“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…

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He walks along the dusty road, inspecting every stone he meets.  Out of the corner of his eye he spots a stream running alongside him, full to the brim with bears.  This is a surprise because it has been many years since fish have been found in any of the rivers for miles around.  It reminds him of Robinson Crusoe.

Shaking his head to free his mind of the images that constantly assail him on this journey, a passing lorry mistakes his gesture for an attempt at hitchhiking, slowing down some way ahead of him and opening the passenger door with a shout of “Where to, buddy?”  The truck is emblazoned with the name of a well known brand of beer.  Inside the cab empty crisp packets lie strewn about, like the debris of a fishing village after a typhoon.  The aroma of cigarettes conjures up images of his grandparents dancing in that picture upon the mantelpiece in his childhood home.  It reminds him of The Pilgrim’s Progress.

The driver’s name is Alan; his family hail from Johannesburg although he himself was brought up in Cape Town.  His South African accent grates against the rasping noise of the engine, the pistons turning in a rhythm reminiscent of many of the poets he studied at university – Byron, Keats, Wordsworth, Milligan.  The trucker asks him where he’s heading, but he cannot give an answer.  Only once before in his life has he felt uncertainty, and that some years back when his parents were still living.  He wipes a tear from his eye, stifling its motion before it wets his cheek and betrays his inner emotions.  It reminds him of Gulliver’s Travels.

The truck’s horn whistles a parting salute and he turns to walk up the mountain pass.  The cabin is here, somewhere behind these trees, hidden amongst the foliage, lost to time but not lost to him.  Parting the ferns he sees a snake.  He ignores it – it’s not important to the narrative but it merits a mention nonetheless.  Feeling the crunch of the bark beneath his feet he is sent back in his mind to the misspent years of his youth, here among the bracken, aiming an imaginary pistol at the imaginary Indians encircling his treetop fortress.  He and Sally, together.  It has been thirty-five years since they last met.  She is a full-grown woman now, with two children.  He remembers their first embrace, the soft skin of her eyelids fluttering on his cheek, the way the hairs on his back stood on end as if electrified.  It reminds him of Brideshead Revisited.

The door creaks open at his touch.  Three decades of dust adorn the aged furnishings.  He scans the room, taking in the woodworm holes that perforate his grandfather’s old rocking chair.  The log fire has not been made since the day the convoy rolled into town, only rolling out again once crude ‘justice’ had been carried out on fourteen men and women.  The windowpanes show signs of the battle that raged in the lanes and fields, forever infused with the rough smoke of burning thatch and smouldering hair.  A cool breeze draws his attention to the bathroom.  A wall is missing in its entirety.  In the basin lies an empty nest.  It reminds him of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.

The sun sets and his thoughts turn to tomorrow.  The embers of a barbecue glow as he picks his teeth with one of the rabbit’s ribs.  It is obvious that this area holds nothing for him now.  The cabin is a shell, a ghostly relic of the past; if he is not careful the past will consume him.  The sound of a tree being felled echoes across the valley.  A murder of crows rises up into the air, looking for a new home.  It reminds him of The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me.

Rinsing off a week’s events in the stillness of the lake, he towels off using his torn shirt.  Beyond a swathe of reeds an old watermill lies abandoned.  He examines the damage, devising a means to repair it.  It reminds him of Round Ireland with a Fridge.

He lies on the grass, chewing on a sheaf of corn purloined from a farmer’s field.  Among the shapes in the clouds he can make out a dragonfly chasing a sea captain.  It reminds him of Little Miss Twins.

He reflects on his position in life.  It has been a long road to get here.  It’s an even longer road back.

“You know what I think?” said Pierre, the Frenchman (which means he is both French and a man – look at me knowing things, aren’t I smart?!).  “I think that snow happens when it is cold.”

“That it does, I can confirm,” replied Tybalt, a scientist who is very clever and has a degree in things.  “When the temperature of the air drops to a level called ‘below freezing’ it helps the molecules of water in the rain to go all hard and white and turn into snow.  Did you know that, son and laboratory assistant of mine?”

“I had an inkling,” said Pierre.  “That is also the name given to a lickle squid when a mummy squid and a daddy squid love each other very much.  Squids live in the sea, which is wetter than a wet dog.  They swim all the time.”

“Yes, I know,” replied Tybalt.  “I have seen wet dogs swimming with my own eyes.”

“I did not mean that,” said Pierre.  “And I think you know it.”

“Yes, I did know it,” replied Tybalt.  “Har har.  That is called a joke – it is an attempt at ‘humour’.  Humour is something which separates man from the ferns and long bulrushes.  It is also the juice that you find in an eye.  Eyes are for seeing things, like eggs and hams and policemen.”

“And policemen are figures of authority,” said Pierre.  “Like the Queen, who is a monarch – which is different to a monocle, which is different to a barnacle, which is different to a barn – very different.”

“Did you know that barns are for storing crops, which are a type of plant?” replied Tybalt.  “Crops are made of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen, which are all bits you can find in the Periodic Table, which is not a real table like a dining room table or a bedside table or even a coffee table.”

“Speaking of coffee,” said Pierre, “That is a watery drinkable thing that contains lots of caffeine, which has the chemical formula C8H10N4O2.  It is what makes babies stay up all night, which is the dark time of the day.”

“I know,” replied Tybalt.  “Night is very dark indeed because there is no light, because light is made by the Sun which is notably absent after sunset.”

“I have seen a sunset,” said Pierre.  “It is the time of the day when the Sun decides to go to bed for the evening.  The Sun’s bed is in space where there are lots of stars and no air and nobody can hear you scream.”

