Wanderlings

April 25, 2015

It’s amazing to me how few people today have even heard of Sir Hugo Pennington. I only vaguely knew the name myself until I was researching for my PhD on, well, let’s just say, the wilder shores of science during World War II. When I began reading up on him, I could hardly believe my eyes. There in the British Library, for anyone to see, were his blueprints for such things as a cloaking device for bomber planes and, most incredibly of all, a force-field generator to blanket all of London, devised to be set atop the dome of St Paul’s.

Of course, none of these came to pass, but there must have been other things that did, no doubt shrouded by the Official Secrets Act for decades still to come. Pennington, a precociously young man then, was a favourite and close confidante of Churchill, and that was an honour accorded to just a special few. But, in spite of the knighthood in 1945, they had fallen out badly by the end of the war. Pennington wrote an impassioned article decrying the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, and Churchill cast him out into the wilderness, as only a man who has known his own wilderness can so effectively do.

Little evidence remains of what he worked on after the war, just some tabloid headlines from the 1960s. Clearly he was one of their choice figures of fun when news was short: “POTTY PROF SAYS CARS WILL RUN ON WATER!” blared a typical one. After that, it was just the obits. He died in 1972, aged sixty, ‘after a long battle with illness’. He left no children, but a widow, Hortensia.

I found an address and wrote to her, asking if I could send her some questions that would help with my research. I didn’t expect to hear back, given that she was in her eighties. So I was astonished when the thick cream envelope arrived, and even more so when I read the hand-written card inside, the writing slightly shaky but elegant and distinctive:

‘My dear Mr Grahame, it would be a pleasure to meet you to talk about my beloved Hugo. Please be so good as to telephone Cracknell at this number and he will arrange a date for you to visit me at Wanderlings for tea.’

When my old Fiat crunched onto the immaculate gravel drive of Wanderlings House, a week later, I nearly drove into an ancient yew, so breathtaking was the house and its setting. Designed by Lutyens, with a steep mansarded roof and hung at first-floor level with faded russet tiles, it perched on a ridge of the South Downs, so the back of the house and its gardens had sun-filled vistas from morning to night. It was quite the most perfect house I had ever seen.

The door was opened by a manservant – Cracknell, I now know – who led me through the house towards the gardens. Wanderlings was as lovely inside as it was out. Oak-panelled walls were covered with beautiful paintings – not dark ancestral portraits but light, airy landscapes and elegant nature studies. There were Ming vases of wild and cottage-garden flowers, squashy old sofas and faded Indian rugs, and the aromas of beeswax and woodsmoke.

As we passed a grand piano covered with photographs in silver frames, two caught my eye. In the first, there was Pennington, shaking hands with Churchill. Pennington must have been no more than thirty but looked middle-aged, as every adult did in those days, with greased-back hair and government-issue spectacles. Churchill looked, well, like Churchill. They were regarding one another seriously, formally. But there, at Pennington’s side, her arm tightly linked in his, her whole posture indicating pride in her man, was a simply radiant girl, beaming dazzlingly at the camera. Her fair hair was floating about her face as if she had just shaken her head and, despite the elegant little peplum-waisted, hound’s-tooth-checked suit that she was wearing, on looking closely I could see that she had kicked off her shoes. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought of this wild child in the presence of Britain’s Bulldog. In the second picture, she was again on Pennington’s arm, perhaps a year later, and this time in a simple bridal gown, surrounded by family, outside a church whose windows were boarded up against the Blitz. I had not thought her smile could possibly be broader, but it was, and it had clearly infected Pennington, because he was beaming too.

Cracknell coughed quietly and I took my cue to continue out onto the colonnaded terrace. It was a perfect September afternoon, and the great oaks in the valley cast their shadows over mown hayfields, languid Jersey cows and dozing sheep. Beyond a stand of rustling poplars I could see an ornate little summerhouse set on the bank of a stream. There was barely a cloud in the sky, and a lark was tumbling music overhead. I felt I had stumbled into paradise.

I followed Cracknell down the gently sloping lawns to where Lady Pennington was waiting, at a small table already set for tea, an elderly chocolate Labrador dozing at her feet.

“Lady Pennington? Michael Grahame.” I extended my hand.

“Oh do please call me Polly, everyone does.”

She took my hand and looked up at me, and there was that dazzling smile. Her fair hair was silver now, of course, and held up loosely with Oriental lacquered pins. Her face was lined, her hands knotted and spotted with age. But her eyes, a clear blue-violet and dark-lashed, were still those of that young woman in the picture. Ageless, and beautiful. I confess I fell a little bit in love with her at that moment. I suspect she had that effect on most men, probably even Churchill.

“Polly?” I queried, trying to work out how that derived from Hortensia.

She laughed. “It’s what Hugo always called me. Neither of us much liked the name Hortensia – rather blowsy flowers, I always think – so he called me Polly because I was always drawing and painting.”

She saw my blank look.

“You know – ‘Polly-wolly doodles all the day’!”

It was only then that I noticed the easel behind her, and the smudgy palette on the stool beside it, and indeed that the dress she was wearing was actually a faded chambray artist’s smock.

As if politely to cover my confusion, she rang the tiny silver bell that lay beside her plate. Moments later Cracknell bore to the table a tray of tea, cucumber and salmon sandwiches, and a three-tier stand laden with tiny butterfly cakes.

We talked for what seemed like hours. Of his work and his inventions, and of his pain at being ignored and ridiculed (and of hers on his behalf). But also of how they met, she fifteen and broken-hearted at the injury that had ended her dreams of becoming a dancer, he twenty-five and just down from Cambridge, and so handsome, she said, that her heart healed the moment she first saw him. Of their life together, and their travels in Greece, and Italy, and the Far East. Of his final illness …

When we had finished with all the questions in my notebook, I began to sense that the meeting was drawing to a close, but I plucked up courage and began: “Polly, when Hugo died…”

“Oh, my dear, he didn’t die, he just disappeared,” she said, smiling.

