The Great Climate-Change Challenge

Long, long ago when the world was new, life of any kind was impossible. The air was full of carbon dioxide and it had no oxygen at all. It stayed that way for two billion years.

Then an extraordinary thing happened. It was the sort of thing that could only happen once in a billion years or so. Somewhere in that great soup of chemicals forming, disintegrating and reforming, something came together in such a way that it was able to reproduce itself. It was blue-green algae. These algae were able to grow, and as they grew they gave off oxygen.

Now some tiny sea plants could grow. They took in carbon dioxide from the air, held onto the carbon and gave off more oxygen.

Over the next billion years, more and more plants were able to grow, and eventually some sea creatures appeared. When they died their skeletons fell to the sea bed, taking the carbon in them with them.

So gradually, while the air filled up with oxygen, it held less and less carbon dioxide.         Later, when plants died they fell into the earth and got compressed into coal and oil, locking in even more carbon. Eventually, there was only a tiny amount of carbon dioxide left in the air, which was just the right amount for plants and animals to flourish.

Over the next billion years the world, and the plants and animals in it, gradually adjusted to each other, and for many millions of years after that, they lived in harmony with the environment. During the day plants took in carbon dioxide and gave out oxygen. At night, they did the opposite, and so did animals. And when things died, they gave out carbon dioxide too. In this way, everything balanced perfectly.

And then came humans. Humans were not content just to live in harmony with their environment. They wanted more, and as they were very clever they soon learned how to get it. At first they caused no trouble. They killed a lot of animals and caused some to go extinct, and they burned wood-fires, but these things didn’t upset the environment very much. The carbon released from burning wood was soon trapped again by living plants. Dead wood released carbon dioxide anyway.

But then humans became too clever for their own good. They invented machines to make life easier for themselves, and to make nice things. They became greedy and lazy, and they wanted more and more nice things, and more and more machines to make life easy.

These machines needed energy. At first they used the power of nature. They invented windmills and water wheels and used horses to travel. But the humans wanted bigger and better machines and they needed more energy. Then someone found the coal and oil in the ground, and they discovered that burning them gave a huge amount of energy.

With all this wonderful coal and oil, humans could make even more and even bigger machines to give themselves more and more nice things. They invented trains and cars and aeroplanes and spaceships. And they could heat their houses with coal and oil too. And the more humans realised they could have, the more they wanted, the more they gave themselves, and the more coal and oil they burned to get these things.

But there was a problem with coal and oil. The carbon inside them had been trapped down in the ground for 300 million years and it was not part of the natural carbon- oxygen cycle that life had evolved to depend on. Now a whole lot more carbon was being pumped into the air and it was upsetting the balance.

Scientists explained it to the other humans. The extra carbon dioxide was trapping the sun’s heat and warming up the world. It would melt ice and cause the sea-level to rise. There would be floods. And it would change the weather. Some places would get much hotter weather, some places would get colder. The rain would fall much more heavily sometimes, and sometimes there would be long dry spells. It would be more difficult to grow food. And if they didn’t stop burning coal and oil it would get worse and worse. The scientists also told them they should stop breeding cattle too, because they pumped out methane which was an even worse greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

At first, the humans wouldn’t believe this. ‘You can’t prove it,’ they told the scientists.               It’s not true,’ some of them even said, if one day happened to be cold.

‘I’m not giving up my lifestyle, unless everybody else does,’ many of the humans said.

So they carried on enjoying themselves, driving around in big cars, flying thousands of miles in aeroplanes, buying things and heating their houses, all of which burned lots of coal and oil.  They kept all their cows, too. And the problem got worse and worse.

But soon they saw the effects. Some places got very fierce heat-waves and thousands of humans died. Some places got droughts and they ran out of water. Other places got too much rain and they flooded. More and more places got hurricanes which blew houses away.

And eventually the humans realised that they would have to do something about it, or the world would be in an even worse state when their children grew up. They would have to stop burning coal and oil. They would have to stop driving big cars and flying all over the world in aeroplanes. They would have to stop buying things they didn’t need. They would have to find other ways of making energy, and ways of using less energy. And they would have to stop eating beef.

And they did. They gave up driving everywhere in cars and started walking or cycling. Or they took the bus instead. They stopped flying great distances in aeroplanes and took their holidays closer to home, and when they wanted to speak to other humans far away they phoned or emailed, instead of visiting. They stopped eating beef and kept only a very few cows.

They all worked together on this great challenge. They helped one another to insulate all their houses. They put off-shore windmills all round the coast. They put solar panels on everybody’s roof. And they fed whatever extra energy they made into the electricity grid. They covered huge fields and deserts with solar panels. They tapped into the heat deep underground. And they used all this new clean energy instead of coal and oil.

At first all these efforts didn’t seem to do any good. The problems with the weather didn’t go away. The humans began to think their work was all for nothing. But the scientists reminded people that they had to be patient. And so they carried on.

Then one day, the scientists declared that the amount of carbon in the atmosphere had gone back to normal and that they could hope the climate problems would go away. The humans waited and waited. They waited a very long time, and there were still lots of problems with the weather. ‘But at least it isn’t getting any worse,’ they said to one another.

Then after some years, the humans started noticing that they hadn’t had any severe hot spells, or long, long droughts, or disastrous hurricanes for a long time.

‘Perhaps we’ve fixed the climate problem, then,’ some said.

‘Perhaps we have,’ replied others.

And everyone smiled in relief and hugged one another. They felt so proud. They had worried they would be leaving their children with a damaged world, but now they dared to hope that they had fixed it, after all.

And the humans noticed that their new environment was cleaner, quieter and safer than it had been for a long time, and they liked it very much and wanted to keep it that way. And so they did.

The humans had been confronted with an enormous problem but they had faced up to it and solve it. It went down in history as The Great Climate Change Challenge of the 21st Century. It reminded their descendants of the catastrophe that nearly happened. And so they remembered to live in harmony with their environment, and for as long as they did, humans survived and thrived.

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Family Christmas

Lily felt exhausted but relieved. She had managed to get everything done. She was glad she had spent the extra money on the tree and decorations. The room looked warm, elegant and dignified. The presents had been lovingly wrapped in expensive but tasteful paper, tied with satin ribbons and placed under the tree. Seven hand-knitted stockings graced the mantelpiece. Her grandchildren would have stockings at their own homes in the morning, but she liked to indulge them. She hoped her stockings would give the children a quality experience:  handcrafted knickknacks, St Nicholas figures of superior chocolate and homemade confectionaries.
She now felt able to cope with tomorrow’s meal. Everything that could be prepared beforehand had been completed, and the menu would hopefully meet expectations. Traditional fare, but she strove for the highest quality.
The drinks cupboard was full, with prestigious labels that she knew her family would appreciate. And she had treated herself to a red cashmere dress. Having the family all together was an occasion to celebrate.

Joe was exhausted too. He’d been at Lily’s beck and call all day, as she fussed and fretted. It seemed she had been preparing for Christmas for months, especially if you counted all the knitting and sewing. And the money that she’d spent! She always shopped in the poshest shops. What was wrong with Woolworths? He’d been totting up the bills and it had appalled him. It got more every year. Not that any of those kids would appreciate it. They didn’t know the value of anything. They were spoilt brats, in his opinion. Not that anyone ever asked him his opinion.

Roz was the first to arrive at her parents’ house on Christmas morning. She looked forward to the family get-together. Newly single again, she was keen to reconnect with the brothers and sisters she had hardly known since they were all teenagers. She greeted her parents warmly then put her presents under the tree. Carefully chosen books for the children had been hastily wrapped in paper salvaged from last Christmas. They looked shabby beside Lily’s works of art, but that wasn’t the point. Next to them she placed envelopes addressed to each adult. They contained Oxfam Unwrapped cards announcing that a goat, mosquito-net or water-collector had been bought on their behalf for people who needed them.
Roz went into the dining-room. It was an impressive sight. Twelve chairs had been squeezed round a table covered in white linen. The centerpiece was beautiful: a wreath of conifers, holly, berries, mandarins, and candles encircled a cascade of grapes over crystal.  Twelve places sparkled and glowed with crystal glasses, the best silver and china, crackers and artistically-folded linen napkins. Twelve: that was Lily and Joe, herself, Amanda, Gary and their two boys, and Roland, Vera and their four children. Fred and Sue and baby Sally were spending the day at Sue’s parents’ and would not be there until evening.
Roz joined Lily in the kitchen. ‘Beautiful table, Mum!’
‘I’ve been up since dawn. There’s so much to do!’
‘Don’t worry, Mum.’ Roz picked up a bag of potatoes and a peeler and went into the living-room where her father was dosing in front of the Queen’s speech.
‘You’ll help, won’t you, Dad?’
‘I suppose I’ll have to,’ sighed Joe.

