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Field of Reeds

Chapter 2

Andrew Starling

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Michael's eyes

The top floor of the Merchant Building was very plush, all dark wood panelling and high ceilings. Two dickie-bowed waiters in red waistcoats stood by the elevator doors offering champagne. Others burrowed through the crowd carrying drinks on silver trays: chardonnay, mineral water, orange juice. None appeared to be taller than five foot two. Presumably this was supposed to make the guests feel comfortably superior but Spencer found it freakish and distracting.

Though not distracting enough. He wanted them to perform cartwheels, juggle five full glasses at a time, spin trays on the tips of their outstretched toes like a true circus act of caterers. Sober life was leaving a gap in his mind where alcohol had once been. It needed filling with something diverting.

How George had persuaded him to come back to reality and look for Raymond Kite was still a mystery. He put it down to the uneven battle between a manipulative captain of industry and a drunken bum. It was something he didn't want to think about too hard, along with his week in detox, that literally sickening transition from intoxication to sobriety. As a drunk he'd spent most of his time trying to block out the awfulness of the past, and now, as a regular sober member of society, here he was doing exactly the same. Inevitably the memories would come back, it wasn't so easy without the drug. At least it was only the past few days he was trying to block out, rather than months or years. And he could live with the present. That made a change. He could smell his armpits without thinking Pepperoni, stroke his chin without hurting his hand, feel machine-conditioned air on his teeth and catch himself in the mirrors on the wood-panelled walls without questioning their quality.

There were too many people in the room for him to snatch more than a glimpse of himself here, but back at the hotel he hadn't spared the mirror. It had surprised him when he'd moved and the face in the mirror moved too. He found that he actually quite liked what he saw, even if it did seem to belong to a stranger. It was like discovering in the attic some fondly remembered and battered old school satchel.

He'd excused himself from potential vanity by wearing the most striking suit in the closet, a suit that simply had to be checked out for suitability. It was intended to be some odd form of camouflage amongst the eccentric types he expected to be at the exhibition, an Armani cotton number in a muted shade of turquoise that proclaimed: now here's a difficult colour, and didn't we manage to bring it off well? Strangely, it was a colour that Spencer felt he'd worn before, though he couldn't remember when, or why. And it was a colour that demanded a why.

When he'd arrived at his room in the Ana Hotel, fresh from detox, clothes had been waiting for him in the closet. Some anonymous Foxglove employee had done their job exceptionally well. Everything fitted exactly. Not only that, but the styles were right. They were precisely him. He never wore jeans. Chinos were as casual as he got. Nor did he like teeshirts. He felt more comfortable in slightly smarter clothes, somewhere on the crossover line between work and play. He couldn't remember when he'd first started to dress this way, or why. Perhaps it was a side-effect of having to wear a uniform or just part of the psychological quirkiness that had turned him towards security work in the first place. He'd be the last person able to answer that question. Even as a drunk he'd been relatively well-dressed. Filthy most of the time, and higher than a frightened skunk, but not casual. Twice he'd found suits in the dumpsters and worn them till they'd fallen apart. That was how he'd got his street-name: Gent, short for gentleman.

George, no doubt, would be attending the show in his usual workshirt and denims. It was a peculiar place for him to have chosen to meet, an exhibition and sale of the works of Michael Sorden, the photographer. Spencer hadn't heard of Michael Sorden before, but then photography had never been a passion. Nor had it been for George, as far as he could remember.

George was being very secretive about the search for Raymond Kite. He didn't want it to look too obvious that Spencer was working for him or that he wanted Raymond found. He'd arranged for them to come across each other as if by accident at the exhibition, like a pair of ridiculous cold war spies. He'd said nothing more about Raymond. Everything would be explained at the show, that was George's line. And he could take whatever line he liked since he was paying the bills.

Spencer couldn't decide whether he liked the venue or not. The jump from streetlife to elegant culture was extreme. Maybe it was the kind of immersion in deep water that he needed, but right now the shock wasn't doing much for the balance of his mind. Even when his life had run at its most regular he'd never felt truly comfortable at this type of event.

