fiction

Frank’s Lament: ‘The Sportswriter’ and the American Dream

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Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy. He’s isolated, irrational and unreliable – just like me. He’s a failed novelist – just like me. He’s a successful sportswriter – just like, err, not me. In fact, Frank’s the sportswriter, the figure made famous by American author, Richard Ford, in his novel of the same name.

Frank, he tells us himself, was all set up to have a fine life. Loving wife, great kids, fantastic job – he had them all. But when his eldest son, nine-year-old Ralph, is struck down by a rare brain disease, things start to go horribly wrong. The boy dies, dreadfully. Mired in mourning, Frank’s wife finds letters from a female friend in his desk and sues for divorce, separating Frank from his family.

Now Frank is trapped in a world of his own, isolated from others by his ongoing grief and by the very nature of his vocation – he’s a writer, after all, someone who belongs to a ‘club with just one member’. Frank tries to ‘lose that terrible distance’ by wooing Vicki, a young nurse, but his attempts to ‘simulate intimacy, interest, anticipation’ fail, as they’ve failed before with other women.

Frank’s relationships with men are equally appalling, for he has lost all faith in friendship, that ‘lie of life’. ‘What’s friendship’s realest measure?’ he asks himself. ‘The amount of precious time you’ll squander on someone else’s calamities and fuck-ups.’ When Walter, a fellow divorcee, comes to him seeking consolation, Frank keeps his cool and his distance – with tragic consequences.

It’s an unfashionable approach to friendship and yet one I find fascinating – as I do Frank’s unique way of thinking, which, we discover, is more intuitive than intellectual. Frank admits to having no love of ‘useless and complicated factuality’, he being drawn instead to mystery and all its ‘frail muted beauties’. ‘Explaining,’ he explains, ‘is where we all get into trouble.’

But Frank is in trouble anyway. Despite living largely in his head, he finds himself suffering from a ‘failure of imagination’ – an inability to empathise with others. This, according to Frank, is why he’s a sportswriter and not a novelist. ‘I did not, in fact, know how people felt about most things,’ he says. ‘And needless to say that is the very place where the great writers – your Tolstoys and your George Eliots – soar off to become great.’

Frank’s other endearing quality – to me, at least – is his unpredictability. He’s almost always on the move, racing restlessly from one place to another. If he’s not parked outside his ex-wife’s house, then he’s pulling up in front of a church or making his way to New York on a whim.

Frank’s unreliability – as a character and, I suspect, as a narrator – reminds me of another classic fictional creation: Tom Ripley, Patricia Highsmith’s precocious brainchild. Both characters lack a solid sense of identity and morality; indeed, both seem to have lost their ‘authority’, as Frank puts it.

The problem is that Frank is an idealist stripped of ideals, an ordinary American robbed of his illusions about family, friendship and, finally, the future. For the other character of note in Ford’s novel is the nation itself: America as an idea and an experience. In this sense The Sportswriter is a guide book; it takes us on a tour of Frank’s corner of the country, through New Jersey, Michigan and New York, through ‘literal and anonymous cities’ with all their ‘bricky warp’.

Tellingly, Frank likes nothing better than ‘staring off at the jewelled shore lights of New Jersey, brightening as dark fell, and feeling full of wonder and illusion – like a Columbus or a pilgrim seeing the continent of his dreams take shape in the dusk for the first time’.

At its heart The Sportswriter is a lament: a lament for the loss of innocence. The story speaks of an awakening and thus of the dispelling of a dream – of the American Dream, no less, a dream as familiar to a foreigner like me as it is to a native like Frank. It’s the last and largest thing we have in common.

Whether I like it or not, Frank Bascombe is my kind of guy.


Image courtesy of PxHere

The Upside of Down: ‘Falling to Safety’

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Take a look in the mirror. Notice anything about your orientation? That’s right: you’re upright, like the rest of us. Relax, it’s just the way we grow; up, it seems, is the way we go.

Okay, step away from the looking glass.

While you were admiring your anthropomorphic erectness, you may not have twigged to something else: our feelings are vertical, too, or at least they are in the ways we think about them.

We’re up or we’re down. Our spirits are high or they’re low. Our mood is elevated or depressed. If our metaphors are anything to go by, our emotions are like mercury in a tube. (Ha, there’s another one! To be mercurial, of course, is to have sudden changes in mood.)

