This is the final chapter of the novel. To allow time for the novel to be read on this blog, there will be no new post until Monday July 4th. Please see the end of this chapter for a short but very relevant afterword. The previous chapters are all in the blog posts immediately preceding.

If you have any trouble finding specific earlier chapters, go to the May Archive, scroll down to the bottom, and then KEEP ON SCROLLING! They are there alright but you need to persist… 


The end will be short but not sweet, though neither will it be bitter. Angie was diagnosed with metastases, breast cancer secondaries, prominent on the liver and copiously in the bones, in the early April of 2008. They were the product of a primary cancer of ten years earlier, where she had a mastectomy and lymph node clearance. The tumours on the liver were very large and revealed themselves after one infarcted, meaning exploded like an inept assassin, in the middle of the night. The pain was unspeakable and might arguably have disproved the existence of God, and she was taken to hospital, where they did many tests and discounted the hoped for gallstones. As it happened her chemotherapy in 1999 had failed to kill a few stray cancer seeds, though luckily they were very slow to grow and took a decade to bare their ominous faces.

It could not be cured, only slowed and controlled by powerful medication. That meant bone strengtheners and anti-hormonal tablets, and with the first one, taken on waking, she had to sit bolt upright and fast for an hour. They worked magically for a whole year, and most of the time she took no more than a lone aspirin. In April of 2009 the two of us were walking on the Greek isle of Kythnos accompanied by Janie, twelve miles a day for two weeks to a succession of lonely and exquisite bays. Little did we guess she would be dead in a year’s time. Back home the oncologists said they had taken scans and the medication was no longer working, which made us stupefied and angry, for how could she possibly have walked 150 miles if her treatment wasn’t working. She tried a total of three more anti-hormonals and finally a limited amount of radiotherapy focused directly on the biggest tumours. By August those on the liver began to repeatedly flare up and she had to control them with liquid morphine.

By November Angie Milo was housebound and then confined to a bed downstairs. It was a massive and unexpected blessing when the pain went, and when she drifted in and out of a tranquil doziness. She smiled always gently, and ceased to take anything save a sip of water. The specialists said it was the proliferation of tumours in the liver that were now producing a kind of fug, which had started to infect the brain. Those fumes created the condition cerebellar ataxia, which can often be confused with a spread of cancer to the brain, yet have a benign anaesthetic side effect.

She died on December 4th, 2009 at 6.20pm. Three days before Joe Potts the doctor was at her bedside. Aged 50, Joe was remarkable as a close friend, a believer in professional candour, and of respectfully telling the patient everything they needed to know. Last but not least he did not blanch at confessing what he did not know, but instead immediately googled it to see if he could remedy the lacunae. With Angie dozing, he turned to me suddenly.

“Have you told Angie that she’s dying? She needs to know, Sonny. Because everyone deserves to know.”

I stared at him. “I’ve tried very gently. I told her as much just last night. She murmured something or other, and that was it. I don’t think it meant anything. Because she’s too far gone to comprehend.”

“Hm,” he said, and then briskly. “Angie…”

A long and tranquil silence.

“Angie! It’s Joe! I’m here with Sonny. Hallo Angie.”

Angie grunted.

“You know that you are dying, don’t you? You’re not going to get any better. You do know that?”

Another grunt, and then a spark of cognisnance. She kept her eyes closed but barked:

Ah, BLOODY hell!

It was not a cry of woe nor anguish nor despair. In fact, the opposite. It was as if to castigate the two idiots in the room presenting her with a profound strategical nuisance. She had better things to do in the form of peaceful sleeping. But it was also to say that as far as she was concerned, all men no matter how capable or talented or intelligent, such as doctor Joe or writer Sonny, were still feckless little boys, who always needed their grubby little backsides wiped by a capable woman. It was always the bloody case, she knew that for a fact. A truly grown up man, such fabled and unlikely men simply did not exist.

We stared at each other, then rapidly burst out laughing. We had been barked at by a morphined woman on her death bed. The laughter stopped after a second, and we both turned our heads and shrilly wept.

That’s it then. The end. No more to say. You might well want to know what happens next, but to do that you’d have to do the big, the brave, the necessitous thing, and go away and die yourself. Now there’s a challenge. Mm. Don’t you fancy it? Why on earth not? Though, true enough, neither do I…

Here’s a clue. Take the first left down there, see where I’m pointing? Then sharp right. Then straight on until the light seems to get a bit lighter and then lighter still, and then even lighter than that, and you cannot credit how light this thing called light can become…

If you get lost, ask a handy policeman. There’s always one knocking around, albeit elusively, probably whistling and brooding away somewhere in beguiling obscurity. Try the first one, then the second one, then the third, the one who is portly and very rubicund. The third policeman, the one on an old bicycle, even if it 2016.Remember that, the third one is your man. If he can’t help, keep going, just like John Bunyan did as he wrote away in prison, and ask that very strange and very ugly little guy with the pork pie hat who looks a mine of information, as he has a kind of knowing and very sapient look. If that proves to be an illusion, there’s a beggar woman of indeterminate age in the very last stages of attrition, in the corner where the light is at its very brightest. If you can’t hear a thing of what she’s whispering and croaking, then don’t worry, give her your condolences and the price of a cup of tea, and try not to get depressed.

Just keep on going! Just you keep on going!  As the poor and the desperate and the doomed and the faithful have always done.  For the first time ever you really do have all the time in the world. You were always thinking it in the previous world, and you might say it has been your downfall, but here it is part of the long term plan.

What do you think?

Drum bun! Rruga e mbare! Kalo taksidhi! Bezopasna putovane!

 Bon voyage!

The same words in English are, of course,a classically feeble and pointless valediction.





If you like or dislike the novel, I’d love like any writer to know what you think. Writers are vain people and some of them do not like criticism, but prefer saccharine acquiescence, and would like you to be a court flatterer whose knee never gets stiff. I’d love for example to know what women think of the way I write about women. Two of the three women in the novel, Madeleine and Minnie, are rather sad people, which begs the question of why Sonny Milo was so infatuated with them. Also did readers find the treatment of religion interesting or fatuous or what?

 The next blog post on July 4th is likely to be a selection of reader comments on the novel

 I’d love to hear from you. Write to

And if you are interested in value for money fiction courses, here in beautiful Kythnos, God’s own country, go to


Thanks and all the best




Chapter 14, the final chapter, appears later today, the 11th May. The previous chapters are the posts immediately preceding. You can always contact me about anything, including your response to this novel, at

The new teacher was coloured a deep and tender brown, like some smiling Indian goddess, and was certainly as beautiful. She was perhaps 24, was hopelessly mesmerising, and I was only four years old. This was in 1955, so if she is alive today she would be an inconceivable 85. Miss Georgina Salmon had a missing middle finger on one hand, and that was at least one symbol of her radical allure. Her absent digit, that notness, was almost as hypnotising as the plenitude of her wasness, by which I mean her Istigkeit or isness, the rest of her body that was whole and perfect. I thought that something from heaven had arrived in my bleak village and assumed she was here for ever. For goddesses are permanent and enduring, not capricious, or at least not the ones that I knew of or imagined. Besides her arched bow smile was so infinitely kind and so full and so brown. She wore a deal of make-up on her sumptuous tan, and was more exotic than anything I had ever seen. Some twenty years later I found her kind again in the pages of Sanskrit poetry, women with their chariot wheel hips and plantain tree thighs and water pot breasts, and their mrinala filament lips. She was also a nitambini, for her skirt held a perfectly curving and sinuous behind, one even an infant would be riveted by. At four I might not desire her sexually, but to be sure I still desired her. For years afterwards, up until I was about 8, I would dream of being there in my bed with Georgina Salmon, the pair of us naked, and she hugging me to her breasts with consummate and endless tenderness.

She was the first woman I ever fell in love with, and I thought she would be there in my hampered world for evermore. She disappeared one day and her dreary opposite, Miss Ball who was twice her age, dark and sour yet amiable by unpredictable turn, returned to the infant school. I grieved but only for a while as four year-olds with few exceptions cannot predict tomorrow, nor think of the future, and are sited in a kind of eternal present of which Miss Salmon had been a tender, delectable part and Miss Ball the obverse. Miss Ball was as mad as the best of them, and as well as giving huge slabs of cake to the children who did their sums well, thus leaving the innumerate hungry and envious, even murderous, she had rules so arbitrary she should have run a prison camp. One day we had to practise writing the numeral 4, and I wrote it down with the top angle joined as opposed to open. Unfortunately, she had done it on the blackboard with it open, and at a less acute inclination. We had been told like her to write ten of these numerals and Miss Ball indulged a sullen rage at my unorthodox beauties, and accused me of being a little clever dick who could not do what he was told.

“Why do you always have to be different?” she snorted, parading her twitching old snout a half inch from mine. “Why not be like the rest of the world? D’ you really think you might be too good for us?”

She disliked the fact I was very clever, but was also vicariously boastful, as if it was largely down to her splendid pedagogic means. In all good faith I had intended to please her with something different and original, and present her with a visibly more attractive number 4. She made me write them all twenty times her way, cross out my heretical efforts, and generally wish I were anywhere than in this listless and primitive hothouse. On the hypnotic shore of the Solway Firth for example, opposite the hazy peak of Criffel in Dumfriesshire, or up in the scented forests which surrounded the village and enclosed the woodland pits closed and sealed up over fifty years ago.

I knew plenty of bliss in those days, as well as plenty of melancholy. The forests and the seashore were both a kind of paradise, especially the woods, as they were nearly always empty of people. There was some fallow pastureland called Bottlefield that lay beyond the colliery, and in the lee of the forest. It was massive and sloping and fertile and cut off from the world, and there I experienced the profound tenderness of the natural world, especially in the generous mist of solitude. I might have been accompanied by an older brother, but I was always happily and profoundly by myself. On its edge and close to the village was polluting industry at its ugliest, a sprawling chemical works that produced carbon disulphide and made everything around it streaked with tar. The tar was diverted into the sea below, just as the pit sent much of its detritus there. Hence the existence of the tar beck and the pit beck, with no less than three bedfellows, the comically rickety shit pipes that released raw sewage into the innocent Solway Firth well into the late 1950s.

In 2016, I still dream twice a month of the nearby Grammar School which I left in 1969. I dream of the infants’ never, and of the junior school only once a year. The two buildings were contiguous, a massive nineteenth century edifice, with malodorous outside lavatories and massive tarmacked playgrounds. My dreams of the junior school are always about its perplexing geography, and doubtless this represents my questing and puzzled inner journey of the time. It was a poor village with a notable population of gipsy kids who had settled in some rank former pit terraces just outside the forests. One of them Benny Warcop, a permanent inch of foul snot on display, started a schoolyard fight with me, and was egged on by his bawling acolytes. The two of us closed for the combat like two gormless apes, but both were such cowards it was in effect a protracted war dance. Benny tried to distract all eyes from his panic by resorting to boastful hyperbole.

“I’m gonna knock this ugly bugger till the bloody moon and back!”

What he actually said was, Az ganna  bray yon uckly bugger till t’bliddy myeun an back! but the trouble with faithfully rendered dialect is it has as many detractors as admirers, unless you happen to be DH Lawrence and hit the nail on the head as no one else has ever done. In any case it was all pure baloney, and in 1961 the gipsy lad was praying for intervention as much as I. Our salvation was booming Willy Dane, the dry and unflinching Deputy Head, who grabbed our necks and frogmarched us scornfully to the Headmistress, Millicent Hogget. We might have been caned on the hand, but instead she simply harangued us in a bored kind of way, and admonished me for being a fighter when really I should be a peacemaker if only to go with my enormous brains.

“Have you heard of the CND, Sonny?” she asked me with a frown and of course I hadn’t a clue. “The Campaign for ah. Have you heard of what do you call them, Willy, are they called Sputniks with the hair down to the ground?”

Willy realised she meant Beatniks though true to form he himself preferred Sputniks to Beatniks.

“Beatniks? Sputniks? I don’t understand,” she sighed with eyes firmly closed as if communing with the wisdom of her sacred inner self. Whenever Milly harangued or argued a point it was always with eyes tightly shut, and she is not the only one who uses this beguiling narcoleptic technique as a lifelong strategy. Milly the Hogg was a spinster of 58 born 1902 and would remain one till her dying hour. The most joyous day of her entire life was on the 6th of May 1960, when Princess Margaret wedded the eminent photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones, which is curious on reflection given our Head who kept her eyes firmly closed was not the uxorious kind. Perhaps she thought of the sole acceptable union as one involving colossal social, nay regal elevation, which in a village like ours was not even a distant dream.

I could go without end on about my childhood, the deep joys as well as the insoluble agonies which were so much a part of being a late and unplanned child. But I have already done it copiously elsewhere, and there is no point in duplicating what everyone knows. The best description of early childhood in any known literature past or present or future, is Jean Le Bleu, by Jean Giono of Provence, translated perfectly into resonant English as Blue Boy. The book could never be bettered, as every word and every line and every page, is imbued with the pure and penetrating spirit of someone who has been vividly a small child like no other. Giono has been dead for nearly half a century, and Blue Boy is read by almost no one outside of France, and even within his native land there are few who would care to peruse it.

If you are a prose genius, you can of course sing till you are blue in your face, blue as a blue boy in your bursting blue face, and no white nor pink nor anaemic and zestless bastard will willingly consent to listen. They would sooner check their phone or check their heart or check their cholesterol or check their internet bank balance. If they have a small child and the surly rebellious child defeats them, they will check the child with perhaps a clout and an admonition. They will check the urgent flow of blood from and to the heart, of both their children and themselves, and their incredulous spouse. If you are one of those laudable ones who are always wary and ever canny and put your precious family first, you keep things in check and you monitor the ebbs and flows of your fiscal security, and if you are an American you write a check to confirm it, or at least you did so when Jean Giono was in his prime.

Everybody hates these antique things called cheques these days, which is a story in itself and will be so until the end of time.


Chapter 13 appears tomorrow, 13th May. The previous chapters are the posts immediately preceding. You can always contact me about anything, including your critical response to this novel, at


There was once a young man of a wealthy family survived on a diet of nothing whatever but sunflower seeds, and despite everyone’s considerable concern, showed every signs of sterling good health. He was around 21 during this curmudgeonly herbivore period, and was a precociously clever student at Oxford University. At the age of 18 he had gone up from the choicest of public schools, Eton, to read Music, but after two terms decided he wanted to study something with some substance to it, a subject that was no nonsense and something you could get your teeth into, though of course few people would want to get their teeth with any relish, into a meagre fistful of sunflower seeds. In the end, Septimus Forbes as he was called, chose Physics, only he knew why, as he hadn’t even Ordinary Level Maths nor Physics, nor had he studied any science at all since he was 14. I never met this man Forbes, I only heard about him by repute, as he was there at Oxford for the same three years that I was, and was something of a legend. I later heard that despite his brain being full of little else but sunflower seeds, he did very well at his physics degree and got a congratulatory first class honours, and even went on to do advanced research. Every once in a while I would remember Forbes and his singular diet, as I walked amongst the hallowed spires, and I would look for someone about my age who evidently lived only on seeds. I imagined they would certainly have some emphatic resemblance to a cage bird, a budgerigar or cockatoo or cockatiel or mynah bird, or even a parrot. This is not as fanciful or farcical as it might sound, believe you me. Quite a lot of young men aged around 21, especially if they have been to places like Eton or Winchester, and are of the highest social rank, have a querulous and remarkably beakish and officious look about them. And to a certain extent, they are of course entrapped within a kind of permanent and unyielding cage, which everyone can see the shadowy outlines of other than themselves.

At the opposite end of the social scale and at roughly the same period in the early 1970s, there was once an unemployed woman called Ada Franks aged 45, who was childless, and lived alone because she was divorced, in a council house on the very roughest and most notorious estate in Workington, West Cumbria, which was called after a defunct colliery, namely Walla Pit. About a decade before this the Sunday Times in their colour supplement had a sensational feature on The Very Dirtiest Town in Britain, and next to, but fearlessly towering over dog-ugly industrial Birkenhead near Liverpool, and at the very summit of the brazen tree, when it came to amazing grubbiness and virtuoso squalor, was featured across six appalling pages, the town of Workington, Cumberland, as it then was called (it was previously called Gabrosetum by the Romans). This woman Mrs Franks would then have been about 34 and still married, and the Sunday Times had copious shots of the horriblest streets in Walla Pit, and there was a fair chance hers was one of them. I heard about her because my lifelong best friend Marty Snow had a father who worked as a plumber for the council, and he had been requested to go along because Ada Franks was having problems with the toilet, indeed had been enduring them for quite some time, it transpired, when he turned up at her house and the stench almost sent him on his back.