I took it to be an old woman’s fanciful expression and continued.

“Well, when he… disappeared, you were only, what, fifty? Did you never consider marrying again?”

“My dear boy, how could I?”

I let it pass.

“And how do you spend your days now?”

“Well, to be honest with you, Michael, these days I don’t leave Wanderlings a great deal. I have a seemingly endless supply of great-nieces and nephews who fortuitously appear to enjoy coming to visit me. I paint – did you see my paintings in the house? – and I supervise the gardener, much to her displeasure, and the cook, much to his. And I read a great deal… and I wait.”

“Wait?”

“Yes, I wait for Hugo. Every day.”

From within the house came the faint notes of a clock, chiming five.

“Good heavens, is that the time? I am so sorry Michael, you will have to excuse me, I have an appointment that I cannot miss.”

She rang the bell again and Cracknell came down the steps from the terrace.

“Cracknell, would you be a dear and show Michael out? Oh, and there is a notebook of Hugo’s that I would like to loan you, Michael, I think you will find it useful in your work. You can return it to me the next time you visit. Cracknell will get it from the office while you have a look at my paintings.” She smiled once more, and turned away.

I watched her walking down the lawns, towards the stream by the summerhouse, the old dog waddling, stiff but devoted, beside her. Despite the silver-topped cane she carried, she seemed to step as lightly as the barefoot girl she once was.

When we reached the terrace, there was a slight buzzing in the air, and I looked up, expecting to see a microlite passing overhead, but the sky was empty except for a swirl of swallows. As I entered the cool shade of the house, I was sure that I heard a young girl’s laughter, drifting up from the meadows by the stream.

The next week I read that she had died, ‘peacefully, in her sleep, aged eighty-six’. That’s what it said. Now, I have a scientific mind. I am not prone to flights of fancy. But I can’t help wondering. Did she die, or did she somehow ‘disappear’ too, to be with her beloved Hugo again at last? Did he come for her at last?

I have still have Hugo Pennington’s fat leather notebook in my desk drawer. I haven’t even opened it. I’m not sure I’m ready to read what I might find there.

Waiting

April 25, 2015

“He’s there again.”

I was on the boardwalk, leaning against the rail, idly watching an egret picking in the shallows just below. The day was as calm as milk. So Lucy made me jump.

“Who? Where?”

“You know who. Steve. Down at the Point. On the lookout post.”

I knew. I just didn’t want my drifty morning mood diffused. The tide was running. I saw a grey seal break the surface, clutching a silver trout in its mouth, then the ripples closed again over its head.

I knew the expression I would see when I turned. Lucy’s mild, concerned face, with a ‘you’re a man, you speak to him’ look on it. I turned.

“Lu, there’s no point talking to him. You of all people should know how it is at this stage. Nothing I can say will convince him that she’s not coming. He won’t believe it. Can’t believe it. He has to work it out in his own time.”

“Yeah, but I reckon I was – ”

“You were what? Better? Over it? Don’t kid yourself, Lu. I remember exactly what you were like. Seriously. You were still in a million bits at six months. We had to hide sharp objects. Just because you didn’t hang around at the Point, waiting, makes no never mind.”

“Maybe… still… can you have another word with him?”

I turned away and, inevitably, scuffling pebbles under my sneakers to slow my pace, began to walk along the quay, under the beech trees, floppy-leafed with spring sap, towards the Point.

Once, there was a time when Steve was always smiling. He had seen her. They had spoken, He had smelled her hair. In those days they had spent the night together often, spooned in the way that comfortable lovers do.

But, as time went on, they saw one another less and less frequently. She was preoccupied. She was busy. The usual. Still, every now and then, there would be a flash of the old exhilaration. I would spot it in his stride even before I could read the look upon his face.

He had seen her. She had clutched him to her and wept. She had missed him so terribly, and was so dreadfully sad. She wanted him back so, so much. It was all going to be all right.

I could see his silhouette by now, on top of the lookout, one hand clutching the rail, the other shading his eyes against the brightness of the bay. There were sails on the horizon, pale blue, caught like fragile butterflies pinned against the pale parchment of the sky. I don’t think he was crying. I think he was just waiting. It’s still early days for him. We’ve all been there. Just not at the top of a lookout scanning the sea for a ship that never comes.

I sat down on a rock, kicked off my shoes and let the pale sand slip between my toes. Smiled at the first few swallows performing aerobatics overhead. There was nothing I could say that would make it any better, any different. I’d just be there waiting for him when he decided to come down.

We are a strange bunch, we band of the bereaved. No one can know how we feel but us, and yet we barely know ourselves.

In the beginning, we walk with our beloved throughout the day. We go to sleep only to dream of them. It’s there that we meet and touch and love and cling. We put right the thoughtless word, the rushed goodbye, the tiny mistake that led our world to end. Our thoughts are inextricably entwined. They are beside us, we beside them. They are the warm, sleepy body almost, almost encountered as a foot or hand slips over to that empty, sad, cold, far side of the bed. And we wait for them to come to us, against all reason, we wait for our old life to return.

It’s so hard to be the one left behind.

Because for them – the living – life really does, in the most mundane sense, go on. And so, while we wait, for them there are bills to pay, and kids to wash and dress, and obligations that must be met. We are never far away from their thoughts, but we are not in the forefront of their minds, all day, every day. We are not right there beside them any longer. And the bed in which we two once slept and loved becomes colonized by books, or kids, or cats, or, in the end, perhaps, another living body to be warm against.