He stood quite still for a while, an organic statue to be ignored, a chameleon in bright cotton clothing. The suit was the perfect choice for blending in with the delicate petals of the punters on the top floor. A few bland businessmen had slipped in, their greys and whites now as stark as neon, and plenty of electronics industry people from the valley attempting to mix business-style with cool, but all were easily out-numbered and out-hipped by the peculiarly-dressed arty crowd with its pony-tails and Indian beads and fringed shirts and other determinedly unique items of clothing. The place was ridiculously busy. The elevator had been packed to capacity and now, here in the ante-room before he'd even reached Michael Sorden's pictures, there were scores of people milling around. In fact such a forest of bodies that he didn't see Bry until she was standing right next to him.

He jumped like he'd been jabbed with a pin.

"Spen. You're looking well."

Blank, thought Spencer. I'm feeling blank and thinking blank and surely I must be looking it too. Seeing God appear on television would have been less of a shock than finding his ex-girlfriend by his side.

"I, er." He had absolutely no idea what to say.

"You've even got a tan." She seemed very calm in comparison.

"Unhealthy outdoor living," he muttered.

She looked lovely, as always. She was wearing a lime green dress in high-necked oriental style, modest in a sense but also very tight-fitting. Her dark hair was gathered in a studiedly-ineffective bun, leaving wisps and trails around her face and neck. Spencer had always found her beautiful. Not the beauty seen within half a second of looking at a pin-up girl, but the slower beauty that creeps up on you as you notice more and more exquisite details. The eyelashes, the earlobes, the crook of an arm, a perfectly-placed dimple on the bottom. He'd spent over four years getting to know those details, shared an apartment with them, shared a bed, hopes and dreams. Too many memories. He couldn't talk to her right now. He'd have to make his excuses and look for her later when he'd recovered, when the debris had cleared.

"Have you seen George?" he asked. "I'm supposed to meet him here." It was the obvious escape route, with the added advantage of being true.

"He's in Germany."


"Or at least on his way. He flew there this afternoon. I'm standing in for him." She seemed amused by the idea.

"Oh." So much for pre-arranged plans. So much for the grand diversion of searching for Raymond Kite. What was he supposed to do now?

The whole aim of coming to the show was to meet George and get a proper briefing. All he knew about Raymond so far was a vague physical description - a fairly tall, skinny man with blond straggly hair. Hardly the fat dossier from which to mount a manhunt. George hadn't even supplied a photograph.

Spencer wondered if he should ask Bry about Raymond, and decided against it. She was head of public relations for Foxglove; that's how they'd met. He couldn't imagine she was involved in the search, not when George was trying to keep it hidden.

"Did George tell you why I was coming?"

Bry gave him a puzzled look. "Yes, of course. To meet Michael Sorden."

"Right." A definite underhand play from grandmaster Stiles. But where was it going to lead? It was very frustrating for George not to be there, and seemed odd that he should have chosen Bry as his replacement, given their history. For the moment, Spencer decided to ride with it, if only to find out why he was supposed to meet the photographer. He didn't have any other plans for the evening.

"Still playing the clarinet?" All that history, and all he could come up with was small-talk. He still wasn't sure how he felt about being with her. All those mixed emotions an old partner brings on. Regrets, sentimentality, confusion, the residue of love. Even fear, wondering if somebody who knows enough to hurt can still be trusted with all that intimate knowledge.

"When I get time to practise."

"Still eating your food raw?"

"Like an animal. How about you? Still tidier than a talkshow toupee?"

It wasn't the best line she'd ever come up with but Spencer laughed anyway. It was true, he'd always been obsessively tidy. And she'd always made fun of it. Wit was one of her charms he'd fallen for. Yet behind it a very complicated and not always happy person was hiding. It had taken him a year to discover that dark interior. Intimate knowledge worked both ways.

"How's Teresa?" Bry's sister suffered from multiple sclerosis. An attack had left her bedridden just before their relationship ended.

"In remission. Still no feeling in her left foot, but otherwise walking around normally."

Spencer plucked a glass from the silver tray of a passing dwarf, a glass of mineral water. Alcohol did not appeal. Bry took a glass of chardonnay. He realised that they hadn't made physical contact, hadn't shaken hands or pecked cheeks, as ex-lovers ought to do. As cold as you always were - she'd be saying to herself. But it was too late to correct that now.

"Nice suit," said Bry. "I love the colour." So that was why it was so familiar. It was Bry's favourite. "I got the size right too. I wasn't sure I could remember. Is the other stuff OK?"

