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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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Hilda came forward. She could hardly hobble, but gamely made the
mounting stone. Jox vacated it, helped her up. I stepped forward with the medal
- Slicer's manufactory, Olympic circles, gold glistening, silk ribbon - and
placed it on the lady's neck. I stepped aside to avoid her drenching tears and
stood at attention for the US national anthem. The watchers stood in silence,
hats doffed. Applause. We helped the lady down.

Thank you,' she said over and over. 'I'm so proud.' -

It was handshakes all round, with her husband advancing along
camera angles and blinding us all with flashes. Then came the fee, which Jox
snaffled, promising me with nods and winks. I edged him aside to get my food
money, but he edged away faster. Inge went after him like a sprinting hippo.
Slicer collected the gear in a handcart, ominously reminding me I owed him a
mediaeval fake by tomorrow dinner time.

'I'd like to invite you and your officials to dinner, sir.' Hilda
caught me.

Thank you, Hilda,' I said, dazzled. 'I am honoured. The officials
are due elsewhere. If you're sure?'

'Vernon here insists, don't you, Vern?'

'Sure do.' We all wrung hands once more for the road, and were
joined by several others.

Everybody was talking. Working out what Americans say is hard
work, but luckily they shun nuance so a streamlined syntax shows above their
accents. They belonged to a touring charabanc.

This was my dream,' Hilda said, proudly wearing her medal. 'I missed
the Pensacola final when I was eighteen, didn't make the cut. Never got to the
Olympics.'

'Yes, you did, Hilda,' I put in. 'You just got the gold.'

We went towards the George carvery, joyance unbounded. I barely
made it from hunger. The carvery lets you fill your plate as many times as you
want. I did six trips, and for the first time I could remember was replete.

'You must have been a war baby, Lovejoy!' Hilda said in admiration
as I scoffed the last load.

That set me roaring with laughter too. Dangerous, because I almost
started reminiscing on Jox's many titles and awards. He'd lately dished out
three Congressional Medals of Honour, a barrow-load of Victoria Crosses, and,
during the recent European Games, made two people Count of Monte Cristo and no
fewer than six ladies Countess Pompadour. There's an old geezer called Doothie,
lives in a caravan on the estuary, who copperplates his manuscripts, the only
calligrapher with a watercooled overheated quill. I didn't say this. I spoke a
little heartfelt prattle when Hilda smiled rather sadly - by then Aldo the
carvery boss was plying us with limitless wine - and said groggily,

'Lovejoy, I expect you think this is all kinda silly.'

'Silly? Why should I?'

'Us, the whole holiday thing. These parchments that are pretty but
kind of well, made up. Play, y'know?'

'No.' I took her hand gently. It held her wholemeal roll. I
removed it, pinched her butter and wolfed it. Never look a gift horse and all
that. The rest were all yakking, laughing, joking. I helped her to finish her plate
in case she ran out of appetite. 'I'm an antique dealer. I find dreams.'

'Dreams? You
find
dreams?'

'In the strangest places, love. Once I found a genuine ancient
Etruscan bronze statuette for a politician in Newark.' I grinned, enjoying
myself now. 'He wanted to present one to some visiting Italian mayor. I
searched for three months, the clock against me. With two days to go I finally
found one hanging under a wheelbarrow in a garden centre.'

'How did you know to look there?'

'Felt it, Hilda.' The wine and food made me indiscreet.

'Feel?' She had great spectacles. I gazed into them, laughing,
gazed at everyone. We were all on one long grazing table.

'Aye, love. Your pendant's older than you by a hundred years,
love. Did you know?' Glancing down the table, I picked on Vernon. 'Your
husband's got something in his pocket worth maybe more than this carvery. And
that lady with the brooch . . .'

A silence had started up. They were staring, no longer grazing and
gazing. I wondered if I was sloshed. Vernon cleared his throat. The rest of the
carvery was still noshing, bustling with a genial clatter. It was only us.

'What?' My stupid grin froze.

'You see, Vern?' Hilda breathed in something like triumph. 'I
said, didn't I?'

'You did right, hon.'

