Knowing about these books is not enough.

The Foreign Connection
I needed a new circuit in my house. Oh, by the way, my name is Francis, spelt in the male way - 'is' not 'es'. I requisitioned, therefore, a specialist electrician as the circuit had lost the efficiency of its ohm resistor and thus required a new connection. I loved connections, even accidental ones, and when the electrician came, he told me he was called Francis, too. This sort of thing boded well. All seemed right and destined to be even better. He took one look at the old ohm resistor, then tickled its inner wires gingerly like a bomb disposal expert.

"Ah, Francis," said Francis (we had already struck up a first name relationship). "This part of your circuit needs replacing altogether and a new connection installed, what we in the trade call the Foreign Connection. We don't often have to use a Foreign Connection, but here we most definitely do."

I stared at him and nodded like a hypnotised puppet. I knew very little about electric currents. He looked into his cavernous bag with many compartments and pulled out a device like a far eastern letter of the alphabet then, eventually, a series of such letters joined together, an intricate pattern of intersecting lines, curves and dots forming a complex piece of equipment in a language that we did not need to speak as we had ourselves achieved an unspoken connection, a telepathic communication that only lovers seem able to master.

This was the first time for me with a tradesman. Most of my previous connections were with artists or writers of a sophisticated persuasion. Sometimes with similar individuals of wilder or more anarchic charms. I felt defiled by loving an electrician after only a few minutes of connections and intervening shocks. And as he worked on my circuit, fitting the Foreign Connection precisely by touching tab with tab, lead to lead, plug to plug, most of these appendages unimaginably small...

I could no longer resist him. A complex circuit, one to the other, both of us with the same name, a name spelt with line, curve and dot with a line through it rather than the same configuration but with two dots instead of one. A male and female socket and plug in a perfect inscrutability of discipline, joining each to each, a ruthless work ethic from the opposite curve of the world's circuit to our own curve of existence. A force or source of current to expunge wars of whatever blame or cause.

I hoped to dispose carefully of the bomb later.

A Time And A Place
He placed an empty plate in front of me.

"There's a time and a plate," he said, as if this were the best joke in the world.

I laughed politely. Polite laughter is never the same as real laughter. But it was real enough to elicit a small breaking of wind.

He left for the kitchen. I looked at the skin of the hand that sat in my lap awaiting the meal to arrive, next to the other hand. The knife and fork either side of the plate would soon be taken up by each hand, I assumed. That skin was mine. Those hands things I could move. But such thoughts gave no real clue as to whom those hands belonged, other than a sense they were mine and thus part of me. The thoughts themselves were mine, too. How could thoughts be otherwise. Thoughts were more certain of who owned them than the hands were, because hands could not think.

By this time, he had returned from the kitchen pushing a trolley and several platters upon it.

"Roast beef on pancakes," he said.

I looked at the food he had brought and confirmed to myself that his description was not a million miles from the truth.

But did eyes have thoughts, if hands didn't?

I lowered my face to smell the food. My nose was usually more certain about things than any other part of my body. But the aroma was too tenuous. Beef and pancakes had no recognisable strength of identity. Other than perhaps identity by taste? And by texture, and texture in the mouth was more aligned with the sense of touch than with the sense of taste, I thought.

The food had not yet been loaded upon the plate. The restaurant, I knew, had a sign outside it saying: 'The Time and the Plate.' A good name. Why had nobody ever called a restaurant by that name before? It was too good not to have been used before. But this was not the time and the place to explore such avenues of brand management.

And, after it had been served, I tucked into the roast beef and pancakes. A sort of Yorkshire Pudding without walls only a floor. And meat with fibrous blood rather than gravy soaking into it. And fingers. The knife and fork eschewed.


There was nothing Diane could do other than ring the bell. She stared steelily at the door number. Was this the correct address? The semi-detached house had a name, but what a name! ‘Roast Beef and Pancakes’ on a plaque decorated with flowers. The flowers and the name and the name’s screwed-on letters did not seem to be in decorative line with each other, but that was not the real point. It was the door number that seemed wrong, with empty screw holes left in the flaking paint of the door frame where a number had evidently fallen off. Diane looked to the ground to see if it was still there. There was a time and a place, and this was not the time. Alternatively, this was not the place. Time and place needed to be together, in line with each other, and she would then have found the fallen number still on the ground by her feet.

