There’s a new young man at Tony’s

There’s a new young man behind the counter at Tony’s coffee shop.  Young, good looking and Italian – of course Italian.  As Italian as they come.  Thick black hair, olive skin, white teeth, lots of gesticulation.

I once knew an old man who spoke perfect Italian.  As a soldier in the war, he’d been set to be a translator, during the Italian campaign.  He told me once that he’d grabbed an Italian officer by the hands.  He’d took hold of both the guy’s hands, and held them still.  And the poor chap was speechless.  Literally.  You ever met an Italian man who could say anything without moving his hands? I reckon this new chap behind the counter at Tony’s will be like that.  I saw him talking – no, gesturing – to one of the waitresses.  He’s very energetic and outgoing.  Cram full of energy, like Tony used to be.

“Issa good job amma fromma Sardinia” Tony once said.

These days, Tony looks a little careworn.  Particularly so, since his mother died – you know what Italian men are like with their mothers.  Tony’s black hair is edged with grey.  Look closely at his eyes, and you see care.  You see concern.  Tony has a kind word for everybody.  An older man’s friendly kiss for every young mum.  A hug and a chuck under the chin for every baby. A handshake for every man. Tony knows everybody’s name.  And now he has a new man behind the counter.  A new generation is coming, taking up the mantle, ready to continue in his footsteps.

 

 

The tools

From underneath the coffee table, he drew a heavy wooden box, opened it, and showed me some of the tools inside.

“These chisels belonged to my grandfather”, he said.  “I cleaned them up, put these new handles on, and then I sharpened them”.

The thickness of history was upon the box.  He showed me the contents with the reverence of a man who had a deep love for things.

“This belonged to my dad”, he said, showing me one tool. I could not guess what it might be used for.

“What’s it do?” I asked.

“It’s for creating straight edges and angles”, he said, holding the tool in his scarred craftsman’s hands with a satisfaction that was almost palpable. Here, I was in the presence of greatness.  It was for him to speak, and for me, to listen.

“These here”, he continued, unrolling an old leather bundle of a dozen or more wooden-handled metal tools, “are wood-carving tools.  It was a set like this I gave to Andy.  These are much nicer, though.”

“What would they cost today?” I prompted, knowing that he would have something  to say about it.  He thought for a moment.

“Sixty, eighty quid each? But you can’t get tools like this any more.  These are real quality.  They are from before the first world war.”

The Treaty of Seattle

(loosely and colloquially translated from the original Russish)

About that time, there was Treaty of Seattle, which marked end of long and bitter war, between Chinese on one side, and almost everyone else, on other side.  Some called it a third world war.  It was the last world war.  Major nations of world allied with and fought with our ancestors against Chinese aggression.  Long term effect of war was to create democracy in Russia and strengthen the weakening culture in rest of world. “Renaissance civilization” was able to prevail against rising and illiberal Islamism in last decades before start of Diaspora.

Though nuclear weapons were used, and some cities were destroyed, war was never “apocalypse” predicted in the literature and media of the world at that time.  It began some fifteen years earlier after aggressive and sudden Chinese moves into Russian territory.

At same time, Chinese miliary moved south towards continent of Australia.  Initial losses were staggering – within six weeks, Singapore had fallen, and all of Russia east of Lake Baikal was in Chinese hands.  But all that ground was taken back over the course of the war.

The advance of the Chinese brought about political chaos across earth, collapsing political unions and causing some small but signficant minor wars.  Recent work by historians suggests that discoveries in Antarctica, and the subsequent technological step-change, were rather more important to victory than heretofore thought.

Human cost of Russo-Chinese War was over 4 million Russian and alliance dead, 30 million Chinese dead, and several historic Chinese cities destroyed. China was forced back to her original boundaries and Confucian culture destroyed forever.

Following war, political landscape was left in chaos.  But it was out of that chaos and technical developments from Antarctica, that there came launch of Russian starship Yekatarina Velikaya.  Exact date we can no longer be certain of, due to issues relating to the small differences between Standard years and  length of Earth year.  But  we believe that this was sometime in sixth decade of twenty-first century after Christ.

