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Parmesan Elephants

Parmesan Elephants - Chapter One
Mark Cunliffe

Miles Conlon pissed up against the Lowlands University entrance sign at the Bursar’s Gatehouse.

He had partaken of several free alcoholic beverages thanks to an expenses account. She was a rather delectable young journo from ‘The Indie’ who had interviewed him that day. He was returning home and was in high spirits, despite not getting her telephone number. Sniggering to himself, he finished his ‘task’ and unsteadily proceeded to make the uphill walk to his Campus House, waving to the unsuspecting bicycling Bursar as he cycled past.

Closing the front door quietly behind him, he secretively glanced into the hall mirror that reflected the living room to check if his wife was in; and unfortunately for Miles, she was. Jodie Moore’s slim figure was perched on the armchair, smoking and reading Miles’ manuscript for the ‘great novel that never happens’, whilst listening to Kate Bush, in what seemed like intense concentration. Besides paying more attention to the wails and shrieks of the song, ‘Babooshka’ than to the future Booker Prize winner, what really annoyed Miles most was the fact that she was using his precious copy of ‘Ulysses’ as a coaster for her G&T and was smoking one of his Gauloises.

'This is shit you know?' She suddenly yelled out without even an acknowledged look to his entrance. Miles sighed and once again wondered what happened to his true feelings for his wife. She was once, as they say, the love of his love but in the fifteen year relationship, eleven years of which have been spent as man and wife, the double sided coin of love and hate had been flipped several times over. He looked at the photos of them both in the hallway, taken in the late 80s in Cambridge, Miles looking like a forgotten member of The Smiths, or his native Irishman Bob Geldof, with moody expression and overcoat; and Jodie like Clare Grogan, all small and giggly with beret, pop socks and kohl covered eyes. That was real love, way back then, long before the spite and snipes held sway, but then that was what seemed to keep them going right now.

'Yes dearest I know it’s shit' replied Miles resignedly, hanging up his long black coat and running his hand through his unkempt hair, preparing to enter the room. Striding into this battlefield, which consisted of several bookshelves teeming with literature, a dodgy cut price back of a lorry television set bought from the pub, a modern Ikea-type crimson sofa and an unhoovered, ash strewn shag pile rug; Miles took the baton of sarcasm.
'Remind me o debilitating disease of mine, when did you last try to write anything? Apart that is, from your shopping list and last Saturdays suicide note?' Jodie slowly turned to look at him.
'Well, round about the last time you gave a lecture at this, or any other, college. But tell me o irish intellectual, what is it like to be sacked for shagging students in the Conference Hall and then having to live off your considerably talented better half?!'
Miles leaned over the chair, kissed his wife on the forehead and helped himself to her G&T, he replied,
'Oh I’m sure you’ll find out one day, I mean, Introduction to Lesbianism is not on the curriculum is it? And if it is I don’t think you are supposed to be teaching it, so methinks you won’t be a salaried academic tutor here for much longer either' Jodie laughed along at this with Miles in a carefree manner.
'Hey Miles, I don’t do it under the Bursar’s nose though do I? Not literally like you did', she smiled sweetly up at him.
'He shouldn’t have been spying!'
'Nevertheless, you shouldn’t have been shagging. Tut tut, naughty Miles.' She replied wagging a finger up at him.
'Anyway how did the interview go?' she asked.
'Not bad' Miles sighed, rising up from behind his wife.
'Nice girly journo, bit of a sweetie. No shag' he gulped some more gin,
'Apparently, I’m the last of the uncompromising poets.' He smiled smugly and then as an afterthought added,
'Or at least I was…'

A nervous knocking at the front door broke Miles’ reflective comment. With a sudden look to his wife he proceeded to overact alarm at this unexpected intrusion.
'Who’s that? We aren’t expecting anyone are we? Fuck, hide the ‘exotic plants’ and roll ups! Shit… maybe it’s the CSA! Bollocks… I did tell that girl to get rid of it. Ooh bloody pro-life! Bastard. I bet it’s her father' and with a flourish he took himself and his purloined drink from Jodie to safety or rather to hide behind the sofa.

