Sport 3: Spring 1989
Damien Wilkins — Out in the Field
We flew into Heathrow ahead of time. I was two hours up on my visit and walking out into the same Friday I thought I'd filled with eighteen holes on a simmering Melbourne golf course south of the Yarra River. The burnt yellows of fairway, the liquid green.of green. The shorts. My brother pipped once again in the later stages. The beautifully worked 16th. Or was that sweet spent Thursday? Anyway, whatever the clock said, and the instrument inside me had been shaken and spun so often that in its recent measuring it was about as accurate as an indoor sundial, I was still ahead. I felt kind of younger. My passport was in order and my natural pallor had begun to shine. It was reaching out its wan rays towards the greys and bloodless whites of London, England, the whole pale world.
If looking down at the Australian interior, for which the word vast is all wrong since it is the index of fear we want rather than that of mere size, had made me Voltairish — 'he has left the world full, he finds it empty' — Heathrow promised hubbub, a rabble of content in which clarity would have to be worked at. I was ready for the challenge. Too much of my life recently had been a self winding on and down; a prolix, mazey history from which the journey, my engagement, I hoped, might fashion an escape.
We had lived in London for three years while my father studied toxins in berries of some sort. I was ten when the family arrived and a smart kid. An academic future. However, sharing in three years on bad fruit cured me of research. I followed hunches from then on. I became a guesser, a fluker. Against Dad's careful nudging of data, his infinite world of microscopes, the silent papery fortress of his study and his swollen packets of berries with ice growing on their labels buried deep in our freezer, I was a marbles in the jar, a weight of the pig child. I was no longer the little professor.
Now I was figuring how heavy the nostalgia was, as it came over page 14in the pleasantly familiar vowels of the customs officer. Nothing I couldn't handle.
When we finally emerged from those secret airport manoueuvres I was immediately aware of that sensation — both pleasurable and oppressive — of being conjoined in the great mass of people: relations, friends, chauffeurs, the idle and curious mixing with the concerned, the grieving, the celebrating, the hesitating, there in the crowded terminal of Heathrow 3.
I find myself studying the cards being held up with names on them. All of us, we passengers, read the names which I now notice often appear in crude lettering and impossible spellings. Dr Morgln is awaited. How many of us, I wonder, are tempted to present our credentials by approaching the illiterate sign, our handshake ready, our introducing smile, pass the guy a bag or two, wait for the way his mouth is going to get around Morgln, correct him, and get a lift into the city in the company of a stranger. Certainly I'm game. I move quite close to him, the wheels of my trolley almost touching his shoes. The shoes are high class brogues, a pattern of circles cut into the deep brown leather uppers. The trousers are dark blue with just enough give to allow, I suppose, comfortable driving. He's well tucked into his grey woollen sports jacket, buttoned at the waist. Goatskin gloves. A hint of uniform but also tailoring so you know driving is not his only thing. The peaked cap stays in the Daimler ever since some obese American mistook him for her first live bobby and tried to make him arrest a line jumper. His face shows a practised mix of boredom and wearied waiting, as if he's stopped at a traffic light. He is a pro and his mark must be quite a guy. Morgln looks less and less like sloppy typing. A Danish captain of industry, except for the Dr bit. A high rent medic? An ace heart man. I cannot resist a nod. He flicks his head in my direction and his eyebrows lift over the drooping banner but I disappoint him by passing on. He never had me for his hit anyway. Plot is made of our impure selections, the dynamics of daily missed possibilities. I remember my notebook of dictums tucked inside my flightbag, memos for my crime fiction. I think most fondly of the newest thing and how I am to pull it off. How? I follow the arrows to the Underground.
I was booked into the Y off Tottenham Court Road. It was November, the cold settling in, the pressure on rooms easing off, I thought. It was my time, away from the approaching layers of Antipodean summer, towards clear, cool childhood.page 15
There was no one about on the seventh floor except a group of teenagers hanging over the Pepsi machine in the corridor. I had an impulse to make contact, a hankering after conversation which hadn't hit me since leaving. I thought of Gerty from Liverpool who had the aisle seat beside me and who had bailed me up with stories of the various inaccuracies of the medical profession. The first hip to go had turned out to be more stable than its replacement: it could have been saved. When the second went the hip experts took the opportunity to relocate the first gammy substitute, bolting in another plastic frame to assist in locomotion. This had the effect of lopsiding her walk and eventually sitting her down right slap in the middle of Tescos one Friday night. And now, she said, she had more rivets in her side than the QEII. More bolts than a hardware store. Magnets made her wonky. It was all a dead serious laugh to Gerty and had meant only that she could not easily get around her son-in-law's Victorian sheep station on the farmbike. Instead her daughter had driven her. Scared her to death. I began to warm to Gerty.
Gerty looked seventy though I thought the city of Liverpool may well have taken responsibility for a decade of that. She spoke of her husband Brian, laid off from the shipyard the same week the Beatles sacked Pete Best. Did I know Pete Best? Yes, the fifth Beatle. I knew him. She was disappointed. She had wanted incredulity for this story. Just occasionally in her free-flowing account there happened a break, a sort of test for me, the platform for a small struggle. All this flying over desert was too easy; Gerty was on the offensive with all her evidence. Anyway, Pete had lived in their street, a nice lad but artistic.
I tried to resist it but Gerty's face encouraged the language of the docklands: large and impressive structures — the nose, the mouth especially — but something under-used there too, worked at once but now let go, not through inattention but a simple dispersal of need. Gerty's resources had been reallocated.
She laughed a lot, at first I thought from nerves. But it wasn't a local jollity, specific to the tight cabin and the little screams from the galley where a hostess calmed some minor hysteria. It was a big and uncertain amusement with the speedy world, her wide and hipless unlocomoted self.
Gerty would now be home on the Mersey. Resting up before fixing Brian's tea. Bail was the wrong word. I made the correction. We had kept each other company. I'd enjoyed it. Sure, she had asked me very few questions about myself and those that had come my way I supposed page 16to have arrived through politeness rather than interest and wasn't that how I preferred it anyway. Why bring Deborah and William into the picture. In truth, all Gerty's strength had made me feel vulnerable, acute and pained like appendicitis, and, weakening in that region of kidneys, liver, bowels which is where these things reach me, I took cover in feigned sleep. I could listen to you no more Gerty because I would have started myself. I may have ended immobile, in need of your dodgy mechanics to get me going again.
