Short Stories

The Crow who Answered the Phone ... very long

Moody and Gay ... very long

Nights of Rhodes ... very short

Jamie O’Neill home
At Swim, Two Boys
Short Stories

Short Stories

Every sound, no matter how tiny, carries a meaning, no matter how slight. And that meaning is definite as the time told by the chimes of a church clock.

For instance, that particular creak coming from the kitchen means Gay is opening the saucepan cupboard, whose pintle is warped. That chink, followed by a series of thuds, means Gay has selected the six-pint pan that’s too awkward to lift in one go. The strength of the gush indicates five pints of water. That’s the sifting of salt, that other the swish of gas igniting. Taken together, they tell that Gay is cooking pasta, which in turn means the sauce is nearly ready, that it’s bolognese for spaghetti, that supper will soon be served. And if that is all true, which ineluctably it is, then it must be a Wednesday, be the evening, approaching eight o’clock: and all is well in Flat 2a, 34 Bramham Gardens, London SW5.

Every sound has a meaning and cumulatively they order the world.

Moody scratched his ear. It took sixteen minutes for their favoured brand of spaghetti: time enough to delineate a comma. He considered the verse he was working on, took a breath; then braved a pen stroke. His style had become more florid of late. What does that mean, Moody had enquired. Florid, his agent explained: flowery, ornate. No, I mean in terms of good or bad. She thought about that, for nearly an entire breadstick. Finally, she shrugged. ‘Let’s face it, whatever you do it’ll sell.’ He had frowned then, but Dorothy had continued chewing. She scrunched the breadstick wrapper, tossed it to the ashtray. ‘Leastways,’ she added, ‘I’ll sell it.’

A sudden din in the kitchen came sounding alarums. Ink bubbled on Moody’s nib. What was that noise? His head strained horsily forward, right ear arced. Banging of cupboards, a brush shuffled towards its pan. Something had dropped, shattered on the tiles. What? Clink-clink-clink came the tell-tale sounds. Then the dental clicks of Gay rebuking himself as chunk-clunk, the glass scuttled into the bin. Moody afforded a partial relaxation. Water-beaker, he said, half-mutter half-mime. The sliding of the glass cabinet – elaborate squeak – where Gay sought a replacement, was superfluous, though considerate, confirmation.

No mop, he noted. Therefore no spillage. Good. He read over the verse once more:

Then can I greeve at greevances fore-gon,
And heavily from woe to woe tell ore
The sad account of fore-bemoned mone,
Which I new pay

... till his eyes fell heavily on the uncompleted comma. Though he earned his living from it, he distrusted poetry. In its presence he felt uncomfortable as when eating at a strange table with other tables behind, or like the man in the front row who doesn’t get the joke. Now he could hear the blood in his temples; within him came a dullness, like distant traffic. He did not know what Shakespeare meant – and for a moment he might be a schoolboy again. He replaced the pen in its well. Tap, said the nib, hitting bottom.

Shakespeare with his ABAB, CDCD, EFEF, GG finish – all so much wallpaper against the overwhelming immediacy of sound.

For Moody had made a discovery about sound. Being incidental, it was innocent of stealth. Poetry, which he regarded merely as polished speech written down – what more was it than man’s customary trick of twisting the world to his own ambivalence? Who could tell what a poet might mean if he claimed to be preparing a meal? Whereas the sounds coming from the kitchen were incontrovertible.

The unfinished comma hung on the page like an undropped tear. But Moody had done with poetry for the day. He reversed his chair on its castors – how fragile the creak of leather – and rose. As he ambled about the room, his movements were muted, deft. Outside through the window it was autumn, trees stood amber or bare in the gardens. When the traffic lapsed he could hear – or imagined he could hear – the groan of their boughs in the wind. Inside too it was autumnal, the gloom of wood and textile reciprocating his stopped steps.

On rosewood shelves in an alcove stood his works, elegant volumes in velvety colours – burgundy, mulberry, verdigris, mustard – like a walk through muddy woods. Half-bound in morocco and buckram with their titles gold-tooled on the spines: Gray’s Elegy, Tennyson’s Morte, Coleridge’s Mariner, Blake’s Songs, Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey ... the classics of English verse. And all by Moody and Gay. Soon, next year, summer perhaps, a companion would join them, of remoter voice but in complementary tone, more gold-leaf on the spine, this time announcing Shakespeare’s Sonnets ... by Moody and Gay. Sometimes he found it comical, this multiple attribution. At other times he was appalled. Don’t shoot me, he wanted to say, I only stain paper. But there they stood, each deckle-edged page florid with calligraphy and fine with line drawings, Moody’s and Gay’s respectively, a treasury of man’s – not art, but artfulness.

... And all more hollow than sounding brass.

He waited by the window. Autumn had once been their favoured season. He relished the chatter of macintoshes in the street, the homely chafing of scarves. Then, how delicious to be warm and actually indoors whilst rain pelted the windows. He felt protected, like a schoolboy kept home with a cold. But now he was unsure of autumn. Another resonance had attached to the season, a distortive echo that was sometimes – very almost – a hurt.

It was in the autumn three years ago that he had quarrelled with Gay.

A final clatter from the kitchen meant Gay had taken up his supper tray. Moody padded to the door, pressed his ear against the panel. Slipslop of slippers traipsing the corridor; then scrunch, click-stop: Gay had secured his door. Silence, almost. The way was clear.

Moody checked his clock. It was eight sharp. He didn’t look for the time – supper was always at eight – but merely to count the minutes before he would venture himself to the kitchen. It was a courtesy, one that Gay in his turn extended to Moody on his days for cooking. Neither of them had ever ordained these intervals. They had arisen – it was difficult to say how really. But certainly they were convenient, allowing each to avoid the other in the event of possible lapse – say Gay had forgotten his salt – occasioning immediate rehabitation of corridor, kitchen, corridor again.

Their lives were filled with courtesies such as these, tiny considerations which on their own, like a lone noise, might seem odd, alarming even, but which taken together made for a lifetime of harmony. And as he listened to the seconds pass with their homely, nursery tick-tock, tick-tock, this sense of decency enthused Moody like a benevolent god so that he could say to himself, admit it even, that old Gay, he wasn’t such a bad sort. ‘He’s a decent old boy is Gay.’

For what are we without decency? Monkeys with pencil-grip and wild imagination.

Tick-tock. How had these intervals arisen? He smiled at the answer that came to him. By unspoken agreement, of course.

All their agreements – indeed everything about their lives together, the rostered cooking, washing, siding, all their staggered concourse, two middle-aged men cohabiting one mansion-block apartment – everything was unspoken. It had been that way for three years.

Moody straightened. The interval had passed. He pulled the handle a whisper, stole an ear outside. Scraping came from the room across the way, muffled but still distinct in its significance: cutlery on crockery, Gay was busy at supper. Moody took a breath, then scrunched down on the handle, banged open the door. Wildly he bounded into the corridor. Thump-thump-thump went his brogues on the matting, then squeak-squeak as leather turned on tiles. Noise was his gonfalon: loudly he entered the empty kitchen.

