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Also by Fay Weldon

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Henry Shrapnel, or Shrapnell, that great military genius, thought up his idea for a spherical case shot in approximately 1793. It was approved for use by the Board of Ordnance in 1803, and first used in Surinam (Dutch Guiana) in 1804. The common bursting shell had, of course, been in use since the middle of the seventeenth century; but in the same fictional spirit as we say Columbus ‘discovered’ America in 1492, we can say that Henry Shrapnel ‘invented’ the exploding cannonball in 1804.

1

The Shrapnel Academy is an institution dedicated to the memory of that great military genius, Henry Shrapnel – he who in 1804 invented the exploding cannonball. Bella Morthampton spent a weekend at this interesting and curious place last January. She went in the company of her lover, General Leo Makeshift, who was to give the annual Wellington Lecture; his subject was to be ‘Decisive Battles of World War II’. Bella and he travelled down to the Academy on the Friday evening. Their car was a chauffeur-driven black Rolls-Royce, so plumply upholstered within it might have been a padded cell. For much of the journey the General’s hand was upon Bella’s knee. The interior fitments of the limousine were embossed wherever possible with the emblems of the Ministry of Defence; its windows were darkened and bullet-proof. It was surprisingly quiet inside, as is a church in a noisy city centre. Those outside, of course, could not see those inside at all; who it was who travelled in so grand and mysterious a way, though who could doubt that whoever it was had the future nicely at their fingertips. And as for the view from within, well, that was distorted by the thickness of the toughened glass panes, so that the world passed by, as intended, as if it had almost nothing at all to do with Bella or the General; neither the noble broadwalks of the central city, not the humbler, messy suburbs, nor the stark and unleaved country lanes the limousine presently manoeuvred – the Shrapnel Academy was situated in the rural heart of the country – but of course it had: it had very much to do with them, and they with it.

Bang! Bang! as the children say to each other. Bang, you’re dead!

Bella posed as the General’s secretary, at his request. He wished to live comfortably with his wife – an innocent and elderly soul – and avoid scandal, and why should he not? Bella wore a tight black skirt and seamed tights and did her best to keep her knees decorously together. She held a briefcase in her lap. She pursed her crimson mouth, as if it opened only to eat or speak, and then with discretion. Her fingers were long and tapering; she pressed them together until they were bloodless, and she had filed her nails prudently square. She even went without rouge. But what was the use? Whatever she did to herself she remained beautiful, and looked more like a mistress than a secretary. Keep her eyes downcast as she might, whenever she raised them it could be seen that she was everyone’s and anyone’s. So she did not expect to deceive guests and members of the Shrapnel Academy for long as to the true nature of her relationship with the General – but was prepared, for his sake, to try to do so. She was as fond of him as she had ever been of anyone. Over seventy he might be, but Bella had never been averse to the love of old men. She generated her own desire: the limbs and lips of young or old would do for her.

In the briefcase were the notes for the General’s lecture and, should Bella pall, some whisky for his further pleasure and some magazines for his further entertainment. The whisky was Laphroaig and the magazines included Fortune, Fealty, Nature and Insignia, this last distributed free by American Express to those with half-way decent credit ratings. On its heavy pages were advertisements for the most expensive cars in the world, accounts of gourmet dinners in spectacular places and photographs of thin model-girls vivid against Ethiopian sands. Readers were not so much expected to buy, or share, or wear: as to remember that the rewards of the world are always there and worth the fighting for. Theirs not to wonder why, theirs just to do and buy! Zoom! Whee! Is that a missile I see before me? Reader, you will have to forgive me. You know what fiction is; it will keep bursting over into real life, and vice versa.

‘Bella,’ said the General, loudly, into the baffling silence – he meant to speak softly, but at seventy it is sometimes difficult to control the vocal chords – ‘you will have your own room at the Academy, being a member of my staff, but you will come and visit me tonight, won’t you, and be kind to me?’

