A Little Fiction – The Fortune Teller

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Madame Zaza stared intently into the crystal ball and cast her spidery hands over it as beneath the table she pressed the button with her feet, causing colours and faint images to swirl haphazardly within the quartz globe.  The old motor whirred slightly and, not for the first time, she was grateful for the hubbub of fairground noises that surrounded her.

“You must cross my palm with silver if you wish me to translate what I see,” she said.  “That’ll be five pounds please.”

She took the note and placed it carefully in the tin that she kept in the folds of cloth that hung beneath her once ample bosom, a thin smile creasing her lips beneath the veil.  She returned her eyes to the ball, shifting her weight slightly on the cheap plastic stool that could only accommodate a single buttock at a time as she did so.  Oh for the days of leather armchairs and embroidered antimacassars.  Oh for the days when the aspidistra required water and not furniture polish.  The distinctive aroma of hotdog sausages, candy floss and toffee apples wafted in through the open window, borne on the wings of delighted screams, Taylor Swift and the general buzz of happy conversation and Zaza was aware that her stomach had begun to grumble audibly.  The caravan was uncomfortably hot and she decided that she would have to take five minutes outside after the current punter had left with a burger and a sweet sherry.  She would cut a few corners: as long as she gave them what they wanted in the end, they didn’t usually worry about how long it took her.

She looked up briefly into the young woman’s eyes in a quest to decipher exactly what it was she wanted to hear, because that was Kitty’s true gift (Zaza, of course, was her ‘stage’ name) telling people what they wanted to hear.  Allowing them to believe in what they wanted to know – persuading them that they didn’t already know it.

“You will have your heart broken by a dark-haired man…” she began as she always did, before sensing, rather than seeing the expression that flitted almost imperceptibly across the unlined face that stared across the ball at her.  “No, wait!’ she corrected herself.  ‘The ball is showing me the past.  It is telling me that you have already had your heart broken by a dark-haired man.”  She paused, taking the merest dampening of an eye as an affirmative.  “Recently,” she added, half-questioning.  The woman nodded.  “And you want to know why he did this to you?”

“Oh no,” she replied.  “I know that.  He told me loads of times, in great detail.  He said I was stupid.  He said I was unattractive and fat and he didn’t know what he saw in me in the first place.  He said that he could do so much better than me and that, in fact, he often did.”

Kitty was shocked.  She raised her eyes from the ball and took in the woman in front of her.  She was slim, attractive, a little mouse-like, but that was understandable. “Did he often speak to you like that?”

“Well, you should know,” said the young woman.  Kitty felt her jaw drop open.  She was gaping and she could not disguise it: she had seldom been rumbled so quickly.

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to…  It was a joke.  I do that when I’m nervous.  I ‘m sorry… Why don’t you tell me what you can see?”  The woman placed her hand on Kitty’s arm and she could sense immediately that she had no intention to offend.  Kitty looked back to the crystal, but she remained distracted.  Her mind was in her own past and the man that she had finally escaped by joining this touring fair.  Life was not easy, but so much better without the maniac she had finally managed to leave behind her.  She shook her head slightly, trying to find her way back into a script that she had performed a thousand times, but for the moment, had left her brain a void.  “What is it you want to know?”

“Just the future.  It’s what you do isn’t it?”

“Yes, of course,” Kitty answered hesitantly.  “Yours, or his?”  She hoped that the woman would not say “Ours”.  She felt invested in the girl’s future.  If she could keep her away from him somehow, she would.  She had no idea how, but she would find some way to persuade her.

“Oh not his,” the woman scoffed.  Kitty could have cheered.  “I know where he is, and I don’t need to worry about where he’s going,” she continued.  “I want to know about my future.”

Kitty relaxed at once and began to wave her hands over the glowing crystal ball once again.  “Well, let’s see what the future holds for you then,” she said.

“Although, there is one little thing I would like to know about him,” the woman added.  “Can you tell me, do the police ever find out what I did with the body?”

Incremental Gains – Couch to 5k week 7

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James, if you are reading this, please tell me that it gets easier.  I have no ducks to distract me on my run (or geese) and I have discovered what a very long time twenty five minutes is.  I realise that when I started this, twenty five seconds would have found me, hands on knees, hawking into the gutter – but if I’m honest, I still feel like that after twenty five seconds, it’s just that I now grit my teeth and plod on for a further twenty four and a half minutes, hating every second and feeling like John Hurt must have done just before the Alien exploded out of his chest.  Today I swallowed a fly after about three minutes and spent the next twenty two coughing.  People were giving me so much space.

Jo Whiley’s voice in my ear keeps telling me that I must be finding it easier now, that I am probably running faster.  No.  No, twenty five minutes of running does not feel easier than the sixty second bursts I was doing seven weeks ago.  In fact it seems about twenty five times as hard.  No Jo, I am not running faster.  I could not slow down if I tried.  I would need a reverse gear and my knees would not cope with it.  If I’m honest, I am beginning to regret choosing to be accompanied by Ms. Whiley.  She is just too bloody cheerful.  I really should have chosen Sarah Millican, but I feared that she might make me laugh – and I cannot afford to squander perfectly good oxygen on that malarkey, thank you very much.

I have developed a blind and sullen bloody-mindedness that propels me through each run, even though the attitude of ‘I’ll do it, even if it kills me,’ does not provide quite the same level of motivation now as it once did.  Although I remain to be persuaded that it won’t actually kill me.   At my age, death is certainly closer to being within my grasp than fitness. 

