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● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
● See Tone Deaf in New blogger.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Stepping back a little

 Although I have CDs of music played on period instruments (memorably Melvyn Tan, fortepiano, doing LvB) and have seen period  performances on telly, yesterday was my first live concert. To Birmingham for The Academy of Ancient Music with two versions of Stabat Mater (Vivaldi, Pergolesi), Salve Regina (Vivaldi) and two concerti armonico (van Wassenaer).

Some things I expected. Gut strings detune quicker than the modern metal-wound kind and there's some messing about on their behalf. Not least for the gloomy, possibly French woman, endlessly attending to her theorbo (pictured). This cumbersome device seemed, to my gradually dysfunctioning ears, almost inaudible. Gut strings in general are supposed to generate less noise but this problem didn't arise. I am by now used to counter-tenors and Andreas Scholl, world renowned, offered beautiful, wobble-free tone over his full range.

What did surprise me was the structure of the music. The two cellos and double bass were reduced to an undemanding and repetitive drone-like accompaniment which I believe is called ground bass. Strange, given that Bach's dates are contemporary with these three composers and his unaccompanied cello suites - a growing comfort in my declining years - demonstrate what you can get out of a cello when you try.

The van Wassenaer pieces, both in four movements, were good fun but predictable. This Dutch nobleman favoured the "round" approach; each violin playing the same melody but entering the fray at different times. Very soon I was able to hum in advance what the next ten seconds would bring. Quietly of course.

There was no conductor, the leader (a violinist) did the cue-ing with a most eloquent body. Informality reigned. To the point where leader and counter-tenor crashed into one another when leaving the stage.

Wednesday 29 January 2014

All that glisters...

When I was sprung from RAF national serice ("Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!") I swore I would never again drink stewed tea, share a dormitory with 23 adolescents, leave a stupid order unquestioned or acquire anything made of brass.

Brass polishing was part of a process intended to convert me from a barely sentient version of homo sapiens (ie, your average teenager) into a Yahoo jelly-fish. Can't complain; it worked. To this day the smell of Brasso evokes a sixty-year-old memory of sitting down to watch a colour movie about the perils of VD. Come to think of it, that film worked too.

Thus in the division of labour chez Robinson the task of rendering metal bright and shiny falls to VR. As it happens we have no brass but we do have silver and, to her credit, VR accepts the task uncomplainingly.

It's a mixed bag, some predictable (sugar tongs, fish knife, cream jug, tankard, button hook) some almost exotic. The decorated item (bottom right) is the belt buckle VR wore as she nursed the damaged and poorly in several London hospitals. Less visible is a spoon and - I like this as a concept - "pusher" with which someone long forgotten marked the issue of my given name. There's more of my christening paraphernalia with that handled and initialled mug next to the tiny flower vase, top right.

The slender stemmed goblet ("Only silver plate," said my insensitive brother-law.) celebrated the ruby wedding of VR's parents. To the left is the only thing of  monetary value, an oldish bon-bon dish on  a tripod.

The circular object, top left, symbolises my 44-year career: a coaster once twinned with a glass decanter, now smashed - a freebie from someone aiming to corrupt my journalistic purity.

Monday 27 January 2014

Liszt or layshaft?

My recent short story is about music: “your favourite subject”, says Beth. But is that true?

Walking hard to pick up The Guardian I ponder gearboxes. Devices installed between a car’s engine and the driven wheels. Devices which help overcome certain shortcomings in the engine, making it more efficient and more economical. I envisage a cutaway drawing of a gearbox and reflect on its beauty.

Music has beauty. Give or take an opinion or two that’s all it’s got. It was composed with beauty in mind. No gearbox was ever designed to be beautiful. If it turned out so – and it takes a certain kind of mind to detect this – then that’s incidental. Gearboxes are designed to perform a task, to do work. Work isn’t beautiful.

