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The Three Bees – Chapter 1: Burly, Curly & Twirly

“It tastes like crap this wax. And just because they told me I have to eat my way out, doesn’t mean I have to.” An oversized drone honey bee spat out some half chewed wax, smearing it against the wall of his cell as he did so. He paused a moment, peering through the tiny hole in the hatch at the mass of bees crawling back and forth. Within his dim view he could see that there were also loads with half their bodies deep in the honeycomb cells. He harrumphed as well as a bee could manage, and shifted his copious weight against the six tight walls of his cell, contemplating how to get out without having to chew at the wax which clogged up his mouth parts and left what he was certain were unsightly crumbs on his gleaming mandibles. After a few moments he had it.

With a few heavy shoves at the hatch with his big head, the burly drone heaved his way out of his too tight cell and was born. He paused a moment at the edge of the cell, letting his outer skin harden and his body become accustomed to the warmth and the space. All around him a mass of bees, all of them female and all of them muttering instructions and comments, none of which were addressed to him and none of which he could properly hear. His first thought was food, more food, and nicer food than the measly dribs and drabs they’d left him when they sealed him inside his cell to grow from grub into drone. On second thoughts, maybe it was measly in amount but it had actually been quite tasty especially in the beginning, a nummy mix of honey and royal jelly. But that ran out pretty quick and what they gave him later just wasn’t the same and now here he was full of heft and hunger.

Beside him he heard a slightly gruffer mumbling, distinct from the wider hum all around him. First checking that his chest fluff was straight and his wings fully dry, he turned to see another drone bee forcing his way out of his cell. But this bee was coming out backwards, his abdomen almost folded to his chest as he struggled to exit the tight space. Burly bee sidled over, preening his wings, giving them a little flutter, and looking over his shiny shoulder to see if any of the girls had noticed just how sleek and magnificent he was. They hadn’t. “What’s wrong with forwards?” he said to the slowly uncurling new arrival whose unfolding needed to be sharpish if he was to dry bee shaped and not curly shaped. “There’s nothing wrong, just a bit of a wardrobe malfunction a few days ago. I got squished by some nutter human scraping at the cells. Pushed me around and the girls thought I was a goner so they left me. And I finished growing alright, except that I was crooked. It’s taken longer than it should, and I’m much too small but here I am. Thankfully I didn’t dry too fast.” Curly waggled his antennae and set off in the direction of what he thought might be somewhere to go. Burly followed on and soon passed him by with an unintended shove. “Oy watch it would you”, Curly hissed before he noticed the Queen ambling past with her retinue in train. “Is that her? Is that Mother?” he whispered, watching as Burly preened his massive eyes and straightened the slightly mussed fluff on his side. “Don’t even think about it Curl, she’s only interested in one thing, and it certainly won’t involve you.” Curly looked confused and was distracted by the frantic flaking at the hatch of a nearby drone cell. Like Burly and Curly, instead of eating its way out, this drone was taking a completely different approach to being born. He appeared to be kicking his way, but bees aren’t really made for kicking. Curly called to Burly and together they watched the new drone arrive, twisting round and round, round and round, antennae outstretched mouthparts chomping away at the wax but mostly missing. Panting, his antennae drooping and his head low the drone finally pulled himself out of the cell, landing on his back, staring up at his tiny audience. As they looked from one to the other and then all around them they realised that this little group of three were the only drones born in those few minutes and they breathed in each another’s special drone smell knowing that this scent would always bring them home. Together they moved across the comb, Burly pushing his way ahead and the others following, comparing notes on the diet the nursing bees had offered, commenting on the abundance of pretty ladies bustling around them. They moved towards the Queen who was trailing slowly along looking for new empty cells in which to lay some eggs. 

A buffer of worker bees was suddenly blocking their way. “What’s this?” Burly pulled himself up to his full 1.3cm and stared out with what he hoped was mighty masculinity, antenna flicking, massive eyes gleaming with what he was sure was menace. It wasn’t. The buffer of ladies as one murmured, “stay back, don’t move any further”, and one of them came forward and offered each of the boys a drink of water, mouthparts to mouthparts. They drank with relish and relief and by the time their lips were thoroughly smacked and their little bellies thoroughly filled, the queen, her retinue and the bee buffer had moved on. It was clearly time for a nap but no one knew quite how this worked now that they were out of their cells. “So what happens next?” Twirly asked, yawning and leaning slowly into a small undulation of softly fragrant honeycomb. His huge eyes were slowly loosing focus and he could see only umbrous shadows. “Well”, said Burly, “we’ll have a rest and then start looking for the exit. We need to get out of here, but I can’t quite remember why”. “It’s the princesses, that’s what it is, the princesses” Twirly added helpfully before drifting off to sleep while Burly and Curly made yum yum noises, as they snuggled deep into the softly crushed hexacombs… zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (translated by Ross Benjamin)

Daniel Kehlmann and Ross Benjamin have together created an updated version of the tales of Tyll Ulenspiegel, trickster. There is a long line of retellings of this man’s story. He first appeared in print in a pamphlet published in 1515 which has Tyll born in Brunswick in the 1300s and dying of the plague in 1350.

Since his original appearance this impish man and his tales have been revamped in many contexts. In Kehlmann’s Tyll, Tyll’s life and times have been transposed to the Holy Roman Empire’s Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) one of the most brutal and longest wars in history. Tyll is the magic thread connecting a miscellany of stories and characters, reaching from the late English Reformation and Guy Fawkes, through to the death of King Gustav Adolf of Sweden.

As a young boy Tyll leaves his home village somewhere south of Mölln Schleswig-Holstein, with his friend Nele. For many years the two of them travel the length and breadth of the Holy Roman Empire taking up with vagabonds and minstrels, learning many tricks along the way. Tyll juggles, sings, tightrope walks and dances with Nele shocking their audiences, entertaining and manipulating them and never staying around for very long. As they travel across devastated lands they bear witness to the horror and fragility of life in a world where war defines life and death, and everything in between hobbles along in grim parade. We traverse a world of terrifying primitiveness, despite the trappings of educated religious authorities. It becomes quite clear that fear and how to wield it, is the currency of the times.

Tyll Ulenspiegel (Owl Mirror) is all of us, our glories and our not-so-glories, our ambitions, wants, all of it including our deviousnesses and dishonesties. Kehlmann’s Tyll is part philosopher, part scholar, always moving never certain, never fixed, fluid like the mill stream in which he got his second baptism and nearly drowned as a boy. Kehlmann links Tyll, Nene and multiple other characters to a series of secondary stories that mostly work. Through these vignettes we learn more, too much even, about the Thirty Years War and its destruction of so many lives.

