Stereophonics Review

I’ve always loved the Stereophonics. I like the way that, despite their swift development into a stadium band, they’ve never lost sight of where they came from. Twenty years in the business and they’ve still managed to hold on to that village mentality, rather than becoming pampered and aloof.

When their last album came out I felt I should give something back at last. Show my appreciation for everything they’ve done for me over the years, by writing a review on Amazon. The problem is I’m not good with words, and so didn’t feel confident in being able to express just what they mean to me. So that I could do them justice I decided to look for inspiration from the experts: music reviewers at The Guardian. 

Kelly Jones’s boys have had a mixed relationship with that newspaper. One reviewer criticised them for ‘lacking flair, alchemy and imagination’:

IMG_20171228_121552

2009’s Keep Calm and Carry On was described by one critic as ‘ambition-free’:

IMG_20171228_121724

For some journalists the band’s lack of pretension seems to be their chief grievance. Jones’s plain-speaking style has been attacked as ‘stringing together cliches’:

IMG_20171228_121812

Their detractors, with whom this reviewer appears to identify, might label the band ‘purveyors of musical gruel’:

IMG_20171228_121914

It is often this very down-to-earth nature of the songs which critics object to. The reason so many love the band is that, despite their success, they can still write songs about day-to-day issues that we can all relate to. In the eyes of one wordsmith this humble subject matter is a sign the band are so concerned about appearing fake that their music ‘has ended up wilfully grey and dull’:

IMG_20171228_121454

And yet, all these criticisms taken into account, the newspaper’s writers have to recognise the band’s commercial success. Whatever the superior judgements of professional writers, they can’t deny the simple fact that this is a band who have ‘proved themselves’:

IMG_20171228_121402

Inspired by my reading I wrote several drafts of a review, deleted each and started again. In the end I went for plain honesty. ‘I liked this album’, I said. This wasn’t enough characters, so I said that I ‘really’ liked it, this latest album CD by Welsh British rockers band formed in Cwmbran in… Some copying and pasting got me up to the minimum.

It wasn’t a great review, but it was my first. And who knows, with a bit of practice maybe I can one day be as good with analogies and as skilled a user of adjectives as a music critic at The Guardian!

 

 

 

Advertisements

The Three-Tongued Serpent

Culture. As Brian Sewell famously said, there’s a lot of it about. Yet something which should enhance our lives all too often leads to anguish, to crippling self-consciousness, becomes a weapon against us, as we allow ourselves to feel inadequate, to feel judged. The gaps in our education can’t be allowed to show. We have to know and appreciate everything, for fear of being shown up in front of others.

But there comes a time, about the age of 40 – to pick a figure completely at random – when you are reconciled to your imperfections, and no longer care about the many ways in which your enemies real or imagined can pick holes in your persona. You become settled in yourself, and realise that culture is a game whose rules we don’t have to play by. We can at last own up to what we’ve always been thinking.

Here is one fact I have learned over time: most classical music is boring. Yes, there’s an occasional cool cymbal crash, as the fat guy at the back of the orchestra does his one easy job, but it’s mainly people sitting on chairs while a man in evening wear points at them with a stick every now and then. It takes ages and there’s no singing – except in opera, which is just singing made boring. It’s what posh people are drawn to instead of pop music, because there’s no intellectual content and thus no emotional engagement. They are people of shallow feeling.

This might sound like ignorance on my part. I’m uncultured, you might think. But I know that the sort of joyless aesthete who pays lip service to Mozart would have annoyed the actual Mozart to tears of blood. Wolfgang Amadeus didn’t write for the prissy upper classes whose engagement with art is primarily intellectual rather than visceral. He had no desire to be accepted by the sort of people who saw artistic appreciation as a marker of pedigree or as a means of distancing themselves from the less educated. He knew art should be raw and subversive, should target the emotions rather than the critical faculties. And for this insight he died in penury, unappreciated by his peers.

Admittedly, everything I know about Mozart comes from the film Amadeus, for whose veracity I can’t vouch. I didn’t realise Mozart was American, for one thing. Hence such memorable lines as:

                       “Godammit, Mozart, put your pants on and let’s hit the sidewalk.”

                                “I see ol’ Mozart done gone write hisself a new opera. Guess I’ll jist sit my fanny down and listen.”

                                “Hey, Wolfgang, quit goofin’ off and write a motif based on a classical theme with baroque embellishments considered excessive for the time.”

Just because you don’t get the opera questions on University Challenge is no reason to feel bad about yourself. No one should know those answers, with the sole exception of music students. It’s okay to like that bit with the violins from that advert, while not having the patience to sit through five sodding hours of violins. Someone isn’t your superior just because they know the difference between Grieg and Saint-Saens while you feel proud for being able to identify two of Gustav Holst’s planets which you remember from school.

Another lesson it took me a long time to learn is that Shakespeare is meant to be read, not seen. Many are the times I was prevented from falling asleep in the theatre simply because my buttocks were spasming from cramp as I looked at my watch and willed the end to come sooner. Greek drama is relatively short – because the Greeks sat on bare stone steps. Those four hour school trips tried and failed to convince us that the Elizabethans must have had seats whose comfort humanity’s glutes have long since forgotten.

Tragedy is fine. It’s the universal and timeless language of suffering which we can all at least imagine if not empathise with. It’s the comedy which causes problems. I sympathise with English teachers whose main tasks include explaining to teenagers that comedy didn’t mean the same thing back then as it means now. That a play didn’t have to be funny in the slightest to be officially classed as comedic, that just by writing laboured puns about horns you could win your place as a top gag writer. Tastes are more sophisticated today, although we still laugh at a man dressed as a woman because let’s face it how could we not.

This historical change in appreciation of mood is not so obvious to some directors, and some audiences. Many years ago I saw a production of Antony and Cleopatra and vividly remember those lines from Scarus:

I had a wound here that was like a T

But now ‘tis made an H.

There was –

There was –

Okay. Finished? Good. There was a man sitting in front of me who laughed uproariously at this, as if it were the funniest thing he had ever heard. What he was really saying with that was “I’ve read the footnotes. I’m here because I love Shakespeare – unlike you, who probably just bought a ticket because it features some actor from a TV programme.”

Tragedy is always tragic, however many centuries pass. Comedy not so much. Accusations of cuckoldry have a very short shelf life, in terms of humour content. A sensible director knows this, and acts accordingly. The problem is there are no sensible directors, which is why there is always that scene you have to sit through with teeth gritted while some middle-aged freelance writer on economics with a conservatory and unrequited lust for his wife’s best friend of twenty years guffaws like it was a joke written last week by someone with at least the scantest understanding of how jokes work.

In short, it passes quicker when the words are just in your head. And then you don’t have to feign a smile at any point. Shakespeare remains eloquent on the page, in a way he could never when brought out into the open.

So. Classical music, Shakespeare… In my early twenties I reached a stage where I thought youth was now officially over. I decided to stop wearing jeans, because adults don’t wear jeans. I stopped being interested in pop music, because grown-ups don’t care for pop music. Everything had to serve the new paradigm. I started reading up on art because that was something I knew nothing about. Numerous joyless afternoons led me to the conclusion:

I will never be someone who gets art.

