La Forza del Destino, or, Arnie, the Camel of Death

by John M. Joyce (Aug. 2008)


Some few years ago I acquired an attractive little cottage buried deep in the heart of the Scottish countryside. It is situated some thirty miles west of Inverburgh (twinned with Casterbridge), which is the nearest shopping centre, and to reach it one has to traverse the narrow, winding and single-track country lanes which cross the sparsely inhabited but very beautiful landscape of the Highlands of Scotland. One has to be very careful not to get lost whilst travelling those roads, for very few of the junctions possess signposts and such signage as there is makes little sense – and is invariably written in Gaelic!


Given the exigencies of getting to Inverburgh, and returning from the same, one tends to go shopping no more than once in a week and it was on my return journey from just such a trip that this story more properly begins.
 
It was a sunlit, crisp autumn afternoon in 19-- and I was barrelling along merrily in my Hispano-Suiza doing, perhaps, some forty-five miles per hour when I came upon one of the unsignposted junctions which I mentioned earlier. I knew that the lane which joined my road on the right led nowhere and was very little used so I slowed only slightly and glanced along it just to make sure that there was no traffic on its unmetalled surface. There was none, as I had expected, so I pressed my accelerator pedal hard down and returned my gaze to my direction of travel. One can only imagine my shock as I did so when I realised that sliding on its side at some speed towards the front of my motorcar was an empty BSA Blue Star 500cc black motorbike.
 
The Blue Star is an excellent and well-built motorbike but, alas, this one was no match for my two-and-a-half ton, eight litre, Hispano-Suiza H6C. The sturdy nearside front wheel of my motor met the BSA tail on and crunched its rear end almost flat before I even had a chance to apply my brakes. The equally sturdy rear wheel of my motor disposed of the front of the ‘bike. A considerable number of yards further down the lane I managed to bring the great car to a halt – right beside a remarkably fine looking young lady with long black hair, dressed from head to toe in black leather and carrying a motorcycle helmet in her left hand, who was gazing down with rapt attention at the lane’s grassy nearside verge.
 
Now I’m no genius but it was obvious even to me that I had just killed her motorbike and that that was not entirely my fault. However, I was brought up to be chivalrous – especially towards handsome young ladies clad in skin-tight black leather – and intended to offer only some well phrased but mild reproaches and to while away some few tens of minutes, or so I hoped, in exchanging details and offering her, and what was left of her ‘bike, a lift to wherever she was bound. If I didn’t make too much of a fuss and behaved like a gentleman, I reasoned as I opened the door and stepped out onto the warm tar macadam, then this potentially ugly incident might well turn into a pleasant interlude, perhaps even into a very pleasant interlude indeed.
 
It was, therefore, with some small degree of pleasurable anticipation that I walked round my motorcar and stood to her left in the warm, heather scented, autumn sunshine and waited for her to initiate conversation. She did not do so. Her entire attention remained focussed on what I now saw was a large black immobile slug sprawled across several blades of grass on the verge. Feeling that I and the wreckage of her motorbike were perhaps of greater import than a slug I politely cleared my throat to let her know that I was there.
 
“Quiet man! Can’t you see that this is important?” she snapped without taking her eyes off the slug. I decided, given the tone of voice she had just used, to wait quietly and to say nothing for the time being. It was fairly obvious even to one of my limited forensic attainments that I was not more important than a slug as far as she was concerned. My hopes of a pleasant interlude evaporated, as did my self-esteem. It has always been this way for me – somehow attractive young ladies never seem to find me to be boyfriend material, even young ladies such as this particularly fine one who had never even looked at me seemed to know without a glance that, somehow, I just would not do. Never the less, I determined to continue with my plan and to be gentlemanly and chivalrous – perhaps out of some forlorn, subconscious hope that she might see what she had missed. Such fools are we males!
 
After a minute or two of standing together in total silence gazing at the slug she plunged her right hand into a pocket and brought out a pair of pinking shears. In one swift movement she lowered the shears to a point just above the slug and closed the jaws with a distinctly audible snick, tick, click. There was also another sound behind the snicks, ticks and clicks: a sound almost exactly like the top E sound which rare old Murano glass makes as it shatters into a thousand pieces on the marble floor of the piano nobile of a Venetian palace.
 