Mrs Franks had no embarrassment in explaining to friendly Dave Snow how she had coped with the malfunctioning toilet, which she guessed might have stopped working about three weeks ago. When pressed why she hadn’t rung the council earlier, she said she had no phone and both of the nearby call boxes were vandalised, and also she frankly couldn’t be bothered as long as she had her highly practical makeshift arrangement. That arrangement explained the uniquely terrible odour inside the modest council house. Her urinations she had done into an empty soda water bottle (she stressed it was soda water, as if that was an impressively wholesome and hygienic item, or at least beneficial) and then disposed of somehow or other, most likely down an outside drain in the dark. Her defecations were a tougher problem altogether, but she had found a solution by employing her sitting room or parlour as she grandly called it, somewhere she rarely used in any case. She had done her evacuations in the proper place, in the defunct lavatory that is, having placed a sheet of newspaper underneath herself as she did. She had then wound each fresh turd meticulously in its sheet, and twisted the ends neatly as if she were wrapping a home-made sweet. She next conveyed each precious trophy through into the parlour, and deposited it on the floor there, which was covered with a cheap and ragged carpet. She had been conducting this laborious if intendedly hygienic traffic flow for three weeks, and as Dave took a very brief look into the excremental parlour, he beheld roughly fifty such turdish sweetmeats, and he understood immediately, it was simple common sense, why she had had taken so long to contact the council.

“You’ve run out of parlour floor,” he commented drily. “No wonder you had to ring us. Every inch is taken up with your …parcels.”

“Exactly,” she said, as if he were an extraordinarily perceptive fount of wisdom.

The point of these two eccentric anecdotes, is that they are far from being presented as something random, but instead illustrate a matter we always encounter as a serious problem in trying to outline the accurate and credible sentimental history of any individual in existence, e.g. myself, Angie, Madeleine, Minnie O’Brien, Marty Snow. These two oddities, Forbes the sunflower seed physicist, and Ada Franks the doughty turd handler, seem to express their strangeness in such an uninhibited manner, because they are wondrously isolated from the world at large, meaning they do very peculiar things in terms of diet and sanitary arrangements, as they do not exercise the usual common sense consultation with others to double check whether their behaviour is wise or foolish. There are highly practical considerations also, which certainly hamper their chances of learning to socialise in a manner that might improve the quality of their lives, and even more so, to resume a tender sentimental education in the case of divorcee Mrs Franks. No one is going to accept a dinner invitation from a young man of such strong principles who lives only on a budgerigar’s diet, even if he is the cleverest natural philosophy boffin in Oxford at the time (as a matter of fact I never learnt whether Forbes had a girlfriend or boyfriend or even a goldfish in his college rooms, but I assume if anything he might have had a mynah bird to remember and parrot the arduous physics equations that possibly he could not). Would you also be keen to turn up for a lunch party hosted by Mrs Ada Franks, where the house is not only reeking like a sewage processing plant, but where if you are caught short yourself she will proffer you the centre spread of the West Cumberland Times and Star to niftily void your excreta into? I doubt it, dear reader.

And this is the important point. How do you determine whether the sentimental attitudes of the so called normal, uneccentric types like Marty and Madeleine and Minnie and myself and Angie, are any more stable and reassuring and less downright nuts, than the baroque weirdness of the herbivore physicist and the excrement-decanting Mrs Franks? After all, deluded Madeleine Swan was in intense romantic thrall to two effectively imaginary idealised men, and spent much of her time grieving bitterly over their blindness. Minnie O’Brien, an intelligent pharmacist in her mid-twenties, regularly shared a bed with her middle-aged sexually active Dad, and in all innocence thought that was perfectly fine, entirely pukka, and recall that this was taking place in 1976 not 1876. Dozy Marty solved the problem of his young stepdaughter getting involved with worrying drug dealers by going completely incognito and concealing his London address and telephone number from everyone but his Cumbrian Dad. He gave up on all friends including all best friends at the behest of his Polish wife Basha, who was frantic with anxiety about her daughter’s future safety. Others, in fact a great many, believed that Angie and I were dangerously crazy for getting married after a mere ten weeks of knowing each other, and that the alliance would be over in less than a year. As a matter of fact, the opposite was true, and we effortlessly stayed together for thirty years, and it only came to a tragic halt when Angie died, aged 54. But how, the cynic or maybe just the plain curious might ask, did we know that? How did we know that the marriage would last for ever, after only a few weeks of knowing each other? How did we know that we weren’t as thoroughgoing nuts as the sunflower seed man or the zealous turd courier, who might well have been divorced for very good reasons not unconnected to unscientific notions of personal hygiene?

The truth is even people palpably sane and sound, sound as a pound, to borrow an anachronistic but pleasing rhyme, who customarily have a steady and mature trajectory through life, are also subject to transient whims and mercurial and occasionally dangerous instincts, and especially when it comes to matters of the heart. People fall in love with or alternatively can be thoroughly heartbroken over a smile; sometimes men are tickled beyond all reason by the end of a teasing woman’s nose as it sweetly twitches a sense of comedy or bemusement; or a bedazzled woman can bristle with joy just at the sound of a man’s insinuating voice over the phone, even more than seeing him in the flesh perhaps. All this can lead to hectic if transitory bliss, or dismal and prolonged catastrophe, but rarely ends in lasting felicity. When I was thirty I thought most of this rigmarole of amatory charades ended at forty, which I believed then in 1980 to be middle aged. If it didn’t, it certainly would at fifty, which was my conception of incipient old age, and would be a rank impossibility at sixty, which was my considered baseline of advanced senility, when I of course was smugly only half that. And then as the decades pass, the truth becomes obvious and also heartening, if seen from the right wishfully thinking angle.

At whatever age you are, you are never too old, there is always someone out there who will be delighted to know you, and even to own you. Not just that. You are never too fat, never too thin, never too ugly, never too gauche, never too stupid, never too penniless. Those who think you need to be young, rich, clever, handsome, shapely, personable, confident, neither obese nor emaciated, to command infatuation, and who knows, even passionate love…are living in cloud cuckoo land. There are men as unflinchingly ugly as sin have women worshipping at their sometimes malodorous feet, not to speak of women without a whit of lively conversation or elementary wit or a trace of basic manners, who can have men completely crazy for their supine souls as well as their indifferent bodies.

And consider, if you were for example God above, would you have it otherwise? Do you really want the world to dance to your grudging altogether far too reasonable tune of fair is fair and no more, rather than his majestic choice, which being divine, is beyond our comprehension. Be careful of what you wish for/pray for, is evidently one of the wisest admonitions known to mankind…

To return therefore with illustrative purpose to the first important romance of my life. Madeleine Swan and I had had little contact, after parting so painfully in late 1970, then bumping into each other once or twice during the next couple of years in Oxford. Years later, out of the blue, she rang me in the house where I was living with Minnie O’Brien. The landlord and landlady had moved out, and had had their phone stopped, but in those days there was a quaint arrangement whereby you could still receive incoming calls for months, while not being able to ring out. Most of our friends had no idea we were contactable at all, so we almost forgot we had a telephone, yet somehow Madeleine learnt of the number, and rang on a freezing Saturday night at the end of 1976.

“It’s me,” she breathed tenderly. “It’s Madeleine. It’s someone from your checkered past, Sonny.”

I was surprised, even startled, but pleasantly so. The tenderness in her voice was soothing and flattering, as indeed tenderness is from whatever source, for it is something which warms the callow ego and the flickering soul like nothing else.

“Ah,” I said. “It’s you, Madeleine.”

“Do you mind?” she sighed humorously. “Did I give you a shock? After years of being out of touch?”

“No,” I said. “It’s very nice to hear from you. How are you? What have you been up to all this time? How many times have you been married? How many kids?”

She snorted. “No kids. Married once, but never again. We are separated and waiting for a divorce. Very eagerly in my case.”

It turned out that she had wedded a foreigner, a Portuguese of all things, in 1973, but though they had parted after two years, she had kept his musical surname of Bandeira. She had never liked her maiden name, she said, which she thought sounded melancholy and flat, whereas Madeleine Bandeira had much more style to it. She reminded me that I had met Afonso in Oxford once or twice when the pair of them shared the same house, a social worker who didn’t look Portuguese, but surprisingly English, all curly hair, dreamy eyes, and apparent gentleness.

“Apparent? Yes, I do remember him. Very clearly in fact. Yes, he did seem very gentle.”

She explained that Afonso was given to moods, which somehow were a confusing function of that gentleness….as if it was a mask for something less pleasant. Scratch the surface and he could be plain sulky and childish if he didn’t get his way. Scratch deeper than that and he could get into rages and had even been violent on occasion. He had slammed her fingers in a door once, very painfully, and they were bruised and livid for weeks.

“God Almighty,“ I blurted. “In Oxford?”

She sighed dramatically, in fact half theatrically. “In Portugal. In his family home that I would have called a five-star palace. Three years ago.”

“When it was still Fascist?”

For one more year as it happened. His parents had been wealthy Alentejo landowners with a cork estate near Aljustrel, minor Portuguese aristocrats, as well as uncritical fans of the late Salazar, and snobs par excellence. His handsome regal mother had openly sneered at Madeleine the English wife, who she thought far from personable and much too poor for her boy, and in any case she didn’t think a wife should have a job. She also didn’t like the fact her daughter in law’s father was a Protestant clergyman, as she and all her family aside from Afonso were devout, indeed fanatical Catholics. What’s more she deplored Afonso’s choice of English profession, as social work smelt of socialism and ministering to the idle and improvident. She barely spoke to Madeleine for the month they were there, which exacerbated her son’s puerile and unassertive moodiness. He knew his mother was being appallingly inhospitable towards his young and foreign wife, but he was quite hopeless at standing up to her.

As her voice got more excited, I wondered if Minnie was taking any of this in, and I excused myself to explain it was an old girlfriend from years ago. I pulled a woeful face of exaggerated boredom, to avoid any possible jealousy, but needn’t have worried as Minnie proved sanguine enough. When I turned back to the phone, I asked Madeleine how exactly the marriage had finished. Was it the fingers jammed agonisingly in the door had been the final straw?

Maddy groaned, yet again histrionically. And it struck me with sudden clarity, that whenever she enumerated her many problems, either as now or when the two of us were a couple, she inevitably showed a martyrish relish in her sufferings. It was as if her extreme bad luck and inordinately hard times, and the unkind and stony men in her life, including the two who didn’t even know of her existence… that they gave her something perversely to excel at. Madeleine Bandeira nee Swan, might not shine at many things, but at least she shone in her sombre aura of perpetual misfortune…

“Why the groan?”

“You’re kidding. Where to start? The hand mangled in the door was one thing, but Afonso  Bandeira imprisoned me on one occasion…”

She couldn’t see me, but with my back turned towards Minnie, I had cynically raised my eyebrows. I was quietly saying to myself, only you unhappy Madeleine could marry a Portuguese social worker who happens to have inherited numerous not unFascist instincts.

“How did he do that?”

She braced herself for a dramatic narrative. “We had had a row because I wanted to meet my girlfriend Margie in that nice little pub on Broad Street. It was the first time ever I’d proposed doing anything without him. He could have come as well if he’d wanted, but no he didn’t want to. But he hated the idea of me going out without him, and the fact that I wouldn’t give way. When I said I was going, and set about getting changed, Afonso was furious. He screamed and grabbed me, then shoved me into the only room in the house that had a keyhole with a working key! He’d found and tested the key months back, and never even told me about it. I wonder if he had something planned like this, as a contingency should I ever turn rebellious? It was a little box room where we kept odds and ends, and a single bed for guests, and he locked me in there and then vanished off the face of the earth…”

Not quite. This had been early evening and he had stayed out all night with a work colleague, lying to his friend that Madeleine was away. Appallingly she had had no access to food, drink or the toilet, but luckily for her she had a strong bladder and had had an early supper. Bandeira came back about eight in the morning, without any apology or remorse, but fortunately it was a Sunday so neither of them had work.

Thoroughly disgusted, I snapped, “And you don’t seem all that bloody angry! I’d have rung the police if I’d been you. In fact, I’d have done that after he’d slammed my fingers in a door. After all, he’s a fucking Oxford social worker, and they have caseloads full of things like domestic violence and marital imprisonment. He should be a client himself, not a social worker, if he’s so completely out of control.”

Madeleine sidestepped a cumbersome technicality like that, just as expected, and said that there were other things that hastened the end. Nothing to do with aggression, but with personal, in fact bedroom matters.

“Ah,“ I said, and expected to hear no further.

But Madeleine was unabashed at what she had to say.

“The marriage was never consummated. Not once in the whole two years…”

Again I raised my eyebrows, pulled a face, and said to myself, only you Madeleine Swan, the vicar’s daughter, timid and compliant offspring of that tyrannical old West Cumbrian bore, could marry a violent social worker, who imprisons you and is evidently either pathologically undersexed or gay. When I suggested exactly that, she sighed that in fairness to Afonso it was far simpler. The embarrassing truth was she had had an exceptionally tough hymen, and he had been unable to break it in the first or the second or even the third attempt. Thereafter he had given up all humiliating efforts, and it was down to Madeleine to go and get some minor surgery. By that stage he had lost all interest, and so for that matter had she.

I all but whistled at such virtuoso sufferings. All this misery, mess and hopelessness, I reflected, with a quite childlike wonder. Meanwhile, Madeleine Bandeira, with her new and flamboyant surname, wasn’t even twenty-five years old…





Chapter 12 appears tomorrow, 12th May. Previous chapters are the posts immediately preceding. You can always contact me about anything, including your response to this novel, at

If you have any trouble finding specific earlier chapters, scroll down to the bottom, then KEEP ON SCROLLING! They are there alright but you need to persist

They are all there as a kind of panoply, a series of radiant starlit points in the fathomless sky of my strange and at times incomprehensible sixty-five years. Minnie the pharmacist who shared a dubious refuge between the sheets, with her jazz-loving Dad; Marty Snow the prematurely retired college teacher who went underground in London for years, to protect his Polish partner’s daughter from drug contacts; Madeleine Swan who could grieve over two men who barely knew she existed, like some lovelorn soul out of Stendhal, who needless to say she had never heard of, much less read. For the first time ever I reflect that I never saw Marty read anything other than compulsory textbooks, and Minnie O’Brien though she had avidly corresponded with Vladimir Nabokov, glanced only at Cosmo and the like in my presence. Not that great readers necessarily make great companions, and there is in any case much idiosyncrasy at work here. Angie my wife loved devouring novels but worked so hard she only had time to read at Christmas, or in our annual vacations, and on Greek islands in summer, in particular. A close friend from my Oxford days is only able to read a book if entirely alone, so that if he and his partner are in the same room, he finds it impossible to take anything in, and rapidly gives up the effort. I can only write in total solitude, but can read well enough in quiet company. I know of a gifted author who can effortlessly create in the kitchen which is a hectic thoroughfare for his noisy family, and yet another who can only write when in the company of others, preferably in a public library where she composes fluently and heedlessly in longhand.

A few months before she died and when Angie was starting to get regular flaring tumour pains, we were taking our last ever Greek holiday on the tiny island of Anafi. It is the furthest flung of the Cyclades, and is therefore easier to reach from Santorini than from Piraeus. It is both beautiful and forbidding, with a lofty little Hora perched so high the clouds are on the same level, and the minute rocky islets below, dancing in the brilliant blue Aegean, are swathed in dense mist. You feel dizzy with the vertiginous place, suspended in mid-air, but also as if you are half way to heaven, or even on some powerful hallucinatory drug. With Angie so weak we opted for a quiet time of it, and spent most of our days on the little sandy beach at Ag Nikolaos, the minute port. Next to it was a small very simple cafe run by a man of about 35, with a pensive unGreek face, tight curly hair and a remarkably tranquil and gentle manner. We drank endless coffees and also read endlessly. One day Angie was devouring a John Cheever book I had lent her, one of the mordantly comic and engaging Wapshot sagas. It had a dramatic effect on her, specifically because of the piquant pathos of one of the hapless central characters, which as a function of Cheever’s own considerable lifelong turmoil, was infused with something sad, pathetic, infinitely pitiful.

“I’m sorry,” she suddenly whispered hoarsely, and with a small shudder, and I had no idea what was coming.