Work is beautiful. Or can be. Watch an amateur saw wood; the blade flutters, the sequence is irregular, chances are the sawer is not positioned correctly. Watch a carpenter and it’s a pleasure. Pleasure is one of beauty’s byproducts.

A gearbox does what’s needed by offering differing gear-trains. Something similar occurs on a pedal bike but restrictions (weight, cost) prevent the most elegant solution. The bike’s “gearbox” is spread out; the car’s is compact, saving weight and space, increasing durability, demanding and getting ingenuity.

Compactness is arrived at via simplicity. Gearbox internals (smaller pic) are often pretty to look at; imagining them operating in concert – not easy, I grant you – conjures up two ideas: beauty of purpose, beauty of achievement. Our old standby form follows function.

I respond to this. Useless to compare a gearbox with a string quartet. Best to have both. But which influences me the more? Damnit, I can’t say. No favourites then.

Sunday 26 January 2014

The food of love?

Short story (1000 words approx.)

As I get older I sense turmoil before it happens.

Davina wore her fur coat even though it was still September and the choir is, in any case, warmer than the nave. If she’d added her voice to the hymn rehearsal I hadn’t heard it. Her lips were moving now since the Magnificat chant was new to everyone and Lisa kept on stopping us to correct the stresses. At each break I saw Davina nod and smile, as if approving Lisa’s instructions. Lisa’s face was impassive.

But the turmoil was beginning and it made me shiver.

Another hymn and I watched sideways. Davina remained mute, head up, smiling serenely, detached from a humdrum part of practice. The confrontation must surely occur in the anthem. But I hadn’t allowed for Lisa’s growing impatience.

“I’m not satisfied,” she said. “It should be brisker.”

The hymn, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, six months out of place on the calendar, had been chosen by the curate because he “liked it”. I must have sung it in services twenty times. I checked my hymnal, unneeded until then, and saw maestoso. Played the performance back to myself: Stately? Dignified? We’d been both.

“Take the tempo from me,” said Lisa. We were all attention now and I’ll swear the speed was identical. Yet Lisa stopped abruptly. “There’s a strange reluctance about you all tonight. Davina, show them how it’s done?”

“Of course, Lisa,” Davina purred. “If your hand could be a tiny bit more demonstrative.”

Lisa’s jaw tightened but she increased the tempo and Davina effortlessly matched it. Not with words, though - humming!

The battle lines were in place. My stomach churned.

After two minutes of the anthem Lisa, smiling frigidly, stood up from the small practice organ. “Davina, dear. Not humming this time, but now you're marking.”

“Of course. I must protect my voice.”

“Do you really need protection? Your solos are very short, I’m not sure… In any case the choir needs to hear you clearly.”

That so-serene smile. “Not if you cue them.”

Lisa remained calm. “I’d rather we relied on the music. They won’t see me during Evensong. Perhaps you’d prefer to step down for the moment. Who’d like to sing solo? You, Edna?”

A shock which did nothing for my stomach. I glanced at the score – an accompaniment to Psalm 121 written by Roger Quilter in his student days. Simple, almost banal, short of top C. I nodded.

I sang well but didn’t enjoy it, feeling Davina’s seemingly amiable scrutiny. After, I made an excuse and took what Lisa calls a comfort break, sitting on the church toilet, eyes closed.

Lisa drove me home since I hate using the car at night. “You sang well, Edna” she said.

“But Davina will solo on Sunday.”

Lisa said, “I’m powerless. I discipline her as best I can. But she’s untouchable.”

Davina was the latest soprano paid to sing with our choir under an endowment from a long dead member of the congregation. Some said a failed mezzo. Dismissing her would require a two-thirds majority in the parish council. To whom Davina was an exotic, somewhat frightening character. The slight German accent ensured that.

At home I wanted to talk away my tension but Geoff was buried in Gardening Times. After I'd taken out the bins he'd already gone upstairs and his bedroom door was emphatically shut. I had a bath, refreshing the hot water several times.