"You bought the clothes in my room?" Very curious.

"George asked me to."

"They're fine. No. More than fine. They're perfect." It would have been Bry who left the brown envelope on the desk too. Five hundred dollars and a Foxglove Amex card. It wouldn't have been hard for her to guess the contents.

"I wish I could get George to smarten up sometimes. I get bored with his denims and workshirts. I buy him decent things but he won't wear them. It took me two months to persuade him to wear a suit for a single day. One day. Can you believe that? He would have married me in jeans if I'd let him."

An enormous landslide. Boulders falling in slow motion into place above Spencer's head in a dry-stone jigsaw, a cracked prison ceiling. People opening their mouths all around but no sound coming out. Miming nonsense.

The dust settled. A wave of idle chatter returned to his ears. He could see the ring on her finger now. Why hadn't he looked before?

"He didn't tell you?"

Spencer shook his head.

Bry frowned. The frown changed to a questioning, sympathetic look. Her voice softened, truly sincere. "Oh, Spen, I'm so sorry. I thought you already knew. That was a dreadful way to find out. I can't believe he didn't tell you."

"Nice catch," said Spencer, emptily. Already his mind was busy with its reconciliations. Hardening. You should have been mine but I drank and you bitched. Too late. Can't change history.

"A compliment for a fisherwoman," said Bry, unamused. The soft tone had gone.

"Sorry." She was right. That hadn't been a nice thing to say. The surprise had caught him off guard. But he was dealing with it now. Coping, just.

Ha, George. At this moment he just had to be sprawled across the first class seat of a plane somewhere over the Atlantic, glass of armagnac in one hand, looking at his watch and sniggering to himself, the wily bastard.

"How long?"

"A year last Monday."

"Do you like being married? Is it good?"

"Shall we go through and meet Michael? It might take a while to find him." Obviously not good for Bry's hearing.


Stationed by the doorway from the ante-room into the main viewing chamber was an oyster bar - wild oysters, rock oysters, two labels of champagne - which Bry completely ignored. Spencer remembered that she didn't like oysters or champagne. Champagne gave her a headache. They walked past it at speed and into the display area, where he came to an immediate standstill.

Michael Sorden's pictures were extraordinary. They were all of eyes. Human eyes. Sometimes photographed in pairs but more often individually, and enormous, anything up to six foot by four for a single eye. Browns, blues, greens, hazels, all displayed on a maze of poster-panels. Roughly thirty of them were staring at Spencer right now. The mass of people, the hundreds of viewers, seemed insignificant beneath their gaze.

Bry, who always walked like she'd left her purse somewhere and was heading back to retrieve it, had to retrace her steps to join him.

"Curious, aren't they?" she said, seeing his expression.

"Really. But would you want one in your lounge?"

"We tried to find a place for one at Carmetta." Carmetta was George's mansion south of Quartz Valley. "But it dominated every room we put it in. Eventually George hung it in his study. I think he's taken it down now."

"Very beautiful. Does he sell enough to make a living?"

Bry shook her head. Spencer looked around the room, at its elaborate high ceiling, at its tall windows and velvet drapes, at the dark wood panelling with two fireplaces set into it, flames decadently dancing in the hearths on this warm and pleasant evening. A trace of artifice, certainly, but more than a trace of money too. "It must cost a fortune to hire this place."

"It's a sponsored show."

Spencer was curious that he hadn't seen any signs. "Who's the sponsor?" Whoever they were, they believed in low-key publicity.

"Foxglove. Didn't George tell you?"

Spencer sighed resignedly. "No."

They moved further into the room and stopped in front of the first picture. The detail, the resolution, was astonishing. Veins stood out like forks of lightning. And the iris, hazel-coloured and more fibrous than a fan of hair, seemed to carry on behind the print as if there were some kind of dome back there to accommodate it.

"Brilliant," said Spencer. "Weird but brilliant. I wonder why nobody's done it before?"

"Probably because they couldn't afford to. The photography equipment costs a fortune, so I'm told."

"Do you do the publicity for him, for Michael Sorden?" If Foxglove was sponsoring the show then it seemed likely that Bry would be involved.

"I delegate most of it. It's not exactly core business."

