Thursday, September 29, 2005

A Dark Miscegenation

"Don't you believe in ghosts any more?" asked Clement's mother, while fingering the tiny cross hung at her throat—as if she believed it would protect her from those very ghosts.

The empty room was crowded with other members of the Victorian family—a funerary gathering, with too many children under the age of ten for comfort. Clement grimaced at the thought of the ensuing hours of small talk and big arguments. Yet, despite the numbers, there was currently a deathly hush, as the grown-ups balanced the chinking of their cups against the nibbling noise caused by an inconsequential cucumber sandwich, underlaid with the snickering of the log's flames from the hearth.

The children maintained an uncharacteristic modicum of good behaviour, even including the boy who had dared wear a bobble-hat at the earlier ceremony. They were crouched on the floor peculiarly staring at an empty corner of the room.

Twins Archie and Annabel had given up squabbling, once one of them at random had been given what Clement considered to be a rather vicious clip round the ear by their otherwise prim and proper mother. After all, in those days, punishment was worth the effort.

Clement had arrived at the funeral on his own. His mother lived in the opposite end of town, pretending to her neighbours that she had always been a Spinster, thus concealing the evidence of Clement as fruit of her erstwhile marital loins. Indeed, she had ignored her son during most of the day's proceedings—other than the initial pleasantries which she had a way of making quite unpleasant.

Clement surveyed the others. They surveyed him, too, with the usual embarrassment that people have about returning silent stares. Most of them were unmentionable creatures whom Clement would not have even granted a second glance in the town's market. The simple fact that they once had blood-ties with him in various devious ways surely did not make them worthy of consideration. He would rather be friends with those donkeys on the sands, when his mother and father took him to the seaside every Whitsun.

"Ghosts, mother?" he said, as if the words fitted in with what had already been said earlier. He fingered his cufflinks, echoing her earlier perfomance with the crucifix.

"Yes, Clement, you were always going on about ghosts. If you're so clever, where's Auntie Rita now?"

His mother swept the room with her heavily braceleted arm, as if to conjure up some wraith masquerading as the remnants of that day's buried body. She ignored the steely glances from some of the grown-ups who evidently condemned her tactless remark.

Clement had found it difficult to remember who Auntie Rita had been. Some long-lost distant relative born not only on the wrong side of the blanket but also quite the wrong blanket? One who wanted to be called Auntie because of some perverse logic as to respectability? Or was she his mother's sister, as simple as that? Whoever she was, he laid the blame at Auntie Rita's door for today's irritations. At least, at a Christening, one could curse the babe in question. Or, at a wedding, stick pins into metaphorical dolls of the bride and groom. But at a funeral, the proximate cause of yet one more family gathering was already dead. But, he knew, as the old saying went, there was no rest for the wicked.

With corpses as scapegoat as well as subterfuge, families, like nations, had wars, bitter, twisted and, yes, mercenary. Why would they all be haunting the living-room, otherwise? If not for the reading of the Last Will and Testament...

So that explained the gentleman in half-moon glasses who sat uncomfortably on the sofa between Archie and Annabel. The family lawyer, no doubt. But the man also had the stigma in his eyes and the caste of complexion which typified the rest of the room's crawling life. Clement winced at his own words. He hadn't chosen them. It was as if someone else described the scene. Clement was no culprit—he was sure. Yet the family did stem from a particularly nasty form of ethnic cleansing that had transpired in Old Europe, before Clement's birth. Yet nobody had heard of ethnic cleansing in those days, that, at least, was true. But it gave him no excuse for racial slurs.

"I don't believe in ghosts any more, Mother."

Clement had broken another icy silence. Her accusation could not have remained unchallenged. Who knew what concertina of destinies would have been set in motion, otherwise? The supposed lawyer coughed—either because he had a frog in his throat or he genuinely wanted to let slip the dogs of war with the Will. It turned out to be a frog, since the man pawed at his own chest as if he fought for breath—or someone else's breath, Clement unaccountably thought, in a moment spawned by surrealistic private humour.

Still the children silently stared at the empty corner of the room but one of them was eventually instructed to fetch the lawyer a glass of water. Upon recovering, he maintained that a piece of cucumber had gone down the wrong way.