On Saturdays I visit the salon in preparation for Sunday. It had happened before and as I took my seat Davina was paying at the counter. Her hair, dyed of course but very skilfully, looked like a golden flame. “I’ll wait,” she said. “We’ll have tea at Betty’s.” A command not an invitation.

We sat opposite each other in the bow window, the best table in the café. How so on a busy Saturday afternoon? Already there were pins and needles in my thighs. I refused milk and asked for lemon. I hate lemon tea.

“You sang well at practice,” Davina said.

I nodded, conscious of the mousse holding my hair together.

“Better than me.”

I was startled. Didn’t know where to look. Davina made me look at her. I knew she was five years older but the careful eye shadow and emerald studs said differently.

“I… ”

She raised a manicured hand. “You dislike me.”

“No, no.”

“Not dislike? What are your feelings then?”

I hesitated but realised Davina could absorb anything I said. “We are a simple Anglican church choir. Better than many because we have a strong choral tradition. It is unusual outside cathedrals to have a professional soloist. Perhaps, as a result…”

“We are unbalanced?”

Exactly. I said nothing.

She sighed. “I trained in Dresden. At twenty-two I sang Tatyana in Onegin. My father was political and we had to leave. In Britain I sang where I could. Amateur opera.” She laughed harshly. “Les Mis. Without training my voice did not develop. Onegin became a memory.”

I remained silent. She said. “But I love music.”

The word “love” seemed out of place.

“I have done what I can with my voice. It was enough for – what did you say? – ‘a simple Anglican church choir’. On Sundays I sing for the congregation. That helps.”

She stared. “On other days I pretend. I’m in Salzburg and von Karajan, that dear dead man, wants me as Elvira. I am indulged, I act the prima donna. It disturbs people, I know. But a prima donna must be disturbing. Pathetic you say. I mourn what I lost and this is my way of mourning.”

She left a ten-pound note on the table, three times what was necessary. Walked slowly towards the door, graceful on her stilettos. Then, at the door, turned, smiling faintly.

Reminding me…  Covent Garden 1995. I am sitting in the stalls holding the hand of the man I still love but who is not my husband. On the stage the pretend Marschallin delivers the silver rose. Years later, marriage teaches me that pretence takes many forms.

Thursday 23 January 2014

Towards a front cover

Graphic design isn't my forte but I enjoy fiddling, hoping things will come out right. Or preparing the ground for a real designer. When Out Of Arizona was still Risen On Wings (changed because it sounded churchy) the cover was based on a Cessna 172, in flight, shot from below. But I could never find the copyright owner. Here's the latest iteration.

ZAP! The trouser culling season has started. Not as gruesome as the season for baby seals ("the furry animal looked up with limpid trusting eyes") but equally terminal. Why now? Because 44R has become 42R.

Male readers will recognise those as waist measurements. After several months (slowness is the nature of my diet) I have shed about 1 stone - 14 lb - and it's noticeable. VR cannot bear all that visible bagginess to the rear.

So all my 44R trousers are becoming landfill. Including an experimental pair in bright red which I rather liked, pleased by my own audacity. The aim is to hinder regression.

Nine-ish, both of us clicking our Kindles. "What are you reading?" I asked. "Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch," said VR. So was I. Me: "Where are you up to?" She: "43%." I'd reached 66% but I knew I'd be rapidly overtaken. VR gobbles up fiction.

The Goldfinch was on special offer download just before Christmas; neither of us could resist the deal. It's a good read, packed full of info as is often the case with US novels. Strong on antique furniture.

WIP Second Hand (55,734 words)
Technical note: Francine has floppy light blonde hair and a pale complexion. Beyond that I don’t plaster in excessive appearance detail. Which is fortuitous because – quite unexpectedly - she’s having her portrait painted. Now such detail works.

