Monday, 13 July 2015


Foxhunting then. This Wednesday, without public input and flying in the face of previous opinion polls (some 80%, allegedly), the Conservative party will attempt to put through an amendment to the foxhunting laws, currently a tenuously worded draft order stating that dogs can legally be used to flush or stalk a fox into the open, where it can be shot.

Two things. Firstly, the draft order falls under the aegis of the Small Business, Enterprise, and Employment Act. One of the key props used by proponents of foxhunting is that it represents a valid source of fiscal income - that monetizing the killing of an animal also confers legal legitimacy. This dovetails neatly with the feeling, long upheld by campaigners, that foxhunting, as well as being a business concern and enjoyable social activity, is part of a deeper cultural touchstone, a deeply personal act that is etched in the English rural psyche, intimately interwoven with the changing of the seasons and the proliferation of nature. For many hunt campaigners, there is the sense that a denial of the right to hunt equates to a perversion of the law of nature as well as the law of the land, something urbanites implicitly don't 'get'.

This is, to put it mildly, so much horseshit. I grew up in the Kent Weald (and later, Sussex), a supernaturally (in both the real and figurative sense) pretty landscape of bridleways fringed with oak and birch, interspersed with non-native chestnuts left there by the Romans. There are shallow streams originally used to irrigate water meadows by the Iron age Cantiaci people, and bright, airy patches of crop and downland, wandering hop farms, and polytunnels for growing fruit, each little plot of land bisected by hedges of dog rose and bramble, converted from arable to pasture use under the Enclosure act. Prior to that under the Tudors, the landscape was Royal parkland, and before that, untouched old growth forest (the word Weald derives from the Germanic Wald, meaning woodland) dotted with grassy balds and heathland. It is a deeply human, recessional landscape, a landscape built on the memory of successive generations of land use, doctored, cultivated, and modified by Paleolithic, Neolithic, Roman, Jute, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and Tudor people.

To suggest that the act of foxhunting is part of both a deep connection to nature and a link to the pulse of our ancestors in some long and unbroken societal chain is nothing more than the cynical manipulation of an idealised Merrie England that never existed. But more than this, that the countryside we all enjoy should be hijacked, misappropriated, and codified according to the narrow definition of a small, entitled, arrogant section of society - a set that you can join by buying property in the right place, thinking the right thoughts, buying a pair of eighty quid Hunter Wellingtons, and ideally participating in dressage - makes me very nearly as angry as the act of hunting a fox for fun does.

Secondly, the proposed amendment makes repeated reference to two nebulous concepts: research purposes and wildlife management, specifically "the use of dogs below ground to protect livestock, or birds for shooting”. There is one obvious comparison when referring to research practices, and that is Japan's research whaling program (the pleasantly harmless preferred term is 'scientific research provision').

Just so we can see what we're getting into bed with, here's a brief overview of the moral rigour that Japan practices with its research whaling program. According to the IWC, all animals euthanised (in Japan's instance, via grenade-tipped harpoon) for research must be used, i.e, sold or given away - a convenient caveat for a nation that wants to sell whale meat in the first place. The approval of a scientific whaling permit is granted by the nation that applied for it - in other words, Japan can approve its own permits without external scrutiny or legal interference. Finally, the IWC has defined research to mean any project with a set goal and viable means of gathering data. Japan's research project is primarily concerned with establishing if whale populations have now recovered to the point where they can be hunted for consumption again. They do this by culling whales in large numbers, then seeing how the population recovers.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Watts-Cale Ltd

It is 4.45am on March 12th, and a flock of canada geese are on the wing, high above my house. I can hear them calling to each other in the dark, over the rising sigh of the wind. Nothing else is awake in the pre-dawn world. The air, above and below, is blank and empty, waiting to be drawn on by the corkscrews of vapour trails, the ruled lines of diesel fumes over the Channel, and the concentric circles described by the flight of herring gulls.

The land is sleeping too, but I am already awake, sat in the comforting dark of the kitchen with my hands wrapped round a mug of black coffee. Now, the first time I heard canada geese was when I was a boy in Scotland, somewhere up around Inverbeg. We used to go on family holidays there, driving up from Glasgow in an Austin Allegro, fairly overflowing with sweet wrappers and empty tins of pop within an hour of setting off, to sit in a caravan by a rain-lashed lake for a weekend. If the sun did come out – moving in a slow arc, wan and hesitant, like a recovering invalid; no heat to it – clouds of black fly would follow and we’d have to stay in the caravan anyway. I remember lying in the army surplus sleeping bag that belonged to my Uncle Ian, curled up inside the warm hibernal darkness, the seam folded over my head like a cocoon, reading the Beano by the roving spotlight of a dynamo torch. I remember hearing the geese calling overhead.

The big grandfather clock I inherited from my Grandad - the only thing I really knew him by, I suppose - ticks away behind my back. It has followed me around all my life like a mechanical puppy, dismantled and lined with PVC foam in various removal boxes, lugged up and down staircases of I don’t know how many new homes. It has outlasted my Dad, my Mum, and half a dozen aunties and uncles.

I sit and watch the geese cross the dark plane of the sky and watch them fly south-west over the house in a tight V shape, a formation that reduces drag and allows the geese to fly in each others slipstream. That way, only the lead goose bears the full brunt of the cold winds coming off the sea. I go birdwatching on weekends with my wife, and I’ve picked up a few things. I watch them disappear over the saltings, dark shapes against the greater dark of the sky, until they merge with the horizon and disappear.

I sit and leaf through yesterday’s paper – some flim-flam about the drought, an interview with a Czech director I’ve never heard of, a gardening column – by the light of a too-bright anglepoise lamp while my coffee goes cold beside me, then rise and rinse out the mug. I wash it out before the water’s had a chance to heat up, and place it on the drying rack. I pad quietly to the bathroom and shave, then trim my beard with a pair of nail scissors. I look at my reflection as I snip away. Salt and pepper beard, and the odd white nostril hair. Gunmetal grey eyebrows like threatening thunderheads. I like to think they give me a certain grave dignity. I once heard it said by a client that I looked like Moses emerging from the desert. Does no harm considering the career.

I yawn and nick the skin under my ear. I slap some Aramis on the fresh skin under my beard, which is something of a cliché for a man of a certain age, but it’s what my Dad always wore and it smells reassuringly patriachal to the punters. It stings like shite, especially where it splashes the scratch, but I’m a big boy so I won’t complain. I sit on the freezing edge of the bathtub and pull my socks over my feet. Getting a bit of a belly. More than usual, anyway. I pull on my underwear and trousers, and spray a cold haze of deodorant under each arm. I walk to the bedroom, unlatch the door quietly, and grope around in the dark for my shirt and tie. I find them draped over a chair in the corner under my wife’s bra and blouse. She slumbers in bed, her head lolling in the fissure between her pillow and mine. There’s a wee gasp as some dream surfaces and sinks, and the gasp along with it. I notice the curtain is slightly open. A faint grey bar of light rests on her neck. I pull the curtain closed, walk to the door and shut it behind me, lifting the wrought iron latch and placing it gently back into the catch so as not to wake her. She’s a terrible woman when she’s just woken.

I return to the kitchen and refill the kettle, dipping my head and drawing my tie around my neck as I wait for it to boil. The collar brushes against my razor-burn. The kettle sings out and I take it off the hob. I fill my thermos with instant coffee before finishing the crossword as the sky outside turns from black to blue-black to grey and, as I shoulder my bag and place my pen back into the pot, a deep, empty blue. I open the front door, walk as quietly as I can across the wet gravel so as not to wake the neighbours, get into the car, and go to work.

Afternoon there. David Watts, Watts-Cale Ltd. Sorry to have kept you waiting. You find your way here alright then? No traffic on the way in? Aye, they’ve been doing work on the way into Glynde, thought it might have held you up. An hour and a half’s about right from Orpington though, not bad at all. Jim’ll be along shortly. No, we had one last job to do today. Just a quiet country affair, sweet old lady who used to up in Firle. Knew the family, so it was pro bono as much as anything, you know? Aye, beautiful tumbledown old church in a hollow at the foot of the south downs. Lovely stuff, as these things go.

Right then, I’ll just give you a quick once-over of the property and grab my stuff from the office and be on my way. You’ll have to mind Garrett there, here’s just doing the last of the renovations in Jim’s office. The intercom’s a bit iffy, but there’s a man coming round tomorrow to fix it. Tenish, I think he said. There’ll be someone here to let him in if you’re not about Other than that, it’s about ready to go. You might want to slap a bit of Polyfilla on the door frames in the depot, they’ve got a bit tatty over the years as you can imagine, lugging the kit about. Tell you what, let’s go up to my office – the office, excuse me – and do the last of the paperwork and I’ll be out of your way.

