TSP063: The night shift

February 27, 2013

The guard re-crossed his legs and picked up his magazine for the third time.  So many unnecessary interruptions in one night – could a man not drink his brew, complete his crossword, put his feet up on his desk and only occasionally peer at the security monitors in peace?!  If it wasn’t one thing it was two things, or three, or four, or…  Definitely not zero things at any rate, which was a shame because that’s what he’d have really liked right at that moment in time.

Fifteen years ago, nobody would have thought it possible or even a good idea to call up the night watchman to report a hoo-hah within the factory’s perimeter fence – mostly because he was ex-directory – but these days his number was on every toilet cubicle wall from here to Hyderabad, and a surprisingly large number of people along the route had more mobile credit than apathy.  “I think there’s a pigeon prowling on the staffroom awning” – that was his first call of the night.  Yes, there was a pigeon up there on the roof, but it was only a pigeon – and to describe it as ‘prowling’ was a stretch of the imagination.  It was more likely foraging, or just plain old loitering – pigeons tended to do that, often under the influence of alcohol.

No sooner had the first phone call been ended with a brusque “Thank you for your information – I’ll make sure it gets to the right person”, and the informant’s gist relayed to the nodding dog at the base of the desktop aspidistra, than the ringer sounded again.  Huffing quietly to himself, he lifted the receiver again and listened.  An agitated voice met his ears.  “Hello?  Is this the night watchman?  I’ve just seen a bird of some sort crossing the path by the entrance to your compound.  It flapped a bit and set off my security light, and I don’t know what to do…”  The voice cracked and broke into a full-on shriek of terror.  “Help me, please – the bird… flapping… crème anglaise… on the path.”  A few reassuring words to the unnerved (and unclothed) woman on the end of the line and a guarantee that he’d take a serious look into this flapping bird, and he was back reclining in his chair, arms above his head, hoping that his eventful evening would calm down a little – tonight was the deadline for submission of completed puzzles and he had eight clues remaining.  The prize was a weekend break in Venice, which he was hoping to sell and then spend the money on old camera film cases.  The thought set his mouth to drooling…

After a couple of easy answers (‘hilltop’ and ‘C3PO’) his serenity was shattered by yet another piercing scream from his desk phone.  Just his luck – the next clue was one that required absolute quiet for at least seven (consecutive) minutes and a wafting scent of freshly set alabaster.  Removing his safety goggles, he once more offered himself up as a slave to the telephone.  “Neil, is that you?”  Tut.  “No, Neil’s shift is on Tuesdays.”  The sound of a man’s brain performing a swift calculation filtered through the earpiece.  “Okay, well never mind.  I was just going to tell Neil that there seem to be a few of those flying vermin stationed on top of the portaloos, but it doesn’t matter – I can tell him on Tuesday.”  “Okay great, he’ll look forward to it.”  The phone was returned to its base unit, the pen to his hand and the aforementioned leg re-crossing and magazine picking-up ensued.

Within ten seconds of thought resuming, the glass skylight suddenly burst inwards, showering his chair, desk and Spiderman lunchbox with assorted-size shards.  Using the puzzle book as cover from the falling debris, the guard looked up towards the hole in the roof and was instantly dazzled by a brilliant light (seriously, it was truly excellent).  The next thing he knew, the air was filled with the flapping of fifty pairs of wings and the sound of fifty sharp beaks pecking at his uniform.  Falling to the floor, he flailed about with his extendable keychain in an attempt to repel his assailants.  A single swift peck to the knuckle forced him to relinquish his grasp and angry clawed feet scratched at his arms and earlobes.  Slowly overcome by the relentless feathered assault, the noise faded in his ears and the interior of his office gently turned to darkness as he slipped out of consciousness.  The firm’s defences had been breached and eliminated.  The birdseed factory was finally in the hands of the Resistance.

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Too many people ask too many questions.  It follows naturally – think about it: if people ask questions, then too many people ask too many questions.  QED.

Similarly, if you had exactly the right amount of people, you’d have exactly the right amount of questions.  Perfect.  Everyone’s happy – you’re on to a winner.

It’s the same with cress.

