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.

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“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…

Barney opened his eyes and looked up at the azure blue sky.  The lofty white clouds edged slowly across his field of vision while the sound of young seagulls drifted down from the cliff tops.  The sea air tickled his nostrils, sending wafts of salty spray up his nose and into his brain.  The inrush of sodium ions sent water flooding into his skull by osmosis (FACT OF SCIENCE), jolting him wide awake and causing him to sit up and knock the water back into his bloodstream through violent means.  He was definitely awake now, and he was definitely on a rock outside a lighthouse.  Considering that he’d begun the day on the International Space Station this came as somewhat of a surprise.

Looking down at his torso Barney noticed that his spacesuit was rather absent.  So absent, in fact, that he was now dressed as one of the Three Musketeers – probably Dartagnan.  Casting around for his rapier his gaze finally alighted on a length of rubber piping and an old fluorescent strip light.  Instantly he recognised the piping as that belonging to the Bunsen burner in his grandma’s kitchen; the strip light’s origins remained a baffling mystery for now…  Before he could piece together this part of the puzzle, a noise rather like an old wooden door opening with difficulty caused him to turn around and take in the lighthouse for the first time.  The old wooden door had opened with difficulty and a wizened old sea dog stood there, beckoning him in.  “I haven’t got all day,” he said, “I’m expected back at the funeral parlour by 6.”

Barney spluttered.  “Am I dead?” he asked, tentatively.  “Of course you’re not dead, you idiot – now hurry inside or the penguins will get you.”  The old man gestured towards the shore and Barney suddenly noticed about two hundred thousand penguins, all squawking furiously and foaming at the beak, gazing across at him.  With a yelp, Barney sprinted into the lighthouse, hotly pursued by the ravenous birds; as the aged sailor forced the door shut, the noise of hundreds of feathered bodies piling against it smothered the piercing beeping of the slot machines.  “Up here,” sighed the sea dog, scratching his ear with his left foot.  “My name’s Martin, by the way,” he added, extending a withered hand for Barney to shake.  “I know,” said Barney, truly believing he did.  Martin raised a swarthy eyebrow: “Ah, so you realise what’s going on now, do you?”  “I do,” said Barney.  “Good – you may now kiss the bride,” joked Martin, puckering up for a kiss; Barney obliged.  The pair separated with a slight sense of awkwardness, but figured the best way to overcome it was to kiss again.  The second time around, they missed.

At the top of the lighthouse staircase Martin paused to catch his breath and put it in a cage.  Barney took the opportunity to gaze around him, taking in Scotland’s largest collection of Smurf memorabilia and three of the finest midwives money could buy.  Barney greeted them all in turn.  “Don’t waste your breath, son,” Martin whispered, “They can’t hear you.”  “Are they dead?” Barney inquired.  Martin frowned.  “Seriously mate, what is your problem?!  Where’s this obsession with death come from?  No they’re not dead – the microwave is very noisy, that’s all.”  With a ding, the defrosting sausages announced the completion of the thawing process, and all at once the trio of midwives gabbled together.  “My name’s Julie.”  “I’m Pam.”  “I’m Margaret.”  “I’ve delivered 4000 babies.”  “I’ve seen four cases of hyperbilirubinaemia just today.”  “I wet the bed until I was eight.”  “Six times I told them we were ex-directory.”  “But Boris never does listen to my bowel movements.”  “I definitely closed the vortex after the last passage through time, so the dimensional paradox really isn’t my fault.”

“Ignore them,” urged Martin, “They’re on a break.”  “I see,” said Barney, but didn’t really.  His stomach rumbled loudly, proclaiming that it must be nearly time for brunch – somewhere in the world at least.  A loud crash at one of the tower’s windows caught Barney’s attention, but it was nothing.  Turning back, he saw Martin holding open a cupboard door and pointing into it.  “Crouch down and get in,” he ordered.  “Why?” Barney asked, but Martin just shook his head.  “Now is not the time for explanations.  Now is the winter of our discontent.”  Barney nodded, squatted down and perched on a shelf next to a steamer set and a stuffed budgerigar; Martin closed the door after him, turned the key and bent down to the lock.  “Everything will become clear shortly,” he said, patting the cabinet reassuringly.  The cabinet looked relieved.

