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A Russell in the Undergrowth - Decoded

The extracts included here are:

     Unanswerable Rules:
          - Bank - Market forces - Logique
     Unusual Partners
     No Number 4
     Definitive Answer

Words that are highlighted in the text when the cursor passes over them can be clicked and you will be taken to the relevant ‘Decoded’ section of explanatory notes.

Clicking on coloured text will take you to the relevant ‘Decoded’ section of explanatory notes.

Unanswerable Rules

Bank rules

Invited into his office, I say to Sébastien, our ‘personal banker’, “You said you wouldn’t charge us for that second debit card.”

“That’s right,” he replies, smiling.

“Well, what’s that charge for?” I ask, pointing at the bank statement.

“Oh, right,” he says, “somebody has charged you for it.”

He taps at his computer keyboard then slowly shakes his head. “Can’t do anything about that, I’m afraid—it was done in December.”

“But that was only last month,” I say.

Sébastien smiles sadly at me, still shaking his head.

“No… last year. The transaction was in December 2005, this month is January 2006. So it was done last year. I can’t change any details for last year. I tell you what—I’ll see what I can do about it next December,” he says brightly, then tells us about his recent trip to Bolton.


Market rules

One day I find Grouse whisky discounted in a local supermarket and buy three litre bottles. Thinking to stock up for the future I return the following day, only now I find it’s back to the regular price. I ask the assistant why.

“It’s suddenly become very popular.”

“It’s me that’s been buying it,” I say.

“We’re sorry, we can’t discount our whisky just for you—it’s market forces.”


Rules of logique

Another chain store, another source of booze, sometimes on offer. I don’t know why, but I keep having this silly phrase rattling round my head, ‘The more you drink, the more you save…’ Anyway, I decide to apply for a loyalty card in the hope of getting some benefit from our regular custom.

After waiting for the customer behind us to be served first (not my choice), I am asked for my identity papers. My Debit Card from Crédit Agricole, for which I’d had four hours of interviews to confirm my identity is, it seems, not sufficient security for anything as serious as a loyalty card. So I then offer my passport.

“No… sorry,” she says, holding my passport like it is an abandoned sweet-wrapper. “These can be forged. Haven’t you got a French ID card? We accept those.”

“Sorry,” I say, “they don’t seem to give French ID cards to British Nationals.”

“Oh… Well, what have you got?”

I open my wallet and spill out a collection of cards.

“Ah,” she says, “that’ll do,” picking up my driving licence which is written in English and has my former UK address on it. “It’s a driving licence,” she adds. I nod in confirmation.

Looking at the driving licence she writes down information and takes the piece of paper to a woman at the end of the counter. It’s then passed to another who types it into a computer. A young man next to her prints the hard copy and hands it to the first young woman, who then shows it to me.

“You’ve missed an L from my surname,” I say.

“It didn’t look right with two Ls,” she replies casually. Then continues, “When you use this loyalty card you must punch in the secret 3-digit code with it—the code being the first two numbers of your date of birth—that’s 26 in your case, as you were born on the 26th of October—and this is followed by the last number of the year you were born—so that’s 9.”

Puzzled, I say, “But I was born in 1951 so surely it ought to be a 1.”

She looks at me as if I’d said something deeply insulting and bustles back to the computer to check my “file”.

Returning with a smug look she says, “It says here that you were born in 1999, so the last number to your secret code must be a 9.” With that, she serves the next customer.

I leave the store with Jane. “Where will it end? I’m shrinking. I started this morning with two Ls and one of them has gone and I’ve lost forty-eight years off my age. Maybe it would have been simpler if I’d come in and declared that I was a seven-year old qualified driver called Alexandre Russe.”

“Hmm…” says Jane, “maybe. They might not have noticed your bushy moustache and grey hair… but there might have been some confusion about your nationality.”


