I went to the Palladium alone that night. We’d had another one of those pointless petty arguments, the sort that culminated in hot words and the hurling of household objet d’art by my fiancé Clara. Passionate sort of woman, Clara. To tell the truth, I was desperate to get out of the relationship but lacked the courage to end it. Never been much good at partings, I’m afraid. Or beginnings, for that matter. And the middle bits seldom went well, either, when I think about it.


I couldn’t bear to waste those Palladium tickets entirely so I went along and spent an awkward evening on my own, glumly watching Rumanian plate spinners, a ventriloquist who was more wooden-faced than his dummy and an American diva who closed the show with a medley of her better known songs, most of which were beyond the sad vestige of her vocal range. After I left the theatre a heavy rain set in and people scattered up and down Argyll Street seeking shelter under shop awnings. There was a little tobacconist I knew from where I bought my Turkish premium blend cigarettes and I huddled in its doorstep, fervently wishing I’d stayed home.


I had just determined to make a run for it and seek the solace of a brandy and soda at the Argyll Arms across the road when a bus loomed out of the sheets of rain and pulled over not far from where I was. One of the descending passengers immediately caught my eye. She looked exactly as if she had stepped from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel only a little soggy and bedraggled thanks to the downpour. If I tell you that upon my first glimpse of this extraordinary creature I bit my knuckle and exclaimed ‘Jeepers, creepers’, you may better understand the impact she made upon me – roughly about the size of that crater they found in Siberia several years ago.


Look, I don’t mean to say she was astonishingly beautiful or anything like it; her nose was small and upturned – I prefer the aquiline aristocrat look – her mouth a little too big for perfection, everything a little skewed, you might say, and yet it all added up to an arresting attractiveness that drew my admiration. There was just something radiant about her, a vitality that seemed to defy the rain and puddles and gloomy night. She stood there indecisively for a few moments, clearly trying to make her mind up about something. At one point her eyes met mine – I was staring at her with my lower jaw sagging some way towards the pavement – but she quickly averted her gaze.


A car pulled up at the bus stop, one of those wildly popular little Austin Sevens. The sort of vehicle you wouldn’t look at twice; but she did, staring so that you could see the whites of her lovely eyes. Then she did something rather extraordinary. She ran straight at the tobacconist’s shop doorway wherein I happened to be sheltering.

“Darling,” she cried.

Or it could have been “Sweetheart”, or “Dear heart”, something along those lines in any case that I can’t exactly recall because I went sort of numb in the head at the time. She ran into my arms and buried her face into my neck. One word comes to mind, reader. Zing. Yes, that is it exactly. Zing went the strings of my heart.


After a moment’s hesitation, I got into the swing of things and enthusiastically reciprocated her physical affection. Of course I did. I mean, wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t anybody?

“Here, steady on,” she said, pulling away and eyeing me askance through frosty blue eyes, “There’s no need to hug me quite so tightly, you know.”

“Am I? Good Lord, so I am. I had no idea…”

“Yes, well, it was very presumptuous of you,” she said, adjusting her hair.

“Look, I’m terribly sorry,” I said, “but we seem to have gotten off to a rather confusing start. You appear to be under the misapprehension that we know each other, and know each other quite intimately too, if I may say so. But I’ve never met you before in my life. Believe me, I would remember if I had.”


My mystery woman wasn’t listening to a word. She was staring back at that Austin Seven hovering by the bus stop with its engine running, a plume of white exhaust smoke curling from its rear. Then she startled the living daylights out of me all over again by flinging herself back into my arms and whispering into my ear. “You wouldn’t like to take me out for a drink, would you?”


Would I? Hot diggety dog! As our American cousins are wont to say in motion pictures when expressing delight. We ran hand in hand down Argyll Street in the rain; just like in a Hollywood musical, yes, just exactly as ridiculously romantic as that. The rain had eased a little and the air felt altogether exhilarating against the skin although this might have been due to the delirium of holding hands with an angel who had but recently whispered provocative sweet nothings into my quivering ear hole. It was mad. It was crazy. It was an American film come luminously alive. At the bottom of the street we hijacked a taxi from another couple just as they were about to step into it. My new companion pushed past them, rattling off something about a medical emergency, a heart attack and a husband. I clutched my chest and tried to look as if I might be dying even though I had never felt more alive than at that very moment.

She leaned forward to talk to the driver.

“Which ‘ospital do you want to take ‘im to, madam?” he asked her.

“Actually, I think first we might try a shot or two of medicinal brandy,” she coolly replied. “Forget the hospital for the moment. Just take us to the nearest nightclub. And step on it, will you? We’re in a bit of a hurry.”

We didn’t talk for the rest of the journey; she was too busy anxiously scanning the road; looking out for the occupant or occupants of that Austin Seven, I supposed; I didn’t like to ask. I had no wish to dispel the magic of the moment, you see. Sitting so close to her in the shadowy taxi interior I felt the most peculiar sensation sort of wash through my body from somewhere. The poets would say it was via my heart or my soul; the scientists would lay the blame upon unpronounceable chemicals swishing about in my brain; the cynics would look no further than the loins and good old-fashioned lust. Myself, I had no doubts at all. I was firmly on the side of the poets. So this is what it’s like, I remember thinking; the real thing; this is love. Idiotic, I know. After all, I’d literally barely met her and yet the feeling was overwhelming.


We drove through Regent Street, turned into Golden Square and then down Sink Street. Finally the cab driver pulled over at the Mood Indigo. This club was a favorite haunt of the exuberant bohemian types whom the gossip columnists insisted on labeling Bright Young People; although, take it from me, a good many of that crowd weren’t particularly bright or particularly young.


“Looks like a lively sort of place,” my charming new companion observed. “Have you ever been here before?”

“Who, me? I smiled. “No, no, a little too fast and loose for my tastes, I’m afraid. In fact, why don’t we try somewhere a little quieter?”

“Oh, don’t be such an old fuddy-duddy,” she said, jumping out of the cab and pulling me by the hand behind her.

“Evening, sir.” The doorman tipped his hat with a nod that I strove to ignore.

“Welcome back, sir,” the maître d’ beamed. I pressed one of the larger coins of the realm into his palm to cut off any further chitchat and he led us to an intimate booth tucked away at the rear of the club.

“Your usual, sir?” the waiter enquired without bothering to bring a drinks list. I nodded abruptly and became to all intents and purposes thoroughly fascinated by the glass bowl of salted nuts he had placed on our table.

The waiter smiled oleaginously at my companion. “And for the young lady?”

“Oh, I’ll have the usual too, I think. Whatever that is.”

“I couldn’t help noticing,” she said after the waiter slid away from our table, “that we have yet to encounter a club staff member with whom you are not on familiar terms. Curious, considering you have never been here before.”

I favored her with a ghastly smile and went back to wolfing down salted nuts at a terrific rate of knots. The waiter brought us two champagne cocktails and I polished mine off and signaled for another whilst she sat opposite not saying a word, merely smiling at me and looking as if she were weighing me up and finding me absolutely wanting in several departments, integrity being not the least of them.

“Well, that’s two things I’ve learnt about you already,” she said. “You’re an incorrigible liar and you frequent disreputable night clubs.”

Ouch. All in all, not the best of first impressions, one gathers. It was time to come clean, I decided; well, reasonably clean anyway. Too much cleanliness in the truth department never did anyone any good, don’t you think?


“I’m awfully sorry,” I said. “I suppose I should have told you that I have a passing familiarity with this place, but you see, I don’t come here anymore. I haven’t been for months in fact. It was a part of my life a long time ago and I have very much outgrown this sort of thing.”

“Well, you certainly made an indelible impression on the club staff all those months ago,” she said.

Mercifully, the orchestra burst into noisy life at this juncture. It was a brassy, sleazy-sounding number that all but winked suggestively at the audience and served to introduce a line of immodestly clad dancing girls. An entertainer sauntered on stage from the wings and commenced to sing in a mellifluous tenor voice. He fairly belted out those notes until his eyes seemed just about ready to pop out of his fat face. Couples surged onto the dance floor in response to the music. Soon the joint was jumping as they say in the American pictures.


“Care to dance?” I asked her.

“Delighted,” she said.

Not half as delighted as I was, I would wager. This is something you should know about me, reader; I am what you might call a superb dancer even if I do say so myself. We were in my world now, the dance floor, and I could move with an energy and grace that made perfect sense. She was no mean dancer herself, which naturally enough fascinated me even more. In fact there are few qualities I admire more in a woman than the ability to hoof it with the best of them. After a couple of numbers the orchestra began to play “Cheek To Cheek” which is my second favorite song in the whole world. Of my absolute favorite song, we shall speak later, reader. Anyway, my mystery woman and I were close and the urge to kiss her was overwhelming. At that moment I experienced the lightning bolt to the heart that the French call the coup de foudre and I knew, I just knew with startling clarity that this particular tingling, prickling, tickling sensation was Real Love as opposed to previous pale, wan versions that I now understood to be but shallow imitations.

“Heaven, I’m in heaven, And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak.”

We were nose to nose rather than cheek to cheek by this stage and my vision sort of blurred and everything became like one of those Vaseline-smeared, close-ups from a Cecil B. DeMille film. Why oh why couldn’t life be like this all the time?


We sat down at the end of the set and the waiter brought us another round of champagne cocktails.

“You dance beautifully, she said. “but I expect you know that.”

“Do I? Yes, I expect I do.” No point denying the undeniable, was there? And then it happened again. Zap. This time with greater intensity, even more powerful than anything that had preceded it. How to explain it? Our eyes caught and locked in a way that was frank and thrilling, that made my stomach lurch, my heart race and my hair stand on end.

“My God, but you’re lovely,” I found myself compelled to say.

“How very sweet of you,” she said, “but that is laying it on a bit thick, don’t you think? I mean, we hardly know each other, after all.”

“On the contrary, I think I know you very well, or at least, I know all that I need to know.”

Of course she was absolutely correct and I didn’t know the first thing about her. What I meant was that, entirely illogically, something had changed in the precise moment after we exchanged that one glance; it felt like a sort of emotional secretion, a gooey, warm, fuzzy syrupy gloop coating my nerve endings. I know what you’re thinking, reader, and I can hardly blame you – some people might call this mere love-at-first sight; the shallowest of infatuations; an entirely physical instant attraction. Well, you can jolly well think what you like, reader, I know what I felt and no amount of rational persuasion could have altered that. There was no denying the impact, whatever biological shenanigans might have been thrumming in my veins. It felt something like being smacked none too gently in the kisser with a heavy frying pan.


We chatted for ages after that, mostly about music, dancing, motion pictures we had seen recently, about theatres, restaurants and clubs; and all the while it felt like a conspiracy, this mutual disinclination to talk about great chunks of our personal lives – nothing about the usual things that crop up, our family backgrounds, say, or whether or not there might be the odd vase-hurling fiancé hanging about in one’s closet of skeletons. This might sound a little dishonest but right at that moment I would have done anything to perpetuate the electric current crackling through the fiber of my being; I had never felt more incandescently alive, a veritable light bulb of love. By the way, I don’t mean to say that we colluded in what amounted to the withholding of our personal information. In fact my companion seemed keen to draw me out but I slipped away from anything too specific. I didn’t feel bad about this at all because the young lass happened to be doing exactly the same. After an hour or so it felt like we had talked a great deal about each other – but nothing at all about our everyday lives.


A waiter arrived at that point bearing two plates of haddock in a white sauce. Something to do with a perfunctory nod towards the liquor licensing laws pertaining to nightclubs. She looked at me rather dreamily through the malodorous haze wafting off our haddocks and said, “There’s something I’d like to ask you. Would it be too rude of me to enquire about your name and your permanent residential address? The one in which you are at this moment domiciled?”


Permanent residential address? At this moment domiciled? The wattage coursing through my light bulb of love flickered a bit at this, I must admit. I mean, as questions go it sounded somewhat unromantic. A trifle close too the bone, even. For goodness sake, I don’t believe even my mother knew my permanent residential address at which I was at that moment domiciled; if she had, the old girl would’ve been popping in and out at all hours of the day and night and that, clearly, would never do. There was something rather formal and forbidding about the question too. Good Lord, might she be working for the authorities? An inspector for HM Revenue And Customs, could it be? Or perhaps a private detective hired by Clara to catch me out in a devious honey trap? I took out my cigarette case and offered her one. I lit both cigarettes and said, “Frederick. My friends call me Freddie.”

I could tell she didn’t believe me; I don’t know why; perhaps I don’t look like a Frederick.

“Now, now, you’re being coy,” she said, smiling but in a rather strained sort of way, “Do be a darling and tell me your real name. And your current address please. We simply must see each other again, don’t you think?”

“But of course,” I said.

“Well? Go on then, don’t be shy.”

“It’s not shyness, believe me. Please don’t be offended but there is rather a good reason why it might be best if we were to continue to conduct our friendship anonymously, as it were.”

The reason, of course, was my fiancé Clara, she of the vase-hurling, homicidal urges.


At this point something sort of nuzzled insistently up against my groin under the table. Extremely pleasant it felt too, I am bound to say.

“I was hoping it wouldn’t have to come to this quite so soon,” she said.

“Really?” I replied, “I was rather hoping it would.”

“Can you feel that?” she said with an intimate smile.

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Do you know what it is?”

“Yes” I said, blushing to the roots of my pubic hair.

“What is it, then?”

“It’s your rather lovely forefinger and I do believe it is stroking my throbbing member,” I mumbled with, I regret to say, a fatuous smile.

“No,” she said, “ Actually it’s the barrel of a revolver.”


I tell you, reader, never has an erection wilted to a wizened stump so swiftly in the annals of penile erogenous history.

“You’re joking aren’t you?” I managed to say through constricted vocal chords.

“Never more serious, I’m afraid,” she said.

I heard a clicking sound consistent with a trigger being cocked on a decent sized revolver. I could feel my testicles frantically scrambling for the exit, seeking to make an ascent back to the cavity from whence they had originally descended all those years ago. Interesting physiological fact: despite much testosterone-charged bravado to the contrary, your average testicle is a coward and not to be relied upon in a crisis.

“And now I must ask you for your name again, and some proof of identification too, please. I presume a social gadfly like yourself has a calling card.”

I took the wallet from my jacket and handed her my card.

“Oliver,” she said, “Oliver Lightfoot”. She said it in such a sweet way; truly, reader, she wrapped my name up in honeyed tones and it sounded so damned delightful that I could almost overlook the fact that she was threatening to blow my genitals off at any moment.

“Now that you have my name, would you mind awfully removing the…the…” I pointed vaguely under the table.

“Oh, of course,” she said, “I do beg your pardon.” I caught a glimpse of it as she slipped the beastly thing into her purse – a .32-inch Webley pocket revolver. Standard army issue; I possessed one just like it when I was in the Officer Training Corp back in my Oxford days.


“I shall call you Ollie,” she said. It seemed as if we were going to say nothing more about the military ordnance presently holstered in her fashionable designer handbag.

I lit another cigarette with, I must admit, a shaking hand. She was turning me into a chain smoker.

“Why in God’s name did you do that?” I asked her. “Pull a gun on me, I mean.”

“Awfully sorry,” she said. “Let’s not spoil the night, Ollie. Let’s just pretend it never happened.”

I took a deep swig of champagne and said, “I don’t think I can do that. You scared the hell out of me. I demand to know what this is about.”


“You really are quite masterful when you’re cross, Ollie,” she said, turning to favor me with that smile again; I would go so far as to say it was the most alluring smile you could ever hope to encounter outside of the Hollywood star system. “Don’t be cross with me. I really have taken a shine to you, dear boy. You’re sweet and you dance divinely.”

“Thank you for saying so. Now then, you have me at a disadvantage; I don’t have a revolver handy to compel a reply, but would you mind terribly if I asked for your name as well?”