Ross Benjamin’s translation is excellent, capturing the rhythm and nuances of the original German. His English version is lyrical and evokative of the grim reality of times when there is rarely enough to eat or somewhere safe to rest. Roving labourers, be they mercenaries or mill hands, are as much victims of their times as the famers and villagers trying to grub a living surrounded by danger and threat. No one is safe. Disease and superstition are rampant and as Tyll and his various companions move across the landscape, Kehlmann shows us just how deadly even a tiny dose of either can be. Interweaving folklore, myth and religion constantly juxtaposes the most basic questions of life (gas-food-lodging) with our need for spiritual comfort, enlightment and protection. Ignorance and Christianity are as much enemies as friends and the fears of Protestants for and of their Catholic breathren weaves throughout the texts. Like Tyll on his tightrope, they are another reminder of the precariousness of existence both in life and afterwards. Fear of what God and the devil might do to you is constantly balanced with fear of what your fellow man might do to you. This tension runs through the narrative and is evident in most of the digressions into different characters and their stories.

The need to rationalise is with us still, as are the motivations of many of these individuals, from wanting to help and heal, through to wanting power and legacy. There is always a risk that deliberate motivations and rationales will lead to corruption. Destruction and death is obviously a powerful a theme in this book, but neither is constrained to the times of the Thirty Years War. We come to understand that death is just another state or phase of existence. In the seventeenth century that state of light or dark was not necessarily so dreadful. At least not when compared to existing in a world shaped by war, want, disease, loss and futility, spells and relics. Read Tyll  and feel the slippery touch of those times. 

The Draftsman – Laurel Lindström

Synopsis (which I am pretending I didn’t write) of The Draftsman due for publication 29th April

Martin Cox left school at 16 with stellar grades. But too traumatised to progress any further academically, he instead took a low-paid, low-skilled job in a local drafting office.

Over the course of a couple of years Martin progresses in skill and appreciation of design and structure. He is an engineering genius and when he makes recommendations to change a patent application his life is turned around. He becomes very rich, but Martin Cox is a damaged man, a man whose past has left deep and abiding scars. He’s high-achieving, autistic, and craves routine and consistency in his life, yet he lives in chaos. He cannot relate to other people and is barely even aware of his own identity or his considerable limitations. Child abuse is not unusual in modern fiction, but a mother’s abuse of her son in the name of love is less common. Its legacy is rarely addressed.

When Martin Cox buys a house in the countryside, it is the first time ever he has spent any time out of London. He is slowly intrigued by the landscape and the history of the property. He starts to learn more about the original house, about the wartime hospital, about the school and about a young woman and her Canadian airman. As he becomes more fascinated, Martin starts to grow away from himself and towards others. He gradually comes to recognise the damage he has suffered at his mother’s hand, and even to care. His relationships become a source of healing, first the connection with his boss and later with his business minder. But these relationships are unclearly defined. The ambivalence with which the writer addresses Martin Cox’s sexuality is deliberate, a device to keep the reader guessing and a reflection of Martin’s own uncertainty and confusion.

Martin’s fascination with his house and its landscape, the local history, the wartime realities he learns more about as the book progresses, lead him to a mystery. As Martin’s sense of identity develops the reader sees his unacknowledged and unrecognised victimhood, mirror the solution of a mystery that only becomes apparent in the book’s climax.

The Draftsman is a compelling and highly original work of fiction. We come to understand Martin’s curious obsessions, contradictions and motivations through the course of the book. Martin’s logic, extreme orderliness and control are his default but they mask his capacity to care or love. These limitations are a function of his mother’s unwelcome attentions.

Extract from The Draftsman:

Pushing on towards the woods as his moment with the hens faded, Martin had an unfamiliar sense of confidence and control. He could hear running water before sudden shards of memory sliced sharp and brutal through his senses. They wiped out images of feathers and dust and warm sunlight and instead he felt his mother’s touch and heard his own whimpers drowned in the sound of running water. Close by a cow was drinking from a water trough with an automated filler on it. In the hissing gurgling sounds a long-dead voice whispered, ‘Let me help you.’ Martin felt again her touch steal wet and cold across the picture. An arctic cold bathroom, glittered with white tiles, the cold tap running, chilled menace. The voice. The sound of the water. Martin stopped dead in his tracks. He heard the surging sound now easing, as the cow finished drinking and stepped away. Martin was on his knees.

STOP PRESS

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Themes of dysfunctional brilliance and maternal sexual abuse make The Draftsman unlike any other book on the market. The Draftsman is an original and compelling début, truly unlike any other.

Burwash, East Sussex 6th April, 2021 ­– Plenty of novels deal with sexual abuse, but Martin Cox’s story examines its origin and its legacy. As Martin Cox starts dealing with the emotional and physical damage inflicted by a mother on her child, the reader travels with him. As his story progresses, the reader shares Martin’s emotional and personal growth as he slowly comes to understand who he is and why.

Author Laurel Lindström says: Martin Cox took this story in a completely unexpected direction. What started as a story about a flawed piece of engineering and a long-forgotten mystery, turned into a tale of place and landscape, history and individual identity. I was just along for the ride, to get him onto the page.” 

Laurel Lindström, aka Laurel Brunner, lives in East Sussex. She has had a long and successful career as a trade journalist specialising in printing and publishing technologies. Her background as a technology writer and consultant is ever-present in The Draftsman and her protagonist’s genius. Laurel Lindström grew up in London, New York and Heidelberg. She then worked and studied in California for many years, where she completed a degree in Linguistics and English Literature at UCLA. During those years Laurel played an active role in the nascent desktop computing and desktop publishing industries, testing Apple, Adobe and Microsoft technologies.

The Draftsman, published by Unbound, is Laurel Lindström’s first novel and was originally conceived as the first of two books. Further details about this author can be found at http://www.laurellindstrom.org/ and http://www.digitaldots.org/

************************

PRESS CONTACT

Review copies of The Draftsman are available from the publisher: anna@unbound.co.uk and the author is available via Zoom for interviews or further discussion: me@laurellindstrom.org

Sex in #The Draftsman

There isn’t much to be honest, at least not much that is actually described, breathless and torrid. Sorry if that’s your gig. Sex is however one of the underlying themes of the book, even though the sex scenes aren’t explicit. In part this is because trying to write a sex scene is just so cringey. Try it and you’ll see what I mean. I have found that whenever I try it, the words invariably twist around and turn themselves into something that is very funny. I didn’t want that to happen in #The Draftsman, so I avoided getting into too many details.

The other thing that happens when trying to write sex scenes is that I start to blush and get embarrased even though I am alone. It’s a problem and I don’t know any other writers well enough to discuss this with. I do know that when discussions head into the sex weeds in creative writing classes, the women take the topic very seriously and the men stare at their shoes. Perhaps it was just that particular group. Or perhaps sex is something that men writers find harder to chat about than women writers do. I fall into the men writer category, and I do have some very lovely shoes.

