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Alex’s crossword

A crossword for 30th December, linking numerous alumni of 11 15 Oxford, including 22 ac who married 24 ac on 30th December 1816, 10 (AKA Prince 9), 19 who killed 8 on 30th December 1916, and 17 (×2).

Across

8      Revolutionary puritans murdered Russian … (8)
9      … and another porter with two unknown figures (5)
10   Thomas Jefferson to travel back aboard Mercury (4)
11   Agreement about unfinished version or passage, to a degree? (10)
12   Does something essential rest on these? (6)
14   Doctor admitting it’s fatal for 8 and 22 ac (8)
15   Queens, perhaps, or old king admitting member (7)
17   Clown in town? Have gone with missing President (7)
20   Topless union gear for poet (8)
22   Poetic middle name – a foolish mistake, one gathers (6)
23   Publisher’s flourishes put down (10)
24, 25       Fawley village’s alternative energy after sheep comes back (9)
26   Tack back after misplaced hope, like one rejected by Dane or 14 (8)

Down

1      Re-mounted main polo-horse (8)
2      Short Italian food shortages back (4)
3      Cures numberless strokes (6)
4      Relaxes in solar air-current, first to last (7)
5      Enthusiastic wolf ravaged avian prey (8)
6      Doctor signs on after sea-salts (10)
7      Only drunk outside, tee-total member of 23 set (6)
13   On the radio, old French rock group causing acute indigestion (10)
16   Speculation intrigues singleton when 5-a-side cancelled (8)
18   Promoting Oscar, the Roman co-respondent (5,3)
19   Carry us up over some assassin (7)
21   Make wingless noble tiger (6)
22   Originally, President William Jefferson’s and 22 ac’s poetic spirit, one hears (6)
24   Grinder crowd (4)

 

Editor’s Note

As many readers of these posts will now be aware, Alex Hogg collapsed suddenly at around 10.45 p.m. on 30th December 2016. Emergency services were called to one of the shower units in the Old Parsonage Hotel on Banbury Rd but paramedics’ efforts were unproductive and Mr Hogg was pronounced dead on arrival at the John Radcliffe Hospital an hour later. Preliminary examinations were not successful in determining the cause of death and a provisional attribution of SUDS (sudden unexpected death syndrome) is likely to be revised in due course.

Mr Hogg’s family and friends have been advised of this sad news and arrangements for Mr Hogg’s funeral and a memorial service will be announced in due course.

In Mr Hogg’s pockets was found a copy of Keats’s Collected Poems and the draft of a crossword. The latter may serve as a cryptic epitaph for the last 50 days of his life.

 

Friday 30th December (3)

Originally, President William Jefferson’s poetic spirit, one hears (6)

It is now well past mid-day and I am still alive. I have not been struck by a thunderbolt or been the victim of a revolutionary outrage. The Folly Bargères shows no signs of hitting an iceberg and I have yet to feel an overwhelming urge (like the Duke of Dorset in Zuleika Dobson) to hurl myself into the Isis. I still feel like I could throw up at any moment with each lurch of the barge but I have given myself strict instructions to consume no further alcohol. Instead, I am cradling a flute of cranberry juice and trying to look compos mentis. Lunch is a buffet affair and I restrict myself to the plainest of hog-free viands and victuals for fear of tipping a delicate pH balance one way or the other. I find myself talking to Marie-Claire’s father, a philosophy don, about the latest incumbent of the White House and about Araucaria, the Tiger Woods of crossword-writing.

Phil gives me a nudge and I remember that, despite the bride’s initials, I am supposed to be the MC around here and there are speeches to be made. So I call the assembled throng to attention and invite the bridegroom to take the first knock. Phil thanks everyone he has ever met in his life, one at a time and in great explanatory detail, before reciting a sonnet he has written for his radiant wife. It really would be a shame to throw up in the middle of this, so I concentrate on checking that the rhyme scheme is satisfactorily Petrarchan (it isn’t). Marie-Claire blushes appropriately and then delivers her own far pithier take on the whole business of getting married in the twenty-first century. Her dad also gets to wax philosophical for a while, advising his new son-in-law to brush up on his snooker skills.

After the warm-up acts, it is, of course, my turn. A Best Man can be as rude as he likes, as long as he’s funny and has first-hand experience of some of the more embarrassing moments in the bridegroom’s life. I am fairly confident my carefully-honed mixture of wisecracks and anecdotes will knock ’em dead as I rise groggily to my feet and retrieve my speech from my inside pocket.

Or rather, I don’t. The document I pull out is not a speech but the letter I have grabbed from the doormat in Osney. I scrabble around in all my other pockets but there can be little doubt about it – in my drunken panic this morning, I have completely forgotten to bring my script. What on earth was I going to say? My mentis is not compos at all. It is a tabula rasa, a palimpsest. I cannot remember a single word.

Everyone is chuckling politely at what they take to be my comic buffoonery. But all I can do is own up.

“I’m sorry, folks. I seem to have left my speech at home. All I have is this letter from my solicitor.” More laughter. “No, really, this is the only thing I have!”

“Well, you’d better read us that, then!” some wag shouts out. It turns out that this proposal reflects the mood of the baying mob. I make various gestures designed to indicate that this is a ridiculous idea and/or I have gone down with TDS (Temporary Dyslexia Syndrome) but my audience will have none of it.

“Come on, Alex. No speech, no fee!” Phil smiles. “Besides we all want to know how your solicitor plans to get you off on those embezzlement and heresy charges.”

In the end, there is nothing for it but to rip open the letter and find out what is written inside. I’m hoping it’s just a perfunctory couple of lines announcing that Procter & Harrison have been appointed as executors but I discover that there are actually a couple of sheets of densely-printed text.

Dear Alex [I start],

Firstly, it was good to see you again, albeit in such unfortunate circumstances …

[I explain briefly that my uncle has died]

I am writing to you in some haste for two reasons. The first is to convey confirmation of the fact that you are the primary beneficiary of your uncle, Mr Alan Jeffrey Hogg’s will. You will appreciate that it is still a little too early to give you a precise indication of the size of your inheritance but a conservative assessment, based on the recent sale value of his property and scrutiny of his other investments, suggests that you should expect to receive a sum in the low seven figures …

[This gets an inevitable “ooh” from the audience. I take the opportunity to catch my breath.]

… the low seven figures, certainly at least £1.3m. I should be in a position to provide a little more detail in terms of the provisional valuation of assets and timescale early in the New Year and we will proceed with probate with all due haste.

[All around me, wedding guests are cheering. They seem to be genuinely pleased at my windfall. I try to think what I could do with all this money but absolutely nothing comes to mind.]

The second matter is rather more personal and pressing. Alex, I owe you a huge apology. It was only after we spoke at the funeral that I remembered a practical joke I had played on you all those years ago. I had almost forgotten it and assumed you had long since done likewise but your casual remark that you were expecting some form of catastrophe on 30th December tells me that you have not.

In short, you are not going to die on 30th December. At least, I have no reason to expect that you will, and I was the person who was responsible for this fear in the first place. I am truly sorry. It was all a consequence of my own relationship with my uncle, Fred, and my youthful fascination with locked door mysteries and impossible challenges. Uncle Fred used to travel round the country plying his trade at various fairs and festivals. He was a regular at the St Giles Fair in Oxford, for instance. His nom de plume was Solomon Sage and he used to tell people’s fortunes. Depending on his assessment of the paying customer, he’d peer into a crystal ball, pretend to read a palm or scrutinise an astrological chart, although he had a healthy scepticism for all those predictors. In reality, he picked up on all the physical and conversational clues that were available to him – it’s amazing how much you can guess about someone just by looking at them. The more he practised, the luckier he got and most customers left his booth convinced they had been given some sort of insight into their future.

I knew that our whole gang was going to the fair that year and I was pretty confident that I could persuade some or all of my classmates to have their fortune told. I collected a few mugshots with my digital camera and compiled a dossier of all the information I could possibly find, before handing the whole thing over to Uncle Fred. With most of the boys, I only had things like date of birth, favourite football team, and so on, but in your case, I had several pages worth, because we had been the best of friends for some time and I had got to know your family. I knew your heroes, your ambitions, everything. It was obvious you’d end up at your father’s old college, a real no-brainer.

But Uncle Fred did far too good a job – how could he fail with such a big advantage? The tricky bit came when you asked how long you would live. That is not a question anyone should ever ask but when you are young you think you are going to live for ever. He refused to tell you but you pressed him and pressed him (at least, that’s what he told me afterwards) and in the end, because there was a queue of paying punters waiting in the wings, he made up a date. To him, December 30th 2016 sounded an impossibly long way off, and I’m sure it did to you too. When we spoke about it at the time, you seemed to shrug it off and I tried to convince you it was all rubbish. I did not guess that it would be preying on your mind in years to come.

Uncle Fred died in 2008 so I am apologising on behalf of the two of us. It was a stupid trick to play. I must track down other classmates on LinkedIn or Facebook and make sure none of them is labouring under a similar misconception.

So as well as a seven-figure sum, I grant you a new lease of life! Happy New Year!