Why so much Y-axis in our thoughts about feelings? It comes back to gravity, methinks, to that perpendicular pressure which drags us down – down to die, if we’re not careful, our brains dashed out on a rock somewhere. For if down equals death and death equals despair, then down clearly equates to despair.

Clearly.

Which is why, one Sunday past, I went and stared at a bridge. An irresistible force was weighing me down, and part of me wondered whether gravity would flatten me if I gave it the chance.

But as I sat in the car, dog-walkers wandering idly by, my thoughts turned from the bridge to the page, to the net that catches me when I dive for oblivion. Because stories, for me, are the upside of down.

 

Falling to Safety

I met him at the park. He said it was near his place but he couldn’t face his girlfriend so he’d come here instead. He was on my seat – the one with the view of women pushing kids on swings. Only he wasn’t watching.

When I arrived he had his head in his hands. I didn’t encourage him to talk, he just started. Told me he was a fireman; asked me if I’d heard the news. I told him I hated the news. So, after a pause, he filled me in. Fire, apartment block, trapped mother, trapped baby. Straight out of a comic book. Then the crazy bit: mother dropping her baby from a window to a fireman.

This fireman.

That pulled me up.

Hold on, I said, go back a bit. You caught the kid? The fireman groaned. That’s the thing, he said. I almost dropped it.

But didn’t, I said.

Listen, he hissed. I almost dropped that thing; I almost killed it. Next time I won’t be so lucky.

Next time, I said, you won’t be so unlucky – you won’t be the poor prick stuck underneath. You don’t know that, he said. True, I said, nodding. I don’t know a lot of things and that’s one of them.

We went quiet for a bit. I watched a mother try to coax a boy down the slide. The fireman watched with me. You any good at sport, he asked, after a while. Not as good as my brother, I said. And that’s all that counts. You reckon, he said. I’m fucking useless.

I looked at the size of him, the wide shoulders, the monstrous arms. Bullshit, I said. It’s true, he said, with a shrug. I can pump iron but I can’t catch to save myself. I’m a clutz.

That’s not cool, I said. Not in this country. Don’t I know it, he said. I copped hell at school. And fair enough too, I said, with a grin. You gay prick. Sometimes I wished I was, he said. Least I would’ve had a few decent mates. Yeah, I said, I know what you mean.

He turned to look at me, just as the boy went down the slide.

So, he said, you’re finally getting it? That my career’s over? That my cover’s blown? That all this flab, and my uniform, is a disguise? That I’m going to drop the next baby?

Everything’s a disguise, I said. Look, what if you weren’t lucky. What if the catch wasn’t half empty but half full?

I almost dropped it, I tell you, he cried.

But you didn’t, I said.

He thought about this for a while. But how can I be sure, he said finally. Catch another baby, I said, knowing straight away where I was going and not knowing if I liked it one bit.

Don’t tell me, said the fireman, looking at the pram beside me. You live in a two-storey house. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. I hate climbing stairs.

And you’ve got a baby. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. That’s pretty piss-weak, he said. Sorry, I said, that’s me. My wife’s idea.

The fireman snorted, got up and walked away.

Catcher in the Rye, I called after him. Ever read it? He kept walking, that big body of his blocking out the sun. Then he came back, mothers turning to look at him in a way they’d never looked at me.

It is funny, though, he said. Me running into you like this. Isn’t it, I said.

But you can’t be serious, he went on. You don’t want to take that risk, surely, with your own kid. You’re a fireman, I said, squinting up at him. What’s not to trust.

You trust me, a stranger?

Okay, I said, maybe I’m just trusting full stop. I even trust in trust. You’re a fucking idiot full stop, he said.

Ah, I said, now you’ve seen through my disguise.

He stood there, flexing his fingers. I would like to know, though, he said. Before I throw it all away.

Then he turned to me, his eyes shining with hope. You think I can do it?

More to the point, I said, do you think I can?

On and on we went, round and round the mulberry bush, until, trembling and quiet, we up and walked to my wife’s two-storied house, me pushing the pram.

Here, I said, pointing to a spot below the bedroom window. Try not to put your feet in the garden.

