One evening in the spring of 1977 I found myself sitting just below the Alhambra at a small white table on a moonlit terrace opposite a wooded ravine in which feral cats lazed and tussled by a crystal stream speckled with orange blossom. It was shortly before my twenty-first birthday, and shortly after my marriage to the commander of a Russian submarine had ended with a small fire at Heathrow and an accidental threesome with the Secretary of State for Defence, and I’d really needed to get away for a bit.

I took my first timid sip from the slender copita of Pedro Ximénez in front of me and felt my thoughts dissolve in its rich plummy stickiness. Luis, the curly-haired poet from Las Gabias who was my partner at the table and who had insisted on ordering me the sherry – he really had been very insistent – smiled a big wide smile full of big white teeth and asked me what I thought. I told him it reminded me of being ten years old and of Father driving me to Elmers End in the boot of the family Humber. And then, realising that this probably sounded a bit odd, and that Luis almost certainly wouldn’t know where Elmers End was, I drew him a quick map of south-east London on the back of the wine list, told him that Father had bought the Humber Hawk from a man in Warren Street with a camel-hair coat, and explained how a few minutes’ blind fumbling had revealed that I was sharing the space above the rear wheels with two substantial woollen car rugs, both of which, though a little ratty, smelt intensely but agreeably of labrador. And, once I’d pulled one around my shoulders and slipped the other underneath my bottom, I’d been enveloped in such a heady, doggy fug that I’d become quite giddy – but in a pleasant, comforting sort of way that was quite reminiscent of –

But at this point Luis raised his hand to stop me, clicked his fingers at the waiter, and asked him to bring the Pedro Ximénez bottle over. He then began reading me, very earnestly, the text printed on the label, which spoke vividly of sun-dried raisins and solera barrels and the warm dry slopes of el río Genil but didn’t – and here Luis paused, stared at me very intently, and tapped the glass – mention anything about blankets or dogs or the boots of second-hand Humber Hawks, and –

Now it was my turn to interrupt. Laughing, I touched my fingers to his wrist, and told him to shush. Then I explained, in the broken schoolgirl Castilian he claimed to find as intoxicating as I was now finding his sweet dark sherry, that I hadn’t meant to sound critical, the alcohol had simply transported me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember the Spanish word for “transport”. The best I could come up with on the spur of the moment was “autobús” and this, not surprisingly, just confused him further. So I started to explain again from the beginning, keeping it as simple as I could.

“La manta tenía un olor muy fuerte,” I said carefully, “debido a Gussie.” The blanket had a strong smell because of Gussie – I was pretty sure that was right.

“Quien es Gussie?”

“Who’s Gussie? Gussie was our… Gussie era nuestro labrador.”

“Tu… labrador?”

Something had clearly surprised him, but it wasn’t clear what. So I explained that my own blankets had always had the same comforting smell whenever I’d let Gussie share my bed:

“Sí, Luis. Mis propias mantas tenían el mismo olor cuando permití Gussie para compartir mi cama.”

For some moments Luis just stared at me. Then:

“Qué edad tiene Gussie?”

How old had Gussie been? Why on earth did he want to know that? I did a quick calculation.

“Um… veintiocho?”

“Veintiocho?!”

“Sí, pero…”

I’d been about to clarify that I obviously meant twenty-eight in dog years, but Luis had placed his forefinger softly on my lips to silence me. Then, keeping his big chocolate-drop eyes fixed fast on mine, he let his finger drift across my cheek and gently squeezed the bottom of my ear, rolling the fleshy lobe between finger and thumb. I felt as though a thousand butterflies had hatched inside my stomach.

“Luis, I…”

And then I stopped talking, because Luis had just stuck his other hand up my sundress and I didn’t want to spoil the moment.

 

Later, though, I tried again to tell him the story; it bothered me that he thought I thought I’d once owned a twenty-eight-year-old dog – labradors only live to about half that – and I wanted to clarify the matter. Again, though, he cut me short.

“Trithity,” he said – in Spanish, obviously, but I won’t keep translating – “after tonight, I will never see you again. For you have told me that you must return to England, and I have told you that I, Luis, must stay in Las Gabias to look after my widowed mother and my little brother Fernando with his poor weak heart and our three-legged dachshund, Pepé, who has terrible stomach problems. But – mi amor – I know, deep in my soul, I will never forget you. How could I? You think any man made of flesh and blood could forget those eyes that shine like two pale blue stars? And those lips that taste of ripe red cherries? And that hair that so astonished me when, having told me to sit down under my uncle’s olive tree and hold on to something solid, you first took off your sombrero? No, that would be impossible. But, please, mi amor, please – I want to remember you as you are here and now, in this magical shared moment of love, with the Andalucian moonlight caressing your pale English skin and the night air around us heavy with the scent of oranges – not as a ten-year-old girl, locked in the boot of her father’s car, hysterical with fear.”

Given that I was, at that moment, spreadeagled against a grubby adobe wall the far side of a sharp kink in a blind alley on the lower slopes of Granada’s old town with my palms pressed flat against the cracked ochre stucco and my strapless cotton dress hoicked up around my hips, his sentiments might sound slightly disingenuous. It was true about the moonlight and the oranges, though – if I tipped my head back, I could see the moon’s pale disc framed by the jagged angle in a piece of broken guttering, and there was a crate of discarded satsumas by the bins outside the back door of a restaurant just to our right – so I think he was probably telling the truth. Also, he stepped back just as I was about to reach my denouement in order to take a photo.

 

Luis obviously hadn’t understood my story at all, though, for I’d not been remotely hysterical. In fact, as the Humber had rattled and bumped around the streets of north, west and – it eventually turned out – south London, that pungent canine bouquet had caused me to become not so much fearful and hysterical as rather drowsy.

In his defence, though, he was probably just slightly discombulated by my telling him that, when I was a young girl, I regularly used to share my bed with a twenty-eight-year old farm worker.

Whoever knew it meant that too?

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One problem with this memoir thing – I’ve just finished the first draft, by the way – is that there’s quite a lot of politics, and I’ve no idea how much I need to explain. There’s a long section about former shadow foreign secretary Nye Bevan, for instance, because Mother had an affair with him in… 1957, it must have been, as it was just after Suez… but can I assume readers will know who he was? I asked Charles, and his advice was to play safe and delete the whole chapter. Which wasn’t particularly surprising, as “when in doubt, take it out” is something of a mantra for Charles – I think he got it from his ex-wife Theresa – and not very helpful as I’d still need to explain how Mother came by the old miner’s helmet that proved so handy when Father thought he was a vampire and had the whole house done up with blackout curtains.

