A Little Fiction – Goodbyes (Frankie & Benny #2)

“Well Francis my friend, that was a pleasant kind of morning, don’t you think?”
“Oh yes, certainly.  You can’t beat a good funeral, can you?”
“No, you can’t.  Indeed you can’t.  Providing, of course, that it’s done right.”
“Oh yes, has to be done right.”
“Proper mourning.  None of that happy-clappy nonsense.  Proper solemn hymns.  I like a good hymn.”
“Traditional, yes.  A good traditional hymn, where the words don’t fit the tune properly and the verses don’t rhyme unless you pronounce them wrong.”
“Yes, nothing worse than being asked to sing something that sounds like it might have been written by Gary bloody Barlow.  I am at a funeral, not a Take That concert.  I do not wish to clap along.  I do not wish to shake my hips.  I do not want my vicar to wear a kaftan.”
“And I don’t want to celebrate the life of the dearly departed either: he was a miserable bugger anyway.  Wouldn’t have appreciated a good joke at his own expense when he was alive, let alone now he’s in a box.”
“You knew him then?”
“The fella in the box.”
“No, no… not at all.  I was just generalising.  I didn’t recognise a soul.  I thought the widow was very dignified though.”
“Even when they had to lower her down into the grave to get her bracelet out.”
“Always a perilous business, chucking soil down into a hole.  Fraught with danger…”
“Nice to get out in the fresh air though.  Get a bit of sunshine.”
“Definitely, beats a cremation.  Who wants to sit indoors for twenty minutes just to see the curtain come around and knock the flowers over?  Who wants to listen to the corpse’s favourite song when you could be on your feet banging out ‘Jerusalem’?”
“…Did I see you putting money in the collection, by the way?”
“Changing really.  Couple of those coins in there that you can sell on Ebay, so I swapped them for a couple of bog-standard.  Nobody loses out and possibly I might make a bob or two.  Silver linings and all that.”
“Do you know how to put them on Ebay?”
“Not a clue, but still, better in my pocket than the vicar’s.”
“Have you ever considered your own funeral, my friend?”
“How so?”
“Well, what hymns you would have, what prayers… who would read your eulogy?”
“I don’t suppose it will be you: you’re three years older than me.”
“Fitter mind.”
“Do you reckon?”
“I traipse half way across the estate and up the stairs to your flat every day.  All you ever manage is a stroll to the pub.”
“I walk a lot faster than you.  You dawdle.  Dawdle, dawdle, dawdle, like you’ve not a care in the world… Mind you, there’s no doubt why you want me to get to the bar before you, is there?”
“Nor why you never decide to have a pie until the second pint.  ‘Oh look, it’s Benny’s round.  I think I quite fancy a chomp on a chicken & mushroom.’”
“…I’ve written it all down, you know.”
“My funeral wishes.”
“What on Earth for?  What does it matter?  You won’t be there, will you?  Listening, I mean, or watching.  Well, you’ll be there of course… unless you’ve been lost at sea or something.  Unless you’ve just wandered off.  ‘Police are making enquiries about the whereabouts of Francis Collins – known to his friends as ‘Tight Bastard’ – who they believe was trying to walk his way out of buying peanuts…’ but you won’t know what’s going on, will you?  They could be singing a selection from Abba for all you’ll care.”
“No, no.  I want it to be right, you know.  I expect all of my friends will be dead by then – you’ll be long gone – and I want to make sure that I don’t repeat mistakes, you know.”
“Well, look at that funeral we went to last week.”
“The one at the chapel?”
“Yes, the one with the paste-table for an altar.”
“It wasn’t a paste-table Frank.”
“It was made of hardboard!”
“It was not.  Granted, it was sagging a little bit in the middle, but a paste-table it was not.  Have you any idea how heavy all that silver is?”
“Well, no.  Now that you mention it, Frankie, I do not.  I have never lifted any.  Tell me old friend, have you and, if so, when?  Perhaps you could fill me in on the circumstances.”
“I have seen it being lifted on the Antiques Roadshow.  Comment is often passed viz-a-viz the weight.  ‘A fine example,’ they say.  ‘Full of… decoration… and… very heavy.’”
“Yes, well whatever, the service was much too long and I didn’t know a single word of any of the hymns.”
“Nor the tunes.”
“Nor the tunes indeed my friend.”
“Lovely wake though.  Corned beef sandwiches and pickled onions.  Trifle.  Lovely.”
“Yes, nice food, I’ll give you that.  Good spread.”
“No free bar though.”
“No, shame that.  Fortunate you had your hip flask.”
“Indeed.  My many years of Dib-Dib-Dobbing not entirely wasted Frankie my boy.  Always prepared.”
“So, don’t you have any last wishes then?”
“Well, nothing special.  I want to be buried, not burned: the surgeon told me that this new hip will last a hundred years – I wouldn’t want that to go up in flames, now would I?  …And I don’t want a photograph of me looking startled on the front of the Order of Service.  Why do people always pick ‘amusing’ photos?  I want a picture of me looking serious, sombre like, you know.”
“When did you last have your photograph taken, Benny?”
“Well, I don’t know.  I had a passport back in the day.  I must have had a photograph then.”
“Your passport ran out in the eighties.  Have you not had a photograph taken since then?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well, what on earth are they going to put on your pamphlet then?  A drawing?  A photo-fit?”
“Well, I don’t know.  I always thought they might take one after I… After, you know.”
“Oh yes, that’ll be nice won’t it.  ‘Ah look at him on that photo.  He looks really… dead.’  Classy.  ‘You can see where the cat chewed the end of his nose off.’”
“Are you suggesting that I should have my photograph taken now, in case I die suddenly?”
“Well, it would save a lot of bother, wouldn’t it?  Tell you what, I could do it on my phone I think.”
“Could you?  Do you know how?”
“Well no, but how difficult can it be?  Look, there’s a little picture of a camera there.”
“Well, press that then.”
“Alright, alright, I will.  There…  Oh look, it’s me!”
“You need to turn it round.”
“Now I can’t see the screen.”
“I can.”
“Oh, shall I press the button then?”
“Right… Which one?”
“I don’t know.  Let me see.  What about this one?  Oh… That’s your ear.  That won’t do.  We’ll need to practice a bit, don’t you think?  I don’t want to be buried with everybody thinking that I looked like your left ear.”
“Yes, you’re right.  It’s not urgent anyway.” 
“No, I’m not ready to say my ‘goodbyes’ just yet.  It can wait.”
“Shall we just take a little stroll down to the pub?”
“Yes, a fine idea my friend.  Lead on MacDuff, lead on…”

Frankie & Benny first appeared here.
Episode three is here: A Little Fiction – Frankie & Benny #3 – The Night Before

This was written and scheduled in late March (since which time I have barely been around, even for reading your wonderful blogs, for which I sincerely apologise) and somehow – through a process known to WordPress alone – sneaked out to some of you at the time. If you have read this before, I can only apologise. Frankie & Benny (names have been altered etc etc) have gone on to become half a play since I wrote this, whether they will ever become a full one, only time will tell. I feel sure that I will be back with you fairly soon (please don’t report me for threatening behaviour) when I have got whatever-it-is out of my system. Thanks everyone!