I could not bring myself to test the water with these kids. I had lost my confidence with this generation whose idea of nostalgia was probably the first series of Miami Vice. Bugger Pete Best, could they even have picked Lennon and McCartney in a line-up. Oh Gerty, I sighed inwardly, careful the Pepsi generation didn't catch the self-pitying heave to my shoulders, my heart was almost ready to let you understand it. I glanced at the group. They were wearing yarmulkes and practising short violent swings with squash racquets. Strange, I thought, until I was inside my room. How quaint. I'd been in bigger suits. Those kids were learning again about elbows, arm movements; they were learning not to breathe in relays.
I folded myself onto the bed. I slept with my head arranged on the handkerchief-sized pillow, my nose catching the cool smell of porcelain from the tiny basin six inches from its tip.
I woke in the early evening. Banged my nut on a rail oddly placed for the hanging of perhaps a single face-cloth. I changed and squeezed out the door, like a genie shifting house. The Israelis had taken over the floor. They were in their Hebrew language T-Shirts, their khaki flak jackets, their parachutist boots. Shalom, I said to myself, the lift kibbutzy, reeking adolescence.
I made it through reception without a bodysearch and, out on the road looking up towards Oxford Street, I felt instantly free and reunited with the abiding spirit of the city. I was not about to put any money down on a definition of this spirit but still, here it was. The lights, the neon globe mounted by the gigantic word TIME, the kindly old man's face, bearded and twinkling and beneath it the name Laurence Olivier. I moved toward the great man, whose twilight talents were located somewhere in that high and ready wheezing laugh. Gerty's guffaw, in contrast, seemed positively Shakespearian.
I noted the entrance to the Tube station where I had stashed the body of a child. Yes, it seemed possible. Despite the illumination cast by theatre, traffic, pedestrians, there were still passages in shadow, page 17gloom in the glare. It was credible enough. There have, after all, been the most fantastical acts, the most indecent crimes, enacted in full view, in broad daylight. Remember Trini; the infamous taxi-driver of Madrid who stopped for fares with a stiff still warm in the front seat, a red scarf wrapped tight around the slit throat. Of course, that man was not a writer: he was a journalist.
I was not used to this. I am not by nature a traveller. The places I've been I have always been taken to. As a boy I am taken to London. Has this set the pattern for a lifetime? I do not think I have gone anywhere except when it was strictly necessary, when it was demanded, unthinkable that I not go. My ex-wife Deborah told me over the phone that I was 'without volition'.
'Without volition,' I said, 'what does that mean? Without volition. I have plenty of volition. Makes me sound like some failing seminarian, flunking God.'
'That's vocation,' she said.
I have volition to spare. I could go into business. I am in business. The volition business. When I die, Deborah, there's going to be this volition empire left. And I'm maybe going to leave it to old William because if you want to see a lack of volition look a bit closer to home Deborah. Thanks Dad, he'll say, for all this volition. Trouble is he's going to be about forty-six years old or something.'
'Will is not short on ideas,' she said, using the lousy diminutive which she knows irritates me. The first thing that happens after separation: everyone gets these new names. Next week I'll be asking after Billy and Bobo. 'He just doesn't know what he's going to do with his life.'
'Yeah. Well you should maybe be a little concerned about that Deborah. I know I'm concerned. In fact, concerned is mild.'
'Oh yes. Right,' she said. 'I'm very concerned. Yes, this sixteen-year-old boy who hasn't quite got a career. Wow. I'm calling Youthline. Shit. I'm like at the end of my tether. I've heard about this.'
'What are you giving that boy now he's left school, a nice course in sarcasm, anything else?'
'Hold on. Don't I know you,' she said. 'Aren't you the counsellor in one of my ex-husband's books?'
'Ouch Deborah. You haven't been reading my books? Surely. Not after all these years.'
'Will gets them from the library. The twenty cent rack. The slack bum. Reads crappy thrillers all day long. What do you recommend?'page 18
'Custody,' I said.
'You heard the court,' she said.
Whenever I talk to Deborah the dumbest speech wells up. We are beyond repair. Yet the sound of her voice, even and deeply-pitched mostly, but raspy at the edges, cracking in winning ways (not Dietrich but not unlike a South Island version, a slight roll on the Rs counsellurr), is enough to make me clenched and sweaty, as moody and prickly as William on a dateless Friday night. If they still have dates. Or Friday nights.
Volition or otherwise, there must be scarcely a person left in Auckland who has travelled less than me or who has less inclination to travel than I possess. A baby is hardly born into Mt Albert or even Glen Innes than it is holidaying in Queensland, or being tossed through the thick Californian air between Goofy and Pluto. My happily-exiled brother has told me about a survey placing 'Disney' fourth on the list of first words spoken by American infants. Up from ninth last year. 'Nothing is minor anymore,' he said, 'or everything is.' I smiled, at my pithy brother, in his pithy shorts. I wanted to hear him say the word pithy and listen as he buried his neighbourly origins. 'The writing of crime novels,' he went on, with that smile of his where the lips do all the work and the chin recedes beneath the family overbite: it looks like he's just located a fishbone at the back of his throat and is weighing its hazard, 'may turn out to be nothing less than the central human activity of the future.' The bone slides down, hits the generous curve of belly, its soft pressure making the high family forehead wrinkle. Some insist it looks cute on him. I've been told it makes me look plain worried. He should watch that pot.
We are not a clan of good losers and winning, because of its rarity, can make us heedless. My brother thinks to have won the golf means so much to me I will take his philosophising as graciousness and mistake the: dig for playfulness. It does mean that much, in fact it means more. He is so conceited about his talents. His beefy dexterity and his smart new set of Greg Norman woods. In the end I don't even mind. His own busy attempts to distance himself from the result, his stewing, is enough. 'I hope so,' I said with exaggerated tameness, 'for my ex-family's sake.'
It reminded me that I was under instructions from my paused son page 19to get Elmore Leonard's signature if he showed or better still to steal poor Elmore's cap right off his head. William's postcard arrived the day before I left. It's lateness suspect. As if Deborah had been twisting arms, actually grabbed his lazy arm, sat him down with the pen and my address, made him say the words aloud. Miming the O with those compact, deceptively full lips of hers and watching it appear on her son's big smackers.
'Have a good time over there. Say Hi to the Queen for me. Won't it be freezing. It's bloody hot here. We're swimming all day. Get something of E. Leonard's for me. Ciao. W.' Stamped from Waiheke and I think the Ciao is William's. The Italian bit.