Gone down the wrong way?

Which was the right way? contemplated Clement, as he fingered his own throat and discovered the tiny cross he always had hanging there, against his better judgement. Habits died slowly—and a habit, inculcated in the younger Clement by his mother and father, was particularly hard to kill. Not that he believed in God any more. Well, not that God in whom his mother appeared to place so much faith.

The children were now becoming more and more fractious. Who could blame them? The whole affair was being drawn out to unncesssary lengths of fitful silence. At least, their encroaching wheedles and whines relieved the heavy atmosphere. Nobody had dared broach the Will, not even the so-called lawyer—a man who looked remarkably like Clement's late father when he was younger. Yet, Clement's father had been a cleric: or a lower-rank verger or sexton or, maybe, at a push, a curate or something. Certainly not a deacon. Some shame had come on the family when Clement was too young to appreciate the repercussions. A minor peccadillo with a female creature which flaunted itself on the seaside rocks (near the donkey-ride).

Clement couldn't believe in ghosts. He never would. He didn't dare.

He snatched the long toasting-forks from either Archie and Annabel (he was unsure which shape was which) and jabbed and spiked the air of the dark living-room. He then squatted in the empty corner and tugged harder at the cross-chain, hoping it would make him dark, too.

Friday, September 16, 2005

An Ounce of Three Castles and a Packet of Blue Rizla

He was called Nagl. I originally came across him in a dream.

A concert pianist, of the first water - I can remember his fingers curved upon the keys, their nails long uncut to give the notes extra bite: every line and facet etched with the prehensility of dark genius. God, by comparison, would be a huge white sagging barrage balloon floating tetherless across endless turgid oceans.

I woke with the dream still plastered to the back of my skull, where my brain had sprayed it with all the force of cinemascope. The wordy pretentiousness stuck, too. At least for the duration of the Sixties.

I then met Nagl in real life. I was introduced to him at a party: evidently not as old as I had thought in my dream.

. "How are you?" he asked, as if we'd met before.

"Very well, thank you... Excuse me for being rude, but are you a pianist?"

He glanced down at his own fingers and I noted in the darkly fizzing lights that the nails were long and yellowy white.

"I play the piano, yes, but only for my own amusement. But how do you know?"

I shrugged and asked him to dance. Our small talk had been close to either grinding to an embarrassing halt or entering dangerous realms.

As we jabbed our hind legs sporadically to Mr Kite, I heard him, during breathless interludes, mention a few composers he liked playing, especially Scriabin. I nodded although, of course, I had never heard of the composer.

We parted on good terms, both of us promising to keep a weather eye for each other at future parties.

The following night, I dreamed of him for the second time. On this occasion, I was nearer to the front of the auditorium, standing amongst several others as we jostled to obtain the best position nearest to the pianist. The orchestra's tuning up was particularly frightening, but I put this down to the dream. The audience suddenly broke into cheering uproar, as Nagl (for it was indeed him) had marched to the podium with the conductor.

As the noise subsided, he squared himself on the adjustable stool, after having flapped out his tails from beneath. He made a few running chords along the slipstream of the keys...

He turned towards us. I was captivated, convinced that he was staring straight at me with piercing white eyes. He began speaking about the music which he was about to perform. Some of the audience asked him questions on style and interpretation. Most unusual. Pre-performance talks were quite common, but separate from the musical event itself, customarily held in a different venue an hour or two before the doors opened on the concert proper.

Eventually, I found myself asking a question, much against my better nature, even though I was conscious of the impatience of the orchestra members and their conductor (the latter being a maestro in his own right).

"Would you like me to buy you dinner after the concert?" I asked, my voice croaking with nervousness.

Nagl smiled and nodded. With some relief, I noticed the conductor raising his baton...

I awoke, bitterly disappointed that, after all the preamble, it would never be possible to hear the music. Nagl's description of it was more than just a little tantalising.

My disappointment continued at the next party. Nothing to be seen of him anywhere, unless he was one of those neckers in the dark corner. But if he were hiding, it could only be because he wanted to avoid me. I recalled the dream ... and the wicked smile.

