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Friday 27 November 2015

Gradus ad Parnassum

Novels take a minimum of two years. Aged eighty I worried. But what the hell; some unfinished novels have turned out famous

Roderick Robinson


MR KOSSOF was almost finished; just a signature on the final page. Lindsay leant over the counter pointing to the line, discreetly managing her cleavage gap as she did so. One didn’t distract a customer signing over sixty kay for a new three-litre convertible. But then perhaps Kossof had earned a sly peep; deserved it? Suppose he offered her a ride?

He glanced at her name badge. “Well Leenzy, chwill the ladies be eempressed?”

“Of course.”

“Beeg car, huh?”

“Luxury car."

“Luxury? I dunna understan.”

“Like Buckingham Palace.”

He smiled, showing gold teeth beneath a ragged moustache. “Good for Her Majesty. You eempressed, Leenzy?"

But Lindsay never did get a chance to answer this promising question. Jenson, passing behind her to the photocopier, found pin-striped grey polyester, wool and Teflon stretched over her bowl-shaped rump just too enticing. Made no attempt to pretend it was an accidental brush-past, went for a fondle with added linger. Hearing her gasp, Mr Kossof looked up and did not approve, perhaps seeing tanks on a lawn he imagined he already commanded. He pushed the signed contract across the counter and turned towards a TV showing an over-hysterical video loop on car insurance for the over-fifties.

Furious, but keeping it under control, Lindsay went to the loo and dissipated her aggression in high-pressure pee. Thought about laddishness. Jenson was good-looking and devoted more of his salary to his appearance than any woman she knew. Used mousse on his hair while it was still controversial; patronised a Pierre Cardin boutique for males who were small but perfectly formed. Lindsay could imagine French-kissing him and simultaneously kneeing him in his – no doubt, perfectly formed – groin. How was it possible for her to contain these two emotional extremes?

Tuesday 24 November 2015

Le style, c'est l'homme

This is RR in Smart Casual mode ready for wine and canapés. I decided clothes alone wouldn't do the job, hence the trumpet. OK it'll be awkward, especially if I'm required to shake hands but the heck with it; I just won't shake hands.

From time to time I intend to open up the jacket and reveal the lining. I figure this will absolve me from conversation.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Nothing (partly rewritten)

Bloggers who are in it for the long haul must learn how to write a post about nothing. The need crops up regularly: I've been silent too long, you say to yourself, readers will imagine I've cut my throat. They'll reckon they've seen the signs.

Writing about nothing means just that. No fancy verbs, no words with capital letters, no grand abstractions, no nouns outside the basic 700-word vocabulary. Damn! See that! The v-noun breaks the rule. And I'm not too sure about the r-word.

OK, I'm ready to go.

I am. Yes, that's OK. My am-ness was yesterday but is not yet tomorrow. I know my am-ness because it is not your am-ness. For me there is nothing more than my am-ness; more would be other-ness and other-ness could be you. I am and you are are the am-nesses of each of us. Neither is the other. I see you and say: he is. He is because he has his is-ness; I have my is-ness.

You get the idea. Suddenly, you say, who's the smartyboots? Obviously the guy who decided, more than a thousand posts ago, in 2008, that he would limit his posts to 300 words. And that's me, blowing my own trumpet.

It makes sense. A 300-word post about nothing is kinder to readers than one of 1000 words.

And there's more. A post about nothing can be improved. An earlier version of this post actually said something; parts of it were almost literature. Clearly that was cheating - the thought came to me (as bad thoughts always do) at 3 am today. Quickly I re-wrote the final third. I'm sure if you read the first version you'll agree this one is much more nothing-y.

Final question. Can a post about nothing be anything other than dull? But it's the wrong question: the aim is to do one's duty, to fill space.

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair

Friday 20 November 2015

The unsell

Tone Deaf has just passed 100,000 pageviews. Please don't depress me by saying you've racked up thousands more; I‘ll say you got there by courting populism.

Years ago Lucy did depress me (but for my own good, you understand) by telling me I should ignore my pageviews. That they are primarily a measure of intrusive systems seeking to discover the blogging equivalent of my toilet habits. Crow said figures get inflated if I accidentally mention the title of a set-book in the current year's eng. lit. exams.