Bevan was MP for Ebbw Vale, and the son of a miner, so a miner’s helmet isn’t as random a gift as it sounds. “Something to remember me by”, that’s what he told Mother as the two of them sat in the Rivoli Milk Bar on Brighton Promenade sharing a last pot of tea and a single Swiss bun before he left for the SS Brighton (not a boat, the SS Brighton was the name of the art deco sports stadium just off the seafront which doubled as a conference centre) to address the Party faithful and offer his resignation – it seems he’d decided to jump before he was pushed after receiving a tip-off that the previous night, after all the delegates had gone, he’d been spotted sneaking a naked woman into the main hall. Unfortunately, he fluffed his lines, muttered something about not going naked into a conference chamber, and everyone thought it was a big metaphor about not getting rid of nuclear weapons, and cheered or booed accordingly. Instead of leaving the Labour Party, he ended up deputy leader. And, as Mother now says, the whole hoo-hah was completely unnecessary, as he knew the original accusation was a lie; she hadn’t been naked at all, she’d been wearing the aforementioned helmet.

Six months after Mother split up with Bevan, she and shadow chancellor Harold Wilson embarked on what the gutter press liked to call a series of clandestine sex romps. In fairness, Mother liked to call them that too – I think she thought “clandestine” made it all sound rather continental. Rather outrageously, she and government chief whip Edward Heath simultaneously embarked on what she liked to call a series of weekend fishing trips, and the Mail wasn’t alone in implying that having concurrent relationships with leading figures from both major parties made her a potential security risk – some kind of Christine Keeler avant la lettre, if you will though only the Mail offered her a new set of Arne Jacobsen plywood kitchen chairs if she’d do a photo shoot sitting backwards on one of them naked. On one of the chairs, I mean, not on one of the future PMs – thanks to MI5, and an over-zealous Saturday girl at Boots, they already had photos of that, even if neither man’s face was quite clear enough to withstand a possible libel suit (though you’d have thought the pipe and sailor’s hat made them pretty unambiguous). It was never clear whether the relationship with Heath was ever actually consummated, by the way – Mother thinks it probably was, but admits she has a tendency to drift off at crucial moments, especially if she’s hungry.

After all I’ve said, you might be amazed to hear that Mother was never really that interested in politics. It’s true, though. She wouldn’t have been able to tell you the first thing about fiscal policy, or trade treaties, or to point to Denis Healey on a map – she simply had a thing for powerful men which she was unable to control. Unfortunately, Father had a thing for helping dogs climb trees which he also was unable to control, despite having designed it himself – it used a system of clip-on collars attached to linked pulleys driven by an old outboard motor – and this meant he’d often spend whole weekends tinkering in the shed leaving Mother free run of the house. And Mother, being Mother, took advantage. Sometimes, if she was feeling bold, she might even go away for a few days; there was usually some element of confusion when she returned, but nothing she couldn’t overcome by replacing the wall calendar with one from a previous year. “You’re only young once, Tricity,” she’d chirrup gaily on returning to the house wearing nothing but an oilskin and sou’wester as the Minister for Food and Fisheries flashed his headlights in farewell, and I couldn’t really argue: I hadn’t yet started at St Dulcima’s, so was always around to make excuses for her and cook Father’s meals, and she was determined to make the most of me while she could.

As for the affairs with Wilson and Heath – I knew nothing of these at the time, being only two years old when they began. So when, in 1976, a framed photo of Mother and Gussie was clearly visible behind Wilson’s left shoulder when he gave his resignation speech, I was just as baffled as everyone else (“Who is mystery dog?” ran the headline in the next day’s Express). I really only began to piece things together years later, when I came across her stash of deck quoits and Huddersfield Town football programmes, along with a conductor’s baton and a pipe-cleaner model of Tony Benn.

I’ve always liked a mug of cocoa before bed. In my teens and twenties, I was slightly embarrassed by this, and often new lovers would tell me that it wasn’t sexy, or that it made my kisses too milky, or that they couldn’t be bothered waiting. But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve stopped worrying, because there’s really nothing nicer last thing at night.

Being a light sleeper, I was always deeply envious of my third husband Eric’s ability to nod off almost anywhere, no matter how unpropitious the circumstances. The concourse of Amsterdam station while crowds surged around us, the deck of the Poole-Cherbourg ferry while storms raged and roared, the outside lane of the M25 between Junction 18 and the Maple Cross turn-off while overtaking a horsebox – it made no odds to Eric. It was, in fact, his near-pathological need to snatch forty winks at every possible opportunity that had unexpectedly led to our betrothal.

It all started one Saturday afternoon in the summer of ’79 when, as a special treat, I took Vanessa, my parents’ labrador, up to Oxford Street. Once Nessie had had enough of the shops – she didn’t have a huge attention span, and wasn’t especially acquisitive – we boarded a Number 13 outside Selfridges and settled down for the journey back to West Hampstead, pleased as punch to have found no one occupying our favourite seat (upstairs front left). Eric – I didn’t know his name at the time, of course; he was just a random, portly, middle-aged man – got on a few stops later, by which time the bus was, like him, decidedly overstuffed. Somewhat reluctantly, I motioned Nessie to sit on the floor between my feet. With a short grunt of thanks, Eric squeezed in beside me, pulled his trilby down over his eyes, and immediately began snoring loudly.

Once we’d passed the stop before ours, I politely asked Eric if he could let me past. There was no response. So I asked a little more loudly. Nothing. I coughed. Still no response. I nudged him lightly on the arm with my elbow. Not a flicker. Nessie looked up at me with some curiosity but, now that she was on the floor and couldn’t see out the window, I’m not sure she realised that we were about to miss our stop; I think she was simply confused, and couldn’t understand why I was talking to myself and coughing.

We sailed on past Frognal station and up the Finchley Road. I really had no idea what to do. Several more loud coughs had singularly failed to disturb his slumbers and I was disinclined, even at that early stage in our relationship, to actually touch him any more than I had done already. In the end, given we were now well past where we needed to be, I decided it was probably best just to sit it out. He’d need to get off at some point and, when he did, I could simply cross the road and catch another bus back the way we’d come. It wasn’t like I was in any particular hurry.

Eventually we arrived at Golders Green station, and the driver turned off the engine. Still Eric hadn’t woken, and we were now the only passengers left. I’d also just spotted our clippie heading purposefully across the road to Lucky Break Amusements, so I knew I couldn’t bank on her returning any time soon to turf him off. There was really only one thing for it: I was going to have to shout. I wouldn’t enjoy it, because I’m not one of Nature’s bawlers, but… there really was no other option. So, having folded down Nessie’s ears and told her not to worry, I took a deep breath, and opened my mouth.

And then I closed it again. As I say, shouting doesn’t come naturally to me, and shouting at someone sitting immediately beside me just felt weird. Also, what was I supposed to shout? And what if I accidentally scared him? For a man of his girth and apparent unfitness, any sort of sudden shock seemed highly inadvisable.