There’s something imposing about a wall hung with art works. How long to spend on each? What should you be looking for? Is everyone else judging you according to how thoroughly you examine each piece? Who recorded that song about not keeping it all inside? What time does this place close? Can I really be arsed to come back at any time? Ugly Kid Joe?

I used to keep a minimum time I would spend in front of each picture, to establish the illusion that I knew what the hell I was there for. My attention wasn’t on the brush work, the composition, light and shade, but on what the Chinese tourist next to me would think of me if I left too soon. My self-doubt and stubbornness wouldn’t allow me to move on before I had spent a convincing length of time there. In my lifetime I have wasted whole days on this, trying to find value in a Titian sketch or Picasso print which seemed designed to take the piss out of the conscientious viewer. When I realised that by the three hundredth painting of the day I no longer cared, well, that was a revelation. Life is short, and you’d be surprised how many painters there have been. Skipping a room became a revolutionary act, and in ignoring the many, many paintings I felt powerful, like a critic who hates everything.

What we lose sight of is that no art work worthy of our attention was created with the intention of lining the wall of a gallery. Galleries are unnatural places, whose existence speaks merely to the wealth of the owner and not the quality of the art on show. And just because something is from the past is no guarantee of its artistic value. How much leeway to give to the ignorant beings of ages gone, on seeing yet another painting of Madonna and child where Mary has popped a breast out, painted by someone who has clearly never seen a woman naked? No. Work for my attention, paint scrubbers. Earn it.

Ever had that experience, head achey from absorbing all that freaking art, when you’re trying to relax on the train reading the book you brought with you, only to fear the entire carriage is judging your choice? Yes, you want to say, I’m reading Dan Brown, but I’m doing it ironically! I don’t really like this shit! Or maybe you’re packing something far more respectable and want the whole world to know you’re not as stupid as they for some reason probably think you are. You just want to read something you find enjoyable but the whole experience is fraught with intellectual snobbery, both your own and that you project onto others.

Now that we are older and more sensible we know not to make excuses for the way chance has caused us to develop. With age you care less about trivia – what others think of you and what you think others should think of you. But this wasn’t always the case.

Any discussion of books among people thrown together by the mere fact of working in the same building tends to elicit one of two responses. There are those who become defensive, all too aware of the gaps in their reading history, who either fall silent or try to steer the conversation elsewhere. And then there are the people who welcome this latest opportunity to prove their superiority via the lazy means of a checklist. Sometimes it’s tempting to switch to discussing politics instead, as a safer option.

A word of advice here: lying never works. I still remember that time I was with a group of work colleagues discussing Ulysses. I was holding my own admirably right up to the point where I ventured that my favourite character in the novel was No-No, small robot you know, friend of U-ly-sses. They literally spat in my face, clawed holes in my jacket and chewed the fuck out of my tie.

The literary criticism which has stayed with me the longest was something I saw on a subway train in New York for a book by David Baldacci. I know literally nothing about David Baldacci, beyond what the advert said: “When Baldacci is on fire no one can touch him.” But that’s true of anyone. When a table’s on fire no one can touch it. And it implies he’s frequently on fire, which suggests it’s carelessness on his part. But this was the quote the publisher thought to run with. So the people whose job it is to convince random strangers to purchase a product, the people whose livelihood depends on convincing strangers to pay for a product, are simply flawed human beings.

Which leads me to my main point. As children we are always encouraged to believe that the adults know what’s going on. In times of chaos we can always trust that they know what to do. It is only as you reach and then pass the threshold of adulthood that you realise this is not so. You might reach the age of 40, for example, and only then realise that you are now an adult and that you are expected to be responsible, when you’ve only just learned (vaguely) what a mortgage is and are hoping no one ever asks you difficult questions on the subject. Rather than the world being divided among the responsible and the naïve, no one at all knows what they are doing. No one. Everyone is playing their part.

Once realise that you are an individual in a big universe of uncertain provenance and benighted future and this tension falls away. Like whatever you like. Search for the joy in life and never worry that you aren’t doing it properly. Our time here is brief and –

Stiltskin. It was Stiltskin.

 

Being Useful

Given the many valid reasons for wanting to kill Morton Overwham already on record, it’s always surprising when someone discovers a new one. Who is the jaded brat in the sweetshop of hatred who sees nothing to be tempted by in all the jars lining the walls? Just look at Morton’s hair, just listen to his laugh. The general shape of him filling this Earth’s rapidly dwindling space. His whole life can be viewed as one long attempt to paint a durable target on his own forehead. And I would be supportive of this if I wasn’t dependent on his half of the rent.

The occasion of this novelty in anti-Overwham thought was a standard beige Thursday. As is usual for a weekday I was sitting outside a café in the centre of town, witnessing. Just sitting there and looking actively at what was passing, seeing whatever might be happening. Witnessing stuff. And as sometimes happens a figure stopped, looked at me and detached itself from the passing crowd.

‘You!’ the man said. He was wearing dark glasses and a t-shirt with Criminal! printed on it. ‘Of all the people I might expect to bump into!’

He approached my table. ‘I didn’t expect to see you here at’ – he looked at his watch – ‘1105 precisely, on the second day of March.’

He repeated the time and date, slowly and precisely while surveying the crowded street, then asked me to take a photo of him on his phone. I made sure to get the clock tower in the picture.

From a couple of streets away came the sound of an alarm. He turned unhurriedly to look in that direction. ‘That sounds quite far away,’ he said. I agreed with him.

‘Well anyway. See you around!’ He went back into the crowd and disappeared.

I wrote down some details in the notebook I always carried with me, in case it might be useful the next time I was in court. Law enforcement tend to approach me when they need to back up an alibi, sometimes even before a crime has been committed. The system is swift and efficient and saves everyone a deal of trouble.

I had still not finished my coffee when there was a clatter of a chair being moved and then sat in.

‘Good that you’re here, as this will save us time.’

Morton Overwham. Look at him now, with his needless smile like he’d stolen it off a richer and more talented person’s face. Look at him sink back in the chair opposite you and announce, in tones too proud to be helpful, that –

‘Of all the eff ups’

Pause.

‘I have ever been party to – and you and I know’

Pause.

‘That is more than a few… I have no idea how to complete that sentence. So in lieu of a fancy choir to sing the edge off it we find ourselves facing the bones of the issue. You are not going to like this.’

‘I already don’t like it. It has your face on it and your words announcing it, whatever it might be.’

No way Morton could be speaking to me if the upshot were not something that would appreciably lessen my quality of life. All the more so when a smile is attached.

‘I was at work yesterday. Doing my busy work thing. You know how it is. The old nine to five, eh? The Monday morning blues. The … the Man. That kind of thing.’

Morton had been given paid employment three months ago and had spent the intervening time trying to find out why. To this end his working day involved following other people who looked like they know what they were doing, in the hope that it would soon enough turn a powerful light on his own case. He had always suspected, as did I and all the others who know him, that the whole issue rested on a very real and regrettable mistake.

‘So yesterday was a van day. I was in a van, going to here and to there and a couple of other places in between. The van was carrying turf. We were a turf van. This is fact one. Fact two – we went to the big house.’