He wheeled round. Sometimes it seemed unlikely that life – decent, settled life – could have continued in Flat 2a unaided by speech. And yet it had. The tray on the table told a candid tale: pasta al dente, sauce rich but not too viscous, napkin, cutlery in its place, all kept warm by a hot-plate fuelled by night-candles, faintly, basilically, scented.

Unlikely perhaps; but more often it appeared a triumph of ingenuity. The brain is naturally an automatic dictionary, deciphering speech into meaning. But with them, the brain had outgrown ambiguous speech, had become a lexicon of stridor. They were semiologists of clunks and clicks, so that the definienda of gush, popple and scrape were transformed through almost their clairaudient ears to precise definitions: water poured, water boiled, the hot-plate was ignited by a safety-match. In short, supper was served. The silent kitchen said so.

The silence, which to avoid all taint of stealth, his presence must shatter. He rattled up his tray, stamped back into the corridor, clattered into his room, plunked the tray on his desk – sclatter – then grabbed the door-handle, swung it till it nearly banged closed, yaawn ... then – clatch! – precisely homed the latch. He stood a moment as though this turmoil had winded him. Din resounded into muffledness. An autumn still returned to the room like a light dimming, like leaves settling from an eddy of wind.

He moved to his desk, eased into the chair. He released the napkin, separated fork from spoon. Save for the immediate cutlery and the distant bombination of Earl’s Court, he ate in silence.

Moody had never had a nickname. At school it was always Moody. Or rather ‘Moo-dy’, uttered in exasperated cadence, as when he ran with the ball instead of kicking it: ‘Moo-dy ... ‘ Most of the boys were on first-name terms; but then, a breed apart, stood those shining youths on whom society had smiled with soubriquets. Ranker was one he particularly remembered, Josser another. These boys he imagined in outlandish performance, beheld in torchlight by a hush of fellows, as wickedly they proved the justice of their names. What this performance entailed exactly he was never sure, but for some reason he associated it with the face. Hours on end he practised before his mirror, pulling his muscles this way and that, in methodical search to joss or to rank. But no matter the contortion, his familiarity prevailed. Moody, it seemed, was all he would be.

Except in dreams or day-dreams when he found himself the centre of attention – aloft on a bench in a changing room, say, or by the deep end of the pool – when to envious cheers and rising applause, he ranked and jossed outrageously.

Then as a scholarship boy at university, ‘I’m Moody,’ he said to his room-mate. ‘Yes, you probably are,’ said the other. His mother had travelled with him on the train, hurrying to finish an Aran cardigan she was knitting for him. She inspected his room. ‘Moo-dy,’ said his room-mate. ‘And did you have to bring an entire tea service with you?’ This windy being – endowed with Donger for a nickname – drank wine from pilfered tumblers and slept in his rugby shorts. ‘Pyjamas and cardigan?’ as he turned out the light. ‘Moo-dy.’

So he remained until one evening at a tutor’s he overheard some girls chatting in an alcove. ‘Moody’s gay,’ they tittered. It came to him slowly, through the course of similar encounters, what was meant by this apparently oxymoronic coupling. It was the one occasion when he laughed at his name. Of course he had known from a young age that he was homosexual, inclined if not practising. Now he smirked in the privacy of a lavatory. ‘Moody by name, but gay by nature.’ And he laughed, quickly.

That was in 1975, when his mind was elastic enough to accept neologisms. Now, fifteen years on, he doubted he could adopt a new phrase any more than he would sample a trial product offered gratis at a grocery.

His sexuality did not bother him overly. He didn’t consider it worse than anything else about him, merely confirmed him in his sense of dirtiness. For everything one did to oneself was dirty really. Picking the nose, scratching where it really itched, smelling down there – all dirty. And that’s all sex was: something he did to himself.

Then finally he met Gay – two slender and nodding fuchsias pinioned against the exposed wall of the union – and it seemed inevitable they should become friends. Hello, I’m Moody – Hello, I’m Gay. A frisson passed between their fingers, Gay’s embarrassment over his name reciprocating Moody’s own. In their awkward eyes a recognition of common disposition: we’re both moody, we’re both gay. They never became lovers, though they tried it once, sticklers in a narrow bed to which morning came as deliverance. Indeed, had either been possessed of an unequal confidence, they would surely have become rivals, each outbidding the other for some athletic and no doubt nicknamed attention. But as things stood they settled for failure in common. They fancied, but only in the nostalgic fashion of romantics, to whom success – ambition even – is a worrisome intruder.

Sometimes Moody wondered why had he gone to university. In the end, so he wouldn’t rue his loss had he not, he supposed.

It was Dorothy, who graduated with them, who proposed the books. Neither had studied anything of the fine arts: 2/2s in the humanities were their lot. They had expected to become teachers in grammar schools back home or in whatever minor public schools would take them. But Dorothy, eyeing up the doodles in their note-books, on the serviettes each insisted on at tea-time, had suggested courses in the local technical college. Arranged them, in fact: calligraphy for Moody, illustration for Gay, printing techniques for both. Already she envisaged a career in a literary agency: catalyst rather than creator.

She had a nose for business. Though ‘No dear,’ she once said, ‘I made my reputation with you. My money I make elsewhere.’ She gave the impression that she took them on, then kept them, for some sentimental reason divorced from percentages. ‘The two of you – I don’t know – I find you antique.’

For their first enterprise she chose Tintern Abbey – they had done Wordsworth in their final year. Throughout that summer and into the autumn, the rolling heat wave of ‘76, they sweated at their sheets. In the end Dorothy had to snatch the pages from them. ‘Perfect,’ she announced, though it transpired she referred to the timing. She had a book-binder in tow who was about to go under. ‘He’ll owe me for life if this one comes off.’

And off it came. She had gauged her market well: America, India, the Far East – wherever dwelt those wealthy alumni who on exchange at Oxford had fallen for England. ‘It’s like costume drama on ITV: our biggest export.’

‘You realize we’re on to a winner here,’ she expanded at their celebratory lunch. ‘It’s the collector’s syndrome. Buy one, they’re hooked.’ Her mouth snapped closed like a trap. ‘What’s more, we have a thousand years of literature to pick through. Thousand years? We’ve got the Bible! Book of Kells, they did it. You guys – ‘ she resumed pulling on some salad that had lodged in her teeth: there was generally something stuck there – ‘you’re set up for life.’

After the first book she put them on a subscription system. She announced the title and when enough subscribers had bitten – it never took long – they started on their pleasing toil. Nowadays there was a market in Moody and Gay in salerooms across the globe. ‘I’m not an artist,’ Moody had corrected somebody once, on his way down the stairs: ‘I furnish coffee tables with dead men’s rhymes.’

