! A!Carrion! Kaleidoscope! Short&Prose&

! A!Carrion! Kaleidoscope! Short&Prose&
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A!Carrion!
Kaleidoscope!
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Short&Prose&
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by!Rose!McLaren!
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Contents!
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The!Seamy!Side!Without!
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Funny!Elegy!
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Father’s!Fruit!
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A!Book!of!Revelations!
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Conjurer!
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The!English!Eunuch!and!The!Old!Gentleman!
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FisherGPrice!
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Peaches!
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Sense!and!Sensibility!
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Singing!in!the!Dead!of!Night!
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The!Seamy!Side!Without!
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I!was!walking!along!University!Street!on!a!blustery!day!
when!suddenly!my!nostrils!were!assailed!by!the!smell!of!
human! shit.! It! was! powerfully! strong.! You! never! smell!
shit! like! that! on! the! streets! of! London.! Dogs! do! it! at!
pavement! level,! well! away! from! your! nose.! Pigeon!
droppings! are! odourless.! Public! toilets! or! portaloos!
have!a!more!mediated!scent,!disgusting!though!the!mix!
of! disinfectant! and! effluent! is.! This! was! the! real! deal,!
raw,! uncut.! I! looked! upwind! and! identified! the! source!
several!feet!ahead!of!me.!!
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It! was! a! man! who! appeared! to! have! just! escaped! from!
University! College! Hospital! –! the! exit! was! a! block!
behind! us! and! he! was! in! mint! green! patient! overalls.!
They!were!ripped!up!the!back,!torn!from!knee!to!armpit!
on!both!sides.!At!first,!the!openings!weren’t!visible,!lost!
in!the!folds!of!the!gown.!Then!a!great!gust!of!wind!came!
bowling! down! Tottenham! Court! Road! and! surging! into!
the!side!streets!in!potent!tunnel!drafts.!These!billowed!
out! the! man’s! jumpGsuit,! puffing! him! up! like! a!
parachutist.!Then!the!wind!rattled!and!shook!the!cloth,!
baring!great!swathes!of!his!behind.!The!combination!of!
smell!and!sight!was!overwhelming!in!the!weather.!It!all!
went!straight!from!him!to!me,!galeGforced!into!my!face.!!
!
I! had! struck! scatological! gold,! unsolicited! insight! into!
his! body! and! its! history.! Immediately,! it! offended! my!
sensibilities;! who! wants! to! know! that! much! about!
anyone?! And! then! came! the! social! concernsG! did! the!
staff! know! he! was! on! the! loose?! What! was! he! running!
away!from?!Where!was!he!going?!He!strode!towards!the!
traffic! lights,! not! so! much! oblivious! as! determined,!
unassailable,! wrecklessly! free.! And! I! realised! my!
niceties! of! thought! were! nonsense,! the! mental!
mouthings! of! good! citizenship.! What! I! really! felt,! for! a!
mad! moment,! was! jealous.! He! reached! the! end! of! the!
street!ahead!of!me!and!by!the!time!I!turned!the!corner!
he!was!lost!to!the!city.!!
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Funny!Elegy!
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The!pub!had!been!empty!for!hours.!The!only!people!in!it!
were! the! three! people! working! there.! We! were! five!
hours!into!the!marathon!Sunday!shift!and!had!six!to!go.!
Derek,! the! chef,! normally! stayed! in! the! kitchen,! even!
when! he! had! nothing! to! do.! I! used! to! wonder! what!
happened! up! there! when! there! were! no! orders.! I!
sometimes! ran! in! suddenly! to! try! and! catch! him! in! the!
middle!of!something,!but!he!was!always!doing!nothing.!I!
had! since! stopped! wondering! and! concluded! that! he!
was! dull! or! sly! or! possibly! both.! He! kept! himself! to!
himself.!!The!fact!that!he!had!come!downstairs!to!join!us!
at! the! bar! was! unusual! and! an! indicator! of! extreme!
boredom.!!
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Today!was!bad!because,!as!well!as!bored,!I!was!sad.!At!
the!start!of!the!shift!the!other!barmaid,!Marika,!had!told!
me! that! Steve! Lonely! had! died.! He! had! had! cancer! and!
had!passed!away!earlier!in!the!week.!Lonely!was!one!of!
my!favourite!regulars.!He!had!a!gravelly!East!End!voice,!
full!of!‘sweethearts’!and!‘darlins’.!We!had!bonded!over!a!
love! of! gangster! mythology! G! he! had! given! me! his! copy!
of! Reg! Kray’s! autobiography.! (His! pitGbull! terrier! had!
once! tried! to! tear! the! book! from! his! grip! so! the! cover!
was!pocked!with!mastiff!teeth!marks;!it!seemed!an!apt!
inscription.)!I!had!had!no!idea!that!Lonely!was!ill.!Once,!
much!to!my!surprise,!I!had!spotted!him!drinking!herbal!
tea!outside!a!local!café.!He!was!not!the!herbal!tea!type.!
After!a!big!hello,!I!cocked!my!eyebrow!at!the!cup!and!he!
grinned!stoically!and!explained!‘for!my!‘ealf’.!Silk!cut!in!
hand.!I!put!it!down!to!a!detox!fad.!After!all,!he!smoked!
like!a!chimney!and!averaged!six!pints!a!day!at!the!pub,!
those! only! the! preGprandials! I! served! him;! who! knows!
how! many! were! sunk! after! his! George! Foreman! grills.!
Yet!all!the!while!he!was!battling!death.!
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There!weren’t!enough!people!like!him!around;!it!was!a!
great!shame!that!the!few!left!were!going.!He!was!honest!
to!the!point!of!discourtesyG!too!loud,!too!coarse!and!too!
friendlyG!the!kind!of!customer!that!contemporary!gastro!
pubs!are!desperate!to!drive!out.!He!was!soiled!but!solid!
gold!and!I!was!sad!that!he!was!gone.!
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Marika! was! perkily! trying! her! best! to! cheer! me! up.! In!
vain.!I!found!Derek’s!gloomy!consolation!more!effective:!
‘we! all! have! to! die! some! day’.! He! was! a! man! of! few!
words.!In!this!respect!he!was!quite!a!tonic!after!the!run!
of! mouthy,! volatile! chefs! employed! by! the!
establishment.! There! was! nothing! really! to! be! said! in!
response!to!his!comment,!so!we!let!it!fill!the!silence.!‘It’s!
just! such! a! shock’,! I! said,! eventually,! thinking! aloud!
rather! than! addressing! anyone! or! point! in! particular.!
Derek! was! Polish! and! he! struggled! with! English.! This!
phrase,! for! example,! was! new! to! him.! He! looked!
puzzled.!‘A!shock?’!he!asked.!‘Yes,!a!shock’,!I!answered,!
‘like!a!surprise’.!‘Aha,!this!shock’!he!nodded,!looking!less!
puzzled.!Now!it!was!my!turn,!‘this!shock…?’!I!enquired.!
