Making Chutney

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Sept 18 2020)

I’ve been making green tomato chutney. Outside in the street, I see a woman and a small boy. He’s walking unevenly, avoiding cracks in the pavement. His mum gives his hand a mighty tug: mother and son, out-of-step.

Then, I can’t remember what weight of sultanas to add. When I find the yellowed recipe, I see it’s in my mum’s handwriting. She’d spelt ‘tomato’ with an ‘e’ at the end, which upset me a little.

I used to say my mum was a difficult woman, but perhaps she wasn’t all that difficult. Maybe it was just that we were out-of-step?


Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Aug 29th, 2020)

Prime Minister Chamberlain was told that German troops were invading Austria while attending a farewell dinner for von Ribbentrop, the Nazi ambassador in London. Chamberlain stayed on for after-dinner drinks and conversation.

George W. Bush was visiting a Florida elementary school when an aide whispered: “A second plane has hit the second tower. America is under attack.” The President continued to listen to a reading of a children’s story, ‘The Pet Goat,’ for a further seven minutes.

When you stepped into the lift and gave me a small smile, my silence wasn’t so bad. From an historical perspective, that is.

Taproom Memories

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Drabble, Aug 5th 2020)

Let me recall the names, ringing down the fifty years – The Sherwood Forester, The Dolphin, The Old Bell Hotel, The Seven Stars, The Noah’s Ark, The Fountain (aka The Squirt), The Dutch Mill, The Kirkgate Bar, The Prince of Wales, The Perth Arms, Hastie’s Hotel, The Blue Lamp, The Drumtochty Arms, The Marine Hotel, The Ramsay Arms, The Hen and Chicks, The Crown, The Pen and Wig, The King of Prussia, The Queen’s Head, No.2 Baker Street, The Tappit Hen … A young man’s litany; an old man’s folly.

How many still stand? How many will the virus sweep away?

The Cloud Forest

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 36,July 2020, and not to be confused with A Cloud Forest Tale, also archived here and first published in The Fiction Pool Sept 22nd 2017)

Two days after our landing party left the ship, we entered the clouds that we had seen from the shore. It was a relief at first: we mariners are generally ill-shod and not great walkers. We had grumbled as we’d sweated up that barren, rocky valley under the blazing sun, so it was sweet to step at last under trees and walk on the soft moss that lay over everything. But the relief did not last. The trees of the cloud forest seemed strange-looking, not like the oaks and pines of home: more than anything, they looked like giant heathers. The thick mist that hung everywhere in the forest was confusing: we could not navigate by the stars or the sun, and had to cut marks on the tree trunks or the mossy boulders in order to know our return route to the ship. Every hour of our march, the lieutenant called a halt and commanded Hando, the trumpeter, to blow a blast, whereupon the lieutenant would read a paper proclaiming that the island was now the property of the Emperor and the islanders were now his subjects. A futile procedure since the mist and the trees deadened all sound, and the natives who had first gathered on the shore, when our ship sailed into the bay, had quickly dispersed and had not been seen since. Still, we were glad of the brief rests.

There was discontent over the water supplies. The lieutenant insisted that we retain what was left of the drinking water that we had brought with us, saying we would need it for the return journey to the ship. There was no running water in the forest, but water could be squeezed from the dripping moss. Men grumbled that the moss tainted the water. Some men secretly continued to drink from their leather water bottles. The lieutenant noticed my brother, Odd, drinking from his water bottle: he hit him with the flat of his sword and then deliberately pierced Odd’s bottle.

On the evening of the third day, we came across one of our mossy marks on a large boulder: proof, it seemed, that we had walked in a circle. The lieutenant claimed it was a natural mark, made by a falling branch or a bird (we had seen no animals). Then Odd found a mark on a nearby tree and swore that he had made the mark himself yesterday. The lieutenant swore in return and drew his sword. Odd turned to run, and the lieutenant hacked him down. As the lieutenant stood over Odd, I ran the slayer through with my pike. The bosun carried an arquebus, but by the time it was loaded I had fled into the mist and the quiet trees.