Unusual partners

Strange arts can be found in these parts

If you know where to look…


…And if you look by the brook in the wood

There’s Batman and Robin… Hood

Crusading days over and gone

But still going strong

Not here to do good

They’ve come to write wrongs


Wearing thongs there are Dukes writing songs

Ellington and Wellington

(to give them their due)

Have brought off a coup…

It’s a jazz version of Waterloo


But the Kings

Elvis and Kong

Aren’t so great as a team

They scream and have fights

Over royalties and rights

And then they just run out of steam


Old ‘Duke’ John Wayne

Has been feeling the strain

He’s fallen asleep near the lane

In his dream he’s not herding cattle

Or fighting a battle

He’s rounding up sheep by a brook

With a crook

With Bo-Peep

They’re stuck in the muck

There’s a shout

It’s from Bo in her smock

Saying “Go!”

(in his ear)

Let’s get the flock out of here


And high above this arty crowd

A frail and lonely cloud

Floats o’er hill and vale

It looks so pale and grey

According to the birds

It’s lost for Words…

In a daf’ idyllic way


No Number 4

The day for my eye test with Doctor Gerbil has arrived—I’ve only had to wait five weeks. It’s early May but Cliché, the spa town, feels like a sauna. We find the optician’s surgery not at number four, as we had been told, but at number eleven. Jane shrugs.

“Well, whatever the number, it says Dr Gerbil on this door—surely there won’t be two medical Gerbils in Cliché.”

At the reception desk I give my name, then spell it—the receptionist writes it down ending with one L.

“Two Ls,” I say, helpfully.

She writes another L, then adds an E.

“There’s no E at the end,” I say.

“Yes, there is—see,” she replies, turning the form so I can see what she has written.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I haven’t explained properly. My surname has two Ls but no E afterwards.”

“There’s got to be an E if there are two Ls.”

“I’m English. My name’s English. It’s spelt with no E at the end.”

She pulls a face and strikes out the E; then she brightens and strikes a line through the last L as well. I think I’ve lost this round.

When I ask about their address she shrugs and replies, “It’s always been number eleven—there’s no number four in the street.”

“How can there be a number eleven if there’s no number four—surely four comes first?” I say to Jane as we walk toward the waiting-room. That, at least, is correctly named.

The room gradually fills up with clients and in silence we share the same stifling atmosphere. The only sound is the buzzing of a bluebottle in the window and of magazines being indifferently flipped through.

Finally (an hour after my scheduled appointment) Dr Gerbil collects us. We follow him into his surgery which is dominated by a large capstan with telescopic arms—it looks like a pale green dalek. I’m directed to the adjustable chair—which seems to have been adjusted to fit no one. The Gerbil sits on his swivel chair, then whizzes across the floor to a computer and taps furiously at the keyboard.

“Why are you here?” he asks.

“I’ve come to get my boots mended,” I’m tempted to say. Instead I tell him I need a prescription for some new glasses and say that it has been a long time since I last had my eyes checked. I take off my glasses and hand them to him, saying, “They’re rather old.”

The lenses are nearly opaque and the arms are twisted and have lost much of their plastic coating. He winces slightly as he places them on a side desk—as if handling a dead cockroach.

The Dalek sticks out an arm. I put my chin in position and look through an aperture. There are large letters on the wall. I can read them. To the side of my head there are some clicks—the letters are now much smaller.

“Can you read them?” he asks.

I am not sure—I can remember what the letters are. More clicks.


“Not really,” I reply.

The Gerbil whizzes on his chair to the keyboard, taps furiously, then whizzes back. Suddenly my chin is struck as the telescopic armature is pushed back into the housing. The turret rotates and the next arm strikes the back of my head.

“Well?” he asks.

“Well?” I wonder.

I look through the porthole and can see blurred smudges.

“Um,” I say. More clicks.


“About the same,” I reply.

More clicks; the same questions; the same responses. He looks at his watch.

“Which was clearest?” he says, with more than a touch of exasperation in his voice.

“Um, the fourth one?” I suggest.

