Mother and the Minister

By Michael Bloor

(first published Jan 28th, 2018 in THE DRABBLE)

Sixty years ago, it was still commonplace for ministers in rural Scotland to call on all their parishioners, welcome or not. Mother would seat him at the kitchen table and put the kettle on, while I listened at the door as they discussed father’s behavior. After one particularly disreputable episode, the visitor concluded:

“Weel mistress, you’re nay marrit. So my advice wud be just to put him richt oot the door.”

My mother pondered this a moment, “Aye, minister, I’ll do as ye say. Can I ask a favour though? Would ye collect his pay packet for me every Saturday?”

EMANUEL SWEDENBORG’S BACON DREAM

Michael Bloor

( first published January 27, 2018 Every Day Fiction )

Several journalists came to interview me after the confrontation with the terrorist in Edinburgh. None of the reports were very clear and some were wildly inaccurate: a young woman from The Sun newspaper, called Serena, said she wanted to compile a profile of “The Royal Mile Hero who thwarted the terrorist attack” and subsequently wrote that I was “a bigger nutter than the Jihadist.” I read all the reports — a melancholy duty — and decided that really the only way to put the record straight was to set down the story myself. So here it is…

It was the first Friday in April. Nearly every Friday since I retired, I catch the train into Edinburgh and spend the day on research in the National Library of Scotland. I’m planning a monograph on Emanuel Swedenborg, the eighteenth century Swedish scientist and mystic. I imagine that it was my unguarded maunderings about Swedenborg that led Serena of The Sun to describe me as a ‘nutter’.

Serena: “So this Swedeburger wrote books about visiting Heaven and the moon, and the people he met there?”

“Swedenborg was his name. Yes, for example when he visited Heaven, he described his conversations with the deceased Queen of Sweden, whom he knew from his court connections.”

Serena: “Right. Okay. And have you got a publisher lined up for this book of yours on this Swedenborg guy??”

“Well, not yet, no.”

Serena: “Mmm.”

To be absolutely clear to all readers of The Sun, my interest in Swedenborg is not primarily about his travels in Outer Space, or wherever, but as a visionary and a seer. And, for the record, he was an accomplished mathematician and metallurgist who oversaw the Swedish mines on behalf of the Swedish crown; he had strange gifts — he accurately described to some dinner guests a disastrous Stockholm fire that was occurring while they dined nearly three hundred miles away in Gothenburg; he was beloved by William Blake and Jorge Borges and Carl Jung; and his religious writings inspired the founding of the Swedenborgian Church, an institution that still exists today.

But it was a quite different set of Swedenborg writings that proved important on that particular Friday: he kept a journal of his dreams in 1743-44 — the oldest continuous series of descriptions of dreams in any language.* It’s become my habit every Friday lunchtime to have a read of Swedenborg’s dream journal for the following day. The entry for the night of April 2nd-3rd reads as follows:

[It seems there] was a beggar, that cried out that he would have bacon; they wished to give him something else, but he continually cried out, “Bacon!” Wakened. [Swedenborg, 1989, p.15]

A peculiar entry, but not uniquely peculiar in Swedenborg’s dream journal entries. I pondered it as I took my lunch into Greyfriars Kirkyard. [Memo to the editor of The Sun: Greyfriars Kirkyard is not in Edinburgh’s Royal Mile]. Edinburgh is saturated with tours — ghost tours, literary tours, pub tours, even literary pub tours — and the Kirkyard is a popular tour stop. A Chinese tour was just leaving and an American tour had just entered. I watched the group, about a dozen strong, as they flowed and coalesced around their kilted tour-leader. They were standing just in front of me. There are many tales that could be told about the Kirkyard’s mouldering inhabitants, but only one tale is ever told on these Kirkyard tours: the story of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog that came every night for thirteen years to sleep on his master’s grave. It’s an affecting tale, heard the first time, but repetition has hardened my heart. So I set about unwrapping my lunch, a small pork pie, still thinking about Swedenborg. Then everything happened very fast…

A small, bearded man carrying a large golf bag came quickly between me and the tourist group. With his back to me, he opened the golf bag and pulled out a sword (I think it was what is known as a samurai sword). He raised the sword above his head and shouted “Allahu Akbar”. I was the first to react: the tourists all had their backs to him, while I had seen the sword emerge from the golf bag. I roared out the first word of warning that came into my head:

“Bacon! Bacon! BACON!!”

The swordsman swung round. I could see the surprise on his face. I had leapt up from my seat, but was still holding the pork pie. I think it was the pork pie that saved me: with his sword still held high, he stared at the pie, as if he momentarily thought it might be some kind of weapon, rather than yet another pork product. This gave me the chance to grab his sword arm with my other hand. We grappled only for a second or so before a burly gentleman from Denver, Colorado (he asked me not to mention his name — we’ve been in email contact) crashed into the swordsman from behind and wrestled him to the ground.

That was it, really. Except that, if I were mystically inclined (which I’m not), I’d be thinking that Swedenborg’s dream was more prescient than peculiar. And, for the present at least, I seem to have lost completely my appetite for pork pies, bacon, ham, sausages and pork chops.

*Swedenborg, E. (1989) Swedenborg’s Journal of Dreams, 1743-1744. Stockholm: Swedenborg Scientific Association.

Delayed Shock

Michael Bloor

(first pubished in Platform for Prose, 21/01/2018)

When I was a small child in the 1950s, the passion you conceived for another child was utterly secret: you contemplated the loved one from afar; you never spoke of love even to yourself; silent blushes were your only communication. My junior school, a grim Victorian warehouse for children, had separate brick-walled playgrounds for boys and girls, so I would only see Jenny White (the loved one) in the classroom. I might have contrived to see her at the end of the school day, walking home, but it was a point of honour for the boys to go home via the canal towpath (with its accompanying hazards), while the girls dutifully walked down the road. There was no pain in this segregation, no yearning for completion – had we been brought together (and, strange chance, had my affection been reciprocated), we would have found no words to bridge our separate worlds. In old age, this childish passion becomes a cherished memory, a bright star in our evening sky – shining because it was and is The Secret, shining only for ourselves.

Childhood friendships acquire a similar warm patina. So when Alan got in touch through the wonders of the internet, after an absence of nearly sixty years, I was delighted. We corresponded via email for some months and eventually decided to meet up. Both being exiles from our home town, it was natural for us to arrange to meet up there and explore together our childhood haunts.

I wondered out loud when the building had ceased to be a school.

Alan shook his head, ‘Difficult to say, Martin, but I reckon it’s not been empty all that long – not much vandalism.’

