30 August 2014

Some superb fonts

If you spend much time staring at computer text, you ought to consider very carefully which fonts you use.

Philipp H Poll and his team have provided us with the elegant and readable Linux Libertine. It out-classes Times New Roman by a country mile. The package includes Linux Biolinium, which is an open-source replacement for Linotype’s Optima.

Click to enlarge

Linux Libertine looks great when printed, and if you want serifs on your display font then Libertine is your man. However, I’m coming to prefer a sanserif face, and a monospaced one at that, and Ralph Levien’s crisp and humane Inconsolata is now my first choice for the screen.

18 August 2014

Whither Hither and Thither?

These three words, for a long time merely literary, have gone out of fashion altogether except in compound use (“hitherto”, “hither and thither”) or when the writer or speaker wishes to introduce a whimsical note (“whither Obama now?”). It is a shame, because their loss also deprives us of shades of meaning.

The modern replacement for “hither” is simply “here”, doing away with the sense of movement. Consider these quotations from the dictionary: “Come hither unto me” (1550, and by the way “come hither” is still, just about, used adjectivally to describe a coy, arch, or seductive look bestowed by a woman); “hyther tendeth al prudence and pollycy” (1538). I believe that “hither” is the intensive form of “here”. The command “bring him hither!” implies “from that place to this” more imperiously than “bring him here!”

Likewise, “thither” intensifies “there” and “whither” intensifies “where”.

“Here”, “there” and “where” are ancient words, as one might expect of such important tokens of meaning. “Here” and “there” are closely related: the latter probably grew out of the former, a pleasing idea since we always start from “here”, unless of course we are Irish and giving directional advice (“I wouldn’t be starting from here”). “Where”, however, comes to us through the interrogative Anglo Saxon form “hwár?”, which is a relative of “hwā?”, “who?”

“When”, “what”, “where”, “who”, “why”, “which” and “how” all begin with aspirants. This somehow suggests, to me at any rate, the state of ignorance. When we are puzzled or confounded by something we often exhale through partially pursed lips. Might the initial aspirant have arisen, in the very deepest past, from association with this? After all, words have to begin somewhere. If they are onomatopoeic (e.g. “crow”, “crash”, “whip”) their etymology is easy to explain, but the expression of abstract ideas is so subtle that there must originally have been some common ground, however tenuous.

One of our vital abilities is to take things for granted. Without it we would never get anything done. Yet sometimes it is instructive to stop and consider an aspect – any aspect – of life to which we have never before given much thought. These three words, passing from use, remind us of the mutability and great age of our language, that gigantic construction built from nothing but a need to understand the other fellow and in turn tell him what we think. English is more than a means of communication: it is a teeming city, continually being redeveloped, partially demolished, rebuilt, the product of millions of minds and sensibilities.

Below the ground, slowly becoming buried by new layers of construction, the archaeology is there for anyone who cares to dig.

11 August 2014


I think I have found the perfect software for writers – for this writer, at least.

My ideal features are:

1. Distraction-free mode.

2. Choice of any installed display font, colours and spacing, plus automatic indentation of first line of paragraph.

3. Ability to load and save plain text, with normal access to the filing system. This is most important to me, since plain text can easily be loaded into a tablet or e-reader, or converted (for example with jEdit) into html; or simply edited with another app.

4. Find-and-replace (with regular expressions if possible).

5. Word-count.

FocusWriter by Graeme Gott provides all this and much more. It has the following extra advantages for me:

1. Cross-platform. It runs under Linux, Windows and Apple’s OS X. I have a Linux desktop and a Mac laptop.

2. You can define any number of “themes” (i.e. customizations of the display) and easily switch between them.

3. If you move the mouse pointer to the right of the screen, a scroll-bar appears.

4. If you move the mouse pointer to the left of the screen, you can access a navigation bar which shows the first line or two of every “scene” in your text, the start of a scene being definable by any string you choose. The current scene is highlighted. Keystrokes allow you to move a scene up or down in the navigator and hence in the text.

5. A single keystroke will select a whole scene: useful when counting words.

6. The line currently being edited can be highlighted; or rather, the other lines can be dimmed. You can also highlight the three current lines, or the entire current paragraph. These settings are switchable using keystrokes, so you can quickly turn highlighting off when you move from editing to reviewing.