‘Live it up,’ said Dorothy. But Moody was relieved that success didn’t alter Gay. Though life wasn’t difficult, living it remained so. They had money enough not to worry and a certain measure of fame – if sale-room notices and honorary membership of the Society of Scribes and Illuminators could be held of account. They bought the flat in Earl’s Court – on a ludicrously short lease, but neither expected anyone to leave it to – and refurbished it to their requirements. It seemed to Moody the bulk of their income went on pension schemes, insurance, fully-levied taxes promptly paid. Neither of them had ever been sociable: they still called each other by their surnames. Their greatest pleasure was to amble through the parks of London, naming birds and flowers, collecting blossom for their stark arrangements. They played a game of inventing collective nouns: a scatter of litter, a championship of boys. Sex was restricted to blue moons and lavatories, where the sense of dirt, and the smell of it, might induce a tiny revolt. Twice a year, spring and autumn, they holidayed at the quieter coastal resorts. Christmases they spent with their remaining parents in the provinces. Housework, shopping, cooking, illuminating the classics of English verse – life went on.

‘We’re blessed,’ said Gay once. ‘I know,’ said Moody. ‘I know,’ said Gay. ‘I know.’

Affection – the most English of sentiments – was what bound them. So mild and trusting compared to the Euro-passion of love. And they showed their affection not in kisses but in small courtesies often repaid: a spray of bluebells in a bedroom, clearing up after oneself, a surprise cocoa before bed ... Affection fits snugly on most English men, like slippers at a fire.

Until one night three years ago when affection ceased.

Over his tray, at his desk, in his room, Moody sighed. Three years, or thereabouts. He had forgotten the exact day, so that anniversaries – no, not anniversaries – so that the duration of the quarrel he knew only vaguely. Three years, more or less.

They had been at some unusual do, publisher’s reception, their tenth book or the like. They’d been given hock. Unused to drink, he supposed they got tipsy. They quarrelled. They sat upstairs on the bus home. The night was miserable with rain. He could picture even now the sopping branches that scraped against the windows, skinned twigs like a violence of veins. Grimy chestnut leaves stuck on the glass, eeried by the street-lights to helpless hands that slithered touchlessly past. Beside him, sensed rather than seen, Gay was loud with silence. And when they walked round the corner from the bus to their street, they kept perfect time, marching side by side like clockwork soldiers. They denied each other the courtesy even of a damn. But Moody knew to mutter would be to pierce the mood, to recognize his anger wasn’t total, that this hurt could pass: that all affection had not been shattered on the publisher’s parquet floor.

Inside the flat, he marched straight to his room. A crashing bang came from across the corridor as Gay slammed his door. So Moody slammed his. Silence. And in his mind, the thundering reverberation of their words.

Days passed. Nothing was cleaned properly, plates piled in the kitchen. They ate cereal for breakfast and from tins for tea. It ailed him, all this convenience rubbish. But the compulsion to avoid each other in the communal rooms brooked no politesse. His face was unevenly shaven and he spent hours waiting to visit the lavatory. Their flower arrangements sagged horribly and dropped withered dead bits on the dusty rugs. Was there no end to the indecencies to which they were committed?

One morning, Moody heard Gay unusually loudly banging pans in the kitchen. He waited till Gay was safely in his room, then crept out to investigate. To his surprise he found a tray by the kitchen door. It had a full English breakfast on it. It couldn’t be Gay’s. He could hear Gay scraping away behind his door. He picked up the tray and sneaked back to his room. The bacon was grilled to the pink of perfection.

Afterwards, he heard Gay deposit his plates by the sink. Moody bided, tapping his fingers on the desk. When he carried his tray to the kitchen, he found that his movements too were unusually noiseful. Should he? He should. He washed his plates, then Gay’s, then he scrubbed the entire kitchen. He took a break, made a cup of tea. Why not, he thought, and made one for Gay. Milk in last, the way he liked it. He departed with his cup to his room. Sure enough, Gay came out. Has he found the tea? Surely he’s found it by now. Presently he heard the Hoover splutter into action. Yes! Gay was starting on the living room. Gay’s break then, and Moody tackled the dining room. In this manner and in no time at all, they had the flat polished, vacuumed, sparkling span-new.

Aha! Moody was exultant. The silence would continue, but decency might yet prevail. And why not? How much hurt had speech caused over the years? How many wars from misunderstanding, disinformation, the smooth but double tongue? All talk costs lives. Yes! Let speech pay the price for once. And the deceitful ambiloquy of discourse, the Judas kiss of words, the shameless incontinent palaver of it all – gone! No more speech in Flat 2a. In its stead the untrained truth. Brroom said the Hoover, tsss hissed the polish, and decency shone from the surfaces.

Some days later he was arranging flowers for the sitting room. Neither of them used the sitting room now, of course, but it was important to keep up the civilities. His spray was of honesty, ferns and red roses, difficult components but normally well within his facility. They wouldn’t come right. Suddenly, he recalled a book Dorothy had given him years before, The Language of Flowers. He looked it up. ‘Honesty’, said the honesty plainly enough. But ‘Beguilement’, said the ferns. While the roses asked, ‘Will you be my true love?’ Moody shook his head. It was a sacrifice, but they had to go. He dropped the flowers in the bin, and two days later was gratified to see Gay had ceased his arrangements too. Hmm, said the rooms.

Three years ago, thought Moody. Three years of what? Of the resonance of those slamming doors. Oh well. He gathered up his tray. Gay had cooked: it was Moody’s turn to clear away.

At the sink he was startled by a flash of his face in the tiles. He was often surprised by these glimpses. Everything was there – chin, mouth, nose, eyes, widow’s peak, all roughly in the right place, within the accepted parameters of size and shape. Momentarily, however, he wouldn’t recognize himself. The normality shocked him. Padding about his room or clattering through the corridor, so intent was he on sound that the face he imagined was crowded by ears. Tiny eyes, pinholes for nostrils, his mouth squeezed to a pout, all crowded in by giant rhomboid ears which flapped as he moved like the wings of some stranded, mythological beast. It was a conceit, of course, and the shock of his true reflexion lasted but moments. Yet still, inside the skin that simpered or smiled, moody or gay, he knew himself for an ugly beast with rank and scaly wings for ears.

The pots clanged and the water plashed in the sink. Washing-up for Moody held a double benison: in both form and meaning, order was coaxed from discord.

On the table, neatly folded, Gay had left their newspaper. Moody looked forward to a quiet read in his comfy chair. It had been Gay’s turn to have the paper during the day which meant various items of interest would have been marked out in red pen to save Moody profitless poring at night. Yet another of their courtesies. They took The Times, but actually Moody would have preferred the Independent. He admired its strong, clean type, a version of classic Times Roman. The Times itself had changed recently to a new typography, the truncated descenders and ascenders of which he found unpleasantly cramped. Times Millennium, it was called. He supposed everything would be millennial for the next few years. Books, films, fashion, religion. Another thing to get used to.