Angie, who was one of the strongest women on earth, was greatly moved by that searing well of pity, and as she recounted a particular scene to me, she started to weep. I held her hand and the cafe owner shyly took note of her tears, and averted his eyes. After a while I told her I’d felt something equally wrenching when I read Cheever’s famous story of a man in distress going to see a vicar late at night unannounced. The weary and uncharitable clergyman being direly embarrassed, tersely rejects him, and sends him on his way. I knew that something of that anguished parable was moving Angie, now that she was only two and half months away from death, and felt the terrible terminal pathos that anyone would, a kind of brutal rejection by life and by impersonal forces, if not by those she loved. She would be thinking sadly of how I would feel when she was gone, after thirty years of being so close. Of how, most upsettingly, her only child Janie who was only 20 and a student, would feel without a mother, who was as much a sister and a friend to her. It was simply all too much to face on top of the constant tumour flare-ups, and so it needed the catharsis of a brave writer’s pity to bring it to the surface…

“I feel better, “she told me then, and I nodded and let her know I knew exactly why.

If you are an authentic, meaning an instinctive reader, you read what you need to read, but only at the proper time. Cheever for the inklings of mortality and of anguished personal weakness; Georges Duhamel to read of the comedy of amiable quite harmless hypocrites and baroque eccentricity, and to know that we are all profoundly flawed to our pitifully absurd roots; Henri Bosco to learn of the vivid inner lives of so called inanimate objects, of armchairs and favourite plates and china cups with a spiritual life imbibed perhaps from their doting owners; Zora Neale Hurston who I read astounded only a few months ago, she who can do that impossible thing of evoking nuances of character with abstract yet intuitive metaphor; Maxim Gorky, to know of vagabond characters who live with enduring animation on the page, in a way that our best friends often struggle to do in front of our eyes. We don’t actually read these writers, but instead they read us, and they have chosen us specifically, out of the restless crowds that read to pass the time, or to strive for uncertain effect, or for the comforting social balm of belonging, for example, to an earnest and focused reader’s group.

This is not fey whimsy, but what might be termed ‘natural learning’, or the act of comprehending things that exist in rich but subtle and pregnant hesitancy, of their own account, and refuse to dance to the tawdry crassness of bluff empirical logic. That was principally why in the sincere hope of finding something akin to natural learning, I embarked on spiritual training as a lay priest seventeen years ago, in the somnolent and pampered Southern Lake District, a place that has relinquished all character in the face of a reified and spurious identity. If you doubt it, take yourself as soon as you can, to zestless Windermere or gormless Bowness or Newby Bridge, with their teashops and trinket stalls and Ten English Lakes Coach Tours, and you may as well dally in the dizzy vulgarity of suburban Miami or central Acapulco. With that wan chocolate box setting, it made sense to me that the training should have been as lacklustre and soporific as it was, because at times it felt like the spiritual equivalent of cream teas or strawberry jam or a mug of tea stewed, and with an insipid, institutional flavour.

More important, is to understand that whenever you observe anyone, that is, any person on earth, walking innocently down the road, they carry the whole of their possible and potential being, and if you have the eye and the ken and are graced with the skill, you can comprehend their being fully and stereoscopically at a glance. It is an example of natural learning to acknowledge this, and the next stage is to behold as clear as a film, the history of this person at any stage, and at all stages, going back to the womb, and also moving forward to their all too certain death. If you are a born genius at natural learning, you can also appreciate their being as it was, pre-womb, as well as after their death, and to conclude that trusting the reality of such a continuum is actually child’s play, that both birth and death are blatant species of hallucinations. The now, the past as then, the future as then, are all subtended by the one enduring reality, the Self or Soul, or if you prefer the self or soul. This is the exact antithesis, of course, of the Buddhist tenet that the ego is in permanent ontological flux, and there is no such thing as enduring Selfhood, or shall we say, Identity?

Sufficient practice in natural learning would tempt you quite naturally to seek a continuous diet of truly stereoscopic experience, where the linear and sequential have been replaced by the radial and diffusely timeless, so that without feeling dizzy or disturbed, you effortlessly apprehend everything that resonates before your eyes, and you do so all at once. You have had enough of crude hallucinations, and instead you want reality, and by that we do not mean the meagre fantasy of empirical reality. Those who relish the ever divergent yet harmonious improvisations of modern jazz, or those lovers of choral music and Bach and Buxtehude cantatas, or for that matter devotees of classical Indian singing, will know already of these as prescient analogues of natural learning. Which is to say here in daily life, there are to be found signs or pointers of transcendent and comprehensive experience, which are regularly guiding us in the required direction, if we choose to take them. They are the hints or faint fibrillations of seemingly distant and alluring stars…though the truth is the stars are not stars at all, but are the intimations of ourselves in our deepest selves…

And here, and I am thinking now of Angie my wife, is where we go from leisurely theory to fearful practice, when I insist that the bravest people in the world are precisely those who die, i.e. do nothing more unusual than what we all inevitably are obliged to do. Everyone fears for them as they approach their mortality, and no one can assist them other than possibly a priest giving their own version of natural learning, in the form of what Calvin called God’s Baby Talk or Holy Scripture, of whatever great tradition. They have gone quite alone we know not where, and there is no one has held their hand once they have left this world, and so they face whatever is to be faced, cruelly on their own, and without any fulsome CV, other than the life they have lived on this earth. And who can possibly know the fullness and entirety of that, with any fidelity, other than they themselves, and as we all know there are numerous decent souls here on this earth, who genuinely cannot remember what they did last month, or in some quite unexceptional cases two or three hours ago.

Angie has been dead for six years now, and true enough, I do not really know where she is. I know for a certainty she is in a good place, in fact the good place, and I know that her life, her deeds, her curriculum vitae and testimonials, were all but flawless. As a Transactional Analysis trainer, she helped dozens of unhappy folk to improve the quality of their lives at work, in the profoundest, most exacting way. She was gentleness and tenderness personified, but was no milk and water pacifier, and loved regular riotous belly laughs, and in fact actively sought them out. But because, like everyone else, I am an ordinary human being who really doesn’t know his arse from his elbow, I simply wonder as a young child might, where she is now and how she is right now. I can only guess, as I have nothing in writing, certainly nothing crystal clear and unambiguous and immediately comforting. It is six years since she went, but not only do those years expand and shrink and make nil satisfactory sense from my mundane perspective, but I also know that chronology and sequence as in the passing of time, do not exist after death. There is obligatory natural learning after death, and I wonder how it is for Angie, the fact that it is compulsory, as I would wish very much to protect her from anything that might frighten or upset her, even though, as I say, I do not know where she is.

Dreams, in my view, can mean anything or nothing, but repetitive dreams will always mean something, if only because they keep on emphasising the same important message or admonition. Time and again I dream Angie and I are still in our marriage, and she is alive somewhere, maybe at home in North Cumbria while I am away somewhere, or she is away and busy while I am alone at home. Things aren’t right at all with these drastic and interminable separations, and I am painfully troubled by them, but Angie seems not to be at all. As a result, I am pained by a nagging and jealous insecurity, as I feel I really no longer know where my wife’s heart lies. Half the time I don’t even know where she is, or when we are going to meet up again, but she makes no effort to ring me, and tell me where she is just now, where she will be soon, and generally to arrange things as husband and wife customarily do. When I wake from these bleary, wretched dreams it seems ages, though really only the blink of an eye, before I recall that Angie has been dead six years, and that the dream is nothing like our real life ever was. In reality she did work away a good deal, India, Rumania and the Ukraine included, but we always kept in touch, and she always rang me from where she was, every evening and sometimes during the day. We kept each other conscientiously and tenderly informed like this, for thirty years, and anything else would have been an inexplicable lapse and an effective betrayal.

Why then do I dream the agonising opposite with such dreary frequency? I can’t believe on any level, even the most elusive of obscure subconscious whims, that I somehow feel Angie chose to neglect me by going and dying on me, and continues to neglect me by never getting in touch any more. Some people, addicted to the therapeutic mode, might well say yes, that is exactly what it is, but I think that hypothesis is nonsense. Yet because it is a repetitive dream, I know it has a significant personal meaning, and so I assume Angie in these dreams is not the real Angie, but is someone else historically vital and significant in my most elemental notions of love and security. You might say this root anguish is all about literal life and literal death, and for that we would need to go back a very long way, and this is not the time in my story to make such a diversion, however tempting. In any case the charismatic woman concerned is long dead herself, meaning she too has made that courageous journey, that one-way declaration of bravery, beside which all conventional deeds of heroism are effectively as nothing.

I first met Angie in September 1978, when she was dating a man she had very much tired of, but was unable to tell him as much. It was in a WEA night class of all things, in a small comprehensive school, I was 28 at the time and she was 23, just a child it seems to me now that I am aged three times that. She had extraordinarily fair hair and had the tiniest suggestion of a cast in her eye, which she found historically embarrassing and I found beautiful and alluring and very touching. We were both from West Cumbria, which we unfondly believed to be a kind of amiable cesspit, or perhaps more flatteringly a huge Old Folks Home or an open prison. We were to have our first necessarily secret date in our home county on Boxing Day, and then it was only ten more weeks before we were married in a tiny church above Bassenthwaite Lake in March of 1979. Our organist was 95 years old, a lifelong spinster called very aptly Miss Borrodaile, who had formerly run the tiny village shop right by the lake and its long gone railway station lying down below. Preparatory to walking down the aisle, we were allowed to play some of Bach’s Mass in B Minor on a Dansette record player with an uncertain spindle, brought in specially by my best man, Vic. We had fallen deeply in love without any effort, and there were immediate sympathetic correspondences on more levels than one. Eight years earlier I was tired to death of another West Cumbrian, Madeleine Swan, when she arrived in Oxford, and I couldn’t tell her, just as Angie could not tell this man of 27 called Jess Samson. Unbelievably, she dated me without telling anything to Samson, a secondary school history teacher, until just two weeks before we were married. When at the eleventh hour she informed him there was another man, a kind of ghost, that there had been one for a full eight weeks of deception, and that she was marrying this unknown interloper in two weeks’ time, he was understandably shocked to the roots and explosively angry. His rage was mostly at me, and to a smaller extent Angie. He was friends with several people who knew me though I had no idea they knew Jess, and he gave Angie his own skewed editorial versions of their opinions, and loaded me in absentia with insults and comprehensive denigration.

“He’s a fucking dosser,“ he had snorted to her, on the last evening they were ever to spend together, when his vocabulary was anything but precise much less refined. “He’s a fucking dosser, and you don’t know what you’ve let yourself in for! Marriage after only a few weeks? You’ve lost the fucking plot Angie, it’s as simple as that.”

Two years later Jess was happily married himself, and living way down south in Devon, and ten years after that he had four children, when we had only Janie, who was then aged two. It was all for the best, it had obviously all been for the best, for Jess Samson’s best, for Angie’s best and my best, but Samson having by Angie’s resume of his personality, not even an inkling of natural learning, had not had the faintest suspicion when our secret was finally sprung on him. And thus it was he was obliged in his late twenties, and indeed the same can happen sometimes catastrophically to folk in their sixties and seventies, and beyond, to accept the galling fact that he only knew as much as he knew, meaning as much as his senses and his intuition could inadequately tell him, no more and no less…

I have to admit I am being misleading as I relate the preliminary saga of my marriage, because my details concerning the build up to the wedding have been selective. I will spit out the truth now, and say yes, Angie and I met in a WEA night class, but Jess was one of the students there, along with Angie and six others. I was the odd man out as I was the class teacher, educating them in something called ‘Radical Alternatives’ (a touchingly broad exploration of Seventies iconoclasts and ideologues such as Ivan Illich, RD Laing, Erich Fromm, John Holt). It was very much a painful irony that I turned out to be one of these radical alternatives myself, apropos Angie, as far as betrayed Samson was concerned, six months later. The class only lasted for six weeks, and I emphatically had no designs whatever on Angie while she was a student, assuming she and Jess were happy together, even though Angie was completely mute with shyness during the discussions at the end of the classes. She was a recently qualified nurse in 1978, and the only person in the class not a university graduate. Patently she was overawed by all the ostentatious theorising and the ponderously articulate sentences, and the notion of free debate. Not so Jess Samson who could talk a streak about everything under the sun, with a memorably unflinching earnestness. For example, Samson was strikingly eloquent when we discussed the ideas of RD Laing’s notorious colleague and fellow anti-psychiatrist, the South African David Cooper. In one of his works Cooper, who was a revolutionary Marxist, had posed the ideal liberating scenario of people living in loosely structured, ever fluxing communes, where the nuclear family was effectively abolished.  As corollary, he said that though children needed mothering and fathering, they did not need the oppressive familial apparatus of ‘mothers’ and ‘fathers’. I went on to quote from Cooper’s caustic The Death of the Family.  There he comes to the comic and shocking conclusion that the way forward towards personal, communal and societal liberation, is for as many people as possible to have as much promiscuous sex with as many partners as possible in as short a space of time as feasible.

Nearly all the class, including Angie, laughed and snorted at this remarkable proposition and Jess alone looked perfectly serious as he announced at full volume:

“Spot on. Exactly!” Whereupon, turning sharply to me. “Do you also subscribe to that?”

I smiled. “Not at all. I admire the radical courage of the ideal, but I can get as jealous as the next one. I couldn’t possibly live in a commune like that.”

Angie looked at me intently, perhaps clairvoyantly relieved. A few months later Samson recanted this of course, for when ousted from his monogamous pair bond shared with Angie by his teacher, he turned as enraged and monogamously wounded as the best of them.

In any event the class finished at the end of October, and as Angie lived about ten miles away, and we had no friends in common, the chances of us meeting again were extremely remote. Meanwhile, the fact was I had not even dreamt of any alliance, nor had she, but then sovereign fate took a hand against all likely odds and influences. It happened like this. Back almost forty years ago, as a modern jazz fan, I disliked discotheques just as much as now, but it was at one of those shindigs where I met Angie, and my life was to be changed beyond recognition. I had been dragged there by an amiable, wisecracking friend called Reg Sweeney who was involved in field social work, for the disco was to raise money for a favourite charity, and he was appealing to my conscience to support something that demanded everyone’s concern. It was in the enormous Civic Centre and I could not believe my eyes when Sweeney and I arrived, as I had never seen so many people in a disco anywhere in the world, not even on television documentaries. There must have been at least three hundred folk, underneath the purple lights and the hypnotic and amateurish strobing, enjoying the truly deafening music, and it was so phenomenally congested people were perforce dancing hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder, with those not their partners. Despite all the tumult I recognised almost no one, and assumed the whole of the county had decided to flock here for the good cause, people who had crawled out of the provincial woodwork so to speak, who you would otherwise never see promenading the town streets.

“Fuck me stiff,” I whispered to Reg. “Who are all these folk and why the hell are they all here? They could have stayed in their Wasdale and Ennerdale cottages, and supported your charity with a cheque, but no they come here in endless hordes…”

After twenty minutes I had had more than enough. But there was no sign of Sweeney who was my lift, and in any case I could hardly expect him to do my bidding if he was enjoying himself, which ten minutes ago he obviously had been. That meant an hour’s uphill walk to the town where I lived, and it was December and it was bloody cold, but it would still be preferable to this pullulating asylum or charnel house. It was at that stage, as I found myself near the door, that I came across gentle Angie and prickly Jess who I hadn’t seen since the classes finished. I was aware things were momentous in that split second, and it might just have been the look in Angie’s eye which I knew to be a mirror image of the glint in my own. They weren’t dancing but then Jess was not the dancing type, for he was of that earnest, unrelenting kind who fooled about after his own fashion. They were drinking pints of lager, and they smiled warmly at the Radical Alternatives teacher after the two months’ interval, a time lapse which felt more like twenty years. They appeared as strangers, and also Angie, who seemed exceptionally radiant tonight, was very different outside of the class, for she looked much more relaxed away from the competition of all those blethering men.

Jess said,“ I didn’t expect to see you here. I never saw you as a disco man.”

Without a second thought I asked Angie for a dance. She smiled her assent, and Jess though perplexed, smiled his. If only he had known the outcome, he would have sent me flying with raised fists the length of the floor. Entirely by telepathy, without a single word, we moved as far away from Jess as we could, and luckily the throng was so dense he had no notion where we were a few minutes later, quite unable to see what we were up to. We were locked motionless in among countless couples, wedged well towards the stage. I didn’t need asking but brazenly put my arms round her, and she put her arms round me, and we both smiled with a visionary adoration. Then we touched our cheeks and kissed. I smelt her blond hair and told her at once, feeling almost faint, how good it was. I knew without being told by anyone alive or dead, that I had come home at long last, home where I knew with adamance that this was where my heart lay. And yet I could not believe my golden luck, even though I knew all this was meant to be, as it had certainly been written in the venerable stars from the birth of time.

I said above the racket, “This is so good. So perfect…”

She smiled. “It is.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be with him? Isn’t he your partner?”