‘Of course,’ she said. That was what she was there for. Everyone needs someone to be kind to them: in a perfect world we should all take turns, giving and receiving kindness. Bella’s voice was soft and low, her lips were thin: her outside and her inside only narrowly divided, so that an approach to the outside implied sudden violent access to the inside. The General’s hand tightened on her knee: the sinews from his knuckles to his wrist stood out taut and mauve, strong raised highways above pale valleys and dips of papery skin – his fingers hooked beneath her tight black skirt and pulled the fabric up her widening thighs so she feared a seam might fray and split; he elbowed the briefcase onto the floor, and pushed her back upon the velvety seat, and struggled and heaved with her flesh and his own, his khaki gaberdine and her secretarial crimplene much embarrassing them both – and so they travelled down to the Shrapnel Academy – General Leo Makeshift and Bella Morthampton.

2

Ivor the blond chauffeur adjusted his driving mirror so that he could no longer see what was happening on the other side of the glass partition. So much any good chauffeur should do. Then he switched off the microphone which enabled sound to travel from the back of the car to the front. This too was no more than his professional duty. He could not see, he could not hear, but still he knew, and was disconcerted.

Once Ivor too had taken his pleasure with Bella. She had worked at the cash-desk of the Ministry of Defence staff canteen. He was eighteen; it was five years ago. At the annual staff party he and Bella had drunk together, danced together and spent the night together, making love together in one of the secret cipher rooms. Or he thought they had. But the very next day she had seemed not to recognise him.

She had sat composed and tidy at the canteen cash-desk, seemingly unmarked by the night’s experience. Her cheek was smooth and her eyes clear.

‘Bella! Bella, it’s me!’ She raised her large grey eyes to his.

‘I’m sorry. Should I know you?’

‘But it’s me!’ he said. He felt like a child knocking at its mother’s door and no one answering.

‘Of course it’s you,’ she said then, brightly and briskly. ‘Everyone is always them. 10p for the coffee and 7p the Chelsea Bun.’ (The canteen was heavily subsidised.)

He had her bite marks on his shoulders. Whenever he turned his head they hurt. He had woken to the pleasure of these wounds of love. She smiled at him now – yes, those were her teeth, pale and strong – and the amiability of her look belied the cruelty of her words, as she denied him.

‘I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else. Perhaps you only dreamed whatever it was you dreamed? Perhaps someone else said they were me? So many things can happen in this life, especially at night!’

Ivor did not go back to the canteen for a long time and when he did a girl called Debbie-Anne sat in Bella’s place. Presently Ivor courted and married Debbie-Anne, and was now father to three children under four, and his wife lay quiet and still beneath him, and let him get on with what he felt he had to do, but did not wrap her legs around his neck as Bella Morthampton had done on the night of the staff party. This is no criticism of Debbie-Anne, reader. It’s just that she needed all her strength for her unborn or suckling children. Three children under four is a lot to cope with! Bella, of course, had no children. She didn’t like them.

Now Bella was in the back of his car with the General, wrapping her legs where she felt inclined. His one-night stand, the General’s mistress! Ivor admired the General while despising Bella, and hoped that when he, Ivor, was seventy, he would still be in such good condition. But of course, it is young men’s blood which keeps generals young and virile, and where was Ivor to get a supply of that? Generals are not just anyone; don’t think they are. The roads they travel are muddy, and the mud is mixed with blood. Jump out of the way as the limousine rolls by!

Ivor switched the microphone back on. Bella still moaned and the General groaned. It was indecent: but of course it was exciting, as the indecent is. Ivor turned the switch off again, out of respect to Debbie-Anne, and did his best to keep his mind on the road.

The black car was no longer sleek, but mud-spattered. The wipers drove sludge into the corners of the windscreen. Ivor was not sorry. He could spend the weekend cleaning and polishing. Boredom is the occupational hazard of the Ministry chauffeur, waiting in this Rolls or that Mercedes, outside barracks or the palace or on the periphery of parade grounds. Chauffeurs wait, the wrong side of lighted windows, and while they wait they brood.

A right, another right, over a hump-backed bridge, a sharp left along a rutted lane – bump, bump; past a hitchhiker – man or woman, hard to tell which, but in any case ignored. The General and Bella disentwined themselves. Ivor switched on the intercom. Now they travelled narrow lanes between high, untrimmed, dripping hedges.