As she continued these peculiar thoughts, the door opened and a man peered out at her. He looked very sleepy, and indeed he was still in his pyjamas. And yawning upon massive teeth, or so they seemed to Diane. Most people slept at night, she thought, and this was nearly noon. She looked at her watch as if to question the state of this man. It was a prolonged silence, so prolonged, she wondered how two strangers such as herself and this man could remain silent for so long, without one leaving or the other shutting the door. Peculiar seemed a better word than stranger. They were not strangers to each other, but ‘peculiars’. She laughed at this behind her hand.

Who was the one to be most feared? This man at the door, yawning, remaining inscrutable, vociferously unquestioning of the silence between them? Or Diane whom we fail to know as a person since this is the first time we have encountered her? At least we know her name. His name remains a mystery. We'll call him Archie. For no reason. But we do know definitely where he lives or is now where he appears to live, in a house with a missing door number and a name plaque decidedly peculiar.

Eventually, Diane offered the man an envelope. One that needed to be delivered by hand and accepted by the intended recipient’s hand, it seemed - rather than simply being put through the door. At that stage, we had not yet noticed that the door had no letterbox, a very peculiar fact that would have changed our view of the letter she held out to the man. A summons, or an important missive that needed to avoid being lost in translation, as it were. We even expected Diane to open it and read it aloud to the man, perhaps in a language he would understand, and in an accent appropriate to that language. Or with emphasis on certain words that might change the whole meaning.

It was at that point she smelt the cooking. Not a breakfast smell, as was betokened by the man’s appearance of having just got up. No frying bacon sound, or sizzling eggs sunnyside up. More a Sunday dinner smell, from those days when people listened to ‘Two Way Family Favourites’ and ‘The Billy Cotton Band Show’…

“Wakey! Wakey!” Diane suddenly shouted.

The man started. He was visibly shaken. Diane and the man must know one another, we now began to think. A previously estranged couple. That would explain the prolonged silence as each eyeballed the other’s eyeballs. The man’s bloodshot, and moist. Her eyes steely. One set of eyes to cook the other, we hummed and haahed about.

But we could not see their eyes. People like us who tell stories are intrinsically not there at all. Words are blind. Numbers, too. Only the seeing of things counts. Only being there counts. A number fallen off the date changes everything. Even a number blinking off a digital time. Only hands can tell the time. Assuming there are two hands there to tell us. To sign us, by miming, or ventriloquising. Or passing this story to you in an envelope, rather than electronic digital means.

Whether Diane and the man shared a collusive Sunday dinner together does depend on the time and the place. A coincidence of these two parameters as well as many other things thus targeted. And the question of what they ate of us. Who ate what. What ate whom. And what or who visited what or whom for Sunday dinner.

Time now for ‘Educating Archie’. At least we knew the dummy’s name. And another estranged couple listening to it on the wireless next door, barely audible through the wall.

The Venus Shell
Names can't break you. But they stuck to Stephanie's clothes and hair like burrs. They were broken points she had felt – during this particular war of life or any previous campaign – and if they were typical of the enemy’s weapons then she should really start saying her prayers, assuming she had any prayers left to say, or any God left to say them to. Life was a thing. Time breaks it, time and time again. But large limbs do not snap easily.

As a child, she had been told by her mother that she was a bull in a china shop, as the saying goes, but her mother's phrase became, seeing that Stephanie was a girl, pink cow, not bull. There was something about the new phrase that suited Stephanie's demeanour, her body being thick-set, highly pink like school blancmange and foraging around, as it did, saggily large limbs in gauche fits of unnaturally slow passion for any child. Her mind took strange turns as she negotiated the by-ways of her youth and the changing patterns of self-image. Furthermore, she’d never entered a china shop. There weren’t any china shops in her childhood town in those days. A department store did sell some odd pieces of fine china and and some less-than-fine crockery … but it also sold lots of other things for a Britain those days before Britain breaks it.... breaks itself.

This store didn’t, however, sell venus-shells. They didn’t know that anybody (including themselves) knew about venus-shells and that they might need to sell one, if they had known about it. Supply derived from demand, but you couldn’t demand something that hadn’t been advertised for use. Unless you invented something new in your mind and marketed it as part of a business plan.

