Sadness in the Little Island

In the early part of this week, W and I spent a day wandering around a nature reserve run by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the county of Sussex in the south of the UK. The weather was hot, averaging around 32C in a completely cloudless sky. There was a wonderful quiet sultriness about everything. Birds stayed hidden most of the time in the trees and shrubs, out of the heat, only the occasional call giving their presence away. The members of a distant herd of highland cattle seemed virtually petrified on their feet. A flock of fifty or so grey lag geese plodded slowly, meticulously through a wetland, foraging in what remained of the mud. Butterflies of all colours flitted and danced through the air. Apart from them, the only other living things not apparently subdued by the heat were the hundreds of dragon flies – some of them huge – and damsel flies hovering and darting about with apparently undiminished energy.

The paths on the reserve twist and wander around over open meadow land and through wooded glades dappled with sunshine. Stopping at one viewpoint – a large wooden platform constructed on the slope of a wooded hill to give a view over miles of countryside – we talked with a man who was a volunteer worker on the reserve. He had worked there many years. He had at his side a gleaming modern scythe he used for cutting down thick grass and vegetation. He spoke with a quiet enthusiasm of turning up there at seven that morning when it was still cool with the mist lying all along the ground at little more than ankle-height; of the silence at that hour, of the low sun and long, slanting shadows; of the different birds he’d seen. The world is so beautiful at that time of the morning in such places. There is great order in it.

Coming back to London however, a city I love and have lived in for many years, a depressing reality is nowadays inescapable. Although London itself – and a number of other large cities, along with Scotland and Northern Ireland – voted overwhelmingly in the recent shambles known as ‘the referendum’ to remain in the EU, Britain today is Brexit Britain. That is – Britain going it alone; isolationist, xenophobic Britain; a Britain which has demonstrated to the world in a few short weeks, that its long-held reputation for decency, probity, racial tolerance and solid good sense was skin-deep.

As an indirect result of that Brexit vote, we now have a new Prime Minister. She has gathered around her, a new Cabinet. And whom do we have among her list of luminaries? Well, our new Foreign Secretary is a man spoken of by other world leaders world as a buffoon and liar; another new government minister is a man whose basic honesty, a few short years ago, was tried in two very important aspects and found severely wanting in both – to the point where he was forced to resign. Neither man would be employed by any reputable employer. To cap it all, our new Prime Minister herself stated unequivocally in parliament the other day, that she would indeed, if called on to do so, press the button to unleash a nuclear missile on another sovereign state, killing a hundred thousand or more people.

Are there others out there who, along with me, think the human race, in its present form, is seriously insane?  Two thousand odd years of Western ‘civilisation’ have taught us almost nothing. We continue to behave in a way that is criminally lacking not only in morality but in the most basic intelligence. Go back to the nature reserve. Watch the birds, the butterflies, the creatures of the field, the woods, the grasses, the clouds in the sky – learn from them. They have a timeless lesson to teach. But it seems we aren’t listening. Maybe we’re just too clever.

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Letter from a little island

Tuesday June 28 2016

Dear Europe, World,

Hello. I’ve tried to stay away from Shipwreck Brexit, but the few days since the announcement last Friday that Britain had voted to leave the European Union have been among the saddest of my adult life. That this country – or at least 52% of its voters – a country that has so boasted of  its ‘values’ – its tolerance, its championing of the underdog, its magnanimity – should have opted, when the chips went down, for xenophobia, isolationism and some sugar-coated dream of a nirvana that never was – otherwise known as ‘getting our country back’ – leaves me with a deep sadness. Already the all too predictable is happening – there were reports yesterday of a 57% rise in racist/xenophobic attacks on non-Brits in the UK, including school-age young children. What have we come to? What sort of people have been lurking in the shadows of this land?

And now – and if you can’t see the connection, then you need to open your eyes a little wider – the England football team crash out of Euro 2016 in what’s being heralded as the most ignominious of all national team defeats. The Brits, you see, at whatever level and in whatever sphere, do not take to being team players. We’re divas. If we could have stayed in Europe and ordered everybody else about and told them what to do – well, that would have been pretty nice. We could have handled that. After all, we won the war. Which one? Er – the one that ended sixty years ago. When we stood alone. And which, without the Americans, the Poles, the Gurkhas and many others from other lands, we would have lost. That war. It confers on us a sort of universal entitlement.

But now – it’s looking like the illusion, the self-deception are catching up with us. The edifice is crumbling. As one commentator in the Guardian newspaper put it, ‘England has not yet come to terms with its own irrelevance’. And in my view, until it does, it will sink further and further into the quicksand. Profound lessons need to be learned. Humility would be a good one to start with.

 Yours hopefully,

 Besonian

P.S. Is anyone listening?

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They’re cutting the grass!

The grass in the little park which my flat overlooks hasn’t been cut for an unusually long time. In places it must be a metre high. Very small children running through it almost disappear, and small dogs doing the same actually do disappear, detectable only by a fast moving line of waving grass. The grasses themselves look like the surface of the sea as they wave and ripple in the wind. The delicate seed pods on their extremities nod and sway. And all over the park, among the trees, edging the pathways there have appeared carpets of daisies, buttercups, things that look like buttercups but I think are probably kingcups; bright yellow flowers that look like dandelions but aren’t because the ends of their petals are more right-angled and which are often called – I believe – ‘false dandelion’ and sometimes even, ‘hairy-cat’s-ear’! And all that takes no account of the banks of clover flowers that have appeared.

Many years ago this park formed the grounds of a school for the blind, now long gone. I find it extraordinary to think that these flowers and grasses, waving in the wind today, are the direct descendants of the grasses that waved in the wind in those far-off days. The seed develops, produces its offspring which, in turn, produces seed which then, in turn etc., etc. and will probably go on doing that until the sun burns itself out.

Way back in the mists of time, I moved with my mother and step-father into a newly-built house in what was then a small town just to the west of London. It was a little estate of about forty semi-detached houses erected on what had once been a meadow, part of the grounds of a recently demolished big country house. I spent most of my teenage years there. In the mid-eighties, after the break-up of my marriage (and coincidentally, the death of my mother) I moved back into that house with my step-father.

It had a big rear garden about thirty metres long. My step-father, who also died not long after I moved there, had many years ago given up on the vegetable garden to which he’d once been so devoted, and had turned it all over to grass – which he cut every week, come hell or high water, with a hover-mower. When he too had departed this vale of tears I decided to leave at least half that grassed area to grow naturally without mowing it or cutting it back. I liked the idea of having a miniature country field in the garden. 

I was amazed and delighted to see soon appear wild flowers and waving grasses that clearly hadn’t put their heads over the parapet in over forty years. Well – I guess they would have put their heads over had they not been so assiduously mown down before their prime by my step-father. So all that time, despite the ground having once been a vegetable garden, and despite having had a concrete path laid through it, the seeds of those grasses had survived, patiently waiting until they were called on again. And now – here they were, their colours as fresh and intense as though the last time they’d appeared had been only the season before.  