‘The?’ In my dealings with Morton I have always tried to stress the time issue, to let him know that my time is valuable and generally unable to support prolonged exposure to his company. Unfortunately he knows the truth, and exploits this mercilessly.

He nodded, and stuffed a sugar cube in his mouth. ‘Exactly. The house itself. House number one in this town and environs. His house.’

I leaned forwards. ‘Rex?’ I whispered.

‘And there I was thinking he was above such things. Whatever kind of presence he exercises here wouldn’t stretch to a physical representation, I thought, let alone to a proper house with a garden and front door and suchlike.’

He marked the end of this sentence by drinking deeply from a coffee cup, while my own had strangely disappeared.

‘So they were laying turf, and I was doing my bit by standing behind them watching. I looked up at a window and saw what I suppose you could call a face looking back at me. I stepped back to get a better view and trod on – a lettuce.’

He turned to watch the passing traffic. I knew what he was looking for – the sense of intelligence pooled, the whispering and the looks and the surreptitious phone call. Everyone in town worked for Rex, whether they knew it or not, and information spread like a badger on a motorway.

It struck me I would have to find a new flatmate.

‘And then, because I’d stumbled and felt a bit stupid, I doubled down on it. I stamped on that lettuce a couple more times. Like that was what I’d meant to do the whole time. Stamped the shit out of it. All the while looking up at Rex and grinning.

‘With hindsight this may have made it worse.’

Morton for once had a point. It was traditionally the lesser offences which Rex treated the most harshly. Someone might step so briefly over the line that they hadn’t even noticed they had done it. Then the order would go out and the town’s blade sharpeners and street cleaners would be working weekends again. Treat the trivial with brutality and no one ever aspired to greater assaults against his name.

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s not like him to be vindictive or cruel.’

I would write the advert that afternoon, I decided.

‘I know you’re trying to be kind –’

Ha.

‘But I’ve been thinking it over and come to a conclusion. Tldr: we need to get we gone.’

We? This affects me how?’

He began walking away, looking over his shoulder and grinning like a murder victim. ‘Well, due to an administrative error he thinks I’m you.’

We spent the next couple of hours working on our plan. It wouldn’t do just to run, to simply do a classic escape. We needed a bluff, one which could support the weight of our departure. A bluff which could hold its head up proud and lie solemnly to your face while it pissed in your shoes. Or a bluff which could say confidently ‘yes, I am a bluff,’ and leave the listener uncertain as to what was up and what was down.

Rex’s people would be expecting us to fill a bag with useful or sentimental crap and then flee, zigzagging around the place, under darkness and disguised like a priest or like your grandma, ostentatiously being subtle to the point where getting on a train looked like a masterclass in how never to get on a train in a normal world. They would be relying on Morton’s mastery of Scottish accents or my skill in folding a newspaper outside a foreign café to give us away. They would be expecting a long game in which we, or future agents won over to our cause in successive generations, would lead them a merry dance through time and the many places of the globe.

What they were not expecting was that we would hold a glitzy yet maudlin Hurried Leaving Party at the Swollen Dog, the pub where we had spent four nights in every seven for the last two years. They were not expecting the bunting, the specially made doggy bags or the playlist of departure songs we commissioned. A packed room filled with friends wearing our faces on their t-shirts.

‘They may be just two more losers by the quiz machine,’ Joely the landlady shouted into her microphone, ‘but they’re our losers. And tonight we’re all losers!’

Party poppers went off, glitter was strewn liberally and old hands and random newbies all told us how sad they were that we were going to be murdered. Morton gave a speech about how humbled he was to be threatened by gangsters, complete with a puppet cabaret and a moving slideshow of our years of acquaintance. Later, past closing time, I read out some stirring poetry to the packed house before leading the chant ‘we will try not to be murdered.’

They definitely weren’t expecting us to do it all again the next night.

The Saturday morning we made our way to the station, rucksacks a-clank with glasses we’d somehow stolen from the pub. A good crowd came to see us off, old friends and new, many still drunk from the night before. Saint Pancras had probably never played host to so many vuvuzelas before, nor quite so many balloon animals. Morton and I had had dummies of ourselves made, so accurately rendered that even our own mothers – whoever they were! – couldn’t tell us apart. These we left by the Eurostar gates, to any observers nothing less than two hungover fugitives from gangland reprisals.

‘So,’ said Morton, after the pub friends had said their goodbyes. ‘Home?’

‘The stick insects won’t feed themselves.’

We dawdled a bit on the way back, taking a detour to snag some privet. The sky seemed less oppressive somehow. It was a comforting slate shade of grey, a pathetic rain dripping itself lazily through the gaps in the nothing at all. Perfect weather for staying inside and looking out the window with a complete absence of reaction either positive or otherwise.

‘Where do you think old Rex will be now in his cycle of awareness?’ Morton asked as he put the kettle on.

‘Well, we’re in the last place he’d look. Given his laziness that means there are only three other places he’d look first, but on the upside we’ve got a bank holiday between us and then.’

‘Time to conjure with.’

‘Way enough time. Rex is someone who reacts, not someone who consolidates.’

I updated my Facebook status to ‘fleeing’, accompanied by a nail-chewing emoji.

‘You know, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn his skin was only painted on,’ Morton said. ‘And that what we thought of as his voice were merely the sound of wind echoing around an empty skull. Just think – a whole power base built up around the accidental pretence of a human.’

‘Unfortunately a pretence armed with … well, with whatever he has.’

‘In the absence of better information we should assume the worst. And then imagine scraping beneath that to find something still bleaker and more realistic.’

We’d all seen him, worst luck, Tollund man in the back of a limo, a greater darkness behind tinted windows. Eye sockets so deep you thought eyes weren’t the worst of what they hid. He cruised around these streets like you might stroll through your own garden, marvelling at the stuff you owned.

Every business and every employee was under his tatty wings. Even the ones who stole from the others. All of it served his pockets or his vanity. He was the gaps between the people and as such we would require enormous powers of imagination to find a way around this.

Imagination soon exhausted, there remained the dismal task of killing time until we could poke our heads out again.

‘There’s always the horse racing.’

‘The horse what?’

‘Racing.’

And Morton explained horse racing to me. The gist of it was this: a number of horses race at the same time, in parallel to each other. Each runs very fast, trying to run faster than each of the others and at the end, after a set distance has been run, the winner is crowned best horse in the race, with all the financial and social advantages thus accruing. The explanation, with its extensive use of whiteboard and Powerpoint, meant that by the time we got round to turning the television on we had missed the races themselves.

The winning horses crowned, the less successful horses drowned in a canal, I returned to the kitchen and the kettle. As I did so I passed the large window at the front of the flat. A human-sized shadow was currently filling it, blocking what tepid light remained in the universe. Sneaking may have been the intention, but that window was unreliable at the best of times and navigating the outside of it in a drizzle like this was far from the best of times. He made his way round the flapping pane and banged his head once or twice against the frame before tumbling in and falling over the sofa.

‘Ah,’ said Gregor the burglar, looking up.

I looked at him, down there on the floor.