Yes, he would have preferred the Independent, but it was difficult to arrange the switch. He couldn’t confer with Gay, though he suspected he might feel the same, and a fait accompli would be dishonourable. The Times it had to remain.

The headline in the old schoolboy joke crossed his mind: ‘Defenestration at Prague – Thirty Years War Breaks Out!’ And it was true, too. Who can tell the consequences of his actions, the tragedies that are born of the trivial? If everyone had known at that window in Prague that three decades of devastation would follow, surely they would have taken stock, cooled tempers, was this really necessary? But wars, like silences, become apparent only in retrospect. Besides, what would he have done? Said sorry? Would Gay have said sorry too? Hardly. He slammed his door first. And it only takes one not to tango. What could he do? Though he no longer recounted thunderously in his mind the horrible words that had been spoken, merely the thought of the quarrel brought back the betrayal, the panic of finding trust to be porous. He wasn’t sorry, he was hurt, still. There was no way out. Overnight, it seemed, the silence like some fantastical shrub had delved to their fundament where its roots held fast to the abysmal rock. What could he have done?

Well, he might have made a note of the date.

He finished his chores, picked up the newspaper. Before he switched out the light, he surveyed the kitchen. It sparkled like sunlight. Click came the dark; and he thumped into the corridor.

Tomorrow he had lunch with Dorothy. It would be a trial, as it always was. But it made a change.

Sometimes, late at night, at that worrisome time when clocks tick louder, just before sleep, Moody would remember a lady they had met at their favoured guest-house in Morecambe Bay. ‘I’m just going to lie down for a while,’ she would announce in the residents’ lounge, ‘to relieve the monotony.’

Next morning, just as Moody was setting off, he was halted in mid-thump by odd noises coming from Gay’s room. Shifting and stretching, a man at strenuous work, and – there it was again – creak-creak went the bed. What could Gay be up to? He leant an ear to investigate but unaccountably found that he had reached to the wall for support. The scrape of his nail on wallpaper filled one ear. Creak-creak-creak assailed the other. Moody closed his eyes. In the shapeless dark, the dread unknown reached out its hug to hold him – when of a sudden he recalled it was Monday. Of course! Gay was changing his sheets. He always changed his sheets on Monday. How silly. For a moment there – well, fancy forgetting that. Am I eating properly? I can’t be sleeping well.

He resumed his progress to the front door. Tut-tut, he was still chiding himself. At the hall stand he crackled into his macintosh. A slight pause – all still well? – then he unlatched extravagantly the door. It clacked home behind. His tread dampened progressively on the stairs, till finally he was safely quietly outdoors. There’s a nip in the air, he thought, and he pulled his collar closer to his throat.

Skilfully he manoeuvred up the Earl’s Court Road. He stayed on the east pavement as there were fewer dawdlers there and the litter was paper rather than the predominantly take-away refuse of the west side. Conversely, the fumes were worse on the east. But he lived with that. The noise was just about equal whichever pavement you chose. As far as possible he kept a one-foot radius of space about him. Odd people would single him out, intent on jostling, but he was usually one step beside them. He crossed at the pedestrian crossing, stifling the instinct to run when the little green man flashed with his urgent, rather German, bleeping. He bought his ticket with the correct change, then plunged into Earl’s Court Station.

It was eleven o’clock in the morning and his lunch date with Dorothy wasn’t until 12.30. Even then, the restaurant was only one stop away, off High Street Ken. However, it was one of his days for being out of the flat. And he liked to be off by eleven sharp. Usually he did some shopping. Afterwards, he might pop into the studio they rented in Pimlico to attend to some intaglio or whatever. But this morning he had only an hour and a half to fill. He decided to take the Piccadilly Line to Hyde Park Corner, then walk back through the park to Kensington Gardens. Both parks pleased him: the former with its swimmingly equestrian air, the latter with the sense he felt of glancing an aristocratic privacy. With care he should arrive just on time.

He liked himself when he was out of doors. Sound, no longer imperative, could become delightfully subjunctive; and the ears he imagined inside his skin diminished almost to normal.

While he waited for the train, he was aware of a nagging suspicion that he’d forgotten something. His hand went to the collar round his throat and felt there exploratively. What could it be? He had his newspaper with him and the designs for Shakespeare to show Dorothy in his satchel. What was it? His fingers drummed a devil’s tattoo on his collarbone. The feeling of something wrong was insinuative, like that moment of suspense before an alarm bell rings. It threatened to spoil his morning.

At last he heard the rumbling of a train. He moved toward the edge, wisps of his hair fluttered in the heralding wind. The train burst into the station and he had that giddy sensation of imagined suicide; then it clattered to a halt. Humph, it said. Moody waited patiently. The West Indian voice on the Tannoy was doing its customary distorted piece about minding the gaps, stand clear of the doors, when someone shoved him rudely. ‘Whoops, girls!’ called a brazen falsetto. ‘Mind the flaps! Stand clear of the whores, please!’ The Red Sea gaped, then parted, and a young man in high heels and stockings stepped mincingly aboard. Moody swallowed, then had to follow, pushed by the crush.

Throughout the journey he could feel all eyes on him. The made-up young man sat blithely on a bench, jigging his toes to the patter of earphones, while all about him the people stared like accusative walls at Moody. How can they tell? he wanted to know. What marks me for the boy’s accomplice? Under the folds of his macintosh, he checked that his zip was closed.

And there was that other business too, still harping on his mind. He had forgotten something at home, or something at home had jarred. What was it?

It takes more than this to become a prison officer, a poster admonished sternly. A lot more. Moody unrolled his newspaper, opened it wide, like a shield. He turned the page, and the next, but he couldn’t concentrate. He could hear the blood in his temple, an onward blush.

Slowly he recalled another occasion on a tube when he’d outfaced discomfiture, and the recollection of it now settled him somewhat. He had been to Covent Garden to his ink supplier and, on the tube home, a man with a long beard and shaggy overcoat got on. He was intoning to himself so that Moody thought he was crying or telling over his private problems. Moody was not censorious. In others he considered it a sorrow, not a shame, that emotion should spill in public. But suddenly the shaggy man lifted his head and embarked on a terrifying tirade against homosexuals. How they deserved to die, that Aids was God’s judgment, remember Sodom, they should all be castrated, rounded up and left to rot. Moody’s immediate reaction was, How does he know? How can he tell? But then something – an English indignation at being harangued on everyone’s train – made him decide this wasn’t fair, not on him, but on all of us.

‘Excuse me.’ Everyone turned, and it turned out it was Moody speaking. ‘Excuse me,’ he said, ‘but you’re no advertisement.’

‘No what?’ said the man.

‘No advertisement for anything.’

The man bent down to Moody’s face. There was the expected smell of alcohol. ‘At least I’m nay queer.’ He had a mean intonation.

‘Well, at least I’m not bitter,’ said Moody. It was perhaps but the stamping of a little toe, but he felt he had marked his territory. This is where I stand.