I'm sure they're both right. All I can say is that the highest numbers of pageviews-per-post seem related to the highest comments-per-post. And comments are at least verifiable.

Natalie urges me to stir my stumps and promote my fiction more energetically. I do so want to be read - who doesn't? - but I approach promotion in diver's boots. It's not that I can't sell; I've personally sold magazine subscriptions to teachers in Indiana, charming ten bucks out of ‘em with my accent, however unlikely that sounds. Selling my fiction should be like selling myself, as when speaking to someone for the first time.

But it isn't. What can I say? Here's a book I enjoyed writing - I've no idea whether you'll enjoy reading it. Or: read this book, no charge, because you'll make me happy. Or: take this book, no charge, just pretend you'll read it. Or: this is my book, that’s my fist; it’s one or the other.

There’s status in writing a novel; not much, but it’s a task most people don’t do. Like going over Niagara in a barrel.  Promotion is the price an author pays for that status. That and the agony.  Some would say it’s a bum deal.

Wednesday 18 November 2015


Matches the half-acre-plus garden
A coffee morning in Hereford (separate from the wine and canapé "do" I have also been invited to) revealed the middle-classes in full force. But how would a foreigner recognise the cast marks?

All are elderly to old to moribund. The men wear long-sleeve pullovers (very much yesterday's garment) with light-plaid shirts open at the neck. The shirts are not casual since the collars are comparatively stiff; in an emergency - say, if the Queen showed up - a tie could be accommodated. Trousers are often corduroy, indicating that the wearer lives in a detached house in the country with at least half an acre of garden.

The trend away from laced shoes is almost complete. The elderly/old/moribund are usually overweight and slip-on footwear reduces the need to bend. Addressed by an official speaker they clap in a way that precludes applause; confirmation that, despite faulty hearing, they have heard what has been said, nothing more.

With the women the news is both good and bad. Hair-dying (even henna) is eschewed and grey is worn proudly and honestly. But, in the presence of cake (an excellent carrot cake was on offer) their eyes gleam and they are seconds away from having to wipe their lips with a table napkin (never a serviette). Cake becomes virtually sacerdotal in old age.

Only a small proportion (both genders) wears spectacles - proof that cataracts have been attended to, probably privately. Once the middle-classes brayed when speaking; nowadays their conversation is more akin to the soughing of oak branches in a high wind.

Mortgages are all paid off, thus faces are not pinched with financial worries. Children are in their fifties and are either comfortably off or (Whoops! Stigma machine blew a gasket here.). Almost no one reads The Guardian.

Tuesday 17 November 2015

Wanna kick me? Aim here

For an insult to stick there has to be a grain of truth. Thus when a guy working on the same Philadelphian magazine told me I was in the wrong job because I didn't "speak American" I was shocked. But only briefly. For one thing no other indigène, during six years in the US, ever insulted me on the basis of my roots (or anything else; suburban Americans are the politest people); for another, I had evidence to the contrary, notably an increasing pay packet.

He'd have done better to touch on my body bulk, my parsimony, my frequent insensitivity, my cavalier attitude towards religious belief or my desire to crush other baseball fans with my superior knowledge of statistics.

But suppose someone - anywhere in the world - insisted I lacked a sense of humour (LSOH). Even if I felt pretty sure the accusation was unfounded I'm sure I'd wriggle. This is much more than being told I don't laugh a lot.

Why is it such an awful contemplation? For me the Number One reason is the possibility that someone - idiot though he might be - thinks I take everything literally, that I am incapable of appreciating inference, subtlety, irony, word-play. That I'd be better off simply counting things. That I am by my own terms stunted, incomplete, wasting my time watching foreign movies and, certainly, trying to put one coherent word against another.

Yep, this is called making oneself a hostage to fortune. Should I temporarily wreck your life with an injudicious post or comment, you now know where my viscera lies. Not that I'm saying you should hold back. I think I need some practice in rebuttal; finding oneself vulnerable, or in fact wounded, one looks instinctively for Elastoplast (US: Band Aid).

Sunday 15 November 2015

Wood for trees

Work-in-progress research (before - above; after - below)
for An Oral Problem

An Oral Problem
Short story 1532 words

Hagar was leaving the Centre by the side door when a dim figure stepped forward out of the dark. Feebly he raised his shoulder bag to defend himself; it was either that or the Financial Times, not even rolled up.

