The Baby on the Bypass

There’s only one story to tell at this time of year. It’s the old, old story of a young couple on the road in a beat-up contractor’s van, driving to the place his family used to come from. They’re three months married and nine months pregnant and her folks don’t want to know. The van, one headlight dim, pulls over at service station where the A-road meets the bypass, but it’s well past midnight and the carpark of the Holiday Inn is rammed.
They park up on a loading bay and Joe goes in to see what comforts the last twenty in his wallet might get them. The tank is almost empty and they won’t be going any further tonight.
It’s the cold of a premature winter and the cold of another uncaring receptionist. Maybe it’s their rough appearance, maybe it’s Joe’s obvious poverty, but the woman behind the desk is not going to let them into the lounge, or the restaurant, or the lobby.
It’s while he’s in there, arguing behind the plate glass, that Moira realises the baby’s coming. What she first thought were shivers of cold have gripped her – and then a cramping pain around her that makes her gasp and water comes straight to her eyes. “Joe,” she calls, willing him to turn around and see her through the windscreen and come running back across the paving. But she knows he can’t see her. “Joe, the baby’s here… Joe…” she wails.
When he comes back she is gripping the seatbelt and making moans through clenched teeth. He realises straight away.
“Is she alright, mate?” There’s a man in overalls coming out of one of the units beside the Holiday Inn. A garage.
“She’s having a baby.”
“Bleeding ‘eck. Best get her inside.”
“They say there’s no room in there.” Joe’s panicking. He’s been the strong man for the last six months – but really he’s been dreading that it would end like this. He just needs someone to give him a helping hand.
“You’re right there’s no room. Seems like everyone’s on the road. I should have been home hours ago. She can come in here. I’ve got a waiting room – a little bed I use sometimes. Come on.”
They help Moira out of the van. She doesn’t acknowledge them at all, hobbles, supported by her husband and this stranger, looking at nothing, as they lay her down on the campbed the garageman has. He flicks the kettle on. “I knew there was a reason I stayed tonight,” he says to Joe. “Don’t worry – she’s going to be alright. You jus’ keep holding that hand. I’ll ring for an ambulance.”
But the phone doesn’t connect to start with and when he gets through, they don’t seem to care that a woman is having a baby. “Where’s she from?” asks a voice down the cold phone line. “What’s her trust?”
“I don’t know, do I?” says the garage man. A yell interrupts him. “I didn’t hear,” he says. “Look, send someone quick. She’s a first-timer and there’s no-one here but me and her partner.”
Joe is trying to do what he can. He can see the head of his son, red and striped with dark hair like a bald man’s across his pate, between Moira’s spread legs. There’d been a baby in the family just a few month’s before – Moira’s cousin – but who though to tell him what to do. He just hangs on to his wife’s hand while she shouts and heaves.
So it’s there. In the unheated waiting corner of the garage beside the compressed air tank and with the benison of a Vauxhall up on the lift that their son is born, and when he’s out – it’s mercifully brief bus desperate – the garageman offers a pair of metal-cutting shears to cut the cord and they wipe the little living thing down with paper towels and Moira, in her torn and soaked skirt, clutches him to her exhausted breast and cries with joy and relief.
The garage man doesn’t know what to do. It’s past three in the morning now and he and Joe have been wiping, bracing, holding the young woman as best as they could. He rings his wife, eventually wakes her up, gets her to say she’ll come to help, since a stranger has given birth in his garage.
She falls asleep for a moment, still holding the boy to her. Joe has fetched their blankets from the van, he bag with some clothes, and sits there, in the seats, looking at his wife, in awe of her, of the boy that has sprung out of nowhere and into life… He looks around with eyes drinking in the reality of the world and the garage man makes them both a cup of strong tea with UHT milk.
It’s not long after that they hear the rumble of engines and the shudder and hiss of lorry brakes. Disregard them, initially, but then a face looks around the side of the still open roll-shutters. It’s a guy with a badge that identifies him as a delivery driver, then another man, two more, five or six all trying to get in.
“What do you lot want?” asks the garage man.
The first one in seems to be their chosen leader. “Err,” he hesitates. “Have you had a baby?”
“How did you know that?” asks Joe. “What’s going on?”
“Long story mate,” replies the driver. “Where is he? Where is he?”
Joe doesn’t ask how this stranger knows that the baby is a boy. He doesn’t want to ask anything. Everything seems to be changing in front of his eyes, like he is watching his own life on film. “Over here,” he replies. He leads them to where his wife is now sitting on the campbed, leaning against the wall wrapped in the old van blanket with its oil stains and holes. The baby is in the crook of her arm – a tiny morsel of humanity – not even fully awake. “Moira”, says Joe. “They’ve come to see the baby… They knew. They knew about him. I told you this was meant to be.” He goes to sit with her, puts his arm around his family. “Everything is going to be just like it was promised. I’m sorry I was too slow…”
She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter, Joe. He’s here now.”
The drivers are standing around in something like a semi-circle, watching, listening. Then, abruptly, one of them kneels down. And the others, drawn by something deep inside, follow.
“Your son,” says one, “Is going to be special. He is special, I mean. Look – I know it’s a funny thing to say. And everyone gets told their baby is going to be someone special. I mean, I’ve got two of my own – I know a bit how you feel, mate,” and he nods at Joe. “But I mean something else. Your baby is the… chosen one.” He looked around at the others for encouragement, dseperate to wring some meaning out of a cliche.
“We got told,” says another. “We got told that we would find a baby in a garage, wrapped in paper towels.”
“Who told you?” asks Moira.
“Angels,” says the first one, shaking his head. “Angels. I was driving, we were all driving…”
“I was pulled over in the layby up Ruggleford corner…” interrupts another.
“Yeah alright – we all saw them, didn’t we.” Nods.
“That’s right.”
“Angels. Had to be.”
“I thought it was some patrol at first,” said the one who’d been parked up. “Came up, tapped on the window, I rolled it down, then I looked at him… Like, shining. Like he had a light on the inside of his face. And he said…”
“Don’t worry,” interrupted another.
“Yeah – that’s what he said to me too.”
“Don’t worry – I’ve got something to tell you – it’s going to change the world…”
“Told us there’d be a garage – told us exactly where – and when we went inside we’d find this baby, wrapped in paper towels, with his mum and dad, and he’d be…”
At last one of them said it. “The saviour of the world.”
By now the garage man’s wife has arrived. She’s a woman with her own children, grandchildren, sees Moira like a friend of her own daughter, just a teenager, taken unawares, sees herself in her, takes her under her wing. The drivers stay, get out some food, even something to drink, continue to tell each other the story, the music they heard, wonder about this baby – this air-gulping, barely alive frail-fisted little child. Is he going to grow up to do something? To change the world like those angels said? Who are his parents, anyway? Why are they here? Joseph tries his best to be in charge, but the garage man sits him down, gives him a drink of something strong from a paper cup, and when he wakes up the lorry drivers have gone and someone has filled the van’s tank with petrol.

Die Ner – Rafe Castleman Reviews

I didn’t fancy eating anywhere by myself that evening. There was a crowd I sometimes spent time with, a sort of fried-egg shaped friendship group, a bit crinkly at the edge, some genuinely pleasant people in the yolk and a lot of rather shallow and flavourless trend-followers around them. But it would be more pleasant than eating by myself. Before I decided where we should meet, I had to choose my target.
Thinking about Max’s warning, I aimed without a particular play in mind. A single spontaneous review was unlikely to do a lot of damage – or boost a first-tier noticeably. But I’d heard interesting things about a place called Die Ner in Covent Garden. It was a Sahi affilliation, so I tucked the Double-Diamond away and fished out a dormant contract I played with in the name of Lucretius Segnit. He had built up a considerable celebration allowance in the last year, so I fiddled his birthday and booked a table for ten.
Antony was in the bar when I got there, drinking Northumbrian lager. We chatted about shallow social things while I cracked the shop lay and started reading the place from the inside out. Our table had been ready for twenty minutes, but the staff wanted to keep us at the bar. I didn’t mind. It wasn’t my allowance I was drinking.
Antony’s friends arrived, together with a half-Samoan skinner called Timeo and a pair of sisters I had met before. We headed to our table in the dark rear of the restaurant.
This wasn’t a gimmick eatery like Eis had been. You could actually eat ten times a week here on a Sahi grade eleven, if you knew the exchanges, but I don’t think you’d want to. They had settled their menu a good long time ago and it wasn’t going to change any time soon. To access it here all you had to do was make your personal query gesture and it slid into view on the back of your sub-dominant hand. I watched Meera and Aruna scrolling through it with their elegant, lozenge-shaped fingertips.
“What do you fancy, ladies?” I asked. “Do you want a recommendation?”
Meera cocked her head. “Have you eaten here before?” she asked, coquettish and a little rushed. She’d had a strong drink before arriving, then.
I replied with a single nod. My eyes began reading her and running a tickertape of physical stats through her rather restrained aura. Height 1654, weight 5423 + 158, plenty more. I pinched it out with a hidden fingertip gesture.
“Perhaps you might enjoy the lobster quinoa salad,” I said. “Quite refreshing. Very reminiscent of a splash of seawater over the gunwale of a speeding catamaran.” It was in my interest for as much variety as possible to arrive on the table, of course. I watched Meera scroll back up and then flare her nostrils – almost certainly to find reviews on the social bands.
Her sister was seated beside me and hadn’t looked up. “I don’t know where to start,” she said. “There’s so much more choice than I’m used to.”
I leant into her personal space. “Then cross out anything you’d have normally. Live a little, Aruna!”
She looked up directly into my eyes. Something flashed there. “Well, there’s this fricasee of porq with araquee blossom and wild rice…?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Oh, urgh, it’s tankmeat,” she said suddenly. “How tacky.”
“Try it,” I urged. “You might be pleasantly surprised.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Try it! If you don’t like it, have mine. I’m having the turbot in whitest sauce.” The top of the menu. “You can try both, if you like.”
She didn’t know how to take that. The invitation to actually eat off my plate… perhaps it slightly revolted her, as it would so many. Yet at the same time there was that transgressive playfulness. She was a couple of years younger than me and much more used to conventional eating habits. I was sure that she had never needed to scavenge behind eatery waste-chutes to quieten a churning stomach.
“Why not, then?” She gave a flick of her rather spectacular hair. “Four-score years and ten is my lot, after all.”