She pouted at me. “Sarcasm is unbecoming Oliver. It doesn’t suit you at all. But of course I shall tell you my name. Or, at least, a name. You can call me Mata Hari.”

“Mata Hari? The international spy? The femme fatale?”

“No, not that Mata Hari. She died yonks ago. You don’t really keep up with the times, do you, Ollie, you funny old thing? Let’s just say I’m the next Mata Hari. You might say it’s s a professional nickname.”

“A nickname, eh?” I said. “ I suppose it makes sense. I can hardly expect you to provide your real name given the stunt you just pulled with the revolver.”


She sighed. “Can we just set aside the whole unfortunate revolver incident? Really, Ollie, I must say you’re blowing the whole thing out of proportion. Of course I would never have fired the awful thing. It was just a way to get your undivided attention, is all it was. And you must admit it succeeded rather well in doing that.”

“It did indeed. I’m pleased to meet you, Mata Hari.”

“Likewise, Ollie. Now then, I shall leave you for a little while. I’m going to powder my nose and I may be some time.”

And with that she departed like Captain Lawrence Oates on that famously depressing Antarctic expedition. Not, of course, that the historical Oates trotted off to powder his nose; well, not as far as we know from a scrutiny of Scott’s last diary entries in any case. What I mean to say is that I felt a deep sense of foreboding. I watched her until she disappeared down the passage leading to the rest rooms, and I waited in vain for her to re-emerge. Some instinct told me bad things were about to happen.


The events of the next few minutes were extremely confusing and I still haven’t quite got the whole thing sorted in my mind. It started with a loud series of bangs or, as we used to call them back in my officer training days, gunshots. Then someone screamed piercingly, a woman I suppose or, who knows, possibly a man who had just had his testicles shot off – given there was a .32 Webley pocket revolver lurking somewhere about the joint one could never be altogether certain. A man staggered out of the passageway leading to the restrooms, clutching a large bloody patch on the front of his shirt.


There were more screams, tables and chairs toppling, people springing up and performing an impromptu rendition of the headless chicken – running to and fro with no idea as to where exactly they were going or for what reason. Two courses of action immediately occurred to me, one so ignoble it hardly bore thinking about, and the other the only decent thing to do under the circumstances – either I could make a panicky dash for the front door like all the other decapitated poultry around me or I could head for that passageway wherein Mata Hari had ventured to meet God only knew what fate. It goes almost without saying that I made a panicky dash for the front door. Look here, you would have done exactly the same. I was unarmed in the middle of a gunfight and my testicles were feeling decidedly jumpy after their recent near-death experience. A strategic withdrawal was warranted.


An hour or so later I wearily ascended the three floors to my apartment. I’d caught a bus part of the way but was forced to walk for a good half an hour through intermittent rain with not a taxi to be found. My eyes were lowered disconsolately to the ground until they alighted upon a fetching pair of ankles. She was leaning against my door, her expression affectionate, her posture relaxed; it was almost as if we had arranged this rendezvous. And I suppose we had in a way, only it had never occurred to me that she would avail herself of my address details quite so soon.

“Hello, hello, we keep bumping into each other,” she said. “I’ve come for the notebook. Have you found it yet?”

“What notebook?”

She pointed at my jacket pocket. I put my hand in and took out a notebook I had never seen before.

“You slipped this into my pocket, didn’t you?”

She nodded. “When we first met. Whilst we embraced. I don’t usually hug complete strangers, you know. Well, not without a jolly good reason. I had to get rid of the notebook just in case things went badly for me. I’m sure you understand. I was in a fix. Being followed by some rather bad people. ”

“I do hope that means you are working for the good people?”


She gave me a compassionate smile.

“Oh, but darling, there are no good people, I’m afraid. There’s just our side and their side. And even that’s hard to follow sometimes because people rather muck things up by switching sides at the most awkward moments.”

“Look, I have to ask you this – did you shoot that man with your .32 inch Webley pocket revolver tonight?”

“I most certainly didn’t.”

I smiled, hugely relieved. “Thank goodness for that. But who did? What happened to him?”

“Well, first I disarmed him and then I shot him with his own Glock semi-automatic. That way there is no way to trace it back to me, you see.”

She said it so casually that I couldn’t quite believe my ears. “Oh my God. You killed a man?”

“Well, it was him or me, sweetheart. And you wouldn’t want it to be me, would you? And if it makes you feel any better, he was one of those annoying fellows I told you about just now, the sort who switch sides. And now, I know you must be full of questions and this is rather a lot to take in but I’m afraid we’ve run out of time.”


“What happens now?”

“Tomorrow I catch a ferry to Calais. Then, the 10.30 express to Marseilles. I have to be in Cairo in three days time.”

“Cairo? As in Egypt?”

“That’s the one, yes. I’m going to meet a man who will give me the code for this notebook.”

“I think you should know I am engaged to someone and have been for some time,” I said. “Her name is Clara.”

I had no idea why I felt the need to say that. Hardly relevant to murder and espionage, after all. And, anyway, Clara and I were pretty much a lost cause, so why bring her up? It seems I’m always trying to shoot myself in the foot. Self-sabotage I believe the Viennese doctors call it.


“Does she dance as well as I do?” she asked, apropos of pretty much nothing.

“No,” I said.

In truth, Clara was a dedicated enthusiast with all the twinkle-toed finesse of a water buffalo; the problem, of which she seemed pitifully unaware, was that she lacked any sense of rhythm. From that alone I should have known it was never going to work out.

“Will I ever see you again?” I asked.

“Only if you come to France with me in the morning. Lone females tend to draw attention. A holidaying couple will look more inconspicuous; we can pretend to be honeymooners or even just lovers – the French are far less stuffy about that sort of thing. Would you like to come to France with me in the morning, Ollie?”

I wasn’t expecting that. Quite took my breath away for a moment.

“Obviously I can’t do that. It would be a thoroughly mad thing to do. And reckless. It would go against my nature. I should point out to you that I’m thirty-three years old and for the last nine years I’ve worked in an investment bank.”

“Really?” she said smiling pleasantly, “A bank. Who would have thought it?”

“That’s right, a bank. Just call me a bank clerk and be done with it. Mostly application forms pertaining to personal loans and mortgages. So you see, the only thing I do well, really well, apart from vile, loathsome bank documents, is dance.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself, Ollie; you’re also dedicated to the frequenting of disreputable night clubs,” she added archly.

“As for the night clubs and all that Bright Young People tabloid rot,” I went on, “ I was merely a hanger on at the fringe of the crowd, if anything. And of course there’s Clara to consider, although to be frank I’m pretty sure she’s had enough of me. Anyway, as you can see all this has not exactly prepared me for whatever it is you are mixed up in, which is clearly terrifying and dangerous.”


She smiled gently. “Dear Ollie Lightfoot, let us not talk of your glum old past or your drab, ho-hum future. Let us instead speak of right now, this very moment with the music in our ears and our feet in perfect symmetry and a rather wondrous rhythm sweeping us along to who knows what messy fate. And yes, there may be trouble ahead, there may be teardrops to shed, so while there’s moonlight and love and romance…”

She trailed off, leaving the words to hang in there.

It was my absolute favorite song in the whole world, but how could she know that? How could she possibly know? Well, I suppose it is a popular song, after all. Mata Hari beamed at me and my heart melted into a puddle at her feet all over again. And I know I said previously that what I had felt was the genuine article as indeed I said the time before that and the time before that, right up to the point I had first set eyes on this marvelous Mata Hari of the heart, but this time, yes, this time, reader, I had no shadow of doubt in my feverish excuse for a mind – this was Real Love. In glorious Technicolor.

“I’d pack something light,” she said. “ It gets terrifically hot in Cairo, Egypt.”

I packed a suitcase with two pairs of white trousers, five white silk shirts, a cream linen jacket, a panama hat and a cravat. At the last moment I threw in my teddy bear. Thus equipped, I walked away from the grainy black and white celluloid world that I had, like an apparition, haunted rather than inhabited for years, and set my feet on the dance floor of life with the lyrics of my beloved song “Let’s Face The Music And Dance” rising all about me in an orchestral crescendo. And, yes, I knew she would break my heart. I knew I had allowed myself to become mired in shifty double-dealing of the most dangerous kind. I knew, too, that she was manipulating me for her own ends. I didn’t care, reader. Because this was the mischievous, magnificent stupidity of love at first sight. And truly, there is no mischievous, magnificent stupidity quite like it.









– Good evening, Memento Mori Themed Funerals, Harry Mori speaking,

– Aaarrgh.

– I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch what…

– Nooooo.

– How can I be of assistance?

– Ohhhh.

– Do you speak any English, sir? Or what about, Greek? I also have a smattering of Mandarin that I’m game to try if you are. Ni Hao?

– Urrrgh.

– Alternatively, if you call back during office hours we do have access to a wide range of language interpreter services that we…

– No, no! Wait! Thank God, you’re there!

– There’s always someone here, sir. We never close. Bereavement runs to no mortal schedule.

– Help me! Please help me!

– Yes, indeed, that’s the general idea, sir. To be of help. We’re just a phone call away, happy to be of assistance upon this most unhappy of occasions. Now, before we proceed, please accept my condolences. We here at Memento Mori Themed Funerals are sincerely sorry for your loss. I take it the deceased was someone near and dear to you?

– Very! I’ll say! Intimately near and dear!

– Believe me when I say we feel your pain, sir, as we do for the grieving relations of each and every departed soul whose corporeal remains pass through our friendly, family-run, fantasy funeral home. May I ask who the deceased is, sir?

– It’s me! I’m the one you buried! There’s been a terrible mistake!

– Before we proceed, sir, may I just point out that this phone call may be recorded for training and quality assurance purposes. Do I have your permission to continue, sir?

– Yes! Yes! For the love of God, get me out of here!

– Thank you, sir. Just to clarify, when you say that you have been buried…what exactly do you mean?

– What the hell do you think I mean? I’ve been interred, laid to rest, entombed, consigned to the grave. Help!

– Buried as in the standard funeral industry context of the word?

– Yes!

– Might I ask you to be just a little more precise, sir? Are you in a grave? Or are you still above ground? Or possibly in transit to the cemetery?

– I’m six feet under, near as I can tell. I woke up in this box with no idea how I got here. I could hear the priest, the eulogy, everything. And then nothing. I’ve been buried alive! Aaarrgh!

– Please try to stay calm, sir. It’s very much in your interest. Rapid breathing will only accelerate the depletion of oxygen. Now then, a question springs to mind – if, as you claim, you are buried alive, that is, six feet under the sods, may I ask how you are currently communicating with the outside world?

– How the devil do you think? There’s no landline down here, is there? No messenger pigeons. No smoke signals. I’m talking on my mobile phone of course, damn you.

– No need for strong language, sir. I was merely seeking confirmation. So you have a mobile phone with you. Tell me, sir, were you greatly attached to your phone?

– I don’t know. Yes, I suppose. Why?

– Oh, just the fact you were buried with it, sir; a treasured possession of yours, perhaps?

– Damn right. This phone and I are inseparable. I run my whole life from this phone.

– As do we all, these days, sir. The marvels of technology, eh?. Even allowing us to talk like this, from beyond the grave, so to speak.

– I’m not dead. There’s been a terrible mistake. You do understand I’m not dead, don’t you?

– I presumed that was the case, sir. Supernatural contact with clients is not a normal occurrence in our line of work.

– Please, can you get me out of here?

– I’ll do my best, sir. Of course, our expertise is more on the coffin burial side of the equation rather than coffin retrieval. Have you considered contacting the emergency services, sir?

– I rang the police. They didn’t believe me. I can’t blame them. I don’t even know where I am. Apart, of course, from the fact that I’m lying in one of your coffins.

– Which raises an important point, sir: how do you know it’s one of ours?

– Because there’s a small brass plate on the inside of the lid with your company’s name and phone number.

– Really, sir? Now there’s something I did not know about our signature product. I wonder why we bother with a brass plate inside the coffin? The market for repeat customers in our line of business tends to be limited.

– Please help me!

– Of course I will, sir. In fact I’m duty bound to do so. Company policy. After all, you’re an existing customer, practically a regular. But I do need to inform you first of your legal standing vis-a-vis contractual obligations. It says right here in the small print of our binding contract of sale which I happen to have in my hand at this moment that the legal responsibilities, tangible and intangible, of Memento Mori Themed Funerals Pty Ltd, being the first party, are deemed to have been discharged, in full and without further legal recourse, upon the burial of the deceased client, being the second party or in this particular case, sir, you. The fact that you have to all intents and purposes resurrected yourself is an unanticipated complication and indeed may even place you in breach of said contract. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, sir.

– Listen, you idiot, if you’re threatening to sue me for breach of contract because I happened through no fault of my own to wake up inside one of your coffins, well, excuse me for living and breathing. As for any future legal action, I’ll leave that to my lawyers at Littleworth, Leach & Partners to handle in their customary attack dog frenzy. All I care about right now is getting out of here.

– I quite understand, sir. Have you tried contacting family and friends?

– First thing I did, obviously. I rang my wife.

– Excellent idea. And how did that go?

– A short, sharp scream followed by a hysterical laugh. After which I believe she fainted.

– I see, sir. I suppose she wasn’t expecting to hear from you.

– I got that impression, yes. Then I rang my sister who is married to one of those happy-clapper, evangelical types.

– Ah, Born Again, sir. Much like your current situation, when you think about it.

– If you call this being born again, then all things considered, it’s definitely not what it is cracked up to be. Anyway Linda – that’s my sister – she started off screaming, just like my wife. Then came the avalanche of biblical mumbo jumbo which, to be honest, is not unusual for Linda. I think she was reciting some kind of exorcism ritual. Possibly it was in Latin although she finished up by shouting something like ‘Get behind me, Satan’ or words to that effect. I tried to tell her I was no ghost or servant of the dark lord Beelzebub but she slammed the phone down on me anyway.

– Well, let’s keep in mind she was at your funeral this morning, sir, which accounts for why she might get a little excited at hearing from you out of the blue this afternoon.

– So, next I rang my business partner who was also my best friend right up until that phone call. He started with the crying too. Then he offered to put back the money he syphoned out of the business account if I would only stop haunting him. He thought I was a ghost or servant of the dark lord Beelzebub as well. Which is probably why he went on to apologize for the fling with my wife. That blew me away. I didn’t see that one coming. Honestly, you can’t trust anybody these days. Then he either fainted or died on the spot. I fervently hope it was the latter.

– You really are having a bad day, aren’t you, sir?

– You are my last and only hope. Please get me out of here before the air runs out.

– Actually, I wouldn’t worry about that, sir; it might get a little stuffy in there depending on the coffin model but you should be able to hang on for a day or so should it prove necessary which of course it won’t. Hopefully. Now then can I ask you which one of our themed coffins you are currently lying within?

– How the hell would I know? I’m inside it. And what’s a themed coffin anyway?

– Well, if you’ll just bear with me while I quote from the Frequently Asked Questions section of our website, sir, I can tell you it’s a coffin designed to reflect some aspect of the deceased’s lifestyle that will also add a uniquely creative touch to the funeral. A Tutankhamen coffin covered in hieroglyphics, say, for an archaeologist, or guitar-shaped for a long-faded musical star of yesteryear or even a cylindrical tube designed to look like a giant cigarette for a nicotine addict. Soft drink cans are particularly popular with the morbidly obese. And the trade marked brands love it, of course. After all, it’s free product placement even if it does wind up six feet underground.

– That’s the dumbest idea I’ve heard in years. Who in his right mind would come up with it?

– I have that information right here too, sir. According to the first paragraph in our company profile it all goes back to a gentleman named Ata Owoo, a carpenter of the Ga tribe in Ghana, West Africa. He sort of kicked the idea off in the 1950s by designing and manufacturing a cocoa pod coffin for a chieftain who was big on that particular crop.