A Little Fiction – The Unseemly Abasement of Miss Timmins

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There was barely a static pair of net curtains along the whole street on the day that the police came to visit Miss Timmins.  Nobody wanted to appear nosy, but they also did not want to miss out on anything that might form the basis of a succulent little nugget of scandal for some future discourse.  Not that it was likely with Miss Timmins.  I’m not sure that anybody actually knew her age.  She looked about ninety with her straight, grey hair scraped up into a bun on the top of her head and the blue gingham housecoat which, as far as anybody could see, she never took off except for her weekly trips to the church hall beetle drive, when she wore a threadbare old cardigan over a paisley blouse of such florid hues that the bus driver insisted that she sit on the top deck for the journey home.  It was rumoured that she had first worn the blouse in the sixties when, as legend had it, she had auditioned for Pan’s People, but had not got the role on account of being far too quick for Jimmy Savile.  Others claimed to have seen the blouse before, in an episode of The Avengers on ‘girl behind ray gun’, whilst yet more claimed that it had once been a hotel bedspread.

In fact, what little was actually known about her had been smuggled, illicitly, out of her little terraced home by such visitors who had dared to brave the gloom and stifling heat of the spinster’s house.  She had a photograph album that she kept on the table in her dingy little lounge and those that claimed they had dared to peak into it when she left the room to brew tea in the kitchen, reported that she certainly had a dancer’s body as a young woman.  Unfortunately it was accompanied by the boxer’s face that continued to lower out from under her hairnet today.  Whilst she had, as a young woman, a body that turned heads, it was accompanied by a face that did a similar thing to stomachs.

Vera Timmins was a woman who deplored ‘frilly’: the crinoline lady that sat astride her toilet roll was void of all fripperies and not even her paper doilies were allowed lacy edges.  Those unfortunate enough to overlook her washing line reported that her underwear was never more (or less) than strictly functional.  In fact some claimed that if you looked really hard, you could still see the Utility Mark stamped onto the waist band of her more-than-ample knickers.  She was a thin woman and yet she somehow managed to wear nether garments that could house a pack of cub scouts.  Truth be told, there were few, outside of the vicar (who could often be heard offering up the fervent prayer that it might never happen again) who were ever invited into her home.  Mary Maguire was one such and perhaps the most willing to discuss the contents of Miss Timmins photograph album.  It was her firm opinion that Vera had been spurned by a man in her youth – the album, she claimed, was filled with roughly torn half-photographs, some of which revealed a distinctly male-looking hand nestling on her waist – and from that moment on had decided to make herself as unattractive to the opposite sex as she possibly could.  In that one respect she had been supremely successful.

No man had been allowed to cross her threshold in living memory.  The rent man, the milk man and the grocer’s boy all picked up their monies in envelopes left by the gate.  She had an elderly tom cat, but that had not been allowed under her roof until the vet had removed its undercarriage.  It had grown fat and lazy, but to its credit, it still managed to spray on the cushions whenever she wasn’t looking.  So it was with a seismic level of surprise that the assembled net twitchers of the whole street watched her beckon the two young male policemen into her home.  None could tear their eyes away.  Most felt it a nailed-on certainty that the unfortunate uniformed fodder would never be seen again. 

This opinion had solidified amongst those still fit enough to be standing with gimlet eye to gossamer crack when, some two hours later, they were still to reappear.  Most had given up.  Some had already been on the phone to Mary, but such was the intensity of her vigil, she would not be drawn away from the window to speak and as Ted, her husband, had taken her mobile to the match having left his own in the compost tub with his spare socks at the allotments, she could not both speak into the ancient handset that hung in the hall and maintain eye-contact on the front door at number thirteen.  They would all just have to sit it out.  She would be quick enough to report when anything happened.

In fact she missed the actual moment when the police van arrived to take the lachrymose old maid away, owing to the fact that she had, over the first fifteen years of her marriage, been on the outside of fifteen children and was not within reach of anything on which to squat in her hour of need, but, undaunted, she was outside speaking to the constable who had remained at the door even before Mrs Timmins had dragged her second leg into the constabulary vehicle.  He was, of course, not supposed to pass on the information, but she knew his mother so what was the point of keeping quiet?  He would have to tell his mother what he had been up to if he wanted to be fed and it was certain that half of the Bingo Club would then know about it within the hour.  What harm could it do?

“It was a romance scam,” Mary Maguire told the assembled throng some time later.
“Oh, poor soul,” cooed Mrs Rodgers who, in the excitement, quite forgot that her teeth were still in the glass in the bathroom and covered Mrs Maguire’s spectacles with a fine dusting of PG Tips and simnel cake* .  “She never seemed the kind did she?”
“The kind?”
“To be looking for romance.  I mean, if we’re honest, she didn’t really seem to have much time for men at all, let alone be lured by one pretending to want to share her life.  Did he get much from her?”
“Certainly not money.  I think you misunderstand,” said Mrs Maguire, a thin smile creasing the scar where she had once been bitten by a parakeet in a Morecambe bar.  “She’s been passing herself off as a forty year old male property developer.  Apparently she’d been using half of an old photograph from her photo album for a profile picture, until somebody clicked that it was actually Patrick McNee without the bowler…”

*Which my spellchecker insists should be ‘semen cake’.  Clearly it does not know Mrs Rodgers.

A Little Fiction – Conversations with the Bearded Man (part 6) – Newark

Photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

I had never actually tried to seek him out before, he had always found me, and if I’m honest, I had no real idea of where to start.  I wandered the streets for days, sat on buses, drank in pubs.  I retrieved his petrol can from the back of the shed, but it held no clues: it was rusty and the last few drops of the petrol it had once housed had long-since absorbed into the softly rotting floor.  I couldn’t remember the last time I had even seen a metal petrol can.  ‘Only him,’ I thought.  There would be a reason for it of course, some kind of message about strength and fragility.  I would ask him – if ever I found him.

More than a year had passed since the last time we spoke and much had changed – and yet it was the same.  I had made contact with my soon-to-be ex-wife and we had spoken, almost exclusively without rancour.  Well, she at least, had spoken without rancour: I had been my usual petulant self, but against all odds we had managed to remain in one another’s company for more than an hour without once resorting to violence and name-calling.  It had not physically changed anything: she was still well on the way towards becoming my very ‘ex’, but the absence of desire to kill after our encounter was exactly the kind of progress I thought that I should report. 

Also, I now had friends – even if I wouldn’t want to be seen out with them in daylight.  We went out together, or more precisely, we met up at the same place every Friday night in the bar of The Harrows for a few pints, a volcanically microwaved prehistoric meat pie and a quiz.  We never won, but we always got through the evening without major ructions and, as loathe as I was to admit it, I looked forward to the occasion, even if the quiz master did insist on calling us ‘the sad bleeders in the corner’, when our actual name “Archimedes’ Crew”, was quite clearly written at the top of our answer sheet.  More progress to report.  My life had become, if not exactly good, then at least bearable at times.  Never-the-less I knew that there were still pieces of the jigsaw missing and, instinctively, I felt that he had them.