The long grasses brought lots more insects. And the insects brought more birds. I had a burgeoning nature reserve on my hands. I decided to add a pond. It was roughly circular, about half a metre deep in the centre, and perhaps a couple of metres in diameter. I constructed a little waterfall, powered by a pump fed by a cable that ran from the house. It all took a few weeks to settle down, but within a month a frog had moved in. Water boatmen joined the frog. The frog must have persuaded a member of the opposite frog sex to join him/her because before long the place was awash with tadpoles. I bought a few small fish from a garden centre. One morning, soon after that, I had to chase away a heron who was perched on the bank and staring with a fixed, predatory look into the water. And for those not familiar with the UK’s Grey Heron it’s a huge, long-legged bird with a two-metre wingspan and a beak on it like an anti-tank gun. I couldn’t compete with him. When my back was turned he soon disposed of my fish.

Life is endlessly amazing. We so take it for granted. And it’s everywhere, irrepressible. Sitting in the park the other day with W, I saw, making its way across the sleeve of my jacket, some green living thing that was so tiny it was only just visible. Then it stopped for a second, changed direction and continued on. It had made a decision – let’s go the other way. Maybe it had taken a wrong turning – or simply changed its mind. I hope it arrived at wherever it was headed.

And as I write this, though it may appear like a bit of dramatic licence on my part – it’s not – out there in the park there are rumblings of machinery starting up. Looking out the window, I see two huge, petrol driven mowing machines. They’re about to cut the grass again! I hope they leave it for as long next time – then the flowers and the waving grasses will be back. And maybe that tiny green thing as well. 

 

 

 

 

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 7

Here is the seventh extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is –https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/

17.

Martin and I arranged to meet by the river the following Monday. Sunday was his usual day for fishing but, as he pointed out, get good weather on a Sunday and the river and its banks would be awash with boats, people, children, ice cream vans, frisbee throwers et al. He would pick me up from the train station at a place called Egham, just a few miles from his fishing spot. Staines would have been closer but Staines was a busy place with a bustling train station. Egham on a Monday morning, he assured me, would be quiet.
I had a week to wait. I decided to use that time in closely observing my own natural behaviour. Then in modifying it where necessary in order to try and create an individual with behavioural traits unlike those of the erstwhile Barnaby Marechal. When the following Monday came, I wanted to feel that in as many ways as possible, I was Mister New Man.
Philosophically it was fascinating. If you want to obliterate the person you have been, and thereafter to be seen and accepted as whoever you now are, you have to go a long way beyond simply changing the way you dress, growing a beard, putting on a flat cap and a pair of shades. You have to give attention to the whole physical and psychological organism that amounts to ‘you’. Recognition of another human being takes place at the instantaneous coming together in the mind of the observer of an immensely subtle and complex combination of factors – physical appearance, gestures, facial expressions, mannerisms of all kinds. So if you’re going to do the job properly, all those things have to be addressed.
There was a full-length mirror by the head of the bed. I walked up and down in front of it – like Mr. Silvero in the night – studying my walk, how I held myself, how I started off, stopped, turned around. The process began to intrigue me beyond its present purpose. How often does one cast that detailed an eye on one’s own self? Not often enough, it seemed. My walk, for a start, almost embarrassed me. It was an odd walk. Slightly snatched and jerky with, even so, a bit of a loping stride. It was not attractive – but it was noticeable. In fact, it was probably one of the main features which, at a distance, would have identified me to those who knew me. It needed modifying.
I set out to study walks. I spent time in shopping malls in and around the capital, Brent Cross, The Whitgift Centre, Bluewater – moronic places, full of people armed with bags they seem determined to fill. We must have developed a great opinion of our own worth, that we lavish so much on ourselves. Or is it the opposite? Is it that deep down, we feel such a lack of worth that we’re driven to try and redress the balance by the power of our purses?
In such places I sat down, and from the foxhole of my shades, my burgeoning beard and pulled-low black cap, watched people walking. Walkers come in varieties – the shamblers, the draggers of feet, the slow and weary ones, the totterers, those who take weeny steps and those who stride, the swayers from side to side and the ones who look like they’re leaning into the wind. How few walk well. How few are aware of themselves, confident, head up, shoulders out. Once back in my room, I would train myself to be that sort of walker.
I gave time to my interpersonal mannerisms. Before the mirror, I talked to myself as to another person while, at the same time, studying my body language – my hands, my facial expressions, the crossing and uncrossing of my legs. Although happy with this in principle, still I appeared less fluid, less open, free and demonstrative than I’d supposed. I’d work on it. And I tried out a few new gestures. I quite liked the idea of lightly rubbing my chin when appearing to think hard, and of running a hand through my hair when puzzled or when laughing. (Both, I realized with something of a jolt, were common gestures of my Dad’s). I practised looking cool and relaxed when sitting. Stretching out a little, lounging, one arm perhaps half over the back of the chair.
By the following weekend I was reasonably happy with my progress. Things seemed to be falling into place.

18.

 

