Monthly Archives: December 2013

A teller of tales

‘You’ll never guess who I had on the back of my camel last week,’ said Abubakar Karim Urabi, taking a drag on his hookah and leaning back into the padded vinyl of the booth.

‘President Mubarak,’ offered Fadil the taxi driver.

‘More interesting than him.’

‘Brad Pitt,’ suggested Masud the barber.

‘I know,’ exclaimed Ishaq the butcher, slapping his hand down on the table, and sending shockwaves through the coffee. ‘That famous singer from Aswan. You know who I mean…What’s his name?’

Abubakar Karim Urabi shook his head. ‘It’s no one famous.’

‘No one famous?’ said Masud the barber. ‘Then how are we supposed to guess who he is?’

‘He?’ Abubakar Karim Urabi allowed a smile to play at the corner of his lips. ‘I never said he.’

‘So it’s a woman,’ said Ishaq the butcher, proving that his reputation for stating the obvious was well-deserved.

Abubakar Karim Urabi nodded.

‘My question still applies,’ said Masud the barber. ‘How are we supposed to guess her name if she’s not famous?’

‘I don’t expect you to guess her name; just her…shall we say…occupation.’

‘Belly dancer!’ exclaimed Ishaq the butcher.

Fadil and Masud exchanged glances. Abubakar kept his inscrutable half-smile.

‘Brain surgeon,’ said Masud the barber. ‘And you knew she was a brain surgeon because she told you your brain damage is inoperable.’

This drew appreciative noises from the other two.

‘I reckon she was a police officer,’ said Fadil the taxi driver, ‘and she arrested you for being the teller of the tallest tales in the whole of Cairo!’

Masud and Ishaq laughed.

‘So I take it you don’t want to hear my story.’

‘Of course we want to hear it,’ said Fadil the taxi driver.

‘Go on, Abu,’ said Masud the barber. ‘We love your stories, don’t we, Ishaq?’

‘Love ‘em’, confirmed Ishaq the butcher.

Abubakar Karim Urabi took another drag on his hookah and paused for a moment before exhaling the smoke gently through his nose. ‘It was late in the day,’ he said. ‘The last of the tour buses was leaving the car park, its wheels kicking up a dust storm and its exhaust pipe belching out thick black fumes. I was sitting on the ground, leaning against Salihah and enjoying a quiet roll-up, when a woman emerged from the clouds of dust and smoke and started walking towards me.

I played this little game I always play when I see a tourist approach. I guess which country they come from and which language they’re going to speak to me in. Most of the time it’s French, English or Spanish. I’m fluent in French and my English is pretty good, but I can only just scrape by in Spanish. Any other language and we’re reduced to the international language of signs, and I know I don’t stand much chance of charming a tip out of them.

Well, I put this one down as an ‘other’. She had dark skin, like an Ethiopian, and long black hair which she wore in plaits on either side of her face. As she got closer I could see her features were nothing like an Ethiopian’s; she had a long, thin nose, a high forehead and green eyes. I had no idea where she was from. I decided I’d wave her away with the international sign for ‘bugger off, I’m going home now’.

But before I got a chance do this, she addressed me in perfect Arabic.

‘Am I too late to take a camel ride?’

What I meant to say was, ‘Yes, I’m afraid you are. Come back tomorrow between eight and five.’ But the words that actually came out of my mouth were, ‘No, not at all. Let me just put the saddle back on Salihah here.’

‘I don’t need a saddle,’ she said. Before I could give her the usual warning about Salihah’s tendency to bite and spit, she’d taken the camel’s muzzle in her hands, and was staring into her eyes. Salihah grunted gently. Then the woman slid onto the camel’s back, and Salihah stood up without the usual five minutes of wheedling and cajoling.

‘So how does this work?’ the woman asked. ‘What do you usually do?’

‘I usually work with a group of other camel owners. We wait until all the camels have a rider, and then we leave in a caravan. We walk out into the desert for twenty minutes, then we stop for ten minutes so the tourists can take photos and so we can sell them camel key rings and pyramid pencil cases, and then we walk back.’

