This is the last time. I mean it.

The cards remain in their pack.

The cards remain in their pack.

Connie is checking my pulse. Lyre has periodically leapt up from her chair to lay a hand against my brow. They are looking for signs of illness, fever, derangement.

We are in my garden, sitting around the little table where we normally play cards of a summer evening. The cards remain in their pack.

“It’s good for a person to have her dearest friends around her at a time like this,” I whimper.

Connie’s hand grips my wrist. I watch them exchange glances.

“I want you to remember me how I once was. Fit, healthy, easy-going, a lover of life, a woman with dreams and plans and ambitions. That’s still who I am essentially. Remember that. Underneath this horrendous weight, is a woman with a sunny disposish.”

Lyre talks like a woman in shock. “But how could this have happened? How did it sneak up on you?”

I can’t answer her because there is an enormous lump in my throat.

Sometimes our lives just take terrible turns for the worse.

*

All I’d said a week ago – and I’d said it to Peony by the by, while I was washing up and she was watching me doing it – was that I still had an open-ended car ferry ticket to France, given that Laurence was now busy with THREE commissions from newspapers and magazines, not to mention his rather relegated day job at the hospital.

“You wanna be careful who you say that kind of thing in front of, Ma,” she told me.

“Wha- ?” I looked up and heard, rather than saw, the scurrying of feet from the kitchen. Mother’s feet. We peered out of the window and saw her hurrying across the lawn to Charlton in the shed. She was skipping, as a matter of fact. And very possibly singing.

“Idiot,” said Peony.

*

And so here I am on the eve of a holiday with my mother and my brother, a prospect that filled me with despondency when it happened routinely in my childhood, let alone now in middle age. And that’s not even bearing in mind the hollowness I feel at being abandoned by a man I thought liked me but who would far rather knock out clichés about the future of the NHS than sign his name next to mine in the guest book of a little Brittany auberge.

What misery heaped on misery.

But my friends are here. That’s something isn’t it?

“You’ll see,” says Lyre in her caressing tone. “You’ll survive this ordeal and come back a stronger woman. Your luck will change, my dear, I promise you. I know good things await you. Your time will come.”

Connie is shaking her head tearfully.

“No human being should be asked to endure this amount of suffering.”

They are full of love and sympathy for me.

But their eyes say “idiot”.

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A Short long weekend.

“Why did you come back, you fool?”

We were sitting in the queue to the ferry when the call came.

(It was a long queue and we were going nowhere, the French ferry staff too occupied with burning tyres on the other side to run any boats that day.)

Laurence nodded and grinned and said “of course, of course” over and again and then “tomorrow? Of course” and rang off.

He turned to me and his eyes burned.

The Times want me to write a piece for them about the future of the NHS. They want it by tomorrow.”

“But what about our long weekend in France?” I asked, though my voice didn’t rise in indignation. We both already knew that it wasn’t going to happen and it wasn’t just The Times’ fault. What was wrong with us? Why were we so flat and indifferent now that we were together with the prospect of escape? Was its impossibility always the attraction?

“This could be the start of something new for me,” he told me, peering left and right to see how he could extricate us from the queue.

I had thought this might have been the start of something new for me, too.

And so it wasn’t so much a sense of disappointment that percolated about inside that hot car on our way home, but rather a degree of fatalism on my part, cheery anticipation on his. Perhaps it was for the best, this near miss.

As he let me out of his car he leant across and said: “Would you check my article for me later? You’re the writer, after all.”

“If you want,” I said and he was gone before I could start my spiel about not liking to call myself a writer. Not really.

*

The contents of the shed were strewn across the garden and there was a lot of commotion coming from inside.

I stood in the middle of the lawn and called across: “Who’s in there? What’s going on?”

A window from the house behind me – my bedroom window – was hurled up and my mother leant out.

“Just hold on will you. I’m coming down to explain.”

Ken Tray was rubbing against my leg and looked up at me with commiseration.

“Why did you come back, you fool?” he seemed to be saying, his expression tragic even by his long-faced standards.

“What on earth are you doing back here, might I ask?” demanded Mother tetchily as she arrived at my side.

“Isn’t that my business?” I asked. “This is my home after all.”

“It’s very inconvenient,” she complained and clamped her lips together to show it.

“What is going on with my shed?”

“It’s not a shed any more. It’s Charlton’s new little house.”

Ken’s body quivered against my thigh. I jammed my fingers into my hair.

“His house? His little house, did you say?”

Mother shook her head in disgust.

