Two clicks – June entry

The flat white had a crisper taste than I had expected. The spotty new barista was actually better with the machine than a lot of the regular ones.

The white dot whirred around in its circle on the computer’s start-up screen while I heard some of the parts straining into life. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. Then blankness. I reached behind the screen and traced my fingers over the yellow Nirvana smiley-faced logo I’d had engraved onto the case of the computer just below the ‘hp’ lettering. It was the proudest feature of my machine – nothing like those stickers that students slap on that start peeling to leave a sticky blemish. This had been marked on professionally at a tattoo shop in Kentish Town.

I yawned and reached for my phone to kill the time before the login screen asked me for the password. I switched it on. No phone messages. I put it aside before my fingers automatically clicked on Facebook. The guys in the office had all signed up to an app that times your Facebook usage, and I’d been ashamed to clock up the second most usage time the previous week.

It’d be good to know how they’re getting on, but I could always write on WhatsApp in a bit. There was work to be done, and I couldn’t stand that Darren always ends up sending a torrent of distracting GIFs. Like the one he sent last night of Theresa May’s face superimposed onto a donkey being teased and chased around by some villagers in the tropics somewhere – sent while we were swapping messages about the football, for Christ’s sake.

These remote working days really were the pits. All the old farts with kids and everything loved them, somehow. Then you had the jammy gits like Patrick from accounts who said he just clicks to clock on at 9, goes to the pub and pops home to click and clock off at 6. No chance of that under Sharon, who would pepper us all with messages to keep us on our toes. There was serious work to be done, but first I had to flee the depression of my sandwich-sized rented bedroom – I’ve called it sandwich-sized ever since Ricky and I worked out in the office that it’s actually smaller in volume than the world’s largest sandwich.

I grabbed my paper cup in one hand. I typed my password with the other hand and pressed enter. My computer was getting seriously slow starting up, but I can’t say I minded too much – start-up time was one of the most peaceful times of the day.

I looked up.

Wow.

I smiled and thought of Paul. He had a serious thing about girls with Mac Books. His biggest turn on, he said. It looked like the new Mac Book Pro too – 13 inch screen, in the classic shiny silver colour. It was a nice machine, no doubt about it.

As for the girl who was using it a couple of tables in front of me, well, she was an owner to match the computer, if there ever was one. A short brunette with round black-rimmed glasses. She was sat sideways to me and I could see the top of her blouse, with her slim arms leading out of the silky sleeves to hands typing purposefully at the keyboard. Typing at a steady, confident pace. Under the table a pair of black tights hugged her gently undulating calves while her feet were supported by a pair of short stilettos.

My heart was racing. It was unusual to see such a beautiful lady in the café – normally at this time I only saw old folks reading the paper or the occasional homeless person.

I clicked my way into my computer, bringing up my work portal.

I imagined Paul pulling off his chat-up trick of going and asking ‘have you been able to get the WiFi in here?’ I’d never seen it get him any further than a little small talk, but he still considered the trick a victory every time he performed it – turning around to smile and give the lads the thumbs up when his target was clicking through his internet settings for him.

I looked at her again. She was focused on the screen with a steely concentration expressed with a slight pout. I bent my head a little to see what she was working on. It looked like she was switching between her web browser and Excel. The guys I knew from accounts always said they were afraid to use Excel in public, reckoning it marked them out as nerds. It could be such a valuable programme though. She stretched her hand up and reached to scratch the back of her neck, and I watched the buttons on the tight fabric tracing the outline of her chest rise.

A message popped up on my screen. ‘Welcome to EGL WorkRemote Master – You Have 17 New Messages from Sharon_83’. I took a gulp of my flat white, crossed my fingers in my left hand for luck and clicked with my right to open the messages.

I wanted to thump my table in frustration, and settled for a tap, after seeing the first message. Entitled ‘a couple of questions about your new workflow template for QRS’ I scrolled down through a mammoth email littered with question marks – far longer than the workflow template it was referring too.

Seeing the garish pink signature at the end of the message, saying ‘Sharon xx’ was like a slap in the face. I pictured my boss stood with her arms folded in front of me in the café, peering over the top of my computer and reeling off a torrent of instructions, questions and complaints.

I used the opportunity of my remote working to recline in my seat, close my eyes, groan and mutter “fuck!”

I grabbed my phone and went straight to WhatsApp. There were no new messages in the lads’ group, but I could see they had mostly been online already that morning.

‘You’re gonna be very jealous of me, Paul,’ I wrote.

‘I think I’d be jealous of just about anyone right now,’ he replied. ‘I’ve just finished eating breakfast with a housemate sobbing uncontrollably next to me. She tried to explain a couple of times why her boyfriend woke us all up shouting abuse and why there’s a slice of toast sliding down the wall, but every time she just starts crying again. Feels like someone’s died in here!’

I selected some laughing face icons and clicked send, even though I didn’t find it particularly funny.

‘Go on then’ Paul wrote. ‘Make me jealous’.

‘There’s an absolute stunner with the latest Mac Book Pro in front of me’, I wrote.

‘OK, that worked a treat – we’re all jealous’, wrote Gav, joining the conversation. ‘I’m in Starbucks and there’s some guy in a soggy anorak who’s been reading the bible out load non-stop for the past hour on the next table.’

Paul sent an angry-faced icon. ‘Are you going to share the joy then?’

I looked across to the girl, who was looking intently into her computer now, with a hint of puzzlement on her brow.

‘I’m in my local café if you want to come down and try your WiFi trick Paul? I’ll send you all a link with the coordinates on Google Maps.’

‘Tempted’, wrote Paul, ‘send us a preview though’.

‘Yeah, don’t be a pussy’ wrote Gav, ‘show us what we’re missing!’.

I scanned around the quiet café. The barista was thumping the tongue that holds the grounded coffee in the machine over the sink, and clearing out the soggy remains with his fingers. A couple of customers had their faces hidden behind newspapers, while an old lady by the entrance seemed to be staring at a scone.

It didn’t feel right, but I could do this.

I picked up my phone, and held it up vertically in front of my face. I pretended to need to squint to read the screen.

‘Ok’ I typed, with my heart racing.

