It was the morning of Fabergé’s wedding to Claudio. Her mother and father were beside themselves with excitement – so much so that, as soon as they had left their respective lover’s bed (they shared the same one) they sat together for breakfast, she toying with the carving knife and he wondering whether he could asphyxiate her by filling her nose with peanut butter. Fabergé was also beside herself (that’s part of the problem with split-personality) but Claudio was somewhere else entirely. Claudio’s mother did not approve of Fabergé or her step-foster parents (Derek and Doreen Clench) because she felt they were beneath her family (as they lived in the coal cellar) but Claudio loved Fab (as he called her – which really annoyed her mother who much preferred ‘Ergé’) and would do anything for her, other than change his name to Ethel.
It was ‘The Wedding of the Year’ on The Close (Formerly Archibald’s Close before it was discovered that Lord Archibald had once shared a bed with a yak and Royal Mail had objected to the fact that he was not, in fact, close) and the street was festooned with brightly coloured bunting and light emitting festive orbs (formally known as Fairy Lights, until the council decided the term was offensive). Everyone was in a state of high excitement and good will abounded. Nobody had been pushed up a wall and threatened for hours. Dave’s ‘Sausage In A Bap’ van (formerly Hot Dog van before somebody pointed out that it didn’t serve dogs and what it did serve was at best lukewarm) was parked up in front of the local pub and ready to go. Surely there could be no problem associated with a van containing two ersatz propane tanks, each having cheap Taiwanese fittings, twenty gallons of cooking fat and a fuel tank filled with something made from reclaimed vegetable oil, bath-tub gin and illegally imported nail-varnish remover being positioned exactly where everybody threw their fag-ends.
Fabergé looked at the photograph of her Equally Viable and Non-Dependent Other-to-be (formerly fiancé before somebody decided that owing to discriminatory spelling the word was demeaning) and sighed. She would tell him about the sex-change at the reception. Mo Cringe, mother of Derek, step-foster grandmother of Fabergé, secret lover of Claudio and family matriarch, was trying on her hat. “Do you think that black is really the right colour grandma?” said Dirk, her youngest half-step grandson-in-law. “It’s a dark day,” she said with her now familiar perma-scowl. “Why?” asked Dirk. “I think it’s something to do with the cloud cover,” she said. “Is she ready yet?” “Fabergé?” “Who else?” Dirk swallowed slightly. “Erm, nearly,” he said. “She’s having a bit of trouble fastening her dress. She bought it before she… you know…” “…Got herself pregnant with that brush salesman’s lovechild.” she said. “But,” asked Dirk “isn’t it Claudio’s baby?” Mo laughed out loud and catapulted her dentures across the room. “Him? He can’t have children. Not since the incident with the Hen Party from Grimsby and the over-inflated sheep.” “Does Fab know?” “He might have mentioned it to her during the course of ante-natal classes…”
One by one the residents of The Crescent readied themselves for The Wedding of the Year (which, by The Close tradition, generally took place about three weeks before the Acrimonious Divorce of the Year) finalising their plans to use this best of opportunities to settle past scores with neighbours, friends and family. Claudio climbed out of bed and having woken both of the bridesmaids, sent them home to get their dresses on, smiling evilly as he watched them scurry away. But not as evilly as the maid of honour for whom the antibiotics had still not worked…
The mid-session ‘tea break’ at the Circle usually marked the point at which ‘first half’ acrimony gave way to magnanimous disinterest and, more often than not, childish giggling. The small tables in the Steam Hammer snug were not capable of accommodating even a semi-circle and so the room generally resolved itself into a selection of ragged little arcs which pocked the room with secret laughter, earnest conversation and hushed plotting. Certain segments of the group had become almost inviolate: Phil, Frankie, Elizabeth and Louise were unbreakable; their little table adjacent to the giant plastic yucca plant was always an oasis of laughter, whatever rancour had bristled about the group in the first session of the evening. These four souls understood that the occasional spells of acrimony and discord that erupted during literary discussions were nothing but the kind of familial spats that commonly erupted amongst a group of people who, although disparate in temperament and background, fundamentally cared for one another, even if none of them were prepared to admit it. Phil and Frankie in particular enjoyed the ‘banter’ with other members but always, thanks largely to the calming influence of Elizabeth and Louise, managed to steer themselves away from outright confrontation or abuse.
Everyone in the group was aware that despite a relationship that was more bristly than a partially shaved Big Foot, Deidre and Frankie were fond of one another in a ‘just about able to tolerate you’ kind of a way. Frankie had risen to the challenge of responding to Deidre’s recent ‘troubles’ and neither could forget it – although both of them would have liked to have done so. Studiously they avoided sharing a table in the lounge bar. Deidre shared her mid-point table with Vanessa, who really would have much rather been with Phil and Frankie, but understood that when faced with randomly dotted small round tables, each of them surrounded by no more than four faux-leather topped stools, five is most definitely a crowd. Intellectually she was the sharpest mind in the group, well capable of matching Frankie for sly humour, and universally liked. She was Deidre’s prize and always beckoned to sit alongside her. Joining them were the two newest members of the club, Jeff and Tom who, since they had ‘found’ one another had become something of a group ‘item’, although both remained so protective of their personal lives that none of the other members had any clue whether their friendship extended beyond the once weekly 7.30 to 10.30pm. The talk on this table was always more reserved, more bookish and featured less gin and more sweet sherry than that at the yucca.