‘I am happy to follow your normal route, but I have no interest in buying souvenirs.’

So I took Salihah’s reins and walked out into the desert, towards the setting sun.

As we walked, I started up my usual spiel. It felt good to be able to do it in Arabic for a change. ‘The pyramid to our right is the pyramid of Khufu, also known as The Great Pyramid, because it is the largest of the three pyramids at the Giza necropolis. It is also the oldest, having been constructed —’

‘I have no interest in the ruins,’ said the woman.

Well, that surprised me, I must say. In all my years doing this job, I’ve never heard anyone say that. Although I’ve seen a few people who looked as though they were thinking it.

‘So, what are you interested in?’ I asked. ‘The desert… the sunset…the camels?’

‘The lunar eclipse.’

I stopped walking and turned to look at her. ‘The what?’

‘The lunar eclipse. It will be visible…’ she looked at her watch. ‘…in 23 minutes and 47 seconds.’

‘I didn’t know there was going to be an eclipse.’

‘That’s not surprising,’ she said. ‘A lunar eclipse isn’t a noteworthy event. There are lunar eclipses at least twice a year.’

‘There are?’

‘Well, they’re not always as good as this one. This is a total eclipse and most are only partial.’ She looked at her watch again, ‘We need to start moving again now.’

 

When we reached the usual spot where the caravan stopped, the sun was setting, dipping down behind the sand dunes in a shimmering orange haze. The woman was gazing in the opposite direction.

‘Look,’ she said.

Towards the east, between the pyramids, a full moon was rising above the city.

After a few minutes, the moon began to dim, a shadow appearing at one edge. As the shadow made its way across the face of the Moon, the Moon gradually changed colour, until it was a rich, brick red.

‘It’s amazing,’ I said.

‘Is this the first time you’ve seen a lunar eclipse?’

I nodded. ‘What about you?’ I expected her to say she’d seen dozens of them.

‘It’s my first time too.’

When we got back to the car park I broached the subject of payment. ‘I accept Egyptian pounds or American dollars.’

‘I don’t have either.’ She took off one of the bangles she was wearing. ‘Here, take this. It was my mother’s. She lived in Egypt for a while when she was younger, and she had an affair with a jeweller. He made this for her.’

I wanted to say thanks but no thanks, but before I could form the words, I found myself pocketing the bangle.

As the woman turned to go, I called after her. ‘Hey, if you’re so interested in lunar eclipses, and you know so much about them, how come you’ve never seen one before?’

‘Because you never see them where I come from.’

‘Why not?’

She thought for a moment before replying. ‘No moon.’’

 

‘No moon?!’ said Fadil the taxi driver. ‘You expect us to believe this woman was from another planet?’

‘I don’t expect anything,’ replied Abubakar Karim Urabi. ‘All I’m doing is relating what happened. Pure and simple.’

‘You must think were simple if you think we’ll swallow a story about aliens,’ said Masud the barber.

‘It was a good story, though,’ conceded Ishaq the butcher.

 

As usual, Abubakar Karim Urabi was the last to leave the coffee shop. As he was finishing his final mouthful of coffee, his phone rang.

‘Abu?’ It was Rudi, a friend of his from the Egyptian Museum. ‘Do you remember that gold bangle you gave me last week?’

‘Of course I do, Rudi.’

‘We’ve just got the results back.’ Rudi hesitated. ‘I hope you’re sitting down.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s from the Old Kingdom, fourth dynasty, about 2,500 BC. The museum is prepared to pay you five hundred thousand US dollars for it. Are you still there, Abu?’

‘I was just thinking,’ said Abubakar Karim Urabi, ‘how every event in life is a mixture of bad news and good news. As far as this particular event is concerned, the bad news is that, from now on, it will always be my round at the coffee shop.’

‘And the good news?’ asked Rudi.

‘My friends will be much more likely to believe my stories.’

 

© Helen Lewis 2011


Eye ewes two suck at spilling

Eye ewes two suck at spilling,

Each were die rote war sarong.