7. FocusWriter supports smart quotes (including global replace of straight with curly quotes) and allows for easy insertion of special characters.

8. FocusWriter is Open Source software. It is free to download and use, though I strongly recommend “tipping” Mr Gott because he has put a great deal of thought and effort into this program over the last six years and is still developing it.

There are other features which for me are not so important but you might value:

1. A decent spelling checker with the option to check as you write.

2. A motivation tool that lets you set a daily work-target (time spent or words written).

3. Besides plain text, FocusWriter will load and save in rich text (.rtf) and Open Document (.odt) formats, so you can preserve italics, bold, superscript, etc.

4. You can have multiple files open at once, selectable via a tab-bar that appears when you move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen. A status bar also becomes visible then, showing you statistics. These are configurable and can display word-count, number of pages, number of paragraphs, and/or number of characters. The way the program counts words and the nominal number of words to a page are also configurable.

Until recently I used PyRoom as a distraction-free editor (see here), but bemoaned the lack of a search function and devised a clunky workaround. FocusWriter is infinitely better.

On a sidenote, I also use AutoKey (Linux) and Keyboard Maestro (Mac). These allow one to define, among other things, customized keystrokes. Thus if I press Alt-S (Linux) or Ctrl-S (Mac), the word “said” appears at the cursor; keys Z, X and C are reserved for the names of the three principal characters in any story, etc. Pretty much anything you can do with the keyboard or mouse can be assigned to a hot-key. AutoHotkey does the same for Windows users.

To keep track of character-names, locations, chronology and whatnot I use a LibreOffice Calc spreadsheet running in another workspace. Combined with FocusWriter, this gives me all the features I shall probably ever need.

3 August 2014

Opinion piece

There is a line I encountered at school, and have always remembered, from the Roman playwright known as Terence: nihil ad me attinet, “it does not concern me at all”.

The Latin has a pleasing concinnity and the idea it expresses is worthy of reflection. In an increasingly opinionated world, having no opinion on a tendentious subject is a difficult position to maintain. It is the only honest position if you have no direct knowledge of the subject in question. A corollary is that you should be wary of what you read and hear (even when editorial bias is not obvious). Ask first “cui bono?” and then wonder where the money leads.

But what if you do have direct knowledge and that knowledge is so detailed that you can speak with authority? This, the obverse of happy ignorance, is, for a thinker, even more lethal to a firm opinion. Dostoyevsky says (Notes from Underground, 1.5) “ ... the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything.” The French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” implies much the same thing. The more you know about something, the less you realize you are entitled to adopt a stance on it.

Violent opinions are expressed either by the unthinking or by those with an axe to grind. Somebody living one of Socrates’s unexamined lives looks no further than the opinions he has absorbed ready-made. In discourse with others with a similar background, his opinions are reinforced and gradually assume the properties of prejudice, so that if evidence contrary to his beliefs is adduced he will reject it. He wants you to believe as he does because your agreement helps confirm that he is right.

The unthinking are manipulated and reprogrammed by more informed and crafty people, people with an agenda (usually political or financial, or both). The intellectuals of the Frankfurt School are one such group, and they have had spectacular success in moulding opinion. Or we may cite the way Edward Bernays harnessed Freudian theory to pioneer the techniques of public relations to which so much of our commerce and polity has become thrall.

This post too expresses an opinion. Am I grinding an axe? Perhaps. Clearly, I want your agreement or constructive disagreement. Then there is the effect that the piece might have on your opinion of me. With luck you will think me a clever fellow; equally my references to Terence, Socrates and Dostovevsky might not flatter you at all, but make you decide I am nothing but an elitist and a show-off.

Or it may simply be that the idea for this piece has been long gestating and I was suddenly taken by the impulse to give it form.

18 July 2014

A nice new word

Quote of the week, with the bonus of a new word for me!
"Obviously Amazon has a very definitive point of view on what should be done in the publishing business. Those in the publishing world are not totally copacetic with it," Moonves said.

