and their naughty goings on behind the dusty reference shelves. A Connacht limerick in my case, and that would be original, perhaps a first. But here’s my culinary advice, Conway. Start at the top, just as you would in a genteel tea shop in snooty Harrogate or other spa town, savoury matters first, then work your way like a bloodhound down to the sweet things, the scone with the plum jam and the cream. But no, hang on, sweet lad, I’ve jumped the gun. I’ve forgotten something vital, and so I’m remedying things now by placing mid-way between my breasts and belly button, this brace of little rock buns…”

Selby politely demurred at this point. “I hope I don’t sound too ungrateful Mimi, but not only do I not like rock buns, I don’t know anyone who does like the unalluring items. They are always dry and crumbly and arid, and rather like the case of the shunned vegetable marrow, are the home-produce gift that no one ever wants.”

His hostess was by now prone, as well as naked, and displaying an ornamental culinary ladder starting with sockeye sandwiches, sweeping down via rock buns, scones, cream and jam, to the Kunzle cake just above Mimi’s groin. She murmured her indignation at his sniffy statement, and also gestured that it was high time for Selby to take his own blinking clothes off.

She continued vehemently, “Any man who spurns a rock bun is a fool, Conway. And Conway Twitty or Twitty Conway is the appropriate name in your case! The acclaimed crooner’s real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins, but misguided as he was, he thought that Twitty had some stylish pazzaz to it. Can’t you see what’s obvious about rock buns, Connie lad, because the name itself is a feckin give-away? Rock buns, providing they have the right sort of currants, ideally from the sultry Greek island of Zakynthos, are so called as they always turn a man into genuine pre-Devonian rock!”

Selby nearly choked. “Are you sure? And I was convinced that like Cornish pasties or cold sago pudding, they were first class anaphrodisiacs.”

Garnished with High Tea and Afternoon Tea apparatus, the naked hostess sniffed :

“No way, Connie boy, no bloody way! You guzzle these two rock buns after you’ve chomped away at the sockeye, and you’ll be like quarry granite, believe me. You’ll be gneiss and schist, nice and shisht alright, and you’ll be toasted in every bar in town. Albeit with the necessary social distancing, as the standard rider, and yes what a racy rider you will also prove to be. But I have yet more to tell you, before you start any of your senile humming and hawing, Connie lad. Let’s resort to the subjunctive, and explain that, were you to masticate let’s say four of these handsome lads, four of these rock buns loaded with those powerful Ionian currants, you’d suddenly notice your feller down there straining up to tickle your chin.”

Selby greedily eyed the two rock buns below her handsome chest and was speechless. His hostess by contrast had hardly started.

“But don’t stop there, son. Let’s imagine you were to stash away a full eight of these excellent Zante rock cakes. If you did that, Connie lad, you could tape a brush on the end of your wee pugilist, and then emulsion the ceiling of a Bank Holiday afternoon. DIY is the least of it, Conrad.”

Selby was stupefied. “I am thoroughly lost for words. I was about to comment something wholly redundant, or is it tautological or pleonastic, on the lines of ‘fuck me stiff’. But given these quite unearthly and magical rock buns of yours, it would seem quite…”

“Coals to Newcastle, Con! Superfluous, if not redundant, if not wholly supererogatory! But first things first. Mop up all that sockeye first just to sharpen your brain, then tear into those rock buns to sharpen your, let’s say, your Little Tool for Conviviality. Remember that he who forgets his Ivan Illich will one day find himself at a significant loss. And look, take off your blinkin duds and spats, for crying out loud, you’re not here for a day course on digital feckin marketing….”

Selby said chastenedly, “Very well, Mimi. But bugger it, my underpants are completely stuck. I’ll have to sit down now, and…”

“Hurry up that feckin striptease, then gobble up your sockeye! You punish that arm and a leg sockeye, Selby, or there’ll be damn all amorous dalliance for you the day! That’s it, keep guzzling it down! Chew it and bolt it! Gnash it and swallow it! Masticate, then gulp it! Bugger it, they’ve got no crusts, Con, they’re only dainty wee items.”

At last free of his constraining underpants, Selby was as naked as his hostess. But not only did he count six sockeye sandwiches, he had to pause to sweep some cress from Mimi’s erect nipples.

“Will you stop your bloody hoovering and dusting, man! Get your English gob around my salmon-laden breasts, and swallow the blasted cress, and you can also pensively chew at my Galway nipples while you’re at it. But wisha and musha, and long live Juno and the Paycock, where on earth were you brought up, I ask myself. You don’t have my excuse of rigid Catholic Connemara where everything on telly was banned for impropriety, including The Newcomers and even feckin Compact and google it later if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Didn’t you know that you can buy yourself a handy paperback Kama Sutra or a Perfumed Garden for fifty pee in any little charity shop. Invest one meagre pound, Connie, and with the addition of your erotic toolbox of rock buns and sockeye and Kunzles, you’ll have every woman from twenty to a hundred and twenty, queueing and wildly slavering at your door!”

Selby took a deep breath, exhaled, then tore into the half dozen sockeyes. He gnashed away doggedly at the cress, then much less doggedly at Mimi’s nipples, and truth be told he found himself actually enjoying himself and reflecting that this was a recreational hour by no means idly wasted. As he moved down towards those Zante rock buns, he also conjectured that Mimi being a yoga adept, perhaps at her unspoken behest he was tracing the line of her chakras, as he literally feasted upon her from head to toe. He also managed to get down one of the rock buns, and sure enough felt himself becoming extraordinarily taut and turgid, and filled with a quite overpowering desire.

“No mocker now, eh?” Mimi cautioned. “No mocker of the rocks, which is to say no mocker of my rock buns.”

As confirmation, she seized hold of his manhood, shook it with exaggerated vigour, and exclaimed:

“I trust I find you in the best of health and spirits, sir! No, no need for you to answer, Con. I’ll switch to Dublin bar talk now, and speak as if I was ventriloquising you: ‘Sure, if I was any more fitter, Ms O’ Houlihan, I’ve no doubt I’d feckin well bust in half.’ ”

Selby guffawed so much that his bun-charged baton started to waltz with a fetching rhythm. But at Mimi’s testy chivvying, and in order to focus on the job in hand, he proceeded hurriedly down to the scone, jam and cream, located in her umbilical nest. He was pleased to see that there was only one scone, though it was a real whopper as scones went. Plus, were there such a thing, it seemed to be stuffed with triple rather than single or double cream, not to speak of Mimi’s jam which though plummily delicious was very rich.

He panted, “If I’m being brutally honest, I am starting to feel a trifle full.”

Mimi examined his face with scientific interest. “As a bull’s bum, most like. But whatever happens. you cannot neglect my charismatic Kunzle with the centrally sited cherry. And yes, I see now that you Con have an aptly Gallic name for that exciting area. So just get your North English gob down to my little See You Next Tuesday, sweet Connie, and tuck into that sweating Kunzle till you start to squeak. Or maybe you’ll take fire, combust with lust, one of the two.”

Wheezing and puffing, Selby slowly swallowed the chocolate boat with its perfectly central cherry. By now he could hear his belly gurgling and rumbling, as indeed could Mimi who swiftly applauded him, and said it reminded her of the melodious post-prandial digestive music of her Dad and brothers back in dear Galway.

“And now we do the flipside, the B side, the feckin backside, the reverse, Connie Mr Rock Bun! Good boy, you keep your mannikin stood stern to attention, and see if you can get him to raise his cap to me. What happens now is I turn onto my belly, and you must place a beguiling line of mixed fancies and one other special thing, from the nape of my neck down to my thighs. No good trying to balance Battenberg or bloody Bakewell on my legs or feet, cos they’ll just drop off and plunge into the adjacent  albeit symbolic void. So here I go, Connie, I’m lying on my belly, and remark what a stunning, truly lovely tapering back I have. As my Dad said in his plosive Connacht Irish, I look just like a young Galway filly. My neck above is very sweet too, ideal for kissing and nibbling and nuzzling, as if you were a Connemara calf. Or maybe like a greedy boysie in the Clifden picture house in 1962, desperate to get his lustful money’s worth after blowing four bob on two double seats meaning snogging is the least of it love seat tickets. So, you get over there and pick up some varied but harmonious mixed fancies, and start that little confectionery chain from my neck to my thighs. Drape them like some kind of steamy erotic garland or sensuous daisy chain, down as far as my exquisite backside, but leave the behind for the moment for something special, for it and it alone will host a unique item. As I can’t see myself, you will need to describe in precise terms how exactly you’re decorating and adorning me, as if I were the blushing Snow or Gypsy Queen in a village carnival.”

Selby did as he was told, and selected half a dozen mixed fancies that took his particular fancy. He also placed the whopping cream split on his plate, if only to reduce the quantity of his to-ing and fro-ing between the hostess and her occasional table. Mimi didn’t bother to turn her neck to check on his choices, and listened approvingly as he read out his checklist.

“On the neck a cheerful, indeed beaming raspberry fancy, with pink icing, and garlanded with two choice items of red candied fruit. Next, and In between your priceless shoulder blades, clavicles I believe they are called, though I always confuse them with clavichords and JS Bach and CPE Bach and WF Bach. Me and my obsessive Bach side, Mimi.There I shall place a little lemon fancy with its delicate yellow icing and its sliver of candied lemon. In the middle of my young Galway filly’s back, I have modified all aesthetic considerations and idiosyncratically laid down a coconut fancy with standard white icing and a rather pensive pecan in the centre. At the base of your spine, hence just above your more or less sacred Connemara bottom, is a choc bun fancy with dark chocolate icing, artfully scattered with colourful hundreds and thousands. Now leapfrogging, as requested, over that sumptuous bum, on the top of your thighs I find myself depositing a heraldic object, which is actually a little choux pastry pie full of strawberry jelly, and a luscious fresh strawberry smiling within. That leaves us with only this massive cream split, Mimi, and I am not really sure what you …”

With her chin upon the divan, she murmured with a sleepy terseness:

“Use your common sense, Con Selby! There’s nothing currently garnishing my, as you say transcendental backside, and it’s the cream split that is very obviously fit for purpose, as the smirking management-speak blatherers would have it. The cream split is split lengthwise, and of course my bum is also split like that, indeed cunningly bifurcated as is everyone’s here on earth from the birth of time. Aside, that is, from Cunegonde’s old maid in Voltaire’s Candide, she who tragically lost half her backside in her youth, and was never a full shilling thereafter. She actually came of noble blood, but as a young lass encountered some starving janissaries who demanded one of her buttocks for their repast, poor girl. That’s ‘janissary’ with two s’s, not ‘janizary’ with a ‘z ‘, as my fellow native Samuel Beckett has it in More Pricks than Kicks. That book was swiftly banned by the Irish censors on account of the worrying title, the same myopic gentlemen seemingly unaware that it is a quote from the Bible itself. That aside, it makes sense to place the divided cream split in the middle of my similarly bisected bum, so that we have two harmonious splits, not one. I can’t see it of course, face down like this, but I imagine that the split would appear like some sweet little boat or canoe, amiably sailing the universe on the sea of life, the gently buffeting endless ocean that is in fact my universal and indeed for all practical epistemological purposes, cosmic backside.”

Selby frowned as he conjured with a technical problem. “It’s a shame that you’ll never actually see what you look like. A splendid naked gypsy queen covered in mixed fancies and boasting a posterior cream split. Look Mimi, how about I take a handy photo with my phone, then send it on to you? Of course, I’ll immediately delete it afterwards. I’m assuming that you’re on Facebook, Mimi?”

Her voice was muffled by the divan. “Send it to my Arsebook, not my Facebook, Con. Not everyone knows we’ve had Arsebook in Connemara for donkeys, the bachelor farmers love it, but then it got superseded by the big one, by the Face. But that’s enough of the shallow and perfidious social media. You still need to gobble up all those lovely mixed fancies along my back and thighs, and then finish up with that gigantic cream split on my cosmic behind. Talking of which, I’m pleased to see your old rock bun’s still doing its job, Con. Your prancing wee lad would seem to be conducting like Sir John Barbirolli flailing away at Berlioz or Bruckner or Erik Satie. Tell you what, as a special treat I’ll let you eat the cream cake off my backside first, and then if you like we can delay the mixed fancies and go straight to the grand business of felicitous carnal congress. What do you say to that revised programme, Conway?”

His reply was along boyish lines. He muttered exultantly, “Yippee! Wahey! At last, at long bloody last! It’s really about to happen!”

But instead, his ingestion of the fundamental split, and the subsequent longed-for congress, were impeded by a violent shaking at his shoulders.  Yet again, through early morning eyes, he was to behold his partner Dora examining him with a mild astonishment.

She snorted, “I never saw you as a budding cheer leader, Selby. Yippee, why the hell, and wahey, who would that be?”

Selby gave a deceitful precis. “Ah yes.  I was busy dreaming about confectioners and cake shops. The usual thing. Mixed fancies, hundreds and thousands, cream splits, Kunzles and Eccles galore. Not forgetting the occasional spartan rock bun of course.”

Dora flicked her lips with extended fingers, and adopted an expression of considerable lewdness.

“Mixed fancies? I have plenty of those myself, and fancy is the least of it. Cuckoo, more like. Hundreds and thousands of cuckoo fancies cum fantasies, in this extraordinarily sculpted head that you see presently looming over you. You know, after a shift on that bloody Covid ward, I’m itching for a fight and to take on everyone and everything that moves. The way I see it, I have to get back something, however small, for myself at this harrowing point in time. If I don’t, I’ll dry up and disappear, like a Dodo or a Great Auk. Beggars can’t be choosers, Selby, and you’ll do for a start, with all those dubious night time dreams of yours. You get hold of that here, yes, and I’ll grab hold of this down here, as fair exchange and no larceny. Keep doing exactly what you are doing, and without variation, until I command you to stop. All give and no take is very bad for the likes of me, but I know that you have it in you to selflessly offer full value and even with a modest bonus. As long as I keep your nose to the grindstone and shout at you if you dare to protest. Tell me now, what’s it like to be my willing slave?”

The final chapter, Chapter 7, will appear on or before Thursday January 7th

MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 5

Chapter 5

Tally Ho! and the Magic Burger

It was the third night of the preview of I Didn’t Do It and instead of giving them Czech beer, Selby had bestowed two miniatures of malt whisky on his grateful relatives. They all loved malt whisky and especially Cardhu, as indeed did Selby, who of course had to stay lucid and unslurred for his performance, so hadn’t touched a drop of anything.

“Ambrosia,” blind Dennis remarked, of the pricey Cardhu. “I mean the food of the gods, not the tinned bloody rice.”

At that Mildred swiftly inscribed on her I-pad that there was nothing wrong in democratically liking both, and what’s more, conventional rice pudding was more like noxious school or prison fare, and it always stuck to the roof of your fucking mouth.

Selby resisted mediation in a potentially incendiary debate about the charisma of brand name processed foods. Instead, he strode round the back of the stage and his puppet play resumed.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Know what, kid? I thought it was a good idea to get one of my interns to do some proper research on you the British prime minister, before we met together formally as two world leaders. To have me kosher and well prepared, know what I mean, briefed up to the eyeballs, as you’re supposed to be our oldest and most dearest ally. And boy, were there some really big surprises! To be honest some of the really crazy stuff I didn’t think you had it in you, you being so polite and proper and aristocratic English, meaning as if you all have somethin stuck all the way up your ass. I guess that’s a natural fall out of being an ancient foodal monarchy.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I’m…I am flattered enough, sir, that you think I show a certain forthright audacity at times. As I hazarded in my book on Churchill…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Let me toss it back to you, kid, a bit like a hot hand grenade, so you can tell me it like it really is. Straight from the horse’s mouth as they say. And of course, horses are real important stuff in your CV, and I think you can guess what I’m talking about (slaps his thigh resoundingly). Isn’t it true that as a student at Oxford, in among them dozy ole spires, you were a kind of blazing radical and ran a magazine called Spectre. Or no, maybe it was called Sphincter? Meaning it was either like a ghost or an asshole, right? Typical student crazy stuff.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (very rushed) I have to apologise for arguing every little pedantic trifle, but once again chronology is the elephant in our room, sir. The magazine you refer to is in fact the Spectator, which far from being a leftist weekly, these days speaks with forthright eloquence for the conservative right. It was founded in 1828 by one Robert Rintoul, a Scotsman who was somewhat of a humanitarian cast, as it happened, and to quote from contemporary sources, ‘every line and word passed through the alembic of his brain’…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah. Which Alum Pick was he?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. He’s… an alembic is actually a kind of glass retort, sir, as in one’s chemistry classes at school. With of course the secondary connotation of alchemy, meaning no doubt the transforming magic of Rintoul’s editorial brain.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Know what. I kinda like that. I like Alum Pick, and I’ll try to remember that old Scotsman dude for the next party convention. But listen, the reason I said I was stunned at what you said as editor of Asshole, was connected specifically with horses. Which is what I was touching on before. You told your Asshole readers who like to hunt, that if they agreed with your opinion, they should go and break the law and up the ass of the police, the courts and judges, and every other sonofabitch. I’m also talking about how you, kid, from your personal experience reckoned hunting foxes was all to do with sex and having a very close relationship with your horse.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (his puppet strings visibly quivering). Oh no, sir! I assure you that a precise chronology here is absolutely vital to your proper understanding. It was in fact in 2005, fifteen years ago, that I wrote about fox hunting in the Spectator, whereas I was a stripling, if not quite a neonate at Oxford, some twenty years earlier in the mid-Eighties. In 2005, I was a Member of Parliament, as well as an editor, the bullying socialists were still in power, and they had just made fox hunting illegal. It was and remains, the most horrifyingly brutal, cruel and heartrending thing one might possibly imagine.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Hunting? I guess you’re right. A bunch of slaverin bawlin dogs tearing the guts out of a fox. I guess that might hurt some. But wait, wasn’t it you English back in the old days invented and patented hanging, drawing and quartering, for people that you didn’t like? I musta been about forty before I understood exactly what that was, and get this, for two whole seconds I actually felt sick.  Back home we never learned to do much colourful stuff like that, except for maybe a few scalping Indians.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Alas, those ranting hunt saboteurs do not adhere to science, sir. The so-called agony of the fox is entirely spurious, and in any case any farmer or yeoman whose sheep have been ravaged by Reynard, will tell you that a fox is a species of vermin, It is never going to be a sentient animal like my own dog Winston, for example. In any case, I’ve been assured by at least one experienced foreign vet who trained in an eminent college in Minsk or was it Pinsk, and who dearly loves to hunt, that the fox feels absolutely nothing as it is killed. No, sir, the unthinkable and quite unbearable brutality is that of the Marxian legislators from our British socialist party, who were determined to abolish an old and sacred tradition, and inter alia to mount a spiteful and envious attack on the British upper class! From memory, I believe this is what I wrote in my magazine:

‘I sincerely hope that the fox hunters defy the police and the magistrates and the government, until a new government can rescue an old tradition, and restore it for the sake of freedom and freedom alone!’

FLUFFY SENIOR. Ahah. Did you know that you were really spitting when you quoted that, and so I had to close my eyes? But two important things I need to ask you. Why do you say Marxian instead of Marxist? You’re the only person I’ve ever heard use that weird sort of word. Is it a house-style condition of working for Asshole? You ain’t kinda borderline dyslexic, are you?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. You’ll forgive me, sir, but I could hardly have published a well-received book, had such been the case.

FLUFFY SENIOR. The second thing is that you were forty years old in 2005, not a crazy student punk writing crap for Viz, or in your case Asshole. At forty years old, in let’s say your mature middle age, you were ordering English folk to break the law, meaning defy the judges, the police, the whole shebang. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my intern said only fifteen per cent of the Brits are in favour of hunting foxes, meaning eighty-five per cent ain’t. So listen, with you, kid, what I see is we have a middle-aged aristocrat who is saying to his pals, go fuck the law, meaning that you’re not a regular anarchist, but a kinda upside down inside out anarchist defending the lords and dooks and barons and duchesses. No, shit, don’t look so scared, kid, what I’m getting to is I that I really admire your spunk, your middle-aged aristo-punk spunk, cos to look at you I mean well… like I said, you look like one of those prissy, after you, no after you, sir, itsy bitsy snooty Brits, with a cucumber or at least a little  zucchini stuck up his tight ass. But instead, and get this, here you are roaring at us like a crazy Tucson auctioneer, for your freedom and your freedom alone, when only a fraction of your citizens agrees with you! Seriously, that’s what I call real superstar class, son, that’s what I call telling them like it is, and if they don’t friggin like it, there’s the exit and tough shit. You get top votes from me for saying all of that and goin your own sweet way. No kiddin, kid…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Well I am more than honoured, sir, by your heartfelt testimony, even though I would frame my polemical fervour in rather a different hue. Rintoul who founded the Spectator in 1828 actually stole the title from the short-lived newssheet of the great Joseph Addison and the equally fabled Richard Steele, founding fathers of their trenchant pamphlets or philippics.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s kind of cool as well. Is Richard a relation of Joe Steel who taught me to say, Enemy of the People, and flatten the wise guys just like that? But look, son, there’s still one thing worries or let’s say confuses me, in this business of you liking your blood sports, and telling all your patriotic hunters to break the heartless law. What I’m talking about now is sex, kid, and I’m also talking about sex and horses, meaning aristocratic British horses, and I’m talking about sex that is aristocratic. You and sex and horses, to be even more precise, and how they all combine, and come, if that’s the right word, how they all come together. And whether that kind of thing is ever going to be legal, even in a Britain that eventually changes the law and decides to look after its crooly downtrodden and neglected aristocrats, never mind nothing else.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. The business of sex, you say? And its thematic connection with hunting? Once again, I admit I am rather trailing behind, like some struggling foxhound, when it comes to these audacious leaps.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Sure. OK. Let’s get it straight. My intern says that when you explained in your Asshole why it was you liked fox hunting, it was because it gave you a ‘semi-sexual’ sensation. That little semi word has stuck in my mind for some reason.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. That is an approximate but highly inaccurate gloss, sir, as it is not what I actually said. What I actually penned for my piece, was, ‘a weird semi-sexual relation’.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Weird OK. For a start, I don’t really get semi-sexual. Semi is Greek and means half, as in a semi-detached and security-gated Florida villa, with armed guards and a ten-acre pool. So, it means half-sexual right? So OK, does that mean somethin like half a yellow zucchini growing at a forty-five-degree angle?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. (aghast) Good gracious! Nothing so flagrantly absur…nothing quite so overarchingly…nothing so overwhelmingly literal

FLUFFY SENIOR. And is it half a zucchini cos of straddling the horse, or cos of the big horny thrill of killing the little fox? Don’t be shy, you can tell me, son, I’m old enough to be your old man, and believe me, I’ve been around the block and been hung, drawn and friggin quartered myself. Those schmucks have even poked their friggin noses into my sex life.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I’m sorry but I’m afraid that it is once again imperative, that I quote from my exact wording in the Sphincter…I mean the Spectator. From memory, this how I put it:

‘Hunting on a horse is like skiing, in that you are personally tracing at speed, the contour of the landscape. And then there is the weird semi-sexual relation with the horse, in which you have the illusion of understanding and control…’

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah?  I’m still no wiser. It seems to me, kid, that if you really are on a weird kinda half zucchini gig with a horse, you need to either keep quiet about it, or be a lot more careful about what you write. If you want some good advice, being an editor is a serious business, and in the old days and especially in Ye Olde England, people could even lose their lives because of a dangerous slip of the pen. That’s why I only tweet and nothing else, cos the last time I wrote an email was on Thanksgiving Day 1995. Nobody remembers a tweet a day later, never mind fifteen years later. But that skiing and horse hunting stuff has me truly baffled. Controlling a horse and understanding it, according to you is like controlling a woman and understanding her. And of course, the whole thing is as you say weird, cos at the end of the day it’s only half a zucchini, not a full one. Plus, and worst of all, you say the whole thing is a friggin illusion! You’re not a kind of fox hunting George Harrison Beatles Hindu, are you, kid? And there again, just like that ‘Marxian’ word, you use weird words that no one else does. ‘Relation’ with the horse don’t make any sense. Relationship with the horse makes sense, so is that what you think you mean? You know if I was you, I’d definitely think about getting tested for dyslexia.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (snorting) If I might beg, sir, to be permitted to finish what I started. There is only a morsel left to quote:

‘You have the military-style pleasure of wheeling and charging as one, the emulative fun of a pseudo- campaign.’

FLUFFY SENIOR. Uhuh. Pretty cool word that, Emma Latif. Meaning that you’re having fun because you’re imitating something. So it’s a bit like playing charades or mimicking people who are stoopid. And you know what, I detect a pattern. You’re the only person in the world says Emma Latif, along with your word Marxian and your half relation, not relationship, with your horse. Might be your old style Asshole house rules, I guess. But you know what. I really do worry about all your dodging the dodge ball, kid.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Really sir? I’m rather flummoxed. In what sense?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Pseudo this and semi that, and illusion this and Emma Latif, when that chick’s at home!  And then you apologise when you try to explain about sex and horses, and you blush and you admit ok, ok it is kinda weird. Even, if only semi-weird, not proper kosher weird! But on you go with your ifs and buts and your blushing, you the aristocrat anarchist who is rousing the fox hunters to fight for freedom and freedom alone! But take a tip from me, kid. You need to take your finger out of your ass, and stop saying pseudo and semi and illusion, and realise that the public don’t like sissy words like maybe and perhaps and slightly and rather and somefuckinwhat. What they like is someone like me who bawls at em 24/7, hey guys, you can friggin betcha ass that I mean what I say, and that I say what I mean!

FLUFFY JUNIOR (clearing his throat) Perhaps you have something there, sir. Reading Greats at Oxford meant perhaps I dallied overmuch with the subjunctive. As in utinam adessem , meaning ‘would that I were there’ and the like. And even more so with the timorous optative, as in that ever bittersweet formula, If only!

FLUFFY SENIOR, Joe Steel didn’t do no friggin Grits, and he never said no If onlys! Joe got on with it like a mad bulldozer, and he kicked everyone’s ass until he got what he wanted. I’d advise you to brace up and do the same, kid, and ditch them Ivy League broads like Emma Latif. Even if she’s supposed to be big fun on the hunting field. But talking of women and of half zucchinis, let me give you another little tip, son. Like any wiser, older man would give to a younger and understandably goofier kid. Are you ready?

FLUFFY JUNIOR (warily) I’m always at your disposal, sir.

FLUFFY SENIOR. What, if anything do you know about my regular evening habits, son? After I’ve been toilin away in my office all day?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. What exactly…?