Yours, etc,

John Harrison

It is hard to believe that I am able to read this entire letter aloud without collapsing in a quivering heap. The news seems too good to be true. All those years of needless worry and suspense! But even now I am already rewriting my life-history – how could I possibly have believed such a prediction? The putative reader of these Hoggblogs will have pooh-poohed such an idea from the outset. You’re right, it was ridiculous, I never believed a word of it, did I?

As I struggle to hold back the tears, the wedding party stands and applauds me. Phil and Ozzie leave me bruised with their celebratory high-fives and back-slaps and the kiss I get from Marie-Claire lasts a micro-second longer than decorum demands of a bride. Mine has been an unusual prothalamion but the applause shows no signs of abating and I have no idea what more to say. In fact, the clapping seems to have intensified and turned into a gasp of surprise. An irrational panic seizes me – has my audience suddenly realized that my flies are undone? – but most of all I just feel nauseous and dizzy. It is vital that I get out of the cabin immediately before I throw up. Attempting to wave apologetically, I stumble out through the nearest door to the stern of the boat, vaguely conscious that that is the right end to be. No one has followed me out, which is a great relief.

I crouch over the guard-rail and heave convulsively. What little I have eaten and drunk disappears into the greeny-grey waters of the Thames. Fortunately, this is a very quiet stretch of the river and there are no witnesses to my embarrassment. We are still careering downstream at some pace, having recently passed Sandford Lock. The banks are thickly covered with bushes and a row of pylons in the distance disfigures the South Oxfordshire skyline. The icy air does not seem to be making me feel any less nauseous and I decide to stay put until I am ill a second time. I feel so rough I can hardly bring myself to contemplate the good news I have just received. I should feel elated and astonished as a curse is lifted and I suddenly have a bit (OK, a lot) of money in the pipeline. And yet, and yet …

I don’t know which comes first, the voice or the touch on my shoulder. But the combination of the two at a moment when the Folly Bargères is pitching left and right are almost enough to send me flying overboard. I grab the rail and hang on for dear life. It can’t be! I haven’t heard that voice for nine months or so. It is the last voice I expected to hear today. I must be dreaming!

Even as I turn round, I am convinced that this must be a cruel trick played on me in my delirium. But the evidence of my eyes is clear enough. It really is Hattie, alive and well. I am completely lost for words. But that is not the only shock. Hattie is wrapped up snug and warm in a thick winter’s coat and in her arms she is cradling a baby, swathed in so many layers that I can barely see its tiny face. For an instant I wonder whose baby Hattie could possibly be looking after but there is something so natural about the two of them that there can be only one possible conclusion.

“Alex!?” Hattie whispers at last. “I’m so sorry to shock you like that. Are you not well?”

Somehow I manage to recover the power of speech.

“Hattie, how marvellous to see you! How truly, truly wonderful to see you! We thought you were …”

“Dead? Oh, I’m so sorry, Alex, to let you think that. You don’t know what it was like. I had to get away from London. I felt I was going mad. I didn’t want anyone to know where I was, not even Liz, not even … you.”

I gaze at mother and baby, shaking my head. I am conscious that there are tears in my eyes and I wipe them away.

“There’s no need to apologise,” I start.

“I just wanted to go somewhere where I could have my baby and decide what I was going to do next. I went to Ireland and stayed at the house of an old college friend called Jenny. I owe her so much. And now there is a new person in my life. Also called Jenny!”

As if on cue, the baby gurgles and splutters. I feel sure that the infant should not be out in the open air on such a winter’s day but I am no expert on childcare.

“Jenny is a lovely name,” I offer lamely. “But …”

“But what?”

In the end I cannot resist the obvious question. In my heart of hearts, I already know the answer. Hattie gazes at me for a moment as if to ask how foolish I can possibly be.

“Who do you think, Alex?”

There is no bitterness or recrimination in her voice, just a steely calmness. I search in her eyes for some sort of confirmation. The truth seems almost beyond comprehension.

“Me!?”

“It’s all right, Alex. I know it was just a drunken fumble.”

“Is it really nine months since that night?”

“It was March 25th. Not a night I’ll forget in a hurry.”

“March 25th?”

The date my forefather got sent down from Univ. Shelley too, of course.

“Part of me wanted to keep it a secret from you for ever. But having a baby changes the way you think. I knew I had to tell you. You are the father, after all. So here I am.”

I am suddenly conscious that there are numerous eyes gazing at us through the cabin window. Am I the last to know about all this? The tears are flowing freely. But this is no time for self-consciousness. I must hold my daughter. Hattie intuits this and hands the baby across. I have to surrender my grip on the guard-rail in order to take the baby and support her against my chest. It is hard to put into words my feelings – it is the most extraordinary moment of my life. I had never wanted to have children, never felt capable of being responsible for a child and yet, now that the moment has come, I know that it is the best thing that has ever happened to me. And considering the other things that have happened to me in the last half hour alone, that is quite something.

The number of eyes pressing at the cabin window has doubled and I do not feel well enough to perform as I should for such an audience. I sense that Hattie feels similarly uncomfortable. She has many other people to see and a baby is a star performer at any wedding. We agree that we will go back into the cabin separately and later, when the fuss has died down, we will find a quiet moment to reflect. I need a little time to think, that’s for sure, and it’s easier to ponder out here than it will be inside, especially now that the party is starting in earnest.

Honestly, I did not see this coming! Perhaps you did, reading astutely between the lines. If so, I applaud your perspicacity, but it may just be a sign that you have read too many Victorian novels and confused them with real life. My personal peripeteia seems suspiciously neat and yet I can’t help but reflect that it breaks the pattern of history. Hattie has not succumbed to the fate that seemed implicit in the story of Harriet Westbrook.

Hattie didn’t weigh down her pockets with stones and walk out into the Serpentine, like her predecessor. An unexpected pregnancy now does not entail the same social stigma as it did two hundred years ago. No one on the Folly Bargères is treating her as a pariah – on the contrary, Phil and all his friends are cooing over her as if she were the prodigal son. Even Marie-Claire seems genuinely happy to be upstaged. She is secure that Phil is now hers and the reappearance of his ex-wife is a blessing, a load off everyone’s mind, not that Phil had seemed overly concerned in the first place.

As baby Jenny is passed blithely from one set of hands to another, cooing and wriggling in time-honoured fashion, I feel a little resentful. That’s my baby you are treating like the cabaret! How can I possibly have developed such paternal feelings in the space of half an hour?

But what of my feelings for Hattie? She has regained the bloom in her cheeks that she had before she married Phil and I see now that she has dressed in the brightest of clingy frocks for the wedding, showing off her spectacular, maternal figure. Am I in love with her? I am certainly in lust. And what about her feelings for me? After nine months of living with the consequences of my carelessness, I could hardly blame her if bitterness and resentment are the predominant emotions she feels. It’s clear that she has told no one the name of the father as there are few furtive glances in my direction. Perhaps everyone is too drunk to guess.

Before we know it, we are safely back to Folly Bridge and the party is adjourning. I jump ashore, an undrowned man. Plenty of folks are heading over to the Univ Beer Cellar where a few bevvies have been laid on. Hattie is busy wrapping up Jenny against the winter cold.

“Do you think we could head off somewhere?” I suggest.

“Somewhere far from the madding crowd?”

“No, the Madding Crowd has shut up shop. How about the Royal Blenheim?”

So the three of us make the short walk up St Aldates, a little regretful that we can’t go to the second of the two pubs named after Hardy novels by the late, great Noel Reilly. St Aldates is surprisingly busy. Someone on a bicycle has been struck by an old Stag MK11 – the cyclist looks to be in better shape than the Stag’s wing-mirror but an ambulance is standing by.

As we pass Carfax, I see close behind us a young man in a wheelchair being pushed by someone who is a dead ringer for the second of the two men I glimpsed at Univ. Perhaps it is just the incongruous shades he is wearing. Hattie and I lug the carry-cot complete with Jenny and all her clutter through the doors of the pub. I sort out some drinks while Hattie gets herself organised in a convenient corner.

“Are you in a rush to get off somewhere else?” she asks. “That’s not the first time you have looked at your watch!”

“I’m just glad to be alive!”

“What on earth do you mean?”

And so I tell her – the whole Drowned Hogg Day story. If I spin it out long enough, the midnight hour really will strike and I will have survived. I feel reasonably confident that the alarm clock will not ring tomorrow to reveal that I am trapped in the Oxford equivalent of Punxsutawney, if only because I don’t actually own a radio-alarm. The predictions were right all along – December 30th is indeed the day my life ends … and a new one starts. I have gained a family and a fortune in the space of half an hour.

“So … what are your plans?” I dare to ask at last.

“I might move to America and find myself a log cabin big enough for myself and three growing children …” Hattie looks at me askance. “Or I might stay in London – Charley and Xan are settled there, after all. But I hate London. This is the place for me. No wonder you’ve never left! How does anyone leave Oxford? Trouble is, I can’t afford to rent a one-bedroom flat here, never mind actually buy something.”

“I could lend you a fiver,” I offer generously.

“A tenner might help us all get here on the Oxford Tube,” she laughs.