We stared across the playground, heads pressed against the (unchanged) iron gates, to the dilapidated seventies-vintage replacement for the original brick toilet block. We laughed about how cold and smelly the old brick toilets had been. Still staring through the locked gates, I was telling Alan that my mum (who’d gone to the same school in the 1920s) had once told me that she and her sister had thought that those school toilets were a big improvement on the toilets her family had shared with other households when she was a child.

Alan: ‘No kidding. Hard to envisage those school toilets being a big improvement on anything at all. Remember that monster turd that lingered in one of the toilets for weeks? Wouldn’t flush away, stickin’ out of the pan. Somebody christened it Dreadnought…’ We both sniggered, ten year-olds once more.

Then I noticed something was missing: ‘Look at that: they’ve knocked down the wall between the boys’ playground and the girls’ playground.’

‘So they have! Odd, that segregation. Though I don’t recollect that it seemed odd at the time, do you?’

‘No, not at the time. Girls were not to be mixed with – they were to be worshipped from afar.’

There was a pause and Alan mused, ‘Mmm. I certainly used to worship Jenny White from afar.’

I turned away so quickly that I accidentally banged my nose quite hard on the iron gate.

The End of the Tribe

Michael Bloor

[first published in Dodging the Rain, January 18th, 2018]

Aneirin, son of Llewellyn, stood a respectful two paces behind his prince. Prince Owain looked out eastward over the fort’s ramparts, tracing the sinuous silver of the river as it meandered through the marshes and finally entered the great estuary. Aneirin, followed his glance and spoke:

‘No ships today, Prince.’

Both men knew that merchant ships no longer sailed up the river: pirates had destroyed all trade along the coast. The only ships that now appeared were the ships of the barbarians, ships bent on pillage or conquest. Another day without ships meant another day, not of peace, but of respite in the last fortress of the Manaw Gododdin, the last fortress of the tribe.

A distant clamour could be heard, growing steadily in intensity, a clamour that signalled the departure of the wild geese. The two men turned their eyes to the north. Already on the northern horizon, the geese were a creeping dark cloud, spreading southward til they overhung the fortress like a flung cloak. The noise grew in intensity til it drowned out all but shouted speech. Innumerable geese smeared the entire sky. The two men watched in silence as the cloud of geese slowly dwindled to a scatter of fluid skeins and, across the meres and marshes below them, the clamour shrank to a murmur.

‘An ill-omen, Aneirin. Even the geese are deserting us.’

Aneirin weighed the young prince in the balance and found him wanting: the sunken shoulders, the bitten nails, the whispy beard. Too many already had read defeat in Owain’s face and frame. Even Owain’s young queen had departed to her father’s stronghold of Alt Clut in Strathclyde. In the three years since Owain’s predecessor, his uncle, had been slain in the siege and massacre at Din Eidyn, Owain’s warriors and war chest had dwindled to a tithe of that previously held by his uncle. The Gododdin were slipping away in twos and threes and fours, slipping away to a vagabond life in the West.

The grizzled old warrior, almost as a reflex, sought to bolster the confidence of his lord:

‘I see no ill-omen, sire. I see a supplement to our meagre meat,’ (a skein of birds broke away and flew down to the summer meadow) ‘I shall send Meurig and Math down there at dusk with full quivers.’

But even as he spoke, he was silently reflecting on the fluctuating fortunes of fighting men. As a mere boy, Aneirin was War-Duke Arthur’s standard-bearer when the barbarians were routed at the fords of the River Glen, a victory that brought twenty years of peace and feasting. As a warrior in his pomp, he rode with the three hundred heroes from Din Eidyn to confront the barbarian army at Catraeth, and rode back to Din Eidyn almost alone. Almost alone, he had lived to tell the tale of the three hundred, but as the years passed and the defeats multiplied, he sometimes regretted that he too had not ended his life at Catraeth.

Aneirin’s reflections were cut short. He caught sight of a horseman approaching the East Gate. No, not a horseman after all, but a boy on a farm nag. Without waiting for Owain’s dismissal, Aneirin clattered briskly down to the ladder to the gate and was the first man to catch the nag’s bridle.

The boy seemed to recognise Aneirin and addressed him rather Owain, now descending the ladder:

‘Aneirin, son of Llewellyn, I have a message from my father, Howell of Clach na Manaw. He told me to tell you that five pirate vessels could be seen from the shore at Clach na Manaw, heading up the estuary. My father says our people will scatter the cattle on the hills and then hide themselves in the wood.’

As Aneirin turned away, the boy blurted out: ‘There is more Aneirin: just after I left the village, I looked back and I saw that the pirate ships had changed tack and were now heading straight for Clach na Manaw.’

Aneirin nodded: ‘Well done, boy. Take your horse to stables and get yourself some food from the kitchens.’

Owain came up and spoke quietly to Aneirin: ‘So that smoke we spotted on the eastern horizon awhile since…?’

‘Yes sire. Not charcoal burners in the wood of Clach na Manaw, but the village itself.’

Owain chewed his lip: ‘Five pirate ships adds up to a force of over a hundred men. Too strong a force for us to defeat in the open field. What will the pirates do, Aneirin? Will they march westward and invest the fort, marauding as they go?’

‘Perhaps, my Lord. They may drive our people before them, knowing that the extra mouths will soon exhaust our cellars.’

‘What should we do, Aneirin?’

‘Better a warrior’s death on the battlefield, than a slow death in a siege, my Lord. And a small cavalry force, with the element of surprise, could scatter a large force of foot-soldiers, as Arthur scattered them at the fords of the Gleni River.’

Owain sneered: ‘No more of your Arthur stories, I beg you, Aneirin. I cannot leave the fort unmanned. Take twenty men and horses and scatter the barbarians, if you can, before they scatter us.’

Aneirin paused and stared: was Owain aware that to take forty men might secure a victory, but that to pit a mere twenty men against a hundred was to condemn the twenty to death? Owain turned and walked away. Aneirin watched him go: the last prince of the Manaw Gododdin.

Three hours later, at twilight, Aneirin and his small troop rode into the village of Clach na Manaw. The pirates had already departed to their ships with their spoils – household goods, some domestic geese, the priest’s vestments and a gold cross. The smouldering ruins of the huts encircled the great Clach itself, the ancient Gathering Stone of the Manaw Gododdin – the symbol of the tribe. Aneirin dragged the decapitated goose from off the top of the stone, but did not wipe away the blood and shit with which the pirates had besmirched the stone.

Howell, the leading man of the village, stood beside the ruins of his own hut, watching Aneirin. Aneirin rode slowly over to him: ‘I am sorry for your trouble, Howell, son of Madoc. I’m afraid, the Prince does not have men enough to protect the whole coastline of Manaw.’