– Are you saying I’ve been laid to rest inside a model of a cocoa pod?

– I doubt it, sir. Not unless you’re a huge cocoa enthusiast. Each coffin reflects some key aspect of the deceased’s lifestyle or profession usually. Your family will have chosen something appropriate.

– In that case I think mine might be a smart phone. It’s the kind of cruel joke I’d expect my wife to play.

– Apple or Samsung?

More likely to be a Blackberry, I would think.

– Ah yes, the heritage design. Very popular with senior executives of a certain age. And very roomy, as smart phones go. No problem with oxygen levels in there, sir.

– I’m not planning on an extended stay. For the love of God, just get me out, will you?

– Could I have your full name, sir.

– John Woods.

– No middle name?

– Thomas. Look, could you speed this up? My phone battery just dipped below twenty percent.

– I suggest in that case you restrict your web browsing, sir.

– Could you just focus on getting me dug up in the quickest possible way?

– I’m checking our computer records as we speak, sir. And here you are, John Thomas Woods. Laid to rest this morning in our Smart Gadget package featuring unlimited broadband for the duration of the afternoon tea following the funeral and including complimentary recreational apps for junior mourners. It says you died peacefully at home three days ago of Sudden Cardiac Arrest. Apparently you are brain dead.

– Oh for Pete’s sake, do I sound brain dead to you?

– I wouldn’t like to say, sir. I mean, we hardly know each other…

– I am not brain dead, I can assure you. I must have been in a coma.

– Very possible, sir. With some people in certain cases it’s hard to spot the difference. Looking on the bright side I guess you will be able to truthfully say without irony that reports of your death have been greatly exaggerated.

– You know, this is no laughing matter. Not to me.

– Of course not, sir.

– Then why are you laughing?

– I’m not, sir. More of a wry chuckle.

– Well, stop it immediately.

– Consider it stopped, sir. Actually, if I may be permitted to ask a question – what’s it like? Death, I mean.

– What the hell are you talking about? I’m not dead. I’ve never been dead. I have no intention of dying any time soon.

– But you were medically dead, sir, for long enough to convince a doctor to write a death certificate. That’s close enough as to make no difference. What was near-death like? Any tunnels with dazzling light at the end? Did you float above your body? See any long-dead relatives?

– Listen, All I can tell you is that I woke up in here with my phone in my hand, dressed in my best suit. What do I know about death? You’re asking the wrong question. Now, if you wanted to know about claustrophobia, I’m your man. You probably know more about death than I do. How old are you, anyway? And what’s your name again?

– Harry Mori, sir. I’m sixty-one.

– Sixty-one? Jesus Christ, you should be in here instead of me. You’ve practically got one leg in the coffin as it is. I should be asking you, what’s near-death like?

– Well, sir, I’m not going to pretend that sixty-one is the new forty-one. Sixty-one is not the new anything. It’s just the same old me with my various bits and pieces decaying at an alarming rate. And everybody under fifty assumes you’re almost dead anyway. You know, the local chapter of our funeral homes association even made up a special award for me this year – the You’re So Old Why don’t You Get Out Of The Business medallion, which was kind of cute. Funny guys, the funeral fraternity, when you get to know them.

– I bet they are; real jokers underneath the black suits. Look, I’m enjoying our little chat, Harry, but could we get back to the pressing matter of recuing me from this living hell? I’m not quite sure you understand what I’m up against in here. The current situation, if I had to sum it up, is that I’m clinging to the fading light of my dying smart phone, dreading the coming blackness. Do you have any idea how awful that is?

– It sounds very Dylan Thomas, doesn’t it? Rage, rage against the dying of the phone light and all that sort of thing. Actually you know, that’s a bit like how I feel, being sixty-one. Might I ask you, sir, do you ever wonder where we’ll be when we die?

– I can’t say with certainty, Harry. All I know for sure, is that I won’t be laid out inside this box. Never again. Once is definitely enough. Next time around I’m requesting cremation. Or maybe exposed on a cliff to birds of prey, health regulations permitting.

– Actually I wasn’t referring to corpse disposal, sir. I was thinking more of the after-life, if there is such a thing. I fondly imagine it will be like seeing the whole of an enormous painted canvas after spending a lifetime staring myopically at the pigments in one tiny corner.

– Nice thought, Harry, and completely without evidence.

– I agree with you there, sir. We’re inside a circle; we can’t see or venture beyond its opaque membrane. We’re stuck inside the bubble. That’s it. That’s all. Just like right now, sir, your consciousness is stuck inside a body that is inside a coffin that is inside the skin of a planet that is inside a universe that, so they tell us lately, is inside a multi-verse of universes. And on it goes. Basically it’s all shells, one within the other. An infinite babushka doll. So we’re all curled up like nested dolls inside coffins of decreasing size when you think about it. I hope that is of some comfort to you sir.

– Actually no, it isn’t. On the whole I’d prefer to be in the same coffin you’re in at the moment, the one with fresh air and light and blue skies and scenery. And now, I would like it very much if you could arrange to have me exhumed at your earliest possible convenience.

– Right away, sir, if you’ll just give me a minute, I’ll get back to you…

– No! Wait! Don’t hang up! You can’t leave me in here like this!

– Really, sir, what’s the worst that could happen? When you think about it, it’s just about the safest place to be. I’m going to call the cemetery and then I’ll ring you right back, I promise. Just stay calm and we’ll have you out of there quicker than you can say raising the dead. Bye, sir.

– Hello, is that Happy Memories Cemetery And Necropolis? Jerry? Is that you, Jerry? Hi, it’s Harry from Memento Mori. Got a Lazarus for you. Yep, another one. Yep. Alive and kicking. Level Seven G13, John Thomas Woods. Yep. Fresh meat, totally. We put him down this morning around eleven. Yes, buried with his phone at his wife’s request. He’s got a Blackberry in there with him. Excellent coverage. I could hear him clear as I’m hearing you. Yep. It’s a real problem. Legal quagmire, all right. I know. I know. And a hell of a lot more trouble getting them out than getting them in, right? And then of course they don’t want to pay up, do they? Had one two months ago trying to return his used coffin. Yeah, totally ridiculous. Health and hygiene, I always tell them. All care and no responsibility I always say. I know. I know. Listen, thanks a lot, Jerry, I’d better let you go so I can get back to my Lazarus before he really does drop off the perch. Poor bastard’s got a weak heart as it is according to his death certificate. Bye, Jerry.

– Hello, sir, this is Harry from Memento Mori Themed Funeral Home, back again, just like I promised. How are we getting on in there? Hope you find our Blackberry Passport Silver Edition coffin reasonably comfortable. Fortunately, it’s one of our roomiest models so you have that going for you at least, sir.

– Please, get me out. I’ll give you anything you want.

– No, no, sir, I wouldn’t hear of it. This service is almost entirely complimentary although there will be a small additional fee to cover costs outside your existing burial contract. The cemetery is on to it sir and a team of professional gravediggers are heading your way as we speak. Probably the same team that buried you earlier today actually, which is kind of funny, right? No? Well, maybe not. Sir? Sir? Are you crying? Please sir, don’t cry. Just hang in there. Shouldn’t be too much longer. You know, premature burial is not that uncommon. A lot of it went on back in the good old days, as you can imagine. In fact you might be interested to learn that during Victorian times it was quite a fad to be buried with a bell ringing system inside the coffin beside the stiff…I mean, the deceased, just on the off chance he or she might regain consciousness post-burial due to a spot of diagnostic mix-up by the doctors. Fascinating stuff, eh? Well, I thought so anyway. The diggers should be with you by now, sir.

– I can hear voices! And shovels! Thank you God, thank you!

– Oh excellent, sir. I told you the boys over at Happy Memories would be on to it quick smart. And might I ask, sir, in the intervening minutes before your imminent rescue whether you would consider purchasing an early bird package for your next funeral? The cost savings are significant sir. And you would also be eligible for our customer loyalty discount.

– What? You can’t be serious.

– Yes, it sounds almost too good to be true, right? I could pre-book a Blackberry for you right now over the phone if you happen to have your credit card with you. No? A little too soon? I understand completely. Perhaps I might have a member of our sales team contact you over the next few days? Yes? No. Well, I’ll get them to ring anyway. And finally, sir, would it be too much trouble to ask you to answer a few short questions in our customer satisfaction survey regarding the service you received today from Memento Mori Themed Funeral Home in general and yours truly, Harry Mori, in particular? We aim to please, sir. Hello? Hello? Sir? Sir?

The Impregnator.


My name is Cassandra X and I want to tell you my story. Well, actually, that’s not true. I don’t really want to tell you my story at all. I’m only doing this because my family thinks it will be good for me. Better out than in is what they say to me, as if anxiety can be ejected like projectile vomit. But it’s not that easy, is it? Myself, I would much rather curl into fetal position and pretend that parts of this story never happened. But no one listens to me; and that’s the whole problem right there, you see. That’s it in a nutshell.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not what you might call a sad story, although a hell of a lot of stress came out of it before some kind of conclusion was reached. And maybe that’s how life has to be, a cycle of domestic dramas interrupted by the occasional joyful moment just to keep us coming back for more. The story concerns my daughter, Jasmine, who I have long suspected of being accidentally switched at birth with a similar-looking newborn twenty-five years ago. I can tell you for sure that she bears no similarity to me apart perhaps from an impressively deep streak of stubbornness. Let me sum up a few of our more obvious differences for you – she’s tie-dyed rags and I’m resort wear; she’s tattoos and painful-looking piercings and I’m understated make-up and plucked eyebrows; she’s a throwback hippie and I’m a post-apocalyptic survivalist; she thinks it’s the dawning of the age of Aquarius and I will kill any stranger who looks funny at my family. You get the picture. Generationally speaking, not so much a gap as an abyss.

From an early age Jasmine determined to travel the world. As an adolescent she had a chart on the wall listing all the countries she intended to visit; the list incorporated much of Europe, most of South America and the more life-threatening and politically unstable parts of Asia and Africa. If I had to pinpoint the exact moment at which I lost any semblance of control over my daughter it would be when the she turned to wave goodbye to me at the airport on her first trip to Europe. She was eighteen years old and wearing an oversized backpack and an enormous, delighted grin. It was as if something wild that had been held fretting in captivity was finally being released back to its natural habitat.

Over the next few years Jasmine passionately embraced the backpacker lifestyle and the backpacker lifestyle reciprocated by wrapping itself around her windpipe and throttling her right back. She was hospitalized with pneumonia in Brazil, robbed at knifepoint by drug addicts in Argentina, fined and threatened with deportation for busking without a permit in Paris, burst a couple of blood vessels in her eyes whilst bungee jumping in Thailand; she even had her backpack not only stolen in Cambodia but also returned intact the next day – I can only assume that after examining the backpack contents the thief concluded Jasmine was even more impoverished than he was. And that’s just the stuff Jasmine told us about; God only knows what else happened to her out there on the hippie trail; well, God, various Australian consulates and maybe Interpol.

Jasmine sailed through it all with joy de vivre or, to put it another way, suicidal recklessness. Yet somehow she would always return in one piece and invariably bringing what she liked to call ‘little goodies” for us. These mostly comprised of items of badly made Indian clothing or the sort of tacky silver jewelry that turns green almost before your eyes, leaving ugly skin rashes. And then one year she totally outdid herself in the little goodies department by bringing back a man. And not just one of the common or garden locally grown variety; he was a Frenchman. Quelle exotique! How she got him through customs I’ll never know. He was dressed in baggy harem pants, cheesecloth t-shirt and a waistcoat festooned with glass beads. Oh, and Moroccan camel leather slippers that curled up at the front. Let’s just nickname him Aladdin and be done with it.

She introduced Aladdin as her boyfriend and casually informed us that he would be staying with us for a while. Later we discovered that the phrase “for a while” translated as until he found a job, a place to stay, an education, a career, a life direction. Basically then, the idea was we were going to adopt him for the foreseeable future. And we didn’t say a word of protest. Which is preposterous, right? The only way I can explain it is that Jasmine has always had this knack of reassuring anxious older people with a few soft words, a smile and reassuring hug; she’s like some kind of horse whisperer for skittish parents. I should point out that she had a long history of bringing stray, mangy young people home for meals but this was the first time she’d moved a fully imported one into the house.

Mind you, I could see the attraction; once you got past the tattoos and piercings Aladdin was unarguably cute with dark sticky-date brown eyes and then of course there was the accent. I think we can all agree a French accent is the most irresistible mating call of any species, domesticated or feral. Then again, I suspect my husband wouldn’t agree at all. The continental cuteness and the sexy accent appeared to have absolutely zero effect on him.

I haven’t introduced my husband to you yet, have I? Well, let’s face it, he’s pretty much peripheral to this story anyway. All you really need to know is that he wears sensible cardigans and a tweed flat cap; that just about sums him up right there, say no more. Mostly he spends his days reading dusty old books and mumbling about the decline and fall of western civilization. We’ll call him Mr. Grumpy for no reason that springs immediately to mind. After introductions had been awkwardly made at the Arrivals gate the Grump-meister didn’t say much but his face was cast into a kind of lugubrious death mask that did not bode well. I could tell his tortured mind was swirling with dark thoughts about family dishonor and garlic-reeking foreigners; not just any foreigner, either, but one of those cheese-eating surrender monkeys, you know the ones, from that country with a notorious reputation for seduction and romancing the pants of innocent young girls. The drive home from the airport was a tense affair, let me tell you.

When we showed Aladdin to the guest room and led him to understand that he was expected to sleep there on his own, he stared at us incredulously. I was a little incredulous myself, I must admit. I mean, to assume these two healthy, attractive people of prime mating age were going to sleep separately under the one roof was just plain naïve. Although Mister Grumpy liked to pretend otherwise, I doubt whether Aladdin set a camel-leathered foot in that spare bedroom ever again after that first night. And so somehow we found ourselves in the bizarre situation of consenting to a strange man we barely knew shacking up with our daughter in her bedroom; a strange man, incidentally, whom she barely knew too if you discounted a few weeks of holiday romance.

Six months later Aladdin was still squatting in the house, or the commune as we now pointedly referred to it. The sarcasm was entirely lost on our squatter. I don’t know, maybe French people don’t do sarcasm; probably too busy doing seduction, I suppose. By now we were resigned to the wafting clouds of incense, Arabian Nights dress code and the endless meals of lentils and brown rice; in short, the ambience of peace, love and flatulence had become our way of life. By this stage Aladdin was working casually as a waiter in a restaurant whilst spending most of his free time with Jasmine in her bedroom. They certainly were inordinately attached to that bedroom; what they found to do in there for so long I really cannot say. Anyway, as far as we could tell the only people showing any signs of discontent with the living conditions were Grandmaster Grumpy and me. We put up a good front but the truth is the bohemian values were getting to us; the countercultural untidiness, the careless dribbling of candle wax over expensive furniture, the stench of Moroccan camel leather slippers; and yet so comfortable were Aladdin and Jasmine with the arrangement that it seemed as if we were living with them rather than the other way around. We almost expected to be asked politely how long we intended to stay on for.

One day we received an intriguing phone call from our surrogate son, Aladdin, requesting that we meet him for coffee that afternoon. This struck us as odd given we had all been drinking coffee together around the communal table earlier that morning and were in all probability destined to be sharing a communal meal and accompanying beverages later that evening at home. Clearly, the boy has something other than communal coffee drinking on his mind.

“This is it,” Mister Grumpy predicted, “they’re taking over. He’s going to ask us to move out of the house and never darken our doorstep again.”