Mary and Tray

April 25, 2015

The north wind whips her shawl about her shoulders and the salt flecks lifted from the top curve of each wave nip at her face like tiny teeth. She pushes her hair from her eyes and scans the cliff face, looking for evidence of this winter’s work.

Out on the strand, splashing through rock pools, Tray lifts his head and sniffs and turns, all attention, curious, watching her move cautiously towards the latest fall of flinted chalk. Then the sideways scuttle of a crab catches his eye and he is lost in the moment, bounding and barking, sneezing as his eager muzzle catches nothing but a slap of brine.

Mary glances over at the noise, and smiles gently at her foolish dog, but the diversion is a momentary one. There is much else to see here, today. She knows this beach, these cliffs, the wide curve of bay, and the Golden Cap beyond, better than the patterns on her palm.

She was a child, the first time – the first find – here with her brother Joe, the year after father died. She wonders, now, what it was they sought to find, scrabbling amongst the broken boulders on the beach, so soon after they had put him in the earth.

An angel lay uncovered, so it seemed to them. Not pretty, like in the books at Sunday School. Its strange head twisted ungainly to one side, its wings unfeathered, and all impressed into the stone as though God has thrown it down with all His might.

She knows better know. Plesiosaur. That was its name. It never flew, but swam in oceans older than the one that beats against this beach. It crawled up onto an earlier sand to lay its eggs, a hard struggle and a fruitless labour, for an earlier cliff came down upon it, saving its body and its bones for Mary and Joe to wonder at, and the world in turn to ponder and discuss.

Mary Anning is an expert now. For a woman, quite regarded in her field. Of course she cannot lecture in the academies of Germany and France, and the London institutions are unable to admit her, but consult her on their latest finds. She hopes that America’s forward-thinking scientific societies may yet acknowledge her.

The cliff fall lies just ahead of her, but her sturdy brown boot slips on a stone and she lands sideways with a gasp. She lifts a gloved hand and winces at the sharp stab of pain when she turns her wrist, but then her eye is caught by a sweet curve in the hardened clay. A word she has read comes into her mind. Quetzalcoatl. At last, the winged lizard? She must be dizzy, surely. The Latin – that would be pterosaur. As she scrapes away to reveal more, the pain blanks her eyes, and then there is a face by hers, and a long nose pushing and nuzzling her back into the world.

“Tray.”

He barks encouragement. Silly dog.

When the wet chalk ledge shears clean away above them, neither hears, until it is too late.

The tide turns.

—-

It is high summer, and low tide. She walks with a limp now, as she supervises the excavation and the scientific drawings of the bird that lay within the rock. Now she can see it fully she imagines it soaring in lazy circles over the primeval swamps.

It gives her comfort. Nothing is ever gone, entirely. Father, now part of the rich, red, loamy Dorset soil. And Tray, a scrap of fur, and teeth, and doggy bones, settling down to sleep inside the white rock, for paleontologists, millennia ahead, to find and wonder at.

A Cold Calling

March 31, 2014

Have you ever met a ghoul? Well, no, of course you haven’t. But it’s a term we use so loosely these days that we think we know what it means. Those faces, the ones in the cars crawling past a recent road accident, peering out, goggle-eyed, at the scene of death and devastation on the other side of the road. They’re the ghouls of our modern world.

But I have met a ghoul. Can I tell you about it? Because I have to tell someone. I really do.

 

Read the full story in the splendid inaugural issue of The Ghastling, where it was published in March 2014. 

http://issuu.com/theghastling/docs/theghastling_issuu_march2014d

 

A Lame Excuse

June 10, 2012

Mrs Harvey Morton Vandenberg III surveyed her mount and sniffed, which turned out not be a wise reaction. The dusty, mangy animal turned its head slowly over the empty, sagging hump of its back, fixed its mournful eyes on her, and farted, long and sonorously.

Muriel – for that was her own name, before she affixed her late husband’s so tightly to her that it clung like a well-fitted corset even two years after his death on the golf course – backed away.

There was sand in her sandals and flies around her hat, and she was not a happy woman at this stage of her trip.

She had embraced widowhood with a resolve and fortitude that might have surprised some, though not those who knew her well. The ladies at her bridge club were, in fact, amazed that it had taken her a good six months before she announced her intention to go out and ‘See the World’. Since then she had cruised the Caribbean, cosseted in the finest staterooms; explored Europe from the vantage point of the best hotel room balconies and the back seat of a rented Rolls Royce; and even – her most recent adventure – taken the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing.

The ladies of the bridge club had paled at this last trip – what would Harvey have said about Muriel going from one Commie country to another, and rubbing shoulders with all kinds of foreign insurrectionists? Muriel, admittedly, had not been good at ‘rubbing shoulders’ but she was good at greasing palms, and that had found her a sleeping car to herself plus a constant supply of hot water, bottled water, and food that had not been obtained in any way from a yak.

It had given her momentum and ideas. She had decided that she would see every continent before her sixtieth birthday, which was still four years away. Africa was going to be a problem, so she had decided to tackle it head-on, straight away. She consulted the Internet and, having discounted approximately 95 per cent of the Dark Continent, was left with the places closest to Europe and, therefore, civilization. And so, here she was in Morocco. In the Sahara, to be precise, or at least the fringes of it.

Beyond the low, white building where the tour group had been assembled for a lunch of roasted, graphically intact lamb and the ever-present couscous, dunes shimmered terracotta, and henna, and paprika hues under the bright sun, their wind-sifted shapes forming sharp ridges and soft rills.