Rekningen

Rising from the table, he walked through the almost deserted dining room, intending to return to his room.  There were huge oil paintings on the walls, scenes of fjords and mountains, fishermen mending their nets, simple farming folk.  In winter, this hotel was the biggest and most famous of a provincial ski resort.  Now, in autumn, before the snows, it was as  good as deserted.  His route to his room took him through a little glassed over area, formerly a little courtyard.

“Outside in the distance, a wild cat did howl…” the words from Dylan’s song came unbidden and unwanted to his mind – an earworm, he’d heard this called by his kids.  Rain was beating down on the glass roof, gusts of wind driving frenzies of rain against the glass.  The cold, driving, strength-sapping rain of late  October.  No night to be outdoors – a good night to be warm and in shelter.

Tomorrow, he would complete the deal.  In so doing, he would gain access to a whole new market; he would sell more than his competitors, and start to gain an edge over the last few hold-outs that refused to trade with him.  He would show them all, the naysayers, those who did not believe in him.  He cast his mind back to a lecture he had given years ago to a group of beginners in his trade.

You want to see what the world’s greatest salesman looks like? You’re looking at him.

Not long after he’d made that assertion, his boss had walked in, interrupted him, and introduced himself to the students.  Clearly somebody else senior, sitting incognito at the back of the room, had tipped his boss off.  But he’d shown them.  A word in the right ear at the right time, and his boss hadn’t lasted much longer.  He himself had taken his bosses’ job.  Eventually, he’d even found out the name of the guy who had grassed him up.  Soon enough, that one was on his way too.  It was easy enough if you knew what to say, whose ear to plan the seed in; whom to whisper the quiet accusations to.  Now, he was unstoppable.  He was at the top of his game.  At the head of the table.

From the foyer, two sets of stairs.  He decided to walk rather than take the lift, which, in this antique wooden building, was rather slow.  He’d always taken pride in his fitness.  But this old hotel rambled on and on.  It was a number of buildings combined, connected together with funky little open courtyards and cobbled alleyways that used to be outside but now had settees and bookcases in them. It had the feel of a caravanserai.  He walked up to the first floor, and along round a corner, past a picture of a mountain at sunset, very much like Half Dome in Yosemite Valley.

Very good use of light.  Like Joseph Wright.

He touched a metal bannister and got a static shock. The weather? The carpet? His shoes? Up to the second floor, and onto the third. And on up to the fourth floor – the top floor – where the best rooms were.  The doors opened outward, which to him, seemed strange.  The rooms were all different; there was no standard room here in this timber building.  His own was right up in the eaves of the building, but it was spacious enough.  It lay along a corridor with the roof sloping down one side.  Windows were set into this roof, and rain was thrashing against them.  The windows looked like washing machines, so much water was hitting  them.  He walked along the corridor, looking at the room numbers.  432.  433. 434.  And that was it.  No 435.  He must surely have gone the wrong way.

How odd…I’ll retrace my steps.

He turned on his heel, walking back along the corridor, down the stairs and past the picture of the mountain, to the foyer.  The receptionist glanced up at him from behind her counter, and gave a friendly little smile.

The other stairs.  These led up the side of one of the open alleyways to the first floor.  Then along a corridor, past a folded up travel cot in an alcove.  And onto the second floor.  As he went, he thought of hotels, back over the years.  Some hotels seemed to be all the same; others were very unusual and different.  The Oriental Palace Hotel in Tunis, where he’d had lamb and couscous with a colleague, and afterwards, some interesting cigarettes.  He remembered the gaff not because of that but chiefly because that particular colleague didn’t last much longer either.  A hotel at a seedy port in Italy – could it have been Brindisi? – where another colleague had got so drunk that he’d snapped the key to his room off in the lock when trying to open the door.  The Agadir Beach Club Hotel where walking along the corridors felt a bit like one was walking through a computer game – as if at any moment a monster or an armed man might appear from around the corner.  The Okumu Palace Hotel in Libreville where he and a number of his colleagues had tormented and insulted some little Frenchman who they took a dislike to.

The third floor…or was it the fourth floor? And then he found himself at a kind of dead end, in what felt something like a tower.  There were what looked like old servants rooms, and shelves of towels, sheets and cleaning materials.  How had he got here?

Turn back again.  This is getting a bit silly. Back down to the foyer.

