In Competition No. 2900 you were invited to write a short story that ends on a condiment of your choice.
The germ of this comp was the writer Richard Brautigan’s wish to end a short story with the word ‘mayonnaise’, an ambition he fulfilled in his 1967 novel Trout Fishing in America. Actually, strictly speaking, he didn’t. As an eagle-eyed friend and self-confessed pedant pointed out to me, the word that appears in most editions is the deliberately misspelt ‘mayonaise’.
The pun-merchants had a field day this week and there were several Cluedo- and Wodehouse-inspired entries. The winners take £30, D.A. Prince pockets £35.
Keith hadn’t listened properly. It was Jane’s chief complaint against him, and constituted most of their conversation these days. His retort was that her voice rattled something in his brain, shaking loose other connections. Last week she’d screamed at him as, puzzled but not wanting another argument, he had sliced a lettuce and popped it in the toaster. ‘Post! Post!’ she had yelled. ‘Letters! Before the post goes.’ He’d taken the dog, a more congenial conversationalist, and walked the long way round to the postbox. Today’s trip to London was an attempt to get back some joie de vivre; she would shop, he would visit a gallery, and they would meet, mid-afternoon — but where had she said? He could see her, almost hear her, throwing the words over her shoulder, then vanishing before he could decode it. Something about a statue of churros, and piccalilli.
The sun slathered the snow beyond the window until it was the colour of half-congealed mustard: almost ochre. Dominic stared at it. It had been a big step forward: he had paid Anthea’s husband to go away, and he would keep on paying — a huge, recurrent drain on his luckily very considerable resources. Everyone did indeed have his price. Anthea’s husband simply drove a better bargain.
‘Mmmm?’ Anthea stirred in his bed.
‘I’ve brought you some coffee, darling,’ said Dominic. It had been a whirlwind romance, conducted with dexterity. She had fallen for him, as he had fallen, years earlier, for her. But now his feelings were evaporating. The money had somehow soured it all, driven him apart from her. And she was a spendthrift, too — the bedroom was littered with her purchases on the never-never.
‘Love,’ she said, stroking his arm. ‘The one thing you can’t get on HP.’
‘Report in from our man in Tashkent, Sir. Top Secret.’
‘We have a man in Tashkent?’
‘Operative CQ 347, Sir. Don’t know him personally. Apparently he’s picked up rumours originating in Samara of Russian troops moving south in numbers. Could be Chechnya, Donetsk or even having a go at Kazakhstan.’
‘Or, of course, just someone stirring up a bit of strife over old sores. You read History, you’ll know all about Genghis, his descendants, the Golden Horde and all that?’
‘They had their own khanate down there for a hundred years. Brutally put down by Ivan the Terrible in the 1550s. What do they teach at Oxford these days? Anyway, they didn’t care for it and they have memories like the Irish.’
‘Any action, then, Sir?’
‘Always remember, Simpson, what an old Great Game hand once said to me: ‘Never trust anything coming from a Tartar source.’
Miss Pethig left the Ministry under a cloud. A mushroom cloud, you might say, this being the 1980s and Civil Defence her pigeon. Specifically, she maintained the War Book, an instruction manual for post-apocalyptic statecraft to be utilised only when statecraft had comprehensively failed. She didn’t formulate the rules, merely maintaining the box files that contained them, guarding all with a basilisk stare somehow more terrifying for the diminutive figure from which it emanated. Seventeen years she’d occupied her Whitehall alcove undisturbed before Sir Gerald Caldecott, seeking to settle a bet as to how long, post-Doomsday, it would remain legal to execute pacifists, found her blind drunk at her post, the contents of every file irretrievably shredded. ‘Retired’ to the care of an unexpected daughter in Ruislip, no one saw Pethig again. And had nuclear holocaust commenced that afternoon, the British government might have found itself in a considerable pickle.
The meal was in full progress when Churchill observed, ‘The table before us might represent Europe. I notice the big decanter has a broken handle. That’s Germany. The near-empty water jug is Italy. Various items of cutlery are the minion states Hitler has overrun.’ Roosevelt put down his glass.
‘You mustn’t forget that America is very much a presence on this European table, Mr Churchill.’
Churchill smiled. ‘Noted, sir. This bottle of fine malt packs a punch. That’s Britain.’
Stalin continued to eat, ignoring the light-hearted metaphors. He surveyed the items on the table as if planning an offensive and reached out for the jar of mayonnaise. As he removed the lid, Churchill turned to him: ‘You’ve taken Poland, Mr Stalin.’
Stalin continued to shake the jar, quite unconcerned. Then with a broad grin he said, ‘For me, Mr Churchill, this is only mayonnaise.’
No 2903: off colour
Inspired, no doubt, by the ever more ludicrous names that paint companies give their colours, someone has produced an amusing colour chart featuring their own inventions: ‘economy mince’, ‘provoked wasp’, ‘magnum of Tizer’, ‘day at Thorpe Park’ (you can see it at specc.ie/1HHdzqG). You are invited to provide an extract from an article in an interiors magazine featuring some paint-colour names of your own invention. Email entries of up to 150 words to email@example.com by midday on 17 June.
You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10