“I can’t have you travelling on that,” I say. “Not after last night. But now that I have come into my great expectations, I feel it is time I became a man of property. I will buy you a house.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Alex!”

“What’s ridiculous about that? When I woke up this morning, I didn’t have a penny in my pocket and I’d quite like to return to that blissful state as quickly as possible. If I can do a good turn along the way …”

“You’re serious?”

“Ah sure ahm!”

“Very well. On one condition.”

“Which is?”

“That you come and live there too. Jenny needs a father and the other two could do with a man about the house. Or does the idea fill you with dread?”

I am forced to admit that the idea does not fill me with dread at all. It fills me with the deepest possible joy and anticipation. Hattie shakes her head in bewilderment. And for once in my life I do the right thing. I lean across, slowly and deliberately, and kiss her full on the lips. I lack the words to describe the magic of that moment. If this is my groundhog day, I will never tire of this. No frog transformed into a prince ever felt happier than I.

Perhaps sensing that she is no longer quite the centre of attention, Jenny starts to cry in her little carry-cot. I wonder that a sound so loud could come from such a tiny pair of lungs. Hattie plucks her daughter out of her swaddling clothes, checks to left and right and unfastens the bodice of her dress. As her right breast is released from the confines of her maternity bra, I catch a glimpse of its plump softness before Jenny latches greedily on. I too long to be pillowed on my fair love’s ripened breast. Reading my mind, Hattie chuckles and I blush.

“This day was perfect,” Hattie tells me. “You couldn’t have planned a day like this.”

“Well, you can. It just takes an awful lot of work.”

“Jenny has two parents now. But we should have had ten times more fun making this baby!”

“Is it too late to catch up now?” I hardly dare to ask. Hattie seems unembarrassed but doubtful.

“How gentle can you be?”

“What, a clodhopping fool like me? I’ll give it my best shot!”

“Well, you’d better call a taxi, then. My room at the Old Parsonage should be just about big enough for the three of us …”

Like another former Univ man, I am surprised by joy. I really feel that my heart will burst.

As Jenny continues to chomp and dribble contentedly, I go outside in search of mobile phone reception. Snowflakes tumble on me, the first of 2016, and I think again of Phil Connors and Rita, breaking the cycle at last. At the end of St Ebbes, I catch another glimpse of the cripple in the wheelchair and I make a mental note to count my many blessings. The night is only just beginning …

Friday 30 December 2016 (2)

Depressed before big Isis riverboat disaster, initially … or one fifty years ago? (8)

And that is all I remember. At some point I must have passed out for the next thing I know it is morning and I am lying head down on my bed. I find I am still wearing a t-shirt and a sock, but nothing else. Wintry sunlight summons me to the new day.

Momentary confusion turns to despair as I realize it is still December 30th, still my dying day or (the very best I can hope for) the day I am arrested for the murder of my old boss.

For an instant, I feel sure that last night was all some kind of dream but the cuts on my forehead and the blood on the duvet are real enough. To say that I feel wrecked hardly suffices – this is wreckage on a Titanic scale. My brain seems to have been flattened by a steamroller and my stomach is as fragile as a Fabergé nipple-ring.

I know what I must do with all possible haste: check online for flights out of the UK, head for Brazil (well, it worked for Ronnie Biggs) and establish a new identity as a lifeguard or football pundit. If only I had had the foresight to purchase a fake passport! The airports will surely have been alerted by the time I get there. What about the tiny airport next to Kidlington? I could be there in twenty minutes. Perhaps I can hop on a plane to Jersey and then take it from there?

But several hours have elapsed since my accidental slaying of Vlad and still there is no one battering at the door. Perhaps Ozzie has ignored my suggestion and set foot in Vlad’s house? With luck, he has removed some (all?) of the incriminating evidence, shut the door and crept off home. If so, the corpse might lie there for days before it is discovered by an astute postman or a neighbour with well-developed olfactory powers.

Should I go round and check? No, that would be pushing my luck. More likely, Ozzie, being the fine upstanding citizen that he is, has summoned the police and is currently “helping them with their enquiries”. I don’t want to call his mobile but perhaps it is safe to try to ring him at home? No better plan presents itself, so I make the call to his home number. No one picks it up. In the end I manage to leave a reasonably casual message asking him to call me back “about the wedding”.

The wedding! OMG, the wedding! If I am not going to attempt to leave the country strapped to the underside of a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, surely I should try to carry on “as normal” and fulfil my Best Manly duties? My heart sinks at the prospect, almost setting off my fragile stomach en route to the ground. I gave my word to Phil and Marie-Claire that I would do it. I might as well do something useful with my last day, after all.

The wedding ceremony is to take place in University College Chapel and, if I am to get there in time for kick-off, I will need to move fast. As I try to hide the bruising on my face and throw on my hired togs, I search my conscience for some sign of remorse. A man has died. OK, I didn’t set out with the intention of killing him – it was a complete accident – but a tragedy has occurred which could have been avoided if I hadn’t got drunk and connived in the ridiculous notion of defacing someone’s property. How can I live with myself? But after a thorough audit of my befuddled state, I can locate very little regret, only an instinct for self-preservation and the hope that somehow things will all blow over.

I gulp down a life-saving cuppa made from half a jar of Nescafé and am just about ready to leave. But there is someone outside the front door. A thousand possibilities trample through my hippocampus until a letter plops onto the doormat. I pick it up, noting the Procter and Harrison stamp and the pretentious hedgehog logo, but there is no time to digest it now. So I stuff it into the inside-pocket of my morning suit and head off into town on foot. I note in passing that the Botley Rd has not been sealed off by a police cordon. People are going about their business apparently oblivious to the date on the calendar and it is actually quite a bright day, albeit with a fierce Arctic wind blowing.

I traverse the puddles in Frideswide Square and walk briskly past the boarded-up Central Library considering my defence. Surely the jury will see that I was merely the unwitting medium through which History (the capital letter is important, I think) repeated itself. It was a hundred years to the very day, perhaps to the very minute, since the murder of Rasputin. I did not choose to be cast as a latter-day Felix Yusupov. Perhaps Ozzie (like Oswald Rayner before him) duped me into playing out this charade? No, we have both been fitted up. It is clear who is to blame, m’lud – History, that serial offender! History should be locked away, for all our safety, especially on 30th December 2116.

It’s an unusual defence, I grant you.

I take some comfort from the observation that neither Yusupov nor Rayner paid any obvious penalty for their misdemeanours despite their evident guilt. Perhaps I too will go unpunished?

I arrive at Univ with about five minutes to spare. The bridegroom is fretting like an old mother hippo just outside the chapel. The Chapel! Like Gawain, I have journeyed here at the death of the old year, just about ready to embrace my fate, whatever that might be. At least it has not been painted green.

“Where on earth have you been, Alex?” Phil bellows across the quad.

“It’s only four minutes to,” I point out. Out of the corner of my eye, I see two men dressed in black skulking in the doorway of Staircase V. One of them bears a strange resemblance to Dwayne, Clinton’s minder at Frilford. Surely not? There is no time for such a thought.

“But you’re the Best Man,” Phil is saying. “A fat lot of help you’ve been. Still, at least you can do a bit of ushering, now that you’re here. There is no time to tell you the extraordinary news. Here are the rings, by the way…”

So I do a spot of ushering, sending latecomers to their allotted sides. There is a good turn-out on Marie-Claire’s side but relatively few of Phil’s kith/kin seem to have made it. I think of Shelley’s wedding two hundred years ago today – surely this will be a somewhat happier affair?

The person I really want to see, of course, is Ozzie, but there is no sign at all of him. I picture him clapped in irons in the dungeons of Oxford Castle. Perhaps, like Sydney Carton, he has taken the rap for his feckless friend. Is that the extraordinary news?

The college is in most respects still on its Christmas recess, so, apart from the lurking heavies, we have the place to ourselves. The ceremony is an unremarkable affair conducted by the Rev. Andrew Gregory, the red-headed college chaplain. Ozzie was due to play the organ but one of Marie-Claire’s relatives fills in at short notice and we are able to plough through a couple of rudimentary hymns. The bride looks exquisite in a simple white gown, her hair artfully raised at the back to reveal her long, elegant neck – Phil is a very lucky man. In a different world it might have been me marrying this sweet, brilliant woman. OK, a very different world …

I produce the simple gold rings at the appointed juncture. A special marriage licence has been procured from the Lord Chancellor of the Privy Chamberpot, or some such, and the two lovebirds sign it in front of the assembled throng. Then there is the interminable ritual of the photographs, tastefully arranged against the ivy-clad backdrop of Front Quad, right under Shelley’s old rooms, before we all troop off to Folly Bridge. Let the revels commence!

The Folly Bargères looks like a huge and flimsy paper boat, tugged at its moorings by the passing torrent. It looks no match for the Isis in the aftermath of some of the worst flooding that Oxford has seen since global warming began. The icy north wind will be at our backs as we lurch erratically towards Iffley Lock and on towards Sandford, Radley and Abingdon. At some point we will turn around and fight our way back against the current and the wind. I can only hope that the Folly has a little more clearance than Shelley’s life-size paper boat, the Don Juan. It seems like a strange kind of madness that I should be on such a boat on such a morning.

