I am moved by Lady Percy 's expression of love. CLICK HERE - see if you agree.
Otherwise my novels, short stories, verse, family, music, memories, vulgar interests, detestations,
responses, apologies. I hold posts to 300 words* having found less is better than more.
I re-comment on comments and re-re-re-comment on re-re-comments.
* One exception: short stories.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Exotica

Rare pic of RR going rural at snail's pace
Brother Sir Hugh's long solo walk from Berwick-on-Tweed to somewhere in Somerset (Check out the map, it's rather more than a step.) came to a painful end when he fell and broke his arm quite badly. A metal plate and all that. We picked him up from his home in Arnside and had him convalesce with us for a week.

The sun shone on Saturday and he suggested a gentle walk suitable for invalids or, in my case, unwalkers. Familiar with his obsessions, I knew it would have to be quantified - numbers play a huge role in his perambulations. I also sensed I must push against notional targets however piddling the distance.

A loop was devised around Dore Abbey (Cistercian, 12th century, thoroughly modernised in the 13th.) The first problem was parking: Herefordshire's rural roads are one car's-width wide and snake between high impenetrable hedges. The pedestrian route lay between a mini-river (name unidentified) and a seemingly endless field of early wheat - a word that always invites me to pronounce its internal h. Then an orchard, then narrow roads with a surprising amount of uphill.

Back in the car, surrounded by electronics, we got down to the good stuff: measurement. The walk covered 3.27 miles and took 72 minutes. Our rate was calculated as 2.85 mph which I regarded as pathetic - in my swimming days a mile's crawl took about 55 minutes. Sir Hugh, who seemed impressed by my gait ("As if you wanted to get if over with."), said it was OK... considering.

MORE ATYPICAL RR. Bought myself a stainless steel dibber, nominally £16 but reduced somewhat. Used it to plant cosmas, candytuft, Californian poppy, etc. Sir Hugh took the pix. That's it, Tone Deaf doesn't do horticulture.
Even rarer pic: RR gardening with expensive new dibber

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Story - part 1

DIMINISHED (Divided to please Google)
3057 words.

HE’D PASSED a lousy night but what else was new? Wearied, he sat on the rim of the garden lounger but the tubular frame rode hard against his bum. Loungers were for lounging on, weren’t they? But had he enough time?

Just a couple of minutes’ shuteye wouldn’t come amiss. He bestrode the lounger, sat down, lay back. The sun was intense, he reckoned he could see its nature  – a ball of heat - through his closed eyelids. With his forearm over his eyes he told himself: five minutes, no more. Wooo, it was almost too hot to...

“Mr T! Mr T!”

Spit had oozed from his mouth-corner.

“Wah,” he quacked, with the lounger gripping like a corset.

“Sorry to wake you, Mr T. But...”

“Wah. Guh – etting up.” Still he struggled. At least she was blotting out the sun and he could open his eyes.

Her long chestnut hair hung like a monk’s cowl; sharp corners outlined her thin lips, squared-off jaw and knife-edge nose. A face shaped for suffering. Haloed by the sun she burned like a medieval martyr.

“The train’s in...”

But the lounger held him and he sighed.

“London?” he said.

She nodded.

He heaved convulsively and the lounger, never entirely stable, flipped over. Arms flailing he half-rolled across the lawn towards her sensible court shoes, forcing her to step backwards.

“Mr T!”

A word flagged up: ignoble! Quick reactions were called for. Uncertainly balanced, he simultaneously stood up while toppling forward. Mustn’t fall again, mustn’t fall. Fighting gravity and momentum he lurched towards the gooseberry bushes, scuttling on bending legs. Then fell anyway and lay, moist grass staining his trouser knees.

Speed had failed him so how about slowness? He rose like a revivifying corpse, avoiding her face. “The car’s in the driveway,” he coughed.

There was time enough. He drove briskly but not excessively: Look! Panic’s left behind like the overturned lounger. Neither said anything. What was there to say?