"No," agreed Spencer. He was tempted to ask her how work was going, but decided against it. Put to anybody else, the question would have seemed perfectly decent and sociable, but to Bry it was likely to appear unkind. Bry's attitude to work was at best ambivalent. When they'd lived together, almost every weekday morning she'd mooched around for the first twenty minutes as if she had a funeral to attend. She described work as pimping time for money. She'd never come to terms with it, with the waste of her life she felt it represented. Spencer occasionally felt the same way too, but had never been able to understand the profound depth of her despair until his own job had gone so drastically wrong. The paradox was, in her day to day work none of this showed. She was invariably witty and charming, very popular with everybody she did business with, including all those tungsten-nosed journalists - the wolf-pack as she called them, privately. She did a fine job. That's why George had moved her to the top of the ladder in less than two years. The greatest tribute to her skills was that her more experienced colleagues, the ones she'd leapfrogged to reach this high position, bore almost no resentment towards her. They'd seen the inevitability of it even before it was apparent to George.

"Work's still the same," said Bry quietly. She had a habit of doing that, of hearing things he hadn't said. "Shall we carry on looking for Michael?" she added, more cheerfully.


They found Michael Sorden almost in the centre of the gallery, chatting to a conservatively-dressed woman in her early thirties. Bry introduced Spencer to them both. The woman's name was Jill, Dr Jill Freedy, director of the Institute of Movement. It was an enigmatic name for an organisation but Spencer didn't pursue it. He didn't have much interest in her. She was wearing a tweed two-piece that somehow seemed to reach out to the walls and blend in with the wood panelling. She wasn't slim, yet her movements were appealingly delicate. Spencer decided she had an elegance that some men might find attractive, but he wasn't one of them.

He felt he ought to say something intelligent to Michael Sorden about the pictures. He didn't want to simply say - I think your pictures are wonderful. So instead he said: "Tell me, what do you do about pupil size? People find big pupils attractive, don't they?"

Michael appreciated the thoughtful introduction. "Yes. That's true. So the more naturally attractive the eye is, the smaller I make the pupil - using more light. And with the plainer eyes I use dim lighting to dilate the pupil. That way there's always a conflict in the way you perceive the final picture."

He talked quickly but seemed more self-aware than other artistic types Spencer had met; casually very smart in his white linen suit and blue turtle-neck. His hair was sparse and wavy and swept back from his forehead. Its colour was so extravagant that Spencer felt it had to be natural. Straw blond at the front, muted orange in the middle and almost black at the rear. Surely nobody would have their hair dyed that way. His face was ruddy with bushy eyebrows and bright blue eyes. There was something furtively mystical about them, like they'd witnessed the secrets of the occult but didn't want it to show, at least not here in polite society.

"Otherwise," Michael continued, "everybody would buy the prints with large pupils and I'd be left with a permanent collection of the small ones." He smiled at his own witticism.

Spencer nodded. "But what about the colour? Some colours must be more popular than others."

"Capricorn," replied Michael, obscurely. "There's a certain coloration that's green, amber and hazel all at the same time. Amber near the centre, green towards the outside. It's found mostly in Capricorns, in Capricorn women. That sells with almost no pupil at all. I brought three tonight. They've all been spotted."

So far Spencer had only seen two prints with the little red spot in the corner that signified a sale.

"And what's your favourite?" Bry asked Jill. She was doing her PR lady facilitator-of-the-conversation bit.

"There's an orange-brown with black streaks." Jill turned to Michael. "Where is it?"

"Ah. Karen Riscarti's eye. I'm not sure." He gestured over the heads of the crowd towards the corner furthest from the door. "Over there, I think."

"It gives the impression of movement," Jill continued. "I don't know why."

"Nor do I," said Michael, chuckling to himself.

In his peripheral vision, Spencer could see Bry adjusting her hair. She had a habit of doing this when she was with other people but thought they weren't looking, like a peculiar version of hide and seek. He wondered if he might be next to be asked about his favourite picture, so he began studying the dozen or so he could see with the intention of choosing one, but at that moment the proceedings were interrupted by the arrival of Pierre - an outsize Frenchman with a huge moustache that completely hid both his lips. The luxuriant back-brushed growth on top of his head was a perfect match for it.