In #The Draftsman, protagonist Martin Cox is a man whose sexuality is not clearly defined, it’s ambivalent. He’s a man who is always alone and who functions mostly in his head. For him sex belongs in an abstracted part of his psyche, a need rather than a dimension of his identity. Martin’s interested in sex, but not in any of the dramaturgy that for most people has to go with it. He just doesn’t care, cannot relate to any other aspect of his sexual partners, and is only concerned with their willingness to oblige. For Martin sex sits in its own box. Like hunger or the need to sleep, it’s not a defining characteristic of Martin Cox and it isn’t part of his identity. And yet that may not be entirely true.

Obviously I know why that is and you will too once you’ve read the book, but I wonder how widespread this disconnect is. Do we wall up parts of our natures in spaces that only occasionally can be accessed or, more darkly, that surface unexpectedly? This is an idea I plan to explore in the second book about Martin Cox, as he learns more about what happened to Ruth Lorne and her Canadian lover. In #The Draftsman we learn a little bit about these characters, but only superficial details gleaned from diaries, police reports and newspaper cuttings. Ruth and Charles are certainly lovers, but sex may not have been part of their shared experience. Martin can be fascinated by these two people precisely because they are from another time, distinct from him but linked to him through their shared localities. They spent time in the same landscape as Martin, but over fifty years ago, far away enough on the continuum that Martin doesn’t need to integrate them into his world. They are in their own private box.

Martin Cox may be afraid or anxious about relationships and making a connection with someone who might have expectations about where that connection might lead. But this need for separation doesn’t have to be fundamental. This is addressed briefly in #The Draftsman, but its implications are likely to be missed by many readers. That’s my fault for failing to add sufficient data to the scene, but the lack of data is precisely why Martin Cox reacts as he does to traumatic situations, including sexual ones. Read the book and let me know what you think.

#The Draftsman and technology in the age of XXX

The world is awash with writers, fitness trainers, dog walkers, chefs and book bloggers. And around each of them is a web of service providers, sales channels and even sometimes paying customers. As a début author (#The Draftsman) I am totally drowned in an ocean of other writers and overwhelmed by the expectations of what one must do to stand out and build a following in the wild, wild world of XXX where XXX means whatever you want. It doesn’t seem to have much to do with the work, the actual book, but everything to do with how skilled you are at managing the online channels, from Amazon to Wattpad (don’t ask). And I am absolutely crap at it. I don’t want a relationship with algorithms or the XXX anons.

This is ironic, given that I have spent my career writing about technology, and that technology is what’s making all this possible. From word processors like Apple’s MacWrite and Microsoft Word, through to layout tools and the container for print ready pages that is PDF, I’ve been mostly on top of it. Looking back over the years I am pleased to see so many of the amazing innovations we’ve covered, now in the hands of so many creative people. These media production technologies are cheap, readily available and make it possible for anyone to produce a book, newsletter or whatever.

It’s been the same story in the music industry as technology made production processes cheaper and accessible to more people. This is all quite wonderful because it lowers the bar to entry, so that more ideas can be shared in many different creative ways. Technology is central to #The Draftsman, and how clever inventions make a difference to inventors, users and the planet. 

Technology is central to everything, so it’s fair to say that the publishing industry’s raw material, imagination and passion, is completely entangled with technology. Today writers must develop an online following in order to be noticed. The online following comforts publishers who might be reluctant to take risks with new ideas and points of view. A following suggests a swathe of keen buyers and so informs budgets, project planning and print run lengths. Technology creates opportunity for so many expressive formats and allows publishers to identify and target potential readers for a given work. But there is way too much noise in the online world and much of it is self-serving and rather ugly.

In The Draftsman, set in 2006, two years after FaceBook launched, there is no social media apart from a passing reference to emails and the speed of internet connections. And there is a bit of foresight too, when Martin Cox ponders the rate at which many forms of printed content will migrate online, to decimate the printing industry and create opportunities for new business models. Even in 2006 when FaceBook was only two years old, it was clear that internet technologies were reaching not just into industrial applications, but also becoming central to daily living. By 2012 when FaceBook went public the platform had 845 million users and social media was a habit.

And yet I didn’t want Martin Cox to be an online junkie. He’s obsessive and dark, and what he would do with an online existence would be as obsessive, as dark. I didn’t want to write about how dark, given his personality and history, and his various confusions. But perhaps I should have done because that would have required more research into the whole social media eco-system and the paths through it. It might have made me a more adept manipulator of the channels and algorithms and it might have made me more popular, in a bitsy sort of way. (That’s binary digitsy, not little particles.) And the darkness in #The Draftsman might have found an audience. Then I would have lots of followers and publishers might have been swooning at my feet. But then again, the lack of swooners might just be that I don’t write as well as I think I do. Read #The Draftsman and decide for yourself.

PS  I’m adding # to every reference to #The Draftsman because some online site for writers said to do this because the algos like it. (Algos is hipster talk for algorithms and much easier to spell and type.) Ever yours, XXX.

The Draftsman’s playlist: music and a novel

I was reading somewhere that authors like to have a particular playlist running in the background while they are working. I cannot imagine anything more annoying or likely to mess up what I am trying to write. But perhaps it depends on the type of music you like and if you like super samey bland stuff, it probably doesn’t interrupt what you are doing. But if you like music that’s in your face and challenging, it’s likely to get you twitching and fidgeting and that’s not good for the typing or the lexical accuracy.

Musicians are for the most part poets too, so words set to music from the likes of Stormzy or Springsteen are going to knock out any other words in one’s head. Like many people for whom music is an intrinsic and constant part of their lives, I do like to see musical references in a novel. There are quite a few in the Draftsman. It wasn’t part of the plan, they just snuck in.

The playlist for book, in no particular order runs as follows:

         Billie Holiday – Isn’t it a lovely day;

         Andrews Sisters – Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree

         Glenn Miller;

         Lonnie Donnegan – The Party’s Over;

         Richard Thompson;

         Elton John – Saturday Night’s Alright;

         Gerschwin – Rhapsody in Blue;

         Louis Armstrong – West End Blues;

         Ma Rainey – Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues;

         My Chemical Romance;

         Queen –  Bohemian Rhapsody

         Meatloaf – Bat Out of HellTwo Out of Three Ain’t Bad

         Chopin – Nocturnes

This is the point in the blog where I should explain in very erudite language the reasons for having musical references in a novel. They are as follows (according to me, that is):

         Music in a novel makes it more interesting

         Musical references can be used as a narrative device

         Music is a means of shifting the plot

         Song lyrics can remind people of some shared experience

         It’s random, based on what was playing during the writing

         All of the above

         None of the above

These reasons are all subjective and completely depend on the work you’re writing, the target reader and the selection of references. So it’s all rubbish and none of the above is a hard and fast rule.

