One more poppy

Some years ago, I began to research the history of my father’s family, which originated in the island of South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides. With the help of the records in the General Register Office of Scotland, which holds copies of all the statutory birth and marriage and death registers, and old crofting records, I made a lot of progress, and traced several hundred ancestors, from the small crofts on the weather-beaten Atlantic coasts of the western isles, across to Aberdeenshire and Peterhead, and the fishing harbours and shipping docks.

I’d had a good start with the MacPhee side, because the islands were sparsely populated, and all it needs is one or two good clues, like a relatively unusual name (there were only two Penelope MacPhees in the whole of recorded Scottish family history), and the links between people and their stories can be built up.

But I’d also been aware for a long time, that I knew very little indeed about my mother’s side, and the history of the Lindsays. I had very little to go on, for there were hundreds of candidates for my grandfather alone in the statutory records, and without knowing anything about his parents, there was no way to home in on my grandfather in the birth registers, which would have given me the further clues I needed to his ancestry.

Yet I have learned that it is sometimes the most insignificant-seeming clues that, taken one with another and put together, begin to unpick the whole puzzle and lead to new discoveries. This is how it happened with the Lindsays.

It started around this time last year, at Christmas time. I had a telephone call from my two beloved aunts, Mary and Margaret. I’d been talking to aunt Mary, telling her a story about my grandmother’s love for Gorgonzola cheese, when she mentioned to me that my grandmother Maggie Lindsay’s birthday was on the 7th December, that it was the same month as my grandfather’s, and he had been born in 1882. A few days later, aunt Margaret phoned, and I’d been telling her how my daughter Lindsay had been named in honour of her great-grandmother, Maggie Lindsay. Aunt Margaret said, “You know, I’m not named Margaret after your granny, I’m called Margaret after my grandmother, and my middle name’s McGill. And my grandfather was a shepherd.”

It took a few seconds for it to dawn on me that this, taken with what aunt Mary had said about grandfather’s birthday, when put together, were the most exciting and unexpected clues. The thing was, I’d always assumed, without knowing why, that although Maggie Lindsay came from Ireland, my grandfather was from Glasgow. But now, knowing that aunt Margaret’s grandmother was a McGill and not a Reid, this must mean that the Lindsay side weren’t from Glasgow at all, since there’s no shepherding in the metropolis. With these clues, I was able to trace a line back to Hugh Lindsay of Argyll, who was born when Bonnie Prince Charlie was still living.

Until I began this research, I had no idea that my grandfather had any brothers or sisters, other than Donald, who had lived with my grandparents in Glasgow in the years up to his own death. I traced at least five, and I have tried to find out what happened to each of them. When I discovered there was a younger brother Duncan, I knew then where the name of my uncle Duncan, the youngest of my mother’s brothers, came from.

The most I knew of him was that he’d been born in Kildalton, on the island of Islay, on the 11th December, 1882, and had been an apprentice blacksmith in Paisley, but there was no record of what happened to him after than, and I could find no trace of a Duncan Lindsay who had been born that year, and who had also died in Scotland. This was unexpected, because the Scottish records system is one of the best and most comprehensive in existence. This could only have meant that he died abroad or at sea. Many months of diligent searching turned up exactly … nothing. This was threatening to become my second genealogical brick wall, a dispiriting prospect, for the first had taken three years to crack through.

Eventually, I traced him through British Army archives when, as the Great War loomed larger, he enlisted in the 5th Battalion the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders.

On the 10th of May, 1915, he was sent with his regiment to France, and two weeks later, the regiment was moved to Loos, in Flanders, to take part in a huge six-division strong attack on enemy forces that had become known as the Big Push. At 9pm on the 24th, General Sir Douglas Haig confirmed the attack orders, which included secret plans for the first use by British troops of poison gas.

By four o’clock in the following morning, Sunday 25th September, weather conditions had deteriorated, but Haig gave orders for the gas attacks to proceed. Heavy British shelling of enemy positions began, and by 5.50am, a fifty foot high blanket of gas edged slowly towards, though not reaching, German positions, but was virtually motionless in British assault positions. The 9th (Scottish) Division pushed on to attack German observation points at Hohenzollern and Fosse. The 7th Seaforths reached Fosse just after 7am, and on their left, the 5th Camerons, Duncan’s battalion, reached Fosse in the face of fierce crossfire to join the Seaforths. German machine-gunning was ferocious, and their grenades far more effective in close combat than the British. The 8th Black Watch were to join the Camerons and Seaforths as reinforcements, but suffered grievous casualties from the crossfire the Camerons had endured, so that the Brigade could not continue its advance, and some regiments had almost all officers hit within the first few minutes. Although the 12th Royal Scots made progress towards the front with few losses, 11th Royal Scots were entirely wiped out by heavy machine-gun fire. When German artillery opened fire, gas canisters were destroyed, releasing more poisonous chlorine gas. Losses were heavy. It was here, on this day and this place, that Duncan fell, killed in action.

After months of searching, I had found him, at two o’clock one morning, only to lose him again an hour later in the noise and calamity and poison chaos of a battlefield in Flanders. He was 32. When I wore my poppy on Remembrance Sunday this year, I remembered him, my great-uncle, Duncan Lindsay, 1882-1915.

Loos battle

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Women want me

They do. It’s a curse I have to live with.

It’s not a few days since Hazel came to my door, declaring she needed a man, on some pretext or other about wanting someone to lift up her dustbin as it was too heavy for her. Naturally, I went along with her transparent excuse to see my finely honed features and rippling biceps as I lifted the green bins to the top of the road for her. I take these things in my stride, happy to go along with the pretence.

So, there I was, in the deep twilight, pulling the car up to its resting spot by the garage, and got out to lift my evening’s shopping from the boot, when I noticed a young woman come down the middle of the road and into the cul-de-sac after me. She called on me. “Excuse me, but I wonder if I could ask an awfully big favour.” The words “awfully big favour” usually put me on edge, since they’re often followed by a plea for £40 for train fare home to some distant place because of some contrived tale of woe.

But she was pretty, smartly dressed, with intelligent glasses (no, I don’t know what I mean by that, just that some women wear glasses that make them look intelligent but reserved, and you want to ask them to take the glasses off then shake their tresses loose to reveal a stunningly beautiful woman behind the mask, the way they do in films).

“Oh?” I said. “What’s that?”

I was still half en-garde, waiting for a sucker punch.

“I wonder, I know it’s a big ask, but, but, could you give me a jump?”