Howell ignored this gentle apology. He nodded towards the stone: ‘We shall not clean the stone. Let it remain bloodied to show the world that the story of the Manaw Gododdin is ended. When the boy returns with the horse, we shall follow the others into Strathclyde. The charity of strangers must serve us better than the protection of Prince Owain. What of you Aneirin, son of Llewellyn?’

Aneirin had not made up his mind until that moment: ‘I too shall go into the West, once I have taken a last leave of my Lord.’

‘Will you join the warriors at Alt Clut? Your fame will surely win you admittance.’

‘No, Howell. The head still sees the stroke, but the limbs creak with age. And you are wrong that the story of the Manaw Gododdin is ended. Rather, the story has not yet been told. I shall go into the West to tell the story of our greatest battle, the battle of the three hundred heroes at Catraeth.’

‘Our greatest battle? You were there, Aneirin. Surely, Catraeth was our greatest defeat?’

‘All tribes, in the final end, must face defeat, Howell, even the tribe of the Romans. The story of the ride to Catraeth is the story of the manner of a defeat. That is a story worth the telling.

Shakespeare Meets the Macbeths

By Michael Bloor

(first published in Copperfield Review, Oct 16th 2017)

In 1601, James VI of Scotland (soon to be crowned James I of England) summoned Shakespeare’s company, The Lord Chancellor’s Men, to give performances of their plays in Edinburgh and Aberdeen. In Aberdeen at least, the visit seems to have been highly successful: on October 9th, the registers of the Town Council show that the company were awarded ‘the svme of threttie tua merkis’ and Laurence Fletcher, a shareholder in the company, was elected an honorary burgess of the town. It is not known for certain whether Shakespeare was with the company, but as a shareholder and owner of the company’s stage properties, it seems quite likely that he travelled North with the rest.

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Three days out from the Port of Leith, the Barbara Anne, rounded Girdleness: Aberdeen at last hove into view. Shakespeare, Fletcher and Burbage left the shelter of the forecastle to stand in the bows and study their destination. Burbage shivered: ‘What place is this that you have brought us to, Laurence? Ultima Thule? ‘Tis even colder than Edinburgh. A mean place too, it seems.’

Fletcher sighed: ‘Yours is a strange fancy, Dick – that, because I was born in Scotland, I am responsible for the Scottish weather. But Aberdeen is no mean city. Indeed, the merchants’ houses are very fine. I fancy we will find good lodgings in the Guestrow.’

‘Better than you found for us in Edinburgh, I trust. ‘Faith, I tired of having bowls of piss thrown over me every time I stepped into the street. What think you of Aberdeen, Will?’

Shakespeare smiled and shook his head: ‘Why, ‘tis a miracle to come upon humankind at all, after those dreary cliffs and miles of sodden, blasted heath that the good Barbara Anne did carry us safely past this morning. Yon stone church seems a symbol of deliverance, yon fisherman’s cottage – a haven of rest and peace.’

Burbage mimed being run through by a sword: ‘Must you always talk like one of your plays, Will? And pray don’t remind us once more that “All the world’s a stage, and all the people merely players.” There is no genius in repetition. Tell us instead what you crave most to find when we reach Laurence’s fabled lodgings in fine Guestrow.’

Fletcher was quicker off the mark: ‘I’ll tell you what I’m looking forward to in Aberdeen. A bowl of sheepsheid broth – the food of the gods. I travelled here as a child, with my father, and I’ve tasted no finer food since that visit than Mistress Mary’s sheepsheid broth.’

‘As ever, your stomach leads and you follow, Laurence.’ Shakespeare scratched his whispy head of hair: ‘If you seek a serious answer, Dick, I’m looking forward to hearing some new tales.’ He turned back to the forecastle: ‘Now I must see to our baggage. If there are no playhouses here, it’s all the more important that we have our costumes.’

Fletcher looked quizzically at Burbage: ‘New tales, new tales. Surely, Will has given us tales enough?’

‘Tales enough for our present purposes, Laurence. But when we return to London and the Globe, our fickle play-goers will not pay their pennies for tales they’ve heard a dozen times before.’

‘Aye, aye, as you say, there’s no genius in repetition. Will’s new hatchings put food on our table. I fancy he’s broody just now: he’s been studying Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland ever since we left Edinburgh.’

‘I also marked his studies, Laurence. I fancy our broody is hatching us a new history play: the world shall wonder anew at my mastery of character and emotions. But let’s give him a hand with the properties.’

Shortly afterwards, the company were following Laurence Fletcher’s lead towards Guestrow and their hoped-for lodgings. Shakespeare smiled as he caught sight of a couple of sheep’s heads on display at a flesher’s booth. But beyond the flesher’s booth was a bookseller’s. He immediately spotted a copy of Hector Boece’s Scotorum Historiae, so he gave over charge of the stage properties to Will Sly, also telling Will to reserve for him a clean bed at the lodgings.

The bookseller was quickly at Shakespeare’s elbow: ‘You are interested in Principal Boece’s volume, sir? I have more than one copy for sale, but the volume you have is the best preserved.’

‘Indeed sir? You style the author as Principal Boece, why so?’

‘Why so, sire? ‘Tis no mystery: the author was Principal of King’s College here. From your speech, I gather you are an Englishman: do you have an interest in our Scottish history? I also have a fine copy of Buchanan’s Rerum Scoticarum Historia…’

‘Is that so, I should like to see it. ‘Tis true I have an interest in Scotland’s past. Who would have thought there was so much blood in it: I am both drawn and repelled.’

‘Then, you have done well to visit our town, sire. Much of that blood was spilt about here. There is the field of Red Harlaw, where Provost Davidson and most of the burgesses of the town were slain by Donald, Lord of the Isles, and his wicked Highlanders. And King Macbeth fell at the Peel of Lumphanan, a few miles west of here.’

‘Macbeth you say? Surely, he fell at Dunsinane?’

‘No sire. He was defeated at Dunsinane Hill, but he got away. It was three years later that he died in a battle at Lumphanan. It is said he fell in single combat there with MacDuff, the Earl of Fife.’

‘Say you so, bookseller?’ Shakespeare turned and sniffed the air about him, heavy with the smell of slaughter from the Flesher’s booth. ‘Yet, Dunsinane surely has a ring to it; Lumphanan is a lumpish name for the dooming of a King.’ He addressed the bookseller once more: ‘Tell me, good fellow – what manner of man was this Macbeth? What do the old tales tell of his character?’

‘Sire, he lived in hard times. Macbeth’s father was slain by Macbeth’s cousin. Macbeth trapped his cousin and his entourage in a building and burned them alive. He slew King Duncan in battle. Yet though he lived by the sword, he ruled well and gave thought to the Kingdom to come: he went on a pilgrimage to Rome and gave freely to the Church and to the poor.’

