“And as you can see from this graph here, I don’t really know how to use PowerPoint,” droned the speaker.  It was a valiant effort, to be fair.  For someone who definitely wasn’t tech savvy, the very fact that one axis went up and the other went across was the sign of a thoroughly decent attempt, and something to be applauded.  Truth be told, if he hadn’t drawn attention to the shoddiness of his bar chart nobody would’ve noticed anyway – most people’s eyes were firmly shut to protect them from the veritable smorgasbord of slide transitions.

To Robert, sitting in the audience with a can of Stella and a falcon on his arm, the whole thing was a total hoot.  He’d been far past drunk since the second talk of the day and was now sitting happily sozzled, taking in very little and haphazardly tossing morsels of bread into the air for Franz to catch in his beak.  Every now and then he would permit himself a roaring belly laugh, entirely at random and completely unrelated to whatever was showing on the board at the time.  At first the other conference attendees found this routine mildly entertaining, but once he’d guffawed at the statement that ‘50% of subjects with acute liver cirrhosis also experienced heart attacks or strokes’ the room rather turned against him.

When Professor Garfield took the stage for his presentation on ‘Kidney stones – I can’t get no satisfaction’, two stewards moved in for the forced removal.  Eight seconds later they were hastily retreating, covered in peck marks, talon scratches and henna tattoos.  “Let that be a lesson to you, fascist scum,” was a very unusual line for the professor to open with, but it certainly caught everyone’s attention.

As the presentation continued it soon became clear that it was really really boring.  A Mexican wave of yawns travelled around the room (which could have gone unnoticed if the participants hadn’t also stood up with grand panache).  No fewer than seventeen games of hangman were simultaneously taking place, as well as eight games of noughts-and-crosses, ten of battleships and eighty-five of Monopoly (Stoke-on-Trent edition).  Realising that a grand total of none of his ‘listeners’ were actually doing it, the Prof decided to make fart noises with his mouth until somebody noticed.  Four hours later, a research assistant raised their hand to ask a question.  Prof. Garfield stopped and motioned for her to speak up.  Unfortunately she interpreted his actions as an offensive gesture and reported him to the local ombudsman.  Robert collapsed in hysterics and sicked up some lager; Franz gratefully received it.

At this point, the events manager walked into the lecture theatre to check on how things were going and why no one had turned up for the coffee break or lunch.  Finding everything to his satisfaction he left and went to Barbados where he fell in love with a waitress, set up a school for the underprivileged, and found a lovely shell which looked shiny if you held it in just the right way.

All of a sudden, someone got Mayfair and Park Lane (you know, the ones round the back of the Port Vale stadium), and everything kicked off.  Laptops were smashed, chairs were ripped out of their fittings, and many bits of otherwise-clean paper were scribbled on.  Shirts were ripped, ties were peanutted, and one attendee had some feathers pulled out.  At the end of it all, sixty conference goers were taken away to hospital; everyone else went to prison, or Sainsbury’s – I can’t remember which.

The room was left empty; the smashed-up furniture, spilled blood and burning curtains the only indicators that anything had ever happened.  The events of that day were seldom to be mentioned by those who survived to tell the tale, but generally when the subject was raised there was one thing on which they all agreed – it was most definitely the best seminar series they had ever had the good fortune to attend.

TSP072: Bad wine

January 21, 2014

“Just take it away.  Get it out of here.  Put it down in the basement with all the others.”  Hadrian covered his face with his hands as he uttered the command, not wishing to get a second glance of the offending bottle.  It wasn’t often that he came across a wine he didn’t like, but tonight was one of those unfortunate occasions.  He’d invited the Simpson-Smythes around for dinner, true, but only out of spite.  And this was their way of getting back at him – clearly they had realised the social summons hadn’t come from the heart, and so in retaliation they had gone out and purchased the cheapest, nastiest, most brutal bottle they could find.  A bottle so foul, so insidious, so deeply desperately vile that it could only have been procured from a terrible, dark corner of the world, like the bowels of a volcano, or the innards of a shark, or the Watford Gap services.

Neil and Patricia Simpson-Smythe sat restless in the grand and spacious conservatory, quietly nervous and loudly flatulent.  Without saying a word, the couple of thirty-five years exchanged thoughts via a psychic connection they’d picked up in Boots for a bargain price.  “He’s been an awful long time,” thought Neil.  “I know,” thought Patricia.  “I wonder what he’s doing,” thought Neil.  “I know,” thought Patricia.  “Um, are you actually listening to what I’m thinking?” thought Neil.  “I know,” thought Patricia.  “OI PATRICIA!” thought Neil.  “Hmmm?” thought Patricia.  “Stay focussed, thought Neil, “We’re here on a mission, remember?”

As the butler left the room, Hadrian dabbed his fingers with a heated towel.  The butler had learned to put up with this bizarre foible of his master’s and bore the warm sensation of the cloth with an incredibly professional fake smile, one he’d learned at Finishing School, in the small Suffolk village of Finishing.  After closing the door behind his manservant, Hadrian strutted over to the bay window and gazed out at the setting sun filtering through the trees, transforming his estate into a Dr Seuss landscape, all pink grass and long shadows.  A cat (no hat) scampered along the patio and into a rosebush.  “Stupid cat,” thought Hadrian.

“Stupid cat,” thought Neil, watching the animal senselessly leap into the thorny shrub.  “He’s not coming out of there without a few scratches.”  “How apt,” thought Patricia…

As aristocratic warlords go, Hadrian was certainly one of the friendlier ones.  But when crossed he became a man who was most definitely dangerous and just a little bit camp.  The slight with the wine was a blatant affront to his dignity, to his empire, and to his pyjamas.  The offenders could not be permitted to get off lightly – they would have to pay.  Financially or psychologically – he didn’t particularly mind which.  He opened the secret drawer in his chaise-longue and extracted his weapon of choice…  A small chunk of Kendal mint cake – which he then ate.