* * *

I had escaped naval justice, but my case was not a happy one: I couldn’t return to the ship and so had to stay in this strange heathen place. Food was my immediate difficulty: none of the plants and shrubs in the cloud forest were familiar to me, so I had to proceed by trial and error. I made many errors and grew weak with hunger. Some berries I found had tasted sweet but proved poisonous. With my pike and knife, I had previously cut branches as a makeshift shelter from the constant dripping moisture. I lay there retching, and moving in and out of consciousness.

How long I lay there I do not know. Perhaps I would have died there, but I wakened to find myself bound and carried in a kind of litter. I was a prisoner of the elusive natives. When they saw that I was conscious, they fed me on a nutritious paste (made from the roots of sapling trees, I later discovered). Afterwards I slept, until we came to a halt among some huts on the edge of the cloud forest. My new life had begun.

The natives call themselves the Ku (which simply means ‘the people’ in their language). They are not unkind, though I am subject to some teasing. The teasing has its roots in what they see as my clumsiness and my ignorance: for example, I have no skill in constructing the marvellous nets they use for both trapping birds and for fishing, and I have only slowly learnt to recognise the edible leaves, roots and berries which form an important part of their diet. Initially, I had hoped that some prestige might attach to my ownership of the pike and my sailor’s knife, but the Ku have no concept of private property. None of their women have welcomed me to their bed. When I was younger, I used to help with the fishing and with maintaining the two cisterns where they store the rainwater that falls in their brief wet season. Nowadays, I’m only fit for gathering firewood.

Whenever I stepped beyond the cloud forest, I used to scan the horizon for a sail – another thing I was teased about. Now, after thirty seven years, a ship lies again at anchor in the bay. They tell me the Emperor is overthrown and the Sun Palace is a ruin used for storing dung. They offer me free passage, but I find I am content here with the Ku in the gentle cloud forest.

Working Title

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, No. 86, June 2020)

White walls, white floor, white light… Fully awake now, I realise I’m wearing a white suit and white shoes. Just like John Lennon in the ‘Imagine’ video, except there’s no white piano. Baffling.

It’s been two years now since I washed up on the empty shore of Authorship Down – two daunting, but exhilarating, years. I joined in the Great Literary Agent Hunt (indeed, I found one, but she was dead – smothered under a pile of stamped, addressed envelopes). I went on no less than Five Post-Colonial Guilt Trips. I was vaccinated against all Mother-And-Daughter Stories and I took The Authorship Down Solemn Oath never to end a story with the suicide of the narrator. I’ve grown a beard and shaved my head, I’m a hardened veteran. And now, finally, I think I’m starting to get it: this is A Blank Space – the toughest authorship test yet!

I relish the challenge. I sit cross-legged on the floor, close my eyes, cross my arms, take a deep breath and wait for the creative juices to flow.

The floor is hard: better to pace up and down.

After five minutes pacing, I reckon I’ll escape instead: do the test another time. When I’m wearing my walking boots and my thick socks.

I scan the ceiling for a trapdoor and then set about tapping the walls, listening for that tell-tale hollow sound. Alas, nothing.

I try a few magic words, starting with the Authorship Down Chant: ‘Ooo Aahh Derrida, Ooo Aahh Derrida.’ No joy there either. Shamefacedly, though I know old jokes carry a one-month Writers’ Workshop fixed penalty, I even try the magic words from the Popeye cartoons: ‘Open Sez Me!’

I remember a tip from the 2018 Authorship Down Magic Realism Festival, and try gliding through the wall, sustaining facial bruising and a bent finger.

If only I’d got my Swiss Army knife. Or a lathe, to manufacture a Swiss Army knife. I rifle through my pockets, but all I can find is a half a block of chocolate, white of course. On the white wrapper is the embossed legend, Writers’ Block. I bite off more than I can chew.

As I choke, I find myself wondering why stories never end with the accidental death (as opposed to suicide) of the narrator – a possible plot-line there?? Working Title: Conceived in Sin, Born in Pain, a Life of Toil, and Inevitable Death. Now I’m getting somewhere…


Michael Bloor

(first published in Every Day Fiction, MAY 22, 2020)

That evening, we sat either side of my neighbour Goronwy’s kitchen range. He pronounced my latest batch of scrumpy cider — mysteriously cloudy, both sharp and sweet, with the smell of autumn — almost as good as the scrumpy his father used to make. I understood that there was no higher praise. As a young man, Goronwy’s father had worked in the quarry on Deri Mountain, leading the Clydesdale horses that powered the tramway that carried the quarry stone down to the little town of Abergavenny at the foot of the mountain. Old Goronwy had many of his father’s stories about the quarry and the quarrymen, but the story Goronwy told me that night, of his grandfather’s betrothal, has stayed with me down the years, like an old song.