‘A pilgrimage to Rome?? No, no, neither my Queen, nor your King, would applaud that scene, I fancy.’

‘A scene, sire? I do not follow you.’

‘No matter. What of his Queen, bookseller? I have read in Holinshed that she burned with ambition to be Queen.’

‘Perhaps so, sire. Certes it is that Queen Gruoch lived in a world, and at a time, when the path to the throne was slippery with spilt blood. Her grandfather, Kenneth II, was murdered. Macbeth married her after he had burned to death her first husband, his cousin. King Duncan slew Gruoch’s cousin as a rival claimant. Regicide was no uncommon crime to her.’

‘Hmm. Most interesting, bookseller, most interesting. Now, Boece’s volume here – scuffed and foxed, as it is – would you take one of your Scottish half-merks?’

‘The foxing is slight, sire. And the price is two merks.’

‘I see. Good day to you, sire.’

Finding his way to Guestrow a little later, with some difficulty, he is hailed by Burbage: ‘Here is Wandering Will, with new tales to tell of this frowzy, freezing land of sheeps’ heids and grasping lodging-keepers. I know that distracted look of old: what hast thou learned, old friend?’

‘I have learned nothing for certain, but I have surely met with a queer old couple… Here, Will Sly, call you this bed “clean”?’ He continued to stare at the bed for some moments, and then muttered to himself: ‘But regicide is a tricksy tale for the teller. Unless, of course, that heinous and unnatural crime doth drive the slayer to madness and death – that would be a salutary tale indeed. Yet I cannot call her Gruoch – too ugly a name for a tragic Queen. So many problems…’

Fletcher was watching these mutterings with a smile: ‘Faith, Dick, I believe the old hen is laying us a new tale…’

‘Let him be, Laurence, would you have it that the tale be, from the womb, untimely ripped?’

The Great Book of Angharad

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Occulum , summer 2017)

They keep asking me why I did it. Then, as soon as I start to explain, D C Grainger butts in with: ‘Was this on the morning of June 11th?’ I deal with that and then D C Singh chimes in with: ‘Did you tell anyone that was where you were going?’ I struggle past that, and then as soon as I get to the bit about the Holy Spring, I see ‘em exchanging those ‘Has he escaped from the funny farm?’ looks. A dispiriting business for a university professor accustomed to a respectful audience. So I’m setting it all down on paper. And then I’m not telling the police another bloody word.

I live in Scotland now, but most years I manage a visit to my mother’s country, the Welsh Borders. When I was a child, I used to spend every summer holiday in the Abergavenny house of my grandparents, Harry and Gladys Cecil. The little town is surrounded by seven hills, but for a child the hill that holds the greatest glamour is the Sugar Loaf (its Welsh name is Pen y Val), which looms over the north of the town. Every summer, I would pester Grandad Cecil to re-tell the story of how Buffalo Bill brought his Wild West Show to Abergavenny in the summer of 1903. Grandad had been one of the children in the audience when Buffalo Bill vowed to his audience that he would walk up the Sugar Loaf. And that’s just what he did the next morning, accompanied by half the adults and all the children of Abergavenny.

Bear with me. I’m trying to explain that the mountain exerts a strange pull – even a hard-bitten old-timer like Buffalo Bill could feel it. It remains a big draw today and the most popular routes have carparks at the foot of them. For sentimental reasons I take a less travelled route, setting out from Deriside (where my grandparents lived), crossing the ford by Harris’s farm, round the foot of Rholben, and up St Mary’s Vale. Just like the Sugar Loaf/Pen y Val, St Mary’s Vale has both an English and a Welsh name. Granny Cecil said that the Normans conquered the broad lowlands, but the Welsh always held the hills, and the head of the Vale is known by its Welsh name Cwm Trosnant, which means the valley of the three springs. St Mary’s Vale starts out as a gentle valley covered in beech woods. In June, the leaves are a dizzying, iridescent green, squirrels dart up the towering grey tree boles and scold you – ridiculously – from the upper branches, the stream splashes over sandstone pebbles. Again, I’m telling you this because you need to understand the pull of the place.

As you make your way up the Vale, it narrows and the great beeches give way to stunted oaks and thorn trees – you’ve crossed an invisible border into Cwm Trosnant. Near the head of the cwm, the path strikes off steeply to the right and the hidden summit of the mountain. Just a few metres onwards and upwards, the path passes by one of the three springs from which the cwm gets its name. It issues, cold as your fridge, from the roots of a thorn tree. As a child, sixty years ago, I often stopped to watch the mysterious welling of the waters out of the earth and into the light. I would dangle my hand in it, but I never drank from it, mindful of my mother’s frequent warnings of the dangers of polio – the great child killer of the 1950s. The springs of the Welsh hills were holy places, a source of wonder, even before the coming of Christianity. Hermit saints understood the mesmeric attraction of the springs and built their churches beside them. Even today, there’s an isolated, ancient church beside a spring a few miles from Abergavenny, where pilgrims still leave spring-side offerings. Sixty eight years old and no longer bound by my mother’s injunctions, on that June day I bent down and cupped my hands to drink.

Bending down to the clear, bubbling water, tasting it on my parched tongue, I had a sensation of the world behind me being progressively suffused with brilliant light. As I lifted my head, I was entranced to see the cwm transformed. It was still a narrow upland valley, but instead of the bracken, thorns and stunted oaks, there was a miraculous pleasance. I say ‘pleasance’ rather than garden, because I knew instinctively that this was no modern landscape. There were roses, lupins and hollyhocks; the thorn above the spring had been replaced by an apple tree suffused with blossoms. It was as if I was in Tennyson’s ‘island valley of Avilion… fair with orchard lawns and bowery hollows’ where King Arthur was carried by barge after the Last Battle. Enchanted, I turned to see a woman in the middle distance, walking towards me. Her beech-green dress, which swayed about her body as she walked, was long and trailed among the daisies at her feet. Her red-gold hair was coifed above her brow but fell about her shoulders. Her face was solemn and ageless.

She spoke to me in what I took to be Old Welsh (as a child, I learned Welsh from my mother), but I could make little of it. She switched to English, spoken clearly but with the punctilious correctness of a foreigner:

‘Well met, Michael, son of Mary, daughter of Henry. Long have I waited for you here beside the great spring of Taliesin Ben Beirdd. We are kin, you and I, because I am Angharad, wife of Sitsyllt ap Dyfnawl.’