‘Nearly there, sir,’ said Ivor. He had memorised the map. It was his special talent, and his pride so to do. They passed between tall gates, guarded by a gate-house, down a wide, lit drive lined with trees which no doubt in summer were gracious and majestic, but now were merely sodden and untidy, and there spot-lit, as if waiting for a son-et-lumière performance to begin, stood the Shrapnel Academy, as it had stood for a hundred years, looking for all the world like a scaled-down Buckingham Palace: stout, stone-faced and determinedly grand, in spite of having been badly placed, by its architect, where the ground fell. (It is all very well for a cottage to nestle, but a country house can only properly be at home on rising ground.) Eight great windows ranged on either side of a pillar-flanked front door; twelve smaller ones were ranged above, another row likewise, and then twenty-four little dormer windows stared out from beneath the cornice of the roof. The flagpole was the proud focus of a host of spotlights. From it flew the house flag. This was in yellow silk and embroidered in red upon it were the words THE SHRAPNEL ACADEMY. In the top right-hand corner was a strange device, half-way between an orange and a crown, from which burst streams of light.

‘What’s the flag?’ asked Bella.

‘It is the flag of the Shrapnel Academy,’ explained the General. ‘Always good to see it!’

‘What’s that thing like a rising sun? Is it the Japanese flag?’

‘That is not a rising sun,’ he said, a little stiffly. ‘What you see there is an exploding cannonball. Henry Shrapnel was its inventor, back in 1804; the Shrapnel Academy is a teaching institution: over the years it has become a shrine to the ethos of military excellence.’

‘What a nice gesture,’ said Bella. ‘Who pays?’

‘It is kept going,’ said the General, ‘by voluntary subscription.’

A few flakes of snow had begun to fall. The flag stopped waving and hung limply. Ivor held a large black umbrella for his passengers and escorted them to the front door – the small, lively General and the tall, pale, beautiful girl.

3

Shirley came down for the Wellington Weekend in the company of her husband Victor, and her children Serena (aged 6), Piers (aged 4) and Nell (aged 3). They travelled in a white Volvo Estate. The dog Harry sat behind a wire mesh and stared out of the back window. Shirley drove. The children slept. Victor dozed. He chose to use his spare time constructively. He needed rest. He had recently been promoted Chief Executive of the Chewinox Division of Gloabal Products Inc. There was a lot to be done: his new broom had to sweep briskly. There were factories to be re-deployed, lay-offs declared, non-aspirers fired, product images re-created, output minimised, profit maximised. His sweeping wrist got tired. Victor slept whenever opportunity arose. He looked like Rock Hudson in his prime: all charm and excellent physique. His daughters adored him. So did his wife. His son sulked. ‘He’s just like Napoleon,’ Shirley would say. ‘Able to catnap wherever and whenever.’

Just like Napoleon, pushing out the bounds of empire, drawing the bold red circle of mayhem on the map, so that those inside could wax fat and sleek and safe! And for those outside, who cared? Do you, reader?

Victor and Shirley, and the little Blades, came in response to an invitation. It had arrived a month ago, with the Christmas cards. It came from Joan Lumb and asked the Blades to attend the Wellington Lecture, to be delivered by General Leo Makeshift on January 18th. Joan Lumb was Victor’s eldest sister. She, a colonel’s widow, had been made Custodian/ Administrator of the Shrapnel Academy two years previously. It was a much coveted post, now for the first time given to a woman. The honour was self-evident.

‘Does she mean us to pay?’ asked Shirley. There was a handwritten letter with the card. She handed both now to Victor.

‘Don’t just come for the lecture,’ Joan Lumb had written in her big bold handwriting. ‘Come for the whole weekend! We’re having an Eve-of-Waterloo dinner on the Friday. The menu’s very special – a real surprise. We’ve a full house for the lecture already. Two hundred of the great and good from the ends of the earth. Not surprising, I suppose: the General’s a splendid speaker and a real world figure, even in peace time. Stay for Sunday if you can. I know Shirley can’t bear to be away from home, but we are family, aren’t we, and I haven’t seen either of you for so long. We’re between courses here – the Westpoint and St Cyr lads have gone and the Sandhurst Refresher week’s not started, so you can take your choice of rooms. I’ve provisionally booked you the Napoleon Suite: over the West Porch with a view over the ornamental gardens. So pretty in this bright, frosty weather. A real bargain at £35, I always think!’