Fifty years ago today, Donald Campbell gazed out over Coniston Water and wondered whether conditions were right to make his long-postponed attempt at the world water-speed record aboard Bluebird. He knew that the slightest gust of wind would put him at mortal risk while travelling at 300 mph. Every day that passed was draining his funds but the winds were plainly too strong on December 30th 1966. Five days later he lost patience with the English weather and made his bid for glory anyway. Bluebird, like Icarus, flew too close to the sun. Campbell’s body lay undiscovered until 2001 when diver Bill Smith was inspired to look for the wreck after hearing the Marillion song “Out of This World”, written about that tragedy.

As Best Man, am I de facto captain of this ship? At least, I don’t have to steer the thing. A somewhat tubby man with a straggly beard and a jaunty beret seems to be taking on that job, so I have a quick word with him before anyone embarks.

“Is it all right to go out on the water today?”

Captain Pugwash grunts ambiguously.

“Yeah, should be just about OK,” he says at last. “And we’ll never be more than twenty yards from the shore, will we? But we might have to take it in turns with the life-jacket.”

His wheezy chuckle reveals his nicotine-stained dentures. I thank him for his reassurance and resist the temptation to ask him whether he stoppeth one of three wedding guests. While most of us have covered the short distance from Univ on foot, the happy couple have hired a limo which pulls up close to Folly Bridge. Most of the revellers have climbed on board the barge by now but I wait onshore until the guests of honour have reached us.

“So what was that extraordinary news?” I ask Phil as he sweeps by with his bride on his arm. He and Marie-Claire exchange glances.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” he smiles. Soon I am the only one left ashore. I feel it is the point of no return. I take a deep breath before stepping aboard the boat and making my way to the main cabin where the tables are set for the wedding feast. The pungent aroma of the hog roast assails me. I am not over-fond of pork at the best of times and, with the lurch of the boat on the water and the residual effects of a night on the Madeira, I am already struggling to hold it together.

There is a brief delay while various items of food are ferried aboard by the shivering serving crew. We are almost ready to set off when I see there is a last-minute arrival at the makeshift jetty. It takes me a little while to focus and make out who the latecomer is. It’s Ozzie! He does not have a police escort. Never have I been more elated to see anyone in my life.

Having kissed the bride and enjoyed a brief moment of banter with Phil, Ozzie comes over to join me in my quiet corner of the cabin. He is utterly unencumbered by members of our fine constabulary and there is a smile on his face.

“What a complete twat you are, Alex!”

I nod in agreement.

“What’s happened?” I croak.

“I’ve just spent the night in the JR, that’s what’s happened.”

“You mean …”

“Yes, Vlad is in poor shape. His CT scan showed some concussion and some pretty deep wounds from that broken madeira bottle. He lost a lot of blood.”

“But he’s OK now?” I cannot believe my good fortune.

“He’s fine. A bus had overturned on the M40 and seventeen injured passengers were ambulanced in to the JR. A&E was hopelessly overstretched.  We had to wait all night to get to the front of the queue but the scan revealed nothing untoward in the old cranium. He had to have a few stitches in his jaw and he may be left with a bit of a scar but nothing too drastic.”

“I thought he was dead, Ozzie!”

“Ah. I did guess that might be the case. What the hell happened in there?”

“I should think Vlad has a better idea of what happened in there than I do. I was completely off my face.”

“Serves you right for knocking back 80% of that Madeira.”

“I feel sick even remembering it.”

“Vlad went through various phases in the course of the night. Shock, anger, relief, a desire for murderous revenge, gratitude that I’d found him and called an ambulance …”

“Am I going to do time for this?”

“No, Alex. It’s OK. It shouldn’t be OK, but it is. Vlad’s recollection is that you were waving this bottle about and he made this stupid decision to try to get it off you. You held on, Vlad lost his grip, the bottle swung round and smacked him on the jaw, shattering in the process.”

“Strangely, that’s how I remember it too. Pretty feeble glass if you ask me.”

“And somehow he ended up slipping on the polished floor and toppling down the stairs. He is suffering from the delusion that you did not push him or intend to hurt him in any way.”

“So he’s not going to press charges?”

“I suggest you go round with a crate of the finest Madeira and apologise profusely, not just for your drunken bottle-waving but, rather more significantly, leaving him in a heap at the bottom of the stairs. Why didn’t you call an ambulance yourself?”

“I wasn’t thinking straight. I thought he was dead. How was I to know that he’d do a Rasputin and rise again? My first thought was to get out of the door and catch the first flight to Rio, a Rembrandt under each arm.”

“Yes, you did seem to be in a bit of a hurry when I saw you. Turns out it’s your lucky day.”

“I did bash my head on the ice.”

“You should get that checked out. Do you want me to run you to A&E?”

“For some more tomography? Not this time, Ozzie, but I owe you one.”

“You owe me half of that bottle of Madeira, certainly. It’s been a long old night but a productive one from my point of view. During all those hours in A & E, I talked him through the whole plagiarism thing. He was surprisingly reasonable about it and accepted there was plenty of evidence that I’d never even seen this ancient thesis, not that it has much in common with my masterpiece anyway. As he said, it was never personal; he was just looking out for the good of the college.”

“That’s great news! And history doesn’t quite repeat itself!”

“History? What’s history got to do with it?”

“Well, it was you who lectured us on assassins called Oswald, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, but …”

“Think about it. It was a hundred years to the day, no, to the hour since Rasputin was murdered, not by Prince Felix Yusupov but by his young English friend, Oswald Rayner …”

“So you’re saying I could have gone in to Vlad’s house, discovered the old fool was alive and kicking and finished him off myself?”

“While I would have carried the can for it!”

“A brilliant plan, Alex – or should I say Felix? – I’m only sorry I let you down in the execution. Perhaps I’m not cut out for the life of an assassin, after all.”

“So you’ve still got your fellowship and I should roll up to the office first thing on Monday morning?”

“Er, no, I don’t think he was going to go quite that far. You had just turned up at his house blind-drunk and nearly killed him. I should give it a couple of weeks, or decades!”

“Ha. I wouldn’t want the ghastly job back anyway!”

Friday December 30th – Drowned Hogg Day? (1)

Island produced a terrorist organisation (7)

A distant church bell sounds and I see from my watch that it is midnight. A snatch of Metallica’s ‘For whom the bell tolls’ comes unbidden to my mind’s ear. It is the day I have feared for so long. It is Drowned Hogg Day.

A confession: the rest of the night’s events are a little bit of a blur. An evening of sustained alcoholic consumption is not something I am used to these days and I have had little practice in being drunk. By the time I have forced down the last of the Madeira, sozzled is most certainly what I am and I may even have thrown up at a convenient spot outside the White House – the pub, that is, not the Clintons’ second home.

As we lurch into Whitehouse Rd, I have a dim recollection of the conversation turning to Vlad the Impaler. I tell Ozzie it’s all right for him; he hasn’t actually lost his job as a result of the college Development Director’s Machiavellian ministrations, whereas I have. Ozzie reminds me that we are actually going right past his house. There it is, on the corner of Hodges Court. It being after midnight, we contemplate ringing his doorbell and running away – that’s how drunk we are. But Ozzie has a better idea:

“What about some graffiti? I’ve been doing a bit of home improvement over the festive season and I’ve got some spray-paint left over.”

“A few choice swear words on Vlad’s front door, you mean?”

“No, something a little more artistic. This is Oxford, after all.”

“How about some Shelley? My name is Ozymandias, king of kings. Look on my works, Vlad the Impaler, and despair?”

“Ozzie who?” My partner in crime looks at me blankly. The drink has evidently gone to his head too.

“Ozymandias – you know, Shelley’s famous sonnet.”

“We don’t want to get done for plagiarism, do we?”

“But Shelley’s been dead for almost two hundred years!” I point out.

“Not Shelley. We might be sued by the guy who did the graffiti on that Hernes Rd development a year or two back. He spray-painted half Shelley’s sonnet on forty yards of boarding. It was brilliant – they even had guided tours going there just to see the graffiti…”

It is possible I have dreamt this whole conversation up. The plan is quite ludicrous but Ozzie soon scurries off to fetch the paint while my job is to stay put and make sure Vlad’s house doesn’t do a runner before Ozzie gets back. So there I am, loitering with intent, when a light goes on in an upstairs room. The curtains are not drawn and I see Vlad himself, in his dressing gown, walking about.

I should do a runner myself but I stand transfixed, possibly even impaled to the pavement, as Vlad comes over to the window, gazes out and sees me standing underneath the lamp-post. Time stands still as he opens the sash window.

“Alex! Kakogo chyorta! What on earth are you doing there?”

I search for an answer to this very reasonable question but find none.

“You’re shivering!” he observes. “Look, you’d better come inside and warm up.”

“No … no …” I start, but Vlad is already on his way down the stairs to open the front door. The only sensible thing to do is to leg it but I am now the owner of two vast (if not quite trunkless) legs of stone. I remain transfixed by his icy gaze for some seconds.

