“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…”

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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.

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…”

“Steve, where on Earth have you been?”

“Sorry, life got really busy.”

“How busy?”

“I just told you – really busy.”

“Describe ‘really’ busy in terms I’ll understand.”

“Um, okay…  Well, you know a bee?”

“Not personally but I can pretend if it helps.”

“Great, well-“

“Hang on – what’s the bee’s name?”

“What?”

“What’s the bee’s name?”

“It doesn’t matter.  This is all just metaphor.”

“Woah, hold up there Tonto.  You ask me to pretend to be on familiar terms with a bee, yet expect me not to know his name?!  If I know a bee personally then I will definitely know his name.  I mean, come on, I’m not a troglodyte, living off worms in a cave somewhere, hiding from technology and politics and food preservatives.”

“You’re going a little off topic.”

“Your mum’s off topic.”

“Correct, my mum is off topic – which is the point I’m making.”

“Right yes, so… what’s his name?”

“…Dennis.”

“Dennis the bee?”

“Yes.”

“Not a typical bee name really is it?”

“What to your mind is a typical bee name?”

“Buzz…  Baz…  Barry, Brian, Bert – any name beginning with ‘B’.  But Dennis?!”

“Alright fine, his name is… Bradley.”

“Bradley?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not just fobbing me off with the first name you thought up?  That genuinely is his name?”

“Absolutely – ‘Dennis’ was the first name I thought up.”

“Okay.  So – Bradley the bee.  Continue.”

“Okay, so imagine Bradley the bee.  And then imagine he’s just one of a whole colony of bees…”

“Woah, woah, woah.  You’ve told me next to nothing about Bradley and now you expect me to think up names for a whole heap more bees?!”

“…These bees really don’t need names.  Think of them as a crowd; a faceless crowd of bees, amongst whom there is one very important bee who goes by the name of ‘Bradley’.  The details of the surrounding bees are unimportant, you just need to know there is a huge number of them.  Okay?”

“Okay.  But I’m beginning to like Bradley, so don’t try and trivialise him amongst this crowd of bees, alright?  Even though he’s just a tiny brick in the swarm, he’s still important to me.”

“Fine.  We could make him a different colour if you like.  He could be a blue bee, shining out from the throng of yellow ones.”

“Have you ever seen a blue bee?”

“No, but my point-“

“I’m not convinced you’re taking this seriously enough Steve.  Bradley is a real bee-”

“Er, no – he’s not.  And the whole point of Bradley is to be a mere illustration for the reasons for my absence.  He’s purely imaginary-“

“But no less important for being so.”

“Of course.”

“Right, so…  What were we talking about?”

“You were going to give me 50 pounds.”

“…I don’t recall that…  Ah!  No, you were trying – and failing – to talk bees to me.”

“For crying-… Right.  You know the phrase ‘as busy as a bee’?”

“Yes.  I’m not an idiot.”

“(Could have fooled-) Okay, well if you imagine an awful lot of bees-“

“One of whom is Bradley-“

“Yes, one of whom is Bradley… and if you imagine that they are all as incredibly busy as the simile leads you to believe, then I have been as incredibly busy as that.”

“…Is that it?”

“Er… Yeah.”

“Why couldn’t you have just said that?  For goodness’ sake man, you’ve been stewing over bees for the past 10 minutes and all you were trying to say is that you were busy?!  Man, I thought there was going to be some kind of honey-related allegory or a nectar gag or something.  You built me up and then you knocked me right down.  What were you even doing for the past 2 months, huh?!  And don’t say bee-keeping or ‘just buzzing about’ or cross-pollinating meadow flowers or anything weird like that-”

“I had a baby.”

“…”

(waits for it to sink in)

“…What?”

“I had a baby.”

“You had a baby?”

“Yes, are you listening to me at all?!  I had a baby!”

“Okay.  So… do you want me to say ‘congratulations’ or something?”

“If you like – completely up to you.  I’m not expecting anything, I’m just informing you really – to explain why you’ve not seen me around for the last couple of months.  I am still alive; I’ve just had a baby.”