I selected the camera, adjusted it so she was in the middle of the frame, and then pressed inside the grey circle to take a photo. I scanned around to see if anyone else had been alerted to the soft click, but there was no sign of any movement.

I attached the photo into the WhatsApp group. ‘Here you are. Little treat for you :)’ I typed.

I shook my head at the ease I had succumbed to the peer pressure from my workmates, and tried to focus on my computer. Sharon had sent another message asking if I’d seen her earlier messages and could I respond ASAP?

I started to read the epic first email. My concentration was soon shattered by a vibration on my phone.

Two new WhatsApp messages.

‘Is that it!?!’ Gav had wrote.

‘A blur in the distance? Close up, please, preferably with cleavage,’ Paul wrote.

‘Piss off, come here yourself you filthy pervs,’ I typed out, but before I could press on send, two more messages appeared.

‘Go on, I’ll buy you a pint on Friday night,’ Paul wrote.

‘Yeah I’ll get you one too. I’ve zoomed in and she is damn hot, but I need to see more…’ Gav wrote.

I sighed. The plan for Friday was to go to the Toddingham Arms, one of the trendiest bars in Shoreditch. It was £6 a pint there, and I wanted to go – not least because Mandy from HR would be there. Her with the biggest jugs in the company.

The barista had disappeared from behind the counter and was out at the front of the café, checking a phone.

The girl remained engrossed in her computer display.

‘You can pull this off. Easily,’ I thought.

I ambled over towards the counter and took my phone out, pretending to read my messages. I turned on the camera, swivelled to my left and right to check the coast was clear, then turned the phone towards the girl. I pinched at the screen to zoom in until I was satisfied the section of black lace from her bra that was poking out beneath the unbuttoned top of her blouse was showing. I pressed to take two photos and slid the phone back into the pocket of my jeans. Trembling, I turned around and walked to the toilet with the intention of checking my photo and sending it in a quiet spot.

I pushed opened the door separating the toilets from the café. It didn’t swing all the way back behind me though, and in no time I was grabbed by the back of the next and thrust up against the wall, with my feet dangling below.

I wheezed and croaked. I just about managed to turn my neck to look into the furious face of the bespectacled man with thinning grey hair who had me in the stranglehold. I was trying to say “let me down”.

When I started crying, he let go and I crumbled into a heap on the vinyl floor.

I took my head out of my hands and saw that a little of the redness had abated in his cheeks.

“You-?” I said.

“Yeah, I saw you taking that photo,” he answered. “Maybe I should introduce myself – Nigel Parker, Metropolitan Police.”

“You’re-?” I said, my lips trembling.

“Off duty at the moment, but still empowered to perform arrests when I deem necessary.”

“Arrests?” I said, pleadingly.

“You bet! You wouldn’t believe how many privacy laws you’ve just violated.”

“No, no, please! I only did it because my mates asked me too,” I said. I took the phone out of my pocket and dropped it straight away, with my fingers scrambling to pick it up again.

“I’ll delete them, I haven’t even sent them yet anyway.”

“You better!” he said, pointing a chunky index finger towards me. “And I don’t want to ever see you in here again, preying on innocent women or not, or you’ll be trouble. You understand?”

I nodded my head and went back to collect my computer and go.

The lamp flickered when I turned it on before going out.

‘Shit’ I thought, ‘the bulb’s gone again’.

I sighed and peered through my window to the dim overcast morning.

I tried to keep my eyes off the heaps of dirty clothes scattered around the bedroom floor, covering the majority of the faded red carpet.

I logged onto the work portal. Just the two messages from Sharon today.

I went straight onto Facebook.

‘Haha watch this, it’s hilarious!’ Gav had wrote. Under that was a video of a chimp on a Russian talent show impersonating its owner in various emotional states.

The sound on my computer was muted and I was afraid to turn it on as Wiktor, the Czech cook who rented the room next to mine, worked nights and didn’t take kindly to being woken. I rifled through a pile of unused receipts, train tickets and a couple of unused condoms on my desk to look for my earphones. No luck.

I checked Facebook again. One of the girls in sales had shared a post from Amanda Totter, the famous lingerie model. It was a viral post that had 89,000 likes and 22,000 shares already.

“A big THANK YOU to the man who pretended to be a policeman in order to frighten off a dirty young man with an HP laptop featuring a Nirvana sticker. This predator was taking pictures of me without me noticing at La Roma Coffee in Golders Green. I might be somewhat used to it, but every woman has a right to go about their life without having their privacy trampled on by obnoxious cowards. Anyway, I wanted to thank my hero, Dave, again, before I get the chance to do it in person when I take him out for a meal at my fav restaurant on Friday.”

I sighed. I’d been thinking about getting a new laptop anyway. Now could be the perfect time. I looked at the post again and clicked ‘like’.

Waltzing with Ivy – April 2017 CW entry

Tony saw Gerald had his eyes closed and took out a cloth to wipe up the trickle of stout that had spent the last five minutes inching its way down from the rim of Gerald’s glass and across the oak bar top.

He dabbed at the bottom of the pint glass while Gerald sat with his two hands nestled around its curve.

“Won’t be long now, will it?” said Mike.

“No, I’d say not,” answered Tony. “Normally it’s when he’s on his third pint. That’s only his second tonight but he told me he’s on an empty stomach as he’s all out of tinned spaghetti.”

“Christ,” said Mike. “Isn’t he getting wheels on meals or something?”

Tony shrugged.

Mike tapped his fingers on the bartop and looked up at the nine o’clock bulletin of the news channel Tony had put on the TV when he opened the pub at two. For some reason, Tony tended to always have the TV on a very low volume – not muted but not audible without straining your ears either.

“Any more of those young ‘uns in here recently?” asked Mike.

“Yeah,” said Tony, “two groups of them on Saturday night.”

“Oh,” said Mike.

He slurped at his beer and looked across to Gerald, who had brought his forehead close to his glass in a gesture that seemed to show increased concentration. Gerald’s lower lip was quivering – perhaps he was trying to whisper something, perhaps from emotion.

Mike sniffed. The dampness that always hung around Gerald’s tweed jacket had a slightly putrid whiff to it tonight. Poor Gerald. He’d told Mike once, back when his speech was fairly lucid, that news of the death of their son, and only child, in Australia had brought him and Ivy closer together than ever before. Now she was gone too.