‘I don’t know,’ said Victor, handing back the letter, ‘whether or not she expects us to pay. I leave that kind of thing to you.’

‘I suppose we have to go?’ asked Shirley.

‘We do,’ he said. Victor and Joan’s parents were dead. Joan was all Victor had left of his past; Shirley and the children were his present and his future, but a man must have his past as well, if he is to be whole, no matter how much he dislikes it.

‘What about the children?’ asked Shirley. ‘She doesn’t mention the children. Does she mean us to bring them?’

‘I don’t suppose,’ said Victor, ‘that the Shrapnel Academy often rings to the sound of children’s voices, but you must decide.’

‘Well,’ said Shirley, ‘I’ll see what I can manage by way of babysitters. But I don’t know if I’ll have any luck.’

‘I dread to think what the special menu is,’ said Victor. ‘Probably what the officers ate on the eve of Waterloo. Greasy and fattening.’

‘So long as it isn’t what the men ate,’ said Shirley. ‘Because that would be dry bread and maggots.’

‘I hardly think it was as bad as that,’ said Victor, rather curtly. ‘An army always looks after its own.’ Victor came from an army family, who, although happy enough to attack the army themselves, did not like outsiders to do so. Victor had formally renounced the army and gone into business, but who can renounce such an upbringing? Its ethics run in the blood, not the brain. Revulsion is only skin deep.

‘Is that a rising sun on the invitation?’ asked Shirley brightly and pacifically, to change the subject. Shirley’s parents had been teachers, and socialists. That too runs in the blood, not the mind. Hers and Victor’s had been a love-match, and a cause of anxiety to both sets of parents.

‘No,’ said Victor. ‘I imagine that is the symbol of the Shrapnel Academy. Henry Shrapnel invented the exploding cannonball in 1804.’

‘What did he do that for?’ asked Shirley. She liked to ask Victor questions, and he liked to answer them.

‘To gain promotion and be hailed as a genius,’ said Victor. ‘Why does anyone do anything?’

‘I see,’ said Shirley, dutifully. Presently, having thought a little, she added, ‘I suppose it’s better to bring a war to an end quickly, even if nastily. Otherwise it just lingers on and demoralises everyone. Was that the thinking behind the exploding cannonball, Victor?’

But for once he did not reply. He was catnapping again, between the last sips of breakfast coffee and the arrival of the company car. That day he was to cut the proportion of gum in Chewinox by one part in a thousand. Twelve villages in Southern India would die.

The invitation was accepted, the Napoleon Suite booked and no mention of money made. Shirley made babysitting arrangements and Victor returned home early, at 3.25 on the Friday afternoon. As he changed out of his grey stubbly-woven heavy silk suit into more deliberately casual weekend clothes, he said: ‘I wish we were taking the children. I don’t see enough of them as it is.’

‘We are taking them,’ said Shirley. ‘We have to. Angie left this morning. She walked out after breakfast.’

‘Why?’

‘She threw away Piers’ comforter,’ said Shirley, ‘saying he was too old for it. And he bit her.’

‘Good for Piers.’

‘That was my reaction,’ said Shirley, ‘and I said so. So she got upset. I would have been more sympathetic, I expect, had I liked her. But I didn’t, I’m sorry to say. Nor did the children. All in all I’m glad she’s gone.’

‘So am I!’ he said. ‘Our lives to ourselves again! Just the five of us, two big and three small.’ Victor loved his family, his present and his future, wrapped safely into one; so much better than the past.

‘They’ll sleep in the car,’ said Shirley. ‘They’ve fizzed and overflowed all day they’re so glad she’s gone. Now they’re flat and calm and tired.’