A venus-shell was what Stephanie's mother called the family’s favourite piece of crockery in Stephanie's childhood home. Stephanie wondered why it was called a venus-shell – but she and the other children (in turn by age) used it as a piggy-bank. It WAS shell-like, though, and the old denomination coins rattled around in its udder, as she later grew to name one of its appendages. Much later, Stephanie (and her siblings) were older and could use words they couldn’t find to use as children; they hadn’t known that many words existed so they hadn’t even previously looked for them. Words came naturally - unspecified except by the way they were used and the context given. Venus-shell was one such portmanteau word. The most likely scenario is that someone had told Stephanie's mother that it was called a venus-shell – and that was told her by a man she had once known. He was a stranger to Stephanie, since he had left the house soon after Stephanie was born. A self-educated man who one day appeared in the frame of the front door accompanied by the shadows that seemed to follow him – indeed shadows that followed him and nobody else. A cove. A cad. A bounder. A rough diamond. Whose leaving present was what he called a porcelain venus-shell. Most shells of the sea variety weren’t readily breakable … unless you took a hammer to them with a purposeful gusto. Nobody appreciated it was fine Chinese porcelain until he told them – otherwise they’d have taken more care of it. Who wants to be the one who breaks it.

The stranger was eventually sent packing. Stephanie still remembers her Mum talking about the dark form of this stranger slouching down the garden path along with his battered brown suitcase of china wares he sold from door to door. The soft luggage sagging along in his wake.

Stephanie suddenly recalled that it probably wasn’t a leaving present at all. More apt to have been a coming present, a stranger bearing gifts. But his mother had inexplicably allowed this rogue to come across the threshold on the strength of such a weak token of honesty and bonhomie which the venus-shell, on the surface, represented. It was an item that, Stephanie assumed, could be bought in any local market (or car boot sale as many such markets had since become).

Even in those days, war or no war, Stephanie prayed to a God that she knew failed to exist rather than to another God that she knew definitely did exist. But Stephanie prayed that the stranger had never been part of her past, unaware exactly how that part in Stephanie's past had panned out and how many years it had taken. Stephanie was too young at the time to remember the stranger at all, and only heard about him from the lips of her mother, in between quips about china shops and about (even as a child) Stephanie's resemblance to a pink cow inside them. His name? We may never be told.

The years passed. The stranger never returned and her Mum kept telling Stephanie that she was a pink cow in a china shop. She was the only one of her children who had any signal failing – so this pink cow accusation gave her a complex and she became what she was called.

Words stick to you like burrs, it seems. Which brings us back, in a timely fashion, I suppose, to God. A God who - as a sort of dubious present - had granted Stephanie such abject uncoordination and clumsiness in both expression of verbal communication and articulation of the physical joints. Dysbrexia was not even in it.

I lived round the corner from Stephanie and her mother and the other siblings – and I eventually followed in the footsteps of the missing stranger. I felt sorry for the whole crowd of them and I took Stephanie's Mum out to dances. It was nothing more than that. I also picked on Stephanie for special treatment and took her ice skating. The other children in the family, whose faces I forget, seemed far more self-sufficient than Stephanie. She had accidentally smashed that venus-shell, you see, and was never likely to be forgiven. An accident in the making you might have said. Her Mum calling her a pink cow in a china shop must have been very upsetting – but, in hindsight, it was unclear which came first, the accusation or the breakage, when she breaks it, breaks it, although I earlier assumed that the accusation had naturally been instrumental in causing the breakage rather than vice versa. And to deem the shell porcelain was just another means to accentuate the pain.

“Hiya, Steph,” I said as I watched her beaming moonish face bound to the open door on one of those mornings when I came to fetch her to go ice skating. Except the bound was more a thump thump thump like giant apples falling from an apple tree.

Her Mum loomed from behind her and gave me a grateful smile. I knew she liked me, but not enough for me to share her bed. I had accepted that and surrendered any hope in that direction.

You’ll bring Stephanie back in time for tea, her eyes asked. I nodded.

“We’re going to skate together today,” Stephanie said to the open air, hoping that the open air and I were the same audience. I took her by the hand and pointed to the sky, as if the weather would be to blame if we skate together.

She stumbled along, her huge frame swaying from side to side.

We had several quiet, private conversations, so I can’t repeat them now. None of them predicted our future together as business partners. Or more than that. But it was implicit, I guess, in all we said, as if the future was mapped out, frozen and immutable.

Stephanie had stuffed the venus-shell too full of pennies; it was never designed to be a piggy bank, and literally imploded. I could have warned them about that, without even seeing it. And I never did see it. Knowingly.

Relatively late in life, Stephanie went into porcelain as a career. She eventually ran a very popular website where you could order her wares. No door-to-door for her.