“I still think we should have poisoned the wine,” thought Neil.  “I know you think that, I can think what you’re thinking, remember?” thought Patricia.  “Oh yeah,” thought Neil, “Sorry, I forgot you could do that.”  “Indeed,” thought Patricia, before adding after a short pause, “And who exactly is Henrietta, may I ask?”  Neil reddened, mentally.  “Ah, yes, darling – I’ve been meaning to tell you about that…”

Striding majestically down the stairs, the dinner host mused to himself as to his best plan of action.  The crocodile pit hadn’t been used in a while – it would be great to see all the gang again.  Or there was The Cage – a new acquisition, not yet tested.  Decisions, decisions!

“I think he’s outside in the hallway,” thought Neil.  “How many times – I know you think that, I can think it too, you know!” thought Patricia.  “And besides, stop avoiding the question – why do you need to go to the chiropodist so often.”  “I thought you Patricia – I have terrible feet.”  “But what’s wrong with Mr Arbuthnot, down in the village?  He’s top class, and has excellent ancestry.  Why do you have to pass into town to that… that floozy Henrietta?”  “Careful now Patricia,” thought Neil, “Henrietta is not a floozy – she’s a flautist.  That word doesn’t mean what you think it means.”  Patricia shot him a mental look: “It jolly well does,” she thought.

Hadrian opened the door and waltzed in.  “Well hello again, and may I say once more thank you so much for the wonderful wine.  It will make a most welcome addition to my Chamber of Horrors exhibition downstairs.  And would you look at that!  What a treat you are in store for tonight – such a marvellous sunset.  Step this way please, you can admire the spectacle best from this precise spot here… that’s right, on the big red ‘X’ in the floor.  I marked it out myself with a children’s jumbo chalk so that I would always remember just where the prime viewpoint is for such a marvel of nature.”  Positioning his distracted guests atop the trapdoor, Hadrian pressed the big red button (oh, how he loved the big red button!) and with a satisfying electronic whirr, four tiles slid away and the Simpson-Smythes plunged straight down into the water below.  “Woah!” thought Neil.  “I didn’t bring the right shoes for this!” thought Patricia.

Hadrian’s manic laugh was cut short at the sight of two great reptilian skeletons.  “Sanderson!” he shouted, “When did you last feed the crocodiles?”  Sanderson materialised in the doorway, a trick he was using rather too often since passing his Apparition Test.  “Well, sir, I believe it was when we had the Gordon-Jones’s round for supper last August.”  “They haven’t been fed for nine months?!”  “Well, you haven’t been feeling particularly sociable, sir.”

Hadrian sighed.  He looked down at his guests who looked back at him from a rock in the centre of the pool, cold, wet and shivering.  “Brrrrrrr,” thought Neil.  “I know,” thought Patricia.

“Don’t get too comfortable,” he shouted down to them.  “I’m not done with you yet, traitors.  Sanderson – bring in The Cage.”  “Certainly sir, he’s just having a vermouth.”  Hadrian’s eyes glistened with maniacal glee and a great big tear from a sudden sad thought that he just as quickly packed away in the corner of the brain marked ‘What the heck?’  Neil summoned the courage to speak.  “When you say ‘The Cage’, you don’t mean-”  “Oh yes I do,” sneered Hadrian.  “And what exactly is he going to-”  “Oh, you’ll see soon enough!” snarled Hadrian.  “Yes, I’m aware of that,” said Neil, “but I’d hoped you might make us aware of it now, in advance – you know, just enlighten us a little before the actual event takes place.”

Hadrian sighed again.  “You’re a very boring man,” he said.  “All I will say is that you are about to witness a sterling re-enactment of the entire script from National Treasure.  And then once that is done he’ll move onto National Treasure 2.”  “As in ‘Book of Secrets’?”  “That’s right,” Hadrian grinned, “John Cage will perform both of these in his own inimitable style.”

“You mean Nicholas Cage?” suggested Patricia.  “No, no – John Cage.”  The Simpson-Smythes exchanged looks.  Neil shouted up what they were both thinking: “I think you’re going to be a little disappointed…”

“Okay, so does anybody want me to go through that again?”  Team Leader Ken looked up and down the line of new recruits, inspecting the evasive faces for even the slightest flicker of emotion, hoping for a signal – any signal – a twitch, a scratch, an epileptic fit – looking for any excuse to repeat the exercise.  All ten newcomers stood absolutely still, determined not to allow even an arm hair to move in a way that said “ME, ME!  SHOW ME!  IT WAS AMAZING!”

“Lynn – do you want me to go through that again?”  Lynn knew it was a trap.  She ignored Team Leader Ken with all of her being, her gaze firmly focussed on a packet of dried prunes, two shelves up, next to the apricots, willing him to move on to somebody else.  Recognising a lost cause when he saw one, Team Leader Ken switched his attention to the 17-year-old lad beside her.  Masoud took a deep breath and held it, braced for the onslaught.  “How about you Masoud – perhaps a sixth demonstration will help you really get to grips with the manual tasks required in this job?”  Masoud’s lips began to tremble and his left eye leaked a tear with the strain, but resolutely he refused to let out even the slightest sound.  As Masoud’s eyes began to goggle, Team Leader Ken abandoned his pursuit and moved on to his next victim.

“Terence…  Terence, Terence, Terence.  I know your type when I see it,” he schmoozed.  “The consummate professional.  The method actor.  The keen angler.  The Pope.”  Terence was beginning to feel that Team Leader Ken really didn’t know his type when he saw it.  “You’re a man who likes to make sure he gets things right, yes?  A man who cannot stand to do anything at a level anywhere less than the height of his supreme powers?  A man who knows the importance of practice and repeating the same task until perfection or death, whichever comes first?”  Terence glared at his shoes, reciting the Buddhist mantra “Go away, go away, go away” under his breath.  Shutting his eyes, Terence imagined himself as a lotus on a still, calm pool atop a mountain, the sound of pan-pipes echoing around the hills, a small golden fish leaping gracefully above him to catch a fly with ruthless efficiency and panache.  Sighing blissfully to himself, he awoke some five hours later to find the store closed and facing the prospect of a night snuggled up under an extra large dressing gown beneath a rudimentary fort of bedsheets in the home section.