There was a tapping on Moody’s knee and he snapped out of his recollection.

‘Tut-tut, dearie, can’t we read?’ The young man with the stockings was poised in front of him. Moody looked up, past the ripped shorts and shirts, to the glossy lips and made-up eyes that gazed like exotic almonds. Peripherally, he could see that everyone was watching him still.

The boy pointed laconically and raised his eyes. ‘On the window, dear.’ Moody turned to read the sign. Please offer this seat to an elderly or disabled ...

Moody stood up to let the little old lady with the walking stick sit down. ‘I didn’t see you there,’ he was mumbling.

The train pulled into a station.

‘Well,’ lisped the painted tart. The doors swished open, he was stepping out. ‘They do say it makes you blind.’

A skein of Canada geese flew over once, turned and splattered into the water, transformed to a squadron. When they reached the land, they would become a gaggle. High above flew a murder of crows, and gathering in the trees a murmuration of starlings. No doubt in the bushes was a skulk of foxes which would stalk by night a team of ducks. Everywhere there were children larking about, an exaltation of them.

Moody had been naming flowers all through Hyde Park, but had soon run out of species. At Kensington Gardens he switched to birds, but their numbers too were limited at this time of year. Sitting on a bench at the Round Pond now, he tried collective nouns. But nothing helped. There was something gnawing at the back of his mind and he couldn’t work out what it was. The wind had backed to an easterly and it was bitterly cold, he could feel it on his open neck. What had he left behind?

He went back to his newspaper. There was an item on limited edition books in the saleroom columns. A hedge against a rainy day? asked the insert. But all it evoked for Moody was a term his mother had used: die-by-the-hedge. He marked the item in red for Gay to read that night, but himself he couldn’t concentrate. He attended the cacophony of ducks as though only ornithomancy would divine what was wrong.

An upping of swans. Or was that when they notched them? What had he forgotten?

It wasn’t until he was entering the restaurant at 12.30 on the stroke that he remembered. Two thoughts occurred to him simultaneously. He had forgotten his scarf – and it wasn’t Monday, it was Thursday.

Dorothy always arrived late for lunch, sometimes half an hour or more. Moody would have to sit at table while waiters grew ever more solicitous, offering the bread basket for the third, fourth time. She had chosen a French restaurant, with actually French waiters. In their eyes he caught mockery. Does Madame forget Monsieur? He worried that already they wanted the table for a second sitting.

Thursday not Monday.

He picked up the wine-list and tried to concentrate. He was thirsty after the walk, but he rarely touched wine. There was water, but it still seemed unnatural to order a bottle, no matter how many minerals it might contain. On the other hand, he didn’t feel wealthy enough to ask for plain water from the tap.

Not Monday, but Thursday.

He shook his head and gazed at his surroundings: wood on walls, etched glass, caricatures hanging. There was a hub-bub of businessmen. Creak, said their briefcases opening. Immediately, his mind swung back to Gay. There was no getting away from it. Thursday not Monday. The obvious question was, Why did Gay change his sheets today? But he already knew the answer to that. All he asked was, Which painted tart does he expect to sleep there? His mind seethed with this question, interrupted only by blasts of damnation. Oh, the betrayal. Oh, the treacherous cad.

And yet, was it really Thursday? Or could it be Monday after all? Have I got everything confused? Because I certainly left home without my scarf. Newspaper – check date. But The Times at his elbow brooked no opposition: Thursday, it sneered in its new Times Millennium. Oh dear.

A waiter offered him bread. He smirked a no-thank-you. Where is she?

Except – yes – he could almost feel grateful that Dorothy was late. It gave him time to explore more innocent explanations. There had to be some if he tried hard enough. And it was his duty to try, no stones unturned. What then? What nothing! It was damnably true. Gay was entertaining strange men in clean sheets in his home behind his back. The only stones being turned were ... oh dear.

‘Oh God,’ said a voice, ‘am I late?’ There was a pat on his shoulder and Dorothy smudged him with a kiss. He winced. Why is everyone touching me unawares today?

‘Dammit Moody, you’re always so punctual.’

He’d begun to rise, but already she was sitting down. He slumped down again. She peered. ‘It is Moody, isn’t it?’

‘Who did you expect?’

‘It’s just sometimes I get you mixed up.’ She rubbed her eyes, flicked her hair, then attended to Moody’s bewildered expression. ‘Well, you are very alike.’

‘Who is?’

‘You and Gay, of course. Peas in a pod. I see you’ve got the wine-list.’

Moody flaffed his hands. ‘I didn’t know what to order.’

‘Waiter!’ But the waiters were busy. She occupied herself with her handbag. ‘Not a handbag,’ she’d told him once: ‘It’s a work station.’

‘Are we really so much alike?’ asked Moody.


‘Gay and me, of course.’

‘Peas in a pod,’ said Dorothy. ‘So how is the gay Lothario?’

‘The what?’

‘The Pope, who do you think?’

‘Do you mean Gay?’

‘Yes, Moody. He’s the illustrator who shares your address. How is he?’

Moody shook his head. His face was a knot of frustration. ‘Busy,’ he managed to say.

‘That’s what I like to hear. So, what’s it to be? Business first, play later?’ She was taking off her gloves.

Business, thought Moody. Play. ‘I’ve brought the designs if that’s what you mean.’

‘Let’s have a peek. Waiter!’ But still no luck. She shrugged. From her handbag she selected her reading glasses, tiny half-moons in fragile frames, then unrolled the vellum sheets. She looked up suddenly. ‘Everything okay?’


‘You look a bit off colour.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘You sure?’

She sought to hold him with her eyes. Moody hated it. ‘Happy as a sandboy,’ he snapped.

She seemed to accept that, began leafing through the designs. ‘You know,’ she embarked. ‘I’ve never understood what a sandboy does, and I haven’t the remotest why he should be so happy about it. The sandman, of course, puts kiddies to sleep by throwing sand in their eyes – is a sandboy his apprentice? That doesn’t explain his happiness. Sand gets in your picnic, it’s impossible to make love in the sand, and when wet it leaves an ugly stain. Beats me what there’s to be so happy about.’

A waiter sidled past and she raised her finger. ‘Waiter!’ But he didn’t hear. ‘Unless the emphasis is on boy, not sand, and merely refers to the general joie de vivre of youth.’

Oh God, thought Moody.

‘Hmm. You haven’t finished this one. And what’s this squiggly bit here?’


‘I like this capital.’


‘With the flowy bits. Capital S. When to the Sessions of sweet silent thought.’

‘Oh,’ said Moody, gloomily. ‘Majuscule, actually.’ Then he decided to blind her with his erudition. He sat up straighter. ‘Yes, what are commonly called capitals are properly majuscules. They’re adaptations from the ancient Roman monumental system.’

‘No kidding. That why they’re called capitals?’