She straightened up, replaced the pinking shears in her pocket, tossed her head to re-arrange her hair and smiled at me. What a smile! It was the sort of dazzling, million watt smile that was so bright and genuine that if she’d stood atop the Pharos and smiled like that then the keepers of the fire would have been out of a job.
 
“Good man!” she said, “At least you know how to be quiet.”
 
I seized the initiative.
 
“John M. Joyce,” I said, and stuck my hand out.
 
“Catherine Sylvania Chronosia Mildred Arcthamisionieria Delaberymious Titania De’Ath,” she replied, grasping and shaking my outstretched hand.
 
The moment was slightly spoiled when she promptly added, almost sotto voce, “Oops, shouldn’t have done that” and quickly withdrew her hand and looked down at the slug once more. Hello, I thought, she’s going to cut up rough over the ‘bike. All the panic chemicals flowed into my brain in one sudden surge – a bit like the tide in Morecambe Bay but with considerably fewer molluscs – and I remember thinking at that moment ‘keep it light, keep it light’.
 
So I plastered what I’d always thought of as my finest smile across my fizzog and asked, “ Well, Catherine Sylvania Chronosia Mildred Arcthamisionieria Delaberymious Titania De’Ath, what do your friends call you?” (I know, I know, cheap verbal pyrotechnics; but look, I’m not the freshest scone on the plate but I’ve always had a good ear. I suppose that I hoped that my verbal dexterity might just impress her a little bit – you can’t blame a young man for trying. Anyway, you weren’t there, you didn’t see her smile. I’d have said almost anything at that moment to see her smile at me like that again.)
 
“Death,” she replied, without looking up.
 
I rapidly modified my smile into what I hoped was a compassionate expression of sympathy. I mean, De’Ath, death, is such an obvious pun that even a lovesick rhinoceros on speed would disdain to utter it.
 
Then suddenly she looked up at me. There was no humour, no self-pity, no awareness of pun, in that look (no smile, either, which was very disappointing from my point of view), just an expression such as anyone would wear after stating a fact.
 
In the instant, I remembered the pinking shears, the tick-snick-pick-click of the jaws as they closed and the high tinging sound of fracturing ancient glass on marble. Then something warm and rubbery nudged me behind the knees. I jumped, I yelped, (Heaven help me, I actually yelped. How To Impress A Girl: Lesson One – DON’T YELP!), I spun on the spot on one toe like a prima ballerina assoluta, like Pierina Legnani at her finest, and yelped again (How To Impress A Girl: Lesson Two – DON’T YELP TWICE IN A ROW! Ever!) as I saw a complete, intact, unsquashed BSA Blue Starr 500cc motorbike grinning at me. I swear, that wretched machine was grinning at me from spoke to fork.
 
I leapt sideways just like the most expert and well rehearsed danseur at the Kirov and let the ‘bike pass. It rushed to her with its engine revving at maximum purr for all it was worth. It cuddled her – I tell you, it cuddled her! It flowed around her, coiling around her black leather clad legs, offering its bars to her hands in an insanely sensuous way – grief, I was so jealous of that ‘bike for those few seconds – and then the thing steadied itself and looked at me and snarled – I swear to you, it snarled. I yelped and jumped backwards (How To Impress A Girl: Lesson Three – If you’ve just yelped three times in a row then you’ve just blown your last chance. You have as much chance of retrieving the situation as you have of surviving a long walk off the end of Brighton Pier when there is a raging storm in the Channel and it’s so bad that the Continent is cut off).
 
Like all men would, I thought that now might be a good time to try to retrieve the situation.
 
“Pinking Shears?” I blurted out. Look, I was suffering from well-nigh terminal overload and my brain was seriously considering shutting down – don’t try to kid me that you would have done any better in the circumstances. When was the last time that you were nudged behind the knees by a riderless dead motorbike? Oh, and you can take it as read that Lesson Four is all about not blurting. Got that? Yelping and blurting are off the menu! As for yelping and then blurting, never mind the menu just close the restaurant and walk quietly away!
 
“It was a lady slug,” she said, obviously by way of explanation. Then she smiled at me again. My brain, not a much used organ in my case, and my libido, not much used either but not through choice, had the same simultaneous thought: ‘Sol exsolita est!’
 
“Um,” I blundered, or blurted if you prefer, on, “I rather thought that, uh, well, the scythe thing was sort of, well, you know, de rigueur?”
 