‘Ah now, this is awkward,’ he said. ‘To be honest I was expecting the place to be empty. Have I got the right address?’

‘This is never the right address,’ I said, ‘but yes.’

‘Is that Gregor?’ called Morton from the bathroom. ‘What does he want?’

He’s here to burgle us. You are, aren’t you?’

He nodded. ‘I mean, I was. I was expecting to find the place empty.’

‘It is,’ I said. ‘Wherever we are it isn’t here. This is the one place we definitely are not.’

‘Then you can understand my confusion.’

‘Confusion is one thing we do understand,’ Morton said, and laughed too long.

‘I’m sorry to have put you to trouble,’ Gregor said. ‘I shall say my farewells and get right back out of that window.’

‘That sounds good to me,’ said Morton

‘I’m afraid we can’t let that happen,’ I said, moving between the man and the window.

‘You can’t?’

He looked at the window, then at the door, as if measuring up distances and calculating wind speeds.

‘You’ve come here to an empty flat. Why would you leave straight away with your bag empty?’

‘Maybe there was nothing to my liking.’

‘Really? An empty flat, unlimited time, and you find nothing at all that’s worth taking? If nothing else it’s a huge insult to the occupants, if they were here to hear it.’

‘I meant no insult,’ he shook his head, smiling. ‘I would happily steal everything you’ve got here, this … vase. This … dented champagne bucket. That … whatever that is.’

He indicated an item next to the TV. I had no idea what it was meant to be either. We had just acquired it somehow, and realised that before we could throw it away we would first need the words to describe it.

‘Everyone misses the door,’ said Morton. ‘That is far and away the most valuable item in here.’

‘Never mind us,’ I said, ‘think about how it looks to them.’ I pointed to the wider world, situated conveniently out of the window. ‘They see you giving up, not even taking the time to smash anything or desecrate the furnishings in the way you find most fitting. What would they think?’

‘And perhaps more importantly, what would your old bossman think?’ asked Morton.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It would give them the mistaken impression that you’re still here.’

‘So,’ I said, stepping away and holding out my arms to encompass the whole domain. ‘You wouldn’t want to be leaving here without taking one item. And better make it something substantial or we’re all wasting our time here.’

He picked up his rucksack from the floor and shook it out. ‘Where do you keep your valuables then?’

Morton shook his head sadly. ‘We can’t help you. It wouldn’t be right.’

Gregor walked slowly around the living room, humming to himself to complete the illusion of not being flanked by other humans, not ones with functioning ears at any rate. He proceeded to the kitchen, the bedrooms, finally – and with slower pace – to the bathroom.

‘You’ve lived here how long?’

‘Two years,’ said Morton.

‘And you’ve filled every inch of the place with tat, yet somehow never got round to getting anything worth stealing.’

‘It’s a useful means of defence against a world stacked so much against us,’ I said. ‘Like making sure you always get a seat on the bus by living somewhere no one in their right mind would ever want to go.’

‘Jesus.’ He lit a roll up. ‘What about that then,’ he said at last, having gazed in silence at a patch on the wall for a while.

‘That? Yeah, why not.’

It was a painting from the feverish dying dreams of a petty colonial overseer, to wit the depiction of a cricket match in the blandest tones imaginable, small figures in white picked out against dim strokes of green while a nice old church mouldered comfortably behind. An image only slightly less tedious than the bare wall underneath. It had been hanging there when we moved in, inexplicably left behind by a former tenant, and it had defied any attempts to remove it via the heavy grip of ennui stirred up by the simple act of looking at it.

Gregor gently took it down from its hooks and gazed into its aggressive inoffensiveness. ‘This takes me back to my youth,’ he said.

‘You used to play cricket?’

‘I used to steal paintings.’

I looked at my watch. ‘I’d say that’s a respectable time for a burglary. It’s okay if you go now.’

‘Right you are.’ He headed towards the door.

Umm.’ I inclined my head to the window.

‘Ah,’ he chuckled. ‘Of course. Take care, gents!’

Painting tucked under one armpit, he backed out over the sill, using his free hand to navigate the drainpipes and the two floors to street level. The window slammed shut reassuringly in the renewed breeze.

‘I think this calls for a gin,’ said Morton, for all the world as if this was not something he said every day at this time.

We were on the second when the door buzzed in that way that always grates on the nerves. I looked through the Judas hole and saw a young woman with impressively frizzy hair and a man dressed in a very convincing police uniform.

 

‘Tell them we’re out,’ Morton said.

I looked through the spyhole again and saw that the woman was now holding up a piece of paper on which she had written Please don’t waste my time.

‘Overwham?’ she said as I opened the door. She looked from one face to the other, then shook her head. ‘Don’t know why I’m asking. One or both of you is, and that’s all that matters. Here’s my card.’

She handed over a business card on which was printed Zimena Furuncle, above the words You don’t want to know.

‘We can do this the easy way or the hard way. What am I saying? It’s all easy.’

She pushed past into the living room, police friend following behind.

‘You’ve no doubt clocked the uniform,’ she said. ‘It will save a lot of time the sooner you recognise an agent of Rex is an on-duty police officer. If you’re looking for nuance you’re in the wrong place. I could show you the velvet glove but life is short and we all have homes to go to.’

She walked into the kitchen with all the nonchalance of a drunk estate agent. Morton put on his best incredulous face, squinting and shaking his head in a way he wanted to think looked like convincing innocence, before saying ‘I have absolutely no idea –‘

‘Which of these seven types of coffee is the best?’ she asked, putting the kettle on. I pointed to the bag of Tajikistan’s finest and PC Nameless saw to it while she climbed onto the worktop and sat there cross-legged.

‘First of all. You remember that one teacher you had who saw the good in you? You felt that they alone could see through your crude exterior and find something of value underneath? They thought there was something worthwhile about you and sought to cultivate it and nurture it so that you could achieve all that you were truly capable of?

‘They were wrong. You have always been completely worthless. I can’t emphasise firmly enough just how insignificant you are and always will be. It is a struggle for me just to stay awake in your presence. In all honesty the pair of you are just blurry messes at the edge of my vision.

‘Perhaps you think you have somehow been an inconvenience to my boss and yours. It is extremely important that you realise just how impossible this is. If Rex is an ocean liner then you are the memory of lice who once stalked a scalp a thousand miles and three generations away. You are nothing to him. The message I want you to take from this is that of your own triviality, reckoned both cosmically and locally.’

She slurped her coffee.

‘Not worth … killing then?’ Morton asked, rubbing chin between thumb and finger.

‘Rex operates on a level of consciousness far removed from yours, to the extent that he experiences time and all dimensions differently. Your concerns are so petty as not even to register with him as taking place within a valid time-frame.’

‘He’s a dick,’ I noted.

She nodded.

‘By the quotidian standards of three-dimensional mammals, maybe so. His existence takes a parallel trajectory, and the two will never meet in infinity.’ She held her spoon up. ‘Is this solid silver?’

‘So he sent you to reassure us?’ I asked. ‘Not like him.’

I realised I had little idea of what was like him, but felt I had to try. I was standing in my own kitchen possibly being threatened by a stranger after all.