So it became my habit whenever I had the opportunity to sit for a while, empty my brain (a frighteningly simple exercise) and then just see where my legs might take me.  I did things.  I did theatres, museums, football matches, bus trips, weekends away – all alone, all in the hope of being found, and as each day, week and month ticked away I became increasingly convinced that my final meeting with Lorelei was already in the past.  The little diversions became a way of life – just something I did – but as they became more and more habitual, the feeling of emptiness and disaffection began, once more, to chip away at my soul…

…The rain, although not heavy, was as persistent as a text-message reminder from the dentist and more than a match for my cheap, Ebay kagoule.  I couldn’t tell you why I had chosen Newark to visit: it was easy to get to on the train and it had a castle and a river, but as the icy cold precipitation soaked through every one of my manifold, yet inadequate, layers of clothing forming a puddle in my crotch that, despite its location, still succeeded in being a good ten degrees colder than the surrounding temperature, I couldn’t think of anywhere else that I less wanted to be.  I picked my way across the market place, along the glistening cobbles, sensing the slick, unsteady surface through the wafer-thin soles of my saturated Converse, towards the dim yellow light that beckoned me from the windows of the pub in the corner, when I became aware of a small crowd gathered around a figure on the floor.  Instinctively I pushed my way in, feeling the burning imperative of the recently acquired St John’s First Aid badge in my pocket and found myself looking down on a familiar, bearded face.  He looked up and beamed a greeting smile.  “I knew it would be you,” he said.  “Thank you everybody.  I know this man.  He has training.  He’ll help me across to a seat in the café there.  I’m sure I’ll be fine after a few minutes in a chair.  I’m so very grateful for your help.  Thank you.”  And all I could do was wonder why on earth he wanted to recover in the café instead of the pub.

I helped him to his feet.  “How?” I asked.
“I just slipped on the cobbles.”
“I mean,” I said, “how did you know it would be me?”
“Well I don’t know anybody else here,” he said.
“But how did you know that I’d be here?”
“I didn’t…  Did I?”  He looked confused.  Painfully aware that the pub was just next door, I led him into the café and sat him at a vacant table.  The waitress was with us almost at once.  She was all concern and fret.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” she asked.  My companion assured her that he was.  “Okay,” she said, finally content, “As long as you’re sure.  I’ll get your tea.  What would you like love?”
“Coffee please.”  The waitress bustled away.  “Do you come in here often?”
“I don’t think I’ve ever been here before.”
“So how did she know you wanted tea?”
“I always have tea.  Now,” he said, “why did you want me?”
“I didn’t!  Well, I did, but…”
He was looking around the room, breathing in his surroundings, reading the walls like he was in a museum.  “It’s so important to be open to the new, don’t you think?”
“Yes,” I cast my own narrowed eyes around the twee yellow chintz palace, “but ‘the new’ can be pretty boring as well, can’t it?”
“I suppose so.  I always think about see-saws.  You want excitement on one end, then you’ve got to put excited on the other.  If you want to sit at the bottom end just staring up at nothing happening, then it’s best just to stare.  If you’ve got nothing to contribute then you can bounce as hard as you like, you’re always going to end up on the ground with the business end wedged under your chin.”
“So you’re telling me that I can only get out of life what I can put into it, right?”
“Am I?  Oh…”
The drinks arrived at the table and, having poured Lorelei’s tea – milk first, one sugar – the waitress fussed away to her romantic novel behind the till.
I sipped at my coffee, which smelled great but tasted like it was a virtual stranger to the coffee bean.  “I don’t think I always try very hard.”
“I don’t think you have to try too hard,” he said.  “Just try.”
We drank in silence.  Somewhere unseen a cuckoo clock marked the hour and, instinctively, the waitress, Lorelei and I all looked at our watches.
“Well, I suppose I’d better get going,” said my companion, rising slowly to his feet.  I noticed, for the first time the bruise on his head.
“Are you sure you’re ok?”
“I think so,” he said.  “But it wouldn’t hurt to check on me now and again, would it?”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s easy enough.  You can let me have my petrol can back some time.”
“It’s rusted.”
“I know…”

In case you want to catch up on the rest of this tale, the first Conversation with the Bearded Man is here. 

The previous conversation to this (#5) can be found here.

Episode 7 is now here: A Little Fiction – Conversations with a Bearded Man (part 7) – Helpline

A Little Fiction – Ancient Greeks (The Meaning of Life #3)

The man in the lovat Cavalry Tweed suit drained the last of his pint, loudly belched a beery fug laced with peanuts and bumptious pontification, and turned expectantly towards the man in the moleskin waistcoat who had barley sucked the froth from his own drink.  “Your round, squire, I think,” he said.
“Bloody hell,” said Moleskin.  “You got a shift on didn’t you?”
“Yes, well, as Archimedes pointed out, a man is only as heavy as the amount he can drink.  You, my friend, are bordering upon reedy.”
“Eureka!” said the man in the Meerkat T-shirt as he painstakingly attempted to remove shards of Cavalry Tweed’s eructation from the head of his stout.
“What does?” said CT, tapping his glass impatiently.
“Eureka.  It’s what Archimedes said after he sloshed his bath water all over the bath rug.”
“No, you my friend are mixing him up with Aristotle when he discovered logic: my glass is empty, therefore it needs filling.  ‘I think, therefore I am.’”
“Descartes,” muttered moleskin, gathering up the glasses and heading, reluctantly to the bar.  “It was Descartes who said that – ‘cogito, ergo sum’- not Aristotle.”
CT chuckled loudly.  “Cogito, ergo sum,” he said, means ‘like clockwork’.  It is actually the motto of Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club.  Didn’t they teach you nothing up that posh boys school of yours?”
Moleskin bridled.  The hairs on the back of his neck rose in a villus concert.  “I did not go to a posh boys school.  I went to a state grammar school.”
“Of course,” said CT.  “I forgot.  So,” he continued, “how many girls were there?”
Moleskin passed a twenty pound note over to the barman.  “My point,” he said, quietly contained, “is that it was not a posh boys school.  It was simply a boys school.”  He placed the three glasses onto the table a little more heavily than was strictly necessary.  “You did not need to be posh to go there, you simply needed to be able to demonstrate a certain level of education…”
“…Attainable only to those who did not have to be up at sparrow’s fart to do their paper round and thus supplement the family income,” sneered CT.
“You never had a paper round!”
“Not for the want of trying, sunbeam.  They were all taken up by you posh boys whose dad’s took them round in the family Volvo.  My battered old hand-me-down bike did not conform to the corporate image.”
“Corporate image?  It was a local paper shop.  Mr and Mrs Singh would not have cared if you went round on a pogo stick as long as you got the papers delivered.  You never got a round because you were bolshie even then.”
“Didn’t he have a principle of some kind?” asked Meerkat.
“Mr Singh?  What kind of principle?”
“No, Archimedes.  Didn’t he have a principal?  Something about a solid object displacing its own weight in water…”
“Common mistake,” said CT.  “Firstly, what Archimedes invented was the screw – everything was nailed before he came along – and secondly, when you put something in water, what it actually displaces is its own volume in water e.g. drop an elephant in your average bath and you’re going to wind up with suds on the downstairs carpet.”
“Unless the object was absorbent, I suppose.”
“Not many absorbent elephants around though,” chuckled Moleskin.
“That,” said CT, “is where you are mistaken.  All elephants are absorbent due to where they live in the desert.  It’s why they have humps…”
The man in the moleskin waistcoat opened his mouth to object, but his attention was taken by the man in the Meerkat T-shirt who was taking peanuts from the packet and dropping them into his pint, where they floated on the, as yet, untroubled head.  “How come,” he said, as he tried to get the last few peanut shards from the packet “those huge boats don’t push all the water out of the sea?”
“Well, they do, in a manner of speaking,” said CT.  “They cause the tides, don’t they.”
“No they don’t,” said Moleskin.  “That’s the moon.”
“The moon?” laughed CT.  “The moon?  Have you gone mad?  Might cause a bit of sloshing around, I’ll give you that, as the Earth goes around it every day, but not the tides.  Have you ever been stood there when a big boat goes by?  That’s where your waves come from sunshine.  That’s the tides.”
Meerkat looked on solemnly as the salt slowly flattened his beer and the disappearing head lost its grip on the nuts which sank to the bottom of the glass.  “I don’t think I fancy a cruise,” he said.
“I must admit,” said Moleskin, “I never quite understand why they don’t turn over, those big liners.  There’s so much more above the water than below it.”
“Kaleidoscopes,” said CT.
“You must have seen them.  Set ‘em spinning and they’ll balance on anything.  Send them scuttling along a piece of string or whatever.  They never fall off.”
“Do you mean a gyroscope?” asked Moleskin.
“Or a cat,” suggested Meerkat.
“A cat?”
“They don’t fall off things, do they?  And…” continued Meerkat, his face suffused with triumph, “…and they always land on their feet.”
“Are you suggesting that ships have feet?”
“No.  Don’t be stupid.  What I’m suggesting is that if you filled ships with cats, they’d never fall over.  Man’s best friend and all that…”
“That’s a dog, surely.”
“Dog’s don’t always land on their feet,” said Meerkat after a short pause for thought.  “Also, only one life.  Cats are nine times more cost-effective.  You don’t have to keep replacing cats.”
Cavalry Twill and Moleskin lifted their glasses in unison and drank in quiet contemplation as Meerkat tried to retrieve the peanuts from the base of his glass with a knife.
“Where would you put the passengers?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you filled the ship with cats, where would you put the passengers?”
“They would have to share.”
“Except for those who are scared of them, of course” sneered CT, staring directly at Moleskin.
“I am not scared of cats,” he replied.  “I am allergic to them.  They affect my breathing.”
“Yes, it’s always difficult to control your breathing when you’re terrified.”
Moleskin drained the beer from his glass and thumped it down on the table in front of CT.  “Like when it’s your round,” he said.
The man in the Cavalry Twill glanced casually at his watch, drained his own glass and rose to his feet.  “Good Lord,” he said.  “Is that the time?  Must get on.  Carpe Diem, and all that” he said.  “God is a fish…”

