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Horlicks

I honestly can’t remember if I’ve posted this one before, so – because I rather like it – I’ll take the chance! Here’s hoping…

Let me tell you about Horlicks.

It all begins with a knock on my door early Saturday morning.  I’m in the middle of breakfast.  Ali, my landlord, is standing on the doormat; apology written all over his face.

“Sorry to disturb you, Ben.”

“It’s alright.”  Me, dressing gown, wiping Rice Krispies off my face.  Him, lounge suit, buttonhole – has he just got married?  I like Ali – he’s one of the new-style landlords – fresh faced, optimistic – went into property when the City went pear-shaped.

“You know about poor old Mr. Pennell?”  Ali uses his sensitive voice.  I do, of course.

“Yeah, Mrs. Jacob told me.  She found him, apparently.”  Abe Pennell, Flat Five.  If he caught you in the hallway you’d end up talking for hours, because once he started he’d never stop.  A lonely old man, I always supposed, and now he’d slipped away; in the night, alone.  It was sad.

“Well, I’ve cleared most of his stuff;” Ali says; “Except this.”

I don’t know why I hadn’t noticed it: on the floor beside him, this massive cage thing –inside, with a quizzical look on its face, the most beautiful blue Macaw I’ve ever seen.

“He loved this bird and I just don’t have the heart to sell it.   I remember you asking about pets.”

A pet, yes: I’d been thinking of a cat, maybe, or a small pooch without any pretensions, not a parrot.  Yet somehow (I admit I’ve no idea how Ali persuades me) I end up with a cage in my hands.

“His name is Horlicks, Ben.”

Then Ali’s thanked me and gone, and the cage is standing on the table, and I’m looking at Horlicks and Horlicks is looking at me.  With great delicacy, Horlicks opens the cage and steps out onto the table.  With rather less delicacy, he plumps a grey foot on the edge of my breakfast bowl, sending Krispies and milk all over the cloth.  One by one he begins to eat the Krispies.  I suppress my annoyance  (how can you have a go at a bereaved bird?).  He seems quite passive as I coax him, nudge him, persuade him back inside his home, shut his door and secure it.  He opens it again and comes back out.

A cursory examination reveals that the latch is very loose.  I have some wire in the kitchen.  I put him back inside, wire up the door.  He seems to want to help me, poking at my fingers with his beak as I work, stepping back on his perch as if in admiration at the finished job.  Satisfied, I leave him while I go to the kitchen to make coffee.  The kettle has just boiled.  I am pouring water into my mug.  There is a flapping of wings and Horlicks joins me on the worktop.  He has a length of wire in his beak.

So we reach a tacit understanding:  Horlicks is not a caged bird.  From now on I will put the cage in a corner and leave the door open for him to return there whenever he wishes (he almost never does) while he has free run of my meticulously tidy flat.  I’m like that, you see?  I live alone, everything in order, everything in its place.  Lump sugar not loose, tablecloth on the table, covers on the chairs and wipe-your-feet-please-thank-you – get the picture?  Now I’ve heard that parrots are really messy, and that worries me, but there’s such a thing as duty of care, and I take that seriously too, so I have to trust Horlicks’ good manners and go out.

Fortunately this is a Saturday, because there is food to get – what do parrots eat, anyway?  The local pet shop will help.

Mrs. Hall at ‘Fluffy’s’ is effusively helpful:  “Parrots are extremely fussy, Mr. Cecil.”

She advises me no end, managing in the process to provide me with three books on care of Parrots and Parakeets, about half a hundredweight of balanced diet food for Horlicks, an extremely pretty perch, and a three-figure bill.  I make a note to get a larger car.

No-one could describe my feelings as I turn the handle on my front door.  All the way home I ‘m having cold sweats, picturing my flat as a battleground, seeing images of Horlicks amid shredded tablecoths, piles of stuffing ripped from chairs – what sort of things do parrots do when they get bored, anyway?  All my files opened and torn apart, broken china….

None of it!  I swing the door wide (but not too wide – I have another vision which involves Horlicks flapping past me to freedom) and there it is; my well-ordered flat:  still well ordered.  My new pet appears not to have moved, surveying me sagely from the top of my bookcase as I struggle to assemble the accoutrements of his new life.

“How old are you, Horlicks?”  I ask him conversationally as I carefully select a site for his brand new perch.  He tips his head to one side and rattles his tongue in a sort of keening sound.  “Do you like this, then?”

Now I am proud of that perch.  It is on a stand with a nice wide base where you can lay sand for collection of – well, need I be specific?  A hoop of little bells form an arch over the top.  There’s a food dish attached, too, which I fill with the newly-acquired goodies supplied by Mrs. Hall.

“You hungry, Horlicks?  You a hungry Horlicks?”  Oh-oh!  I’m starting to talk like my old ma did with her cats.  Here, tiddy-widdy!  Did he want his din-dins then?

Horlicks seems to understand.  He flutters down from the bookcase, settles on the perch, then after turning his head several ways, begins to poke at the food.  Satisfied, I go into the kitchen to make my lunch.  My coffee mug is on the worktop where I left it earlier, the sugar-bowl still beside it.  The sugar bowl is empty.  The coffee mug is full of sugar lumps.

Of course, it is my fault:  normally I would not think of leaving the half-full mug of unfinished coffee there, any more than I would forget to put the Rice Krispies packet back in the cupboard, but Horlicks’ arrival distracted me.  And the Rice Krispies packet is empty, too…..

When I return to my living room, Horlicks is back on top of the bookcase.  The food in his food bowl is untouched.  I calculate he has probably eaten enough unsuitable food to kill him.  Did I read somewhere birds can’t burp?