"Hi," said Pierre, to the company in general. He turned to Spencer and shook his hand warmly. "Spencer. It's good to see you again." He had the most beautiful French voice. A voice that could sell perfume or mesmerise wolves. Spencer had once suggested to him that he could make a fortune doing radio commercials or maybe even TV, but he seemed content to work for Foxglove, to live by his expert ears rather than his excellent vocal chords. "Are you back in the city for long?"

"A while," said Spencer, which was as honest as he could be.

Although Pierre was behaving as if Spencer hadn't totally lost the plot two years ago and disappeared like an errant genie into a bottle of tequila, he was also scrutinising him thoroughly, as if checking the sober ghost were real.

"How's the farm?" asked Spencer.

"Better than living in the city. The grapes last year were perfect. Finally I managed to make wine that is drinkable, though I don't think it will win prizes."

He was an interesting mixture, Pierre. A beautiful voice, a full English vocabulary, yet phrasing too close to text-book formal. He was the only Frenchman Spencer had met who adored junk food, as his flying-boat stomach testified, yet he couldn't abide the city and lived a two hour drive away in a farmhouse surrounded by vines. He also wasn't a fan of big social occasions. The showing must have been important for him to come.

"And the farmhouse - still big enough for your CDs?"

Pierre sighed wistfully. "I've always preferred the purity of gramophone records." He shrugged. "But what can you do? The world is run by commercial Philistines."

"You could always transfer them to vinyl. You still have the arcade machine?"

The question was barely necessary. The vinyl disc recorder was Pierre's most treasured possession. Once it might have earned its living in a nickel recording booth, probably on an amusement pier, now it had retired to Pierre's lounge. The red vinyl discs it recorded lasted just three minutes, so the idea of transferring CDs to them was a joke. Pierre smiled and nodded appropriately.

Spencer decided they were getting on well enough for him to push a little. "It would be nice to see it again." Carefully he avoided looking at Bry.

Pierre glanced at her briefly, then looked at Spencer for what seemed an embarrassingly long time before answering. "Yes, of course. Why don't you drop by?"

"Tomorrow afternoon?"

Pierre nodded but didn't say anything.

The other members of the group had waited patiently for this little private conversation to come to an end, and now Bry stepped in as facilitator again. "Do you know what FOTI means?" she asked Pierre. If she felt upset by Spencer's insensitivity, it didn't show.

"Flypaper Of The Iris," replied Pierre, without hesitation.

"What's that?" asked Spencer.

"It's what Michael calls his photos," explained Bry. "Fotis. Clever, isn't it?"

Spencer wasn't sure whether it was clever or a little contrived. And maybe Bry thought so too, but she was in PR mode so it was impossible to tell.

Michael wanted to expand. He touched Spencer on the arm and turned him to inspect the closest picture. The colour of the iris was grey. Almost, though not quite, monochrome. Strangely this enhanced the texture and detail of the eye, in the same way that a black and white photograph is sometimes more revealing than a colour one.

Michael ran his fingers along the radii of the iris, from the pupil towards the outer white. "The eye of Mr David Ludlow. You see these lines? Like the fibres of a fruit with a stone in the middle, or, for the more scientific, the vanes of a turbine. No two eyes are the same. An iridologist can read these lines and tell you if you were seriously ill as a teenager, or whether you once broke your left leg. It sounds incredible but it's true. Everything that happens to you can be seen in your eyes. Your life history is there."

He glanced at Spencer to check that he was paying attention, then turned back to the picture. "I see it like this: these hairs, as they seem, these radial hairs that fan out from the pupil - some of them appearing to be deep inside, as if the eye were a cavern - I think they're sticky, like a spider's web, or like flypaper. And everything that comes into the eye, all those beams of light, all the things the eye sees, some of them stick to the flypaper and stay there. Kitchen stools, lovers' bodies, mothers' smiles, broken cars, apricots, stars. And when you look into an eye you can see what that eye has seen. Whether it's seen good things or bad. Nice sunsets or wicked actions. Not literally of course. But in a sense. You can see."

Michael stopped. He was waiting for a reaction.

Spencer, though a little bewildered, gave him an honest one. "I think that's a nice idea." He turned to the others, whom he guessed had both seen this presentation before. They were looking at him rather than at Michael. "That's neat, isn't it? Flypaper of the iris. I like that." Behind Jill he could see a dark green eye. He'd noticed it before, but now he was looking at it in a different perspective. Suddenly it seemed very sad. "It's almost like you can look into a person's eye and see their soul."

