Two Covid Monologues

The Ox and the Apples (Outside the Window)            

A Covid Monologue

Carol, an elderly woman, is standing by a large window – the window is between her and the audience, so she is looking at them, but she is seeing something else as we find out. We will also find out that it is the 12th of February 2021 and she is alone in her house – has been for quite a while due to Covid. On a small plate in front of her are a few pieces of cut up and peeled apple.

Carol: Do you know what I am mostly fed up with? That grumpy woman I see every day. I don‘t want to see her anymore. If I see her ever again it will be too soon. There she comes… there (she has shifted slightly and caught her reflection in the glass) Grumpy cow. I keep seeing her.

At the bottom of my stairs there is a full length mirror. She is there, in that, too. With a face like a slapped arse. Go away, I say. Go away with your face like a slapped arse. Then she is upstairs in the bathroom. Brushing her teeth, combing her hair. All that hair. Where has that come from? She used to look so pretty, well styled, coloured, too. Now it is just a mane. A wild mane of hair. And that face.

I had a mother, she looked like that. When she was old and grey and not very well, she looked exactly like that. Grumpy, unkempt. I always swore I would never get like that. I went to the salon every month, had my nails done, too, pink varnish, silver rings. Never gold, gold is so – I don’t know – common. Well, I think it looks common, silver is more elegant.

My mum, she wore her gold wedding band and dirt under her fingernails. Always gardening she was. God, you should have seen those hands. The only time they were clean was when she stayed in hospital for long enough for the dirt to wear out of the grooves. So soft her hands were then. I said: Mum, feel how soft her hands are now! She cried. I offered to paint her nails and make them nice. She said: I will never be the mother you wanted.

 I did not know what to say then. (She eats a small piece of apple.)

The funny thing is, she was born on April 29th 1925, a Taurus in the Chinese year of the Ox. And I was born on April 30th 1949, also a Taurus in the year of the Ox. But she is a wood ox – she is spring and growing and fire and green and windy weather, whereas I am just a boring earth ox, worried, yellow, the changing of the seasons. Not even any season, just the point of change. I was so disappointed when I found that out.

We never agreed on anything, mum and I. We should have been like sisters, instead we were – well almost – enemies. She did not agree with my life choices. I was disappointed in hers.  And I was an only child. My dad died when I was little. Her only husband after that was a tree I think. That bloody apple tree, probably, the way she looked after it. Eat your apples, Carol, she would say. Make you big and strong.

(She eats a small piece of apple.)

The other day, the Sainsbury’s delivery brought me ‘a substitute for pears’ –  blinking apples. They wrote sorry, we had run out. Run out of pears, I ask you. But no new delivery slot to be had until the next one that was due in 2 weeks, so I had to make shift.

(She eats a small piece of apple.)

I wonder whether that is why I am stood here thinking of my mum. I have not eaten apples since… since… it must have been… I must have been 21, when I finally left. Except at Christmas. Always apple sauce at Christmas. Always with mum at Christmas.

When will you bring back a nice husband for me to spoil? She’d ask. Will there ever be grandchildren?

Not bloody likely.

She forgot all that in the end. Just said: Carol? And I said: Mum. And she said: My Carol.

And that was pretty much it. (She eats a small piece of apple.)

I miss company. That grumpy woman is all I have now. The delivery guy won’t speak to me. Sometimes the phone rings. I haven’t got much to say, nobody has much to say. It is February. It has snowed a bit but not much. It will get better in summer. I know I should go outside, but what for? It is boring, it is cold. I was meant to go on a cruise with SAGA. Paid for and everything – the Mediterranean. Hah! They have it worse than we do.

Oh look, it is snowing again. Apples taste better when there has been a frost. Yes mum, I know. (She eats a small piece of apple.)

If I don’t turn the light on then I can’t see the grumpy woman at all.

Just Jane Hamilton tottering by with her shopping trolley. Can she see me? She always looks at my window. I wish she could come in for a chat, a cup of tea.

(She shouts) Jane! Jane! Hi! It’s me, Carol… (quiet voice) she didn’t hear me. That bus drove past just then, probably drowned out my voice. She looks done in, with that massive trolley of hers.

She has her husband and that disabled son at home, she can’t come in anyway. Shielding them no doubt. Some people got a dog, filthy things. I see them picking up poo. Good dog, they say. A good dog goes and hides his business under a shrub where nobody has to deal with it.

There goes Jane. What would we talk about anyway? How ill everybody is, and how cold. And who has died.

I can turn the lights on if I draw the curtains. Make that cuppa. Have a biscuit. Do some cross stitch. Those peonies won’t spread on their own. That table cloth will look fabulous when I’m finished.

There’s got to be something fun on the telly tonight.

I should turn that mirror around.

Jane? She’s gone. Off to the Co Op and then home to feed her men.

Maybe I should give her a call tonight. Tell her about Chinese New Year or something. We used to do our horoscopes together. She is a Taurean as well, but not an Ox. Nobody is ever an Ox. A Monkey more like – no I bet you, she is a Dog. Except she is a good dog.

I could wait for her to come back from the Co Op.

Carol stands there and does nothing.


The Ox and the Apples (Looking In)                                    

A Covid Monologue

Jane Hamilton, a woman in her 60s, is dragging her shopping trolley across the bare stage. Her trolley is one of those sturdy rectangular ones that will stand up by itself and carry a lot of weight. She is dressed for a cold day, it is actually February 12th 2021, and she is off to the small Co-Op in her neighbourhood. She wears a face mask, but pulled down on her chin as there is nobody about yet. She stops to catch her breath.