The food came. It was good, unspectacular, the service unobtrusive and convenient, the wine I had chosen was drinkable and not extravagant. But the dessert posed a problem. As the waiting staff brought out the new dishes, something caught the edge of my attention. A scent. I had ordered a dish of pickled pears – something I had never eaten before – and it came, quite beautifully presented on a heavy cut-glass plate, garnished with tiny sprigs of mint in flower. But there was a taint in the flavour, even before I put it in my mouth.
I had stopped chattering and bent over the food to really smell it. Filling my lungs and dialling my nasal diagnosts to maximum sensitivity, I tried to identify it. Was there a hint of raw meat in this? A contaminated board, an unclean knife, a stained wipe… Perhaps even the hands of the waiting staff… And not any meat. Uncooked… Liverish… Whale meat?
The others had noticed my change in attention and were watching me. I ignored them. Lifted a spoon of pickled pears to my lips and savoured.
Beaver. Definitely beaver. I knew it. I had eaten beaver three times. Once in Canada at a rural festival, once in Deptford in a swanky sea-themed hole and once in Milan. I had eaten the tail, the flank, the brains and the loin. If that had not been sufficient for me to gain an exact flavour profile, then nothing could. I had eaten it more times than I had eaten many tankmeats.
I was going to enjoy this.
“What’s wrong, Rafe?” asked Timeo with a rumble. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t generally expect to find stray flavours in my food – least of all in a finely balanced dessert like this.”
I raised a hand in the old-fashioned way. And clicked for service.
Our tableman had been fine – so far. How would he handle this?
“Your preparation area is contaminated,” I told him. “And it is very likely that you could cause a serious reaction in someone unfortunate enough to be susceptible.”
“I’m very sorry sir. You would like something else?”
“No. Not at all. I would like to talk to your head chef. You can tell him that Rafael Castleman of the Open Menu has some advice for him.”
The tables nearby had also fallen silent now. Silence rippled out like a stone disturbs still water.
Only a few moments later – to the house’s credit – the chef arrived. He was a tall, lanky man by the name of Giroflet. I’d never come across him before.
“What seems to be the problem, sir? I understand you do not enjoy the dessert?”
I gave him a toothy grin. “No, that’s not right. I’m quite enjoying myself. And I would have enjoyed this very-well executed little dessert if there hadn’t been an awful taint.”
He looked at me quizzically, whipped a forked spoon from his breast pocket and tried the dish. “What do you taste, Mr Castleman?”
“Beaver,” I replied.
He looked at his waiter. “The gentleman tastes beaver.”
“I do,” I replied. “Distinctly.”
“It is impossible,” he replied. “I taste nothing.”
“But I taste everything,” I said, pushing back my chair. “Have you ever eaten beaver, chef?”
He disregarded my challenge. “I can taste nothing of the sort,” he said calmly. “There is no beaver in the kitchen and there has never has been and there never will be such a ridiculous ingredient while I am chef.”
“You have a contaminated preparation area, chef,” I said, “And I will be writing exactly that unless…”
“Unless nothing,” he snapped. “Unless nothing. I expected nothing less from you, Mr Castleman. Or rather, Mr Segnit. Threats. Attempts to bully and bluster and bluff your way on an empty hand. I do not even desire to know what it is you want from me. I know your ways. I know your slant, sir, your thumbscrew words and reviews. But here nothing will work. In my kitchen I have the most up-to-date volatile chamber available commercially. And if you so desire, we can take your dish of pears and combust it right now. And exactly what flavours are present, perhaps we can let everyone see.”
I had to smile. The man was going to give me exactly what he wanted. The irony was that however up-to-date his volatile chamber, it could not compete with the three Rettier diagnosts implanted in my opthalmic bulb, each running their own identification protocols on every bite that I ate, every scent that I smelt, every savour that drifted past my nose. And I hadn’t even had to ask them about this – plain, simple old unaugmented memory had done it.
“Ideal,” I said. “I see no purpose in wasting any time.”

The kitchen had been in full swing, the very middle of service, but when the chef and I entered the brigade were standing back from their positions. Giroflet marched to a glass-fronted cabinet built into the wall and remotely slid a door aside with a gesture. “You will not be familiar with such equipment, Mr Castleman,” he said with a sneer. “Typically more useful for creating than criticising, but in this instance, perhaps demonstrative.” He nodded me the readout it stood, void and green in my upper left eye, while I waited with crossed arms for him to press the button.
He did so, and in a flash of intense heat and low pressure the food sublimed straight off the dish, its molecules unaltered. Every volatile was charted, right down to the single molecule.
Not a single shadow of beaver anywhere.
I immediately replayed my own readings. The two Rettier 409s in tandem had tasted, said their memories, nothing but perfectly ripe Wilson pear, cider vinegar pickle, anethole, menthole… Nothing indicative of raw meat.
The 309 said the same – after a rapid reboot.
So how had I tasted raw beaver?
The chef was looking at me. “It grieves me that you no longer have a dish of pears to enjoy,” he said. “But if you came with another intention – not the intention to enjoy the food set before you – who am I to cross your path? Please leave this kitchen. And my restaurant. And do not try to bluff with me again.”
A security man in his uniform black had appeared from somewhere, but I had no intention of staying. Return to the table and admit I had been wrong? Return to that silent room where I had faced the chef with such conviction? When my own nose had lied to me? What was this.
“Your machine says there was no beaver in this, but if I tasted beaver then I tasted beaver.”
“I think you are over-taxing your imagination, Mr Castleman. A hysterical experience, perhaps. And if a single subjective opinion should react in such a way… Well, I dismiss it!”
A heavy hand grasped at my sleeve, but I shook it off. “Get off!” I shoved a pastry chef out of the way and headed towards the service entrance.
“You’ll think hard before publishing a review based entirely upon your imagination, I’m sure,” said the chef. “Although perhaps rather more of what you have written was made up than you ever realised.”
His tone was so disgustingly smug that I wanted to spit. I wanted to throw something with clang or slam a door. I was searching for the last phrase to end it all.
I had nothing left to say.

At Max’s Deptford Penthouse – Rafe Castleman Reviews

I took a slider to Deptford where Max had his penthouse. It was a warehouse conversion from the noughties, updated with screenwalls in one half and a glossy live-art installation on the roof terrace, editing itself in time with the sculptor’s orginal somewhere in cool Nicaragua. For my taste, rather kitsch and very visually noisy, but then I could always choose not to see it.
Max was lounging on a brown leather recliner with a glass of brandy in his hand. I could smell the grape-rot from the moment the door rolled heavily aside.
“Hey, Rafe, come on in! Pour yourself one!”
There was also an empty bottle of champagne by his foot on the rug. He had plainly been drinking Admiral’s flip – until the champagne within easy reach ran out.
“How much did we make last night,” I asked, sitting down opposite him.
“A lot,” he said. “Something like thirteen billion calories.”
“How many of those have you just drunk?”
He gave me a look like the look you’d give your younger brother when he told you to grow up. “Do you want to know or are you just pissed at me? I’m not pissed at you, Rafe, I’m just pissed. I’m pretty pleased with you, my golden goose.” He staggered around the heavy coffee table and tried to plant a kiss on my cheek.
“Just do the sobering thing,” I said. “I’m tired of this Max already.”
He shrugged and turned away. I heard a deep breath and watched him shudder, hard, as his gastros metabolised the alcohol far faster than his liver could. He turned around with a scowl. “For a guy who makes his living eating and drinking, you’re a pretty miserable species of hypocrite.”
“And for someone who makes a living by split-second statistics, you’re a lazy drunk.”
He laughed. “Maybe. But the difference is, I take time off. I know when to stop working.”
“Well not now,” I said. “Let’s get Bengt in. We have to think about what’s next.”
He shook his head. “I don’t get it,” he said. “You score one of the biggest spikes we’ve ever set up, all on the spur of the moment, all improvised out of your ice-cream dish and you can’t even relax about it for a single day.”
“We don’t have a day,” I replied. “Cornucopia’s move is in. They’re buying Scotch whisky. Distilleries. Brands. Supply channels. This morning.”
“You sure?”
“Have a look,” I replied. I nodded him a spread of the current business reports. He went quiet and unfocused. I leant forward, shifted in the debris for an almost-clean glass and poured myself brandy, no ice, looked around for some soda water. None in sight. Scanned. None in the flat. Ordered some with my DoubleDiamond. It was really seeing the most action at the moment.
“Okay,” said Max slowly. “What does it mean?”
“Get Bengt on the big screen,” I said. “I don’t want to explain this twice.”

After the soda water droned in and I had poured it, we got Bengt live and began by replaying the data from last night’s escapade.  Max had managed to continue trading into SBS until 9:20, after I’d decided we’d go for the spike. Every loose contract Bengt had been able to find over the previous few weeks had been exchanged, sometimes at considerable expense, for a new, shiny SBS contract. Their relative value had continued to rise, first well, then ridiculously as the commentary and live casts had streamed out of Eis, all rapturously reflecting Zahra Fukusawa’s performance and the intricate cleverness of the ice-cream. Then at 9:25 Max had begun to shift back out. Even those five minutes had seen a sizeable profit on every contract. The demand from interested consumers keep to stay tip-top and have the next big thing had spiralled up – and for every new consumer, Max just happened to have a contract they could purchase. Through a complicated system of blinds, of course.
By the time I posted at 9:53, Max and Bengt between them had exchanged more than three thousand contracts, most of which had been replaced with Cornucopia’s standard offerings in grades between four and eight. Bengt had managed to gain a brace of twenty-twos and Max had a higher average for his 2231 individual contracts. That was our equivalent of a profit of thirteen billion calories.
By the morning, Cornucopia’s rivals had all reacted one way or the other. Poor Tom, Dick and Harry on the street were now bought into contracts several months long with a deeply unfashionable and popularly unreliable consort. UDIT trading rules would stop most of them switching again for some time. Exactly the sort of rules that Bengt and Max were experts at breaking. Knowing that the relative value of a contract with SBS was now so low that they would struggle to fund any new launches, acquisitions or even a lifestyle drive in the near future, Monocle had moved back the launch of next week’s Chateau Pom Pom in Dakar, GruppoBimbo had extended their celebrations allowance for grades five to fifteen and Cornucopia had begun to buy whisky.
“That’s a significant outlay,” I said. “Look. That’s Grant, bought at asking price from Sabmil-Cocapep. The HighIsles Collection, also Sabmil. Distributors in Jordan, Poland, the Southern States, Scandi.”
“But who drinks whisky?” asked Bengt through the translator. The virtual voice did a fairly good job of being his Norwegian-accented echo, exactly twenty milliseconds after him. “Only old people.”
“No,” I said. “Not when Cornucopia match it with their Qualitas brand. They’re trying to broaden and heighten the grasp. It’s aspirational yupster marketing. Whisky, spirits, we’re going to see yoga mats, exercise bikes, the whole caboodle. Then Monocle – they’ve already got the cruise restaurants cornered. They’ll throw those in – you wait and see. We’ll see three new grades inserted somewhere in Gruppo’s hierarchy and more restaurant launches than you can shake a very shaky stick at. What it means is, the yupster war has only just begun. What it means is, good times are coming.”
Bengt and Max were on it. There was no need to steer Max away from the brandy now. He was projecting onto the tabletop where we could all see his hands weaving through information, piecing together a narrative of growth for us out of the vast market of eat or be eaten. Bengt spoke up. “Ok. So Max, find us some nodes. Rafe, switch that schedule over. Let’s concentrate on getting as much out of this as we can. We can leave the Eastern Europe plan for now.” I was glad of that. I’d been trying to talk them out of forcing me to go and eat a thousand varieties of borscht for the previous few months. “I’ll see what else I can rustle up in the twelve, fifteenth grades, London of course, Boston, all the yupster hubs. And tidy away most of these Cornucopias. Sell them back the German old people’s home somehow. Cleanse the trail. Keep me posted, brothers.” He winked out, and the giant wallscreen reverted to a view of Cambodian islands.

