● Lady Percy moves me - might she move you? CLICK TO FIND OUT
● Plus my novels, stories, verse, vulgar interests, apologies, and singing.
● Most posts are 300 words. I respond to all comments/re-comments.
● See Tone Deaf in New blogger.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Smugness as a way of life

UK national service endured post-war until the early sixties. Young men were snatched from their occupations and for two years became sort of compulsory civil servants. With the added possibility of getting their heads shot off in Korea, Malaya, Cyprus, Kenya, Aden or somewhere in South America which I always forget.

My technical training in the RAF lasted eight months, spent with a hodge-podge of embryonic professionals - a police cadet and two solicitors come to mind. Mostly we sat alphabetically arranged, I next to P, a rather clever farmer much given to dismissive utterance. He kindly pointed out the difference - in value to society - between his job and mine. As a junior newspaper reporter I was forced to agree.

Parenthetically, things went terribly wrong for P in later life, forcing him into religious zealotry.

I didn’t question my work for I had intentionally scored a double bull: I was doing what I liked and that covered up my meagre achievements at school.

I was to discover that "doing what I liked" was a rarity in the job market. Many people, including degree holders, ended up behind unexpected and ill-defined desks. More responsibility and more cash helped them tolerate their days and then they retired. Often to a state of complete bewilderment. Many gardened and travelled a bit but only because these were boxes waiting to be ticked.

Given the uselessness of what I did for a living you may imagine - even hope - I retired into a moral void. Cowed that I hadn't benefited society. Instead I took heart from that materialistic biblical fable about coins buried vs. coins put to work. My latterday sentences are now better constructed and that's enough.

Yes, I’m smug. But oh, poor P.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Dear Pat

My gentle French teacher with husband Brian
Pat my French teacher for almost two decades died yesterday.

When Brian her husband phoned I wasn't able to offer him a single word of sympathy. Mere fragments of phrases but perhaps these were some measure of how I felt. For now the Friday morning trio, which includes my co-student Beryl, translating Delphine de Vigan, Balzac, Georges Duhamel, Irène Nemirovsky, even Simenon, was at an end. I've always been an awkward student but Pat (and much more recently V) overcame my awkwardness. The brutalities of my school life were happily well-buried.

On Sunday I visited Pat in Hereford's hospice. A tiny figure in a huge techno-bed, listening to her daughter, Celia, reciting the twenty-third psalm which Pat had asked for. Later I sat by the bed holding Pat's hand. She used to be a chorister and I jokingly suggested I might sing. She was having difficulty speaking but it was clear that wasn't her preference. She was the gentlest person I've known (she was a Quaker) and I smiled at her firmness. Good teachers are firm when they need to be.

Another thought occurred and I recited the first verse of my Grannie's favourite hymn:

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

Pat whispered "That's good." It might well have been a summary of her life and what I knew about her. Although Pat was far too modest to have claimed that.

Her death was imminent and expected. But when it came my vocabulary wasn't up to the job. Weirdly that pleases me.

Friday, 24 November 2017

The fondue was OK too

It is now, in the present, and I'm sipping Jim Beam while reading John le Carré's autobiography.

Suddenly - for nothing travels as quickly as memory - I am transported back to 1965 and find myself in a bar in St Gervais-les-Bains, near Mont Blanc. VR and I, with my brother, Sir Hugh, have just been served a cheese fondue by the patron, a youngish chap who's disposed to talk. I look up at the b&w TV and see John le Carré being interviewed on one of the French channels. "What's his French like?" I ask the patron. "Pretty good," he says. Although I'm unaware of it, wheels start to turn and I'm now a different person than I was then, fifty-two years ago.

No big deal and of no consequence to anyone else but me. A decade later, back from the USA, I start French lessons and they've continued ever since. Two more decades pass and, after a couple of false starts, I buckle down to improving my prose. No doubt far far too late.

So am I merely and belatedly aping John le Carré? Yes, but less obviously. I admired his success as a novelist and his fluency in French but there was something else: his ability to pass through Europe without immediately trumpeting his nationality, discussing things other than being foreign, being accepted as a member of a polyglot community. It would have been foolish of me to want to be a citizen of the world, but a citizen of Europe would have done me just fine. To feel at ease in Bordeaux, Cologne and Gothenburg and to profit from this easefulness.

Should VR and I see if that alpine bar still exists? Never. But I'd like to buy the patron a drink.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Hard news

How much reality can you stand? How much reality do you think others can stand?

The answers seem to be: not much. A friend dies and we cannot utter those three words. Instead, that friend has "passed on", which makes death sound less awful. We may even believe "passed on" makes death itself more acceptable.

It's called euphemism, the refusal to call a spade a spade.  And we excuse our euphemisms by saying they're used for the best of reasons, conveniently forgetting the surfacing of the road to Hell.

Governments and others use euphemism for quite bad reasons. "Quantitative easing" sounds like getting into a warm bath, not staving off financial ruin. Officialdom prefers this obscure phrase, believing it will stop people asking who's to blame.

Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb army leader, has just been put away for life, found guilty of "ethnic cleansing". Something like sweeping the streets, perhaps. There's an irony here; that phrase is literal English for the Serbo-Croatian "etnicko ciscenje". Mladic comes from a country which invented a term that appears on his charge sheet.

Even a full definition (Systematic forced removal of ethnic or religious groups from a given territory by a more powerful ethnic group... etc, etc) damps down the full horror. Words, said Tweedledum...

Luckily there are cameras. Dzezana Sokolovic with her son tries to cross Sniper Alley in Sarajevo in 1994. A bullet passes through her stomach and kills her son. He's lying there, the pool of blood still widening. No need for euphemisms, nor for words.