The radio show host was visibly fuming, but only to the small minority of his audience who had tuned in online and could therefore peer into his studio on the low-quality greyscale webcam.  He’d had awkward listeners before but this one took the biscuit, the oddly brown sugar cube and the small pot of thin milk.  Everyone knew about the Bob-Holness-being-the-first-James-Bond fiasco, and it was surely only a matter of time until this quiz question bust-up hit the same heady heights of ridiculousness.  How on earth could he retain his job, his dignity and his civic dog-walking rights in the aftermath to this?!

The morning had started off fairly normally – he had woken to the sound of Pavarotti’s ghost gargling in the airing cupboard, plunged 30 feet head-first from his bedroom doorway (having forgotten about the termite infestation), and then showered at the bus stop in front of three rather terrified horse breeders and a drugged-up pelican – so how had his day gone so badly wrong?  Walking in through the front doors at work, he had glanced up the spiralling glass staircase and seen a small opium dealer squinting at him through a periscope (he was, after all, ‘hiding’ behind a glass banister), and upon reaching his office had discovered his morning mail rifled through and his coffee machine bayoneted.  Somebody was clearly out to get him, although quite why, when and how considerately were not yet obvious…

The instant the DJ had picked up the day’s Super Great Crazy Quiz questions, he’d spotted that there were rather more typos than usual, but had just assumed that his assistant producer was rather more distracted than usual after his late night out at the latest Quentin Tarantino premiere, trying to cadge free popcorn from dogs (just normal dogs – not the ‘reservoir’ type).  Never in a million years did he think it likely that the Communist dictatorship currently governing the Far Eastern country of Laos could have laced his entertainment vehicle’s output with a mysterious code, dispatching instructions on how to start a war with Ghana over some dried eggs and a missing tutu.

“For tickets to see Linkin Park play quoits at Splashdown, what is the capital of Suriname?”  An innocent question, and a fantastic prize.  And what had the caller’s answer been?  “Tell your grandmother that the chicken tasted of Halifax.”  A brief pause to re-gather his somewhat knocked sensibilities.  “Um…  I need an answer to the question.”  The voice was stern, and a little bit sexy.  “That is my answer.  Now tell your grandmother.  Chicken.  Taste.  Halifax.”  “Is Halifax your answer then?”  “Yes – now tell your grandmother.”

The two-tone klaxon had sounded and before he could stop himself he’d actually said, live on air, “Oh I’m sorry, but Halifax is not the capital of Suriname.  Thanks for playing Chao Min, better luck next time.  Let’s go to line 2…” and that was that.  That was the phrase the superpowers had been waiting for – Let’s go to line 2 – spoken by an unsuspecting disc jockey on the morning breakfast show in South Worcestershire, unleashing a vast nuclear arsenal on an African country oblivious to the chaos that the lack of moisture in a shipment of duck eggs (and that infernal misplaced ballet skirt) had ultimately caused.

His bosses had called him in just after the news broke.  “You idiot,” they all said.  As there were 27 of them, this passage took some time.  It was a good job they hadn’t all had to introduce themselves at the start of the meeting, otherwise they’d have been there all day.  “Look what you’ve done.”  Again, 27 of them had to say this in turn (boardroom policy), so the presenter had time to conjure up a barnstorming answer in reply.

“What did I do?” he whimpered.  He hadn’t seen any of the day’s papers and so didn’t have a clue what was going on, what had happened with the eggs, where the tutu was, or how many lorry drivers had been caught mooning on the A34 since All Souls Day.  “Do you not follow the West Yorkshire news, man?!  As of last night’s Surinamese invasion, Halifax IS the capital of Suriname.”

