Knowing about these books is not enough.

The plane was readying itself for take-off.
The plane was readying itself for take-off.

I wondered if a plane was called a plane because it interleaved several planes of reality and dream in order to achieve flight for a heavier-than-air object that it surely was. A transporter for people across the tightening borders of the world. Some countries these days even had walls between them, and only a plane could cross them. This plane, today, was not readying itself on an old-fashioned runway, as runways had all become walls themselves. No, it was on a sloping ramp, pointing to the sky at forty five degrees angle, almost like the way rockets used to take off before the North Korean events of history.

Whilst the ramp looked like a giant youthful Meccano model, it did bear the weight of the plane, and now up closer it seemed like a mighty monster of metal which glinted in the setting and rising suns. This was to be home – for me, my family and friends together with a single stranger – lasting at least an optimum length of time. I learned that gradually. It was not a sudden knowledge. I had to be tutored into the idea of taking off on this plane. And persuade my family and friends and a single stranger to join me. It was a sort of embellishment against entrenched echoes of Trump and Brexit that continued to plague our human world.

So, imagine my shock when I was allowed closer to the plane, and saw that it was pointing down the ramp not up it!

Indeed the bodywork of the plane sloped towards the ground upon the ramp and creaked like a regular clock, each tick representing a separate strain on its rivets. This was its way of readying to take off, and there was nothing in the words 'take off' to prevent it taking off rather than soaring off or lifting off or catapulting off into the sky. The nearer I got, I could see it was measured in hundreds of metres, and even thousands, widening out towards the top, tapering down to the deeply spiralled drillbit on its fuselage's nose, a drillbit poised half a centimetre above the desert floor. It spun gently as the powerful engine above in the main body took light revving exercises and clambering labourers leaned from the gantries to squirt huge gouts of black sludge into the moving parts. As the sun rose – blinding off the shiny areas of the mighty fuselage – the drillbit spun harder; then I, now suddenly being the project leader, pressed a button which I knew was the real starter-switch, all the other switches built into the pilot’s console being just for show.

Years of arranging suddenly entered my memory – poring over incomprehensible charts of aeroplane or now terraplane engineering – debating the ways and whyfores of the avenues towards which it might lead me – vicariously enjoying the false start romances which alternated like misfiring currents between members of the crew – carefully monitoring my own sanity – yes, after all these things, surely the day had arrived. I got to get there. Really got to.

A plane readying itself for take off as a Noah’s Ark, yes, but one with no need to take to the open skies, as had been predicted. It was to be home for humanity’s hope not as the Lark Ascending but, in darker moments of delving doubt, more a Lurk Descending.

The lady was younger than myself, although we both dreamed independently that we had once been the same age – separate dreams that neither could admit to the other. She had peach-blossom cheeks and a name she kept hidden, making me call her by all manner of endearments. She played on my good nature and my deep desire for a partner (even at my advanced years). She stood beside me as I pressed the starter switch.

The ignition turned the mighty engines, one sparking off another, until the drillbit spun so fast it was just one among many scintillating shafts of the dawning sun. The tip met the hard redness of the Essex desert just this side of its wall, throwing up a wormcast fit to outshadow an Ancient Egyptian pyramid. It eased into the undersoil, to where centuries of misbegotten seasons had sunk. Then it ground into the first layer of bedrock, setting off a rain of white-hot splinters which cascaded past the windows of the plane's cabins. Somehow the wings and propellers continued to be integral even as they entered the ground. Whether the propellers continued spinning was something beyond my ability to see.

My family and friends merely sat and stared, amid the juddering, as the darkness of Earth enveloped them. No need for concern, I told them: the lights on board would not even flicker, since the relentless power of the drillbit's torque would feedback and regenerate the cells. I showed them where the fuse membranes were stored, so these could be replaced with just one turn of a screw and a snap-on-snap-off cassette. The chosen stranger in the crew was less confident, for I did read fear in his eyes, behind the hope. He was suspicious of why I had chosen him to ride at all. Suspicious, indeed, of himself for having agreed to come on such a wayward mission.

'On to the core, away from Trump and Brexit!’ I announced over the ship’s tannoy. ‘That’s where we shall pitch our tents!’

She laughed. She knew at the bottom of her heart that it was far too hot at the core for anything to exist, especially for our bodies of human parchment and the spontaneously combustible brains that our skulls freighted. Global warming was never to be denied.