“It’s alright for you. You’re already on the property ladder but it’s almost impossible for young people to get onto it these days. London is for the very rich and the very poor. What about the squeezed middle, the toiling young masses who have no prospects of home-ownership?”

“That’s twice you’ve called him young,” I said. “He’s nearly fifty. Does he toil? I’ve never seen any toiling. That’s my shed. I am about to cry, Mother, and I know you don’t think I have any feelings and you are rather repulsed by the idea that I might have some so I’ll go and do it in the peace of my own room.”

“Your room? So it’s your room now is it?”

I just focused on her narrowed, hostile eyes and waited.

So she went on: “That’s nice, I must say. You take the best room for yourself. I only ever get to enjoy it and its expansive views while you’re away and I’ve barely moved my things into it and suddenly you’re back and wresting it out of my hands again. Thank you. Thank you very much. And me with my plastic colon. I’ll just move in with your brother, shall I? Is that what you want?”

A tightness in my chest was growing more and more intense and it suddenly occurred to me that I might be lucky enough to be having a heart attack.

“You’ve got a perfectly good room of your own,” I muttered.

“Not good enough for you though, is it. Charlton! I’m coming with you. There’s plenty of room for both of us.”

From inside the shed the clattering stopped and a long low groan took its place.

Ken gravely walked over to the corner of the shed and eyed me solemnly while he emptied his bladder across it.

*

He’s written his article. I’ve seen it. It’s not half bad. He’s on his way to a new career he never even knew he wanted. That’s how these things go, I suppose.

It’s a party. In a street.

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“I don’t exactly know why he’s done it,” I announced to the other residents of my house on Saturday morning at breakfast, “but Laurence has invited us all to his street party tomorrow.”

“What’s a street party?” asked Mother suspiciously.

“It’s a party. In a street. You know perfectly well what it is.”

“Why would anyone have a party in a street?”

“To pretend they like each other. To satisfy their curiosity about their neighbours. To get rid of surplus frozen spring rolls. I don’t know. Perhaps the people in his street genuinely get on.”

Peony scoffed. “Ugh. Grotesque.”

“I like Laurence,” said John.

“You haven’t met his family, or his neighbours,” I reminded him.

“I’ll be too ill tomorrow,” said Mother.

“If I’m making an effort then you’re making a bloody effort,” I said and I got up and left to prevent further prevarication.

And so we set off yesterday – a warm Sunday afternoon – and we drove all the way to his rather ornate neighbourhood, which is that much nearer to Town and, therefore, more expensive. He is a doctor, remember.

“What I hate about contemporary living,” Peony told me from the back of the car, “is bunting. If there’s any bunting I’ll come over all queer.”

“Brace yourself, then,” I warned her. “There will almost certainly be bunting.”

“What’s bunting?” asked Mother.

“You know what bloody bunting is. I know what you’re doing. You’re doing that thing when you pretend to be all weak and confused. You can cut it out now. There’s no way I’m going to feel more sorry for you than I do for myself so don’t waste your energy.”

“…dragging me to a party in the street,” she growled.

In the event, of course, we couldn’t park on the street because there was a party taking place on it so I slid several quid into a metre half a mile away and we trudged back in silence through the dust and racket of the busy avenues of this wealthy borough.

When Laurence noticed me it was like witnessing a prisoner being released from the rack. He couldn’t believe his luck. It was so touching.

I stood by his side and secretly brushed the back of my hand against the back of his. He smiled. John came and stood by his other side and got his hair ruffled in recognition. The place was buzzing and lively and knots of people stood or sat brazenly on the carless road, drinking Pimm’s. Swags of floral bunting had been strung across from opposing windows.

“Ah Peony, good to see you,” Laurence beamed and reached out a hand.

My daughter was scanning the street and was distracted.

“Do we have to pay for this?” she wanted to know.

“Excellent,” laughed Laurence. How sweet – he thought she was being witty.

“Where are we?” asked Mother, faintly. “I can’t see very well.”

Laurence glanced at me. “Is she alright?”

I brushed his hand once more. I was finding it easier to communicate that way.

And then suddenly there was Vanessa, his sister, advancing towards us, with a vast black cake on a platter. She was in what they call a maxi dress now but what used to be called a kaftan when I was a kid. Its fabric was a vivid jungle design. Her lips were frosted pink. I felt Peony’s hackles rise.

“Ah Imelda,” said Vanessa. To me apparently. “I must talk to you about the works of that genius Leon Bogrush. But first I’m about to cut the cake. I made it, by the by. Let’s all tuck in.”

“What is it?” asked Peony, not at all politely.