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s right. By evening my sugar is way down, so I really need to eat. I need to have myself a healthy snack. You know, me being the most powerful person in the universe is really hard work, and it ain’t for dudes or pussies. You need to take all your vital calories and your vitamins and your supplements, and you need to build yourself up for the daily fight. Joe Steel, he did the same, after a hard day on the phone where  he’d pointed out that some asshole called Ivan was an enemy of the people, and so was Mikhail an enemy of the people, and so was Sofia and more or less everyone  who was supposed to be on his side was actually, if you scratched good and hard underneath, a treacherous enemy of the people! Joe Steel took energising Roosky snacks to keep going against his many enemies, and I take one every evening too to stay strong amongst my potential traitors. Guess what’s my favourite snack every night?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I ah… peanut butter sandwiches?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Nah, that was that crazy kid, Just Dennis. And come to think if it he was always saying, ‘I didn’t do it!’ too. So maybe I need to go on vintage Sixties You Tube, and make sure I don’t miss anything strategical useful. No, son, my favourite snack is, get this, a Diet Coke and a burger.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. And laudable enough, sir. The Coke being a Diet, the burger being doubtless organic.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Listen hard now, kid, as very few people know what I’m about to tell you. People think the burger and Coke are only to build me up, and nothing more, so that I’m strong enough to wage battle against the creepy radicals, the journalists and the nosey TV interview schmucks. So, I stick to that story to please em, but the real reason for my special burger snack is actually a state secret! The snack is flown in fresh by helicopter every night with some fancy story that even the security guys believe. What they don’t know is that it is a very special burger made for me and me only, by an Armenian guy Jimmy who has a joint in the Bronx. It’s made to a recipe of his legendary great-grandfather, Baret, at the time the most notorious character in the Armenian capital. Which is…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Erevan, I believe, sir. And is also known as Yerevan.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep, there ain’t many capitals I don’t know, and I knew that one for sure. Hairy Van or sometimes Cherry Van. I didn’t wanna embarrass you, in case you thought it was Worse Sore in Slovacky. Anyway, Jimmy’s great grandpop was the biggest womaniser in that Armenian city, and in addition old Baret was remarkably clever, a brain the size of Einstein’s, and almost on a par with me. You see Jimmy’s burger has a secret combination of four types of peppercorn, pink, black and red and white. It also contains a spice like allspice, but a special Armenian allspice, and it’s that unique Hairy Van allspice, and the precise quantity that does the trick. The point is, this exclusive burger made to a secret Cherry Van recipe by Bronx Jimmy, for me and for me alone, it does no less than three amazing things, not just one. And it’s those three incredible and outstanding things, that make me the incredible person I’m told I am by so many devoted fans. Like I said, the magic burger builds me up, just like Joe Steel got up to top notch after he’d swallowed his favourite Roosky snack. In my case it’s to fight my war against the Enemies of the People who spread fake news back home, and shoot nasty little questions for the fun of it. No bragging, son, but it also makes me kinda special when it comes to being a hundred per cent a Casson Hoover, so I ‘ve no problems with half zucchinis, and I definitely ain’t, what was it you said In Asshole, semi-weird where gals are concerned. The Diet Coke, what’s that big word, potentiates the action of the burger, if we’re talking about your Afro-Dizzy Snacks. But nobody knows that apart from me and Jimmy. Forget about chewin shitty celery like those stupid porn stars, for the Andy Stenos and all that. A magic burger and a Diet would turn anyone on earth into concrete, but I’m glad to say the only one has access to the magic combo is me. And Armenian Jimmy’s Cherry Van burgers don’t come cheap, believe me. Look, I haven’t finished yet, in fact I’ve barely started when it comes to my special food and magic. On top of what I’ve said, Bronx Jimmy’s burgers add to and elevate and sustain the most important thing in the world as far as I’m concerned. Other than a patriotic love of my wonerful old country, needless to add. D’you know what I’m talking about?”

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Mm. You certainly have me guessing. The legacy of your beloved parents? That most enduring of filial loves?

 FLUFFY SENIOR. Nope, no, none of that. I’m talking about my legendary and formidable IQ, son. And how the Armenian allspice, concocted back in the nineteenth century by that Hairy Van womaniser, has given me a brain even bigger than his! As a direct result of eating all those Bronx Jimmy burgers, a few years ago, and before I was president, I was able to tweet something that wasn’t me boasting at all, but a simple, undeniable and overwhelming truth. I tweeted that when it comes to my predecessors, my IQ is significantly higher than that radical Obama’s, and also way higher than G Dubya Bush! What’s more, if we’re talking about so-called Apprentice Show gurus, it’s also bigger than that English tribute version of me.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. You mean Lord Sugar?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Call him Dook Salt or the Baron of Mustard, he still ain’t got brains like mine. Nor will he ever have, as long as I’ve Jimmy from the Bronx looking after me.

The play paused at that point and Selby’s old relatives applauded with a markedly musical rhythm. Mildred grinned and held up an empty Cardhu miniature, seemingly suggesting that another one or two or even six, would be more than acceptable. Daniel adjusted his cumbrous hearing aid and warmly reminisced about an aphrodisiac story in northern dialect where the proven remedy was epic amounts of brown bread and salted butter (it had to be salted, not unsalted, or you would be even less than half a courgette, he snorted). Eventually Selby ushered them out, after confirming there would be more I Didn’t Do It tomorrow night at the same time. Then he took himself off for a breather to the centre of town, and as with the repetitive drift of his humble shoes in his recent dreams, he found himself yet again in the little park with the ancient gravestones. Where, of course, once more, as if by wordless prearrangement, there was the man with the ponytail, who smiled at Selby as if quietly anticipating yet another instructive ad hoc seminar.

Selby greeted him with animation.

Here we are again, art teacher. I realise I haven’t told you yet, but I’m actually a sort of theatre director, and I must say that you are one of the most impressive audiences I’ve ever met. You listen hard and with total attentiveness, and as I see it, with very few words you communicate your opinions principally by measured smiles and finely graduated nods, and minute and subtle turns of the head. You know, I was once a part of a circle of student friends where the most charismatic member was someone who spoke about one sentence a week, if that. If anyone but he had been as perpetually mute he would have been written off as a dismal bore, but no as in those paradoxical Zen aphorisms, his silence spoke not volumes, but entire copyright libraries, including the Bodleian and Fitzwilliam. At any rate, I’m feeling quite hungry at the moment, even though I ate earlier, and it’s got me thinking about the recent culinary experiences of myself and my girlfriend, who as it happens is a nurse on regular nightshift, in the virus frontline as you can imagine.

Since July our town’s cafes and restaurants have all been open, with social distancing and obligatory masks, unless one is firmly pinned to one’s seat, and actually masticating, of course. She and I are a sociable pair, and we like going out for good meals. We are both keen and cosmopolitan cooks, partly as a function of being raised in two grim northern backwaters, about a four-hour drive from here in my case, and a three-hour trip along the opposite direction in hers. This town is very small, but has a remarkable range of restaurants, wouldn’t you agree, not just ethnic places, but surprisingly stylish wine bars with surprisingly imaginative menus.  In the last three months, Dora and I have been making up for lost Covid time, and we have celebrated our two birthdays in restaurants. And also, because I’m a widower of a thirty-year marriage, and she is a widow after thirty-five years together, the anniversaries of our partners’ deaths, and the birthday of Dora’s husband. So, we’ve been out five times in all, and had four truly excellent meals, and one, even though it had been recommended by several reliable acquaintances, extremely average, or if I’m being candid, downright bad. Dora thought it rubbish too, but as I say we are both committed cooks, and have rather exacting standards as a result.  It was the Italian restaurant which had just opened, and was, virus notwithstanding, very crowded, albeit rigorously socially distanced. We tried simple and safe pasta dishes, pomodoro e arancia in her case, and penne con peperoni in mine. Both meals tasted as if out of a tin, with an appropriately bitter and metallic flavour, as if purchased from a discount wholesaler, but being spineless Brits, when the manager came round and asked is if we were satisfied, we grinned and joked, and said oh yes, oh yes indeed. He had a nice face and we didn’t want to give him a miserable evening, not in this precarious pandemic ease up, where he was anxiously trying to make ends meet. After he’d gone, we reflected that if he could make two hopeless meals out of standard pasta dishes, then probably everything here was bad, even if everyone around us was uproariously lapping it up. I would take as a useful analogy a book, a would-be serious novel, say. If the first ten pages are unremittingly bad, there is no way on earth the next two hundred and forty will be adequate, much less excellent. Life does not work that way, and thank God never will.

Don’t worry, Art Lecturer, there is a serious point to this culinary resume, and it is to do with the virus, the plague, the Corona, which once upon a time was the name of a fashionable beer, and now is the name of a killer.  My story returns to a level plateau of complete satisfaction, as I tell you about the other four meals. We tried again another new arrival on the block, that North African eatery run by a Moroccan couple, and with a Tunisian chef who was happily versed in all kinds of Maghreb cookery. We had the fish tagine, which was made with fresh halibut, flavoured unusually with celery leaves and the more standard trio of cumin, oregano and garlic. Soaked in a sauce of tomatoes thickened with puree and onions, and with chilis and lemon juice to make our tongues ecstatically sing and dance! It was superb, as was the bulgur salad loaded with fried eggplant, courgettes and peppers, and with a stinging chili and cinnamon spicing. Encouraged by that, we moved up the road a fortnight later to a Turkish grill run by a young man from the town of Cesme near Izmir. We happen to be vegetarians who eat fish, hence bear that ludicrous name ‘pescatarians’ which sounds like people who are either always pissed or always pissing, or always both. We had the sea bass in grape brandy, raki soslu levrek, rich in butter, wine and cream, and flavoured with aniseed, as well as with the raki, which of course is grape spirit flavoured with yet more anis. It was garnished with odorous fresh tarragon, and every mouthful, Dora and I quickly agreed, was sublime to the point of the ridiculously sublime.

That takes us to the pricey South American place a half hour’s walk from here. We ate vegetarian that night, as we saw they had an unusually virtuoso dish of mushrooms in a gooseberry and chili puree. It was called hongos something, and I recall that it was Mexican. That was for starters, and as entrée we had a Nicaraguan speciality: fried aubergines baked in a cheese and tomato sauce, ripe with chilis and allspice. The rice accompaniment was the legendary arroz verde which is cooked in a blended mess of shredded lettuce, roasted and skinned green peppers, and roasted green chilis. The arroz could hardly have been more verde, could it? It tastes like nothing on earth, the flavour is at first incendiary, then molten, and is truly beyond compare. That gourmet vegetarian fare led us a little further out of town, where at the busy Prashad we sampled some fine South Indian. It hosted an unusual range of exotic fruit dishes, including banana foogath, apple bhaji, and a rice that was flavoured with mangoes and yoghurt and coconut.  Intentionally or not, that meal was an expert blend of the salt, the sweet, the pungent and the astringent, as codified in Classical Indian medical lore, meaning a humoral system consisting of Wind, Bile and Phlegm, or if you prefer Air, Fire and Water.  As it is expounded in the definitive Ayurveda treatises of its founding fathers, Sushruta and Charaka, and their respective encyclopaedic samhitas.

Finally, and as swansong, is the Chinese that needed a taxi to get to, though of course it allowed us both to have a drink.  You probably know that it’s been there for years, but it was our first ever visit. It is called The Royal China, and reasonably enough feels assured of its lonely sovereignty, as it puts all competitors to shame. It does lovingly prepared individual vegetable dishes, rather than the ubiquitous and odious mixed veg, as a rule reminiscent of flavourless cowpoke mush. We had bean curd with the chef’s ingenious addition of dates and orange peel, steeped in orange juice, ginger and soy, and garnished with crushed walnuts. We also had aubergines cut into thin matchsticks, stir fried to perfection in chili and sugar and soy, then sprinkled with cashews.  Three Flavours Rice speaks for itself and has a common base of fennel, sesame and cardamom seeds, but the second and third portions have additions of fried cashews and coriander leaf respectively, and the three rices are served like little monarchs in three separate dishes.

Need I go on? Yes, I bloody need to, very much. A week after we were at the indifferent but busy Italian place, it was suddenly closed, as one of the kitchen staff had come down with Covid symptoms. Its umpteen employees were all aged between eighteen and thirty, which gave the lie to it being the old and the vulnerable who are principally afflicted. It was the middle-aged manager who rang round those who had been customers that night, their names taken down at the entrance of course. He told me in an encouraging voice to ring the doctor, should either I or my girlfriend develop worrying symptoms. As if such a thing would not have occurred to you, he added as supplementary jest. Dora and I were at first startled, of course, but as she is a night nurse in the frantic front line, it was not for long. Coals to Newcastle, you might say. But then two weeks after that, the same thing happened with the Moroccan couple’s place, and it was closed for an unspecified period. Their cook’s assistant had come down with Covid, but it wasn’t after our night there, so no one rang us, and we learnt about it only through the grapevine. Meaning that two out of five, forty per percent of the restaurants we went to, to celebrate our virus era birthdays, or to mourn that of Dora’s late husband Tom, or to mourn the poignant anniversaries of our partners’ deaths, had been potentially lethal.

The point is that only about six months ago, back at the start of March 2020, when most of us knew nothing at all about the virus, such a scenario would have seemed fantastic, impossible, a tasteless joke, and an example of third-rate and febrile science fiction for the easily duped. It was inconceivable that by eating out amongst your fellow men and women, in a prosperous First World country, you might end up dying, you might actually go and kick the bucket, and none too pleasantly as Dora the nurse regularly assures me.

Worse still, you might die in fruitless pursuit, not of a good meal, but of a very bad meal, after politely knocking back a dreary penne dish or an even more dismal tagliatelle standard? And what could be more pointless and truly tragic, than a premature exit like that?

Chapter 6 will appear on or before Thursday 7th January

MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 4

Chapter 4

Peter Piper’s Powerful Peppercorns

Conroy Selby was staring at his dusty old laptop screen, when suddenly out of nowhere appeared one of those garish Why Not Try This Fun Quiz? links. The link was titled wordmonarch.com which as a lifelong socialist naturally irritated the satirical puppeteer from the word go. He normally avoided such flippant nonsense like the plague, or indeed the virus, but tonight as if of its own volition, his finger clicked on it, and he was presented with the following two questions.

1.What are your three very favourite words, and why?

Without hesitation, Selby typed:

Breasts, bottoms, thighs. (And should there be any ambiguity, the first plural indicates that we are talking about the female anatomy specifically)

Why? Firstly, because the thought of them, and all the millions of succulent and delicious ones busy at large in the world, gets me out of bed in the morning, where otherwise I might succumb to a deleterious and disabling sloth. Secondly the great French writer Jean Giono characterised part of the alienation of the modern male, as being due to the fact they had had started to worship things without thighs. I would readily concur, adding female breasts and bottoms to the Provence gentleman’s formula.

2. What three words do you hate the most?

Empathy, iconic, judgemental

Why so? I need to be a little discursive here. That charming weekend encounter group word ‘empathy’ first.  A few months ago, I had a vivid dream where after losing someone I loved very much to a terminal disease, in due course I received some thirty condolence cards from various well-wishers. Every single one of them bore the identical message which was DEEPEST EMPATHY. In my dream I wrote back to all of them saying, I know that you mean well, but somehow when you write Deepest Empathy, I feel a thousand per cent short-changed, both semantically and in terms of humble but overwhelmingly sane and old-fashioned common sense.

Now to ‘iconic’. Unless applied specifically as an adjective relating to the famous Greek Orthodox work of art, the icon, this is a risible nonsense. The proof is that you can apply it to almost every noun, and it makes a kind of smug and spurious sense each time, which is why it is favoured by brain-free radio DJs, TV lifestyle show presenters, and so on. Iconic vegetable, iconic quiz show, iconic holiday resort, iconic dungarees, iconic bra, iconic backside, iconic brand of dentifrice, iconic sexual technique, iconic colonic irrigation course, the last one being a bit of a tongue-twister.

Finally, ‘judgemental’. I first met the original Judge Mental about 1990, and the long-established malicious rumour was that he was so lazy and elusive and such a chronic boozer, that for practical purposes he did not exist before that date. Nursing his triple brandy, Judge Mental was ruing the passing of the good old days, pre-1964, when he could impose capital punishment upon murderers, whether guilty or not, a trifling distinction surely, and when the world he added was ever such a better place. I told him that outside his London club where we were sitting, no one knew of his flesh and blood existence, they all thought he must be dead,  and instead they had turned him into an aqueous and all-purpose adjective, with the apparent meaning of , ‘one who is always passing judgement’…

“You mean as in critical, condemnatory, admonitory and the like?” he asked me with trembling indignation.

“Yes. But those accurate words, those words of precise nuance, don’t sound as good, as impressive, as your own name! Judge Mental has a hell of a ring to it, which is why they use it at every turn.”

The old man looked at his brandy with apparent disgust. “There is such a thing as copyright. I ought to set the law on them…”

The wordmonarch questionnaire completed, Selby idly drummed his fingers on the desk, until something quite incredible happened. As if by magic, his finger drumming grew faster and faster than he could have ever imagined, and with that he found himself in the unprecedented and grandiose guise of apprentice Indian tabla maestro. He blinked twice with great determination, to try and stop the furious drumming, but instead felt himself comically propelled from his seat, as if by some antiquated fairground mechanism. His study then became filled with a kind of whirling pea-souper fog, or equally it might have been some amiable disc jockey’s special effects. While he waited with fatalistic acquiescence for it to clear, he realised he was no longer in his study, but was standing outside the front door of someone’s flat.  As soon as he turned to look behind him, the fog at once vanished, as if it had never existed, and he realised that he must have ascended some steps. The door had 47B on it, and as that prime number clicked in his head, the door suddenly opened and there stood Ms Mimi O’Houlihan with a welcoming recognition. She had her arms folded to cover her bare breasts, and Selby noted she was wearing some lushly endearing crimson knickers.

“Come inside,” she breathed, with a warm and musical Connemara purr. “I was expecting you, sweet boyo.”

Selby smiled politely, then asked how that could be. Whereupon with a humorous impatience, she more or less yanked him inside, and swiftly shoved her right breast inside his mouth.

“Call that brunch, “Mimi said, “You know in some respects, you ask far too many questions Conway. It’s true that we both think words are very important, but surely even more so are the experiential things they lead to, which of course are always wordless. Any self-respecting mystic or eremitical anchorite could tell you that in a jiffy. It just happened to strike me, that you Con Selby could do with a hearty and substantial feed, in both the metaphorical and literal sense. Meaning that I am at the moment nourishing you as well as nursing you. By the way, are you choking down there, wee man, do you possibly need some air?”

Selby agitatedly waved his hand, so that she gently pushed him back and allowed him to oxygenate.

“Was that really good, Conrad lad?”

His extremely odd reply startled himself as much as Mimi.

That wass queyt a guid chow,” was what he spontaneously uttered.

His hostess snorted and guffawed, and as she did the breast he’d been eating began to quiver with incredulity.

“What in the name of Adam and Eve? Is that Old or Middle English, or maybe proto-Early Viking?”

Selby said, “You nearly have it with that last one. It’s actually the singular dialect of rural North East Cumbria, softened by its close proximity to the Scottish border. I lived in that area for some years, but of course not being a local never spoke the dialect. One day when I was very hungry, I stopped my car outside a little post office, sitting in the middle of nowhere, as I knew that it sold snacks like chocolate and crisps. As it happened, I was the only customer, and the friendly old man there watched me with fascination as I tried to decide on my chocolate bar. Finally, as I took up one that he clearly approved, he remarked with an earnest emphasis, ‘That wass queyt a guid chow’.”

Folding her arms across her naked bosom, Mimi translated “‘That was quite a good chew’? Referring in the present to your hungry osculation of my sumptuous breast? You were chewing it with an appetite, right enough. But tell me, sweet Con, and this is a very important question, in the post office was it a Curly Wurly that was quite a good chow?”

Selby snorted, as, along with the offers of Kenny Lingus and Gorky, he recalled the star prize of yore.

“Not at all. It was an extra-large Crunchie, if you must know.”

She shook her handsome head at such apprentice innocence. “Not in the same league, I’m afraid. Alas, it lacks the lattice, Con. And that which lacks the lattice, also lacks the true essence.”

He peered at her with great puzzlement. She seemed to be conveying a timeless aphorism relating to the Ancient Wisdom of the East, but it was the first time he’d heard such a thing expressed via mass market children’s confectionery.

“To be honest,” Mimi continued, “I find myself a bit on the knackered and yawning side today. Once again, it’s all to do with words, words, words, rather than deeds, deeds, deeds, or shall we say words as obsessive antecedents to deeds! There was a nice enough feller here yesterday, a decent enough lad who came to see me via the ATM, like you did last time. Confidentiality is all important, so let’s call him Samuel…no let’s call him Jeff… no I’ll tell you what, I’ll call him Sonny. Sure enough, Sonny was as hungry for me as you are, but let me add, he had this little, meaning bloody big, outrageous bugger of a personal quirk! Sonny likes his lovemaking to be accompanied by arousing spoken words, words, words, and without those passionately muttered syllables, any amorous dalliance would be, to quote American film star Billy Bob Thornton when humorously describing the Dominion of Canada, ‘like mashed potatoes without the gravy’. Versatile Billy Bob was playing there with his rock band by the way, but the outraged Canadians cancelled every last one of his intended gigs.”

Selby brushed aside BB Thornton impatiently. “You mean that Sonny likes what they call talking dirty?”

Mimi grimaced and murmured, “It might have been less taxing if he had. Quite the opposite in fact, up to and including sweety-pie ickle baba baba baby talk. No, no, when it comes to the business of love language, your man is a bugger for rhetorical effects, just like me and my passion for assonance. But where I happen to be greatly aroused by the writings of a poet or a prose man when he goes and assonates like the clappers, old Sonny was turned on by the most mundane and mechanical rhetorical effect in the book! I refer of course to alliteration, or as it tells you in Teach Yourself Sanskrit, the poetry connoisseurs, the Indian rasikas, they called it anuprasa.”

The puppeteer puckered his lips in disbelief. “You mean when you were about to commence you know what, this Sonny chap demanded you rattle out Peter Piper Picked a Peck of…”

The hostess wrinkled her delicate nose and sighed, “Not at all. The alliteration boiled down to his employing synonyms strictly for the breasts and the backside, all beginning with ‘b’ of course. He would mumble one of these arousing stimulants as he feverishly caressed me, and then as agreed I would be obliged to repeat what he’d said, to be his faithful erotic echo. The word ‘breasts’, if you think about it, has only two b synonyms, ‘bosom’ and ‘bust’, and that’s where it ends. Of course, no one in their right mind would achieve perfervid erotic bliss, by chanting aloud the word ‘bust’, nor by the alliteration of the stodgy compound ‘beautiful bust’ nor ‘beautiful bare bust’, be they ballock-naked or not. Sonny doggedly experimented with muttering several alliterating ‘bosom’ compounds, as we passionately stroked each other, and with me chanting the same words back. No dice as it happened, more like a five-star anaphrodisiac, Con.”

Selby suddenly raised a schoolboy hand, as if he’d spotted something teacher hadn’t.

“Let me run something past you, if I may. Of course, it doesn’t begin with ‘b’ , but there is the word ‘cleavage’…”

Mimi uttered a quaint gasping noise. “Indeed. And there was too in Freeman’s feckin catalogues back in 1964, and showcasing saucy lingerie or not, even they were allowed into Catholic Ireland. But, so what, might I humbly ask?”

Selby waved aside the salivating sarcasm. “Well I mean, so that Sonny might have bawled out a compound like ‘comely cleavage!’ and you might have obligingly echoed the same, Then, he might have gone to town in every sense, and passionately piped up ‘caressable comely cleavage!’ Whereupon you Mimi O’Houlihan could have…”

She shook her handsome head at this wide-eyed apprentice, all too clearly out of his depth.

“Are you sure of that, Mr Selby?  Wasn’t Comely Cleavage the name of the lass who went out on the Mayflower with the Pilgrims? Or isn’t she’s that sweet little Quaker girl from Dunstable who runs a sewing shop, and thinks that sneezing and hiccupping are unseemly acts of violence? If you think that comely compound would have old Sonny rampant as a bull, you’d be better off with some pickled peppers, extra strength. But feckit, Con, let’s get back to the backside, back to the good old fundamental fundaments, and perhaps those you’ll comprehend better. The salient point is that the ‘b’ synonyms for backside, go on for ever and a day. Backside, bottom, behind, and then the diminutives, the sugar-pie baby talk that Sonny liked very much, of botty and bot…”

Selby frowned, then offered like a pert quiz contestant: “Not to speak of bum, Mimi.”

Mimi snorted. “Exactly. Not to speak of bum! Meaning that that particular word when me and him were busy clinching, was never to be spoken!  Sonny was very precise with his specific rhetorical demands. He assured me that the synonym ‘bum’ was a banal functional term, not an erotic one, and I could chant bumbumbumbumbloodybum to him for the next forty thousand years, and it would do damn all good to him and his dancing Mister Arthur! Though that was just the bare beginning, Con, for that contrapuntal choral recital he put me through was more or less endless. You could say that this lad Sonny was into serial or compound alliteration, which of course is completely harmless, but felt like three shift factory work to me, conveyor belt and all. So, for example, he would stroke sweetly at my breast and sensuously murmur the word ‘breast’, echoed by my repeating the same word. Then, alliterating bugger that he was, he would improvise an adjective, and in a husky manner say ‘bare breast’, and as descant I would silkily respond with ‘bare breast’ too. ‘Beautiful bare breast’ was his next tender utterance, and with me replying likewise. So far so good, but then when we get to the bloody owld backside, Con, it turns into Mimi O’Houlihan’s Ten Thousand Labours of Hercules. I have to turn and present my behind for his caresses, and so we have him warbling that incendiary bisyllable ‘behind’, accompanied by my obedient lustful echo. Followed by, you get the pattern, his salacious elaboration of ‘bare behind’ plus my hot-faced salivating counterpoint. Then follows his feverish formula ‘beautiful bare behind’ and with me chirruping the same volcanic stimulant. Imagine going through as I did all those fifteen a cappella posterior options, such as ‘beautiful bare backside’, ‘beautiful bare bottom’, ‘beautiful bare botty’ and remember that the baby talk, and especially my goo goo diddums enunciation, immediately had your man like a turgid macaque. If you tot it all up, Con, there were a good fifteen saucy backside phrases, plus my obligatory echoes, equals no less than thirty erotic touchpapers. Add to that his three breast alliterations plus my faithful repetitions, grand total, thirty-six arousing formulae.  Meaning that in the end, the two of us with all our breast and backside singsong and our steamy, seamy foreplay, were blattering away like one of those Handel operas, like say Rodelinda or Admeto, nothing at all like the bone- idle soundtrack of Deep Throat  or Emmanuelle 3 and the like.”

But Selby still had some technical matters to clarify. “I know we’ve talked enough about the contrapuntal intricacies of backside alliteration, but you mentioned yourself the synonyms ‘posterior’ and ‘fundament’. And then of course there are ‘rump’ and ‘buttocks’, not to speak of ‘seat’ and ‘hindquarters’ and the laughably prudish ‘b-t-m’, as favoured we are told by Samuel Beckett’s peevish mother. What I mean is, for advanced erotic variations. Sonny might well have deserted his beloved b’s and cried out, ‘rip-roaring rump’ or ‘faultlessly fair fundament’ and had the pair of you going crazy with all those r’s and f’s.”

Mimi touched his arm consolingly. “Sorry, Con. But sadly, both of those charming lullabies would be not just detumescent, we might die of the painful hysterics. For your information, Sonny told me that ‘rump’ and ‘buttocks’ reminded him only of meat in butcher’s shops, and as far as we know, Con, not many laddoes get a lazy lob thinking about polony and haslet and tripe and black pudding. Not unless they happen to have some unsavoury mental health thingummies. As for the word ‘fundament’, it reminded him of funerals and embarrassing anal examinations at the doctor’s, so his Jack the Lad would hardly be stood gleefully saluting at your ‘faultlessly fair fundament’ formula, or call it your FFF feckin F…”

Selby pursed his lips, then effortfully mused, “Anomalously attractive arse. Amazingly alluring arse. Axiomatically angelic arse.”