My tea chair off untold me

My rye ting adder pong

Like deacon posing sigh ledge,

Ore old tramp sunder where.

Eyed smile and shrug my shoaled errs

As if eyed id dent care.

 

Butt tea chair’s quips tongue de-plea

Inn every sing gull weigh

Bea coz it is my dream too bee

Adjourn a list sum day.

 

Mime um bore tack um pewter

Witch Phil’s me with deal light,

Cause now this grate spill chucker

Make Saul my spellings write.

My dick shun Aries does tea,

Knot oh penned it sins May.

Dough knead it any longue Ur —

Aisle throw thee thing eh whey!

 

© Helen Lewis 2009

 

P.S. If your brain’s been mangled into mush, here’s a translation:

 

I used to suck at spelling

I used to suck at spelling,

Each word I wrote was wrong.

My teacher often told me

My writing had a pong

Like decomposing silage

Or old tramp’s underwear.

I’d smile and shrug my shoulders

As if I didn’t care.

 

But teacher’s quips stung deeply

In every single way

Because it is my dream to be

A journalist some day.

 

My mum bought a computer

Which fills me with delight,

‘Cos now this great spell checker

Makes all my spellings right.

My dictionary’s dusty,

Not opened it since May.

Don’t need it any longer –

I’ll throw the thing away!

 

 


The trouble with Adam

From the series 'It's a Girl' By Edite Haberman

From the series ‘It’s a Girl’
By Edite Haberman

I’m waiting in the reception area at Happy Bunnies day care. In one corner of the room child-sized sun hats hang on low pegs, and dusty sandals poke out from underneath a wooden bench strewn with empty lunch boxes. On the wall opposite there’s a notice board plastered with photos of young children riding tricycles, petting farm animals and building towers out of wooden blocks. The air smells of baby soap, sunscreen and play dough. Through the open window I can hear the shouts of children playing outside, and an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Heads and shoulders’ is coming from the toddlers’ room next door. I listen for Adam’s voice, but I can’t make it out.

A bitter taste fills my mouth. I’m biting my nails. I really ought to have kicked the habit by now, especially with the wedding coming up in a couple of months. But I guess the events of the past few weeks have made me more anxious than usual.

The door to the toddlers’ room opens and Mrs Johnson, the manager of the day care centre, bursts through. She’s a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a face brimming with good humour. When she sees me she smiles.

‘Hello Ms Harris,’ she says, ‘Thanks for coming in.’

‘Please, call me Natalie,’ I say, standing up and offering my hand to shake, but she holds her palms out towards me. They’re covered in glitter.

‘Occupational hazard, I’m afraid,’ she says, with a laugh. She pushes open the door of her office with an elbow, and ushers me in.

There’s a trio of matching chairs in different sizes in front of Mrs Johnson’s desk. I feel like Goldilocks. I sit down on the medium-sized chair.

‘Is there a problem?’ I ask.

Mrs Johnson opens a large container of baby wipes on her desk, pulls out a couple of sheets, and begins wiping her hands.

‘Well, Natalie,’ she says, ‘we’re worried about Adam.’

‘Me too,’ I say. ‘He’s so clingy in the mornings when I drop him off. It’s been nearly two weeks; I thought he’d be getting used to it by now.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ says Mrs Johnson. ‘Adam’s been at home up until now, hasn’t he? It’s bound to take him a while to settle in at day care.’

‘There’s another problem?’ My hands are itching to find my mouth. I shove them under my thighs instead.

Mrs Johnson leans forward in her seat. ‘Adam’s behaviour is giving us cause for concern,’ she says quietly.

‘In what way?’

‘Every day, after lunch, he collects all the plastic dolls and pulls their heads off. Then he puts the heads in a pushchair and walks around with it. If anyone touches the pushchair he has a screaming fit.’

‘Oh,’ I say, swallowing hard. My eyes start welling up with tears, but I manage to fight them back. I feel like I ought to say something else, but I have no idea what. Thankfully, Mrs Johnson breaks the silence.

‘Have there been any changes at home lately?’