“I do so adore this view.” Ellen stood by the french windows, a hand lightly clutching the heavy curtains. She watched the clouds scurrying before the wind, their shadows sweeping over the fields and leaping the hedgerows. “Those hills in the distance – would they be the Black Mountains?”
Frank Lippincote eased himself out of his armchair and stood by her side. “Where? Show me.”
“Those distant grey humps.”
He followed her pointing finger. “You know,” he said, “I am not as well up on the local geography as I should be. But I suspect they might well be the Black Mountains. Martha will know. We must ask her.”
“’Black Mountains’.” Ellen savoured the words as she turned from the window. “Fairy tales – spirits and hobgoblins.”
He watched her as she returned to her armchair. She was still shapely. Elegant. She moved with an unselfconscious grace. Barney had spoken of her incipient arthritis, but Frank had seen no sign of it. As she sat down again she smoothed her skirt nicely beneath her bottom. She picked up her cup from the little table at her side and took a sip.
He left the window and returned to his own chair opposite her.
Martha came in with another pot of tea. She was a short, overweight woman whose movements seemed often ill-judged and awkward.
Ellen watched her carefully. “How are you today, Martha?”
Martha braced herself, held her breath, then leaned creakily forward to put the teapot down beside the milk and a now almost empty tray of cakes. She stood up, released her breath. “Mustn’t grumble, Ellen. Mustn’t grumble.” She prepared to lower herself into her armchair by first hovering above it. “There are people with worse.” She released herself and plumped down into the mass of cushions. “Aren’t there, dear?” she said to Frank.
“As you say, Martha.”
Each sipped. Teacups chinked in saucers.
Martha pointed to the french windows. “Starting to rain. I had a feeling it would.”
Frank set his empty cup and saucer down on a low coffee table. He cleared his throat rather loudly. “So Ellen – the question on all our lips – what about this man of yours?”
“Yes Frank,” said Ellen, after a pause. “What about him?”
“Well – is there – I mean – have you or anyone heard anything more?”
Martha, peering into her teacup, said, very quietly, “Ellen might not want to talk about this, Frank.”
Ellen waved a dismissive hand. “It’s alright, Martha.” Then to Frank, “No. That Harry Jardine rang the other day. But only to clarify a detail.”
Frank sat back. “You must feel – well – actually, I don’t know how you must feel.”
“Then I’ll tell you – abandoned. Abandoned, dumped, betrayed – ” – she paused – “ – and quite angry.”
Martha shuffled around in her armchair. “I think” she said, “a little top-up on the cake situation.” She heaved herself up once again, picked up the plate on which one cake remained. She offered that one around.
The others shook their heads. Martha made her way slowly from the room, biting into the cake as she went.
The first spots of rain were running down the window. Ellen watched them catching sparkles of light.
“Ellen,” said Frank.
She turned to him.
The words he’d rehearsed failed him. Others unintended came out. “Er – it’s just that – well, you know how it is.”
“Do I? How what is?”
“What I mean is – in the circumstances – well, I feel helpless.”
Ellen said nothing. She looked again at the rain. The drops had all joined now into a single sheet of water running down the glass, distorting the countryside and the racing clouds beyond.
Frank put the tips of the fingers of both hands together, and pressed them to his lips. He rocked gently back and forth. “I hope you know where I’m coming from when I ask this – but things with you and Barney – were they, well – ?”
“Were they what?”
“As they should be? You know.”
She frowned. “I answered that in a letter.”
“Yes, you did. But – “
“Then that’s your answer.”
He retired, nursing the rebuff.
“I certainly had no reason,” she said, “to expect him to vanish off the face of the earth. If that’s what you mean.”
He cleared his throat. “So what view of it all do the police have?”
“They don’t suspect foul play. Mr Jardine seems to agree. They’re probably right. If it were an accident of some sort – or something a lot worse – you’d expect a clue. But there’s nothing. It’s like it had all been planned – no loose ends. Some taxi driver – in Wigan, of all places – thinks he might have picked up a man who might have answered Barney’s description the day after his talk in Carlisle. But apart from – ”
“What would Barney have been doing in Wigan?”
“I’m sure they’ve got that wrong. The London train from Carlisle stops there, that’s all. But it stops at other places as well. And – ”
“Was he not on his way to Ludlow though rather than to London?”
“Probably. Does it make a difference?”
“It does. In order to get to Ludlow he’d need to change at Crewe. Now, the thing is, the London train doesn’t stop at Crewe. So the police may well have been thinking that he got off at Wigan in order to change for Crewe. But on the other – ”
“Oh, Christ, Frank – I don’t know. Did he get on the train at Carlisle in the first place? They don’t even know that.”
“Did no-one drive him to the station?”
“It seems not.”
“And if you ring his mobile?”
“It’s dead.”
There came a sudden crash from the kitchen. Frank shot up, half out his chair. “Martha!”
“It’s alright, Frank! Dropped the tray. That’s all.”
He sat back again.
Ellen said, quietly, “Is it my imagination or does Martha seem not so well again?”
His face darkened. “It’s not your imagination.”
“Oh, Frank.”
“It comes back. It goes, then comes back.”
She looked down into her cup. “I do wonder sometimes what it’s all about, you know. Not that I’m thinking of doing anything about it, but I can understand people putting an end to themselves.”
“I’m afraid I’ve always avoided thinking too deeply about that sort of thing.”
“Have you never wondered?”
He shrugged. “One has a life. One has to get on with it.”
She put her cup down on the coffee table. Then sat looking at it.
Frank watched her. “A penny for them.”
She turned to him. “Did I do something to deserve this, Frank? If I did, I really don’t know what it was.”
He had never seen Ellen look vulnerable before. A wave of confusion threatened to embarrass him. “I really do so wish,” he said, “that I could help.”
“Yes. That would be nice. But you can’t.”
Martha returned from the kitchen with more cakes. Frank looked at her in a sort of puzzled despair. “We’re never going to eat all them, Martha.”
Martha hovered once again over her chair. Then dropped herself in among its cushions. “Let’s see, eh?” she said, catching her breath. “Let’s just see.”
Ellen returned to studying the rain on the windows.
Frank picked anxiously at a fingernail. Watched Ellen out of the corner of his eye.
Martha, daintily and with great care, selected a cake from the replenished pile.
The wind rattled the wisteria against the window.

19.

 

Monday morning. Barney stood before the mirror. In approximately three hours time he would meet with Martin Cosgrove – the first time in over fifteen years. He was reasonably happy with the work he’d done on himself. His hair – although there was not a lot of it– was noticeably longer and just beginning to curl at the sides and back. He had not worn it this long for many years. The touch of it on the skin of his neck, straggling a little as it did in the wind, stirred memories. Its dark brown was now pleasantly streaked with grey. He liked that. It made him look almost distinguished. But be careful – the line between ‘distinguished’ and ‘conspicuous’ might be quite fine.
Hair gel was out. However he’d manipulated it, he’d looked ludicrous. His stubble had grown to where it qualified now as a short beard. He had been concerned it might contain patches of ginger. But the few ginger hairs that had appeared were hardly noticeable. Overall, it was turning out pleasantly darker than he’d expected – almost black around the chin. He would not allow it to grow beyond what he considered ‘mid-length’ – long enough to be seen as a full beard, but not so long as to attract attention. But it itched. And, to his slight distaste, was subject to dandruff.
He had not entirely come to terms with his new wardrobe. He still had to push past some psychological barrier to avoid putting on a tie. Open-neck shirts still gave him a sense of being half-dressed. And vulnerable. Like the zebras and wildebeest in David Attenborough wildlife programmes being attacked by lions who always went for the throat.
He had splashed out on a pair of Calvin Klein blue jeans. He was pleased with how they looked on him, but he couldn’t figure out why they made them so tight that he had difficulty just putting his hands in his pockets. But then maybe if they weren’t that tight, they wouldn’t look the way they did. You can never have everything.
The footwear question had, for a long time, defeated him. He’d upgraded the grotesque Wigan trainers to a pair of expensive designer ones. But still he had been unhappy. The soles were so thick and rubbery they made him feel slightly unstable. In any case he could not get past the thought that really they were little more than extortionately expensive plimsolls. In the end, he bought himself another pair of Church’s brogues. They should not, in theory, go with jeans. But to his eye they did. They looked good.
The pride of place in his new wardrobe was a black leather jacket, made in Italy and bought from a branch of M&S in one of those awful shopping malls. He had not shopped in stores like that since his early days in advertising. But the quality surprised him. The leather was beautifully supple, the cut excellent.
Thus attired, he stood before the mirror that Monday morning. His long aversion to casual modes of dress had all but disappeared. There would no doubt be those who would look on him as an aging rocker – was that the word? – attempting to recapture the unrecapturable. Let them. He looked good. And little like the Barnaby Marechal of old.
He was ready to meet Martin. Ready to start a new life.

