Heterochromia in Charlie’s Living Room

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 24, Sept 15th 2019)

On his way to the airport for his early morning flight, Charlie felt shrivelled and cowed. The previous evening, a meeting at the university had been cancelled and so he’d arrived home early, only to find Huw Pryce-White at his ease in an armchair with a whisky glass in his hand. Charlie’s wife, Felicity, had explained (a little too quickly) that Huw had popped round to borrow a book, and she’d poured him a drink while she searched for it.

There had been a pause. Pryce-White, his famous, battered, leather jacket unbuttoned, had simply stretched out in the chair, smiled, raised his glass and winked. The wink was disconcerting, since Pryce-White had one green eye and one brown eye. Closing one eye wrought a complete change in his physiognomy. A number of past female students had allegedly found themselves fascinated by those piercing, dissimilar eyes, to be released only when they were hooded.

Charlie, initially nonplussed, then worked his way through an unpleasant train of thought, carriage by carriage. ‘What was the book?’

Pryce-White had remained silent, still smiling. Felicity supplied an answer: ‘Er, Louis MacNeice’s autobiography…’

Another pause. Charlie muttered, ‘It’s in the bookcase in the spare bedroom – I’ll get it.’

As he climbed the stairs, he recalled a poignant passage from the book. MacNeice, on first arriving at boarding school as a child, had not gone to the toilet for two days, because he was too embarrassed to ask for directions. Charlie knew how that child had felt. After Pryce-White left, Charlie had failed to ask Felicity for directions.

* * *

Boarding the Aberdeen-Heathrow shuttle, Charlie was shrivelled once more to find the adjoining seat already taken by a very large, bearded gentleman. But in the event, he proved an entertaining companion – Gunnar, a Norwegian oilman – who had just been dispatched by his drilling company to a place in Africa called ‘Libreville.’

‘What do you know about Libreville?’ Charlie had asked.

‘Don’t know a damned thing.’ Gunnar laughed and signalled for a tonic water and a complementary packet of peanuts. He topped up the tonic water with a whisky miniature from his side pocket.

‘If I were in your shoes, I don’t think I’d like not knowing. Unknown prospects.’

Gunnar shrugged: ‘I imagine there will be someone there to meet me – there usually is.’ He fanned some boarding passes: there would be two more flights to board after he arrived at Heathrow. ‘Maybe I’ll find out something by the time I arrive.’ He laughed again.

‘Does this kind of thing happen to you a lot?’

‘Every once in a while. Before I was in Aberdeen, I was in Azerbaijan. I’d never heard of that place either.’

‘What was Azerbaijan like?’

‘Don’t really know. I was in one of those places… er, “gated community.” Everybody there was in the oil business too. Fancy a whisky?’

‘It’s a bit early for me… but, why not?’

Gunnar produced another miniature from his side pocket, poured half into his tonic water and the other half into Charlie’s plastic teacup. Charlie had never tasted whisky in tea before. He reckoned it was a good combo.

Gunnar asked what Charlie would be doing in London. He was told about the dreary academic journal and its dreary editorial board meeting. There was a pause. ‘If I may say so, Charlie, you seem a little gloomy.’

Charlie stared into the now-empty teacup. ‘Gloomy?? Gunnar, I feel like a man on a beach watching the ebb tide and knowing it will never return.’

More whisky appeared, a half-bottle this time. And Gunnar listened to the story of Huw Pryce-White sitting in Charlie’s armchair. ‘Hmm. Hoo Priss-Vite, you say? A curious name: hyphenated, perhaps? Is he Scottish?’

‘He likes to pretend he’s Welsh, likes to play the hell-raising Celtic Bard, but he’s actually from a place called Blundellsands, outside Liverpool.’

‘Heh. You would like to do him harm, I think?’

‘Dead right, pal.’

‘Heh, heh. I was born in the Lofoten Islands, in the far north of Norway – a fishing community. You know how superstitious are fishermen. My grandfather, he knew many spells, many charms. Also, secret signs – staves – that can be drawn or carved to bring luck. Or bad luck.’ Gunnar paused to top up Charlie’s cup and murmured confidentially, ‘You simply hide the stave among a person’s belongings.’

It was a tough call. Charlie took another swig, thought about it, and then asked politely about Gunnar’s granny.

The moment passed (apparently, Lofoten Island women were bad luck anywhere near a fishing boat. No spells or staves, but she cooked a mean fish soup). The conversation moved onto the disappearance of the Scottish herring fleet. But a seed had been sown.

* * *

Two days later Charlie, through his open office door, watched Pryce-White wander along the corridor, into the staff toilets. Charlie snuck quickly into the vacant adjoining office and stole Pryce-White’s famous, battered, leather jacket. That night, he burned the fucker in his backyard.

Bishop Berkeley’s Theory of Abstraction

Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink Sweat & Tears, Jul 22, 2019)

Kim Brown (kim25071999@quiknet.com)                                        Sat 5 Jan 2019 11:50


To: Alex Brown (
alexkbrown1969@quiknet.com)

Hi Dad,

We had a lecture the other day on an eighteenth century Idealist philosopher, Bishop Berkeley. He was a pretty cool dude – a co-founder of Yale University and of the London Foundling Hospital. I just googled him: he even has a feast day in the liturgical calendar of the US Episcopal Church (June 16th). Weird.