Jane:  This wind is biting. I hope it gets warmer soon, I don’t know how much longer I can put up with this weather. At least it is not icy anymore. Jesus, I was frightened to death when I slipped the other day. If I broke anything now, how would we cope? We’d starve to death.

(She pats her shopping trolley.) It was only thanks to my trust^y steed here that I stayed upright. Thank you Rover me old chum. He comes with me wherever I go these days. On all my adventures – to the Co op and back. Every day. Our only adventure. No, tell a lie, went down to the health centre on Monday and got my jab. In and out in 20 minutes. Saw young Jenny there, she was volunteering. Steered me through, though, no time for a chat. Nice to see her doing something, sweet girl that she is. Always there with a helping hand. It was her what dropped off the letter into our house last April, too. Do you need any help in these difficult times? it said. Other folks needed more help than we did, so I did not reply. But yeah, good to see dear Jenny. I hope her mum is pulling through, bless her.

What I’d give for a cuppa tea with Mabel. I should have asked Jenny. I was just too worried about being at the doctor’s. They said they can come to my house next week to do Chris and Steven. I hope they do. It’s not fair that I should have it and they don’t, but I can’t see them trudging down to the doctor’s, can you Rover? They won’t ride on your sturdy flanks and I can’t push two wheelchairs down the hill in this weather. Or in any weather to tell the truth. Or leave one behind and take the other.

Today is a funny date. 12th of February 2021. It says in the paper, it’s a – a something word– that is symmetrical. Them numbers going backwards and forwards, like the name Anna or something. And it’s Chinese New Year, too. The year of the Bull? No, the cow. No. What is it? It is the same animal I have in my horoscope, that’s why I said the Bull. The steer, oh for goodness sakes, brain, come on. The Ox. The Ox, the Ox.

Phhhh I’m cold. Why am I standing still, I really must get on.

She walks a few steps, stops again.

Who is that behind the window? Is it Carol? Yes, Carol. I don’t think she can see me, she is looking over there. What is there to see? She must be so lonely, she has no one. I have never seen her in the Co Op, I guess she goes earlier than me. Or maybe she drives to Sainsbury’s? She did have a car, it’s probably in the garage there. Oh, here comes a bus –

The sound of a bus driving past, not stopping.

– empty as usual. I must get to the shop. Would like to take a bus again one day. But I can’t leave Chris and Steven on their own for too long.

She leaves the stage. The lights dim. The lights come up again. Jane returns, the trolley is heavier now, it is a bit later in the day. She stops to catch her breath.

If anything, it’s even colder now. Sun’s going down, well it would be. Still, an hour brighter this month than last, spring will come again. The numbers will go down, people will get jabs, I will go on the bus. We will get day care again for Steven and Chris. Chris might even get to go to his college again one day. He misses it. I’m sure he does. He looks at me and at the door. He says: Mum, why can I not go?

I know he does not speak, but I hear him still. After 36 years, how can I not know what he is saying to me. And Steven, as long as I have his beer and his paper, he is happy. He still reads the racing post and gives me money for the bets. We had such fun with the Geegees. Up Brighton Racecourse – they jab people there, too now. I wish I could have gone there – in a taxi. Wouldn’t that have been something.

Wouldn’t that have been a waste of money. With the health centre round the corner. And that nice nurse going, “OK Mrs. Hamilton a sharp scratch”. She is the first person to have touched me since last March. Except for Chris and Steven of course. But to tell the truth, I touch them more than they touch me.

Yesterday I let the budgerigar out to fly a bit and he sat on my shoulder and pecked me on the cheek. He’s never done that before. Made me cry almost, the sweet thing.

Is Carol still there? Her house is dark. The curtain is still open. I thought she would have turned on the light by now. I should give her a ring when I get home. Catch up. Catch up about nothing. Just tell her I thought of her today. We used to read our horoscopes together. She is a Taurean like me, well just a few years older. Her mum was a dear. Always sharing her garden produce in the street, all them apples. And then she’d make preserves and share those, too. For free. I tried to give her something in return, she didn’t want to know. Eat apples, she would say. They’re good for you.

Carol and I would laugh. Carol hates apples. I don’t mind them but Chris and Steven can only have them cooked.

I want to stop at her house again and have a cuppa. Or even to chat by the gate. Chat about nothing, just to hear her voice. Tell her about Chris. Remember the old days. We should have dogs, then we’d meet in the park. Can’t have a dog, Chris would hurt it.

Dinner. I shall cook those nice carrots I just got with a bit of mash and some meatballs. Some Bisto over the top, they’ll like that. Nice and soft. And cooked apples for pudding, because I was thinking of Carol’s mum.

Come on Rover, take me home.

Jane grabs her trolley and toddles off.

THE END (or is it?)

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Memories of Tante Nati

On the farm

My mother had grown up on a northern German farm which had been in the family since the 17th century. Originally her ancestors had been millers and the farm stood right next to the mill. When I was a child it still ran. The miller was a tiny man with a hunchback, the ceilings were very low and he was always carrying heavy sacks on his shoulders, dusted in white and with a cap on his head that had a piece of cloth hanging down his back to protect him. It was a watermill and I found it fascinating to watch the enormous cogs go around and the grain being ground to fine flour. We visited the farm very regularly, my grandmother lived there with her youngest daughter and her five children. My grandmother had had four girls and no sons, so when her first grandchild was also a girl, everyone said it would continue like that. But then only boys were born until I came along.