The Meaning of Life #1 can be found here.

The Meaning of Life #2 is here.

A Little Fiction – Frankie & Benny

“…So, you know what it’s like, you’re well into discussing the state of your underwear when you realise that the person you are talking to is not the person you thought you were talking to, but you can’t stop now, can you, without drawing attention to it?  Without, as it were, looking an even bigger pranny than you already do.”
“Perhaps it would be wiser to keep the on-going condition of your undercrackers out of the conversation until you had a little more time in which to ensure clarity, viz a viz the ‘who am I talking to’ conundrum, in future.”
“You do tend to introduce your grundies into the chat rather more early than is altogether seemly, if you want my opinion Benny.”
“I don’t!”
“Fine, that’s fine then…  So, who were you chatting to in the end, anyway?”
“Turns out she was from the council.  She’d come to discuss the complaint I’d put in about the smell.”
“And you thought it was the ideal time to introduce your trolleys into the conflab?”
“I thought it was a long-lost aunty or somesuch.  I’d even offered her a Yo-Yo.”
“Mint or toffee?”
“Well, I thought she might have turned up out of the blue to tell me that I’d inherited some money or something.  You can’t go offering Rich Tea in those circumstances, can you?  That’s a Penguin conversation at least.”
“I have Viscount myself.  Superior quality of tin-foil on a Viscount I find: stay fresh for week’s they do.”
“Yes, well, we’re not all superannuated you know.”
“Right, well, I can see why you got the Yo-Yo’s out Benny, need to make the right impression in such a circumstance, but what drew your shitty pants into the discourse?”
“She mentioned the smell.”
“From the yard?”
“Of course, that’s why I’d rung the council in the first place – not, of course, that I realised that she was from the council at that stage – but I thought that, if she was indeed a solicitor or somesuch, planning to make me the sort of offer that could see me as the proud owner of an automatic washing machine or an induction hob et cetera, then I needed to make her au fait with the fact that, whilst the money to make my laundry days a little less time consuming than my current trip to the laundrette in Morrison’s carpark would be most welcome, those same arrangements were not the cause of the unpleasant odour at that time permeating my whole flat and, to that effect, I thought it legitimate to mention that my pants were clean on last Thursday.”
“That being?”
“Monday.  So a good few days left in them at that point.”
“And how did she react?”
“Well, that’s when I began to suspect that all might not be as it seemed, Frankie, that things were, indeed, somewhat at odds with my expectations.”
“Go on.”
“‘The Council is not in the habit of handing out loans to those who are – for whatever reason – unable to stop themselves from being the source of unpleasant odours,’ she said.  ‘We do not, in short, expect to be called out to the properties of unsavoury old men in order to experience for ourselves the smell that they give off due to not being able to keep themselves clean.  I bid you good day,’ she said, and made to leave.  ‘Now just you wait on,’ I said, but she was ready for me.  ‘If you think,’ she said, ‘that you can threaten me, Mr Anderson, you’d better think again,’ and she scooped up her Yo-Yo and left without a by-your-leave.”
“Oh dear.  So what will you do now?”
“Well, we need to get out there and find out where the smell is actually coming from.”
“I’m an old man, Frankie, you wouldn’t have me out there on my own would you?  ‘Now, what’s causing that smell?  Oh my God, look at that!  It’s a…’  Exit Benny, gripping chest in agony.  Alone and friendless in a smelly backyard.”
“Alright, point made.  You are certain of your underwear situation, aren’t you?”
“Would you like to take alook for yourself?”
“No, no, definitely no.  Ok, I’ll accompany you onto the patio.  I’m not touching anything, mind.”
“Right, let’s go to it then: strike while the iron’s hot.  I want to find out what’s causing the stink and rub that old luxury biscuit thief’s nose in it.”
“Ok.  How do we get in there?”
“The backyard.  How do we get in there?  The door’s always locked, but I’ve never seen a key for it.  Who’s got the key?”
“Ah, I’d never thought of that.  I bet it’s that bloody TFW on the ground floor.  I’m not knocking on his door to ask for it.”
“I’m not sure he’s even in.  There’s an old lavvy outside his front door and about three week’s milk.”
“He took the lavvy out himself – with his head.  It was annoying him, apparently, but the milk… You don’t suppose he’s dead do you?  It would explain the smell.”
“I’m not sure that he could smell any worse dead than he did alive, my old chum.  He had what I believe the BBC would term an ‘uneasy relationship’ with soap.  Ten years I’ve been coming to your flat Benny, and other than the day of the gravy incident, I’ve never seen him change his clothes.  I hear that David Attenborough is preparing to do a whole series on the life contained within his jogging bottoms…  You want to get rid of the smell, you need to get out of this flat my friend.”
“But what if he’s dead?”
“Does he have any cats?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Nobody to eat him then.  He could lay there decomposing for months.  They say that you can never remove the smell of a dead body.”
“Particularly one that is welded to his clothes.  I’ll phone the council again.  I’ll say I can’t manage the stairs…  Have you still got that spare room, Frankie?  Just as a stopgap I mean.  Just short term.  Until they sort me out with a new flat.  There are some empty near you aren’t there?”
“There are, yes.  They are constantly becoming vacant, in fact there is a permanent hearse on standby at the end of the block.  We used to run a sweepstake on who would be next, but there’s not enough of us left now.  There’s more chipboard around me now than a kebab shop.  Come on, let’s not bother phoning, we’ll just wander round and see them.  Get your stick.  Put a marble in your shoe, that’ll help.”
“Ok, I will…  Shall we just have a cup of tea before we go?”
“Ay, why not.  Don’t suppose you’ve got any of those Yo-Yos left, have you?””