‘I!thought!you!meant!an!electric!shock’,!he!said.!‘Right’,!I!
said,!‘no,!I!didn’t’.!‘Hmmm’,!he!mused,!!‘there!was!a!story!
about!a!woman!who!died!from!electric!shock’.!!
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I! was! curious,! both! because! it! sounded! morbidly!
promising! and! because! Derek! seldom! exceeded! single!
sentences.! I! wondered! if! he! would! or! if! that! sentence!
was!the!story.!I!was!in!luck.!He!continued,!cautiously!at!
first,! stopping! every! few! words! to! check! that! we!
understood!him.!
!
‘It! was! in! a! tiny! village! near! Poznan,! near! my! family!
house,! few! years! ago.! There! was! a! couple,! very! very! in!
love,! going! to! get! married.! They! done! rings’.! Unsure! of!
his! intelligibility! here,! he! looked! at! us! and! gestured! to!
the! ring! on! his! marriage! finger! (it! was! the! first! time! I!
had!noticed!it.!I!knew!he!didn’t!have!a!wife,!at!least,!not!
any! more).! Confirmatory! nods.! ‘Anyway,! one! day,! at!
home,!she!change!a!light!bulb!or!something!and!shock.!I!
don’t! know! how…! with! the’,! he! poked! his! index! finger!
back! and! forward,! thrusting! at! the! air.! ‘Socket?’! I!
ventured.! ‘Yes! and! dzzzG! zzzzzzzzzzG! zzzzG! z’.! (He! did!
this! beautifully,! the! verbal! equivalent! paled:)!
‘Electricity’! I! offered.! ‘Yes.! Electricity! shock’.! Gaining!
confidence! in! his! dramatic! delivery! he! let! a! pause! fall.!
Then,! with! a! keen! sense! of! irony,! ‘instead! of! wedding!
they!have!funeral.!All!same!guests!same!day.’!!
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‘How!tragic’,!put!in!Marika,!dragging!out!the!‘a’.!
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I! would! have! assumed! this! was! the! end,! but! a! wolfish!
light!in!his!eyes!augured!more.!‘The!groom![his!Catholic!
vocabulary! is! always! on! the! money]! he! put! his! ring!
down! in! the! coffin! with! her.! The…’! he! broke! off,!
momentarily! at! a! loss.! He! made! a! slapstick! shovel! and!
spade!action.!‘GraveGdigger’!I!guessed.!‘GraveGdigger’!he!
echoed,!then!pointed!to!his!eye.!‘He!see!this.!Then,!after!
funeral,!he!go!down!to!get!it.!Both,!the!two’.!Marika!and!
I! were! faintly! confused! and! so! he! extrapolated,! vividly!
gesturing!with!his!hands,!‘he!bring!up!the!coffin!and!he!
take!the!groom!ring!and!try!to!take!the!dead!girl!ring’.!I!
gasped.! Marika’s! bottom! lip! curved! down! like! a! fish’s!
and! dropped! in! disgust.! ‘BaaGaat! [but]’! he! went! on,!
revelling! in! the! turning! point! of! the! tale,! ‘it! don’t! come!
off,!it!stuck!stiff,!he!can’t!get!it!out.!So,!he!have!to!cut!it!
off.’! We! both! grimaced.! ‘He! have! saw! and! cut! it! off’.!
Here,!with!graphic!manual!illustrations,!he!clarified!that!
the! gravedigger! attempted! to! saw! the! woman’s! whole!
finger!off,!rather!than!just!the!ring.!!
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Really! getting! into! the! swing! of! the! story,! he! went! on,!
‘but!when!he!cut!her!finger!she!wake!up’.!Marika!and!I!
looked! at! each! other,! incredulous! and! delighted.! ‘No!
way’,!I!shook!my!head.!‘Yes’,!he!rebutted,!‘cut!wake!her!
from!shock’.!We!smiled!in!glazed!silence!awhile.!!
!
‘Then!what!happened?’!I!asked.!‘Well,!they!get!married!
and! all! happy.! And! the! other! man,! the! thief,! maybe!
scared! he! get! in! trouble! or! frightened! and! he! run! off.!
The! girl! family! want! to! thank! him! and! try! to! give! him!
lots!of!money!but!he!gone!away;!nobody!hear!from!him!
again.’!
!
I!leaned!back,!exhaling!slowly,!before!asking,!‘is!it!true?’!
‘Yes!it!happen!few!years!ago!near!my!house’!he!replied!
matterGofGfactly.! He! wasn’t! smug! about! it,! nor! did! he!
hanker!after!our!reactions,!his!satisfaction!seen!to!in!the!
delivery! of! the! anecdote.! My! sadness! had! gone! and! I!
knew! for! certain! Steve! Lonely! would! have! loved! that!
story.!
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Father’s!Fruit!
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I! had! floated! into! my! parents’! bathroom,! unsuspecting!
and!unsuspected.!And!there!it!was,!bang!in!my!eyeline.!!
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As! a! little! girl! I! was! a! daydreamer! and! a! snoop.! These!
were! my! main! occupations.! I! would! wander! the! house!
rifling!through!drawers!or!drifting!away!with!the!fairies.!!
The!master!bedroom!was!paradise.!It!had!long!windows!
to! gaze! out! of! with! comfy! sills! to! idle! at.! And! it! was! a!
trove!of!exotic!treasures.!!
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In!my!father’s!bedside!table!I!tended!to!find!accessories!
and! medical! curiosities.! Once,! seduced! by! the! coastal!
landscape! on! the! picturesque! packaging,! I! popped! a!
Fisherman’s!Friend.!For!the!uninitiated,!these!are!cough!
lozenges! of! poisonous! efficacy.! I! soon! discovered! that!
the! quaint! packet! had! sugared! o’er! the! devil! himself.! I!
spat!that!out!in!a!hurry.!The!incident!probably!saved!me!
many!an!infant!overdose!though.!Thereafter!I!tended!to!
pass! things! through! my! mind! before! my! mouth,! or!
better! yet,! to! leave! them! unknown.! And! so! my! father’s!
prescriptions,! syrups,! pomades,! shoehorns,! cufflinks!
and! earplugs! remained! a! mystery.! They! held! all! the!
functionless!beauty!of!art!objects!to!my!wondering!eyes.!
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My! mother’s! dressing! table! husbanded! stranger! goods.!
Its! contents! furnished! a! belief! sustained! throughout!
much! of! my! early! childhood! that! she! was! a! witch.! She!
had! the! perfect! makings! of! one:! cold! beauty,! a! Mona!
Lisa!smile,!black!hair,!green!eyes!and!a!pointy!nose.!She!
even! came! from! LaplandG! a! textbook! witch.! But! these!
inklings! were! hardened! to! convictions! by! the! things! I!
dug! out! of! her! dressing! table.! She! had! hoards! of! tribal!
jewellery,! earings,! bangles! and! necklaces! from!