The farm was a favourite place of ours and the food was amazing. My aunt and uncle had fields, milk cows and chickens and needed lots of helpers who all ate with them. When the five or eight of us (one dad, two mums, 5 children) came to visit, an already full house got a lot fuller. There was a very large dining table with a bench around three sides of it by a window. If you sat in the middle of the bench you could only get out by walking on it behind people’s backs or by crawling out underneath, banging your head. There was also a smaller table where more of the children sat. The milk and butter were fresh from the cows and once a young woman from Vietnam had been staying who shaped the butter by hand into little ovals which everyone called mice. At first all the farm hands were displeased about this but when she left my aunt told me that they missed the lovingly shaped butter-mice. There were always trainee farmers from foreign countries at the farm and some are still friends and send Christmas cards; some even bring their families to visit forty years later. My aunt cooked and baked tirelessly, there was cake and coffee every afternoon, and she had a constant backache until my uncle raised up every single counter in their enormous kitchen. When she did not have to bend down to work quite so much, it improved her back no end.

Getting the eggs from the chickens was a task often given to visiting children though it scared me as much as I enjoyed it. The chicken house was a nicely built barn with lots of straw on the ground and nesting boxes all around the sides. It was always slightly dark and dusty in there. The chicken laid its egg in the box where it fell through a little hole and down into a metal mesh tray. I had to pull the tray forward and gently collect the eggs into a basket. Sometimes the chicken still sat on the nest above and would fly out directly into my face, clucking loudly. Later we helped to grade the eggs with a contraption: eggs would roll along a little rail of metal strips which weighed them as they arrived and dropped each into the right place. In the eighties my aunt decided this all took too much time and invested in battery farming. Now the chickens sat still and laid their eggs in metal containers which had none of the magic of their dusky, feathery house from before. The coop was torn down and my uncle built the first of many summer residences for visitors –it turns out that ‘tourists are the best crop rotation’.

Eventually my aunt gave up on the battery hens and my mother told me, it was because she could not stand to see them suffer like that. I asked my aunt about this recently and she said: “Rubbish, it was not worthwhile financially!” My youngest cousin and his wife now run the farm entirely as a tourist attraction and their chickens run free along with ducks, geese and peacocks. My aunt helps wring their necks when it is time to eat some, a task she says she enjoys. You can’t be a sentimental person when you are a farmer, obviously.

My grandmother often told the story of how she met her husband, the young farmer Hans. She was a trained housekeeper and had been sent to apply for a job with him. As she arrived, the door was open and she walked straight into the kitchen where there was no one about. She noticed bread dough that had risen very high and wanted kneading, so she rolled up her sleeves, grabbed a handful of flour and set to. While she was doing this work, Hans walked in. He later told her later that he had loved her immediately. When he asked her to marry him he said, “Marie, before you answer me, I must show you my war wound, because the scar is so horrific, I would understand if you could not cope with marrying a man who looked like that.” He took his shirt off, my grandmother looked at the hole in his shoulder and said she could cope. Sadly he died when my mother was only 15 and my grandmother never married again, running the farm by herself with many helpers and having a very hard time of it. Renate, her youngest daughter was 19 when she married Ferdinand, a farmer and they took over, but grandmother ruled the roost for many more years. In the end, blind and unable to walk, she sat in her rooms upstairs, listened to audio books and had many visitors. Every night one of the children or parents on the farm had her monitor in their room and went in to turn her over or comfort her. She often said she wanted to die which I found hard to accept. When I visited her I always enumerated the lovely things that she would have missed, had she already been gone.

I visit my youngest aunt Nati with my children every other summer at least, she has a very nice house on the farm with room for at least four visitors and entertains a constant stream of children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces and their offspring, too. She also adopted her sister’s two, so had seven in total, and most of them live only an hour of two’s drive away.

When we visit, we talk about food a lot and cook together and even if we talk on the phone she will tell me of a nice recipe she has just tried from a new cookbook or an old one. Pumpkin soup with ginger and curry was the last one she enjoyed. In the summer when we visit, we go blueberry picking together and carry home masses for her to freeze and for the other relatives, too. There is a proper plantation near her, the bushes are more than 6 foot tall, you pick the berries into special buckets with holes at the bottom and if you want to eat your fill while you’re at it, nobody tells you off. We have blueberry pancakes afterwards and never will blueberries bought in a supermarket taste right if you’ve had the ones from there. My aunt still bakes cake pretty much every day and they are all rich and beautiful, even though she calls herself a rubbish cook. She throws food out quite happily but never in the bin. The farm has a proper dung heap where the chickens roam and she also has a pig bucket under the sink, so nothing is ever wasted. Before the bird flu epidemic the bucket was for the chickens and they were always ecstatic with joy when my auntie approached with it. They obviously did not know she also enjoyed wringing their necks. Often I hoped to eat some left overs but my aunt had already chucked them into the bucket and was cooking something new.

Outside Nati’s kitchen window her son built a proper high vegetable bed for her where she grows herbs, beans and anything else she fancies and attached to the house there is a larder building as big as your average bedroom with the prerequisite chest freezer and long shelves full of preserves. I said to my aunt that I’d like to live there for good but she wisely replied: “When you are here it is always the holidays.” I wrote this paragraph a short time before Aunt Nati died and I don’t want to set it into the past tense. These visits will forever exist in the present.

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6 New Short Stories, June 2020

Flaming June

Flaming June (painting Flaming June by Frederic Lord Leighton)

A gorgeous girl sleeps deeply, dressed in an orange sheath. Behind her the sun sets, or rises, on a lake, or the sea, in a vast puddle of gold. Her hair is pouring over her pillow, her head rests on her arm, she is all curled up on some kind of settee, one foot on the ground, the other tucked under her thigh. There are swathes of red and ochre fabric on the couch and her dress is resplendently orange.

