An unsuccessful recipe from 1997 that combines potatoes and humiliation

greengrocer displayIn the greengrocer’s, Len, the owner, and his rake-thin son, Tubby, were serving other customers and so Vernon almost walked out when he feared he’d be cornered by the infuriating assistant with the shaky grip of arithmetic.

“I’m just looking, for the moment,” said Vernon sweetly as the man approached.  Playing for time, he dallied over the barrels of apples and pears, inspected with great interest the display of courgettes, celery and fennel, scrutinised some potatoes.  This must be how people pass the time at flower shows, he thought.

Len was now saying goodbye to a woman manoeuvring her shopping trolley out onto the street.  “Have a nice weekend,” he called after her.

Vernon’s moment had come.  He made his move.   “What are these?” he asked, picking up a small spud.

“Be with you in a moment, Vern,” Len said.  “Just need to get my tea.  Derek will sort you out.”

You bastard.  He’d been duped.

Vernon was still brandishing the potato and Derek was now prowling around it, a forensic look on this face.  “I think,” he said, slowly, contemplatively, as if working up to some great reveal.

Electrified with hate for every fibre of this man, from the top of his ginger head down to the tips of his be-socked toes in their sandals, Vernon knew what was coming and he tensed.

“I think this is what is known as a potato.”

You.  Monstrous.  Dick.

Derek had whipped the potato from Vernon’s fingers and was now laughing.  Not alone.  Tubby was hooting away too and so indeed was Len as he came back into the shop clutching a mug.  The three of them guffawing uproariously.  Vernon attempted a smile.  His lips were marble.  He tried again.  He felt his mouth purse into the shape of a cat’s arse.

“I know it’s a potato,” Vernon said, “but of what type?”

Of what type?  Oh god, a duchess.  It didn’t matter they were ignoring him anyway.

“Now we’re agreed it’s a potato,” said Hercule Greengrocer, “where do you think it comes from?”

“From whence does it hail?”  Tubby said.

“Ooh, very good, Tubs,” Derek said, grabbing the potato back from the pile and holding it up to the light, valuing a diamond.

“Lincolnshire?”

Duchess gone.  Starchy schoolmistress in her place.

“South America.”  The voice was portentous, its reveal something hugely clever.

“Not this specific one though.”  Oh damn, the duchess had returned.

“All of them did, Sir Walter Raleigh brought them here.”

“He was a sailor and an adventurer,” said Tubby helpfully, Watson to Derek’s Holmes.

Len’s turn now:  “He couldn’t have brought back just the one, could he?  Mrs Raleigh would have had to send him back to get the rest of the shopping!  Tea would have been late that night.”

Abundant hilarity once more.  No wonder everyone else went to Tesco.  Nobody spoke to you there.

Eventually the ordeal was over and Vernon paid.

“Doing anything nice this weekend, Vern?” Len asked.

“Friend’s funeral.”  This will take the wind out of their sails.

“Not Princess Diana’s, I hope,” Derek said, kicking off another round of laughter.

“Yes, as it happens,” he said, making his way out of the shop.  The duchess in full flight now, her voice imperious, but with the walk of a silly old queen knocked about by three greengrocers.

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Luxury Fish Pie

fish pieFinally, he plumped for one called Luxury Fish Pie.  Surely Elsa deserved a whiff of luxury.  As did poor old Nikos, for that matter.  At first, Vernon couldn’t gauge what was so luxurious about this particular recipe.  Certainly, there was no lobster or crab, and by comparing it with other recipes it seemed merely evidenced by the inclusion of a layer of egg slices.  An odd use of words.  Since when did egg denote luxury?  Not since the war, surely.  And it didn’t seem to add very much either.  Other than egg.  Fish Pie with Egg might have been a more honest description.

Once it was all ready, he layered the pie’s components into his second-best baking dish.  He let it cool and settle then gathered it in both hands.  He only felt sad he wouldn’t taste it.  Would the egg become something more after its time in the oven?

As he carried it down from his flat he ran through his instructions for Nikos: the temperature of his stove, the length of cooking, the level of crisp burnish on the top that should be achieved.  Maybe a little salad at the side?