Team Leader Ken interpreted Terence’s silence as a bad thing and turned to face Lorenzo, the new fishmonger.  “Lorenzo – I’m sure that you-”  “YES, YES, YES!  SHOW ME AGAIN!”  Team Leader Ken shook his head, blinked hard and returned to the real world.  “Lorenzo – I’m sure that you’d like me to demonstrate this procedure once more, yes?”  “I would rather gouge my eyes out through my nostrils with a coat hanger.”  Team Leader Ken took that as a no, then addressed the group as a whole.  “Anybody?  Are you all definitely one hundred percent sure you’re happy – did you appreciate all the nuances of my actions?  It’s a very specific set of instructions and things can go drastically wrong if they are not followed to the letter.  Do you seriously want a sub-standard delivery of store protocol to endanger your safety on a lonely late night shift?  At one in the morning, your corpse might lie undiscovered in one of these aisles for more than an hour – think about that.  Just think about that for a moment.  By the time that Mrs Bedson or Mr Davies comes looking for the vinegar or the Oxo or the tinned plum tomatoes and stumbles upon your maggot-infested cadaver, you might be so beyond help that you’d wish you’d asked Team Leader Ken for one further demonstration to ensure that you fully understood the magnitude of what you were taking on.  So…  Who wants to see it again?”

A stony silence hung in the air, all of the new starters silently praying that in unity they would remain resilient and strong and repel Team Leader Ken’s persistence.  But eight heads (Terence the Lotus was snoring by now) swung round in outraged despair at the sight of a shaking hand being slowly raised above an abashed and reddening head.  “Team Leader Ken…”  Ken positively glowed with delight as he wheeled around to listen.  “I think it would be a very sensible idea if you showed us just one… m-more… time…”  The group collectively groaned and tossed their heads back in agony.  “EXCELLENT, Lucy!  What a splendid suggestion – you will make a fantastic cashier, I can tell.  Possibly one of the best the world has ever seen.”  Lucy smiled weakly in apology to her co-workers; they weren’t too furious with her – they themselves had felt almost helpless to withstand Team Leader Ken’s guilt-inducing monologue, and could understand why she’d felt compelled to do it, but she certainly shouldn’t expect any break-time company in the staff room until at least next Christmas.

Team Leader Ken bounced back to the front of the assembled crowd with a clap of his hands and a manic grin.  “Right then – everybody watching?  I’ll only do this once…  Okay.  Approach the box of raisins, stop, and then – this is the most important part – bend your knees, not your back, to get right down next to it…”

TSP070: Of cats and men

November 5, 2013

It was a cold, cold night in Oxfordshire, and as the clock struck midnight a little man peeked out of my coat pocket and surveyed the room in front of him.  Rarely had he ever beheld such a glitteringly decorated room: mirrors sparkled in the light of passing cars, chandeliers gleamed and shiny worktop surfaces glimmered.  With a cry of joy he cast wide open the pocket flap and hauled himself out onto the adjacent chair.  Shimmying down the chair leg, his pink and green-striped bobble hat wobbling pleasantly from side to side, he reached the floor with sheer delight, excited to have ended up in such a dazzling location after what had been a really rather rotten day, hopelessly lost in the garden centre.  Brimming over with glee he gave a little hop, clicked his heels together and was promptly eaten by the cat.

In the morning I awoke to find a tiny little head, about the size of a potato, presented to me at the end of the bed by a very self-satisfied and proud-looking mog.  Normally I wouldn’t have minded and after tossing the head casually into the bathroom bin I’d have just got on with my day – had my shower, eaten my breakfast, got dressed (yes, in that order), brushed my teeth, tousled the cat’s head and left for work at a canter.  But not today.  Today, this was the last straw.  It’s happened 40 days in a row.  FORTY.  On the spin; consecutively; without a gap.

I don’t actually know where he finds them.  In my head I give them all a back story.  I assume they must be in the house already because I lock him in at night.  The thought that there might be an infestation of little men somewhere under the stairs, or in the laundry room, or up the chimney, makes me shiver a little, so I prefer to imagine that they come in on my clothes.

This one looked like a Norman.  You’d think it was pretty hard to tell anything at all from just the disembodied head of a tiny little man who’s been mauled by a cat with a salivary gland problem, but I think you can read a lot about their personality.  Norman would have played cribbage, and smoked a pipe, and howled at the moon when lonely or sad.  But although he would have been an introvert he would still have had more friends than Dennis.

Dennis’ head was the meanest looking one I’ve ever seen roll past my bedroom door at six in the morning; gave me quite a turn.  Day 23.  I’d only got up to nip to the loo, when that scampering animal went zooming by in pursuit of its latest plaything.  A great scowling face, purple bloodshot eyes, one huge solitary fang and an Iron Maiden tattoo right across his nose.  And the little man’s head looked pretty grim too.  Probably spent most of his life on the run from the authorities.

I’ve never kept a head, but I’ve been tempted to take one in to work and show the guys.  More for a diagnosis rather than to brag.  I wonder if anybody else has seen anything like them, or if they know what they are.  Gnomes, elves, Borrowers – whatever they are I’m pretty positive they’ve never been documented on the TV; there’s probably a show in this for Attenborough or Packham.  I’ve started to keep a diary of my first impressions just in case it comes in handy when they set up base camp in my front garden to start the filming.  I do sketches and everything – nothing special, just little pencil drawings to try and capture the essence of their personalities.  Stick men, really.  And I don’t draw the facial features – just the shape of their head on a stick body.  A friend of mine is a nephrologist – he says you can tell a lot about someone just by feeling their scalp.  So the drawings should be adequate.

One day I plan to stay up all night and watch the cat to see what he does, where he goes, where he finds the little men.  It’s hard because I’ve got a medical condition that means I have to take strong sedatives and so it’s almost impossible for me to stay awake through the small hours.  I expect you’ll ask why I don’t just set up a camera – but I have, on numerous occasions.  And every time the cat makes a beeline for it and puts the lens cap back on, so all I get is hour after hour of sheet black.  That in itself is probably impressive behaviour enough to submit to the wildlife people – or You’ve Been Framed.  Even when I’ve mounted the camera close to the ceiling to get it out of his reach, he manages to reach it.  He runs right up the wall – you can see the claw marks in the morning.  I’ve repapered the hallway twice in the last month.  If he does it again I’m putting subway tiles up – they seem to be all the rage on the DIY shows right now, so it should look bang on trend and also be much easier to wipe clean.