‘Yes. Our live-in nanny, Sophie, left us a few weeks ago. That’s why I enrolled Adam at Happy Bunnies.’

‘Was Adam fond of Sophie?’

‘Very,’ I say. ‘Sophie came to live with us when Adam was six weeks old. She was like a second mother to him.’

‘Does Adam have any other important adults in his life?’

‘Well, there’s my fiancé, Bob. He moved in about six months ago, just after Adam’s second birthday.’

‘And how do Bob and Adam get on?’

‘Oh, well enough,’ I say. ‘They don’t see each other that often. Bob’s a surgeon and he works long hours. When Bob’s at home, Adam’s usually asleep. And I hate to wake him up once he’s got off to sleep, because he’s such a poor sleeper.’

‘Did he start having problems sleeping after Sophie left, or before?’ asks Mrs Johnson.

‘Definitely before. But there are other things that started after she left. He’s afraid of the dark now, when he never used to be. And he always used to be such a confident and outgoing little boy. Now he clings to me all the time and he never wants to let me out of his sight. I’m really worried about him.’

The tears come again, and this time I can’t stop them. Mrs Johnson offers me a tissue. It smells of glue sticks.

*

As I’m opening the front door the phone starts ringing. I chivvy Adam inside. The old Adam would have run off to play in the garden. The new Adam sits at the bottom of the stairs. Keeping an eye on me. I take the business card Mrs Johnson gave me out of my pocket and put it on the hall table, next to the phone. It reads, ‘Raj Prasad, child psychologist’.

I pick up the phone. It’s Sophie’s dad.

‘I’m sorry to bother you, Natalie,’ he says, ‘only we can’t reach Sophie on her mobile.’

‘Sophie’s not with us any more,’ I say. ‘Didn’t she tell you?’

‘No. What happened?’

‘I don’t really know. She just went. She left us a letter, saying she had some personal problems and was going back home. I assumed she was with you.’

‘We’ve not seen or heard from her in weeks.’

For the second time today I have no idea what to say.

‘Hello, Natalie? Are you still there?’

I need to feel like I’m doing something useful, so I give Sophie’s dad the name of the boy Sophie was seeing while she was with us. I ask him to call me again in the morning, but I know I’ll end up calling him first. I hang up.

I put on my best breezy smile for Adam.

‘Would you like an ice lolly?’ I ask.

Adam nods.

‘Come on then,’ I say, holding out my hand. ‘Let’s go and choose one.’

Adam puts his hand in mine, and follows me down the hall, but as soon as I open the door to the basement, he pulls his hand out of mine, and wraps his arms around my legs.

‘No, Mummy, no!’

I extricate myself from his grasp, and get down to his eye level. ‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘You don’t have to go. I’ll get the lolly.’

I make my way down the stairs to the basement, humming a cheery tune.

Half way down the stairs I turn round and check on Adam. He’s watching me intently, his bottom lip quivering.

The chest freezer is right at the bottom of the stairs.

‘You like raspberry ones, don’t you?’ I call up to him.

The ice lolly box is not where I expect it to be. I’m rummaging around, trying to find it, when my hand touches something unfamiliar. It’s heavy and irregularly shaped, and it feels like it’s wrapped in cling film. I pull it out to take a look.

It’s Sophie’s head. Beneath the hazy glaze of the cling film her pale skin is tinged blue and frosted with ice crystals. Her green eyes are open and staring, and her mouth is horribly contorted. Her blonde hair is streaked with blood. Her neck is cut off neatly and precisely, in a perfectly horizontal line, like the line where a doll’s head joins her body.

There’s a thump. I look down to see Sophie’s head rolling along the basement floor, towards the bottom of the stairs.

It’s only when Adam lets out an ear-splitting scream that I remember he’s there. I jump over the still-rolling head and run up the stairs. By the time I reach Adam his scream has become a wail. I kneel down and hold him tightly, rocking gently back and forth, whispering into his ear, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.’ Eventually his wailing gives way to sobbing, and I pull away from him, holding his shoulder with one hand and gently smoothing his hair with the other. ‘What did you see, Adam?’ I ask. ‘What did you see?’