Vernon was never to see Elsa again.  Nikos took it from him with a strained jollity in his voice.  His face was so thin, Vernon noticed, as he told him in advance of how grateful Elsa was.  (“She has told me off for letting you cook this for us!”)  Two days later Elsa died, and at the funeral Nikos made a point of telling Vernon that the fish pie he’d made was the very nicest Elsa had ever eaten.  (“Even nicer than that first one at Wheeler’s all those years before, she wanted you to know.  The egg was genius.”)  hard boiled egg ad egg slices

Vernon felt himself flush with pride.  He waited a tiny moment and when no further compliments were forthcoming he quashed a spark of annoyance.  Instead, he hugged his old neighbour, the first time they’d ever actually touched, and the freshly-minted widower’s quiff was as carefully set as ever, and Vernon risked allowing his hand to move upwards just imperceptibly, so as to have a tiny feel.  Welded hair and fingers met, just briefly, and it was as perfectly hard under Vernon’s touch as he had hoped.  He suddenly imagined producing a small, silver toffee hammer, and sharply tapping Nikos’ head, then standing back as shards of fixative and hair clattered to the ground.

Here, today, he watched Nikos feed the pigeons in the street and and not for the first time, since Vernon had made that fish pie for them both, he wondered whether it was too soon to ask for his dish back.

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High on a hill

london from westow hillWe went to meet our friend Isy and her baby Beti earlier today, in Crystal Palace where they live.

Although it’s perched high on a hill (with the sorts of views estate agents get moist about) I always feel CP has quite the seasidy feel.  I’ve never been able to put my finger on why but today the wind whipped about, forcing me to give up on wearing my cap, and that buffeting in particular reminded me of trips to the sea.  There too it is always colder than you expect and the wind always stronger than it is at home.

On a boiling day in London a month or so ago, I went to Brighton with my friend Anthony.  With our swimming togs packed, we pelted along the motorway.  The car windows were wound up and the hotter we got the more convinced we were that a dip in the briny couldn’t come a moment too soon.  The moment we left the car park however we both regretted not having brought a pullover.  And when offered an outside table at the Regency for our fish and chip lunch we said we’d rather be indoors, out of the chill, thank you very much.

Anyway.

Little Beti is a beautifully easy-going baby and we all sat in a cafe for a couple of hours and she was more than content.  In there we bumped into our friends Helen and Martin and they moved from their table and joined us.  How lovely, this all is, I thought.  High on a hill that promises the sea, in my bag an extremely expensive pair of sausage rolls purchased in the farmers’ market just down the way, a fabulous independent bookshop a few doors along.  I could live here.

Almost everyone I know who lives in London SE19 doesn’t have a proper job and I fantasised about all the coffee that could be drunk of a mid-morning.

Isy was telling us about a short film she’d recently been in where they had had to eat a good quantity of custard creams in one scene.  A woman also involved was very unhappy about this aspect of the shoot.  She was averse to custard creams apparently and told Isy that she had good reason to be as they stayed in your gut for up to thirty years.

Our conversation meandered about until it reached that apex of middle class worries.  What to do with the awful gifts your cleaner gives you?

While I was holding Beti and playing a little game of peekaboo with her, occasionally tapping her on her nose to make her laugh, Isy explained that their cleaner had embroidered what appears to be a toadstool as a present for Beti when she was born.  Obviously it now has to be on the wall in Beti’s bedroom and although it’s pretty rotten there’s nothing to be done about it.

“What’s her name?” I asked, always keen on unnecessary detail (see Brighton above).  I meant their cleaner.

“Beti,” said Isy.

That’s weird I thought.  A Bulgarian called Beti / Betty.  Seems unlikely.  Isy must have said err … what?  Beppe?  (My hearing, I’m convinced, is on the wane.)

Beppe sounds pretty Italian to me but who’s to say it might not be a Bulgarian woman’s name, too?  Out of everyone around the table, Isy would be the one to know her own cleaner’s name.

“Beppe?” I asked, just to be certain.

Somebody came over to clear plates at that point and, distracted, Isy never answered.

Walking home afterwards, with a gentle horror I realised what Isy must have thought I had been asking.  Maybe I’d been tapping Beti on the nose at just that point and Isy thought I was pointing at her instead?  Dear god.  I texted to apologise for this horrid misunderstanding.