Over the next few days we learn to live with one another, Horlicks and I.  I learn, for example, that he has no appreciation of expensive special food:  I learn that he likes my food, mostly before I get the opportunity to eat it.  I learn that slices of Pizza, pieces of bread, biscuits, all manner of cooking ingredients will mysteriously disappear the moment I turn my back:  that only hot food – kebabs with hot sauce, chilli, etc., are left untouched.  Whether Horlicks learns anything new at all is open to doubt.  There is little question as to who is educating who in our new partnership.

I begin to eat a lot more curry than is good for me.

At first I think Horlicks must be dangerously constipated, because the sand beneath his perch and in his cage stays spotlessly clean.  This in itself is no surprise, since he rarely touches either of them, but I worry.  Then I discover the top of the kitchen cupboard (by accident – I open it and a piece of stale pizza falls on my head).  There are more things up there, Horatio, than are dreamed of…..

Lindsay comes round this evening.  Lindsay and I, we’re sort of an item, if you know what I mean?  She says we are, anyway.

She calls me first: “Shall I bring a Chinese?”

“Better make it a Biryani.”

She sees Horlicks, screams and steps back five paces.  Horlicks cringes on top of the bookcase, head lowered, wings hunched.

“Oh, you’ve got a parrot!”

I’m thinking ‘What a pity Peter Scott couldn’t have seen this’.

“Oh, isn’t it just excellent?”

Horlicks perks up.  Obviously, this parrot is prone to flattery.  I go to the kitchen to dish out the food, and when I come back, there’s Lindsay sitting on my settee, and there’s Horlicks on her lap, on his back with his eyes shut, having his tummy tickled.

For the rest of the evening I am playing gooseberry while Horlicks courts Lindsay with the professionalism of a gigolo.  He sits beside her as she eats, snuggles up to her whenever her attention might stray in my direction, brings her little gifts, like sugar lumps, the odd grape or two from the fruit bowl, or a Rice Krispie.  When we finally get to say goodnight he perches on her shoulder and would have stayed there had we not insisted.  He parts with Lindsay reluctantly, touching her cheek with that great grey beak in what looks suspiciously like a kiss.

Horlicks loves the bathroom.  When I shower in the morning he is entranced.  He sits on the shower rail with that lopsided look of his and watches me with an attention that borders on the perverted.  I come to the conclusion that all the steam is like the jungle to him, and it makes him feel at home.

“I wonder if you remember where you came from, Horlicks?”  I ask him, towelling off; and he adopts a questioning stare.  But he never answers, not once.

“Macaws aren’t good talkers, dear.”  Mrs. Hall tells me.  “It’s the greys that are the real conversationalists.”  I think this is on my third visit to ‘Fluffy’s’ – I don’t remember for certain.

“How can I control him?  He won’t stay in his cage and I daren’t open the windows.”

“Ah now!  Let me show you this ingenious little harness….”

Horlicks looks quite proud of his smart new waistcoat, and he doesn’t seem to mind as I hitch the leash to his perch.  He even consents to sit there while I fix it.  Then he flies off and settles on the floor at the limit of the tether.  Never mind, at least now I can let in some air.  I open the casement window and Horlicks watches me, very carefully.

So it’s Monday, and I have to go to work.  I am (had you not guessed?) a working man; I have a parrot to support.  Imagine the doubt, the fear:  do I leave him tethered?  Of course not.  I make sure he has plenty of food and water, then we have a little talk.  (I’m starting to do a lot of that)  It’s a lecture about respect for property and it isn’t the first time Horlicks has heard it, but he listens attentively nonetheless with that sideways look he gives whenever he’s concentrating…..

All day I worry!  I make mistakes, can’t think straight because of the nightmares that are going on in my head.  I finally get away at six and drive home so fast it’s a wonder I don’t get nicked.

My shaking fingers turn the key.  My sweaty palm grips the handle.  My shoulder tentatively pushes around the jamb….Horlicks screeches.

That’s a sound he hasn’t made before, but maybe he feels he has to break the tension.  Anyway, there he is on top of the bookcase, and a brief look around my room assures me that all is well with my world.  You see? (I tell myself) Horlicks is really not a bad bird.

Now, normally I would be off down the pub of a Monday – it’s quiet, and I get a game of darts with Tull, my old mate from the army.  Tull and I, we go back a long way, so far that I’m sure we must have had discussions about parrots.  Tull being Tull, he would have lots of advice.  Tull would have owned a parrot at some time or another, a parrot just like Horlicks, only better.  So I don’t go.  Horlicks and me, we have a night in with a lamb dansak.

There’s not much on TV, just some local news item about a poor old confused fella who was out shopping with his wife and just drove off and left her for some reason.  They found him parked on a pedestrian crossing in the High Street.  He said God told him to stop there.

I decide its time Horlicks learned to talk.  What’s the use of a parrot if it can’t keep up a conversation?  So we sit down together at the table and we run through a few simple phrases

“Who’s a pretty boy then?”   Who did think that one up?

“Who’s that?”  I rap my knuckles on the table for that one; like a door-knock, you know?

“What’s the time?”  I show Horlicks my watch – a mistake, because from then on he is obsessed with removing it.

“Greedy Horlicks!”  Prompted by a beak in my lamb dansak.

We persevere for more than an hour.  Well, I persevere.  Horlicks watches.  He says nothing.

In the end I accept defeat.  I have a silent parrot.  Later Lindsay comes round and endorses this.  “Macaws are not good talkers.”

Then she spots the harness.

“Oh, you’ve got a lead!   Let’s take him for a walk; come on!”

Lindsay, NO!  The consumption of my household provisions I can take, the intrusion on my very private world I accept, even the worry and the financing of Mrs. Hall’s early retirement are things I will put myself through, but walking down the street with a parrot on a lead?  That is one straw more than this camel can handle.

“You’re a bit of a stuffy old grampus, aren’t you?”  Lindsay accuses, and settles on the sofa to watch TV.  Of course Horlicks immediately joins her.  The two of them spend the rest of the evening canoodling.  Game, set and match.