“In the dim of a winter’s early morning in the 1850s my grandfather, then a young man in his prime, was walking up through the oakwood to his work in the quarry. He heard a sudden breaking of branches, and then a vague shape thudded to the ground directly in front of him. He started forward: it was a young woman, sprawled among the moss and the drifted leaves. Silent, he knelt beside her while she gasped and coughed, made breathless by the fall.

“Now, believe me: grandfather was a Welsh scholar who had competed in the 1852 Abergavenny Eisteddfod, but he struggled to understand her first words. She seemed to be speaking in Old Welsh. She was richly, but strangely, dressed. No Victorian lady, but someone from an antique painting. As she hugged her damaged elbow, he recognised her perfume — a strong, sweet smell of marshy places and hill-springs, the smell of meadowsweet.”

Goronwy paused in his tale and I poured some more scrumpy. He took a deep draught, wiped his moustache, and asked: “You’ll have read The Mabinogion, Alan?”

I stared at the old man and understood: he wanted to know if I recognised the significance of the smell of meadowsweet. In the ancient book of The Mabinogion, the wizard, Gwydyon, fashioned a living bride out of flowers for his nephew, Lleu. A witch had cursed Lleu that he should never have a wife born of woman. So Gwydyon used his powers to create a bride that was not born of woman, but was sprung from the flowers of the wood and the mountain — flowers of oak, of broom, and… of meadowsweet*. Goronwy gave me a significant nod and resumed his tale.

“My grandfather helped the injured woman to her feet and took her down the mountain to his mother’s care. As they stood in the scullery, while his mother bathed and bound the woman’s elbow and forearm, the woman stared wildly about her. My grandfather asked her if, by any chance, her name was Blodeuedd? She turned, smiled and nodded. Her smile, like her perfume, suffused the scullery.

“Blodeuedd, meaning flower-face as my grandfather well knew, was the name of Lleu’s bride of flowers. As he also knew, she had proved a wayward bride: her love for Lleu was itself like a flower that had bloomed, withered and died. So when then she chanced to meet Goronwy, the Lord of Penllyn, she found herself drawn to him. Goronwy in his turn yearned for Blodeuedd. They became lovers and plotted together to slay her husband. Lord Goronwy murdered Lleu, but Lleu’s uncle — the wizard Gwydyon — discovered Blodeuedd’s betrayal and she fled from him. He caught her and punished her, turning her into an owl, destined to rove always alone and mournful through the night skies, and to be shunned and hated by all other birds.

“My grandfather seated Blodeuedd before the warm hearth. Struggling to find the appropriate Old Welsh words, he questioned her about how she came to fall to earth on the Deri Mountain. She touched his arm and he felt the touch like a caress: “I think I know the answer to your question. Few wizards know the strongest spells of all, the binding spells. Merlin, alone, was said to know many binding spells, and they proved his undoing in the cave below Tintagel. I believe Gwydyon’s punishment of me was not binding for all eternity, but only for a span of a thousand years and a day. And now the long years are past, the spell has lapsed, and my owl-shape is cast off. I dwell now on the furniture of the Earth, not in the heavens, and I am again a free and mortal woman. Free, but fearful of this changed world.” She cried and my grandfather comforted her… And by midsummer they were betrothed. You can see their grave today in the chapel graveyard at Bettws.”

Goronwy and I were silent for a while. I took a last sip of the cloudy scrumpy. “The strangest and the greatest of all your tales, Goronwy. Tell me: what do you remember of your grandmother?”

“She died when I was quite young. I remember the smell of meadowsweet, and even as a small child I knew that she was a very wise old lady. My father said that no end of folk would come seeking her opinion, on this matter and that. Even Mr Owens, the minister. And she would always deal gently with even the most foolish enquiries.”