The third regular group featured Jane Herbert who, true to her word, was devoting much of her time to helping Terry as he grappled with the complexities of plotting his first novel. Terry’s redemption was almost complete – as far as the Circle was concerned – fuelled partly by unseen kindnesses shown to Penny, who had left Deidre’s side to join him at his table, ostensibly allowing the two newer club members to fall, like stricken satellites, within Deidre’s orbit. Struggle as they might, they would not be released until Deidre chose to release them. New members were their only hope. Penny was not foolish enough to believe that she meant anything to Terry, but she recognised something of a kindred spirit in him: a person struggling to fit in. This little table was completed by Billy Hunt, who drank beer (but only in halves because he didn’t really like it) and who, to date, had neither found nor sought any type of redemption within the group. He was disliked simply because he went out of his way to be so. His opinions lasted only as long as they as they could antagonise everybody else. When they ceased to annoy, they were quickly dropped and an alternative ‘alienation’ found. He would have been friendless, but for Terry who was blithe enough to ignore all the bluster and smart enough to know that the only person Billy was really rebelling against was Billy.
Unusually, all the three groups were, on this occasion, fixed on finding a solution to the same problem: attracting new blood. The Circle needed new members. Some kind of an ‘Open Day’ seemed to be the preferred option, but how to persuade new writers to attend remained the overriding problem. “What about a guest speaker?” said Phil. “Surely Deidre must know somebody. What about Richard Madeley?” “She wasn’t taken with him,” said Frankie. “No class apparently: black belt and brown shoes; striped socks, bitten fingernails and milk in his Earl Grey. He ate his cake with a spoon instead of a fork…” “But she must have met somebody else in the Green Room.” “Nobody she recognized. She thought that the floor manager was Paul Daniels until she remembered he was dead. Everybody else appeared via Zoom. The nearest she came to meeting anybody famous was when the cloakroom attendant gave her Andi Peters cap by mistake.” “Well what about you, Frankie,” said Phil, “you must know a comedian or two that’s at a loose end? What about one of them?” “I don’t think that Deidre would countenance the kind of people I write jokes for,” said Frankie. “They’re a pretty humourless bunch without a script to follow. Besides, none of them do anything for free…”
On the table near the Gents the conversation was proceeding along similar lines. “Surely after all your years in the business, Terry, you must know somebody who would make a personal appearance…” said Billy. “I’ve closed the door on all of that,” said Terry. “Or more precisely it has closed the door on me. I’ve no desire to reopen it. I’ve got other things to do.” He grinned at Jane who managed a thin, weak smile in response. “We could always ask Deidre to do it,” suggested Penny, quietly prepared for the mass intake of breath she knew it would cause. “She is quite well known… in certain circles. She would definitely bring a good few people in.” “Spinster pensioners,” spat Billy, for once echoing the unspoken thoughts of the rest of the group. “We want new blood, don’t we? We want some younger members, some new life. Look around this room: it’s like a funeral wake in search of a corpse.” “It’s a bit harsh to suggest that all of Deidre’s readers are spinster pensioners,” said Penny with more than a hint of half-heartedness about it. Billy raised his eyebrows (un-trimmed in order to look more like a ‘working man’s’) and pulled a face that he fondly thought of as ‘bemused’ but which, in fact, looked more like he had just had an accident in his trousers. “Really,” he said. “Can you name one?”
At the third table (or as she, doubtless, would have referred to it ‘the first table’) Deidre was shuffling a sheaf of papers back into shape and preparing to rise. Curiously, she was probably the only member of the Circle who did not, secretly, hope that she would take up the baton to speak at the Open Day. Vanessa, Tom and Jeff had all made their opinions perfectly clear to Deidre and they were confident that, after some feigned objections, the other members would agree that she was the only person for the job. Deidre, for her part, was inclined to agree with them, but she would not, on this occasion, be persuaded by kind words and supplication. She knew how the Press worked – and if the Open Day was to be a worthwhile exercise, they would have to be involved – if she was to speak in public at such an occasion they would somehow get to hear of her recent chastening experience and no amount of vanity was going to allow that to happen. As much as the opportunity to be implored to become the centre of attention appealed to her, she would not, this time, be swayed. She had an alternative plan that she knew would meet with universal approval: free wine and canapés (paid for from club funds, boosted by more than she chose to reveal from her latest retainer) would always pull the newbies in. It’s all that any aspiring writer ever wants.
