Heck Ek it’s been ages. So let’s make time fly Like the Tardis Or the fastest Masarati We need a party! Heck Ek let’s rush Not like a trike Or a slow cook A long book Or a pilati Class We need a party A bonfire party A dinner party Or just a good hearty Laugh WITH YOU Hek Ek In York Ok X
I still have the guide book I took with me in 1980. “Umbria the green heart of Italy – The City of Perugia – In the evening young people, many of them foreign language students from the famous Italian language school for foreigners, sprawl on the cathedral steps, still warm from the sun, chatting together, eating ice cream or watching the nightly “passeggiata” of fashionable Perugini.” The stone steps outside the cathedral are still warm but I don’t chat or sprawl or eat ice cream nor am I young, I just sit with my ant.
Like me, my ant enjoys the warmth of the steps. I believe It helps her charge her battery for the important tasks she does during the day. We all have important tasks don’t we. I have to learn Italian, my ant has to do whatever ants do, like get food, build a nest or have baby ants. – Lay eggs I should say.- Ants lay eggs don’t they? – I think she builds her nest underground, and lays eggs, maybe under the actual stones I am sitting on. That would explain why I don’t need to look for her or call her. She’s been waiting all day, waiting for the feel of my body on top of her. Or that’s what I like to think. I just place my hand flat on the stone and in a minute or so she appears and climbs on. It’s like we are holding hands.
I have never studied ants – not in the way you study Italian. I just feel things about her without having to read books. It’s the same with people. You know when somebody likes you without studying them. It’s an instinct. Sometimes I look at her though my reading glasses while she fusses about on my hand. She’s small and dark and very beautiful with an amazing body. It seems to shine even in the late evening. We don’t stay holding hands for long in case I squash her, instead I gently guide her off onto the steps and draw a circle around her with a black marker and she stays in it. She must think it’s a wall.
Perugia has the highest, oldest walls of any Italian city and the steepest hills. That’s what I think anyway. The sun has trouble getting in so it always dark even in the day. Dark enough that when I walk back down the hill after lunch for my nap through the cramped streets it’s like I am tunnelling. It makes me think of my ant. I imagine her laying her eggs in the cosy corners of her stone step or in my bed, tunnelling under the duvet or in the pillow-case to the safe places, so nobody can find them but us.
Of course, I miss my Maria. I want to be sprawling on these same warm steps, eating ice cream watching the nightly “passeggiata” of fashionable Perugini” with my Maria.
She’s long gone of course – I’m not stupid – I’m just saying in those days she was my best friend. Nothing improper mind you. She just sat next to me every evening. She was young and dark, and beautiful, very Italian. She listened to me attentively. “Mi chiami Christopher. Io abito in Inghilterra. Io ho vent anni.” She was gregarious with lots of friends. They all listened to me. They loved my accent. I think they found me very charming as they were always there waiting, loads of them! Sometimes Maria was very cheeky and lay against my arm licking the sticky ice cream stream that trickled down my wrists, her head thrown back soaking up the sugary liquids flavoured with peach or melon or hazelnut. She was brazenly unconcerned about flavours or hygiene.
She was my first love.
My first and most precious ant.
After the incident with the steam roller Kenneth the ginger and white cat was reincarnated as a red post box. It appeared overnight at the bottom of the Rise, his favoured haunt from his previous life.
No humans commented on its sudden appearance assuming that the post office had at last delivered on their promise to provide one for the convenience of the many commuters who used the railway station. The cats on the other-hand were incensed that a symbol of respectable utility should be derived from the soul of such a vagabond. They formed a protest group to campaign for its replacement with one sprung from the soul of a solid sort of cat but it didn’t fly.
Kenneth’s mouth that had hitherto been used for biting and eating was now a gaping invitation for anyone to insert their pennings. Had they been aware of the post boxes provenance that may have thought twice before so committing. You see Kenneth’s physical form may have changed but his personality hadn’t.