When the doorbell rang at noon, the meal was ready. Roland, Vera, Wexford, Weasley, Chelsea and Britney had arrived. Exchanges of ‘Merry Christmas’ and ‘Was Santa Claus good to you?’ ensued, then Lily rushed upstairs to change out of her apron and old clothes.

As soon as the children saw the presents they darted towards them.
‘Wait!’ called out Roz. ‘We should wait until everyone’s here.’
‘You won’t be able to stop kids from opening their presents,’ said Joe.
He was right. They were already tearing into the parcels. The books from Roz were tossed aside, as were the hand-knitted pullovers. They, like their predecessors, would never be worn because they were itchy. The big presents which they had requested were better received. At least, Chelsea’s Barbie Beauty Studio and Weasley’s Roadster 4×4 were. But Wexford already had that particular Starwars Transformer set and there were no batteries for Britney’s three-foot-tall singing doll.
‘What a stroke of luck!’ Roz whispered to their parents, but they didn’t see the joke.

Upstairs, Lily was having second thoughts about the red dress. It was too risqué, she decided, and hurriedly put her old clothes and apron back on and went downstairs.
But she had missed the presents-opening. The tasteful wrappings now lay in tatters and the children were guzzling their chocolate St Nicholas figures. She hoped they appreciated the superior chocolate, but their expressions gave no clues.

Amanda tried not to feel miserable as she sat at home with her coat on, waiting for Gary to come back from his ‘quick one’. He and the boys had spent the morning trying to get their new games software to work, finally losing their tempers. Amanda had bought the wrong version. Damien and Darren were now sulking in their rooms and Gary had gone to the pub. That had been two hours ago.
She hoped it would not be difficult to get a taxi to her parents’. The family car was out of action, having been in an accident on its way back from the pub one evening. Gary still had his Alfa Romeo but the two-seater was no good for the four of them.

Vera frowned at the Oxfam card announcing she had been given a goat. ‘Thanks,’ she said, and put it under her chair.
‘How about some drinks?’ said Lily.
‘Cup of tea, please,’ said Vera.
‘Wouldn’t you like a sherry, or a G&T? How about a whisky, Roland?’
‘No, a cup of tea would be nice, love,’ said Vera.
‘Look,’ said Roz, ‘we’re going to eat very soon. I think Mum means an aperitif.’
‘Just put a teabag in a cup. That’s fine,’ replied Vera.
‘All right,’ said Lily. ‘Does anyone else want tea?’
‘Yeah, me,’ said Joe.
Roland scratched his head and said nothing.
‘I’ll make a pot, then.’
When Lily returned with a tea tray, Roz refused a cup. ‘I’ll have a sherry,’ she said, and poured herself a large one.

At four o’clock Amanda, Gary and the boys had still not come. Everything had been turned off in the kitchen to prevent it drying up. Roz kept stirring the cranberry sauce. She had made an effort to source fair-trade, organic cranberries and Lily’s recipe had been quite tricky. It would be a shame to ruin it.
‘It’s a good job we had that cup of tea, after all, then,’ said Vera, ‘having to wait so long.’
Finally, the doorbell rang.
‘Where have you been?’
‘We couldn’t get a taxi.’
‘You should’ve  rung. I would’ve picked you up.’
‘No credit on our mobiles,’ Amanda sniffed. She looked close to tears.

‘Let’s have some light on the subject,’ said Joe, letting an overhead 100W lightbulb flood Lily’s romantic candlelight.
‘Just start,’ he said, when everyone had sat down and been served, except for those doing the serving.
‘Let’s wait for Mum and Amanda,’ said Roz, sitting down. The others ignored her and were almost finished their main course when Lily came through with her own plate.
‘Sit down, Mum,’ said Roz. ‘Won’t anyone try the cranberry sauce?’
‘No thanks. Looks like jam.’
‘Mum, I want ketchup,’ said Weasley to Vera.
‘Just eat it!’ replied Vera.
‘Of course you do,’ said Lily, and went to fetch ketchup.
‘Lily, bring the sugar,’ said Joe, sipping the 1996 Chablis. ‘This wine’s too sour for me. Sugar, anybody?’
‘Certainly not!’ said Roz, sipping hers. ‘Well chosen, Mum. Why don’t you sit down?’ Then she noticed. ‘Mum, there’s no place for you!’
‘She’s superstitious. She didn’t want thirteen at the table,’ said Joe.
‘I’m alright standing.’
‘There’s fourteen of us,’ Damien pointed out. Britney’s singing doll was on her lap.
‘Here, you can have my seat,’ said Gary. ‘I’m going out for a smoke.’
‘Aren’t you staying for the pudding?’
Amanda looked dismayed. Gary would go to the pub.
‘Nah, hate Christmas pudding.’
‘Let’s get on with the pudding, Lily, or we’ll miss the start of the James Bond,’ said Joe.
‘How about Coronation Street?’ asked Vera.
No-one answered her.

Roz’s irritation mounted as she scraped the children’s Christmas dinner into the bin.
‘Have you noticed,’ she said, ‘That all the men are watching TV while all the women are doing the clearing up?’
‘You go and watch TV, too, dear. We’ll manage,’ said Lily as she poured beer for the boys.
‘No. I hate James Bond!’
‘Then there’s no problem, then, is there?’ said Amanda.
‘But it’s the principle. I mean, why should we play servant to those slobs?’
‘It’s Christmas, Roz. Don’t make a fuss. This is not the time…’
‘No, it’s never the right time to make a fuss, is it?’ Roz’s voice was getting louder.
‘I never let Roland into the kitchen,’ said Vera. ‘That’s the woman’s place, isn’t it, Lily?’
Roz stormed into the living room. ‘Washing-up is not a gender-specific task, you know. It’s supposed to be a holiday for women, too. You men have equal responsibility!’
Lily gave Roz an imploring look as she turned back into the kitchen, slamming the door behind her.
Then it opened again and Gary emerged.
‘Ooh, I’ve spent a whole five minutes slaving over a hot dishwasher and I never get any thanks…’
Roz allowed herself to laugh. Despite his mocking tone, he was at least coming in to help.
But she was wrong. Gary had merely picked up a beer and gone back into the living room.
‘Bastard!’ She slammed the door after him, letting a crystal glass slip from her tea-towel. It smashed on the floor.
‘Oh! I’m sorry, Mum, I didn’t mean it.’
‘Not to worry, these things happen,’ grimaced Lily. ‘Just go and sit down.’
‘Allow me.’ Her big brother was right behind her with brush and dustpan. Roland! So solid and dependable!

When James Bond was finished Roz said, ‘Let’s play charades.’
‘Count me out,’ said Joe. ‘I’m watching Bruce Forsythe.’
‘OK, I’m a book,’ said Roz. She stood up and starting miming.
‘Mum, what’s she doing?’ asked Weasley.
‘I never read books,’ said Vera.
‘Er, I can’t think of any books,’ said Amanda, turning towards the television.
Roz sat down. She closed her eyes, listened for a minute to the cacophony of bleeping, whirring, tinny robot voices, quarrelling children and Bruce Forsythe, then went to wash the beer glasses.

The cacophony built itself up to a crescendo as the children became increasingly whingier, until batteries ran out and Roland and Vera packed their four off home.

It became almost peaceful as the family fell asleep in front of the television.
Then the doorbell rang. It was Fred, Sue and baby Sally.
‘Oh, is it that time already? Come in! Merry Christmas! Was Santa good to you? Is she not tired? What did you say? Switch the TV off, Joe.’
‘She’s had a sleep. Oh, look! Granny has a present for you!’
Sue sat Sally down on the floor and put Granny’s beautifully-wrapped present in front of her. Sally fingered it delicately. She gave the satin ribbon a little tug. With much encouragement, the baby slowy tore the wrappings until something furry revealed itself. Sally’s eyes sparkled as she gently pulled out a teddy bear.
All eyes were focused on this delighted and delightful child. It was a moment to remember. Wasn’t this what Christmas was all about?

