Thursday, 25 March 2010

Prelude To An Incident On Somerleyton Marshes

This week’s sentence was taken from L. Frank Baum’s ‘The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz’.

It was:
Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions.’

Prelude To An Incident On Somerleyton Marshes

Blindingly bright shivers of light sparked off the water, breeze-ruffled, disturbed by the passage of mallard and water vole. Green-mottled beneath the surface shimmer lurked a sly old pike, invisible in the weeds, cold as the death awaiting unwary stickleback or perch.
Lacking the patience of pike, the boy raised his eyes from the river and the world swept to the horizontal.
Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. Only the broken brick stumps of windpumps, mostly long-derelict dared raise their heads above that endless ochre ocean, their graceful white sails long since replaced by diesel pumps hidden in nasty little fletton boxes alongside the myriad dykes and ditches of this trackless world of bog and fen.
Black peat oozed black water over the boy's boots as he walked, filling his footprints, leaving a trail of miniature lakes in his wake.
The soft squelch followed him, yet the vast expanse was far from silent. A cacophony of song from warbler, coot, moorhen and mallard accompanied him. Across the marsh came the low boom of a bittern, and far above the water meadows a single skylark trilled it's brilliant song to the world. The boy craned his neck and squinted into the sun until he spotted the tiny dot. It must have nested on the riverbank, the thin ribbon of short, duck-cropped grass snaking through the crowding, hissing reeds.
The breeze gave the marsh its sibilant voice and brushed its fingers softly through the surface sending waves, sea-like flowing across the reedbeds, hypnotising the boy into daydreams of pirate ships and the cries of gulls.

Tiny stained patches of dull green-black alder carr stitched the join between the flattened disc of dull gold and a sky far bigger than the world.
There above him spanned a monstrous arch of universal unreal blue, intense as lapiz lazuli on Tamurlane’s domes in far Samarkand. The boy gazed upward in awe, his dreams now sent flying by magic carpet into the worlds he loved: of exotic Arabian nights and tales of caravanserai along the ancient silk road.
That great bullying, overbearing sky pressed down on him and on this land flatter than freshly ironed linen, dwarfing the world, squeezing it into these few square miles of waterlogged flood plain where he wandered twixt mead and mere, an insignificant ant traversing a devastating emptiness.

Up ahead he heard at last the swish and crackle of scythes through Norfolk reed and the low mardling of Habbo and Roly in their flatboats cutting bundles for thatching, their harvest soon to gleam gold on church and cottage roof, lovingly entwined with hazel spars. The thatch would be good for another eighty years of blazing hot summers and those bitter Norfolk winters that lashed down from the arctic, their bellies replete with invading hordes of swan and tern.

Habbo looked up as the boy waded closer.

Sometimes That's All You Need

This week's sentence was taken from Willa Cather's 'Death Comes For The Archbishop'.

It was:
'Muerto,' he whispered.

Sometimes That's All You Need

Tharp blinked funny.
His right eye always seemed a little ahead of his left. Or perhaps it was the left eye that was slower than the right. Either way, people found it hard to talk to someone whose blink was out of sync. Before long they would become acutely aware of what their own eyelids were up to, which left them kind of distracted.
Tharp's sequential blink rolled across his face from left to right as you looked at him and your eyes couldn't help but follow the movement off to one side, somewhat in the manner of a typewriter carriage, with the result that you found yourself constantly flicking your gaze back to meet Tharp's from a point somewhere above his left shoulder.
People got the impression he was doing it deliberately, which of course he wasn't. Or at least you thought he wasn't until you next met him and then you couldn't help but have your suspicions.
Oblique by nature, Tharp liked to live in profile, more comfortable at counter than table. As long as you could only see one eye at a time he was pretty good company. Errant eyelids aside Tharp was as normal as you or me, although knowing you and me that might not be as reassuring as it sounds.