“It’s chocolate. Gluten-free chocolate cake.”

“Oh,” sniffed Peony. “I only eat gluten. In fact, I can’t get enough of it. I have to have it with every meal just to keep my levels up.”

Vanessa eyed her chillingly.

“Who’s Imelda?” asked John from my side.

Slowly I was beginning to consider letting myself enjoy things. This always happens. When my family’s behaviour goes way beyond my control, I seem to let go at last and watch the awfulness unfold as though it can’t touch me.

“What’s gluten?” asked Mother, not at all vaguely this time.

“Gluten,” said Vanessa, placing the cake on a garden table beside us, “is the scourge of the modern gut. Its consumption leads to a whole string of ailments, from lethargy to chronic bowel conditions. It’s a bloody ticking time bomb, is what it is!”

“Oh,” cried Mother. “That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. Too much gluten in my system. I can barely go on.”

“Thanks for that,” I murmured.

It was then that I noticed a tiny wisp of an elderly lady hidden behind Vanessa’s kaftan, as though she’d got attached somehow and been swept along. She had the sweetest smile and a gentle, frail light in her eyes. She emanated tenderness.

Laurence followed my gaze.

“My mother,” he said.

The sweetheart beckoned to me and I stepped away from our party and joined her by her side. I had to bend down to catch what she said and in fact didn’t hear her at first, so weak and refined was her tone.

“I’m sorry?” I said, charmed by her intoxicating manner.

She grasped my hand with her two. Her skin was worn smooth like veneer.

“I said,” she smiled benignly and tilted her silvery head to the side as though she were an amiable little sparrow. “Who’s the whingeing old bitch?”

*

We all just about endured each other for another forty minutes and then I explained that the parking meter would be running out and we ought to go.

“I’m sorry about my mother,” said Laurence. “She’s not senile, just evil.”

“Mine appears to have acquired a gluten intolerance.”

John had his arm wound round my waist and I kissed the top of his head. My boy. How soon until we ruin you?

I looked back to see Peony wresting a plastic box of some kind of salad from Mother’s arms and dumping it on a table.

“But it’s a quinoa and goji berry salad in a pomegranate dressing. I need it for my intestinal tract,” complained Mother.

“Come on, Grunma,” said Peony, dragging her forcibly away by the hand. “These people are arsing my brain up. Let’s score some gluten.”

People were brazenly drinking Pimm's in the middle of the road.

People were brazenly drinking Pimm’s in the middle of the road.

A Manuscript changes hands.

Public notice: what is love? Don’t arse me. Geddit!

From solid.passage by Leon Bogrush

(Punctuation and geddit added by editor)

Laurence said we should go away for the weekend. I was terrified. It’s been such a long time since I’ve done that kind of thing. You know what kind of thing I mean so don’t make me say it.

I told Peony about it.

“Eurgh,” she said. “I feel sick now. Thanks for that.”

All I’d said was that we fancied a city break. I never even alluded to that kind of thing. You know what kind of thing I mean etc.

I mentioned my possible absence to Mother.

“Oh good. Charlton can have your room while you’re away. I miss that beautiful boy. I need him like a cat needs air.”

(A cat needs air? Might she have meant hair?)

Well that was the decider. I wasn’t going anywhere, certainly if the thought of it induced nausea in my daughter and gave my feckless brother a foothold in my home once more.

So Laurence said: “Then come to mine for dinner. I’ll pack my mother and sister off to their folk night.”

I must say his sap seems to be rising a bit since he was offered his old job back. He’s also seeking compensation for wrongful dismissal, which is a bit rich given that not all that long ago he was trying to dissuade me from running to the lawyers.

And so last night I removed all extraneous hair and put on the black dress with the Grecian neckline that Mother always says should be draped on a coffin, and arrived at his door step at seven on the dot as arranged.

But a woman of about my age, with very raw pink skin and black bobbed hair, opened the door.

“Who are you?” she growled. “No hang on.” She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You’re Imelda.”

“No,” I said.

She opened her eyes.

“Oh you’re the other one.”

Laurence came rushing up behind her. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.”

“Who’s Imelda?” I asked him.

“What?” he asked. “Who’s Imelda?”

“That’s what I just said.”

“This is my sister, Vanessa. She wasn’t supposed to be here. I took her and Mother to the pub and she came straight back.”

Vanessa moved aside to let me in. She eyed me suspiciously as we brushed up against each other.

“You’ve got a writer’s nose,” she told me.

“Have I?”

“I’m fascinated and yet repulsed by writers.”