Kenneth had led the life of an adventurer. His adventures were largely of the amorous variety but he took in some skirmishing, vandalism, and petty larceny as well. Accordingly he received the offerings thrust between his red open lips as opportunities to exercise his previous passions and extract some payback. A letter to a lover he would lick until the ink ran purple, the stamps fell off and it smelt of stale lamb gravy. A letter to the bank, perhaps enclosing a cheque or even cash he would shred with his claws in an effort to extract the good capital and find away to spend it on fish. A letter complaining to the parish council about stray cats digging up the freshly raked soil in somebody’s allotment would be drowned in the most noxious acidic spray he could muster until it was reduced back to the pulp that formed it and thus made a perfect a spring mulch for the aforesaid allotment should the complainer be so inclined as to be granted it back thorough solicitous negotiation with the postman whose job it was to disembowel Kenneth at 4:15 on weekdays and 10:15 on Saturdays.
So the post box soon acquired a reputation as a malevolent force intent on ruining the orderly rhythm of the neighbourhood and providing little value in terms of its intent as somewhere to send letters from. The commuters avoided it for anything but the most thoughtless birthday card or ill intended thank you letter . The residents of the rise crossed the road rather than pass too close to avoid the noise and smell. Even those intent in debasing themselves by utilising its inviting orifice did so with exceptional care. Life had come full circle but Kenneth had evolved from cat to container, thus he was content.
I slipped off my socks, rolled up my trousers and picked up my sixpenny fishing net. The gate had corroded to such a point that parts of it were now missing and local children had long since found ways to squeeze through the bars. Now much of it had disappeared allowing access to any child not put off by the cavernous darkness and strange echoes beyond. I climbed through with little difficulty. Behind me were children paddling, framed within the gaping mouth of bridge, trousers rolled up or dresses tucked into pants wielding fishing nets and loudly declaring their prowess at netting fish or tadpoles. I knew that on the other side, inaccessible accept by this means, lay an abandoned water mill it’s wheel still sloshing relentlessly, grinding no more grain, and providing no living for the parents of these children. The children watched me enter but didn’t try to follow.
Despite the pressing current and the darkness that initially made me panic a little, I told myself that the secret would be to consider each new footstep carefully while bracing myself against the current with the stick of my fishing net. That way I wouldn’t stumble and make a fool of myself. I knew that ahead there were troughs in the river bed as well as sharp stones. I knew the water became noticeably colder especially near the middle where for some reason the current seemed to pause and miniature whirlpools would sometimes appear. I was sufficiently far in that I could already feel the water chilling. My feet were accustomed to the route but appeared whiter and thinner with blue veins that in the cold water glowed like an ancient script. As I lifted my head I was aware of a distant descant of children dwarfed occasionally by rumble of a car passing over the bridge overhead and the slosh the waterwheel. It brought it all back.
I looked back. A small audience of children had assembled beyond the gate framed by the bridge arch now in silhouette against a bright afternoon sun. The bridge was made from flint and consequently the raw edges of sharp stones glistened and reflected the light back into the rivers flow and back onto there faces like the moving grain of an old film. The children were smiling, kind smiles like they recognised me. The faces were familiar. I knew them everyone. My eyes filled with tears and I leant against the wall blotting out the reflected light. The screen went dead. My feet were freezing. My fishing net slipped from my grasp. I felt myself falling. The flints scraped against my back as a sat into the water. The water filled my trousers and I wet myself.
“Chris I can see you ? Are you alright. We have been really worried .You have missed your tea but we kept some for you. It’s trifle your favourite. Come on now everyone’s waiting it’s bingo night.
Most common shrews are shaped like a thumb, but today Shrewdini polished off a snail, a slug and a worm in one go, and consequently became spherical. Satisfied that he could absorb no more goodies, and passing a somewhat liquid trail in his wake, he threaded his way beneath the kitchen table, skirting Tuffin’s feet (who was absorbed in eating his cornflakes), toward the convenient gap under the back door leading to the garden.