And then I had a brainwave. I would sing. With a song I could gradually build up the volume, and never run out of words. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I cleared my throat:

“You’d better shape up…”

It was, I should perhaps just remind you, 1979, and the musical Grease had been the big cinema hit of the previous year. So You’re The One That I Want, John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John’s rousing last-act duet, really wasn’t such an unlikely choice.

Any professional singer will tell you how hard it is to project from a slightly cramped sitting position with an easily confused labrador between your legs. I did my best, though, and the effect was astonishing. Almost before those four words had left my mouth, Eric had leapt to his feet and begun to reverse-shimmy down the aisle, shaking his bottom and wagging his finger at me as I ooh! ooh! and oohed! It wasn’t what I’d intended, and those grand old buses really weren’t designed for big musical set-pieces, but we needed to get home so, as he sashayed backwards, taking Mr Travolta’s lead part on the second verse as he did so, I followed him down between the rows of empty seats, waggling my own caboose and interjecting Miss Newton-John’s tart rejoinders whenever appropriate. Unfortunately, in my nervousness, I’d set the initial tempo too high; we hit the second chorus well before we hit the top of the stairs and, when it was done, Eric immediately started on verse three, herding me and Nessie back towards the front of the bus again. Given his bulk, there was little I could do but acquiesce, and retreat – other than when the words obliged me to put my face up to his and trade lyrical banter, obviously. Finally we reached the coda; for this, we simply prowled back and forth, knees bent, hips gyrating, waggling our fingers at each other until the song was done.

“That was fun,” Eric panted, clinging to the back of a seat and giving the saucer-eyed Nessie a pat, “shall we do another?”

“How about Summer Nights?” I suggested breathlessly, having rather forgotten the point of the exercise.

“Summer lovin’, had me a blast?”

“Summer lovin’, happened so fast!”

“I met a girl crazy for me…”

“I met a boy, cute as can be…”

By the time the clippie reappeared carrying a giant stuffed white rabbit (I think this was when Nessie must have made her break – we later found her whimpering in the understairs cubbyhole), we were halfway through Hopelessly Devoted and, though my head was saying “fool, forget him”, my heart was saying “don’t let go”.

Eric had, it turned out, been to see a stage revival of Grease with Tracy Ullman and Su Pollard at the Astoria Theatre just the Saturday before as part of a badly organised stag night (or stag afternoon, given it had been a matinee). This explained why the songs were still fresh in his head, but everything else, he said, made absolutely no sense at all: one moment he’d been fast asleep and dreaming about turtles, and the next he’d been up on his feet, dancing. But looking for logic in such a crazy mixed-up world was, he insisted, a futile exercise; we’d bonded so instantly, and plainly had so much in common – he was especially excited to discover that I too often dreamt of turtles, even though in my dreams they didn’t usually have their little heads chopped off the instant they poked out of the shell – that every day we henceforth spent apart was a rebuke to love itself. Later on, overhearing him talking to his friends, I gathered that the big age difference between us had been quite a factor too.

Three weeks later, we were man and wife.

“Three weeks?” people used to say. “Gosh! How romantic! A whirlwind romance!”

And I would smile and nod, and not point out that I’d accidentally muddled October with August when I was booking it with the registrar – it’s the eights, you just expect October to be the eighth month, don’t you, because of octopuses? – and also 1980 with 1979 (I’ve no idea why I did that).

Fourteen months later, the honeymoon was over; Eric had booked that, and he didn’t have any of my problems with numbers or octopuses. And then, a fortnight or so after we’d returned from the Seychelles, he phoned me at my parents’ – I’d gone to look after Father for a couple of days while Mother was away truffling with Nessie in France – and said he was leaving, and taking the house with him. After I’d put the phone down, I realised I had absolutely no idea what he could possibly mean by the latter, and briefly wondered if it might be simply a ruse to stop me going round and causing trouble. I asked Father what he thought, but he was having one of his vague days, and couldn’t actually remember who Eric was. And, by the time I’d filled him in, we’d both forgotten why he’d needed to know in the first place.

[Charles has just shown me a piece on the lovely Smoke website about the lovely Yuri Gagarin (oh, Yuri!), and suggested that maybe this would be a timely moment to publish another little excerpt from my book, namely the bit about Father’s response to the Space Age. It’s actually not such a daft idea, so… here it is.]

In October ’57, Father had spotted a passing reference in the Ham & High to the recent launch of Sputnik 1. The writer, Father noted, seemed to think that the Russian satellite’s entry into low Earth orbit heralded the dawn of an exciting new age of space exploration; whereas surely even the most dim-witted delivery boy could see that what it actually heralded was an escalation in hostilities between the two superpowers which would eventually turn both Hampstead and Highgate into an arid, post-nuclear dustbowl. The Ham & High never did print his letter but, mulling it all over on his way back from the pillar box, he had a small epiphany; if Armageddon was indeed imminent then surely George Bendix’s role was to ensure that his only daughter – indeed, his only child, if you didn’t count the dogs, which obviously you shouldn’t – was able to survive the apocalypse and eke out a primitive existence amid the brittle, luminescent rubble until the time came for her to go forth and repopulate the planet.

Father was, by all accounts, very excited to have found a new purpose in life. He was also eager to let me know straight away – I was, after all, pivotal to his plans. Mother forbade him, though, pointing out that I was only two, and it would almost certainly just confuse me. In the end, they settled on a compromise; he agreed to wait until I was nine for “the big talk” but, in the meantime, he was allowed to make an illustrative mobile to hang over my bed. I actually have vague memories of this, but I think I always thought they were fish, not atomic bombs – largely because they had fins, and he’d drawn faces on them.

So that was that until the afternoon of my ninth birthday, when I found myself ripping the colourful paper wrappings from an unexpected parcel.

“Oh,” I said, “an egg timer.”

Father took it from me, and inverted it on the coffee table. Together, we watched the fine grey sand begin to form a cone in the lower chamber.

“That’s how long you’ve got,” said Father, “when the four-minute warning goes off.”

I stared at the granules streaming steadily through the timer’s neck. Something was bothering me.

“Doesn’t an egg timer take three minutes, not four?” I said at last.

“Yes, it does. So you have to wait a minute before you set it going.”

“But shouldn’t I be… hiding, or something? If I’ve only got four minutes?”

“Ah, but the point is, Tricity – you’re not actually going to need this. Because I’m going to take care of you.”

“You are?”

“Yes. You see… one day very soon, Tricity, the world that you’ve grown used to will cease to exist, and most of the people you know and love will die. Some will be vaporised. Others will be caught in the fireball and turned into lumps of charred meat. And others will simply be left to rot in the streets and be eaten by dogs such as Gussie. But I’m your father, and I’m going to take care of you. So you don’t need to worry about any of that. Do you understand?”

“I…”

“Good. Now, before we go on, I think your mother wants to have a word too.”