I was after Patricia Highsmith myself. Not her headgear but maybe something in that hand — her name — which I imagined would be written tightly, without flourish, concentratedly on the surface, like a brand hotly delivering its letters into flesh. Of if not that because I might be a disaster of nerves, then simply to see her and study her eyes which would be the clue. And perhaps things would solve themselves in a chance meeting of our furtive pupils.
It did not exactly come flooding back. I had a hunch it wouldn't. My memory, as I have been told by more than one reader, is not perfect. Sometimes it is not even sharp. Deborah says I have no business being a writer and quotes me authors who work from story-boards, from maps, from plot diagrams which look like the sutures in Frankenstein's monster. I quote back Highsmith — the utter boredom of this sort of complexity.
A stream of eight-year-olds will also take the stand. Kids who sought refuge in their textbooks rather than share a few fuddled moments with me. The smart ones, sensing that their teacher was not a hundred per cent sold on the idea of devotion to the progress of his charges, had usually swapped information amongst themselves before I could attain the desired accuracy, had quickly graded me a good B2 (promising like everyone's promising, but distracted) and got on with the job of their own schooling. These bright kids with their integers and their vulgar fractions — for nine years we managed a sort of arrangement: we kept our distance. I let them alone and they did likewise. The arrangement, however, suffered nightly erosions as through a series of work dreams the distance fell away. I became their victim. A patsy. A nerd. A goofball.
The worst of such imaginings involved my class discovering a page 20manuscript in my drawer and the best reader, a girl with a voice like a bell, excerpting the choicest, most incriminating passages. The prose gets butchered. The voice strangled in a mockery of a particular wish of mine. Of course they have a sonar for the sex in it. They hoot and laugh and cover their ears and blow farts and practise copulating with the desks.
It is a strange vision because looking back on my teaching, the sneaking of time to fine-tune a paragraph, make good the page which I had promised myself I would write each day, it was not the commonplace hellishness of din, the ferocious growing noises of the pupils, which upset my balance. It was those very moments of quiet: the children with their heads down over some silent exercise, the teacher seated at the front, checking occasionally on a class which is not engaged in the usual covert traffic of notes and missiles. It was precisely these intervals which were capable of filling me with dread. The potential energy stored in those big/little bodies made me jittery; but more than that, under such conditions, I would develop a weakness for irrationality. Perhaps things would end like this, I thought. Maybe this silence is the last thing which will happen to us. At the time, I grew to recognise this as symptomatic of the type of neurosis I had seen in many of my colleagues. I made some resolutions. The patsy would reform. I was not going to end up babbling to myself in the playground. I had drafts of three novels in my drawer. I collected them and without too much inquiring through my teeth, 'Too proud to stay in your father's dry goods business, eh?' (as Perelman puts it), walked out.
These days, however, the fear instilled by the silent child seems closer than ever: the hushed classroom a kind of rehearsal for William and myself, the distance which was somehow arranged between us long before there intervened the widening which finally saw Deborah and I parted. As if our divorce was only the official sealing of the three vectors in which we had moved all along.
The detail has dimmed but London is at least familiar to me in its air, its scent. It smells like old tea, like a book of T.S. Eliot's over which someone has spilt old tea. And here comes the shape of the curb, the colour of the pavement, the widths of the shopfronts, the streetlighting dully carried along in the faces of the Londoners and the way it bounces off the foreheads of the visitors whose faces are tilted upwards, like they have a special pigment. (I'm careful to grab page 21only the occasional sighter, make my studies sideways. Pass myself off as native.) Yes, I say to myself, not entirely dry-eyed, these things are present and accounted for. And there is the alleyway off Charing Cross Road where Jack the Ripper might have waited, his haunt drifting up from the East End, with his scalpel, opposite the Lebanese takeaways where I find my first English meal.
With benefit of my pocket A-Z I made my way to the Mall and walked quickly down it towards the Institute for Contemporary Arts. The Mall's width and bareness make me feel conspicuous. There are no other pedestrians about and it is difficult to focus on any point in the near distance. The dark has been cleaned out by the streetlights. It is like an empty night stadium, up for its fixture and spooked before the turnstiles start rolling. It feels on the point of being filled. Lonely and foolish, I fancy myself the object of amusement in the cars and cabs which pass with hostile speed and at just that interval which, I calculate, allows drivers and passengers to fix their attention on the curious lone walker, his gait troubling to appear normal. I stare at the ground, at the swept gutter, longing for company. Maybe I'll go back and make up with Morgln's man, get the name of his cobbler. I'm hoping even for the diversion of some droppings of the Queen's horses, those joyfully liberal makers of the royal dung. But everything is unsoiled, denuded and well-lit and I think instead of the conference, my paper on the deceased in some seminal works of mystery, entitled 'The Corpse in the Corpus'.
I remember standing here in the Mall when I was a child waiting for some procession — was it the Lord Mayor's — and the heat bringing spots to my eyes and my sisters taking off their dresses and pushing their fingers into each other's bare bellies. My father, on holiday from his thesis but unwilling to give science a complete break, checking the light on his meter which hangs on a strap around his neck and is only the preamble to an elaborate photographic assay, my mother in her familiar pose: a child wedged between her legs. The whole crowd restless and pulling their clothes from their bodies, blowing down their shirtfronts, fanning themselves with programmes, calling the names of their dissolving families.
The procession, it seemed, would never arrive, yet we had all invested so much in this promised moment and nobody was leaving. And was that the distant noise of cheering, the flapping of pennants, the clack of hooves, the soft sound of graciousness one straight mile away? No. page 22A mounted bobby rode past, his radio talking on his hip, sweat rolling down the horse's great nose.
As I walk the length of the Mall now the spangly shapes of an entourage flash through and I believe I can make out whinnying against a tide of bothersome complaints, human exasperations: the Mall alive and angry. My walk as swift as laying bricks.
I have never experienced delay as vividly and painfully as that late morning seeping into endless afternoon, that Lord Mayor and his tardy carriage. We thought we might die. And still he would not have arrived. Not even with our bodies lining the way. The more incensed we became about his non-appearance, the more determined our resolve to remain until he showed, which possibility we now believed unlikely, rooted in our spots, our sticky puddles.