“Perhaps we could reconvene upstairs,” said Deidre, “and consider the alternatives there.” She climbed the stairs at the head of her little ‘tribe’, happy for once that, as the only alternative to food and alcohol, she was bound to be overlooked…
It was whilst I was reacquainting myself with Dinah & Shaw a short while ago, prior to adding to their oeuvre, that I discovered that episode 9 of their tale was actually also episode 31 of The Writer’s Circle. I started writing the Circle as a way of using up fragmentary Little Fictions, but the whole thing picked up a character of its own and became about the members of the group as well as what they contributed to it. I stopped writing it because nobody else seemed to be at all interested in them (and also, if I’m honest, because after 32 consecutive weeks it was starting to drive me just a little bit bonkers). However, undaunted having stumbled onto it again, I read it from start to finish and decided that actually I did want to learn a little more – during the course of which I would have the opportunity to resolve one or two of the more glaring anomalies I had spotted during back-to-back readings – so tomorrow’s post is a little bit of a ‘picking up the threads’ exercise. My ‘Little Fictions’ stubbornly remain the least-read of all my posts and, as the effort to write them is much greater than the shuffling together of my usual nonsense, I keep vowing not to write anymore. However, just in case you have any interest in the Writer’s Circle, you can find all the earlier episodes here:
The man in the Meerkat T-shirt carefully placed the three pint glasses in the centre of the beaten copper table before lowering himself onto his stool and retrieving three packets of crisps from his trouser pockets which he threw onto the table where they splashed through the shallow lake of tepid beer spillages that covered its surface. “What’s these?” sneered the man in the lovat cavalry tweed coat. “Prawn Cocktail,” replied Meerkat. “All they had. Been some kind of strike up the factory; work to rule or something. Only thing they’re knocking out at the moment is Prawn Cocktail on account of having nobody willing to cross the picket line in order to change the flavourings.” The man in the cavalry tweed lifted a single dampened pack between two pincered fingers and shook the beer from it onto his neighbour’s Moleskin waistcoat before, with little effort to disguise his distaste, opening the bag and cramming half the contents into his mouth. “Couldn’t wait a couple of days I suppose,” he said, spraying both of his companions and all three pints of beer with soggy crisp shards, “until they were on Smoky Bacon or Salt ‘n’ Vinegar. Bet they all stocked up in advance. They’ll have boxes of Cheese & Onion at home all of ‘em. Even,” he muttered darkly, “Quavers.” “I quite like Prawn Cocktail,” said the man in the moleskin waistcoat. “Yes,” said the man in the coat. “Well, you would, wouldn’t you? Your type.” “My type?” “The Prawn Cocktail Set. Doubtless you eat them with your little finger out.” “Only you,” said Moleskin, “could turn crisp flavours into a class war. I suppose that Cheese & Onion are working class, are they?” “Designed to eat with a pint aren’t they, Cheese & Onion? Proper man’s supper. Probably all they could afford back in the day after putting bread on the family table. Prawn Cocktail, now, they’re designed for gin drinkers aren’t they? Fish your lemon slice straight out of the glass and drop it in your snack. Poncey shit,” he said, ramming the remaining crisps into his mouth. “And nothing like as filling.” “I used to like Tomato Ketchup,” said Meerkat. “Was that an actual flavour?” asked Moleskin. “Yes. Mind you, it tasted nothing like ketchup. More like these really…” “Just chemicals aren’t they,” said Cavalry Twill, drinking half of his pint in a single swallow. “Designed to make you drink more. They’re all in it together of course,” he belched loudly, “the breweries and the crisp people. I bet you anything you like they’re only saying they’re down to Prawn Cocktail because they’ve got a surplus of gin up the wossname brewery.” “Are you seriously suggesting,” said Moleskin “that the owners of the crisp factory deliberately orchestrated a strike at the moment they had a surplus of Prawn Cocktail crisps, in order to sell more gin?” “Obvious isn’t it,” said CT. “So what’s your position on peanuts then?” “Like what?” “Well, you know, Dry Roasted for the Tories, Honey Roasted for the Social Democrats and plain old Salted for the working man, is that how it works? Or would it be more likely that your working class hero would just eat them straight out of the shell.” “Monkey nuts,” said Meerkat, pausing briefly in his quest to lick the final few Prawn Cocktail crumbs from the corner of the bag. “That’s what my dad used to call them.” Moleskin, suddenly disconnected from his thread, stared briefly at his friend in the Meerkat top. “Why?” he asked. “…I don’t know,” he answered at length. “Do monkeys eat them?” “Only the Socialist ones…” “They’re not even nuts really,” said CT. “Monkey nuts?” “Yes Moley, Monkey nuts. They are not nuts.” “What are they then, a petit bourgeois concept designed to delineate social strata and reinforce crisp-softened class barriers?” asked Moleskin. “An upper middle class entree construct?” “Beans,” said CT. “Beans? Are you sure? Why aren’t they called Beannuts then?” “Image.” “Image?” “You just can’t see the bigger picture can you,” said CT, sliding his empty glass towards Meerkat whilst never disengaging his gaze from Moleskin. “Look, who’d buy a packet of e.g. Dry Roasted Beannuts?” “A Conservative Monkey?” “‘Nobody’ is the answer. It’s the name isn’t it: no cachet” “I don’t get it,” said Moleskin, nodding thanks to Meerkat who took his empty glass and the proffered twenty pound note. “I mean, they’d taste just the same wouldn’t they?” “A peanut by any other name…” “…would be equally Honey Roasted.” “That rather depends sunshine,” said CT “upon the circles within which you choose to consume your bar snacks.” “Are you seriously telling me that you have never had a Honey Roasted peanut.” “Typical of your sort,” said CT. “Trying to paint me as a Phyllosan…” “…Philistine…” “…to paint me as a Philistine simply because my mid-drink comestibles do not accord with your own nouveau-riche parameters. And since you ask, yes, I have tried them – lest you forget I am no stranger to the Lady Mayoress’s Thursday afternoon cocktail soirees, thank you very much. I have,” he shuddered at the memory, “even partaken of the odd olive on a stick from time to time with a glass of Chardonnay I believe it is called. It is not a betrayal of my class roots – although I would never deny my preference for a properly pickled onion and a pint of John Barleycorn’s finest – it is research.” “Research?” “How the other half lives.” “She’s your sister-in-law. She lives on the same estate. In fact her husband works up at the crisp factory… Hang on; has he got a supply of Cheese & Onion in the shed?” Meerkat returned with three replenished glasses which he placed in the little pool that occupied the centre of the table before handing the change to Moleskin. The man in the Cavalry Twill coat took a long draw on the chestnut liquid, using every moment he could in which to formulate an answer that would put Moleskin in his place. He looked pointedly at the three empty crisp packets in the ashtray and then at Meerkat. “I suppose,” he said at last, “they’re on strike up the Pork Scratching factory as well are they?”
Dinah could put an exact date and time to the point at which she ceased to be amazed by the vagaries of life. It was the day when, on a whim, she had responded to a hand-written advert in a newsagent’s window and climbed into a car with Shaw. Whatever had made sense on that day had, henceforth steadfastly refused to do so. On the day that she bagged herself a new job with no wages, working for a man with no income, everything that she held as indisputable became contestable, everything else however bizarre became reality, normality even, and Dinah suddenly discovered how extremely odd normality could be.