Other than an expression of gratitude for the force of law.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Alter Ego does a duet

Just got back from an intense singing lesson which...

Uh-huh, still on about that craze of his. Silly old fart. Should stick to flower-beds like any self-respecting, half-dead octogenarian.

... three months devoted to Schumann’s song Im Rhein...

Must be tone deaf, just like his blog. I know for a fact the song lasts only one minute, twenty seconds.

...but then it is a masterpiece...

How would he know?  Age fifteen he listened to Radio Luxembourg.

... the way the music fits the Heine poem...

Oh yes, anything German and he’s away. Did you know he can order a beer in German and that’s about it.

... the more detail, the subtler it ...

See how he pretends he can read a score. Sheer bollocks. Im Rhein’s marked Ziemlich langsam and I doubt he knows what that means.

... no reason why we should not spend another three months...

But does his teacher agree?

... V is very patient ...

Aye, she’d have to be. Listening to an eighty-two-year-old throat mangle a so-called masterpiece. She should be paid in euros, by the cartload.

... magic moment! The last four syllables – liebsten genau – exactly fit my natural voice.

But what about the other five-hundred syllables? Ear-plugs anyone?

... V says so ...

The alternative would be to say he needs putting down.

... private lessons, a better choice of music ...

Here’s the key. At his age he should have joined a choir, so he could hide his croakings. Mind you, a choir with very low standards.

PS. Still a thrill, after almost two years. Making a stab at Mozart in a resonant kitchen with this portable, ever-available instrument. Shockingly difficult of course but, then, that’s one of the attractions – an adult thing to take on.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Short story verdict?

Blogspot techno-point. It was Lucy who restrained me from getting excited about pageview figures in Stats. Just a single mention of Hitler and totals may rise dramatically. But occasionally they offer a kind of truth.

At over 6000 words my short story, The Geographical Centre of the Buckeye State, is a long read and I didn't expect a great response. Splitting it into two parts (to meet Blogspot restrictions) was also likely to discourage readers. Pageview figures of 31 and 26 for parts 1 and 2 respectively are not huge but are mildly gratifying. Their numerical closeness suggests there  is a relationship (in readers' eyes) between the two parts, that those who read the first part went on to read the second.

And that only 5 readers failed to do so.

Gather ye crumbs where ye may.

Friday, 17 November 2017

I owe it to edewcayshun

Bad education can pay off.

I left school knowing nothing about Greek or any other kind of myths, Roman history, poems other than a dozen rumti-tum pieces found on calendars, politics in general, physics, chemistry, musical notation, literary analysis, mathematics beyond simultaneous equations, the formalities of cooking, economics, the way my body works, morality, the emotional nature of love, DIY, most plays other than force-fed Shakespeare, the necessity of mortgages, opera, ways of earning a living, the fact that I would age but not necessarily become adult, the foreignness of "abroad", healthy practices, astronomy, honesty, and any sense of my own potential.

I left school disadvantaged by adolescent lust, insatiable hunger, a thirst for alcohol, unfounded cynicism and unperceived selfishness.

Last night, sixty-six years after I left school, I discovered Ovid, the Roman poet who died in exile two thousand years ago and whose best stuff concerns such characters as Phaeton and Phoebus, Diana and Acteon, Narcissus and Echo. Remained silent through the explanatory hour and cried a bit when Niobe's fourteen children were killed by the capricious gods - for I too am a parent.

What were the odds, sixty-six years ago, that I might arrive at that period of absorbent silence? Lengthy, I'd say
A good education would have prepared me for Ovid. On the other hand my bad education left me as a tabula rasa, a blank slate waiting to be written on.

VR and I discussed which translation of Ovid to buy. Ted Hughes is presently the contender. 

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Post Nam 1

I lived in the USA from 1966 to 1972 and I'm ashamed to admit I didn't pay enough attention to the Vietnam War. A month ago a 10-part TV documentary, The Vietnam War, took me by the scruff of the neck. Comprehensive, revelatory, coherent, vivid, even-handed, intimate and large-scale, it re-created a state of mind: about a conflict that most wanted to ignore and forget. More especially how returning soldiers who'd given their all found themselves shockingly and unjustly tainted by the political ignorance and incompetence that kicked off the killing.

This story is nominally about that aftermath but the emphasis shifts somewhat in a way that won't surprise the tiny elite aware of my fictional preferences. In two parts because of BlogSpot restrictions.

Geographical Centre
of  the
Buckeye State

A short story (6392 words)

 A WHOLE morning to kill, shee-eet a whole day! A whole...

He stood on the street corner, taking his time, pretending there were choices. He could turn north up Factory on to West Main and stop off at Twist ‘n Shake. Or go right along Union to... where? Centre Pointe Church? And then what? No surprises either way. The only surprise had just happened. Except it wasn’t really a surprise at all.

Some time back there’d been possibilities. Anything could have happened. He’d beaten Nam.

The pair of them, Boone and him, sitting up to the bar at Amvet Post 59, drinking Wild Turkey with draft beer chasers. Outside it was getting dark and Khe San was starting to fade. Whoops! Keerrection! Khe San would never fade.

Not exactly a celebration then, more a revelation: “Hey we’re alive and ain’t that a kick in the head?” Wild Turkey said it all: twice the price, but what the hell.

Boone, sweat gathering on his top lip, turning. “Yuh leaving for Tennessee? The hick town with the crazy name, it never sticks in my mind.”

He’d grinned, it was always a steady joke. “Soddy Daisy, route 27, north of Chattanooga.”

Boone had sipped Turkey, nodded and leered. “Got yourself a Soddy Daisy waiting?”

As a matter of fact, he hadn’t. Sheryl-Lee and her roommate had taken a Greyhound to Anaheim, looking to be cocktail waitresses, graduating to pole dancing. Sheryl-Lee had the legs at least, he couldn’t complain. He said, “Nope. No one’s waiting.”