“Oh that’s alright,” Isy replied.  “I just thought you said ‘Beppe’ because that’s how you imagined a Bulgarian might pronounce it.”

Racist, as well as crassly indifferent to your friends’ children.

No one ever told me having staff would be this difficult.

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Happy Christmas (six days late)

goodge placeThe sun’s gift that Christmas morning was to shine and shine.  Gallantly it made its way through the grime of the first floor windows in Goodge Place.  It traduced the fairy lights laced through Victor’s tree to a grubby yellow, and turned those around the gilt mirror almost invisible.  Walking into into the living room, Tom immediately wished someone else would arrive puffing merrily on a cigar: so seasonal would its smoke look suspended in the sunlight.  Instead, there was a smell of freshly-squirted furniture polish, and recently disturbed eddies of dust wavered in the air.

“There’ll be six of us, maybe eight,” Victor had said when he suggested they spend Christmas together.  Now, however, Tom noted, the table was laid for seven.

At the sight of this room: its table settings, its tree and the coloured lights, Tom sensed something akin to having arrived in a hotel on holiday. This wasn’t simply a place for lunch but he would be here for hours, in all likelihood well into the evening.  A whole landscape of activities and events might unfold in here of which complimenting Victor on the moistness of his turkey would only form a very small part.  Other than eating and playing games (he hoped there would be cards, Tom loved cards), there would shifts, developments and changing allegiances between those gathered around the table, mirroring the journey of friendships in life, but in miniature.  Victor had told him, quite sternly, gifts were not to be exchanged, but Tom nevertheless had felt he should bring something for his host.  In his bag therefore along with two bottles of wine, a bottle of the second cheapest champagne he could find, and a box of chocolate truffles there was also a book.  To counteract its gift status he had considered not wrapping it but in the end had decided that looked both antagonistic and lazy.  He intended to present it as a preemptive thank you.  He was holding it in his hand when Victor returned from the kitchen.

“Sherry?” He offered Tom a schooner, the type of which Tom had only seen in pubs with hunting scenes on the walls.  Bob then ambled in, silent as ever, never barking.  He sniffed at Tom’s shoes then went round and round in circles several times before finally slumping down, his jaw resting on Tom’s foot.  When Victor had taken Bob home as a puppy he had cried for the first three nights.  Victor listened as the little dog searched the dark flat looking for his mother.  He could hear Bob howl, then he would stop for a while and Victor would wonder if that was the end of it but before long he’d start up with the howling again.  The neighbours might start complaining soon, Victor had fretted.  On the fourth night, however, Bob stopped crying, obviously the small dog’s mother now forgotten to him.

“The table looks lovely, Victor,” said Tom.

“Thank you, my dear.”

They both admired it for a moment.  The moment being slightly too long.  Victor looked proud.  The candles were already lit, small sprigs of holly at their bases.  Tom had a sudden vision of making the Christmas news in one of those sad, tawdry stories the season specialised in.  Seven queens dead in table decoration inferno, Moira Stewart purred.

In the centre, next to a ramekin filled with cranberry sauce, squatted a ceramic brown frog.  “Ah, you’ve spotted, Toady, the mustard pot,” said Victor.  “An Xmas pressie from Diana.  It comes out every year.”

“Talking of presents, Victor, I know we said we weren’t doing them but this a little thank you, if you like.”

Victor took the book, looking quite serious.  “I haven’t got you anything.”

Tom felt something atmospheric change in the room.  “It’s not a Christmas present.”

Victor raised a doubtful eyebrow.  “Well, it’s very thoughtful of you,” he said, before placing it, unopened, on a small table by an armchair.

Something tugged a little at Tom’s sense of guilt.  His family back in Leatherhead would be eating smoked salmon blinis about now, not really so very long after finishing their Special Breakfast of scrambled eggs and grated truffles.  Throughout the year, everyone told everyone else how much they disliked the woody, decaying smell of the truffles, (jock-strappy, Tom thought) although no one ever told Dad.  So still they ate them.  An annual unwanted treat consumed two days after Dad brought them home, triumphant from a drive to a delicatessen in Dorking, holding aloft the small bag, his face etched with pride as if he’d gone out into the forest alone, on all fours, and sniffed them out for himself.

Suddenly, Bob barked at something.