‘There are concessions to be made, however nauseous the climbdown. When the brightest light is extinguished the darkness shows up darker than it ever was before. Rex’s light is approaching extinction.’

‘He’s dying?’ Morton asked.

She shook her head. ‘He is reaching the end of this cycle. Renewal will follow, but in the interim there is vulnerability.’

‘Come again?’ I asked, not unreasonably.

‘Rex places himself outside the realm of human experience. This has its advantages and its drawbacks. While being absolved of the standard procedures for aging he finds himself open to other forms of decay, undreamt of by the – ’she reached into her jacket pocket and glanced at a piece of paper. ‘Meat puppets.’

‘It’s kind of him to clarify,’ said Morton. ‘So we can cancel the whole exile business?’

‘The fact that he can show you no malice should not give you comfort. It just shows how little you mean to him. If you represented any kind of annoyance to him then he would have had you neutralised long ago.’

She sipped that sweet Tajiki blackness.

‘So he says, anyway.’

‘And while he’s vulnerable,’ Morton began. ‘I don’t know how to end that sentence.’

‘Vulnerability is a relative term. One such as he is immeasurably far from your ideas of harm. In his transitional period he needs to surround himself with the things which bring him comfort. Keepsakes, mementoes, souvenirs. The worst thing for him is the time needed to recuperate, and the effort that goes into recovering lost items. Yes, there are lost items to recover. That may be important.’

‘And you, what, you believe this?’

She smiled. She put her cup down and held out her sleeve.

‘Touch it,’ she said.

‘Um.’

‘Feel my sleeve.’

I did so. Her jacket was ostensibly black but with an undercurrent of something iridescent. On feeling it I noticed a subtlety to the fabric not obvious at first. Bumps, stripes, hatching and cross-stitching. It felt extremely expensive.

‘I have no horse in this fight,’ she said. ‘As long as he keeps my employment interesting then that is all.’

She uncrossed her legs and slid off the counter. She looked at me and at Morton.

‘So. That established, there is the other matter. A lost item is to be found. It will aid his recovery if you find it. You are still alive and may be considered useful. This must be the greatest day of your lives.’

She placed a fat envelope on the counter.

‘That might help. Bobby!’

PC Nonentity sat up at this, and followed her to the door.

‘Ha. He’s a policeman and I call him Bobby!’

They left together, shutting the door gently.

‘Nice to have things clarified,’ Morton said, handing me a glass which fizzed away under a blue umbrella.

‘I suppose we should look into this as a matter of urgency,’ I said, throwing the envelope into one corner or another.

Two days later I was looking under the sofa for stray stick insects when I saw the package again. Inside I found three items. First was a sheaf of pages covered in a primitive handwriting which appeared to be Rex’s own, a rambling account in which he circled ever nearer to giving an explanation of something or other. It was as if he had taken a series of words at random from a dictionary and somehow made them all about him. Just what he meant was not certain, but what was clear was his sense of grievance against anything that came before his eyes.

Cutting through the mess of this, another, calmer hand had attempted to impose order, writing the word Testimony at the top of page 1 and at the end the words herewith do I, the abovementioned, entreat the undersigned parties to fulfil required expectations, may the gods damn us otherwise and may misery be our sole remaining experience in the life left to us, plus space to sign.

The second item was a steak knife. It had a comfortable wooden handle, like the knife you’ve always dreamt of owning.

The third item was a map of a coastal town two hours’ drive away, reduced to all locations within the radius of a twenty minute walk. On occasional junctions someone had written large question marks.

‘So what do you think?’ I asked.

‘He really needs to have a word with himself, doesn’t he?’

‘I mean the map.’

He pondered a moment. ‘Well. There are question marks. I’m guessing he wants us to ask questions.’

‘Ask who? And what?’

He shrugged. ‘We’ll work something out. There aren’t that many questions.’

He poured another and that was pretty much it for the night.

The next morning crawled out of the dark as if surprised by its own existence. Under a clay-coloured sky drizzle seeped and clung to your face like the breath of a sick dog. We took the train to the sea, and got off amid a rustle of black gowns and wimples.

‘Maybe he wants us to scope out retirement homes,’ I said, watching a gaggle of nuns proceeding carefully down the steep, cobbled hill. In the station car park were two seagulls fighting over the crumbs of a former squirrel.

I took the map out from my pocket. The nearest of the question marks was a short walk away, located in Chambers Road. On arrival we stood for a moment staring straight ahead, as if there were something we should be seeing.

‘To be honest, I was expecting something more.’

Morton looked around. ‘More than this? It has some nice, I don’t know, Edwardian terracing. There’s a well-tended skip over there. I can think of worse places to be doing precisely whatever it is we’re doing.’

‘The map shows a big question mark. And where there’s a big question there’s a big answer. I don’t see any answers here.’

I stood back as a pair of nuns walked past us and turned to watch them on their way.

‘Not yet,’ Morton said. He turned in a slow circle, looking up at the roofs, before shouting ‘who?

The nuns stopped suddenly, and turned to look at us. One of them caught my eye and scowled. She rolled her sleeve up to the elbow and with her free hand mimicked a syringe being inserted in the elbow crease. That’s what it looked like. Then the scowling pair turned and continued serenely on their way.

‘Um,’ I said.

He nodded. ‘Give me the map.’

He led us through the neighbouring streets, a brief route though one which confused in its complexity. Not five minutes later we emerged on Peritrophic Passage. Again, I was almost expecting to see a big punctuation symbol floating above the pavement, assuring us that we were going the right way. From where we had stopped we could see into the gardens of nearby houses. In one they were having a barbecue. A couple of nuns stood around drinking from plastic cups while another nun stood stoically under an umbrella, turning burgers with her other hand.

‘Your turn, I think,’ said Morton.

I looked around, took a deep breath, and called out ‘when?

There was a sudden burst of sizzling heard from the barbecue garden and I turned to see a cloud of smoke being wafted away from under the umbrella. One of the nuns carefully withdrew from the grill a yellowed, folded newspaper, which had got too close to the flames, and tossed it over the fence. I stooped to pick it up and when I glanced back they had regained their composure.

‘Let me see,’ said Morton, and I showed him the front page. It was written in an archaic calligraphy and the headline read – verbatim – ‘LOCAL BUSINESSMAN BLAH DI BLAH GRUDGE.’

Next we swung a right into Superfluous Crescent, which sprouted off the main road like a fattening appendix. We stood in the centre by a small playground area as we sought to locate the question mark. The street was quiet except for the regular creaking of a seesaw, on which sat two nuns, sombre faced as each slowly rose and fell.

‘Where did we get to?’ Morton asked, before answering his own question with another question, hands around his mouth, ‘what?’

The sudden intrusion of sound put the nuns off their stroke. One slipped backwards off the seesaw, causing the other to crash to the ground. She flailed on her back, caught up in her skirts, displaying to the heavens the soles of her shoes. And as we watched she began to wave one shoe emphatically, and waved it again, for all the world like one showing off her shoe.

Fourth and last was situated at the junction where Balls Road met Truncheon Avenue. One nun sat unobtrusively on a bench surrounded by luscious hedges, a large paper bag in her hand. I watched as she swigged deeply from it.