I knew the name. The slaying of Sitsyllt is a well-known piece of Abergavenny local history. In 1177, William de Braose the new Norman Lord of Abergavenny, invited around seventy leading local Welshmen to a Christmas feast in his Great Hall. Among them was Sitsyllt of nearby Castell Arnallt, a formidable warrior. As was the custom of the time, the Welsh nobles, surrendered their weapons before entering the dining hall. Once the Welsh were all assembled, they were set upon by de Braose’s men-at-arms and slaughtered to a man. The men-at-arms were then dispatched to Sitsyllt’s Castell Arnallt, which they destroyed and took Sitsyllt’s wife, Angharad, back to Abergavenny as a prisoner. Sitsyllt’s kin eventually anglicised their name to Cecil, my mother’s maiden name.

‘Those of Sitsyllt’s kin who drink at Taliesin’s spring receive the gift of true sight, but they are also honour-bound to strive to remedy the dishonour done to Sitsyllt’s house and name. Do you accept the obligation I shall lay upon you?’

I nodded. I could scarce do otherwise.

‘Very well. I know you are a scholar; I give you a scholar’s task. Among the booty from the sacking of Castell Arnallt, the Normans took away my Great Book. The court of my brother, the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, was the greatest centre of learning in all Britain: bards and sages, harpists and holy men were all welcomed there and competed in the recitation of the laws, the lineages, the ancient wisdom and the holy truths. By the bidding of my brother, I wrote down all that was good and true, and I bore that book as a love-gift to my husband, Sitsyllt. The Great Book has passed through many foolish hands since the Norman theft. Finally, a drunken sot of a clergyman willed it to his old college, Dodson College, Oxford.’

She saw my look of surprise. ‘Yes, it lies in the library of your old college, unexamined and uncatalogued, stored as the bequest of the late Reverend Pugh. You must right the wrong and return the book to me, here on Midsummer’s Eve. Take this ring: when you come back with the book, throw the ring into Taliesin’s spring and I will return to you, with my thanks and the thanks of all our kin.’

The ring was of a curious, twisted, gold-filigree design. It was too small to fit on my finger. I slipped it into my pocket and went back to the pub where I was staying. I checked the Dodson College website on the internet. I was dismayed to find that the college librarian was an elderly, retired party who had been a don in the college when I was an undergraduate there fifty years ago. A colourless individual who had adopted a pipe in lieu of a personality, but nevertheless possessed a certain capacity for mischief and fussy cantankerousness: his nickname was Gollum (I know, I know: first a gold ring and now Gollum turns up – where have you read this before?). I realised then and there that there would be no sense in appealing to the college authorities to restore The Great Book to the Cecils: I would simply be alerting the college to the fact that they had overlooked a valuable asset which they could flog off. Instead, I’d have to steal it, albeit knowing that I had justice and history on my side. I checked out of the Black Bull pub that evening and before ten o’clock I’d checked into a bed-and-breakfast in a village outside Oxford.

I went for a reconnaissance the following morning. I was amazed to discover how little the college had changed. The library was still housed in the same cramped quarters and contained the same out-of-date texts, translations and bound periodicals. There was no space to store uncatalogued volumes. I guessed that they would have been dumped in the cellars. There were two different sets of cellars: the wine cellars beneath the dining hall appeared to have a formidable door and lock; the other cellars, in the same bloc as the library, had a neglected appearance and a simple clasp lock on a fragile-looking door – child’s play, I thought.

I bought a jemmy and a powerful torch and waited for dark. I confess that I was rather enjoying myself. The college gates were no longer locked in the late evening, but the porters’ lodge still housed a night porter, so I decided to climb in using the same route that I’d used fifty years ago, via the bike sheds. This proved more difficult than I’d anticipated: the spirit was willing, but the flesh had withered. I sustained a nasty graze, a sprained ankle and a ripped jacket, but I got over. In contrast, the hasp on the cellar door was a breeze and came away like cobwebs.

There was lighting in the cellar, but it wasn’t working: I hunted for a mains switch in vain. In the torchlight, the crowded cellar contents looked as a chaotic as an earthquake in Legoland: there were piles and piles of discarded furniture, tea chests filled with the abandoned possessions of past generations, some old lead piping, tied bundles of papers, ancient chemical apparatus, a battered croquet mallet… It seemed that, unless I was very lucky, the search would take more than one night. My dust allergy kicked in right away, but I stuck to the task. After an hour or so, I did come across an open tea chest full of books, but they proved to be the abandoned private library of past undergraduate, seemingly someone of my generation – I recognised ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ and RD Laing’s ‘Divided Self’. Underneath it, was a closed tea chest, which I assumed contained more of the same, but when I jemmied it open I saw it contained hardback books from an older period. I flicked open the topmost book – a collection of sermons – and on the flyleaf I read ‘Ex Libris Reverend Augustus Pugh.’ Oh Joy.

The Great Book of Angharad was right at the bottom of the chest. It was a massive thing that looked to have been re-bound at some point, with metal-edged leather covers and a clasp. I heaved it out the chest and opened it up at random – a foolish thing to do, because the eight-hundred-year-old pages were very brittle. Part of a page broke off as it was opened. I shut the book and closed the clasp, but not before I’d satisfied myself that the writing seemed to be in Old Welsh.

‘Well, well, if it isn’t Guy Fawkes!’ Two torches snapped on. In surprise, I dropped The Great Book back in the tea chest. I then dodged behind some derelict desks, deeper in the cellars, but the two police patrolmen quickly picked me out again. It seemed I’d been betrayed by my dust allergy: the night porter on his rounds had heard the sneezes, found the broken lock on the cellar door, and called the cops.

The charges I was facing were ‘breaking and entering’ and ‘criminal damage’ – the college authorities claimed I’d destroyed the roof of the bike sheds. At first, I refused to say anything, beyond giving my name and address. But the duty solicitor at the station persuaded me to explain what I’d been doing in the cellar, saying it would look better in the magistrates’ court. So I told him. A few hours later, I told the same story to the two detective constables in the interview room. They plainly thought I’d lost a marble or two when I fell off the bike sheds, but they sent a constable round to the cellars to see whether there was indeed a big book in the bottom of the tea chest. He found Gollum, the librarian, there ‘checking whether there was anything missing or damaged.’ The tea chest was empty.

Well, maybe I have lost a marble or two, DC Grainger and DC Singh. But how would you explain Angharad’s celtic ring, safely hidden in my washbag at the B&B? And it’s plain to me who has snaffled The Great Book. I sense a second family connection here: Gollum’s surname is ‘Pugh.’ I suggest you get a search warrant.