Aye, it’s not bad, is it? Watch your feet, there’s a little step there. Plenty of light in the summer, although it gets bit gloomy in the winter months. Put in a few lamps here and there and you’ll have no problem. Nice view, and of course, plenty of room. Yeah, we knocked the wall through, gives it a bit more ambience. Can I get you a drink there? No? Just a small one? Ah, you’ll have a small one. It’s not bad stuff this. Talisker 57 Degrees North. Nice and drinkable. Bloody should be at the price. This is the last of it anyway, go on now.

No, this place has been good to me. And Jim, of course. Jim? Oh aye, he’s local as you like. Born down there, on Havelock street. Well, born in Princess Royal hospital in Brighton, but you know what I mean. See that chip shop there? About two doors down from that. That’s the one. No, he lives in Berwick now. Nice little place in the country and all of that guff. Hah, no, I’m from Glasgow originally, as you might be able to tell. Aye, opposite end of the world. I like the sun and the bracing air. Hah. No, my wife’s from just up the road in Eastbourne.

Well, I was indoctrinated in the business in Scotland by my father, who ran his own business. Strictly a family affair. I was the younger of two brothers, and my brother Alan was set to take over, so I decided to go independent. Always wanted to move down to England. It was where everything was happening, you know? Earned my stripes with my Dad though. You see, England in the seventies seemed a world away from the winding DSS queues and empty foundries of the Glasgow docklands. I’d met my wife in a nightclub called The Black Wang – aye, some real Scottish humour for you there, free of charge – in the summer of ’71; she’d been visiting her grandparents in Kilbride. I’d left school and had been working with my Dad for a few years. Well, we courted for a fair while, as you do, until she moved up to Glasgow to be with me. Do you know Glasgow at all? Jim’s daughter’s at University there and it’s all change now.

Well, we lived in a miserable little dive on Shipton Street. My wife – well, she wasn’t my wife at that point, we got married in ‘76 – worked in a little dressmakers below the flat. She was a dab hand with a needle – still is – and she made us all kinds of things. She used to bring back scraps of bri-nylon and floral prints and knock up clothes for us on the weekends. A new wardrobe every week. Aye, we looked pretty cool in those days.

There wasn’t anything keeping me in Scotland, so we moved south. See, Sussex in those days was as religious as you’d find in England – you lads weren’t into hellfire and damnation as much as we were, so it felt like more of a social club. See, your standard Church of England doctrine is largely based around flower arranging and local gossip in any case, which came as a bit of a shock to me. We liked freezing pews. Watery orange juice and cakes after the service wasn’t part of the deal where I’m from.

You got a funny old bunch in those days. Lots of war veterans – every man decorated up to the nines, pinned with medals and campaign crests even when they went to the pub for a pint of mild of an evening. Their wives were uniformly mousy little women in shades of lavender and violet, all wearing that particular lily-of-the-valley scent so heavily favoured by ladies of a certain age. They trailed along beside their husbands as if lost until after the service, where they drifted off into little gangs of fellow mouse ladies to discuss preserves and book groups, births and deaths. There were a few families and a good cross-section of glowering teenagers, their piercings and dyed hair curbed for Sunday sermon, but not many.

Can I get you a refill there? Just say when. Yep, it is – ten to five. I imagine he’s got snarled up in traffic on the way in. I’ll keep on eye on my phone, if he’s not here in ten you’re probably better off locking up and either him or I will nip round tomorrow to remove the last of the kit. Hah, he never was good at keeping time.

Yeah, anyway. So. I wasn’t particularly religious by now – your undertakers very often aren’t. Especially Scottish ones. Twenty-four years of being dried out on the stove of Scottish Presbyterianism does that to you, you know? But I saw a gap in the market, and property was cheap to buy on the south coast. The decline of the seaside resorts, I suppose. I bought a little two floor detached property on Talbot Terrace with attached garage, just around the corner from The Parish Church of St John Sub Castro in Peacehaven, a funny old church built of local knapped flint and redbrick. In other words, bloody ugly. Do you know the one I mean? Aye, that’s the one, up by the Strand. I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for it. Didn’t think much of the Sub Castro bit when I moved here though. Had a distinct whiff of popery to a god-fearing Scottish boy. Well anyway, I decided to ignore it in favour of being in the same catchment area. Having a funeral directors round the corner from a church does no harm at all when it comes to free advertising.

The property itself wasn’t bad – a nice view of the Channel, new windows, lino tiles and some horrendous wallpaper in those particular shades of brown and sunset orange much favoured in the early seventies. You know what I mean? Aye, my granny had them too. I still remember the design – hourglasses of muddy brown, fringed with pale orange against a tangerine background, repeated ad nauseum. Hardly right for a modern, up-to-date funeral directors, eh? I stripped it off, sanded it down, and painted the whole thing white before putting in some black executive chairs and a walnut burr desk – aye, this very same one – which made me feel like a flash bugger. It’s not doing too badly, is it? A little warped and stained here and there, but I believe they call that character. I spent the rest of my savings and the money my father had given me on a Reliant Scimitar, which looked the business, but farted clouds of exhaust fumes wherever I went. I was pretty much broke by this point.

You see, on hindsight I may have banked rather too heavily on getting much of my clientele by being in the slipstream between St John Sub Castro’s and the nearest pub – see, in Glasgow, there’d be a mass exodus to the nearest boozer immediately after the funeral, ostensibly an informal pre-wake, but really because no Glaswegian likes to be without a pint of McEwan’s much before noon, at least round my way. I didn’t have a clue how to promote myself, didn’t know how to turn a profit, and didn’t have the heart to undercut the only rival business – Elroy’s Undertakers, a dusty sunlit office above a laundrette by the marina run by a gentle old soul called William Elroy who only really worked for the beer money. It’s gone now, but if you care to look for it, it’s where Domino’s is, off of Keys Road. How times change, eh?

We were majestically poor. Business never really took off, and when Linda was born in the spring of 1982, I considered putting the office on the market and downsizing, or dropping out all together. My wife enrolled in the local technical college, and I took up cab driving to supplement the scraps I got from the business. Which was where I met Jim. Picked him up from the races in Brighton. Drunk as a skunk, he was. Could barely lift his head, but he was a funny man. A really funny man. We got on just fine. Turned out his Dad was a funeral man too, but Jim didn’t have the kit to start a firm. I did, of course. We set up together pretty quick, and business picked up pretty rapidly. Aye, he knew his stuff, did Jim. By the end of the decade we were wealthy men, with a fleet of hearses and limousines and a bespoke line-up of coffins to suit all budgets in a warehouse down by the train terminals in Newhaven. We even started doing green burials and crematory ceremonies. Green burials – cardboard coffins, fully biodegradable, trees instead of headstones and all of that – sell like hot cakes these days. Very eco-friendly. We bought this place in the spring of 1991. Been here ever since.

I wore a distinctly modish double-breasted suit in blue serge from Cagney’s of Brighton, and a three-piece suit in black for pall bearing and the funeral itself – sombre, timeless, elegant. I still do, although they’ve had to let it out a bit around the waist. I’m pretty top-heavy these days, you know? Aye, happens to the best of us.

See, the trick with the funeral business is never to upstage the punters, never to draw attention to yourself. You’re part of the scenery, or as near as makes no difference. You are on the edge of things, an accessory to the death experience as a whole, along with the lilies and book of common prayer and crunch of gravel as you carry the casket.

Now I don’t mean to sound cruel, but you can’t work in the funeral business for any length of time if you take it to heart. Any man who comes to blows with death at any point in his life isn’t cut out for the business. That’s what I’ve always told the men who worked for me. Never look him in the eye, because you won’t win. All you can do is gently guide the client through the catalogues, listing coffins and garlands and hearses in a soft reverential murmur, as though in prayer, and try your best not to let the set of their jaw or the tremors of their hands get to you.

And they are always so dignified, the customers. So still and polite. I have never seen a man bury his wife, nor a wife bury her father, without that same beautiful blank face, like they were carved out of marble. You can touch their hand for reassurance, and it is always cold. But you can do any more than that. No more than that. Anything other than a touch is unprofessional. You can’t do what I do for forty odd years and not expect to be affected.