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Liberté sans fraternité

I considered a series about objects I've clung on to. My climbing boots were acquired in 1952 but I've posted about them twice before. My mechanical Longines wristwatch, a gift from my ma for my twenty-first: same thing. Several pairs of underpants I've worn for a decade or more. Washed until they felt like spider's-web - which then blew away.

Seems I've run out of memorabilia; my past has disappeared as must shortly my future. A one-post series, then, devoted to my Liberty tie.

It's about twenty-five years old. I haven't worn it for ten years, perhaps fifteen. Retirement represents the luscious luxury of going tie-less. Not quite true because of funerals but the Liberty tie is too happy for those.

It just occurs to me: ties are consumables. Two dozen wearings and the middle goes crumply. I shoulda done the decent thing. But I've never shed my West Riding meanness. Liberty is - or was - an expensive uber-store on London's Regent Street and the tie cost £25. What drove me? I've never been body-proud.

I grew into that tie. Felt good in it. It was long; my rule of thumb - both ends must reach the belly button. The design didn't appear round other less worthy necks. And the floweriness disguised my Northern origins. It helped me ask difficult journalistic questions, then follow them up with more difficult ones. Briefly it made me fearless. Cheap at the price.

WIP Second Hand (55,373 words)
He wiped his wet mouth on the back of his hand. She’d only known him composed, the transformation was demeaning. He said, “I’ve tried not to think about failing. But I couldn’t shut it out. My work – it’s changed. My agent says I’ve become another person. He’s exhilarated – the fool.”

Monday 20 January 2014

Norwegian surprise

Post deleted as a result of authorial dissatisfaction.

WIP Second Hand (55,164 words)
“You remember the crackpot officer in Apocalypse Now: talking about the smell of napalm in the morning? I’m paid well and this is what I’m paid for. A magazine launch is a huge gamble – and this one’s as huge as it gets. I’d deserve to be fired for being uncertain. I want to fight the odds and beat them. Boast about this when I’m in my forties… I want to be a myth.”

Saturday 18 January 2014

The winter garment of repentance

I associate gloom, if not tragedy, with the end of the year and especially Christmas. Nor am I alone. Raising the subject with others brings flashes of recognition and, quite quickly, a list of unjolly year-ends when shopping malls rang hollowly with good cheer that was hard to bear.

Heidi was much in my mind this year and it seemed inevitable she should die so close to Christmas. By then a crisis had developed in the Robinson family and – Well, why not? – it dragged into the New Year. Alas I can’t give details and anyway things are now resolved - rather happily too. With everyone gratefully reflecting on one person's altruism and professional competence.

May I leap from these solemn concerns to booze? Please! A minority of my cellar contents comes from Averys, a Bristol wine merchant who ring me from time to time to discuss my needs. They called ten days ago and, perhaps in reaction to recent events, I rejected all talk of bargains.

Send me the fine wines flyer, I said. The one without pretty pictures and evocative descriptions, for those who take drink seriously. Just listings and (Ahem!) prices. I was in a mood and the photo you see summarises what happened. When I mentioned what I had in mind, VR said, "I'll go halves on that." Chances are I’ll remember that offer with every sip I take.

WIP Second Hand
(54,477 words)
“… there are times when I’m uncertain…  Imagine I’m one of those popinjay soccer players. A striker with a knee damaged beyond repair. Yes there’s a place in the team, but only as goalie. A bit like that. Like that goalie I’d be doomed to look up the field and watch players doing things I wanted to do. More than life itself.”

Wednesday 15 January 2014

A goodbye and a hug

Yesterday people gathered in Tunbridge Wells to affirm Heidi's life. We were late. We missed the actor reading Manley Hopkins' Pied Beauty, missed Joe's choice of hymn, God Moves In A Mysterious Way (minus the dodgy verse), but  heard Caroline and Jenny Bush celebrate their mother in quiet voices. Ending with four lines from Milton's Lycidas:

And now the sun had stretched out all the hills,
And now was dropt into the western bay:
At last she rose and twitched her mantel blue:
Tomorrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.