As I turned to go, the fireman grabbed my arm. I was top of my class, he hissed, his eyes glittering.

Hold that thought, I said, and took my son upstairs.

It was here, let me tell you, that I almost lost my nerve. I went to a shelf, I took down a bear. I turned it over and over. It was real enough. Then I saw the note you’d left and I put the bear back.

My throat was burning as I scooped the boy up. Three lives, I said as I clutched him to my chest, as I walked with him to the window. Three lives and the whole of humanity. Surely, Ben, we have to take the risk, just to find out.

I opened the window. It’s all right, said the fireman, I’m here, I’m here.

He looked massive as he stood there looking up, hands big like baskets filled with bread and fish.

How could I miss?

No, the fireman screeched, as Benjamin fell. Holy fuck, I cried, as he tumbled out of the fireman’s grasp.

When I got down there the bastard had gone. But Ben lay in the rushes, asleep and unhurt.

I turned and saw the fireman, who had crept back, massive hands hiding his mouth.

It’s all right, I said. He’s alive.

But I dropped him, he cried.

No, I said, he’s been safely caught.

But I dropped him, the fireman said.

So did I, I replied.

We stood and looked at each other, in something like wonder.

Then Benjamin woke with a cry.

At once, the fireman became a fireman again, and me, well, I went back to being a dad.

Which I did, having experienced, yet again, the upside of down.

Feathers and Fur (Part 2): The Climactic Conclusion

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There are characters and then there are, well, characters. Some are new and unknown to us, like Anthony Burgess’ dyspeptic poet, Enderby, or the merciless Major Woolley of Goshawk Squadron.

Others, though, seem all too familiar. Take that fetishistic fashionista, Goldie de Groot, and model turned marketer, Chad Wilcox. Don’t you just feel like you know them already?

And so you should! These two unforgettable folk star in the erotic humdinger, ‘Feathers and Fur’, the first instalment of which I posted on this very blog only weeks ago. Slipped your memory? Well, here it is again – go back and bone up on it, please.

Thing is, faithful followers, I reckon I’ve kept all seventeen of you in suspense long enough. Clearly you’re dying to know more about Golden Girl and the Chadster. I mean, what is she hiding under that boa? And how is his piece coming along?

Switch off the artificial respirator – relief has arrived. For here, impure and adulterated, is the climax of that ‘twisted tale of doctored strangelove’. First, though, a warning: this excerpt contains cats, so if our feline friends make you itch then you’d better don some protection pronto. Allergies are nothing to sneeze at, you know.

‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’

I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.

‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’

Goldie had slipped the boa over her head and was holding it before her, somehow still managing to obscure her best bits. As she stroked the plumage, I couldn’t help thinking of her puss. Hot and loose.

I shifted in my seat and peered at the notes I hadn’t made in my notebook.

All the while, Goldie kept stroking, stroking, watching me with a crooked little smile on her lips. And what good lips they were. Not too fat, not too thin. Just right.

‘Trouble is,’ I said, clearing my throat, ‘it’s usually the male birds that have the bright plumage.’

Her smile widened. ‘I like a man who knows his ornithology.’

‘Don’t get me wrong,’ I said. ‘I’m no twitcher.’

‘I’ll be the judge of that,’ Goldie said, before padding across the floor in her bare feet.

And what good feet they were. Not too big, not too small. Just right. And they led to good legs. Legs to live by.

‘Up,’ she said, with a tug at my collar. ‘And around.’

I stood with my back to her, staring unseeingly at the prints on the wall above her desk. My signature look, it seemed, had returned.

For a while I lost track of the boa. Goldie’s hands were busy with my buttons, so I suppose it had found its way back around her neck. Before long, though, the fluffy fiend made its presence felt; slowly, softly, it swept across my various nooks and crannies; then, with a murmur, it surmounted a rise, where it wavered for a while, trembling back and forth. Back and forth.

Back. And forth.

With things coming to a head, I decided to turn the tables.

‘By the way,’ Goldie murmured, as I took the boa from her. ‘I’ve never been to Brazil.’

‘Very wise,’ I replied, pivoting her until I had her back. ‘It’s overrated.’

Threading the brown boa between those taut creamy thighs, I began to run it back and forth.

‘Bingo,’ Goldie whispered. ‘Feathers and fur.’