Maryhill Barracks, Glasgow, May 21st 1941

by Michael Bloor

(first published in Ink, Sweat & Tears, October 7th, 2017)

Mary MacLeod was busy restocking the shelves of the shop in the NCOs’ canteen. She liked the job well enough, though the walk to work through mean streets was hard to bear on a May day that put her in mind of happier times back home in Skye. Stacking the cigarettes, she was interrupted by a Very Important Person, Sergeant-Major Andrew Marshall:

‘Mary, lassie, drop wit you’re doin’ an’ come along wi’ me tae Major Drummond’s office.’ He quickly continued, ‘You’ve done nothin’ wrang, lassie. But we’re needin’ a translator to help wi’ a new recruit frae Skye. He makes oot that he only speaks Gaelic and, if so, he’s nae damn use in the Army. But the major an’ me, we think maybe he’s a damn liar.’

The Sergeant-Major, very properly, held Major Drummond’s door open for Mary, and – small and dark, neat and timid – she tripped into the office. Very properly, Major Drummond rose from his desk to greet her. Nothing so far was setting Mary at her ease. The major indicated the private standing to attention on the other side of the desk:

‘This is Private MacKinnon, Mary. We need you to help with some questions we have for Private MacKinnon.’

And so the interrogation proceeded. Yes indeed, he told Mary, he had been taught English at school. But the school had been a long way from the croft in the winter time. And his mother had often needed his help in the croft in the summer time. Forbye, truth to tell, he wasn’t a great scholar. The private answered all her questions with a gentle smile. Mary felt a rush of homesickness and she warmed to the boy, an emissary from her own people.

The question-and-answer session took a while, and was periodically interrupted by the sergeant exclaiming, ‘My God! Wit’s that oot the windae?’and ‘Good Grief! Wit’s that thing crawling up your sleeve?’ To all of these interjections, Private MacKinnon would react with just a puzzled frown.

At length, the major leaned back in his seat: ‘What do you think, Sergeant-Major?’

‘Sir, a man that cannae follow orders is nae more use than a chocolate teapot in the Army.’

‘My view exactly. We’ll discharge him.’

The major shuffled some papers. The Sergeant-Major led Private MacKinnon away. In the doorway, the private turned back to Mary. He gave her a slow wink and walked away.

(In Memoriam, Johan MacLean 1914 – 2012)

A Cloud Forest Tale

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Fiction pool, sept 22nd 2017)

Not many holidaymakers know about La Gomera: it’s one of the smaller Canary Islands and doesn’t have an international airport. We go there to walk in the mysterious cloud forest and we only rarely bump into fellow-tourists, so we were quite shocked to bump into Mr and Mrs Angela Merkel (he’s called Joachim).

The cloud forest is a wonderful place: four thousand feet up, on the slopes of an extinct volcano, it’s an unlikely survivor from the Jurassic Era. Tall laurels and tree heathers (yes, heathers that are trees!) provide a thick forest canopy, so there is very little undergrowth to impede hikers and there are plenty of old donkey trails to follow. The wild flowers are striking (gigantic dandelions, wild geraniums), but what really attracts us is the feel of the cloud forest, or the ‘laurisilva’ to give it its proper name. There are gentle mists that deaden sound, carpets of moss, and hanging lichens. Bit by bit, the ancient forest enfolds you and, belief suspended, you half-seriously start to explore for… secret things. This is a forest kinder than a lover, wiser than a book.

Tucked comfortably into some mossy tree roots, Dorothy and I were just finishing our lunch, when we noticed a burly, bearded guy silently staring at us some twenty yards down the track. Out of the mist behind him emerged a middle-aged couple with walking poles. The three of them advanced towards us; the couple were smiling, Beardie was not.

‘Bloody Ell, it’s Angela Merkel!’ The words were out before I knew I’d said them. Dorothy and I simultaneously gabbled an apology. We both feared a diplomatic incident. But Joachim (as we later learned to call him) laughed and waved his hands:

‘Please, no apology is necessary. It happens quite a lot.’

Angela smiled and nodded, ‘How are you enjoying the laurisilva? So peaceful here, is it not? I think it’s the most peaceful place on Earth.’ We forgot our awkwardness as we joined in an international hymn of praise to La Gomera. And Dorothy eventually went so far as to offer to share the remains of our lunch:

‘We were just going to spread some Gomeran palm syrup on biscuits…’

She dived into the rucksack and Beardie’s hand darted into his gilet. Too late, Angela snapped: ‘Lass es, Helmut!’ Dorothy and Beardie stared at each other – Dorothy holding a glass jar of palm syrup, and Beardie holding an automatic pistol. It was now Angela and Joachim’s turn to apologise. Dorothy started to laugh, rather hysterically, and suddenly we all became friends (not Beardie/Helmut, he respectfully retreated into the middle distance). It turned out that Angela and Joachim shared our enthusiasm for the sweet-and-savoury palm syrup, miele de palme. Between the four of us, we got through most of Dorothy’s small jar. Angela told us that so many young Gomerans were leaving the island for jobs in Tenerife that there were fewer and fewer islanders agile enough to climb their palm trees to tap the syrup. It seemed to us a sad symptom of what was a truly international crisis: I mentioned the disappearance of Derbyshire black puddings and Dorothy was very eloquent on the subject of Ayrshire new potatoes, grown on seaweed.

In this maudlin mood, sated with palm syrup, Dorothy mentioned Brexit. This might have been thought tactless as Angela was on holiday, but she didn’t mind a bit. Lying flat-out on a mossy bank, hands behind her head, she stared up at a giant dandelion, and said dreamily: ‘I do not know Mrs May very well, but I feel so sorry for her. David Cameron has passed onto her a very poor poker hand and left her sitting in front of a very big mirror…’ She paused, ‘Tell me what has become of Mr Cameron?’

‘There was a story in the paper, the day we left the UK. He’s just spent twenty-five thousand pounds on a posh garden shed, where he’s going to write his memoirs.’

Joachim snorted with disbelief: ‘He is going to write a book about how he accidentally dumped the UK out of Europe?’

This seemed to me a rather quaint way of putting the matter, but I couldn’t disagree with it. We drifted off to other topics –the secretive forest, the Fred Olsen Line and Joachim’s lack of any grey hairs. But the Brexit discussion had unsettled me. When we parted, a little later, we shook hands and I muttered quietly, so that Beardie/Helmut couldn’t hear: ‘If the Brexit thing doesn’t work out for us, Angela. Will you please let us back in?’

She patted my hand, smiled and said, ‘Of course, that would be lovely.’

###

Dorothy and I talked things over afterwards and we decided that the responsible thing to do would be to write a letter to Boris Johnson. A distinguished gentleman from the Foreign Office eventually came to record an interview with us. At the end of the interview, I said I’d like to tell the story to a wider audience, would that be OK? He paused at our front door, iPhone in hand.

He said: ‘You know, a poet wrote that a good story is a pearl spun around the grit of a truth.’