She smiled most fearlessly. “I’ve had more than enough of him. I’m so tired of him.”

I snorted with pleasure. “Good. That is very good news.”

We made a date, a secret date for the Boxing Day of 1978, a day of hunting and sport as everyone knows. Angie as a nurse and not having children was inevitably working on the Christmas Day.


Chapter 11 appears tomorrow. The previous chapters are all on the post immediately preceding this one.


Max O’Brien was fifty years old, and, as Minnie assured me, both highly cultured, and a successful entrepreneur. He had driven up in September from South London, and was staying with us a few days en route to certain old and treasured friends in Edinburgh. O’Brien wore elegantly tailored shirts, had neatly groomed and raffish silver hair, and was altogether suave and shapely. His eyes were affable and seemingly kind, but also rather distanced, and at times as if feebly self-protective. His oldest child often talked of us as being similar, and she used the terms ‘sharp’ and ‘focused’, but also added unexpected epithets like ‘pointed’ and ‘thrusting’. The unintended double entendre was apt in my case, as indeed where Minnie was concerned, I was always thrusting, and this thrusting from the hip had, so to speak, a considerable pointedness. But how it applied to Max O’Brien, even metaphorically, I was unable to make out. If I’d had to summarise him in a few words, and after being only an hour in his company, the adjectives would have been, ‘fussy and querulous’ and ‘incorrigibly self-centred’. O’Brien was emphatically no lion of a man, nor any other heroic and resistant species as far as I could see.

After hugging Minnie and shaking hands with me, he went straight to the piano in the corner and began playing with flair some standards of Bill Evans. He stayed there maybe an hour and Minnie beamed at him proprietorially, as if to say isn’t he great, a prodigy, a piano player as well as my Dad? He was one of those pianists who lightly rocks to the side, and whose head had a corresponding oblique inclination as he played. He was definitely at home and very happy with the piano, and when he stopped it was only to request a cup of coffee. I went through to the kitchen, and he followed on to chat, though with an obvious paternal purpose. He swiftly learnt I was doing some college lecturing, but expressed concern that it was only six hours a week. There was something inordinately elderly and fretful about his opinions, as he instructed me about funds and income and financial security, things considerably at odds with the bohemian jazz ideal supposedly his. Meanwhile, and while the kettle was boiling, from his jacket pocket he brought out a small cloth object and genially quizzed me.

“Know what this is?”

It looked like a blue flannel facecloth, though it had a pouch either side, so I wondered perhaps if it was something surgical or medical, possibly involving suppositories.

Max guffawed. “Not at all, much more simple. This, my boy, is a revolutionary cloth for drying the body, not just the face, even though it is so small. The pouches are for putting your hands in. When you’ve had a shower or a bath, you pouch your mitts, and use this as preliminary. It’s phenomenally absorbent cloth, and so it soaks up about eighty per cent of the wetness. You squeeze it maybe once as you dry. The result of course…”

He looked to me for the answer, but also for a layman’s dizzy wonderment, and the latter I duly feigned. But the answer to his prompt I got wrong…

“The result is that you don’t need a towel?”

O’Brien tsk tsked. “No, lad. You do need one for a final drying of the body, but you barely make the bathtowel wet, once you’ve used this little feller. So the towel doesn’t need to be dried or laundered, and arguably if you were a couple, you could both use the same one for two separate showers. Absolutely revolutionary, not to say remarkably ingenious, eh?”

I nodded politely, and wondered what Bill Evans would have made of it, and if he would ever have had a handy little domestic sideline like that.

Max explained that he had read about it in a Guardian science article and had contacted the inventor, whereupon, following some protracted negotiations, they’d taken out a joint contract with a commercial manufacturer. Before long he would be getting thirty per cent of the profits, when the crowds flocked frantically into the shops, or ordered it from suitable ads in Tit-Bits and The People. At that point, he took a breather to drink his coffee, which was a luxuriant performance in itself. In those days living modestly and not really knowing what good coffee tasted like, I survived on Nescafe, and when funds were ample, on Gold Blend. Max O’Brien seemed happy enough with instant coffee, though he insisted on an exact, unswerving quantity of milk, and with only a precise soupcon of sugar. He was one of those people who can make a whole one act drama out of their enchanting idiosyncrasies, as for them they are a topic of abiding interest for the whole universe, not just themselves. But Max was, unfortunately, no mordant Samuel Beckett, describing with gusto the favoured breakfast of that reclusive hero, the one who liked to have toast charred to a precise black degree, then smeared with rotten Gorgonzola. I stopped listening to O’Brien on the subject of the perfect cup of coffee after five minutes, while Minnie gazed at this fastidious connoisseur with daughterly devotion. He was obviously used to being paid court by certain reliable admirers, though doubtless not by Minnie’s mother, Myra, who had divorced him a few years earlier.

To crown his little lecturette, he said that delicious as the coffee was, he would save half of it for later, once he’d woken from his imminent nap. I looked at him with bafflement and thought he must be joking.

I protested, “But throw it away, Max. It’s only Nescafe, and I’ve plenty more, and plenty of milk…”

I saw Minnie flinch minutely at the last three words, and suddenly realised that the banal business of coffee drinking, had helped me become efficiently alienated from both father and daughter inside only a matter of days.

“Nonsense! Mustn’t let it go to waste. If you find me a little saucepan, I’ll happily warm it later.”

I could not believe this incredibly cock-eyed frugality. “It will taste really horrible if it’s warmed up…”

He beamed his repudiation, as if he were a genius who could spot arcane but excellent pecuniary miracles, which I could never hope to do. And I realised it was the same as his wonder-working infinitely absorbent flannel towel, that little article of entrepreneurial genius. He was addicted to pursuing a wily, crafty ingenuity, and for saving pennies in a curmudgeonly yet zestful way. In ancient sexist parlance, current still in 1976, Max O’Brien would have been called an Old Woman/Old Fusspot, and that was exactly what this fifty-year-old divorcee was. Meanwhile anally retentive, as a crushing standard cliché, came rather later, and could be an all-purpose abuse term, but with this jazz loving entrepreneur, it would have been an accurate diagnosis.

Max decanted his cold Nescafe into a milk pan and covered it with a saucer for who knows what precise purpose. To prevent dust and microbes settling in the brown soup? He then went upstairs for a nap, with a promise that this evening he would take us out for dinner somewhere definitely grand. Minnie cried wahey, and suggested an exclusive hotel in the Lakes with an elegant diner, and he acceded with a tender blown kiss. He also smiled paternally at me, though my hunch was he would wish I were fatter, had shorter hair, less beard, and a full time job. I was tempted to tell him I took nothing off Minnie, that we went scrupulous halves on everything, but felt it might be all too abrupt as he was heading for bed, and would need edging into the table talk, possibly tonight, over the exotic starter and exquisite fish dish I would order, just to get the most out of his wonderful Magic Flannel and all that it represented.

It was a gourmet Lakes restaurant, with impeccable linen and napkins, candlelight, and impressively ungrovelling service from a burly and affable hotelier from Surrey. Minnie and I began with baba ghanoush, then had perfectly fresh tuna steaks. Max ordered French onion soup, afterwards wading through an enormous and very bloody T-bone. The only hitch was the background music, which was real valium supermarket fare, intended to cheer and reassure and keep one’s mood ever light, as appropriate for any beaming Lake District tourist with a hefty disposable income. Max winced, as did I, and we would have given anything for some Bill Evans to go with the fine and pricey Chablis he’d ordered. Because he was driving, he shoved most of it our way, and Minnie who had no head for wine became sweetly tipsy and started to play unabashed footsie below the table.

“You two,” Max announced in a majestic tone that seemed genuine and heartfelt nonetheless, “you two seem right together. Both young, both good looking.”

Minnie squeezed my hand possessively and I did likewise, and was certainly ready to second the Chablis and the candlelit bonhomie. The bill for three proved to be about the same as I made with a week’s college lecturing, thirty pounds, which could of course be made to go a very long way in 1976. It was five pounds more than our monthly rent for a start. Max looked almost noble, even timeless and hieratic, with his silver mane against the flickering candle. I suddenly decided I almost liked him, or at least as long as he wasn’t disappearing for invalid’s naps, and warming up a horrible mess in a milk pan, just like every pouting neurasthenic before him. In any event, the evening went perfectly, and Minnie seemed heartened that I accepted this household idol, who was her one and only Dad. She had already told me, as anyone after brief acquaintance would have realised, that she had been devastated when her folks had divorced. Myra her Mum down in London was notably on the feckless side, the larder always empty because she survived on take-aways, and never hoovered, nor dusted, and didn’t even notice that the windows were grimy and hideously blotched whenever the sun shone. No, no, Myra O’Brien wasn’t depressed or anything, she had a good administrative job, and two of her younger brothers at home for company, but yes, she was plain feckless, and preferred sitting on her alarmingly spreading behind to all other options.

Two days later Max O’Brien set off for Edinburgh, and Minnie and I had a perfect day out on the hills, until we went to bed, and it was true to say the sky suddenly fell upon us with a curious vengeance.

One thing one rarely allows for in life, is the random revelation of catastrophic knowledge between two people, which the arguable innocent A thinks is harmless, and the more vigilant B thinks appalling. A is then even more appalled by B’s reaction, and B feels guilty about upsetting A, but on the other hand the truth is the truth, and the adage ‘trust your doubts’ is a priceless one. In our case, sat up in bed, we happened to be chatting about her parents, and Minnie explained how after the divorce, Myra had kept the family home in Vauxhall, while poor Max had gone into a one bedroom flat four miles away. I asked her where she stayed when she went down to London for a week, and she replied more often than not with Myra, but with (and she smirked with a rather whimsical fondness) her old Dad for a couple of nights if possible.

I went on interrogating, more or less thoughtlessly: “In his one-bedroom flat? You doss down on the couch in the sitting room?”

Minnie chuckled, God knows why, at what proved to be our abysmal point of no return.

“No. Not likely…”

“Max kips on the couch? That’s more like it. Good old Dad spoiling his favourite child.”

She grinned all too coyly, shaking her handsome head in a sprightly manner, as if we were playing Twenty Questions.

Not smiling, I snapped, “There are no other options left!”

“We both sleep in his bed of course!”

We were sat naked opposite a huge mirror, and I saw myself become pale. I turned on her with a frightening anger.

“You do fucking what?”

It took two seconds for the obvious meaning to demolish Minnie’s purring smile, and she blanched, and seemed to shake a little.

“Don’t be so stupid, Sonny” she stammered. “Don’t be so bloody awful. He’s only one bed, so what on earth’s wrong with our sharing it?”

I flung my aloft arms rhetorically, and then let them drop in despair. After what seemed a century, I muttered:

“It is weird, Minnie O’Brien It is fucking weird and it is fucking awful.”

Her voice came back as a righteous and ridiculous squeak.

“He’s my Dad, not a dangerous stranger. There’s nothing wrong. It’s your strange and horribly suspicious mind.”

I guffawed and stabbed my finger at her. “Here’s a challenge for you. And for your Dad, or rather let’s call him now your charming if rather elderly bedfellow. Go into any crowded room, Minnie, and look every person in the eye, and tell them one at a time and in a clear voice, that you, aged 24, share a bed with your Dad who is aged 50. While you’re at it, ask your Dad to do the same, and to tell them in his likewise crowded room, that he aged 50 shares a bed with his very nubile young daughter aged 24.”

Like a belisha beacon, she turned a remarkable rose red.

“Why the fuck should I? Or my poor Dad? Why the hell should we do something so completely bloody mad?”

I felt as if I were virtually aflame.

“You pathetic idiot. What planet were you born on? Have you heard of incest, or of paedophilia? If he’s doing it now, sleeping with you when you’re 24, what was he up to when your Mum was away, and you were 14, or even when you were 4? And don’t kid yourself, oh so innocent Miss O’Brien, neither he nor you would dare to tell the world at large what’s the truth. His friends would mock and laugh him out of the door.”

White then red, Minnie assumed a bilious green. She mumbled as if before execution:

“Hang on. Hold fucking on. There is only one bed in his flat. I can’t expect my old Dad to sleep on a lumpy couch.”

I glared at her tearful and ugly face, with infinite contempt.

“You’re a fool. Old, you reckon? He’s 50, not 95. He’s no invalid, though I agree he really loves to think he’s one. Why can’t the silver-haired genius sleep on his couch, instead of with a young woman, who just so happens to be his daughter? And tell me,” I added, damn near murderous, “does your mother know all about it, these bedroom rendezvous, only four miles from her, with dear old Max?”

She started coughing violently. She only smoked once in a blue moon, and had forgotten the precise art of inhaling.

“Eh? No. Fuck. Fuck, I don’t know…”

I snorted grimly, a vicious counsel remorselessly seeking the ultimate penalty.

“You think Max purrs and tells Myra that he sleeps now and again with her oldest daughter? I’ll bet! What does he say to you in the morning? Don’t tell Mummy, eh popsy, keep it our nice little secret? In fact, that might be one very good reason why she divorced him, the charming little creep.”

Minnie threw away her fag, and began weeping and hiccupping in pitiful sequence.

“Don’t be so utterly horrible…so … horrid… so horribly disgusting!”

I snorted again, seeking only the kill and nothing else.

“You’re talking like a Secret Seven girl, Minnie. Your dirty silver-haired Daddy, is the disgusting one. I’ve never heard anything so mad in this space age year of 1976. Though don’t get me wrong. He probably doesn’t do anything in bed, other than shuffle and make familiar repetitive movements with his hands. But for God’s don’t check on the state of his pyjama flies in the middle of the night… or you might be a trifle shocked.”

She started to groan as if she had been beaten, and just perhaps she had.

“Stop it, will you! Stop it! Don’t be so evil and and so…!”

I wanted to let it all come spewing out like so much shit. I was just in the mood for rampant arson and pillage, as I thought of smirking, mincing Max.

“As soon as I saw your Dad, entrepreneur O’Brien, I knew he was good and weird. Him and his magic money making towels. A proper man’s job, eh? Plus, he takes all these soothing naps at four in the afternoon…”

She bared her lips, like a terrified animal, with apparently one last bit of fight.

“He’d driven up here from London, nearly four hundred miles!”

I scoffed at that lying brittle voice.

“No he didn’t. Don’t be such a liar! He said he stopped at a friend’s in Lancaster en route, and you were listening. A three-hour journey, plus he had a motorway stop…and maybe a restorative little nap in the car.”

She snarled then whimpered, then started to get hurriedly out of bed.

“I’m not listening. Not any more! You’ve made a revolting and disgusting mystery out of absolutely fucking nothing.”

I grabbed her fragile wrist and roared:

“You bloody are listening! Think I want to fuck with a woman who reckons it’s fine to sleep with her fucking Dad?”

She shrieked at me in horror: “You’re completely mad. It’s not like that!”

I leered theatrically. “I’ve just realised something momentous, and it’s enough to take my breath away. Very charming indeed, and it’s the first time it’s crossed my innocent little mind. He’s called Max and you’re called Minnie = Mini as in Minnie Cooper. Maximum and Minimum. Get it, you idiot?”

“What? You what!”

“Anyone who warms up cold Nescafe in a saucepan, is a Grade A weirdo, and a budding pervert, end of fucking story. Also one who naps like a geriatric, after a two-hour drive that includes a scheduled tea break. Admit it, neither of you would dare tell the world you share a fucking bed, and you were a real genius weren’t you, to let your dirty little secret slip.”

At last I allowed her to get up, to get dressed, and depart. She made curious extended motions of checking her handbag, then rushing down to her Honda, presumably before vanishing to the end of the earth. She was away precisely five minutes, then returned muttering she’d had two glasses of wine tonight, and was therefore over the limit. She climbed into bed and snuggled against me, but I turned a back fashioned of pure concrete, and knew come what may, this was it. The very name, the very word, Max, stuck like a rock in my poisoned gullet.

“Good night,” she said, before the wine took effect and her tuneless little snorings commenced. I stared at her guileless sleep with loathing. How could anyone possibly sleep after a terminal row like this?

I said nothing, and had the compelling if ludicrous thought, that every father on the whole of the earth should immediately be seized and done away with.