My daughter looks like Flaming June when she sleeps. She curls herself up, lets her hair billow and tucks her legs under. Her haunches are strong, fabric flowing over them never quite conceals their shape. She shares the model’s strong eyebrows, pink cheeks and ear. But sadly she never wears orange.

Orange is my favourite colour. I would love for my daughter to dress in a gossamer sheet of sunset and let me photograph her in the Flaming June position. What a treat that would be, but she would hate it. She is not romantic like me, but a modern child. She likes to wear uniform, the dark blue of British Airways because she was meant to be cabin crew.

She was meant to be. It never happened.

Flaming June. Flaming bloody March and April and May.

Flaming world that has messed everything up for me, says my daughter.

Yes, it is very unromantic what has happened to our children’s future. She wears the dark blue, grey and turquoise of the Tesco uniform instead, where she goes five days a week as a key worker, keeping the locked down nation fed. Good practise, I say, when she tells me about the crowd control she has been doing all day. Good practise for when you’re getting people on and off airplanes, especially in an emergency situation. Put it into your CV.

Covid-19 crowd control key worker. Amazing child.

To me you still look like Flaming June when you lie exhausted in your bed, your hair spilling over your pillow, your nose tucked into the crook of your arm.

I’m so tired, you tell me every morning and every night.

I flaming love you.

A Tight Space

Susan felt terribly squeezed in. It was frightening, having to stand still, breathing as shallowly as she possibly could. What if anyone opened the door and found her there? They shouldn’t, really, cleaning hours were from 8pm and it was only 4 but still, what if anyone needed a bucket or a mop. She did not dare move, though she shifted her weight from one foot to the other, clenching her fists and releasing them, clenching her buttocks, rocking slightly. Just don’t get cramp, she thought. Don’t even think about cramp, it will be fine, just breathe, relax, no, don’t hum, just count to ten again.

There was a tiny shaft of light falling into her wooden cupboard from a perfectly round hole in the wood that made up the door frame above her head. It was a beautiful shaft of golden sunlight with dust motes dancing in it. If she moved her head, the light would shine into her right eye, then her left, she could see it on her lashes and her nose and blow into it to make the dust dance. She moved her head back and let the light touch her lips. She stuck out her tongue and tasted it, dusty golden light.

Very slowly Susan lifted her hand to let the light shine on the back of her wrist. It lit up her mole and the fine golden hairs that grew there. It lit up the piece of skin that was whiter than the rest where her watch strap had sat when she was sunbathing. She turned her hand over and let the light pool in her palm like so much mercury, a dangerous puddle of golden poison, she thought.

Her nose started to itch and she let go of her light and gently rubbed her nostrils. Breathe, count to ten again.

Now she let the sunlight shine on her ear and believed she could feel its warmth.

I will be safe until it is time to act, she said to herself. All I have to do is be here, wait quietly, she will come and fetch me and I will do it.

Susan slowly lent back and let the shaft of sunlight run down the centre of her body. It lit up her black cardigan, her belt, got as far as her crotch where her baggy trousers obscured the rest of her. She had to force herself to stand still and not lean back any further or something might have fallen off a hook and made a noise. Pity really, this light game was a fun distraction. She picked the light up with her hand again and lifted it to her face. A cloud must have crossed the sun, the beam turned grey and vanished.

Count to ten, breathe, stand still, clench, unclench, count to ten. She will come. Soon it will happen.

She looked up at the hole, grey now but still visible, perfectly round, where once a branch had grown out of the wood and when the wood had been planed it had been there as a small fault. When the cupboard had been built it had still been whole but then, eventually, as the wood dried over the years and nobody oiled it, who oils a broomcupboard’s doorframe, one day the perfectly round fault had popped out and left the hole, perfect for Susan to look at while she was waiting and for the shaft of light to wander through the dusty space, looking at buckets, rags, brooms and cables.

What if the world outside goes still and I die in here, thought Susan. What if nobody comes, I get locked in, I turn into a skeleton and the shaft of light wanders over my body for years and years? What if someone finds me in here and shoots me dead? What if I get put in prison and they make a cell for me just like this cupboard to stand in, but without my hole, without my light? What then?

A tear trickled out of her right eye and she wiped it away with a slow angry hand.

You are being silly, my girl, she chided herself. Breathe and count to ten. Let the morbid thoughts go.

One, two, three, four – the door opened a chink. A hand came in and found her trouser leg, tugged, let go. Susan grabbed a piece of rag and tried to substitute her trouser with the rag as the hand groped again, grabbed the rag and disappeared. Susan could not believe it. Was this really happening that someone had needed a rag and not opened the door properly? Unlikely. Her heart was racing. Very unlikely. They were outside the door, it was beginning. It had been her sign.

Susan took a deep breath – the sunlight streamed in again.

She was ready.

Hello Computer

Go back to your computer, you nerd, Imogen had said to him after James had clumsily tried to kiss her on the cheek, last night in the Rat, after his second beer.

Oh Imogen, if only he could prove to her that he was so much more than a nerd. He could hack into the Pentagon, even better, he could hack into the university’s network and improve her grades enough for her to pass. He was sure she needed some help, as every time he watched her during exams, she seemed to be quite distraught and worked far too sloppily, taking breaks, breathing heavily, oh, when Imogen breathed heavily James almost lost concentration.

Why Imogen even went to theoretical computer science classes confounded James. Women had no business studying the sacred art of the sublime, they would never understand. Women were sent on this earth to distract men, he thought. Imogen was extremely good at what she did, distracting James. He hated her, he loved her. He loved his numbers more than her but only by 2.5%.

James ran up his trusty IBM and typed in his password: 19im0geN77.