Twenty-First Century Mr Chips

by Michael Bloor

(first published in The Fiction Pool, Sept 19th 2017)

Hello. You have eight messages. First message, received Friday, May 20th at 6.30 pm…’

‘You dirty nonce! Messin’ with kids’ lives. I know where you live, you shit! I’ll be round to see you wi’ a pair o’ garden shears. Guess what for?’

Second message, received Friday, May 20th at 7.10 pm…’

‘Hello love. Where are you? Don’t tell me you’ve forgot again. I think those sleeping pills are making you a bit dopey. The meat’s spoiling. Lucky we both like it well done! Hoping to see you soon. I mean VERY soon. Lots of love, Lucy.’

Third message, received Friday, May 20th at 8.45 pm…’

‘Andy, it’s me. Your meal’s in the bin. Again. We can’t go on like this. I mean it.’

Fourth message, received Friday, May 20th at 11.52 pm…’

‘Still not pickin’ up, you nonce? We wuz discussin’ you in the pub. Someone suggested some petrol through the letter box. But I say: why spoil a perfeckly good ‘ouse? So we’ll still be bringin’ the garden shears. Thought you’d like to know.’

Fifth message, received Saturday, May 21st at 9.30 am…’

‘Andy, it’s Jonathan here. So sorry to call you on the weekend. But I wanted you to know that we had a school governors’ meeting last night. You’ll understand that I had to make the governors aware of the allegations against you. They agreed with me that we have only one possible course of action. I’m afraid that, in view of the seriousness of the allegations, you’ll be on gardening leave for the present. So please don’t show up on Monday. If you need to get in touch, it’s best that you do it through the Foundation’s solicitors. Sorry about that, but I’m sure you understand that the school’s good name has to be my first concern.’

Sixth message, received Saturday, May 21st at 7.20 pm…’

‘Well, I did think you’d at least have the decency to ring and apologise. I think, under the circumstances, we should cancel that holiday in Crete: you’ll probably forget to come to the airport.’

Seventh message, received Sunday, May 22nd at 2.15 pm…’

‘Andy, it’s Lucy. Are you alright? Came past and saw the curtains drawn. When you get this, please call back to let me know you’re OK.’

Eighth message, received Monday, May 23rd at 10.00 am…’

‘Mr Robertson, this is Detective Constable Brailsford here. I’m ringing on behalf of Detective Chief Inspector Williams. We wanted you to know that, following investigation, we believe the allegations that have been made against you are unfounded. The child who made the allegations has withdrawn them – they appear to have been malicious in intent. Off the record, I’d like to say that both my boys were previously pupils at the school and hold you in high regard. I’m sorry for the trouble that has been caused, but you’ll understand that, in the present climate, every such allegation or complaint has to be thoroughly investigated. If you’d like any further information, please feel free to ring me back.

You have no further messages.’

The Divided Womb

Michael Bloor

(first published in Scribble, Issue 73, Spring 2017 pp. 11-14)

I’m relieved that Jane has invited me to the funeral. The way things had been between us in recent years, I’d have felt uncomfortable being here without an invitation, even though it’s my twin brother that we’re cremating. As the curtains swish shut across the coffin and the automatic rollers noisily trundle Maurice towards the furnace, I realise with a shock that I’d had no inkling that he’d want to be cremated. At some deep level, I must have assumed that we’d be together again in death down at the cemetery, despite our separation in life. I begin to suspect that Maurice had expressed no wishes about his funeral arrangements before his accident, and that the cremation had been Jane’s idea.

As my fellow-mourners and I begin that slow, self-conscious shuffle down the central aisle that follows every funeral service, I start to panic that I must have voiced my thoughts about Jane out-loud: a number of people are covertly observing me, and a few are whispering. Then I realise that they’re staring because of my startling resemblance to the deceased. To those that didn’t realise that Maurice had a twin, it must seem that Maurice is attending his own funeral.

Jane is standing just outside the crematorium chapel, receiving condolences. When she sees me, her composure leaves her. Not catching my eye, she mutters: ‘Thanks for coming, Bill.’ Before I can reply, her brother Andy – standing by her side – has seized my hand: ‘Damn it, damn it, this is a terrible business.’ I’ve always liked Andy and I let him draw me aside:

‘Come away, Bill. These clowns are all staring at you, because you’re the spitting image of Maurice.’

I’m surprised Andy has noticed the surreptitious goggling, but that’s what he’s like: Andy notices things. Into my disordered thoughts there comes the memory of the time when Andy and I were playing for the same youth club football team. A cup game, the semi-final, I was on the left wing. All through the first half, the opposing right back had been working me over: muttering threats and contriving niggling blind-side fouls. As we trooped off at half-time, he was beside me, breathing his dog’s breath in my face and whispering that he’d cripple me if I tried to take the ball past him again. Suddenly, Andy, the captain, was there beside the two of us calmly telling that right back, ‘Any more crap out of you and I’ll rip your throat out.’ And then Maurice was there too: ‘Dead right, we’ll all rip your throat out.’

I catch myself thinking: ‘Good ol’ Andy! Good ol’ Maurice!’ My eyes are watering and I belatedly realise that Andy is asking me a question:

‘I was saying, Bill, that I’m sure Jane will want you with us on the family table at the meal, down at the pub. You’ll be coming along now for the refreshments, I hope?’ He paused: ‘Your thoughts were miles away just then, Bill. Understandably.’

I smile: ‘I was thinking back to the time when you, me and Maurice were playing in the Rykneld Road youth club team.’

Andy smiles too: ‘Yeah. Maurice was a useful mid-fielder. Left-half, as we used to say. A pity he could only play in the school holidays.’

Yes, that was the start of it, really: Maurice could only play in the school holidays. I’d passed the eleven-plus exam and gone on to the grammar school. Maurice had inexplicably failed. Our parents were determined to ‘do the best’ for him and had scraped together the money to send him to that awful boarding school, where the school made him play rugby. So he could only play footie for the youth club in the school holidays. That was the start of it, alright: that bloody eleven-plus…

‘Mmm. We always stood a better chance of winning when Maurice was playing for us. He covered twice as much ground as anyone else: it was like having an extra man, remember?’ And before Andy can answer, I continue: ‘Sorry. I shan’t be coming on with you for the meal, Andy. I’m afraid I have to be getting back. Do apologise to Jane for me.’ I move away to the carpark. As I open the car door, I chance to see Andy and Jane in the middle-distance, both silently looking on. I give an awkward wave, climb in the car and drive off, back to Derby.