Through the week, things begin to settle into a routine.  Nobody could call it normal, this new life I’ve got, but we get used to each other, the bird and I.  Lindsay comes by nearly every night: not to see me so much as to get touched up by Horlicks, who seems to have this Harpo Marx quality.  Lindsay speaks, he mimes.  True, his mimes are rather limited, but they seem to work.

An item on the news about an escaped parrot:  there’s a picture of it stuck up a tree.  “Oh look Horly, there’s a parrot just like you!”  And Horlicks does this sort of curtsey thing on her shoulder, then nibbles her ear.

Daytimes I’m at work, naturally.  In the evenings I play the spare part.  Friday I come home looking forward to the weekend and find Lindsay waiting on my doormat with a pizza for the bird!  This, I tell her, is going too far!

We have a bit of a row.  It runs along the lines of   ‘you’re not seriously jealous of a parrot?’ and it would have played itself out but for one little thing:  a little thing Lindsay finds on the kitchen table.

“What’s this?”  She demands, walking up to me with ‘it’ between her thumb and forefinger.

‘It’ is what I will describe as a ‘feminine product’ – all nice and clean and new, I hasten to add – not previously owned, if you see what I mean.  For once, I don’t know what to say.

“Yours?”  I mutter, lamely.  Wrong answer!

“I don’t use this brand, and if I did, I wouldn’t leave one on your kitchen table!  Are you seeing someone else?”

“Do me a favour!  I’ve been at work all day!  Anyway, how could I be seeing anyone else?  You’re always here!”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t need to be!”

“Suit yourself!  No…”  Lindsay’s about to storm out.  Now I don’t know why, but I sort of don’t want that.  So I stop her.  “Look, you stay here, I’ll go out.  I don’t know how it got there, but I have my suspicions.”

Lindsay cottons on (forgive pun):  “You mean…?”  I nod.  “But how?”

“Dunno.  See if you can find out.  Cross-examine him.”  Then my parting shot:  “That bird’s got to go!”

I go to the pub.

“What have you been up to?”  Tull asks.  “Thought we’d lost you.  Darts?”

Around about half past eight he drops it into the small talk, between throws.

“You’ll never believe what happened to Charlie Garrett – y’know, old gaffer with the limp; sits in the corner there Mondays?”

And then he tells me.  Tull tells me.

“Charlie takes his wife shopping.  Because of his gammy leg they do the usual thing: Charlie parks outside the supermarket while his wife goes around with the trolley.  When she’s done she opens up the back and puts the bags inside, then goes off to return the trolley.

“There’s a shuffling from the back seat, then this voice, which Charlie swears is his wife’s, tells him to drive on.  So he does.  Now he’s a bit deaf and a bit vague is Charlie, so it doesn’t occur to him that the draught he feels is coming from the tailgate, which is still up, and he’s used to being hooted at, so he doesn’t pay any attention as other drivers try to tell him.  Half way across town, (by now all his shopping’s dropped out the back);  this same voice says “Stop!” It’s really loud and panicky, like something’s seriously wrong.  Charlie stops.  He realises he’s in the middle of a crossing, so he decides to drive on.  “Stop!”  the voice says again.

“What’s the matter?”  Says Charlie, who can’t turn around easily and he’s never heard of mirrors.

“Just stop!”  Says the voice.

“Well now he does turn around, though it takes him a bit of time.  Guess what – there’s no-one there!  Now he’s in shock, because he thinks his wife fell out of the back, which is why when the copper comes over to see what’s going on Charlie says he thinks God was telling him to stop!”

Why do I have a funny idea I know what’s coming next?

“Right.  Now Charlie has one hell of a time trying to convince the coppers he isn’t a loony tune.  He does, though, and yesterday morning, him and his wife, they go out shopping again.   They’ve got to – Charlie lost all the last lot!

Here’s the best bit: it only happens again, doesn’t it?  There’s Charlie sitting in the car, his wife gives him a bit of a tongue-lashing about waiting for her this time, and there’s this same voice!  “Drive on!”  It says, bold as you like.

Well, Charlie’s not that much of a fool.  He turns around, and there on the back of the seat is that parrot – you know, the one that escaped?  It was on the news?

“Drive on!”  Says the parrot again.

“Not likely!”  Says Charlie, and he takes a swipe at it with his stick.

“Bleedin’ Moses!”  says the parrot; and it flies off.”

“This Parrot..”  I choose my words.  “Have they caught it yet?”

“Nah.  Owner hasn’t come forward neither.  Apparently it’s been hanging around that supermarket for days, nicking things out of bags and trolleys.  Charlie’s wife has got a theory though.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah.  Old chap she used to go and visit sometimes died recently.  He had a parrot.  She reckons maybe they turned it loose.”

Lindsay’s waiting for me when I get back to the flat.  Horlicks is not in evidence.

She shows me the latch on the casement window with the beak-marks on it.  “I checked around to see if he could get out.  He could.”

I find him cowering behind the kitchen waste.  I’m not proud of myself, shouting at a bird:  it isn’t one of my finer moments.  But you must understand, he knows he’s done wrong:  not only that, he’s been deceitful.

“You can talk, can’t you?  You can imitate people!  Worse yet, you steal tampons!”

It’s all of two hours before I forgive him, and I only do it then because for most of those two hours Lindsay’s been forgiving me; and it’s late at night, and after all, he has sort of brought us closer together:  tonight, you see, for the first time, Lindsay won’t be going home.

“He’s so cute!”  Lindsay enthuses, as we snuggle on the sofa together, watching him in his new position, relegated to the fireside rug.

“He’s a complete hooligan!”  I tell her, though my words are directed mostly at him.

He rolls over, lifting one claw nearly to his beak.

“I’m a proper Horlicks!”  He says.  “Bleedin’ Moses!”

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Three.