2 July 2014

The Widow Peterson

    Image: Jeff Dahl 

On Tuesdays Bilkin and I meet for chess. During our game one evening last October, I sensed the onset of a curious triangularity that now characterizes and enhances our friendship. More than curious: hence this account.
     Bilkin is a physician, one of the few intelligent men in this town and a splendid person in every respect. His wife died six years before the evening in question. She too was exceptional. Were I ever to contemplate matrimony, it would be with someone like her.
     After her death Bilkin and I grew closer. I dealt with probate for him and did what little I could to succour him in his bereavement.
     It was at this period that our weekly chess-evenings became a fixture. We use alternately his house and mine. Having taken a light supper, we bring the whisky decanter to the board and get down to play.
     This particular evening we were at my place. During supper he had mentioned his niece, which was not unusual, saying that he had bought her rather an extravagant birthday present – again, not an especially unusual statement, for he is fond of the girl and has helped her and her husband with the purchase of a flat. When I asked what he had chosen, he said, “a big bottle of Chanel No. 5,” and glanced at me in what I can only describe as a peculiar way.
     Now there are various shops in this town that sell perfume, but there is only one dedicated perfumery and it is owned and run by Mrs Clarice Peterson, the widow of the founder. Just as on Tuesdays I meet Bilkin for chess, so on Thursday evenings do I meet Clarice for diversion of another kind. Unfortunately she has no wish to speak of marriage; and, like me, she has no wish for our arrangement to become public.
     I had of course never breathed a word of this to Bilkin. As far as I knew he was, like everyone else in our little town, ignorant of the liaison. His glance, possibly, suggested otherwise; but I dared not pursue the matter.
     Once we were at the chess-table and had poured our first whiskies, I concealed a white pawn in one fist, a black in the other. He drew white. Outdoors the air was cold and fog had formed, but in my sitting-room everything was cosy. The time was a little before nine.
     Bilkin is a strong and knowledgeable player. He once lent me his copy of Das Buch vom Opfer by Vukovic, which in its English translation is entitled The Chess Sacrifice. As you are no doubt aware, this is one of the classics of the middle game, a masterly account of the psychology of wrong-footing your opponent by making what seems to be a mistake. A piece is left at his mercy: he seizes it, only to find himself horribly disadvantaged a few moves later.
     Until that evening in October, our chess had been little more than an excuse for two unattached, middle-aged men to spend an agreeable evening together, given our respective obligations not to discuss our daily work and our scant supply of other conversational topics, for we avoid religion and politics. Our play had produced only occasional flashes of aggression, and these were always followed by such questions as “do you want to put your rook back where it was?”
     The offer was invariably declined, for we played, and still play, by the rules.
     Before going on, I should perhaps explain, in parenthesis as it were, my relations with Clarice Peterson.
     I have always admired her; indeed for several years I was senselessly in love with the lady whose pretty laugh was a redeeming feature of the gatherings – drinks parties and the like – one is obliged to attend in a provincial town and with a job like mine. To these gatherings Dr and Mrs Bilkin were also often invited.
     Just after Mr Peterson’s death his widow sought my advice on a legal matter to do with the perfumery. I confess that her presence in my office, seated at the other side of my desk, had an effect on me such that I could barely understand her instructions. When she had gone, leaving only a delicious fragrance, I feverishly speculated as to how soon it would be proper for me to ask her out.
     Imagine my reaction when, that evening, she telephoned me at home and informed me that she had been aware for a long time of my feelings for her; that our interview in the office had confirmed that these were unchanged; and that she wished to invite me to her house for supper the following day.
     My surprise was tinged with disappointment, for I am something of a romantic. She had seemed my ideal woman. I had envied Peterson his luck in marrying virtue as well as beauty and had equated her with the irreproachable Mrs Bilkin; part of my speculation had indeed involved a distant possibility of wedlock.
     A lawyer is no stranger to human behaviour, but even I was shaken by her frankness the following evening. When the meal was in its final stages she gave me to understand that she had certain appetites which, in the absence of her husband, were being left unfulfilled.
     My disillusionment – after all, the poor chap had been in his box for less than a month – was soon eclipsed. My experience of women had not been extensive; Clarice showed me that night that there really is such a thing in the world as bliss. It would be quite wrong of me to expatiate, but take it from me that no normal man could resist her.