Chapter 10 appears tomorrow, 10th May. The earlier chapters are all in the immediately preceding posts


Before moving in with me, Minnie O’Brien spent every possible minute at my house. She had Tuesdays off in lieu of working Saturdays, but her boss Mrs Summers, took note of her youth, and the feverish excitement at her new romance, and was infinitely accommodating, allowing her to swap the Saturdays if she craved a whole weekend with me. Our days together were passionate to the last degree, and I sometimes wondered whether doling out med assertive, expressive and… libidinous. We made love at least twice a day, frequently four times, even six. She had a fetching bright red nightgown, a single cotton garment, designer brand and costly, which went half way down her tender calves. When the hot weather abated, she liked to keep it on as we started our bedroom embraces, and there was something about my exploring underneath she found especially tantalising. Best of all was when I raised it up high, to explore her taut breasts and slim belly and flexing bottom, and then pulled it down tight and caressed all of them, with the cloth as a teasing barrier. Being massaged through the cotton, a token act of chastity, was a powerful catalyst to Minnie’s exponentially accelerating elation. It was the ritualised syncopation of pleasure and forbearance, which made her quite so excited, her preference being to lie on her tummy, and be entered from behind. If I raised her gown and exposed her blushing buttocks, then pulled it down as we thrust together, she imagined she was in some titillatory floor show, and it made her feel infinitely wayward, naughty and exhibitionistic, and yes, she sighed, that made her always so wet.

She loved me to use her sensitive little behind as a cushion, while she lay on her tummy racking her brains for more and more whimsical excess. Lift up the nightie, please. Now pull it down, and hide my naughty little botty from view! Pinch it please, pinch it through the cloth, pinch it one, two, three, four, as if we were in Rome, where I once had it pinched black and blue, and as if you were a crazy Roman street boy…pinch it seven times for luck, because seven is my favourite number. Leave pinch marks on my lickle bottom darling, so that I can look at them in the mirror. Now lift it up, and look at the pinch marks and tell me how they seem. Is it a pattern, does it look magical, does it look more like silly flea bites on my lickle botty? To clarify, she might have been 24 years old, but free form baby talk was Minnie’s natural second language, and she felt no embarrassment cooing about her rude ickle botty and her rude ickle bot. She did not pee or piss like anyone else her age, but wee-weed, just as she poo-pooed rather than went and took a crap. In line with her cheery infantilism, she introduced a little teddy bear called Bonzo to our bedroom, replete with sunglasses, tartan scarf and baseball cap. She had also preserved some priceless historic tape recordings made in 1957, when she was only four, subsequently copied by a modern cassette player. They were nothing less than garrulous little four-year-old Minnie chattering away for the benefit of Daddy, who wished to record her delicious lispings for posterity. She played the whole forty-five minutes for me at least twice, watched me feign pleasure the first time, and on the second just possibly observed I might have been happier with a tiny bit less of the unexpurgated epic.

I turned a tolerant ear to her little girl habits, for infinitely endearing was the way she would frequently throw herself at me with the innocence of a trusting animal. She made a sacrificial present of herself, simply the woman as she was, unadorned, without any cautious references or laboured, considered CV. What I saw before me with an artless smile and fluttering saucer eyes and tender lips, was presented with a frank generosity for me to accept and cherish. There was also of course the surly option of the reverse. But to have rejected her at that stage, would have been to shun a vulnerable child, or to turn hostile towards an adoring and devoted friend. She had made no mention of her rebound from the lab technician, Lucas Ball, maybe because it was too painful, or possibly because she thought it might spoil the magic of our lightning fast alliance. Touchingly, because I was a writer, Minnie felt duty bound to demonstrate some credentials, and remarkably brought out a handwritten letter from Vladimir Nabokov bearing his Swiss hotel address. There was no copy of the original fan letter to him, praising the novel Ada, but reading his reply it was clear he was touched by her simplicity, and the spontaneous veneration of his talent. It was a kind, friendly and courteous letter from the great man, who was to die less than a year later, and of course the antithesis of his usual Olympian hauteur. He was after all the same who had fearlessly dismissed both Fyodor Dostoievsky and Honore de Balzac as purveyors of ‘topical trash’. The only thing that puzzled me, was that I had read Ada myself, also called Ardour, and it seemed to me definitely a difficult and challenging book. Knowing what I knew of Minnie, and that her vocabulary, whether everyday or strugglingly analytic, was of the simplest and most impressionistic, I found it hard to imagine her reading it from start to finish. I wondered if she had just dipped into the occasional unintelligible page, and found the experience so beatific, a bit like being an ecstatic wine taster, that she had kept on doing so until she had got to the end of the book.

I was learning to cope with teddies in the bedroom called Bonzo, and with whimsies such as Minnie turning him round when we were making love, so that Bonzo wouldn’t blush at what he saw. This despite the glaring fact he wore sunglasses, and was ably protected. But it took a great deal of biting my tongue, when one day she affectionately referred to her emigre idol as ‘Nab’. At first I had no idea what she was talking about, until she mentioned Ada again and then I realised she could only mean Nabokov.

“Aha, “I smiled with an effort. “Nab equals Nabokov. That’s very interesting.”

It wasn’t interesting at all, it was appalling. I wondered silently if she called Shakespeare, Shake and Dostoievsky, Dost and Mrs Gaskell, Mrs Gask. I suddenly felt a well of ugly irritation that was very uncomfortable. It was so ugly, I decided I had to do something quickly, so instead of starting an argument, I turned things on their head and chose to flatter her in an oblique way.

“It’s just my hunch, but you sound like Ayn Rand, as she probably sounded in her youth. She’s the American writer notorious for her worship of raw capitalism, so that’s where the two of you might part. But she was born in Russia, and actually went to school with Nabokov’s sister. I bet you she called her best schoolchum, Nab…”

Minnie beamed very gratefully. “She probably called Vladimir Nabokov, Nab as well! Her brother, my Nab, that is.”

Her Nab. Even better. Or even worse. I suddenly felt a poignant if uncertain compassion for Minnie O’Brien and wanted to tell her she didn’t have to try and impress me with these strenuous cultural references. I genuinely didn’t care a damn whether she read great novels, or any kind of novels, or liked Stravinsky or Bridge over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkel, or anything else, even the saccharine excesses of Klaus Wunderlich and Easy Listening. I liked Minnie for being herself and nothing more, but it is a depressing truism that there are only a minority of brave souls, who can accept being liked solely for themselves.

It is impossible to exaggerate the wild excitement of our frantic, unstinting love life. On her days off, two or three times we would chase each other upstairs, she would don in an instant her beautiful crimson nightie, then lying on her belly, ask me to raise it and enter from behind. She demanded I do everything possible with her extraordinarily sensitive buttocks, including protracted and expert massage with body lotion, as well as holding and steering her haunches, more or less riding her like a mare, or navigating her like a ship. Her passion for being pinched had to be appeased, and she actually liked me to leave little pink marks on her bottom, as some sort of quaintly possessive signature. I improvised by writing outsize kisses on her behind with body oil and whispering kiss, kiss, kiss the while. She chuckled and shivered her appreciation, and coyly asked me to inscribe ‘I love Minnie’ before the posy of kisses. I obliged with definite calligraphic zest, as I did love her as far as I knew, and did feel very moved by her trusting naivety. As well as much tenderness, there was an unabashed animal vigour to our carnal fucking, which Minnie applauded as an aphrodisiac. Near to climax, she also liked her naked then crimson-covered rear to be slapped in alternating sequence, to a precise accelerating rhythm as orchestrated by her. Her chosen role of wanton naughtiness, warranted this act of chastisement, though she put it less demurely in the third person, and said that, naughty Minnie O’Brien needed her naughty lickle botty spanked for being such a very very naughty girl. I felt remarkably buffoonish at some of this baroque pantomime, especially its spoken content, but Minnie impressively felt no embarrassment about anything. That is, she saw no lasting, inhibiting demarcation between how one might behave in everyday life, and then in bed at the heights of carefree passion.

It all remained very tranquil, as long as our passion compensated for the bewildering profusion of her childish, and far too innocent ways. Looming always, there was a chronic emotional neediness, a sister aspect of the same naivety, which might show itself in an often pettish and ugly countenance. It took me back worryingly to the time I had spotted her in an unashamed, all night sulk with her previous man, Mick Higgins. The anecdotal term highly strung was entirely accurate, and if Minnie was irritable or tired or hungry or thirsty, the needs of others, no matter how urgent, were beyond all consideration. The arguments of rowing couples can be terrifyingly banal, often farcical, and one night had our quarrel been explained to anyone in a candid sentence, it would have had them laughing uproariously. By now the landlady Madge and her husband Joe who had been cheerfully subletting to us both, had moved to a dull and morose pit village, leaving Minnie and I to pay the London owner’s mortgage. We had the big terrace to ourselves, and one evening we were running low on milk, but with enough to allow for our coffee that night and crucially the next morning. I was a notorious caffeine fiend, a classifiable addict, though I could not tolerate it black, and Minnie also liked coffee, but could imbibe fruit juice or milkless tea just as well. Come ten o’clock when all the shops were closed, I walked into the kitchen to find her voluptuously draining the last of our milk. There was a split second where she thought herself unobserved, immortalised as she was with that repellent expression as she sucked feverishly at the milk, her literal pap. The fey childishness of a spoiled infant was written in every line of her face, which was both tired and ugly. She flinched violently as she saw my hostile and absolutely unforgiving glance. It was the unsavoury reality that she needed to gorge on the elemental infantile sustenance, and nothing else mattered in the whole world. It was almost her final and ultimate challenge to me. Would I forgive her, when she did what was furtive, selfish, pathetic? She blinked and gaped at me speechless.

“That’s it,” I said nastily, and she jumped. “No coffee for us now. Is there? End of fucking story”

Minnie quivered like a bird on the wing and let her eyes leap hither and thither.

“It’s so bloody late, babe. There’s no need for coffee…”

Her babe growled horribly. “Late at night we always drink coffee. Every night, like clockwork, the pair of us. Our proven addictions, and also for our rampant bedtime stamina.”

She chuckled weakly. “You and I don’t need any stamina. We need the bloody brakes on.”

I belaboured her mercilessly, “Guzzling from that thing you had a look of babyfied selfishness. I’ve known one or two junkies, and as you gobbled and slurped you were like the one who had to have her fix, and also take the last of everyone else’s fix. Junkies being those who can only consider their wretched selves….”

And with that charmless denunciation and like two stunned sparrers in the combat ring, we walked our separate ways and left it at that. It was a miracle it lasted another day, much less the six impassioned months it did before Minnie O’Brien fled.





Chapter 9 appears tomorrow, 9th May. The earlier chapters are all in the immediately preceding posts


After Madeleine Swan it was a long and arid stretch, six years, before I had anything more than brief, unsatisfying entanglements with any  truly passionate woman.  Madeleine and I parted in the winter of 1970, distressingly for her, as she had just started at a teaching college near Oxford, specifically as she wished to be close to me. I had to confess to my teenage sweetheart that I’d felt no love for her for the best part of a year, as if I’d given her some palliative version of the unpalatable truth, she would have clung on to a half love, or a quarter of a love, or even a whisper or a scintilla, or even the worryingly fading memory of that steadfast attachment. We had been together for just over three years, which seems nothing to me when I am in my sixties, but was a lifetime when the pair of us were nineteen. Not even two decades old, we both felt we had lived a thousand years, for in Madeleine’s case, certainly her native sadness and that yearning for those fairy tale fixations on men who hadn’t noticed her, was never to abandon her…not even on her deathbed in 2013.

In that roasting summer of 1976, a woman called Minnie O’Brien happened my way, meaning she actively sought me out, turning up on my doorstep and in so many words proposed a date. She worked in a pharmacy four miles away, and was currently attending night classes prior to a pharmacology course in Glasgow. She had spotted me during a jazz gig at the arts centre, and though dating a social worker, had decided to take a move in my direction. A little detective work involving a garrulous arts centre manager, allowed her to learn my address and as much of my biography as she wished to know. Minnie O’Brien was 24, impossibly pretty, with vivid blond hair, and was not a local, but had moved here hastily from South London. I didn’t know then that she was still on the rebound from a man called Lucas Ball, a Croydon lab technician who had recently sent her packing, and I only learnt as much at the end. She chose Cumbria because it was a long way from Lucas, and because on paper she was an earnest fell-walker, and in the small town where I lived you were able to see the peripheral Ennerdale fells. The estate agents mendaciously advertised that little Irish Cumbrian town as ‘Lake District Fringe’, though it happened to be one of the grubbiest communities in the whole of the country, and as confirmation, along with Benwell, Newcastle and the Gorbals, was currently under the eccentric aegis of a massive community work project. They call it Regeneration these days, but it wasn’t called thus forty years ago. Suffice to say there was an abundance of young men with radical beards and long hair and hippified young women in floral dresses and, sometimes in summer, bare feet, dispatched from all four quarters of the United Kingdom to rescue the town from oblivion. Some of its citizens were grateful for the invasion, meaning the youth and the novelty if nothing else, while others were aghast, and of course those with vested interests, especially certain obdurate county councillors, were openly incensed.

Minnie was earnest about many a passionate interest, which tended to be a flirtation with anything that might temporarily beguile or distract her. Before we met, she had joined one of the walking clubs, and she took me one night for a drink with its members in a noisy downtown pub. They were all in their twenties and early thirties, and of remarkably stodgy blandness, akin to a bunch of Evangelical Christians, even though some had hard and very demanding jobs as teachers in rough schools, or as probation or social workers. None were locals, and glamorous Minnie was the cynosure of all eyes, as she was one of four women there among ten stolid beery men, who was both attractive and easily flirtatious. You might say innocently flirtatious, as I experienced not even the slightest jealousy when she touched sundry male knees and pushed various arms in mock reproof. Not one of those men were capable of guile or manoeuvring or secret alliances, though right enough the couple whose fell-walking girlfriends were present, had a patriarchal sunniness, just as effectively callous as any possible two-facedness.

Minnie, acutely unseeing as she usually was, realised I was politely bored, and soon gave up on the walking club. It had been a way of passing her lonely weekends, and now instead and to consolidate our infant relationship, she went behind my back and boldly negotiated with my landlady and landlord who shared the large terraced house with me, to move in and thereby increase the rent two-fold. The landlady Madge Bell led Minnie to my room with a conspiratorial grin, and they talked about their decision as if they were some sage committee of two, who had realised I was of course too unworldly to do anything sensible and for my own good. The pair of us had being going out for only a week, most of which had been spent industriously in bed, after a long period of chastity.  Because of that, at 25, I could have been persuaded into anything, as long as it involved Minnie naked, passionate and tireless. Madge Bell and husband Joe had joked about the racket from the back bedroom, the night long moans and groans, and as Minnie was barely at her place, it was clear they wished to capitalise on the generous and indispensable facility of our 24/7 love nest.

I said that she had spied me at a distance, but I realised I had previously glimpsed Minnie O’Brien,  and was reminded as much only ten minutes after she’d audaciously walked through the front door. I knew her boyfriend Mick Higgins, and liked him a lot, and he was such a gentle soul, I naturally presumed that he and this new girlfriend had settled down together with minimum fuss. But at the jam-packed arts centre she was wearing a flagrantly dissatisfied and preoccupied look on her handsome face, and it never left her all evening.  I took notice because she was regularly giving me the inquisitive eye, and that too was baffling. It wasn’t anything like a look of sultry flirtation, and I briefly wondered why a man like Mick had saddled himself with someone who looked on first glance like a prize sulk. Later, when Minnie and I were together, she said it was simply her growing irritation with him incapable of hiding itself. Mick Higgins was far too nice, she said, way too gentle, always too polite, and what she liked about me, and her words were unusually precise, was I was always sharp and restless and single-minded and fully focused, as well as very brainy. She said that her fifty-year-old Dad, whom her Mum had divorced a few years back, was just like that, a restless and brainy entrepreneur, as well as a very sensitive artist, because, she added, he also could play brilliant jazz piano. Besides, Higgins had a most annoying, embarrassing nervous habit of loudly clearing his throat, in polite company, as well as when it was just the two of them, and that raking and monotonous, unlovely scraping never stopped from dawn till bloody dusk…

I was amused to hear she had forewarned Higgins she was going to ask me out, and indeed he was so improbably amiable, he agreed at once it was best for her. Nonetheless he hoped she they might remain friends, and that it wouldn’t spoil my friendship with him. Higgins wrote occasional poetry, mostly about his considerable existential unease in the world, and sometimes asked my opinion, and unlike some other hopeful writers, I never felt any fatigue nor unwillingness to tell him what I thought. In any event, that very first date I took her for a walk in boiling heat along some quiet fields, and by a gently sibillant stream a couple of miles from my house. It wasn’t long till we were kissing and hugging tenderly, and then I boldly suggested we go off camping somewhere for the weekend. She agreed without a second thought, and I decided that was ten points in her favour, for reckless spontaneity is an essential advantage in your mid-twenties. Minnie had her little Honda 50 parked outside my house, but it was impossible to get tent and rucksack plus ourselves on that, and in any case she hadn’t passed her test. I wouldn’t possess my own car for at least a decade, and where we wished to go was inaccessible by bus. So we hitchhiked all the way to far flung Wasdale, laughing and bantering remorselessly from start to finish. The three drivers who gave us lifts naturally picked up on our excitement, and when one learnt it was our very first date extended to a whole weekend, that craggy agricultural salesman parped his horn by way of joyous acclamation.