The next time I slept, I merely collapsed into darkness, with the sense of fingers touching me all over. Yet, it was too blurred and forgetful to warrant the name dream. I was still obsessed with Nagl's inscrutability. Nagl this, Nagl that. I was bemused, in love and, peculiarly, wistful.

The next day, I tried to contact some of my friends (fellow guests at this season's parties) but none of them could recall him. But, I said, he had been the soul of the party. Surely nobody could have failed to note his striking pose, the glistening dusky face. How could I be so mistaken? Even now, I recalled the feel of his hand like claws as I twirled him round in an old-fashioned jive. The famous composer's name which he had mentioned as enjoying, however, had gone completely from my head. I wished I had written it down. But it was too late.

Nevertheless, I did dream of him again. This time, sleep was conducive to dreaming, I knew that straightaway. As soon as I planted my head on the pillow and closed my eyes, I felt him creeping up from the background. On all fours, I imagined. Or on his belly.

The first scene was a restaurant. We only had eyes for each other, so the waiters had to make do with cursory signals as to our wants. The menu lay between us on the table like an unread score. The candlelight brought out the matt swarthiness of his skin. His eyes were gentler than I ever remembered.

His fingers were hamfisted away from his piano, more pedestrian. He dropped his cutlery with unsightly clatters. Dreams only speak of visions, not sounds, I realised, thus easing my earlier disappointment at not catching the music before waking.

Whatever its ingredients, the meal was strangely unsatisfying. Afterwards, we left to go to his home. As he paid the bill, I promised to meet any further expenses of the evening. Eventually, after much toing and froing, we arrived at a large rambling house on the edge of the city ... with several staircase chimneystacks silhouetted against the moon-stained sky, like suprlus lumber that couldn't fit into the house's countless attics. The spiralling iron fire-escapes strangled the two end towers with the Devil's own jewellery. Dream talk, again. I shrugged in my sleep.

We had passed, on our way, a huge liner in dry dock still being worked on by overtime repairers at the dead of night. Several derelicts were sleeping nearby in the heat of the spotlights. Having reached the house, Nagl took me by the hand through the vast front entrance into a gorgeously draped hallway, where a toady helped us off with our capes.

Now being indoors, I felt I should instruct the toady to take our capes to the derelicts who would need them more.

I was shivering. I awoke to discover the covers had slipped from my bed. The pillow was sodden with tears ... my tears. I could only hope against hope that the next night would see me dreaming again with a vengeance.

During the day, I purchased an ounce of Three Castles and a packet of Blue Rizla. I needed a good smoke.

Towards the middle of the afternoon, I wondered if there was in fact a building at the edge of the city similar to Nagl's house in my dream. I had never seen one with so many tall smokestacks, far too many in truth for the number of rooms they serviced. Mouth to mouth resuscitation, I mused. And the fire escapes so plentifully supplied, too. Surely it would not be too difficult to ascertain the whereabouts of such an edifice.

I was due to attend another party that evening and I determined to make enquiries with some of my more outlying bosom acquaintances. In the dream, which was now fast disappearing into a forgotten memory, Nagl and I had travelled to the house in a black taxi. There should be an underground entrance quite close, I assumed, the city being undermined with regiments of tube tunnels and Victorian sewer systems.

The party was a dead affair. People laid about half-drugged to the gills. One crazy individual, whom everybody called Rabbit, told me stories of his youth which he threatened would make my hairs curl. I looked for Nagl, not really expecting him to be present at such a lousy gig. Rabbit's ramblings were something I could have done without, but I humoured him with grunts and nods.

Then I saw Nagl. He was standing by the bar, in close conversation with a blonde. His shining skin sent pins and needles through my muscles. I could not get up from my squatting position near Rabbit, for my legs had gone dead. And even if I could, would he welcome my intervention?

There was a police raid. I even forgot Nagl in the havoc. Luckily, I was released with a caution, as I was, for once, clean as a whistle. They couldn't stand a charge up on Three Castles, could they?

