“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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The football had gone over the fence again.  Harry looked at Tyrone aghast.  “We’ll never get it back now,” he cried despondently, “Remember what Mr Goitre did last time our ball landed in his garden?”

“How could I forget,” replied Tyrone, lifting his shirt a little to inspect the scars that now blighted his skin tone and itched insatiably every full moon.  Everybody in the neighbourhood knew that it was unwise for any living being – human, cat, or even insect – to stray onto the property of their curmudgeonly and mysterious old neighbour.  Little Robert Tax-Haven had hit a shuttlecock into the yard completely by accident just last week and hadn’t been seen since – local gossips speculated wildly that (a) he had been boiled in a pot and eaten by the decrepit old man and his evil guinea pig, Percy, (b) a giant beast part-falcon part-gorilla had leapt out of the tool shed and ripped him in two using an elastic band and some crocodile clips, or (c) as soon as his foot had even touched Goitre soil the boy had been instantly vaporised by a gnome with a laser cannon.  No consensus had yet been reached as to which scenario was most likely and every conversation on the street inevitably produced a further three or four suggestions to explain the poor badminton player’s demise.

Tyrone had met Mr Goitre on one occasion and never wished to do so again.  He had successfully retrieved his kite from the octogenarian’s mountain ash but then everything had faded to black and the next thing he knew he was being forcibly escorted back to his home by the scruff of his neck by the very crabby (and lobstery) pensioner, a massive pair of scratch marks across his torso the only evidence of anything untoward having occurred in the meantime.  His parents had tried to reassure him that they were probably just the work of some particularly pointy branches during the toy’s rescue mission, but that didn’t explain in Tyrone’s mind why once a month he felt the unrelenting urge to wreak havoc among innocents.  The last episode had happened about four weeks ago – the next was due soon, and Tyrone knew it.  Inside, within his very blood, he could feel something stressful happening – a transformation that he was positive would morph him into a ferocious monster insensible to reason and thirsty for men’s blood.

“Tyrone!” Harry shouted, “Did you hear a word I said?”  Tyrone shook himself to – he’d been lost in reverie, pondering on his new way of living, ever since the incident.  All of a sudden he managed to shake his fears, put them thoroughly to one side and eat four Wagon Wheels whole in one go – a beautiful spectacle of multi-tasking that a nearby sparrow applauded through song.  Tyrone roused himself from his daydream, a determined look upon his face, bravery in his heart and a small ulcer on his lower gum, just by the right canine, which made him think that he probably ought to avoid any foods containing tomatoes for the time-being.

“I’ll do it,” he said, grittily.

“What?!” exclaimed Harry, astounded.  “You’re really going to go over there and fetch the ball – even after everything you went through last time?!”

Tyrone nodded in response.  “I need answers Harry – and this may be my only way of getting them.”  He was very profound for a ten-year-old boy.

After making this statement of intent he rounded the house and marched up to Mr Goitre’s front door, Harry observing from what he considered a safe distance.  Tyrone pulled the bell chain firmly, refusing to be intimidated by the two gargoyles either side of the entry, each made to look like Lily Savage.  Once the clanging of the bells had ceased an eerie silence descended upon the house and the door creaked ajar, the hand that opened it the only part of the porter visible in the murky gloom within.  “Mr Goitre, sir,” Tyrone began.  “I was wondering-”

He got no further in his introduction when he was suddenly yanked inside by an unseen force.  Harry’s cry of “No!  Tyrone!” echoed in the hallway as the door slammed shut and Mr Goitre’s wizened face loomed into view above him.  Resolving not to be overcome by the old man’s rustic breath and sweaty musk (Chanel No. 5) Tyrone instantly gathered his courage and addressed his burning question to his captor with a shout, “Why did you do this to me?  Why?  I don’t want to be a werewolf!”

Goitre’s facial features arranged themselves into a puzzled look, “A werewolf dear boy?  Nobody’s turned you into a werewolf.”