But perhaps an explanation of the choices I made for the Draftsman is worth exploring, so here goes. For me there is no musician to compare with Billie Holiday. The breadth of her work and interpretations are still astounding and utterly unmatched. Billie was a warrior and she rarely backed down. A fighter who was alone and under attack, deceived and abused for pretty much her entire life. And yet the work she produced is sublime, beautiful, resonant, tender and joyful. It endures and stays ahead her and all times. I even heard Billie singing in Tesco’s over Christmas. I was in the bath and shampoo aisle, and she wafted down “I’ve got my love to keep me warm”. Said it all really.

The Andrews Sisters are a different part of the soundtrack to my life. My sister Candy and I used to mime along to the Andrews Sisters, although the details have faded with lack of use. I just know that whenever I hear the Andrews Sisters I can’t help but think of Candy and her gifted mimes, right down to the accents. Glenn Miller is of a piece with the Andrews Sisters in many ways, but mostly I love his work because it takes a catchy tune and breaks all the rules with complicated yet accessible arrangements. Defiant and up and positive. I don’t know if he and Billie ever played together though they had lots of colleagues in common. 

Lonnie Donnegan was once, a very long time ago, a part of my life and has echoed over the years for diverse reasons. The song referenced in the Draftsman, played at the protagonist’s father’s funeral, is not one that Donnegan was very famous for. But my dad once told me what it was about and, since it is about the end of an affair, I find it deeply poignant and tender. And I don’t know whether Uncle Tony had lots of affairs (probably) but if he did, the song adds another dimension to the man. It also reminds me that my own affair with a married man might have ended very differently, and not in our very happy marriage.

I could not overlook Richard Thompson in this book, not least because he’s up there with the poets, and also writes clever tunes and snazzy arrangements. Although we are both English, it took an American, my first husband Todd, to get me to listen Mr Thompson’s music. There were lots of girls at school keen on Fairport Convention et al but I became too obsessed with Elton John, Billie Holiday and Gerschwin to notice much else. 

And Elton John’s was the first non-Jazz gig I ever went to. I was newly arrived back in London following a few silent years at a school in Brooklyn, and Jacqui Smith asked me if I would like to go to see Elton John play at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon. I was 14, intensely lonely and still wallowing in the ugly facts of the previous five years. And I had no idea who Elton John was. I said yes straightaway and loved every moment of the gig. I even got to see Marc Bolan who came on at the end. I only noticed because Jacqui screamed so very loud and dragged me to the stage. I’d never heard of Marc Bolan either, and he just looked like all the others on the stage. Maybe bigger hair. Now the memory brings back the colours and the noise, the stink of sweaty men and an audience who knew the words to all the songs. In Croydon.

At that time I was still more interested in jazz but was trying to be more grown up, to pull forwards. I don’t know where I first heard Gerschwin’s Rhapsody in Blue but I fell in love with it and still it’s one of my favourite things to listen to. It brought me closer to Alison Taylor at school. Alison was a classical violin and piano player extraordinaire, bent on defying her parents ambitions for her by embracing jazz. Gerschwin was as close as it got. Gerschwin and then my dad because her boyfriend Billy liked him. Billy was aware of my dad before he was aware of me which Alison thought dusted my dad with glitter. I rather liked that. Nowadays I rarely listen to Gerschwin because Alison always jumps up to sing along with me. Ba ba ba baa ba baba baaa baaa. She died some years ago, but I still can hear her. All of us who knew and loved her can still hear her.

No one with an interest in jazz can overlook Louis Armstrong, a man whose presence in my life has recently become much more vivid. You won’t hear a more inventive bit of horn playing anywhere than Armstrong’s introduction to West End Blues. Our friend Winfried in Berlin, one of my dad’s oldest and most loyal fans has a Louis archive from 1963. He’s bequeathed to the Louis Armstrong museum in Queens and it’s fantastic to browse. Winfried calls him St Louis Armstark.

I don’t know what made me reference Ma Rainey and Black Cat Hoot Owl Blues but I think it was probably the fact that her real name is Gertrude Pridgett and I have always loved that. She also sings in a moany sort of way that has echoes in the vocals of Bessie Smith and of course the sainted Billie.

When it comes to My Chemical Romance this is not a band I have ever much listened to. I think the reference weaselled its way into the Draftsman because my daughter Hannah was a big fan. I remember collecting her and a friend, Christian, I think he was called, from a gig in Brighton. They had explained to me that I wouldn’t need to park, always a struggle in Brighton, and that I would be able to find them because they dressed so distinctly. “We’ll stand out, so you’ll find us”. I think they were about 15. I got to the venue and tried to spot them, superbly camouflaged amongst hundreds of other teenagers in black jeans, white shirts, all black eyed and scowling. Hannah’s white blonde hair was fortunately unique amongst the throng.

Don’t you just love Meatloaf? He’s so loud and tender, in your face with his gentleness and the whole of the Bat Out of Hell album is unrelenting brilliance. It’s Meatloaf’s first album and I have never understood how work that is so melodic and poetic could be called Heavy Metal. Its honesty and poesy are probably why it’s one of the best-selling albums of all time. 

And what book would be complete without a reference to Queen? I had a very wealthy boyfriend who was ten years older than me when Bohemian Rhapsody came out. Another nine minutes plus long song. He gave me the album for Christmas and I wasn’t particularly thrilled (Elton still ruling). But I still have the album and as Elton faded into blah blah, Queen just kept on getting better and better and I was hooked. No so on the boyfriend, despite the Rolls Royce and the Jensen Healy. They couldn’t begin to make up for a total absence of personality.

Towards the end of the novel when the Draftsman is hiding up in the woods from friends and family, he hears music drifting up to his secret place. I don’t know why it had to be a Chopin Nocturne: they were all down there at a barbeque and you really would have thought something a little more upbeat would have been playing. Except as the Draftsman’s torn and twisted psyche was fighting to right itself, Chopin would have been high on his agenda as he put together the party’s playlist. 

Martin Cox’s musical interests are actually a lot denser than I realised in writing the book. Just another part of the man that I only started to understand as the book went on. He’s stayed hidden for most of his life, so I suppose I should be glad that he clambered into my head to share himself on the page, even if only a little bit.

The Draftsman Launch Imminent

Unlike the actual book production process, reaching the point where a manuscript is finalised has been long and slow. And it’s left plenty of time to ponder that despite advances in digital prepress, the book publishing process is about as efficient as it was in the days of hot metal typesetting. Book people still actually refer to typesetting, even though everyone else calls it page layout and composition. And the idea of variable data novels, where you can have multiple different endings for instance, don’t even think about it. The slow production processes which were up-ended in the 1980s, were of a piece with slow book editing and design processes. But where prepress is now rocket-fast, editorial and design processes for books still seem to take an absolute age. It’s at once frustrating and sobering.