Here I am wriggling to the front so that, craning my neck and pushing against the retaining rope, I could see far along the Mall where the light caught in the leaves of the trees and the shiny police stirrups and the white of the Beefeaters' belts, their scabbards, the gold of their chin-straps. The road wavered. I swung on the rope, feeling faint and sick. Someone caught me, pulled me back. It was a black man, waving a can of beer around in one hand while the other messed my hair. He was laughing and calling me sonny. I was looking up the black man's nose and observing the pink underside of his tongue. I had never been this close to a black man. Around his eyes were wet patches of a lighter shade than the rest of his dark face. Was he losing his colour in the heat, I wondered, waiting for the Lord Mayor who would then proceed past a crowd of only white people and no black. I didn't know quite how to pose the question. It involved pigmentation. The shy junior anthropologist asked instead if the black man was drunk. The National Geographic had registered almost an epidemic of drunkenness somewhere in Africa. I wanted to show him I was not unfamiliar with the kinks in his culture, the sorrowful history which 'sat on the shoulders' of his people. It cahn be denied, he said, it cahn be denied. Then he turned to his friend, who shared those same troubles I saw. They swayed against each other. The other black man was wearing a big coat, a winter thing full of mangy fur. He was sweating heavily, rubbing his beer can across his forehead. He looked down at me and raised his eyebrows, as if we had naturally struck up this conversation and he was interested in my reply. Then he began to open his coat. Slowly. Carefully the coat opens. I remember, can almost count off, the extraordinary page 23slowness. The Lord Mayor might go by in the time it takes for that coat to open.
At first I'm looking up at his bare chest and checking all its parts. Field research. I expect the channel of sweat which runs down over his popped-out navel will continue on and he will be showing me his blackballs and darkie's donger as has been discussed in school: flashers. No. The pants are on. But I've missed something. There in the top corner. The black man has watches, necklaces, bracelets, purses. There are straps of silver, golden baubles and trinkets, crystals which picture the whole day in their unfathomable depths. The coat is like a bear walking around with a jewellery store. It is beautiful. He smiles down on his glittering skin, his sparkling universe of precious stuff. I smile too. A big grin. We exchange our happiness as the coat closes.
This was my first encounter with the world of crime, a world in which I sink and rise, rise and sink, with each new book, the coat opening and closing.
From the outside the ICA is smaller than I had expected. Inside it offers an impressive array of entrances and exits: stairways, doors to auditoriums, passages smelling of strong coffee and weak lager. The conference is not until the following day but I dislike going in cold. I touch the walls and test the carpet with my heels. The lighting is quite dim, the decor all curves and clean lines. The surfaces seem absorbent, packed with the sounds they have proofed: the string quartets, the avant garde rock bands, the weight of dissertation and chatter; they seem soaked. I get out my notebook from my inside jacket pocket and write this phrase: 'Like a classroom of mute children. Then I put a weak line through it so that if I want to use it it's still there but the crossed line remains a safeguard against the easy appropriation of my epigrammatic self.
The ICA bookshop, a deepish alcove near the main entrance, has prepared. There is a display of crime literature: novels, biographies, letters, critical works. Nothing of mine but even so, the book jackets, the titles, the closeness of the auditorium, and my letter of invitation to speak which my pocket has been unable to resist — all of it makes me feel part of a team. I am warmed by the sudden vision of us all gathered in some well-appointed drawing-room which reeks (which tastes because there's furniture here which looks good enough to lick) pleasantly of creaking leather sofas and lozenge-shaped footstools. page 24There's an old master tipping cigarillo ash into a plantholder in the corner while a disciple takes the seersuckered elbow of a fellow who's just been funny. No one pours but decants. The crystal stopper in the brandy weighs as much as a soccer ball. For a moment I am in the Men's Room at the Gloucester where you are helped out of your flies should sir require a pee.
I pick up a booklet with a striking photograph on its cover: a family eating at a table in a room with wallpaper patterned in guns.
Highlights from the Frankfurt Crimefest it is called. It opens on a page:
This is the city which gave me my love of concrete and my hate of concrete and this is the city which gave me my love of football and my hate of football. The loves and hates mingling and multiplying, finding their most perfect expression in the childhood game which involved flicking football cards on the concrete of the playground. None of these cards has survived in my possession, though, at the time, as a boy, I would have killed the boy next to me if he had cheated and blown the cards down. Or stolen the cards. Not figuratively killed him understand, but
literally killed him. Whenever someone says,
I am going to kill you, it is always literal and never figurative. Do these once precious cards still exist? Whenever I hear that uniquely human threat,
I am going to kill you, whether in the street, at a supermarket, or in my own home, in the puniest voice or at the top of an operatic pair of lungs, and one only has to listen for a short while to hear it, hear it frequently, I know that it is literally true, its truth acted on relatively rarely, but its literalness unquestionable.
I am going to kill you, my lover my neighbour my dentist my employer my audience my lunatic cousin my mild uncle says to me, and the accuracy
hurts us, causes a pain impossible to bear until it is relieved by cowardice, humour, a kiss or such-like, but rarely by the killing, almost never, although the intention remains the one real thing exchanged.
At this point I paused in my reading. Someone was trying to squeeze past behind me; a woman in her late twenties, I guessed, carrying a book on the film-maker Wim Wenders, the double Ws winging down the spine, to the counter. It annoyed me. Not the interruption but the familiar thought that I still hadn't managed to see Wenders's Hammett.
For a time I moved in a society of friends film-literate to a prodigious degree. To these folk a Ford is not something parked outside, Lynch not the wish of a mob. Every now and then the divisive Hammett page 25would come up in conversation. I longed to hold an opinion and it drove me periodically crazy that events conspired to keep me from the film.
'Have you seen his Hammett?' [sic: ]I blurted out, instantly regretting it, beginning to shuffle stupidly but straightening under her gaze. She was looking at me hard and long. One of those scouting for desire looks. Picking the pervert. The merely friendly. I had time for some self-analysis. I was old enough to be her older brother, or younger uncle. I wasn't really old enough. She probably thought I thought that she thought I was picking her up. I had time enough for the grammar of that thought and to take in her black knee-length leather skirt, black stockings, and her white cashmere jumper with its little green emblem on a breast pocket, like the badge on a good car bonnet. Chandler would have walked her on as a real dame and though I tended to side with Raymond I also thought her pastiness might have been slightly more exotic on the West Coast than it was in SW2.
' Hammett,' she said finally and without any firm indication as to the decision she had reached about me and my interest, 'is his best work.'