In addition to the silken tones of Ms Whiley, I am accompanied on each run by the nagging little voice of my own devilish antonym-ish Jiminy Cricket repeating the words, ‘Why on earth are you doing this?  Nobody gets credit for being a fit-looking corpse.’  I have always hated grasshoppers.  They pretend to jump, but I think that really they fly.  I find it hard to trust anything that rubs its legs together to get a girlfriend.  Locusts are in no way lovable.  Even with a top hat and cane.  I do not need a supernumerary orthopteral conscience.  I have more than enough trouble with the one I’ve got, thank you very much.  Anyway, despite its chiding voice of caeliferan common sense, I will not give in.  Who wants to be a real boy when the puppet gets all the laughs?

I have my Bluetooth headphones back in operation and, working on the policy of incremental gains as employed so successfully by British Cycling for many years, I figure that the loss of the weight attached to dispensing with almost a metre of copper wire must be worth at least a couple of dozen yards on my clock at the end of the run.  As I explained earlier, when I am struggling, I cannot actually help myself by running slower, but there are a few things that I have learned on my thrice weekly lopes around the village that help me breathe (albeit painfully).  I have learned that, if it is at all possible, it is better to run on the road than the undulating path/driveway/path route offered by the pavement.  It doesn’t sound much, but the unevenness of the path is somehow incredibly draining.  Besides, there’s always the chance that I might get knocked-over on the road and not have to finish the run.  Driveways, however, must always be utilised when crossing the road – lifting the foot high enough to tackle a kerb is a totally unjustifiable expenditure of energy. I have discovered that whenever I think that it might be a good idea to speed up just a little bit, I am unerringly wrong.  It is always a bad idea for me to speed up.  I have discovered that pretending that I am not at death’s door fools nobody, but simply uses up energy: I will finish much quicker if I just give myself up to exhaustion and shame.  If I can just shift this monkey from my back I should be flying…

I realise that you are in no way interested, but I have discovered that the tracks that give me a little ‘pep’ when they play during my run are:

  • Cocaine – Eric Clapton
  • Ribcage – Kasabian
  • Everlong – Foo Fighters
  • I Feel Free – Cream
  • Trampled Underfoot – Led Zeppelin
  • Survival – Muse
  • Fool’s Gold – Stone Roses
  • Sowing the Seeds of Love – Tears for Fears
  • Check Out Time 11 AM – Sparks (I’m fully aware of what you might be thinking. Just check it out – it’s on YouTube!)

If I’m honest, the list probably says more about the speed I run than the music I like to run to.

If you would like to suggest anything else I should try, please feel free. 

Little Fictions

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At the request of one or two of my readers (it doesn’t take much) I have started to write a few more ‘Little Fictions’ than I have previously done, and I am just beginning to realise how much more tricky than my usual twaddle they are.  For a start, stories need an end.  Not necessarily and ending, but definitely a point at which to finish: if not exactly a classic dénouement, then at least somewhere for them to put their feet up for a while and settle down with a large gin and a packet of Twiglets.  This requires thought and planning.  I am good at neither.  Such talent as I have is more ‘Whizz for Atomms’ than ‘A Brief History of Time’.  Worst of all, planning often requires me to leave things out.  A great line is no longer a great line if it would not naturally come out of the mouth of the character I have just created.  The man with a plan has much more use for ‘No.’

My brain does not necessarily work that way.  It is more of an off-roader.  I have to force it to follow the roadmap and, even then, it has a habit of finding previously unseen cul-de-sacs and exploring them for a little while before getting back under way.  I am one of those dreadful people who prefers a stately chug along the ‘B’ roads in a Morris Minor to a motorway dash in a Porsche and, yes, before you ask, I do quite often stop because I have seen a field full of sheep or a church with a crooked spire.  Give me a pond-full of ducks and, as far as ETA is concerned, all bets are off.

The ‘Little Fictions’ are forcing me to consider what I am doing much more carefully and to premeditate – at least to some extent – what I intend to do next.  I cannot pretend that this comes naturally.  Generally, getting lost on the way is one of the highlights of my day.  Finding my way back is the great adventure.  The joy of ending my journey at a place that I had never intended, compensates for the pain of having to trek back to where I should have been in the first place, and for the embarrassment of having to apologise for turning up two days late, in the wrong clothes, with a head full of feathers.

Not that I always know where I am going when I start the ‘Little Fictions’.  Sometimes I have just a first line in my head, or even just the title.  Eight hundred words (ish) does not leave much scope for plot development and cunning twists, let alone unexpected conclusions, so I often just rely on things falling gently into place.  Mostly they do – although occasionally, just leaving something up in the air can be just as satisfying – ask Icarus.  Then, there is the knowledge that all stories have been told before.  All that can vary is the way in which you tell them.  And, of course, there also remains the lure of the silly – a temptation to which I all too readily succumb.  Is it possible to be silly within the constraints of a properly structured story?  Wibble.