I would have done a double-take, but of course I get this all the time, though not usually in such direct and relatively unsubtle terms. I had to bite my tongue in case I inadvertantly said, “Your place or mine?” Instead, I raised my best quizzical eyebrow.

“We’re at the top of the road, and it’s my friend, she’s left the lights on all night, and now it won’t start, and we’re stuck.”

Ah. Bubble burst. (I just want you to know, this doesn’t often happen to me.)

“Ah, so you’re looking for a …”

“A jump start, yes. Could you help, please?”

She looked at me helplessly and pleadingly, and after I let a few dramatic seconds pass, I said, “Of course, I’ll just put this back in the boot, and I’ll drive up to you.”

I drove out of the cul-de-sac, and sure enough, there was a car parked opposite, with three girls standing outside it. All in their mid to late twenties, and I figured they looked like post-graduate or PhD students. With short skirts and beautiful hair. I did a turn in the road so that we were bonnet to bonnet. One held out a set of jump leads, and said, “We’ve got these, but we’re not sure what to do with them.”

The last time I did a jump start was over thirty years ago, and I couldn’t remember the rule about which terminals to connect first, but with three beautiful women in distress and looking for help from a knight, this was no time for vacillation. I couldn’t even remember where the battery was in my car, but I found it without looking too perplexed, then connected it to the distressed battery without jump-starting myself into the middle of the road.

“OK,” I said, “just let me start my engine, so that there’s plenty of charge for the battery.”

“Should I start my engine now?”

“Your engine won’t start …”

“Oh, of course!”

“Just wait till my engine is turning, then start your car as normal.”

It burst into life. My reputation was safe.

“Oh thank you! Thank you! We just don’t know how to thank you!”

I bit my tongue again, to stop it speaking out of turn, and let natural chivalry take over, knowing that in days and weeks and months to come, they’d regale their friends with the story of how, in their hour of need, a dashing fellow of striking good looks, immaculate demeanour, and a Scottish accent, came to their rescue and asked not even a kiss in reward.

Sean Connery must get this all the time. He’ll know only too well what it’s like being an Alex MacPhee look-alike.

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An unexpected kindness

A short while ago, I related the story of Aileen, the girl who had teased me as a young lad in the spring of my years and schooldays, and on whom I had such a boyish crush, an affection that has lasted all my life. I was to discover just lately, with sadness, that she had passed away at a young age, before she had reached the summer of her own.

I learned all this from Aileen, her namesake and sister-in-law. At the time of my story, I did not mention Aileen’s full name, for reasons I don’t need to relate but were right at the time. Now, since many will have surmised it already, it’s good to be able to let her have her own full name at last : Aileen Cygan.

Yesterday, a big envelope landed on my doormat. I knew what it should be, since Aileen, Vincent’s wife, had told me she’d sent me a souvenir brochure of the Golden Jubilee of my old school, Notre Dame de Lourdes, celebrated in 2007 half a century after its founding in 1957. Aileen thought I might recognise former teachers in some of the photographs from my time there.

They say you never forget a good teacher, and I was blessed in having so many fine teachers there, men who have influenced my life ever since, and women who were the flower of Scottish spinsterhood (since they were so often spinsters dedicated to a vocation). ‘Big Jim’ Murray, the best English master in history, ‘Wee Willie’ Kerr, of Music, ‘Snolky’ Collins of History, ‘Wee Johnny Bone’ Scullion of Mathematics, and John McVey, our headmaster.

However, there was something extra. Unknown to me, Aileen had anticipated something I had so dearly wanted to ask for, but dared not presume to on such a short acquaintance. She never said it, but inside the envelope, with the school brochure, was a small fold of paper, and inside it, a photograph.

It was Aileen.

This is the girl who stole my sixteen-year-old heart. The picture was taken during a holiday in Poland, some time after she had left school. Yet it is her, just as I have always remembered her, and that impish look I talked of is still there, perfectly captured here.

I had to sit down suddenly. I stared and looked, and looked and stared, and a rush of memories came flooding back. Aileen frisking me at the bus stop. Aileen jumping on the bus after me and sitting beside me and flirting until I was flushed cherry red. Aileen so close that I nearly kissed her then stopped, not because of the slapped face that would have followed, but because she might stop flirting with me.

Time puts unbridgeable distances between us, and moments such as these. Would I have been slapped? Very likely. Though in my idler moments, I have imagined, too, a wry, stern look that added, ‘But I forgive you…’ And if time can never be bridged, at least memory keeps such moments forever vibrant.

Thank you, Aileen. Both.

Aileen

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Aileen

I had thought of changing her name, for the telling of this story, but in truth she deserves her own name, even though it’s not necessary to mention it in full here. All that is important to say for this story is that her full name was unusual enough for it to have been very rare in Scotland.

I was a shy lad at school (these were, of course, the days before I became the role model that Sean Connery was to base his whole career on), and my senior school days were spent in a Roman Catholic secondary school in the south side of Glasgow, Notre Dame de Lourdes, under the headmastership of a quietly spoken but astute and delightful man, John McVey, principal of the English department.

Being thrown in to a broad academically cosmopolitan secondary from the relative cocooning of my little primary school, in the parish of St Conval’s, was quite an awakening, and adjustment took a long time. At least, six months to a year seems a long time when you have not yet reached your first teen year. These were the days of the Eleven-Plus, or ‘Quali’, which determined your entire academic career from the age of eleven. I had been allocated to the class 1A Boys, which was the academic stream, in a school where boys were segregated from girls until about third year ; at which time classes became smaller as pupils began to take academic streaming options, and the boys’ and girls’ classes merged.

That was an adventure. Boys and girls in the same class, how easy it became to be distracted from lessons, by sneaking a peek at Antionette Wynne, the incredibly beautiful girl with the dark hair and white hair band in Latin class, or Stenia Stelmach, the tall and fair-haired Polish girl who breezed through Chemistry and turned all the boys’ heads, or the McElroy twins, Anne and Marie, who distracted me from my French verb conjugations. Mathematics was a tough call, for Alice Dolan and Cathy McDaid continually had me turning at obtuse angles to throw tangential glances at them. Physics was no better, for there on the front bench were Edith Pratt and Mary Roach. As for English, Lord knows how I managed to pass an exam, seated behind Mary Reid, and two rows away from The Trio, three girls who were always found together : Margaret McCartan, tall and dark-haired, Clare McGonigal, a doe-eyed girl with a shining rosy complexion, and Aileen. Aileen was tall, slim, with bright blue eyes, short bob-style fair hair, strikingly pretty, and an impish smile. In or out of school, Margaret, Clare and Aileen were always together.