“I was round Cartwright Court to see George and Belinda the other week, and you wouldn’t believe how many there are. All these posh bikes chained up outside,” said Mike.

“Christ, I wouldn’t leave a bike round there even if it was anchored into the bleeding pavement,” said Tony.

Mike eyed the barman with a smile as he watched him take a spotless glass from the rack above the bar and wipe it. He considered joking about Tony’s unnecessary cleaning but decided not to.

“’Apparently they’re getting leaflets all the time asking if they’ll sell their flat to a buy-to-let. Saying they can get 200 grand for it,” said Mike.

“Get away!” said Tony.

“They’ll be trying to turn this place into a wine bar next,” said Mike.

“It’s all theirs for a bottle or two or Rioja,” said Tony, who had moved onto wiping his next dry glass.

Mike took the opportunity to look around. He took in the tarred seams of the chintz wallpaper that had long ago peeled off at various corners to reveal pockmarked plaster. It must have been a while since Tony had even straightened the pictures on the wall – one of the 1987 pub darts team had a striking slant. ‘I don’t need no fancy gimmicks’, was Tony’s mantra whenever a regular suggested a refurbishment, and there was some truth to this. No visual features were needed for the sense of comforting isolation the pub provided – the sturdy black door with its big brass handle that had always creaked in exactly the same places was enough.

Tony nudged Mike on the elbow. “Here we go,” the barman whispered.

Mike swivelled around to see Gerald’s shaky right hand lift his stout up towards his lips. Gerald’s eyes were half open now, and focused fully on beholding the glass. He held the glass in front of his lips for a few seconds before kissing it gently on the rim and placing it back down, closing his eyes.

Tony shook his head and Mike put his hand to his mouth to smother a giggle. To avoid laughing, he avoided making eye contact with Tony for a while, and instead focused on the wild splatter of countless punctures in the corkboard and wall around the dartboard, accrued over the years.

“Could be handy if you ever want to sell this place,” said Mike.

“What’s that?” asked Tony.

“Having all those youngsters in here,” said Mike.

Tony mumbled a laugh.

Mike took his phone out to check for any messages from his wife. Tony was rattling some glasses around overhead, and Gerald was now moving his hand up and down to caress his pint glass. How long this went on for, Mike couldn’t say. It was one of those moments were life just seemed to freeze and before resuming again.

Which it did. Suddenly.

Mike’s right arm jumped in fright as he heard the creak of the door and the dim light of the spring evening crept along the wall to the bar, before being shut out back to the world outside again.

He was aware that instead of the usual lumbering in of the regular customers, there was a sheepish pitter-pattering on the sticky floor behind him.

Mike could see Tony scratching one of his eyebrows.

He looked to his side as two faces pulled up alongside and below him at the bar. A young man with curly hair sprouting in all directions, angular-framed glasses and a pastel-coloured jumper that reminded him of a doormat he had decades ago. Then his friend, and possibly also his lover – a young girl with long jet black hair, an oval face, a leather jacket over her sweater and shiny black leggings.

“Do you serve mojitos?” asked the young man.

“This isn’t a curry house,” said Tony. “We used to do bacon sandwiches on a Sunday afternoon but we ain’t doing any food at the moment pal.”

The young man reddened in the face and swapped several glances with his friend.

“I’ll have a pint of bitter and a tap water then please,” said the young man.

“Fine,” said Tony, reaching for a glass and the tap.

The pub returned to its normal level of quietness, with a newsreader – who was summarising the local football and cricket news on the TV in an enthusiastic tone – becoming the centre of attention.

Mike looked across to Gerald, who was now sat upright with his eyes closed and lower lip quivering away. He saw the young man moving along the bar towards Gerald and felt his heart beating. Then came the sound of the empty stool on Gerald’s right, on the far side of the bar, being dragged a little across the floor before the man jumped up on it and took out his wallet – leaving it on the bar top.

“Don’t” said Tony, and “please” said Mike, both speaking at the same time and stretching their hands out towards the young man.

“This man’s wife sits there,” said Tony, pointing to Gerald. “She’s –” he looked at Mike for help.

“She’s in the toilet,” said Mike.

“Oh,” said the youngster surprised, “well we’ll go to a table to have our drinks, I was just going to count out some change here.”

Gerald then turned his head to see the young man and emitted a deep prolonged shriek. The man climbed down, alarmed, and tugged on the sleeve of his friend’s jacket.

“You know what, I think I better go back home, sorry,” said the young man. “I’ll leave you a fiver – I guess that should cover the pint?”

“But what about the tap water?” asked Tony. The young man reddened again.

“Only kidding you!” said the barman.

The pair returned to the door much more quickly than they had come in and Mike heard it swing shut.

“On the house!” said Tony, placing the freshly poured pint of bitter in front of Mike.

Mike went to place the empty stool back where it had been at Gerald’s side.

The weather report was followed by a few minutes of nothingness.

Then, Gerald turned to the seat on his right.

“Pleased to meet you, Miss!” he said, his words slow and gravelly. “There was some rotter trying to pinch your seat but I think I scared him off.”

“Ivy Buttleworth, you say?” Gerald continued. “What a splendid name! You’re the stationmaster’s daughter are you? I must say I have a great interest in the latest locomotives myself, but I suppose that kind of talk is quite the tedium for you.” He laughed.

“I’m going out for a smoke” said Tony, “just keep on eye on him will you? You know, make sure he doesn’t come off his stool again when he starts waltzing with Ivy.”

March 2017 entry – Number 92

I don’t know quite what it was about the young lady on the fish counter that sucked me in. Glum shop assistants tend to frighten me, but then her surly pout had a definite allure. Perhaps it was also the way she used her knife. Firm, when she was swinging it down to the counter, albeit not with the brutish force the guys at the market used. Soft when she was filleting. Tender, when she was scraping out innards or hosing out all the muck that got stuck on.

There was the intriguing fact she didn’t wear gloves but also didn’t want to touch the fish with any more fingertips than were necessary. The discrete way she brought the back of her hand to cover her nose when she needed to. The casual way she was snacking on a bag of prawns, slipping rather than cracking their heads off, when I saw her leaning against the back wall of the supermarket on her break the previous day. The cold way she had ignored me when I tried to nod a hello to her then.