‘Just the one more then we can source us a pub,’ Morton said.

‘Okay,’ I said. I thought for a moment and then, eyes closed, I looked up and yelled ‘where?’

There was a gasp from the bench behind us. The nun stood up suddenly, and as she did so lost her grip on the bottle, which rolled down and down the hill before coming to a stop, dark liquid puddling out around the neck. It was pointing at the one building to be seen amid the greenery.

Morton clasped his hands together, pointing with his index fingers. I followed as he headed towards it.

The automatic doors let us through, and then I realised I had no idea what to say at reception. Fortunately the nun at the desk seemed to be expecting us.

‘Room 17,’ she said. ‘Don’t upset her and don’t stay longer than you have to.’

She returned the unlit pipe to her mouth and drew gently on it.

The patient in room 17 lay with her eyes closed. It was difficult to tell, given the ravages of illness, but she must have been in her 60s at least. Various machines attested to the fact she was still alive and I instantly felt a pang of annoyance on her behalf, that she couldn’t prove this without help.

She opened her eyes, slowly, and looked from Morton to me and back.

‘You’re not how I pictured you,’ she said. ’And Christ knows I’ve had plenty of time to picture things.’

‘And how did you picture us?’ I asked.

‘I thought I would see someone focused, efficient. Not cruel. One eye on the next job. Someone who saw me, and all my concerns, as trivia. Maybe that’s what I truly wanted.

‘To be honest, I will be disappointed if you haven’t come to kill me.’

‘Well,’ said Morton, ‘prepare for the disappointment of your life.’

Her eyes opened fully and looked around placidly. And on her death bed she tutted.

‘What went wrong in your lives that you ended up working for him?’

‘Well,’ said Morton, ‘there’s a bit of a funny story.’

‘I don’t know why we’re here, to be honest,’ I said. ‘And we clearly shouldn’t be here at this time.’ I looked at her drip, at the tube in her nose. ‘We should leave. I don’t know what’s going on here, but it seems too tragic for our involvement.’

I was about to leave, trying to drag Morton with me.

‘Nonsense,’ she interrupted. ‘I’ve had a great life. The end part isn’t quite what I’d hoped for, but there’s no way around that. I’ve seen liquids you can’t imagine, coming from places you don’t want to think about. But it’s been mostly fun. I’ve had enough life. I imagine you’ll be more entertaining company than the nursing staff, anyway.

‘You’ll want to know what this is all about. Or you might not. But listening to myself speak is one of the few joys I have left to me, so I will talk all the same. Sit yourselves down and try not to interrupt.’

Before this final journey to the coast, Clem had lived in our town. She told us the tale of a young woman with a troubled past, a difficult family background, escape and renewal. She hadn’t come to town for the advantages it offered but for the lack of hostility it suggested. She could be safe here; she could be her own self again, not a victim nor a walking issue. Though humble of face the town offered opportunities denied her previously.

‘You can’t imagine,’ she said. ‘No offence, but your lives seem very easy.’

She got a good job, then a better, she made money and settled in. Made friends and secured a place for herself. And then one day she went to a shoe shop.

‘Um,’ said Morton.

‘Yes, I know,’ she said. ‘At this point the story gets confused. I looked at a shoe and then nothing. Or something, according to your view.’

So, she looked at a shoe in a shoe shop, wondering whether to buy it or not.

‘I thought I was just looking at shoes as normal. It took three other people to tell me otherwise. Any thoughts?’

As she was in the shoe shop, choosing or not choosing her future footwear, Rex entered.

‘So they say,’ she said. ‘I have no memory of this. But apparently I angered him. Because I was looking at a shoe when he entered, and therefore for the first time in his life he wasn’t the most important thing in the room. A man like that expects to be looked at everywhere he goes, to be welcome or feared. Indifference is the worst thing possible for him. Even owning the town and all the people in it couldn’t do anything for his frail ego.

‘So yes, if you were expecting something more substantial… I had to be told this by others who were present. That’s how trivial a matter it was. People delighted in telling me how I could expect a bullet at any moment.’

‘For forty years,’ I said.

She laughed.

‘Give or take. I ignored it, and prospered. And I see you’re not here to kill me.’

‘Far from it,’ I said. We were sent here to collect something. I can’t tell you what.’

‘A shoe?’

‘It could be anything.’

‘A shoe, for instance.’

‘Like I said, anything.’

She turned to Morton. ‘You could look in the cupboard across the hallway. Maybe it will be obvious.’

Morton left the room; always a bonus.

‘And just why do you hang out with him?’ she asked. ‘He seems a bit of a twat.’

I shrugged. ‘Good question. I just think we’ve become too interknit to survive separately. Sometimes I worry that if we were to go our separate ways he would walk off with half my memories.’

‘Jesus,’ she breathed.

Next Morton returned to the room, clutching a single platform shoe. ‘Is this what you meant?’

‘Whatever,’ she said, and went back to sleep.

We walked back to the station in silence, until Morton stopped suddenly.

‘It even looks like him,’ he said. ‘Yikes.’

I was about to ask what he meant when I looked up and saw the station atop the hill. The two large windows in the front looked like empty eyes in a taut skull. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to think that Rex had designed the building to resemble his face. We continued up the cobbled spine.

‘Wait,’ I said. ‘Where have we just been? The base of the … spine?’

I bent over and waited for the vomit spasms to subside.

We didn’t talk on the train home. With or without a death sentence hanging over you life is short, stupid and undignified. That was the lesson I took from the morning. Morton passed the time by doing impressions of all the animals he saw.

At the station on our return was Zimena. She didn’t speak this time, just held out a hand for the shoe which Morton passed over. I couldn’t tell whether this constituted a win or a lose. Maybe even a draw, who can expect more than that in these times and in this world?

Whatever the future held, it seemed our continued subordination was no longer required. We strolled back home with our heads high, sat in the window waving to all and every. At Saint Pancras the next morning our dummies returned, bearded and tanned, wearing shell necklaces and with a new-found look of wisdom in their eyes.

We heard the explosion later that day, like everyone in town. I was making coffee while Morton was engrossed in whatever the hell it is he does with his time. Not long afterwards the doorbell rang. Zimena stood outside, with a man in a navy jumper.

‘You’ve seen the ambulance man’ she said, pointing to the man behind her. ‘This is to show you that the ambulance service are also in our pocket. Bear that in mind if you ever need emergency treatment.’

‘How is the little tyke?’ asked Morton.

‘Unsurprisingly well. While a pipe bomb hidden in a platform shoe might manage to hurt some people it turns out Rex has adequate recombinatory power.’

‘Putting on a brave face then?’

‘Situated as he is at the centre of everything that matters nothing has the power to surprise him.’

‘Worried about losing face, is he?’

‘As nothing happens without his foresight it follows that everything which happens does so with his tacit pre-approval.’

‘A bomb went off in his face, that’s what I’m getting at.’

‘We’re curious about our standing, of course,’ I said. ’It was kind of our fault.’

