… from The one with the python
Four of the children had made suggestions, and then the last, a cute, little blonde girl, made hers, Turtleshell Land. After gentle enquiry, we discovered it was a place that she had made up entirely on her own. The other children were delighted. I asked her, smiling, where this land was. It wasn’t anywhere in particular. Why? It moved. What did it look like? It was ordinary countryside. What were the buildings like? There was a castle. Did the castle have a moat? Yes. And a drawbridge? She paused, then shook her head slowly. I sat back in my chair as if noticing her for the first time. I was only there for the day. I decided to move on. But I invited the other children to ask the questions. What did the back of the castle look like? Just an ordinary back yard. Were there any people there? Yes, there were princesses, lots of princesses who were all beautiful, with long, golden hair and skin that was white (and cold, I thought) as snow. But there was one princess who was prettier than all the rest. (Wonder who.) She was the only one allowed a cell phone. They had barbecues in the summer. The king let her do the cooking (turn his sausage over). The children wanted to know about the monsters. Was there a dragon? No, but there was a giant. It had to happen. What did he look like? An ordinary man, with a tie. It was time to wrest back control. In a voice loud enough to impress the whole class, I informed my group that the tale we had read was set in the Middle East, and that, in some countries in the region, women were still stoned to death, in some cases quite young women. I explained how females of all ages were tied up individually in sacks, and how villagers who had known them since they were born threw rocks at them until they were dead. I pointed out that, however wicked a girl had been, such a punishment could never, ever be justified. I also pointed out that it kept happening all the same.
… from Something rotten in the lodge in Jodhpur
It wasn’t the first time he had come across a rat, of course. It appeared to be a male of a species common in that part of Rajasthan. This one was quite pale, however. Jim remembered the white rats of Karni Mata temple, which were holy incarnations of the deity. When I say ‘remembered,’ he remembered the story; he never actually caught a glimpse of the white ones when he was at the temple, although he was assured that they were there, jostling, I suppose, for recognition among the thousands of grey ones. It couldn’t be, Jim thought, could it?
This was just one of the things that Jim chewed over later, when he had more leisure, like whether rats in Jodhpur carried rabies, and which other parts of his naked body the anaemic creature had stuck its face into that night. He’d been wondering why the lodge appeared to have no guests. Right now, though, he jumped up in disgust. The rat sprinted through the bars of his window – I mean the rat’s window. Jim opened the door and looked in both directions down the passage, the way you do before you cross a busy street. Around to the left, out of sight, was reception; to his right, the passage ended not in a wall, as you might expect, but in vertical bars from ceiling to floor, like a scene from a prison movie; bars which were strong enough to keep out the most vicious mobsters, but far enough apart to let in the most portly rats. On the other side of the bars lay all the squalor of the road. Jim tried to control the various portions of his Chinese meal, which he had ingested very patiently over the course of an entire day and which I prefer not to examine here, although the rats did, and he himself has done for me, more than once, in surprising detail. The bars which held people out also held him in, with or without the rats, as the rats chose, however many there were, grey or black or white, skipping back and forth from one penitentiary to the other.
Don’t forget, Jim saw just one rat in his room. The others didn’t wait around. They hurried off to the bars, where they made up games like children, squeezing between the metal at a run, as you jump onto a train when the doors are closing; or else, like couples, they moved more wisely along the platform, before parting and turning back again and touching their lips and whiskers with the tips of their paws, as if they were blowing each other kisses.
… from The Queen of Tattoo
Lydia, oh Lydia, that encyclopidia. It was payback time. I suddenly realised how interesting Billy was to talk to, Billy with his pimples and his long silences. Perhaps these reminded me of two of my own attractions when I was his age and, in fact, a lot older. Anyway, I delved into his mind as you open a favourite reference book, but only when Daisy was there. I left her closed. She hated science-fiction. We talked about that. She hated Canadian football. We watched it on TV. He explained the rules. I wonder if he realised what I was doing. Never underestimate a child. The poor girl, who had been looking ominous, was now the Prophetess of Doomed Enthusiasm. I went on for a while, maybe too long, just because I could, until things couldn’t get any worse. OK, I’m exaggerating. I was hardly breaking her heart, but something was going on. She had a heart.
She had other, less tragic enthusiasms that she was able to talk about. She wanted a horse, a tattoo, a belly ring, and then I was added to the list, without fanfare, surreptitiously in fact. One day I wasn’t there, one day I was, as at breakfast you discover a new eruption on Billy’s face, something which by lunchtime is repellently familiar. Of course, he didn’t want things on his face. Daisy wanted everything on her list. She probably would have settled for a belly ring, but she wasn’t getting anything, Jim and I made sure of that, in our different ways.
Once when the football was on, she looked at me reproachfully. I felt sorry for her. It had been a kind of nasty egg experiment; now it was an exercise in guilt. I noticed her. A little later, out of the blue, she stretched up and kissed me on the left cheek. In front of Jim. He wasn’t there. Then she left the room.
“That’s called a touchdown,” chuckled Jim.
The kiss hasn’t made much difference, not to us anyway, I mean Daisy and me. That’s right. It’s us now, not just me and her. There are serious, but at the same time ridiculous, pronoun issues. She hasn’t gone back to her old, obnoxious self. She has her new, obnoxious self, and although this one now causes her the pain, she seems to prefer it. I’m not sure I do. You can’t always switch back and forth, I suppose, the way Maurizio did his mirror trick or the rats used the metal bars in Jodhpur, not in a case of this sort, love. There, I said it. Which reminds me of the Benny Hill joke: “What’s this thing called love?” “What’s this thing called, love?” It became part of her. Things become part of you sometimes.
… from His Oxford
The lovers were going down for lunch after early coitus. Rat was going out, too, but had opened his door at the wrong time. Bill passed in front of him with a smug expression that was actually his trademark during any enterprise, although Rat just assumed it was his I nailed the bitch again look. Penny seemed exhausted, as you’d expect from the noise she’d made, but she was also looking pretty pleased with herself. From her point of view, I suppose, it was something like I gagged that fucking prick again. They were arm in arm. They gave Rat no greeting. There was nothing anti-Rat about it, just the superiority of the young and sexually active, which Rat didn’t like, of course, being neither young nor sexually active.
You don’t know what we’ve been doing!
Oh, yes I do-oo, Rat thought back.
From what Rat could make out, so to speak, Bill at least was faithful, unless he had a number of girls called Penny who all squealed in exactly the same way. After each session, one of them would visit the toilet and then the other, trotting out onto the landing with padded feet, like foxes, opening and closing the toilet door twice and trotting back into their amorous lair. Rat didn’t know who went first. He had looked through his keyhole, but could only see a space of wall which neither had to pass. He considered springing out onto the landing as soon as he heard their door open. However, it would break all the rules and, by itself, prove nothing. To establish a pattern, he would have to spring out every day for a week, and they would probably tire quite soon of this kind of empirical study. Rat supposed Bill let Penny go first. Bill would be a gentleman. He’d had the good manners to get into Oxford. He didn’t sound like a gentleman, though, when he was fucking Penny, and she didn’t sound like a lady. Nonetheless, from the way she pronounced Bill, with a trill on the end, like a vocal scholar, it was clear that she had been to a good school. A musical child has more than one instrument. When they were on their toes, the drillmaster and the newly erudite, reaching for that last page of Orfeo which lay just beyond their fingertips at the back of the music cupboard, Rat couldn’t tell who got there first. The worn-out girl, the WC – he put it all together and called it “spending a Penny.” His wordplay was in its infancy.