If it happens again tonight (which I expect it will, given recent performance) I’ll post a picture on this blog – if the cat lets me, of course.  Right now I’m off to Sainsbury’s for a spot of late-night shopping.  I’m all out of potatoes again.  I buy a whole load every other week it seems, but they just all disappear.  I reckon it’s the little men – they climb out of my discarded overalls, leave the odd bit of earth here and there on the carpet as they wander into the larder, munch their way through a spud or two and then get got by Dougal.  It’s a sad way to go, sitting quietly, eating a potato.  Nothing noble or impressive about it.  But such is life.

Phrenologist, sorry – my friend is a phrenologist.  Heads, not kidneys.

TSP069: Heart of Duckness

August 20, 2013

“What do you mean you’re leaving?!”

“Exactly that – I’m leaving.  Going.  Disappearing.  Exiting this house.  Walking over to the door, turning the handle, opening it, stepping outside and not looking back.”

“But I need you Frances – we need you.  Don’t go.”

“I’m sorry Bert, I really am.  But I’m calling time on this enterprise as of… now.”

“But who will tell the visitors about the portraits of former owners of the property?  Or point out the boring trinkets on the mantelpiece?”

“To be perfectly frank Bert – that’s not my problem.  The National Trust can just go and find another volunteer.”

The split was far from amicable.  After forty years of loyal service to Hacknell Hall in Herefordshire, Frances had decided to leave behind the cut and national thrust of life as a room attendant in the stately home, to pursue a career as a duck handler on the International Space Station.  Many reasons had influenced her decision – the money for one (it looked set to be a lucrative endeavour indeed) and the travel for two.  And the ducks for three.

Ah, the ducks.  Those lovely, fluffy ducks.  Ever since the age of four, when she received her first egg wrapped in a ribbon beneath the Christmas tree, Frances was hooked on hatching and rearing ducklings.  Sadly the first ribbon-wrapped egg had turned out to be hard-boiled so she got off to a false start, but after that – some time in the Spring – a competent relative went out to purchase a viable replacement and within weeks Frances proudly held in her hands a pair of conjoined twin ducklings, whom she named Tobias and Feral.  Sadly her pastor father had immediately shipped them off to Guatemala for an exorcism and she never saw them again, but she vowed to find them one day, and then stumbled across them completely by accident before she’d even raised the finances to head for the Americas whilst walking round Grimsby town centre one afternoon.  Scooping them up in her arms, she secretly cared for them in a shoebox in the shed at the bottom of the garden, visiting them every day before and after (and sometimes even during) school, bringing them the eucalyptus leaves they had grown accustomed to in the North and topping up their water dish (a big upturned hat, possibly a naval commander’s).

Tobias and Feral were the first in a long line of duck pets for Frances.  When Spring came again, it brought with it Meryl, Taboo and Yaya Toure.  Then Vincent, Amy and Condensed Milk.  And then Faulkner, Octavius, Chablis and X.  And then a whole load of others that she just didn’t have time to name, and so never really grew that attached to.

The family’s neighbours soon grew accustomed to the sight of little Frances walking all of her ducks (some sixty odd) down the street, each of them on its own little leash, and then equally the sight of a tearful Frances rushing home alone to her father, and then an agitated parent with his daughter hotfooting it to the alleyway where the ducks had taken fright and got all tangled up in their reins and were now suspended in a great big ball of twine and ducks some eight feet off the ground in a sycamore sapling that somebody should really have removed when it was much smaller and more manageable.  Everywhere that Frances went her ducks were sure to go – college, university, holiday apartments, the aeroplane to get there (that was fun), Disneyland once, a Lady Gaga concert (where she fitted right in), Debenhams…

But not Hacknell Hall.

The National Trust had made it very clear to Frances that her ducks (by now several generations along and numbering some four thousand two hundred and fifty) were not welcome on the estate.  For one thing, the staff members on the gate were unsure which pricing category they came under (‘concessions’?) and for another they were bound to make an awful mess on the antique furnishings and immaculate lawns.  Also they didn’t have pockets for membership cards.  So it was that with a heavy heart, a young woman full of enthusiasm for preserving the nation’s social history had to part temporarily with the creatures that had given her so much joy in life.  Every Saturday, Amy would drive her duck lorry into the car park, kiss all of the ducks farewell individually and scatter a few mealworms through a slat in the side of the vehicle, and every Saturday four thousand two hundred and fifty quacking birds would fall quiet and wait in silence for their owner to return.

The reunion was always a happy one.  The sound of Frances’ ducks rejoicing at her reappearance could be heard for miles around – often as far away as Portugal.  And Frances would hug them all one by one and then once that was done, at around midnight, drive home and lead them all back into their beds in the shed (now substantially modified thanks to a Lottery grant, enabling Frances and her father to build a stylish extension and a glass-domed penthouse).  Pretty much all of her Saturdays were just hellos and goodbyes, with a few bits of “This is actually an original shoehorn” in between.

But the routine had got too much for Frances, and the ducks had got too many for the extended shed, now numbering some five and a half million.  And so Frances set about on her next big dream – colonising a planet with ducks.  It was a case of taking baby steps – one thing at a time.  And this work experience on the International Space Station was going to be just perfect.  Six astronauts, two tourists, one hate cleric who nobody would accept into their country and a duck wrangler.  And five and a half million ducks.

Bert couldn’t understand.  “But you love the National Trust, Frances.”  She wanted to let him down gently but it was hard to see how.  Instead she was brutally blunt.

“I did love the National Trust, Bert.  Once.”  A pause to allow that to sink in.  “But I also love ducks.  And I mean really love.”  And with that, she confidently strode down the steps of Hacknell Hall one final time, without glancing back to see the bemused and sad expression on her colleague’s face, and turned the corner to her train to be met with a cacophony of excited quacking so loud that they could only have been quacks of sheer joy.

“Why is he here?”  Sinead looked daggers at Mike, not for the first time that evening – and definitely not for the last.  Without taking his hand off his pint glass, Mike turned to look over his shoulder at the middle-aged gentleman at the next table.   Narrowing his eyes, as he always did when assessing a situation however trivial or insignificant, Mike took in the bus driver’s uniform, the bags beneath his eyes, the limp chips smothered in mayonnaise, the well-thumbed copy of The Quiet American, and the empty seat opposite, before slickly rotating back into position to face his colleague once more.

