If the wind changes

“If the wind changes you’ll stay like that.”

The child rolled her eyes and glanced sidelong at her mother, then wrinkled her nose and bared her teeth again.

“It’s true. Happened to another little girl I know. There was a puff from behind her and whoops! Nose inside out and one ear wrapped right round her chin.”

The child turned away. The woman leaned forward quickly and blew hard on the back of her neck. The girl squealed and ran off laughing.

“And when did my wind change?” her mother wondered. “Or has it always blown out of the north-east, edged with the rusty iron smell of snow?”


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Watchword too

Objectivism. 1872. Tendency to lay stress upon what is objective or external to the mind; the philosophical doctrine that knowledge of the non-ego is prior in sequence and importance to that of the ego; the character (in a work of art, etc.) of being objective. So Objectivist, one who holds the doctrine of objectivism.

The watchword for the day is objectivism.

There is a place where the simplest activity seems an insurmountable obstacle. It is easy to find; difficult, sometimes, to escape from. Foothills of good intentions are overshadowed by ranges of decision making. Beyond those, far off and so high that their frigid peaks seem to float in the blue, the summits of action are an impossible goal.

Getting up, for example.

At university Jonathan spent a whole term in bed. The sheets were pale blue and made of nylon that scratched his legs when he moved, but he lay there anyway, watching the clock.

“Ten more minutes,” he thought. “I’ll get up at half past.”

But at half past the will to be doing still eluded him. He extended the deadline by a quarter of an hour and a quarter of an hour. Finally he reached that slippery moment somewhere between eleven thirty and twelve, when still time becomes too late now and after lunch, comfortably far off, takes over from in the morning.

The house belonged to Neil, a friend of a school friend, younger than Jonathan and still in his freshman year. It lay at the blunt end of a close on the wrong side of the Oxford ring road, its pebble dash bay windows looking out onto a ragged lawn and a short drive with a tufted spine of weeds. In the middle of the grass an old fashioned push-me pull-you mower had been standing abandoned for so long that green shoots were climbing up between the rusting blades.

Neil’s parents had bought the place, somewhere for their son to stay while he was at college. Neil’s parents were unreasonably rich. There were two large upstairs rooms and a box room which Neil used for his photography. Jonathan rented the bedroom at the front of the house. It had a window which looked down onto the turning circle at the end of the close, the neighbours’ driveways radiating off it like spokes on a wheel. His desk stood in the bay, an old drop-leaf dining table with barley twist legs. At night when he sat there his lamp-lit face was reflected in the glass on three sides.

He could almost imagine himself back at home, only months ago it sometimes seemed. In fact it was more than two years. Jonathan had done his school work on the dressing table in his parents’ bedroom. He had pushed his mother’s small collection of pots to one side, or heaped them on the wide, candlewick-coated bed, closed the wings of the looking-glass and piled his books on the narrow surface. Homework for him was accompanied by the faint smell of face powder. Sometimes, stuck for a word, he would open the mirror and set its hinged ends parallel to one another. Then he could lean forward on his elbows and squint sideways to see his profile repeated down a curving green corridor.

Neil’s house was better. In Neil’s house he had space. If he stacked his papers at the far corners of the work surface he had to stand to reach them. He built bookshelves out of bricks and planks salvaged from a skip a few streets away. There was an armchair in the corner, covered with a tartan rug, but the rest was still a rented room. A creaking double bed took up most of the floor and a darkly veneered wardrobe held his clothes, when they were clean. If he brushed against it in passing it rocked on uneven legs and the hangers inside jangled softly.

On the inside of the wardrobe door there was a mirror. It was fixed to the wood with brass corner pieces. Not really brass, though, because they were corroded, with tiny nubbins of rust pushing through the dull surface.  The lower end was at waist height and the silvering was faintly bronzed with age and patched with dark freckles. When Jonathan looked at his reflection he saw not so much his own face as the depths around it: the wall behind, the corner of the unmade bed to one side, beyond reach.

“That’s what’s weird about mirrors,” he thought. “It’s not that you can see yourself. You can do that any time. Hold up your hand.” To prove the point he did it, spread his fingers and stared at them. His nails needed cutting. He looked back at his reflection. “In a mirror you can see the space around yourself.”

In fact, he could barely see his own face at all. A number of photographs had been stuck to the glass with loops masking tape and his other self peered round them like an inquisitive neighbour parting the blinds. The pictures were arranged in rows. The last five were photo-booth passport shots. Before that most of them seemed to have come from family groups. In each case the figure of a boy had been cut away from its siblings, with manicure scissors judging by the scalloped edges. The ghosts of sundered mothers, fathers and sisters lingered on in a hand, a coat sleeve, the edge of a skirt.