Mimi raised an admonishing finger. “Give it a rest will you, Conway! As it happens, and much more significant, was what you might call the highly subtle tug of war between Sonny and me, when it came to things erotic. You see, Conrad, his singing the key words that excited him, and then elaborating them one item at a time, as with ‘breast’, ‘bare breast’, ‘beautiful bare breast’…all that was matched with him getting more and more like granite, from rhubarb rock to pre-stressed concrete and beyond. This was as he studiously went from caressing my ‘bottom’ to my ‘bare bottom’ to my ‘beautiful bare bottom’. Do you follow?”

Selby snorted, “Not without a little envy, Mimi.”

“Chin up. I promise you, you’ll get your turn, my sweet wee manny. But listen, what counted at this point was the blinking echo, meaning my chiming echo, which was done in a faithful and obedient manner and at his lordly behest. Seemingly that ritualised sequence made Sonny into Lord Muck, my master who was always in control, but in fact cunning Mimi would regularly subvert things in her own sly way. She would modulate and play slyly with her echo, and do all sorts of subtle matters with her saucy responses. Sometimes pausing, sometimes slowing, sometimes raising her voice, sometimes lowering it, sometimes stretching it lewdly, sometimes talking icky lickle baby talk to drive Master Sonny and his joystick feckin mad. D’you get it? He thought he was in sovereign control, but it was me in the end that kept him at boiling point by my verbal and choral manoeuvres. At such an elevated peak, in fact, that if like me you’ve done advanced yoga and read the Shvetashvatara Upanishad in the original (with its helpful bhasha commentary of course) you know that mastery and domination, and especially in the context of the bedroom, are puerile and unworthy hallucinations. Isn’t that an all too obvious fact, Connie boy?”

Selby stared rather blankly, not undazed by her rapid discourse. “Up to a point perhaps.”

“Up to my backside! No, the truth is if you want to be a proper adult, Con, especially in the majestic realm of amorous dalliance, you have to feckin give as well as take. Even if you are permitted, as in a game or charades or a mime show, to play with the childish illusion of mastery. Reciprocity is the name of the game, even if it’s a stodgy, arsey kind of a word, wouldn’t you say? Sometimes with our chanted counterpoint, Milord Sonny would be taking the erotic lead, but other times it was myself was the teasing boss of him, the proud and haughty Lady Mimi, as I dragged out and a cappellaed the arousing syllables. Sometimes likewise, he was the capricious masculine tyrant when he paused and dummied, and sang the words as dragged out staccato. At the end of the day, it felt more like the cheeky improvisations of free jazz, than it did like Bach’s Kunst der Fuge. More to the point, I could see that old Sonny had decided he was never going to explode inside me in a hundred years! He was enjoying things far too much, being perpetually at the peak of his Machapuchara climax. Meaning he was cleverly scaling up and down that peak, and was encouraging me to do the same, just as I was encouraging him and myself at what we were doing. It’s what in Ancient India was called the Eternal Copulation or Maithuna, as it never ever ends, but always stays on the summit peak, and it’s still the venerable practice of certain yoga masters and those Tantric fellers and the like.”

She paused to stare incredulously at Selby, who was launched again on his buttock erotica improvisations.

He mused, “Hot hindquarters? Hefty hindquarters? Hot hefty hindquarters? Hefty hot humpable hindquarters? Who would wish to be an alliterating poet, eh, Mimi? Not forgetting haunches too, of course. Handsome hot humpable hefty haunches. HHHHH no less. Which do you think the best Mimi?”

But Mimi made no answer as Selby felt himself being vigorously shaken, and through a mist beheld his girlfriend Dora, still in her nurse’s outfit from the night shift. For a mad second and in the context of Mimi’s role play discussion, he thought she might have deliberately dressed up for him, as in the case of that curious dating site dedicated to those who are aroused by the sight of someone sporting a uniform.

Dora asked, as she began to disrobe. “Hot something did you say? It sounded like it was  ‘hot hankies’ you were muttering. I’ve heard of boring dreams, Con Selby, but dreaming you are working in a laundry or a dry cleaner’s, really has to be the pits.”

Selby waylaid her from the embarrassing truth of things, by a neat red herring. “You and your nurse’s uniform, Dora.”

“What about it?” she asked, with a dry, old-fashioned look.

“Here’s a little quiz query, Dora Dixon. Which generic, as opposed to specific profession, do they respect most in modern Germany?”

Dora twanged her knickers as sardonic response. “You certainly have me there, squire.”

Der Beamte. The official! The majority of Germans very much like being fined by an inspector on a tram when they’ve forgotten to pay their fare. And why would that be the case? Because they worship anyone wearing a uniform.”

“And so?” she demanded.

“Well you wear a uniform, Dora. Or rather you did ten seconds ago. And I would say that I more or less worship you.”

She mimicked a smirking complacence. “Do you really? Are you sure, squire?”

“Why wouldn’t I? Given your manifest talents as nurse, puppet maker and lover? I’d be a real fool not to have let you snap me up.”

She suddenly slapped his ear and he winced, and then they wrestled in the bed till she had him trussed in an extremely professional wrestling hold.

“Give in, give in, give in, you mad bugger!”

Selby squawked, “Social distancing, social distancing, and you bloody well stay alert!”

“Stay alert or what?”

“Stay alert just like Churchill’s doppelganger urges us to do. Stay alert or else!”

 Chapter 5 will appear on or before Wednesday 6th January

MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Dog Ass Willy and Bart Simpson

It was night two of the preview of Selby’s puppet show, I Didn’t Do It, and his elderly relatives were sitting in his theatre in alert anticipation. Selby was at this stage experimenting on his versatilely challenged audience, as to the ideal length of the play, which in his view could have gone on for ever, but of course for practical purposes could not. Satire usually tends to be done as quickfire sketches, and luckily there were almost an infinite number of these could be presented via the dialogue between Fluffy Senior and Fluffy Junior. However, unlike their TV equivalents, these dialogue skits could go on at some length, with monologuic leisure you might say, and to that extent they were far from quickfire. Besides, Selby, who was obliged to function as author, as well as the entire acting ensemble, stage manager and coffee lady, was incapable of trotting out the identical drama night after night. As a one man show, he would assuredly be bored senseless, and therefore anticipated a notional four-part drama performed on four consecutive nights, after which he would repeat the cycle.

Selby handed the printed version of the script to his deaf Dad, then walked behind the little stage. He began with not exactly a prologue, but delivered a kind of booming admonition in an old-fashioned thespian baritone. He explained that the play in all its entirety was very much like contemporary world events themselves, inasmuch as it and they had no comforting and conclusive much less graceful and cogent sequence. The good side of that was that they didn’t need to remember what had happened on stage last night, that it and tonight’s performance were both self-contained, and so would be the next two. The bad or down side, was that the living, breathing prototypes of the two Fluffys were obviously incapable of behaving themselves in a wise, sober, ethical and accountable manner. For clearly their conduct was as aimless, impulsive, improvisational, and at times panic-stricken, as that of any unelected buffoon, be they cis- or trans-Atlantic.

Uncle Dennis who was clasping his white stick grunted, “As I said last night, those two end-of-the-pier comedians, are completely beyond parody. No matter how cracked you make them, Con, you will never plumb their full and astounding crackedness. And the blackest joke ever, so called intelligent adults have decided that they and their like, be put in charge of the world. They ought to be both manning the ticket kiosk of a crazy golf course, though I doubt they would cut the mustard even there.”

Aunty Mildred raised up her I-pad which in twenty-four-point ulc declared, Fucking spot on, Dennis, and even worse than that! Mute from birth, by way of compensation, Mildred’s written communication had always been very vehement and passionate, and she was a virtuoso when it came to bad language. If anyone remonstrated with her constant swearing, she explained on her tablet that she was born in 1945, meaning she was only seventeen when the Beatles and the Stones and the rest of them got started, so what the bloody hell did they expect?

Selby gave them each a bottle of beer before the curtains were drawn, and the play began.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Tell me. D’you ever think about such a thing as personal role models, son? Role models for your incredibly powerful job as leader of your country?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Indeed, I do, sir. What serious politician would not decide to fashion himself on some previous charismatic spirit? Churchill is my chosen template, and in fact I have written a rather well-received book about the great man.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah? That’s cool. But I’ve been thinking hard about our last conversation, kid. You know, when we talked about your chief adviser, the guy with the cute alias of Barney Rubble. Him who used his new glasses to take a close-up scrutiny of the virus, when other folks would just sissy around with masks and stuff. I told you he’d probably been influenced like me by what he’d heard about Kneejerk, the Swiss guy that wrote Thus Said Zorro’s Sister. I slept on it, last night with everything whirling around my head, and then in the morning it all became crystal clear! It’s now so, so obvious, that the best role model if you want to be a successful world leader, and if you want to stay in power for ever, and even after you are dead in extreme cases, is what? Guess what?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. You have me there, I fear. Could it be one of the great Roman emperors?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Nope. Wait for this one as it’ll take you by surprise. I am talking about no less than Bart Simpson, as the most otiginal political thinker ever.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Bart Si… you mean of the cartoon show?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Exactly. And for two very good reasons that only someone like me could figure out. First of all, he’s an animated character, which means that like Barney Rubble and his magic glasses, he has ready built-in supernatural powers as recommended by Superman and Kneejerk. You must have noticed that say Bugs Bunny can fall from ten floors and splat on the ground, but two seconds later he’s whistling and saying, what’s up doc? He’s immortal and invincible like Superman, get it? Secondly, if Bart’s caught in the act, doing something that other folk don’t like, he doesn’t hesitate, he shouts, I didn’t do it! Now tell me, who does that remind you of?

FLUFFY JUNIOR (pause) Mm, That’s something of a loaded question. I’m afraid it would not be diplomatic to be so crudely categorical, as to name names.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s cool, I can go with that. Your enemy’s enemy is your buddy, as that old strategy guy Monteverdi said. So sure, you and me, son, are now going to talk nice and diplomatic and anonymous. Right. We both of us know of a certain world leader who has other leaders loudly accusing him of poisoning his enemies that live abroad. Now this guy has clearly studied Bart Simpson as closely as I have, cos every time it happens, and it happens quite a lot, and despite all the angry accusations from those leaders, he always says the same thing. He screws up his face with real sincerity, and obviously thinks about how Bart would have acted in the same shit. Then as we know, he always has the one infallible formula. He always says to them leaders, I didn’t do it! I didn’t do it, and it wasn’t me!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I am rather loth to argue the point, sir, but I’d have thought perhaps Monteve…actually was it Machiavelli might have been the strategist in question? That Niccolo Machiavelli would have been this gentleman’s role model rather than Bart Simpson.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Huh. No way. It wasn’t no Monty Velour he had for his bedtime reading, it was watching wall to wall Simpsons, and I can friggin prove it! Listen hard, son. This controversial leader, call him WL1, has a kind of devoted buddy who lives far away and is another world leader, call him WL2, and who is obviously another follower of Bart Simpson.  Everyone agrees that WL2 has the sweetest little Hiram Holliday face, because butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, and that’s what’s weird at first. As you know, three years back WL2 got one of his planes to drop sarin gas on some town he didn’t like, including kids and all, killing and injuring right, left and centre. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it and he was caught with his pants down sure enough. But again, WL2 screwed up his face like Bart Simpson and shouted, I didn’t do It! Everyone in the world apart from WL1, his other favourite role model, they denounced what he’d done as a war crime. But WL1 not only said that his buddy WL2 didn’t do it, he said it was a staged and phony event to win support for hostile terrorists. Every leader including me, said that was phooey, and two days afterwards, I sent in cruise missiles at where we knew that sarin was stored.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Something my party thoroughly applauded. A commensurate punishment for an evil deed by a wholly heartless regime.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep, I made a beautiful mess of that airbase OK. But you know something else.  I happen to have this wild niece who is big on highbrow culture, and she watches lotsa real boring foreign movies. She told me that WL2 looks the spitting image of a French guy in some old film, what plays a crazy postman. A kind of Frenchy Charlie Chaplin.

FLUFFY JUNIOR (chuckles) That quaint resemblance had never struck me. But I believe you are referring to Jacques Tati and his legendary Jour De Fete. Side-splitting, without a doubt. I saw Jour de Fete myself back around 1985 in Oxford.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Great title. Sure as Fate. A bit like Gone with the Wind. It’s fate right enough. What I want to know is why would Hiram Holliday or Frenchy Jake Tortoise or Charlie Chaplin drop poisonous gas on little kids? It doesn’t make sense to me, but shit, it happens, and that is what folk like me and you are obliged to call tough guy diplomacy or Ree-yal Politick. I don’t think even Fred Kneejerk would have liked it to happen, but he’s in there somewhere as an influence, along with Simpson Junior. Like you and everyone else, I’m real sickened by what WL2 did, and what WL1 said was staged by the enemy. But let me add I’m blown sideways by a monster lie that is turned by special magic into a working truth! The way I see it, when WL1 shuts his eyes, and with every bit of sincerity, swears he didn’t poison his enemy, then by Superman Bart Simpson wizardry he immediately cancels the truth! In the case of WL2 doing the same abracadabra, he’s imitating his hero WL1, he’s a kind of WL1 tribute band, and he’s learning fast. At the bottom of that Simpson-influenced list, is your adviser Barney Rubble, who of course didn’t hurt no one, but for the greater good is using his glasses to take your country to a better place. Rubble shrugs and swears he didn’t do anything either, including he didn’t even go to Doughnut Corner! In Barney’s case, he also needs to get down on his knees, and thank young Bart Simpson. Meaning that a guy with a Stone Age cartoon name, Barney, needs to really thank another cartoon guy, who truly represents the twenty first century. And therefore is, what’s the word, fit for purpose…

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I think I am grasping some of what you propose, sir. Animation as the key to all things and in every possible sense?  ‘Anima’ of course meaning life or spirit.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Are you sure? I thought it meant a little short cartoon, not feature length.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. As it happens, sir, I studied Greats at Oxford, and can assure you that anima is Latin for life.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Grits, uh? And mama’s ole pecan pie too? Why didn’t you do Business Studies like all the real go-getters? But no, put that to one side. I need to set on record that I go even further than all those world leaders who are taking inspiration from Bart Simpson. Let’s get things straight. Like your own guy Barney Rubble, I don’t kill or disappear no one, not even my shittiest enemies. The only thing I do is build a wall to keep Mexicans out, and I have the whole of my country behind me there, apart from a few weepin pussy foot radicals. So I never need to shout, I didn’t do it, except when they say I talked locker room stuff about women, and had some scene with a chick called Breezy or Windy. As if I’d be interested in someone with a really stoopid name like that.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I can sympathise. A field day for those mendacious and insinuating media chaps. Indeed, I can testify myself in the most egregious…

FLUFFY SENIOR. That’s exactly what I’m getting at. Where I go beyond every other world leader, and believe me I ain’t bragging, is that I’m using a secret role model that don’t seem to make any logic or obvious sense! On paper, this secret model that I imitate, is my absolute polar opposite, which is why it’s so cute when I say and do what no one could ever expect! By my own unique kind of presidential magic, I take everyone by surprise, and I find that I win every time!  So that we’re back again with strategy man Monteverdi? It’s really simple son, you should try it yourself, and you’ll see it always works. Get this.  Me the world’s best-known fiscal conservative, I model myself faithfully on a friggin dead Commie! And no one here on our planet earth has ever worked that out yet!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Good Lord, sir!

FLUFFY SENIOR. Look at me son and listen. I saw early on that my biggest problem was going to be the media, the ugly way they poke their scummy noses into personal stuff as well as political stuff. The newspapers do all that friggin listing shit of nasty facts and figures. And all that crazy detail and more friggin faggot detail, to prove what a cruel monster I’m supposed to be. Luckily Joe and Margie from Arkansas don’t give a flying shit for faggot details. What they prefer is someone like me hitting way below the belt, and then my sissy opponent crumpling and whimpering, oh how doosed unfair you are! Well, I’ll admit I bow to the Simpson family there. Cos, as you know, if Homer or Bart sees someone trip up in the street, and really hurt themselves, they both fall about laughing, just like all regular guys do! But at that point the Simpsons and I part company, and I turn to my dead Commie for my inspiration. So you tell me now, kid, what are my two favourite catchphrases when I turn on the media and give them what they deserve? Yeah, right. I say Fake News! and I also say that with all their lies and lack of patriotism, they are no less than the Enemy of the People! To me it’s obvious with that last one that I’m saying what the badass Commie Joe Steel said. But not a single person anywhere on this planet has noticed the friggin obvious!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. A Communist named Joe Steel?

FLUFFY SENIOR. It was his code name like Barney Rubble is for your Doughnut Corner guy. But he was a mean faced Roosky, no kidding.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Ah, I see. I understand now, sir. Though he was actually from Georgia, I believe. Which is probably why he was obliged to change his original name.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Say again? A Commie from pecan pie Macon or Atlanta? Dream on, kid!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Oh no, sir. I mean Georgia as in Eastern Europe. Which of course was formerly part of the USSR. His real name was Dlugashvili, and I believe he was from Tbilisi.

FLUFFY SENIOR. That right? OK, that’s kinda cool. Anyway, your Dug…your Dog Ass Willy from this Tibble … from this Russian Tennessee, he had this mighty brainwave which in turn gave me a mighty brainwave. Back between the two world wars, and then before he died, if there was anyone Joe Steel took a dislike to among the other Commies, what was it that he always shouted at them?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Was it possibly, fake news?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Almost, kid. Not bad. You’ve almost got the idea. But no, Joe Steel just bawled and shouted, Enemy of the People! at folks he had a grudge against! Of course, he didn’t have no trouble with the Roosky media, cos they just printed whatever he said as the gospel truth. Which, whatever your politics, is a kinda cute idea if you hold it up to the light.  But like me, he did have headaches and hassle with other people, his so-called loyal friends, who were supposed to be on his side in fair weather or in a Noo Orleans hurricane! Just like WL1, who some leaders say encourages his enemies to disappear, Dog Ass Willy Joe Steel made durn sure his enemies did disappear! Historians usually refer to them as the Joe Steel Purges.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I.. I gather as much, sir, But surely in your own case…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Joe probably had an old-style Georgia Baptist preacher for his role model, even though he ended up a kick ass Commie! There were the ones on the right side, which was his side and his side only. And then there were the ones who weren’t on his side. Angry old-time preachers always condemn the wrong side to Hell, and old Dog Ass Willy did the same! And I’m talking about a hell on earth, cos he had them jailed and tortured and shot, and sometimes worse. Which is where a guy like myself deserves to be praised not criticised, cos I don’t have no one jailed and shot, even when they deserve it. All I do is call these pussy Ivy League reporters, Enemy of the People, when really I want to call them faggots. But you can only say a word like that that when no one can hear you, what’s that foreign word for it, son?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Sotto voce?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Sorta itchy, yeah Off the cuff private, for sure. Anyway, if I do enough of calling these Harvard kids Enemy of the People, when they throw their nasty little questions, it eventually sticks and does real collateral damage! It definitely works for Joe and Margie from Little Rock, cos they love to see these grad kids’ noses gettin rubbed in the shit. The way I see it, I mark out my own personal patch of honest, home-cooked, and, if need be, below the belt truth. And yeah, if I keep on doing that long enough and loud enough, the world soon bends my way! That way, and with badass Dog Ass for my role model, I make my own Ole Fat Mama’s Pecan Pie Style Truth. Which as far as I’m concerned is the really real truth, kiddo, as it applies to my personal quest in 2020! You see, whenever these pussy journalists shoot their dumb mouths off, it’s always gonna be fake news, and it’s always gonna do polntless damage to regular guys like Joe and Margie. Luckily for them, and believe it or not, thanks to a dead communist called Steel, I have personally reinvented, in fact, rehabilitated The Truth! It’s my very personal and very powerful brand of truth, the kind that works for all those down-trodden guys who openly adore me. In fact, many of them tell me time and again, that they actually include me in their prayers and worship me.

At the end of the second preview night, the relatives all applauded, and his blind uncle praised the incredible notion of the cartoon being a metaphor for the anarchic ideology that presently ruled the fallen world.

“Yosemite bloody Sam,” he snorted, rubbing away at his itchy old eyes. “That is Fluffy Senior’s role model. He models himself on a short-arsed crackpot raging and blasting off his gun at everything that moves…”

Mildred seconded as much on her Ipad with a comment of extreme obscenity, involving both animation and oral sex, and which unshockable Daniel was happy enough to read aloud. Con took their empty beer bottles to the kitchen, then wished them all good night. Part three, he assured them, would be at the same time tomorrow evening, and would be a little or even very much on the bawdy side, a promise which delighted all. He then decided he would wander down to the town centre, sit peaceably in the park, and gaze long at the tranquil river on this mild September night. Outside of his nocturnal dream world, Selby was no fatalist nor believer in paranormal coincidence. And yet he felt little surprise, when he noted the same art teacher with the same pony tail sitting in among the eighteenth-century gravestones, as he had been twenty-four hours ago…

You’re here again, Selby addressed him a trifle conspiratorially. I agree it’s a good idea during the pandemic to sit down near old tombstones, to remind ourselves of our inevitable shared mortalities. Some of those stones over there list the names of children dying before the age of five back in the 1820s or 1880s, some losing three or four infants in a row, and you would wonder how on earth they coped with that impossible quantity of anguish. The only author I know (and for the very first time in my life it now occurs to me that the words author and authority are significantly connected) who has put his feelings in words is Tomas O’ Crohan.  He was from the Blasket Islands on the Dingle Peninsula in Kerry, last stop between the British Isles and America, and he was known alongside the Blasket writers Peig Sayers and Maurice O’ Suileabhain. Tomas was in his mid-twenties in 1880, and he and his wife had lost several tiny children in a row. He wrote in The Islandman quite simply that there was no remedy but for them to bear with it, meaning nothing but to endure it. You can imagine how primitive the islands were back in 1880, so that his wisdom was you might say very pragmatic as well as very brave. As for the current pandemic, the only correspondences I can think of in the hallowed if sometimes hollow annals of literature, are those of Defoe and Camus. A Journal of the Plague Year is set in 1665, when Defoe himself was five years old, so this bubonic plague memoir was probably the experience of his uncle, who was called Henry Foe (minus the de) a Whitechapel saddler, as is the book’s narrator. The work was published in 1722 by someone called E Nutt, so there you have it, Foe and Nutt, two very comical monosyllables, when the thing under discussion is far from comical. Far more folk will have read The Plague by Albert Camus, where the source for his fictional Nineteen Forties bubonic plague in Oran, Algeria was the real cholera outbreak of 1849. Unflattering correspondences with our present-day pandemic are immediately striking. In the novel, a good many of the Oran medical board of the day, all French, all men, none Arab, did not wish to call the plague the plague, as it might spread inconvenient civil panic. They did almost everything wrong, especially when it came to the sight of rats haemorrhaging in the streets, the precursor of bubonic plague. They ordered the council workers to go around picking up dead rats, but it was the fleas on those bleeding carcasses that spread the plague far better than anyone could have hoped. Eventually, they had to admit it was what it was, but when it came to the business of social distancing, that did not even figure. Instead they locked the city gates so that no one was allowed out, and no one was allowed in. The post ceased to be delivered and telephones could only be used for extreme emergencies, so you had the bizarre situation where most of the city’s communication was conducted by telegram, the rich man’s chosen preference. Otherwise life went on much as normal, aside of course from the unstoppable nightmare. Cafes, bars, shops, theatres and symphony and opera halls stayed open, until a visiting opera star imprisoned in the city collapsed on stage, visibly haemorrhaging. The queerest thing about this enormously gripping book, is that not a single Algerian Arab gets a mention, and if you consider that the great man’s best-known work is about a Frenchman Meursault killing an Arab on the beach for no reason at all, you begin to wonder.  I see that a young Algerian writer has recently penned a fictional riposte, where the brother of the unnamed victim angrily tells the tragic story of the nameless Arab….

But how about you and myself, art teacher, in the north of England in 2020? At the moment, providing we are masked, we can go in shops, cafes and restaurants, when for months we could go nowhere. Almost certainly there’ll be another lockdown soon, as previous forecasts of when the virus would vanish, proved witless wishful thinking. Our leader said it would have gone away by Christmas, so that his loyal tabloids trumpeted, lo, like Father Christmas, he alone has given us back the great festival! Santa Claus of course is a saint, hence close to God, who is doubtless the only one we can trust to prophesy with any accuracy. You and I know it won’t have gone away by Christmas, nor will his further prediction of the start of spring see its demise, even though the fawning tabloids will crow, look at this munificence, for this fluffiest of saints has promised us a happy Easter!

A major part of this vertigo when it comes to computing the duration, is that there is no precedent at all for what we are going through. Comparisons with World War Two are pointless, as even the name itself is a misnomer. Between 1939 and 1945, the whole of the world was not involved, whereas the entire world, including the once neutral Switzerland and Portugal, is frenziedly dancing to the pandemic. During World War Two, all the way from Banff to Bude or Banbury, you could go to the pictures and the pubs and the libraries and the shops, and could start romantic affairs by night if you so wished. The worst possible fate eighty years ago, was to be conquered by a brutal and terrifying invader, which sure enough was only averted by America’s intervention. Being terrorised by vicious Nazis is obviously far more frightening than an invisible germ whose symptoms may prove lethal, but do not begin with your oozing blood in public. So, horrible as the pandemic is, for most people it is severely inconvenient, possibly economically crippling, but is not a matter of life and death and/or permanent enslavement by deranged Wagnerian warriors.

But what specifically do you, art teacher, hanker after most these days? When everything was closed, it was the cafes I would miss the most. For even the poorest of cafes in the poorest of towns, work not only as havens, meeting places for friends or even enemies, but places to rendezvous par excellence. If you cannot rendezvous, as we could not do this summer, and probably won’t be able to a second time soon, you are I would say not a full shilling or euro, not a full man nor woman, whatever brave face you put on it. The point is that if you have the freedom to rendezvous, as it was before the virus, you might well choose not to do so, and happily dally at home. But a freedom unused is different from a mandatory proscription, which in many respects feels like a blocked-up tunnel or a numbing blow on the back of the head. Worse than that, and if you’re like myself, even with the cafes open now, you find you cannot quite relax. In fine weather of course, you can sit at an outside table, yards from everyone else, and that is more or less tolerable. But suppose it is very cold or raining hard, and you step inside, even with the social distancing, you cannot but feel the hazardous proximity of others. This by the way has made me ponder more than once, how the current measures affect what you might call those uneasy loners amongst us. We all know people who are at markedly ill at ease in human company, and maintain an invisible shield that keeps them at a distance from the anxious arena of intimacy. They are not all hopeless neurotics of course, some of them hold down jobs, even very good jobs. But it is as if for them the business of light-heartedness, of unselfconsciously opening up and relaxing with others, is a very perilous almost lethal game, the fantasised far end of it being their personal dissolution, no less. But look and behold, these days their obsessive and unsmiling self-protection is our obligatory norm, and not only that, it is praised and rewarded as the touchstone of good citizenship. Stay alert! Stay alert! Keep your distance! Keep your distance! Your enemy is proximate intimacy, and no other. And of course, that has to be so for the present, for the sake of protecting others as well as oneself from the plague. But for those anxious loners it has always been the case, virus or not, and I wonder if perhaps they feel a certain quiet, unspoken complacence, that this ignorant world has finally woken up to what was always their astute approach. Or whether conversely, they feel annoyed that someone unauthorised and alien, has invaded their exclusive pitch, and worse, that these garrulous, frank, and overstated types, the rump shall we say, of normal, small-talking and sociable human beings, are only playing at the real and urgent thing. Which is for ever and always, plague or not, to be distancing, distancing, staying alert to everything and anything, and for the very good reason that it is not the virus is the only lethal danger, but the terrifying mystery of human otherness itself.

