Follow the Girl


(Kristine [CC / Flickr])

When the girl perches on the edge of a pool beneath a fountain to open the envelope, she’s kind enough to do it opposite a café. I can sit inside with a cup of coffee and look like any other perfectly respectable flaneur with a cup of coffee and a cigarette, watching her though the parade of flat caps, bowler hats and bonnets crossing the square between us.

I don’t like squares. Four streets intersecting gives eight exits. Exits are the bane of my profession.

I watch her flipping through the document, thinking that if it was important, she wouldn’t be perusing them in public as though she was reading Good Housekeeping. That’s the trouble with sitting in one place. When she’d been on the move, most of my mind was occupied with the tradecraft of keeping her in sight without being noticed by her. Now my mind was free to ask why a girl who suspected she might be followed would make herself conspicuous by being the only stationary person in the square. Everyone else who wasn’t in one of the shops or cafes was hurrying to their next refuge from the February chill.

I think about sidling over to sneak a glance over her shoulder, but she’s positioned herself so I’d have to stand in the pool. Conspicuous as she might be, I could get no closer without making myself even more conspicuous.

I study her posture. She’s focused on the document but I see no tension in her half sitting, half standing posture. If she’s reading orders for a daring mission or secrets that will topple governments, she’s hiding it well. It could mean she was a mistress of the art of inscrutability. It could mean I’ve spent the afternoon following her to collect a directive about a new expense claim form.

I look at her shoes beneath the hem of her coat.

They look more fashionable than comfortable. Not what she’d be wearing if she was collecting something that might get her chased.

I sip my tea, beginning to relax. Her shoes tell me I’m on a fool’s errand. Whatever is on the paper in her hand, it’s of no interest to the Firm.

It’s hard to tell from this distance, but was that a ghost of a smile crossing her lips? Something in he documents has amused her.

I’ve never heard of anyone being amused by a new expense claim form.

Did her eyes flick toward me? If I didn’t imagine it, she’s just told me that it’s not the documents that amuse her but the fact that I’ve devoted the afternoon to them. Which would only amuse her if it was exactly what she and her own Firm wanted me to be doing while their real business is being carried out elsewhere.

I raise the cup to my lips to hide the frown that is in danger of giving her an involuntary answer. I’m so intent on her that I don’t see the man until he’s right in front of me, leaning on my table and waving the Manchester Guardian. The excitement in his face is inches from my own, blotting the girl from my sight.

“Have you heard?” He’s so excited he’s almost shouting. “The Reichstag burned down last night. They’re fighting in the streets of Berlin!”

“What?” I’m trying to peer round him without making it too obvious that I’m more interested in the girl than the complete stranger jabbering in my face.

Then what he said hits me. “Who did it?”

“No one knows,” he says. “The Reds blame the Brownshirts. The Brownshirts blame the Reds. It’s all an utter pickle.”

“Good Heavens,” is all I can think of to say. Half the Firm will be running around with their hair on fire.

I now doubt that those documents refer to a new expense claim form.

The man has moved on to another table. He’s either decided that the Reichstag fire has made him a town crier for the day, or…

The girl is gone.

I look at the man, but his back is to me as he brandishes the Manchester Guardian at two middle aged women who look like they don’t understand what he’s so exercised about.

I hurry out into the square but I know I’m too late.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Her Lost Key


(Louise Leclerc [CC / Flickr])

I should have found a better opening but being me, I blurted out, “I’ve got this key.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“I thought you might have a lock,” I said.

“You mean a padlock?” she asked, “or a pin tumbler?”

I blinked. It had made much more sense when I’d gone over it in my mind an hour before.

“A pin what?” I asked.

“A pin tumbler. C’mon, if you’re looking for a lock that fits a key, you have to know what kind of lock you’re looking for or you’ll never find it.”

“That’s… logical.”

And completely off the script I’d planned. I was stalling for time now.

“Well?” she asked.

“Well, um, what kind of lock do you have? If we start there, I can work out if it’s the right key or not.”

“I have a very complicated lock and I haven’t seen it for years. I think it got dropped into a river or something, so I doubt you found it.”

“Oh,” I said.

“Or have you taken up mudlarking?”

I managed to stop myself from asking what mudlarking was. I was far enough off my script already. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think how to get back to it, so I said nothing.

