My cache of conversational titbits has been considerably boosted by the most recent challenge that I threw down to Spectator readers. I asked for an extract from either a gripping thriller or a bodice-ripping romance containing half a dozen pieces of inconsequential information, and I now know that Zanzibar is the world’s largest clove producer, and that 99 per cent of Estonians have blue eyes. Thanks, for those morsels of trivia, to J. Seery and Nicholas Hodgson, both of whom submitted fine entries. Patrick Tyson-Cain, Sergio Michael Petro, Albert Black, Walter Ancarrow and Charles Curran also narrowly missed the cut. Basil Ransome-Davies, who is on stellar form at the moment, takes £30; the rest nab £25.
I was wearing out shoe-leather tracking Torpedo McCann across the city, learning why most American males prefer rubber soles. LA had expanded since it was bought by the US from Mexico in 1848 and I was building a thirst myself when he entered a saloon next to a tattoo parlour. Good Polynesian word, ‘tattoo’, but there wasn’t time to think about that.
It wasn’t the Ritz. Two hundred pounds of insanitary flab in the kind of mesh undershirt the British call a string vest stood behind the bar smoking a stogie. It stank like the privy of Hell. No wonder Vice-President Marshall said ‘what this country needs is a good five-cent cigar’. The clientele were pretty much the living dead.
I ran through into a cluttered yard, remembering that a yard is just over nine-tenths of a meter, and there he was. Armed and dangerous.
Sederman slowly drew on his Javanese second-growth cotton gloves. He loved the routine — it was almost a ritual — of preparing for a take-out job. The gloved hands he slid into loose calfskin gauntlets. It brought back his wicket-keeping days. He smiled at the thought of his 74 n.o. imperishably in Wisden. Good times. He folded back the figured Aubusson, sprung the floorboard and retrieved his snub-nosed Walther 290, said to have been modelled on Mussolini’s snout in profile. Small but highly effective at close range, it fitted inside Sederman’s gauntlet the way Lady Caroline Lamb’s pistol had nestled inside her muff. But she only winged highwaymen: he had studied Gray’s Anatomy minutely enough to be able to deliver a bullet like a lethal injection, as a discharge of sin. Tonight was Quinquagesima. High time to enforce some pre-lenten abstention from the pleasures of wrongdoing.
Gavin didn’t need to be a platypus — with the electricity sensors in its bill — to know there was danger in the darkness. But its nature was as baffling as rongorongo, the Easter Island script. He edged towards the shadow, clutching his pistol. They’d lied to him, said it was safe. They’d been as reliable as picture-books showing Raleigh flinging his cloak over the puddle for Elizabeth, something Walter Scott invented for Kenilworth in 1821. Gavin wasn’t going to be fooled.
Something rustled. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ called Gavin, ‘but you’ve as much chance of surviving as a Volow speaker in Vanuatu — there’s only one of you: I’m aiming to reduce that number.’ ‘Gagarin had no control over what he did, and neither do you,’ came the reply. It was a woman. Hah. They couldn’t even vote in Liechtenstein until 1984. ‘Big brother is watching you, babe,’ laughed Gavin.
‘Hark! Hark! The lark’ (as in songbird rather than horseplay) was what Patience chose to sing. Watching her slender fingers caress the keys of the upright piano, recently tuned by a local firm, Ernest dreamed of those fingers, one day, caressing him. His eyes, examined each year by a Chinese optician, were drawn to her bosom which swelled as she sang ‘Arise, arise,’ arousing in Ernest demonic desires. No wonder Patience, whose Aunt was partial to poached eggs for breakfast, attracted him so. It was later, alone together on the terrace, that Ernest revealed what he felt he could no longer hide. In the light of the moon, as yet to be reached by Apollo 11, he held her closely, quelling her half-hearted protests by whispering, ‘Quiet woman,’ which was, incidentally, the name of a nearby Public House. Thus, wrapped in that warm embrace, their passionate romance began.
With one bound he was on her, tearing the flimsy lace from her shoulders. Actually, it wasn’t that flimsy; probably not Bruges lace, but a modern imitation using a tough synthetic fibre such as polyester. Her breath came in short, sharp gasps, often a symptom of emphysema or asthma, though it seemed unlikely in her case. Soon, she was completely naked. Her pert young breasts, thrusting eagerly to meet his hands, needed no artificial support. (The term ‘brassière’ was popularised by the DeBevoise Company in 1904.) He swept her nubile body onto the chaise-longue — or was it a recamier, named after the 19th-century French society hostess Juliette Recamier? ‘O, Sir’, she cried, ‘be gentle! I am but a novice in country matters.’ He frowned. The phrase ‘country matters’ came from Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2. What he required was a submissive bimbo (American slang, circa 1920), not some confounded Shakespeare-quoting intellectual.
Rodney’s features burned with a dark, troubled look which might easily have been a symptom of indigestion but in fact was not. Vanessa nervously plucked at her corsage, which in earlier times would have been held to ward off evil spirits. She had difficulty keeping her hands steady as she poured the tea, a Nilgiri, or ‘Blue Mountain’ type from the Western Ghats.
‘Have you seen Cleopatra’s Needle?’ he asked, leaning forward at angle of approximately 30 degrees. She forbore to correct him by explaining that the recently erected obelisk was far older than Cleopatra’s reign, dating from that of Thutmose III, but instead nodded mutely. An image of it grew in her mind, huge and powerful, so different from the needles in her own sewing basket, a gift from Aunt Charlotte, now in Canada, a high-tariff country.
She felt herself glowing and longed to loosen her stays.
Gilbert & Sullivan; Torvill & Dean; Gilbert and George; Ant and Dec: there have been many memorable pairings. Your next challenge is to write a poem celebrating one of your choosing. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to firstname.lastname@example.org by midday on 7 May.