“I don’t consider myself a writer,” I mumbled.

We all three sat down in a too-clean, oatmeal coloured living room. The silence was awkward so I broke it.

“Wow, that’s a potent aftershave.”

“Thank you,” said Vanessa.

A little more silence.

“Let’s go out after all,” suggested Laurence.

Vanessa stood at once.

“Great idea,” she agreed.

You could tell that he was suffering, poor chap, that he was frustrated and angry and helpless and never did I feel closer to the man than I did at that moment. We are soul mates, I thought.

“We can discuss literature,” announced Vanessa, as she fetched her jacket. “I only read proper, difficult literature. Life is too short for anything less.

I smiled at Laurence.

“Then you might like this,” I said, rummaging about my bag for the bogbrush manuscript, as Peony and I call it. (If you’re wondering, I’d brought it with me to entertain Laurence with it in case of flat moments.)

“Love the title,” she said, marvelling at the top page. “Leon Bogrush. Is that you?”

“No!” I shrieked, perhaps a little too hastily. “Fancy having a go at editing it?”

She swayed a little.

“Me? Are you serious? It would be an honour. What should I do?”

“Oh we’ve all had a go at it, my daughter, my daughter’s young ward, my mother. We’ve decided that throwing the odd geddit? into every page suddenly makes some sense of it.”

She looked from the manuscript to me and narrowed her eyes. I heard a clock. I heard the rumble of a plane.

“Right well,” she announced at last. “I can’t join you for dinner then. I have serious work to do.”

And she left the room.

Laurence put an arm around my shoulders and squeezed me with overwhelming force. “My God but you’re good.”

“You see,” I told him, gasping happily. “I know exactly what we’re dealing with here.”

*

We ate some chips on a bench and well… we kissed.

Oh stop gagging.

Confronted by genius.

My study is the smallest room in the house – in fact smaller than the traditionally smallest room. And yet everyone congregates here while I try to write. Mother has taken to doing her Pilates right under my nose as I’m typing.

“Why are you even doing it?” I demanded yesterday morning. “You’ve always been so scornful of exercise.”

“Because if the medical profession refuses to help me, then I must help myself,” she grunted.

Peony, who was eating her cereal while standing over me and idly observing my progress, tutted: “Hurry up and write something funny, Mum. I’ve been watching you for ages and I haven’t even managed a smile. Come on!”

I’ll get you all out of here somehow, I seethed, and I pushed Ken rather roughly off my lap.

*

A little later that day, my daughter sought me out in the garden:

“Mum, I’ve got my agent’s hat on now. Not literally. It’s a figure of speech.”

“Right?” I sighed.

“Alfons is very excited about something and wishes to speak to you.”

The thought of an excitable Alfons was revolting to me and so I struggled to get out of whatever they had brewing but the man actually turned up on my doorstep at lunchtime, phosphorescent with news.

“Just think, don’t you!” he exclaimed. “Someone has submitted a novel for me to publish. Plankton is a going concern. I want you to take a look at this manuscript and tell me as a fellow writer what you think.”

God but my heart sank.

It was bad enough to have to look at this manuscript but to be pulled into a writing fellowship with Alfons was galling. I asked to be able to retire with it to my study for ten minutes. I thought ten minutes would be enough to get a feel for it. In the event, ten minutes felt like a lifetime.

I emerged to find Peony pushing a Twix into Alfons’ trouser pocket.

“Well?” he beamed.

“What exactly do you want to do with this?” I asked him, throwing the manuscript onto the kitchen table.

“Why publish, isn’t he! Then lots of crazy publicity. Lots of people buying lots of books and buying mine too.”

I cleared my throat.

“But it’s excrement.”

He turned questioningly to Peony.

“Poo,” she said.

“Alfons, this is the most dire bit of nonsense I’ve ever been forced to read. And I include my own manuscripts in that.”

“It is genius.”

“It is poo.”

“Tah.” He dismissed me. “This writer is very, very clever. What fault are you finding?”

“Well for starters there’s absolutely no punctuation whatsoever. It appears to be four hundred pages made up of one sentence.”

“Genuis. Experimental.”

“I can’t find anything in the way of plot and certainly no characters. It is all written in the first person – with a lower case ‘I’ while we’re on the subject. It is puerile indulgence.”

“This is literature, isn’t he.”

“Alfons, simply because you don’t understand it, doesn’t make it high art.”

“Maybe you don’t understand it.”

“Maybe I don’t.”

“But you will still edit it for me?”

I exploded.

