Strange events in ordinary lives
I bought this book on a whim at the Hawkesbury Upton pop-up literary festival and I was glad I did. I have always loved the short story form – not everyone does and if you’re one of those who don’t this may not be for you but if you like short stories you should enjoy this collection. Ellie Stevenson writes about real people from the inside – which, considering the surreal nature of the characters’ experiences, is an achievement. The stories are varied and entertaining and offer an insight into the odd ways apparently normal people behave, with some very strange occurrences in ordinary lives. One is left at the end with the feeling that the author’s head must be an interesting place to inhabit.
Strange events in ordinary lives
I first heard of Maud Gonne in 1960 when I was 17. She seemed like someone from the far past and I’m astonished now to realise that at that time she had been dead for only seven years. The introduction came from Charlie Richardson, one of my A level English teachers, who told the class that she was the muse of WB Yeats with whose poetry I had just fallen in love (an infatuation that continues to this day). He also told us that: she had refused several marriage proposals from Yeats; that he had also been turned down by her daughter Iseult; and that we should all be grateful to Maud and her daughter because without this unrequited love Yeats’s poetry would never have reached the heights it did. He did not tell us: that Maud married a right-wing French politician; that the son she bore him died; that she then made her husband (from whom she had been estranged since the death of the child) make love to her by candlelight on a freezing cold night in the funeral vault where their son lay buried so that the dead child’s soul would migrate into the child she would conceive there; or that most of us, on meeting her, would have decided that she was as mad as a hatter. In Her Secret Rose, Orna Ross fills in these gaps to great effect.
The title of the book comes from Yeats’s collection of short stories, The Secret Rose, which in this edition is bound with Ross’s story. What I admire about Ross’s work (I have previously given a good review to her novel Blue Mercy) is her ability to put you into the minds of her characters so that you feel as well as see – you have the why as well as the what – and to structure a book in the best way to bring out what she wants to say. In this case, we watch proceedings through the eyes of a female Irish domestic servant who sees people (and especially Gonne, Yeats and the French politician, Millevoye) with a clarity and at the same time a lack of judgmental bias possibly not available to people of her own class.
At the end of the book, did I feel any deeper understanding of Yeats’s poetry? No, probably not. But I had had an exhilarating read. An excellent book by a writer of the first rank. I recommend it strongly.
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‘A very enjoyable read. The plot is superb and the writing is lively.’ Male reader, aged 43
‘The criminal element of the book, mostly set in Newcastle, is very well described. I liked how the character developed and the ending was satisfying. Billy is a wonderful character to follow, from his life as a kid to life in prison. Often, it’s rather shocking but the author keeps the reader with him till the bitter end. Fantastic cover too.’ Female reader, aged 28
‘Very, very different to A Just and Upright Man. I loved every page of this novel. The pacing is perfect and the message the book sends out is strong and relevant. Although it should be a sad book, it wasn’t; there was a lot of hope in there too. A big publisher needs to sign up this author soon.’ Female reader, aged 47
‘It’s always fun to find a book by an author who knows his readers and what they want.’ Male reader, aged 24
Writing Style 10/10
Of the 32 readers:
31 would read another book by this author.
28 thought the cover was good or excellent.
20 felt the best part was the writing style.
‘A powerful, unrelenting page-turner. Highly recommended.’ The Wishing Shelf Awards
Preparing A Just and Upright Man for publication as an audiobook – an audiobook in which I, the author, am also the narrator – has brought me closer to the people behind the text than I’ve ever been. Sometimes I empathise; but sometimes they make me laugh. Take this passage, which is part of what I dictated today:
Blakiston stood in the dark looking out of his window onto the silent, deserted road outside and thinking about the day. The dreadful sight and smell of Reuben Cooper’s burnt body. The strange interview with Martin Wale. Claverley’s account of so many children, all to be investigated if the death turned out not to be the work of malign fate. A man wandering the roads, who might be Irish or might not, and might be a killer or might not, but who at any rate must be found and questioned. The looming shadow of enclosures. A drunken farmer and an idle one, both to lose their livelihoods if he had anything to do with it.
And, underlying all, the painful recollections that never quite went away, of the woman he had expected to marry and the hurt of his loss. He would never allow himself to love again. Of that he was certain.