‘Like Asti Spumanti,’ he said, dreamily, ‘opened for an hour or two.’ They took their holidays in Italy, their happiness thus being complete.

‘Do you think Joan will mind very much,’ asked Shirley, ‘if we bring them?’

‘Joan will just have to put up with them,’ said Victor.

The moods and fears of unmarried, childless and no longer young women are easily disregarded by those in the active, fruitful and positive mainstream of their lives. I hope, for your sake, reader, you belong to this latter group. But do remember that membership of it is only temporary: so try to be less ruthless than Victor and Shirley.

Serena, Piers and Nell were put in the back of the car while their parents locked up the house, a process which of necessity took some time. Harry the Doberman took up his position behind the dog mesh. The children heaved and fought for a little, as they liked to do, and then fell obligingly asleep in a warm tangle of limbs. Harry trembled and waited. The house had been recently re-protected by security experts to the high standard required for Chief Executives at Gloabal. Victor, on leaving, threw a master switch too soon and locked himself in and Shirley out. Internal sensors detected the presence of an intruder. Sirens went off in the garage, waking and frightening the children, and Harry, who rolled his eyes and slavered at the mouth. Red lights flashed at the Police Station. Shirley soothed the children, and fed one of her tranquillisers to Harry. Victor, unable to nullify his last security decision, now electronically enforced, waited in the kitchen, while the police summoned the Gloabal Security Officer. He, on arrival, first checked Victor’s voice patterns against a master, and then talked the system down with his own voice, to which the relays were programmed to respond. Victor was released, and the police went home. ‘Think nothing of it, sir,’ said the Security Officer. ‘It’s what I’m paid for.’

When they finally set off, an hour late, Shirley said, ‘It’s wonderful to know the system works, and feel so safe. Gloabal certainly knows how to look after its employees! Aren’t you glad you work for them?’

But Victor was catnapping again, gathering strength. Shirley left the blueness of the motorway for the yellowness of a minor road, for the modest white double line of a country lane. In the back the children sucked happily on bottles, between sleep and drowsiness. Victor smiled as he napped. Occasional flakes of snow hit the windscreen. Shirley was happy. She drove as fast as the various roads allowed. She made good time. Her headlights picked out a hitchhiker – a young woman in jeans and donkey jacket, with a rucksack in her hand. Perhaps she should stop? What was a girl doing here, so far from anywhere, and in the dark? Shirley drove on. No. If that was the sort of situation a girl could get into, that was the sort she could get out of, without expecting big white passing Volvo Estates, full of husbands, children, cases, dogs, to stop. Some shabby vehicle of the kind Shirley’s parents once had owned, would stagger along presently, flaking rust, and like would call to like, and help would be at hand.

And so, in tune with their prosperity, and their virtue, made only a little late by the problems that accompany success and power, Shirley, Victor, and the little Blades approached the Shrapnel Academy: Shirley driving, the children sleeping, Victor dozing, and Harry the dog, the sleek black Doberman, quivering in surprise as snow swirled out of the darkness to hit the heated rear window, where it melted and disappeared. There one minute, gone the next! Harry was less than a year old and had never seen snow before. He did not like surprises.

4

Baf drove a dark green sportscar: it scuttled between the high hedges as if it were a beetle running for cover. Baf had owned the car for a week. It was thirty years old, two years older than blond Baf himself. There was a map-light attachment on the dashboard and a compass stuck by suction to the windscreen. Baf drove with the roof open, regardless of the cold. He wore a leather flying jacket with a fur collar, turned up high beneath his square and handsome jaw. He was in a hurry to see Muffin, who worked at the Shrapnel Academy. Muffin was Joan Lumb’s secretary. Baf had visited the Academy, in secret, many times. He would telephone ahead, so Muffin would be watching the drive when he arrived. She would open one of the side doors for her lover. They would hurry up the back-stairs to her small bedroom on the third floor where he would throw himself upon her, leaving her scarcely any time at all to remove her garments. The red horse-heads upon her royal blue headscarf and his fur collar were etched into the other’s erotic consciousness.