She looked around the new offices of ‘Shaw & Parnter’ (Shaw had insisted on bringing the old door with him) and contemplated the passage of the last six months and the strange tide that had dropped her on the shores of today. The flight from the hotel had been fraught enough – even after consuming most of the mini-bar – but consequently finding all of Shaw’s possessions in a skip outside the office (where they belonged in Dinah’s opinion) alongside all of their old case files and what passed for the company computer had dented even Shaw’s own unshakeable sangfroid. But not for long.
Between them they had gathered what they could from the skip, packed it into boxes and bags which they placed at the doorway of their now shuttered-up ex-office and sat either side of them, on the pavement in the gathering gloom of evening. “I don’t suppose you’ve got the money for a taxi have you?” asked Shaw. “My credit card is welcomed in less places than Vladimir Putin,” said Dinah “and you gave my last cash to the porter at the hotel. You know, the one that threatened to break your legs when we ran away without paying the bill.” “Yes, that was a bit unfortunate wasn’t it?” “Unfortunate? Really? You took on a case from a client that didn’t really exist, but just wanted to get us out of the building so that they could repossess the office…” “…And my home…” “…And your squalid home. You accepted that they would pay our hotel bill, despite the fact that you had no contact details for them and no idea of why they had instructed us to go there…” “Yes, well it could have worked out better of course,” he said. “Still…” He emptied his pockets of miniature whiskies and placed them on the box. “Would you like a nip?” “You emptied your mini-bar?” “I emptied everybody’s…” Shaw screwed the lids from two bottles. “To the future,” he said. “Do you think we have one,” asked Dinah, cringing only slightly as the fiery liquid burned down her throat. “Of course,” he said. “But for now we just have to work out how to get this lot back to your flat.” “My flat?” “Can you think of anywhere else?” “But it’s tiny.” “It’s only for a short while,” said Shaw. “I’ll sleep on the sofa.” “You? I thought you just meant all of this lot.” “Well this as well,” he said. “Just until we get straightened out.” “Straightened out?” she said. “You’ve seen the size of my sofa. If you sleep on that you will never straighten out again.” Shaw looked crestfallen. Dinah looked at the confusion in his eyes and, as invariably happened, found herself both irritated and somehow softened. “Open me another bottle,” she said, “and you can take the first lot of boxes. I’ll wait here with the rest.” She watched him staggering off along the road under a mountain of cardboard, conscious both that he was going the wrong way and that if she told him so, he would explain why and she didn’t want to hear it right now. When he came back (actually, this was Shaw – if he came back) they should be able to manage the rest between them. He shouldn’t be long.
The whisky had begun to work its magic on her brain and a woozy warmth had overcome her by the time Shaw wandered back with two paper cups of coffee and a bag of doughnuts. How did he do that? “I thought you might need this,” he said. Despite herself she smiled, coffee and doughnuts was exactly what she needed. “How did you get them?” she asked. “You had no money.” “I met your landlady,” he said. “And you asked her for money?” “No, of course not,” said Shaw, sounding almost exactly like he hadn’t actually thought about it. “Oh Lord.” Dinah slumped. “You didn’t tell her that you were going to be staying did you?” “Am I? I thought you said that I…” “Never mind what I said. What did you say to my landlady?” “Well, I couldn’t find your key, so I asked her if she could let me in.” “And she did? You could have been a burglar or anything.” “Do burglars normally take things into premises?” “In your case, it would be more like fly tipping.” “Anyway, I found the key as soon as I put the boxes down. I explained about our situation and she said that she wouldn’t mind if I stayed for a little while… I fixed her kettle.” “You fixed her kettle? Are you sure?” “Well she said it wasn’t working, but I just put some water in, turned it on and it worked. She seemed happy enough.” “And she definitely said you can stay?” “Definitely… She doesn’t wear much does she?” Dinah hurriedly pushed the last of the doughnut into her mouth, drained her coffee and clambered to her feet, gathering up as many boxes as she could manage. Shaw picked up the rest and followed behind her. “She said that we could have the bigger flat at the front if we want it,” he said. “I can’t afford that, it’s twice the price.” “Yes, but there’ll be two of us won’t there.” “But neither of us have an income.” “Things will get better,” he said. “She even said that we could have your old flat as an office.” Dinah knew that she was peeing on his fireworks, but she couldn’t help it. “If we put together all that we have and all that we are ever likely to have, we still can’t afford to pay for one little flat, let alone a bigger one as well.” She hated being the Grinch, but facts had to be faced. “And you need to be careful with her.” “Really?” said Shaw. “Who’d have thought it?” “Look, let’s just get home. We’ll worry about it all in the morning.” Shaw grinned. “Home,” he said.
Together they clambered up the stairs and dropped the boxes outside the door. “I don’t suppose you have the flat key,” said Dinah. Shaw grinned sheepishly. “Actually, I think I might have left it open,” he said.