So, James, you’ll never love again? Listen, mate, this is a Romance. Capital R. Which I am writing. You, my friend, will love whoever I tell you to love.
That Kate Greener’s a nice girl – don’t you think? What? Not your class? Get outta here.
The Ghost reads like a book the writer had to write. For this reader, it was also a book the reader had to read to the end – despite the story it tells being harrowing at times. Dorian Cook had a childhood that didn’t lack love but was poor in material terms (though I never did fix the location – Manchester? Stoke? where?). As an adult he mostly presents to the world the appearance of a successful life – but buried in his past is an act of unspeakable barbarity committed by him and two other boys and it comes back to haunt and threaten him. The story effectively interweaves past and present and we get to know who and what Dorian is and how he became that person and to care what happens to him. The denouement is satisfying the way a good white burgundy you haven’t tasted in a while satisfies – you think, “Yes. Of course. That’s how it’s supposed to be” and I admired the way Andrew Lowe had given plenty of clues but still surprised me at the end. A first rate piece of writing by someone I hope we will hear more from.
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I think this, from JJ Marsh, is the most warming review I’ve ever received.
You can read more about the book here.
I almost abandoned this book right at the start, because at the very beginning of the book a man hits his wife and then beats her into a coma. It didn’t take the beating to make me want to turn away – the single blow was enough. Hitting a woman is an unacceptable, unforgivable offence. Looking back, I’m horrified by the thought of what I would have missed. There have been a few great moments in my reading life – times when I read something that changed my view of what makes a good book. Wind in the Willows when I was eight. Children of the New Forest two years later. It thinned out after that but in 1985 there was Every Day is Mother’s Day by Hilary Mantel and in 1996 I was stunned by John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure. Unravelling Oliver brought the same sense of shock as the Lanchester book and the same certainty that here was a writer to follow as I had got with that first novel by Hilary Mantel. This is a tour de force. The story is convincing, the motivations are assured, the author is in control of her material from start to finish. A stupendous read. If you read only one book this year, make it this one.
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Update 4 May 2015
And here’s another one 🙂
***** Unpredictable and uplifting
John Lynch has certainly found his literary voice in this very realistic delivery of the life story of a disadvantaged soul, Billy McErlane. Billy learns to forgive, let go of the bad things in life, accept with grace the good things and finally reach out to others. ‘Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper’ grasped my attention from the first page to the last, with Billy showing me through his eyes and words his ups and downs. Real, honest and insightful.
I’d managed to book myself into the wrong hotel. There are two Fairmonts but I didn’t know that till we drove past the one I’d always stayed in and I said, “Shouldn’t we have made a U-turn there?”, wondering if I’d got myself caught up in a Moslem Brotherhood kidnapping. We sorted out what had happened and I started tapping out messages on my Blackberry telling people I wasn’t going to be where they expected and hoping it wasn’t going to cause too much trouble.
It’s a good hotel, even better than the one I usually stay in, though it’s the same price, 170 dollars US a night so long as you agree the non-refundable advance payment which saves fifty dollars a night but also meant I wasn’t going to be able to switch hotels in the morning.
The porter had shown me the room with great pride, lingering on the special features. He’d shown me the bathroom’s sliding doors you could open “so you can watch television while you take a shower or a bath” but I’ve seen those panels before, in places like Tanzania, and really they’re there so that light from the outside windows can filter in because it doesn’t matter how much you’re paying for the room in Dar, or how luxurious the hotel, you’re still going to get power cuts and it can take a while for the generators to kick in. It doesn’t matter here, either.
You prefer to shower in the evening or early morning, when there is no light outside the windows? Don’t, is my advice. You don’t want to be caught without light when you’re all soaped up.
Look out of the window and there’s the river, broad and slow-moving at this point and older than civilisation which, as the locals will tell you, began here. A view worth paying for. Closer than the river are buildings that once were grand, or intended to be grand, and on the roofs the shattered debris of development unfinished when the money ran out, or one more riot, one more civil war discouraged the landlord or simply made it pointless to go on spending. Every roof has people scavenging through its little pile of rubble, looking for anything that might be of use.