“What’s the matter with you, you daft ha’porth?”christmas fairy lights

Bob’s jaws snapped shut on thin, Christmas candle-scented, air and Tom watched as a fly lazily flew upwards.

“Bloody flies.  They’re everywhere today.  Must be a dead rat under a floorboard somewhere.  Anyway, you calm down, Bob,” he said, gesturing at the dog’s basket.  “Happy Christmas.”

They clinked their sherry glasses; Bob closed one eye; and the fly settled, injudiciously, in the molten wax of Victor’s ‘Winter Wonderland’ candle, causing the flame to quietly sizzle.

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London Overground Wisdom

clapham junction aerialSomeone says something.  It appears to make sense.  Then by doing some actual thinking you shine a tiny light on it and you realise it’s utter balls.

“Never underestimate the power of denial,” said a man to the woman sat between us.  Good point you might think and then immediately change your mind to: What?

Rather than reply she was concentrating instead on applying thick and gritty gold eye makeup.  Maybe she’d heard this one before, possibly she was undermining his theory with her silence, perhaps she didn’t hear him.  It’s feasible: two weeks before Christmas the 22.44 London Overground from Clapham Junction was quite the party train.  I was loving it.

Also, she was essaying a variety of pouts and grimaces by way of facilitating her making-up so that may have been draining her cup of attention quite dry, too.

My final theory is that she was pissed.

They’d got on the train, seemingly together, at Wandsworth Road, and she’d been enslaved to this demanding makeup routine of hers ever since.  Her boyfriend, brother, pest, whoever he was, had a thin, handsome, aggressive, unappealing face, at sharp odds with the ludicrous things he was inclined to say.  Not having got anywhere with his power-of-denial schtick he tried something else.

“If 100% happiness for you is that you’d bungee jump naked but if you’re so unhappy even the prospect of bungee jumping wearing whatever you wanted would rate a zero, how happy are you right now?”

Schoolboy error.  He’d made no allowance for the person who is unable to express their happiness levels by reference to the internationally recognised Wandsworth Road Man Bungee Jump Scale, and so once again the woman denied him an answer.

For me, in a month when say most of my bills are up to date and the wolf isn’t hammering too hard at the door,  I like to acknowledge the event by bungee jumping wearing a pair of shorts but with two layers on my top half should the financial climes take a turn for the worse on the way back up.

But we’re all different.  Do please wear whatever you think is most telling for you.

I began to wonder whether they didn’t actually know each other at all but rather that he had just sat down next to her and proceeded to try and dazzle her with his chat.  Anyway, she was, at that moment, engrossed in the precision application of another slick of gold that lent her a foxy lady alien look so popular amongst the foxy lady aliens I remember seeing in episodes of Star Trek from the 1970s.  Keen suitor or whatever he was, he kept flinging out further nuggets but whether her preparations for that night’s festivities were a mere smokescreen, or indeed a genuine reason, london overground trainor she simply found him as irritating as I did she stayed resoundingly schtum.

Until we were at Denmark Hill that is when, having bundled away all her gold, she turned to him and said: “You are the funniest bloke ever, Steve.  You’re absolutely the fucking best.”

Peckham Rye hoved into view and as I stood up I faced them to see if a good look might unravel any of this little mystery.  No.  It was just a thin-faced man with words pouring out of him and a woman now swigging from a bottle of Chianti, her golden eyes screwed up in concentration.

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A new tomorrow

primordial swamp“Look on the bright side,” said the larger of the two beetles to his friend.  “Sure, I can see that it seems bad but really it could be a lot worse.”

“How so?”  Two of his side legs were now resolutely stuck in the solidifying tree sap.

“Well,” he continued, surreptitiously trying to edge back from the fresh ooze without being blatant about it, “you’ll go down in history, you’ll be preserved for posterity.”

“I’m going to die.”

“Yes, I’m not arguing with you on that point, but once that’s out of the way who knows what could transpire?”  He carved an invisible arc in the steamy air with a front leg in a chummy attempt to encapsulate the entire universe and the possibilities it afforded.  “People appreciate that kind of thing.”

“I’m stuck in this sap and instead of trying to get me out all you can chunter on about is posterity.  You’re unbelievable.”