Tyrone paused, surprised at this unexpected answer.  “But how do you explain the sprouting of unseemly hair in places it shouldn’t be?” he asked, confused.  “Or the wild mood swings or the feelings deep down that my body is searing with hatred towards anyone who approaches me when the lunar cycle reaches completeness?”

Goitre chuckled.  “Not the lunar cycle dear boy – the menstrual cycle.”  His mouth broke out into a twisted grin.  “I turned you into a woman, young Tyrone.”

Tyrone stood stock still, horror-struck at this revelation.  “I guess that would explain my breasts as well then.”

“That’s right,” replied the elderly bachelor.  “But don’t worry.  As a way of apology, please let me offer you twenty pounds for a new pair of shoes.”

Twenty pounds?!” roared Tyrone.  “How dare you – you think you can purchase my forgiveness with a banknote?  And besides, for the last three weeks I’ve had my eye on a pair of £250 Jimmy Choos.”

The Wizard was surrounded.  Dorothy and her three companions – the lion, the scarecrow and the tin man – were advancing on him with livid countenances and great big sticks for whacking.  “Thought you’d try and fob us off did you?” shouted the little girl, her fists adorned with her favourite knuckledusters (the ones with the real shark teeth).  “Thought that after we’d come all this flipping way to see you we wouldn’t recognise a fraud when we saw one?!”

“I assure you my intentions were solely good-natured,” whimpered the Wizard backing closer to the wall, desperately looking for a way out of this sticky predicament.  He was terrified at the prospect of the lion’s fearsome jaws crushing his feeble frame, and the tin man’s built-in sub-machine gun riddling his body with holes and the scarecrow… well, the scarecrow was just really… scary… to crows… and the Wizard.  The four-strong band continued to advance and press the Wizard further into the corner of the grand room.

“I came here looking for courage,” roared the lion, “and what do you give me?  A potion made of soda water, green food colouring and Head & Shoulders.  As if that was ever going to provide me with anything other than a rank-tasting mouth.  You make me sick… quite literally; I’ve been vomiting since 6 this morning.”  The Wizard shrank back further in reply.

“I came here looking for a heart,” yelled the tin man, “and what was it you gave me?  Oh yes, a silk pouch filled with ruddy sawdust – sawdust.  As if for a minute that was capable of producing minute electrical signals to regulate the flow of blood through a system of inlet and outlet valves in the atria and ventricles, thereby assisting the circulation of substances vital to life through the bloodstream of a salient living being.  As if…”  The Wizard tripped, fell to the floor and began to shuffle backwards on his hands and feet.

“I came here looking for a brain,” bawled the scarecrow, “but I don’t know why because, not having one, I don’t even know what one is, and so I’m just going to continue shouting lots.  BLARGLEWURGLEFLAZZLEPLAAAFF!”  The scarecrow shook his limbs wildly and foamed at the mouth.  The Wizard became even more terrified of the idiot before him and let out a little wee.  All of a sudden he found himself firmly in the corner, backed up to the skirting boards’ right angle, with nowhere – and no sausages – to turn.

“Please,” he pleaded, “Please listen.”  The advancing quartet halted just in front of him, still looking menacing and – in the scarecrow’s case certainly – completely deranged.  “I gave you those objects because… well, because…” The Wizard struggled to find the right words but at last latched onto the ones he’d been looking for.  “Because you already have the things you seek, but failed to realise it.  Lion – look at yourself, you’re being incredibly brave; Tin man, your emotions are running wild right now – of course you have a heart.”  The lion and tin man looked at each other warmly – “Okay, so we’ve got our wishes already,” the tin man replied, “but what about our pal the scarecrow here?”  The scarecrow, who until this moment had been following a fly around the room and shouting “Mummy!  Come back and lay me an egg!” suddenly wheeled around, one eye half-closed, the other rolling round and round in its orbit.  “Yeah, what about my brain?” he asked.

The Wizard began to sweat.  “Um, well, scarecrow – well…  Um…  Okay, so the scarecrow doesn’t have a brain.”

“The scarecrow doesn’t have a brain!” howled the lion fiercely and the Wizard’s captors once more advanced, now armed with tridents and grenades.