There was little about Rowena’s island house these days to remind her of its crofting roots:  in the space of a few months she had installed central heating, a kitchen the mere contemplation of which would have made her blush not so long ago, triple glazing, and many other features of the cossetted life.  All-in-all, by the time the extensions and the indoor swimming pool were completed, about two containers’ worth of exorbitantly priced luxury goods would grace the Parfitt residence, now well on its way to mansion status.

Much of this profligacy could be attributed to boredom.  While Julian was busy with affairs of State, there was little for the First (and Only) Lady to do, apart from her toenails.  This afternoon, stretched out on a sunbed next to her life-sized reproduction of the statue of David on the south patio and taking advantage of some rare afternoon sun, Rowena was reading the same book for a third time.  Half-way between small print and sleep, she scarcely noticed the force of nature approaching from the harbour.

Then she focussed.

Striding up the steep path, his thighs tensed and thrusting against the gradient, all six foot six of Willoughby was a Greek god come to earth, an angel descended from paradise.  Now, in the warmer interior of the island where his coat was a little too protective a bloom of sweat glistened on his golden skin – and, oh, lord, that hair!

Rowena surreptitiously nipped her skirt up over her thighs a few more inches and sat up so certain features of her v-necked t-shirt would be shown to their best advantage.  She took a few very deep breaths.

“Hi.”  She wavered, in not-very-convincing First Lady style.  “Who are you?”

‘And’ she wanted to add (with a disparaging glance at David), ‘is that bulge in your jeans for real?’ 

“Hello.  You must be Rowena – they said you would be beautiful, and they were so right.  I’m Willoughby.”

Ah, and his voice was so dark, and chocolaty and warm!  Rowena knew she couldn’t get up without falling over.

“Surely, you can’t be….”

“The ‘man from the Ministry’?  Yes, sweetest Rowena, I’m afraid I am.  Now, is your husband around?”  The question was so subtly framed it might have meant anything, but the conspiratorial half-smile which adorned it left no doubt in Rowena’s mind.  Unfortunately, though, Julian was around.  He was just inside the door behind her – and emerging from it.

“Are you Lightfoot?”  He asked, with genuine doubt in his voice.

“Call me Willoughby.”  Said Willoughby.

“Come inside.  Darling, could you fix some drinks for us?  Willoughby, then – what will you have?”

Julian’s study had become his Oval Office.  They sat in deep leather chairs.

“I’m sorry about the strip search.”  Julian said, with a smirk.  “We have to be so careful.”

“Not at all,” Willoughby made a dismissive gesture.  “We had fun.”

Rowena did not stay for their discussion.  She served some drinks, then resumed her sunbathing for a little while.  With her head hidden behind her book she could dream her dreams undisturbed, and those she dreamed of Willoughby would not have been publishable.

“Truth is, Julian,”  Willoughby was saying;  “We want to calm this whole thing down, you know; find some mutual ground?  If you’re agreeable, I wouldn’t mind staying around for a few days, sort of as a buffer between you and the Ministry.  I’d really like to do that.  I mean,” He treated Julian to a mischievous half-smile.  “I – personally – would like to do that.  The thing is, you sweet man, would you like it too?”

In the early hours, the very early hours, of the following morning, Willoughby Lightfoot’s stalwart shape might have been seen leaving the Parfitt house – would have been, if Julian’s security guards were not by then in drunken slumber, a sleep deepened by the pills which Willoughby had offered them to enhance their enjoyment of the previous afternoon.  The goat in the yard watched Willoughby’s approach with suspicion, snickering anxiously.

In the time before the rest of the household awoke, Lightfoot made a comprehensive exploration of Julian’s Island; though not in a way any tourist or casual sightseer would recognise.  No, Willoughby’s needs were specific – he sought, and found, specific things.

By the time he returned, Rowena was downstairs making breakfast.

Lightfoot’s muscular body framed against the light in the back doorway.  “What a wonderful place to walk in the morning!”  He declared, unbuttoning his shirt.  “Would you like me to take off my shoes?”

Rowena nodded, aware of what was happening to her face.  “Shall I take them for you?”  

As Willoughby removed his muddy footwear, Rowena knelt before him, letting him see the long curve of her back, the dark mystery beneath the neck of her dressing gown.  As she stood, of course, the casually tied cord of her gown parted and it fell open.  Blushing deeply, she looked up at him, fingering nervously at the hem of the shortest nightshirt she possessed and hoping it was just short enough.

Willoughby looked down at her:  “You are so, so lovely.”  He said.

Rowena looked up at Willoughby:  “Oh lord – you absolutely have to roger me – now!”

Did the earth move?  Well, not immediately, even though a train of events were set in motion which would prompt it to at least consider a tremor or two.

Willoughby’s presents, once unwrapped, were every bit as generous as they promised.  Rowena unwrapped them very quickly indeed.  His jeans almost ripped from him, Willoughby found himself pinned against the back door with Rowena’s arms around his neck, legs around his waist.

“Julian….”  He managed to pant between hammer blows; “He isn’t up yet?”

It was an anxious enquiry.  Rowena shook her head.  “Oh-my-god!  Oh-my-god!  Not until ten.”

“Excellent.”  Willoughby cupped the ample cheeks of Rowena’s backside, one in each hand, in search of a better purchase; hoping to control the rampant battering which threatened to throw them both out into the back yard.  Rowena, however, took this support as an opportunity to lean away from him – her idea probably was to invite his attention to her eager breasts, but the result was quite different.  Rowena was neither as light nor as nimble as once she had been.