When Rita the ginger and white cat spotted something rolling across the lawn, at first she thought that a ball of wool (like those designed to, but typically failing to, tempt her into performances of playfulness) was on the loose, but then moments later the smell of a meat-sweating shrew entered her nostrils and she contemplated the convenience of addressing the obligations of ‘playtime’ and the pleasures of ‘lunchtime’ in one go.
Despite having sprung him to safety on numerous occasions – only yesterday from a steam roller engaged in rolling new tarmac on one side of the road between the station and the semidetached house, number 11, that was home to Rita, and its dense front garden, that was home to Shrewdini – today, the shrew’s reflexes (undermined by the excessive consumption of grub) let him down.
Rita had no need to pounce as reaching was sufficient. She trapped Shrewdini under the weight of her paw, her claws snagging his tail like the coil of a snake in a miniature croquet hoop.
Tuffin, the owner of number 11 and Rita, had grown aware of Shrewdini from the tell-tale rodent ‘calling cards’ that had started to appear each morning in his cornflakes (delivered bi-weekly via Mr Munn’s grocery van). However, he was not aware that at night, from time to time, after the shrew had finished dining and shitting, Shrewdini and he would have a doze in front of the Parkway stove, or listen to the Archers together, or share flakes of pastry from a vanilla slice that fell onto Shrewdini’s velvet fur like edible snowflakes. Despite having no great fondness for people in general, Shrewdini had only good thoughts for Tuffin and his vanilla slices.
Had Tuffin been aware of Shrewdini’s good thoughts, he might have intervened in the perilous situation now faced by the shrew awaiting his fate under Rita’s paw, who, in common with all cats, was prolonging the agony for her intended victim by pausing to reflect.
Rita’s life with Tuffin was one of neglect punctuated by savagery. She belonged to Tuffin only in the way a stray primrose belonged to Tuffin’s garden: it got there somehow and then stayed. This trait was shared, to varying degrees, by all the cats distributed the length of the street (known as the Rise), from number one (nearest the station), a black cat with a slightly disfiguring white stain on her face known as the ‘Station Cat’, although she wasn’t; to number fifty-eight, another one of the ubiquitous ginger and white variety, described by the owner of the last and most prestigious house at the highest point of the Rise (where the road ends abruptly, crowned with a dense wood peopled by nothing but squirrels) as ‘strawberry blond.’ All the Rise cats endured fortnightly calls from a strikingly scarred but angelically white bastard called Kenneth who would deliver a shag or a punch topped off with a snack on whatever tidbits his victim had to hand. This meant that Rita relied on rodents like Shrewdini to supplement the meagre fare provided sporadically by Tuffin (and stolen by Kenneth) that most recently consisted of little but shit-stained cornflakes (a fact she took a little pleasure in contemplating as she observed Kenneth’s enthusiastic post coital feasting on said). The larder robberies that elicited Rita’s modest pleasures and partial starvation provoked in Tuffin an urgent interest in shrews and how best to trap them.
He researched what things shrews like to eat using his almost complete edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (purchased from Mr Kirby who toured the streets in his Ford Anglia signing up those citizens obliged to seek knowledge in instalments). Mr Kirby’s terms were sufficient to encourage Tuffin to fill his bookshelf with a lifetime’s worth of scholarly reading – including the details of the dietary habits of the common shrew, to be found in volume 10.
Thus, over the ensuing weeks Tuffin deployed the shrew tidbits recommended, in volume 10, one by one, as bait for a mouse trap. First snail, then slug and finally worm were prepared, one for each sitting, taking care to attach the live bait to the trap using an assortment of electrical tape, pins, glues and staples. For three weeks Tuffin checked the efficacy of the slug, snail, or worm, and each week he noted that the trap had been triggered without leaving a decapitated or paralysed shrew to slowly desiccate, and that the bait had been removed, the staples pulled out, electrical tape peeled off and pins unpinned. Shrewdini had clearly struck, and thus, driven by financial imperatives and revulsion, Tuffin felt obliged to strike back and to load the trap with snail, slug, and worm in a seductive sandwich formation, making sure to attach the bait with his complete arsenal of adhesives, staples, and pins, hoping to overwhelm the shrew’s rational thought and allow his unbridled greed to cause him to ‘lose his head’ when faced with such a supersized feast.