He turned around and went back down the stairs to reception.  The girl on the desk noticed him and asked brightly, in Norwegian, “Are you lost?”.  This confused him to silence, though he knew much more Norwegian that he let on.  She asked again in English. “Have you lost your way?”

“Can’t find my room” he mumbled, “but I’ll be fine. I’ll use the lift”.  He hated asking for directions or admitting he was wrong, especially to women or people young enough to be his kids.  He entered the lift and punched the button for the fourth floor.

Remember that time when you put that young chap in the picture whilst in the lift? He’d given a piece of his mind to some cocky smart-ass young hotshot straight out of university, when a crowd of them were in the lift on the way down to dinner one night at a conference.  Some big hotel in the Middle East.  This young hotshot thought he knew it all; the youth had been banging on about this or that, he couldn’t for the life of him remember now what he was on about.

But I surely let rip and told it like it was.  Called a spade a spade. Put him well and in the picture.

“Christ, your diplomatic pin must have fallen out”, a colleague had said, as they made their way to their table, some minutes later.  “That was a bit harsh”, another had said.

Maybe so. But it was hardly my fault the boy killed himself a few months later.

Up to the fourth floor and out of the lift.  Ah – here was familiar territory.  The corridor with the sloping roof.  The rain drumming down; the wind shrieking round the corners.  Room 432.  Room 433.  Room 434.  As he walked past Room 434, another guest walked past him and stared right at him in an astonished and hostile way, as if perhaps he did not belong here.

How rude.

But that was it – there was no Room 435.  Room 434, a fire door, and then a landing leading to some stairs back down.  He went through the fire door and started down the stairs.  Puzzled, frowning, he was going down these stairs when he passed a maid on the way up.  A maid?  At 9p.m? And dressed like she was out of the period drama.  Strange.

Down to reception again but by the stairs.   As he walked into reception, he noted that literally minutes ago there must have been a shift change, for there was now a different person on the counter.  The pretty smiling Norwegian girl had gone.  In her place, a cold and formal looking older lady.

“Kan du Engelsk?” he began. She nodded. “Can you help me find my way back to my room? I can’t seem to find my way in this ancient hotel. It’s all strange corridors and mystery stairways”

“Of course, sir” she replied, with only a hint of a Norwegian accent. “What room is it?”

“435.”

Her eyes widened ever so slightly in the way that told him that she was about to say something disappointing or negative.

“We have no Room 435.  There’s never been a room 435. Perhaps 434 or 335, you meant?”

“No. I checked into Room 435.  All my stuff is in Room 435.  I put my dinner on-“

He’d been about to say that he’d put his dinner on the room bill, to be paid when he checked out.  But then he’d recalled that there’d been a problem and he’d actually paid in cash.  He produced the key, which was an electronic key card, and offered it to the lady.  She looked at it blankly, making no attempt to take it.  At that moment, a door to an office behind reception opened, and a man came out, perhaps the night manager or someone more senior than the receptionist.  It seemed odd for there to be a night manager at such relatively small provincial hotel.  He was formally and anciently dressed, as if going to a re-enactment  of Edwardian times.

The night manager looked at him, professional concern on his face.

“I can’t find Room 435”, he said to the manager, holding up the key to his room between two fingers. All of a sudden he was minded of the time years ago that his hotel room had been inadvertently rented to someone else.  Had the stranger got into his room, he would have lost all he had in his room – more than just clothes and a bit of money.  That would have caused some problems; he would have had some trouble explaining that. He’d left his key at reception that day.   Arriving back from work, he’d asked for his key, and it could not be found.  It was Friday night.  A stag do was going to take place. The hotel was nearly full.  Together with a member of staff he’d walked towards his room, when a clearly drunken man had lurched up to this member of staff and said where is room 116? Holding up the key to his room – the room with all the stuff stashed in it.   A wave of cold fear ran down his back as he leaned forward and neatly snatched the key from the drunken fool’s fingers. “That’s my room, thank you”.

“These are our keys”, the lady receptionist put in, holding up a heavily varnished slice of wood embossed with the hotel’s name, attached to which was an actual key.  He stared, somewhat bewildered, looking between the proffered physical key and the key card in his hand.

“What is your name?” asked the night manager, kindly and slowly, pronouncing each word carefully, pronouncing “what” with a distinct “v” sound.  Vat. Is. Your. Name?