They packed the boxes behind the settee and Dinah went to make tea but, mysteriously, found that the kettle wasn’t working. “You swapped them, didn’t you,” she said. “I’ll swap them back tomorrow,” he said. Dinah sat beside him on the sofa and, exhausted, rested her head on his shoulder. “It’s all going to be ok,” he said. “All we have to do is find her cat.” “I didn’t know she had a cat.” “Neither did she…”
In preparing reacquaint myself with these two after a gap of over six months, I decided I should catch up with them from the beginning. They were my first regular characters and I always enjoy my time with them – although I have to be in exactly the right frame of mind to make them work. If you want to catch up with how they got here, the links are below:
…The cinema is ok when you are on your own: it’s dry and warm; you can turn up late, book a seat that has no-one sitting around you, wherever that might be in the auditorium, and enter while the Coming Soon adverts are assaulting the pre-assembled eardrums like artillery shells. Nobody really notices you. It’s not like going into a strange pub: no sudden, uneasy silence, no stares from men holding pool cues, no landlord asking what you want to drink when all you really want to do is get out of there, no lukewarm, cloudy beer in a pre-lipsticked glass, no standing in the middle of nowhere because it’s less risky than accidentally taking somebody else’s seat, no apologising profusely to the walking threat who has just knocked a full pint down your trousers…
But you know how it is, nothing ever goes quite to plan. I saw them walk in, this Amazonian couple and I knew instinctively that they were destined to sit directly in front of me, with their giant tray of nachos, a sack-sized bag of crisps that crackled like a Taiwanese Hi-Fi, a Bucket-A-Coke and an unfinished conversation that was much too good to mute during the film. I craned my neck left and then right before realising that I was not going to see anything in the centre of the screen that had not been filtered through hair-gel unless one or the other of them suffered a major infarction, so I settled down as far as ancient knees in a confined space would allow and attempted to snooze the next hour and a half away in a shape unknown to Tetris when a voice beside me said, “It’s so annoying isn’t it?” and despite a period sufficient for the average couple to have met, fallen in love, rented a flat, fallen out of love and soundly trashed one another on social media having elapsed since the last time I saw him, I knew at once to whom the voice belonged. “There’s nobody sitting on this side of me if you want to sit there,” he said. It seemed impossibly churlish not to do as he suggested and so I bottled all my churl and moved into the vacant seat on the other side of him. I knew that there was no point in asking him how we could find ourselves sitting side by side in a cinema I had only entered to get out of the rain. I knew his answer would only confuse me further. “I’ll move if anybody has booked the seat,” I said and he nodded quietly, obviously content that it would not happen. His long white hair was, as ever, immaculate and dry, yet he had no coat that I could see; no umbrella or hat. He looked like a man who had just emerged from a hairdryer, whilst I looked like a man who had just emerged from the Thames, cold and not entirely free of effluent. “It’s quite a comforting place, the cinema, when you’re on your own, don’t you think?” “It allows me to be anonymous,” I said as the sound and fury of some intergalactic war or another warped speakers all around us. “Salty or sweet?” he asked, holding out popcorn. “You have to ask?” “No, not really. I bought both. Why would you want to be anonymous?” “Do I mean anonymous? I might not mean anonymous,” I said. “I might mean unnoticed. Most places I go to, people notice a single man.” “You don’t want to be noticed?” “I don’t want to be stared at.” “And you don’t want to be single?” “Of course I don’t!” I snapped, momentarily flushed with anger. “I hate being alone. I don’t know how you do it.” “Me?” “You’re always alone.” “Only when I choose to be.” “You came here alone.” “I was meeting you.” “But how did you even know I’d be here?” “I didn’t need to. You didn’t know that I’d be here either, yet you still managed to meet me.” I stared for a moment before, resigned, I grabbed a handful of popcorn. It is so hard to argue with a man whose version of logic is at once bizarre and irrefutable. “I presume it didn’t work out with Sara,” he said. “And I presume you already know the answer to that!” I snapped again, feeling both ashamed and frustrated by my inability to control my anger. “Well, I do now,” he said, sipping Coke through a straw, looking for all the world as if it was the first time he had ever done so. “It’s a shame.” “Look, I don’t mean to be rude, but what does it matter to you whether I am alone or not? Whether I am happy or not? Whether I am anything at all? I don’t really know you at all. You don’t know me. I don’t really know how, or why, we keep doing… this.” I turned towards him, but found his eyes firmly fixed on the screen. He was distractedly eating popcorn one exploded kernel at a time. Nobody eats popcorn like that! The Sara question hurt because I really liked her, but as I always do, I had let things slide. We hadn’t been in contact for some time and now I didn’t know how to try again without… well, you know. I hadn’t actually done anything wrong had I? I didn’t feel like I needed to lose face, even if Lorelei had made me realise how much I missed her company. “You know,” he said, not removing his gaze from the screen, “I think I prefer the salty, until I try the sweet and then I’m not so sure.” I knew that there was a point to this, but I had no idea what it might be. He held out the two card containers. “Here,” he said, “see what you think.” Despite the conviction that I was nothing more than a lab rat in a maze, I took a single piece from each box and chewed meditatively. It was impossible not to agree with him. I took another two pieces before settling slightly in my seat and turning my own attention to the film. “You know,” he said, “I think I might have seen this all before.” “I think it’s new isn’t it?” “Is it? I must be mistaken then. I can’t have seen it before can I? I just feel as though I know exactly what is about to happen.” I struggled to form a clear image of his face in the flickering gloom, but as far as I could see there was no suggestion of irony there. “In my experience,” I said, “you always seem to be at least one step ahead. It’s like you always seem to know exactly what’s going to happen next.” “I’m like everybody else,” he said. “I know what I’d like to happen, but I’ve no way of knowing that it actually will… unless, of course, I really have seen the film before. Do you know I think I might have to… I’m sorry. I won’t be a minute.” I smiled smugly, bathing in the knowledge that at least in one way he was no different to me. Drink a large tumbler of Coke and you’re never going to make it all the way through a film. “I’ll leave these here,” he said, placing the two boxes of popcorn carefully under his seat. I watched him wander down the stairs and into the dimly lit entrance, turning back to the film at the exact moment that a silhouetted figure passed between me and the screen catching her foot on the unprotected popcorn containers and scattering the contents for some distance in all directions. “Sorry I,” she said… “Shit!” The popcorn cascaded out of the boxes and down under the seats ahead. “I… oh bugger,” she kicked away as much of the spilled popcorn as she could and picked up the now empty containers. “I don’t know how I do it. I always manage to turn up just a little bit too late, after everybody else has settled down” she tried to explain “and instead of disappearing into the crowd, I usually find myself treading on toes, making a grand and unwelcome entrance. I’m sorry, I’ll… Jim?” “Sara?” Of course, it had to be “Well, I was going to offer to buy you some more popcorn, but you can buy your bloody own,” she said. She was torn, I could tell, between anger and laughter. She looked closely at her ticket and began to sit in the seat beside me. “I think that seat’s taken,” I said. She compared her ticket with the number on the seat again. “No, this is mine,” she said. I wondered what might be said when Lorelei came back before I realised that, of course, he would not be returning to his seat at all. “Of all the cinema seats in all the cinemas…” I said. “Here,” said Sara holding out a paper bag. I took a small handful of popcorn. “It’s salty,” I said. “I know,” she said. “Do you prefer sweet?” “No,” I said. “It’s fine.” We both settled into our seats to watch the film and enjoy the prospect of not actually being alone for a couple of hours. I struggled to find something to say, but decided that silence was the best policy until, hearing a quiet sigh beside me, I risked a quick glance to my side and was shocked to see Sara’s face close to my own. “Do you know,” she whispered, “I think I might have seen this before…”
Author’s note: I’m sorry if this seems unduly long, it’s just how long it took.