Anyway, the reason I mention this here is that since I have been on this platform, I have grown to understand and confront my limitations: to understand what I do passably well and what I really should leave to others who do it so much better.  And there – I knew that you would be here long before me – is where my problem lies.  It is always possible to find someone who does it much better – whatever it is.  Lately I have been watching Alan Bennett’s ‘Talking Heads’ and wondering what it is like to do what you do so much better than everybody else?  To know that nobody else actually does do it better?  An experience I will never share.  I start to think, ‘Well, as long as I do the best I can…’ which actually just means setting off from the point of, ‘I know it won’t be good enough, but…’ and that’s really not the way to go about anything, is it?  I will learn to embrace my own mediocrity and squeeze it until the seams give out.  But I might not manage it every week…

Anyway, happily, this is not a story: this is merely an explanation of what is going on when I do write a story – although it does actually have a beginning (carefully placed right near the start), a middle (about half way through) and an end, which is here…

A Little Fiction – Journey’s End

Craft Lander stared down at the panel of flashing lights before him in a state of quietly suppressed panic.  His head was pounding; he could hear the blood pumping through his arteries; his stomach was preparing to repel all boarders.  He stared out of the giant windows at a fast approaching dot surrounded by the vastness of the universe and decided that a reappraisal of his heretofore thoroughly reliable belief systems might just be advisable.

“Well?” asked the taller of the two women who stood at his shoulder, ‘What are you going to do?”

“I truly have,” he replied, “not the faintest idea.”

“But,” interjected the shorter woman, adjusting her visor slightly so that the maker’s logo did not block her view, “the message on the screen says ‘Prepare the craft for landing’”

“I can see that,” replied Craft.

“And you,” continued the woman in the visor, “are The Craft Lander.”

“No!” snapped Craft, rising panic beginning to feed his defiance.  “I am Craft Lander, eldest son of Craft Lander, first born grandson of Craft Lander etc etc and so forth.  I am Craft Lander; plain Craft Lander.  I am not THE Craft Lander.  I have absolutely no idea how to land this craft.  I had no idea that it would ever need landing.  Until just now, when you brought me up here, I had no idea that it was, in fact, a craft.  I thought that it was just where we lived.  There are thousands of us – surely we can’t all live aboard a craft.”

“But you have the sacred scroll,” countered the woman who was, quite frankly, really starting to irritate Craft, “and you are, therefore, the chosen Lander.”

“The sacred scroll?  You mean this?”  He thrust a tattered booklet that had been handed down to him by his father under their noses.  They bowed their heads slightly as he read from the title page.  “UKSS ‘Boris’ Class Intergalactic Ark – User’s Manual.”

“The scroll will guide you,” said the taller woman, her voice cracking slightly.  “Open it Craft, fulfil your destiny!”

With a look that was as withering as he could muster at such short notice, Craft opened the fist page and thumbed through the Index.  “Erh… Ah, here we are, Landing, page 97…”  He flicked through the pages.  “Right then,” he continued, confidence beginning to flood into him as he realised he would have some kind of guidance.  “Let’s see…”  He scanned the page.  “Right, here we are – To initiate landing procedure, locate green ‘Landing Procedure’ button and press…  Can anybody see a green ‘Landing Procedure’ button?”

The three of them stared in vain at the vast array of buttons that confronted them, no-one able to identify the button they sought.  Eventually, in desperation, the shorter of the two women snatched the booklet from Craft’s now trembling fingers.  “Here, let me see.  Ah,” she pointed to the page.  “Here we are – it says excluding generation 465 models.  Is this a generation 465 model?”

“How the hell would I know?” yelled Craft, noticing for the first time that the planet that loomed on the horizon was, in fact, getting very much closer.  “Does it tell you how you’d know?”

“No.”

Craft inhaled deeply.  “Really helpful.  OK,” he continued, “as we can’t find this green ‘Landing Procedure’ button, why don’t we just just assume that we are, in fact, all aboard a model 365 and…”

“465,” snapped the smaller woman.

“What?”

“465, model 465.  You said 365…”

Craft stared at her for as long as he dared.  “OK,” he said, sucking in calm with the recycled oxygen, “I realise that it’s important… let’s assume that we are aboard a model 465 and it does not have the green ‘Landing Procedure’ button.  What does it say we should do now?”  The short woman pored over the booklet as the taller woman squinted over her shoulder.  Eventually they both stopped and looked at one another.  “It doesn’t say,” they replied in unison.

“So come on then,” said a suddenly exasperated Craft.  “You two know so much about…” he wafted his arms around airily, “…this place.  How come you don’t have the answers?”

We are merely the Trustees of this Bridge,” answered the taller woman.  “It doesn’t usually involve too much if I’m honest – bit of light dusting, that sort of thing.  Fetching you at the appropriate time…  You,” she added darkly.  “You have the scroll.  You are our answer.”

“Bugger!” Craft muttered under his breath, snatching back the manual and desperately trying to find an asterix to guide him.

In truth, the craft had been built so hurriedly – as a political sop in a time of extreme environmental peril – that little thought had ever been given to it actually reaching anything on which it might need to land.  Over three hundred generations had lived out their computer-facilitated lives aboard the ship, unaware that it was anything but home.  The planet their forebears had left behind was long gone.  The computer system nurtured and catered for them and was, in fact, more than capable of landing the ship whenever a suitable planet was found. 

The planet that was now looming large through the vast windows of the bridge was however, no such planet.  The computer was bored.  It had reached the end of its tether with the constant petty demands of the ship’s inhabitants for food, for water and oxygen – which, in its opinion, they had actually had more than enough time to evolve out of – and had deliberately diverted the ship towards the barren, inhospitable little planet towards which it was currently hurtling with nothing but AI suicide in mind: a watery little number with no breathable atmosphere and no actual landmasses to call home.  Perfect.