Preparing the remains is a skill. Aye, it’s ‘the remains’ now, thank you very much. Something we’ve pick up from the Americans. Ten, twenty years ago, it was ‘the deceased’ or, god help me, ‘the customer’. But that’s political correctness for you. The remains? Well, it’s what they are, I suppose. I have to admit, it’s about the best word for it. See, a lot of the clients think of it as a bit of a ghoulish task – working underground by strip-lighting is how I imagine they think of it, when they let themselves think of it at all – but it’s not like that, you know? You’re not dealing with Grandfather Bill or Granny Prue, you’re dealing with an empty shell. Aye, it might look a wee bit like them, but there’s something that just isn’t there, you know? Can the soul please turn off the lights when it leaves the body. You take away the human part from the human body, and what you’re left with is, well, it’s just a vessel, really. So you apply a little rouge and a little powder and you trim any errant eyebrow lashes and so on. It’s odd. My wife says she doesn’t know how I do it every day. Neither do I really. You know, my Granddaughter was christened last September and I swear to God, I haven’t been in a church as a punter since I was in my twenties. Not once. I only own the one suit, so it was all-purpose black for that occasion too. My wife wasn’t happy. Nearly ever time I’ve seen a crowd in suits and dresses it was in remembrance for the departed. Maybe that’s why I’m getting out of it now, hey? Or maybe I’m just getting on a bit. Aye, we’re all getting older.

Ah, there’s Jim now. Only fifteen minutes late, must be some kind of record. I’ll leave him to fill out his part of the paperwork with you – it never ends, does it? – and it’s all yours. Oh, and here you are – keys. Twenty-three years I’ve had those. The little gold one unlocks the back door – you have to give it a bit of a shove – and the two bronze ones are the downstairs windows. Any problems, I’ll be around this weekend, but I’m sure Jim’ll talk you through it. As I say, there’ll be a lad round tomorrow to fix the intercom, but I’ll have one of my guys around to let him in.

Best of luck with the business then Mr- Middleton, Middleton, of course it is. It’s a lovely old building. Lots of memories. Some of them good ones. I certainly will, think I’ve earned it. Retirement doesn’t seem so bad now, hah. Maybe I’ll even play a bit of golf tomorrow. No, no not to worry, I’ll let myself out. Aye, pleasure doing business with you, I’ll let Jim know we’re done here, shall I? Thanks then. Bye now.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Urania's Mirror

I do not remember exactly when Urania’s Mirror came into my life. I do not remember the first day I felt the pulse of those faraway stars. I do not remember the first time I felt the push of their ever-increasing winds, the pull of their distant, immutable gravities. I do not remember when my life began to walk the constellated paths already set before me by the cards,  unseen under the turgid earth or beyond my sight in the night sky, or at what point I lost sight of my life altogether.

I first came to possess Urania’s Mirror at some point during the spring. I had been redundant for the better part of a year and had suffered in that time a slew of minor personal misfortunes which, after the events of several years before, left me in a rather low state of mind. I was due at my local surgery in Mile End a little after 11am. I have experienced odd shooting pains in my chest and a shortness of breath out of keeping with my mild asthma. After an exhausting trip on the District line in which I was besieged by a raft of small children, apparently without owners, I arrived almost half an hour earlier than intended and decided to wander around the area until my appointment was due.

I was perusing the dusty shelves of a small antique shop when I spotted a small metal tin partly hidden under a book entitled Medley’s History of the Second Punic War. The box was slightly corroded from sebaceous acids, and stained and fissured by a little under two centuries of wear. It reminded me of my grandfather’s cigar case, Winterlight’s Slim Pantellas, which smelt of sharp tin and old apples and wet leather. A triptych of the Dionysian pantheon - Silenus, a retinue of Maenads, and the wine god himself - staggered in a roguish procession along its outer edge. A drawing of Urania herself, cradling the celestial globe and resting on a cloud or nebula, was pictured below. I had read about Urania’s Mirror in the Greenwich Royal Observatory archives; the asking price of seventy pounds seemed eminently reasonable, given the condition of the cards and their relative rarity.

Urania’s Mirror is, in short, a hand-painted painted boxed set of thirty two cards depicting the principal constellations, derived partly from the works of Herschel and Hevelius and partly from romantic mythology, and first published by Samuel Leigh of the Strand, London, in 1825. The authorship of the original lithographic set was mysteriously attributed to “A Lady” - Peter Hingely, librarian of the Royal Astronomical Society, and, incidentally, a former colleague of mine, has established, some believe conclusively, that the true author was the Reverend Richard Rouse Bloxam of Rugby. I have my own theories as to their authorship which I will not expound upon now.

I bought the cards, attended my appointment at the surgery, and was vaguely diagnosed with a chest infection brought on by poor health and stress, and took the underground home without incident. I placed the cards on my mantelpiece, and forgot about them.

It was only when April dawned, shot through with cold days and endless nights, that I began to find uncanny meaning in the cards. My electricity was cut off for the first time on April 4th, and I began to burn certain volumes for warmth until my DSS cheque cleared and I could afford to feed the meter again. My chest worsened. I burnt some of my own books, supplemented with recycling, but left Cali’s on the shelves in our bedroom. Little thoughts, forced into silence and drifting in slow orbits round the rim of my mind, began to fall inward. I began to think: I am the loneliest person I know.

I began to feel inexplicably drawn to the cards. I researched them diligently. I felt some invisible tether anchoring them to me – the mythology of Perseus and his kind seemed to chime uncannily with my own life. Occasionally I opened them, which seemed curiously like an act of trespass, and stared at the constellations, their principle stars punctured so as to let light shine through them. Rings of cadmium, cobalt and vermilion were etched round the rim of certain bright stars, giving them the same colours as they had in the night sky above.

Over the following month the cards began to call to me, and I began to research them; they have occupied me ever since. I have enclosed select extracts from my log book below.



The first line of the Cassiopeia entry in Alexander Jamieson’s The Celestial Atlas reads thus: “The wife of Cepheus and queen of Æthiopia once boasted that she was more beautiful than all the Nereids”. I began my research in the Royal Observatory’s manuscript library, a building I’d worked in for over a decade, long ago. I first met Cali there.

The constellation of Cassiopeia is generally depicted as a slanted W or M. It is most prominent in winter skies, passing through the zenith in early January. It is not classified as an asterism, being as it is of no prominent shape or design, yet that skewed W, seen side on bordering the roof of Auriga in mid January, is as at least as distinctive as the Sickle of Leo. I have worked out, using a very rough azimuth equation I am not entirely happy with, that its principal stars equate to a set of co-ordinates on a side street that lies just outside of Westham underground station. This system is vastly more accurate than my former method of searching haphazardly for literary or astronomical clues in related texts, and I am sure I have divined the correct method for revealing the meaning of the constellations, though the methodology is still imperfect. My current path, however, is clear. My task for today is to seek beauty in Rugby Road.

Cassiopeia led me down Westham high street for some distance. A slurry of grey clouds filled the sky to the west. A couple of thick-browed Polish men smoked a packet of Benson & Hedges on a street corner. They stared at me as I walked past. I pressed on.

The co-ordinates of Cassiopeia led me into a small West-Indian newsagent. I smiled brightly at the owner, a large black man with powerful forearms and a spade-shaped beard, and navigated my way round trays of rutabagas and artichokes to get to the location of the co-ordinates. Tinny reggae hissed from unseen speakers.

I stopped in front of a shelf of tinned goods. I dropped to my knees, keeping the GPS on my phone steady. I picked up a tin of Alphonso mangoes. They had a beautiful lady on the front of the tin, smiling gently while holding an almost unbearably ripe mango, which blushed pink and orange in her hand. I turned the tin over and read about it. It was from AMALSAD REGION, GUJARAT and contained 882 GRAMS of PUREED MANGO in FRUIT JUICE with SULPHIDES and PRESERVATIVES. I stared at it for perhaps half an hour, turning it over and over in my hands, until the proprietor asked me what the fuck are you doing man, either piss off out of my shop or buy something. After a moment’s hesitation I decided to piss off. I got the DLR to Upney and sat on a bench on my own next to the canal and ate a tiny, heartbreaking BLT with a single fugitive rasher of bacon in hiding under the lettuce until I got cold and caught an empty District line train for home.



I have taken, of late, to going through my neighbours recycling bin. There are reasons for such behaviour. Firstly, anything they dispose of in their recycling bin is, by definition, unwanted. Secondly, recycling is not exclusive to physical recombination; intellectual reappraisal of unwanted or expired documents is what we might refer to as mental recycling – it is a form of salvage, nothing sinister. If that salvage is, for example, for astrophilogical use or, indeed, for burning for warmth, then it has served its purpose. I have been shivering constantly and have started, at times, to lose sensation in my arms and legs. I spent the third weekend of July, the month of Cygnus, interred in my local hospital after collapsing in a branch of Sainsbury’s. They said I had mild pneumonia, and was given a course of antibiotics. They have not helped.

Andromeda guides me this month. She was the princess who, through the dynastic distribution of divine punishment, was chained to rock to be consumed by the sea monster Cetus in retribution for the vainglorious proclamations of her mother, Cassiopeia.