     Long before dawn she woke me and said I should leave. She also said that she had enjoyed herself and asked why we shouldn’t repeat this weekly. I admit I felt sordid when sneaking out of the house unobserved; but, as I say, one cannot resist her.
     Since then I have come round to her pragmatic point of view. I respect her honesty. She once asked me, in our dreamy post-coital state, whether I would be jealous if another man looked at her. I thought it best to give the expected answer and said that I should not. In fact her question raised a most unpleasant pang in my breast – till then I had been sure of her exclusive affection for me. I had viewed our arrangement as secure, satisfying our mutual needs, causing no harm to anyone else, and had regarded Thursday as the very zenith, the pinnacle, the apex of my week. The prospect of being forced to share her or, even worse, losing her altogether, was obnoxious in the extreme.
     I seem to recollect that she asked me that question last September.
     Now let us close this lengthy parenthesis and return to Bilkin and our October chess game. He began by moving his king’s pawn forward two squares to e4, a move which marks the beginning of the Giuco Piano, a mild enough opening, as the Italian name implies. I responded with the expected king’s pawn to e5.
     I assumed he would proceed at once by moving his king’s knight to f3. Instead he hesitated. I noticed that he was studying the board with unusual intensity. His whisky remained untouched. He seemed to be in the throes of a debate with himself.
     Bilkin’s remark about the perfume, and especially his odd glance, returned to my thoughts.
     A moment later, without looking at me, he extended his forefinger and pushed his king’s bishop’s pawn two squares forward.
     This of course is the second move of the King’s Gambit, which in the hands of a player like Bilkin can lead to an astoundingly brutal game, the chess equivalent of a fight with crowbars. The king’s bishop’s pawn has its throat cut, if Black is unwary enough to do the deed, on the altar of a positional advantage that can become not just decisive but overweening.
     The theoretical part of me knew that I should decline the proffered pawn and instead parry with queen’s pawn to d5; or perhaps king’s bishop to c5, in order to thwart this attempt to dominate the centre. But his sudden deployment of the King’s Gambit – which rarely featured in our play – had not only unnerved me but piqued my curiosity.
     To my further consternation, something now dropped into place. He said he had bought the perfume the previous day, Monday. Tuesdays were reserved for our chess. On Thursdays I saw Clarice. If she were to enter into a similar arrangement with another, Bilkin for example, would she not wish to space the appointments? Wednesdays and Fridays, on either side of my own visits, would be unlikely candidates. At the weekend Bilkin played golf, besides which, on Saturdays and Sundays Clarice was wont to catch up with her two children and their young families.
     Had Bilkin been served his Chanel by the comely proprietor, from whom an invitation to supper had then issued with all the directness at her command?
     Jealousy assailed me as I tried to decide how to respond, for once the green-eyed monster has been roused, the victim must know whether his fears have any basis. For a brief period I became a veritable Othello, appropriate enough given that Bilkin had picked White. My Moorish king, his footsoldier already in the fray, demanded blood at whatever cost. Pawn murdered pawn.
     Bilkin looked up at me and I could not read his expression. He looked down again and placed his king’s knight on f3, the textbook response, blocking my queen from her putative dash to h4. Yes, he was using the King’s Gambit, all right: there was no longer any doubt of that.
     I tried to tell myself that my suspicion was nothing more than a mare’s-nest ... albeit Bilkin is handsome fellow, and what female can resist a doctor? He had been devoted to his wife. Even so, it had been six years since her passing; had he remained true to her memory, or had he now found solace elsewhere? With Clarice, my own Clarice?
     His peculiar glance had suggested that he knew about my trysts with her. If so, how? Had she told him?
     My relationship to Clarice was such that I doubted she would confide such a thing to me ... which implied that, if she were the source of his knowledge, he was already closer to her than I was myself.
     I answered Bilkin’s Nf3 according to the book, by moving my king’s knight’s pawn to g5. The expected reply, which would have pulled the rug from under my pawn structure, was pawn to h4. Instead, after more strenuous deliberation on Bilkin’s part, and mine, his king’s bishop lunged to c4. Thoroughly rattled, I answered with pawn to g4 – for that daring, obstreperous lunge is the precursor of the Muzio Gambit, which as I am sure you know is the subject of much controversy. White throws away his knight in hopes of strengthening his attack. And sure enough, at the next tempo he made the classical move and castled.