As one who regards the possession of a soul as an unlikely luxury, I was comforted by the celebration's general view: that the only permanence is how others remember us. VR had described Heidi as "cheeky" in facing life's difficulties. I remembered Heidi's face challenging me in conversation; best not to be a fool because she didn't suffer fools gladly. A challenge I happily accepted.

Beyond the chapel, Joe emboldened by painkillers against his wretched ailment, wearing a tie, moved down the line of celebrants. I dared myself to hug him - the first time I've ever hugged any man in my life. And he, catching at the awkwardness, drew away afterwards in mock surprise: "Robbie!"

At the house we shared brief memories of Breton holidays with Joe's children, Pippa and Toby, now ridiculously assured adults. But after less than an hour VR and I had to be away. Joe protested, he wanted to talk about "writing". I chided him: now was no time to recreate a Blogger's Retreat dialogue, to exclude his other friends.

But we had another reason for leaving, heavily ironic. To do as much of the return journey in the light. For light had been the curse from Hereford to Kent. For nearly five hours I had driven east, against a capricious low-lying winter sun waiting in ambush round each curve of the road. A glare so intense it was like entering and re-entering the doors of a furnace, blotting out all reference points, my streaming blepharitic right eye trying to cope,  picking out shreds of reflection, a quarter-second view of the kerb.

Made worse by a satnav which took us down short-cuts choked by commuter traffic. On a dual carriageway near Bracknell we entered one of those jams which only south-east England can nourish, a long, long, constipated turd of a jam in which all our marginal time was dissipated. At this rate we would miss everything and we talked of turning back. Suddenly the reason for the jam became apparent, we were through and the satnav - performing heroically - took us round tiny rural roads on TN's outskirts delivering us quarter of a hour late.

The return journey went smoothly, Until, out on the M4, I recognised a legacy of the morning's excesses: milli-second pauses when - at 70 mph - I kept falling asleep at the wheel. Does coffee help or is it a myth? A bowl of Costa Americano, toxic in its strength, worked a miracle.

Changed into my PJs at home I was remarkably relaxed. An ordeal but glad we persisted. I reflected on "ordeal" and noticed it resembled the far more evocative "odyssey". A journey made against difficulties towards a worthwhile and emotional goal. Turning back would have been a weak end to the day. The act of a timorous fool. And fools... As I say, I agree with Heidi.

The above exceeds 300 words. But I'm making an exception here.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Let there be light

 I know what you're going to say - only God can make a tree, but any fule can arrange to have it chopped down. My neighbours and I all agonised but it should never have been planted there in the first place. Its roots were reaching down into our sewage outlets and very shortly we would all have been in big trouble. A year ago I had similar problems with a much smaller tree and found myself having to dispose of the corpses of three drowned rats trapped in what they imagined was an underground short-cut.

Suddenly VR - reading as usual - found herself exposed to natural light. No doubt our solar panels are profiting.

Yes, I'm an unfeeling brute, a nature-hater, the sort you'd hate your daughter to marry. Never mind me; another neighbour who connived in this vandalism is a deacon with Hereford Baptist Church. Double click pic and look into our bedroom: see, we've got curtains

Friday 10 January 2014

Cull words, not badgers

The Académie Francaise, France's word police, aiming to protect the language of Molière, have belatedly banned the anglo-import ASAP ("far from transparent, seems to accumulate most of the defects of a language that hides its contempt and threatening character under the guise of modern junk").

I try to imagine what causes I would support if unexpectedly elected to the little-known British imitation: State-School Comprehensive Workshop.

I'd be careful not to jump the gun. I sneered at "prioritise" when I first saw it ("It's new, therefore it must be bad.") But recently I haven't been able to think of a single-word equivalent. How can I then condemn  it? And I don't want to hear anyone say it's ugly - a very subjective judgement. Just imagine the reaction among the steppes-dwellers when they first heard: "We're thinking of calling it a yurt."