Calli once said that if we ever had a child, we’d call her Andromeda. I always liked Merope, which was also the name of Calli’s grandmother from Mykonos, a tiny, nut-brown woman, wrinkled as a Hunza apricot, who spoke no English and had the same milky blue eyes as her namesake in the far Pleiades.

The logical assumption to draw from Andromeda relates to, I cannot deny it, some form of rescue, some consolation of love. I searched endlessly through my card index for clues to some other meaning, but I was eventually forced to admit the nature of Andromeda can only relate to love and loss. I am ashamed to admit that I flew into a fury at this and took to tearing apart the quince tree in my back garden, ostensibly for fuel, with a hatchet. When that became blunt, I switched to a kitchen knife, but the blade - thin, untempered steel unsuitable for sawing – snapped, and I lashed at the tree we’d planted together helplessly with my bare hands, and all the while a great roaring pain sang through my lungs and heart. I sank to my knees and buried my head in a gap in the roots and rested my temples on the damp topsoil. I decided to face my nemesis that night.

I checked the co-ordinates for Andromeda using a refined azimuthal calculus I have developed over the last week. I cannot help but think that last month’s guide, Cepheus, might have served me better as an instructive masculine figure if I’d corrected for proper motion and ended up in Aldgate library – a place I once worked in as a young man - instead of a disused warehouse in Clapham, where I sat in the dark under a colony of comparatively rare Serotine bats and got shat on for a few hours. They flitted endlessly in and out of the building’s shell through the broken roof-spars until I left, dispirited. Urania’s Mirror is not to be blamed in this instance. I am.

My calculations predicted that I would face down Andromeda wherever she was chained at Turnpike Lane, some hour and a half’s ride on an overland train. I arrived there in due course, but realized with a sinking feeling that my calculations were out by several degrees. I readjusted my formulae under the grease fires and impassive eyes of the Armenian cook in Dzadour’s Tennessee Fried Chicken and got the Piccadilly line out to Oakwood.

Oakwood Park is named after an area of Enfield Chase that was partly felled and reallocated between the King and the freeholders of nearby parishes in the sixteenth century. Only a strand of oaks remained, which were later enclosed in the grounds of Samuel Sugden, a homeopathic chemist who bought the land in 1870. There is still a strange igloo-shaped building in the centre of the park where an ice-well stood – ice being a luxury item in 1870, and Mr Sugden being a man of no small means – and there I stopped to search for Andromeda.

I scanned the skies for quarter of an hour, forty feet deep in darkness. Beyond that height, the sodium glow of London washed the sky a dull apricot, picking out the thick shaggy heads of oaks and the thin fingers of poplars. I found Andromeda interred in a starless patch of the London sky, high above a dead sessile oak, a pale coreless smudge of a trillion stars in an almost empty sky. I gazed at my enemy. I looked at her, and she at me. We locked eyes until my hands were numb with cold and the street lights had been switched off and I felt all the loss and rage and stupidity of my increasing years and my redundancy and my dwindling funds and my atrophying body and the encroaching bailiffs and the insubstantial simulacra of a life I had woven around me like a chrysalis and above all the wheeling stars that took my Calli. I shouted and swore at the distant, indifferent galaxy until my lungs erupted in a chain of coughs and whines and I fell to my knees on the hard earth. I walked home round the Staines and Colbrook reservoirs until I climbed into a frozen bed at 4.42am.



I am lying on the camp bed I have made up for myself in my otherwise empty living room at 43 Caistor Park Road with my breath clouding the air in short, arrhythmic bursts. It is 7.17pm. I sleep often now. I have not eaten, at last count, in eight days. Half-empty mugs, with various bacteria and mildews flourishing at different stages of decomposition, consume each caffeine remnant. I believe that I will expire at some point over the weekend, assuming that it is Thursday twelfth, although that date is somewhat suspect. I no longer know what I think, or how I think it. All I know is that Urania’s Mirror is at its heart, and I at its. I am on my way out. Urania’s Mirror has gone before me in the last fire in my waste-paper bin.

Everything is very peaceful now. I wonder how many other people there are out there, quietly exiting the world, unnoticed in semis and bungalows and council flats silent but for the marine roar of television static, forgotten by the rush outside until the unread post composts on the doormat and electricity severance men discover the bodies curled up on chintz sofas across the face of England. Possibly hundreds.

I will watch the gradations of light and dark and morning and night rise and fade through my net curtains and listen to the sounds of the city and the song of birds in Plaistow Park until, one day, I won’t. That will be Urania’s Mirror’s parting gift to me, and it will be the greatest one of all.


The Rip Tide

Carl Bailey walked down the seafront at speed, head down against the wind, lids at half-mast to shield his eyes from the whipping salt wind. He turned a corner at Rock-A-Nore, and crossed an empty coach park. Shreds of clouds scudded across the sky, their upper reaches bathed in yellow light from the setting sun. Carl picked his way absentmindedly through a network of potholes and tyre ruts, each with its own little oil-slicked pool. The grey sky above was tinged in rainbow colours in each muddy puddle. He slipped between the net huts and into the fisherman’s yard.

Some distance away, two men were smoking thin roll-ups in silence and gazing out to sea. Three were cradling white polystyrene cups close to their chests and talking quietly. They looked up briefly as Carl walked across the yard.

In the furthest corner, an old man was sitting on a blue plastic chair repairing a nylon net. His head was craned down. Salt and pepper stubble stood out thickly on his jaw. He had a green woollen hat pushed down over his head, and wisps of white hair stuck out from under it. His stubby fingers clutched a tube of industrial adhesive, methodically applying it to the net as he fed plasticized mesh along the tear. He held a darning needle between his teeth. He didn’t look up.

‘Alright, Bill.’

He looked up. The old man had intensely blue eyes, but they were hooded against the cold and wind. They strained to see him through the cold circling drizzle.

‘Alright son.’

He returned to his work. Carl pulled his scarf tighter around his face, then leant down to brush some mud off his trainers. The old man coughed gruffly.

‘Your Dad send you down here?’

Carl shifted uncomfortably.


The old man grunted.

‘What’d he want?’

Carl shrugged.

‘Dunno. I just went into town to pick up the welfare checks. Met up with Gary and that after.’



The old man’s fingers wove strips of plastic smoothly into the nylon mesh. His nails were cracked and nicotine-stained. He coughed again, a slow arrhythmic whine.

‘I expect he wants to know what time I’m going to be back from work.’

Carl shrugged again.

‘Something like that. Oh, and he said to tell you we’re having KFC again tonight. If that’s alright.’

‘Hah. Going to have to be, isn’t it?’

The old man spat a bolus of phlegm onto the ground, then crushed it into a puddle with the heel of his boots. He hadn’t looked up at any point during the conversation.

Carl pulled over a spare chair, tipping a small puddle that had pooled at the back of the seat onto the ground. He perched on the edge of the seat, but his arse was already soaked.

‘Ah, fuck it.’

They sat in silence for a few minutes, the old man’s hand threading plastic around the break, Carl’s hands thrust deep into the pockets of his hoody, leaning forward and watching the old man intently. He cleared his throat.

‘Oi, Grandad, have you got any Rizlas on you?’

The old man puts the net down on his lap carefully, and fished about in the pockets of his oilskin. He pulled out a packed of blue cigarette papers, and passed them wordlessly to his grandson.


Carl pulled out a tuft of Golden Virginia and started to roll. Without looking up, he said awkwardly:

‘Uh, Dad said you’ve got to come straight home after you’re done here. No going to the pub or anything. Said you’ve got to look after yourself.’

His granddad laughed, a short, humourless bark which dissolved into a rogue cough.

‘He can fuck right off. I’m going down The Arms in half an hour. Tell him I’ll be home after that.’

‘I’ll tell him. He’s going to kick off though.’

‘That’s up to him.’

They sat in silence. The old man finished stitching, and laid the net down in a pile next to him. He scratched his jaw as he yawned.

‘Get us a cup of tea, would you Carl.’

Carl stood up and walked over to the stained plastic kettle the fishermen kept in a little lean-to under the eaves of one of the net huts. He put a tea-bag in a cup, picked up a couple of sugar cubes, off-brown and fissured where they’d been spattered with coffee, and put them in the cup. He waited for the kettle to boil, then tore the lid off a little pot of UHT milk and tipped it in. He carried it back to the old man, who accepted it without a word. Carl sat down again. The old man looked out to sea. Crenellated waves marched towards the shore in serried ranks, little breakers skipping ahead of the parent surf. Big bow waves from the last few fishing boats carved thick V-shaped cuts in the rising swell. The old man spoke.

‘Lumpy old sea out there. Reminds me of the sea around Rockall.’

Carl looked up with interest.