‘Er, maybe.’ He tried again. ‘The script itself, if you study it, is quite unusual. It occurred to me Shakespeare might be referring to the law. You know, petty sessions and all that.’ He’d actually gained her attention. She took off her spectacles and held them hooked in her mouth. ‘So I modelled my script on the old cancelleresca corsiva. It was a Vatican hand, reserved for the Apostolic Chancery. For legal documents and the like.’

Her face brightened with pennies dropping. ‘You mean chancery hand! The flowery one they use in wills.’

‘Well yes, you get debased forms of everything.’ Why had he let himself in for this? ‘So anyway, it was more or less secret until Arrighi published his copybook in 1522. I had to go to the British Museum to study it.’

‘All the way to Bloomsbury.’ She donned her glasses again and inspected the vellum more closely. ‘Apostolic Chancery, you say.’

‘It’s a combination of the neo-Caroline minuscule with the perpendicular majuscules of Rome. Essentially Renaissance. The flourishes of the modern relieve the austerity of the old.’

‘All this from the word Sessions?’ She seemed genuinely taken. ‘And all along I thought it was only a love poem.’ For a moment he had the gratifying feeling that she might still praise him. But then: ‘Chancery-shmancery,’ she said, ‘it’s still pretty.’


A waiter passed and Moody flinched as she actually caught hold of his apron. ‘Waiter?’

Moment, Madame.’

She smiled stickily – ‘I’m counting’ – and released him.

Jesus wept, thought Moody.

‘How long do you think?’ she asked, businesslike again.

‘I’ve only just started on the plates.’

‘Let’s see, Gay’s stuff is coming on. Where are we? October, November, December, spring – late summer should see us in covers. And then we’re in the post. Time to cast about for the next book.’

‘So soon?’

‘What else have you got to do?’

He snorted. He was about to state he had a million and one things to be getting on with, but the waiter returned.


‘Yes, we’d like to order. This warm salad thing to start, I think; lamb chops to follow.’

Salade tiède et agneau,’ he translated, writing. ‘Monsieur?’

Moody was hurriedly reading the menu. Flustered, he said, ‘I’ll have the same.’

‘Take your time,’ said Dorothy.

But the waiter was already writing it down. ‘No, honestly, that’s what I wanted.’

‘And to drink?’

‘You drinking today, Moody?’

Probably, thought Moody. ‘No,’ he said.

‘We’ll have a bottle anyway. Something solid. How’s the house red?’

The waiter spread his hands in adversative gesture. ‘But all of our wines they are excellent.’

‘Go on then, we’ll risk it. Oh, and an amontillado to start.’

‘Very well, Madame.’

‘Oh, and an ashtray.’

Certainement.’ He swept up the menus and was off.

‘I always think,’ said Dorothy, lighting a cigarette, ‘if you come to a good restaurant, you should have the house wine. After all, if they’ve gone to the trouble of choosing something, it’s the least you can do to try it.’

Moody had no idea if she was serious or not. It seemed to go against all he imagined happiness to be. And she, surely, epitomized self-confidence. She was successful. She had personality. She wore bright clothes. Why shouldn’t she choose her own wine? But it was one of the trials of her company, that you could never tell if she was pulling your leg.

Perhaps that was the difference between them. She wanted house wine, he wanted tap water. In their different classes they amounted to the same. Except she was happy to order and would be satisfied with nothing else. Whereas he was still thirsty.

She said now: ‘Second thoughts – maybe you do need a break.’

‘Are you being serious?’

‘Why not? Holiday, even. Why don’t you fly south for the winter? Could do with some sun. Snow, even. Why don’t you ski? You can afford it.’

‘I don’t want to ski.’

‘Just a break.’

‘What I need, Dorothy, is a break from poetry.’

She peered. ‘You’d prefer prose?’

‘I’d prefer to have nothing whatever to do with words.’

‘Well, Moody, that might prove rather a tall order. You’re a calligrapher. What’re you going to calligraph? Noise?’

‘Don’t you see? It’s all so deceitful. All so – ‘ He wanted to explain, but he knew it was pointless. ‘I’m sick to death of poetry, that’s all.’

‘You mean rhymes and things?’

‘I mean this stuff here.’ And he scuffled the vellum sheets.

Dorothy looked shocked. She had been about to draw on her cigarette, but now she changed her mind. She held it before her face, thinking of something to say, then realized the ash needed tipping. She looked for the ashtray, but the waiter hadn’t brought one yet. ‘Waiter,’ she said abstractedly, and the ash fell on the floor. ‘What’s wrong with poetry, for God’s sake? Poetry’s pretty. Like saying you’re sick of flowers.’

‘That’s just it,’ said Moody. ‘It’s not like flowers at all. Flowers are simple. They only have one name and that’s it. You know where you stand.’

‘Maybe in Latin,’ she reasoned, ‘but – ‘

Moody was heedless. ‘And poetry’s not like that. It always tries to obscure things. Deceitful. Take this stuff here.’ He tapped on the vellum. ‘If all he wants to say is he’s having a bad time, why can’t he just say so? Instead of all this – all this – ‘

‘But that’s not really what the poem’s about.’

‘Well, what is it about?’

‘It’s in the last two lines, of course.’

‘I told you I haven’t finished it yet.’

‘You mean to tell me you calligraph these things without reading them first? But that’s the whole point of Shakespearean sonnets. The pay-off in the final couplet.’ She quoted from memory:

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Moody looked exasperated. ‘I mean to tell you,’ he said, ‘that it’s all lies. As though the sight of his friend, if that’s what he says, could change anything. Does the sight of your friend change anything?’

‘Depends which friend.’

He paused, then groaned, covered his eyes with his hand. ‘It wasn’t so bad at school. At least you had a teacher and meaning – somehow or other – was in his gift. “No, Moody, what Shakespeare really means is this.” Or that. Or the other. But there aren’t any teachers out here. So why can’t they keep things plain?’

‘It’s a question of style – ‘

‘Oh, style.’

‘Waiter!’ She grabbed one and thrust her burnt-down butt in his hand. ‘Take this and bring me my sherry. Now.’ The waiter sloped off. ‘What is wrong with this place? And the tables are so narrow. No wonder they call it Noah’s. Cram ‘em in, cram ‘em in. But where’s the service?’

‘They’re busy and you were late.’

‘And this is my punishment?’

‘Look,’ said Moody. He suddenly slammed his hand on the table. ‘I bang my hand and it means I’m angry. No nonsense about it.’

‘Yes, Moody, I can see you’re upset.’

‘It was supposed to be an example!’

‘Calm down!’

A waiter slipped past, sliding an ashtray on to the table. Dorothy sighed. She gestured inevitability, then lit another cigarette. ‘Don’t you see that poetry allows us an insight into the past? It tells us – ‘

‘Absurd as saying we’d learn anything about the present from a book of puzzles from WH Smith. This – ‘ and he snapped his fingers ‘ – says more and that more precisely than all the poetry in the world.’