I thought you might be interested in what he had to say about John Locke’s writings on abstract ideas. Locke reckoned it was possible to have an abstract general idea of, say, a triangle, which was neither oblique, nor equilateral, or whatever. Berkeley quite rightly pointed out that this was nonsense: when we think of a triangle, we always picture it as having some specific properties. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible for two guys to be having an amicable conversation about triangles, without realising that they actually have in mind quite different specific ideas of a triangle.

So when I asked you for ‘a small loan’ last week and you subsequently sent me a cheque for twenty five pounds, it became clear to me that my specific idea of a small loan and your specific idea of a small loan differed by a factor of four.

Your loving daughter,

Kimberley x

The Buffet Conversation Piece

Michael Bloor

(first published JULY 15, 2019, in THE DRABBLE)

On Andy’s stag night, Willie Macleod claimed that Joe Stalin was supposed to possess just four English phrases:

‘You said it;’

‘So what;’

‘What the hell goes on here?’ and,

‘The toilet is over there.’

In retrospect, it was clearly unwise for Willie to make a bet that he could conduct himself through the whole of Fiona and Andy’s wedding solely by utterance of Stalin’s four phrases. True, he managed to deliver the first three successfully. But, at the reception, he really should have admitted defeat when Fiona’s mum asked him how he liked the smoked eel canapés.

The Man on the Train

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 21, June 15th 2019)

Very occasionally, one comes across a person of natural authority, a person who impresses without effort and without design, someone who just seems more human than the rest of us. Last week, I met just such a man on the train from Aberdeen to London Kings Cross.

The journey takes seven hours, so I’m careful about being drawn into conversations with fellow-travellers: seven hours is a long time to sustain a conversation about Jehovah’s Witnesses’ aversion to blood transfusions, or the scandalous price of houses in Inverurie. So I gently rebuffed the elderly lady seated beside me when she tried to get me talking. In response to each of her conversational sallies (on the weather, the surprisingly crowded carriage, the scandalous price of tickets), I replied courteously but briefly, and returned to reading my book. Thus thwarted, she turned to the massively built, grizzled, elderly black man sitting across the table from us. More civil than myself, he answered all her inquisitive questions with grave dignity, in a rich, bass voice. The old lady quickly established that our companion was from Sierra Leone and was returning there after visiting to his son, gravely ill in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary with severe burns, sustained in a fire aboard a Peterhead fishing boat.

At Montrose, the old lady left us and the train, with a parting comment on the scandalous price of Montrose taxis. My remaining companion and I exchanged complicit smiles. He then surprised me. He leant across the table, gestured towards my book, and said:

‘I see you’re reading about Emanuel Swedenborg. A great man, I believe. And one who led a fascinating life. May I ask what your interest is in Swedenborg?’

I struggled to answer. I explained that, since I’d retired a couple of years ago, I’d enrolled in a literature course at the Open University and I was planning to submit a student project on Swedenborg’s influence on the work of the poet, William Blake. What I really wanted to do was ask what interest an elderly man from Sierra Leone could have in an eighteenth-century Swedish mystic. I might have found a courteous way to frame that rather insulting question, had I not already been witness to the relentless grilling my companion had already received on the Montrose leg of our journey. As it happened, John (that was his name) volunteered an answer to my unspoken question:

‘In my church in Freetown, back in Sierra Leone, we have studied some of Swedenborg’s writings. I am an elder in the Freetown Christadelphian Church. We are bible Christians and, like Swedenborg, we are Unitarians.’

I wanted to avoid a theological discussion on the biblical justification, or otherwise, of a belief in the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost. So I asked John about his son: I’d seen the story of the fishing boat fire in the Aberdeen Press and Journal.

‘The hospital is wonderful. I am very grateful for his care. But Andrew is very ill. Very ill. That’s why my fellow elders in the Church found the money for me to visit.’ He paused and then continued in the same slow, deep voice: ‘It has been a particular grief to me. Because I too have lived the nightmare of a fire at sea. Indeed, a fire ON the sea too. Some twenty years ago, I jumped from the fiery deck of a tanker full of gasoline into a fiery sea full of gasoline.’

I gasped. ‘You were on that tanker, the Derwent, off the Belgian coast back in 1993. You survived the collision and the fire.’

It was now John’s turn to be surprised. Mysteriously, over the last thirty years or so, Britain has somehow ceased to be a maritime nation and tragedies like that of the Derwent are no longer well known or remembered. But I used to work as a ships agent and I remembered it very well. In thick fog, the Eastern Supreme, a bulk carrier steaming far too fast, with no look-out, and with no-one manning the radar, smashed into the Derwent, newly laden with a cargo of gasoline, which spilled out of the ruptured tanks and ignited. The Derwent was swept with flames before the lifeboat could be launched, and so the crew had to leap into the burning sea. Nine men died, two of them from Sierra Leone. I explained about my old job as a ships agent and asked John whether there had been any legal proceedings afterwards.

He shook his head: ‘A Belgian court did eventually summon the Korean master of the Eastern Supreme on charges of manslaughter, but he failed to appear.’

He spoke without emotion, and such miscarriages of natural justice are unfortunately commonplace in the shipping industry, but I felt this was too painful a topic for a conversation between strangers. I asked John if he’d gone back to sea after the Derwent fire.