“Well, Sinead,” he began, “I’d say that he’s finally come off shift for the day and is taking a moment to grab a reassuring pint, a bite to eat and a rare few minutes of peace to peruse his latest library book before heading back to his flat to bed down before the routine begins all over tomorrow morning at the bus station at seven o’clock sharp.  Surely a hard-working man’s entitled to that?”  Mike swigged back his beer, spilling most of it down his top but hoping that Sinead hadn’t noticed and his suave and sophisticated image remained intact.  Sinead was unimpressed.

“No, you dolt – not him.  Him.”  Following the line of the finger that pointed over his other shoulder, Mike swivelled on the stool to see Wally from the Where’s Wally? series of books slumped at the bar with a bowl of peanuts and a Guinness.  Mike thought for a moment, surveyed the well-used walking stick, the highly polished spectacles, the black key with the huge handle, the completely-not-out-of-place-at-all scarlet-ribboned scroll, and the barely visible red-and-white-striped tail of Woof, and then returned to face Sinead once more.  In one fluid motion he raised his eyebrows, turned down the corners of his mouth and offered up a shrug of his shoulders.  “Haven’t the foggiest,” he confessed.

Sinead frowned.  “I just don’t get it – there must be only, what, ten, twelve people in this bar.  Normally Wally only hangs out in crowds of fifty, sixty – plus.”  “Yeah, and they’re usually pirates or space monsters or cavemen or something – not bus drivers, sales managers and incompetent cashiers.”  “Careful now.  Anyway, you’re wrong – the first couple of Wally books were full of ordinary scenarios – street scenes, beaches, First World War trenches.”  Mike recognised the validity of the comment with a tip of his invisible hat and another sip of his ale, which mainly went up his nose and wept out of his eyes.  Glancing once more at the forlorn bobble-hatted figure he suggested to Sinead that maybe he ought to ask Wally what was up.

“Seriously?  Mike, that is such a breach of Wally etiquette.  You don’t ask Wally why he’s in a certain place.  You just find him and accept the fact that he’s there.  He has his reasons, sure – but exactly what they are is his business and his alone.”  “He could be a spy.”  “What?”

Sinead stared across at Mike waiting for him to explain.  Mike savoured the moment and leered gormlessly back before realising that wasn’t the face he’d intended to pull and hurriedly rearranging his features into what he considered a cooler expression, but was in fact ‘creepy psycho’.  Coughing to hide his embarrassment, he went on: “Look, nobody knows why Wally turns up in these places.  He doesn’t say, he doesn’t apply for visas or show his passport or anything like that; nobody thinks to ask him what he’s doing in a place – what if he’s on an information-gathering mission for a third party?  A foreign agency, an underground movement, an apocalyptic cult…  He’s perfectly positioned to courier sensitive or compromising information in or out of any location – because people always expect to see him there.  Even if it’s the middle of a desert, or a movie studio, or a stripy room full of other people that look a lot like him but differ in just one frustratingly difficult-to-spot detail – wherever he is, we just accept the fact that ‘there he is!’  What fools!  For years, nobody has suspected anything – his rucksack must be full of government secrets.  He’s the perfect spy!”

“He’s coming over.”  “What?”  Sinead gestured with a nod as she buried her mouth in her wine glass.  Sure enough Wally had got up from his seat and was about to walk past them, probably to the gents – or the itbox.  Without thinking Mike quickly stood up, catching Wally by surprise and halting him in his tracks.  The seconds of silence that passed felt like years to a reddening Mike as Wally stood face to face with him, about three feet away.  Mike blinked awkwardly and visibly salivated, his mouth hanging open in a way that didn’t complement his ears.  Wally eyeballed him and looked past him to the far wall.  “Um…  Can I just get past please?” he asked.  Mike apologised.  “Oh of course – sure.  Sorry.”  “Thanks,” muttered Wally and squeezed through the gap.

Mike gawped towards Sinead.  “It’s Wally!” he just about managed to say.  “I know it’s Wally,” she said, “We were just talking about him – why are you so surprised?!”  “I think I’m a little starstruck, that’s all,” he oozed.  “Did I come across as cool?”  “Oh yeah, so cool.  You didn’t seem like a nutcase at all, that’s for sure.”  Mike jumped excitedly.  “Do you think he’d sign me an autograph?!”  “Don’t harass the man – everywhere he goes people point at him and gape.  Let him have just one normal evening in a pub.”

Mike, a little deflated, sat back down.  Suddenly, his eyes gleamed with the excitement of a wonderful discovery.  “He’s left his binoculars!  There at the bar.  I could go and give them back to him!”  “Just leave them Mike – he’ll be coming back from the lav in a second.”  “But what if he didn’t mean to leave them?”  “I’m pretty sure he did mean it and he won’t thank you for covering the lenses with your grubby fingerprints in a childish attempt to curry favour with him.  Sit tight, he’ll be back shortly.”

But Wally didn’t come back.  After half an hour’s no-show, a feverish Mike burst into the loos to assail him with his open autograph book and a manic smile only to find an open window and a running tap.  Wally was gone, like a whisper, a phantom, a zephyr – embarked upon his next assignment, hotfooting it to the quayside to make the last ship to Caracas and rendezvous with his contact under the cover of darkness in the mid-Atlantic, where nobody of any importance could overhear their coded communications and decipher the true impact of their words and the consequences for the financial superpowers of the western world.

Mike scratched his head in amazement.  There was one question on his lips…

Some babies are smaller than others – this is a fact of life; some might call it a sad fact, others a hilarious fact – that’s because different people have different senses of humour.  Like how babies have different sizes.  FACT.

Some babies are small because they have what is known as “Fetal growth restriction” (FGR).  This is when the growth of the fetus is restricted.  ‘Fetus’ is one way of spelling the word, but most scientists agree that it should be spelled ‘foeoeoeoetus’.

Being growth restricted is like trying to grow in a very small room, like in a wendy house or a matchbox.  Sometimes babies actually do grow in matchboxes – always make sure you open up the box a little bit before you take the matches to the counter to buy; otherwise, you might end up with more than you bargained for.  Babies also grow in bunches of bananas.  Sometimes when the bananas are being loaded into a boat for transportation from the Caribbean or the Moon or wherever, a baby gets out of the bunch and bites the cargo handler.  The cargo handler should wear protective clothing, but if he is silly and does not (or forgets) then he should get to a hospital STRAIGHT AWAY because baby bites are highly venomous.