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Satan’s Daughter

I am a God-fearing man who has always led a pure and simple life. My parents, who were old-school Baptists, gave me a sheltered upbringing. We had no television, nor had I any opportunity to listen to pop-music. I didn’t miss those things and I still don’t.

My parents taught me that sex was solely for the purpose of procreation. Of course, I don’t believe that now, but I do think sex is only appropriate inside a stable, loving relationship. As that has never been granted to me I had, until now, remained celibate.

I live in a bedsit and I never buy anything. I eat only oats and apples, and I drink only water, no tea nor coffee, certainly no alcohol nor any other drugs, absolutely not.

So I need very little money. I earn my living as the church cleaner. It is only a part-time job but I have no guilt about this: it is humble work for a noble cause, and it gives me ample time for my one and only passion: church organ music. I live only for this music of the king of instruments.

I listen to recitals only in Gothic churches, for which this most powerful music was created. Churches built in other styles will not do. Only Gothic churches have the perfection of form; the elegance, the magnificence, the grandeur of space, and, in particular, the height, to match the resounding energy and sheer majesty of this monumental music. Only this kind of construction can do justice to the volume and range of tones of a large organ, allowing the vast output from the instrument to resonate and reverberate in its arches.

But in the very best of these edifices, such as Salisbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and York Minster, a recital of a Bach fugue can have an overwhelming impact. Then the music conveys the glory of God. It stoops down to the depths of my soul and raises it to ecclesiastical heights.

I would not be so arrogant as to suggest that I could be transported to heaven in this way, but I can feel, at least, a kind of spiritual brushing of fingers-tips with the Almighty.

Where I grew up our Baptist church had no organ; there we sang hymns unaccompanied. But when my school took us to a church with an organ, it was love on first hearing. After that I couldn’t get enough of the music. My parents would not have allowed me to attend any church other than their own, and my only opportunity to listen to the organ was to clandestinely slip into a church whenever the organist was practising. It was my guilty secret.

I would have loved to learn to play the instrument, and I did once ask my parents if I could, but they would not consider it. Of course, I have forgiven my parents their denial, and I have shaken off the guilt I once had about hearing the music. To me, it is not an indulgence; it is spiritual nourishment; it brings me closer to God.

When I am not working I travel with my bike and tent to recitals in Gothic churches around the country. Afterwards I like to go into the churchyard, or somewhere quiet enough to continue hearing the music in my head while I admire the architecture externally.

It was after a recital of J.S. Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor in Wells Cathedral that I first saw her. I had gone into the graveyard. Dusk had fallen, but out of the corner of my eye I saw this dark lady slipping between the gravestones. I didn’t pay much attention then. But I saw her again a week later outside Salisbury Cathedral, and again after a recital at York Minster. She was always with one or two others, and she always wore black. She had a mass of dark, frizzy hair, very dark eyes with a curious dark cleft under both, and a jagged scar down the left-hand-side of her face. No two women could have had such distinctive features. I soon grasped I was being followed.

It happened after the recital of J. S. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor in Canterbury Cathedral. On hearing the music I was overcome with passion. The Fugue was still resonating in my head while I walked around in the grounds. Then I saw her again. It was raining and a very dark night but I knew it was the same lady.

She was alone this time. I thought I heard her call me and I moved towards her. I had to talk to her. Why would such a person follow me around all the Gothic churches in the country?
‘Excuse me!’ I called out. ‘Why are you following me around?’
But she only laughed and said, ‘It’s you who are following me around.’
This made me angry. How could she think that!

I stepped forward and suddenly she appeared in front of me. Then I saw her full body. I thought she must be in distress, had been attacked, perhaps, because her stockings, black lacy ones, were laddered, and she was not wearing a skirt, but only a scrap of netting  which hung around her hips, showing the tops of her stockings and her suspenders. She also wore a sort of old-fashioned corset, black, and it was partially unlaced. As I approached I gasped. A miniature dagger pierced her right eyebrow.

Lady,’ I said. Have you been hurt? Can I help you?’
Then she cackled. ‘Oh, yes,’ she said, and her tone was mocking. She was provoking me.
Then I knew I had got it all wrong. This was no damsel in distress. She was a witch. I could see now that she was high on drugs.

She giggled and moved away, weaving in and out between gravestones. Clearly she wanted me to chase her. I went after her because I needed to resolve this. I caught her arm. Now I was able to take a good look at her and I got a shock. This was not the ethereal shadow that had been stalking me on previous occasions. She, I now recalled, had always been slender. But this was a woman of flesh, and plenty of it. I was confused and enraged. How could she have changed? Was she real? Was I dreaming?

‘Who are you?’ I shouted because the organ music was still crashing in my ears and the rain was drumming on the gravestones. It had soaked her hair which now hung in  bedraggled ringlets, arousing me sexually. She was tormenting me.

She heaved up her bosom and her breasts burst out of her corset.
‘I’m Satan’s daughter,’ she said, giggling weirdly.
My suspicions were confirmed. This was no woman of the real world. She had been sent by the devil to tempt me.

I don’t know exactly what happened after that. I was only aware of being overwhelmed with hatred and disgust at this evil creature. Bach’s Fugue was crashing in my ears. It was God’s fury but I was helpless. Satan’s daughter had grabbed me with her black talons and she was having her way with me and still the organ music reverberated around in my head. God was imploring me not to give in. But I was coming and The Devil was winning.

I had to make one final drive. I took Satan’s daughter by the throat and with all my might I thrust her head against the gravestone. Then I came and I was filled with relief. The music died and all went quiet.

I didn’t notice the life-blood drain out of her. She had had a deathly pallor all along, which had helped convince me she was not of this world. I do concede now that it could have been face make-up. I didn’t think of that then. But she had told me she was Satan’s daughter. She was a manifestation of Evil and I was compelled to overcome her. It was God’s command.

You will judge me as you see fit, but whether or not I have sinned, only God will know.

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Sebastian had been dealt four aces: looks, intelligence, personality, and background, by which I mean bank-owning daddy, social know-how, public-school accent, contacts, and the confidence one gets as a bonus along with all that.
Not that I’d had a bum deal. I don’t think I was bad-looking, but I was nothing special; girls never flocked towards me the way they did to him.
It’s not that I wasn’t clever either, otherwise I would not have got into such a prestigious  university, but I knew I could never have got away with Sebastian’s Devil-may-care attitude to learning. My course in engineering was a hard slog, unlike the airy-fairy arts degree he was doing: six lectures a week and one supervision, and just four essays a term. His life was one big long party which he interrupted only when an essay deadline was upon him. Then he’d do a line of Charlie, and scribble furiously for the next twelve hours. Invariably he got an ‘A’ for his meager effort. It was so annoying.
I would have hit the skids if I had led a life as ruinous as his. I couldn’t have afforded it, anyway. My father was an electrician; he rewired council flats. So there was no financial support for me in that direction. I took out a student loan, which had to be paid back, and I had a weekend job to make ends meet. This was maybe just as well; no way could I get smashed out of my skull, as was Sebastian’s usual practice at weekends.