I had always felt that I possessed two brains: two lumps of grey matter with hot-rod lightning Z-tracking between. I was not schizophrenic, but merely overburdened with thoughts and ideas which, by turns, conflicted and merged. It was like being married to myself. And as the mammoth plane delved downwards between rocks which shifted amid the sluggish marrow of Earth’s inner sky, I had to calm the nerves of everybody on board, needing to contain their fears concurrently while not allowing my own sanity to slip. I boasted that we were the ultimate pioneers, ones that history had foretold would boldly bodily go to the outer reaches of the Universe, finding a new home to flee a terrible world. But this great escape, I told them, was not up, but down. The dire diseases, you see, were wilder, deeper, stronger in the places where the stars flowed in the sky.

They listened open-mouthed, but I soon saw that none of them had ever believed me. No wonder they couldn’t even trust themselves.

How could I have even hoped that any of them possessed the nous for such concepts, when times were so backward? There were other questions, too. Indeed, I set them pub quizzes to pass the time along its rightful channel, tested them on knowledge and on historical perspective. Until the stranger pointed out that we had forgotten to stow the books. How were we meant to preserve the spirit of the world, the very posterity we hoped to further? Old people were meant to have wisdom, weren’t they. Otherwise, they’d be young again.

I unconsciously bit my lip and indicated towards the carved slabs of map-crazed rocks which slid past the plane's portholes, but if I were meant to speak, to smooth away the puzzles on our brows, I could only find two words: ‘Trust me’.

Suddenly, we all heard an edge-toothed rasping and outlandish crunching noise, like the strongest tide upon loose shingle, when trying to claw a way back from drowning. The plane and its drillbit ground to a ricocheting halt, sending the passengers in all tilting directions, my lady collapsing on top of me with a screech which the drillbit itself must have felt as it met an impermeable Hard Core. Sparks in a molten silver river flowed past the portholes, as my family clambered across the steepening floor towards me, yearning for comfort and words of unalloyed wisdom. But she, my lady, spoke first: ‘The air is escaping, we can’t breathe.’

Two brains merged – at this optimum point of time. We gathered that the fuselage of the plane had been stove in by the force of the jolt, and the carefully preserved life support systems were seeping out – not rapidly as they would have done in outer space, but gradually enough to warrant immediate donning of Q-shaped masks. My mask was in the image of Ancient Pan, and my lady’s in that of a birdlike creature with oversize beak. The stranger’s mask was designed along the lines of my own face whilst the rest of the crew presented a motley array of fictitious heroes and villains, spinning on their rumps like dying bluebottles, all doped to the white-clogged gills.

Only two masks possessed the secret air supply instead of the snorts of dope. But such supply was to last for a mere one minute – suitable for my lady and I to consummate our loving union at last. But not before my two brains alternated endlessly between Death and Life. Until, finally, even endlessness eventually ended and, after much debate, Death itself started to write these words.

‘Trust me,’ the stranger said with his last words – but he knew, in his heart, if not his two brains, that these words were trapped between the hard covers of a book, the ink-trod paper crumbling to choking dope-dust in his throat. The lady tugged a washing-line of pure white oblong flags from under her skirt. She smiled and held it out for him to help pull them free from endlessness. They were the virgin pages for a book which became banknotes for invisible money, most blank but some bearing the head of Charles Dickens in the corner. A few even were denominated.

One of my eyes, I somehow know, weeps an old man’s tears; the other eye sparkles like a child’s. Got to get there. Really got to. Right to the core of dreams. Away from Trump and Brexit. Taking off beyond the Wall of Sleep.

Chopin wrote 24 Preludes, one for each hour of the day, but I always played them when there was a full moon. There was something plaintive about them, methodical, as if all was right, bright or even rightly, brightly dark about the world. When there was a misty ghostly moon of any size, I played his Nocturnes that then seemed appropriate. But a clear new moon made something spring or jump inside my spirit, and I played new music, atonal, some might say a load of noise, but I always found something musical in it, something secret, something that normal melodic music couldn’t reach. When there was a clear gibbous moon, I couldn’t play any music at all. I knew I couldn’t, so why did I try to do so and fail? When there was no moon at all, I thought the Chopin Mazurkas or Waltzes would be perfect, but as I sat down to play them in such circumstances out came a single unknown Chopin Prelude. The notes seemed to play themselves, even more beautiful than the official canon of Preludes. It was almost as if I were sitting at a piano with a piano-roll that was cut into by the finger strokes of Chopin himself. They were my own fingers that followed the keys as they indented one by one, as if the music played me and not vice versa. The perfect Prelude. I stared into the starless, moonless sky as I followed the notes or the notes followed me. I guessed it was so utterly black because of cloud cover. But at heart I knew it was the perfect blackness. The perfect prelude to death.