I don't like "tad", it's unnecessary, coy if not cute. But that's subjective. The battleground would be political euphemism. Replacing the burned-down House of Commons would not be a "challenge" (implying grandeur), simply a necessary job. I would not feel "challenged" if my trousers fell down before Huw Edwards; I would improvise new braces and curse the chainsaw manufacturer, Stihl, who sponsored my current pair.

I have already said "unacceptable" is not synonymous with "wrong". On a different tack I would condemn percentages, especially related to growth, if uttered baldly without reference to a numerical base. After all, a hundred percent increase on a base of a half, gives a total of one.

At the weekend I would erect gallows for my prejudices: "incredible" denied to all TV globe-trotters, "genius" a no-no in sports commentaries, and nobody, alive or dead, ever to be called "bubbly".

Wednesday 8 January 2014

Twenty-first century luxury

Sonnet: The completed loop

As to my aims I go for sonorous,
Rising at times to Falstaff’s forgetive*:
That soft gee, there, hard proof I’m serious,
I picked it up, it helps the narrative.

I’ve stripped decades of ancient memory,
Unlayering facts that cover other layers:
Pity, self-love and youthful misery,
A funless helter-skelter down the years.

The bare bones of a hollow threnody,
The ragbag sound of rhyme and integer,
Both given form and sense – a rhapsody –
By virtue of my silent listener.

I talk, we talk, it is our tendency,
But being heard is our necessity.

A good sherris sack...  makes (my brain) apprehensive,
quick, forgetive, full of nimble fiery and delectable shapes
. Henry IV, part two

Tuesday 7 January 2014

WALK 7. Richmond Park

I don't often go for a walk; I much prefer walking for a purpose. To and from the osteopath, for instance; suggesting slyly that walking (available gratis) might conceivably outweigh the benefits from his ministrations (£55 for 40 minutes). He took it well; like a man, in fact. Which is what he is.

However fifteen years ago, when we lived in Kingston-upon-Thames we did go for walks. We'd have been fools not to. From our front bedroom we could see into Richmond Park and estimate how it benefited house prices. This fake rural idyll was further enhanced by an access through the birch trees of Ham Common. Terribly fashionable.

We entered the park via Ham Gate. The lodge there had been acquired by someone of Middle East origin who was big in oil. He had surrounded himself with bodyguards, one of whom had been ticked off by the local police for de-holstering his side-arm in public view. You could easily guess these chaps' trade; their heads were the same width as their necks.

If we took the lower route (Swann's Way. Ha-ha-ha.) we passed over a polo field, scattered with fragments of polo balls. They're wood: did you know that? An ice cream, perhaps, at Pembroke Lodge, home of Bertrand Russell in his teens. The upper route led to the Isabella Plantation - short Christmassy trees as I recall.

The Queen owns Richmond Park which is populated by small herds of deer who love playing chicken with cars (sometimes bikes – see pic). Only pheasants are stupider. Our visits usually left me bad-tempered, probably because they happened on Sunday afternoon, never my best time. Planes to and from Heathrow fly over ceaselessly. Cars drive round and round. Frequently a stag gets it wrong. Not a restful place.

Monday 6 January 2014

Johann via John

With books I am a non-sentimentalist. To hell with incunabula, with morocco-bound spines, with gold-leaf print, with hand-illuminated manuscripts, with silly typefaces. I never fondle books or have orgasms about their jackets. I want to take books with me to the bath and, if disaster occurs (it hasn’t yet), I’ll wring them out and resume reading. The egregious Beatles once hymned the paperback writer; to a harpsichord continuo, and with less fuss, I align myself with the herd - I don't celebrate being a paperback reader, I just get on with it. Talk contents to me, never The Folio Society.

All of which takes me - in a metaphor I am adapting for this post - to the year 1900 or thereabouts. The stirrings of quantum mechanics started about then after which, say the hacks and Grub Street mealie-grubs, Newtonian physics was cast into darkness. Not true, of course. Since few of us are intellectually affected by the concerns of theoretical physics, the Newtonian sort continues to work just fine.