Just in case you think I possibly culled that from Jean-Paul Sartre and his Being and Nothingness, I will admit I’ve never read beyond the first paragraph. It is beyond me I am afraid, just as it is beyond me that the great man admired Mao-Tse Tung and was influenced by the Khmer Rouge, perpetrators of their own private and copyright holocausts. Though that word for some odd reason, is rarely if ever applied to their particular notion of remedial social purification.

Chapter 4 of ‘Mimi and The Virus’ will appear on or before Tuesday, January 5th

MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Curly Wurlies and Aladdin’s Cave

It was late evening, just as it was getting dark, when Selby walked towards the cash machine adjacent to the supermarket. The town was unusually deserted tonight, but as it and its northern neighbours had just been moved into a new and higher Covid category, that was scarcely a surprise. He peeped inside the shop from his oblique angle, and it too seemed wholly without customers. But no worries, he blithely assured himself, just as everyone under the age of seventy formulated things these days. He had plenty of cigars, cigarillos, red wine, strong cheese and Italian olive bread back home, and thus was more than ready for all that life could throw at him. Or so he thought…

He inserted his Visa card, and waited the regulatory two seconds. so that both he and the machine could have a bit of a think. Reasonably enough, what he expected to appear on the screen ranged left was BALANCE ONLY and below that BALANCE AND CASH. Instead of which, he was presented with the extraordinary options:

-IQ ONLY

and below that

-IQ AND EXTREMELY MEMORABLE EROTIC ENCOUNTER

Selby hesitated a microsecond, then pressed the second option. He blinked in a tense manner, until the message came full screen.

YOUR IQ IS 2020

It was a puzzled puppeteer who blurted, “That can’t possibly be true. Even if I have read the whole of Eca de Queiroz, and nearly all of Benito Perez Galdos. They’re mixing it up with the blasted date.”

Next appeared some amplification concerning the erotic encounter.

GO TO UPSTAIRS FLAT, 47B ASSIDUITY MEWS, AND ASK FOR MIMI

Assiduity Mews? Selby scratched his whiskery chin to recall where that was, but his intuitive feet certainly seemed to know, and once he’d got his bank card, they took him out to the south of town and along by the river. Here too it was all but deserted, and only a little cat at one stage crossed his path.  After about ten minutes, he turned as if by some magnetic torque up a winding incline, and the incline itself seemed to have some subtle significance. Noting a quadrangular development of tidy semis called Punctuality Drive, he knew he must be getting close to the mysterious Mimi. Who he very much hoped was a woman, and not a poodle nor a Schnauzer.

At last Assiduity Mews appeared on a street sign. It took no time at all to find 47, in part because Selby had a great fondness for prime numbers. 47B was up a flight of spiral steps which led to an impressive oak panelled door. He was about to knock when it seemingly opened of itself, and lo, rather than a poodle or a labradoodle, there was a wide-eyed, humorous, attractive and fair-haired woman of about forty. Selby was interested to see she was in a fetching state of semi-undress, meaning in her bra and knickers only. He took in the full breasts, a shapely and slim belly, and thighs one might admire as if they were virtuoso living sculpture

“Mimi?”

“Who else, sweet boyo? I’m certainly not an Avon Lady. I was once but thank God no longer. The effort involved and the pecuniary rewards were risibly out of proportion. Now then. I’ll just remove this too tight brassiere. There we are. Feast your eyes on my fecund little bosom, Mr Selby. Enjoy the sight of those lively nipples and my truly outsize aureoles.”

Selby found himself blushing like some errant schoolboy. He croaked:

“I see you already know my name. But do please call me Con. Which is short for Conroy.”

Mimi smiled with an encouraging warmth. “Your name bounced up on my laptop, Con, once you pressed the ATM option. Just get yourself inside here Mr Selby, and make yourself exceedingly comfy. Take off that fetching jacket and relax and stretch, and maybe have a little pensive whistle or siffle before we get stuck into some splendid you know what. Mm, I see that this jacket here is made of corduroy, Con. Conroy’s corduroy! How very nice the two words are when intimately adjacent! Toss it, fling it, chuck your beloved corduroy jacket onto that full-length sofa, my so sweet man. Tell me now Conrad, Conway, no I mean Conroy, do you happen to like these remarkable things called words? Are you the kind of chap who loves words to the point of severe addiction, and at times complete and addled and virtually certifiable intoxication?”

Selby smiled rather shyly. “Oh indeed. I love them to bits, right enough. Big ones like say perspicacity, thrasonical and desuetude… and even little ones like dog and cat and if and belch.”

“I thought as much! You definitely have a ripe, mature and very verbal look about your nice wee chops. And tell me too while we’re at it, do you also like ladies’ bottoms?”

Selby flushed crimson, as if Mimi could see right through his artless exterior, and as if he were the last word in puerile transparency.

“Oh yes. Yes indeed. Shoot me down if I’m wrong, but who in their right mind wouldn’t?”

“Boys, I knew as much! I knew that you were the primeval, primal and primordial, primitive type. And tell me now, Mr Conway, exactly what kind of luscious, mouth-wateringly infinitely succulent female bottoms do you go for? Big buxom ones, little sweetish ones, patriotic rigidly square ones, no nonsense no worries blandly rotund rumps, radical left lascivious but always pugnacious and pick-a-fight stern backsides, or right-wing and very reactionary yet paradoxically alluring female behinds?”

Selby frowned and whispered, “Pert and protruding, I would say.  That is, at the end of the day, I would say.”

Mimi clapped her shapely hands. “I knew it! As soon as I set eyes on you, I said to myself here comes a good old PP man. Or even a PPP chap!”

Selby stared at her beguiling enthusiasm. “Really? But I thought that was an Oxford degree?Psychology, physiology, and…”

“In this fundamental, in the literal sense, context, it signifies pert, protruding and pulchritudinous! Then, should you wish to add ‘preferred’, you have PPPP, no less.”

Selby found himself getting into the swing of things, and snorted, “Or PPPPP. Which would translate as pert and protruding, pulchritudinous posterior preferred!”

Mimi tittered her amusement and even wiped away some tiny tears.

“And bear in mind, all we’re talking about is the female backside, not Boolean Algebra, Emotional Intelligence, Neurolinguistic Programming, nor even Common or Garden Ontological Phenomenology. Which reminds me Con. I’m taking my expensive silk knickers off now, and turning around for your benefit. Do you like what you see, Connie boy? Is this humble little Irish behind of Mimi’s up to scratch? Go, on you can scratch it if you like, you greedy Englishman.”

Selby demurred, “Oh no. I’d sooner just take an appreciative and enthusiastic appraisal, rather like a pigeon fancier fancying his beloved pigeons. Because this sumptuous little bottom of yours, Mimi, is far from being a humble or banal object, believe me. I would say it is more like something noble and inordinately majestic, to the point of being inscrutably world-shattering.”

Mimi gave an affable tsk tsk, then confessed that her backside was always good and shattered after a hard day’s employment. Meaning, that there was a practical physiological reason for her bare-faced cheek, as one might term it.

“Now then, first things first. You’ll need to validate your credit with your bank card, Con. No, no, don’t look so scared, Connie, it’s not a scam and no money will vanish from your account, I promise. It’s just to confirm that you are who you are, and to leave a digital record that you were here tonight for the purpose of a tip top full value encounter with me Mimi O’Houlihan, originally a native of Clifden, Connemara, County Galway. But I can see you’re already asking yourself, what’s that delectable truly exquisite little bottom of Mimi O’Hooligan’s got to do with a Contactless Visa? Simple. Just take your bank card and swipe it very firmly across this naked and world-shattering behind. Contactless you understand, but not too contactless if you follow. And here’s a bit of handy advice. For some reason, Conway, it always works better on the left bucket than on the right bucket.”

Her baffled client poked inside his left ear, as if he were Daniel Selby trying to improve his hopeless hearing by a brief excavation.

“Your left bucket?”

“Well I refuse to use that ridiculous word buttock! It sounds like something out of a butcher’s shop or a queer kind of hold in feckin Cumberland Wrestling. Go on, Connie, swipe away! Swipe your card nice and firm across my delicious little Connemara bum.”

The puppet man hesitated, then did so. Immediately a yellow light on the opposite wall flickered, before flashing the laudatory message, YOU ARE GOOD!

Selby blinked and said, “I am good? It’s very nice of them to say so but…”

Mimi who had her back to him, reached behind her and grabbed hold of his hand. She turned around to face him, and grinned to see the appreciative gaze at her dancing breasts.

“All it means is your credit is good, little Connie. I promise you they don’t take anything from your account, and it’s basically just an ID check to keep out the under eighteens. But let’s press on, my wide-eyed boyo, for we need to bustle on a bit. After all, you did come here for an interesting erotic encounter, and using suitably complex algorithms your tailor-made encounter with myself has been carefully structured in advance. First of all, you need to know that you’ve got a choice of three options, which is to say you can choose to have one only of the following erotic prizes or rewards. Do you understand?”

Selby made a strange swallowing sound. “Up to a point.”

“No need to be suggestive, naughty Con, ha ha! Nor to parody old Evelyn Waugh, or as my mother in her Connemara innocence called him, Heeflin Waff! You fellows and your points and your ups, and your always getting it ups and not getting it ups! No, Con, your three Take Your Pick Michael Miles Star Prize choices are, hush, wait for it, wait for it!  First of all, we have your powerful man, Number One, and wait now, wait now, Mr Impatience Is My Middle Name Selby. You can choose as your star prize, Mr Connie Selby, guess what?”

“Yes?”

 “You can choose to have a splendid little Curly Wurly!”

Her client stared open-mouthed, cupping his crumpled ear as if Connemara Mimi were speaking Middle or possibly Old Vandalic. At length, he snapped:

“Can have what! You mean one of those ridiculous latticed chocolate bars? Please enlighten me, Ms O’Houlihan, but what on earth is even passing arousing about a so-called Curly Wurly?”

She surveyed him with an unflappable patience. “Oh come, come, my precious boy, Connie! Come, come, come, come, come, come, come, my wondrous little one! You’re an intelligent man, and must know that since the birth of time chocolate has always been acknowledged as an incendiary aphrodisiac. Along with celery, seafood, and knock me down if I’m wrong, but raw beaten egg laced with honey and rosewater as described in the erotic treatise, The Perfumed Garden…”

Selby gurgled, “Raw egg be buggered. Ugh! What’s more, I can’t stand celery and never have.  But please do enlighten me as to my second choice, as by now I’m not undesperate to know! And if it’s alright by you, and with due deference to the immortal Michael Miles and his Take Your Pick, I’d prefer a star prize rather than a booby prize.”

The Galway woman raised her bare shoulders by way of consent.  “Fair enough, Mr Con. By way of a starry star prize, I’m now going to offer you something far more straightforward. That is to say the immaculate first edition no less, of the first English translation of Maxim Gorky’s little read 1901 novel Three of Them…”

Selby blinked a considerable relief. “Phew.  That’s definitely more like it. Though as a lifelong Gorky fan, I am sorry to say that that book is far from erotic.”

At which Mimi, hugging her naked breasts, turned deadly earnest. “Why would it be? Your man’s real name was Peshkov, but he had a very hard and cruel childhood, so he took as his pen name Gorky, meaning ‘bitter’. You love words, my fine little boyo, so you can call him Max Bitter, if you like. More to the point, I happen to know that you read this same Max Bitter book exactly forty years ago in 1980, and that you enjoyed it very much.”

Selby concurred with a wistful smile. How on earth could this nude Connemara hostess, possibly know what he had read four decades ago? Had she been spying on him from a distance, in a mysterious, inexplicable and thoroughly unethical way for all of forty years? Then something rather unpleasant occurred to him.

“Hang on, Mimi. The wretched hero, Ilya Lunyev, he went and bashed his head against a brickwall! He had left the city slums of Tsarist Russia in order to join the Russian middle classes, but their moral corruption was driving him more or less crazy.”

The Clifden lady patted his brow, and then gently kissed his hair. She murmured wisely, “We can all bash our head against brickwalls, darling Con Con.”

Selby sniffed and mumbled, “I’m afraid you don’t understand. Ilya Lunyev did so literally! At the end of the book, he runs as fast as he can against a bloody great wall, just to do himself in!”

Mimi gasped her astonishment. “That’s what I call a hell of an ending, Con! No fuffin, faffin, feckin post-modern pish from a man like Max Bitter. Poor man, that poor wee Ilya boy. And my poor Con Selby too with his obvious disappointment so far. But this your third and last choice will certainly perk you up, big boy. It’s undeniably of an exalted erotic nature, and you’ll be pleased to know it involves a certain very fetching lady from rural Connemara …”

Selby almost licked his lips, as he looked at Mimi’s heaving generous breasts, and her sweet and vulnerable naked shoulders.

“What is this third option?” he asked.

“Tis Kenny Lingus, Con! Tis good old Kenny Lingus, son! Now what do you say to that?”

Selby’s teeth commenced to chatter. “Kenny what?”

“His sister was Connie Lingus, a sempstress worked in Leenane and a prime dab hand at that. Their Dad kept greyhounds and he was the biggest drunk in Oughterard. One of the greyhounds was called Aer Lingus. And boy, musha and wisha as they all say in JM Synge, could that Aer Lingus feckin run…”

Selby raised his hand like some stern traffic policeman, for he could not hold back.

“I’m sorry I’m obliged to say this, Mimi. But I’m really not so sure about that fabled Aer Lingus family of yours. Are they of any solid and practical use to me, or is just your idea of a whimsical riddle?”

She laughed and grabbed hold of his admonishing hand. “Solid you ask? Baw, I’m only joking man! I’m doing my old Celtic vaudeville turn, just to ease the heated atmosphere somewhat. In any case, you know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Selby could not restrain himself. “I’m actually going crazy, Mimi! You’re sat there before me with those naked and perfect breasts, and as you put it, with their enormous aureoles that are desirable beyond words. Yet you think it so hilarious to be going on about Kenny bloody Lingus!”

She pumped his hand briskly. “You know exactly what I mean, son! The business with the old tongue. Oral Whatsitjig, and with plenty of jig, needless to add. You see, for all I’m a hostess, Connie, and currently as nude as the day I was born, I’m still an old-fashioned Irish Catholic underneath the carapace. I’m hopeless at calling a spade a spade, is what I mean. I can’t possibly use that contentious C word at any price, so instead I usually say, See You Next Tuesday…”

Selby looked Mimi straight in the eye “The trouble is you also call me Connie at times! A masculine diminutive of Con, I know you’re not mistaking me for Connie Francis.  But now you’re talking about a woman called Connie Lingus, brother of Kenny, who has a bloody big dog called Aer. Don’t you see? It makes me incredibly confused.”

She patted his hair and cooed, “Ah shush shush, there, there, my poor sweet lad-lad! Put your head upon my ample and alluring Irish cleavage just a while. Tell you what, dear Connie. Let’s to hell with it and break all the blasted rules, and say that you can have all three choices instead of just the one! You can have all of them:  the Curly Wurly, the Maxim Gorky, and the Kenny Lingus. And while we’re at it, let’s be good and businesslike. In terms of intelligent sequence, I suggest you put the Gorky in your jacket pocket, and leave the Curly Wurly to gnash on as you saunter home. Meanwhile to assist you immediately with a first rate, five-star Connie Lingus, I shall turn myself upside down and inside out to facilitate the maximum erotic pleasure.”  

Without more ado, the naked hostess, very obviously a practised yoga adept, flipped herself into the legendary Crab Posture, also known as the Reverse Table Top. Meaning that that beautiful and mesmerising Seat of her Fertility was only about a foot removed from Selby, while her head was more like a yard and a half away.

With her mouth at such a distance, Mimi had to raise her voice somewhat. “The catuspadapitham or Crab Asana. Also known as the purvottanasana or Reverse Table Top Posture.”

“Gosh, “blurted Selby as he stared at what was before him. The table top instead of hosting scones and sandwiches, had two exquisite Irish breasts upon it, and they would surely make a very superior High Tea, if only he could get anywhere near them.

“You like what you behold?”

 “Yes I do! Oh yes. And how the Sanskrit glides off your tongue by the way.”

From the extended posture, Mimi snorted. “So it bloody should! After training day and night at Hatha Yoga, I decided I might as well mop up some Classical Sanskrit as well. On the premise that I wasn’t just a pretty Irish backside, nor even just a pretty Irish face…”

Selby stammered, “You actually taught yourself Classical Sanskrit? I’d have thought that well-nigh impossible. I mean it’s not like learning parliamo Italiano  or hier ist dein hubscher Hut, hubsches Fraulein?”

“Meaning in German, hat is a masculine noun, whereas the word for missy maiden is neuter. Such a salutary lesson for us all. The fact is I managed to get hold of a copy of Teach Yourself Sanskrit which without a word of a lie, Connie boy, does exactly what it says on the box. A model of lucidity written by a gentleman called Michael Coulson, who taught Sanskrit at Edinburgh University. In my spare time, Mr Selby, as well as studying Patanjali’s Yogasutra, I went on to dip my tootsies into Sanskrit drama, and greatly enjoyed some Kalidasa, also known as the Indian Shakespeare. His beautiful and touching love story Shakuntala was admired by Wolfgang Goethe no less. From there it was but a moment till I was battering away at the complex analysis of the Sanskrit language itself, as propounded by that linguistic genius called Panini. And before you say it, Con, yes, I know that ‘panini’ is usually understood as a type of bland Italian sandwich, which has, you’ll agree, become a kind of tedious culinary cliché. But Panini the brilliant grammarian who flourished, as they say, in the Gandhara area of Ancient India, somewhere between 600 and 350 BC, he was no feckin cliché, Con, believe you me! In eight chapters of his famous Astadhayi, and in about three thousand six hundred sutra verses or aphorisms, he propounds a morphological analysis of his sacred language, more advanced than any Western linguistic theory ever known! His is a generative model, Con, which is why the eminent and radical brainbox Noam Chomsky called him the first generative grammarian. Panini uses oh so nifty meta-language and meta-rules, and has been compared to the Turing machine of computing and mathematical renown. He has also been hailed as the first descriptive linguist, and indeed as The Father of Linguistics, and was a major influence on that other towering boffin, the Swiss Saussure, who as it happens also taught Sanskrit in sundry universities. Reflect Conway Selby, as you stare down there at my little Mary Ann, that the standards for linguistic genius were set two and a half thousand years ago! When they didn’t even have smartphones, and probably no talcum powder or toilet cleaner.”

Selby took that as his cue and blurted in a rush, “Wonderful stuff no doubt of it, all that unparalleled if hoary old scholarship. Panini the great grammarian certainly makes me feel humble for one. But getting back to Kenny and Connie Lingus, just for a…”

Mimi from her great distance, said with a voice full of emotion, “That’s what I, Mimi O’Houlihan, call a man and a half! A linguist lad like Panini, who was two and a half millennia ahead of his time. You know Conrad, I would love to have a really brainy feller like him for just one night of tender intimacy in my upstairs flat here.  I can feel myself melting like a buttery Dublin croissant, when I think of Pandit Panini, even though the same lad’s been gone for many an aeon. Words as we’ve agreed are so addictive, at times so downright erotic, and so damn damn damn sexy. Isn’t that a fact, big man?”

Not without a pricking jealousy, Selby sighed, “Up to a point, Mimi.”

“Listen a while, my sweet little man. You’ll note that Lingus as in Kenny Lingus has the interesting cognate ‘lingua’. Meaning both tongue as language, and tongue as oral appendage? Now that has to prove something, has it not?”

Selby tried to hide a sullen frown. “That fascinating double meaning hadn’t actually occurred to me, Mimi. But between you and me, it’s the oral appendage that has my attention.”

Mimi gave the yogic equivalent of an inverted shrug “Rightio and fair enough. Let’s put that to one side, and talk real turkey as they say. Let’s forget about the complexity of grammar, and the taxing technical matters of syntax and semantics. Let’s just chat about the business of sonorous sound effects, Con, or call it the musical joy of words. Let’s talk about Bana for example, the seventh century Indian writer, who specialised in gadyakavya or prose, or shall we say the very early novel…”

Selby sighed, “I’d much rather we stuck to the Lingus family for now.”

“Your man Bana who loved to show off with extremely obscure verb forms, the desiderative and the intensive and the causative, and wrote two fine strapping epics, the Kadambari, a love story with a talking parrot, and The Deeds of Harsha, the biography of a sterling warrior king. Listen carefully, Con, as I’m going to give you an enthralling wee lecturette on literary sound effects. In The Deeds of Harsha we have a sonorous sentence begins ‘bhupala-alapana’. Now according to the rasikas, the literary connoisseurs of the time, that echoing sound effect is called ‘yamaka’ or bell chime. The ‘p’ and ‘l’ of ‘bhupala’ which means ‘king’, turns into the ‘l’ and ‘p’ of ‘alapana’ which means ‘speech’. Hence it translates as ‘the king’s speech’, though of course has nothing to do with stuttering Brit monarchs and an Australian actor. In English verse it is called ‘assonance’ and you get it in John Clare the nineteenth century Northamptonshire poet, he who had his troubled mental health, as you know. John Clare, who was to write the eternal and exquisite line, ‘eggs like harebells, gilt with dew’. There, my Connie, we have the assonance of ‘g’ and ‘l’ from ‘eggs like’ and ‘g’ and ‘l’ from the word ‘gilt’, so that…”

Nothing could have stopped maddened Selby at this point.

“John Clare might well have had mental trouble, Mimi, but he’s not the only one in this scholastic extravaganza of yours! You are driving me absolutely gaga with your talking parrots and your bell chimes and your birds’ eggs! I’m currently confronted with a not unarousing front elevation of your naked crab posture, meaning I have a perfect view of what in chaste Latin would be termed your pudendum muliebre. Recall that I was promised an introductory exploration of that as my star prize. Instead what I get is a lesson on a long dead Indian linguist, where the naked lady lecturer is instructing me from an asana in the shape of a blasted table top! Which means that I can’t even see the beautiful Irish visage that is giving me the lecture! I would call that bloody distance learning gone mad!”

Mimi tutted as she reached up to stroke Selby’s furiously twitching nose.

“Calm yourself, don’t worry, Con! You’ll be having your assuredly mouth-watering feast soon enough. But I must add for the record, meaning for let us say post-Covid posterity, that just as Panini with his mighty linguist’s brain is a thunderous erotic charge for the likes of me, the same holds true for Bana and his super-sexy and supersensual assonance. I swear Bana’s masterly and ineffable wordplay, makes me melt with an incredibly raw and burning and torrentially dripping desire! It’s an aphrodisiac so stupendously potent, that it needs to be strictly licensed in my view. Wait now as I search for a compelling analogy.  I’m sure you’ll remember John Cleese in that hilarious film ‘A Fish Called Wank…’, no that can’t be right ‘A Fish Called Wendy’ where he struts around bollick-naked, driving that American lass wild with lust as he talks his best Italian. Well that’s me Mimi O’ Houlihan, and that’s how I feel about your gorgeous gentleman that flourished in the seventh century, Pandit Bana from Thanesar, India. You see, once my darling Bana in his gadyakavya starts his beautiful assonating, I can’t stop myself twitching and shivering around the backside and the Mary Ann area. And before long, you’ll find me spurting and gushing and rushing and roaring and well-nigh flooding at the blessed gills, Connie Selby!”

Selby responded in a blank tone. “But…”

“I’m as rampant as a Galway mare beside a Sligo stallion, once old Bana starts to assonate!”

“But…”

“When Bana starts to chime like a bell with his yamaka, I commence to shudder and shake and literally flood the ground below me like a…”

“Mimi, please…” 

“I get so wet with his bell chimes, even my Irish toes get soaked! Can you feckin credit that, Con?”

Selby could credit it so much, that he expostulated: “Will you stop all this and give me my promised reward! Instead of making me so agonisingly jealous of Pandits Panini and Bana! They may have been dead for centuries, these classical pin-ups of yours, but they are still able to make me feel grossly sexually inadequate. Which is no easy thing for any man to admit, of course, as they assure you every alternate day in the Guardian Supplement.”

The naked crab that was Mimi, reached out a consoling hand.

“There, there, my poor little mannikin! I’ll shut up about my Ancient Indian heart throbs, as you’re right it wasn’t very kind at all. Only one more hurdle, Con, confronts us now. At this stage I need to advise you that concerning the matter of Kenny Lingus, your star prize is perhaps more accurately called Mock Kenny Lingus.”

Selby shuddered his alarmed incomprehension. “Come again?”

“I can try, my little lovely English gent. In fact, if you suddenly started to assonate like Bana, it’s a cast iron certainty. No, Con, what I mean is in the present unique circumstances, I have no option but to offer you Mock Kenny Lingus, or as one of my less sensitive colleagues calls it, Fool’s or Eejit’s Kenny L…”

Selby began to guffaw and then just as swiftly exploded. “You mean to say you as my designated hostess have decided to offer me ersatz or shall we say bargain basement Pound Shop sex! I’m sorry Mimi, but I really have to call a spade a spade at this point.”

Still perfectly balanced in the crab asana, Mimi admonished, “You hold your rampant horses, Connie boy! What I’m offering you now is far more valuable than that crude old tongue and gob palaver. By which I mean, I can give something far more important in terms of your enduring spiritual well-being.”

Selby scowled like a sullen teenager. “Humph! Suffice to say, at this supposedly seminal juncture, I don’t really care about my spiritual well-being! I really don’t want your ridiculous substitute, if what it boils down to is doing it all on the cheap. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it would appear you are offering me the equivalent of Mock A Levels or Fool’s or Idiot’s A Levels, when what I want is the genuine A Level or even S Level or even my Oxbridge entrance in Oral Se…”

Mimi felt around her legs to touch his wrist and tried to calm him down.

“That is what you will get, Con, I promise! Or rather, even better, you will get a special S Level which is to say the Scholarship or Pandit Level, or in epistemological terms the Really Real Level. It’s so very easy, Conrad. All you have to do, sweet boy, is get your two eyes down there right by my lovely Seat of Fertility. Your eyes, your little peepers, I must stress, not your cheeky gob! Once you‘re comfortably in place, and thanks to all my years of Hatha Yoga, I will flex the old vegan muscle and you can take a good dekko deep inside the Mary Ann.”

Selby was momentarily distracted. “Fancy that. You can’t even say the word vagina, can you? So, you say vegan instead! That’s a hell of a closeted Irish attitude, Mimi.”