At some point I regain the power of perambulation and follow Vlad into his lair like a lost puppy. The only thing in my mind is that I must avoid throwing up again. That seems a tall order so I settle for the easier target of not chundering all over his sleeping wife, assuming he has one. I feel my stomach churn in the warmer air. Vlad is mumbling away about something but I am unable to catch what he says as I follow him up the stairs. He turns to me on the landing.

“You’re absolutely plastered, I can see. If it’s about the job …”

It is all about the job, of course it is. And somehow I am down on my knees, pulling pathetically at his dressing gown, begging, whimpering, mewling. Just give me another chance. Please!

Vlad tries to brush me away and somehow I end up pulling at the sash which is holding his dressing-gown together. The gown gapes open and it is apparent that he is wearing nothing underneath. I am inches away from … no, this must all be some terrible nightmare. Surely Ozzie will arrive and save me. As Vlad struggles to recover his modesty, I cling beseechingly to his knees.

Aeons pass as Vlad wrenches himself clear of my embrace and I regain my feet. What is that in your coat pocket, Vlad asks? I glance down. It is the empty Madeira bottle – somehow, I have failed to discard it. I take it out and wave it in the air. Perhaps the bottle is too opaque for Vlad to be sure that it is empty and perhaps he thinks I am likely to get drunker still. For whatever reason, he tells me to give him the bottle. For equally obscure reasons, I demur. How else to explain a situation in which we are both struggling for possession of an empty wine bottle? But that is what we proceed to do.

And that is when disaster strikes. My memory of what follows is relatively clear.

Somehow I manage to wrench the bottle from his grasp. Not expecting to win the battle quite so easily, my arm frees itself and the bottle swings upwards and across, before catching Vlad around his jaw. The bottle smashes on impact and I drop what is left of it. But the impact has caused Vlad to lose his balance and/or consciousness. I stand helpless as he falls heavily down the stairs and onto the stone flooring below. I wait for him to pick himself up and come at me again, but there is no sign of further movement.

Because the scuffle has been so half-hearted and my brain so addled, it takes me a moment to comprehend the significance of this scene. Vlad is pretending to be hurt to scare me. Still he does not move. My legs have returned to their Ozymandian state but eventually there is nothing for it but to follow Vlad downstairs. As I near the body, I see a hunk of glass protruding from his neck. Blood is oozing from that wound and a number of others. At that moment, for the first time, I glimpse the possibility that I have killed my old boss. It was a freakish accident but my mind is already racing with various dire scenarios. I am in deep, deep trouble.

Once again, I wish I had a river I could skate away on

December 30th was supposed to be my dying day. Has there been some celestial clerical error? Was this the death the chronicle foretold? Will I spend the rest of my life behind bars, wishing I was the one who died on a cold stone floor in Whitehouse Road? But there are no wailing sirens, no hysterical wives, only a cold and threatening silence. I am by the front door. I try to focus on Vlad but feel certain it is too late to help him. I must get out of this place. It is my only chance.

In my rush to escape, I completely overlook the fact that my fingerprints will be everywhere. The evidence will be overwhelming. Lynda La Plante’s services will scarcely be required. I have just the neck of the bottle in my own bloodied hand. To my astonishment, my legs now know how to run. But before I have reached the end of the front path, I see Ozzie crossing the road in front of me. He has a paint-pot and a brush in his hands.

“I wouldn’t go in there, if I were you!” I say or at least croak. Ozzie looks at me in astonishment. It is almost as if he has guessed the terrible truth. But I have no intention of waiting to find out. My instinct is to get home as quickly as possible, but I cannot go via the Abingdon Rd and round past the station. Even at this time of night, there is too great a risk of being seen by some driver or passer-by. So I turn right out of the house and head off quickly west instead. I half-expect Ozzie to follow me and haul me back but I dare not even look over my shoulder.

After a few seconds, I reach the crossroads with Marlborough Rd and briefly contemplate turning right again but I decide to stay on Whitehouse Rd – this is a familiar part of town, after all.  It is as if magnets are drawing me to Hogacre Common. I fork left past the Adventure Playground. Before I even reach the refurbished footbridge over the railway line, I hear the sound of wassailers in full swing. Apple trees in wassailing range are no doubt resolving to bear fruit in 2017. There are lights on in the old cricket pavilion but I see that most of the latter-day pagan revellers are now outside, watching Cry Havoc jigging to and fro, their handkerchiefs in the air, while a small band of folk musicians are playing a tune I happen to recognise, even in my inebriated state, as Old Tom of Oxford.

I have no time to wonder what my esteemed ancestor, Old Tom of Oxford, would have done at this point. No doubt he would have turned quickly round and made alternative plans, certainly after he discovered that the ground on the far side of the bridge was largely still under water. Perhaps if I blend in with the revellers, I may establish some kind of alibi for the evening? I splash along the track for a few yards until the Morris men (and women) are clearly in view.

But one of the musicians is all too familiar – it is Stig Strum! So this is what he gets up to in his spare time when he is not imitating Keith Richard! There he is with his nyckelharpa while an accordionist and a fiddler pick out the tune. Stig is in motley garb with some kind of cap-and-bells arrangement on his head. As far as I can tell, he has not seen me.

But Stig is not the only figure I recognise. There’s Phil’s old adversary, Ben Haydon, the long-suffering manager of the Hogacre Project. He is dressed all in green and his arms are outstretched with apples hanging down in clusters. The Morris men jump to and fro, circling this jolly green giant, sticks clashing and handkerchiefs twirling. It is every bit as ridiculous as it sounds. Ben is facing directly towards me and it becomes clear that he has seen me in the distance.

But there is no reason why he should recognise me in this light. I turn away from the main path and jog away across the sodden turf, travelling clockwise around the perimeter of the eco-park. The ground is so marshy that icy water is washing over the tops of my shoes but I plough on regardless. The music is a little fainter now and I am fairly sure no one is following me – perhaps I have not been seen at all.

My plan, of course, is to cut across to Grandpont and join the Thames towpath as it makes its way north to Osney Island. But first I must traverse the Hogacre Stream by the little wooden crossing-point at the north end of the eco-park. Usually this would be a simple matter, even by moonlight, but when I reach the crossing, it’s clear that I face a major challenge. Thanks to the recent rains, the stream has risen above its normal banks and flooded the surrounding land. Much of the water has turned to ice. The crossing is just about visible under a few inches of ice on the surface of the stream.

There is no going back now. I tiptoe across the ice as delicately as I can. My right foot goes through the thin sheet but there is something firm beneath. Then my left foot goes through it and there is nothing below. Suddenly I am falling, falling, into the Hogacre Stream.

My forehead hits the edge of the bridge as I crash through the icy crust of the river. In that instant I know that I am going to drown and my frozen corpse will be found by tracker dogs first thing in the morning. I will be consigned to an unmarked grave with quicklime shovelled on top, the only fate I deserve. Please God, do not let it end this way.

And yet I do not die, not yet anyway. This is not the River Neva, after all, just a glorified drainage ditch, a bit like the one I found myself in when the Fiat crashed. I flail wildly for a few seconds and splutter on a few mouthfuls of muddy water but I am soon able to grab at the undergrowth that is half in, half out of the stream. I haul myself out on the Mercia side, sodden and shivering.

I feel the gash on my forehead with my finger-tips. There is a little blood but no great sign that I will bleed to death. I feel light-headed, not just drunk but delirious. I must get home before I pass out and die of hypothermia. There is sufficient moonlight to see the familiar route home. I follow the path by the railway and cut across into the Grandpont Nature Reserve where the ground is slightly higher above flood-levels. Soon I am able to follow the Thames Towpath back towards Osney Lock.

As I approach the little bridge that will take me onto Osney Island, I am alarmed to see that there is a light on in the lock-keeper’s cottage. Desperate to be seen by as few people as possible, I turn left before the lock and follow the little footpath through to Osney Mead. There will be no one on the industrial estate at this time of night. This way I can get home without passing a single residence. I am soon turning right at King’s Meadow. Past Electric Avenue, I turn right again onto the footpath that skirts the West Oxford Community School and leads to the little bridge linking Frog Island to the western world.

I am clammy with cold but adrenalin continues to course through my grateful veins. Astonishingly, there is no helicopter overhead strafing the fields with its searchlight and no siren is wailing. I stumble on the bridge’s icy surface but do not fall. My heart is laughing, screaming, pounding. I am at the gates of delirium but I know how it will end. I will be crossing the bridge when I see my father, an ineffable smile on his face, on the doorstep of our honeysuckled home…

But I am not Peyton Farquhar and this is no Owl Creek Bridge. Nor is my father there to offer his benediction. He is in the arms of a different bridge partner. I turn the key in the door and close it clumsily behind me. I am tearing my sodden and frozen clothes from my body as I negotiate the stairs in the darkness …

Thursday 29th December

Only drunk outside, tee-total biographer of eminent Victorians (6)

And so to the Stag Do. Some might sample the fleshy delights of Riga or Ljubljana, others might go paintballing in the wilds of the Surrey stockbroker belt. But Phil just wants us to go out for a curry and a few jars of ale before an early night and his big day tomorrow. So we’re going to Chutneys Indian Brasserie (with optional added apostrophe) and then to the Royal Blenheim, just off St Ebbes (ditto). It’ll be half a dozen nearly middle-aged men behaving not particularly badly.

