Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story

The Sad Tale of Charles de Boaz

Philip Womack

Charlie? Charlie, are you listening to me? Are you listening to me?’ said Great Aunt Matilda. Little dabs of lipstick spattered her teeth, which were bared, like paint flicked on to a wall by a lazy artist. Though it was lunchtime and she was gnawing at a chicken leg, she held a cigarette in her other hand. Ash dropped on to the gleaming surface of the dining-room table, which was sprinkled – presumably by the same artist who had done Matilda’s teeth – with patches of light that fell from the windows.

‘She said, Charlie, are you listening?’ said Aunt Jemima, pointlessly, although some might have argued that it was her function to repeat Great Aunt Matilda’s sayings, since she never said anything else. In many respects she was a smaller, less forceful version of Great Aunt Matilda, as if she had popped fully formed out of Matilda’s body, like a weak and shrivelled Russian doll.

Charlie was listening, as far as he was able to do so, from his position face down on the dining-room table, where he had lain his head three minutes before in a square of light. He raised himself, slowly, and glared around the table, his dirty blond hair framing his unwashed face. His six Great Aunts, his two parents, his three sisters, four brothers and three cousins all glared back at him.

Margaret, are you grieving?’ said Charlie. ‘I forget how it goes on.’

‘Charlie,’ said his father, a portly man with a face that tended towards the tortoise-esque, ‘what do you say?’ His father’s voice usually got submerged under the general Great Aunt chatter, so it was rare to hear him speak with such emphasis.

‘About what?’

‘What we’ve just been talking about.’

‘What was that? Oh yes, goldengrove unleaving.’

Everybody exchanged glances. ‘We were just saying, Charlie,’ continued his father, ‘that it ... that we think that it’s about time you got a job.’ 

Charlie laid his head back on the table with a bump. ‘Ow,’ he said, and lifted it back up again as regally as he could. He stared at each of the tribe of de Boazes in turn, and stood up, wrapping his dressing gown around him tightly.

‘I have a job,’ said Charlie, carefully enunciating each word. 

The table tittered.

‘Well, Charlie, I hardly call it a job,’ said Great Aunt Matilda, pulling off the extraordinary feat of chewing and puffing at the same time. 

‘Yes, Charlie, it’s hardly a job,’ said his sister Josephine.

‘It’s a very important job,’ said Charlie. ‘It is vital to the f..functioning of the country – of the w..world. Without efficient transport systems, without a proper infrastructure, we are reduced to n..nothing, a race of savages that drag each other around by the hair, unable to communicate with each other, living off beetles and ... and ... and g..grubs.’ He reached over to the decanter and refilled his wine glass to the brim, and sat down again.

‘Charlie,’ said his sister Josephine, a plain girl with a frightened-hamster look that belied the wolf which hid inside her, ‘what is it that you do again?’

Charlie coughed. ‘I am a vital part of the country’s infrastructure.’

‘No, come on Charlie, tell us,’ said Josephine.

‘I have told you. I fulfil a very i..important role in the world of traffic planning. I ...’

‘He counts the number of cars that go into the village car park with a little clicker. Click, click, click, all day long,’ said Josephine, interrupting.

The table tittered again. Charlie drained his glass of wine in three gulps, and reached for the decanter again. His dressing gown flew open, revealing his shirt. He was wearing the same one he had worn the night before. It was charred all the way down one side. He had fallen asleep standing next to a candle and caught on fire. He had woken up, patted out the flames, and passed out again. 

‘It is v..very important. If I did not ... er ... enumerate the vehicles which ... er ...  ingress into the car parking ... er ... area, then there would be an increased number of ... er ... irate motorists unable to find a place, leading to tr..traffic jams, road rage, soaring petrol prices, collapsing economies and the end of the civ..civilised world as we know it!’

‘Yes Charlie, that’s all very well,’ said his father. ‘But ... what with your birthday coming up ...’

‘Your thirty-third birthday,’ said Josephine.

‘Yes, thank you, Josephine,’ said Charlie.

‘We thought that maybe you might like to find something a bit more ... skilled.’

‘Skilled? You think it isn’t a skilled job? You think anyone could do what I do? It takes e..enormous powers of c..concentration and mental agility. I suspect you are merely a snob. I think you don’t ... you don’t think it right that a de Bo ... that a de Boaz should sit in a car park pressing a button all day long.’ Charlie sneered, and drank his wine, waving his glass around as he spoke.