The first showed a baby. It was held by a woman and she was feeding it from a curved glass bottle, holding it at a distance on the points of her knees. Her face could not be seen, but her pose suggested that she had not yet made up her mind what she thought about the independent scrap of flesh she found on her hands. In each photograph the child seemed a little older. By the seventh or eighth the features had settled enough to become recognisably the same as the ones that looked out of the glass between the squares of emulsion.

There were twenty snaps in all. The last had been taken by a machine on the station platform early in the term. In what had become a birthday ritual, Jonathan had gone out before breakfast, before even the commuters started milling in the booking hall. He had ducked into the booth, pulled the coarse green curtain round behind his head and spun the seat until his eyes, reflected in the glass that covered the camera lens, were level with the guide marks on the wall. Then he fed coins into the slot. As always, the wait was a few seconds longer than he expected, long enough for the first nudge of doubt. Was the machine working? Then four thumps of light, the first taking him by surprise. He did not change his pose or his expression between them.
After the final flash he got up and watched a pigeon stumbling alertly between the tracks while machinery hummed and chemicals dripped. As his strip was extruded from the slot, damp and rubbery, the bird flew up with a clap of wings and the down train ground in.

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At the Palace of Westminster Big Ben struck eleven, with the usual agonising pause between the chimes and the tolling of the hour. Could that possibly have been deliberate? A ritardando, fully intended by the engineers who built the clock? The delay certainly had a way of grabbing the attention. All central London staggered in that slice of a second. Pedestrians hesitated on the kerb, throbbing taxis and buses faltered at junctions, gaunt cyclists stood on their pedals in the act of swerving off into the traffic. Then the first stroke, and they all jerked back into motion. She remembered a radio programme from her childhood. How did it end? Move on? No… Carry on London… Was that it?

But it was an accident, most likely. Serendipity. Judith walked on, fists buried in the pockets of her coat. The paths were dark with the morning’s rain and the grass smelled of an early cutting. She wondered whether to call in at the London Library, but decided not. Another visit. This was what she needed now, the rhythm of one foot in front of the other, heel on paving just so, click. Don’t step on the crack or the bears will eat you. Traffic noise. Sandwich bars almost ready for the lunchtime rush, men in shirtsleeves putting out tables, their voices echoing up between shop windows and offices.

Serendipity, she thought. Some slight irregularity in cog and ratchet. Odd how such small things… So many lives would have been infinitesimally different if a Victorian craftsman had given the work one more stroke of the rasp. That was how life went. You made plans but in the end it was chance… A moment’s distraction. The foreman makes a joke; an apprentice picks up the wrong tool; a horse falls in the street outside the yard. One laughs, the crowd gathers to look. Way leads on to way indeed. Carry on London! Yes, that was it.

Passing Hatchard’s, she stopped to examine the window. There was a display of celebrity biographies. A couple of the authors were veteran actors who certainly had a story or two to tell – though possibly not in these warm, witty memoirs. But others seemed so young. What could they have to write about? Chapter One: I am Born, followed by two hundred blank pages.

I am born. She continued along Piccadilly. I am born, then two hundred pages of chance meetings, opportunities taken or missed, corners turned or not. I forgot to wind my watch that morning, and leaving the reading room late I missed my bus. And the bus itself, for once running on time through an implausible succession of green lights, the driver thinking of his supper. And so, and so, and so. Fifty years later in a flurry of metaphors I can look back on a carpet of events, warp and weft. Coincidences, a few decisions. So few decisions.

This was too difficult for Leicester Square. Judith smiled at the Chaplin statue and paused outside one of the cinemas to watch workmen taking up red matting from an event the previous evening. Thoroughly spoiled by the rain, the administrator in her thought. A write off.

I missed my bus. Missed it and lingered for a moment by the stop, peering down towards Southampton Row. No taxis in sight – not that I could  afford a taxi then in any case. A damp winter evening. I remember the streetlights on the wet roadway. Then I took shelter in a stationer’s doorway.

Did they really change anything, she wondered, the chimes? So familiar from the six o’clock news, an institution, such a part of the routine that when they failed that in itself became news. Millions of people heard them, it must make a difference. One felt it intuitively. The weight of numbers, lives converging, must wear a groove, like feet on a stone stairway. Listening one felt, somewhere deep beneath all the stuff of day to day business, a sense of community, even – unfashionable now of course, but real for all that – even pride.