Back and forth.

‘Surely fake emu feathers should be more moisture-proof,’ I said, after a minute or two.

‘Fake ostrich,’ Goldie replied, a little breathlessly.

Back. And forth.

Then, rounding on me, Goldie tugged the boa from my grasp.

‘Plumage is important,’ she said, ‘up to a point. But a bird has to know when to bury its head. In the sand.’

Balling up the boa, she tossed it across the room, where it fluttered to the floor like a plummeting pigeon.

‘Fake sand?’ I asked.

‘Quick sand,’ she said, and steered me towards the desk.

By the time the interview was over, my coffee was well and truly cold. Which, for some strange reason, made it just right. Best coffee I ever had.

‘What about the article?’ I said, putting away my empty notebook.

Goldie tucked the boa into the pocket of my jeans.

‘Oh, I think you’ve got enough to go on,’ she said, giving it a friendly pat. ‘If you don’t, use your imagination. That shouldn’t be hard, Mr Faraway Man.’

I checked my watch as I crossed the shop floor. Not too long, after all, and not a second too short. Just right. I grinned. With that sort of passion and professionalism, how could either of us fail?

Blowing a last kiss to the mannequins, I stepped out on to the street.

True story!

Feathers and Fur (Part 1): Doctored Strangelove or Sexual Stuntfest?

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What’s your stance on erotica? Haven’t settled on one yet? Well, don’t panic – as with sex itself, there’s an abundance of attitudes to choose from, so one is sure to take your fancy.

Let’s say you’re the upright type; well, you’re bound to be attracted to the missionary position, which means you’ll demonise any book that even hints at humpty-do. If, however, you’re more of a ‘cowgirl’ at heart, then you’ll happily bend over backwards for any old porn on the page.

My standpoint is different. When it comes to erotica, I prefer to play leapfrog. That’s right: I jump about, taking each text as it comes and trying to judge a work on its merits. Good writing excuses anything, I reckon – even a splash of the sauce.

Trouble is, I’m yet to put my approach to the test, having never really read any raunch. I like sex, so it’s not that I’m averse to its depiction in fiction; it’s just that I get bored by artless stories, of which there seem to be plenty.

What is artful erotica, then? As we writers are always being exhorted to ‘show not tell’, I’ve decided to try a little experiment. Rather than attempt to catalogue the qualities of the ideal erotic tale (as I see it), I’ll present for your delectation a purpose-written story instead.

More ‘doctored strangelove’ than sexual stuntfest, here then is the first stimulating instalment of ‘Feathers and Fur’.

‘I’m very passionate,’ she said, inspecting her nails in the light, ‘about the power of plumage.’

‘You’re into feathers?’

Goldie studied me for a moment. A long, searching moment.

‘Wait here,’ she said, before slipping from the room.

Groaning under my breath, I watched her go. She was swaddled in a sleek orange sari but had the kind of figure that would look good in a cassock. I mused for a minute, picturing her draped in a wet shower curtain. Not quite what I’d meant, but it proved my point – that for a woman she was remarkably well hung. Full and firm where it counted, like my fiancé, Christine.

Ex-fiancé.

I sighed and put down my pen. Fantasising about my clients wasn’t going to pay the bills. Maybe Chrissie was right – maybe the time I’d sunk into this ‘business’ of mine was all for nothing. Maybe I just didn’t have what it takes to be a freelance writer. I mean, I’d wasted an hour already this morning thanks to this woman and her cat.

‘Sorry,’ Goldie had called, as she’d come pattering across the street in her neat little sandals. ‘My puss usually wakes me at the crack of dawn, but I think she’s on heat or something. Went out through the bathroom window.’

Digging around in her shoulder bag for keys, she gave me the once-over. Twice.

We’d arranged to meet here fifty minutes ago, a full hour before opening time, so I could get some background for a puff piece I was writing on Goldie’s latest venture, a niche clothing store called ‘Feathers and Fur’.

Finding her keys at last, Goldie let us into the shop, a bright open space set out with racks of lingerie and outré outfits of all kinds.

‘So,’ she said, leading me across the room, ‘you’ve come to do a little digging.’

I dodged around one of the half-naked mannequins that dotted the room.

‘That’s the general idea,’ I said. ‘If you can still spare the time.’