He gave his name and the night manager and the receptionist together started to look through a register on the desk. There seemed to be no sign of a computer.  Mind, he had not been paying attention when he checked in.  Who does?

After searching through the register for a minute or so, the manager looked up. “I’m sorry sir, we have no-one of that name registered at the hotel tonight.  Are you sure you gave us the correct name?”

He gave his name again, and spelt it out.  Again the manager looked in his book, coming back up to shake his head.

“No, I’m afraid we have no-one of that name booked here in the hotel tonight.  And there is no room 435.  There’s never been a room 435.”

The voyage of the Vanguard

Most of us learned in school that the first interstellar crossing was made by the “New Frontiers”. Our very calendar is based on this; the Galactic calendar starts from the year of her return to Earth after her 74 year journey. But what is not so widely known, is that the “New Frontiers” was not the first human starship.  Another vessel had set out from Earth a century or so earlier.  This vessel was ostensibly lost in space – it was never heard from again.  Until now.

This presentation to the annual seminar of the Ancient History Society of New Rome, brings news of that long-lost earlier vessel. Her name was “Vanguard”. She was discovered about a century ago by an Iskandrian naval vessel, patrolling the depths of space between Iskander and Fatima. Because the fastest means of transmitting information from one place to another is by star ship, it has taken 105 years for the news to reach us here on Secundus.

The presentation is multi-disciplinary in topic and scope. It will cover the strange chance by which the Vanguard was detected at all; it covers the unusual engineering techniques used to slow her down, and it addresses the archaeological issues involved in getting aboard and then accessing her computer records.  Finally, it reveals the exciting discoveries that were made from those records, regarding what happened to the ship and the crew.

For when her route was plotted, it could be shown that the Vanguard had passed a planet centuries before.  When the Iskandrians visited that remote and uncharted world, they discovered it to be inhabited by humans – but not from the Diaspora. They were savage and intractable cannibals, but they were very intelligent savage and intractable cannibals.  They were shown by genetic study to be descendants of the Vanguard’s original crew.

(After a short passge in R.A Heinlein’s “Time enough for love“, where Galahad, over dinner, recounts to the table the story of this discovery,  causing something of a shock to Lazarus.)

Ebb

Kenning was ahead, his sledge making a hissing sound as he pulled it over the ice, his red arctic wear bright against the white of the snow and the almost unbearable blue of the sky. The mountains reared to our left, the exposed rock predominantly brown in the sunshine, the snow vaulting gracefully upwards in smooth curves. To the right there was nothing – only the ice-shelf, almost flat out to the horizon, like solid light in the punishing glare of the sun.

A mighty wall of rock was exposed; the lowest ice levels in centuries, prompted by the highest temperatures, had melted so much ice that there was more of the bare rock of Antarctica visible than at any previous time in history. The mountain range curved round, only a part of it visible as the two men trudged towards it.  The shadows of seracs and pillars of ice showed black against the brown of the rock in the light of the sun. And there Kenning’s eye caught an anomalous shadow, a shadow bigger than the ice that caused it. It was still distant; John frowned under his goggles. After three weeks he was tired – and patient. Whatever it was could wait until they were closer. More steady footsteps, pulling hard against the heavy harness, straining against the wide straps that connected him to his sledge. His feet crunched against the ice and snow underfoot. His breath rasped in his ears, his heart beat thundering. The path lay slightly uphill, and the two men slowed down as the slope increased. As the incline leveled off again, Kenning stopped and leaned heavily on his sticks. He glanced around at his companion, and then back at the rock wall. The strange shaped shadow was some form of enormous cave entrance or depression, he thought. It was still a good five kilometres distant.

As they drew nearer to the rock wall, drawn automatically by the strange cave exposed by the retreating ice, something quite appalling started to dawn on them. For as their comprehension of the approaching cliff face grew better, they realised that this depression in it was quite artificial.  It appeared to be the entrance to a tunnel, perfectly round in shape, though half buried in ice. It was clearly enormous, the roof perhaps thirty metres above the surface of the ice, and even then the ice filled half of what was a large round shaft bored directly into the mountain.