It is important to note that FGR is not the same as FDR, who was a President of America.  It is also not the same as FUR, which is just the word ‘fur’ written in capitals.  Some people prefer to call FGR ‘intrauterine growth restriction’ (IUGR).  This is sensible, because it avoids any confusion with the 32nd President of the United States or somebody shouting about fur.

Some people confuse ‘FGR’ with Roald Dahl’s ‘BFG’.  This is rather odd, but you can be pretty sure the Big Friendly Giant did not have fetal growth restriction – at least, not by human standards.  Or by lobster standards.

How to spot if you have FGR: (1) Are you a fetus?  If no, you do not have FGR; if yes, go to 2.  (2) Do you have FGR?  If no, you do not have FGR; if yes, you have FGR.  This is a simple test that can help put your mind at rest.  I hope you found it useful.

Seriously though, FGR or IUGR can be a very serious condition during pregnancy – really it just means that the fetus is growing less than you would expect in the mother’s womb.  There are lots of possible causes, including poor nutrition, low oxygen intake and listening to Lionel Richie (because all of the mother’s energy goes into enjoying Lionel and not on the baby; only selfish mothers listen to Lionel Richie during pregnancy.  Please note that dancing on the ceiling constitutes a high-risk activity for pregnant mothers and is not recommended by your GP… unless you have a bad GP… or your GP actually is Lionel Richie.  NEVER VISIT A GP CALLED LIONEL RICHIE – just in case.)

In sheep, FGR can be caused by heat stress in early to mid pregnancy.  This is an incontrovertible fact because I just saw it on Wikipedia and I am not going to check the actual source as that is Too Much Effort.

In order to raise awareness of FGR, the NHS set up a football team: Forest Green Rovers.  This happened in 1890 – 58 years before the NHS set itself up, which shows immense foresight and good planning skills.  At the start of every match, the Forest Green Rovers team line up in the shape of a womb and graphically demonstrate the effects of fetal growth restriction.  Then they have a whip-round and donate some of the money to charities that help babies with FGR, and spend the rest of it on sweets for half time.  The government says this is a GOOD THING and that more football teams should be set up to combat illnesses in fetuses.  Next season, an extra team will be added to the Premier League for just that purpose – Necrotising Enterocolitis FC.  They will replace Newcastle United, because their names are very similar and the FA does not want people to get confused.

In conclusion, FGR is a BAD THING.  Many pages can be written about it, but it is better to be short and sweet than never to have loved at all.  I would recommend reading the BFG to children, with or without FGR (but without FDR – he’d just talk right over you).  It is a good book.  8 out of 10.  THE END.

Conflicts of interest: I own the copyright to the BFG.  Also FDR is actually my dad.  And I am Lionel Richie.

The rain is still falling.  Still.  Part of me struggles to believe it.  So much water has poured in through the hole in my ceiling that there’s now a hole in the floor, the boards rotten right through.  Tomorrow the erosive power of the cascade will wear a hole through Mr Clarke’s floor too (and his one’s concrete), down and down, on its unassailable path to the centre of the Earth, at which point the sheer volume of water careering downwards through the many layers of the planet’s innards will quench the fire that burns at its centre, and the great cooling process will begin that sees this globe descend into another – this time irreversible – Ice Age.  All life extinguished, the planet silent, formless and void once more.  All because of this blinking rain and that crummy hole in my tiling.

It may sound silly but put yourself in my position and maybe you’ll appreciate the weight that’s on my mind.  I can’t help it if my imagination runs away with me – I try to remain level-headed but it’s all so infuriating.  What started as a drip from a tiny crack in the middle of the Artex last February is now a gaping chasm two inches wide with a steady stream of fluid dropping into a succession of frustratingly-too-small vessels from around the house.  The washing up bowl, plant pots, mugs, even the bucket we usually reserve as the sick bowl in times of illness – all of them are lined up, waiting to take their turn at collecting as much of the stuff as they can muster, while my wife and I conduct our new cyclical routine of one of us rushing to the window to deposit the contents outside while the other positions the next receptacle beneath the open maw of the ceiling, for 18 hours of the day (overnight we heave the bath out of its fittings, to give us a chance of some sleep – we’d do it in the daytime too but it’s an awful lot of effort to tip out).  Admittedly, yes, our system would work just as well with three, and even just with two containers if we’re careful not to spill any of it during the transition, but really we feel we ought to give all of our belongings a chance to show their worth in an emergency situation.  Even the lid from the mouthwash bottle is currently in the queue, ready and willing to be of assistance in our time of need.  The bottle itself, however, is still about thirty percent full, and I’m not keen to waste its precious cargo or dilute it to pathetic homeopathic proportions for fear that by doing so I might be sacrificing my oral hygiene.

Our friends are being very supportive.  Bill pops round every afternoon to bring us some nosh, something to keep our energy levels up and our stomachs satisfied.  Sometimes he offers to hold the biscuit tin in place below our new water feature so that we can take a quick relief break or have a cup of tea.  I suppose the one advantage to the situation is that it’s easier to fill the kettle with one hand now; no more faffing with the mixer tap.  You’ve got to take the positives where you find them – even if they are potentially contaminated with traces of asbestos.

Jenny visits us on Tuesdays in her lunch break.  She’s awfully busy down at the office but it’s nice to know that she still thinks about her parents at a time like this.  Her boyfriend Mark has been round just the once.  Took one look at the place, turned up his nose and said he’d be in the car.  Git.

The only real trouble I’ve faced is with the boss at work.  First chance I got I rang him up to explain that I might be a bit late.  Ever since then he rings me up every morning to ask if I’ll be back in.  It’s been three weeks, he says.  Six weeks, three months, six months, a year – I can’t keep your job open forever you know.  Besides Mrs Wilson called and you still haven’t gone round and sorted her smoke alarm.  What if she dies in a fire?  Nag, nag, nag.  Thankfully I’m still being paid, even if it is only at half rate.  Claire’s work were much more understanding.  Take extended leave, they told her.  We’ll cover your shifts until everything is sorted – we’re here for you honey, hugs and kisses, mwah mwah mwah.  She’s a nuclear physicist on the SPARTAN programme, investigating the rates of decay of alternative energy sources.  Claire says that in all her researches she’s never come across anything as corrosive as this weather.  It’s a joke of course, and it lightens the mood – you should see some of the stuff she has to handle at work, it’s at least four or five times worse than this.