Being a relatively shy boy, they naturally homed in on me. They had discovered that I blushed rather easily, and became tongue-tied, so they would come to me in the street, perhaps waiting for the bus home, and tease me mercilessly, but it was always good-humoured. And in truth, seeing them approach would always quicken my pulse a little. I always knew when Aileen was in teasing mode, for then, she always called me “Alexander”, with a musical trill in her voice accenting the third syllable, and I would blush furiously again. Yet for all their relentless teasing, I adored them. I was just sixteen years old, and I adored them in that perfectly innocent way that, once lost, never returns. Once, I remember, standing at the bus stop to take the bus home, and The Trio spotted me. “Alexander!” said Aileen as they crowded round me, “How are you?” And then she frisked me. She went through my pockets, and pulled out the spiral notebook I kept for jotting down ideas about what to write for English essays. And she had a good read through. What did I care? I was a boy of sixteen, and I had been frisked by Aileen!

I had daydreams, in which the four of us would wander through sunlit meadows, and then they’d smother me in kisses while I resisted with every intention of failing.

Those schooldays, which seemed long at the time, were suddenly short. Before I knew it, six years had gone, and so had they. The McElroy twins had married, so too had Stenia Stelmach, Alice and Cathie, and Edith.

And me.

Years passed. Schooldays became a thing of the past, and classmates crept imperceptibly into the history of decades gone by.

Occasionally, I’d wonder what became of those people with whom I’d shared my schooldays. For the most part, it became just an idle curiosity, and there were few with whom I’d kept in touch. Frankie Hart had gone to university to study mathematics, Mike Donnelly entered the world of economics and politics and became adviser to the Scottish First Minister, Frank Berry became a teacher in the same school, but beyond that, I knew little. And my own career was to take me out of Glasgow and, eventually, out of Scotland.

But these memories are precious. They become part of us, part of our history, part of what shapes us, and every now and then, they burst in on the conscious self. So it was, one evening recently, when I found myself reflecting on schooldays in NDL, and my boyhood, and The Trio, those whimsical, mischievous girls, and being frisked at the bus stop in Paisley Road by Aileen. Where were they? How had life treated them? Would they remember me?

I had no way for sure of ever finding out, certainly not for Margaret, or Clare. Girls marry, and they change their names. In any case, what had stayed in my mind, and had become part of my history, might have been forgotten in a fortnight to them.

One day not long ago, reflecting on these days, I thought to see if I might find any trace of Aileen. I had nothing to go on, save an unusual name, that itself would have been no clue had she married. My intention had been simple and uncomplicated : only to see if I could find out what had become of her, and whether she remembered me, and might smile at the recollection. Nothing else.

What I hadn’t expected, on searching for her name, unusual as it was, was finding it within minutes. There, was Aileen. The only name of its kind.

It is very awkward to write to someone you have not seen for many decades. How do you explain why you are writing? What had seemed so obvious, what had seemed would be so fluent before I began to set it down, suddenly left me as tongue-tied as I had been all those years ago. Yet there are few regrets as harsh as those of moments not taken, so I wrote.

I wrote to say who I was, how I had remembered her, how we had spent schooldays together, how she, and Margaret, and Clare, had teased me as a young lad, made me blush, and how, in uncomplicated youthful innocence, I had adored all three of them. In truth, I did not expect a reply.

Aileen replied within minutes. What I had not calculated on, was that this would not be the same Aileen. It was her sister-in-law, who by chance had the same first name, and had married Aileen’s brother.

She told me, with kindness and patience towards a stranger, that the Aileen I sought had died many years ago, in her thirties. She had barely reached half of her three score years and ten.

In that moment, my remembrances of the lovely fair-haired girl with the bright blue eyes and singing voice, changed into an indescribable sadness. Memories I thought I might renew on the re-telling, suddenly became locked in the past, unchangeable, known only to me.

Aileen was kind. She answered all my questions, told me how Aileen had become a teacher, had taught at the school where my own youngest brother had been a pupil, and how she had become overcome by the illness that took her from this world too early.

For all this news was sad, and I wish it had been otherwise, I am glad that after all these years, I found out. I have, as most will know, had my one true love in this life, but Aileen has always had a special place in my memory, and always will.

Tonight, at my accustomed time of nine o’clock for these things, I will fill my glass with my finest malt, and raise it to Aileen, and as I raise it, I will hear her say my name once more : “Alexander!”

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Come Prima

I never learned Italian, and I sometimes wish I had. It is, I think, a language of song, or at least, it is always in songs and music that I associated this romance language.

A week or so ago,  Mary  invited me to a Christmas event that was being held in a local club, about a mile away. And as I never refuse invitations from adorable women, that was an appointment that went straight into my diary. When the Wednesday came, I put my walking shoes on and set off into the night air, cold and frosty under an icy black sky. Mary met me just after I arrived, and introduced me to some people she thought I’d make a good team member with during the quiz scheduled for later in the evening. With a mix of English, Scottish, and Italian, our team name had to be Cosmopolitan.

George was pretty hot on historical topics, I figured I’d be able to field the science and nature type questions, Anna proved good in the geography and politics, and between us, we reckoned we’d be able to make a strong showing during the music rounds. Anna’s elderly father was silent. She whispered to me, “He used to like to socialise, but now he’s, you know, a little …” and she pointed to her head. Age was beginning to tell. But Anna knew that keeping her father involved in socialising with other people would help keep his mind active. “Now, when I take him out, he wants to go home. But he is happy to be here.” Although Anna had lived here many years, it was obvious that great grandfather was still immersed in the Old Country, and sat quietly, his hands resting together on his walking stick and his hat still perched squarely on his head.

When she started the quiz, Sue told us the questions would be easy. Well, they were for those I knew the answers to, but I have to differ on the level of sophistication that was required for some of the mathematical questions. (OK then, at the end of the twelve days of Christmas, how many gifts did my true love give to me?)

There was, in the background, a little light music, played live (oh, do keep music live), from an able musician with a trumpet and a black hat (he had the black hat, not the trumpet), and a musician with an accordion in a broad white hat (same clarification). Tony was, it didn’t take long to determine, something of a virtuoso on the squeezebox, and given the slightest encouragement, would dazzle with magical and insanely fast fingerwork on the keyboard. And just how do they know which of the scores and scores of tiny chord buttons to push without ever looking?