Anyway, I’m getting sidetracked.  As established at the beginning of this eulogy, too many people ask too many questions.  Jacob was a good man – generally – when he felt like it – but boy was he one of those people who ask too many questions.  “Why is my tofu on the roof?  Who shaved the hamster?  Can I borrow your lawnmower?  Do you know a good place to repair a broken lawnmower?  You don’t really want me to pay you for it, do you?  What do you mean ‘Yes’?  What are you doing with that toasting fork?  Can I pay you in currencies superseded by the Euro?  Can you give me a week to find the money then?  Will you at least tell my family I’m being kept in your cellar?  When will you bring me some food?  Do you mind if I use one of these boxes as a lavatory?  Did you mean the one marked up as ‘CDs’ or the one that’s actually got CDs in?  Do you mind if the Ziggy Stardust booklet is a little on the soggy side?  Why are you looking at me like that?  Can you loosen these cords a bit?  But you’ll release me soon, yes?  Well, will you at least do my eulogy?”  Questions, questions, questions!  All the blinking time!  I know Maureen’s always thought the same – they say that it’s the wife that talks your ears off, but goodness me if Jacob didn’t know how to talk for Hampshire!  Probably that last week of Jacob’s life, wherever he may have been before they found his DNA in that beef-processing plant, must have been one of the most peaceful of your life Maureen…  She’s nodding.  Those of you at the back who can’t see – she’s nodding.  Yes, and she’s smiling now; there’s a little smile going on – she knows it’s true!

Now, of course, Maureen has a lifetime of peace stretching out before her.  The life insurance will pay out in a month or two, and then she’ll be able to marry again.  Of course, she doesn’t want to be thinking about that now, at her husband’s funeral – which is why I proposed to her on the day the police broke the news to her; leaves the burial day kind of special really doesn’t it?  No, today is a day for Maureen and for Jacob’s family and friends and for anyone who used to count Jacob as a friend but really found that lately he’d begun to grate on him… or her… and so felt that the time had come to take matters into his – or her – own hands and dispose of him in that mincer… today is a day for all these people to share their precious memories of Jacob, as he was… before he ended up in that supermarket own-brand lasagne.  People often said that there was a little bit of Jacob in all of us – well, after the barbecue that follows this service there very well may be!

But what would Jacob say if he was here today, looking out at all these people, here to give him a warm send-off or make sure he’s definitely gone and out of their lives for good?  Well, I’m pretty sure that if he’d had some last words in life, they’d have probably been along the lines of “You’ve been such a good friend to me – where did it all go wrong?”  Because lots of people were good friends to Jacob, close to him – yet for some reason he’s not here with us, sharing this occasion today.  Well, obviously he’s with us, but he’s not ‘with us’ with us, in the sense of standing at the back after arriving inconveniently late – as usual – looking on at his body in a casket.  Like I say, something must have gone wrong – and that something was death.  For some reason that nobody can possibly know, something went wrong with Jacob’s body and it gave up the fight for life.  Maybe it was stress, maybe it was a mental illness, or maybe it was a toasting fork…  I mean, a toes… infection.  I understand that the medical reports produced by my good friend Jimmy up at the lab – hello Jimmy, good to see you – proved utterly inconclusive, so Jacob’s official cause of death of ‘A mystery’ looks likely to stay that way.

It’s a sad day, but it’s also a happy day.  Jacob wouldn’t want us all to be sad – he’d want us to smile, and to laugh manically…  I mean, happily.  He’d want us all to remember him very rarely, and to move on and not tell the police about anything suspicious we saw at someone’s house when we came to call unexpectedly and might have peeked through a basement window and been pretty appalled at the scene.  He’d want us to keep our mouths tightly shut and not ask questions – because Jacob asked enough questions for everybody, and that’s the way he liked it to be.

Thank you all for coming.  Now excuse me, Maureen and I have a plane to catch.  Very quickly.

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.”

Nine years had passed since Simon’s last trek through the mountains.  Nine years.  Whole ones at that.  Funny to think also that nine years ago he’d been nine years younger…  Nine years.  Nine!  On top of that it was downright hilarious that on his last trip he’d been one of a party of nine climbers.  Nine!  In one party!  The thought of it made him chuckle to himself.  All these forgotten significances of the number nine last time he was in these parts, and here he was now, returning to these peaks at long last and having to dial three nines on his phone.