“Why not try here?”

“Here? What’s Centerburg got that’s hot?”

“Man, it’s the geo-geographical centre of the Buckeye State.” Boone stumbled over the words, the Wild Turkey getting to him.


“Ohio, you prick.”

He said, “Coming in I saw the sign, side of the road. Population: two thousand and change. Place is just a village.”

“CPAs can always get work. Anywhere.”

He sighed. “Told you a hunnert times, I’m no CPA. Ain’t got the brains, never made tenth grade. Just a book-keeper, cash in, cash out.”

“Got the brains for a PFC,” said Boone surlily. Always a sore point; Boone had stayed a grunt the whole tour, left Nam with nothing more than a hash mark.

“The Army’s not like real life. Eat the chow, kill Charlie, use a rubber, avoid STDs. Promotion’s bound to come round.”

He’d slept the night at Boone’s Dad’s. No bed, just blankets thrown down on the rug. It was plain Pa didn’t want him around, didn’t want Boone around either.  Got himself a lady-friend who was more picky than Boone’s Mom, dead two years, worrying about her son at war. In the morning, over corn-flakes and nothing more, Boone’s Pa said, “A widow woman out on North Clayton has a room” - speaking impersonally, avoiding eye contact. “She’ll be glad, good and glad. Son Gary was a Marine, got his in the Mekong Delta. Friendly fire. Left her kinda weird.”

Turned out to be a nice place on a big lot, a new Jeep in the garage. Nor was the widow woman weird, just sorrowful. Mrs Golinski led him to the kitchen, took his hands over the table. He’d expected this would worry him but it didn’t. She said, “It’s Dill, isn’t it? Dill. I’m forgetful these days. And no kind of company, I don’t socialise much. It makes sense you using Gary’s room provided it doesn’t spook you. You and he would’ve...”

“Doesn’t spook me,” he said, speaking quickly to keep back her tears.

“I suppose you’ve seen worse”

“I’ve seen worse, ma’am.”

They sat in silence and it really wasn’t so bad. Made him realise he liked quiet.

“You got kin, Dill?”

His body jerked, blindsided. He searched for words that didn’t mean much. “Ma’am, it’s kinda difficult...”

She took his hand and pressed it to her cheek. “Prob’ly to do with this shitty war. And there I go. I don’t swear, Dill, I promise. But it’s the only word when you think. What are we killing people for? Why are we getting killed?” A week later he told her about his Pa and poor bullied Ma. Raising the flag at dawn, the stupid bumper stickers, his Pa’s uniform pressed and ready to wear at any time, the spit that flew when Pa talked about college kids, angrily switching off the TV. By then Boone had fallen out with his Pa and had moved to Toledo to stay with an uncle. The main thing keeping Dill in Centerburg was the quiet in Mrs Golinski’s home.

Gently he slid his hand away and asked if there was a diner anywhere close. She stared, shocked, as if he’d stabbed her. “You’ve done what the US asked you to do and now you’re hungry! For Chrissake, Dill!” She kissed him on the temple, a soft kiss as if she were his Oma. Said, “I’m swearing again. Perhaps Vietnam is what I saved my swearing for.” She hadn’t the makings for the breakfast she planned and needed to drive to the superette. When the meal was ready it was as if she’d laid out a pagan festival: a dozen fried eggs, a mound of hash-browns, a pound of bacon. Mrs Golinski ate one slice of toast and simply watched Dill. Got up suddenly and returned with an armful of his shirts and underclothes. Muttered, “Might as well start on these.”

Dill paused from slicing his sixth egg. There’d been no formal agreement he was staying but her searching through his kit-bag seemed to say he was. Back from loading the washing machine she sat down and kept on watching him eat, kindly, approving. Finally he’d finished half of what was on the table. Put his fork down, looked up to thank her and burped involuntarily – open-mouthed and loud. Looked away, embarrassed. “Ma’am, ahh, ma’am.”

“A good sign, Dill. You’ve eaten most of it. It was good to see. I eat hardly anything.”

“Gotta let me wash up, at least.”

She waved a hand. “I’ll do that. Makes me feel useful. Bring your coffee to the parlour.”

The furniture was neat, too neat, unused. She noticed him looking round. “Here’s a room I could sell off. Can’t find much use for it these days.” She stretched her legs out. “Chairs are comfortable, though.”

Now she stared at her feet. “Have I scared you?” she asked.


“A bit too much emotion?”

“Why would that scare me?”

She leant forward. “Holding you, kissing you.”

“Ma’am, it’s happened before. It wasn’t me you were holding, it was Gary. I’ve been on home-visit details. Bringing bad news to the burbs. I learnt a lot.”

“Tell me.”

He put his empty coffee mug on the side table. “Scared, I know about that. Out there in the boondocks we’re all scared. Then the chopper comes and the fear goes away, until the next time.” He laughed lightly to himself. “Of course it could have happened, I could’ve stopped one. One good thing: it’s an end to being scared.”

She was looking at him, through him almost. He said, “But with those folks we visited, that we spoke to, it doesn’t go away. Guess you’re entitled to a little emotion. More than that.”

Nam had dulled him, he realised that now. He wasn’t used to women and three days R&R in Tokyo didn’t count. The women he’d talked to had been mothers, not real women. Sure Mrs Golinski was a mother but different. The emotion had been very strong and aimed at him. She’d done things for him, motherly things. But you could also see those things as favours.

Touching and kissing were sex. Women were sex. But not Mrs Golinski, a mother and therefore old. She saw him as Gary her son – an old relationship - and that couldn’t be sex.