“Wow.”

“I know – wow, huh?!”

“Yeah.  I must admit Steve, you look phenomenal for someone who’s just pushed a baby out.”

“Oh, come on man – you know I-“

“I take it you had to have a Caesarean – I’ve not come across many men who’ve successfully managed to-“

“Please.  Stop that.”

“You must be very proud.”

“I am.”

“Boy or girl?”

“Boy.  6 pounds 10.”

“…I don’t know if that’s heavy or light or what.”

“No, neither do I.”

(pause)

(gaze about)

“Feeding well?”

“Yeah, breastfeeding.”

“Oh right…  And what about your boy?”

“Come on now man, cut it out.  Why did I bother-”

“You here next week?”

“Hopefully.  No guarantees though – baby-dependent.”

“Okay.  Well, ta ra for now.”

“See you around.”

“Sleep well!”

“Ha.  Funny man.”

It had been a decidedly uneventful day.  Robert had woken up at 7am sharp (as per usual) after a dreamless night’s sleep, eaten his bran-filled breakfast while watching yesterday’s news stories, driven to work without incident, performed his office duties as expected, driven home perfectly safely and efficiently, eaten only a Pot Noodle, and readied himself for bed quite capably.  So why, he asked himself, was there a giraffe in his pyjamas??

Upon first spotting the African mammal all striped-up and nightcapped he did a double-triple-quadruple take; he blinked hard, rubbed his eyes repeatedly, shook his head forcefully, left and re-entered the room multiple times, pinched himself, slapped himself, poured salad dressing on his hair, bathed his feet in calves’ blood, pulled out all of his teeth and replaced them with cockle shells, inhaled vast quantities of helium and then telephoned the Pope, composed a new county anthem for Northamptonshire, and many other things that people normally do when faced with something unexpected.  None of it helped – try as he might the giraffe was still there, lying in his bed, wearing his reading glasses, completing the cryptic crossword he’d been struggling with for days.

The giraffe turned to him with a frown.  “Do you mind?” he asked.  “It is incredibly rude to barge in unannounced.”  Robert stood there, stunned.  What do you say to that?  This was his house, his turf.  He’d slaved away in his dull-as-Des-Lynam job for over 30 years to pay off his mortgage, and now that all debts had been repaid, all rooms had been redecorated and all resident ghosts had been exorcised (finally – the headless horseman in the downstairs loo had taken rather a lot of persuasion, largely due to his being unable to hear the negotiations) he had expected to be able to live out his days in peace, security and slight discomfort after his shoes shrank in the wash.  Instead he had become the victim of an ungulate squatter.

Robert found his voice.  “I think you’ll find,” he started calmly, “that it is you who have barged in unannounced.”  The giraffe put down Robert’s pen (he’d been holding it in his mouth, obviously, as he lacked opposable thumbs – trust me, I’m aware of what animals can and can’t do) and spoke in his politest Queen’s English, “I believe, sir, that you are misinformed.  Why, I think you’ll find I left a note upon your refrigerator last Wednesday.”  Robert spluttered in disbelief.  “Well, I think you’ll find that that’s a load of old cobblers.”  The giraffe shook his head sadly.  “Actually, sir, that is a load of old cobblers,” he said, gesturing with a hoof towards the wardrobe full of shoemakers.  All four of them paused in their work, raised their caps with a jolly ‘Hello there’ and then resumed where they’d left off.  “But let’s ignore them,” continued the giraffe, “for I fear they will prove of little interest to the remainder of our conversation.”

Not knowing what to say, Robert stormed out and into the kitchen.  If indeed (and it was a very big ‘if’ and a fairly substantial ‘indeed’ to boot) the intrusive mammal had left a note on the fridge it was bound to be there still – Robert never removed notes from his fridge (the magnets he used were far too powerful).  Squinting through his spectacles Robert was astonished to discover that there was indeed a memo of some kind attached to the door, although as it was merely a hoof print it wasn’t particularly intelligible to him.  He tore off the page and confronted his unwelcome house-guest.  “How exactly am I supposed to read this?!” he fumed.  “Some warning this constitutes.”