Zimbabwe.! With! alien! patterns,! bulbous! forms,! hooks,!
barbs! and! clasps! these! were! potent! articles! of! voodoo!
craft! to! me.! Then! there! were! her! potions.! Some! of! the!
sweeter! perfumes! contained! the! saccharine! menace! of!
the! gingerbread! house,! others! were! laced! with! more!
Darwinian! threatsG! the! botanical,! animal! or! womanly!
scents.!They!all!smelt!darkly!adult.!The!scariest!drawer!
in! the! chest! contained! a! set! of! innocuousGlooking!
envelopes! in! which! she! had! archived! hunks! of! human!
hair.! The! pencil! labels! revealed! these! to! be! locks! cut!
from! my! brother’s,! my! sister’s! and! my! very! own! head,!
all! neatly! named! and! dated.! This! was! nothing;! I! will!
never!forget!opening!the!box!that!housed!all!our!fallen!
teeth.!!
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The! adjacent! bathroom! was! not! truffling! ground;!
fascinated! and! repelled! by! it,! I! was! too! ambivalent! to!
thoroughly!nose.!It!was!overfamiliar,!foreign!and!bodily!
horrifying.! Everything! was! too! soft.! The! cream! carpet,!
apricot! walls! and! lowered! frouGfrou! swag! blinds!
enclosed! a! litter! of! cotton,! talc,! sponges,! fluffy! towels,!
quilted!toilet!paper!and!other!sickly!luxuries.!It!was!also!
much! too! warm.! The! air! was! often! greenhouse! muggy!
with! steam! and! the! filtered! light! came! through! the!
curtains! a! cloying! peach.! Most! significantly,! the!
bathroom!was!the!fleshiest!part!of!the!house.!I!had!not!
yet! encountered! full! frontal! nudity! but! here! I! would!
sometimes! chance! upon! bared! profiles! or! catch! flashes!
of! skin! moving! between! clothes! and! baths.! It! was!
alarming,! exciting! and! a! bit! much,! somehow!
indigestible,! like! an! oversized! piece! of! meat! in! my!
throat.!
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The! bathroom! was! attached! to! the! bedroom! through! a!
door!next!to!my!father’s!bedside!table.!You!walked!into!
the!bathroom!with!the!sink!and!mirror!against!the!wall!
ahead,!the!window!on!the!left!and!the!bath!on!the!right.!
Between! sink,! window! and! bath! was! a! very! small!
amount!of!space.!In!this!corner!I!met!my!father!striding!
forward!and!reaching!for!his!dressing!gown!on!the!peg!
behind! me! one! memorable! day.! ! He! was! completely!
naked.!Dangling!before!me!was!what!I!could!only!call!a!
monster.! It! was! entirely! different! from! the! rest! of! his!
figure,! like! some! nasty! joke! shop! appendage.! But! as! he!
moved!and!it!moved!I!realized!this!monster!was!a!part!
of! him.! It! was! probably! around! then! that! my! mother!
stopped!being!a!witch.!!
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A!Book!of!Revelations!
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I! was! taken! with! the! idea! of! taxidermy.! I! had! been!
crafting! sculptures! from! feather! and! bone! for! months!
and! they! were! becoming! halfGheartedly! morbid.! It! was!
time!to!up!my!game.!I!had!read!about!amateurs!stuffing!
roadGkill! and! found! instructions! on! the! Internet.! It!
didn’t! look! too! hard,! sort! of! culinary,! like! skinning! a!
rabbit.!!
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One! weekend! I! asked! my! dad! for! a! pheasant.! Now,! I!
don’t!like!that!he!shoots;!it’s!a!ridiculous!sport.!There’s!
something! embarrassing! about! hunting! such! brainless!
birds.! They! can! barely! fly;! it’s! trumped! up! puppyG
kicking.! But! I! needed! a! dead! animal.! Plucking! pigeons!
and! foxes! from! the! pavements! of! London! was! courting!
disease!and!killing!pets!was!probably!a!step!too!far.!This!
was!the!best,!the!only,!option.!!
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He!gave!it!to!me!after!Sunday!lunch.!I!took!it!home,!hung!
it!up!in!a!plastic!bag!and!went!to!bed.!Increasingly!I!was!
feeling!more!squeamish!about!taxidermy!than!I!cared!to!
admit.!Reality!was!fast!catching!up!with!the!idea.!Death!
didn’t!bother!me;!it!was!the!fact!of!the!insides.!Gutting!it!
frightened! me.! I! panicked! and! planned! to! freeze! the!
pheasant! for! a! later! date.! First,! though,! I! would! cut! off!
the!wings.!The!final!art!object!was!to!be!a!flightless!bird!
and!I!could!deal!with!hacking!at!the!outside!for!now.!
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I! stalled! a! few! days.! Towards! the! end! of! the! week! I!
worried! it! would! start! to! smell.! Thursday! morning! I!
decided! to! bite! the! bullet.! I! took! the! bag! down! off! its!
hook!and!carved!out!a!clearing!at!the!end!of!the!garage!
table.!The!room!was!packed!full!of!junk.!Backed!against!
the! wall! in! a! nook! between! tottering! piles! of! furniture!
with! an! unspooling! brocaded! footstall! blocking! the!
surface!ahead,!I!had!limited!space!in!which!to!work,!just!
enough!for!my!tools!and!my!prey.!!
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Since! I! was! only! clipping! the! corpse! exterior! I! didn’t!
wear! any! gloves.! Reaching! into! the! plastic! bag,! I! felt!
around!the!form.!Its!mass!was!cold!and!heavy!but!with!a!
light,! pleasant! surface! that! sat! strangely! upon! it.! My!
hands! wrapped! around! the! creature,! palms! down,!
thumbs! hooking! under! the! joint! were! the! wings! meet!
the!back,!fingers!fanning!out,!left!index!nestling!into!the!
stringy!neck,!little!fingers!reaching!around!the!sides!and!
into! the! edge! of! the! soft! down! underneath.! This! hold!
secured,!I!teased!it!out!of!the!bag.!!
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Laying! it! flat,! I! spread! out! the! wings.! They! were!
marvellous.!Such!a!splendid!mantel!for!such!a!dumb,!fat!
thing.! But! what! with! the! furniture! looming! all! around,!
there!was!not!much!light!by!which!to!admire!it.!I!moved!
closer! to! peer! at! the! markings! on! the! feathers! and! to!
follow! the! shifting! shades! of! the! mahogany! grain.! The!
subtlety!of!it!was!astonishing.!!
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Shoulders!hunched,!head!forward,!leaning!over!the!task,!
I!then!started!sawing!at!the!right!wing.!It!was!slow!but!
eventually!my!blade!began!to!thin!and!weaken!the!bone.!
When!it!was!brittle!enough!I!decided!to!use!the!shears.!