I was her partner in this business. I suspect all this was her way of exorcising the past, a way to tug out the stinging-nettles: all the unkind taunts from her family about lack of coordination. To be able to earn a living from fine fragile artefacts that needed to be shipped in carefully designed packaging was both ironic and triumphant. "Thin and vulnerable as the flattened bones of fairies", she often said, her turns of phrase having grown a maturity along with her business expertise. Not that she wrapped the goods herself. My own part in the business was the packaging department which comprised of many girls from the local neighbourhood, all humming as they wrapped and stickered. The area benefited by our concern in terms of employment, a fact of which I know Stephanie was very proud. Her side of affairs was the marketing and finance. A third now shadowy partner was responsible for manufacture. I do recall Stephanie's cow-like presence as it squatted like a giant toad at Board Meetings. She was now running – with my help – the ultimate china shop and she was the archetypal bull, in more senses than one. Not the pink cow at all.

It was rather a large jump in the scheme of things from that smashed venus-shell to this growth into a soon-to-be-international corporation manufacturing and marketing fine porcelain. Indeed, it doesn’t seem like yesterday when we opened the first factory – where the product was further researched by experts in the trade that we had managed to poach from other concerns…and we had a big market throughout Europe.

Stephanie doesn’t spend much time with the business these days. She is into politics and I wouldn’t be surprised if one day she became Head of State. I hear she’s having dinner with the current Prime Minister this very evening. One thin woman with a sneer and a fat one called Stephanie. Not the only one in attendance from the world of High Business, of course, but I’m sure she’d be considered the most important: even more central to the Prime Minister’s machinations on Breaks It than that big noise that the words Breaks It make simply by the look of them. Or them looking at you. Or was my Stephanie an agent provocateur or a Machiavellian in attempts to continue trading porcelain with Europe. A disguised bull against imports from China.

Eventually, heavy Stephanie skated too far on thin ice. The years flew by too fast and missed sticking to the sides of memory. I lost sight of her, and even history itself forgot she ever existed. And meanwhile whoever is in now in charge of Britain is still hoping to mend a broken Breaks It. With pink cow gum upon a varicose venus-vessel.

Stephanie's Mum eventually took me in, though. Pity we're both past it. But I fear I am to be deported, anyway. A stranger in my own country, soft luggage sagging in my wake as I leave.

The Stood Bedroom
The Stood Bedroom was a single story.
Standalone, a bedroom house, a house with only a bedroom, and four exterior walls and two windows halfway up or halfway down as formed by corners like sharp, right-angled bays, with curtains inside to match and pull in different directions from halfway across. Commonly called a Stood Bedroom.
Inside, it was indeed a bedroom with no sign of its doubling as a bedsit for the purpose of entertaining guests. Meanwhile, it was only guests who knew that there was a whole catacomb of rooms beneath this single bedroom, with stairs leading down to them, and thus such extra rooms were naturally below ground level.
Kitchen, bathroom, sitting-room, even a hall and a music room, but, of course, no sun lounge nor conservatory. Although there was a type of garden-shed at the end of the cellar area. Where God's tools were stowed.

This Stood Bedroom was in a clearing between two wastegrounds, in sight of a forest on one side and a council housing-estate on the other. The houses there were normal two-up-two-down ones that sat above ground level, back-to-back as in the old days before the clearance lorries and demolition workers set to work in other towns and cities nearby. With single sash-windows on most walls, except where the walls had been subject to defenestration laws.
Sarah Hemmerty lived in the Stood Bedroom and she had lived there longer than her mother had done before her, who had lived there longer than HER mother before her, and so forth, which gave some indication of how age spread longer over each life as the years passed by. All of them unmarried mothers.
Sarah did have guests in the Stood Bedroom, guests who were indeed privy to the living space below the ground. But she swore them to secrecy, as her mother had done before her, with earlier guests.
There was one guest, however, who had visited the Stood Bedroom over many years, spanning more than one generation of mothers, and he was of great age and wisdom. His speech was deliberately rough and tumble though, without much observance of grammar nor of spelling, though nobody noticed the bad spelling.
But even with his wisdom, he never really understood the pattern of overlapping of mothers with daughters and the circumstances of how each was born.

It was said that God only had one room in Heaven.

