Short Story: ‘But soft! What light …’ (from ‘Could do Better’ by Peter Rolls)

Apologies for the delay in this post – too much  Christmas is a very good thing.

IMG_0587Angela Figgis believed that “The family that eats together stays together”.  She made a big deal of this – and, at 6.30 every night, the five Figgises sat and ate:  a good helping of meat, or pasta, or fish, or whatever.  Nothing fancy.  Nothing rubbish.  Occasional puddings.  All calories counted and five portions of fruit or veg a day.  Plus walking to school, rain or shine.  They would thank her for it one day.

Figgis meals involved more than just eating.  They were an occasion for being ‘together’:  for family bonding, sharing news, giving guidance, forming young minds.  And forming three teenage minds – girl, boy, girl – was no small job.

She looked at Boswell twiddling spaghetti on to his fork.  Here was a mind so unformed that it was frightening.  He spent much of this time in a ‘wool-gathering’ dream and the result was a mind like a badly-knit jumper – with the tension all over the place and likely to unravel at any moment.

She broke into his dream-drift.  ‘How was school, Boswell?’


‘Forget the animal noises, Boswell.  Real words.  What did you do at school today?’

‘English.  Miss Blinkhorn.’  He shovelled spaghetti.

His mothere’s voice sharpened … ‘Yes, Boswell – and how did you get on at English with Miss Blinkhorn.’  Her eyes narrowed.  ‘Had she marked your homework?’


‘Come on, Boswell.  What was it?’

‘We had to do a summary of ‘Robinson Crusoe.’

‘And …?’

‘I got a C … Minus.’

His father closed his eyes and puffed his cheeks.

His sisters shared a smirk.

His mother said ‘Improving, then.  Did she make any comment?’

‘She said I suffer from periphrasis.’

‘And what does that mean?’

Boswell shrugged.  ‘I don’t know.  Nobody knew.’

His mother said ‘It sounds Greek …’

Big sister Claire said ‘It sounds painful.’

Little sister Lizzy said ‘It’s from the boys’ toilets.’

His father said ‘And do you know what periphrasis is, Boswell?’

‘No.  She said to look it up.’

‘Absolutely … You’ve got a dictionary, haven’t you?’

‘The Oxford Little.’

‘There you are then.  Look up periphrasis.  It’s easy enough.’

‘I did.’

‘And what does it say?’

‘It doesn’t give it.’

His father’s fingers clenched.  ‘Then look on the Internet.’

‘I’m going to.  After tea.’

Big sister Claire said ‘You can’t.  I’m on it.’

Boswell said ‘It will only take two minutes.’

‘You can’t.  I’m doing a defrag.’

His eyes bulged.  ‘Defrag!’

‘It sorts out the disk files.  Speeds things up.’

‘I know what it is!  You did it on Monday.’

‘The system’s still too slow.’

‘There’s nothing wrong with the system, it’s you and your downloads.  Anyway, can’t you put Defrag on hold for a few minutes?’

‘No.  It might let the worm in.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake.  How long will it take?’

Izzy chimed in.  ‘Last time it took her six hours.’

‘Six hours!’  Boswell did hair-tearing.  ‘I’ve got a Shakespeare summary to do tonight.  I can’t start until I’ve sorted out my periphrasis – what it is.  Otherwise she’ll hit the roof.’

Claire put her knife and fork together:  calm and controlled and sweetly smiling.  ‘You’ll need to get up early, then.’

‘I can’t think in the mornings.’  Boswell was running out of options.  He looked at his mother.  ‘Mum?  Periphrasis?’

She shook her head.  ‘Something medical?’

Last ditch.  Boswell knew that his father would make a performance out of the thing, but he had to be asked.  ‘OK, Dad.  ‘Periphrasis’ – what does it mean?’

His father was an old hand at the game.  ‘Look it up, Boswell.  You can’t expect other people to do everything for you.’

‘Where can I look?  We’ve all got the same Oxford Littles.’

His father played the part of Super-Patient Parent.  ‘In my bedroom, Boswell, there is a bookshelf.  On the bookshelf are books.  One of the books is a large red book.  It is a dictionary – Are you with me, Boswell?’

‘Yes,’ said Boswell and went to the door.

‘Just a moment, Boswell.’  His father raised a hand.  ‘That dictionary belonged to my Aunt Constance.  It has survived the past thirty years in excellent shape and I don’t want it marked or mangled, OK?’

‘Yes, Dad.’  Boswell made for the stairs.

‘Wash your hands,’ said his mother.

‘Yes, Mum.’  He went up two at a time.

‘And don’t stand on the bed,’ she called.


Periphrasis n.  Use of roundabout phrasing.  Not getting to the point.  Waffle. – periphrastic adj, periphrastically adv.

‘Right,’ thought Boswell.  ‘So it’s cut the waffle time.  No problem.  Cop a load of this, Miss Brainbox Blinkhorn.’  He reached for his text-book and began to take notes …


After half an hour, his mother appeared.  ‘How is it going?’

‘Under control,’ said Figgis.  ‘Shakespeare really did have periphrasis.  Big time.  But I’ve got his two hours down to about ten seconds.  Listen to this …’

He says ‘But soft! What light …’IMG_0588

She says ‘Wherefore art …’

They go mwah-mwah …

Big scene is Erk … omigod, erk … omigod, erk …


Figgis did his death-jerk, crumpled on the desk and lay still.

His mother left him to it.  She wondered, not for the first time, if she was feeding him the right sort of fish.

Next:  the New Year permitting:  Questions:  Boffie O’Toole and the Prospect of Cool

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