I decided to revisit some old ‘Little Fiction’ friends and whilst I was doing so, I met these new ones…  N.B. my thanks to Billy Connolly for ‘TFW’ – Tattooed Fuck-Wit.

Frankie and Benny reappear here: A Little Fiction – Goodbyes (Frankie & Benny #2)

A Little Fiction – An Item (Dinah & Shaw part 10)

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Although, unofficially at least, an item, Dinah and Shaw had kept their own separate homes.  The fact that Shaw slept in the office, was his reason for keeping Dinah’s name off the door – it would lead to confusion within the organisation of the Royal Mail he insisted – an inaccuracy she countered by sticking a large Post-it across the glass during office hours when she was, for the most part, alone with the phone and a laptop that was, for reasons known to Shaw alone, permanently connected to a Scandinavian server which had a default ‘wallpaper’ that left her feeling giddy and not a little nauseous.  She considered herself a woman of the world, but not necessarily that part of it.  Each Google search had to be translated into something that vaguely resembled English before she was able to make use of it.  All attempts to use Google Maps to plot a route stalled at the earliest possible stage as the software refused to let her begin her journey from anywhere other than Copenhagen.  She had not been able to afford data for her phone since meeting Shaw – a relationship with Shaw came along with few certainties other than poverty – and utilising the only local source of free internet access she could find ensured that she constantly smelled of kebab.

Most of her ‘work’ hours were spent fretting over the payment of bills.  Shaw’s tendency to insist that his investigative methods only really functioned in full effect when he stumbled into cases rather than being employed to solve them meant that she was often left bereft of anyone to invoice.  Dinah, for her part, contributed all that she was able; taking what money she could for locating lost cats, flyaway budgies, errant husbands etc, paying bills only as failure to do so became increasingly critical.  Shaw painstakingly kept for himself all of what he considered to be the ‘big cases’ – although he seldom gave Dinah any indication of what, exactly, they might be and they rarely added anything other than expenses to the company accounts.  On the few occasions Shaw called on her to help him, he did so by furnishing her with the very minimum of information possible.  Often she had to adhere to Shaw’s own methods, taking the first bus she encountered and getting off somewhere that, for reasons unknown, seemed the right place.  Sitting in a café with the dregs of a cup of coffee hoping that something might take her attention: that somebody might, in some indefinable way, strike her as suspicious.  Hoping that she might find somebody to follow before the café owner (again) remarked on the fact that she had spent two hours over her latte and that he had placemats that were more profitable than her.

It was to her undisguised chagrin that whenever she did encounter somebody she felt there might be some point in following, she invariably found that Shaw was following them too, although he always claimed to have been ‘on to them’ first.  Shaw always complained about this duplication of efforts but Dinah was always quick to point out that a) there was no discernible effort put into such ‘tailings’ by Shaw, who, as far as Dinah could tell from his crumpled ‘expenses’ at the end of the week, seldom left the pub and b) as nobody was paying for either of them, what difference could it possibly make?  “When we find out whatever it is that we’re looking for,” was Shaw’s stock reply, “then whoever wants to know it will pay us.”  To be fair, they often did, but almost always after it had cost Dinah Lunch and a bottle of wine.  From that point on, although working together, they always worked apart.  Their methods of tailing a suspect could not have been more different: Dinah employed stealth – ducking into doorways, hiding behind newspapers, carefully observing her suspect in shop window reflections, taking mobile phone photographs whilst pretending to be absorbed in a protracted phone call – whilst Shaw wandered around aimlessly, hoping that, in the fullness of time, his path would somehow cross with that of his prey again.

It never ceased to amaze her that she, Shaw and suspect would almost always find themselves together at some point, along with the client who was invariably blithely unaware of the very existence of the investigative duo.  Dinah knew only that Shaw would wander away at some point whilst she dutifully stood in the pouring rain outside an office, or a bookies, or a lover’s flat for hours on end.  When they were reunited some time later, a usually slightly flushed Shaw would drown her in beer breath and inform her that he had found the client who by some fluke of chance, wanted to know exactly what Dinah had found out in the previous few hours.  It was seldom anything that Shaw himself did not already know – or at least so he claimed.  The biggest annoyance was usually that he had already informed the client of whatever-it-was she had only just learned, without ever needing to discuss it with her and without ever leaving the warmth of whatever bar he happened to be in.  How he did it, she had no idea, nor how he always managed to smell of beer when he never had a penny in his pockets.
“You know I couldn’t do it without you,” he always said.
“Yes, I know,” she replied, but it didn’t help.

…And so it was, her mind whirring over every detail of their relationship, their work, the mystery of how they ever paid for anything, of why nobody ever threatened to break their legs when they did not, that she entered the office expecting, as usual, to find Shaw absent and a scribbled note in his place.  But there was no note.  There was a real-life Shaw, a grinning Shaw who, had she not known better, she would have taken for excited, pointing at the glass panel on the door which now read ‘Shaw & Parnter.  Investigators.’  “What do you think?” he asked.
“Well, I’m not sure what to think,” said Dinah.  “What’s a Parnter?”
Shaw peered at the door.  “Damn!  I thought he was cheap.  Do you think we can afford to get it changed?”
“No, parnter, it’s fine,” said Dinah.  She hugged Shaw.  “It’s fine.”  She looked around the office, confused, and opened the door to the back room.  “Where’s your bed?” she asked.
“I paid the signwriter with it,” he said.  “I thought that if we were going to be… ‘parnters’ and this was going to be a proper office then I ought to find somewhere else to live.”
“Oh right,” said Dinah.  “And have you?”
“Well, not quite yet,” he answered.  “I wondered, well, what are you like for space in your flat?…”

It’s been quite a while since our last visit to Dinah and Shaw, which I managed to work into the ‘Writer’s Circle’ strand, so in case you want to catch up, episode 1 is here, and the last episode (Slight Return) is here.

Christmas Past – Searching for the Spirit of Christmas

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Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The fourth of these reposts is from Christmas in 2020 and is a continuation of the story of Dinah and Shaw. It is, I think, full of hope…