“Calm down Yoda,” said the giraffe coolly.  “That’s my child’s schoolwork.  My message was to the left, written with fountain pen.”  Confused, Robert once more stomped through the hallway and into the kitchen.  Sure enough, there on the fridge lay the page marked with a message so specific, so legible and so well-worded that it would not be humanly – or giraffely – possible to interpret the sentiments as anything other than acceptance of an invitation to come and visit at any time that was convenient.  Back into the bedroom he strode.

“What is the meaning of this?” he queried.  “I never invited you into my home!”  “Au contraire,” smarmed the giraffe.  “You left me a message to the opposite effect when you recently visited the zoo with your nephew.”  Robert cast his mind back and the semblance of a thought formed in his mind.  It was very ugly for a thought but given time it would grow into a beautiful swan.  “But that message wasn’t for you – that was for Maxwell.”  “And that’s me.”  “No, my brother Maxwell.”

The giraffe’s brow furrowed.  “Then you should have been more specific on the invitation,” he exclaimed wisely.  “And you shouldn’t have left it in my cage.”  “I didn’t mean to leave it in your cage,” groaned Robert, “It was a letter for my nephew to pass on to his father.  He must have dropped it.”  “Then you should have taught your nephew to use the opposable thumbs he’s been blessed with – or his teeth, like any civilised creature.”

This conversation wasn’t progressing the way Robert had hoped.  He had rather hoped that by this point the giraffe would have grasped that his presence here in Robert’s bed was really not what had been intended, made his excuses, picked up his golf umbrella and left quietly.  But he could see it was going to be difficult to persuade the animal to up and leave, especially when Robert’s memory foam mattress was so comfortable (man, there was going to be a weird print in it when the giraffe got up…).  Bracing himself for the worst, Robert asked, “So how long are you intending to stay?”  “Oh, only until I die,” replied the giraffe.  “I see,” said Robert.  “And when will that be?”  “Some time around the end of my life, I expect,” the giraffe responded.  “Okay, right,” said Robert.

There was a short silence, just long enough for a trip to the Isle of Man.  Robert shuffled his feet awkwardly; the giraffe blinked his heavy eyelashes and stifled a yawn.  Robert made as if to resume the conversation, thought better of it and curtailed his words quite sharply.  The giraffe noticed.  “No no, go on – what were you going to say?”

Robert looked embarrassed.  “Well,” he began, “I just wondered… do you play Scrabble?”  “I love Scrabble!” shouted the giraffe excitedly.  Robert beamed.  “Well, that’s great then!  I ordered the new version from Amazon the other day and it just arrived this evening.  Want to play?”  “Do I ever!” said the giraffe, and eagerly galloped to the table to clear some space for the board.

TSP039: Step by step

October 26, 2011

Open eyes, blink twice, squint.  Rub eyes, roll over, gaze at rising sun through blind slats.  Remember mum’s warning never to look straight at sun, mentally slap wrist.  Gaze wide-eyed around room, attempt to see through bright patches temporarily burnt onto retina, rue looking straight at sun, pledge not to tell mum to avoid told-you-so gloating.  Blink three times, yawn, stretch arms above head, knock into cold mug of ‘hot’ chocolate.  Sit up confused, stare into mug.  Continue to look confused, stare hard into mug.  Look even more confused (if possible), positively ogle mug.  Nod with realisation, smirk and giggle gently to self, remove Action Man jungle explorer binoculars from mug.

Pull back duvet cover, swing legs over edge of bed, plant feet upon floor.  Pause.  Gather strength.  Pause.  Summon energy from deep within body to parts that need it.  Pause.  Belch loudly.  Lie back down.

Make second attempt at rising, swing legs over edge of bed, plant feet upon floor, take two attempts to stand.  Shuffle across carpet to door, reach out for dressing gown on hook on back of door, don dressing gown.  Open eyes.  Pause.  Remove frilly blouse, don manly dressing gown.  Reach out for door handle, pivot wrist, open door.