Bengt was a UDIT man. A bent UDIT man, of course, but then it seemed that they all were. In a world of apparent scarcity, in which an international regulatory body would oversee that everyone received their right to a sufficient nutrient and calorie intake and yet in which the fat cats were still fat and everyone else were still mice, how could they not be bent? They were lining their own pockets and their own bellies besides. They had to be. That was they way it worked. Bengt was no more dishonest in his position than everyone was.
He was a resurrectionist. His real job was to identify contracts that had fallen dormant, either because of unreported death, luddism or any of the many mistakes the system was prone to, and to report and close them. Which he did. But before putting them to sleep, he used them to wring a few more calories from the nutricorps who dictated everything to us.
Max was the statistician. He worked on turning the welter of noisy data into something that we could react to – and even, in a tiny way, guide. Watching the relative value of contracts with each of the many nutricorps, the popularity of one and the other.
Whereas I was the front line. I was the shark end of the wedge, the tooth on the tip of the open jaw of the shark at the front of the shoal. I used my intuition and knowledge to judge what was about to break big, which food was about to be the fad, which contract was going to be sought after. I could review, wheedle, manipulate and dictate. I had eaten in every country under the sun, eaten every cuisine and every style, knew where those cuisines came from, historically, chemically, who was innovating, who disrupting, who was winning, who was losing.
We were winning.
I was winning.

“So what do you think, Rafe,” asked Max. We had taken a break from the stats and the detail. “What’s your hunch?”
“The first tier will react,” I replied. “Sahi, SLM, McNestle, all of them. Sabmil-Cocapep, of course, once they see the pitch of the new yupster-grabbers.” SBS and its competitors were big, don’t get me wrong. Alliances and conglomerates that counted hundreds of companies within their bounds, with millions of subscribed dependents in countries across Western Europe and further afield. But the eight largest nutricorps and their subsidiaries provided nutrition and life-style for seventy-three percent of the world’s population. They had swallowed industries. They had swallowed nations. They had extinguished species and designed new ones. They were the world. To them, the three of us skimming a little floating cream were no more significant than a water-flea to a whale. They had been content to let the second-rates squabble. After all, what need had they to fight over yupsters when they had Malaysia? When they had the urban poor… Everywhere. When they had Mexico city, suckling at the teats of SafdieLandrieuMavrou and flourishing. When they had the factory cities of China and North Australia?
“I think they’ll do some outright grabbing,” I said. “Easy transfer rates, to get the floaters. Then some new supernovas – regain some ground. The young ones have been taking up a lot of media time. Knock them back.”
Max nodded. “I agree.”
“I’ll keep cycling through ontrend,” I said. “Hold my spot. But anything from one of the first tier will give us a real opening.”
He looked at me. “Nothing wonky,” he said. “You can’t play those sort of tricks with Sahi or McNestle.”
“We don’t need to,” I said. “We just time it right, I file a straight review. No monkey business.”
He looked at me sharply. “That’s exactly what I mean. You’re too easily distracted. We didn’t need to knock SBS last night. We could have uptraded anytime and still made a good profit. You just got carried away. In walks a pretty woman, you switch into performance mode.”
“I was very low-key,” I said, unable to stop my smile. Max knew me. We’d worked together long enough that he knew me.
“You know exactly what I mean. If you want to stir a bit more in the top tier, that’s fine by me. But we need to know when to pull out. And stay focused.”

Eis Part II – Rafe Castleman Reviews

eis2The plan had come to me the same moment I had seen her. It was quite simple. First I had to get everybody in the place raving about it, publically. Then I had to melt all the ice-cream in the building.
Zahra Fukasawa was in fact exactly the sort of person the management would have hoped to attract to Eis. She was here spontaneously, I was sure, because the restaurant would have been unable to remain silent about such a scoop. It also fitted what I knew about her.
She was a soundscaper. A half-Iranian, half-Japanese citizen of the world who had found some celebrity a year or so previously, her art a form of dance and musical composition that turned ambient noise into rhythmic, melodic expression. It got recorded, but the thing died in captivity as surely as orcas used to do. No, to experience it, you had to be there live, or ride someone who was there.
That’s why I had known I could create a real spike. Any other celebrity of her class would have been a success for Eis, but for me, Zahra Fukasawa was the opportunity we had been looking for.
First, of course, the waiting staff identified her. Her aura was relatively discreet – not anonymous by any means, but from where I sat she had a lot less flashing around her than, say, Niki Booker-Cosens, Thought-Patterner, hiremeforyourcognitivechange, discretiondevelopmentdirection over there in the booth by the street. But there was a collective shifting in their seats from the customers and a waiter hurried out with another table and set it near the other end of the bar, one chair for her while her minder stood.
I don’t normally open my vis to the public channels for long, but tonight I needed to know what everyone was thinking. Looking around I could see updates and pops, messages and updates and status reports being published all around the room. Zahra Fukusawa here in Islington gosh you wont believe this shes here!!! @Eis with @ZahraF This place @eis just got cooler… and so on.
I was on my twenty-eighth ice-cream. Just over halfway. This one was rare Welsh lamb, served with candyfloss, a very pleasant pink and pink with a single mint leaf. In less than the time it took me to eat the single spoonful, I had created a guest account through a dummy identity on the most popular Zahra fancom, and posted that she’d been spotted in Eis and had promised to give a performance.
By the pine-corn-old coin sorbet that followed, my message was being referenced all round the room and much further abroad as well. I shot a line to Max, typing by habit into a keyboard only I could see overlaid on the bar. Get me a Zahracrowd. Fanstorm.
In the meantime, they had sat her down and welcomed her and the big minder had already turned a couple of print-hunters away. She needed to perform, not simply sit and guzzle cold dairy products.
To my left was a woman whose aura said she was thirty-one, Viki Crane, much more besides. She looked bemused by the stirrings. But she had an air about her… The air of someone who always knows more than you. I swung my stool towards her.
“I’ve got no idea either,” I said. “Some sort of celebrity, I think.”
Her eyes twitched. “Zahra Fukasawa,” she said. “The soundscaper? You must have heard of her. She won the Lit Medal last year?” The slight hesitations told me that she was reading her facts off something virtual.
“Oh, I see,” I replied. “A musician. Funny, I thought she was someone important.”
“Deeply important,” replied Miss Crane, with a shake of the head. “She’s redefining music.”
“Music’s all the same to me,” I said with a shrug.
Her need to be right was far more powerful than her sense of bashfulness. “Oh, no. If she performs tonight you’ll know that you’ve heard something special. She can turn your own heartbeat into something wonderful.”
While I was winding this woman up I was tracking Max’s progress. Already the queue outside had doubled in length and chatter on the fan sites was peaking. The problem was that at the moment, there was no way she would give a free, impromptu performance here. It would be squandering her considerable social pull for the sake of a place she had simply popped into hoping to get a little sweet supper.
So I needed to pretend to be someone else again.
I faked up a message from an address that could be Eis’s management and sent it straight to Zahra’s sponsor, flattering her grossly, describing the wonderful serendipity of the evening, such pleasure in having her come and grace the new endeavour, proposing an alliance of convenience for a limited time. In return for an ‘impromptu’ performance in house tonight, we, the management of Eis, would arrange for twentieth grade contracts for a year with SBS, our parent consort, for Miss Fukagawa, her sponsor and thirteen other nominees.
By the second spoon of the spicy marron glace ice, I had seen Zahra whisper to the manager and then stand while her table was tidied away again. She had barely had the time to take a single lick of a beautiful vanilla cone that they had brought her.
“Dear diners,” began the manager, an anonymous, large woman dressed in black and possessing a particularly fat pair of lips, “We are honoured by the presence of Miss Zahra Fukasawa, who will now perform a spontaneous soundscape. Please ensure your aural implants and augmentations are channelled to our house band.”
The room, already virtually abuzz, now really began to bubble. People were telling their relatives, making distant friends jealous, publicising eyeshots, uprating the restaurant, surfing on a virtual wave of hype even while they sat in the semi-dark on their leather bankettes. I turned to the Viki lady. “So this must be a real spontaneous thing, for her.”
“Oh, I’m sure not,” she replied breezily. “Probably a well-prepared scheme.”
“I didn’t read about it with the opening,” I said.
She frowned a moment, then thought her way to the high ground again. “Maybe it wasn’t available on your level of access.” I really had to work hard to keep my grin to myself.
“Well, this is going to be the partnership the manager mentioned at the door, then,” I returned. There was no way this woman was going to admit she had heard nothing of the sort, but a startled look in her eyes told me she had taken the bait.
In a few moments I had my next ice-cream and Zahra had finished her preparations. Diners were mentioning a partnership, maybe even a sponsorship between the restaurant where they were eating right this moment and Zahra Fukagawa herself, even as they watched with open-mouths, but my mind was elsewhere. I was researching thermostat codes.
The public lay was, as I mentioned, a seamlessly well-designed interface that allowed customers to interact with a menu, log preferences, link images, read histories and discussions and much more beside. Behind it, on a visual channel unobservable to eyes without a certain ram loaded, was the business lay, giving the waiting staff information on their customers, orders, spacial patterning, calorie consumptions and, crucially for an ice-cream restaurant, temperatures. With it I could see through the bar to the kitchen and even the stockroom. I could see the till in virtual blue above the centre of the room where Zahra was now wheeling her arms in some presumably intricate and musical fashion, see the unpaid and the booked.
But back to the kitchen. It was empty now. The three kitchen staff had come out to watch and listen to the show. The barstaff were also enraptured. There wasn’t even a kitchen porter around. I identified the access interface for the freezer, hacked it with a freely-available maintenance override ram I fed into it, and reversed the temperature flow, while leaving a trace that gave the impression of factory-sourced malfunction. Thankyou online community of freezer electricians and your well-organised maintenance archive.
I returned my attention to the room around me and even tuned in to the house band. There was a relationship between her movement in her headscarf and bootleg slacks and the complex, cross-rhythmed melodies I could hear. All around the room, conoisseurs were nodding and giving themselves little smiles of satisfaction. To me it sounded like repetitive cutlery-dropping – but then maybe that was in fact where she had sourced her basic sound palette.
People were leaning in through the open doors, then, before anyone in the rapt staff could do anything about it, trickling inside in quite an English way, not wanting to take up space they hadn’t paid for but unwilling to miss the opportunity of hearing and seeing and experiencing this music-changer at work. Her minder looked panicky for a moment until he realised they were going to follow his hand signals and keep a good distance. After all, they wouldn’t want to trespass on their own heroine’s creative space.
They kept pressing in, until my eyes counted more than a hundred standing there, as well as us. With the conditioning off – I had done that as well, of course – more factory faults – the temperature in the room slowly began to rise and the little spheres of perfect chemistry began to lose their integrity and sink into puddles of expensive custard. Not that anyone was paying attention.
I was on my forty-third when she finished. My desserts had kept coming simply because of the conveyor belt in front of me, but I was fairly confident that these would be the last frozen things leaving the kitchen that night. It was a homage to the old neapolitan, but using Brie, pink caviar and rye to mess with my expectations. Too rich, really. Or perhaps that was simply the temperature.
“Incredible,” breathed my new friend to my left. “Don’t you think?”
“Hard to believe,” I agreed. “Very hard to believe.”
Forty-four was anchovy, kalamansi and basil. Very finely balanced. I concentrated on it while I listened to the increasingly frustrated customers around the room.
I sent Max a single word.
“What do you mean, I can’t have another one? You can see this one melted while we watched your performer!”
“Wait how long?”
“How can an ice-cream restaurant not have any ice-cream?”
That was the one I had been waiting for.
Then I heard Zahra. “I thought I had been given twentieth grade,” she was saying sharply. “You think I just give my performances away?”
I got the clear from Max, then pushed myself off my stool and headed out to the street, typing on my thighs as I went, grinning like the shark leaving the empty lagoon. The review was out in eight minutes. Two minutes before Zahra Fukagawa’s sponsors filed a lawsuit against Eis and eighteen minutes before the value of SBS contracts plummeted to the lowest they had been that year.
Of course, our contract holdings were all in Cornucopia now.