‘…Well, I just hope that my mother never finds out that I’ve got a criminal record.  It would kill her.’
‘Kill her?  A little melodramatic, I think.  I can imagine indigestion, heartburn even, but death – I’m not sure that death is likely.’
‘You don’t know her.’
‘Well, yes, that’s true, but I know you and your mum can’t be all bad.  Besides, you haven’t actually got a criminal record.’
‘Arrested in Santa’s Grotto.  The shame of it.’
‘We were released without charge.’
‘The ignominy.’
‘Besides, we probably could have sued them. Locking us up in that cupboard overnight.’
‘They had no idea we were in there.  How were they to know that a perfectly sane and rational woman would have allowed her partner…’
Business partner!’
Dinah smiled.  ‘…allowed her business partner to lure her into a stationery cupboard at the back of Santa’s Grotto in a search for who knows what, where they stayed until some unsuspecting member of staff locked them in for the night?  They had no idea we were in there.  The poor woman who opened the door nearly died when you rushed past her…’
‘You’d been laying on my bladder all night.’
‘…Leaving me to explain the situation.’
Shaw became instantly indignant.  ‘You told her that I’d kidnapped you!’
‘Well, I didn’t want her to think that I’d gone in there voluntarily, did I?’
Shaw was holding a potato peeler in his left hand and a potato in his right.  He gave the clear impression of a man who did not comprehend the relationship between the two.  ‘It might have been wise not to have mentioned kidnap,’ he said.  ‘That way we might not have had to spend twelve hours being interrogated by the serious crime squad.’
‘Well you didn’t help the situation,’ snapped Dinah, snatching the potato from him in exasperation.  ‘Actually officer, we are Private Investigators, searching for the Spirit of Christmas.  He thought that you were winding him up, particularly since you couldn’t give him any details of our client.’
‘I gave him a description!’  Shaw sounded positively affronted.
‘Well, so you did. Fat man with full white beard, as I recollect.’
‘Well he was!’
‘They only let us go because they thought that you were stark staring mad and they didn’t want you in the cells over Christmas.’
‘Well they did, so that’s all that matters,’ said Shaw.  ‘Besides, you didn’t help, claiming that you’d never seen me before.’
‘I certainly saw you in a new light having spent a night confined in a tiny cupboard with you.’
‘That’s not the same.  They…  What do you mean in a new light?’
‘You talk.’
‘In your sleep – you talk?’
‘What about?’
Dinah passed him a bottle of wine and a corkscrew, hoping that he’d have more success with those than the potato.  ‘I’m not sure what you were talking about, but you said that it was terribly inconvenient.  Then you started muttering about having to follow your instincts, and I lost interest.’
Shaw sighed loudly and handed back the corkscrew before unscrewing the lid from the wine bottle.  ‘Do you have glasses?’ he asked.
‘Strangely enough Shaw, I do,’ she said.  ‘In the cupboard behind you.  I’ll have the big one.’
Shaw opened the cupboard and removed the two glasses he found there: a large wine goblet and a shot glass.  He filled them both and handed the goblet to Dinah.  Dinah put down the mutilated remains of a potato and stared hollowly at the peeler.  ‘Cheers,’ she said.  ‘Merry Christmas.’  They clinked glasses and sipped the wine.
‘Optrex,’ said Shaw.
Dinah sniffed her wine, ‘Well, it’s not Chateau Lafitte,’ she said, ‘but…’
‘This glass smells of Optrex,’ said Shaw.
‘Ah, yes,’ Dinah stifled a grin.  ‘I had a stye.  Use a mug.’
Shaw picked up a mug and studied it carefully, before rinsing it under the tap and filling it with wine.  ‘Thanks for… you know… asking me round,’ he said.
‘Least I could do… partner,’ she smiled.
‘Yes, well…’
‘Do you mind if we don’t have the full works for dinner?’ asked Dinah.  ‘I mean, we’ve got crackers and a pudding, but I thought it would save a lot of time if we went slightly more unconventional for main.’
Dinah nodded.  ‘Baked Beans,’ she said.  ‘To be honest, I wasn’t expecting company.  I was going to do some chips, but I think someone’s sabotaged the peeler.’
‘You said you had crackers.’
‘Kind of… virtual crackers, really.’
‘No crackers?’ 
Shaw’s bottom lip was protruding so far that Dinah feared it might well need support.
‘We can both say ‘Bang!’’ she suggested.
‘OK,’ he muttered.  ‘You did say pudding though.’
‘Oh yes,’ Dinah replied.  ‘I’ve got pudding.  Definitely.’
‘You haven’t got pudding, have you?’ said Shaw, who could only have bettered his impression of a five year old by peeing his pants.
‘No.  I can do sherry trifle – as long as you’re not bothered about the trifle.’
‘I suppose it would seem petty of me to check that you have got sherry?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Well, what?’
Have you got sherry?’
‘I already told you, not at all.’  Dinah couldn’t help laughing at her own joke. 
Shaw, who was building up to something approaching a full-scale tantrum, caught the joy in her eyes, and began to giggle himself.
‘A fine bloody Christmas dinner this is.  I suppose you know that if we had been arrested, we would have got the full works at the Police Station.  Turkey, sprouts, pigs in blankets…’
Dinah exploded with a laugh that deposited a fine mist of red wine over half of the kitchen.  Shaw, who had received the full force of the explosion clean between the eyes, shook his hair dry whilst Dinah fought for breath, but each time she looked at his uncomprehending face, she started to laugh again.  Eventually she hugged him, which gave her the opportunity to not look at him, and so, by and by, she regained her composure.  She kissed him on the forehead, without any idea of why, and led him through to the sitting room. ‘Why don’t you tell me about the fat man with the full white beard,’ she said.  ‘What did he want us to look for again?’
The settee was small and definitely inclined to pitch its occupants to the centre, which is where both Shaw and Dinah found themselves.  They sat, cramped together for a few painful seconds before Dinah began the difficult process of getting to her feet without having to use Shaw’s knee as a support.
‘Let’s talk about it tomorrow,’ said Shaw.  ‘Nobody works on Christmas Day.’
Dinah gave him a hard stare.
‘Alright, alright, except for Father Christmas.’
‘Phew,’ she said.  ‘That’s a relief.  Crisps?’
‘What flavour?’
‘You haven’t got any, have you?’
‘I’ll get the wine.’
Dinah returned to the kitchen as Shaw sat back, as comfortably as the seat would allow, breathing in the little flat around him.  It was warm and the wine had started to mellow him.  Un-consciously he picked up a cushion and placed it beside him in the middle of the settee, plumping it absent-mindedly.  ‘Actually, you know, I really wish I’d taken his address,’ he said as Dinah walked back into the room.
‘The man with the white beard,’ he smiled as Dinah topped up his mug.  ‘Because the more I think about it, the more I think I might have found what he was looking for…’

First published December 19th 2020

Part seven of this saga is here with links at the bottom that will get you to the whole story so far.

Christmas Past – A Pre-Christmas Conversation

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Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The third of these reposts is from Christmas in 2020, and is the fifth ‘Conversation with the Bearded Man’ story. It has the slightly melancholy air of a story written during Lockdown…

Yet another day when my spirits had descended to previously unplumbed depths: I was a compromised bathysphere, slowly sinking into the abyss whilst building up the kind of internal pressure that could foretell of nothing other than impeding disaster and a date with the fishes.  My mood was black – I would say blacker than black, because ordinary black had become my normal default mood, but my mum always told me that there were no shades of either black or white, so whilst no saintly youth club leader could ever be whiter than white, I could not be blacker than black, just black, very black indeed – and my spirits were lower than the Trustpilot rating of the average Italian politician.  I could not have been more down without being out.  Except Christmas Day lay just around the corner: the knockout blow; the nightmare scenario for a man whose very best efforts at false bonhomie fell somewhat short of the minimum expected, a man abandoned by the Grinch because of his over-zealous views, a man whose ho-ho-ho had somehow become a strident no-no-no.  I am tempted to say that I have always felt the same way about Christmas, but it would involve me in the kind of lying that would redden my cheeks and make my nose itch.  This seasonal melancholy was relatively new to me, although I had been engendering it in others for years apparently.

Christmas is no time to be alone.  I have no family, whilst the few friends I have, do have family, with whom they choose – treacherous scum – to spend the festive period, so, as usual, Christmas Eve found me alone in the pub observing life through the bottom of a beer glass.  I had almost reached the decision to go home early – a plan that was only forestalled by the fact that the kebab shop hadn’t opened yet – when a hand reached out to take my glass.  I was about to protest that I hadn’t finished, despite the fact that I patently had, when I noticed the cufflinks and the crisp white cuffs.  The landlord was ok, don’t get me wrong, salt of the earth and all that, but not really a cufflink wearer.  The kind of people he employed as bar staff were much more likely to have them through ears, nose or nipples than shirt cuffs.  Given the state of the table tops, nobody in their right mind would wear a white shirt in the Public Bar.  To be honest, a full forensic overall would be less out of place and definitely more suitable.