I’d baulked at the suffocating family table, with the salmon sandwiches. But once in the car, I’ve a sudden wish to be home without delay, to be back where I’m loved. On the motorway, I switch the radio on: it’s Woman’s Hour, an interview with a feminist conceptual artist. I press the CD button – choral music, Thomas Tallis, which matches my mood…

He always hated it there – at that school. He couldn’t tell Mum and Dad that though: they’d sacrificed a lot to send him there. And the way he saw it, that school was his punishment for failing his eleven-plus: he felt guilty – he thought it was all his own fault. That’s not what he said, but I knew that’s what he felt. I always knew what he felt, at least I always knew what he felt til he and Jane got together. And that boarding school was useless: he failed most of his exams, which made him feel even more guilty. While I went on to read Law at Nottingham, he joined the army. That was where he learned to drink…

A huge, two-story car-carrier swings out of the slow lane in front of me, I swerve out of the way, into the fast lane, causing a Mercedes behind me to brake, flash his lights and sound his horn. I realise I’d missed responding to the car-carrier’s previous indicator signal: I’m inattentive and tired. I wonder if that’s how it was with Maurice’s accident? or was he drinking again? I pull into a motorway services, have a pee, and buy a can of Red Bull. I don’t drink coffee, so all caffeine drinks work for me like a slap in the face. Back to the tarmac tedium; I’m alert but still inattentive, if you get my meaning.

He liked it in the army. It gave him some self-respect and he was popular with his mates. When he came home on leave, he’d say he wanted Britain to join the war in Vietnam: he and his mates would soon show the Yanks how to kill commies. But I knew that was just a wind-up: Maurice was a gentle soul. I was proud of him. When I married Jane, Maurice wore his dress uniform as the Best Man – he was the star of the show. In his speech at the wedding, Maurice told everyone that it was only fitting that I’d got married first, as I was the oldest – by twenty minutes. But they shouldn’t expect him to be marrying any time soon, because his brother had already married the best girl in the world. Odd that he should have said that, the way things turned out…

Now I’m off the motorway and on the Derby ring-road. I’m keen to get back home. I know Dorothy will be worried about how I’ve got on at the funeral. She’d been determined to come with me, but she has a nasty fluey cold and I finally convinced her to stay home. The traffic slows to a crawl: the Royce’s day-shift is heading home. Rolls-Royce is always called ‘Royce’s’ in Derby; don’t ask me why.

After he came out the army, it was me that persuaded him to come back to Derby. He’d talked about going to New Zealand, where he had an old army buddy. But I was worried about his drinking – the real reason he’d left the army – and I reckoned I could help him find his feet back in civvy street. ‘OK, big brother’, he’d said and gave me a hug. I was a partner in Molyneux & Sowter by this time: we managed several old-established local trusts with property interests in the town. So I got him a job as our Estate Manager. Mum and Dad had both died while Maurice was in the army. So it was natural that Maurice should stay with Jane and I while he looked for something permanent. I wasn’t worried about that: he and Jane had always got on well. And Jane’s heart always went out to a bird with a broken wing…

Dorothy comes to the window and waves when she hears the car in the drive. As I come in the door, she gives me a broad smile, a hug and then a steady look: ‘You’re tired. Not surprising: you’ve had a tough day and a long drive. Come and sit down, while I get your tea. It’s a salad and the rest of the Bird’s pork pie’.

Everyone in Derby swears that Bird’s make much better pork pies than anything found in Melton Mowbray. I take my black tie off first, a signal to myself that the solemnities are over. Like a small child emerging from a dark wood, my heart lifts to be back on familiar territory, to feel the proximity of one who loves me. I help Dorothy open a jar of sun-dried tomatoes and admire her deft movements as she lays the table. All those barren years after Jane and Maurice left – they count for nothing now. I answer her gentle questions about the funeral, but my thoughts are running on my late good fortune – Dorothy is my Indian Summer. As I finish off the pork pie, Dorothy starts another coughing and sneezing fit. Eventually, she is forced off to the bathroom and to bed.

I make her some hot milk and then clean-up after my meal. As I stand over the sink, I catch sight through the window of the tree peony that Maurice had bought and planted for Jane all those years ago: its tumbled mass of fragile, creamy flowers are blushing tonight in the evening sunlight.

Maurice’s transition back to civvy street proved more difficult than he or I had expected. He didn’t like the Estate Manager post; out of my hearing, he was calling himself a ‘rent collector’. Old Mr Sowter told me that his nephew had seen Maurice playing snooker in the backroom of The Bell in Sadlergate in the afternoons, sometimes ‘the worst for drink.’ Against Jane’s advice, I tackled Maurice about it. We shouted and swore half the night. And we both ended up crying. Maurice agreed to seek help with his drinking…

I’m tired, but too restless to go to bed. And I can hear Dorothy still coughing. I watch TV for a bit: I have a weakness for a programme called ‘You’ve Been Framed,’ home-movie clips of members of the public falling into water, being hit in the genitalia by golf balls, and felling trees which then fall on top of their neighbour’s car. Tonight though, I switch it off after a few minutes. I pick up my current book. Years ago, I began reading the Icelandic sagas. I’ve read a load of them and recently I started re-reading some of my favourites. I’m drawn to the quiet heroism of those men, real individuals struggling stoically against ill-luck and hard times, a thousand years ago. They believed in fate, but their sense of honour demanded that, while they had breath in their bodies, they should struggle against their fate. They sensed their lives were imperfect, but they accepted the consequences. They would ‘do the deed and abide it.’

Strangely, it was the group therapy that Maurice undertook that was the indirect cause of the trouble. At first, it seemed as if all was going well. Mr Sowter agreed to keep Maurice’s job open while he sought treatment. The GP referred Maurice right away to the psychiatric day hospital for group therapy. Maurice said it was tough and upsetting, but he kept attending day after day after day. And he stayed sober. Jane and I were delighted.

I gathered that part of the group treatment was for the patients to learn how to establish more ‘honest’ relationships with people, first of all with fellow members of the group, and then with their nearest and dearest outside the day hospital. So I realise now that it was inevitable that one day Maurice should tell my Jane how much he loved her…

Eventually, I set the Laxdale Saga aside, brush my teeth, and move quietly into the bedroom. It’s still not quite dark, even with the curtains drawn. Dorothy’s breathing is more laboured than usual because of her fluey cold. As I climb into bed, she wakens briefly, smiles, murmurs and falls back to sleep. I feel a sudden, engulfing, warm rush of affection towards her. I lie awake, reflecting that acceptance of fate is not just the end of a story – it can sometimes be the beginning. There are times when you can ‘do the deed’ by doing nothing.

When Maurice and Jane left together, something stayed my hand and I didn’t cut down the tree peony. Tonight, I feel very fortunate that it still stands there: Maurice’s legacy.