The poppadoms prove to be a bit limp but we are hardly the Bullingdon Club and the meal passes without significant incident. Most of us repair to the Blenheim but Phil only stops for a single pint, pleading the need for some beauty sleep before his big day. I am tempted to remind him that his first stag night was a little more reckless, especially the last bit on Hampstead Heath.

The rest of the stags soon go back to their wives, leaving just me and Ozzie, the only poor fools without partners to minister to our every need. One pint of Ecky Thump soon leads to another. Ozzie proposes a toast to James Joyce who published A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man a hundred years ago today. I remind him that it was a hundred years ago this very night that his namesake, Oswald Rayner, shot Rasputin somewhere in the grounds of the Moika Palace.

Ozzie laments the fact that he has never tasted Madeira, so we decide to order a couple of shots of that particular amber nectar from the bar – alas, they’ve never heard of it. It seems the heyday (or, at least, the monopoly) of Madeira is long-past.

“Isn’t there the Madeira Stores on the Headington Roundabout?” Ozzie suggests. “They should sell the stuff …”

“Mmm, a bit too far,” I decide.

But keen to toast the triumphs of Oswalds past, the two of us repair to a Tesco Express on St Aldate’s and find a bottle of the aforementioned tipple on “special offer” at just £13.99. We successfully pool the necessary funds (just!) and sheepishly take our solitary bottle to the check-out. But such purchases are clearly not unusual in these parts at this time of night and the check-out girl gives us not so much as a knowing glance as she clocks up the sale.

It is approaching midnight now and the pavement is slippery with incipient frost but when we take a slug of Madeira straight from the gaudy bottle, it tastes surprisingly smooth and warming. The bottle goes to and fro a few times and I am beginning to feel a little light-headed.

“I think Oswald Rayner is buried in Botley Cemetery,” Ozzie surmises. “What say you to the idea of trotting along there and seeing if we can find his grave? This rocket-fuel should keep us going along the way.”

“Also too far,” I decree. “If you mean the war graves tucked away behind the Best Tiles and Bathstore, I don’t think we’ll find him in there. That’s just soldiers, not spies.”

On the corner of Speedwell St, I am sufficiently compos mentis to spot a poster glued precariously to a lamp-post:

A-Wassailing we go
Thursday December 29th, 10 p.m.
Hogacre Common Eco-Park,
Off Whitehouse Rd, South Oxford
Join us in the tradition of Wassailing the orchard, with mulled apple juice, cider,
singing, Morris Dancing with Cry Havoc, and a roaring fire.

Hogacre Common, my ancestral kingdom! Have you ever been there?”

“Never heard of it,” says Ozzie. “And what the hell is “wassailing the orchard”?”

“Some kind of pagan fertility ritual, I guess, a song and dance to make the apples grow next year. I think we should go and join in!”

“What, with Cry Havoc and the Morris dancing?” Ozzie shakes his head. “I’m with Sir Thomas Beecham on that one. Do you think they’ll let loose the hogs of war?”

“At least those veggies won’t be roasting one. Unlike Phil and Marie-Claire tomorrow, from what I hear. Come on, let’s do it. The night is yet young,” I point out, somewhat inaccurately.

So off we gambol. We head south down the Abingdon Rd towards Ozzie’s flat in Lake St and turn right into Whitehouse Rd where the old Oxford City football ground has been turned into yet more college accommodation. We swig Madeira as we go – its cloying sweetness proves strangely moreish. We consume the whole bottle in less than five minutes, passing it to and fro like a sconce challenge. It is more than enough to make a Hogg whimper. A drowsy numbness pains my sense, as though of hogweed I had drunk, like those zonked beetles.

Wednesday 28th December

Oxfordshire village, Wham! yet empty inside (6)

A few days after Christmas in 1810, Thomas Jefferson Hogg had Univ almost to himself. He and Shelley (who was still partying at Field Place) exchanged daily letters but Hogg could not bear to sit shivering in his rooms waiting for his chum to return for Hilary Term. So Tom All-Alone equipped himself with strong shooting-shoes and gaiters, as well as copies of Virgil’s Georgics and Aeneid, and walked out into the icy wastes of South Oxfordshire on a solitary pilgrimage to the cathedrals of Winchester and Salisbury, then (like Tess) to Stonehenge itself. After several days combating hypothermia and truculent yokels, he trudged back to college again with enough anecdotes to fill up a self-indulgent chapter of his ill-fated Life of Shelley.

I too long to escape from my solitary abode and lose myself in the eerie calm of the wintry landscape. Different shrines tempt me. I could drive down to Sparsholt and walk the Ridgeway to Goring to pay my respects at the house where George Michael died alone. I might even walk another few miles further east to Friar Park, last home of another saintly George, humming ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ as I go. Georgics, indeed.

But the fog is so thick this morning that there has been a 20-car pile-up on the A40. I leave the Yaris slumbering under its frosty winter coat and embark on a more modest walking-tour. I head up the Thames towpath to Jericho where St Barnabas Church towers forbiddingly over terraced streets built for iron-workers and bookbinders. It is impossible to guess which bits of masonry a young Thomas Hardy would have worked on.

From there I cross a shimmering Port Meadow towards the Perch and head north to Godstow, then under the ring-road to Wytham, pausing for a light and lonely lunch at the White Hart. The frosty antennae of beeches and sycamore beckon me further but I do not know the way through the woods and I turn back towards Wolvercote and the metropolis beyond. I pass the bridge club south of Summertown and head for the Parks, hoping to check out the location of the Clones’ pipe-dream next July. But, like Sir Gawain on his post-Christmas trek or Aeneas as he avoids drowning in the whirlpool of Charybdis, I have only the haziest idea where to go.

That gig is the one thing I have to live for, I decide, the one reason for hoping that Solomon Sage had it wrong all along. I try again to think of what dying would be like, but draw a blank – it is so hard to contemplate nothingness in the midst of life.

I have no job, no home, no one to love. Yet, despite everything, I do not want to die. As I complete my uneventful round trip, I catch myself praying for time.

Tuesday 27th December

Eerie calm? Hogg upset and responsible for last Christmas (6,7)

I have the long drive south to try to digest the news. It hardly helps that the only song that anyone wants to play on the radio is ‘Praying for Time’ by the late, great George Michael:

Hanging on to hope when there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late.
Well, maybe we should all be praying for time…

Can I really be just three days from the end of my life? Will anyone even notice that I have gone? Ot will there be another funeral next week at which assorted relatives will glumly chomp canapés? Will Phil even remember my playlist and cut short his honeymoon to be there? I think we know the answer to that one …

I make an effort to recall the days I spent with Uncle Alan and his anagrams and his matchsticks. Those bonking beetles. The idea of my mother and Uncle Alan, her brother-in-law … one Hogg and the wrong Mrs Hogg … making the beast with two backs is too ghastly and implausible to contemplate. Just once, I asked? Just three times, my mother admitted, not daring to look me in the eye. Did Dad find out? A shrug of the shoulders. He knew. He never said anything but he knew.

Should I confront the old fool with the news? What if he never knew at all? I don’t want to be the one to tell my father that he has been cuckolded and his only son is not his son at all. Besides, he is still my Dad. He has earned the right to be called ‘Dad’ after three decades of scraping a beta-beta-alpha in that role. We’ve had our differences and I’ve dismissed him as a bigoted dinosaur on dozens of occasions but the fact is we are still making each other cups of tea and lusting after Victoria Coren Mitchell together.  We may not share quite as many genes as I had originally thought, but does it really matter so much?

And what of my name – Alan Alexander Hogg? Was I really named after the esteemed owner of Cotchford Farm? Or was I always an ‘Alan’ in my mother’s eyes … at least until Dad guessed the truth?

Somewhere around the Nottingham exit my thoughts turn to my mother’s odd recollection of her grandfather, Nicolas Elston, the Parisian émigré. Elston! Wasn’t that the name Felix Yusupov went by in his Univ days? Count Sumarokov-Elston.  Yes, that was it. He didn’t want to be Prince Felix in this strange new environment. Being a mere count would allow him to stay under the radar. And once he and Irina and their baby daughter had escaped the clutches of the Bolsheviks, they did wind up in Paris. But they had no further children, as far as I am aware. Perhaps Felix had a mistress? In Gay Paris of the post-war period and early 1920s, it would have been rude not to.

The idea is ridiculous, of course. The man was plainly a homosexual. And yet, and yet … we know he did father one girl, after all. Could I possibly be Felix Yusupov’s great-great-grandson? I am as sceptical as you are, gentle reader.

Maybe if, against all odds, I am still alive in the New Year and inherit a few bob from Uncle Alan, I will fork out for a DNA test.  But how would we get any Yusupov DNA to compare it with? Perhaps there is some kind of Parisian registry of births? Dad could tell me where to look.

The flood season is officially over after a relatively rain-free Christmas. Traffic is flowing normally on the Botley Rd and the sandbags have left the doorways on Osney Island. Dad has moved all the carpets and furniture back downstairs and I am glad to have missed the major clean-up operation that must have taken place. I picture Dad directing operations while Gwen is down on her knees with a scrubbing brush.