Reader, what is etched in yours? What collar-bone, what little patch of textured skin, what dangling pendant? Think! Remember! Keep back the glacier of age by the sheer warmth, the sheer force of sexual recollections, wild imaginings! It can be done: it is worth the doing.

Today Baf would go to the front door, openly. He too had been invited by Joan Lumb to come to dinner and meet the General. The dinner would no doubt be boring, but Baf would at least stay overnight, officially. Muffin would have the sense to put him in a room easily accessible to hers. And Baf would take the opportunity, during the Saturday morning, of cornering the General and demonstrating the miniaturised weaponry he carried in a velvet-lined Victorian knife box in the boot of the car. Once such fire power would have needed a half-mile wagon train to carry it. Now, a knife box! Oh, nifty! Oh, progress! Stunning! Oh, the cleverness of men! Bump, goes the knife box the other side of a hump-backed bridge. Up, down, bump, and bump again.

Baf did not think he would marry Muffin. Someone better would probably come along: Kashoggi’s daughter, Arafat’s niece. And Muffin, to be fair, felt that marriage to Baf was likewise unsuitable. One married, she supposed, for a quiet life. Sooner or later, Muffin expected to be the wife of one of the young officers who came to the Shrapnel Academy for courses in Weapons Through the Ages, The Rule of Law, The Concept of the Just War, and so forth. She also sometimes thought, regretfully, that it probably wouldn’t make much difference which one it was. They all seemed much the same: that is to say, shy and sweet, rather like Muffin herself. If she smiled at them, they would smile shyly and sweetly back, but she had to smile first. Muffin was spectacularly long-legged and shaggy-headed: she had large blue eyes with droopy lids. She seemed to inspire romantic rather than erotic love in the hearts of young men other than Baf. If she dropped a drawing-pin, when pinning lists and rotas on the noticeboards, there would be a dive to the rescue, and a trembling of hands if hers touched theirs. Well, that was right. Husbands should respect wives. And Baf didn’t respect Muffin; she could tell by the things he did in bed. Muffin thought she would just put off marriage as long as she possibly could. But how the gentle, soulful young cadets were ever to become men of war, she could not imagine: storm towns and drop bombs and so on!

Baf realised that the bump and lurch after the hump-backed bridge, which he had rather enjoyed, was unfamiliar. He had taken a wrong turning, an easy enough thing to do in such a spiderweb of lanes: the light snow which was now falling blanked out detail and made one crossroads much like another. He stopped at the next signposted turning, took out the map and switched on the map-light, pleased to have found an opportunity for making use of it. The compass, alas, had fallen off the windscreen. Baf located it on the floor, re-licked its suckers, and pressed it on again. It stayed. A right turn and then another should, he imagined, after proper consultation of map and compass, bring him back to familiar territory. So he had planned his route in the past, in the uncharted wastes of the Sahara, and in jungle tracks in Bolivia and over the South African veldt. A compass had never fallen off before. He imagined it was the cold and damp which did it.

After the first right turn his headlights picked out a motorbike lying by the side of the hedged road. He slowed, thinking perhaps there had been an accident. He saw no signs of a body, but after the next turn came upon a young woman, walking away from him in the centre of the narrow road. She carried a rucksack in one hand, and a bike helmet in the other. When she heard the car, she pressed herself against the hedge to let it pass. Baf slowed, stopped, lowered the window. There was not much of her to be seen, inasmuch as a donkey jacket concealed her figure, and her head was wrapped in a long woolly scarf, of the kind he had so often seen on Jumble Sale stalls in his youth, when his mother had been active raising funds for the Little Sisters of Mercy Overseas. But she was young, female, in trouble and he wished to help.

‘Can I give you a lift?’

‘No, you cannot.’

The reply was curt: the tone of voice almost offensive. Baf was hurt. He noticed, so bright was the map-light which he now switched on, that she was wearing heavy boots and that their laces were double-knotted. He had the feeling that if he pressed the matter she might well produce a knife and use it. She was the kind of young woman who carried cartons of pepper to throw in men’s eyes, and handy pocket tear-gas sprays to blind them. Then when the man was helpless, weeping and coughing, and no doubt deafened by an alarm siren as well, she would get him with the boots. Girls like that were everywhere, these days. Baf wound up the window, and carried on. Let her walk. Muffin, in similar circumstances, would have accepted a lift. Those who looked for evil found none, and Baf had certainly meant none. He was glad to notice it was snowing harder, as he turned into the grounds of the Shrapnel Academy.