She laughed! Now many poets have compared the laughter of their adored ones to tinkling brooks, to the tintinnabulation of tiny silver bells, to strings of delicate seashells gently touching in a warm breeze on a romantic South Sea Island, and they may be correct, but my adored one, standing in front of me clad in black skin-tight leather, laughed a laugh which had a built in echo. She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
 
“Me! A scythe! On this!” she exclaimed, indicating the now quiescent BSA, “ One corner taken at speed and I’d cut my own head off!”
 
I grinned, and you can add that to the list of things not to do when trying to impress a girl – call it Lesson Five. It comes just below yelping and above blurting, especially if you have an American dentist.
 
“No, no, no,” she added, reaching into her pockets and withdrawing and brandishing a pair of pinking shears and a lethally sharp, and very masculine looking, pair of garden shears, “I’ve got these for the ladies and these for the gentlemen.”
 
I felt certain parts of me shrivel and make a spirited bid to retract to a pre-pubescent position of safety. Then she smiled at me again and looked me up and down in a way that very clearly let me know, on some subconscious level, that she liked what she saw.
 
She liked what she saw! She actually liked what she saw! My heart sang! No, scrub that, it didn’t sing. In one micro-second my heart had nipped out and engaged the services of two full symphony orchestras and the Royal Artillery Corps and was busy playing the 1812 Overture at full blast whilst prancing around in my chest like Rudolph Nureyev after having consumed too much caffeine.
 
“Um, er,” we both said, simultaneously.
 
“Um, er,” I repeated, solo, just to let her know what an idiot I really was.
 
“Uh, yes?” she said expectantly.
 
“Would you like a cup of tea?” I blurted out. Grief, I blurted again. Just like that! As if she didn’t already know that I had all the intellect and social skills of a stylitic hamster. A more debonair, man of the world sort of male would have suavely suggested an early cocktail at some plush, but intimate, watering hole, but not me. Oh no, not me, I just opened my mouth and mentioned tea as if I knew of some disreputable truckers’ caff just along the road or something!
 
She smiled at me again and my heart issued new sheet music to the orchestras and they started to play that wonderful first movement from the Italian Symphony – the Royal A.C. beat time with their guns and Nureyev brought Fonteyn on to help out.
 
“I’d love to!” she exclaimed and Nureyev tossed Fonteyn high into the air.
 
Then a look of quite genuine regret crossed her beautiful face.
 
“Oh dear, I am rather busy this afternoon, however,” she added, sadly. Thud! He failed to catch her (Nureyev, Fonteyn – keep up with me here!).
 
Sheer desperation lent wings to my blurting. “How about a spot of dinner then, later on, you know, when you’re free?” I asked, trying not to sound too needy – and failing.
 
“I’d love to,” she replied with her smile lighting up the afternoon as if the entire output of the Kimberley mines surrounded us and had caught all the sunbeams.
 
The orchestras were cheering wildly, packing up and demanding their fees (that’s musicians for you – romantics, but moneygrubbers to a man). Even the Artillerymen were cheering. I had a date! I, me, had a date! And I’d done it all myself! (Nureyev and Fonteyn merely looked smug and went off in search of more coffee.)
 
“’Bout eight, then,” I ventured.
 
“That would be perfect,” she replied, mounting the big, black BSA motorbike.
 
Then a look of consternation crossed her face. “Oh dear! Where’s my handbag? It’s got all my O.S. Maps in it.”
 
“You use Ordnance Survey Maps!” I exclaimed in some surprise.
 
She laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.
 
“No, silly,” she said in an intimate, sharing sort of way that made my heart – oh, forget it, we’ve been there before, “Ordinance Spiritual Maps, of course. I need to know who is when, as well as who is where. Although they’re produced by the same lot in Southampton, naturally. Well, excepting those produced for me by the U.K.H.O. of course”
 
“Of course,” I agreed, all at sea.
 
Then a sudden thought crossed my mind – a rare and unusual event in the best of circumstances. My Hispano-Suiza has, for reasons which I won’t presently bore you with, the same front bumper arrangement, or very nearly, as the 24 Hispano-Suiza 32 Convertiblesport 1. (Yes, I’m an Hispano-Suiza anorak – live with it! There are worse things to be.) I raced to the front of my motorcar and there, sure enough and hanging off the bumper, was a large black leather handbag. I grabbed it and holding it out proudly in front of me, much as my cavemen ancestors must have returned to their ladies with their kills, I stepped proudly across to her and proffered said bag.
 