From a writer’s perspective, it’s as well editing takes so long and has to be so drawn out. Reading a novel, even a little one, takes so much time. It requires care and attention to detail, so fixing a dodgy piece of work necessarily takes an age. Editors need plenty of time to recover in between sessions. Whatever the quality or not of a manuscript, editors must also have a vision of what a book is trying to become. And writers must be super-disciplined to avoid the temptation to completely overhaul the thing, rather than make judicious edits as the editor requests. This is especially difficult for writers with a sparrow’s attention span and a memory that dumps every word once it’s saved and filed away somewhere on the desktop. Maybe it’s on a memory stick (which one?), or the laptop or iPad? Or maybe it’s only alive on that extra hard-drive. Wherever it lives, it’s by no means in one’s head any more.

The novel production process only really begins with the editing process. The carefully organised and curated words are just raw material for an editor to advise on what the book is really about, who the characters are and what happens when. The editor sees the manuscript as an independent entity, unhitched from the writer. At each stage in production the thing comes into sharper focus, moves further away from its creator and into the light of its own being. The structural edit, then the copy edit, the proof edits, each add definition for what the finished work will look like. Like bringing a photo into focus or balancing the sound during a live music performance. By the time the author reads the final PDF or three, they are seeing a sharp picture, hearing all of the music. Then when the writer is ready to sign off on the manuscript they often need to have a little lie down, or at least another cup of tea and bar of chocolate.

Where I am now with the Draftsman is the post-signoff-lie-down-with-a-cup-of-tea-eat-more-chocolate stage. I have also approved the cover, so the next thing is to wait. The good news is that as this production saga has been so protracted Unbound has agreed to make advance copies available to all supporters, prior to the launch date of the 29th April. I don’t know when the advance copies will be available, so every delivery van hurtling past the study window makes me jump up, just in case. It’s surprisingly good exercise.

Between now and the launch date we will be working to get some visibility for the book, ideally through online book reviewers. I am working with Barnett’s of Wadhurst , our local bookshop, for a launch and might also do something at the National Liberal Club in London. Except I have no idea who to invite. I intend to write some reviews of the Draftsman myself, all of which will be about all the things I hate about the book.

Then there is the identity anxiety, a corrosive confusion that won’t go away. Few authors dare not call themself ‘author’ in the beginning. It sounds even more pretentious than saying ‘I’m a writer’ when someone asks you what you do for a living. I’ve been saying ‘writer’ for the last 35 years, because it’s basically been how I have supported myself. I am comfortable with this and inclined to hide behind it. And I’ve had a handful of book-length titles published, am a member of the Society of Authors and the Authors’ Club. Yet to describe myself as an ‘author’ feels just way too bold and far beyond me. Until now; -ish. Now that the Draftsman is done and the publisher is sending the pages to Clays (digital and analogue printers extraordinaire) to be printed, it seems okay to use the word ‘author’. I can nearly, almost, say it without feeling that I somehow grubby other, real, proven, proper authors.

If once we are allowed out, someone says to me, ‘so Laurel Lindström, what do you do for a living?’ I hope I’ll be bold enough to smile and breezily say, ‘I’m an author’. And then I’ll wonder if they spot the paradox in this reply.

Lenny & the Mouse King

Lenny the Lion Cat was cross. He had been sitting outside the place where he knew the mice had their burrow for nearly an hour. And yet not a single mouse had so much as shown its nose. Lenny could hear them though, whispering under the grass. “Shhhh” “Don’t you shhh me” “Nanna please, there’s a cat out there waiting, trying to find us.” “I didn’t get to be two years old without knowing about cats my lad, so don’t you dare tell me to be quiet. I’ll have the King talk to you I shall.” Wizz turned very slowly to his mother who muttered under her breath, “don’t move you fool, don’t move a whisker until it’s safe”. “But Mum how will we know it’s safe. The King’s not here to tell us.” At that point Lenny lasered in on the tiny, breathy sounds and the slight movement of some dead grass. He pounced and missed the nest, but it was enough to send one of Wizz’s overly anxious brothers rushing out into the light. A moment or two later and Lenny was sucking on the last remnants of field mouse tail. And wondering what to do next. A nap was in order but it was too hot in the sun, so he ambled over to the edge of the field and stretched out under the hedge. 

In the mouse burrow a stunned silence spread over the large and previously-growing family. Then to collective shushing, “That’s the third time this week” said Nanna. “You lot need to get a grip and stop letting that lion catch you so easily. He eats you every time and he’s getting a taste for us.” The mice shuffled a little and Wizz’s Mum rolled her eyes and looked to her suckling pups. Nanna was continuing, “It’s just not good enough. You’ve got to do something.” Wizz was close to the entrance of the nest and watching as Lenny the Lion Cat put the finishing touches on his toilette and settled in and soon fell asleep. He looked almost dead so still was he, but for the gentle rise and fall of his very round tummy and the regular little twitches at the end of his tail. 

Wizz turned back to the nest and signalled the all clear, watching as his various uncles, aunts, great aunts, great uncles, siblings, cousins and second cousins meandered off in search of snacks and nibbles. “What can I do Nanna? How can we stop the cat from eating us?” His grandmother looked over her tiny mouse glasses perched on the end of her tiny mouse nose and with a little sigh put down her weaving. “Wizz, I don’t know. It’s always been like this, with the cats and us. Sometimes it’s less bad, but mostly it’s always been like this.” Wizz pondered this awhile and wondered aloud “Why?” “Well how should I know? Why? Because, that’s why. And I should know, because I am two years old, old enough to have seen it all and old enough to tell you, you cannot change things.” “What about the King?” replied Wizz. “What if I went to see the King? The King should know what to do, shouldn’t he?” With another long sigh his grandmother replied cryptically “Should and does aren’t the same.” And with that she dozed off with her face snuggled into her weaving and her paws tucked under her chin.

Wizz took another careful look at where Lenny was now deep asleep and crept out of the nest and into the rising warmth of the spring sunshine. As he crossed the field he took plenty of random turns, glancing up frequently in case there was a bird on the look-out for a midmorning snack. He scuttled as fast as he could to get to the far edge of the meadow, to where it joined the woods where the ground was easier to cross and the shadows safer. Wizz breathed a little easier here, where the risk of aerial assault was much reduced. Moving faster across less tangled terrain, he soon reached the giant tree and its complicated tangle of roots. This was where the Mouse King and his enormous family had lived for generations. There had been many Mouse Kings over the years, but Wizz only knew this one. A couple of guardsmen, with the hairs on their heads smartly parted and stout twigs gripped tight in their forepaws, nodded to Wizz. They knew him as a frequent visitor to the Mouse King who generally welcomed this particular supplicant who was about the same age as him.