Taking a right turn he looked to the left for oncoming traffic. Saw her erect, taut and expressionless, staring straight ahead, knees pale as leeks, twisted away from him.

As an HGV droned past he considered the pattern of his discomfort. Accepted that he – the bumbler - was fixed in her memory as he had been taunted by the lounger. That the lawn episode was a part of the misery which had broken out like a degenerating disease a year ago. That there would be yet another solicitor’s meeting in two days’ time.

Still she remained, statue-like, inches away but quite apart. An English panorama passed by - oaks, hedges, immobilised sheep – as the human condition played out: adults capable of speech but unspeaking.  Say something then. “We’ve plenty of time, June,” he said. “London’s fun. Going anywhere pleasant?” His aim was to be clear but the words spilled out noisily.

Silence hadn’t pleased her either. Her shoulders dropped slightly, she picked lint off her skirt and let the prow of her jaw subside. “Friend I knew at uni. Problems with her partner.” She shook her head and her voice rose in mild outrage. “And she’s asking me!”

A surprise. Because of her hawkish face he imagined she got her own way with men.

She said, “Why else would I move to the back of beyond?”

Meg had asked him something similar. Made it her excuse for being unfaithful.  Now she’d acquired a more rapacious solicitor she used their married isolation to pry loose more of his assets “...to compensate for the boredom and social deprivation you’ve caused me.”

June would have known all this, of course. Must have concluded it went with his gymnastics on the lounger. As a non-driver she saw his car as her convenience, reasoning that the forty-minute trip would no longer be his favour if she paid “for the petrol”. That fuel burned on the return was not her responsibility. Having further insisted that an extra half-hour be built in for emergencies and that he should linger at the station until the train arrived.

Depression and possible bankruptcy had allowed him to ignore his neighbours.  Anyone else he would have refused but June was different. She might have protested loudly enough to be heard at the village shop, recently held up at gun-point by a couple of masked men, thought to be Poles. Now armed, the shop owners waited impatiently to work off their feelings on anyone they deemed brutish.

Would June dispense comfort? Her face hardly suggested sympathy. Mind you there were those who went for that kind of detachment. Men mostly, he supposed. But not he. At the start Meg had been – how to describe her? – very physical. That he’d enjoyed. But then came shrewishness...

Anyway, no more conversation. Better he showed off his driving skills – the reassurance of a slightly older man, at ease with technology.

She sighed. Sunlight, from a different direction, dappled her face. Softening the hardness which, when all was said and done, was only a default state. There were other options.

“And she’s asking me!” she had said as if it were June who needed help. June who’d endured failures and disappointments.

Looking elsewhere, he noticed the green stains on his trousers. Out of the past  he heard his mother say, “That’ll never come off.” and smiled. In those days stains didn’t “come off”, you lived with them. The trousers were made-to-measure online and had cost £60; he’d throw them away. “Never!” his mother would have said, less shocked at the waste than at the product’s morality. Bought items had a foreseen life and were expected to endure.

June sighed again, more copiously. Looking for a response. Perhaps begging for one.

“London doesn’t appeal?” he asked neutrally.

“What on earth can I say to her?”

“Email her; say you’ve eaten one of those meat pies and are feeling woozy.”

“Meat pies!”

“Story in the newspapers. Horse may have been sneaked in at the factory.”

“I mean, but meat pies.”

“You a veggie?”

“It’s a question of style.”

He laughed, politely at first then growing in volume, finally close to hysteria. When had he last laughed out aloud? Days ago? Months? He wiped away tears with his shirt sleeve as she looked on, puzzled. Perhaps she’d not known about Meg.

He said, “Wit’s been in short supply recently.”

“I understand your wife...”

“Quite so. Maximum trauma.”

Silence resumed but it was no longer sullen. A pinch of understanding, a courteous decision not to pry. Both relaxed in their car seats.