The old overlapping guest's name was Daniel. And today he was visiting Sarah. Sarah was a collector of paintings and she changed them quite frequently, hanging them between the corner bays. She loved art auctions and there was indeed, for her, more enjoyment in the act of bidding for paintings than in the paintings themselves. Sometimes she came home with a dud simply because she relished the out-bidding for it.
Daniel stared at the painting, as he ensconced himself upon the edge of Sarah's bed. (Sarah was sitting inside the bed, as was her wont, even during the daytime hours.)
"Is that ... pink cows?" asked Daniel.
Sarah squinted at the pink splodges, trying to make out what Daniel said he had made out. They were certainly sitting on a surface as green as grass, even if the grassblades themselves had not been sufficiently picked out to look like grass.
She shook her head. An inscrutability of shaking that either did or did not answer the question.
"Is that...a pink blancmange picnic?"
She shook her head again.
He nodded, as if he understood something that had not yet been made entirely clear.
They sat in silence. Sarah snoozed for a while.
"Is that...a noise downstairs, I just heard?" asked Daniel with an abruptness that broke the silence.
"I didn't hear anything," she replied. But would she have heard it, even if there had been something to hear, bearing in mind she had just woken up.
Neither suggested going downstairs to investigate. People in Stood Bedrooms normally only mentioned downstairs when they were actually downstairs. In fact, Daniel's mention of downstairs was the first time it had been mentioned while upstairs in Sarah's Stood Bedroom. EVER.
"Hmmm. Is that not really pink cows?"
She nodded. To keep the peace.
"Is that not clear enuff?"
She nodded again.
The next painting that Sarah hoped to bid for would be one of corner bay windows, to show the exact nature of their configuration in the way that mere words had failed to show.
She finally felt something deep down. Or thought she did. About understanding the facts of life.
Sarah and Daniel looked upward as if in some form of despairing. Or praying?

God turned over in his single bed upstairs. Evidently He, too, now had full understanding of the human situation. But He fell asleep before remembering He had understood.

Is That
Is that you who just kicked the side of my car, as I drive real painfully slow through the town, a town near gridlocked by other cars and by people weaving between bumpers and boots, and I cannot tell if that is you with your face now pressed outside against the windscreen, whipped on each cheek in turn by my two wipers and the rain blurring your face so that I cannot tell whether it is your face at all? Eye for an eye.

But I must start at the beginning, to coin a cliché. Time is currently so old, and back then clichés have no time to become clichés. So I might as well be open with clichés, generous with expressions that you must find hackneyed or over-used. You see, to me, they are new.

Is that my house I see when I drive into its drive? The rain has stopped raining cats and dogs and now drizzles like squeezed lemons from the sky. I don't recognise its bay windows nor its dormer ones on the second floor where the bathroom is. There is a body on the bonnet, but the crowds still prevent me from parking before now. They still gather at the behest of social media, each a flashmob with a different cause, my cause being to get home fast, before being accused of murder. Then it is dark rainy murder, now it is blue murder. The sun rises into the sky, rising upon both the good and bad among us. Upon the living and the dead. This is life and that is death. So I think of death as that. Death is certain as that. Death is that. That is death.

Then that sun hides behind the veil of clouds. Now it has its happy hat on. A smile across its girth. Now it has gone again behind the horizon. Now it's up again above a different horizon. As if death and living can play peek a boo with each other. Is that too easy to believe? Always in the present tense.

Is that my living room upon the carpet of which I walk, having gained access with a key that is already in my pocket? Is that you who spreadeagles upon my car's bonnet and now walks beside me into the house, a house I do not recognise save for the key in my pocket that serves to open its front door. It is as if I accompany a burglar into my own property. Or am I the burglar? And you the owner?

Is that you who limps towards the bathroom? Is that you who tells me that I am a hit and run driver - but how can that be when I bring you home to my own house? To patch you up. Make you real. A character in my life, like a character in a book that has not yet been written. Face bruised by windscreen, clothes soaked by weather. A real dog's dinner, but some beauty shining through like a new unclouded sun.

Is that you, is that me, is that now, is that here?

Is that right that you already know the way to the bathroom? And that I only know the way to the bathroom by following you? To help you patch up your face and clothes as far as you allow me to touch you in such an intimate space. Instead, is that you helping me, dabbing my face, correcting the cut of my jib, pushing the necktie into the nest of my collar?

"Is that you?"

I suddenly hear a woman's voice from the hall downstairs, someone who just comes into the house, as if she belongs here and is surprised to find someone else at home. Or is that me to whom she asks if that is you who belongs here but not usually at this time of day? Is that me driving earlier but never reaching the office where I work? Is that me turning back home after a sudden rainstorm? Is that me or someone else?

"Is that you?" I shout back.

Is that me who depends on some assumption that couples married for some years often call 'you' to each other when out of sight from each other in a house where they live alone together, because who else can it be?

Is that me touching the neatened necktie in my collar and wondering who neatened it other than myself. Is that me touching my face, eye to eye with the half face in the bathroom mirror, the other half of the face hidden by my breath's clouding that part of the mirror like the sun being clouded by a coming storm? Is that me testing the broken skin on my face, then finger-combing my hair?

Is that me or is that you?

"Yes," is the answer in unison from a single voice.

Is that you or is that me?

