Monthly Archives: January 2015

Daybreak . . . (episode 59)

Image by 'Zirconicussi'

Image by ‘Zirconicussi’

January 31 1999

3A Hyde Park Terrace

Dear Mum

I have been trying to get used to being back home. It has helped to recover Ferris. When I collected him from my neighbour’s – and after such a long time apart – he was ecstatic: jumping up, rolling over, and half-enveloping my face with his long, exuberant, tongue. He is sitting by me now, with most of his head at rest on my foot.

Yesterday morning, I sat at my dressing table and gazed at all the accoutrements of making myself up (in so many ways) and which have gathered dust in my absence. It is an old-fashioned, almost ornate, table and its principal glass mirror also has leaves. And then I set to, smoothing and soothing my skin with foundation and little puffs of powder. There is something intimate about the scent of powder from a compact; perhaps it’s the minuteness of the particles which must saturate the air. And then I applied aquamarine eyeliner and mascara to outline my – still beautiful – green eyes. I laid these implements down, before turning to the applicator of lipstick. I like the way its metal gleams in the light and the tint of pastel, and brown, which highlights my lips. When I added the turquoise of a necklace, to the black of a blouse, I thought, ‘I must be complete now. A woman whole enough to construct her own style.’

And in the background I had playing – in an endless loop of sorrow and joy – the music of the ‘Sicilian Clan’ by Ennio Morricone. Its two musical themes run simultaneously. Strings play out a dark melody of grief which run like a thread through a counterpoint which bounces out its irrepressible life. ‘BOING BOING BOING’ go what seem to be springs in the background. As I played it, over and over again, it was the grief in the music that I heard first. It went down and down inside my head, until I knelt on the floor, weeping. I wept for all I had thought I had lost – in Austen – but is not at all a loss. It is a gain. And then I heard again the unstoppable joy and, do you know Mum, I think a set of springs may just be commencing to bounce in my own life.

The telephone rang later on and it was Ian. My son. Our voices metaphorically leaped all over each other. I think, for such a long time, I feared that he would turn out like Austen, his father, or Charmer, his grandfather before him. But thinking about it more rationally, there were indicators that this would never be so. When he was only six years old, I recall that his pet hamster somehow broke its neck and came flip-flopping down the stairs as I stood at the bottom. Ian was hysterical and as I tried to console him – looking into his own shining and aquamarine eyes – I realized, at that moment, that he was capable of love. My child, oh God, has developed the soul of an angel. And although I don’t know how this has happened, I am as grateful as it is possible to be.

On the phone however, all Ian could talk about was flyover construction (I have mentioned his course in civil engineering, haven’t I?) I must say I found it all quite hard to follow and it was only when he mentioned ‘heating cables’ that I thought of something sensible to say. I said, “But darling. Won’t it be expensive to heat a flyover’s cables all winter long. Are you sure the council won’t mind it?” But Ian flew on, with more esoteric details that I cannot remember.

Bye for now Mum

All love Harriet

P.S. Austen has not replied to my petition for a decree nisi; the 21 days have passed now. So the divorce will go through uncontested. It will be absolute.


A woman is like a tea bag . . . (episode 58)


January 25 1999

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet

My Dear Ralph

I came across the above quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt the other day. It is completed by the sentence: ‘You can’t tell how strong she is until you drop her in hot water.’

And this reminded me of my rise through the ranks of MI6 – and final promotion to director general in 1990. Of course, at that time, I could neither confirm nor deny that I was under consideration for this position: the Secret Intelligence Service was, after all, not officially acknowledged to exist. But exist we did, in the building known as Century House, which was located near Waterloo railway station. Along with the existence of MI6 itself, the function of Century House was one of London’s worst-kept secrets. We felt observed – and pointed out – by every taxi driver, tourist bus, and passing KGB agent! Even worse, the building had been recently audited as ‘irredeemably insecure.’ Constructed largely of glass – and with a petrol station located at its base – this was self-evidently true.

I have never been a showy kind of woman. I enacted my role as assistant director with analytical thoroughness and attention to detail, never, quite possibly, feeling fully at ease with my colleagues. I am not good at small talk, despite – at times – demonstrating a quite coruscating sense of humour. Amongst my strengths, however, was an imperative drive to challenge any decision which I felt was weak or wrong. This did not necessarily earn me friends amongst some of my (often male) colleagues. Don’t forget dear, this was still at a time when a woman’s – equal – capabilities could be resented and before equality of pay was introduced. And although I have worked with clever, strong, and decent men, there were, nevertheless, frequent occasions when I had to suffer a chummy paternalistic arm slung around my shoulders and words akin to, ‘Ho ho ho E! You don’t really think that do you?’