He left the train at Egham. The only other person to get off was a young woman dragging along, either side of her, a couple of complaining children. He crossed the tracks via a metal footbridge. He watched the train below him as it pulled out of the station on its way to Weybridge. ‘Weybridge’ – didn’t George Harrison once live there? Paul McCartney? Both?
He had half an hour to kill. He left the station, and looked up and down a street of small shops. A couple of hundred metres or so further on, on the opposite side, was what looked like the gated entrance to a park. He set off towards it. The walk – watch the walk. Head up. No loping. When you imagine all around might be looking at you, it’s hard to act natural. A sudden police siren sent a brief shot of panic through him. There’d be flowers in the park. He’d go and look at them. Or watch the ducks. If ducks there were. He liked ducks. They were calming.
He came to a pedestrian crossing and stood with the knot of people waiting for the green signal to cross. He glanced covertly around to see if he could detect any dawning of recognition. They all seemed aware of little outside their own heads. The green light came on. They all crossed. Barney remained buried and unrecognized in their midst. He unwound just a little. He made his way into the park.
There were ducks. On a small lake, they paddled serenely around among reeds and water lilies. He sat down to watch them on a wooden bench dedicated, according to a brass plate in need of polish, to the memory of ‘My Dear Sister Florrie’. Their colours were iridescent in the sun. What natural poise. A small black one with a white forehead suddenly attacked – or so it seemed – another of its kind. There was a great deal of splashing, squawking, beating of wings. But only for about ten seconds. Then both of them backed off, shook themselves down and swam calmly away like nothing had happened.
He looked at his watch. Twenty minutes still to go.
“Barney!”
What?? He shot bold upright.
“Barney!” A woman’s voice.
His heart pounding, he looked all around. A woman, probably in her forties, overweight and gasping, was half-running towards him waving her hands. Jesus! Who in hell? But wait a minute – he followed the direction of her eyes – to a diminutive white dog, yapping and scuttling furiously along the path towards a dog four times its own size.
“Barney – no!! Come back, Barney! Barney!” But Barney the dog took no notice.
Barney the man sat back and took a deep breath. His pulse rate slowed again. He chuckled to himself. A clock struck some indeterminate point between the hours. He checked his watch. Then glanced in the direction of the sound. Rising up through the jumble of buildings crowding the land on the far side of the park was a square stone tower. Squat, dark, massively built.
Barney was no man for churches. The interior of an empty church with its ancient silence, its gloom and graphic images of pain and torture stirred in him dark shadows. Their silent depths called to that depth within him where childhood demons played. Yet as a man afraid of heights is drawn inexorably to peer over the edge, so such places exerted over him an almost magnetic pull. This dark tower called to him. Like it had risen up through the surrounding buildings in order to be able to see him across their rooftops. And there he was. He got slowly to his feet, and set off towards it.

The heavy wooden door swung ponderously on ancient hinges, opening up a silent chasm. Shafts of sunlight, tiny dust motes floating in them, poured down from the high windows picking out in bright pools irregular sections of the pews and the bright colours of heraldic banners that hung out from the walls. He made his way on near silent footfalls into the centre of the empty space. One other human figure sat, half-lit, across the far side, alone and head bowed. Accusing effigies gazed down at him from walls and windows. He stood for a few seconds, then sat himself slowly down in the nearest pew. Its wood was a rich chestnut colour, polished to a lacquered shine by the rear ends of guilt-ridden generations.
He set his briefcase down by his side and composed himself. Unlike the huddled, bowed figure over there, he sat upright, back straight. Clasped his hands together on his lap and sat very, very still. He was no man for religion any more than for churches. But it seemed the thing to do.
The silence, like some entity reacting to the space he had created for it, moved closer to him. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath. It came closer still, tentatively at first, as though trying him. A sudden urge to start thinking came over him – Martin, money, his son. He pushed it away. Allowed the silence to keep coming towards him, to wrap itself around him.
It was then that he began to experience a most extraordinary sense of space – space that encompassed him, and everything out to and beyond the furthest stars. A limitless and timeless emptiness that took in all things. Asking nothing of him, and incomprehensibly benign. Tears started. But as suddenly as it had arrived, so it began to retreat. He reached out to keep hold of it – but he would as well clutch running water. Then it was gone. He was alone again. He looked up and around. Something had happened. Some thing had reached out and touched him – then slipped back among the shadows.
He stood up. The huddled figure still sat with head bowed. The shafts of sunlight came and went with the movement of clouds across the sun.