We must have seemed an odd pair. We were poles apart and probably would not normally have met, but we were thrown together in the student hall where we had to share a flat. It is more surprising that we stayed together. Sebastian infuriated me. He was badly-behaved towards everybody, yet he always got away with it. He broke the hearts of many girls. If I had ever treated a girl badly, and I like to think I never did, I knew I would not have seen her again, but Sebastian’s victims always forgave him. His charm won them over every time.
It won me over too. I put up with a lot. You know the kind of thing: vomit all over the floor one day and flowers and apology-notes all round the room the next, or at least a bottle of finest malt. Of course, I was the one who would clean up the vomit, and he was the one who would drink the whisky. But somehow I didn’t mind because despite all his shortcomings, Sebastian was tremendously likeable.
I wished I could have believed that our relationship was symbiotic, that he needed me as much as I needed him, but I knew it wasn’t true. Sebastian didn’t need anybody. He put up with me simply because he didn’t need to get rid of me. He had so much going for him, and he could afford to share it. I basked in his magnanimity.
I daresay it helped that my name was Charlie. He liked to play on the pun: ‘I must introduce you to Charlie.’ or ‘Do you mind if I bring Charlie?’
The flat was a constant fanfare of comings and goings of exuberant friends and gorgeous girls. It gave me a ready-made social life I would not otherwise have had. Music and drugs were 7/24. It required discipline to stay detached. Sure, I had the odd drag on the reefers constantly doing the rounds – well, probably more than the odd one or two, but you lose count after a bit, don’t you?  But I did stay clear of the hard stuff. I knew I could not push my luck that far.
But Sebastian was so robust and resilient; it seemed that nothing could harm him.
It would have been very boring of me to point out that he risked getting an infection from his careless way with needles, so I didn’t. It was the mid-eighties and the warnings about AIDS were already out, but to Sebastian they were scare-stories issued by the government to spoil their fun.
I was more worried about him getting hooked on the heroin, but he insisted he could take it or leave it, and I think he was probably right. Certainly, as the finals approached his preference was for cocaine; the high gave him the means to make up for time wasted. He crammed all his swotting into a few delirious days and came out shining. With a first! I was infuriated because I had slogged long and hard only to get a miserable third. Well, longer and harder than he did, anyway.

Sebastian breezed into a career in television. In no time at all he had his own programme: some banal chat show. I stopped watching it after a few weeks because it was, frankly, boring. Well, I suppose I was envious too.
My own career has been rather less dazzling. Not surprisingly, it took me a long time to find a job after graduating. Of course, I blamed my poor degree on Sebastian; there had never been a minute’s peace in our flat. I do admit now, that it had been within my powers to do things differently.
Seeing Sebastian again gave me a jolt. I was on a bus and he was standing at a stop. I refused to believe it was him at first. He looked so thin, wasted and wretched, and older than his forty years. But our eyes met and I couldn’t deny it. I could have pretended not to recognise him but something made me rise from my seat and get off the bus.
He spoke first. ‘Charlie! It is you, old chap. Even uglier than ever!’
‘I could say the same thing about you,’ I replied, and immediately wished I hadn’t, because it was too true. But our relationship had thrived on insults and I couldn’t do it any other way.
‘Hey, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you on the box for a while, though. Still going strong?’ I cringed as I said it, because he looked barely able to hold himself up.
‘Well, they axed my programme, didn’t they? It was a load of crap, anyway.’
I had been about to say the same thing, but I stopped myself. I was also tempted to ask why he wasn’t driving some fancy sports car instead of waiting for a bus, but it would have been cruel. I could see why, anyway: he was shaking.
It made me nervous. I was lost for words. Fortunately, Sebastian asked me about myself.
‘Me? Yeah, I’ve got a good job – pays well,’ I gibbered. ‘OK, not that well – yes, I do enjoy it, if you discount the tedium – yes, I’m married – Happily? – I suppose so – two healthy brats, sorry, children …’
Sebastian didn’t look interested. I was relieved to see a bus going my way approach.
‘This bus will do me. What number are you waiting for, Seb?’
‘Unlucky for some. Er, I hate to leave you standing, but I need to get going.’
‘Don’t worry. My number will be along soon,’ he replied grimly.
Our eyes met for one uncomfortable second, then he turned away.
I climbed into the bus quickly and I didn’t look back.

For some reason I took to scanning the death columns in the Times. It turned up eventually. I looked out for his obituary, too, in vain. I suppose he has been forgotten about.
You might think Sebastian got his just desserts. I don’t. He was just very unfortunate, that’s all. And there is no justice in misfortune.
Now that I know Sebastian has finally gone I have been feeling terribly sad. Grief-stricken, really. I loved him, you see?

With respect to Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Brideshead Revisited’

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Che Guevara and the price of toilet paper

“Villagers massacred in crossfire between  army and Marxist-Leninist rebels”

I felt dizzy as I read the headline, so I put aside the newspaper I had picked up in transit in Lima airport. I could relax because I was going to Bolivia and the crazy guerrillas were back in Peru.  I looked out of the window at the magnificent view of the Andes.  The plane was circling over La Paz, a sprawl of mud brick houses with a few tower-blocks in the middle, 13,000 feet up in the Andes.

To digress a little, it was 1986, I had just graduated and was about to embark on a lucrative career in finance. Optimism was the spirit of the times. For anyone prepared to work hard enough, the banknotes were there to be raked in, in their thousands. And I was going to get stuck right in there.

But not yet. First I wanted to travel, broaden my horizons, get worldly-wise.
I had chosen Bolivia because it seemed exciting. It was colourful, vibrant and safe.  Though they’d had one revolution after another, a friendly stable government was now in power.  I liked the music, I would see the Andes, I knew a little Spanish, and I had somewhere to stay. A friend of a friend knew an Argentinian whose family lived in La Paz. They would welcome me, Eduardo assured me, as he gave me a parcel to deliver.

Outside the airport I collapsed into a taxi, and was immediately struck by the contrasts. The thin mountain air intensified the bright tones of the gaily-painted buses, the political graffiti everywhere, and the picturesque costumes of the local ‘chola’ women, wearing wide skirts, bowler hats and shawls. The colours, mainly red, contrasted with the drab houses and the misty-blue mountains.

My destination proved to be a mud-brick house like all the others.  A woman answered the door.  She turned out to be Eduardo’s sister, Ana.  She looked puzzled, but burst into a smile when she read the letter from her brother, and ushered me in.
‘Un compañero de Paulito! You are welcome!’
Paulito? Now I was puzzled.

Ana introduced her parents, her husband, Miguelo, and their five children, who all shared the small house.  I handed over the parcel and they seemed overjoyed.
‘Did you have any trouble with the customs?’ they asked.

They seemed terribly poor. The walls and floor were of bare baked mud. The only furniture was a table, a few chairs, a stove, and a shelf with some photographs.
To my embarrassment, when I asked for the bathroom, Ana sent her son to fetch water from a standpipe up the street.

Then I was bombarded with questions. How was Paulito? And his wife? And the children? I answered as best I could.  My sketchy answers didn’t seem to be a problem. My arrival, apparently, was a cause for celebration.  Some friends of Ana turned up and enigmatically, she introduced me as a sympathetic journalist.

I was slightly perturbed at some of the snippets of conversation I picked up. My Spanish was not very good, but it was obvious that politics dominated the conversation. Words like Marxista, Leninista, and Comunista kept cropping up. I thought I heard one man talk about when he had been tortured in prison, too. But I was exhausted, and I struggled to concentrate. The long journey, jet-lag, and the altitude were taking their toll.

I was also distracted by a photograph on the shelf. It was of a group of friends, and I thought I recognised two of the young men. One must have been a family member; he looked like Eduardo. But the other was familiar in a different way entirely. Hadn’t I seen that man on posters on so many student walls? Wasn’t he the great icon of student radicals? Surely not. I must have been muddled.  These poor people wouldn’t have anything to do with Che Guevara, would they?
Or would they?

My head started spinning. Che Guevara  … Marxist-Leninist … Revolutionary .. Maoist … Sendero Luminosa – Shining Path … massacre ….’ Were there connections?
‘Si.’ Ana had seen me staring at the photograph. ‘It’s Paulito with Che.’
‘Che Guevara? With Paulito? Eduardo?’
‘Si. They fought together,’ Ana smiled and nodded. ‘Before he was officially declared dead.’
And that was why he was now called Eduardo and lived in England!

What was I to make of it? Che Guevara was dead, Paulito was supposed to be dead, but their cause lived on, and I was right in the middle of it. Weird! Was it scary? Or was it something to brag about when I got home? If I got home.

Ana and her family lavished me with kindness. She cooked a large meal of potatoes and  unfamiliar meat (llama? Guinea pig?), and urged me to eat to bursting point. Then they offered me their best bed. They were so obviously desperately poor. I was overwhelmed by their hospitality.

In the morning I still felt tired and light-headed, but I was cheerful. I was no longer worried.  I was just a tourist, here for the colour, and the vibes, and there were plenty of both. Everything and everybody seemed so upbeat. There was to be some kind of parade that day, and I was invited. This seemed like fun, so I accepted.