“That’s the bloody style,” he gasped admiringly. “Parp, parp. You know I never all my life knew how to do what I wanted, and just to follow my instincts. Parp parp. Once you get the habit of bloody old stale routine, you never change. My wife always wants sodding Ibiza for summer, and I always want quiet Greek islands and fat chance she will ever bloody budge. Good luck to you two wild kids. Parp Parp.”

He dropped us off close to the Wasdale pub, which has nothing but Wastwater and its towering fells surrounding. We pitched tent in protective obscurity, in a heap of undergrowth, not far from the pub for toilets, washing and sustenance, as we had brought no gas ring nor supplies. It was in the mid eighties so we sat euphorically outside the pub, instead of sweltering in the army tent. We both opted for light ale, and as if by sympathetic magic, felt all sorts of things being unstoppered. Minnie and I like a jazz duet talked an alternating streak, very feverishly, continuous jests, puns and plain nonsense… accompanied by tender handclasps and hugs, and an immediate visceral adoration. Minnie at least seemed to revere me from the word go, and though I emphatically liked her very much after only three hours, I certainly adored her succulent lips, her bare arms, and the delicate and revealing little azure t-shirt she wore.

It was still roasting after an hour at the pub, and with hours of daylight left, we took a signed footpath through some ancient woodlands and tenderly sloping fields. I stopped and theatrically related something Minnie might not know, that the pub we’d been in had once had a lady owner, elderly and supposedly half mad, even debauched, none of that remarkable given the extreme rustic isolation of her property. Her favourite trick was to get drunk with young walking couples, then get up on a table to start capering and dancing, ultimately removing all her clothes and enjoining the couples to do likewise. Minnie guffawed incredulous, and I could see the mention of nudity had touched her at some instructive level. As it happened, we had a large bottle of water and some crisps to both keep us cool and heat us up, as we walked holding hands, and felt the stark potence of this aromatic countryside. After two hours we hadn’t passed a soul, and decided it was so hot, no one half sane would wish to go hiking and risk sunstroke. In pristine seclusion from the gaping, prurient world, we were prompted by the same enchanting thought. I stopped abruptly and asked would she take her clothes off to let me see her naked, and she nodded and disrobed without hesitation. In fact, she smirked and murmured that she’d wondered when I would ever ask.

I had known her only a few hours, and here she stood naked and wholly accepting my outrageous request in the lee of the Wasdale fells. She had full but small breasts that turned up with a pleasing tension below the nipple. Her posture was a little ungainly, a little drooping, and it wasn’t the heat but that innate restlessness left her with a perpetual reserve of unease. On some level I felt I understood the murky source of that mercurial discomfort, but given I’d known her less than half a day, it all too presumptuous. Before I could ask she turned a slow circle and displayed her perspiring pink behind, attractively sloping and modestly tapering, rather than round and limply sculpted. She patted the slim flanks of her bottom and winked by way of invitation, and roasting as it was, I also disrobed, and the pair of us found a clump of nearby bushes. Perhaps a dog might have sniffed us out, but even the most persistent hound wouldn’t have had the energy to do anything but puff and pant in this inferno.

That night in the tent, crimson and overheated by the sun, we made love three times, and with our lantern torch, I could see her handsome face vividly below me. Minnie smiled and her eyes dilated in a comically saucer fashion, her lips becoming fleshier and riper. It was an endearing comedian’s impression, and I laughed and teased her. She chuckled, deliberately doubling the eye dilation, and the spread of her lips. I told her she was like something out of Indian love poetry. Lips like plant shoots, mrnala filaments, and eyes like pankaja lotuses, literally ‘born of mud’. For that matter when naked back there, her breasts had been glistening water pitchers or exotic swans, hamsa birds, with thighs like sumptuous plantain trunks, her naked buttocks like two elegantly curved chariot wheels, all standard, flattering similes in Sanskrit erotic verse.

She mocked, with massively dilated eyes. “You are such a charmer. Tree trunk legs plus a godawful elephantine behind, like two chariot wheels. I like my swanlike breasts, but these lotus eyes aren’t born from fucking mud.”

The next day we were awoken by an officious and piercing voice outside the tent. Bog-eyed I reflected that very few people, other than the morbidly dysfunctional, could be bothered to be officious in the early morning at something like 80 degrees fahrenheit.  It was a male voice, about our age, and it was admonishing us that we were trespassing.

I grunted. “Fuck. It’s a farmer. A Wasdale farmer, so an expert at ferreting out things tucked away inside his bushes.”

She snorted. “Farmer, my arse. I would know that croaking anywhere. It’s fucking Ashley.”

Still dozy. “Ashley? You mean you know him?”

Ashley or not, he commanded us to vacate this site immediately, and this time clarified with unctuousness, that this was National Trust Land.

Minnie shot up excitedly, not remotely perturbed. “He’s been spying on me, and he’s seen my face through that gap there! He knows it’s me, and he’s spotted your hairy legs, so he knows that I’m with a bloke in here.”

I was still overheated from the sun, not to speak of three epic bouts of love. “So you know this officious person, and you know him very well? Tell me, is he your minder, or your pharmacy boss has followed us here and is checking on your behaviour? Or a roving private eye perhaps?”

“Like fuck! It’s Ashley the National Trust Warden. He’s asked me out on at least five occasions, and I’ve told him no firmly every time. He’s there every week following me like a skulking dog at the Egremont Folk Club.”

That venue was also known as the Egremont Fuck Club, and I’m sure, newcomer that she was, Minnie knew as much. It was a maelstrom of fearless gallows-bound poachers and pretty young maidens-oh-ah ditties, along with real life adultery, the cruel heartbreak of broken marriages, of ostentatious swaggering for the successfully promiscuous, and of intense bitterness for the likes of thwarted-in-love Ashley.

Minnie poked her head out of the tent. She had pulled a fetching blue top on to be respectable, but her quivering bottom was as naked as the day she was born, and it was bridling along with the rest of her. I couldn’t resist putting my hand there, and caressing it, and without much hesitation, stroking her possessively down below, as she began her challenge with authority.

“Fafuck sake, Ashley! It’s me, it’s Minnie! I’m camping here with a friend, and we were harming nobody and harming nothing. We’re not even doing any cooking, so there’s no chance of a fire hazard. We’re completely hidden from view on your precious bloody trust land!”

Ashley’s voice was stonily immovable and had the sullen obduracy of someone who felt he had been betrayed beyond all reasonable bounds.

He snapped at her,” You’ve nil right to be camping here! What permission d’you think you have, and what if everyone did what you do? In case you didn’t know,there’s an authorised site two miles up the valley. You’ll have to vacate this place immediately.”

Minnie snorted and also indicated by the moisture gathering down below, that she was greatly enjoying having her twitching backside and tender little fanny massaged, Ashley meanwhile in a wondrously transcendental ignorance of these harrowing facts of life.

“If it was anyone but me, you would let it go! Wouldn’t you? You know you would! I’d love to know how the hell you knew we were here. You must be sneaking around the Wasdale valley slyly following me, God knows how or why. And that’s so admirable isn’t it, eh, Ash?”

Ash? Ash seemingly had no wounding rejoinder, or felt it not worth the effort. I raised myself from my doss bag and took a quick peek and, astonished, recognised him at once. Not from any night at the Fuck Club Folk Club, but I’d seen him sitting odd and alone inside the pub yesterday, perched obscurely in a corner below the air conditioning. He was short, stolid, smileless, with a trimmed and wholly pointless miniature beard, doing nothing except hide a weak chin. He looked like a clapped out junior school teacher who might make Deputy Head in a modest thirty years, in 2006, when he was in his mid fifties. I shuffled my position and put my fingers deeper inside Minnie’s sex, and whispered that he had been there in the pub yesterday staring at us on the bench outside. At once she gasped and stiffened with disgust.

“You are beneath contempt!”

He stared at her blankly, then blinked and turned to me, almost as if for some kind of considered fraternal help.

Minnie snarled. “Sat in the pub gawking? Which means you must have seen us pitch the bloody tent before that! So you’ve been fuming in your horrible little warden’s hut all night, and now you’ve decided to take your petty  and so jealous revenge…”

Ash at length found his wavering voice. “I’m ordering you, not asking you. You must vacate this at-”

“Bollicks!”roared the forthright pharmacist.“Get the fucking police then, you fucking little berk!”

I leant out and faced him, and in my case I was completely naked, and didn’t care what or whether he saw anything to remark on.

“It’s matterless,” I said gravely. “Because we’re leaving Wasdale this morning.”

He looked for a split second half mad with resentment, even worryingly dangerous to himself and to no one else, should anyone manage to upset him any more.

“Now! Not this morning! I’m telling you both to get yourselves off  and immediately…”

Minnie gushed at him, incensed. “Fuck you! Fuck you, and never you dare talk to me again in the fucking folk club!”

“The fucking fuck club,” I corrected.

Ash reiterated like a remarkably senile pedant: “Immediately!”

And then translated. “At once!”

I said to him by way of measured variation, “Get to fuck, Ashley aka Ash. Go and get the police, and tell them while you’re at it, that it’s all because Minnie O’Brien would never agree to date you, and certainly never race inside any tent at 80 degrees with you. Tell them you’re a Peeping Tom who goes prying around inside bushes for your Duke of Thingumee Award. As for us, we’ll leave when it suits us, and when we’ve breakfasted at length in the pub.”

Minnie tied the tent door and double pegged the wall into the ground from inside. Triumphantly, she lunged and grabbed me and pulled me inside of her, and within only a few minutes was unable to restrain her vocal climactic shouts. Ashley Ash, it soon became clear, had beat it for the hills as fast as any zealous Wasdale warden could go.







Chapter 8 appears tomorrow May 8th. Previous chapters are on the blog posts immediately preceding this one.


So much for spiritual trajectories. Though as everyone might acknowledge, these days only a minority of westerners can boast of such things, and very obviously manage perfectly well without them. So they think. Meanwhile, I have long lost count of the number of educated middle class people who po-faced, smile and assure me that, if anything (I love that lordly qualifier, as if they are talking about Labour versus Tory, or mashed potatoes versus chips) they are Buddhists or sympathetic to Buddhism. I nod politely and subtly change the subject. What they mean is their heads agree with the spartan tenets of original Hinayana ‘atheistic’ Buddhism (thus they believe) but their hearts and limbs and genitalia go on doing exactly whatever they want to do, and always have done. For that matter, and I don’t whether it should make one laugh or cry, way up in the English borderlands I once knew an idealistic organic farmer of public school background, who professed to be a serious Buddhist, but kept prime sheep and cattle and had them butchered on the premises in his own abattoir. Such a startling oxymoron, a Buddhist abattoir, meaning that ahimsa or doing no harm to any creature, was just an inconvenient dispensable, whereas arm and a leg organic beef and lamb were self-evidently not?

Buddhism is a great world faith demanding all sorts of things that few of these westerners deign to practice: abstinence, self-control, chastity, charity, strict vegetarianism. It also enjoins regular meditation, and to be sure they are usually very happy squatting down on their cushioned behinds on neat little mats and doing just that, if only because it is a proven balm for their restless minds. To that extent it is rather like blameless FE night class yoga, but with a respectable theoretical basis (meaning the subtle philosophy of Samkhya-Yoga, though they never get quite that far in their cautious armchair explorations). It is a quaint fact that for some, religion is not a way of life but an optimal therapy, demanding nothing much but reading a little comforting tome or two, and with minimum changes in one’s daily routine. None of them even think of the necessary discipline of prayer, or attentively reading sacred scripture, whether Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or anything else. It is the equivalent of wanting to be an accomplished musician but never doing any practice, or ditto a cabinet maker but never studying zealously their craft, including knowing anything at all about wood. It is all in the head, and typically the cleverest of intellectuals will fail to see that the head is something not ideally equipped to understand the spiritual. They should reflect that the classical Hindu term for ‘philosophy’ is darshana, from the verb root drsh, meaning ‘to see’, and emphatically not meaning ‘to think’.

I was pushed out to afternoon Sunday school every week as a child, and cordially loathed it. Coming after the bleary joys of the Light Programme and the Two Way Family Favourites and the heavy beef dinner, it was as it were the premature finale of a day I always experienced as purgatory, not heaven. The vicar in his mid thirties had at least three dancing chins and a permanent hilarity, a native jolliness, that was not infectious, and he also had a lacklustre cohort of shy young women aged somewhere between 19 and 23, all without boyfriends, who were his Sunday School teachers. He boasted a new car which was a sign of affluence in the community in the late 1950s, but he preferred to whistle round the village on his bicycle, ringing his bell at everyone he met, whether churchgoer or not, and loudly announcing his presence. His surname was Reilly, which was not a particularly Protestant designation, but he softened things by adding his own nickname, which for wholly unfathomable reasons was Pom Pom. He didn’t wear any pom-pom hat, but it didn’t stop him bawling Pom Pom Reilly at even the roughest group of hard teenage lads, who leered uncomprehending, and once he’d passed gave him a jeering and obscene salute. Ever since that day, my first real experience of the church, I have thought of the clerical milieu as being peopled by the largely puerile and the outwardly sexless. Those Sunday school women, with their pasty skins and their plain faces and their yellow cardigans, had no struggle to be virgins, and no doubt ached for the dignified scenario of optionally dispensing with chastity. As for Pom Pom, he roundly annoyed the village early on, for despite zestfully ringing his bicycle bell, and shouting his name as everyone’s best friend, he chose the treacherous course of sending his two boys to the town school, rather than the village juniors. It meant he had to drive them there every day, and half the village sullenly watched his departure and noted that he did not parp his car as he shot past, and even looked slightly shifty as he drove to a place where the 11-plus passes were at least five times the village quotient. There they wore a smart uniform, and Pom Pom who believed in godly discipline (he boasted that he walloped his boys severely if ever he caught them telling an ungodly lie) had quickly noticed the shabby state of some of the impoverished village kids, and hastily discarded the Christian benediction, Blessed Are the Poor.

Behold the Anglican church in candid summary, exactly as experienced by outsiders. Surpassingly dull, eternally juvenile, far too plain faced and ungainly, whether male or female, to be obliged to wrestle with the problem of abstinence. Which explains why in my late forties, as well as continuing with the village church, I started to attend an impressively remote Debatable Lands chapel where the denomination might have been termed a Free Church. It was a stark eye-opener, inasmuch as there were no dog collars, and the venue was a virtually unchanged nineteenth century country school, you might even say a hedge school, straight out of Thomas Hardy, or the querulous dissenters of George Eliot’s Felix Holt, Radical. This extraordinary place of worship looked exactly like an ancient barn, even down to being stuck out in a small and bumpy field. It had electric lights, but no cooker nor power points nor sockets for preparing food or drinks in the tiny kitchen. The ancient odour was most heartening, a fine, comforting musty smell, and we sat amazingly in what were the original 1820’s benches. Week by week a humble dozen folk listened to a rotating fund of preachers, predominantly male, dressed in tidy suits or very occasionally the younger ones wore denims. They were in turn Evangelicals, Free Church of Scotland (a country of a very different spiritual calibre, lying only fifteen miles off) and Methodists, usually of the Primitive as opposed to Wesleyan kind. For the first time ever I heard speakers who effortlessly knew the Bible backwards, quoting chunks of it without a pause. I beheld the enigma of some preacher whose day job might be a shopkeeper or a town hall clerk, expounding on a single verse of Colossians or Revelation for a full twenty minutes, without drawing breath, as riveting as any charismatic orator throughout.

These speakers in confounding manner, really meant what they said, that is, they preached what they felt, and they preached it from, according to them, the Spirit, or perhaps one might say from the inspired heart, which allowed them a torrential exegesis of a single gospel verse. In conversation, some of them were bashful and barely articulate, and it was nothing short of a miracle that they had suddenly become as fluent as the most famous preachers of yore. One iron proof of their spiritual mettle, was that they were wholly unafraid of the most daunting parts of the Bible. They could expound on Revelation and its apocalyptic fire and passion, unabashed by the hallucinatory imagery, as if they gladly welcomed those blazing eyes of fire and awesome eschatological signs. They feared nothing in Scripture, which was of course proof of their godly fear, and is not the same as profane fear, but is compounded of reverence and respect, awe and adoration. By contrast, an elderly Anglican priest on the abandoned preaching course, had told me one night in the bar with great assurance, that he never had and never would preach on the last book of the Bible.