Everyone else was younger than her, and seemed terribly excited. The four Australians had found the most unlikely things – a clutch of battered surfboards – propped up behind the building. They were currently sand-surfing down the nearest dune. The three Brits were sitting in the shade, mopping their brows and applying extra sunscreen, and reading passages to one another from the Lonely Planet guide about what they might experience. A French couple had joined the party in Marrakech, which was a relief to the others as they shared a language with the Moroccans, although the main guide, Mohammad, spoke quaintly stilted but grammatically perfect English.

The party of eleven was complete. And yet there were twelve camels, all lying grumbling in the sun, a haze of flies around their eyes and tails. Muriel wondered whom the last one was for. As the thought crossed her mind, out of the shadows stepped a man wrapped almost entirely in brilliant lapis-blue cloth.

“A Tuareg!” she heard the Brits whisper to one another as they flipped the pages of their guidebooks.

Mohammad gathered the party around and introduced them to the swathed figure, who regarded them silently with dark, impassive eyes.

“This is Amezwar. His name tells us who he is – a leader, and a guide. He will take us to the oasis for the night, and there we shall eat, and sing, and tell stories, and watch the sun rise over the great dune.”

There was a buzz of excitement in the party as Mohammad and Amezwar led them to the camels that had been allocated them.

Muriel regarded her camel, and her camel studiously ignored Muriel.

“This is Tadefi,” Mohammad said, “her name means ‘sweetness’.”

There was a snort. It wasn’t clear if it came from Muriel or the camel.

Muriel was helped aboard. It wasn’t easy, being a lady of a certain age who had lived well, and whose only exercise had been on the golf course, and even then only occasionally, given that Harvey would berate her so if she let him down.

Then, with a word from Amezwar, there was an almost chorus-line-like rise and sweep, as the twelve camels lurched – rear end first – to their feet and formed themselves into the sort of train that has crossed the desert with more precious cargo for millennia. The lowering sun sent their shadows stretching away as they slowly began to move off.

Almost immediately, Tadefi, Muriel’s camel, lurched as she lost her footing. Muriel shrieked and clung to the saddle, willing herself not to fall.

“We have to stop! We have to stop!” she shouted. “My camel is lame! I need another one!”

The rest of the party looked round at her flustered, scarlet face, and then down at the implacable, chewing face of Tadefi. Nobody said anything.

Mohammad and Amezwar dismounted their camels and walked back to Muriel. Amezwar bent down to check Tadefi’s feet, and said something to Mohammad in a desert language only they could understand.

“He says that she is nervous. That she knows you do not like her, and that you are afraid. She is pretending to turn her foot in order that you may have an excuse not to be carried by her to the oasis. She does not want to make you unhappy.”

Muriel was about to bluster and say how ridiculous that was, but bit her words off and, inexplicably, found tears pricking her eyes. She gazed down at her saddle. This was something new to her. She could rage most effectively at bad service and poor excuses the world over, but she was at a loss to deal with this.

Mohammad looked up at her and said something to Amezwar, who spoke to the camel quietly and it very gently sank down into the sand. Mohammad held out his hand to Muriel.

“Come, Amezwar thinks that you have not been properly introduced to Tadefi. That is my fault, and we shall rectify it now. Tell her how you feel and she will respond accordingly.”

He led Muriel round to face the quiet beast. Muriel had not noticed before how beautiful a camel’s eyelashes were – long and thick and straight, and such liquid-chocolate brown eyes. Amezwar took her hand and placed it on the camel’s soft nose, and she felt the breath and the warmth, and it didn’t seem to matter about the flies that buzzed around and settled on her skin.

She said, “Hello, Tadefi. Hello, Sweetness. I’m Mrs Harvey… I’m Muriel. I’m told it means ‘shining sea’. Maybe that’s why I’m a bit lost in this place. I’m a bit lost, altogether, really. But I am searching to find my way, to find where I belong, and who I am. Will you help me?”

She realized that tears were running down her face. It was, she knew, the first time she had cried since Harvey died.

Tadefi gave a small snort and tossed her head.

Amezwar said something to Mohammad, who touched Muriel on the shoulder.

“He says, Tadefi is ready to carry you now, she understands your intentions.”

Muriel was silent as she walked back to the saddle, and swung herself aboard. She moved with more ease as Tadefi rose from the ground.

After that, the gentle, rocking motion of the camels felt like a calm sea, as they traversed the darkening desert. And the full moon rose, sending their shadows in a new direction over the silvering sands.

And, at last, though too soon for Muriel, the few palm trees and tents of the oasis came into view, and they unsaddled their camels, and fed and watered them, and then there was, indeed, food, and songs, and stories late into the night.

As Muriel fell asleep by candlelight, in the rough camp bed in the simple brown woven tent, she heard the sounds of a camel settling down to sleep just outside, a comforting, creaking sound of tired bones sinking onto soft sand.

“Goodnight, Tadefi,” she whispered.

There was a snort in reply, but it was a good snort, and, Muriel thought, it could have been a lot worse.

This story was read at the inaugural Towcester Literary Festival, on
10 June 2012, and was dedicated to my mentor, Errid Farland. 

Dumb Waiter

January 28, 2012

The shrill laughter of the women, booming male voices raised in discussion of politics and warfare, the clink of fine crystal and the clatter of rat-tail silver on rare, gold-embellished Sevres flatware drift down the lofty shaft of the dumb-waiter to where the brigade of cooks bustles in the steamy kitchen.

Overseeing all, the Chef, Monsieur Edouard, and the Butler, Graves. They work as a silent team, the fixed points around which all other activity revolves. They taste, consult, an eyebrow is raised and a modicum of spice or salt is added to the array of dishes in preparation for the dinner that has just begun in the grand, Gothic panelled dining room above their heads.