Walk into hallway.  Walk into lounge.  Walk into ironing board.  Walk into armchair.  Walk into mantelpiece.  Pause.  Regain balance.  Notice dead blackbird on floor.  Head to kitchen.  Check water level in kettle, take kettle to tap, fill with cold water.  Replace kettle on stand, depress switch, smile at satisfactory click.  Reach up to cupboard, select favourite World Cup-themed mug, place mug on worktop, close cupboard.  Pause.  Leave kitchen, re-enter lounge, stare at dead blackbird on floor.  Pause.  Sigh.  Pick up dead blackbird by tail, shuffle to patio doors, turn key, slide doors open, deposit dead blackbird on picnic table.  Determine to dispose of dead blackbird properly later.  Close and lock doors, turn to leave room, stare at head of dead blackbird on floor.  Stare at fresh stain on carpet underneath head.  Sigh.  Vow to teach wife good etiquette.  Pause.  Vow to teach cat good etiquette.

Return to kitchen, await boiling of water.  Await boiling of water.  Await boiling of water.  Head towards bathroom for quick wee.  Place foot on threshold of bathroom, hear kettle flick off.  Sigh.  Turn around immediately and return to kitchen, add teabag to mug, add teaspoonful of sugar, add boiled water from kettle, stir.  Open fridge, remove milk, pour apple juice into mug.  Stare at carton of apple juice in hand.  Stare at mug.  Stare at carton of apple juice in hand.  Stare at mug.  Take experimental sip from mug.  Grimace.  Carry mug to sink, pour contents of mug down plughole, rinse mug.  Return to worktop, place mug on worktop, add teabag to mug, add teaspoonful of sugar, pour more boiled water from kettle, stir.  Stare at swirling specks of limescale in mug.  Stare at kettle.  Stare at swirling specks of limescale in mug.  Furtively look from left to right.  Take experimental sip from mug.  Grimace.  Carry mug to sink, pour contents of mug down plughole, pour contents of mouth down plughole, rinse mug, rinse mouth – thoroughly.

Smack lips together four times.  Gaze longingly at kettle.  Feel betrayed.  Head towards bathroom for quick wee.  Place foot on threshold of bathroom, hear telephone ringing.  Sigh.  Turn around immediately and walk into lounge.  Walk into ironing board.  Walk into armchair.  Walk into mantelpiece.  Pick up phone.  Grunt.  “This is not an advertisement-”  Slam down phone.  Scowl.  Turn around.  Walk into mantelpiece.  Walk into armchair.  Walk into ironing board.  Walk into mantelpiece.  Stand still to regain bearings.  Take deep breath.  Tread on head of dead blackbird.

Head towards bathroom at pace for quick wee.  Place foot on threshold of bathroom, hear doorbell ring.  Leap up into air in anger.  Black out.

Open eyes, blink twice, squint.  Rub eyes, roll over, gaze at rising sun through blind slats.  Remember mum’s warning never to look straight at sun, mentally slap wrist.  Gaze wide-eyed around room, attempt to see through bright patches temporarily burnt onto retina, rue looking straight at sun, pledge not to tell mum to avoid told-you-so gloating.  Blink three times, yawn, stretch arms above head, knock into cold heart rate monitor.  Sit up confused, stare at heart rate monitor.  Continue to look confused, stare hard at heart rate monitor.  Look even more confused (if possible), positively ogle heart rate monitor.  Nod with realisation, smirk and giggle gently to self.  Wince.  Feel lump on top of head.  Swear vengeance on bathroom lintel.

TSP038: The empty flat

October 18, 2011

Burglars.  While Steve had slept (unusually soundly and with dreams of Eric Morecambe actually in Morecambe – even vividly portraying the streets of the Lancashire town in amazingly accurate detail despite never having seen, visited or particularly cared about it) burglars had crept into his flat unannounced and pilfered all of his possessions.  Not just the big ones, like the TV, the writing desk and the nuclear submarine, but also the small ones like cleaning products, lost plectrums and Hendrix-autographed Sylvanian Families toysets.  Oh, and his wife.