He found himself wanting to look at Mrs Golinski, to study her. But couldn’t. Which was stupid because he had already seen her; heck, he’d been in the house for two hours. Looked, yes. But not studied. And now he daren’t.

“Dill, are you OK?” Her voice was gentle.

“Just thinking. What it’s like to be a mother? To have two smart military guys knock on your door?”

Saying this allowed him to look her in the face. First thing, she wasn’t old. A face saddened with grief, hair pulled back in a careless ponytail, no make-up, but nothing like his Mom with skin starting to melt.

She nodded. “The guys who knocked on my door were Gary’s age. Your age. You see I had Gary young. Silly, we liked the same kinda music.”

Then she straightened. “But let’s talk about you. You staying here?”

“Well, Mrs Golinski, I need work.”

“I’ve been calling you Dill. Time you called me Amy. First thing: don’t pay me til you’ve got work. But what kind of work?”

Amy questioned him for almost twenty minutes. Knew about book-keepers, probably knew too it was a pissy sort of job, saying he’d probably end up helping  out. She used words people kept to hand when looking for work: employment, time-keeping, experience. Soon he found it difficult to concentrate and it was Amy who broke off talking.

“Dill, you’re bushed. You get much sleep last night?”

“Not much.” He didn’t want to mention lying on the rug; reckoned it’d sound like begging for sympathy.

“Poor kid. Look, take a nap. Clothes off you’ll sleep better. I’ll give you a call early evening. The shower’s across the hallway.”

There was stuff in the room – Gary’s stuff -  he wanted to look at. A lacrosse stick and helmet, stacks of vinyls, photo of a teenage girl with long blonde hair in a cheap frame. Marine combat boots in one corner. And a shelf of books, hardbacks with long titles. Stuff that would tell him more about where he was but sleep dragged him down. He woke briefly and heard a distant murmuring voice, couldn’t tell whether it was male or female but wanted very much to know. Fell asleep again and there was Amy calling his name.

He showered and shaved in the room across the hallway; found himself looking in the mirror. Twenty-three but you wouldn’t know. He wasn’t good about ages but if he had to say he’d say older. Something about the eyes, check that, the eyebrows, always arched. Surprise? Or something worse?

Amy had been wearing jeans and a sweat-shirt. Now she’d combed out her ponytail and put on a dress with flowers. Even high heels. Saw him glance then glance away. “Don’t worry, you’re safe from me. I’m all done with emotion. You hungry?”

The huge breakfast was still with him and he shook his head.

“We could take a drive but it’s getting dark. Not much to see. Later I’ll fix the insurance so you can use the Jeep. We can watch TV but how about music? They say the war’s been great for music, gotta be good for something.”

“You got bluegrass?”

“Sure, I got some of that.”

He had the feeling she had something to say and encouraged her: “Play music, sure... and talk. About Gary if you like. If it’s not too sore.”

“Yeah, I wondered. But maybe it is too soon. See, what you’d be telling me is the truth. I might not be ready for that.”

She put on Pickin’on New Grass which was new to him and she explained it was a Baltimore group. That meant nothing but it was obvious music was just background, she was itching to talk. How do you order someone to talk? He lay back in the chair, the shot of bourbon she’d poured for him untouched. “Oh I dunno. Tell me about your working day. Anything normal, just so it doesn’t end up sounding like an AH-1.”

“That being a helicopter,” she said, smiling. “As to a normal working day I’m not your gal. Mostly I work coupla days a week, even half-days. Stepping in when a PA or senior secretary goes sick or takes a vacation. Work that needs a good phone manner and the skill to lie sweetly and quickly.”

“Sounds good.”

“Too restful. Leaves me wandering an empty house, knowing it’s never going to be full again.”

“Gee, yes. Sorry about that, Amy. Not just Gary but...”

“... Jerry too. All of which adds up to my crazy work schedule. Of course I could do forty hours a week like most people, sharing an office. But it’s not something I have to do so I don’t do it. None of which must make any sense, Dill. Let me straighten things out.

“I was in junior year, MBA Business, at State when I met Jerry. Ten years older but pretty damn sexy. Visiting lecturer in applied electrical engineering, divisional head with Turner Construction, money to throw around. I still can’t decide whether it was his grey sideburns, the Pagani or the hotel suite in Las Vegas that did for me; whatever, two pink lines on the marker said I was pregnant. I was an easygoing little hussy in those days, not into the blame game. I let him know that if he gave me half a grand I’d do the necessary.

“Surprise of my life. In a quiet way - which still makes me shiver after all these years – he tells me he’s Catholic and there’s another better answer. Still the independent hussy I said he hardly knew me. It was a shared mistake and it didn’t tie him to me. What’s wrong with tying myself to you? he asked. I pointed out I was hardly out of diapers. Who knew how I’d turn out; it wasn’t a risk he had to take. He said, suppose I see things differently? Just suppose, he said - speaking so quietly I had to lean over our cocktails to hear him – what I’d just told him, the crap thing I was willing to do for him, were the only references he needed. As he spoke he took a table napkin, tied it into a loop, slipped it over my finger and said, ‘Amy, it’s a bigger risk for you than me. I’ve screwed around a lot. Marry me and I’ll do my damndest to reduce the risk to evens’.”

Dill listened, not stirring. Remembered the bourbon and took a sip. “Nice way of putting it.”

“Good enough for me. Looking back at that moment I always supposed I fell in love. But who knows what that means? Jerry and I had two good years. Then the President of these United States – God rot his soul – asked Jerry to form a team of engineers to investigate corruption in an aid project in Colombia. A goddamn honour they said at the time. But the guys with the guns thought differently. I knew Jerry was carrying a lot of insurance, guaranteed  by the government, but I’d misread the zeros, there was an extra one. And I’ve been funny about regular work since.