Mother, who until this point had been staring absent-mindedly out of the window, put down her G&T, patted me on the head, and explained, in some detail, how I should go about repopulating the planet. When she’d done, they both smiled at me brightly, as if expecting me to say something.

“It… it all sounds like it’s going to be pretty grim,” I said at last.

Father pulled a face.

“Well, obviously it depends on how close you are to ground zero – that’s what they call the point directly underneath the blast: ground zero. Anything in the immediate vicinity will be destroyed by fire and shockwaves, but…”

“No… I meant… the repopulating thing.”

Mother laughed.

“Well, it can be, sometimes. You just have to take the rough with the smooth. My advice is, relax and enjoy yourself. And maybe have some Vaseline handy. And a hammer.”

Merrily Punnett put up her hand. Mother looked at her in surprise.

“I’d like to go home now, Mrs Bendix,” Merrily said weakly. “But thank you for a lovely party.”

“Who are you?” said Mother.

Merrily told me at Brownies the following week that it was the worst game of pass the parcel she’d ever played, and that she was sure Father had rigged it so that I won the egg timer, just because it was my birthday.

I was talking to Charles about war the other day. Unlike me, he’s broadly in favour. He’s also very cynical about any sort of protest movement: “It’s just politics, Trix,” he’ll say, “there’s no point getting involved.” But then Charles is younger than me. Which means he doesn’t remember the Sixties, or the spirit of optimism and idealism that spurred so many of us back then to rise up and make our voices heard; we really felt we could make a difference. I remember how excited I was, for instance, when Sisters Palermo and Napoli, two of the younger and more with-it nuns, interrupted one of our bimonthly staff-student councils to argue that St Dulcima’s should organise a protest against the Vietnam War.

Our headmistress, Sister Sampdoria, listened patiently, then raised her hand.

“Sorry, Sisters, but let me just get this straight. You actually want to take the girls to the USA? Can you not just do something in Friar’s Square?”

“There are no napalm factories in Aylesbury,” said Sister Napoli, somewhat belligerently.

Sister Sampdoria sucked her cheek.

“Do we actually know that for a fact, though?”

“Or B-52s.”

Sister Sampdoria opened her mouth, then closed it again. Then she said:

“Sorry, but what’s a B-52?”

“It’s a long-range subsonic strategic bomber,” said Shirley Windmill, who was taking the minutes. She put down her Pinky and Perky notepad. “They used them in Operation Arc Light, Sister. The original planes were modified in Project Big Belly to aid carpet bombing – the internal payload was increased to thirty tons of conventional explosive.”

“Carpet bombing,” said Sister Palermo. “It’s absolutely obscene.”

I’m afraid I said something rather inappropriate at this point, and everyone looked at me as if I was an idiot. But it was genuinely the first time I’d ever come across the expression.

“Well, that’s as may be,” said Sister Sampdoria, “but I’m afraid it simply won’t be possible. Even if we ignore the financial element, the upper sixth have A levels in just a few months – they couldn’t possibly take time off.”

“We could do it at Easter,” said Sister Napoli. “Nobody ever knows what to do with themselves at Easter.”

Sister Sampdoria toyed with her pen, and admitted that this was true.

“Also,” added Sister Palermo, “that would give us plenty of time to book ahead and get a good deal on tickets. I’m more than happy to look into that side of things, if you like?”

Alarm bells started ringing almost before the words had left her mouth. It turned out to be nothing, though – Sister Bologna had had a minor mishap in the kitchen and accidentally set fire to her wimple – and, after we’d all mustered by the bins and then unmustered and made our way back to the library, Sister Sampdoria seemed, if anything, even less enamoured of the whole project than she had done earlier, despite Sister Palermo’s repeated assurances that it could all be done “on the cheap”.

“I think,” Sister Sampdoria snorted, “we all remember what happened last time you thought you’d got us a ‘good deal’, Sister.”

“I know, I know, I know I was wrong but – it just seemed such a bargain. And you can’t deny that we needed some new bibles.”

“As, of course, we still do. Because you decided to buy, in cash, two dozen boxes of knock-off New Testaments from… from some bloke who just rang the doorbell…”

“But I didn’t know he was just some bloke. He said he was a bishop.”

“Bishops, Sister, even small, unimportant ones, do not go round selling bibles door-to-door. You should know that. You should also, frankly, have checked the text rather more carefully. Some of the acts of the apostles were really quite unspeakable, and not at all the sort of thing from which we’d wish our young ladies to take inspiration, even were it physically possible. Which, except perhaps in the case of young Timpani Footstool, about whom I think we all have our doubts, I don’t think it would be. And all that mad gobbledygook about a seven-headed beast with ten horns – did that really sound like something you’d find in the Bible?”

“That’s the Book of Revelation, Sister,” said Shirley Windmill, “that bit’s all true. The beast looked a bit like a leopard, only with the mouth of a lion and bear’s feet. And seven heads. And ten horns.”

Sister Palermo stared at her.

“It had bare feet? Was that wise? What if there was broken glass?”

“No, bear’s feet. The feet of a bear. I don’t think it specifies how many…”

“Wait a minute, are you writing all this down?” Sister Sampdoria interrupted. “Because I really don’t think you should be. In fact, give me that.”

She snatched Shirley’s notebook from her, and tore out the last two pages. Then, just as she was about to hand it back, she stopped.

“What’s this?”

“It’s a B-52, Sister. Sorry, I was doodling while we were waiting for you to get back from being mustered.”

“And what’s that, in the background, all the nasty black scribbles?”

“That’s Hanoi, Sister.”

“And these things on the ground?”

“Dead babies, Sister.”

“And this is what you want to protest about?”

“Yes, Sister.”

Sister Sampdoria laid the notebook down on the table, and looked at Sisters Palermo and Napoli over the top of her glasses.

“Very well,” she said. “You have my blessing. Now, time is getting on, so – are there any more questions? Tricity, you’re looking thoughtful.”

“What? Oh, no, sorry, Sister. It was nothing important.”

“In that case, then, I think we can finally call this meeting closed.”

She got up and left the room. As the other members of the council followed her, I grabbed hold of Shirley’s arm, and pulled her back.

“Windy,” I said, “you know in Sister Cagliari’s class the other day, when she was trying to explain the parable of the four-and-twenty virgins?”

“Uh-huh?”

“Well… is that a real one, or not?”

Shirley gave me a pained expression.

“Inverness is a long way from the Holy Land, Trix,” she said.

“God, Trix, did you hear? Bridget Jones is dead!”

I pulled up a stool, and gave Charles, my agent, one of my looks.

“Bridget Jones isn’t a real person, Charles. She can’t be dead.”

“No, you’re wrong, it’s in all the papers. And she can’t have been older than…” – he stared at the calendar behind the bar; a meerkat in a deerstalker stared back at him – “well, than you, Trix.” He paused. “God, I can’t imagine how her poor agent must feel.”