TSP058: A time and a place

October 29, 2012

“I tell you, that you will find it an impossible task to come across something more juicy than me this side of Wisconsin.”

“Rubbish.  You, don’t listen to him – I’m the juiciest and I’ve got the certificate to prove it.”

“Seriously?  You couldn’t even get your basic swimming badges.  My water content is higher than a heavy-drinking cucumber’s.”

“If it’s been left in a coat pocket over a radiator on Venus perhaps.  I’m the juiciest.”

“No, I am.”

“I am!”

The stranded pilot stared lustily at both cacti in turn.  These were the first living things (excluding the nuns) that he’d come across in the desert since crash landing three days ago.  Which of them held more water?  Why were they talking so loudly?  And why was one of them Bristolian?!  Questions – why now?  Now was not the time for this – or anything really, other than slapping his parched lips round the neck of a bottle of cool, refreshing cider (irrespective of flavour – marzipan would do).

His water had run out on the previous night – he’d been kicking himself ever since for not filling the paddling pool to a higher level.  Now heavily bruised, wracked with thirst and beginning to hallucinate he found himself engaging in conversation with these two succulents, looking for a flaw in their reasoning.

“I didn’t realise the swimming badge system operated out here in Tunisia?”

The left-hand cactus gave him a steely glare.  “Well, quite frankly I’ll bet there’s rather a lot that you’re unfamiliar with in these parts.  I’ll wager you didn’t even know that Notting Hill was filmed out here.”

“It really wasn’t,” replied the pilot, “Not sure if you’d noticed but there’s a clue in the name on that one.”

“Just stop it!  Stop it!  And listen to yourselves!”  The second cactus was indignant with disgust.  “You’re bickering like – like children.  This man here is dying of thirst, he probably hasn’t long left before he descends into the talking-to-the-plantlife stage, and here you both are arguing about English cinema of the early 90’s…”

Late 90’s,” corrected the first cactus.  “Notting Hill came out in 1999 – same year as American Beauty.”

American Beauty wasn’t 1999, was it?!” interjected the pilot.  “I could have sworn that came out much earlier…”

“A lot of people think that, but he’s right,” replied the right-hand cactus.  “In fact, it won the Oscar for Best Picture the following year, in 2000 – so it’s so much later than you were thinking that it won an award in a different decade.”

The first cactus looked askance.  “Woah, hold on there – what do you mean, ‘different decade’?  Technically, the decade began in 1991, so it’s not truly over until 2000 is done and dusted.”

“What about 1990?!” urged the pilot.  “Surely that was the start of the decade?”

“A common misconception – 1990 was the end of the 80’s.”

The pilot slapped his thigh – in hindsight probably not the best use of his energy.  “So you’re trying to tell me that 1990 wasn’t in the 90’s?!  But it’s got a ‘90’ in it!  It’s the year that actually ends in ‘90’!!”

Cactus One gave him a look of pity.  “Poor misguided soul,” it whispered, before adding more loudly: “Officially speaking the calendar as we know it began in the year 1 – there is no year 0.  Therefore the first decade ran from 1 to 10, then 11 to 20, and by extension we end up with 1991 to 2000.”

“Woah, woah, woah.  You’re trying to tell me that there is no year 0?!”

“Absolutely – we went straight from 1 BC to 1AD overnight – I should know, I was there.”

“Get away,” said the second cactus.  “You are so not that old.”

“Cut me open – count the rings.”

“Hold up fellers… there is no year 0?”

“Precisely,” nodded the first cactus.  “It is not the year 0 that bends, it is only yourself.”

“That’s another one!  The Matrix – 1999, but to me it seems so much earlier than that.  More like 1997 or something.”

The pilot gave the right-hand cactus a look of scorn.  “Honestly, the middle of the desert and all you want to talk about is films?!  Man, you’re in the place to be away from it all – off the beaten track, and all that.  Make the most of it.”  And with that he wound his way over the dune and onwards, still thirsty.