“Then there was Gary.”

Driven by a vague feeling that it might help Dill allowed silence to spread through the under-used room. Part-used, perhaps, like a funeral home. He said, “Are you sure having me round helps?”

Amy nodded. “Reminding me of Gary. I’ve thought about that. But there’s nothing I can do for him. You I can.”

She engaged his eyes, challenging him. “In fact I worked on that while you slept. I guess I should have asked.”

If it was an apology it was well disguised. But what the hell. He said, “Before Nam I only had the one job. And my Pa helped me get that. I’m not exactly loaded with talent and I reckon I can use all the help I can get.”

Amy said, “I’ve PA’d for a dozen or so company owners in and around Centerburg. They trust me. The free sheet shows they’re hiring but none’s looking for a book-keeper. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use one. The outfit I favour is Buckeye Wrecking.” She smiled. “We’re not talking General Motors here but Buckeye’s more sophisticated than it sounds. They strip cars down to the bare bones, separate the valuable stuff, grade it, and sell it on in packages. At a normal wrecker labour costs would be fighting profit margins, but Buckeye has invested. Special equipment tears down a car in minutes; more gizmos do the separation, same speed. They get through thirty, perhaps, forty cars a day. And that’s where a book-keeper comes in, keeping track of the material, some in ounces, some much heavier.”

“With material weight converted into dollars and cents.”

“You get the idea. Hey, I’m talking too much. I need a drink.”

Dill got up quickly. “Stay where you are. A Manhattan hit the spot?”

“I’m pretty certain it would.”

Drink loosened up things. “Buckeye’s owned by Dan Krajik, ex-Omaha Beach. His ad says: Fork truck and general handling. Dare say you’ve never driven a fork truck.”

“I dare say you’d be right.”

“There’s a training centre north of Columbus, this side. A week’s course is all you’ll need; you won’t be operating in tight aisles or high racking. I’ve called Dan. He’s keen because he thinks GIs coming home are getting a raw deal. People who hate the war take it out on the victims, and they include you. He’ll hold the job and ease you in when you start. Best of all, he wants to fit in the book-keeping.”

“This training course...”

Amy waved dismissively. “I’m paying. Got some ideas beyond you driving a fork truck, but we’ll talk about that later.”

In a sense it was like being back in the Army. Someone else making the decisions, saying go there, do this. But then he hadn’t exactly loved the idea of looking for work on his own.

Driving the truck at the training centre was piss-easy except the instructor shouted a lot. Let Dill know he’d been a sergeant, AirCav. Just so Dill would know. That night Dill woke up sweating, a pocka-pocka sound in his ears. Could have been Khe San, he wasn’t sure. What he remembered was the body-bags went first because they needed someone to load them. A lot of body-bags.
Krajik was pro-Army and on Dill’s first day they swapped stories over coffee for an hour before Dill went out to the paved area at the back of the shop and used the fork truck to load scrap metal sheet, compressed, strapped and palletised, on to the company’s five-tonner. Then took a little instruction on strapping it to the five-tonner’s deck for safe delivery. Back at North Clayton that evening Amy had meat-loaf and greens waiting for him.

“You could say I’m now a civilian,” he said, drinking Hoppin’ Frog  beer from a glass when the table layout told him there’d be no more gulping from the bottleneck. Two nights later, pocka-pocka sounded again. I can get through this, he told himself.

Post Nam 2

Geographical centre of the Buckeye State. Part two.

SO HE WENT north to West Main. Dragging his feet past the law firm, Cooper, Adel, which had him thinking about that other world, an adult world closed to him. Who knew the law? All those books and serious talk. Of course he’d seen law on TV, heard “Will the witness raise his right hand...” but he was pretty sure that wasn’t how it was. On TV cops and law-men were the same, out to get the bad guys who sat in court and smirked at the judge. And the judge wore a black gown, which was odd. Once his Pa had needed to move house and he’d gone downtown and signed papers. Wasn’t that a law firm? Wasn’t that what real law-men did?

Past the point where West Main became East Main and past the two gas stations, Shell this side, Marathon on the other. He’d filled up at both during the early weeks with Buckeye Wrecking when Amy had insisted he used the Jeep to get to work. Such a short trip that later he’d walked. So why had Amy insisted he take the Jeep? Perhaps because it made him seem like a solid citizen, new car and all. Amy was good at figuring out things like that.

Now East Main had become Columbus Road leading to the pharmacy. He’d picked up a prescription there for Amy when she was away – the only time ever - visiting her older sister in Akron. Why would Amy need drugs? The plastic bag was sealed, would he have looked otherwise? Perhaps.

Walking any more didn’t make sense. He needed to think. Maybe.

Time to cross over to the park. Sit on a bench like an oldster and dwell on the future which wasn’t bright. Experimentally he closed his eyes and the pocka-pocka started up. Kept them closed and it got louder. Worse was the tension across his head, temple to temple, as if something would burst. He opened his eyes and for a time his sight was blurred as the sounds died away. Slowly his view of the park cleared and what he saw was ordinary. Finally depressing. Grass that said nothing.

They said you should forget failure. Push it to one side. For Dill it was all he’d got. Failure reminded him of a patrol scout he knew; whenever they took five he’d get out his Zippo and sort of roll it in and out of his fingers. Juggling it in a small way. Constant movement as if he couldn’t bear to be still. And now Dill juggled failure, cherishing it, feeling it, keeping it moving in his mind.

Dan Krajik had understood, at first. An unloaded  five-tonner, an accounts book with no entries, you had to be sympathetic. War affects young kids. Shit some needed counselling. They’d have laughed at that in Normandy after Omaha, but heck, we’d come a long way since. These kids had gone through hell and killing Gooks wasn’t like killing Nazis. Back then there hadn’t been TV cameras and reporters asking questions.