Between sobs, Adam repeats a single syllable: ‘Bob.’

 

© Helen Lewis, 2010


Bad dream baby

It's a Girl - Bad Dream Baby By Edite Haberman

It’s a Girl – Bad Dream Baby
By Edite Haberman

My bad dream baby is a daughter.

My belly waxes like the time-lapse Moon,

The husk of my womb breaks open.

Other times she falls like midnight snow;

I wake to the sound of her breathing.

 

The stage is always dressed the same.

I’m locked in a seventies motel room

With bricked-up windows.

Above the candlewick bedspread

A bare bulb swings like a noose.

 

Her crying splits me open.

I look for her in the drawer divan,

Check the bedside table and the mini bar.

In the mock-rococo wardrobe a blue-skinned Kali

Juggles formula and baby wipes.

 

She came to me again last night,

Brown curls on dimpled cheeks,

Pudgy hands outstretched, calling ‘Mummy’.

I took a pen from the pocket of my white coat

And made a tick on my clipboard.

 

I am tired of carrying the weight

Of what I have to tell her.

 

Breaking the news of death is performance art.

Young medics rehearse in front of the mirror.

How do I tell this stranger

As close as a heartbeat

That she will never be born?

 

© Helen Lewis, 2009


Leo consults the oracle

It was hot and dark on the thirteenth floor of the block of council flats. Leo, inappropriately dressed in a long black trench coat and a pair of wraparound sunglasses, sat in the cramped waiting room. The walls of the room were tinged a sickly green, as were the carpet, the coffee table in the centre, the moth-eaten old chairs ranged around the outside, the water cooler in the corner and the faded calendar on the opposite wall. Leo began to wish he hadn’t drunk that fourteenth crème de menthe.

His search for the oracle had been long and arduous. He’d expected nothing less. He’d also expected to have to wait once he found her. She was the one person everyone wanted to consult when they had an intractable problem. And what with everyone being slaves to the machines, most people had a lot of intractable problems that needed sorting out. Because of this Leo had expected the waiting room to be full. However, what he hadn’t been expecting was the nature of the other visitors. He was the only human there.

The waiting room was packed with farm animals that looked as if they’d staggered in from a fancy dress party. In the chair on his left sat a pig dressed as Elvis who muttered, ‘Thangyouverymuch,’ at regular intervals, punctuated by porcine grunts. On his right a sheep in a chambermaid’s outfit was taking experimental nibbles at a plastic spider plant. Across the other side of the formica-topped coffee table a horse wearing a cowboy hat and a chequered kerchief was removing stones from his hooves with the aid of a Swiss army knife. Among the other occupants of the room were a family of ducks dressed as gangsters, a goat sporting Elton John spectacles and a powdered wig, and a cow in combat uniform.

Just as Leo’s alcohol-befuddled brain was trying to make sense of all this, a ginger cat poked its head around the door to the kitchen and called out, in a voice reminiscent of the mellifluous tones of James Earl Jones,

‘Mr Adamson, the oracle will see you now.’

Leo entered the kitchen. There was no-one there.

‘Dude,’ he said, addressing the cat, who had jumped up onto the kitchen counter, and was sniffing a baking tray full of macaroons, ‘where’s the oracle?’

‘Oi’m down here, you eejit,’ came a female voice with more than a hint of an Irish lilt. Leo looked down.

‘But you’re a chicken!’ he exclaimed.

‘Ten out of ten, Oinstoin,’ replied the chicken, fluttering up onto the counter and pecking the cat’s nose, just as it was about to purloin a macaroon.

‘Who are you?’ asked Leo.

‘Oi’m the oracle,’ replied the chicken.

‘But you can’t be. The oracle’s an old woman who – ‘

‘Oi’m the animal oracle,’ replied the chicken, a hint of annoyance in its voice. ‘Surely you don’t think you humans are the only species to be farmed by the machines? Nothing special about your basic human, you know. Your lot’s so-called superior brains are neither here nor there to a machine. All they’re interested in is how many of volts of electricity they can squeeze out of you. As far as a machine is concerned, all meat’s the same.’