She rapped back, “Enough of that snooty English sarcasm of yours! Go on, big man. I’ve flexed the vegan as much as I can, so that the entrance now is rather like a standard cat flap. Go on, Con! Get your eyes up against me, for that most majestic of estate agent’s views. As close as you can now. That’s it! Now tell me loud and clear exactly what you can see deep inside the handsome Seat of my Fertility.”

Selby remained silent for some time, because his astonishment was so profound. As he mutely gazed inside, he marvelled to see that Mimi’s womb was like a massive subterranean cave, illumined as if by a theatre’s stage lights. He almost gasped as he beheld stacks of brilliantly twinkling jewels heaped up against the grey cave walls: apparently a treasure trove of sapphires, emeralds, beryl, amethyst, topaz, jade, and, yes, what only could be priceless diamonds!

“What can you see?” repeated Mimi from her unseeing distance. “Tell me exactly, Connie boy.”

Selby sighed, “Aladdin’s Cave, would be an accurate summary. I can see an Aladdin’s Cave inside of your beautiful body, Ms O’ Houlihan.”

“And didn’t I hint as much! Didn’t I imply that whatever you saw with Mock or so-called Eejit’s Kenny Lingus, would be a damn sight better than huffing and puffing down below. After all, nice as it can be on a wet afternoon, in my view your standard Kenny L is a bit on the mundane, quotidian side. All that panting and blowing and slurping away, as if your man thinks it’s some kind of globe artichoke, cunningly dipped in mayo and balsamic.”

Selby wasn’t listening, as he murmured with a hoarse and broken reverence. “It’s like having a vision of something long lost and precious, Mimi! As I look inside the beautiful cave of your womb, it’s as if I’m right back in my earliest years of infancy. It’s astonishing. You see, in among those glittering mounds of jewels, I can also see old-fashioned toys, the kind you saw in picture books given long ago at Christmas. I can see smiling rag dolls seated among the piles of rubies, as well as musing teddy bears and shy little dogs among the heaps of beryl and topaz. And look, among the diamonds, there’s a small wind up music box the size of an old tea caddy, decorated with circus clowns who are jumping with glee. You could buy those music boxes from Woolworths for about five shillings in the Nineteen Fifties. Looking inside of you, then, is like gazing at a pop-up book of a children’s ballet, as if watching the poignant start of The Nutcracker Suite. You see, Mimi, I know full well that those jewels heaped inside of you aren’t real jewels, and they aren’t worth millions of pounds. Instead, those radiant imitation gems are full of so much…joy. That unfathomable and depthless joy that we only know as the forgotten joys of infancy. And of course, you cannot buy that for a king’s royal ransom, and any infant could tell you that a real diamond is just a humble lump of coal in the literal sense. But it still leaves me with a lot of questions, Mimi, this Connie Lingus, of yours. I mean why on earth would an eternal and transcendent tableau of infant joy, be there inside your particular womb?  Are you an incarnation of Mother Earth, as well as the stunning local beauty inevitably dubbed the Pride of Connemara? You, Mimi O’ Houlihan, being in 2020 a hostess who’s so frightened of calling a spade a spade, you call a vagina, a vegan.”

But instead of hearing Mimi briskly denying she was Mother Earth or Mother Riley or Mother Goose, or any other legendary matron, Selby suddenly felt himself being shaken then tickled hard. Through a groggy species of hungover fog, he noted someone bending over his prone form. It took him some dopey seconds to realise he had actually been dreaming about ATMs and Kenny and Connie Lingus, mock or fool’s versions or otherwise. Bent over him, and grinning at his curious babbling, was his girlfriend Dora the nurse, who had just come in from her hospital shift of ten pm till six am.

Pulling off her clothes, she asked, “What the hell were you dreaming about? You were gabbling about nutcrackers and Mother Earth, as if your life depended on it!”

Con sighed as he squeezed her hand. “Maybe it did. I had this very vivid dream, Dora, that was all about the forgotten bliss of early childhood. I also saw mountains of glittering jewels in…inside an approximation of an Aladdin’s Cave.”

Dora was naked as she got in bed beside him. “It must be all those hours you spend with the puppets, Selby. You’ve maybe regressed to childhood big time. As for me, instead of blissful dreams, I’ve been dealing with a living nightmare.”

Selby bristled on her behalf, as he knew exactly what she was talking about.

“Item. Those hygiene measures we have at the hospital are a joke and a shambles. As for the laughably named PPE…”

Her partner frowned and muttered, “Sorry, but I’ve forgotten what that stands for. What’s more, that’s the second time that an acronym is the same as an Oxford degree…”

Dora battered her pillow and said, “Oh yes? Dreaming spires, my sweet little arse. PPE stands with bare-faced and bare-arsed hypocrisy, for Personal Protection Equipment. The masks we wear were obviously designed with a splendid profit margin, probably made in great haste in East End sweatshops. Our nurses’ aprons, if you were given to understatement, you might describe as flimsy. As for the testing, it turns out some quarter of my colleagues have shown up as Covid-positive. Of the lucky devils proving negative, some are showing clear symptoms, meaning that the testing just like the government doesn’t know its arse from its elbow. Nonetheless, we have to keep on doing close hands-on work with all our patients, whether they have tested positive or not. It’s tempting to do some serious whistleblowing, but of course our employers have such integrity they wouldn’t tolerate that, and would take paranoid and punitive measures. Otherwise, my job is a piece of piss, Con, and the camaraderie with my pals, the gallows humour mumbled through our useless masks, is what really counts. You might even say it’s that camaraderie that is saving lives, not much else, and certainly not the PPE. As you know, if I could make a living out of building puppets, I would go self-employed and say to hell with it. For the present though, the most useful thing you can do to help my peace of mind, is to touch me ever so forcefully down there. No not there, there. Yes. Inside yes. Yes. Now pretend that I am a sitar and that after twenty years apprenticeship with a musical guru Iike Nikhil Banerjee, from Bengal, you the scruffy bearded sitarist are playing me to a crescendo.  Did you know that in his apprenticeship Banerjee was often required to practise from four am till midnight? Slowly, slowly, at an endless snail’s pace, and then gradually, gradually, building up to the lightning fast part of the raga. What else can I add, Con? What else needs explained? Isn’t a bit of silence alongside passion the most perfect of all possible things?”

Chapter 3 of ‘Mimi and the Virus’ will appear on or before Monday 4th January

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MIMI AND THE VIRUS, Chapter 1

MIMI AND THE VIRUS (or ‘Useful Tips on How to Stay Alert’)

a new novel by

JOHN MURRAY

copyright John Murray, Holmfirth HD9 UK. Published 2020-2021

‘one of the best comic writers we’ve got’ JONATHAN COE, The Observer

John Murray’s latest novel is a topical parable about Covid 19, confused and confusing world leaders, and what social distancing does to your head and your heart.

It is set in September 2020, some six months into the pandemic. Con Selby is running an adult puppet theatre in a small North English town, and is currently rehearsing a Covid-related political satire called ‘I Didn’t Do It’.

Selby also has some well-kept secrets, and regularly has extraordinary liaisons with Mimi O’Houlihan from Clifden, Connemara, a remarkable self-taught scholar. Mimi is both a yoga expert and an expert on the Kamasutra, as well as on linguistics and the hidden meaning of seemingly innocent fancy cakes, as encountered in cafes specialising in High and Afternoon Teas.

‘One can modify behaviour or replace a severed leg with a wooden prosthesis, but one cannot substitute a manufactured sensibility for a sensibility that does not exist. Nothing sticks in this void, nothing can take hold.’ MARGUERITE DURAS in Crime: The Pleasant Dream

‘And then there is the added interest of the weird semi-sexual relation with the horse…’ BORIS JOHNSON describing his pleasurable experiences of fox-hunting, in the Spectator, of which he was the editor, in 2005

Chapter 1 of MIMI AND THE VIRUS

Barney Rubble Goes to Barnard Castle

It was in the sixth month of The Great Pandemic, and Conroy Selby was half way through his puppet show rehearsal, and badly in need of both a drink and a breath of air. He left his select invited audience with some refreshments carefully prepared by himself, then walked into the nearest pub where reasonably enough he hoped for a radical change of scene, in the sense of a cheerful companionable hubbub. It was a Friday night and it was very busy, but because it was a mild evening in mid-September, the bulk of the customers were drinking outside. They were certainly making a hell of a racket, it struck the middle-aged puppeteer, the usual Friday night amplified vivacity, but far louder than any standard weekend din. Constantly confirmed by all those printed warning signs and arrows on the saloon bar walls and floor, it was of course because of the hypothetical lurking presence, but hopefully physical absence, of the unpitying virus, with which in very literal terms, the customers were in constant competition. As if by sympathetic magic, as if they were some sort of weekend conference of provincial English witch doctors, they were trying to beat the bastard into submission and non-existence, by the collective ritual of very noisily enjoying themselves. And who, Selby muttered sotto voce, with his cigar-flecked lips visibly moving, could reasonably blame them?

Selby was the last person he knew to have acquired a mobile phone, but one of the few things he liked about them was that they sanctioned the admirable business of talking to oneself in public. In the old days it was only fist-flailing schizophrenics and far gone alcoholics who jabbered away to an invisible audience, but these days everyone was at it, vicars and Conservative councillors included. Indeed, with the prevalence of hands-free phones, it was all too reasonable in 2020 to suspect the motives and integrity of anyone who wasn’t regularly talking frenetically to themselves and sporting crazy hand gestures. Tonight, it was mild enough to sit outside adjacent to the handsome woodland that abutted the town and the nearby river, and Selby intended to do so, but the sheer number of customers meant they were encouraged to step inside to get their drinks. To do so, they had to queue in a snaking line extending into the courtyard, as if they were blameless Russians enjoying fraternal communism, but very much wanting the luxury of a loaf of bread in 1971. And of course, not only with a face mask covering every mouth and every nose, but with everyone standing at the regulatory two yards apart, which had created a decorous new terminology that didn’t exist six months ago, namely Social Distancing.

And that was how the problem started…

Selby was carefully standing two yards behind a very attractive young woman with dyed blue hair, who was fourth in line from the bar. But behind the puppeteer was a sleepy, you might say dozy looking man in his mid-seventies, wearing a give-away braided trilby hat, which was a fashion rarity indeed in 2020. It even had a jaunty feather in it, a brightly coloured plume, which must have looked all too dashing in among the Rotarians, Round Tablers and weekend golfers of say 1965. In keeping with his somnolent and extremely innocent expression, he was standing more like a yard, and then dammit only two feet off, and then buggerit, panic stations, as he was suddenly barely twelve inches from Selby, and clearly thought the arrows on the floor were a remnant of long-gone pub skittles.

At last Selby could not restrain himself.

“Social distancing please!” he hissed, rather like the hissing of one of his puppets should they happen to be a rampaging villain.

The old man was hard of hearing, which ought to have been a distinct advantage when it came to any dealings with Selby, who as it happened had an unusual surfeit of defective and arguably challenged older relatives.

“You what?” croaked this gent with the gorgeous kingfisher feather, as he cupped a predictably huge and bulbous ear.

“Social distancing please!”

The trilby man’s name was Milward Burlap though Selby was never to know this. He was a long retired junior school headmaster who was unusually well read and otherwise cultured in the sense of loving a great deal of classical music and opera, especially the Baroque French variety (he liked to boast that he was Rameau-mad) which now of course he had to play at Albert Hall volume on his Nineteen Seventies sound system. Not only was Burlap deaf, he also had permanent tinnitus, a result of a skiing accident in Austria back in 1973. To his surprise, only a year ago the former head teacher had discovered that the word ‘tinnitus’, meaning irritating and persistent noises in the ear, was derived from the far longer word ‘tintinnabulation’, a kind of linguistic swindle, as unlike the unpleasant condition, the latter is a tender and lyrical and very gentle sound. As is clearly obvious in the charming quotation: ‘the tiny tintinnabulation, faint as fairy bells.’ Burlap had no real clue what Selby was hissing about, and wasn’t helped by any lip-reading, as the puppeteer was excessively whiskery, and it was anyone’s guess what those suspicious lips were up to. All Milward Burlap could do, was do his best, meaning take an intelligent stab in the dark.

“So shall dustbins yield?” was his first rendition.

Selby was briefly and genuinely distracted by the musical rhythm of that quaint translation.

“Eh? No, not at all, man! Dustbins be damned! Social distancing, please!”

“So shall dustmen yield?” the old gent persisted.

“What? Oh, my fuck! Please move away from me, will you!”

 “There’s a strike on, eh? I wouldn’t blame them. Terribly monotonous profession. Lid off, tip, replace, lid off, tip, replace, lid off, tip, replace! And that’s it for forty hours a week. And that’s not even mentioning the hygiene aspect.”

Selby scowled and flapped his hands to try and shoo old Burlap away, as if he the amiable trilby man was as unhygienic as any striking dustman.

“Move away from me, man!” Then, a good deal louder. “Don’t you realise what you’re doing? You’re looming over me like a blasted ocean liner! Move away will you! Two yards! Two yards! Two yards!”

Burlap offered a judicial head teacher’s frown, as he eventually linked the aggressive hand gestures with the ugly words he’d heard.

“It’s bad enough insulting anyone with such an abusive nickname!  Even if you are perverse enough to think they or anyone else might deserve it. But to say that to someone you’ve never met, and who has never done you any harm? And to shout it not once but three times! And in public for everyone to hear!”

Selby gaped at him. “But I only said two yards. That’s all I said. Because I don’t want you to bloody well infect me! Who else d’you think would work my puppets if I came down with it? Move away will you, instead of lurching towards me like a bloody great magnet! Two yards, two yards, two yards!”

“Turd arse!” gasped Burlap.

“You what?”

 “Why on earth throw ‘turd arse’ at me? Three bloody times in a row. Turd arse, turd arse, turd arse!”

“I…”

“It’s not even an intelligent insult. It’s a classic case of ignorant redundance. Even a ten-year-old schoolkid would know as much. Where else would a turd possibly come from but from an arse? To speak your ugly and brainless saloon bar language.”

Selby snapped back that they were in fact in a saloon bar where bad language was permitted, albeit one covered with floor arrows and Covid 19 notices.  He then swore at this hideous world of mad contingent circumstances, turned tail, and fled. After some hesitation, he hurried over to the nearest supermarket and purchased a miniature bottle of red wine at an exorbitant price, the kind that impecunious teenage girls sneak surreptitiously into an expensive club. He then walked into the nearby little park, that was interestingly decorated with handsome eighteenth century tombstones, sat on a bench, and drained the bottle in three swallows. As he relaxed, he suddenly pictured his patient and grateful audience of precisely three: his Dad, Daniel Selby, aged eighty-six who like the turd arse trilby man was becoming very deaf; his ninety-year-old Uncle Dennis who was blind from macular degeneration since 2015, and his Aunty Mildred, a mere seventy-five, who had been born dumb or perhaps better to say mute at the end of the Second World War. He’d been away half an hour which was an excessive intermission, so he pounded the short distance to his studio theatre. There a good two yards apart, all on the front row sat Daniel, Dennis and the single Mildred Selby (despite numerous heartfelt offers, she had never married) who had all knocked back their substantial plates of bulgur salad with aubergines and peppers. Cookery and puppetry were Conroy’s twin hobbies, and his variously defective relatives were all contentedly licking their lips, and looking forward to the second act. All three of them liked alcohol, so they had been provided with bottles of cheap but extremely agreeable Czech beer. Dennis and Daniel by coincidence had followed the same career trajectory as that social distance vandal, the trilby man: junior school heads that is, which at least in the provinces often goes hand in hand with an intelligent radicalism and an autodidactic bent. Mildred had been a highly proficient secretary in Daniel’s school, and as both brother and sister knew sign language, it had proved a sinecure and a blessing for this baby of the family.

Con carried their plates and empty bottles to the minuscule kitchen cum hole-in-the-wall bar round the back of the stage. He returned by the side corridor and got behind the curtain to manipulate his two puppets for tonight’s preview show. The puppeteer was well aware this preview was for a deaf, dumb, blind and elderly audience, but, relatives or not, minus a crucial sense or not, they were manifestly more alert and critical than the average placid crowd. No doubt when you’re facing mortality, mused middle-aged Selby, at long last you are obliged to get your finger out and give life all you’ve got and more. There were only two characters in this play, which was entitled I Didn’t Do It, and they were both called Fluffy, though easily distinguished as Fluffy Senior and Fluffy Junior. Selby provided the two loud and querulous voices, needless to add. They both depicted current world leaders who both remarkably had blonde and fluffy hair. Both of them were stout, in fact borderline obese as puppets went, though Junior’s hair was fluffier, and comically more unkempt than his transatlantic counterpart’s. Junior looked boyish and tousled, even though he was in his mid-fifties. Meanwhile Senior’s more businesslike mop had an emphatic sideways quiff, as they were called in the old days, and he also had a ruddy and choleric face. He was designed to look some twenty years older than his fellow marionette. The play had been scripted single-handed by Selby, and the puppets had been made by his girlfriend Dora who could not be here tonight, for as well as being a gifted marionette-maker, she also worked part time as a nurse and was therefore in great demand by the sixth month of the pandemic.

Daniel his Dad at eighty-six was very deaf, but had been given a printed script of the play and the theatre was only moderately dimmed for his benefit. Aunty Mildred was mute, but could hear every word as well as see the play, and likewise Uncle Dennis who had been blind for the last five years, could hear and comprehend the lines, which was all that really mattered. Without delay or any joking preamble, Selby leapt back into the drama.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Right at the start I’m talking about, son.  When we were both accused of being real slow off the mark, at the end of March and the days that followed. Your guy, your waddyacallit Chief Adviser. Great title, only you Brits could dream up something truly elegant like that. Sounds like Lord High Executioner and yeah, cool, he has that beautiful merciless look impresses me for one. His name is…I always think it’s Barney Rubble from The Flintstones cartoon, set in the Stone Age, and with cars pulled by dinosaurs and records played by pithycanthropussy beaks. Really funny, Fred’s sidekick with the throaty voice who is married to Betty Rubble, who was originally a cigarette girl in a bowling alley. Did you know that? Don’t tell anyone but I was completely in love with Betty Rubble when I was fifteen. Though it was chirpy Wilma Flintstone with the perky voice and the full set up front, turned me on even more. Anyway, son, when no one is supposed to be driving anywhere in England, your Barney Rubble, your Head Adviser, drives up from London to his Dad’s place up north, at wassit Dear Ham …

FLUFFY JUNIOR (coughs politely) Sir, might I respectfully advise you over one or two troublesome trifles of forenames and surnames, and our absurdly confusing English geography. His father’s place was near the hallowed university city of Durham, and by Barney Rubble I think you must mean Barnard Castle where my adviser went to have his urgent eye examination. His wife you see had Covid symptoms, just as you and I have both had to battle the virus, in your case very recently and with laudable fortitude…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Yep. Sure. Cool. Yep. It was God’s blessing in my case, and I sure did roast the tail of that dude of a fire ass virus. Yep. So, in a nutshell, Barney Rubble broke all the rules and drove his wife hundreds of miles up to Dear Ham, and then had the balls, I love it, to carry on to a village called Doughnut Corner to get his British eyes tested. That was cute, that last bare-faced tactical manoeuvre, and that really impressed me…Look you tell him, son, you tell your Big Chief Barney if ever he’s over by my… if ever he finds himself anywhere near the White Ho…

FLUFFY JUNIOR (clearing his throat nervously). Perhaps at this point sir, if I could with humility amend just a little your heard-from-a-vast distance, hence understandably a mite skewed account. The fact is, it was my good friend and esteemed colleague, my outstanding Chief Adviser, Mr Dominic Cummings, who with his wife and child went up to the Durham area and stayed in a cottage on his father’s farm. This was so that their young son could be looked after by Dominic’s parents, as Dominic’s wife had suddenly come down with the virus. They were even worried that the little boy had it too, but luckily he tested negative. Dominic then drove to have his eyes examined in Barnard Castle which is where just possibly I think you get your endearing animated character called Barney Rubble.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Barney Rubble or Barney Castle? Which should I go for? But anyway, most of them English castles really are a heap of rubble, ain’t they?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. He certainly did not drive to anywhere called Doughnut Corner, which I would readily admit sounds a very near homophone for Dominic Cummings. Who is often genially referred to as Dom by his many friends.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Homophone, you say? Dom Cummings, eh? That sure is some cute name. Personally, I’d petition for a name change if it was me. We all know what the word Dom makes anyone over the age of sixteen think of. And the kinda weird masks they use, ain’t as a rule for hygiene purposes. Come to that, we all know what the word Cumming makes most peop…

FLUFFY JUNIOR (rather less politely) As I’ve said numerous times in public, my inordinately talented and quite unreplaceable colleague, acted responsibly, legally and with the utmost integrity. I’m not ashamed to confess that when I muse over such an immeasurable integrity, I am moved with a very considerable emotion. The only stronger emotion I feel is when I think about the wonderfully steadfast British public, and how in the current crisis they have pulled together so courageously, and have exercised their good old British common-sense. They have without complaint sacrificed so much for that patriotic Greater Good. Including the truly sacred right of a common or garden Englishman, to stride into his local pub and enjoy a keenly anticipated pint without hindrance or cumbersome mask. Yes, they have sacrificed that sacred right, and have bravely stayed at home with a crate or two of Budweisers from Lidl or possibly Aldi or Nisa. Even more movingly, some of them are so incredibly brave and so bulldog fearless, they have purchased a crate of Corona, as if to say you may be the name of a cowardly and unsportsmanlike virus, but you will not overcome the noble and innate courage of a sacred albeit common or garden Englishman, namely myself and my public house cronies!

FLUFFY SENIOR. Cronies? Coronies? Sure. But that phoney eye test stuff was really cool. Barney Rubble knows how to spin em. He said his reason for the test was he needed to see if he was fit to drive to London, but according to the law he shouldna been driving anywhere. Especially with his little wife in the car has come down with the virus. That’s what’s called a double take on his part, or let’s say a magician’s sleight of hand.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I promise you there was no legerdemain in this case, sir. My colleague is a man of quite overwhelming personal integrity

FLUFFY SENIOR. Myself, I think Barney had a far more important reason for that eye test. I see him as my kind of No Shit From No One Guy, but I also see him as deep as the ocean, as being no one’s fool. I can tell you now, I know exactly why he wanted some new glasses, and it wasn’t anything to do with driving down to London. His eyesight for that purpose was obviously perfect.

FLUFFY JUNIOR.  I must confess I am intrigued, sir. What possible other…

FLUFFY SENIOR. To see that dude of a virus better, of course! To see whether it was there or not! To see whether it was dancing about doing harm, or just pussying around and kidding.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. But…

FLUFFY SENIOR. With those cool new Doughnut Corner glasses, he only has to stare hard at his wife and he can see if the virus is making her sick or not. If she still has it, or if it’s blown itself away. Ordinary people with ordinary glasses wouldn’t see nothing, but not with a guy like Barney!

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Blown away, sir?  That’s an extremely fascinating idea. Though in all humility, I…

FLUFFY SENIOR. Remember that guy, Kneejerk? He was Russian, I think. Or could have been Italian…Or might have been French?

FLUFFY JUNIOR. Ah. I shall possibly need a clue or two. You said that he was called Knee…

FLUFFY SENIOR. The guy who created Superman.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. I… did he really? You know, I actually thought Clark Kent to be an American invention?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Not our American Superman, who is I admit very cool. But after all he is a cartoon and a comic, even if he is real powerful and lifelike. No, I’m talking about that flesh and blood European Superman. Kneejerk who invented him, said that he the genuine Superman didn’t pussy around. Superman went where others didn’t dare. Kneejerk apparently died of the clap, and went crazy, but before he did, he talked plenty of good sense. He inspired a great many great men, including, I’ve no doubt, your Chief Adviser, Barney Rubble.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. At this point I must apologise. I’m afraid I stupidly misheard you, sir. You clearly must have said Nietzsche, not the extremely close homophone of Kneejerk. The great man with his legendary work, Thus Spoke Zarathushtra. Indeed, indeed! By the way, did you know that the name Zarathushtra literally means ‘Rich in Camels’?

FLUFFY SENIOR. Oh yeah? An Ay-rab, was he, old Kneejerk? That’s cool. I don’t really care who has the good ideas, the genius ideas, as long as they are the ideas of a genius. Rich in Camels or Barney Rubble, it’s all the same to me.

FLUFFY JUNIOR. And in most respects, I would heartily concur. To be sure, a great idea is greater than the man who conceives it.

FLUFFY SENIOR. Barney Rubble, your Chief Adviser, who’d read his Kneejerk like I have, knew that because he’s a Superman, when he gets hold of the special glasses in Doughnut Corner, he’d be able to see the virus for what it is! Strong or weak. Toxic or fake. Fake news or Fox News. The enemy of the people, or the enemy of all the dudes and jerks. A lethal enemy, or more like a weekend bourbon hangover. Needing a spray of Walmart cleaner, or needing a shot of German steroids. Look at it this way, kid. Because your Barney Rubble happens to be a natural born Superman, in a way denied to lesser mortals, he actually gives the glasses the power to see what ordinary guys cannot! You geddit? The glasses don’t help Barney Rubble, it’s Barney the genius, the friggin Superman, that helps the glasses!

And with that Selby drew the crimson stage curtain, and in a suitable majestic baritone announced that Act One was finished and Act Two would be performed tomorrow evening at the same time and in this same venue. Unable, because of the plague, to embrace his three elderly hence vulnerable relatives, or even to shake their hands, he contented himself with blowing all three histrionic kisses. As he waved adieu, his mute but ever alert Aunty Mildred pleased him very much by holding up her tablet on which in twenty-four point bold she had typed Fucking Great, little Con! Mad Mockery Is Your Man. Meanwhile his deaf father whose speech was a little hard to follow, remarked that it reminded him of the touring Agitprop theatre he had witnessed here in the northern provinces some forty odd years ago: 7:84 and the like. But of course, they had had a didactic message of radical socialism, and the message was so obtrusive the drama was inevitably weak. It was blithely marketed as Working Class Theatre, but of course the working class stayed away in droves, and only paid-up liberal schoolteachers like himself, and social workers and college lecturers and the like, attended in the village halls.

“Though even they would fall asleep when the actors preached at them instead of acting. So, taking the piss is the right idea, Con. No slogans, no earnest propaganda, just keep on taking the piss.”

Uncle Dennis snorted as he brandished his white stick, “No amount of mockery can do those buggers justice. Kneejerk and his Magical Glasses is the least of it. I suspect that’s tame beside what he really thinks in the privacy of his august mind…”

Selby set off for the town centre, while his relatives walked in the opposite direction for Marble Street. There for convenience and mutual support, the three of them shared a large Edwardian villa. The puppet man stopped by the supermarket, scratched around in his pockets, and then angry and incredulous did the same thing about fourteen times, as if he had had his wallet stolen. He knew he shouldn’t smoke, that no one in his right mind diced with death and smoked in 2020, but he was bursting for a cigar. A big one or a little one, anything would do, and he knew for a fact that he’d started the day with a tin of Wee Willems containing at least four cigarillos. He rationed himself to three a day, and he had had one this morning, been tempted seventeen times to have another, but had manfully abstained. So much for his pious abstention. The tin was no longer there and he had no idea where the hell it had gone. He vaguely thought he might have emptied his pockets to find the cash for the Shiraz, consumed in the park where they had the eighteenth-century headstones. If he’d done so, they would have been emptied on that wall over there, so he went and scanned it half a dozen times, laterally as well as to front and rear, but found nothing. The little supermarket was closed, so no dice there. The pubs were shut early because of the virus, and in any case no longer sold tobacco of any kind. He was bursting for a cigar, and could think of nothing else but the odour and the flavour, and even the pleasant feel of the little tin every time he opened it. Even the solace of the bottle of wine he had back home, would only aggravate his yearning. And Dora his girlfriend was on nights tonight at the hospital, so there’d be no reliably five-star solace from that quarter either.