He must have driven quickly because they waited a full half-hour at the station. Talk was desultory and unforced as if they were long-standing friends. Quiet humour when a pheasant walked spasmodically, stupidly, across the car park. A jolt, shared between them, as a military plane flying at house height, roared into and out of their world.

Within the closeness of the car he observed her covertly. A meaningless glance at the dashboard which inched towards her legs. And more. In repose the boniness of her face lost its meanness and became simply architectural – a planned arrangement of lines, peaks and planes which added up to a face like any other, together with a personality which might take off in any direction. More surprising was a plebeian accent – estuarine Essex at a guess – which she spoke unselfconsciously. Modified by the passage of time but not actively suppressed. So she wasn’t a snob.

With five minutes to go they loitered near the station platform. Now he had another concern. Picking her up on her return had never been discussed. He wasn’t obliged to raise the subject nor attracted by all that extra driving. But an etiquette that hadn’t existed had since developed. Finally he murmured, “When you get back...”

She smiled briefly. “Kind of you. But the whole thing’s up in the air. I may turn out to be helpful or she and I may fall out within five minutes. I don’t want to wreck the rest of your day. It’s a much longer drive than I thought.” She scrabbled in her shoulder bag. “You deserve more than the petrol...”

Knowing he would no longer be involved left him disappointed. Strange how little he drove these days. “When you get home will do,” he said abruptly.

And she, sensing something awry, didn’t look back as she got into the carriage.

In the garden the lounger still lay on its side and his earlier sense of wellbeing drifted away. For a time he stared at areas of the lawn – where he’d rolled, where he’d fallen a second time – realising these would have been June’s perspectives, a wider view of gyrations he had blundered through without appreciating their visual force. They were not scenes he wanted to revisit.

Papers on the coffee table demanded his attention. “Our client,” said the solicitor anonymously yet ominously, “feels that the value of the house should be part of any eleemosynary considerations.” The long adjective had been incorrectly applied but, at £50 a letter, it no doubt served to bulk out the sentence. He started to transcribe scribbled quotes he’d received from estate agents, worrying about how much Scotch was left for the forthcoming evening. Meg had cleaned out the drinks cabinet when she left, leaving only a half-bottle of Creme de Cacao. Which would linger on as an aide memoire, as no doubt Meg intended.

A Scandi-noir episode on TV helped him eke out the Scotch and postponed bedtime until eleven. Sleep was denied him. As usual Meg dominated his thoughts. What sort of man had she invited into what had been his bed? He knew nothing other than that the adulterer lived in Bristol. So where might he and Meg have met? Meg’s friends were limited to the shire and this crimped her style. There had, of course, been the class reunion in London but that was ages ago, dating back to the tolerant period. Surely Meg couldn’t have invented all those reunion reminiscences,  all that talk about Jackie, Frances and Glenda.

But hey – seriously - what kind of man? The opposite of what Meg had been dealt? A man who didn’t run an insurance brokerage, obviously; Meg had often sneered at that. Who didn’t go bird-watching – another stereotype. Who would readily have bought a “decent car” Who knew what Köchel numbers were. Prepared to buy books in hardback. Failings so frequently listed.

“Better off without her,” said two of his clients and he partially agreed. Present-day Meg had been hard to bear.  But there’d been an earlier Meg who had given up managing a spiffy West End design studio to marry him, had suggested their first fornications should occur in Hotel de Fleapit in The Marais (The wait agonising, the consummation definitive.), and who’d bought him Armani when they’d lived above a curry-house in Dalston. A Meg who had educated him and who, for a decade, had seemed to love him.

These amorous runes were restful; the twitches departed; his body took on the luxurious weight of imminent sleep.

The phone rang shrilly, like a voice in the midst of an emergency.

There was no one on the earth’s surface who cared that much and at that time.

Story - part 2

DIMINISHED (concluded)
TEN MILES out of Reading and June still hadn’t spoken. Passing a spotlighted church, she said woodenly, “Elspeth didn’t need me. Every suggestion I made she twisted into this mantra she’d worked up: ‘It’s a phase. He’ll get over it.’ Yet when I tried to catch an earlier train she found ways of holding me back. Another cup of coffee or some chicklit book she’d read. I was played for a fool.”