“In fact,” she said, “it’s just as well it was unlocked when some fool lost the key.”

“Oh.” I realised how often I’d said, ‘oh’. “I mean…”

I stopped. What did I mean?

“Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to invite you in, would I?”

I didn’t say, ‘oh’. I was getting better at this.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

The Director’s Long Shout


(Chris Fithall [CC / Flickr])

The first thirty seconds of filming went perfectly. The camera tracked the carriage down the lane until the plywood façade masquerading as divisional headquarters, edged into the frame. It all went wrong when the two redcoated sentries snapped to attention.


The carriage rolled in front of the sentries before it stopped, drawn by horses oblivious to the director’s shout.

“Who are you two?” demanded the director of the side of the carriage.

A shako-covered head appeared around the back of the carriage.

“Guardsmen?” The voice made it sound more like an appeal than a statement. It was not a tone that any sergeant-major of the guards would have tolerated.

The director’s face drained of colour. His more experienced assistants found something to do that was a safe distance from him. Safe, in this case, meant further away than someone who didn’t know him well enough to know what was coming next.

“Where are your moustaches?” Those who didn’t know him thought he sounded calm, which was why they made no effort to edge away from the danger zone. This was why their more experienced colleagues hadn’t warned them. New guys made good shock absorbers.

The guardsman who had spoken emerged into the full glare of the director’s demand. His companion followed him. They looked at each other as if to confirm that each of their upper lips were similarly bare.

“I’ll ask again,” said the director. “Once.”

The guardsmen’s heads bobbed toward him.

“Where. Are. Your. Moustaches?”

As one, the two guardsmen took an involuntary step back into the false façade of the building behind them. A panel fell off the scaffolding holding it up and crashed into the gravel next to the carriage.

The director said nothing, but his breathing was audible from the other side of the set. Every eye was trained toward him. It was as impossible to look away from him as it would have been to look away from a runaway train bearing down on a party of schoolchildren, and as agonising to watch.

“Please don’t shout,” said the carriage driver. “I know you want to shout, but the horses are already nervous from the crash and…”

In the days that followed, the witnesses would sometimes debate exactly what words the director used. The writers suggested a variety of colourful and inventive insults that encompassed everyone on the set. The electricians thought the writers were imposing the words they wanted to give their charcters on a random collection of obscenities. The camera crews were sure that whatever it was, it was directed entirely at the actors. The actors thought it was directed at the costume designer who had neglected the moustaches that were compulsory in the British army of 1894. The costume designer didn’t claim to know what he said, but was convinced that his chakras needed urgent realignment.

What they agreed on was that they would never have thought a man who needed a golf cart to get around some of the locations they’d filmed in could sustain such a high volume for so long. Nor would they have credited the transformation in the director’s face, from the white of the façade’s undercoat at the beginning of his long shout to the scarlet of the guardsmen’s tunics by the end of it.

The words made little difference to the horses, which bolted so fast that the leading lady’s parasol was torn out of her hands and left to float to the ground between the ruts the wheels left in the gravel.

“Don’t worry, boss. We’ll get it,” said one of the guardsmen.

The pair of them sprinted after the carriage. That the distance between them was lengthening rather than shortening with every stride mattered less to them than that it was heading away from the director. Futility was no reason to neglect a plausible reason to follow it.

Quiet returned to the set when the director finally ran out of breath.

An intern stepped into the space that had opened around him. Her footsteps faltered and her lip quivered, but she did not falter.

“Would you like a cup of tea, sir?”

Nobody had any difficulty in understanding the director’s answer. He had a great deal of practice with the words, ‘you’re fired’.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

The Prisoner’s Prawns


(Thomas [CC / Flickr])

The prisoner rubbed his hands. “I’m looking forward to this.”

The warder nodded politely.

“I’ve been eating your swill for weeks. Time I had a change and by God, I’m going to enjoy it.”

“Quite”, the warder agreed.

The prisoner fondled his knife and fork. “Always liked a good shrimp. D’you think they found the Dublin Bay prawns? D’you think they know how to cook ’em right?”

“I’m sure,” said the warder.

The prisoner cocked his head at the sound of footsteps.

“Here it comes. Can you hear it?”

“I can,” said the warder.

A man in prison overalls placed a plate of prawns in front of the prisoner and left without looking at either of them.

The prisoner closed his eyes and inhaled.