There are Peers of the Realm, a former Prime Minister, a Head of the Church, four generals, an Air Vice-Marshall, and two noted philosophers at the table of Lord and Lady Albacore tonight.

There is no indication, in the splendour and the gaiety, of the war that rages beyond the high stone walls of the estate. Perhaps the military men would better be employed in guiding tactics and logistics on the western front of the campaign. Perhaps the statesman should be on hand as an advisor to his young and ambitious successor, whose rise to power he so elegantly steered from behind the scenes. No doubt the Lords should be in the Upper Chamber tonight for the debate; and almost certainly the clergy and the philosophers should be deep in pensive meditation on how to sustain the morale of a damaged nation at this time of crisis… but when the Albacores of Gorey Manor invite one to dine, not even Vandals at the gate could prevail over the urge to sit a padded bottom on a Chippendale chair and tuck in to the fine wines and sumptuous food for which such soirées are renowned.

There is no indication, either, in the menu for the feast, of the rationing and the shortages to which lesser mortals are subject at this trying time in the nation’s history.

A chilled soup, the pale, translucent green of a jade figurine, has already been served to the eager diners. The chef himself has gathered the leaves from the walled kitchen garden, and the cream was provided by the estate’s fat Jersey cows just this morning.

The shallow bowls, wiped clean of every speck, have just descended in the dumb-waiter, and chef and butler exchange a discreet smile of satisfaction as a maid scuttles them away to the kitchen lad for washing.

Next comes the fish course. Quenelles de brochet – fat dumplings of pike, fished from the Manor’s private lake, light as clouds floating on a pool of dill-flecked almond sauce. Graves lifts a spoon to check the sauce just as it is to be poured, but Chef Edouard stays his hand.

“There is no need, my friend, all is as it should be.”

Graves nods. “Of course, Chef, I defer to your palate on such an occasion.”

And the fish is away is the creaking lift, to be presented by the serving staff along with the chilled 1932 Chablis chosen by Graves from the vast wine cellar to accompany the dish.

The laughter from above is more raucous still, by the time the last morsels of the great freshwater predator have been consumed and the fish knives and forks have been gathered away. Two of the generals are mapping out the Battle of Waterloo with salt cellars and mustard pots, fiercely contesting a point of strategy, while the Churchman tops up his glass of Pétrus from the decanter at his side and mildly tries to intervene with a homily about the feeding of the five thousand, quite unrelated to the battle of the cruets and thus ignored by the generals.

The main course is pigeon, shot by Graves himself ten days ago in the coppice on the hill that overlooks the manor, and left in the cool store to hang by the neck until so ripe as to be almost rotten – just the way Lord Albacore likes it. The birds have been roasted intact, their bald heads tucked under a plucked wing, and can be torn apart by the diners for whom such manners, which would shock the common people, are considered perfectly correct form. The birds’ gizzards have been pounded to a rich paté to be served on heart-shaped croutons, as Lady Albacore demands. Chef’s underlings have peeled and turned carrots and potatoes into unnatural little bullet shapes by way of accompaniment. A rich wine sauce, scented with juniper and other berries, will coat each plate with its blood-black juices.

By the time the dinner plates are empty but for gnawed bones and beaks and claws, some diners are inclined to take stroll around the grounds, but here the war does play its part, and the heavy velvet drapes must not be parted to let a chink of light escape. And so they sit back, and pat their stomachs in mild protest, and pick at fruits and water ices to settle their stomachs before the cheese board and the nuts and grapes and, of course, the ancient pipe of Port, are hauled up the dumb-waiter and brought to the table. Graves is on hand to decant the Port, and to advise on the choice of cheeses – English classics such as Stilton and Wensleydale, for even Monsieur Edouard cannot work a miracle and call upon cheese from France while the seas swarm with gunships and submarines.

If anyone is feeling at all nauseous, or a trifle unsettled, he or she would never be so impolite as to mention it in such elevated company.

Downstairs, the kitchen is becoming quieter. The brigade of sous-chefs has left for the night, heading back to the estate’s tied village through the still, dark night.

As the last plates return to the kitchen, Chef Edouard is wiping down the surfaces himself, assiduous in his thoroughness. He waves the kitchen boy away from the sink and the lad has grabbed his cap and coat and is out the door, whistling, before Chef has a chance to change his mind.

It is quieter, too, upstairs now. The gentlemen have retired to the billiards room for brandies and cigars, the ladies have declined coffee or tea and are making their way unsteadily up the grand oak staircase to bed. Graves stands silently at the foot of the stairs, listening. His sharp ears, as every butler worth his salt must have, pick up the faint sounds of the lady philosopher vomiting into the basin of the Blue Boudoir. A slight smile crosses his lips.

It will be the first of many such unfortunate upsets tonight. For every course has had a tiny, subtle addition, as yet unrecorded by Larousse Gastronomique. A rogue berry here, a note of bitter almond there, a pinch of this, a modicum of that…

Graves returns to the kitchen, where Chef Edouard waits alone. The two men shake hands in silence. Their job is done. Graves pours them each a glass from the remains of the Pétrus, and they sip in silence.

A bell rings, urgently, on the board above the doorway. The Master Bedroom bell. They look at one another. It has begun. In a few moments a chambermaid on the top floor will hear it and then…

They don their coats in silence, and leave the kitchen, Chef clicking off the main switch as he closes the door. They both have bicycles propped against the wall of the scullery.

“You go on ahead,” says Graves. “I’ll catch you up.”

Chef nods. There is a train to catch and people that will meet them to spirit them away and pay them well for tonight’s work. He has no intention of missing it. He mounts the bike and starts to pedal off.