She sniggered. ‘Oh, things don’t hot up here until later on. Actually, I’m kinda hoping you’ll warm these mornings up for me a little. You and your piece.’

‘I’ll do my best,’ I said, following her into a stylish office furnished with black leather couches and a desk. I glanced around. Two windows framed neat hedges and a strip of sky, while a door in the back wall opened on to what was presumably a storeroom.

‘The first thing to know,’ Goldie said, dumping her bag on the table, ‘is that this place runs on coffee. Good hot coffee.’

And she spent the next ten minutes fiddling with the espresso machine that stood on a bar fridge in the corner.

When I tried to shoot her a question, the response was swift.

‘No talking,’ she cried, over the whoosh of the machine. ‘Making coffee is my morning ritual. It grounds me for the rest of the day.’

‘Fair enough,’ I said, grinning at the pun.

Spotting my smile, Goldie decided I wasn’t taking her seriously enough, and launched into a detailed explanation of her ‘coffology’. To my discredit – I suppose I should have been taking notes – I tuned right out, preferring instead to visualise her in various forms of dress. The cassock was a flop, I decided, although the cross on a chain around her neck brought out two of her best features.

I was about to try her in a nuns’ habit when she turned and charged across the room, a cup cocked in each hand.

‘This’ll get you going,’ Goldie said, giving me one before dropping on to the couch opposite me with the other.

She drank with obvious relish.

‘Thanks,’ I said. A second later I was spluttering.

‘Some like it hot,’ Goldie said, with a smile. ‘I did warn you.’

I dabbed at my lips. ‘I’ll listen next time.’

‘Good boy. It’s the first thing a man should do. So,’ she said, settling back on the couch, ‘what’s your piercing first thrust?’

‘Well, I was going to ask about the mannequins.’

‘Wrong,’ she said. ‘People usually want to know about my name.’

‘Goldie. Right. After the actress, I suppose.’

‘Hell no,’ she said. ‘The metal.’

‘Gold. I get it.’

‘I was a weighty newborn, apparently, and soft – super soft.’

I pretended to write that down. ‘And precious too,’ I ventured.

‘Not half as valuable as my sister,’ Goldie said, with a pout. ‘Titty.’

I looked at her blankly.

‘Titanium,’ she added.

‘Of course. Atomic number 22.’

‘I’m impressed. Next question, Chemistry Man.’

‘The mannequins?’

‘Hooked on them, aren’t you. Trust me, you’re not their type. Let’s get back to my type. Your piece. Ask me something probing, about Goldie.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘The shop. Why’d you open it?’

And that’s when she said what she said.

‘I’m very passionate. About the power of plumage.’

And that’s when I said what I said.

‘You’re into feathers?’

And that’s when she disappeared, mysteriously, into the back room.

I sat and toyed with the idea of calling Chrissie. I’d promise to chuck this writing thing in and go back to being a photographic model. Doing shoots all the time was a drag, but at least I got paid for daydreaming. And, boy, what material I’d had to work with. Dress ’em up, dress ’em down. Back then, fantasising had actually paid off – it’d given me the hunky faraway look for which I’d become known.

‘Yes,’ Goldie said. ‘I’m into feathers.’

I looked up and saw a coppery feather boa shimmering in the doorway. Behind it was a body, mostly naked. Butt-naked, as far as I could tell.

‘You’re in feathers,’ I pointed out, somewhat pedantically. Then I raised my eyebrows, adding, ‘And now you’re not.’

To be continued, as they say, with apologies for the eroticus interruptus.

[Breaking News: ‘Feathers and Fur’ is now complete, its climax having been posted here.]

A Tale with Teeth (Part 1): Putting the Bite Back into Fairy Stories

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It was the last straw – again. There I was, blithely corralling kids’ books, when I came across a sheep in wolves’ clothing: yet another work in which an author has her wicked way with fairy tales. Enough’s enough, I thought, rough-housing the offending object into a corner; if I encounter another novel that neuters those venerable yarns, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll…

Do what? Scream like a girlie-man? Beat my hairy breast? Never! Such things are beneath me, as you well know. Instead, I thought, I’ll do my own bit of bastardising, so as to put the acid on these con-artists and the sting back where it belongs – in the tales, of course.