Black Pearls
Black Pearls
"I wonder if a black oyster can culture a black pearl, its pitch black outer shell hinged to another such shell, and tightly contained within them are its slimy innards and a now bullet-hard pellet shaped into a tiny sphere whereupon all the seas and lands mapped upon it are as black as each other..."

He took a few moments to catch breath between the poetic ruminations with which he sometimes tried to impress me, before continuing...

"That was my dream, to cultivate and market black pearls, thus to provide necklaces for everyone's sweethearts to show up on their fair-skinned necks. But then one day they told me I could not do this as it would be seen to conflict with the social norms of tolerance and inclusivity. Everything needed to be available to everyone, to show up on every skin."

I nodded knowingly. I was an oyster-catcher of the first water and he was a half-breeder open for my wares. I poked a finger into my purse and brought out for his inspection the most perfect pearl I had as a lucky keepsake. One I had not been able to sell. It was no colour at all, yes, a colourless pearl like a drop of water. I offered it to him with my voice...

"This is the only pearl of its kind but I now have the methodology to re-create it, given your investment to catch other oysters the same colour as water. Think of it, a necklace of pearls like beads of sweat, or gentle perspiration - each pearl fused to the skin without the need for a thread or Miller's string. Such pearls have the attractiveness of glowing upon the skin and no laws are contravened. Even mermaids can wear them, say, like a belly-dancing delight just above where their skin ends and the tails begin."

He looked at me as if I were mad, but decided to trust me. I had helped him before to discover dust that did not need dusting, food that did not need excreting, see-through hats, clothes that made one thinner than the body otherwise made possible, and false moustaches for women.

"Ah ha," he had said, "aren't you contravening the rules of universal availability by offering false moustaches for women? They need to be available to men, too."

We had always come to an agreement - always a compromise.

"Black pearls," I said, "have always been a difficult choice, both to cultivate and to fulfil social justice strictures. Normally, I found, black oysters produced pearl-coloured pearls just as pearl-coloured oysters did, too. Each producing a pearl that I see as a rich pinky white that glows like Heaven's light, and with an imagined soul of utter perfection emanating from within. But others see that colour and soul differently. And none of us can really know what the others see."

I matched my poetics with his. I smiled, before continuing...

"After all, God is colourless, see-through, and sometimes comes down as a certain kind of rain, and is neither man nor woman."

We were now speechless, the whiteness of our eyes a faint Botticelli pink. Silent together, at least before that moment when we left together hand in hand.

Shifting Shadows

"We'll need a belt as well as some braces," she said.

I looked askance at where my wife Rose was sitting. What did she know about a man's need for a belt and braces? Sixty years of marriage and she still thought that anxiety was a word you set in spelling tests. And security as a job someone did in places we never at our age went to any more.

If one thing fails, then you have the other to hang on to, I always tried to explain, a bit like marriage itself, the belt and the braces of self and unself amid the shifting shadows of precarious time. So imagine my surprise when she suggested both methods of holding up the trousers as a metaphor for double banking the fire with coal and wood, with the help of the updraught of a stretched-wide newspaper in front of the flames. Dangerous, looking back on such ancient domestic fire-making practices. I often got my metaphors mixed. I could never keep up with conversations nowadays, because I had to remember what someone had said at least a a minute or so before I tried to remember it - and that was becoming more and more difficult.

What had happened, was that the electricity had gone out, and all the house-lights with it. And by belt and braces, she meant a torch and a candle. We had to climb the stairs to bed, a veritable challenge more characteristic of Everest these days. Especially in an unexpected darkness. I imagined those shifting shadows of my life now transposed to the landing, especially if lit with a candle.

"No, not a candle," I said. "A torch will do."

"We need one to find the other," Rose counter-claimed. "Otherwise we will find neither."

I nodded as if I understood. Except it was too dark to see me nodding. This was a rum do, I thought. Both of us sitting in the darkness, thinking the other one would go to find a candle. Or a torch. Whichever was more readily to hand.