They!required!a!different!angle!of!approach!so!I!had!to!
put! the! bird! onto! its! back.! ! As! I! lifted! it! slightly! to!
accommodate! the! manoeuvre! it! came! very! close! to! my!
mouth.!If!it!had!been!a!person!I!would!have!been!about!
to! kiss! it.! I! twisted! it! around! drawing! its! right! side! up!
and!over!to!the!left!and!turning!its!front!towards!me.!As!
I!did!so!the!sawed!right!wing!flopped!inwards!over!the!
chest! and! then! swung! outward,! like! a! book! cover!
opening!to!reveal!a!riot!of!live!maggots.!!
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The! immediacy! of! the! physical! sensation! was!
indescribable.! ShortGcircuiting! thought,! let! alone!
language.!It!was!right!in!my!face.!I!could!practically!feel!
the!maggots!on!the!skin!of!my!cheeks.!No!time!to!close!
my! eyes! or! look! away.! They! covered! the! pheasant’s!
pectoral! region! and! filled! my! field! of! vision.! The! most!
powerful! impression! was! one! of! hyperactivity.! The!
energy!with!which!the!wormlets!writhed!and!burrowed!
was! something! that! my! retina! registered! with! explicit!
clarity! at! the! same! time! as! I! sensed! it! viscerally! with!
every! coil! in! my! stomach.! And! this! was! the! weirdness:!
what!I!saw!was!in!sync!with!what!I!felt,!as!though!I!were!
watching!a!projected!performance!of!my!intestines.!!
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I! didn’t! scream! or! drop! it.! I! was! too! shocked! to! do!
anything.! It! seemed! to! carry! on! forever! like! some! film!
looping! independently.! Eventually! I! gathered! my! wits!
and!got!rid!of!it.!I!wrapped!it!in!a!thousand!plastic!bags,!
a! sick! reverse! passGtheGparcel,! desperate! that! it! should!
never! be! opened! again,! and! threw! it! into! the! bins!
behind!the!house,!relieved!to!have!it!exorcised.!
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It! exists! now! as! a! moving! image! in! my! mind,! all! detail!
busy!in!rose!formation.!Brought!back!to!life!very!rarely!
and! only! by! certain! associative! triggers! G! a! baroque!
chandelier! turning! in! the! air,! nuclear! clouds!
rhythmically! mushrooming,! the! acid! antics! of! that!
satanic! painting! that! swirls! to! life! in! The& Devil’s&
Advocate;! the! smells! of! soil,! rotting! flowers,! stagnant!
water,!Barbour!jackets;!the!feeling!of!pushing!my!thumb!
through! a! fistful! of! clay.! Of! all! my! experiences! making!
art!it!is!the!most!vivid.!It!was!a!stumbling!block;!I!could!
do! nothing! with! it.! Though! banal! it! had! a! more! carnal!
impact! than! anything! I! had! made! or! come! across.!
Gallery! death,! Hollywood! horror,! what! pasteurized!
nonsense.! There! didn’t! seem! a! point! to! the! grotesque.!
Run!an!illGkept!abattoir!instead.!
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Years!later,!I!watched!a!silent!film!of!Hamlet!where!the!
prince! was! played! by! a! woman.! She! was! the! loveliest!
actor!I!had!ever!laid!eyes!on!and!though!she!spoke!not!a!
word,! she! haunted! the! text! on! the! title! cards! with! a!
strange! new! mystery.! I! had! first! seen! the! play! in! the!
depths! of! a! gothic! adolescence! and! in! my! mind! it! had!
been! cast! it! in! the! gloom! of! those! days! as! a! macabre!
masterpiece.! But! the! actress! had! unearthed! quite! a!
different!thing.!I!went!back,!reread!it!and!realized!I!had!
been!wrong!to!see!the!play,!the!bird!and!such!dances!of!
death! so! darkly.! The! grotesque! has! perverse!
prerogatives,! life! and! beauty! among! them.! A! carrion!
kaleidoscope,!churning!sense!to!dust,!it!harrows!up!the!
soul.!
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Conjurer!
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One!day!Moya!and!I!were!walking!along!Regent’s!Canal.!
Between! Angel! and! Bow! live! a! multitude! of! ducks! and!
geese.! They! strew! the! pathways! with! shit! and! we! had!
been!cursing!them!for!miles.!At!Victoria!Park!we!saw!a!
Canadian!Goose!heavily!squatting!by!the!water’s!edge.!I!
assumed! she! was! going! about! the! foul! business! of! her!
breed.!As!we!approached!from!behind,!she!began!to!stir!
and! shimmy,! shaking! her! tailGfeathers! at! us.! We! were!
inches! away! when! she! rose! right! up! onto! her! legs,!
whisking! her! backside! up! off! the! riverbank! to! reveal! a!
clutch!of!ducklings!underneath.!Like!rabbits!pulled!from!
a! magician’s! hat,! they! were! flourished! into! existence.!
She! had! been! so! flatly! seated! before! and! they! had!
appeared!so!suddenly!and!so!close,!as! though! her! very!
movement!had!produced!a!bouquet!of!birds!before!our!
eyes.! It! had.! It! lasted! but! seconds.! Like! starlings!
scattering!from!a!tree!at!the!spook!of!a!sound,!they!spun!
out!across!the!water!and!the!image!was!broken.!
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The!English!Eunuch!and!The!Old!Gentleman!
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Paul,! Hadas! and! I! were! smoking! on! the! studio! steps.!
After!idle!conversation,!Paul!observed!that!Hadas!didn’t!
talk! much.! She! likes! her! mysteries.! To! eschew! further!
needling,! she! batted! him! off! with! an! imperative.! ‘We!
done! enough! talking’,! she! said,! ‘you! tell! us! a! story’.! At!
first! Paul! resisted,! mumbling! halfGmodesties,! until! he!
coyly! came! round! with! the! rhetorical,! ‘have! I! already!
told!you!the!one!about!the!train?’!We!shook!our!heads,!
so!he!began.!!
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‘Well,!there!was!a!train!that!ran!from!London!to!Naples.!
It!stopped!in!Paris,!you!had!to!go!from!Gare!du!Nord!to!
Sud,!but!you!know,!you!could!travel!by!train!all!the!way!
from! England! to! Italy.! Anyway,! I! was! on! the! train! in! a!
twoGman! sleeper! cabin.! We! had! left! London! and! were!
approaching! Paris! and! in! the! evening! the! guard! came!
around.! I! was! on! friendly! terms! with! him,! see,! so! he!
steps! into! my! cabin! and! asks! if! he! can! have! a! word!
about! something.! And! I! say,! of! course,! what! do! you!
want?! [Paul! shrugs! his! shoulders! here! and! puffs! his!
chest! in! a! mockGmacho! gesture.]! Well,! he! said! to! me,!
there’s! an! Indian! lady! next! door! and! she’s! on! her! own!
with!a!group!of!Italian!men.!They’re!bothering!her.!She!
said!she!heard!your!voice!in!the!neighbouring!cabin!and!
knew! that! you! were! an! Englishman! and! that!