“I’m only being realistic,” he said as he took another half-step backwards, “we’ve seen it happen to loads of others.  Remember Gerald?  Martha?  Bobo?  My suggestion is you breathe more regularly, stop fighting, and Enjoy It.”

“Enjoy it, you shit?” cried the trapped creature.  By now all his legs were entombed in this treacle-coloured gloop.  He had never given much thought to his legs before but now with only his head free if he squeezed his chin down to his chest he could see them all.  Infuriatingly the gloom of this standard-issue primordial swamp they called home only deepened around him and he couldn’t be sure quite how many legs he actually had.  More than a handful, for certain, and from what he could make out they struck him as pretty good legs really.  He’d taken them for granted before but now that they were freed from the burden of constant scuttling he could admire them for what they actually were: damn good legs.  Maybe his so-called friend had a point?

Catching himself before this rapture became too intoxicating, he looked up and although he hadn’t actually noticed his friend doing so he seemed to have shifted away from him a little, moving further down the branch.  “There was so much more I wanted to do,” he said, a rather pathetic whining having entered his voice.  “I hoped Lawrence and I might take that cruise one of these days or even that we’d choose a little place in the country we could spend our weekends and maybe, as the days go by, consider retiring too.  It’s all mad I know.  A beautiful cosy cottage made entirely from dung … perfect for two.” He suddenly felt hugely wistful.  “Do you think you could get Lawrence here before it’s too late?” he asked quietly.

“I could try…” his friend said but they both knew his heart wasn’t in it.  There simply wasn’t enough time.  “I’ll make sure he gets a message though.  Anything you want, however personal.  I’ll treat it in the strictest of confidence.”  There was a faint gleam of prurience in his words and so he tried to off-set it with a low-toned: “Really – anything.  You’re my oldest friend.”

They both knew they were seconds away from their final parting.

“What did you mean “go down in history”?”

“Sorry?”

“Earlier, you said that it could be worse because I might be going down in history.”

“Did I?”

“Yes,” he cried, quite annoyed that his friend was being so deliberately obtuse, “I haven’t got long so tell me what you bloody well meant.”

“Well … I’m … I’m not sure really, it’s probably a hunch, so don’t get your hopes up, but you know I’ve always had an eye for colour and form and…”

“Yes, yes” he interrupted him, quite frustrated by now at having to listen to this beetle’s self-aggrandising claptrap so late in the day.

“Well there’s just something about the way your body, and I appreciate this doesn’t actually feel great to you, but there’s something about the way it’s … err … set somewhat askew in the sap, that it shows your legs off to their best advantage, and I’ve a feeling this isn’t the last we’ve seen of you.”  His old confidence had returned and he emphasised the last few words with another of his universe-encompassing waves.

But by now the sap had formed a thin seal over the beetle’s mouth and he tried instead to make his eyes do the talking; his eyes had garnered a few compliments of their own, he recalled.

“All I mean is that I can imagine that at some point in the future -” he continued sweeping what little hair he had back from his eyes in a somewhat theatrical gesture which would cause his trapped and dying friend to experience as his final emotion one of deep, deep hatred, “- a time beyond our imagining that there might be creatures living in this forest more interested in – how shall I put this? – ornament and frippery than we are. They might think, possibly, that there’s nothing prettier than you … err … dead.  Sorry, I couldn’t find a better or less inaccurate word.  Dead anyway … set like some sort of jewel in this dried sap which they possibly might find a way to buff up, polish, make the best of it if you will and then – again this is all conjecture – I imagine thread on some sort of cord or chain and wear somewhere on their person.  Neck, for example.”

While all this fortune-telling was absorbing him his friend had quietly died, a tiny fragment of life in all the heavens that would never be replicated.  He had died feeling loathing but a sense too, mainly perceived through those arty-farty hand gestures, that this profoundly annoying, bumptious, self-satisfied so-called friend of his might, just possibly, have been evincing a truth about life, the sheer matter of existence, and his place within that incomprehensibly enormous tapestry.  He had died, if not happy, then at least with a little frisson of curiosity about the future.  amber jewelry

Exhausted from his musings on a time to come where his pals might become jewellery, the surviving beetle turned on his several heels and was just about to proceed along the branch when a great, hot, stinking darkness befell him, all scorching blood and iron.  In no time at all he had been grabbed by the long and strong and searching tongue of some creature much larger than himself and even now was resolutely crushed and starting to disintegrate in its digestive tract.  His thoughts of posterity had been for his friend and he hadn’t had even the shortest of moments to consider his own place in history; a mere snack, as it turned out.