To my amazement and alarm, I got a chance to put my pen where my mouth is within hours. While ferrying Boy Wonder to a friend’s, I happened to put my daughter to sleep in the car. Rather than try and shoehorn the little dear out of her cosy capsule, I opted to ride it out – to sit behind the wheel and write.

It’s the fruit of this wee spree that I now want to share. Entitled ‘A Tale with Teeth’, the story goes something like this…

Once upon a time there was a wolf – a very sad wolf. His teeth were falling out, you see, and that’s enough to make any beast blue. One day the wolf woke up feeling so low that he just had to see a doctor.

‘Doc,’ he said, ‘I’m losing my teeth.’

‘Hmmm,’ said the doctor, fiddling with her phone. ‘I’d better run some tests.’

Tucking his tail under his furry flanks, the wolf sat and waited.

At last the doctor let out a shriek.

‘What is it?’ cried the wolf. ‘Give it to me straight, doc – I can take it.’

‘It’s my blood pressure,’ groaned the doctor. ‘It’s way too high. I need a holiday.’

And with that she raced from the room, grabbing her golf clubs as she went.

As you can imagine, that didn’t make the wolf feel any better. Not one to give up easily, though, he went straight to the dentist’s.

‘Come back when you’ve made an appointment,’ snapped the girl at the counter. The wolf sighed and did as he was told.

‘What seems to be the problem,’ asked the dentist, as he strapped the wolf down.

‘It’s my teeth,’ said the wolf. ‘They seem to be falling out.’

‘And I suppose you think I’m going to stick my head into your mouth to have a look,’ said the dentist.

The wolf nodded, miserably.

‘Gladly,’ said the dentist, and stuck his head right in.

He emerged a little later, feeling around in his ear for something sharp.

‘You weren’t foxing,’ he said, holding up a tooth. ‘Your fangs are dropping like flies.’

The wolf gave a groan. ‘But why?’

‘Not sure,’ said the dentist. ‘And don’t think I’m going in there again to find out. Who eats garlic for breakfast, anyway?’

It took the wolf a few months to pay his bill. As soon as it was settled, he rushed off to see a therapist.

‘I’m sad,’ the wolf told her, once he’d got comfortable on the couch. ‘And my teeth are falling out.’

‘Don’t let a little thing like that get you down,’ said the therapist, smoothing her slacks. ‘Is there anything else that might be making you unhappy? Your parents, perhaps?’

The wolf thought hard.

‘Well,’ he said, finally, ‘there is one little thing that’s been troubling me.’

‘Go on,’ said the therapist, pen poised above her iPad.

‘It’s just that I used to feel so big and bad. Hardly a week went by without me nibbling on a kid or two, and scaring some half to death.’

‘So that’s it,’ said the therapist, turning on her phone. ‘Nothing to do with your family at all.’

The wolf craned around to look at her.

‘Do you know what that does to a carnivore’s self-esteem?’ he said.

‘Yes, yes,’ said the therapist, briskly. ‘It’s an open-and-shut case. You’ve lost your identity and the new you doesn’t need teeth.’

She cast an eye over the wolf’s lithe figure.

‘Just out of curiosity, what do you eat?’

‘Shakes, mostly,’ said the wolf. ‘It’s a complete diet, only minus the children.’

‘Might be worth a try,’ murmured the therapist. ‘My sister’s getting married next month, you know, and I’d like to be looking my best.’

‘You go grrrl,’ said the wolf, giving her knee a squeeze.

The therapist threw him a grateful smile.

‘It’s just that my mother had such enormous –’

‘Hams?’ said the wolf.

‘Expectations.’

The wolf nodded, sympathetically.

‘Sure,’ he said, ‘but what about me?’

‘You? You’ve just got to find yourself again. Get back to being the real you. If, that is, you want to keep your canines.’

‘I get it,’ said the wolf. ‘I’m an open-and-shut case.’

The therapist looked at the clock.

‘Start now,’ she said. ‘Just open the door and shut it once you’re through.’

The wolf got up from the couch, feeling a little stiff, and padded out into the waiting room.

‘Hello,’ he said to a witch, her warty nose buried in a dog-eared Reader’s Digest. ‘Fancy meeting you here.’

Thank me later.