Englishmen! are! gentlemen.! She! said! she! would! feel!
safer! with! you.! She! asked! me! to! ask! you! if! she! could!
swap! with! the! other! passenger! and! sleep! in! here.! She!
said! she! knew! she! could! trust! you! because! you’re! an!
English!gentleman.!
!
‘Well,!of!course,!I!say.!So!I!quickly!wash!my!face,!do!my!
make! up,! you! know! [his! face! lights! up! recalling! the!
roguish! vanity! of! his! youth].! Then! the! other! passenger!
goes!into!the!other!cabin!and!this!lady!comes!into!mine.!
She’s!a!beautiful,!tall!Indian!woman!all!wrapped!up!in!a!
sari.! She! says! hello! and! thanks! me! and! says! that! she!
knew!that!she!could!trust!me!because!I!was!an!English!
gentleman.!Well,!yes,!of!course,!I!say.!!
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‘Anyway,! I! change! into! my! pyjamas,! get! ready,! you!
know,! get! into! bed.! The! room! is! tiny.! There! is! a! bunk!
bed! on! each! side! and! a! sink! in! between.! So! she’s!
standing!up!in!the!middle!of!the!room!and!she!drops!her!
sari.!Just!like!that.!Underneath!she!is!completely!naked,!
head!to!toe.!And!she!starts!to!wash!herself.!She!washes!
herself! all! over.! And! I’m! lying! there,! looking! at! her,!
trying!to!hide!my!erection.!She!is!very!tall!and!the!bed!is!
slightly!raised!so!my!head!is!in!line!with!her!vagina.!
!
‘And!in!a!way,!it’s!quite!insulting,!you!know,!because!I’m!
in!this!position!because!I’m!English,!because!the!English!
aren’t! a! sexual! threat.! Like! I’m! supposed! to! be! some!
kind! of! fucking! eunuch.! So! she! finishes! washing! and!
puts!on!her!nightgown,!and!it’s!completely!seeGthrough.!
Then! she! gets! into! bed! and! of! course! the! nightgown!
rides! up.! She’s! lying! there,! looking! at! me! with! these!
eyes,! these! big! dark! eyes.! And! I’m! lying! there!
desperately! trying! to! hide! my! erection.! Oh! god,! I! keep!
thinking,!should!I!make!a!move?!Maybe!I!should.!I!can’t.!
So!I!lie!there!cursing!the!fact!that!I’m!fucking!English.!!
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‘Anyway,! eventually! I! fall! asleep,! you! know,! because! of!
the! daGdum,! daGdum,! daGdum! of! the! train! [this!
accompanied!by!great!circling!motions!with!his!hands!in!
imitation! of! the! wheels][as! if! to! clarify! that! only! the!
heavy! rhythm! of! that! train! could! overpower! the! sex!
drive!that!would!otherwise!have!kept!him!up!all!night].!I!
wake! in! the! morning! as! we! are! pulling! into! Gare! du!
Nord.!And!I!look!across!and!she’s!gone.!And!everything!
is! gone.! The! room! is! empty,! all! my! possessions,! my!
suitcase,!my!wallet,!my!passport,!everything!gone.!!
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‘She’s! robbed! me.! I! kept! my! wallet! and! passport! down!
my!trousers,!you!know,!right!next!to!my!balls.!With!her!
long! fingers! she! must! have! reached! down! there! and!
plucked!them!out!without!me!even!noticing.!I!mean,!you!
know,! I! was! travelling! so! I! kept! them! right! here! [he!
points].! And! so! I’m! stuck! in! Paris! without! a! penny,!
hungry,!alone.!And!I!can’t!believe!it.!I!should!have!made!
a!move,!that!way!I!could!have!held!onto!her!all!night.!I!
should!have!fucked!her.!Yes,!yes,!instead!I!got!fucked.!
!
!‘[‘So! what! did! you! do?’]! Well,! I! rang! my! father! and! he!
came! to! my! rescue.! I! was! a! young! man;! I! was! only! 27.!
You’re! lucky! you! couldn’t! have! seen! me! back! then,! it!
would! have! killed! you.! [‘And! what! about! the! woman?’]!
Oh,! well! obviously! the! police! came! and! we! told! them!
about! it! and! they! said,! oh! yes,! we! know! her.! The!
gendarmerie,! you! know,! the! French! police,! they! said,!
yeah!yeah,!we!know!her.!I!was!another!sucker.!So!that’s!
it.! I! had! nothing;! she! took! everything.! And! all! because!
I’m!an!English!gentleman’,!he!sighed.!!
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‘No’,!said!Hadas,!‘she!heard!your!voice,!your!poshGposh!
voice,!and!knew!that!you’d!be!rich.!That’s!why!she!came!
to! sleep! with! you! and! steal! from! you’.! She! is! a! keen!
listener.!To!blunt!the!observation!and!restore!his!sense!
of! heroism,! she! added,! meekly,! ‘at! least! you! kept! your!
conscience’.!We!all!smiled!grim!smiles.!
!
Thinking! about! it! after! they! had! gone,! Paul’s! story!
brought! Karen! Blixen! to! mind.! Involuntarily,! he! had!
performed! the! pretty! moral! she! paints! at! the! end& The&
Old& Chevalier9! ‘Chivalrousness,! I! think,! means! this:! to!
love! or! cherish,! the! pride! of! your! partner,! or! of! your!
adversary,!as!you!will!define!it,!as!highly,!or!higher!than,!
your! own.’! But! Blixen’s! story! is! the! perfect! opposite! of!
Paul’s.! In! it,! a! gentleman! sleeps! with! a! woman! who!
transpires! to! be! a! prostitute,! as! he! discovers! when! she!
asks! to! be! paid! the! following! morning.! He! complies! at!
the!cost!of!his!dignity!to!preserve!hers.!Paul!didn’t!sleep!
with!his!woman!and!she!didn’t!ask!for!his!money!and!he!
didn’t!give!it!to!her.!It!is!Blixen’s! tale!retold!in!a!world!
saddled!with!circumstance!rather!than!led!by!will.!!
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Would!Paul!have!kept!her!honour!if!he!knew!what!she!
would!do?!Would!his!decision!have!been!different!if!he!
weren’t! trapped! by! a! train! or! bound! by! a! national!
stereotype?!The!chevalier!chooses!to!do!the!right!thing!
after! all! the! facts.! Paul! was! forced! before! them.! I! like!
Blixen’s,! but! I! prefer! Paul’s! story;! his! romance! admits!
some!reality.!!
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FisherGPrice!
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When! I! was! little! I! had! a! friend! called! B.B.! I! knew! she!
was!weird!but!that!was!why!I!loved!her.!We!played!the!
best!games;!she!had!a!mad!imagination.!She!also!owned!
a!pet!snake!and!would!often!give!me!things.!I!remember!
once! picking! up! a! beautiful! object! in! her! bedroom! and!
gazing! at! it! longingly.! A! swelling! bud! of! amber! glass,! it!
was!like!a!marble!in!size!and!texture!but!held!the!rarity!
of! being! urnGshaped.! You! can! have! it,! she! said.! I! hadn’t!
even!asked.!!