Eis – Rafe Castleman Reviews

Illustration from The Fat Duck Cookbook, Cape Press 2008
Illustration from The Fat Duck Cookbook, Cape Press 2008

North Central London, a district still lit by real light, glowing in the virtual with a million competing projections. Flying over the city at night, perhaps low in a glidesuit from any one of the tourist platforms, you can see a street that runs north to south from Holloway to Angel, gleaming a retro sodium orange like a slit in the side of a black-skinned clementine.
This is Upper Street, the restaurant mile. A thousand years ago herds of cattle walked the same rise and fall to Smithfield, where they were slaughtered. And nowadays? It’s seen the blood run from the jugulars of hundreds of hope-drunk restauranteurs.
Swooping lower, where the street kinks a little to the west, you might see one of the many queues outside the tip and ontrend eateries, one particularly buzzing with the auras of gastros and yupsters and coolhunters. They were queuing, this particular night, for tables at Eis, which had opened the same week. They had all traded their entitlements with their own consort for credit with Sysbiowynstay, calling in favours, momentarily faking their birthdates, finding codes for free trials at higher grades than they could afford, all so they could boast of eating where the ice-cream was savoury and the ideas fresh. Continue reading “Eis – Rafe Castleman Reviews”

Short Children

‘Your children,’ said the Inspector, ‘Are too short.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Too short.  Too many are not achieving the expected height for children of their age.  A child of eleven years old is expected to be a minimum height of 1.34m by the end of Primary School.’

Mr Briggs paused, to check that he had heard what he had thought he had heard.  ‘Some are a little short, it is true,’ he conceded.  ‘Others are taller, though.’

The Inspector shook his head.  ‘Indeed.  A regrettable lack of consistency is observable.’

‘We find that most are tall enough by the time they reach us here in Year Six.  To reach, for example, the books on the shelves.  Jake is exceptionally small – but others are always ready to help him.’  Mr Briggs looked fondly towards Jake’s chair – a real trier, despite all his problems.

‘Ah.  But will that always be the case?’  The Inspector exhaled frustratedly, and answered the teacher’s unasked clarification.  ‘Other people, Mr Briggs.  The children should not be taught to rely on others – they should learn to rely upon themselves.  Each man, I have heard it said, is an island.’

‘But surely allowances must be made?  Is it possible for all children to attain that height?  I myself am rather short.’  Mr Briggs was indeed a little man.  In fact, as soon as any of his children came across that fabulous fantasy, The Hobbit, hidden like a pearl of great worth in the tightly-packed, admittedly rather high bookshelves that lined the classroom, they could not fail to form a mental picture of Bilbo Baggins with his thumbs stuck into his waistband, his head a little balding, his shoes worn through, like their own teacher, whom they could observe minutely from registration to story time.

‘Mr Briggs you are woefully underinformed.  Of course it is possible for all children to attain such a height!  Research has proven it – repeatedly!  Within your borough there are schools who attain one hundred percent expected height – and many children surpass that height!’  The Inspector spoke fervently.  He was in fact over six foot and, although he didn’t like to mention it, the shortest of the inspectors in his office.  ‘Of course such growth is possible!  With the correct diet, the proper climate of aspirational escalation, suitable role models…’  He paused.  ‘There are courses of treatment, exercises, training for staff working with children of Exceptionally Low Height.  In this day and age it is inexcusable for you to be sending children out into the world with such disadvantages!’

Mr Briggs sat down in his story-telling chair.  ‘I suppose it is no use to remark that many of our children are very small when they join us – particularly small, I notice.  In fact, in the course of my career I do believe I have observed a general decline in the height of children joining the school.’

‘Do not attempt to hide behind statistics and trends, Mr Briggs.  It is precisely because of declining height that the targets were set in the first place!  I suppose you realise that it is your personal responsibility to ensure that all the children in your care achieve a height from which they can look down upon their infantile behaviours.  Remaining undergrown can seriously hinder a child in their mental, academic and moral development.  For example, teenage pregnancies are notably more common amongst those of less-than-average-height.’

Mr Briggs shrugged helplessly. ‘In all honesty I must say that it was to escape the worries of teenage pregnancies that I chose primary teaching.  I prefer the world of the innocently soiled to that of the soiled innocents.’

The Inspector paced the room.  He appeared to inspect the working wall, which held a flurry of neon post-its quizzing the habits of polar bears, but in fact he was preoccupied with his own train of thought.

‘What is particularly disappointing is that there is so little progress in height across the key stages.  The majority of your pupils simply make average progress during their time here.  Average progress!  What if everybody made average progress?’

‘What if, what if?’  Mr Briggs chuckled to himself at the horror of a world in which all made average progress.

‘But!  Many of your pupils fail to manage even that.  In fact, according to the data you have submitted, one child is even supposed to have had negative growth!  He is now shorter than last year!’

Mr Briggs raised a finger.  ‘He did, however, lose both his legs in a rather nasty car accident, and I think in his case a little compassion…’

‘Compassion, Mr Briggs?  What place has compassion in this discussion?  You cannot deny that this case is quite, quite awful.’

‘It is, Inspector.’

The Inspector began pacing again.  ‘It seems to me that what this school needs is a severe shake-up.  I am sure that you do not measure the children regularly.  Perhaps if you measured them more often you would be rewarded with more growth!  There is not even a height chart in here.  Why, at Highdene school, every class has a height chart that extends to three metres!  They provide a truly aspirational climate, and several of their children have gone on to join the Grenadier Guards.’

‘Really,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Well, this is not Highdene school.’

The Inspector now circuited the room, scowling at the miniature chairs that obstructed him.  He stopped by the window.  ‘Mr Briggs, I do not want you to gather the impression that I am any different from yourself.’  He smiled.  It was the smile you find semi-submerged in greedy African rivers.  ‘I simply want all kids to enjoy the world around them – to partake of every opportunity.  They should be able to look out of this window and see a world within their grasp.  See those apples on those trees.  They should be able pick them.  See those wires on those poles – every child wants to reach out for those wires and swing, swing into the future!  But what if these kids cannot stretch to take the book from the shelf, the can of baked beans from the supermarket aisle?’

‘I suppose you could always try lowering the shelves…’

‘Mr Briggs!  You miss the point entirely!  We must not allow ourselves to move the goalposts – to let standards slip!  You are advocating a world in which books and cans of baked beans roll about on the floor!  Where is the order?  Where is the aspiration?  Where is the opportunity, Mr Briggs, the opportunity?’

Mr Briggs too looked out of the window.  It was an autumn day and the weather had just changed.  A cold shower of rain was likely and the wind blew hard in the yew trees by the church gate.  His children had all long gone home, on differently sized legs.

‘There are children,’ he said slowly, ‘quite content to be short.’  He did not look at the Inspector, who was probably rather too shocked to respond in the small pause.  ‘In fact I try to teach each child to be happy whatever their height.  Some grow, some do not, but it is certain that the short ones enjoy opportunities – if you wish to talk about opportunities – that the larger will never have.  They can hide in smaller spaces when playing hide-and-seek – they can walk under low lintels without bumping their heads – and when they are older they can live in smaller, older houses, built for people of much smaller generations.  Small people feel a pride in their size – they associate with the underdog, not the victor.  I am not sure if smallness doesn’t breed compassion.  The smallest child in this class is not the naughtiest, nor the messiest, nor the rudest.  A child can be thoughtful, honest and wise and still stay small.’

The wind blew outside.