Oh, here we go again.  The urn is full once more and I’m on my way to the window to empty it out.  Poor dad.  After we scattered him to the winds from the top of Ben Nevis (his favourite place) I’m sure he’d never have imagined his former post-death lodgings would be put to this use.  Still, I know he’d be happy to know he could be of use to us in this troubling time for the family.  Right now, he’s smiling down on us – I can feel it.

I used to complain I was caught in the rat race, that every day I was doing the same thing over and over again, with no real end in sight, no real hope of achieving anything.  Little did I know, hey?  If there’s one thing this ordeal is teaching me, it’s not to complain about what I’ve got – there’s always someone else worse off than yourself.  That’s what Cilla used to say – Cilla Black; used to live next door.  Always singing.  Barmy, she was.  But so wise.  And the jokes!  Every time she saw me – heeeere’s our Graham!  Still makes me chuckle now.  Never had the heart to tell her my name was Ian.  But she taught me a lot of things while she was alive – or I can see that now anyway.  Life may sometimes seem like a loop, an endless sequence of day after day after day – but it isn’t.  Within that structure there’s always a chance to break the loop, to stop the cycle.  You just have to be on the lookout for the opportunity, for the chance.  Because it’s there alright, it just might not be all that obvious to the person who drives relentlessly on, blinkered to their environment, their heart closed off to hope.  This is a loop – this never-ending water-catching dance – but life isn’t.  Life is a series of forks in the road, and all you have to do is have the courage to take the turn-off that you’ve never taken before.  Otherwise you’ll end up back where you started.

So as soon as this is over, once the rain finally ceases, I know I’ll take every chance I get.  In a world of possibilities I will steel myself to seize the day.  Carpe diem.  My eyes will be actively open, looking for the forks, seeking out the roads down which I’ve never walked.  Especially the one that leads to the house of that blasted plumber who told me he’d be here last Easter and then I promise you he won’t hear the end of this.

TSP065: Breakfast inbred

April 17, 2013

The king stretched out his sceptre and pronounced this breakfast cereal open.  The queen tutted audibly and rolled her eyes.  Her husband momentarily paused his excited pouring and glanced across.  “What was that dear?” he asked, churlishly and with forethought.  The queen scowled and replied brusquely, “Oh, nothing darling,” before returning her attention to the far-too-easy wordsearch on the back of the Sugar Puffs.  Slamming the box onto the kitchen table (which caused a line of oats to spill upwards in a gravity-defying cascade of a beauty rarely seen outside Wrexham) the king gathered himself to his full height (two foot four), his eyes boiling with rage, and screamed out, “And what, may I ask, is that supposed to mean?!”

The queen looked over at him with apathy and distaste, much as a child would at a Twiglet.  Laying down her quill neatly and with propriety she almost sang her response…  “It means, oh dearest hubby of mine, that you are a great big fat pig and I hate you and always have.”  This threw the king somewhat, as he’d been starting to think that maybe she was upset about him stretching out his sceptre to pronounce the breakfast cereal open.  “So it wasn’t because I stretched out my sceptre and pronounced this breakfast cereal open?” he asked.  The queen reached out her hand and patted his cheek gently.  “Well, my cuddly sausage of a man, it was a little bit because you stretched out your sceptre and pronounced that breakfast cereal open, but it was also a large bit because you are incessantly annoying and a bigot and a great big skank.”

The king breathed in slowly through one nostril and then out through the other.  “You’re making fun of my height aren’t you?  That’s twice you’ve said ‘big’ now.  Part of me wishes it really were because I stretched out my sceptre and pronounced my breakfast cereal open, but I can tell that mainly it’s because I am very short and afraid of lemons.”  “My dear little-”  “Watch it, woman.”  “My dear cherub and hot buttered maltloaf, I can assure you it’s not because of your height – remember, I’m shorter than you; I’m barely two foot two.  You seem to be forgetting that we are pygmies, and that you are the king of the pygmies, and that I am the queen of the pygmies, and also that you are such a blasted blockhead of an awful bloated dog bottom.”

It was rare that the king found himself unsure of how to reply to a statement (last time had been back in 1986 when filling out his pygmy tax return and attempting to fathom the difference between gross domestic income and frankly putrid domestic income) but this was to prove one of those occasions.  Climbing up onto the step stool, he spat out his coffee with a satisfying ‘ping’ off his dog’s prosthesis and roared down at his bride, “EXPLAIN YOURSELF, LADY.”  At this, the queen kicked back her chair, stood up and shouted back whilst pointing at the yucca plant (in a completely unconnected gesture), “ALRIGHT!  FINE!  IT’S ALL BECAUSE YOU STRETCHED OUT YOUR SCEPTRE AND PRONOUNCED A BOX OF BREAKFAST CEREAL OPEN.  The other things I said were a ruse, hiding my true feelings.  My insults were merely waffle, concealing the fact that I was very much offended by your pronouncement of openness of cereal boxes.  I was bally well annoyed and I’m still smarting now – you’ve really peed me off.”

The king got down off his step stool and walked over to his queen, an arm of reconciliation stretched out to still her heaving shoulders.  “My dear,” he said, “My dear, dear, dear, dear… dear, dear, dear, dear…” (he was stalling for time, having forgotten her name)… “My dear queen.  Queen, queen, queen, queen…” (now he’d forgotten what he’d originally been about to say)… “I know I have some annoying habits.  I know that I can’t open a door, or a jar, or a board game without first raising my sceptre and announcing it.  I’m fully aware that it is almost impossible for me to unwrap a parcel, or uncork a bottle, or mischievously release the catch on a zoo animal’s cage without gravely declaring its new status.  And I completely understand that it can be frustrating when every time I sit upon the porcelain throne I feel compelled to shout-”  “Please, come to the point.”  “All I want to say, darling, is that if it makes you happy, I can stop with the whole thing.  I can stop.  End of.  In future, when I go into the fridge, I will do so in silence.  When I look for a glass from the cabinet, I will keep my mouth firmly sealed.  And when your mother comes to stay and I taunt her by dangling her over that trapdoor that leads to the crocodile pond I will clamp my lips together and content myself with an inward chuckle.  I can change, dearest, and I will.  For you.”