Amid the milling turn-out on the pavements outside, I suddenly recalled Nagl ... and the blonde. Could that two-headed shape glimpsed disappearing around the next turning be them? I followed quickly, brushing aside Rabbit's invitation of a walk into the city centre in search of a late-night club. Instead, Rabbit tagged along with me, much to my annoyance. I did not have the heart to cut him dead.

Eventually, I collapsed into my own bed. Rabbit borrowed my bedroom floor, as he had done once before.

Dreams would be hard to come by that night, especially in my current frame of mind. However, gradually, I was back in Nagl's house. He sat poised before a Grand, smiling round at me. I think I must have been sitting in an armchair, artfully positioned so that I could benefit from both the best acoustics of the chamber and an unobstructed view of his arched hands upon the striped reptilian keyboard. The moment his tapering fingers touched, my hair stood on end. The music thrilled me beyond measure. I realised this must be his own composition, because it spoke Nagl in every semiquaver. I was privileged to be an audience of one as a song of pure genius was played for the first and last time. I was no longer the lonely lost soul who lived inside my head in real life.

The fingers, each one a bone in drag, moved across the pulsing keys. His face, even in the full light of the art deco lamp standard, was a shadow of itself. Each drop of sweat was as black as a spade on an ace.

The music's beauty was unbearable, its ugliness unimpeachable. I yearned for it to finish, so that I would be able to approach and tentatively fondle his body, he mine.

The keyboard became a sweat-slicked hide, swelling up so that his fingers actually moved inside it, as if he reached for the innards of some serpentine creature. Thus, the bizarre harmonies sounded from within our heads, not from out inward - as dreams dictated.

Piecemeal, the music tailed off, with an ending as unsatisfying as the restaurant's food we'd only just consumed. I vaguely recall leaving the music room and climbing the many flights of Nagl's stairs, his talons exquisitely embedded in my palm, as he led me ever upward.

I heard others making an unsightly clattering upon the fire escapes outside but could not tell whether they went up or down. They shouted something about a pirate uprising, but I couldn't be sure.

I fell into Nagl's arms as he dragged me into his vast four-poster, only to be swaddled by silk sheets. And I never saw the creature he must have become, only felt it like a child at a party guessing what the mystery object was in the otherwise shapless bag. The act of sexing insects wasn't a starter. Snakes on heat were two a penny. This dream cost a million souls to stage it...

I woke to find myself pinned to my own sodden mattress by Rabbit. I let him have his way, because love is stronger than hate, and less lasting.

Not long afterwards, the Sixties abruptly ended with a lurch towards blander decades. I assume Nagl still drifts from party to party, no doubt fibbing about being a concert pianist and owning a large house in Hampstead. I can no longer have dreams. Yet I hope Nagl can dream of me.

(published 'Peeping Tom' 1991)

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

The Dark Hem

Asquew bought HABLA USTED as an investment.

Its corner turrets were imposing, but it was a pity a TV satellite dish had been erected on one of them. The disused balconies were choked with a plant-life which didn't evidently need real ground for its roots. He decided to leave repairing the chimney-stacks until the house's future was settled. Planning permission for the place to be converted into offices was not out of the question and he mentally listed out the necessary changes, including communication systems and toilet facilities. In the meantime, he decided to allow his three Aunts to live there at a reasonable rent since they had all recently been widowed and made cheap caretakers.

"Do you think the roof leaks?" asked Mildred to the other two who were sounding-boards rather than an audience.

"It hasn't rained for ages," piped up Louise, as if that were an answer.

"Those chimneys don't look too safe to me, so I reckon we should ask him to do something or other about them," continued Mildred, using a non-sequitur as a conversational ploy.

Tania didn't say anything. The three women were sitting in one of the front rooms where the paltry cul-de-sac's lamps outside seeped sufficiently indoors, leaving the switching on of the electricity to the very last minute.

"Can't you put your knitting down for a while, Mildred and give me a hand with my crossword," said Louise.

"Only if you help me ball the rest of my wool later."