First, I went to change money. I thought 500 dollars might last a month. The bank clerk beamed as he handed over my pesos. One billion to be precise, in 100,000 peso notes, which made a total of 10,000 banknotes.  I was a billionaire even before I had started mÿ career in finance.

Then I went outside to look around the shops.  But there was nothing to buy except bananas, 100,000 pesos the bunch, being sold by  women sitting on the pavement.   There were also big piles of green leaves, which I suspected might be the raw material of cocaine.

A large number of people turned out for the parade and it seemed quite well-organised with various groups of trade-unionists, women, and indigenous groups with multi-coloured banners. Strolling along with them seemed a very pleasant way to pass the morning.

Unfortunately, Ana and her friends had other ideas. They had hundreds of leaflets promoting their political party, a large bunch of which they now thrust into my hands, expecting me to help hand them out. I looked down at the flyers and read the very words I dreaded to see, the same ones that I had read about in the newspaper, that were associated with massacres, assassinations, disappearances and worse. I was tempted to ditch the leaflets and slink off.

But how could I? My hosts had been so good to me. How much of their scant income had gone towards the printing of these leaflets? And they all believed that I was a sympathetic journalist, didn’t they? How would they react if I now betrayed them?

The parade was already moving. What could I do? I tried to calm down. Perhaps my hosts’ politics were just a joke like the Marxist-Leninists back home. It was OK, I told myself. No-one else seemed worried anyway. We moved down the street handing out leaflets.

Then I saw the armed police; a formidable army of them with riot shields and vicious- looking batons ahead of us. We would have to walk right past them. Oh shit!

Yet while I was contemplating all this, people were walking up to me and taking the leaflets. In their droves! So were these Marxista-Leninstas a party to be reckoned with after all? And was that a good thing or not, as we past the riot-police? I couldn’t decide. All I knew was that the flyers were disappearing fast. Soon I had none left, and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

But panic had already worked on my guts. I explained to Ana that I urgently needed to visit al baño and she pointed me to a public convenience. I hurried towards it.

In the entrance, a woman was selling sheets of toilet paper.
‘I’d better take two,’ I told her, and she demanded two very thick bundles of banknotes in exchange. It occurred to me that I was handing out more paper in the banknotes than I was getting in return, but there was no time to dwell on that. I had urgent business to attend to.

I went into a cubicle and relieved myself promptly down a rather insanitary hole in the ground. Only then did I notice what I had been given as toilet paper, or rather had bought at great cost. It was two of the very flyers that I had been handing out. Of course! Paper was scarce. People were grabbing it whenever they could. And this was the destiny of all their earnest efforts to make the world a better place.

I hated to smear my hosts’ campaign, but that is exactly what I now had to do.

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Micky the mackerel

Once upon a time there was a mackerel called Micky. Micky was a happy little mackerel, and he spent his days swimming around, alongside his many brothers and sisters, behind his mummy and daddy, in the deep cool waters of the North Atlantic.
The water was actually ice-cold, but this didn’t bother Micky because he, like all mackerel, was cold-blooded, which meant he did not have to maintain a constant body temperature. So he and his family hardly noticed when they swam so far north that they came to the place where the sea was covered by ice.
Once upon the same time, there lived a little Inuit called Iggy. Iggy had been wondering about his next meal, and he had gone out onto the ice with his harpoon gun and a drill, and had drilled a hole in the ice, through which he now pointed his harpoon gun, in hope of catching something nice to eat.
The ice covering the sea made it somewhat dark, and when Micky and his family saw a shaft of light ahead of them they thought it looked rather attractive, and they sped towards it.
Unbeknown to Micky and his family, however, directly above this shaft of light was the hole that Iggy the Inuit had drilled. Just as Micky swam through the lovely shaft of light, Iggy fired his harpoon gun, and it went straight into Micky. Iggy was filled with joy. He had caught a fish, and he would not go hungry that night.
As Micky’s family swam past the shaft of light, Micky’s mummy turned back to check on her children. She wondered if there was one less of them, but mackerel don’t count very much, and Micky’s mummy was no exception.
‘I think one of us might be missing,’ she said to Micky’s daddy.
‘Don’t worry, darling,’ said Micky’s daddy. ‘There are plenty more fish in the sea.’
Micky’s mummy was not so sure about that and she felt rather sad.
However, she did not feel sad for very much longer, because later that day, Micky’s family had swum back into open waters where a trawl fishing-boat was speeding towards them. And a few minutes later, it had scooped up Micky’s mummy and Micky’s daddy, and all Micky’s brothers and sisters, and all the other fish for a very long way in every direction, into a huge net, which then lifted them out of the water. And soon after that Micky’s mummy felt sad no more.
That very same day, an official in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries drew a graph of fish population trends. He didn’t need a set-square or anything like that because he used EXCEL to produce his graph, and besides, apart from the axes, there were no right angles on it. It was instead a steep, deep curve downwards.
The official showed his graph to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries.
‘Oh dear!’ he said to the official. ‘What shall we do?’
‘I think you should call a ban on driftnet fishing and bottom trawling and such like, to allow the fish populations to renew themselves,’ the official replied.
‘People would not like that,’ said the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. ‘And then they wouldn’t vote for us in the next election,’ he added silently to himself.
‘Think of all the fishermen it would put out of work,’ he said aloud.
‘You could always give the fishermen a long holiday, out of government funds,’ said a little voice inside the Minister’s head.
‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ said a bigger voice, stamping on the little voice.
‘It would not make the people happy,’ he said to the official.
‘Do the people want to be happy now or happy later?’ asked the official.
The Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries thought that a rather impertinent question for an official to ask, and he chose not to answer.
‘That will be all, thank you,’ he said to him, and the official went away.
The Minister placed the graph under the astrolabe on his desk, where he put things to be dealt with later.
The astrolabe was meant purely for decoration, but the Minister liked to play with it. Often at the end of a long hard day, he would gaze up at the stars and wonder whether there was not more of a future out there than back here.
That evening, Iggy the Inuit had mackerel for tea and he enjoyed it very much. Micky had made someone happy.
Some time later on, lots of people, and quite a lot of cats, had tinned mackerel for their tea. But most of them did not particularly feel it had made them happy, because tinned mackerel is really nothing special.
Meanwhile, the trawl-boats carried on fishing and the driftnets continued to scoop up all the fish for miles around, and the fish populations didn’t get a chance to renew themselves.
And not very long after that, there was no more mackerel, nor any other kind of fish, for anybody’s tea.

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‘Lucky, that’s you.’

‘No, I’m not. You are.’

‘She picked you up last time. It’s you she wants.’

‘Yes, but she gets us mixed up. Anyway, I’m not going out.’

‘Look out the window. She might have brought something to eat.’

‘Yeah, she has. But it’s leftovers again. I can smell them. When is she going to bring us some decent food?’

‘You’re such an ungrateful beast. We have every creature comfort – charming cottage, all we want to eat and drink, round-the-clock entertainment, sandpit, sawdust. She attends to our every need.’

‘She doesn’t look after us that well. Sometimes the food and drink run out. Sometimes this place gets smelly.’

‘It’s not the giant’s fault that the place gets smelly. We are in a cesspit of our own making.’

‘Speak for yourself! Makes you wonder, though, whether she really does have our best interests at heart, whether she really is totally reliable.’

‘That’s blasphemous!’


She wants both of us now. What for?

‘Good question. What exactly is the reason for our existence? Have you ever thought about it?’


‘Just suppose, say, there wasn’t actually any rhyme or reason to it …’

‘What are you on about now?’

I mean, like, why we sometimes don’t have enough to eat or drink – maybe it isn’t that it all fits into the general scheme of things – maybe there isn’t a scheme – I mean we think the giant is looking after us, but what if, like, she was just a kid, still?’

‘Kids are small, Loopy. The giant is enormous.’

‘But suppose she was a kid giant, and we were just her play-things, and sometimes she forgets to look after us, or can’t be bothered?’

‘Don’t talk like that, Loopy. It doesn’t do any good.’

‘It’s the tedium that gets me. Day in, day out, always the same.’

‘That’s because you make it the same. You spend the whole time digging in that corner. A futile practice, if you ask me. You haven’t made a scratch on that glass.’