On Sue’s signal, Tony played the first tune. I recognised it straight away and Anna’s eyes twinkled to show that she knew it too. Volare! One down, four to go. Tune number two. I recognised it as instantly as Volare, but could not put a name to it, or even a word from the lyrics. Anna caught my attention. “Tequila”, she said, “it’s called Tequila”. Two down.

When Tony started the third, I began to detect a theme. As before, I knew the tune, and could not get the words to surface, and even Anna had it only on the tip of her tongue, so that I feared we’d miss it before the next piece started. Then Anna snapped her fingers and began to sing as some of the words suddenly came back to her …

#Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa, jammo ja,
#Jammo, jammo ‘ncoppa, jammo ja!

Now I remembered! And in an instant, I was back with Frances on a trip many years ago to the Amalfi Coast, in a little theatre in Sorrento listening to an evening of Neapolitan music and song, on a warm Mediterranean evening. The sound was infectious, and now, as then, there was a tingling of the blood, a quickening of the pulse, an elation of the spirit. And I could hear the words all over again from that night.

#Funiculi, funicula
#Funiculi, funicula!
#’ncoppa jammo ja,
#Funiculi, funicula!

Three down, two to go.

Number four. Only two notes played, and Anna had it instantly. “Like the first! Like the first!” she urged. I didn’t get it. It didn’t sound at all like Volare. “Like the first!” she said again, “Come Prima! Come Prima!” I thrust the answer sheet at her and she scribbled the answer. Ah, Come Prima, that’s what it’s called. Like the first time.

With tune number five, the accordionist started to play and as he played, he strode towards us, his intention clear. He was going to serenade Anna. Playing a long opening chord he knelt flamboyantly before her, and began to play. You could tell he was having to restrain himself from breaking into song and giving the answer away, but everyone already knew it and Anna began to sing … “Arrivederci Roma”. There was definitely an Italian Connexion going on here. Anna looked up at me and twinkled.

“The accordionist, he’s-a my son!”

Ah, of course. Tony. Antonio. And I’m with all the Italians, listening to Italian music in the quiz, played by the accordionist from Italy. And I’m sitting opposite his mother.

Time came to go home. I leaned over to shake hands with Anna, and wish her a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year. Taking my hand, she grinned and said something to me I didn’t catch. She said it again. Then she said it a third time, and this time with a look that said ‘You’re not just to listen, you’re to say after me’. She was teaching me to say something in Italian, and I instinctively knew what it would be. I tried to repeat it.

— Bonataly felich ana.

No, not quite, said ‘the look’.

— Bon atally felichy nova.

Not much better, try again after me, ‘the look’ continued. Third time lucky.

— Buon natale e felice anno nuovo!

The smile told me I’d got it at last. As she turned to leave, she helped Great Granddad to his feet. Catching his eye, I leaned over and held out my hand, and wished him “Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo.”

The old man stopped, took my hand, and said nothing, but looked straight into my eyes and the brightest beaming smile crossed his face, and he nodded. I could tell from the wry smile on her face that this had been Anna’s purpose, and I had passed the test.

I wrapped up and stepped out into the chill night. The road ahead was empty, and the frosted grass crunched under foot as I walked the last mile home. High over the horizon, Orion climbed into the black sky, huge and silent. I remembered the first time I ever saw Orion. It was fifty years ago, and I was walking home from the house of my old schoolboy friend Lawrence Winfield, about a mile away. On the way, I’d turned to look back, and there it was, high in the near-midnight sky over his house. Here, fifty years on, on this near-midnight road, there was the Hunter again, sword in hand and the great giant stars Rigel and Betelgeuse. Come Prima.

Antonio’s tunes were still buzzing in my head, and among them, one that was new the first Christmas with Frances, in 1972.

#So this is Christmas,
#And what have you done,
#Another year over
#And a new one just begun

I’d never cared for it at the time, but somehow, over the years, it became a kind of constant, and each time I’d hear it, wherever we were living, I’d remember that first Christmas, in her little flat in Paisley. That was forty Christmasses ago, and this is the second Christmas without her. Yet for all we are without her, there is something of her with me all the time. Not just the lock of her hair that is always with me wherever I go, but the spirit of her, the thousands of memories that are stirred afresh every day. For the rest of the walk home, I found myself remembering that first Christmas, with all the Christmasses that followed, and smiling again. Come Prima.

Buon Natale, e Felice Anno Nuovo.

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The Logical Mind

I proposed to Rose today.

She was so overcome she nearly fell off the kitchen worktop. OK, technically speaking she laughed so hard she nearly lost her footing, but that’s a mere trifle. It’s not like I propose to women every day. Oh, right, it’s true, I do sometimes. I proposed last week to the woman in Robert Dyas who showed me where the packs of wood screws were. And there was the lady at the Post Office on Saturday who told me that Second Class Packets were cheaper than Standard Parcels, thus saving me about £1.50, so my gratitude is understandable, even though my proposal was dismissed by a button push that resulted in the next person in the queue being called to ‘Cashier Number 3 please!’ (She’ll rue the day, you mark my words.) But how did I get here?  OK, let’s rewind.

This afternoon, while she was returning the cooker top to its pristine condition with Flash, I regaled her with a story of my detective prowess in tracking down a ‘missing persons’ change of address for the Christmas Card List. My ineluctable powers of logical deduction were of a match for Mr Holmes, with the sole difference that I do not smoke a pipe, play the violin, or take opium. This is a prowess that women, being illogical and not very good at working things out, can only marvel at from a distance. Or in Rose’s case, about five feet.

As I reached the peak of my logical investigation into the Christmas Card List Missing Person Whereabouts problem, Rose determined that the kitchen cupboard surfaces required bringing up to scratch, and began the Flash Attack on the wall section above the hob. The action somehow reminded me that I’d intended to call on a ‘Sparky’ to repair the extractor fan and lighting unit above the cooker, which had not been working for some four or five years. I’d tried all the fan and light switches (I’m logical that way, you understand), and I’d even tried changing the bulb inside the lighting unit, having first checked that the replacement bulb worked by plugging it in to a table lamp (logical methodology is a characterising feature of us blokes, the logically deductive sex). The bulb worked, but the lighting unit didn’t. And as the whole goddam set of socket circuits were protected by the new RCD type circuit breaker mains box, the electrical flaw had to reside in the extractor fan and lighting unit. And being a Bosch, a replacement wouldn’t be cheap.