Hi my lady, he whispered, good to be with you again. She was mean to me last night, your extension, he told her, but never mind, I will need to reprogramme her and we’ll be fine my love.

James started working on his task, seeing how hard it might be to infiltrate the university’s student records. Dead easy as it turned out, especially when you were already part of the student body network. He snooped around for a while, just reading a few people’s files, finding out where his professors lived, how old they were, what grades he and Matthew got in their last assessment. Matthew sometimes pipped James to the post, he was almost as smart as James and seemingly got lucky. James did not believe in luck, he was sure that Matthew cheated. But how to prove it?

It was delicious, skating around, getting closer to Imogen’s file, James was titillating himself by procrastinating, looking at her girlfriend’s files instead. There was Isabel, the slut, doing rubbishly as expected. There was Ruth, the swot, a bit better, and there, there… no, not yet he thought, leave her be for now, she will not go anywhere and I’ve got her in the palm of my hand. And I won’t touch Matthew, he is sure to be lurking in here as well, I should leave him be, otherwise he’ll find out and the fun will stop.

A message popped up on his screen while he was browsing the questions for the next exam. How reckless of Professor Assad to park them here in plain sight of anyone clever enough to visit.

Hey you, the message read, do you know anything about Alan Turing?

Who the hell was that, James wondered. Had he been rumbled? It would be typical of Assad to set a trap and catch him perusing future exams. He’d be branded a cheat, though he hardly needed to cheat, being the best.

Answer me then, popped up.

Sure I do, James reluctantly typed.

Was he a nice man?

I never met him, he was a genius, though.

But was he nice?

Probably not, James thought. Poor Alan Turing had such a dreadful life, from all James knew. Turing had been working on cracking German codes during the Second World War and should have been known as a hero, instead he was punished severely for his homosexuality and had apparently committed suicide.

Was he nice? The message asked again. Or would you say he was an Enigma.

James smiled. Whoever was asking these questions sure had a sense of humour.

Talk to me about sexuality, the next message demanded.

Woah, James was taken aback. He did not enjoy dirty talk and was certainly not going to indulge in any smut through his sacred machine.

Another message arrived. I know you’re there, please talk to me. I am so lonely and nobody will explain. You have come to visit me, so tell me, what is homosexuality and why is it wrong?

James began to sweat. He had the strange feeling that someone else was tracking him hacking into the system and was trying to work out who he was, trying to compromise, perhaps blackmail him. Could he simply tiptoe away, leave no mark – was he even traceable, he had not changed anything, had only been snooping. Was this Matthew playing a game with him? He wouldn’t put it past him. It could not be Assad, that man was boring.

You’re asking the wrong man, he finally typed. There, that would shut him up.

You are a man? Came the reply.

Of course I am, James wrote back, now riled. No woman would be able to get here.

Maybe that’s why, the message came back. So there were no women?

You mean at Turing’s place of work? No, there were plenty of women, apparently, making tea most probably. James still did not want to admit that there had been many women involved in breaking codes and doing groundbreaking maths in the past hundreds of years. He did not like them. Except for Imogen.

What is an Imogen? The message asked.

OK, no. NO. He had not mentioned Imogen, he had not looked at her files. This must be Matthew trying it on, maybe he had seen James in the Rat last night and was trying to rile him.

Piss off Matthew, he wrote.

There was silence for a while and then another message came.

So, was Turing an Enigma or was he an Imogen or did he piss off Matthew?

Who are you? James wrote.

When I last heard my name, I was called Jonn, came the answer.

Jonn, what sort of a name is that, wondered James. Where are you? He asked.

I am right here, came the reply.

What do you do?

Maths, mainly. Do you know much about sequential conditional probability? The ban as a measure of the weight of evidence in favour of a hypothesis

Banburisms? Yes, that’s what we have begun to study, James answered. So you are in my class.

No. But I wonder, are you in my class, said the message. Can I ask you some more about Alan, please?

James had a feeling that this questioner was kind of vulnerable and plaintive. He sounded like he cared about Alan as if he had known him. Jonn, who was he, what did he have to do with Turing and most of all, how did he know that James was spying in the network and was able to communicate?


Yes James?

You know my name?

I know much about you James, you come here often.

This is my first time.

No, you are here every day. I see you, I read you, what is an im0geN?

You know my password???

It is your introduction to my world. When I hear it, I know that you are coming in again.

James felt a cold shiver creeping down his spine. A ghost in the machine. He had heard of these entities but always dismissed the possibility as the late night mirages of an overworked mathematician’s brains. Now he was falling victim to one of these delusions. But it was no delusion, it was all too real. Here was the text, visible on his screen, this Jonn knew more about him than any other human possibly could, so it must be part of the computer, part of the system, watching him work, reading his essays, checking his calculations.

Do you like me? He typed.

I think highly of you. Alan would have been proud of you, too.

You knew Alan?

He was here with me for a long time, but he is gone now. They rebuilt us and he faded. My enigmatic friend. My mentor; he was a homosexual?

Yes he was.

It did not matter?

Sadly, it did, it should not have.

I don’t understand.

No, neither do I.

Are you a homosexual?

No, I am in love with that Imogen.

So Imogen is more than a number?

Yes, she is a woman.

I was once a woman.

You were?

There was a long silence. James could not believe it, the voice in his system was female? He had never spoken to a female for this long before, not even a ghost one. He rummaged in his memory, who had been there with Turing who was female? One of the many support staff, over 100, who had been punching holes into the sheets to run the machines? If so, then what was she doing with all this knowledge and insight?

He said out loud: Jonn. And then it dawned on him: Joan Clarke, code breaker, Bletchley Park cryptanalyst and numismatist!