The Inspector perched on the edge of a table.  ‘I am concerned that you have simply taken this position to be obstructive and have created these strange justifications to reassure yourself.  You are an intelligent man, Mr Briggs, and I have read some of your research and its interesting findings, but you cannot base educational practice upon convictions.  We are not Victorians.  No, convictions are a weak foundation – proper educational research is what should direct you.  I am sure you have read the recent international study on height in Primary school pupils.  Scandinavian schools repeatedly achieve significantly greater standards year-on-year.  Our national average is the lowest in western Europe and far behind the US.  Even France have taller children and they have a woefully disorganised system with great variations in regional diet, to say nothing of their secularism and their short role models.  Why are we trailing the developed world?’  The Inspector’s faced darkened and his voice became hard and steely.  ‘Sometimes I wonder if it isn’t the teachers holding us back!’

Mr Briggs frowned.  ‘I must say that I find this desire to exceed very strange.  Why is “tall enough” never enough?  Why must we strain to make our children as tall as their peers, then taller than their peers, then taller than last-year’s children, then taller again?  When will we say that our children are tall enough?’

‘Don’t indulge in these flights of fancy!  Your task is to ensure that your pupils reach a national standard of height – a task which you have repeatedly failed to complete.  Pupils are leaving this school at all manner of heights!’

Mr Briggs could not deny that.  Why, every single child in his class had achieved a different height last year.  None had measured 1.34m at the end of the year, and no two had measured the same.  ‘Inspector, as you were inspecting earlier in the day, I am sure that you noticed other qualities which we do our best to encourage in the children at our school.  Did one perhaps open a door for you?  Did any proudly show you their drawings?  Were some bold and forthright in speaking to such a tall stranger in their midst?  Did you find some reflective, careful or kind?’

The Inspector snorted a kind of laugh.  ‘Can you bottle love, Mr Briggs, or standardise thoughtfulness?  Courage, kindness, self-awareness – who has written the standards for these?  As inspectors we stick to those things that can be empirically measured.  Either a child reaches the next centimetre, or he does not.  Next year we will be rolling out tests of weight for all children entering the school, together with a weighing at the end of Year One to ensure that all have been properly nourished.  We expect a dramatic result from this, as it has been scientifically proven that achievement in weight and height are inextricably linked.’

Mr Briggs riffled through the pages of a dictionary open on his desk.  ‘Ah yes,’ he said.  ‘Who does write these standards?  I imagine that whoever set the standard for height was themself tall.’

‘Without a doubt.  As a very minimum, all participants in the writing of educational policy are well-developed in height.  It is simply a fact of life – in fact, they have certainly used their height in attaining their positions in society.  Children cannot rise to the top and achieve their potential without basic height, no more than anyone in society can.  The government’s Every Child Metres scheme is grounded in broader social policy – that all children should be healthy, safe, enjoy and achieve, make a positive contribution and achieve economic well-being.’

Mr Briggs had had enough of this pompous claptrap.  ‘Who exactly decides what those positive contributions are, Inspector?  What is economic well-being?  Is it the warm feeling of well-being you have by being tall and wealthy?’  He began to get into the stride of his rant.  ‘A feeling of well-being can be misplaced.  There are always people to look down on us, and always people to look up at us – that is the way we are made.  These positive contributions!  To what are the contributions made?  Are they positive in terms of decision, participation, outlook?  Do we risk ruining our society if our children are not able to stand tall amongst the crowd of participating voters?  Or are your plans to standardise children any more than plans to stabilise society – to quash and sideline the questioning voices of the disadvantaged – the disadvantaged whose struggles have always been the catalyst for change?  Was there a minimum height requirement to join the French revolution, or to be one of the twelve disciples?  When will you call the short second-class citizens and mean what you whisper – you the inspectors, you the overdogs, you the tall?  I do not deny the benefits of height – I do not deny that every child should be well-nourished and exercised and should grow as tall as he or she can!  But I refuse to tell them how tall that is!  I refuse to let them think that they can fail at growing!  I do not think anyone can fail at growing.  I am a teacher because the best things I can teach are the ones that I do not understand – the ones that very few people understand – but perhaps some of my children, short or tall, understand one day in their hearts.  The world may judge them for their height, but I will not, and the world will change because these children will be the world, and they will not be scared to change!’

The Inspector narrowed his eyes.  ‘This is very dangerous.  I am surprised that you ever received sanction to teach vulnerable children.  You will not be working here much longer, Mr Briggs.’

Mr Briggs sat back in his chair.  ‘Inspector,’ he said, ‘It is already too late.  These children can never believe you now.  In fact I am sure that at least two of them will become teachers too.  And it gives me some satisfaction to say that they are amongst the shortest in my class.’

I wrote this in Autumn 2011, after a particularly frustrating RBWM meeting of Literacy Co-ordinators.

Tall Children

‘Your children,’ said the inspector, ‘are too tall.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘Too… tall?’

‘That’s what I said.  They are much taller than they are blonde.  How do you account for that?’

Mr Briggs tried to collect his wits.  What sort of response could he make to such a statement?  He edged forward in his seat to peer over at the spreadsheet the inspector was reading from and then sat back and rued ever supplying the man with his hard-won measurements.  It was very hard indeed to get some of the children to stand still long enough to measure them in the official manner, and now, having managed to get some sort of measurement out of them and then working hard to tabulate it, it was being fired back at him as though it was all… wrong?

The inspector pressed forward with his argument, a stubby finger wagging from a stained, monstrous cuff.  ‘Your children are tall but very few of them are strongly blonde – really showing a consistent colour.  How has your intervention as co-ordinator targeted this discrepancy?’

Mr Briggs fought back an urge to laugh at the man.  ‘Well, perhaps some of them jumped during measurements,’ he suggested in a frustrated ironical tone.  His colleague Mrs Green flashed him a warning glance – for his own sake, he knew.  But his sense of the ridiculous bridled and he wanted to speak.  ‘If the children were shorter, the discrepancy might disappear.  Perhaps we should remove their shoes.’

The inspector sat back, all geniality.  ‘No, no, no.  I am not at all suggesting that we should lower their performance in height, but for several years your children – apart from last year, of course – have been above the national average in height, but below the national average in blondeness.’

‘Let me be perfectly honest,’ said Mr Briggs.  ‘At a small, family school like ours we look at the children as individuals.  One of my tallest girls – in my class – a girl whom I have taught and seen grow over the course of the last three years – towers over her class mates.  Does it bring her happiness?  No – far from it.  Although there is value in great height, she is not yet of a character strong enough to live with the burden of being six inches taller than her best friend – buying uniform from secondary suppliers that are never the correct shade of red – her shoes immediately recognisable without even that strange knack for scent that children possess.  On top of this, would I wish her to be blonde?  Not at all.  Let her enjoy standing in the background until she values herself enough to step forward.  She may always dye her hair.’

‘Individual cases do not concern me, Mr Briggs.  I am interested in the performance of your school overall.’

The man could not have played better into his hands.

‘Individual cases concern me exclusively, Mr Inspector.  That is why I am a teacher and you are not.’

Tall Children was written Spring 2012.  After a visit from OFSTED.

Dear Possessions – Part III

If you haven’t read the previous parts of the story, reading this one first will spoil the mystery!

I spent much of the day in bed.  A heavy chill had come over me following my rash behaviour and Helen insisted that I return to the guest room with a new fire, staying warm lest pneumonia develop.  I must admit, not only did I feel physically frail but my mind was cramped with strange half-whispered thoughts I strained to capture and command.  The broken ring still lay in my closed hand when some time near mid-day I fell into a deep sleep.

I awoke hours later still shivering.  The ring in my hand was too painful to hold, so I put it in the glasses case that now held my smashed spectacles lying on the table near my bed.  Then I began to pummel my memory to see if there was anything I had ever heard of that resembled this strange haunting – for by then, loath as I had been to admit it, I was sure that that was what it was.  I have seen many awful and some terrible things in my life and heard accounts from many concerning their oppressed or troubled lives subject to some supernatural influence, and while I could think of no matter in which treasured objects like these had been removed and bewitched, that in no way reduced my certainty that poor Michael and his wife were living in a house subject to just some such influence.

Lying there weakly, I went back over what had occurred since I had arrived at the house.  The key to the other bedroom had been discovered missing in the morning, and subsequently I had discovered it in the grass before going to bed.  It was that night that I missed my spectacles, which were then found the following evening once again in the garden, and then this morning I had missed Michael’s ring, as I was now sure he had.  But had he missed it before then?  When I came to think of this I realised what should have earlier been so obvious.  If Michael also knew of the absence of his wedding band, as he surely must have, it missing from his very hand, why had he not been out to search for it as I had, or had he already?  That broken branch of holly had held its still-green leaves, wet with the dew as I had raised it from the ground.  But the other end had too still been green, and the ground dry beneath it: the branch had been freshly torn from the hedge and before the dew had fallen.  Michael had missed his ring before he had gone to bed, but after I had seen the married pair retire.  No wonder he had slept so badly.

But that also meant that Michael had not found his ring and that he was probably still subject to that uncertainty through which he had blamed himself when I had first arrived, attributing two missing objects to his own forgetfulness.

However much Michael feared, then, it was unlikely that he feared that the band had been taken from his own hand – no, much rather that he had, in his distressed state, mislaid it, much as the key and, somehow, my glasses had been mislaid.

Nonetheless, I knew that his ring had disappeared last night, and re-appeared this morning, mangled and drainingly horrible and it had re-appeared further from the house than either of the other two mislaid objects.

Should any object disappear that night, then, it would reappear the next morning further even than the ring, in the shadows beneath the pines.  So I concluded.  The shivers returned and I fell back into the drowsing state of half-sleep that so exhausted me.  After about an hour of this, Helen appeared.  She brought me soup and some comforting words and I realised how morbid and strange my fevered wonderings had been.  She was not troubled by any presence or power.  The missing objects were merely confusing and a little nuisance.  Michael too appeared and said that he had telephoned for the doctor to come the following day, as it was now rather later than I had imagined.  He too was in admirable – enviable, even – spirits.  I banished my speculations at once from my head.

Of course it was the foolish assurances of security that were the products of my fever.  If I had remembered the ring lying in the case by my bedside I would have realised so immediately, and perhaps had and taken that opportunity to avoid the terrible consequences that would so shortly befall.

I really was ill.  My exhausted body struggled to engage the chill through the night, sending me hot and then cold and then hot again.  I lay, semi-conscious and only partly in control of my raving mind or flailing limbs.  There was no comfort in the narrow bed, none in my tormented mind.  The fears returned to me but Michael and Helen did not.  I know I would have shouted out warnings and despairing prophecies like a possessed man had they been there to even chance believing me, but my mind told me that I was alone.  Eventually sleep – that balm of the tortured, that gift to the suffering – sleep quietened my limbs and my lids and lips.  I ceased to think, ceased to fear, and lay in a deep slumber.