So there I was, remembering my plan to call for a ‘Sparky’ to come out, as even my renowned DIY skills recognised a boundary at things concerned with high speed movement of vast quantities of electrons. So I said, “I must remember to call for a Sparky to fix that extractor fan thing. I miss having the overhead light to help in photographing my periodic food porn creations.”

“Is it switched on?” asked Rose. That’s women for you, always asking questions that the Logical Mind has already discounted.

“Of course it’s switched on. The switch is behind the lowest drawer where the pots and pans go. It’s the same switch that powers the piezo on the cooker, and that’s working.”  The piezo had not worked for over a year, leaving me to resort to a hand-held piezo gas lighter, until I discovered that a missing pot lid had fallen down the back of the lower drawer and dislodged the cooker plug from the wall socket. Piezo working = switch connecting power. Ineluctable logic, you see.

“Well, that’s low down,” said Rose, “and the extractor fan is high up. There might be another switch.”

“It’s not in the top cupboard either,” I announced with that world-weariness we Logical Supermen have to resort to occasionally with the illogical minds of women who’re not good at this sort of reasoning. “I’ve already looked.” And by way of confirmation, I opened the cupboard beside the extractor unit to show that there was only kitchen foil and clingfilm and bin bags there. No sign of a wall socket with a recalcitrant plug in it.

“Yes, but what about the bit above the extractor fan, behind the panel there?”

“OK, I could look there, but I don’t see why it would be there. I suppose I could go downstairs and bring up the ladder to have a look.”

Haven’t women heard of Health and Safety Regulations?  The next thing I knew, she’d jumped up on the worktop by the cooker, and was striding across to the bit above the extractor fan.

“There’s a socket and plug up here.”

“Is it switched on?”

“Yes, but the fuse could have blown.”

“The fuse can’t have blown. There’s an RCD circuit breaker at the mains box. Fuses no longer blow.”

“Get me a 3 amp fuse.”

“???”

“I said get me a 3 amp fuse!”

I got a 3A fuse and an electrical screwdriver, and passed them up. She took the old fuse out, handed it down to me, which I accepted with that weary resignation we Logical Supermen reserved for those who don’t ‘get’ the Holmesian Methods. She put the new fuse in, plugged the thing in, then threw the switch on the lighting unit.

It lit up. The goddam thing lit up. She threw the switch on the fan unit. The goddam thing burst into life.

Momentarily thrown by surprise and the prospect of having saved a callout charge of at least £60 plus parts from a ‘Sparky’, I said “Rose, will you marry me?”

At this point she laughed so hard she nearly descended to the floor by gravity alone. I think this was her way of saying she was overcome by my thoughtful and considered proposal.

In the end, we decided to set up a business partnership, Joyce & MacPhee, Problem Solving and Detective Agency. If you have a guilty secret or a floozy to be tracked down, or a blown fuse, let us be your first port of call.

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in vodka veritas

My Mum could never pronounce the word ‘menstruation’.

It always came out as ‘menu-stration’. (Can you tell echoes here of an attempt at a bird-and-bees talk? “I’ll have to tell you, because he won’t”. ‘He’ being my father, a quiet, taciturn Hebridean who doubtless thought that these were things that a boy should learn when he reached the age of about seventy.) The thing is, by the age of fifteen, I already knew about all this stuff. Or as much as a fifteen-year-old thinks he knows about girls and the way of the world. I didn’t want to tell her that we schoolboys knew all about ‘jam rag week’, though in truth it was all theory and second-hand knowledge to us, however sophisticated we thought ourselves to be in 3A Boys.

That said, I’ve always thought her pronunciation, ‘menu-stration’, so be so much more euphonic, so much the way it should have been pronounced, that even yet, I have to mentally correct myself on those odd and rare occasions when I need to invoke it, lest I appear like an unschooled fifteen-year-old again.

How did I get here? Ah yes, it was looking at the rain this morning. What is a chap to do when it’s peeing rain hard enough to keep you indoors? Why, go for a walk, that’s what. So I put on my waterproofs, packed a water bottle and a banana in my backpack, and I was off for a seven mile hike through the miserable November grayness and downpouring. And as I walked, can you guess who popped into my mind?

It was Auntie Penny again. For reasons that are absolutely nothing to do with my innocent and delightful maiden great-aunt, she reminded me of the Loyal Society for the Relief of Pismronunciation, founded by the late and great Ronnie Barker, and thence to the story, recently told, of Calum’s wife Pam, in Italy, how she meant to order ‘Penne Arabiatta’, and instead instructed the waiter to bring her ‘an angry penis’.

It’s a story I’d occasion to relate a few years ago, and it was that telling that came back to mind as I strode through the gray drizzle this afternoon.

It was my old Russian friend and fellow fencer, Kirill Turbanov, who taught me how to drink vodka. “There are three things for wodka,” he said, “good people, good words, and good wodka”. Vodka is to be drunk sociably, with good friends, good words (those almost interminably long Russian toasts that have to take place before every quaffing), and good vodka. I was fortunate. Each time Kirill returned to his native St Petersburg, he’d bring me back some of the finest Russian vodka available anywhere in the world. Then he introduced me to The Ritual. You don’t just knock back a shot of vodka. Oh no. “Two more things also,” continued Kirill, “good bread, and good peekle, cucumber peekle.”

First, the vodka had to be chilled. Really chilled. In the freezer overnight chilled. Then there had to be freshly made bread. Home made bread. And cucumber pickle. “Feerst, with the good friends, we say the good worrrds. This take long time. Then, dreenk the wodka, smell the bread, eat the peekle.”

That was the order. You don’t eat the bread, you just inhale it. This is to neutralise any slight tendency to bitterness in the throat. And once the ferocious warmth suddlenly comes back up the throat from the ice-cold vodka, you immediately eat the cucumber pickle. Don’t ask. It just works.  The combination of pickle and vodka flavours is fantastic. And so many a night was spent in Kirill’s company ; “Good friends, good words, dreenk the wodka, smell the bread, eat the peekle!”

I introduced the Vodka Ritual to our dear friends, Ian and Claire, one evening. It seems to have made an impression, for a couple of weeks later, Frances had a phone call from Claire, inviting themselves round to dinner. (That’s the kind of friends you really want.) Appended to the self-invitation was the remark “Ian’s hoping Alex has some of his vodka left.”

I can’t remember what Frances cooked that evening, but just as Ian and Claire were leaving to come round, there was another phone call, from Claire. “We’re on our way. We’ve just met Father Chris, so we’ve invited him along too. Is that OK?”