“She doesn’t have an agent, Charles, because she’s not a real person. And also because she worked in… an office or something. I think.”

I must admit, I’ve never actually read any Bridget Jones, as I always assumed it would annoy me. Though I saw one of the films once, with Renée whatsit, and I’m pretty sure she was in an office. Hugh Grant was there too. Not that that proves anything.

“She’d still have needed an agent, though. There’s no way she’d have got the diaries published without an agent. And presumably she’d have stopped working in the office after the book took off. Hang on, I’ll check on the laptop. Can you take this over to the couple by the window while I do that? Table five.”

He shoved a rough piece of wood across the bar top towards me. On it were four lumps of cheese, some dark and rather solid-looking bread, a small pot of butter with salt round the rim and a grape. I toyed with reminding him that I didn’t actually work in the Kingsland Bar & Social, but in the end decided that delivering the food was probably easier. As I approached the table he’d indicated, though, I realised that some sort of row was taking place, and hesitated.

Charles was obsessed with agents. Sometimes, his conviction that everybody really should have one, no matter what their job was, was really rather sweet. I smiled, remembering my first meeting with him – during a period when “my sort of writing” was no longer in vogue, and I’d been agentless for some time – and how stupidly eager I’d been to impress. Sadly, demonstrating my ability to hook both legs behind my neck whilst eating a slice of Danish apple cake had simply scared the wits out of him, and got us both thrown out of the National Gallery café.

“Publishing,” he’d told me breathlessly once we were safely outside on Trafalgar Square, “might be increasingly fixated on youth and glamour, Miss Bendix, but you, you’ve knocked around a bit, you’ve got an oeuvre… it’s only the bushy-tailed kids straight out of the creative writing schools who need to have gimmicks and jump through hoops.”

“You think?”

“Yes… in fact, I wish now I’d said something when I first saw you’d brought one with you.”

Then, clearly feeling embarrassed on my behalf – as well as on his own – Charles had added that, despite being taken off-guard, he’d actually been rather impressed by my performance, and was now wondering how it was I’d come to be so extraordinarily pliant. So I’d explained how the nuns at St Dulcima’s had occasionally had crises of faith, usually brought on by watching something on television that seemed to jar with their beliefs – Star Trek, say, or The Magic Roundabout – and how, during one particularly major episode of uncertainty following David Bowie’s performance of Space Oddity on Top of the Pops (“planet Earth is blue,” some were to be heard muttering in the cloisters, “and maybe there really is nothing we can do…”), they’d decided to instruct us in some other religions. “Just to play safe”, Sister Lazio had said at morning assembly, crossing herself and then, slightly self-consciously, adding: “Oy vay. Ommmmmm.”

“It was Sister Lazio who had the pet goat?”

I still can’t imagine why I would have told Charles this so soon after meeting him, but I remember thinking that it boded well that he’d been paying attention.

“That’s right. But she was really just covering all bases. Anyway, as part of our study of Eastern religions, we did a lot of yoga. And obviously I’d also done some basic physical training with MI6, so…”

“Sorry, what? You trained with MI6? When you were at school?”

So then I’d told him all about the whole child spy thing, and my marriage, some years later, to Sergei Bulganov of the Russian Naval Command.

“Sergei was very appreciative of the gifts I’d acquired in Sister Udinese’s yoga classes; he said he’d never really known the best way to approach women but, with me, it didn’t actually matter.”

As we’d been speaking, I’d become increasingly aware that a small crowd had been gathering around us. Finally, Charles had noticed them too.

“Um, Miss Bendix, I think perhaps you should take this back…”

As he’d lifted the hoop to pass it to me, everyone had cheered. And Charles had frozen, the hoop poised vertically in mid-air, just below his shoulder.

Just in front of me.

I would barely even need a run-up.

It wasn’t as if it was on fire or anything.

The applause as I’d landed was, it has to be said, deafening.

I made over fifty pounds that afternoon.

Although Charles had taken 15%, as per the terms of the contract he’d urged me to sign immediately after my first jump, using as witnesses a middle-aged man from Arkansas and a young woman sprayed silver who’d insisted on pretending to be a robot.

It all seemed so long ago.

I suddenly realised that the man at table five was staring at me.

“Yes? What is it?”

I proffered the food.

“You ordered the… cheese plank?”

“The rustic platter?”

“Yes, probably.” I placed it on the table between them. “Which of you is having the grape?”

“What? Oh, just put it down, will you? No, actually, she can have it. Otherwise I’ll never hear the end of it.”

I placed the ensemble on the table between them and turned it so that the grape was at the end nearest his companion.

“Can I get you anything else? Mustard? Branston pickle?”

They ignored me.

“Marriage guidance counsellor?” I muttered, walking back across the bar to Charles, who clearly had important information he was itching to impart.

“I was wrong, Trix, it’s not Bridget, it’s her husband. Look, here’s a photo in The Mail.”

He turned the laptop round so that I could see the screen.

“Well, there you are, Charles. By the way, I think that couple over there might… Charles, are you listening?”

“Doesn’t say how old he was. Probably not much older than me, though, if this is a recent photo.”

“Yes, Charles.”

“He’ll catch his death, wandering about in a wet shirt like that.”

“Oh, for God’s sake, Charles!”

“What? Oh, yes, bad taste. Sorry.” He closed the lid of the laptop. “Looks a bit like me, don’t you think?”

“No, not really.”

But Charles was staring thoughtfully at the lemonade hose.

“Did you see this, Tricity?” said Charles, waving a slightly damp copy of the Evening Standard at me. “It turns out JK’s been writing books under other names – and no one knew! It’s been brilliant publicity for her. And it’s got me thinking: what about if you…”

I gave him my best scowl. Ms Rowling was something of a touchy subject – and I was regularly amazed by Charles’s ability to forget. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the woman personally – well, other than the whole hair thing, obviously – but absolutely any mention of her tends to make me feel slightly nauseous, as it reminds me of all those months I spent retyping my boy-wizard story from scratch after Charles left the original manuscript in a café in Edinburgh some time in the early nineties… only to be told, when I was finally done, that boy wizards were rather old hat, thanks to you-know-who. Charles, typically, had been totally unsympathetic – or “professional”, as he calls it – pointing out that he’d never wanted me to write it in the first place. Which was true, but… hardly consoling.

“You shouldn’t be wasting your time doing kids’ books, Trix,” he’d said when I’d first suggested the idea three years earlier, “kids aren’t your thing. Besides, don’t you remember what happened last time you…”

“… it was a highly moral tale, Charles, drawing on my own experiences as a brownie. Daisy Duckpond was a little girl who loved to help people, and never said no when anyone asked, no matter what scrapes it led her into – it was as simple as that. YOU were the one who didn’t tell the jacket designer it was a children’s book. It was a totally inappropriate image for ages five to seven. But that’s beside the point. What I’ve got in mind is totally different to Nice Girls Always Say Yes. It’s about this boy wizard, Peregrine Peake, and…”

“Peregrine Peake? Bit of a weird name, Trix.”