He shook his head again: ‘No, though I had a family to feed. And besides, I am one of the Krumen. For two hundred years, my tribe has supplied the crews for British ships. That is how we got our name. My great-great-grandfather and my great-grandfather crewed the anti-slavery patrols of the British navy. We have always gone to sea. And we have always crewed for the British. It was more than a job: it was my birth-right. But after the Derwent, I found a job at the docks.’

Smiling at old memories, he told me how, as a boy, he started out as a messman: serving in the merchant officers’ mess, with the starched white table cloths and the picture of the Queen and Prince Philip. How, on shore-leave, he used to go to Anfield to watch Liverpool FC in the days of their pomp: he recalled in particular Big Ron Yeats, Liverpool’s mountainous, Scottish centre-half. He recalled how, when he switched to working on tankers, they used to play deck-cricket on the helicopter landing deck. Grinning now, he explained the elaborate rules of the game: ‘You British, you always have plenty of rules.’

‘Did you enjoy the cricket, John?’

‘Not really. We used to play on Sundays – a rest day, except for the watch-keepers and emergencies. We Sierra Leonians would have preferred to rest. But the British officers – they wanted us to play. You could say that a bargain had been struck. The British needed us and we needed them. The work was hard; the hours were long; the pay was poor. But we needed the jobs and the families needed our pay. So we played cricket. The British made the rules and we abided by them – for the food in our mouths.

‘After independence, things deteriorated at home in Freetown. And there were fewer British ships: we would wait at home longer and longer between contracts. But once we were back on board, things were just the same – the starched white tablecloths and the deck-cricket. There was a strange comfort in that.

‘You know, crew changes for the tankers often took place in Singapore. That used to be a British colony too, of course. We used to stare at the skyscrapers, the shops and the clean streets. We could see that Singapore had prospered after independence. But independence hadn’t worked for us. We used to talk among ourselves about how it would be better if the British would come back to run Sierra Leone.’

‘You used to talk about that, John, about the British coming back. But not anymore?’

‘Sometimes, I still hear old men talking that way. But not me. After the bulk carrier smashed into the Derwent, after those nine men died in the burning sea, I realised that the British weren’t making the rules anymore.’

REFLECTIONS AT AUCKLAND AIRPORT

Michael Bloor

(first published in Every Day Fiction, MAY 21, 2019)

We met at art college. Dorothy was the one with talent, everyone saw that. And, I imagine, no-one could see what she saw in me. I got thrown off the course at the end of the second year, but we remained a couple. Her ambition was to be a tapestry artist. She would say that there was something utterly satisfying about the weaving process — the rhythmic accretion of the work, one thread at a time.

I was able to help in those early years, before she became a recognised name. I’d developed a nice little earner. I bought old lockets from junk shops and auction rooms, took out the photos and replaced them with bits of faded velvet and locks of hair (sometimes hers, sometimes mine, a couple of times my Auntie Jean’s). I advertised them on the Internet as “claimed to be the hair of Bonnie Prince Charlie/Rabbie Burns/Rudolf Valentino/Mata Hara, etc.” I was always careful to say that “it has proved impossible to establish the provenance of the piece, hence the remarkably low price.”

As a result of my shabby wheeling and dealing, we’d been able to set up a tapestry workshop in an old rented farmhouse in Dumfriesshire — a beautiful place at the head of a glen, with a bubbling burn at the house gable-end. It was the best of times. I remember we’d just erected her loom in the north-lit backroom, with a view of ewes and their leggy lambs on the bare, green hills outside the window. She rested one hand on my arm and the other on the loom and said, “This place will be the weft of our lives, Andy; now, we’ll supply the warp.” And she blushed, shook her head and laughed.

She persuaded me to give up the locket business (she’d always hated it) and I drifted into buying and selling antique books, having picked up a few pointers hanging around auction rooms. That was how we came across the Icelandic pamphlet. I went to the farm sale of a Dumfriesshire neighbour, Old Jon Egilsson. An Icelander, he’d settled in Scotland, buying Scottish tups (aka rams) for re-sale in Iceland, and buying Icelandic ponies for re-sale in Scotland. A cheery old fella, everyone agreed that he’d died the kind of death he would’ve wanted: he dropped dead at the sheep fank, dosing his tups. Nearly everyone at the sale was there for the tups, or the farm equipment. A general dealer turned up for the household effects, but he wasn’t particularly interested in Jon’s books, so I got ’em cheap.

Old Jon obviously had a weakness for Wild West novels: Zane Gray — he of The Riders of the Purple Sage — featured prominently. But there were quite a number of Icelandic sagas in both Icelandic and in English translation, including first editions of William Morris’s nineteenth-century translations. The Morris translations would make me a nice profit. As I was showing the translation of the Volsunga Saga to Dorothy, an old pamphlet fell out of it. She picked it up and immediately started to read it: it was a kind of sorcerer’s dictionary-cum-gallery of the ‘staves,’ or magical signs, that the Icelandic peasantry used to carve in order to bring good catches of fish, to ensure that their ewes had lots of twins, to win a sweetheart, and so on. She showed me some of the staves: they were intricate and beautiful. “Wow,” she said, “I’ve just got to put some of these staves into my tapestries.”