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Another! novelty! was! the! freedom! of! her! house.! Her!
mother! let! B.B.! do! almost! anything! she! liked! and! this!
liberalism! was! extended! to! friends.! I! generally! enjoyed!
running!amok!but!I!drew!the!line!at!films.!I!was!secretly!
scared! by! onGscreen! action! and,! while! impressed! that!
B.B.! watched! adult! features,! I! never! dared! join! in! the!
activity.! It! wasn’t! until! I! was! 12! that! I! lost! my! 18!
virginity!braving!Sleepers!with!her.!
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When! I! was! five! I! was! given! a! FisherGPrice! kitchen! set!
for! my! birthday.! It! had! a! special! place! in! my! heart! and!
not! only! because! it! was! the! most! lavish! gift! I! had! ever!
received.!That!birthday!began!in!the!attic!of!my!uncle’s!
bistro! in! Mallorca.! Presents! had! been! offered! and!
opened! in! the! ritual! tradition! and! breakfast! was! about!
to! begin! when! an! epic! thunderstorm! broke.! The! floor!
flooded! instantaneously! because! the! restaurant! wasn’t!
rainproof.! I! was! very! small! and! the! water! rose! quickly!
to!my!hips.!I!remember!seeing!my!skirt!swirling!out!at!
ninety!degrees!from!my!legs!and!thinking!that!I!wasn’t!
even! spinning.! My! brother! and! sister! had! been! playing!
on! the! beach! and! were! now! lost! in! a! whirl! of! crashing!
waves! and! lightning! so! my! parents! had! rushed! out! to!
find!them,!leaving!me!with!my!aunt.!!
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She!had!the!genius!to!set!me!safely!atop!the!toy!cooker.!
While! the! storm! raged! outside,! the! chefs! swore! below!
and!the!rest!of!my!family!tore!about!in!blind!panic;!I!sat!
upon!my!improvised!isle!and!rode!out!the!storm!playing!
with! fake! food.! All! the! plastic! pieces! were! lovely! to!
touch;! they! had! a! talismanic! quality! in! my! hands,! like!
powerful! charms.! In! the! FisherGPrice! kingdom! I! was!
inviolate.!
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When! I! turned! six,! I! had! a! birthday! party! with! all! my!
friends.! B.B.! was,! of! course,! invited.! It! involved! cakes,!
frocks,! games! and! more! temperate! English! weather.! I!
was!particularly!fond!of!hideGandGseek!or!sardines.!For!
most! of! that! day! little! girls! lurked! breathlessly! behind!
doors,!in!closets!and!under!beds!or!else!ran!around!the!
garden! sniffing! each! other! out.! My! older! brother! and!
sister! supervised! the! sport,! seeing! we! didn’t! stuff!
ourselves! in! airless! chambers! or! get! stuck! in! any! tight!
spaces.!That!is!all!I!recall!apart!from!planting!my!face!in!
a!bowl!of!flour!to!extract!a!prize!Smartie!with!my!teeth.!!
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Years! later,! around! my! early! adolescence,! I! unpacked!
the!FisherGPrice!set!from!a!box.!‘Oh!my!god’,!my!brother!
said!when!he!saw!it,!‘your!friend!B.B.!was!seriously!odd.!
Do!you!remember!that!birthday!party!you!had!the!year!
after! the! thunderstorm?! [I! nodded]! Well,! when! you!
were!all!outside!I!saw!B.B.!coming!out!of!the!playroom!
with!this!mental!grin!on!her!face.!She!put!her!fingers!up!
to!my!nose!and!said,!“smell!”!!And!it!was…!you!know.!I!
went!into!the!playroom!to!see!if!anyone!else!had!been!in!
there! with! her! and! there! was! only! that! kitchen! set.! I!
went!to!check!it!out!and!she!had!been…with!the!FisherG
Price!fruit!’!
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At!the!time!I!pretended!to!get!it!and!responded!vaguely!
but! enthusiastically! in! a! manner! I! hazarded! as!
appropriate.!I!then!promptly!forgot!all!about!it.!!
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Recently,! I! saw! the! FisherGPrice! logo! somewhere.! It!
struck! me! as! a! dirty! name! for! a! manufacturer! of!
children’s! toys! but! for! a! few! seconds! I! couldn’t! think!
why.!!
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Peaches!
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‘Why!is!John!called!Peaches?’!I!asked.!The!question!had!
been! bothering! me! for! months.! I! was! working! at! The!
Feathers,! an! alcoholics’! dive! in! Marylebone! where! the!
regulars! specialized! in! sobriquets.! It! fostered! a! family!
feeling! of! sorts,! if! dashed! with! the! cruelty! and! blurry!
affection!more!common!among!drinkers!than!kin.!!
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There! was! Anne! the! Man,! a! grand,! androgynous! lady!
with!a!baritone!voice.!Kiwi!Steve,!so!called!on!account!of!
his! New! Zealand! origins! and! to! distinguish! him! from!
Snowy! Steve,! the! whiteGhaired! crossword! champion.!
Disco! Dave’s! title! referenced! the! rave! days! that! had!
preceded!his!dazzling!career!as!an!estate!agent.!Monkey!
Boy!was!kindly!coined!for!the!sorriest!boozer!of!the!lot,!
Latch,!who!happened!to!be!Pakistani.!James!Carrington,!
the!cockney!clown!of!the!gang,!cut!his!name!to!gangster!
initials,! a! selfGdubbed! JC.! All! women,! including! myself,!
were! Dorises.! Last! and! best! of! them! all! was! Desmond!
Eugene! Francis! BeasleyGSuffolk,! a! catholic! aristocrat!
gone!to!seed!and!the!landlord!of!the!establishment,!aka!
Dez.!
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I! had! never! got! to! the! bottom! of! Peaches.! It! was!
incongruous! with! the! pointy! little! man.! His! frame! was!
average!to!small!and!wiry:!skinny!legs,!bony!fingers!and!
a!thin!wrinkly!neck.!He!had!silvery,!balding!hair!and!his!
eyes,!brows!and!nose!were!all!sharply!shaped!giving!his!
face!a!faintly!foxy!demeanour.!Perhaps!most!distinctive!
were! the! fearsomely! precise! movements! that! gave! him!
the!bearing!of!a!strict!schoolmaster.!In!short,!there!was!
nothing!soft,!round!or!luscious!about!him.!Nor!was!he!in!
the!fruit!business.!!
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Why!was!he!called!Peaches?!
!
It!was!unlikely!I!would!find!out!from!him,!for!he!was!a!
guarded!man,!more!reserved!than!the!rest.!He!tended!to!
come!in!a!few!times!a!week!at!around!half!ten!or!eleven!
to! catch! last! orders.! He! only! ever! drank! bitter! ale! in!
modest!amounts!and!usually!retired!to!a!corner!to!read!
the! paper! by! himself! or! squint! into! space! while! he!
sipped! his! pint.! I! rarely! saw! him! talk! to! anyone! other!
than!Anne!the!Man.!If!she!was!in!he!would!sit!beside!her!
and!they!would!talk!quietly.!