He had worked at the mortuary all his adult life. The dead don't care how you blink at them. Tharp felt that his charges respected him more than the living so he cared for them with skill and tenderness.
His one real friend among the living was his boss, Stent. A much younger man, Stent had married a beautiful but simple girl whose closest approach to academic achievement was to obsessively search for the image of Jesus in her food. Their life was idyllic yet Stent craved from Tharp the conversation he could not get at home. Tharp was older and wiser and loved to talk.
And so they got along.

Somewhat superstitious, Stent could never bring himself to mention death in his native tongue and substituted Latin or Spanish when the subject raised its grisly head, which at the mortuary was not an uncommon occurrence.
'Muerto,' he whispered.
Tharp blinked at the figure on the slab. Stent's diagnosis was, as usual, concise and accurate.
'So what was yesterday's count?' Tharp asked, as he did every day before they got down to work. Stent didn't look up.
'Three,' he said. 'One burned into the toast at breakfast, one in a pork chop and a particularly good one in her mashed potato.'
Maria posted photos of her edible saviours on a blog. She had quite a following.
The conversation strayed to last night's radio adaptation of Chekhov's 'Seagull,' meandered on into politics, books and the entertaining collection of tattoos adorning the elderly lady who no longer felt any sense of shame at the ministrations of these strange men on her naked body.
They worked on, happily. Tharp liked Stent. Stent liked Tharp.
Life was good.

Thursday, 18 March 2010


This week's sentence was taken from E.M. Forster's 'A Room With A View'.

It was:
'It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown.'


It was a small room and very dark after the dazzling sunshine. The intense blues and greens of the square outside were replaced by smoky browns, massive dark-wood dressers leaving only squeeze-room around the big family table, spread with a dull orange plastic tablecloth. I saw why Ana's parents had chosen to greet me outside; there was no room in here for their ubiquitous and effusive Lusitanian hugs and kisses.
We sat. Rosalinda, painfully Portuguese; small, fat, black-shawled, grey-haired and very likely the image of her tall, slim, beautiful daughter twenty years hence. José, his English worse than my Portuguese, dashed into the kitchen, returning with a small parcel wrapped in newspaper.
Ana conspiratorial: 'Don't act grossed-out! It's pig's ear in jelly. Pãe makes it himself.'
The old man leaned forward, urging me with gestures to open the package and devour its contents. I decided to play along; the foolish foreigner falling for José’s favourite joke. After all, I like pork; what could be so bad?
With a display of reverence, I unwrapped the parcel. There on a bed of sodden grey newsprint, glistening in a coating of gelatinous ooze that looked suspiciously like semen but which I hoped was merely pork jelly, nestled what was unmistakably a whole pig's ear, mercifully sliced into bite-sized pieces. Anticipating José’s laughter I picked up a piece and put it in my mouth.
If it was a joke, he was playing it to the hilt. His expression was one of genuine concern as to the quality of his gross offering.
Not wishing to give offence, I felt compelled to eat the damned thing. It tasted partly of the paper in which it was wrapped, partly of hair oil, partly of the great unknown. In texture it was not unlike tough raw squid, if ever a squid harboured such a disgusting quantity of gristle, but I fought back a wave of nausea and chewed doggedly on, nodding and smiling in such a way as to hopefully satisfy my host's expectant expression as to the incomparable deliciousness of this most rare and delicate morsel.
Saved by the old man raising a glass, I eagerly joined him, the lubrication allowing me finally to force down the revolting gobbet.
I grinned widely and nodded my thanks, praying that my demonstration of enthusiasm would not produce a whole barrel of pork gristle from the kitchen.
I need not have worried. The ice broken, great bowls of avocado salad and piri-piri prawns materialised on the table, accompanied by José's home-grown pink olives, marinaded in orange and herbs and a small mountain of the fabulous local bread, chilled vinho verde and (with a cackle from José) a bottle of throat-stripping aguardente.
Lunch over, Rosalinda beamed at her daughter and dragged her into the kitchen. José slammed a carved box down on the table, opening it with great ceremony to reveal his personal, home-made set of dominoes: teak with inset brass dots.
He grinned. I had become part of the family.

