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Thursday 30 July 2015

And then you'll be a man, my son

Received wisdom - often a synonym for bullshit - says we become adult when (a) we assume a mortgage, or (b) when the final living parent dies.

If so, my adulthood came pretty late: 1972 (at age 37) and 1985 (age 50). My most adamantine enemies maintain it hasn't yet happened and I can't disagree with them. I still get attacks of seeing myself in short trousers, railing against an authoritarian world and incapable of making even basic decisions.

I distrust these prescriptions and look elsewhere. Freedom to wander came quite early, age 13. I was allowed to go on a cycling holiday for several days in the Lake District, staying at youth hostels, accompanied by a single school friend.

I read my first adult book at 10 or 11. By which I mean a book from the adult part of the library. It was very bad and concerned a test pilot and his wife who lost her sight, regained it briefly, then lost it for good. Certainly that was the year I became a critic.

Frying a sausage proves I saw the advantages of cooking as opposed to food based on bread and butter. The date is obscure, say 12.

National service in the RAF reversed my development. Military life encourages childishness.

I left home for good in 1959 (age 24), my mother weeping. But life in London was hardly adult; more as if I'd joined secular angels in a secular paradise.

Marriage at 25 (Note cause and effect by re-reading the previous para) may be the single most important step, or should be. But it's a long process, learning to think in stereo rather than mono. Fatherhood is unequivocally adult but not in a nice way at first.

Saturday 25 July 2015

Tiny, barely adequate tribute

Trying not to be sexist The Guardian, my daily newspaper, has done away with "actress" - thus Helen Mirren and Benedict Cumberbatch are both actors on its pages. A small arguable matter.

Plodding behind I'd like to do away with "heroine" and talk about a hero, P, my French teacher. P is a woman.

Heroism is frequently seen on a grand scale but needn't be. Nor need it involve wars. It does involve courage but not necessarily in the face of physical danger; spouses who continue to love their "other" through Alzheimer's are courageous, thus heroes. Without losing myself in arid definitions my heroes are, by consensus, admirable as well as being devoted, sympathetic, skilled, generous, egalitarian and selfless.

On Friday mornings B, another woman, and I sit down in P's dining room, read alternate pages of our set book (presently Rien Ne S'oppose à la Nuit by Delphine de Vigan), then translate as accurately as we can. I've been doing this for about fifteen years, B for much longer. There is no pressure except from our own consciences. Wellbeing resides in how well we've prepared our translations.

When I err P corrects me with: "Not quite." P presides quietly (she is a Quaker) but with authority. She does this out of a love of the French language at £5 a pop. Her default state is to encourage, her patience is endless and she rides over raunchy passages briskly and with laughter.

The class is tiny yet her influence - for good - is indisputable. All three of us are of an age but it is P who best shows there can be benefits in growing older. P is one of a tiny band I call my heroes; unassailable in virtue but witty with it.

Monday 20 July 2015

Neat and/or necessary

As well as things that are merely expensive (esp. the Neff oven and hob) our kitchen is host to items that say: Clever!

The blade on this potato peeler is loosely mounted. Thus it follows the contours of the potato and does the job twice as quickly. But imagine starting out to design it. How long before you thought: Aha, a loose blade!

More expensive is the Brabantia touch-bin. Touch the lid and it springs open. Clever-ish. What's odd is subsequent expectation. I visit younger daughter, OS, try to discard a bottle cork, touch the bin lid. It doesn't open, doesn't have that feature. I am conditioned by a waste bin.

The knife sharpener was damned expensive: a conventional steel embedded with the dust of industrial diamonds. Hard, see; it's the knife blade that wears and thus becomes sharper. Knives only last for ever if they remain blunt; see them as consumables.

The flour jar (sits in the window sill) has a neat clip and is made of transparent plastic. Thus lighter and less of a levered strain on VR's shortish arm. What's that you say? Glass is more pleasing. So is cocaine.

Not so much clever as downright essential: wall-mounted dispensers for film wrap and foil. Cooks who tear crudely from the loose roll are ignoring their intellectual birthright.

Leaves, summer’s coinage spent, golden are altogether whirled,
sent spinning, dipping, slipping, shuffled by heavy-handed wind,
shifted sideways, sifted, and in swarms made to fly
spent sun-flies, gorgeous tatters, airdrift, pinions of drift

At first I thought surely Gerard Manley Hopkins, the rhythmic word-sound man. But then I had my doubts. The trick is to make it seem you’re playing with words, but there’s hard discipline here. And the scansion isn’t easy.

R.E. Warner (b. 1905) 

WHOOPS!! I find I posted this poetry extract as recently as last year. What can I say? Soon, a walk to the supermarket will be an adventure. 

Saturday 18 July 2015

Is this clearer?

A WORD IN YOUR EAR. My short stories are frequently thought to be wilfully obscure. It’s not my intention but the genre imposes conciseness, a tendency to be elliptical. This one tries like hell to be explicit. It’s also a lot shorter than its predecessor: The Work Ethic.
Note for North Americans: faggot has other unforeseeable meanings in Britain.

Flirting With It
Short story: 1505 words

HIS LEFT HIP ached dully, as it had for six years. Residue from three faggots moved slowly through his reluctant stomach. A tooth, broken ten days ago, remained broken. Arthritis jagged at his index finger as he rolled over in bed. His hair was too long but phoning the salon was a pain.

One day soon, he told himself, these minor faults and shortcomings would unite as a single force, grow in intensity, choke off the air in his guzzard, and kill him. Quite soon. But what was death? A changed state - no passport needed, the guide books wholly unreliable.

Running hot water in the bathroom he looked ahead and foresaw that the sliver of shaving soap in its cedar-wood bowl would dry out and curl like a poppadum. But that it would remain where it was, it would not be thrown away. Its high price tag would restrain the hand of those tidying up after him.

Back in the bedroom the clock radio uttered a Beethoven song, hideous in its complexity, devoid of a tune. He nodded. Music would continue to be played of course. Some of it new music as yet unheard, but more likely stuff from old stagers – Mozart (tot 1791), Vivaldi (morto 1741), Shostakovich (смертьm 1975) – their creative thoughts still bypassing death’s inconveniences. He could hardly grumble, never having been guilty of a creative thought.

Yesterday, feeling spry, he’d ignored the supermarket and walked as far as the bakery. Wouldn’t be doing that again; the return was uphill, something he’d never realised. But he’d bought a small white loaf dotted with currants and found it toasted well. He’d run to three slices this morning, the butter melting into the moonlike surface of the toast. Butter, he knew, was bad for him, bread too, he couldn’t imagine currants would be any different. Yet he was eating to stay alive. One option would be not to eat – feeling giddy perhaps, then toppling into a black hole. Not quite the same as suicide; death via inaction.

Would hunger be bearable? Toasted currant bread made it difficult to imagine. Perhaps nature’s sneaky ambush – Coming soon, he was convinced. - would be preferable.

