Ten things I would have taken to the grave, had I not written them down here

The affair with Vivian. I’m sure Carole never guessed.


That finest of days I’ve been keeping to myself: aged 37, talking my way past police, army and special forces—with not a paper on my person—I entered a British nuclear submarine. Supposedly impregnable, the HMS Talent was freshly docked at a certain European landing stage. The crowds were marshalled, flags flew, a band was playing. Coming to the police-army-specials onion layers of security, I told the police I knew the Consul, then chatting on the other side of the cordon, and I gave him a wave. I told the army I was an international freelance journalist. (Has he got accreditation? Hm, what would international accreditation look like? No idea, let him through.) Sticking to English (I was after all a freelance international whatjamacallit), I told the special forces with their brushed-carbon-steel riot guns and body armour I was The Press. As the band started God Save the Queen, the monarch at the time, I was invited to the little gangplank and down the hatch. Not a place for claustrophobics. A political organisation detailed me to do this, to test the British navy and its claims of security. To see if these nuclear submarines really were safe from anything, terrorists, lunatics, me. I’m not supposed to tell of this—the Talent was decommissioned only this year. Keeping the details secret has kept me out of jail. But they’re out now, I’ve confessed. If challenged it will simply be my word against mine.


I’ve aimed to take with me the number of people I’ve slept with. Why wait? Well, say any number—one out of a hat—and there are such judgements. The receivers of the information are so ready to make assumptions, to come out with words like fidelitytrustmarriage. Then there’s cheatCasanova, stud. Had I been better-looking might this modest number have been more?—Discuss. I have used restraint—when Debbie sat on the sofa arm in her red dress looking a blue-eyedly, blondely million dollars, pounds, definitely ready for certain moves, I wasn’t going to make them. Of course I’ve been checked too, held back—and, equally, impetuous—how did I get wrapped up in Felicity of all people, and out there in the street? But back to the hard data. For a while I thought I would arrange for the number to be disclosed, more, for names too, in a final collection of fiction due out after my passing. On the acknowledgements page maybe. This has its problems, however. A curious feature of being dead is that you can’t make sure something gets done. Logically too, there would be little difference between coming out now or later, bringing me back to my point about judgements, the cad, cheater. Wanker. Eighteen, by the way. The number doesn’t mean much, not to me.


The extent of my masturbating. Were it not for taking this to the grave I would have liked to see a competition to guess the rate per week. A raffle at a street party, say, marking some royal jubilee. How many sweets in the jar? And how many times a week, of this? It’s a puzzle why this should stay secret, I have much more unspeakable habits, far beyond the bawdy. But, dead or alive, who admits to peeing in the shower. Or the sink. 


To take with me below the ground: the frustrations of living with idiocies for which I had no counter-arguments, no solution. Two examples. Carole thinks if you are posting something to Australia you have to find out the exchange rate so that you know the cost of postage in Australian dollars. You then work backwards to know what the postage must be. Idiocy number two: a car boot, shocking to the eye, choked with wellingtons, trainers, beach shoes, boots, sandals, flipflops, Doc Martens, brothel creepers, boating shoes, wooden cantabrian albarcas, desert whatnots, galoshes, ostensibly ready for all eventualities (except being able to use the boot). The boot creaked open in the search for an umbrella, for our short walk to a candlelit supper. At the sight of this heap my mind turned from thoughts of love and pleasure. Instead I thought bulldozers and waste tips, and Sigmund Freud.


It was a Saturday in a supermarket, I was doing normal shopping in the aisles. It was a sunny day out, my trolley was good.

—Come this way, please

Store detectives? I hadn’t shoplifted since I was a student. Even then it was just a few steaks, toothpaste, razor blades. Was this about some frozen fish I slipped inside my jacket long ago? Surely not. 

—Come, please, you’re quite safe with us. 

I was escorted down long, long tunnels, dank and echoing, probably below the Thames. Into a room underground with an enormous dark table (James Bond, war games). I was offered a cup of tea. It was tea or gin and tonic. 

They asked me to join MI5. I remember what was said.

—We know that when you were sixteen you were a first-class shot with a rifle. One in a thousand.


—We have the actual targets, with the holes in the centre.

—That’s remarkable.

The reason I’ve kept this incident to myself is knowing no one would believe me. There I go again, they’d say, making things up.


Picture the clearout, on the same day as my funeral. No pornography, that was cleared out years ago. No correspondence with Vivian, telltale receipts, photos, hotel brochures—all shredded or deleted. However the carefully-boxed two-tone spectator shoes, as they’re called, the white buckskin and brown suede oxfords—will come to light, but not their secret: for years I’ve tap-danced alone in rooms. He’s always dead now but he wasn’t always: I am in love with Fred Astaire.


My family know I write fiction but they don’t read a word of it. That has made me immune. I’ve trashed my father, mother, my only brother. Mocked the family dog, huge, soppy Dino. On his fictionally first holiday in years, he ran into a field strewn with landmines. It was weeks before his remains could be recovered. 


Ordinarily I can’t say—I signed a paper—if I joined MI5. But here I will: I didn’t. If challenged it will be their word corroborating mine.


I’ve had an imaginary friend for years. He’s been a great support, a good listener and with none of those idiocies. His name is Otto Flake. Now by most definitions I am a writer, and may reincarnate as one again. In that event I shall try hard to return his kindness and goodwill, tell more of him, him and Miss Lumia. There are resemblances: they aren’t a world away from Vivian and me, Miss Lumia and Otto Flake.


  • John Saul is the author of the collections of short fiction Call It Tender, The Most Serene Republic, and As Rivers Flow, as well as the novels Heron and Quin and Seventeen. With stories appearing in publications throughout the UK and internationally, he has had work in Dalkey Archive's Best European Fiction 2018 anthology and Best British Short Stories 2016. He lives in west London.

  • Illustrations by W. S. Coleman from British Birds' Eggs and Nests, Popularly Described by Rev. J. C. Atkinson, author of Walks and Talks, and Play Hours and Half Holidays. [George Routledge and Son, London, 1870.] For more, see the Biodiversity Library at www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/54531#page/7/mode/1up.