The Return

I did not see the man who stole my shoes.

It was the day of All Souls, and I was crouching by my sister’s grave, trying to rid it of moss. In the giant graveyard of Olšany, half of Prague’s dead are buried. The other half are somewhere in the suburbs, or wandering unburied, screeching into the chimneys of the breweries or prowling on the gilded theatre roof. (A few celebrities are on the hill where the fortress looms, of course, and the Jews are enclosed in their separate stones.)

It was a dim, foggy day, dark even at two in the afternoon, and the ground was as sodden and spongy as a lung. As I imagine a lung. I had remembered to bring a pair of old boots for gardening, and when I reached the grave, I stepped out of my smart shoes and left them at the edge of the paved path, a few feet from the headstone.

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The worst Thanksgiving dish I ever had was a lemon and lavender cauliflower cheese baked by my Aunt Bristol.

She was an excellent cook. People always said so. In fact, what they said was: “Whatever else they say about your Aunt Bristol, she’s certainly an excellent cook.”

I remember that her cauliflower cheese looked very inviting, just like all the delicious dishes she’d brought in the years before. The cheese on top appeared to be browned to perfection, and although I have never loved cauliflower in the way I love broccoli or chard, I was certain that she had created another “pièce de résistance”. That is what my mother always called Aunt Bristol’s dishes, though she pronounced “pièce” in such a way that it sounded like “piss”.

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Tiny stories: romance

I publish all my tiny stories at, where you can choose whether you want a love story or not. But who doesn’t want a love story? I wrote these new ones today.

Young and dumb

We were twelve. I’m pretty sure the first thing she said to me was, ‘I don’t think I want to go out with you anymore.’

Please note

We communicated in writing for some years before we met. She wrote the small print for the hair products our company produced, and I corrected unclear wording and checked that all the side effects were included. She rarely made mistakes. When I finally asked her to marry me, she read the forty pages of terms and conditions carefully, then smiled and said, ‘just so long as my statutory rights are not affected.’

Continue reading “Tiny stories: romance”

Making a scene

She pulled off her top in a single, elegant movement and fell backwards onto the bed, dragging him with her so that he fell neatly on top of her. She encircled his neck with her arms and gazed intently into his eyes. She kissed him passionately, lifting her head in such a way as to show that there was now no going back.

But then, just as he was flexing his muscular biceps on either side of her body, she ruined things – again.

‘I’m sorry, this is just ridiculous,’ she groaned, wriggling out from under him.

‘Cut!’ yelled the director, and the cameramen sighed and exchanged glances.

‘Look, the whole thing is just preposterous!’ she continued, sitting up on the bed. ‘Why would she be sleeping with this useless no-hoper guy, when she has such a great life without him? Is it because he’s brilliant in bed, and if so, why do they have sex lying face to face under the bedclothes with him on top and her bra still on?’

‘Antony Charles is not a no-hoper,’ objected her co-star, Brad Clooney, awkwardly straightening up onto his knees and checking his reflection in the bedroom window. ‘He challenges her to be more adventurous. She was a workaholic until she met him!’

The director strode up to the bed, his little eyes looking as if they might pop out of his face at any moment.

‘Enough of this!’ he barked. ‘The scene is in the script. We are shooting the scene, end of story. And this is the fifty-ninth take!’

‘And with each take, I think of three more reasons why it doesn’t make the slightest bit of sense!’ retorted Geraldine Wise, whose professional name was Crystal Bright. ‘At the start of the film, she has a great job and loads of friends. Okay, I guess it’s not impossible to imagine her sleeping with this boring barman guy, but do they really have to get married three scenes later?’ She folded her arms over the expensive lacy bra, which was supposed to match her character, but which would probably be somewhat uncomfortable for a high-flying lawyer to wear all day.

‘He’s not just a barman, he’s a talented musician,’ said Brad Clooney plaintively. ‘After all, in the end, she leaves behind her boring job to go on tour with him!’ He made as if to get up from the bed and start the scene again, but Crystal Bright grabbed his legendary bicep and squeezed it rather painfully.

‘Exactly!’ she exclaimed. ‘Does that sounds likely to you?’