Meanwhile, Tania stoked the open coal fire which also helped to illuminate the room, throwing three Auntish shadows across the garish wallpaper. They had already taken down the diagonal ducks, as such knickknacks were not to their taste. Well, at least, Tania did not object to them being taken down. Louise had hung a picture of her late husband upon the ducks' faded outlines. Mildred was the shy one, on the quiet. She had always dressed like a spinster, even when she was happily married. Her eyes were often settled on the medium stare, showing only whites from certain angles, as if she were examining the insides of her head. Most of the day she dressed in a dowdy house-coat and wielded a tickle-duster. She did not even change come the evenings. Her husband's name was Bob. Asquew remembered Bob, particularly. Louise was more certain of her identity than Mildred. Self-assurance was not exactly correct, but more a selfless definition of purpose. Her clothes were ever immaculate, usually twin-sets with cascading pearl necklaces and heavy tweed skirts, whatever the weather. Unlike Mildred, she rather enjoyed wearing high heels, even at home. Her husband was Nigel, an uncommon name for the times. Asquew never knew him, since Louise had met Nigel in Kuala Lumpur where they had settled after marriage. No one stood out as memorable.

Tania didn't say much. Whilst Mildred overcame her shyness by strange remarks, Tania was silent most of the time, mainly because she had very little to say ... a credit to her. Her clothes could not be characterised, since she wore different outfits according to mood. If each choice of apparel was evidence, then she was not only in a state of near continuous flux but also varied between a very wide spectrum of emotions. Tonight, she wore a bright red silk scarf at the throat, providing contrast to the black cocktail dress, grey fish-net stockings and, like Louise, high heel shoes, all specially sported for the short evening. Her husband was Fred whom Asquew thought was a bit of a prat. Fred, Bob and Asquew had been drinking friends, and Fred had often ended the evening by drinking himself silly and slapping the other two on the back as if he thought they liked him. Bob and Asquew had separate get-togethers, without Fred.

So, Mildred was shy but relatively talkative, showily domesticated, somewhat reflective, widow of Bob. Louise was forceful, confident, unreflective, member of the twin-set brigade, widow of Nigel, had lived in Kuala Lumpur for most of her life. Tania was quiet, but not shy, changeable moods and costumes, unshowy in her tasks, widow of Fred (prat).

Asquew's mother, Deirdre, another sister, had died in giving birth. None of them were memorable. Particularly Deirdre, who did not figure much at all.

Asquew stood on the pavement opposite the house. There were not many houses in the cul-de-sac, the only other one being an even larger (but without the turrets) close to the railway embankment. That other house had also been on the market, when he was negotiating for HABLA USTED. HABLA USTED was not Asquew's name for it, but the nameplate was still above the front entrance, and the Aunts had not complained. One of them even wiped it over daily. He had been upset by Bob's sudden death. In fact, it was one of those deaths which lingered in the mind, since he had been on holiday in Spain with Mildred and, forgetting for a moment that foreign traffic went the wrong way, he had stepped boldly into an on-going motorbike and, mercifully, died without further preamble. From then on, drinking just with Fred, out of duty to habit, was barely bearable. And now with Fred gone by means of an abrupt heart attack, Asquew was again a free agent. Being an only child and unmarried, his simple concerns were the three Aunts and the furtherance of his money-making. He had even given up drinking, since he had nobody with whom to share visits to the pub. Saved a lot of loot this way, too.

Yes, HABLA USTED was a bit of a monstrosity. The sooner the satellite dish was removed the better, but that would not help a lot. The chimneystacks were indeed outlandish, far too tall. In Victorian times, he assumed, they liked smoke to be carried up as far as possible before letting it go. This evening, one of the chimneypots was puffing paltry amounts which stayed put in the still air like grey cotton-wool around the cluster of TV aerials. From time to time, he saw one of the sisters fiddling with the curtains of the front room. They did not pull them across fully, but only halfway, a fact which mystified Asquew. In any event, he was finding it impossible to remember which Aunt was which. He had to mull over their attributes in his mind. One of them had been abroad for most of her life, married to someone or called Nigel. So the one Bob always kissed goodbye before going to the pub, she must have been...

He couldn't bother to put names to faces. As a businessman, he had enough to do keeping track of his contacts. And his contacts had wives, too. After all, the Aunts were simply house fillings, until he had made decisions relating to HABLA USTED. He did, however, have a soft spot for them, and widowed Aunts of their age were surely intended to be at least a trifle batty.