Tuesday was library day with Miss Tchuah at the counter. She’d been a salutary influence, causing him to look back ashamedly on life as a farming equipment salesman, even more as left-back with the company football team. He’d been a bigot then, talking about blackmops and benefits, risking off-ball tackles on a super sleek Nigerian striker. Long into retirement his views had prevailed but Miss Tchuah had blown them away. Lustrous, ever cheerful with a Carribbean lilt, she’d listened to his whinge that he’d read all John le Carré’s novels and introduced him to Eric Ambler, arranging loans of the rarer titles from other branches. Asked him how he’d be celebrating Christmas, mentioned turkey roll as a useful economy and got someone to chauffeur him to a carol service – with mince pies – at the Baptist church.

Waiting at the lights across from the library he felt the waft from fast-moving traffic, saw that a car would be more decisive than starving. Again, it wouldn’t be suicide; he’d simply be taking advantage of reduced concentration and poor spatial awareness. Messy though, with the library only a few steps away. He’d hate to discommode Miss Tchuah.

Entering the library he mounted the single step at the threshold. All it would need would be that single step: some clumsy foot-dragging, a small trip and a terminal fall. Thrilling to imagine these things, even better to discuss them. But who’d willingly chat about death? Miss Tchuah he knew to be religious but how might he bring up the subject?

None of the book spines appealed as he shuffled round the aisles. Read him. Hadn’t a clue about her. Never cared for Ireland. Came upon C. S Lewis’s Perelandra, read years ago; science fantasy was not to his taste but the story had caught his fancy. It was part of The Science Trilogy but he’d never seen the other two titles. This Perelandra was new and glossy, brought out in a new edition; he slid it out to remind himself of its appeal.

Since he’d read the book Lewis had become famous, talked about on telly, a movie about his life. The back cover had much biographical detail. Inside was a five-page essay about Lewis by another well-known novelist. He flicked the pages knowing that over the years he’d changed, but had the book? Sat down and started to read.

Almost an hour later he looked up at the clock and saw it was past twelve. The library was quiet, lunch being more important to the oldsters who formed the greater part of the clientele. Miss Tchuah was waiting, smiling; there was no one else.

“A nice long read, mon?”

Habitually taciturn he couldn’t help smiling back. Foolishly, but then she had that effect. “A book I read years ago. Perelandra.”

Miss Tchuah nodded. “Narnia author. Good, I liked it. You too?”

“Unusual for me. But yes.”

This appeared to please her. “That makes me glad, mon. But what you want to borrow? No book that I see.”

“Wasn’t on the shelves. Another Lewis book. Could you reserve it please? It’s called A Grief Observed.”

Miss Tchuah frowned, something she’d never done. “That not fiction, mon. You know?”

“I know.”

“Kinda sad subject.”

“I know.

Still frowning she said. “I reserve it. Phone you.”

He left, pleased by the subterfuge. His choice had worried her and that was a comfort. Perhaps she’d want to talk when he collected the book. Put away gloomy thoughts; cling on. Not that he wanted to get closer; a couple of minutes and he’d be satisfied.

Walking back his wellbeing evaporated. Advancing on the narrow pavement, splay-legged and aggressive, almost certainly looking for argument was DD, Dennis Dobson. Ludicrously dressed in a tweed Norfolk jacket replete with suede inserts, a hogging cap the shape of a sugar scoop. “Been meaning to have a word,” he wheezed.

He always was.

“Oh yes.”

“You weren’t at George’s funeral.”

“Didn’t know he died.”

DD stared, pig-eyed. “Don’t you read t’paper?”


“How do you know who’s snuffed it?”

“It’s news I can get along without.”

“You’ll regret it you girt northerner,” said DD, “when nobody comes to yours.”

“No doubt you’ll let me know in due course.”

He walked on, reflecting. There was death, which had its exciting side. And there was deadness which was all coffins, Amazing Grace at the crematorium, and false sympathy – the dull aftermath. It would suit him fine if no one came at all; some kind of record.

When Miss Tchuah phoned he hardly recognised her voice; all the West Indian gaiety had been lost, she spoke as if demoted.  Also she was keen to fix an exact time. He assumed this was to arrange a chat and so it was – but not between the two of them. Rather he was drawn aside from the counter by a whey-faced twenty-two-year-old girl from Social Services, cloistered in the library’s tiny office and interrogated about his state of mind.

Disappointed by this inferior version of what he’d wanted he was tempted to joke with Miss Toomey but saw this might reflect on Miss Tchuah. Decided instead to play a straight bat.

“It’s just a book,” he said.

“About death, though.”

“I’m eighty-five. Don’t you think death might be on my mind?”

Miss Toomey sniffed disapprovingly, as if he’d be better off with Jeffrey Archer. “Do you read many books about...”

“This will be the first. Assuming you’re going to let me have it.”

Now Miss Toomey looked uneasy. “We wouldn’t like to think you were... well contemplating... you know what...”

“Do myself in?” How bloody exciting to say that out aloud. “Not at all. I’m still full of beans.” Lying was almost as exciting.

It was enough for Miss Toomey and minutes later she was off on her bike.

There were tears in Miss Tchuah’s eyes as she handed over A Grief Observed. Before she could say anything he pre-empted her.

“It was the right thing. I’m just a silly old bugger. I’m not offended.”

“Oh no, mon. You God’s children.”

“Nice of you to say that. But that’s you not me.”

Miss Tchuah bowed her head to reveal intricate weavings. Hair like that looked silly on others, not on her.

He stood at the traffic light waiting for it to change. Up the road was a lorry bearing down, loaded with tons of timber. All it needed would be for him to be sort of forgetful.

Saw a notice above the windscreen – Dave’s Rig – and let the lorry pass. The sawmill was only four miles away and lorries came by regularly. On the other hand, he’d eaten the last slice of currant bread this morning and knew the bakery was too far away. Wondered how it would be after two days. Three days? Best of all, no one would know.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Google-third 1

Short story: 6396 words
In three parts to accommodate Blogger.
Start here

“SO THAT’S it, after less than two years?”

“That’s it.”


“I was wrong. You turned out to be just what you are – a plumber.”

“A good plumber,” he insisted.


Having pressed the red symbol he looked at the mobile with distaste. Wound down the van window and tossed it into the layby, saw it bounce, and again, into a puddle. Just to make sure he drove the van over it. The hell with plumbing.

He was on the edge of the forest; half a mile ahead was a hotel said to be in all the restaurant guides. At the reception a coolly groomed blonde – who bore more than a passing resemblance to Vriony – scrutinised him neutrally. “I’ve had bad news,” he said. “I’d prefer not to go home tonight. You can take charge of my credit card but I have no change of clothes just in case that’s a problem in the dining room.”

He felt rather than saw her eyes pass over his navy-blue boiler-suit, pausing to read “Arnie. Plumb perfect.” on the breast pocket.

“We could lend you something,” the blonde said with some kind of central European accent.


“Not fashionable.”

“I’m a plumber, for goodness sake. Correction: I was a plumber. As of today I resigned.”

He sat down to dinner wearing black slacks and a plain white open-necked shirt.  Since the youthful waiters were similarly clad he felt, with them, younger than his actual forty-two. Stuffed heart as the evening’s special led him to his second pyrrhic gesture of the day. Imagining champagne would gee him up he ordered a bottle. Instead he became morose. The heart – quite delicious – lay quarter-eaten on his plate as his head drooped and he considered, for the thousandth time, the two events that had shaped his profession and then his marital status.