She lost her grip, panicked: clawed for Willoughby’s shirt and missed.  The centre of gravity shifted, drastically.  Suddenly off-balance, with jeans around his ankles, Willoughby found himself tottering for dear life just to stay upright as he and Rowena, locked in passion, careered across the kitchen.  Desperately trying to avoid a crash onto the hard flagstone floor, he steered towards the softer landing of the kitchen table.  This, at least, was successful.  They hit the top of the table together, bringing forth a cry of ecstasy from Rowena and a cry of pain from Willoughby as his masculinity hit the table edge.   In Rowena’s design for her luxury kitchen, as a sort of homage to tradition, she had retained three traditional features, two of which were the old flagstone floor and the sturdy kitchen table.  Now, the grip of wooden table legs on flagstones is adequate for most purposes, but prone to defeat if hit horizontally at speed by a combined weight of around two hundred and eighty pounds.  The table, therefore, offered little resistance:  protesting with hideous noise it scraped the rest of the way across the floor towards Rowena’s third concession to tradition –  the welsh dresser.

Arrayed upon the dresser’s shelves, dining plates, soup plates, tea plates, odd ornamental statuary, a tea pot and a very good Spode figurine waited to receive them with a conclusion as inevitable as it was loud.  The table rammed the dresser with a crash, the shelves above lurched dangerously, shedding their contents as a hound shakes off fleas.  Rowena screamed, flinging herself to the rescue of an avalanche of descending crockery.

No sound speaks more volubly of devastation than that of a china plate breaking upon stone:  no devastation is more entire than a floor covered with shards of white dinner service.  Rowena made a dive to catch the Spode figurine, only to have it slip from her grasp.  Not one piece survived.

Rowena was lying on her back on the floor in the midst of the carnage with her nightshirt around her neck:  Willoughby was still doubled over the edge of the table.  There came a sound of running feet from the stairs.

“My husband!” Cried Rowena.  “Hide!”

Willoughby groaned, well aware that the lingering evidence of his enthusiasm would incriminate him in a way that had no place in his strategy.  The only possible concealment on offer was behind the side of the dresser furthest from the door.  Hazarding injury from a carpet of shattered china he made his way there, pressing his back to the wall.   The door opened to admit an anxious Julian.

“My stars, what happened?”

“I fell against the table.”  Rowena explained lamely, trying to sound as shocked and disorientated as possible.  “I fell.”

To reinforce this impression, she took a tea-towel from the table and began waving it ineffectually at the mess, as if this would somehow magic the damage away.  She shrugged helplessly.

“I need to sit down.  Help me through to the front room.”  Casting about her for somewhere to put the cloth, she hooked it over the only projection available.

As he supported his wife through the hallway, Julian paused, trying to recreate an image in his mind.  “Just a moment;” He said.  “What did you hang the tea towel on?”

He propped Rowena against the stairs, turned back to the kitchen.

“Oh!”  Cried Rowena, fainting to the floor.

“Darling!”  Cried Julian solicitously.

As the door had closed behind Rowena and Julian, Willoughby was at last able to reach down and remove the larger splinters of porcelain from his foot.  He bandaged the wound with the tea-towel.

Much later, Willoughby and Julian were sitting in the Oval Office, sipping drinks.  The morning had been spent deep in negotiation, mainly concerning Julian’s proposal of a pipeline.  They had both spent some time on a telephone conference line to A.J., who seemed disposed to complete a deal.

“I’m impressed, Lightfoot.”  Julian complimented his guest:  “I hadn’t expected to find the wheels quite so well oiled.”

“Well,”  said Willoughby in his most mellifluous voice:  “It isn’t often I get to work with someone of your abilities, Julian.  I think what you’ve achieved here is remarkable: quite remarkable.”

“Thank you.  That’s praise indeed.  Do you think we might get this neatly parcelled by tomorrow?”

“Our proposals have to go to the Minister, and he has to get them sanctioned – but I know everyone wants this to be kept quiet:  so I don’t see why not.  Any particular reason for the urgency?”

“You may or may not know, but we have an alliance with Iran?  A delegation is due to visit us tomorrow afternoon.”  Julian smiled.  “It would be nice to have everything tied up by then.”

“Really?  Julian, you are a naughty chap, aren’t you?”  Willoughby’s eyes teased.  “What time are they arriving?”

“On the tide.  Two o’clock, as I believe.”

“Superb!”  said Willoughby.  He reached forward, stroking the back of Julian’s hand with a single forefinger.  “You’re a brilliant fellow, you know?”  He shook his head sadly.  “Such a waste – such a waste.”

There are times when you know a situation – a meeting, a look, a touch – should make you feel acutely uncomfortable:  they should, but they don’t.  Then what do you do?  Julian found himself in just this dilemma.  “What do you mean, ‘a waste’?”  He asked as Willoughby got to his feet.

Willoughby looked down at him with that peculiar half-smile of his, turning to leave the room.  He made no reply, but as he left, he allowed his hand to draw softly across Julian’s cheek and neck.  It was an unmistakable gesture.

That afternoon Willoughby, harbouring a slight limp, went for another walk.  Considering the small size of the Island Republic of Aga, walking offered few possibilities, so it was strange how little of him was seen.  He returned late.

It was a night of discoveries.  The first, and possibly the least earth-shattering of these, was Willoughby’s – he discovered there were only five clocks in the house, and (he could move very quietly when needed) Julian took his watch off at night.  Rowena didn’t.

Meanwhile Julian was discovering – although he might not acknowledge it in the morning – a new aspect of his sexuality.  His night was spent in dreams which all featured Willoughby:  Willoughby caressing his cheeks, running his hands through that long fair hair, Willoughby running, naked, along a tropical shore:  dreams in fact, very close to those of his wife, though Rowena’s dreams interfered with her sleep.

She discovered Willoughby in the front room of the house, paying unusual attention to their grandfather clock.

“I couldn’t sleep.”  He admitted.

“Oh,” She sympathised.  “Why?”

“Thinking of you.”  Willoughby took her hands, gave her one of his best embarrassed smiles.  “I was dreaming of you – you were naked, running along a tropical shore…”

She came to him.  “Darling, I couldn’t sleep either.”

“Couldn’t you?”

“Oh, Willoughby!”

“Oh, Rowena!”