Needless to say, our preparation for such an eventuality had turned out to be pitiful. As we realised at the same precise moment that the belt had failed and so had the braces. But having just written that, I'll probably forget it later. My own flickering inner light was blighted with shifting shadows. And I mused as I watched them for a while or imagined watching them as we continued sitting in silence. Good job I would again recognise her voice as I had no other evidence about with whom I was sitting in the sitting-room. Sitting side by side or opposite each other, I could not remember. I stretched out my hand in all directions and fumbled with a vertical elasticated strap over someone's chest. Didn't feel like my wife's chest. Must be mine, then. Though the waist and its threaded belt felt far too huge to be anyone's at all. Must be a giant, I thought. I resisted feeling beyond the clothes. The light would be back soon.

And it was then I heard a movement in the corner of the room, a shuffly, shambly friction. And the sudden blooming of candleflame amid new shifting shadows, and a face lit up. I squinted to see if it was my wife's. I was sure it was her face, the one that had been lived in for longer than anyone would care to think. My own face was weathered, too. I wonder if she could see it from where she now stood, with that relatively distant candleflame. If it was her at all. Which it must be. It would be an intruder otherwise. An intruder wearing braces.

I laughed to myself. Strange what shifting shadows can do to the mind. And I thought of my own trusty torch that I thought I carried about with me at all times - for just such an eventuality. Its pinprick beam ever primed. But all I'd feel would be my mobile phone which I had never been able to use properly ever since my son gave it to me and showed me how to work it. It might even have its own beam, I now suddenly remembered. Strange what one remembers, and what one forgets. I believe I forget more than I remember, but I am never sure.

I suddenly stood up with a creaking of pain, without apparent volition, to feel better about my person and to seek whatever double security of well-being I could re-establish. And my trousers immediately collapsed around my ankles with a silence from which any friction had already escaped.

"The light is back on." Rose's voice. But I didn't hear it. The root of the fitment had come away from the ceiling. And the rest of the lightshade hanging beneath had fallen with it. The visibility had become its own shifting shadows out of my sight up there, risen there automatically like swathes of bright heat and smoke. I couldn't even remember, meanwhile, whether I was still alive. Only the feeling of someone's fingers loosening the pinions of my clothes. So I could escape through them. Then loosening the sinewy belt and braces holding all the baggy skin to the bones. I was to be cared for by my better half to the very end, I thought - even as I remembered the sensation of it all ending but not quite ending yet. "How do you spell anxiety?" asked the giant, before the mobile broke into light, having already started to vibrate.

Two words in the title tied together by an ampersand. Two words are always better than one. One no doubt better than none. But three or more? That's when you get close to renting a crowd, I guess. Belt, braces, buttons & buckles. Brooches and badges then added, closely followed by bonnets and boots. The list is literally endless, as I have not even mentioned balaclavas and bodices. All to tighten or cover parts of the body, a few of these things to be stuck on as decoration, but all of them presumably to give some certainty to the existence of a person and a personality, depending on what is chosen to upholster the various appendages and to support the several leanings of self.

But one belt and one set of braces were surely enough to keep one's trousers up, to keep not only one's skirt suspended but also the pouches under the eyes. Ensuring there is no slippage. To keep the hangdog expression from becoming something more substantial lower down. A look or image of the schoolboy where there now stands a man. And this is essentially a story about a man, not a woman. Who, you say, a human or a whoman? There is at the end of the day little difference, because under the clothes we know not what lurks. What or who. Only doctors are normally privy to those areas, doctors or lovers. And for them neither belt nor braces give sufficient bar, neither brassiere nor basque able to stop the reveal of what or who.

The man in this story meanwhile sought for his own life companion. Someone sufficiently similar to him to be human but different enough to be mate. He wore his belt and braces proudly, a Columbo of our times, seeing not only whodunnits but also what-withs and whys. And who was next. Not a man at all, apparently.

A regeneration of life companion to launch a thousand bathing-costumes. One or two piece alike.

Till the monsters came. Each with an interrogatively whovian hook.

And then a belt and a pair of braces were worse than useless. As what they suspended became belief as well as disbelief. The monsters wore something like a belt not around their waist but vaguely draped and drooped round their chest instead.
Playing in their amper-sandbox of crowded words and worlds. Renting a mob for möbius.

The police box was covered in freshly laundered corsets and its light was flashing.

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?


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