Wizz entered the underground palace, head bowed and squinting in the low light. He crept softly past the snoozing mousegirls and the mothers with their pups, until he reached a thick tangle of ivy roots that formed a rough walkway up the outside the tree. He scuttled from root to root following the nods of a series of guard mice startled from their dozing by the scratching sounds of Wizz’s tiny paws as he went. Soon Wizz found himself on a small curved platform, formed when a branch of the ancient tree had crashed away under a lightning strike. There at the edge, basking in the rising warmth crouched a large, golden brown field mouse. His ears were bigger than those of the other mice and his tail was a thing quite magnificent. His coat gleamed and his whiskers rose and fell as he breathed in the soft spring air.

“Your highness,” said Wizz crouching low in a mouse grovel. The Mouse King turned and rose up onto his haunches, rubbing his ears and tenderly stroking the whiskers on one side of his face. He observed the mouse whose face was so low to the ground that even if the Mouse King’s eyesight had been good, which it wasn’t, Wizz would have been anonymous to him. After a few minutes of trying to work out which of the hundreds of mice subjects this one was, the Mouse King turned away again and said “Yes? What do you want?” in a lazy drawl.

The problem was quickly outlined and the Mouse King tried to show interest. He still hadn’t looked fully at Wizz who was now standing up, the better to relate the problem to his lord and master. “Sir, my Nanna says it always has to be this way, but does it?” “Aha! ” exclaimed the Mouse King, “Now I know who you are. You’re Wizz and I know this because there is, at the moment only one ancient mouse called Nanna in the kingdom. Well Wizz. Well, well Wizz.” And the Mouse King came closer to his subject, just near enough to get him in focus. “What do you suggest, Wizz?” Poor Wizz looked down at the King’s perfect front paws and their neat fuzz of immaculate little hairs, confused and uncertain. “Why does it have to be this way? Couldn’t we come to some sort of an arrangement with the Lion Cat?” “Arrangement? What do you mean arrangement? How can we, mere mice, even mice as devastatingly handsome as me, come to an accommodation with a cat? It’s just not done, Wizz, just not done.” He looked at Wizz who was less blurred now that the Mouse King was close up and after a while added “but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” Wizz felt himself puff up with mousey excitement. “You’re right, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done. It can be done, and do it we must, for the sake of the kingdom and especially for the sake of my clan under the tussocks in the top paddock.”

Two days later when Lenny the Lion Cat had once again settled under the hedge, a procession of mice was making its way along the edge of where the woods joined the field. They moved in pairs and were carrying various loads which they kept hidden under their bellies. As they approached the sleeping cat, the pairs split to form a circle around Lenny. Some of the mice leapt nimbly into the hedgerow and passed their cargoes paw to paw, threading their way through the branches and out to the roots. Stealthily they formed a network of mousehair ties that reached over and across Lenny’s body. Unseen a small troop of young pups had looped more of the ties over each paw, and on a single signal from Wizz all ties were pulled tight, and every mouse leaned hard against the ropes, knowing that the cat would awaken as soon as he felt the pressure. And this is indeed what happened, but so tightly was he held by the many, many mice, that Lenny the Lion Cat was powerless in their grip. Each time he tried to move he felt the sting of a hawthorn spine sticking into his paws and body. He became aware of a tiny voice saying in an admonishing tone, “now, now children, there’s no need for spite”. But they gave another little surreptitous dig just in case.

Lenny the Lion Cat was a fearless beast of a cat. He was young, strong and limber, with a well-muscled form and a long dark coat streaked with champagnes and greys. The thick ruff of extra fur around his neck enhanced his menacing aspect. His large ears were well tufted and his whiskers luxuriant. Large clumps of fur grew between his toes and his claws were menacing. He chewed on them regularly, to make sure they stayed nice and sharp. Lenny the Lion Cat was big, beautiful and extremely fluffy, which in the situation in which he now found himself was a bit of a disadvantage. There were mice everywhere, clutching their slender ropes made of mousehair or clutching at Lenny’s tufts and wisps or hidden in his fur clutching spikey things. Even his tail was pinned down with the little ropes and the added heft from the thirty or so mice sitting on top of it. And every time he moved, Lenny felt a sharp pricking from hawthorn and bramble spines.

He lay perfectly still and waited to be savaged by a hundred or so mice jaws, waited to hear the sound of his own bones crunching instead of the sound of some other creature’s bones crunching. But there was no sound of savagery or crunching. He heard only a very high pitched noise that very slowly resolved itself into words. The speaker had evidently been trying to be understood for a little while and eventually Lenny heard the same tiny voice he had heard before say “give him a prick or too, he’s ignoring the King.” Lenny gave a pathetic little moan and said through jaws that barely had any room to open, so tight were the bonds, “what, what will you do to me?” Wizz, standing next to the King and trying to keep him looking in the direction of the cats huge eyes, was surprised at the request. This might make the whole conversation and the accommodation it was supposed to produce, much simpler.

“Your majesty, look he’s trapped and cannot fight back. We have him. We have control over the Lion Cat.” The Mouse King was staring into the depths of a pair of giant eyes, fascinated at how they could close diagonally and at how black they were until the black started to narrow when the mice on the cat’s head stood away taking their shadows with them. “You cat,” said the Mouse King, with a small step forward and his foreleg raised in the direction of the nearest eye. “You cat, do you recognise the Mouse King?” As he said this an overexcited youngster who had somehow managed to get hold of an especially sharp hawthorn jumped with excitement. The thorn pierced the tender space between two of Lenny’s toes and he growled in anguish even though he had no idea that there even was a Mouse King. “Good,” preened the Mouse King and added imperiously “now you listen to me. Any more eating of my people and there will be trouble. We don’t want any bother in this kingdom, but you are causing no little grief to the general murine populace.” The cat tried to move and incurred only more pain so he murmured a small growl and said “what’s a murine populace?”

The King was not entirely sure of this himself, as he was being fed his lines by Wizz. “Tell him mice,” whispered Wizz, “Just mice”. The Mouse King was starting to feel bold and power was going to his head a little, so as much as a mouse can boom, he boomed “mice, you must stop killing and eating the mice”. A hush fell on the assembled members of the murine populace who were beginning to feel peckish and losing interest in the capture the cat project. “Your majesty, everyone, Lion Cat, all of us here,” Wizz shouted as loudly as possible. “We have an accord between the Mouse Kingdom of these dominions and the Lion Cat. By order of the Mouse King and agreement of the Lion Cat, said Lion Cat will cease to persecute the mice of this realm. If said Lion Cat does not keep the promise he is making here today to the Mouse King, said Lion Cat will once more be taken, tied and pierced in his tender places, even unto death.” This last came out of Wizz’s mouth quite unexpectedly and shocked them all, so that a collective gasp could be heard. Lenny the Lion Cat lay very still and was wondering what would happen when they decided to let him go. How many of his captors could he catch in those moments between release and escape? But then, how would it be to suffer the Mouse King’s vengeance, if Lenny did manage to eat or maim a tranche of the Mouse King’s subjects? Would it ever be possible again to laze in the sunshine or meander fearless through the woods? There are mouse spies everywhere. As Lenny considered these points he was aware that there were fewer mice sitting on his head and tail and that the evening was coming and it was getting chillier. “Well?” Lenny heard Wizz’s shout and tried to move again only to suffer yet more pricks and pokes. His legs were starting to go numb and he was hungry and he had been awake for what felt like hours.