I suppose I could never quite describe exactly what it was. When you’re a young man, your brain is just putting together hundreds of cues and impressions before you form your opinion. Isn’t that how it works? Starting in one or two places, you say? Well, the slim outlines underneath the white coat that seemed a size or two too large for her appeared worth knowing. But what I really wanted to know was her mind. I had an urge to know how she lived, what she dreamed of, what she watched on TV, whether she ate grated tomato on a toasted baguette for breakfast like everyone did outside that little cafe.

She pulled a dripping hake out of an icy bucket to show me. It had the same sad expression in its eyes all dead fish seem to have.

She flashed a semi-smile upon seeing me licking my lips.

“That looks delicious!” I said. “Too many chips at my hotel. Not good,” I added, patting my stomach.

She brought her finger to her mouth in a mock vomiting motion and I smiled.

She turned, unusually, to chop the hake on the worktop opposite the counter that had the weighing scales on. That meant she had her back to me. I felt sure her face was smiling away out of sight. Her arms and elbows seemed to be lighter and looser as she went to work on providing me with 500 grams.

She ran the knife over the edge of the counter and cast it to one side, having decided it wasn’t sharp enough. She grabbed another.

There must be some adage said somewhere and sometime about never asking a young lady out with a knife in her hand. Clearly I was under the influence of the holiday spirit and the sun, but again, something about the moment I couldn’t possibly quantify seemed perfect.

I didn’t allow myself to back out on seeing that her glumness had returned when she span around to present the fish in a lazily tied plastic bag with the price sticker flapping off the side.

“Anything more?” she said in a muffled tone, clearly ashamed of either her English, her job or the world.

“Yes!” I said, clearing my throat, and calming myself, having been taken aback by the emphatic start to my answer. “I’m doing a Spanish course at home in England and I thought, well, it could be really nice to meet someone Spanish here to talk to. Provided you might be perhaps interested in meeting for a café con leche one afternoon?”

She looked at me blankly and tossed her knife down into a mackerel’s stomach, where it stood with its tip wedged into a hole it had pierced in the skin.

“Maybe if I could take your number?” I asked, reasoning that I could check a few words on the internet before composing a text message to better explain myself.

“I no understand,” she said.

She swapped an apologetic glance with an old woman who was standing impatiently at my side, admiring the salmon with her green paper ticket held in her fingers.

I could feel a bead of sweat at the back of my neck trickling down with the help of the powerful fan buzzing from the ceiling.

“Numero” I said, “de telefono,” moving my hand to my ears to gesture taking a call.

The same blank expression. Was my pronunciation really that terrible?

“Look” I said, holding out my paper ticket to her with the number 92 on.

“Noventa dos,” she said, reading the number out to me in Spanish.

She looked to her side as across waddled Carlos, the barrel-shaped man with a crooked nose and sweaty cheeks who worked on the cheese counter.

Why wasn’t she wearing a name tag too? If only I could put a name to the memory now, that might make it more wholesome. I suppose at the time it just added to her enigmatic charm.

Carlos grunted something inaudible that could have been “problema” then he stooped down to put his arm around the young lady on the fish counter.

Were they? Surely not? She was a beauty, and Carlos, as well as being three times the size, was at least 15 years older than her.

I heard the slow patter of flip slops interrupt the calm sound of a Spanish pop hit behind me.

“Taylor!” It was Duffers.

I turned around, alarmed.

He had a giant red bag of crisps in his left hand, while with his right hand he tried to adjust the laces on his brightly patterned swimming shorts.

“Did you find any beer yet? The United match is starting in ten minutes.”

“Oh,” I said, “no I was just – “

“Is that…fish you’ve got there?” he said, a grin spreading from cheek to cheek as he asked.

“Oh, well, it’s just a bit of hake, I thought that – “

“Put it back! We’ll get some burgers by the pool in a bit,” he said.

“Sorry about my friend, he’s a bit crazy,” he said, laughing, as I placed the white bag with six euro 70 worth of hake back on the counter.

Then I heard a buzz as the number on the electronic display above the scales turned to 93.

Vera – Feb 17 competition entry

Julian pulled the door open right up to the stopper in an exaggerated welcoming gesture.

“Guten Abend Vera!” he said.

After seeing Vera shuffle towards the threshold with her walking stick for half a second, Julian leapt towards her holding out his hand.

“Vielen Dank Herr Gartlberg. Always the gentleman!” she said, with her trembling hand struggling to hold onto Julian’s.

Theresa, Julian’s wife, giggled in the hallway.

“You look so well today, Frau Vera!” said Theresa.

“You are a poor liar, Frau Gartlberg, but thank you for your kindness.”

Julian and Theresa looked at one another, acknowledging in silence that Theresa’s compliment was an untruth.

“Well I’ll take your coat, shall I, Frau Vera?” asked Julian.

He helped to tug off the heavy fur coat that with Vera’s stooped and declining frame looked like it might swallow her up one day soon.

“I have been meaning to tell you for some time that it is a beautiful coat,” said Theresa.

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I got it on my last visit to St Petersburg, or Leningrad as they call it in public.”

Julian laughed. “Well you don’t have to with us.”

“Thank you,” said Vera. “I may have a wavering sense of smell but I can notice a delicious scent coming from your kitchen.”

“Ah, that would be Theresa’s Kasnockn,” said Julian, “she cooks them with the traditional Pinzgau recipe.”

“Come please, Frau Vera,” he continued. “This way to the dining room.”

“Now we have a Riesling and a Pinot Gris,” Julian said, squinting to try to gauge Vera’s reaction. He saw no change in her wrinkled but sturdy small round face. “Apfelschorle and spring water too, if you so prefer.”

“Riesling will suffice, thank you,” said Vera. Julian waited for a smile from her to follow the remark but non came.

“Are you sure, Frau Vera?”

“Most certainly!”

“Right you are, I’ll be back in a few seconds.”

After three minutes of chatting in the kitchen, Julian returned with an uncorked bottle of Riesling. He was shadowed by Theresa carrying a steamy dish of Kasnockn.