“How do you suggest I do that? Place a judicious full stop in the middle?”

But of course I’ve taken it on. He’s determined to publish it, on the basis that it’s the only book that anyone’s ever submitted to Plankton. It was Peony in the end who brought me round. Alfons had gone and she was hooting with laughter.

“Can’t you just see the humour in this?” she cackled. “Sometimes getting a laugh out of something is its own reward.”

“Perhaps you’re right,” I relented and looked again at the title page. solid.passage by Leon Bogrush. At least he’s put a full stop in the title. That is a title, isn’t it?”

“Hey I’ve just noticed.” she laughed. “If you put a b in the middle of his surname it spells bogbrush”

*

I am writing this in the vast embrace of my new PU leather “executive” office chair. Lush and brown and excessively thick in the seat and back and with great curlicue arms, it as good as screams “Sell! Sell!” down the phone by itself.

I picked it out from the pile in front of the second-hand office furniture shop this morning. It is such a monster that you have to flatten yourself against the wall to get into my study. This room now consists or a desk and a chair. And me. Just me.

Bloody Spring.

It's not new at all.

It’s not new at all.

Mother and Peony were out. They had taken Ken Tray to the pet superstore to look at the rabbits again.

I called Laurence and told him they were out.

“I’ll be right over,” he said and my heart sang. I just knew for a fact his heart was singing, too.

But the very minute I put the phone down, I got a call from school. It was that grating class warrior, Miss Cutting.

“John has vomited on a pile of quoits,” she told me.

“What do you want me to do about it?” I demanded. “They’re wipe-clean, surely.”

She cleared her throat.

“It is our policy, when a child vomits, to ask the parent – or guardian – to come to school and collect the said child.”

“Ah well there you are,” I said. “I’m neither the parent, nor the guardian.”

“I’ve got you down here as the person to contact. I assumed you were his grandmother and that strapping woman with the dyed hair was his mother.”

“That’s my daughter and that’s her natural hair colour. John is her ward. John’s real mother is incapable.”

“Incapable of what?”

“Of absolutely anything. Now give his little mouth a wipe and he’ll be right as rain. Goodbye.”

“You’re going to have to come and fetch him, I’m afraid,” she sighed. And of course we both knew I would be the first one to break.

“School policy, school policy,” I twittered bitterly all the way there. “I’ll give you school policy, you pompous jobsworth.” But when I saw the little fella’s pale face and grim expression, and more to the point, how it brightened with joy at the sight of me, I wanted to snatch him to me at once and take him home where he belonged.

As we walked up our street I saw Laurence at our front door, about to ring the bell.

“Is that ill man looking for drugs?” asked John, gripping my hand tighter.

*

I left Laurence and John in the kitchen to discuss the science of vomiting and went up to my bedroom where I thumped the bed violently for seven distraught minutes. Then I got up and rearranged my face at my mirror and went down. When I got back, John was busily drawing with Laurence looking on over his shoulder.

“Oh is that a worm coming through a trap door?” I asked.

“No it’s a pyloric sphincter,” he replied.

Laurence laughed heartily and I relaxed at last. What can you do? I am owned by everyone, controlled by their whims. I don’t remember agreeing to it, but there you are.

Laurence looked up at me with a contented smile. Here was a man who understood entirely this sense of perpetual captivity.

“You look chipper,” I said.

“The initial hearing went very well,” he said. “I feel a little less likely to be booted out now. Henge is being looked into and that can only show me in a good light.”

“Oh that’s wonderful news,” I said. “So mother’s angry visit to the hospital and my anonymous letters might have helped.”

“Perhaps they did,” he smiled. “But it’s not over yet. Even if I am totally exonerated, I feel a bit betrayed. The place won’t feel the same. What can I do? Just go back and watch it all go wrong again?”

I opened my mouth but John was the first to speak.

“Why don’t you write things as well? Then you can both live together and be writers. You could write about puking.”

Live together and write together. What was the boy saying? I frowned very hard and meaningfully at Laurence. Don’t get any ideas, it told him. It’s just a child talking. Life isn’t that simple or successful.

And I was almost grateful then, when I suddenly heard Peony grinding my gears as the others arrived back from their baiting session.

*

As I write this, I watch the blossom spiral lazily to the lawn. The year is fattening up again and at speed. I have a new book to launch very soon. But I’m restless and full of doubts once more, not taken in at all by the unfurling of things, the newness. It’s not new at all. It’s all just the same reminder of one’s irrelevance.

I am constantly distracted from my work by the people in my life. But maybe what I thought were distractions are the true life after all and the rest is a sham. Is it finally time to give up?