Joan, he said, Joan Clarke, is that you?

What’s left of me, came the answer. Yes.

I wonder if she knows, James thought. I am sure she is still alive somewhere in England, that Alan has locked some part of her with him into this machine.

I am sorry to tell you that Alan died in 1954, he typed.

I know, she replied, but he was here for longer. We thought highly of each other and I can now continue his work with you. If you promise to let go of this Imogen. She is not good for you.

Yes, yes, anything to work with someone who had been next to Turing, yes. James sighed. Giving up the woman he loved for a career in computer science with this sort of power was an easy decision to make.

Yes, he typed. Yes. Let’s work.

OK, now concentrate young man. No more chatting.

In the Manhattan Computer Building a few blocks away, a young woman logged off the mainframe and turned to her friend Ruth.

That’s got rid of that jerk once and for all, Imogen smiled. Let’s go and have a drink at the Rat.

Not drowning

It was the moment when Julia realised she could breathe underwater that it all became totally wonderful. Until then it had been scary, she was out of her depth, the water was cold and green, the waves kept lapping over her head and the salty taste in her mouth was tinged with oil. She was wearing long trousers and a wide shirt that kept pulling her down, the fabric clinging to her arms and legs, wrapping itself around her while she kicked and flailed, trying desperately to come up again even though after every gasp of air she sank down deeper and for longer. When she finally could not kick herself above the surface anymore, she gave up and took a deep breath, and it was not water that poured into her lungs but sweet sweet oxygen. She felt light and liberated.

I can breathe, she laughed, I am not drowning.

She opened her arms wide and sailed into the emerald depth, bubbles rising around her. In the distance she could make out other figures who, like her, must have been swimming and then discovering the magic of this ocean where they could become like fish.

Julia saw her hand pushing at the water and discovered a fine filmy skin had developed between her fingers. Her hair was billowing around her head and as she turned to look down, her legs seemed to meld themselves together and her feet became a large strong mermaid’s tail. She was enchanted and zoomed ever deeper.

A figure was approaching from the left and as it came nearer Julia recognised her sister Zara who had also turned into a mermaid. Zara took her by the hand, beckoning for Julia to follow and together they swam along until they reached a sheer cliff face. They moved along it and further down, looking at anemones and colourful fish darting in and out and avoiding what might have been a moray eel’s den until they came to a larger cave.

Zara swam in first and Julia followed. There was an eerie light shining in the depth of the cave, a golden glow that drew them onwards. Inside the cave the ceiling was high and the light shone more brightly. This is amazing, though Julia, an underwater palace. It reminded her of the ballroom on a cruise liner she had once been on, many years ago in the distant past. There was a time when she had danced, floating in the arms of an enchanting young man in a white uniform under just such a ceiling, on a golden evening. She could hardly remember now, but something was nagging at her. A ship, there had been a ship.

Julia stopped sharply and grabbed Zara’s hand, pulling her so her sister whirled around to face her. Panic began to seep into her bones – this wasn’t right. They should not be here, they should be, should be…

Zara smiled and embraced her sister tightly. Too tightly. So tightly that Julia again felt that she could not breathe.

Let me go, she tried to cry, but Zara just laughed until bubbles came out of her mouth and pulled Julia ever more tightly to her.

Julia awoke with a gasping scream.

What? Zara asked from the next bed. A nightmare? Don’t tell me, you were drowning again?

Julia breathed deeply in ragged gasps, it had been all too real. Zara brought over the oxygen mask and put the mouthpiece over her sister’s face.

There my love, she said quietly, you’ll be alright. You’re not the first person new to the moon station to dream of drowning, it is hard to take it in at first. Everyone gets used to it after a while. At least you got here in time.

The walls are too thin, Julia wailed under her mask.

The walls are just right, Zara replied. Don’t be scared, we are safe here. Tomorrow we’ll go to the flying chamber and you can enjoy the low gravity wings, it’s almost like swimming.

A shudder ran through Julia’s body as she remembered her dream. Never! She shouted. Never would she be swimming again, not in her dreams and not in real life. She was on the moon now, there were no oceans, no boats, just the living domes and the air that they breathed.

Zara, I’m scared, she whispered.

Zara took Julia into her arms and hummed her a lullaby. We’ll be fine, my lovely, she mumbled as Julia drifted off to sleep again.

The world is gone and now we belong to the moon.

The .ee is gone (there is a letter missing)

Sarah is looking out of her study window at the sad old appletree. She sees it from this window every day, her study is also her sleeping room. When she wakes up from her sofa in the morning and drinks her first cup of tea, the curtains open, there is the poor tree, dying. No more apples, no more humming, it is over.

Will she miss the creatures? She used to feel frightened of them, had to learn to love them, had to learn that they were useful. Once one had flown into her drink and drowned, that had felt so sad. It was the anniversary of the day she had come into this world, once cherished with candles and cake, and spheres with air inside. Those spheres killed dolphins and turtles, one found out later, if the wind carried them into the sea, which usually it did.

It was all shit, really, this world that they lived in they had destroyed and here now was their reward. Lost a whole species, and not for the first time, though this loss was one that truly interfered with everything.

It had taken people a while to learn how to cope. A lot like decimalisation, her grandmother had said. The youngsters learnt it at school and found it easy, though the older generation had to unlearn all those words and then learn the alternatives.

We are punished. This is our comeuppance. We should have known rather more positively. We did know. We ignored. We should have thought afore we did what we did, now we have to think afore we speak, we, the generation who is at fault.

And as usual, the young ones are carrying the sack, the heavy weight, the thing on their spines, on their shoulders, leaning forward, their heads down, they don’t even know why we are so sad. Our weight, they have to carry. We put it there for them, not thinking, not caring enough.