A loud buffeting snore from beside him suddenly reassured him that his spouse had in fact survived the night-time raid.  This was some consolation at least.  Steve sat upright in the bed for a while, surveying the bare and empty room around him.  Until a short time ago this had been the master bedroom; now, however, minus its usual furnishings it seemed somewhat undeserving of the title, Steve felt – even though the two main components that lent their names to these quarters (namely the bed and the master) were both still present.

It was whilst ruminating on these thoughts that Steve suddenly arrived at a shocking realisation – there had never been any burglars.  No thieves could possibly have pulled off such a heist – from where he sat, Steve’s eyes (usually razor-sharp to the point that blinking would cause his eyelids to bleed) could make out no fingerprints on the walls, no disturbances in the soft layer of leg hair that adorned every floor in his apartment, and no DNA upon the carpet that did not belong to him, his wife or their friend Boris.

Of course – Boris!  Astounded at the stupidity he’d shown when leaping to such an erroneous and unlikely conclusion, Steve now realised that the disappearance of all his belongings (Boeing 747 and all) must of course be the work of his close personal friend (and advisor) who had recently mastered the Force and was now able to levitate objects from where they stood and out of the window to another location.  All he had to do was get up from the bed, look out of the window and who would he see out in the street?  Why, Boris of course – and with all of Steve’s worldly goods too.  Chuckling to himself at his previous gullibility, Steve reached for his mobile phone to send his amigo a red-faced text.

But his phone wasn’t there.  Of course it wasn’t, there was nothing in the entire property (apart from Steve, the bed and ‘her indoors and fast asleep’).  But everybody knew that mobile phones were exempt from the Force – Nokia had made sure of that when they’d developed all of their models – so it couldn’t have been Boris after all… unless he’d used the Force on everything else and then just put a fishing rod through the open window to fetch the final item… but that was also impossible because Boris was allergic to fish or anything with the word ‘fish’ in its name (like selfishness).  So what could it have been?

Termites!  Killer termites from the future with jaws of steel and appetites to rival the Cookie Monster had somehow found a hole in the space-time continuum that just happened to bring them out into this particular dimension and this particular building, and they had taken advantage of their luscious surroundings and devoured everything in sight (well, you would, wouldn’t you?)  A low probability of occurrence admittedly, but still not necessarily impossible.

Hang on – those nuns!  Yes, those nuns had been looking quite shifty when they’d been out in town collecting for some orphanage or weapons factory or something.  Maybe they weren’t really nuns.  Maybe they were aliens from a distant planet that could bend the very rules of our reality to move objects in ways that only a really perverted mind could imagine.

Or the rapture!  That famous furniture rapture spoken of in the Bible.  What did it say?  “One shall be standing still, storing T-shirts and odd socks in its drawers and another shall be taken up…”  It had come to pass!

Oh hang on, Steve thought.  We’re moving house – we packed everything up and took it all to our new place in Oxford yesterday – remember?  We had fish and chips down by the canal, and threw rocks at old people?  Of course… so that’s why there’s nothing left here any more!  A perfectly innocent explanation and nothing to worry about…

When Steve’s slumbering wife eventually came to the pair of them had one quick final sweep around the flat, closing each door one by one, sealing off each compartment that had played host to so many stories in the past two years.  Parties and meal-times, visitors and laughter; recuperation from injuries, days sick off work; smiles and happiness and sunsets and bird feeders; film evenings, crochet and Friday night TV; and, of course, a green woolly dinosaur named Nicholas.

Crossing the threshold one final time they closed the door, turned the key and drew a line underneath a chapter in their lives together.  Then they got into the car, closed the door, turned the key and began writing the first page of the next…

TSP032: Cross words

August 17, 2011

“4 across – suspenders.”  “Ah yes, thanks Dave.”  Neil was never any good at it.  Every day he’d come home from work with his copy of The Times, sit down on the bed in his studio flat and search for the answers to problems that permanently perplexed him.  Today Neil’s good friend (and adequate part-time dental hygienist), Dave, had popped round to help him solve these riddles – although, to be honest, Dave had a frustrating habit of taking full control and openly pointing out the answers rather than just giving Neil hints and letting him piece things together for himself.