We met in Aladdin’s lunch break and whilst we sipped our coffees he informed us with a proud smile that he was going to ask Jasmine to marry him. Mr. Grumpy took a sharp intake of breath that resulted in his cappuccino being inhaled into his lungs; for a while there we were distracted by the need to revive a distressed middle-aged man who appeared to have abruptly lost the will to live. When things settled down again we returned to the subject at hand; I tactfully suggested to Aladdin that as he and Jasmine had known each other for a mere matter of months there was surely no hurry. His liquid eyes sort of glazed over in a way I’d seen before whenever anyone declared an opinion that he didn’t agree with and didn’t want to hear. That was Aladdin’s modus operandi – he would never argue; he would simply ignore.

Mr. Grumpy was not to be fobbed off so easily. He regressed to his savannah hunter-gatherer antecedents and got down to the nitty-gritty.

“And how, pray tell, do you intend to provide shelter for a family? How will you put bread into the mouths of your children?”

But Aladdin had already thought this through.

“I have a plan,” Aladdin said, “I’m going to juggle fireballs in the streets.”

Awkward pause here. A case of lost in heavily accented translation, perhaps? Whatever did he mean? Mr. Grumpy was the first to grasp Aladdin’s new career direction.

“Are you talking about busking? People throwing money? Fireball juggling for small change as a career? That’s your plan? That’s seriously your plan? Dear God, man, have you given thought to a plan B?”

“Oh, yes, I have a back-up. The plan B, as you say – I will also to learn to swallow fire.”

Another awkward pause, this one pretty much lasting until Mister Grumpy and I got home and could wail and gnash our teeth and cover ourselves with sackcloth and ashes in the relative privacy of our share-house. Eventually we rallied and regained perspective. It wouldn’t be so bad; we could get night jobs stacking supermarket shelves; the future lay bright and clear before us – we’d spend our lives supporting Jasmine and Aladdin and God knows how many of their future brood until we drew our last labored breaths.

Oblivious to our somewhat agitated reaction to the marriage idea, Aladdin ploughed on at full steam ahead. He proposed, Jasmine accepted; soon after we held an outdoor wedding reception like no other I have ever attended. There was vegan food, which Mister Grumpy sarcastically described to our family guests as coming from the planet Vegas. Unconventionally dressed young people writhed ecstatically to pounding tom-tom drums; a pungent haze that smelt nothing like nicotine wafted over an unusually large group of smokers. Even our aged family members grooved along, arthritis permitting, with the harmonious vibrations. It was the Woodstock festival all over again but with awkward-looking old people in formal attire sprinkled amongst the hippie revelers. Aladdin, in a moment of irrational exuberance even juggled his fireballs for our entertainment. It happened to be perilously close to a canvas canopy, which was quite heart stopping for those of us who felt legally responsible for the safety of our guests. I waited with dread for the canvas to shoot up in flames at any moment, thereby incinerating the slower, more elderly family and friends; fortunately collateral damage was limited to the odd singed hair and scorch marks, all of it on Aladdin who was too deliriously happy to care.

Another three months passed. Little had changed. We were still sharing digs with a couple of unreconstructed hippies from the Summer of Love era. One day Mister Grumpy and I were sipping cappuccinos in our regular café when Jasmine rang me. After I got off the phone Mister Grumpy noticed I was unusually quiet.

“Well, what did she say?”

“I’m going to tell you, but first I want you to stop sipping your coffee.”


“Just do what I say. Put the cappuccino down and step away from the cup. Then, I’ll tell you.”

Mr. Grumpy put his cup down out of harm’s way.

I took a deep breath and said, “Our daughter…”

“Yes, yes, our daughter what? Get on with it.”

“She’s…she’s pregnant.”

“Oh my God. But how…?”

“How do you think, you idiot? They’ve been humping away every night in that damn bedroom of hers.”

Mr. Grumpy winced. I think the idea of his daughter humping anyone was too much for the poor man. “Whatever happened to self-restraint? What about a bit of planning? It’s just irresponsible, that’s what it is.”

“Oh, don’t be bloody ridiculous. They’re married, aren’t they? They’re being fruitful and multiplying. This is what married people do when they’ve got time on their hands. Obviously they’re far too cool to watch prime time television like the rest of us.”

“But they’re still living with us,” Mr. Grumpy said in a whiny tone of voice. “It’s not fair. Not only are they not moving out, they’re reproducing. They’re breeding inside our house. Where will it end? Ten years down the track we’ll be forced out due to the population explosion. Culled from our own house to keep the numbers sustainable.”

My own response was not quite as hysterical but no less anxious. I felt excitement of course and also a kind of sadness too; I knew something Jasmine didn’t know, something she was about to find out – the crazy recklessness, the exuberance, the spontaneity, the self-indulgent fun, all that was going to be set aside and the time of responsibility for a tiny little life had begun. As for Grandpa Grumpy, after he got the moral outrage out of his system he became strangely calm; maybe even fatalistic, although a clue to his frame of mind lay in the manner in which he insisted on referring to Aladdin from that point onwards as The Impregnator.

There’s nothing like a pregnancy to concentrate the mind. Everything seemed to change very quickly. Within a matter of weeks Jasmine and The Impregnator took us by surprise when they moved out of our home. All of a sudden we were no longer living in a squatters’ commune. I have to admit it felt eerie and empty for a while. I even kind of missed the incense but not the flatulence that tended to precede it. Meanwhile we had something else to worry about.

Of course Jasmine’s new abode was never going to be a conventional one in the suburban heartland; that was just not their style. Despite marriage and the pregnancy they were still stubbornly grooving somewhere in San Francisco circa 1960s with flowers in their hair. We knew this and accepted it. But did they have to move to a house on an island that was only accessible by boat? There were no roads, no bridges and the ferryboat service cut out in the early evening. Most of the island locals relied on their own small vessels, a motely fleet of weather-beaten, barnacle-caked, old tubs. God help them on a stormy night with choppy waters. All this was gleefully related to us by Jasmine and Aladdin. They were relishing the challenge and rejoicing in the lifestyle compromises; after all, it was the closest they could get to third world living conditions and still be just a ferry ride away from the nearest organic farmers’ market.

I saw things a little differently. To me it was like the opening scenario of a formulaic thriller movie. All the corny ingredients were there – isolated home cut off from the mainland, vulnerable young pregnant woman, local island community populated by alternative lifestyle eccentrics and a generous sprinkling of drunkards and nut jobs. But wait, it gets worse. Precisely at the moment in a thriller where they introduce that last fatal plot ingredient, Jasmine obliged with a twist of her own. She made a decision so loaded with potential catastrophe it would have had everyone in a movie theatre covering their eyes with both hands and issuing a collective groan of despair – Jasmine decided to have a homebirth on that isolated little island.

Mister Grumpy and I took the ferry over to the island in a last ditch attempt to talk some sense into Jasmine. The Impregnator and Jasmine proudly showed us around their new home. Apart from the dampness, some rodent droppings and the encroaching jungle-like vegetation I considered the house was almost bearable and perhaps even habitable.

Jasmine could not be dissuaded on the homebirth. She had lined up a midwife and all arrangements had been made. Mister Grumpy interrogated The Impregnator on the preparations.

“What happens if the baby comes in the middle of the night? Have you considered how you will get the midwife over here? And what if, God forbid, something goes wrong and there’s an emergency? In short, do you have a plan?”

“But of course. I have a plan. I even have a plan B as well, just the way you like.”

The Impregnator was making with the quirky continental humor but Mister Grumpy was not amused.

“O.k., what’s the plan?”

The Impregnator pointed a finger to the house opposite. “Our neighbor has agreed to bring the midwife over at any time of the day or night. He and his boat are on standby for us.”

He pointed another finger to the left. “The neighbor a few houses down will pick the midwife up from the jetty with his jeep and bring her to the house when she arrives.”

The Impregnator smiled and placed a reassuring hand on Grandfather Grumpy’s shoulder, which is never advisable, as the Grumpy One has been known to bite off people’s fingers. Do not pet the mangy, ill-tempered animal.

“And what about your plan B?” Mr. Grumpy asked.

The Impregnator shrugged and pointed a finger vaguely upwards. At first I thought he might be referring to God and some sort of divine intervention, but then he said, “Elroy.”

“Elroy? Who’s Elroy?”

“Oh, he lives up the top of the mountain,” Jasmine said. “He’s a bit of a recluse. We don’t see much of him but he said he’d come if we need him to drive the midwife here.”

I could tell Mister Grumpy was less than impressed with plan B. I think we were both picturing Elroy as some wild-eyed hillbilly off his face on moonshine and cabin fever.

“Oh for God’s sake, stop worrying,” Jasmine said, laughing at us. “People have been doing this in their own homes for thousands and thousands of years. Everything will be fine.”

Mr. Grumpy began to speak but I cut him off mid-flow. I could see he was about to lecture us all on newborn mortality rates over the last two hundred thousand years of human history, a subject he had been researching intently recently.

As the date of the birth neared I left Mr. Grumpy back home and moved in with Jasmine and Aladdin on the island. At night I felt so much anxiety I could hardly sleep. Every morning I was hugely relieved to know that the ferry service had resumed and with it our regular link to the mainland. Nothing seemed to bother Jasmine and The Impregnator. Not even when the baby was well overdue and the midwife recommended relocating the birth to the mainland. I begged Jasmine to move back in with us and have the baby at our house but she had set her heart on a birth in her own home on the island.

A week later I awoke to the sound of something mechanical roaring upstairs. I ran up and found The Impregnator using an electric pump to inflate the wading pool in which Jasmine intended to have her baby. She emerged from the bathroom at that moment and I will never forget the look in her eyes, a mixture of shock and panic.

“I can feel the head,” she said, clutching her groin.

I couldn’t come to grips with that. I’d had children. I knew how the whole thing worked. They don’t just pop out and announce, “Surprise! I’m here!” There’s a procedure, God damn it; it takes hours and there are stages of labor and birth protocols, breathing and panting and so on, that must be observed.

“You can’t be feeling the head,” I assured her, “ You’re barely in labor, right?”

Jasmine looked almost apologetic. “Actually, I think I slept through the labor bit. I felt really uncomfortable when I went to bed.”

She slept through it. Of course she did. Why would she do anything so conventional and conformist as to have a normal birth experience? That’s when I felt the thrill of dread rippling through me. The possibility that a baby was going to pop out of her at any moment yelling, “Surprise! I’m here!” suddenly seemed alarmingly less remote.

At this juncture I realized that I was living my nightmare, the situation I had feared the most. It was two am. We were isolated on an island, about to have a baby and the only person in the house not looking dazed and confused was me. To be honest, the only reason I didn’t look dazed and confused was because I was preoccupied being completely beside myself with fear and stress. So there we were, standing in a bedroom with that ridiculous purple wading pool, candles and incense sticks at the ready, missing only a midwife or someone who had the least idea how to deliver a baby.

Jasmine doubled over and emitted a scary, deep-throated moan that would not have been out of place emanating from the subject of an exorcism. She staggered over to The Impregnator and wrapped her arms tightly around his neck, which was awkward as he had a lot on his mind at the time. At the height of every contraction she constricted his throat like an anaconda and screamed, “Get off the phone! Help me! You have to help me! Get off the phone!”

The reason she was shouting about getting off the phone was because The Impregnator held a mobile in each hand and was attempting to dial both one handed.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked him.

“The neighbors. I’m trying to ring them. No one’s answering.”

“The midwife. Have you rung the goddamned midwife?”

He could only nod in reply given that Jasmine was simultaneously experiencing a strong contraction and throttling the life out of him.

I ran downstairs to get my phone and rang the midwife, just to ensure she was on the way. It’s not that I didn’t trust The Impregnator…oh who the hell am I trying to kid? At this stage I had absolutely no faith in anyone, particularly the entwined couple upstairs helplessly transfixed by contractions and constrictions.

The midwife was driving through the night at a mad pace to get there but she wasn’t happy at all.

“I told them to leave yesterday. She’s fourteen days overdue. She should be somewhere more accessible. When I heard they were still on the island my heart almost stopped.”

From this statement you could reasonably conclude that the midwife was panicking. And if the midwife was panicking that was surely the signal for everyone else in the delivery room to commence shouting incoherently and running around in ever decreasing circles. Right about then my heart was threatening to go one better than her heart and come to a screeching halt.

Back upstairs The Impregnator was still working the phones like a Mumbai call center operator on crack cocaine, but no one was picking up. Jasmine was intermittently moaning and yelling, ‘It’s coming, help me, it’s coming.”

At this point I knew I had two choices: I could take control and deliver this baby or break down into a panic-stricken, blubbering mess. Obviously I broke down into a panic-stricken, blubbering mess. Hey, be not quick to judge, delivering babies is complicated; people spend years learning how to do it right. I was out of my depth. We needed to get that midwife onto the island.

I went into the bathroom, splashed cold water on my face and spoke to myself in the mirror – “Cassandra, stop hyperventilating and get your shit together.”

This seemed to work. I rang the emergency line and asked for an ambulance. Then I remembered I was on an island and cancelled the ambulance and asked for the police. Then I remembered I was on an island again and cancelled the police and asked for the Water Police. Bingo. They agreed to pick up the midwife and drop her at the wharf. Now we needed to transport the midwife and her equipment to the house. Not as simple as it sounds because there were very few vehicles on this island; all the residents had their cars parked over on the mainland. And where were all these residents when you needed them anyway?

Around ten minutes or so later there was a polite knock on the front door. Thank you, God. I ran to the door and flung it open. A nice-looking, neatly dressed man stinking of strong liquor apologized for missing The Impregnator’s phone calls. He had been at a party on the other side of the island and had neglected to check his mobile. He looked nothing like a wild-eyed hillbilly but we had got the bit about being off his face on moonshine absolutely right. It was Elroy. Plan B had been activated.

“Elroy, thank God. Where is everybody else on this God-forsaken island? No one’s answering their phone.”

“They’re all at the party and mobile reception is a bit patchy on that side of the island. Can I help?”

“Elroy, you don’t happen to know how to deliver babies do you?”

“Good Lord, no. I work in IT. I’m afraid the best I can do is offer transport. I’ve got my car right here – no, actually, it’s just over there, against the tree. Must have rolled forward. I seem to have left it in gear.”

“Elroy, have you perchance partaken of a glass or two of alcohol tonight?”

“Pissed to the eyeballs, I’m afraid.”

“I did not hear you say that, Elroy.”

I rang the midwife back and told her we had lined up the Water Police and also a drunk driver to give her a lift to the house.

“O.k. I’m at the wharf. I can see the lights of the police boat. How’s Jasmine doing?”

“Well, she says she can feel the head.”

“You mean the contractions.”

“No, I mean the head. With her fingers.”

“Don’t panic. Keep calm. I won’t be long. When the baby comes, keep it warm.”

“O.k. See you soon.”

Hey, wait a minute. Did she just say the words ‘when the baby comes’? Note the critical conditional distinction. When, not if. Oh my God. Even the midwife thinks she’s not going to make it.

Back to the bathroom. More face splashing. I stared at my reflection and sternly told it to stop looking so goddamned terrified. We were going to deliver a baby and that was that. No more whining. I walked into the bedroom and right back into the middle of the exorcism with Jasmine intermittently growling and pleading for help and The Impregnator standing in the wading pool holding a hose.

“What the hell are you doing, man?”

“I’m filling the wading pool.”

“Forget the wading pool. You don’t need a wading pool right now.”

“What do I need, then?”

“An exorcist. No forget I said that. Get some towels. Clean ones. Jasmine, what are you doing?”

“I’m getting into the pool. I’m having this baby in the damned pool just like I planned and no one’s going to stop me.”

She said it with so much determination not to mention snarling ferocity that I knew this was no time to argue. I went to find the towels whilst The Impregnator climbed back into the pool to support Jasmine.