“Oh, thank-you,” she breathed fervently, “You have no idea how much trouble I’d be in if I lost these.”
 
She gunned the bike’s motor. “Must be off,” she said, “See you for dinner.” With a roar, and a snarl which probably I alone heard, she was off down the lane leaving only a faint smell of burning rubber and, would you believe, a rather heady scent of Chanel No. 5, I think, on the still autumn air.
 
I returned to my motor and drove slowly, and very carefully, home. The orchestras seemed to have left a small string ensemble behind and for some reason, assisted by two pianos, it was playing the Danse Macabre, but, strangely, that made me happier than I had ever been before. I was also a little, no, a lot, frightened. For Heaven’s sake, I’d just invited Death for dinner – don’t kid me, you would have been frightened too – after all, what would you serve? This situation could still go horribly wrong if I messed up the food.
 
Well, I opted for a simple menu – a little beef Court-bouillon with croutons, poached (in both senses of the word) wild salmon with a light Dijon mustard cut with cream and wild parsley dressing, lime granita, well-hung steak with greens and French fries, zabaione followed by a cheese board and coffee. Nuts, port and fruit optional. The Johannisberger with the fish, of course, Gevrey-Chambertin with the steak, naturally, and Le veuve clicquot, nicely chilled, both before and after the meal.
 
Idiot I might be, but I know how to eat!
 
Just as the meal reached the serving point, just as I had lit the candles on the dining table, I realised that I really was an idiot. I’d forgotten to tell her where I lived! How could I have been so stupid – no, please, don’t answer that, it was purely rhetorical! At that very moment, just as the panic over my own stupidity was about to become self-pity and maudlin insecurity there was knock upon my door. I rushed to answer it scarcely believing that it might be her. I flung the portal wide (forgive the purple prose – I am in love) and there, on the step was she.
 
My heart, etc, etc, etc.
 
“How did you know where to find me?” I blurted. (One gets really good at blurting, with practice.)
 
She patted her black velvet handbag!
 
She was, still is, a vision of loveliness. That night she wore a long gown of shimmering black silk, what other colour would you expect, with a fine lace trimming in the darkest, deepest red which you could possibly imagine. A black shear-lace mantilla worn over a midnight-black comb of jet set off her magnificent, coal-black, glowing hair. Around her neck she wore seven strands of magnificent Black Tahitian Pearls which complemented, to perfection, the creamy complexion of her perfect skin. I gasped at her beauty.
 
“That smells really good,” she said, “I’m starving. It’s been a long day.”
 
***
 
Later, much later, as the candles guttered in their sockets, I kissed her.
 
She didn’t slap me, or scream, or rear up all insulted. Miracle of miracles she relaxed into my embrace.
 
“What’s for breakfast?” she asked breathily.
 
“Whatever you want, my love,” I replied, with no blurting.
 
“Good,” she sighed, “ But I’ll have the Hors d'œuvre now, if you please!”
 
I was only too happy to oblige.
 
***
 
We overslept.
 
Over a hurried, but wonderful, breakfast, I asked her what her day held.
 
“The Middle East,” she said.
 
“Ah,” I returned, knowledgeably like, “that must keep you busy.”
 
“Not at all,” she said, “ Most of the people there have sold their souls to the Evil One long ago, so there are few, now, to liberate. I leave the Inferi Dii to get on with the Lord Saitan’s collection. I just liberate the few, the very few, who question, who reason, or who have some belief in goodness and should be judged. Anyway, I don’t look good in a burqa
 
“Not even a black one?” I asked.
 
“Not even a black one!” she replied, waspishly.
 
“Do you take the ‘bike?” I questioned.
 
“No, I have a black Bactrian. Scares them witless! He’s called Arnie. I’ll introduce you to him tonight.”
 
“I’ll have dinner ready at seven, then,” I stated.
 
“I’ll be here,” she replied.
 
We smiled at each other, with each other.
 
***
 
They think they love death. The damned fools! I love Death. I embrace Death, nightly. Sometimes, when I’m able to, twice nightly! If only they knew! In life there is Death, but in death there is only the end of life and hope. But in Death, as we all know, well, as I know now, there is hope – but not for them.
 
And I can still make Her smile! Even after all of these years! My dearest, most beloved Catherine Sylvania Chronosia Mildred Arcthamisionieria Delaberymious Titania De’Ath – my Catherine Death.


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