     The Muzio is not for the faint-hearted. While I stared at the board, wondering whether to take the knight, I remembered his enthusiasm for Vukovician sacrifice. As his rival elsewhere, beyond chess, might I too be sacrificed? And what was chess but a sublimation of the struggle for supremacy between males?
     And this particular game, it seemed to me in my jealousy, had become an argument about, even a contest for, Clarice.
     Forcing myself to calm down, I took the knight, for it is a valuable piece and its loss so early handicaps one’s opponent, Muzio Gambit or no. I knew that I had to strive as I never had before. Our chess hitherto had been essentially recreational. No one really cared who won; sometimes we would play three half-serious games on the trot.
     This one was quite different.
     As it unfolded I drew on my deepest resources. The law is ultimately a matter of pure logic, while medicine combines science with the fuzziness of art. And at the fifteenth move Bilkin’s ferocious concentration faltered. This tiny error subsequently compounded itself and his domination of the central squares evaporated. We were level. There followed a ruthless exchange of pieces and we found ourselves, still evenly matched, in the sparse uplands of the end-game.
     Until now neither of us had spoken – out loud, at least.
     “Hmm,” he muttered. “Now what?”
     I sat back and he did the same. We smiled. There was something thin and significant in his smile, ironic, amused, that only went to confirm my fears. It was almost a smirk.
     Had he really been with Clarice last night? Short of asking either of them, there were certain lines of inquiry. I could ask her out, to a West End theatre, say, specifying a Monday performance. Her reaction would give me a clue. Equally I could try to make some sort of date with Bilkin for the same Monday and see what happened.
     More practical would be a simple watch on her house. I would have to hire a car to sit in, since Bilkin would recognize mine. I would need to park well back and use binoculars.
     I pictured myself lurking in the shadows. I saw the fog-shrouded streetlamps, the slivers of friendly light showing at Clarice’s curtains, Bilkin’s furtive arrival and his hasty admittance. I saw myself with the binoculars jammed to my eyes like a Peeping Tom; and I foresaw my feelings of betrayal and loss. How could I continue with Clarice after that? And how could I ever again have the pleasure of Bilkin’s company?
     He took an appreciative sip of whisky and returned his attention to the board.
     Which of the two did I value more, Bilkin or Clarice?
     The question was moot. All I had to do was suppress this absurd jealousy and leave my suspicions unconfirmed.
     In my youth I read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. One of his dicta stuck in my mind: “Do that which consists in taking no action” (section 147). I cannot begin to tell you of what importance this has been in my career. It is the very foundation of my reputation. When another solicitor might encourage a client into foolhardy litigation, merely for the sake of the fees, I advise restraint. Only in cases where a grave injustice has been done, and only where there is a reasonable chance of winning, do I agree that my client should consider – merely consider, mind you – going to law. Or again, in all one’s dealings, professional or private, it can be of tremendous benefit to do nothing, to wait, to reject the rash, to eschew needless contention.
     I contend at chess, for it is only a game, but in life I would rather not, especially when it comes to friendship.
     Besides, was not Clarice entirely free? Bilkin likewise. Polygamy is seen as perfectly natural in some societies.
     To cap this line of thought, I realized that my suspicions were in all likelihood ridiculous. Yet enough of them lingered in the end-game for me to sense that Bilkin was steering us towards a draw. He too may have been thinking how pleasant our Tuesdays were.
     Anyhow, he contrived, with my assistance, to trap my king near a corner. The verdict: stalemate.
     “Well played,” he said.
     Whether or not he sees Clarice on Mondays now, she is subtly changed. Her effervescence has returned in full. She seems more contented, more independent, more the woman I originally fell for. I believe I adore her more than ever and, as a result, our time together has become yet more precious to me.
     Bilkin too seems happier. He has visibly relaxed. I hear that he is less competitive on the fairway; but at the chess-table he has raised his game considerably, and so have I. My leisure reading consists of books of advanced theory. I study in depth and try to emulate the brilliance of Steinitz, Alekhine, Nimzovitch, Tarrasch, Capablanca, Fischer: because nowadays our Tuesday contests feel, to my mind at least, as if they are inspired by, and might conceivably be all about, the generous, passionate, and thoroughly delectable Mrs Peterson.