And then everything happened so quickly and so suddenly, just as the major things tend to do in this life. One minute there were three of us in the pool and then there were four as we were joined by a tiny head popping almost bizarrely out of Jasmine’s vagina. The creature from the amniotic lagoon. I felt like blurting out – hey, what’s that doing there? – so strange and miraculous did it seem that life should grow out of life inside my daughter in such a fashion. As the rest of the body slid out the midwife ran upstairs. Elroy stumbled and staggered right behind her under the weight of several bags of equipment or possibly he was just blind drunk. And everybody was so happy and relieved, And everybody cried, even Elroy. And it was one of those rare moments in your life when you are able to say, ah yes, then, at that precise moment I was utterly, unequivocally happy.















(The Highlands Of Cruithentuath, Circa 600AD)


They had strayed far from their tuath following the spoor of a wily old boar. One of the hunters wore an evil-looking leather patch where his right eye used to be. His name was Balor, although some people called him Doom And Gloom because he expected the worst and was seldom disappointed. Then there was Cailen who had just one arm left to him if you chose not to count the stump of the other. The lack of arm made little difference to the look of him for he was a deeply unattractive man. Lastly there was Dubhlach, sometimes known as The Dafty; he had all his body parts, more or less, but it was said that he had been dropped on his head when he was a baby, which went some way to explaining why he was the way that he was. Saving these minor flaws, they were pretty much in the prime of their luckless, impoverished lives.

That cunning, grey-bristled boar, he led them though thorny briar and prickly bracken till they were scratched and torn to ribbons. Just as the night shroud fell steadily around them Cailen spotted a faint trail of smoke smudged against the evening sky. They followed it to a cottage nestled in a clearing surrounded by dense forest pines. It was a circular homestead made from mud-daubed wickerwork and crowned with a thatch roof overgrown with stray clumps of weeds.

A stockade made from iron-tipped wooden stakes enclosed the entire clearing and there was a gate guarded by three snarling hounds. A dazzling brightness spilled out of the house. Two women stood at the door, silhouetted against the interior golden light.A voice rang out, an old woman’s voice, cracked and harsh, calling out to the dogs. They instantly ceased barking and cowered away.

“For the love of Brighida,” Balor said, “we are in need of a night’s shelter.”

“All well and good,” the old hag replied, “but what do you offer in exchange for the shelter?”

“Our deepest thanks,” said Balor, “and the blessings of the Goddess Of The Hearth for taking in the strangers at your door.”

The two women conversed in low voices. Finally the old woman stepped forward. “This house is awfy small, not near big enough to be putting up three hulking brutes like yourselves. But we can maybe offer you the byre for the night, if you don’t mind sleeping with the cows. As for payment, you could do us a little service with churning the milk, perhaps.”

The younger woman remained at the doorstep of the house, the oil lamp in her hand illuminating a fine-looking face and fiery red hair. The lamplight seemed to caress her body, a figure so curvaceous that some might have called her fulsome whilst others might have considered her fat. The old crone came down the gate to let them in but they hardly noticed her. All their eyes were straining to drink in the sight of the woman standing like a shining goddess at the door, waiting to welcome them.

As they self-consciously shuffled past the red-haired beauty Balor was struck by the colour of her eyes; green they were, like the paleness of seawater on a summer day. Although the room was not nearly as small as the old woman had claimed it was cluttered with all the various tools of the dairy trade. A large churn made from oak sat in one corner. Against one of the walls lay a line of flat, shallow wooden dishes each filled to the brim with setting milk. Upon a small table they could see ladles, butter scoops and wooden skimmers all neatly placed in a row, like the ceremonial knives laid out by the Druids before the blood shedding of a bull or ram at Samhain time.

“I am the widow Rhona,” the young woman said, “and this is my grandmother, Banabha.”

Balor tried to reply but found that he had lost the knack of intelligible speech and had to make do with a throat-clearing grunt. Cailen seemed to be struggling too; his mouth gaped unappealingly and little drools of saliva glistened in the candlelight. Even Dubhlach, who barely noticed women as a general rule, appeared impressed. Indeed, it would have been hard not to take a shine to this widow-woman, what with her red locks rippling down to a bosom so munificent it appeared to be striving to burst out of the bodice and share its bounteous treasures with the company.

They sat around the hearth-fire on the green rushes carpeting the floor, for there were only two stools in the house. Balor’s eye followed the widow Rhona as she bustled around preparing refreshments for them. Occasionally the grandmother obstructed his view and at such moments he had to stop himself from wincing. She had a craggy face scarred by ancient boils and furrowed with deep crease lines; her nose was a great bulbous hook of a thing and somewhere along the way she had misplaced not a few of her front teeth; her body appeared heavy-set, most likely bloated by an over-indulgence in her dairy foods. Balor thought it was like dark clouds blown by an ill wind across the face of a glorious sun to see the two women together like this.

Rhona poured them each a cup of sour milk from an earthenware jug whilst they ogled the great pale orbs looming over her bodice. The milk could have been gushing forth from her breasts, so full and philanthropic they seemed, those marvelous glands. Balor wiped the sweat from his face. He was feeling the heat, most of it radiating from his feverish imagination.

Rhona noticed the dried bloodstains on Balor’s tunic.

“Ach, it’s nothing at all,” he said. “Just a few wee briar scratches from chasing a boar all the long day. I’ve had worse.”

“I have some bad cuts, myself,” Cailen said. He pulled back the tunic sleeve on his one good arm. She rose and went to Cailen. He shot a triumphant leer at Balor from around her skirts.

“The thorns have bitten deep,” Rhona said. She reached over and lightly traced a finger down the length of Cailen’s arm. Cailen ceased to breathe from the excitement. Balor wondered whether the fool might ever breathe again.

“And I know just what you need for it, too,” she said with a lazy purr to her voice. “After supper I could dress your cuts, if you like.”

She bestowed a glance upon him with her languid eyes and that was about that. He looked more than ready to paw the ground and maybe whinny some mating cry before launching himself upon the good widow in a rutting frenzy. Only Dubhlach appeared capable of resisting Rhona’s considerable charms, which was only to be expected given the man had been dropped on his head when a baby. “You are a little out of the way hereabouts,” he said, “surely you would be better off moving into a larger settlement with other folk around you?”

The smile slipped from Rhona’s face

“We like to keep to ourselves,” she said. “We see plenty of the settlements when we travel the roads selling our white-meats. Happy enough they are to buy from us, but there is always a lot of envy too. Our goods are far better than any, and so there is gossip.”

The grandmother said, “There are jealous folk in the nearby settlements. They would be making our lives a misery if they could. They envy us, you see, for the richness of our produce.”

“Jealous neighbors are an ill thing to have around you,” Dubhlach said. “That is why, maybe, you have those three hounds from hell prowling about inside your fence of sharpened stakes.”

The old woman nodded. “Aye, most folk are harmless enough; they buy from us and moan behind our backs. But there are always the odd one or two who won’t let it be at that. They are quick to blame us if their cows sicken or their butter doesn’t take. They accuse us of bewitching the udders, making them draw blood and pus instead of milk and other such nonsense.”

“Let’s serve up supper,” Rhona of the shining green eyes said. “You’ve walked far today and have the look of famished men.”

And so they ate. A banquet of milk dishes conjured up from bowls, buckets and barrels. Rhona filled their cups with ropey milk, the cream skimmed off cow’s milk left to set for three days. Next, she handed Balor a bowl of fluffy clotted curds. Their fingers touched when he took the bowl. A bright white tingle, like a tiny fork of lightning, passed between them. It filled his head and his heart and his belly with warmth as if he had drunk many ale tankards.

After this she filled their cups with whey, the pale green liquid left in the bowl after producing curds. They finished with wheels of hard cheese, the creamy white smoothness resembling the color of Rhona’s shoulders and breasts, or so Balor thought anyway. The lamplight wavered, discharging wisps of smoke to curl up into the haze clinging around the bog-pine rafters. Rhona seemed disinclined to talk much about the past. Of her late husband she said little except that he had not been a vigorous man.

“He toiled away by day and by night helping Grandma with the churning,” Rhona said, “and then he just seemed to wither away.”

Cailen clenched his hand and flexed his one sturdy arm. “Here is another that is ready for to help you with the churning, mistress Rhona. And I will not be withering away, I can vouch for that.”

Rhona smiled. “Ah, but it is hard work, the churning on this farm. Not many have the strength for it.”

Cailen looked her full in the face. “Mistress, you maybe noticed I have only the one hand left to me?”

“I noticed,” Rhona said.

“Nonetheless,” Cailen went on, “I swear by the two hands of my father and by the four hands of my grandfathers and by this one left hand of my own that I will churn for you by light of day and dream of night. There now, how does that strike you, my shiny-eyed mistress?”

Balor could see that for once Cailen had stumbled upon the right words. It was as if he had found a key and turned it in the lock. Rhona’s shiny eyes were talking to Cailen and to Cailen alone. I am yours, they were saying, I am yours, you one-armed, silver-tongued rogue.


When they had eaten their fill they went over to the byre where they were to spend the night in the straw alongside four lugubrious-looking cows.

“I’ll be seeing you in the morning, then,” Cailen said.

“And where is it that you think you are going?” Balor asked.

Cailen paused at the door, shaking his head slowly. “It is a bad sign for your manhood, Balor, that you should be asking such a question. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls and Rhona is your proof. You ask me where I’m going? There’s a widow woman in that house who knows her milks right enough. But anyone can see she’s crying out for the milk of human kindness that only a man can give.”

“Great Gods, man,” Balor said, “why would she be wanting anything from the likes of you?”

Cailen smiled. Not a pretty sight with his yellowed fangs and raw-boned face. But there was a kind of ugly charm to him that could be considered quite manly. In bad light. After several stiff drinks. If you were pure desperate for the company.

“Did you not see how she was looking at me?” he said. “Maybe if you weren’t one-eyed you would have noticed how those lovely green orbs were speaking to me. Ach, you could easy see there’s something between me and Rhona, just waiting for the spark to light up.”

“I won’t argue with that,” Balor said. “She is like a heap of bog-fir splinters. Any man could light that fire. No bother at all.”

“Here,” Cailen said indignantly, “don’t you go talking like that about the good widow. The man who disrespects her will answer to me.”

“And why should you care?” Dubhlach asked.

Cailen smiled a little shyly:

“Well now, we’ll just see. But don’t be surprised if I decide to stay on here. Maybe settle down. I could lend a hand with the churning.”

He winked at them and left.

Balor pointed at the door. “There he goes, a fool of a man thinking with the thing dangling between his legs.”

Dubhlach nodded. “Ach, I wouldn’t say but that you are right; and there’s nothing new under the sun about that. When it comes to the houghmagandie, every man’s brain can be found in his ballocks. And yet what the devil is it but a lot of squirming and pushing, the same as any beast in the field?”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Balor said. “Others prefer to see it as something more than that.”

“Aye, they would,” said Dubhlach, stretching out on a makeshift pallet of straw. “It is something high and mighty, they would say, all wrapped up with the tenderness of sweethearts; and so the bards sing of it and the lads and the lassies moon over it. But when all is said and done – it’s just whopping it in, is it not?”

Balor pictured Cailen getting his leg over the widow and he had to agree with Dubhlach’s conclusion. The vision of Cailen thrusting away for all he was worth seemed hardly the stuff of bards and sentimental ballads. Nevertheless, when he lay down on the straw to sleep, he took a moment to think about the pleasure opening up to Cailen right about then. Soft and moist and velvety, she would be, like clouds of clotted milk curds.


It felt to Balor as if he had scarcely fallen asleep when he was abruptly shaken awake. It was Cailen.

“Eh man, is it morning?” Balor said, rubbing a hand through his hair and staring bleary-eyed around him.

“No,” said Cailen, “it’s the middle of the night yet. But you must wake up, both of you. For it is a pure desperate situation.”

“Have you finished your business with the widow already?” Dubhlach asked in between yawns.

Cailen leaned back against the wall of the byre as if he needed the support. Balor thought he looked a good ten years older than the last time they had set eyes on him.

“What happened to you in there, man?” Balor asked softly.

Cailen emitted a sound that might have been a stifled sob. “It was awful, just awful. You’ve never seen the like in all your years.”

Balor raised a hand. “Stop you, and start from the beginning, man.”

Cailen nodded and took a deep gulp of air. “Ach, I couldn’t see a thing, it was pitch black in there; and then Rhona crooned my name, leading me to her pallet. I made out that I wanted her to put a salve on my cuts like she offered before. But it turned out I didn’t need any excuses at all, at all.”

“She was willing?”

“Willing?” Cailen said with a dark and bitter laugh. “I wouldn’t say willing. Ravenous for it, more like. She dragged me under her blanket without a word. Like a fox takes a hen. You’ve never seen such a swollen appetite for houghmagandie. Just awful.”

“The good god preserve us,” Balor intoned.

“Holy hole in sacred Brighida,” Dubhlach blasphemed.

Balor gave Dubhlach a swipe across the ear without looking at him and said, “Go on, Cailen.”

Cailen groaned and tried to cover his face with his one hand.

“It was…it felt like I didn’t go into her but that she went into me. She handled me like I was a child’s raggedy doll. And then…”

he shuddered, “…the churning began.”

“The churning? churning, did you say?” Balor said, hoarsely. “Don’t spare us the details. Unburden yourself, man. Tell us everything. All the details, mind.”

“Just so,” Dubhlach said, nodding vigorously. “Don’t leave out a thing. Get it off your chest, man.”

“Aye, I will,” Cailen said. “Now where was I?”

“The churning,” Balor and Dubhlach breathlessly said as one.

“Ach aye,” Cailen resumed. “She put me into her and tossed and stirred and whipped and shook me all about. There was a good deal of jiggling too. Whatever came into her head that pleased herself. Never in all my long days of making the beast with two backs have I been used like that by a creature of the female species.”

“And tell me now,” Balor asked with just a hint of a tremor in his voice, “did she have any clothes on at all, at all, while this was going on?”

Cailen shot him a suspicious look. “And why would you be asking that? What in the world would that have to do with anything?”

“Ach, nothing, nothing at all,” Balor said lamely. “I was just after wondering, is all.”

“Well?” Dubhlach prompted, “Did she or didn’t she?”

Cailen glared at the pair of them. “Well, if you must know, and I’m seeing by the tongues hanging out of your heads that you must, she was as naked as the day she came into the world. Well, from what I could tell by the feel of her, anyhow. Massive thighs, a belly like an overstuffed, feathery pillow and great jugs for boobies with nipples the size of door handles. There, is that enough detail for you?”

They nodded dumbly.

“But see me? I couldn’t care less what it was she looked like,” Cailen said. “ She had my one arm pinned against my body the whole time. I was pure helpless to stop her using me like one of her kitchen tools. The muscles on that woman are unbelievable.”

“Of course,” Dubhlach nodded, sagely. “That would be from all the daily wielding of churn staffs and ladles and the like.”

“Aye, well, she wielded me like a staff tonight, right enough. My organ feels like it’s been mixing in the churner half the night, it’s rubbed that raw. And the worst of it is, she wouldn’t stop after she milked the seed. No. That wasn’t enough for her. She made me do it…twice.”

Balor looked aghast. “Twice? No. Never. Surely not?”

Cailen’s head bobbed up and down at agitated speed. “Aye. Twice. Two times. One time after the other.”

Balor placed a hand on Cailen’s trembling shoulder. “Man, man. You must be near destroyed by the churning.”

“Dear God,” Dubhlach cried, “What was she thinking? To torture a body like that?”

“The good god preserve us,” Balor said, looking piously upwards, “and keep us safe from women of monstrous appetites, one of those who isn’t satisfied with just the one churning but goes against nature by expecting it…”

Balor was so overcome that Dubhlach had to finish it for him – “…twice. Ach, it doesn’t bear thinking about. Where’s the humanity?”

The three of them nodded sadly.

Balor asked, “And how did you get away from her?”