The first of the staves-tapestries she wove was an underwater design — swirling blues, greens and silvers, darting fish, and with the good-fishing stave incorporated into the intricate fishing net. I thought it was the best thing she’d done. On a late summer’s evening, I walked quietly into the weavery, to see her moving gently in time to a song on the CD player (“I once loved a lass”), as she battened down the filling yarn. The tapestry enthralled her and, for a few moments, I couldn’t move.

That first stave-tapestry was sold before it was even quite finished, to a New York gallery. Immediately afterwards, she started on a landscape tapestry — greens and autumnal golds, with a giant beech tree in the foreground, whose grey branches formed the good-weather stave. All through that autumn, we were fielding calls and emails from interested galleries and collectors. Some of them even travelled to Dumfriesshire to press their case. We held a sort-of-Dutch-auction among the interested parties and sold the landscape tapestry for enough money to finance a month-long holiday in New Zealand.

Dorothy started to design the sweetheart tapestry while we were staying in a holiday chalet near the Coromandel Peninsula’s hot-water beach. Secretly, I didn’t like the design, but I wasn’t too worried back then, because her finished tapestries often differed quite a lot from the initial designs. Maybe I was pre-occupied with the daily digging out of our own private hot pool on the beach at every low tide. My worries only started when she showed the design to that creep, Anthony, who owned the gallery in Auckland. We’d paid him a courtesy call when we first arrived in New Zealand. I was surprised when he turned up at the chalet, unannounced. And still more surprised when he rented one of the other chalets. I joked with her about how his attentions were repellent and slightly deranged, but she simply smiled and shook her head.

Two days later, she stopped me shovelling sand at the hot pool. “I’m not coming back to Scotland, Andy. I have to stay in Auckland with him. I’m sorry.” And then she cried.

Alone, sprawled in the airport lounge, it strikes me for the first time (and much too late) how implausibly successful I’d been last spring, fishing our burn for trout.

The Ballad of the Menopausal Male

Michael Bloor

(first published in Writers’ Forum, Issue 167, Sept. 2015)

He yearns to wander the wide blue yonder,

To vanish – pouf – like Bilbo Baggins,

To shed his beery mini-paunch

And his many other mini saggings.

He’s a sixty-something, semi-senile seeker,

His new-grown beard’s already itching,

He’s up, up and away to Costa Rica…

Just as soon as he’s cleaned the kitchen.

ART AND GOOD GOVERNMENT

Michael Bloor

(first published in Litro Online, 18/5/2019)

A little while ago, an old friend who lives in another part of the country was visiting my cottage for the first time. To our mutual surprise, we discovered we both had a print of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s fresco “Allegory of Good Government” hanging on our respective walls. Nor are my friend and I alone: Niall Ferguson, the historian, in his latest provocative history, The Square and the Tower (2018), reveals that the very first picture he ever bought was a print of Lorenzetti’s Allegory. Lorenzetti (c1290–1348) painted the fresco in a room in the Palazzo Pubblico of the medieval republic of Siena. The fresco was a revolutionary artefact of the fourteenth century. It portrayed a vista of an idealised Siena and the surrounding countryside: it is probably the first true landscape painting in Europe since the Ancient Roman frescos, and the extravagant city roofscape is testament to Lorenzetti’s innovative experiments with perspective. But it was not for these reasons alone that I and the old friend (and, I imagine, Niall Ferguson) had given houseroom to the print.

The fresco is one of a pair: on the opposite wall is the “Allegory of Bad Government.” The Palazzo room in which both are to be found is The Room of Nine, where the Council of Nine met nearly seven hundred years ago to govern the republic. The didactic purpose of the frescos is clear from the strap-line at the base of the Allegory of Good Government, which begins “Turn your eyes to behold her, you who govern her…” Bad Government depicts an enthroned tyrant wielding a dagger and flanked by the figures of Cruelty, Deceit, Fraud, Fury, Division and War; the streets are empty, the houses are damaged, the only trader is the armourer; and the countryside is ravaged – a location for advancing armies. Good Government shows celebratory dancers in the street, artisans at their various trades in the shops, and builders among the roof tops raising a new tower; in the countryside, peasants are working in productive fields, huntsmen are riding forth to find game, and packhorses are making their way to the city, laden with goods. The message to the Council of Nine seems clear: take heed that you govern wisely to bring happiness and prosperity to the republic.

Yet things are not always as they seem. The Sienese Republic lasted four hundred years, but it was only intermittently and infrequently democratic. The Council of Nine were a group of merchant-princes, drawn from families that had long become extraordinarily wealthy from banking and trading: Sienese families had been bankers to the Pope and had dispatched traders to travel as far as Persia. The Allegories were pieces of public art, commissioned by the Council. Were they commissioned to instruct, or to celebrate? Langton Douglas’s classic 1902 A History of Siena is unambiguous: “…the whole composition is a tract, written in buon fresco, with the object of glorifying the plutocratic regime”. Certainly, the Council were no strangers to glorifying projects: the Torre del Mangia – the great bell tower of the Palazzo – constructed around the same time as the frescos, was deliberately raised to be the tallest building in all Italy.