She nodded. ‘You should be aware that he doesn’t consider you to have any kind of agency. You couldn’t have known the old woman would try to kill him. As you are merely pieces in a game you can never hope to understand it would be ridiculous for him to blame you.’

‘It would be nice to have that in writing.’

She smiled widely. ‘Of course it would. We can do that for you. And how about a big bag of fucking money as well?

She took her hands from her pockets to depict an imaginary bag, then walked away. The ambulance guy shook his head disappointedly and followed.

‘So,’ I said, looking at the time. ‘We could get a takeaway?’

Morton laughed. ‘No lettuce for me!’

‘What?’

‘No lettuce for me!’

‘What?’

‘Given what’s happened. That’s all.’

Tosser.

 

 

Hammer Time

For his birthday last year we got Geoff a hammer. He’d been talking for ages about how much he wanted one. He used to speak of all the things he would hammer if only he had one. And for days after he opened the present he would hammer every available surface. He hammered in the morning. He hammered in the evening. All over this land.

One day while he was having a rest and trying to get the cramp out of his fingers he saw a bus heading at speed towards a low bridge. Without thinking he took up his hammer and hammered on the nearest available surface, which happened to be a silver Audi.

Later on, while the ambulance crew and fire engine were doing what little they could, he was asked about what had happened.

“Why didn’t you shout a warning?”

“I was hammering out danger,” was his reply.

“And how does that work exactly?”

“How was anyone supposed to guess that?”

“Thirteen people died, Geoff.”

“What happened to my car?”

About a week later Geoff was on a hill when he noticed a flock of pumas heading towards the village. He took his hammer from his pocket and pounded away at the hillside.

“What’s that – danger?” people said.

“Danger! Danger everybody!”

When Geoff was tracked down afterwards he explained what had happened.

“It wasn’t danger this time – it was a warning.”

“Well why didn’t you say? Those are two very different things.”

“What could we do with such incomplete information?”

It turned out we were expecting danger when it was actually a warning and so were inadequately prepared. Again Geoff’s efforts did nothing to prevent disaster. No puma went to bed hungry that night.

Geoff toned it down a bit after that. For a while people would flinch at any hollow pounding noise, fearing that he was at it again, but no hammering was heard for months.

And then one day Geoff walked into Londis with his hammer and started whacking the floor with it. There were shouts. Screams. People dropped shopping bags and ran.

“What is it now?”

“Danger?”

“A warning? Something in between?”

“Nothing like that,” Geoff replied. “I’m hammering out love between my brothers and my sisters.”

“You’re… what?”

“Eww.”

“Why would … Why?”

“This doesn’t mean anything at all.”

Geoff was left in no doubt as to what the village thought of his hammering now. It was the guesswork as much as the alarm which people feared. How to know if that whacking noise was the sound of him hammering out danger, or a warning, or just promoting incest? The place became quieter. Maybe in some ways less safe, but quieter.

This year we might just get him a sandwich toaster.

Waiting

‘We’re talking weeks, not months,’ she said, and with those words she imposed a frame on things, curtailed a life without ceremony. Not that there was any correct or easy way to say it, to ease the listener into the realisation that this was now their life, this brusquely truncated space. Those plans you had? Nah. Think again. Those things you dreamt of one day achieving? Not gonna happen. The horizon you never truly believed in is here, you can see its defined edge. So cancel those hopes, tear up that list of things never to be done. Because, and it can’t be said plainly enough, this is the end.

How much worse it must be, I thought, to be told this news when it’s about you. I’d only nipped in there to ask about my dad’s medication. I hadn’t technically parked legally and so didn’t want to hang around too much. Just to know how much he had to take and when. There were a few different tablets and I knew how absent-minded he could be at times. Come to think of it, I thought he’d been a bit quiet.

She looked puzzled for a moment, as if my gaping jaw had given something away.

‘You did know?’

A pause.

‘What did he say he was here for?’ she asked, sighing only slightly.

‘His back,’ I said. ‘It was playing up.’

She nodded. ‘His back was playing up. And the cough?’

‘He’s had that for years. We got used to it ages ago. I can’t see him complaining to you about that. If anything, we’d be concerned if he lost it. It’s just his cough.’

She took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. ‘It isn’t just a cough,’ she said.

On the way home Dad and I had the usual chat. By chat I mean I filled the silence by rambling on for as long as the car was moving. I assumed he was asleep most of the time; he usually was. It was only as I pulled up outside their home that I said ‘so. You have a bad back.’

He nodded.

‘So,’ I said to mum. ‘Bad back.’

She didn’t seem to hear, being intent on taking something out of the oven, putting something else in there and fiddling with what looked like a complicated system of plates. Strange to think tomorrow was Christmas. Time hadn’t really stopped that afternoon.

‘How long have you known?’

She put some plates on the table. ‘Only since October,’ she said. ‘Not long.’

We went outside, in part to escape the steaminess of the kitchen.

‘Lung cancer,’ she said. She lit up, striking the wheel on the lighter several times against the bitter wind before it sparked.

‘But he’s never smoked.’

‘Sod’s law,’ she said, exhaling from a corner of her mouth so as not to blow in my face. The wind blew it in my face.

 

Never smoked more than one cigarette – his brother daring him when he was an adolescent – yet thirty years on the shop floor among the hardened secondary smoke of decades caught up with him. Everyone has that grandad who got through a hundred a day for fifty years only to die from a chance snowboarding accident aged 98, but no one remembers the passive victims. People who just got along with things while their friends planted the seed which would one day sprout an ashy grey and papery end-piece to a mediocre life. They never looked cool on screen, never received more than flimsy pity, pathetic in its awkwardness. Though dad never, to my knowledge, expressed anger to anyone, yet I felt unproductive anger on his behalf.

I felt so useless the whole time that it was a nice change to be the one with the car. I felt like I was doing my bit, when the time came to take him to his doctor’s appointments. I would park up outside and send him in there, feeling oddly like the parent dropping a kid off at nursery, hoping he’d remembered to bring everything and that the other dads were being nice to him. And what did you learn today? It would reflect well on the gravity of the situation if I could say I spent all that waiting time ruminating on mortality. But in all honesty I played Candy Crush the whole time. Call that awareness of mortality – it’s certainly a way of sucking the hours from my days.

I was on a timed level when I was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. ‘Okay?’ I asked, not looking up. He made a reassuring noise.

I had no idea of what passed between him and the doctor. And I didn’t ask. Implicit in this whole thing since the C-word had first been uttered was that we would all put our fingers in our ears and sing over the noisy reality. Cancer, you say? Well, yes, that sounds scary, but… But it’s not the death sentence it once was. They can cure them all now, they’re clever like that. It helped that dad never let it get to him, never let it derail his cheerful old self. If life threw disease at him he would brazen it out with his bland refusal. If anyone could politely tell this illness not today, thank you it was him. Grind the carcinoma down with sheer bloody-mindedness.

And all this denial must have paid off in the end. We got to see a specialist, no less. Surely she would tell us the bright future that awaited, once this inconvenience was out of the way.

‘There’s no easy way to say this,’ she began. ‘You know about the tumours in his lungs, obviously.’

I nodded, hoping all the questions would be this easy.