He was Peter Perfect: Head Prefect at school, fast-tracked superstar at work, ideally partnered with first-love spouse, the only absent father that other kids actually wanted as their own, the man who never pissed in the shower. His eyes were bright, his teeth were gleaming, his balls were golden. He was every mother’s dream, but he was every father’s nightmare, because most fathers, having either known or been one themselves, are perfectly able to spot a shit when they see one. Julian Trite (in real life he was, of course, not named after a Wacky Races character) whilst being superficially exemplary, was actually nothing more or less than superficial. If his visage was very much P. Perfect, then his character was decidedly D. Dastardly. His soul was a black hole that had already sucked the life out of his personality. A flawless smile under a mop of hair that took no more than three hours to primp into shape and could not be allowed out in the rain, Julian had all the charm of a weekend in Chernobyl and the charisma of a whelk.
Yet like a Mr Whippy ice cream on a sunny day, he looked so good from a distance and with the sun behind him he could almost be mistaken for intelligent, or, at least, sentient, although he was in fact neither. He was a vacuum: a perfect hologram in unspotted underwear. To remain engaged in conversation for the full four minutes he allowed himself to be in the orbit of anybody who might see through him (virtually anybody with an IQ above that of a frozen pea) was a Herculean task. He gave ‘small talk’ a new emphasis. He offered the mental stimulus of an evening with Idi Amin and the conversational acumen of Marcel Marceau. In short, his dental implants had greater depth of character than whatever it was that loitered, fecklessly between his ears.
Now, I know that by this point you will have decided that I must have a personal axe to grind with Mr Trite, but I do not. In truth I have seldom been in his company, although we have quite commonly shared the company of others, and I have observed him from afar. You see he is the very quintessence of making the best of his own bad job whilst making the worst of everybody else’s. Men clustered around him because they felt, with some justification, that alongside him they would appear to have the magnitude of intelligence that could not help but persuade any unattached females in attendance to ponder the possibilities of exploring the contents of their trousers. But the ladies gathered around him because – oh what the hell – he looked so good, and when, in the morning, they discovered that he was nothing more than an empty vessel (a married empty vessel) the living embodiment of a Mexican Meal – all about the wrapping – well… nothing ventured… isn’t that what they say?
Well, that’s why you must never feel sorry for young Mr Trite because, deep down inside, he knows that he has a pickled walnut for a brain, but he is bright enough, at least, to know that he can always spend his evenings in the company of men alongside whom he always looks amazing and women (as well as a not inconsiderable number of other men) who may yet be prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt, at least for one tedious, depressing and disappointing night.
Do not feel pity for him: he has more notches upon his bedposts than Elton John has had hair transplants and his conscience, like his IQ, has taken a permanent gap year trekking in Cambodia with a trainee taxidermist from Wolverhampton. Julian is a happy man and as for everyone else… well, he neither knows nor cares.
You may even feel that you know Julian yourself, but if you do, please keep it very, very quiet, because frankly I thought I’d made him up…
At 8.32am precisely, Lancing Peregrine III slipped the bug into his overnight bag and slid, unobserved, from the building. It wasn’t unusual. There was nobody else to observe him anyway, and if there had been, none of them would have cared. Lancing was as unloved as it was possible for a person to be.
Boil they had called him at school: Lancing Boil – as in an excrescence. “A small and extremely annoying accumulation of pus” according to his then housemaster, now headmaster at his Alma Mater, and it was a strange kind of nominative determinism that ensured that Lancing had been a martyr to such pustules all of his life. Pimple, boil, or carbuncle, Lancing had spent most of his life skin-side of them. Barely a day passed him by without the eruption of a new whelk, and boy did he blame that school. The traumas that had been inflicted on his young self had, on occasion, been so extreme that his memory had erased them: locked them away in a mental vault to which he had lost the combination. He knew that the only way he would ever fill these gaps would be by somehow hearing the truth from someone else’s lips.
The bug he had slipped into his case was, he thought, his greatest creation to date. A miracle of miniaturised IT, his tiny listening device lay nestled inside a minutely detailed model cockroach, perfectly formed in every nauseous respect. Anyone finding it would, instead of investigating further, simply squidge it with a boot and sweep away the nano-remains without a second glance. It was perfect. All he had to do was plant it.