The two cacti glanced across at each other.  “Think we dodged a bullet there,” said one to the other.

“Indeed,” his friend agreed.  “Like Neo.”

“Name?”

“Tonsil.”

“Age?”

“24.”

“Occupation?”

“Well, it’s um… it’s complicated…”

This was going to be a difficult interview, for both the tonsil and the army recruitment officer.  Although it certainly wasn’t common to receive applications for military enrolment from specific body parts instead of the whole person, it was definitely becoming less rare – that’s what all the statistics showed (that’s right – all of them – even the ones about how much coal is mined in Cameroon…).  Just last Thursday the Stadhampton Military Pogo-Stick Corps had interviewed no fewer (and no more) than 14 individual organs, tissues or fluids minus the rest of the man.  6 of them failed the admission medical for pretty major reasons (the major hadn’t thought them very pretty) but the remainder had made the grade and were being shipped out to Iran next Tuesday, to play their part in the great conflict of their time – the Shah Wars.

Corporal Vimto looked down his glasses at the small, quivering tonsil; then he looked down his tankards and his mugs to boot (this last action having the desired effect, rendering the meaty offcut out of sight and out of mind).  “We get an awful lot of tonsils that want to join the army,” thundered the corporal, salivating slightly as he recalled a particularly appetising ham he’d seen in the butcher’s window the Wednesday last.  “Let me tell you now, young… thing… the going is tough – it doesn’t just get it, it is it.  And in that situation the tough already have to be going – it’s no good just getting going at that moment in time; ‘going’ has to be coursing through your veins before you’ve even had a thought or a cup of tea or a little sausage.  Do you understand?”

The tonsil attempted to salute.  Lacking any arms it merely wobbled a bit, but with confidence.  “Sir, yes sir.”  “That’s miss to you.”  “Sir, yes miss.”  “That’s better.  Now…” – Vimto meandered around the room like a mountain stream laden with silt – purposefully – “You will of course have to undergo a vigorous obstacle course before we can allow you to join our squadron – with nets and mud and balance beams and throwing the beanbags into the washing up bowl, the usual kinds of things.  This will ensure that you are fit and able to embark on the rigorous Shah Trek en route to the Shah Wars.  Will this be a problem for you?”

The tonsil looked glum.  “Will I be able to take my mobility scooter?”  This made the corporal splutter a bit and lose his footing on a particularly precarious pouffé.  “What do you mean ‘mobillity scooter’?!”

With a tiny sigh, the tonsil produced a snapshot of a mobility scooter, as he was already completely fed up of having to explain absolutely everything to this man, who was clearly a moron – and one of the highest order too.  “I see,” mused the army man, “I’d always thought these were ‘mopeds’.”  “No,” responded the tonsil perhaps a little too sharply, “these are mopeds.”  At this he flourished another colour photograph, this time of three cows in a field.  “My my,” said the corporal, “This is proving to be an education for me today…  Anyway, enough of this frivolity.  I will have to ask my manager whether we can allow you to take this ‘mobility scooter’ to Iran.”

“It’s just that if I can’t then I needn’t bother sign up, because I can’t walk you see – I don’t have any legs.”

The corporal leaned over his desk and looked down his glasses again, then down his teacups and finally down his champagne flutes.  “Great Oates!” he cried.  No I mean, he properly sobbed, tears streaming down his face and saturating his socks until they swelled up like great sponges, preventing him from lifting his legs until he had good and proper wrung them out.  “That is terribly sad.  I’ve never heard of such a thing – a tonsil without legs.  It’s so desperately awful…”  The tonsil reached out and handed him a tissue from his pocket-size pack; the corporal accepted it with good grace, dabbed his eyes, blew his nose and then popped it into his pocket to show to his children when he got home later.  “Hopefully that will all be AOK,” he resumed, bile trickling from his eyes (he’d cried out everything else).  “Probably the one thing we’ll need to know is: how wide is your scooter?  We’ll need to make sure that it’ll fit through the ShahGate at the end of the Shah Trek en route to the Shah Wars.”