'Ah yes, don’t fret Casanova, that’ll be a young student of mine I invited over. Abbie Schofield. She wants help with her coursework. Terribly serious and keen type'
'Keen for you my dear?' taunted Miles as he rose from the protection of the sunset orange cushion covered furniture.
'Look dear, why not fuck off out to the pub hmm? Or take Cajole for a walk?' Snapped Jodie. Cajole was their Chihuahua puppy. So named because Jodie cajoled Miles into buying it for her. Witty. But not as witty as the suggestion he takes it for walkies, for Cajole had been dead two years now. They often found it humorous to take the air with the purple velvet lined urn that housed its ashes. Real love may have withered in their marriage but humour had not.
'Nah Jodie, I’m not missing this one my sweet' Miles said with glee and made his way to the door, swiping a bottle of gin from the sideboard as he went. Jodie smiled at his retreating black-shirted back.

Abbie Schofield stood outside at the door hesitantly waiting for an answer. A pretty blonde twenty year old with a studious look about her, she did everything hesitantly, for this was the start of her first year at Lowlands. Here she was studying Sociology under her heroine, Jodie Moore, whose books on the subject Abbie had lived by since fourth form and those difficult teenage female years. Much more amazing thought Abbie, was that here she was waiting to go inside her house! Her actual house! Where she lives and everything! She suppressed a tiny squeak of excitement at this and began to wonder if Miles Conlon, Jodie’s famous writer and poet husband would be here too. She had tried to ask people at Lowlands about Miles, but for some strange reason, was always met by silence and the mumbled answer that he doesn’t lecture any more. She couldn’t understand why he gave up, and his writing seemed less than prolific at present too. She hoped she might get some answers tonight, for while the occasion was to ostensibly go over her coursework with her lecturer, her lecturer was after all Jodie Moore, her idol and it isn’t often you get the chance of a one to one with your idol and her famous hubby. The door swung open catching Abbie off guard and stopping her thoughts.

'Aha' Said Miles. 'You must be my wife’s star pupil! Come!' he bellowed and took a slug from the gin bottle. Immediately Abbie was swept away by this dishevelled but very charming figure, she was, simply star struck. This was like meeting Coldplay backstage at Manchester all over again she thought and trying to pull herself together, began to trip over her words;
'Mr Conlon? Wow! Um can I just say that I absolutely love your poems! I’m Abbie, that is Abbie Schofield, sorry! Um your wife is expecting me I um think?'
‘God get a grip’ thought Abbie to herself. She could feel her face going red despite the weather outside.

Miles took her indoors and tenderly began to take off her coat and bobble hat, as he did so he leaned into her ear, 'Call me Miles' his Irish burr soothed. His alcohol breath was fruity and warmed her neck to goose bumps after the chill night air.

'Abbie! You’ve found us. How delightful!' said Jodie as she roused herself up from her seat. 'Oh do come in honey. Drink? I have a lovely Merlot' she called as she entered the kitchen.
'Erm.. Yes please that would be lovely. Though just a small one'. Abbie stood back and marvelled at the room, at all the books and culture that these two gifted people had on general display. Abbie wished that one day, she would be like them, they were so intellectual and glamorous, and young too. Abbie recalled what her friend and mature student Natalie said of them, that she was older than them but their life was so much richer than hers, that it was lived on a different plain. They were still in their thirties and yet had achieved so much. Abbie hoped that in ten or fifteen years time, she too would reach that plain. She felt sure she could, with Jodie herself teaching her. She had, in a way found a guru; she was ready to sit at their feet.