‘No Charles, it’s not that,’ said his father. ‘You ... you have a degree, for God’s sake.’

‘Which he paid someone to do for him,’ sniggered Josephine, her innocent hamster eyes gleaming.

‘Yes, and my degree is in Traffic Engineering, if you remember from my graduation,’ said Charles, with surprising fluency. ‘You did come to my graduation, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, Charles, we did. Although you yourself weren’t there, in one sense of the phrase.’

‘What are you implying?’

‘You were drunk, Charles,’ said Josephine.

‘I had one ... one gin and tonic. I was not drunk.’

‘When you received your diploma you kissed the visiting lecturer and tried to dance with his wife.’

‘But yes, I do remember. Traffic Engineering,’ said his father, cutting in quickly.

‘And I am engineering traffic. It is a v..very ... er ... noble cause, and those who have read Tr..Traffic Engineering have gone on to ... to ... er ... lead and to ... rule, to dispense justice, to give laws. Who else can you think of that has a degree in Traffic Engineering?’ said Charles, waving his glass at the room, expecting a chorus of answers. No one did. ‘We go ff..far, you know. Go on, g..guess.’

‘The traffic warden?’ said Josephine.

‘Shut up,’ said Charlie.

‘The manager of McDonald’s?’ said his father.

‘Ha ha,’ said Charlie. ‘You must tr..try harder. We traffic engi..engineers have a large follow..owing you know.’

‘Winston Churchill?’ said one of the younger siblings facetiously.

‘Closer,’ said Charlie, pointing with his glass.

Something stirred in Great Aunt Matilda’s brain. ‘The new president of Iran?’ she said.

Exactly,’ said Charles, and refilled his glass.

‘The new president of Iran ...’ said Aunt Jemima.


*   *   *


That afternoon, nobody did very much, although the de Boazes were very bad at not doing very much. There seemed to be many more children around than usual, who ran up and down corridors and into rooms squealing and growling until Lord De Boaz growled back at them, and they all disappeared. The house was also crawling with ex-army officers, who were checking for bombs and terrorist suspects. A very important general was coming to the Summer Party that night.

Charlie had settled himself into his favourite position, next to the drinks table in the drawing room. He was clutching a gin and tonic tenuously. Every few minutes his body would get the better of his brain and would shut down, and the glass would slip from his fingers, perilously close to shattering; but at the last moment some alcohol-needing nerve would sense the possible loss, and he would start up again, gripping the glass more firmly. 

Josephine was playing Szymanowski’s Metopes on the piano with an elegance not to be found in her hamster-face or her wolfish brain. His other siblings were in a constant state of activity, even on this Saturday, when they were meant to be doing nothing. Lady de Boaz had given orders that everyone should be resting in preparation for the Summer Party. It had actually been Great Aunt Matilda who had suggested that nothing be done, because she wanted her nap; however she needed Lady de Boaz’s authority for it to be enshrined in law. But nobody had paid any attention to the pronouncement. Lady de Boaz had retired to her room to prepare. The General was coming, with a cartload of security men, and she had not got used to people rifling through her underwear drawer. She was sure it was not necessary. Still, at least they would stop gatecrashers. There were so many of them these days.

Charles’s two younger brothers were learning Greek vocabulary in the other corner of the drawing room. His elder brother and sister were playing chess near to them.

‘You play like the sw..sweet sound of a thousand c..car exhausts,’ said Charles.

‘They are tone poems, Charles,’ said Josephine. 

Phobeomai,’ said Edgar.

‘Like cars filing gr..gracefully down a road, seen from above, each with its own purpose, yet each part of a glorious, luminous, har..harmonious whole.’

‘About Odysseus. His wanderings ... aimless, endless wanderings ...’

‘It’s your go,’ said Marcus.

‘I am afraid,’ said Antony.

‘Yes,’ said Edgar. ‘Phthino.’

‘You can’t move that bishop.’

‘And that is, I suppose, what it is like to be me, my thoughts see..seemingly scattered, my actions apparently random, but in..in truth ...’ said Charles.

‘Excuse me sir, ladies, mind if I just have a look round?’


‘No, that’s phtoneo.’

‘In truth, all I am doing is...’


‘Are you stuck?’

‘Just lift up the lid there, thank you... ’


Phthino. I waste.’