“I suppose,” said Barney, struggling to work out the geography of a camouflage-green waterproof cape, “this would have to go down as one of the more bizarre moments in my life.”
Martin Cosgrove reached out and settled it around Barney’s shoulders. “There.”
Barney’s head projected from the apex of a green tepee. He looked down at himself. “I feel,” he said, “like something that’s come up out of the river.”
Cosgrove smiled. “But you look the part.”
Barney held out a hand, palm up towards the sky. “No rain. Won’t people wonder why I’m wearing this thing?”
“Fishermen are pessimists.”
Barney looked down at their little area of river bank. Two folding chairs. Two rather flashy-looking fishing rods resting in steel supports set in the soft earth, their extremities hanging out over the water. Tins and boxes of fishing paraphernalia. “The last time I did anything like this, Martin, I must have been about ten years old. I had a stick with a piece of string tied on the end, and a hook on the end of that.” He pointed to Cosgrove’s expensive, many-pocketed fishing jacket. “We didn’t wear stuff like that.”
“This,” said Cosgrove, “is nothing. Some of them leave home on Sunday like they’re going into space. Anyway – ” – he indicated the chairs – ” – shall we make ourselves reasonably comfortable?”
They both sat. “What’s happening to people, Martin? Some of them seem to need to wear designer outfits to go for a bike ride or a run round the park.”
“One can, I’m afraid, get rather seduced.”
Barney looked out over the river. The water lapped gently at the bank by his feet. A breeze stirred the leaves in the trees above his head. “Brilliant idea, this, Martin.”
Cosgrove looked him up and down. “It’s good to see you. It’s been a long time.”
“And you. Sad to say though, I can’t tell you what all this is about. Not yet. I’m feeling a bit how a fugitive from justice must feel.”
“It suits you,” said Cosgrove.
“What – being a fugitive?”
“No, no. The beard. The different clothes. The dark glasses. Very ‘alternative’. To be honest, I never thought you fitted very well into the suit-and-tie brigade anyway.”
“Really? Interesting. I had a bloody good try though, didn’t I?”
“And your situation – what I sense of it – sounds somewhat ‘alternative’ too.” Though he smiled a chummily conspiratorial smile, his once sparkling grey eyes had dulled. He was looking old and just a bit tired. His hair, though still thick and wiry, was completely grey now, untidy and not well looked after.
“I hope,” said Barney, “that none of this is going to put you in a difficult situation – professionally.”
“Worry not. I’m retiring this year.” He took from a pocket a pack of cigarettes. Held it out to Barney. “Smoke?”
Barney shook his head.
“Wise man.” He lit up. “Not that retirement absolves me of professional responsibilities. But please don’t concern yourself with it.” He drew on his cigarette. “I’m flattered you’re prepared to put the trust in me you already have.”
“It seems I’ve got you just in time. To be honest, I was a tiny bit surprised to find you still in practice.”
Cosgrove knocked the ash from his cigarette. “I should have gone long ago. Judy wanted me to. But – well, I didn’t. Then it was too late. We’d had no children – sadly. After she died I carried on primarily to keep my mind occupied. I’m not a man for hobbies.” He indicated the spread of fishing tackle. “This apart. At which I’m little more than a dilettante, frankly.”
The unsolicited intimacy touched Barney. “I’m sorry, Martin. I didn’t know about Judy.”
Cosgrove shrugged.
“So when do you actually retire?”
“When I’ve finally accepted that I’m no longer indispensable. Probably later this year.” He sighed. “Forty-two years. That’s what it will have been then, Bernat. Forty-two years in the same building. Forty-two journeys of the earth round the sun.” He looked out across the river. “I sometimes think, you know, that we spend our lives struggling up a winding staircase in the dark, not really knowing where it leads. While outside, the sun’s shining, the grass grows. Birds sing.”
Barney looked at him in surprise.
Then, with an expression on his face as though his own sudden flight of whimsy had reactivated some dormant impishness, he leaned across to Barney. “Good luck!” He stage-whispered it, as though he feared the trees had ears.
“Pardon?” said Barney, taken aback.
“Bloody good luck to you. Whatever madcap thing you’re up to Bernat. I wish I had your courage.” The old sparkle was, briefly, back in his eyes.
“Or my foolhardiness.”
“Whichever. What the hell.”
“So,” said Barney, sitting back, “how long is this money going to take?”
“Not long. I’ll make sure.”
“No-one must know. Not anybody, ever.”
“They won’t.” He smiled.
“I’m sorry. I forget. You’re well used to keeping the family secrets.”
“I’ve kept yours a long time.”
“I have egg on my face though Martin, don’t I? I swore on my life I would never touch his money.”
“What you actually said to him in a letter was that if, in spite of your expressed wishes, he still went ahead and left it to you, you’d give it all to Greenpeace or Save The Whale.”
Barney chuckled. “You have a good memory.”
“I’m a lawyer. I salt away useful snippets.”
“So.” Barney sat forward, elbows on his knees. “Once it’s released, when can I get my hands on it?”
Cosgrove took from a pocket a little battered tin, on its front a faded picture of John Bull. Unhurriedly he removed the lid, took the remainder of the cigarette from his lips, and stubbed it out in the tin. Then replaced the lid and put the tin on the ground at his feet. “You’ll have it as soon as I can get it transferred to the new account. Which will be in the name of Bernat Gyorgy Horvat-Marshal. And which will be with an internet bank, such as – ”
“Internet? Martin, I know nothing about the damned internet!”
“You don’t need to. At least, not very much. That way, everything’s done online. It’s quite anonymous. You get your money out of holes-in-the-wall as normal.”
“What about cheque books, paying-in books, direct debits, that sort of – ?”
“You don’t need a cheque book. They’re on the way out anyway. Anything else you want, order it online. You do everything online – standing orders, money transfers – everything”
Barney took a deep breath. “I guess I can send an email. Look up a web page.”
“You’ll manage.”
“But where, how do I access the internet in the first place? I can’t sit in one of those internet cafés. Somebody’s going to see me and – ”
“The phone I gave you. The screen’s a bit small, but you can get on the internet with it. Once the money’s released, obviously it’s up to you how you manage it. But I warn you, there’s an embarrassing amount of it.”
“I might need an embarrassing amount.”
Cosgrove waited for the elaboration he felt might be imminent. But Barney turned away, looked across the river, over the meadows that stretched away on the far side towards the village of Laleham. He sat staring into space. Then came round again, and pointed suddenly to the little tin on the ground at Cosgrove’s feet. “Why,” he asked, “do you put your cigarette butts in there?”
“Er – well, just dropping them on the ground here doesn’t really seem the thing to do. And I don’t throw them in the river. What would a mouthful of tobacco do to a trout?”
Barney laughed, looked curiously at him. “How long have you been on your own now?”
“Five years. Why?”
“Have you never thought of – well – you know – ?”
“Someone else?”
Barney nodded.
He shrugged. “Look at me. Who’d want me? Anyway – ” – he cleared his throat rather loudly – “ – talking of women – what’s your wife’s financial situation likely to be at the moment?”
Barney took a second or two to gather himself. “OK. Ellen has family money of her own. And there’s still a fair amount in the joint account. There are bonds in her name. The London flat’s in her name. She’s at liberty to dispose of any of that if and when she wants.”
“And I suppose,” said Cosgrove, smiling amiably, “if you’re still AWOL in seven years’ time you’ll be presumed to have departed this life and she can sell the Ludlow house as well.” His smiled faded. “You are sure Bernat, are you, that this is what you want to do?”
“’Want’ isn’t in it. I really have no choice. I’m sorry to be so MI5 about it, but that’s all I can say at the moment.”
The conversation lapsed. Cosgrove tweaked his fishing lines. Barney looked at the people on a small pleasure boat sliding gently past. Its bow wave rustled the reeds near his feet. A woman passenger in a wide straw hat was looking at him. He returned the look. She turned quickly away. He smiled to himself. “Out of interest,” he said, turning to Cosgrove, “suppose, I’d never come to you. What then?”
“I always assumed that one day you would. Despite what you’d said.”
“But suppose I hadn’t. Suppose I’d died, for example, and the money was still in trust. What then?”
“If, twenty-five years on from the setting up of the trust, you as beneficiary, had still not been located or had been located but had continued to reject the terms of the trust, then it was to be dissolved.”
“And the money?”
“The money plus its accrued interest was to be transferred to the account of an orphanage in Hungary.”
Silence.
“Excuse me?”
Cosgrove looked expressionlessly back at him.
“Martin? An orphanage?”
“In a town whose name I can’t possibly pronounce, but spelled – ‘M-a-t-e-s-z-a-l-k-a’. Not all that far from the border with Romania, I believe.”
“An orphanage?”
“I know nothing about it Bernat, or about the town, or what connection it had or did not have with your father or his family, or your mother or her family.”
Barney ran a hand through his hair. “My mother,” he said, very quietly, “was born there.”
“In the orphanage?”
“No. Not in the orphanage. In that town somewhere – I don’t know where. I’ve never been there. None of this was ever spoken about. Not in front of me, anyway. I’m stunned.”
Cosgrove’s eyes narrowed. “Your mother’s Jewish parents were her natural parents I suppose?”
“God, Martin – don’t.”
“It might be worth following up, old boy.”
“I haven’t the space in my head.”
Cosgrove reached into a large bag by his side. He took out a Thermos flask and two plastic cups. He unscrewed the cap and poured. “I do apologize if you prefer your coffee black, but living on my own, I’ve rather got into the sloppy habit of adding milk before I put it in the flask.” He handed the cup to Barney, who sipped tentatively at the rim of the cup. He looked around at the boats, the river, the waving reeds, the trees. “How often,” he asked, “do you do this?”
Cosgrove stretched his legs. “Not often enough.”
Barney sat back. Listened to the birds, to the ripples as the river murmured quietly to the bank. Some little yellow flowers in the grass by his feet were brilliant in the sun.

Martin ran me back to Egham train station. On the way, we drove past a school. Young children, released for the day, ran across the playground like chaff before the wind. Mothers and one or two fathers waiting for them at the gates in order to shepherd them home. I didn’t do that. I could have done.

 

For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk

And if anyone reading this knows the wonderful La Bruschetta in Crystal Palace, London SE19 – I left a free copy in there.

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You are You.

You are a creature not of the streets, the bright lights and concrete of the city; you are not a business opportunity, a number crunched in a computer; you are of the winds and the stars and the flowers of the field and the flowing river.

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You are You, and were here before all this, and will be after. You are of That, which is now and for ever. And your soul cries out that in this your living, you are at a distance from your true nature and from the Oneness out of which you have sprung and to which, one day, you will return.