However, we (who are surrounded by public art) must recognise that not all artists who receive a commission embark upon projects of glorification of their public patrons. There are, of course, occasions when the aims of the artist and the patron are so contradictory that the project flounders. A famous and extreme example would be John D. Rockefeller Junior’s demand that Diego Rivera remove the portrait of Vladimir Lenin from the mural commissioned to adorn the Rockefeller Centre in the 1930s. But more often than not, commissioners are prepared to grant some license, and accept some gentle instruction, from the commissioned.

In 1355, the citizens of Siena rose in revolt, expelled the Nine, and established a Magistry of Twelve, chosen from among the small traders of the city. But by that time, Lorenzetti had been dead for eight years, a victim of the bubonic plague that killed half the inhabitants of the city – a catastrophe from which Siena never completely recovered. Who is now to say whether Lorenzetti was the brilliant tool of the Council of Nine, or the harbinger of the Magistry of Twelve?

AN EMAIL FROM TOMMY COOPER

Michael Bloor

(first published in Idle Ink, 22nd April 2019)

It happened this way. I’m a criminologist with research interests in white-collar crime and for the last few months I’ve been working on a new project – internet fraud. You know the sort of thing: you get an email from an Arnaud Sansculottes, ex-financial advisor to the ex-President of Haiti, soliciting your good offices in moving a $9.5 million secret fund from Port-au-Prince to your bank in Dunblane. You delete it with a sigh. Secretly, you’d love to correspond with Arnaud: you picture him with a pencil moustache, a double-breasted suit with padded shoulders, shiny two-tone shoes and a fat cigar; he has a lady-friend called Angelique, to whom he is devoted, and a large dog called Chichi; he is very knowledgeable – and opinionated – about air-conditioning. Well, I get to correspond with Arnaud. Not bad eh?

So, I get into the office just after nine (okay, nine thirty) on the Monday. My PC, with the spam filters off, has a couple of hundred new emails. I scan the list, looking for familiar names. My current favourite correspondent is Desiree Agnela Soyinke, nineteen year-old daughter and heir of a deceased former Nigerian Defence Minister: Desiree is in a bit of jam, but if I can lend her fifteen hundred quid, she can engage a lawyer who can secure her inheritance, enabling her to fly gratefully into my waiting arms at Heathrow. It seems Desiree’s had a pretty tough weekend. There are three emails from her. The last one expresses her agony of mind over whether or not I am her true friend after all. I print it off and put it in the ‘true friend query’ folder, the thirteenth email I’ve been able to file in this way. I send off my standard ‘true friend query’ reply and add a postscript repeating my previous request for more details of the services her lawyer can offer.

The only other familiar name is a correspondent in Costa Rica who is in a position to offer me a share in a lucrative investment opportunity. That one is quickly dealt with and I’m onto the unfamiliar addresses; this is where it gets tricky – sorting out the sheep from the former goats. For instance, take a mail offering for sale a wee device for obliterating nasal hair and hairy lug-holes: a fraud or ‘a ground-breaking advance in male grooming’? I have to be pretty quick with my decisions because the spam is still pinging in. About eighty emails later, I come across one entitled ‘Can you assist?’ from‘TommyFez1@gmail.com’. It’s probably best if I just copy the whole thing:

From: Tommy Cooper [TommyFez1@gmail.com]

To: William Anderson [AndersonW@stirling.ac.uk]

Dear Mr Anderson,

Please forgive this enquiry ‘out of the blue’. Signor Virgil, an eyetie chappie who acts as a sort of Information Officer around the place, suggested your name. The signor is a bit odd in some ways (wears some dead leaves on his head, for one thing), but I find he’s generally on the money in the Advice Department. Anyway, the signor says you’ve switched off your ‘spam filters’ (whatever that means) and so my email won’t get ‘blocked’.

I’ve been trying to contact a few people for a while and apparently these spam filters have prevented any of my emails getting through. That explains a lot. I wasn’t really expecting much from that Philip Hammond, but I did think that the Queen might reply – we had a good laugh about her unwanted Cup Final tickets at the Royal Variety Performance.

So I was hoping that you might help me sort out a few things, right a few wrongs, kick a few arses, etc? Do let me know if you’re willing to pull the old rabbit out of the hat.

Some grand courses in your neck of the woods, I remember. Ever played over at Dollar? Very tricky blind second hole.

Yours aye,

TC

I read it twice. Any Nigerian fraudster who knew that Tommy Cooper had once asked the Queen for her Cup Final tickets was clearly unusually well informed. I guessed it was a hoax email from my old mate in Modern Languages, Joe McCarthy: he and I exchange puerile home-made jokes and this email seemed to carry Joe’s hallmark.

Coincidentally, a few minutes later, Joe put his head round my office door: ‘Lunch?’

Digging through the pockets of my jacket, hanging on the back of my chair, I muttered: ‘Hang on, Tommy. Just searching for my wallet.’

Joe stared: ‘Ok, but why the “Tommy”?’

I stared in return: Joe’s innocence seemed obvious. I hesitated – it contravened research subject anonymity – but I showed him the Tommyfez1 email. He read it over my shoulder. I said: ‘God knows what this “dead leaves on his head” stuff is all about.’

‘Plain to see that you never had a classical education, Bill, you numpty. The Roman poet, Virgil, guided Dante on his descent into Hell. Virgil’s usually depicted with a wreath of laurel leaves around his brows.’