‘Where’s Rockall?’

‘North Atlantic. Island in the middle of nowhere, long way off the north Irish coast. Blasted little rock streaked with gullshit. Was beam-trawling for north Atlantic prawns south of Iceland. Got blown off course. Well off course.’

A few of the younger fishermen drifted over. Some pulled up chairs. Others leant against bulkheads or propped themselves against the net huts. Bill’s stories were legendary around the fishing yards. Bill had been, variously, a midshipman in the merchant navy, a gunner in XXI Corps in the Second World War serving in Tunisia and Morocco, and later in the war, a naval intelligence officer in Italy. He’d been a harbourmaster in the Shetlands, captain of a string of purse-seiners working the shipping lanes everywhere from the Bay of Biscay to the Bosporus, a deckhand on an Alaskan crab boat, and finally, a commercial fisherman in Hastings fishing the few remaining cod in the English Channel.

‘... Course, that was when I was up in the fjords. We’d sheltered for the night in Lysefjord, on account of the weather. We’d been line-trawling for halibut up in the Arctic Circle – rich waters up there, at spawning season the water’s so thick with them you could walk across their backs – when the weather blew up. Sky all full of snow, blasting left and right, up your jumper, down your trousers, freezing the snot in your nose. Night was falling - black as your hat it was - waves with teeth like bananas, nothing on the barometer but the makers name... anyway, the local lads steered us into this fjord and of course I didn’t know what a fjord was, but the wind died down and we dropped anchor and it must have been a thousand odd fathoms before it hit bottom, even in this bolthole... but when I woke up the following morning, well, the sky was shot full of birds, lads, millions of huge dark geese honking and crisscrossing the blue sky in perfect lines like aerial roads and all around me were cliffs, cliffs, but not like the ones at Beachy Head or Dover or St Ives, these were huge grey towering things rising up like giants on either side of the boat and at the far end of this watery gorge was this colossal blue shelf of ice, creaking and groaning in the sun. I could not believe my eyes.’

The old man shook his head slowly. Someone passed him a cigarette, which he accepted with a nod. He patted his pockets absentmindedly until someone passed him a lighter too. He lit it and inhaled, then breathed out with satisfaction in a great cobalt plume.

‘And the breakfasts, boys! Cod fried in butter and black bread, all washed down with double aquavits and Russian vodka, black coffee and Turkish cigarettes! Standing on the prow with all these red-headed sons of Norway and a steaming mug of coffee with a healthy measure of whisky upended into it – for the cold you understand - watching shelves of ice tear themselves away from the glacier and crash into the sea. Calving, it was called, and you could see why, ‘cos they rolled and dipped and sank under the waves like whale calves playing around a mother.’

Most of the yard had crowded round the old man now, who was getting more and more animated, his big hands, dotted with liver spots, dancing in arabesques in the air as he simulated the dip and swell of young icebergs being birthed in a distant subarctic valley. He stopped, and sat quietly. He looked speculatively at his lap, and wiped away a stream of mud and water that had fallen across his knee. He continued.

‘And it all felt so old, lads. The rock and the geese and the Norwegian lads themselves, Vikings to look at them... puts me in mind of when I was in Marseille after the war.’

He sniffed thoughtfully.

‘We’d come into harbour after a convoy run – we were shipping Indian rubber into France from the East – and it must have been early evening. July, it was. 1947. Beautiful light they get down that way, all oranges and lemon yellows and violets. Like a painting. Anyway, I was leaning over the side having a smoke, watching these swarthy fellas play bowls on the quay. Clack, the balls went. You know that lovely hollow ivory sound of snooker balls hitting each other? Like that. Anyway, I’m watching them play, and this French lad comes over – from the Camargue, he was – leans over the rail, and says to me, “You know, they’ve been playing Boules on that quay for two thousand years. At least. Pétanque, it is called. Tiens! Why, when slaves from Numidia and Carthage were unloading petra oleum - rock oil, petrol, gasoline, you know? - from Tyre and dates from Palestine and legionnaires patrolled the shore, their caligae slapping on the stones, French men would have played this very same game. Think of that. It was called Massila then. This harbour – he cast his arms across the shining blue water – would have been thronged with triremes, quinqueremes, perhaps a few antique hemiolia in the shadow of the great Roman warships, a Phonecian barque here and there...”

The old man laughed to himself.

‘Odd lad, he was. Bit high-flown for a sailor, but there we are. Hah, we got into some trouble down in Trieste though! Got us a spot of shore leave, me and Guy – that was his name – and we hit the sauce pretty hard. Can’t say I remember much of the night – weeks at sea does that to you, and we got our hands on a few carafes of rough country wine and a bottle of grappa – but I ended up with this beautiful girl in my arms on a bench looking out to sea, all dark hair and almond eyes and olive skin, like satin. Soft as the softest thing you ever saw. Touched. I was majestically drunk. Could not have been happier. No idea what happened to Guy. Met her at a bar in the old town and took her out for dinner. She was from Emilia-Romagna... she showed me how to eat the local prawns. Gamberoni, they were called. You eat them col’bacchio, with a kiss – pinch the head off and suck the meat from the shell, coated in oil and lemon and pepper. So I did.’

He imitated eating a prawn, pinching the lid off the adhesive to mimic the prawn’s head.

‘Like this?’

Si. Molto bravo.’

The old man smiled slowly, a gentle grin spreading across his face despite the howling wind.

‘She’d gone when I woke up. On a bench I was, overlooking the port. I remember... the smell of rosemary, and oregano, and sorrel. Lavender. Little pink buds of capers spidering down the stone wall behind me. And a sour reek of wine and my own warm sweat. Then a shadow blocked out the sun. Which was fine with me, on account of the heat. I was sweating up a storm and it was ten in the morning. A carabinieri stood in front of me, tall fellow with a great dark moustache obscuring his lips. He said “Buona Notte?” in a slow sad voice, and helped me to my feet. I was unsteady as hell. Wove my way back to the boat and got an almight ticking off from the Captain. So did Guy. He’d turned up just before me. He’d stayed with a pretty young thing – wooed her with that Gallic charm - and there he was in her bed, hot white sunlight streaming through the window and her asleep across his chest when her husband came in. Mon dieu! Leapt out of the room stark bollock naked clutching his uniform! Got changed in an alleyway with a bunch of kids throwing stones at him and a group of old ladies heckling him as they put out their washing! Ah, but nobody heckles like the old, eh?’

He chuckled to himself. The other men laughed dutifully.

‘I remember... Tunisia.’

The old man’s face darkened, and the cold wind settled on his face. His jaw tightened in the wind.

‘We were bogged down on a shelf of rock on the far side of a gorge. I was with the XXI, serving under Major Lionel Travers. Monty and his boys were just up the road in Algiers, with Rommel hot on their tails. We’d been entrenched for weeks.’

He drew a line across an outstretched palm to illustrate the gunnery emplacement.

‘So we’re here, and Jerry’s here. Monty’s over here, and the Americans are here. We’d been being shelled for days, and my mate Tom had had his cheek slit open by a sliver of rock from an exploding shell and was sent home on an MD, so it was just me and a few other fellas. One of them – I forget his name – told me something I can’t forget. He said that on this very spot, this horrible burning plateau, painfully hot in the day and freezing at night, had marched the armies of a hundred countries. Egyptian battalions, Greek phalanxes, legions of Romans, all had trodden the same ancient, dead, empty ground before us. We were nothing new, he said. And, from the top of a hill, he showed me Trajan’s memorial. It was just an arch, with funny inscriptions cut into the sandstone, fading into nothing.’


Alfred Mason laid his pencil down quietly next to the drawing board, straightened his chair and legs, filled, tamped, and relit his pipe, and looked out of the window in front of him. It was the 27th of August 1947, and the air beyond the window was heavy with the syrupy scent of honeysuckle and compost, shot through with the rich chemical tang of Castrol motor oil from Davis’s garage. The sound of hammering and men’s voices and the faint whisper of the wireless drifted up the hill. A tubby hornet investigated the windowpane, swaying from right to left in the air for a moment, riding the warm updrafts from the hot flagstones beneath the window, before turning tail and flying off into the clear blue sky like a brabazon bomber. The doppler shift of its diminishing wingbeats sounded like a thin air raid siren fading into the warm afternoon glow.