This time he was careful – very careful.  Lifting her nightshirt from her, he carried her unclothed form to the settee and laid her carefully upon it.  Then he lay carefully on top of her.

“Wait!”  He said.  “The light.  Put the light on.”

“Must we, darling?”

“I want to see you, my love.  I want to see your face.”  She was moved to protest further, but he placed a warding finger to her lips.  “For me?”

Obediently, Rowena turned on the table lamp above her head.  “Now,” She whispered sweetly, taking the focus of her desires in her hand; “Shall we finish what we started?”

“Absolutely!  Just move another six inches this way.”

“Why?”

“More comfortable, my sweet.  Oh, and let’s have that watch off, yes?  It keeps getting tangled in my hair.”

Willoughby made one final check that the camera he had concealed on the top of the grandfather clock had them fully in frame, then he began, with consummate skill, to administer the rogering Rowena so desperately desired.

Finally, rather late in life, Rowena discovered sex – real sex.

And that was enough discoveries for one night.

Breakfast was late the next morning.  A  dispassionate observer, had there been one in place, as it were, might have noticed how each of the diners avoided the other’s gaze, as though there were some unacknowledged secret between them.  Julian said little through the first part of the meal, staring fixedly at the table, now restored to its rightful place.  Rowena, mindful of Mahadis’s fate, avoided Willoughby’s quite open admiration of her, even if beneath the table her knees kept parting involuntarily.

Rowena it was who broke the awkward silence.

“I’m a bit worried about the goat.”

“Yes?”  Julian grunted.  “Now you’re going to tell us why.”

“She just stands with her back end pressed against the shed.  She’s so aggressive I can’t get near enough to milk her and she won’t move.”

“I prefer the cow’s milk anyway.”  Julian said, closing the matter.

“What do you guys do for exercise?”  Willoughby asked brightly.

“Well, we walk a lot.”

“No, I mean proper exercise!”  Boomed Willoughby, drawing a look of open-mouthed admiration from Rowena, who imagined Willoughby doing proper exercise.  “Julian, you’re a fit chap.  You work out, don’t you?”

“No.”  Julian’s powers of articulation were peculiarly limited this morning.  “I should, I suppose….”

“Look,” Willoughby said.  “I’ve found the ideal place.  Let’s wrap things up early, then we’ll have a few hours before your Iranian chappies roll up.  I promise you’ll feel marvellous.  Marvellous!”

Julian demurred:  “I don’t think I’ll have time.”

Willoughby reached across the table, placing his hand over Julian’s and squeezing it.  “You will, Julian, I promise you. You’ll feel marvellous.”

Julian met Willoughby’s gaze, unable to escape the mischief in his eyes.

Rowena saw it too.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Parfitt’s Island – a chronicle in four parts: Part Two.

Prince Fuisal was something of a disappointment to Rowena:  she had anticipated a thobe of flowing white, a ghutra and a beard.  Instead she got a rather affable young man in a business suit, with very little hair at all.  Nevertheless, she caught herself curtseying as he greeted her.

“Your Highness!”

“Ah yes.  This is – what is the expression – ‘the little woman’.  Is that correct, Mr. Parfitt?”

Needless to say, Rowena did not immediately take to the young Prince; not that it mattered, since from that point onwards he scarcely acknowledged her existence.

When Julian had finished choking, he invited his guest to the house for tea.

The Prince was unenthusiastic.  “Tea.  Yes, of course. Tea.  Lead the way, Parfitt!”

As soon as tea was served (by Rowena, naturally) the Prince seemed eager to get down to business.

“Tell me your proposition, Parfitt.”

“Well,”  Said Julian;  “What I suggest is this….”

The Prince’s hand restrained him.  With a regal nod, he indicated Rowena.  “You wish to discuss business in front of your woman?  How quaint.”

“Oh, no, don’t embarrass yourself!”  Said Rowena:  “I’ll be in the scullery scrubbing the floor if you want me, husband.”  And she left, closing the door with a violence that set the remains of her dinner service wobbling perilously on the dresser.

Rowena did not meet the Prince again.  She heard his laughter as Julian unfolded his plans, then the front door closing as he departed.  Within an hour of its arrival, Prince Fuisal’s launch was bearing him back out into the bay.  That evening the ‘Xanadu’  gracefully and silently slipped its moorings.  By the morning of the following day, it was as if the third in line to the throne of Al Flaberri had never visited.

For another week Julian’s island basked peacefully in pale Scottish sunshine.  Rowena so loved this place with its moody climate and magnificent scenery that she soon forgot her ill humour, even to the point of forgiving Julian.  She preferred not to know what his discussions with the Prince had entailed, and certainly Julian was not eager to tell her, so she began to revive her daily routine and pursue her own interests.  She fed the hens, milked the cow and the goat Julian had insisted they buy (though neither of them had any background in animal husbandry) and worked at the well-nigh impervious garden.  The wind riffled through her hair, her skin bronzed in the subtle sun, she breathed the richly oxygenated air and felt glad to be alive.  For a while she almost made herself believe that the natural gas resources had sealed themselves up and the whole thing was forgotten; but of course it wasn’t.  On the seventh day, insidious hell oozed in from the ocean.

Boats chugged quietly into the bay late on Saturday night: by morning they were gone.  Along the shore a camouflage net covered the equipment they had left behind, and the accommodation for the workers who came with it.

These were riggers, whose intrusion was neither subtle nor brief.  They were possibly most remarkable for their ability to turn a simple portacabin upon the jetty into a thriving public house, which sprang into life at seven p.m. (just after the heavy machinery which littered the island had shut down) and did not acquiesce until well into the following morning.  During the day they worked under cover, with the extensive use of camouflage netting and disguised vehicle movements; a mystery to Rowena, one which Julian seemed reluctant to explain.  They came, they gave their hosts six weeks of unremitting torment, and they left.  Peace descended once more, but it was a gurgling, vibrant peace.  It was the peace of pipes laid and lying idle, of machines which did not turn, of vehicles which squatted covertly in hollows and caves.  It was a peace waiting to be breached.