Anyone who writes is inured to having his or her work pirated; so it is nice once in a while to get one’s own back.

The idea for the preceding story was stolen some years ago from here.

Alas, its author passed away in 2012, or I would have emailed him the link to this page. I lifted a copy of his text because the idea amused me; I returned to it at the weekend.

Here it is, in case the late Mr Harter’s site ever disappears from the internet.
You may be thinking of the book entitled "Nabokov" which is not, of course, by the author named "Nabokov". The book is quite interesting. Nabokov is a small Russian village not far from Moscow - an invented village of course. The novel is set in 1830; it concerns itself with the doings of the widow Petrovsky who has lost both her husband and her lover in the Napoleonic wars. She is conducting what she supposes to be clandestine affairs with both the local doctor and the local priest. They in turn are aware that each other is receiving the favors of the lush and passionate widow but never admit it. The doctor and the priest, being the only intellectuals in the village, have an evening of playing chess once a week, these matches being a thematic element in the novel. At first one supposes that the chess games are a metaphor for their concealed competition for the widows favors. It is only upon close reading that one realizes that the situation is quite the reverse; that the weekly chess games are the core, the essential reality of their relationship. Neither can afford to defeat the other permanently at chess or in love, for that would destroy the basis of the relationship. Nor can they admit that they are not "playing to win". In turn, the widow Petrovsky senses this without realizing it consciously. She appears to be playing one against the other in an erotic competition. In reality she is maintaining a relationship with an ambiguous duality. As I say, it is an interesting book. Unfortunately it is not real.

I may have absorbed enough Turgenev, Gorky, etc. to be able to attempt such a pastiche, but it was easier to transpose things to a modern setting and make the priest a solicitor. And while the result is hardly a “book”, I do think it might have become “real”.