His oration over, the queen gazed into his eyes, fondly remembering the man she once married (before she married the king) and told him straight…  “You really don’t get it, do you?!  You can keep saying the whole ‘I pronounce this blah-blah-blah open’, I really don’t mind – but I just want you to stop undermining me.  I’d already pronounced the cereal box open with my mace…”

TSP064: Tokyo Oh-No

March 13, 2013

“But I’ve been to Tokyo, like, three times already.”  “And you’ll be going a fourth; now button up and eat your crab sticks.”

Japan had been on Sigurd’s radar for months now and every time he’d made plans to go, something had come up.  Back in May, that volcanic eruption had destroyed his secret lair and he’d had to call off a trip to Kyoto to oversee the renovation work.  The re-scheduled visit – arranged for the August bank holiday – had gone the same way when Sigurd’s father got himself trapped in the freezer section at Tesco in Abingdon.  And the less said about the failed outing to Osaka in November, the better (one thing was for sure – Agnetha would think twice before shopping at a WHSmith store again…).

The city break in Tokyo had been planned in a hurry and Sigurd’s visa had only just come back from the dry cleaners in time.  Now he and Agnetha were at the airport awaiting their flight.  He had managed to keep their destination secret right up until reaching the departures lounge, and even then Agnetha had needed more than just the subtle hints provided by the hordes of Japanese passengers, the troupe of geishas, the trio of sumo wrestlers in ‘full’ garb, and the name of the destination on the wall in four-foot high neon letters.  “What do you mean we’re going to Tokyo?!” she’d said after Sigurd had revealed a tattoo across his chest that said ‘We’re going to Tokyo’.  “But I’ve been to Tokyo, like, three times already.”

Sigurd sighed, explained that this would make it a nice square four and politely requested she hushed a little and finished consuming her overpriced sashimi.  Out of his pocket he produced the maps he’d been poring over for months, the best tourist attractions circled in red fineliner and little stick-pirates drawn in where space permitted.  Donning his spectacles and casually tweaking the next man’s moustache, Sigurd traced a path from the airport to the hotel where they had a reservation for the next two weeks.  Thoughts of the activities lined up over the fortnight brought an evil chuckle forth from his lips – he was especially looking forward to the satellite-mounted death laser workshop on Tuesday, and the seminar on biological warfare at the University was sure to give him some new ideas for world domination.  But although he’d been salivating in expectation of the military robotics exhibition, the highlight of the vacation was definitely going to be the day out at Miniature Goat World – he would have to buy an ice cream, for sure.

“What am I going to do in Tokyo?!” Agnetha blathered, crossing her arms, legs and eyes in an attempt to look put out and mildly deranged.  “The same as everyone,” Sigurd replied, “Go to the shops, sit in on a couple of catwalks, eat lots of fish and play hide-and-seek with self-employed locals dressed as Pokémon.  Anyway, I don’t know why you’re moaning so much – you always say Tokyo’s your favourite city of them all.”  “I was impersonating Michael Mcintyre – it was a joke.”  Sigurd ignored her.  “Well at the very least I thought you’d be happy that I was finally managing to attend the Symposium of Ultra-Evil after all these years.  I mean, come on – I’ve chaired the Committee since the turn of the century and not once have I been able to get to the annual conference.  Finally, this year, all of the arrangements fall into place, I whisk you off for a surprise break in a foreign country which you’ve expressed a fondness for in the past, we’re sitting in the airport with 10 minutes ‘til boarding, I’ve got a chocolate egg in my pocket that I found on the floor and am saving for later, and you decide that now is the perfect time to pour burning oil on my dreams and kick up a fuss?!”  Hurriedly he pulled out his notepad and jotted down ‘Burning oil’ under the heading ‘Home security’.

Agnetha unfolded her arms and smirked.  “Sigurd, you fool – do you really think I’m going to allow you to go to Japan this time, after all the other times I’ve thrown the spanner into the works?”  Sigurd stopped chewing on his calamari and looked into her eyes, confused.  “Sorry, run that by me again?”  Agnetha had a look of pure mastery shining out from her purple irises, and her crooked smile had become more feline without the need for a cat-mouth transplant this time – she was getting good at this.  “You think that all the times you’ve been prevented from going to Japan in the past year you’ve been a victim of accident?  It takes forethought Sigurd – months of scheming and preparation, all carefully calculated and then executed with precision.”

Sigurd blinked awkwardly (and I mean really awkwardly).  “But… it was a volcano!” he stammered.  “How could you possibly mastermind a volcanic eruption?”  “I studied Geography at school, don’t forget,” Agnetha shot back, “and there’s, like, a whole module on natural disasters when you get to GCSE level.  I chose to do my end-of-year project on Montserrat.”  “I don’t know what that is, but I’m guessing it’s a type of rice dish,” hazarded Sigurd.  Agnetha just stared.  “Didn’t you ever wonder what I was doing that time in WHSmith?  Didn’t you think I’d purchased rather more stationery than is healthy for a happy marriage?  Oh, and Sigurd…”  She paused for effect; the sumo wrestler in the seat behind her very visibly scratched his behind, which temporarily distracted her husband just at the critical moment for maximum impact, which was rather a shame as she’d been preparing this speech for ages.  “Sigurd dear,” she leaned in closer…  “I shut your dad in the pizza freezer.”

Suddenly it all became clear.  The books on plate tectonics casually strewn around the apartment they shared, the constant cutting out of WHSmith vouchers from the newspapers, the trail of frozen peas and baby carrots that led from Tesco back to her abandoned burnt-out car.  A master of evil Sigurd may well have been, but his attention to detail up to now had been somewhat lacking.  “And now,” Agnetha rallied, her enthusiasm rising in a crescendo, “I think you’ll find that the 1535 flight to Tokyo is cancelled.”  Sigurd had just enough time to glimpse Agnetha depressing a button on the side of her wristwatch before the room turned white and the buzzing filled his ears…

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