‘You mean it all tastes like chicken?’ enquired the cat lugubriously, now sitting on the windowsill, grooming itself.

‘So,’ continued the chicken, addressing Leo and staunchly ignoring the cat’s remark, ‘You wanted to consult the human oracle and you found me instead.’

‘Looks like it, dude,’ replied Leo. ‘And I don’t have time to find the human oracle. Can you help me?’

‘Well, maybe Oi can and maybe Oi can’t,’ replied the chicken, tartly. ‘But first, have a biccy.’ She pushed the tray of macaroons towards Leo with her foot.

‘No thanks,’ replied Leo.

‘Oh go on, go on, go on, go on, go on,’ said the chicken.

Leo took one hesitantly and sniffed it before taking a tiny bite. His mouth contorted in displeasure.

‘Chickenfeed flavour,’ said the cat, by way of explanation.

‘Now for the answer to your question,’ said the chicken, pecking some crumbs off the counter.

‘Yes?’ said Leo.

‘Oi’m clairvoyant, you know,’ said the chicken.

‘I gathered that,’ said Leo.

‘It means Oi can see things other chickens can’t. The future and so forth.’

‘So what’s the answer to my question?’ asked Leo.

‘You already know the answer,’ replied the chicken. She sat down on some eggs that were lying in a wire basket on the counter and wiggled her bottom until she got comfortable.

‘No I don’t,’ said Leo. ‘If I knew the answer already I wouldn’t need to consult an oracle.’

‘Ah but you do, you see. That’s what makes the whole thing so…  so Zen. You already know what the answer is but you’re not telling yourself. And the question that immediately springs to mind is, why?’

‘Forget it,’ snapped Leo. ‘I’d be better off talking to a budgie.’ He stomped out of the kitchen.

‘Eejit,’ said the chicken.

‘Next!’ called the cat.

A bald-headed child of indeterminate sex, wearing orange robes and an irritatingly self-satisfied expression suddenly appeared in Leo’s path.

‘Dude,’ said Leo. ‘You’ve come to the wrong address. This is the home of the animal oracle.’

‘On the contrary,’ replied the child, smugly, ‘I am exactly where I intended to be. I have not come to see the oracle, but to see you, Leo.’

‘Me?’ said Leo. ‘Why?’

‘I need to tell you something. Something very important.’

‘What’s that?’

‘The thing I have to tell you is a thing you already know, but you do not yet realise you know it.’

‘Hurry up, dude, I haven’t got all day,’ said Leo testily.

‘In a very real sense…’ said the child.

What?!’ hissed Leo.

‘…there is no macaroon.’

 

© Helen Lewis 2010


Professor Itty’s Last Lecture

 

Professor Dagmar Itty mopped his brow

And squinted at his notes – a cryptic scrawl.

He cleared his throat and in a nervous voice

Addressed the overflowing lecture hall.

 

‘This morning’s talk should really be about

Cycloidal drives and epicyclic gears,

But since I’ll be retiring Friday week

I thought I’d stray off topic.’ (Raucous cheers)

 

‘I’ve been a fellow here since eighty-nine.

The day that I arrived I made a vow

To spend my leisure time indulging in

A project I’ve kept secret – until now.’

 

The students all leant forward in their seats.

Professor Itty’s hobby was the buzz,

A subject of debate; a hundred bets

Were placed this week alone on what it was.

 

‘So let me share with you,’ proclaimed the Prof,

‘This formula I’ve found; it’s very neat,

Although you’d be advised to stand well back,

Because it does produce a bit of heat.’

 

I tried to follow everything he did

But it was so involved I soon lost track.

I looked around at everybody else;

Like me, their eyes were glazed, their jaws were slack.

 

Then suddenly a blinding flash of light,

A sonic boom, a muffled cry of ‘Duck!’

And when I stood back up the sight I saw

Punched out my breath and left me thunderstruck.

 

A hundred thousand glowing points of light

Hung silently about us in the hall

Each one a slightly different shape and size –

Some spiral, some elliptical, but all

 

Rotated slowly as they moved apart.