Exactly what he expected to discover was, at best, uncertain. He felt sure that the now Headmaster must have skeletons hidden away, but exactly why any of them might feature him, Lancing had no idea. Never-the-less, he simply could not resist the opportunity that the school reunion presented. Even a weekend spent in the company of a band of now middle-aged men that he recalled more as torturers than classmates could not cool his enthusiasm. He knew they would apple-pie his bed; he knew they would put his underwear in the shower; he knew that if they got the opportunity they would leave fake (he prayed) excrement on his pillow. He was ready for it all.
In the event, his contemporaries seemed genuinely pleased to see him and, to his surprise he was not called Boil once; his dormitory bed went unmolested, as did his underwear. He felt a strange contentment. The evening of the reunion ball passed in a rapturous blur. He was part of the gang. They ate, they drank (Lancing himself consumed at least three half pints of shandy and felt decidedly giddy) they laughed and they reminisced. Lancing began to doubt his own recollection of lonely and miserable schooldays. How could he have got things so wrong? These people were not the characters that his fractured memory recalled. Could he be wrong too about the headmaster? He knew there was only one way he could be ever be sure. He would plant the bug as planned.
2am. The dormitory was, save for alcohol-fuelled snoring and the gaseous fallout of a monster meal, completely benign. Lancing climbed silently from his bed and crept stealthily from the room with the night bag over his shoulder. Save for the usual shock of old building creak and groan, the journey was uneventful and his entrance into the headmasters study went without hitch. Now, where to put the bug? After a short mobile-phone lightened skirt around the room he found the perfect spot and returned to the holdall to retrieve his silent little ear-in-a-roach.
Excitement overwhelmed him. He felt as though the bag was alive. He pulled the zip and a thousand – a million – live cockroaches flooded out across the desk, the floor, his feet… Lancing screamed in unadulterated panic and previously lost memories of a deeply buried biology-lab trauma overwhelmed his senses. He put his hand to his mouth as behind him the door burst open, flooding light into the room, and there, silhouetted in the frame were all of his fellow alumni accompanied by the dreaded headmaster. They were laughing fit to bust. “Lancing,” they chanted. “Lancing Boil the Bug Boy,” and Lancing realised, quite suddenly, that for once he had succeeded in his mission. He had filled a gap in his memory…
It was said that Julian could sell snow to the Eskimos and, whilst he had never actually tried it, it was certainly true that he had on occasions managed to sell the actual straw that broke the camel’s back and had misappropriated along the way so many mickles that his muckle* was now the size of a luxury three story bolt-hole on the Algarve, paid for in tight wads of ill-gotten gains. Thanks to him, Westminster Bridge had more Japanese owners than Sony and The Shard had more stakeholders than it had windows. He had sold more fragments of The True Cross than four woodyards across the city were able to keep up with and if the slivers of the Elgin Marbles he had allowed Greek Visitors to repatriate over the years (for a small fee, obviously) were gathered together, the British Museum would have to open a new wing.
Julian wasn’t a bad man; anyone that knew him would tell you that. As a young man he had been a successful Estate Agent, but he could not stand the accusations of falsehood that were continually levelled at him, so he became an even more successful car salesman where the falsehoods were never his own, but the symptoms of a dysfunctional workshop. Later, after a very short, but extremely lucrative few weeks selling worthless credit-scheme encyclopaedias door-to-door, he felt that he was prepared for a future of living off his own nefarious wits. He had never married; he had no children and all of his relationships tended to be short-term – not through choice but through necessity. He could not stay in any place for long, he could never allow his friends to know his next move. The longest relationship he had ever maintained was over the three years in which he had shared a Strangeways prison cell with ‘Slasher’ Murdoch and his abominable socks.
After his release he had crossed the Channel and armed with nothing more than a smattering of schoolboy French and the ability to talk nonsense in something that sounded vaguely like Italian, managed to make a perfectly decent living selling the Eiffel Tower to Asian tourists, many of whom had only recently availed themselves of an outstanding investment deal for part-ownership of one or another of London’s prime river crossings, but he found that the custodians of French law and order were not as forgiving, nor as amenable, as many members of our own capital’s constabulary, and he was forced to move a little further down the continent, where the police were too busy to waste their time on a sixty-year old chancer, where the suckers were plentiful and the deals were simple, even if the pickings were slimmer.
Still he was happy there. He was older now; the weather was good, the sun shone most of the time and overheads, in general, were considerably lower than the two capital cities he had worked before. The natives were easy-going and the tourists as naïve as anywhere else. The living, although meagre at times, was easy. The villa was his latest acquisition, his putting down of roots, and it had been such a steal! Julian’s ‘experts’ had found it oh-so-easy to persuade the yokel owners of the fragility of the foundations; the weakness of the walls; the rude health of the Death Watch beetles in the joists. The money had, on its way to the seller, found its way through more hands than a Pokeman card in a schoolyard, along a path that was so labyrinthine it probably had a Minotaur as its guardian: it had been laundered more assiduously than his underwear. His currency was clean, clean, clean, and he was confident that no-one would be able to find fault with any of the paperchain, so it was with some surprise that he found himself being ushered into the office of Mr Ferreira, manager of the bank through which all of his financial transactions had, eventually, progressed.