A fool! But without cap and bells, only the lounger.

“Someone to talk to,” he said, concentrating on winding unlit roads.

June nodded. “When Elspeth took up with him she dropped her friends. Now she feels the pinch.”


“But why Reading?”

“There were no more direct trains. Change at Reading but I missed the connection.” Then she trembled, gnawed at her knuckle.

“Something wrong?”

“I tried to negotiate a taxi but the driver wouldn’t have it and drove off. Left me alone on the forecourt. Then two young guys...”

A long silence ensued. “I found a police station but they weren’t exactly pleasant. No credit cards, no identity, no mobile, a woman who didn’t seem to know what was up and what down. Grudgingly they offered a free phone call and it was then I realised Elspeth wasn’t the only woman who’d dropped her friends. I have precisely two: one in Hamburg, the other in South Shields. Amazingly I remembered your landline number.”

She paused as if to phrase an apology but said nothing. The strain of getting out the right words was beyond her.
He said, “It’s nearly two hours’ drive. You could do with some sleep.”

The transition was immediate and she was still snoring when he pulled into his driveway. A gap in his hedge provided a tortuous shortcut to her house but he was reminded of her stolen shoulder bag. No house-keys.

As if in a badly rehearsed play he opened the car door from the outside and eased her feet on to the gravel. Cack-handedly he turned her body, conscious this was close to an act of violation. The chestnut hair smelled of shampoo and he needed to hold her firmly as she stumbled, more asleep than not, out of the car and in through the front door of his house. As he lowered her on to the couch her jacket slipped round her torso, he lost his grip and she dropped the last foot. But the couch must have welcomed her as she sighed, turned on to her side and curled up foetally. He found a duvet, laid it over her and that seemed to be that. Other than to remove those sensible court shoes he’d seen from another angle, a lifetime ago. Dawn was breaking as he got into bed, having first closed the bedroom door, normally left open. Not a hope of sleeping.

At nine he got up, shaved, made coffee in the hope that the smell would waken her. The snoring had ceased, replaced by profound slow breathing he could hear from the kitchen. It wasn’t just fatigue she was sleeping off but the shock of being robbed. Living alone he’d developed new routines and it was unthinkable that he should drink coffee without reading The Financial Times but that would have required a walk to the shop. Just his luck she’d wake up while he was out. And where might he leave a message she’d be certain to read?

In his study he booted up the laptop, trawling through City sources who might be willing to enter into a paid-up bond agreement with the parents of a twenty-two-year-old youth living in Goring who’d already totalled two BMWs. Knowing he’d find a finance manager whose view of risk – modified by greed – differed quite widely from his. Still the slow breathing continued.

Some time after ten there were stirrings and it became obvious she’d found the first-floor bathroom without announcing herself first. Slightly offhand, he reflected, then re-reflected; bladder pressure can be a more powerful imperative than social nicety.

In the kitchen she asked for orange juice which he hadn’t got, refused toast, and drank coffee distractedly. It was clear she didn’t want to enlarge on yesterday other than to murmur, more than once, “Played for a fool.” Her manner was dull and remote. There was nothing to say.

But they were both in accord in some ways. Waiting for the percolator he had slipped out into the garden, folded the lounger and put it away in the shed.

“Look, there are things you need to do,” he said finally. “Cancel your credit cards, talk to your bank. Whatever. Use my study for that. Meanwhile, I’ve had a look at your house and the bathroom window’s open. I have a ladder and I’m sure I can get in that way. Just tell me where the duplicate key is.”

As if he’d encouraged her to learn Mandarin; her eyes unfocused, mouth slightly open. A throat dead to sound.

“OK, OK. You don’t want me in your house. If you prefer, you can use the ladder. Or we’ll look for an unimportant, cheap window to break.”

Nothing was getting through. “I’m going to the shop for a paper. Can I get you anything?”