‘Monsieur?’ Moody turned. A waiter had appeared miraculously beside him. ‘Monsieur called?’

Moody looked at his fingers, then at the waiter’s helpful smile. Across the table, Dorothy was gaping. ‘Er – yes,’ he said. ‘My friend would like an amontillado.’


Dorothy put down her fork to taste the wine. ‘Never much point tasting house wine,’ she said. ‘What’re they going to do if you don’t like it? Change the entire stock?’ She sniffed, then supped. ‘Lovely. Please ... ‘ She gestured to Moody’s glass.

The waiter leaned over to pour, and Moody found himself staring at his crotch. Gay too was probably staring at a crotch right now. Or rather, ssslurping his tongue, sssmacking his lips over one. The cad. He turned away.

‘I take your point,’ said Dorothy, munching again, ‘but don’t you think poetry is – ‘

‘Oh, forget about poetry,’ said Moody.

‘Drop the subject?’


She ate in silence a while. Then: ‘You know your trouble, Moody? You never let success go to your head. You’re so straight. Clothes you wear. You look like – not like you buy them from Oxfam – like the guy they get them from after the tragic accident. For a gay man you’re amazingly straight. Like you have creases in your pyjamas.’

‘I do not have creases in my pyjamas.’

‘But you admit you wear pyjamas?’

‘What does that prove?’

She shrugged. ‘You know the way they say fashions come back? Well, even if that jacket did come back, you’d still look quaint. You were born to be straight. Should have a good little wifey behind you, returns your books to the library on time, sharpens your nibs.’

‘It so happens I am gay. I fail to see what my wardrobe has to do with it.’

‘You’d think you’d have grown up a bit rebellious, that’s all. On anyone else, those clothes would be a rebellion. On you ... ‘

She means I’m a dowdy old queen, thought Moody, embittered by Gay. Am I? Oh dear. He sipped some wine, winced. It was always embarrassing, but she was the only person he still saw who had been present at the quarrel.

‘I wouldn’t mind,’ she resumed, refilling her glass and topping his, ‘but you’ve come to believe it now. You no longer behave like this because you enjoy it. You’ve forgotten any other way. You used to be eccentric, Moody, in a grand old tradition. Now you’re turning into just another fogey. World’s full of ‘em. You’re not in one any more, you cling to them.’

‘Cling to what, exactly?’

‘Traditions, of course.’ She chewed awkwardly over something in her mouth. ‘Have I got something stuck?’ She bared her teeth.

‘Yes,’ said Moody.

‘Thought so.’

Moody played with his wine. He felt burdened, not because of Dorothy’s chiding – he was used to that – but unaccountably so. As though the world was telling him off for something he had not done. Or if I have, he objected, it was three years ago. He felt sad. ‘You know, I was on a tube once and a horrible Northern Irishman started a long tirade against homosexuals.’

‘Did he.’


Pause. Why was he mentioning this? What was its brilliant significance anyway?

‘Well?’ Willy-nilly they were caught in the telling.

‘Well, I said no.’

She nodded. ‘You said no.’

‘He was going on about – just out of the blue, mind: he smelt of drink – about how gays should be imprisoned, incarcerated on some island. He quoted from the Bible. Aids was God’s judgment. We were all damned.’

‘And you argued with him?’

‘I said I didn’t think he was a particularly good advertisement for anything. Shouting out in public like that.’


‘He said at least he wasn’t gay. And I said at least I wasn’t bitter.’

‘You actually argued with someone. Moody on a tube. He argues. Were there witnesses?’

‘That’s what I mean. People actually encouraged me. “Hear! Hear!” they said. Five of them. Meaning me.’ He beamed proudly, though he felt also that he was close to tears. ‘I got off at the next station ... ‘ His merry-go-sadness came out in a snicker. ‘Turned out to be Knightsbridge. I had to walk all the way home. But I was that angry.’ He sniffed back a little tear. ‘And proud.’

Commiseration came over her face like sunsetting clouds. Her hand touched his on the tablecloth. He could feel the sweat on the bands of her rings. ‘Moody ... ‘ she said.

He loosed his hand and took it away. It brushed against The Times. ‘Do you know what die-by-the-hedge means?’

‘Sounds awfully morbid.’

‘It’s a word my mother used for bad meat made up to look good.’

‘Oh Moody, you are in a state. What’s wrong? Is Gay all right?’

‘I don’t know.’ And now the tears came. ‘When I left he was changing his sheets.’ But she didn’t understand – how could she? – that there was a creak-creak-creak in his room this morning and most likely a creak-creak-creak there now.

She found a tissue and handed it to him. ‘Now take a sip of wine. Do you good. That’s better. Not all in one go. Take a breather. That’s it. Now tell me. It’s about time. What was the argument about?’


‘The one with Gay.’

Argument with Gay, thought Moody, what was it about. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you mean the quarrel.’

Well, Gay had been eyeing this waiter at the party and of all things had accused Moody – or was it the other way round? Moody had been chatting to a waiter and Gay had come barging in with his insinuations. Or perhaps it was Gay who was chatting. Or was that before the quarrel, had nothing whatever to do with it? Either way, the things that were said. He hadn’t believed such things could be said. Especially from someone who he trusted to know him, whom he trusted to know so well. But the things that were said, they were – were – were – irrevocable.

‘What was said?’ prompted Dorothy.

‘I honestly can’t remember.’

He caught the wrong tube on the way home. He had meant to take the District Line to Earl’s Court, but a Circle train came first and he boarded it by accident. He wasn’t put out. There was a lot on his mind and he wished to resolve it. The Circle Line went round and round. If he thought long enough, he’d be back where he started. A young man with a blanket sat dozing opposite. He’d read somewhere that tramps buy one ticket, then spend all day circling London. Of course, they weren’t called tramps any more. Street people it was now – presumably it sounded more democratic. And tramp was far too traditional for the untold youth on the rough these days. I wonder if they’re – of a willing-to-meet nature? Immediately he repented the thought. He resolved to slip the boy some money. But wait till he got off. Otherwise there’d be conversation.

Back in the restaurant, while they were waiting for the bill, Dorothy had said, ‘Moody, do the decent thing.’ Momentarily he had gone cold with the certainty she meant suicide. But no. ‘Speak to Gay,’ she added.

Don’t you see, he wanted to explain, where words lead you? The dallying path to ambiguity, misunderstanding, quarrels.

‘I’ve been thinking,’ she continued, ‘and I want to say this. I believe you underestimate what communication is about. Don’t you ever want to take down a good book and just read and read, and lose yourself or find yourself far away in someone else’s imagination, get away from all this narrowness, this today, and share in – I don’t know – a different mind? Only words can do that.’

‘What about Proust and his biscuit?’

‘Oh, so you’ve read that.’ She seemed to believe this was QED. ‘The point is he had to tell his story to someone else. And someone else had to listen. For every Ancient Mariner there’s a Wedding Guest equally driven.’