He nods and smiles to himself—then he is back to his keyboard.

“I must have chosen the right one,” I think to myself.

Out of the corner of my eye I catch a movement—the Dalek is turning its head and extending a new arm. I duck. It misses. I look up—The Gerbil is gone—off to collect another patient. At the reception desk we pay the bill—it works out at three euros a minute.

“Just as well he didn’t take longer,” I say to Jane.

As we leave I glance at the prescription. At the top is my name—one L, but someone has inserted an O in front of the U.


Definitive Answer

With the local elections coming up Jane and I decide to drive to the Sous-Préfecture in Cliché to ask for advice on voting. Our request is met by a blank look.

“But… what happens?” I ask.

“You go to the Mairie and you vote,” replies the young woman, rather sniffily.

“So… will we need a voting card?”


“Where will we get that?”

“It’ll be posted to you, of course.”

“And when we get to the Mairie to vote, what do we do?”

“You vote.”

“But how do we vote?”

“No one can tell you how to vote in France.”

“No, that’s not what I mean. What is the process of voting? Do we put a tick or a cross against the names of the people we are voting for?”


“So how do we vote for them?” I say, thinking this is where I started.

“You cross out the others.”

“So… I cross out the others…?” I turn to Jane, who looks just as puzzled as I feel.

“So,” I continue, “how do you know what the candidates stand for? Do they represent parties?”

“No, they are grouped in lists, in alphabetical order.”

“Lists… ? Who organises the lists?”

“The candidates do.”

“Can we vote for people on different lists?”


“So, have I got this straight? There will be one or more lists of candidates and I cross out the names of anyone I don’t want to vote for?”

“Yes. And you can add names if you want to.”

“Whose names?”

“Anyone you want.”

“But what if they don’t want to be a councillor?”

“Then they’ll refuse.”

“OK… How many people can we vote for?”

“As many as you like.”

“So we can vote for as many people as we like?” I reaffirm.

“Yes, but if you vote for too many it won’t count.”

“How many is too many?”

“It depends.”

“On what?”

“It depends on where you live.”

I tell her the name of our village, Château en l’Air.

“Where’s that?” she asks.

“It’s where we live,” I reply, thinking I’ve just scored my first point.

“Which commune?” she asks, pulling a face. I tell her.

“How many people live in that commune?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t met them all yet,” I reply. (Second point to me.)

She looks up the commune in a directory. “Twelve,” she says.

“What? Only twelve people live in our commune?”

“No. I don’t think that’s likely, do you?”

“So what’s twelve?” I ask (feeling I’ve been outplayed).

“You asked me how many is too many. It’s twelve,” she says, with a smirk. (Game over. She has won on points.)

“Well,” says Jane, as we leave the building. “Now we know.”

“Know what?” I ask.

“Twelve is too many.”



I’m six metres up a tree—sawing a branch that’s part-snapped and I’m feeling nervous. It’s breezy and both the tree and the ladder I’m standing on are swaying and creaking. Jane appears at the upstairs window of the house at the top of the field—she’s calling me. It’s a message—Milly is back from Bali and cannot find her key. That’s what she’s saying but I’m not really taking it in—there’s too much going on and right now my attention is focused on an insect behind me—a large one, by the volume and deep bass tone. A hornet. I get the feeling it might be telling me I’m disturbing its home and that of its thousand, rather irritable cousins.

Jane’s still calling, leaning further out of the window. What’s she saying? “Willy is back from ballet”? What’s she talking about? Who’s Willy? I feel stuck in a bubble of fear, confusion and irritability.

The spell is broken when the hornet gives me a warning tap on the back of the head and buzzes off. I am aware that Jane is now standing underneath the branch that is more than half-way sawn through.

“Jane,” I shout, “it’s dangerous. You…”

Jane misinterprets my warning. She calls up with a sympathetic expression, “You’re right—you shouldn’t be up so high. Don’t forget you’re not insured until after the end of the month.”