The tonsil considered for a moment.  “You know, mine isn’t the best judgment of size – I’m rather inhibited by my lack of eyes, so I’d end up just guessing.  I’ll tell you what, I’ll drive it round the back and bring an old tailor’s tape of my gran’s and maybe you could measure it for me?”

“Yes, that sounds like a good plan Mr Tonsil,” agreed the corporal, just about audible through the crust of bile that now encapsulated his face.  “I must say, your agreeable nature will certainly go in your favour when your application comes before the arbitration panel.”

The tonsil stopped in his tracks.  “Oh, so it’s not just this, the medical and the obstacle course in order to get the job?”

“Oh no, sir – after successful completion of those three preliminary activities, there’s another seventeen rounds of unnecessary paperwork, arbitrary decision-making and out-and-out prejudice to survive.”

The tonsil thought for a moment.  “On second thoughts,” he announced, “I’m out.”

‘Beware!’ read the sign on the cliff top.  John approached it with caution, prepared to leap away at the first sign of real danger.  Kestrels had been spotted in the area recently – great big ones, covered in hooks – and John wasn’t keen to fall foul of a hungry giant bird of prey; it certainly wasn’t on his bucket list.

The rain had been beating down since four in the morning, and now that the sun had set the wet conditions were adding yet further peril to the situation.  John peered through the darkness, wiping the water from his glasses only for it to be replenished by a fresh squall an instant later.  Frustrated by not being able to see clearly, John reasoned that he might as well just close his eyes and hope for the best, trusting his path across the cliffs to fate…

Eight days later, friends and family of the late John Agincourt shared their memories of him across the buffet of salmon sandwiches, celery sticks and marinated chicken legs.  “I just can’t understand it,” exclaimed his widow Busby.  “I mean, what was he even doing out there, on the cliffs, late at night, in a storm, wearing my pyjamas and holding the Bayeux tapestry??  It just doesn’t make any sense!”

“Bus, listen – John wasn’t the kind of man to do things irrationally,” reassured her milkman, Derek.  “Believe me – in all my years of knowing John through the amateur butterfly collectors’ society there wasn’t a single occasion where he took an action without first sitting down, pondering it over and writing about it to the Observer.”

“Even his proposal?”

“Even that.  Hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers up and down the country knew he was going to ask for your hand in marriage before you did.  Several of them wrote back to congratulate him; one man offered to marry you himself so that John wouldn’t have to ruin the rest of his life.  He touched so many people’s hearts.”

“Thanks…  I guess…” Busby mused.  “But I keep asking myself: why?  Why wasn’t he asleep in bed?  Why couldn’t he find his own pyjamas?  Why was a relic of the Norman conquest found wet and sopping on a cliff top in West Sussex”

“That’s because it was raining.  Things left out in the rain get wet.”

“That’s not what I meant…”

Two weeks after John’s demise, Derek found himself pacing through the knee-high grass overlooking the Channel, re-enacting the events of that fateful night.  This was the spot where John fell to the ground; this was the place where the escaped crocodile stared him in the face; this was the point that the angry fisherman leapt up out of the blackthorn bush and speared the hungry lynx; this was where Sir Alex Ferguson turned up and then immediately went home after realising he hadn’t flushed the loo – all of the events were falling into place.  It was only a matter of time before it all became completely clear.  Spotting a glint in the grass, Derek bent down to retrieve what could prove to be the missing link in this scattered sequence of events.

A Star Bar wrapper…  The evil was screaming out.  But how did it connect with the heron, the two tonnes of raw silicon ore and that maternity dress that Derek had already linked to his friend’s departure from this life?  The dairy employee scratched his beard and then that of his accompanying police escort, who seemed to like it.  Although his day job generally involved merely the delivery of moo juice, bread and a limited variety of poor quality local cheeses, in his spare time Derek was also a very capable criminologist, able to infiltrate the mind of the average bottle thief, and – therefore – the perpetrators of most felonies (except ballet sabotage).  This personal puzzle was testing his investigative powers to the max.