There were times Dill could manage the work and he saw the relief on Dan Krajik’s face, knowing he hadn’t been made a fool of. Loading the truck and making deliveries was no great sweat, though some afternoons Dill drove as if he were in a panicky dream, away from Buckeye Wrecking as if from a firefight. Sometimes he’d pull over and wonder at solid buildings made to last, homes with tiled roofs not palm fronds.

Funnily it was the book-keeping that was difficult. He’d stare at the blank page and try and remember. Finally, apologetically, go over to Dan to help him with the details.

After a month Dan had phoned Amy and suggested Dill take a short vacation: “Get his mind straightened out.” Amy had him paint the garage and Dill had done a good job; three coats in less than a week. Plus fixing a window frame. Relaxing work but he knew Amy wanted him doing more than odd job work. And the first step would be mastering book-keeping. Three weeks ago he’d gone back to Buckeye and the lapses had started all over. This morning he and Dan had had a little talk with Dan all fake-fatherly. “Son, I reckon you’re some doctor’s problem not mine. Breaks my heart but you gotta go.”

In his back trouser-pocket was a cheque which he hadn’t looked at. Probably a goodly sum, written out by Dan with Omaha Beach in mind. Dill sat surrounded by the grassy park, flat and anonymous. Not a bit like Nam. Again he closed his eyes and heard the insistent noise. Strange really, choppers had been the sound of rescue, now they seemed like a warning. Time to walk back to North Clayton and tell Amy the bad news.

That wasn’t going to be easy. She’d looked after him and more, even touching on the future. Not easy. For some time his legs refused to stiffen, allowing him to get up from his park bench. And even when they did and he was back on East Main his legs didn’t seem to want make a right on to North Clayton, forcing him left instead down Cherry Alley and a small back-street which he’d noticed before.

Fritz’s Guns said the sign, Friendly Service it promised. Old Glory in heavy lustrous material and fringed in gilt hung from an angled pole to the left of the door.

In Memphis, where he’d passed his teens, Dill had been the odd one. Everyone else had been crazy about guns, droning on about muzzle velocity, POI and snake bite. Even now Dill had no idea what a collimator sight was. Funny thing, in the military where guns were supposed to be a big deal, the good ol’ boy recruits stopped slavering about them. Grumbled about the weight of the M16 out on patrol.

For Dill the M16 was something you carried, like your dog tags or your canteen. Sometimes you loosed off a clip, more rarely you hit something that mattered. Nothing to get worked up about.

Gun shops were something  else, almost like churches, no, check that, like whorehouses. Men with wonder in their voices, doing a lot of feeling. But then Dill had never visited a whorehouse.

Was Fritz, of Fritz’s Guns, a real person or something to do with the Nazis? Politics often went with guns. Despite himself Dill found he was edging towards the shop’s display window. Behind the reinforced glass was a card reading Gun of the Week. Surely that was pure BS. Fifty different guns a year? Bee-ess!

The gun itself was a black rifle with tele-sight and suppressor. Priced “to go” at $250. It didn’t look like a gun you’d take off into the woods, the blackness made it seem towny. The tele-sight and suppressor said even more: waiting patiently, staring through the eyepiece, knowing where and when. Not a gun for a bar brawl. Why am I here? he asked. When he went in through the door a recording played Davy Crockett.

It was still mid-morning and the place was empty. Fritz, if it was he, was fat, wore a khaki tee-shirt with some kind of badge, head shaven but not recently, some bristle. Keen to talk, very keen.

“The tan says Vietnam. The build says Marine,” said the fat man extending his hand.

“Infantry. Marines are usually stockier,” said Dill, trying to disguise his reluctance to shake hands.

“Looking for something better than an M16? How about a Kalashnikov or is that kinda spitting on the flag? Seen our Gun of the Week? Good bangs for your buck. But, hey, am I putting you down? Could be you carried a side arm.”

Rank flattery, both ways. No one had ever imagined Dill to be an officer. “Nothing more than a PFC. Name’s Dill.”

“Waddya need, Dill? Could do you a US Kalashnikov, selling over the counter at $940. Special deal for a Nam vet: $900 plus a hunnert rounds.”

Why was he here? Failure had guided him. What were his needs? To overcome failure.

“I guess... I’d like to heft the K. I tried one of Charlie’s in Nam; a clip on the range. Like to see how the US gun compares.” What he needed was time.

The store was still empty and the fat man could afford to indulge him. “Nothing’s too good for a vet.” And unlocked one of the displays.

For a couple of minutes Dill fooled around with the K, as if it mattered. Handed it back, saying something the fat man would like to hear. “Definitely a slicker item than Charlie’s. But I’m here for a hand gun.” He paused to suggest this was a considered view. “Gotta be a Glock, I guess.”

“Smart choice, Dill,” said the fat man. “I got a wide range. Name’s Fritz, by the way.”

“Like the store.”

“Just like the store. How we’re going to start? Price or power?”

Again Dill looked for an answer that would please. “Power, of course, Fritz.”

Half a dozen Glocks were laid out on a table covered in green baize. Fritz said, “There’s another 27 models if you’re really picky. The 35’s close to top of the range. Big with the cops... law enforcement.” Dill nodded; “cops” was less dignified and this was a dignified emporium.

Fritz did the business clicking and clacking, handing over the guns. Dill knew enough to point the guns away from Fritz. This was the first time ever he had held a hand gun and it struck him the Glock had nothing that looked like decoration. Its simplicity made its desirable which was surprising. He’d thought he was proof against that. Was this how these things started?

Self-consciously Dill widened his stance. Held the gun in one hand then two. Put it in his trouser pocket then went to grab it, got it tangled with the pocket lining. Blushed. Vets didn’t blush.