A doctor confesses.

“You’ve been groping patients, haven’t you!”

(I’d worked up a hell of a head of steam, you see.)

“What! No I haven’t. Have you seen my patients?”

“Oh so you mean you would have groped them had they been young and pretty?”

Dr Lorenz appeared genuinely caught out.

“No, I don’t mean that at all,” he gasped. “What makes you think I did that?”

“Because I went to look for you at the hospital and they told me you were suspended and that there was some kind of investigation.”

There. It was out. Laurence now knew that I knew and this moment was a very low one for both of us. There was a heavy silence for a half minute and then he said:

“I should have told you. I’m sorry. I was too ashamed. I couldn’t speak to you.”

“I’m about to cry, Laurence, I really am. I thought I was getting to know you. I thought you’d be a ….well, a good friend.”

“Shall I tell you why I’ve been suspended?”

“Your behaviour sickens me. Do you hear me? It sickens me.”

“Can you stop for a minute? I’m not a pervert. Don’t you want to hear my side?”

“I don’t know that I want to talk to you at all.”

“Well that’s fine.”

And so we both waited for the deadened air around us to revive again. It was a long time coming and I found my facial muscles were so rigid with indignation that I couldn’t speak. So he did.

“I was suspended because I went to a newspaper. I’d been looking into things and realised that Dr Henge’s malpractice had cost the NHS somewhere around ninety thousand pounds of pointless treatment. Most of it to your mother, while we’re on the subject. And I stupidly used my own name and was quoted in The Telegraph. And even more stupidly I accused our manager of trying to cover the whole thing up and being on the verge of paying out a fortune in compensation. I love the NHS, you know. I really do. There’s nothing like it in the world. I thought I was just protecting it.”

Can a heart sink so fast? I felt quite helpless with stupidity all of a sudden.

“They can’t sack you for that, can they?”

“They can suspend me and in the meantime they can ruin my reputation. But I didn’t think they’d sunk that low, to accuse me of groping patients.”

“Ah,” I said ruefully. No one had actually accused him of groping, come to think of it. In fact, I may well have put the idea into Mrs Harkness’ head.

Oh Dr Lorenz. What had I done?

“You never tried to grope me,” I complained.

“I’d love to grope you!”

“Well why didn’t you?”

“Cos you always want to meet in the bloody cemetery with your dog as some chaperone.”

“I’m too embarrassed to take you home. It’s full of my family.”

And he gave a tragic little laugh. “Well we’ve got that much in common.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mother lives with me.”

“Oh how funny. Just like mine. Is it an ordeal?”

“It’s hell. And my sister, too. She’s been a waster all her life and now seems to think my house is a kind of family home and that she belongs in it. She’s into alternative health.”

“Oh I’m so sorry,” I commiserated and then, in case it made him feel any better: “My brother’s into Cybermen. My daughter is also semi-permanent, as is her young ward, John, who is a darling but could do with a proper family home. No chance of that.”

“Shall we run away?” he asked.

“I’m not the running away type,” I told him with even greater sorrow. “I’ve tried. They catch up with you somehow or other. But it’s a nice idea, isn’t it.”

You could almost hear the smile.

“It is. It’s a very nice idea.”

And so, as ever, I picked myself up. That’s me all over.

“You know what we’re going to do?”

“What?” he asked.

“We’re going to clear your name, Laurence. We’re going to fight fire with fire.”

They service the public.

There was a bit of a scene at school this morning.

When John and I arrived, we were confronted by closed gates and a small crowd with leaflets.

I didn’t recognise any of the people in the crowd and hadn’t a clue what they were doing there.

“Excuse me, we need to get in,” I said, trying to push past a young woman in a very sleek, claret overcoat.

“It’s closed. We’re on strike.”

“What!” It was news to me.

“There was a letter. And it was on the local news last night.”

I found her unnecessarily smug.

“I didn’t get any letter,” I said.

John piped up. “Hey look! it’s in my bag.”

At this the young woman increased her smugness by several percent.

“This is very inconvenient,” I told her. I had intended to spend the day tracking down Laurence.

The young woman gasped at my callousness.

“Well I’m sorry but most parents back us, actually.”

“How do you know?”

“Because they know that our pay and conditions affect the quality of our teaching.”

John pulled me down to his level. He seemed very concerned about this statement.

“That’s Miss Cutting. I think her pay and conditions must be terrible.”

Sometimes you can’t stifle a laugh and nor should you when someone is as po-faced as Miss Cutting. I laughed richly an inch from her nose.