Still standing in the centre of the room and unaware of Miles watching her just out of sight with all the keen eyed interest of some art gallery visitor, Abbie called out to Jodie in the kitchen;
'I’ve brought my notes that I’ve done so far' and then she hurriedly added with great politeness
'Oh, can I just say thanks for giving me this chance and inviting me over?' Mother always taught her to be polite.
'Give her a chance and she’ll give you more' sniped Miles as he came out from his self imposed shadowy view point catching Abbie off guard as he slouched past her, arms folded and sprawled himself on the nearby leather chaise lounge.
'Miles!' Jodie squealed as she began to re-enter the room, 'Pas devant les enfants' she warned him, ‘Not in front of the children’ meaning Abbie.
'Parmesan Elephants? What pray have cheesy elephants got to do with it?' Joked the reclining Miles with deadpan expression as he lit a cigarette.
Abbie emitted a small laugh, she had to appear to be on the same level as these people, she didn’t want to seem like some prole who shouldn’t be at university, least of all share a room with these great minds.
'Please ignore my husband,' said Jodie as she came in with the wine, 'He’s trying to be charming' she smiled at their guest before shooting an icy glare at Miles.
'It’s quite alright, really' Said Abbie, taking the wine from her host and watching Miles in awe as he downed his gin and went straight to the wine. Was she meant to be impressed or horrified?
'Urgh! It’s Château La Shite!' spat Miles in disgust after his first gulp of the wine, he lunged for the bottle, 'Why are labels so misleading?' he beseeched of no one in particular, 'I mean look at this? It doesn’t look so bad, it seems so innocent!'
Ignoring this wail and putting it down to an eccentric whim, Abbie ploughed on regardless, 'May I ask Mr-' she just caught herself in time, remembering Miles’ request for first name terms at the door, 'Um sorry…Miles…what you are up to at the moment?'

Miles quickly looked up and with a sly smile answered, 'drinking' and proceeded to show that this was indeed the truth, quaffing the wine back, the smile still on his face.
'I think dear, Abbie was asking what you are up to employment wise' remarked Jodie as she poured over Abbie’s neatly hand-written notes from the sofa, not lifting her head up once to correct her husband.
'Ah you mean school?' Miles offered, it was his nickname for work. 'Well not much you know, I have an ever dwindling expenses account from my bastard publishers, Prentiss Hammond. You see for a long time now I’ve been trying to write a fiction on the lives of Sean Bourke and George Blake. Blake was a covert soviet agent operating in Britain, on home turf and was arrested and sent down to Wormwood Scrubs, Bourke was a fellow prisoner, a small time hood of an Irishman on a letter bomb charge, who sprung him from there in the 60s…' he paused for a moment, whether it was for effect or whether it was just to appreciate the wine and cigarette, Abbie was unsure. '…But I can’t be … Arsed!' he concluded to show that the conversation as well as his literary aspirations was running out of steam. 'Not right now anyway. Oh, I’ll be appearing in the presses at the weekend, The Independent, but that my dear is it.'

A hush ascended over the finality of Miles’ summary of his work, or rather school diary. Abbie perched, looking slightly dejected, on the chair opposite. 'No poems?' she said with real disappointment. Miles shook his head as he swallowed the last remains of his wine.
'Oh but I, I really like your poems; they’re so…so-' Abbie struggled to find the right word.
'Uncompromising?' interrupted Jodie, ending Abbie’s quest and smiling at Miles at the private joke between them; referring to what ‘The Indie’ did indeed plan to say about him.

'Yes that’s it!' Abbie said grateful to have been rescued from the conversational cul de sac, 'I mean, the way you write about ‘The Troubles’, it’s so dramatic and so genuine' She said gathering pace and confidence to converse with her hosts, now she attempted to follow up with a question.
'As an Irishman it must really affect you?' She sat by and waited for an answer to her query with the head nod and ‘Yes yes tell me everything about it, I pity you’ look of serene concern that only new readers and daytime TV hosts can successfully manage.

'I don’t write about the IRA anymore' Miles said curtly and reached for his second glass of wine.
'Go on Miles tell her why, tell her go on' baited Jodie, leaving Abbie’s work to one side and for the first time looking interested. The mention of his country’s issues entered the discussion with an effect quite like one of their own hand grenades and Miles stepped up and grabbed his long coat off the hook, hugging it on over his body.
'Well, they never write about me' he quipped and gained a giggle from Abbie as a reward and a watchful gaze from his wife as a reproach.

'Going somewhere dear?' she asked, waving a cigarette at his coat. 'Out possibly?'
' Me? Out? Come now Ann Frank got out more than me!' Miles joked with bluster. 'No, just like to keep some things covered that’s all' he replied suggestively. 'Anyway Parmesan elephants' He grouched sourly and pulled a face as he raised his glass to Jodie to toast to it, downing the contents in one.

The night was set, thought Miles. Battle has commenced.

© Mark Cunliffe April 2006
markbc@hotmail.co.uk

Parmesan Elephants Part 2

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