Of course it was OK. We liked Fr Chris, a newly-ordained curate, intelligent, witty, a good conversationalist, who liked a dram (there is no Catholic priest worth a damn who does not take to a good dram), and who loved Bach. What’s not to like about such a man?

I should mention that there is no need to reveal Fr Chris’s surname here. For reasons that should become apparent, there is likewise no need to reveal his identity to the Bishop, just in case the Bishop happens to have the Parish of Google in his Diocese.

Ian, Claire, and Fr Chris, arrived about 8 pm that night. Quite possibly (= absolute dead cert) they brought with them some bottles of wine. And though I can’t recall now what Frances had made (she made an effort, as Ian is an accomplished chef), I do recall the collective putting-away of a lot of red wine. Then someone said, “Is it time for the Vodka Ritual?” You do not get a prize for guessing that this was Ian. Naturally, I had vodka — Kirill’s vodka — in the freezer. There was also home made bread. And there was cucumber pickle.

Quite surprisingly, we managed a fair few “good words” before downing the frozen St Petersburg vodka. And less surprisingly, the vodka bottle went down and down and down. I can’t remember all the conversation, but I do remember it included discussion about the occasional difficulties of making yourself understood in a foreign language. And there was the story of Calum, terrifying the girl at a petrol station kiosk by asking her to hand over the takings, when he thought he was just asking for a receipt, and the ‘angry penis’ demands of Pam.

But it’s not only in the living languages that such pismronunciations can occur. Oh no, said Fr Chris, it can happen in the dead language too.

As a seminarian, Fr Chris had to spend some time in Rome, with a number of fellow seminarians from all over Europe, preparing for ordination to the priesthood. At the college in Rome, however, all conversation had to be, not in Italian, but in Latin. Classical Latin. Dead Latin. The Latin of Cicero, Caesar’s Gallic Wars (oh, how I remember it well : “gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”!) Not only had all conversation to be in Latin, each seminarian had to prepare a sermon, to be delivered in Latin, before the whole assembly of seminarians and senior priests, and the Bishop.

Fr Chris knew what he had to do, and worked assiduously on his sermon, checking and correcting his Latin grammar, making sure that all noun declensions had been properly declined, and all verb conjugations properly conjugated.

He stepped up to the pulpit. And then, in front of the entire assembly of Latin-fluent seminarians and priests, and the Bishop, began his sermon.

It went well. Right up until the point where, as Fr Chris said, a slight and unexpected hush came across the congregation. It was slight, but it was definite. However, he picked up his thread and continued, right to the end.

A little later, during coffee and biscuits with the Bishop afterwards, and keen to have pointers on his assessment, Fr Chris approached the subject of his sermon. “I couldn’t help feeling,” he said, “that at one point, there was a momentary pause in the flow, as if something was not quite right.”

“Ah,” said the Bishop, with only the merest hint of a trace of a wry smile, “we all knew what you meant to say, but what you actually said was, ‘And then Mary and Joseph arose, and took the little fucker to Jerusalem.'”

I have decided, since then, that we probably over-dosed on cucumber pickle. But any priest who tells you that he does not take a good dram, or a good vodka, is probably not worth listening to anyway.

‘in vodka veritas’, as the old Romans would say.

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Parliamo Pasta

Auntie Penny popped into my head today, completely derailing my train of thought. There I was, walking along in the autumn sunshine, minding my own business, when suddenly, like Mr Dick with King Charles the First, there she was.

In truth, I’m not even sure I remember the train of thought she interrupted, for it was just one of those stream-of-consciousness things that pass the time on those long miles and that so help clear the mind of the cares of the messy and noisy world. I have a feeling it had something to do with malt whisky being fed to me in hollowed-out strawberries by dusky maidens, but no matter. There was Auntie Penny, plain as day, and then she vanished. And the derailment of my train of thought? Obvious. I changed to thinking of Italian food. (The connexion may seem tenuous, but it should become apparent.)

The next moment, I was recalling an evening spent earlier in the year with Calum, my youngest brother, and his wife Pam. There may have been a glass or two of malt whisky by the fireside, as we talked about many things, the joys of foreign travel, and the occasional difficulties in communication. In trying to converse with the locals in their language, we make regular mistakes, even though we’ve been warned in classes about ‘faux amis’, those words that look similar in both languages but have different meanings. Or idioms and turns of phrase that work in the school classroom but don’t work when you get to the real world abroad. Like the time in a little Breton restaurant when my French was a little more suspect, and I managed to order a giant bowl of roast potato ‘noisettes’ for six people when I actually thought I was saying “No thank you”, or the time Calum went to a filling station in France, paid by credit card, and terrified the girl at the kiosk when he asked in his schoolboy French for a receipt. Well, he thought he’d asked her to give him a receipt, but instead he’d asked her to hand over the takings. And if it’s easy to make mistakes like this in French, it can be even worse in Italian, when the meaning of two similar words in Italian can change significantly merely by the subtlest change in pronunciation of a single consonant.

Calum is besotted by Italy. He travels to Italy at every opportunity. He has fallen in love with Florence. A keen and experienced off-road cyclist, he has gone on long cycling tours in mountainous Italy with local septuagenarians so experienced they could outpace any teenager, and that includes quaffing litres of wine en route with thirty miles still to go. He has become fluent in Italian, and reads Italian novels avariciously. His bookshelves are full of Italian books and magazines. He even reads Agatha Christie novels in translation. Driving around Glasgow, his sat nav gives him directions in Italian. When, as was only a matter of time, he discovered Italian opera, he was bowled over by it. Calum and Pam have two cats. Their names? Diva and Tosca… Are you getting the picture here?

And if Italy is paradise for those who love cycling and opera, it is also a paradise for those who love cooking. Pam loves cooking. Pam is seriously good at cooking. Pam is gourmet class in the kitchen. Pam can do things with broccoli you won’t believe. And of course, the Italian influence is strong in Pam’s cooking too. Where else, then, to take inspiration?

So, one starry evening, in a romantic little restaurant in Florence, Calum and Pam were surveying the menu. An easy and accustomed situation for Calum to handle, and an opportunity for Pam, wanting to practise some of the essentials she too has been working to acquire. Calum signalled to the waiter, and gave his order. Pam, next, gave her choice, in her slightly less fluent Italian : it was ‘penne arrabiata’.

There was a short silence. Then laughter resounded throughout the little restaurant.

Calum leaned over to Pam and said softly, “They know what you meant to order, but what you’ve actually asked for is ‘an angry penis’!”