Lenny was desperate to go to sleep, to find something, anything other than mouse to eat and to snuggle purring at some friendly feet under the covers of a soft and warm bed. “Do you promise never to tie me up and prick me again?” he hissed. “Yes. If you promise never to eat or injure us again, you have our word.” And then Wizz added, “don’t expect to be let loose immediately. We have to get our mothers and youngsters to safety before we let you loose.” Lenny could by now move his head and jaws and tried to answer. But he was so cold and stiff that all he could manage was a feeble nod.

Soon the mice had all gone and the tiny ropes were nothing more than fluff that drifted in the light breeze. Lenny shook himself free and looked about him for some lingering mice but there were none. Only Wizz and the Mouse King had stayed behind to be certain that the Lion Cat would keep his word. “What say you Lion Cat? Can we really trust you?” Lenny looked about him, crouched down and quivering, trying to find the source of the squeaks. He saw Wizz and his Majesty some few paws lengths away, defiant and trembling. Every fibre and instinct in the cat’s body trembled with feline lust for mouse blood. With immense effort he backed away, eyes locked on theirs and ears flat. “Yes your majesty, you have my word.” With a flick of their tails the two mice, shaking but mastering their terror, were gone.

In the old tree palace the mouse celebrations went on into the night. Deep asleep, clutching and clawing the human toes under the duvet, Lenny the Lion Cat dreamt many hunting dreams, but none of them included mice.

A Little Black Book

The credit card companies had cancelled all his cards. His wife was degenerating rapidly and he couldn’t pay the carers, and the signs of dereliction showing in the house were too many to ignore. The post didn’t bring bills any more. Those had stopped coming and now it was just legal letters, angry letters from relatives and old no-longer friends, letters from the authorities and the courts. He knew he had moved up a level with these. But today there was something different, an anonymous envelope with his name and address printed on it. Neat and even, an open and alien hand beckoned yet he thought he saw something vaguely familiar in the script. It echoed.

“Owen, Owen quickly they’ve come back, they’re here and they want you to talk to them.” The cries of excitement bounced down from her room and he jumped up, hurrying with the post into the kitchen, anxiously chewing at his thumb. He dropped the interesting envelope and the rest onto the kitchen table and rushed upstairs, grabbing the leaning banister to help himself along and taking care not to trip on the threadbare sections of the carpet with their amateur darnmarks and hanging threads. Before he entered her bedroom he took a deep breath, the scents of dry rot and cat were infinitely preferable to the scent of her, his once fragrant and still much loved wife.

“Elsa, I’m here, I’m here” he said as soothingly as he could manage and went to pull back the curtains.  His wife shrieked “Nein, Owen daß mus’d nicht tun. Don’t do that, du darfst nicht.” Then “You must talk to them. They’re here” as she sat up in bed wild eyed and agitated, patting her hands on the grimy covers. He moved over to her and put his hand on her head, stroking her hair, holding her frantic gaze, looking as always for someone long gone. It wasn’t working and she wasn’t calming; nor would she ever come back. He knew that, and yet. Excitement was turning into distress and she was beginning to rant. “They’re here, you see them, they’re here, talk to them, tell them, tell them I am well, tell them I can see them and tell them, tell them to stay. Tell them to bring us our grandchildren.”

As the images she thought she saw faded, Elsa started to weep. She slumped back down into her pillows, twisting the duvet cover in her hands and muttering incoherently. She let go to push Owen’s hand away, but didn’t move when he leant to kiss her. His tears rolled slowly down to mingle with her own, soft on her flacid cheek. The episodes with the imagined children were getting worse, more frequent, more violent. But at least they were less destructive than the episodes when Elsa thought she saw old friends, old friends Elsa now classed as enemies. Or when she wanted to clean the kitchen and went into battle with a dishwashing brush and a bottle of bleach. She usually chose a random spot on the floor and scrubbed and scrubbed at it until her hands were raw and bleach burnt spotted and streaking patterns into her clothes and skin. The yearning for the children was probably the preferrable option. The yearning for their early days, before the children would have been better, but those memories seem to have been finally and irrevocably lost some weeks ago. “Liebchen, meine liebchen,” he whispered And she looked up from her tears and smiled at him, before turning away once more.

Elsa had brought him to Heidelberg 35 years ago, to try his luck working there, to see how it would be living near her parents. It wasn’t necessarily a long term thing, but it had worked. Two sons, lots of holidays, a lovely house in the suburbs, affluence and a new car every year. And then Elsa’s mother and father had died, their younger son moved to China and was still there, and the other boy got caught up in his own life, moved to Düsseldorf and forgot about his parents. Depression, denial, emotional stress and the need for Owen’s attention burning ever brighter. He resisted at first, but couldn’t take the constant raging. He gave up photography and Elsa wouldn’t come with him on his long riverside walks any more. She wasn’t interested to see the whirls and swirls of the dark and fast moving current, nor in the barges laden and low, making their way to the Rhine. She didn’t want to tell him stories any more.

He took time away from the business, hoping she’d ease up, trust him more. They travelled further and wider and more often. Japan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, a short visit to China when the younger son got married to lovely Feng Mian and then back to Heidelberg. In China she had panicked at the wedding and they had to take her back to the hotel. They missed the reception and took an early flight home, drinking steadily all the way. On a skiing holiday in France she got lost on a slope she’d skied since her teenage years. The ski patrol found her leaning against a tree, staring at slow falling snow. In Tokyo she followed Owen onto a metro train but refused to recognise him, slapping him away as he tried to take her arm. 

The decline had been slow and steady, a gradual erosion of Elsa. And then one Christmas she wouldn’t get out of bed because she said the children had said they would be there with her. Some weeks later she refused to see several of her translation clients on the basis that they needed more practise, though she never specified at what. Nor would she go to the little school in Neckargemünd to help children with their homework. For a while she wouldn’t even talk to Owen and instead hurled abuse in hysterical German whenever he came near. He moved out of their room, worked with the local hospital to get a diagnosis and slowly turned away from his own life, to preserve hers. He told their friends they were cutting their social circle right down, “Just so difficult to keep up with people.” “We’re focusing on our own travels now.” “Now that the children are gone, we’ve more time for each other.” Most people went with it, especially the more recent acquaintances who had never quite understood their own uneasiness around Elsa, or Owen’s tension. His business, previously thriving, went into decline and he was forced to sell it on at submarket value. 

Elsa was calm again, singing in the shadowy room, calling out to the river to take her home. This was one of her happier places. As he watched his wife losing herself, he wondered how long it would take to sell the house. And then there was this curious envelope. What new horrors would it hold for them?
Owen returned to the grubby kitchen to ignore all of the post except the one he knew wasn’t from a solicitor or a court representative.