“Sorry, I’ve startled you,” said a reasonable voice. “The last thing I wanted. May I come in?”

“I’ve just set the alarm.” Hagar’s piping tone became more confident. “If I don’t close this door behind me all hell’s going to break loose.”

“Sweet Jesus, what a start! Here, let me step back while you close the door. I swear I’m just a non-harming person in need of dental help.”

“The surgery’s closed.”

“I realise that. But I have an emergency proposition.”

It was the reasonable voice that did it. Eventually he was able to re-open the side door and they sat in the patients’ waiting room lit inadequately by one bank of lights; Hagar had allowed him five minutes.

“I’ve broken a tooth,” he said, spreading his hands.

“Hardly an emergency, for God’s sake. Let me see. A lateral incisor, not even a real front tooth.”

“I’m short of time.”

Hagar shrugged. “It needs capping which means the lab’s involved. It’s a two-day job.”

He nodded. “Suppose I... made it worth your while?”

“I’m not exactly on my uppers, old sport.”

“How about a thousand? In cash.”

Hagar sat up straight. “A thousand! What’s your problem, then?”

The man waved his hand vaguely. “A woman, what else?”

“Sheesh. I hope she’s worth it. But it will still take two days.”

“Hmmm. That would be tight. Very tight.”

They sat in silence and Hagar thought about a thousand – tax-free – and what it could do for him. More particularly for Lottie, his problem woman. He spoke speculatively, “There is a temporary way round this. I could prepare that tooth for the crown, do the moulds, get them to the lab. For the forty-eight hours in between I could build up the tooth with composite; it would look OK but you’d need to be careful: stay away from apples, nuts, crunchy stuff. Would that help?”

“Would it look like a real tooth?”


Over an hour’s work but it passed pretty quickly. He said his name was Jiggs which Hagar disbelieved, but then who cared? Whenever Jiggs’ mouth wasn’t full of dental equipment he liked to ask questions about what was happening. Wanted to see the mandrel, commented on how quickly the mould paste set, asked about the diameter of the reinforcing pins (Which Hagar didn’t know.) Said that rinsing out his mouth didn’t really get rid of rogue fragments of dried-up paste. Noted that the plastic cover protecting the bulb in the overhead light was scratched. Seemed genuinely disappointed when all was done.

Hagar took half-payment and agreed to be available early evening on Thursday to finish the job. Re-set the alarm, re-locked the side door and felt the reassuringly firm wodge of five-hundred pounds in twenties in his pocket.

The house was dark when he parked in the driveway. Lottie had warned him, said she’d be late. He did scrambled eggs, burning the first four slices of toast. Watched hyenas tear the tripes out of a wildebeest on telly but fell asleep in the chair before a repeat performance involving orcas and a fur seal. Fell asleep equally quickly in bed, unaware of her joining him at three in the morning.

The police called at the Centre in the morning and he saw Detective-Sergeant Swede in the cramped little office set aside for admin matters. Swede wore a remarkably well-cut grey suit and what looked like a regimental tie; for once Hagar felt slightly vulnerable in his polyester surgical blues.

“Aren’t you cold wearing those flimsy things?” Swede asked.

“Dentistry is hard work,” said Hagar. “We keep warm.”

Very quickly it became clear that Swede knew a lot about Hagar’s impromptu patient and it became necessary to lie a little. “He told me his name was Jiggs which sounded odd. But I confess I didn’t take any more details; that would have meant activating the computer system and I wanted to concentrate on his tooth. I’ll add in the personal info when he returns on Thursday.” Hagar paused. “I haven’t even paid in the five hundred pounds yet,” he said, as casually as he could manage.

Swede, nodded, half smiling. Tax fraud wasn’t his first priority it seemed. “Let me see if I’ve got this right in lay terms, forgetting the techno-talk about lateral incisors. You’ve made him look presentable, normal if you like. No one would know one of his teeth – those that are easily seen by others – had been broken.”

“A temporary job, of course, but that’s essentially correct.”

“And he was keen – very keen – to have this done?”

“Very. Hence the one kay.”

“Would you say the tooth was broken recently?”

“Very recently. The edges of the break were still quite sharp.”