However, the entry on the evolutionary advantage of intelligence, sufficient that the more gifted in the shrew community could recognise a mouse trap for what it was (namely, a blunt force guillotine) and acquire the engineering skills and dexterity of paw, claw, and tooth to disable said device safely while not rendering the bait irrecoverable, was in the supplementary volume of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica yet to be supplied by Mr Kirby, so, upon encountering Tuffin’s triple-decker, Shrewdini used his skills in engineering to counter Tuffin’s knowledge of shrews to yet again disable the trap, this time repurposing the mechanism to lever off the heavy load (so securely stapled and glued) and eat all three baits in one glorious blow out. Thus inflated by an excess of gastropoda and invertebrates, and with the commensurate impairment to his reflexes previously referred to, Shrewdini ended up held captive under Rita’s paw.
And so he found himself looking into the jaws of death as Rita prepared to swallow him head first, this being the custom for the consumption of shrews by cats. The shrew’s volume, Rita estimated from previous experience of the species, was that of a canapé. True, he looked somewhat rotund in comparison to the examples she had savoured in the past, but a velvet glaze, a soft bone shell, and a liquid centre was her expectation, and, confident in her appraisal, she forked him into her mouth with her teeth, taking care not to puncture the delicate skin and let any of the juice go to waste.
Rita attempted to swallow, but the spherical Shrewdini stuck fast. Rita tried to swallow again, but her airway was blocked as effectively as an acorn can block a squirrel’s arse, a rare phenomenon she had encountered during her safaris into the dense wood at the top of the hill that as you may recall was peopled only by squirrels. Rita tried to breathe, but, if a ginger and white cat could turn blue, she was in the process of doing so. The only recourse was to cough, and, being a cat, she had a cough specifically designed to dislodge furry objects. Accordingly she lay flat, extended her neck like a sword swallower, pulled her projectile vomit face, and after several painful attempts Shrewdini was ejected at considerable force, sweeping past the aforementioned stray primrose in Tuffin’s garden, into the road, right between the legs of Kenneth, who was approaching with the intent of biting Rita’s neck and then shagging her.
So surprised by the unexpected projectile that passed under him and them skittered forth, Kenneth redirected his violent passions aroused by Rita toward food and fun, and accordingly turned and gave chase to the ball of wool that smelt like shrew and cat sick. With monstrous aplomb, he sucked Shrewdini down in one go, unaware of the rumble of iron on stone and the shadow of a steam roller (employed to roll the new tar on the other side of the road) that bore down on him so swiftly that, in just a second, it had embossed a perfect white cat-shaped puddle into the perfect black tarmac and triggered a noise of such specificity (that of squashed white cat in consort with squashed, partially-digested, and suffocated shrew) that Tuffin, who coincidentally was busy reading the history of human cannonballs in volume 4 of his encyclopaedia, was drawn into the street just in time to witness the grisly scene.
Rita purred and caressed Tuffin’s shins with her tail as the steam roller passed by and the traffic was allowed to flow one more, bearing Mr Kirby’s Ford Anglia. In his front seat was the final supplementary volume of the Complete Encyclopaedia Britannica bound for Tuffin’s creaking bookshelf. Moments later came Mr Munn’s grocery van to number 11 carrying cornflakes and a vanilla slice for Tuffin, who, after meticulously restocking his larder, sat in front of the Parkray stove, dropping flakes of pastry onto the floor and perusing the entry on the recently discovered evolutionary enhancements that enabled the most gifted common shrews to escape from even the most advanced traps, earning them the nomenclature of the Houdini Variant Common Shrew, or ‘Shrewdini’.