The wardrobe mistress, Shirley Thistlethwaite, marched up to the bed, shooed them both out of her way, straightened the duvet and handed Crystal her top.

‘Obviously she’s desperate to get married. She’s meant to be thirty, after all!’ Shirley said, in a voice which brooked no disagreement.

Crystal put on her top, and the cameras swivelled into position. The director gave the signal. She pulled off her top in a single, elegant movement and fell backwards onto the bed, dragging Brad with her so that he fell neatly on top of her. She encircled his neck with her arms and gazed intently into his eyes.

Written at a writers’ retreat – the prompt was “An argument which started in bed”.

My father’s favourite question at tea: “Would you like a forklift truck for that?

Yes. I would like a fork lift truck for butter, and a separate one for jam. And a ridiculously small piece of toast, so that the gigantic blob of butter looks even more enormous, and the huge slosh of jam seems truly mountainous. I would like a helpful, taciturn man standing just outside the door while I eat my breakfast, who will start up his fork lift truck at a moment’s notice, pick up a lovely clod of butter from the waiting vat, and delicately lift it over my piece of toast. It softly slips from the truck’s fork, because it’s been just slightly melted. Otherwise it might stick, and I’d have to help it along with my knife. I hold the toast, my arm weighed down by all that butter, and the man nods, climbs into the second truck and gently dips the fork into a skip full of homemade strawberry jam. (Or honey. He understands which one I want, without having to ask.) It’s trickier now: he has to lift the quivering mass of jam without dropping any on the floor, and then he lowers the fork with wonderful care and slips the sweet, bright mess on top of the butter. I open my mouth wide… and… take… a bite!

Germans understand this very well. It’s definitely a cultural thing. My great grandmother famously used a removal van arrangement: they unpacked barrels of jam for her each morning, and helped her tip them out onto her plate. Our English grandfather mocked her, thinking with relief of those years spent undercover in Austria and Germany: the only times when he came close to slipping up and revealing his Englishness were those interminable breakfasts, when they drank honey from enormous kegs suspended from the ceiling. (In the years of the Wirtschaftswunder, the most exclusive hotels dispensed with toast altogether.)

I was once in Cologne, at the kind of small, grown-up party where everyone stands and eats “nibbles.” That is, in England they would have been nibbles. In Germany, they are gigantic structures, each one around the size of a shed, consisting of whole salamis and round wheels of edam on a bed of cream cheese, all topped with a harvest of tomatoes. Underneath, invisible to the naked eye, is a crumb of delicious dark ryebread, to finish it all off.

I picked one up gingerly in two hands, planting my feet wide apart to keep my balance, and levered it towards my mouth. A polite lady said approvingly, “Das nennt man gut belegt!” Which means: “That’s what we call a shedload of a sandwich!”

I decided that it was time I made a little joke. My German was not yet at Grandpa Brown’s spy standard; in fact it was quite wobbly. But I sallied forth: “My father always asks, would you like a – a – what to you call those big vehicles that transport large amounts of … stuff?”

“A truck?”

“Yes, that’s it, he always asks, would you like a truck for that?”

The lady and her companions laughed politely, a bit puzzled. Outside, a row of lorries pulled up, bringing more provisions.

Only once, I beat those jammy Germans at their own game. It took a great deal of planning. I invited a select few for an English tea party. They were lured by promises of exotically dainty refreshments, as well as Pimms, which they were oddly taken with. First, tea was brought, and they tried diligently to protrude their little fingers while drinking it. Sandwiches arrived: small, triangular, on flimsy bread, and containing nothing but paper thin cucumber and a hint of butter. (As everyone knows, the bread must be cut thinly enough to make it translucent, and you ought to be able to read a newspaper through the slices of cucumber.) They were enchanted by all this fatless fare, and behaved as if they had an audience with the Queen herself. Then I took my chance: I showed them how to eat a scone with clotted cream and jam. I’ll always remember the incredulous look on their faces as they sank helplessly into a mound of sweet opulence. “Das nennt man gut belegt,” I said.

I kept the fork lift guy on late, paying him overtime, so he could use the truck to dig them out of the cream at the end of the tea party.

First published in the Catweazle Magazine