Fritz had kept Dill under observation, reckoned it was now time he could go romantic. “Customers say this about Glocks: you feel safe, feel ready.”

Dill felt sweat at the side of his nose. What am I doing? What do I want from this? Why might this help?

Fritz lolled against the table. “You feel ready, Dill?”

Time passed.

Now Dill found himself hurrying away from the shop with Fritz staring after him from the open door, puzzled but mainly angry. “You sure you were in Nam? Shit, no wonder we can’t beat those skinny little guys.” Fritz tried to slam the door but couldn’t beat the pneumatic closer which uttered a dying sigh.

Dill walked up North Clayton, his heart beating. Found the side door was open and went in. The hard-back books that had once been in Gary’s room were piled on the kitchen table, yellow markers sticking out of the pages. Everything was tidy. Amy was in the parlour, sitting in the chair she had said was comfortable; she didn’t seem comfortable now. Glanced up at him remotely. Dill waited.

Her voice was hardly audible. “Dan Krajik called hours ago. You’ve been gone a long time.”

“Sat in the park.”

“Thought you might. Except I didn’t see you.”

“Walked the streets.”

“Which streets?”

He shrugged.

Amy said, “I drove all the streets between here and Buckeye. You went somewhere.”

He sat down heavily. “I don’t exactly know.”

They’d lived in the same house for two months. Got to know each other. Somehow she knew he wasn’t lying. “Somewhere different?”

He nodded. “But I don’t know why.”

“Perhaps I know why.”

He sobbed and she let him sob. Finally he said in a choked voice, “Fritz’s Guns.”

“Looking to buy?”

“I think so.”

He sensed her inspecting the pockets of his waterproof jacket. She said, “But didn’t?”

He nodded. She said, “Come in the kitchen, I’ll fix you something.”

“I’ll stay here.”

“No you won’t.”

He sat at the kitchen table as she searched through the cupboard. “Cream of tomato soup? That bland enough?”

As she worked the can opener he looked around, picked up one of the books. Leafed through and stopped at a marked page: Chapter Seven. Human resources: Asset or Liability? Amy had reckoned it too basic but he’d interrupted, said it was new to him. Even after she explained he rated it a big fat zero.

Amy watched him spoon up the soup and he knew she was trying to analyse what was in his mind. Another thing she was good at, but not this time.

“You ever think of seeing your family?”

It was the worst thing she could have said: no time to close his eyes. He imagined his Pa in fatigues, waiting on the stoop to pick a fight.

“At Fritz’s, why didn’t you buy?” asked Amy.

“Maybe you should ask why I wanted to buy.”

“That I know.”

“Yeah?” he asked, surprised.

“The US is full of guys solving problems with guns.”

So there’d been nothing special about this morning. Soup finished, he slumped in the chair. Bowed his head.

“Tell me,” she said, quite gentle now.

He spread his hands. “There’s no hassle buying a Glock 35, I knew that. It seemed too easy, I’d’ a wished it was tougher. Wished there were questions. Dan had given me a cheque as severance, Fritz woulda cashed it. Shit, he’d almost got the gun gift-wrapped. Started filling in the sales slip and that’s when I knew it wouldn’t happen.”

“Sales slip?”

Dill looked away. “Sales slip needs an address.”

“But you’ve got an address, right here.”

Now he looked at her, hangdog. “Yeah.”

It took her a while. “You didn’t want me...involved?”

“Didn’t seem right.”

“So the sale didn’t happen. We’re AOK.”

“Fact is, I wanted that Glock. At least I think I did. My mind isn’t too clear these days.” He told her about pocka-pocka, then pointed to the books on the table. “Look what you’re doing for me; trying to give me a future. I can’t take the risk, you don’t deserve it.”

“So you’ll be moving on?”

He tried to smile. “First time a place felt like home. More reason it shouldn’t get wrecked.”

“Give me another couple of days. I’d like to work out some ideas that may help you get work. There’s no real hurry.”


She reached out with her hands, her face relaxed. “I’ve liked you being here. It’s given me purpose. Let’s not be gloomy. Let’s eat out fancy tonight.”

A meal with all the trimmings; wine in an ice-bucket; fish done some way he didn’t recognise. She talked about the fun she’d had with Jerry, convinced he’d loved her. “But then,” she said laughing, “there was hardly time for him to lose interest.” When they got back there were shots of cognac, lighter and smoother than bourbon.

He got into the wide bed he’d be sorry to leave, pleased she was making things easy for him. Knew they would get harder over the next twenty-four hours. But fell asleep anyway.

Woke up in moonlight. Saw her sitting at the end of the bed in her nightgown. She spoke softly. “It’s OK, it’s nothing pathetic.”

He reached for the bed-side light but she intercepted his hand. “We don’t need the light. There is another option. Not the worst thing in the world. What worries you – that bad thing -  isn’t guaranteed, you know. It might happen, it might not. But if it did happen...” She paused and squeezed his hand. “... well, it would be quick, wouldn’t it?” He heard the smallest of laughs. “You could at least guarantee that.”

It was if she were speaking to him from a different world. A world of unbelievable softness. A cloud passed over the moon and when he looked round she’d gone. He closed his eyes and the pocka-pocka was still there but different. Familiar, not a threat. Like the sound of his breathing.

Next morning he smelled breakfast and went straight to the kitchen in his undershirt and pants. She turned, said gaily, “Suppose the mailman sees us? But then he thinks I’m weird anyway. Sleep well?”

Boone’s Pa had said she was weird. Some kind of weirdness! He said, “Would you have expected that? Me sleeping well?”

“That depends.”

“On what?”