Beyond the honeysuckle grew masses of speedwell and campanula, the forget-me-nots and mimosa not yet blossoming but coming into leaf, and the heliconia and sweet peas beginning to die off. The lazy murmur of honey bees was audible from the workshop, even at twenty feet away with the window pulled to. Beyond the flower borders stood a short run of badly cut green grass, shot through with fairy rings of ox-eye daisies that had escaped the shears and scythe. Beyond the lawn stood a beech tree, bowed and bent now by years of winter gales gusting down the South Downs. Slung over a large bough were two knotted cords of rope, a child’s swing and relic from the previous owner of the house. Where the rope had cut into the young tree, deep cuts had been gouged in the bark and living cambium, causing the tree to form swollen calluses in shock. Over the years, the thick grey bark, now so heavily scarred and worn that it resembled elephant hide, had folded over and trapped the rope within the branch itself. The rope was now frayed and threadbare, and the seat – a pair of unvarnished ash boards nailed together – had grown into a soft lichenal cushion. No-one had sat on it for the better part of two years.

Beyond the beech tree stretched undulating waves of farmland reaching all the way to the broad backs of the south downs, now glowing black and tan in the late afternoon light. Each ripple and flank of earth blazed with golden grass, wheat, and corn. In winter the fields looked like a smooth stretch of green velvet, sown with winter beet and silage grass, but in summer the fields shone as if aflame. Each bright field trembled in the heat and wind, and men in cream shirts open to the waist scythed down rows of tall corn and gathered them into conical stooks. The glare and activity of the fields was thrown into sharp relief by the shadows at the foot of the downs, in which little rivers and run-off streams ran and mingled in the cool and the dark. Sedges and rushes grew there, and little reed warblers trilled softly in the summer evenings. Mist pooled in the hollows and poured across the fields in the hours before dawn.

Over the crest of the hills flew a single decommissioned Lancaster bomber, its deployment bays removed and replaced with patent leather seats for pleasure flights from Shoreham Aerodrome. The large aircraft swung heavily over the house and turned east along the downs. The view at this time of day must have been extraordinary, with the roads and fields and villages and rivers forming a continuous mosaic of sunlit colour lapping against the downs. To the south of the downs would stretch the unbroken waters of the Channel, and perhaps, with the air this clear, the French coast and the cities of Calais and Dieppe. To the right, Newhaven and Lewes would be in full view of the afternoon sun, a complex filigree of light and shade, with the flitting movements of vehicles and people and green seawater in the bay. To the left the land would have been cloaked in the shade of the downs, empty and quiet, with perhaps the odd motorcar or herd of cows on the move. The aircraft seemed to hover over the hills for a moment like a monstrous crow, before dipping its wings to the east and turning to bank over the Channel. The low growl of the Merlin engines softened and blurred as the wind caught it, and then it was gone.

Alfred regarded the pastoral scene quietly. No indication of his feelings or temperament crossed his face. The window in front of his drawing board was wide open, and light flooded into the darkened workshop. Rogue dust motes spun in helical twirls where the light caught and warmed them, and somewhere in the house, a tap dripped quietly. Alfred placed both hands on the arm rests of his chair, pulled himself to his feet awkwardly, straightened his back, and left the room. In the cool and quiet of the study, faint noises could be heard as Alfred poured lukewarm, over-stewed tea into thin bone china teacups in the kitchen. There was a faint jingle as Alfred stirred the tea and tapped the spoon dry over the rim of the cup, then a louder tinkling as he threw it into the sink. There was stillness and silence for a moment, interrupted by the rough country burr of a visiting bumblebee, which flew through the workshop window, sleepily circled the room a few times, and flew out the way it came in. There was the reluctant creak of a walnut floorboard yielding to pressure, and Alfred re-entered the room. He sat down heavily in his chair, absentmindedly placed the teacup on top of a green hardbacked book to his right, picked up his pencil and began to draw.

Alfred Mason (MC, DSO, CGC), had returned from Germany some three years previously and had been stationed in Eilenburg for the five months before he returned home in the September of 1945. Eilenburg was a small city near the Elbe river, yet Alfred and 32nd never saw the arrival of the Russians and Americans and their triumphant ascent to the Reichstag.

Eilenburg was already a ruin when the 32nd arrived. The city had been razed to its foundations by allied artillery, blazed down to shattered outcrops of mortar and burnt brick over the course of a few nights, and amongst the detritus and mulch of the city centre a command post had been set up. It was here, in this corpse of a town, that the 32nd spent the summer. Huddled in a sunbaked collection of tents in the ruins of Eilenburg, a scant sixteen miles from Torgau, the 32nd were ordered to keep the peace and maintain supply routes. They would remain there until the end of the war.

The 32nd were weary to the bone from numberless days of forced marches, little action, and endless trudging patrols. The normally plush existence of high command, experienced briefly by Alfred after his promotion during the Ardennes-Alsace Campaign, disappeared into a dull routine of drills, training exercises, and waves of paperwork and remits. Alfred spent much of his time away from the 32nd, shuttling between Leipzig and the ruins of Eilenburg, sleeping in an empty hotel one day waited on by an aging Polish waiter who spoke no english and a camp bed in a cold tent under a smashed statue of the Führer back at barracks the next. The men of the 32nd, who had seen action in Africa, Italy, Normandy, and Luxembourg, became just another company ringing the perimeter of the heartland of Germany. Relief was bought in as elements of the 32nd came and went, but the replacements were overwhelmingly young and bright-eyed and eager and held no interest for the remaining veterans. The monotony of the dog days of summer combined with the growing listlessness and fatigue of the troops bore down heavily on the 32nd, and Capt. Mason most of all.

Alfred’s friend and fellow officer Marcus Tenbury had been returned to Sussex on a medical discharge after sustaining a compound fracture to his left leg from falling from a motorbike after a drunk orderly had pulled out in front of him after sampling too much Wernesgrüner beer. For four years Marcus Tenbury had been a stalwart of the 32nd, a decorated officer and close friend of Alfred, who had served with him in Africa and Europe. He had been peppered with shrapnel at Arnhem Bridge and incarcerated in a military hospital in Paris for the better part of three months, but had returned and fought alongside Alfred at The Battle Of The Bulge. Both had survived.

Nevertheless, fate had decided that Marcus Tenbury’s war would be finished not by the snipers bullet or exploding shell but on his back in the evening light and the sun-warm dust of a Nordsachsen country track with a smashed leg and a frantically apologising orderly standing over him while a team of medics loaded him onto a stretcher. With the departure of his friend, Alfred saw out the remaining months of the war in the brick dust and dead ashes of Eilenburg with the remaining 32nd. Of the two hundred and twenty five men of the 32nd Guards Brigade, Alfred was one of the remaining thirty four. Of the thirty four, six had been sent home earlier in the war for either training or reassignment, two had commenced command of other units, and one had been shot through the femoral artery after pursuing an escaped POW with a stolen Luger and had bled to death on a sunny Saxony hillside. A further two were retained in the military hospital in Leipzig due to a vicious fistfight that had broken out between them and two other soldiers from the 34th, which had left one of them in a coma and the other with a broken jaw. These were men who had served alongside each other for four years in four countries and two continents. Corporal Stanfield of the 32nd and Private Wilson of the 34th had fought alongside each other in Africa and Sicily and again in the Ardennes.

By April 22nd, the 32nd had been restored to a standing strength of two hundred. Over three-quarters of the new troops were young men who had never fired a gun in combat and would not get the chance to do so now.

Alfred stopped staring out of the window, and gazed down at the paper in front of him. He picked up his pencil and carefully copied the north-west corner of the sketch. The glazing firm has supplied an accurate sight-size template of the proposed window, and in featureless monochrome it was hard to imagine the carmine and cobalt plates that it was his responsibility to cut and shape and slot into the grey leadlight skeleton. Alfred stared at the bright drawing board, now glazed with hot light. He moved to draw the curtains a little, and caught sight of a gently spinning stained glass roundel. He had made it for his wife shortly before the outbreak of the war.

It was a simple etching of a wren on a willow frond, largely clear glass, its tail feathers raised, its head craned around. The rufous and copper tones of the little bird had been picked out in selenium and copper, mixed in with a little chromium for the faintly dun, greenish tinge of wren feathers in shade. Thin lead calms had been laid around the tertial feathers, a painstaking process which had taken him many hours and had resulted in at least three near-disastrous errors, which had only really been saved by the calm intervention of his then mentor Jonathan Lambs. The wren roundel had been little more than an exercise in the balance of colour and shading, but Lambs had realized the significance of the piece to his young apprentice and had guided and helped him throughout its creation. Alfred had given it to his new wife on December 12th 1939, under the bare branches of the beech tree. They had kissed on the swing and brushed their feet together in the fine powdering of snow under them as they swung back and forth. They hung the little wren roundel from a nail above his wife’s dressing table, so she could look at it each and every morning.