Rowena slipped meekly out from beneath the ice-pack she had adopted as a permanent night-time companion.  Frequently of late she had found it necessary to remind herself of the day of the week; even, in stormy interludes, whether it was day or night.  This morning, she was certain, was a Wednesday.  She would remember, later, that it was a Wednesday.  Sun-glow bathed the little bedroom where she often slept alone now.  She dressed quickly, for the advancing year brought a fresh, invigorating bite to the breeze.

It was Rowena’s habit, in the early day, to don her biggest sweater and stomp the upward mile to the summit of Ben Adderhochie, from whence it was possible to see the mainland afar off in one direction, and to imagine the Americas, half a world away, in the other.  This sense of space and freedom excited her so much that she would make a little dance for herself at times, and, miles from sight of any other human, cavort around the top of the Ben like Julie Andrews on speed.  The breeze was exceptionally fresh that morning – that Wednesday.  Rowena had already become familiar with the long jetty Julian’s riggers had built, probing out from the north shore for nearly half a mile – but this Wednesday…..

Julian was already up and making coffee when Rowena, white-faced, threw the door open.

“Steady, old girl!  You’ll have the hinges off!”  He said.

“Have you – do you know what’s out there?”  Rowena stammered.

“Er – no, dear?”  Julian played along.

“A tanker.  A big, gigantic, huge, no – not just huge – massive tanker!”

“The Al-Rasheed, I believe she’s called – this one.”

“THIS ONE!  How many are there??”

“Well, we’re scheduled to accept six.  Although, if the weather breaks, of course….”  Julian waved his hand vaguely.  “Coffee, dear?”

“Yes please, one sugar.”  Rowena slumped into a chair at the big breakfast table.  “I suppose it’s a silly question, but what exactly is a super-tanker doing anchored so close to our island?”

“Oh, loading with gas.”  Julian replied mildly.  “They – we – have equipment to condense it: that way we can send it anywhere in the world.”

“We?”

“The Shahiree-Parfitt Corporation:  Prince Fuisal owns the Shahiree half, of course, but he can’t admit to that, being royal – wouldn’t be ethical.”

For some while now, Rowena had been sensing a growing weight upon her shoulders.

“Julian; are you quite mad?  Have you any idea what is going to happen when the mainland finds out about this?”

“Oh, they already have.  I told them yesterday.  They were asking about the jetty.”

“My god!  We’ll have the police, customs, the bloody British Army here.  Julian,” Rowena took a decision;  “I’m leaving you.”

“Are you dear?”  Julian responded mildly:  “You’ll need a passport.”

“A passport?  A boat to the mainland, that’s all I need, Julian.”

“No dear.  Sorry, but they won’t let you in.  You see, as of yesterday, you became a citizen of the Republic of Aga.  We’ve got our own flag, and everything.”

“You’re insane.  They’ll murder us!”

“No.”  Said Julian.  “No. they won’t.  The Republic of Aga has declared itself to be under the protection of the Kingdom of Al Flaberri.  Now the King of Al Flaberri (Fuisal’s dad) is a great mate of our Royals, and his country is strategically important to Britain in the Middle East.  He buys lots of planes, and things.  This is his son’s pet project at the moment.  If the British try to interfere, Flaberri will order them out of their naval base in the Gulf.  Very knotty problem, that, for the British.  Oh, and by the way, we also declared an alliance with Iran.”

Rowena burst into tears and ran from the room.  Ten minutes later, she returned.

“It won’t work.”  She said.

“Yes, it will.  Not for very long, but for long enough.  After the initial enquiry, the diplomatic counterpoint, a court case, an appeal, then another to the European Court (we’ve applied for membership of the Community) and the final settlement – I’d say a year, at least.  That’s a minimum of twelve tankers, even given the worst weather.  After expenses that will yield about a hundred and sixty million.”

“You said ‘settlement’”

“I did.  The ultimate answer will, of course, be for the British to buy the island.  With mineral rights, I’d say another two hundred and fifty million or so?  With a bit of skilled negotiating, we should be able to retain royalties.  We need a good estate agent.”

Throughout this explanation Rowena’s mouth had been dropping slowly open.  Her knees felt quite unsteady.  “Then what happens to us?  Poor old Aga’s going to be not much more than a slag heap.”

“I’m negotiating for a different Island; somewhere warmer.  The South Pacific, actually.  I think you’ll like it.”

“Come to bed!”  Said Rowena.

“Oh, one thing I did forget to mention.  It may be necessary to convert to Islam.”

“Come to bed, husband!”

At this point the relationship between Julian and Rowena might have turned something of a corner:  there is no more effective bandage for a wounded marriage than a seven-figure bank statement, especially if the draft constitution of your newly-adopted nation makes no provision for divorce.  Besides, as First Lady of the Republic of Aga, Rowena had duties to perform and an image to live up to.  The reason their relationship did not, in fact, improve, we shall now relate.

The fledgling republic got off to a nervous start. Constant over-flying by Royal Air Force jet fighters was nothing more than they, as residents on a Scottish island, had come to expect.  However, now the gloves were metaphorically back on the hat-stand these aircraft flew lower and with considerably more menace.  Helicopters kept appearing over Ben Adderhochie, a reconnaissance plane droned constantly in the background.  When, the next morning, a Royal Navy destroyer anchored off the bay, Rowena suggested that maybe Julian’s fabulous plan was not working.

“It’s OK,”  Julian said.  “I sent a warning against trespassing in Republic of Aga airspace.  They’ll desist very soon.”

And they did.

Anthony James Poulson was staring contemplatively at his bag of golf clubs one Friday morning when his senior, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office, stuck his head around the door.

“A word, AJ?”

“Certainly!”  said Poulson affably.  “Albatross.  Will that do?”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Not at all – that’s a very nice word:  better than eagle, for example, or birdie?”