“That smells gorgeous,” he said. “Tell the cook I said so, will you?”

“I will.”

The prisoner impaled a prawn and placed it in his mouth. His smile was rapturous.

“Did you give your wife a last meal before you wrung her neck?” asked the warder.

The prisoner’s jaws froze. He looked at the warder for a long time before he swallowed with the expression of a man gulping down a raw lemon.

He scowled at his plate.

“Enjoy the meal,” said the warder.

“I’m not hungry.”

“What a pity.”

They looked at each other.

“How long now?” asked the prisoner.

“Not long now.”

The prisoner pushed his plate toward the warder. “Here. You have it.”

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Titanic Memories


(David Resz [CC / Flickr])

Jack Johnson implored everyone in the café to spare a dime, but Caroline’s pen didn’t stop moving. It didn’t touch the varnished table while the Eagles accused her lyin’ eyes and if it paused while Caroline explained a particularly difficult equation to Henrietta, it didn’t move from directly above her A4 pad.

“Thank you,” said Henrietta. “You’re the perfect study partner.

Caroline smiled for a moment. She liked feeling she’d helped someone. Then a rictus swam across her face and her pen flew into the air.

“What’s wrong?” asked Henrietta.

“Listen,” said Caroline.

Henrietta cocked her head for a moment, then groaned. “I hate the Titanic song,”

“I love that song,” said Caroline. “It’s the first film I watched with Sam. Retro night at the Odeon.”

“I can’t stand it,” said Henrietta. “Tim and I were watching it at his place when we had our breakup row.”

“That moment when he lifts her up and she’s flying. That was when Sam put his arm around me for the first time…” Caroline closed her eyes at the memory.

“It was that scene when he was drawing her,” said Henrietta. “I think I said something about him never looking at me like that.”

“And we kissed for the first time during the credits,” said Caroline.

Henrietta pinched the bridge of her nose as if to block her tear ducts.”I can’t remember what happened after the drawing. I know we were shouting by the time it sank.”

“Doesn’t Celine sound divine?” asked Caroline.

Henrietta scowled. “That woman sounds like a cat that’s been shut out in the rain.”

They looked at each other.

Caroline retrieved her pen. “Right. Differential equations.”

“Differental equations,” agreed Henrietta.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

On a Stationary Train

Mk3B DLV 82107

(Steve Jones [CC / Flickr])

The train had been stationary for twenty minutes when the woman across the table from Jeremy said, “It’s the first day of spring today.”

Jeremy looked up from his iPhone 7.

“First of March,” she said. “Happy first day of spring!”

Jeremy regarded her with caution. She didn’t look bonkers and twenty minutes of being stuck in the middle of nowhere without an explanation was just about long enough for strangers on a train to start talking to each other, but…

Jeremy looked out of the window at the blanket of snow smothering the home counties.

“I don’t see any daffodils,” he said.

“They’ll be along in their own time,” said the woman. “The skylarks will be singing above the fields, the ponds will be seething with tadpoles, the trees will splash with blossom.”

Jeremy blinked. “As long as we don’t have to wait for all that before the train starts moving.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be moving in two shakes of a lamb’s tail,” said the woman.

Perhaps this woman didn’t travel on trains very often. Perhaps he was frowning so much that she felt the need to cheer him up. But Jeremy found himself increasingly convinced that he was sitting across the table from the sort of bonkers he really didn’t want to be stuck across a table on a stationary train from. He decided to try her out.

“And it’s the season of rent hikes and council tax increases,” he said.

The woman laughed. Her reply was drowned out by the train manager announcing that they would be on the move within the next hour and would transfer to a rail replacement bus at the next station.

The woman clapped in delight. “Oh good. I told you we wouldn’t be stuck for long.”

Jeremy was conscious of a sinking feeling.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Jim’s Sister


(Geoffrey Meyer-van Voorthuijsen [CC / Flickr])

The day my little white car broke down was the last but one time I decided enough was enough.

“You’re late,” said my sister when she opened the door to mum’s place.

“I’m fine, thank you,” I said. “How are you?”

She grunted. “It’s mum’s birthday. We’ve been waiting half an hour for you.”

“Yes, I know it’s mum’s birthday. I’m not here at the same time as you by coincidence. But my car broke down. I’ve been -”

She wasn’t interested. “Honestly, Jim, can’t you think of someone else for once?”