‘Well, I just have this hunch, you know, that there’s sand behind that glass. I can kind of smell it. I just keep thinking, what if – if there was something else beyond what we can perceive – what if there was a wonderful, vast, really bright place with endless sand…’

‘Oh, don’t go on about that Gobi Desert again. It’s a myth, Loopy, a fairy tale! You’re supposed to stop believing in them by the time you grow up.’

‘Yes, but these are stories that get passed down the generations. But suppose, way back, there was a time when our ancestors really did live in the Gobi Desert…’

‘If you were to believe in the Gobi Desert, you’d have to believe in hawks and owls too. You can’t just cherry-pick.’

‘Cherries! It’s a while since we had any of them.’

‘Like yesterday. We got one each, remember? That’s your trouble; you forget how lucky you are.’

‘I’m not Lucky. You are. I’m Loopy.’

‘You’re telling me.’

‘Anyway, I was saying, what if things are not as they seem? What if the world doesn’t stop at the glass walls? What if there was a great vast universe beyond?’

‘Beyond the walls is the realm of giants. You don’t want to go there.’

‘Anyway, I’ve just got this theory…’

‘I’ve got a theory you’re bonkers. Anyway, she’s gone. It looks quite bright out there. Let’s go out.’


‘What now?’

‘Look up. Do you see what I see?’

‘She’s left the lid off! – What can it mean?’

‘It means we can leg it.’


‘We get onto the roof of our cottage, like this, then we strrretch up as high as we can, like this, and get our paws on the edge, then we heeeave ourselves up. Come on, Lucky. There! Look at that!’

‘Wow! Is that the Gobi desert, then?’

‘Yeah, I suppose it must be. I knew it!’

‘Cor! What a stroke of luck!’

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Blue Lagoons

‘Fantastic news, Janey!’

I pulled the phone away from my ear. Sue was shouting in exhilaration.

‘There a class reunion! Next Friday! You will come, won’t you?’

‘I’ll check my diary,’ I said, resolving to have something else on. I didn’t want to meet my former classmates again. Some of them could be quite cutting. I could just hear them:

‘It’s Janey, our brilliant violinist! … Hi, Janey! Are you famous now? … What orchestra are you playing in? … How come I haven’t heard anything about you?’

I didn’t want to tell them how come.

I was plain Jane, and not gregarious or glamourous like the others were. I watched from the edge of their social whirl, but jealousy wasn’t really my problem, because I had my music and that was the only thing important to me. While other girls dreamed of diamond rings from bronzed men on far-flung beaches my dreams were of playing solo in the Albert Hall.

But I was going to join an orchestra; I was convinced about that. I knew I was good. I was the lead violinist in the school orchestra. Little did I know then, that my performance at the leaving concert was not the overture to my acclaimed career, nor a prelude, but its crescendo.

I never joined an orchestra. At Music Academy I soon realised I was nothing special, and when I left I did what less-than-excellent musicians usually do: I taught.

But I couldn’t persuade my pupils to practise, and when I had my own children I all but gave up playing myself. I was lucky to get my present job teaching violin to blind people.

That is what had become of me. So to ‘plain Jane’ my former classmates could now add ’vain’. I didn’t want to be around when they did. So I didn’t go to the reunion, but I got together with Sue afterwards. She was the only classmate I had kept in touch with.

We went to the Blue Lagoon. It was weird to see this bar again, after so long, and strange that it had hardly changed, as if in a time warp. The violet and turquoise carpet that was meant to look, well, like a blue lagoon, was now threadbare, and the electric-blue glossy wallpaper that had seemed so exotic then, was peeling at the edges. The speakers which once emitted strains of Hawaii now played a sanitised reggae, which was an improvement.

‘Remember, we used to think this place was dead posh.’

‘It still is, quite.’

‘Anyway,’ I said, quickly. ‘Tell me all about the reunion. But first, how are you, Sue? How are things?

‘Fine. Great. Jim lost his job, as you know. But really it’s just as well he’s at home. John’s getting so big and heavy, I need help lifting him in and out of his wheelchair.’

I gave her a look of sympathy but she was preoccupied.

‘Let’s order,’ she said. ‘I think I’ll have a Blue Lagoon, for old times’ sake.’

‘Good idea. Me too.I haven’t had one of those since I was under-age.’

The waiter returned with the long bright blue drinks and we chinked our glasses together. ‘For old times’ sake.’

Sue put two large prints on the table. They were both group photographs. The first was familiar: it was of our school-class in our final year: about thirty of us, aged seventeen.

The other was of twenty or so middle-aged men and women, the women younger than the men, who were all either grey or bald. I didn’t know any of them – at first – and then gradually the ghosts of the former adolescents emerged through the lined and worn faces. I gasped as I recognised each one in turn.

‘Oh, look! There’s Cherie, and it that Linda? So it is! But who’s the fa.. , I mean big lady? I don’t know her.’

‘That’s Kate. Remember?’

‘Oh! But she’s obe.. I mean, what a shame! She had a fantastic figure.’

‘Yes, seventeen-year-olds often do. But she was very jolly, you know. They all were, mostly.’

‘Cherie. She married a rich Frenchmen and went off to live in his chateau. We were all so envious. Remember?’

‘Yes, but she divorced recently. She’s very bitter. She’s back, living with her parents.’

‘Oh, what rotten luck! But didn’t she have her own life there? Friends, work?’

‘Don’t know,’ said Sue. ‘Perhaps she’ll get half the chateau,’ she added brightly. ‘You never know.’

‘Neither will she, probably, knowing French bureaucracy.’

Sue pointed to Linda.

‘The class brain!’ I said. ‘Did she get into Oxford?’

‘No, but she married, got two boys; she seems happy.’

‘Is she working?’

‘Yes, in Tescos.’


‘No, cashier.’

‘You mean accountant?’

‘No, you know, at the check-out.’

‘But she was brilliant!’

‘I think she just lives for her boys,’ said Sue cheerily.

I sigh and look at the photograph again. ‘Where’s Caroline? I don’t see her.’

Sue stared at me. ‘Didn’t you hear?’

‘No. What? How’s she doing?’

‘Didn’t you hear – about the – they were driving back from a party – long way up north – late at night – they might have been drunk .. ‘

I felt myself going cold. I put my glass down to steady myself. ‘You don’t need to tell me the rest,’ I whispered.

Caroline! Brilliant, beautiful, vivacious, athletic. Everyone admired her; the girls were all envious; the boys infatuated. I didn’t know what to say.

‘She always lived life to the full,’ said Sue. ‘Pushed things to the limit.’

‘Over, obviously,’ I said, and then regretted it.

We sat in silence for a few seconds.

‘There was some other sad news,’ said Sue. ‘Remember Sally?’

‘Yes. I met her a few years ago. She didn’t look any older than the day we left school.’

‘She died. Breast cancer. She was forty-five.’

‘Oh! How sad!’

Another silence ensued.

‘Well, any more deaths?’ I asked flippantly, expecting Sue to move on to happier news.

‘Well, there was Joy. She committed suicide. I don’t know why. She was twenty-three.’

‘No! Joy? But – but – she was so – joyful!’

‘Perhaps there was another side to her. – Anyway, if that’s what she wanted ..’

I gaped at Sue, appalled.

But it seemed she didn’t want to discuss it. She was already moving on to the others in the photograph. ‘…married, two children … civil service … moved to Sheffield … drugs dealer … prison … insurance, can’t wait to retire … four kids … mental institution … best place for him … couldn’t have children … terribly disappointed, but loves her dogs … ‘

I was only half-listening. My breathing was shallow. Three of us had died already, and our lives had hardly begun.

I needed to focus. There was someone Sue hadn’t mentioned yet.

‘Stewie. He’s not in the picture.’

Sue gave me a knowing look. ‘I was wondering when you’d bring him up. Every girl’s heart-throb. The trophy!‘

‘Was he?’

‘Oh, Janey! You didn’t know?’

She moved in closer. ‘There was a rumour circulating, you know, about you locking him in your bedroom cupboard to hide him from your mother. Of course, I knew it couldn’t be true.’

‘You were wrong,’ I replied, distractedly. ‘Where is he now?’

‘No-one knows. He’s disappeared off the face of the Earth. Apparently, he went to South America and never came back.’