Swede nodded more decisively this time. “That fits what we suspect. Look, here’s what we have. We don’t know him but the car he used matches some other evidence which I can’t tell you about. We have CCTV footage of him parking in a street about half a mile away and walking in this direction. I’m told that your cameras have him arriving at your side door. But he’s savvy; keeps his face down. And, we think, he wanted the tooth repaired because it’s an easy identifier. What we need from you is a full description of his face. Obviously, you’d be willing to pick him out of a line-up when we get that far.”

A silence developed in the small room. A silence compounded by confusion, embarrassment and guilt. Definitely guilt. Hagar sat, his mouth half open, seemingly incapable of speech.

“What’s wrong, Mr Hagar?” Swede asked finally.

Hagar stammered, “I... I’m... not sure I’ll be able to help you, Detective-Sergeant.”

“Why the hell not, man?”

“I... I didn’t turn on all the lights in the waiting room. Didn’t seem necessary.”

Swede was exasperated. “All right, all right. Never mind about that. But for an hour you had him in your dentist’s chair, sometimes only inches away. You must know what he looks like. Better than he does himself.”

Again Hagar said nothing.

Angry now, “Mr Hagar, this is an effing murder enquiry.”

Hagar spread his hands, tears in his eyes. “To me they’re all just mouths.”

They tried, how they tried. Batteries of policeman badgered him, through the rest of the morning and into the afternoon. A pleasing voice, an interest in technology, those Hagar could confirm. The teeth yes, especially the slightly twisted molar. But as to the face...

Detective-Sergeant Swede returned as it was getting dark. Contempt had replaced anger. In two or three spitting, cutting sentences he contrived to suggest Hagar was an inadequate member of society.

“But he’ll be coming back tomorrow,” said Hagar piteously. “To have the crown fitted.”

“I wouldn’t hold your breath.”

On Thursday they waited, Hagar and half a dozen policemen, none of whom said a word to him. Until midnight when, abruptly, they stood up as a group and departed the Centre in silence, leaving Hagar to set the alarm and lock the side door.

“Just mouths,” he whispered as the last broad back passed into the dark.

At home Hagar had the novel experience of getting into a bed where Lottie already slept. Looking gorgeous and wanton, her long auburn hair spread out over the pillow. But there was no way he was able to fall asleep beside her. After ten minutes he got up, hearing her sigh, irritated, and went downstairs.

He’d undressed downstairs in order not to disturb her. He picked up his trousers and felt the roll of twenties, stiff and substantial, through the fabric. In his mind he’d already spent the money at a boutique newly opened in town. Women’s designer shoes, a ludicrous gesture. Useless too. He’d pay the cash into the practice’s account.

On the coffee table was her handbag, carelessly open. He knew that if he chose to he’d find something in it that would makes things final between them. Needless to say he would do no such thing, preferring to let matters slide for a few weeks more. Perhaps until Christmas when there’d be some artificial form of celebration.

From the start it had always been an unlikely match: he stocky and hairy-chested, she as glamorous as a fifties filmstar: Rita Hayworth say. The true explanation had quickly emerged as, post-honeymoon, he’d doggedly set to and discharged her huge mountain of debt.

He hadn’t been entirely naive, his astonishment when she had accepted him had been very real and she’d seen he needed reassurance. Though nothing that would tax her imagination. “Love at first sight,” she had said airily. “Probably the same with you,” she added even more airily. Foolishly he hadn’t taken it any further.

Very foolish indeed, he suddenly realised, remembering their first meeting. She’d been worried about the discolouration of one of her teeth, a lateral incisor to be exact.

A mouth in fact, a mouth well remembered. And then it seemed they were married.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Step one on two-year road

Possible central character for new (fifth) novel. No plot as yet.

Seen in Brasshouse pub, Birmingham. Pair late twenties, early evening meal.  He faintly resembling Ewan McGregor, lightish beard moustache/chin, leaning low towards her across table, quiet voice.

SHE. Hair imperfectly dyed blonde (irregular dark streaks) swept up from neck with largish bun on top, loose strands of hair, petite face with pink/white makeup, black mascara, prominent convex cheeks, glasses with slot-like lenses and black and white sidebars (wider near lens, tapering to ear), white tight-fitting knitted pullover/blouse buttoned up to scalloped collar detailed in red, thin upper body with prominent, seemingly spherical breasts, hands with coloured nails regularly in motion.