What am I doing here you’ll be wondering. It’s money, of course. They haven’t had any for so long but now it’s here, brought by the new stability or what looks like stability because how can you tell? There was a Portuguese contractor in Mozambique, the most beautiful country on the continent if you want my opinion. I asked him, “This peace. Will it last?” And he said, “This is Africa. There are no guarantees. But, for the time being, the sun is shining”. It’s shining here now. Development banks, governments, wealthy co-religionists who like what’s happening here, all pouring in dollars for roads, airports, hospitals, schools. And the politicians, and the people who own the politicians, they want some of that money. Not to build schools with, though. Their children are educated in Britain and the USA. They don’t care how bad the schools here are.
My employers want a share of the money, too, which is why they’re prepared to buy my Business Class ticket and pay for my five star hotel. They don’t speak the language and they need someone who does. They fear for their safety and they need someone who doesn’t. It isn’t violence they’re afraid of, or not just violence; they haven’t forgotten what happened in Iran when the new masters told visiting businessmen, “We think you charged too much on this contract. We want thirty per cent of those millions back and we’re keeping you here till your company pays up”.
It’s all far easier than you probably imagine. Britain has its Bribery Act, the US passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and there’s the OECD’s Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions. That keeps the liberals happy – the people who believe that buying Fairtrade coffee actually helps subsistence-level farmers. I wish they could hear what people in Kenya say about that, though actually I don’t because they wouldn’t listen.
Still, it’s easy. You’re a conduit by which politicians and officials divert into their own bank accounts, wherever in the world those may be, some of the money meant to make poor people’s futures brighter. That means, if you’re selling something, there has to be a difference between the amount on the invoice and the sum you want to see in your bank account when the dust has settled. It also means, if the money was given to build a new bridge and the politician’s greatest need is for guns, that a little creativity goes into drafting the invoice and the shipping documents. Of course, someone’s likely to notice the difference between what it says on the Bills of Lading and what’s in the containers, but the someone has needs too – to pay his rent, feed his family, buy medicines for his mother and get his children into school. He’s cheaply bought.
Finding the person, establishing his need and fixing the price; that’s my area of expertise.
And then there are those who can’t be bought. The idealists. The honest men. It was because of one of those that I was in this island of luxury in a waste land of poverty.
I’d liked Ahmad when I’d first met him, back when we were fixing up this deal. I had him down as a pragmatist, which is what you want when you’re doing this kind of business. A few months went by while we got the gear ready to ship because you can’t stockpile this sort of stuff and the manufacturers can be almost as difficult as the funding agencies if they figure out what you’re doing. We’d had a letter of credit from the start; letters of credit are almost as good as cash because they aren’t contracts to exchange money for goods – the bank that issues them undertakes to give you money in return for documents of title. So long as the documents say what the L/C says they should, it doesn’t actually matter what’s in the vessel’s hold, but if the LC says all documents must bear a picture of the tattoo on your grandmother’s left buttock then you’d better get Granny to raise her skirt because if you don’t comply you won’t be paid. In theory, an international convention allows you to get an unreasonable term changed but I’d like to see you try.
So there we were, all ready to load a shipment worth twenty-five million dollars on which we would make five million, when my boss demanded my presence in his office. He’d had a phone call from a journalist. “My informant says you’re shipping guns in contravention of a UN resolution.” Of course, he wasn’t prepared to name his source but our chairman also chairs a couple of other companies, one of which is among the biggest manufacturers on the planet. In case you haven’t already worked this out, it isn’t a thirst for freedom of the press and an informed readership that says what gets into the papers – it’s advertising revenue. A threat that I don’t suppose was veiled got the story spiked and gave us the whistle-blower’s name. Ahmad.
‘You know this fucker,’ said my boss. ‘Find out what his game is. Ask how much he wants.’
So here I was, to do just that.
Revolving restaurants have had their day and personally I’d prefer to decide where to eat on the quality of the food but Ahmad was the man of the moment and this was his choice. They have a good wine list but he said all he wanted was water so I did the same. That choice bothered me; he hadn’t had a problem with alcohol last time we’d met. Had he been faking then? Was he now? Or was I looking at a changed man? The best way to get an answer is to ask the question. His answer was indirect. ‘Are you a believer?’