Then they all started talking at once, and I got woozy. I think
they took me home. I remember promising to come for breakfast, meet them at the
Welcome Sailor, talk over the Survey, give them a fortnight, show them round .
. .

Vaguely I remember them stumbling about my dark cottage, Vernon
cursing, somebody saying, 'Hey. These goddam Limeys never heard of
electricity?' and the woman with the brooch saying, 'Hush up, Elroy. We had it
hard in Des Moines . . .' And a flashlight blinding as I fell on my unmade
divan.

Then I was alone, peaceful, in the arms of Morpheus. For how long,
I don't know. A vague internal signal that it was midnight, and suddenly a slab
torch clicked whiteness on bright as day.

The peach dress girl was in my doorway. A draught blew in. She now
wore a smart suit, ready to take over ICI, held the lamp out like an infected
handbag. I gaped, bleary.

'If it's a valuation, love, tomorrow, eh?'

'Good morning, Lovejoy. May I trouble you?'

Morning, when I'd just got to bed? Why do they say May I Trouble
You, when they already have? It's like the Inland Revenue asking, May I? I
whimpered. 'Not now, love.'

'I apologize. But it is a matter of life or death.'

This intrigued me so much I dozed off, but she spoke the magic
word.

'I am Miss Juliana Witherspoon, Lovejoy. Antiques.'

'Eh?' Suddenly I was sitting up. 'Where? Whose?'

‘A . . . a friend's.' She bit her lip. Really did gnaw her lower
lip. I watched, fascinated. You don't often see people do it. And thought, oho.
Her lover in trouble? Time is of the essence, Lovejoy. It's his last one, you
see. I think it may get stolen. I wish you to prevent the crime.'

Prevent
crime? Novelty upon
novelty. I gauged her. She looked in deadly earnest. And beautiful. This bird
would not give up lightly. True to form, I surrendered.

'Got a match, love? I'll brew up.'

 

7

Portents really exist. Sometimes, you just know an offer spells
doom, this woman is born trouble, that date will prove your downfall. Me, I go
anyway, drawn by hope which, combined with a perennial lack of willpower, leads
to disaster.

 

There was once a Vandal King who ruled North Africa-we're talking
Anno Domini
410. However you define that
ghastly word power, King Genseric wielded it with horrendous effect. History
books call him ‘the most terrible'. No wayside pansy he. He ravished Hippo,
stormed Carthage, invaded Italy, engulfed Rome itself. But deep down he was a
troubled man, for Genseric the Vandal had a recurrent nightmare. Served him
right, because he invented a fashionable kind of genocide that persists to this
very day: the social policy of Christians massacring Christians. An Arian
Christian, he decided to massacre Christians of orthodox Roman inclinations,
just like on tonight's - or any other night's - six o'clock news. So King
Genseric surged through the Roman Empire, terrorizing all but whimpering in his
sleep.

He knew no physical fear. Why should he? But night after shivering
night, this monster drifted into sleep. . . to find himself, in his dream,
suddenly gliding through a serene palace. Forward he glides, thinking this is
nice, all peace and quiet, towards a tranquil old gent. (Phew! Okay so far!
King Genseric always started a sweat of relief about here, because it hadn't
happened yet. Maybe tonight he'd make it unscathed . . . You know the feeling.)

He glides. The old man smiles kindly. He is bearded, benign. No
worries! The trembling but mighty Genseric is reassured. Will it be okay this
time? The white-haired old figure, benevolence itself, stoops to offer some fruit.
Hey, we're all pals here. King Genseric thinks, made it! He leans forward-
and looks into the old man's eyes.

Horror! He sees a pit of stark terror, feels himself falling in,
oh Jesus, no not again, falling, falling ... He shrieks awake, gibbering and screaming,
et ghoulish cetera. Night after horrible scarey night, he never escapes that
ghastly pit. That's all it was, the whole scene: mighty Genseric, sweet old
gent, the frighteners.

Which is where it should have ended, a mere footnote. Everybody
has a nightmare, so what? Except out in the world there was pillaging to be
done, and hollow-eyed King Genseric knew his duty.

Cut to Nola, in Europe, to the shrine of St Felix, where one
Paulinus humbly tended the flower garden.