He was lost momentarily in her metaphorical leap. Coleridge and Swann, he thought: Manufacturers of Soap.

‘When we communicate we’re bigger, somehow, than just you and me talking. It’s not easy, I know. We’re all so different, each with his separate expectations, her different experiences. We’re amazingly unique. Even you and Gay.’

So we’re different now, thought Moody. She was eyeing him as though anticipating dissent. But Moody was interested. ‘Go on,’ he said.

‘It’s just that it’s kind of constricting, hanging around being unique. We try to overcome it. We talk. We all know it’s difficult. And yet, strangely enough, it’s impossible not to. All about us, above and below, the wires are humming. What distinguishes us is not our ability, but our will, to communicate. We just can’t stop. Or when we do – ‘

We’re dead, thought Moody.

‘We’re less than human,’ she said.

The bill arrived then, and Moody had watched the scrawl of her signature. In the ashtray he caught the mild decrepitation of her Marlboro. Crack, was all it said.

She was right, of course. Was she? He’d tried to end communication with Gay, to freeze it at the moment of quarrel. But the will to communicate is sovereign. He couldn’t but form a new vocabulary, the semiology of clunks and clicks, the regime of rosters, turns. They just couldn’t stop talking.

She collected her card from the waiter’s saucer. ‘I know what you’re worried about,’ she said. ‘The uncertainty of everything. You want to be sure, kind of protected.’

‘Like a schoolboy kept home with a cold,’ Moody said morosely.

‘Oh, it’s worse than childish. Can you think of anything more lonely than being certain? And everything around you certain too? But that never happens. None of us is the final arbiter of anything. So whenever we open our mouths, out pops uncertainty. It hangs in the air between us. But it’s not some nasty by-product of speech. It’s the medium. Otherwise, we’re just computers. Tap-tap-tap.’

She stubbed out her cigarette, and busied herself with her handbag. And poetry? Moody wanted to ask. It seemed telepathy was now to be added to her newly-displayed gifts.

‘I know there’s a lot of gush in poetry. But personally, it’s not the words but the whispers that touch me. The whispers that poetry leaves in the mind. I’m unique, Shakespeare seems to say, but I bet you felt like this too.’ She shrugged. ‘Who knows, but there’s the message, that’s the art.’

She said some more things, and Moody, though only half-listening, found himself more and more taken. He realized he’d never considered her entirely human. It was as though her past for him consisted only of those moments he’d had dealings with her. But it was clear from her words, her intonation really and the struggle on her face, that she’d had myriads of upsets in her life, upsets and joys. He was struck by the thought that you only begin to know someone when confronted by the immeasurability of what you don’t know.

His mind was wandering. The overwhelming fact was that he’d forgotten what the quarrel was about. All that creeping and clattering, three years of it, and he didn’t know why. What else had he forgotten? Who was he, anyway? Who was this man called Gay?

He felt he’d had a lot to drink. Two glasses. Time for the loo. On the way down, he caught his reflexion in the tinted glass partitions.

Peas in a pod. But then she said we were different. Of course we are. He’s my friend, not my other half.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored and sorrows end.

Oh dear, thought Moody. He ached for home.

When they left the restaurant, Dorothy slipped her hand in his. ‘Cheer up,’ she said.

‘I’m fine now, really,’ he replied. ‘Dorothy, there’s something I wanted to know. You’re such an assured person, you know what’s what. Sounds silly, but why is it you’ve never had a nickname?’

‘You serious?’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘I do have a nickname – Dorothy. Remember? You christened me that when we met, you and Gay. You wanted to be friends of Dorothy, and I’ve been stuck with it ever since.’

Moody stopped, but she pulled him along.

‘That’s what I miss. You and Gay, you were such fun to be with. Everyone loved you. Why can’t this silly quarrel stop, and we can all get back to normal?’

‘But Dorothy,’ he complained. He tried again to make her stop, but she seemed in a sudden resolve to be gone. He was sure she was mixing them up with some other couple, a lovable and inventive duo.

‘I must dash, Moody.’ She pecked him on the cheek. ‘You’re not my only clients, you know.’ She hurried down the crowded street. Then she called back, blowing a kiss through a hundred faces, ‘But you are my favourites!’

Round and round the train circled, sepulchral in its tunnels, in the depths of London, in its dumps. But in his mind Moody was released from these nether bounds, and he rose slowly at first, then soaring, to the skies above. And there, circling, he looked down on the tiny flat off the Earl’s Court Road, with its ludicrous lease, and the noisy bedsprings which he was determined to be rid of, and saw that it stood not in the centre but in the suburbs. And that he had all creation at his feet.

Later ...

That afternoon, a telephone salesgirl at The Times in Wapping received an enquiry from the oddest of characters. He sounded quite educated, but obviously hadn’t a clue. He wanted to place a personal ad, but didn’t know how to get to Wapping. What tube was it on?

‘It’s not on a tube,’ the girl explained. ‘You have to take the Docklands Light Railway.’

But it seemed he’d never heard of that.

‘Have you got a credit card, sir?’

There was much humming and hawing at this.

‘Yes, sir. Visa will do. Yes, sir, Visa is a credit card.’

More humming and hawing.

‘It’s just that, sir, you can pay by credit card if you like. You don’t have to come in. Yes, over the phone. No, it’s quite all right. Anybody can do it. So long as they have a credit card. Yes, sir, Visa is a credit card. Not at all. Well, first off, I need the number.’

A long pause, then some agitated talk about never having been given one. It took a while and a good deal of coaxing, but eventually she got his details. ‘And what message would you like?’

Apparently, he wasn’t expecting to have to speak it to someone.

‘Well, it is the telephone,’ she reasoned. ‘But don’t worry, sir, we get all sorts through here. Yes, it is an interesting job. Literally all sorts, yes. And the message is?’

Eventually she was able to read it back to him. ‘”Dear Gay” – capital G, yes, I understand – “have been considering switching to Independent” – full stop, yes. “What do you think” – question mark.’

There was then a long debate about whether to sign off ‘Yours, Moody’, or ‘Love, Moody’. He wanted her opinion.

‘Well, sir. Yours is more formal. Love sounds more natural to me. Like you know the person. Yes, definitely, sir, I should go for Love.’

She read it over to him again, gave him the price, but he wasn’t interested in that. He wanted to know when it would appear.

‘Should be in the day after tomorrow. Quite all right. No, thank you, sir. Yes. Yes, it is a lovely day. Thank you. Bye-bye.’

She pressed release on her switchboard. My God, she said to her colleague, but there are some weirdos about.

As if that wasn’t enough, she had another strange phone call two days later. It seemed to her to be the same man – same voice, same fluster – but this time he was calling himself Gay.

The same rigmarole about tubes and credit cards. Then finally the message.

‘Dear Moody, I should be delighted. Sherry at seven? Love Gay.’

© Jamie O’Neill.