I bit my tongue and let out a moan. Damn. What was that designer flag? I was suddenly thinking on the illegal trade in Lacoste gear and whether there was maybe a story in it. 'Do you know if it's on anywhere?' I said. I could tell the moan had worried her. It had worried me. I tasted a little blood in my mouth.
'Sorry,' she said.
A strand of blonde hair had loosed itself from behind an ear with the prettiest lobe, the tiniest silver sleeper. She delayed pushing it back. Whatever could this mean? Hell, I was no detective. Was she leaving it there for me? Was I supposed to lean across, make a play for that strand? I am always getting these things wrong. Before I knew Deborah I'd made a pass at her best friend; the same night I meet Deborah I'm busy pawing her room-mate. Tracy something. Then again, maybe Tracy had been my real soul buddy after all, Deborah a diversion, a downfall.
The green thing was hopping up at me as she made a funny little circle with her shoulder.
'Do you know Hammett's work itself?' I tried.
'Sorry?' she said. These sorrys were backing up but they weren't the vacant kind. Each time it was a finishing school apology and therefore not one at all. It made you feel like you had a thick tongue page 26(in fact I did and resolved to give up biting it), a set of false teeth in.
'I mean did the film have a line in to the work, Dashiel Hammett's work?'
'Oh no. I'm strictly Wenders,' she said, making it sound like fenders.
'Ah. Strictly Wenders,' I. said, the W sounding wide as a duck call.
She edged further past me, her fingers signing off with a trill along the book's spine. The deep red polish of her nails distracted me and if it is possible to brood for such an instant I was brooding on that name laid out beneath her farewelling hand. She proceeded to pay for the book, gave me, the soppy ICA, and Dash Hammett, a kind of smile and left quickly, the parcel under her arm.
How many times have I told that story, I asked myself when telling you about the cards and the city which has, in many ways, affected my personality? Many. Indeed many. And so it is with the writing of crime novels. Ladies and gentlemen, the crime novel is, the most tedious, the most obvious, the thinnest of all novels ever to be conceived. It gets by without character and, likewise, by becoming too complex or too simple, it gets by without plot. It gets by without poetry. Because it is
hardboiled, clinical, or
colloquial, because this writer is said to have a good ear, it gets by without dialogue. It has only one speech that single utterance,
I am going to kill you, which is literally true. And that is why we love it, pursue it with guilty child-like pleasure, and never quite listen to it. I have called my paper 'Purity' and let us begin with a simple game. A man addressing a conference says, lifting his head from his notes and removing his reading glasses,
I am going to kill you.
I decided to buy the booklet. I disliked the pompous and self-dramatising little man (somehow he sounded small, as if I had his room at the Y and somewhere, by mistake, he had mine) and knew I would never look at it again. Yet something stuck: the italics, the disarming matter-of-factness, a detachment so severe that it finally revealed what lay at its heart: a huge sorrow. The Hammett woman had given me a reckless appetite for critical analysis. Bring on Moby Dick and I'd have cut the blubber with the best of them.
I was sympathetic to the voice and took the booklet to Trafalgar Square and for some reason I forget, laid it at the foot of Nelson's Column. I wasn't well. I was hectic. I was distinctly non-binary, every thought which came to me was under the weather and had friends. I knocked on the doors of the National Portrait Gallery which had closed hours before. No one came. There was no one home at the page 27National Portrait Gallery. I wouldn't have got past the eighteenth century anyway, I consoled myself; all those men with touches of cholic, syphilis, bad wigs and troublesome spleens. Cheeks shiny. Dozy hunting dogs. Or whatever they used in those days to fill out the picture, fatten the character. Reminded me too much of my propertied brother.
At the Y the flight caught up with me again and I fell on the Lilliputish bed, my feet dangling over the end, my head soaring over London. I was delivering my paper. Patricia Highsmith looked reptilian. Her eyes all lids, her skin set in great slow folds, the whole contraption of limbs and parts worked by pulleys and ropes. She was in the front row and I could see her clearly. She wasn't quite still but her motions, like those over the centuries, were hard to trace. She was a piece of palaeontology but not unkindly looking, just as some lizards possess a disinterested sort of warmth. I let a punch-line slip by without emphasis and watched for her smile. Was that it? Impossible to tell. Inscrutable as a skink.
The paper went on, almost without my assistance it seemed. The trick of the most well turned-out public speakers — fluffing a word deliberately — tripping themselves up to achieve a human-ness they fear might be lost on an audience getting wowed by perfection alone, is not one I usually need resort to. I find I can perform quite readily my pattern of pauses and hesitations; it comes naturally. But now the slips and gaffes are somehow locked into the text of my address. My listeners consider me both human and erudite. I continue, noting occasionally that I have used the word body, or calibre, or accomplice, or masseur, registering only their noise, checking my progress in Patricia's unblinking eyes.
Then it happens.
I have taken a cursory look at the skeletal notes in front of me. My eyes wander over the wood of the lectern, its muted grain. And then I have lifted my head, the speaking going on, when I see her moving towards the rear exit, her bags clutched around her like she's off on some holiday, determined to make her connection, late for her blasted flight. Or perhaps on her way across town to give that rare interview. 'My rule number one,' 'she asserted somewhere, 'is to live alone.' I baulked at that when I read it. It was always my Plan B. I remember putting down the magazine. Feeling a little disorientated and searching the room for an object intelligible to my view and not simply the accidental household stuff like chairs, a dropped shoe, page 28a Chinese mat which was a wedding present, needing the visuals to get past the blankness of Highsmith's imperative. Here I was asking the walls this question, what is the room doing? I remember it was a slack-paced winter evening and Deborah had one of William's debut pimples between her solid fingers. William whimpered and his mother, disinterested, put the squeeze on. That was enough. Plenty. I felt like taking them both in my arms. Perhaps letting go in the morning.
That same London night — I seemed fixed there, like Larry O doomed to repeat his talismanic presence above Tottenham Court Road, his holographic beard — I followed a group of tracksuited Africans down into the bowels of the Y where a huge recreation centre pumped out its muscular sounds and powerful smells. When the elevator opened the Africans leapt in known directions, leaving me, unpractised, standing there, sniffing out my next move, like a dog wandered out into the Olympics.
There were basketballers and indoor soccer players and people striking shuttlecocks with disproportionate temper, while the grunts of what must have been the Chinese Men's table tennis team echoed along the corridor, oriental and martial like a Bruce Lee movie, like they were putting it on for me, mixing with the hollow pock of balls, the heavy thud of balls, the crisp smack of balls, the spongy ricochet of balls, the clean swish of netted balls and the bang of rimmed balls: enough ball noise in that moment to last seasons.