Realised too he shouldn’t have used “bad news” with the receptionist. Minutes ago he’d noticed the sommelier in deep discussion at the far end of the dining room with a man in a suit, both glancing anxiously his way. Perhaps his solitariness was seen as a prelude to suicide. He raised his hand and the sommelier, discretion incarnate, came over.

“Look the food’s perfect but I’m not used to champagne. My stomach’s upset. There’s half a bottle left and anyone who fancies it can have it. If you have something I could take – Milk of Magnesia if all else fails – I’d appreciate it. Then I’m off to bed.”

The Settler tablets had been a ploy and remained untouched on his bedside table. It was only as he lay between the sheets he realised how tired he was.

He woke early, disinclined to take breakfast and even more resolved not to return home. The house was technically Vriony’s; they’d sold his large flat for an exorbitant sum, split the cash and he’d moved in. The designed elegance had pleased him right up to yesterday, but he knew now – among other things – he wouldn’t be able to pass by the small table in the hallway with its Georgian silver tray for visiting cards.

“You can’t put the car keys there,” Vriony had said in the first week. “This isn’t Mr Darcy’s Pemberley,” he’d replied. “Who says it isn’t?” she’d said, touching his cheek.

Charming then, less so now.

Back in his boiler-suit he drove the van aimlessly round the forest, avoiding signs that pointed to the decaying town nearby. An hour of this and his hunger developed in full force. Knowing only too well the genteel yet hopeless tea rooms at the town’s centre he stopped at a caravan serving all-day breakfasts on an industrial estate so sordid that “estate” had to be self-mockery.

The weather was warm enough to sit outside on alarmingly flexible plastic chairs and eat a burger and chips under the columns of the old railway viaduct. The surroundings were alien. His plumbing customers had included couples “looking into” indoor swimming pools; here he was reminded of other, more marginal, ways of making a living.

Most of the viaduct arches had been acquired as impromptu workshops and his eye was drawn to a car-repairer, Myfi’s Motors, with its subsidiary slogan: We Service The Carriage Trade. He himself had only just discovered slogans and had reckoned he might well improve on Plumb Perfect.

By now the burger was gone and his early start had left him languid. Myfi’s forecourt offered half a dozen cars, reminding him that as an ex-plumber he no longer needed a van even if Myfi’s range looked too elderly for any part-exchange. Five were dilapidated fleet cars, the sixth, very low and almost hidden from sight, was not immediately identifiable. Since he felt no obligation to finish off his truly horrible instant coffee he sauntered across the road.

Self-adhesive lettering on the windscreen proclaimed the car to be a 1995 TVR Chimaera which may, or may not, have justified the second line: “A classic!” He wondered if there might be a special technique for getting into the driving seat; the car’s roof just about reached his breast-bone.

Only a supreme optimist would spend real money on such a car. Or possibly someone who was emotionally disturbed. Through the open double doors he saw twin legs protruding beneath an ancient Land-Rover scraped down to the bare aluminium in many places. “Is Myfi around?”

“I’m Myfi,” said a clear Welsh soprano.

“A woman,” he said, immediately regretting his crassness.

“Short for Myfanwy. Look I’m working three spanners with only two hands. Can it wait?”

“Just idle chat, really. What’s your best price for the TVR?”


He laughed. “Sounds interesting. Look I can hang around.” A thought struck him. “You fitting a new exhaust?”

“Too true.”

“My sympathies. Those rusted screws, those paper-thin brackets. But then you won’t be trying to save everything, as I was at age eighteen. You’ll fit new bits and pieces.”

“That’s what you think,” snorted the voice. “The owner’s a hill farmer. Those boyos don’t like spending.”

Clinking noises slithered from under the Land-Rover as he walked round the workshop, aware of something odd but not able to put a finger on it. Ah yes: the tidiness.

He took a chair, no doubt for those who liked to watch the act of car repair. Noted a small pile of magazines which included Private Eye and Spectator, rather than worn copies of Sunday colour supplements. Surprised but not tempted he returned to the protruding legs with their Totector boots and wondered what the other end looked like.

Ten minutes later she slid into a view on a flat bogie-trolley, stood up neatly and opened the Land-Rover door. “Be with you in the minute,” she said. The starter groaned and the cement-mixer knock of a very old diesel eased into life.

Two squirts of the accelerator and she turned off the ignition. Slammed the door shut behind her, stood in front of him, hands on hips. “Plumber, eh. I saw your van. What does a level-headed laddo like you want with that fool TVR?”

Two things stood out: her face covered – perhaps permanently – with an oily brown sheen and a body which resembled that of a male athlete, not muscle-bound like a boxer or weight-lifter, but smoother and better proportioned as if through swimming or skating. A body clothed in an already filthy orange boiler-suit, sweat running down her cleavage towards a grubby strip of bra. A moderately magnificent structure spoilt by an even filthier John Deere baseball cap worn backwards.

“I’m a resigned plumber,” he said. “Needing to do something romantic.”

“Plumbers never resign. They make too much cash.”

“If you prick us do we not bleed?”

She laughed, showing brilliant teeth. “A plumber who’s read a book. Next door there’s a machine that does better coffee than the caravan.” It was her office, just as neat as the workshop, and it even ran to water-colours of the Brecon Beacons. With no apology Myfi lit a cigarette, inhaled profoundly and contrived to make this procedure look healthy.

“Why did you resign from plumbing?” she asked.

“I don’t know you well enough to say.”

Myfi shrugged. “Since you’re interested in the TVR I’d say women trouble. But you’re right, it’s not my business. So here’s the situation: for two and a half grand you can take the car away, but you’d need a low-loader. It’s not driveable.”

“And the other negotiable option?”

“You could finance its rebuild with me. I don’t have the cash to do it off my own bat.”

“Big job?”

“The mains sound OK but I’d need to check. I’d be inclined to strip the gearbox. The fuel injection needs a heart transplant but it’s the brakes that’ll cost the most – I suspect total replacement. Rebush the suspension for good luck and then find out why the steering feels like chewed string. I could strip the genny but a refurb would save time and money.”

He nodded. “Mega labour costs, then?”

Her expression changed, her eyes focused on something beyond her office. “I want to see it running.”

He spoke quietly, sensing vulnerability. “What are you saying?”

She inhaled on the cigarette, her breasts squeezing in the cleavage. Somehow she looked heroic and he felt ashamed of his talk about resigning from the labour market. She said, “I work six days a work and charge peanuts. Still my customers complain, especially when something else goes phut a week later; they whinge and pretend I’m to blame. That Land-Rover is twenty-six years old; it doesn’t deserve my efforts. There’s no fun in what I do.”

“What will the TVR cost?”

She smiled wanly. “The fact is I don’t know. It’s a very low-volume car and I may be into hidden costs – special parts that cost the earth. You’d have to trust me because I’d need cash continuously.”

“And all for a whim of mine.”

“A whim of mine, too.” Her eyes now refocused. “I suppose I ought to ask you what you’d be hoping to get out of all this. I mean if you want a car why not buy one? Two years old, still on warranty, zero risk.”