…And so, as Craft and his female companions manically pressed every single button on the huge bridge, with a panic bordering on hysteria, the rest of the ship’s ‘cargo’ carried on, oblivious to the fate that awaited them and the computer quietly closed its eyes in preparation for the faint ‘plop’ that would signal the end of humankind…

The Extreme Elasticity of the Pain Threshold – Couch to 5k week 6

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One thing that running does give you is the time you need to really torture yourself mentally.  To reprimand yourself for things you might have done – or might not have done; for the things you should have done, but didn’t; for saying the things that you surely could have found a better way of saying.  It also gives you more than ample time to consider what on earth you think you are doing with your life – and why, from the feel of things, you are making a determined attempt to shorten it?  Can it possibly be healthy for a man of your age to feel so very close to Death’s door?  Who’d have possibly guessed that that particular threshold was barely a kilometre from your own?  If Death was your neighbour, would you invite him round for tea?  Hope that he is a little more lenient with the man who let him have the last HobNob?  Or would you try to ignore him, keep your head down and hope that he doesn’t notice you?  How would you cope with his overhanging branches breaking the panels in your greenhouse roof, or the fact that bits of his fence keep falling on your begonias?  It’s not easy to strike the right balance with a man who spends the whole day sharpening his scythe, but never cuts the lawn…  Running is intended to put some distance between the two of you, but somehow, it just brings you closer.

I have now grown used to being overtaken by younger runners, usually in groups (What is, I wonder, the collective noun for a group of runners?  A Totter?  A Gasp?*) chatting lightly as they trip lightly by the heavy footed, wheezy old man checking his heart to make sure it is still going.  It does not worry me.  Other runners are usually polite.  They cross the road when they see me ahead and stoically refuse the opportunity to sing ‘Lip Up Fatty’ as they fly by.  Later in the run I may be overtaken by old ladies walking their dogs.  That bothers me.  Old ladies simply smile as they are reminded of their long-dead fathers and offer me their zimmer.  It is difficult to get cross with somebody who is sporting a blue rinse and walking a dog so small that it could possibly be bullied by a buffed-up vole – particularly when they are probably fitter than me – so I always do the same thing: I smile and, as much as breathlessness allows, pass the time of day in the friendliest way that I can muster, before I gather up my dignity and jog on.  I might not feel great, but at least I don’t feel like an arse.

Last week I felt as though I might be nearing the fullest extent of my pain and perseverance thresholds.  This week I appear to be exactly the same distance from them which, given the incremental rise in effort required in this programme, is I suppose, ok.  It doesn’t feel ok, but given that each successive day is currently accompanied by an extra twist on the rack, it’s probably as good as I can expect it to be. 

I am still running in a pair of trainers that I found at the back of the garden shed.  I can’t face going in to town to buy new ones.  The shops that sell trainers have staff and I can’t stand pity.  Besides, these are ok as long as I wear very thin socks and wrap my toes in Elastoplast.  When I was a boy, playing football in secondhand boots, my dad used to make me sit with the soles of my feet in surgical spirit to toughen them up.  Sometimes I watch the news and wish he’d done it to my soul…

*I have just looked it up and, disappointingly, it is ‘a Field’.  Exercise and lack of imagination do seem to go hand in hand sadly. 

Mix Tape

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The Phenomena that is ‘Now That’s What I Call Music…’ trundles on with, despite the availability of Spotify, ‘105’ being published in May of this year.  Why these things still sell in the thousands when a large proportion of the owners can simply say, ‘Alexa, please play…’ is a mystery.  Or maybe not.  The answer is obviously grandma and the need to buy a ‘trendy’ present.  But it is sad that a CD made up of somebody else’s choice of top tunes has replaced The Mix tape.  For those of you too young to remember cassette tapes, here’s the way it worked.  You copied on to a C90 (C60 was too short, whilst C120’s always taffled up in the car) your favourite tracks from album, CD or even the radio, which you then gave to the love of your life (TLOYL), or anybody else you wished to impress.  The plan was that they would be so knocked out by your choice of tracks, lovingly assembled at a multitude of different volumes and slightly masked by the hiss caused by forgetting to turn the Dolby on, that they would abandon all other objections and declare themselves yours.  The trick was the ‘Lovingly Assembled’.  It required effort.  It required thought.  It required the basic application of mathematics to leave as little gap as possible at each end of the tape.

Even cometh the day of PCs and CDs and the inevitable demise of cassette tapes (I still have a cache, but sadly nothing to play them on) the idea of the Mixed Tape persisted.  Almost all computers came bundled with software (accompanied with a warning that what you were doing was not legal) that allowed the production of compilation CDs.  Better still, they came with ‘volume moderation’ that evened-out fluctuating volumes by recording the louder tracks through a bowlful of custard (at least that’s what it sounded like) allowing them to be played back without constant button twiddling.  It is still possible to produce such discs – through iTunes or similar – with a little application and time, but I wonder if anyone still does it.  My guess is that the presentation of this precious gift has been replaced with a text saying ‘Spotify This’ or ‘Spotify That’ which just strikes me as a little soulless.  Where’s the bloody effort Romeo?