She made an enormous effort. “Er... milk”

Eventually they parted. Her side door proved to be unlocked, she was persuaded to make the calls on her landline and he convinced himself she wanted to be alone. By midday he was back at the laptop. Late in the afternoon he heard a slight shuffling noise at the front door. On the doormat lay a blank envelope containing two twenty-pound notes. No message.

The Scotch bottle was empty; the evening’s TV programmes shallow and meaningless. He stayed in the bath as the water cooled around him, reflecting on things beyond retrieval.

That a woman’s company - even a woman’s presence – could soften his misery.

That the contours of June’s unyielding face had been abruptly illuminated and dignified by memories of a Nuremberg museum. Where he, a callow exchange student who didn’t get on with the German family accommodating him, had killed time, examining engravings by the town’s favourite son, Albrecht Dűrer, and his contemporaries. Commissioned portraits of local aristocrats - serious men of authority and charitable instinct who might, on bone structure evidence at least, have sired June: die kleine Prinzessin.

That the scent of shampoo could be as intimate and erotic as that of knickers in a laundry basket.

Shivering in the tepid water, he was reluctant to reach for the towel and cause these thoughts to fade. Just suppose he’d passed off the lounger as comedy rather than humiliation, comforted June effectively, been less stiff-necked? But suppositions weren’t his thing.

Ultimately Meg had brought him to this state of affairs. And, ironically, Meg would have understood his confusion. Shrugging, laughing in mild contempt, swiftly, she would have drawn the necessary conclusions. Straightened him out. Then turned to her Bristolian lover.

But now all Meg wanted was his money. And he was bloody well freezing.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Superficialities concluded

OK, it was a trick (to attract your attention) but not a cheap one. If tricks can be priced in nervous energy and literary delicacy, this one’s pretty darn expensive. For one thing it demands supreme good taste and I’m not famed for that.

An erotic experience in Hereford County Hospital’s dermatology department. It happened. And, as with Brexit means Brexit (ref. Theresa May), erotic means erotic: tending to arouse sexually. But then many phenomena may do the arousing – from Botticelli’s Venus to an innocent ewe grazing on the Brecon Beacons. (And yes, I live near these hills but it’s not that).

I am particularly sensitive to the act of shriving, otherwise being made pure again. I gain pleasure from taking trash to the dump and returning with an empty car: intense pleasure. I anticipate pleasure when faced with rectifying (ie, purifying) the defects in a first draft. On Tuesday I entered the hair salon shaggy and came out smooth; it wasn’t my reflection that thrilled me but the discards I’d left behind on the salon floor. And pleasure, as I’m sure you’ll agree, is a wide spectrum.

Incidental to my dermatology appointment was the removal of a Giant Comedone, a blackhead with world domination ambitions. For US readers: a zit that’s read The Art Of The Deal. Google offers pictures but they’re more disgusting than the anaesthesia-free procedure itself, performed with finger pressure and tweezers. An analogy will serve: think toothpaste tube.

The resultant exudate is not revolting; it emerges like chips of granite. I was invited to check with my fingers.

Nevertheless those chips represented bodily imperfections and I was rid of them. I was – in my sense of the word – shriven. Pleasured, you might say.

Do you expect me to draw a picture?

Tasteful enough?

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Superficialities

Visited Hereford hospital’s dermatology department where I underwent an erotic experience. Given my 300-word limit there may not be enough space to include this.

The building, located on the city’s ominously labelled Gaol Street, is surrounded by a paid-for public carpark. A strange form of discrimination is practiced. Dermatology patients are told not to use the park “as (they) will be fined”. This happens, it seems, even if they buy a ticket. Conclusion: skin conditions may inhibit car usage.

The tiny waiting room measures 5 m x 5 m and the door carries the single word: Waiting – as if the room itself were waiting for patients to come in and wait. On one of the walls are three separate posters offering the same rubric: “Have you booked in at the Dermatology reception?”  When you do you will be asked by the receptionist to confirm that the figures she has just recited are the last four of your phone number. This will take you slightly longer than you expect.