The dark wooden room felt like the court rooms with which he was much more familiar. He felt unusually vulnerable and the discomfort danced around the features of his face. He did not have to ask the question which was banging around his head – Was there some problem with the deal? Had someone, somewhere, questioned the source of his capital? – Mr Ferreira read it in his eyes and answered it without hesitation, his whole demeanour signalling a major pothole in the road. “We have the paperwork for your house, senhor” he said. “And?… Is there a problem?” Julian knew he would not be there otherwise. Mr Ferreira sighed heavily. “The problem, senhor? The house, it is not your house.” “What do you mean?” “It is not your house because it was not the house of the man to whom you paid your money…” Julian was aware that he was gaping like a stranded fish. “…You see senhor, you really should have been more careful,” continued the bank manager. “The Algarve, it is full of con men…”
*‘Many a mickle makes a muckle.’ a Scottish ode to thrift…
“Ah Benny, Merry Christmas old chum. Come in, come in and slip off your shoes. Your slippers are by the fire and your breakfast sherry is by the toast.” “Breakfast sherry? Excuse me for saying so Francis my friend, but is it not traditional to drink Bucks Fizz on Christmas morning – fine Champagne and freshly squeezed orange juice – and not cheap British sherry from a milk bottle?” “It may well be Benny, it may well be, but only in the kind of circles that can live with the fact that a litre of pasteurised orange juice is twice the price of a pint of draught sherry and the nearest the local mini-mart has to fine Champagne is warm Lucozade. If you are worried about your health, I can put some roughage in the sherry for you: I’ve just burned the toast, I can scrape it into your glass if you’d like.” “Don’t get angry Frankie – you’ll burn the eggs as well – you know full well that we like to push the boundaries you and I. We may well set the trend. Within a year or two the landed toffs will be sending the faithful old family retainer down to the corner shop on Christmas Eve saying ‘Here’s a tenner. Bring us back a bottle of that sweet sherry with a picture of a stagecoach on the front and a couple of vacuum-packed kipper fillets if they’ve got them: the ones with a little pat of butter in. Get yourself a pack of five Park Drive with the change and Merry Christmas Jeeves. Make sure you’re back in plenty of time to stuff the turkey mind…’” “‘…And give that orange juice and fizzy wine shite to the kitchen staff. Let the chef cut the meat up first though, I don’t want thumb in my duff again.’ How do you want your bacon Benny, crispy or crispy?” “Tradition dictates that it is crispy my friend, like the eggs and the tomatoes. The black pudding, however, should still be frozen in the middle and the mushrooms left, forgotten in the fridge until New Year’s Eve.” “And how do you like your fried slice these days, my Masterchef friend?” “White or wholemeal?” “White.” “Crispy, able to withstand a sound dunking in tomato ketchup. Shall I pour the sherry?” “The cups are on the table.” “Cups? How very refined. And they’re matching too – at least they both have handles.” “Well you can’t have mugs, can you? Not on Christmas Day. Anyway, they’re still in the sink from yesterday. I’ll wash them for the wine at dinner.” “We’re having wine at dinner?” “Of course.” “What kind?” “The cider kind. The kind you buy in plastic two litre bottles and drink from a mug.” “Lovely.” “So have you brought the bird?” “Yes, of course… In a manner of speaking…” “What kind of manner of speaking? You have brought a bird haven’t you?” “Well yes, in part, yes.” “In part?” “Legs, I’ve bought legs! It’s all I could afford, but we’ve got two each.” “Legs? Where am I going to put the stuffing?” “In the Yorkshire Pudding?” “Yorkshire Pudding? Who has Yorkshire Pudding with Christmas dinner?” “They were on offer at the Co-op with a packet of Surprise Peas and a Mint Vienetta.” “Then we shall stuff the Yorkshire Puddings and set fire to the Vienetta. Cheers my friend.” “Cheers… You know I could quite get to like sherry and fried egg.” “It’s like a deconstructed advocaat.” “Lovely. So, when shall we unwrap our presents then?” “Unwrap our presents?” “Yes, should we do it now, before lunch or after tea?” “We always buy one another the same thing Benny, every Christmas, year after year: you buy me a bottle of cheap scotch and I buy you a bottle of cheap ruby wine, and we drink them both with a packet of cheese and onion crisps before falling asleep on the sofa with a mince pie each and two Gaviscon.” “I know that, but it’s Christmas, we still have to unwrap our gifts.” “I haven’t wrapped mine.” “…Can’t you go and wrap it now?” “In what? Why?” “In anything. It’s the only thing I have to unwrap on Christmas day. I’ve wrapped yours…” “You have?” “Of course. Really colourful paper too: robins, snow, all that jazz. It’s got the football results on the other side if you’re interested.” “…I could put it in a bag.” “What sort of bag?” “Well, it’s not a bag exactly, it’s what the toilet rolls came in. it’s got polar bears on it.” “Ok.” “If it means that much to you.” “It does.” “Fair enough. I’ll do it while you prepare the sprouts.” “Ok, we’ll clear the breakfast stuff and then we ought to have a bit of a check on the dinner.” “It’s not a problem. We’re all set: look, we have turkey legs…” “…Chicken…” “…We have chicken legs, frozen; Surprise Peas, frozen; Yorkshire Puddings, frozen; potatoes, tinned; carrots, tinned; stuffing, powdered; gravy, powdered…” “Do you think we really need sprouts?” “They’re traditional.” “Do you like them?” “No.” “Me neither. I’ve got a tin of baked beans back at mine.” “Then fetch them, after all, we thumb our noses at tradition don’t we?” “We are at the vanguard. We are the way forward. We are the new normal… When shall we have the marzipan fruits?” “After the washing up?” “Good idea. I’ll put the kettle on. If we’re having marzipan, we’ll need tea.” “Oh yes, lovely.” “Merry Christmas, my friend.” “Merry Christmas…”
Merry Christmas one and all! I’ll see you on the other side…