“I’m being serious, old man.”  The under-secretary drew up one of A.J’s rather comfy leather chairs.  “It concerns this chap Parfitt.”

“Oh god, no.  What’s he done now?”  Poulson’s tantalising vision of the fifteenth at sunset began to fade.

“Well, it isn’t so much what he’s done, as what we haven’t – if you’ll forgive the grammar.  It’s been a month now, during which time he’s managed to turn around six tankers-full of high grade natural gas, and we don’t seem to be doing anything.”

AJ spread his hands.  “What can we do?  It’s a complete stand-off, as far as I can see.  Faisal’s slaughtering birds on some very choice grouse moor with our beloved Prince even as we speak.”

“There must be something.  Where is he selling all this gas?”

An awkward silence ensued.  A.J. Poulson seemed to have something in his eye.  “Well, to us, actually.”

“I must have misheard you,” the under-secretary said slowly:  “For a moment I thought you said ‘to us’.

A.J. coughed.  “Auchterwootie Refinery is just eighty miles south of Aga.  He gets an excellent price, and the trip for the tankers is so short they can run a shuttle service.  It works very well.”

The under-secretary looked as though he was about to explode.

“Well, it’s not our refinery;”  A.J. defended.  “It belongs to Swell PB.  We can’t stop them.”

There was a considerable interval while the under-secretary recovered from this piece of information.  At last he said:  “Do you have any idea – any idea – how ridiculous this makes us look?”

“Absolutely, under-secretary.  The King of Flaberri is having a bit of joke, I think, at our expense.  Whenever I put in a call to suggest a solution I get the distinct impression he’s laughing at me.  Usually he limits himself to one-sentence answers, and the sentence almost always includes the words ‘British Aerospace’.”

“You know the PM’s all for taking the gloves off and sending in a couple of battalions?  This Parfitt fellow wouldn’t have a legal leg to stand on, now would he?”

“Well….”

“Oh, come on!”

“Parfitt claims he has documentary evidence that Aga was not included in the Act of Union.  He says the last people to take up residence there were the Danes, in about 740 AD.  The island’s not part of any of the recognised groups, it’s never been named anywhere; and, at thirty miles, it’s outside British territorial waters.”

“That would stand up?  I mean, legally?”

“Parfitt is ready to test it in the courts.  The problem is, there’s just an outside chance that the European Court might uphold it.  Then we really would be in the soup.  Parfitt did come up with one solution.”

“Which is?”

“A pipeline.  It would get us over the natural gas issue.  The trouble there being, Parfitt wants a lot of dosh for it, and he has no intention of relinquishing his sovereignty claim.  He’s a curious chap,” A.J. mused; “He has friends in The City who are doing very well out of this, but I would like to know what he’s after.  I don’t think it’s just the money.”

“And a pipeline’s the best we can offer?  The PM is absolutely hopping about this, A.J., and your entire department is bankrupt of ideas?”

Poulson thought for a moment, acutely aware that his apparent lack of a solution was endangering his booking for the first tee at 3pm.  “Well, maybe there is a sort of a possibility:  it depends rather on just how underhanded you’re prepared to be.”

“Underhanded?  Dear boy, this is the Home Office – since when were we anything else?”

“Well then,”  A.J. picked up the telephone;  “Let’s see what we can do.”

Some days elapsed before this interview at the Home Office could bear fruit.  The fruit concerned, in the person of one Willoughby Lightfoot, had required transport from inaccessible foreign parts where he was found deep in some allegedly impenetrable jungle, half-way across an uncrossable swamp.  Willoughby was not too upset by the call to his mobile phone – after all, the crocodile he was wrestling at the time was, as crocodiles go, too small for his purposes.

In London, Lightfoot needed a day or two – to be briefed by A.J; to restore his hair, which was long and flaxen, and to manicure his nails.  A further twenty-four hours later he reached Scotland, where he made a few enquiries, looked up a few contacts.  Now he stood on the foredeck of a local trawler, looking across the one remaining mile of choppy sea which separated him from the Republic of Aga.

“Is he expecting you – the Parfitt man?”  a deckhand asked.

“He’s expecting someone.”  Willoughby shouted back against the wind.  “He’s not expecting me.”

Willoughby Lightfoot entered Aga’s small harbour poised atop the trawler’s bow like a figurehead, his hair flying about his face, his startlingly blue eyes focussed upon the little welcoming committee gathered on the quay.  A long leather coat streamed behind him in the evening breeze.

His reception, six strong, fell way below his own exacting standards.  In declaring Aga a Republic, Julian had needed security guards for just such purposes as these, recruited from those places on the mainland with the highest unemployment.  Even unemployed men with any self-worth had proved hard to procure – the working conditions were less than desirable, the pay wasn’t desirable at all.  Finally, Julian had approached a hostel for the homeless in Glasgow, discovering those who would consider anything if it included a roof to sleep under, regular meals and an unlimited source of booze.

Amongst such as these, Willoughby was Gulliver before the Lilliputians.

“Right, chappies – which way to the boss?”  He enquired, assuming Julian would not be one of the ravaged creatures who accosted him.

“I need ye’re paasspoort!”  said a slightly bent man with a hawk nose and a drip.

“Fine.”  Willoughby produced it from his shoulder bag.  “Now,” he said, watching the document disappear into the folds of the bent man’s uniform; “which way?”

“No’ so fast.”  A stout Glaswegian with an astonishing lack of neck chided him.  “There’s procedures.”

“Right-ho.  Proceed away!  What shall we do next?”

“The strip search.”  

If, at this point, Willoughby began to regret that he had made this appointment with Parfitt as a diplomat from the Home Office, he did not show it.  Instead, he regarded the little group of security guards with a look of amusement.

“Oh, you silly boys!”  He chided them gently.  “Why didn’t you just ask?  Now – who wants to be first?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.