“The team will be with you as soon as possible Simon.  Simon, did you get that?  Simon, stay with me – did you hear me Simon?”  “Yes…  Got it,” Simon grunted, drained and exhausted from his enforced stay near the top of this particular tricky Munro.  He’d prepared well for this solo expedition.  He had enough food and water to last three days in this wilderness; he had his waterproof jacket, his waterproof boots, his waterproof map and his Thermos flask (sadly not waterproof).  He’d picked a day with fine weather, not a cloud (or a clown) in sight… but it was impossible to plan everything.

Some things in life are beyond one’s individual control, Simon thought to himself, gazing down from his lofty viewpoint to survey a beautiful scene of lochs and purple-heathered slopes.  It’s important to know your weaknesses, to realise when something is beyond your grasp, and – most important of all – to buy the red Frusli bars, not the brown ones with nuts in.  He wasn’t allergic or anything – he just really liked the berries.

“Simon, what’s the weather like up there?  Simon, can you hear me still?  What’s the weather like – still sunny?”  “Yes, lots of sun,” he murmured unexcitedly.   Time passes very slowly while waiting for the emergency services, he mused.  Much more slowly than when waiting for a bus, or when choosing a new sofa, or when eating toast.  More slowly even than when performing a handstand, or when cleaning a telephone receiver with one’s tie, or when unzipping a tent from the inside, unaware of the intensity of the morning dew.  Very slowly.  Very, very slowly…

“Simon, you should be able to hear the helicopter soon.  It’ll be coming from an East-North-East direction, from between the two heights you can see off to your left.  Keep focussed on that area Simon.  Can you see where I mean Simon?  Simon, can you see it?”  “Mountain…  Helicopter…” muttered Simon, believing himself to be truly on his way to passing out good and proper.  How had he managed to become wedged into this cleft up here?!  The incident replayed itself in his mind.  Nope, still no idea.  One minute he’d been admiring a particularly elegant thistle, the next he’d slipped, fallen a little way and was now completely rooted to the spot, unable to move his legs.  This wasn’t how his sponsored hike was supposed to end.

A sound of whirring rotors came faintly from the horizon.  Straining his eyes to see more clearly, Simon could just make out a dark shape appearing from right where the operator had said it would.  The helicopter!  Nearer and nearer it came, before finally halting in the air some way above him and to his right.  With no site flat enough for it to land for a good few hundred metres, a cable ladder was unfurled and now hung down close to him, two men descending it and then running over to his aid.

“Simon, this is the rescue team.  Can you hear us Simon?  Simon?”  Simon nodded lethargically.  “He’s still conscious,” remarked the second rescuer.  “Okay Simon, you’ve only fallen a few feet so hopefully you’re not in too bad a state but we’re going to examine your legs to gauge the extent of the damage.  Do you understand me Simon?  I’m just going to look at your legs – if it hurts, let me know and I’ll stop.  Okay?”  Simon nodded again.  The medic began to pat down his right leg.  Then he patted down Simon’s right leg.  Receiving no response, he continued to work his way down towards the ankle.  Then he stopped suddenly.

“Ah,” he exclaimed.  “That’s our problem.”  “Is it bad?” gasped Simon.  “Truly awful,” responded the medic.  “No wonder you can’t move your legs, mate.  Your waterproof trousers are snagged on this rock.”

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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too many people walk to work – it’s a fact.  This morning the Government released figures clearly showing that more people walk to work than chew their food, which is an alarming statistic and one that should not be ignored or rolled up and squeezed into a drainpipe as an hilarious jape.  If more people chewed and fewer people walked the economy would not be in the state that it finds itself in today.  The following anecdote should help explain…

Barry was a platypus – a good one, not one of the ones you’re always hearing about in the news that hide in pensioners’ cupboards and eat all the Bisto.  After an epic 6-week journey from his hometown of Perth, Australia, Barry settled in its sister town of Perth, Scortlund, as a legal immigrant under the British Animal Asylum Act of 1942 (during the war, when all the crazy proposals for legislation could be shooed in due to the normally astute general public being focussed elsewhere).  Despite the notable impediments of having webbed feet, being quite a lot shorter than the average human, and lacking any knowledge whatsoever of the Highway Code, Barry became one of the first non-human mammals to pass the UK driving test, which was renowned as one of the hardest in Europe for an animal to pass.  Every day for 28 years Barry could be seen driving around the streets of Perth in the car from Back to the Future after it was sent into the past and won in an auction by a marsupial consortium, all of whom – apart from Barry – had since mysteriously perished, leaving him as the last surviving member of the pact, and thus the heir apparent.