None of the people waiting showed any visible signs of skin problems. This is not remarkable since one of the many posters – entitled Guide To Checking Your Skin – shows by way of two decorously rendered mannikins that the areas most at risk are the arms and the legs. Surprising. Or as Donald Trump might say: Bad!

Posters proliferate. For those who demand the whole picture one poster illustrates ten steps to effective hand hygiene. Exhaustive as Donald Trump would not say.

Sun is definitely the dermatologist’s Satan. “Slip on a shirt” one is told; I actually swim in one during villa holidays in France.

During my visit I became familiar with the Giant Comedone, which I misheard as Komodo (ie, the dragon). The erotic episode will, alas, have to wait.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Good (-ish) news

I recently completed Opening Bars, a full length account of my singing lessons so far. Yesterday I emailed the MS to literary agents. Here are extracts from my covering letter:

Opening Bars describes what happened – and is still happening – following my decision to take lessons as a classical music baritone. Big deal, except that I was eighty at the time and had no previous formal training in music. The normal route, based on months of musical theory, was barred to me since it was clear I might easily be overwhelmed by the sort of thing that happens to all of us and especially octogenarians. ...I reckoned I could pick up the crotchet stuff as and when it became necessary.

Fifteen months have now passed and (my teacher) and I are presently working on the Pamina – Pappageno duet, Bei Männern, from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. We sound pretty good.
 
Problem is Opening Bars is shortish (33,000 words) and may not be commercially viable... I’m pondering offering the story as a programme concept to BBC Radio 3 but I worry they may not regard me as sufficiently solemn. One of the problems with classical music.

By return one agent (Anne Williams, bless her) said this:

I read this and thought it was lovely - and in a line with others discovering a new artistic skill, such as Alan Rusbridger and his piano, and it would I think be of interest to all those people who join choirs in later (or mid, or early) life.   It de-mystified singing to an extent, taking the scariness out of having to stand next to a teacher and SING!  But you are right, it is too short for a book - it would need to be more than twice as long to be viable.  So I'm afraid I can't see how I would help.   My only thought it that it's more Radio 4 than 3...

Now that's being turned down the nice way. (Alan Rusbridger, BTW, is the former editor of The Guardian).

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Election: Brits explained


My post, Rather marvellous, mentioned a small singing lesson triumph. Marly commented: V (my teacher) must be pleased. I replied: V was pleased... she said "Well done you." Marly re-replied: That seems so British.

Which was nice of Marly. Many Americans can't decide whether British under-statement is a character flaw or a ploy to confuse foreigners.

A bit of both. Something similar happened yesterday.

The doorbell rang and VR (the first V; my wife of 57 years) answered. The caller was Jesse Norman, a fella not a lady opera singer, our Conservative member of parliament (see pic), asking for support in the forthcoming election. VR recognised him immediately and said, "I'd like to thank you for helping my husband, with his driving licence. But my family has a mining background and I'll be voting Labour."

Jesse said: "I perfectly understand."

Then stayed on.  VR told me: "He talked about canvassing in the nearby Welsh valleys (formerly the heart of Britain's mining industry) where Conservative voters are rare. He laughed a bit. We were polite."

As I hope I would have been. As an abstraction (Old Etonian Tory, son of a baronet, etc) Jesse represents the UK I detest. In reality (philosophy teacher, book writer, married to daughter of one Britain's most humane judges,  helped me storm the DVLA a fortress-like institution) he is admirable.

Politeness, used genuinely by VR, can also be a social weapon for Brits, as can under-statement. Both are lies disguised as self-abnegation. We admire others’ “authentic” modes of speech while secretly disparaging their inarticulacy. Giving to charity implies pea-nuts; adding “modestly” suggests hundreds. If a Brit, casually met, says “You must drop in some time.” he means “Not on your Nellie.”

Not for nothing did the French call us perfidious.