Guided by a red line taped to the floor I walked past rooms for circuit training, rooms for pushing weights, aerobics, creative relaxation, spaces for counselling. Everywhere was the smell of damp towels, damp dogs, and, turning another corner, chlorine and the wet-sneakered smell of swimming instructors. Everyone who passed me was one stage further from alert, their eyes jammed open, reddened and hall-baked, blowing, maniacally curious about my hidden body. I was still wearing my navy blue sports coat, a pair of black Levis, heavy black shoes, my favourites. (I go through periods of deep crisis about my clothes; what should a crime writer be wearing, these Italian socks?) I didn't have a body temperature. What I mean is that I was not aware of feeling uncomfortable. I felt fine. The rest had done me good despite the agitations which sleep had inspired. I began expecting at any minute that stupid question, aren't you hot? These athletes certainly looked capable of stupidity. I remembered my brother with his subscription to New Scientist telling me about a theory which I suggested the oxygen sent to the brain during hard physical exercise page 29was of a different type from ordinary oxygen. And that this faulty oxygen upset the normal rhythms of the cerebral mass, producing was seepage in the cortex, which was the reason, my brother said, most but sportspeople have mops for minds. I said it sounded interesting and tried to settle my putter back onto a good line.
I left the red route and found swinging doors which I pushed through to enter a snooker room boasting a bar done up in a vaguely Western theme; some horse-shoes tacked to the wall, a couple of Mexican rugs there too, those saloon-type light fittings with the crinkly glass shades. I was looking forward to this. The Johnny Walker miniatures on the plane had put matchsticks under my eyelids and helped me out understand that felicity, cabin pressure. I ordered a sea-level Heineken and sat in the television corner, looking at the screen overhead.
I had joined a few other fully-clothed guests who didn't look too out sporty. They had their legs draped over the furniture and, like me, sipped from their beers, passing the occasional comment in the direction of the TV which showed downhill racing, then marginally more exciting slalom, then more downhill. I caught some Spanish aimed at the set, some French, possibly a Scandinavian tongue, a nice like piece of Irish. Any pause in the TV commentary would be filled in ills, this way, like we were the comments guy, spiking the running description with our own expertness. We scarcely acknowledged each other, spoke our information without turning our heads from the entertainment, drank some more beer. Nobody was making too much for of a fuss, our contempt for televised skiing drawing us into a no-nonsense sort of community. It was very relaxing.
I got another Heineken and resumed my seat. The skiiers continued the down the mountain. Some of our number left and were replaced by acceptable newcomers. There were no women in our group. The skiiers were going to be far too good for accidents. The camera was wandering into the crowd for a different type of perfection, pausing around female, mouths following the shoot of gates with their tongues, the mountains and pennants shining off their goggles.
The thought that there were no women filled me with a sudden was and desperate loneliness similar to that which had overtaken me in lone the Mall. I began reciting the names in my head, the names of the family in which I had lived until the age of nineteen and the names of the family which I had helped create in my twenties and dissolve not many years later, the names of those without whom I could not work or live.
A census was quickly collecting which gathered in even my sisters' page 30husbands, some of whom I had never met, or maybe once, and whose names I could never remember: Ronnie, Joe, Pat, Robert. Hello men. How's business? The names coming easily as if I'm reading off a list. A niece, my sister Rose's third child, born with a hole in her heart: Rebecca Louise, a netballer of some accomplishment whose parents followed her around tournaments with a fold-up stretcher in the boot of the car, until Rebecca's boyfriend let their tyres down. Jonathan, the eldest son of sister Thea, gifted in nothing but the hurling of televisions at his father, the arson of synagogues. The prodigy Richard who belongs to Sharon and Grant, announcing on entry into his teenage years that he would like to marry a computer. Deborah and William out in the blue water off Waiheke or listening to the clean fuzz of the beach trannie.
I leant across to one of my companions, bursting with all this information, the static of clans, and almost spoke the names of the people without whom I would not be sitting there in the pleasant and under-used snooker room beneath the city of my childhood. My companion sensed the approach. He shifted a little in his seat but did not turn to me, fully recognising and not wishing to weaken the power of the spell, the bearable tedium of the faceless downhill I racers, the circulation of near-perfect beer, the properly restrained responses of the other men, the non-athletes. I thanked him silently for saving me and caught the lift back to my floor.
The beer had made me sleepy again. The smallness of the room was no longer an irritation. I lay down and cannot remember the dreams I mayor may not have had.
I hadn't had a morning for a while and London was taking pity; at nine a.m. when I looked out my medieval slit of a window the sky was as gloomy as the Middle Ages. Day could hardly have said to have broken. It had sort of crept in. Yet through some inverse law of meteoro-pathology, against the heavy sky, its clouds moving as quick as Queen Victoria, I myself began to freshen. My energy seemed perversely high under such ancient weather. There was even something like a spring in my step as I ignored the lift and took the seven flights of stairs down to the lobby. Must have been all that training I'd done the previous evening. No sign of the Sinai crowd but some Eastern Block types were checking out with their Mothercare luggage piled everywhere. Poland is without disposables.
I also had a fierce hunger, something that a couple of old croissants page 31and some older coffee from Old Nick's off Oxford Street did nothing to fix. The Greeks have always been hit and miss on the continental breakfast but I wasn't about to dine with the Wimpy crowd and help put some infected kid through a tertiary education in tossing fries.
The Saturday shoppers were still in transit, stuck somewhere between Walthamstow and Kings Cross, though trade was picking up with each new flush from the Underground. Walking down Regent Street, past Liberty's then Josiah Wedgwood, I began to focus again on the conference, that strange collectivity of crime writers and crime readers, the creating and re-creating of corpses, of guilt and callousness, of motive and madness, of bodies in disrepair or cleaned and open-eyed and lifeless. How many trunks, I wondered, have been opened in how many sentences for the exit or entrance of evidence. How many paragraphs of ponds being drained and how many pages of quarries visited. These were the beginning remarks of my paper but they were also issues which had begun to press on me personally; questions shaping themselves in the seemingly random adventure of the hours making up my journey. I took a left down Burlington Gardens where the Museum of Mankind lurks. In my next book I hoped to give names to these shapes.