Speaks conversationally yet assertively, even shrilly but – strangely - not unpleasantly. Not in charge but talking/acting with conviction. Ate salad.

GUESSES. Working class/LMC aspirant. Education; probably not uni.

Employment: Not professional. Say: supermarket supervisor, admin at car main dealership, sales with car, managing show house/new estate. Not receptionist, not shop sales assistant.

Assets: Confidence, appealing not tarty, persuasive, energetic, resourceful (needed for plot). Glasses dominate face; ostentatious style deliberate, proving she can look “straight through” them.

Debits: No advanced education, non-reader, mistakenly seen as serious, bossy.

Conflicts: Frustrated by limited employment, tendency to discourage dull football-loving males (Intentionally? Accidentally?), satisfied/dissatisfied with marital status.

Holidays: Not on beach; activity. Leisure: Nothing literary or arty. Friend: An “opposite” who lacks her debits. Living with parents? – probably not, given her age. Outgrown parents? – yes.

Threats: Force drawing her back to her roots; mindless discrimination by male bosses based on lack of conventional prettiness; male belief that glasses make her sexually desperate.

Popular names 1985: Jessica, Ashley, Jennifer, Amanda. Stephanie, Nicole, Amber.


Wednesday 11 November 2015

Comes and goes

Hogarth: The Shrimp Girl

Sonnet – Ecstasy but not quite

“Keep a light hopeful heart.
But expect the worst.”
Joyce Carol Oates

When was the best time? I get asked,
Assuming from my face of lumps and lines,
That joy and confidence have long since passed
And, like a cowpat, left dull dreck behind.

The Sun replies it’s surely yet to come,
Recalling what he’s read on calendars;
Childbirth is often cited as the plum
By those who covet middle-class applause.

Not yet, the realist says, nor is it due,
No best, no better, only similar.
It’s where you’re standing in the righteous queue,
Prate prophets reading from apocrypha.

For me it comes and goes as clarity
When something newish fits exquisitely.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Typical Saturday night

Key: Sacred Love's clothed, Profane Love's ready for action
On Saturday for the first time we saw Wagner's opera Tannhäuser streamed from the New York Met. It's about sacred and profane love (pictured above).

Tannhäuser dallies with Venus (voluptuous, thus profane love) and, for no good reason, chooses to return home. In a singing competition T boasts about the rumpy-pumpy he's been enjoying, shocking the community and his ex-girlfriend Elizabeth (devout, therefore sacred love) who sort of forgives him. To redeem himself T pilgrims to Rome to be absolved by the Pope. Returning home T meets Wolfram, a mate before he became a metal (aka tungsten), and says he mentioned his penances to the Pope, adding he still has profane yearnings. Politely the Pope tells T to defecate in his hat. Elisabeth sort of dies and by dying absolves T. T then dies and the opera ends with a stunning chorus of:

The grace of God is granted to the penitent;
now he enters into the bliss of heaven.

It's far better than the plot suggests, much of the music is quite, quite beautiful, and there's genuine drama. But what about its premise?

Profane love we know about, teenagers get up to it too early in life. Sacred love, it seems, only happens above the waistline and was the going thing in Tannhäuser’s home town near Wartburg Castle, Germany. Amazingly the town didn't depopulate and die in the Middle Ages, but this may happen shortly, given its most important industry is car-making. That's German car-making.

Still about cars and even more amazing, Wartburg Castle gave its name to a terrible two-stroke car made in what used to be East Germany. Not a car to generate any love – sacred or profane – in me. Stay with Tone Deaf, it’s educational but in a populist way.

Sunday 8 November 2015

Hobbledehoy, pt two

There are three codas to my previous post about DRESS Smart casual.

As I mention in one of my re-comments, VR volunteered to take me to M&S and equip me - at her expense - in a manner that will meet this vague criterion. I noted this would be expensive but she said she didn't care. Since she will see more of me at this canapé/drinks occasion (I’ve accepted the invitation) than I will see of myself I gave in graciously. Only heavy rain yesterday kept us out of M&S.