She walked on, not stopping for Blackwells or Foyles, up Charing Cross Road then east towards the Museum. And suddenly there it was. The sun broke through the clouds and in the bright, shifting light of a May morning, on the other side of the road, revealed and obscured by traffic and pedestrians, there was the doorway. It belonged to a travel agent now, but the same doorway. She had missed the bus and taken shelter from a gust of drizzle in a stationer’s doorway. And a few minutes later Emil had joined her.

Judith stopped and stood like a piece of driftwood caught against a rock. The stream of the London pavement broke around her, parted and flowed on. Men with briefcases, women pushing buggies; an office junior balancing a pyramid of takeaway coffee in a cardboard box lid. Three girls giggling arm in arm divided and re-formed. Realising that the eddies she was causing reached now almost to the corner of the block, Judith backed away from the road to stand against the window of Pret a Manger.

So thin he had been the first time she saw him, coat collar turned up and grey knitted scarf wound round his neck. Twenty years after the war and ten since the troops marched into Budapest, his nose was still long and hollow-edged like a blade, with little red pinch-marks where his reading glasses rested.

They had waited in silence for several minutes. There was no traffic, but the rackety murmur of London circled and settled around them like a flurry of snow on a winter afternoon, flakes grey against the sky. Lorries bound for Covent Garden idled in Mile End; at Euston rolling stock ground steel on steel; through Nine Elms and Battersea barges thrashed their way upriver. And between and round it all, like blood humming in her ears, shouts and whispers and laughter, words of joy and remorse, the to and fro of conversation. Talk and talk and talk.

Then, yes, the bells. Big Ben stammering out its message. Between the chimes and the hour he nodded towards the sheaf of books in her arms.

“Chomsky. So they’re teaching you Chomsky nowadays?”

“No.” Judith grinned at him. “Actually, I’m doing the teaching.”

Carry on London! Yes.


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But you can’t make her think

Falling in love, Dan thought. People had told stories, sung songs, written about it for… God knows how long. Millions of words. First sight, first touch, first embrace; first salty horizontal taste of sweat in the hollow of the throat. But what about falling out of love? The coup de foudre which left the previous day’s passion thin and cardboard stiff, even the memory of it beyond belief. Where were the songs and the stories about that?

Like some pale shepherd, he could still remember the moment love lifted from his shoulders, leaving the vacant chill of a schoolboy’s new haircut. He had been leading a 9am seminar, not Herrick but another lusty boyo; fielding a question, throwing it open to the group, running his eye over the thicket of earnest faces.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age;

It was too early in the morning for the geyser of Celtic passion. His students looked pale and deflated. Many of the girls had skipped eye shadow and made do with a shower. Most of the boys had skipped the shower. They looked at their books, at their notes. One was drawing on the back of his hand with a felt tip.

“If you can spare us a moment, Mr Richardson,” Dan said. “Come on. You’re a custodian in the vast library of world literature. The stacks fade into the dark in every direction. Some are bright with use; on most of them you could write your name in the dust. Where do you put this poem?”

“I don’t know.” The boy looked up from his artwork. “Under H for Horticulture?”

Dan joined the laughter that followed.

But he thought: He’s right. What on earth is this Welsh buffoon going on about?


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Facetiae, sb. pl. 1529. [a. L., f. facetus FACETE.] Humorous sayings or writings, pleasantries, witticisms.

The watchword for the day is facetiae.

“Mm? What are you doing?”

“Looking up a word in the dictionary.”

“Wha’? What on earth for? It’s… Oh, God, it’s half past six. On a Sunday morning.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”


“I’ll put the light out.”

Instead he closed the book and sat with it in his lap, hands folded on the cover. She had rolled away from him and lay with the pillow half pulled over her head. It hid most of her cropped hair but he could still see a gold-brown wedge of fluff on the side of her neck and he watched the way the lamplight glinted among the curling strands. After a while he put the dictionary back on the bedside table, then leaned over and blew gently making the soft fuzz bend and flicker.

At half past nine he got up to make breakfast. He heated half a dozen croissants, put butter and strawberry jam into matching dishes, spooned coffee into the cafetiere and filled it with water just off the boil, then tucked the newspaper under his arm and carried it all through to the bedroom. The bed was empty, but he heard the bathroom light click as he put the tray down.

She had found an old T-shirt in the airing cupboard.