“People in children’s books always have weird names, Charles, it’s how children remember them. Children aren’t very bright. But they like euphony. No one in real life would be called Billy Bunter, but children pick up on the alliteration.”

“Willy Wonka.”

“Exactly. Billy Bunter, Willy Wonka. Daisy Duckpond, Peregrine Peake.”

“Thomas the Tank Engine.”

“Well, that’s a bit different, because Thomas is a tank engine. It’s not really a surname.”

Charles had paused, then gone back to washing glasses.

“Mmmm, I suppose so. And he has a special gift, yeah?”

“Not really – unless you count being able to talk. But that’s more of a stylistic thing – in Thomas’s world, all the locomotives can speak, and some of the coaches too. It’s not naturalistic, but it’s internally consistent.”

“No, this… Peregrine Plank.”

“Peake. Oh, yes. Like I say, he’s a wizard. But he only finds out when he’s hauled off to a secret wizarding school.”

“A secret… oh, I don’t know, Trix. It all sounds a bit far-fetched.”

Not for the first time, I’d briefly wondered why on earth I employed Charles as an agent. Obviously having to spend a large chunk of his week working part-time in a bar on the Balls Pond Road didn’t make his job particularly easy, especially in book-fair season, but I partly blamed myself  for that – I was, after all, his only author – and tried not to hold it against him. His regular lack of enthusiasm for so many of my projects was, though, something I found more difficult to deal with.

Which is probably why I’d ignored him, and gone ahead anyway. And the rest, as we all know, was one of the great publishing success stories of our time. Sadly, though, it was her story, not mine. Her with the hair.

I handed Charles back the newspaper.

“No, Charles. I am not writing my next book under a nom-de-plume.”

“But… why not, Trix? Leave people guessing. Then, once it’s been out a few months, we…”

I stared at him.

“Charles,” I said, “it’s an autobiography.”

“I’ve told you before,” Father said belligerently, “I didn’t know they were monkeys.”

“But it’s called Monkeyworld,” I wailed, “what on earth did you think they… oh, heck, is that my phone?”

It was, and on the other end of the line was Charles, my agent, wanting to know why I hadn’t written anything for this blog in such an absolute age.

“Because, Charles,” I said, “I have more important things to be doing. Like finishing these damn memoirs you also keep hassling me about.”

“So… is that what you’re up to? Now, I mean?”

“Yes.”

“It’s just… well, it sounds like you’re at the zoo.”

“Zoo? Oh, no, don’t worry, that’s just Father.”

“Oh, Trix, I’m so sorry, is he…” Charles somewhat pointlessly dropped his voice to a whisper, “is he… having a bad day?”

“Not particularly, no.”

“But he’s making monkey noises.”

“I know.”

Suddenly Charles was all sympathetic, solicitous.

“You know, Trix, if you ever need help…”

I held the phone away from my ear. For some time now, Charles has been convinced that Father is suffering from a severe form of degenerative dementia. It’s true that both Mother and I had once been equally convinced of the matter but, whereas we’d eventually realised we were wrong – by the end of 1968 at the latest, I’d say – Charles remains oddly unshakeable in his belief that Father’s condition is real, and worsening by the week. Then again, Charles only met Father for the first time last December – when I accidentally invited him over for Christmas dinner – and immediately assumed he was witnessing the final stages of some awful mental catastrophe, so I suppose I mustn’t be too hard on him.

“No, Charles, really – he’s fine. In fact, you interrupted me in the middle of interviewing him – I’ve just started work on the Monkeyworld chapter, and wanted to check some details.”

“You’ve only got as far as Monkeyworld? I thought you were nearly finished?”

“I am nearly finished. But, as I keep telling you, I’m not using a conventional linear structure. Because my life has not been conventional. Or linear. Or structured.”

“I thought it was because you kept your diaries in old exercise books and forgot to date the entries?”

“Well, yes, that too. Time is just so… unimportant, when you’re young.”

“But you still do it, and you’re in your fifties now.”

“Yes, and sometimes it’s nice not to be reminded. But… look, what matters is that I’d be a lot closer to finishing if you didn’t keep distracting me with nonsense about blogs.”

“And I keep telling you, Tricity, that we’ll sell a lot more copies if you have a strong web presence. The first thing publishers want to know these days is how many people like you, and who’s following you.”

“If anyone is following me, Charles, rest assured that I shall tell the police, not Harper Collins. Unless I want them to follow me, obviously, in which case I shall just keep quiet and play it by ear.”

I paused, suddenly overwhelmed by a huge wave of nostalgia, and then a small splash of regret. As I shook myself dry, I realised Charles was speaking again.

“Look, Trix, if you’re in the middle of all the Monkeyworld stuff, then why not do a short version for the blog? A teaser, they call it – you know, like a film trailer. It’s a really good marketing angle. Just focus on the kidnap and the bit where he set fire to the rope ladder just as the big monkey was…”

“Or, here’s another thought, maybe I could just relay the details of this conversation we’re having? Let people know the sort of pressure you’re putting me under? How about that?”

There was silence.

“Charles?”

I hung up. But, heck, why not? That sounds like just as good a “marketing angle” to me. And I really have got better things to do with my time. Right now, for instance, I need to pin Father down on how long he actually spent in the trees, because neither Mother nor I can remember. And why would we? For the first few days, we’d both just assumed he was still in his shed. Suddenly seeing him on the 9 O’Clock News like that had left us both momentarily speechless; me because no young woman likes to see her father looking so, well, feral… and Mother because hearing Angela Rippon slowly say the words “powerful, dominant, silver-haired male”, with that ill-disguised catch in her otherwise impeccable BBC diction, had brought back bad memories.

Though this time, of course, Miss Rippon had been talking about the monkey.

Yet again, Charles is hassling me to write a piece for this [pulls face] blog, rather than get on with the autobiography. Apparently, it keeps me in the public eye. “Charles,” I said, “I think a nice display of hardbacks with my photo on the cover in the window of Dillons on Gower Street is a rather better way of keeping me in the public eye, and the sooner you stop distracting me, the sooner that will happen.” But it turns out Dillons doesn’t exist any more, not on Gower Street or anywhere else, a fact which Charles used as yet more proof of how out-of-touch I was.

Anyway. His point seems to be that Smoke magazine is having some sort of relaunch, and that this will [pulls same face] “bring us lots more traffic”.

“Just tell them what you’ve been up to, Trix,” he says, “it doesn’t have to be anything interesting or well-written – it’s just a flipping blog.”

He didn’t say flipping – that was me.