It was then he spotted a man sitting in the park that was filled with headstones, and who was smoking and clearly enjoying the hazardous pastime. He was about fifty, had a neat and fetching pony tail, was dressed tidily in good denims and a Levi jacket. He might have been a quietly charismatic art teacher or a lecturer at an art college, of which there were all of three in a twenty mile radius. Selby had never seen him before, but he was one of those rare folk who looked amiable to the point of being put there specially for the purpose of being approached. From this distance he appeared to be smoking a cigarette, possibly a roll-up, but you never knew. It might just be a cigarillo, or even if not, he might just have a handy panatella or tin of miniatures in that nifty looking lecturer’s satchel by his side. So it was with a quaint and baseless confidence, that he walked across until he was about four yards away, meaning twice the recommended social distance, and addressed the stranger.

Hello there. Hello. I know it’s not something usually begged from a stranger, but have you such a thing as an inexpensive cigar for me? I’m not usually as dozy as this, but I’ve been working very hard, and I’m clean out of the panatellas as well as my miniature cigarillos. The cigarillos – at one time there were also Churchman’s Cigarellas, and in my youthful courting years they were very dear to me – these so called cigarillos are customarily sold in attractive little tins, meaning they never get squashed in your inconsiderate bugger of a (or in Ireland they might say your whore of a) trouser pocket. Otherwise, if the miniatures are in a flimsy cardboard pack, the only safe pocket is the rear pocket, meaning the packet is effectively and affectionately kissing your backside, a pleasing reflection if ever there was. No, no thanks, I don’t want one of your cigarettes, no offence, but I just don’t like their smell, too acrid, too bitter, too of the moment perhaps, not a hint of posterity, medical dangers regardless. But no, me wondering if you have a spare cigar isn’t the only reason why I’m suddenly addressing you.  For a good five minutes I’ve been looking discreetly at your face, and especially at your eyes, and something very obvious has occurred to me. You look the kind of fellow, possibly an art teacher or even a practising artist or sculptor, am I right, that likes words. No, more exactly, one who devoutly adores, venerates and extols these curious little vandals called words, and everything to do with them. And, I would add, might go to some ferocious length to share your passion with others, whether they were likely converts or not, am I right? Not that that would stop you, Big Man (no I’m not Irish, but I very often wish that I was, a Dubliner from Ranelagh or Upper Leeson Street specifically) because at the risk of flattering you, you have the look of a determined and possibly stone-deaf proselytiser. And in case you are wondering, and I bet you are, I first heard that unusual and rather beautiful word aged twelve back in 1963 in Religious Education, RE, in relation to the Epistles when Saint Paul and his followers went converting or proselytising in Ephesus, Thessaly, Galatia etc. Which is to say, I learnt it in my Grammar School, and there you go again, you simply can’t get away from the universal obsession with that reified and deified demigod known as Words, when elevated as it always is to the status of Sublime and Hierarchical Stature. You will note that they don’t have Syntax Schools nor Semiotic nor Parsing Schools, nor Clause Analysis Schools nor bloody Tweeting nor Whatsapping Schools, though believe me before long they will, as their incorrigible vulgarity is of the breathtakingly transcendental kind, it goes beyond itself into unutterable abysses of stereoscopic crassness and sodden miasmas of eternally impenetrable stupidity, that in theory are mathematically as well as imaginatively impossible.

I’d be the first to admit I’m no clairvoyant, but I know with adamantine certainty that you really love those flaunting, flirting, tantalising Jezebels called Words. So here, absolutely gratis, is a generous handful of nice and big and very juicy ones for you, robust, plump and very succulent ones, ones that have metaphorical thighs, so to speak, as a spontaneous gift from one cordial stranger to another.

Usufruct!

You heard that? Yes? So, you know the word already, perhaps? No, no, I certainly did not say ‘Youse are fucked’, that would have been an excessive demonstration of wholly uncalled-for candour. Notwithstanding the fact that your shrewd mishearing happens to be extremely accurate, even clairvoyant in the proper sense. For like myself and everyone else worldwide in the autumn of 2020, with the festering ambience of the lethal plague, and the other lethal plague of our elected world leaders (meaning a majority of us lucidly albeit lemmingwise went and happily voted for the darlings), yes, you and I and everyone we know are indeed for the time being at any rate, truly fucked…

‘Usufruct’ means the right to enjoy the use of another’s property, short of the destruction or waste of its substance. I’m sure you’d agree it’s a beautifully sonorous word, but one that sounds at first glance like highway robbery and a passport to tyrannical appropriation. Far from it, for another interpretation is the assignment of one’s property to someone else, usually for the rest of their lives, which is to say the bestowal of a benign sinecure, as in the lord of the feudal manor giving a nice estate cottage to an old retainer until the old retainer snuffs it, and the lord can then do what he wants with his endearing largesse. Which is to say, the same word can have two opposite and diametric meanings, one of them worrying and one of them heartening, and this you might call an elementary lesson in Universal Ambiguity, which when taken to its full course I would call Universal Stereophony and/or Universal Stereoscopy. In plain layperson’s language, it means seeing everything structurally in the round, ambiguities and contradictions included, and indeed the latter to be comprehended as waxing and waning or possibly isomerising hallucinations. As a rule, such an understanding is wholly beyond the British, or at any rate the English, who can only ever so politely and with a modest cough think Either, Or, never Both, And. The latter being the sign of a truly mature which is to say truly adult as opposed to infantilised mind, in that it attempts however minutely and humbly to see things from the perspective of an aerial observer, to get the very tiniest fibrillating glimpse of what it is, to be like…and don’t look so frightened, art teacher!…God…

Now for A Most Entertaining Quiz…

What, my polite and attentive, cigarette-smoking artist friend, have Mr Hans Eysenck and Mr DH Lawrence got in common?

Mm. A lightning resume, for both our benefits. Berlin-born Hans Call-Me-IQ Eysenck, one of the world’s best-known Behavioural Psychologists, got out of Germany in the Nineteen Thirties, and went to England where during the war he was almost interned as a dangerous alien. But at the age of twenty-four in 1940, under the supervision of Sir Cyril Burt, he managed to get his PhD at University College, London, and before long was hailed as a wondrously original empirical genius, over the next twenty years publishing his bestselling Uses and Abuses of Psychology and his Sense and Nonsense in Psychology, not to mention his delightful DIY brainbox’s yardstick, Know Your Own IQ. However, his precise methodology came under worried scrutiny (and at least one member of the public actually punched him on the nose) when he proclaimed that black people are genetically rather than environmentally inferior when it comes to intelligence, as quantified by that other demigod (qv what I said about Words) the all too delightful Intelligence Quotient. Not one to do things half-heartedly, immigrant Hans said the same thing was true of impoverished Italian and Portuguese and other twentieth century immigrants to the USA, that indeed they were born objectively stupid, rather than made that way by malnutrition and the best in contemporary pan-European Fascism. Eysenck himself must have been chronically confused at an early age, as his Mum Helga was both a Silesian film star and a Lutheran, and his Dad Eduard a night club entertainer and a Catholic, who was once unanimously voted ‘the handsomest chap on the Baltic coast’. Hans had an unsavoury genetic endowment, you might say, of the risque and the shallow, which is why no doubt he became such a strident sobersides in his new emigre life. He also managed to affirm that proneness to cancer was genetically determined, rather than linked to cigarette smoking, or rather he insisted that the smoking connection had not been empirically proven. Both before and after his death in 1997, his methodology was forensically examined by the most rigorous of peer experts, and by 2019, King’s College, London was able to announce that at least twenty-six of his research papers were extremely unsafe, and particularly when it came to his curiously elastic ideas about equivalent statistical sampling. More to the point, as a child he was raised by his devoutly Lutheran grandmother, rather than his bohemian parents, and the tragic irony was that she wasn’t even a proper Lutheran, but a historical convert. Somewhere along the line her ancestors must have been proselytised, as she was of Jewish extraction, and because of that the poor woman was cruelly murdered in a Nazi concentration camp.

But as for grandson Hans, and those titillating and tittupping sirens called Words, he loved them as much as the rest of the world, if not slightly more. Because of this particular addiction, in one of his Penguin bestsellers, he sourly lambasted a media egghead of the wartime Nineteen Forties. Namely, the most popular academic philosopher ever, CEM Joad, who alongside Julian Huxley and Commander AB Campbell (ABC that is, meaning what you see is what you get) was a veteran of the astonishingly successful BBC radio show The Brains’ Trust. Joad’s charismatic voice was heard more on the BBC Home Service than anyone other than the news reader, and he became so beloved among those listeners who liked words but had no idea what the bloody hell he was talking about, that he was regularly invited to open bazaars and to advertise proprietary brands of tea. His catchphrase in response to a listener’s query on the lines of say ‘What is the meaning of life?’ or ‘ Why does a dog turn round three times before settling down to sleep?’ was ‘It all depends on what you mean by…’ and in those two cases he indicated that we must sceptically query the serial ambiguity of ‘meaning’, ’life’, ‘round’, ‘times’, ‘settling’ and ‘ sleep’. Poor CEM met a wretched fate in his last couple of years, rather in the same way that Hans Eysenck did so posthumously. Brainbox Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad was fool enough to boast on air that he dodged paying for his ticket on the train, and so it was that one day he was caught red-handed, and ultimately prosecuted and fined. Cue his public shame emblazoned across the scandalised newspapers, and his dismissal from the BBC, whereupon he became permanently bed-ridden, and unsurprisingly converted from agnosticism to C of E Christianity, and wrote a book about it called The Recovery of Belief. Predictably his chronic confinement brought on a serious thrombosis and he died of terminal cancer in 1953. In a nutshell, his life was ruined because of a laughable train ticket, and because the hubris that came of his massive celebrity encouraged The People’s Philosopher (we’re crazy about our Joadie, even if we don’t know what the bloody hell he’s gassing on about!) to brag to his delighted radio audience that he was a fearless fare dodger.

Joad cheated the railways and was fined two pounds, whilst Hans Eysenck fiddled his results to demonstrate that Blacks and Italian and Portuguese immigrants to the USA, are born incorrigibly stupid, and no one should blame the schools nor the state nor hunger nor any related disease for their deplorable lack of innate genius. So, there you go, art teacher. No problem, is there, in swiftly deciding who is the bigger crook, when it comes to flagrantly fanning the flames of racial and cultural discrimination. Yet it was Eysenck who lambasted Joad, and not the other way about. Hans cried in public J’accuse CEM, and what he said specifically was that this heinous and unscientific so-called People’s Philosopher was guilty of…wait for it, now…take a nice big drag from your B and H there in anticipation…

meretricious sesquipedalianism !

That’s right. Tawdry verbosity! Pah! Pshaw! Bless my soul! Can it be true! Too many big words! Such a contemptible and truly wicked crime! For shame, CEM, sir! No doubt, according to Hans, Joadie’s tawdry wordiness was cunningly intended to disguise the brittle thinness and punily non-empirical nature of the philosopher’s so-called reasoning. He accused CEM Joad of blinding as well as baffling his listeners, that is to say the dear old credulous war-battered British public, with his bloatedly overweight if paradoxically underweight, yet infinitely seductive, hence treacherous words.

So far so feasible. But there is a common sense, as opposed to highbrow objection, to such a categorical assertion. Can’t you see it, art teacher? Surely it is glaringly obvious, viz that anyone who accuses anyone else of ‘meretricious sesquipedalianism’, is thereby guilty themselves of ‘meretricious sesquipedalianism’! Reflect that not one in a thousand intelligent members of the public, know what on earth ‘sesquipedalian’ means, and would therefore have to up and seize their well-thumbed dicks or alternatively google it on their phones without delay. So it is, we have the pot called Hans calling the kettle called CEM black. Worse still, we have a bare-faced scientific cheat denouncing a far less culpable ticket dodger. Eysenck’s slander as I’ve said, is also a solipsism, a species of spurious reasoning that leads one squat up one’s unalluring arsehole, and with not a glimmer of helpful illumination coming down that ever so endless alimentary canal.

But God love us, B and H man! We have almost forgotten to bring in the fabled author, firebrand, and incendiary prophet, Mr DH Lawrence (1885-1930)! And just as important, his curious connection with some would say that brazen charlatan known as Prof Hans Eysenck. This connection, I should stress, could only ever have been discovered by myself, and no one else in this universe, if only because I have a questionable habit of seeing things that no one else has ever seen, nor ever will see. The fact is that this same DHL, who was famed for his simple, at times seemingly artless prose (e.g. and at random ‘He stopped and stared at her queer little smile’) was also deeply in love with Hans’s relatively obscure word ‘meretricious’! For in his controversial and libellous novel Women in Love, which one irate critic declared to be ‘a festering heap of dirt’ Lawrence scathingly makes mention of some characters who are indulging in (voila a staggered horn fanfare as with the music of Marc-Antoine Charpentier) …

meretricious persiflage!

D’you understand, art teacher? Tawdry banter! Worse still, tawdry light banter! Worse still, tawdry light banter that is beneath the dignity of the brainboxes/eggheads doing the appalling light bantering! This despicable charade or time-wasting pantomime peculiar to decadent and moneyed highbrow society circa 1920, made DH Lawrence bloody well fume and spit! Life for DH was a serious matter!  Life was a life or death matter, and to prove it he died aged only forty-five, just a kid, just a youth, just a babe in arms. To paraphrase this perpetually raging man, you were required to get your teeth, not your fucking dentures, into this thing called life! Your manhood for example was a Cosmic Phallus or a Mighty Lingam, not a polite and pleasant and no you go first darling ‘penis’, which must be one of the most ludicrous words ever uttered by our petrified Anglophone tongues.  For ‘penis’ sounds rather like a drab village in flattest Lincolnshire, or like an unsavoury anal wart, or like the glum condition of an eternal bachelor, P. Niss Esquire, who languishes with his unseemly anal wart in bleakest horizonless Lincs, and whose antique wireless only plays the Valium music station BBC Radio 2, and absolutely nothing else … 

Of course, the opposite of getting your teeth into life is vicarious living, participating from a safe distance, and things helpfully crystallize as that word ‘persiflage; suddenly reminds me of something else quite different. It reminds me of its living and breathing, comical soundalike homophone, Percy Fladge, a fascinating man who I never met personally, but who I once read about with considerable interest. Mm. You look surprised and even cynical, avant-garde art teacher, as if no one could possibly be called Percy Fladge? You’re right of course, that wasn’t his real name, which was Mattie Morton, and the nickname referred to his singular and unsavoury profession.  For, exactly a half a century ago, in 1970, in his mid-twenties, Morton emigrated from his obscure native town of Goole, East Yorkshire, to Soho, London where he rapidly got into the sleazy books and niche market prostitution trade. He started off as an ill-paid assistant at the counter of a pornographic literature concern (though of course what was termed pornographic in 1970, would now be termed extremely tame Page Three stuff, something you could jovially flourish in the vicinity of your yawning maiden aunt). Morton took studious note of the motley if fascinating clientele, and then calculated the profit margins, and then decided which of the stock was more or less decorative and a waste of resources, and then resolved to start up a shop himself, but with a strict specialisation of erotic content. Fladge of course is short for flagellation, and Percy, young as he was and provincial as he was, and driven as he was, was so fearlessly unschooled, as to be a natural lateral thinker, meaning that with no preconceptions about the mystery of marketing,  he broke all the rules and thereby skilfully cornered the market and made a lucrative living by indulging the notorious ‘English vice’. The reason I know about him and know his real name, was because I had a journalist friend Frank Summers, who I’d met at university, and who managed to place an article about Morton in one of the sleazier Sunday newspapers, the same  that for decades had to be smuggled as it were contraband into the puritanical Republic of Ireland. The principal condition imposed for Frank’s article was strict anonymity, meaning he was allowed to refer to the owner as Percy Fladge, but not as Mattie Morton. Photographs of the front covers of the salacious magazines imported from Sweden, and the half dozen rented rooms where the fladge took place in two or three streets adjoining the shop, were also graciously permitted. But of course, Frank was not allowed to photograph, even with blurred or blanked-out faces, any of the customers or the prostitutes, whether they be harmlessly sipping coffee, much less in flagrante flagellationis. Nor on pain of death could he take a mugshot of Mattie Morton, even if Morton were to wear a vaudeville mask. This risible insistence on  anonymity was a crafty move on Morton’s part, for anyone with any sense could walk into any Soho coffee bar and be swiftly directed to the Percy Fladge shop, whence should the customer be looking for the real as opposed to the vicarious thing, the well-paid usually graduate assistant could after some businesslike discussion and money in advance, refer them to one of the women and her specialist services.

Several things related to language and semantics, are worth elaborating here. Permitting the newspaper to refer to the shop owner and the godfather of the highly trained ladies, as Percy Fladge, was a veritable masterstroke (forgive the punitive pun) on Morton’s part. He sounded like a cross between an avuncular clown and a trained seal, or at any rate someone who would emphatically be safe to introduce to your short-tempered great-grandma.  The converse of which was that half a century ago Percy was also a saucy nickname for the male genitals, as in the jovial formula for masculine urination as ‘pointing percy at the porcelain’. Plus, any sinister or excessively seedy subliminal nuance was neutralised by the utterance of that farcical handle itself. It would take a psycholinguistic genius to calculate why exactly the name Percy makes most of us, if not laugh hilariously, shall we say ‘ejaculate’ a muffled titter! After all no one chortles at a woman called Mercy, even though ‘p’ and ‘m’ are both labials, meaning as we all know they are the hardest obstacles for ventriloquists to master. Mercy isn’t at all a funny name, and yet Percy very much is, whether we be talking about Percy Thrower the modest and affable celebrity TV gardener, or the Canadian Percy Faith and his orchestra of yore with his A Summer Place or Tammy Tell Me True. At which point, I’m almost afraid to inform you, B and H man, that Percy Faith’s wife was called Mercy Faith, truly she was, google it, if you don’t believe me! Percy and Mercy together, one of whom was laughed at, and one of whom was not, even though it doubtless encouraged them to marry each other, if only because their names rhymed. Or what price Percy Sledge from Alabama, who poignantly crooned the world into hypnotic euphoria with his When A Man Loves A Woman? Or Percy Grainger the Australian turned US composer who rather like fellow musician Percy Faith picked a woman with a name that really mattered, in his case Ella Viola Brandelius Strom. You will note that her full name includes that of a musical instrument, the viola, and another composer, an Englishman called Delius. Moreover, Percy Grainger was largely schooled at home, and his teacher mother Rose happened to be a harsh disciplinarian, just possibly exacerbated by the fact her womanising husband, John Grainger the eminent Australian artist, had given her a form of contagious syphilis. Rose’s frequent thrashings of Percy G no doubt explains the composer’s lifelong fascination with S and M, and suggests that had circumstances not been against him, in his regular trips to London he might well have been a frequent habitue of Percy Fladge’s place. Had he lived longer that is, for time got in the way, and the composer died in 1961, aged seventy-eight, thus antedating Fladge of Soho by a decade. Born in 1882, Grainger was three years older than DH Lawrence, who you will recall was enamoured of the word ‘persiflage’ but was never to know anything of the man called Percy Fladge. Add to which, for many years, up until thirty years after his death in fact, Lawrence himself was regarded as a seditious pornographer. Not to speak of along with his German mistress Frieda, suspected of being a spy for the Boche during World War One, hence far more of a danger to society than any smutty and uneducated entrepreneur from Goole, aged twenty-five in 1970…

Right at the start, Frank Summers was informed by the intelligent young graduate assistant that his employer stocked only books related to male-female fladge. If any man were bold enough to ask him, did he have any colourful material showing men being chastised by women, and ditto the same pageantry to be acted out with the ladies in the rooms nearby, he was immediately shown the door. Even more bizarre, should Percy Fladge happen to be in the shop and overhear the sheepish or sometimes brazen request, he would immediately tear over to buttonhole the gent, and berate him at full volume for being so pathetically unmanly.

“What was that? You think that you want to be walloped by a nice respectable woman, by one of my handpicked girls, do you? For being a very naughty little boy, is it? Have you no such thing as a basic masculine pride, man, sneaking in here and whinging for one of my lassies to grab you and put you across her knee? Just you get out of my shop and bugger off home to your wife, or more likely your poor old Mum that you live with and scrounge off, the pathetic eternal bachelor! Then pull your pants down, and beg Mummy to give you a bloody good thrashing!”

Similarly, conspicuous posters near the door politely informed gay men in twelve point bold ulc, that there was no male-male S and M on offer here, whether pictorial or the real thing by advance booking. To be sure, the word gay meaning homosexual did not exist in antediluvian 1970, nor was discrimination on sexual grounds routinely enforced only three years after the Wolfenden Report. So it was that Percy Fladge without reflection practised a bare-faced double discrimination, consistent with his own extreme prejudices. Bizarrely then, unreflecting Fladge had no qualms whatever about lesbian customers consorting in his rooms with his so-called girls (in fact their age range was between thirty-five and fifty) where often, as the vaudeville duo of tittering schoolgirl and strict schoolma’am, they would either be soundly punished, or do the sound punishing. This untoward tolerance on Percy Fladge’s part, was never openly advertised, but somehow just wordlessly understood, then confirmed by the gay woman having a discreet and helpful conversation with the obliging graduate assistant. In fact Percy had two ‘girls’, aged forty-seven and forty-eight, who as well as accepting chastisement from males, were also set apart with a welcome bonus as specialists in the lesbian field, even if the pair of them were happily married, and both had little grandsons, both of which by a comical coincidence were called Darren.

Frank was also permitted to take a comprehensive look at the smartly furnished rooms where the girls were situated, though no photographs of the women themselves were permitted. But the walls, lavishly decorated with posters of bare and beautiful female bottoms, selected by Percy Fladge the avid connoisseur when it came to outstanding callipygy (and imported in bulk from a warehouse in  Amsterdam) appeared with bare-faced cheek, in the ‘Sunday Smut’, as choleric Irish priests would dub it. After that, Morton’s endearing Goole-style subconscious had its curious say, for it was his eccentric idea and no one else’s, to have antique bookshelves with quaint old volumes in the rooms, as if anyone intent on administering or receiving corporal punishment, would choose to relax with a chapter of a pound a yard of shelf-fillers like Vicki Baum or Harrison Ainsworth, before getting down to business. In one of those rooms where the male clients chastised Fladge’s women, there were shelves containing numerous vintage Just William books, as penned by the serious novelist Richmal Crompton, many of them Twenties and Thirties first editions, with the immaculate illustrations of the genius Thomas Henry. In another room were collectable hardback copies of Billy Bunter, the comic creation of Frank Richards, a name not that far removed from that of my friend, Frank Summers. But just as Percy Fladge was an alias, so was Frank Richards, being a mere four per cent of the myriad literary identities of the real author, Charles Hamilton. Hamilton was pace the Guinness Book of Records, the most prolific prose writer of all time, penning a hundred million words in total, or the equivalent of one thousand two hundred, average length novels. He also boasted twenty-five pen names (including Owen Conquest, Prosper Howard, Sir Alan Cobham and Freeman Fox) and touchingly he died of all days on Christmas Eve. His immortal creation Bunter, the gluttonous, obese and cowardly schoolboy, wore the ‘tightest trousers in the Remove’ and in that context not only schoolmasters Quelch and Prout regularly wielded the cane upon the boys, but schoolboy prefects also. Hamilton/Frank Richards didn’t mind straining credulity for plot purposes, so that the otherwise ignorant and talentless dunce of a Bunter, happened to be a virtuoso ventriloquist. Indeed, memorably in Bunter the Ventriloquist he cunningly threw his voice into the mouth one of his decent fellow Remove chaps, who broke all precedent by addressing Wingate, Head Prefect and Head of the Sixth, with the following unpardonable insult:

“I say, Wingate. Don’t talk rot, old chap!”

Accusing a sovereign and heraldic authority, of talking rot! Hamilton knew how to make his readers shudder! At those evil anarchic assaults, on all that kept the world a seemly arena for the good and the great, the rulers and the ruled, the leaders and the led. Many of his keenest readers were lonely young soldiers who were painfully missing their mums, the same who dropped their aitches and jumped to attention, not the posh and fresh-faced counterparts of Bob Cherry and Johnny Bull and Lord Mauleverer and Frank Nugent and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh. These were the same boy geniuses who because they studied Latin, bawled Cave! when they meant Hide! just as the austere beak Mr Quelch came stalking down the quad. Thanks to the Fat Owl’s treacherous wiliness, the innocent Remove man was scheduled to be given six of the best by Wingate for cheeking not a beak, but an Ennobled Lieutenant invested with Sublime Authority from Above. So it was that a fitting flagellatory atmosphere was provided by Percy’s insistence on the Billy Bunter books, albeit amnesically he had stuffed the shelves with the homeoerotic variety.

 As for Just William, perhaps because he was created by a woman author of considerable literary talent, there was virtually nil reference to corporal punishment in all thirty-nine volumes published between 1922 and (the last one posthumously) in 1970. The Just William stories were brilliantly written, but strange to say, predicated on extremely wishful thinking fantasy, emphatically on the part of the readers, but also on that of the generous and willing to please author. Consequently, though a thousand times better written than Bunter, the Crompton stories were far less true to life. Eleven-year-old William’s family had a whole armoury of maids and cooks, yet incredibly William was sent to a simple village school where among the rustic riffraff like Arabella Simpkin, he learnt to drop his aitches. He also went ratting with his mongrel Jumble and his gang called The Outlaws, all of whom lived in posh suburban houses with maids and cooks, and had fathers who commuted to sedate offices in the metropolis. In reality, these so-called outlaws would have been in their last year at prep school, but instead had pitched battles in the woods with a weedy gang of equally posh Laneites headed by fat and cowardly and above all treacherous Hubert Lane. Do you see what I’m getting at, art teacher, as it is very important? To make her middle-class boy hero exciting for the child readers, brainbox Crompton had to invest him with the habits, activities and vocabulary of vandal working class lads, even down to calling his gang the Outlaws. As a gifted adult novelist, Crompton possessed a considerable and very decorous vocabulary, so that if I, an educated gent, an artist of a kind like yourself, have any fluency at all with words, a good part of it comes from my imbibing her Just William stories. For the fearless benefit of her artless young readers, she uses words like ‘lionise’, ‘escutcheon’ and ‘susceptible’, as well as Latin tags like meum et tuum, and mutatis mutandis.  There are several vital conclusions may be drawn from this display of wishfully-thought improbability, where a posh little Home Counties boy behaves and speaks like a rustic proletarian, and where an overall narrative sophistication somehow glosses and justifies the whole sleight-of-hand confection. And, needless to add, as if by magic, produces a minor species of Great Art. For Just William is assuredly a Minor Variety of Great Art, while the Bunter sagas are an extremely terrible kind of art: repetitive (‘Ha ha ha! cried the Remove chums’ occurs umpteen times on virtually every page), cliché ridden, at times appallingly racist (why, you cheeky nigger! Bunter roars at the South Sea natives in Billy Bunter Among the Cannibals) and with only the Fat Owl’s greed and deviance and farcical cowardice as genuine and beguiling comedy.