Phil Keynes stared into the blackness of the tunnel. Ice filled over half of the wide bore, a ribbon of silver and grey disappearing into the gloom, colouring from white into grey as the light faded. He looked up at the sides, taking in the smoothness of the finish, the grey colour of something that looked like concrete contrasting with the light brown of the surrounding rock. This tunnel entrance had lain buried and concealed in the ice for millennia, brought to light only by the changes in climate that had started at the end of the last century. That it was not natural was beyond any shadow of a doubt; it must have been built in dizzying antiquity, perhaps even before the Antarctic ice cap had come into existence. It clearly predated all of human civilisation. Such a structure might be twenty thousand years old – or a hundred million. A very strange and ancient feeling arose deep inside Phil Keynes, not exactly terror, not exactly excitement. Here there was something awesome, maybe something great, perhaps something horrible beyond human comprehension. The stygian gloom of the tunnel as it disappeared into the rock of the mountain seemed to contain every kind of childhood bogeyman that ever existed. The atavistic fear of the dark that lies hidden even in the strongest men arose in Phil. And against himself, a Royal Marine and experienced soldier who had thought he had seen everything, he shivered.

Eulogy for Toby

We’re here today to remember the life of Toby, who has been taken from us at the age of 18. Toby was a great friend to us all, always cheerful, ready to greet strangers and friends alike, and with a simple, positive and outgoing approach to life.

Much of Toby’s time was taken up with simple, but to him, deeply important, matters. One of these was his compassion and concern for others, particularly for young children and for people weaker or more vulnerable than himself. Toby felt he was born to make others happy,

The other main concern of Toby’s life was food. Those of you who knew him well will recall that. If he was not concerning himself with the affairs of other people, ensuring that they were happy and content, he was looking forwards to his next meal, or indeed, towards any snacks that he might be able to find in the meantime.

For a Labrador to live 18 years is good going. Toby lived a good and long lifetime, and I’d like to remind you now of one or two highlights of that life well lived.

Perhaps most well-remembered is the custard story. On one of the many occasions that Toby got lost, he found his way to the custard factory. For Toby to get lost whilst out for a walk was not unusual, so we were not unduly concerned – he would show up at dinner time. The mere sound of the drawer being opened to get out a can opener would bring him bounding from the other side of the house.

We received a call from the custard factory. Toby was brought home sometime later in the back of a car, laid out on the back seat. On that occasion, there had been some kind of fault with a custard making machine, and gallons and gallons of custard had to be poured away down the drain. It was perhaps unfortunate that Toby found one of these drains and decided to start lapping up the custard. And he kept on lapping up the custard. By the time he was discovered, he was so full he could no longer walk. He did not eat for some time after that.

Then there was the occasion of the dead sheep. A local farmer warned us that there was a dead sheep on his land, and that it would be removed shortly. Not shortly enough, unfortunately for Toby, who saw it and quite naturally and understandably decided that raw mutton was just what he needed. He ate a fair amount of dead sheep before he was dragged off. We arrived back home and by this time Toby was clearly not feeling quite himself. There was something wrong – perhaps something he ate? And then, right at the top of the stairs, he decided to throw up. It’s funny now, years later, but it was no joke at the time. It was like a waterfall of sick, flowing down the stairs, and it stank to high heaven. Poor old Toby was very ill for a few days. But he recovered, dog of iron constitution that he was.

On another occasion my husband was going to work and was already dressed in a suit. But Toby needed his walk, and my husband took the dog out without changing into old clothes. Toby ran into the local pond and was splashing about – as you do, when you’re a Labrador. My husband’s insistence that Toby “Get out now!” fell on deaf ears. He continued to splash and play in the mud and the reeds. And then he caught a frog. Thought he’d eat it. This is pure Toby. As Toby’s jaws closed over the frog, the poor creature, still living, was desperately thrashing its legs. At this point my husband, a simple soul, could take no more, and ruined a good suit by leaping into the pond to drag our errant hound out by the scruff of the neck.

Yet for all his carnivorous instincts, Toby was deeply loving. On at least one occasion when we as parents had told off one or other of our daughters and sent them off to their rooms in disgrace, Toby disappeared shortly afterwards. We discovered him hours later, curled up next to our sleeping daughter, comforting, always comforting the sad or tearful.

Ladies and gentlemen, raise your water bowls and dog biscuits – for I propose a toast: To Toby the dog.