5

Murray Fairchild, discovering there was no bus service, was obliged to take a taxi to the Academy from the station at Stupehampton; a distance of fourteen miles. He thought Joan Lumb should have warned him of the expense.

‘The Shrapnel Academy? They say they make nerve gas in there,’ said the driver, settling in for a chat. Murray wanted only silence. The driver was a middle-aged woman. She chain-smoked. She had a bad head cold.

‘Of course that’s only silly rumour, but what does go on there? Or is it secret?’

‘It isn’t secret,’ said Murray. He spoke courteously, in spite of his irritation. He who had deflected bullets in Vietnam, withstood torture in Argentina, and narrowly escaped defenestration in Pakistan, found difficulty in being impolite to women. ‘The Shrapnel Academy is similar to an Arts Centre, but military in its nature.’

‘Oh, I see,’ she said. He doubted that she did.

He stretched his right leg. It ached, and it itched. There was, he knew, a tracery of engorged veins between ankle and knee. The whole leg, were he to look, would have a curiously mottled red and mauve appearance. Yet his left leg remained smooth, lean and bronze. He was sixty. Various physical changes were to be expected with the years, but why should the passage of time affect the right leg, and not the left?

‘Something the matter with your leg?’ she asked.

‘No.’

‘Bet there is. You men are all the same. Take it to the doctor before it’s too late.’

‘Thank you for your advice,’ he said. But he did not mean to take it. No hypochondriac he, to go running to doctors. A sprinkling of antibiotic powder on a jungle sore, some quinine for malaria, a plank for a slipped disc – Murray did his own doctoring. The leg would respond to healthy living, positive thinking, in its own good time.

‘So, what’s your business at the Shrapnel Academy?’

‘I’m a guest there,’ he said, shortly. He was to be the lion at Joan Lumb’s dinner party. People would know who he was, and have the politeness not to talk about it. He wished that life could be lived without words, or at worst captions. Wham! Whee! Take that, and that! Ouch! Ugh! And the final dying Cr-cr-croak!

He wished he had chosen any other taxi than this.

‘You look like James Bond, only twenty years on,’ she observed. ‘Is that your line of business?’ She coughed and spluttered. He would need to take Vitamin C tablets as soon as possible.

‘Don’t usually find a man like you taking a taxi,’ she said, when her nasal passages were more composed. ‘What happened? Lose your licence? Driving under the influence?’

It was true that Murray had been disqualified from driving, on the grounds of drunkenness, many times, in many courts and in many lands. But if he wanted to drive, he drove, licensed or not. It was the ache in his right leg which now disqualified him as a driver, more effectively than any police force had ever managed, and obliged him to take taxis and put up with the inquisitions of strangers. He would as soon, he thought, step into a Khmer Rouge camp by night as into a taxi with a sneezing woman driver.

‘Hit the nail on the head, then!’ she remarked, when he did not reply. They were within a mile or so of the Shrapnel Academy when they approached a hitchhiker.

‘Don’t pull up,’ he said, sharply.

Once, years ago, he had stopped for a young woman, apparently involved in an accident on a Route Nationale. Out of the damaged car had stepped two armed men. Murray had been taken hostage, held for ransom, confined in a small space and it was four months before he was able to escape. Now he came to think of it, it was probably that particular confinement, that lack of exercise, which had started the trouble with his leg. He seemed to remember a sharp blow on the right knee-cap. With the remembrance came a twinge. ‘Don’t stop,’ he repeated, but the woman simply ignored him and pulled up alongside the hitchhiker. And there were bars in Agadir where men melted away at Murray’s approach!

‘Where do you want to go?’ the woman driver asked.