“That’s it,” I said. “I’m going to Thailand.”

“What are you on about?”

“I said I’m going to Thailand.”

That got her attention. “Right.” Sort of. “Well come and say hello to mum and we’ll talk about it later. And remember to say sorry.”

That settled it. “I’m going to Thailand now.”

“Don’t be silly, Jim,” said my sister. “You’ve got two horses and a llama in your back garden. Who’s going to look after them if you go skipping off to Thailand.”

Damn. She had a point there. Still… I looked at her.

“No. Absolutely not. That was me asking a rhetorical question, not me planning your logistics for you.” She stepped back from the door. “Just come in and say hello to mum, will you?”

“Good idea.” I stepped through the door. “I’ll ask her.”

“No you damn well won’t. I spend enough time driving mum around already without taking her to your place twice a day.”

I liked the sound of that. “You think she’ll say yes, then?”

My sister pinched the bridge of her nose as if trying to squeeze out an ache before it made it any further into her head. “When will I ever learn? No, don’t answer that, Jim. It was another rhetorical question. I don’t know what you were thinking, bringing horses and llamas into that tiny little garden.”

I shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

My sister dropped her hands to her hips and glared at me. It was an expression she never seemed to wear when she was talking to anyone else.

“A lot of things seem like a good idea to you because you don’t think them through. Have you still got that harp blocking your bedroom door?”

“It’s not blocking it. I can get through the door perfectly well,” I said. “If I turn sideways.”

“And how well can you play it now?”

I didn’t meet her eye. “I haven’t started the lessons yet.”

My sister took a deep breath. “Look, I’m sorry about your car. Come and say hello to mum and we’ll talk about Thailand later.”

“You’re just hoping I’ll forget about it,” I said.

My sister didn’t answer, so I knew I was right. In fairness, so was she.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

A Suspiciously Washed Shirt


(Lucia ferri [CC / Flickr])

Priscilla marched into the living room, brandishing Robert’s shirt.

“You’ve washed your own shirt.” She threw it at him, covering his face.

“Hey!” Robert pulled it aside, his eyes still fixed in the direction of the television. “Arsenal are about to score. You’ll make me miss it.”

Priscilla glared down at him, arms folded, until her words sank in. He snapped his face toward her, looking like a man whose plans for a quiet evening with the Champions’ League had been disrupted by a tiger prowling through the door.

“Is.. is that a crime?” he asked.

“No, it’s a bloody miracle,” said Priscilla, “or more likely it’s an alibi. Did it, by any miniscule chance, smell of perfume?”

Robert blinked. “No.”

“Don’t lie to me. What’s her name?”

“Priscilla, there was no perfume on it.”

Priscilla seized the remote control and swept the Champions’ League from the screen. She stood directly between him and the television, forcing him into the one orientation he was accustomed to giving his full attention to. “When you start a sentence with my name, I know you’re hiding something. Who is she?”

“Pris -” Robert bit down on her name. “Darling, I promise you, I haven’t been with another woman.”

“Darling is just as much a giveaway as my name. We’re not dropping this until you tell me the truth.”

“But I -”

“All of the truth. Not just the little bit that you think will shut me up.”

Robert sighed. “All right, I’ll tell you. But you’re not going to like it.”

Priscila jutted her face toward him, prodding him to go on.

“The truth is that I found out about you and that muppet, Nigel. I’m sorry.”

Priscilla felt herself deflate. Her hands dropped to her sides. Her knees dropped her into a chair.

“Hang on,” she said. “Why are you sorry? What have you done?”

Robert couldn’t look at her. “You know I get carried away sometimes. I didn’t mean to, but the thought of you and him… and then it turned out he was a Manchester United fan… anyway, it was his blood I was washing off the shirt. Nothing to do with another woman.”

Priscilla took a deep breath. “I’m sorry, Robert. I jumped to the wrong conclusion. You know how I always think it’s something really bad.”

Neither of them spoke for several minutes.

“Could I…?” Robert sounded tentative. “Maybe…”

Priscilla gave him back the remote control without speaking.

Arsenal lost three-nil.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle

Non-fiction Review: Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

SapiensWe are on the threshold of both heaven and hell, moving nervously between the gateway of one and the anteroom of the other. History has still not decided where we will end up, and a string of coincidences might yet send us rolling in either direction.