I smiled at Blodeuedd’s redemption. Old Goronwy rose to chuck another two lumps of oak onto the ashes in the range. He glanced out of the window. “The moon is up. I’ll accompany you down the lane.”

I nodded. Goronwy’s liking for moonlit walking was well known to his neighbours. I pulled on my boots, went to the door, and turned: “May I ask you one thing? what was your grandfather’s Christian name?”

“He was named Goronwy. All the first-born males in our family have always been called Goronwy.”

Crossing the Border, Long Ago

Michael Bloor

(first published in Spelk Fiction, March 30th 2020)

In the snaking queue for passport inspection at Heathrow, I watched the Asian family gathered around the neighbouring passport booth to my left: the tired, sullen children, the downcast mother, the desperate, gesticulating father. I knew how they felt. These days, I sail through passport control and customs without a care or hindrance. I recently retired as Head of the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of West Yorkshire: I’m a respectable, even august figure — my colleagues used to refer to me behind my back as “Earth Leader”. But I wasn’t always so self-evidently respectable, and British Border Controls weren’t always so straightforward.

Fifty years ago, I was hitchhiking back from Venice and had just caught the Ostend-Dover ferry with minutes to spare. I’d stayed too long in Venice, mesmerised by the play of light on water and on old stones. I was out of money, dog-tired, and travel-worn. I carried a bedroll, wrapped around a canvas kitbag. I was called over by a customs officer, fresh-faced — no older than myself. Age was perhaps the only thing we had in common.

There were a number of questions about where I’d been, what my purpose was, and where I was going. All the time, he was eyeing my bedroll. Eventually, inevitably, he asked to see inside my bedroll. First, he shook out my sleeping bag: nothing. Then he opened up my kitbag, spreading my dirty underwear, socks and shirts across the bench. At the very bottom of the kitbag was a white enamel cup. And inside the cup was some crumpled brown paper.

The officer’s detached, professional persona peeled away. Was this to be his very first drugs bust? He eagerly ripped open the paper — nothing. He smelt it — nothing. He held it out to me, puzzled:

“What’s the paper for?”

I knew that only an honest answer would suffice: “It’s to wipe my arse.”

Maggot-Racing: the Sport of Kings

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 28, January 2020)

The reason maggot-racing was so exciting was because maggots have absolutely no sense of direction. Your maggot might be wiggling along strongly – well clear of the rest of the field, with a nice, clean, economical action, and plenty of fuel left in the tank – when, suddenly and inexplicably, s/he executes a 180-degree turn. And that was your chance of scooping the jackpot blown for another week.

The maggot-racing during the Thursday morning tea-breaks was the only good reason for working at King’s Wholesale Grocery. The wages were crap. The work was tough: no stacker trucks, no lifts. And there were just seven workers being ordered about by three (yes, three) bosses. There was old Mr King himself, gaga and terrifyingly unpredictable (or just plain terrifying), and his two grotesque sons – ‘Mr Geoff’ and ‘Mr Adrian.’ And that’s not counting Briggsy, the slippery and snide under-manager. Strangely, it was the maggot-racing that proved to be Briggsy’s nemesis.

Back then, in the Sixties, King’s was the only place in town that still smoked its own bacon – a product much loved, especially by the older generation. Our butcher, would prepare a side of bacon for the smokehouse on Thursday morning. The first step in his preparations was always that of laying-out the side of bacon on a sturdy wooden table and thumping it up and down its whole length with a heavy wooden mallet. The blows of the mallet would propel the maggots out of the meat as if they were jumping beans. And the dispirited workforce would be transformed into happy punters as they gathered round to select their potential champion maggots.

Each of us would contribute a sixpence to the pot, and the competing maggots would then be placed in the centre of a four-foot-wide chalk circle, drawn on the cement floor of King’s backyard, where we were accustomed to drink our mugs of tea and smoke our fags. The owner of the first wayward maggot to wiggle out of the circle would scoop the pool and have the bragging rights til the next Thursday.