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A little love story

Reflecting on the events of that night, from the comfortable vantage point of weeks and months later, when they were both very happy with the situation, Mrs Ryan berated herself for being oblivious to any clues earlier.  In fact, she never countenanced the possibility that there hadn’t been any clues.  If anyone suggested such a thing she would say, “I’m sure there must have been something but I was being very cloth-eared about the whole fandango.  He can’t have arrived out of thin air, can he?” which was an unlikely criticism to make because her hearing was never at fault.

Out of thin air was precisely, however, how he did arrive.  Mrs Ryan had gone to bed at her usual time of ten o’clock and had listened to the news for a moment or two, before tutting and turning it off.  Just as she was gently rubbing in her bedtime moisturiser with the tips of her fingers, as her mother had shown her how, a memory that always scorched a little as she had no one of her own to pass the knowledge onto, she first smelt the cigarette smoke.

How odd, Mrs Ryan thought, I can’t have stubbed it out properly, before remembering she no longer smoked and hadn’t done so for fourteen years.  She examined her sense of smell and considered whether it might be playing a trick on her, but no, someone was definitely smoking in the house, up here, near her bedroom.  Indeed, the smell wasn’t diminishing, the opposite, in fact.  Richer and riper it became, as if whoever was smoking was making sure he had his fill in case he would be too busy to stop for a smoke in the coming hours.  Oh god, her skin prickled as she considered this, what was he going to do to her?

With her heart beating fiercely no one could say Mrs Ryan was in the right frame of mind to assess the virtues of the mystery smoker’s choice of tobacco, so she surprised herself when she thought how delicious these cigarettes smelt.  She quashed the idea for a more appropriate one of concern. Gingerly she got out of bed, put her feet into her slippers without looking so she wouldn’t take her eyes off the door, shrugged off her quilted bed jacket and stood up.  Then she glanced behind her at the jacket, a pearly pale blue, and took in the sight of it as a talisman of some safer future than the one she currently anticipated.  She quelled all this anxiety by reminding herself she still didn’t know the brand of cigarettes and would like to have this information.  Yes, it really was delicious in the way only cigarette smoke can be for those who’ve put such stuff behind them.  She crossed her arms and went to investigate.

It didn’t take long.

She found the culprit in the airing cupboard.  A monkey was sat on her second set of bed linen, on the still-warm boiler, enjoying his cigarette.  Nearing the end of it, Mrs Ryan wondered what he intended to do with the stub.  Agitated at this aspect of the monkey’s thoughtlessness Mrs Ryan gave the monkey a hard stare and the monkey stared back.  The monkey and Mrs Ryan were looking at each other for quite some time and although she didn’t want to break his gaze, she also wanted to know what he had done with his ash.  She was due to change the sheets on Saturday and they wouldn’t be dry in time if she was compelled to wash them again now.  Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed the pack of cigarettes.  Piccadilly!  A brand she hadn’t seen in shops for years, and not only that but her favourites.  She felt more warmly to the monkey for choosing the same cigarettes she had spent so many years, decades really, utterly devoted to.

“You might as well come out of there,” she said, enjoying the residual warmth from the boiler.

The monkey clambered down from the pillowcases and the fitted sheet and upon reaching the floor brandished his cigarette butt at Mrs Ryan as if to say, what shall I do with this?

“I’ll get you a saucer, I got rid of the ashtrays yonks ago.”  She turned to make her way down the stairs.  Calling behind her she said, “you stay there, I’ll be straight back up.”  When she reached the bottom she looked back, wondering if for a moment she was losing her mind and that there would be nothing there, panicking that her mother’s illness had launched a new campaign in the family and she wasn’t even sixty yet, it was all so horribly unfair.   But this wasn’t dementia, she wasn’t mistaken.  She relaxed.

There was the monkey still, sitting quiet as you like, still looking at her, but with his head slightly cocked and, although he was smiling, his smile seemed not altogether friendly.  He’s probably gasping for another Piccadilly, Mrs Ryan thought, as she went to find a saucer.

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