So says Yuval Noah Harari. You might answer, ‘Aren’t we always?’ – especially if you happen to be a lover of Dickens.

The history of our species as detailed in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind makes it sound as though we’ve been hovering on that threshold since the ‘cognitive revolution’ of 70,000 years ago, when the first human culture arose. There are, however, times when the doors to heaven and hell have looked particularly enticing and we live in one of those times. As with all the other times, the doors are labelled with hieroglyphics in a language we can’t read. Even if we think we’ve deciphered them, we only have a vague idea of how to make the sort of collective decision that leads to choosing one of them.

Whenever we’ve stepped through one of those doors, we’ve usually found ourselves in another threshold rather than heaven or hell, but there have never been seven billion of us before and we’ve never had technology that’s capable of restructuring the world we live in quite so comprehensively.

Sapiens is less about the choice before us now than about how we got here, via similar choices in the past. Harari leads us through the cultural innovations that brought us here, including economic leaps such as the agricultural revolutions of the last 10,000 years, the evolution of religion from animistic beliefs to the explosion of monotheism in the first millennium AD, and the geopolitical rise of the empires that dominated most of human history for around two thousand until the last of them crumbled in the last century.

If you are a firm believer in, or opponent of, any political or religious doctrine, you’ll probably find yourself disagreeing with at least part of what Harari has to say. That reflects the strength of Harari’s analysis, but is also something of an omission: it would have been interesting to know how he thinks we should go forward from here. That said, Sapiens is not a political doctrine but a work of history that draws from many disciplines across the sciences and the humanities. I found myself reading it as a continuation of the multidisciplinary history I first came across in Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, albeit with another decade and a half of scientific progress to draw on.

Harari’s research is, like Diamond’s, rigorous and considered, but considerately banished from the text. Sapiens is not an academic tome, but is a very readable high-speed tour through seventy millennia of humanity with enough information in the bibliography to chase down his sources for anyone so inclined.

I’d definitely recommend it for anyone with an interest in where we are and how we got here – as long as you’re willing to have your assumptions challenged.

As a taste of what to expect, it’s worth a look at Harari’s TED talk in which he condenses some of the themes of the book into ten minutes, which is no small feat in itself:

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Posted in Book review: non-fiction, Wednesday Pontification

Traveller on the Moor


(Clifton Beard [CC / Flickr])

Horace saw the traveller immediately after the sun dipped below the horizon. A piece of darkness in the shape of a cloaked man, barely visible by the lavender sky as it moved through the heather and gorse toward him.

Horace waited for it to draw close enough to hear his halloo. Otherwise, the traveller might pass by without ever knowing there was another on the moor who did not have the last of the sun behind him.

The figure stopped a hundred paces from Horace. So the traveller was alert. Many a man would have kept his head down, huddled in his cloak against the evening chill. The traveller must have eyes as sharp as Horace himself to see a motionless figure against a dark horizon.

“Good evening.” It was a man’s voice, with enough power to carry a greeting across the distance between them. Horace heard no wariness in the words, but the distance the traveller was keeping spoke for itself.

“Good evening,” said Horace.

“Have you news from the capital?” asked the traveller.

Horace had met many a traveller on the moor, but none who did not have more recent news from the capital than he did.

“Not recently.” Horace allowed no hint that he thought it was a strange question. “By the time news finds us on the moor, it likely ain’t news no more.”

The traveller approached closer. Close enough to reveal handsome features and the best trimmed beard Horace had seen since a troupe of travelling performers crossed the moor.

“Is there a place nearby where a weary traveller might rest his head?”

Horace considered the question. “Aye. You’ll find such a place if you walk with the day at your back until you reach a stream, and follow it downhill for as long as it takes to smoke three pipes.

“Thank you, friend.”

“And none who’ll answer questions from them.” Horace jerked his chin at the horizon behind the traveller, where a band of horsemen had appeared in silhouette against the pale band of light.

The traveller looked over his shoulder. “I’ll be on my way, then.”

He resumed walking.

“There’s sanctuary for everyone on the moor,” said Horace to the traveller’s back. “Tomorrow’s pauper or yesterdays’ king, they’ll all find sanctuary and silence here.”

The traveller paused for a moment, but did not look around. Horace watched until his back had merged with the darkness.

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Posted in Saturday Hooptedoodle
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