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Another ‘remembrance day’

I bought my poppy last night from a decorated old soldier in the shop where I bought my cabbage and peppers on the way home from Send, and pinned it to my jacket this morning as I prepared to leave for my walk. The poppy shape seems a little different these days from those I bought as a youth. Then, they were bigger and rounder, with paper green leaves behind the red poppy, and a long stem made of wire that fitted into my lapel buttonholes. The shape is slimmer, a little more abstract now, with just a short plastic stem, a product perhaps of mass manufacture. But no matter ; the significance of the poppy has always been in what it represents, and why we wear it.

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of this eleventh month, I stood by my desk, observed the two minutes silence, then set off for a long walk in the November sunshine. The sun is low at this time of year, and cast long shadows as I strode along the road before me. The flickering of shadows through the trees made me think of a picture I have seen recently, and you may have seen too. It is a picture of an old man with a walking stick, standing by a wall at a Remembrance Day service. The old man casts a long shadow on the wall, but it is not his own shadow, it is that of a young soldier in combat gear. It is very cleverly done. The connexion is clear : that soldiery goes on, and we are linked to the past in innumerable ways.

And as I walked, I thought that perhaps every old man of that time casts a shadow, his own piece of the jigsaw of history. Yet it may not be the sunlight that reveals his piece of the jigsaw. His shadow and its story may be revealed in other ways.

I can date it fairly closely. We were living in a little flat in Paisley just after we married and before we took our first little house in Livingston New Town in the summer of 1974, and in the mornings I took the red Paisley bus into Glasgow town centre to the place where I worked. As I got on the bus just after half past eight one morning, I noticed an old man sitting on one of the seats about half way down the bus. He was in his late sixties, short, unkempt, with a flat brown soiled-looking cap, a dirty brown overcoat, and in his hand a brown paper bag crushed at the top. I knew straight away that the brown paper bag camouflaged a bottle, some cheap alcohol or fortified wine. And he was drunk. His eyes were bloodshot and wet, and it seemed he could only focus them with a concentrated effort. I pushed my way down and, like other passengers, sat several seats away from him, leaving him isolated. I looked out of the rear window of the bus, so as not to look at him.

As the journey continued, he could be heard muttering, at first barely audibly, and as the bus rolled on, a little more loudly, yet hardly more distinctly. He seemed to be having a conversation with some invisible person in front of him, and periodically he would jab the air with the bottle in the brown paper bag as if to reinforce some point he was making. Hardly one slurred word in four could be made out, and those that could be made out were crude and vulgar. Yet as the old man muttered and mumbled and swore, there seemed to be some kind of story coming out, as though his words were on pieces of a jigsaw that could be fitted together to make a picture.

This old man wasn’t on a bus at all. He was in a field in northern France. And he wasn’t holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, he was holding a tin can of cold beans that he was eating with a spoon. Beside him, there was no passenger, but an old comrade who was sitting beside him in the trench, also eating from a tin of cold beans.

“See that, fuckin beans, Ah hate they fuckin beans, they’re fuckin cauld.”

He held up the bag a little.

“Ah’m looking roon at Jamesie, and he’s got fuckin beans an’ a’. Jist a tin a fuckin beans.”

The bus rolled on, and most of the passengers tried to avoid making eye contact with the drunk.

“See they fuckin shells? They’re jist wan fuckin thing efter another, feeep feeeep feeeep.” He tried to make whistling noises, and his other hand made slight motions like he was trying to point to traces. “Whistle and bang, whistle and bang. If wan o they things are gonny get ye, it’s jist whistle, thur’s nae bang, if ye hear the bang, it’s nae got ye yet.” And he tried to whistle again, but nothing came save a dull hiss of air.

More words came and, though still nearly all indecipherable, more of the sorry scene came with them.

“Ah’m jist sittin there, ye know? A fuckin whistle, feeep, an Ah turns roon tae Jamesie. Know whit? Jamesie’s no fuckin there. Fuckin shell. Thur’s nothin a Jamesie at a’, he’s no there, but jist that tin a fuckin beans a’ his, no even fell ower, jist sittin there on the grun’.”

As these pieces of a horrid scene emerged from the drunk’s ramblings, I remember the sense of shame I had in my first disgust. This old man, over thirty years on, was still reliving the moments when a shell took his comrade clean from the face of the earth beside him, leaving nothing behind but the can of beans he’d been eating from, sitting upright and intact on the ground.

I have thought of that journey, and that old man, many times. He had his own shadow, and it was a drink fuelled journey on a bus that pieced together the story within its darkness, nightmare memories that no passage of Novembers can erase.

For some, not all remembrance days are in November, and not all remembrances are eased by the lovely and poignant poppies. On this Remembrance Day, I remember him too.

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Fencing boobs

It’s strange how a half-forgotten name, or just a song, can trigger a set of old memories. Sometimes melancholy, other times humorous. This one is of the latter. I hope the women who are its subjects will not object to the re-telling.

I am never able to hear the name Ralph McTell, or the song ‘Streets of London’, without thinking of Mary O’Donnell. Or at least, Mary O’Donnell’s breasts. No, no, all of Mary O’Donnell! I’m getting ahead of the story.

I usually take a small recorder or music player on my walks, so that for those times when I don’t need silence, I can listen to music, or some of my favourite radio broadcasts. On my walk today, I found myself listening to an old Ralph McTell song, which I hadn’t heard for years. It brought back two memories that were strangely symmetrical. And straightaway, I was back four decades ago and fencing with Mary O’Donnell.

When I began fencing, the sport I came to love above all others, I was a callow youth, fresh-faced and new, in my teens, slim to behold and terrified of girls. (I am working to regain the former property ; the latter never went away.) I was taught to fence by the marvellous Christine Tolland, in Glasgow, who had been for many years Scottish Ladies Champion at foil. Of all the coaches I have had in fencing, she has been my favourite.

I loved the sportsmanship in fencing : you could fence with someone who would be aiming to cut you in half on the piste without quarter, yet in the coffee room later was as an old friend. When I’d begun to acquire some of the skills, I began fencing rounds with other, more experienced club members. I fenced with Brian, who’d spent time teaching me elementary ‘conversation with the blade’. I fenced with a beautiful French girl, Hélène, who tore me to pieces. Then I fenced with Mary.

Mary was one of those girls who exuded self-confidence. Not overly tall, but slim, curvy, with long waist-length frizzy black hair and flashing dark blue eyes. Feisty hardly describes her, for she’d left home after an argument with her father and learned to fend for herself. Mary’s favourite singer, she often told me, was Ralph McTell, and she adored the song ‘Streets of London’. Perhaps it had an echo of having had to fend for herself for a while until she got her own place. But whenever I hear ‘Streets of London’, it’s Mary O’Donnell.