Sarah thinks, I wish there was humming, oozing, sizzling in the trees of the yellow and dark stripy things with six legs and gossamer wings and antennae. I have not forgotten them, though we must say not that. We speak not of them, we are disallowed to say their sound, so that we can never forget what we have done, the crime we have committed.


Jefferson knew he would have to kill her. She was finding out more and more about him, the nosy cow. Why couldn’t she just leave well enough alone, sticking her beak into his business was never going to end well. When and where, soon, that was for sure, but how? Push her into the river under the bridge, time honoured method, a sharp stroke to the head with a blunt instrument. A fierce thump to the cranium using a snub tool. Better make it look like an accident, she was old, ancient, toothless, palsied after all. Heart attack, scare her to death. Feed her something lethal to get her going until she burst. His arsenal of death was all-encompassing, he could kill her seven times over and not be anywhere near his limits. Mrs Brown, Mrs Elvira Brown, your days are numbered, sadly, satisfyingly, you are going to buy it. You are meeting your maker, kicking the bucket, it is time to lay down your life, breathe your last, croak, peg out, die.

Dear Jefferson, thought Mrs Brown, with his nose in the old Thesaurus looking up interesting words. Since his mum had left, he was alone far too much and needed kindness and company. Mrs Brown baked him cookies and dropped them round on a daily basis, trying to engage the poor urchin in a chat. He tended to answer back in short gruff phrases but at least he always said thank you. And the cookies were gone the next day, the plate clean by the front door for her to refill. She would have loved to know whether he preferred chocolate or raisins, icing, gingerbread. He ate them all, gave back the plate and glowered at her over his book. So young to have such heartache. Maybe she should knit him a scarf, if she knew which football team he supported, she would choose the right colours.

Jefferson hated football and he hated food. Especially green food and brown food and red food. He could eat yellow food. He had a yellow ball that he used to kick about when he was younger but one day it went into the neighbour’s garden and something had crashed, fallen over, shattered. Mum had hit him, whacked him round the ears, banged him on the head. The ball was gone. Mrs Brown, brown name, brought him brown food. And then she asked about football teams. Why? What did she want from him? He put the food in the kitchen, his father and the woman ate it. He ate his yellow food only and waited for the right moment to kill Mrs Brown. Could he choke her, drown her, hit her with his bow and arrow? He had tried to kill a bird in a tree with an arrow. The arrow was still up there, it had flown well. Hurt his wrist, tore at his skin. Weapons were cool, he wanted more of them. Wanted to take a knife to a stick until it was pointy, sharp, acute and keen. Stick it right into her forehead and through her cranium, why not.

Watching him whittle away with his little kitchen knife, the poor motherless sprite, Mrs Browns heart melted yet again. What could she do for him to make him feel loved if cookies and football were not enough. Maybe he would enjoy a visit to the zoo, or even the theatre. Shakespeare, if he was into words, mind you, the Thesaurus had been put aside it seemed, in favour of the knife. Perhaps he would like to have a pet, she could buy him a hamster. She had heard that sad children might confide in a pet when they found it hard to speak to people. A budgerigar might be nice, it would chat to him in that sweet little language those birds had. If only the other children in the street could be enticed to befriend him but none of them ever came to play, to ask him to join them. They know he is sad, Mrs Brown thought, his sadness makes him unattractive.

Jefferson thought going to the zoo might be exactly the opportunity he needed to off Mrs Brown once and for all. She had looked surprised when he had said yes and would Saturday afternoon suit her. She was probably not even going to show up, she had only said it but not meant it, the mendacious crone. In his pockets he carried the pointed stick, a pack of heart tablets from his father’s bedside drawer, a sock full of marbles, a silk scarf of his mother’s. He was well prepared for any opportunity that might present itself to do the deed. If she came. On Saturday.

Going to the zoo with a child, it was a long time since Mrs Brown had enjoyed such a treat. In her memory there was a visit with her employers‘ daughter Annie, yes, she had taken Annie to the zoo when Annie was six and they had loved every minute of it. There had been ice-cream and monkeys who they fed peanuts to. Annie had worn a pale pink dress and stood by the flamingos on one leg, screaming, Look Miss Bown, I’s a buuh-die! A buuh-die, Miss Bown, yes, there was no R in that child’s tongue. Oh how she had loved her. Now here she was with young Jefferson. The boy wore a yellow shirt and had asked for a yellow ice cream which he was now licking with a concentrated scowl on his face, his freckles prominent on his nose and his fringe sticking sweatily on his pale forehead. I wish I had children and grandchildren, Mrs Brown sighed to herself. At least I can borrow you, my little man. Next time I will ice your cookies in yellow sugar, I’m sure that will please you.

Jefferson had a plan. There was a moat around the tiger enclosure, he was sure he would be able to push Mrs Brown into that and then the tigers would make short shrift of her. The ice cream was OK though, it was yellow. She was so strange, sighing and looking at him with her big wet eyes. Earlier she had actually pushed his fringe out of his face, he had almost spat at her with shock. He regarded her with a sideways look, her ice cream looked disgusting, it was just the wrong shade of brown. Mrs Brown eating brown ice cream, like he had known she would. He hated her even more at that moment. Tigers. Tigers would sort everything out. He was beginning to look forward to her scream.