It wasn't supposed to be a comment of great perception but it appeared to stop Pierre and Jill dead in their tracks. They were perfectly still for a moment, as if on freeze-frame, not even breathing. Then, just as suddenly, they re-animated and carried on as if nothing had happened. Bry hadn't been affected. Spencer wondered if his imagination had been playing tricks on him. After all, he'd been sober for less than a week.

Bry certainly noticed the hiatus. "Has anybody seen that new exhibit at the modern art museum? It's quite peculiar. Cheap household fixtures - plastic door handles, gilt faucets, fluorescent light fittings - laid out in the shape of a huge pistol on a gallery floor. You have to walk over a raised gangway to view it." It was supposed to be a smooth and lubricating introduction into a new topic of conversation and, as usual for Bry, it worked.

"I think it looks very tacky," said Jill. "Which is hardly surprising when you consider what it's made from."

"I haven't seen it," said Pierre. "But I read about it in the local paper. I think that's as close as I need to get."

Michael took an entirely different view, and for the next few minutes held forth about it being a grand metaphor for the negative effect of modern surroundings on the mind.

Spencer had no informed opinion to give but was quite happy to watch and listen as his companions carried on talking. He felt pleasantly detached. It was such an archetypal conversation for the educated, moneyed classes to be holding. So classic it was amusing. He hadn't come across this kind of thing for two years. The panhandlers on Bourse Street were more interested in the quality of the garbage behind the Giant Eagle store on Dixon, or the parentage of the bum who'd got to that big stoagie on the sidewalk before them.

He'd noticed that the gallery of eyes and the fact that they'd been discussing eyes in some detail had made him self-conscious about eye-contact. He wondered whether other people around the room were suffering from the same problem. It seemed likely that they were. An entire room full of people thinking too hard about eye-contact with strangers.

Michael, Pierre and Jill didn't seem to be having any difficulties, at least when talking between themselves. Clearly they knew each other well. Bry was more of an outsider, and although she was professionally good at hiding it, Spencer could see she was having to work harder on her eye-contact with Jill, and to a lesser extent with Michael. Pierre wasn't an issue. She'd known Pierre through work for a long time, and of course there'd been those visits to the farm together.

He couldn't help trying to fathom what it was she saw in George, why she'd married him. It had been troubling him ever since he'd heard the ridiculous news. There was the money, of course, the security, but that had never been high on her list. She liked depth. George had a little of that, but not a lot. He was a charmer, admittedly, and playful sometimes. Maybe that was enough. And he'd caught her on the rebound.

George's absence was still frustrating.

Jill announced she had to leave for the airport. She'd been looking at her watch ever since Spencer's comment about souls. When she'd gone, there was a moment's awkward silence, soon tackled, as always, by Bry.

"What's your favourite eye colour, Pierre?"

"Green. I find green eyes fascinate me, and they look so unworldly."

"Spencer?" prompted Bry.

Don't you remember? - thought Spencer. Hazel, the colour of yours. But she might find this embarrassing if he said it in company. So instead he said: "Blue. Good old Californian beach-bum blue."

"I like brown," said Michael. "I think it's the most difficult colour to read and that makes it the most interesting, especially in the blow-ups. But if you like blue then you must see these." Abruptly he walked away, leaving Pierre and Bry and Spencer to follow his trail.

He stopped by a pair of the wildest ice-blue eyes that Spencer had ever seen. Two irises full of electricity, two fairytale mosaics on the bottom of a sunny swimming pool floor, the eyes of an individual who walked on the edge of the sane world and who might be a genius or could just as easily be in psychiatric care.

"What do you think?" asked Michael.

"Unbelievable," said Spencer. "I think they're male, though I don't know why."


"Do you know the person?"

"I have that pleasure."

"Is he - how shall I put this - well-balanced?"

"He makes the rest of us seem only marginally sane."

Michael had given names to go with other eyes, so Spencer felt free to ask: "And what's his name?"

"Raymond." Michael hesitated, then felt obliged to carry on. "Raymond Kite."


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The complete manuscript of this book is available free of charge at www.foxglove.co.uk.