I said, ‘There is no God but God.’ It’s the standard answer to that question and it always gets a smile because of course they know that I’m not.
‘Would you like what happens in this country to happen in yours?’
‘I’d like the climate.’
‘I’m not talking about climate. We have two kinds of people: the fabulously rich and the poor. There is no middle ground here. No middle class. Think of a young guy with a good job in management. You think he takes his family out for a meal? A burger even, or a pizza? You think they go to the movies?’
‘I know they do.’
‘Yes, sure. Maybe once every three or four months. Because they don’t have money. Public education here stinks, so you save so your children can go to a decent school. Public health is even worse because there isn’t any. So he buys cover for his wife and himself and his children and after he’s paid for it he has nothing left. He’s poor. He’s a graduate and a manager and he’s poor. What do you think it’s like for a labourer? A gardener? A security guard? This is a peaceful country, but when the present is hopeless and there’s no hope that the future will be better you look at the alternatives.’
‘Have you seen what’s happening in Iraq?’
‘Not that kind of alternative. Banning half the population from any kind of education because it happens to be female won’t solve any problems. What we want is fairness. Starting with allowing the money we were given to build hospitals and pay doctors to be used for that purpose and not for what you want to do with it.’
‘It’s too late to change now. You should have said this six months ago.’
‘I didn’t know my wife had cancer six months ago.’
Suddenly I felt on firmer ground. ‘You should have come to us. We can get her into one of our hospitals. As a private patient. Paid for by us.’ Even as I said it I saw the problem. His share of the bribe was more than enough to pay for his wife’s care. It was a double illness. She’d got cancer and he’d developed a conscience.
He shook his head.
‘We’ll bring you over, too. Hotel near the hospital. Get the kids into school there.’
Another shake of the head. ‘That helps me. It does nothing for anyone else.’
I was irritated. ‘Ahmad, if you want to help people, stand for office.’
The head was still shaking. ‘It’s no good, John. I’m not going to help you.’
When the British still ruled Hong Kong, the old hands had a bit of verbal copperplate for new arrivals about the corruption that was everywhere on the island (and still is). “You can get on the bus. You can walk beside the bus. But whatever you do, don’t try to stand in front of the bus.” What Ahmad was telling me was that he was going to stand in front.
I called the waiter. ‘Bring me a double Macallan, please. No ice.’
‘Anything in it, sir? Dry ginger?’
I shook my head. There was plenty of water on the table; I’d add a little of that.
Ahmad’s smile was weary. ‘You’ve given up, then? Not going to try to persuade me?’
‘I know a lost cause when I see one.’
‘So. What shall we talk about? Football?’
I have no interest in the game but I joined in his discussion of the English Premiership. We finished eating and I said, ‘You know I can’t protect you? What good will your being dead do your wife?’
‘If anything happens to me, a file will go to every newspaper office in the West.’
‘You should make sure your masters know that.’
‘Oh, I will. I want a coffee. But first, I need the men’s room.’ I didn’t, but I did need to send an SMS.
When I came back to the table, I dawdled over a double espresso and another large Scotch to give my contact time to get into position. Then I asked for the bill.
We didn’t talk in the elevator because we weren’t alone. Two men in five thousand dollar suits that prevented their consumption of a hundred poor men’s calories from making them look gross. They nodded at me; Ahmad was beneath their notice. Nor, when we reached the street, did they glance at the milling crowd of men in ragged jellabiyas, women covered in black, children scrabbling in the dust. Inured to the poverty of others from earliest childhood, they didn’t ignore so much as simply fail to notice them. I looked into the shadow of the colonnaded sidewalk on the other side. The only thing noticeable about the two men sitting at one of the tables outside the cheap cafe was that they weighed three times as much as the other customers, and all of it muscle. And suits; they wore suits.
I used my phone to call my driver. To Ahmad I said, ‘Can I give you a lift home?’
‘That’s all right. I’ll walk.’
‘You live locally?’
‘I’ll walk, John.’
‘Okay.’ When we shook hands I made sure that we were sideways on to the street. As Ahmad moved away I saw the two men get up from their table and start to follow him. He didn’t once look back. Poor Ahmad was not made for this life he had embarked on.