‘In a hole.’

‘... in truth,’ said Charlie, quietly.

‘Thank you, miss,’ said the officer, putting the lid of the piano down. ‘No bombs in there!’

Josephine stopped playing. ‘In truth what? I was listening to you.’

‘Oh, nothing,’ said Charlie, and drank his gin and tonic. ‘And there are no bombs in there, either,’ he said to the officer, who was rootling around in the drinks cabinet.


*   *   *


The Summer Party had always been a fancy-dress party, as long as anybody could remember, which was quite far back if you counted Great Grandmother Howett who appeared on these occasions unfailingly dressed as a cobweb.

The house was like a large bowl of light, darting with coloured flashes. The costumes ranged from the fully thought out – those who had hired from actors’ stockists months beforehand – to the last minute, plastic-crown-bought-at-a-party-shop effort. Studded throughout the guests were the ex-army officers, who were attempting to avoid mingling and be on the alert for suspicious people. Lady de Boaz slithered through the guests, her face expressionless, her mind floating several yards above the bristling forest of antlers, crowns, trunks and clown hats. Nothing mattered to her anymore.  

The children were all dressed as characters from Narnia, which was all right, said Edgar, for those who were Lucy, Susan and the rest, but his lion costume was getting a bit itchy and it was hard to hold a drink in his paws. Charlie was meant to be Mr Tumnus – he even had a small stack of books to carry – but he had vanished. He was not even in his customary position, face down on his bed.

‘He’s probably gone off to Lovers’ Lane,’ said Josephine.

‘Where?’ said her mother hazily. ‘Is it nice down there?’ There was a terrible roaring noise, like a million blenders, and lots of shouting outside. The general was arriving in his helicopter.

‘It’s where all the prossies hang out,’ said Josephine.

‘That’s nice dear. Now you must meet the general. He is simply adorable. Even though he has got several death threats hanging over him. I must ask him how he does it.’

The general marched in, three tall, straight-backed guards in angel wings behind him. The general himself was wearing a long flowing robe.

‘Ah, Venetia,’ he said to Lady de Boaz.

‘Darling. And you are?’

‘Charlie, and these are my angels.’

‘How sweet.’

‘Terrible about those bombs on Thursday, wasn’t it?’ said the general. ‘My security level has gone up about three thousand. I’m a terribly high security risk.’


‘Had a terrible time getting down here. Heightened security and all that. Sniffer dogs all over the shop. I hope my chaps weren’t too bad down here?’

‘No,’ said Lady de Boaz, who had not quite recovered from the presence of a six-foot-four officer in combat gear in her dressing room.

‘Was it awful in London?’ said an approaching cheesecake.

‘Oh, terrible,’ said a donkey, picking canapés off a tray.

‘They say I’m a pretty hot target you know,’ said the general, sounding rather pleased with himself. ‘Lucky all my men are so well trained. They’ve been over this house with a fine-tooth comb.’

‘So they have,’ said Lady de Boaz, shuddering with pleasure at the thought of that officer in her dressing room. ‘And more.’

‘Look at that lion,’ said the general. ‘What is it doing to that nymph?’

‘I shouldn’t ask.’


*   *   *


In a clump of bushes outside the house sat Sergeant James Macready, failure of the 8th. His nerves were stretched like dental floss between teeth. His eyes picked up every movement around him. He was trying not to listen to the little voice at the back of his head. Remember Windsor Castle, it kept saying, over and over again. Remember Windsor Castle.

At one of the Princes’ birthday parties he had let a terrorist slip by him, thinking him to be a party guest. He had been instantly demoted – even though the man had not turned out to be a real terrorist. But even so.

So when he saw the shape of a man, dressed in a turban and flowing robes, scramble around the corner, he was on full alert. This is your chance, Macready my boy, said the voice.

The figure passed quite close to him. It was muttering under its breath.

‘Allah ak-bar ...’

This was it! Sergeant Macready whispered into his lapel.

‘Code one two six zero. Possible suspect sighted. Over.’

He watched the figure make its way across the lawn, weaving backwards and forwards as it chanted.

‘Must be one of those whirling dervishes,’ thought Macready.

‘Treat with caution,’ said a voice into his ear. ‘Don’t want to make any mistakes now. Could be one of the guests. Over.’