Graves picks up a shotgun from behind the wisteria, aims, and fires. The loud retort echoes around the silent grounds, but it’s just like any night, when gamekeepers and poachers are on the prowl. After the brief cry and the clatter, there is just the quiet whirr of free-spinning wheels.

Graves mounts his own bike. He has no intention of catching the train. He has not done this for the money. He has been waiting to do this for years and years. Another small smile passes across his face as he puts his foot to the pedal and moves off, past the motionless form that was Monsieur Edouard, down the long gravel drive.

It is dark, and he is lost in pensive satisfaction at a job well done. On any other night, he might have spotted the tree branch lying in his path, but not on this night. He is jerked into flight before he knows what has happened, and the last thing he hears is the first scream echoing from the Manor as a chambermaid enters the master bedroom, and Graves, the loyal servant, the devoted butler, the dutiful slave, laughs. Then he, too, like those he served, is dead and gone.

First published by Fiction365, where it was Story of the Day on 25 January 2012.

http://www.fiction365.com/2012/01/dumb-waiter/

Hunger

December 12, 2011

I don’t feel responsible for what happened. Yes, I was young and eager, and ambitious, and may not have thought things through sufficiently but, in the end, he brought it upon himself. Where, and who, and what I am today – the Pulitzer and so forth – has nothing to do with Gaston Picard.

I have always wondered why he chose me. Although we were about the same age, late twenties, he was already a legend. Sure, I was writing the occasional influential review for Gulp!, the hip foodie journal of the day, but don’t forget, this was the ’80s and yet he was already doing things with ingredients that would make today’s molecular gastrochefs weep with envy.

So, when the call came, late one winter night, I knew my future was in the balance. I just could not have dreamed which way and how profoundly the scales would tip.

“Mr. Carson, this is Antoine Sorel.” The voice was clipped, with just a hint of accent. I recognized the name. Sorel was the fearsome Maitre d’ of Master Chef Gaston Picard. Half asleep, and not a little drunk from an evening at the new Groucho Club, I cleared my throat and stammered a reply.

“M… Monsieur Sorel – why are you – um… what can I do for you?”

“Chef Picard has instructed me to invite you to meet him. As you know, Chef never gives interviews. For you, he may make an exception. You will see Chef at work and, if Chef finds you sympa’, he may wish you to write about him.”

The carefully modulated tones were a veneer, I could tell. The man was almost as incredulous as I that the beloved Chef he protected so carefully from the world had chosen anyone, let alone me, to see him at work and, perhaps, write about it. As I tried to formulate a response that encompassed professionalism, worldliness and savoir faire, he continued. I realized it must be almost 3am ‘his time’, so I simply listened to instructions about dates and planes and cars, holding the phone with both trembling hands. He concluded with a brisk “Is that acceptable to you?”

All pretence at cool indifference was gone. “My god, of course, that’s fantastic – please, tell Chef Picard that I am so very thrilled, that I can’t wait to –”

The click and buzz of an empty line mercifully cut short my rambling gratitude.

It’s hard to believe, now, that many people have never even heard of Gaston Picard. How can I convey to you how important he was? Actually, there is a way – the only way. You must read for yourself the article that rocked the gastronomic world to its foundations and reversed our fortunes irrevocably. Only then can you judge whether I was right or wrong, to do what I did.

ALL THAT GLITTERS By Adrian Carson

It is a fact universally acknowledged that Gaston Picard is the alchemist of food. His tiny restaurant, Le Poisson d’Or, on the market square of Vachel, a small village south of Lyon, is spoken of in hallowed terms by gastronomes. You must reserve one of its ten tables up to 18 months ahead, despite it being open every day of the year except Chef Picard’s birthday, the first of April. “I am a poisson d’avril,” he gulps with a nervous smile – an April fool. Few would agree with that, and certainly not the critics. At the end of his first professional year, Michelin took the unprecedented step of awarding this self-effacing, greasy-haired, gaunt young man three coveted stars.

A glimpse into his kitchen offers just a taste of Chef Picard’s creative genius. The still point of a whirling storm of white- uniformed chefs, he is totally absorbed in the act of cooking, refining, creating. His mind works so fast that, sometimes, the dish you have read on the menu (there is no choice – all ten courses are chosen for you by Chef) will have evolved by the time it is set before you. The ‘declination of langoustines with a coxcomb velouté, hazelnut praline and a breath of salicorne’ may have seen the samphire breathe its last but acquired instead (the waiter will murmur this almost apologetically as he lays a culinary work of art on the white linen cloth) ‘a teardrop of oyster jus suspended in a salt-caramel clam shell’. And it will be faultless. Faultless. You will never have tasted its like, and the flavours will linger with you until the day you die. Rumour has it that President Mitterrand has secured a commitment from Chef to cook his last meal for him. Rumour also has it that the Fates have agreed to waive the usual random nature of life and death to permit this.

Watch him in action. He moves purposefully amongst his chefs, or bends over his own dishes – sampling, tasting, just a drop here, a dab there. He has a mass of tiny caviar spoons in a zip-lock bag, made of bone that will not affect or taint the flavour of the food. The spoon, once used, is flung aside. A junior follows him to pick them up. Later they will be autoclaved to purify them for re-use. You can see the chef under scrutiny hold his breath. Surely Chef must like this? Yes, Chef smiles, and pats his subordinate on the back: “Bravo Jean-Marc – c’est magnifique!” But if you look very, very closely, you will see just the faintest shadow of disgust move across his face. Not only for Jean-Marc’s food, but for his own as well. Chef is never satisfied – that is the mark of genius, surely?