“That’s because space is a vacuum,” replied Tybalt.  “That means that there is not a molecule in it, not a molecule of iron or of lead or of bismuth or of antimony or of rutherfordium, which are all more bits in the Periodic Table, which is not a real table like an operating table or a King Arthur’s Round Table or a times table.”

“Tables are friends with chairs,” said Pierre.  “They are often made of wood, which is a woody material made with xylems and phloems and leafy things that do photosynthesising which means turning air and water into food and oxygen which is O2 chemical formula.”

“Polar bears live in Greenland,” replied Tybalt.

“And penicillin is not friends with germs,” said Pierre.

“And a radius is part of a circle or a skellington,” replied Tybalt.

“And gravity is very important,” said Pierre.

“And rust is called ‘oxidation’ and ‘bad for cars’,” replied Tybalt.

“And saying lots of facts about science shows that I KNOW LOTS ABOUT SCIENCE AND AREN’T I GREAT,” said Pierre.

“It’s here – right here, in this bumbag.”  “Aha, I see.  Yes, that is definitely money.  Thank you, consider it shown.”

Carl had run the village newsagents for 16 years.  While all the local businesses around him had crashed and burned (which was entirely their fault for basing their offices in windowless paper campervans and driving during that awful fire-and-brimstone incident of early 2006) Carl’s trading had gone from strength to strength, striding through the recession with the confidence of a badger applying for a tenancy agreement having eaten all of the other potential applicants.  Experts were divided on the reason – some put his popularity down to his love of the Jerry Maguire catchphrase, others to the fact that all his competitors had died in the firestorm; no one could say for sure…

“It’s in my wallet.  See?”  “Yes I do – well shown, sir; here’s your Doritos…”

His had been a turbulent life.  The son of a Yorkshire-bred gaffer tape manufacturer and a devoutly celibate nun, Carl was the 51st child of the family and the first not to be named after a different American state.  A budding reader, capable far beyond his years, he had surrounded himself with classic literature at the earliest possible moment – when still in the womb, in fact; Carl was born clutching onto a copy of War and Peace and with the first act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream tucked under his arm and annotated with amniotic fluid.  However, inevitably, as cinema entered the mainstream of entertainment Carl’s allegiance switched, and at the age of 4 months old he took up a scholarship with the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.  Having been passed over for many a starring role (which often went to Humphrey Bogart, his nemesis) Carl finally achieved his big break, starring alongside Frank Sinatra in the little-known Revenge of the Little Hedgehog from Slovenia, aged 6 months and 3 days.  Critics lauded his performance as one of the finest of his generation and there was public outcry when the 1960 Best Actor Oscar went to Spartacus’s Peter Ustinov for what was – comparatively – little better than a school-play performance.

“Ooh, where did it go?”  “I haven’t the foggiest Mr Shilworth – it was right there in your hand…”  “That’s right, but now… it’s behind your ear!”  “That is amazing.”

As a toddler Carl had alternately fought and indulged in the temptations that came with fame and money.  Diamond-encrusted spacehoppers and full strength Calpol heralded the beginning of the opulent lifestyle that would propel him onto the front pages of the tabloids more often than he would care for.  But he always remembered his humble beginnings, regularly managing to send home sufficient funds to ensure South Dakota and Arkansas could afford to go to university and Rhode Island’s need for orthodontic treatment to correct what had become affectionately known in the press as “the nation’s overbite”.  By the age of 2, Carl had earned more from his movie roles than former neighbourhood playmate Bill Gates would in his lifetime.  He was the business.  But it wasn’t to last…

“It’s in my hand.”  “No, that’s the honey – the thing you’re trying to purchase.”  “Oh, I’m sorry, I completely misheard you…”

On his fourth birthday, the career that Carl had strived so hard to establish fell to pieces with one well-placed story in the redtops proclaiming that at 6 weeks old Carl had cried so much one night that he’d woken up New Mexico – unfortunately for Carl, the incompetent reporter hadn’t realised that this didn’t mean a million-or-so people, and the public could not be dissuaded from taking the angle put about by the media.  A petition was set up and signed by 8 billion people (mostly fictional) and Carl was banned from working in Hollywood ever again.  Finding himself out of work at 4 years old, Carl felt that the time was right to take his money, emigrate to the UK and set up a new life in a Somerset hamlet, selling newspapers and confectionery to old men with speech impediments.

“Your hand is empty.”  “No there’s money in it.”  “I can’t see it – show me the money.”  “It’s there, you’re just not looking hard enough.”  “I’m calling the police.”  “Okay, fine, here’s your money.”  “That’s great, ta.”

Carl’s new lifestyle had suited him perfectly.  Free from the invasive eyes of unscrupulous American journalists he had been able to start afresh, put aside the snoring scandal and still keep up-to-date with the latest Hollywood blockbusters from the comfort of his own armchair.  Then in 1996, Tom Cruise and Cuba Gooding Jr. propelled the romantic comedy Jerry Maguire to the very forefront of popular culture and Carl had found a new obsession.  Not since watching and re-watching Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps from his doorway baby bouncer or reading and re-reading D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers during his first ultrasound scan had he felt so at one with a creative work.  ‘Show me the money’ became his favourite phrase, and as a shopkeeper working behind a till he was to get the opportunity to use it every day for as long as he kept it up.

Everybody in the village loved Carl – he was jolly, he was intellectual and he had a whole load of dirt on many of the old Tinseltown actors and actresses.  And they were sad when he was to leave the settlement after being snapped up for a job that would be made much easier by having the words of Jerry Maguire constantly on his lips – a shrew tamer.