Six months and seventeen days later, Alfred was in barracks near Headcorn in Kent for training as a junior officer. Three months later still, Alfred was an NCO of the 12th platoon in Bir Hachiem in North Africa and in that time had been transformed from a quiet, reflective young apprentice of the noted stained glass artist Jonathan Lamb into Alf ‘Mace’ Mason, a sunburnt, stern sergeant, respected but not necessarily liked by his men, reserved and withdrawn but with an excellent combat record to date and an efficient, though cold, manner with his troops during battle. The following year ‘Mace’ Mason had become 2nd lieutenant Alf Mason of the 32nd Guards Brigade, stationed in Sicily, with his own office and orderly by the seafront in a tranquil farmhouse near Palermo, fresh goat’s milk in his coffee each morning and Adriatic tuna cooked over camp stoves for dinner. Two years on, 2nd Lieutenant Alf Mason was now Lt. Mason, who had survived the beaches and fields of Normandy and had lain in a shelled foxhole in the Ardennes for the better part of a month, sleeping under pine boughs while the snot froze in his nose and the blood of his friends washed the snow pink around him. By the end of the war, Lt. Mason had finished his metamorphoses as Captain Alfred C.L. Mason, commanding officer of the men of the 32nd and the XXX Corps, a distinguished, multiply decorated officer, who had a hotel room away from the troops on weekends and a choice of wines for lunch and a Mercedes limousine and driver that had once belonged to an SS Standartenführer at his beck and call.

And now, in the quiet of a summer afternoon, in a dozing parish at the foot of the South Downs not ten miles from Lewes, he was Alfred Mason once more, The Civilian, stained glass artist of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Stained Glass. His medals were in a glass case on top of the bureau in his bedroom. They were already beginning to gather dust.

The Lancaster was flying back over the downs in the last of the afternoon light, the final rays of sunlight turning the aircraft into a disc of burning silver. The throaty murmur of the four Merlin engines reached him then, and as the big aircraft flew overhead, Alfred remembered the first time he’d heard it, amongst the noise and excitement of Headcorn aerodrome. Hundreds of men bustled about, and the din of Merlin, Lucifer, and Griffon engines was deafening. Squads of infantry scurried everywhere with hands clamped over their ears, and great cloud of dust and grass clippings blew in funnels down the makeshift streets of the tent village.

Alfred had dived into the Officers Mess to escape the noise. A fine gauze of dust hung all but motionless in the empty room. An electric fan lazily threshed the air. For a Kentish village in early summer, Headcorn was a fine introduction to the heat and cloying atmosphere of North Africa. Alfred sat down on a wicker chair for a moment, coughed to attract the attention of the orderly, who bought over a bottle of Kentish pale ale and a packet of Camel cigarettes. Alfred sat in the warm half-light, the throbbing waves of noise building and fading as aircraft took off and landed outside, and read the dispatch orders from Airforce Command at Croydon. Sifting through the sheaves of paper and their neat copperplate ranks of auxiliary orders and quartermasters bills, Alfred drank from the tepid bottle of beer and tried to work out requisition calculations and who to send the receipts to. Every so often a fellow NCO would force his way through the canvas flaps, cheerily shout hello, grab a bottle of whatever was to hand and a copy of the newspaper and either leave, sit at an adjacent table and begin to silently work out their own paperwork, or slump onto one of the ancient Chesterfield sofas and fall asleep.

It was at that moment that Alfred was introduced to Marcus Tenbury. Marcus was a 2nd lieutenant, a commissioned officer, known around Headcorn as a popular and even-tempered officer, ‘A Man Of Learnin’’ as referred to by several of the squaddies around camp but as comfortable around the infantry as the officers and respected by both. Marcus had breezed into the Officers Mess, ordered a bottle of beer and a ham sandwich from the orderly, sat in the chair opposite Alfred, and started spreading mustard on his sandwich. Alfred returned to his work, and it was several minutes later that Alfred realized that Marcus had craned himself over the paperwork and was staring critically at Alfred’s calculations.

“You forgot to carry the one”.

“I’m sorry?”

“You forgot to carry the one. There, under the recent acquisitions table. Easy mistake to make, this damnable heat and dust isn’t particularly conducive to quick thinking. I shouldn’t worry about it”.

Marcus lowered his voice and leaned conspiratorially over the table as Alfred sat in startled silence.

“Especially when half of these lading bills will end up in the bin at HQ without anyone ever having read them anyway. Of course, it’s the form you forget to do or fill in wrong that they’ll want, and they’ll hound you ‘til they get it, too”.

Marcus grinned, stretched luxuriantly, yawned, and drew a cigarette out of Alfred’s pack.

“You don’t mind, do you old boy?”

“No, no, help yourself”.


And so they sat in the dusty half-light, Alfred hunched over his forms self-consciously, Marcus smoking contentedly to himself, occasionally pointing out mistakes, and asking idle questions about Alfred and his past and where he was from what he’d done before all this. Alfred supplied short, friendly answers, tempered with subservient politeness in deference to his superior rank. After ten minutes or so, Alfred had finished the forms and tucked them into his satchel before making to leave.

“Here, are you off to see old Talbot?”

“Well, yes, I thought I’d better get these dispatches and so on over to him before 4 o’clock drill”.

“Nonsense, old boy, Talbot’ll be in The Seven Stars in Ospringe, there won’t be anyone to hand them over to. I know for a fact he’ll be well into his third glass of claret by now, and then he does so like a little nap when he gets back to digs. I should hand them to Bailey over in D block – he’s got a meeting with the old brass at eight anyway, no need for you to go rushing off”.

There was a furtive slap on the canvas door of the officer’s mess, and a muffled voice asked if anyone knew where Lieutenant Tenbury was there.

Marcus started in mock-alarm and dived for the back exit of the tent.

“Old boy – Alfred, is it? – would you mind fielding the cubs for me while I run out the backdoor? You don’t mind? I’ve been dealing with the recruits all afternoon, and I must say, they’ve quite worn me out.”

“No, no... I’ll tell them you’ve gone into Headcorn, if you like?”

“Ah, that’d be excellent. Excellent cover. Cheerio then, Sergeant. If they ask too many questions, send them to the quartermaster to count bullet orders. That’s what I do. Takes the wind right out of their sails”.

Alfred decided that he rather liked Lt. Tenbury.

The drone of the Lancaster faded into the west as Alfred slowly put his pencil back down next to the drawing board. The summer sunlight was softening now, and the honeyed glow of the setting sun glowed orange over the desk, spangled with the shadows of honeysuckle blossom. All afternoon, from its outset at midday following an early lunch of cold cuts and stout in The White Hart, to its eventual end at the departure of the Lancaster into the west and the cooling of his tea, he had succeeded in drawing one small corner of the north aisle window. Two curved graphite lines on a sheet of parchment represented an entire afternoon’s work. Below that, a mess of smudged etchings portrayed the better part of a week’s draft sketches. Alfred sharpened his pencil quietly, placed it in a pot next to the drawing board, picked up the cooled cup of tea and carried it out of the room. He shut the door on his way out.


There is a bench perched on the lip of a cliff, and on it sits a seven-year old boy. Below the bench is a slope of chalk, and beyond that the sea. Around the legs of the bench are shallow bowls of sand and soil, and out of each grows little fronds of kale and purslane. The boy kicks his legs heels back and forth against the little trench excavated by the heels of dug-in boots. He is holding a hermit crab, which peers suspiciously up at him. Out of his pocket juts a rib of driftwood, worn down to cords of heartwood.

A man trudges up the path, grunts an acknowledgement, and walks on. The boy lifts himself off the bench – seasoned ash, cut into eight slats. The seat is worn to a grey sheen from the shifting of bodies and the blasting of winds. Each plank is secured with four rivets, and each rivet is mottled with ochre rust and lime lichen. The boy watches a gull circle, then walks downhill.

There is a pathway that runs down towards the salt marshes and the main road. The path veers left at first down a woodland ride. The path is hemmed in by pleached trees, but at this time of year, the tunnel is covered in fruiting hawthorn spurs. The boy picks a sloe off a branch, brushes off the powdery bloom and pops the bitter berry into his mouth.

At the bottom of the path is a car-park and a tarred shed, open-fronted with blackboards resting against either shutter. At the counter is a man with a beard stained the colour of flax. But that is not what the boy looks at.

Sitting by the left back wheel of a Ford Orion is a little girl, her head canted downwards between her shoulders.

The boy walks over and squats down awkwardly. What is wrong, says the boy. From within the cavern of limbs, a tiny voice says: I can’t find my brother.

Where is your brother, says the boy, and this time the girl raises her head a bit and says: I don’t know. My Mum shouted at him and he shouted too and ran back to the car and I asked my mum could I go back to the car too and she shouted at me so I followed him but he’s really fast and when I got to my mum’s car he wasn’t there so I now I don’t have anyone at all.

It’s okay. It’s alright, says the boy.