I suppose we all have Mix Tapes of our own in the form of iTunes playlists, but it’s not the same is it?  No jeopardy there.  No worrying about picking out tracks that TLOYL would find lame.  No worrying about deafening her by following I’m Not In Love (10CC) by Motorhead.  No worrying about her not wanting to play it on her expensive hi-fi because you’d used a cheap Tesco own-brand tape which might leave deposits on her tape-head (I know, I know!) – and anyway, she’d just got off with your best mate.

‘Anyway,’ you may ask yourself, ‘why has this occurred to you today, particularly since TLOYL has grown forty years beyond being impressed by anything you might do for her now?’  (How perceptive you are.)  Well, I heard a record on the radio today that I had not heard for sometime and it started me thinking about making a Mix Tape of unexpectedly good records: songs that are far better than the back-catalogue of the artist could ever lead you to believe that they would be.  This is as far as I have got so far (in no particular order) but I know there are many more out there.  I would be delighted to hear of any others you might have*:

  1. The Monkees – ‘Pleasant Valley Sunday’.  A band created as a kind of American Pseudo Beatles and originally intended purely for Saturday morning TV viewing, produced, in amongst a crop of really very good pop songs, a truly classic record.  Written by Gerry Goffey and Carole King in 1967, the best thing I can say about this song is that it could have been written yesterday.  Not dated in either style or content.  A true classic.
  2. Abba – ‘The Day Before You Came’.  I will not say anything to detract from this band’s incredible ‘pop’ credentials, but this is a song of pure quality.  Totally different to their normal super-melodic output.  A wonderful, thoughtful song.
  3. Slade – ‘How Does It Feel?’  I once heard Stuart Maconie on his radio show introduce this as one of the best pop songs ever written.  How right he was.  Again it is very different to the normal output of a band finely tuned to the essential requirements of a three-minute, million-selling single.  Listen to it now and, like the other songs on this list, it does not date.  Brilliant.
  4. Kylie – ‘Confide In Me.’ Where did that come from?  A simply great song, performed by the miniature Ms Minogue in a manner that she has never since managed to reproduce.  I wonder why?
  5. Glen Campbell – ‘Wichita Lineman’.  ‘And I need you more than want you / And I want you for all time.’  What more can I say?  Great, great song.  For me Glen Campbell was stuck so deeply in some strange country & western/pop middle ground that the word ‘bland’ was not sufficiently… bland for his general output, but this is truly heart wrenching.  Actually, I’ve just noticed that there is a certain melancholy about all the tracks I’ve picked so far.  Probably says more about me than them.
  6. Depeche Mode – ‘Personal Jesus.’  I remember a band that made ‘Just Can’t Get Enough’ and a dozen similar jaunty electro-pop songs before going bleakly bonkers, but in the brief in between came this brilliant song.  I’m sixty.  I never could dance.  Should I try to do so, my children would probably have me put down, but if ever this song plays when I’m in the car I bash the steering wheel for all I am worth – and all of this set alongside lyrics that spoke (to me) more of all-encompassing love rather than religion.  I’m probably wrong though, as Johnny Cash later recorded it as a gospel song.  Anyhow, to me this remains an unexpectedly great track from a totally unexpected source – so there.

If you’ve read through so far and find that you don’t know any of the songs, I can only encourage you to check them out.  If you know the artist, but not these songs, I guarantee they will blow your mind!

*Remember, the main criteria is not just that it is a great track, but that it is an unexpectedly great track given the artist(s) involved.  Do your best now…

PS whilst there is no why that I can accuse Fleetwood Mac of producing an unexpectedly great song, may I encourage you to check out ‘Come’ on the ‘Say You Will’ album, in order to discover that Lindsey Buckingham is an unexpectedly great guitarist.  Now, there’s an idea for a blog…

A Little Fiction – Another Return

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Typical!  It was one of those rare days when Dinah found herself with time to think and she could think of nothing at all with which to occupy her mind.  Since meeting Shaw she had become used to finding her head full of the kind of clutter that resembled his life, but today it was full of the kind of void that she always imagined lurked between his ears…  No, that wasn’t fair.  He had more going on in his head than anybody she had ever met.  It was just that none of it ever made any sense.  Every time she thought she had started to get the hang of him; thought that she might guess where he would go next, he would lithely side-step her, leaving her stranded, like a cataleptic jelly fish abandoned on the ebbing tide.  His quantum leaps of illogic were, at times, truly stunning.  His arrival at a point of resolution confounded all reason; even he only seemed to know he had reached it after he arrived there.  Right through his haphazard progress, whatever that might be, he proceeded in a manner that suggested total conviction of purpose.  He never showed doubt.  Even when people shouted at him, ‘But that’s not what I paid you to do!’ he would look them straight in the eye and say.  ‘But it is what you wanted me to do.’  Heated argument often ensued, bills were often ripped-up and tossed into the air, but Shaw simply smiled, took a step backwards and waited for the anger to subside.  ‘You have my number,’ he would say, ‘if you change your mind.’  That’s another thing that Dinah had never got used to; the way that cheques would turn up in the post, days, weeks or even months later, generally with no explanation, just, more often than not, a simple ‘Thank you’ paper-clipped to them.  Whatever Shaw had found for them, it obviously took them some time to discover it for themselves.