My fellow-workers were a kindly crew: Roger, the butcher; Taffy, the van driver, for the afternoon deliveries; Ian, the gentle strongman ex-borstal boy, who was the foreman; Weird Willie; and Tank Thompson. The exception, of course, was under-manager Briggsy (Taffy: ‘That Briggsy’s from Planet Zog. He’s probably got completely different genitalia’). Briggsy wore a white ‘slop’, in contrast to our mucky brown slops, and – as conscious of his status as any army corporal – waged a constant verbal battle to assert his social, moral and intellectual superiority over the rest of us.

For example, if the conversation turned to the fortunes of the town’s football team (then in its glory years), he would interrupt with a report on his own favourite sport of ten-pin bowling: ‘You’re not right in the head, you lot. Fancy shelling out good money to stand on the terraces in the rain, when you can spend a whole evening in the warm, bowling.’ If we sought to question the wisdom of human-chaining the hefty boxes of firelighters all the way to the warehouse’s top-storey, Briggsy would allude mysteriously to a new storage plan allegedly being hatched by Mr Geoff in the front office: ‘You lot, you’ve no more understanding of economics than my granny. Mr Geoff wants ‘em all upstairs for a reason.’

Nevertheless, Briggsy could never quite conceal his enthusiasm for the maggot-racing: he was just as enthralled by circuses as the rest of us slaves. On the day that was the start of the trouble, Briggsy was particularly wound up because he was going for a hat-trick, having owned the winning maggot on each of the previous two Thursdays. He’d already upset Weird Willie (not weird at all, just a bit out-of-step) by reminding us all of Willie’s previous misguided attempt to nurture a champion maggot, taking it home from work in a matchbox. You could sense the tension in the yard, as we all waited for Roger, the starter, to give the word to release our maggots into the circle.

Briggsy’s maggot had a definite early lead and was making brisk progress when, as so often happened, the maggot veered abruptly away from the circle’s edge and finish line. Taffy’s maggot then put on strong spurt to come in just ahead of Tank’s maggot, who seemed to be finding the going heavy. Briggsy, however, was furious, claiming foul play because Willie had been leaping excitedly about on the edge of the circle, shouting encouragement to his own maggot (named by him, as always, as ‘Curly’). Briggsy argued that his maggot had been put off by Willie’s antics (‘Fatally distracted. Totally irresponsible behaviour.’).

Briggsy wouldn’t let the matter rest and Willie was getting visibly upset. To calm and distract, Tank suggested holding a Stewards’ Enquiry. Tank’s dad and uncle regularly went to Uttoxeter Races, so we wrongly assumed that he knew how the Enquiry should be conducted. Tank appointed himself Chief Steward, with Roger as his Deputy and Clerk of the Course.

Tank and Roger set up their Enquiry on a couple of packing cases in the corner of the yard, with Tank wearing a broken mop as a wig. They called for witnesses to appear individually. Briggsy affected to regard the proceedings as tiresome and took the hump when Tank asked him to demonstrate for the Enquiry the alleged threatening nature of Willie’s hopping movements. But what really got Briggsy’s goat was Taffy’s evidence, where he expressed the view (silently held by the rest of us) that Briggsy habitually released his maggots off-centre, giving them all a potential head start. Briggsy (tall and thin) and Taffy (short and fat) were squaring up to each other and who knows what would have happened next, if Ian the foreman hadn’t then waved his watch and declared the tea-break over.

Briggsy stalked off with a face like raw bacon. Shortly afterwards, he was seen, panoplied in self-belief, entering Mr Geoff’s office (it was best to enter Mr Geoff’s office in the mornings, as he got pissed in the afternoons; it was best not to enter Mr Adrian’s office at all). Nothing more was said, but Briggsy didn’t join us in the yard for his tea-break that afternoon, or on the following days.

On the following Wednesday, I wondered out loud whether there would be the usual Thursday morning maggot-racing. Tank caught Ian’s eye and Ian nodded: everything would proceed as usual. Tank then changed the subject, asking me when I’d be starting back at college.

The arrival of the sugar lorry, first thing on Thursday, kept us busy: we’d only just finished unloading it when Ian called break-time. We trooped into the yard to gather our preferred maggots. Briggsy was once again absent, but Tank had brought a guest competitor into the yard. A few minutes later, we were all happily bent or squatting around the circle, shouting encouragement at the maggots and insults at the other owners.