Dad? I can’t suddenly stop thinking of him as “Dad” …

But my newly-ex-father is nowhere to be seen at home in Swan St. Well, I say “home”; I am acutely conscious that I am expected to leave our little tin shack on Frog Island so that Dad can indulge in a spot of free love. But what is the point of traipsing around town looking at grotty bedsits when I may have only days left to live? I would much rather do something useful. So I set about researching Ozzie’s plagiarism case. It’s not too difficult to track down the prehistoric doctorate that Ozzie is supposed to have copied. Ah, here it is. I skim over the abstract:

Suspense in the English novel from Jane Austen to Joseph Conrad

Abstract: Because of critical neglect, there is no established terminology to describe techniques of suspense. Borrowing from Aristotle, Koestler, and others, a new body of concepts is suggested and importantly, a distinction of tense is established, between types of suspense which relate to the narrative past, present, and future.

The classical world’s intuition of a connection between mental uncertainty and the physical state of hanging has conditioned Western man’s notion of narrative suspense until a comparatively recent date. Eighteenth-century theories of the sublime helped to create an understanding that suspense was not necessarily painful.

Through an analysis of novels by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, and Conrad, an attempt is made to identify and evaluate the most common suspense strategies in the period’s popular genres, notably the Austenian romance, mystery, and tragedy. The Austenian romance is compared to the detective story in that narrative presentation is determined by the need to control the reader’s expectations, and to achieve an ending which is both satisfactory and surprising.

I can see that there are a few tenuous links here to Ozzie’s book but the whole emphasis of this ancient thesis is radically different. It isn’t a history of genre. It’s a nuts-and-bolts analysis of the nineteenth-century novel. I download the doctorate itself and spend a very congenial hour or two dipping into it. It comes from a golden age of literary criticism, mixing the structuralism of the likes of Todorov and Frye with the more radical post-structuralist theories of Barthes and even the dreaded Derrida. But it is a work that is also somehow out of time, exploring a byway of the jungle of literary theory that has not been glimpsed before or since – it is sui generis.

I wonder if the author ever tried to get it ‘properly’ published and, if so, what the commissioning editors at OUP and CUP would have made of it? Sorry, son, we really don’t know how to position this. Or maybe: come back when you’ve got a proper job. But there were no jobs in academe in the early 80s and this quirky tome languished in the Bodleian stack where it no doubt sits to the present day. How many other thousands of doctorates have suffered a similar fate?

But here’s the rub. On the left-hand side of the Oxford University Research Archive webpages, you can see the figures for Views and Downloads. At the time of writing, 27 people have viewed the summary-page and just four have gone on to download the actual thesis. I can’t tell how long this resource has been here but it seems to have been wearing a cloak of invisibility.

As it happens, I know a chap called Graham who works in the university’s IT department, so I drop him a line, expecting him to plead ignorance or confidentiality. But no, he says the information is freely available to anyone who asks. So I get him to check up on the access-history of this particular document. And what do you know? All those four downloads of the thesis have taken place in the last two months. In other words, long after it could have had any influence on the writing of Ozzie’s book.

What about the original hard copy, sitting somewhere deep beneath the earth, possibly in the lost city of Atlantis, I ask? Can one find out how often it has been summoned up? Of course! Every movement has been tracked for the last twenty years. Et voilà – the original Bodleian copy of Suspense in the English Novel has not been requested by a single reader in the whole of that period.

I call Ozzie to tell him the good news.

“Yeah, I’d come to a pretty similar conclusion myself. I could see that the online version had only been accessed by a handful of readers. But someone can always claim that I found it on another website.”

“What other website? It doesn’t exist on any other website. It barely exists on this website!”

“God, I hope you’re right, Alex. I don’t suppose it’s going to be enough to satisfy Vlad the Impaler, but it’s a start. Who knows, maybe I’ll get a new contract after all. Anyway, where are we off to  on Thursday night? As Best Man, surely you can insist on somewhere with no vegetarian options, can’t you?”

Sunday 25th December, Christmas Day

Poetic middle name – a foolish mistake, one gathers (6)

Christmas Day is spent watching my mother slowly drink herself under the table. Gin has indeed been my mother’s ruin but I guess she is old enough to make her own decisions. London gin, sloe gin, any old gin.  There is no point immolating a turkey for the two of us, so we “treat” ourselves to a boeuf bourguignon from M&S before microwaving a gin-soaked Christmas pudding for afters. I decide against revealing my fears of an imminent demise and we settle for bellowing along to Perry Como’s Greatest Hits.

The gin has certainly loosened my mother’s tongue. Is there anything more excruciating than listening to a parent lamenting their love-life or lack of it? Parents should not be allowed to have love-lives or even the slightest interest in the opposite sex. But even now my mother does not seem to have quite exhausted her vestigial interest in the opposite sex or her incredulity at the fecklessness of men in general.

Mum tells me in lurid detail how she spent quite an upbeat fortnight with Jack, a former county bowls champion, only to discover the hard way that he preferred the company of an 80-year-old with wobbly dentures (a “shameless hussy”, if my mother is to be believed). Another transient beau called Brian had wilfully concealed the fact that he had had a triple heart-bypass and was likely to peg out at any moment – he didn’t, but Mum wasn’t taking any unnecessary chances on that score. Internet dating seems to offer an inexhaustible supply of puffing dotards and my mother is committed to finding “the one”. At least it gives her something to grumble about on Christmas Day.

In a moment of maudlin solidarity, I tell her about Hattie.

“She’s been missing for two months, has she?” my mother concludes. “She’s probably been kidnapped and trafficked as a sex-slave to Eastern Europe.”

“I think it mostly works the other way, Mother. But I guess we shouldn’t discount it as a possibility …”

“And you had to check out a body they fished out of the Serpentine? How ghastly for you!”

“It was a relief, actually. I really thought it might be her.”

“Did you have feelings for this girl?”

“For Hattie?” I laugh. “There was a time, but …. well, she was way out of my league.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, she was simply gorgeous. A perfect ten, as they say. And then she was married, so I didn’t think about it any more.”

This is not strictly true, I realize. I have been thinking about Hattie for years. Every time I meet a nice girl, a six out of ten or a seven out of ten, I think of Hattie as she was then and – surprise, surprise – things don’t quite work out. But even after the marriage to Phil broke up, I was always too scared of getting my fingers burned all over again.

“Hattie was gorgeous, you say,” my mother probes. “Did she lose her looks when she had the children?”

“No, she just looked older, sadder somehow. To me she looked just as beautiful as ever.”

“Having children changes everything. Men just don’t see you any more. It’s as if you have an invisible force field around you. I remember when I had you …”

“Yes, thank you, Mum. I know what a catch you were; I’ve seen the sepia-tinted photos.”

“And yet I allowed myself to be caught by your father,” she sighs.

“Well, I wouldn’t be here otherwise. And a very good Dad he has been too. I think you only really appreciate that when you are an adult yourself. You realise the sacrifices that your parents have made, how they put up with your tantrums and your taste in music, how much it all cost …”

“I’m sorry, Alex. Your father had his good points, of course he did. It was just very easy to lose sight of them when he was out playing bridge or golf. And now he’s found someone he can actually play bridge with? Well, good luck to the old fool, I suppose.”

So I tell her about Dad’s family tree and the link he’s discovered to Thomas Jefferson Hogg. She’s never heard of him, of course, but I tell her all the stories anyway, including the curious parallel between the sad life of Harriet Westbrook and my own recent experience.

“So your great-great-whatever it is-grandfather propositioned this poor girl on her honeymoon, did he?”

“It seems so. Mind you, he propositioned most of Shelley’s relatives, girlfriends and wives at one time or another until, with Shelley in his watery grave, he finally got to marry one of them. But Harriet was the one he really cared about, I think.”

“Then why didn’t he marry her when Shelley went off with Mary and the other girl?”

“Because she was still married to Shelley? Because he hadn’t got his career sorted out? I don’t know. But he did see a fair bit of her in the years before … before she drowned.”

“It’s a wonder he ever forgave himself. Men, eh?”

“Yes, we’re a bad lot. Still, it’s nice to have someone interesting in the family tree.”

“Well, if I wasn’t so busy with the dating websites and keeping this place from falling down around me, maybe I’d have time to find out about my own family line. I wish I knew a bit more about my Grandad for instance.”

“Grandpa Jones you mean?”

“No, my mother’s father. He died long before I was born but it sounded like he’d had an interesting life. He was French, I think. But he got out of Paris in the 1930s when the Nazis threatened and washed up in Cardiff.”

“Paris, eh?” I chuckle. “His name wasn’t Yusupov, by any chance?”

“No, of course not. His name was Nicolas … but what was his surname? I remember it was a bit odd, like the name of a town in Cornwall.”

St Just-in-Roseland?”

“No, along the coast a bit.  Helston, that was it, but without the H. Nicolas Elston. Granny called him Nicky. Drank himself to death, I think.”