“BUT!  But…” interjected the Wizard quickly, “But…  I know where we can find him one.”  The Group stopped to listen as the Wizard desperately tried to fabricate something to get him out of this awkward situation; the scarecrow dribbled copiously.  “The Emerald City below – all the inhabitants have brains a-plenty.  You just need to knock on their doors once it’s dark, hold your arms out like this and shout ‘BRAINS’ over and over again.  You get brains just by doing this.”

And that was the beginning of zombies.

The trumpets blasted and the pie was ceremoniously opened.  As all eyes in the court of King Barry turned towards the cutting of the regal pastry crust one man in the crowd gave an involuntary gasp.  He and he alone had realised, a little too late, that a major miscalculation had been made.  Fully aware of the implications of what would ensue if the king were to be allowed to fully air the contents of the dish he sprinted out of the throng, eyes wild and teeth loose, and lunged towards the table.  In a single movement he knocked the knife from the sovereign ruler’s hand, kneaded the top of the tart closed with a flourish and admired a knot of wood shaped like Sid the sloth from Ice Age, all the while performing a very fine Fosbury flop.  Hitting the ground he successfully rolled into a standing salute to his liege, the gaping audience hushed in awe.

The king was enraged.  “Explain yourself peasant,” King Barry fumed.  “For what reason doest thou thus profane the king’s shapely curves?”  “Please sire,” began the high-jumping serf, “I am but a poor and humble servant – well, I say that, but I’m also ranked number one in the world in professional Warhammer…”  A murmur of appreciation rippled through the waiting spectators, impressed by this revelation of supreme dice rolling ability.  “…So I’m a poor and humble servant who’s also pretty nifty with a well-placed high elf, but anyway that’s by the by.  Your highness, pray, I had to prevent you from completing your effortless and graceful incision, for I have foreseen that if that pie were to be opened here and now it would be a grave humiliation to you and all your household.  Also, I know you don’t eat until 6 and as it’s only half 4 now it would be pretty cold by the time you actually got round to consuming it.”

The serf – whose name was Duracell – looked imploringly up at his master, hoping to find favour in that rugged yet flavoursome visage.  The king glared down at the serf, uttering through gritted teeth, “I’ll have you know, little poo-man, that I happen to like cold pie.”  This bold statement from so wise and fragrant a figure sent the silent onlookers into a frenzy of murmuring and pog-swapping.  Duracell gulped, now certain that his intrusion was bound to end in an order for his execution and a second for another pie, implored his superior to have mercy.  “Your holiness, I know that you are a strict man and also not particularly good at French cricket, but please hear out your humble and bespectacled assistant.”  Duracell cringed at his choice of words – anyone who was anyone in the court of King Barry knew very well that Duracell’s contact lenses could never constitute a true pair of eye-glasses.  “Please, my lord, find the space-time coordinates to forgive your reckless subject and away from the prying eyes of the mob inspect the contents of the pie you were about to open fully.  Then will you know my reasoning for what must currently appear in your eyes as a mild form of non-violent but stylishly gymnastic assault.”

Realising that showing leniency at that moment could well lead to a heightened respect for their overlord on the part of the amassed multitude, King Barry permitted his ire to subside, silently thanked the plea-maker for his petition with an eye-movement that Duracell interpreted as saying “Don’t bother going to see the Mary Rose at this time of year”, and made his way to a little table in the corner of the room with pie in hand.  As the crowd craned their necks and toes in an attempt to witness the king’s subtle investigation he made a second small slit in the crust, which was decorated with a stegosaurus motif (just like his third birthday cake).  Suddenly King Barry was seen to reel backwards in shock and as he turned to face his subjects, his face as white as a paracetamol-mint imperial crossbreed, some members of the court there present let out shrieks of terror and even a little wee.  The king, clearly deeply unnerved, stammered to the room, “Th-th-th-the blackbirds!  There are but three-and-twenty of them!”  A woman in the front row visibly vomited at the announcement, while the king forced out the words that terrified him so…

“Three-and-twenty – who ever heard of such a sin?  And what’s more… they were dancing…”

Why don’t chipmunks work behind the tills in Morrison’s?