“8 across…”  “Where?”  “On the left – paddling pool.”  “Oh, I’d been wondering what that was…”

Dave wasn’t your typical problem-solver.  When asked in a recent job interview what approach he would take to finding Julia Roberts’ teaspoons in a blimp crash he had responded with: ‘Catch a dog; put him at gunpoint; sit back and watch the cutlery just roll in by itself.’  When he had written to his prospective employers to question his being unsuccessful they had politely informed him that ‘the canine species does not respond to coercion.’  Well, how was he to know?!  He’d panicked – it wasn’t something he’d revised – and just taken a wild stab in the dark at something he’d thought very well might be the answer they were looking for.  That was Dave’s problem really – lack of planning.  Of course that came with its benefits: Dave’s friends never asked him to organise their annual holiday; the spontaneity made for a lot of excitement in his job as a landmine clearance operative; and his nan passed away.

“2 down – moccasins.”  “What the heck is a moccasins?”  “No, just ‘moccasins’ – it’s plural.  They’re a type of shoe.”  “Right – I’d thought they were like fruit bowls or something.”

Neil had never been one for correctly identifying the true uses of everyday objects.  All around his house were various cooking utensils serving other unintended purposes: the spatula fly-swatter; the colander shower cap; the electric knife power-shaver.  If a burglar were to stumble into Neil’s apartment in the dead of night without a light source he’d have been hard pressed to name the exact room in which he (or she – girls are allowed to be burglars too) stood: the kitchen full of clothes hangers and twine; the lounge fit to bursting with tinned fruit and peacock feathers; the bathroom made of Lego.

[Editor’s note: Of course, breaking into somebody’s house without some form of illumination to hand wouldn’t be a very sensible thing to do – I mean, you’d obviously need to see what you were purloining, but being unable to switch on any of the house’s own lights for fear of detection, and probably not knowing exactly where the emergency candles were kept, you’d almost definitely have to remember a torch, or lantern, or jar of glow-worms if you hoped to achieve any sort of plundering success.  Make a note.]

“3 across – habit.”  “Yes, I see – like monks wear.”  “And nuns.”  “Of course – and zookeepers.”  “Mmm… not so often that one actually Neil.”

Once Dave was bitten by a goose at the park.  He’d run over to his mum, crying his five-year-old eyes out, hoping for sympathy, only to be told: “It can’t have ‘bitten’ you David – geese don’t have teeth.  It must have ‘beaked’ you.  In future, get it right.”  That incident had led Dave to study the meanings and etymology of words with a newfound fervour, determined to become editor of the OED, a world-renowned public speaker, and the first Countdown champion to hail from Chepstow.  The skills he’d applied to the English language had turned out to be remarkably transferrable, thus enabling him to offer advice and support to his friends and acquaintances on numerous other subjects, like house clearances, recipe book editing, and backgammon.

“1 down – dead hedgehog.”  “Urgh, oh my word, you’re right.  How did that get there?”

Neil extracted the deceased spiny mammal from his T-shirt shelf and held it out at arm’s length.  Then, as he was about to reach out and put it in the bin he wavered, hesitating for a split second.  “I know it’s dead,” he said, “but it does look quite peaceful there.”

Dave couldn’t believe what he was hearing: “Look mate – every night you do this.  You’ve been saying for weeks now that you’ve got far too much stored in this wardrobe and that you should give some of it away to the charity shop, but every time we find something that you really don’t need you somehow find a trumped-up reason to keep hold of it!  Neil, mate…  Neil, look at me.  Look at me Neil.”

Neil raised his gaze to focus on his close friend (and three-time vasectomist) and instantly wished he hadn’t – although Dave was a champion speller, he was pretty darn ugly to behold.