Round the corner from the cul-de-sac was one of the pubs he used to frequent with Bob and Fred. He fancied a little tipple, despite the abstinence of the last few months, and he left the environs of HABLA USTED, whilst considering the intricacies of setting a fair commercial rent for office premises in this otherwise residential area. He liked summarising, totting up, drawing tentative conclusions...

Asquew's mother, Deirdre, had married early in life. His father, Tom, was a stocky fellow made even stockier by the heavy lifting and carrying he did at the docks. He drank too much and knocked his wife around when he had finished drinking. He loved her too much to mark her face. But her bottom was often black and blue, criss-crossed with fresh red welts. Tom was not as bad as had been painted, Asquew thought. At least one of Deirdre's sisters had kept a soft spot for Tom. Asquew suspected, Deirdre was in the dark as to whether Louise, Mildred or Tania were at the guilty end of Tom's canoodling - that is, before one of them went off to Kuala Lumpur.

Asquew had enough problems ridding himself of his own feelings about Deirdre's death, without taking on anybody else's. The whole affair was too complicated to consider as a whole ... like HABLA USTED itself which, because of the railway, the trees and the high wall around the cemetery opposite, there was never any one vantage point with a complete view of the roofs, stacks, turrets and windows.

Asquew felt that human histories and emotions could never be encompassed by one person. You needed different viewpoints (even if some were misguided) to obtain as true a picture as possible. Tom, after all, was never so black as he was painted. He took one last look for the night at HABLA USTED before submitting to the desire for a drink. But who was that man at one of the half-drawn windows? Not a question he wanted asking, exactly. How could an impossibility happen? The male figure once seen, was gone, and could easily have been mistaken for one of the three Aunts. He decided not to follow it up. He had enough problems and he shuffled slowly, almost against his own will, towards the Spread Eagle pub.

Mildred tried to get the others to bed. She liked making sure the fire was damped down (after Tania's careless poking), lightly Ewbanking the carpet to paddle-brush up the odd macaroon speck, turning off all the lights ... an endless list of chores if she tried to tot them up. She had certainly had enough chat about Kuala Lumpur tonight to last her a lifetime. If all the so-called facts about that godforsaken place could be paraphrased and documented it would be as good as having visited the place oneself. She thought she knew London well enough by having happened to live there all her life - but Louise's Kuala Lumpur ... it almost seemed she knew it better than London, by virtue of being one step removed. Mildred shrugged - at least they didn't have A-to-Z maps of Kuala Lumpur. Or did they? She would rather not know.

In any event, Louise had already retired for the night. Only Tania to go. And there was no getting through to her. She was as inscrutable as a dead trout on the fishmonger's slab. Still waters ran deep. Tania had a lot going for her, if only she would come out. Not exactly shy. More stuck-up. She took after Deirdre, in that respect.

The nights were drawing in and, as Tania eventually gathered herself together, Mildred squared up Louise's crossword book on the coffee table and bagged her own spools of wool. Upon undrawing the curtains ready for morning, she shuddered as she imagined a figure lurking near the cemetery opposite. Could that be somebody undergrunting in the newly plumbed bathroom upstairs? It was surely to be a long time before Mildred could find a slot for her ablutions. That came from sharing a bathroom.

A goods train trundled by, not allowing Mildred to hear Tania's mealy-mouthed "good night". Asquew would doubtlessly come tomorrow to collect the rent. She would ask him for a rent book. Even witn relations, one should have things above board. The house shook with the train's passage, en route for London Bridge Station further up the line. Such sounds accentuated loneliness. She wondered if there were trains in Kuala Lumpur. Louise had never mentioned them. So, probably not. Despite everthing, Mildred felt happy and secure, convinced she could see her whole life, past and future, from all angles.

When Tania died peacefully in her sleep, the remaining two sisters expected Asquew to allow them to stay on at HABLA USTED, but they couldn't each afford half of the total rent he was previously charging.