So, what have I been up to? Well, mostly I’ve been helping to organise Father’s funeral. Frankly, I think it’s a lot of unnecessary palaver, but he likes to have a complete rehearsal every few years, just to check we’re all up to speed, and… after that awful run-through in the eighties when no one bothered to turn up, and he was left alone in the coffin with only Nessie, our new labrador, for company, we’ve always gone along with it, if only for Nessie’s sake, as the poor thing was absolutely distraught, and ended up trying to eat him. Also, for men of Father’s generation – men who have first-hand experience of the War, and maybe later of owning a second-hand Ford Zephyr – death has been an ever-present, and we have to take that into account.

When hostilities broke out, Father – again like many of his generation – lied about his age. Unfortunately, despite the rolled-up trousers and cap he’d snatched from a passing schoolboy while on his way to the interview, nobody believed he was thirteen, and he was forced to join the RAF. After that, though, he never looked back and, awful though it sounds to be trying to find silver linings in such dark clouds, I think the war truly was the making of him. Which in turn, of course, affected us all.

Once, Mother even went so far as to say that, if it wasn’t for Hitler, I wouldn’t be here today; though that just confused me, to be honest, as Mother was too young to have met Hitler – her elder sister Daphne had, but only for one drink after work, and she was adamant they hadn’t got up to anything, as he’d been really shouty and she didn’t speak German – but, when I tried to get her to explain, Uncle Arthur butted in and, having first carefully relieved Mother of her Dubonnet, asked me if I’d like to come and feed the rabbits, to which I obviously said yes, as I had no idea we had any. And, of course, it turned out we didn’t – he’d just said the first thing that came into his head. Standing there in the middle of the garden in the rain holding blackened carrots and bits of limp lettuce we’d rescued from the compost heap, I think we were both equally embarrassed, and the matter was never spoken of again.

He wasn’t my real uncle, by the way, he was Father’s old wartime flying buddy, but he used to come round a lot and take me out for treats, so I called him Uncle.

But, yes, Father has always been somewhat obsessed with his own death. I think, really, he just wants to know that he’ll have a proper, respectful, dignified send-off. That’s why he commissioned that bespoke dog-hat and veil for Nessie.

Once, back in the nineties, he got it into his head that he wanted to leave his body to science, and set about contacting the relevant authorities. Unfortunately, it turned out that Father’s idea of leaving his body to science was to have it on permanent display in the main hall of the Natural History Museum, on some sort of low plinth just in front of the diplodocus, and he was most put out when the Head of Acquisitions told him this wouldn’t be possible. Father then tried Hampstead Library, to see if they’d be interested, but they weren’t.

“I suppose we could just set aside a room in the house,” he said dejectedly one afternoon. “My study, for instance. What do you think, Tricity?” He stroked his chin, clearly warming to the idea. “At least I’d be in my natural habitat. Like those stuffed squirrels you see sitting on tree stumps.”

I grimaced. Not because I found the idea of Father’s embalmed corpse being the centrepiece of some morbid diorama particularly unsettling – he’d had worse schemes – but because his words had reminded me of an embarrassing experience I’d had only a few weeks earlier, at the funeral of one of my former lovers, Captain Sergei Bulganov of the Russian Naval Command. (I’ve told this story before, I know, but… I believe the relevant issue of Smoke is now out-of-print, and I need to include it in the autobiography, so… telling it again will help me get my thoughts in order.)

The trouble started when I went to pay my respects to Sergei’s mother – who, because Sergei had been a double-agent (or possibly triple-agent – I’d not seen him for nearly twenty years, and rather lost track of just how deceitful he could be), lived not in a tower block in the Moscow suburbs, as I’d always believed, but in a large house on Croxted Road in West Dulwich.

The front door was wide open when I arrived, so I went straight in. To my right was the lounge, and in the lounge a thin young man in black was standing awkwardly beside an open coffin laid across a pair of wooden trestles, looking faintly nauseous.

“Seeing him here like this,” he whispered when he saw me, “so stiff and cold, just makes everything – life, whatever – seem so… oh, I don’t know… just so bloody pointless. And… God, I know I shouldn’t say this, but – dead bodies really give me the creeps.”

“You get used to them after a while, vicar,” I said, squinting at Sergei’s waxy face, “believe me.”

“I wish I could, Mrs… sorry, I don’t…”

“Bendix. Tricity Bendix. Miss.”

“Oh, Miss Bendix! How lovely to meet you! Mrs Bulganov was telling me earlier how much you meant to her son.”

“Really? To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much she knew about me, and I was a bit nervous about coming here, but – well, I needed to find out about the funeral. You can probably tell me about that, though, can’t you?”

“Actually, no – that’s why I’m here, to go through all the details. He’s being buried in our churchyard, I know that much, but – to be honest, this is my first parish, and I’m really not sure how it all works, whether I just tell the sexton to find an empty corner, or…” – he caught my blue-eyed gaze across the coffin, and seemed to redden – “might there be a family plot of some sort that needs looking into first, do you think?”

“Goodness, it hadn’t occurred to me… I just assumed he was shot by the Americans. Or possibly the Russians. But I know he once had his brother thrown under a tram in Minsk after some argument over a woman, so… it’s possible.” I paused. “I often wondered whether he’d ever do that for me, you know. It wouldn’t need to be a tram.”

“I’m sure he would have, Miss Bendix – he was, Mrs Bulganov says, very fond of you, which is why he… why she wanted you here.” He seemed to be growing increasingly uncomfortable and, unless I was imagining things – which I try not to do when I’m in company, as it can get confusing – his gaze had shifted rather obviously from the body in the coffin to the one beneath my unbuttoned coat. He also seemed to be breathing more and more heavily. Being a woman of the world, I tend to take such things in my stride, but – maybe naively – I still expected better from a man of the cloth. So, hoping for proof I was mistaken, I smiled brightly, and tried to focus on what he was saying.

“… and, um… yes, at the service, Miss Bendix – do you think you might manage a short address? I’m sure it’s what he would have wanted.”

Good lord! Clearly I wasn’t mistaken at all. That said, though, I also knew it was indeed exactly what my Sergei would have wanted, and if it would make the young vicar happy too, then – heavens, where was the harm? It’s never struck me as a job with many perks.

“Well, if you’re sure it’s appropriate for a church, vicar, I’ll see what I can do.”

He regarded me quizzically for a moment, then looked back at Sergei’s body, gulped twice and vomited forcibly into the fireplace. Not wishing to embarrass him further, I made a discreet exit, limbo-ing deftly under the coffin and then clambering over the sofa and out through the open window.

And thus it wasn’t till four days later, midway through the service at St Mark’s, when he beckoned me forward and asked me to read what I’d prepared, that I realised my mistake. Standing there on the altar steps, in that simple taffeta mini-dress and Che Guevara beret ensemble I’d not worn for twenty years, and with the watery eyes of the hatless Russian sailors in the front two pews clearly more focussed on my hip-skimming hemline than on any hastily improvised tribute to my poor dead Captain, I felt such a fool.