No-one knows what Chef does when he is not cooking. To be honest, there is not much of that time available. He is single, has no family that anyone can trace, and lives, it is said, a monk-like existence above the restaurant – not that many have actually seen his accommodation. Bonjour! magazine once planned to print some grainy shots taken by a diner who ‘got lost’ on her way to the loo…  There were rumours of teetering stacks of rare cookbooks, including a copy of Escoffier’s privately printed Culinaire Profonde, of which only two known copies exist. Walls lined with shelves of tiny bottles labelled with the names of herbs, spices, essences and decoctions. On a chipped enamel corner table, a tiny spirit-lamp stove and dozens of small, tarnished copper pans. At their side, a stoneware mustard jar of those signature bone spoons. And, amid all, a simple iron bedstead. That’s what insiders said of these elusive shots. Chef himself remained silent on the subject – there was no angry threat to sue for invasion of privacy – but, one by one, important advertisers began to talk of withdrawing their business, and the pictures never made it to the presses.

By 1.30am, the team has, at last, gone home. Gaston Picard is wiping down surfaces yet again – steel workstations that already gleam dully under the kitchen’s carefully chosen natural-light illumination. It has been a successful evening, as always. A Gault-Millau inspector was in, as was Gérard Depardieu and his party. The new ‘dream of foie gras nestled in a coverlet of wild mushroom feathers and Calvados-cream pillows’ was ecstatically received by everyone. He looks around and nods. Done. Chef Picard has left the kitchen.

But what happens when the lights are switched off? Not what you might imagine.

Behind the restaurant, a car is waiting. Not Chef’s silver-grey Aston Martin, but a shabby, dented, Citroën 2CV in beige and brown. In 15 minutes, Chef is in a down-at-heel suburb of Lyon. He pulls the car up at the back of an ugly red-brick building. The neon lights are all at the front. Here, it is dark and anonymous. No one will see him. A door opens and a woman is silhouetted against the sudden shaft of light. She bustles over to him, wrapped up against the cold, bringing forbidden treasures under her coat. She takes him in her arms. “Cheri, you are so thin – you work too hard!” She kisses his cheek, and there will be a scarlet lip-print left behind. Then, suddenly, in his hands, is what he needs.

He opens his mouth as wide as he can, and sinks his teeth into the crumbling, sagging, grease-dripping burger that his mother has smuggled out of the fast-food joint for him. Chef Picard is satisfied – at last!

Gulp!, 15 April 1985

It finished him, of course. Why did I not realize that it would? Would I have written a different piece, full of effusive praise? No, I did what had to be done. I exposed the fraud.

Yet we had got along so well, from the moment we met. When we left the kitchen that night I had made my way up to my room in a daze of admiration and respect. I was far too energized to sleep, and was calming myself with a cigarette, leaning from my window exhaling Gitane smoke into the crisp night air, when I heard footsteps crunching on the gravel. I saw Picard heading for the old Citroën and it had to be, I thought, that he was on his way to meet an illicit supplier of something rare or prohibited – truffles, ortolans, or the like. Excited and intrigued, I had grabbed my coat and followed, creeping to my hire car and trailing his rear lights with my own headlamps unlit. We were both, it seems, heedless of danger that night, on separate missions that blinded both of us to every risk.

Now, I wish I had gone straight to bed. That way, I would never have known.

The next day we met to talk, as we had previously agreed, but my thoughts were all on getting back to London with this incredible, unbelievable story. I must have seemed distracted but Picard appeared not to notice, and was animated and effusive, boyish, if you like, showing me his most precious tool – a Japanese chef’s knife, one of a pair forged for him in a secret crater of Mount Fuji by a master Samurai swordsmith. It shimmered like satin in his hands, catching brilliant slivers of firelight on its terrifying blade. I smiled and nodded as I took notes, then went home, wrote my piece, and changed lives.

The day the article was published, the world’s press descended on Vachel’s little square, forcing through the stalls, sending stacks of melons rolling like aristocratic heads below the guillotine, microphone booms and cameras craning to see – what? A frontage shuttered like a corpse’s eyes and, in the centre of the door, a copy of my article fluttering in the chilly April breeze, pinned to the woodwork by a deeply plunged, perfect, Samurai-forged chef’s knife.

They say, if you know who to ask, or if you are simply very lucky, that you may find your way to a little chalet-bistrot in a high alpine hamlet where, on shabby wooden tables and with mismatched plates and cutlery, you will eat the best meal of your life, served with impeccable aplomb. But I can never seek it out. Noma and The Fat Duck will have to suffice for me. Chef, after all, still has that other knife.

This was first published by the exceptionally fine Litro magazine in December 2011. “One to Watch”, they say!

http://www.litro.co.uk/?p=7286

Marisa’s Cat

October 7, 2010

Marisa had a cat with wings. You couldn’t see them, of course, but she knew they were there. Small, iridescent things, sprouted from delicate feline shoulder blades, fluttering and shimmering and glowing with unknown colors, patterned with tiger stripes and leopard spots.

People might think that a cat could not possibly fly with such little wings. Well, look at a bee. How does that work? Bertrand Russell observed that, for an angel to fly, it would have to have a breastbone thirteen feet long. Maybe they do.

And anyway, Bertrand Russell had thought a lot about cats and wasn’t even sure that they existed. So Marisa expected that he would have found a cat with wings just as acceptable as any other.

Marisa had never seen an angel but was content to imagine that impossible breastbone, as well as the rest of the seraphic bone structure that accompanied it.

Marisa’s cat had a prominent breastbone, but by no means, even cat-sized, did it pro-rata to an angelic thirteen feet. Depending, that is, on the size of the angel. Still, she knew that her cat had wings, and that it flew.