‘Each one’s a galaxy,’ explained the Prof.

‘I’ve just designed a whole new universe,

And now I need some serious time off.’

 

© Helen Lewis 2010


A Little Excitement

I blame my mother-in-law, Amelia. If she hadn’t been visiting us when my husband Greg staggered into the kitchen with his clothes torn and gently smouldering, announcing he’d finally got the time machine to work, no-one would have suggested throwing a dinner party to celebrate, and the worst night of my life might still be the sixth-form disco when I was carted off on a stretcher after hyperventilating during a slow dance with Dave Harrison.

On the night of the dinner party, Amelia and I were in the kitchen peeling prawns when Greg poked his head round the door and announced the guests had arrived. I followed him into the living room.

Oscar Wilde was standing on the hearthrug, reading from the copy of The Importance of Being Earnest I’d left on the mantelpiece for him to sign. In his other hand he held a lit cigar, which he was waving about for dramatic emphasis. Mrs Beeton, Amelia’s guest, was perched on the edge of Greg’s favourite armchair, surreptitiously running a finger over the top of the lamp table to inspect for dust. Reclining on the sofa was a young man in a gold-edged toga. He was dipping his hand into the potpourri bowl on the coffee table and popping handfuls of its contents into his mouth.

‘Your guest?’ I whispered, elbowing Greg in the ribs.

He nodded.

‘And he would be?’

‘Caligula.’

There was a choking sound from the sofa, and several pieces of damp pot-pourri arced across the room and landed on the hearthrug, narrowly missing Oscar’s shoes.

Caligula jumped up, shouting obscenities in Latin, and tossed the pot-pourri bowl over his shoulder, decapitating the shepherd girl figurine Amelia gave us last Christmas. As the old adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining.

Amelia chose that moment to make her entrance. ‘Bonsoir, bonsoir,’ she beamed, lifting her kaftan and giving a little curtsey. ‘I am so enchantée to meet you all.’ Greg says his mother has been peppering her speech with French phrases ever since she took a Cordon Bleu cookery course in the seventies.

Amelia ushered us into the dining room, and to our places at the table, where a glass of white wine and a serving of prawn cocktail were waiting for each of us.

Caligula sniffed the wine and held his prawn cocktail glass up to the light. He slammed both glasses down in front of Greg.

‘I’ve got my own. Those are yours,’ Greg explained, returning the glasses.

Caligula shoved them back.

‘I think he wants you to taste them,’ said Amelia.

‘Whatever for?’ asked Greg.

‘Maybe after ingesting some of your dried flowers earlier, he thinks you’re trying to poison him,’ suggested Oscar.

‘Look -’ began Greg, but he stopped short when he caught sight of the expression on Caligula’s face. He took a sip of Caligula’s wine and ate a spoonful of prawns from his glass. ‘Yummy,’ he said, smiling broadly and rubbing his stomach as if talking to a toddler.

For the next minute and a half Caligula didn’t take his eyes off Greg. At last he took the prawn cocktail glass by the stem and tossed back the prawns in a single gulp. He did the same with the wine. He wiped his mouth on the edge of the tablecloth and gave a satisfied belch.

The main course was another of Amelia’s spécialités.

‘What is this?’ asked Mrs Beeton, suspiciously.

‘Chicken korma,’ said Amelia, proudly. ‘It’s very à la mode.’

‘And this on the side?’

‘Mango chutney.’

‘Is it supposed to be that colour?’

‘That’s how it comes out of the jar.’

‘I see,’ said Mrs Beeton, her voice dripping with condescension. She prodded at the chicken listlessly, and then put a piece in her mouth and winced. ‘It has a rather … unusual consistency.’

‘Consistency is overrated,’ said Wilde. ‘I’ve always considered it to be the last refuge of the unimaginative.’

What wit. Oscar and I laughed like drains. I don’t think anyone else can have heard him.

Caligula must have decided we weren’t trying to poison him after all, because he polished off the chicken korma with aplomb, and motioned to Greg to top up his wine glass. He then leant across the table, took the pencil from behind Greg’s ear, and started drawing something on his paper napkin.