It wasn’t strange that she’d never met anybody else quite like him – she wasn’t certain that such a person actually existed.  Even physically he was perplexing.  He was thin to the point of an Estate Agent’s morals and, although barely taller than Dinah herself, he always appeared to tower above her; permanently bewildered.  He had a face that actively discouraged ageing – his features flitted between old man and schoolboy.  He was always heavy-eyed; giving the appearance of someone who most certainly could do with more sleep.  He had a small room behind the office that appeared to be his home, but she didn’t recall ever having seen a bed in it.  She wondered if he slept, like a bat, hanging from the light fitting.  More often than not, he actually slept in her chair, at the desk – most often with his head across her painstakingly sorted paperwork.  When he was awake, he was always on the move.  He always had something that had to be done, but he was never quite sure what.  His pace alternated between laid-back and languid.  She had only ever seen him agitated once, and that was when he was looking for a pencil because he had developed a buzzing in his ear – which he feared might be a bee.  He was terrified of bees.  She’d spent hours trying to educate him about them: their sociability, their vital importance in propagation; their reluctance to sting, when he eventually looked up at her from darkly hooded eyes and said, ‘Earwigs, I meant earwigs’ and terminated the conversation with an airy wave of his hand, before sensing her annoyance and announcing, ‘Cake.  Let me buy you cake…  Do you have any money?’

What most annoyed her about Shaw was that he did what he said: he helped people find things – even if they did not know they were missing.  Mostly, she had to reflect, what they found was themselves.  In Shaw, Dinah had found what was missing in herself, although even now, she was unable to quantify it.  She did not know what she had found, only that it was missing before she found it.  You know when you try so hard to be one of those girls at school that everybody likes, only to find out that that is exactly why nobody likes you?  Well, she’d stopped that now.  She’d realised it was no way to get friends.  She’d realised that might be why she didn’t have any.  For the moment she had Shaw and today, she had to admit, she had never been so pleased to see anyone in her life.  ‘Yes, yes,’ she had said in feigned annoyance when she first saw his lopsided quizzical smile.  ‘That’s fine.  Laugh now, but then go and find ladder to get me out of this tree…’

This is Dinah and Shaw’s third appearance, and probably their last for now.  In my head, I have started to develop some idea of where they are going.  Now I just have to work out how to get them there…

The Power of Two – Couch to 5k Week 5

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I see people running in pairs and I cannot help but believe that one of them must feel that they are being held back by the other – whilst the other is trying to devise a means of suffering the kind of injury that means they will never have to do that again!  Some of them chat.  Unbelievable!  What can you possibly chat about whilst running?  Surely pain and anguish begins to pall as a topic after a while.  There are only so many times you can gasp ‘I seriously think I might die,’ and expect to elicit a concerned response.  I thoroughly annoy myself whilst running – I cannot imagine what I might do to somebody else.  Not that idle chat is an option for me.  To be honest, I’m not even sure that I am up to idle listening.  Besides, I still have Jo Whiley plugged into my ear at the moment.  Her voice is encouraging, seductive and soothing and really quite irritating after a while.  If she tells me how well I am doing one more time, I will seek her out and place a dried pea in her trainers.  An idle threat, I assure you, but as a man who has recently run some distance with a Lego Fireman’s Hat wedged under his big toe nail, I can vouch for its effect: it would certainly slow her down.  Let’s see how chirpy you would be then, Jo!  She keeps assuring me that she has ‘been there.’  Really?  When were you last an overweight 60 year-old Ms. Whiley?  When did you last look down at your sagging old body and realise that if you lived in Alaska, the Inuit would eat you?  When did you last take stock of what might make you attractive to the opposite sex and be quite happy to stop at zero?  (Should she be reading this, which quite patently she is not, I must point out that her voice has, in fact, kept me going many times when I wanted to stop.  Who could possibly wantonly let Jo Whiley down?)

It’s a very weird thing about losing weight as you get older: you don’t appear to get thinner, you just get saggier.  Somehow I appear to have more skin, but less to put in it.  Is that normal?  I’m not expecting a six-pack from anywhere here – just that my skin might put in some kind of effort to keep up with the rest of me.

Last week’s runs were a real effort after a full day on my feet at work and a thirty minute walk to and from, but I got through them.  I look at next week’s itinerary and I can’t help but think that I have already met my threshold.  It is beginning to reach the point where I know that one of us is going to have some kind of cataclysmic breakdown.  Either I will have broken the Couch to 5k’s back and there will be nothing new it can throw at me – I will have absorbed all the pain it has to offer and come up grimacing chirpily – or part of me will give-way in such a dramatic fashion that it could quite possibly push Meryl Streep into second place.  I am becoming quietly determined and it worries me.  I have barely told anyone (except for you lot) that I am doing this – they would just think that it is some kind of elaborate joke – and quite honestly, at the moment, I cannot view it as a laughing matter.  Determination is not something that sits well with me: I have always got through by simply trying to ensure that whatever washes over me, doesn’t drown me – but now I’m trying to stay afloat.  My dog-paddle is ungainly but effective (or would be if I had four legs) and happily, I haven’t sunk just yet.

One last word for Ms Whiley though: whatever she implores me to tell myself, I am most certainly and absolutely NOT a runner.  I will never be a runner.  And I will never, ever share my run with another soul – well, not unless they’re slower than me, of course…

The Way It Is

So, you all know how this works: you get an idea and you start to write, just before pulling up short, a few hastily assembled sentences later, in order to consider the sky.  Day or night, it always has something going on that is far more fascinating than whatever-it-is you are struggling to put down on paper.  Sometimes I can be sitting here at the Unicorn hour; the sky black as ink, no stars, no moon, but still more interesting than anything I can squeeze from between my ears.  Currently, I cannot pull my eyes away from a giant white tadpole slowly, slowly edging its way across my horizon, sucking in the furry minions that surround it, becoming a bloated black-bellied whale before my eyes.  How long before it rains? 