She knew because, when she was down at the bottom of the pit, when she could not get out and everything was black, down would swoop her cherubic, impossible cat, and pull her out. He would catch his tiny, falcate-moon claws in the tangles of her hair and lift, lift, lift, and they would rise together, straight through the window bars and out into the light, she and her cat.

Once, he laid her gently into warm, silky water and hazy jasmine-scented steam, and never even got his paws wet. Another time, he settled her into a soft bed, tucked his wings against his bony flanks, and curled up beside her, purring quietly at a job well done. And there was the time that he rested her into an old wicker chair, in a green-shaded place, and then dashed off across the grass, unfurled his wings and floated off into the summer air in the mazy wake of a butterfly.

And when, at last, it was time for Marisa’s cat to start circling up towards the harvest moon, he took Marisa with him, and they ascended together, dizzy and delighted, into the star-strewn autumn sky.

First published October 2010 by the wonderful Hazard Cat – http://www.hazardcat.blogspot.com

Tourrettes en Fête

April 22, 2010

The normally quiet Provençal village square is a mass of shouting people, and missiles are flying everywhere. The young gendarme is in the thick of the fray, but he seems unconcerned ­– he’s seen it all before. Probably, in his youth, he would have been a part of the chaos, pitching in with the rest of them, but now his role has changed. Someone finds their target and he removes his hat, grinning, to brush off the handful of violet confetti that has covered it. Ah yes, policing the annual Tourrettes-sur-Loup Battle of the Flowers must be a tough job…

In the days running up to the Violet Festival and its subsequent orgy of petal-throwing the village is, seemingly, its usual tranquil self but, behind the sturdy wooden portals of its tall medieval houses, acres of chicken wire are being sculpted into fantastic shapes, ready to be smothered in blooms when the time arrives. Every group of citizens, from the local football team to the nursery school, will have their own float and competition is fierce to be judged the finest. Likewise, the local shopkeepers are finding inventive ways of celebrating or replicating their wares in blossom.

By the evening before the festival, it’s hard to believe that there is a flower left to be had in the whole of the Côte d’Azur, but now it is time for the ordinary villagers to do their bit. Stalls in the market are soon bringing in extra shipments of mimosa and violets from goodness-knows-where, so that every window, balcony and doorway can be garlanded in vibrant yellow and purple. Despite warm March sunshine during the day, the narrow streets stay cool and shady and an evening chill means that wilting is an unlikely prospect. As visitors we somehow expect that our little rented house may be excluded but the neighbours are having none of it – “oh but you must, it is tradition!” – and so we, too, are emptying vases and unrolling twine. Then we stand back to admire our efforts, look at the other houses that surround us… and rush to the square for extra supplies, determined not to let the side down for the British effort.

While we sleep, the work continues. Wagons of every shape and size are wheeled out of barns and garages, the vast chicken wire creations are loaded aboard, and then every centimetre of surface is smothered in dew-fresh carnations, irises, violets, mimosa, tulips. Wires are stretched between the houses and strung with smaller shapes. By the time we wander out to the bakery, we are able to laugh at the rows of “washing line” on which clothes pegs hold a white carnation bra, tiny red tulip briefs, striped violet-and-snowdrop socks and a pair of pink carnation “big pants”. And the ice-cream parlour’s huge cone in a visual feast. In the square some late arrivals are struggling to unload a huge multi-coloured duck from the top of a 2CV, to be hung outside a restaurant. At the other end of the scale, one of Tourrettes’ elder citizens sits at her window offering tiny posies of intensely scented violets for us to sniff at as we walk.

As the day progresses the crowds grow – estimates are that some 10,000 people pile into the tiny village to admire the handiwork. Moving among them the eccentric “Pignata de Castille” band play ancient tunes on highly decorated instruments that appear to be made from kitchen utensils and terracotta pots.

Finally, the parade begins. There is no street wide enough for it to pass through and so it winds around the square time and again, giving everyone a chance to see the smiling ladybird of the école maternelle, surrounded by serious-faced infant dressed as bees and butterflies; the goal-scoring boot and ball; the undersea world of the Riviera (schoolchildren dressed as fish) dominated by an imposing octopus.

Behind us, a huge mobile wood-fired over is turning out massive trays of the traditional Niçois chickpea-flour pancake socca, which is eating hot from paper cones, sprinkled with green olive oil and black pepper, but not even that can overwhelm the scent of flowers that now fills the square.

At last the judging is done – we never found out who had won over the cheering of the crowd – and the shout goes up for the battle to begin. In an anarchy of joyful destruction the float-builders who have worked so hard to create their masterpieces grab handful upon handful of delicate blossoms and begin to hurl them towards the upstretched hands of the crowd. The tall and the quick are soon laden with ravishingly muddled bouquets, the slower and less ruthless grab fallen blooms before they can be trampled underfoot. It is impossible not to get caught up in the madness, as even the gendarme found out.

It’s over as quickly as it began. By nightfall the square is returning to normal, save for it’s sweetly-scented “litter”, and the denuded wire ladybird and her fellows have vanished back to their sheds. We were told by an elderly lady, the daughter of shepherds, perhaps a Manon in her day, that the Festival was not always this grand – once, in Tourrettes, the land was so dry that the only things that grew were olives and violets. Maybe this Rite of Spring, part celebration part destruction, commemorates a time when the only thing one dared to waste were a handful of transient, delicate blossoms that showed the land was still alive. Now acres of greenhouses provide the ammunition, but the delicious, pagan joy of welcoming the returning sunlight is as potent today as it ever was in Provence.

moon over the digue

September 26, 2009

moon and digue