When he’d finished he gave it to Amelia.

‘And what has our budding Da Vinci drawn?’ asked Oscar.

Amelia put on her reading glasses and held the napkin at arm’s length, squinting. She turned it around a couple of times.

‘It, er… looks like a self-portrait… and he’s… mon dieu, he’s having sex with a horse!’

From the other side of the table there was a tiny gasp followed by a hefty thud, and Mrs Beeton disappeared from view.

Oscar came to the rescue with a bottle of smelling salts. When Mrs Beeton came round, she thanked him for his kindness.

‘My good woman, think nothing of it,’ he replied. ‘One can always be kind to people about whom one cares nothing.’

At that moment there was a horrible retching noise. Caligula was throwing up into the fruit bowl.

The arrival of Amelia with the dessert was a welcome distraction.

‘Tell you what,’ said Greg, ‘why don’t we have our dessert out on the patio? It’s a lovely evening.’ Everyone was happy to agree, and get as far away from the fruit bowl as possible.

Amelia’s dessert, tiramisu, was a great hit. Neither Mrs Beeton nor Oscar could find anything scathing to say about it, and despite his dodgy digestion, Caligula came back for thirds.

‘Have you left something on the stove, Mum?’ Greg asked, as he was scraping the last traces of dessert from his bowl.

‘No,’ replied Amelia.

I sniffed the air. There was a smell of burning coming from inside the house. I sent Greg to investigate.

‘I don’t want anyone to panic,’ said Greg when he came back, ‘but the living room’s on fire.’

*

When the fire engine eventually arrived flames were licking from the bedroom windows and a black pall of smoke hung over the whole street.

‘Been having a fancy dress party?’ asked the fire chief, chattily. I glanced around. An ageing ‘hippy chick’ wearing a kaftan and a headband was pacing up and down the pavement, taking photos of the blaze with a mobile phone. A young woman in a crinoline and shawl was sitting on a neighbour’s wall, fanning her face with a paper napkin, a man wearing a velvet smoking jacket and carrying a silver-tipped cane was chatting animatedly with one of the younger members of the fire crew, and a youth in a toga with a golden laurel wreath perched precariously on his head was throwing up noisily into the gutter.

‘Fancy dress?’ I said. ‘Yes, something like that.’

Greg came over to the fire chief and started blabbering incoherently about the shed.

‘Now calm down, sir. We have everything under control.’

‘I think my husband wants to know whether the garden shed is still standing,’ I explained. ‘He keeps his time ma- … I mean… his tools in the shed.’

The fire chief gave me his best ‘we’ve got a right one here’ look, but he made a call on his walkie-talkie, after which he was able to confirm that the shed was not only still standing, but was completely undamaged. Greg hugged him.

As soon as the fire engine had left, Amelia announced, ‘You two are coming to stay chez moi while all this mess gets sorted out. I insist.’

I didn’t have the energy to argue.

We all made a point of seeing our guests off. We said our goodbyes outside the shed.

Caligula was the second person that evening to be on the receiving end of one of Greg’s hugs. As Greg embraced the young despot there was a clinking sound, and as he pulled away, three bottles of wine fell out from under the Emperor’s toga and smashed on the garden path. Greg pushed him through the shed door with somewhat more force than was necessary.

Amelia turned to Mrs Beeton. ‘I’d like to say what a plaisir it has been to meet you,’ she said.

Mrs Beeton managed a smug smile. ‘Well…’ she began, but Amelia hadn’t finished.

‘I’d like to be able to say that, but I can’t. I’ve never met such a snobby, stuck-up vache in my whole life.’

Before Mrs Beeton could say anything in response, Greg ushered her hastily into the shed.

I turned to Oscar. ‘I’m sorry to have to say goodbye so soon,’ I said, ‘but I think, all things considered, it’s probably for the best.’

‘My dear,’ replied Oscar, ‘I am quite ready to return to my own time, thank you. As I always say, a little excitement is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.’

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

 

© Helen Lewis 2010


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