We turned on our heels and left.

*

And so John came with me on the bus all the way to the hospital and nobody stopped us going up to Dr Lorenz’s department and we waited on the chairs among the overweight, elderly ladies and enjoyed a copy of Hello together.

I felt particularly sorry for a wet-eyed woman opposite us who held a wad of tissues stubbornly to her neck, even while attempting to flick through a magazine with the other hand. John and I tried discreetly to catch a glimpse of what was under the tissues but they never left her throat.

A nurse called: “Mrs Harkness.”

Our wet-eyed lady stood, with some difficulty, and told us (as though she were merely continuing a conversation with us): “This place is a joke. It’s never been the same since my Dr Henge left.”

Mrs Harkness … Mrs Harkness. I knew that name.

I leapt up to catch the nurse’s arm before he escorted Mrs Harkness into a side room.

“I wonder, is Dr Lorenz here today?”

The young man appeared puzzled.

“Have you got an appointment with him?”

“No, I came on the off-chance.”

He looked at Mrs Harkness and Mrs Harkness looked straight back at him, the bundle of tissues still firmly attached to her neck.

“Oh don’t you know?” asked Mrs Harkness and reached out her free hand to pat my arm.

I looked in panic at the dolorous face of the young nurse.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly and in profound sympathy.

“Oh my God,” I cried out. “He’s died! Why did no one tell me?”

Mrs Harkness frowned and replaced one hand with the other at her neck.

“What? He’s not dead. He’s been suspended pending enquiries into his conduct.”

John was now by my side, burying his head in my thigh. He wasn’t liking this, I could tell. But I had to know. I really had to.

“He’s not… please tell me he’s not… Oh please don’t let him be a groper.”

Mrs Harkness raised a superior eyebrow.

“Oh a groper as well, is he? Disgusting. Let’s just say my Dr Henge never took liberties with his patients.”

And she and the nurse paraded off and left us in front of a hostile audience of tutting women. You could hear the word “groper” being passed breathlessly about as we fled down the corridor.

I’m not as bad as Alfons, surely.

Tags

I woke up in the middle of last night with my heart thumping. Could it be possible that my books are as awful as those of Julius Pettigrain, Jack Stanza and Martin Cornfed?

I’ve spent the past week re-proofing Alfons’ oeuvre – written under those absurd pseudonyms – and all that’s happened is that my heart has filled with doubt about my own work. If this vain idiot can’t see how awful he is, then perhaps neither can I. And even if I’m not that bad, won’t people assume I am?

And yet my readers seem rather fond of my stories. Are they lying? Are they being polite? Disastrously kind?

When I got up, I had a desire to rid myself of the Pettigrain/Stanza/Cornfed books once and for all (I have been editing existing books, not manuscripts, and I don’t believe there’s a single page that hasn’t got a pencil mark of some sort on it), so I stuffed them in a plastic bag and left them outside Peony’s door for her to return next time she and Alfons “communed”.

I had restricted myself to grammatical errors, not stylistic ones. I didn’t have the stomach to dissuade him from some of his more colourful dialogue. Besides, so much of it is hilarious. I wasn’t going to deprive potential readers of gems like: “You’re so easy to read, Pamflett.”

I explained that one to John as we walked to school this morning and we had a good old chortle. When I got back, Peony was at the kitchen table prodding away at her phone.

“You know, you ought to tweet, Mum. It’ll get your name about a bit.”

My spirits were already low. (I’ll tell you why in a moment.)

“I wouldn’t know what to tweet about,” I told her, sitting down to finish her crusts. “I mean, what on earth do people have to say to each other every ten minutes that’s so important?”

“Err wake up. It’s the way we communicate with each other these days. Great thoughts are no longer etched on tablets of stone, oh ancient mother of mine. Now ordinary people can share their eureka moments with a huge audience.”

“You’ve just tweeted something, haven’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Well, go on. Let’s hear it.”

She composed herself and stifled her grin.

“I wrote: Is there anything worse than a coleslaw burp?”

“Is that it? Is that what you’ve shared with your admiring followers?”

“It’s already got seventy five likes and earned me dozens of new followers. I’m causing a bit of storm actually, with people chucking in their own contributions. Some bloke called Eddie Bottram claims a mackerel burp is worse. That’s caused a bit of a backlash, let me tell you.”

I waited a moment.

“I’m going to my study,” I told her and got up.

“You can’t,” she called after me. “Grunma is doing her pilates in there and doesn’t like being disturbed.”