The invitation to come to London had arrived at just the right time, I considered. I was not exactly between projects but rather in one of those naturally-occuring breaks, a kind of stop-over, waiting for the fuel to turn up, shopping for cheap booze, a new watch. I didn't know with any certainty where I was going in my work but I figured I would, as they say, know when I got there. Getting back to this place, for the first time since that thirteen-year-old had nearly given himself frostbite from one night's digging in the freezer, trying to prise off the labels from the poisoned preserves in an attempt to throw Dad's PhD into confusion, test his resources, pull him back briefly into the magic circle of shitty kids and postpone our return and the unalterable loss of all this world I had made here, returning to the scene of the crime, I gambled, might do the trick. I wanted something new; no death in the mix, or at least nothing more unnatural than a car crash, a weak gene pool, a nasty splinter. This was where I had edged to; a fall not from a train but a sofa, a bed, a pillow spotted by a nose-bleed, as forensic as Jane Austen, as tough as custard, cardiac and vascular and knock-kneed, a book with bunions and Clark Gable's bad breath and not his barrel of a moustache but the gleaming hair-triggered smiles of Deborah and William when that pimple fires page 32across the room. But then, as the poet says, 'Where you're going's never what you see/and what you see, is that where you went?', which couplet should hang in every airport to distract the traveller who, ordinarily, has not a clue as to his purpose.
You should not be taking this journey, I suddenly told myself, no matter how the omens sit. But by then the hostess was peering into my lap, telling me to do up the seatbelt and passing over a refresher towel with her tongs, as if hygiene would help us in this situation. As if clogged pores were an issue here. The clean underwear on its way. And then I was thinking who was I kidding trying to rise above the wholly human need of ritual, formula, form, and also thinking, was I wholly human and what did that mean anyway. I buckled up and closed my eyes on take-off: I was as scared as the person beside me. And after Melbourne, where I came down to earth long enough to post my two-hole victory and inspect the renovations my rattled brother had just completed on his terraced house in Carlton, that person beside me was Gerty, who for a time took my anxious mind away from the poetry of non-arrival.
I still had some time to spare. The opening address would follow registration at 11.15 a.m. Then there was to be an informal buffet luncheon. I was scheduled for late afternoon. A stroll in St James's Park I thought might take the edgy peak off all this vigour I had woken to. Besides, the park had been a favourite family spot on weekends when my father required recreation. 'I feel so stale,' he would announce to the pond, to the people sailing little boats, fishing, and we children would start humming loudly to cover the familiar, shaming noise of his speech about his eyes growing mould, fungi sprouting in his ears, chemicals which refused to be trained, his arms springing out like they had bad wind-up motors in them.
The dirty clouds were banking and lowering in the sky making it quite dark. I buttoned my long woollen overcoat to the top against a chill which had begun to bite. I walked quickly, hands rammed in deep pockets. A few spits of rain hit me on the face. I considered turning back but I was still feeling strong and made a large group of trees in the distance my turnaround mark.
From the brittle grass rose a thin fog which was gaining mass higher up and sinking back down, so that if the process were to continue I imagined a peasouper might rapidly descend and leave St James's Park floating somewhere at its bottom. Those trees I'd decided on page 33has lost much of their definition, appearing now as wavy black bands. It was happening faster than I'd expected. I was having trouble holding to the pathway and had a faint collision with a couple coming the other way. We laughed our apologies. It was raining now too: hard, cheek-numbing stuff, tiny projectiles. I packed it in, turning my collar up and heading back towards the ICA. There would be plenty of time to become presentable again. A visitor caught out by the weather. (I was walking carefully now, my arms stuck in front of me, feeling my way.) This fog, this phenomenon was extraordinary enough to draw attention away from any of its individual victims. It would be discussed as an event. I felt ridiculous but there would certainly be many of us. And wouldn't there be some fun, some irony talked over with regard to the impossible fog and the opening of a conference on mystery writing. Some parallels. Back-slapping. The very sort of mini-crisis, in fact, which might put everyone at ease. The buffet luncheon an opportunity to reacquaint each other with our misfortunes, our disbelief at this London, this city which disappears just like that. Bang!
Only once before could I remember being in fog this heavy and enervating. My brother and I had been teaching one of our sisters how to ride a bike. Coaching her in a tough school of bruises, falls, telling her that what the stabilisers had been providing she now had to come up with herself: balance. We were in the Square attached to the Halls of Residence where we lived. We had it to ourselves. She was hating it, sniffing back on the pain every time she crashed. And yet it wasn't her brothers keeping her out there. We were prepared to let it go for that day and try another time. We were almost ready to grab the bike off her. It was her own wilfulness, her determination to beat those baby stabilisers, which made us less than mindful of the weather.
One minute we were fighting her natural inclination to lean left and the next we were lost to each other.
My sister had wobbled frightfully away from us on yet another practice run, towards the gate. My brother had called out instructions while we both circled the play area on our own bikes. Somewhere in that concentrated loop which we were striving to ride as tightly as possible, we let our sister continue on and take her luck. She had convinced us, through all previous efforts, that it would be bad. We expected her back quite soon. Conditions, however, had changed, from a smoky freshness of the glove-thumping variety, to a curtain of cold page 34in the time it took us to realise she was away, she was riding. Not returning nursing wounds.
We couldn't see the gate anymore. We could only just make out our bicycles in the flash of spokes occasionally showing through. We could not see each other's faces, not the fear beginning to assemble. But we could hear the crunch of gravel from under our sister's junior wheels, which meant she must have made it through the gate and, incredibly, be cycling home. And that sound was one we were not sure whether to celebrate or shut out. How was she managing after all, when we were paralysed. The only thing stopping a blush was the deadened capillaries in our cheeks; our blood was not going anywhere.
My brother and I couldn't think of anything to say to each other which wouldn't betray our confusion. I was no longer sure of direction. I was straddling the crossbar, my feet planted on the ground, my only evidence of its existence.
Then we heard a crash, my sister cursing and yelling out to us. Wonderfully huge sentences about her experience, the length and loudness of which my brother and I used gratefully as guides out of our hopelessness. She called us, unknowingly, towards the gate, through it, and up to where she stood. She was right at our noses and said, 'Okay. Riding is easy. I can ride a bike. Now you never told me how to get off it did you? Is that a secret too?'
I had this notion, then in St James's Park, that a voice would start calling me through to safety. That it would be someone I knew. (II was like wading now and my hands had vanished from my outstretched arms.) Hello? I was about to say. Hello anybody. The ICA was surely just ahead. (Ms Highsmith, I have emerged with I fear nothing more sensible to say to you than I am a big fan. Is London trying to tel. us something I wonder.)