This is a deliberate mis-remembering of two separate meals, one in Cascais and one in Sintra.
My first meeting with Ana’s parents (Mãe and Pãe: Rosalinda and José) involved José sacrificing one of his scrawny chickens, which he grilled on a workman’s brazier in the road outside. It was one of the best pieces of chicken I had ever tasted.
Even though I was vegetarian back then the Portuguese had no understanding of the concept (we’re talking late 1980s) and so chicken, pork and fish were on all the vegetarian menus and I didn’t want to abuse their hospitality.
The pig’s ear was part of a feast laid on by João and Carla. They presented us with Feijoada, which is a traditional festival dish including (heaped on a gigantic platter) black beans, bacon, smoked ribs, trotters, tail, various sausages made from the more adventurous parts of the pig, and of course the ears. It was fabulous apart from the ears, which were pretty much as I described them in the story.

I still have Pãe’s infamous dominoes, which he presented me as a gift. I soon figured out the reason he was unbeatable: the handmade teak dominoes are beautifully grained and all slightly irregular in shape and he had simply learned what each one looked like from the back so always picked the pieces he needed to win, the sly old fox.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Thursday Night Fever

This week’s sentence was taken from Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone.’

It was:
‘The Thursday night passed, and nothing happened.’

Thursday Night Fever

The Thursday night passed, and nothing happened.
God frowned.
'That's odd,' He mused, 'Thursdays haven't done that before.'
If all was right with His Creation lots of things ought to have happened on Thursday night. But they hadn’t.
He checked the BOOK.
It looked like the moon had failed to rise, stars remained untwinkled, none of the albeit nocturnally themed and somewhat furtive activities that He had ordained had come to pass.
He had a thoughtful little rummage in His beard.
'I bet it's them buggers downstairs.'
God began to fume. Fuming is never a good sign in a deity, especially one signing Himself ‘THE’ rather than ‘A’ deity.
He banged on the floor until a small, somewhat irritable red face appeared above the skirting.
'Wot.' it squeaked.
God glared.
'Where's Lucifer?’
'Indisposed.' replied the imp.
God took a deep breath.
'You forget I am omniscient. I know full well he's sitting on Jane Austen and watching Project Runway. Tell him to get his pointy red arse up here, pronto!'
The imp disappeared. After some rumbling and a relieved squeak from Miss Austen the face of Beelzebub poked through the wainscotting.
'If it's about that Tea Party nonsense I'm sorry. I can never resist temptation. I'm the smegging Devil, you know.'
'It's about Thursday.' boomed God, adding a touch of reverb for good measure.
There was a pause.
'Lucifer, I've seen that look before.'
‘Well it’s your fault for keeping me so bloody busy. I just wanted a night off, that’s all. Celebrity Enema was on telly and it was the semi-final. You never let anyone in up here so I have to run around all night collecting the souls of the damned and I’m frankly sick of it.’
God looked thoughtful.
‘Celebrity Enema, eh? I missed that one. What happened?’
‘Sheesh! You shoulda seen it! Jennifer Lopez versus Dick Cheney? It was awesome! Arse-gravy apocalypse!’
‘And I suppose it’s the final this Thursday?’
‘Damn right it is. And if you think I’m going to miss that you are sorely mistaken.’
God raised an eyebrow.
‘I suppose one more missing Thursday night can’t do any harm. How about you come up here and we watch it together? Bring some decent beer this time, and leave that awful Austen woman downstairs.’
‘I dunno, God. It's too bloody quiet up here for my liking. I mean there's only you and the boy, everyone else is downstairs. And you two bore the arse off one another.'
Jesus rolled his eyes.
'You don't know the half of it. I've had to turn the other cheek so often He's had me spinning like a top.’
‘Look,’ interposed Satan. ‘How about you send the lad downstairs for a bit? I mean you both need a break and there’s loads to do down there. Then me and you can sit up here and watch the telly and have a bit of a chinwag and a beer. Just like the old days. Eh?’
And lo, the following Thursday night passed, and nothing happened.