“It’s from the Züggler winery in Burgenland,” said Julian, pouring the wine into Vera’s glass.

He faced her and noticed her gaze was focused on the record player in the corner of the dining room. Her lack of squinting indicated a strong eyesight for a lady of her age.

“Would you like it if we play some background music?” Julian asked.

He walked straight to the record player without waiting for an answer.

“I bought a recording of the last New Year’s Concert when we visited Anna in Vienna last month,” Julian said, opening a cupboard.

“And how is Anna?” asked Vera.

“She’s fine,” said Theresa. “She doesn’t seem to be taking her studies all too seriously, but it’s just the first year, and she’s enjoying the life in Vienna.”

Vera laughed, before taking her first sip of wine. “Good, good. Youth is a thing to be cherished!”

Julian turned around, and was about to say something, but decided against it, instead returning to look for the record.

“Has she been to the Staatsoper yet?” asked Vera. “Swan Lake is being performed there at the moment and the producer is known to me. An absolutely wicked man!”

Julian laughed.

“Anna seems to enjoy more the smaller and less traditional venues where the musicians have long hair,” he said.

Julian placed the record beside the player and lifted a vinyl from underneath the needle that he placed back in a colourful sleeve.

“What’s that?” asked Vera.

Julian turned around with an open mouth.

“That record, I mean?” she said.

“Oh – this is one of Anna’s. She was at home last weekend. Ja, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band by the Beatles – pardon my poor English. Have you heard of the Beatles?”

Vera flinched.

“Darling, Frau Vera is a famous musician, of course she knows the Beatles,” Theresa said. She went red in the face, despite herself being surprised that Vera’s knowledge of popular culture appeared every bit as other parts of her mind.

“Oh of course, Frau Vera,” said Julian. “Perhaps you would like to listen to the Beatles then?”

“No, I would prefer the New Year’s Concert please, Herr Gartlberg.”

Julian put the record on. Relieved that the misunderstandings at the record player were over, he sat down to the table. He was optimistic that the soft crackled sounds of Strauss would smooth over any further gaps of understanding between the Gartlbergers and their elderly neighbour.

Theresa dished out the Kasnockn and the trio took hold of their cutlery.

“And does Anna like this Ivan…oh what’s his name, Ivan – the main man in the Beatles with the spectacles.”

Julian looked at Theresa, with his glance pleading for her to be the one to correct Vera.

“John Lennon?” Theresa asked.

“Oh yes. That’s his name. Did I call him Ivan? How silly of me. I was thinking of the Russian name for John.”

“Anna has a poster of him and his wife at her student apartment,” said Julian.

“Does he still have a beard?” asked Vera.

“He does,” says Theresa. “I should say I prefer him without it though.”

“He looks a little like a mad monk,” says Vera. “Kind, I would say, but a little mad.”

“Anna is rather enthusiastic about some of his ideas.”

Vera gulped some food and helped herself to another sip of Riesling.

“I’m afraid you’ll have to remind me of what his ideas are,” said Vera, “I do get a tiny bit forgetful these days.”

“Well, I think the whole of the Beatles spent some time associating with Eastern mysticism in India,” said Theresa. “In particular the Hare Krishna movement, which is a kind of Buddhist cult I believe.”

“Anna took us to a Hare Krishna restaurant in Vienna,” said Julian, opening his eyes wide while looking at Vera. “They served no meat at all.”

“That must be very easy on the stomach,” said Vera.

“Yes, but the waitress looked like she had not washed her hair in years,” said Theresa.

“Hmm,” said Vera. “Well I suppose one doesn’t have to be in a cult to avoid meat, one can just enjoy Kasnockn.

Vera laughed and raised her wine glass to her lips. Both Julian and Theresa laughed out of politeness.

“But tell me,” said Vera, resting her fork on her plate “what does he believe in?”

“Well,” said Julian. “Peace and happiness mostly, through the ending of wars, perhaps by smoking some exotic weeds too.”

“All good ideas,” said Vera. “Especially after what has happened to both our countries in our lifetimes.”

“Yes, except I’m not quite sure how far the weeds advance this aim though.”

“Well, Herr Gartlberg, I can testify that 60 years ago at the Moscow theatres you could find the most invigorating Siberian herbs backstage. They would have the most beneficial impact on the mind.”

Theresa blushed. Julian placed his cutlery down.

“Well, Frau Vera, I don’t doubt you. But in the modern day there are also chemical drugs, and I believe that they have such a strong impact on the mind they can be rather debilitating.”

Theresa pushed some fragments of the cheesy noodle dish onto her fork while she stared at the plate. They had not told anyone their concerns about Anna’s confession of having taken LSD “once or twice” in Vienna.

“And what else does this man believe to make him so extraordinarily popular?” asked Vera.

“It’s funny you should ask that, Frau Vera,” said Julian, who was looking at Theresa, trying to establish eye contact as he knew what she was thinking. “As he recently released a song which explains his utopianism quite clearly – it’s a kind of manifesto of sorts.”

Vera circled the end of her fork in the air a couple of inches above her place to indicate for Julian to continue while she chewed.

“Its name is Imagine, which is English for Stell dir vor. I’m afraid I have no idea how you’d say that in Russian.”

“I understand from the English and German, thank you, Herr Gartlberg.”

“Yes,” said Julian, “well I believe the first line is something like ‘Imagine there are no countries as there would be nothing to die for’. Rather controversial words for many.”

“And a good sentiment,” said Vera, before continuing to chew.

“And then –“ said Julian. He paused having decided not to mention the line ‘Imagine there’s no heaven’ to a woman in the last years of her life.

“I think it continues more or less with that same pacifism,” he continued. “Oh there is also something about ‘Imagine there’s no possessions’”.

“So it’s complete Scheiße!” said Vera, prompting deep laughs from her two hosts. She took another gulp of wine.

“A little too much like communism for your liking?” asked Julian.

“A little too much like communism for the world’s liking,” said Vera. “Excuse me for talking politics, but that pacifism is a load of nonsense too.”

Julian looked at his wife in a silent request for permission to disagree with their guest.

“I think for me that is the one part of his message I find appealing,” he said. “Every time I think of the past, well, I wish that this is something our daughter’s generation does not have to experience.”