“Why?” I asked in wonderment.

“No one knows what it means, even the brightest theologians haven’t a clue. It’s all over the place in my view. It’s impossible to expound on it, because it could mean almost anything.”

He was spouting downright heresy, though he didn’t know it, and was indeed an amiable white-haired chap whose forte was half hour sermons about green issues, conservation and ‘custodianship’ of God’s planet. Meanwhile, he often forgot to include the noun God before the planet, and he could arguably have been giving an affable after dinner talk to the Rotarians or the WI. Had I quoted him to these country chapel preachers who wore no badge of dog collars, they would drily have pointed out the obvious, namely that God has no cause to be a deliberate obscurantist. If Revelation is apparently obscure, then reflect the nature of the afterlife is hardly likely to be something akin to a realistic film documentary, given that beyond this world people no longer possess bodies, but only have the refuge of their spirits. This studied avoidance of what is deemed to be uncomfortable, is all too consistent with the temper of the times, and the conflation of eco-politics with religion, and, so to speak, Jesus becoming a fierily outspoken community worker, or alternatively a charmingly tousle-haired bow-tied Tory addicted to the ancient Common Prayer Book and none other, is all symptomatic of a transcendent thickness apropos the comprehension of matters spiritual

That was some excursus, but so too was my absence from the church, a Biblical quantity of 3 x 7 or 21 years. In 1967, a few months after my Confirmation, aged only 16, and turned communist atheist, I ceased to go to church, and did not return until the summer of 1988, when Angie and I went along after the ugly miscarriage. We were both very raw, and after rapidly getting pregnant again, she was terrified of losing what would become our daughter Janie. This was our first experience of a very countrified church, where they all had thick North Cumbrian cadences, and where there was a heaving surplus of warm-hearted ‘canny bodies’. In their sixties in the main, they might even have been our parents, and indeed by handy assimilation became their replacements, especially when they learnt of the reason for our return. ‘Body’, in both Cumbrian and Geordie parlance, means ‘woman’, and ‘canny’ is a resonant Scots and Northern adjective so nuanced and comprehensive, it can mean virtually anything that is admirable. In these countrywomen’s cases, it signified resourceful, affectionate, shrewd, and above all hard working. Each of them might a dozen times a year, bake a trifling fifty scones and fifty tea cakes for a rummage sale, to help secure the church‘s leaking roof. They would stump up for the costly butter, the best ham, the quality cheese, and also produce tasty little quiches, fancy cakes and gingerbread by the lorryload. They would chivvy a church-avoiding husband to man the car park for the country crowds that flocked there, starved of any peaceable non-bloodsport diversion of a Saturday afternoon. All Friday evening, they would scrub the village hall, then purge it thoroughly on the Saturday night. All that on top of the skivvying in the huge farmhouse, and labouring endlessly on the farm itself, and all the cold weather milking and shepherding, when the overworked son was away at distant auctions and the husband so typically was laid up with flu.

This quaint rustic piety was a matter of visible, tangible deeds, and there were none of the fervent public avowals of faith you witnessed from the Free Church adherents at the chapel. The canny bodies would have been far too mortified, just as they couldn’t stand sung services where the vicar sounded exactly like some fluting and pansified Benny Hill. Even when they suffered personal tragedies, the loss of a spouse, the divorce of a son, and maybe cruelly limited access to grandchildren, they understated their sorrow, and never sought nor wished for pity. They said very hastily, there’s nothing to do about it, you have no choice but to soldier on, and if with a full herd of pedigree Charolais, and no man left to help, sure enough they had no choice. They didn’t want bereavement counselling, they saw to the hungry cows who needed them and sought them, when the widows came their way. They understood this thing called ‘bad nerves’, but did not understand that reified totem, Stress, the household deity, a mysterious quantity that floated in the air and dropped malignly on your shoulders if you didn’t watch it. The way to avoid it and shun its power, was to labour every minute that God sent, to crawl out of bed in the winter dark, when at first you would sooner succumb to eternal oblivion. Thus and thus and day by day, and with many small agonising setbacks, you would, with passing time, the only assured balm that is absolutely free for everyone, find yourself an even keel again.

Angie and I would look at each other in our beautiful and tiny North Cumbrian cottage, painted a tender flaking pink, and whose garden was full of siskins and bullfinches, and wonder if we were suffering from creeping brain softening. This was not the dubious courtesy of our weekly worship, but of the ancillary things that came in its wake. Way out in the North Cumbrian Uplands, entertainment options were scarce, so it was as if under tranquil hypnosis we found ourselves attending humble revels like church rummage sales, whist drives, quiz nights, and even beetle drives.  Our so called brains did us no good at all on the quiz nights, as even the few theoretical questions, being so monstrously obscure and pathologically precise (how many different sub-species of South Asiatic mosquito have been identified to date?) we both failed miserably. Mostly because she was pregnant, Angie even joined a knitting group and started to click click (and chat chat) industriously for her baby. It was also a deliberate act of faith that the baby inside her was going to see its course. The canny bodies campaigned to have her in the Women’s Institute, though she baulked at that, even if by 1988 it was no longer a somnolent affair, but conducted major campaigns on matters of child poverty and world famine. Yet one night we surpassed ourselves, and chose to visit of all things… a Demonstration of Flower Arranging. Angie loved gardening and adored flowers, as did I, though in my case at an extremely perspicacious distance from any personal involvement. It had been organised by the WI, but was an open event, and the village hall was packed to the gills. Everyone was a red-faced countrified canny body, apart from ourselves, and an agreeable woman of 40 with thick glasses called Amy, who was a classical musician living in a beautiful North Cumbrian farmhouse. She had been forced to stop performing, as her chronic arthritis had got to the accelerating and horrendous downhill stage. Living alone Amy now wore a rigid neck brace, went around on crutches, yet always managed a pungent and acidulous wit. She had just embarked on her treatment of injections of gold, though she snarled comically when we asked after her, and said, exotic as it sounded, it didn’t seem to be doing her any fucking, oops (looking round the blush-red farming faces) good…

The flower arranger, Reggie Albright, was a diminutive man of early forties with a pencil moustache and a permanently hovering grin of possible amusement, though more likely low level vigilance. We were told he was a wealthy local florist, with a chain of shops in Cumbria and South Scotland, though this was the first time I‘d seen him. He was openly and theatrically gay, a patently florid florist, though in a dated 1960s way, flamboyantly queenish rather than permanently hapless, as if to say whatever I do it is a struggle, and you must forgive me and my ineptitude. This was absurdly belied by his skill as flower arranger, which left us blindly dazzled, as he was a self-taught genius. The sad thing was that, living in North Cumbrian obscurity, I doubt he even knew as much. With his unerring choice of delicate colours, his elegant dyed reeds, his wispy ethereal ferns, his deft and casual touches and tiny, fussy and brilliant adjustments, he took every WI breath away. I thought of Japanese Zen and the transcendent skills of all such abstract arrangements, of the allied notion of watchfulness and meditative concentration in the present. Yet we were amongst weather-beaten puce-faced farming matrons in their sixties, in the Debatable Lands, and what price Zen meditation in their singular, lives where the ominous present tense of perennial financial anxiety was definitely best blanked out? Their innocent crimson countenances were confusingly like so many spanked backsides, even though spiritual adepts as we are regularly assured tend to be pale rather than rubicund?

I have omitted something crucial. Reggie Albright happened to have a severe cold and a very sore throat, and had almost totally lost his voice. Hence though his visual demonstration was unimpeded, his ad hoc mincing commentary was given with a ludicrous squeaking echo. Had we been school kids, we would simply have guffawed insolently from start to finish, but the sea of beetroot-faced housewives just smiled at him gently, in the same way they had so easily accepted his gayness. Only one burst out laughing, and that was musician Amy with the neck brace and the crutches, who might in theory have been the best behaved person there. She had once been a music teacher in a giant comprehensive school, and would surely have bawled at chortling, tittering, disruptive youths. She only laughed the once, and it was not derision but helpless hilarity, in the same way she would have laughed at herself if she’d been conducting a class with the voice of a dyspeptic ewe or goat.

It could not go on forever, this honeymoon infatuation with umpteen North Cumbrian village halls, and the innocent activities of all four tiny churches. We stayed with the church but soon stopped turning up at the jumble sales. Never again did we attend a whist drive or a beetle drive or a floral extravaganza. It is right enough as with so many delicate matters, and in so many circumstances. You cannot transmute into a thoroughbred local, no matter how hard you try, for to parody Flann O’ Brien, you have to be an ineffably local local in the first place. We were at root, in-roaders, despite being a complex variant, professional West Cumbrians, amongst the lonely farmers of North Cumbria. Regardless of class and education, those two regions are universes apart. The irony was the canny bodies, the farming women, gladly accepted us as we were, were glad that Angie was a senior social worker, and most impressed that I was a teacher and a writer. They had no possible gripe with either, and the tortuous problem was ours, as we acknowledged we had had more than enough of treacle scones and raffles and treasure hunts… and felt painfully guilty and embarrassed as a result.

But what were we to do? What could we have done otherwise?



Chapter 7 appears tomorrow, 7th May. The earlier chapters are in the immediately preceding posts


As an impressively obscure, though not, as it has alarmingly transpired, any sort of cult author, I now have to reveal by way of anti-climax, that I entered once into training as an Anglican lay preacher. It was for a very remote parish in North Cumbria, a truly vast area, sometimes referred to as the historically Debatable Lands, and so sparsely populated it only had two proper villages, both tiny, and neither possessing a shop nor any other conceivable amenity. This was some sixteen years ago, and the idea wasn’t mine, but the notion of the resident priest, who thought that I would make a fine preacher. I made the obvious protest that I wasn’t a remotely good person, being far from polite, well-mannered or an accommodating kind, and in some ways an unorthodox deviant, having reached my formative years in the antagonistic mid Sixties. The priest was about my age, with a strong Midlands accent, and he laughed out loud at my rapid excuses, and asked did I think Jesus Christ was a docile and orthodox man, or that he would have wished such as me to be one, if I was to be his preacher.

“They didn’t decide to crucify him for nothing, not just for the fun of it. What’s more, it was his own people cried out for his blood, not the hated enemy. As far as I know, your work has a strong local following, and no one wants to do away with you? No one has got it in for you, have they?”

I smiled wisely and pointed out what was perfectly true, that someone had recently sent a ludicrous and embarrassing hoax letter, purporting to be from me, that was published in the local newspaper. In it, the bogus author humorously fulminated about a current controversy involving the city football team, then, apropos of nothing, fatuously declared that he considered himself to be the honorary equivalent of the Cumbrian ‘Poet Laureate’. Given that I knew less about football than my mongrel dog Bonny, and had written no poetry at all for thirty years, it was not how I would have preened and vaunted had I been given to the habit. I rang the editor, and asked him indignantly had he read the letter, and did he think anyone sane and not a megalomaniac, would have written such idiotic drivel. He took two minutes to find it, then gulped and apologised, and promised to print my retraction the next day.

“So,” I told the priest, “I have a least one resourceful enemy round here.”

He looked most impressed. “Who on earth?”

“No idea, no one specific I can think of. I’ve organised a couple of subsidised schemes that selected a few writers for expert help. Most got rejected, and no doubt it was one of those took umbrage, or they wouldn’t have mentioned a word like ‘laureate’.”

He sighed with painful emphasis, as if some of his own stressful burdens might suddenly find an attentive ear.

“Some people need to grow up in this neck of the woods. Between ourselves, you should hear the endless backbiting I get from one or two of them. I’ve got three tightly knit farming parishes, and all the farming families are related, so I get my share of backstabbing. Though not always on the sly. Some of it is flagrant, in the face, and bloody upsetting. I recently refused to remarry a divorcee whose new partner is sharing the house with the old partner, and they all live cosily, a ménage a trois, right opposite the village church. So she ran out one day in the middle of the village, grabbed hold of me screaming, and kicked up a truly hellish shindig. She spent months bad-mouthing me horribly to everyone in my three churches. Others don’t like hymns and songs with guitar music in the services, or they don’t like anything but the Authorized Version for readings. Or they don’t like me to preach for longer than fifteen minutes, or better ten minutes, or even better five…”

That should have stopped me in my tracks, but fool that I was, I signed up for whole two years’ clerical training. Immediately I had that unnerving yet familiar feeling of, what the hell was I doing, whose perverse idea was this, why on earth did I consent to act so ridiculously out of character? Did it mean like some dithering aimless schizoid, that I had no centre of gravity, and was operated by haphazard strings rather than my own will? At once it reminded me far too vividly of an abortive job I’d had, a quarter of a century earlier, in the mid Seventies in North London, in a distinguished private library. I had convinced myself as only panicking unemployed graduates aged 23 can, that I wanted to be an academic librarian, whereas five minutes with any of the species, and they would have assured me that it was a slow decomposition by excruciating boredom. The very day I began, there was a flu bug going round the numerous staff, they were short of hands, so they had me in the cloakroom employed in taking visitors’ hats and coats, for a full eight hours. What I’m saying is I was supposed to be learning to become an academic librarian, but I was actually training to be an expert cloakroom lady. To adopt Samuel Beckett’s homely Irish phrasing, I was in a muck sweat all day, as the customers came in droves rather than trickles. The second day, this being the charmingly pre-digital age, I was presented with at least a thousand filing cards, and was ordered rather as in the instructive tale of Rumpelstiltskin, to put the darlings in alphabetical order. The library had a lucrative commission from an international drugs firm to catalogue their books on medicine and pharmacology, and as added torture I was given only the Cs that day. They were nearly all Chinese authors, so there I was with Chang, Cheng, Ching, Chung, Chong, pile upon endless pile of them, and an enormous table to do the mechanical sorting. Again I was at it for eight hours, and became measurably clinically insane at least three times, with comic if uncontrollably racist ditties going through my fevered head on the lines of Ching Chang Chong, Surely This Has To Be Stupendously Wrong

The priestly training involved a weekly assignment with a young theology tutor, and as I had written no essays for a quarter of a century, this had a definite vertiginous challenge. Once a month there were residential weekends down at a secluded mansion in the Lake District. I had hoped much of these, but the first concussive blow was that the size of the group demanded accommodation had to be shared. I was billeted with a bespectacled and asthmatic West Cumbrian bank employee of about forty called Frank, who had wended meekly to bed at ten, while I was still happily in the bar, steadying my astonished nerves at what had happened so far. He shuffled and puffed and panted all night, in a restless and contagious manner, and the experience was infinitely desolate, as I realised I had another twenty odd of these youth hostel style weekends to contemplate. The one redeeming solace was the presence of some personable women here in the mansion, but sadly they were very few. None of them were Anglican, every single one a Methodist, all in their early forties, all friendly, sane and undeniably adult. By which I mean they did not have that fizzy and voluble adolescent tendency, which conspicuously marks out many fully-fledged but puerile priests, never mind novice preachers. All these women lived in the south of the county, and to be specific in the big, ugly and desolate city of Barrow in Furness, which is Cumbrian only in name, and tough and melancholic Lancastrian to the core. It has survived after a fashion, courtesy of the defence industry, meaning in part the manufacture of nuclear submarines, and that rank association has stuck.  The acerbic comedian Mike Harding has described it as ‘a mediaeval village stuck at the end of a fifty mile cul de sac’ and indeed he was being kind.

This handful of Barrovians were active in the Methodist chapels, but they were also busy with voluntary social work, community work, and for years had been helping the homeless and the drifters in the crumbling city. They didn’t think twice about such engagement, it was integral to their faith, whereas the Anglicans with their brittle and effervescent voices, thought it generous to patronise a youth club with table tennis and dominoes to beguile the Christian teenagers of the late 1990s. After five minutes’ conversation, you could see that they thought the present youth were just tolerable clones of themselves, even if thirty years younger. I sat through a lengthy and dreary induction and some specially devised liturgy and prayers, then hived off to the bar and unusually requested a malt whisky, a Cardhu. The resident barman, who was also the mansion Warden, complete with dog collar, buoyantly commanded me to have myself a double. I could tell at once he wasn’t wishing to make me a drunken priest, but get as much handy and profitable income for his mansion, in as speedy a manner as possible. Thirty aerated student preachers in a confined rural space was a golden fiscal opportunity, though unfortunately some, if not all, of these Barrovian Methodists might be Primitives or even Rechabite teetotal.

