‘The shot blew out the lock and caught Herr Oberth in the bum before he had time to get his head out.’ ‘Get his head out from where, Fraulein?’ ‘From between Frau Hentner’s legs, sir.’ The younger of the two policemen flushed and looked up at the emperor’s portrait for reassurance; he could have sworn the old walrus raised his eyebrows. He heard Hauptmeister Brukenthal say, ‘This is a serious investigation, Fraulein Nicolescu. There were only three people in that room and you were not one of them.’
Rosewater, saffron, almonds and milk – the recipe sounded like the Song of Solomon. It sounded exactly what Patrick, with his seductively angst-ridden Catholicism would adore. As Katy only had the milk she would have to go out and buy the dozen other fragrant items the curry required. It would be an offering to Patrick, an offering of love. She liked shopping for spices. Cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, frankincense and cloves, nutmeg, mint, bay leaves and myrrh, turmeric, garam masala, gold...Spices were the precious stones of the food world. Poor man’s diamonds. The saffron came in a tiny plastic box engraved with gold curlicues like a jewel case. It cost £1.75. Katy liked the idea of a luxury that cost less than two pounds. The grocery round the corner had everything she needed. Carrying it all to the checkout, she buried her nose in the coriander and mint and sighed over their green scent. The man behind the counter, eyes glued to a Turkish soap opera on the TV in the corner, glanced at her and smiled. “Good?” “Good.”
‘What the fuck did he say?’ The Dean was used to speaking plainly to the Communications Director. ‘He said, The Min Ed wouldn’t know a rational argument if it knelt down in front of him and sucked him off.’ ‘And who all knows about this?’ ‘A reporter on the Traffic saw it. About 2,000 followers, ten of whom have already retweeted it.’ ‘And is the Traffic going to run something?’ ‘Looks like it. We could brief them off the record’, he suggested, ‘that the University has internal disciplinary proceedings. We’ll have to take time to see if they apply in this case. Or we could tell them to fuck off. And if they drag us into this their free pass to the graduation ceremony will get lost in the post.’ ‘What about the wee cunt himself?’
Joseph could not touch one so young. She was a child, a daughter. Wedding her, he was almost ashamed – an old man with grey in his beard and she a dark-crowned girl. Yet he trusted God, and he knew that to be ashamed would be a dishonour upon Him.
‘Mr. Mannheimer had to go and get the stepladder to tie my hands to the beam. He used rope because he said he didn’t have any chains, but that I was to try to imagine that’s what they were seeing as that’s what he’d paint. He said he’d just tie me loosely but I said no thanks, if I have to hold my arms up myself I’d be worn out in no time so please to tie me up proper so I can hang from the chains and not pretend. Afterwards he got down and off my plinth and looked at me tied up there. I liked it when he did that, better than when he’s looking at me from behind his easel. Then he frowns and says, “Please not to shave under the arms again.” Then he says: “You are a dromedary.”’
‘And your name?’ ‘Ippolita.’ That name is as good as any other – it is not hers. She does not ask mine and I do not offer it. Her voice is young – low and sweet. By the smooth whiteness of her hand I would judge her to be about 25 years old; the black lace of her domino conceals her neck and bosom, the flesh of which I have found is the most reliable in estimating a woman’s age. I raise her fingers to my lips and keep them there long enough that she may feel not just my kiss but my breath upon her skin. I lift her other hand then and kiss the palm, and note the ring she wears – la fede it is called here: faith. I wonder if her husband is present at this levée, if he watches us now, if they have arranged it so. I cannot say what colour are the eyes glittering behind the mask, for by candle-light we all have eyes like onyx marbles. She may be a whore, a lady, an initiate. With the mask all distinctions are erased.
The first incident happened a couple of months into the year. Nina, of all people, approached him after class and said, “tu eres el hombre mas apetecible del mundo.” In other words, that he was “appetizing,” in fact the most appetizing man “in the world.” Like certain fruits. Edward was speechless. As he blushed, Nina smiled, unwrapped her skirt, slowly turned, and walked away. She was wearing gym shorts. All the girls were in their shorts: it was gym period. But when she turned her head to look back, no longer smiling but with her eyes very wide open and lips parted, Edward was . . . stirred.
In the year we spent together, we pretended every night. We needed them, our fictions, in order to proceed. Wrapped in our inventions we were safe and free, without the distractions of fact. Last night I tried to list them all, the things we would pretend. We pretended I was a robot, new and neatly packaged, sent to him in error. His puzzlement in unwrapping transforming into thrill. The depth of my satisfaction in completing my programmed task. I pulled a face while doing this, a robot face. If he ever caught me doing this he would laugh and have to stop.
I was born on 9th September 1966. My mother cut the placenta off me and said "You're the fatal blow at the arse end of the revolution." Mao Tse Tung had died an hour ago. I was missing my left eardrum. When I turned three, my father died too and the "one-child" policy came into force; suddenly, there were no brothers or sisters around, we were little emperors to be maintained and my mother said "If you were later, I would have aborted you for a boy." She wanted a man to help her and instead she had me; so the number of little boys started to grow, twenty three million of them, with no hope of a woman, future sexual orphans, the fruit of Deng's policy and Chinese copulation
When the Chancellor of the Diocese visited the Convent of the Sisters of Holy Affliction, Sister Michael always received him with a kiss on the lips. That was the closest Fr Tom got to enjoying a woman. He relished that kiss, even as he winced at the austerity of the place, imagining those who, over the years, had cut themselves off from family and comfort here.