“I told her I had to take a piss,” Cailen said. “And even then she was awfy loath to let me out of her sight.”

Balor nodded towards the house. “So she’s still in there, waiting for you?”

“Aye, she is. And it is a long time she’ll be waiting too. If I never see her again it will be too soon. The libidinous trollop. She should see a Druid about that. It just isn’t natural.”

“Cailen, my gallant friend,” Balor began, aware that he was about to touch on a delicate subject, “you know of course that you must go back in there? That you have to finish what you’ve begun with the widow Rhona?”

“Finish be damned,” Cailen said. “It’ll be the finish of me if I creep back under the blanket with that insatiable woman. And what is there to be finishing in any case? Has she not poked me into her twice in the one night? Is that not one time more than any woman has the right to expect? It just isn’t natural, I’m saying.”

Balor gazed upon him sternly. “Get a hold on yourself, Cailen. It is a tricky situation we are in. They might set the dogs on us. Or maybe worse. There’s something about that old grandmother crone, Banabha… something witchy that makes my skin crawl. ”

“Aye,” said Dubhlach, “and don’t forget the stockade of sharpened stakes and the gate that is guarded by the dogs. It may be they are intended to keep folk in when it is needed as well as keeping folk out.”

Cailen shook his head vehemently. “I don’t care. I’m not going back in there. It will be the death of me. One of you will have to take my place. It’s dark in there; she’ll never notice the difference.”

“Really?” Dubhlach said, “and you think she won’t notice that the man coming back to her bed has sprouted an extra arm since she last saw him?”

“Forget the extra arm,” Cailen said. “Whoever goes back into that house of never-ending houghmagandie, it will be an extra willie he’ll be needing.”

No one spoke. It was irrefutable logic. Finally Balor said, “What about the grandma Banabha? Where was she during all this?”

Cailen waved his hand dismissively. “She didn’t make a sound. The old hag slept through it all. She’s not the problem.”

“But she might be, “ Balor said, “ if she wakes in the morning and finds that you’ve upset her granddaughter. I wouldn’t like to cross her if she really is a witch, as her neighbors seem to think. Surely you can go back and let the widow have just one more churn? She’s a fine-looking lass, that Rhona, after all.”

Cailen looked Balor straight in the eye. “There is nothing you could say to make me go back in there. Nothing at all. You’ll have to do the churning yourself. I’ve done my bit.”

“Me, is it? Ach, I’d love to,” said Balor, looking faintly alarmed nonetheless. “I’m fair champing at the bit; is it not me that is itching to have a go? But of course I can’t.”

Dubhlach looked worried. “You can’t? Why can’t you?”

“Why do you think, Dubhlach, you great coof? Have you forgotten that I am married? And not just to any old wife but to Sequana who can throw a spear further than any of us can and has been known to drop a rat with a carving knife at ten paces. Do you have any idea what Sequana would do to me if she smelt the faintest whiff of unfaithfulness?”

“Aye, well, it would be something painful,” Dubhlach allowed, “If I had to guess I would say severing your bollocks. She said something along those lines when she caught that tavern wench on your knee, did she not?”

“Aye, she did. That amongst other unpleasant things.”

“ A passionate wife, you have there, Balor. And uncommonly good with spear and knife, as you say. I wouldn’t ever want to cross the good woman.”

“So you see my point then,” Balor said.

“I suppose I do, aye.”

“Which means, god help us, it’s up to you, Dubhlach. Just you get in there, man, and churn up a frenzy.”

Dubhlach looked horrified. “Me? Churning? Impossible. It’s out of the question.”

“And why would that be?” Balor wanted to know. “Are you not a man? In a manner of speaking. Using the word loosely. So then, are you not itching to commence with the churning?”

Dubhlach grimaced. “Actually, no. The truth is, you see…I’ve never been awfy keen on it.”

Balor sighed and shook his head. “Here we go. All right then, which bit, exactly, are you not keen on?”

“The bit where you have to actually do it,” Dubhlach said. “I don’t mind thinking about it. The idea of it. But when it comes to the actual houghmagandie…the beast with two backs…churning. Whatever you want to call it. I find I’m just not as interested in doing it as I should be. I’m not much of a man for the lassies. I’m used to being on my own, you see. I’ve been a goatherd for most of my life, remember.”

“Bleeding ballocks,” Cailen interjected here, “ What the feck is he trying to saying?”

“I don’t think I want to know,” said Balor. “Look Dubhlach, you’re going in there and you’re going to churn up a storm with Rhona. No excuses. You don’t have to like it, just do it.”

“Just pretend you’re with one of your goats,” Cailen suggested.

Dubhlach looked affronted, “What the devil do you mean by that? I’ll not have you bringing my goats into this, Cailen,”

“For god’s sake, let’s forget about the goats,” Balor said, “goats have nothing to do with this; goats are not the problem here. Now just you two concentrate on the matter at hand. You will go over there, Dubhlach, and copulate like you’ve never copulated before, which by the sound of it is not going to be too much of a stretch of the imagination for you. And that’s all there is to it.”

Dubhlach swallowed hard, bit his lip and left the byre.


Balor and Cailen waited by the byre door for a good hour or so but all was quiet in the cottage so they went back to the straw and fell asleep. Balor awoke some time later to the sound of ragged panting. It was Dubhlach. His eyes were glazed and bulging out of his head but aside from that he seemed in fair shape given the circumstances.

“You were in there forever, man,” Balor said, giving him an approving pat on the back. “A solid session of the houghmagandie, that one. So then, how many times would it have been?”

He had to repeat the question and lightly slap Dubhlach around the face before he revived sufficiently to reply.

“Times? I can’t say for sure. It all sort of ran together in one continuous churn. I just thought about something else and let her get on with it. I think it was three times. Aye, that would be about right; around three times. It’s all a painful blur.”

“What?” Cailen said, “I don’t believe it. You couldn’t poke it in once to save your life, let alone three times.”

Dubhlach shrugged. “Whatever you say yourself, Cailen. I’m telling you I whopped it in three times and nearly killed myself into the bargain.”

“And did she notice it wasn’t Cailen who came back, what with your extra arm and all?” Balor asked.

“Didn’t seem to bother her. I couldn’t see a thing. She just dragged me onto her and then…and then…”

“The churning,” Cailen said hoarsely.

“Aye,” Dubhlach said. “I’m red raw from it.”

“So she let you leave?” Balor said.

“Aye, but I had to promise to send you in to finish.”

“What? Who? Me?”

“Aye, you, Balor, you. For who else could it be? We are running out of willies and we must finish, else what was it all for?”

“Finish? Finish what?”

“Why, the churning, of course. You ken fine well yourself we have no choice, Balor. The woman is insatiable. I’m destroyed from the churning. I wouldn’t be surprised at all at all if my wee member were to fall off right here and now. Aye, just drop to the ground and lie there like a skinned snake.”

“I think you mean worm,” Balor said. “I’ve seen the size of it.”

“She was slowing down towards the end,” Dubhlach went on, oblivious, “I think a couple more times should just about do the trick. Best of luck to you, Balor. Remember to pace yourself and you’ll do all right.”

“No, no, I can’t do it.” Balor said.

“What? Not you too?” Cailen said, “Not the goats, is it?”

“Don’t you like doing it either?” Dubhlach enquired with sympathy.

“Of course, I like it,” Balor said, angrily. “I’m a regular at it, so I am. I can’t get enough of it. There’s nothing I’d rather do…except…well, maybe eating…”

“…and drinking …” Cailen said.

“…and sleeping…” Balor added.

“…and a bit of slaughtering in a nice, juicy clan feud…” Cailen said.

“All right,” said Dubhlach, “so apart from all of that, there’s nothing you’d rather do than a spot of churning, so why can’t you go over there and get on with it?”

“Because I made a vow, a marriage vow. I must stay true. To Sequana.”

“What, because you’re afraid of her?”

“No. Because I care for her. And, yes, all right, I may be a little wary of her.”

Dubhlach said. “I can’t blame you for that, I wouldn’t want to cross Sequana what with that spear-throwing arm of hers. But we’ve done our bit, Cailen and me, and there’s no other choice. It’s up to you now.”

Balor opened his mouth to argue back but nothing convincing came to mind. He knew there would be no way out of this. He had that sick, sinking feeling, as if he’d just drawn the burnt fragment of barley bannock that marked him out for the ritual sacrifice under the Druid’s knife. Like it or not, his time had come; it was his turn to be The Dedicated One.


Two hours later Balor left Rhona’s house in a state of elation he had not felt in many years. The darkness had at first been unnerving, with Rhona lurking like a predator in the gloom. But then they had melted together the way a hand might perfectly fit a glove. The climax came quickly and powerfully for both of them. Afterwards they lay in each other’s arms under fur rugs, their warm breath commingling. Rhona seemed sated. All the poor wee lass had wanted, Balor reasoned, was a caring man who knew how to say the sort of things a woman longs to hear; things like “shall I stop now?” and “Have you had enough yet?” That sort of thing. Rhona soon fell into a deep sleep punctuated by her gentle snores and endearing flatulence. Balor slipped away, thinking with satisfaction that it had been a job well done.

“What? Back already?” Cailen said when Balor returned to the barn. “You’ve hardly been in there at all, at all. That’s not fair. Why should you be the one to get away with it?”

Balor patted his shoulder with just a hint of smugness. “I expect it was because I know how to please a woman. No need for second and third tries. You just have to get it right the first time around. Don’t be so hard on yourself, Cailen. Look at it this way: it’s a talent. Some of us are born to churn in and others must just get by as best they can.”

“Ach, rubbish, you got off lightly, thanks to me,” Cailen sniffed. “Most of the hard work was done before you got in there. See me? I’m a champion of the churning, so I am. Did I not leave her begging for more?”

Dubhlach nodded. “Aye, she was begging all right, Cailen, but it wasn’t for more; not from the likes of you, anyway. The way she tore into me you could tell she was glad to be rid of you. Three times, Cailen. One more than you and, I suspect, thrice Balor’s effort. And at considerable personal cost, too. She’s ruined me for life, so she has. I shall never churn again in this world.”

“Ach, that’s just as well,” Baor said, “for I doubt you’ll ever again find someone who is willing, unless maybe you meet a soul mate amongst your goat herd.”

The next morning Grandma Banabha led them down to the gate with her three growling hounds of hell shadowing them all the way.

“And are you sure you wouldn’t like to stay for just one more night?” she said.

“Aye, well, it’s a tempting enough offer, there’s no doubt,” Balor said. “But, we must be getting back home for we are doubtless missed already and there will be a searching party. Now then, about the payment for the food and shelter…”

“You paid for that last night,” the old hag said.

“Aye,” said Balor, “I suppose we did. Speaking of which, would you give our fond farewells to the lovely Rhona? Tell her please that last night was… unforgettable, so it was. Is that not right, lads?”

Dubhlach and Cailen nodded warily.

“So you enjoyed yourselves then, did you?” Banabha asked.

“That we did,” Balor said.

“Glad I am to hear it,” the old bag said.

“Aye,” Balor said, “a night to remember, so it was. We would tell Rhona ourselves but she doesn’t seem to be around.”

The old woman shrugged. “Aye, well, she never stays here after dark. She has her own home nearby.”

Here, there was a moment of strained silence.

“Home?” Balor said, “But I thought this…”

“ Ach, the house is too small for the pair of us and in any case she says that my snoring and farting would keep anybody up all the long night. So she has a cozy wee cottage in the woods behind my own home where she lived with the weakling husband before he died.”

They left without another word. When the homestead was well out of sight, Cailen said, “That’s me destroyed, then. I will never again be able to do it in the dark without thinking…without thinking of…”

Balor raised a hand. “Enough. Not a word more. Let us just pretend it never happened. Although doubtless we will wake up screaming with the memory for years to come.”

They walked on for the next hour or so in silence, the three of them preferring to retreat into their hooded cloaks, deep in thought.

Finally Dubhlach said, “It is just as I told you. Ach it doesn’t much matter who we are, be it prince or peasant, comely or plain, it is all just fumbling and squirming and grunting away under the covers. For the life of me I cant see what the fuss is all about. Eh man, in truth, is it not all just a wee bit…foolish?”

The other two said nothing in reply. Balor had to admit to himself that, for someone who had been dropped on his head when a baby and then went on to spend his formative years amongst the goats, Dubhlach The Dafty occasionally came out with something resembling common sense.











As an adolescent I was exiled for unspecified crimes to a deeply unfashionable Australian suburb and I never really got over it. This suburb orbited metropolitan Sydney like a lightless, joyless lump of rock grimly hanging on somewhere in the outer reaches of the solar system. Just about the only reason for its grimy existence, as far as I could tell, was to serve as an artery pumping industrial traffic to and from the city. No young person in his right mind would have wanted to live there. All the sane teenagers gazed longingly north to suburbs where the salt-tanged sea breezes blew and surf culture ruled supreme. The working class, the low-paid, the new migrants, we were stuck out west, twenty miles from surf, sand and teenage popularity.

There was a nursing home in my suburb that I visited a few times with a church fellowship group. We were supposed to entertain confused old people who were pretty much past all entertainment. We would line them up on the porch that faced out on to the main road where the semi-trailers, trucks, and vans roared up and down all day; the theory was that we were magnanimously giving them something to stare at apart from walls and ceilings. I don’t know if it did them any good. Mostly they gazed open-mouthed at the cavalcade of noise and fumes thundering westwards; at the time it seemed kind of funny the way their heads moved in unison from left to right, following the traffic, like plaster clown heads in a carnival side-show, crying out for a few well-aimed rubber balls to stop up those sad, toothless maws. That sounds heartless, doesn’t it? And yet, it accurately reflects my state of mind at the time. I just couldn’t see the point of old people.

However, one old fellow drew my attention. For a start, there weren’t too many men in the nursing home, given the brisk turnover in males after a certain age. But this old guy, he had beaten the odds and here he was, reaping the rewards, ensconced within his very own cognitively impaired, wrinkly-assed harem. But the other reason he caught my eye was that he spent the entire time hugging and kissing one particular emaciated old woman. He was positively obsessed with her. Difficult to say to what degree the affection was reciprocated. She didn’t resist or appear to be distressed by his extravagant caresses but, who knows, perhaps she was merely indulging this geriatric lothario.

I did a little research with the nursing home staff and found out that the old lady was not his wife. In fact, they were both widowed; she had buried two husbands in her time, he had but recently seen off his only wife. So then, I guess you could say they were kind of recent sweethearts. How quaint, you might be thinking, but actually it had the opposite effect on me.

There was too much of the touching going on for it to be considered truly touching, if you see what I mean. The nurses seemed reasonably confident it was a mutual attraction, as far as one can tell of these things with a couple who literally did a lot of drooling over each other but not exactly in a romantic kind of a way. At sixteen, this really played with my head. I mean, what was going on here? Were they just a pair of senile, old fools mindlessly aping a romantic attachment? Without much in the way of mental engagement or even conversation, could this still be called love? Maybe love was just a fancy romanticized word for the skin-on-skin contact sought by our particular species of gregarious hairless apes? And what of the bittersweet irony should they truly be in love, having discovered each other whilst teetering over the precipice of mortality? When one of them died the survivor would lose everything that had made life almost bearable, all the hugging, kissing and God knows what else they got up to when the nurses weren’t around to prise them apart.

The thing that disturbed me most about them was the core insight they had forced upon me; here I was at the beginning of life, aching for love and romance and physical affection; and there they were at the end of it all, a road map to the final destination. A seed was sown. I learned of a thing I could never erase because you can’t unlearn a memory – I learned that love has a way of decaying with time just like everything else in this world and that it must end sadly with a parting one way or another because, of course, there is one final existential parting that we can delay for years and years but never ever deny.