“Dill, I’ve never been sure you do a whole lot of thinking. You can, you’re intelligent enough. But mostly you spend time in the present. Probably because of Vietnam.”

“I did some thinking last night. Didn’t sleep.”

Amy sat opposite him, cradling her coffee mug in both hands. “Good.”

“What you said – about it happening – wasn’t the whole story.”

“Indeedy, it wasn’t.”

“You’re gone and I’m in jail for life. One big nothing. Of course I could use the gun - ”

She spoke quickly. “But I figured you’d never do that. It wouldn’t make sense. Not now the war’s behind you.”

“So, just one big nothing?”

“Perhaps. If it happens it happens. No blame from me.” She smiled reflectively. “You’ll remember I didn’t blame Jerry.”


“I’m betting it won’t happen.”

“You can’t be sure.”

“It’s not betting if it’s a certainty,” she said, smiling.

That stopped him. “I guess not. I must be less certain than you are.”

“Here’s how I see it. You didn’t buy the Glock even though you were tempted. That puzzles you but it seems obvious to me. In the end, you’ll work out your reasons. By then they won’t matter. Then you’ll be ready to move on.”

The scrambled eggs were cooling. He pushed a forkful into his mouth, spoke with a muffled voice. “But why? OK it’s a small risk, but still a risk. And if it does go belly up.... I mean, why?”

“Dill, I’m a mother.”

He was silent. “It’s to do with Gary.”

She was about to reach for his hand then changed her mind. Smiled instead. A beautiful smile, and so near. “Mothers should never hear of their son’s death. It’s unnatural. I mourned, of course. Worse than that was feeling helpless. And mothers are used to helping, it goes with the job.”

Dill tried to remember his Mom when he was just a kid. Before his Pa became kinda insane. Did his Mom help? He couldn’t say.

“When Gary... got killed, it wasn’t your fault. No way.”

“Motherhood isn’t exactly rational, Dill. I wasn’t there to help, however silly that sounds.”

“So now you’re helping me?”

“Let’s get one thing straight. Gary’s dead and you’re not Gary. I’m helping you, Dill.”

“To the point where you’d risk...?”

“I want you to know I’m serious. You’ve been wounded.”

Wounded? Him?

He asked, “So what do we do?”

“A bit like painting the garage. You need more time in a world that isn’t Vietnam.”

He pointed to the book, still open. “Back to Human Resources then?”

She spoke crisply. “For all of ten minutes. Before Vietnam Gary wanted to know about business. It’s something I know about. Before he even put on a uniform I  helped him – for the future. HR’s just a detail, Dill. There’s more important stuff ahead. Financial statements that’ll make your head ache. Tax breaks. Investment. Planning.”

She waved a hand that encompassed what lay ahead and he noticed its delicacy. “Plus muffins. I got muffins.”

“Comfort food.”

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Billet-doux - revised

Pat, my gentle and tolerant French teacher, is not well and lessons have been on hold for a couple of months. I sent flowers and a card but what I owe her is beyond rubies. I opted for something regular in an envelope carrying a stamp. Pat has a laptop but doesn’t warm to electrons.

What to say? I lead a self-centred and dull life so there’s nothing there. Anecdotes describing my foreign-language experiences, mostly disastrous, were a goer but lacked a direct link with Pat herself.

Our lessons have lasted 17 years and I’ve translated thirty French novels with some rigour. I decided to re-visit this process I'd shared with Pat. Dig up the novels we trawled through, quote extracts, discuss their quality as stories.

The first novel I chose - Bienvenue parmi nous (Holder) - worked well. Gradually the story became clear and I wrote to Pat:

"Is it all coming back? Did it ever go away? You will remember Taillandier buys an expensive shotgun with which to reflexive himself and keeps it in the boot of the car. It was Raymond Chandler who said a gun mentioned on the first page must go off before the last page. ... if I remember correctly there was ultimate disappointment in that this gun didn’t go off. ... Was this a happy revival or not?"

La Lama Bleu  (Jacques Lanzman)was another matter. It takes place in Mexico, I don’t remember Mexico. I don’t recall the pretentious mini-foreword. On page 25 geographico-théologiques developments sound ominous and obscure. The summary on the cover means nothing. I turn my review into a joke which Brian, Pat's husband, says she reads avidly.

OK for now. But suppose I've forgotten the next book I dig up? Must I read it all again?

Thursday, 2 November 2017


Certain posts are unlikely to draw comments. This is one.

Yesterday The Guardian published a heart-wrenching feature about a Twitterist who posted "a regret" and invited others to respond with their regrets. About 300 replied (a modest figure at Twitter) but it was their profundity that impressed - people who regretted great chunks of their lives and said so with great honesty. Notably:

"I regret accepting the first proposal of marriage because I didn't think there'd be any more."

"Not taking a job in Paris."

"I regret being scared all the time."

"That my mum died too young to see me turn from an ungrateful truculent teenager into a person and a father I hope she'd be proud of."

You can see why I'm not expecting an avalanche. The tiny Tone Deaf community knows a fair amount about its neighbours and it takes a very strong-minded (or extremely regretful) person to reveal such personal detail.

Besides there's the cliché reaction that ultimately says nothing: Don't waste time on regret. The point being that those in the Guardian feature lacked this robust option.

So what about me? Yes I regret getting a job where the sole attraction was more money. The magazine was failing despite my efforts, I was miserable for four years and, given my age, increasingly terrified I wouldn’t find work that would ease me pleasingly and rewardingly into retirement. God seemed to intervene. My manager abruptly switched me to an editorship which I’d been (unconsciously) preparing myself for the previous twenty years. Though I say it myself, I was a success. So not a “true” regret.

I expect silence to be eloquent. True regret is hard to live with (re-read the examples) and even harder to confess.