Knowing these things, know also that all is well, and as it should be.

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Who am I? Who are you?

Some years ago, I was commissioned to write and direct a half-hour film for one of the big motor companies – long gone now – based in the north of England. During my researches which involved, amongst other things, spending a couple of days being taken around their massive plant by a one of their technical guys, I was shown into an odd little room. It was rectangular, about six metres long by three wide, and about three high. There were no windows and just the one door. The walls and ceiling were completely covered in what I can only describe as being like the reverse side of hundreds of egg boxes – thousands upon thousands of small brown pyramids pointing out into the room. The room was an anechoic chamber. Not many of them around. But its name, I guess, is self-explanatory – i.e. as far as can be made possible, no sound whatever penetrates this room from the world beyond its closed door.

What its function was in a motor-manufacturing plant I’ve now forgotten. But I was so intrigued by the idea that my guide offered to let me spend ten minutes in that room, on my own, with the door shut. I jumped at the chance. He indicated to me the one item of furniture – a plain wooden chair – and left me sitting on it, saying he’d be back in ten minutes. The door closed behind him. Th e silence that immediately descended was so thick if felt almost as though it had hit me. In our normal, everyday lives we don’t encounter silence – not a real and total absence of all  sound.   

 A very strange feeling came over me. Not only had the world around me suddenly changed quite dramatically, but it seemed also that my relationship with my own self was shifting in some odd way. Visually, my world was a claustrophobic, virtually featureless brown bunker. And the more I looked around at it, the more it took on a sense of being an intangible, abstract nothing. The only sounds I could hear were that of the blood pumping in my veins, and the strange creak of muscle and bone as I moved my head. Clap your hands or call out – and the sound seems to travel nowhere; it’s dead; it has the bizarre feeling of not having left your hands or to have emerged from your mouth. For nothing bounces it back. Then the mind, in an attempt to make sense of this, starts to go to some strange places – like – as nothing bounces it back, is that because there’s nothing out there anyway??

 This is all seriously weird and disorienting. Some people apparently have come close to panic in these circumstances. I tried hard to get my head around it both at the time and since. And it was with something of a shock I realized that unless you’re one of those among us who are born profoundly deaf, your own view of yourself and who you actually are is dependent to an enormous degree on the echo – aural and visual – that constantly bounces back at you from the world around you. Take all that echo away and – well, who are you? Are you who you thought you were? And are you that person only because of your relation to the world around you?

 OK, I’m John – or Joan – Smith and I’m twenty. Or forty. Fifty, whatever. But when I think about it, I wasn’t John or Joan until my parents gave me that name. Until then, I existed nameless. Yet still very much ‘me’. And I guess my name anyway, is no more than a convenient label; something by which others can identify me. And I can change it – in the UK at least. I can call myself pretty well whatever I like. If the fancy takes me, I can be known hereafter as Heironymous Buggins. So my name is not part of the essential ‘me’. So what is?

 My job? (Assuming I’m lucky enough to have one) My three-bedroom house and my nice car? They’re part of who I am. Or are they? Like my name, those things can change. I could lose my job. Or do some entirely different job. Then maybe we’d move to the Outer Hebrides, get a camper van and sell the car. So those things are not part of the real ‘me’ either. And I suppose by the ‘real me’ I’m starting to think of as that something that has persisted despite all these changes. Because something has.

 OK – got it! My memories! They are permanent. And mine. Nobody else’s. 

I was just thinking of that wonderful summer holiday you and I had in Scotland.

It was autumn. Not summer. The trees were all those beautiful golds and reds.

I’ve never been to Scotland in the autumn.

Yes, you have – don’t you remember? – it was that summer when you had the operation on your foot and couldn’t drive for a couple of months so we put it off to October.

Ah no. You’re getting mixed up. That was the summer before. I know that because your mother came for a couple of weeks in the early part and the three of us spent a week at that lovely pub – The Crown – in Dorset.

Was that the name – ‘The Crown’?

That, or ‘The Kings Head’.

Mmm. You’re right.

Good to look back on lovely memories, isn’t it?

 And so on and so on. What memories? What do we actually remember? What can we recall faithfully? Others there at the same event can be guaranteed to recall it slightly differently. And at best we recall bits here, bits there. Most of the things we remember, we eventually forget.

 So memories are out. But ‘I’ – whatever that is – is still there throughout. In the spaces between the memories, that ‘I’ is still there in the background. Or the foreground – I’m not sure which. 

But if memories are out – what does that leave me with? My body? That’s promising. My body’s been there from the time before I had a name, right up to this minute. And it’ll be there till I die.

Wait a minute – what have I just said? ‘It will be there till I die’. Sounds a bit like I think ‘I’ and my body are two different things. And anyway, why do I refer to it as ‘my’ body? Like ‘I’ own it. I use the word ‘my’ only for things that are mine; things I own. And if ‘I’ own ‘my’ body – like I own my computer and my bicycle – it’s clear that at some level of my being I see ‘I’ and this body as being separate. Oh dear. And as I think about it – the body I have now is not the body I had before I had a name. Nor is it the body I’ll have when I die. The reason being that the cells in the body are constantly being regenerated. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus about how often the whole body is replaced in this way. But it’s clear that the body I live in now is either wholly or partly a different one from the one I had before I was called John. Or Joan. Or whatever. Heironymous.

 Where does that leave me? ‘I’ can’t be my body. I’m not my memories, my home, my car, my job, my name. All those things are just elements in a sort of story. Yet something – some will-o’-the-wisp – has persisted uninterrupted all the time from my birth through all these other events and changes across the years. And it’s here now too as I write this.

 

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‘Albatross’ – Extract 6

Here is the sixth extract from my book ‘Albatross – the scent of honeysuckle’, recently published on Amazon. The link to Extract 1, for those who want to catch up is –https://besonian.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/albatross-extract-1/

15.

‘Dear Frank,
Thank you for the kind invitation, but this time I won’t if you don’t mind. I think I’m starting to come to terms with this, at least as much as I’m ever going to. So it’s best I stay here until I’m back on my feet emotionally. Then perhaps I’ll come. That’s if you and Martha will still have me.
‘How could he do this? That’s the question I keep asking myself. What had he been keeping from me? In saying that I’m assuming it’s of his own volition. I daren’t think of the other possibilities. You hear such dreadful things.
‘Now the bye-election’s well and truly out of the way, interest from the Westminster clan seems finally to have faded away. I’ve heard nothing from that quarter for a time now. I had become heartily sick of going over the whole thing yet again for some inquisitive nonentity making out he or she was devastated.
‘You asked about Barney and me. We’ve had our ups and downs, but who hasn’t? Generally it’s been a close and trusting relationship. That’s one of the reasons why this whole thing is just so incomprehensible. We’ve been together over sixteen years.
‘HJ came to see me a while back now. Thank you for the introduction. What a strange little man. Have you noticed his shoes, how incredibly highly polished they are? I suppose he knows what he is doing. He seemed mostly concerned with that person B claimed to have seen in the garden. I’m sure in reality he was a figment of B’s imagination which could be quite fertile, as you know.
‘People are friendly enough here in Ludlow but I don’t know any of them well enough to talk to about this and I still get stared at in the street. I would have hoped they had better things to think about after all this time. I had considered going down to London for a while. I love the London flat, but if I were there I’d still feel at risk of odd people dropping round when they had nothing else to do, drinking my gin and going over it all again. Here I feel safe from all that.
‘Thank you for your kindness. Love to Martha. I’ll write again soon.
‘Ellen
‘P.S. I may email you – if I can learn how to do it. B hated the computer and I never touched it, but I feel almost drawn to it now. It might be a window on the world. I must sign up for a course. Watch this space!’

