Lunchtime frivolities. Angela Slatter gave me the word “hurple”, and commanded a 500 word story. I now present:
Hurple, with Variations
“The English do not have 75 terms for a sidle,” said John Chen. “Rather, they sidle in 75 different ways. There is probably a Ministry for it. See below.” He indicated with a bony forefinger a pedestrian – black coat, scarf, hat. Collar to his cheekbones.
“Strunching,” suggested Heather Pettifer. “Striding while hunching.”
“Do be serious.”
“I am rarely earnest, but always sincere.”
Chen’s articulate, articulated shrug rippled from one shoulder to the other and terminated in an irritated shake of his head. “I have made a study of ambulation.”
“I believe I read your monograph.”
“Class, education, formative climate – a biography written in the million modifications of a walk. I have uncovered spies, rescued those without confidence from conviction as con artists. For amusement, I passed a chimneysweep off as minor royalty. This man is hurpling”
“Oh,” said Pettifer, faintly.
“My dear, the application of the term is simplicity itself –his limbs and shoulders are contorted, indrawn, neck bent so barely a glint of bronzed complexion (or gingerous eyebrow?) shows between felt and fabric. He imitates, inexpertly, the action of the tortoise, the wind slowing his progress to the speed of that noble beast.”
“You confuse poetic and forensic exactitudes. Major classification completed we turn to subtleties. His attitude is, I repeat, inexpert, his contortions overdrawn. Altogether, a caricature. His struggle, however, speaks less of dramatics than of unfamiliarity. The apparent disproportion of head and shoulders– a false perspective given by the collar – supports this.”
Pettifer tilted her head, an artist considering a composition.
Chen rushed onward.
“Hands in pockets, inhibiting the free swing of limbs. Not holding aloft the ubiquitous umbrella, suggesting the wisdom of the native, save that our man conceals no umbrella about him.”
“Of course,” murmured Pettifer, as if light dawned.
“Either he possesses none, or lost possession of it in the gale. He is therefore either unfamiliar with the device’s necessity or its principles of use. Then his stride – slowed by the ferocious breeze, yet straining to cover an open distance not found in these streets. The horseman’s easy roll rather than a sailor’s stagger, yet halting as if, though raised to certain footing, now unsettled by forced awareness of the hazards of gratings, leaf-drifts, ice and small dogs.”
“Taken together?” ventured Pettifer.
“At a hazard, an Australian stockman. Recently arrived, here against preference, nervous, and – as he vanishes from our view – on his way to this door to seek advice.”
“He is come to escort me,” said Pettifer, rising as the doorbell rang a beat too long. “You will like to meet him.”
Her bootheels tapped neatly on the stairs. In the hall, into which the housekeeper had admitted their subject, she lifted off their subject’s hat and ran her hand familiarly over the bald bronze pate.
“We shall have to get you an umbrella, old fellow,” she said, taking the guest’s metal hand from his pocket and examining the finger-joints. “And teach you to hold it. That nearly gave the game away.”