And I too must make room for a special case within my Paperbacks Are Best principle; the 1% exception. Certain books, all non-fiction, deserve their hardback status chez Robinson. They will never be read in the bath because they are too heavy. Their modest sales mean they are unlikely to reappear as paperbacks. I want them around as large visible reminders of what they say

One such arrived at Christmas, a gift from VR. An orchestral conductor, in his prime, still internationally renowned, describes the love of his life. It's longish (628 pp), has footnotes, and, I fear, has an OTT title. But it's factual and relentlessly impassioned. It breaks the general rule about paperbacks. It encourages me to sip. 

Saturday 4 January 2014

Martini with twist, straight up

Short story (977 words)

“FIRST you sleep with me. Then you bounce my contract.”

“Both good tactical moves,” said Marcia sitting at her desk. Her blouse had vertical dark blue stripes and looked over-starched. The horn-rims were obvious stage props.

“So the programme and the algorithm are now Bullard’s?” he said.

“We’ve proof you created them here.”

Which explained the interrogation on the bedside. His tee-shirt bore the Dirac electron equation; he plucked at his sleeve. “Is there anyone here who can tweak it?”

“It doesn’t need tweaking.” Shaking her head caused two crescents of black hair to swing forward. “We know it works.”

They’d learn.

Since she’d not invited him to sit down he stood indecisively, overhanging her Apple laptop and a letter opener styled as a kukri. She took off her glasses as if to remind him why he’d talked so willingly. “Look, Chas,” she said. “You’re young and out of your depth. Playing with C-sharp is just talking to computers. It’s no guide to business.”

He walked out into a sunny morning, a modest cheque in the back pocket of his jeans. Decided he’d had enough machine language for a while. Walked down the street to an employment agency specialising in hospitality work - as if they were giving it away! Started work that evening in The Grand’s Harpo bar.

Fernando, the bar manager didn’t see him as competition, “The cocktails. I show you. Until eleven o’clock at night it is easy. Lager in bottles, glasses of wine.”

Andy, whey-faced from five years of programming, came in at six and ordered a Peroni Red. Smiled at Chas knowingly. “She took you to the cleaner’s.”

“Gorgeous and clever. She didn’t need much.” Chas shrugged. “I was easy meat. A freelance programmer.” But perhaps Andy was gathering crumbs Marcia had left behind. Chas stayed schtumm on tweaking. “I should have known. She was out of my league.”

They talked about Bullard as a business, vaguely, since neither knew the financial jargon. Andy left at seven and the bar closed at two in the morning. Beyond midnight the clientele changed; young women who’d come to ogle Fernando practised on Chas. The sexual byplay demanded a light touch but it was fun. No one tipped less than a fiver.

He’d reckoned on a fortnight just to clear his mind but the money was good and the approaches – from twenty-five-year-olds who wore designer clothes and didn’t apparently work to pay for them – were becoming ever more specific. Perhaps, one said, Daddy might find Chas something.

Hardraw arrived during the slack period, seven to nine, and immediately took a bar stool. “Young Chas, good evening to you. A KCB if you please.”

Chas reached for the kummel, surprised Hardraw knew his name. All Chas was sure of was Hardraw had a named parking space close to Bullard’s main entrance and took the special lift to a floor Chas had never visited. He mixed in the gin with tiny amounts of lemon juice and apricot brandy, conscious of being watched.

Hardraw sipped and smacked his lips. “The only really adult cocktail,” he said, then looked around. “Bit of a come-down.”

“Bit of a holiday, really.”

“I’m told this place livens up.”

Chas nodded.

“No problems later, getting programming work?”

“Never has been.”

Hardraw finished his cocktail in one gulp. “Another please. So you hold all the cards.”

Chas said nothing.