By the time we were sat down in Dog’s Breath Central (aka The Staff Dining Room), Joe had convinced me that the only possible TommyFez1 was some wily fraudster. After lunch, I re-read the email. I then googled the Dollar Golf Club: the second hole did indeed have the reputation of being the trickiest on the course. Further googling turned up a number of Tommy Cooper golf jokes and also, of course, that Tommy had died in 1984. I stared again at the email. There was no request for money or bank details, but fraudsters frequently make no mention of money in their initial contact email. I didn’t know what else to do, so I sent my standard cautious researcher’s reply:

From: William Anderson [AndersonW@stirling.ac.uk]

To: Tommy Cooper [TommyFez1@gmail.com]

Dear TC,

Thank you for your recent email. In what way were you hoping that I could help you? Could you be more specific?

Kind regards,

William Anderson

After I’d sent the email to TommyFez1, I got to work scanning the rest of the inbox spam, but I couldn’t concentrate. As always when I’m fretting, I set out for a walk. A wonderful hill, Dumyat, is only a couple of miles from my office and, in dry weather, a pair of trainers will suffice to get you to the top. With the wind whipping my hair, an uplifted skylark above me, and the mighty meanders of the River Forth at my feet, I suddenly felt a lot better. I was standing in the remains of an old hill fort and I reflected that if I could face with indifference the bloody ghosts that might haunt these old fortifications, then I had little to fear from the shade of Tommy Cooper. I headed back.

When I returned, I found that a dozen new emails had pinged in. Nothing from TommyFez1. I buckled down to clear the inbox backlog: I make it a rule never to leave the office for the day with unopened emails. Desiree had replied: it seemed that her lawyer needed his big fee because he had to provide a ‘gift’ to a gentleman in the Probate Department; Desiree bemoaned the fact that there were so many dishonest people in her beautiful country. Joe McCarthy had sent a puerile joke about King Arthur and Merlin at the annual Camelot peat-cutting competition. Strawberry Fields Forever had emailed to say that my clogs had been dispatched (I know, I know, but I find them really comfortable). There were more details about the Costa Rican investment opportunity – an eco-tourism hotel. It was quarter past seven and I was just about to log off, when TommyFez1 pinged in.

I won’t reproduce Tommy’s email here. For one thing, it ran to twenty-one printed pages, with sixty-seven pages of technical annexes. Tommy had a long list of practical proposals ‘to make things a bit more cheerful’ (his phrase). They included a mix of local, national and international initiatives. Gwent Council in Wales should refuse permission for a supermarket on the Abergavenny Cattle Market site unless the developers included provision for a cinema. No more wind-farms in Scotland: instead, there should be a massive new hydro-electric scheme programme. Graduated VAT: all private purchases over £15,000 (except house purchases) should carry 50% VAT. And so on. Some proposals were a little quirky: dating agencies were to be nationalised and run as a social service by Council social work departments – ‘everybody should have somebody to love’, Tommy wrote. Some proposals went right over my head: balance-of-payments deficits were to be eliminated by floating exchange rates; and the UN’s International Maritime Organisation should take responsibility for ship inspections. It seemed Tommy had received some help: the technical paper on floating exchange rates was written by a JM Keynes, and the one on hydro-electric schemes by a retired Scottish civil engineer. I printed the whole thing off and then headed for the chip shop.

I pondered as I stood in the chip shop queue. As far as I could judge, Tommy’s proposals seemed eminently sensible. But his email carried no hint of how I was to bring them into being. I couldn’t think what I could do with them, aside from taking them to my MP/MSP. If that proved inadequate, would that provoke The Wrath of the Netherworld? I didn’t fear being haunted for the rest of my life by a tall man in a fez, muttering ‘Not like that, like this.’ But I didn’t relish it either. And neither did I fancy posing as a one-man social policy think-tank. I was so wrapped up in these ponderings that I forgot to stop the woman at the counter putting salt and vinegar on my fish supper – I hate vinegar.

Starving hungry, I ate my fish supper (vinegar and all) on a bench over-looking the Allanwater. I guessed Tommy must have at least considered the problem of how to put his proposals into practice: that was why he’d tried originally to send them to Philip Hammond and the Queen. So I could be honest with him about my powerlessness, relative to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I went back to the office and emailed him accordingly. I hung around for a while, but there was no reply. Desiree had emailed to tell me how much she was looking forward to coming to the UK, where people were honest and trustworthy, just as soon as I transferred to her the fifteen hundred quid.

When I got to the office the next morning, there was Tommy’s reply. He said I should go ahead and talk to my MP, but he’d had a word with Harold Macmillan who’d suggested I also talk to someone called Sir Christopher Soames. There was also a belated proposal to replace the plain Belisha Beacons with different illuminated yellow animals to make zebra crossings more attractive to toddlers. Right away, I started to search the net for the details of my MP’s constituency surgery. But unbeknown to me, the rot had already set in.