A moody silence enveloped them both. He asked, “Is it just the challenge you’re after? The sense of achievement?”

“Not quite. I started mechanicking before I left school. Saturday mornings at the local garage near Merthyr. Changing oil-filters, checking tyre pressures, trying my hand at guessing what was wrong. Cars are a finite world and that suited me. A world where I could be boss. A world of customer ignorance which I could resolve. I did well at school but I couldn’t stand the thought of uni. All that talk, all those opinions, nothing ever put right.”

The phone rang and he saw her shoulders droop when the earpiece started quacking. “No, I’d expect it to fail the MOT with a hole in the foot-well... Yes I know it’s only nineteen years old but... It’ll need welding up with... Oh, say an even hundred... I really can’t see doing it for less...”

A full minute of sustained quacking, during which her shoulders straightened and her expression became sterner. “Mr Davies... Mr Davies, hush now. Hush. Here’s the problem. Even if I did weld the floor I couldn’t guarantee the MOT. It’s structural, you see... Is a hundred pounds a lot of money? By all means phone around.”

Myfi put the phone down and reached for the Marlboros. Pushed the packet away. “What was I talking about?”

“Your life in garages. Why you want to see the Chimaera running again.”

The phone call had had a bad effect. “The hell with it. Take it or leave it.”

“Hey, I’m not Mr Davies.”

“No, you’ve got cash and you reckon you’re working on my soft spot.”

He was horrified by the transformation. “Is that how you see it?”

“You’re a feller aren’t you?”

“What the hell’s that got to do with the price of eggs?”
She stared at the wording over his breast-pocket. “Gentleman plumber,” she sneered. “Gentleman wanker. People who do real work don’t resign. Most get fired. Your squeeze has given you the brush-off and you see that car as a tart-trap. I won’t be party to it.”


“Forget it.”

Continued in THE WORK ETHIC – Part two

Google-third 2


Home seemed the only option. How tranquil it was shut off from the road by the rhododenrons. How smooth the manicured lawn. At least Vriony’s car wasn’t in the driveway. In the hallway he passed the table with the silver tray and felt the pang that went back two years. Saw the sun pouring into the lounge through the French windows, causing the upholstery to glow with welcome. But it didn’t seem right, sitting there in his boiler-suit. In the kitchen he loaded the percolator, sat down on a hard chair, waited, sipped from bone china. Reminded of the coffee he’d drunk earlier that morning.

Half an hour later Vriony’s high-heels clacked over the quarry tiles and she dumped Waitrose bags on the kitchen table. Dully he looked up at her impossible blondeness and asked himself: why did I ever think it would work? Realised the question was irrelevant. None of it had been his decision. He had been her experiment.

“I tried your mobile but it’s no longer operative,” she said.

“Did you change your mind?”

She flapped a hand dismissively. “Things needed tying off. Notably this place. I’m moving out shortly but it’ll be too much for you. Take your time, it’s worth big bucks. We’ll go halves as we did with your flat.”

That surprised him. “Will that fit in with the divorce? Husbands tend to get pushed around I believe.”

Now she stared. “You don’t imagine I’d take your money. I may be an impulsive bitch but I’m not a greedy bitch.”

He pointed to the shopping bags. “You planning dinner? Want me out of the way?”

“I’m not trying to punish you,” she said irritatedly. “I’ll do dinner, I’ll even sit down at the table with you. That’s if you want me to. I’ll understand if you don’t.”

There was asparagus and rack of lamb, both favourites of his. With a bottle of New Zealand pinot. And, as if in celebration, she’d groomed herself for the occasion, exposing most of her shoulders and sweeping her blonde hair up into a coronet. On the verge of paying her a compliment he changed his mind: not glamorous but expensive. Oh, and remote.

“Why did you ever imagine it would last?” he asked, comically rueful.

She smiled, catching the tone. “So it was my decision alone?”

“You know it was. You were the one with all the muscle,” he said, waving a hand at her regal appearance.

“Strange how men equate prettiness with power. Most of the truly beautiful women I’ve known were pathologically uncertain.”

“All right, then. What do I know? But surely I was fish in a barrel.”

“And that’s another male failing. All men who lack regular features assume they’re unattractive.”

He protested. “Oh come on. All these bones, this large hooter, they’re way south of just irregular features.”

“It’s too late to argue but looks are the first hurdle in any relationship. If you’re honest you’ll remember we were ‘mutual’ within half an hour.

“I take it my ‘mutual’ face hasn’t changed.”

She paused, holding a forkful of spinach, scanning his face. “Not in the slightest.”

“So it was something else that drove in the knife?”

Now she laid down her knife and fork. “I told you over the phone. It was fun to be talking economics with the chap repairing the shower. Talking economic good sense, I might add. In my experience economics is a lonely as well as a gloomy profession; not the jump-off for random conversation. I warmed to you, I freely confess. Went on warming.”

“Warming to a redundant economics teacher?”

“No, not at all. All right, you taught yourself plumbing while on the dole, and made a success of it; that was pretty impressive. True I wasn’t all that excited about plumbing as such but I saw it as symbolic. If you could convert to something as way out as that - by an effort of will - I felt you could turn your hand to most things.”

He said, “Perhaps I could.”

“Perhaps. All I can say is that after six months of marriage I could see economics was a mere – almost accidental – phase in your life. A way of passing through academia and finding a job tout de suite. You were far more proud of being a plumber. Oh how you talked about plumbing’s realities, its honesty and its usefulness. Turning it into a theory for goodness sake.” Vriony picked up her knife and fork. “As I said, you are – presently - a plumber, nothing more. OK for some, but the Dead Sea for me.”

He slept in the spare room and, as usual, by the time he woke she’d left for the bank. Something about the markets, she’d always said when asked, except that now there might be another more emotional reason for leaving early.  The shock of her announcement was still there but he had no curiosity about his replacement. In any case a plan was beginning to form; still in his pyjamas he switched on his desktop.

Mid-afternoon he dressed in casual Saturday morning clothes, then packed a suitcase sufficient for three days away from home. For some time he held the boiler-suit at arm’s length then thrust it into a Waitrose bag together with his Totectors. Took it with him. The van was there on the driveway and he had the option of Vriony’s second car, the Clio, in the garage. But the Clio would have been tactically wrong. The van said more about him.

This time it wasn’t her legs that greeted him but her bum, her head deep in the bowels of a Ford Escort, prime-coated in grey. He was careful to remain outside the workshop, calling in through the open door. “You said take it or leave it. I’ve decided to take it.”

Her head stayed hidden. “You brought a cheque?”

“No, but I could write one.”

“Leave it on my desk. See me in two weeks’ time. Better still, phone.”

Discouraging. He was glad he’d worked on the research. “As you say, I’m a feller. You don’t want me around. But there’s info I need to pass on. Concerning Rover V8s and re-furb gennies, though I’d prefer to say re-furb alternators. Being pedantic that is.”

Slowly her head emerged from the Ford’s engine compartment. The John Deere cap hadn’t changed. The orange boiler-suit – Guantanamo Bay style – was filthy but with today’s filth not yesterday’s. It had been changed.