Waking life burst upon me with violent motions.  I was being shaken, hard, by the shoulders and sitting up in bed.  My mind, still dim, registered that the fever had passed, and my thought was only obscured by the lethargy of sleep still swimming through my head.  I was being shaken.  It was Michael.

‘Clement!  Clement!  For God’s sake, man, wake up!’  My tired eyes seemed to notice that he was wearing a burgundy-dressing gown.  Was it morning?  I shook off Michael’s hands and stretched my arms, trying to slough off the torpor and the ache of sleep.  But poor Michael’s next words brought me abruptly into the cruel morning.

‘She’s gone, Clement.  Helen has gone.’

I jumped up.  Never for a moment had I considered that.  I turned to Michael.  His face was hollow, pale and empty.  I prayed I was not awake.

‘Gone?’  I asked.  ‘What do you mean?  What has happened?’

Michael answered quickly.  ‘She has gone.  She came to bed with me last night and was there when I fell to sleep.  I have just woken up and she is gone.  She is not in the house.’

I threw on my clothes where they lay by the bed and dashed to the open door of the master.  The bed was open on one side where Michael had plainly been sleeping and the other was unmarked.  No-one had slept there.  I went up to the bed and, fearing the worst, reached out a hand to feel the eiderdown where Helen should have lain.  I shrank away from the cold before I could touch the bed.  Michael came over;

‘It has grown colder,’ he said, calmly.

‘Michael,’ I said.  ‘Forgive me.  I should have told you immediately.  I have your ring.’

‘You took it?’  He looked astounded.

‘No.  I found it in the garden.  It is in my room.’

We quickly returned and I showed him the twisted band.

‘Ugh!  That was mine?  It disgusts me!  It…’  He took it from me.  ‘What does this mean.

‘Michael,’ I said.  ‘I found it beyond the lawn, in the trees.  If whatever has taken these has also taken Helen, she must be there.’  Michael did not move.  He held the ruined ring in his open hand and shivered visibly.  His eyes were fixed on it lying there like a scar or an insult.

‘Your glasses,’ he said.  ‘Smashed.  The spoons, ruined, the locket destroyed…  Our ring…’  To hear him say ‘Our ring…’ I felt the cold despair return to my bones.  I could not move, although I knew we must.  The fear of what might be was too great.  ‘Our ring…  ruined.’  He looked up.  ‘And what of her?’

‘We must go,’ I said.  ‘We may be wrong – there may be a chance – we must hurry.’  I took him by the elbow.  ‘Come on, Michael.’

We went downstairs as we were, slippered and uncomfortable.  The back door which Michael had opened before waking me stood ajar, and in poured a thick reeking cold driving mist.  By the time we reached the door it had filled the room and swollen in a cloud to the stairs.  Unearthly and dark, it distorted all the shapes around us and swallowed the noise of our feet as we ran across the frozen lawn.  Michael tripped and slid and we found ourselves at the first of the terraces.  As I took his arms to help him up I felt great violent shivers – of fear or cold I knew not.  We blundered our way hopelessly between the hedges.  We fought aside the scratching holly and trod into the deep shadow of the copse.

The mist was thicker – too thick to reveal the bole of the tree a foot before.  We held hands like terrified children and plunged through the briars and the nettles and the ferns, regarding nothing.  And suddenly the mist parted.  We stood at the base of a low mound.  On all sides the mist wreathed and tore and roiled madly.  Overhead the mist glowed dully with the few weak rays of the sun and the ground was stony, rough, and an inch deep in rime.  The rank grass and stones rose sharply.  On top of the barrow – I realised that it was a barrow – lay Helen.

The ice was even thicker about her, but then I saw that she lay encased in white beneath even that.  She lay in her wedding dress like a doll, motionless, colourless, colourless, lifeless.  All around her, pendant and precious earrings dripped from low fingers, the pine branches bare and skeletal and possessing.  There was something lively, crystalline, distant, ghostly – there was something that I immediately associated with the malevolent power of possessive spirits – simply about the arrangement of the best gems of a young wife on the black and broken splayed talons of the trees.

We did not dare breathe.  How could our eyes belong to us – our breaths belong to us?  Helen lay there, her self desecrated and broken like the dearest possession.

Michael stumbled forwards up the mound and fell to his knees in the ice beside his wife.  He reached out to her face and touched it.  Nothing moved.

For a moment I thought that he had frozen too.  His outstretched fingers lay on her frail forehead.  But his lips began to part.

‘She is dead.’

Any shred of hope was tangibly raked from the last crevices inside our frozen bodies.  I know he too felt dragged inside out.  He had lost the very power to own – to possess – anything.

With a shrieking crash, ice fell from the trees.  The beaded pendants were caught and smothered.  A shudder passed through the ground under our feet.  Helen’s eyes opened.

What had happened in that place that the most precious things risked such evil destruction?  We left the house with all our questions unanswered.  Michael carried his wife away from the barrow barely breathing.  He had no desire to discover why.  We left immediately with the doctor, taking nothing but our loves.  All through our desperate journey I wondered, as I still wonder, had Helen herself been no more to some awful unknown monster than the trifles and petty possessions taken piecemeal over decades, or longer, from those that lived in that house?  A clock, a bent flute, a torn bag of coins, an old book.  All found lying in the ice around her on the barrow.  Was she just such a possession owned and envied, snatched away?  And had she been snatched back again, or had some deeper change taken place?  I left without anything I had brought.  And in some deep hidden part of my soul I knew there was a seed of fear.  Never had I so keenly felt and feared all the risk of keeping something close.

Dear Possessions – Part II

The box closed with a snap, as Michael tilted it to with his fingertips, then bringing them up to his mouth to breathe warmly and heavily onto them.  ‘I see that they also have some power over you.’  Michael’s voice was stern.  He spoke without excuse or sham, but unhappily regretful, and maybe even slightly appalled at himself.  ‘I have not been able to stop coming to look at them or able to stop thinking about them.  Awful aren’t they?  I cannot understand why they trouble me so.  Obviously, some family’s sad loss of something they treasured, but I would expect to sympathise and wonder, not lose my heart and my mind in a sadness not my own.’

I spoke quietly.  ‘It is as though they themselves embody all the loss of loved things, is it not?  I found myself despairing to possess all that I value.’

‘Exactly,’ said Michael.  ‘That is quite how I have been feeling since I found them.  I cannot escape the feeling.’

‘How did you find them?  Were they here, in this house?’

‘They were buried in the garden; I found them while digging into a patch of frost in a bed.  You can see in just a moment.’  But he made no movement towards the door.  Instead, Michael took up the envelope, and shook it over the folded leaf of the bureau.  Out fell the broken shell of a locket on a chain, its gold face pierced through and shorn open.  The fine links were knotted and tangled with dirt, and there was nothing left of any keepsake inside.  As I watched, a ring of frost formed encircling where it lay on the green leather, and I found myself once again drawn to gaze at it, before I regained control of my eyes.

Michael quickly scooped it back into the envelope and replaced it, with the box, inside the compartment at the back of the writing desk.

‘It is just the same,’ I said.  ‘Some once-prized pearl has been made ugly and meaningless.  What on earth might explain it all?’

We were understandably sombre, as we stood there and considered these strange objects and the powers they seemed to possess.  I vowed to Michael that if I could help discover some explanation that would set his heart at rest, I would.  ‘Where did you find this locket?’ I asked.  ‘Also in the ground?’

‘That’s right.  I’ll show you.’

Outside the night had sunk into the valley around us.  The last glimmerings of light hung from clouds in the west.  I remember that even despite the darkness and the earliness of the season, as well as our serious mood, the garden made upon me an impression of great beauty.  It was shaped as a shallow bowl some twenty yards broad, flattened into a small lawn running to the left of where we stood in the doorway.  On the north-west of the lawn were terraces, uneven but elegant, and on all sides the ground rose away behind holly hedges and thick bare undergrowth.  Directly across the lawn from where we stood the holly broke apart and the glossy evergreen black gave way beneath the pines of a small copse.  Michael sighed beside me at the door.  ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’

He was certainly right.  There was a fantastic air about the little dell, quite secluded and lovingly smoothed and shaped.  Even now it melted as mist crept under those hedges and sank down before us into the lawn.

‘But where were you digging?’ I asked with a shiver.  Michael turned and pointed to a bed beside the wall of the house, dark dry earth beneath the damson-dark brown brick of the wall.

‘The box was here.  And the locket…  It was tangled in the roots of a briar I tore up from beside the lawn.’

It was not the time to look more closely around the dark garden but just before we went back inside my eye was caught by something I saw on the lawn.  There was a brief sparkle as though something had fallen or was dropped from a short height, but as there was no moon yet and no stars under the cloud I suppose it must have been light from the house that was reflected.  I did not realise at the time that all the windows on this side of the building were closely tied with shutters.

But something shone.  I don’t know if Michael saw it too, but he didn’t ask anything as I left him and walked out onto the lawn, my eyes fixed on the point where I had seen the glint.  It was like wading ankle-deep into time’s cold sea.  The silken reams of mist hid two soaked inches of grass and I could feel the chill pass up my back to between my shoulderblades like a running steel.  About fifteen feet onto the lawn I plunged my hand into the swirling miasma and closed my fingers around the wet and icy shaft of a large old-fashioned key.

I gave out a laugh of loose and enjoyed surprise, as well as some kind of satisfaction, and striding back over the wet grass I brought my prize to where my cousin was waiting at the door with these words;

‘I fancy that this will be the key that you have been looking for, Michael.’

He took it sharply from my hand and held it high up before his eyes, the cold wet metal lying on his pale palm.  Eventually he spoke.  ‘Goodness, yes.’  It was the key to the door upstairs.  I could not see what was the cause of the glassiness in his eyes.

Helen had already retired, and so having assured Michael of the best efforts of my mind and my continued help in resolving this disturbing mystery, I took myself upstairs.  Michael also made his way to the master bedroom, expressing as he did his sincere thanks for my reassuring presence in the house.  Just before he left me, though, I thought to ask him one thing.

‘Tell me, have you shown anything of what you have found to your wife?’He shook his head.  ‘Or talked about it?’  He had not.  I would have asked him more, but he cut me off.

‘Listen, Clement.  It’s the awful worry that these things have put in me.  I fear all sorts of dire, irrational things.  I see…’  He hesitated.  ‘I don’t want Helen to be bound up by what they’ve induced in me.  Maybe you won’t have understood it, but if those feelings had been preying on your mind for as long as they have on mine you’d see.’  It was only later that I discovered just what fears the man had been subject to, and then too late.  For the time I fruitlessly wondered what he had been about to confide before breaking off, and then shut myself into my room.