Finally, in 1990, the post of Director General became vacant. No-one applied because it was not then customary to do so. And it was not advertised because, in the eyes of the outside world, we were not supposed to exist. One was simply appointed. I still recall the shock I felt upon being told, as there is quite some difference between being one of a cast of hundreds – coming and going – and being head of an institution whose function it is to counter foreign intelligence and terrorism!

Matters were not assisted when it became apparent that the national press had got wind of my promotion, proceeding to besiege me with requests for photographs. I must admit pet that – after the initial consternation had worn off – I thought, ‘To hell with it. Let them have them.’ And that is how articles got into the Lambeth Echo (amongst others) to the effect that the Secret Intelligence Service had appointed ‘a scruffy English woman’ to the chief post and that ‘I might apply a lick of paint’ and ‘attend the hairdressers from time to time!’ I was mortified dear, as you may imagine. In fact, ever since, and certainly after I met Pom-Pom, I have never ventured forth without being immaculately accoutred or, indeed, disguised.

I hope you can tell from this Ralph, that I have not been the weaker sort of teabag. And that, when steeped in hot water, I turned it into the deeper sort of gold.


Aunt Evangeline

The Human Body Bank . . . (episode 57)


January 21 1999

301B Concrete Shacks

Hello Auntie

Thank you for your letter recounting your car purchase adventures! Did that car really sink in the river like that?

I myself am now disporting my new activity tracker, furnished in a padded envelope, from the UK Body Bank. I was initially quite confused when I unpacked it; it looked like you had to strap on a long cardboard tube, at right angles to your wrist, which inevitably would have got in the way of practically every action a human being has to undertake! However, I did – eventually – realize that I had to extract the actual tracker from the tube . . . The Human Body Bank, by the way, is a national medical research project designed to study the relationship that participants’ lifestyles, e.g. diet and exercise, have on health and longevity. I think around 500,000 people signed up to be studied at the outset. We had to show up at Body Bank HQ to sign upon the dotted line . . . And I suspect that, like myself, we all had at least six test tubes full of blood extracted from our arms before being permitted to partake of a coffee and a biscuit!

I must admit that I gazed rather suspiciously at the – apparently sealed – tracker when it first arrived. Did it, for instance, conceal a hitherto unmentioned camera or microphone within its plastic blue interior? But, after quite some moments of close study, I decided that it did not. I then perused the instructions. Apparently this piece of equipment “records information about the duration, frequency and intensity of all kinds of activity . . . It does this by measuring speed of movement in three directions: up/down, forwards/backwards, and left/right.” This stymied me rather Auntie, for the first activity I was planning to undertake that morning was ‘having a bath.’ No problem for the tracker apparently; it is waterproof. However, there is a certain activity I commonly carry out in the bath, and it involves some quite rapid back-and-forth movements of the arm on which my tracker is situated . . . Do you think it is possible for the researchers to discern exactly what one is doing at any one time, simply from studying the data recorded? And, similarly, after my bath, I was planning on sitting in one of my armchairs and engaging in another activity involving the frequent movement of cylindrical metal objects from arm to mouth? Would they know that do you think?

I finally got so stressed by these conjectures, that I decided to walk down the 251 stairs leading to the building’s exit and visit the public library. This, at least, is an activity of which just about anyone would approve! And I did, indeed, get about 100 steps down these concrete descenders before, unfortunately, encountering the resident ‘Ferret.’ This Ferret person – a lady of evidently high standards when it comes to actually being in gainful employment, said, ‘And where are going young man? Isn’t it somewhat bright and early for you?’ Honestly Auntie. Isn’t it just about the limit. I’m afraid I waved my wrist at her and said, ‘My prison radio tracker is due for replacement today. Toodle pip!’

Meanwhile, I think Cedric – my resident fruit fly – has died. And I miss him. I spent many hours studying the way he smoothed his wings with his legs and, indeed, groomed each leg in turn. How anybody can say a lonely fruit fly is a ‘nasty, dirty, beast’ I don’t know. I think, in his final hours, that he was trying to tell me that he needed more, or different, food – because he flew at me, buzzing, several times – but I am not experienced in the feeding of fruit flies, and I didn’t know what he meant. At least Mandie didn’t finish him off. And speaking of Mandie, our relationship is currently in a state of hiatus. She kept on saying, ‘You do love me, don’t you Ralph?’ But, Auntie, I don’t, and I could hardly lie, could I?