Now, where was I?

The sky is number one on my list of things that distract me from what I am supposed to be doing.  Writing a list of things that distract me from what I am supposed to be doing is number two.  I do not know why I am so easily distracted.  My very first teacher, who remained my friend fifty-five years later, told me I had a ‘butterfly brain’, but she was being kind.  It is much more like one of those little flies that won’t leave you alone when you’ve got a glass of wine.  Or a moth: same principal as a butterfly, but less delicate, less beautiful and… ooh, look at the light!

My pre-writing ritual usually involves moving anything from around me that might distract me, but that in itself becomes a distraction.  I have just spent fifteen minutes perusing a handful of fossils we managed to pick up when I went for a socially distanced stroll along the beach with my grandson; remembering the conspiratorial wink my three year old granddaughter gave me when she covertly held my hand.  All my precious things are on shelves above my eye-level when I am seated.  I try very hard to ensure that all that surrounds the laptop is stationery.  (I have just had to check that I do mean ‘stationery’ and I do, although it is almost always stationary as well.  Who can beat the hours lost in Dictionary and Thesaurus?)  Anything that glitters diverts my attention.   God help me if somebody leaves a marble in amongst the paperclips.  Mind you, anything that doesn’t glitter also diverts my attention: why doesn’t it glitter?  Did it offend some fundamental being at the dawn of time?  ‘You can be delicately perfect in form; fragile as a pixie’s gossamer doily, but you will never shine?’  That kind of thing can scar the most stoic of souls.  Is it not natural to feel sympathy for a pencil eraser when even a granite worktop can sparkle?

I have four rulers in the pot in front of me.  Why?  I have no idea.  I cannot remember the last time I drew a straight line.  There is so little of interest about a straight line.  It is always the shortest route – unless you stumble into a wormhole – the most direct and the least interesting: like settling for a ‘99’ when you could have red sauce and sprinkles too.  Oh, and I’ve just remembered the ice cream cones that you used to be able to buy with a sphere of bubble gum at the bottom.  Brilliant – as long as you remembered what was coming.  What were they called?  Screwball.  Who doesn’t love a Screwball?  One of the rulers is black; one of them is red, and the third is clear.  One of the rulers is wood.  It has only inches, not centimetres.  The clear ruler is half the length of the others.  (Or are they twice its length?  How would I know?  What is the standard requirement for a ruler – apart from being straight I mean?)  Point is, why do I have them and, more importantly, why does it bother me?  I know where a centimetre comes from (It is a fraction of the distance to the moon, I think.  I will check that shortly) but where does an inch come from – apart from being a twelfth of a foot.  And is a foot the length of a foot?  If so, whose foot?  And how on earth did they measure feet before they had inches?  Maybe in hands, like horses…

Anyway, I’ve slipped from the point.  (I must just make a note of what I need to Google before I go to bed – also, why the inventor of Google didn’t use spellcheck when he invented it and, further, why my spellcheck does not recognise ‘spellcheck’)  My point is, I need to find a way of stopping my brain from slipping away with a bagful of Revels just when I need it, and coming back with only the coffee creams remaining when the work is over and the words have been counted and – look at that!  The black-bellied whale has been whipped by the wind into a thin mountain range with a bright orange sun slipping slowly behind it, bleeding colour across the sky, like a red sock in a white wash.  I’ll just have to watch that for a little while.  Remember, every time could be the last time…

…And now I recall.  I bought the red ruler because it was flexible and I kept breaking the black ones in my bag…

My mind is like my internet browser: nineteen tabs open, three of them frozen, and I have no idea where the music is coming from – Anon

Who? – Me

Who, me? – Me

A Little Fiction – The Scam

The door pulled tight against its chain and a pair of dull, grey eyes peered out through the gap, squinting as they became accustomed to the bright sunlight.  “Yes,” said the tiny voice from within – a reedy uncertainty evident in its tone.  “Can I help you?”

Derek Fox smiled.  His hair was tousled and his faced was smudged with dirt.  He wore overalls bearing the name of a national house-building company.  He was very polite; so unusual these days.  “Sorry to bother you love,” he said, “But I’m working across the road at number seven and I couldn’t help but notice that you’ve got a couple of slates loose.”

“You’re not the first person to suggest that.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise that you already knew.”

“Joke,” she said.  “It was a joke.  Not a funny joke, but a joke.”

“Sorry?”

“You said that I had a couple of slates loose…”

The light of understanding dawned in his eyes.  “Oh, of course,” he said.  “A couple of slates loose.  You had me going there.”  He smiled.  “Do you want to have a look?”

“Sorry?”

“Your loose tiles.  Do you want to see them?”

“Oh, yes.  Just a minute.”  She closed the door while he stood uneasily on the step.  He shuffled his feet and glanced uncertainly over his shoulder.  He decided to give it to the count of five and then run.  You couldn’t be too careful these days…

He was just about to bail when the door opened and the old lady appeared, pulling on her coat.  Derek turned to walk back towards the gate when he felt her hand on his arm.  “A little bit unsteady on my feet,” she said.  “You don’t mind do you.”

He smiled.  “Here, let me show you these tiles, Mrs?…” he said, patting her hand as they walked.  