Someone was telling me something. I could smell the river. The Thames was not where I wanted to be. The tang of diesel snagged in my nose. This person's breath was full of barges and oil-skinned water and he was speaking so close to me that I was being sheltered from the rain. I preferred the rain. I worried that I hadn't hit him with my hands — he'd come up from behind, leaned on my shoulder and turned me to face him. Then began his oratory. He was Cockney and something else disguised by time. He said that he was going, to hurt me very badly if I didn't behave. He wanted my wallet, all page 35my money. He wanted my watch. He wanted to cut me up real bad if I fucked with him or even thought of doing any fucking thing. This is you and me, he said.
I disliked that smell he was putting all over me. His tone was wrong and the breaks in his voice, where he stopped being this evil Cockney, were being glossed over as if he was trying to convince himself as well as me. I was gambling, but there was weakness here I thought. He had been excited by the fog and decided to take his chances. He thought he was fucking invisible. Invincible. Perhaps he hadn't had this in mind at all when he got up that morning. Maybe he wasn't that impressive to look at. I judged him to be slightly shorter than my own average height from the angle at which his breath was hitting me. A mediocre bully but nothing outstanding. A little house-breaking. Not a face-to-face man, really, in good light. How was he even going to find me to cut me. Two can use this weather I thought.
I went as if to pull my wallet from my inside coat pocket and paused before throwing a short arm with all my strength where I thought his head was.
In the age it took my arm to seek out its target I was already thinking; he could have my watch. And didn't 1 have most of the travellers cheques back in my room. What was I losing? Nothing really. Here take this. I was already rehearsing excuses for my laughable fist, its silly vigilante behaviour. I mean, taking a shot like that, is that credible to you. I'm a fucking tourist, I was telling the guy already.
But he wasn't listening. He was delivering his knee into my groin, standing me up when I wanted to double over slowly. He was snipping at my buttons and they were popping everywhere. I thought it was going to be heart surgery. He was muttering about how crazy I was. He got the wallet. He grabbed my wrist and said fuck the watch, what are you doing with this cheap watch. He whispered it in my ear: 'I don't know why you're not dead.' He loved the closeness of me, was charmed by my gagging. 'I could have killed you,' he said. And when I fell I remember trying to accomplish it with some grace, to be delicate on behalf of the envelope which my friend had not got and which housed my carefully creased letter of invitation.
The sky was once again available and it jerked in and out of view. I felt sore under the arms, constricted. Then I thought, those clouds aren't moving, it's you. I could smell wet wool and fried chicken. Petrol or turpentine too. I almost retched but I was straightened page 36up and my head sat back on my oddly bunched shoulders making me understand that I was not moving under my own steam but being escorted, lifted clear off the ground. Next I was being lowered, rested on a park-bench and my guides puffing beside me, clearing great blockages from their throats and chests and hoiking long trails of mucus on to the grass. I closed my eyes. It didn't feel good staying still. I needed to be on the move. I needed to be at the conference, I suddenly remembered. What could the time be? I looked at my empty wrist, then turned to my right where an unintelligible commentary was running from a pair of unshaven, damaged cheeks. Something about the government. Or inflation.
'Don't you worry about Leo Dillon,' a broguish voice said from I my other side, 'he's a Home Ruler from way back.'
I focused on the speaker. He was about my age. The same chipped and flushed features as his companion and his hair plastered in thin strands down to his eyebrows. He was trying to bury his sharp chin inside a scarf.
The sequence was sinking in now. I willed some recaps for myself, my head feeling like it could never hold all the story in it but that, certain ideas had the soak of fact about them.
This pair had picked me off the path, saved my skin most likely. I should take them for a meal or something, I was thinking. I wanted to do something generous. Then it seemed such as extraordinary kindness they had performed. Had I myself not stepped over their shapes, the prone bodies of their colleagues which littered certain parts of the city, with barely the sense to lift my feet as I went. Back some time ago, I thought, didn't people suffer shivers of cruelty and here was the next century rounding the bend and I was shuddering at my own meannesses, feeling them like someone was cracking at the knobs of my spine. What enormous sum did I owe them? More than C money I was telling myself. But then I no longer even had my wallet. Get practical. Any entertaining would have to follow a return trip to the Y. The other thing — the physio heaving at my bad vertebrae — we could talk about that. And, of course, I was sure to miss a good part of the day at the conference. The idea of not taking the I floor after all this travelling and arranging, this mess, was ludicrous. , Maybe I did just have time. I wasn't abandoning these two guys. I fumbled a hand on to Leo's friend's shoulder. The hand was frozen and nearly toppled but I did manage a grip on his sleeve.
'Hey,' I told him, 'we'll do something to celebrate this. You and page 37me and Leo here.' It was sounding like a terrible speech. Leo's friend was looking at me almost with pity I thought, a faint smile turning it the corners of his mouth, though perhaps that was against the cold. 'I just need to know the time. I'm due somewhere. Christ, I've crossed datelines to be here. If I was home I'd be in bed wouldn't I. We'd all be in bed. I mean, I don't know where you go, to sleep that is. It would be night anyway. Is it close, do you think, to midday?'
He removed my hand. It was a smile now. Good teeth. False. But in surprisingly nice order. A little grotesque the beaming that was going on in that set-upon face. The friendliness, though, was unmistakable. He rolled back his frayed sleeve. There, he had a watch. I peered in closer to read it. He made another roll. Another watch-face. Again. A third. He was chuckling. What a weird noise that was, a novelistic chuckle, the mirth hanging in the air around us, making a point of itself. Soon I was looking at four watches each judging the day against its own scale. I leaned back and felt the scrape of paper against my heart and the fall of crushed ice from the walls of a small compartment.
The weather made by our laughing — and we were letting go, the three of us wracked with giggles, a youngish feeling pushing the spasms way past their source — was blowing back in our faces and making my eyes sharpen, water. And far across the park two figures came into focus, one smaller than the other, joined at the hand, though, oddly, walking at the limits of that connection, the smaller figure pulling out and away from the larger, so that their arms were fully extended. Something going on. When they came closer I could see it was a woman and a child and that they needed the whole path to negotiate their way and that even then the child was straying on to the edge of the wet grass and that its shoes were collecting spits of mud. In fact, to get dirty was the kid's purpose, to get well and truly covered was his fun. You could see it written all over his face, intent.