Second, what I said about my wardrobe wasn't entirely complete. I do have a soft, rather luxurious tweed jacket, acquired fairly recently, that I had in mind as a fall-back in extremis. Good thing I didn't mention it. It turns out this delicious garment has been the most tragic victim of the 5/2 diet. See the photo for proof.

Third, Natalie recommended I visit M&S and spend on my own behalf, justifying it on the basis that canapé/drinks may provide raw material for a Tone Deaf post. This could happen but, more immediately, it set me thinking about a visit I made very recently to the dentist to have a broken tooth repaired. Although we pay a regular monthly premium for dental work, I was warned repeatedly that there would be an extra charge on this occasion, attributable to "lab work".

Goaded by the thought of this extra expenditure, I glanced round the surgery and felt there had to be some literary potential somewhere. I asked a couple of questions and lo! in the mysterious way these things happen, the idea for a short story dropped into my noggin: involving cops, a suspected murder and tax-fraud – all firsts. Now written and awaiting VR’s approval. See you there.

Thursday 5 November 2015

Confessions of a hobbledehoy

The chair of Hereford's Courtyard Theatre would like to see me, and guest, in early December for a Christmas drinks reception. There'll be canapés and wine and the event will take place on the set of Beauty And The Beast, the forthcoming panto.

I'm a patron of the Courtyard, as well I might be. Movies (during the Borderlines Film Festival) and streamed events from worldwide centres of culture (Tannhäuser the day after tomorrow) form a significant element in what passes for my intellectual distraction and I have the Courtyard to thank for both. But there is a snag on the invitation card:

DRESS: Smart casual.

I feel a chill round about my belly-button. Let's take shoes for a start. I have three pairs. Two are black leather casuals, the younger of which was bought thirty years ago. Both pairs are reserved for funerals since the dead cannot be offended. Otherwise my everyday shoes are Velcro-secured suede casuals with tide-marks that speak of frequent immersion. Also the heel of one is starting to detach from the upper. The smell in shoe-shops induces an itching in my nose and I am - obviously - an infrequent visitor.

But it's the shirts that worry me most. Two years ago I was distinctly fat and fat people tend towards loose-fitting garments. Think latterday Orson Wells. Since then, courtesy of the 5/2, I’ve lost over 2 stones. Shirts that were once loose-fitting are now voluminous; the impression I present is that of a nomadic Arab, about to squat on the desert floor and start feeding himself, by hand, from the communal pot of goat ragout.

I have several fleeces but surely they cannot be classed as smart casual.

Should I refuse the drinks and canapés? I rarely socialise these days.

Sunday 1 November 2015

Schlock of ages

 Why no Tiger Rolls?
Short story: 1148 words

The supermarket was low and long, an overblown ranch. In Mexico a hacienda, perhaps, home to a Hollywood stereotype, pudgy, bald but with pendulous sideburns, clad in an embroidered satin waistcoat, nicknamed El Gordo, given to pointless murder and, when finally gunned down, dying with a lurid passage from the Mass on his lips.

If you want stereotypes they’re on sale here, he thought: the chops juicy, the spinach fresh, the wine supple and the customers variegated. I am an old man of course and may eventually fall down dead on this worn linoleum. But nobody should expect

Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam

since God’s glory is not to be found in Dairy Products or Wine and Spirits. Glory is manifest in an ability to buy all we need in one self-shriving act and then, absolved, return home and re-commit the same sin of running out of supplies. Here we are forgiven, supplicants at the Church of Supply And Demand.

His wife, presently having her perm re-permed, had written out a shopping list, items gathered into groups which would track his geographical progress from Newspapers/Magazines to impulse Tic-Tac at the check-out. Easy-peasy when it came to fruit and vegetables set out in the grubby area immediately ahead, or his lunchtime pain au raisin on healthful wooden shelves just beyond. But even she, his wife, mistress of all recondite skills in retailing, could not say with certainty where crushed chili paste might be found or whether table napkins were cloistered with paper towels or somewhere else completely unexpected. But then she had no need; she would ask an employee. He, a man, believed asking for advice showed lack of moral fibre and was prepared to waste angry minutes shuffling down aisles.

Due to inexplicable marketing ebb and flow, there were no satsumas and he had to make do with unspecific Easy Peelers, citrus yes, but members of what genre? More particularly: with or without pips? Once he had sighed noisily at this and a shelf-stacker wearing a green fleece labelled Fruit & Veg had turned to him

“Looking for sats?” F&V asked.