Now how do you explain that to a four-year old?!  “Well sweetie only people are allowed to work in shops.”

“Why?”

“Well because that’s the rules.”

“Why?”

“Because whoever made the rules thought that it would be best if it was only people who took customer-facing roles, rather than wild animals.”

“Who made the rules?”

“Um…  Mr Morrison.”

“Is he a person?”

“Yes.  Well, no – he was a person, but he’s dead now.  Parachute accident.  Thought he was unpacking his rucksack; the thing just up and exploded into his face.”

“If he’s dead, does that mean he’s not a person any more?”

“No, he’s still a person.  Well, quite a decrepit person.  I doubt he’d be displayable on the supermarket forecourt these days – except on Halloween of course…”

“Was Mr Morrison a person when he made the rules?”

“Yes – yes, he was.”

“Then that’s not fair.  If a person made the rule that says only another person can scan all the tins then that’s not fair on the chipmunks.  Or the fish.  Or the penguins.”

“Sweetie, do you think a penguin could really work in the supermarket?”

“He could do the fish part, because there’s all the ice so it would be like he was at his home at the zoo.”

“But how would he hold the fish?”

“With his beak, of course.  And he’d say, ‘Here you are Mrs. Lady – have a fish.  One for you and one for me.  One for you and one for me.  And he’d have all the fish he could eat.”

“But he’d have to pay for all those fish.  Just because you work in a supermarket doesn’t mean you’re allowed to eat all of the food you like.”

“Is that true?”

“Oh yes, it’s true.  You might get a staff discount but you certainly can’t go around snacking on the produce.”

“If I was Mr Morrison and I was in the supermarket I would eat the food.  I would go to the chocolates and I’d go ‘yum, yum, yum’ and it would be like Christmas.  Then I’d go to the biscuits and I’d go ‘yum, yum, yum’.”

“Well, I don’t-“

“AND THEN I would go to the crisps and I would go ‘yum, yum, yum’.  And then I would go to the broccoli and go ‘Eurgh’ and be sick on the lady.  And then I would go to the fish fingers and say ‘Hello penguin, can I have some fish fingers?’ and he’d say, “Yes Lucy – here you are.  One for you and one for me.  One for you and one for me”…”

“Lucy darling, what would the other customers think?  What will they say when they see you – the walking corpse of Mr Morrison – eating things straight off the shelves?!”

“They’d say, ‘Look there’s Mr Morrison.  He’s allowed to do that because he makes the rules.  I’m not allowed because I am a poor person and I sleep in a shed’.”

“Lucy-“

“And then they’d say, ‘It’s really unfair that he won’t let animals do the work.  Look that pile is just the right height for a giraffe to reach the top box.  And that trolley would go much faster if it was driven by a cheetah.’”

“Do you not think those animals would be a bit dangerous to have around darling?  Giraffes are very big and cheetahs are very fierce – they could eat you.  What about a smaller animal?”

“What like a dog?”

“Maybe a dog.  But they’re quite loud.  How about something quiet… like a ladybird?”

“A LADYBIRD?!  A ladybird would be too small!  How is a ladybird supposed to weigh a banana?!”

“Well, he could get lots of his other ladybird friends-“

“She.”

“What?”

“Ladybirds are she’s.  Because they’re red.”

“Right.”

“And they’re too small.”

“Okay, how about something a little bigger that can hold the food but not so big that people would be scared.  How about a rabbit?”

“No, silly daddy – a rabbit would eat all of the carrots and leave little Nesquik poos everywhere.”

“Okay, how about a rat?”

“Eurgh, no, not rats.  What about… ummmmmmmmmmm… a hamster?”

“Yes, a hamster would be fine.”

“Or a chipmunk?”

“Yes, a chipmunk would be fine too.  Now dear-“

“BUT YOU SAID THAT CHIPMUNKS CAN’T WORK IN MORRISON’S.”

I bought her an ice cream.  That calmed her down a little.  Then I gave her chloroform – that worked best of all.  Bliss…