“Hope you don’t mind. It’s bad enough finding your way round a strange flat, without doing it bare-arse naked. Wow! Do you feed all your conquests like this?”

“Of course. Though ‘all’ is overstating it a bit.”

“And the plates are warm! Do you want a job? I’ve been looking for someone like you.”

They sat side by side and ate. She consumed four of the croissants and he had to fetch more jam. Between mouthfuls she read out their horoscopes and the problem page from the supplement, adding succinct advice of her own.

“Get rid of him! Gawdalmighty, some people enjoy being walked over. The bloody woman isn’t looking for advice, she wants an audience.”

Later, a third cup of coffee poured, her eye fell on the dictionary.

“What was that all about, at six thirty on a Sunday morning?”

“It’s what I do when I wake up. Open it at random and read the first word that catches my eye.”

“Improving your vocabulary?”

Jonathan smiled. “Sometimes. Mainly it’s supposed to give me a handle on the day. Whatever I’ve got on, something genuinely unexpected can make me look at it in a different way. “

“So you stagger through the next twenty-four hours thinking aardvark or whatever? That makes your life easier?”

“Of course not. The words are there if I need a new angle, that’s all. Mostly they never come up. It’s no different from looking at your horoscope. Except it’s real – nobody’s telling you what you want to hear. There’s no mumbo jumbo.”

“Hm. So what’s today’s?”



“No, facetiae. It means a collection of humorous writings.”

“Does that mean you’re going to spend the rest of the day making smart arse remarks? If so, I’m going. What was the word yesterday, when we met?”


“Ah? Oh well.”

“It’s a plant that turns its flowers to the sun.”


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Too close

This is a true story.

But then I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I’ve got the look, I know it. My hair is a fortnight beyond tidy and several days greasier than clean, my shirt has seen the inside of the laundry basket more than once since Monday without getting as far as the washing machine. My trousers are a tiny bit short in the leg. I do own a shoe brush but the polish in the tin is dry and cracked.

It’s not that I don’t know how to take care of myself. I lived alone before I was married. Did my own washing and ironing, cooked – not side plate and two sets of cutlery, but from a recipe sometimes. When you have a family, though, you stop saying I went there, I saw that. It becomes we went, we saw. Then when the focus changes again, you and I are hard to resurrect.

I am the man in the bus queue who picks his nose. I am the guy with the brown paper takeaway bag you pass in the street, whose features twist in time with some internal debate. I stand too close.

So I would say that, wouldn’t I, while you look over my shoulder and count in your head to decide how soon you can politely move away and talk to someone else. But it is true, all the same. In spirit.


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Something for the weekend

Cabbage, he read.

String beans

Then there was a word he could not make out, smudged and faded in a fold in the paper. Then:


The list was written on a page torn out of a notebook, pocket sized, with pale blue horizontal lines quite close together and vertical columns ruled in red. A personal account book, for jotting down expenses. He supposed you could still buy them, but he had not seen one for ages.

The handwriting puzzled him at first. It was familiar. The shaping of the letters was immature, carefully rounded, but they were small and confident and the light touch of the pencil on the paper was quite unlike a child’s desperate pressure. Nothing like his father’s sloping scribble. He turned the sheet over, but the other side was blank.

He was about to set it aside on the dressing table when the answer came to him. It was his mother’s writing. And in fact he could remember her making lists like this one, standing at the open door of the larder and scanning the shelves. He could even remember the notebooks. They had blue card covers and the paper was held together by a couple of staples through the spine. She always wrote on the centre page, to make it easier to tear out.

A shopping list. Why was his father carrying around a shopping list? It must have been tucked in his wallet since she died. Twenty years. More than that. Twenty years ago there were fridges and supermarkets. The mother he remembered checking through her stock of tins and packets was tall. He could see her holding the pencil between her teeth as she tucked a strand of brown hair behind her ear. Forty years ago at least. His father must have transferred the scrap of paper from wallet to wallet for more than forty years, along with ten shilling notes, pound notes, fivers, twenties.

He set it aside, one more mystery, and emptied out the other odds and ends. A couple of credit cards. Have to cancel those. Receipts. Library ticket. Should that be cancelled as well? When nothing had been taken out for a year or so perhaps they took it for granted that a reader’s book had been stamped for the last time. Mark him Withdrawn from stock and take him down to Oxfam. He put the credit cards in his own wallet, dropped the receipts and the library ticket in the waste paper basket but hesitated over the shopping list. Finally he found an unused airmail envelope and put the paper carefully inside.


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