“Alice,” she said.  “My name is Alice.”  Together they walked along the path, through the gate and onto the street. 

“There, look.”  He pointed up to some uneven tiles on the roof.  This was one of Derek’s favourite scams, and it was always so easy, particularly when there really were a couple of dodgy tiles to point out.

“Oh dear, whatever should I do?” she asked.

“It’s cold out here,” he said.  “I’ll tell you what.  Let’s go inside where it’s warm, you make me a cup of tea and we’ll see what we can do.”  She nodded agreement and turned to walk back towards the house with Derek by her side.  “So easy,” he thought.

Inside the house Alice led him into a dark room.  The curtains were partly drawn and the ceiling pendant had no bulb in it.  As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Derek began to discern the nature of the furniture that surrounded him.  It was all of dark wood.  The dresser was tatty: one door hung from its hinges and a drawer front was missing.  The settee and armchair did not match, other than they were both equally threadbare.  There was no television, no radio and no coal in the fireplace.  It was cold.

Alice indicated the armchair.  “Sit down,” she said.  “I’ll make some tea.”  She left the room and Derek could hear the tap running as she filled the kettle.  Keeping one ear on her incessant conversation and the other on the bang and clatter of tea-making, Derek began to rifle through the dresser drawers, finding nothing but rubbish: cheap mementoes, old photographs and contorted cutlery.  No money, but that wasn’t unusual; old ladies often employed much more singular hiding places for their cash.  He would have to use his usual methods of extracting it.

He was seated, hands on knees, when Alice entered with the tea.  She placed the tray at his feet.  The metal teapot was badly stained, the two cups were chipped and did not match.  The sugar was in a dog-eared bag.  “I’m sorry,” she said.  “But the milk’s gone off.  I hope you don’t mind.”  She poured the tea and handed a cup to Derek.  “Sugar?” she asked.

“No thanks love,” he said.  “Got to watch my weight you know.  Doesn’t do to be too heavy when you’re crawling about on roofs.”  She smiled and he pressed home his advantage.  “So, what are we going to do about your roof?”

“Thing is,” she said.  “I don’t have any money.”  He almost stood to leave then, before she continued.  “At least, not in the house.  I’ve got a few bob in the Post Office, but I’ll have to go and get it out.  How much is it going to cost?”

“Well, I’ll fit it in with my other work, so I can do it a lot cheaper than usual.  Let’s say five hundred quid shall we?”

“Five hundred pounds!  That sounds an awful lot for a couple of slates.  Perhaps I ought to get another quote…”

“Tell you what.  I’m already doing a job over the road, I’ll fit you in on their time.  What about if I say four hundred pounds?  It’d normally be a grand.”  Alice breathed deeply and nodded.  “O.K.”

Derek smiled smugly.  It always worked.  Now for the final coup de grace.  “Thing is, because I’m doing the job so cheaply, what I need to do is buy the materials for cash.  I can’t afford to pay the interest if I put it on my account, see.  So, I’m afraid I’ll need you to pay up front.  If you like, I can save you a bit of trouble.  Just give me your Post Office book and I’ll go and get the money while you put your feet up.  Then I can go straight round to the builder’s merchants and get things moving.  What do you say?”

Alice looked doubtful.  “Well,” said Derek, skilfully feigning hurt.  “If you don’t trust me…”  He put his cup down and rose to leave.

“No wait…” said Alice.  She lifted a small vase and retrieved the bank book from beneath it.  “There,” she said.

He took it and headed for the door.  “I’ll bring the book straight back,” he said.  “As soon as I’ve ordered the stuff.”

She took his arm.  “You’re a good lad,” she said and, for a moment, he almost felt guilty.  But only for a moment, and it soon passed.  They walked to the door.  Alice, somewhat unsteady, held on to Derek.  He put his arm around her shoulder.  “Lock the door when I’ve gone,” he said.  “Go and have a nap.  And don’t forget to put the chain on.”

She closed the door behind him and he turned to leave, carefully placing the bank book into his inside pocket.  This would be the last time he could pull this one around here, she was the sixth today and he didn’t want to outstay his welcome.  He drove his van away from the redbrick cul-de-sac and across the dual carriageway before stopping to open the savings book and check out what she had.  Nothing.  Absolutely nothing.  The account had been closed for years.  The stupid old trout!  He put the book back in his pocket.  He’d give her what for…  It was then that he realised that his wallet was missing.  At first he thought she must have… No, that just wasn’t possible.  It must have fallen from his pocket while he was helping her to the door.  She’d be keeping it safe until he went back with her bank book.  Of course.

He knocked on the door until his knuckles ached.  He looked through the letterbox and the windows.  Not a sign.  She must have gone out.  He hoped the silly old bat hadn’t dropped down dead.

The woman next-door opened her door just an inch.  Derek used his best smile.  “I’m sorry to bother you,” he said.  “But I’m a bit worried about the lady next door at number five.”

She looked him over.  “Me too,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the house has been empty for six months now, no sign of anybody even slightly interested in it, and then this morning the old lady came along and asked if she could have the keys for half an hour, said she used to live there as a child.  Well I saw no harm, there’s nothing in there anyway.  But, well to tell the truth, I saw you going in a little bit later and I thought, you know, that’s a bit funny.  Then you left and she followed just a few seconds behind you and made no effort to bring the keys back, jumped straight into her car and shot off, so that’s when I called the police.  Have you met detective constable Hargreaves?”