I shuddered as I took this in. Sue fiddled with the drinks mats. Neither of us wanted to articulate our thoughts.

‘I expect he’s having a great time somewhere,’ Sue said eventually.

‘Or perhaps he’s locked in someone’s bedroom cupboard and forgotten about,’ I said, but it wasn’t funny.

I picked up my glass and noticed my hand was shaking. I took a sip of my Blue Lagoon. It was sickly. I wanted water.

‘Our glasses are half-empty,’ I said. ‘Can I get you another?’

‘Mine’s half-full, actually.’

We turned to each other and laughed. ‘So’s mine. I see that now.’

It was getting late. ‘I must go soon. I have to prepare for tomorrow. My students are giving a concert.’

‘Oh, that’s wonderful! You know, Janey? They were all asking about you, and I told them how happy you were with your job teaching the violin to blind people. And they were all really impressed. Said they envied you.’

‘Really?’ I was surprised, but then I realised it was fair comment. I did enjoy teaching those students. It wasn’t just their gratitude; it was the genuine pleasure they got from playing that made the job so rewarding.

‘Yes, I am happy,’ I told her. ‘And I’m looking forward to tomorrow.’

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The Lonely Terrorist… or What I did on my Holidays

I didn’t do very much on my holidays. We couldn’t afford to, not with having just bought this house on the Privet Hedge estate. Bill played golf every day, of course. Having paid the club fees he wanted to make the most of it, understandably. He probably thought I’d content myself with window-shopping, but to be honest, I don’t enjoy that as much as I used to. I can’t get into those skimpy clothes that are so fashionable. So as often as not I would have another cup of tea and a cookie and by the time I had finished that it wouldn’t be worth going anywhere.

Anyway, I wanted to keep an eye on them.  I mean the new neighbours across the road, of course. A suspicious couple, if you ask me. They always have their curtains drawn, car windows darkened; they keep themselves to themselves. They look like Arabs she always wears a dark headscarf and long skirts. At least it’s not the full black shuttlecock outfit you would never know what might be going on under there but still, I don’t trust them. They never speak to anyone. You’d think she’d be bored and lonely, alone in that house when he goes out to work.

Well, I know how that feels. It’s very quiet in this suburb just rows and rows of houses and nothing doing. I thought there would be Tupperware parties and coffee mornings, with desperate housewives confessing their adventures with the milkman and the postman. Not that I’d get a look in there, not being into skimpy clothes.

I suppose I could have gone over and said hello to the Arab lady, but she doesn’t look my type. I saw them in the supermarket the other day, but I didn’t let on. I watched them from the queue and I saw what they were buying. In between the lentils and olives there were things like batteries and methylated spirits and vinegar and matches! Well, I put two and two together and my spine shivered and I thought well, I didn’t think anything because I don’t want to get involved and I wish I hadn’t seen anything.

But you can see how these things happen, can’t you, when people get isolated and never talk to anyone they go a bit strange, don’t they, and suspicious, then they start thinking everybody’s got it in for them. Then they get hostile you read so much about it in the papers and here it’s happening under my very nose!

So I was having a peep through the net curtains every time they went in or out, not that I was interested because if anything was going on I wouldn’t want to know. So eventually I decided I would just keep my nose out of things.

And that’s when I had a brainwave. I could write a novel! Well, what better way to spend the time when you’re stuck in the suburbs with no-one to talk to and trying to keep your nose out of things than to be a novelist?

So I fetched pen and paper and sat down at the table and I wrote ‘The Lonely Terrorist Across the Street’ and I gasped at my ingenuity. Then I stared at the blank page for quite a while because it was harder than I thought.

Then the doorbell rang. I jumped, because I’d hardly had a visitor in weeks. Who could it be?
It was two very respectable-looking ladies and they were smiling.
‘Good morning, Mrs Porter. We are from the Privet Hedge Reformed Church of The Love of Jesus Evangelism. We have come to bring you good news.’
‘Oh, that’s nice!’ I said. ‘I suppose you’d better come in then.’

Well, they had taken me aback, and I have to admit, I was pleased to get company. And it was no time at all before I was confessing how bored and lonely I’d been since moving here, and they were beaming and nodding and one said, ‘You’ll never be lonely in the company of Jesus,’ and the other said, ‘We’ll pray for you.’
I was about to say, ‘Oh don’t mind me, I’m sure I’m not a priority,’ but I didn’t want to sound ungrateful. I did think there must be more urgent cases than me to be prayed for,  considering all the earthquake and typhoon victims and the starving millions and all, although I did wonder about God’s sense of priority because He sees that some people are all right, like  Bill’s boss, the CEO, for example. Is it because he gets prayed for a lot?  I doubt it, myself. I think God’s got a mind of his own when it comes to these things and I can’t see that praying would make much difference. Although why He can’t just sort out all the problems of the world beats me, and, come to think of it, why did He let them happen in the first place?

But I just kept mum, because I don’t like to be provocative. I couldn’t be bothered getting into an argument with that pair. It’s not like I know any better, myself.
But they must have read my thoughts, because one of them said, ‘Ours is not to reason why.’
And then I wondered why not? Why did He give us a head for working things out, then, if He didn’t want us to use it? Of course, I didn’t say that. In fact, I was wishing bad thoughts like that would stop entering my head, because you never know when you might get struck by lightening, as these nice ladies kept reminding me. I was beginning to wonder if I was possessed by the devil. It’s not that I’m not a Christian, but I don’t bother much nowadays let’s face it, who does? But these ladies did get the wind up me. They went on and on about terrible things that have happened to people who have rejected God and let the Devil into their hearts. I had to tell a lie to get rid of them in the end, then I was quaking in my shoes when I realised I had sinned. So when they asked if I would be coming to church on Sunday I said, ‘I suppose I better had.’

But it was a relief to get rid of them, I can tell you. They had scared the living daylights out of me. I spent all afternoon weighing up my choices. Either I had to live a life of Evangelism so that I could sit at God’s right hand forever more, or I would get poked about with a fork down the other place. Eternity is an awful long time.

Funnily enough, I didn’t go to church on Sunday, after all. I never got around to buying the hat I would need for it. I’m not a hat person. I don’t like drawing attention to myself. And Bill would never go; he wouldn’t miss his Sunday morning golf. Anyway, perhaps it was the chill in the air, but a few days later I was thinking I could maybe come to terms with the prospect of an eternal fire, evil, sex and debauchery ….’

Ding dong.
I gasped. Who could it be? ‘Please God,’ I said. ‘Don’t let it be the Evangelists again.’
‘Hello, I’m Fatima from across the road. I’ve brought you a cake.’
‘It’s a tradition, where I come from. We always bring a cake to our new neighbours. I’m from Lebanon.’
‘Oh! I see!’
‘My husband’s the new paediatrician at the hospital.’
‘Thank you,’ I said, having finally composed myself. ‘Would you like to come in for some tea?’
‘Love to.’
So we got chatting. I told her how bored and lonely I was since moving in, and how I hadn’t met anyone apart from the Evangelist ladies.
‘Oh, them. I gave them short shrift.’
‘Well, I suppose you would, being er …’
‘No, I’m not, really.’ She must have seen me looking at her scarf because she removed it as she spoke, and you know, once she did, she looked almost, well, normal.
‘But you have to please the parents, you know what I mean?’
Then we both laughed, and I felt so relieved.
Then she said, ‘Oh, are you a writer?’ She was looking over at the table where I had been scribbling.
‘Oh, not really. It’s just a hobby I’ve taken up…’
‘Me too. There’s a writers’ workshop at the community centre. You could come along too. We’re all amateurs, though. It’s ‘What we did on our holidays’ sort of stuff.’
‘That’s what I’ve been writing too,’ I said, and I just left it at that. Well, I couldn’t tell her that was just a limber-up, and that I was about to start a thriller called ‘The Lonely Terrorist Across the Street’ now, could I?

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Like most fourteen-year-old boys, those in class 4B of Wotsits Comprehensive had difficulty learning foreign languages.  The German teacher insisted on speaking in the target language all the time which didn’t help. But the boys did enjoy her class, since Frau Ledig had long, straight, blonde hair, long, straight, slim legs, and wore a very short mini-skirt.  The girls also liked her because she was young, inexperienced and easy to persuade that discussions about clothes and hair and make-up were more useful than noun declensions.