Summer, 1970. In my mind I am walking again through the streets of my suburb, like a ghost. It is midday and the sun is deep-frying the shoppers; mostly they are weather-beaten, middle-aged women and old ladies with blue-rinse perms. There are no old males in my suburb. Or, if there were, I can’t remember them. I think that, as with certain species in the insect world, their female mates devour them when they can no longer take out the garbage and/or change the odd light bulb. It is important to be useful. Men who forget how to be useful soon forget how to get up in the morning and from there it is but a short transition to forgetting how to breathe. Or so men are taught to believe.

Besides the steps that lead up to the railway station there is a fruit shop. It lurks like an exotic organic trap for unwary train commuters who are drawn in by sweet, pungent smells and tropical hues; strangely, not once have I seen anyone actually come out; perhaps they disappear within its cool, shadowy recesses never to be seen again. I too am drawn to this shop almost daily but not exactly for the fruit. On closer inspection the fruits on display appear sticky with oozing juices, as does Mrs. Manoli behind the cash register. Her husband bustles around emptying boxes, arranging fruit, whistling energetically and making loud small talk interspersed with poor jokes. It is unclear whether he truly thinks he’s funny or feels it is incumbent upon every fruit shop owner to at least try to be. Either way, his repartee is awful.

When I think about Mr. and Mrs. Manoli I can smell mangoes and the sickly odor of overripe pawpaw. It is a smell I will never forget, permanently bonded with a cycle of memories. Mr. Manoli likes to handle his fruit selections personally, rearranging displays, sensuously squeezing the firm round fruit. He does the same to Mrs. Manoli whenever he passes the front counter. She squirms under his touch but this doesn’t stop his groping.

How to describe Mrs. Manoli? Her gleaming hair is always pinned back; she has what you might call a prominent nose but I prefer to describe it as Roman and aristocratic; her eyebrows kind of arch up thanks to bold and imaginative plucking, something you don’t see that often in my suburb; her languid eyes regularly reduce me to speechlessness. She would be just about perfect if not for the dark mustache but I am prepared to live with minor imperfection the way one overlooks the detached arms on the Venus de Milo. In case you haven’t guessed by now I am madly, utterly, irreversibly in love with Mrs. Manoli, hirsute upper lip and all. The fact that I am sixteen and she is, I don’t know, a woman of a certain age, let’s say, matters not.

The disparity in our ages is not the problem here. Neither is the mustache. I can live with the mustache. I have a mustache just like it, so that gives us something in common, right? The real problem is Mr. Manoli. I despise him for his sleazy sexual handling of the lovely Venus (O.k., her name really wasn’t Venus but it should have been). The terrible thing about the situation is that I’m all too aware I’m not so different from her brute of a husband; I too am full of demeaning lust for this faintly furry goddess of fruit and vegetables. The troubling nexus between sex and guilt and lust and love is off to a roaring start and it will take me years to muddle through the mess and arrive at a morality I can live with. But the real twist of the knife into my heart occurs on this very day when I walk in and catch her ardently embracing her husband. She likes him. Good God, she may even love him despite the fact he is a low-life, sleazy Neanderthal; or, could it be, because of that very fact? And so I begin to see that love isn’t sane or fair or particularly romantic or noble and that we live in a topsy-turvy world in which Beauty can be unaccountably drawn to the Beast.

Let us flee from this disturbing Venus fruit-fly trap and make our way to the graffiti-covered bus shelter outside the bank, for this is the place I wanted to bring you, reader, our destination. I fell in love in this bus shelter. I fell hard and fast. It quite took my breath away. The French call it coup de foudre, the lightning strike that is love-at first-sight. Of course, the whole notion is ridiculous; of course it is entirely physical attraction, which in itself is basically the urge to copulate with a suitable mate. But that is just your brain speaking and who listens to your brain? Certainly not your heart that is racing to some crazy jazz beat syncopation, or your hormones that are leaping to the steps of a phallic fertility dance. Shut up, brain, the rest of you choruses in unison, and just let us get on with it.

She was waiting for a number 504 bus and I prayed so hard that no such bus would come that day, just to stretch out the perfection of the moment. Dear God, grant me only this, that the 504 bus might take a wrong turn and hurtle off a cliff; and if fifty or so hysterically screaming passengers have to go over that cliff along with the bus and its driver, well, so be it. Her name was Francesca Bugini. I always remember the surname because there was an Elton John song at the time containing the lyric, “blue jean baby, L.A. lady”, which synchronized in my mind with the sound of her surname and, well, you know how it is, the urge to romanticize anything remotely connected to one’s sweetheart even when the connection is so tenuous as to be in reality virtually non-existent. Lord, what fools these mortals be. Suffice to say I was smitten.

Once more The Bomb had dropped out of a clear suburban sky, blasting me to atoms. But this was not like my childish infatuation with Venus Manoli. Of course it wasn’t. This time, it was different. This time it was Real Love. Why do you smile condescendingly, reader? How can you be so cynical? Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini smiled at me as well, that day. She smiled whilst I gawked at her in desperate yearning; she smiled at my pathetic attempts to initiate a conversation, she smiled when I asked for her phone number and she kept right on smiling when I asked her out for a drink. Looking back on it, that girl could really smile. She had long black shiny hair. Between the hair and the smile she looked like one of those cartoon heroines out of a Disney movie.

Let us now proceed to my first date with Francesca. In my suburb when you talked about going out for a drink you meant a milk shake at Dimitri’s Milk Bar. The ambience was unparalleled in its greasy burger joint authenticity, the cuisine reliable in that one could just about guarantee to locate a strand of suspiciously pubic-like hair in one’s burger. Francesca and I sat at my usual table close to the counter serenaded by the sizzle of frying fat and occasional banging of a basket of French fries to shake off excess oil after it had emerged from the vats.

In the lull between slurping our milk shakes we entertained ourselves eavesdropping on the colourful conversation being conducted by Dimitri and his formerly lovely wife Sophia. I say formerly lovely because she had a front tooth missing and I don’t know about you but I think that missing front teeth tend to detract from overall loveliness. Mind you, Dimitri was no bed of roses either. He was one of those classic milk bar proprietors, now sadly rare in the industry, who somehow managed to combine a sort of avuncular baldness with the hairy-chested virility of a leering satyr; dirty old Uncle Dimitri; although I must say in his favor he was in possession of all his front teeth even if they were yellowed and crooked.

Dimitri and Sophia were speaking volubly and loudly in their native Greek tongue, so I had to translate for Francesca in furtive whispers, trying not to blow my cover. I had been coming to this milk bar for years and the proprietors had never suspected that the boy waiting for his burger and fries could understand every scalding, lacerating insult they lobbed back and forth like a game of derogatory tennis played with verbal grenades.

‘What’s she saying?” Francesca eagerly asked me.

“Well,” I said, “It’s a bit…kind of personal.”

Francesca rolled her enormous Disney animation eyes. “I know. That’s why I’m dying to hear it. What’s she saying?”

“She’s telling him he’s not a real man, he’s a…a whore who runs after his friends every night and does whatever they ask him to do whenever they ring up to go drinking or gambling…”

“Oh my God, “ Francesca gasped, “Dimitri is a homosexual prostitute.”

“No, I don’t think so,” I said hastily, “I think the whore bit was a metaphor. And, I mean, look at him, he’s not exactly the homosexual prostitute type, is he?”

“I see your point,” Francesca said, “now what’s she saying?”

“…I’m afraid I can’t quite follow…her accent’s hard to understand,” I said, blushing at the unrelenting tirade of obscene filth spewing out of the sewerage pipe mouth of the formerly lovely Sophia. That woman could certainly swear. Perhaps she had served a spell with the merchant marines or maybe a decade or so as a bartender in the rougher parts of the Piraeus district.

“I think it must have been one of those arranged marriages,” I said, sadly, “I suppose it’s hard to recapture that first fine careless rapture when you’re flipping burgers twelve hours a day.”

Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini and I went on to enjoy a serious, long-term relationship that lasted eight weeks, after which she dumped me. I’m not sure what Francesca was thinking about over those eight glorious weeks but I spent much of the time wringing my hands, staring out of the window whilst listening to Leonard Cohen’s first album and asking myself questions about the nature of love. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t know how to nurture it; I didn’t know what you’re supposed to do with it once you had it. As a consequence I became moody and taciturn and generally tiresome to be around if you happened to be an adolescent female who uncannily resembled Snow White out of the Disney movie.

Francesca couldn’t understand the problem. Her idea was that we should keep things simple, show each other off to our circle of friends, indulge in impossibly prolonged sexual foreplay up to but never exceeding the point at which my testicles turned blue (always a warning sign) and let the big existential questions answer themselves in the fullness of time. In retrospect of course Francesca was absolutely right. I must have had rocks in my adolescent head. I blame Leonard Cohen. I was never the same after listening to that first self-absorbed, maudlin album.

Breaking up with Francesca Blue Jean Baby L.A. Lady Bugini proved to be devastating for me. Francesca, however, seemed to positively bloom at the end of the relationship. Somehow, by the act of rejecting a brooding neurotic like me she managed to imbue herself with new vigor and confidence. Kind of like those mate-devouring insect species, I guess. She was growing as a person and moving on in life, leaving me to wallow in self-pity and Leonard Cohen. The power of love had manifested itself and I was on the painful receiving end of the power nexus. And it really, really hurt.

Ten more years or so were to pass before it occurred to me that the attachment we call love varies from person to person as does its intensity and durability, that there never has been or ever will be a one-size definition that fits all of us. It’s a bit like our personalized perception of reality – in the same way that the observer affects every observation, so too is every experience of love uniquely interpreted by the individuals giving or receiving that love.

Maybe we are all looking at this emotional phenomenon way too analytically. Maybe when we look too closely this whole love thing melts away in our mouths like pretty, sweet cotton candy. Maybe love can’t be dissected forensically. Maybe when we wield the scalpel of the intellect we’re using the wrong instrument entirely. Some emotions don’t bear close examination; feelings are rarely rational. In which case, where does that leave us then? Right back where we started, of course. In a bus shelter praying that the 504 bus never ever comes to interrupt this sweetest of moments.

Nearly twenty years later I met Francesca Bugini again. She was walking out of McDonald’s looking harassed and clutching the hands of two whining children; I was walking into McDonald’s looking equally harassed and clutching the hands of two other whining children. I’d put on a few kilos and lost a lot of hair; she looked heavy-limbed and her beautiful long black hair had wound up on some hair salon floor. We stared at each for a moment but neither of us stopped to speak, what with the whining children and all. But I’m sure it was her.












“Can we go to the Easter Show, Daddy?”

No one says that to me anymore. And no one will ever again. Which is kind of sad. You know, I never thought I’d miss it. There was a time in my life when I looked forward with relish to the day when the whole Easter Show shenanigans would be consigned to the garbage can of family history along with weekend sport at the crack of dawn, endless rounds of kids’ birthday parties and the transporting of sundry offspring to a mind-boggling array of after-school activities. And then, quite suddenly, or so it seems now in rheumy-eyed retrospect, the whole merry-go-round came to an abrupt halt and everybody rushed off to find more challenging entertainments.

The Easter Show is a family rite of passage for every Sydney parent and child. It comprises of an agricultural show, an amusement park and a fair. For two weeks the farmers come to Sydney and those two ancient antagonists, country and city, pretend to get along and even sort of quite like each other on the strict proviso that the traditional antipathy will resume after the fortnight. Essentially it’s a showcase for the agricultural industry to promote its products and an opportunity for city kids to pat a cow. Behind all the backslapping and bonhomie lies the usual human obsession with comparing and competing. Preened and cosseted pedigree livestock parade the arena for the ultimate accolade of a First Place at the Show; abnormally curvaceous pumpkins are pitted against each other in the vegetable equivalent of the Miss Universe beauty pageant and members of the Country Women’s Association go head to head in no-holds-barred contests in cake baking. It’s all very serious and gladiatorial; a whole lot of metaphorical and not-so-metaphorical blood, sweat and tears are shed over the awarding of certificates and prize ribbons.

But of course the Easter Show is not merely dedicated to the proposition that my organic heritage cucumber is longer and more voluptuous than yours. Around this unwholesome competition in wholesome foods has grown a children’s paradise of amusement rides, sideshow alley stands and sample Show bags full of junk that kids don’t need and can’t afford to buy unless they happen to be Richie Rich. A giant pavilion is dedicated to these Show bag stands; its wide, welcoming doors are conveniently located down the boulevard of broken dreams where a tidal wave of determined kids dragging their unhappy parents behind them are flooding in whilst doughty bands of determined parents dragging their unhappy kids behind them are staging a desperate bid to get out.

Anyway, what I thought we might do today, you and I, is take the kids to the Easter Show one more time. Just for old time’s sake. Not in real life, of course – I mean, good God, who does anything in real life anymore? – but just as a sort of virtual trip in our minds, all from the comfort of our various digital devices and wherever we happen to be on the planet or (let’s be optimistically inclusive) the surrounding galaxies. So then, let’s get a move on, shall we? Don’t forget your virtual coat and, maybe, a virtual hat. Sydney autumns definitely seem to be getting cooler. Virtually speaking.

We herd our brood into the car and set off for the Sydney Show Ground. The children are full of joie de vivre; only they don’t know it as they are not as effortlessly au fait with fancy French expressions as their pretentious parents. Pretty soon the energy level in the back seat is bordering on hysterical and we have to pull over when the youngest member of the party has to urgently empty his bladder due to all the excitement. This will be the prevailing theme of the day: toilets. Where to find them? Are they in hygienic condition? Do we have to queue? And what is it with children’s bladders, anyway? Why can’t they store up the urine for a couple of hours like the rest of us? Before this day is done it will begin to seem as if a decent public toilet for our borderline incontinent kids is all we have ever wanted out of life.

O.k. so now the traffic is getting heavier. This will trigger the usual argument we have every single time we go to the Easter Show. Why didn’t we use public transport? What on Earth is wrong with us? Why did we jump into the car and inflict gridlock hell on ourselves just as we did the previous year and the one before that? Pretty soon it is bumper to bumper and all the cars around us are filled with grim-looking adults chauffeuring children all of whom are caroming off car ceilings, bouncing against car windows and beating each other dementedly with soft toys. This is what happens when parents insist on entombing children in a tin shell for more than an hour at a time – sweet little angels metamorphose into gremlins whose superpower is attention deficit disorder.

An hour later we abandon the car with a mixture of defiance and desperation beside a no parking sign two kilometeres away from the Show Ground and begin The Long March to the entrance. By the time we walk through the turnstiles the children are looking sweaty and exhausted; and, truth to tell, we don’t look much better. The first exhibit we feel like visiting is the first aid tent to seek treatment for dehydration. Damn, it’s hot. Unseasonably hot for a Sydney autumn. I know exactly what you’re thinking: why were you stupid enough to listen to me when I suggested you bring that damned virtual coat and matching virtual hat, currently hanging off your arm like an albatross? Hmm, good question. You’ll thank me in the unlikely event the temperature drops precipitously over the next couple of hours.

Miraculously, the sights and smells of the Show seem to revive the children. Adults are in the minority here and this bestows upon the kids a kind of empowerment. Swept along by the prepubescent zeitgeist our timid objections are swiftly overturned and a junk food orgy ensues. They gorge on scary-looking hot dogs, clouds of violent pink fairy floss, greasy French fries and the sort of soft-serve ice cream that looks as if it is made with non-dairy ingredients whipped up in a petrochemical plant. It all tastes pretty good though, according to the kids, and taste is what it’s all about in an amusement park, right?

And then they want to try the rides. Not just any rides, of course. They want to go on the most stomach-turning, gravity-defying death capsule ever to screech upside down on rickety rails. Our youngest, a sweet little fellow barely out of diapers, stages a tantrum when we refuse to let him ride on some macabre contraption going by the name of Buried Alive that purports to be a motion simulator which simulates, logically enough, being buried alive. This is what passes for fun these days. If their lives aren’t under serious threat the kids feel like demanding their money back.