Asquew smiled. The sisters were pets. They knew where their bread was buttered. At least, there was no possible motivation for them to have wanted Tania's death. Where money was concerned love often relegated itself to second place.

"Yes, you may continue at your current individual rents." He couldn't help making it sound business-like. Mildred nodded a thank you, for once at a loss for words. Louise tried to think of a word for her crossword but, as usual, she failed. It had seven letters and the gaps could only be vowels. The puzzles had been even more difficult when she lived in Kuala Lumpur.

Tania's last costume, the one she wore dead for the funeral, was not exactly a tour de force... Louise couldn't finish the memory. Tania had only passed away two weeks ago and what was a fortnight between sisters? Bitchiness was only one step removed from mental cruelty. You cannot divorce a blood relation.

Asquew decided he had at least buttoned down the identity of the remaining Aunts. Two were easier to handle than three. But he couldn't avoid the memory of the face he had spotted between the curtains the night of Tania's death. If only recognition could reach that far. Not a police matter, more a family one. No good thinking such thoughts. It made no sense to think.

He had indeed visited the Spread Eagle, but at the last moment decided to order a mineral water instead of a beer. He had never really believed in drinking on his own. Fred had been such a prat, but he was useful as a drinking-board. The fizzy water didn't seem to have a flavour, but it was equally obvious that he had lost his taste for life ... even as far back as when Deirdre died giving birth to his nameless dead sister.

Mildred looked at Asquew. In the old days, men had been men. Bob, her husband, had been quite a bit older than Asquew. He had been a man's man, whatever that was supposed to mean. Asquew would never be a proper man. He pretended to make money, but often ended up owing it. Take this house for example - dearly bought with Deirdre's money. He would be nowhere without that little windfall. Everyone seemed to die at convenient moments for Asquew. Even Tom, his father. But that was another story. Somewhere along the line, a family tree would have to be drawn up with no gaps. Like most crossword puzzles, the clues were sure to fit together.

Mildred and Louise did not talk after Asquew had left. The roof, he promised, did not leak, but a man would be coming round to clear the balconies and dismantle the satellite dish. With the docks closed down, there was a lot of unemployment in the area and many odd job men about. Time for an early night, thought Mildred. Slots in the bathtime rota were getting easier to find. First a bit of light Ewbanking to break sweat.

How someone like Louise could have married Nigel, it was all like a dream now ... with the added confusion as to the identity of the dreamer.

Kuala Lumpur looked more like London, for an oriental city. Amid all the mosques, there was one which appeared remarkably like St Paul's Cathedral. And the muezzins sounded as if they were wailing out newspaper sellers' calls rather than anything to do with religion.

Louise wandered amid the Persian market, feeling carpets, running necklaces over her hands, tasting spicy titbits ... and, there, there was Nigel, like a knight on a white charger. Except he was selling cigarettes in a booth in Leicester Square...

Mildred awoke from Louise's nightmare.

She was in a cold sweat. She could hear something or other moving about on the roof above her bedroom. She went to the window but the cul-de-sac's light opposite was nearly out. The satellite dish glinted, as if it might be slowly revolving. One of the house's turrets was close to her bedroom's bay window, but that night it seemed like a separate building, a lighthouse or folly. She was convinced she could see half of the moon shining through between the turret and the mainland of HABLA USTED.

Mildred wept, knowing that death was not as distant as it used to be. But all her tears would need to be eked out ... for Ruth (who was lost at the age of two in an accident with scalding water), for Louise (yet to be lost), for Bill (lost in the First World War), for Deirdre (lost in fruitless childbirth), for Tania (lost in her bed in this very house), for Hubert (lost in the Indian Ocean during the second world war), for Tom (lost from the top of his crane at the docks), for Nigel whom she never knew (lost through a terribly painful oriental disease), Fred (lost in his pint of beer at the Spread Eagle, as he always predicted he would be), for Bob (lost in suicide), for Asquew (who would leave no formal children of his own but was a rogue father nevertheless), finally for Mildred.

Mildred knitted out the clicks of night for a while. Or was it Louise? Even Tania? None were memorable enough to count (or list).

An undergrunt outside as the dish was manhandled away in the dark.

(published 'Chills' 1996)