The little girl wiped her nose with her forearm, and looked critically at her shoes.

My shoes are wet.

I know, says the boy.

And so are my socks.

Yes, I can see that.

Will you stay with me until my brother comes back, says the little girl.

Yes. I mean, if you want me to. He fumbled in his pocket for a moment, unclenched his palm, and on it sat a coiled whelk shell.

Here. This is called a hermit crab.

A Little Less

He sat down at a table, and pushed two empty sugar wrappers to the far side of the table. The table was cool under his hand. But then it was a cold day.

He waited a while, and caught his reflection in the window. Pale cheeks, their hollows accentuated by the artificial shadows of the plate glass. Monochromatic eyes, and calmly crossed hands.

He watched the reflection of a man over his shoulder sifting through the morning papers.

A waitress brought him his coffee. She had slim white hands, folded like a birds wings round the small white cup He tilted his head and smiled briefly.


A spray of salt had been cast across the table. He looked at it for a moment, then wiped it off with his thumb.

He looked at his thumb and the small grains that were left between the ridges of skin. He looked at the whorls of his thumb, turning it this way and that, then raised it to his lips and pressed the salt into the skin.

The door to his right opened, and she walked in. He tensed involuntarily, and shifted his weight on the chic cane chair to face her. She smiled at him, like a thin ray of sunlight breaking through a rank of nimbus, and then it was gone.

Hello, John.

Susan. Hi.

He half-rose, and felt an impulse to shake her hand. He stifled it.

She sat opposite him, and her eyes quickly fell. Without raising them from the menu – laminated, smeared with the sebum of fingers and stained with tea and coffee drips - she parted her lips to speak.

How have you been?

His cup was raised to his lips. He concentrated on the slow movement of the heat currents as the coffee coiled and uncoiled in his cup. He realized she had spoken.

Hm. Sorry.

I said, how have you been? How are you?

Good. Good. Thanks. Yourself.

Oh, fine. Fine. Just got back from Waitrose. Took a little longer than expected I’m afraid. Car’s double-parked - a micro-glance to her watch - I’d better make this quick.

Waitrose. How we all change.

She laughed quickly, but there was a coolness spun through it. She breathed out, and even here, inside, there was a faint mist.

She looked up and past him. She rested her chin on her palm, with her elbow propped upon the table, her eyes seemingly scanning the chalk board above the bar for specials and prices.

How’s Lydia?

He straightened his back. Lydia. He breathed out, and words followed them quickly.

How could she possibly be any different from when you saw her yesterday? Her hair has grown slightly, I imagine she’s less stressed then she was at...

He checked his watch. Probably around six o’clock, he conceded.

... Sixish yesterday, considering that it’s the weekend and she had her art class last night, which you knew anyway. She’s gone to Bristol today, but I imagine she told you.

There’s no need to get angry.

I’m not angry.

No need to snap then.

I didn’t snap.

She looked downwards again, and her eyes were still. She raised the index finger of her right hand to order, and leaned her head to one side.

The waitress took her order, then withdrew.

Susan smiled brightly.

So. Bristol.

Yes. Oh, her sister lives there. Her and her husband have just moved house, so she’s gone to have a snoop around.

Oh, I see. She looked well yesterday anyway. She’s enjoying her art class I take it?

The waitress returned with a cup of espresso. Vapour danced from the cup and joined the clouds of steam in the room. He sighed.

You know she is. And yes, I believe it was aboriginal art last night. Pointillist. Aranda drawings of armadillos and dugongs and fucking ostriches and so on. She says it calms her down. She’s become quite – he waved his hand dismissively - spiritual.

Oh, dear. I can’t imagine you approve of that much.

And he laughed. It was a small laugh, pointed skywards. It felt good.

No, not particularly. But she has her interests and that’s fine with me.

She smiled gently across the table at him. Their eyes met briefly.

You don’t even get ostriches in Australia, John, much less fucking ones.

That smile again, this time angled towards the door. But he felt its warmth.

No, I suppose not.

They sipped their coffee. The coffee machine coughed behind his back.

How’s James.


James. How is he.

Oh, good. Very good. Bought a new car on the weekend.


And she laughed. All the frost was gone from it.

Oh, you think he’s a BMW man, do you? Well, you’re wrong – it’s a Lexus. Hybrid.

I bet it is.

She rolled her eyes and tried not to smile. She failed in that, at least. His bones stiffened and his face flushed.

Paid up front? He doesn’t look like a man who does instalments.

If you must know, yes.

She crossed her arms, and peered down at her right elbow, her head nestled into her shoulder again like a bird. She took hold of her cup and raised it to her lips.

How thin her fingers are. She drinks so little now. Fast little swallows, head tilted back. Like a bird.

She eats like a bird too. A little less every day.

She looked up.

You don’t look well, John.

Kind of you to say so.

I - know you’ve been there. The nurses told me. Every day, they say.

‘They’ did, did they?


She glanced down at the menu again. There was a line drawn long ago, and it had grown so faint it had almost ceased to be visible. Perhaps it didn’t need to be. His breath tightened.

You’re very brave, you know.

No, he told himself. I’m not. I do go there every day, it’s true. But thank God for nurses’ lack of detail. ‘Every day’ isn’t quite right.

She pushed one arm across the table, and left her hand neutral in the centre. He could hold it, if he wanted to.

You don’t have to do this alone.

Oh, for Christ’s sake, stop.

I’m just saying –

No, you’re not, he told himself. You’re trying to make yourself feel better and that’s fine, because you’re brave. I don’t go to the hospital every day, I go there every night, and I sit outside her room under a bare bulb on a blue plastic chair and I listen to the cleaners use the floor-waxing machine and I scud my heels on the PVC floor and drag them back and forth to make little squeaking noises and little black lines on the floor and I read all the notices and sometimes I fall asleep when the janitors have gone and when I forget who I am. I am not brave. I’m a coward. I am scared. And I can’t tell you.

He cut her off.

- I understand, and it’s fine. I’m fine.

She studied his face, the blue of her eyes impassive over his jaw-line.

He turned away and crossed his legs. She opened her lips slightly, the shut them again. The unformed words retreated. She coughed quietly, and spoke.

John... you should go and see her. This afternoon. It’s getting late.


Why? Because. Because you - have to – make – time for her now. She needs her father.

With her faltering words, he shut his eyes. The fuck did she know about needing her father. She would have seen her father sitting opposite, more grey and corpselike than his daughter, wringing his hands through the night on the blue plastic chair that had become his second home. She wouldn't have seen her mother much, who visited once in the evening and seemed to have already let go. 

When he opened them her hand was clasped round his outstretched arm. He hadn’t felt her touch at all.

I don’t suppose anyone’s come forward –

- No. Incompatible. All of them. The day is late.

He said nothing.

The Day Is Late. An odd turn of phrase. The words burrowed into his head.

Tears crushed the space behind his eyelids.

When he opened his eyes her arm had gone, and she had retreated back into her nest-shape, her head canted downwards like a dove. He couldn’t see her eyes. And there was a reason for that.

He opened his mouth to speak, and when he spoke, the words fell out. And they hurt.

She has time. She’s too young. She’ll pull through.

No, John. She won’t. Leukaemia doesn’t take sides. Not even for my daughter.

The day is not gone. Not yet. Not yet.

She said nothing.

He looked down and coiled and uncoiled and coiled and uncoiled his hands and made the nails bite into the palm.

She stood up. She finished her espresso – now quite cool – and placed a hand on his shoulder and left it there. He nuzzled his head against it like an animal. He felt the cool of her nails under his cheek. He pressed down harder, and his closed eyes pressed down with him.

He felt her hand leave his shoulder, heard the rustle of change in her handbag, and then felt the air move as she stepped back. He opened his eyes. She was looking straight at him, and saw affection and pathos and deep, sounding wells of sadness in the cornflower blue of her irises. But worse, buried in the blue of her eyes and the skin of her brow was the framing of pity.

Be brave, John.

He remained silent. She clutched her bag, looking terribly vulnerable suddenly, and turned to the door. A man bustled in, and held the door open for her. She smiled at the man briefly, and walked forward.


She turned.


Forget it.

A pause, a gentle sway to the side and a quick smile as someone walks through the door. She turns back to him and redistributes the weight of her bag across her thin shoulders.

See you soon, John.

Yes. Right.
Goodbye, John.

Goodbye Susan.

When she had gone, he sat very still and half closed his eyes.

Pale light lit up the blind world.

And now the sugar wrappers and salt pot, the cars and their exhausts, the people and their breaths, the clicking buggies across the flagstones and the smooth hiss of the bicycles, the bin lids blowing in the wind and the running clouds were nothing more than a quiet shadow play.

He left a handful of change next to the salt pot, and we walked out.