16.

I emerged from Lime Street Station. It was my first ever visit to Liverpool. In different circumstances I would have been eager to look around. But the priority was to find somewhere to lay my head that night. I had no intention of stopping someone and asking them. Cabs were out – the drivers talk and peer at you in their rear-view mirrors. I figured the best thing was to walk in a straight line till I came to a hotel. It’s a big city, there had to be plenty.
I’d walked for no more than ten minutes when I came upon one of those hotels that has minimal services, but reasonable rooms at reasonable prices. That’s the sort of thing. As I approached the double doors I caught sight of my full-length reflection in the glass frontage. I wasn’t a pretty sight. I just had to hope they wouldn’t hold that against me. I pushed on the door and stepped resolutely inside.
The attractive young lady on Reception greeted me without turning a hair. I presumed the birthplace of so much rock and pop was pretty much at ease with the disreputable and odd-looking. I gave the name of ‘Brown’, home address – 126 Endell Street, Halifax, West Yorkshire. I was rather pleased with myself – there was no number 126 in Endell Street. Or there hadn’t been, back in the old days. She accepted my cash payment for one night plus breakfast box left outside the room at 7.30am. Then smiled, handed me one of those flimsy key card things, and said with a delightful Liverpool lilt, “That’s brilliant.”
I went up to my room. Took a few minutes to settle in, then went out again to find the shops. It was time now to get myself a wardrobe as opposed to a disguise.

It was a huge, pedestrianized shopping precinct, packed with people. I had constantly to fight a temptation to look over my shoulder. In this day and age, when you set out to disappear, you soon realize what you’re up against. Every step you take is monitored by a closed-circuit camera fixed to the wall of a building or up on its own pole like a stork’s nest, swivelling, zooming in. Across the country, uniformed voyeurs must pry, twenty-four-seven. Looking for what? Petty malcontents? Pickpockets? Down women’s cleavage? Drunks? Malingerers? Benefit cheats? While the wheels of big business and the City grind us all to fools with impunity.
My heart suddenly hit the walls of my chest. Outside a newsagent’s shop – Christ – a hand-scrawled news placard – ‘AWOL POLITICIAN – STILL NOTHING’. It was near the end of the day and what few newspapers were left were clipped into a rack on the wall. I daren’t look at them, yet I had to. I sidled over to them. The story, though not the main one, was front page on two of them. And those two were folded so that only the first few lines of the story were visible. While trying to give the impression I was looking at something in the shop window, I screwed my head and eyes around to try and read the top one.
“There is still no news of the whereabouts of Barnaby Marechal, Member of Parliament for South Melford, who has not been seen since delivering a talk three nights ago to a local business people’s association in Carlisle. Mr Marechal, regarded as something of a maverick within the party, is popular with the public. A close friend of the Marechals, Mr Frank Lippincote who called in the police after being contacted late at night by Marechal’s wife to say that he had not returned home, told this paper that there was, as yet, no reason to be alarmed. “Mister Marechal, regarded by many at Westminster as something of a maverick, is given to doing things very much his own way. His often unorthodox behaviour can sometimes be – ”
The rest was hidden behind the rack. I walked quickly away. ‘Can sometimes be’ what, Frank? I’d have given a lot to know the end of that sentence. I headed towards a large Marks and Spencer’s. And ‘maverick’, eh? Seems you don’t have to stray far off the beaten track to be ‘a maverick’ these days.

On the way back from the shops I bought a Chinese takeaway and a bottle of red wine. I took them, along with my shopping, to my room. As it seemed ever more likely I was actually going to go ahead with this brainstorm, I tried to think through, while I ate, the practical problems I was facing. I was looking at a mountain. I tried to bring order to my racing thoughts. My mind however, does not take readily to order. I ended up juggling a plethora of more or less random concerns.
Where was money going to come from? There was plenty in the bank. But I had no way of getting my hands on it. Holes in walls, cheques were out. Anything involving my name was out. Everything today involves your name and/or your address/phone number/email address. I still had most of those few hundred quid in my pocket. But my bank accounts were effectively redundant, I could cash no bonds, sell no shares, sell no property. I was marooned on an island of my own making.
Another thing – what, in the long run, will happen to my property? The flat in London is in Ellen’s name. But what about our lovely farmhouse in Herefordshire? If I manage to evade discovery permanently and never, ever reappear as who I was, I will be considered dead after – I think it’s seven years. In which case, everything would go to Ellen, being at the moment, the sole beneficiary of my will. A will which, as things now stand, I can’t amend. Which means that Matt, assuming I ever find him, will get nothing from me on my death. Had I planned all this in advance, instead of simply jumping off a train one afternoon, it could all have been very carefully thought through. On the other hand, had I planned it in advance I doubt I’d ever have had the courage to do it in the first place. I finished my meal in a state of great agitation, feeling guilty and vulnerable. I found myself almost wishing I had religion. If I believed in a God I presume I’d at least feel less alone.
I picked up my glass of wine, took it with me to the window where I looked out into the Liverpool night. An impressive clutch of neoclassical buildings were bathed in amber floodlighting. Traffic swirled around a busy junction like reflections of lights on water. Beyond that, the brightly lit proscenium-arch-like entrance to Lime Street Station across which passed the silhouettes of pedestrians – walk-on artists in this amateur film of my life.
A strange inner silence was rising up in and around me. The scene before me became just moving images on a screen. My agitation dissolved. I stood very still and held all thought away. The image before me sank deeper and deeper inside me until it was almost as though I experienced it not simply as a sight somewhere out there in front of me but as part of my own self. Or was I part of it? I couldn’t tell. Nor did it matter. It felt like a jumping-off point. A moment before birth.
I slept well that night. I took it as a good sign. Perhaps after all, I was doing the right thing, or at least the best thing in the circumstances. Sleep seemed also to have clarified my thoughts. As I sat by the window with my breakfast box, chewing on its depressingly unappetising contents, it came at me out of the blue – there was a source of money – money I had once vowed I would never, ever touch. But in making that vow I could never have envisaged these circumstances. Martin Cosgrove. Do I hear Dad’s laughter from the grave? Cosgrove – family lawyer since the year dot. Good man, old school, discreet, utterly trustworthy. And a gentleman.
There was no phone in the room. My mobile was in two separate pieces. There was however a bank of public telephones in Reception.