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!So! I! asked! Kiwi! and! JC.! They! looked! at! each! other.! JC!
pulled! a! comedy! face.! ‘WeGheGhell’,! Kiwi! chuckled,!
‘There’s!a!name’.!He!let!it!hang.!‘Alright,!I’ll!tell!you’,!he!
sighed,!shamming!reluctance,!before!eagerly!beginning.!
‘One! night! we! had! all! been! drinking! here,! you! know! [I!
did].! And! it! was! getting! quite! late! and! we’d! had! a! few!
spliffs.!We!were!at!the!stage!where!we!didn’t!want!to!go!
home!but!we!didn’t!know!where!to!go!next.!Pretty!much!
everything! around! here! was! shut! at! that! time! and! we!
were! wondering! what! to! do! when! John! pipes! up! and!
says,!why!not!come!back!to!mine?!I’ve!got!a!place!round!
the!corner.!Now!this!was!the!first!we’d!heard!of!it!and!to!
be! honest! we! were! quite! surprised! he’d! suggested! it.! I!
mean! John’s! a! shy! guy.! But! we! were! pretty! bored! and!
nowhere!else!was!open,!so!I!guess!we!thought!why!not?!
Anyway,!one!way!or!another!we!all!ended!up!there.!!
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‘He!had!this!top!floor!apartment!in!this!fancy!block!not!
far!from!here.!It!was!dead!posh,!nicely!furnished,!cream!
carpets!and!so!forth.!Well,!we!walked!up!the!stairs!and!
through! the! front! door! and! there,! in! the! entrance! hall,!
were!rows!and!rows!of!umbrella!stands,!all!full!of!canes.!
Proper! canes,! right,! not! old! men’s! walking! sticks.!
Hundreds!of!them,!all!shapes!and!sizes.!And!of!course,!I!
was! wondering,! what! are! these! for?! What! the! hell’s!
going!on!here?’!
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He!looked!at!me.!I!was!as!slow!as!him.!As!always,!he!let!
JC!steal!the!punch!line:!‘he!runs!a!spanking!club,!innit.’!
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Sense!and!Sensibility!
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After!a!freezing!wait!at!the!station,!I!had!caught!the!last!
bus!back!from!Willesden!Junction.!I!settled!on!a!seat!in!
the!middle!of!the!back!row,!relieved!to!be!in!the!warm!
and! heading! home.! A! drunk! was! lurching! about! the!
middle! of! the! bus.! He! was! enormous! which!
unfortunately! exaggerated! his! movements.! Hasty!
braking! sent! him! sprawling! over! the! seats! in! front! and!
then!reeling!back!into!those!behind.!The!engine!judders!
buckled! his! knees! so! that! he! would! start! to! sag! in!
ominous! slow! motion! until! he! was! unceremoniously!
pulled!up!by!a!bump.!And!if!he!was!ever!straight!or!still!
for!a!second,!a!sharp!or!even!gentle!turn!soon!had!him!
careering! in! either! direction.! Eventually,! a! combined!
judderGbreakGturn!completely!felled!him.!!
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As!the!manoeuvre!set!him!off!balance,!he!swayed!dizzily!
in! a! circle,! a! grim! parody! of! a! little! girl! hulaGhooping,!
until!he!leaned!back!too!far!and!then!overcompensated!
and! pitched! forward,! lunging! into! the! bus! doors.! He!
would! have! gone! straight! through! them! were! they! not!
shatterproof.! Instead! he! fell! cheekGfirst! into! the! glass,!
down! which! he! slid,! his! face! pressed! against! it,!
distorting!grotesquely!with!his!descent.!The!worst!of!it!
was! that! the! bus! had! come! to! a! halt! at! a! stop.! As! his!
head! neared! the! floor,! the! doors! opened.! His! body! had!
landed! heavily! and! was! securely! anchored! by! its! own!
bloated!weight!so!there!was!no!danger!of!him!flying!out.!
But! his! head! flopped! over! the! threshold,! aligning! his!
brows! with! the! edge! of! the! bus! floor! and! laying! his!
crown!just!beyond!it.!The!doors!then!tried!to!close!upon!
him! and! couldn’t! but! stubbornly! repeated! their! efforts,!
opening! and! closing,! opening! and! closing,! thus! boxing!
his!skull.!!
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His! head! seemed! to! be! made! of! iron.! Like! the! rest! of!
him,! it! was! large,! solid! and! impressively! resilient.! The!
only! effect! of! this! battering! was! to! gradually! push! his!
pate!back!into!the!bus!so!that!the!doors!could!properly!
shut.!In!the!course!of!his!tumble!his!trousers!had!come!
down,!exposing!his!entire!backside!to!all!passengers.!He!
didn’t! seem! to! notice,! though,! and! lay! on! his! front,!
apparently!unharmed!and!burbling!as!before.!
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Soon! another! stop! loomed.! As! the! bus! drew! in,! we! all!
realised!what!might!happen!and!a!man!went!forward!to!
pick!him!up.!This!was!no!mean!feat!and,!though!slight!of!
build,! the! kind! stranger! proved! surprisingly! strong.! He!
rolled! and! hauled! the! drunk! into! a! vertical! position,!
handling! his! alarming! swerves! as! a! jockey! might!
manage! a! skittish! horse! and! speaking! to! him! in! much!
the! same! manner:! ‘whoa! there…easy! now…! alright!
mate,! alright’.! The! stranger! then! dusted! down! the!
drunk’s! shoulders,! patted! them! firmly! and! returned! to!
his! own! seat.! To! which! the! drunk! managed! an!
inarticulate! but! intelligible! slurp! of! gratitude.! Now! up,!
his!eyes!swam!about,!gauging!his!new!position.!He!still!
had! not! noticed! that! his! tracksuit! bottoms! were! down!
around! his! knees.! A! TGshirt! covered! his! crotch! in! front!
but! was! ruched! into! his! jacket! at! the! back! so! that! his!
behind!stayed!fully!bared.!
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He! stood! there! giddily,! unaware! of! himself! but! slowly!
taking! in! his! surroundings.! After! a! few! minutes,!
something!through!the!window!caught!his!eye!and!dim!
recognition!dully!lit!his!face.!Somebody!doubleGguessed!
him! and! hit! the! request! button.! He! staggered! warily!
towards! to! the! doors! and! at! the! next! stop! shuffled! off!
into!the!cold!night.!Mooning!away.!
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As!he!headed!down!the!Harrow!Road!I!saw!him!pawing!
at!his!lumbar!region.!His!hand!then!moved!lower,!lower,!
lower! and! finally! located! the! top! of! his! trousers.! He!
hoiked! them! up! deftly! and! with! a! certain! swift!
prissiness,! the! way! a! woman! might! adjust! a! bra! strap,!
with! an! efficiency! born! of! discomfort,! embarrassment!
and!dignity.!!