Frau Ledig assumed the boys’ fixed stares meant that they were paying attention. That their gazes fell below her face, she put down to shyness. In fact, they were focusing on the hem of her mini-skirt.

Jason actually preferred classmate, Chloe, who was small, dark, and curvy, not that she would fancy a spotty little squirt like him, he knew.

But when Frau Ledig announced a class visit to Germany, the news was received with enthusiasm all round.
‘Do the chicks over there all look like you, Frau Laydick?’ asked Jason.
Frau Ledig reminded Jason that he must compose his question in German, but Mikey answered first. ‘Yeah, they’re all big blondes.’
Then, to Frau Ledig’s delight, the boys uttered their first grammatically-correct German sentence.’Wir kommen, OK.’ Then she knew the trip was a good idea.

That evening, every boy in class 4B enriched his German vocabulary. They all looked up words they thought they might need, and they were relieved to find that ‘sex’ and ‘beer’ were the same, or almost, in both languages.

On arrival in Germany, Frau Ledig announced, ‘Morgen lernen wir alles ber Deutschlands wunderbare Technologie.’
‘Wir gehen in eine Ingwer Bier Anlage,’ she said, and asked the class if they knew what that meant.
”Anlage’ means ‘plant’ or ‘factory’,’ answered Chloe.
‘Wot’s she saying?’ asked Mickey, whose ears had pricked up on hearing ‘Bier’.
‘She says we’re going to a brewery!’ answered Jason. ‘Yer, beer and lager!  Cool! We went to a brewery on holiday, and we got freebies! Loads of free beer, you get!’  Being under-age, Jason had not been allowed in, but he didn’t mention that.

Next morning Frau Ledig put her head round the door of the boys’ dormitory, waking them with a start. She told them to hurry; they were leaving ‘in sechs Minuten’, then went back downstairs.
‘Wot’s she saying’, asked Danny.
‘Dunno, something about sex!’  replied Jason trying to remain calm.

They were all were galvanised into action.  Jason panicked because he couldn’t see his underpants, so he pulled his jeans and a jumper on top of his pyjamas and hurried after the others, who were already on their way to the brewery.

It was warm outside, too warm to be wearing pyjamas under his clothes, and these were fleecy ones!  His mum had probably thought they were going to Colditz when she packed for him. He couldn’t take his jumper off and let his classmates see the dinosaur-patterned pyjamas, a present from some misguided relative who hadn’t realised his dinosaur obsession had long passed.  Never mind, at least there would be some nice cool beer at the factory.

At the Ingwer Bier Anlage a fat man wearing lederhosen showed them to their seats and started an explanation in rapid German. The boys sat at the back and looked on, bemused.
‘Wot’s that about?’ asked Mikey about a picture of a plant with a thick, gnarled root that the man was pointing to.
‘He says that’s the Ingwer Bier plant wot goes in to make the beer,’ guessed Jason.
‘I thought beer was made with hops,’ said Mikey.
‘Just shows you how wrong you can be,’ replied Jason.
‘My mum puts something like that into her cooking,’ said Ali.
‘Wot a waste!’ said Jason.

They were then led into the factory which, disappointingly, consisted of little more than a massive tangle of pipes. The guide waved his hands about as he explained the manufacturing process, and Frau Ledig and the girls nodded enthusiastically, but the boys understood nothing. A mechanic with a cordless drill seemed to be following them about, drilling into any bit of metal that happened to be nearby, its noise drowning out any snippit of information they might otherwise have picked up.
‘Wot’s he saying?’ asked Danny.
‘He says that plant thing goes in at one end and the beer comes out the other,’ guessed Jason.
At last the guide brought them into a storeroom full of bottles and crates. He turned to them with a big smile, and invited them to the bar for some snacks and free samples.
‘Also,’ he said, rubbing his hands. ‘Seid ihr zufrieden damit?’
‘Wot’s he saying?’ asked Mikey.
Jason tried to puzzle it out. Side ere two free then dammit ,
‘He says these here on the side are the freebies,’ he declared. ‘Two crates each, I think he means.’
The boys all moved in and picked up two twelve-bottle crates each, then they staggered towards the door.
Frau Ledig called after them, ‘Wollt ihr wirklich so viel kaufen? Do you really want to buy so much?’ but they were gone. She explained that she would pay with her credit card and square up with them later.

The boys sat on the grass outside and tore into their crates.
‘At last!’ thought Jason. He was so hot with having those stupid pyjamas on; it was making him thirsty. He picked up a bottle and was relieved to find it had a screw-top.
He took a large gulp of the sweet, acrid liquid and almost choked. ‘Gah! What the f…’
‘This is sodding ginger beer!’ the others shouted.
Jason quickly moved away to escape their wrath. ‘Weren’t nothin’ to do with me,’ he mumbled. ‘Anyway, s’oright, innit?’ He collapsed on the ground in embarrassment and forced himself to down a bottle. He needed to convince the others he really liked ginger beer, although he actually hated the stuff. It was disgusting, and it didn’t quench his thirst.
The others were scathing. ‘I can’t drink this effin’stuff.’
‘It’s all your fault, Jason.’
‘You owe us a real beer or two.’
‘You realise we’re gonna have to carry these crates all the way back to the hostel.’
‘Nothin’ wrong with it. It’s lovely,’ said Jason, forcing himself to drink another.

To his relief, the other boys were distracted by the reappearance of the girls.
‘Also,’ announced Frau Ledig. ‘Und jetzt, eine überraschung.’
‘A surprise!’ said Chloe.
‘Wir gehen in eine Schokoladenfabrik!’
‘Ooh! Fantastic!’ said Carla.
‘Wot’s she saying,’ asked Mikey.
Jason knew he had better get it right this time. Laden that meant shop. Now, didn’t they put the adjective after the noun, or was that French? Laden fabric ‘Oh, they’re going to a stupid cloth shop.’
‘That’s girls’ stuff!’
‘Oh, boring, I’m not going.’
‘Me neither.’
Frau Ledig couldn’t understand their disinterest but they had to hurry.

By the end of the third bottle, Jason felt sick and hot. ‘Sod it,’ he thought. ‘I don’t care what they think.’ He took off his jumper and exposed his fleecy dinosaur pyjamas to the world.
‘Ooh, dinosaurs, Jason, I do like your teeshirt!’ his classmates sneered.
‘They’re my pyjamas,’ he said. ‘My stupid mother packed the wrong ones. Now sod off!’ He wished he wasn’t there. He was hungry too. He’d had nothing to eat all day. Some chocolate would have been nice. He lay down, closed his eyes and dreamed of it.

‘Hey! Why didn’t you guys come to the chocolate factory?’
The boys sat up and cried in unison, ‘Wot?’
‘We had a great time.’
‘We got tons of freebies.’
‘Here, I’ve got a bit left over. You can have it if you want. I’ve had enough.’ Suzy held out a piece of chocolate melting over its crumpled wrapper.
‘No thanks, I hate chocolate,’ sniffed Jason.
‘Can’t stand the stuff, either,’ said Mikey, when he was then offered it.
‘You don’t like chocolate? That’s a pity. We brought you free samples.’ Frau Ledig held up several large packages. ‘Here, girls, you will have to take them.’
‘I don’t think I can face any more. I’ve had so much,’ said Carla. ‘I’m thirsty now.’
‘I’ll sell you a ginger beer,’ said Jason.
‘No thanks, I had enough of that earlier.’
‘We must now go,’ called out Frau Ledig.
Jason lifted up his two crates.
‘I’ll take some of that off your hands if you want. Save you carrying it.’
Jason’s heart missed a beat. It was Chloe. ‘Oh! All right. I’ll take some chocolate off your hands in exchange.’
‘It’s a deal. Hey, I like your teeshirt. Dinosaurs. Brontosauruses, innit? Cool!’
She sounded as if she meant it.
‘They’re his pyjamas,’ Mikey called over.
Jason ignored him. ‘Brachiosauruses, actually, or rather Brachiosauri, or Diplodoci, as they are otherwise known.’
‘Cor, you know Latin, then?’
‘Yer, well, just a bit.’

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