Now, Paulinus was interesting. Snowy-haired, gentle, this creaking
geriatric was kindness itself. Once, he had been governor of a Roman province,
no less, a consul of Rome before his thirtieth birthday. So no slouch, our
Paulinus. But he was deep. One day, he chucked it all up-the power, the riches
- and became the priest at the shrine of St Felix. Life was serene. Until
rumours came of the whole Roman Empire being stormed by the Vandal hordes of
sleepless You-Know-Who.

Refugees poured past, fleeing their wrath. Vandal looters
swaggered about, dragging coffles of slaves. Turmoil, death, trouble reigned.
In this mayhem, old Paulinus sold all his wealth to ransom back the slaves,
incidentally including St Felix's sons. Finally he'd spent up. He'd stripped
the shrine bare, given everything.

On that last penniless day a weeping widow came.

'Please, Paulinus. Ransom my son! He's taken in slavery!'

'Sorry, love,' says Paulinus, sad. 'I'm skint.'

She begs on her knees. 'Have you nothing left?'

'Goodness!' says Paulinus. 'I've just remembered! I
have
.’

He plods off to the Vandal captain,
and sells himself
. He makes a good case. Getting on in years, but
he's an excellent gardener, skilled grafter of trees, grows superb vegetables,
can write, you ask anyone. The Vandal captain says it's a deal. Paulinus
ransoms the lad. And is chained into the Vandal galleys. The fleet rows away
from smouldering Europe, docks in North Africa. Paulinus is sent to slog in the
gardens of a Vandal prince. (I’ll bet you guess the ending.) For completeness:
Eventually, King Genseric comes to dine, chats with his daughter, his
son-in-law the Vandal prince. Ho, King and Dad, says the princess, why not try
some lovely salads and things, because I've this gardener, a slave from some
dump in Europe, a dab hand with greens, never seen fruit like what he grows.
Great, ho daughter, says Genseric. Slaves, cries the princess, tell the old sod
Paulinus to get a move on, bring the very best produce. This isn't some casual
caller, this is the mighty Genseric before whom empires tremble, so quick about
it. Frightened slaves scatter and sprint.

Enter Paulinus with a basket of fruit, stoops down, offering it.
King Genseric says hey, this looks the best. Says ta. He leans down - looks
into the old man's eyes . . .

Shriek! Horror!
The
nightmare's gone real!
Mighty tyrant Genseric is a blubbering wreck. Well,
you can imagine. Consternation, guards pouring in, the princess hysterical, the
Vandal prince thundering out Who's done what to Dad? while soldiers and slaves
mill about, during which saintly old Paulinus, kneeling with his trug, wonders,
what the hell happened, I miss something here? Then the princess howls, 'What's
in that frigging basket? That old slave sent Daddy demented! Execute him!'

Happy ending for once. Paulinus is leapt on and, knee-deep in
shackles and assorted ironmongery, admits all: ex-governor, Roman consul, etc,
etc. King Genseric, badly shaken, goes phew with relief, recovers his cool,
orders Paulinus freed, and sent home with a galley-load of freed slaves. It's
back to St Felix's shrine. When kindly old Paulinus eventually passed on,
people of every stripe followed his coffin weeping, 'even Jews and Infidels'
adds Gregory the Great -among, presumably, the few surviving Christians.

 

See what I mean? Portents. If you're a king of mighty armies like
Genseric the Vandal, I suppose you can escape blame by munificent gestures. But
somebody like me's for it. Maybe subconsciously I was trying to shun this
portent, knowing it would be fatal, but I still didn't have the sense to tell Juliana
Witherspoon a deafening no.

'Look, miss,' I said to her blinding torch. 'I kip naked, so wait
outside, please.'

'No, thank you.' She stood like a sentry, feet together. 'I fear
you may evade your duty, Love joy. I shall wait.'

Narked, I struggled to sit up. You can't be angry at a woman when
lying down. I've often tried. 'I didn't invite you - '

'Your reprehensible behaviour in avoiding my requests have
eradicated your rights, Lovejoy,' she had the gall to say.

'That's bloody convenient,' I shot back. I'd never get to sleep
now. 'What time is it?'

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
5.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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