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Singing!in!the!Dead!of!Night!
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We! found! it! in! the! window! casement! halfway! up! the!
stairs!to!my!room.!The!casement!was!a!tiny!recess!at!the!
turn!in!the!stairs,!barely!big!enough!for!a!small!child!to!
sulk!in.!It!was!normally!occupied!by!a!clutch!of!stuffed!
animals! that! were! not! loved! enough! to! stay! in! my!
bedroom,! but! onceGloved! enough! to! make! throwing!
them! out! difficult.! The! casement! served! as! a! limbo! to!
delay!or!mollify!the!thought!of!their!final!departure.!!
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One! day,! my! sister! and! I! saw! something! move! in! it.! It!
was!at!first!hard!to!identify!its!source!among!the!motley!
skeins! of! fur! and! felt.! For! a! moment,! we! believed! our!
toys!were!coming!to!life,!as!often,!enviably,!happens!in!
stories.! This! brief! fantasy! became! real! exhilaration!
when!we!realised!that!the!movement!originated!from!a!
live!bird.!!
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Presumably,! it! had! flown! into! the! windowpane! and,!
concussed!or!dazed,!sunk!to!its!base.!It!was!not!our!first!
encounter!with!such!an!event.!We!had!often!found!dead!
birds! below! the! veranda! windows.! Our! father! had!
explained! to! us! that! birds! couldn’t! see! or! understand!
glass! so! they! flew! straight! into! it,! sometimes! smashing!
themselves!to!death.!But!we!had!never!found!one!alive!
before.! This! was! exciting.! In! its! injured! state! the! bird!
moved! with! a! grotesque! awkwardness! that! was! highly!
theatrical.! It! was! struggling! to! fly,! jerkily! flapping! its!
broken! wings,! which! twisted! and! convulsed! its! entire!
frame.!We!watched!it!for!a!while.!It!alternated!between!
spells!of!spasmodic!activity!and!exhausted!collapse.!
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Then! we! wondered! what! to! do! with! it! and! concluded!
that! we! should! look! after! it! ourselves.! There! was! an!
unspoken! agreement! that! we! would! not! tell! Mama.!
Cautiously,!I!picked!it!up.!It!was!too!tired!to!resist!but!I!
could!tell!from!vain!thrashing!of!its!head!and!impotent!
gestures! of! alarm! that! it! was! not! happy! being!handled.!
As! my! fingers! closed! loosely! over! its! chest! I! could! feel!
its! heartbeat,! a! frantic! thrumming! that! expressed! its!
anxiety!in!a!way!I!found!disturbing.!It!was!very!fast!and!
seemed! to! be! escalating,! like! a! drum! roll! anticipating!
something!bigG!sudden!death!or!bursting!into!flames.!
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I!carefully!guarded!our!newfound!treasure,!cupping!him!
into!the!cavity!below!my!ribs,!while!my!sister!ran!to!the!
kitchen!to!fetch!a!box.!She!found!one!that!had!been!used!
for!spices!and!was!labelled!Paprika,!which!struck!us!as!a!
suitably!exotic!name!for!our!bird.!Inside!it,!we!fashioned!
a!bed!of!toilet!paper!and!laid!him!in!it.!Then!we!looked!
down! adoringly! like! proud! parents! and! decided! that!
Paprika!was!a!he.!
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We! were! fascinated! by! his! movements.! Everything! he!
did! seemed! wondrous:! when! he! fell! asleep! and! we!
worried!he!was!dead;!when!he!woke!up!startled;!when!
he! blinked! confusedly;! when! he! ate! the! seeds! we! fed!
him;! and! when! he! pitifully! flapped! his! broken! wings.!
More! wondrous! still! were! the! stranger! things! he! did;!
these! convinced! us! he! was! truly! an! original.! He! would!
emit!high,!strangled!noises!from!his!throat,!which!were!
probably!produced!by!a!broken!windpipe,!but!we!were!
certain!he!had!the!talent!of!an!odd!instrument.!He!also!
periodically! twitched! in! unexpected! places.! Though!
these! must! have! been! the! desperate! reflexes! of! an!
invalid,! we! saw! them! as! the! inspired! impulses! of! a!
shaman.!!
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Equally! exciting! was! our! charge! of! him.! To! have! total!
power! over! the! life! of! such! a! beautiful,! fragile,! little!
thing! was! thrilling.! Even! the! concern! provoked! by! his!
pain,! anger! or! unease! was! enjoyable,! in! its! own! way.!
The! thought! that! we! had! saved! him! and! were! nursing!
him! back! to! life! was! particularly! gratifying.! We! didn’t!
think! on! the! end! result! of! our! help.! It! was! a! presently!
absorbed!mindset!that!looked!not!to!the!future.!Perhaps!
this! was! in! some! way! willed;! the! thought! of! him! flying!
away,!healed,!was!too!much!to!bear.!
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We! looked! after! him! intuitively,! having! no! idea! what!
birds! ate! or! drank,! what! positions! they! slept! in,! what!
made! them! happy.! His! little! cot! was! a! work! of! art,! he!
was! the! envy! of! many! an! inferior! toy! so! we! never!
questioned! his! comfort! on! our! watch.! ! We! were!
especially! smug! about! the! breathing! holes! we! had!
remembered! to! punch! in! his! box;! this! was! surely! the!
height!of!responsibility.!!
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It!felt!like!he!had!been!with!us!his!small!lifetime.!It!was!
a!day!and!a!night.!The!next!day,!in!a!break!from!playing,!
we! went! to! check! on! him.! To! our! complete! and! utter!
horror!he!was!dead.!We!wanted!to!hope!on!the!contrary!
but! some! foreboding! instinct! quashed! any! ambiguity.!
His! febrile! little! form! was! entirely! lifeless.! It! appeared!
more!graceful!now!than!it!had!done!when!animated!by!
his! abject! efforts.! In! fact,! he! looked! like! an! ornamentG!
too! pretty! and! detailed! to! have! ever! been! alive.! The!
compact!weight!of!him!now!felt!wrong,!he!ought!to!have!
been!light!and!airy!like!the!stuffed!birds!we!clamped!to!
the! Christmas! tree.! It! was! like! a! measure! of! guilt,! this!
certain!heaviness.!!
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We!assumed!sorrow!and!wore!black!for!the!rest!of!the!
day.! We! were! conscious! of! outrageG! it! wasn’t! fair,! we!
had! looked! after! him! perfectly.! There! was! also! a! latent!
strain! of! fear! that! we! might! be! in! trouble! should! the!
dead!bird!be!discovered.!But!strongest!of!all!the!feelings!
was! the! strange,! sad! guilt.! It! was! dark! and! vague,! not!
understood,!but!felt.!!
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His!box!was!his!coffin.!We!buried!him!in!the!woods.!
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