Back at the hotel I bought a Cohiba and another Scotch in the bar. A waiter offered me a newspaper. My whisky and cigar cost more than he earned in a month; if he resented me or the affluence he saw every day it didn’t show on his smiling face. Possibly he was glad just to have a job. And the poor sometimes raise themselves; the man who built one of the largest conglomerates in the world began life as a road sweeper and, when his daughter married, the daughters of the richest men in the country boasted about their invitations.
I had a visitor at breakfast the following morning. He’d changed his suit and his shirt but there was no disguising the muscular bulk. He placed a laptop bag beside the table, sat opposite me and accepted a coffee.
I said, ‘All done?’
‘His widow won’t talk?’
He stared at me, his brown eyes betraying no emotion. ‘There is no widow. His children are orphans now.’
‘She saw us. You didn’t want any loose ends.‘
‘That’s right. I didn’t. Perhaps you could trace the grandparents? If they’re still alive? An anonymous donation…?’
‘If that’s what you want.’
‘And his press releases?’
He nodded towards the laptop bag. ‘In hand.’
When he got up to go, he left the bag behind. I took it to my room. There was no password. I found Ahmad’s little batch file without difficulty. His plan had been simple; if he did not fire up the laptop for 36 hours, his great mass of emails would be transmitted automatically. I deleted the lot. It was a nice laptop. I’d take it home, securely wipe the hard disk, reload Windows and give it to the kids.
And then I thought, no. You can’t do that. It isn’t yours. Company money paid for this. Wipe the disk, yes. Reload Windows, yes. But then you give it to IT and let them do what they want with it. The world needs honesty and honest men are hard to find.
The journey to the airport was slow, my limo bogged down by tuktuks, men carrying impossible loads on ancient bicycles and cars that had been on the road for too many years. I tipped the porter who carried my bag to the Business Class check-in counter about five times as much as was normal. A man as prosperously suited as the two in the elevator the night before said, ‘You foreign visitors spoil these people. What are you trying to achieve? Did not your own Jesus say, “The poor you have always with you”?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He did. But, sometimes, you want to reduce their number.’
Continuing the theme (in Offcuts) of passages that never made the final book, I’ve been working on When the Darkness Comes for a long time now and I really don’t know when I’ll be ready to let it go to print, but this has been in it from the start and beta reader after beta reader has asked me the same questions. Why is this here? What does it add to the story? Where does it get us? And they’re right; this is a perfect example of what editors mean when they tell writers to “kill your darlings”. So — and not without regret — it’s gone. Cut. Rejected. I don’t want it to disappear altogether, though — so here it is:
They’re getting into an elevator. Ted and the dwarf and King Tut. The Lizard stands back, watching them go. But something’s wrong. The building they’re supposed to be going up is next door. This lift is on the front of a tower that stands beside the building. It’s a high tower and a high building, but they’re not connected. How are they going to get across at the top?
There’s worse. The lift is one of those that run up the outside, with glass walls so you can see the people and the traffic grow smaller as you ascend, and the landscape grow wider. Ted hates these. He was in one and when it reached the top he was on his knees, facing inwards, eyes closed. Sobbing. They’d seen it before, apparently. They brought him out in a service lift inside the building. Kept telling him not to feel embarrassed, that it took some people that way. He did, though. Feel embarrassed.
He’s not good at heights.
He doesn’t like crowds, either, and there is a crowd now and it’s pushing forward.
What terrifies Ted, leaving the elevator to one side, what really leaves him wanting to lie on the floor again and scream, is: what happens at the top? If the tower isn’t connected to the building, how will he get from one to the other? And will he have to look down? And will he be able to stop himself?
He won’t make it. He knows that, so he doesn’t want to try. He’s struggling not to get into the elevator, but the crowd is enormous and it’s pushing and bustling and carrying him in there whether he wants to or not. The dwarf has him by the wrist and Tut is bobbing around a few rows back, taking care to keep him in sight.
How can all these people fit into one lift? And who are they? And why is Ted going where they’re going? He doesn’t know them. Doesn’t think he knows them.