“Why do they just disappear?”

“Never understood that myself. I like ‘em best.” Then, as if it explained everything, added, “They always have ‘em for Christmas.”

To occupy the toe of the Christmas stocking, he supposed. F&V had been much younger and he had enjoyed this brief moment of male communion.

The Tiger Rolls slot on the wooden shelving was empty. He’d only discovered Tiger Rolls a month or two ago; liked their cheesy flavour and their chewiness which didn’t, however, threaten his loosely mounted canines. Behind the shelving men moved back and forward in the bakery with detached professionalism. All wore white trilbies, adding to their formality. There was no way he would interrupt their liturgical procedures.

Glancing again at his list he was irritated to find he’d jumped the sequence, should have started in the pharmacy. He paused before a sort of horizontal library of toothpaste cartons, trying to control a sudden outburst of horror. He’d often sworn to himself he wouldn’t do this, wouldn’t compare present-day prices with those of his youth, it was a sign of feeble old age. All the same, a fiver for toothpaste...! He’d worked for four years before his pay packet topped that. His grandfather, who’d relished such comparisons, had said toothpaste was a luxury; soot did the job. He shuddered at the memory.

He passed by Meat, careful not to notice even more extreme prices. They needed a small joint for the weekend but this fell outside his remit. His wife trusted him only so far; certainly not enough to allow him free rein for this most specialised form of purchasing. She would pop in, direct from the salon.

Tinned, processed marrowfat peas weren’t anywhere close to the shelves of baked beans – a long shot he’d guessed at, based on similarities of shape. And being tinned. Hurrying round the aisle end he bumped (gently) into Vera whom he had not noticed and would, desperately, have tried to avoid. Vera was said to be of great age (though probably no older than him), willowy, with hair so brilliantly white it looked artificial.  Nothing wrong with Vera who was demonstrably pretty and talked pleasantly. The trouble was she had also started to talk vaguely and he, superstitiously, now looked on Alzheimers as infectious.

It took her over an hour to do her shopping, she said; she regularly forgot which aisles she’d visited. “So I put another packet of Rich Teas into my trolley and find there’s one already nestling. I feel such a fool.”

Just the sort of information he didn’t need; behaviour that carried proof of mental decay.

“Rich Teas? Do they still sell them?” he asked, and that was another vow he’d broken; assuming things he’d eaten as a child would no longer be available. That they’d be too old-fashioned.

Vera smiled flirtatiously. “Of course they sell them. What else would old biddies like me nibble with their morning cuppa?”

It was remarkable that pretty Vera still had confidence enough to refer to herself as an old biddy. He stared at her slender aristocratic nose and felt tiny stirrings. Officially he pretended to be “past all that” but secretly he was glad it could still happen. Here too, in the most discouraging of environments, young people pushing past, older, fatter people supporting themselves with their trolleys.

It seemed pretty Vera wasn’t vague about everything. “Don’t you ever have a bickie with your tea?” Her voice carried a hint of longing; her husband had died horribly of bowel cancer a decade ago.

“I’m a coffee man,” he said and immediately regretted his bluntness.

“Ah,” she said with commendable grace. “Too expensive for me.”

Feeling crass, even ugly, he wanted to amend what he’d said. To say she looked well perhaps even pretty. But he lacked the vocabulary and the necessary phrases, especially the lightness of tone. His goodbye was clumsy and fell away into silence.

At the check-out he inserted his credit-card upside down into the slot, a frequent blunder. The youth operating the till opened his mouth to tell him, then, instead, reached across, took out the card, and re-inserted it. At that moment he felt just as lonely as pretty Vera.

Outside, at the far end of the car park, he turned to look back at the supermarket. Much too large for a hacienda. But then these days, El Gordo whose peons had no doubt made him rich by rustling horses would no longer be Mexican, would live in an armed fortress in the jungles of Colombia and would carry a Glock rather than a Colt 45. Horses would have been a logistical challenge, drugs were mere industry.

Aging, ancient. Changing but only retrogressively. A host of disinclinations. His arm ached at a carrier bag heavier than he would have liked. His soul ached with embarrassment and futility at his inability to be nicer to Vera.