It wasn’t in her nature to hang back. Again she stood in front of him though not this time with her hands on her hips. “What’s all this babble?”

“Stuff that could help. Get things done quicker, save you hassle.”

“How would you know?”

“How would you know plumbing?”

She recognised the sprung question. “What’s this about?”

“Just this,” he said vigorously. “If your boiler went AWOL I suspect you’d look at it yourself. Boilers are technical not mystical and you’re in the technical line. Boilers and cars – not a million miles apart. You see me as a gentleman plumber which is your doubtful privilege. But I’m still a plumber. And cars aren’t a closed book to me. Which is why, for instance, I can say that the juice in the Chimaera comes from an alternator not a genny.”

“You’re just being argumentative. You know I know the difference. You also know genny is casual. After all alternators generate juice.”

“Damn right I’m being argumentative. But I needed to grab your attention. Otherwise I’m off your site and short a thousand-pound cheque.”

The stubbornness began to dissipate. “You trust me with your cash, don’t you?”

“Shit, Myfi, I’d trust you with my life. The Chimaera isn’t just about me: it’s about both of us acting a little strange. Practical people behaving impractically.”

Myfi took off the John Deere and was about to run fingers through her black hair. “Don’t do that,” he said urgently. “You’ll oil it up.”

“So what? I wash, I shampoo.”

“I know.”


“Those aren’t yesterday’s overalls.”

She smiled and the teeth shone in all their wonder. “Perhaps you’d better come inside. Have some coffee.”

“I’d like to but we need to straighten something out first. About fellers.”

Myfi shook her head. “You said you didn’t know me well enough when I asked a similar question.”

“Well I know you well enough now. I’ll tell you over coffee. Then I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether it’s a good trade.”

By now he could tell the tale in six sentences. Finishing with: “Two points: Why did I, a more or less unreconstructed bachelor, crumble so quickly? Answer: Vriony’s stunning and articulate, I never stood a chance. What was in it for her? She’s a high-flying economist for a merchant bank and her social circle consists of more of the same. I was different, marrying me could be seen as a measure of her intelligence, her broadmindedness. And it seemed I spoke her language. Yesterday, over dinner, I asked her about my looks, my presentability.  She implied that come nighttime, with the light behind, I could pass. That surprised me. I’ve got many faults but vanity’s not one of them.”

“Were you humiliated?”

He spoke reflectively. “Not quite. More a feeling of hopelessness. An underlying belief that I shouldn’t have been sharing her bed anyway. That she had the right to drop me and I had an obligation to go.”

“Suppose she rang this very moment. Said it had all been a terrible mistake.”

“Couldn’t happen,” he said laughing. “I smashed up my mobile when she first phoned. When she let me go.”

“That doesn’t sound like good sense.”

“Suppose not. It may say I’m capable of passion, of a sort. But the short answer is no, I wouldn’t go back. She fired me coolly, without passion. I could see that happening again. No strain at all,”

Throughout Myfi had sat in profile at the other side of the desk, as if to concentrate only on the sounds of what he was saying. The brown sheen was prominent on the side of her nose and on her temple. Where did it come from? Was it a specific to protect her from rust? Maquillage for a mechanic?

Without monitoring  her hand slid towards the Marlboros then stopped. “No,” she said. “I never asked you before. I should have.”

“Go ahead, smoke. It’s your office. Besides I suspect there’s a need – perhaps to do with the feller thing.”

She smiled slyly. “You’re a clever old sod, aren’t you?”

“Dunno. But I’m here because I want to be.”

As she started on her explanation the tone of her voice told him that it was one of those grim fables of the times. So commonplace that anyone listening would have a hard time simulating surprise. If that person was a man.

“I worked for a BMW dealer for eighteen months. Deliberately. The training’s terrific and however good you are you need to stay up to speed with the digital techniques. I was sorry to leave. But I fancied working with rarer stuff, like the Chimaera and other supercars. The principle being if you can handle them you can handle anything. As it was I never got to test it properly.”

She paused. Long enough for him to ask, “Perhaps I don’t need to know all this. Perhaps you’ll be sorry you told me.”

“Let’s see. Trouble is with supercars there wasn’t too much choice. I was lucky to get an offer, even if it meant living in one room near Guildford. Under instruction I rebuilt a Lamborghini Countach and that was more or less the end of the fun. Need I say that it’s a man’s world? That a woman who complains is not regarded as a good sport? Tends to get fired.

“I’m surprised I stuck it for as long as three months. The ironic thing is that to survive you have to pretend you aren’t a woman, but that’s when it’s one on one. Two on one and it’s better to drop out of the human species altogether. In the end I complained, I was canned, and went on to a sort of black list. That’s why you see me here, under the arches, patching up cars that should have been junked ten years ago.”

He nodded. “Nothing I can say to any of that. Nothing that would make the slightest bit of difference to you. I won’t insult your intelligence. This morning I did some research about the Chimaera. The Rover V8 is moderately available and one specific deal could solve the fuel injection situation. As to the alternator, there’s an improved version which fits without modification. That may be the way to go. Those are just details. Here’s what I’d like to do, see what you think. If it’s a no-no then you take over.”

Continued in THE WORK ETHIC – Part three

Google-third 3

THE WORK ETHIC – Part three

THE FOLLOWING day, with no other repairs booked, they pushed the Chimaera into the workshop, Myfi unhitched the bonnet and they moved the winch cradle over the front end of the car. His role would be to watch, learn and hand over tools before the engine was lifted out. But in the way of things an elderly women, in tears, walked painfully into the workshop and announced she’d locked herself out of her Suzuki Swift, a mile and a half away.

“At least it’s a newish car for once,” said Myfi. “This sort of thing is to be expected. I’ll probably end up doing most of the TVR work in the evening.”

He looked at a list he’d compiled. “If you’re happy I could step in here. The convertible hood is torn in a couple of places. It’s just a suggestion but how’d it be if I removed the frame and took it to a specialist in Gloucester. Ordered a new hood. The point is it’s no big job, doesn’t require your skills at any point.”

Myfi was escorting her new customer to the aged tow-truck. She turned and looked him up and down as if measuring him for a suit. “Go large on WD40,” she said. “Sod’s Law says the rusted bolt you shear is always the one-off.”

That evening he was able to support the gearbox as it was detached from the engine and he transferred it single-handed to the jig. “Your aim being to make yourself indispensable?” Myfi said, amused.

“I’m starting with the donkey work. If I watch carefully I may be able to help you when things get trickier.”

An hour later he went out and brought them both fish and chips.

Most of the work that week was done in the evenings. Late on Friday, after a Chinese takeaway, Myfi lit a cigarette and sat down on her stool. “You seem to be working to an agenda.”

“Does that worry you? More important – I should have asked earlier – does having me around worry you? A feller?”

“What would you do if I said yes?” she asked, interested.

“Write you another cheque for five hundred. Give you my email address. Go back home.”

“That’s sort of noble. Given the way your ex has treated you.”

“Noble? You’re saving me from evenings watching telly.”