‘Roger that,’ he said, and yomped forwards. The figure was making its way to the
general’s helicopter.

‘Suspect approaching copter,’ said Macready. ‘Where are the guards? Repeat, where are the guards?’

The guards were in the kitchen being entertained by Josephine. They were all wearing blue coats and Josephine, who was dressed as a wood nymph, thought they looked very well arranged around her. Somehow she had contrived to look attractive. The guards could not hear their walkie-talkies above the noise.

Macready watched the figure get into the helicopter. ‘Suspect is in copter,’ he said. ‘Back up immediately. Over.’ He sprang forwards and sprinted the few yards towards the helicopter. He heard the sound of the engine starting up, and pushed himself further. He jumped, and managed to grasp hold of a bar, just as the helicopter took off.

Its horrific rumblings and Macready’s yellings into his radio brought everybody outside. The band stopped playing. 

‘What’s going on?’ said the general. ‘Angels, get to it!’

‘Yes sir.’

‘Oh how nice! The helicopter is doing some stunts,’ said Lady de Boaz, as it dipped and weaved around the lawn.

Macready steeled himself. 

‘Oh look! The pilot must be very good. It’s heading straight for the house. He’ll pull off some last minute nose dive!’

‘Everybody out of the house!’ yelled the general. The soldiers moved in and drove the last remaining guests out onto the lawn. A confused mixture of creatures stood half-panicked and half-drunk, screaming, fainting and vomiting, watching the helicopter make its way slowly towards the house.

‘Gosh this is exciting,’ said Josephine to her officer.

Come on Macready, said the voice as he hung on to the bar. Be a man. They won’t call you the failure after this. Gathering together all his muscles, Macready launched himself headlong into the cockpit. 

The terrorist was sitting slumped at the controls.

‘Got you you bastard!’ said Macready. ‘Under control, sir,’ said Macready into his lapel. He pointed his gun at the terrorist.

‘Get away from the control!’ said Macready. The figure paid no attention. The house was drawing nearer, looming up like a monstrous cake.

‘Get away from the controls!’ He marched forward and wrested the controls from the terrorist, who slumped on the floor in defeat. Macready sat down. ‘Come on now boy,’ he said to himself. ‘You know how to do this.’ He grabbed hold of a
lever and jammed it to the right. Nothing happened. There was a confusion of screaming. He grabbed hold of another and with all his strength, the voice yelling, remember Windsor Castle, he pulled the stick to the right and to his immense joy the house veered away to the left. The copter had swung round.

‘Well done Macready!’ said a voice in his ear. ‘Now land the bugger!’ He did so, listening to the instructions barked out to him, on the croquet lawn.

‘What a perfect landing,’ said Lady de Boaz. ‘But did they have to make it quite so dramatic?’

‘Nothing more to worry about,’ said the general, marching up to Lady de Boaz. ‘We’ve got everything under control now.’

‘How nice,’ said Lady de Boaz. ‘Where have all the waiters gone?’

Macready emerged from the copter, dragging a slumped figure. Some photographers were already ranged around outside.

‘Good man Macready. Let’s bang the guy up,’ said the general.

‘What do you have to say for yourself?’ said Macready to the figure.

‘Well thank goodness somebody knew how to fly the bloody thing,’ said the terrorist. ‘Where are those waiters? I’m sure there was a lot more drink. The children haven’t got to it, have they?’

‘What did you say?’ said Macready. Flash bulbs went off like firecrackers.

‘Oh look! Here’s a bottle of champagne. Look everyone!’ said Josephine.

The terrorist’s beard had come off at an angle.

‘Oh dear,’ said Josephine. She thrust the bottle into one of the officers’ arms and marched towards the figure.

‘Stay away, dear, he may be loaded!’ said the general.

‘You’re right there,’ said Josephine. She pushed past and pulled off the figure’s turban.

‘There, you see,’ said Charlie. ‘Won’t have to get a job now, will I.’

‘Oh look! There’s Charlie! Hello Charlie!’ said Lady de Boaz.

‘Move along there now sir, move along,’ said Macready, pushing him towards a waiting car.

‘But where’s he going? Charlie! Charlie!’

‘President of Iran indeed,’ said Josephine.

‘Oh dear,’ said Great Aunt Matilda.

Oh dear,’ said Aunt Jemima.



Philip Womack’s first novel, The Other Book, is published by Bloomsbury.