“Exactly!” said Vera, knocking her knife off the plate in a burst of excitement. “But to save all the innocent people, the evil ones must die!”

Theresa leaned over to place the knife back on Vera’s plate and looked at Julian, raising an eyebrow at Vera’s awkward outburst.

“How do you find the Kasnockn? They’re not too creamy for you, are they?” Theresa asked.

“I like them just fine, Frau Gartlberg, thank you. But think about what I say, not just in the context of the ranting of an old lady. If you had been in alive in Vienna when Hitler studied there, and you recognised his evil, would you have killed him to spare the world?”

“That is a question you hear discussed on the television set, and a most intriguing question too,” said Julian.

“And what do they say?” asked Vera.

“Well, I believe it’s a very difficult question. Of course you never know a guilty man is guilty until he commits a crime, so – “

“Okay,” said Vera, interrupting, “but when a man is in circles of power already, and you can see his evil intentions and actions. That’s a different story.”

“You’re quite right, Frau Vera, it is a different story,” said Theresa, hoping flattery might end the debate.

“Exactly!” said Vera, hitting the table with a thump that shook the plates and left Julian open-outed.

“When I get to have my little sit down with St. Peter shortly, just like I’m sitting here with you today, I shall tell him I do not regret it,” said Vera.

“I’m sure you have nothing you need to regret, Frau Vera,” said Julian.

“Ah but for a long time I thought, did that man deserve to die? It was too late to save our monarchy. But then I realised we should have done it sooner.”

Julian and Theresa were unable to disguise their anxiety as they looked at one another.

“That is a very valid point you make, Frau Vera, thank you for bringing this topic to our attention,” said Julian, reaching out to grab Vera’s wrist.

Ach Entschuldigung, did I not tell you my secret before?” said Vera.

Julian shrugged his shoulders this time when looking at Theresa, who shook her head to indicate she had no idea either what to say or do.

“I am so sorry, sometimes I mix faces in my memories, I believe it’s my aging neurones,” said Vera, taking another deep sip of Riesling.

Theresa reddened in the face and Julian smirked as he tried to communicate to his wife without speaking that Vera had insisted on wine despite his reservations.

“It was the most exciting thing I have done in my life – helping to plot kill a man.”

Theresa gulped and put her hand to her mouth to stop some food dropping out in surprise.

Julian opened his mouth but had no idea what to say and closed it again.

“My job was simple enough but exhilarating nonetheless. To talk to him and watch to see him finish his cup of poisoned wine. There was another young actress there, Marianna Erikovna, and we talked about some of the sins that went on in the theatre circuit. Gosh, he had some incredible powers to him, it is true – he would make you talk about things you would not dream to share with your closest friends. All the time you would think ‘I shouldn’t be saying that’ but you still couldn’t stop yourself.”

Theresa arranged her knife and fork on her plate having decided she’d finished.

“ ‘Do not be afraid, there is no redemption without sin’ I remember him saying, and through those eyes, well, you could see those thoughts were coming from a deeper place than the thoughts of you or I. He was no mere imposter or charlatan, I can tell you that for certain, Herr Gartlberg – he was the devil himself!”

Theresa turned her gaze to look out of the window at the bare trees of the dull November afternoon. That left Julian with the thankless role of maintaining eye contact with Vera to show he was listening.

“Oh there was a sweet feeling in that study as we saw him finishing his cup. Knowing that this would be his last minutes on earth. Of course not even we could have imagined that a hefty dose of cyanide would fail to do the job.”

Julian smiled at the level of detail Vera was providing in her fanciful story.

“So the count shot him. We all cheered and thought that was that, but when he arose and barged his way out of the palace in a rage, we were astounded. The devil doesn’t die easily, Herr Gartlberg. He was shot again and stabbed outside, and I believe the frozen canal water did for him in the end.”

Theresa peered over at the plate that Vera had left untouched while recounting her tale.

“Have you finished your Kasnockn, Frau Vera?” she asked.

“Yes, why thank you,” said Vera.

“I’ll take your plate then,” she said. She and Julian collected the dishes and carried them through to the kitchen.

The pair deposited the dishes in the sink, and Julian closed the door.

“Look, about the wine –“ he said.

“No, darling, it’s my mistake,” said Theresa, interrupting, “I should never have invited our mad old neighbour over for dinner.”

“Well, at least it hasn’t been too dull,” said Julian, giggling as quietly as possible.

Theresa lent against the door and closed her eyes as the laughter overtook her.

“My God – wasn’t that the death of Rasputin she just claimed an involvement in?” she asked.

“Yes, I think so,” said Julian, “she must have played that role in a performance at some stage. The poor confused woman.”


Note:

This story is based on Vera Karalii: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vera_Karalli

How unfortunate it is that she left the world only as a ‘reported’ conspirator in the death of Rasputin, over 50 years after that event.

I wonder what the reporters in Austria in the 60s were doing failing to interview her. Then again, some things are perhaps best kept as a mystery.

Dec entry – John Thomson’s Christmas

“So does anyone remember from the video the name of the land between the British and German trenches?” asked Mrs Beatie.

Johnny shot his hand into the air. “I know, Miss,” he said. “Nomad’s Land.”

Mrs Beatie smiled.

“That’s a very good guess, but it’s not quite right. Actually it’s No Man’s Land,” she said, turning to the whiteboard to write it out.

“My great-great-grandad was there,” said Johnny, and Mrs Beatie paused, having just written the ‘M’ in Man. “Or my great-great-great grandad, I’m not actually sure. He was called John Thomson too, just like my dad, and his dad, and everyone’s dad in my family all the way back to when Tutankhamun was alive or something.”

“That’s very interesting, Johnny. Do you know anything more about him?”

“Err, I’ve heard from my dad that he was in Nomad’s, sorry No Man’s Land lots of times, and he was very brave, and he was fighting a lot of battles and only stopped once at Christmas to play football with the Germans. He scored five goals! I don’t remember anything else. Sorry, miss!”