I suddenly realised that Father was still waiting for an answer.

“I don’t think so,” I said, “I think we should just go back to the idea of you and Mother being buried side-by-side in the churchyard at Our Lady.”

He nodded.

“You’re probably right. Though it would mean you taking over the catering, of course.”

That Louise Washbag was on the television again last week*, mocking the protestors at St Paul’s, sneering that they couldn’t really be opposed to whatever it is they’re opposed to if they were buying coffee at Starbucks. I wish I knew what to think, but I’m afraid politics has never been my thing, despite Mother having had affairs with both Harold Wilson and Ted Heath when I was growing up; that, though, was before either of them became prime minister, and they were always very evasive whenever I tried to ask them questions about the economy or foreign affairs or ghosts, which made me tend to side with Father when he said that neither of them were to be trusted as far as he could throw them, which turned out to be slightly further in the case of Wilson. Regarding the present to-do at St Paul’s, my inclination is to say that if Washbag thinks they’re wrong, then they’re probably right. Besides, I can be absolutely murderous if I don’t get a cup of coffee first thing in the morning, but I don’t think that actually makes me a murderer, does it? Of course not. Murderess.

The whole business also reminds me, though, of the time Father insisted the Bendix Family stage a protest outside Our Lady Of Perpetual Motion in West Hampstead. Mother refused to go along with it on the grounds that it was embarrassing and she had better things to do, but I was more than game, despite not, I’ll admit, fully understanding why Father thought St Paul (the saint, not the cathedral) had got it all so badly wrong. All I knew was that being allowed to sleep in a tent and cook baked beans in their cans was exciting, and I had my new Brownie song book for if we got bored.

I’m not sure where Father got the tent from, as camping holidays had never featured on the family calendar, and it certainly couldn’t have been a relic of the war, like the kit bag he’d sometimes produce for weekend jaunts, the service revolver he kept in his study, or the withering contempt he had for the citizens of Ashford (Father spent most of his war in Kent), because it was one of those fancy, lightweight, brightly coloured polyester jobs which really must have been quite the latest thing at the time, with internal partitions and a clear plastic window at the front. I loved that window – being able to see out somehow made being inside even more cosy. When it rained, I used to huddle up behind it with Gussie, our labrador, and watch everyone splashing past outside. Occasionally, this would cause a small scene, as people hurrying up the Finchley Road with umbrellas flapping in the wind, or peering out through swishing windscreen wipers, generally didn’t expect to find a ten-year-old girl smiling at them from behind a small transparent square of rainsoaked plastic, pink-cheeked and glowing in the yellow light of a hurricane lamp. Once, a Pickfords van mounted the pavement and drove into a nearby Belisha beacon.

I forget precisely how long we stayed there – when you’re young, dates don’t really register. But I’d guess it was most of 1965. We’d generally work in shifts: Father would occupy the tent during the day when I was at school, and I’d take over once lessons were done, unless it was Tuesday and I had chess club. Father would then usually return at bedtime and send me and Gussie home in a taxi, though sometimes he’d forget, which could be a bit annoying. And once, due to crossed wires, we accidentally both went home, and Gussie was left to man the tent by herself. I can still see her poor worried face the next morning, peering out at us through the window that she’d licked so hard in her anxiety as to render it almost opaque.

The council or police couldn’t do anything about us because, although we were facing the main road, we weren’t actually on the public highway – Our Lady has a small patch of gravel in front of the main door which runs right up to the pavement with no dividing wall, and it was on this that we’d set up camp. We had two large handwritten placards explaining what were up to, and people would often stop and discuss the issues with me. Obviously it would have made more sense for them to talk to Father, but Father tended to discourage that, sometimes quite threateningly.

I was also very popular with local shopkeepers, many of whom would regularly pop across for a chat or to ask if I was OK; sometimes, they’d slip a doughnut or a sausage roll or a phone number into my hand before they left, which I thought was nice of them, even though I didn’t really like sausage rolls and used to peel the flaky pastry off and give what was left to Gussie, who didn’t like flaky pastry.

As St Paul’s does today, Our Lady faced something of a dilemma. Father Thomas took the view that the word of God was final, and that Father (my father – sorry, I know it gets a bit confusing) therefore didn’t have a leg to stand on; he was, though, also very aware that it would not be good for him or his church if any sort of violence was used to get rid of us, or at least not if the violence could be traced back to him.

One evening, a group of nuns turned up. They included in their number Sister Internazionale, whom I would later meet again at St Dulcima’s, where she was games mistress; at the time of our protest, though, I had no idea who she was, beyond clearly being the ringleader. At first, they just hung about, looking belligerent, but then Sister Internazionale very deliberately flicked at one of our guy ropes with her foot, and one of the other nuns stubbed her cigarette out on the flysheet. Father had gone back home for dinner and to watch Late Night Line-Up – he’d lately taken something of a shine to presenter Joan Bakewell, who’d lately taken to wearing very short skirts on national television – so Gussie and I were alone, and it was really quite scary. We knew there was no point in theological argument, so just zipped ourselves in, held our breath, and watched them through the plastic window as they milled around. Thankfully it began raining, which seemed to test their resolve, and eventually they left on a number 13 and we settled down to sleep, Gussie tucking herself into the crook of my arm so that I could play with her ears, something she knew would make us both feel better. It was only next morning, when Father arrived in an apologetic fluster carrying my packed lunch and PE kit, that I saw the crude picture of the Archbishop of Canterbury they’d sprayed on the outside of the tent, and realised what a lucky escape we’d had.

“Why have they drawn him with antennae?” Father said, staring at the fuzzy white lines.

When I told him I thought they were devil horns, he paled, and grabbed Gussie’s paw.

* I think Tricity is referring to Louise Mensch (née Bagshawe)’s recent appearance on Have I Got News For You [C.W-N]

INTRODUCTION

This blog is maintained by Charles Welwyn-North, literary agent, on behalf of his client Ms Tricity Bendix, who is currently working on the first volume of her memoirs. Ms Bendix will be presenting various pieces of "work-in-progress", as well as offering her thoughts on the world in general. For those unfamiliar with Ms Bendix's life and work, some basic information can be found on the Biography page. [C.W-N]

SMOKE: A LONDON PECULIAR

Smoke was an excellent small magazine devoted to words and images inspired by London, to which Ms Bendix was a regular contributor. For more information about the editors' latest projects, and to enquire about back issues, she recommends you visit the Smoke website.

Ancient Thoughts

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CONTACT

If you have anything to say to Ms Bendix – particularly if you are a publisher willing to accept her past misadventures for the honest mistakes they were – then please contact me, Charles Welwyn-North, on c.welwynnorth@gmail.com, and I'll see that your message is passed on.