19 June 2014

The Aspens

Her mind was elsewhere, yet she was conscious of the pleasure of cycling. The bike belonged to her sister, who used it sometimes to post a letter or save a walk when visiting neighbours or the village hall.
     Before this week, Evelyn had not cycled for many years. At first it had felt odd, the more so because someone else’s bicycle, like a typewriter or sewing machine, acquires an impress of its owner’s muscles and mode of movement. Those ghostly quirks of her sister had now been displaced by her own.
     The lane was deserted. Indeed, she had been passed so far by no more than half a dozen motor-vehicles. She supposed people were indoors, eating their meals or watching television.
     Tonight the urge to get out of the house had become irresistible. She had been invited with the kindest intent, and they had tried to make her feel welcome, but it had been a mistake to come at all, still less agree to a fortnight’s stay. At the supper table, when she had announced her desire to go for a ride, she had detected faint relief. Actually what she wanted was to return to London straight away, but that would be misinterpreted. She had discovered that she did not understand her sister as well as she thought she did. Perhaps they had grown apart; perhaps there were problems in her sister’s life of which she was unaware.
     At this time of year darkness did not arrive till after nine. Evelyn had set out at seven-fifteen. Her little round watch now gave the time as five past eight, which meant she should be thinking about heading back: the bike had no lights, the sky was overcast, and this network of lanes was not wholly familiar. At the insistence of her brother-in-law she had taken an Ordnance Survey map and put it in the basket. She had some idea of the local geography, having been to this district several times before, but her travels then had been by car; and invariably Ferdie had been with her.
     She told herself she should stop thinking about him.
     Even discounting the partiality of her family and friends, she conceded that there was truth in their condemnation. Privately, in the despairing depths of the early hours, she had once gone further, perceiving her maiden self as not only pure but splendid. Bit by bit she had been undermined. At least she hadn’t let him corrupt her, as far as she knew.
     He had denied her any children and now it was too late. She would never marry again. The thought of another marriage like that ... the divorce ... better to face squarely this panorama of loneliness opening up before her. Moreover, any man who looked at her twice was bound to be damaged goods: divorced himself or, more likely, some sort of misfit. The very thought of putting herself back on the market was repugnant.
     At irregular intervals she had passed a scratchy burst of song from these hedgerows, made by some kind of small bird. The fields were vast. She had seen the outsize hose-reels for the sprinklers, which as they turned and pulsed threw out a curved curtain of rain. Here and there smallish gulls patrolled the crops, occasionally and delicately dropping down to seize something edible. Evelyn knew little about the countryside, but just now she had recognized the cry of an oystercatcher, which had surprised her, because the shore was at least five miles away: her younger nephew, during their companionable walk along the beach, had identified that bird for her.
     A derelict flint-and-brick barn passed on the left. She didn’t recognize it, or the distinctive estate agent’s board which proclaimed that the barn had outline planning permission for conversion. In fact, this whole lane was new to her. She saw then that she had been so preoccupied that she had taken scant notice of her route and was now lost. Maybe she had drifted closer to the shore than she had supposed.
     Night was coming. The low canopy of cloud already looked gloomy. Her pedalling became less confident. Was she heading in the wrong direction? How much of her stamina remained?
     She drew to a halt and opened the map but could make little sense of it.
     Biting her lip, Evelyn looked over her shoulder. The obvious thing to do was return the way she had come. Sooner or later she would reach a signpost. The map would do the rest.
     She felt a surge of admiration for the good sense of her brother-in-law. But he would, she felt, ask her where she had been. Rather than lie to him she would have to confess that she had got lost. Anyway the idea of turning back like this, at the first hint of difficulty, seemed to her cowardly and defeatist.
     She returned the map to the basket and continued, albeit less resolutely, on her way. Soon enough, on the right, she came to three pairs of semi-detached farmworkers’ cottages. Beyond them stood a pair of seven-barred steel gates, well maintained, guarding a concrete road that curved away downhill. A sign on one gatepost read “Mehetabel Farm”.
     Out came the map again. The farm was not marked anywhere, as far as she could tell, but on the low hillside to the left, about half a mile away, she could see a square-towered church and a cluster of houses. A suspicion as to the identity of this village began to grow in her mind. If she were correct, the configuration of the lanes placed her in one of two spots, the first being more likely. In that case, she was less than a mile from a road that led directly and almost all the way to her sister’s.
     She wondered whether to knock at one of the cottage doors to seek directions. Or should she ask her sister if she knew where Mehetabel Farm was? But that also would be a sign of inadequacy, and all week Evelyn had felt pitied. Although they were doing their best to conceal it, had not pity been the very reason for the invitation?
     Her phone remained in her pocket. She would go on a little further.
     Apart from the slight noises of the bicycle itself, all she could hear was the freshening breeze. A man, her brother-in-law for example, might know, or at least hazard a guess about, the wind direction; but Evelyn was city bred. “Yes,” she thought, “you don’t know which way the wind blows.”
     Where had that come from? Some deep place. A metaphor. Maybe it was time she found out.
     She came to another small settlement beside the lane, on the left this time. The first few houses fronted an open field; the remainder looked across the road to a line of tall, massy trees which she thought might be poplars. As she drew near she could hear the wind in their foliage, the rush of air swishing like water, the sea, a cataract, but of peaceful heaven rather than the tumultuous earth: mystical almost, pure, and, yes, splendid; and unbidden she envied the people who lived in those cottages opposite.
     Although she did not wish to be observed, she stopped the bike again. She had noticed something odd. The leaves, the thousands upon thousands of them, were quivering in the breeze, rapidly and at random showing and hiding their pale undersides. Each one was dangling from the slenderest, strap-like stalk. She became so lost in this spectacle of shimmer, the sound, this unexpected gift, this profound glimpse into what the real world could be, that for the first time in months, years, she was fully transported out of herself: her suffering was eclipsed, her wounded soul balmed and overwhelmed.
     Welling tears blurred her vision. Never before had she beheld such unassuming magnificence.
     Then she remembered the cottages, from which she might be seen, and her rapture, her tide of emotion, subsided.
     Her fragile state, of course, had brought it on. She’d been divorced for less than ten days. No one of robust mind would have viewed the trees like that. All the same, something had changed. Something important. Her heart had been abused; it might well be abused again, in that unknowable territory of the future, but now there could be no question of turning back.
     The guess about her location had been right. When she came to the crossroads she stopped once more to check the signpost and the map. After that, helped no little by her friend the breeze, she described an unerring line to her sister’s door.