I climb down the ladder as quickly as I can, catch Jane by the waist and rush her into the open. The branch groans. We both look up. Another groan… We watch… waiting. Suddenly it shrieks and dense foliage hurtles through the air. The ladder is struck and sent like a bowling pin down the slope where it ends up tangled in the barbed wire fence.

“Is this how you’ve been doing the other branches?” asks Jane, tentatively. Before I can answer I hear the drone of the hornet—he’s back and he’s brought company.

“Let’s get indoors,” I say. “Come on… quickly.”

I have no idea which is Milly’s key or even if I still have it—so I take all the keys I can find and drive to her house. She is no longer young and has dreadful back pain. I try the keys in the door and, finally, one fits; then bring her heavy suitcase from the boot of her car into the living room. We are old friends—we understand each other—all Milly needs right now is to be alone.

As I’m walking off down the drive she leans out of the window and calls after me. It seems that Mimi is stuck up a tree. I hear the words clearly but find them hard to believe. I search for a more plausible phrase. But no, Milly has just repeated it: “Mimi is stuck up a tree”.

Mimi is a semi-wild, street-wise grandmother of a cat. She has chased off all the local tomcats and even the local hunting dogs keep their distance. Mimi doesn’t get stuck anywhere. But the fact is, Mimi is up a tree—I can see her—she’s up so high she looks deceptively small.

I find a ladder and eventually Mimi and I are face-to-face. I talk gently, reassuringly, as gradually I get myself in position to ease her off the branch to carry her down. Very slowly, I reach out. Mimi backs up and hisses. There’s a sudden blur of movement and a rustle of leaves as Mimi launches herself through the air like a squirrel, and lands in the next tree six feet away.

My forearm stings. Four fine white lines in my skin are starting to ooze droplets of blood… I climb down the ladder.

“It’s OK, Milly,” I call. “Mimi is quite happy—she’s just enjoying the view.”

When I get home Jane is sitting on the veranda with Radar dozing on her lap.

“Everything OK?” she asks, sleepily. Then she notices my arm. “What happened?” she says, with a start.

“Oh, it’s only Mimi—she’s taken up tattooing, but she didn’t have her inks with her. This is just a preliminary sketch.”



À la mémoire de…

Il y a longtemps, on appelait Château


Mais au fil du temps

Les sons sont devenus moins aigus

Et au coeur la lettre ‘s’

Est morte de négligence

La lettre ‘a’, cependant,

Avait toujours été proche

Et porte maintenant un petit chapeau noir

À la mémoire de son amie

In Memory…

Once Château

Was known as Chastel

But with time and use

The sounds became less sharp

And at its heart the letter ‘s’

Died of neglect


The letter ‘a’, however,

Had always been close

And now wears a little black cap

In memory of its friend


Un ange a deux ailes

Mon nom est Russell.

J’ai deux ‘l’,

Tout comme on dit a un ange

En France

An angel has two wings

My surname is Russell.

I have two ‘l’s,

Just like they say an angel has

In France





C’est le nouveau noir,

Surtout pour les chats

La nuit



Is the new black,

Especially for cats

At night



Il y a des jours

Il y a des jours

Où mes doigts commencent

Avec les mauvaises touches sur le clavier

Sp,eto,es ots ,u rogjt jamd

(Des fois c’est ma main droite)

Domryimrd iyd my lrgy

(Des fois c’est ma main gauche).

Il y a des jours comme ça.

Some days

Some days

My fingers start

On the wrong keys of the keyboard

Sp,eto,es ots ,u rogjt jamd

(Sometimes it’s my right hand)

Domryimrd iyd my lrgy

(Sometimes it’s my left)

Some days are like that.




Il a crié

Ce qui avait l’air de “Boo!”

En conséquence j’ai sursauté

Et je suis tombé

Dans la boue.


He shouted what sounded like “Boo!”

It made me jump

And I fell

In the mud.




Est-elle française?


Is she French?


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