It seems Harold Macmillan must have blabbed and given my email address to General de Gaulle, who in turn had given it to Maurice Chevalier and Marcel Duchamp. Chevalier, in turn, must have passed it onto his Hollywood buddies – Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Claudette Colbert, and a load of people I’d never heard of, including the guy who used to do Bugs Bunny’s voice in the cartoons. One of them, in turn, seems to have passed my email address to a whole posse of deceased American baseball players. This was bad enough, but Tommy’s original altruistic objective had sunk without trace. ‘The Voice of Bugs Bunny’, for example, wanted my help in getting a plaque erected outside his birthplace in San Francisco. John Masefield (where did he spring from?) wanted my assistance in issuing a public apology to the world’s seafarers for that crap he wrote about ‘tall ships’ and vagrant gypsy’ mariners. The emails were arriving faster than I could read them and the senders were becoming more and more remote historical figures. I logged off, right after an email pinged into the mailbox fromWilliam_Ewart_Gladstone@gmail.com. I put in a handwritten request the University Computing Department for a new email address with the usual spam filters.

That was the end of it. Except that, once the new mail address was set-up, I did write to Transport Scotland about those animal-shaped Belisha Beacons. I didn’t mention Tommy: didn’t want them to think I was a nutter. And I sent an apologetic mail to Desiree: didn’t seem quite right just to leave her hanging.

Scott of theYard

Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk fiction, April 19th, 2019)

When the actor, Brandon Lancaster, disappeared back in 1978, it was a three-day wonder – headlines in all the newspapers and the lead story in the TV news bulletins. The oddness of it appealed to journalists and the public. Successful (professionally and financially), middle-aged, a family man, he left home with nothing but his raincoat and his wallet; he failed to turn up for lunch with his agent, an hour later. His face was familiar to millions, thanks to his role as Inspector Jim Scott, the television detective ‘Scott of the Yard,’ but there were no confirmed sightings after he’d popped into his local newsagents for twenty Silk Cut. No taxi driver came forward and, although there were plenty of supposed sightings on the London tube, the police eventually discounted them all. In any case, the family and friends reported that he no longer took the tube as he was too well-known for the journey to be a comfortable one.

With the lack of any new developments, the story disappeared from the front pages. Occasional feature articles would appear canvassing new theories. Comparisons were drawn with the disappearance, some four years earlier, of Lord Lucan – wanted for questioning concerning the death of his children’s nanny. The new theories were predictable. Some of them, beginning with ‘a psychiatrist writes …,’ posited amnesia or mental breakdown. Magazines which gave column-space to reports of Elvis sightings, offered articles on Scott of the Yard’s clandestine romantic attachment and flight to a secret beach love nest in Goa. Or Thailand.

Uniquely, mine was the only piece to claim that alien abduction is the solution to the mystery. The aliens, from the Alpha Centauri system, had recently been monitoring Earth telecommunications and had been much impressed by the detective powers and prowess of Inspector Jim Scott. The Governing Council of Elders took the secret decision to abduct Scott/Lancaster, in order to require him to solve a particularly delicate case, involving the murder of their most senior general (run over by the Centaurian equivalent of a combine harvester).

They found out quickly that Scott/Lancaster was only pretending to be a detective for the purpose of public entertainment (a novel concept in their star system) and furthermore was incapable of coherent thought without access to Earth cigarettes. A cover-up was required and Scott/Lancaster was banished to a desert planet with a supply of eight records and one luxury.

The Arrival of the Finnman

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 17, 2019)

In October, I shall have been Governor of this island for forty years. I came here as a young man, to command the garrison and dispense justice in the assizes. I arrived full of hopes and vaunting ambition, trusting to my connections in the distant Imperial Court to secure me rapid promotion to more lucrative and influential positions. My hopes were vain, my ambitions lost and my connections as enduring as morning dew. Nevertheless, I have learned contentment in this little bounded land. True, the winter days are short and the winter nights are long and bitter: for weeks together, the gales can blow loud enough to deafen, and strong enough to deposit small fish on the cliff-tops. But the peasants, farmer-fishermen for the most part, are determined, even heroic – very different from the servile drudges one encounters in the capital and the countryside round about it. I have come to respect and emulate the islanders’ quiet virtues. To watch them fishing is an education – two boats working in careful concert. And then to watch the sharing out of the catch, with one fifth part reserved for widows and the sick. Yet now it seems all my hard-won lessons on peasant virtues may be cast over.

It was a stormy day of early March when the ‘Finnman’ was captured. I remember because when my sergeant brought me the confused news, I was staring absorbed from my chamber window at the waves breaking wildly on the rocks at the harbour entrance. The wind was catching up the spume from the waves and the low sun was creating hundreds of small, truncated rainbows as it shone through the spume.

Tales of the mysterious Finnmen are common currency among the islanders, but I have paid them no more heed than stories of dwarfs living in the mounds along the shore, or of the ‘selkies’ that are said to inhabit the western skerries. The Finnmen travel in skin canoes at great speed; they are fierce, cruel and emit screeching cries; they are said to drive away the herring shoals.

The Sergeant said that a group of fishermen from the west end of the island had found the Finnman collapsed among the dunes: first of all, they had spotted the skin canoe, beached on the shore, and they had then followed his tracks into the dunes. I told the Sergeant bring the Finnman at once to the chamber, along with his captors.

A couple of minutes later, the corporal of the guard (a hulk of a man), dragged in a bundle of skins that proved to be the insensible Finnman. He was accompanied by the sergeant and four fishermen. I knelt to make an examination. The Finnman was breathing rapidly and shallowly; he smelt strongly of stale urine and rancid fat. I felt in his mouth and found the tongue swollen and distended:

‘The Finnman needs water – Corporal, fetch me a pitcher of water. After that, go to the cellarman for a bottle of brandy.’ I turned to the fishermen: ‘How did he come by these cuts and bruises?’