Three men then burst abruptly into the yard – Briggsy, Mr Geoff and Mr Adrian. They looked like they meant business. A stocky figure in a suit then straightened up on the far side of the maggot circle. Old Mr King – still gaga and terrifyingly unpredictable – waved enthusiastically to the new arrivals:

‘Hello boys. Come to join the racing?’


Michael Bloor

(first published in Moonpark Review, Issue 10, Dec 21st 2019)

We set off up the mountain on a clear, cold, crisp day, a week before Christmas. We needed to quiet our minds through the rhythmic rustle of the beechwood leaves under our marching feet. So many looming problems: the burnt-out clutch; the Christmas journey to her parents; my parents; her boss…

Our valley has two names: the lower, gentler part is St Mary’s Vale; the upper, wilder part is Cwm Trosnant, which means the valley of the three springs. As Owain — our neighbour — says, the Normans conquered the lowlands, but the Welsh hung onto the hills. Quite soon, we left the beechwood behind us and crossed the invisible border into Cwm Trosnant, with its scattered, bent oaks and scrubby thorns. We kept a look-out for mistletoe, the official excuse for the excursion. The woods and orchards of the Black Mountains of South Wales are favoured places for mistletoe. Every December, the farmers take cartloads of it over the border to the Christmas market in Hereford. It’s spread by thrushes that gorge on the berries, wiping their beaks free of the sticky seeds against the bark of neighbouring trees. The rough, cracked bark of oaks and old apple trees ensure that they are often peppered with mistletoe.

It’s a strange sight in the desolate dead of winter, to come across a grove of oaks, and there among the bare branches is the green, thriving mistletoe. No wonder that many ancient peoples believed the mistletoe to have magical properties, the mysterious green bush with no roots in the earth. Frazer’s ‘The Golden Bough’ retells the story of Baldur, the Sun God, who could only be slain by a mistletoe spear. The Druids, who were masters of this land two thousand years ago, were said to harvest it with a golden sickle.

Near the head of the cwm, we reached the first of the three springs, issuing cold and clear from the roots of a solitary, stunted holly tree. We knew the place well enough and had picnicked there sometimes, dipping our hands in the cool waters. The mountain is dotted with these sudden springs. Over on the east side there is a spring with an ancient church beside it and pilgrims still visit the spring to leave tokens and to pray.

I never heard that the holly tree spring was also deemed holy, but we were witnesses that day to a secret wonder. The bark of the holly, like that of the beech, is a smooth, plain, regular grey: no cracks, irregularities, or rough patches. And yet, couched among the red holly berries were vivid, pearly-white berries of the mistletoe.

I gasped. And then I laughed and pulled out my pocket knife to cut it down. She stayed my hand. ‘No, we could search out every holly tree in Wales and never find another that’s home to the mistletoe. We’re witnesses here today, not thieves.’

She was right. We stood for a moment or two and then turned for home. I cut some mistletoe out of a thorn tree, suffering only minor scratches.

William Blake’s Question

Michael Bloor

(first published in The Cabinet of Heed, Issue 26, Nov 2019)

First of all, it’s his voice I hear – holding forth in the next room. A shock (a nasty shock, if I’m honest) after fifty years, but instantly recognisable: if you’re going to adopt the received pronunciation of the British ruling class, you really need a deep voice to go with it – something Dr Braithwaite lacks. If it hadn’t been for the squeaky voice, I probably wouldn’t have recognised him after such a long absence: the ‘young fogey’ tweed-jacket and the brogues that had so marked him out as a posturing twit when an Oxford Don at thirty, now appear natural camouflage at eighty.

Friends and relatives, colleagues and neighbours, all have me down as easy-going, even a bit of a soft touch. That’s probably true as far as it goes, but it’s not the end of the story. The fact is that I maintain a warm regard for ninety nine percent of humanity by nurturing simultaneously a consuming hatred of a tiny minority. All the hated minority are bad apples, of course, but probably not as evil as I like to paint them. Sigmund Freud surely got a lot of stuff wrong, but he was right on the money when he wrote about ‘projection’. That’s what I’ve been doing: I’m able to forgive my acquaintances their trespasses with a gentle smile, because I’m projecting my anger, frustration and abhorrence onto a very small number of habitual offenders. I know I’m doing it, but they’re either persons I’ve never met (for example, a particularly pompous and disastrous politician), or persons from my distant past. So it has seemed to me a harmless foible, despite the murderous feelings that can sometimes take hold of me. And of all those dark eminences whose recall can provoke thoughts of blood and revenge, the darkest is my old Oxford tutor, Dr Braithwaite.