He turned to the constable.  “I give up,” he said.  “I just can’t work this one out.”

“But Mr Fossil,” the officer implored, “You have real insight not just into the crime scene here but also into the personal life of the deceased.  If anybody’s perfectly placed to solve this case, it’s Michael Parkinson – but he’s not available, so you’re the next best thing.”

Derek breathed in deeply, his chest swelling with confidence.  “You’re right,” he exuded, “Michael Parkinson would be the ideal person to investigate, but I’m happy to give it a shot.”  The policeman beamed.  Derek continued, “This perplexing riddle has to have a solution – that’s part of the essence of a riddle, right?”  The policeman didn’t know so he just nodded like a dog trapped in a lift.  “Every problem has a solution – you just need to lace it all together with an enormous metaphorical crochet hook and turn it into a formidable doily.  And I’m the man who can do it.”

The policeman pretty much clapped.  “Well sir, what do you need from me to be able to solve this?”

Derek thought for a moment.  “Hmmm…  Get me a Lamborghini, six million dollars in cash and two weeks in Hawaii and I think I’ll be onto something…”

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.

“Three doors – you must choose just one.”  The tunnel-keeper’s golden eye gleamed beneath his stooping eyelid as he laughed a furtive evil chuckle and leaned more heavily on his gnarled stick, prescribed by his doctor to help alleviate the terrible lumbago he felt every morning when he first got out of bed.  His two young victims exchanged worried glances and Topps football stickers, before huddling together at the opposite side of the cavern to discuss their plight and cry generally.

“It’s a trick,” whispered Kevin, a 15-year-old fully qualified orthodontist from Cyprus, Kent.  “He’s trying to force us into choosing one of the doors that lead to instant death.”

“How?” urged Grace, the reigning Bavarian hurling singles champion (under 16’s) and one-time lizard hypnotist.  “That’s the first thing he’s said to us since we came down here – he’s not even said anything about doors leading to death, just that there are some doors – three, in fact – and that we have to select one of them.  Come to think of it, he’s not even said that we have to go through one of them – just that we have to choose it.  He might be asking us to pick one for him to go through, or to purchase at a mightily reasonable price, or it could just be a huge novelty Advent calendar to count down the final 3 days before Christmas.”

The tunnel-keeper cleared his throat.  “Actually, sorry but I think I forgot to make myself completely clear on this one – one of these doors leads to what you seek, the other two lead to INSTANT DEATH.”

Kevin looked round and raised an eyebrow in Grace’s direction.  She bit it.  “You should listen to your friend more,” the wizened old man continued, “He is wise far beyond his ears…”

“You mean ‘years’?”

“Those too…”

“Careful,” Kevin warned, “He’s trying to divide us – make us fight amongst ourselves.  He’s playing with our minds and our emotions to drive a wedge between us, put us at each other’s throats, drive another wedge between us, etc. etc.”

“Listen to yourself Kev,” Grace replied.  “He hasn’t expressly declared himself to be doing any of those things.  You’re being paranoid.  He could just be a little old man who lost his way on a day trip to the countryside and needs our assistance to re-surface, or a war veteran shell-shocked from many a valiant battle against his hobbit enemies, or lots of small children standing on each others’ shoulders beneath an over-large duffel coat.”

“Actually,” piped up the tunnel-keeper, “I am trying to play with your minds to drive a wedge or two between you, etc. etc. in the hope that your squabbling impairs your ability to choose wisely and ultimately leads to your INSTANT DEATH.”

Kevin smirked and made a gesture of ‘I told you so’ using his armpits.  Grace hit him with the shovel.  “He’s very clever – your friend.  He’s got me all worked out.”