“Same again?” said the voice that I knew I was going to recognise even before its owner had spoken.
“How do you do that?” I asked, simultaneously nodding an affirmative.  The man that I now knew as Lorelei simply smiled and walked to the bar.  The landlord left his conversation and served him without a hint of rancour.  If I had wanted serving in mid-Brexit rant, I would have been told to hold my horses in no uncertain terms.  For Lorelei he was all genial host.  But for the fact that he was as bald as a coot, his forelock would have been on the receiving end of a severe tugging.  I could not hear the conversation, but whatever my bearded friend had to say, the coot found it exceedingly amusing.  He made no attempt to short change him.

I thanked him for my drink and took a long draught from the glass.  “I’m surprised that you drink beer,” I said.
“I don’t,” he answered, “but the landlord was so happy to serve me, I didn’t have the heart to ask for a dry sherry.”  He took a long drink without flinching.  “A bit more hoppy than I was expecting,” he said, after pause for reflection, “but quite adequate, all in all, I expect.”
“So,” I ventured, trying to sound as cool as I could.  “What brings you here on Christmas Eve?  Not exactly your local, is it?”
“Isn’t it?”  He looked shocked and I realised – with a flicker of the surprise I had grown used to in his presence – that I had no idea at all of where he lived.
“Well I’ve never seen you in here before.”
“No,” he said.  “Is this your local?”
I was painfully aware that he already knew the answer, but I gave it all the same: “It used to be” a mite more sulkily than I intended.  “When I was… you know…”
He nodded.  “More local?”
“We used to come in here a lot, when we were… you know…  Before she left me for that…” I wanted to swear, but I felt quite certain that I would feel as though I had let myself down by doing so.  Odd, I can normally barely stitch two sentences together without writing out an IOU for the swear box.  “…Estate Agent,” I concluded, feeling it a more than adequate signal of my distaste.
“Ah,” he said.  “Should I have bought peanuts?”
“I was just wondering, I’m quite new to this, Christmas Eve and everything: should I have got snacks with the drinks?”
“No,” I said.  “No.  This is fine.  I’ll get some when I go to the bar.  You will have another?”
“As long as it doesn’t have to be the same,” he said.

We sat for some time in companionable silence.  I studied his face as closely as I was able to without seeming… weird.  He seemed genuinely happy to be there, smiling, out of place in my mind, but not in his.  He did not touch his beer.  After what seemed to me to be a suitable pause, I asked him if he would like another drink.  He asked for a whisky.  “He keeps a nice malt under the counter,” he said.  “His little weakness, I think.  I’m sure he’d be pleased to share.”
I approached the landlord with caution, it always seemed wise, and explained what my friend had suggested.  “A gent,” he said pouring an unmeasured tot into a tumbler.  “Tell him it’s on the house.  Here…” he said, handing me a freshly filled water jug.  “He’ll want this.”  Unsurprisingly, my pint was not on the house.

Lorelei seemed much more at home cradling his whisky than he had appeared to be with beer, although he did not appear to be convinced by the pork scratchings.  “Well,” he said at length, “it’s so nice to be in company, isn’t it?”  I had to admit that, even though the conversation between us was sparse at best, I was happy and comfortable in his company.
“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve got to let old things go before you can find new things.”
“Sometimes,” I said, “it’s easier said than done.”
“Yes,” he agreed, “but it’s a whole lot easier to not even make the effort.  Why don’t you like Christmas?”
“Well I… I… Why do you say I don’t like Christmas?”
“Do you?”
He smiled.
“But,” I continued.  “I used to.”
He swirled his whisky in his glass, peering down into it as though he was looking into a crystal ball.
I felt obliged to fill the conversational void.  “It’s not the same, is it,” I whined, “when you’re on your own.”
“The same?” he sipped his drink with exaggerated pleasure.  “The same?  No, I suppose not.  Nothing is ever the same, but you can find pleasure if you choose to look for it.  Perhaps you ought to start looking.”
“Where?  Everywhere.  Maybe not through the bottom of that glass – it’s not been cleaned properly in years and the beer… oh dear, the beer – but if you look for joy, you’ll find it.  If you’re content with what you find, then friendship will find you.”  He drained his glass and began to rise from his chair.  I looked at the clock on the bar; 11:30.  Where had that time gone?  What is it they say about time?
Lorelei had waved his goodbyes to the landlord, who looked like a dog who had just been given a Bonio, and had moved towards the door.  “Do something tomorrow,” he said.  “Don’t wallow.  Paddle.”  He opened the door and a cold rush of late evening air spilled in.  I tried to stand, drain my glass and put my coat on, all at the same time.  Two things too many as it turned out.
“Do you fancy a kebab?” I asked as he disappeared into the night.
“No,” he answered…

First published 12th December 2020

Previous conversations are here:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Christmas Past – A Christmas Tale

three kings figurines
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Throughout this Christmas week, in addition to my normal seasonal posts (on Tuesday and Friday) and in the long-established TV tradition of festive repeats, I will re-post six of my very favourite Christmas offerings from Christmas Past.  The second of these reposts is from Christmas in 2019, just before the world went mad…