Teardrops like squeezed lemons from the sky. Whipped by wipers. There are only clichés and no big words in Heaven. Only in Hell does the solipsism of flashmobs thrive.

Is that the end?

The Statue
It stood in the middle of the market square – a pipe in the mouth, a hat with flaps, a nose as long as Pinocchio’s nose, a cravat and waistcoat. All chipped, chiselled and carved from stone.
I shivered as rain began to threaten with ominous grumbles from thunderheads along the visible part of the horizon.
But I was not shivering alone for long, as a woman, one of the locals, had arrived close by without an umbrella - and she told me that it had stood there for donkey’s years. But, to me, the real life statue looked pristine, unweathered, as if newly chipped, chiselled and carved. It stood in the afternoon appearing as if it had been made in the morning. And I told her so.
During her thinking time, let me tell you that I was on tour of this foreign principality, seeking curiosities. This being the most curious of all. Even the queer animal with large ears skulking in a downtrodden restaurant nearby depleted in its curiosity by comparison.
The woman, meanwhile, gave the impression that she had walked into the square prepared … by pulling out a sepia photograph that she plonked under my nose. It looked as if it had been hastily ripped from an album as the four corners still bore their sticky separate corners.
“Look ‘ee, that was taken afore not afar the war, and proves what I say,” she said.
Lo and behold, it was exactly the same statue, complete with flappy hat, Pinocchio nose, even buttons on the waistcoat I had failed to notice in real life…
“The cravat has gone,” I suddenly announced, having just noticed this fact by dint of comparing the real-life photo with the statue.
“Ah well, yay, that was added by a chipper master,” she said, with a proud, preening gesture.
“How can you add stone to stone and still make it look continuous?” I asked.
I forget how long it was to take me to think of the question. Her answer, too.
“Ah, the scarf was dug outta his chest,” she said.
I did now notice that it was more a scarf than a cravat, and that the real life statue had a sunken chest upon which sat the scarf like something that began to look like something that wasn’t a scarf at all.
“Why was that done?” I asked absently, sensing disinterest creeping upon me.
The woman looked blank. Then she spoke again, as if she were making things up as she went.
“The town wanted the statue changed each year as a mark of time’s wear and tear.”
She seemed more in command of her words, despite the hesitation.
I then proceeded to examine the new-found dips and dingles that were all over the statue’s inner stone, presumably where things had been dug out of what had once been outer stone. I thought I was glimpsing parts of his body under the clothes. I am sure it had not been like that when I first noticed it in the square.
I glanced back, I remember, at the sepia photograph – and the woman was in it – instead of standing beside me. And I felt a sudden pain in my belly, felt it with my hand, as it sank further into the stone.
Except it eventually felt more like bone than stone.
It all ended with a flash of lightning.
Or was it someone in real life donkey’s years ago taking a photograph?

Adapted from last night's speed-writing exercise at the Clacton Writers' Group

Old Friends
Old Friends,
Thank you for coming. As a child, I lived in Old Heath Road and, recently, I learnt that the Heath was nothing to do with Heath but to do with nearby Hythe, a harbour and a word for Harbour. That came as a shock. Being the road to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe, I had guessed all those years ago that the countryside to which it led was heathland.

I used to go on cycle rides to Rowhedge and Fingringhoe in those days – and I always thought it was a miracle anyone could balance on a two-wheeled bike, but I became so laissez-faire I got to free-wheeling down steep hills at break-neck speed…

But that is another story. The Old in Old Heath Road with which I started this speech to all you folks here has now reminded me of other old things. Like ruins. And people who live longer than they should. Living beyond their design model. There is a road in Clacton where I live now that is simply called Old Road. I wonder why it was called that – it was presumably new when it was first built. And there is old money like pennies, shillings, threepenny bits, two bob bits, half-crowns, ten shilling notes, farthings….

Being old oneself is a sort of far thing, a state of existence that still seems distant, a place you never get to – until you do.

But that gets us round to the nub of my speech. You can see it at the top: OLD FRIENDS. And I thank you all for coming here, friends from every part of my life. Some older than others. But none of you look old to me. You look the same as I remember you. Even those of you who have grown so old you hardly ever go out but still have kindly come here to support my speech. You, too, look as young I remember you. And some of you know some of you others here - and this is the first time you have met together for some years.

No need to stay silent. I see some of you silently nodding, smiling, a few of you staring straight ahead as if someone has scared you stiff. Well, rest easy, you are here now. And soon I will stop talking – and allow you to talk together. So, old friends, remember you are only as old as you feel. And if you want to stay silent, remembering our times together – please do so. No one will make you talk back or even listen. And thus I stay silent, too, at harbour’s end. Rowhedge and Fingringhoe, et al.