Not quite at my ease, I decided that I would read before taking to bed, and drew the wicker chair closer to the lamp.  Fortunate to be one of those whose requirement for sleep is quite subject to will on many occasions I have been glad of the ability to defer my need for rest in the cause of either discovery or security.  Thus it was this night.  I took a book from my Gladstone, intending to sit up and work on an essay I was bound to submit to a journal.  My intention was strangely obstructed, however, when I discovered the absence of my reading glasses from their case.  At first I was tempted to go downstairs and check the drawing room to see if I had left them there, but I was prevented not only by my primary reluctance to blunder around an unfamiliar house in the dark, especially one belonging to such dear friends, and then by my subsequent realisation that to do so would be without purpose.  I had not removed my glasses from their case, or even the case from the bag itself since I had packed them early that morning.  There had been no cause to use them either travelling to the train, on the train, in the carriage or at the house, and it would have been very unlike me to pack an empty case.

In the end I was left pondering.  Unable to set myself at my ease, I went to bed and resolved that the next day should be spent enjoying the company of my Michael and Helen in some pursuit that would remove us from the house and divert us all from these worrying circumstances.

We left the house early and were amply entertained by a trip to the nearby county town Longlock for the most of the day.  Michael was much better for the distraction and his wife was particularly glad to be among everyday common folk again, for despite her devotion to her husband, it was plain to me that she was the sort who required much contact and intercourse besides that which he could provide.

It was late when we returned to the house.  The lanes had flashed by as we drove along in Michael’s sporty little car, but they had gone no faster than the light from the sky above us.  An owl swooped overhead as we turned in through the willows around the driveway to the house.

Indeed, the night looked like it would end quite without anxiety on the part of any of the inhabitants of this little house that, I must admit, had come to scare me a little.  We were jovial company, well fed, well entertained and amused with ourselves, but our bravado was not so great as to wish any delay before retiring.  So, Michael parked the car in the garage towards the rear of the house, at the side of the garden, and we proceeded immediately to the back door.

Helen preceded us to the door but before she arrived at it she let out a small cry of amazement.  The mist of the previous evening had not yet begun to gather in the dell, so I quickly saw what it was that had made her gasp.  There on the grass of the first terrace beyond the lawn, lay the reading-glasses I had missed last night.  I had mentioned my lack by necessity after being unable to read the menu when we had dined earlier in the evening and both Helen and Michael were plainly as amazed as I was that the spectacles which could not have fallen from a closed case within a bag were now to be seen lying at the far side of the garden, where I had not even yet trod.

Despite the return of a chill to my marrow I immediately continued across the grass to where the glasses lay.  They were lying on their back on a patch of dry ground between the layered turves, the lenses staring towards the gap in the hedge.  Or rather, the lens, for one of the tiny panes of glass was cracked and smashed, a good quarter missing and nowhere to be seen amongst the leaves.  As I picked them up I also noticed that one of the arms was twisted.  They were quite ruined.

We went indoors.  Helen was confused and apologetic, although of course, she had nothing for which to be apologetic, as I tried to convince her.  Michael was more troubled though.  He had plainly not failed to notice that the glasses had been found only a few feet from where the key had been.  What he had not opportunity to observe, however, was the chill I felt in the frames – a chill quite unnatural both for the balminess of the dusk and the slight weight of the eyepieces.  It was a feeling that thrilled through me, earthing itself in the cold small of my back, just as had the cold transmitted by the broken christening spoons and the twisted locket.

We were muted, then, as we bade one another good night.  The jollity of the day had evaporated like a diaphanous mist, insubstantial compared to the almost tangible unrest caused by the almost facile interference with these everyday obects that guaranteed our peace.  None of us had the energy, or even the real will, I realised, to try and re-capture the good-feeling we had been enjoying together not ten minutes previously.  My mind transmitted no committed decision to alter the mood, only a wistful weak desire that the past could be changed, whilst I mourned the very loss of our happiness.  Our day’s exhaustion had left us vulnerable and quiet, and we crept upstairs like victims over-awed.

I awoke still pondering the meaning of these impersonal disappearances and reappearances.  What was causing it?  My dreams had been troubled and I observed red-rimmed sleeplessness about my eyelids in the mirror as I shaved.  At breakfast both Michael and Helen were silent.  Their night had afforded them little more rest, then.  I sat at the table just as voiceless, watching Michael pour his wife a cup of tea.  I found myself watching him as he poured another for himself and then realised that I was watching him closely as he lifted the cup and drank.  Suddenly I realised what it was that I was seeing.  He was not wearing his wedding ring.

I made some excuse and left the table without delay.  If Michael’s wedding ring was missing – if it had been taken – then I knew where it would be, surely.

The garden was thick with frost and the spring air bit through my thin clothes.  Out on the lawn I started to look about in the grass.  A fallen branch of holly made an impromptu rake to turn over leaves and push apart the mint-green ice-edged blades.

I could not find the ring in the lawn, so I proceeded to check by the terraces where my glasses had lain.  I will admit, I was so sure somehow within me that I did not for a moment consider that the ring might not be found in the garden.  But it was neither on the first terrace, the second terrace or the third.

Frustrated, I started to check in the beds now stiff with crackling skeletons of last year’s flowers.  My search revealed nothing.  I stood upright and shivered heavily.  I could have gone to fetch a coat, but I continually felt on the cusp of the discovery, only inches away from what I sought.  It would be under the next leaf, beside the next shredded stem of dogwood or rose, in the next tuft of dierama.  It would be there.

Turning back towards the house, I threw the holly branch into the hedge and furled up my brow in a frown.  Where had I not looked?  Then, as I stood there at the end of the freezing garden, I realised where I had to look.  Directly in front of me, opposite where I stood and to the right of the door of the house, was the bed from which Michael had dug the wooden box containing the two grotesque spoons – I shivered simply to think of them.  Nearer by some five feet was the patch of earth from which the briar had been torn, around the roots of which had been tangled the empty locket.  Some ten feet nearer was the spot in the centre of the lawn where I had picked up the key to the guest room, being aired as I stood there and wondered in my shirt.  And then some six feet further still, just beneath where I stood had lain my spectacles.

And a straight line passed through each of these spots, and each time a missing or lost object had been found it had been farther along the line.  I should not be looking around where the key and spectacles had been, but further beyond them, behind me.

I turned.  There, behind me was the gap in the holly hedge and there, on the end of the lowest branch of the nearest, reaching pine, hung the ring.  It shone steadily like electric light, unwavering and piercing to the eye, hanging in the sun.  I walked between the hedges, reached up, and took it down.

As soon as I did so I was filled with the urgent desire to return to the house.  Where I stood I knew I was seen – watched and peered at by something I could not bear to seek.  My exposed sides were cold and stuck with the thin linen of my shirt.  And in my head I was batted dizzily about by a hundred disguised and confused remembered feelings.  I immediately realised, as my hand closed around that golden ring, that Michael’s precious token of his marriage had been deliberately ruined.  It was twisted into an unwearable tight ellipse, and a sharp edge ran into the ball of my finger where I held it tightly in my hand.  And it was cold.  Burningly, icily, destructively cold.

The cold raced up my arm and reached my head, making me spin where I stood.  The pines before me seemed to bend down at my face and the shadow beneath them loomed up.  The sadness – that same despair I had felt on holding the ruined treasures in the study – that great hollow meaningless fear and sadness mounted in me like a great salt wave.  Except now it had a certainty I had not known before: nuisance losses such as a key to an unused room, or reading-glasses were nothing beside the real symbol of this loss.  As I staggered back to the house, I subjected my frozen and frantic brain to question I would have rather not asked even when it were operating properly: would I tell Michael and his wife or should I hide the ring?  Surely in their current states it would only terrify them further…  No, I would not tell them.

Dear Possessions – Part I

Why is an only child invariably possessed of so much family? Perhaps as the lone progeny of a tribe it is not so much that horde of uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great uncles and second cousins and third cousins and indeterminables is actually larger than in any other family, merely seeming that much more numerous in contrast to the daily experiences of a single son, accustomed to short and impermanent glimpses of ever varying relations. Or perhaps there is some truth in it – that men and women born into large families naturally desire to escape them, and satisfy themselves with fewer offspring than their parents in turn. I do not know. All that I am sure of is that I am just such an only child, and that I have relatives quite beyond number.

In my childhood one consequence of this broad wealth was my inability to enjoy it. I found my relatives tiresome, distant, and memorable only in their extremity, categorised in some childish rhyme I used to try and keep of them all, which reduced each portion of the clan to some defining feature of body or soul. I was indifferent to visits from the short or the tall, but feared the thin and the fat. The ‘wild and hairy’ were on my mother’s side, suitably remote. They only ever broke upon my solitude rarely, but then with violence of gift-giving and music-making.  Far too energetic for my retired younger self.

Amongst all these, however, there was one cousin of my own generation, a few years younger and somewhat brighter, whose company was a constant joy and subsequently, when lacking, a constant request. His name was Michael and he has recently become quite well-known for his talents, which were already apparent when I first knew him. We spent some time sharing a school to our great mutual satisfaction, and forged a tie of trust and intimacy, as boys will, that has lasted the years despite the consequent distances between us and the infrequency of our meetings.  We lost touch for some time while he studied at Oxford and then travelled, for some time, those parts of the world that served his interests. On his return he announced, much to the surprise of the family, that he was getting married.

That is now quite some time ago. Michael and his wife Helen, whom he met whilst researching the sphragistic history of ancient Sweden, are still married and once again happy, for it might not be quite true to say ‘still’ happy. Such a word might imply a complete continuity in their happiness which, I am afraid to say, would be misleading. It is about Michael, his wife, and a time shortly after their marriage that I propose to tell you – this time that prevents me, in all honesty, from deploying the innocent adverb ‘still’ and implying lives entirely free from perturbation or peril.

Unfortunately I had been necessarily absent from cousin Michael’s wedding to the reputedly lovely Helen, on account of the affair of the Monk’s Tomb, a matter that must wait for some time to be fully brought to light. My desire to visit the newly-weds was only delayed by their own extended honeymooning and more unavoidable commitments in London, so when at long last they were settled in their new house and I found myself with a week I might honourably lend to what I would rather than what I must, I did not hesitate to write to Mr and Mrs Edmund and declare my intention.

The answer I received was uncharacteristically brief. It simply read, ‘Come by all means! Michael.’ I do not really recall what I made of it at the time with any accuracy, but I might have arrived more prepared, or at least more cautiously, if I had not read Michael’s exclamation as one of excitement, but rather one of desperation.