And now the lift is climbing, shooting up the outside of the tower at increasing speed. The car is full of people eating and drinking, sitting at nicely linened tables, crisp starched napery, silver bowls, cut glass. Eating and drinking. Attentive waiting staff. Red wine, fizzy water, rare beef. There’s a cigar somewhere. Buzz of conversation. And Ted. He should be at ease in this environment. Man of the world, in his element in pampered luxe. Instead he’s screaming bloody blue murder. And no-one’s looking at him.
How is he going to get across?
Oh, help him, Mother.
They’re there. At the top of the tower. The crowd has strolled out and across, into the building next door. How? How did they cross? How the hell should Ted know? He couldn’t watch. They’re gone. What’s left is people he was at school with, in the Scouts with, played cricket with. How, why, he doesn’t know. And there, in the corner, trying to be invisible but never taking his eyes off Ted, is King Tut. Knowing that he’s really Ras Tafar, Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia should reduce the fear of seeing him, but it doesn’t. If anything, it makes it worse. The dwarf stands in the corner by the buttons.
The others are crossing now, all but the dwarf and Tut, who seems to be trying to creep a little closer to Ted, and Ted can’t go with them. They’re calling him, encouraging him, cajoling. ‘Come on, Ted. It’s fine, it’s nothing. Just step over.’
But it isn’t fine and it isn’t nothing. It’s a drop of hundreds of stories, thousands of feet, higher than the London Stock Exchange or the Gherkin, higher than the Empire State, higher than the Twin Towers of the World Trade Building.
And look what happened to them.
‘Come on, Ted.’ And he can’t. Because he knows they’re wrong. They’ve crossed over and for them maybe it really was easy but Ted can’t do it. He can’t. He’s going to have to stay here. He lies on the floor. ‘I’ll stay in here. I’ll go back down.’
‘Come on, Ted.’
‘You can’t go down, Ted. The lift won’t start till you get out.’
‘For God’s sake, Ted, be a man.’And he’s sobbing as though his little heart will break. Help me, Mother. Help me. Don’t leave me stranded here.
And something strange has happened. Because before there was just the tower and the building and nothing between except blue sky and puffy white clouds. And now there’s a platform half way across. It’s got cloud all around it, so he can’t see where it goes, whether it’s standing on the ground or what, but it’s there and it looks solid enough.
It should help, there being a platform half way. But it doesn’t. It makes it all worse.
‘Stand up, Ted. Take a step onto the platform. Then hold out your hands and we’ll haul you across. Safe as houses. Come on, Ted.’
Stand up. The man’s an idiot. Always was, even as a child. He can’t stand up.
‘We’re going to have to go, Ted. We can’t wait for ever. We’re going, Ted.’
‘Ted! For fuck’s sake, get on your fucking feet and step onto that fucking platform.’
Ted’s the boy. Oh, Ted’s the kiddy, all right. The athlete, hotshot cricketer who can’t stand up for fear of falling. The master of a French whore, killer of villains and police alike who’s too terrified by what he might see to open his eyes.
Now get you to my lady’s chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.
Ted is the fellow of infinite jest.
What does my gorge rims at it mean? He probably couldn’t write that line today. God, there’s some dirty bastards around. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols? Your songs? Your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar?
He hauls himself to his knees.
‘That’s it. That’s it, Ted. Now. Over!’
He’s lying face down on the platform. If he’d thought he was scared before, he knew nothing. This is fear. This is cold terror.
He can’t go forward and he can’t go back. The lift has gone, taking the dwarf with it. Or maybe that should be the other way round. The outer door is still open, but all that’s there now is an open shaft, waiting for Ted to fall down it. There’s no-one here but him and Tut, who crossed with him and is now so close he’s almost touching Ted’s spread-out leg.
He daren’t look down. Look down? He daren’t even open his eyes. How are they going to get him out of this? How can they send a rescue crew here? There’s no ladder in the world long enough, he knows that, and he couldn’t go down it anyway. Helicopter? How would they pick him up? Clinging to a net over that drop? I don’t think so, pal.
He can’t go forward and he can’t go back and they can’t pick him off. There’s no way out. It’s just him and Tut and the tower and the clouds and the wind. He hadn’t noticed the wind. It isn’t much, but it’s there. Probably the sound of people drowned it out before. The people have gone.
He and Tut are alone.