‘Excellency, he was unconscious when we found him, but we thought it best to bind him. He then came to and he started to struggle, so Gruta hit him. But Gruta only hit him once. By the time we arrived here at the fort, a crowd was following us. As we waited for admittance, some of the crowd started to throw stones. And a woman ran forward and hit him with a stick.’

The sergeant confirmed that this was the case and that the woman in question was Sella, the widow of Odd. The corporal then returned with the pitcher of water. I wet the Finnman’s lips but he did not revive. The corporal had already departed again for the brandy, so I sent the Sergeant to bring Oolla, the midwife, as the hospitaller is an ignorant drunk whom I would not trust to treat hiccups. I sent the fishermen to recover the skin canoe, and the Finnman’s weapon, a short dart, that one of the fishermen (an intelligent lad) had said lay beside the canoe.

Left alone with the Finnman, I observed him carefully. Of normal stature, with a yellow-ish skin (redder about the face) and dark, lustrous, coarse hair. A flattish face, the nose being small. The eyes were brown and curiously obliquely set. The teeth were much worn. From his musculature, I would have judged him younger than myself; from his wrinkled skin, I would have judged him older.

In recent years, I have devoted some of my leisure hours to an illustrated description of the many monuments that the Ancient Ones have left on the island. I have fancied my account might ensure that some posthumous celebrity might attach to my name, and that the island itself – this isolated and obscure outpost of Empire – might also gain a degree of fame. Now, I was seeing things differently: surely the mysterious arrival of the Finnman would make the island famous throughout the Empire? The four fishermen’s names would be as famous as the past Emperors who had first sent out ships to explore these remote waters.

The corporal returned with the brandy, which I ordered him to administer, but it was not a success. The Finnman choked, vomited and lapsed back into unconsciousness. He still had not spoken a word in my presence. I was later to learn that, when struggling with his rescuers, the Finnman had only made a few hoarse noises.

When the midwife entered the chamber she at first recoiled from the sprawled Finnman and would have fled if the sergeant had not restrained her. But her kind instincts soon got the better of her. She suggested that the Finnman would take some time to recover and that it would be best if he were carried to her hut outside the fort gates. There she would wash and bind his wounds and, once he was conscious, keep him on a diet of gruel and herbs of her own choosing. I agreed, gave her a purse, and bade the sergeant and corporal carry him away on a hurdle, adding only that the hurdle should be left in the hut and that the Finnman be bound to it, to prevent ignorant flight. I was remiss in omitting to require the posting of a guard outside the hut.

The early evening I remember as being one of pleasant excitement as, by candlelight, I began an examination and description of the canoe and of the weapon that the fishermen had brought in, just before dark. The canoe, wondrously light, was secured from swamping by skins and draw-strings designed to fit around the seated Finnman, like a leather shoe around a foot. The body of the canoe was constructed of greased skins, stretched over a taunt frame made partly of wood and partly of bone. The wood appeared to be that of a kind of pine tree, but not one I recognised. The canoe was evidently propelled by a single oar, shaped into paddles at both ends. The weapon was more ingenious still: the short dart, tipped with sharpened bone, was made more effective by a separate wooden throwing arm. I was of the opinion that the dart-plus-arm would have been just as murderous as a full-length javelin, but much more readily handled in the confines of the canoe.

I had just finished a sketch of how I presumed the throwing arm would operate, when the sergeant once more rushed to my chamber – this time with news of a riot outside the fort. I was stunned: it was more than twenty years since there had been any civil disturbances on the island. The sergeant had already called out the guard. I issued pikes and armed both the sergeant and the corporal with an arquebus. We then all immediately ran out of the fort towards the shore, where the crowd had gathered. Two barrels of pitch had been set alight. It was plain to see that the figure stretched on top of the barrels was the Finnman, still attached to his hurdle. He looked more an effigy than a man.

The crowd quickly dispersed. The midwife, who had taken a blow to the head, claimed not to have recognised the young men who burst into her hut and seized the Finnman. Sella, the woman who had previously hit the Finnman with a stick, turned out to be a simpleton. The corporal of the guard, a native islander, told me that the islanders believed that Finnman had to be killed, lest he spirit away the herring shoals. He could not say, or would not say, who had instigated the riot. At the assize, I called the fishermen who had found the Finnman to give evidence, but they had returned to their homes at the western shore on the evening of the burning and knew nothing of the riot. Surprisingly, the young fisherman who had mentioned to me the Finnman’s weapon gave evidence that he had indeed heard the story that Finnmen could charm the herring away from the island, but for himself, he believed that herring shoals shifted for many reasons – that they were not at the beck and call of the Finnmen.

These peasants whom I had come to respect, living in such successful harmony with each other, clearly had no respect for an outsider. The greater the bond between islanders, the less the fellow-feeling for the stranger, the intruder. There is no wisdom to be found here, no matter how beautiful the sunsets.

I have arranged for the Finnman’s burial and I shall dispatch the canoe and its accoutrements to the Imperial Chancery, the lawful recipient of all shipwreck spoils. And then I shall ask to be relieved of my post on account of an infirmity, an incurable island melancholia.