One evening, not long after I’d arrived at the ‘salle’ and had been fencing with Brian, she strode over to me and asked me if I’d like to fence a few hits. (I was to learn that left-handed fencers, like me, are often popular with right-handers looking for experience against sinistrals : the higher up you go in competitive fencing, the greater the number of left-handers compared to the population average, so having the experience is useful.) Etiquette, of course, is that you always accept a fencing request, and as Mary was dark-haired and beautiful-eyed, accepting was never hard.

“There’s just one thing though,” she added on that particular night, “you can’t give me hits on the chest.”

Before I’d even time to look perplexed, she explained that she’d just opened her fencing kit bag and discovered she’d left her breast protectors at home. These are cup-shaped (well, what did you think they’d look like?) high-impact plastic inserts that fit into internal pockets on women’s fencing jackets. She must have been putting her whites through the wash and forgotten to put the protectors back. She continued to explain that she’d been reading an article which said that breast tumours could be caused by high-impact strikes or bruising, and as she didn’t want to risk that, I’d to avoid chest hits. Whilst I’d never heard of that before, her reasoning was perfectly understandable, and so of course I readily agreed.

We set to en garde, then began to fence. I was fairly good at keeping off-target, making the odd hit on the shoulder or flank. Just now and again, I’d forget and make a riposte to the chest, and she’d stop momentarily, cross her hands at the wrist and wave ‘no, no’ signs, and I’d remember and continue. Then I’d forget, and there’d be another ‘no, no’ signal followed by her fingers pointing to her chest, and I’d try my hardest to remember the Chest Directive.

Mary was always an attacking fencer, whereas I was usually defensive, trying to lure the attacker into making a mistake. But as I was now always fencing defensively with hardly any attacks at all, Mary became even more aggressive, pushing the attack and herself not realising that I was backing away because of the Chest Directive. It was a natural progression. As she pressed her attacks harder, and I had to step farther and farther back, with little option but repeated parries with no counters, I knew I was being pushed up to the wall. The fencing exchanges got faster and faster : straight attacks, attacks from disengage, beat attacks, beat disengage attacks, they were coming pell-mell, for Mary could press her attacks now with impunity.

When you have been drilling fencing exercises for some time, they eventually turn from exercises to instinct. You begin to ‘read’ the play, and to anticipate instinctively. And in your mind, at high speed, you’re ever rehearsing what’s about to happen and how you will respond. At that moment I just knew what Mary was about to do. She’d strong legs, and a powerful lunge, and she was going to launch a beat attack on my blade from her ‘sixte’ side, knocking it out of the way, then propel herself from her back left foot with an attack on my ‘quarte’ flank. With nowhere to go, it had to be parry of seconde downwards and a riposte to her own ‘quarte’ side. All within less than a second.

It happened in a heartbeat : beat .. lunge .. attack .. parry .. attack-disengage-and-HIT!

I hadn’t meant it, but I knew I’d done it. Sheer instinct. Straight to the chest. Her left side. Perfect hit. My blade flexed beautifully.

She stood up, slowly pushed her mask up over her face, feet apart ‘at ease’, backs of the hands on her waist, arms akimbo, and said,

“Alec, will you PLEASE stop prodding my tits!”

At just those very seconds when she spoke, there had fallen one of those occasional and entirely accidental lulls in the general hubbub of the fencing salle, so that her voice now carried over the ensuing silence. I froze with embarrassment, feeling the surge of crimson blush rush up from my neck and all over my face. A few heads turned quizzically in our direction, and I could see Christine, who’d been giving lessons to some novices, turn her face slowly towards us with a look that said clearly, ‘What IS that boy doing now?’

I looked again at Mary, only to see the broad grin of laughter cover her face. It was pure mischief. I couldn’t help my sense of mortification, but she only teased me more in the coffee room afterwards, and she knew it had been an innocent mistake in the heat of the bout. “Oh, Alec! If you could only have seen your face!”

On leaving Glasgow, with the change of career and start to married life, I’d to leave this lovely club at Bellahouston, and Mary O’Donnell.

When we came to Surrey, many years later, I found a fencing club to join. By this time, I’d been fencing more at épée than foil, having been a fencer now for about twenty years. One of my regular fencing opponents had been Geoff, a tall, slightly older man, built like a fencer, whom I loved fencing as he had a perfect classical French style, which was how I’d been taught by Christine. Geoff’s wife, Margaret, was also a fencer, a foilist. I was to fence her often. She was an American (she still is!), from Philadelphia, and I loved her east coast accent and the way she pronounced my name, which she sounded as “Ell-lix”. During those early evenings, I think I’d fenced her about three times. It would have been around the fourth occasion, when we were exchanging a few hits, circular disengages, cutovers to her shoulder, the customary testing things. Suddenly, she stopped, pushed up her mask, and said,

“Ehl-lix, I know what yore doing.”

I must have looked puzzled.

She stepped forward a little. “Yore avoiding my boobs, aren’tcha?”

I had to nod, because I was. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I’d been making hits to her right and left flanks, cutovers to her shoulders, a few low-line hits to her waist and stomach.

By now she was grinning from ear to ear. She stepped forward again.

“You don’t haffta. Look, you can hit me here on the boobs!” and she pushed her chest forwards ostentatiously, then struck herself on each side with the knuckles of her fingers, making the plastic protectors ping with the noise. “It doesn’t hurt! I’m protected! I actuallly prefer it if you hit me here because I don’t feel a thing! When you hit my sides, it hurts, but it doesn’t hurt here!” And she gave herself another couple of demonstrative blows with her knuckles.

I nodded.

“Tell ya what, Ehl-lix, I’m coming in next week, and I’m gonna have bulls-eyes painted on my boobs so you know where to hit ‘em!”

I could only laugh at her, and myself, and agree. After all, when a lady tells you to pay attention to her boobs, it’s only polite to comply.

In the bar that evening, I told Margaret and Geoff the story of Mary O’Donnell. I was “too sensitive now”, she said, but for all that, we shared a chuckle over the two tales.

I’ve often wondered what became of Mary O’Donnell, she of the long black hair and the flashing blue eyes and mischievous smile. I hope she found her Mr Right, and got to meet Ralph McTell. Looking back on my fencing life, what I am sure of, however, is that my fencing boobs were bigger than hers.

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