The course finished on the Sunday afternoon, and in the morning one of the graduating students had to give his first ever sermon. We trotted en masse into the chapel, where sat at the front were a couple who worked in the mansion’s kitchen, and who had a tiny and lively evidently South Indian girl sat on their laps. The couple were late thirties South Cumbrians, and the girl who was about five, was not only surpassingly beautiful, but was completely blind, no doubt from birth, given the staring blankness of her eyes. These two had adopted a child who was arguably a great challenge, and for the whole of that service I was mesmerised for one compelling reason. She was smiling seraphically and seemed utterly blissful. Her blind smile and that sightless bliss never left her for a second of the service. The blind ecstasy was such that she could not contain it, so she was constantly wriggling joyfully in her adopted mother’s arms. She happened to be half way between me and the novice preacher, who had staggered up to the pulpit to make his exhortatory debut. We could all definitely have done with a deal of passionate admonition, or some sort of sermonic fire today, we (Methodists aside) ever tepid, maundering, would-be Anglican priests. The novice had opted to preach on a single verse of St Mark’s Gospel, in a flawlessly inoffensive manner, attaining the most rarefied heights of anaemic tedium in his debut homily, as if he had striven to do precisely that. To be sure he was stumbling and blushing, as this was his first attempt, but underneath the forgivable stumbling, one could see he was roundly frightened, and always would be, of spiritual eloquence, of spiritual confidence, and of anything approaching a transforming spiritual passion.

Meanwhile the blind Indian girl wasn’t listening to a word he said, and was communing effortlessly with what lay within. Let us call this her special infant’s grace, and filled with her authentic and intrinsic passion, this little child was frightened of absolutely nothing. By the end of the service, I realised that she, the blind girl, had been the sermon, the appropriate wordless sermon, and to take my eyes off her and to hearken to the hopeless novice, would have been a monstrous absurdity. And of course, I realised I was the only theological student present who was doing this, watching with divine enchantment the child enraptured as some small incarnate angel…

I mused on this as I drove home to see Angie, who was in breast cancer remission, and my 10-year-old daughter Janie. An American theologian once wrote that the best prayers often had no words at all, but simply noiseless murmurs, pleas and soundless invocations…or occasionally a variation of groans and inchoate, barely audible beseeching, as well as fervent words of praise. Impressed by which, though it took me quite some time to act on it, I knew then as sure as the impenetrable darkness that was falling over the fells round me, I would never ever stand up to preach inside or outside of a church, nor would I ever wish to be any kind of didactic priest, nor any other supposedly hallowed conduit of grace.


Chapter 6 appears tomorrow May 6th   The previous chapters are the blog posts immediately preceding this one


On a hot summer’s night behind the high wall adjacent to the vast town church, both of us half naked, I was embracing the daughter of the Anglican vicar of a very neat and spiritless village five miles away. Even though the church was sited on a substantial spread of sloping grass land, ideal for parading a nosy dog, no one ever came this way unless it was a Sunday, or if there was a midweek service. I had reconnoitred, and godless Saturday night was reliably deserted, and this huge wall an excellent shield from all eyes. As for possible carnal irreverence, Madeleine though obliged to attend church twice every Sunday, was not even a token believer, and felt no shame about that. She did not believe in the afterlife, nor did she believe in the efficacy of prayer, for she had tried it, and she said it definitely did not work. Among other things she had prayed for Danny Perry the elusive and beautiful schoolboy she had silently and feverishly doted on, to take the slightest notice of her, and of course he never had. She had never heard of, much less read Gide or Stendhal, but she might have found her template there if she had taken a quick investigative glance. Ditto she prayed that Thomas Coulthard, her sister’s cruelly rejected boyfriend, would somehow become eventually affianced to Jenny, or at the very least telephone or write out of the blue to inquire how her little sister Madeleine was. That didn’t happen either, and she soon stopped praying, but did not stop her crying in my presence at the tragedy that was big brother Thomas leaving her to her starved and desiccated existence, as a compliant vicar’s daughter cum dogsbody, and with a virtually forgotten and wholly fictional and imagined identity.

Perhaps having Wilson Swan as representative of the Church Here On Earth for breakfast, lunch and dinner, had done the job better than her reading Karl Marx or Voltaire or the Daily Worker. But then, outside of school textbooks and fashion magazines and knitting and sewing patterns, Madeleine did not read anything. Four years later, when we were living separately in Oxford, the only book I ever saw at her bedside was a Pelican paperback on the History of Witchcraft. This was not because she was a diabolist nor a paganist, as she would have been terrified of the queasy occult more than most. I asked her why she was reading about witchcraft, and she answered because it was very interesting, especially as all those women of all ages, accused of being witches, were of course as innocent as the day was long. It was all about hating and persecuting independent, often talented and usually lonely women, she concluded, and given that she had no connection with nor the remotest understanding of 1970s feminism, you could see that it reminded her of her own loneliness and claustrophobic stifling in her parental home back in West Cumberland.

She was in a thin and pretty blue dress and I was in a tight red shirt and flared black trousers. She never objected and indeed was impatient for me to do it, as I closed upon her kissing fiercely and lifted up her dress and pushed down her tights and knickers. That meant her bare bottom was pushed most pleasantly against the warm brick wall and she loved me to hold the sides of her thighs and caress them in repetitive and tender arcs. My pants were half way down and my manhood pressed hard against her fanny and the delicate hair there. It stayed that way, standard issue adolescent pre-stressed concrete, for the forty minutes we had before racing for our separate buses, and often it was so as I climbed onto the curiously named Cumberland Lodekka double decker. The first thing I did after going upstairs, was to light a cigarette, just as three or four times during the film we’d been to, I had lit up, or more often Maddy, who did not smoke, would tenderly do the lighting for me. The lyrics of Jose Feliciano inevitably sprang to mind, though in inverse relation, as she had already lighted my fire before she had then ignited my continually changing cigarette brands: delicious Woodbines Tipped or Anchor or Perfectos, or Extra or Ariel or Churchman’s No 1, or Cadets or Sweet Afton or  Carroll’s No. 3 or Senior Service or Players or Capstan or Kensitas or Everest or Park Drive or Craven A or Peter Stuvvesant, and very rarely the menthol cigarettes Consulate, which savoured like some medicinal eucalyptus breeze blowing exasperatingly through my incredulous mouth.

No one has ever written with any authority, neither fictionally nor factually, about the ineffable miracle of Heavy Petting, and there is probably more prose available about Indian Tantric sex and the non orgasmic maithuna, than there is on the universal practice of almost but not quite approach to youthful sexual congress. And yet before the pill, and for those unwed couples who did not wish for a pregnancy, nor did they trust condoms, it was probably the resort of the silent majority. Not just the mechanics of the almost sex, but the banal practicalities, are still a dizzy thing to contemplate now in taboo-free 2016.  On the other side of the high church wall, were numerous stout citizens walking past, wholly oblivious that a young girl had her bare behind against the sunlit wall, and her boyfriend was caressing her moist fanny and pressing his naked erection against her crotch. They were in a state of truly consummate bliss, and a 1 in a 1000 chance that someone might decide to parade their alertly sniffing and woofing Sealyham or Boston Terrier their way, never entered their burning, fevered heads, and thankfully never happened. Of course there is no clairvoyant magic in imagining what goes on inside the bedrooms of a row of terraced houses, even if you do not know the inhabitants. You know that there is a fair chance that if you are looking at the marital bedrooms, non-fornicatory sex of who knows what description, is assuming its delightful or in some cases dubious, and in one or two cases doubtless odious and loveless pageantry.

But then you might argue that kind of humdrum clairvoyance extends to other predictable banalities. After about 1930 and up until maybe 1958, you knew that the family inside that terrace around 8pm would almost certainly have been gathered in the sitting room listening to the wireless, either The Light or the Home, and very rarely the classical Third Programme. From 1958, until now nearly sixty years later, you can say the same of the glittering and grinning TV including all its later digital refinements. But consider, how often perhaps, have you stood at a bus stop a decade or so back, five yards from a back alley, wholly ignorant of the fact a young couple were furiously but noiselessly copulating there, and the girl was about to be impregnated, just as you were filling in your diary or filing your nails or eating a fish and chip supper in an idle moment.  Maybe his orgasm and her impregnation came just as you were euphorically enjoying your very last succulent chip, and wishing with so much regret that it was your permanently penultimate one, as it was so exquisitely salty and vinegary and delicious. And then what of the child born of the back alley alliance that you were sunnily unaware of? Would it become a genius, an idiot, a saint or a monster, or none at all of these? Would it in time have a happy marriage, would it be a happy homosexual, would it be everyone’s favourite, would it have crippling phobias or crippling lack of restraint, and indeed any sense at all of healthy personal boundaries. Would it die at 90, 60, 30, 10 or 2 years old? If you don’t find this matter remotely interesting, then the universe will inevitably make its decision and fail to find you interesting also. You might not realise this sobering fact for a few years, but eventually it will dawn on you, and by then it might well be too late.

But bear in mind, and especially if you are a woman who has previously contemplated an urgent abortion, when you have already taken every sensible contraceptive precaution, that with Heavy Petting there is nil chance of pregnancy, because as soon as there is the slightest whiff, the merest sniff, suspicion or whifter, of reckless whole hog sexual penetration, it is no longer innocuous HP but copulation proper, which of course is a categorical horse of another hue. Which is why Maddy the vicar’s daughter, terrified of the shame for her father, and with a GP who was her Dad’s close pal, and couldn’t even spell ‘confidentiality’, much less understand its meaning, forbade the complete enterprise in our case. Condoms she argued, were worryingly fragile and risky, which indeed in 1968 they were, added to which anything other than the orthodox johnny, namely those Japanese ones with ribs and furrows and fangs, and those others from Lord knows where, with garish novelty flavours, were unobtainable in outpost West Cumberland for decades to come. The greatest paradox however, was that Heavy Petting, especially of the clandestine back alley and park bandstand, and pungent and fecund and aromatic depths of Lord Lonsdale’s forests, and remotest poetic reaches of the Cumbrian fellside kind, could be of such euphoric intensity and prolongation, that the real much-advertised and anticipated article with another woman a year later, somehow would not have the joy nor the flair nor the magic.

I lost my virginity at 19 not to Maddy, but to a beautiful gentle auburn-haired girl called Jan, who went to an expensive secretarial college, and chose Oxford in order to be close to the seat of power and money of the future, and was even prepared to believe or more likely ignore the heresy, that I with my arse-long hair was such a gateway. Jan was no virgin herself, and I was so anxious to impress, I went roaming with my mouth down below, until gasping noisily for air, I dimly heard her murmur that she wouldn’t mind something else more to the point down there, given how excited she felt. We met for one more date and had tea with God help us Gentleman’s Relish and buttered muffins in my college, served by doddery elderly scouts, and I talked so fast and playfully about books and music, that she looked at me full on, and with total conviction informed me that I was the most profound person she had ever met. Right enough, I might once have been showing off with my tongue down below in the dark, but not with my gift of the gab in the light, and I snorted and told her I was no more than an intelligent imbecile, and she also snorted generously, but obviously did not understand that extremely accurate oxymoron.

To vividly picture the ineffaceable poetry of our church wall embraces. There was I with a rigid phallus pressed against Madeleine’s groin, and I had my hands cupping the infinite riches of her sweet and naked behind. Her bra had been loosened and her breasts were naked and I sucked at her stiff nipples which made both of us groan, though not in synchrony, more in euphonious counterpoint (I could add, but won’t, an unsubtle pun about Kunst der Fuge, Bach’s masterwork of fugal counterpoint, which I then possessed as an incomparable recording by a New York woodwind ensemble). The point is that my manhood felt like an aeronautic rocket, an indestructible behemoth, and also some sort of crucial architectural monolith that held up the world that was the two of us. Not that such a grandiose support was possible, without the excitement of Madeleine’s  powerful embraces. Without that I was at ground base, incapable of upholding anything, and it needed the two of us acting as one, to be reciprocal supports of our private and safely protected universe.

With my hands cupping her bottom that was tenderly illumined by the evening sun, and my lips sucking her breasts, and my sex kissing gently her little belly, I was, more than ever I had known before, precisely where I wanted to be, and Madeleine also told me this was exactly where she wanted to be, and we had no wish for it ever to end, neither then nor in the amnesic future. If you think this is a tautology, as there is only one infinity, present and future being irrelevant, then perhaps try being a bit shrewder and a bit saner, and acknowledge there are very many different types of infinity. Also that a woman’s pristine backside is the infinitely enduring emblem of purity, fecundity, tenderness, sweetness, genius, glory and a sumptuous and nuanced foretaste of the apparently divine, though I think I am probably the first in the world to assert as much. As are a woman’s breasts, but shall we say in line with the revolutionary ethologist Desmond Morris, that with evolutionary prescience, the bifurcated female behind decided to repeat itself in most versatile fashion as the twin female breasts, when the quadruped opted to be a biped, and both male and female found it convenient to have the woman’s backside at the front as well as at the back, as it offered a flexible and alluring option of frontal as well as rear copulation. Needless to say, none of this was going through my head, much less Madeleine’s, as we lingered over what is unmusically called frottage, and I caressed her warm and liquid womanhood inside and outside. Nothing at all other than the vesperal sunshine around us, the sound of the roosting starlings in the church’s beech trees, the resonance of voices the other side of our protective wall. I imagine it was the same lasting reverie for Madeleine, though just possibly she was more alert to the catastrophe of missing her last bus and being bawled at by the righteous Reverend Wilson Swan.

Nevertheless, the reason why both of us found it our ideal if contingent existence, these embraces that lasted seemingly for a cosmic aeon or Hindu yuga, but held no threat to either in terms of catastrophic parenthood, was that for their duration they sustained us in the eternal present as nothing else could have. Perhaps if either had been religious believers, we might have found that euphoric timelessness in prayer and other devotional means, but neither of us had ever found release, much less ecstasy, in prayer. Only a year earlier I had been confirmed, as had Maddy, at two different places of worship, mine being pit village Low Church where they said ‘table’ and not the Papist word ‘altar’, and disdained candles and all Roman Catholic ritual, and hers being High Anglican in her smart little commuter village. Earlier, in my mid-teens, I had been avowedly misty-eyed with Christianity, but that was only because the confirmation group included a beautiful brown-haired girl called Melissa, and my devotion to things spiritual was conflated inextricably with my devotion to her. At sixteen Melissa had a boyfriend four years older, who had left school and had a job and was a grown man, and though she liked me very much and flirted with me extravagantly, even quite recklessly inside the confirmation group, she was not to be won over by a mere boy. Out of sheer perversity she regularly told me unsolicited details of their love life, including some mock pebble-dashed Swedish condoms he had ordered via the classifieds of Tit Bits. She also told me that being so much older, if he deemed she had been a naughty little girlfriend and impudently misbehaved, he would pin her firmly over his knee with his muscular hands, and soundly spank Melissa’s behind, though admittedly this was usually a prelude to zestfully disrobing and having the whole hog in his West Cumbrian bedsit. He was that unique animal, a young man with a good job as a fitter at the big Bessemer steelworks, and with a local Mum and Dad, but who chose to leave home and live an independent life, meaning he must have represented less than 1% of his peers. By way of anticlimax, he was called Thompson H Phizacklea, and his august middle name was his collier grandfather’s handle of Herbert.

But the eternal hard-on behind the town church wall, and the eternal caress of Madeleine’s rich breasts and succulent buttocks, and the endless stroking of her wet and dancing clitoris and all of her gentle womanhood, with the perpetual summer sunshine and timeless twilight birdsong and the murmurous voices of passers-by behind the wall, which could as well with their thick and tough Cumbrian dialect have been the voices of 1868, 1768, or even 1668, all these were ours experienced undeniably beyond time, meaning ahistorical, and therefore unverifiable. As confirmation of which, Madeleine just before she died two years ago, aged 61 in 2013 (and by the weirdest quirk, a one in 365 chance, was buried on the very same date, if not the same year, as my wife Angie) indicated that she was afflicted with a baffling amnesia. Only a few weeks before the unexpected death, also from cancer, I reminded her over the phone of our remarkable and reckless embraces, and she had to struggle long and hard to recall them. She was not on any fuddling medication at that stage, yet couldn’t even remember reading the book on witchcraft, and that was a mere thirty-one years earlier compared, with the thirty-five years since 1968. How could anyone, I asked myself, who rarely read anything of any kind, forget the reading of a book, even if a thousand years ago, on, of all things, witchcraft? How could anyone struggle to remember those delirious naked caresses in of all places the precincts of a church, the authorised province of her tedious, nagging father? The only explanation was that those same embraces had fulfilled their obvious promise of authentic transcendence…and hence Madeleine who had always been timebound in all other mundane respects, and now with her death only eight months away, was more tragically timebound than she would ever know.