“Watch out – he’s using reverse psychology,” cautioned Kevin.  “He wants us to think we’ve got him all worked out, which means that we can’t have got him all worked out, because if we had worked out how to work him out we’d have worked it out by now.”

At this point Grace finally lost all patience with her irritating riddle-mate, clasped the shovel firmly with both hands and beat Kevin repeatedly over the spleen until he resembled a small hedgehog out for a turn on the river.

“That jolly well hurt, you know!” exclaimed hedgehog Kevin.  “And you’re playing right into his hands.  He wants you to sculpt me into the form of a spiky mammal rowing furiously, because now he can put me into his travelling animal sideshow.”

“AT LAST!” roared the elderly watchman, whirling his cape (purely out of habit – not for any theatrical reason).  “You finally realise my intentions – and far too late.”  In a flash he had bent down, scooped up hedgehog Kevin into a musty shoebox, and developed a sequel to the Macarena even more catchy than the original routine.  “Far too late to save yourselves!  HAHAHAHAHA!!”  He bent backwards to release an awful laugh (no really, it was so bad) before clutching his lower spine and cringing with pain.  “Ah!  The lumbago…” he winced.

Grace blinked, unsure what was going on.  “So… can I go now?” she asked.

The old man cackled and reached for the pencil sharpener.  “I’m afraid not, child.  I’m afraid not.”

Grace felt a feeling of fear creep over her.  Nobody knew she was down here.  All of her relatives currently believed her still to be watering the pomegranates in the greenhouse at Auntie Lou’s charity garden party, and most of her friends were dead.  The only other person with whom she considered herself to be on good terms was now snuffling at a lettuce leaf in a cardboard receptacle formerly home to some sturdy all-weather walking boots.  To escape the chamber she would have to climb 807 stairs in double quick time before her captor pressed the ‘Turn staircase into super-slide’ button she’d noticed on her way in – either that or climb up to where that shaft of light was coming from, but she was pretty sure it was just a powerful lava lamp in an alcove and not a path to the freedom of above-ground.  The vigour of her spleen-hitting efforts had reduced her utensil to a splintered wreck – no good for hand-to-hand combat – and all of the other weapons in the room were marked with an orange ‘not to be used by under-18’s’ sticker, and she wasn’t one to break the rules.

The situation looked hopeless.  A bead of sweat rolled down her forehead, her mind raced with thoughts of home and – bizarrely – Animal Hospital, and her knees shook (although the rest of her legs stayed perfectly still).  Reluctantly she closed her eyes and attempted to remain calm in the face of her impending doom…

A watch alarm went off.  “Aha, that’s my shift over.  You can go now,” said the tunnel-keeper, reaching for his satchel and pulling out a great big flask of eggnog and a Sainsbury’s homebrand pork pie.

TSP049: Hi society

April 4, 2012

“Pass me my hat – the one made from the Queen’s old bodice.”

“This one?”

“No – that’s my budgie.”

Harvard replaced the family pet upon its perch and I glared at him with a look that would have withered a blind shrew’s appendix.  Despite being our butler for over 250 years Harvard still hadn’t really got the hang of what was what.  Just the other morning I placed the simple request of running my bath – six hours later and beginning to pong, I discovered him coaxing sea creatures into the bread bin.  I reprimanded him then and there, reached out for a substitute croissant without taking my eyes off him and received a soggy welt from a disgruntled narwhal for my pains.  Three days later it turned blue and my Uncle Francis’s leg fell off – an unfortunate happenstance that would never have arisen had our stoic butler understood the difference between a hot tap and a hot cross bun.

Today I was beginning to lose my patience.  I was dressing for the annual Bookkeepers’ Ball – the yearly dance event for everyone involved in the betting industry, including HR Managers and the people whose job it is to chew the pens; with regards to my costume, the bets were on but that was about it.  I had hoped to don my finest bearskin hearth rug and glow-in-the-dark SCUBA gear but Harvard had other ideas.