Your loving nephew


Until it is settled right . . . (episode 56)

image by 'gameanna'

image by ‘gameanna’

January 17 1999

3A Hyde Park Terrace

Dear Mum (in law)

Although I am now home, it is the moments I have just spent at Liverpool Street Station that are clearest in my mind. When I stood beneath the immense glass heights of the roof to telephone you from the stands, it was hard to hear you at first. All I could hear, instead of your voice, was the vast departures board and the constant clacking of its mechanical flappers. And then it was like I tuned in to what you had to say, and it is as if I am still hearing – and seeing it – now. You told me about the Bishopsgate bombing in 1993 and how the blast broke the glass eyes of the roof and how shards crackled through the air on to the people running below. And you told me about the Kindertransport of the late 1930’s and how the dark phalanx of Jewish children filed down the steep gradient to the depths of the Tube. Somehow those two pictures have conflated in my mind (the breaking of the light and the descent into darkness); they are the metaphors which play out in all our lives.

And now I am seated here at the kitchen counter and drinking a ‘Lady Grey’ tea. When I look one way, I can see the darkness of the hall and the pile of unopened letters resting on the door mat. And when I look the other – into the length of the garden – I can see the yellow phalanx of Mahonias marching away into the distance. I think of Austen and how he has not, evidently, crawled through the keyhole to search through my correspondence and how, even now, he is somewhere out there: still running away.

Tomorrow I am going to my solicitor, to see about getting a decree nisi. The word ‘nisi’ apparently means ‘unless.’ Unless Austen objects to the grounds – of adultery – the whole process of getting a divorce can go ahead. As you yourself have said Mum: ‘Nothing is ever settled . . . until it is settled right.’

Love as ever

Harriet (your daughter – in law – but not for much longer)

Mole Intelligence: EPISODE 55

Psychedelic-looking Citroen 2CV

Psychedelic-looking Citroen 2CV

January 11 1999

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet

My Dear Ralph

Sorry to write out of turn pet, but I really must tell you about my recent endeavours on the automobile purchase front! Having (sadly) come to the conclusion that the under-side of the Banger 0.9L was really too corroded to support the weight of any person unluckily situated in the passenger seat, I decided to attempt to fulfil a long-held dream: the purchase of a Citroen Dyane ‘Piebald.’ As you may know dear, these vehicles positively occupied icon status in the 1980’s (and beyond) with production ceasing in 1985. Really, I think I have been pining for one for years because, unluckily, the Service equipped its agents with the Ford Cortina Mk IV (in black) during the period of my directorship. And, although these are undoubtedly equipped with larger windows – giving an enhanced view through them – I was still oozing envy whenever a colourful Dyane whipped past at the lights. And not even my registration plate – SIS1 – mitigated this sensation!

My first test drive of a Dyane took place last week. The Banger 0.9L and I motored over to Bright Litton early one morning and it did not take long before I was ensconced behind the driver’s seat, keys in hand. Unfortunately, the car’s owner was a little busy and waved me off (in a completely unfamiliar part of the city) with the instructions to simply turn right and right. So off I went dear, into what rapidly became conditions of rapidly decreasing visibility . . . And there I was, no lights, and no idea how to turn them on. I did, eventually, work it out and off we went again. At the top of a very steep hill – and feeling a little spooked in the murk – I discerned a public house and decided to turn round in the forecourt. This was a mistake. The forecourt turned out to be minuscule and I could not turn round without engaging reverse gear. Of course, I could not find reverse gear . . . Naturally, pet, it is unlike a former agent to actually panic – but I must admit to a slight outbreak of perspiration at this point. The problem did, eventually, yield to reason – and multiple ways of twiddling with the gear stick – but, nevertheless, I determined to cut short my drive and set off back down the hill. I don’t know whether I had been breathing rather hard but, after a few hundred meters, I realized that the interior of the windscreen was becoming increasingly obscured by fog. Absolutely no idea how to use the electric windows or windscreen wipers of course! I did get back intact but it was certainly a lesson learned: do not set off alone without having the controls explained to you and without a map!