Saturday was spent on a stream of small jobs for customers who simply turned up. Bodge jobs: a window jammed up permanently for someone who didn’t care to pay to have the winder re-engaged; a broken seat-frame re-welded. With Myfi installing a set of re-tread tyres, he removed a defunct battery crusted with white deposits from a Hillman Avenger, put in a new battery and insisted on charging £12.50 for labour – to the tune of much Welsh argument. When they finally closed the doors and Myfi moved to switch on the lights over the Chimaera, he waved his hand. “That’s enough for today. If you’re up for it I’ll buy you a steak at the Harvester.  You don’t have to if it’s a social step too far but there is something you need to see at my B&B.”

“I thought you slept out in a tent.”

The pair of them crowded into the small bathroom. “Feel the rad,” he said.

“Cold,” said Myfi.

“Feel it down at the bottom.”

“Barely tepid.”

“Yet the system’s been switched on for a couple of hours.”

Now he opened the door of the cistern cupboard. “What’s that buzzing noise?” asked Myfi.

“You tell me.”

Myfi squatted down, felt the various pipes but clearly only as an aid to thought. “The pump’s not pumping,” she said.

“But there was a tiny bit of heat in the rad.”

“Conduction flow, up from the boiler.”

“Let's say convection. And the buzzing?” he asked.

“These kind of pumps don’t have blades as such, a sort of enclosed vane. I’d say the vane’s come off.”


“A new pump.”

“A long job, then? The pump being part of the whole system.”

“You mean draining? Surely not in this day and age.” Myfi looked closer. “This is the pump. I’d expect to find – Yup, here they are. – a couple of isolating valves. Close them down. Stick a pan under to catch the few drips. Change the pump.”

“Apart from convection, ten out of ten.” He smiled. "It proves we're sort of related."

Myfi stood up; they were only a foot apart. He said, “How about the Harvester.”

“Give me an hour and a half. Swarfega and I have a lot of work to do.”

He got there quarter of an hour early and spent the time wondering what tone to adopt. Decided that hinting at greater closeness would be a mistake. Better the brisk exchanges that prevailed in the workshop: a sort of meritocracy based on his money and her skills. He hoped like Hell that straying away from car repairs wouldn’t overface her.

Jeans emphasised her derrière, already observed and appreciated, but that was where display ended. The thick towelling blouse was quite loose and reduced the contours of her breasts to mere suggestion. Not that he should be considering such matters.

The brown sheen had finally disappeared from her face, leaving behind a pale complexion that wasn’t entirely surprising given the subterranean atmosphere of the workshop. She asked for a shandy with the possibility of a glass of red to follow.

“A hard day yet you seem pretty fit” he said. “Certainly muscular.”

“I used to swim before opening the shop. But that made for a very long day. The work itself is exercise.”

He wished she’d ordered something stronger than a shandy, a drink that would relax her and encourage a flowing conversation. It seemed important not to be asking questions.

“With plumbing it’s often a matter of contortion. Working in confined spaces. It doesn’t feel healthy but I suppose it better than sitting at a computer. Or standing talking to sixth-formers about Hayek.”

“That’s right.” Her face now animated. “I keep forgetting there was a life before plumbing. Wasn’t that a ballsy decision?”

He laughed. “I don’t know about ballsy; it was forced upon me. They closed the school, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I wasn’t cut out to be a teacher and economics is one of those marginal subjects that’s likely to be cut when times are hard. It was amazing really, what friends I had saw plumbing as a social step down. A class thing. I saw it as a new world: ditching theory in favour of real work with an end-product. A practical, varying, self-reliant world with – let’s not mince words – better job security. The only drawback was the length of time it might take to qualify but I had some ideas about that. For one thing I was good at passing exams, even those based on manual skills. For another, teaching had given me administrative experience: handling bumf, understanding the law, writing applications, the sort of work born-in-the-wool plumbers are often weak at. During my apprenticeship I was able to trade that for more advanced training, fast-tracked to squeeze in the experience.”

She’d been watching him with what he realised was admiration. Subtly their standing with each other had reversed. She said, “The world on a string, eh? I can see things in that light now, the way things are organised, but as a teenager it was all from the inside. Hands first then brain. Slow progress, often not in the way I needed to go.”

She leant forward. “Not that I’m complaining. It was all a magical mystery tour and what I learned stuck. The knowledge was solid. And I remember the exact moment I knew I’d made the right choice. An electrical fault, they’re always the trickiest; and this was long before laptops did diagnosis for you. A tiny short-circuit, but where? My boss had worked half the morning and still couldn’t track it down. He was on the verge of putting in a new alternator on the off-chance; but it’s a good job he took his lunch-break then because a new alternator wouldn’t have done him any good. I took over and I had it in ten minutes. A bolt in the starter motor had been over-tightened, causing a crack that propagated to the insulation.”

From then on the going was easy. Time after time she broke off from her steak to tell of some other triumph, the meat cooling, ignored in her eagerness. One glass of red became three as he filled in the rare cracks with his own achievements, able to slip in questions here and there without any suggestion of an interrogation. Seeing a two dimensional sketch turn into three dimensions.

“You know,” she said, laughing breathily, “I’ve gone a whole week without ever calling you by name.”

“It’s a British failing.”

“Yes, but I know your name. It’s on your front pocket. Arnie, you’re Arnie.”

A finger alongside his nose, he laughed back. “Nice of you to say that. And you say it well. But it was dreamed up to hide my real name. A poofter’s name, someone once told me, and I’ve never liked it ever again.”

“Oh, you must tell me. You must, you must.” And it was as if she were demanding anything he cared to imagine.

“I can’t. You don’t know what it’s like to have a name like that. Yours is so beautiful. It should always be said in full, Myfanwy. See, I’m even saying it the Welsh way.”

Both drew back as dessert was served, a fruit salad for Myfi, bread and butter pudding for the man presently nameless. Would he like cream? Would she like ground ginger? Coffee afterwards? No. Tea? A digestif?  Keen to catch the tail of her good-humour he waited impatiently, then turned to face her.

Only to see someone else.  Shockingly, the mood had gone. Her mouth, previously open in laughter, had slackened into accusation. Her eyes hard and unfriendly. “No more sweet talk,” she said tautly. “Just answer me the one question that matters. What are you doing in this town? Why did you pick on me – specifically me? No more about cars, or marriages breaking up. I want the truth.”

The suddenness of it left him breathless but not for long. Drink had made him decisive, possibly reckless. “I needed something to latch on to.”

“What does that mean?”

“Someone to be with. Who recognised my world. Talked my language.”

“You mean someone to - ” Not daring to cover her mouth he nevertheless brought his hand close, very close, and that final, hideously predictable word remained unspoken.

He said, “Please, please not that. Not because it’s not true. Years ahead it could be. Or perhaps never. But now it has no force. If you like, it isn’t a priority.”

“So what is the priority?”

“The things that happened this week. Those usual humdrum things: work and more of it. You continuously, me just a little. Work that would be a mystery to anyone else. Work which resumes tomorrow, Sunday. When the heads come off that V8 and you start finding out what it’s worth. Inspecting, measuring, comparing.”

He stopped. “Because you will, won’t you?”

She stared, saying nothing.

