Lorna Tracy

James Scavanger had first met the woman who would become his wife on a Thursday afternoon at the Tomb of the Unknown Celebrity, where she did the floors. As she had approached him through the crowds, pushing her wide mop, he had whispered a batrachian whisper she couldn’t fail to hear. Hoarse with abstract rapture he had whispered: ‘I have a serpent of delight!’ It was a rare lyric moment for James, who was a pure scientist. Phyllis had responded by quoting Virginia Woolf, although she did not know it. Not stopping her mop, she had said: ‘Something always has to be done next.’ ‘Meet me,’ croaked James, ‘at the Bureau of Birth, Death and Matrimony. Half-past nine next Saturday morning.’ To sum up he added: ‘We’ll get married.’

‘Our Phyllis has just married someone in Who’s Who,’ boasted her mother to a neighbour. ‘Apparently his family can be traced back almost to the apes.’ ‘Not traced back too quickly, I hope,’ was all the neighbour said on that particular occasion.

Phyllis resigned her position as an ablutionist (Mop Technician Grade Three) in the Department of Cleansing and Pollution because James did not want to go on living in the city. ‘He’s your husband now,’ said her father. ‘You do what he tells you.’ ‘Accept him, admire him, adapt to him,’ said her mother, which is the sort of thing that’s easy to say and hard to do.

James had decided that he and his bride would spend their honeymoon weekend at The Galloping Corbie in Blackfly-on-Broadbean. Just getting there was an adventure. After the public aggress system had announced and apologised for the sixth cancelled train, James had to pay 24 pence apiece for two refreshing cups of tea-powder in the station buffet and Phyllis had to spend four pence an hour later pissing one away in the station loo. James pissed in the Gents for nothing. When a train at last reached their platform it was an unscheduled early arrival from the next day. Hundreds of people got into it, including James and Phyllis, who had to crouch in the vestibule between two carriages with 18 other passengers who hadn’t got seats either; but the sky was still blue and everyone felt pretty good just to be moving – even in a retrograde direction. ‘Eight minutes ago the sunlight just now warming your dear downy forearms was still part of the sun’s corona 93 million miles away,’ said James with tender bemusement. ‘So when the sun snuffs it we’ll still have eight minutes of grace.’ ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam – 93 million miles long,’ Phyllis murmured in a trance of anticipation.

When they finally got to Blackfly-on-Broad-bean it was thoroughly dark. The local taxi had been drained of petrol and locked up for the night, so they walked from the station to The Galloping Corbie carrying Phyllis’s steamer trunk between them, as they were going on to Croaking after the weekend and James hadn’t wanted to travel all the way into the city again just to collect Phyllis’s belongings. In Blackfly-on-Broadbean it was perfect, the weather, but there was a worm at the heart of the day. While they were drinking champagne substitute beside a bankrupt August river the clouds burst over their heads and they spent the rest of their honeymoon being rained to death, which gave Phyllis plenty of opportunity to ask James why Jonah hadn’t been digested when he was swallowed by the whale, and other curious matters of science and antiquity.

Their first home was a furnished bungalow on the outskirts of Croaking, quite convenient to James’s anodised-aluminium university and just downwind of a farting refinery belonging to the Department of Cleansing and Pollution, which is one agency of government whose right hand knows damn well what its left hand is doing. The bungalow squatted behind a fat privet hedge that wobbled like a long lime jelly in the ceaseless gales. The gas cooker, up on Queen Anne legs, was, Phyllis reckoned, Early Rayon Age. The one-and-a-half-piece suite almost certainly dated from the Middle Nylon Period, whereas the lino was undoubtedly Late Crimplene but it had got the hell bashed out of it by spike-heeled housewives of the same period.

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