“I was thinking maybe the mauve and yellow pinstriped pyjamas, sir.”

“Pyjamas?!  To the Bookkeepers’’ Ball – are you insane Harvard?  Don’t you recall that Lord Fergus Pamplemousse wore a scarlet Tarzan-esque nightgown to the do just last year?  It would be a foolish man who attempted to pull off that look with the same panache so soon – the very idea is laughable!  You’d be better off putting your ear in a shoe shiner’s mouth and claiming to be a camel.”

“Indeed, sir.”  Harvard is always most perceptible to my best notions and this praise was to resound in my mind for three to five weeks thereafter.

“I am glad you agree, young charlatan.  Now, fetch me something fetching to impress the ladies and canapés alike.”

A simple command, I think you’ll agree.  And what did Harvard return with next?  The string vest worn by John Major in the 1992 General Election; hardly likely to woo anyone with a modicum of sense or a vague knowledge of world capitals.  I was fed up, yet still ravenously hungry.

“Harvard, fetch me some toast,” I yelled like a hippo at the hairdresser’s.  I had only uttered this phrase on 26 previous occasions, all completely memorable in their own individual way.  My personal favourite was the time the Pope shouted at my Auntie Grace for nibbling the ends off his elbows – although now I come to think about it that may have been a dream.  Either way, His Holiness was particularly uppity with me and I shan’t forget it in a hurry.

My inner monologue fading away, I looked up to behold Harvard suspended from the ceiling by his ankles.  “And pray what do you call this posture?” I asked, brazenly.  Harvard’s reply shook me to the core and I cannot print it in this journal for fear of breaking several laws both at home in the UK and overseas in Guam.  Needless to say I took him to task and made absolutely certain that no chopsticks could ever find their way into his possession again.

At this moment a movement outside the window made me shimmer – a tall dark shape loomed up and into view before proceeding in the general direction of the door.  Seventeen minutes later the doorbell rang.  “Harvard, can you get that,” I hollered, with great pomp and circumstance, “I’m still rooted to the spot with fear and think I may have leaked a little wee.”  No response.  I looked around me.  No sign of Harvard.  I lifted up the sofa cushions.  Harvard looked up at me from his hidey-hole.  “Harvard!” I shrieked, lavishly, “What do you think you are doing?”

My bewildering butler removed the earplugs from his lugholes (and also his nostrils) and had the temerity to say that if I had said anything he had not heard it and it would probably have been pure nonsense at that.  Cursing myself into a great balloon of fury I again inquired into his positioning beneath the soft furnishings – his response: “Concealing myself from next door’s sausages, which are being particularly loud.”  I for one had heard nothing even vaguely porcine, unless the doorbell was made of pig-gut (which I doubted, secretly) and demanded he answered the call of nature.  Regrettably, he arose and made haste to the hallway, whereupon he granted admission into the house to a big black oblong.  Aha, I had been right all along!

“Good day,” said the oblong, slapping a glove across my face (quite how, I am still unclear).  It continued with aplomb, “You have insulted the honour of my sister and I challenge you to a duel.”

I was perplexed and a bit sweaty.  “I don’t believe I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting your sister, Mr… er…”

“Never you mind, and yes you have – cast your mind back to last Saturday and the overpriced dinner at Faraday’s.”

I did so.  It was a bit hazy.  I put the fan on – that seemed to help.  “Ah yes, Faraday’s.  And you’re right, the quail was especially steep.  But there was just me and Mr Hobbes the Hobnob manufacturer…”

“Do you remember passing comment on the photographic design emblazoning one of the tablemats?  Some rather disparaging remarks, if you recall?”

I thought hard, which jolly well hurt.  “Do you mean your sister is the overly large woman walking along Brighton Pier in the afternoon mist, forever preserved in pictorial form upon that tablemat?”

The oblong shook his… top bit where a head would normally be.  “Nay – my sister was the tablemat.”

Ah.  Yes.  I was in some trouble now…