There was never a speech to hear – never one to deliver. Speech-writing was never my forte. Move on, there is nothing happening here.

(Slightly adapted from my speed-writing exercise at the Clacton Writer’s Group a few evenings ago.)

First in Class

When I approached the shop -- more a storefront warehouse, perhaps, than a high street outlet, although it was ON the high street -- I saw that its fixture of a banner above the showcase at its leading edge upon the pavement carried the words FIRST IN GLASS as set in professional lettering. I thus assumed it was an outfit selling glass in all shapes and forms. The frontage, as with most shops hoping to display things to the public, was made of glass itself.

I turned to my wife who accompanied me and said: "A shop, not seen it before. How long ago did we come along here? Last week, wasn't it?"

"I don't know. But what's it selling?"

Her red hat seemed to stand out attractively against the clear glass of the shop's window, but its reflection in that glass seemed more like a patch of bloodstains.

I held back on my reply so that I could spend some time staring into the window so as to make out the nature of the shop's wares. And in tune with its large sign outside, its sole purpose seemed to be that of selling glass, several panes of it, stretching, one behind the other, towards the hinterland of its inside.

"Glass, dear ... sheets and sheets of it," I replied. I was always methodical in dealing with my wife, when answering her questions. A lot hung on my answers and her reaction to them. One needed to uphold marital equilibrium at all costs, I had found. I ever wanted to be the first in the husband class.

"Glass?" She peered into the window as if seeking to penetrate something that wasn't glass at all, but a series of glass imitations, a labyrinth of smoke and mirrors. Her red hat became almost a feature of the design of some of the sheets' ribbed and inset shards of colour, ranging inward like a kaleidoscope. I hadn't noticed the colours before, having first assumed that each flat-faced item for sale, beyond the last visible one's vanishing-point, was a pane of pure clear glass, even though imbued with a tint of cloud from the sky above us, but now imperceptibly turning black rather than grey.

I had originally met my wife when we attended infants school and on the first day, after our two mothers left us for the first time in our lives, we struck up a friendship that had by now lasted, it seemed, forever. Plasticene sweethearts. Coloured pencils soon in love with each other. School dinners and blancmange puddings rubbing along together. Schoolyard games playing competitively to see which was the better game to play. Outstaring sessions, with eyes fixed on eyes to see who would blink first. And as yet our relationship, even now in old age, had never once blinked. Not that I had noticed.

She, of course, was first in class. Girls always matured earlier than boys, they say, even though boys when they become men show a different level of something indefinable girls never encompassed, not that they wanted to do so. Who can compare anything with anything else from a single set of eyes. You need the coordination or triangulation of other sets of eyes to give perspective and definition to the things being compared, especially when those things are separate inner beings or selves.

Teacher's pet she was. Always beaming at the front, having been given the soft red beret of top swat to wear, reading aloud from her excellent handwriting upon sheets she had in her hand. I was in the corner with a pointed whitened glass hat balanced precariously on my large-for-my-age head. In those days, there was no political correctness. Call a dunce a dunce, they believed. And they did.

That hat was so heavy. I look back at old comics and dunce's hats were supposed to be made out or light cardboard or stiff paper, bent and curved into a cone. Who ever heard of glass ones?

I came out of my brown study, and peered into the glass shop, each shard and smoothly reconciled crack of the layered sheets instilled with pixels of variegated colour, red above smeary pink, with haloes of rainbow from the sky outside.

Plasticene strips of ribbed licquorice colour, oozing through the cracks, were all I could now touch of her essence. My love, my wife, my blancmange.

THE LAST - - -
THE LAST - - -

I often thought I knew what thoughts others thought. It is called being a seer or medium - or even a prophet whereby I can predict the thoughts someone was about to think a few seconds before they thought them. But the real art of such telepathy – yes, that’s the word I was seeking – was to know when the last thought had passed through their mind, or knowing when it was imminent, a last thought that would thus complete the whole sense of everything they had thought up to that point. To clinch the gestalt of the moment.

So, when I was visited by someone who showed me an embossed card of officialdom I thought this was the optimum time to test out my skills in reading thoughts to see if such thoughts contradicted the words coming out of their mouth – and then crystallising their last thought as a sort of joining up of whatever circle they had in store for me – the plan, I fear, of removing something from me because they were about to claim that all these years I had been telling lies about my circumstances, such as when or where my last thought was likely to reside.