Conclusion One. Sometimes you need to bend the rules and indeed break all of them, in pursuit of originality and excellence. As Flaubert said, the greatest artists as a rule have no rules, but what lung power! Conclusion Two. The same can be true of the inverse phenomenon of dreadful writers, terrible painters, bad musicians, who can on more than one occasion attain outlandish commercial success. A lucky or possibly unlucky writer, for example, can cook up tawdry (remember that addictive word meretricious, art teacher?) improbable, even cloud-cuckoo land fictive scenarios, and yet hit the mythical big time. Take what my girlfriend Dora refers to as that Fifty Thousand Grades of Shite, the S and M saga that sold sixty million copies worldwide, everywhere from Uppsala to Uttoxeter to Ulan Bator, and back. It is a statistical fact that the majority of those purchasers were married women over the age of thirty, whether from Fiji, France or Frinton on Sea. Hence by the cynically superior it is often cruelly dubbed as Mummy Porn. Let us for now put aside the vexing question of whether this proves millions of married women worldwide are fascinated by common or garden flagellation, and then beyond that the grim and daunting variants of bondage, clamping and worse. Forget all that for the moment, art teacher. But here is a nice little poser for you…

Yet another timely quiz question…

What is the single most remarkable thing about that mega-selling book Fifty Shades of So Forth, which everyone aside from the brain-damaged concurs is wonderfully atrociously written? Parenthetically, some would add that the author needs to be congratulated for those copious quantities of wholly original varieties of virtuoso bad writing, entirely unknown until she discovered the species.

I repeat. What is the single most remarkable thing about Fifty Shades of Satin Gloss? No, you can’t think of an answer? Don’t worry you’re not the only one, twenty a day B and H man. In fact, I think I must be the first person in the world to discern what is genuinely extraordinary about an otherwise banal and painfully anticlimactic and truly anaphrodisiac work.

The names of the two protagonists, are what I am referring to. Why has no one else noticed? And while we’re at it, I seriously doubt whether the author herself has even noticed what exactly has leapt from her unruly subconscious.

The man who likes total control and to administer stern punishment and beyond that aches for perversion proper, is called Christian. Consider. The author could have called him anything she liked: Doug, Des, Miles, Zoot, Willy, Septimus, Percy, Calum, Reg. But no, she chose to call him of all things Christian. And her besotted young girl admirer who eventually he flagellates until he flagellates her once too often, and far too harshly, so that she sobs and swears at him, and then leaves him. What is she called?

She happens to be called Ana, but her full name, which is often referred to, is Anastasia. Anastasia is both a classical and a modern Greek name, and is the female version of the masculine name Anastasis. And Anastasis, what else does that mean, art teacher? For as well as being a name, it also means something else, and indeed it has an infinitely significant meaning.

Anastasis means Resurrection, art teacher, and Anastasia is the female version of Resurrection. So it is in this wishful thinking and extremely excruciating, yet world-conquering volume, we have ‘Christian’ and ‘Resurrection’ as our sorry heroes. As the stumbling protagonists, that is, of a penny dreadful that purports to explore the troubled Universe of Pain and Power.

I just thought I’d run it past you, art lecturer…

Chapter 2 of ‘Mimi and the Virus’ will appear on or before Monday, 4th January

TIPS ON WHAT TO READ: VIRAGO WOMEN WRITERS

TIPS ON WHAT TO READ: VIRAGO WOMEN WRITERS

It is all of 50 years since Germaine Greer’s incendiary The Female Eunuch forced everyone to suddenly reconsider accepted notions of gender and power, and to stop believing that pace Voltaire’s Pangloss everything was for the best in ‘this best of possible worlds’. Australian Greer (born 1939) had an enormous and incisive brain by anyone’s standards, and her articulate, reasoned and invigorating polemic still has the power half a century later to stop us in our tracks. When it came to the parallel scandal of a neglected women’s literary tradition, it was 3 years later in 1973 that another Australian living in the UK, Carmen Callil (born 1938) started the feminist Virago Press, and in 1978 the first Virago Modern Classic appeared; namely the 1933  Frost in May by Antonia White (1899-1980).

Callil with other women involved in publishing, such as Rosie Boycott, Harriet Spicer and Ursula Owen,  was painfully aware that there were a considerable number of very gifted women novelists and short story writers, active in  the first half of the 20th century, who were either destined to stay out of print, most probably for ever, or were ominously heading that way. They set about the highly practical business of putting those women back in the bookshops and libraries, and the familiar dark green Virago paperback began to resurrect neglected virtuoso talents such as Kate O’ Brien, EH Young, GB Stern, Violet Trefusis, Storm Jameson, F Tennyson Jesse,  plus that severely ignored and unarguable genius called Molly Keane (aka MJ Farrell) and many more. By 1989 there were 300 titles in the list and the current tally in 2020 is 715. As the decades passed, the list understandably went beyond its original brief to take in US writers (Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, Zora Neale Hurston) as well as the occasional forgotten work of George Eliot, plus contemporary UK authors such as Shena Mackay and Lisa St Aubin de Teran who perhaps felt happier with a dedicated feminist imprint than they did with their previous mainstream publishers.

Currently, if you google a list of women’s presses, you get an impressively long tally, though most of them turn out to be American and many of them are defunct. The three best known UK ones are Virago which is still active, and The Women’s Press which folded in 2013, and Sheba Feminist Press that finished in 1994. To underline that things are still not as rosy as all that for women authors in UK publishing, I would advise you to pick up any title of the imprint Rebel Inc which is owned by mainstream and prosperous Canongate UK, and which showcases ‘counterculture’ writers from both sides of the Atlantic, including the bad boys Alexander Trocchi (author of Young Adam) and Charles Bukowski. At the back of my copy of Nelson Algren’s The Man with The Golden Arm, there is a complete list of Rebel Inc titles, numbering 40 in all, of which guess how many are written by women? The answer is 2, and they are by the same woman Laura Hird (born 1966) an acclaimed Scottish novelist and short story writer. 5% of Rebel Inc authors are women, then, or more accurately 2 and a half per cent, if we are talking of writers rather than their titles. So, how can I put it: if the audacious counterculturists are to outward appearances at least, more than a little on the macho side when it comes to editorial bias, what hope is there from the ever-cautious and terrified of taking any risk mainstream?

WORKING YOUR WAY THROUGH VIRAGO

As a writer and a fiction teacher, active as both since the mid-1980s, I am often asked for advice on what to read. I always recommend the same thing, which is that you the questing reader could do worse than:

a) work your way selectively through the whole of Virago Classics as found in libraries, bookshops, charity shops, or via Amazon or abebooks etc.

b) go along also to a good public library with a large fiction stock, and make your way from A to Z, picking out all the works by foreign authors only, and after a brief scrutiny taking some of them home to read.

NB. It is those three words ‘selectively’ and ‘brief scrutiny’ that are crucial. Working your way through either branch of neglected authors, namely neglected women and neglected foreigners (note that only 1% of books published in the parochial and complacent UK are translations) doesn’t mean ceding your judgment nor your personal taste. The way to be selective is very simple. Pick up your Virago Classic or your foreign novel in translation, and take a quick look at page 1. If you like it, great. Now try page 10. If you still like it, even better. Now try page 85 and then page 108. If you still like it, you’ve cracked it, congratulations, take it home and enjoy the whole book. If you find yourself half liking page 1 but not page 10 and definitely not pages 85 and 108, put it back on the shelves and pick up another till you find a book that you do like. It doesn’t matter if on the back cover of the book you don’t like, ten esteemed critics and three English profs are telling you it is an ineffable masterpiece. If you aren’t enjoying what you are sampling you are never going to enjoy it vicariously, through the eyes of the venerated brainboxes and the literary authorities. The only way you are ever going to gain some trust and confidence in your own literary taste, is by reading what appeals to you, not by treating literature as some kind of necessary if unappetising medicine.

Bearing that in mind, here are some of my Virago recommendations:

GB STERN and the Matriarch novels

Gladys Stern (1890-1973) was a friend of Rebecca West (‘indisputably the world’s number one woman writer’ according to Time in 1947), and a popular and prolific novelist and playwright in her day. Her finest achievement was the wonderfully funny and autobiographical ‘Matriarch’ series, which Virago rescued from oblivion. These 5 novels detail the hectic lives of the Hungarian Jewish diaspora in the form of the Rakonitz and Czelovar families who left Europe in the 19th century to settle and run prosperous businesses in London. Improvident uncles, appalling aunts, the crazy but lovable Anastasia who is the eponymous Matriarch, and her young and defiant granddaughter Toni. Pure joy, and the only problem you might have is in remembering who all the characters are, but there is a genealogical tree provided just in case. Try to read the following in order, but don’t worry if you read them in random sequence as I did (NB. the dates of course refer to their original publication, not to their Virago reissues).

The Matriarch (1924), A Deputy was King (1926), Mosaic (1930), Shining and Free (1935), The Young Matriarch (1942)

KATE O’BRIEN

The Limerick writer Kate O’ Brien (1897-1974) won two major literary prizes for her debut work Without My Cloak (1931) and her 1946 novel set in Spain That Lady, was made into a 1955 film with Olivia de Haviland and Paul Scofield. She often wrote with precise yet understated subtlety about the conflict between the spiritual and the sexual, and as a result both Mary Lavelle (1936) and The Land of Spices (1941) were banned in Ireland on publication. I can strongly recommend all of her books, but perhaps the one with the most compelling tension, one that you won’t be able to put down, is Without My Cloak

EH YOUNG and Chatterton Square

EH Young (1880-1949) was the pen name of Emily Daniel, born in Northumbria, but who spent most of her adult life in Clifton, Bristol which she fictionalised as Upper Radstowe. She broke many taboos in her day, as she had an affair with her husband’s close friend, and ultimately shared a menage a trois with the same lover and his wife. She was also a gifted mountaineer (as was Virago author Ann Bridge, see below). Several of her novels were dramatised as a 4-part series by the BBC in 1980 under the name of ‘Hannah’, though the main novel source was Miss Mole (1930). Don’t let the titles put you off, as in The Misses Mallett (1922) and Jenny Wren (1932) and The Curate’s Wife (1934). Her books have a sly, subversive and highly intelligent wit, and her masterpiece Chatterton Square (1947) is in a league of its own. Set in 1939, it is all about a stuffed shirt of a middle class Upper Radstowe gent, who bullies the life out of his wife and tries to rule the roost with his children. It is so immensely enjoyable and the dad so thoroughly odious, I read it 3 times in 2 years! So start with Chatterton Square and then go where you will…

ANN BRIDGE and Illyrian Spring

Ann Bridge (1889-1974), born in Hertfordshire, had several names, and was the pseudonym of Mary Ann Dolling. She was unhappily married to a diplomat called O’ Malley, which explains her occasional designation as Lady O’ Malley, but she also went by Cottie Sanders. Bridge travelled all over the world, and wrote 14 novels and memoirs set in China, Croatia, Albania, Portugal and elsewhere. In addition, she was a star climber, the youngest ever member of the Alpine Club at 19, and a friend of the great mountaineer George Mallory. She was commercially successful late in life, with her amateur sleuth series, the Julia Probyn novels, published 1956-1973. I strongly recommend her 1935 Illyrian Spring which is a delicately moving, remarkably insightful tale about the successful artist Lady Kilmichael who takes an impromptu holiday from her husband and daughter when she feels neglected by them. She sets off on a trip to what is now Croatia and develops a platonic relationship with a tormented young Englishman, Nicholas, a thwarted artist of great promise. Bestselling Illyrian Spring is credited with kickstarting tourism to the former Yugoslavia which in the 1930s was barely visited. Another much acclaimed Bridge novel is Peking Picnic (1932)

MOLLY KEANE, the unsung genius

Molly Keane (1904-1996) was born into the Anglo-Irish landowning elite in Co Kildare, though she grew up in Co Wexford. She had a lonely childhood and wrote her first novel during a bout of illness. This was called The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, she was only 22 when it was published, and understandably enough, I found this, her hurried juvenilia, far from satisfactory. Luckily it was about the tenth of her books that I read.

However, all of those 11 novels that appeared under the pen name MJ Farrell, between 1928 and 1956, are in my view accomplished masterpieces, and I would recommend you try any and all of them, as she is one of those writers you devour rather than read. Her addictive qualities stem from the fact that she mixes mordant character comedy with diamond sharp penetrative satire, as she shows the painfully dysfunctional Anglo-Irish families with their faithless fathers, hurt and spiteful mothers, and best of all their infantilised bachelor and spinster children who will clearly never leave home. She also writes magnificently and tenderly about furniture, curtains, carpets and gardens, in a manner superior to Balzac in my opinion. She published nothing for 20 years after her husband died in 1946, and then in 1981 was ‘rediscovered’ with Good Behaviour which had sat in manuscript for years, and which she published for the first time under her own name. It was shortlisted for the Booker and was followed by Time After Time in 1983, and Loving and Giving in 1988, when she was 84 years old.

If Molly Keane had been a man, she would without doubt have been hailed as a major 20th century novelist, and would never have been out of print. It is more than depressing then, that I have met numerous well-read people who have never heard of her, much less enjoyed her infinitely entertaining and instructive novels. The only caveat I have about Keane, is that most of her novels have regular references to fox hunting, which was an inevitable part of her class and her milieu. Luckily there is little in the way of descriptive detail when this gruesome and repugnant pastime is referred to.

LISA ST AUBIN DE TERAN, The Hacienda

De Teran (born 1953) is one of Virago’s contemporary authors, who made her name with two vivid and atmospheric novels in the 1980s, Keepers of the House (1982) and The Slow Train to Milan (1983). She is probably my favourite living UK author, as to quote George Orwell, she is not afraid of the English language, and can actually write enduring and finely wrought prose, Partly, this is down to her cosmopolitan origins, as her father was the Guyanese writer Jan Carew, and the name St Aubin indicates Channel Island ancestry. At a young age she married an exiled Venezuelan as revealed by her surname, but when they returned to his ancestral hacienda he went into a kind of profound psychotic decline. Virago in 1997 published The Hacienda, her memoir of how she more or less single-handed took care of the sprawling property as her husband sat in a motionless stupor. It is brilliantly written, touching and enlightening, and my late wife Annie was so impressed and moved by it she made plans to use it in her work as a consultant trainer.

REBECCA WEST, ROSAMOND LEHMANN, VIOLET TREFUSIS, F TENNYSON JESSE

Rebecca West (1892-1983) would probably have stayed in print without the advent of Virago, such was her stature as a novelist, and as an observer at the Nuremberg trials, not to speak of her authoritative 1100-page travelogue on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1942). Virago reissued many of her novels, and I can strongly recommend all of them, apart from that utterly bizarre and unreadable 1929 baroque fantasy Harriet Hume.  Otherwise, The Thinking Reed (1936) The Fountain Overflows (1956), The Return of the Soldier (1918) and the assassins and skulduggery novel The Birds Fall Down (1966) are all outstandingly good reads.

Rosamond Lehmann (1901-1990) likewise was such a high-profile writer, she too would probably have survived without Virago’s assistance.  I am an admirer of two of her best-known books Dusty Answer (1927) and The Weather in the Streets (1936) but I eventually gave up on both Invitation to the Waltz (1932) and A Note in Music (1930). You have the spectacle of intelligent and sensitive young women falling for posh and vacuous army officer chaps, whose vocabulary is full of ‘frightfully’, ‘spiffing’, ‘ripping’ and ‘topping’, and you wonder why Lehmann didn’t realise that documentary accuracy (i.e. their prototypes did actually talk like that) doesn’t always make for successful and enduring art.

Violet Trefusis (1894-1972) was the daughter of Alice Keppel (the mistress of Edward VII) and she was also the lover of Vita Sackville-West, who in turn was the lover of Virginia Woolf. She wrote with equal facility in both French and English, and produced at least one comic masterpiece Hunt the Slipper (1937) which everyone should read. This details the pursuit by the middle-aged idler Nigel of the demanding but ultimately sincere young Caroline, and is variously set in English country mansions and the Paris of the rich and idle. Trefusis’s caustic and panoptic wit is incredibly impressive, and the comedy is so rich you have to be alert to every searing two-edged irony as you go along.

F Tennyson Jesse (1888-1958) was one of the first female criminologists in England, and she also wrote at least one brilliant novel called A Pin to See the Peepshow (1934). It was a fictionalisation of the notorious 1923 Thompson-Bywaters murder case which ended with the execution of Mrs Thompson and her lover for the murder of her husband. In reality neither she nor the central character of this novel, Julia Almond, knew that their lover contemplated murder, but was convicted on the misogynistic grounds of ‘leading him on’. The novel is particularly good at showing the young girl growing up in a stiflingly respectable household and going on to find independence in her job as a clothes buyer, whilst simultaneously being pressured into a dull and equally stifling marriage. A Pin to See the Peepshow was adapted for both BBC TV and BBC Radio 4, in the 1970s.

The next post will be delayed until I have finished a new novel, a satire about present times. It will probably be around February 2021

THE ROWAN – a short story

THE ROWAN – a short story

Baxter Prosser ruined his back trying to lift a 1980 tractor engine single-handed, and for years afterwards continued his business in needless pain. He tried, knowing full well it was impossible, yet pointlessly exasperated by the fact there wasn’t a soul around to help him that warm if pleasant August afternoon. He had only himself to blame, but Prosser’s consistent habit was to note inconsistency and failure all around, and to add salt to his always friendly conversation by condemning everyone he knew, his closest friends especially. He picked fault with the unflagging energy of a compulsive gossip, in part because his job was often lonely and his one-man business stuck out in the wilds. Also, Prosser was frequently grossly put upon. Being self-employed and his workload varying with the season – he was a very competent agricultural mechanic – he could rarely afford to turn away work. An old heartless farmer with a harvester needing immediate servicing, would turn up at nine o’ clock on a balmy summer’s night, just as weary Prosser was off out to The Drove. Baxter would slowly remove his scented cardigan and flap his freshly washed fringe in muzzled sourness and genuine despair. Those Uplands bloody farmers always wanted huge jobs done in half an hour and at half a minute’s notice. As they themselves had no holidays, gaily broke every limb, calmly pulled every muscle, happily haemorrhaged in all weathers on the hills, why should they give a damn about Baxter’s back and competitive dominoes and Guinness?

Baxter was forty-five and had come to Cumbria from the north-east twenty years ago. He had a motherly, even quaintly grandmotherly look about him, the result of high cheekbones and a countrified purply rosiness so homely it could only suggest the gender historically stuck at home. However, Baxter was coarse and ribald among pub companions, tirelessly lewdly chuntering (deek at the tits on yon) about that notorious brazen shopkid from Brampton, or that thirty-year-old femme fatale of a cashier who wore fancy contact lenses, from Longtown. That drop-curtain hairstyle of his, that heavy fringe voluminously wispy when just washed – just before the buff cardigan and the pale slacks were donned for nightlong doms and a wild singsong at The Drove – that somehow lent him a Shakespearean page boy lustre incongruously at one with the ghost of the carping old grandma from Consett.

Baxter hated a considerable number of people and Sonny Armstrong returned his loathing, in part because of their proximity as neighbours. They both lived up a very minor C road, Prosser almost at the corner with the winding B road that went on to the Scottish border after considerable bend and bog and pine forest, and hovering pink kestrel. Most Cumbrians, much less the rest of the world, know less than nothing of that remarkable triangle subtended by Brampton-Longtown-Newcastleton. Sonny Armstrong came from an old local family and like the Clan Armstrongs of the Debatable Lands, he did not always rein in his natural wildness, or why not say his natural anarchy. Baxter was a highly unusual immigrant in having lived in five separate smallholdings scattered all over the Debatable Lands. He had bought, renovated, started up his workshop every five years, got bored, sold up, and repeated the cycle. Baxter had even flourished in Bailey, an area so wild and unplaceable it literally refuses to be a place and goes under a Scots postal address whilst staying geographically in England. There he had acquired a perfect seventeenth century farm of incalculable historical interest, purchased in 1980 for thirty thousand pounds, even then a mere song. Baxter had speedily ripped out an unreplaceable oak timbered ceiling, and cheerfully replaced it with four hundred blindingly white polystyrene tiles, admonishing his sceptical wife Stella with:

“It was juss a lorra manky bliddy owld wood!”

The once glorious parlour was soon converted into a snooker room for himself and teenage Arnold, embellished even further by Baxter’s private bar gaily festooned with Sangria wine bottles in raffia baskets, and a few rosettes of Newcastle United. But especially at Bailey, Baxter could make as much mess and noise as he liked, as his nearest neighbour, a lonely half mile off, was always glad of that dissonant music of human activity, even of Baxter Prosser’s. Especially on those infinitely grey Bailey days when the wind howled and the light was so bad that the surrounding pine forests seemed to be closing in on one with some definite purpose.

Sonny and Prosser had significant characteristics in common, and this intensified their mutual loathing. Both had smallholdings in considerable disarray, a condition termed locally a ‘scrow’ (an abbreviation of ‘scrow-wow’). Baxter and his family always had to live somewhere else whenever he was doing up his properties, and as he was nearly always doing up something, there were always two or three brand-new mobile homes of a sharp angularity and stark contrast with the sleepy gentleness of the winding farm lane. Sonny’s scrow was there in the laughably ugly turnip machine squatting idly on the bank outside the farm (on the public blurry highway, the lazy lirrel whooah!) together with two or three snoring vintage tractors and a haphazard quantity of sawn up timber for perpetually deferred fencing.

The country somnolence might have been complete without the two enemies to shatter it to pieces. Sonny was only thirty-five, and in the normal run of things a shy little stocky, moon-faced man, boyish, soft-eyed and with a continual air of self-deprecation. When sober that is, or when doing his daytime job. Sonny craved day and night to be a full-time farmer, but had neither the resources nor the confidence to risk such an irreversible enterprise. Instead he laboured for a building firm and saw to his farmstead in his leisure hours. Haphazard and hopeless financially, yet Sonny was unarguably a master in his own sphere. He was a champion sheep breeder, owning several ‘blackfyasst yows’ worth into thousands of pounds and insured correspondingly. Neither he nor his wife Lizzie nor his teenage daughter Sall, would have parted with their animal champions for less than gold bullion. Thus Sonny’s farming expertise went into a mere dozen prize beasts and meanwhile the stead at large stayed an unutterable scrow that inflamed Prosser’s eyes and aggravated his backache whenever he thought about it.

Sonny was a eugenic genius, a hopeless failure, and where Baxter from Consett made a din with his business, Sonny made the perfect evening air resound with his bawling obscenities as he shepherded his ewes without a dog. He’d bought two incredibly expensive two-year-olds for herding over a year since and had made loud but meagre efforts – four hours education in all – to train up Trim and Spot. Trim, the gentle bitch, was about ten per cent competent to herd the yows, and could usually manage to get one in every dozen through a large gateless aperture. Spot, the male, was sired by priceless fell herders and correspondingly reckless at spending his pedigree on these flats. He herded them all up in seconds, but in opposing redundant tangents that sent half flying to Brampton and half of them to Scotland. Left to himself, he might accidentally have worried them, he was so keen to sink his teeth, tongue, love, into anything that moved. Sonny solved things by keeping both dogs penned into a barn day and night so that they yapped and howled and sometimes acted as deafening chorus to the roaring shepherd who was almost thirty per cent efficient as a sheepdog.

Yadafftblurryowdcuns,” Sonny bellowed across the tender, resonant summer air as he leapt and dodged in repetitive exhausting arcs around his four or five fields. The lanes were heavy with honeysuckle and fuchsias; the siskins and goldfinches seemed to be drawn in great quantities to lend colour and glory to an almost inconceivable richness. It really was like Eden up this lane, especially at Armstrong’s end, at The Hagg. Prosser’s place and the adjoining sandstone cottages had nothing like Sonny’s view, and Baxter while happiest living in remote countryside, had no particular devotion to beautiful landscape as such. For Baxter’s disgust at his neighbour’s foul-mouthed yelling, was not because it ruined a pastoral idyll, but because it spoilt his wholly abstract sense of proprietorship – of what in formal leasing contracts is always described as ‘quiet enjoyment’ of the tenant’s property.

Their theoretical potential for a friendly nod or a wave or a joke might have been twenty times a day of a weekend. But if Baxter glimpsed Armstrong’s battered blue wreck of a Ford flying down the lane, he rushed rudely into his workshop, or alternatively turned his bad back and let that speak his injuries for him. Prosser spoke contemptuously of the sheep-breeder to all his customers, and derided his spouse Lizzie Armstrong, for her jerky, wide-eyed, nervous manner, and his son, Stanley, for his sleepy obesity. Nobody could have found reasonable fault with Sall the energetic daughter, but Prosser scoffed at her raucous voice and unsettling love of sheep-breeding and horse riding…

“Bliddy tomboy, not natral shootin an barlin like Sonny, mare like a lad than a ficken lass, man.”

Plus Sall’s father did undeniably illegal things like driving his tractor without lights on pitch dark nights, so that once or twice Baxter Prosser had had to leap into the hedge to avoid being run over by what had seemed to be a pair of rampant bulls. Armstrong had an unfortunate history of road accidents, one nearly fatal, and one quite recently where a broken arm and bruises had had him off work for a month.  Everyone knew that the near fatal crash had not been Sonny’s fault, and in his time off work last year he’d been hobbling about gamely on crutches, doing bits in the farm sooner than rest as instructed. However, Prosser sneered and condemned it all as part of the same picture. Feckless, reckless, rough, cheap, no money, moon-faced, only one horrible old vehicle between them, dibbling and dabbling with this and that, like an amateur and an eejit. At bottom a hired labourer with a farmstead come only by his wife, and which hardly kept them in Weetabix cereal never mind the animal feed. Prosser had the Masonic pride of the self-employed and a merciless contempt for anyone outside the running.

Midway between Armstrong’s and Prosser’s lay an even more striking smallholding than The Hagg. From the eighteenth century until the First World War it had been a blacksmith’s, the smith toiling in the roadward half and dwelling in the remainder. It was called The Rowan and from a distance it looked like a peculiarly long, peculiarly low single cottage. Yet for at least thirty years it had been divided up into two separate rented cottages, with shared tarmacadamed access and the field at front and back split by amiable consent rather than fenced into two gardens. It looked both large and small from Sonny’s garden, toylike, tender, magnificent. There it was squatting innocently in the dip with its unusually pleasing design, the construction of the smith himself, who had moved from Dumfries way and had introduced the Scottish Lowlands shape transformed. No one had ever seen a pair of cottages like it anywhere, especially from the Hagg side; the doors and the windows croftlike, queerly foreign in design. It exuded a fine touching radiance there in its snug two-acre field and with its happy clutter of disused pens and pitched hen hulls by the roadside. If anywhere was unspoilt while being reasonably handy for Carlisle, it was The Rowan. It made passers-by think of young, sentimental love, dimly recollected old fables, remote Orcadian islands, dreams of a benign and harmless kind. Birds like oystercatchers and curlews when passing overhead in summer definitely used it as a flightline, some chosen, elected navigation expressing their select sympathy and affection for something also birdlike. This little bird of a smallholding had a muddy trickling beck covered in brambles, the refuge of a solitary wild duck many a summer. A hen pheasant might also hide it away in the deep lush grass at the field side, and stay stockstill for weeks and weeks. There was a choice single alder at the start of the jungle which on warm nights melted into a wild glory of rust and gold. The Rowan had faded lupin-blue brickwork and post office red window frames. Clearly, to have carelessly changed the tiniest detail of this pure yet modest miracle, would have been a lethal stupidity, so few transcendently glowing crofts like this have survived in this perennially thoughtless county.