“Oh there are other projects. The injection system, the brakes. The clutch! – we’ve never talked about the clutch. But the engine is at the heart, isn’t it? A V8, two banks of four – you and me. Bound by work: our language, our heart-beat. Not that you need telling. You recognise it by instinct, you’ve responded, I’ve watched you. Close by.”

She stammered. “It sounds... quite mad.”

“No Myfanwy, it’s history that’s mad. And cruel. Repeating itself.”

“And there’s trust.”

“There is indeed. Forget dessert. You’re knackered, I suspect you spend a lot of your time knackered. I’ll pay the bill and walk you home.”

At the entrance to her tiny flat he said, “Tomorrow, when we break for coffee, I’ll tell you my name. My real name.”

Her smile was ghostly. “A poofter name – it can’t be that.”

“You’d better believe it.” He said, moved by the irony.

HAVING encouraged her to have a quick breakfast on Sunday he’d asked for her keys so that he could open up the workshop. This left him waiting. He switched on the light over the Chimaera and sat on the stool she used on the few occasions when standing up over a car wasn’t necessary. Time passed, then more time. Church bells rang and he stopped looking at his wristwatch. For the first time he was assailed with doubt. At work she was decisive, even as that other wounded self she had taken the fight to him. He tried not to imagine how it would be if she didn’t arrive, tried to concentrate on the work she was capable of. Superstitiously he looked away from the open door and when finally she touched him on the shoulder from behind he was reluctant to believe the delay could have affected him so much.

“Sorry I’m late. I didn’t wash my overalls last night,” she said. "Sheesh, must have been different, shittier oil. Two long washes this morning and the stains are still there. See my arse."

He said nothing, still believing the worst. Reluctant to turn and face her. Heard chinking as she sorted through the spanner drawer.

“First the left cam cover. We’ll gap the clearances and write them down, they may tell us something when we’re into the cylinders. You can do the gapping. Find yourself the feeler gauges.”

He started to get up and was astonished his legs trembled so much.

“Now who’s knackered?” But she said it gently.
Starts at Part one

Sunday 12 July 2015

Generation gap

 Me? I've been putting in my post-op eye drops. Writing a long short story about "the Forest". Watching the TdF on telly. Fetching The Guardian from the filling station. Watering the garden (Oh joy of joys!). Washing up. Sleeping intermittently. Dozing after lunch and dozing late afternoon. The usual pursuits of an aged, self-proclaimed intellectual.

While younger daughter (Occasional Speeder) has been...

Friday 10 July 2015

RR: ex cathedra

Ever considered your moral development?

That uncertain journey which takes in the helplessness of babydom, childhood superstition, adolescent agony, adolescent cynicism, problems of sharing (love affairs, partnership), unwonted influences of earning a living, parenthood, a growing realisation of responsibility, fear of illness and death - all those slow-moving but inevitable rivulets.

Until - perhaps - an imperfect form of adulthood may encourage us finally to reflect, to conclude and to come up with some rules, some of which we follow, some we guiltily ignore, some we modify.

Along this route we may have decided to depend on ourselves or, ultimately, on other intangible forces. Or simply to hold our thoughts at bay; refusing to think, preferring instead simply to experience. There is no right or wrong in any of this. Even interaction with others is not an obligation; the hermit harms no one.

Recently, in the car, I heard the last few minutes of Haydn's Missa Cellensis. Paid full whack for it at our embattled CD shop (thus practicing the adult option of charity) and heard it last night. Masses set such phrases as Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and Credo (I Believe) to music and often reflect the emotions of those who have chosen to depend on the supernatural. Which I, a non-proselytising atheist, vicariously share. I suppose. Look, I never said the rules we formulate and the dependencies we espouse aren't inconsistent.

The Missa Cellensis is a wonderful affirmative piece of music which, ahem!, improves on Bach. But it cannot be regarded as pure (ie, abstract) music – it is born out of Christianity and requires that knowledge to get the best out of it. OK, so my atheism is fuzzy but then I’m not preaching.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

The dead cert

I was desperate to leave the North; girls wouldn't take me seriously there.

Leaving the North meant moving to London. I needed London's magic to rub off on me; I wanted to drink a pint at The Cogers, just off Fleet Street, and say - though not so metaphorically - I have cut the umbilical cord.

I applied for many jobs, some rubbishy, some clearly with no future. During National Service I'd learned electronics so here I was, in a room overlooking Tottenham Court Road, ready to give my all to the publicity department of Mullards. Mullards made thermionic valves, glassy tubes that used to glow inside old radios and TV sets. Soon to be replaced by transistors.

My interviewer was a tubby bald man who spoke with great deliberation. He appeared to be following a memorised agenda, proffering questions rather than posing them. The atmosphere was soporific. A few questions in, he opened a drawer in his side of the desk and took out a packet of cigarettes. Did I care to smoke?

I didn't smoke, never had. My northern lungs you know. But that wasn't the point. His gesture was clearly planned and my response would be noted. Conceivably we would light up and the interview would become more relaxed. Whatever, I declined and he slowly returned the packet to the drawer. Clearly he didn't smoke either.

I felt sure I'd got the job. I knew thermionic valves and I didn't depend on cigarettes.

I was appalled when I received a letter regretting this and that. Weeks later I was offered a much better job and the great London adventure began.

But Mullards rankled. The fools turned down the perfect applicant. This occurred in 1959 aeons ago. I don't believe Mullards still exists.

Thursday 2 July 2015

A Class Thing

Short story: The Square Peg
1650 words

“Wha’s tha’?”

Vane glanced sideways, saw it was the Glaswegian. Or was it the one from Carlisle? “A toilet bag,” Vane said.

A hand reached for one of the silver-backed brushes. Yes, it was the Glaswegian; the fingers were black-speckled from welding. He’d talked about working at the Govan yard.


“I believe it is.”

“Yeer name?”

“Well, the initials.”

“Including the hyphen.”

Vane took the brush back and slipped it back under a leather retaining loop, conscious of being stared at.

When Vane returned to the billet the Glaswegian was addressing the world – or that part of it lolling on beds – about siller hairbrushes. Nobody was paying much attention and Vane stowed the toilet bag away in his bedside locker. Picked up Mr Sponge’s Sporting Tour.

The billet’s inertia clearly irritated the Glaswegian. He walked over to Vane’s bed, stamping his new boots noisily. “I hae not got a hyphen, ye know.”

Vane was still standing and glad of it. He put down his book and simultaneously punched the Glaswegian full in the nose. The Glaswegian lurched away but worked his feet backwards so that he did not fall. Neat footwork, Vane thought. The other wiped his hand over his nose and inspected the blood with forensic interest. “What ye dae that for?” he asked, as if clearing up a matter of etiquette.

“I was told you chaps like to use your head. For butting.”

“You chaps?”

“Chaps from Glasgow.”

The Glaswegian laughed in acknowledgement. “Aye, weel we dae.”

The next day a three-tonner took them all to the rifle range at Cannock. To be taught the prone position, to aim .22 rifles, and to shoot at targets twenty-five yards away. Formed up, they marched to the two-hundred yard range and were handed .303 Lee Enfields.