‘The Shrapnel Academy.’ It was a girl. Her face was muffled against the cold, but he thought the eyes had the steady, careful, haunted look of the female terrorist.

‘Drive on!’ he said, and the pain in his knee stabbed sharply.

‘I’ll just drop this fare off,’ said the driver to the girl, ‘since he’s so nervous. Then I’ll come back and give you a lift.’

‘I’d be grateful,’ said the girl, and they left her standing on the side of the road and she became part of the darkness of the past.

‘Naughty, naughty, paranoia!’ said the taxi driver to Murray.

Democracy, thought Murray, was scarcely worth preserving, or the personal freedoms which went with it, since it was preserved for the likes of the woman taxi driver, who could only abuse all possible freedoms.

‘Penny for your thoughts!’

He ignored her.

‘My, you are a deep one. I bet they do make poison gas up there.’

‘There it is ahead!’ she said, as the gates of the Shrapnel Academy appeared. ‘Bhopal, we call it, down on the rank. We got there just before the weather. They really get snowed in up here! You’ll be lucky to get out before March. Or have you brought your skis?’

‘You can see I have no skis,’ he said. She was a very stupid woman.

‘You might have the new lightweight collapsible ones tucked away in your pocket, for all I know.’

Murray did not think any such new style of skis existed. He would have heard. He’d skied across the Spanish border into France during the war, a dozen times or so. The skis themselves were always the main problem. How to dispose of them? Now if he could have put them in his pocket – but then where would have been the peril, where the point?

‘Only joking,’ she said. She charged him half what he had anticipated. He had the same sudden feeling of elation as once, when he was twelve, his mother had given him twice his normal weekly pocket money, by mistake. He went almost jauntily up the steps, and almost without limping, a thick-set, grizzled man with a wide brow, slightly brain-damaged by various blows to his head over a long period, deep eyes and a kindly manner, and hands adept at taking life, but only, ever, for the sake of principle, never inclination.

6

Edna the taxi driver returned to pick up the hitchhiker. She did so out of simple kindness, and in no expectation of reward. The night was dark, the girl was young.

‘Silly old fart,’ she said of her last customer.

The girl unwound her yellow and brown knitted scarf in the warmth of the car. She had a lean, young face, stern rather than pretty, quick blue eyes and frizzed out hair of no particular colour. She said her name was Medusa, but people called her Mew.

‘That’s a funny name,’ said Edna.

The girl explained that her mother had been a Greek scholar who took the view that Medusa was Jason’s victim, and that serving him his own children in a pie was no less than he deserved. The mother had called her daughter after her favourite person.

‘I see,’ said Edna. But Mew thought she probably didn’t. Mew’s mother was a feminist. That too runs in the blood, not the brain.

‘My poor mother,’ said Mew. ‘They put her in a nut house, in the end. And it wasn’t even as if she got Medusa right. Jason’s girlfriend was Medea. Is it far to the Academy? I ran out of petrol.’

‘A couple of miles,’ said Edna. ‘But I’ll take you for free. No skin off my nose. What’s your business at Shrapnel?’ It was a puzzle. The girl was white, and so was hardly likely to be on the domestic staff of the Shrapnel Academy. And not having the gloss that money and power gives, she could hardly be a guest: nor could she be one of the students, for they were always male: nor one of the teaching staff, for they spoke with the soft authority of the privileged classes. This girl’s voice had a workaday, anxious twang.

‘I’m a journalist,’ said the girl. ‘Someone’s making a speech there tomorrow. Some general.’

Edna did not believe her. This was not, in her experience, how journalists looked and behaved. They did not wind themselves in woolly scarves, ride motorbikes and run out of petrol.

‘You don’t believe me,’ said the girl, ‘but it’s true. I’m on the staff of the Woman’s Times. It’s a new daily newspaper. Feminist. Have you heard of it?’

Edna hadn’t. How fast the world changed. One moment women stayed at home and baked steak and kidney pie; the next they drove taxis, published newspapers, and beef was bad for you and pastry worse.

‘If you give me your address,’ said Mew, ‘I’ll send you a copy of the Times. You really ought to read it. Every woman should. It will explain so much to you!’