Dorothy and I have been once-a-week, volunteer guides at Castle Curdle ever since we’ve both retired. Most of the volunteers prefer the castle when it’s busy, but quiet days don’t bother me: I enjoy my solitary thoughts in the great dining room, among the portraits and the porcelain – the clutter of a futile aristocracy. When I heard Braithwaite’s voice through the open door to the library, I’d been musing over a little double-figurine in the china display cabinet: two arctic explorers, Nansen and Major Frederick Jackson, shaking hands in a million-to-one-chance meeting in the middle of the arctic wastes – the chance meeting that saved Nansen’s life.

Braithwaite is squeaking at length about the library’s eighteenth century long-case clock: he’s got the right period, but the wrong maker – a typical historian’s error. As he enters the dining room, among what I later learn to be a cluster of great-nephews and great-nieces, I turn from the display cabinet, prepared for my own arctic chance encounter. But he passes by me – a mere flunkey – without a glance.

He gestures towards the great dining table: ‘What sparkling conversations must this table have witnessed, eh? How many times must the porcelain and the cut-glass have been outshone by the wit of the diners? The subtleties of a local Jane Austin… The verities of a local Sir Robert Peel… Ah, if only I had lived in that age…’ His relatives, either dazzled or cowed, murmur their agreement. I silently recall the extracts from the butler’s account book, on display in the kitchen. They demonstrate beyond contradiction that the conversations that the table had witnessed must have routinely degenerated into the maunderings of a drunken rabble.

He turns to one of the equestrian portraits: ‘The young laird on, no doubt, his favourite horse. See how the artist has captured the sheen on the horse’s flanks, the poise of the rider in easy command of the animal? What nobility!’(In point of fact, the ‘noble’ in question had gambled away a huge fortune and racketed his way to an early death.)

Braithwaite was hobbling and leaning heavily on an odd, large, walking stick, a typically mannered choice – I imagine it’s what is termed an alpenstock. I murmur to one of the young relatives that if the old fella can’t manage the grand staircase, I can take him up in the lift. She smiles her thanks: ‘I’ll tell Great-Uncle John.’ As they move out of the dining room, I take up the rear.

Braithwaite then proceeds to hold forth to the great-nephews and nieces about the portraits lining the lower part of the grand stairwell. Years ago, I thought I’d detected the source of the animus that Braithwaite had shown towards my teenage self: I had come to Oxford from the same undistinguished grammar school in the same northern industrial town as Braithwaite – plainly, I had unwittingly reminded him of a past he had wished to bury. And that was the source of his slights and petty cruelties, and why he’d tried to get me sent down from the university. But what on earth lies behind his insane worship of eighteenth and nineteenth century aristocratic life? Surely, he’s too knowledgeable a historian not to recognise that his temple is built on a cesspit?

I stand quietly aside, waiting to perform my menial duty as bell-hop. The tiny two-person lift (wood-panelled, early twentieth century) is rather temperamental – hence the house-rule that it is only to be operated by paid or volunteer staff, not by visitors. If the button to the basement is pressed accidentally, instead of the button to the upper floor, then the occupant will be trapped down there until an engineer can be summoned – a matter of hours. I speculate, happily, about the sturdiness of Dr Braithwaite’s bladder.

My projected victim is led, still squeaking and gesturing, towards the lift. As I usher him inside, I see him squinting at my name-badge. I hesitate for a moment. And then I follow him into the lift and press the button to the upper floor. We stand eyeball to eyeball, as the lift creaks and judders upward. I see no dawning recognition in his wizened face. As he shuffles past me out of the lift, I whisper: ‘Did he who made the Lamb make thee?’ The lift doors are then closing to return me to the ground floor, and I watch him turn back, slack-jawed, to look at me. Then he is gone from my life forever.

On the drive home, Dorothy turns to me and says, ‘Why the quiet smile?’