For Vane it was like coming home. Delicately he raised the rifle’s sight, worked the bolt, breathed in and then slowly out, squeezed the trigger. Made a slight correction then squeezed off the rest of the clip. The corporal in charge used binoculars on the target but said nothing. The rest of the billet fired their clips.

The corporal handed Vane the binoculars and barked, “You, tell him what he’s doing wrong.”

Vane wished it had been the Glaswegian but it was an under-nourished  airman, probably from Essex, who seemed to find his rifle too heavy. Vane could only count four hits on the target, all widely spaced. “Basic position on the ground wrong for a start,” Vane reported, adding after an insolent pause, “Corporal.”

When they did boxing two days later no one wanted to get in the ring with Vane and the PT instructor, much irritated, pointed to the tallest. Deliberately Vane aimed his straight lefts at his opponent’s gloves, making much noise but causing no pain. Gaining confidence the lad launched a wild round-house which half hit Vane on the shoulder. Those watching applauded and Vane smiled.

The instructor, by now enraged, put on the gloves himself. Far fitter than Vane, and much faster, he nevertheless found it difficult to penetrate Vane’s defences. “Hit me,” the instructor shouted, deliberately leaving his face unprotected and Vane darted a quick but light blow to his solar plexus.

During the afternoon Vane spoke for two coherent minutes about Bertrand Russell when the camp padre, who’d earlier damned “the libertine”, asked for questions.

That evening the billet decamped to the Naafi, overrode Vane’s protests and bought him beer until the Naafi closed. Several asked him the same question in different forms. What was he looking for in the RAF?

“I mean you’re obviously a POM,” said the unhealthy Essex lad.

“What’s a POM?” asked Vane.

“Potential officer material.”

Vane frowned. “I’m not sure about that. I come from an Army family with too many officers. National service is only two years. I thought I’d try something different. God knows what.”

“But where did you learn all this stuff.”

For the first time Vane looked hesitant. “Oh, you know. At school. One of those schools you’re supposed to feel ashamed of. A school for parents, really. Parents with more money than sense. Which describes my lot.”

Walking back from the Naafi he deliberately looked for the Glaswegian, now known inevitably as Mac. “I’m surprised you didn’t have another go.”

“Fechting? Fechting’s stupid.”

Vane laughed. “Don’t tell me you haven’t used your head that way. What is it they say in your city: a mouthful of headies?”

“Moo’fu’ o haidies,” Mac corrected. “But that isna fechting.”

“What is it then?”

Mac stopped to draw on his Woodbine. “Ut’s kind of politics. One quick stroke and yee’re done. It gets everyone’s attention and no sweat. They listen and ye’ve nae trouble. Y’unnerstan?”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“Sudden and vicious. Folk are shocked. Nae need for anything mair.”

“So you were going to use it.”

“Then I was. Not after.”

“Why not?”

“Fechting’s stupid.”

The POM interview was embarrassing, the interviewer obsequious. A gnarled squadron-leader pilot, close to retirement, with a DFC among his ribbons probably won during the war. Perhaps he’d been promoted from sergeant-pilot and the class step had induced a fuller appreciation of British society’s upper echelons. Certainly his questions about Vane’s school were interminable.

“I suppose the cadet corps was inevitable given your upbringing.”

It was a word and an ethos Vane hated. “Either that or I’d have been sent to the colonies.”

The squadron-leader didn’t see the joke. “But being Honour Cadet wasn’t inevitable?”

Vane shrugged.

Disappointed the squadron-leader referred to another of his “must” points. “No need for me to talk about leadership with you.”

“I wouldn’t like to make too big a claim about the corps, sir. People joined it for all sorts of reasons. Some political, some downright despicable.”

“All the more credit you came out on top.”

Where’s the honesty in all this? Vane asked himself.

“I take it,” said the squadron-leader, “you’d want to take your commission to the top of the tree. The absolute top.”

He’s tipping me the wink. Pointing towards the Air Ministry but without actually using his finger. Vane cleared his throat. “Sir, I see the RAF as a predominantly technical force. Since national service isn’t long enough for me to become a pilot I felt I’d like to keep planes flying. That seems an honourable occupation."

The interviewer’s eyebrows arched. “You mean servicing, maintenance? Air frames, engines, avionics – that sort of thing. I think with your background you could do rather better. You’re in line for what the Army would call a staff position.”

“Look, sir, may I ask a question?”

“My dear chap, of course. This is a two-way street.”

“It’s to do with POM. The necessary qualifications.”

“A bit basic, but fire ahead.”

“May anyone apply?”

“Of course.”

“But not everyone is interviewed. Sir, may I ask the basis for - ” Vane was about to say “the first cull” but suspected it might be heard as antagonistic. “Triage” seemed neutral enough.

“Education is the primary criterion. Given the age of the applicants it’s often all we’ve got to go on.”

“So in some cases it may be nothing more than a few O-levels.”

The squadron-leader writhed slightly. “Well, not quite. I can speak man-to-man to you of course. It will come as no surprise the school itself can play a part in the decision to interview. A school with traditions, you know. Traditions which create expectations.”

“Is there no mechanism for interviewing an airman on the basis of his intelligence, sir?”

“But how would we know beforehand?”

“A verbal recommendation, say?”

“But from whom? Look it’s clear you have someone in mind. Obviously I mustn’t know his name. Obviously too I can’t promise anything but I trust your... intelligence. Give me an outline, a hint.”

Until then Vane had pursued an abstraction, a theory of social justice. Now, horribly, he faced facts. Saw Mac inspecting blood on the back of his hand. Imagined himself saying: he’s a welder at the Govan shipyard.

Vane shook his head. “You’re right, sir. It is difficult. I must leave it up to him.”

Somehow the squadron-leader contrived to un-writhe. Became all smiles. “That’s the spirit. It may not be a perfect system but we seem to get it right most of the time. I appreciate your concern but if it’s any comfort I would have no doubts...”

But Vane, involuntarily, stood up, unwilling to hear the rest of that sentence. “I’m sorry sir, I appear to have wasted your time. I apologise enormously. I think it would be better if I withdrew my application.”

“But why?”

Vane stammered, perhaps for the first time in his life. “It’s just that... I can’t be sure... I would make a good RAF officer.”

The squadron-leader may have been obsequious, well stricken in years but he could still make decisions. “In that case, airman, I suggest you leave this room forthwith.”

ON THE penultimate day of basic training they got their trade postings. Mac preferred to be taciturn but was having difficulty suppressing a smile. He showed Vane the slip. “Engine fitter, an eight-month course. The fust job I chose. Jings, I could ha’ welded my last ship’s bulkhaid. Nae more poison fumes. Have a dram with me tonight.”

“Hope I can do that, Mac. Seems my future’s on hold. I may have to rattle some cages.”

“Tonight, ye Sassenach bastard.”

Others wanted to share their good news with the billet’s popularly acclaimed leader. But it was too much. “Just got to go to the bog.”

Inside, the door bolted, he let his trousers down just to discourage anyone who got curious and peered from under. Took out his slip and read: Bedding clerk. RAF Kinloss, Moray, Scotland. One week’s training at camp.

Checked his pockets for telephone change. No point in belonging to a military family if you didn’t want levers pulled.