O.k. things are getting out of control here. The time has come to assert parental authority. We explain to our progeny that we are disinclined to pay for the privilege of watching them throw up in a vehicle hurtling hither and thither in the stratosphere. This seems to surprise them. We firmly lead the them to a traditional merry-go-round with appealing horses that go up and down whilst the children hold on to candy striped poles. How lovely they look. How lovely we look looking lovingly on at how lovely they look. It is, needless to say (but I will anyway), an idyllically lovely tableau. Let us take a mental snapshot for our virtual family album and entitle it “What We Did On Our Holidays.”

A few minutes later the attendant stops the merry-go-round because one of the fruits of our loins has thrown up over the appealing horse and candy stripe pole. In fact, he is still throwing up as we lead him off the merry-go-round. Such a lot of vomit. And colourful, too. Quite mesmerising. Not to be outdone, our other child is turning what nowadays would be described as a Shrek shade of green and is clutching his stomach. Oops. Look out. Here it comes, another river of technicolor vomit to match if not exceed the best efforts of his older brother. Oh well, better out than in. They both look at us accusingly. Their eyes are saying, “Why did you let us eat all that appalling food? And why did you make us go round and round in nauseating circles on that murderous merry-go-round? Aren’t you supposed to be responsible adults? What are you trying to do, kill us?” It is a low moment in parent-child relations.

Desperately casting about for a distraction we take them to the show bag pavilion. It is a gaudy temple to juvenile consumerism. There are literally hundreds of bags for sale in here but one and only one is going to be acclaimed by Sydney’s children as the must-have show bag of the year. This will be due to some plastic toy that would be totally overlooked by an adult. It could be a pair of ninja turtle handcuffs or a headband with wiggly extra-terrestrial ears or a cap with luminous antenna attached. It is impossible to tell. These decisions are made in the mass subconscious of our children. But it is certain that if our children do not purchase the right show bag there will be no turning back. This is a once a year deal. Get it wrong and we will have to live with our mistake for, I don’t know, maybe the rest of our pointless, blighted lives. Yep, that’s how high the stakes are here. We will have to put up with our child’s inconsolable grief because he is the only child in Class Three Blue who does not own a pair of Easter Show hot pink neon sunglasses that glow in the dark. No wonder all the adults in the show bag pavilion look so tense.

No Show experience is complete without a visit to the animal exhibits. This is where we get to stroll amongst the country visitors chewing on a strand of straw and passing knowledgeable comments on the prize bulls. The scrotal size of these beasts has to be seen to be believed. We’re talking cannonball dimensions. God knows how they manage to reproduce without doing themselves or some hapless female of their species an injury. The children are a little shocked. They may require counselling. A prize bull’s ballocks are a far cry from the gentle reproduction cycles of the birds and the bees in the picture books we have at home. Best to move the children along to the milking cows before the awkward questions get out of hand. Inevitably, it is the prodigious peeing and crapping that catches the children’s eye. They are fascinated at the casual voiding of bovine bowels and the resultant great, steaming piles of turds. Due to our brutal and repressive toilet training techniques it hasn’t occurred to them up till now that al fresco bowel movements are, like, an option. This changes everything, particularly for the youngest. It will take us weeks to break him of the newfound habit of taking a dump in the garden and peeing insouciantly over the flowerbeds.

And now, all too soon for the children and not too soon enough for us, it is time to leave the Show and make the reverse Long March back to our car, always supposing it will not have been towed away by the authorities in the meantime. And as we battle through the traffic snarl of homeward-bound families the usual curious phenomenon begins; already we find ourselves busily snipping out the bad bits, discreetly dropping them on the cutting-room floor until all that is left is a neatly edited highlight memories package of another wonderful family visit to the Sydney Easter Show. Thank you for taking this virtual trip with me. Let’s do it again some time. How about next Easter? Same virtual time, same virtual place. Perhaps it might be a good idea not to bring the virtual coat and hat next year.










To tell the truth, back in my pimple-encrusted adolescence I was more like an 87-pound weakling. Maybe less. Which was doubly humiliating because according to my childhood mentor, legendary American body builder Charles Atlas, it was generally recognised that the industry standard for weaklings should be set at 97-pounds. In the weakling department, therefore, I was in a class of my own.

I first encountered the legendary Charles Atlas, self-styled “world’s most perfectly developed body” some time in the mid-nineteen sixties. At the time he was a fixture on the back pages of the British comics I used to read regularly. He would grin back at me from grainy photographs featuring a backdrop of some exotic beachside locale. The backdrops always made a big impression. We lived in Glasgow at the time and pictures of sand and surf tended to inspire an almost religious awe.

This was shrewd marketing on Charles’ part. The Charles Atlas ads tapped intravenously into the very heart of my generation’s aspirations. He understood us better than we understood ourselves. We craved sunshine. We dreamed about palm-fronded beaches. We were pale, skinny, spotty-faced sun-worshippers condemned to endure a sunless existence. As a consequence our bodies had failed to emerge from the maggoty larvae stage and malingered shamefully at the 97-pound point of our life cycle. Or 87-pounds, in my particular case.

Charles’ advertisements deftly summed up everything I wanted to be, everything I manifestly wasn’t. The ads featured the classic cartoon illustration of a skinny, bespectacled youth suffering the ultimate humiliation – yes, the old sand kicked in the face routine. Hovering over the weedy kid with the concave chest was the archetypal muscle-bound bully taunting me – did I say me? I meant of course him, the bespectacled weakling – with a maddening sneer. Completing the tableau there would of course be a bevy of bikini-clad females looking on piteously and thereby making my – that is, the weakling’s – humiliation complete.

And then, the killer punch line: a photograph of an avuncular Charles Atlas hovered above the cartoon asking the very questions that tormented my soul by day and by night:

“Tired of having sand kicked in your face?”


“Ashamed of being an insult to manhood?”

“Sick of being Soft, Frail, Skinny or Flabby?”

Tick, tick, tick, tick.

Of course, in reality no one had ever actually kicked sand in my face; I don’t think I’d even seen any sand at that point in my life; but I just instinctively knew that if the opportunity to attend a beach ever presented itself in the future, sure enough, some muscle-bound jerk would promptly materialize before my face and kick sand into it.

Boy, that Charles Atlas, he really knew how to get to the heart of the matter. It was as if he had read my tortured, angst-ridden adolescent mind. And, in a way, he had. For Charles had been there, too, down amongst the myopic, emaciated losers, or so he revealed in his bracingly frank tell-all advertising copy. He himself had once been a “pathetic 97-pound runt”, a “skinny failure” and – oh the bile and bitter humiliation – a “wallflower”. Hey Charles Atlas, I would have said to him – had he by some miracle of teleportation materialized in the living room of our dingy Glasgow tenement – don’t be so damned hard on yourself.

So you see, he had felt my pain. We had a connection. Which was a bit of a miracle when you think about it. I mean, there was the age difference for a start. Judging from the photo, Charles looked to be around forty albeit a vigorous and virile sort of forty. I, on the other hand, was thirteen years old and by no stretch of the imagination could I have been considered a vigorous and virile thirteen. Myopia, laziness and a phobia of contact sports had conspired to deprive me of any glory on the sporting fields or indeed anywhere else. So then, definitely not a good thirteen. In fact, to be ruthlessly accurate, you would have to say I was like a thirteen year old trapped inside the body of a feeble eleven year old. The babushka doll of weaklings.

Then of course there was the issue of the Charles Atlas underwear. I believe the accurate name for them would be briefs. They were short; they were tight; occasionally they were leopard skin. Charles was inordinately fond of the briefs, insisting on wearing them to the exclusion of any other form of clothing. This was fine on the beach, obviously, but Charles seemed set on making a dress code out of a fabric scrap scarcely larger than his groin circumference. With a body like that, he could have cut a swathe through Madison Avenue in a grey flannel three piece suit, but no, Charles would have none of it. It was to be the briefs or nothing (I believe he did a stint of nude art class modelling in his youth). I will confess that the briefs caused me to have my doubts about Charles early on in our association. My main objection was to the flaunting of the privates, the tool kit, the family jewels, (insert own euphemism). The Charles Atlas briefs accommodated a prominent bulge that looked very much as if he might be concealing an oversized banana about his person. Disporting himself in his underpants in the back pages of comics, well, it was all a little racy for my puritan tastes of the time.

There was also the peculiar case of the unnatural skin. On the black and white page, Charles’ skin was possessed of a strange sheen; it appeared to glow eerily as if exhibiting the after-effects of some form of radioactive exposure. It just didn’t look right. One day I realised that the condition Charles had contracted was what the rest of humanity outside of Scotland called a ‘suntan’. In my defence, the thirteen-year old Glaswegian version of me had seen little of that particular dermatological condition. A suntan as in, like, from the rays of the sun? Good God, who knew such things were possible?

Despite our glaring differences vis-a-vis groin flaunting and radioactive skin, Charles Atlas had stumbled upon a central image that crossed the barriers of age, dress and geography. Every adolescent in the country understood skinny, underdeveloped bodies. A whole generation of moderately undernourished British kids reared on fish suppers, egg and chips, potato crisps and sweets could look at that cartoon and identify with the gaunt little wimp in the National Health spectacles staring forlornly into the mirror. Charles even helpfully provided a checklist of body parts so that we could tick those areas requiring the most emphasis. Did we want a) broader chest and shoulders, b) iron-hard stomach muscles, c) tireless legs, d) more energy and stamina e) more magnetic personality.

It was a case of ticking every box and sending off my money order to 10 Chitty Street, London W1. Over the course of the next twelve months I received thirteen Charles Atlas Health And Strength lessons, every one of which I treated with reverence, as if it had been a tablet of Mosaic law handed down from on high.

The essence of the Charles Atlas program revolved around what Charles was wont to call “the secrets of dynamic tension”, a technique that allegedly came to him out of the blue whilst observing a leopard stretching itself at the local zoo. Personally I don’t believe a word of it. Sounds like advertising copy hooey to me. But at the time, to a thirteen year old, it all made perfect sense. Every superhero must have his moment of epiphany, the turning point after which nothing in his life will ever be the same again. If Charles had been a comic character he would have called himself The Leopard or maybe Claw or Cat-man and there would be much leaping from tall buildings clad in leopard skin briefs with maybe the face-saving addition of a pair of lycra tights and a cloak, for decency’s sake.

Charles’ “secret” comprised of pitting one muscle against the other as well as variations of push ups and sit ups. Basically, then, a set of exercises that could be done on the cheap without expensive equipment and in the comfort of one’s own tenement slum. As such, it had much to recommend it to the average Glaswegian runt. Of course, there were teething problems. I wonder whether Charles anticipated the horror with which Scottish youth would have greeted his instruction to strip down to underpants in order to perform the exercises. We just didn’t do that sort of thing all that often, particularly in the depths of a Scottish winter. I imagine Charles worked out in a sunlit bungalow where an individual might go for years without sighting a beard of frost attached to a membrum virile (once again, insert your own euphemism), and where thermal long johns were largely unknown outside the circles of Florida retirees of a certain age. I wrote to Charles at length on this matter citing the risk of frostbite and pneumonia to dangerously under-dressed Scottish adolescents but no reply was forthcoming. I took this to be a sign from the guru to his acolyte that I should stop whining, man the hell up and learn to love my y-front briefs.

As the lessons arrived, roughly on a monthly basis, a pattern emerged, a profile of Charles Atlas and the values he held dear. He took a strong stand on drugs. The use of tea especially seemed to enrage him. Charles never mentioned cocaine or pill popping, but he did warn us repeatedly against the evils of tea. Who knows, perhaps this goes some way to explaining why there are so many coke-snorting, amphetimine-fueled, fitness fanatics around who wouldn’t be caught dead drinking tea. I struggled with the tea issue. I imagine most of Charles’ British students did the same. Coming off a lifetime habit was never going to be easy. And yet Charles would not budge on this, once more not deigning to reply to my frantic letters on the subject. His only suggestion in the lessons was to replace the morning tea ritual with a glass of hot orange cordial. And so, thanks to Charles Atlas, I learned that there are few beverages more unspeakable than hot orange cordial. I still gag a little when I think about the taste.

On the other hand, Charles was hugely enthusiastic about milk, perhaps recklessly so. We were expected to drink a glass of the stuff each hour of each day for a week; but wait, there’s more; the following week we had to increase this to a glass of the wretched cow juice every three quarters of an hour every day for a week; but wait, there’s still more; during the third week we were instructed to up the ante to a glass of milk every half an hour of every day for the week. Just to sum up, then, drink four hundred and eighty glasses or so of milk over three weeks. Presumably the diet ends here because most of the students have to seek hospitalisation. And God help the lactose intolerance brigade, for I suspect Charles would have slapped the snivelling wretches down with a stern admonition to man the hell up.

When Charles wasn’t busy trying to hook his students onto an intravenous milk drip he would wax lyrical on another of his passions – the application of a wondrous liquid guaranteed to cure a comprehensive list of the world’s ills. We speak here of olive oil. Olive oil, Charles? What, you mean, like the salad dressing? I never quite understood this peculiar obsession until I recently discovered that the real name of the man I knew as Charles Atlas was actually Angelo Siciliano. Now it all makes sense. Who else but an Italian olive fanatic would seriously encourage young people to drink a glass of olive oil every day, rub copious quantities into the hair to stimulate the scalp and even inject it into the rectum before an enema (outlined rather messily in Lesson Three).

But I think my faith in Charles was most seriously undermined by his attitude to women. Even an 87-pound runt could see that my milk-guzzling, oil-smearing mentor was a tad out of step with the Swinging Sixties raging around us. He subscribed to a morality just left of the early church fathers from Saint Augustine onwards in that he did at least draw just short of blaming women for all carnal temptation. That is, I think he did. I can say with certainty that he was a great believer in cold baths in the morning, hard beds and early rising, all of which were designed, one gathers, to prevent us from succumbing to the demeaning temptation of self-pleasuring. I can also say with equal certainty that none of these measures worked. At thirteen, self-pleasuring was high on my agenda and, indeed, I would have had no hesitation in giving it priority in any list of the seven habits of highly effective teens, such was my dedication at the time.

At no stage in the thirteen lessons did Charles mention women directly but one was left with the unmistakable impression that the female of the species represented a distraction from the real centre of attraction in the world according to Charles Atlas – one’s own endlessly fascinating physique. Like all body-builders Charles must have been self-absorbed to an extraordinary degree in order to achieve such physical development. That, after all, is the name of the game. Little wonder, then, that his lesson program espoused a way of life leaving no room for any other obsessions. In his private life, I later learned, Charles was happily married and devoted to his wife. I just wonder how he found the time in between the exercising and drinking all that milk.

Charles Atlas drifted out of my life in the late 1960s when I began to realise that his Spartan regimen belonged to a different era than my own. Possibly it was the olive oil enemas. Or maybe the prudish allusions to the sins of the flesh and that vile devil’s brew lurking in a teapot. The briefs didn’t help either; definitely not what they were wearing in San Francisco during the Summer Of Love, 1967. In fact, Charles was even more out of step with the zeitgeist than I knew. Those grainy advertisement photos of a beaming forty-year-old man were deceptive. Angelo Siciliano was born in 1893 and would have been in his seventies when I subscribed to his health and strength program. So then, he wasn’t even a father figure. More like a grandfather, actually. He died in 1972 at the age of seventy-nine, not that old for such a relentlessly healthy exercise enthusiast. I still have all the lessons. Now that I live in Australia I go to the beach a lot and I can testify with every confidence that the Charles Atlas health and strength program absolutely works – over the last forty years or so not a single muscle-bound bully has kicked sand in my face or attempted to humiliate me in front of anyone clad in a bikini.