But then I thought: what if they can read my own thoughts? I had better stop thinking my thoughts, thoughts that were sneaking upon me even now, thoughts that I really did not think, such as the doubts about whether I had been eligible for the upkeep I had been receiving all my life, and this was still the case going forward. But then I thought I should keep my thoughts rolling on and on so as to prevent myself reaching the last thought that would confirm my lies, because the last thought is always out of the control of the person thinking it, and this is why I am thinking these thoughts, on and on, interminably, but knowing it is too late to change the thoughts I have already thought about receiving upkeep that I did not deserve because of the circumstances I had withheld about my life.

On and on, I keep thinking, thinking with some hope that continuing such thoughts will bury the thoughts I’ve already committed to thinking. So busy thinking I seem to have failed not only to scry the thoughts in the real-time of the other’s actually thinking them from beneath their vast bouffant cloud of officiousness, but also I have failed to listen to what they had been saying to me aloud, or to pay heed to the questions they’ve been asking me about my circumstances and I now wonder if my silence is incriminating. And who is really keeping their last thought so close to their chest, to eventually bring it forth, me or them?

It is too late to wonder about anything, and my regathered concentration on their thoughts has shown me that they are about to have their last thought at the precise same moment when I am due to have my last thought. A last thought being the clincher in any pattern of thinking, often not a last thought at all, I hope, but the predictive beginning of another pattern of thoughts to set beside what the thinker says out loud. And who is fooling whom in this game of cuts by a thousand thoughts, and which of us is thinking thoughts at all? Each last thought cancelling out the last - - -

Sweets For My Sweet
My darling sweet, my darling sweet, we have known each other for many years, have we not, but when we first met, in that tiny playground of the school, we were so young and now almost forgotten as the people we once were. The photos that were taken are what we have to go on, thank goodness, filling in the gaps; even snapshots in black and white can carry the souls of the beings we once were, two tiny kids hand in hand.

To celebrate our long time together, my darling sweet, I am about to supply those sweets we once enjoyed so very much, sweets that you can't buy these days, and although tiny sweet shops with weighing machines and jars and triangular paper bags still exist, they are rare, and even if they do exist their sweets are different. Sweets that do not have the smell of the 1950s about them. The feel of those old times surely no longer exists as sweets, you think. Stickiness that got stuck somewhere in the past, leaving us with flat and unsharp and smooth and unsticky ones today. But I have found the original sweets still edible but with the smell and stickiness of the 1950s still clinging to them. Can you believe it? You know how you have been able to trust me over so many years of happy togetherness. But first you need to find these sweets. This is a game like the ones we used to play. A laughter of tricks and clues.

Ah, you have found them too easily, my darling sweet. You are so clever, always have been. No change there. But I meant you to search all day, but you are as ever too clever for me. Your smile is as sweet as it ever was, my now seeing you gaze in disbelief at the sweets you've found for yourself, without my help, sweets not as sweet as your smile, I hasten to add. A teardrop at the corner shop of your eye, a sign of joy, not sadness, of course. I try to return your smile with my own, but it cannot compare with yours, I'm sure. Ah, you do not need to open your compact for its mirror. I believe you, as you believe me. And now the game of laughter has tripped your smile into further ricochets of hiccuping. Always the same hiccuping hilarity, and I know you are as happy as Chloe.

Yes, do open the triangular paper bags, to see the sweets more clearly. To feel their stickiness on the tips of your fingers. Sorry, they are not in proper 1950s paper, stiff, and crimped. Pinked. And drizzled with sugar grains. But being cellophane, you can see the sweets without first getting yourself too sticky. Fruit drops, penny chews, humbugs, bull's eyes, pineapple chunks, pear drops, lemon sherbets, and rhubarb-and-custard pieces just for you tasting like school dinner puddings, and yes, I know, not all those were quite the same or even available at all in the old days, but a pick-a-mix today is as good as a choice of beautiful pastel or even primary colours in jars all those years ago.

We used to get our faces covered in stickiness, I remember, thus allowing our kisses to seem to last almost forever.

I watch you touch the sweets gingerly. Testing out the bags for further openings that have inadvertently been ripped into them during your first excited rush at getting at them, after long calm moments of pent up anticipation. Try first the rhubarb and custard ones, my darling sweet. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at their surge of gentle flavour. Even longer moments of nostalgic hindsight as you allow them to seep into you with their essential sweetness of distant past time's premonition of our loving life together...

Go on, suck hard, do not chew. You have to watch your teeth. Ah, I am so pleased. Sweets for my sweet. And your sweet smile itself can now hopefully last forever for me, even beyond the peaceful end of your laughter. Close your compact, my darling sweet. Keep your powder dry.


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