My second experience of test driving a Dyane, took place in the city of Middle Bit – and this time I went by train. On this occasion, it was a dealer who was selling the car and I requested that he escort me on a test drive. We got in and I turned the ignition. Silence . . . We got out again and he suggested that I went into the dealer’s while he ‘power-charged’ the battery. After about ten minutes had elapsed, we set off again. Do you know dear, we only got about half-a-mile down the A909 before the car stalled and would not start again! There we were, in the middle lane of a busy ‘A’ road in an immobile vehicle. I naturally offered to give the young man a hand in pushing it on to the grassy verge, but it was there that things took a downhill turn. As there was only two of us, we both got behind it in order to run it up and over the kerb. I think we may have run a little too hard dear, as the car sailed across the grass and penetrated the crash barrier. It was certainly unfortunate, I must say, that beyond this barrier was a steep grassy bank leading to the river. ‘GLUG’ went the car as it first settled upon the waters and then started to sink beneath them. We were mortified as you can imagine! I don’t know what the young man said to his manager about this, as I’m afraid I slunk back to the railway station – fortifying my nerves on the platform with a little nip of gin from my flask.

However, you will be pleased to hear nephew, that my third attempt to purchase a Citroen Dyane ‘Piebald’ has met with success. And I am now the proud owner of a vehicle with banana-yellow flanks, red doors, and a blue tailgate!


Aunt Evangeline

P.S. I will wing you over a photograph at my earliest convenience!

Nothing is ever settled . . . (episode 54)

Garden snail.  Image by Simon Howden.

Garden snail. Image by Simon Howden.

January 1 1999

10 Forsythia Grove
Outer Hamlet

My Dear Ralph

A New Year dawns pet and we must both hope for the best! I don’t know if the best is quite going to happen for the unfortunate citizens of Kosovo however, because violence is – increasingly – being reported on the radio and on television. I don’t know if you have been attending to these developments nephew? I don’t like to think of you continuing to be slumped in your armchair, in a state of existential despair, and concentrating only on the sustenance of your pet fruit fly. (At least if there is only one, s/he will not be able to breed!)

Now. Back to matters of more immediate political interest. The province of Kosovo, as you may or may not know, has been intermittently incorporated into former Yugoslavia and, in particular, into Serbia. The incorporation has been intermittent owing to the fact that a large part of its southern border is edged by Albania and the vast majority of Kosovan citizens consider their ethnicity to be Albanian. This then is a society in a state of ethnic and constitutional tension. The tension has recently greatly been exacerbated by socio-economic changes occurring within Kosovo. For instance, the population has increasingly had improved access to electricity, running water, health care, and schooling and – while these are all good things – they turn out to have had unanticipated consequences. The consequences which have finally tipped Kosovans into re-seeking independence from Serbia turn out to be a vastly expanded population and an unemployment rate of nearly 57 per cent.
This is very high is it not nephew? And it just goes to show that it is a weight of factors that tends to cause citizens to take up arms.

So here we are, at the start of 1999, with the Kosovan Liberation Army nose-to-nose with increasingly aggressive Serbian forces and the death toll – of both military personnel and civilians – is rising with no apparent end in sight. Indeed, under the leadership of the Serbian head of state, Slobodan Milosevic, it is looking only that the situation is going to accelerate in ferocity and consequential loss of life. What do you think should be done dear? Do you think the right of the sovereign state to non-interference in its affairs is sacrosanct? Or do you think that agencies such as the United Nations should use force to prevent large scale acts of killing of a state’s own citizens?

To lighten the mood somewhat, and to reduce what might have become a slight starry glaze in your New Year eyes, there has been a small development in my friendship with the Cosy Old Sock. While out perambulating the lanes of Outer Hamlet this morning, I chanced upon said personage walking his standard poodle, the Fonz. We were luckily near his own demesne and he invited me down the track to partake of some coffee. Well dear, he lives in a detached stone residence of quite commodious proportions. I particularly liked the antique metal bell pull and the electrically-driven chain of little red-and-blue men all chiming a repertoire of festive tunes, from its station on a mantelpiece. The house contains a lot of wood and terracotta tile features and I felt particularly at home with the muddy footprints of his menagerie marching across the armchairs. As you know, I myself do favour the rough-and-ready style of indoor living and the warmth that a lived-in look can create.

But, as usual, as I was leaving, he did strike a somewhat unfortunate note in his mention that his (deceased) wife sometimes used to ‘let him out’ to do other things. ‘Let him out?’ What does that mean I wonder? I did, rather incautiously, suggest that he might think all women to be domineering bullies and he retorted, ‘Quite right. I do.’ Oh dear pet. I, of course, am quite not in this category and I could – equally pertinaciously – have asserted that, in my view, all men are cheats and liars! However, you will be relieved to hear that, just in the nick of time, I managed to restrain myself from saying this!

I think tomorrow – if the weather continues mild – that I may embark upon some gardening in the home of some garden owners who have gone away on holiday. It is a very large garden and, who knows, I may well have the opportunity to lean on my spade and contemplate the innocent horns of a resident snail.


Aunt Evangeline