‘…And you are absolutely certain,’ said Melchior, ‘that this is the right place? I mean, I know that it is under the star, but then, truth be told, so is the rest of this village. So is the rest of this country, I shouldn’t wonder. High up, stars, shine all over the place they do. Must be some margin of error there, star-wise, that’s all I’m saying. Maybe we should check out the five star places first.’Balthazar sighed – again. ‘None of the five star places have angels hovering over them,’ he said. ‘Nor,’ he continued, ‘are they packed with shepherds watching their flocks, donkeys and assorted beasts of the fields.’
‘Or giraffes,’ said Gaspar.
Balthazar nodded his agreement. ‘Or gira… Did you say giraffe?’
‘What’s a giraffe?’
‘It’s a bit like a tall cow,’ said Gaspar, ‘with a long neck. My cousin brought one back from his travels. Dead, mind. Same as the big tusky, grey thing. Don’t travel well, apparently.’
Balthazar stared. ‘Do you see any of these tall cows around here?’
‘No,’ said Gaspar.
‘Then in what way, pray, are they relevant?’
‘I’m not sure,’ answered Gaspar. ‘I just have a feeling that someone will find that there’s only the giraffe left to play, in the future…’
Balthazar stared manically at Gaspar, his fists tightened and his jaw clenched. A small vein squirmed like a lug-worm below the skin of his forehead.
‘Shall we go and look inside,’ suggested Melchior, summoning the slaves to help them down from their mounts.
‘And where did you come by these things?’ asked Gaspar. ‘I’ve never sat on anything so uncomfortable in my life. They smell like the inside of an old sock and they spit. What’s wrong with a horse?’
‘These beasts are our traditional mode of transport,’ answered Melchior. ‘A man’s wealth is measured by them.’
‘I,’ said Balthazar, ‘have thousands.’
‘Sooner have gold,’ said Gaspar, gripping the gift-wrapped parcel he had borne with him from Arabia. ‘Think I’d rather travel on one of them long-necked cows, if I’m honest. At least they don’t have lumpy backs. And also,’ he continued as he was helped down from the musky beast, ‘how come yours has got two lumps and mine has only got one? Know exactly where to sit with two lumps. Never sure with one: either slide off its back end or wind up dangling from its neck…’
‘Rank,’ blurted Balthazar, suddenly aware that he had brought myrrh for the baby and nobody else even knew what it was. ‘The higher your rank, the more lumps you get on your camel.’
Gaspar gave Balthazar one of his stares. ‘So,’ he said, ‘where’s his then?’
‘His lumpy thing. Surely you’ve brought one for him if they’re so valuable; King of Kings and all that. Must be worth at least three lumps.’
‘They’re called camels,’ said Melchior, breaking the uneasy silence. ‘And they only come in one and two humped varieties.’
‘Bit of a design flaw there then, isn’t it? I’d be inclined to have a bit of a word.’
‘A word?’
‘With Himself, you know, when we get in to worship him, have a quick word in his ear. See if he can get it sorted.’
‘He’s a baby!’
‘Got connections, though,’ said Gaspar.
The three wise men had, by now, all been brought down from their camels and were straightening their robes in preparation for their big moment. Melchior was checking his frankincense. ‘You can never go wrong with perfume,’ he thought. Gaspar was scraping camel doings from his satin slipper. Balthazar, meanwhile, was chastising his Chief of Staff. ‘‘Take him myrrh,’ you said. ‘Everyone likes a bit of a rub down now and then,’ you said. Nobody else has even heard of it. Have we got nothing else we can give Him? Maybe jewels, or something?’’
The Chief of Staff looked crestfallen. ‘We left in a bit of a hurry,’ he said, ‘if you remember. Didn’t really have much time to shop around and myrrh always goes down really well in my family.’
‘Your family the myrrh merchants, you mean?’
‘Come on,’ said Gaspar, who had by now got the worst of it off with a stick. ‘Let’s go in.’
The three wise men entered the stable and fell to their knees at the side of the manger.
‘Gawd,’ said Gaspar, peering in. ‘He’s an ugly little bleeder, isn’t he?’
‘That’s a pig, you fool,’ snapped Balthazar.
‘Really?’ sneered Gaspar. ‘One humped or two?’
‘I think, gentlemen,’ said Melchior, rising to his feet. ‘That we may be in the wrong place.’
Balthazar and Gaspar also rose, brushing the crud of the stable floor from their robes as they prepared to leave.
‘So what now?’ asked Gaspar. ‘This had to be the place. What about that star?’
‘It appears to have moved on,’ answered Melchior. ‘They have a habit of doing that, apparently.’
‘And the Heavenly hosts?’
‘They appear to have found themselves rooms at the Travel Lodge. Perhaps we should join them. Try again in the morning…’
‘But how long is it going to take us to find him?’ asked Gaspar. ‘How long do we have to keep looking?’
‘Who knows,’ answered Melchior. ‘Could be days. Could be weeks, years…’
‘Could be,’ said Balthazar, ‘millennia…’

Originally posted December 24th 2019.


Photo by Suzy Hazelwood on Pexels.com

Frankie squatted down with his back against the redbrick wall, his knees pulled up to his chest, his fingers entwined and white at the knuckle behind his neck, his eyes screwed tightly shut.  The noise around him was deafening even through the barrier of toilet paper he had managed to cram into his ears before playtime, but he wasn’t actually as aware of that as the voice inside his head yelling at the children to quieten down, even though he knew they never would.  He didn’t really need them to.  He didn’t even want them to.  He just needed to step back from it.  If he faded far enough away into the background, then the noise would no longer exist.  Frankie could make that happen.  That was Frankie’s superpower.

With the noise turned down, Frankie was able to think much more clearly.  With his eyes and ears shut tight and his back to the wall, he could join in all of the playground games: the push and the shove, the running, the climbing, the tag and the chase – he was the virtual schoolboy.  When played behind his silent wall, he loved football, he was good at it.  He was Messi.  It was as if the threadbare old tennis ball was tied to his boot and none of the other kids could push him away from it.  Except for Maureen Jackson who was bigger than him – much bigger – and super-keen on inveigling him into a game of kiss chase that was both diminutive in the size of its teams and liberal in its interpretation of the rules.  Once engulfed in Maureen’s over-zealous embrace it was entirely possible that they would never make it into school dinners again.

Not that that was a great concern.  Even on his ‘quiet table’, tucked away in the corner of the hall, down by the wallbars, surrounded by the smell of socks and baked beans, he was engulfed by a discordant riot of sights and sounds that he found it impossible to process.  Not even the foreknowledge of Spam fitter, lumpy mashed potato and tinned tomato, chocolate sponge and pink custard could calm his mind.  Not even his superpowers could shield him on a pilchard day.  That was the day of the headteacher’s study, a glass of weak orange squash and a biscuit that looked like a sheet of cardboard filled with flies.  He didn’t mind flies.  At least they didn’t try to kiss him.

Frankie enjoyed lessons at school, even if they often meant sitting alone.  He was really good at spelling, and at maths he was second-to-none, but he wasn’t quite so good at sitting round the table and building with straws.  He wasn’t good with scissors.

Mrs Cook, his teacher, often sat with him whilst Mrs Cass spoke with the rest of the class.  She smiled a lot, Mrs Cook, and Frankie loved her.  She helped him to understand the words he did not know and when he didn’t want to drink the warm, playtime milk, she didn’t force him, but she always left it there in case he changed his mind.  He never changed his mind.  Superheroes don’t drink milk.  They drink acid or something like that.  They eat girders.  They can turn down the noise with the blink of an eye.

If he’d had the choice, he would have been Spider Man.  Spiders can hear through their legs.  If he was a spider, he would wear thick trousers.  Jimmy told him about the spiders.  He said they also have loads of eyes.  Dozens, he said.  A thousand, he said, like the night.  Frankie didn’t understand that.  The night doesn’t have eyes at all.  The night is pitch-black, isn’t it?  If it had eyes, it still wouldn’t be able to see.  In the dark.  Frankie liked the night.  It was like the world was wrapped in cotton-wool; soft and mute like a swan, but without the capacity to break your arm with a flap of its wings.  Sometimes Jimmy told Frankie that the two of them were put together because they were the same, but sometimes he said it was because they were different.  Frankie wasn’t always sure that Jimmy really meant everything he said.  Sometimes he made him mad and sometimes he made him laugh.  He told jokes that Frankie didn’t understand – his favourite was ‘What’s the difference between a frog?  One leg’s the same.’ – but it never really mattered because Jimmy didn’t understand them either.  His jokes were their little secret.  Nobody else got them.  Nobody else even heared them.  He never said them out aloud: that was Jimmy’s superpower.

The boy who never spoke and the boy who didn’t want to hear, two wise monkeys, faced playtime together, squatted down with their backs against the redbrick wall, their knees pulled up to their chests, their fingers entwined and white at the knuckle behind their necks, their eyes screwed tightly shut.  The school bell rang and the two boys rose as one, for once welcoming the clanging cacophony.  Side by side they joined the ragged ‘snake’ of children meandering its way back into class.  It was afternoon, and ‘quiet play’.  The two superheroes took their places at the big table in the centre of the class, alongside all of the other children.  The voice inside of Frankie’s head was unusually still.  With a wink, Jimmy told him a silent joke and together they laughed.  Frankie smiled at Maureen and, hesitantly, together they began to build a house of bricks, whilst Jimmy, clearly happy, faded slowly away…