Why does that name ring a bell? I rack my addled brains. We sit in silence for some time. My mother seems strangely agitated and I have rarely seen her consume alcohol at such speed before. Talk of her grandfather’s untimely demise does not seem to have acted as much of a deterrent.

“What’s up, Mum?” I say at last, not really expecting her to tell me.

“Alex, I have to tell you something.” A slight slur but she is still just about intelligible. “It’s only fair … at this time …”

“You mean, at Christmas?”

“No, at this time of grieving …”

“What, for Uncle Alan? But you never liked the man!”

My mother puts her glass down on a side table and gives me the oddest of looks. The wind howls in the chimney. The tears begin to flow. I have never seen my mother cry before.

“I did once …” she whispers at last.

Friday 23rd December

Solo organisation, relatively speaking (5)

It is the eve of Christmas Eve and I have driven north into the eye of Storm Barbara to get “home” to Norton for my uncle’s funeral. The Yaris was shaking like a leaf on the A19 and I feared being blown into the Tees, seven days early. But I make it out of the cloudburst, at the head of the tempest. Embarrassingly, Dad has stayed in Oxford, claiming an unspecified prior engagement in Bracknell. While I know they have never seen eye to eye, this seems to me like a shocking betrayal – how can you be too busy to attend your own brother’s funeral?

Priory Hall, near Stockton, is much as I remember it and yet irremediably diminished without my Uncle Alan. I feel a bit like Pip going back to Satis House, rattling at the rusty gates and noting all the signs of neglect. The hogweeds have got the place surrounded. Give them another twenty years and it will have become impenetrable.  As I gaze out of the conservatory window, a million dead leaves corkscrew round like a cloud of starlings. At least the pathetic fallacy is doing its circus tricks.

The sale of Priory Hall has gone through and we can see the lorries of the developers already parked outside the property. But Uncle Alan seems to have made special arrangements with his solicitors that, in the event of his demise, the old homestead should be allowed to play host to this cheerless send-off. So here we all are, following the obligatory Mummers’ play at a local crematorium, chewing on our ham sandwiches and wondering how many glasses of fizzy white wine we can put away without compromising our ability to drive home for Christmas. There is quite a good turn-out but, apart from Mother and the odd relative, only a few folk that I recognise.

I have just loaded up my tiny plate with a second helping of vol-au-vents and egg sarnies when I am accosted by a vaguely familiar-looking chap of my own age. He has already been pointed out to me as Uncle Alan’s solicitor.

“You don’t remember me, do you?” he says.

“I’m sure I do …” I try in vain to place the man.

“We both had a bit more hair when we were young. John Harrison.”

I picture him with a full head of hair.

“J.K. Harrison! Of course! I’m sorry, John, I …”

“No need to apologise, Alex. I thought I’d see you here. I am … I was your uncle’s solicitor. I know how much you admired him. It’s a sad day indeed.”

John Harrison was my best friend when I was about fourteen, at just about the time when one stopped having best friends any more. I remember him as a bright lad, if a little bit spotty and nerdish. Like me, he was into crosswords at a surprisingly young age and we used to swap clues that we had found inspiring or baffling. I don’t think we ever made a conscious decision to stop being good friends – it was just that we took different options for GCSE or discovered girls instead. Probably not the latter in my case – indeed, I’m not quite sure that I have “discovered” girls even now. Anyway, we drifted apart and John went off to do his A-levels somewhere else and I haven’t seen him since.

“A solicitor, eh?” I say. “Of course I remember you. Still doing the crosswords?”

“You bet. I was down in London a few weeks ago for the Times National Crossword Championships.”

“Did you win?”

“Nah. The top guys are solving three fiendish cryptics in twenty minutes or so. It’s all I can do to get through them in an hour.”

“An hour for three puzzles? Sounds impossible to me.”

“Just a matter of practice. I do a couple every lunchtime, between sandwiches, me against the clock.”

“So, let’s see. You did a law degree and after that …”

“Articles, then joined a local firm of solicitors. Very dull.”

Jarndyce & Jarndyce? Markby, Markby & Markby?”

“Procter & Harrison. At the sign of the hedgehog.”

“The hedgehog? You’ve lost me there.”

Hérissant. French for ‘bristling’. Harrison, hérissant, I should have a family crest done. A rampant hedgehog.”

I contemplate this ghastly proposition for a moment and decide to humour him.

“Me too. Only mine would be the sign of the groundhog.”

“A far mightier hog, I suspect! I’ll hedge my bets while you go to ground!”

We snort with laughter, like the hog(g)s we are. It is a surprise to find myself having quite so much fun. I enquire whether John’s firm has been handling the sale of the property or the will. It turns out to be both.

“We’re good old-fashioned all-purpose lawyers,” he sighs. “A finger in every pie. With planning permission in place, this old ruin has fetched a bob or two, I can tell you.”

“How many bob?”

“I would tell you. But I have just come from a meeting of the executors and an initial reading of the will. I don’t think it would be indiscreet to let you know that you are a beneficiary of the will.”

Me?”

“Yes. Is that so surprising? You’re aware that your Uncle Alan had no children. He had to leave his money to someone.”

“I can’t deny that a couple of thousand would help me stave off the most persistent of my creditors.”

“It will be rather more than a couple of thousand, I think. I should be able to give you a ballpark figure in a few days, although it will probably take some months to value all the assets, pay off the taxman, etc.”

“So, I shouldn’t expect to see any actual cash before, say, December 30th?”

John Harrison looks at me as if I am completely barking.

“December 30th? But we’re into the Christmas holidays now. Even if I was working on the case all day every day and Mr Taxman was doing likewise, then there would be no possibility of sorting it out within that sort of timescale. These things take months, years even. What’s so significant about December 30th, anyway?”

“Oh, it’s nothing, really. It’s just that I might not be around after December 30th.”

“You’re thinking of emigrating? That wouldn’t affect a legacy …”

“No, it’s just … it’s just that it would be nice to have some serious cash in my pocket so that I could enjoy the Christmas season in some style. Live like there’s no tomorrow …”

“Yes, but why December 30th, specifically?”

“Let’s just say that I have reason to believe that I may suffer a certain misfortune on that day.”

My old schoolfriend gives me the funniest of looks. Perhaps he even understands what I am saying. I wonder whether he would consider trading the answer to his question for some specific information about the size of my legacy. But before I can broker any sort of deal, we are interrupted by my mother who seems to have drunk rather more of the lukewarm Asti Spumante than is strictly wise at her advanced age.

“Ah, friends reunited?” she suggests, a little too loudly.

“You remember John, do you, Mum?”

“I remember all your friends, Alex. I always knew John would go far. He had that extra spark, that determination.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that, Mrs Hogg,” John blushes.

“Unlike me, you mean?” I enquire. My mother laughs it off.

“Well, let’s just say that he has found himself a nice solid job where he can charge people £200 an hour for his services …”

Two hundred quid?” I gulp. How can anyone earn that much, I wonder? John soon puts her straight.

“I’m sorry to disappoint you, Mrs Hogg, but it’s actually nearer three hundred pounds an hour these days.”

“I suppose the divorce was a little while ago now.”

“Yes, inflation is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? But I shouldn’t stand round here chatting when I could be off fleecing the poor and luring the unwary into pointless litigation. I must do some networking!”

“Thanks, Mum,” I grumble, as John edges politely away. “We were having quite a nice little conversation till you came along. It sounds like I’m going to inherit a few quid in Uncle Alan’s will.”

“But the old buffer couldn’t stand any of us, could he?”

“I used to get on rather well with him, actually. He was someone who took a real interest in my intellectual development.”

“I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, I suppose. Not until the coffin has been firmly nailed down anyway! But Alan turned out even more pedantic than your father. If that’s possible …” She reaches for another glass from a passing tray.

“That stuff is stronger than it looks, you know …”

“Oh, give us a break, Alex. It’s a funeral! There aren’t many pleasures left in life! Things could be worse, I guess – I could still be married to your dad. Thank God he’s not here. What’s the old fool up to these days?”

I tell her all about Gwen and the random precision of his new love-life, as well as my imminent ejection from Hogg Towers on Osney Island.

“Well, you’re a big boy now, Alex. Or you should be. It isn’t healthy to be living with Dad at your age.”

I am tempted to respond in kind but, like Donald Trump, I reflect that Bill Clinton has said far worse to me on the golf course.

“It’s all a bit Steptoe-ish,” Mum continues.

“Indeed. Let’s just say that, if I had been earning three hundred pounds an hour, I might have found alternative lodgings by now. The fact is, I wasn’t. And now I’m earning sweet FA …”

My mother considers my predicament for a moment …

“Well, I suppose you could always come back to the frozen North …”

“What, to your place?”

“I haven’t got room, of course, but ….”

“It’s a kind offer, Mum, but … well, let’s just get through Christmas first, shall we?”

Storm Barbara permitting, I have agreed to sleep on the sofa and enjoy at least part of the Yuletide snoreathon with the old bat. It is not a prospect I’m relishing, if truth be told. It’s no way to spend my last days.  If it proves even more ghastly than expected, I can always claim that I have to return to Oxford to fulfil my responsibilities as MC on Phil’s stag night.