But one day, Barry decided to walk to the newsagents to collect his daily redtop, instead of jumping into the driver’s seat.  It was a clement day, and so Barry had logically reasoned that a stroll might do him some good – he’d got pretty lardy after so much lack of exercise.  However, Barry never got to the newsagents that day; he was distracted by a buttercup by the side of the road, the beauty of which made him forget his errand and promptly turn around and walk back home.  As a direct result of Barry’s selfish action, on that day the stock market crashed, plunging Britain into the worst recession since 1920 (20 past 7, the day before).

The story made it into the television news, the top of the hour (every hour) on Radio 4, and one of the agony aunt columns in a student rag on the Isle of Jura (so you just knew it was big news).  The Prime Minister came out in public (which was a surprise for his parents) and at the same time pronounced a curse upon Barry the Platypus.  ‘If Barry hadn’t decided to go all loco and mincing walk to work’, he said, ‘our country wouldn’t be in this dire situation’.  The figures agreed – by failing to arrive at the newsagents to purchase his paper, Barry had denied the economy of 25 pence.  Not only that, but he might have bought a packet of Quavers or a jelly snake on impulse, possibly costing Britain another 28 pence or so.  What’s more, Barry hadn’t used up any petrol during his gluttonous jaunt on his own four feet, which had deprived the country’s coffers of an arm and a leg, and the wear-and-tear on his car’s engine, tyres and suspension (as the road to the Happy Shopper was riddled with speed bumps of the worst kind) which had been avoided would delay Barry’s next service and MOT, forestalling the payment of further moneys into the public purse.  Some MPs went so far as to debate the effect that Barry’s actions would have had on young, impressionable people out and about who saw this renowned driver walking through the town – what would the neighbours have thought??  Before you knew it there could have been all kinds of copycat behaviour popping up, with every Tom, Dick and Archibald deciding that they too would walk instead of drive, costing the economy yet further and plunging us all into poverty on an unimaginable scale.

Barry was a danger, said the media.  Barry was the devil, said a small yet vocal church in America.  Barry was a platypus, said David Attenborough (and he was right).

On the other hand, Parliament was quick to point out the hero of the day – the man who chews his food.  Their logic?  Any man who had to chew his food was clearly eating something that took a lot of time and energy to produce, like red meat, Jacob’s cream crackers or a Michelin tyre.  That dedication to supporting these effort-heavy industries, coupled with the fact that the exertions of chewing used yet more energy and would necessitate the purchase of yet more foods to replenish the spent fuel, put “The Man Who Chews” top of TIME Magazine’s Most Influential list for three successive years in the late 80’s.  The message from the politicians was clear: More Chewing, Less Shoeing.  Overnight thousands of people up and down the country threw away their shoes and bought a whole heap of haggis to do their bit for Blighty.  On Christmas Eve 1988, Brits up and down the nation (except in Rotherham, which for some reason had not been informed) joined hands, sang songs of victory – like Elvis classic Return to Sender – and tucked into plates of braised pork chops, toffee apples and tree bark, celebrating their leaders’ glorious anti-fitness pro-obesity stance with fireworks and bonfires, on which were burned effigies of that most evil of platypuses, Barry.

So as history dictates, walking is very bad for the nation’s wallet, while chewing is the best remedy to get us all out of recession.  But pardon me if I do not subscribe to such twaddle.  I will happily confess that yes, this morning I drove to the supermarket, yes I purchased a large bouquet of flowers and a Twix, and yes I went over a speed bump slightly too fast and will have to pay a few hundred pounds to get my gearbox repaired – but once home I left my car outside, walked to Perth pet cemetery and laid the tulips on the grave of a platypus whose plight has inspired many souls the world over.  And as I stood staring at his webbed headstone, I mourned for the loss of one of the finest political figures in Anglo-Australian history, and the decay that still today lies rotting in Whitehall.  And I ate my Twix.