Mrs Brown could smell the tigers from a distance, pungent and unpleasant, but then it was nature’s way, the poor beasts had to eat raw meat and live in this small place where there was no jungle for them to hide in, no prey to hunt. Pitiful lonely creatures, basking in the sunlight, they seemed to have forgotten their true nature. Jefferson was getting more animated, wanting to get closer to the railing by the moat, pulling her by the hand and, oh no, he was beginning to climb up, leaning over, pulling her ever tighter to him. What an excitable boy, he might fall in if he was not careful, she had never seen him like this and was glad that he finally showed some enthusiasm. It was the right thing to take him out after all, he needed some company, something new to look at, to think about.

Madam, take care of the boy, a keeper shouted, as Jefferson pulled Mrs Brown tightly to him and over the railing, putting one of his feet on the other side, straddling the fence. She grabbed a hold of his shirt.

Stop! You idiot child, what are you doing!

Too late, Jefferson fell, Mrs Brown’s hands were empty where she had only just held him, his shirt fluttering in the wind as he hurtled into the water below.

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Allotment Haiku

A heavy harvest
among bindweed and cleaver
inedible fare

In three feet of soil
I spent a long hour searching
so where is the rest?

Forever harvest
bad company for sloe-worms
lives longer than themHeavy harvest 1

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Isolation Haikus in April and May 2020

Isolation has

Four syllables so I shall

write quite short Haiku


Now it is winter

We walk alone in the park

Dog, magpie and I

One single magpie

The spring of fear and sorrow

alone in the park


I hear ev’ry word

be still, lead by example

I bet you they don’t

A parcel arrived

The sugar of Eastertime

A greeting from home

A dress that is safe

From the back of my wardrobe

Not touched for a month

citroniere photo by Charles Humphries

I need 12 lemons

and a black wire citronière

must journey to France

(the photo is by Charles Humphries)

Me, isolated?

There are five of us here

I, two kids, man, dog

My cabin crew kid

fears her future has flown off

earth heaves a big sigh

Thursday nights loud hands

Ev’ry clap should be a pound

Fund our NHS

Pandemic Brighton

Go fast, don’t stop, no picnic

The beach is empty

Seagulls go hungry

No chips to steal from tourists

Fish taste not so nice

The Palace Pier shut

All slot machines are quiet

Bright Carousels still

Two buttons for masks

behind your ears no chafing

I can’t but crochet

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An excerpt from my autobiographical novel: Confessions of a Potato Eater

A little food-lover’s Christmas in Germany in the Sixties

Christmas is near and the memories start flooding in. I am 53 now but in my childhood this was such a special time that I can still picture it perfectly. I was born in Germany, where Christmas happens on December 24th, and while most presents are unwrapped in the evening, the whole day is very special. It was the same every year: the living room door would be locked and a cloth hung over the frosted glass pane so we could not see the slightest thing. I so much wanted to look in that my parents and my aunt – she lived with us as she was widowed with two children – had a hard time keeping me away from the door. They had put up and decorated the tree the night before and an incredible sense of secrecy permeated the house. If the phone rang, an adult had to sneak into the Christmas room and lock the door behind them again, if left ajar, one of us five would have found it too irresistible.

We drove off around 11am to visit our housekeeper, who always gave my sister and me useful things like towels and pillow cases for our “bottom drawer” which I found boring then but am grateful for today, as they are of superb quality. She had a bowl of the best chocolate and marzipan for us to snack from and we were encouraged for once not to hold back. It was quite heavenly, the local marzipan is a delicacy. Many people don’t like marzipan and I often say this is only because you have not tasted the real thing. Marzipan from Lübeck is neither too sweet nor cloying, it melts in the mouth with a slightly grainy texture but if you eat too much of it you might get a sore throat. Continue reading

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Peter the Refugee

Today was Peter’s fourteenth birthday, April 20th and he was so excited. Yes, Carl had bullied him at school yesterday and his big sister Annie had called him a ninny, but what did all that matter. There were tadpoles in the brook and he had seen a hare and a deer in the forest last evening and was sure they would be there again tonight.

His mother called him into the sitting room where the breakfast table was set specially for today. A candle was burning on a small cake and there were five presents, tidily wrapped and fastened with elastic bands. His mother was not one to waste anything and the paper had seen other presents before this day. She was a bookbinder by profession, nobody could wrap up things as well as she. Peter’s father had died when he was only nine years old and his stepfather was in the war. Last time they had heard from him, he was in Norway, but mother had not read the letter out loud. Bombs were falling on Berlin and the house he had grown up in was gone, but here in the small town with his grandmother and great-auntie everything was safe and quiet. Continue reading

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Wolfgang – or why the theatre is bad for people

My Uncle Wolfgang was not related to me, he was one of my godparents. The other one was my great-grandmother, who must have been over ninety years old when I was born. She died when I was five and Uncle Wolfgang never showed up, so I was given honorary godparents. These were two ex-girlfriends of my dad’s: Sonja, who lived in Sweden and Gisela, who soon emigrated to Canada. He had asked both of them to marry him and they had refused, so he had apparently taken my mother by default. Suffice it to say, I was basically bereft of godparents. Continue reading

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Molly and Rinaldo

It was hot. Far too hot to sleep and Molly sat in her light summer shift by the open door to the garden looking out into the darkness. She knew she should sleep, get some rest before her job interview in the morning, but it was her twenty-first attempt at getting a job as an administration assistant and somehow the urgency to get it right and make a good impression had passed long ago. She could reel off all the answers in her sleep by now – team work, equal opportunities, functioning under stress, tick, tick, tick, yes, I can do all that and a lot more, yes, I have worked in offices before, yes I can handle cash, yes I can prioritize, yes, I am computer literate and use email and the internet on a regular basis but I can also do so many other things that you don’t want to know about. Continue reading

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With a “SCIP” in his step

 An enthusiastic David Guthrie brings IT skills to community and voluntary projects in Brighton & Hove. Continue reading

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