It was a large envelope and it contained a handful of black and white prints and a little black book. There was also a copy of someone’s will, a someone Owen recognised from the list of people with whom he and Elsa would have no contact. A name and a memory. The images he recognised as photos he had taken and developed many years ago, pictures of him and a young man holding hands. Owen allowed himself a wistful smile. The little black book he did not recognise. And the will he was afraid to open. The little black book though, this was intriguing and he started to read. There were stories there, stories of his life as a young man, and a crush he had once had. There were stories of Elsa from when she first moved to London, stories of how they met, walking in Richmond Park and helping a horse rider who had taken a tumble. The pub lunch in Chiswick, the night train from Victoria and the romantic weekend in Paris, it was all there in the little black book. And at the back of the little black book was a list, with three and four letter codes, dates and numbers. And Owen’s name. And the words “For past sins” followed by XXX.

Then Owen looked at the will. It was dated a few years earlier and most of it had been redacted, including the name of the deceased. Thick black lines covered most of someone else’s end of life wishes, most but not all. There was a reference at the end to Owen Clayton and an instruction that Owen contact Thredwell, Snelling and Fastless, solicitors. How on earth did this find me? Owen whispered half under his breath, turning the will, the photos, the envelope and the little black book over and over in his hands before reaching for the phone. He didn’t have any idea what to expect, but surely he could cope with yet one more horror.

The conversation with the solicitors was almost on a par with conversations with Elsa. Owen introduced himself and there was a long pause, so long he almost hung up. Then with a brief apology, the receptionist put him through to Theresa Snelling herself. Ms Snelling’s voice was warm, but cautious. ”Yes Mr Clayton, I am very glad to hear from you. I understand you live abroad now. Would you mind answering a few questions for me, before we start. I need to be sure I am talking to the right person.” She spoke quickly, and Owen pictured an unsmiling face, a face familiar with delivering fresh shocks to the newly vulnerable.

Theresa Snelling’s voice grew slowly less busy and as Owen answered the bizarre collection of questions, fascination gradually replaced anxiety. By the time they got to “Your friend in the polo club, why was he expelled?” Owen burst out laughing, something he hadn’t done for a very long time. “Ha, ha, ha, they said it was for behaviour prejudicial to the club’s reputation, but it was because he was caught with the Chairman’s son. It was behind the bar very early on a Sunday morning. They’d been inadvertently locked in. The cleaners found them.” Memories of that wild night bounced around in Owen’s head and he knew that these questions could only have come from Robert Jenson, his long forgotten dalliance and one of his rejected friends. The man had tried very hard to make up for so many little sins over the years, but Owen resolutely ignored him. Borrowing money and never paying it back. Not showing up when he said he would. Teasing Elsa with just a tad too much sarcasm. And when they were young, leaving the pub without getting a round in. Those yearning eyes. Telling so many lies. Drinking too much and offending Elsa. Pushing her in the river and screaming at the top of his lungs that “Owen loves me you fucking cunt, so fuck off and drown in the Neckar why don’t you” was easily the worst. Elsa, then still relatively sane had taken it in stride, clambering up the bank some few meters downriver before calling to Owen to deal with “your very drunk friend” before turning back for the house and dry clothes. Looking back it was all quite funny, but their threeway friendship never really recovered. Perhaps it was always that fragile, once the dalliance had been recognised as just that and nothing more. Theresa Snelling was speaking again, asking about the little black book. “Yes I have it. It’s just a collection of reminiscences from years ago.” “Please look at the last two pages, at the list. Have you found it?” Owen looked again at the mysterious codes. “Yes I see it. What about it? It’s just random numbers.”

At the other end of the line Theresa Snelling allowed herself a small smile. “Mr Clayton, please keep that little book safe until you receive further instructions, after which you can take action. I will be sending a colleague to formally confirm your identity and deliver my letter.” Owen Clayton began to think it was all a stupid hoax and waited for Theresa Snelling to tell him that he needed to cough up €1000 or some such amount before her letter would be handed over. But she didn’t and Owen decided it was all too much, all too complicated and why were they scamming him in the first place. Perhaps they didn’t know his money was all gone.

Some days later while Owen and Elsa were sitting in the garden discussing rabbits, a car drew up and a serious-looking man in dark gloomy clothes approached their front-door. Leading Elsa by the hand, Owen came around to the front of the house and waited. With a slight bow the man introduced himself in flawless English and proceeded to explain that he represented a co-respondent firm of lawyers in Frankfurt and was here to deliver a letter, subject to proof of identity.

The legal summons and court requests piled up in the kitchen were an adequate start. Owen’s passport, birth certificate and residency documents were handy too, as were documents relating to the sale of his company. Owen was careful to keep track of everything, vaguely anxious that this hoax might in fact be a theft. He waited patiently as Elsa clutched his hand and occasionally gasped when the man glanced at her and smiled, and nodded sympathetically at Owen. He waited and waited, and eventually their visitor looked up with a smile and a nod. “Everything is in order. Quite satisfactory,” he said, stacking the documents into a neat pile and pushing them to one side. “Here we go,” thought Owen as the man pulled a letter out of his bag.

Owen waited for the line, wondering how much they would be asked to stump up for this probably worthless letter. But the letter was pushed towards him as the visitor rose and extended his right hand. He checked his watch and with a slight nod said “Thank you for your time and your assistance.” With a gesture towards the documents he added: “My job has been made so much easier. And things I hope will improve for you soon Mr Clayton”. 

Together Owen and Elsa, still clutching very tight to her husband’s hand, saw their guest out and then Elsa wanted to go and lie down. It was some time before Owen could return to the kitchen table and the mysterious letter. As promised it was from Theresa Snelling, who explained that the strange envelope he had received some days ago was prepared by his friend Robert Jenson many years ago shortly after the Claytons had moved to Heidelberg. It further explained that Robert Jenson had died some weeks previously and was now buried in the Flushing Cemetery in Queens, a borough of New York City. Mr Jenson had been living in New York for many years, and the letter said that the property on 64th Street in the Upper East Side was to be left to the Elton John AIDS Foundation, along with all other assets. There was one exception, the assets listed in the little black book now in Owen Clayton’s possession. Theresa Snelling explained that the list is of shares Robert Jenson wanted Owen and Elsa Clayton to have. Owen looked at the strange codes with new eyes: GOOGL 100 @ $85 ’04 ’14 ’15; MSFT 100 @ $21 ’86 x 9; AAPL 100 @$22 ’80 x 5; FB 100 @$38 ’12. Shares with their purchase prices and dates, and their splits. Owen’s hands shook and the world was spinning and the letter said Robert hoped that one day they might visit him in Flushing, forgive his past misdemeanours and say sorry for having so long ignored him.