“That’s no problem at all, Johnny. It’s very interesting to hear about your great-great grandfather. And that story about the soldiers from Britain and Germany playing football together at Christmas is true. There was nothing about it on the video, but as soon as Mr. Cummings fixes the projector, I can show you some pictures,” said Mrs Beatie. Her eyelids fluttered as she wondered if any of the eight and nine year olds would pick up on her hints to ask Bill Cummings about the projector when they saw him around the school. “There were many thousands of soldiers, but who knows, we might just see your ancestor on those photos, Johnny – if we can get the projector working.”

Johnny smiled and blushed as the whole classroom turned around to look at him.

John Thomson could feel the slime seeping through a gap in his boots. The end of the freezing cold spell had cheered him at first, as the stinging pain he experienced at night was gone. After a few weeks of winter, he had already forgotten how bad the mud could be though. The thaw left the beaten ground of the trench ripe for churning up anew. Then they rain came and made for one giant sticky mess. The sensation of standing on lookout with your feet slowly getting submerged in a cold mush was as close as Thomson bloody well planned to get to torture.

He tried to focus on the periscope.

“Still no sign of St. Nicholas?” asked a cheerful voice Thomson recognised as Grice, a fellow squaddie in the Royal Berkshire Regiment. Grice was ferrying some medical oils along the trench as one of the foot infections further down had turned bulbous.

“I could have sworn I saw Fritz’s gunners take down a couple of reindeer in the sky earlier, but I rather feel Captain Brown felt it was all make believe. A ploy on my behalf to spend Christmas day at the clearing station.”

Grice emitted a wheezy laugh that turned into a rasping cough.

Thomson strained to see the barbed wire and sandbags of the German trench in the dim afternoon light. He had to focus beyond the horrid sea of bumpy black mud strewn with ripped-apart trees, rotting body parts and scraps of blown off clothing. No Man’s Land. What a name. This small strip of land the whole world wanted to fight over – they could have called it Everyman’s Land. Not to mention every wife and daughter’s land, for there might be millions of women who have their loved ones consumed by that diabolical swamp by the time the war was through. Still, like everyone else, Thomson did his best to blot that space out of his mind.

Superficially, the German trench looked just like the English one, but hundreds of hours of staring at the thing since arriving in France in the summer had given Thomson a sixth sense for when something was afoot. There was an incredible stillness on that breezy Christmas Eve that made Thomson curious. Not even Fritz would shell on Christmas Eve, Thomson was sure of that. When the previous attacks had come, you could just see it in the air in – he had that feeling before Fritz’s last big heave-ho at the start of November, just before another lookout had spotted a number of sandbags bulging at the German trench while they busied for the attack.

As a matter of fact, in some absurd way there was a kind of stillness that day you might expect on a Christmas Eve back home. The tingling sensation of peace and goodwill. It reminded Thomson of the crowds strolling under the lamps on Newbury market place and heading to St. Nick’s Church for midnight mass.

‘Better not let your thoughts wander’ Thomson told himself. As much as he wanted to concentrate on the job at hand, he also tried to limit his thoughts about life at a home he didn’t know when he’d return to. He deliberately kept his letters short, figuring that his relatives wanted to know he was still alive but wouldn’t enjoy the details of life in the trenches. That Thomson, a lad of 19, had no wife or even a young lady to court made being away at the trenches a little easier perhaps, although his youthfulness also made the shock of war that much more striking.

“In some way the war came ten years too early for you, but I’m sure you’ll make the most of the experience,” Thomson’s father had told him on the morning he took the train set for London and Dover. His father’s reasoning was that having gone to St. Bartholomew’s, a local grammar school, if John had gone to war at 29, he would most likely have been made an officer. Not that he minded being a humble soldier, at first at least. It just seemed the natural thing to do. His father was a town clerk whose brother, John’s uncle, had died in the Boer War. The call of King and country was just not one young John could refuse. When they had asked for volunteers to declare and go on stage after a show at the local music hall at the end of August, Thomson had stood up together with his friends, Curnock and Patterson, without the three even having to swap glances. How they had soaked up the applause then.

It didn’t take long for Thomson to realise the dark shadows of the war would smother his optimism. When passing through Boulogne to the front, the three friends went to the harbour district, which was teeming with rum-soaked squaddies. The ladies under the red lanterns – something you didn’t see in Berkshire – were the first real sign of entering a mixed-up world.  Thomson’s friends egged him on, saying you never know when the next chance might be, etc. The friends had both found mademoiselles by the time a pale young lady with scraggy hair blew a kiss in Thomson’s direction. She lifted her dress at her side and said “monsieur! Avez vouz cinq francs?” while rubbing her hand down her thigh. Thomson sensed this display of flesh was a means to divert attention from the sadness in her eyes. He just couldn’t, and he didn’t.

Now with the muddy water lapping his ankles inside his boot, he regretted his restraint. What use is there for morality, after all, when you spend your days waiting for the next chance to rain shells on the men on the enemy trench – all the while when one can land on you at any moment and send you out of this world altogether, as had happened with Curnock in that November attack?

‘It’s extraordinarily still over there’ thought Thompson. His hopes raised of a little rest over Christmas, as the sky darkened above. A rat then tiptoed into his vision, sniffing towards the top of the periscope. He reached up to the top of the sandbags to swipe his hand at it, only to knock a clump of mud right onto the mirror, obscuring his view.

“Damn!” said Thomson. He wiped his right hand on his coat and spat into it. He clambered up to reach the top of the periscope to try to clean it.

“Fritz at one o’clock!” Shouted the nearest lookout to his right. Thomson jumped down with his heart aflutter. There was a frantic sound of splashing as Captain Brown dashed towards the lookout. Hands on rifles tightened their grasp as far as the eye could see.

“He’s with a white flag! Repeat – Fritz with a white flag!” screamed the lookout. Hands on rifles loosened as soldiers looked around, not knowing quite how to react.

Captain Brown pushed the lookout aside and peered through.

“Well, I say!” he said, just before the first words of song drifted above the trench.

Oh Tannenbaum, oh Tannenbaum, du kannst mir sehr gefallen!

Captain Brown and the lance corporals in the company mounted horses and trotted out to no man’s land to meet their German equivalents. Thomson watched their meeting, which was nervous at first, and could hear a few of the words said from the British side when the wind was favourable.