‘Those tumours would be a manageable size, if that were all. But it isn’t all.’

There was a brief pause, in which I considered sticking my fingers in my ears and singing the No Cancer song.

‘The latest tests have shown that it’s no longer just the lung. It has spread to the spine.’

I nodded and smiled back at her, looking forward to hearing the solution to this rather awkward state of things.

‘You should know that we are no longer talking about cure. There are two options now.’

‘Well obviously we’ll go for the better one,’ I said, on top of things.

She sighed.

‘One option is chemo,’ she said. ‘It might shrink the tumours, reduce the discomfort for a while. But you would have to balance that with the obvious disadvantages. It won’t be kind on him, at this stage. It might postpone the worst of it, but the worst of it will still be there.’

‘And what about the better option?’ I asked.

She looked at me like I had said something very stupid.

‘Option two is palliative care,’ she said.

The room was silent for a moment.

‘Well, blatantly chemo is the better choice. Can you start tonight or should we wait until tomorrow?’

She looked at mum. ‘The second option would mean movement to a hospice. They’re amazing there. It wouldn’t be such a wrench. He’ll be comfortable.’

Mum nodded. ‘We’ve looked at the brochure. It says that –‘

‘She said chemo,’ I said. It was as if I was the only one there who had listened to the small print. ‘So, yes,’ I said to the doctor, ‘we’ll take that.’

‘It says that the grounds are situated in unspoiled woodland. That sounds nice. We’d like that.’

‘But –‘ I said.

‘Robert,’ she said, using my full name, something she did so rarely.

‘We’re just going to step outside for a moment,’ she said, smiling at the doctor.

 

In the corridor she began pacing. I could see her need for a cigarette, something to occupy her restless hands.

‘Didn’t you hear?’ I asked. ‘There’s still a chance.’

She shook her head. ‘No, Rob.’

‘She said! She said chemotherapy was still an option!’

‘To give him a brief extension of life. You heard her. There is no cure.’

‘How can you say that?’ I shouted, tears in my eyes. ‘How can we just give up now –‘

‘Rob –’

‘Would he give up on us?’

‘Rob –’

‘When there’s still a chance?’

‘Robert.’ And she gripped both of my shoulders. ‘It’s not about you.

I looked through the window, at dad snoozing in his chair. And in that moment I understood.

 

One of my sharpest memories of dad is of a family holiday, to somewhere which could be Kent or Dorset, or anywhere in between. I think I would have been about eleven. He and mum had set up our space on the sand, not too far from the sea. They had put the deck chairs up and put the picnic hamper out ready for when we would all feel the urgent need of a jam sandwich or a Tizer. I ran off down the beach, naked but for a pair of trunks, photographic evidence of which I would think of burning in later years.

I did the dutiful thing of wading briefly into the freezing grey waters, but soon found something else of interest, which the latest wave had brought in along with the seaweed and empty plastic bottles. On the foamy sand a deep purple circle of quivering stuff. A jellyfish. I knew better than to touch it, and so used the plastic spade attached to my plastic bucket to pick it up and ran back up the beach.

‘Look at this!’ I yelled, thrusting the spade excitedly in front of dad’s face. I was proud of my discovery and the practical application of knowledge from the text books I read so avidly. I held the spade excitedly over his lap while he snored gently.

That is honestly my clearest memory of childhood.

 

Things moved rapidly after that meeting, as if giving a name and a time frame to it made things more real and unavoidable. The question was no longer if but when.

And there came the day when dad moved, for the final time. He took a small suitcase, for all the world like he was going on a weekend away, and that the doors which closed behind him would one day open again. We personalised the room as much as we could, as if it were a temporary discomfort he would soon recover from. And then one day I had the call.

‘He’s taken a bit of a turn,’ mum said. ‘You should probably be here.’

That last afternoon we took turns to keep him company. There was no longer any pretence that this was anything less than goodbye. And there came the time for me to be alone with him. To say my goodbyes. But what could I say? That he was the best dad and I would miss him? That though I might have complained at times I knew that he strove always to give me the best life he could? That if I ever had children of my own I could only hope to be as conscientious a parent as he somehow managed to be, muddling through? So much to say and so little time in which to say it. I prepared a speech in my mind, all the things I had never been able to say, all the things he would never know of my future. I practised saying them all, over and again.

But then I was alone with him in that room, and the words froze in my throat. I knew in that moment that it could never have been otherwise. We just sat in silence for a while.

‘Shall I put the cricket on?’ I asked at last.

He made a positive sound. I switched the TV on and we watched in silence until visiting time was up. And I never felt as close to him as I did that day. He died that evening.

 

 

The False Rains of Africa

At a wedding reception a few years ago the band, so far sticking to crowdpleasers, began playing a song I didn’t recognise at all. Out of curiousity I turned round to the others at my table to see if anyone knew it, only to find them all enthusiastically singing along.

“I bless the rains down in Aaaafrica!”

They seemed surprised I didn’t know the song. It was very famous in the 80s, after all. Of all of us there I was the one who remembered the most about that decade and I insisted I had never heard it before. They looked at me with surprise and amusement.

The same song turned up at another wedding a few months later.

“Oh my God, they’re playing Toto! I love this song!”

And my valid objections to this statement were drowned out by the rumbling of feet hurrying off to the dance floor.

I heard it in shops. On the radio. At Christmas parties. Wherever there was airspace to broadcast it I heard it. From never having experienced it before that January my exposure to it had now increased by infinity per cent.

The thing is I lived through the 80s, and I can assure you that Africa by Toto was never played then. Not once. And you know why? Because it never existed.

This is the unalterable Truth I clung to. The reason I had never heard the song before was because no one had. It was written in January 2014 and spread to a select few. And it was only played in locations where it was known my ears would be. It was all a big prank at my expense and everyone I knew was in on it.

And I have to admit it’s a well-organised prank. For all of them to have kept it up for so long, even in the face of my unanswerable objections, is very impressive. One friend even went to the effort of faking a video for it, which she uploaded on YouTube and played at a party. The video was reminiscent of so many pop videos from the time. Most people would probably be fooled by it.

I like a practical joke as much as anyone. And I’m not too proud to laugh at myself. But there are limits. The time to own up to the hoax was the second time I heard it, at the latest. That would have been very funny. But to drag it out like this? That’s just tedious and frustrating.

It has been four years now.

You’d think they would know when to stop. There are friends I haven’t spoken to for months, because they couldn’t admit I was right. They would sacrifice friendship for the sake of a lame trick? And I still sometimes hear it when shopping. “I bless the rain…” How much time and expense went into something so ultimately pointless?

After a recent particularly bitter argument on the subject with my girlfriend I stormed out of the bedroom and settled down on the sofa bed. My mind was seething with righteous anger and for a time I could not sleep. But then I did, and I had a dream.

I was in a hospital bed, at the end of a long and productive life. My large and devoted family were all around. I smiled weakly up at my wife, at our children and grandchildren, and I said to her:

“Come on, now. Africa by Toto. There never was any such song, was there?”

And she looked down at me, a tear leaving her eye and a beatific smile on her dear face and said:

“Well, in actual fact -”

And then the cat was sick on my shoulder.