*

Where can I go in my own house? Who do I turn to for sympathy, for  companionship?

And that’s why I was so low this morning. You see, as I had walked back from taking John to school, I had called Laurence on my mobile. I hadn’t talked to him since Mother had booted him out and wanted to reassure him that she was senile.

But a woman answered his home number and told me that he would be away for a long time.

It wasn’t the fact that a woman answered that upset me, but the words “a long time”.

A long time.

But it took such a long, long time to find you, Dr Lorenz, and now you’re gone and even Ken Tray refuses to come out in the morning, because you’re not there to meet us in the cemetery.

Even Ken Tray refuses to come out.

Even Ken Tray refuses to come out.

The Terror of Malakhstan

Plankton is the publishing “company” owned by Alfons, Peony’s sexual partner (not boyfriend). I’ve looked up the web site and there appear to be seven books already published by them. I won’t lie. They’re not my kind of read. I don’t really belong on their list. But Peony has been telling Alfons that he has to expand and that humour is the way forward.

I was drawn to a thriller called Absorbed. Its blurb read: British agent Mike Pamflett is captured by terrorists in remote Malahkstan and re-educated in their cause before being shipped back home. Can he stop himself reeking havoc on the streets of Totnes?

“It’s spelt ‘wreaking’,” I told Peony.

“I’ll let him know,” she said. “He’s foreign, remember. His English is patchy. It’s a one-man band. He has to do the editing, cover design, everything.”

“He edits the books himself?”

“I just said so.”

“You also just said his English was patchy.”

“He’s enterprising.”

“Do you know what enterprising means?”

“No idea.”

“Oh and one more thing, the picture he uses for his logo is of krill not plankton.”

“Oh it’s all small marine life. What does it matter?”

*

And so she dragged me in to meet Alfons at his work place, which is a smallish room above a DIY shop on the high street. (I really thought he might be based in town and got a little dressed up.)

“I’ll hang about if you don’t mind, Alfons,” said Peony. “Me being the agent.”

He nodded his approval and his fine, transparent hair fluttered about his temples.

“I have read your books,” he set off. “They are very funny and charming, are they?”

(Don’t be put off, as I was at first, by the way he ends his sentences. He can’t seem to help himself and no one appears to have put him right so it’s probably too late for me to try.)

“Thank you,” I said. “And I’ve had a look at your list and I’m not sure…”

“You’ve read some of our books? No wonder our sales figures showed that unexpected leap, are you?”

“Always happy to help a local business,” I said. “I found myself absorbed by Absorbed.”

“You liked what you read, are you?”

“It was a unique piece of writing. You can’t help but wonder what the author, Julius Pettigrain, will come up with next.”

Alfons showed some pleasure at long last and actually I wished he hadn’t. It was rather revolting and involved him snorting. Which emboldened me to add:

“You know the book is riddled with spelling mistakes and there’s barely a nod to proper grammar. Who edited it?”

“Well I did,” he said.

“What about the author, though? He must be illiterate. Although a perfectly competent story-teller, I suppose.”

At this he slapped his hand on his desk top and, still apparently jovial, declared: “I am the author. And I have chosen a very manly English name, isn’t he!”

*

And so I have come away with a commission in the form of some paid work. Peony, my agent, sniffing out a new line of business, got me to commit to re-editing the books, all of which appear to have been written by Alfons under a series of ludicrous pseudonyms. He will pay me – and Peony seems to think that she secured something remarkable here – a fee of £122 to re-edit the lot. It will cost the fool thousands to get them reprinted but his vanity should cushion that particular fall. I might ask John to redesign the covers while I’m at it. He’ll almost certainly come up with something more interesting than the knives, blood and breasts that are the current theme.

When we got home I very sweetly asked my daughter:

“Peony, is it alright if I sack you now or should we let your imaginary contract run to the end of the month?”

“Tuh,” she said, dismissing the very idea. “It’s a job for life, Mum, don’t worry about that. Oh and don’t forget that I get a cut of that £122.”

Mother emerged from the living room and met us in the hall. She had a look of triumph about her.

“You’ll never guess what,” she trilled. “That cadaverous half-wit of a doctor, Lorenz, appeared on our doorstep while you were out, no doubt coming to seek forgiveness. I sent him off with a whole colony of fleas in each ear. I told him he’d never be welcome in this house.”

“Oh,” I said and only I heard the tear of exasperation in my voice. “But it’s my house,” I protested weakly.

“Yes!” she proclaimed. “And I told him you felt exactly the same way and would throw a shoe at him if he ever dared come back.”