There was nothing less than wonderful about the beginning to that visit. The ride into rural Gloucestershire was delightful in the early Spring. Travelling by train allows such lacunae of blissful inactivity: everything is somebody else’s responsibility when you are on a train, from departure to arrival and ever in between. Should the train be delayed, why, so be it. Better delayed than wrecked on the line. Like stubborn beasts, the engines will have their own way and their own timing, for while they can be tamed, they cannot be coerced or coaxed into anything that they do not do. A trained man may have some weight with them, but a passenger, never! It is merely his task to submit to the awesome power and inscrutable complexity of the busy railways and to be satisfied with whatever he receives. And that, I feel, is freedom of a sort.

I shared a compartment with a young manager of a Bath bank. Dining on the Great Western, we both agreed and I still maintain, is quite the height of luxury. Racing along Brunel’s smooth and crafted road, in no other way can a leisurely lunch be a once so desperately fast of so delicately substantial. The only thing that approaches this supping on a train is to eat on board some great ship, but in such a case speed and, of course, the view are both sacrificed to layer another degree of, frankly, unnecessary sumptuousness.  Rather a varied bouquet than a single gilded lily.

Our train whistled though mist as we ate, a single pane of glass between lobster salad and Chardonnay and the racing track.  The countryside waited, alive, in glimpses of budding cherries, in the coarse sunlight and the flash of the fast-moving millstream, lending the bright and excited world a clarity that simply sang of spring.  The heavy clouds shunting rays over the embankments towards us, away from us, over all stupid and standing sights, they answered the charging force of the engine with a subtle power of their own to mark and to reveal and to light and to deny.  What I missed, cooped up in a London townhouse!  Here was the bright circle of Spring, gathering itself delicately, almost imperceptibly, for the coming rush of a new year.  The starting leaves, sparking on twig tips like green glowing coals, hung everywhere over last year’s fall still deeply littering and filling the hollows.  The mist sharpens, here, and softens, there, and the weak and new-born sun, looking like a pale yolk in a pale sky, surprises everything with the cool strength of his beams.

I alighted onto the platform of a small country station, to wait for the connection that would take me up the branch line to my eventual destination.  Peering into the lively faces all around me, watching the lively poplars’ sway, I saw that same exuberance that had so endeared the lucky young manager to me in the compartment.  Spring!  There was never anything like it.

It was still early in the year, though, and by the time I reached the ultimate station on the line the brightness of day was fading.  It was only a late afternoon, but the further the driver led me down deep hawthorn lanes, the more I felt the fragility of that hopeful new year.  Here and there I saw frost still lying around a fallen tree or hanging into the edge of a shadowed ditch, and in the quiet shadow of the hills the day grew colder.

The rattle of the hired carriage and the echoing clop of the horse in front of me rang and resounded, and I saw crows flying, and snowdrops still in corners.  We turned suddenly between two tall white willows and were suddenly before a small house nestled among trees and quite hidden from the road.

The lights inside the house shone warmly through the upper panes of the door before me, but as I knocked and the carriageman turned his trap about and returned the way he had come, I reflected that Michael’s love of privacy had secreted him close in a lonely house.  The cold that had followed me from the station hung overhead with the slowly-climbing darkness, captured between the boughs of the willow and ash and heavy on the steeply-pitched roof.  Well, surely it would be all the warmer inside for that.

The door opened and before me stood the young woman who had to be Michael’s wife Helen.  Certainly she suited the multiple guarantees of beauty that I had heard vouchsafed.  She was not over-tall, not over-slender, rich brown in the tresses, slight and sincere about the smile and elegantly, effortlessly dressed.  Only one thing stood out; her eyes were very rimmed with red and shadowed, although they were themselves eyes of a velvety shade that pledged tenderness.  She was indeed quite lovely.

‘Mrs Edmund?’  I asked, removing my hat.  ‘I believe I am your cousin by marriage.’

‘Clement?’ she said, with a strange ring, satisfied, unhurried and pleased.  There was a praise worth seeking in her voice.  ‘At last!  I have been waiting to meet you for so very long.  And Michael has told me so much about you.  Come in at once, dearest cousin.’  She gave me her hand, which was cold, I realised with a shock exaggerated by the warmth of the hallway, and I kissed it.

I motioned to my small trunk and bag.  ‘Is there anyone to take these?’

Michael appeared from the door on the left, ‘No, I’m afraid not, old man.  It’s just the two of us here.  We can’t get any help!  And I’ll say we need it.  I can’t put anything down without losing it somewhere.  Been asking since we got here, you know.  But, I say, dashed good to see you.’  We shook hands like close cousins.

The front door was closed against the now swiftly falling darkness and he took the Gladstone and one end of the trunk.  ‘I’ll help you up with these to the room.  Yes, dashed good to see you.’  He said this last repetition with a slight shake in his voice that seemed caused by something more than the effort of the stairs and my luggage, but I was not sure.  I took the other end and followed him up the narrow stairway.

‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘that you’re not in the better guest room.  The funniest thing, you see.  We meant for you to have the room at end, overlooking the fields to the front, but we can’t find the key.  I didn’t think the door had been locked since we moved here, but for some reason when Helen came to air it this morning the door was locked and the key missing.’

I looked at Michael, as we put the trunk down on the floor of a small, sparse room that I presumed was the second-best guest room.  He seemed rather over-troubled, so I tried to put him at his ease.

‘You know I really don’t mind,’ I said.  ‘What’s possible is what’s possible.  It’s a delight to be here, and to see you again – an absolute honour.’

‘Yes, in was very glad when you wrote.  You’re the first real guest, actually, and it’s been six weeks.  But it has rather frustrated me, I admit.’  His face lost the gleam of contentment that had always so endeared him to me when younger and was crossed by a troubled frown.  ‘I seem to be constantly mislaying things.  I suppose it’s the unfamiliarity of a new place, but, dash it all, it’s frustrating.’

A less frustrating topic was at the fore of my mind.  ‘I haven’t had much opportunity to congratulate you and your wife,’ I said.  ‘You have every reason to be quite happy.  I have never seen a more beautiful young woman.’

Michael instantly lightened, as would any man so fortunate, that is, at that moment I still thought him fortunate, having no reason to think otherwise.  ‘Ah, yes,’ he said.  ‘You should come downstairs and meet Helen properly.  You also need a warming drink and some supper after all that travelling and you must tell us what you’ve been doing.  It must have been very exciting to miss our wedding for!’

I was quite content to oblige, over supper, and a couple of glasses of sherry, by explaining to Michael and the lovely Helen exactly what I had been doing.  I felt that I owed them more than merely an apology for my previous absence, and so at Helen’s request I told them all of my part in the affair of the Monk’s Tomb.  Judging some of the details too disquieting for the warm company we had struck up, I was careful to avoid those explanations which, even in the security of the house, even around a bright fire, were apt to make even me shiver.

Helen was quite fascinated. In turn, she related to me the story of the couple’s meeting, grown friendship and short engagement among the Scandinavian sphragisists.  Michael, however, I could not fail to notice, was ill at ease and unconcentrated.  Even close description of the most individual ancient seals and the most decorated waxes failed to catch his attention fully.  He puffed at his cigar nervously, at times barely listening.  Helen’s enthralled and enthralling conversation sufficed.  It seemed that Michael really had told her everything about me, which bears witness rather to his faithful generous friendship than anything admirable about the life I lead.  I was greatly touched both by the interest of his wife and, inferentially, by his, even if some other concerns possessed him for the time being.

Clearly Michael’s behaviour had not escaped Helen’s notice either.  As he lit another cigar, she suggested that he show me the garden while it was maybe still light enough.  Strangely, Michael started like a wild thing.  Am queer intense look flashed across his grey eyes and fled from his face.

‘Yes,’ he said, regaining his composure and looking at me with some clarity again.  ‘Perhaps I should.  Would you like that, Clement?’

I answered that I would very dearly.  Michael was an able and a keen gardener, and although they had not been long in this house I was sure that he could at least share some very interesting plans.  He led me towards the back door.

‘I shall take you outside in just a moment,’ he said.  ‘But first, I want to show you something.  Come into my study.’

‘Now Michael,’ I said, following him through the door, ‘you are plainly quite worried about something.  You have been nervous and jumpy all evening.  Is everything alright?’

He did not answer immediately, but went up to a bureau and unlocked it with a key from his waistcoat.  ‘I will explain it completely,’ he said in an undertone.  ‘I am, I will freely admit, not on an even keel.  Something has been troubling me very much.  Here.’  And he removed from an inner cupboard a small box, on top of which was an ungummed cream envelope.

Something about the way Michael handled the little wooden box was not right.  His hands grasped it tightly as if it were heavier than it surely were, or in some other way, not as it immediately seemed. It was a light wood, but stained unevenly by water and not quite fully closing.  The twisted lid bore the remains of a green silk cushion, also stained and quite torn, the colour faded and only just discernible. A wedge of darkness stood out where the upper did not meet the lower part, almost leeringly shameless in the way the little thing was so broken and ruined. The envelope was a normal house envelope – the same sort, in fact, as that which had held Michel’s enigmatic reply to my own letter.

Obeying some inner prompt I did not quite recognise, before I knew what I was doing I reached out to touch the little box where it sat, and brought my hand back with a cry of shock and amazement. It was cold – a cold of a degree more biting and permanent than, surely, wood could convey.

‘You also feel it?’ asked Michael keenly. ‘It is desperately cold and does not warm. But I will show you what is inside.’

His hands flinched involuntarily as they felt the frozen edges, but he brushed the envelope from the top, which fell with a clinking, and opened the box.

Inside, I saw as I leant forwards and peered, what obviously were, or had been, two silver christening spoons, no bigger than my little finger, wrought finely and carefully. But they were twisted into bizarre, sharp shapes, ruined and defiled with certain intent. Around them the moisture of the air froze into twin ovals of rime. A pungent and piercing smell arose and our breaths misted like on a winter’s morning. As I looked at the spoons my heart – I could feel it within me – sank and slowed and I was filled with a great and possessing sadness.  Was it merely my sympathy for the loss – the poignant destruction – of such dear possessions of some long-dead family that drew such bands around my sore-breathing lungs?  I could not tell if there was not also some simple communication of woe, direct, plain, unvoiced and yet utterly comprehensible, in that pathetic sight.  Compelled to keep looking I was dragged deeper and deeper into the paralysing and consuming sadness.

The first of three parts of a ghost story I wrote in Easter 2006, when friends were enjoying M R James’ formula for horror…  Fut