“I said you hold - ”

“I heard you. Didn’t think you needed an answer.”

Hardraw laughed. “You do hold all the cards. When Marcia gave you the bullet I take it you knew about  tweaking?”

“I sort of warned her.”

Hardraw asked, “Did you now? How did you know?”

“It’s a search engine. It had never been tested at four on Friday afternoon. Maximum traffic.”

Hardraw laughed again. “Got to hand it to you, young Chas. That’s when it crashed, 16.15 last Friday. Can it be tweaked?”

“Of course.”

“What would it cost?”

“You could pay me a lot and I’d have it done in two weeks max. Pay someone else the same amount and it would take a month or two. Perhaps.”

“How much is a lot?” asked Hardraw.

“Not sure I’m keen.”

Hardraw drained his KCB, stood up. “Thought that might be the case. Be seeing you, young Chas.” Dropped a twenty-pound note and walked away.

Marcia arrived ten minutes later and took Hardraw’s stool. “Did he order that liquorice thing?”

Chas nodded. She said, “Martini with a twist, straight up.”

Mixing the drink he watched her in the bar mirror. Those crescents bracketing her cheeks looked recently styled.

“You’re playing hard to get,” she said. “Officially I’m here to change your mind; unofficially to salute your financial martyrdom.”

“How wide’s your brief?”

She sighed. “I’d love to go all moral. But I’ve already whored my way into your secrets; better I should plead guilty to being a tart. Hardraw being Hardraw expects more whoring from me but he can go screw himself.”

“Sounds as if there’ll more than one martyr.  Hardraw didn’t strike me as the tolerant sort.”

She said, “I’ll be better out than in. But there is one service. Would you like to know what you’re turning down?”

“Is it a lot?”


“That’s all I need.” He put out some cashews. “I knew you’d turn up. I had this idea. That we’d meet for a fortnight. Just socially. Then I’d decide.”

She thought. “A double whammy. You turn down Bullard then drop me. Sounds like one of mine. It wouldn’t have worked. Being social isn’t my line. You wouldn’t have lasted the fortnight. Bed is what I’m best at.”

“You haven’t tried your martini.”

“I didn’t feel entitled. Gahhhd. Now I’m getting sentimental.” She sounded tired.

“And you’re so damn certain about everything.”

“Am I?”

“Drink the martini. I made it for you.”

Wednesday 1 January 2014

I feel better for it

What did I learn in 2013? Here’s a list.

SEXIEST EVER Marlon Brando in the latter part of Guys and Dolls, when he wears a black suit. VR will brook no other view.

Twice a week the 2/5 diet reduces me to 600 calories per day compared with a normal 2000 calories/day. Initially the weather was quite warm, now it isn’t. Despite central heating my body temperature drops as the day endures. Two nights ago I lay cold in bed. Extra blankets would not have been the answer. There was no heat to retain.

The Hedda Gabler DVD, featuring  gorgeous Diana Rigg in her prime, was all over in a spritely 83 minutes. But then it had been rewritten for telly by John Osborne.  I cannot believe such breathlessness is typical.

LAW-BREAKERS It was my impression that airborne fire lanterns had been banned as an accidental arson risk. Last night (NYE) suggests differently. Secretly VR and I were glad.

I am drawn to a portrait style: pale flesh colours; facial features (eyes, lips, nose, ears) finely outlined in a dark colour. Like a filled-in child’s colouring book except the features are larger than one might expect, given the facial area. Any clues?

EVEREST I only recently discovered that the Sherpas on Everest expeditions referred to the oxygen cylinders as “British air”.

FRENCH TOAST There is a limit to the number of slices I can eat but it is quite high.

WIP Second Hand
(53,218 words)
But even when they were seated there was no sense of relaxation. Teenagers passed by on roller blades, dog owners let their pets defecate in the grass. Frustrated, Wyss pointed to an ice-cream van. “Let’s do something childish. How about a cone?” That helped.