“Here’s what’s happening Neil – the dead hedgehog is going into the bin.  No, not the recycling – the bin.  And everything else that we’ve identified as tat can go in the box.  No, not your mouth – the box.  We’ve got to make some space in here; for a ‘walk-in’ closet there’s not actually much distance in which you can walk.  The suspenders are going, the habit’s going, and – no, don’t argue with me Neil – the lifesize papier maché model of Nelson Mandela with the Death Star for a head is going…”

TSP024: Smoking kills

June 7, 2011

The cigarette was sad.  Here he was, lying at the foot of the lonely, defaced park bench, abandoned in the dirt.  Where had it all gone wrong?

He’d been taken out for the night by the girl he’d spotted across the counter in the newsagents; he’d winked at her through his cellophane window and she – he thought – had latched onto his enticing gaze and parted with the best part of an hour’s wages to secure his company.  Later that evening they’d walked out into the moonlight on a double date with that other girl in the tracksuit and her own rolled-up nicotine fix; they’d stood together, looking out over the peaceful duck pond, and shared a wonderful experience.  He had been on fire – he’d made her laugh, he’d made her smile, he’d given her a moment to escape from the mundanity of her minimum-wage life.  The cigarette had never experienced such delightful ecstasy.  But then, all of a sudden, it was over – she was gone, so was her friend, and he was lying on the ground, caked in mud.

At first he’d thought it was an accident.  It just had to be – surely the girl couldn’t have meant to carelessly drop him on the ground and tread on his face with her heel?!  But then he’d realised that his body was mangled badly – most of it was missing, in fact.  What had happened to him?  Was this that ‘leprosy’ he’d heard so much about?  One moment, he’d had a warm sensation running all the way through his core – happiness; the next, he was wet, wounded and marooned on a small tuft of grass in a morass of squelchy topsoil.  With a horrible realisation it dawned upon the cigarette that he’d been dumped.  Used and dumped – after just one date.  This wasn’t how the evening was supposed to have gone.

The wind was picking up, sending a chill through his body, drawing attention to his ice-cold butt.  This was far from comfortable.  Somewhere in the distance a dog barked, and then – chillingly – from somewhere much closer he heard a ghoulish groan.  Panic gripped him.  Looking around he suddenly realised that he was not alone.  Just two feet to his left lay the bruised body of the roll-up, moaning in agony, having suffered a similar fate.  As the cigarette took in more and more he spotted more and more fallen comrades – crushed, twisted and broken in the grime.  However, these others had clearly passed on to the big packet in the sky some time before – the light had well and truly gone from their bodies.  The cigarette shivered – he was surrounded by corpses.  A mass grave – he was lying inert in a mass grave.  This was a thing of cigarette nightmares…

Thoughts flashed past constantly – was this a punishment from his creator, Mr Marlboro?  He couldn’t remember doing anything wrong – hang on, the girl; his night out with the girl.  It had to be.  He’d known as soon as he’d seen her beautiful frowning face slathered in thick foundation and her glorious ponytailed hair slicked back to the scalp with grease that this was a temptation he could not resist.  He’d known it was a sin… but he’d done it anyway.  Yes, if Mr Marlboro was punishing him for something, it was this – one night of covetousness, one night of passion.

The roll-up continued to groan in the muck – he wouldn’t last much longer.  The cigarette was sorry to see this sight.  The future had been so bright – as bright as the flame of a Zippo.  But now that Zippo light was past.  Nothing lay ahead of him except darkness and an unmarked grave.  Couldn’t the girl, that wonderful angel, have seen fit to inter him properly?  To give him that burial that all cigarettes deserve?  Now he was consigned to live out whatever remained of his life as an eyesore, a pollutant in the park, littering the ground where children played and puppies scampered.  His acetate skeleton would outlast his flesh, posing a threat to local wildlife and poisoning the soil beneath him.  This fate had befallen billions of cigarettes before him – he knew that; it wasn’t an uncommon way to go.  But that knowledge failed to give him comfort, failed to give him the strength to enjoy his waning hours.  If only he’d been disposed of in a bin – there was one just by the bench, it wasn’t like there weren’t any around.  If only… then maybe he’d have felt treasured… cherished… respected…

Please, DON’T DESECRATE YOUR CIGARETTE’S MEMORY – BURY YOUR BUTTS.