Sonny Armstrong always passed it of course, every time he drove Prosserward. But he also cast a special, possessive inner eye, each time he merely thought about The Rowan. For he and Lizzie themselves had lived at 1 The Rowan for the first five years of their marriage, and their children had played in the little muddy beck, where they had seemed barely distinguishable from the hens and new lambs that nibbled dreamily alongside. Sonny had not properly come into The Hagg until four years ago, when Lizzie’s old mother Winnie had died and left them the farm and some modest savings. Meanwhile, since 1960, The Rowan had been owned by a second old farming widow called Ginnie Davidson, who in 1979 had died and passed it on to her strong-willed daughter Shane, and her weak-willed son-in-law, Bender Jackson. Shane and Bender had immediately moved into Number Two, and finally rented Number 1 to Sonny after a remarkably unnerving, though typical bit of sleight of hand. Sonny and Lizzie were actually their very close friends, yet would always be their anxious tenants, a paradox common enough among farming folk and their Prosserish counterparts. Bender had promised Sonny the spare cottage for months and even let him in to paint and redecorate the week before moving in. Then two nights before formally giving him the key, in a seasoned fit of drunken hubris, Bender had offered the same cottage to an old drinking pal called Pinner from Longtown, who was about to wed a woman less than half his age. 

Shane Jackson had early adapted to her husband’s drinking sprees, vain loyalties, broken promises and occasional brushes with the police, in two intelligent ways. Firstly, though friendly if not warm to all in the farming community, she was protectively uneasy, her eyes going all ways, constantly hurriedly filling in conversational pauses as she nervily took in the crowd at the church do or Longtown auction or whatever, and asked herself – how many of waddyacallit, Bender’s adversaries/victims are watching me/us  just now? Secondly, she had learned to be ruthless not only in her compensations for an unpredictable husband, but in her own certain right, as her own fortified means of survival. Shane was stocky and strong and fit and knew how to graft, both on a farm or in any appropriate town job, all her years at the West Cumberland Farmers Retail Shop, for example. When faced with any looming moral dilemma, she always looked sternly down her nose as she embarked upon suiting her own precise needs and no one else’s. With the same volte-face as Bender, she now promised Pinner Wright and his child fiancée Number One, The Rowan, just like that. She was quite sober and yet felt no compunction about disappointing Sonny and Lizzie. They were not bright enough, nor powerful enough to make any fight out of it. Plus, it was her property, The Rowan, her mother’s and grandma’s before her, to do with just as she wished. Plus, the whole of The Drove was riveted by the ceremonious handshake on a very nice farm cottage supposedly spoken for months since. One or two murmured as much and Bender immediately growled that Sonny had lost interest in it long ago. This though Bender personally had heaved in the woodchip wallpaper and the Dyox from Sonny’s car the night before last…

That night Sonny was leaning at the gate of The Rowan, enjoying the perfect view upbank of his future farm, and wondering in the warm twilight why his mother-in-law had painted The Hagg dogshite brown and treacle black. Suddenly a Hyundai pulled up and an elderly farmer called Snaith, who had just been wrangling with Prosser over a very reasonable bill, stopped for a spiteful chat. He let Armstrong talk on a good ten minutes about corruption among the judges at Gilsland Show, before describing what he’d heard in The Drove an hour ago…

“Tellt em what!” cried Sonny, incredulous. His moon-face was tight, and in his anger he looked terrible. Only last night his old mother-in-law had been casting doubt on having Shane and Bender as adjacent neighbours, much less landlords. But then Winnie, like Prosser, trusted no one, and approved of almost nobody apart from the dead or the terminally ill.

Old Snaith told the tale slowly and slyly. He watched excited as Sonny frothed at the mouth like a lamb who’s eaten snow. Enraged, Sonny dragged him in to show him the bastard woodchip and the cream e-fucking-mulsion. Snaith looked politely shocked at the pains taken to no purpose. Sonny swore he would kill Bender and Snaith could quite believe him. Nothing, he said mournfully, could shock him about Bender Jackson, who was always daft and unreliable in his drink. Once, he told frantic Sonny, after some blazing marital argument conducted in public, he’d witnessed Shane drag Bender from a stool, hurl him down in the floor of the pub, and then fall upon his head with flailing fists.

Sonny left him abruptly and raced up to The Hagg to consult with Lizzie and her parent. Lizzie showed more laudable gumption than her mother who simply tutted complacently ah her accurate prediction. The uneasy, insecure young wife suddenly became impressively alert and pugnacious. She raced upstairs to their temporary bedroom, where snoring but now homeless Stanley and Sall were in their bunks. She then rang The Drove and checked with Willy that Shane and Bender were still soaking it up alongside Pinner. With Sonny roaring for explanations, she leapt into the car and drove them at seventy the eight miles to the pub. En route, she unfolded her audacious strategy. The Drove was full that night which definitely suited her purpose. She strode across the bar with a ceremonious smile, and as she was flourishing two hundred pounds like some cowboy gambler, she was not slow to win all eyes, including drunken Bender’s. Shane Jackson herself seemed painfully dismayed, and hoarsely squeaked how pleased she was to see ‘strangers’ like Lizzie and Sonny.

“I’VE BROUGHT YOU THE RENT FOR THE ROWAN,” Lizzie shouted at the top of her voice, like some raw extra from amateur rep. “THE FIRST MONTH’S RENT. STARTING TOMORROW. TWO HUNDRED POUNDS. AS AGREED.”

“Oh?” flushed Shane, as addled Pinner hiccupped and lurched to protest. “We weren’t really su…”

“Weren’t sure?” bawled Sonny with an iron smile of iron incredulity. Then he hammered Bender on the back like a drill sergeant, just to indicate the strength of his love. Finally, he turned with lordly patronage, to the elderly betrothed:

“How Pinner?” he snarled. “Gitten hitched an looken fer a hoose to rent? Not easy these days?”

“We weren’t sure,” Shane faltered, “whether you two were a hundred per cent sure.”

Bender meanwhile had collapsed and evaporated into the suds of his beer. Irresponsible and unreliable, and yet his capacity for guilt and naked terror were undoubtedly remarkable.

“No,” Sonny grinned, addressing the whole bar as if party to a grand joke that he, his wife, Bender, Bender’s wife, had cooked up for the general satisfaction of all concerned. “That’s Bender for you. He carries in me pest an paper and stands gassin aboot dogs and bets, while I decorates The Rowan. Then he cods on he’s gien it to Pinner in tiptop decorative order! Thank Christ, him and me and Pinner is aw just like that, three rogues aw fit for owt, eh boys?”

From earliest times The Rowan had maintained a colourful sequence of tenancies. Back in the Sixties Shane’s mother, Ginnie, had lived in Number One, and rented Number Two to an extended, impoverished family alluded to locally as gippo-potters, who were leet (light), daft, gormless etc. About a dozen of them had lived in one sitting room and two small bedrooms, and the surrounding land including Ginnie’s had stayed a lush jungle. Later when the Armstrongs moved in and Bender had refused all interest in gardening, Sonny had been permitted to cultivate almost the whole of it with potatoes, leaving Shane just a scrap of flower bed at the front. He had grown enough Rowan potatoes to trail with them in a pick-up hawking around Longtown every Saturday morning. For like Shane, Bender and many more, Sonny Armstrong was not content with a single job, nor a day that only yielded twenty-four hours. He felt no pride, simply his survivor’s instinct, at being able to turn a useful penny. His kids and Bender’s little girl Maria, had grown up together by The Rowan’s beck and it had been a simple, happy, most surprising period for all. The two couples were as close as that and as distant as that, friendship and genuine warmth forever parodying disagreement and doubt and ferocious disdain. Above all there was gossip to eager third parties, prognostication, furtive criticism, worried smiles masking doubts, and the impossibility of keeping all one’s family secrets sufficiently secret. They heard each other’s rows and enjoyed them, and would remember certain ice cold facts which even as they relayed them to a third party ten years later stopped them in their tracks. Bender and Sonny heard each other crying and tried to pretend amazement. Then there was foul, hot-blooded language from both Shane and Lizzie, which supposedly surprised the men too. But there were also certain communal picnics down by the beck on nights so vast and lusciously stagnant, it seemed impossible that life could ever have tasted more mysterious, yet more substantial with however much land or stock or plain cash.

Then Winnie died and the Armstrongs took over The Hagg. Then Bender’s mother died and left him one of her three farms and the adjacent bungalow down a rough track near Roadhead. They left The Rowan and leased out both cottages to whoever they could get. Round about then, Baxter Prosser sold a comprehensively renovated clump of cottages at Noblestown and moved down country to be Sonny’s neighbour. Noblestown had looked wonderful from the outside, but inside Prosser had left his mark. The young teaching couple who bought it immediately took out the private bar and the Madeira bottle,  the mile of tangled raffia, and started to paint a nursery, and then went to bed with a purpose. Shane and Bender had coincidentally been good friends of Prosser for quite some time.  They were closer to him than the Armstrongs, possibly because of his self-employment, a landowner in his own right, impatient of farmyard scrows, just like they were. They could suffer his intelligible mechanical scrow, but not any kind of agricultural scrow. Furthermore, Sonny, with his hands firmly on The Hagg but lacking capital, sold off far more of his fields than made sense. Later, he would bitterly reflect how he might have rented them as grass lettings and make more durable income. Shane, Bender and Prosser naturally indulged a dizzy chorus of critical sagacity at Sonny’s expense, whenever the Jacksons drove their machines down past the denuded Hagg and the bonny little Rowan cottages, towards the mechanic’s workshop.

Meanwhile, Baxter Prosser gossiped to all the farmers about Shane’s incredible temper and Bender’s insoluble drink problem.

Meanwhile, if Shane’s mother Ginnie had rented The Rowan to the-light-and-the-daft, her daughter carried on an impressively adapted tradition. Not for her the calm apparatus of estate agents, bank references, deposits, clergymen’s testimonials etc. Someone Bender had talked to in a Brampton snug would do, so within the space of five years The Rowan’s two cottages had had about twenty separate tenants between them. There were single mothers with drug problems; a time-cushioned hippy or two; the odd talentless painter; the odder mysterious retired journalist; a Greek Cypriot who commuted to Larnaca the entire way by motor scooter and only spent half the year at Number 1, The Rowan. He sublet genially of course, to a cosmos-tuned paranoid schizophrenic encountered on the backstreets of Carlisle. Then there was Thomas Turpin, of the Turpins of awful reputation. He and his brother Will had almost beaten a man to death outside a Longtown dance hall some years back. Once secure in The Rowan, Turpin surrounded both cottages with a horrible collection of wrecked cars and scrapped motorbikes, which he used to do death to the pregnant stillness of the summer nights. Once, after a four-hour row with his wife Tessie, who always wore bunny-shaped bright orange slippers, he climbed up onto the ancient roof of Number One, and let off a couple of rounds of shotgun, just to relieve his feelings. Armstrong, herding and cursing at the time, actually stopped in amazement at this Bugs Bunny sight, as he heard something other than his own yells.

Sonny surveyed the passage of time from The Hagg, as he counted the passage of tenants down the way. Some of them he liked, some of them disturbed him, some of them he loathed. The hippies and painters were all very genial and fine, but as he himself had been hospitalised by a Turpin at a Hethersgill Young Farmers’ dance in 1976, Thomas and he behaved towards each other exactly like Sonny and Prosser.

This endless procession of tenants seemed destined to stretch to eternity. Shane and Bender had frequently gravely sworn that Ginnie on her death bed had left these cottages to her granddaughter, not themselves. That is, for when Maria married or should the Jacksons perish in a car crash, not too remote a climax if bibulous Bender had his way. The Rowan was sacredly unsellable, until Maria came of age and chose to part with it. They swore with so much sentiment, it caused no one any surprise that when house prices went mad somewhere around the end of 1987, Shane and Bender suddenly gave serious thought to the absolute nature of family patrimony.

In 1960 Maria’s grandmother had bought The Rowan from Kyle the farmer, who’d used the pair of them as labourers’ cottages, for just three hundred pounds. By the end of the Eighties they were valued incredibly at thirty-eight and forty-two thousand, Number 1 having some potential for extension. The two pairs of tenants were naturally the last to be apprised as Shane and Bender with august pensiveness murmured to everyone they bumped into in auctions, bars etc. that they really did think The Rowan should be sold in the present climate. For one thing Bender had just been suspended from a haulage job (one fourth of his employments; the others being farmer, auctioneer’s assistant, and he kept a small milk round) for his outrageous timekeeping. Shane and he had resolved that if they bought a small farm called Gartiestown by the ford road up from Sleetbeck, Bender might be able to survive on farming alone. To buy Gartiestown would mean selling off Maria’s legacy and borrowing on the strength of their own. Lest Bender should sell of The Rowan in the form of an ambitious dominoes bet in a Longtown pub, Shane went along to a valuer and to their solicitor and learnt some interesting facts. Firstly, that The Rowan was worth that colossal amount of eighty thousand pounds, about two hundred and fifty times what her mother had paid on the day Shane left school in 1960. Secondly, it was wiser to sell them off as two separate properties, as Bender would make more and also pay less in capital gains. The very next morning, Shane and Bender went round gaily whistling and speedily repainted the outside, changing the beautiful lupin blues to cell block brown and a hideous shade of molten caramel. They turned up just like that, with huge tins and brushes, and wasted a couple of minutes in deceitful discussion with the tenants. A couple of teachers lived in Number Two, and a pair of herbalists in Number One. The herbalists listened incuriously to Shane’s laborious speech about spring cleaning. She even suggested they themselves do the window frames at a later stage, without a word at all about her intention of selling these little beauties. The teachers seemed a little warier, and the wife who happened to be friends with Lizzie rang her up immediately at The Hagg with the news.

Lizzie who had nearly been deprived of The Rowan herself, had only yesterday heard about Gartiestown and Bender scratching around for the means. When she elaborated her suspicions, the poor teacher burst into tears, as for her The Rowan had been the fecund paradise it would have been for any sensitive soul. She was thirty-four and had just decided to get pregnant, and had been dreaming about playing with her baby next summer down by the brambled beck, near the reclusive ducks, below the aloof oystercatchers and the skrarking lapwings, by the brooding pheasant hens, within sight of the massive old alder…

Shane soon got shot of the teachers and the herbalists. The teachers went first, grief-stricken, but adamant that an Eden ceased to be so once you realised the Eden proprietor wanted you out of it. The herbalists had more fire than elderflower in their veins, and they stuck it out for another four months. They watched with pleasure as about twenty separate parties went embarrassedly round their cottage, whereafter several put in stupid offers. Three put in extravagant bids that were taken up and then came to nothing. One couple from Carlisle, who to anyone but Bender would have looked penniless, offered far in excess of the asking price. Their mortgage firm laughed in their faces when they saw the beautiful fantasy in question, with its buckling roof, its bathroom mould, its flaking walls in need of damp-proofing and rewiring. At last, after the third let down, Shane took a dusty offer of thirty-four. The herbalists moved out shortly after, and three months later, as final proof of their fathomless amnesia concerning promises and asseverations, they sold Number One to you can guess who…

They sold Number One, the one where Sonny Armstrong had raised his young babies and his priceless potatoes…to an agricultural mechanic called Baxter Prosser.

They had forgotten the solemn speech made to the young cafe owner Sid, who eventually took Number Two. Recall that his access was the tarmacadamed road shared with Number One, the cottage nearer the road. That his quiet enjoyment was a dependent, meaning a contingent quietude. All he had asked was that they didn’t sell Number One to anyone in any noisy business, or indeed in any sort of business, but to someone like himself who wanted quiet and beauty and congruity.

Shane and Bender swore they’d have died before letting Number One go to any sort of clattering tinker (brushing aside Turpin, almost a manslaughterer). Prosser himself had frequently scoffed at these cottages a hundred yards closer to The Hagg as damp, comical, dreary little shacks that lazy Bender should have sorted out long since. However, words are only a kind of expendable gas, and now he decided he urgently needed a move. To be precise, he desperately needed to move one hundred yards. His five-year cycle had resumed, he needed to up sticks and start all over again. Let’s haul me caravans to the next oasis a hundred yards on. Baxter the Bedouin, various farmers chuckled, and slapped their fat old thighs. His wife Stella was aghast, almost ill. To go through all that hell again, in order to move a hundred bloody yards. Asked to justify the advantages of a single small Rowan cottage over their present modernised holding, Baxter found he could not. Instead he went heated and odd and began inventing things. Well, there was the land, there was half a bloody acre. You could throw up a whole village on half an acre if you wished. You could stick your caravans there, neah bother. But what for? Why? What’s wrong with this yan? Wal…ah canna stick next dooer, Stella. Nor next next dooer. Nor next next next dooer! The Number 2 Rowan lad ran the caff was weel canny, or if he wasn’t Baxter would soon flatten him, because he might well just be another thingumee New Edge puff for all he knew. Baxter who had a very bad back regularly posed himself as a pugilist. Stella Prosser went through about a month of severe reactive depression. It was like some mad dream. You went through a major ordeal, a house and business move, only to resume the caravans and calor gas and portabogs for another five bloody years…

Soon two large white touring caravans were obstructing Sonny’s view of The Rowan. Armstrong had remarkable long-sightedness and was able to read a church clock from a mile off, a skill which enabled him to view the vast nape of Prosser’s neck through the caravan window every morning. Drawn by this enhanced view of his enemy digesting his Coco Pops, Sonny could not tear himself away. Without consulting the café owner, Sid, Baxter had widened the entrance from the road, a sure sign that he planned tractors and harvesters to trundle through it. In fact, Prosser had informed his new neighbour he was probably retiring on account of his disabled back, and would not be constructing a new workshop. A remarkably sincere insincerity coupled with some fierce lumbar twinging at the time had convinced them both of his honesty. Faced with the turnabout, Sid was incredulous and then outraged. Prosser turned woundedly huffy and insisted it was only to help the pair of them, he would make no charge for his labour. The café owner stared at Prosser and discerned shameless untruth in the guise of immovable selfishness. Every evening Sid hovered warily at the back door and glared at Prosser who was fetching and carrying from the larger caravan, now suddenly bulging with sundry building materials. Prosser whistled with an enigmatic neutral expression, creating even more suspense in Sid. Sid was also making improvements on his own cottage, but he took it patiently and did not neglect to enjoy the fine summer nights, at least for an hour or two. Baxter worked fanatically, grimacing as he moved his back, and if he paused it was to light one of his many cigarettes and sip an instant coffee, and to stare always at his competent handiwork, never at the gathering glow of twilight. He replaced the roof of Number One, began a conservatory extension towards the gate, and had a few piffling farm Landrovers in for servicing with equipment stored in the caravans.

One day opening the Cumberland News to read the latest stock prices, Armstrong had his sleepy eyes drawn to a notice of proposed planning permission for a workshop business at Number One, The Rowan, Boltonfell, Carlisle…

Just as Sid was being apprised as much by one of his customers, Sonny had got out his pen and his writing pad and was feverishly composing a letter of objection to the county planner. Handicapped by his memory for spelling, grammar and syntax, nevertheless he managed to construct a compelling read. He pointed out that Prosser had disrupted the quiet and the appearance of the same small area in his previous workshop business, much of the planning permission obtained afterwards rather than prior, as the planner must be well aware. Also, that workshop had only been a hundred yards down the same road, so he was preparing to ‘reek havac’ twice in the same small area of ‘outstannin natrurel buty’. Lizzie learnt from Sid the next time she had a coffee in Brampton, that Sid also had put in detailed and precise objections, based on clandestine use of a tape measure, and presumably of a more articulate order, as Sid wore a stubby grizzly beard, and served guacamole for example to anyone who asked for it.

Baxter quickly learned of the objections and their agents. He went around fearlessly to remonstrate with Sid who refused to let him through the door, having maintained a blank taciturnity ever since the expanded entrance business. Prosser then began cursing viciously through the letterbox, until Sid poked his head calmly out of the window and gave him ten seconds to cease before he rang the police.

Sonny and Sid successfully objected to Prosser’s second application. Blazing Baxter spent a whole day in his caravan, trying to devise a revolutionary conservatory that was in fact a covert workshop. Blinds around the glass, could it be done, was it illegal? Feeling altogether desperate, and with his back giving him hell, he drove down to Fine Fare for a six pack of Carlsberg Special. It might give him inspiration, or if not might work as analgesic. As he drove the three miles, two young kestrels were there at their usual points, one hovering lyrically at the lee of the blind hill, the other almost at the Longtown junction. Prosser saw no sunlit hawks, he was deep in his mire of bitter resentment. He saw nothing of Newtown or Irthington, he was awash with a sense of comprehensive impotence. His aching back that no sort of treatment could improve; his probable need to acquire a workshop miles from home, and with all the dismal palaver that implied.

As he slowed opposite Fine Fare, he decided to park in the little triangle opposite the Moot Hall. He rived on the handbrake with a surly flourish, he even flicked his fringe like teenage Arnold. Thwarted and thoroughly dejected, he felt oddly like some romantically wounded youth. Although he tumbled out of his gleaming car rather more like a wheezy, very rheumaticky Carlsberg fan. He flicked his hair a second time and sighed. Then he blinked and felt a surge of half anxiety, half rage, as he saw who it was coming out of the space up front. Reversing with scant concern for limping mechanics was Sonny Armstrong, who, along with Lizzie and tubby Stanley, was doing his late evening shopping.

Stanley whispered solemnly to his Dad, that that was Prosser immediately behind them. Lizzie had just dashed out of Fine Fare with an afterthought tin of tuna, and she promptly stiffened and blushed as she saw Prosser lingering by her husband’s car. It was one of those pregnant showdowns one sees in old cowboy films. Sonny had obviously spotted his hovering foe, and was wilfully continuing his reverse. Prosser likewise was stubbornly taking his time to limp across the car park, to toss his empty Embassy pack into the litter bin.

Yet one of them must give way!

Schoolboys go through these High Noon performances every day of their lives: it is as old as time itself; as old as the Debatable Lands; as endless as the ubiquitous denaturation of the English provinces…

Lizzie feared exactly what would happen. Sonny looked defiantly at his wife through the rear window, turned with crafty eyes to Stanley, and said: “I know who it is behind us, Stan. I know it’s not King bastard Arthur frae Langtoon.”

Sonny then accelerated his reverse, pretending in fact that Baxter was incorporeal. The mechanic was completely flabbergasted, as he heard Lizzie scream:

“Look out! He hasn’t seen you!”

Prosser staggered back just as the blue Ford was inches from his toes. Then he executed a kind of sideways Western Roll that promptly saved his foot from certain maceration.

Sheer fright led to a courage he’d never have had, not even in his dreams. He pulled himself upright, tore across, and began to beat thunder upon the roof of the car.

“Cam on oot!” he bellowed in a molten rage. “Cam on oot! Are you trying to kill us, yer ficken imbecile?”

Lizzie roared at her husband. “You come here! Drive over here, and don’t you dare start anything in public!”

“Cam on oot, yer cunt,” Baxter continued with a deranged rallentando, “and I’ll kill yer! Away than,” he added with a wild fist flourish. “Away than, away than, Hamstrung!”

Armstrong lowered his window in a leisurely movement. Soon their two heads were only two feet apart. Perspiring Stanley was terrified but ecstatic.

“Are you tryin to kill us?” Baxter demanded operatically. “Tryin to maim us, you mad little fucker?”

Sonny screwed his eyes and replied pedantically, “If I was goin to maim thee Prosser, ah would dee it, ah would get on with it, there wouldn’t be any tryin aboot it! The fact ah didn’t kill thee means there was neah original intention.”

“Cam on oot!” hiccupped Prosser, vehement afresh at such naked injustice. “Cam on oot an feyt it! Cam on oot instead of writin letters to planners and cuddly (he meant cowardly) poof’s wark like that! Cam on oot till ah ficken bray youse!”

Very slowly Sonny wound up the window. “There’ll be neah brayin,” he replied scathingly. “Just like there’ll be neah scrow of a workshop at The Rowan. If there’s any brayin between me an thee ah’d break thy neck an thoo knows it.”

Baxter poked the end of his elbow across the window to prevent it shutting. His grandmaternal fizzog peeking above the elbow looked almost pitiful in its hunted indignation. Why, he wanted to know bitterly, why was Armstrong persecuting him over The Rowan?

Sonny glared at him with fatigued disgust. He hawked but did not spit. Nobody could talk to Prosser’s kind, he announced with something queerly sage in his voice. There was a rough kind of assurance in his disgust, that momentarily succeeded in unnerving Prosser.

But what about Sonny’s own noise, Baxter insisted hoarsely, his horrible roaring every night at his ewes?

Sonny snorted unembarrassed, and told him it was more than just simple noise was at stake.

“It’s to do with ruinin summat that’s bonnier than anybody can imagine.”

Prosser stared amazed at his ludicrous sincerity. That was exactly what Sid had said to his girlfriend last night, just loud enough for him to catch it…

“Ah lived at The Rowan for years!” Sonny clarified with a snarl. “Lang afoor thee! Stan here an Sall was raised by yon beck like real country bairns. They’ve mare country inside em than a coo or a hen or a yow. Folks like thee and Shane an Bender would sell The Rowan till some bastard wantin to make a theme park or six country bungalows or a slaughter hoose or a suppermackt. Thoo would sell it to Hitler or Marlon Brando or Slim Whitman or any bastard that gie thee fifty thoosand pund.”

Lizzie blushed and rallied to her husband awkwardly. She said with a huge quiver, “It’s to do with ruinin a thing that could never be replaced.”

Baxter squinted and then loudly scoffed. He threw up his arms in appeal to Fine Fare’s frontage.

“You should hear Shane and Bender laughin at yer scrow up at The Hagg! At you pair of amateurs. Christ, half of Boltonfell is laughin at you cloons for that Jed Clampett scrow at the ficken Hagg.”

“Thoo should hear Shane and Bender bad-moothin thee,” said Sonny pacifically. “They’re like thee, Prosser. They bad-mooth friends and enemies. They’d bad-mooth a coo or a cast tup if it did em any good. They’d give away a little speck of paradise widoot a care or cuss.”

Then he reversed sharply to where his wife was standing. Prosser’s elbow went suddenly numb and drooped down as he reached automatically for his fresh pack of smokes.

Meanwhile three miles away The Rowan was glistening deserted in the evening sun. Sid and his girlfriend were away camping in the north of Scotland. An oystercatcher calmly aligned itself by the newly repaired pair of roofs. It soon sped on beyond time and anyone’s memory

(This long-lost story first appeared with a different title in Panurge 15/16 in April 1992, when the magazine was edited by David Almond, author of Skellig)

The next post will be on or before Tuesday July 7th