“Er, right, how do you want to do this?” and “Yes, my men would very much like to try German cigarettes” were heard in Captain Brown’s booming voice. “Got any beer?” was then said by a corporal, greeted by laughter on both sides, followed by “what about women?” Somebody even mentioned playing football, a rough and tumble game which Thomson, a keen cricketer, loathed.

—-

“You aren’t coming to meet Fritz?” asked Grice.

“Erm, no…I just…just can’t bear to look them in the eye, after all the men they’ve killed,” said Thomson.

That was a lie.

There was just no way Thomson could go. He had battled so hard to keep any thoughts of that German soldier away from the top of his mind, pushing them into his stomach to be another nagging pain – along with the lice, bruises and infections. He was sure to be there, and there was no way he could see him again. He was picturing his face now and he felt a swelling in his throat as sweat formed on his forehead.

Thomson strolled around the trench in confusion for a few seconds, not seeing the smiles and laughter on the faces of men leaving their positions and scrambling up onto no man’s land.

He decided to return to his shelter to rest, but on passing the walkway leading to Captain Brown’s dugout and seeing it empty, he couldn’t resist heading in. A Christmas truce meant rules of combat were suspended, so he hoped there would be nothing wrong with a private entering a dugout to have a look.

A lantern had been left on the table. A couple of rats sped out as Thomson stepped in. He sat down at the chair. It may have been only three wooden walls slotted into a mound of earth, but after months in the trench, this was a blissful retreat. He could hear some singing and laughter outside, but the solitude of the dingy dugout was what he needed.

Thomson pictured him again in his mind, and his body was seized with an anxious grip. He sent his shaking hand into his coat for his hip flask. He had been saving his rum rations over the last six week for Christmas. It tasted good but the sharp taste still wasn’t able to dislodge the image of that German soldier out of his mind.

Thomson put his hand to his forehead as his mind reeled through events of that morning in early October yet again, searching for some kind of excuse or solace.

It had been a hazy dawn. There had been talk that the mediocre visibility would get the attack cancelled, but the telegraph from the Field Marshal said proceed. One big push before the autumn bogged them down was what they wanted. It was Thomson’s first attack. Just treat it like a training exercise, Thomson told himself, and he used the awesome energy of the shells to push him on. He had been in the county finals in the 100 yard dash as a teenager, so he expected to be among the quickest, but hadn’t imagined he would get so far ahead of the rest. He started to slow down to avoid getting cut off, but onward he knew he had to go. He could see the barbed wire of the German position in the mist, and took out his grenade, chucking it to where it ripped open a section of wire and blasted a gap in the sandbags. The others were coming now. But so was Fritz. Two men chased out towards him, one with a mean grimace on his face, and Thomson cocked his rifle and shot him in the top of the chest.

It wasn’t his muted cry or the thud when he hit the ground that most alarmed Thomson, nor the fact in itself that he had killed a man. Instead it was the moment when he looked into the terrified eyes of the short German private who was running behind his victim. A young lad holding his rifle askew. The German stopped in his tracks as his eyes, from behind misty spectacles and beneath shaggy blond hair, pleaded for his life. He looked a lot like Hawkins, the lad from the dairy who brought milk to Thomson’s townhouse in Newbury every morning. The German held his mouth open in shock and gulped, expecting this moment to be his very last. Who could say which loved ones he wished he could have the chance to say farewell to right there and then? The German made no attempt to even point his rifle in Thomson’s direction. While Thomson pointed his rifle loosely towards him, the sheer terror of his foe sent a chill through his body. A moist patch spread throughout the top of the German’s trousers as he pissed himself. Thomson looked over his shoulder, thankful that in the mist nobody could see the encounter.

“Retreat,” was then shouted above the gunfire and screams. Thomson turned and ran.

That swapped glance, unpleasant as it was at the time, grew to fester like a sore on Thomson’s conscience. Of course Thomson was just doing the job he had signed up for. If fate hadn’t placed Thomson in that exact spot, no doubt another soldier would have equally filled the German lad with terror, and perhaps even taken his life. Still, Thomson was angry that simply by following his instincts and heart, he had put himself in a situation where he represented a lot more than just John Thomson from Newbury to that boy on the brink of death. Thomson knew his eyes, as far as the German lad could see, stood for imperialism, great power rivalry, contempt for the common man, a thirst for blood. Where had the humanity he always assumed was a defining feature of his character gone for that vital moment? Instead, a confluence of evils had wormed its way inside him and compelled him to kill in their name.

The tears were forming in Thomson’s eyes now as he took another swill of rum. He had never loved, nor had he made his fortune, but he had inflicted great terror on a German volunteer, who was probably in much the same situation as him. A terror that was sure to haunt him for life. Who knows what might become of him in Germany, if he survives the war? Could he go on to enjoy life though when he had seen how cheaply and easily it can all be taken away? That helpless face came back to Thomson whenever he least wanted it to – when the cold was nagging him at night, when his spirits were already low. And now, the German was no doubt over there marking Christmas with our men. The absurdity of it all.

Thomson felt a louse crawl along his right forearm. He slapped his left hand at it until the forearm was sore. He noticed a pistol had been left on the table under a pile of letters. He reached for it. He held the gun out into the darkness and recreated the encounter in his mind.

“Don’t shoot, you monster!” the German boy screamed as Thomson pictured him now in the dugout.

“Why of course not, my friend!” Thomson pretended to say.

“Thomson! Shoot, you traitor!” he imagined Captain Brown shouting behind him.

How many more would there have to be before the war was out? How many men must Thomson put to the sword, and how many could he petrify and then slyly let go? How far had the front moved in the last few months, after all? Five miles?

Thomson turned the pistol to his own temple now. His life was already defined by this war. He could marry later, sure, but that German boy, and the other victims to follow, were sure to accompany him wherever he went.

He took another swill of rum.

“For the sake of King and country, I order you not to!” said the imaginary voice of Captain Brown now.

Thomson leaned back on the chair and laughed.

“For the sake of John Thomson, I –“ he said. He wasn’t the only John Thomson, his father had borne that name too, and his grandfather, and so forth, all the way back to before Victoria’s reign. If he could only get through this war, even if it scarred him for life, he could continue the line of John Thomsons. The thought of a future version of himself not knowing any kind of misery like this in a brighter age comforted him. He laid the pistol down.