“Martin?”
“Speaking. Who’s that?”
“Bernat. It’s Bernat.”
“I’m sorry – Bernard – ?”
“No – Bernat. Bernat Horvat-Marshal.”
Long silence. Then a muted, “Goodness gracious.”
“How are you, Martin?”
“Bernat. Well, well. after all this time! What – ?”
“Martin – listen. Before we go any further, I have not rung you. OK?”
“Sorry. You what, old boy? You have not – ?”
“I have not rung you. This phone call has not happened.”
“Right.” He thought for a second. “OK. I think perhaps I understand.”
“I’m in a public box in a hotel. I’m going to keep my voice down and I have to make this quick. I need to see you ASAP. And I need money. Real money. Think about it – I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Just give me a second to get my head around this. OK. I think maybe I do.”
“But I can’t meet you in your office. I can’t meet anywhere where there are people.”
“My house? It’s out of town in Woking. A reasonably affluent part of – ”
“But you have neighbours, don’t you?”
“Is that a – ?”
“Suppose they see me arrive? Or leave? No, it’s got to be out in the open. Wimbledon Common. Streatham Common. Primrose Hill.”
“In that case, I need a minute to drum my fingers on my desk. Er – think, think, think. OK – how about this then? Two average elderly gents sitting by the river with fishing rods in their hands. Wouldn’t excite a lot of interest, would they?”
“Go on. Where?”
“Do you know a place called Laleham?”
“Near Staines?”
“That’s the one. I sometimes go fishing there on a Sunday.”
“Sounds good. When can we do it?”
“Where are you? And how much money have you with you?”
“Liverpool. And nowhere near enough.”
“Do I presume you don’t have a mobile phone?”
“You do, yes.”
“It would be useful. Dare I say, essential?”
“Nor do I have a place to live.”
“Dear, dear, Bernat. This is somewhat off my map. First, I suggest you get a mobile.”
“That can be traced.”
“I have a couple of old ones. You’d better have one of them. I’ve got an unused sim card around somewhere. I can put that in one of them and courier it up to you. How long can you keep going with the cash you have?”
“Two or three days. But I really need to get back to London and get myself a cheap room somewhere. Then I can – ”
Martin chuckled. “I think you might look a long time for a ‘cheap’ room.”
“I’m not thinking Highgate or Dulwich.”
“Kilburn. The Harrow Road even.”
“OK. So where – ?”
“Listen. Get down here and book yourself for one night into any really cheap hotel. Can you bear that?”
“I’m getting used to it.”
“When you’ve done that, let me know where you are – use the mobile I’ll send you – and I can have cash round to you in a couple of hours. Then you can go and find a room at your leisure.”
“Martin – I’m in awe.”
“It’s the crime fiction I read, Bernat.” He laughed, a little self-consciously. “Once that’s done we can fix up our fishing trip.”
“And Martin – I’m sure I don’t need to say this, but I have to stay utterly off the radar. I caught a glimpse of a newspaper yesterday and I seemed to have almost star billing.”
“A forty-eight hour Tube strike starts here today. A woman in Surbiton or somewhere has given birth to quads or quins – one or the other. You’re cold potatoes. And incidentally, worry not – I won’t ask what this is about. If you want to tell me, that’s a different matter.”
“There’s a whole lot of stuff I need to talk to you about.”
“I can imagine.”
“No Martin, you can’t. You really can’t”

With Martin’s phone in my pocket, I caught an early train to London. I booked a room in a hotel in the Kilburn area – a place calling itself ‘Wiltshire House’. By comparison, the ‘Welcome’ in Wigan bordered on the genteel. The cash from Martin turned up at nine-thirty the following morning. I set off to find myself a bed-sitter. Like he had said, they weren’t cheap. In fact, given the state of most of them, they were criminally exorbitant. But I had cash, and by the end of the day, with the help of an agent I would not, in other circumstances, have trusted any further than I could have thrown him, I was the accredited tenant of a bed-sitter. It was on the top floor of a seedy Victorian house in a street just off Kilburn High Road Road. It was mean and it was depressing. But I could hide away in it with more confidence than in any middle-class enclave.
Taking up almost the whole of one side of the room, was a huge double bed. It would have slept a family of four. By the way it sagged in the middle, it looked like it had. I tried hard not to imagine what might have gone on in it. It had ugly wooden posts at each corner, on which I hung articles of clothing and my shopping bag.
The ‘kitchen’ – as the agent had described it – was simply a partitioned off slice of the same room with a mini electric oven and a cheap fridge which had no freezer. It was cramped, ill-ventilated with just one tiny window. Boil a kettle in it and it steamed up. Cook a whole meal and you’d risk getting trench foot.
A couple of houses along the road, a viaduct carrying the Underground trains crossed the road, vaulting the rooftops. Every thirty seconds or so in the rush hour, the whole building shook as another loaded train juddered by virtually overhead, rattling windows, glasses and crockery.
I shared this top floor with two women. The older one I guessed to be in her mid-forties, the younger around her late twenties. I never saw them apart. Their clothes were so lacking in colour, it seemed that had to be by design. The younger one had very short hair, cut like that of a boy in the 1950’s. From their room which was right next to mine, no sound ever emerged – no radio, TV, music, no animated voices. Were it not for the fact that they’d said in unison a rather timid, ‘Good morning,’ to me the day I moved in, I might have thought they were profoundly deaf. There was never a man around. Although not on that account alone, I sensed they were lesbians. They intrigued me, and via what little contact I had with them, I liked them.
I shared with them the bathroom and the cramped little toilet across the landing. At first, the toilet sort of bothered me. Though I’m not sure why. There was always a can of air freshener in there. And a spare toilet roll. Being the newcomer I was to bed-sitter living, I had to think about what protocol there might be around toilet rolls – especially as the others involved were two women. I could hardly expect them to provide me with toilet paper. And to take my own personal toilet roll in and out with me seemed distinctly mean-minded. The next occasion on which I was the first to start on the standby roll, I left a replacement.
It worked. That’s how we carried on – whoever was the first to start on the standby roll, supplied the replacement. The arrangement was never referred to. A discussion with the two women about toilet roll arrangements would likely have embarrassed them hugely. And me, for that matter.
It had been an odd experience. Challenging in its way. And I was pleased with myself. I’d navigated my way successfully past what might have been an awkward social impasse.

The only other resident in that house of whom I was ever aware was a man who lived on the ground floor. I would glimpse him only occasionally when his coming in or going out coincided with mine. He was anything between early thirties and late forties. Though beardless, he looked permanently unshaven with thick, heavy brows. His black hair was long and his clothes never looked really clean. He never spoke. His eyes were black and quite unreadable. He gave me the impression of repressing some terrible anger. His proximity, fleeting though it always was, occasioned in me a troubling uncertainty. Unlike the women next door, he appeared to have no regular hours. There was never any telling if or when he’d be around.
In the time I was there however, he did me no harm. Nor anybody else I was aware of. I decided in the end that he was perhaps just one of the disturbed and disturbing individuals whose presence was par for the course in that stratum of society. How remote from the lives of ordinary people had I, along with so many in the Westminster village, become.

For those interested in buying the book, it’s available here –

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Albatross-scent-honeysuckle-Jeff-Grant/dp/0993332803/ref=sr_1_44?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1444485269&sr=1-44&keywords=albatross

And here – www.booksellercrow.co.uk

And if anyone reading this knows the wonderful La Bruschetta in Crystal Palace, London SE19 – there’s a free copy in there. Or there was. It may well have disappeared by now!

 

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